The Politics of Symbolism

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The weight of symbols: The September 11 bombers, according to an Al-Jazeera interview, initially considered targeting nuclear plants but backed off lest things get “out of control,” whatever that means.

They chose, instead, to hit symbols: of American commerce, military might and government. The loss of life might be less, but the symbolic impact would be greater.

Think for an instant of Hiroshima: immensely greater human loss than September 11 but less symbolism, at least overtly. Or consider the 1963 Cuban missile crisis: The peril was far worse but the symbolic drama less freighted. Cuba was mostly about global nuclear devastation, literally. The September 11 bombers did not cringe at causing death, of others and themselves, but they were, it seems, focused on symbolism.

They may have chosen astutely, for in this way, as in others, there is an odd symmetry between al-Qaeda and aspects of America. It would be hard to think of a society more symbol-obsessed than the U.S.

Their flag, their pledge — from the start, they felt they were playing catch-up with symbolically better-endowed European cultures. So they created institutions such as a Senate based on Roman models; they made Moby Dick, the white whale — a virtual symbol for symbolism — into their literary masterwork. Their greatest symbol is America itself: an idea, a symbol really, which commands loyalty from disparate populations and regions.

Symbols may be great for conscripting loyalty once a course has been set (the way Irving Berlin created God Bless America in 1918, after the U.S. went to war); but they are less useful for understanding complex realities and deciding what to do.

So, on Wednesday, when George W. Bush said “we” were attacked for who we are and what we believe, i.e., for all we symbolize, he was exactly wrong. In the attackers’ own terms, the U.S. was attacked for what it has done, specifically in the Mideast. (Laura Bush then irritated me further by quoting Mark Twain, who was an early, consistent critic of the arrogant, imperial element in U.S. foreign policy.)

There’s also a symbolic side to the persistent question: Did the U.S. have any responsibility for what happened?

In the cruder, stupider version: Did Americans deserve it? To some extent, this depends on whether you are talking symbolically. Surely the people in the buildings and planes did not deserve it or bear responsibility, no more than civilians who are flattened in Gaza or Tel Aviv.

But was America, the symbolic entity, implicated because it behaved in a way that might lead to predictable, if utterly unjustifiable, reactions? Yet pinning it on the symbol is evasive. There are people who make and implement those policies. They have names, such as George Bush and Dick Cheney. Blaming it on America just lets them off the hook.

Free speech and terror: When protesters shut down his speech at Montreal’s Concordia University, former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu said he saw the same “glint of hate” in their eyes as he does among Islamic extremists.

It’s an interesting point. I’d say in both terrorism and attacks on free speech, there can be elements of impotence, rage at an imbalance of power, and despair over any countermeasure except lashing out destructively. Palestinians may feel so overmatched by Israel, which doesn’t need “terror” since it has an air force, that they turn to suicide bombs or at least, in large numbers, support those who do.

What’s the analogy to free speech? Take Concordia. Pro-Palestinians may well feel overmatched in the major media, especially the Asper empire: the Gazette, the National Post, Global TV, which all firmly support the lifelong pro-Israel position of the Asper family.

To top it off, the Asper Foundation is sponsoring the Netanyahu tour. In general, when there’s a sense of more balance either politically or in the media, support for drastic action tends to slide, although the hard-core fanatics will likely always hang in there.

One protester said there should be “no free speech for hate speech.” I totally disagree with this view. If free speech doesn’t apply to forms of speech that one finds loathsome, then there’s no point to having it at all. But it’s also interesting that the protester has simply restated the legal situation in Canada, where it is a criminal act to engage publicly in speech that incites to hatred of a particular group and so forth.

Finally, in the interesting category, is the way the National Post’s Jonathan Kay commented on the Concordia protest, which he attributed to an “Arabist rabble” and to “militant Arabism in Canada. ” This sounds close to hate speech to me, though perhaps in a colloquial rather than a legal sense.

It categorizes and derides people on the basis of their support for an ethnic or racial group. Its equivalent would not be Zionist (“Zionist rabble”) since that would involve a particular country or ideology; it would be more like Jewist, Jewishist or some of the less savoury terms that used to be common.

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