Marc Estrin : The Devil Can Quote Scripture

Image from ChernobylBob / Flickr.


By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / June 14, 2010

I am involved in Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel, a group made up of Jews, Palestinians, members of various Christian faiths, and peace groups.

Our work is to “to support the survival of the Palestinian people and to end the illegal, immoral, and brutal Israeli occupation through education, advocacy, and action. We are committed to the principles of self-determination for the Palestinian people, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and full civil and political rights for all Palestinians in order to promote the equality and safety of both Palestinians and Israelis.” (mission statement)

We host Salaam/Shalom, a weekly hour-long program on community television, and an exemplary, deep website for all levels of interest which gets upward of 30,000 hits a week. I recommend you take a look.

At the moment, we are having a discussion among us which is so interesting I thought I would share it in my weekly blogging:

At our last meeting, one of the Palestinians among us, passionately proposed that we jump on Gen. Petraeus’s recent statements to the effect that America’s unquestioning embrace of Israeli policy is putting our military at greater risk. In a subsequent email to the group he argued that

We should quote the general’s statements because the public trusts our military leaders more than our political leaders who are responsible for putting our troops and officers in harm’s way.

Several members chimed in supporting him. My response to them was:

I do not trust our military leaders, and I don’t think VTJP should fly under their banner just because some may — in this particular case — help our cause for their own, quite different reasons.

VTJP’s endorsing and trumpeting military opinion would be a very cynical, manipulative approach. Petraeus, especially, is a dubious character, toadying when it advances his career, opposing when tactical, and currently angling for a shot at the presidency. He has been a central advocate for escalating in Iraq and Afghanistan, and prepping the country for a decades-long war.

I would not support VTJP marching under his flag, and would myself not do so.

To this, others argued that we would not be flying under a military banner, only buttressing our arguments with their own. To which I responded:

What are Petraeus’s and any other similar statements saying?

That our embrace of Israel threatens the success of our “getting the job done” in Afghanistan and Iraq, and perhaps the actual lives of our “brave men and women” in “harm’s way.”

Yes, we can extract the one part of his (correct) observations for our own uses, but that is just another — and more ethically bankrupt — use of quoting out of context. The critic writes “this play was the most tremendous waste of two hours I’ve ever spent,” and the production lists “tremendous” in it’s ads.

We should not be arguing “from a military standpoint.” We do not embrace our, or Israel’s brutal military solutions. We do not honor our, or Israel’s savage military goals. We jump ship when we quote the military in support of our positions.

It’s not as if we don’t have plenty of other facts and arguments, and plenty of other group support (like the entire world except us, Israel, and the Marshall Islands) to use. Quoting the devil to make the case for scripture seems equally pernicious to me as its converse. We cannot use U.S. generals for our needs without implicitly supporting the context of their statements and their goals.

Red is a beautiful color, but not when it’s streaming from the face of a wounded child.

Another person chimed in with a thoughtful compromise, suggesting that we could include provisos such as “While we strongly oppose the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Aghanistan, we recognize the value of Gen. Petraeus’s opinion about the regional effects of Israel’s constant occupation and aggression, and its potential danger to our soldiers.”

To which I responded with a mailing headed “Take back the Swastika”:

Some of us have been standing five days a week for eight and half years from 5 to 5:30 at the top of Church Street holding various signs against various wars, foreign and domestic.

Occasionally a camo-ed counter protester stands on the other side of the street, with a “Support the Troops” type of sign, and an American flag — which I really like, as it sets up a kind of dialectical arch of discussion over Pearl Street, and raises the visibility of the issues.

Even more occasionally, we are approached by “one of us,” a liberal, progressive, peace and justice oriented passer-by who passionately suggests that we, too, hold an American flag. “Why do you guys want to cede the flag over to the warmongers? It’s our flag, too. We need to take it back. Peace is patriotic.” Stuff like that.

Hearing such suggestions always brings to my thought-experiment mind a parallel demand: Take back the swastika! After all, the Hakenkreuz is an ancient, multi-cultural symbol of beneficent cosmic energy and movement. Why should we cede it to the Nazis?

OK, so then let’s have a peace vigil with someone holding a swastika sign, and explain its true origins and uses to those — if any — who question us about it. It would deepen the discussion, set the peace movement in a wider, timeless, universal context. Why not?

Why not is because certain dissociations can no longer be made. We can add all the “provisos” and footnotes we want to no avail.

In quoting the military with approval, we cannot help but appropriate its goals. And the American public, “cynical” as it may be, is aware of, and attaches those goals to the very statements we propose to tout. As the pop song says, “You can’t have one without the other.” With the horse comes the horse shit.

And I’m not just talking effective, pro-Palestinian tactics. I’m talking self-pollution for VTJP. As I said before, it’s not as if we have such poor soil to work with that we have to dig into the military dung heap.

Another person suggested that we could use the Petraeus material to simply “focus on security,” an issue that “has some emotional and psychological legitimacy.” To which I responded:

I would be equally opposed to arguing “national security” as a reason for BDS or cutting support for Israel. And for the same reasons: “National security” and fear are the trump cards of lying and manipulation. We should not be playing the same hand as Cheney, Obama, and Netanyatu. In using it, we legitimize and support such arguments.

To avoid cynical tactics, our cards must be primarily ethical, appealing to Kant’s difficult “moral law within.” It’s there in everyone, and if it isn’t, we can’t persuade them to become another kind of beast. It’s there in most Americans and Israelis, though it’s buried beneath years of brainwashing, junkshot detritus and ignorance of facts. Our job is to drill deep to get to it. Not every excavation means BP and Halliburton.

I wouldn’t even be opposed to secondarily arguing on a financial level. While it is hardly “the moral law within” to want to keep what’s in your pocket, one can certainly argue for more productive uses of our tax dollars than for slaughter and oppression.

I would ask the few who actually read my blogging to let me know what — beyond the particulars of the Israel/Palestine conflict — you think about this. Can one, should one, use an opponent’s language and the arguments implicit within it, to promote an opposite cause? Do let me know what you think.

In The Lamentations of Julius Marantz, I wrote what I think of as an exquisitely nasty, satirical chapter illustrating warmongers using exact peaceworker language to the T. I won’t take up the space in an already too-long blog entry, too much quoting myself, to include it here. But here‘s a link if you’re interested:

To me, using language or tactics in this way is an example of Orwell’s prophetic elucidations of Newspeak. War is Peace.

[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

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2 Responses to Marc Estrin : The Devil Can Quote Scripture

  1. For “using the flag” I’ve an Idea, because I’ve been doing it since 9/11 anyway.Before that even, but it really took off after 9/11.
    Insist that “the other side” use the flag properly. If you’re constantly drive-by insulted by flag wavers who have a 93-cent WalMart special duct taped to their antenna, for instance, see if you can make them stop and tell them they’re doing it wrong, breaking a Federal Law, (the flag code) and insist that they turn the flag over to you until they learn to do it properly.

    Flags like that aren’t made to withstand the wind forces of being displayed on moving vehicles, they’re designed for internal display or holding them in your hand during a parade, or decorating graves for special occasions, and you’re supposed to pick them back up at the end of such occasion.

    So I’ve been getting lots of flags. I ride a bicycle and if the bike is broken or I’m feeling especially froggy, walking, Those flags being improperly displayed do “the reason such displays are forbidden”… they fly off the antenna or even those clip-into-the-window flagpoles. Then the “Super Patriots” keep driving, don’t bother to stop and pick up the flag. They get all snarly and offensive when somebody else DOESN’T fly the flag, say it’s disrespectful to the Nation, the Flag and the Blood of all the Brave Men who ((were)) killed for it and yadda yadda yadda. Then leave it laying beside the road rather than spend a minute or two turning around and picking it up. If it’s so important to them to display it, why wouldn’t it be important to them to display it correctly? They made a big stinky issue of it in the 2006 midterm elections about wearing the Flag Lapel Pin, which had 7 stripes and 18 stars. You know it wasn’t made in China because the Chinese know our flag a lot better than Americans know theirs. Ask a 6th grade kid in Ft Worth how many stars are on the Chinese flag and what they mean.

    So I’ve got a steadily increasing collection of U.S. flags of various sizes that were discarded, their previous Proud Owners went on to WalMart and bought another hit of 93-cent patriotism, maybe spend another 1.93 for a yellow ribbon. Got to pause for a moment…

  2. Brother Jonah says:

    M’kay… so I’ve got all these salvaged flags. I used to take them to a fire station, cop-shop, VFW or the Boy Scouts because according to the Flag Code, they’re supposed to be given a military style funeral. yeah. Simply burning them isn’t proper.The last time the Fire Department, Sheriffs Department (of Teller Co. Colorado) and the Woodland Park Police wouldn’t take them, they had an overflow of them because of all the “super patriots”. The one I had just found was beside the road, in a rat’s nest. Another I had packed up from Texas, I found by the TRE station in FT Worth/Hurst, at Bell Helicopter. A war industry. It was at the pedestrian gate to their main employees parking lot, in the mud. All these War-industry super-patriots had been walking right next to it for over a week and not one had stopped to pick up the banner they say they love so much.

    I’m sure a lot of the other readers and writers of these collected blogs have similar experiences. So gather together a bunch of them. from all your friends, Staple them to cardboard backing and have two or three people holding it up with a separate sign saying “if any of these is YOUR flag, come and claim it”.

    Also when your “friend” shows up with his flag, have a picture (there’s a lot of them) of the Klan holding up an American Flag. They’ll have the Confederate “southern cross” battle flag in the pictures, well, good on them, because nowadays when the TeaBags and other Right Wing extremists show up they generally have two or three at least, of fools carrying THAT flag as well. There’s also pictures of how the Pledge of Allegiance was originally intended to be chanted, with the “Bellamy Salute”, COLOR photos of what appear to be HitlerJugend making the salute, until you look and see that they’re doing it to an American flag.

    As to using Generally Betrays Us words, I’d have to study on that for a few days.

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