Ash Sarkar, of “I’m literally a communist” fame, recently set Palestine Twitter ablaze with an unusual pronouncement:
Dr Kristin Ross suggested that words like “defend” and “protect” are better for mobilising political solidarity than “fight” or “resist”.
For this reason, I’m making a decision to try and speak of Palestinians’ right to protection and self-defence rather than resistance.
— Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar) August 15, 2018
Reaction against this message was swift, but Sarkar, who in a single tweet appointed herself guardian of Palestine’s anti-colonial struggle, has yet to engage her Palestinian critics, many of whom patiently explained the importance of terms like “resistance.” The lack of engagement isn’t surprising; any half-sentient pundit quickly learns that it’s okay to upset Palestinians if their antagonists are happy.
Some observers absolve Sarkar based on a recent piece for the Independent (London) in which she apparently makes a strong defense of Palestinians. A close reading of that article, however, shows it to be subtly deferential to liberal orthodoxy. The article uses crafty diction to elide Israeli colonization and instead conceptualize the state’s brutalization of civilians as an unfortunate example of disparate military power (an argument that tacitly normalizes Zionism).
Sarkar proclaims: “the erasure of Palestinian voices in narrating their own history is itself in concurrence with the Israeli state’s strategy to delegitimize Palestinian struggle for self-determination in all its forms.” This point might be more compelling had Sarkar not taken to Twitter the next day to dispose of words any cogent Palestinian would use if given the opportunity.
The decision to sanitize resistance into pleasant soundbites had clearly been made by the time she wrote the article. Sarkar refers to Palestine-Israel as a “conflict” eight times (including the headline) and seems fond of “asymmetry,” which brings to mind a Foreign Policy shindig in a hotel ballroom with maroon carpet and plastic chandeliers; words like “colonization,” “ethnic cleansing,” “genocide,” “ethnocracy,” “imperialism,” “settler,” “apartheid,” and “Zionism” are absent. I’d normally chalk up the lexical dullness to the editing practices of corporate media, but Sarkar’s tweet suggests that Independent editors probably had an easy time making the language conform to house style.
“The fundamental issue,” Sarkar proclaims in closing, “is about our right to stand in solidarity with oppressed peoples in highly asymmetric conflicts.” Note that Palestinians are absent from this appeal. The fundamental issue isn’t the right of oppressed peoples to fight, resist, or do much of anything else; it is about the Westerner’s right to solidarity, an insidious logic given the article’s pretense of centering Palestinians.
And what’s this about “highly asymmetric conflicts”? Which others does she have in mind? Police officers versus Black children? The National Guard versus water protectors? Slaughterhouses versus herd animals? Monsanto versus organic crops?
Sarkar’s lack of self-awareness is alarming, as when she argues, “[I]t would be fair to say that the military asymmetry of the Israel-Palestine conflict is matched in the media. Language itself is a battlefield.” Word choice is important to public discourse says the person who just referred to settler colonization as “military asymmetry” in a major newspaper.
Sarkar’s unfortunate tweet gives us an opportunity to examine the uses of language in political and activist formations. The vocabulary of Palestinian nationalism exists in Arabic and has been subject to debate for over a century. Much of that vocabulary isn’t easily translated, so by having the conversation in English we’re already displacing Palestine onto foreign terrain.
Nevertheless, it’s viable to maintain the spirit of the homeland and to support those seeking its renewal. Leaving aside the dubious act of forfeiting language important to the very people under discussion, we have to examine who benefits from the forfeiture. “Resistance” doesn’t simply denote obstinacy; it connotes political and economic self-realization. “Fighting” isn’t an irrational desire to inflict harm; it is a necessary survival mechanism. The colony cannot maintain its endurance without antagonism. These points are elementary to decolonial theory; it is baffling that a self-proclaimed communist would so breezily dismiss them.
Sarkar and her mentor Dr. Kristin Ross—who came out of nowhere—want to explore what is permissible and persuasive to Western audiences, a useful concern. But the Western audiences they invoke as universal are in fact media bosses, sitting politicians, think tank wonks, and other such functionaries. We cannot make decolonization palatable to the liberal wing of the ruling class—and even if doing so were possible, it would be undesirable. The purpose of decolonization is to upend inhuman norms, including those of speech and elocution. Limiting our imagination to rhetorical customs in the metropole commits us to invisibility.
Communicating to people in the West is important—even better if they decide to listen. I don’t want my argument to be read as a disavowal of conversation in either friendly or hostile environs. I submit instead that it’s not the responsibility of dispossessed people to assure their oppressors’ comfort. In the end, if arbiters of respectable opinion won’t accept Palestine’s national liberation movement as it actually exists, then it’s not because of language, but a fundamental difference of politics. No amount of dissimulation will alter this reality.
Finally, relinquishing the venerable language of Palestinian struggle is a conciliation to Zionist discipline. The colonized have only a few sources of power: native knowledge, cultural memory, filial bonds, historical legitimacy. Perhaps their greatest power is a refusal to absolve the colonizer’s perpetual violence. Zionists are desperate for affirmation; the sharp tones of our dialect foreclose that possibility.
Saying “fuck Israel” may not be prudent and yet we should have learned by now that kowtowing to Zionist angst isn’t a prelude to approval, but a voluntary disappearance.