Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Gaza, the Elephant in the Room, and the Six Blind Men

It is a familiar motif in detective fiction that our hero/heroine seizes on an apparently off-topic phrase uttered by a secondary character that somehow triggers the thought process that ultimately leads to figuring out the identity of the villain. My wife and I streamed an old episode of “Midsomer Murders” the other night, and there was the trope; it reoccurred in this week’s “Poirot” episode on PBS. The technique would be considered trite, except for one thing: that really is the way the ideas come together.

My most recent conference paper (and a whole new approach to pedagogy, at least for me) stemmed from the chronological confluence of my late father’s birthday, a colleague who asked to borrow a book, and an unexpectedly poor showing by a theatre history class with a lot of good students in it. The details don’t matter—what’s important is that seemingly disparate ideas often come together in meaningful ways.

The elephant: the same as and different from the sum of its parts.
A couple of nights ago, the two ideas that came together were the current crisis in Gaza (Curmie notes the current cease fire and hopes for the best while not evincing great confidence) and hearing the phrase “the elephant in the room.” But what I thought of was not this metaphoric presence, or the symbol of the Republican party, but rather the pachyderm described in the fable, variously attributed to China or India, of the six blind men and the elephant. There’s a Jainist version, a Buddhist version, and a 19th century American doggerel poem by John Godfrey Saxe. What the various versions have in common is a motif of a half dozen blind men who encounter an elephant—but each one experiences only one part of the beast: one its trunk, another its tusks, another its tail, and so on. Thus, unable to see the entire animal, the men report (in the Jainist tale) that an elephant must be a pillar (the leg), a rope (the tail), or a solid pipe (the tusk), etc.

What matters is that each of the blind men reports honestly and accurately. As the sage in the Jainist version points out, all of them are “right” from their own idiosyncratic perspectives. The Buddhist version, however, emphasizes the quarrelsomeness of the men, each convinced of his own superior understanding: “each to his view they cling / Such folk see only one side of a thing.” And the American poem? It closes with a “moral”:
So oft in theologic wars,
     The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
     Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
     Not one of them has seen!
Curmie has three real-life Jewish friends (at least two of whom have commented on the CC Facebook page) who have threatened to unfriend anyone who publicly supports Hamas. Curmie also has friends, especially in the UK and Ireland, who are not only supporting but organizing boycotts of Israeli goods. None of these folks are bad people, or even particularly narrow-minded. They are just grabbing a tail and can’t imagine how someone could possibly describe the elephant as being wall-like.

The fact is, both sides claim that they, and they alone have a right to that territory. Both sides claim, and can produce evidence to support their assertions, that the other guys have targeted civilians, or at the very least paid no more than lip service to the idea of avoiding what has come to be known as “collateral damage.” Both sides wave off their own atrocities by saying the other guys are worse. Both sides believe that news coverage is slanted to portray the other guys in a better light than they deserve. Celebrities are lining up on both sides, as if their understanding of the situation were anything but superficial: it’s Javier Bardem, Mandy Patinkin and Penelope Cruz (and others) against Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason and Jon Voight (and others), as if anybody cared.

Those tunnels built by Hamas with money and supplies intended to be used for humanitarian aid? They’re real. The Israeli MP who says that the mothers of Palestinians should be killed so they can’t raise any more “little snakes”? She’s real, too. So is the general who argues that there are no innocent civilians in Gaza and claims the Palestinians who currently suffer there are like the Germans who elected Hitler and “rightfully” paid the price. (Curmie refrains from pointing out that this argument pretty much says that German Jews are to blame for the Holocaust.) And so is the Hamas-sponsored children’s television show that advocates “shoot[ing] all the Jews.” And yes, it’s true that more Palestinian children have died from the hostilities in the last few weeks than Israeli soldiers have been lost in eight years. And it’s also true that Hamas intentionally holes up in residential areas so Israel inevitably will inflict civilian casualties if they respond. And on. And on. And on.

The place is a mess, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Hamas and to a lesser extent Likud are both in power in part because they express what is good for the people they purport to represent in terms of hatred and fear of those other people over there. And the everyday citizenry of Gaza and of Israel aren’t necessarily wrong in listening to the siren song of xenophobia. But there will be no solution that either matters or lasts in that part of the world until three things happen: everyone involved takes a step back to see a more comprehensive view of reality, both sides recognize themselves as both perpetrators and as victims, and the rest of the Arab/Muslim world decides to help Palestine instead of using the area as a prop in their public relations campaign against Israel. It’s looking like a long wait.

“It’s a rope.” “No, it’s a fan.” “You’re crazy: it’s the branch of a tree.” It is all of these and none of these. There’s an elephant in the room. Everyone knows it’s there. They just don’t know it’s an elephant.

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