Benjamin in Jerusalem


David Kishik in Public Seminar:

In his eighth thesis on the concept of history, Walter Benjamin alerts us of a rhetorical trap into which too many of us too often fall. First we see something: rights trampled, freedoms snatched, humans oppressed, laws overlooked, brutality unleashed. Amazed by these horrors, we then feel compelled to say something: how can this still be possible today?

Aristotle claimed that philosophy begins with wonder, but Benjamin assures us that no deep insight ever arose from the above knee-jerk reaction. Unless, that is, by lingering on it for a second, we will eventually be led to rethink a deeply-engrained conviction.

What stands behind this fake wonder? It is a simple assumption, hovering between the words still and today. Back in the day, we reckon, it was more common for such atrocities to happen. People probably didn’t even bother to bat an eyelash. But things changed. The world advanced. Progress rules, even though it remains an uphill battle.

And this battle is real. We know that an eyelash batted in America will not release a political prisoner in China. So petitions are signed, marches organized, boycotts enforced, legislations repealed, and yes, sometimes even force has to be used for the good cause. And look how far we have come!

But then, like a stock-exchange bubble, the situation blows up in our faces. And we can’t believe that this is even happening. Again. Still. Given all that we’ve already achieved. So we don’t hesitate. We barely stop to think, and spring back into action. We try to right the wrong. Bring the aberration back to a healthy state. Restore the peace. Reconcile the rift. This is just an exception to the rule, we surmise. The just rule can still rule.

Think of a real example of grave injustice, like the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. How can this conflict remain unresolved for so many years? What part of “basic human rights” does the Israeli government fail to understand? How much suffering do the Palestinians have to endure before the world will really, truly wake up? How can this still be possible today? How can this misery continue on and on without concrete hope for a better future?

More here.