April 12, 2021

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Art for hate’s sake


Emory Douglas, the former “Minister of Culture” of the Black Panther Party, and the premier artist of the black power movement, delivered a lecture to University of Michigan students in which, among other things, he displayed a poster showing Benjamin Netanyahu and Adolf Hitler, with the legend “guilty of genocide.”

One student, Alexa Smith, was furious. “…I sat through this lecture horrified at the hatred and intolerance being spewed on our campus,” she continued. “As a Jew who is proud of my people and my homeland, I sat through this lecture feeling targeted and smeared to be as evil as the man who perpetuated the Holocaust and systematically murdered six million Jews.”

I’m not going to reproduce the offending poster. You can view it at the link if you wish. Artistically speaking, and even as propaganda, it’s junk.

The message of the poster is a slander. Anyone who says that Israel or its Prime Minister is guilty of genocide or in any sense comparable to Hitler is either a moron, abysmally ignorant, or a vicious liar. The meaning of “genocide” and demographic facts about the Palestinian Arabs are freely available. No population that increased fivefold between 1970 and 2014 can have been a victim of genocide.

So which is Emory Douglas?

I watched the hour-long video of his talk. He covered the period from the formation of the Black Panther party to the present day and presented slides of his work in the Panther newspaper, his posters, murals, and other items. Some of it is powerful and some is embarrassingly bad by any standard.

The first hint of anything relating to Israel or the Palestinians came when in discussing the tumultuous year of 1968, he mentioned the Palestinian “struggle” in passing. Later, he talked about an incident a few years later during the Olympics, when two black runners, Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, had protested racism in the US. They stood on the winners’ podium in casual poses, hands on their hips, facing away from the flag. Collett was barefoot. Avery Brundage, head of the International Olympic Committee, banned them from further competition for their disrespect.

The year was 1972, the place was Munich, and Matthews’ and Collett’s protest came several days after Palestinian terrorists had murdered eleven Israeli athletes and coaches, and a German policeman, in one of the most high-profile and vicious acts of terrorism ever. Douglas didn’t mention it. I wonder if he is even aware that the protest and the mass murder almost coincided in space and time? I suppose that he has eyes only for what he perceives as his struggle.

Toward the end of the presentation came the “genocide” poster and a couple of others accusing Israel of apartheid. He didn’t comment on them to any great extent. He certainly didn’t seem to think that accusing a man and a nation of genocide and apartheid was a big deal. The feeling I got was that he saw this as just part of a very broad struggle by the oppressed in America and the third world against racism, capitalism, pollution, global warming, the US, various puppets of the US, the “prison-industrial complex,” the police, the American military, and many other enemies.

Douglas expressed a very naïve, almost childishly leftist view of a Manichean universe. It seemed to me that he saw his positions as obvious. How could anyone doubt that the US was and is an evil, racist enterprise, structured to exploit the victimized groups at home and abroad for profit? How could anyone not agree that all the oppressed were on the same side, against US imperialism? How could anyone not think that all the world’s unpleasantness is interconnected and rooted in rapacious capitalism? How could anyone fail to understand that it had to be overthrown, “by any means necessary?” Oh, and by the way, Jews are Nazis.

Emory Douglas is not a great artist and he’s not much of an intellectual. Of the categories I listed, I think he falls into the one I called “abysmally ignorant.” Unfortunately, ignorance of this kind is common in the black community in America.

An ADL survey showed that blacks are “nearly four times (34%) more likely than whites (9%) to fall into the most anti-Semitic category.” Jew-hater Louis Farrakhan and pogrom-inciter Al Sharpton are respectable, even revered as leaders. Jeremiah Wright got seven honorary doctorate degrees when he preached classical anti-Jewish libels. And the first black president of the US was the most anti-Israel president since the founding of the state.

Relations between blacks and Jews in the US have been particularly poor since 1968, when a New York teachers strike pitted the overwhelmingly Jewish United Federation of Teachers against a black community-controlled school board. The flirtation of the black community with various forms of Islam, from the homegrown version of the Nation of Islam to the increasing numbers of black converts to more normative Islam, has added an anti-Zionist flavor; and there seems to be no shortage of outright anti-Jewish agitators like Farrakhan, Sharpton, and Wright.

In this context, the appropriation by anti-Israel elements of the Movement for Black Lives against police violence and putative racism makes sense. There is, they think, a fertile field in the black community to plant with comparisons between American blacks and Palestinian Arabs, between the PLO and Hamas and the SCLC, SNCC, CORE, etc. groups that fought the battle against Jim Crow in the South in the 1950s and 1960s.

The complete absurdity of these comparisons is lost on those who don’t understand the racism, violence, and genocidal attitudes that characterize the real Palestinian movement, which unlike the American Civil Rights movement, is opposed to human rights (for Jews, or for that matter, for Arabs). But who cares about reality?

And what about the University of Michigan, whose spokesperson defended the talk as “provocative?” Provocative it was, and even illuminating and historically interesting, but surely the spokesperson could have said something to denounce the offensive – no, libelous – nature of the poster in question. I’m afraid that the academic community also has an anti-Zionism problem, which as usually happens is also turning into an anti-Jewish one. But that wasn’t the only problem with his point of view.

Douglas’ talk was delivered in a matter-of fact way, as though everyone knows, or should know, that his worldview was correct. When he finished, the student audience gave him an enthusiastic ovation. If I may be allowed Hannah Arendt’s word, his words were banal. They implied that the corrupt, racist, capitalist, system should be overthrown, but they didn’t specify how that could happen in practice.

But his pictures did. Especially the ones that showed pigs with badges being shot in the face, with the bullet and a spurt of blood coming out the back.

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