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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

War and Mardi Gras

How do we celebrate a joyful holiday when our country is responsible for ongoing terrible suffering?

[warning: this is not a happy piece] 

Over the weekend, I went out to get some bits for my Mardi Gras costume. I wanted to put together something gloriously purple and needed some accessories for a beautiful new purple jacket I was given last year. At a costume shop in the Bywater, I found just the right thing: a soft, glittery purple cape. It looks incredible. 

The man who sold me the cape tied it up in a little black plastic bag. I brought it home on my bicycle, and put the bag down in the living room. I got on the computer and scrolled through the news. And I saw something that devastated me.

My social media feeds these days are usually about half petty first world problems, one-fourth speculations about whether Joe Biden has dementia, and one-fourth horrible accounts of suffering in Gaza. Yesterday, one of the Gaza videos showed a Palestinian man holding up a little plastic bag not dissimilar from the one I had been given. Only it didn’t contain anything fun. It contained the few pieces of his relatives that he was able to recover from the site of an Israeli bombing. I felt sick to my stomach. I looked over at my little bag, and I felt terribly ashamed of myself. Look at me, having fun, while others are going through the depths of Hell.

I know it sounds like such a dark leftist killjoy thing to say “How can we parade when the children of Gaza are starving?” But the knowledge of what is happening to those children will not leave my mind, and it makes the joy of the season seem somehow strange and perverse, because it depends on banishing the knowledge of what is happening elsewhere. 

Actually, many people have felt similarly about celebrations ever since the Oct. 7 attacks. Al Jazeera reported in December that some Palestinian and Arab Americans decided not to celebrate Christmas last year and that “many churches and Christian communities have nixed their Christmas celebrations to honour the dead and protest the continuing Israeli violence.” As a Christian woman from the Detroit area asked, “How can the world really celebrate Christmas and celebrate the birth of the prince of peace, when in the very homeland and the very place that he was born, there’s such atrocious crimes against humanity taking place and nothing is being done to stop it?”

Mardi Gras is my favorite time of year. I love the costumes, the cakes, the silliness. I wish every American city celebrated Carnival the way New Orleans does. I think it is a healthy ritual—not physically, perhaps, but socially. The level of creativity and collective joy on display is invigorating. It shatters tedium and ennui. It gives a rhythm to the early part of the year: an explosion of color and sound and sensation, followed by the sobriety of Lent and a return to work. (I had jury duty last week and it was called off because of Mardi Gras. Even the judges take this very seriously.) And yet, carnival just doesn’t feel the same when your country is carrying out a hideous atrocity. 

I don’t think it helps to sit around lamenting the terrible fates of others and consuming their suffering all day on the internet, becoming “hopeless and depressed.” These feelings are the result of what former BBC documentarian Adam Curtis has called “Oh dear-ism.” It’s what happens when we watch so many “images of civil wars, massacres, and starving children,” events which are the result of political problems but which are “portrayed to us as simple illustrations of the mindless cruelty of the human race about which nothing can be done and to which the only response is ‘Oh dear.’” 

But it’s a fact: my government is supporting an ongoing atrocity. My tax dollars are funding it. In a very real sense, I am responsible for it because in a democratic society, it’s the job of the people to control their government. 

I want to look away. It’s very hard to read the accounts of what is going on in Gaza: the burned and amputated children, operated on without anesthetics, the orphans crying out for their parents, the families trying to keep each other alive and scrounge up enough food every day, reading about their fear of not living through the night, the hundreds of people sharing a single toilet, the destruction of entire neighborhoods. The horrible story of 6-year-old Hind Hamada’s death. Nobody forces you to read the newspaper, and I quite understand why many Americans would prefer not to. Just go and have a good time. Nobody’s going to tell you that you’re a bad person if you just enjoy yourself (on Mardi Gras or any other day) and don’t pay any attention. In fact, if you do express outrage, you’re taking a social (and possibly even an employment) risk. So your government is quietly sending the arms that kill the families. Well, you could just do as Joe Biden does and publicly lament the situation while ignoring your own responsibility for it. 

This would be wrong, however. It would be monstrous. We all have a duty to look, and not just to look but to act. It’s our job to pressure those who have power to change their actions. The people disrupting Biden’s speeches to call for a cease-fire are heroic. They are the ones who decline to look away, and who understand their responsibility to act.

When I first experienced Mardi Gras, I loved it much more than I ever thought I would. I associated it with debauchery and binge drinking. While there is quite a bit of that, what I loved was the creativity and the sense of solidarity, people all working together to make something beautiful and joyful. Mardi Gras struck me as a vision for how the world could be. If people could work together to create costumes and floats and giant decadent confections, why couldn’t we do this more often? Couldn’t the ease with which we participate in collective joy be an opportunity to think about how we could all work together to make society better for everyone, all the time? 

I don’t think it’s morally wrong to have fun, or go to Mardi Gras, in times like these. But I do think that large celebrations and rituals are invitations for us to renew our consciousness of what other people in the world are going through. Getting lost in revelry can become something indefensible if it involves a retreat from our basic obligations to one another. What if solidarity weren’t narrowly confined to those in one’s neighborhood or city? If we believe in bringing each other joy, then isn’t our most urgent priority to remove the conditions of life for Palestinians which preclude their joy? In other words, to stop the assault on their lives? The spirit of love and good times that fills the air at Mardi Gras is wonderful. But if we believe in it, shouldn’t we look across the world and see where that spirit is most absent? 

I’m going to wear my costume proudly on Mardi Gras morning. I’m going to have a good time. But then I am going to return to work and remember that right now, Gazans are being threatened with outright extermination as Israel prepares to invade and bomb the area where over a million people are sheltering. The U.S. government, while expressing its usual “concern,” does nothing to make Israel change course. Our job is to alter that situation. 

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