On Being Overwhelmed By Feelings of Complicity and Paralysis

In a world filled with horrors, where our actions feel useless, it can be hard to muster the energy to press on.

 Over the past few months, I’ve seen so many pictures and read so many things that I wish I’d never been exposed to. Pictures of a Palestinian person’s body after being crushed by a tank, of a child torn limb from limb, of rows and rows of bodies being shoveled into mass graves, of a father holding up a small plastic bag with the remains of his child inside. I’ve read the accounts of doctors treating burned kids, starving kids, kids who have wandered alone through the wreckage of their city after their entire family was killed. I have, as Pankaj Mishra describes the experience in an excellent essay, felt I was quietly “going mad.” Maybe you’ve felt similarly: it’s the feeling of being highly conscious of the fact that every day in a far-off country, hundreds of people are being killed by bombing, disease, and starvation, my own government is in large part responsible for their deaths, and I can’t do anything about it. 

And I’m writing from a comfortable chair in the U.S., Palestinian writers and photographers have risked (and lost) their lives directly bearing witness to the unfolding atrocity. As Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent, has written about “The Cost of Bearing Witness”:

“There are scores of Palestinian writers and photographers, many of whom have been killed, who are determined to make us see the horror of this genocide[….] Writing and photographing in wartime are acts of resistance, acts of faith. They affirm the belief that one day – a day the writers, journalists and photographers may never see – the words and images will evoke empathy, understanding, outrage and provide wisdom. They chronicle not only the facts, although facts are important, but the texture, sacredness and grief of lives and communities lost.”

He also writes about why the work of reporting in wartime had to go on despite his feelings of “futility and outrage”:

“I experienced futility and outrage when I covered war. I wondered if I had done enough, or if it was even worth the risk. But you go on because to do nothing is to be complicit. You report because you care. You will make it hard for the killers to deny their crimes.” 

At the same time, activists here have done an impressive job organizing opposition to Joe Biden’s “no red lines for Israel” policy. The hastily-organized “uncommitted” campaign in Michigan showed the president that his reelection could be threatened by discontent over his support of Israel’s war on Gaza. Unfortunately, the Biden administration is completely and unwaveringly committed to its policy of unlimited arms for Israel, meaning that the only concessions it will grant are rhetorical and symbolic. So we have seen an escalation in public expressions of sympathy for Palestinian suffering, but the Biden administration continues to veto UN resolutions for a ceasefire. The administration has facilitated the (sometimes deadly) air-dropping of small quantities of aid and begun a quixotic project to build a pier off the coast of Gaza. But it has continued to support Israel even though the country has been  blocking food deliveries to Gaza. (In fact, the administration has repeatedly circumvented the usual congressional approval process to give more arms to Israel.) 

As Americans see tens of thousands of Palestinians die, we know that our own government is responsible, through providing the weapons and blocking UN action to stop the war. But how can we actually affect government policy? Later this year, there will be an election, but the choices in that election will be between the intolerable status quo (Joe Biden) and a likely even more rabidly pro-Israel president (Donald Trump). I don’t know how it felt to oppose the Vietnam war in 1967-68, but I suspect it must have felt similarly frustrating, with the Democratic incumbent responsible for the war and any Republican likely to escalate it further. 

As a political writer, I have never felt more ineffectual than at this moment. Not just on Palestine, either. Back in 2016 and 2020, when Bernie Sanders was running for president, a political writer on the left had a clear task: help explain the importance of the left alternative, rebut criticisms, expose those who used some lefty phrases but were clearly insincere, and generally push the public discourse in a helpful direction. Today, our public discourse seems to have gone off the rails entirely, and this sometimes makes me question what my approach should be as a political writer. Look, for example, though the top-selling political commentary books. No.1 at the moment is a book by Abigail Shrier, whose terrible polemic about trans kids I reviewed a while back. This one is about how we’re ruining children by coddling them and is a broadside against mainstream psychology. I suspect its claims are just as dubious as those in the last book. Should I bother to go through and refute them? Will anybody care if I do?

What else do we have in the political commentary section? More stuff about how the left is crazy, from Jesse Watters, Christopher Rufo, Douglas Murray, Coleman Hughes, Alex Jones, Candace Owens, Ted Cruz, etc. Books about how there’s a war on Christian America, a war on the West, and a battle to “cancel” the American mind. Most of the bestsellers are right-wing, and the ones that are liberal are mostly just attacks on Trump. 

What would the “political commentary” bestsellers look like if we had a sane public discourse? Well, let’s consider what the most urgent issues of our time are. There’s the climate crisis, on which there appears to be a bipartisan consensus that we should escalate fossil fuel production. There’s war: we face a worsening of the disastrous nuclear threat that could destroy all human civilization. The children of Gaza are starving to death. Workers in the U.S. are still disempowered, with union density failing to increase. Our healthcare system is still unaffordable despite the “Affordable Care Act.” Reproductive rights are under threat, AI technology threatens major social disruptions, journalism is being defunded, “tough on crime” policies are resurging, child poverty is going up, and cruelty to immigrants is becoming normalized among Democrats as well as Republicans. We have so, so much work to do, and yet there’s still a deluge of books about cancel culture and wokeness. 

I suppose the function of a political writer in this atmosphere is to try one’s best to counter the tidal wave of bullshit. But this can feel as hopeless as stopping, well, an actual tidal wave. I’ve gone through before and refuted right-wing arguments at endless length. It has not stopped them from being made! I believe the media is powerful, but it’s also true that in a depoliticized society like the U.S., it’s very difficult to force a public discussion on the issues that matter most. 

I suppose the job of a left media organization is to try, however futile it may seem, to keep attention on the most pressing moral priorities: stopping war, stopping the climate disaster, building the labor movement, reproductive justice, justice for immigrants, ending mass incarceration, etc. Given the size of the gap between what needs to be done on each issue and what has been done, one can feel a certain paralysis, and in the last couple of years I have found it increasingly difficult to get myself to write. I’ve done something like 1,000 articles, and it feels like I could do 1,000 more with little effect. But I remind myself that there are obligations to the victims. I don’t like the phrase “silence is violence,” but I do think silence is complicity, and as I look back on previous periods in history, I admire those who spoke out against atrocities, and I look with contempt on those who said and did nothing. 

I admire greatly the Vietnam War protesters who worked so hard to try to stop their government from committing a terrible crime. They must have become quite hopeless seeing the Nixon administration’s escalation of the bombing. But they continued to demonstrate and to speak and to try to call attention to the atrocity they knew their own taxes were being used to fund. In the case of Palestine, we are all responsible for the actions of our government, and so we have a moral responsibility to act.

I am haunted, as I am sure are many others, by what Aaron Bushnell said in the days before lighting himself on fire: the answer to the question “What would I do if I was alive during” slavery or Jim Crow? is “you’re doing it, right now.” Bushnell was driven to an act of political despair, seeing no other route to helping Palestinians than a solidaristic public suicide. The task the rest of us face is to figure out how to get past the feeling of anguish at our incapacity and to act in ways that stand a chance of actually changing things.  

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