Elvis Costello and the Guilt Society

Elvis Costello will receive a great deal of praise from boycotting Israel during his tour by pro-Palestinian groups and peace activists, while others will accuse the singer of harbouring a form of anti-Semitism that has now become acceptable by the political establishment under the guise of anti-Zionist rhetoric.

Both perceptions of Costello, which are inevitable, are wrong.

Costello wrote this on his site:

It has been necessary to dial out the falsehoods of propaganda, the double game and hysterical language of politics, the vanity and self-righteousness of public communiqués from cranks in order to eventually sift through my own conflicted thoughts.

But Costello is neither an anti-Semite nor someone who truly understands the proper coordinates of championing peace – this episode ought to reveal.

It is a strange phenomenon that those who are branded vulnerable can only do wrong where the cause is metropolitanism, consumer capitalism and the west itself. When a bourgeois liberal utters this they have achieved what Pascal Bruckner has recently identified as ‘guilt’ for which he further elaborates is a ‘tyranny’. What Bruckner means by this is in an age after empire, power relations have gone from rich west dominating an other, to a west stricken with guilt and the other perceived by them as justifiably agitated. The worst expression of this is when one who this bourgeois liberal considers vulnerable commits something unthinkable, lets say a terrorist act or genital mutilation, and is justified on the grounds that the west deserved what it was getting.

It is a guilt that does two things; firstly it excuses the worst acts in a way that is nothing short of masochism and then justifies them with a logic that doesn’t fit today (it doesn’t recognise that some crimes are committed with the world’s injustices as a false cover); secondly it continues that kind of patronising conception of the other that would have been commonplace in the age of Empire (the idea that some foreigners cannot cause destruction without their being a cause emanating from the west – this position, of course, is as self-righteous as it is ridiculous and naive).

Disliking the government in Israel for its criminal behaviour is fine, but many countries in the Middle East have terrible track records. The difference with Israel is that, for some people, it is European enough to show your disliking of it guilt-free, it’s crimes are crimes of choice, as opposed to the crimes of countries on its border, who commit crimes not out of choice, but mere causality.

Of course not all anti-Zionism is a cover for anti-Semitism; anyone who thinks that is foolish. But Israel, like countries in West Europe, are considered rich and decadent enough to have choices in the crimes it commits, and therefore it is ok to dislike them, whereas it is out of guilt that some justify the crimes of other countries, a perception so warped that it fails to realise the hurt it causes trying to right wrongs.

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