By Benay Blend
During the 30 years that I taught American History, there were students—and some administrators—who invariably accused me of not being positive enough in my classes, as if there is some way to put a positive spin on genocide of Native Americans; chattel slavery; exploitation of the working class; imperialistic foreign policy, and so on.
This desire to whitewash history appears in other countries, in particular Israel, where anti-Zionists, like myself, are accused of not being real Jews, thus conflating Judaism, Zionism and support for Israel into one insidious package.
There has been a trend, at least in my country, to elevate the creed of positive thinking, a movement that has gotten more popular during the pandemic. There is at its core the idea that sending out our thoughts out into the universe can change the world. In “The (Capitalist) Obligation to be Happy,” Andrea D’Atri explains that “positive psychology promises an easy solution to problems that we should at least suspect are a bit more complex. Do we need to transform society? Positive psychology’s answer is no, not at all.” It is a concept, then, that is conservative in nature because if followed to its obvious conclusion negates any form of direct action as a way to bring about change.
In “Toxic Positivity is on the Rise,” Catherine Renton relates that during this era of “global pandemic, economic uncertainty and social unrest,” toxic positivity, which she defines as a process where “negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, worry, and disappointment are viewed as inherently wrong rather than just a normal part of the human experience,” appears widespread.
“This idea of happiness has spawned a huge neoliberal industry in which self-care commodities range from lifestyle brands to having a positive personality ‘type,’” writes Andrea D’Atri. “Putting the goal of individual well being before everything else allows for no toleration of failure, frustration, and negative emotions,” the keyword here being “individual,” the privatization of one’s life in a manner similar to the privatization of such things as the human right to clean water in cities like Flint, Michigan.
Activism takes collective work, and perhaps sacrifice too, as it often goes against the grain. For example, as the recent revelations from Israeli files of the atrocities of 1948 reveal, these incidents were not an anomaly in Israeli history. As Ilan Pappé explains, the Nakba (catastrophe) continues on a daily basis for Palestinians, a fact that many historians refuse to acknowledge in their writing.
In the same way, the genocide of Native people; the imperialism that underlay first the dogma of Manifest Destiny that later turned outward into the invasion of other countries; the slave catchers who rounded up black people—all of that continues, albeit in a different form, today. Rather than “mistakes,” as the invasion of Iraq is often called, or “isolated incidents,” they are part of what characterizes America, and Israel too, all adding up to not a particularly positive picture.
Similarly, Pappé describes efforts by Liberal Zionists to uphold the integrity of the Israeli state. “Liberal Zionism,” he maintains,
“has always been obsessed with finding the balance between the high moral ground and the wish to portray Israel as a civilized State that errs here and there (which usually means killing Palestinians throughout history). The message is clear: none of these mistakes, even if they are war crimes or crimes against humanity, to which the Liberal Zionist admits, should cast doubt on Zionism, or the very idea about the legitimacy of Israel to remain a racist and ethnic Jewish State at the heart of the Arab world.”
“We can’t heal grief with cat memes or fix heartbreak with ‘Good vibes,’” explains Renton. Instead, she suggests listening to those who are experiencing legitimate pain rather than trying to impose on them a thought process alien to their needs. Similarly, if we try to repress the “blood and gore” (as my students used to say) of our respective country’s history because it depresses us, we will lose the ability to put contemporary atrocities into context.
As Pappé notes:
“Even the worst atrocity can be tolerated and explained, if it is de-contextualized – namely is not related to an ideology – and, thus, the discreet dots of Israeli criminality are not connected together to provide the full and truthful picture of the real intent of the settler-colonial project of Zionism that will not end until it is stopped – which is to eliminate the Palestinians and Palestine.”
On the other hand, historian/journalist/activist Ramzy Baroud warns against dehumanizing Palestinians by portraying them only as victims. “We are all, to an extent,” he writes, “collectively guilty of seeing Palestinians as sheer victims, hapless, passive, intellectually stunted and ill-fated people, desperate to be ‘saved.’”
“Anguish, joy, aspirations, defiance, courage, loss, collective struggle, and so on, Baroud continues, “can only be genuinely expressed through the people who lived through these experiences.” In the same vein that Renton suggests listening to friends who are legitimately suffering, Baroud asks internationals to center the voices of Palestinians rather than imposing on them what they would rather see.
In ‘A People’s History of the United States’, (1997), the late Howard Zinn proposed an interpretation of history, a sweeping view of the past that never minced words to please his readers. He also wrote ‘Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian’ (2002), a collection of essays that are tied together by the common theme of Zinn’s belief that grassroots movements will finally succeed.
In the latter, he writes: “I try to be pessimistic, to keep up with some of my friends. But I think back over the decades, and look around. And then it seems to me that the future is not certain, it is possible” (p. 164).
The movements for social justice—whether Palestinian liberation, Indigenous demands for Land Back, Black/African movements against colonialism in all its forms—are collective in nature, the very opposite of the happiness business, which sells the idea that our problems are the result of our individual shortcomings, not the capitalist, colonialist societies around the world that created these problems in the first place.
“Perhaps, in the face of so much inequity, arbitrariness, discrimination, and opprobrium arising from the exploitation of millions of human beings,” concludes Andrea D’Atri, “the only thing resembling happiness is to live each day, enjoying the voluntary decision to conspire against this dismal state of affairs. That conspiracy, unlike the obligatory commodified and individualistic happiness imposed on us by capitalism, is a collective project.”