Ambient Atrocity

In our silo culture different issues compete for our attention, the needle of our moral compass and our political energy. But in today’s meta-crisis these silos are collapsing before us. If, as Diane Abbott, the threatened, ignored and abused MP says: “As we move even closer to the general election, race, whether explicitly or implicitly, is at the heart of the debate in British politics. And the issue is not just about a particular political party, but all of our institutions” is true, then this is a sign of the global issues of racism, imperialism, and coloniality converging into our everyday reality.

These issues pervade not just our coming general election but our wider society and all of the interactions we are supported by: the modern ‘enslaved people’ who support western lifestyle; the colonial foundations of modern wealth; the reality of global south to north climate relations; and the witnessing of contemporary genocide in Palestine.

As Pankaj Mishra, writes in “The Shoah after Gaza”, published in the London Review of Books:

“Every day is poisoned by the awareness that while we go about our lives hundreds of ordinary people like ourselves are being murdered, or being forced to witness the murder of their children. Adding that, Biden’s stubborn malice and cruelty to the Palestinians is just one of the gruesome riddles presented to us by Western politicians and journalists.”

If we struggle to absorb these atrocities it’s hard not to buckle under the impression of helplessness, and turn away from the horror.

In all of this, the Palestinians, like Abbott are ignored. They are elided. Mishra writes of the disappeared:

“Despite is increasing reservations about Israel, a political and media class in the west has ceaselessly euphemised the stark facts of military occupation and unchecked annexation by ethnonational demagogues: Israel, the chorus goes, has the right, as the Middle East’s only democracy, to defend itself, especially from genocidal brutes. As a result, the victims of Israeli barbarity in Gaza today cannot even secure straightforward recognition of their ideal from Western elites, let alone relief. In recent months billions of people around the world have witnessed an extraordinary onslaught whose victims, as Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, an Irish lawyer who is South Africa’s representative at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, put it, ‘are broadcasting their own destruction in real time in the desperate, so far vain, hope that the world might do something.”

Race, colonialism and colonisation are the missing elements in the narrative carefully constructed around Arab barbarism, the threats of ‘extremism’ and the recently conjured ‘power of the Mob’. British politics is so deranged and defiled that it can’t even recognise the real mob rule of Frank Hester and the institutionalised racism of the House of Commons. When Michael Gove is asked if saying an MP should be shot is an extremist view and would it fall under his new definition of extremism he just can’t say. He’s not sure. Public discourse is so debased that the Tories can say with a straight face ‘This is terrible we condemn it’ with one breath and ‘We’ve actually got another £5 million off him’ with another.

Move on.

Be quiet.

Into this very strange land arrives Zone of Interest, the Academy-award winning film by Jonathan Glazer which is a study in complicity, banality and the human ability to zone-out and turn away from atrocity in pursuit of self-interest. Naomi Klein has written of Glazer’s remarkable acceptance speech:

“Glazer was accepting the award for best international film for The Zone of Interest, which is inspired by the real life of Rudolf Höss, commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The film follows Höss’s idyllic domestic life with his wife and children, which unfolds in a stately home and garden immediately adjacent to the concentration camp. Glazer has described his characters not as monsters but as “non-thinking, bourgeois, aspirational-careerist horrors”, people who manage to turn profound evil into white noise.”

Klein notes that debates are raging about how the Nazi atrocities should be remembered. She continues:

“All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present – not to say, ‘Look what they did then’; rather, ‘Look what we do now,’” Glazer said, quickly dispatching with the notion that comparing present-day horrors to Nazi crimes is inherently minimizing or relativizing, and leaving no doubt that his explicit intention was to draw out continuities between the monstrous past and our monstrous present.

And he went further: “We stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of 7 October in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza.” For Glazer, Israel does not get a pass, nor is it ethical to use intergenerational Jewish trauma from the Holocaust as justification or cover for atrocities committed by the Israeli state today.”

There is a sort of ambient atrocity to all of this. Death, torture, murder, children under the rubble, the triumphalism of soldiers at war, genocide on Tick Tock, the emergent climate realities. The real threat that the film points to is this level of violence being normalised and internalised.

“Genocide becomes ambient to their lives”:  is how Glazer has described the atmosphere he attempted to capture in his film, and this is the danger to ours too.

As Naomi Klein writes of the films haunting message: “It’s not that these people don’t know that an industrial-scale killing machine whirs just beyond their garden wall. They have simply learned to lead contented lives with ambient genocide.”

“Glazer has repeatedly stressed that his film’s subject is not the Holocaust, with its well-known horrors and historical particularities, but something more enduring and pervasive: the human capacity to live with holocausts and other atrocities, to make peace with them, draw benefit from them.”

The complexities of the funding and film landscape from which Zone of Interest are complex and fascinating. As one tweeter pointed out:

Others are not so impressed by Glazer’s film, or his acceptance speech. László Nemes, the director of the acclaimed film Son of Saul, has criticised The Zone of Interest director Glazer’s Oscars speech. In a statement he said:

“The Zone of Interest is an important movie,” Nemes writes. “It is not made in a usual way. It questions the grammar of cinema. Its director should have stayed silent instead of revealing he has no understanding of history and the forces undoing civilisation, before or after the Holocaust. Had he embraced the responsibility that comes with a film like that, he would not have resorted to talking points disseminated by propaganda meant to eradicate, at the end, all Jewish presence from the Earth.”

As the film-makers slug it out more important issues are at play. If the Zone of Interest is about the danger of ignoring atrocities we are guilty of that today, the atrocity of the levels of dark money swilling about British politics, of a black women being silenced in the democratic chamber she was elected to and the ruling party taking money from a man who called from her to be shot while decrying peacemakers as ‘extremists’. This is the breeding-ground for a darker politics and god knows we’ve lived through dark enough.


See Pankaj Mishra: The Shoah after Gaza – Bella Caledonia


Comments (11)

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  1. Daniel Raphael says:

    Superb as usual. Please continue

  2. SleepingDog says:

    Specifically about “the colonial foundations of modern wealth” but also about its environmental and social impacts, we should be aware that British colonial practices are still killing and injuring people, including newborn children, today. This piece on the ‘sacrifice zone’ is about Kabwe (the world’s most toxic town, by some reckonings) in Zambia, and the efforts to hold the British-headquartered Anglo American mining corporation to account.
    A key witness was said to be a doctor who around 1970 reportedly tried to raise the issues of lead and zinc poisoning with the mine’s chief health officer, but couldn’t change the system from within.

    I read Naomi Klein’s article, and I notice she didn’t mention Poor Things, which if anything gives a wink at the Israeli bombardment of Gaza as if saying: don’t worry, nobody in future generations will be remembering these crimes. I am awaiting Bella’s considered response on this.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      Still no response? I thought maybe Bella would want to get out in front of this, having written often enough about the memory hole:
      So that’s what states do; what if artists obscure or silence embarrassing or awkward historical events in their creative works, is there a specific term for that? Arthole?

  3. Eoghan says:

    What I took away from Zone of Interest was the capacity for the majority to carry on with our lives while desperate suffering was taking place in close proximity. Our ability to cross the road and walk on by. It’s not new, and we haven’t lived through a golden age where it didn’t occur, it was just less in our (media) eyeline.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Eoghan, which makes this report on the ‘shedding’ of historians in the USA all the more alarming, though not because it undermines the effectiveness of USAmerican imperialism:
      “That the quality of the public’s understanding of its own history, and thus its ability to make wise political decisions, has declined as a result should hardly be a surprise.”

      It reminds me of James W Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Of course, teaching bad and biased history won’t make for ‘wise political decisions’, there or elsewhere.

    2. John says:

      Eoghan – I agree that the ability to walk on by has always been there. Media exposure is higher these days but it can work both ways in that it can heighten people’s awareness of issues but it can also manipulate how they are perceived. Politicians are also important in whether the public becomes engaged with or rationalise away atrocities.

  4. Satan says:

    The Shoah was 80 years ago. In the here and now, the Gazan government have probably put back the Palestinian cause by a decade or several.

    1. Derek Thomson says:

      The Gazan government? How, what have they done, other than be bombed?

  5. Mike Parr says:

    First rate article. I was struck by the comment made László Nemes. I guess you can keep your trap shut and leave people wondering or open it and show the world that you are indeed an imbecile. The only bunch that are threatening Jews are… jews and their actions in Gaza. As a jewish friend observed, its jews that suffer when Israel does evil things.

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