These six simple words are widely acknowledged as one of the greatest short, short stories. Ernest Hemingway wrote it, and with it won his barroom bet to that end.
A Cape Town tabloid once came close with “Man dies kak death”, but I think you’ll agree that, despite its gain in brevity, it lacks the pathos inherent in the former.
The following submissions don’t have any literary ambition and are on the wordy side, but I have cut them out of the broadsheets and stuck them into my scrapbook all the same.
Both deal, appropriately enough, with speech and its surveillance.
The first states: “The government has also been frustrated that a number of rabbis in Britain were born in Israel, speak limited English and preach in Hebrew, making it difficult for [it] to know what is going on in some synagogues.”
Of course it didn’t say that!
But if you replace rabbis with imams, Israel with Pakistan, Hebrew with Urdu and synagogues with mosques, then it reads more mundanely as if — somehow — it’s less offensive.
Let’s leave aside the research by political scientist Robert Pape that contends that the majority of suicide terrorists haunting the West are primarily politically motivated and hence amenable to some sort of non-religious analysis — what he calls “strategic logic” — about imperialism and occupation.
Let’s also ignore the irony (hence my thought experiment à la the philosopher Slavoj Zizek) in that Israel, which claims to be representative of a democratic modernity, is legitimated by way of an ethnic-religious identity, while the generic Palestinian “fundamentalists” express their objectives in terms of secular citizenship.
For what is most remarkable in that extract — alongside the absence of any Urdu-speaking informants — is the British government’s assertion, mentioned matter-of-factly, that it is entitled to eavesdrop on the freedom of religious association.
My second newspaper cutting states: “Police demand protesters remove T-shirts with the slogan ‘One World One Dream’ and scarves reading ‘Everyone’s Invited’.”
Again: of course that wasn’t the case on the day the Olympic torch was escorted through London!
What the Metropolitan police officers objected to — in the company of the blue-suited Chinese security services — were members of the public wearing apparel that said: “China stop the killing” and “Free Tibet”.
What is most conspicuous by its absence, however — even among the commentariat — is that the authorities weren’t at all concerned that the Beijing Olympics and Samsung were simultaneously free to advertise and brand London’s public space. The police didn’t march up to any committee or company representative, nor did they confiscate any logo or signage.
If there is a point to these randomly associated observations, it is this:
You will recall that the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld distinguished between “known-knowns” (the things that we know we know), “known-unknowns” (the things we know we do not know) and “unknown-unknowns” (the things we don’t know we don’t know).
What Rumsfield omitted — with good reason — was the most dangerous form of them all: the unknown-knowns, or the things we don’t actually know but think that we do.
Zizek tells the following anecdote and it bears repeating:
“There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves …”
In other words what appears to be happening — fundamentalism in a mosque or China’s oppression of Tibet — isn’t in fact what is really going down, namely endemic surveillance and the West’s own complicity in direct proportion to the benefits of China’s de facto workhouses.
Hemingway’s genius resides in making us conscious of the unknown-known operative in his story so that we are required to ask: “What happened?”
Politics, however, which is often represented in the mainstream media as if it were a short, short story with one-dimensional characters, a single incident and an obvious plot, typically lacks this reflexivity and thus conceals the ideological equivalent of the stolen wheelbarrows.
Unless we ask the questions, appearances will always seem shallower than they are; and what are touted as solutions will lack any depth of understanding.