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Frantz Fanon Is the Manichaean Prophet of Today’s Middle East

The apostle of Third-Worldist violence as a cleansing flame is alive and well, and raging across the region

Todd Gitlin
December 08, 2014
(Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine (original photos: Wikimedia Commons/Getty/Shutterstock))
(Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine (original photos: Wikimedia Commons/Getty/Shutterstock))

Dirty Words

Frantz Fanon, the black Martinican-Frenchman and apostle of Third-Worldist violence as a cleansing flame, wrote in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), that when he was a disobedient child, when he made too much noise, his mother told him to “stop acting like a nigger.” He grew up to discover that such condemnations were commonplace. A university colleague, a Frenchman born in Algeria, then in the throes of anticolonial war, later told him: “As long as the Arab is treated like a man, no solution is possible.” It followed, in Fanon’s mind, that the Arab must, in return, treat the Frenchman as something less than human.

At Masada, on a scorching hot day during my first visit to Israel, in 1978, I heard a Jewish Israeli shout at his young son (in Hebrew, translated by my host): “You’re an Arab!” The boy had taken off his shoes to walk in the dirt. If you were dirty, you were an Arab.

The character called “Rambo” in The Death of Klinghoffer sings (in words by the librettist Alice Goodman) to the crippled Leon Klinghoffer: “You are always complaining of your suffering, but wherever poor men are gathered they can find Jews getting fat. … America is one big Jew.”

Children of Mani

An unknown Israeli, a fictional Palestinian, an actual West Indian (and by law, Frenchman) who died 53 years ago today: They were, or are, in the grip of a third-century Persian prophet named Mani. The stark division of the world between light and darkness was Mani’s hallmark. We may say, in fact, that his followers, Manichaeans, pioneered the two-state solution, though what they meant was not a division of the land. Rather, they practiced absolute dualism. There was light, which was good, and darkness, which was bad. The human soul consisted of traces of light trapped in darkness. What was good would always be good; what was evil, always evil.

Augustine of Hippo, who spent nine years as a Manichaean before converting to Christianity, was put off by the fact that the cult’s practicing charismatics swaggered around as if impeccable, while in his eyes they were sinning like mad. Augustine worked up a doctrinal critique that sent him into the embrace of Jesus Christ. Satan was awful, he agreed, but not because he had always been firmly opposed to the truth. Satan’s awfulness was a failure of will, not nature; it lay in his failure to stand fast in the truth. “There is no such entity in nature as ‘evil,’ ” Augustine went on; “evil is merely a name for the absence of good.”

The Manichaeans lost the argument, but vengeance is theirs. They faded out more than a millennium ago, but their knife-edge divide between light and darkness, their call to cleanse the world absolutely, is hard to stifle. In fact, it has wrecked the last two centuries, and it is not done with us. Colonial versus anticolonial; capitalist versus proletarian; Communist versus capitalist; “Aryan” versus Jew—these lethal polarities of purity against danger, essence against contaminants, retains its temptations. Today, across the world, the absolutes of Islamism are the chief purifications on offer, justifying any and all recourse for the saved against the depredations of the wicked.

Annihilation as Liberation

“The colonial world,” Fanon wrote, “is a Manichaean world.” Dying of leukemia at age 36, in words that seem to have been scorched into the page, he wrote a tirade, The Damned of the Earth—Wretched, as it is more often (but less accurately) translated into English—that has been devoured by generations of revolutionaries since. It is the most influential cartoon romance of the second half of the 20th century. The colonizer, by conquering, is able to impute absolute evil to the colonized: “The colonizer turns the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil.” Having thus set the table, the colonizer asks for it to be turned.

Fanon was not one for euphemism:

In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives. For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two antagonists. … There is no conciliation possible. … This compartmentalized world, this world divided in two, is inhabited by different species.

Different species. But even different species may, in principle, coexist: Consider dogs and humans. Not in Fanon’s no-exit universe, where “the Manichaeism of the colonist produces the Manichaeism of the colonized.” Then only violence is “a cleansing force.”

Fanon, a psychiatrist on the front lines in Algeria, knew that both sides tortured. He treated the victims. He was horrified. But he concluded that militants had to fight fear and that this purpose required violence that would liberate the militant from a paralysis caused by fear. Accordingly, Fanon was far more interested in destruction than construction. It was through violence, and only through violence, that the profane could ascend to the sacred. What Hegel called “absolute negation” was what the world needed. Fanon’s lust for destruction is what set his prose on fire.

“A hand raised against the colonizer strips this all-powerful personage of his sacred character” was the apt paraphrase applied to Fanon’s approach by his fellow anticolonial theorist, the far more judicious and subtle, less ruthless, and more attentive Tunisian Jew Albert Memmi. (Memmi’s masterwork, The Colonizer and the Colonized, preceding Fanon’s by four years, is still in print, along with his fine novel, The Pillar of Salt.) “Apocalypse and total reconstruction” were Fanon’s way out—so wrote Memmi in 1971. Fanon, he said, wanted to

deny to the utmost … all those accursed differences which stand in the way of communion between men and prevent one from being simply human among other humans. All individuals are then blended into the universal and the universal is declared to be the only reality, the only ethic.

This stance makes a fetish of purity. It is permissible for the Manichaean who does not govern, does not aspire to govern, but lives for his or her fantasies of liberation through the euphoria of the purge.

In his notorious preface to The Damned of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre went Fanon one better in luridness. “Irrepressible violence,” he wrote, perhaps trying to kill the Frenchman in himself, meant “man reconstructing himself.” And: “This new man knows that his life as a man begins with death.” Reading these words in horror, the left-wing journalist Jean Daniel declared that Sartre’s enthusiasm meant “the advent of the new torturer.”

It’s a nice twist, then, that Sartre was, at his best, more complicated than these words suggest. Fanon’s widow Josie in 1967 ordered Sartre’s preface removed from subsequent editions of The Damned of the Earth. “I felt that his pro-Zionist attitudes were incompatible with Fanon’s work,” she said, for Sartre sided with Israel during the Six Day War. The left-wing Zionist (and onetime Stern Gang soldier) Amos Kenan once told me Sartre reveled in being reviled in both Cairo and Tel Aviv. When Kenan died in 2009, the peace activist Ury Avnery, who had been introduced to Sartre by Kenan in the 1950s, wrote that Sartre told him then: “I cannot approve of the policy of the Israeli government, but I also don’t want to condemn it, because I do not want to find myself in the same camp with the anti-Semites I detest.” Perhaps, in his preface to Fanon, Sartre had seized the opportunity to masquerade as the self-hating Frenchman he could never quite manage to be.

Leon K., Everyjew, and His Killers

Among Fanon’s offspring are the Palestinian terrorists in The Death of Klinghoffer and their real-life prototypes. “Our faith will take the stones he broke and break his teeth,” say the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians. The terrorist Molqi says: “We are soldiers fighting a war, we are not criminals.” The general they follow is death.

By contrast, the first words sung by Leon K., the modest hero of John Adams’ and Alice Goodman’s opera, are: “I’ve never been a violent man. Ask anyone. I’m a person who’d just as soon avoid trouble, but somebody’s got to tell you the truth. … We’re human. We are the kind of people you like to kill.” The “you” here is not a race or a people or a nation, not ancestors who destroyed Palestinian villages a generation before, but you here and now, you Molqi and “Rambo,” Mamoud and Omar: young men who worship death.

Those who claim the opera is anti-Semitic because the murderers speak anti-Semitic lines have to overlook the theatrical fact that Leon K. is not only a victim, he is the opera’s indisputable hero, and his wife comes in a close second. At least in the Met’s recent staging, the first we hear of Leon K., a man in a wheelchair, is when he has the balls to tell off the hijackers: “You just want to see people die.” Mamoud has said: “We want to die.” Omar speaks of “Holy Death,” and says: “My soul is all violence.” When the captain tries to convince Mamoud to speak with his enemies, he replies: “The day that I and my enemy sit peacefully, each putting his case and working toward peace, that day our hope dies and I shall die too.”

In war, soldiers fight soldiers, not tourists on a cruise ship—and even (or especially) actual soldiers hope for peace. But Leon K. is not a uniformed soldier. He is a human, a family man, a man of ordinary pleasures and sufferings. He is also a Jew. The hijackers’ crime begins when they strip Leon K. of everything about him but the fact that he is a Jew and chase the delusion that they can liberate themselves and their people with bullets. They are the apostles of Mani.

Why take at face value the hijackers’ claim that the suffering of Palestinians justifies terrorism and murder? Why take their justification for murder—the murderers’ justification!—as a sober argument rather than a smoke-and-mirrors trick, a rhetorical feint, an abject confession of their unforgivable malice and cruelty?

Only a would-be leftist practicing the anti-imperialism of fools—America bad! Israel bad! oppressed peoples good!—could be so thick-headed as to overlook the sway of Fanon’s brand of brutal Manichaeism throughout the Middle East, and not only there. It is no hallucination of the Mossad or the United States of America. It did not begin in 1967, or with the most recent Israeli crimes on the West Bank or in Gaza. It is not a defensible response to oppression, or to settlement expansion, carpet bombing, or drones. It sharpens knives. Knives and shrapnel constitute its belief system. Over ISIS’ caliphate, in the spinoffs and remnants of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Nigeria’s Boko Haram, in offshoots of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism, in Gaza’s Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and in some governing sectors of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, the flag of Manichaeism flies high.

One of the most urgent problems in the world today is the failure of Muslim (and not only Muslim) populations to produce plausible reforms that offer as much promise for life as the Manichaeans do for death. Reformers are under intense pressure, but is it not ever thus for those who prefer the mess of life to the purity of death? What democrats and liberals can do to help is a crucial subject for debate. But for openers, this much can be said: A picture of the world today that overlooks the Manichaeans and their post-colonial prophet—that treats them as figments of a diseased imagination, their acts as automatic reflexes on the part of helpless innocents—is Othello without Iago, Hamlet without Claudius, The Death of Klinghoffer without “Rambo” and his comrades on the Achille Lauro.


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Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, is the author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.

Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.

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