10 min read

The Horror of Gaza, the Nature of Power, and Existential Humiliation

The Horror of Gaza, the Nature of Power, and Existential Humiliation

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

New here? Get the Issue in your inbox daily.

  1. In Wisconsin, a vote for Biden or Trump could come down to grocery prices (WaPo)
  2. Same Old Song: Private Equity Is Destroying Our Music Ecosystem (NYT)
  3. ‘Catastrophic levels of hunger’ in Gaza mean famine is imminent (Guardian)
  4. The Big Reason Americans Think Biden’s Economy Stinks (Forbes)
  5. The Drama Kings of Tech (The Atlantic)
  6. I Listened to Trump’s Rambling, Unhinged, Vituperative Georgia Rally—and So Should You (New Yorker)
  7. A ChatGPT for Music Is Here. (Rolling Stone)
  8. Navigating Societal Regression (Psychology Today)
  9. Economics is in 'disarray', having placed efficiency before ethics and human well-being, says Nobel laureate (ABC)

A million people starving. 30,000 dead and counting. The horror in Gaza. 

I’ve been reticent to talk about it. Sorry about that. Not out of reluctance, but out of…sadness? Futility? What can I say that a thousand voices before me haven’t said better about the “wretched of the earth”. The wheel of folly turns. When, it asks, will we learn?

Is there something to learn, here, in this cruel, vicious mess? I think so. Here’s what I, at least, have learned. It’s a bitter lesson, and I suppose that’s why I’ve been reluctant to discuss it.

(I want to make it clear, though, that I’m not on a “side.” What happened to Israel was horrific, and yet what’s happening in response is, too.)

Three Levels of Horror

The horror in Gaza, to me, isn’t just about what you might call the first level of horror. Gore, physical horror, violence. That is: the barbarity. The slaughter. The killing of innocents. Watching mothers and father grieve for their children. Seeing bodies ripped apart. Hands begging for gruel.

Nor is it just about the moral concerns that any sensible person feels when witnessing cruelty, violence, and suffering. The deprivation of dignity. The loss of possibility. The lack of decency. The shame and humiliation of the victim. The repulsion of seeing hatred and spite, and where they lead.

It’s not about what you might call the rational side of horror, either. Which is disproportionality, if you like. How much is enough, the sensible mind asks. For a thousand dead on one side, is a thousand on the other enough? Shall the ratio be thirty to one? Or is it a thousand to one, when a million people are on the brink of famine? What’s the “correct” response, even if one believes in some kind of numinous principles of proportional violence, tit for tat, eye for eye? 

Those are levels of horror, true, that I think many of us feel intensely watching the horror in Gaza unfold. But for me, there’s a level of horror beyond all that. It’s something colder, more abstract, perhaps, working on a longer timescale, and in that way, to me, something more awful, disturbing, and revelatory.

The Nature of Power

What do you see when you look at Gaza? I don’t just see violence, cruelty, indignity, and something approaching genocide—what else do you call a million people starving?—I see power.

I see a brutal lesson, a genuinely horrific one, about the nature of power. Here. Still here. Now. Even in the 21st century.

There’s Gaza, and then there’s the world. And what we’ve learned over the last few months is that even if much of the world is vehemently opposed to what’s taking place in Gaza…well, it doesn’t matter. The voices, people, potential, feelings, sentiments, attitudes, the everything of a world—it doesn’t matter.

There are a handful of nations that still hold power, in this world of ours. And if they license it, allow it, enable it, encourage it—then anything is possible. Even the very things that they themselves claim to be against. Violence, cruelty, genocide, retaliation, and so on.

So because Joe Biden and America and a handful of Western nations enable all this, support it, allow it, basically…here we all are. And the very international order that they of course proudly claim to be originators and defenders of—international law, universal rights, and so forth—all that goes out the nearest window, shatters on the concrete, and we’re all supposed to pretend, I guess, that we don’t note the hypocrisy.

Are we approaching something in Gaza very much like crimes against humanity? That’s for the International Criminal Court to adjudicate. But what we already know is that international law doesn’t matter—it was South Africa, I believe, that brought a case before the lower court, the International Court of Justice, which enjoined further abuses, and yet here we are. The abuses have hardly stopped, have they? They’ve grown worse and worse.

To the point that even a figure like poor Joe Biden looks like a fool now, and I say “even” because he’s the most powerful man in the world, by a very long way. But even he’s not as powerful as…this.

What do I mean by “this”? What is it that we’re really confronting here? I shouldn’t have to say it, and I barely want to, because, well, isn’t it painfully visible? We all know, I imagine, that if the people of Gaza who are starving and losing their lives and so on were on a different place in the ladder of personhood—if they had a different color of skin, or religion, or what have you, none of this would be happening. 

The Ladder of Personhood and the World

That doesn’t just mean that this is about “race,” the great fiction that’s still ripping the world apart, but that it’s about what I said, a ladder of personhood, and on it, some people are more human than other, while others are barely human at all.

The criticism, I feel, is true. The people of Gaza aren’t human beings at all, to power, to figures like Joe Biden, and various heads of state who I don’t think I have to name. They’re something less. Less than human, less than persons, not deserving of even the basic protections, say, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Can you believe it took human beings five millennia of a thing called civilization to declare that all people were equal, and deserved dignity, protection, and justice? Some days, it seems laughable. Then you look at Gaza, and suddenly—you can believe it. 

Because it appears we haven’t learned a thing, yet, at this point in human history. Surely I don’t have to point out why Israel was created, or the painful, tragic irony of watching it push a million innocent people to the brink of starvation. The wheel of folly spins, and our challenge, my friends, is to stop it, at moments like this.

It’s funny, in a kind of bleak, unimaginable way. There’s Joe Biden, and his peers, now desperately trying to hold back a head of state who appears to be willing to stop at no level of innocent deaths. And they’re expressing shock and horror—we didn’t know Netanyahu would go this far! You get the sense, sometimes, that they think they’re the real victims here, and that’s the sort of awful joke inside all this. 

But when you look at how the horror in Gaza’s being enabled, with money, guns, bombs, missiles, and every other kind of resources under the sun—all these calls of, hey stop the violence ring as false as a three dollar bill.

And then you realize: this is the world we live in. This is personhood, this is what it is, and this is how unequal it is. We speak a lot about inequality, and I do so with you and for you in the anodyne terms of inequality and wealth and whatnot. But what Gaza teaches us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that there is still inequality of personhood in this world.

And by doing so, it teaches us what power really is. 

What is power? Back when I was a sort of management guru, there was a lady who made up a thing called “power poses,” and it turned out that she faked some of the data, allegedly, there was a right old scandal. This is what we’re taught power is, these days: this sort of velvety, soft thing. Charisma, but in a nice way. It’s the Teletubby version of power, cute, harmless, and playful.

And we’re told, beneath that, the subtext, if you like, of this message, that the old form of power—all that’s ancient history. This new form of power is what modernity’s built on: soft power, pinky, glowy, about empathy and connecting with people. The old form of power? Hard power? That’s so ancient history.

But what Gaza teaches us that this myth is absolutely false. Power isn’t soft at all, and the softness of power is just a mask, that disguises those who still have hard power, and how willing they are to still use it, for their friends, when it comes down to it. 

Power? It’s still what it always was. The samurai beheads the villager. The feudal lord violates the bride. The warlord plunders. Power. What is it? Pinky, soft, glowy, me connecting with you, and us smiling together? It turns out that’s horrifically false. Power is…what it always was. It’s my ability to kill you. To starve you. To bomb you to bits. To drive you from your home, and watch your kids weep in terror. 

Sometimes, we say power is the ability “control” or “coerce” someone. Even that falls well short of this truer definition, which Gaza, sadly, reveals. Coercion, too, can be a sort of soft power—intimidation, threats, and so on, and sometimes, this is played out a global scale. 

But what we see, in the end, is that all that counts is raw power. Hard power. Total power, absolute power, power in the historical sense. If you’re a friend of those who have it, they will let you have some of it, and you will be able to do whatever you like, to whomever you like, because they have all the money, guns, and bombs. 

An entire world can look on, horrified, shouting, screaming, repelled, disgusted. And nothing will change.

Power and Personhood

Now join up these two concepts. The ladder of personhood and power as the ability to kill, to end a life. What do you see now? What you should see is the truth of the world, sadly, as it still is.

Why is it that if you were unlucky to be born a Gazan, then you will probably be suffering this very day, after having little possibility to begin with? Why is it that where you’re born is still destiny? How can that be, even in this day and age? Because try as we do to gild the lily, to hide the elephant in the room, the truth is that 10-15% of the world’s population controls 80-90% of its resources, and that’s a hangover of centuries of empire, enslavement, and colonization.

We like to imagine that we’ve made progress. And in some smaller ways, I suppose, we have. But in bigger ways? The world is still the unequal place it was, where birth is destiny, and possibilities are limited by “race”, nationality, gender—chance, basically. And in this lottery of existence, some have power, and some don’t—but that power isn’t some sort of soft, touchy-feely, let’s hold hands kind of thing: it’s true power, the ability to hurt, kill, starve, destroy.

This is the reality of our world. I don’t know if I’ve done it justice in this little essay. I don’t know if I’ve conveyed what I wanted to. But I suppose now you know why I didn’t want to write about Gaza.

This bitter lesson. This set of bitter lessons. This is what our world is. Some people aren’t humans at all, to those with power—just like they never have been, and in that regard, nothing whatsoever has changed. Those with power still have absolute quantities of it, meaning the ability to destroy everything they choose to, and will use it, in utterly horrific ways, to aid their friends, even if it means uprooting the very foundations of the things they claim to cherish, from peace to justice to civilization. And they can do all that with impunity, because of course, that’s what power is, too.

And those of us without power, the wretched? We count ourselves damned, and lucky. Lucky, for whatever little we have, or maybe even being not as low on the ladder of personhood as that other group, person, being, and with that comes relief mixed with shame, which makes us feel damned for being born into this mess in the first place. If we’re strong, eventually, we mature into grace, truth, goodness. But along that path?

Existential Humiliation and Civilization

How does all that make me feel? I feel humiliated, my friends. And so do you. I feel humiliated as a person, as a human being, as a member of the project of the thing we call civilization. I feel a deep, profound sense of shame. Inadequacy, because all I have is a voice, and even a hundred million of those aren’t nearly enough to stop a single bullet, when power decides: these people don’t deserve to live, because they’re not people at all.

But there’s a level even beyond that, at least to me, that I feel.

This is a humiliation for civilization itself. To watch this kind of horror go on? As the world reels? And figures like Biden sort of dumbly look on and pretend this isn’t what was going to happen, if they enabled it all, from the very beginning? 

A mistake is one thing. Repeating it, another. But humiliation is what all this is for civilization, to the point that of course, it makes a mockery of the very word itself. Are we really one, when the rule of law doesn’t apply, when barbarism is perfectly permissible, because power licenses it, when the very values and ideals of peace and justice and democracy are only really meant for some, and not others, and all they deserve is…nothing…death…brutality…hate…violence?

This episode, this moment, this tragedy—it’s a humiliation for all of us. We won’t think of it that way, perhaps, for some time to come. But history surely will. And in that, there’s a final bitter lesson, too. 

Power is also a form of stupidity. The ability never to have to learn a damned thing, so the wheel of folly just goes on spinning. Power is the ability to play out history’s tragedies, over and over again, and never mind the price, the cost, the suffering and despair—if only we win this time, then it was all worth it. But nobody wins on the wheel of folly, except the house, and that’s because the game is rigged by the devil.

We are still nothing, my friends, just as we always were. That is the meaning of existential humiliation. 

And yet curiously in being nothing, together, something emerges. That something is all we have ever had. And it is what has always guided us, too. Nobody should suffer like this. Nobody should be nothing. Each and every life deserves dignity, possibility, fruition. That impulse, that thought, that epiphany? It’s the basis of this very thing called civilization, and in that most foundational of senses, in the end, civilization comes from the despised, not the mighty, and that is the mistake power always makes. 

❤️ Don't forget...

📣 Share The Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

💵 If you like our newsletter, drop some love in our tip jar.

📫 Forward this to a friend and tell them all all about it.

👂 Anything else? Send us feedback or say hello!