NOT JUST WHAT Philip Larkin wrote: Sexual intercourse began In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)- Between the end of the Chatterley ban And the Beatles’ first LP.
There was more to the counter-cultural Sixties, and the sexual liberation Larkin celebrates was only another theme of the times, when nothing was meant to be what it was, for everything was a made-to-order conceit. To resist was to be alive in a world of unjust wars, as in Vietnam; to breach the barricades was to make struggle the only romance that mattered. Resistance was all that it took to belong.
It took a while for the poetics of resistance to return to the streets and the pages. The death of George Floyd, an African American, under the knees of a white policeman triggered the awakening—or awokening?—that shook America, and scalded the conscience beyond. It changed the conversation, put history on trial, and turned identity into the only argument that makes a difference. The erupted streets—Black Lives Matter—were matched by an enforced theology of guilt and retribution. An unofficial politburo of pieties came to claim copyright over thought. “Woke” and “cancel culture” would become the catchphrases of another age of resistance.
Has the Twenties’ street-narrative power of resistance peaked with Israel’s rejoinder to Hamas’ savagery of October 7? As Israel continues with its retaliation, and as more and more images of the dead and the orphaned fill the media coverage of the war, Palestine has become an invocation of injustice in the streets of the West, which resonate with the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
The slogan itself is a piece of mutual exclusion: An ideal homeland of Palestinians stretching from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea means Israel is not a territorial entity but a lie sustained by the Iron Dome. For Eretz Israel, too, home has the same rhyming boundaries, which makes the Palestinian claim the usurpation of the Biblical promise. What the late Israeli novelist Amos Oz called a real-estate dispute that history has failed to resolve is, as it turns out, an imagery divided by anger and patriotism as well.
When the slogan multiplies on the streets, as in London on Armistice Day, it takes its toll. Nothing new, for the history of protest is also a long story of colliding perceptions. Some saw in the choice of the day, which for Britain is still steeped in the memory of war and loss, a subversion of symbolism. And for some, the river-to-the-sea slogan was not a spontaneous flow of solidarity but a simulated show of hate verging on anti-Semitism. Among them was the now-cancelled home secretary, a national conservative on the far side of the argument who said all the right things in the wrong language.
Resistance, as theory and theatre, makes demonology a useful variation of ideology. In another time the demon that required a public exorcism was capitalism. Its extraterritorial transgressions, its conformism, its corruption of the cultural space, its pretence to having won the argument against socialism—they all came together to mobilise the mind in a freedom struggle of ideas. There were so many barricades to be breached, and in the Fahrenheit of resistance, it was pure thrill to raise the fist from the left side of the rhetoric.
In the Twenties, post-Floyd, Palestine, as ‘stolen homeland’ and suffering sponsored by big powers, has returned to update the mythology of resistance. It has already spawned a parallel alliance of moral certainties, and its power is not to be underestimated. The cancelled British politician should have known that even her fellow Conservative prime minister can’t defy the code of conduct set by the moral alliance. Conform or be damned (in the court of moral judgments)—and this absolutism of the post-Floyd resistance makes it so distant from the Sixties, culturally. Then political protest had a literary attitude; it was all about breaking free, not about building a one-dimensional belief system.
Today the trauma of Palestine has been appropriated by those who have built, in the mental space between the river and the sea, brand new moral barriers. Cross them at the risk of putting your humanity on a show trial. The enforced exclusivity of the Twenties’ resistance movement denies the enemy, mostly defined by race, the right to exist—or even explain. On the long road from the counter-cultural to cultural conformity, resistance has ceased to be the romance of the idealist. It is the preserve of the doctrinaire.