Truth or Death
Golems, terror, and imperial realism.
On October 5, I posted a short story – originally appearing in the latest issue of Locust Review – about a young Jewish man during the first hours of the Nazi invasion of Prague. Desperate, and likely guided by some cosmic force, he runs to the attic of the Altneuschul. Here he finds the dried, dusty clay remains of the Golem of Prague, constructed and brought to life 300 years earlier by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezazel (a.k.a. the Maharal).
The legend of the Golem is one of the most enduring in Ashkenazi Jewish literature. The original story is that Rabbi Loew shaped and breathed life into it to protect Prague’s Jewish quarter from antisemitic attacks, which it did, before going into a mindless rampage attacking everyone in sight, Jew and gentile alike. The Maharal, seeing what he had done, managed to pacify the clay beast, and reaching up to its forehead, smudged the aleph in the Hebrew word inscribed there. Emét became mét, reverting the Golem into an inert lump of dirt and clay.
The story I wrote pivoted from another, more recent legend of the Golem, an unofficial sequel to the original. In that story, two Nazi soldiers ventured into the Altneuschul’s attic, wondering if the legends were true. They were never seen again.
Obviously, anyone can pick out analogs for the Golem throughout literature and pop culture. Mary Shelley was influenced by the myth when she wrote Frankenstein. The Golem is a mod in Minecraft. Recently, the tale has experienced a revival among younger diasporic Jews, both as a symbol of self-defense and as a cautionary tale. Adam Mansbach has recently published a comedic novel about a Brooklyn art teacher who accidentally animates a clay behemoth of his own while stoned.
Predictably, there are more recent parallels between the Golem and artificial intelligence. It is an apt comparison, effectively capturing the anxieties of AI: something with helpful intent behind it, spinning beyond our control, with perhaps disastrous results. Is the Golem Skynet, or the reprogrammed T-800 model sent back in time to save John Connor?
Two days after I posted the story, Hamas broke through the barrier around Gaza. We know what happened next. And what came after. I try to post something new here every Thursday, but last week, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Things were happening too fast, the fears too overwhelming. Writing about unfolding events seemed futile, but so did writing about anything else.
As Netanyahu’s far-right government bombs and invades Gaza – an enclave where over half the population is under 18, where all exits have been sealed off, currently deprived of food, water, and electricity – the comparisons with 9/11 resonate with me. The ferocious beating of war drums, baying for revenge, the doublespeak that mourns civilian lives on one end while dismissing them on the other, the full-throated refusal of sanity. It is, in the midst of all this, impossible to ignore that something is emerging which will ultimately be impossible to control.
The day after Hamas burst into Israel, Hamilton Nolan wrote at How Things Work that we should retire the word “terrorism.” He received some predictable flak from people who like to think themselves his journalistic peers, which in some ways proves Nolan’s case. We’ve spent the better part of the last quarter century being bombarded with simplistic terms like “War on Terror,” a term that strips away nuance and historicization, often even ignoring basic causality. I honestly don’t think I can do better than Nolan’s own scathing description:
No matter what you think of America’s history in the Middle East or of Osama Bin Laden or of the Iraq War, the term “The War on Terror” fails as a basic unit of journalism because, rather than attempting to accurately describe something, it instead dips an entire geopolitical epoch into a vat of acid and waves around its ruined corpse in front of readers, as an introduction. It is the journalistic equivalent of attaching your friend’s birthday present to a Molotov cocktail and hurling it through their window to deliver it to them. When you ask them what they thought of it, you should not be surprised to find that their impression was tainted from the very moment they received it.
The anti-war left – isolated as it was during the years following 9/11, at least until the US turned its attention to Iraq – rightly turned the rhetoric of the “War on Terror” on its head. We argued that it was, if anything, a War Of Terror, that the only real difference between a soldier and a terrorist is a matter of perspective. We would cite the scene in The Battle of Algiers where a captured leader of the Algerian resistance says he’ll exchange bombers for handbaskets.
The impetus was basically correct, but looking back, I wonder if all we did was reinforce the meaningless ubiquity of “terrorism.” Thirteen years before the attacks on the Twin Towers, in his short 1988 book Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord was already suspect of the word’s loaded vagary.
“Such a perfect democracy constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism,” wrote Debord. “Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state, and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.”
Some context is warranted here. Debord’s original The Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967, was a passionate and often dense critique of how the commodity form had warped everyone’s view of daily life, society, and history. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, published twenty years later, it just what it sounds like, updating the critique to a moment of full spectrum Cold Wars, rising neoliberal austerity, and 24-hour news cycles. The whole concept of terrorism, then, as conceived by the state, is deployed as a component of the spectacle, the practice – essential to commodification – of alienating us from history, turning it into something done to us rather than made by us. It is a term that obfuscates with fear more than describing what is happening and why it is happening.
Considering that Debord was writing just before the Berlin Wall started to crumble, it is impressive how prescient he is in Comments. As the Soviet bloc collapsed and the Cold War ended, as the big bad boogeyman of communism was no longer viable, the West needed a new enemy, someone or something that could excuse the failures of liberal capitalism, with its growing inequalities and declining democratic participation (Debord was obviously being sarcastic when he wrote of “such a perfect democracy”). It only took a decade for governments to realize that “terrorism” fit the bill.
But of course, “terrorism” is a far more amorphous concept than communism. It doesn’t emerge from a particular type of state. It isn’t a coherent movement or even an ideology. Just about the only consistent, defining feature is there in the name: terror. It is the use of not just fear, but of all-encompassing despairing fear, the fear that your entire world is ending, that the void is wafting through the air. Ubiquitous, but amorphous and pliable. Spectacular, in both our more conventional definition and that of Debord.
In the days since Hamas’ attack, celebrities on social media – avatars of the spectacle par excellence – have posted pictures of wounded children, ostensibly Israeli. “This is terrorism” they say, only to be informed that the pictures they are sharing are in fact of Palestinian children wounded in Israel’s ongoing bombardment. The posts and pictures are quickly deleted without comment. Presumably, Palestinians can never be victims of terrorism. Only its perpetrators. But if democracy’s enemy can be so vaguely defined, if its definition can be bent so easily and applied so selectively, how democratic a society are we really talking about?
Metaphors are imperfect things. We all recognize when one has been stretched too far, when we find ourselves accidentally substituting rhetoric for reality. When I first wrote and posted “An Attic In Prague,” it was intended as a rumination on just these imperfections as they applied to violence, an examination of the dyad that makes it both necessary and dangerously messy. The Golem of Prague story has always served this pedagogical role.
At the same time, I find myself stunned by the timing. For there is another valence to the Golem myth, particularly as it pertains to violence. It’s not so much in the violence per se, but the thoughtlessness with which the Golem commits it. Incapable of rational or independent thought – unable to reason, remember, or contextualize – the clay beast essentially adopts violence as its own logic. What starts as a means to an end becomes an end in itself, quite apart from human intent.
Key here are the values imprinted on the Golem; not the values of the Maharal, not even the values of Judaism. Rather, the values of the society in which the Golem exists are imprinted upon it. It is one of the reasons that the metaphor works for AI, illustrating that technology is neither good nor bad, but neither is it neutral. It speaks volumes that the words literally imprinted on the golem’s forehead are Hebrew for “truth” and “death,” implying a world in which there is no more than a veil between the two. No wonder it can so easily spin beyond its creator’s control.
In this reading, there is something of an affinity between the Golem and Debord’s spectacle. Still, the fact is that we have always reached for something — metaphors, ideas, systems of symbolization — to describe our propensity to create destructive forces that move beyond control.
E.P. Thompson, in applying the term “exterminism” to the Cold War push toward nuclear annihilation, clarified that it had less to do with the actions of this or that world leader (though these certainly play a crucial role), and more with the all-encompassing logic of mutually assured destruction that prevailed. In preparing to prevent nuclear destruction by building up our own arsenals, we made it more likely.
Others have already written about the way Thompson’s rubric can be applied to climate change, as well as the crazed, unsublimated desires to “sacrifice the weak” at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
All of the above were, in their own ways, expansions on the Thatcher-Reaganite dictums of “there is no alternative.” Just as a world of exploitation and inequality was the only option for running a society, so is the destruction wrought by nuclear catastrophe, climate disaster, or global pandemic.
Meanwhile, there is Mark Fisher’s formulation of “capitalist realism,” gaining currency since his death in 2017. This was his attempt to map how “TINA” had gone full-spectrum, seeping into the fibers of daily life to the point where any other way of living becomes unimaginable. It too has been adapted to describe the prevailing approaches to climate change and global pandemic.
For our purposes, we might apply it here to the insistence of military intervention even in the face of its obviously disastrous consequences: imperial realism. Empire literally soldiers on despite all evidence that it has made the world a more dangerous place.
It strikes me that all of these heuristics are actually just describing the same thing. Or maybe just the same dynamic. Spectacle. Exterminism. Capitalist/imperialist realism. The Golem in its more harrowing iterations. All are a kind of Rashomon, describing different aspects of a world that pretends at democracy and human rights, filled with leaders declaring the gospel of protection, unable to see the horizon they themselves have walled off. This is less a world of people’s idealism than a world of people dictated by ideology, the possibility of an alternative laughed away.
Up until a few days ago, it was unspoken consensus that the “War on Terror” was a dismal failure, producing civil wars and fragile puppet governments, and strengthening some of the worst authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Some (Iran) are infamously opposed to the United States, while others (Saudi Arabia) are its staunch allies.
Or look at Haiti. In return for hosting the first successful slave revolution in modern history, the small Caribbean nation has spent the past 200 years punished by the US and Europe. Deliberate destabilization in the form of US-backed coups and interventions has spun out to such a degree that it is currently impossible to deliver aid to Haitian hospitals without permission from local warlords.
Nor does the barbarism stop at the borders of the North Atlantic states. The “with us or against us” mentality has had a particularly toxic ferment in the former Soviet bloc. Mass disillusionment has put initiative in the hands of some of the most hideous political formations. Take Hungary. Under Viktor Orban, the country has embraced open right-wing nationalism. Orban himself has peddled the Soros myth, and destroyed the library archive of the late Jewish Marxist theorist and literary critic Georg Lukacs on the grounds of explicit anti-Jewish conspiracy, all while maintaining close relations with Israel.
As for Israel itself, it makes its own moves within the imperial realist chess match. A thorough piece at Jonathan M. Katz’s site The Racket illustrates this through the concept of “the iron wall,” which has been central to Israel’s security strategy from the state’s inception. Hamas’ own origins in the late 80s include tacit and active support from Israel as a way of weakening secular forces like the Palestinian Liberation Organization. And we cannot forget Netanyahu’s ongoing attempts to consolidate judicial and legislative power within Israel, which are of course perversely framed by him and his supporters as a matter of national security. Now, he vows to “flatten Gaza,” and looks hellbent on keeping his promise. Stunted democracy is further curtailed to save it, terror promises to keep terrified people safe. There is no attempt to reconcile with a full past because we cannot reckon with what won’t be remembered.
The Golem lumbers on. Nobody is guiding it, though some pretend to. Once again, the borders between truth and death are blurred. One will have to win out in the end, and I’m not convinced it will be the one we want.