From the point of view of political philosophy, both liberals and conservatives should see boycotts as a clear-cut issue. While in practice millions have had to fight for their economic rights, in theory individual citizens should be able to spend, or withhold, their money where they see fit. The politics of boycotts are far more heated on the supply side, however, perhaps signaling that individuals feel increasingly dependent on the wealthy to resolve conflicts.
We may want corporations, for example, to practice good citizenship and withhold business and endorsements from bad actors, while, at the same time, holding serious doubts about legally calling corporations citizens. When it comes to high-profile artists like J.K. Rowling, the Chemical Brothers, or Radiohead, things can get even more heated as the proprietary feelings of fandom collide with political tactics. Add to this the notorious BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement and you have instant inflammatory controversy.
In their own words, BDS “works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.” One of the means at its disposal is cultural boycott, pressuring artists not to perform in Israel. Hundreds have complied, protesting illegal settlements, human rights abuses, state repression, and treatment of artists like Dareen Tatour, a poet who was jailed for several days and given three years house arrest for social media posts.
The three big artists named above all refused to boycott Israel, even when petitions appeared with thousands of signatures. In response to criticism and a Change. Org petition, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke issued an angry response that hardly calmed things down. “The kind of dialogue that they want to engage in is one that’s black or white,” he said in 2017. “I have a problem with that. It’s deeply distressing that they choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw shit at us in public.”
Whatever your thoughts on the band’s stance, Yorke points to something that is necessary to keep in mind: politics are always personal. They are personal when we expect artists to stay out of political debates, as though they can’t be full human beings in public. They are personal when the expectations levied on artists don’t accord with their sense of the issue, even if they might agree in principle with those pressuring them.
The entanglement of the personal and political bothered Palestinian filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel, who signed the petition to Radiohead then regretted it. For him, however, the issue was not Thom Yorke’s feelings, but his own, as a Palestinian raised in refugee camps in Lebanon, for whom the issues addressed by BDS are not abstractions affecting other people. Fleifel, who now lives in Denmark, called his friend Faris to talk over his misgivings. Then he turned their conversation into the short, abstract documentary above, I Signed the Petition.
The film provides, as Aeon writes, a brief but “complex account of how individuals make their own politics,” and the role power plays in that making. Fleifel confesses that he’s afraid his name will appear on a “blacklist” after he signed the petition for Radiohead to boycott Tel Aviv. He expresses the perfectly legitimate fear that “they’re not gonna let me in next time I go to Palestine.” Faris validates his “concerns and fears,” then paints a decidedly bleak picture of what Fleifel would find on his return to occupied Palestine, and an image of Palestinians as powerless, resentment-fueled “losers” in the global system.
The filmmaker responds with a metaphor: “So why are all these dogs barking in the desert?”—referring to the Palestinian artists who circulated and signed the petition. If a boycott doesn’t make sense in this situation, what does? As Naomi Shihab Nye writes of her experience as a diasporic Palestinian artist, “this tragedy with a terrible root / is too big for us. What flag can we wave?”
Fleifel keeps calling our attention to the ways that politics and art and our individual lives are all bound up together. Yorke may have wanted a personal approach, and who can blame him? Who can blame the Palestinian artists under threat of imprisonment or permanent exile for fearing to risk more than a signature, if even that, in exercising the only political power they may have? Fleisel and Faris’s perspectives give needed depth and weight to events, without providing any easy resolution.
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