THE RUMPUS INTERVIEW WITH BEN EHRENREICH

By Melissa Chadburn

From: The Rumpus

I should tell you that although I haven’t known him too long, I became instantly fond of Ben. I live in a small area of Los Angeles along the LA River between Echo Park and Glendale. The river covered in ducks and shopping carts and other long necked birds whose name I don’t know. There is a banner strung between two trees on the island in the center of the LA River that reads ‘River Thug.’ Thursdays is laundry day for the people who live on the island. The River Thug and other squatters ride bikes and the women are mostly toothless and shy. One morning when walking along the river I came across two young homeless women with two adorable dogs. I asked them if they needed dog food and they stayed looking forward as if they hadn’t heard me. The next day on my walk I noticed a sign:

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One of the guys who lived in the river had ridden by my house and made kissy faces at me, at the time I was on the phone with an editor, and so I flicked him off and the guy responded by riding around in slow circles and telling me exactly what he would do with my finger that was flicking him off, where he would put it and how long it would take.

I had the matter of the dog food—when thinking of who I knew who would possibly be willing to go down to the homeless encampment in the river to deliver the dog food—it was no contest—Ben!

An older Bolshevik woman sat beside me at an interview of Ben at the Mark Taper forum. She sat with her back hunched, her hair in a bun. Someone from the audience asked, “How can you decipher between who is an activist and who is just doing their thing?” She jumped up excitedly and exclaimed, “Because they are risking their lives!” After the talk she pulled me close and made me promise: “You tell him—he gave me hope.”

This guy does this to people.

****

The Rumpus: Okay so let’s start off with truth. You begin with this statement:

“No spectators at chasm’s door,” wrote the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “and no one is neutral here. Not anywhere, but especially not in Palestine. I do not aspire in these pages to objectivity. I don’t believe it to be a virtue, or even a possibility. We are all of us subjects, stuck fast to bodies, places, histories, points of view.”

“The truth of this soon becomes clear to any journalist or any morally sensitive individual—who chooses to work and live in the West Bank.”

I’m sorry that this is a thing that so many readers will focus on… but it’s definitely a statement.An opinion! This writer has an opinion! people may exclaim—which for journalism may be a cardinal sin but what you are saying here is that you cannot exist in this area without being implicated in some way.

I’m guessing the argument for objectivity would be that one can be blinded from the truth, or somehow manipulating the reader in some way, but perhaps to not own an opinion is dishonest as well. Isn’t all retelling somehow a distortion of fact? As you quote later in the book: “Memory,” wrote the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, “is a process of organizing what to forget.”

Ben Ehrenreich: Yeah, objectivity always seemed to me more an obstacle to truth than anything else, this fantasy that journalists are these magical, bloodless beasts who are uniquely able to float above events and purify themselves of the very existential situatedness that, if they would only acknowledge it, might make their voices worth listening to. I think it mainly works as a diversionary tactic that the mainstream press uses to disguise its otherwise clear biases. A couple of weeks ago the New York Times caught some heat for putting the word “occupation” in quotes. I suppose they had their reasons: some people (most people on the planet) call it an occupation while others (Israelis of a certain political stripe and their bullying apologists abroad) do not. That is objectively true. But it is nonetheless an occupation.

The problems with objectivity are more obvious in Palestine than anywhere I’ve worked. Just by naming it you’ve already taken sides. If you decide to live in the West Bank or in Gaza, you’ll be accused of partisanship, but if you live in Tel Aviv or in West Jerusalem, as most American and European correspondents do, no one will think to complain. You can somehow be objective from Tel Aviv but not from Ramallah or Nablus. Which is to say that hiding behind objectivity is invariably a cover for taking the side of power. Challenging the powerful—really challenging them, not just objecting to this or that aspect of their dominion—means stepping outside that narrative entirely. This is the greater problem: that a narrative centered on Palestinian realities not only by definition fails to be objective, it’s not even legible within the mainstream discourse. Because that discourse is hinged on their exclusion. The silencing and other-ing of Palestinians—or of Blacks and Latinos and poor people of any race in this country—is not an accidental effect. It’s the whole point. It’s what that discourse does, what its terms and rhetorical figures are designed to accomplish, whether its individual authors are conscious of it or not.

But discarding objectivity doesn’t let me off the hook. You still have to do all the hard work of asking questions and doubting everything you see and hear and backing it all up with hard reporting. In that same section that you quote I go on to say that instead of objectivity I’m interested in truth. Which of course presents its own set of gnarly philosophical problems, but those ones are at least worth grappling with. Read Rest of Interview Here

 

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