Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Right Side of Now

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The notion of having to one day repent for one’s trespasses gives even the godless a fright, we assume. A kicker like “You’ll regret this!” is redoubled by the certitude of a not-yet-felt emotion—how bad one will surely feel when the now becomes the later. No one wants to someday be found the fool. That potential regret resides, affectively if not quite grammatically, in the future-perfect tense, which, per the Oxford English Dictionary, expresses “an event or action viewed as past in relation to a given future time”: What will have come to pass. This is a version of the future not only understood in tandem with the present but also disciplined by it—and a version of the present which is very sure of our capacity to remember, and to feel.

As Israel gluts the present with death and destruction, the future perfect has become a means of stirring timid Americans out of indifference and into something like sympathy for Palestinian lives. As riot police climbed the ladder atop an armored truck—nicknamed “the Bear”—into an occupied hall at Columbia University in late April, in a widely circulated image, the Jacobin podcast host Daniel Denvir remarked, “This image will be in the history books and the people who authorized or cheered it on are going to look like shit.” In one sweet protest photo, an older woman holds high a sign: “YOUR SILENCE WILL BE STUDIED BY YOUR GRANDKIDS.” That premonition in full, as found on other signs, in social-media posts, and on a bumper sticker available for purchase online, includes the following question: “Will you admit you were complicit when they ask how the world let it happen?” Headlines and images have been received as if they are lessons for the future, lamented for how unfortunate this will all look later. A statement from the U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres, supporting an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” back in October, declared, “This is a moment of truth. History will judge us all.” Eight months on, the same line of rhetoric is repeated with identical urgency. “History will judge what we do right now,” Bernie Sanders wrote in April. (In December, after months of urging from staffers and supporters, Sanders called for a humanitarian ceasefire; he has yet to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.) Those who have yet to do so are implored to join the “the right side of history,” another common refrain. Altogether, the appeals go something like, One day, when this moment is history, this will have been a shame and you will regret your silence. The statements adopt an imperative from the future, which, it’s said, will be the best arbiter.

Such expressions attempt to offer clarity on the present by viewing it through the lens of the future. And not just any future, but one that is capable of properly judging the past—our present—via a thing called history that only awaits our setting it down. It is this historical looking back that will find silence, reticence, and equivocation deficient, the logic goes. The future-perfect formulation borrows against tomorrow’s sorrow—you will regret—in the hopes of foreclosing today’s inaction, the silences. It must borrow shame because the consensus doesn’t feel it, not yet, not today. But perhaps someday, when all’s said and done, we all might feel, and perhaps that sense of retrospective shame—rather than today’s reality of Palestinians being killed, maimed, and starved by an apartheid nation sustained by U.S. largesse, our weapons, our policies and politicians, our sitting President—might provoke a unified sentiment. But how robust is this “might”? What fortitude may be gathered from a feeling unfelt in its own time?

The future perfect means very well. Its retrofit foreboding is really a form of optimism. It summons wisps in the shape of generations to come, those children of whom we’re always thinking, seated one day to receive wisdom in the Platonic image, a bipartisan image, of the social-studies classroom. In this imagined place of learning, yesteryear’s sins have been cordoned off and arranged in a pat past tense for these children of tomorrow, whose curiosity regarding distant events presents, at worst, the conditions for an uncomfortable discussion around the family dinner table. A child might wonder just what Granny was doing while our grand nation (in this hypothetical future apparently still standing) was on its less than best behavior. (“Will you admit you were complicit when they ask how the world let it happen?”) If we suppose that she—you—will squirm at this line of inquiry, it follows that the remedy for that supposed latter-day discomfort is a firm present-day conviction. We are less inclined to question what this version of the future presupposes regarding the accuracy and depth of what the history lessons will one day teach our progeny about our now.

Our now: Homes and universities raided and bombed into ruins. Cemeteries desecrated. Shells of schools and hospitals that had become shelters for fleeing Palestinians only to be struck from above or shot at and set ablaze. Bodies retrieved from rubble, painstakingly, by the dozens. Since October, Israeli forces have detained thousands of Palestinians throughout the occupied West Bank and, in Gaza, thousands more of all ages, including journalists and aid workers; many have reported abuse. Throughout Gaza, Palestinians are suffering starvation as at least two senior Israeli officials have openly admitted their opposition to letting in humanitarian aid and Israeli protesters have raided en-route aid trucks. Meanwhile, Israel continues its front into Rafah to do what we have seen be done again and again in actions that exceed tidy summation.

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