You still hear the word agitprop thrown around occasionally in pop culture criticism, usually when somebody’s talking about the Clash, or maybe Michael Moore. But like many elements of the critical lexicon, the word has a very specific meaning that’s sometimes forgotten in the grab for respectability by the half-bright. In its strictest sense, agitprop refers not to the artistic statement of an individual — no matter how vehement or politically-charged the statement — but to the use of art as a collectivist political tool.
By that reasonable definition, the Clash didn’t produce agitprop, because the Clash weren’t a political action committee — they were a rock band. True agitprop flourishes (if that’s the right word) in times and places where there’s a heavy State apparatus to promulgate it: the early Soviet Union; China in the days of the Cultural Revolution; today’s North Korea, where the only radios available come straight from the factory pre-set to the government frequency, and with no tuning knob.
In a free society, though, people are going to watch and listen to whatever the hell they please. In the marketplace of art, victory doesn’t always go to the worthiest agenda, but to the strongest craft. That the Clash was the Only Band That Mattered while (say) Crass or Chumbawamba are footnotes is not necessarily because Strummer et al. had better politics, but because they had better hooks.
But people still insist on trying to make art that’s powered only by politics, with good intentions as all to recommend it. Such is the case with the audio drama It’s Up To Us Alone, which had its radio premiere on Radio Pacifica in November and is now available for download and on physical media.
As you can see from the rather scanty Web info, the producers aren’t big on individual credit. Oh, Ed Asner’s name is trotted out for its dubious marquee value, and a narrator reads the cast list. But in true agitprop fashion, the script and direction are credited simply to ”the PEN” — that is, the People’s Email Network, an allegedly-grassroots organization that seems to operate under a number of different website fronts to raise consciousness and funds for anti-war and progressive causes, and whose methods have come under some scrutiny. (Full disclosure: I’m on the mailing list, though I’m not sure how or why I got on it. I was not, however, consulted or invited to contribute to the script of this radio drama; a simple oversight, surely.)
Now: if you’re thinking that collective credit is a neat way of avoiding individual blame, well, you may be onto something.
It’s Up To Us Alone tells the story of how the cycle of violence creates intractable tensions in the Middle East. At least I think it does, because the PEN, in its collective wisdom, studiously avoids naming the nation wherein the play’s action unfolds. The words Israel and Palestine are never uttered — although, given the half-swallowed Jerry Lewis voices that the cast assumes to represent the local dialect, perhaps that’s for the best.
This is by way of introducing our hero, Benjamin Shalom, a young Jewi — er, young government scientist. Note how efficiently (not to say artlessly) the script establishes that Benjamin is a big ol’ slob. This, like everything else in the play, is significant. Remember Chekhov’s dictum that if you show a gun on the mantelpiece in Act One, it’s got to go off by Act Three? Shlomo has helpfully pointed out the ascorbic acid on the lab bench.
Benjamin, you see, has a complicated personal life. His girlfriend Fatima is a Palestini — ahem, a girl from the Occupied Territories. In what is transparently a mandate of the script, they are Deeply In Love, or so we are told; frankly, there’s not enough reagents on any lab bench to conjure up chemistry between these two.
More problematically, Benjamin’s father, Ari Shalom, is the Minister of Defense; and Ari’s politics are, well, a trifle retrograde. Here’s Sunday dinner chez Shalom…
Obviously Ari’s got some issues — besides being played by Ed Asner, I mean. (It’s a good thing that radio plays don’t require scenery, because ol’ Ed done chewed it all up.) Thing is, he’s not wrong about the ”meeleetant terrrorrrrrzztz.” His ”cold,” as it transpires, is actually weaponized encephalitis, contracted via a rocket attack from the Occupied Territories, using a black-market biological warhead.
Hundreds of people, then thousands, fall ill, the infection spreading worldwide. Benjamin and Shlomo — who seem mysteriously immune — labor mightily to find a treatment. Then the unthinkable happens, and Ed Asner really earns his paycheck:
(Incidentally, ”pixie dust” is also carnival slang for buckets of sawdust used as vomit absorbent, for when somebody throws up on the Tilt-A-Whirl. For what it’s worth.)
Now, as deathbed conversions go, this one is — well, it’s less than convincing, innit? I mean, if you’ve spent your life paranoid that a hated Other is continually plotting your destruction, wouldn’t the news that your lethal illness is in fact the result of coordinated biowarfare tend to confirm that worldview? You’d think — wouldn’t you? — that instead of saying ”I was wrong,” Ari would instead be saying ”I told you so.” But It’s Up To Us Alone isn’t really interested in telling a recognizably human story; any feints towards character development or emotional truth are drowned out by the relentless drumbeat of the Message. (This criticism may sound familiar to devotees of politically-charged art.)
Inevitably — OMG SPOILERS WTF OK NOT REALLY — the beaker on the lab bench goes off; Benjamin discovers that the encephalitis bonds to the Vitamin C receptor sites on the body’s cells, and that megavitamin therapy can vanquish the infection. Somewhere Linus Pauling is slapping his forehead, and so am I; elide his ethnicity though the play does, in the end Benjamin is spared a horrible death because he is a Nice Jewish Boy Who Listens To His Mother.
C’mon, I’m all for peace; I think we can all agree that War is not healthy for children and other living things. But it does the cause no favors to present it in terms that a middle-schooler would find naÁ¯ve and simplistic. And though the story is an impassioned plea for compromise, why does it find it so necessary to present such a one-sided view of the conflict? Ari Shalom gets a tearful speech admitting that violence only begets violence; but what about the jihadi who actually fired the bio-warhead and unleashed the plague? He’s conveniently presented as a lone gunman, operating without the sanction of the Fatah-like ”Occupied Authority” — but not before he’s introduced with a sympathetic backstory, explaining his radicalism as a response to the violent death of his brother at the hands of the occupying army. (Once he actually launches the rocket, he disappears from the story entirely, and so never has to deal with the consequences of his actions.) An Isn’t-raeli general vows, on the record and as a matter of policy, to unleash a ”disproportionate response,” and talks scornfully of flouting UN resolutions. On the Phoneystinian side, though, violence just sort of happens; no one is actually responsible, and to suggest otherwise is to blame the victim.
There’s no Anti-Semitism at play here, though critics of the peace movement will doubtless make the claim, in their usual reductive, intelligence-insulting fashion. What’s really coming out, though, is sympathy for the apparent underdog. And that’s only natural. When we see suffering and injustice, our hearts go out to the people who are hurting; and the Arab population of Gaza and the West Bank has indeed suffered terribly in the Intifada.
Now is both the best and worst possible time to be thinking of alternatives in the Middle East peace process. There’s an increasing discontent in both Israel and in the Palestinian territories with the intransigence on both sides. Any voice calling for true, just, and lasting peace is still much needed when, even in an allegedly-liberal U.S. media outlet, a thumbsucker with a headline like ”Is It Possible to Be Moved by the Palestinian Plight and Still Be Sympathetic to Israel’s?“ still passes for cutting-edge thought on the subject.
We need to move beyond that, to admit that yes, it is possible to acknowledge Palestinian suffering — while also acknowledging that much of that suffering has been inflicted by the Palestinian leadership, which has too often worked harder at maintaining and manipulating the status quo to its own ends than at actually solving the problems of its constituency. Opposition is easy, but governance is hard; time after time, Fatah and the other, more radical players in regional politics have chosen the easy path.
Until you acknowledge that, it’s impossible to write honestly about the tortured history of the conflict. But the anonymous authors of It’s Up To Us Alone don’t seem interested in honesty. Even if you agree with the play’s politics — and Israel’s policy in the West Bank and Gaza is unpopular pretty much everywhere except in the U.S., even within Israel itself — the story is so ridiculous, and the deck so stacked, that this production is valuable mainly as an object lesson; good intentions do not necessarily translate into good drama, and sometimes you’re left with a product best suited for resurfacing that well-known road to Hell.
Because I love you, I’ve saved the best for last — the obligatory soaring the theme song, which, according to the press release, ”was recorded in Los Angeles with some of the most creative musicians in the city at one of the top studios, and mixed and mastered by name engineers,” all of whom declined to be named. Wonder why?