Alice Walker’s Purple Prose: Why the Novelist’s Attack on Alicia Keys Is All Wrong
The ‘Color Purple’ author showed more than just naivete in penning an open letter to the pop star. She also showed ignorance.
When I saw that Alice Walker had written an open letter urging Alicia Keys to cancel her upcoming concert in Israel, my first instinct was to look away. Ever since the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist refused to allow Israeli publishers to translate her best-known book, The Color Purple, into Hebrew, ostensibly to protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine, I have had a hard time reading her public statements with the respect that I have previously felt was due to her work as a writer, who, whatever her flaws, had dealt seriously with weighty episodes in the history of mankind. But Walker’s action in this case seemed perverse: If Israelis are really the new South Africans, or the new Old Southern slave-masters of the Holy Land, shouldn’t Walker want them to read The Color Purple, perhaps with an impassioned preface, denouncing their own crimes? There was something disturbingly illogical, nearly totalitarian, in Walker’s impulse to declare Israelis—all Israelis, from teenagers in settlements, to rabid left-wingers in Tel Aviv—to be beyond the pale of readership, a contaminating influence on the text itself.
So, when I saw that Walker was cajoling Keys to join in her absolute negation of Israel, I wanted to scroll on. I’m glad I didn’t: Walker’s letter was well worth my time, particularly because it represents not the illogic of one individual—that would have been easy enough to ignore—but the esprit de corps of a growing political movement.
The letter begins on a stentorian note, with Walker warning Keys that if she performs in Israel, the singer would be putting herself in “soul danger.” She would also be disrespecting the American Civil Rights movement: “You were not born when we, your elders who love you, boycotted institutions in the US South to end an American apartheid less lethal than Israel’s against the Palestinian people,” Walker writes. “Google Montgomery Bus Boycott, if you don’t know about this civil rights history already.”
Of course, had she even the slightest acquaintance with the singer she was lecturing, Walker would have learned that Keys graduated high school at 16 and was admitted to Columbia University—which makes the instruction to look up the Montgomery Bus Boycott on the Internet particularly insulting. In case Keys read on after that opening bit of condescension, she would have arrived at Walker’s best paragraph, the one that shows the mangled evolution of her thinking. Eager to educate her younger correspondent, Walker writes of “the unconscionable harm Israel inflicts every day on the people of Palestine, whose major ‘crime’ is that they exist in their own land, land that Israel wants to control as its own.” So far, so good: save for howling zealots, most people, in Israel and abroad, agree that the occupation is an injustice, oppose the settlements, and support the Palestinian right to self-determination. The color of Walker’s prose is purple, but her aim is true enough.
But Walker doesn’t end it there, because apparently she can’t. The Israeli system, she writes, “is cruel, unjust, and unbelievably evil.” Cruel and unjust are hard terms to contest: Even if one supports checkpoints and taking other people’s land as a political, military, or religious necessity, it is still cruel. And Israel’s behavior is clearly unjust, even if you believe that other countries—even most other countries, or every other country on the planet, including New Zealand (ask the Maori)—are just as unjust.
“Unbelievably evil” is a different kind of judgment, one which shows the poverty not only of Walker’s moral reasoning but also of her skill as a writer. Sadly, there is nothing unbelievable about this kind of situation, as the inhabitants of Vietnam and Iraq and Chechnya and Syria and Tibet can all attest. The most terrifying feature of Israel’s occupation is just how utterly believable it is, the result of military and political and economic forces that—again, despite the continuing disapproval of the majority of Israelis—conspired to install and promote ruinous, and ultimately untenable, policies. What Israel is doing in the West Bank is wrong because it is wrong—not because it belongs to some category of evil that has rarely if ever been glimpsed in the history of mankind.
Even those inclined to kindly dismiss such nonsense as merely an overblown bit of description, however, are likely to have little to say come Walker’s next sentences. “You can spend months, and years, as I have, pondering this situation,” she tells Keys. “Layer upon layer of lies, misinformation, fear, cowardice and complicity. Greed. It is a vast eye-opener into the causes of much of the affliction in our suffering world.”
I guess there are different ways to interpret this last sentence, but I wanted to take the high road and empirically examine the veracity of Walker’s claim. So, I took a blank piece of paper and wrote “causes of affliction in our suffering world” on top. What causes affliction? Poverty, hunger, lack of access to clean water, civil war, corruption, terror attacks. My own list goes on and on, and I’m sure yours does too. Then I tried to make a pie chart to ascertain Israel’s role in the world’s sum total of sorrow. Did Israel slaughter 70,000 civilians, as Bashar al-Assad has in two years? Did it arm the murderers and block international intervention there, as Russia has? Does it constantly launch terrorist attacks—like Boko Haram in Nigeria or Lashkar-e-Taiba in India—that leave tens of thousands dead? Does it poison the air like China? Does it mutilate and oppress its girls like so many African and Middle Eastern nations? Does it sanction slavery like Sudan? Does it starve its citizens and imprison small children in gruesome labor camps like in North Korea?
The answer to any of the above, from any rational person using factually verifiable sources of information, is no. Israel is involved in a territorial dispute that it is addressing, in part, by means of seizure of land and the implementation of martial law on many of its citizens. Israel often resorts to unjust, and sometimes cruel, tactics like setting up roadblocks and cutting off supplies. Once every few years, it launches a military campaign that results in the deaths of several hundred citizens, including small children; it mainly does so in retaliation for constant Palestinian attacks, some of which are effective and others less so. Israel also does its part to promote religious fundamentalism and ethnic intolerance in a region of the world in which those qualities are hardly in short supply. It has never, even in its most recalcitrant moments, categorically rejected the possibility of a negotiated resolution to its conflict. So, while Israel has definitely earned its slice on the pie chart of global suffering, the size of that slice is, comparatively speaking, very small.
Only a fool or an anti-Semite—the two, of course, are not mutually exclusive—would implicate the Jewish state in generating the lion’s share of the world’s misfortunes. The BDS movement, despite being a political home to many decent and conscientious souls, is also thick with those who share Walker’s prejudice. But few match her unique style: the ability to sound so solipsistic and arrogant while advertising her commitment to a larger cause, which she in turn firmly believes is a mark of her excellence as a moral actor. Of all the self-important and patently stupid characters Alice Walker has written, she’s finally given us the grandest of them all: herself.
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