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Eurovision, Israel, and the Responsibility for War

image of Eurovision logo

On May 11th, Swiss artist Nemo won the Eurovision song competition with “The Code.” The nominally apolitical contest has always been somewhat of a stage for international drama, with this year’s Eurovision occurring with an additional pall of controversy due to the inclusion of singer Eden Golan as the representative artist from Israel. Activists hoped for something like the 2022 exclusion of Russia, and failing that, began pushing for both the artists and the broader public to boycott Eurovision for allowing Israel entry. The finals, held in Malmö, Sweden, occurred amid marches and protests. Performing to a polarized crowd, Golan took fifth, the 20-year-old singer having become a focal point of international politics. To what end we might ask?

For pro-Palestinian or anti-war activists, the question is likely more about tactics than ethical principle. Eurovision, for all its kitsch, is a major international event with significant mass media interest. Tethering their cause to the visibility of Eurovision may pay dividends. This line of thinking does not, however, necessarily explain why they pushed so hard to get Israel excluded from the contest. For some activists, the stated concern was whitewashing, in which the international competition provided Israel a convenient platform to present itself through shimmering pop rather than military violence. And indeed, Golan’s submitted song, “Hurricane,” was originally entitled “October Rain” in reference to the October 2023 attack on Israel by Hamas which killed over 1,000 Israelis and precipitated the current invasion. It was rewritten and retitled at the behest of Eurovision officials, but vague references remain in the lyrics.

It may also be ethically significant to force those with large platforms to take a stand. This echoes the ongoing Blockout 2024 movement which surged following the Met Gala, and encouraged social media users to block celebrities and influencers for failing to use their influence to call attention to Gaza. At core, this is something between a demand for good Samaritanism and good custodianship of power. The contention is that those who have platforms should use them to call out injustice where they see it, either because everyone has such an obligation, or because specifically those with power or influence have an incumbent responsibility. (The expectations of celebrity have been previously discussed by The Prindle Post.)

Lurking behind this is a deeper question of responsibility and accountability. War is something ostensibly done by nations, vast concatenations of peoples, geographies, laws, and institutions that are the primary players of international politics. Is it not somewhat facile to draw such a straight line between a young Israeli singer and the decisions of her country’s government? How does a nation, this abstract geopolitical entity, waging war, refract to the responsibility of those within?

For some philosophers, the answer is simply democracy. While citizens are generally unable to vote on war, and certainly not on specific military operations, they are involved in electing political leadership. Aspiring leaders in turn often have some public record about their inclinations towards war. Certainly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his decades in government, has never pretended to be anything other than a hawk (technically as Prime Minister he is elected by a parliament which is elected by the people). From this electoral agency ostensibly stems citizens’ responsibility for war.

But if so, it is a watered down responsibility as almost all citizens are far removed from having any personal agency in the decision to wage war. Moreover, war is often based on contingent circumstances that were likely not front of mind when the politician was being elected. Even if the citizen supports the government actions in question — and they very well may not, regardless of whether they support the politician — it is extremely unlikely that anything hinged on their individual vote. Further, decision making powers related to war, and especially military action, strategy, and tactics are often kept deliberately far from voters. Such power is held almost solely by executive political and military leadership. Moreover, military leadership, with the likely exception of commander-in-chief, are not elected positions. Altogether this entails that citizens, even acting collectively in well-functioning democracies, have almost no formal capacity to check military decisions other than to elect different political leadership. Some philosophers, such as the political scientist Neta Crawford, argue that this situation means citizens have a moral obligation to stay educated on their country’s military actions and protest if they believe an unjust war is occurring. Although Crawford’s primary interest is a citizen’s responsibility given an unjust war, not necessarily their responsibility for the war in the first place.

Michael Walzer, a political philosopher, contends in his influential book Just and Unjust Wars that “there should be little difficulty in blaming heads of state [for aggression]. The hard and interesting questions arise when we ask how responsibility for aggression is diffused throughout a political system.” And yet, the Eurovision example raises an interesting contrasting point, for among the broader public, blame for war spreads like wildfire, hardly staying confined to the upper echelons of government. If anything, the fact that only a small number of powerful people actually had decision-making power is obscured by the image of a nation at war. A song contest is seen as strategic propaganda. Israel, which has long been internally divided about Palestine and has seen continuous peace marches and protests since October, is taken as univocal on their military actions. Soldiers, many of whom are performing mandatory service, are almost universally viewed as villains. From a perspective which emphasizes the culpability of decision-making powers, as opposed to more diffuse forms of responsibility, almost all individuals on both sides of the conflict become cogs simply caught in the gears of international politics.

Some of the staunchest criticism of Israel’s action in Gaza, point out that most people there are not Hamas; that these individuals, even if perhaps supporting from afar, did not plan or participate in military actions against Israel; that they are civilians and do not deserve to suffer as collateral damage in a larger conflict. (What “suffer” means in this context is of course worlds apart from any unpleasantness that occurred at Eurovision.) But pop stars and other celebrities are legitimate targets of criticism if one accepts the idea that we have a responsibility to do something and not merely the duty to take responsibility for something. And yet, there is a certain shared reductionism in equating Golan with Israel and the average Gaza resident with Hamas. The real challenge may be maintaining focus on those who actually have decision-making power and are publicly accountable for its use.

Intersectionality and the Problem of the MCU’s Ancient One

photograph of Doctor Strange comic book cover

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In 2016, Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange introduced Benedict Cumberbatch’s eponymous hero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film sees Strange learn how to harness magical energy as a sorcerer after journeying to the mystical city of Kamar-Taj and meeting its leader, the Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton). This casting was controversial: in the comic books on which the movie is based, the Ancient One is an Asian man; Swinton is neither.

Swinton’s Ancient One is an example of what is sometimes called the “whitewashing” problem in Hollywood (where white actors are cast in non-white roles). Although Swinton’s portrayal of the character does not attempt to appeal to stereotypes about Asian people (and is explicitly described in the film as being of Celtic ancestry) — thereby setting it apart from straightforwardly racist performances like Mickey Rooney’s Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — it nevertheless rewrites the backstory of a character long-depicted as Asian to instead substitute a white actor in the role. Much like how “whitewashing” a building involves covering it with white paint, the MCU’s portrayal of the Ancient One covers the character’s non-European background by giving them a Scottish face.

Granted, Swinton is a talented actor, but there is certainly no shortage of talented people available to act in the MCU; as Rob Chan, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, pointed out, “Given the dearth of Asian roles, there was no reason a monk in Nepal could not be Asian.” (Notably, Doctor Strange is far from the only recent movie criticized for whitewashing: Wikipedia has a surprisingly long list of references available.) In May 2021, Marvel Studios President (and MCU mastermind) Kevin Feige officially acknowledged that casting Swinton as the Ancient One was a mistake.

(A quick note to anyone about to ask something like “Will Kevin Feige also apologize for Nick Fury, Heimdall, or Johnny Storm in the recent non-MCU adaptation of the Fantastic Four?” The answer is pretty clearly “No.” While it’s true that, like Swinton’s Ancient One, those are characters portrayed by actors (Samuel L. Jackson, Idris Elba, and Michael B. Jordan, respectively) of a different race than (at least some of) the source material, the problem of “whitewashing” is not simply a matter of casting a member of the “wrong” race to play a role. Instead, the issue is rooted in the lack of Hollywood roles — especially leading roles — for non-white actors in general. When a talented white actor is cast in a part that could easily (and historically has been) filled by a talented non-white actor, this only serves to further reduce the opportunities for non-white actors. (As Chan also pointed out, “Tilda Swinton can afford to turn down roles.”)

But perhaps the most unusual thing about Swinton’s casting was actually the attention that Doctor Strange director and co-writer Scott Derrickson thought he was paying in portraying the character as the film does; as he explained in a 2016 interview, “The first decision that I made was to make [the Ancient One] a woman, before we ever went to draft, before we ever had a script…There was a desire for diversity in making that decision.” After this choice, Derrickson was worried that casting an Asian woman in the role would actually end up perpetuating long-standing Asian stereotypes:

“I know the history of cinema and the portrayal of the Dragon Lady in Anna May Wong films, and the continued stereotype throughout film history and even more in television. I just didn’t feel like there was any way to get around that because the Dragon Lady, by definition, is a domineering, powerful, secretive, mysterious, Asian woman of age with duplicitous motives—and I just described [the MCU’s Ancient One]. I really felt like I was going to be contributing to a bad stereotype.”

Reflecting on this in 2021, Feige pointed out, “We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge…But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”

I think this is where a little philosophy can be helpful to understand what’s going on. In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar at the UCLA School of Law, argued that discrimination against Black women in Western culture is a particularly complex kind of injustice. While it might be tempting to think about racism against Black men and racism against Black women as essentially similar, this kind of oversimplification ignores the sexism that Black women also encounter (making their experience different than that of their male counterparts). Instead of analyzing the treatment of Black women along the single axis of “race,” Crenshaw argued that an intersectional analysis (that pays special attention to the multidimensional nature of a Black woman’s social identity) is necessary to fully capture the experience of people suffering from multiple kinds of oppression. As Crenshaw explains in the opening pages of the article that coined the term intersectionality, “Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”

Since 1989, intersectional analyses have proliferated to explain many different kinds of overlapping social identities and the complex ways that people navigate the social world. Although the term (and Crenshaw’s name) has become strangely misrepresented as an ominous threat by some politically-(or financially)-minded agents, the basic idea of intersectionality is relatively uncontroversial: people are complicated and simply treating any one person as simply one kind of thing will inevitably cause you to misunderstand (and potentially mistreat) them.

So, by simply thinking about “diversity” as a matter of casting a woman in a role traditionally played by a man, the creative team behind Doctor Strange was oversimplifying the complex nature of the Ancient One’s (and, for that matter, Tilda Swinton’s) social identity. The idea of intersectionality (and critical theories in general) does not argue that race or sex or gender or anything else about a person is central or primary or more important than anything else about them; they instead try to call attention to the complicated ways that diverse people’s different backgrounds and histories can interact to create unique and complicated experiences. Recasting the Ancient One by focusing only on the character’s sex ignored plenty of other relevant facts about him/her.

One final note: this is not a call to harangue Scott Derrickson, pillory Kevin Feige, or “cancel” Tilda Swinton — this is an attempt to understand how the makers of Doctor Strange might have made the decision that they now have openly (and repeatedly) called a “mistake.” And it’s a mistake that Marvel might have actually learned something from: not only has the recently-completed Falcon and the Winter Soldier miniseries on Disney+ explored racial tensions long-bubbling in the world of the Avengers, but the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a feature film slated for release in September, will introduce the MCU’s first Asian superhero. And while this film is not without a casting controversy of its own, many are hoping that its Chinese-Canadian star, Simu Liu, and its all-Asian cast will help the Marvel Cinematic Universe to move forward.

Whitewashing Stonewall

In just a few weeks, audiences around the country will have the chance to watch the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969 play out before their eyes. Over 45 years after the riots that sparked the LGBT movement in America, the events that took place at the Stonewall Inn will once again be immortalized in film. Directed by Roland Emmerich, Stonewall will come to theatres in September, promising to explore the story of “A young man’s political awakening and coming of age during the days and weeks leading up to the Stonewall Riots.”

Continue reading “Whitewashing Stonewall”