Saturday, August 20, 2005

Oderint Dum Metuant

One of my favorite pastimes, of a lazy weekend morning, is to sit with a cup of coffee and my hometown newspaper, and issue aggrieved howls at the reactionary horsefeathers on the op-ed page. The letters-to-the-editor column, in particular, is always quotable and always good for a snort. Today, though, there was a letter that was just breathtaking in its idiocy. The writer was referencing news reaction to the recent anniversary of the Hiroshima bombings, particularly the temerity of those correspondents who dared refer to Japanese casualties as “victims”:

...[T]he Japanese were not our “victims,” but our “enemies.” Not all casualties of war are equal. Certainly, the vast majority of Hiroshima residents were innocent. That in no way means that America ought to feel guilty or ashamed for how we won that war. The lives we saved were American lives .... Our enemies are not out “moral equals,” and our adversaries always deserve to lose.
(There’s a lot more—including the priceless “Today’s knee-jerk pacifism is a luxury bought with yesterday’s blood”—but I can’t bear to quote any further.)

Now, honor student though Mr. Pribek is, he apparently hasn’t picked up the concept that a nation (like America, or for that matter Japan) is a political construct, not an ethical one—and that subsequently, in this context, the notion of “enemies” has no inherent moral dimension at all. Failure to recognize this fallacy is garden-variety sloppy thinking, the kind familiar to readers of right-wing blogs everywhere—especially the unlinkworthy Little Green Footballs, where it’s often tinged with an overt racism that Mr. Pribek (points in his favor) avoids.

Now, maybe I expect too much of The New Republic. I certainly don’t expect much of EiC Martin Peretz these days, whose relentless Israel-hawk pieces are usually merely tiresome (and ubiquitous: much of TNR’s content is subscriber-only, but Marty’s jeremiads are always readily-available to anybody with a modem and a masochistic streak). But this piece, ostensibly about the Gaza withdrawal, charts new territories of unpleasantness.

It begins with simple incoherence (what, exactly, does the New York Times coverage of the Holocaust, sixty-some years ago, have to do with the same paper’s coverage of Israeli policies today?), but then proceeds to get really ugly. Peretz, he takes pains to tell us, supports the withdrawal and always thought the settlements were a bad idea—but his objections were tactical, not moral: “Too few Jews, too many Arabs.” Then there’s this jaw-dropper:

[M]ost of the Gaza settlers are thoroughly committed to farming the land and have produced fruitfully from it: as much as 15 percent of Israel's agricultural produce. Let’s admit it: The Arabs had Gaza for a thousand years. There were no Zionists to blame for its backwardness. Why did they make exactly nothing of Gaza? We will see what they will make of the hundreds of acres of greenhouses the Israelis have left behind. Anyone taking bets?
I can’t read that without thinking of Orson Welles in The Third Man—that chilling speech on the ferris wheel—but even moreso of Ayn Rand’s interpretation of manifest destiny, which sounds to these ears a lot like a defense of genocide:
[The Native Americans] didn’t have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using.... What was it they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves above it. Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent.
(It’s a shame that Rand didn’t live long enough to read Guns, Germs, and Steel, but surely the wrongheaded hatefulness of her views was obvious to audiences even in the simpler days of 1974. But I digress.)

Look, I understand the impulse. I’m a Red Sox fan, and just as important to me as that the Sox win is that the Yankees lose. But, y’know, it’s only a game—and (unlike geopolitics) a zero-sum game, at that. So why do so many ostensibly-smart people fall prey to messianic thinking and demonization in equal measure, when the stakes are much too high to reasonably indulge in either?

Basically, what we’re looking at is—god rest ye, HST—good ol’ fear and loathing. While Peretz is usually too urbane to write with the kind of naked panic that characterizes a James Lileks rant, his work still buzzes with that same dread of annihilation, founded on the same copper-bottomed racist conviction that Those People Cannot Be Trusted, and They Will Destroy Us All If They Get The Chance.

Once you subscribe to that sort of paranoid thinking, you can justify any sort of horror or crime, so long as it keeps Those People at bay—anything to ensure that They are more afraid of you than you are of Them. Even if They are your neighbors, or the citizens of your own nation; let Them hate, just so long as They fear.

The problem is, it doesn’t work. History has shown us that keeping the Many in fear for the benefit of the Few (who are driven of course by their own fear of the Many) is simply mathematically untenable in the long term; desperation eventually trumps fear, and then it’s an elementary equation—too few Jews, too many Arabs.

Can this nightmare be resolved? I draw hope from the example of South Africa. A white homeland in Africa is a considerably more absurd proposition than a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, and in the darkest days of apartheid seemed unlikely to end in anything other than a wholesale massacre. But decolonialization eventually happened, largely without the sort of recriminatory expulsions and reprisals that have so plagued, say, Zimbabwe. There are substantial differences in the political landscape—a lack of moderate Arab alternatives, a disproportionately well-funded radical movement, the toxic cocktail of petrodollars and religious fundamentalism—but these can be bridged, I believe, by a strategy of engagement, cooperation, and tactical investment.

Having created for itself a South Africa-style problem with its racist policies, Israel could do worse than to seek South Africa-style solutions. Dismantling the settlements is indeed a good start; what the ending looks like, though, is all in how you play the game.

No comments: