What is the best way to avoid disappointment?

The web edition carries the text of a speech in which philosopher Judith Butler praised the majority of the Student Senate at the University of California’s Berkeley campus who last month voted to stop investing in General Electric and United Technologies because of their role in the occupation of Gaza.  Professor Butler argues that, while there is no single Jewish voice and no single Jewish position on any issue, this vote is in keeping with the finest elements of the ethical tradition she learned as a Jewish child:

So if someone says that it offends “the Jews” to oppose the occupation, then you have to consider how many Jews are already against the occupation, and whether you want to be with them or against them. If someone says that “Jews” have one voice on this matter, you might consider whether there is something wrong with imagining Jews as a single force, with one view, undivided. It is not true. The sponsors of Monday evening’s round table at Hillel made sure not to include voices with which they disagree. And even now, as demonstrations in Israel increase in number and volume against the illegal seizure of Palestinian lands, we see a burgeoning coalition of those who seek to oppose unjust military rule, the illegal confiscation of lands, and who hold to the norms of international law even when nations refuse to honor those norms.

What I learned as a Jewish kid in my synagogue–which was no bastion of radicalism–was that it was imperative to speak out against social injustice. I was told to have the courage to speak out, and to speak strongly, even when people accuse you of breaking with the common understanding, even when they threaten to censor you or punish you. The worst injustice, I learned, was to remain silent in the face of criminal injustice. And this tradition of Jewish social ethics was crucial to the fights against Nazism, fascism and every form of discrimination, and it became especially important in the fight to establish the rights of refugees after the Second World War. Of course, there are no strict analogies between the Second World War and the contemporary situation, and there are no strict analogies between South Africa and Israel, but there are general frameworks for thinking about co-habitation, the right to live free of external military aggression, the rights of refugees, and these form the basis of many international laws that Jews and non-Jews have sought to embrace in order to live in a more just world, one that is more just not just for one nation or for another, but for all populations, regardless of nationality and citizenship. If some of us hope that Israel will comply with international law, it is precisely so that one people can live among other peoples in peace and in freedom. It does not de-legitimate Israel to ask for its compliance with international law. Indeed, compliance with international law is the best way to gain legitimacy, respect and an enduring place among the peoples of the world.

I suspect that the high hopes Professor Butler seems to place in “compliance with international law” are bound to be disappointed.  Indeed, her evocation of the ethical traditions of Judaism recalls an earlier generation of well-meaning Zionists, who hoped that a people who had so often been the victims of nationalism in its most extreme forms would draw on those ethical traditions to create a new, consistently humane form of nationalism.  If that hope has been disappointed, surely it is because nationalism itself is inhuman, because to be a nationalist is to take social relationships people pretend to have with those they have never met and to try to make those impersonal relationships do the work of personal bonds between kinsmen, neighbors, and friends.  The cover story in this week’s issue of the print magazine, about the shoddy medical treatment military veterans receive upon returning to the hyper-nationalistic USA, shows how shallow these relationships are, and how little even people who embody the most cherished fantasies and symbols of nationalism can expect from the people who cheer them on in the abstract.  If a modern bureaucratic state based on nationalism is doomed to be an instrument of brutality, surely a modern bureaucratic state based on internationalism could only be worse. 

Be that as it may, no world-state seems to be in the offing, nor does any existing nation-state seem at all likely to subordinate its own interests to an internationalist ideology any time soon.  So perhaps such an ideology might at times be useful as a counterpoint to the excesses of nationalism, in situations where kinship groups and neighborhoods have been too drained of life to put any real curbs on the state.    

Paul Buhle discusses his part in efforts to build an antiwar coalition of right-wing “paleoconservatives” and left-wing anti-imperialists.  Buhle acknowledges that he and many other lefties once persuaded themselves that the election of Barack Obama would represent a dramatic improvement  in US policy.  He and they are now suffering a disappointment in Mr O that the paleocons avoided. 

A review of Perry Anderson’s new book on the European Union dwells on Anderson’s disappointment in that institution.  In the late 90s Anderson looked at the European Union and saw in it something like what Paul Buhle would see a decade later when looking at then-Senator Obama, an emerging force that might unleash a pent-up demand for social democracy and peaceful internationalism.  Both Anderson and Buhle seem to be more than a little bit envious of old-fashioned conservatives who would never have formed such hopes in the first place. 

Columnist Gary Younge declares that Britons facing the UK’s upcoming General Election would like to get rid of the Labour Party, but that they are increasingly disappointed to find that the opposition Tories have nothing to offer.  The Tories (or as I affectionately dub them, the Conservative and Unionist Party of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) offer a “less xenophobic agenda” than previously, apparently in an attempt to reach out to voters who have black friends; the only clear result of this reduction in displays of xenophobia is the likelihood of a “sharp rise in votes for the extreme right.”  Meanwhile, the Tories back all of Labour’s least popular policies, and fail to leaven them with even the lip service to economic egalitarianism that has kept most of Labour’s core supporters in the fold in recent years.

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2 Comments

  1. lefalcon

     /  April 15, 2010

    “It does not de-legitimate Israel to ask for its compliance with international law.”

    Here’s an interesting idea, and may actually be worth reflecting on. The US and Israel have some sort of strange “partnership,” which none is allowed to question. The affinity seems to lie in their inability to imagine themselves as existing at the level of the putrid refuse surrounding them. In other words, Israelis and Americans find a way to “bond” with respect to both of their twisted attitudes of exceptionalism.

  2. acilius

     /  April 15, 2010

    That’s an interesting point. It suggests another resemblance between nationalism as an ideology and internationalism as an ideology. Each one gives you a way to separate yourself from the people who are actually around you in the name of a supposed relationship with people who are far away. So nationalism may tell Israelis that they don’t need to care about the Arab next door, not when there are Jews in Patagonia who might want his house. Or it might tell Americans something similar. Internationalism might tell you exactly the same thing about your neighbor, only it’s less predictable who the faraway person will be. You might turn your neighbor out of his house in order to hand it over to an outsider with an ethnic connection to you, or you might turn him out of his house to hand it over to an outsider with no ethnic connection to you, so long as that outsider is from a group that has received favorable coverage in the mass media.

    Sometimes, internationalism of the CNN/NATO variety seems to be a grand experiment testing whether ethnic feeling is a necessary component of warfare and atrocity. If the elite media of one country choose at random a war anywhere in the world and pick a side to favor, again randomly, can they incite the people of that country to support military intervention to the benefit of that side? It may not be possible for them to build a majority that actively demands such intervention, but the example of NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia shows that this method can produce popular acquiescence in war.

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