Time and cartoons

In the comic books, Superman is quitting his day job as a newspaperman.  The company that publishes the Superman titles, DC Comics, explains that, as part of an effort to make the character more relevant to “the 21st century,” he will become- a blogger!  Evidently the part of the 21st century they want him to be relevant to is the part that ended about 6 years ago.

Nina Paley summarizes the history of the Levant in 3 minutes and 32 seconds of animation.

Despite what you’d expect from a webcomic with its name, Doghouse Diaries rarely deals with dogs.  Yesterday’s strip is therefore in rare company.

Neither Zach Weiner nor Randall Munroe is at all impressed with the level of statistical discourse in mass media.

 

The inheritors

In the 1980s, I was a teenager living down the street from a used bookstore.   My view of the world was shaped by the paperbacks available there for 85¢ and less.  Many of those were political books from 15 or 20 years before. Among them was Peter Mansfield‘s book Nasser’s Egypt, a general survey of Egypt as Mansfield saw it the late 1960s that depicted President Nasser, his pan-Arabist ideology, and the centralized economic planning of his government with the utmost sympathy.  Other political books I found at the same store depicted Nasser less favorably, but even those that presented him very negatively could not suppress all romanticism in describing the ambitions of his program and the dashing quality of his personality.

In the days when I was reading these books, the American mass media were lionizing Anwar Sadat.  From the moment President Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel, he was presented to the American public as an apostle of humanity who embodied hope for peace in the Middle East.  When the movie Gandhi was a hit, Hollywood followed up with a series of other biographical epics about history’s great peacemakers; Sadat, starring Lou Gossett, Junior, was the first.  Indeed, Sadat and Mahatma Gandhi figured in the US media as exact equivalents in those days.

Considering that he came to office in the shadow of two men who inspired so much legend, it is hardly surprising that Hosni Mubarak has been seen in America as a bland placeholder.  Indeed, the most flattering thing I’ve ever read about President Mubarak in a major US publication called him “Egypt’s Gerald Ford,” a man who was his country’s leader today for the sole reason that he happened to have been kicked upstairs to the vice presidency when President Sadat wanted to get him out of the way and appoint a new defense minister.

Therefore, Egypt’s three modern presidents figure in my imagination as dramatically different figures: Nasser the tragic hero, Sadat the secular saint, Mubarak the afterthought.  It always jolts me when I see people bracketing the three together.  I know that from the perspective of many Egyptians the current regime seems like a rancid thing that’s been stinking up their country since 1952, but when I read phrases like “Nasir-Sadat-Mubarak continuum” I always scratch my head.

Another book I found at the same store was Eric L. McKitrick‘s Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South.  A line of McKitrick’s reproduced on the back cover convinced me to buy it:  “Nothing is more susceptible to oblivion than an argument, however ingenious, that has been discredited by events.”  None of the pro-slavery documents McKitrick found put forth an argument that I would call especially ingenious, though several of them did manage to raise awkward questions about the economic system of the states in which laborers were nominally free.  Still, I think McKitrick makes a vital point.  If some Southern apologist had constructed a truly brilliant argument in defense of slavery, the fact that no serious person is today looking for any such argument would likely mean that the apologist’s work would be forgotten.

The same applies to other arguments.  Whatever its drawbacks, Nasser’s pan-Arabism had  far more to recommend it than did the practice of slavery in the United States.  Yet it too is a spent force, one which has left many monuments but which no longer attracts followers.  President Mubarak’s career is one of those monuments; his administration’s evident lack of public support shows that he has long since exhausted whatever political inheritance may have been left from Nasser when he took office decades ago. Of course, the events that discredited pan-Arabism took place long before Mubarak came to power.  By 1981, Syria had been out of the United Arab Republic for twenty years, and North Yemen had been out of the United Arab States for as long.  The June 1967 war with Israel would bury pan-Arabism, but the collapse of these federations may have marked its real death.  The case for pan-Arabism, no matter its abstract appeal, could not survive these events.

If nothing is more susceptible to oblivion than an argument discredited by events, surely the converse is true as well.  Nothing is less susceptible to oblivion than an ideology, however asinine, that has inspired a winning cause and given many people opportunities to become rich.  I suspect that many of the ideas which still have currency and power in world affairs are at least as weak as pan-Arabism.  Indeed, if we were to examine them in the abstract we would find that many forms of nationalism and internationalism have the same logical structure as pan-Arabism.

(more…)

Philip Weiss’ latest

A powerful cri de coeur from Mondoweiss, titled “The occupation is the Stanley Milgram experiment for American Jews,” turns on this paragraph:

The general U.S. Jewish position is like the Stanley Milgram experiment, the famous Yale study in which paid research subjects were instructed by a researcher to apply higher and higher levels of shock to someone on the other side of a curtain every time he got an answer wrong on a test. And with increasing levels of shock that other subject– who wasn’t really a subject but a confederate of the researcher– howled louder and louder and passed out from pain. Still the students applied the shock. That is the American Jewish community. They hear the Palestinians screaming for 60 years but they have been told by an authority figure that the Palestinians deserve the shocks they are getting– because they are resisters, because they are terrorists, because they are animals, because they are violent, because their women cover themselves, because they live off the land, because they want their houses back, because they don’t have gay rights, because they read the Koran, because they want to return to their homes, because they elected Hamas… on and on the instructor justifies it with lies and bullshit, still the community cranks the dial and ignores the screams.

The Milgram experiment seems to have a powerful resonance for a certain kind of American intellectual.  For example, in his 1999 book The Holocaust in American Life, Peter Novick suggested that the USA might be a better place if, instead of recurring so often to the Holocaust as the ultimate index of political evil, Americans were in the habit of referring to the findings of the Milgram experiment.  I attended a talk Professor Novick gave in that year; from the podium, he made such a strong claim for the symbolic power of the Milgram experiment that half the Q & A session consisted of expressions of disbelief.  Still, I highly recommend Weiss’ essay, and for that matter Novick’s works.

 

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.

Four bureaucracies

I’ve always been interested in the power of bureaucracy.  The word “bureaucracy” is often used to mean an inefficient organization, but if that’s all bureaucracy really was it would never have become the most pervasive form of social organization in the modern world.  In fact, bureaucracies are the most efficient of organizations.  We become frustrated with them not because they can do nothing right, but because they often seem to do everything except what we need. 

The current issue of The Nation got me thinking about four major bureaucracies in particular: the regime of Nazi Germany; the state of Israel; the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church; and the criminal justice system in the USA.   

One of the writers whose works have done the most to inform my interest in bureaucracy was Raul Hilberg, the historian of the Holocaust.  An essay about Hilberg in the current issue of The Nation quotes a key sentence from Hilberg’s 1961 book The Destruction of the European Jews: “The destruction of the Jews was an administrative process, and the annihilation of Jewry required the implementation of systematic administrative measures in successive steps.”  Hilberg’s masterwork lays out the operation of this process according to the drastically simplified rationality that makes an impersonal bureaucracy so powerful a form of organization. 

The essayist comments on the chapter of The Destruction of the European Jews that Hilberg devotes to an absurdly harsh diatribe against the Judenräte, the Jewish councils that tried to develop a policy of accommodation with the Nazis.  Keeping in mind that much of the power of the Nazi regime came from the smooth functioning of its bureaucratic apparatus, we can see why the Judenräte were not able to be very helpful to their coreligionists.  The informal, traditional, neighborhood-based influence of the Judenräte was no match for the modern bureaucratic state. 

Being unfair to the Jews of Holocaust-era Europe is not a way to win friends; one of the reasons the essay is titled “A Conscious Pariah” is the criticism his chapter on the Judenräte brought Hilberg.   Something else hat might have made Hilberg a pariah among the left-wingers who write for The Nation was his outspoken Zionism.  The Nation is sometimes described as anti-Israel; I don’t think that’s a fair characterization, but certainly the word “Zionist” does not often appear there as a term of praise.  The magazine is largely written by left-wing Jews from New York, and its coverage of Israel/Palestine is mostly based on reports from left-wing Jews in Tel Aviv.  So its views tend to reflect the Meretz/Peace Now line, and to dismiss arguments as to whether it was a good idea to found Israel as distractions from the peace process.  Someone of Hilberg’s orientation would almost have to be a Zionist, though.  If the only force that can resist a modern bureaucratic state is another modern bureaucratic state, then we not only have to condemn the Judenräte of the 1930s and 1940s as  worse than useless to the Jews targeted by the Third Reich’s policy of extermination, but we must also say that the only thing that could have helped them was a modern bureaucratic state with their interests at heart. 

In the same issue, Katha Pollitt voices her exasperation that the Roman Catholic Church is still treated as a source of moral authority despite the endless cascade of scandals involving bishops who have sheltered pedophile priests from exposure.  Pollitt responds to defensive Catholics who claim that the hierarchy of their church is being singled out by listing other individuals and groups that have been accused of sexually abusing children.  She goes on to say that there is a difference between the Roman church and these others:

The difference is, when other professionals who work with children are caught out, justice takes its course. People are fired. Licenses are lost. Reputations are ruined. Sometimes jail is involved. No human institution is perfect, and it would be foolish to suggest that incidents are always investigated and that abusers who don’t happen to be priests are never protected by colleagues or superiors. Still, it’s probably safe to say that if a principal was accused of overlooking a child molester in his classrooms or recycling him to other schools, nobody would compare his suffering to Christ’s.

(more…)

The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must

Thucydides wouldn't have been surprised

 

The February 16-February 28 issue of Counterpunch looked at various statements about international law that have come from offices of the Israeli Defense Forces in the last few years and found in them a systematic disregard for the concept of international law.  These statements, the author of the piece argues, are part of a campaign to render international law irrelevant to the conflicts in Israel/Palestine, and as such represent a threat to the entire project of international law.  The blub on the front of the newsletter asks us to “Imagine an entire world unprotected against occupation, invasions, exploitation, and warehousing, a global Gaza!” 

I would suggest that such a feat of imagination might be rather easy to achieve.  The whole history of mankind, from the earliest records to the present moment, offers us the spectacle of precisely such a world.  International law no more protects the weak against the depredations of the powerful today than appeals to justice protected the Melians against Athens in 416 BC.  

Thucydides’ story of the Peloponnesian Wars summarizes my habitual view of “international law,” in his day and ours.  Writing of the events that had led to the outbreak of war between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC, Thucydides concluded that the main cause of the war was the rising power of Athens and the fear with which the other Greeks viewed that power.  After ten years of desperate struggle, the Spartans and their allies brought Athenian power to a standstill.  A series of negotiations concluded in 421 BC brought the first phase of the war to an end.  Thucydides devotes much of Book 5 of his History to the detailed legalistic language of the treaties of this year known under the name “The Peace of Nicias.”  Thucydides’ decision to devote so much of his text to these documents puts a heavy emphasis on the treaties and their legalism.

Had the History ended there, one might have imagined it to tell a story of the triumph of law in human affairs.  What in fact follows, however, shows that nothing of the kind happened.  The Peace of Nicias was not at all satisfactory, involving frequent confrontations between proxies of Athens and Sparta and occasional battles between Athenian and Spartan forces.  When, five years into that period of  tension, the people of Melos tried to break their alliance with Athens, the Athenians sent envoys to hear the Melians’ case.  The Melians appealed to justice and to the legal principles encoded in the treaties of the Peace of Nicias.  The Athenians responded that “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”  When the Melians appealed to notions of legality, the Athenians responded that these obtain among equals, while in cases where one party is far stronger, the other must submit and make the best of submission.  The law that prevails among states is not the sort of law agitated in courts, but a law of nature.  “Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do” (Rex Warner’s Penguin Classics translation.)     

The Athenians would destroy Melos, killing its men and selling the women and children as slaves.  Thucydides leaves us to find justice for the Melians in another sort of natural law.  The next topic he turns to is Athens’ invasion of Sicily, a military adventure that would cost Athens tens of thousands of men, virtually its entire fleet, and its hopes of winning the second phase of the Peloponnesian Wars.  By 404 BC, the Athenians would be defeated, as abjectly at the mercy of Sparta as the Melians had been at their own mercy 12 years before.  The ancients Greeks believed that power bred arrogance, that arrogance bred folly, and that folly brought the mighty low. 

The Greeks tended to describe this process in mythological terms, attributing it to the jealousy of the gods.  By laying out a narrative in that traditional form without  dwelling on the gods in his own voice, Thucydides was able to gain a reputation as the first scientific historian.  Whether science can discern in history a pattern of power leading to arrogance leading to folly leading to downfall, the idea of such a pattern is at least as likely to be comforting to the victims of power as are any of the lawyerly fairy tales told at the Hague and in the headquarters of the United Nations. 

As for the case of Israel/ Palestine, the idea of international law may at times have had a gentling effect on the Israeli state.  On the one hand, it may have given the Israeli leadership a set of criteria they had to meet if they were to be assured of a smooth flow of operations in their relations with the outside world.  And now and then, some Israelis may have seen in the promise of international law something they could rally around, something to soften the harsher angles of Zionism.  So whatever limitations there might be in the prospects for international law as an actual force  that could protect the weak “against occupation, invasions, exploitation, and warehousing,” and however much the spectacles that we now call “international law” might disgust us, still we might wish that it will go on.

Ukuleles for Peace

Thanks to Armelle for promoting this documentary about Ukuleles for Peace, a group that brings Jewish and Muslim children in Israel together to play ukuleles. Daphna Orion and Paul Moore are the husband-and-wife team behind the organization; their comic bickering in Part One is worth the price of admission. 

Part One

Part Two

They cry peace, peace, when there is no peace

nation 2 november 2009Of several pieces on the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama, the best is by Alexander Cockburn, who recounts the genuinely gruesome records of other recipients of that prize.  Of the three US presidents who preceded the incumbent as winners of that revered accolade, Cockburn declares the least wicked to have been Jimmy Carter.  That is the same Jimmy Carter who “amped up the new cold war, got Argentinian torturers to train the Contras and above all dragged the United States into Afghanistan.”  In closing, Cockburn lists some recipients of the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples.  It’s rather hilarious sobering  to look at the murderer’s row of Nobel Peace Prize winners and then consider that figures as substantial as Paul Robeson, Bertolt Brecht, and Pablo Neruda won something as disreputable-sounding as the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples. 

Two pieces tell of changing attitudes towards Israel/ Palestine among American Jews.  Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss (of the Mondoweiss blog) report on the refusal of established American Jewish organizations to follow the people they are supposed to represent and start looking for peaceful solutions to the conflict.  Another article reports on Tom Dine, a former top lobbyist for the hardline American-Israel Political Action Committee who is now working to promote a two-state solution and calling for a warming of relations between the US and Syria.  The online edition of The Nation also carries a noteworthy piece this week about Palestinian children in Israeli prisons.

The Nation, 13 April 2009

nation-13-april-09Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon review Caryl Churchill‘s new play, Tell Her the Truth, which tells the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict in ten minutes.  “Why is the play so short?  Probably because Churchill means to slap us out of our rehearsed arguments to look at the immediate human crisis.”  Churchill cares about what human beings are doing to each other and how they justify what they have done to themselves and to each other, especially in the justifications parents give their children.  Tell Her the Truth consists of a series of lines giving the parents of seven unseen Jewish children advice as to what they should tell those children about various historical acts of violence, some committed against Jews in the name of antisemitism, some committed by Jews in the name of Zionism. 

Tell Her the Truth, like every publication critical of Israeli policy, has attracted charges of antisemitism; much of the case against it apparently hinges on a line that does not appear in the play.  Some have claimed that the play raises the spectre of “blood libel,” the old idea that Jews ritually murder Gentile children.  “Those who level the blood-libel accusation insist that Churchill has written “tell her I’m happy when I see their children covered in blood.””  What she actually wrote was quite different: “tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.”  Kushner and Solomon interpret the real line thusly: “The last line of the monologue is clearly a warning: you can’t protect your children by being indifferent to the children of others.”

(more…)

The American Conservative, 9 March 2009

Benjamin Disraeli as a Young Man
Benjamin Disraeli as a Young Man

A review of Adam Kirsch’s biography of Benjamin Disraeli focuses on Kirsch’s idea that because Disraeli realized he could not stop his fellow nineteenth-century Englishmen from thinking of him primarily in terms of his Jewish ancestry, he “did not attempt to disguise his Jewish background.  He embellished it.”   Disraeli purported to be far more deeply involved with that side of his ancestry than he in fact was, even explaining his active membership in the Church of England as an example of his fealty to “the only Jewish institution that remains… the visible means which embalms the race.”  Meanwhile, the Jewish characters and themes in Disraeli’s novels appall modern sensibilities.  Sidonia, a character in the Young England trilogy (Coningsby, Sybil, and Tancred,) “looks like nothing so much as an anti-Semitic hate figure.  It is amazing, in fact, how Disraeli manages to combine in this one character every malicious slander and paranoid fear that the anti-Semitic imagination can breed.”  Disraeli’s manipulation of the label his fellows had imposed upon him enabled him to become prime minister of the United Kingdom.  Disraeli’s ability to “outline [an] agenda of radical change to be achieved conservatively, a political program that allowed him to reinvent himself as the representative not only of the wealthy and the working class but of the Tory Party, too” has inspired rightist politicians like Richard Nixon and the neocons.      

If Kirsch is right, Disraeli knotted his contemporaries’ perceptions of him around their image of “the Jew,” using their prejudices to transform  himself from a marginal figure unlikely to make a mark in politics into a figure of England’s national mythology.  Another complex of ideas twists around another such image in Brendan O’Neill’s  analysis of the thoughts of some of Israel’s more fervent defenders in the West.  O’Neill argues that the individuals he cites are less interested in Israel as an actual place inhabited by living people than they are in using a particular idea of Israel as a symbol for the values of the Enlightenment.  “In effect, Israel is cynically, and lazily, being turned into a proxy army for a faction in the Western Culture Wars that has lost the ability to defend Enlightenment values on their own terms or even to define and face up to the central problem of anti-Enlightenment tendencies today.”  This use of Israel as a pawn in cultural struggles centered elsewhere shades into philosemitism.  “[A]s Richard S. Levy writes in his book Anti-Semitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, simple philosemitism, like anti-Semitism, also treats the Jews as ‘radically different or exceptional’…  Where anti-Semites project their frustrations with the world and their naked prejudices onto the Jews, and frequently onto Israel, too, the new philosemites project their desperation for political answers, for some clarity, for a return to Enlightenment values onto Israel and the Jews.  Neither is a burden the Jewish people can, or should be expected to, bear.”    

(more…)