Remembering Tuli Kupferberg

This reference by Tsaurah Litzky prompted me to look up Tuli Kupferberg‘s song “Go Fuck Yourself With Your Atom Bomb.”  There was something startling about all the popup windows inviting me to download “Go Fuck Yourself With Your Atom Bomb” as a ringtone.  The youtube post below is a radio conversation with still photos.  I found a transcript of the conversation here.

It’s interesting to me that the caller tries to use the same psychologizing explanations to dismiss Tuli’s anti-militarism that Tuli uses to jeer at militarism.

A peace movement begins in Afghanistan

Truthout has a report about a movement that started among peace-minded young people in central Afghanistan and that is beginning to attract followers elsewhere.  Here’s a quote:

In the United States, we may find it hard to believe that anything good can actually come out of Afghanistan, or we may have fallen into a trap of thinking that Afghans cannot accomplish anything useful without foreign aid and assistance. I confess that I struggle to live outside the shadow of this narrow-mindedness and ethno-centrism. Certainly, if the scope of our imaginations is limited by CNN and Fox News, we would not be likely to imagine an indigenous peace group forming in Bamiyan Province. But this is exactly what has happened.

More information is available here and here and here.

 

 

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 James K. Polk Knew

President James Knox Polk

I’ve long tended to look at American history and see in the presidency of James Knox Polk (1845-1849) the origin of a great curse.  President Polk led the United States into war with Mexico.  In consequence of that war, the United States forced Mexico to cede its claims on all territory north of its present boundaries.  The US victory was quick and easy; for a loss of about 13,000 soldiers, the USA gained an internationally undisputed claim to almost a million square miles of territory, stretching from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.  Americans would flood into this territory, displacing and slaughtering the native peoples on whom the Mexicans had made so little impression during their years of nominal rule.  Northern and Southern states vied with each other for influence over this newly secured territory, a contest that laid the political groundwork for the Civil War twelve years later.  As the USA’s first successful attack on a sovereign nation, the invasion of Mexico crossed a psychological boundary which previous attacks on native peoples and British possessions had left in place.  Moreover, the relatively low cost and fantastically rich rewards of the US victory fed in Americans the cannibal appetites of militarism.  So the curse that I have seen as the legacy of the Polk administration includes nearly all of America’s subsequent wars.    

President Polk represented the Democratic Party; his chief opposition was the Whig Party.  I’m a bit of a Whig myself, which is one reason why I chose a cartoon image of Millard Fillmore as my WordPress avatar.*  Leading Whigs like Fillmore spoke out against the invasion of Mexico.  The Whig-dominated Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution during the war denouncing the US effort as the result of a criminal conspiracy to extend slavery into the West.  When Polk claimed that Mexico’s hostile greeting to a US cavalry column he had dispatched into Mexican territory between the Rio del Norte and the Nueces somehow constituted an act by which “American blood was shed on American soil,” Illinois’ Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln introduced a resolution into the US House of Representatives demanding that the president show the Congress the spot on which this had occurred.  The so-called “Spot Resolution” had the support of the congressional Whig party, and made Lincoln a national figure.  Among future President Lincoln’s colleagues in the House was former President John Quincy Adams.  Technically an independent, Adams was a hero to the Whigs, a friend to Whig Party mastermind Henry Clay, and a reliable supporter of the Whigs’ core policies.  Adams would collapse on the House floor and die in the Capitol; virtually his last earthly act was to vote against a resolution commending US veterans of the war against Mexico.  Many young Whigs who fought in the war would afterward match their elders in the fervor with which they denounced it; Ulysses S. Grant, for example, would write in his memoirs that as a young captain he had won his medals as a perpetrator of “the most unjust war ever waged.”     

The Whigs championed industrialization.  They saw economic centralization as indispensible to industrialization.  Therefore, they were allies of big business and generally sympathetic to established elites.  As such, they would have to be called a conservative party, and their opposition to the war against Mexico would qualify them, if only for the duration of the Polk  administration, as specimens of the antiwar Right.  Chronicles magazine is a voice of today’s antiwar Right, but not of renewed Whiggery.  Their July issue included a review of Robert W. Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent which praises Merry for making a case that Polk was right.  Since I’m so far out of sympathy with Polk and his war, I will quote at length from this review:

Here is the geopolitical reality that Polk grasped.  In the 1840’s, the western third of the North American continent was in play.  The players were the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and Mexico.  Each claimed some portion of that vast territory.  Polk understood that the question was not which of those claims was most legitimate (who, after all, would decide that?),  but which of the four powers had the means and will to enforce their own claims.  Mexico did not.  She “was a dysfunctional, unstable, weak nation whose population wasn’t sufficient to control all the lands within its domain.”  Bernard deVoto made the same point two generations ago:

[I]t is a fundamental mistake to think of Mexico in this period, or for many years before, as a republic, or even as a government.  It must be understood as a late stage in the breakdown of the Spanish Empire. 

There was no stability or institutional legitimacy in Mexico.  Revolution followed revolution, coup succeeded coup.  Mexican governments could neither govern, protect, nor populate the country’s far northern provinces.  That incapacity was most obvious in New Mexico, where the people were oppressed by taxes and terrorized by Indian raids, and consequently not inclined to fight in its defense.  Thus did Gen. Manuel Armijo’s army of conscripts flee at the approach of the Americans.  Col. Stephen Watts Kearney’s army of frontier dragoons and Missouri volunteer cavalry took Santa Fe without a fight.   

There are some good points in this.  What Mexico ceded to the USA in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was not land that was populated by people loyal to Mexico and protected by its government, but was instead a claim on territory chiefly inhabited by native people who were barely aware of the existence of Mexico.  It is not too harsh to say that by 1846 Mexico had failed to make good on this claim.  And it is also true that in the mid-1840s Russia and Britain were both very active in the nortwestern parts of North America.  So if Polk had lost 1844 election to Whig nominee Henry Clay, and Clay had as president refused to make war on Mexico, then there would have been a considerable likelihood that instead of confronting each other in a the Crimea in 1854-1856 Britain and Russia would have had their showdown in San Francisco Bay.  But I’m still not for the Mexican War.        

*Here’s the cartoon Fillmore, for those of you who’d like a look:

Tom Tomorrow, Today

A quote from General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Afghanistan.  As always, click on the picture to go to the original site:

Some hide themselves, and some are hidden; some are forgotten, and some forget themselves

July’s issue of The American Conservative features a piece by Sydney Schanberg arguing that American prisoners of war were left over in Vietnam after direct US involvement in the war there ended in the early 1970s.  Several other pieces pick up on Schanberg’s claims, drawing various dire conclusions about the nature of the political leadership in the USA.   

In October 2008, The Nation ran an article in which Schanberg made this same case.  I noted that article here, remarking that I had never given that idea much credence, but that I was impressed by what Schanberg wrote.  Amid the pro-Schanberg pieces in this issue of The American Conservative is a short article by Gareth Porter titled “The evidence doesn’t stack up.”  Unlike the readers who wrote The Nation to protest the appearance of Schanberg’s piece there , Porter does not list his credentials as a scholar of the US military involvement in Vietnam.  Also unlike them, he does not declare himself to be displeased that the topic is being discussed.  Most profoundly unlike them, he looks at Schanberg’s evidence and judges it on its merits.  Indeed, the only way in which Porter resembles the outraged letter writers of The Nation is that he finds Schanberg’s case entirely unconvincing.  Porter argues that the document to which Schanberg has attached the greatest weight is almost certainly a forgery, and in any case doesn’t say what Schanberg claims it says.   Porter goes on to find many other faults with Schanberg’s argument. 

Something that is, I think, quite well-founded appears in Andrew Bacevich’s contribution to the discussion:

Like slavery or the Holocaust, Vietnam is part of the past not yet fully consigned to the past.

The practice of publicly displaying the POW/MIA flag testifies to this fact. On the one hand, it represents a lingering communal acknowledgment of loss and more broadly of massive national failure. On the other, it sustains the pretense—utterly illusory—that a proper accounting, not only of the missing but of the entire Vietnam experience, is still forthcoming. “You deserve to be brought home,” the flag implicitly states, “And we deserve to know why you were sent in the first place.”

Yet to undertake a serious accounting would find Americans facing a plethora of discomfiting truths, not only about the knaves and fools who concocted the Vietnam War but about the American way of life and the premises on which it is based. Tell the whole truth about Vietnam and you crack open a door that few Americans wish to peer behind. To do so is to come face-to-face with troubling questions about the meaning of freedom and democracy as actually practiced in the United States.

Few Americans are willing to confront such questions, the answers to which could oblige us to revise the way we live. So we salve our consciences by flying flags, sustaining the pretense that we care when what we desperately want to do is to forget as much as possible.

In the same issue, Paul Gottfried finds it odd that many Americans who stand on the political Right are so fond of calling their opponents “fascists” and of claiming that fascism was a left-wing movement.  Gottfried is himself very, very conservative in his politics.  Much as he might like to disassociate himself and his fellow Rightists from the taint of fascism, Gottfried also has a scholarly reputation and a lifetime of intellectual integrity, both of which he would like to preserve.  Gottfried lists a number of facts which, he says, make it impossible for a serious person of any disposition to see fascism as anything other than a phenomenon of the extreme Right, and ridicules those who disregard these facts.    

If the idea of fascism as a leftist movement is so ludicrous, why does it have so much support among American right-wingers?  Gottfried gives four possible reasons.  First, Leftists who keep their cool when they are accused of being Communists or utopians tend to sputter and look silly when they hear themselves being called fascists.  While this might be fun for conmservatives who are frustrated to meet opponents who don’t take their ideas seriously, Gottfried says that “only a cultural illiterate could believe that interwar fascists were intent on pursuing a massive welfare state centered on the achievement of social equality, with special protection for racial minorities, feminists, alternative lifestyles, and whatever else the latter-day Left is about.”    

Second, some American right-wingers in the 1930s “had a very limited understanding of the European Right or the European Left” and so “made the unwarranted leap from thinking that all forms of economic planning were unacceptable to believing that all were virtually identical.”  Thus they came to believe that the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, the Five-Year Plans of Stalin, and the corporatism of Mussolini were three names for the same thing.  Those thinkers started a tradition that is still alive and well in some circles in today’s USA. 

Third, the use of “fascism” as an all-purpose term of abuse represents an appeal to the argumentum ad Hitlerem, in which any resemblance between one’s opponent and Adolf Hitler, no matter how superficial or strained, is treated as if it released one from the obligation to answer that opponent’s claims.  Fourth, by attempting to brand what Gottfried calls “the latter-day Left” as fascist, the latter-day Right can pretend to be more different than it in fact is from its opposition.  

I can think of a fifth possible reason.  American economic analyst Lawrence Dennis became notorious in the 1930s and 1940s for a series of books in which he argued that market-driven capitalism was doomed, and that representative democracy would go down with it.  The economic system of the future, Dennis decided, was one in which capitalists retained nominal ownership and day-to-day control of the means of production, but government coordinated their activities.  The political system that would go along with this corporatist economy might be dressed up to look like a democracy, but would in fact be dominated by an elite that would remain in power regardless of the outcome of any elections that might be held.  To keep the public in support of this system and to keep the money supply from contracting, the elite would likely encourage an attitude of militant nationalism and a warlike foreign policy.  This system Dennis called fascism. 

 Dennis consistently said that when fascism came to America, it would not be called by that name.  Rather, it would be marketed as a new form of democracy, as the very antidote to fascism.  He predicted that he himself would be among the first dissidents prosecuted once the USA had become fascist.  Indeed, in 1944 Dennis was put on trial for sedition.  The prosecution collapsed, and Dennis wrote a book about it

In his 1969 book Operational Thinking for Survival, Dennis reviewed the arguments he had made in the 1930s and early 1940s.  He concluded that his predictions had been substantially correct.  Avoiding the word “fascism,” he wrote that our current political and economic system “is one that has no generally accepted name.” 

So, perhaps the reason Left and Right are so eager to fling the word “fascism” at each other is that each is haunted by the fear that it is powerless to keep the country from becoming fascist.  For all that Rightists might long to restore the Old Republic and Leftists might long to create a new system “centered on the achievement of social equality, with special protection for racial minorities, feminists, alternative lifestyles,” each looks on helplessly as events make a mockery of these ambitions.  Whatever success each side might have in its attempts to promote its vision of freedom, the movement towards fascism goes on relentlessly.

A deal with the devil

Afghan boy dancing

Citizens of the United States of America and other countries that have armies stationed in Afghanistan may wonder what sort of Afghans have made themselves allies of the forces operating in our names.   An article by Kelly Beaucar Vlahos on antiwar.com sheds a great deal of light on this question.  Vlahos quotes Patrick Cockburn’s remark that “one reason Afghan villagers prefer to deal with the Taliban rather than the government security forces is that the latter have a habit of seizing their sons at checkpoints and sodomizing them.”  There’s a great deal more to it than that, unfortunately.  On 20 April, PBS’ documentary series Frontline will be airing a report called “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” which should bring this situation to broader notice in the States. 

The portrait Vlahos and others paint suggests that the USA and the other foreign armies are in such a weak position in Afghanistan that they could not remain there if they did not have the support of men who make a lifestyle of enslaving and raping children.  If true, that is not only a reason to call for an end to the occupation of Afghanistan, but also a reason to discard the notion of “humanitarian military intervention.”  Whatever evils we may begin a war intending to stop are likely to be dwarfed by the evils we will have to promote in order to succeed in that war.

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.