Weak Russia, Reckless Germany

Valentin Serov’s painting of Alexander Nevsky’s triumphal entry into Pskov after defeating the Livonian knights

From the rate at which great errors are repeated, it doesn’t seem that people have much capacity to learn from history.  Look at Germany and Russia.  You’d think that the defeat of the Livonian knights by Alexander Nevsky in 1242 would have taught the Germans that the wisest policy at moments when Russia is weak is not to throw all caution aside and push eastward as hard as possible.  Yet that is precisely what Germany, in all its political incarnations, has done in the centuries since, every time Russia looks vulnerable.  Always before this has resulted in disaster; I don’t see any reason to doubt that the current push to annex Ukraine to the European Union will result in yet another disaster.

I realize that, since Germany is for various geopolitical reasons bound to dominate Europe, it is to be celebrated that its dominion takes the form of the EU.  Certainly the EU is in every way a vast improvement over its predecessor, the SS.  I don’t fault Europeans for accepting EU membership as the best deal Germany is ever going to give them.  And as an American, I don’t fault the USA’s leaders for realizing that our country’s economic and other interests require close relations with Germany and its satellites and maintaining an alliance with them in the form of NATO.  But I do wish that the other EU states and the USA would use their influence to restrain the Germans before their recklessness in the east again plunges us into a planetary war.

The Nation, 24 September 2012

A number of pieces this time argue that, contrary to news outlets that habitually equate the USA’s two major political parties, Republican leaders are demonstrably more likely to tell lies about public policy issues such as antipoverty spending than are their Democratic counterparts.  A piece on The Nation’s website expands on this theme, showing that Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan had privately requested that funds from a federal program he publicly opposed be sent to the congressional district he represents, and that Mr Ryan and the Romney/ Ryan campaign have made a variety of statements explaining this request.  Mr Ryan at first denied that he had requested the funds, then “confessed” (that’s the word The Nation uses) that he had when he learned that a letter with his signature had been released.  The Romney/ Ryan campaign claimed that the funds Mr Ryan requested came from an older program that Mr Ryan had supported, a claim explicitly contradicted by the text of the letter.

Columnist Gary Younge agrees that the Republicans are trying to fool us, but is not as enthusiastic about the Democrats as are some other Nation contributors.  After documenting glaring examples of tokenism he saw while attending the Republican National Convention, Mr Younge writes:

There is nothing inherent in the Republicans’ support for rapacious free-market capitalism that insists on racism. Its role is not ideological but electoral. Racism is simply the means by which the GOP wins over a huge section of the white working class—who, in the absence of class politics, feels its whiteness is its sole privilege worth preserving. Racism may be central to the Republicans’ message but not to its meaning.

Equally, there is nothing in the promotion of a nonwhite politician that need pose a challenge to racism, so long as that person works within the existing racial hierarchies and is dedicated to maintaining them. It is clear what this kind of “progress” can do for Republicans. It’s far more difficult to see what’s in it for blacks and Latinos.

Such is the nature of “diversity” in the modern age—a shift from equal opportunities to photo opportunities that eviscerates the struggle against discrimination of their meaning until we are left with institutions that look different but operate in exactly the same way. A method that, like so many, has traveled seamlessly from the corporate to the political world.

Republicans are not alone in this. Obama’s rise was not consistent with a rise in the economic and political fortunes of African-Americans but, rather, aberrant to it. Under the nation’s first black president the economic gap between black and white Americans has grown. One might argue about the extent to which Obama is responsible for that—but one cannot argue about the fact of it.

The trouble with these symbolic advances is not that they are worthless but that in the absence of substantial advances, the symbolism is all too easily manipulated, misunderstood, discounted and disparaged. The result is stasis for those suffering discrimination, cynicism for those combating it and indifference from those trying to preserve it.

Mr Younge has in the past quoted the line about “diversity” as another word for “black faces in high places.”  That sort of diversity may be preferable to a system where black faces can be found only in low places, but if the system is such that the favored few join with their white colleagues to enforce policies that keep the majority of nonwhites down, it is hardly an inspiring model.   Mr Younge is surely right to argue that it is impossible to make real progress towards equality in either race or class without a politics that challenges both racial and class inequality simultaneously.

Lawrence Joseph offers a poem called “Syria,” about the war currently underway in the country of that name.  A few lines in the middle won’t leave me alone:

“You won’t believe what I have seen”—her voice
lowered almost to a whisper—“a decapitated
body with a dog’s head sewn on it, for example.”
Yes, I know, it’s much more complicated than that.

More complicated, of course, and worse, and worse, and likely to grow still worse.  Graham Usher expresses hopes that the war won’t spread to Lebanon, at least that’s something.
Mark Mazower is a talented writer and a well-informed observer of international affairs.  Readers with high standards will therefore be glad to know that the next time they have trouble falling asleep, an author worth reading has provided that unfailing cure for insomnia, an essay about the European Union.  May almighty Brussels grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.

A provocative remark

From Peter Hitchens’ latest Sunday Mail column:

The French… long ago recognised their defeat by Germany in 1940 as permanent, and resolved to live with it in return for prosperity and the outward appearance of grandeur. That, enshrined in the Elysee Treaty of 1963, is the unspoken pact at the heart of the EU.

It may be easy to dismiss anything published in the Mail, especially when it is harsh toward the French and the Germans.  But is this not in fact a very plausible description of the last 70 years of French policy?

 

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.