The American Conservative, June 2010

I’m a strange sort of American, one of a handful who has reached middle age without ever having read To Kill a Mockingbird or seen the movie based on it.  Evidently Bill Kauffman also avoided the novel in high school, but has since read it repeatedly and “seen the movie 20 times.”  He makes a fine case for both.   Apostle of “placefulness” that he is, Kauffman defends the book against the charge that it is  “the Southern novel for people who hate the South” by saying that Alabaman Harper Lee is one of a long line of American writers who have shown that “the harshest criticisms of any place come from those who truly love and belong to it.”  Kauffman puts her in the company of “Gore Vidal, Edmund Wilson, William Appleman Williams, Sinclair Lewis, and Edward Abbey.”  He quotes his favorite line from the novel, noble defense attorney Atticus Finch’s injunction to his daughter to “remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.” 

Lest we forget that the magazine is a populist right-wing journal called The American Conservative, Kauffman uses the word “liberal” to mean “self-important hypocritical scold,” as when he writes of that the movie’s “occasional cringe-inducing moments of liberal fantasy- as when the black citizenry, packing the segregated courtroom balcony, stands as one when Atticus passes by- I chalk up, perhaps unfairly, to the vanity of Gregory Peck… Peck’s sanctimony works very well in the film, however; it infuses, rather than embalms, Atticus Finch.” 

My own favorite specimen of the fantasy life of 1960s US liberalism is Star Trek, and Kauffman works a mention of that series into his column.  Praising child actor John Megna, he tells us that Megna would later “chant ‘bonk bonk on the head’ in a famous Star Trek episode.”  I would only point out that the episode in question, “Miri,” is really much better than the line “bonk bonk on the head!” might suggest.   Kauffman’s devotion to the importance of place may inhibit his appreciation of a TV show about people wandering around the galaxy in a spaceship, and his aversion to self-important hypocritical scolds may also get in the way of his enjoyment of Star Trek

Attorney Chase Madar scrutinizes the legal thought of Harold H. Koh, former dean of the Yale Law School, chief legal advisor to the US Department of State, and very likely to be an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court before many more years have passed.  Mr Koh is a renowned expert on international law, which in Madar’s words is supposed to be “much more civilized than mere national law.”  In a recent address to the American Society for International Law, Mr Koh defended the USA’s use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or “drones,” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries where people might be found whom the Obama administration would like to kill.  The same speech praises in glowing terms the administration’s policy of detaining suspected terrorists without trial at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Air Force Base, and other locations around the world.  In Madar’s words, “Koh’s lecture- warmly applauded by the conventioneers- demonstrates once again the amazing elasticity of international law when it comes to the prerogatives of great powers.”  Madar’s article is titled “How Liberals Kill”; again, the sense of “liberal” here seems to be self-important hypocritical scold. 

A review of Garry Wills’ new book about official secrecy and the US national security state includes a line that reminds me of one of my favorite phrases, C. Wright Mills’ “crackpot realism.”  “Insiders to the world of secrecy loved the idea that they had access to special high-quality knowledge, but as often as not they were victims of wishful thinking, gulled by confidence tricksters  and fake experts.”  Ushered into an exclusive world of secrets and power, people often do become intoxicated by their situation and overly impressed by each other.  As a result of this intoxication, people who might under other circumstances be relied on to show excellent judgment may very well make unbelievably foolish decisions.  Mills developed the concept of crackpot realism in a book called The Causes of World War Three; that title shows just how far he thought the foolishness of such groups could take us.

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.

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.