What is the best way to avoid disappointment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The American Conservative, May 2010

Can left-wing opponents of the American Empire join with right-wing defenders of the Old Republic to build an effective antiwar movement in the USA?  Fourteen authors, including leftists like Paul Buhle and Matthew Yglesias and rightists like Paul Gottfried and John Lukacs, consider the question.     

The cover image, representing a face-off between Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu, is a bit of an absurdity.  These two men disagree on certain issues and cannot afford to ignore one another, but they are neither adversaries in world affairs nor equal in international influence.  This absurdity strikes me as out of place.  The American Conservative‘s  line about Israel/ Palestine seems simply to be that the USA should moderate its support of Israel; some of the magazine’s contributors might go so far as to advocate a policy of complete neutrality between Israel and its Arab antagonists, while others would recommend that the USA continue its substantive support of Israel, but would counsel American officials to tone down some of their more overheated Zionist preachments.  Most contributors are located somewhere between these viewpoints.  That range of opinion hardly qualifies the magazine as extremist, yet the cover image and article titles such as “Normalizing Relations” (about Mr O’s willingness “to take on America’s most influential ally”), “Out From the Shadows” (in which we are told that the American-Israel Political Action Committee now “confronts its worst fear: daylight,”) and “Can We Avoid Israel’s War?” (about US-Iran relations)suggest the overwrought tone that we expect from the fringes of the debate. 

The issue includes a reprint of a story by the late Louis Auchincloss, “America First,” originally published in Auchincloss’ collection Skinny Island.  Set in 1941, it tells the story of Elaine Wagstaff, a rich old American lady who was driven from her adopted home in Paris when the Germans overran France and moved in with her grown daughter Suzanne in New York.  Elaine’s friends are ardent advocates of US intervention to aid Britain in its fight against the Third Reich; Suzanne’s social circle are equally ardent in their opposition to such intervention.  At first, Elaine goes along with her daughter and joins the America First Committee, an organization which did in fact exist and which was at its peak the largest antiwar group the USA has ever seen (including such members as Auchincloss’ kinsman Gore Vidal.)  Elaine finds the America Firsters so uncouth compared to her Francophile friends that she eventually finds she cannot tolerate their company.  Elaine turns away from Suzanne and Suzanne’s friends, returning to her old circle and their interventionist views. 

The fascinating thing about this story is how little the characters’ political allegiances have to do with any of the ostensible reasons people usually give to justify them.  None of them really cares very much about who rules Europe or what happens to the people who live there.  Suzanne recoils from her son-in-law’s antisemitism, not because she cares at all about the fate of Europe’s Jews, but because in her circles antisemitism “was ‘hick’: one could not be bigoted and ‘top-drawer.'”  Nor does any character show a very clear idea of what the national interest of the United States might require.  Each character has devised a little drama in his or her head in which s/he plays the leading role and each of the others is assigned a supporting part.  Elaine’s fascination with France has been a bitter disappointment to Suzanne; Suzanne’s staid absorption in American high society has been a disappointment to Elaine.  Suzanne has scripted a drama in which Elaine will make a lifetime of disappointments up to her by playing a supporting role.  Politics is to her merely the stage on which this drama will play out.  Conversely, Elaine is attached to her old friends and to their shared fantasy of a life in the upper reaches of French society.  When she chooses interventionism, she is in fact choosing them and that fantasy.  Through most of the story The last line of the story is It is an ugly story, in a way, but one that rings true.    

An article about the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) cites numerous publications over the years that have exposed the SPLC as a racket that does virtually nothing to advance its stated aim of battling white supremacists, but a great deal to enrich its leaders.  There doesn’t seem to be anything new in this piece, but it might be useful to have several exposés all cited in one place.   

Bill Kauffman’s column calls on the people of Idaho to embrace a writer who was born in their state and spent most of his life there, Vardis Fisher (1895-1968.)  Kauffman lists two books by the late Mr Fisher that sound interesting, a novel called Mountain Man and the WPA‘s Guide to Idaho.  He also mentions Fisher’s novelistic history of the world in twelve volumes that “drove away most of his modest readership.”  Acknowledging that Fisher’s defense of free-market capitalism and rebellion against his Mormon upbringing left him “almost a parody of the cantankerous libertarian/ village atheist,” Kauffman argues that he deserves remembering as a placeful man, who stayed in Idaho and devoted himself to the spirit of that place when he might have gone to the metropolis and lived for money and fame.

Chronicles, January and February 2010

When I wonder what’s gone wrong with the USA in recent years, I often come back to the idea that many of my countrymen have succumbed to a sort of mass narcissism.  US news outlets and public figures seem to believe that they have; when any sort of anti-Americanism anywhere in the world makes news, few voices with a national audience dare to go into depth about what might drive people to act against the USA or its citizens.  It’s as if the American public could not tolerate any reference to itself except in the form of a continuous stream of unrestrained flattery. 

Thus the US media often depicts acts of violence against Americans, be they acts of war carried out by enemy combatants or acts of terrorism carried out by private individuals, as if they were not only unjustified, but unmotivated.  Since we are not to admit that there is anything about the USA that could possibly be seen as unattractive, we are not allowed to say that anyone could have a reason, even a bad reason, to attack Americans.  When Americans are attacked, therefore, the attacks appear in the news not as the deeds of people who are driven to respond to some or other event or policy that has angered them, but as things that exist independently of any sort of cause-and-effect.  In that way, the attacks are taken out of time and are presented to the public as entities that have always existed and will always exist.  Thus we have obsessive coverage of  security lapses, even very minor lapses such as the gate-crashers at the White House last year.  An attack might be lurking nearby, seeking an opportunity to occur.  We must therefore be ever more on guard against attacks, which means in practice that we must be ever more submissive to the demands of the security apparatus and its masters.  Mass narcissism thereby leads to mass degradation. 

The two most recent issues of ultra-conservative Chronicles magazine both contain pieces that challenge this narcissism.    Ted Galen Carpenter’s article in the February issue about US torture policies that took shape under the Bush/ Cheney administration and that continue under Obama and Biden cites reports that show those policies to be the main motivation for foreign fighters who went to Iraq to fight Americans in the years after 2003.  It’s a shame Carpenter’s article isn’t online; the whole thing is a powerful indictment of torture, and of advocates in the Bush and Obama administrations. 

The January 2010 issue carries a column in which “paleolibertarian” Justin Raimondo says that his job as editor of antiwar.com is complicated by the fact that most of his readers and many of those who write for the site are on the political left.  He is often puzzled by his readers’ unwillingness to accept the conclusions of their own arguments.  So, “For years, opponents of endless military intervention in the Middle East have been warning that our actions will lead to ‘blowback,’ a term used by the CIA to indicate the old aphorism that ‘actions have consequences.'”  Thus far Raimondo and his readers are in agreement.  However, when Raimondo suggested in a recent antiwar.com column that Major Nidal Malik Hasan may have acted on behalf of al-Qaeda when he massacred fellow US soldiers at Fort Hood, he was deluged with harsh criticism.  Unwilling to see the shooting as the major’s attempt to retaliate for US policies that had killed his fellow Muslims, many fans of the site insisted that the attack was orchestrated by the US national security apparatus to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment and rebuild public support for the wars in Afghanistan.  The mainstream press, meanwhile, tried in those early days after the massacre to ignore Major Hasan’s religion and his record of vehement opposition to US Middle Eastern policy, instead peddling the theory that as a psychiatrist he “had, in effect, ‘caught post-traumatic stress disorder, the very affliction it was his job to ameliorate.  According to this theory, the warfare-induced stress experienced by his patients had rubbed off on Hasan to such an extent that he went ballistic.”  The PTSD-by-proxy theory may preserve our national narcissism, ascribing the attack to a cloud of mental illness that drifts from one person to another, giving us an excuse to dismiss any questions about what we as a people may have done to provoke it.  Raimondo is having none of it:

[T]he facts are these: Major Hasan was perfectly correct in stating that the United States is embarked on a war against Islam, and that no one who is a practicing Muslim can consider taking up arms against his fellows in this fight.  All pieties to the effect that we’re on the side of the “good” Muslims notwithstanding, the United States has been fighting what is essentially a religious war.  Is it an accident that we’re currently occupying two Muslim countries, and are threatening to make war on a third?

Of course, the September 11 attacks didn’t have to be the first shot in a “clash of civilizations,” as the famous phrase goes.  We could have treated Osama bin Laden and his crew the same way we treated the Mafia and other criminal gangs from the land of my ancestors:  not by invading Italy, but by targeting their leaders, tracking them down, and pursuing them relentlessly until they were all captured or killed.

Later in the same column:

The horror of my left-liberal readers at the arrival of blowback in the form of Major Hasan is understandable, but the denial of reality is self-defeating and, as I have shown, self-contradictory.  You can’t say a “civilizational” war is a bad idea because we’re not prepared to accept the consequences, and then, when the war commences, refuse to accept the consequences.  We do indeed have a “Muslim problem” in this country as a direct result of our crazed foreign policy.  That is the lesson of the Fort Hood massacre, and denial won’t get us anywhere. 

Raimondo goes on to draw further conclusions.  We can sustain “our crazed foreign policy” only if we adopt an equally crazed domestic policy, and create “Muslim-free zones” wherever there are potential targets for sabotage or terror attacks.  I suspect that Raimondo intends the construction “Muslim-free” to jolt readers by its similarity to the Nazis’ word Judenrein.  Nor does Raimondo see this nightmare scenario as an impossiblity: indeed, he declares that “Another attack on the scale of September 11 would effectively lead to the de facto abolition of the Constitution, the disappearance of liberalism, and the end of any hope that we can rein in our rulers in their quest to dash the American ship of state on the rocky shoals of empire.”  The very leaders who speak to us only in words of the sweetest flattery may be preparing us for a future of servitude.  The very media enterprises that treat us as if our sensibilities were too delicate to endure a word of criticism may be preparing themselves for a future under the direction of a ministry of propaganda.