An Ominous Misreading of the Global Problem: Post-Modern Anti-Semitism Part III

[For the earlier parts of this essay, see "Anti-Semitism: Post-Modern."]

An Ominous Misreading of the Global Problem

This leads to some of the most widespread and potentially disastrous interpretations of the current situation that progressive thought generates and have penetrated deep into a largely well-wishing and good-willed center. The basic position goes something along the following lines: we are the hegemonic oppressors of the world; globalization is merely a new form of imperial oppression; terrorism is the natural product of our oppression; if we wish to put an end to terrorism, we will adopt a progressive agenda for the rest of the world, insure economic well-being, for them as well as for ourselves. In brief, to dry up the swamp of terrorism, we need to bring these people prosperity. On one level, anyone who wishes to see a world at peace and in harmony with both humans and nature, will find it hard to disagree with at least the sentiments to which this analysis appeals. On another, such an analysis, in its haste to lay blame where it hopes most to change behavior, fails to understand two key elements of the current conflicts.

Above all, it grossly underestimates the difficulty of achieving the values and commitments of civil society, as well as ignoring the hegemonic behavior of non-Western political cultures. Instead of seeing the West as a recovering power-addict (and their own voice within it as evidence thereof), and the political culture of prime-divider societies as full-fledged power addicts (in which anyone who expressed a progressive level of criticism would rapidly be eliminated), they demonize their own culture and romanticize the “other.” In so doing, they belittle the Western accomplishment and, in their eagerness not to offend the pride of other cultures, they assume that these other cultures already share our values and commitments. Thus, all Arab spokesmen need to do is use our language – liberation, inalienable rights, tolerance, resistance to oppression, human dignity, peace – and we assume both that they mean the same thing as we do, and that they cherish these values they so ardently invoke.

But from the world of the dominating imperative, in which reciprocity does not exist, peace means that “we” rule you, “end of occupation” means the elimination of your autonomy, and human dignity means “our” honor and your submission. On a social level, this is true even if the most liberal voices of Arab and Palestinian and Muslim causes sincerely believe what they say, genuinely desire a progressive agenda. The problem lies in the fact that these liberals carry no weight in the larger political culture: they could not stop massacres and lynchings in the situation where their own people had the power to do so, they could not secure the victory of their values were their side to succeed. If we do not understand and clarify the ambiguities and paradoxes that underlie any exchange between such differing approaches, we will find out too late, as have so many earlier cultures, that a totalizing ideology while weak will appeal to tolerance, but will change its spots rapidly when strong. The behavior of the Arabs at Durban should ring every imaginable alarm bell here.


In the “Protestant” “Reformation” of the 16th century, tolerance was a loser’s (minority) creed, intolerance the policy of winners (majorities), and the result was two centuries of devastating religious wars. In the Constitution of the Unites States, for the first time in Christian history, tolerance was a winner’s creed, and the consequence has been two centuries of prosperity and ever more radical explorations of the values and practices of civil society (emancipation, women’s suffrage, civil rights, post-modern modesty about grand narratives). We cannot, we dare not assume that the Muslims and the Arabs, whatever they say now to gain our support, will chose tolerance and the peace of mutual respect over intolerance and the peace of dominion (Dar al Islam). Indeed, virtually no significant indicator suggests anything but the latter, imperialist choice.

Those who think that the hostility of the Arab and Muslim world, and beyond it the “Third world” in general, stems from their lack of material wealth make a critical error in projection. Material prosperity works against prime divider elites, and the advent of the rules of civil society threaten them in ways we cannot begin to appreciate as long as we insist on projecting our world into their psyches. Long before our efforts to produce a society that shares its wealth succeed, the process of dismantling the prime divider will provoke precisely the kinds of violent abreactions we think we are finally putting behind us. What from the perspective of positive-sum interactions in civil society seems counter-intuitive – that the population should live not too far above subsistence levels – is standard operating procedure for prime-divider elites. They would rather kill the goose that lay the golden egg than have him turn into a political player. It has been precisely the fate of Jews and commoners for millennia.

Economists have, much to their puzzlement, come to understand that “rational” behavior as they define it does not export as easily as they had assumed, that positive-sum interactions do not automatically appeal, that there are cycles of poverty that have condemned whole societies to fail in their efforts to develop. The key to their misunderstanding lies in the necessary shift from the dominating to the empathic imperative, from the “crab-in-the-basket” mentality that views another’s success as a condemnation of oneself to the generosity of being able to take pleasure in the success of another; from the world where no one can be trusted except a clannish few, to a world where one needs to trust most people, except a proven few; from a world where power makes it possible to take vengeance, to one in which it means putting aside one’s personal agenda; from a world in which ruling over others is the greatest honor and satisfaction, to one in which the mutual respect of others sets both parties free to explore a fascinating world of possibilities. That takes enormous psychological resilience and considerable discipline on the part of many people, and we Westerners, however far we still have to go, have nonetheless accomplished impressive levels in this lengthy process. We sell ourselves short and hurt other cultures by assuming that they have already or will rapidly reach such levels without the hard work involved.

If this sounds condescending, it is not, or rather considerably less than the “affirmative action” projections of those who, at the cost of being so, shudder at the very thought of being called racist. It recognizes our accomplishments without triumphalism – we have a long way to go before we have lived up to the goals we have set for ourselves and others, and much to learn from other cultures in the process. It recognizes the long path that lies before others without assuming that they cannot make it – they are not genetically or even culturally incapable of such a journey, but it takes serious attention and concerted effort.

Such an approach avoids the false hopes that the West has held out to the “liberated” global community ever since the “de-imperialization” of the post-War period, hopes that have fed the growing sense of impotence that comes from trying and failing to take short-cuts that don’t work. The origin of both the ideological and even practical terror of Al-Qaeda and the Palestinians comes not from wretched poverty – the poor are merely the victims and foot soldiers, but from the educated and deeply discontented classes of people who have either not yet found the place they want above the prime divider or who feel that their place is threatened. They are dedicated both to preventing the modern processes from occurring and to scapegoating the Israelis for the failure.

My criticism, then, condemns not the Palestinian people or the Arabs, or the Muslims, but the political culture of their prime-divider elites, and the testosteronic men that they recruit from below – the “street”, the “louts,” as one Gazan woman whose fourteen year old son had been recruited by Hamas for a “martyrdom” called them: “Why don’t they use the louts who hang around the marketplace?” These elites and their commoner allies do not represent the interests of their people, although they can, in the right circumstances, hold them hostage, eliminate the voices of those who would rather make the switch to civil society, rouse up a frightened voice of unanimity in hatred and vengeance for a designated scapegoat, and get their own people to participate in their own victimization – a vampire political culture goes cannibalistic.

One cannot fault these men so much for their behavior – it is based, after all, on the norms of most political cultures with the extraordinary exception of modern civil societies. What one can and should do, is to excoriate the self-destructive, cowardly approval that people who should know much better give to these victimizers, the “peace activists” who go to share Yasser Arafat’s fate in Ramallah. The very people that complain bitterly about American foreign policy favoring the dictators rather than the democrats of other cultures, fawn over and romanticize some of the most vicious killers and dominators of those very faulty “third world” political cultures.

It is a Western liberal consensus that Palestinians also want peace, that Palestinian parents also treasure their children, that they are as eager for the blessings of civil society as we are. On one level this is true. I suspect that a majority, given the choice between the blessings and demands of civil society will take them over the pain and suffering of living below the prime divider. But the minority that rules those societies finds the deal far less interesting. They prefer the impoverishment of their own people and the demonization of any neighbor whose social world undermines their legitimacy. They will stop at nothing, including child abuse.

Nor is that minority small. It includes men with no political power, but with the socially sanctioned right to beat their wives and kill their children for shaming the family. Until Palestinians and other Arabs are prepared to give up honor-killings, they do not have a right to claim that they want democracy.

The tragic situation that faces us at the dawn of the first global millennium – the “post-modern” era is really, hopefully, the global era – has progressive liberals in the West supporting not the people they empathize with, but the demonizing narratives of their ruthless elites. They thus condemn those people to increasing suffering by aligning themselves with forces that hate precisely what these progressives so treasure.

Why such blindness? Why such deep moral confusion hidden by stupid moral outrage? Why does this pattern paradoxically recapitulate the anti-Jewish thinking that has cursed the West for the past millennium, and effectively therefore strengthens the very forces of Anti-semitism around the globe that these people would be the first to denounce were they not so consumed with moral indignation at the behavior of the Jewish state?

These are questions that Jews and non-Jews must struggle with. The Jews, because they cannot begin to talk to either themselves nor their non-Jewish neighbors without having considered weighing the balance between their moral perfectionism and its attendant pathologies of self-criticism on the one hand, and our defensive accusations of gentiles as innately anti-semitic on the other. The non-Jews because they cannot afford to slide into self-defeating patterns of thought that, no matter how moral they might sound, and no matter how much they appear to injure only the Jews, actually pave the way to hell for us all. They already have done so for the Palestinians.

If we can think about these things clearly, if we can get at the emotional contortions of envy and denial, of masochistic megalomania and impotent perfectionism that drive so many intellectual agendas, Jewish and gentile, if we can focus on affirming those who deserve our sympathy and help, rather than those who deserve our rebuke, if we can have faith in the decent and humane values that we have fought so hard for, and appreciate how much effort and courage they have taken to establish, then maybe we can turn this madness around. Then we can begin to work for a peaceful, abundant, and creative global culture, filled with the richness of many cultures which, having made the transition from prime divider to civil societies, each in their own idiom, using their own cultural resources, can live together in real tolerance.

But to do that will mean that people like Kofi Anan need to consider the possibility, however galling, that, yes, indeed, it is possible for “all the world” to be wrong, and Israel, or the Jews, to be right. Not always, to be certain. But sometimes. Even this time.

8 Responses to An Ominous Misreading of the Global Problem: Post-Modern Anti-Semitism Part III

  1. Lawrence Barnes says:

    Very thought-provoking commentary with lots of solid connections.

    As good as this material is, I confess the part I like best is here: “They would rather kill the goose that lay the golden egg than have him turn into a political player.”

    A gander gender-bender !!

    Just joshing. Every scholarly article should include one deliberate slip, witty aside or pun. You know what I mean…a puckish wink in the middle of a sermon; a little reward for the attentive.

  2. Islam for what it is. Nothing.

    Here is a great link to a television “debate” on Al-Jazeera on February 21, 2006 sent to me from the Arizona Bureau desk. An Arab-American Psychologist, Wafa Sultan, really stuck it to the Muslim world and one mullah in particular. The …

  3. RL says:

    glad you liked it. wish i cd say it was conscious. but now that you mention it, there’s a gender bending aspect to this process. in honor-shame cultures, masculinity is defined by the use of force not productivity — take, not make, plunder and distribute — and the productive classes are largely viewed as not-men by the “real men.” so to go from productivity to political power is to change gender.

    as Schumpeter put it, in a passage i have yet to locate, “capitalism is the first culture in which you can be a man without killing someone.” he was wrong about the “first” and that doesn’t mean that capitalists have not killed many. but the core of the insight is good and important. it takes a real mental shift to accept the workings of the market when it’s not to the advantage of the incumbent aristocracy.

  4. igout says:

    Mourir pour McDonalds ?

    Unfortunately, it all rings too true. But it’s not just well meaning liberals who are biting the hand that feeds and protect us all. Here’s a high-class literary site from France. http://stalker.hautetfort.com/

    I think it leans catholic-conserative, but I can’t say for sure because the French is very hard for me. Anyway, take this passage :

    « l’Occident vendu aux puissances de l’argent, donc du spectacle (à moins que ce ne soit l’inverse), s’il doit renaître, devra d’abord passer par le feu purificateur de l’Ennemi. Quel Ennemi ? En voyez-vous, même, un seul ayant le dixième de la grandeur de l’Islam ? Pas moi. Ce sera donc l’Islam qui signifiera notre perte, notre renaissance par la perte.
    … «[…] l’Islâm est aujourd’hui l’unique puissance capable de s’opposer à l’univers néo-balzacien issu des isoloirs municipaux, des palais de la [B]ourse et des séances de brain-storming.» “
    (http://stalker.hautetfort.com/archive/2005/12/18/tsimtsoum-numero-premier.html)

    Maybe that’s what those French students are really protesting against. The modern West for all its wealth and freedoms is boring. No grandeur

    Meanwhile, as you probably know, there’s a great domestic spat going on over here between the mainstream conservatives and the so-called Crunchy Cons, many of whom would echo some of the sentiments quoted above.

    I suspect this is why appeals to the economic advantages of open borders are falling on so many deaf ears here in America, and I have to admit that on this subject my own hearing is going down hill fast. So it may not be just the ‘backward’ cultures that are rejecting what you might call the the Empire’s religion of economics. Interesting times ahead.

  5. RL says:

    respnse to igout:

    Mourir pour McDonalds ?

    Unfortunately, it all rings too true. But it’s not just well meaning liberals who are biting the hand that feeds and protect us all. Here’s a high-class literary site from France. http://stalker.hautetfort.com/

    I think it leans catholic-conserative, but I can’t say for sure because the French is very hard for me. Anyway, take this passage :

    « l’Occident vendu aux puissances de l’argent, donc du spectacle (à moins que ce ne soit l’inverse), s’il doit renaître, devra d’abord passer par le feu purificateur de l’Ennemi. Quel Ennemi ? En voyez-vous, même, un seul ayant le dixième de la grandeur de l’Islam ? Pas moi. Ce sera donc l’Islam qui signifiera notre perte, notre renaissance par la perte.
    … «[…] l’Islâm est aujourd’hui l’unique puissance capable de s’opposer à l’univers néo-balzacien issu des isoloirs municipaux, des palais de la [B]ourse et des séances de brain-storming.» “

    [The West sold out to the powers of money, therefore to spectacle (unless it be the inverse), if it is to be reforned, will have to pass through the purifying fires of the enemy. What enemy? Do you see any that has a tenth of the grandeur of Islam. Not I. It will, therefore, will be Islam that signifies our perdition, our rebirth through defeat.... Islam is today the single power capable of opposting to the neo-Balzacian univers emanating from the municipal [voting?] booths, from the palaces of the Stock Exchange and brainstorming sessions… (tr. RL)]

    (http://stalker.hautetfort.com/archive/2005/12/18/tsimtsoum-numero-premier.html)

    Maybe that’s what those French students are really protesting against. The modern West for all its wealth and freedoms is boring. No grandeur.

    I think you’re right. This reminds me of Fukuyama’s End of History, which actually has a chapter entitled “No Barbarians at the Gates.” It’s as if the weary bored aristocrat lifts up his bored head and says, “at last, a worthy foe.” What does it matter if, in allowing the foe to become a worthy combattant, one creates a situation in which tens of millions will die.

    Meanwhile, as you probably know, there’s a great domestic spat going on over here between the mainstream conservatives and the so-called Crunchy Cons, many of whom would echo some of the sentiments quoted above.

    Do you think so? My sense is that it would be the mainstream cons who would more likely go for a good fight than the crunchy variety.

    I suspect this is why appeals to the economic advantages of open borders are falling on so many deaf ears here in America, and I have to admit that on this subject my own hearing is going down hill fast. So it may not be just the ‘backward’ cultures that are rejecting what you might call the the Empire’s religion of economics. Interesting times ahead.

    I’m not sure I understand you here. Are you saying that, aware of the gathering storm, some are beginning to give up on the rational calculus of material comforts? If so, I think that is not in line with the sentiments expressed in French above, which are more likely to want to remain indolent until the foe has waxed strong enough to be worthy.

  6. igout says:

    RL,
    Thanks for translating; as I said, my french is far from fluent. Deep in the beast’s belly myself, that crack about brain-storming sessions hit home!

    These are very weird times, and I’m not sure of my footing at all when I try to follow unfamiliar paths of thinking about them. But it does seem to me that some on on the rightish side of things are re-assessing what, exactly, in the West they think ought to be defended. (The left doesn’t have this problem; they’ve answered that one again and again: Nothing.) So at this stage it’s a less question of who is a worthy foe than who are we? what will we stand and fight for?

    Perhaps it was that century-long bidding war the West got into with Communism over who could provide the most TVs and automobiles, but everybody’s world view became one of economics. It replaced theology as something to get passionate about.

    Maybe we’re witnessing the deposing of economics and the restoration of older Western values, which is what that French passage (whatever political port it hails from), the Crunchies, and many others who are deeply uneasy about things in general might have in mind, or rather, have in heart. Or maybe not. Believe me, I’m just groping in the thickening dark.

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