[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.