2004-12-31

Can we tolerate East Ethnics?

Ian Buruma wrote an odd piece for the New Yorker in which he takes an insane person's murder of an obnoxious racist as a sign that tolerance cannot survive, and then proceeds to blame the whole thing on an imaginary "Middle East."

I thought of responding, but a post at Dragi Erazmo pretty much says everything I thought.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

eric, happy new year, from ludost!

Gene said...

Ian Buruma wrote a thoughtful piece. The problem I understood him to say is not that the Middle East is bad but that the Dutch are not ready for the problems that have been spawned in the Middle East. He made no judgment that I could read, regarding the Middle East or Muslims as a whole. Many of the people he referred to in Holland have jumped to the conclusion that the Moslem faith is not compatible with western liberal ethics.

I have read the Koran in translation and it has many passages that are hard to square with our current liberal values. I have read the Bible (also in translation, though for the Bible our faith does not make as big a deal of this as does the Moslem faith who believe it is only the word of God if written or spoken in Arabic) and find many of its passages an incompatible with modern liberal values. To me the problem is not religion nor race nor place of origin. I see it as a problem of human nature whereby it is easier to fall into stereotypical thinking than it is to think.

The results of this aspect of human nature is not that we cannot do better, after all human nature is not entirely deterministic, but that it is easy to bring people around to fear and hatred of others.

The fundamentalist in the Christian Religion will, given enough threat or perceived threat, will take elements of the Bible that are rooted in this elemental psychic survival mode of the human animal and use it to appeal to those threatened. Tell me no one has seen this happen lately.

The problem for liberals is to understand these phenomena and deal with it rationally. Liberals can get into stereotypical thinking (PC to use an ugly slur from the right) is an example. Liberals should tolerate non-liberal thinking in order to test their own assumptions.

If we become complaisant our ability to describe the world will fall from "reality based" thinking and will be obvious in its inconsistency. This is what is happening to the Dutch right now. It is not that their liberal values have been proven wrong it is just that they have been taken for granted and it has lost credibility in the face of a violent act. Yes, this may have been done by a madman, but this madman committed an act that is not unlike ones we see daily in the struggle between so called "Western liberal" ideals and the so called "Islamist" values. When these events happen so often it is hard to isolate them as all acts of madmen. It is easy to label and move on. However, when psychiatrist examined high level Nazi's they did not find madness, they found "Authoritarian Personalities." Yet what these men did, we all assume, were the acts of madmen. No they were the banal acts of banal men who were inclined to obey authority.

Yes, there is a struggle in the world and the Islamist are currently shaping the form of the struggle. We have lost control of the shape the struggle will take because we went to many of the same values, which the Islamist have. These values are rooted in our book which is not unlike theirs, it is filled with such values, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, a strong leader, killing homosexuals, stoning adulterous women, having women as subservient. Therefore, if one were to look at the religions of the west, they too are incompatible with western liberal values. So much like the Middle East our fundamentalist are coming to power, we have religion affecting government policies, we use the death penalty liberally, we ban gay marriages, and there are many examples of how we find similar rules that are illiberal in western countries. They derive from the fundamentalist cant of the ancient Middle East. Why would they not resonate even more strongly with the people who live where these ideals evolved, in the strenuous and unforgiving nature (ecology is what I mean by nature in this usage) of that part of the world? Unfortunately, we, as liberals, have a harder argument to make. We face an uphill battle.

The battle is we cannot rely upon fear and reason is hard to sell when fear predominates. This is what I read Ian Buruma to say. He is saying that Holland is facing a crisis in part because their liberal ideals have been rooted in complacency rather than having been formed in the face of crisis.

What Ian has to say is not wrong, though he may have left many with the view that he is criticizing the Dutch Liberal ethic. I see, instead, that he sees this ethic as at risk. A swift movement toward the right is happening in Europe. The challenge for the west is to adjust to the challenge. It is also to find ways to look beyond the narrow interpretation that this is a cultural war. It is in fact a war over control of the Middle East. The Islamist are an expression of this war. They still have the energy to do so.

It is no wonder that that this has happened. The people of the Middle East (Arabs and Persians) have tried democracy, socialism National Socialism) the Iraq model, and all have failed in the face of the west. Therefore the last thing is to go back to a pure form of Islam. The Islamist had the advantage of owning the only forum the dictatorial governments spawned by sponsorship of the competing major powers were not willing or able to control. Whowants a client who cannot be counted on? So the European, American and Soviet interest were served by undermining unreliable democratic institutions and leaders and installing dictators.)

Consequently the new movement to free the Middle East has come from the Mosque and Madras. The reason, it would seem to those who are on the radical end of this movement, that the Moslem world fell to the west was that it did not do things correctly. It did not have a pure form of Islam. The only way God will intervene is if God's laws will be honored. That means the spirit is not as important as the letter. Thus a fundamentalist movement evolved.

How should the Dutch deal with this? Well, like all Western Governments it must face the fact that this movement will not die by killing Osama or Sadam or 100,000 Osama's or Sadam's. It will only end when the West removes itself from the politics of the Middle East. The only way this will happen is if we sever or dependency on Middle Eastern oil. This will be costly. It will be healthy. It will be as difficult.

It will be difficult as giving up meat, sex, cigarettes and any other major "given" source of pleaser; I use the verb given in this context to mean things that are so taken for granted that the removal of these things is equivalent to being imprisoned, and as unjust. Finally we must give up freedom as expressed through the power to make independent economic decisions (in truth we have many constraints on this already, but they are ruefully accepted by American citizens for whom the Bush ideal of unfettered economic freedom is the most important of all freedoms.)

It will take understanding that completely "free markets" are not an expression of freedom, but a luxury that free people may not afford except through the enslavement of others. This is not to say that we will have to end capitalism that is probably impossible and unwise. We will, however, have to learn an ethic which allows the common good to guide policy and not assume that more economic growth is the only way to achieve a common good or will necessarily lead to a just world.

Ultimately we need to understand that freedom is not an absolute. The ability for each of us to buy an SUV is not an expression of freedom but a choice, which removes freedom from others. Few of us could afford to buy enough gasoline to run a large vehicle if the true cost of our foreign policies were added to each gallon, rather than to our tax bill disguised as national defense. Add to that the cost of internal security policies generated since 9/11 and we might be paying five or six times the current price of gasoline and paying less for taxes. Hmm, might be a good place to start.
The American fundamental belief in freedom has gone from one in which expression can only be had in the freedom to own and control goods. This is a powerful and difficult problem. It may be so fundamental to American values that it can be changed only in the worst of crisis. In the meanwhile how do we keep liberal ideals alive? How do we prepare for the day when such a crisis occurs? We were not ready for 9/11 and the Dutch were not ready for Van Gogh.

Eric Gordy said...

Gene, thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. I think that much of what you have to say is consistent with Hamo's take, especially that no society ("Eastern" or "Western") is free from its own internal problems and divisions that lead to violence.

One point on which I think there needs to be more thinking done is the point about oil. Although I agree that the dependence of prosperous states on oil from the Persian Gulf region has led to some troubling alliances and severe political conflict in the states in that area, I would suggest that it would be a mistake to assume that getting out of the oil market would solve those problems. Here's why: what exists in the oil-producing states is an economy based on the export of a single commodity. The government is built around a monopoly over that commodity, which is exclusive and corrupt, but is often able to buy social peace by putting a part of the profit to the benefit of the population. If that were suddenly taken away, then the monopoly group would probably fall apart violently, and the impulses to rebellion would be less controlled. Ted Gurr described this sort of situation as "relative deprivation," where people who are frustrated have less of a sense that they have something to lose in political violence. So I would suggest that if there are to be any big shifts in energy markets, they will really have to be accompanied by careful planning for their political consequences.

Gene said...

Thanks, Eric. I agree with your comment. It is too easy to see things simply. It is even easier to express them in that way. I believe that oil is a key reason we stay so involved in the politics of the Middle East. Reducing our dependence on oil won't solve the problem of Israel and Palestine, which is also a major reason for those who see us as the enemy.

I doubt America will desert Israel in any circumstance. It is a touchstone of our Jewish Community, and I can certainly understand why. It is also a case where loyalty to an ideal is so fixed that people who are liberal have put up with behavior by the Israeli government that would never pass muster in any other circumstance. It is easy to say that the Jewish community needs its own homeland and then accept that the suppression of Arab aspirations is somehow justifiable.

It is an implacable problem. However, if we want to make progress in the Middle East, if Israel ever wants peace and if the Middle East is ever to face the problems found within each state and its polity, Israel will have to accept peace at a price. The people there are caught in the snare of the fascist whose primary source of power is fear.

The very term Fascist comes from the word fasces that was the name for a bound bundle of reeds or sticks used by the Roman Legions to construct defensive walls during forced marches. These bundles went up quickly and were light enough to gather and assemble as to not take to much energy from the soldiers for the next days march.

Within the reeds, at the top of each fasces was a sharpened axe (this axe was used to cut the reeds or sticks but in this arrangement was a last dangerous barrier to people attempting to scale the wall). A reed by itself is only so strong. Bundling them together and you get great strength. This is the ideal of fascism. No reed can be left by itself. Reeds must be bundled and the axe blade must be there as it is assumed that there is an external threat. This symbol was powerful to the Italians and during the twenties was appropriated by the Fascist party. It is a good way of showing the key beliefs found in Facsist societies. First, all must bundle together and any decent takes from the strength of the whole. Secondly, the fasces are built because we are afraid we will be attacked, thus fear of outside threat is a major element in the fascist mind.

Roman Proconsuls used an object based upon the fasces for the purpose of who were given a symbolic fascia by the Senate and later from the Emperor. This fascia then proved the authority of the bearer came from the top, from the highest authority. This symbol was powerful to the Italians and during the twenties was appropriated by the Fascist party.

Israel is a country that lives of fear. It is probably necessary and certainly is unavoidable given the peoples history and its current position surrounded by enemies. But this leaves the country prone to manipulation by those who are in charge. There is no lack of examples of the reasons why people should fear, so it is hard to argue against those who say it is reality; it is reality. Yet it has resulted in a government that is unwilling to compromise and that is too willing to use massive military power to obtain unreachable objectives. If the idea is to stop a revolt by a people you cannot do so by destroying houses of relatives of those who are suspected of being rebels, by running tanks into towns and knocking down the walls in narrow streets, shooting anyone who appears from a distance to be a threat and blowing up enemy leaders in apartments occupied by children. This way of dealing with revolt is especially prove to increasing revolt among people that see that honor must be maintained through retribution.

The American government will have to be forceful with Israel in order to change its ways. Some compromises will have to be reached. The phony deal that Arafat turned down at the end of the last peace conference was not viable and both Sharon and his predecessor knew this. There objective was and is to increase Israels absolute size and to maintain most of the settlements on the West Bank.

It took Arafat a while to realize that this phoney deal was not likely to satisfy his supporters and critics enough to reduce that Hamas and other radical elements would willingly stop their form of liberation struggle. Indeed under this deal the Israelis would have kept the majority of their settlements in the West Bank, control of all major water sources, all of the stategic high ground and 60% of the land supposedly given Palestine under the deal.

Roads to Israeli settlements and the Israeli Defense Forces on the Jordan would have separated Palestine from one another and from access to the Jordan, except, as Israel would allow. The Arabs would have been cut off from their compatriots in East Jerusalem by a ring of settlements between them and the suburb in which Arafat’s capital would be located. The Arabs would not have been given any part of Jerusalem. There was no proposal regarding the right of return, compensation for land lost or any other aspect owed to the Palestinians under international law.

The deal would have nullified the Palestinian claims guaranteed under international law while putting off the final settlement of land and rights of return to a schedule of 12 years of negotiation. In other words the Palestinians would be negotiating from a position with no international legal authority behind them for some of the key issues that affected them. This settlement would have taken away world attention, most of the world would assume all was taken care of and the Palestinians would be in nearly the same position they are in today. What a deal. And we, as a nation, have convenced ourselves that Arafat would not accept a generous offer. We also have convinced ourselves that Arafat started the second intifada, rather than it errupting independently due to Sharon's vist to the Dome of the Rock. But that is another story.

Until this issue is settled, and settled fairly, America will remain a symbol of injustice and hypocrisy to the Arab world. So oil is not the only solution. However it still remains a key issue.

Yes the Arabs are mostly dependent upon oil. Those without oil are in horrid shape, overall. To take it away would doom the Arab states to worse poverty.

My idea as expressed was simplistic for these reasons. However, our energy independence would not mean that we would not buy any oil but rather that we would have options as we would not have to buy it from the Middle East or die as an economy. Oil will remain a key resource for a number of reasons. Other nations would also need oil.

The amount used might be significantly reduced, however, which would put a tremendous pressure on the Arab leaders. As long as Israel remains and issue the useful threat Fascist need, distracting through the hatred and fear of others, Israel will remain a key means of manipulating people; it serves to put the cape before the bull, so to speak.

The key to solving the Middle Eastern problem is to take away the issues that drive. The first is our huge dependence on oil that demands control over its source to secure our national interest. That demands activist policies to insure that nations in the Middle East comply with our demands.

The second is to reduce the military aid to Israel unless it is willing to deal honestly with its co-inhabitants. They must solve this problem and we have given them little incentive to do so.

Both of these things cannot be done easily. Neither will happen overnight. That means our withdrawal from oil the degree of oil dependency would take time. The advantage to the Arab world is that they too would withdraw slowly from dependency on the oil economy. When the oil begins to run out, and if it is used in ever increasing amounts, it will likely run out rapidly. The curve will be steep and sudden. If we can control our usage the curve might be manageable. The Chinese will take up the slack in any case.

The change in relationship with Israel is perhaps the most intractable. The lobby for Israel is powerful and will not disappear. How we can make our government act in the nations best interest, and the politicians interest in being reelected, I don’t know.

I see these problems, both of them, more as issues of culture that will not be easily dealt with. Our culture of freedom equating to economic freedom of choice (we have a right to buy whatever we can affoard and more) is in itself a difficult problem.

Carter lost the confidence of the American people in part because he tried to link the problem of security and morality to our reduced use of foreign oil. He made a little progress on this issue, but he lost reelection. In part he failed because he was dealing with many of the problems created by the Vietnam War and the other excesses of the Johnson years.

The cultural issue surrounding Israel is based upon a history whereby we have felt good about ourselves because we stood behind this one democracy in the region. More importantly, the Israel lobby is hugely committed to keeping Israel viable. Of course that means a strong military and strong American support.

These wealthy and ideologically committed Americans are thought to be an obstacle to peace by many on Israel’s left. These idealist/romantic supporters reinforce the more reactionary tendencies in Israel. The money often goes to organizations that tend to be highly nationalistic and reactionary. Settlement organizations, conservative Jewish organizations and others who are hard over on maintaining the settlements and control of the lands that belong to Palestine receive support from the same people who pay for Lobbyist in America. (I loved many of the people I met in Israel and want them to succeed, yet I will be seen by many as anti-semitic for my views, a charge I deny as I believe Israel must have a chance to succeed but the only way is through reaching a fair peace.)

Until we face up to these issues we will not change them. I am arguing that our problems with the Middle East are to a large degree our own fault. We have been clumsy, arrogant and ignorant when dealing with these peoples. Until we learn something more about them and accept our part of the responsibility for their dislike and anger with us we will be stuck with the “cultural clash" myth rather than understanding the nationalistic aspirations of the people (we made a similar mistake in Vietnam, mistaking the power behind their fight as communism and not nationalism; communism was a means not an objective with most of the people fighting us.)

Eric Gordy said...

I think that I might be past the point where I can respond usefully here, since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is way out of my area of expertise. So anything I offered on the topic would be mostly opinion and projection.