Monday, May 31, 2010


June 1, 2010

Flotillas and the Wars of Public Opinion

By George Friedman

On Sunday, Israeli naval forces intercepted the ships of a Turkish nongovernmental organization (NGO) delivering humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Israel had demanded that the vessels not go directly to Gaza but instead dock in Israeli ports, where the supplies would be offloaded and delivered to Gaza. The Turkish NGO refused, insisting on going directly to Gaza. Gunfire ensued when Israeli naval personnel boarded one of the vessels, and a significant number of the passengers and crew on the ship were killed or wounded.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon charged that the mission was simply an attempt to provoke the Israelis. That was certainly the case. The mission was designed to demonstrate that the Israelis were unreasonable and brutal. The hope was that Israel would be provoked to extreme action, further alienating Israel from the global community and possibly driving a wedge between Israel and the United States. The operation's planners also hoped this would trigger a political crisis in Israel.

A logical Israeli response would have been avoiding falling into the provocation trap and suffering the political repercussions the Turkish NGO was trying to trigger. Instead, the Israelis decided to make a show of force. The Israelis appear to have reasoned that backing down would demonstrate weakness and encourage further flotillas to Gaza, unraveling the Israeli position vis-à-vis Hamas. In this thinking, a violent interception was a superior strategy to accommodation regardless of political consequences. Thus, the Israelis accepted the bait and were provoked.

The ‘Exodus' Scenario

In the 1950s, an author named Leon Uris published a book called "Exodus." Later made into a major motion picture, Exodus told the story of a Zionist provocation against the British. In the wake of World War II, the British - who controlled Palestine, as it was then known - maintained limits on Jewish immigration there. Would-be immigrants captured trying to run the blockade were detained in camps in Cyprus. In the book and movie, Zionists planned a propaganda exercise involving a breakout of Jews - mostly children - from the camp, who would then board a ship renamed the Exodus. When the Royal Navy intercepted the ship, the passengers would mount a hunger strike. The goal was to portray the British as brutes finishing the work of the Nazis. The image of children potentially dying of hunger would force the British to permit the ship to go to Palestine, to reconsider British policy on immigration, and ultimately to decide to abandon Palestine and turn the matter over to the United Nations.

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There was in fact a ship called Exodus, but the affair did not play out precisely as portrayed by Uris, who used an amalgam of incidents to display the propaganda war waged by the Jews. Those carrying out this war had two goals. The first was to create sympathy in Britain and throughout the world for Jews who, just a couple of years after German concentration camps, were now being held in British camps. Second, they sought to portray their struggle as being against the British. The British were portrayed as continuing Nazi policies toward the Jews in order to maintain their empire. The Jews were portrayed as anti-imperialists, fighting the British much as the Americans had.

It was a brilliant strategy. By focusing on Jewish victimhood and on the British, the Zionists defined the battle as being against the British, with the Arabs playing the role of people trying to create the second phase of the Holocaust. The British were portrayed as pro-Arab for economic and imperial reasons, indifferent at best to the survivors of the Holocaust. Rather than restraining the Arabs, the British were arming them. The goal was not to vilify the Arabs but the British, and to position the Jews with other nationalist groups whether in India or Egypt rising against the British.

The precise truth or falsehood of this portrayal didn't particularly matter. For most of the world, the Palestine issue was poorly understood and not a matter of immediate concern. The Zionists intended to shape the perceptions of a global public with limited interest in or understanding of the issues, filling in the blanks with their own narrative. And they succeeded.

The success was rooted in a political reality. Where knowledge is limited, and the desire to learn the complex reality doesn't exist, public opinion can be shaped by whoever generates the most powerful symbols. And on a matter of only tangential interest, governments tend to follow their publics' wishes, however they originate. There is little to be gained for governments in resisting public opinion and much to be gained by giving in. By shaping the battlefield of public perception, it is thus possible to get governments to change positions.

In this way, the Zionists' ability to shape global public perceptions of what was happening in Palestine - to demonize the British and turn the question of Palestine into a Jewish-British issue - shaped the political decisions of a range of governments. It was not the truth or falsehood of the narrative that mattered. What mattered was the ability to identify the victim and victimizer such that global opinion caused both London and governments not directly involved in the issue to adopt political stances advantageous to the Zionists. It is in this context that we need to view the Turkish flotilla.

The Turkish Flotilla to Gaza

The Palestinians have long argued that they are the victims of Israel, an invention of British and American imperialism. Since 1967, they have focused not so much on the existence of the state of Israel (at least in messages geared toward the West) as on the oppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Since the split between Hamas and Fatah and the Gaza War, the focus has been on the plight of the citizens of Gaza, who have been portrayed as the dispossessed victims of Israeli violence.

The bid to shape global perceptions by portraying the Palestinians as victims of Israel was the first prong of a longtime two-part campaign. The second part of this campaign involved armed resistance against the Israelis. The way this resistance was carried out, from airplane hijackings to stone-throwing children to suicide bombers, interfered with the first part of the campaign, however. The Israelis could point to suicide bombings or the use of children against soldiers as symbols of Palestinian inhumanity. This in turn was used to justify conditions in Gaza. While the Palestinians had made significant inroads in placing Israel on the defensive in global public opinion, they thus consistently gave the Israelis the opportunity to turn the tables. And this is where the flotilla comes in.

The Turkish flotilla aimed to replicate the Exodus story or, more precisely, to define the global image of Israel in the same way the Zionists defined the image that they wanted to project. As with the Zionist portrayal of the situation in 1947, the Gaza situation is far more complicated than as portrayed by the Palestinians. The moral question is also far more ambiguous. But as in 1947, when the Zionist portrayal was not intended to be a scholarly analysis of the situation but a political weapon designed to define perceptions, the Turkish flotilla was not designed to carry out a moral inquest.

Instead, the flotilla was designed to achieve two ends. The first is to divide Israel and Western governments by shifting public opinion against Israel. The second is to create a political crisis inside Israel between those who feel that Israel's increasing isolation over the Gaza issue is dangerous versus those who think any weakening of resolve is dangerous.

The Geopolitical Fallout for Israel

It is vital that the Israelis succeed in portraying the flotilla as an extremist plot. Whether extremist or not, the plot has generated an image of Israel quite damaging to Israeli political interests. Israel is increasingly isolated internationally, with heavy pressure on its relationship with Europe and the United States.

In all of these countries, politicians are extremely sensitive to public opinion. It is difficult to imagine circumstances under which public opinion will see Israel as the victim. The general response in the Western public is likely to be that the Israelis probably should have allowed the ships to go to Gaza and offload rather than to precipitate bloodshed. Israel's enemies will fan these flames by arguing that the Israelis prefer bloodshed to reasonable accommodation. And as Western public opinion shifts against Israel, Western political leaders will track with this shift.

The incident also wrecks Israeli relations with Turkey, historically an Israeli ally in the Muslim world with longstanding military cooperation with Israel. The Turkish government undoubtedly has wanted to move away from this relationship, but it faced resistance within the Turkish military and among secularists. The new Israeli action makes a break with Israel easy, and indeed almost necessary for Ankara.

With roughly the population of Houston, Texas, Israel is just not large enough to withstand extended isolation, meaning this event has profound geopolitical implications.

Public opinion matters where issues are not of fundamental interest to a nation. Israel is not a fundamental interest to other nations. The ability to generate public antipathy to Israel can therefore reshape Israeli relations with countries critical to Israel. For example, a redefinition of U.S.-Israeli relations will have much less effect on the United States than on Israel. The Obama administration, already irritated by the Israelis, might now see a shift in U.S. public opinion that will open the way to a new U.S.-Israeli relationship disadvantageous to Israel.

The Israelis will argue that this is all unfair, as they were provoked. Like the British, they seem to think that the issue is whose logic is correct. But the issue actually is, whose logic will be heard? As with a tank battle or an airstrike, this sort of warfare has nothing to do with fairness. It has to do with controlling public perception and using that public perception to shape foreign policy around the world. In this case, the issue will be whether the deaths were necessary. The Israeli argument of provocation will have limited traction.

Internationally, there is little doubt that the incident will generate a firestorm. Certainly, Turkey will break cooperation with Israel. Opinion in Europe will likely harden. And public opinion in the United States - by far the most important in the equation - might shift to a "plague-on-both-your-houses" position.

While the international reaction is predictable, the interesting question is whether this evolution will cause a political crisis in Israel. Those in Israel who feel that international isolation is preferable to accommodation with the Palestinians are in control now. Many in the opposition see Israel's isolation as a strategic threat. Economically and militarily, they argue, Israel cannot survive in isolation. The current regime will respond that there will be no isolation. The flotilla aimed to generate what the government has said would not happen.

The tougher Israel is, the more the flotilla's narrative takes hold. As the Zionists knew in 1947 and the Palestinians are learning, controlling public opinion requires subtlety, a selective narrative and cynicism. As they also knew, losing the battle can be catastrophic. It cost Britain the Mandate and allowed Israel to survive. Israel's enemies are now turning the tables. This maneuver was far more effective than suicide bombings or the Intifada in challenging Israel's public perception and therefore its geopolitical position (though if the Palestinians return to some of their more distasteful tactics like suicide bombing, the Turkish strategy of portraying Israel as the instigator of violence will be undermined).

Israel is now in uncharted waters. It does not know how to respond. It is not clear that the Palestinians know how to take full advantage of the situation, either. But even so, this places the battle on a new field, far more fluid and uncontrollable than what went before. The next steps will involve calls for sanctions against Israel. The Israeli threats against Iran will be seen in a different context, and Israeli portrayal of Iran will hold less sway over the world.

And this will cause a political crisis in Israel. If this government survives, then Israel is locked into a course that gives it freedom of action but international isolation. If the government falls, then Israel enters a period of domestic uncertainty. In either case, the flotilla achieved its strategic mission. It got Israel to take violent action against it. In doing so, Israel ran into its own fist.


Bloody clash off Gaza coast leaves 10 deadShare posted at 10:43 am on May 31, 2010 by Ed Morrissey

regular view The preferred media headline so far this morning has been “Israelis kill 10 peace activists in Gaza flotilla,” but that’s not quite what happened. The IDF attempted to head off a number of boats attempting to run the blockade on Gaza, a blockade necessitated by Hamas’ repeated attacks on Israel. They boarded the lead ship by helicopter, expecting to either convince the occupants to turn back or to commandeer the boat themselves. What they didn’t expect was to find armed “peace activists,” and a bloody melee ensued:

The left-wing activists on board a flotilla carrying aid to the Gaza Strip tried to lynch the Israel Navy commandos who stormed their Turkish-flagged ship early Monday, Israel Defense Forces sources told Haaretz.
The commandos, who intercepted the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara after it ignored orders to turn back, said they encountered violent resistance from activists armed with sticks and knives. According to the soldiers, the activists threw one of their comrades from the upper deck to the lower after they boarded.

Activists attacked a commando with iron bars as he descended onto the ship from a helicopter, the army said. The IDF said its rules of engagement allowed troops to open fire in what it called a “life-threatening situation”.

The soldiers said they were forced to open fire after the activists struck one of their comrades in the head and trampled on him. A senior field commander ordered the soldiers then to respond with fire, a decision which the commandos said received full backing the military echelon.

At least 10 people were killed and several more wounded after the Israel Navy troops opened fire on the six-ship flotilla. Unofficial reports put the death toll at between 14 and 20.

Ynet has a more detailed timeline of the confrontation:

A few minutes before the takeover attempt aboard the Marmara got underway, the operation commander was told that 20 people were waiting on the deck where a helicopter was to deploy the first team of the elite Flotilla 13 unit. The original plan was to disembark on the top deck, and from there rush to the vessel’s bridge and order the Marmara’s captain to stop.

Officials estimated that passengers will show slight resistance, and possibly minor violence; for that reason, the operation’s commander decided to bring the helicopter directly above the top deck. The first rope that soldiers used in order to descend down to the ship was wrested away by activists, most of them Turks, and tied to an antenna with the hopes of bringing the chopper down. However, Flotilla 13 fighters decided to carry on.

Navy commandoes slid down to the vessel one by one, yet then the unexpected occurred: The passengers that awaited them on the deck pulled out bats, clubs, and slingshots with glass marbles, assaulting each soldier as he disembarked. The fighters were nabbed one by one and were beaten up badly, yet they attempted to fight back.

However, to their misfortune, they were only equipped with paintball rifles used to disperse minor protests, such as the ones held in Bilin. The paintballs obviously made no impression on the activists, who kept on beating the troops up and even attempted to wrest away their weapons.

One soldier who came to the aid of a comrade was captured by the rioters and sustained severe blows. The commandoes were equipped with handguns but were told they should only use them in the face of life-threatening situations. When they came down from the chopper, they kept on shouting to each other “don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” even though they sustained numerous blows.

The Navy commandoes were prepared to mostly encounter political activists seeking to hold a protest, rather than trained street fighters. The soldiers were told they were to verbally convince activists who offer resistance to give up, and only then use paintballs. They were permitted to use their handguns only under extreme circumstances.

The planned rush towards the vessel’s bridge became impossible, even when a second chopper was brought in with another crew of soldiers. “Throw stun grenades,” shouted Flotilla 13’s commander who monitored the operation. The Navy chief was not too far, on board a speedboat belonging to Flotilla 13, along with forces who attempted to climb into the back of the ship.

The forces hurled stun grenades, yet the rioters on the top deck, whose number swelled up to 30 by that time, kept on beating up about 30 commandoes who kept gliding their way one by one from the helicopter. At one point, the attackers nabbed one commando, wrested away his handgun, and threw him down from the top deck to the lower deck, 30 feet below. The soldier sustained a serious head wound and lost his consciousness.

Only after this injury did Flotilla 13 troops ask for permission to use live fire. The commander approved it: You can go ahead and fire. The soldiers pulled out their handguns and started shooting at the rioters’ legs, a move that ultimately neutralized them. Meanwhile, the rioters started to fire back at the commandoes.
Ynet notes that the IDF should learn two lessons from this. First, paintball rifles won’t work against so-called peace activists when they’re armed and inclined to fight. That’s probably even more true in an in-close confrontation, such as on a boat. Paintballs sting, as anyone who has played war games with them attest, but once antagonists understand that’s all they do, they won’t provide any deterrent value at all.

The second lesson Ynet takes is that the soldiers should have considered the fact that their arrival was hardly a surprise and planned accordingly, but really, the IDF and the Israelis were foolish to assume that these activists had non-violent intentions in the first place. The demonstration was in support of Hamas, hardly a group dedicated to non-violence and peaceful coexistence. That assumption put their soldiers’ lives at risk unnecessarily and allowed planners to eschew a more muscular entry to the boat — which could have saved lives on both sides of the equation with an initial use of overwhelming force.

The world will blame Israel for this, but the blockade exists to keep weapons out of the hands of Hamas, which continually attacks Israel despite the latter’s withdrawal from Gaza years ago. It’s a legitimate and necessary military response to Hamas’ terrorism, and the flotilla knowingly sailed itself into a military conflict — and carried arms into it as well. That makes them legitimate antagonists in the conflict and fair game for Israeli’s military.

Update II: Via Cubachi, the group behind the flotilla has a history of supporting violent jihad and anti-Westernism:

Prominent among the coalition organizations participating in the aid flotilla scheduled to arrive in the Gaza Strip in the coming days is the Turkish IHH (Insani Yardim Vakfi, IHH, “humanitarian relief fund”). It is a radical Islamic organization which was established in 1992 and formally registered in Istanbul in 1995. It is headed by Bülent Yildirim. …

In practice, besides its legitimate humanitarian activities, IHH supports radical Islamic terrorist networks. Inrecent years it has prominently supported Hamas (through the Union of Good). In addition, the ITIC has reliable information that in the past IHH provided logistical support and funding to global jihad networks.
IHH’s orientation is radical-Islamic and anti-American, and it is close to the Muslim Brotherhood(Hamas’ parent movement).

IHH supports Hamas and does not hide the connection between them. Hamas also considers its links to IHH and Turkey to be extremely important, and regards Turkey as a target audience for its propaganda network (Palestine-Information, Hamas’ main website, has a Turkish version, and as of the end of 2009, the website of its military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has also appeared in Turkish).

In recent years, especially since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, IHH has supported Hamas’ propaganda campaigns by organizing public support conferences in Turkey. At those conferences, which featured the participation of senior IHH figures, the heads of IHH expressed their support for Hamas and its strategy (including the armed struggle it favors), in defiance of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ rival.
IHH is a member of the Union of Good, an umbrella organization of more than 50 Islamic funds and foundations around the globe, which channels money into Hamas institutions in the Palestinian Authority-administered territories.

As a Union of Good member IHH has connections with other worldwide Islamic funds and foundations which support Hamas. Among other things, the support includes initiating and conducting joint projects whose objectives are to bolster the de facto Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip and Hamas’ civilian infrastructure in Judea and Samaria, which also supports terrorism (the infrastructure is under pressure from the Palestinian Authority security services). IHH, which has become an important factor in global fund-raising for Hamas, transfers significant amounts of money to Hamas institutions in Judea and Samaria, including the Islamic Charitable Society in Hebron and the Al-Tadhamun Charitable Society in Nablus (Hamas’ two central “charitable societies,” both outlawed by Israel).

IHH operates widely throughout the Gaza Strip. To promote its activities it opened a branch there, headed by Muhammad Kaya, who recently stated that IHH intended to send other aid flotillas to the Gaza Strip (See below). In January 2008 an IHH delegation met with Ahmed Bahar, a senior Hamas activist who is acting chairman of Hamas’ council in the Gaza Strip. At the meeting the delegation revealed the extent of the aid it had given Hamas in the Gaza Strip during the preceding year and said it intended to double the sum in the future. In January 2009 IHH head Bülent Yildirim met with Khaled Mashaal, chairman of Hamas’ political bureau in Damascus, and Mashaal thanked him for the support of his organization.

Israel expelled IHH from Gaza in 2008, along with 35 other organizations associated with the Union of Good.

Update V: A few commenters point out that this took place in international waters, not in Gaza’s waters, and therefore consider Israel’s actions illegitimate. However, the flotilla had already announced their intention to run the blockade, making them belligerent and giving the Israelis a reason to interdict them. And are we to believe that the “peace activists” would have surrendered peacefully had this action taken them within the 12-mile limit? I see no reason to believe that; indeed, it looks as though they were prepared for armed confrontation.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mark Lilla on the Tea Party from NYRofB

A little over a decade ago I published an article in these pages titled “A Tale of Two Reactions” (May 14, 1998). It struck me then that American society was changing in ways conservative and liberal commentators just hadn’t noticed. Conservatives were too busy harping on the cultural revolution of the Sixties, liberals on the Reagan revolution’s “culture of greed,” and all they could agree on was that America was beyond repair.

The American public, meanwhile, was having no trouble accepting both revolutions and reconciling them in everyday life. This made sense, given that they were inspired by the same political principle: radical individualism. During the Clinton years the country edged left on issues of private autonomy (sex, divorce, casual drug use) while continuing to move right on economic autonomy (individual initiative, free markets, deregulation). As I wrote then, Americans saw “no contradiction in holding down day jobs in the unfettered global marketplace…and spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties.” Democrats were day-trading, Republicans were divorcing. We were all individualists now.

What happened? People who remember the article sometimes ask me this, and I understand why. George W. Bush, who ran on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” seemed attuned to the recent social changes. The President Bush who emerged after September 11 took his party and the country back to the divisive politics of earlier decades, giving us seven years of ideological recrimination. By the time of the last presidential campaign, millions were transfixed not by the wisdom or folly of Barack Obama’s policy agenda, but by absurd rumors about his birth certificate and his “socialism.” Now he has been elected president by a healthy majority and is grappling with a wounded economy and two foreign wars he inherited—and what are we talking about? A makeshift Tea Party movement whose activists rage against “government” and “the media,” while the hotheads of talk radio and cable news declare that the conservative counterrevolution has begun.


It hasn’t. We know that the country is divided today, because people say it is divided. In politics, thinking makes it so. Just as obviously, though, the angry demonstrations and organizing campaigns have nothing to do with the archaic right–left battles that dragged on from the Sixties to the Nineties. The populist insurgency is being choreographed as an upsurge from below against just about anyone thought to be above, Democrats and Republicans alike. It was galvanized by three things: a financial collapse that robbed millions of their homes, jobs, and savings; the Obama administration’s decision to pursue health care reform despite the crisis; and personal animosity toward the President himself (racially tinged in some regions) stoked by the right-wing media.1 But the populist mood has been brewing for decades for reasons unrelated to all this.

Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites—politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers—are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink…the list is long. But it is not a list of political grievances in the conventional sense.

Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that “the people” can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

If we want to understand what today’s populism is about, we first need to understand what it isn’t about. It certainly is not about reversing the cultural revolution of the Sixties. Despite the rightward drift of the Republican Party over the past decade, the budding liberal consensus on social issues I noted in the Nineties has steadily grown—with the one, complicated exception of abortion.2

Consider the following:

• Since 2001 the proportion of those favoring more religious influence in society has dropped by a fifth, while those wanting less influence rose by half.3

• Today a majority of Americans find single parenthood morally acceptable, and nearly three quarters now tolerate divorce.4 Roughly a third of adults who have ever been married have also been divorced at least once, and that includes born-again Christians, whose rate is roughly the national average.5

• Though opposition to gay marriage has declined over the past quarter-century, a majority still opposes it. Yet more than half of all Americans find homosexuality morally acceptable, and a large majority favors equal employment opportunities for gays and lesbians, health and other benefits for their domestic partners, and letting them serve in the military. A smaller majority now approves of letting them legally adopt children as well.6

Though there’s been a slight conservative retrenchment since the 2008 election, it’s clear that the Sixties principle of private autonomy is rooted in the American mind.

And so is the Eighties principle of economic autonomy. For three decades now a consistent majority of Americans has agreed with the following statements when asked: “when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful,” “the federal government controls too much of our daily lives,” “government regulation of business usually does more harm than good,” and “poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs.” Yet there is no widespread desire to push the Reagan agenda of the Eighties further. The ideological polarization between Republicans and Democrats that surveys pick up is owing almost entirely to the radicalization of those belonging to the shrunken Republican base. (As of 2009, only a quarter of Americans identified themselves as Republicans, the lowest figure since the post-Watergate years.)

Democrats have edged slightly more left on political and economic issues, whereas the views of independents, the largest and fastest-growing group of voters, have not changed much over the years. While well over half of Republicans say that they would like their party to move further to the right, just as many independents wish it was less conservative or would stay where it is. The Reagan revolution was a success, in the sense that it shifted political attention in this country from social equality to economic growth. But like all revolutions that achieve their aims, it is now a spent force.7

So what is the new populism about? That depends on who grabs your lapel. Glenn Beck, Keeper of the Grand Narrative at Fox News, fills his blackboard with circles and arrows mapping out the network of elites who have been plotting to seize control of our lives for over a century—from Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to George Soros, the Federal Reserve Board, the G7, the UN, and assorted left-wing professors. The economic collapse and financial bailout they have exploited (or more likely caused) have woken the American people from their slumbers and now they are “taking their country back,” which apparently involves anesthetizing the government and buying gold (which Beck promotes on his program). In his lurid book Republican Gomorrah, Max Blumenthal of the Nation Institute sees an entirely different sort of cabal on the Republican right, whose leaders he portrays as sadomasochistic, porn-addicted, child-beating Christian fanatics who share with their Palin-loving followers “a culture of per- sonal crisis lurking behind the histrionics and expressions of social resentment.” (“Gingrich grew his hair long, emulating the style of the counterculture that he secretly yearned to join.”)

If either Beck or Blumenthal is right about the new populism, then it’s not worth taking seriously. My own view is that we need to take it even more seriously than they do; we need to see it as a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century. Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

Ever since the Seventies, social scientists have puzzled over the fact that, despite greater affluence and relative peace, Americans have far less trust in their government than they had up until the mid-Sixties. Just before the last election, only a tenth of Americans said that they were “satisfied with the way things are going in the United States,” a record low.8 They express some confidence in the presidency and the courts, but when asked in the abstract about “the government” and whether they expect it to do the right thing or whether it is run for our benefit, a relatively consistent majority says “no.”9 It’s important to remember that the confidence they express in free markets and deregulation is only relative to their sense that government no longer functions as it should.

And they are not alone. Survey after survey confirms that trust in government is dissolving in all advanced democratic societies, and for the same reason: as voters have become more autonomous, less attracted to parties and familiar ideologies, it has become harder for political institutions to represent them collectively.10 This is not a peculiarity of the United States and no one party or scandal is to blame. Representative democracy is a tricky system; it must first give citizens voice as individuals, and then echo their collective voice back to them in policies they approve of. That is getting harder today because the mediating ideas and institutions we have traditionally relied on to make this work are collapsing.

Mark Peterson/Redux

A Tea Party rally at the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C., April 15, 2010

In Western Europe, the collapse is ideological. For two centuries after the French Revolution there was a rough but evident distinction between Europeans who accepted its legacy and those who, in small ways or large, rejected it. Each side had its parties, its newspapers, its heroes, its enemies, its own account of history. That ideological distinction began to fade in the postwar years as Western Europe’s new consumer societies became more atomized and hedonistic, and with the collapse of communism it became meaningless. At the same time, European political elites were busy blurring national identities in order to construct a faceless “Europe,” whose eerily blank currency is a powerful symbol of the crisis of representation there. It would occur to no one to lay siege to Brussels or build barricades to defend it. Xenophobic, anti-immigrant parties have cropped up instead, giving cruel expression to genuine mourning for a lost sense of belonging.

The new American populism is not, by and large, directed against immigrants. Its political target is an abstract noun, “the government,” which has been a source of disenchantment since the late Sixties. In Why Trust Matters, Marc Hetherington uncovers the astonishing fact that in 1965 nearly half of Americans believed that the War on Poverty would “help wipe out poverty”—a vote of confidence in our political institutions unimaginable today. The failure of the Great Society programs to meet the high expectations invested in them was a major source of disappointment and loss of confidence.

The disappointment only grew in subsequent decades, as Congress seemed less and less able to act decisively and legislate coherently. There are many reasons for this, some of them perverse consequences of reforms meant to make government more open and responsive to the public. New committees and subcommittees were established to focus on narrower issues, but this had the unintended effect of making them more susceptible to lobbyists and the whims of powerful chairmen. Congressional hearings began to be televised and campaign finances were made public, but as a result individual congressmen and senators became more self-sufficient and could ignore party dictates. Coalitions broke apart, large initiatives stalled, special interest legislation and court orders piled up, government grew more complex and less effective. And Americans noticed. Not recognizing themselves in the garbled noises coming out of Washington, unsure what the major parties stood for, they drew the conclusion that their voices were being ignored. Which was not exactly true. It’s just that, paradoxically, more voice has meant less echo.

Yet until now we’ve somehow muddled along. Since the Seventies, distrust of politics has been the underlying theme of our politics, and every presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter has been obliged to run against Washington, knowing full well that the large forces making the government less effective and less representative were beyond his control. Voters pretend to rebel and politicians pretend to listen: this is our political theater. What’s happening behind the scenes is something quite different. As the libertarian spirit drifted into American life, first from the left, then from the right, many began disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals.

The simplest way to do that is to move. As the journalist Bill Bishop shows in his eye-opening demographic study The Big Sort, for decades we have been withdrawing into “communities of like-mindedness” where the gap between individual and collective closes. These are places where elective affinities are supplanting electoral politics. People with higher degrees who care about food and wine, support gay rights, and want few children but good Internet connections have been gravitating to urban centers on the two coasts, while churchgoing families that drive everywhere, socialize with relatives, and send their kids to state universities have been heading to the growing exurbs of the southern and mountain states. By voting with their feet, highly mobile Americans are finding representation in local communities where they share their neighbors’ general political outlook and where they can be sure that their voices will be echoed back to them. As Bishop points out, it is significant that at the county level American elections are increasingly being decided by landslides for either Democratic or Republican candidates.

Another way is simply to go it alone. A million and a half students in the United States are now being taught by their parents at home, nearly double the number a decade ago, and representing about fifteen students for every public school in the country.11 There is nothing remarkable about wanting to escape unsafe schools and incompetent teachers, or to make sure your children are raised within your religious tradition. What’s remarkable is American parents’ confidence that they can do better themselves. Many of the more-educated ones probably do, though they are hardly going it alone; they rely on a national but voluntary virtual school system connecting them online, where they circulate curricula, materials, and research produced by people working in conventional educational institutions. And they are a powerful political lobby, having redirected their energy from local school systems to Washington and state capitals, where their collective appeal to individualism is irresistible. They are the only successful libertarian party in the United States.

But as the libertarian spirit has spread to other areas of our lives, along with distrust of elites generally, the damage has mounted. Take health care. Less than half of us say that we have “great confidence” in the medical establishment today, and the proportion of those who have “hardly any” has doubled since the early Seventies.12 There are plenty of things wrong with the way medicine is practiced in the United States, but it does not follow from this that anybody can cure himself. Nonetheless, a growing number of us have become our own doctors and pharmacists, aided by Internet search engines that substitute for refereed medical journals, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control.

The trends are not encouraging. Because of irrational fear-mongering on the Web, the percentage of unvaccinated American children, while thankfully still low, has been rising steadily in the twenty-one states that now allow personal exemptions for unspecified “philosophical and personal reasons.” This is significant: the chance of unvaccinated children getting measles, to take just one example, is twenty-two to thirty-five times higher than that of immunized children.13 Americans currently spend over four billion dollars a year on unregulated herbal medicines, despite total ignorance about their effectiveness, correct dosage, and side effects. And of course, many dangerous medicines banned in the United States can now be purchased online from abroad, not to mention questionable medical procedures for those who can afford the airfare.14

Americans are and have always been credulous skeptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead15; they second-guess their cardiologists, then seek out quacks in the jungle. Like people in every society, they do this in moments of crisis when things seem hopeless. They also, unlike people in other societies, do it on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect.

This, I think, is the deepest reason why public reaction to the crash of 2008 and the election of Barack Obama took a populist turn and the Tea Party movement caught on. The crash not only devastated people’s finances and shook their confidence in their and their children’s future. It also broke through the moats we have been building around ourselves and our families, reminding us that certain problems require a collective response through political institutions. What’s more, it was a catastrophe whose causes no one yet fully understands, not even specialists who know exactly what derivatives, discount rates, and multiplier effects are. The measures the federal government took to control the damage were complex and controversial, but there was general agreement that at some point it would have to intervene to prevent a worldwide financial collapse, and that without some sort of stimulus a real depression loomed. That, though, is not at all what people who distrust elites, who want to “make up their own minds,” and who have fantasies of self-sufficiency want to be told. Apparently they find it more satisfying to hear that these emergency measures were concocted to tighten government’s grip on their lives even more. It all connects.

Which brings us to Fox News. The right-wing demagogues at Fox do what demagogues have always done: they scare the living daylights out of people by identifying a hidden enemy, then flatter them until they believe they have only one champion—the demagogue himself. But unlike demagogues past, who appealed over the heads of individuals to the collective interests of a class, Fox and its wildly popular allies on talk radio and conservative websites have at their disposal technology that is perfectly adapted to a nation of cocksure individualists who want to be addressed and heard directly, without mediation, and without having to leave the comforts of home.

The media counterestablishment of the right gives them that. It offers an ersatz system of direct representation in which an increasingly segmented audience absorbs what it wants from its trusted sources, embellishes it in their own voices on blogs and websites and chatrooms, then hears their views echoed back as “news.” While this system doesn’t threaten our system of representative democracy, it certainly makes it harder for it to function well and regain the public’s trust.

The conservative media did not create the Tea Party movement and do not direct it; nobody does. But the movement’s rapid growth and popularity are unthinkable without the demagogues’ new ability to tell isolated individuals worried about their futures what they want to hear and put them in direct contact with one another, bypassing the parties and other mediating institutions our democracy depends on. When the new Jacobins turn on their televisions they do not tune in to the PBS News Hour or C-Span to hear economists and congressmen debate the effectiveness of financial regulations or health care reform. They look for shows that laud their common sense, then recite to them the libertarian credo that Fox emblazons on its home page nearly every day: YOU DECIDE.

A familiar American ritual is now being performed in homes across the country. Meetings are being called. Coffee is brewed, brownies baked, hands raised, votes tallied, envelopes licked, fliers mailed. We Americans are inducted into this ritual’s mysteries at an early age, and by the time we reach high school we may not read well but we certainly know how to organize an election campaign and build a homecoming float.

But what happens after the class president is sworn in and the homecoming queen is crowned? The committees dissolve and normal private life resumes. And that, I suspect, is what will happen to the Tea Party organizations: after tasting a few symbolic victories they will likely dissolve. This is not only because, being ideologically allergic to hierarchy of any kind, they still have no identifiable leadership. It is because they have no constructive political agenda, though the right wing of the Republican Party would dearly love to attach its own to them. But the movement only exists to express defiance against a phantom threat behind a real economic and political crisis, and to remind those in power that they are there for one thing only: to protect our divine right to do whatever we damn well please. This message will be delivered, and then the messengers will go home. Every man a Cincinnatus.

Mark Peterson/Redux

The Tea Party rally at the Washington Monument, April 15, 2010

Still, the Jacobin spirit could shape our politics for some time, given how well it dovetails with the spirits of Woodstock and Wall Street, and given the continuing influence of Fox News and talk radio. (Rush Limbaugh alone has millions of daily listeners.) It is already transforming American conservatism. A wise man once summed up the history of colonialism in a phrase: the colonized eventually colonize the colonizer. This is exactly what is happening on the right today: the more it tries to exploit the energy of the Tea Party rebellion, the cruder the conservative movement becomes in its thinking and rhetoric. Ronald Reagan was a master of populist rhetoric, but he governed using the policy ideas of intellectuals he knew and admired (Milton Friedman, Irving Kristol, George Gilder, and Charles Murray among them).

Today’s conservatives prefer the company of anti-intellectuals who know how to exploit nonintellectuals, as Sarah Palin does so masterfully.16 The dumbing-down they have long lamented in our schools they are now bringing to our politics, and they will drag everyone and everything along with them. As David Frum, one of the remaining lucid conservatives, has written to his wayward comrades, “When you argue stupid, you campaign stupid. When you campaign stupid, you win stupid. And when you win stupid, you govern stupid.” (Unsurprisingly, Frum was recently eased out of his position at the American Enterprise Institute after expressing criticism of Republican tactics in the health care debate.)

Over the next six months, as midterm elections approach, we’ll be hearing a lot from and about the Tea Party movement. Right-wing Republicans hope to lead the movement by following it. Establishment Republicans will make fools of themselves trying to master a populist rhetoric they don’t know and don’t believe in. Democrats will take cover, hoping that their losses won’t be too great and that they’ll pick up seats in places where Republicans are slitting each other’s throats. In the end we will likely find ourselves with a divided and irresponsible Congress even less capable of gaining public trust by governing well. Confidence in government will drop further and the libertarian commedia of American politics will extend its run.

But the blame does not fall on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or the Republican Party alone. We are experiencing just one more aftershock from the libertarian eruption that we all, whatever our partisan leanings, have willed into being. For half a century now Americans have been rebelling in the name of individual freedom. Some wanted a more tolerant society with greater private autonomy, and now we have it, which is a good thing—though it also brought us more out-of-wedlock births, a soft pornographic popular culture, and a drug trade that serves casual users while destroying poor American neighborhoods and destabilizing foreign nations. Others wanted to be free from taxes and regulations so they could get rich fast, and they have—and it’s left the more vulnerable among us in financial ruin, holding precarious jobs, and scrambling to find health care for their children. We wanted our two revolutions. Well, we have had them.

Now an angry group of Americans wants to be freer still—free from government agencies that protect their health, wealth, and well-being; free from problems and policies too difficult to understand; free from parties and coalitions; free from experts who think they know better than they do; free from politicians who don’t talk or look like they do (and Barack Obama certainly doesn’t). They want to say what they have to say without fear of contradiction, and then hear someone on television tell them they’re right. They don’t want the rule of the people, though that’s what they say. They want to be people without rules—and, who knows, they may succeed. This is America, where wishes come true. And where no one remembers the adage “Beware what you wish for.”

—April 29, 2010

Changes in the social context of the abortion debate should also be taken into consideration. Since the time of Roe v. Wade, a monument to the new individualism, contraception has become readily available and inexpensive, the moral stigma of single-motherhood has lessened, and the demand for infants to adopt has grown. Given this background, more people today (women especially) are concluding that expectant mothers have a greater obligation to bring fetuses to term—fetuses who, given advances in ultrasound technologies, now appear vividly as individuals in their own right.

For slightly contrasting studies, compare the report of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Support for Abortion Slips,” available at and Gallup’s long-term trend data at

On independent and Republican views on the Republican Party, see

1.As a recent CBS/New York Times poll shows, though Tea Party members portray themselves as representing middle America, in fact they are overwhelmingly white, older, educated, and with higher-than-average incomes. They are also more likely to feel that too much has been made of race in America and that President Obama's policies favor poor blacks over the white middle class. See "Tea Party Supporters: Who They Are and What They Believe" (April 14, 2010), at, which also has links to the raw survey data.↩

2.While more Americans are identifying themselves as pro-life today, the proportion of those who want abortion to remain legal under certain circumstances has remained roughly constant for thirty-five years; it is the proportion of those who want abortion to be legal under all circumstances that has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, and the proportion of those in favor of a total ban that has increased. ↩

3.See trend data at ↩

4.See Lydia Saad, "Cultural Tolerance for Divorce Grows to 70%," May 19, 2008, available at See the trend data at ↩

5.See Barna Group, "New Marriage and Divorce Statistics Released," March 31, 2008, available at ↩

6.For general trend data about attitudes toward homosexuality, see For slightly different figures and survey questions, see Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "Majority Continues to Support Civil Unions," October 9, 2009, available at ort/553/same-sex-marriage. ↩

7.On Independents, see Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era," May 21, 2009, overview and sections 1, 2, 3, and 11. See full report at For slightly different and more recent figures, compare Lydia Saad, "Conservatives Maintain Edge as Top Ideological Group," October 26, 2009, at, and Frank Newport, "Americans More Likely to Say Government Doing Too Much," September 21, 2009, at Note that the slight rightward drift of independents that these surveys picked up is mainly due to the fact that so many moderate conservatives have abandoned the Republicans and now call themselves independents. ↩

8.See the Pew Research Center's Databank report on "National Satisfaction" at For trend data see National Election Survey, "Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior," section 5A, available at ↩

9.See references in footnote 7. These results are consistent across many different polls and polling organizations; see ↩

10.For results of a sixteen-nation study, see Russell J. Dalton, "The Social Transformation of Trust in Government," International Review of Sociology (March 2005), pp. 133–154. ↩

11.See the ]:National Center for Education Statistics, Condition of Education 2009, "Indicator 6: Homeschooled Students," available at ↩

12.National Opinion Research Center, "General Social Surveys, 1972–2006," under "Confidence." ↩

13.As of 2009, forty-eight states allow religious exemptions from vaccination, and twenty-one allow them based on philosophical or personal beliefs as well. The most recent study of the impact of these exemptions found that mean exemption rate increased an average of 6 percent per year, from 0.99 percent in 1991 to 2.54 percent in 2004, among states that offered personal belief exemptions. However there is great regional variety, even within states; for example, in from 2006 through 2007, in Washington State the county-level rate ranged from 1.2 to 26.9 percent. Exempt children are at much higher risk of coming down with vaccine-preventable illnesses; in one study their rate of measles was thirty-five times the rate of vaccinated children. See Saad B. Omer et al., "Vaccine Refusal, Mandatory Immunization, and the Risks of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases," New England Journal of Medicine, May 7, 2009. ↩

14.Pew reports that nearly half of Americans report having had a "mystical experience" or "spiritual awakening," more than double the number in the early Sixties, when most believers attended mainline churches. Three out of ten say they have been in touch with the dead, two out of ten have seen ghosts. These figures are nearly double what they were twenty years ago. See the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, "Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths," December 9, 2009, at ↩

15.See Denise Grady, "Scientists Say Herbs Need More Regulation," The New York Times, March 7, 2000. ↩

16.Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck were treated like rock stars at this year's Conservative Political Action Committee's convention, and last year Rush Limbaugh stole the show by calling for a purge of moderate conservatives and elites within the movement. He said, in part: "We've got factions now within our own movement seeking power to dominate it, and worst of all to redefine it.... These people in New York and Washington, cocktail elitists, they get made fun of when the next NASCAR race is on TV and their cocktail buds come up to them, those people are in your party?... Beware of those different factions who seek as part of their attempt to redefine conservatism, as making sure the liberals like us, making sure that the media likes us [sic]. They never will, as long as we remain conservatives. They can't possibly like us; they're our enemy. In a political arena of ideas, they're our enemy." This tirade helped to inspire the right-wing radicals who are now trying to purge Republican deviationists like Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, and even John McCain from the party. By threatening them with primary challenges, even if their defeat might ensure a Democratic victory, this suicide brigade has put all Republican officials on notice that they could be next.↩

One State; Two States

Hussein Ibish on the Fantasy World of One-Staters

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, which is the leading American group advocating for an independent Palestine alongside Israel, has a new book out, "What's Wrong With the One-State Agenda?" which does a comprehensive job of demolishing the arguments made by those who think that Israel should be eliminated and replaced by a single state of Jews and Palestinians. He has performed an important service with this book by noting one overwhelming truth about this debate: Virtually no one in Israel wants a single-state between the river and the sea. It's useful to remember this salient fact when listening to the ostensibly reality-based arguments of the one-staters.

I spoke to Ibish about his arguments last week, shortly after he spoke at the J Street conference. Here is an edited version of our conversation:

Jeffrey Goldberg: What were your impressions of the conference?

Hussein Ibish: It was impressive as a first step. My impression is that there's still quite a bit of message-cohesion and message-formulation to be done. It seemed to me to be an insufficiently coherent group of people. The range of people was so large.

JG: You mean on the Zionist spectrum?

HI: I mean people ranging from the sort of centrist-center left, all the way to post-Zionists, anti-Zionists, who were there, too. It's not ultimately a group that's going to form, I think, a functional coalition. Right now, they're finding their feet. This is normal, it's inevitable -- but at a certain point, I think they have to clarify what they are, who their constituency is, what they stand for, who they are, who they're not. They've been more successful in creating a space for themselves as a new voice that is compelling, but at other moments it's looked like where they were simply positioning themselves as the alternative to AIPAC. And my sense of things is that, initially, that they would look too much to their rivals. But sooner rather than later, they're going to have to just move on and start to define themselves in a much more coherent and pro-active way, not just in contrast to the traditional Jewish organizations but also to distinguish themselves from people in the Jewish community whose criticism of Israel makes them anathema to the mainstream of the community. They can't go there and I think they've tried not to go there.

JG: You can't be Zionist and non-Zionist at the same time, in other words.

HI: Exactly. I think it's essential for them. For us, it's not important.

JG: Well, isn't it important to have a pro-Israel, pro-two-state organization in Washington that's credibly Jewish?

HI: It is. But I believe that all of the mainstream organizations are moving in that direction. I think begrudgingly, without enthusiasm, I think they're all getting there, because I think ultimately the only organization that I can think of that is absolutely opposed to a two-state agreement are on the far right, the Zionist Organization of America, which is in favor of the occupation without reservations and, on the left, Jewish Voices for Peace, which is a one-state group all the way and without reservation. It seems to me everybody else occupies some space in the middle without being one-staters and without being flag-waving pro-settlers.

Now, the question is, from our point of view, what's really important is that the Jewish community have a range of dynamic organizations that are effective in advocating for peace based on two states, number one. And number two, that we can work with everybody who is in favor of a two-state solution without any other preconditions. I mean, we don't want to get involved in intra-Jewish rivalries. We want to work with everyone who wants peace based on two states. It's as simple as that. We don't have a huge stake in where J Street ultimately positions itself, but I will say this: The more mainstream it can become, the more powerful and important it will be. I think they should be as mainstream as possible, they should avoid the impression they sometimes give that they're perhaps not being sensitive to fears about Israel's security. There's a real appetite for a more robust, more aggressively pro-peace organization in the Jewish community. But from our perspective, the only people we don't want to talk to are the one-staters and the pro-occupation groups.

JG: But the one-staters are a very marginal group. I think one of the interesting things you do in your book is show very coolly, calmly, the essential ridiculousness of one-state advocacy based on the simple fact that in order to have a successful one-state plan, you need Israeli Jews to want it, and today, not even one percent of Israeli Jews want it.

HI: You could put all of them in a small auditorium.

JG: I don't think you need an auditorium. Talk about these guys, the Tony Judts --

HI: I don't want to be too hard on Judt. Judt put out this argument and then he immediately admitted that it was utopian, that it wasn't serious and he was just doing a thought experiment. And since then, he basically has more or less withdrawn from the conversation Judt has not been a person who suggests that this is a realistic plan and a serious proposal for the future.

There are two fundamental flaws with pro-Palestinian strategic thinking that focuses on the idea of abandoning two states and going for a single state. The first is the question of feasibility, and it's hard to argue with that. Obviously anyone who is familiar with this sees the difficulty, and I would be the first to say that success is not assured by any means. Even a two-state agreement looks, at the moment, like something of a long shot. The difference between the two-state solution and everything else is that yes, it's a long shot, but it would work. And if we could conceivably get it, if we did get it, it would solve the conflict.

The fundamental argument that the one-staters seem to be making, which is that we can't possibly get Israel to end the occupation and relinquish their control of the 22 percent of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) but we will inevitably succeed in getting them to relinquish one hundred percent of the territory under their control. This is a problem of logic. The second thing is that once you've realized this, obviously what you've done is set yourself the task of convincing Jewish Israelis to voluntarily do this. The idea of coercing the Israelis into this through military force is absurd, and it could only really be done through voluntary persuasion. What the one-staters argue, actually, is that they don't have to do that. What they're going to do, they say, is bring the Israelis to their knees.

JG: South Africa style?
HI: Well, South Africa style, except we don't have a South Africa equation here.

JG: But they believe they do.

HI: They believe that through the application of what they call BDS - Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions - globally that they can crush the will of the Israelis and break the Zionist movement. To me, even if you believe that boycotts were plausible, which I don't, certainly I don't think the American government and institutions and corporations would participate.

JG: You have to move from the American consensus that supports supplying Israel with the best weaponry to not just a military cutoff but a complete cutoff and boycott. It's very hard to picture.

HI: Anyone who thinks that is plausible in the foreseeable future doesn't understand the nature of the American relationship with Israel. The commitment of the U.S., not just the government but American society, is to the survival and security of the Israeli state. And then there's another aspect, which is the extent to which Israeli institutions, organizations and corporations are interwoven at a very fundamental level with many of those in the U.S.

JG: Right, Intel and Google --

HI: I'm talking about corporate, governmental, intelligence, military, industrial, scientific ties. The point is that you can only take talk of boycott and sanctions seriously if you really don't understand any of this. And if you don't understand any of this, then you're living in a fantasy world. So here's the thing: Obviously the only real task for one-staters is to convince Jewish Israelis to agree to their solution. But instead of trying to do that, they engage in the most hyperbolic discourse about the badness of Zionism, the badness of Jewish Israelis, the rightness and primacy of not just a Palestinian narrative, but the most strident traditional Palestinian narrative, and the most tendentious Palestinian narrative, the one that places lame for the conflict entirely on the side of the Israelis, that casts Israel as the usurper and what they call in one-state circles now the "temporary racist usurping entity." These are the ones, by the way, who won't talk about my book. There's a refusal to acknowledge or read my book. I've nicknamed my book "the temporary racist usurping book."

These people are trapped in the language of the Fifties and Sixties. You're talking about a worldview is anachronistic in the most fundamental sense. It doesn't recognize any of the changes that have taken place since then. For example, the strategic situation that's emerged in the Middle East, where the Arab states and the Arabs generally have a lot of other things to worry about other than Israel. This is a world in which a lot of Gulf states are extremely concerned about Iraq, and where there are Arab states -- Jordan and Egypt -- that have treaties with Israel, where Syria has a motive to be civil with Israel that is unpleasant but completely stable, and where it's a very different environment than simply the Arabs and Israelis are enemies. The other thing that they've missed completely, and this is sort of the amazing thing, is the total transformation in American official policy toward the Palestinians over the past 20 years. Twenty-one years ago, there was no contact ever between the U.S. and the PLO. No contact, zero, and no Palestinian statehood is the consensus American foreign policy and it is a national security priority under Obama. People in the House, key positions like the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Howard Berman, chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East, Gary Ackerman, Nita Lowey on Appropriations - all of them Jewish American members of Congress, stalwart supporters of Israel, and all of them committed to peace based on two states. And all of them, by the way, who were on the host committee of the American Task Force on Palestine gala last week.

JG: You've reached the Promised Land.

HI: Except that we haven't achieved the results.

JG: Yes, there's that. But you're on the road.

HI: Exactly. The transformation in American attitudes is almost mind-boggling, an official American attitude on ending the occupation, which has been the traditional goal of the Palestinians. And at this very moment, a group of Palestinians turns around and says, 'Sorry, not good enough, we want it all. Not only is a single Palestinian state not achievable, it's not desirable, it's not acceptable, it's not enough, we want it all.'

JG: Who are the leaders of the movement?

HI: People like Ali Abunimah, Joseph Massad, Ghada Karmi, Omar Barghouti.

JG: And you think they're succumbing to fantastic dreams. This is the traditional criticism of Palestinian politics over the past sixty years, that it's very hard to separate out the dreams from--

HI: It goes back further than sixty years. It's an article of Palestinian nationalist faith that is almost one hundred years old, which is that demography is destiny, demography is power. This notion that if we just sit here, on the land, have children, are steadfast and don't agree to anything, then political power ultimately will flow to us. In the twenties, they believed if we do that, then, just by virtue of our presence in the land, our numbers, our demography, Israel will never be established. After Israel was established, it was just, "Well if we're steadfast and we don't agree, then Israel will be reversed." Then it was, "Well if we just do this, then independence will come in the occupied territories." Now the latest version is if we're just steadfast, we can create a South Africa-like model and we will reverse the war of 1948 at the ballot.

JG: But I have to tell you that for people like me, this is a real worry. This goes with the argument that the settlements are the vanguard of one-statism.

HI: Now there is some truth to this. I think it's useful for people like (Ehud) Olmert or people like yourself to point out that with the occupation going the way it is, there won't be a Palestinian state, and then Israel will be in a situation where it is neither meaningfully Jewish nor meaningfully democratic. I think you could claim that already, if you talk about the de facto Israeli state rather than Israel in its normally perceived borders, that is already the case and it will be increasingly so. Now here's the thing: The alternative, though, is not going to be a single state in the foreseeable future. It's possible we could get there, but it won't be a solution, it will be an outcome. There's a big difference. An outcome of a horrible, brutal, bloody civil conflict that drags on for generations, because even though this demographic issue and the legitimacy issues are crises for Israel, I don't think they result in the dissolution of the Israeli state

JG: In other words, most Israeli Jews would rather have a Jewish state than a democratic state.

HI: Yes, it's obvious. And I think that what you would get is a protracted civil war that is essentially an intensification of the civil war we've had. So I do say the single state is a potential eventuality, but it would be the outcome of a horrible scenario. Look, the idea that if the current round of talks breaks down and Obama gives up and the U.S. gives up and we all give up, then the alternative is a Gandhian non-violent struggle of sanctions and boycotts that will somehow bring Israel to its knees, that is not the way it's going to go. We know the way it's going to go.

JG: Each intifada is more violent than the last.

HI: And more religious. You'll end up with two sets of bearded fanatics on both sides fighting over holy places and God. It will be a complete disaster. And I think the Israelis will end up ultimately dealing with forces not only beyond its borders, but beyond its comprehension in the long run. This has the possibility of turning into not an ethno-national war but a religious war between the Muslims and the Jews over the holy places with the whole concept of Palestine gone and the Jewish population of Israel in a very unenviable situation, protected in the end only by its nuclear weapons. It's a nightmare.

JG: So you have three scenarios. One, the one-state solution: Somehow the Jews and the Arabs decide, even though their narratives completely contradict each other, that we'll be like Belgium, where we don't have to really like each other but we'll be fine. The second alternative is the one you described of basically endless war. The third is the two-state solution. But, sorry to say it, we don't seem that close right now. You have an Israeli government who seems extremely hesitant to pull down any settlements, you have a Hamas government in Gaza, just for starters.

HI: What you do with Hamas, in my view, is you make the situation such that Hamas has to choose, and you do this by creating progress and by creating momentum - and there are two ways of creating momentum. One is diplomatically, which right now, seems difficult. The other is through the Fayyad plan, which is state building in the occupied territories. That would have a very powerful effect. It is extremely important that we use that idea as a means of gaining momentum, that the Israelis do not block it, that the U.S. protect it politically, and that the Arabs, Europeans and the Israelis support it technically and financially. This is a way of really moving forward in a manner that is complimentary and not contradictory to the diplomatic process, and I think people who suggest that this is some kind of capitulation or some kind of collaboration are dead wrong. This is a very powerful way of effectively resisting the occupation without doing anything violent. Israelis may fool themselves into thinking that this is just economic peace, but it's not; it's Palestinians preparing for independence.

Now with regard to Hamas, I definitely don't think it would be wise for the West to open up dialogue with Hamas under the present circumstances. I think that would simply reward them and it would benefit them in their competition with the PLO and there's a stark choice that Palestinians are facing between two strategies: an Islamist violent strategy and a secular nationalist negotiation strategy. I think it's very important to bolster the second and to make the first appear what it actually is: Non-functional.
This article available online at:

Pollack *on* Beinart

Peter Beinart and the Destruction of Liberal Zionism

Noah Pollak Web Exclusive

In political debates, it remains true that the messenger usually matters more than the message. I say this because Peter Beinart's much-discussed essay in the New York Review of Books and the reaction to it has been in substance merely a procession of the kind of cliches on liberal disaffection with Israel that anyone who has been paying attention became familiar with years ago. But because Beinart is a Jewish former editor of a steadfastly pro-Israel magazine, the New Republic, his public apostasy has garnered attention in great disproportion to the quality or originality of his complaints.

The most important requirement for joining the Israel-bashers is to charge Israel with bad faith in the course of the effort to bring peace to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, which is the glue that holds the narrative together and makes the recriminations seem warranted. This charge has two subordinate tenets: revisionism for dealing with the past, and conspiracy theory for dealing with the present. Thus, in Beinart's telling, large numbers of Israelis are racists and authoritarians who never really wanted peace, and their political leaders are fanatics manipulating guileless Americans and Palestinians while mainstream American Jewish organizations enable them from the sidelines.

There are important matters of context missing from Beinart’s critique. He condemns the hostility some Israeli Jews have expressed toward Israeli Arabs without so much as mentioning the rise in radicalism among Israeli Arabs, to the point today where many of their political leaders -- including members of the Knesset -- have openly sided with Hamas and Hezbollah, lauded the Iranian nuclear program, supported the destruction of Israel, and participated in all manner of delegitimization and anti-Semitic incitement. These are citizens of Israel: imagine if Muslims who had been elected to the U.S. Congress were engaged in similar endorsements of America’s enemies.

In condemning the statements of Israeli politicians, Beinart doesn’t mention another important consideration, which is Israel’s proportional-representation electoral system. In this system, there is no geographic representation, and parties merely need to earn 2 percent of the vote to obtain seats in the Knesset. This brings into parliament a variety of figures who represent fringe or radical interests. There are two parties represented in the U.S. Congress; there are 18 in the Knesset. If America had Israel's system, one could find all manner of political radicals -- truthers, birthers, Chomskyites, militiamen, eco-fascists, socialists, anarchists, college professors -- with seats in Congress, and they could be quoted saying all manner of crazy (and unrepresentative) things about America. Beinart is up in arms about some of the campaign jingoism of Avigdor Lieberman, who holds the title of foreign minister but doesn’t actually exercise much power in that role, since foreign relations are really the bailiwick of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Beinart never mentions that Lieberman’s party won only 12.5 percent of the vote. Because Beinart’s purpose is to suggest that Israel is on its way to authoritarianism, he casts the byproducts of a too-raucous and significantly too-diverse political system as its essence. Israeli Arab parties are also represented in the Knesset, and their leaders frequently say things about Israel and Jews that are far, far, worse than anything Lieberman said about Arabs during his campaign. Inconvenient facts such as these go unmentioned.

But those are quibbles. More important is Beinart’s imputation that critics of Israel within the Jewish community and elsewhere have been rendered mute and ineffective by the power of politically conservative Jews and the Washington lobby they supposedly control. Beinart suggests a great burden to bear in becoming an Israel critic: "The hardest thing I've ever written," he said in announcing his essay on his Twitter feed.

Please. As the astonishingly polite reaction to his article over the past week has demonstrated, there are few postures today from which it is more comfortable and advantageous to call out one’s anguish and concern than as a Jewish critic of Israel. The ranks are full of people who have made careers out of being contemporary prophets, traveling the land to warn the Israelites that their arrogance and sin is inviting catastrophe. The key difference is that the biblical prophets were often despised and persecuted figures, whereas the prophets of today enjoy the embrace of a vast array of institutions, foundations, and publications.

How hard it must be for Beinart to ally with his employer, the New America Foundation, and Haaretz, Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, the New York Review of Books, the Nation magazine, the New York Times editorial and op-ed pages, Time magazine, the American Conservative, the American Prospect, Mother Jones, the entirety of the British and European media, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B'tselem, J Street, J Call, the New Israel Fund, Richard Goldstone, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly, the European Union, the British Foreign Office, the European Council, scores of NGOs, Walt and Mearsheimer, Tom Segev, Avi Shlaim, Tony Judt, Tel Aviv University, every Middle East Studies department, George Soros, the Ford Foundation, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter, Andrew Sullivan, Noam Chomsky, Mondoweiss, and ... well, you get the picture.

The sad truth is that Peter Beinart isn't any kind of trailblazer or whistleblower, and he most certainly has not earned himself any trouble by coming out as an Israel-basher. He is someone who has rather belatedly fallen completely and predictably into line with the demands his ideological compatriots make for orthodoxy when it comes to their increasingly passionate interest in assaulting Israel and championing the Palestinian cause. In Beinart’s work, we are not witnessing an act of courage but rather a spectacle of conformity.

In this new role, Beinart declares his “outrage” at the choices of the Israeli electorate and the refusal of mainstream American Jewish groups to condemn them. He demands that Israelis make political choices as if life were frozen in 1992, unaffected by almost 20 years of the failure of the peace process and territorial withdrawals. For Beinart, Israeli voters have no right to feel chastened and betrayed by the serial refusal of the “international community” and Western liberals to act against the aggression and terrorism of Israel’s enemies. We are dealing, in other words, with someone who not only rejects the laws of democratic politics -- discredited policies get rejected in elections -- but someone who places absurd demands of charity and self-denial on Israeli voters while justifying his intrusion with the fatuous declaration that “Israel’s crimes—unlike those of Hamas or Ahmadinejad—are committed in our name,” that is, in the name of American Jews. This is the kind of statement it is easy to imagine John Mearsheimer making; it is a shameful and outrageous denial of the citizenship of American Jews, most of whom probably could not name the Israeli defense minister, not to mention that it is comically egomaniacal to insist that Israelis should act and vote with Peter Beinart’s tortured conscience in mind.

One cannot understand the depths of Beinart’s mischaracterization of Israeli politics without understanding why, over the past two decades, the Israeli left has been discredited and the right has had its fortunes rise.

The judgment of history on the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, is deservedly harsh. We now know that Yasir Arafat never intended to make peace with Israel, or prepare Palestinians for peaceful coexistence, or follow through on the obligations to which he dedicated himself on the White House lawn in 1993. After his return from exile in Tunis, Arafat set about violating virtually every limitation placed on him by the accords. He talked peace in English but promised jihad in Arabic, assuring Arabs everywhere that the peace process was merely a means for establishing a better position from which to destroy Israel; and then at Camp David in 2000 he rejected a Palestinian state and started the four-year suicide-bombing war known as the second intifada.

During this period, it quickly became obvious to anyone who had not been stricken with peace-process messianism that Arafat had the worst of intentions. But the peace processors remained incurious about Arafat’s transgressions. There are things he must say to his Arab audiences that make Westerners uncomfortable, they reassured; he’s a weak leader and criticizing him will only make him weaker and imperil the hope for peace, they said. As we now know, this was nothing but self-delusion. Not a self-delusion grounded in bad motives, but largely good ones -- the genuine desire for peace, for a resolution of Palestinian grievances, for a new era in the Middle East in which Israel’s presence would be accepted.

But the Oslo dream failed nonetheless. Its last gasp was the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which reinforced the central lesson Israelis learned from the suicide bombing war: the Palestinians want victory, not peace. Only 11 months after the Gaza withdrawal, Israelis were forced to revisit the consequences of a previous disengagement, this one from the security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000, by fighting a month-long war with Hezbollah. Meanwhile, rocket attacks from Gaza were steadily increasing, culminating in military action against Hamas in the final days of 2008.

For Israelis, the "risks for peace" were taken in large part because of the promise that Israel would be rewarded with the approval of the international community, especially its liberals. Through the peace process, Israel was promised acceptance; through disengagement, Israel was promised the moral high ground and assured that acts of self-defense would finally, at long last, be accompanied by the full and unapologetic support of Western liberals.

So what happened? Where were the liberal Zionists in all this? The Hezbollah and Hamas wars in particular were treated by Peter Beinart’s new allies as acts of brutal Israeli aggression and cruelty. Operation Defensive Shield in 2003, the Hezbollah war, and the Hamas war should have been moments in which liberal Zionists stepped forward to say: Israel took the risks for peace that we demanded. Israel committed itself to a diplomatic process, offered a Palestinian state, and withdrew from Lebanon and Gaza. The terrorists who attack Israel will find no defenders among us. Instead, talk of war crimes filled the airwaves, investigations were demanded, arrest warrants for Israeli officials issued, and now Peter Beinart says that he must question Zionism because civilians were killed in Gaza. Carried away by his own moral indignation, he never asks two fundamental questions: who started the war, and why was it fought from civilian areas?

The liberal Zionists, when it has mattered most, have defected. It has been easier to join the critics of Israel, who are fellow liberals, than to appear jingoistic and tribal by defending the hated Zionists. Some peace processors, such as Israeli “new historian” Benny Morris, have acknowledged the flaws in their thinking and have become cautious and skeptical. But some cannot come to terms with the reality of their mistakes, the failure of their predictions, and the durability of Arab rejectionism. In the liberal imagination, this is not how the world is supposed to work. In the liberal vision, everyone desires progress and the good life, and when given the choice will prefer compromise and material comfort over ideological stubbornness.

Because the history of the peace process repudiates so many of liberalism’s most cherished premises, liberalism is increasingly repudiating Israel, and doing so in a perfectly logical fashion: with people like Beinart now saying that Israel is not in fact an admirable country and that it deserves to be thrown out of the company of liberal nations. In this way, the failure of the liberal vision is transformed from being a verdict on liberalism to being a verdict on Israel.

It is Israel, we are now admonished, that has been dishonest and aggressive and unwilling to compromise. Believing this is the only way to avoid confronting the real problem, which is liberalism’s inability to reconcile its beliefs about human nature with the cruel functioning of humans in practice.

Beinart writes as if none of the tragedies of the past two decades happened, or if they did happen, that Israelis, unique among peoples, may not allow themselves to acquire any fears or resentments or lessons. Even Shimon Peres, one of Israel’s greatest doves, understands what has transpired, telling the Wall Street Journal a few days ago: "I am not surprised that so many Israelis lost their trust when they're being attacked time after time, time after time." Lost their trust indeed: the Meretz/Labor peace-process faction held 56 Knesset seats in 1992. Today they have 16. Normally in politics, such a massive shift in public opinion is accompanied by genuine inquiry about why it happened. Beinart is unreflective. It must be because of the settlers, or racism, or AIPAC.

Beinart has thus joined a legion of others in the burgeoning profession of being an Israel Scold. Israel Scolds have adopted a set of condescending attitudes toward Israelis, their recent history, and their political choices, demanding that they never allow the cruelties of reality to undermine their faith in the promise of the progressive vision. The distilled pleading of Beinart is merely a series of demands that Israelis refuse to learn from experience: how dare they allow any hostility to Arabs creep into their politics; how dare they vote for Avigdor Lieberman, a populist who plays to the less-than-perfectly liberal Russian immigrants; how dare they lose faith in the peace process and the liberal hopefulness that animated it. Most important: how dare they upset the comfortable ideological existence of American Jews, whose acceptability to their liberal peers depends in no small degree on their willingness to join in pillorying Israel over the failure of the peace process -- a failure, alas, that is not Israel’s but liberalism’s.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Paine, Burke and ? David Brooks?

May 24, 2010

Two Theories of Change


When I was in college I took a course in the Enlightenment. In those days, when people spoke of the Enlightenment, they usually meant the French Enlightenment — thinkers like Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire and Condorcet.

These were philosophers who confronted a world of superstition and feudalism and sought to expose it to the clarifying light of reason. Inspired by the scientific revolution, they had great faith in the power of individual reason to detect error and logically arrive at universal truth.

Their great model was Descartes. He aimed to begin human understanding anew. He’d discard the accumulated prejudices of the past and build from the ground up, erecting one logical certainty upon another.

What Descartes was doing for knowledge, others would do for politics: sweep away the old precedents and write new constitutions based on reason. This was the aim of the French Revolution.

But there wasn’t just one Enlightenment, headquartered in France. There was another, headquartered in Scotland and Britain and led by David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. As Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in her 2004 book, “The Roads to Modernity,” if the members of the French Enlightenment focused on the power of reason, members of the British Enlightenment emphasized its limits.

They put more emphasis on our sentiments. People are born with natural desires to be admired and to be worthy of admiration. They are born with moral emotions, a sense of fair play and benevolence. They are also born with darker passions, like self-love and tribalism, which mar rationalist enterprises. We are emotional creatures first and foremost, and politics should not forget that.

These two views of human nature produced different attitudes toward political change, articulated most brilliantly by Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Their views are the subject of a superb dissertation by Yuval Levin at the University of Chicago called “The Great Law of Change.”

As Levin shows, Paine believed that societies exist in an “eternal now.” That something has existed for ages tells us nothing about its value. The past is dead and the living should use their powers of analysis to sweep away existing arrangements when necessary, and begin the world anew. He even suggested that laws should expire after 30 years so each new generation could begin again.

Paine saw the American and French Revolutions as models for his sort of radical change. In each country, he felt, the revolutionaries deduced certain universal truths about the rights of man and then designed a new society to fit them.

Burke, a participant in the British Enlightenment, had a different vision of change. He believed that each generation is a small part of a long chain of history. We serve as trustees for the wisdom of the ages and are obliged to pass it down, a little improved, to our descendents. That wisdom fills the gaps in our own reason, as age-old institutions implicitly contain more wisdom than any individual could have.

Burke was horrified at the thought that individuals would use abstract reason to sweep away arrangements that had stood the test of time. He believed in continual reform, but reform is not novelty. You don’t try to change the fundamental substance of an institution. You try to modify from within, keeping the good parts and adjusting the parts that aren’t working.

If you try to re-engineer society on the basis of abstract plans, Burke argued, you’ll end up causing all sorts of fresh difficulties, because the social organism is more complicated than you can possibly know. We could never get things right from scratch.

Burke also supported the American Revolution, but saw it in a different light than Paine. He believed the British Parliament had recklessly trampled upon the ancient liberties the colonists had come to enjoy. The Americans were seeking to preserve what they had.

We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one.

Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems. You see polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics.

The children of the British Enlightenment are in retreat. Yet there is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong. And out of that truth grows a style of change, a style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance.

The Wire and Art


I haven't seen "Treme" (no cable) so I can't comment on how accurate this review is. But as a native Baltimorean intimately familiar with the haunts of "The Wire," where David Simon injects a fantasized moral complexity where there is little (there is nothing more numbing and banal than the world of the inner city drug corners), I'm predisposed to think Simon's same sort of faux authenticity is being imposed on NOLA.


". . . where David Simon injects a fantasized moral complexity where there is little"

Isn't that exactly what art does? Or one of the things at least?

The same accusation -- not simply replicating numbness and banality -- could be leveled at Brecht for "The Threepenny Opera" (beggers and thieves hanging out), Shakespeare for "Henry IV" and "Henry V" (king dies, son becomes king and acts differently than before), or Camus for "The Fall" (guy from Paris goes to Amsterdam and meets other guy like him).


cansv interesting posts

I haven't seen Treme. But didn't The Wire do the opposite of injecting "...a fantasized moral complexity where there is little..."? I can see why someone, me, would think that in some ways from certain perspectives the "world of the inner city drug corners is numbing and banal". But they are populated by disenfranchised, socially alienated people, many kids, tied in complicated ways to crime organizations made up of people who at their tops have much wealth and power which themselves bleed into and overlap with business and politics also comprised of compromised people. How in all this is their not moral complexity ranging from the smallest diddy bopper to those in the very seat of power, especially considering the elemental confrontation running through the series between crime as individual and scial dysfunction and state order with all of its own internal tensions? There is I submit no need here for injecting fantasized moral complexity: it's all there; it all inheres there. Plus, after all, "there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow..."

So the question for The Wire is not the imposition of moral complexity on a subject that can't sustain it, but the bringing out in art of the moral complexity that is there, nececcsarily. I think in The Wire Simon did this expansively and magnificently.


ansv, I didn't think that The Wire celebrated or romanticized street crime -- as "authentic" or in any other way. I don't even think that the morality of The Wire is very complex (which is fine with me, by the way). It's not making apologies for criminals. According to the show's moral scheme, the greatest virtues are competence and an understated sense of high principle both of which are doomed to fight losing battles against crass, short-term self-interest and endemic corruption in all its varieties. The competent and the principled generally get punished, and the world doesn't get any better, in a variety of gritty urban venues from street corners to City Hall. With respect to the characters who are criminals, I don't think that investing some of them with charisma turns them into sympathetic figures, any more than it did for Richard III.


...According to the show's moral scheme, the greatest virtues are competence and an understated sense of high principle both of which are doomed to fight losing battles against crass, short-term self-interest and endemic corruption in all its varieties. The competent and the principled generally get punished, and the world doesn't get any better, in a variety of gritty urban venues from street corners to City Hall...

I wonder whether there's a problem with this argument.

This telling paraphrase of the series' "moral scheme" sounds complex enough.

But my underlying point is that once you try prosaically to render what a work of art is about thematically--another word, I think, for "moral scheme"--it's necessarily reductive in the Cleanth Brooks sense of the "heresy of paraphrase". A great work of art may have an easily stated theme or moral scheme--say Paradise Lost--but it would be wrong to say it's not complex. And it may be a misconceived splitting of artistic form and content, I'd argue, to say a work is formally complex but morally or thematically simple. Form and content are integrally, or, better, perhaps, intrinisically, related ways of speaking about the same thing.

For The Wire too, which I, for not the only one, think is high art.


Basman, fair enough. I didn't mean to say that the show is not complex. It certainly is. I meant to say that the show is not, I think, morally dubious for romanticizing bad things and bad people. I caught a whiff of that complaint from cansv who insisted that urban street life is more banal bummer than rich tapestry. If it promotes any values -- and I think it does -- then those values strike me as conventional ones. There is moral conflict -- there are numerous plot lines that involve breaking the rules in order to achieve a higher purpose -- but these conflicts aren't subversive. You're not really invited, I think, to leave the confines of the moral universe of nice, bourgeois liberals like ourselves. That's not a knock. I don't in fact like art that preaches, in often sanctimonious or specious fashion, that we should leave those confines, and that in some way endorses (as opposed to merely exposes) so-called alternative morality.


jh I agree in part and disagree in part with what you say about The Wire. I agree with you as against cansv. But I think Simon wouldn't like to think he was leaving us, ultimately, to our bourgeois selves. That in itself isn't an argument really, but isn't there is a meaning in The Wire that wants to say in part something like that there is an unfathomable evil here that swallows up people in the darkest, most vicious way imaginable and that is hopeless, unreachable, and all consuming?

It has to do with the so many episodes of sheer viciousness and bloodletting, of characters, whose pluck and survival are admirable, who only to come to terrible, terrible ends, that one kid in the last episode who just wanders away into the darkness of the Baltimore inner city.

It's been a while since I've seen it and can't remember so many specific instances, but my general recollection is thematically of great stretches of irredeemable darkness. In fact a complaint about its last year was how dark and muffled was the camera work and the characters' speech. For me that was atmospheric and metaphoric for that darkness.

There's a sense in which all art delivers us back to our bourgeois lives, if we are lucky enough to have them. It's art after all, not life. It ends and life goes on. I think that art's transformative powers are vastly overrated, especially in relation to effecting change in the world. And I don't know anyone, I don't think, who was "transformed" by a work of art or had his or her life changed. Art does not, in my experience, abate distress or real personal sorrow. It's best enjoyed when you're nice and comfortable and can take it in with a clear mind and heart, undistracted by real world problems and sorrows.


Or, as T.S. Eliot remarked (I'm paraphrasing a little here), it's difficult to read a great poem if you have a nagging toothache.


Lonnie Johnson - Toothache Blues - Part 1 (1928)

VS: Ahhh, hahhh ¦[spoken words (s.p.)]
LJ: What's the matter, darlin'?[s. p.]
VS: Ahhh, hahhh ¦[s. p.]

VS: I'm havin' so much trouble with those toothache blues.
LJ: I'm a real good doctor to ease those toothache blues.
VS: Ahhh, ahhh ¦ [s. p.]
VS: It's got me floor walkin' and wearin' out both of my shoes.
VS: Ahhhhh ¦ [s. p.]

LJ: You need a quick fillin' dentist, now don't be mean and cross.
VS: Ohhh, doctor ¦ huhh ¦ LJ: Hush up, darlin', just a minute ¦ [s. p.]
You need a quick fillin' dentist, now don't be mean and cross.
VS: Mmm, mmm ¦ [s. p.]
VS: Last night I was hot with fever, I just rolled and tossed.
VS: Ohhh, doctor ¦ LJ: Just a minute, darlin' ¦ [s. p.]

LJ: Don't get nervous honey, when I lay you in my chair.
VS: Mmm ¦ LJ: Sit still, darlin' ¦ [s. p.]
Don't get nervous, honey when I lay you in my chair.
VS: Ahhh, doctor, doctor ¦ [s. p.]
VS: If you use what's in your hand, you'll make me pull my hair.
VS: Ahhh, ouch, mmm ¦ LJ: Just a minute ¦ [s. p.]

VS: I feel a funny little somethin' easin' into my cavity.
VS: Mmm, ouch, ohhh ¦ (giggling)
I feel a funny little somethin' easin' into my cavity.
LJ: That's nothin' but cocaine and liquor to ease your pains you see.
VS: Ohhh, doctor, mmm ¦ LJ: Wait, just a minute now ... [s. p.]
VS: Mmm ¦ LJ: I got it now ... [s. p.]
VS: Ahhh, ahhh ¦ LJ: I ¦ I pulled it now ¦ [s. p.]
VS: Ahhh, doctor ¦ LJ: Don't it feel better now? [s. p.]
VS: Ahhhh ¦ LJ: It won't be long now ¦ [s. p.]
VS: Mmmm ¦ mmmm ¦ [s. p.]

The dentist's name is, natch, Dr. Feelgood.