In response to a Facebook post wondering at the uncritical commitment to Israel insisted upon by the American far-right, and their insistence that any wavering from that commitment is “anti-Semitic,” I wrote the following essay:
Being critical of Israel is not necessarily “anti-Semitic,” just as being critical of America is not necessarily “anti-American” (and, for that matter, being critical of any given religious order, movement, or individual, isn’t necessarily an affront to “God”). Israel and America are both nations, more like than unlike others despite the mythologies surrounding them.
Israel and America have had an important strategic relationship, confused and exaggerated by two religious communities that have become overzealously committed to America’s unflagging and unquestioning support of Israel, even to the point of to some extent ceding our own sovereignty to Israel. Those two groups are, of course, the American Jewish community, which has always been overwhelmingly blindly and fanatically pro-Israel (though not without many exceptions, Jews who are first and foremost humanists and are first and foremost concerned with our shared humanity), and, now, conservative evangelicals, who have their own religious reasons for feeling a zealous commitment to Israel (having something to do with their interpretation of the requirements for the Rapture, as I understand it, rather than any sincere love of Israelis) combined with their own ultra-conservative, ultra-nationalist leanings.
Israel’s history and pre-history are also both critical threads in a complete understanding of the geopolitical landscape into which it has woven itself, and the moral implications of that choice. The one thing that isn’t relevant to anyone but Israelis themselves is their ancient, religious-based claim to the land: Every parcel of land on the face of the Earth has changed hands –far more often by violently imposed than by peacefully mutual means– many, many times over the ages, and the current legitimate claims of one racial/ethnic/religious group that had been in continuous possession of that parcel for about a thousand years prior to the Israeli colonization and usurpation of that parcel had, up until that point, the far superior claim to legitimate rights over that parcel.
So, one thread in the tapestry to understand is the very legitimate grievance of the Palestinians, whose currently and extant ancestral land was colonized by a group of Europeans who decided to call it their own and create a state explicitly dedicated to their own culture and religion on it, instantly reducing the pre-existing inhabitants to the status of second-class citizens. Another thread of the tapestry is the recognition of the strong and compelling push factors that induced that European population to do so, though the legitimacy of those push factors (i.e., a history of violent oppression, culminating in the Holocaust), as horrific and empathy-inducing as they may be, can’t justify colonizing and oppressing another, unrelated, foreign people. (That injustice experienced by the Palestinians, however, does not justify and excuse their own atrocities committed since the establishment of the state of Israel, a lesson to those who forget their humanity in the midst of their commitment to other abstractions.)
But another fact of our geopolitical history is that it is a story of borders drawn and redrawn, populations placed and displaced, by endless series of combinations of militant initiative and gross injustices, so that once some new formation becomes a fait accompli, the injustice of its formation becomes less relevant than the reality of its existence. No modern nation on Earth can claim not to trace its roots to the military conquest of other peoples and the drawing of lines in the sand based on that conquest (if there are a few tribes scattered about the world, who still have some identity of themselves as a nation, who never occupied land they took from others, they are an exception to the rule defined more by the circumstances they encountered than by some idealized superior moral quality of their own). For that reason, Israel’s right to exist should not be brought into question; the Israelis aren’t going anywhere, and any agenda that insists they do at this point can only become a source of gross inhumanity.
Finally, there is the issue of the Israeli-American relationship and their combined and separate relationships with the rest of the Middle East and the rest of the world. America quickly recognized Israel’s right to exist, in part to avoid having to absorb millions of European Jewish refugees in the wake of World War II, in part due to the presence of large numbers of Jews in America who strongly favored supporting Israel, in part due to a sense of the inhumanity that had been inflicted on the Jews in the chapter of world history just preceding the establishment of the state of Israel and some generalized debt of humanity to them that that chapter incurred, and, undoubtedly, in part due to recognition of the strategic value of such an alliance. And America quickly formed a strategic partnership with Israel, becoming Israel’s staunchest and invaluable military and economic supporter in return for having a country-sized base of operations and proxy agent in a region of the Earth very much at the vortex of historical geopolitical struggle and conveniently located near the Eastern Communist Block.
This meant that the hatred of the Arab world toward Israel for colonizing and usurping what had been an Arab country became generalized to the United States as well, and, in some ways, raised to a higher pitch against the United States, whose superior wealth and power and secularity all piqued the jealousies and religious animosities of many in that region of the world. America, the rich, secular, militant supporter of the small power that had ensconced itself on previously Arab land, easily became “The Great Satan” in the popular Arab mind (and, yes, the animosity toward America in the Arab world, while far from universal, is very wide-spread).
Our unfailing support of Israel’s own sometimes overly aggressive reactions to their own perceived insecurity has not helped this modern historical animosity between America and the Arab world. All of this combined with our support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, in order to use them as proxies to repel the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s, and our choice to leave abruptly once that was accomplished, leaving a tribally-contested power vacuum and a whole lot of very deadly state-of-the-art military hardware and weaponry. As a result of that latter choice, a very bloody civil war ensued in Afghanistan, for whose intensity we were in part correctly blamed, resulting in the establishment of the Taliban, who hated us for all of these reasons involving our relationship with Israel; our secularism, wealth and power; and the deadly and bloody ruin we had set their country up for.
So our support of Israel has come at a high price, a high price that we should have been glad to pay if that relationship really were as morally perfect as some pretend it is. In reality, we incurred the enmity of the Arab world in part by taking a very strong side in a complex regional relationship that required more of an honest broker from what is in fact the global hegemon (The U.S.). (The extent that we failed to be an honest broker can also be exaggerated; our shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East has often played a very valuable role in resolving conflicts there, and forging new alliance where enmity had existed, such as between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan.) This is a difficult error to correct at this point, but one which we should strive to correct by taking a harder line with Israel, not rescinding our alliance, but insisting on more restraint, accountability, and accommodation from those often wayward allies of ours.
On a comment thread of a map of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, one poster was adamant that it was completely inappropriate to refer to the Holocaust experienced by those peoples at European colonists’ hands as “genocide,” making very unconvincing legalistic and semantic arguments. After a bit of back and forth, he finally got very angry, and let loose with a rejection of the very notion that there was anything about that conquest that anyone should feel in anyway ashamed of. This was my response:
After all the meaningless noise, we get to the truth: It isn’t the word you object to after all, but rather the acknowledgement of the magnitude of the historical brutality and inhumanity that went into the formation of this nation! We can’t say “genocide,” not because its role as a legal term prohibits us in casual conversation from using the word in a way in which it is commonly used (oops), not because it is an insult to Jews (oops), but because, by god, how dare we insult your ancestors and nation by emphasizing the brutality of its formation!
And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? You oppose the use of the word not in SERVICE to “truth,” but in OPPOSITION to it; not because it’s too imprecise, but because it cuts too close to the bone.
We are determined to emphasize, and you are determined to de-emphasize, the very real brutality of the conquest of this enormous nation and the clearing away of the indigenous population, a brutality whose magnitude is not adequately captured by ANY word. You resent the use of the strongest word available, because it gets us one step closer to a sense of the true magnitude of the inhumanity involved, rather than, as you prefer, keeping us one step further away, in the ideologically convenient haze of historical semi-amnesia.
You don’t want to own the past because you DO want to own the present and future. The more we acknowledge the brutality of the past, the less free we are to continue it. That’s what this is all about: A battle of narratives, whether to be the jingoist chauvinists we have too long been and too many want us to remain, continuing to blithely trample on humanity while surrounded by the arrogant and self-serving halos of “American exceptionalism” and “manifest destiny,” or to be a people aspiring to true greatness of spirit and consciousness, recognizing without diminution the errors of the past in service to doing better in the present and the future.
(The following is a modified excerpt from my novel A Conspiracy of Wizards; see An epic mythology).
As Algonion descended into Lokewood from the foothills of the Thresian Mountains, he could feel the nature of the forest begin to change. He was leaving the height of autumn behind, and entering a realm shrouded in a season of its own, unlike any that ever visited the lands of men. The trees became squat, stark, and twisted; the ground an uneven bed of bulging and pitted stone, acrid fumes seeping from frequent fissures. Electricity crackled in the air and, as he pushed on, small bolts of lightening sparked and stabbed arbitrarily. An eerie mist wafted among the trunks and charred stumps, and only a diffuse gray light filtered through the haze. Unseen wooden chimes rattled frantically wherever he approached, though the air was perfectly still.
All around him, as the lightening grew larger and brighter, tortured limbs flashed in silhouette, reaching for him like a thousand desperate arms frozen in a thousand separate poses, threatening, terrifying, beseeching. The path dwindled and disappeared. The branches closed in on him, grabbing at him, buffeting him, clutching him, obstructing his forward progress. Wherever he turned, many-fingered boughs assaulted him, as though intentionally slung. Jagged bolts struck ever nearer, forcing him to dodge their deadly thrusts. His body began to move as it had in the ice sphere in Vaznalla (see The Wizards’ Eye), dancing among these hazards with liquid grace, anticipating them, flowing between them. But here, the first mistake could be a fatal one.
Avoiding the bright javelins of fire, leaping and tumbling over and under the encroaching limbs, he gave himself over to the movements, freed from all other thoughts, a wild thing at home in the woods. Vaznalla, though an incubator of perfection, was an incubator none the less. Here, he moved as if born anew, challenged by the random rather than contrived. It was as if he were Evenstar’s crystal statue unfrozen into vivid life.
The trees gradually became taller, though no less twisted, rising in a tangle of bare branches. Small fires burned and smoldered wherever lightening had struck dead wood. Lokewood was a simmering maelstrom of sizzling air and boiling earth, pools of mud and lava bubbling all about. Rancid steam rose from cracks in the earth like the flatulence of an ailing giant. Sinkholes sucked at Algono’s feet. Though there wasn’t the slightest breeze, the sound of howling wind was everywhere, of mocking laughter, of ominous hoots and caws. Eyes peered out from every shadow. Wafting tendrils of smoke closed around Algonion like a spectral hand. At last, he discerned Loci faces peering out from among the trees.
(The Loci imps, capable of setting off cascades of chaos by making tiny manipulations both in Nature and in people’s minds and bodies, stood a couple of feet tall, with twisted, gibbous bodies, lopsided faces and crag-toothed grins, protruding eyes glaring with hideous intensity….)
Soon he came upon a group of the imps gathered around a pet of some kind, tormenting it with their blowdarts. Through the throng, he saw what kind of animal it was: A young man, naked and wild-eyed, cringing and curling into a fetal ball, shrieking and crying, robbed of any last vestige of dignity. Algonion recognized him. It was one of the Champions he had seen on the road from Boalus to Ogaropol, years ago. Apparently, the Contest had not gone well for him.
The forest grew thicker around Algonion, complicating his advance, though he never faltered nor slowed. The openings left few choices, channeling him where they would. Sometimes he had to dive up and over branches, sometimes to climb higher still in search of a gap. Eventually he found himself steadily ascending, swinging around one branch, hands and feet coming together to lithely catapult off another. Unfurling like a sail, arms and legs flung wide, he would glide down and grab a limb around which to pivot, using the moment of his fall to launch himself upward again. He could almost feel his body stretching, arms elongating as he swung, spreading out as he soared, wearing the world like a glove.
At last he saw below him, in the depths and in the heights, a thousand flickering lights. As he descended toward them, he reached the threshold of a Locu city of sorts, a city that could only be called “Pandemonium.” Devoid of straight lines and parallel planes, it was made rather of sinuous surfaces coaxed from the fabric of nature, woven-vine sacks and meshed-branch enclosures, large holes pocking hollow trees, portals to havens of Loca life. Everywhere, bursts of lightening ignited charred stumps, as old flames sputtered and died.
Around these many fires, the ongoing orgy of Loca life was in full bloom. Brawls and assaults erupted as readily as the smoldering woods and belching ground. A Loca who was being dragged by her ear grabbed hold of her assailant’s leg and sunk her jagged teeth into his calf. He released her to attend to the wound, and in that moment she raised him up on her shoulders and tossed him into the nearest blaze, which flared to consume his resinous body. The piercing scream was quickly drowned by the cheers and laughter of the crowd, some of whom gathered to savor the smell of burning flesh, inhaling it as though it were an aphrodisiac.
Then some of the imps noticed Algonion swinging down into their realm. They began jumping about, shrieking and howling. That cacophony, Algonion realized at once, was their language, the language of the forest itself. And though it lacked any recognizable grammar, or for that very reason, it was the subtlest language Algonion had ever heard, subtler even than the mathematical abstractions of the Vaznallam wizards. For, to his amazement, he understood it as though it were his own native tongue, his mind dancing among the woven sounds much as his body had danced among the forest’s interlaced branches moments before. He felt it rather than merely heard it, felt the primal passions of their voice, the captivity of their mother (see The Hollow Mountain), the defilement of their world, the rage that had been festering ever since, that had twisted them over the ages into what they had now become. They clamored around him, ever closer, demanding to be heard, demanding that he deliver them from the frustration and anger of having been pushed aside.
But Algonion could not give them what they wanted. He chirped and growled like one of them, jumped up and down and pounded this and that, trying to explain things that had no place in that idiom. He cooed that he had not the power to command history, no more than they. He screeched that his people would not, could not, leave, that they had nowhere to go. He squawked that the river of time and events could not flow backwards, that the sea could not be sucked into the high mountain springs. He tried to tell them, as a prelude to discussing what could be done, but their tolerance was short, and they would brook no contention from such as he. He felt them turning hostile, spitting and clawing at him with the fury of slighted beasts, feral shrieks now calling the hordes down upon him.
Loci swarmed, popping out of shadows, swinging toward him on vines and boughs, blowing their darts at the despised intruder. Algonion couldn’t dodge them all. He felt stings, and then emotions flying out of control. Sorrow, remorse, hatred, fear, all welling up at once, vying with one another for dominance. Disoriented though he was, he retained enough presence of mind to flee. He dove and tumbled and rolled back through the forest, with no sense of direction, with only the desire to get away. He was no longer focused enough to avoid the hazards, the grasping branches and stabbing bolts. He was scratched and bruised and burned and shocked a thousand times before he escaped those bewitched woods, finally emerging onto an unfamiliar coast, where shallow tiers of stone descended into the sea.
Cast up on the lowest tiers were all kinds of debris: driftwood and shells and pieces of wreckage. The sky was overcast, and a strong, wet wind blew. The sea churned as though tossed by a storm, thrashing about like a beast with struggling prey clamped in its jaws. Algonion heard a noise rising in the forest behind him: The Loci were still in pursuit! As he saw them emerging from the woodline, he turned and ran in bounding leaps down the broad stone tiers to the water’s edge, loping like a large, gangling bird trying to get itself aloft. There were no branches to grasp, but still his body reached, reached out to the air, trying to swing himself to freedom upon its interlaced limbs. If only I could fold myself into the wind, he thought, desperately, wrap myself around it like flesh around a whim….
And, indeed, as he reached the last tier and landed amid the refuse vomited up by the wrenching sea, his body began stretching and folding, collapsing into a new form, like that of a loon. But it was as much Algonion as it was beast, retaining his shape even while assuming another. His perceptions transformed as well, akin to passing through the threshold between lucidity and dreams. He saw the world as a bird would see it, felt the loss in some parts of his mind and the gain in others. Yet it was still Algonion, taking on some aspect of what he was not, but never quite becoming it.
So he shimmered and transformed in his last strides toward the sea, skimming the surface with his dangling feet, his fallen clothes snatched away by the snapping whitecaps. His large wings flapped, and he slowly rose up into the air and sailed out above the frantic waves, quickly shrinking to a more conventional size for a bird of his kind.
(See also The Hollow Mountain, The Wizards’ Eye, The Cloud Gardener, Prelude to “A Conspiracy of Wizards”, The History of the Writing of “A Conspiracy of Wizards” and About “A Conspiracy of Wizards”.)
President Obama addressed The United Nations earlier today (Wednesday) to announce a continued, if more vigilant, U.S. commitment to provide foreign aid to developing countries ( http://www.denverpost.com/ci_16141218). Way back in the last millennium, I was a student of Development (political, economic, cultural), and the various competing theories (Modernization, Dependency, World Systems). Modernization theorists tended to see nations as autonomous units, undergoing their own history, developing or not developing according to their own endogenous variables. Dependency and World Systems theories saw the world as more tightly intertwined, the relations among them affecting the fate of each.
The descriptive value of Dependency and World Systems theories is hard to deny: Due to client state and economic dependency relations to powerful nations, the small ruling classes in less developed nations are, more often than not, in either explicit or implicit league with the larger wealthy classes in some more developed nations, benefiting together as islands of wealth and comfort in a sea of suffering. To be sure, that’s not the whole story: Nationalism and other allegiances exist as well, with the ruling classes in those less developed nations generally identifying more with their own people of their own class at home than with those of their own class abroad, and sometimes even with the poor of their own country more than the rich of others. There are cross-cutting solidarities involved.
And it is overly simplistic to argue that the poverty of much of the world is a direct artifact of the wealth of some enclaves. Much of that poverty is, in reality, due to a lack of indigenous development, and would have existed with or without the rise of other wealthy and powerful nations. It’s also important to recognize that, in some ways, “a rising tide” really does “raise all ships”, and the wealth and institutional and technological innovations of the developed world have contributed positively as well as negatively to the development of less developed countries.
It’s hard to measure exactly to what extent that’s the case, and to what extent the rise of the European world empire did indeed suppress development elsewhere. Certainly, the history of colonization, of imposing inequitable trade relations, of dismantling sometimes diverse and vibrant indigenous economies in order to turn whole countries into plantations growing low value-added tropical crops and primary natural resources for the benefit of the lords across the seas or to the north, has to at least some extent exerted a suppressive developmental force on the late-comers. There is some mixture of both truths in play.
But let’s look at the world through the Dependency lens for a moment. We can as easily see the world as one divided by separate international classes as one divided by national boundaries. And a comparison of modern history to Medieval and ancient history bears out such a view. Ruling classes within nations or continental cultures developed historically from the descendants of warriors becoming landed nobility on the estates that their ancestors stole in conquest, with the former inhabitants reduced to serfdom. And global ruling classes began developing in the early modern era when European conquistadors found new lands to conquer, new native inhabitants to reduce to serfdom or other forms of marginalization, and new expropriated wealth to enjoy as a result. Our smug (and historically conveniently amnesiatic) belief that our relative wealth has no connection to the relative poverty of others in our own and other lands is simply not borne out by an honest survey of world history.
And that’s why foreign aid, and much else about the modern world, reminds me a bit of a scene from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Madame Defarge, eager to spill the blood of any members of the hated aristocracy, was testifying at the trial of innocent aristocrat Charles Darnay during The French Revolution, recounting how Charles’ father had once carelessly run over and killed a peasant child with his carriage, and stopped to toss the distraught parent a coin. Needless to say, Charles was sentenced to be guillotined, a fate only averted by his look-alike barrister, the down-and-out Sydney Carton, who redeemed his own squandered life by taking Charles’ place, and thus doing “a far, far better thing than (he) had ever done before.”
As Charles Dickens said of that era in his opening lines of the novel:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Some things never change.
The only thing uglier than tossing the peasant parent a coin after running over her child is having your hand held back by a member of your household in the moment of doing so, admonished not to waste “our” hard earned cash on such lazy riff-raff.
I don’t know the answers to the vexing problems of our age. Development happens when and where it happens for reasons other than foreign aid, and independently of most of our theories. Some have successfully instituted export-driven growth, finding niche markets, and developing on the capital thus generated. Others have successfully leveraged the wealth derived from natural resource endowments. Occasionally, targeted protectionism for nascent industries has helped those industries acquire the breathing room necessary to become competitive in the long run. Infusions of capital from the developed world can certainly help (as it did in The Marshall Plan), and can also hurt (as it did in the Latin American debt crises of the 198o’s). But one thing’s for sure: In the long run, there is no “Us” v. “Them”; there is only an “Us”.
We may find the Madame Defarges both past and present to be hateful individuals. But those who are their enemy have always helped to create them. You run over enough peasant children in your carriage, and people start to want to send your adult children to the guillotine, or fly airplanes into your skyscrapers. You draw enough lines in the sand with opportunistic military conquests, lines above which to prosper and below which to languish, and the desperate mass of humanity you locked out will eventually come flooding through.
We live in a world increasingly acutely locked into an anachronistic global political landscape. Sovereign nations, which were on the slow path to gradually compromising their sovereignty to some form of weak global federalism throughout much of the twentieth century (during the breaks from their extraordinarily destructive demonstrations of why it was absolutely imperative that they do so), have now, under the decreasingly enlightened leadership of The United States, begun backpedaling once again into global balkanization and mutual antagonism (except in the cradle of modern civilization, Europe, which has coalesced into the most vibrant of all supranational entities, and has tried to march proactively into the future despite, once again, the absence of an American willingness to see past its own nose and do the same).
But as the United States discovered early in its history, a degree of shared fate, of shared challenges, of shared opportunities, requires a commensurate degree of effective shared governance. And as I’ve said elsewhere, it is inevitable, and pragmatically necessary, that whatever form that takes, it does not simply wish away or disregard the real distribution of political and material power in the moment preceding its creation. That distribution of power has to be leveraged, to create something better from the soil of what preceded it. America has to be a major player in the creation of a functioning world order, whether Americans or non-Americans find that an attractive prospect or not.
As President Obama rightly noted in his speech, foreign aid is an act of self-interest. But that interest is best served when those aided are perceived to be less foreign, and instead are recognized as fellow human beings in a world too small for some to hide from others behind walls and across oceans. We can’t close our eyes and plug our ears and expect to live unmolested in our enclave of relative wealth and comfort, while horrors are the norm in so much of the world. That won’t protect us from the tsunamis that will continue to hit, with increasing force, all of our shores and borders. We are a part of this world, whether we like it or not. And it’s time to take our noblesse oblige seriously.