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.
(The following is a response to a letter in the December 31, 2011 Denver Post regarding the error of making comparisons to Nazism: http://blogs.denverpost.com/eletters/2011/12/30/those-making-nazi-references-should-check-history/16103/)
1) The aspect of Nazism most reviled, and the reason why it is held in boundless contempt, is the Holocaust, which was an exercise of ultra-nationalist violence against a perceived “foreigner within” (accompanied by a similar ulta-nationalist violence against perceived inferior peoples without, in the name of “Lebensraum”). It is the expression of, and political implementation of, an extreme in-group/out-group bias that is the defining characteristic of the horror that was Nazism. (This in-group/out-group bias was not just directed against Jews, but also Gypsies, Slavs, Serbs, Homosexuals, the poor, trade unionists, and Communists and Leftists, explicitly and repeatedly, which should settle the non-issue of where on the ideological spectrum Nazism fell.)
2) The aspect of Nazism that falls on a spectrum with a mixed historical record is that of “corporatism,” not in the modern sense of power concentrated in large private corporations, but in the sense of the nation as corporation. Japan had enormous post-WWII aggregate economic success with this model, and the social democracies of Northwestern Europe have had enormous human welfare success with a more moderate version of it. Conversely, the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and other failed Totalitarian experiments point to the ways in which it can be a horrible and tragic failure. The challenge is not to paint with overly-broad brush strokes when discussing these lessons of history, but rather to look at details and nuances, and to use our disciplines for studying and understanding the systems involved to inform our analyses and comparisons.
3) When making comparisons with Nazism (generally, really, with the Holocaust), it is certainly important to emphasize the scope and relevance of the comparison being made. Nothing in America, at least since the genocide of the indigenous population, compares in degree, and any comparison should emphasize that fact. But if there are legitimate specific similarities to be pointed out, making the comparisons not with a broad brushstroke but rather with a finely focused analysis, and making it not merely to wield a crude rhetorical weapon, but rather to suggest that there are legitimate areas of concern that should be setting off the alarms that the lessons of history offer, then comparison is not only appropriate, but really quite essential.
4) Mike Godwin himself, the author of “Godwin’s Law,” which predicts that the longer a political debate continues, the more certain it is that a comparison to Nazism will be made, emphasized that his point was not that no such comparisons are ever legitimate or useful, but rather that their overuse blunts their effectiveness when truly appropriate by desensitizing people to the possibility of valid comparisons.
5) Nazism is not unique in the history of the world, but is rather our archetypal example of something that happens in varying degrees and forms repeatedly (and not infrequently) around the world and throughout history. To pretend that this powerful lesson of history about one constant threat-from-within to any society, and to humanity, must be deemed forever irrelevant and off-limits, would be a victory for ignorance and a blow against the growth of human consciousness in service to human liberty and welfare.
6) There are indeed some very potent political ideological trends in America today that bear comparison to Nazism, not in degree (not even close), but in kind. Nazism did not emerge onto the world stage as an agent of genocide, but rather as a more modest expression of xenophobic and bigoted reactions to events which undermined national pride and economic security (the loss in WWI and subsequent economic collapse in pre-WWII Germany paralleled by 9/11 and the Great Recession in America today), and gradually, imperceptibly to many, grew into the horror that we now know it to have been.
We must not blind ourselves to its lessons by refusing to heed them unless and until millions are brutally killed; we must instead be mindful of the real lesson of Nazism: That humanity must come before nationalism, that “foreigners” both within and without must not be reviled for being “foreigners,” and that our best hope for the future is to become less chauvinistic, less bigoted, less xeno-homo-islamo-hispano-phobic, more inclusive and accommodating, more committed to reason and universal goodwill, more aware that the welfare of America and Americans is inextricably linked to the welfare of all people and of the planet itself, and, in short, more sane, more conscious, more compassionate, and more rational.
7) I’ve written some essays drawing these comparisons: Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding and “Sharianity”, to name a couple. It’s up to those among my neighbors and fellow countrymen (and countrywomen) lost to these bigotries and hatreds whether they want to continue down that horrible road, or whether they want to choose to be, instead, the kind of people that never have cause to be reviled around the world and in historical hindsight for any lack of enlightenment or humanity.
A major social, moral, and political issue dividing us is the issue of how inclusive and how exclusive we should be as a national society. But beyond and beneath the question of membership in our national society is the question of whose rights (and which rights) we aknowledge and respect under what circumstances.
There is clearly a balance to be struck: Few would recommend such inclusivity that we extend the same respect to the bacterial infection threatening a person’s health as we extend to the person. Most (not all) are comfortable with the notion of extending our inclusivity no further than the bounds of our own species (respecting human life above other forms of life), even if modified to prohibit outright cruelty to those of other species that we recognize as cognitively capable of suffering from such cruelty (i.e., other large mammals). Though I’ll come back to the broader issue of universal empathy and systemic sensitivity at the end of this little essay, the main thrust will be on humanity’s divisions and their historical and contemporary role in justifying self-serving exclusivities.
Another word describing “exclusivity” is “discrimination,” referring to members of some in-group discriminating against members of some out-group regarding the privileges of membership. I use the word “discriminate” more or less interchangeably with the word “exclude” in this essay.
The most obvious dimension to this issue is the moral and social one: Those who are excluded are defined to be of lesser value or lesser concern. Sometimes they are defined as such (i.e., are excluded) in reference to intrinsic characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation; sometimes due to choices or cultural inheritences, such as religion of political ideology; sometimes due to some social status such as geographic location, socioeconomic class, or subcultural identification; and sometimes due to talents or abilities.
The last is perhaps the most morally justifiable form of exclusion: If a hospital is hiring surgeons, those with no training or skill in surgery can be legitimately excluded. Issues sometimes arise over whether the criteria for discriminating between those with the necessary skills and those without are not proxies for other less justifiable grounds for discrimination, but, as a general rule, this is not a difficult problem to solve.
Another justifiable form of exclusion involves freedom of association and the logistics of allowing people to gather to accomplish a specific task or for a specific purpose. Obviously, people holding a dinner party in their home can invite who they like and refuse entry to all others. This freedom extends outward, but ends when the private property is open to the public (generally, a business) and the discrimination is of a now forbidden nature (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender). Similarly, if an organization meets to discuss or address a specific topic, they certainly are justified in excluding those who want to come to discuss or address a completely different topic. If not for this form of exclusion, no one would ever be able to get anything done.
At the other end of the spectrum, exclusion due to irrelevant inherent characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, is not yet a folly completely relegated to a shameful past, but the moral argument is clearly over, and the result is a general awareness that such discrimination is unjustifiable and indefensible. Clearly, those who still suffer from this form of discrimination justifiably feel no patience regarding any delay in ending it completely, and I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their efforts to end it now and forever. But, in the developed world at least, the writing is on the wall.
Another related but slightly different area of discrimination involves those with physical and mental disabilities. Unlike issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, inclusion of those with disabilities often requires an affirmative effort and investment by us as a society to create accessibility and accommodate special needs. Most people recognize that that is the decent and just thing to do, and many realize that it allows us to best utilize our pool of human capital rather than to create greater swathes of nonproductivity and dependence.
In between these extremes of the obviously justifiable and the obviously unjustifiable lies a broad swathe of contested terrain. I argue that we should only discriminate in the public sphere on the bases of merit or competence (or organizational relevance), and on no other basis whatsoever. Beyond that, we should be all-inclusive. Though that may seem at a glance to be a mainstream position, it is actually a radical fringe position, though recognizing it as such is the first step toward increasing its acceptance.
As the various debates revolving around immigration policy demonstrate, many Americans believe in excluding people on the basis of their legal residency status. That has nothing to do with merit: It is a status determined only by the way in which people migrated to their current location, what legal formalities they did or did not observe.
It also has nothing to do with orgnizational relevance, since studies generally demonstrate economic and fiscal gains to the organization (i.e., the nation), and, in any case, we do not only consider “organizational relevance” in national membership to depend on productivity (though illegal immigrants would generally benefit from such a criterion). In fact, those who are more inclined to exclude on the basis of “productivity” (i.e., who blame the poor for their poverty, and consider society as a whole to have no responsibility to them) are most similar to the historical archetypes we hold in least esteem (e.g., the Nazis).
The tautology that because it is illegal, exclusion is indisputably appropriate, ignores the historical frequency in which legal exclusion has been both morally and pragmatically wrong, and the reality of human migration and de facto (if not always de jure) membership in our society as a result of it.
Lest anyone exaggerate the “criminality” of not observing the formalities of legal immigration, I would recommend a review of both world and U.S. history, in both of which those formalities have rarely been observed or enforced to any great extent, anywhere, at any time. People migrate away from oppression or destitution and toward freedom or opportunity; they always have, they always will, and they don’t always do so by observing the bureaucratic niceties that would prevent them from doing so. That is the reality of the world we live in.
In America today, many right-wing ideologues who prefer more rather than less exlusion (excluding gays and lesbians from marriage, excluding Muslims from freedom of religion and property, excluding undocumented immigrants from most any rights whatsoever, and often, explicitly or explicitly, excluding those historically disadvantaged by race or ethnicity from redressment of those historically imposed inequities in order to create true equality of opportunity today), use rhetoric eerily similar to that employed by others who engaged in now discredited and reviled forms of exclusion in the past, including the rhetoric of German Nazis in the prelude to the Holocaust. We live in a country which continually flirts with the ugly inhumanities that history has reproduced so frequently in so many times and places, and does so with complete disregard for what it is doing.
(I use the somewhat “forbidden” historical reference point of Nazi Germany because it is important to heed the lesson it yields, embodied in the cry “Never again!” The error we must avoid is not limited to the sin of genocide, but also the sin of dehumanization that precedes and justifies all such crimes against humanity, on scales and in degrees large and small.)
If we, as a country, feel a pragmatic necessity to exclude some from entry to our country, let us do so reluctantly rather than overzealously, and let us recognize the de facto as well as de jure members of our society who have become integrated into it, into our economy and our communities and our families. Two recent studies, by The Colorado Center on Law and Policy, and The Bell, have demonstrated that illegal immigrants in Colorado yield a net benefit to both our state economy and our state coffers. The Economist magazine has frequently noted that our massive immigration of working age people serves to redress our increasingly critical demographic imbalance between a collapsing number of workers supporting an exploding number of retirees.
Research shows that several economic sectors suffer enormously from crack-downs on illegal immigration, that competition tends to be at the bottom of the economic ladder (mostly isolated to those who have just immigrated, and those who have recently done so) and that the new waves of immigration provide the foundations upon which established citizens and residents can climb the economic ladder. By most accounts, not only is it more humane to allow people to come here seeking opportunity, but it also benefits those of us who were already born into it.
Many Americans continue to see nationalism as an unassailably legitimate basis for exclusion, the nation as private property, and those who come into it uninvited as trespassers. First, as already noted above, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we do not accord even private businesses such unfettered right to exclude, and the nation is more not less “open to the public.” Granted, the nation-state is a concept premised on some degree of exclusivity, of being a bounded entity defined as separated in some ways from the rest of the world. But nations have always been highly permeable entities, with people and goods flowing in and out in significant volume. There is little to indicate that stifling that flow has ever been particularly good for any nation (though much to show that encouraging it has been extremely good for those nations that have done so), and even less to indicate that it has ever been particularly good for humanity.
Even so, there certainly are some similarities between private property and national boundaries: Both are the institutionalization of historically violently acquired inequities, which, while eroded by subsequent enterprise, remain very evident in the distribution of wealth and opportunity. The main difference is that, while private property, despite its unsavory aspects in the establishment and perpetuation of inequity, is a highly functional system, facilitating the robust production of wealth through market mechanisms, nations, conversely, are for the most part mere barriers to such wealth production. Nations, in other words, enjoy the social defects of private property, while laying claim to none of the social benefits.
(That’s not to say that there are no social benefits whatsoever to the existence of nation-states. As with all forms of sub-global social organizational consolidation, there is, generally speaking, an immediate short-and-medium term benefit in terms of the utility produced within and for the bounded population, and a cost in terms of the barriers to larger scale social organizational consolidation which, in the long run, is a cost for the bounded population as well. Any level of social consolidation has variable value in terms of how well it articulates with both larger and smaller levels of organization. But focusing narrowly on wealth production, nation-states form barriers to the movement of the factors of production, and as such generally serve to impede global wealth production. There are some qualifications and exceptions to this general rule, but to go into them would be too great a digression.)
More easily grasped than the dissimilarities from private property is the historical infamy of ultranationalism, being the ideology which informed and justified the Holocaust, the attitude underlying which is uncomfortably similar to the attitude underlying our own current anti-immigrant hysteria.
Whether these analyses and this perspective prevail, the rhetoric that vilifies these humble people who migrate here to provide their children with better futures is absolutely and incontravertably indefensible. Several posters on The Denver Post message boards discussing the issue expressed the blatantly racist (and historically familiar) belief that our current wave of illegal immigrants is to be reviled for their supposed criminality (not immigration related), a belief based on the relative poverty of many in each new wave of immigration (and ironically emphasized the crime most commonly committed as a direct result of their illegal status: stealing social security numbers in order to obtain work, and argument in favor of precisely what they most vehemently argue against: “amnesty”). One sincerely opined that we should exterminate all undocumented immigrants in this country, all 12 million of them, thus doubling the record set by Nazi Germany in their own extermiantion of their own reviled “foreign” population living among them. That post received one parenthetical rebuke from one poster only, in contrast to the swarm of rebukes I received for my highly qualified comparison of their attitude to that of Nazi Germany, and for calling for a more humane and compassionate attitude.
One of the defining disctinction between the American Right and Left today revolves around our respective attitudes toward inclusivity and exclusivity. The left believes in social justice, in investing as a people in the increase of opportunity for those who currently enjoy the least opportunities, for more inclusion and less exclusion. The right remains the ideology that is the hier of racism, as well as to too great an extent its most fortified remaining haven, for not only do too many from that ideology defend the remnants of explicit and implicit racism, but, more universally and less ambiguously, they defend forms of exclusion that are logically and functionally similar.
It’s time to leave that kind of elitism on the dust heap of history, and recognize the humanity of all people, everywhere. It’s time to live up to our values and not just our greed, to be what we claim to be and not what others perceive us as. It’s time to give our children cause for pride, and the world cause for hope.
Beyond the specific moral, economic, and political dimensions of how inclusive we are, and how exclusive we are, is the systemic understanding. Human beings are woven of and into complex systems, ranging from the postulated basic building blocks of the universie (the “strings” of string theory, from which all other subatomic particles emanate), to the infinite and eternal. No systems are truly closed; all are open in various ways and to various degrees. The boundaries we perceive between them are more for our conceptual convenience than relfections of fundamental reality. From this perspective, “exclusion” is inherently unnatural, an arrogant insensitivity to the reality of our existence.
We are not first and foremost individuals, but rather first and foremost moments of a larger consciousness. Our happiness, our welfare, our liberty, and our humanity depend on recognizing our interdependence, not just with one another but with all of nature as well, more than on denying it. It is the smallest of demands upon this awareness to recognize that two people of the same sex who want to marry should be embraced without prejudice, and that all people who endure the difficulties of relocating in a foreign land in search of hope for themselves and their children should not be condemned nor robbed of dignity for doing what humans have done throughout history.
A Study by Colorado’s Corrections Department Finds that Solitary Confinement is Good for Mental Health (http://www.denverpost.com/greene/ci_16545619). The Department’s chief researcher said of legitimate criticisms of the study, “In any study, there’s always plausible alternative explanations.” The problem is when the plausibility of the alternatives is greater than or equal to the plausibility of the study’s results. That seems to be the case in this study, in which a variety of other identified artificial factors may have caused the results, any one of which is at least as likely as that the results themselves are valid. Rule number one of empirical research: Either isolate the variable, or control for intervening variables. Failure to do that means the study is garbage.
Jews resent Mormon practice of post-humously baptizing Holocaust victims into the Mormon Church (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16545156). What strikes me about this story is that, if you don’t believe in the Mormon religion or in the sanctity of their baptisms, then their fiction doesn’t have to be your reality. I get how insulting this practice appears to be on the surface, and how insulting it is at some level, given the perceptions of those engaging in it (they believe that they are making a relevant decision on behalf of those who died, without any right to do so). But, for my part, if it makes a Mormon happy to baptize me in absentia, or anyone I care about, knock yourselves out. On the other hand, if, for some reason, others involved are unable to dismiss the practice as someone else’s fiction, then their sensibilities are relevant, and do indeed merit consideration.