Monday, October 23, 2023

Speaking of Which

After a grueling Speaking of Which last week (9497 words, 125 links), I resolved this week not start my article search until Sunday: partly because many of the week's stories are quickly evolving, but mostly because I said pretty much what I wanted to say last week (and much of it the week before). But the way this column comes together is a lot like surfing: you look around, notice an interesting wave, and try to ride it. The process is very reactive, each little bit giving you a glimpse of some still unparsed whole, further obscured by a sort which obliterates order.

What I want to do this week is to start by making a few points that I think need to be highlighted, as plainly and clearly as possible.

On October 7, Palestinians in Gaza launched a surprise attack on parts of Israel adjacent to the walls surrounding Gaza. The attackers fired about 5,000 rockets over the walls, and about 2,500 fighters infiltrated Israel, attacking military bases, villages, and kibbutzim. On the first day, they killed some 1,200 Israelis, and took some 200 back to Gaza as hostages. Within the next day or two, Israel killed or repelled the infiltrators, and took control back of the checkpoints and wall breaches. From that point, the Palestinian offensive was over.

If you can overlook 75 years since Israel started pushing Palestinian refugees into Gaza, the slaughter on the way to Suez in 1956, the reprisal raids up to 1967, the military rule from 1967 up until the deputization of the PLO under the Oslo Accords, and the blockade and periodic "mowing the grass" since 2006; if you can put all of that out of mind, as well as the recent rash of settler pogroms in the West Bank, and the encroachment on the Al-Aqsa mosque, and the disinterest of other Arab leaders as they negotiate alliances with Israel and the US, then sure, the attack was unprovoked, savage, and shocking. But given how systematically Gaza has been isolated, impoverished, and tortured, and given that the evident trend was only getting worse, is it really a surprise that people treated so badly might choose to fight back, even to risk death (which given the how much more power Israel wields was pretty certain)?

The rest of the war -- two weeks so far -- is purely Israel's choice, whether for revenge or for spite, or perhaps, as numerous Israelis have urged, a step toward a "final solution." Israel blames the attacks on Hamas, and has vowed to kill them all (supposedly 40,000, out of a population of 2.1 million), but doesn't discriminate very well. They've already killed four times as many Palestinians as they've lost. And they seem intent on striking the West Bank, Lebanon, and Syria as well. They've vowed to enter Gaza with massive force, to root out and end all resistance. They certainly have the firepower to kill tens and hundreds of thousands. The only question is whether conscience or shame will stop them. It certainly doesn't seem like the United States will dare second guess them.

It's been clear from day one how this will play out. The people who run Israel, from David Ben-Gurion down to the present day, are very smart and very capable. They could have settled this conflict at any step -- certainly any point since 1980, and possibly quite earlier -- but they didn't, because they kept getting away with it, while cultivating the hope for ever greater spoils. But the more they kill, the more they destroy, the more miserable they make the lives of those subject to their whim, the more humanity they lose. America prides itself on being Israel's dearest friend, but what kind of person lets a friend embarrass himself like this? This may once again be a case where no nation stands up against genocide, but it is not one that will easily be forgotten.

"What kind of friend" may be rhetorical, but it's time to take a much harder look at what the US does for and to its allies. The US habitually drags its friends into wars: as with the "coalitions of the willing" in Afghanistan and Iraq, the various lesser "war on terror" projects, and the hopeless war in Ukraine. The US collects tribute in the form of arms purchases. And the US choices of allies (like Israel and Saudi Arabia) and enemies (like Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea, or more seriously Russia and China) taint every ally, as the US has become the world's most recalcitrant rogue state.

It's tempting to blame America's foolhardy foreign policy on the vast power of the military-industrial complex, but what's locked it into place isn't just revolving door corruption, but also the persistence of several really bad ideas, like the notion of "peace through strength," the cult of deterrence, and the great sanctions game. We need a fundamental rethink on security and foreign policy. We need in particular to realize that Israel is not a model we want to follow, but a dead end disaster we need to pull back from. And hopefully convince them to pull back too.

The next section is my "thesis-oriented" original introduction. (I only got down to 13 before scratching it as the lead and writing the newer one above, but will try to knock out the rest before I post on Monday.) Finally, there is another note on foreign policy at the end of the post, which I jotted down back on Saturday. This week's links came out of a very quick scan of sources.

Actually, when I started writing an introduction on Sunday, I intended a numbered list, with about a dozen items on it. What follows is as far as I got, before turning to the shorter statement above.

  1. The most basic political division is between Left and Right. The Right believes that human beings sort into hierarchies, where order is ultimately maintained through the threat of force. The Left believes that people are fundamentally equal, and can enter into a political compact for the mutual benefit of all. The Right looks back on a long history of tribal warfare and plunder, which they hold to be the natural order, but really just comes down to their privileges. On the other hand, the Left appeals to those denied respect and privilege, looking forward to our most generous hopes and aspirations.

  2. As human society and technology become more complex, as population grows and interacts faster, as people become more conscious of how the world works, traditional hierarchies falter and frustrate. This leads to conflict. Ruling elites never give up power without pressure. Their first instinct when challenged is repression. Even if successful at first, the pressure builds up, and can eventually explode in revolution. The alternative is reform: diluting elite power to better serve more people, channeling conflict into cooperation. Conflict destroys, but consent builds.

  3. The modern world is the result of forces of change (mostly driven by science, technology, commerce, and culture), as modulated by bouts of revolution and reform. It is reasonable to view change as an inevitable force. Rigid regimes fight back with repression, risking violent revolution. More flexible regimes accommodate change through reform. Europe was regularly rocked by revolutions from 1789 through 1920, but reform gained ground from the 1830s (in England) on, and has become the rule, especially after 1945. One might also note that counterrevolutions occasionally occurred, but tended to blow up disastrously (most notoriously in Germany, 1933-45).

  4. Violence has been a common human trait as far back as anyone can remember. It's been used to dominate, to control, to loot and plunder, both by and against elites. Many of these uses have come to be disparaged, yet in one form or another they persist: I've seen a tally of some 250 wars since the "big one" ended in 1945. Even today, most of us accept the concept that one is entitled to fight back when attacked. The Left was defined in the French Revolution, and most Leftists at least sympathized with the Russians in 1917, and even the Vietnamese in the 1950-70s, but lately the Left in America have become so reform-minded that they are quick to condemn any violence, even in circumstances that have totally closed any hope for peaceful reform. In my opinion, true pacifists are not wrong, but they are out of touch with the human condition (e.g., as in Gaza).

  5. As Bertolt Brecht put it, "food first, morals later." Brecht understood that thinking about morality is a luxury that can only be indulged after more basic needs. (Another famous line: "what keeps mankind alive? bestial acts.") Yet when people broke out of their cage in Gaza and immediately killed and maimed people on the other side of the walls, we were immediately lectured by well-meaning Leftists that in order to "talk morally" about the event, we first had to condemn the killers, lest any later explanation of why they killed should sound like an excuse, and thereby expose the morality of the Left to shaming.

  6. Morality is a personal belief system that guides one's behavior in normal circumstances. That's probably true for all people, but it particularly matters to Leftists, because our politics is largely dictated by our moral concerns, and that's something we're rather proud of. But it shouldn't be an excuse for arrogance. Morality isn't a license which allows you to condemn people you don't understand, especially when the big thing you don't understand is what other options that person has. Morality may seem absolute, but it's application is always contingent on what options are actually available, and what their consequences may be. On the other hand, where you can reasonably discern other, more moral, options, you might be able to criticize: while, say, Hamas or IDF soldiers may have very limited options, a Prime Minister has options enough to deserve more scrutiny.

  7. While morality may guide your political choices, available options are often limited, unclear, compromised, highly contingent -- hence the cliché of always having to vote for "the lesser evil." Many political decisions are made on what amounts to blind trust.

  8. The key point to understand about Israel is that it is the result of a settler colonial project, where a foreign imperialist power sponsored and installed an alien population, effectively stripping a native population of most of its rights. There are several dozen similar examples, mostly in the Americas, installed by European empires from 1500 into the mid-1900s. The primary determinant of success was demographic. Settler states remained in charge where immigrants were a clear majority (e.g., Canada, Australia, US), but not where they never came close to majority status (South Africa and Algeria were the most hotly contested. Israel is unusual in several respects: although Zionists began moving to Palestine in the 1880s, the big influx only happened after Britain took over in 1920, reaching about 30% in 1948. Between the partition (expanded during the 1948-50 war), the forced removal of 700,000 Palestinians, and immigration from Europe and Arab lands, Israel's settler population grew to 70% before the 1967 war, when Israel seized more lands with much more Palestinians. Since then, the demographic split is about 50-50, although most Palestinians have no political rights or representation. Israel has managed to retain control through a really extraordinary "matrix of control" (Jeff Halper's term), that is unique in history.

  9. Israel shares many characteristics with other settler colonies (especially formerly British ones). First is a strong degree of segregation of the settlers from the natives, and the economic marginalization of the latter. Israel preserved the British colonial legal system, with military control, for Palestinians, while evolving its own system for registered Jews. Laws regarding the sale of land and the permitting of buildings were skewed to siphon off resources. (The US had similar laws, but by 1900 the Native American population had dwindled to the point there was little left to steal, and the reservations, while impoverished, were left as retreats.)

  10. There are many unusual things about Israel, but the most important one is that Israel synthesized a new culture, with its own language and an extensive mythology, based on its status as a settlement (before Israel, it was simply the Yishuv). Before aliyah, Jews spoke local languages (like Arabic and German), or creoles (like Ladino and Yiddish). In Israel, they spoke Hebrew. They embellished the long history of Jewish suffering into their own cosmic mantra. They farmed. They fought. They refashioned orthodox Judaism into one that celebrated Israel. And they trained new generations to maintain the settler ethic. The result is a psyche that cannot ease up and do what every other successful settler nation has done: let its native population adjust to a normal life.

  11. European settler colonialism reached a sort of peak shortly after 1900, but the two world wars it inspired broke the bank. Britain cut India and Palestine loose in 1947-48, having come up with half-assed partition plans that led to multiple wars. Most of Africa was independent by 1960. France lost Vietnam in 1954, and Algeria in 1962. Nearly every colony had an independence movement. Palestine was, if anything, ahead of the curve, with a major revolt in 1936-39. Today, one is tempted to fault the Palestinians for not seeking some sort of accommodation with the Israelis, but they had reasons to expect more -- probably up to the 1973 war, after which Egypt abandoned them. It is hard for us today to imagine what it felt like to be under a colonialist thumb, but Palestinians knew that all too well.

  12. Israelis have a word, "hasbara," which translates to "explaining," but is really more like spin. Zionists have been working their spin on Americans since well before 1947, and they are very good at it. Any time Israel comes up, you can count on constant monitoring of news and opinion sources, with vigorous lobbying to get us to say what they want, in the terms they want us to be using. They've turned the word "terrorist" into a conditioned reflex to kill. The Palestinians they kill are all, if not "terrorists," at least "miltants." We all know that Israel is the "only democracy in the Middle East," even though half the people aren't allowed to vote. The propaganda machine got cranked up to max the moment the Gaza breakout attacks started, and within minutes everyone in America -- at least in upper punditland -- were singing the same hymns. They've created a linguistic cage that is making it difficult to think at all clearly. Long experience makes one wonder: is it really Hamas that attacked Israel, or is Hamas just the target we've been trained to hate? Why is it the "Israel-Hamas War" when Israel is the only one with an army and air force? And when the real target that Israel is pounding isn't Hamas, which is basically invisible, but all of Gaza? After key Israelis threatened to kill literally everyone in Gaza, why aren't we talking about genocide, instead of just some "humanitarian crisis"?

  13. Everyone in Israel has an ID card. That ID card specifies your rights, whether you can vote, which courts will try cases you are involved in, where you can go, much more. In America, we have a word for this kind of systematic discrimination based on birth: racism. It's no longer embedded in law, but it is deeply embedded in culture, and it pops up pretty often if you're at all sensitive to it. Racism may not be the right word for what's not just practiced in Israel but enshrined in law, but it's a term that Americans recognize the implications and consequences of.

  14. Nationalism was a 19th century European invention, which sought a conservative sense of popular cohesion, at a time when capitalism was going global, intellectuals turned cosmopolitan, and ordinary people were promised a stake in public life. It worked by turning people against other groups, who could be imperial overlords or local minorities (like Jews). Zionism was an attempt to posit a Jewish nationalism, but given the diaspora first had to settle on a land. The Zionists went hat-in-hand to various imperial capitols. The British saw an opportunity, took Palestine from the Ottomans, and the rest is history -- including the rise of a Palestinian nationalism to struggle against the British and the Israelis. Nationalism, even more than the Holocaust, is what binds Israel to Nazi Germany, and what threatens Israel's future. In particular, it's estranging Israel from the cosmopolitan Jewish diaspora.

  15. Israel is the most deeply and intensively militaristic nation in the world, possibly in world history. Nearly everyone gets drafted and trained (except Palestinians and ultra-orthodox Jews, although more of the latter are joining). Reserves extend well into middle age, and there are numerous other police and spy agencies. Military leaders move on to dominate the political and business castes. The arms industry is huge, and subsidized not just by the state but by billions of dollars of US aid each year. Treaties with neighbors like Egypt and Jordan have never produced peace dividends. Rather, Israel has always moved on to taunting other "enemies" (Lebanon, Iraq, Iran), plus they've always had the Palestinians to keep down. It's a lot of work keeping enemies riled up at you, but they've developed a taste for it, and can't imagine giving it up.

  16. Virtually everyone in the American defense sector is in bed with Israel, but none more so than the neoconservatives, who so admire Israel's unilateral projection of power, their refusal to negotiate, and their willingness to violate norms against assassinations and such that they advocate America adopting the same policies on a global scale. These are the people whose 1990s Project for a New American Century started the campaign to invade Iraq, but they also conspired to bring Likud to power to demolish the Oslo Accords and fire up the 2000 Intifada. The GW Bush administration was run by those same people. While their policies were disastrous, they still exercise enormous influence in Washington. Israel's bad ideas are at least limited by its small size and parochial interests. But American neoconservatives have bigger game in mind, like Russia and China.

  17. Americans have always been sympathetic to Israel, though the reasoning involved varies: Christian fundamentalists see a fulfillment of biblical prophecies; many Americans see a kindred settler spirit; neo-imperialists see an ally against Arab ills (nationalism, socialism, Islamism); liberals see an outpost of Western democratic (and capitalist) values (although earlier on leftists were enamored of Israeli socialism); anti-semites see a distant place to put unwanted Jews, and Jews see a thriving refuge for their co-religionists; and military-industrialists see a booming market and a stimulator of other markets. But the political calculations have changed since the 1990s: the Republicans aligned not just with Israel but with the Israeli right; and while many Democrats have become wary of the racism, repression, and belligerence of Israel, very few politicians have been willing to risk punishment by the Israel lobby and their donors. The result is that the US no longer attempts to sanitize or rationalize Israeli positions. Trump and Biden simply jump when commanded, as if America has no interests other than to serve at Israel's feet. This, in turn, has only emboldened the Israeli right to turn ever more viciously on Palestinians.

  18. Approximately half of the people subject to Israeli law and enforcement cannot vote in Israel. About 20% of the remainder are nominally Israeli citizens, but are subject to many forms of discrimination. The remainder are Jews from various backgrounds, some intensely religious, some not at all, but almost all unite on their shared fear and loathing of Palestinians. The old divide between right and left has largely disappeared as the welfare state has been trimmed back to a tolerable minimum, leaving as the only real issue the contest of which party appears to be the most barbaric toward the Palestinians. This has allowed the ascendancy of a series of far-right demagogues, which Netanyahu has been agreeable to work with, and has even tried to outflank.

  19. Aside from the rump group in the Knesset, which has always remained utterly powerless, there has never been a viable forum for Palestinians to air out their political differences. The PLO was a coalition of groups in exile that never had roots in the Occupied Territories. The Oslo Accords ratified their election as the Palestinian Authority, but when Hamas attempted to enter the political process and challenged Fatah, their wins were thrown out, and no further elections were allowed. (Israel, and America, couldn't abide democratic elections where the wrong people won. Remember the elections promised for 1956 in Vietnam? Eisenhower canceled them for fear of losing to the Communists, leaving them no choice but to fight.) Hamas wound up seizing power in Gaza, which Israel responded to with blockade and bombs. Israel branded Hamas as terrorists, giving them carte blanche to kill whenever it suited them. Fatah, circumscribed in ever tighter circles in the West Bank, remains ineffective, with a stench of corruption. This suits Israelis, who love complaining about having no partner for peace.

  20. Israel's far-right turn is built on ethnocentrism, racism, and a strong belief that might makes right. This has largely been led by the settler movement, which kicked off immediately after the 1967 war, and was dedicated to establishing "facts on the ground" that would make it politically impossible for future Israeli leaders to negotiate any "land for peace" deal (like the one with Egypt, which did result in the evacuation of two Israeli settlements; the 2006 removal of Israeli settlements from Gaza was deliberately not negotiated to avoid such appearance). The pace of settlement building in the West Bank accelerated significantly after Oslo, and did much to sabotage peace prospects. Although all Israeli governments from 1967 on have supported the settler movement, the latest government has raised its support to a new level, encouraging settlers to attack Palestinians and drive them from the fields they have been working. This seemed to be a calibrated first step toward forcing Palestinians into exile, although it was still small and tentative -- unlike the post-attack demands that all Gazans move south and flee Gaza into Egypt, or face death as Israel invades. That is exactly the form that genocide would take.

The October 6 attacks were immediately met with a deafening roar of condemnation, at least in America and probably in Europe, even by people who have long been very critical of Israel's brutal occupation and long history of duplicity and propaganda. That's fine on a personal level, but what Israeli leaders were looking for, and what they heard, was assent to respond with violence in even greater orders of magnitude. When one said "terrorism," they heard "kill them all." When one said "this is Israel's 9/11," they heard "it's time for all-out war." And when Israelis threatened genocidal revenge, and got little or no pushback from their old allies, the die was cast. They would bomb and kill until even they couldn't stand it anymore. And it would happen not because of what Hamas did, but because they had started down this road a century ago. (There's a book called Jerusalem 1913 which offers one credible landmark date.) Because no one ever took the threat seriously enough to stop them. Because they pulled the occasional punch and laughed it off. Because we fellow settler colonists secretly admired them.

It's tempting to think that world opinion, not least the rich Americans who bestow so much generosity on Israel, could talk Israel down from this precipice of genocide. In that light, Biden's public embrace and endorsement seems not just foolish but cowardly. I won't argue that it's not. But I'm reminded of something that David Ben-Gurion liked to say: "it only matters what the Jews do." And here, unencumbered by public opinion and other people's morality, they will surely do what they've always wanted to do, and reveal themselves as they truly are. Or at least some of them will: the ones naively given so much deadly power.

[PS: Ben-Gurion said a lot of ridiculous bullshit, so scouring Google for an exact quote is hard and painful. Closest I came to this one was "it does not matter what the goyim say, but what the Jews do." But my memory is more to my point.]

Two more personal items for possible future reference:

  • Laura is unhappy with Bernie, as "he can't even call on Israel to stop the bombing!" I think this has something to do with Senate unanimously adopts resolution stating support for Israel. Not only did Sanders vote for the resolution, he didn't call for a ceasefire in a statement he issued calling for food to be allowed in.

  • I dug up the link to Laura's "one and only" 2010 poem, which she wrote for a local "poetry slam" event, but continues to be relevant, urgent even.

Calling for a ceasefire should be one of the easiest and sanest things any politician can do. That politicians are reluctant to do so suggests that someone is snapping the whip hard behind them. For instance, I just saw this tweet:

A senior adviser to [UK Labour Party leader Keir Starmer was asked how many Gazans have to die before Labour will call for a ceasefire. The reply came: "As many as it takes . . ."

Top story threads:


Trump, and other Republicans:

Legal matters and other crimes:

Ukraine War:

Other stories:

Brian Merchant: [10-20] On social media, the 'fog of war' is a feature, not a bug. "Even if that haze has occasionally been punctured for the greater good, as when it's been used for citizen journalism and dissident organizing against oppressive regimes, social media's incentive structure chiefly benefits the powerful and the unscrupulous; it rewards propagandists and opportunists, hucksters and clout-chasers."

David Pogue: [10-19] My quest to downsize without throwing anything away: "A big old house full of belongings -- could I find them all a new life?"

Vincent Schiraldi: [10-16] Probation and parole do not make us safer. It's time to rethink them. Some troubling examples and statistics. Author also has a new book: Mass Supervision: Probation, Parole, and the Illusion of Safety and Freedom.

Jeffrey St Clair: [10-20] Born under punches: Counterpunch 30th anniversary.

We went to the Global Learning Center's annual banquet on Saturday, where we were lectured by Bob Flax, past executive director of Citizens for Global Solutions, on the need for effective world government. I was pretty much aligned with their thinking 25 years ago, when I started thinking about some kind of major political book. I circulated a draft of about 50 pages to some friends, and every time I mentioned anything in that direction, I got savage comments from one reader. The gist of her comments was: no fucking way anything like that's going to fly. I had to admit she was right, which killed that book idea -- though after 2001 events suggested more urgent political book tasks.

Clearly, the idea of a benign global authority which can lawfully arbitrate disputes between nations has considerable appeal. Flax started his presentation by pointing out how the superior government of the US Constitution resolved disputes and standardized practices, at least compared to the previous Articles of Confederation. On the other, every government presents an opportunity for hostile takeover by special interests -- or for that matter, for its own bureaucratic interests. There are, of course, reasonable designs that could limit such downsides, but they will be resisted, and it doesn't take much to kill a process that requires consensus.

Consequently, I've found my thinking heading toward opposite lines. Instead of dreaming of an unattainable world order, why not embrace the fact that nations exist in a state of anarchy? It's been quite some time since I looked into the literature, but I recall that a fair amount of thought has been put into functioning of anarchist communities. The key point is that since no individual can exercise any real power over anyone else, the only way things get done -- at least beyond what one can do individually -- is through cooperative consensus-building.

The smartest political book to appear in the last 20-30 years is Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World -- maybe smarter than Schell realized, as he doesn't spend nearly enough time on the insight of his title. Yet, at least since 2000, efforts to conquer and occupy other parts of the world have nearly all been doomed to failure: the US in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Somalia and Libya and Syria); Saudi Arabia in Yemen; Russia in Ukraine; Israel in Gaza. None of these were what you'd call underdogs, yet they ultimately couldn't overcome the resistance of the people they meant to subdue. (China may prove an exception in Sinkiang, where they have huge advantages, but probably not in Taiwan, where they don't.)

Unable to conquer, the only recourse is to deal with the other nation as an equal, to show respect and to search out areas that may be mutually beneficial. American reliance on power projection and deterrence seems to be habitually baked in, which is strange, given that it has almost never worked. On the other hand, what has worked -- at least for US business elites (benefits for American workers are less plentiful) -- has been generous bilateral and multilateral engagement with "allies."

Of course, I didn't bring this up in the long Q&A period that followed. A who guy spends all his life working on a nice dream shouldn't have it trampled on just because I'm a skeptic, but also I doubt I could have expressed such a profound difference of opinion in a forum that was predisposed to the speaker. But had I spoken up, most likely I would have held myself to a smaller, tangential question: is anyone in his circles seriously talking about a right to exile? Sure, they are big on the ICC, which they see as necessary to enforce international laws against war crimes and human rights abuses. The ICC rarely works, as it depends on being able to get their hands on suspects. (I think it would work better as a reference court, where it could validate facts and charges, in absentia if necessary, but not punish individuals.)

A "right to exile" offers people convicted in one country the chance to go into exile elsewhere, if some other country decides the charges are political in nature or simply unjust. This is both a benefit to the individual freed and to the country, which no longer has to deal with a troublesome person. This is also likely to reduce the level of international hostility that is tied to the perception of people being treated unfairly. And it should reduce the incentive that countries have for prosecuting their own citizens. It could also reduce the need to determine whether immigrants need to be protected as refugees.

I've never seen anyone argue for such a right, but it seems to me that it would make the world a slightly better place. (When I looked up "right to exile," most references concern whether a state has a right to exile (or banish) its citizens -- something that is widely frowned upon. I could see combining both meanings, provided there is a willing recipient country, and the person is agreeable to the transfer.

I have a few dozen off-the-cuff ideas worth pitching, some simple and practical, others more utopian (for now, anyway). Paul Goodman wrote a book called Utopian Essays & Practical Proposals. That strikes me as a super subtitle, to say the least. His 1949 proposal for a car-free Manhattan still strikes me as a pretty good one.

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