Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thoughts on Historical Arguments in the Israeli Palestinian Conflict

As is often the case, these blog posts are prompted by a reaction to something I read or some video I encounter. In this case, I wrote the following in response to someone who sent me this video: 

Here is my response:

Well it seems like the central argument here is that the idea of Palestine having its own national identity is either a fabrication by the Romans and the Brits, or it is a sort of counterweight concocted by terrorists to combat the presence of Zionism in the region. Then, this is counterbalanced by a narrative about a long suffering Jewish people who were forcibly kicked out of their homeland, forbidden to return throughout the millennia, often persecuted, yet somehow they managed to maintain cultural cohesion throughout this extended period, and finally they were able to return to their homeland only to find it relatively empty at which point they proceeded to peacefully acquire it and prosper on it. 

I think this argument is just stating the obvious that the Muslim society that had developed in pre-1930s Palestine was tribal and therefore it did not fit modern, Western definitions of nationality. I disagree because the direction they're going with this sort of thinking, implies that this is somehow less valuable than a Jewish heritage that better conforms to arbitrary Western ideals about culture and identity, ultimately contributing to the fact that the modern descendants of these peoples are denied things like security, self determination and prosperity for questionable reasons.

The Arabs living in the region didn't think of themselves as Palestinians in the same way that Native Americans didn't really think of themselves as Indians with a cohesive identity when the Europeans began to settle their lands. In the case of Native Americans, as history progressed the outside influence and common adversity they experienced due to European conquest caused them to coalesce around a sort of national identity that was actually an entirely European construct. In a similar vein, it is true that the delineation of borders that have come to define modern ideas of Palestine are ultimately traced to British, Ottoman, or even Roman political realities. These gradual geopolitical maneuvers took place over the course of millennia and they represent the result of a complex mixture of self-interest, religious fervor and pragmatism that was in constant flux depending on the empire of the moment. At times these forces were responsive to local ethnic and religious boundaries, but more often than not they weren't and therefore - much as it did with the Native Americans - these forces gave rise to new national identities of which Palestinians are only one example. The geographic and cultural boundaries that define countries like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and so on, are generally a result of British imperial policy and not some sort of longstanding, cohesive cultural heritage that gives a particular group of people a claim to the land. 

And this is exactly why I have very little regard for arguments that focus on the existence of a certain narrow definition of cultural identity amongst the Jews and the lack thereof amongst the Palestinians - especially when we are talking about events surrounding a specific grouping of people who lived over 100 years ago, let alone millennia. The dynamics that governed and influenced the formation of those societies and borders were always more complex than contemporary "birthright"-style arguments of any stripe permit, and furthermore these dynamics were generally unfair to significant factions of locals living on the land at the time depending on their relationship to the empire that happened to be in power. If these historical decisions were so unfair and disconnected from the local populations of the day, why in the world would we hold to their often destructive consequences with such tenacity and attempt to solve today's problems by giving them contemporary authority?

We should definitely strive to have an accurate understanding of these dynamics so that we can be better informed about how they have influenced the realities of today - I think we should even make decisions that are considerate of the modern day consequences of these influences - but we really need to stop trying to inflate simplistic understandings of these dynamics with some sort of divine or even moral authority. 

Hamas does this; Jewish settlers do this; it is a significant contributing factor to creating a citizenry that is excessively pro-Israel in the United States; it feeds anti-Semitism around the world; it helps create and bolsters the expansionist policy that Israel has been pursuing for the past sixty years or more; it helps create and bolster the extremist elements within Palestinian society; etc... etc... etc... 

Everyone needs to stop it as soon as possible, but someone - I really don't care who, but I tend to be hopeful that the Israeli side is in the best position to do this - will have to be the metaphorical adult and stop it first, because as long as all parties believe that they have moral or divine rights to a particular plot of land - people will suffer and die. 

Now I could get nitpicky about the veracity of various facts in the video and I could write volumes illuminating those that are true in a more neutral, contemplative light. I can bring up additional facts that are a testament to Jewish aggression towards a large native population, and I can come up with more comparisons with other historical events that show that humans don't generally respect historical claims to land, and so on, but ultimately I really don't care about all of these factors. 

The history is long and it is way too messy. Any honest assessment is going to find plenty of dirt on both sides so let's stop trying to selectively use it to prove one side right, and instead selectively use it to understand where the other side is coming from, what their concerns are and how they have been damaged. 

When and if that sort of thinking becomes widespread in either society, a lot of really big and daunting problems will disappear. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Yes, Some Israelis Sit on a Hill and Cheer as the IDF Bombards Gaza and It's Terrible - But Stop Acting Like it Matters

Every three years or so when Israel launches a ground invasion in Gaza, we dust off the same rhetoric about the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  None of it is useful because most of it is simplistic misrepresentation or hyperbole. Take for instance this type of youtube video that trends on my Facebook feed during the invasions:

There is no doubt that these people are disgusting, but thankfully they are also rare. Every society has their fringe crazies - the US has Westboro Baptist Church, for instance - and they generally get way more attention than they deserve by being controversial.

This isn't to say that there isn't a problem with Israeli society's attitude toward the Palestinians, it's just to say that I think it is a problem that is far more subtle and widespread. Focusing so much attention on a small percentage of religious fanatics can be important because it does represent a movement and ideology that is problematic, but it has very little direct relevance to the current conflict.

The real problem, in my opinion, is a unique mixture of nationalism and a lopsided insulation from the reality of the conflict that is very common in Israeli society.

Israeli society is uniquely coherent in a particular way that stems from the relatively homogenous cultural identity facilitated by Judaism, and this coherence is also strengthened by the fact that Israeli society was built in the face of and as a direct result of considerable adversity. I think that this does allow for a sort of groupthink that inhibits Israel's ability to treat the Palestinians in a humane manner, but the effect manifests itself through society as a sort of cultural blindness and it manifests through the political process as hawkish policy.

(Also, whether or not you think they had the right to build that society in the first place is beside the point right now, I'm only talking about the existence of the unifying influence of adversity, and the effect it has on policy and the national psyche)

The other component of it is the simple fact that Israelis are extremely insulated from the realities of the Palestinian sufferings.

Even in the heat of a conflict like this, Israelis can pretty much go about their lives unimpeded. It is true that the rocket attacks are disruptive and that there is on a whole an unacceptably high level of danger from external attacks, but Israelis have leveraged a security apparatus that minimizes these realities in day to day life to an astounding degree, all things considered, and this fact is a double edge sword that creates a perfect breeding ground for indifference.

One side of the sword is that these measures are extremely effective at improving the lives of Israelis in the short term. However the other side of the sword is that it obviously makes these measures popular and politically successful. Furthermore, with all the calm and prosperity, it is very easy to forget about the abysmal conditions being imposed on 1.8 million people just thirty kilometers or so from your doorstep. The only time they really have to deal with the issue is when there is an inevitable flareup of violence at which point, naturally, people tend to be less empathetic. The rest of the time, during the lulls, the prospect of empathy is just placed on the back burner.

These are the tendencies that need to be addressed.

However calling Israel the 4th Reich and placing so much focus on youtube videos that give Israel's religious fanatics undue prominence is just as useless and destructive as all the Israelis and Israel sympathizers who insist on viewing Palestinian society as an unchanging, violent monolith that is accurately represented by its extremist elements.

The fact of the matter is that there are significant movements within Israeli society that are in fact attempting to change these trends. The same is true of Palestinian society, however it is more difficult for those movements because of the repressions imposed by Hamas, culture and environment.

If there is to be any hope in this situation, Israel's role as the dominant, occupying force means that they have the first move. They will have to shift from focusing on isolation and self-preservation to one of empathy to the average Palestinian, an empathy that is so strong that they must be willing to take considerable personal risks and let up their stranglehold on Palestinian society and allow them to prosper.

Because only then will the environment be in any way conducive for Palestinians to take considerable personal risks and defy the status quo en masse. Only then will the false succor of violent religious extremism loose its appeal.

Until that happens, we'll the cycle seems to return to square one every two or three years and I expect to have this discussion again sometime around 2017.

Unfortunately, it is going to be a hard and unlikely road because it takes a lot of empathy and effort to rise up and take huge risks during the times of quiet when prosperity and security easily distract from the continuing plight of the Palestinians. These aren't common traits. Humans are a very tribal species and we're not good at this kind of stuff when it concerns someone different who you don't have to interact with. This challenge is hardly unique to the Jews.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Breaking Bad's Ozymandias is the Show's Climax

As a general rule, I don't watch TV. I don't own one - it's just not my thing. And I'm not being high and mighty on my "better than thou" horse here: the internet is nearly fatally distractive to me, and I guess I can only drown to one singing siren at a time.

Keeping that in mind, I sincerely hope that Television does not conjure anything that is as skillfully conceived and executed as Breaking Bad for some time yet to come. I don't think I could handle the responsibility.

(what follows is a response to the most recent episode "Ozymandias." Yes, this is something of a divergence from the usual stuff I like to talk about, yes, there are spoilers.)

Apparently this episode is the creator's (Vince Gilligan) favorite, and though I think it is risky to put out what you consider to be your best work two episodes before what should be a continuous build up to a bang of an end, but the very premise of the show dictates that the shows climax be at some point before the end, so I guess it is an unavoidable reality.

Every article written about the show has some necessary nod to the fact that it is unique in the way it portrays a changing character that deals with a long and increasingly disconcerting string of challenges to his sense of morality. Of course this is true, but a more accurate and nuanced take on what makes Breaking Bad so great is the combined forces of the writers' ability to come up with a logical succession of realistic situational conundrums for Walt to solve and Bryan Cranston's incredible ability to act out a reaction that balances his character's psychopathic need for greatness with his allegiance to family and his battered (but everpresent) moral compass.

You can see this principle in action every time he deals with the prospect of killing someone. His despair over the glass plate discovery when he realizes he has to kill Crazy 8, his first choice to try and disappear instead of kill Gus Fring, his reluctance to kill Jesse, giving himself up to Hank rather than harm him - these are my favorite moments in Breaking Bad. The question of whether or not Walt will take one more step towards his transition to Scarface or let his Mister Chips side speak is asked repeatedly throughout the Show's history, and it is these moments that drive the plot forward, keeping people both interested and invested.

Yes, Walt's orchestration of Fring's death is exhilarating, yes, we enjoy seeing the creativity with which he builds his meth empire, but those things are nothing more than smart plot points. Smart plot points exist on a lot of television shows and are not particularly unique, watching Walt grapple with the path he has taken every step of the way on the other hand, is unique.

Take that away and the show falls apart.

The final situational conundrum for this show is how Walt is going to exit the stage. It is very clear that this will be a dismal ending for everyone involved, particularly Walt, and there is certainly a good bit of rubbernecking about that fact, but we as viewers are truly invested in finding out which version of him will surface in response to the challenges his new reality face - the nuts and bolts of how he responds to that reality are certainly fun, but they will not be the feature of Breaking Bad that keeps people talking.

That question has been answered.

Walt's phone confession tonight was descriptive of the worst possible morality Walt could possibly reach. He feigned a diabolical willingness to kill and emotionally batter those he loves most, his family, if they stand in the way of his greatness. He gloated that personally murdering a family member (Hank) was completely justified in his quest for greatness and that he would not hesitate to do it again to his own wife if it became necessary. He used fear and threats rather than cunning manipulation to get his way.

Throughout the show, his loyalty to his family has been the one saving grace for his character. Without it there really would not be any debate as to whether or not he is a redeemable character and the sneering maniac his family and the eavesdropping police heard through that phone settled the debate in their minds once and for all. He is unapologetic and uncompromising. He is a monster in their eyes, and his confession ensures that that fact will be his legacy.

But it's more complicated than that - Walt sacrificed himself. There is no doubt that Walt has become a despicable person, but his final sacrificial act leaves the book wide open as to whether or not he is redeemable. What's more, it's up to Skyler and the Audience to decide. No one else is fully aware of what is going on and therefore the writers cant use the opinions of other characters to take sides. The debate could go on forever.

And that's why his final actions - returning Holly to Skyler and protecting his family through his phone confession - represent the show's climax. The final moral question has been answered. Vince Gilligan and Co have figured out a complex and ambiguous way to allow Walt's humanity to shine through and while they did it, they wrenched your heart out while they did it, and Bryan Cranston's ability to be a tearful and sympathetic monster who is dying not from cancer, but from the slow torment of being fully aware that he has personally destroyed everything he loves in life, was the spoon they used to dig it out.

That emotional journey will be the defining experience of Breaking Bad.

The two remaining episodes will play out. It will be fun, it will be smart, it will be grotesque, it will be shocking, it will be a great many things. But it will not be as significant and as climactic as what we saw tonight. The question has already been posed to us, much like in the eponymous poem: can anything valuable be found in those lone and level sands stretching far away.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.