The Most Brilliant Thing I’ve Read All Year.

June 21, 2010 at 12:03 pm (By Amba) (, , , , )

A must, must, must read:  Shelby Steele on why “world opinion” is smugly scapegoating Israel while Obama’s America largely stands by:

This is something new in the world, this almost complete segregation of Israel in the community of nations. And if Helen Thomas’s remarks were pathetic and ugly, didn’t they also point to the end game of this isolation effort: the nullification of Israel’s legitimacy as a nation? […]

“World opinion” labors mightily to make Israel look like South Africa looked in its apartheid era—a nation beyond the moral pale. And it projects onto Israel the same sin that made apartheid South Africa so untouchable: white supremacy. Somehow “world opinion” has moved away from the old 20th century view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a complicated territorial dispute between two long-suffering peoples. Today the world puts its thumb on the scale for the Palestinians by demonizing the stronger and whiter Israel as essentially a colonial power committed to the “occupation” of a beleaguered Third World people. […]

This […] has become propriety itself, a form of good manners, a political correctness. […]

One reason for this is that the entire Western world has suffered from a deficit of moral authority for decades now. Today we in the West are reluctant to use our full military might in war lest we seem imperialistic; we hesitate to enforce our borders lest we seem racist; we are reluctant to ask for assimilation from new immigrants lest we seem xenophobic; and we are pained to give Western Civilization primacy in our educational curricula lest we seem supremacist. Today the West lives on the defensive, the very legitimacy of our modern societies requiring constant dissociation from the sins of the Western past—racism, economic exploitation, imperialism and so on.

And on what really drives hatred of the West in the Muslim world:

[T]he Palestinians—and for that matter much of the Middle East—are driven to militancy and war not by legitimate complaints against Israel or the West but by an internalized sense of inferiority. […] For better or for worse, modernity is now the measure of man.

And the quickest cover for inferiority is hatred. The problem is not me; it is them. And in my victimization I enjoy a moral and human grandiosity—no matter how smart and modern my enemy is, I have the innocence that defines victims. I may be poor but my hands are clean. Even my backwardness and poverty only reflect a moral superiority, while my enemy’s wealth proves his inhumanity.

In other words, my hatred is my self-esteem. This must have much to do with why Yasser Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s famous Camp David offer of 2000 in which Israel offered more than 90% of what the Palestinians had demanded. To have accepted that offer would have been to forgo hatred as consolation and meaning. […]

[T]his attraction to the consolations of hatred, is one of the world’s great problems today […] The fervor for hatred as deliverance may not define the Muslim world, but it has become a drug that consoles elements of that world in the larger competition with the West.

Go read it, quick.  Stop me before I quote more.

ADDED: I’ve observed before that people who can claim suffering, directly or by association, often love to have that absolve them of moral complexity:   the wronged can do no wrong (we know this is wrong:  look at the generational handing-down of child sexual abuse, for just one example).  (No, I’m not immune to this temptation either — at least in its insidious, venial “gateway drug” form:  the tendency to seize on excuses for being less than responsible.)  And many who do not claim suffering themselves love to take up the cause of “the victimized innocents” — be it fetuses, animals, or oppressed peoples — at least in part because it justifies their expression of moral superiority and rage.  I consider this opportunistic sanctification of victimhood one of the nastiest psychological dodges of this, or any, time.

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28 Comments

  1. jason said,

    You know, Annie, I have friends on both sides of the debate: Jewish friends and Arab friends (some Muslim and some not). This tends to put me at odds with one or the other. I nearly lost a dear Jewish friend earlier this year because I wasn’t for or against anyone but was instead for peace, for self-determination, for security.

    But I agree with you wholeheartedly. This is a mighty fine piece of work. And though I fear I’ll lose some Arab friends for saying as much, you hit the nail on the head with your addendum, not to mention calling out this entire article as a fine writ worth reading.

    Most importantly, I think it applies to a broader audience than just the Middle East conflict. If one reads beyond the specifics, it’s easy to find it applicable to a great many aspects of human life. Because we’re just that pathetic when it comes to getting along with each other.

  2. amba12 said,

    When you have friends on both sides (I do too), it takes nerve to step out of neutrality to admire the best expressions of either point of view. Thanks for the backup NOT from a reflexive Israel supporter.

    This remains one of the most enlightening exchanges I’ve ever seen on victimhood as moral superiority. You have to read down through George Steiner to the quotes from Hillel Hankin to get both sides.

  3. Maxwell James said,

    Well. I don’t find this brilliant. Or even smart, really.

    For starters, “scapegoating” is a specific word with a specific history, and Steele’s attempt to fit it to Israel’s run of bad media is clumsy and unpersuasive. It requires that the victim be sacrificially blamed for a host of ills experienced by the blamers. But most of those criticizing Israel are criticizing it for its specific conduct in the midst of a very long and very visible war, not for the suffering undergone in their own countries. Show me someone blaming Israel for the financial crisis, or the oil spill, or even the greater instability in the Middle East – I’m sure these voices exist, but they remain on the fringe. But that’s what’s in line with the historical scapegoating of Jews.

    Beyond that, the piece is riddled with inaccuracies and simplifications. We restrain our “full military might” for its power to annihilate, not due to pc anxieties. The last ten years are an obvious testament to the fact that we don’t worry much about accusations of imperialism. Business interests easily outweigh concerns about racism when it comes to the enforcement of immigration laws – even conservatives acknowledge this. The notion that political correctness is some psychological illness driving all Western policymaking – despite massive differences in language, culture, and governance – is seriously tired.

    It’s true that a lot of Israel’s critics are seriously under-informed about the history of the region and of the conflict. It’s true that many of them are far too credulous about the Palestinian side of the conflict. But that’s true of pretty much every controversy nowadays – the underinformed and thoughtless dominate every conversation. Steele’s essay strikes me as yet another contribution to that genre.

    PS – I say this as someone who is very much heartbroken about Israel’s future and the seeming impossibility of peace. Nor do I blame Israel for the conflict – while I think they have made some serious strategic mistakes in recent years, the fact is that they are a nation facing serious threats and unreliable partners, and they have to defend themselves. That they can and should do better is true, but no more than is true for most other nations, including our own.

  4. realpc said,

    If you succeed you must have done something unethical, and if you fail you must have been an innocent victim. It is unfair to prefer success over failure. We must love everyone equally and never discriminate. We are One World and are too smart to care about religion or nationality.

    This is the progressive / liberal philosophy gone wild. A new excuse for anti-semitism.

  5. amba12 said,

    By “scapegoating,” he seems to mean Israel is to take all the long sins of the West — being strong and ruthlessly dominating other nations from which it seized land, power, and materials — upon itself and be sacrificed for them. If that isn’t scapegoating, what is?

    Think again, Maxwell. The accusations that “Zionism is racism,” and classifying Israel as a “colonial” occupying power, fit in with Steele’s conceptualization.

    Myself, I’m inclined to think that the creation of Israel was a mistake — a mistake made inevitable by the Western powers’ having allowed the Holocaust to happen — but that once created, it has every right to survive and must not be destroyed. (Why does that even need saying?!) Israel could help its neighbors with both democratic values and technology if they wanted it (and some have indeed accepted and benefited). Israel also makes major mistakes — living under threat and having power both brutalize humans. Yet Hamas does not want the two-state solution that nearly everyone else but the Israeli ultra-right seems to agree is that only sane and humane solution. Hamas would lose its international stardom if there were a Palestinian state.

    The world is absolutely crawling with hypocrisy on this issue.

  6. Maxwell James said,

    he seems to mean Israel is to take all the long sins of the West — being strong and ruthlessly dominating other nations from which it seized land, power, and materials — upon itself and be sacrificed for them.

    No. That may be your argument, but it’s definitely not his:

    “World opinion” labors mightily to make Israel look like South Africa looked in its apartheid era—a nation beyond the moral pale. And it projects onto Israel the same sin that made apartheid South Africa so untouchable: white supremacy.

    Moreover, he goes on to imply that the West has no “long sins,” from the quote you selected yourself. This is not an argument that Israel is being held up as a substitute for Western aggression and colonialism. This is nothing but the standard GOP playbook, just folding Israel into its _own_ issues with victimization. You’re reading more into it than is actually there.

    For the rest, I mostly agree with you (with the exception of Israel being a mistake. As always, it’s too soon to tell). Yes, the hypocrites are everywhere on this topic. But this column is an example, not a scourge.

  7. amba12 said,

    This is not an argument that Israel is being held up as a substitute for Western aggression and colonialism.

    Really?? Looks to me like that’s exactly what it is.

  8. amba12 said,

    But then, I actually think some of the hesitations of the West he lists (to use its military might without self-questioning, e.g.) are precisely evidence of its advancement in civilization. It’s a fine line between greater perspective and sensitivity, and becoming so squeamish you can no longer defend yourself or your interests. (Thus the tricky paradox that if we can’t sometimes act ruthlessly we may lose the luxury of greater sensitivity.) Because we were ruthless and strong (and embraced by two oceans), we won a pause from the struggle, which gave us the luxury of being more fair-minded. What makes America exceptional, what makes us a light unto the nations that yet is in danger of being put out, is that not all nations might have chosen to make such use of their success.

  9. Maxwell James said,

    Again:

    For example, we ignore that the Palestinians—and for that matter much of the Middle East—are driven to militancy and war not by legitimate complaints against Israel or the West but by an internalized sense of inferiority.

    Emphasis mine. To be a substitute you have to have someone to replace, but he doesn’t believe that Western colonialism in the region was a sin at all. The Palestinians don’t have any legitimate complaints in his worldview, just an inferiority complex that turns to violence.

  10. Maxwell James said,

    But then, I actually think some of the hesitations of the West he lists (to use its military might without self-questioning, e.g.) are precisely evidence of its advancement in civilization. It’s a fine line between greater perspective and sensitivity, and becoming so squeamish you can no longer defend yourself or your interests.

    Sure! But that’s not the argument he’s making. The very fact that he’s railing against the strawman of “world opinion,” rather than calling out a specific argument to debate, is testament to this, because then he won’t be able to find anyone to the right of Noam Chomsky to debate with. It’s the technique of a coward.

  11. Icepick said,

    Yes, world opinion has not at all singled out Israel. For example theUN treated Israel’s botched embargo with complete perspective. I mean they did come down hard on them, but no where near as hard as they have on N. Korea for sinking a S. Korean ship, nor have they come down on Israel as hard as they have on Hamas for not wanting anything less than the complete extermination of all Jews.

    Oh, wait, that’s some OTHER reality.

    Claiming that world opinion doesn’t have it in for the Israelis is nonsense at best. One sees that clearly in that “democracy of nations” that rewards nations like Sudan with a seat on the Human RIghts Commission but condemns Israeli efforts to defend itself. (I guess the Sudanese Arabs are brown enough that they are allowed to commit acts of slavery and genocide and still be considered better than Israelis.)

    As for the claim that few blame Israel for the greater instability in the Middle East – really? Amongst those that do so are the rulers of Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.

  12. realpc said,

    my comment didn’t go in? trying again.

    “some of the hesitations of the West he lists (to use its military might without self-questioning, e.g.) are precisely evidence of its advancement in civilization. It’s a fine line between greater perspective and sensitivity …”

    It’s just a progressive myth, in my opinion, that we are becoming ever nicer and smarter (in the blue regions, that is). I don’t see any evidence of that whatsoever. The West hesitates to use nuclear weapons because once started it would be hard to stop. Then we think it’s because we’re smart and nice. It’s easy to think that when you don’t have to defend yourself because you are protected by the greatest military power that ever existed on earth.

    If you said this to people in a red state, they might be very confused. We are evolving to become more sensitive? You mean everyone, or just the women and gays?

    Sorry, amba, for being insensitive, but you really are much more of a New York liberal than you probably realize.

  13. realpc said,

    “which gave us the luxury of being more fair-minded. What makes America exceptional, what makes us a light unto the nations that yet is in danger of being put out, is that not all nations might have chosen to make such use of their success.”

    Not everyone would agree with that! Are you really sure we didn’t do what any normal super-power would have done? There are ultra-progressive utopians, such as Noam Chomsky, who think America has been the great Satan.

    But of course he’s just a crazed utopian. I’m just saying that the image of America as fair-minded is not necessarily the majority consensus. And if we had really been so sensitive and fair-minded, we probably would have ceased to exist a while ago.

  14. amba12 said,

    Maxwell — your reaction seems somewhat automatic to me — Steele is on the right, so he must be wrong. His recital of “the sins of the Western past” cannot have any sincerity in it — it must be sarcastic. Yet few sane people on the right (maybe especially a black intellectual) would deny that slavery or the genocide of the Indians was evil.

    Maybe my reaction seems symmetrically automatic to you. But I don’t think “world opinion” is a straw man in this case. I don’t think it’s monolithic, but that sector of world opinion is a loud chorus in unison.

  15. amba12 said,

    real — you’re willfully misreading me. I didn’t say we are becoming ever nicer and smarter. I said that the U.S. has used the pause in the struggle for survival that has been afforded by the protection of its might to indulge in the luxury of questioning torture and conquest, and trying to continue to broaden the ideal of human rights assigned to all white male property owners by our original Constitution. We wouldn’t have the luxury without the might, and we have to be careful not to be idiot idealists and sell ourselves out. But another civilization with our degree of power might or might not have chosen such a path. Imagine if China, after inventing gunpowder, with its once-mighty naval fleet, had gone on to dominate the world instead of withdrawing from it. Would they, once temporarily secure, have refined Confucianism as we have refined Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence? It’s interesting to speculate. Does the security won by long-held power make a people kind and tolerant, or soft and weak, or are they the same thing?

  16. amba12 said,

    P.S. real, I deleted the duplicate comment. Apparently the system was freaked out by your typo and held the comment up for moderation, and I wasn’t online all evening — after taking J to the swimming pool and then supper, I was (gasp) reading a book!!

  17. realpc said,

    I see what you mean Amba. But I wasn’t trying to be difficult. It’s all complicated and can be seen from different angles.

    “Does the security won by long-held power make a people kind and tolerant, or soft and weak, or are they the same thing?”

    That’s an interesting question. And we have seen Israel sometimes being tough, because it wants to survive (and who doesn’t??). And then they are judged as ruthless, because they don’t have our luxury of being an almost-all-powerful giant.

    ————

    We became a sensitive feminized civilization because slavery seemed to contradict our ideals, and early Americans (especially women) started to notice. The liberal tradition is sensitive — as in Tolstoy, for example. You’re supposed to care more about others than about yourself, especially if those others are low in status.

    In other words, as in Christianity, the liberal tradition turns everything up-side-down. it grew directly out of Christianity.

    Because of the liberal and Christian traditions (which are now sometimes opposed), our civilization has deep fault lines of internal contradictions. The intellectual ultra-liberal, such as Chomsky, cares deeply about low-status oppressed people, while feeling superior to them at the same time.

    How can he avoid feeling those contrasting values clashing inside his brain? His focus is NARROW and intensely self-righteous.

  18. amba12 said,

    “cares deeply about low-status oppressed people,” or is adorning himself with the fashionable appearance of caring. That kind of caring is abstract and condescending and romanticizes the poor á la Karl Marx, who somehow assumed human nature was abrogated and sainthood conferred by powerlessness and deprivation.

  19. realpc said,

    “or is adorning himself with the fashionable appearance of caring. That kind of caring is abstract and condescending ”

    Yes I think so, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s partly real, but yes it definitely is abstract. And it cannot possibly avoid condescension. The educated liberal “cares” because he is educated and enlightened. Therefore, when people don’t “care,” it’s because they are ignorant, stupid, mean. So the educated liberal does NOT care about everyone! He ONLY cares about people uneducated, “unenlightened” people when they are oppressed and victimized. When they are successful, the educated HATES them. And this hatred is intense, as in Bush derangement syndrome (of course Bush WAS educated, but liberals assumed he was an idiot because of his sincere born-again Christianity).

  20. Maxwell James said,

    Amba, if my tone seemed sharp, it’s because I take your opinion seriously. Although I don’t post or comment as much lately, I still check the blog everyday, and when you tell me something is brilliant, I read it.

    This time, I disagreed. The piece struck me as yet another attempt to argue that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, and that political correctness is the biggest obstacle to effective governance in the West. I’ve had a lot of exposure in my life to both of those arguments, and I didn’t see anything new here to support them. That doesn’t mean I think Republicans are always wrong or that Israel always receives a fair shake from its Western “allies.” I’ve also been particularly depressed about Israel lately (among everything else). Personally, this dialogue comes a lot closer to capturing my mood on the situation there.

    I didn’t know, or at least had forgotten, that Shelby Steele is black, so perhaps that tempers my perception of the tone of the piece. Perhaps.

  21. wj said,

    I think that Steele has pretty well nailed the reason for Arab hatred (as opposed to merely opposition) for Israel and for the West. A perception of inferiority will do that to a person…or to a culture.

    But Israel, and especially the loudest American supporters of Israel, have many of the same characteristics. Especially the part about “my side was wronged [by anti-Semitism for centuries, not just by Hitler et al.] and [therefore] can do no wrong.” And anyone suggesting that Israel makes mistakes, let alone anyone citing specific instances, will at minimum get roundly denounced — especially if they happen to be Jewish themselves.

    All of which helps to make the situation in the Middle East so intractable: if both sides believe (desperately) that they can do no wrong, compromises in aid of peace is impossible. Not only will the fanatics oppose any peace, they will try hard to make sure that those who are willing to make peace. And if avoiding any compromise requires violence, political or physical, against those who are actually part of their community in the broadest sense, no problem — because, after all, they can do no wrong.

  22. amba12 said,

    Maxwell: I’ve started reading that Goldberg-Beinart exchange. Meanwhile, here’s another one that might be of interest (by our blogfriend Seth Chalmer). It’s specifically about how younger Jews view Israel and Jewishness and therefore, about how pleas to specialness or for jingoistic, unquestioning solidarity will NOT reach them. For example:

    The young (unaffiliated) American Jews I know tend to see themselves as thoroughly integrated with the general society around them, and don’t like to think that being Jewish separates them from their Gentile peers.

    I think any ad campaign that seems to target Jews in particular is bound to trigger an alarm bell for many of my Jewish friends. […] don’t market Israel to young Jews, market Israel to young people in general. I think that will most effectively reach the young Jews who most need reaching.

  23. realpc said,

    “if both sides believe (desperately) that they can do no wrong”

    Only the extremists on either side believe that. Palestinians are much more likely to be extremists than Israelis.

    In addition, the Arab hatred of Jews goes back centuries and is completely irrational.

  24. wj said,

    real, can you cite references for the “centuries” part? Because my (admittedly limited) understanding of Islam indicates that it mandates tolerance for but Christians and Jews. That’s tolerance as in someone professing another religion can be converted to Islam, as sword’s point if necessary, but Christians and Jews are to be left in peace to practice their faith.

  25. realpc said,

    wj,

    You can find the references easily. There is a long tradition of Arabs hating the Jews in that area. Both moved in gradually, the Arabs in greater numbers. Hatred is very common in Islam, by the way. Consider the intense hatred between different Muslim sects, the reason for so many of the problems in Iraq. Hatred also has a long tradition in ancient Judaism, with slightly different sects despising each other. You can also see plenty of that in different sects of Christianity, right from the beginning.

    The three great Western religions all suffer from monotheism — the idea that their particular version of God is the only correct one. We saw the same kind of thing in Marxist revolutions — slightly different Marxist sects hated each other.

    Whenever you have an ideology that “knows” the absolute “truth,” you get this kind of hatred.

    This is why, I think, secularism is becoming so popular — the Western religions are always blazing with hatred. I mean, I think hatred is ok (it’s natural, to some extent, and it’s better than pretending to love EVERYONE). But hatred is DANGEROUS in a world full of all kinds of bombs.

    So now we are supposed to hate hatred. Well I got off the original subject. Yes, wj, the Arabs hated the Jews for a very long time. There was an era where the Arabs and Jews got along, but I don’t think they ever got along in Palestine.

  26. Maxwell James said,

    Luntz’s findings about the assassination of Rabin definitely ring true for me – it was a watershed event, probably the closest I’ve come to understanding what the Kennedy assassination’s (or, perhaps more relevantly, the Munich massacre) must have been like for the previous generation. I never understood before then that Israel even had a extremist wing, let alone that any of them would be capable of such an act. I don’t doubt that it’s informed my opinion of events in Israel ever since.

    That said, Seth’s post reminds me of the Democrats’ enthusiasm over Geoff Lackoff and “framing” back in the early aughts. Sometimes there are things known as “legitimate differences of opinion,” and all the marketing tricks in the world won’t help you cross that divide.

  27. amba12 said,

    Maxwell: I totally relate to this from the Beinart-Goldberg exchange, and have all my life; it’s how I was raised.

    It’s the use of Jewish suffering as a moral imperative not only to act on behalf of imperiled Jews, but of imperiled non-Jews that really touches me.

  28. Maxwell James said,

    Yes. That sentiment (as opposed to more conservative notions of self-reliance) is the essential counterpoint of the “sanctification of victimization” that you decry so well in your update. It’s using one’s troubles not for personal gain, but for the betterment of humanity.

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