A woman who audited my Arab-Israeli course this summer named Marzieh Goudarzi wrote to me recently to ask my opinion on what was going down in the Gaza Strip. She asked me a follow-up question about the conflict as a whole and my interest in it. Her question really got me thinking and I wanted to post the answer as a blog. Here's the note:
Thanks for your response.
There is no short supply of humanitarian crises in this world but I find that my head swims and my blood boils over this conflict between Israel and Palestine. From my perspective, which I realize is quite limited, it seems they see each other as foreign species. I suppose I really despise the institutions of religion and culture that give them their identities and make them seem so foreign to each other. And I don't take issue with embracing culture, not in the least; I only feel that it plays an unnecessarily destructive role in the globalizing world, where cultures are invading each other's "bubble". But religions... my issues with religion are at the root... I don't just have problems with certain aspects of it.
You chose to teach a class on the subject. Why? Do you feel drawn to it as well? If so, why this issue?
If you have time.
> Thanks for your response.
> There is no short supply of humanitarian
> crises in this world but I find that my head
> swims and my blood boils over this conflict
You’re not alone. Arab-Israeli Conflict is a staple Middle Eastern politics class. Lots of people are quite passionate about the subject.
> From my perspective, which I realize is quite
Not so limited, I hope! You sat through the course!
> it seems they see each other as foreign species.
This is essentially correct. The enemy is never “of” the self. By definition, the enemy is always the other and can never be the self.
> I suppose I really despise the institutions of
> religion and culture that give them their
> identities and make them seem so foreign to
> each other.
Then I failed completely as a teacher. The argument I tried to give you guys was that this ingroup/outgroup distinction is natural to us. It has a genetic basis. It aided us for millenia spent as hunter-gatherers because it helped us cling to our group of twelve or so people and that helped us survive. Seeing the outgroup as foreign and alien is not the product of “unnatural” institutions that were imposed upon some sort of “naturally peaceful” humanity. The objectification of the outgroup is fundamentally a part of human nature. If the institutions were not there to reinforce existing identities, we would simply invent new ones and fight over them. Violence is eternal. We will never “get over it.” The most we can hope for is to hold in check through discipline.
> And I don’t take issue with embracing
> culture, not in the least; I only feel that
> it plays an unnecessarily destructive role
> in the globalizing world, where cultures
> are invading each other’s “bubble”.
I’d say just the opposite. What’s really destructive is the globalizing world that places individual human beings that have a hunter-gather set of biases into a world in which those biases can now destroy us as a species rather than save us in small groups. We are not conditioned at all by the process of evolution to live the way we do under capitalism. Our natural impulses are all wrong for it. As a result, our original biases which saved us as hunter-gatherers are the cause of so much of our grief as capitalists. We are the victims of our own success as a species.
> But religions... my issues with religion are at the root...
I can’t see why. Recall that Muslims and Jews lived together for the greater part of a thousand years without serious acrimony of the sort we see in
I do hope you aren’t going to succumb to the John Lenonesque sentiment about “imagining there’s no heaven.” In my view, it’s drivel of the worst sort. I must advise you in the strongest terms to discard it from your intellectual repertoire. We fight and kill for all sorts of reasons. Religion is just one more ostensible reason and, like most of the others, I think it’s not a real causal variable. Without religion, we’d still kill one another. We hate the outgroup because it is in our nature to do so. If there were no religion, we’d still slaughter one another. There is no fundamentally peaceful humanity to liberate from “evil institutions” or “regressive backwards thinking.” We’re killers, pure and simple, just as we’re healers and lovers, pure and simple. It’s part of our complex nature.
A world in which violence is regulated to create what we call “the civil society of liberal democracy” is not at all natural. It is assiduously constructed. As we are learning in
The John Lennon consciousness is the product of remarkable bias. It stands in the face of all evidence to the contrary because its adherents live in the civil society of liberal democracy and, due to their sensory bias, actually believe that their life is somehow “normal,” even “natural.” Their lives are nothing short of extraordinary, even if the extraordinary quality of their lives is in no way a reflection of their own conscious thinking. Their bias is a tremendous luxury, the result of their insulation from the violence that makes their way of life possible. But if you care about liberal democracy, human peace and human compassion, you can’t afford to succumb to this luxury. The civil society of liberal democracy is fragile. When we take it for granted, we lose it to decadence and corruption. We have been flirting with this for the past decade. Once it is destroyed, it is very difficult to recreate. We must remain conscious of this fact if we are not to lose it. We cannot afford to “imagine there’s no heaven,” and by that I mean we cannot afford to imagine that our present way of life is simply what happens when you free human nature to be itself. It is nothing of the sort.
> You chose to teach a class on the subject. Why?
> Do you feel drawn to it as well? If so, why this issue?
Like all life decisions, it is a mixture of the sublime, the mundane and the luck of the draw. I grew up being passionate about the conflict because I was raised to be a good Arab and
Back in ‘97 or ‘98, I had a long argument with a Zionist named Maurice back in
I actually really wanted to avoid the Arab-Israeli Conflict when I came to
Moreover, it was a crashing bore. There’s was nothing new to say about the conflict. It’s the same set of ethical arguments over and over and over again. Rinse, lather, repeat. I’d tired of debates that go nowhere. I wanted to study democratization. My original dissertation was to going to be about why
Moreover, I’m a
It was at that point that I was genuinely surprised when he told me that I wasn’t prepared to be a TA for Arab-Israeli. “You’re too angry, Talal,” he told me. “I’ve seen it in seminar. Because you’re intelligent, it shuts down debate. A person can be angry and not intelligent and debate will propser. A person can be intelligent and not angry and debate will prosper. But angry and intelligent scares the hell out of people.” I was taken aback, but he continued, “Moreover, this course is going to be your bread and butter. You need to find a way to work through the anger, because you can’t not teach the course.”
After a few days of hellish introspection, I realized he was right. I needed to do something. Moreover, my debate with Maurice several years ago was still nagging at me. I never understood how he could he a liberal except when he’s a fascist. But what I did realize is that I had more in common with him than I did with Brian, because he, unlike Brian, would never ask that mother of all insipid questions, “Why can’t they stop fighting?” Maurice’s answer and mine would be diametrically opposite answers, but we both understood that the conflict was not the result of insanity. I realized that all three of us were a product of very different biases. I wanted to understand why those in a conflict have mirror-image biases that negate one another but shared a single rhetorical structure and why those outside the conflict were biased into thinking that the violence of the conflict was not “of” them but of some weird foreign world that couldn’t be part of them (which it most assuredly can be and is). Looking at the conflict from that angle actually started to get me interested again. The class you observed was the product of that thinking.
I came to realize that our sets of values are packages that seem aesthetically to “go together” because we were raised with them as a cohesive whole. Because they are reflected by those who surround us, their internal contradictions are rarely obvious to us. This is the effect of sensory bias and attachment bias. Every package of values is likely to have glaring inconsistencies that will not be obvious to the believer. And because we need to believe that we are good people and because good people (our parents) gave us our package, we are loathe to betray the package. The problem is that most values can be brought into contradiction with one another. This makes politics a fundamentally tragic sphere of action and, depending on the tragic circumstances that bring these packages together, we get things like protracted conflict or arrogant assumptions that violence is “of” some other and not of the self. Simply put, combining hunter-gatherer instincts with capitalism generates this sort of behavior. To the extent we can recognize it, we may be able to subject it to a level of control. But that control will always be tenuous. The civil society of liberal democracy, like any political order, is always more fragile than it appears to be at the height of its success.
It’s not terribly uplifting, I know, but it’s not quite as insipid as crooning “Imagine there’s no heaven” and lighting a candle. So for better or worse, that’s my answer .