Thursday, January 08, 2009

Imagine There's No Heaven

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.

Dear Marzieh,

> Thanks for your response.

My pleasure.

> 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.

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
> limited,

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 Palestine today. There is nothing about Islam or Judaism that must make Muslims and Jews fight one another. Religion is not a causal variable in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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 Iraq (although probably not well enough), it is not easy to create such a world. Simply put, “it isn’t natural.” Please remember that “natural” does not mean “good.” I favor the civil society of liberal democracy above all others. I like capitalism and am loathe to give it up. But the civil society of liberal democracy is very likely the least “natural” way for human beings to live. On the first day of class, I talked about the bias of the American peacenik, who asks, aghast, “Why can’t they stop fighting?” My response is, “That’s a stupid question. The interesting question is ‘how is it that there are human beings on the face of this planet who can actually believe that people with different identity markers can mix and interact without fighting at all, as if it were natural?’“ This is the question that is genuinely worth investigating if you want peace.

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 Palestine is the pan-Arab cause celebre. Certainly when I was at Georgetown, I was quite passionate.

Back in ‘97 or ‘98, I had a long argument with a Zionist named Maurice back in Washington. He was actually one of my next door neighbors. We were introduced because we both were from El Paso, TX, but he was Jewish and I was Arab. We both always skirted around the Arab-Israeli Conflict. What I thought was funny is that we both had a lot in common in terms of other political questions. We were both lefties. I don’t think either or us wanted to spoil our friendly rapport by discussing the elephant in the room. One day Maurice bumped into me with a buddy of mine named Brian (he was in formation to become a Maronite priest--don’t ask!) and we invited him up, because we were going to hang out and do some drinking. So we drank and talked and Brian, curious twit that he was, brought up the elephant in the room. So Maurice and I had the inevitable two-and-a-half-hour long, knock-down, drag-out debate about who’s right and who’s wrong in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Naturally, nothing was settled. I learned more about AIPAC arguing strategies and formulas than I did about the conflict. I was proud that he learned a few facts he didn’t know before from me, but I certainly didn’t sway him. Simply put, it wasn’t possible. I came to realize that the debate was futile. I have never rehearsed it again.

I actually really wanted to avoid the Arab-Israeli Conflict when I came to Seattle. I left a very pro-Arab program to go to a PhD program where I was the only Arab and both of the profs who were associated with Middle Eastern Studies in our department were Jewish. I didn’t feel very safe at all. Moreover, Zionists are very well organized in the United States and teaching a course on the Arab-Israeli Conflict that in some way would express what I thought was justice would be very likely to bring me a permanent phalanx of little campers outside my door from Hillel or one of AIPAC’s many campus organizations. I mean, they regularly trash people as dignified and scholarly as Rashid Khalidi. How was I going to fare?

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 Taiwan experienced a shift toward democracy but Lebanon didn’t. But, 9/11 changed much and my life was falling apart at the time anyway. After 9/11, democratization seemed a puerile and stupid research topic worthy of only the most giftless of romantics. We weren’t headed for a bright, beautiful future. The ‘90s were a joke. We were going into the bowels of hell. Moreover, I was diagnosed with MS and wound up coming out at the same time. There was a lot going on and it changed the way I looked at the world.

Moreover, I’m a Middle East specialist. I had to be practical. It’s not particularly easy for a political scientist who studies the Middle East not to teach Arab-Israeli Conflict. It is by far the most popular popular course in the field among undergraduates. Moreover, I soon realized that I had nothing to fear from Professor Goldberg, my committee chair. He was not a Zionist and is one of the finest human beings I have ever known. I respected him both as an intellect and as a human being. I really wanted to teach under him, so I signed up to be a TA for Arab-Israeli.

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 .



Saturday, January 03, 2009

Envoi: Sean Michael McClure, Racist and Homophobe

I received this e-mail a few days ago from Sean Michael McClure, who sometimes posted to this blog. I have cut and pasted the text in its pristine form. I felt editing out the spelling and punctuation errors would lessen the impact.

From: Sean McClure

To: "T. S. Hattar"

Subject: RE: Stop harrasing me

Date: Thu, 1 Jan 2009 00:09:04 +0000

Dear Talal;

In the end I am quite pleased that your have a disease that is turning your mind to hummus. Nothing pleases me more than to know that as a gay man you will never have children. So even if before your mind turns to rot God has deprived you with any posibility of a legacy, since we all know that your poli sci views, being a Marxist as you are, is antiquated and irrelevant in today's day in age.

I hope the flames of hell lap at your peasent toes for eternity, which will happen since you, as a gay man are an abonimation before God. Which sadly for you would have happened anyway since you will always be a Saracen dog.

I only wish that I could report your family members to my overzealous DHS thuggy friends, for being terrorists, I do so enjoy putting Arabs up on the chopping plot. But, since you are disowned, their suffering really wouldn't hurt you so I wouldn't enjoy it all that much and when I got rid of that nasty old Paki professor who dared to give me a B, well the titilation only lasted so long.

Sean Michael McClure


Near the start of the last term, Sean was whining to me that he didn’t have any gaming buddies anymore. He wanted to get me and a group of my friends to play a game with him. I told him I didn’t have the time for gaming and it would be rough to find a game that we could all play, because my buddies live in different time zones. To his credit, Sean found a game called Legends of Elveron, that can be played realistically across time zones with players checking in at different time of days, but still coordinating their actions across timezones. So I got Kirk and Simon to join in our original group. Nelly joined at the start of our second round. A friend and ex-student, Josiah, hopped in for our third round. The game was fun. It was actually really fun. And it gave me a chance to catch up with old friends, especially Kirk.

The events that led to Sean's letter started at the tail end of our first round. We elected Sean our realm king (he clearly coveted the post). But he started bossing everyone around. The term primus inter pares didn’t seem to exist in his vocabulary. As he was pushing my friends around, whom I’d gathered primarily as a favor to him, I sent him a side e-mail advising him to cool it. He exploded in a fit of pique, quit our realm (teams in Elveron are called realms) and decided to play the game for a round separately. We left him alone. Since he was restarting the game after we had already “left protection”—the setup phase of the game, we could have hunted him and ruined his round. In the name of good sportsmanship, we left him alone. For this we were rewarded near the end of the round by several obsessive attacks by Sean. Sean built up a fairly strong defense and we weren’t able to hit him back. Needless to say, in gamers terms, we wanted revenge.

We got revenge near the end of the second round. He attacked us when he was vulnerable. We had changed our kingdom names, so he didn’t know it was us. He just thought he was bullying a random realm. We all came back and pounded him. Indeed, as a realm, Nelly, Simon, Kirk, Josiah and I collectively killed his kingdom. It’s not easy killing a kingdom in Elveron, but we did it. And we did it collectively as a realm. It was really great for esprit de corps. After the kill, Sean sent us this feeble protest message:

From: Sean McClure

To: "T. S. Hattar"

Subject: Stop harrasing me

Date: Tue, 30 Dec 2008 02:14:23 +0000


I don't want to deal with you anymore as I am sure you have no interest in dealing with me. I found what you said shitty and condecending and I don't want to engage with you. Since i ma calling in the ghost with you, as I assume you want to do with me, then why the hell can't you leave me alone in the game.

Than you for runing the experience for me. Are you such a petty person that you feel compelled to keep coming after me? I don't want to interact with you. I accept an attack here or there, but you are constantly coming after me.

I would like to ask that you be civil and stop.

Thank you
Sean Michael McClure

This was my response:

From: "T. S. Hattar"

To: "Sean McClure"

Subject: Re: Stop harrasing me

Date: Wed, 31 Dec 2008 12:52:42 -0800

Dear Sean,

I think Kirk made our pack's position clear in his game message. We are satisfied with the outcome of this transaction and have no further need for interaction. If you are concerned that our word cannot be taken at face value, simply change your kingdom name. Indeed, like most strategic players, we change ours every round because camouflage is, simply put, good military practice.

In fact, we were all rather floored that you did not follow this sensible practice in the present round. But then, you could not have given us that "Batman villain" flavor that we savored so much for the past two rounds were you not insanely arrogant. Your gaming practice has added tremendously to the pleasure of our game. You gave us a personal enemy and, at length, you allowed us add, if you will, the spice of murder to our egg-nog. The hunt, particularly the end game, was deeply satisfying, for which I sincerely thank you. On the whole it's been a jolly good Christmas.

It's good to have friends!



I think it was pretty mild. He had been a real jerk in the game and, yes, I really did relish giving him his comeuppance. At any rate, I had never received such a vitriolic letter in my entire life. Indeed, while this was not the first instance of anti-Arab racism that has been directed against me (although most of these came on the playground on the seventh grade), it was the first homophobic slur I’ve received in my life. Well, I guess I had those in the seventh grade too, but no one, including me, knew that I was gay when they were calling me “faggot” back then.

I have recently learned something about prejudice. People interact with you, even pretend to be your friends, despite identities they consider to be undesirable. Prejudice doesn’t mean that they have a white sheet in their closet and plan on burning a cross in your yard. It means they pretend to be friends and consider it a “courtesy.” They think they’re being generous. It means when they’re pissed off and want to bludgeon you, they grab onto the identity and use it as cudgel. Racists and homophobes exist everywhere. Indeed, Sean Michael McClure is a government bureaucrat who first worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Africa Bureau and now works at the Department of the Treasury. They exist in your government.

In The Neverending Story, Michael Ende tells of the Old Man of Wandering who writes down the events of people’s lives so that they live forever as an ugly or beautiful story. I may not be the Old Man of Wandering Mountain, but this is definitely Sean Michael McClure’s ugly story. I hope for his sake it’s the only one.

Back to School!

Am I ready? Fuck no!