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.
Thanks.
Marzieh

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 .

Cheers!

Talal

7 comments:

StLee said...

I know that the media is a nice punching bag in America, but in the Arab-Israeli conflict it is especially galling, one-sided and Pro-Israel.
It has been two weeks since the beginning of the conflict and serious questions have remained unasked:
1. What will Israel do with Gaza afterwards?
Will Israel fill the void left by Hamas? Or does Israel count on Fatah to take Hamas’ place in Gaza?
2. What does Hamas hope to gain by firing rockets into Israel in the first place?
Such action would obviously draw retaliation from Israel. They couldn’t have been waiting for some pan-Arab or global response against Israel. Such strategy has failed miserably in the past.

I saw question 2 asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last week, and the response was that Hamas was just an Iranian client, and doing Iran’s bidding by attacking Israel. Is that true, or is it just another example of vilifying Iran, status quo in America for decades.

Cuphound said...

> I know that the media
> is a nice punching bag
> in America, but in the
> Arab-Israeli conflict
> it is especially galling,
> one-sided and Pro-Israel.

You say this, Shawn, as if it were something new. You must understand that the function of the media is to sell stories that fit easily into the point of view of uncritical readerships and audiences. You've taken a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict now. You tell me--how does one write a story about the Middle East that can relate what you have learned that is still an easy sell? How can you easily and effortless convey this sort of material in a few handy soundbites that fit between the traffic report, the weather and a human interest story? I think you can see that this is a bit of a lost cause.

> 1. What will Israel do with
> Gaza afterwards? Will Israel
> fill the void left by Hamas?
> Or does Israel count on Fatah
> to take Hamas’ place in Gaza?

I imagine this depends on Israel's political will to fight the sort of urban door-to-door war it would take to eradicate Hamas. I imagine that if the Israelis are willing to pay that price, then they will turn over control of the strip to its collaborationist surrogate Fatah. Fatah will be less popular among real Palestinians than ever, but remember, the whole idea behind allowing Fatah to relocate to the territories was the Israeli hope that Fatah could serve as a surrogate for the IDF that would allow the Israelis to reduce the West Bank and Gaza Strip into bantustans.

If Israel is not willing to pay the political cost of eradicating Hamas, it will likely to come to some sort of practical accommodation with them as the de facto proto-state in Gaza. I think the Israelis are looking for a third way at the moment.

> 2. What does Hamas hope
> to gain by firing rockets
> into Israel in the first
> place? Such action would
> obviously draw retaliation
> from Israel. They couldn’t
> have been waiting for some
> pan-Arab or global response
> against Israel. Such strategy
> has failed miserably in the past.

Hamas hopes to force Israel into a cease-fire that would allow it to have open borders that would facilitate trade and allow the resumption of economic life in the strip. Israel refuses to do this unless Hamas renounces is rhetoric of destroying Israel and renounces violence. Hamas isn't willing so far to pay this price for peace. Hamas, simply put, isn't Fatah. I personally doubt that Hamas will perform the requisite kowtow, not quickly, anyway. They show every indication to me of wishing to die on their feet, rather than live on their knees.

Basically, the Israelis will either accept a peace in which Hamas is not a supplicant, or they will have to destroy Hamas. But they won't get Hamas to stop harassing suburbanites in the area along the Gaza Strip for cheap. But the Israelis are not going to cave for cheap, either. So they'll have a pissing war.

> I saw question 2 asked on
> MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last
> week, and the response was
> that Hamas was just an Iranian
> client, and doing Iran’s
> bidding by attacking Israel.
> Is that true, or is it just
> another example of vilifying
> Iran, status quo in America
> for decades.

Well, Shawn, I think it's really important to understand that suburbanites in the U.S. need a story that makes sense for their worldview. No one likes all this complex history, this tedious analysis. So why not portray Middle Eastern politics as the timeless struggle of irrationality and fanaticism against the American way of life? It's a satisfying story that can generate fun Hollywood spin-offs. It's really perfect for the audience's needs.

It's not like reporters are that intelligent, Shawn. They, too, need to make sense of this. I mean, you're not going to ask them to memorize key terms and write essays in advance of going out to the field, are you? Only an asshole asks people to do that. Reality is supposed to be easy to understand.

You can't supply people with easy answers to difficult questions if you stay hung up with useless standards like "historical accuracy" and "rigorous analysis." If you're going to make an omelet, Shawn, you're going to have to break some eggs.

StLee said...

Watched my favorite political shout fest this morning - The McLaughlin Group. How's this for a soundbite: "The Vatican said that the situation in Gaza is resembling that of a concentration camp." - Wow!

Cuphound said...

The Vatican is one of the few groups who remember that while there are no Christian Jews in Palestine, there are Christian Arabs. The problem for American Protestants is that there are virtually no references to Arabs in the Bible. Jews can fit into their worldview because they are in the Bible and American Protestants often feel more of a kinship with Jews in Israel who remind them of the Israelites than they do with Christians in Palestine, who get no textual endorsement.

Identity is seriously fucked up.

But yeah, Gaza is really, really fucked right now. Things there have definitely gotten worse since Oslo.

StLee said...

Wanted to ask your opinion about the President Obama’s address yesterday.

I particularly liked that he addressed the “Muslim World” directly. The “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist” line was especially good, even as just a piece of rhetoric because it was all things to all people, appealing to foreign policy hawks and doves simultaneously. I hope that the statement would go for Israel, as well. But since the USA has already more than "extended its hand to Israel", it is unlikely that President Obama will ask Israel to "unclench their fists" too.
But it is the beginning of a new presidential administration, and like the beginning of anything – New Year, Fall Semester, baseball season, optimisms and resolutions abound –“This is time it’s gonna be different…this our year!” etc. And I'm kind of caught up in it myself.

Found it amazingly cynical or is it pragmatic, that the IDF was getting pulled out of Gaza as a new president was preparing to take office. Way to milk the last drop out of the Bush presidency, don’t know what this Gaza adventure accomplished though.

DTNZ said...

This is one of the most intelligent and insightful takes on the middle east conflict I have ever read.

The question absolutely is why after so many thousands of years, are Jews and Muslims NOT living in peace like they used to.

I think part of this is external influences. The US, the Arab League, the more hardline elements of each that DO NOT live in the middle east have a LOT of explaining to do.

EG. the jewish ultra orthodox community of australia have a LOT to answer for. They send MILLIONS of dollars to Israel to elect those hardliners who sustain the conflict.

As such - Muslim hardliners do the same thing.

It is almost like they WANT the conflict - ignorant of the fact that they live in their pluralistically secure lives in Oz and US.

I try to get my head around this issue - but as a progressive jew - it does my head in.

Neither can live without the other now - they are economically and socially intertwined with each other.

It really is Isaac and Ishmael - but with laser guided weapons.

I am sad.

Anonymous said...

Hi Talal! (This is Marzieh)
I just found your blog and saw this entry. Do you remember the next set of questions I asked you? I know you're busy and we got distracted from that conversation but I'd love to return to it sometime. I have the email still. email me! (mgoudarzi@oxy.edu)