If Civilization is Worth Doing, it’s Worth Doing Badly

Historian Arnold Toynbee takes the long view–the very long view, on the fall of Rome.  We think of Rome as a grand empire, but Toynbee reminds us both in his book Hellenism, and in Hannibal’s Legacy, that Rome originally organized itself very much like other Greek city-states.  The early Roman Republic was essentially a polis.  As they grew in size, the political dynamics changed until little to nothing remained of its more democratic past.  But if we think of Rome as a “Republic” first and foremost, we should place the decline of Rome somewhere in the transition between the 3rd-2nd cenutry B.C. at the absolute latest.*

Toynbee takes this approach because he sees civilizations operating in a spiritual sense.  He focuses on the beliefs, the internal coherence, the relationships between different groups in society, and so on.  He has long sections in volumes five and six of his multi-volume A Study of History on the “schism in the soul” present in declining civilizations, which might strike one with a more materialist bent as rather absurd.

Niall Ferguson takes a different approach, and I believe that I see common themes in his books, Civilization, Colossus, and Empire.  Ferguson sees civilization running on various physical platforms, such as the quality of roads, a good sewer system, and a good way of gathering and using tax revenue.**  He eschewed the idea of slow, steady decline–or at least one that we could observe in any meaningful way.  For him, the system works until suddenly it doesn’t, and no one can really predict when it will stop working. This explains why no one saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming, or various stock-market crashes.  The collapses, when they come, will therefore come out of the blue suddenly.

Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Socieities is a short, dense, book about a difficult subject. Tainter does a good job with his argument, which I admit even I though I disagree with some of his basic premises.

His argument boils down to a few key points:

  • Major civilizations tend to experience an early period of rapid growth through the ‘low hanging fruit’ of available territory, resources, etc.
  • This growth inevitably leads to specialization, stratification, and complexity which initially serves growth–though this “low-hanging fruit” won’t last forever.
  • The civilization plateau’s and the structure established to help it grow becomes an inextricable  part of society just at the moment that it is no longer really needed.
  • When the ‘low hanging fruit’ disappears, further expansion (be it territorial, trade-oriented) becomes less and less profitable, and eventually starts to work against the civilization.
  • Finally, the complex structure gets too unwieldy, a ball and chain, as the state has to spend more and more to get less and less. But now we depend on the structure.   It has become too big to fail, but like a house of cards, easy to knock over.

Tainter supports his theory well from civilizations across time, and uses very obvious info, like territory, and some other more unusual information, like crop yields, colonial administrations, and so on. No doubt there are many lessons for economists here.

But, while his book is valuable, it has big holes.

In his quest for absolute objectivity, he rejects all value-judgment theories of collapse. If you can’t measure it, it’s not useful. We can never be sure exactly a civilization really believes, and even if we could, it is not an objective field of study, so has nothing to contribute to the study of collapse. After a brief summary of  the work of people like Gibbon, Toynbee, Spengler, and others he dismisses them with a wave of his hand. But as C.S. Lewis once pointed out, very few people are actually German economists. Any study of history must involve people, which will involve more than graphs on paper.

This over-emphasizing of economics shows up in what is actually a thought-provoking idea. What happens after collapse, he argues, may actually be beneficial to society, because it removes a great deal of inefficiency that the old system labored under. Collapse, might be the cleansing forest fires of history, events to almost welcome.

This sounds good on paper, but no actual human being who lived through collapses would have agreed with him. Imagine living in Western Europe ca. 550 AD and thinking, “Boy, I sure am glad for the fall of Rome. Of course, our ramshackle village could be overrun, destroyed, and our people pillaged who knows when by some Goth, Ostrogoth, Visigoth, Vandal, Hun, or some other kind of Goth I have forgotten about. But I’ll take that any day over the economic inefficiency of the late Roman Empire.”

To augment Chesterton’s oft-quoted phrase (If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” “If civilization is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”

Dave

 

*I love and admire Toynbee for many reasons.  But in some places he puts the decline of Rome at 431 B.C. (!), the same year as the outbreak of the Pelopponesian War in Greece.  He does this mostly because he sees much more similarity than difference between Greece and Rome.  One can make that argument, and he does so decently in his Recollections, but to carry it so far as to say that Rome began declining when Athens hit the wall goes way too far.

**In some ways the difference between Toynbee and Ferguson boils down, as (almost) always, to the differences between Plato and Aristotle.  Both are great–I prefer Toynbee and Plato.

Epilogue

I almost always find Toynbee stimulating, and I include some of his collected thoughts on the fall of Rome . . .

It is indeed, one of the tragic ironies that the idealists that arise within the ruling class should tread the same path of social migration as the wastrels.  The Graachi worked far greater havoc through a nobility [in the late Republic] to which someone like Commodus could never aspire. Commodus did far less damage by his own social truancy [i.e., pretending to be Hercules, fighting in the arena, etc.], by engaging in a vulgarity that represents a spiritual malaise, to which the Graachi would never fall.  

By their ‘downward migration’ towards the plebs, the Graachi incurred the wrath of their fellows, who punished them severely for abandoning their class privilege.  Commodus is uneventfully swallowed by the slough in which he delighted to wallow, whereas the Graachi released a kind of demonic energy into the masses of Rome.

*********

Seneca writes ca. A.D. 60 concerning the social function of the Emperor in one of his treatises. . .

 

“He is the bond that holds the Commonwealth together, he is the breath of life is breathed by his subjects, who in themselves would be nothing but a burden and a prey if they were left to their own devices through the removal of a presence which is the soul of the Empire.

 

Their king is safe?  One mind informs them all;

Lost?  They break faith straightway.

*********

If this calamity, written about by Vergil in his Georgics (IV, 212-13), which he imagines overtaking the bees, would overtake us, the people would be safe so long as it does not snap the reins, or–if they refuse to be bridled again.  Should this happen–then the texture of this mighty empire would be rent and its present tidiness would fly apart into a hundred shreds. Rome will cease to rule the moment they cease to render obedience.”

A foretaste of the fulfillment of the prophecy that Seneca made to the Emperor Nero was inflicted on the Roman world in A.D. 68-69 as an immediate result of Nero’s tyranny; but the first time round this calamity acted as a stimulus, for after the chaos Rome got Vespasian as emperor and relative calm.  Though Domitian (d. A.D. 96) tried his utmost to revive the chaos by claiming deity for himself, the tide was turned by a series of beneficial philosopher emperors who succeeded one another from Nerva (A.D. 96) through Marcus Aurelius (d. A.D. 180).

It was only after Marcus that the new “time of troubles” set in, and even then foolishness of Commodus managed to right itself after the civil wars of Severus, who repeated Vespasian’s work, though with a rougher and less skilled hand.  It was only after the death of Alexander Severus (A.D. 235) that the storm broke with shattering and uncontrollable violence.

*********

And finally, some of his thoughts on the drawn out length of Roman decline:

In the downward course of a civilization there is truth in the saying of the philosopher Heraclitus: “War is the father of all things.”  The sinister concentration of the resources of a civilization upon the business of fratricidal warfare may generate a military prowess that will place their neighbors at their mercy, may create a military technique that may grant them a far reaching technical mastery over the merely “Material World.”   

Since it is common to reckon success primarily by power and wealth, the opening chapters in the decline of a civilization will be hailed as times of blessing and growth, and this misconception can persist even for centuries.  Sooner or later, however, disillusionment is bound to follow, for a society that is hopelessly divided against itself is almost certain to try and double down on military might, for that is what seemed to work initially.

For example, we see the money-power and man-power won for Greek society by Alexander the Great, and these same vast resources used to intensify the civil wars between Alexander’s successors.  This same power swept into Roman hands through the meteoric rise in Rome’s land and wealth ca. 241-146 B.C. was just as quickly spent in the various civil wars that wracked Rome before the rise of Augustus and the Pax Romana.  For Spain, the treasure gained in the new world and the free labor of the essentially enslaved native populations was the food for their wars in Europe during the late 16th and early 17th centuries–the same wars that brought them into second-rate power status in Europe.

Thus the increasing command over the environment gained is apt to bestow upon a society a disintegration that puts a greater driving power into the suicidally demented society’s chosen work of self-destruction; and that story turns out to be a simple illustration of the theme that, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  And again, the empires of industrialized Europe in the late 19th century gained the material resources to nearly destroy European civilization in our great Western civil war of 1914-18.

[Toynbee goes on to argue at length that Augustan synthesis bought Rome time, and brought Rome increased prosperity, nevertheless, it was an “Indian Summer” that lasted about 175 years that did nothing to fix Rome’s basic issues or  prevent the coming winter.]

 

 

 

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Oligarchies, Expansion, and a “Time of Troubles”

I posted this originally back in 2012.  While I could have added some new thoughts to the post I wrote directly on Eric Voegelin’s Science Politics, and Gnosticism (found here), I thought it better to include in this post as a sub-set on the idea of territorial expansion.

It may very well be that to read Eric Voegelin is to be confused.  I have had my struggles with his book Order and History: The Ecumenic Age.  But, remembering that he made a special study of gnostic ideas and philosophy, I found his thoughts on the origins of Gnosticism and its relation to territorial expansion very intriguing.

Gnosticism has many permutations, but at its core it propounds an opposition of matter and spirit, the soul and the body, and so on.  Some biblical scholars believe that the Apostle John may be attempting to counter Gnosticism in his epistles. Those who have read St. Augustine’s Confessions know that he involved himself in the gnostic ideas of Manicheism before converting to Christianity.  But gnosticism as a general philosophy pre-dates the coming of Christ by many centuries. Voegelin writes on its origins,

The genetic context to which I refer is the interaction between expansion of empire and differentiation of consciousness.  In pragmatic history, Gnosticism arises from six centuries of imperial expansion and civilizational destruction (p. 21).

Thus, we may assume that gnostic ideas had their roots in the first great ecumenic empire of the Persians, and this fits with the Zoroastrianism and its adoption by Darius I as the semi-official religion of his court.

As to the “why” behind the link between expansion and Gnosticism, I am less able to penetrate Voegelin’s thoughts.  But I believe that we can surmise the following:

  • Significant expansion destroys our sense of proportion.  If the empire is everywhere, it is nowhere.
  • Lacking perspective, we lack attachment to place.  Without attachment to place, we lose our attachment to creation itself.  As an old Irish proverb states (I’m not quoting exactly), “Those who travel much lose their faith.”
  • The power that comes with empire inflates one’s sense of self and distances us from others.  As Chesterton stated, one should pray in valleys, not mountaintops.

Related to the original post below, the disconnect from creation might form the spiritual basis of the problems faced by expansion.

Having recently glanced over The Goebbels Diaries I wondered —  did Hitler’s refusal to allow Rommel to withdraw at El Alamein, and his “fight to the last bullet” order to Von Paulus at Stalingrad arise not from hope of victory but desire for the extinguishing of matter?  As Germany’s territory increased, Hitler seemed more focused on a “refining” cataclysm for creation than in actual victory.  Once separated from creation, we come to hate it, with death as the (perceived) only escape.

And now, the original post . . .

Reading Explorers of the Nile spurred on a thought experiment.

While I have not been overly compelled by the story, there have been several interesting tidbits.  Regardless of one’s feelings toward the Victorian age in general, or the Brits in particular, one can’t help but admire the sheer will and energy of the second great wave of western exploration (the first being in the 15th-early 16th centuries via the Atlantic).  Many hundreds of men risked everything for the sheer thrill of discovery, and yes, for the glory of it as well.  In the early phases from ca. 1840-1860’s, most of this exploration seemed to me to have a generally innocent tinge to it.  The more acquisitive imperialism came later.

This energy and striving for glory reminded me of late Republic Rome, and the quote from Sallust in The Jurgurthine War, which reads,

I have often heard that Quintus Maximus Publius Scipio, and other distinguished men of our country were accustomed to declare that, whenever they looked on the masks of their ancestors, their hearts were set aflame in the pursuit of virtue [i.e. worthy deeds].  Of course they did not mean that the wax or the effigy had any power over them, but it is the memory of great achievements that kindles a flame in the breasts of eminent men that cannot be extinguished until their own excellence has come to rival the reputation and glory of their forefathers.

It struck me that it was during the later phase of the Republic that Rome grew the most in size.  If we look at a map of the Mediterranean at the beginning of the first Punic War in 264 B.C. . . .

Mediterranean, 264 BC

we see that Rome, though decent in size, does not dominate.  They have their sphere, along with Carthage, Egypt, Macedon, etc.

If we fast-forward 100 years we get a different picture, and as the map below indicates, Rome continues to grow almost geometrically down to the death of Caesar in 44 B.C.

Roman Growth Timeline

While Rome had a Republic at this time, I agree with Toynbee that while the government had democratic elements, it was for all intents and purposes an oligarchy.  The aristocratic senate dominated policy, however much voting by the masses took place.

Is there a connection then, between oligarchic democracies and expansion?  As time marched on from Charles I, England did by fits and starts become more democratic.  But 19th century England surely was not democracy in our sense of the word, and instead like the Republic showed strong oligarchic tinges.  As a monarchy, England’s overseas holdings were modest compared with the rest of the world, ca. 1800. . .

Colonisation, 1800

But a century later, after more democracy (while still having an oligarchy) and we see a different scene:

British Empire, 1920

As in late Republic in Rome, we have a near doubling in size.  Of course, something similar could be said of the other major European powers during the same time, many of them become more democratic after 1848, though again, like England, not fully so until after W.W. I.

Two examples do not really suffice to prove the connection.  But three will!

America gets accused of being an imperial power, but I think the charge false in our current, strongly democratic time.  It might have had more merit in the more oligarchic 19th century, however.

America, 1800:

America, 1800

America, 1900:

When America became more democratic in the 20th century, our expansion rapidly slowed.  Now, to be fair, we acquired Louisiana “fairly” from France by buying it, and Alaska fair and square from Russia.  But the same cannot be said for the Philippines, or the vast territory taken from Indians, including territory in Louisiana.  Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant thought that our war with Mexico in 1846 to be manifestly unjust.

If we believe Thucydides, and call Athenian democracy in its golden age really a Pericles-led oligarchy of the best (a claim, to be fair, disputed by the great classicist Donald Kagan), we again see this principle of growth.  In 490 B.C. Athens stood as one city-state among many.  Not so 50 years later. . .

Map, Athenian Empire 431 B.C.

As to why oligarchic democracies have such expansionistic tendencies, I cannot say.  Perhaps it can be the subject of another post filled with wild theories.  But it does seem clear that this period of expansion leads to a “Time of Troubles,” for all parties involved.

For England and the rest of Europe, expansion gave way to the two World Wars.  America had its Civil War, caused largely by the exacerbation of the slavery issue.  The inflaming of the slavery question in its turn had its roots in the Mexican-American war in 1846.  Athens and the Greek world faced the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.).  Though the proximate causes and results of these conflicts differ, they each have an age of expansion to precede it.

Any thoughts from anyone else, with more examples, or a connection between oligarchic democracies and expansion, are heartily welcome.

Blessings,

Dave

The Emperor Might Need New Clothes

Some months ago my students and I came across a remarkable passage in Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention.  The delegates debated some issue about term limits or representation, when one of the lesser known men commented that, in effect, “this constitution will last us about 75 years, after which we will have to make a new one.”*

This comment passed apparently without much notice or fuss.  Perhaps it was a generally assumed idea, or perhaps they simply had enough trouble in the moment to worry about arguing whether or not their document would last past their grandchildren.

This shocked everyone in class because we think of America like any other country, a more or less solid oak in the earth.  Of course, we have also been brought up with political rhetoric from both parties that venerates the constitution (though perhaps different parts of it).   Because Americans share little besides some form of faith in the constitution, if that shakes, we all fall down.

Because American history has many unique aspects, I find getting an interpretive handle on our past very difficult.  I have taught American History for about 15 years and have only some educated and less than educated guesses.  Clearly, however, politically and culturally we are currently shifting in some direction or another at the moment.  How should we make sense of it?

One of the more remarkable periods of positive dynamic change occurred in Greece between the years ca. 800-500 B.C.  We know about the Bronze Age, but sometime after the Trojan War Greece descended into a dark age about which we know very little.  Perhaps Homer was the beginning of the rebirth.  Early on in his The Economic and Social Growth of Early Greece: 800-500 B.C. Chester Starr makes an interesting point.  Definite ideas or concepts like “equality” or “rights” did not guide the Greeks ca. 800 B.C.  Rather, the concept of eunomia, or “traditional right” formed the basis of Greek social and political interaction.  Sometimes they invoked eunomia against abuse of power by tyrants or aristocrats, at other times aristocrats invoked it rightly against the “mob.”  This flexibility surely gave them good ground on which to innovate.

This stands in contrast to our history.  We founded America on ideas, whether because we thought that the best way to go, or because we had no other choice.  We often agreed on the results we wanted, but rarely on the “why” of that result.  Even early colonial America had a great deal of cultural diversity, at least by 17th century measurements.  We have never really had a shared culture to build upon, except perhaps for a vague sense of Protestantism.

Starr goes to demonstrate that the creation of the much admired political unit of the city-state had at least part of its origins in the desire of the aristocracy to concentrate its power.  Later, asPericles of Athens we know, democracy arose in many Greek city-states, a tribute to the aforementioned flexibility.  But many Greek democracies still had their aristocratic imprint.  The outstanding reformer Pericles made Athens more democratic while definitely living and fashioning himself as an aristocrat, and not as a “man of the people.” His bust makes this clear.

All good things come to end, and the Greek system had played itself out by the time of Alexander, who had little trouble putting it to rest.  Still, all in all, a good run by any measure, one too that makes sense in some clearly defined stages.

In light of Greek history and our own, I offer some some highly speculative thoughts . . .

Theory 1

Since early colonization America has gone through several iterations:

  • Colonial America – 1600-1756
  • Revolutionary America – 1756-1828
  • Jacksonian America – 1828-1860
  • Progressive America – 1860-1929
  • New Deal America – 1929-1965
  • Global Power America – 1965-2001
  • ???

Obviously some of these dates can be disputed and overlap.  Basically, Theory 1 asserts that because America has been rooted in ideas and not culture/tradition, we subject ourselves to significant shifts every 2-3 generations (the first phase doesn’t really count, as we had no concept of an American “nation” until the mid 1700’s).  We can reinterpret our common language on the fly and create “new Americas” every so often–though of course each era has some connections to past eras.  This ability has its strengths and weaknesses.

This theory, if true, may comfort us now because the the shifting ground beneath our feet will settle again as it has for previous generations.  We’ve done this before, we can do it again.

Theory 2 . . .

proposes more unity for the majority of American history.  Yes, some cultural and political shifts happened over time.  But we consistently maintained faith in the democratic process, and in our reason for being.  Even in the Civil War, the Confederacy broke away not out of a rejection of the American ideal, but out of a belief that they represented the true America.  We had “confidence,” that crucial element of any civilization, even in the midst of our most profound domestic crisis.

But something significant happened in 1965.**  In this year we passed the Voting Rights Act, which could be viewed as the apotheosis of what America was supposed to be.  In this year also we dramatically increased our involvement in Vietnam, again, in some ways I think, out of a belief that this was what we were “supposed” to do.  We increased our troop presence initially at least with the general backing of Congress and the population at large.

However, almost immediately after we passed the Voting Rights Act the riots in Watts began.  Rioting continued sporadically in many major cities for the next few years.  Perhaps this was pure coincidence, but I think not, though I would not claim to really understand the reasons for the violence.  But I think that part of the reason might be an intuition that we had “done all we could do,” but that it wasn’t enough.  The supreme confidence we had in our democratic way of life taught us that things would always improve, but now we knew better.  Shortly after our troop surge in Vietnam waves of self-doubt began surging through the country.

The two phenomena are likely connected, though I’m not sure how.

Along with this, the counter-culture “hippie” movement went mainstream into popular culture and eventually most of academia.  Western icons like the Beatles went to India to learn see the world in a non-western way.  We lost confidence in our own culture, and we have not regained it.    We had never agreed fully on the why we did what we did, but we had agreed on what we did.  After this era we could no longer claim this for ourselves, and this makes the modern shift much different than others in our history.  The lack of political flexibility may have hastened the at least seeming collapse of the principles that guided us.  Some of the “vomiting up” of our past in some areas of our culture seems willfully self-induced.^

Recently The Guardian ran a great article about Tory MP Rory Stewart.  Stewart got a great education and attempted on two occasions to serve in difficult postings in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His comments say much about the state of the western world:

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. “And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

They are nothing more, Stewart now acknowledges, than tautologies. “They pretend to be a plan, but they’re actually just a description of an absence. Saying ‘What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption’ is just another way of saying: ‘It’s really dangerous and corrupt.’ None of that actually tells you how it’s done.”

And later,

In some sense I’m a romantic. I like the idea of organic history and tradition. But I think Britain is such a different place now, and changing so quickly, that I’m coming slowly, painfully, to accept that we need to start again.

I emphasize that these comments come not from a reactionary revisionist Liberal, but a member of England’s conservative party.

If we agree that we need to “start again,” in some way, will we agree on where to start from, and where we wish to go?

Dave

 

*My apologies, I have looked back and forth for this comment and cannot find it again to save my life.

**A possible counter-date might be the end of W.W. II.  As Arnold Toynbee regretfully admitted, democracies are not well-equipped to handle something like nuclear weapons, though, so far so good on that score.

^Trump gets rightly accused for excessive negativity, but why does no one focus on the obvious negativity from the Left?  Here is Clive Crook, via Marginal Revolution . . . 

Trump’s critics complain about his relentless invoking of crisis — despite agreeing with him that the system is collapsing. Conservatives keep telling us that the American project is in mortal danger, that liberty itself is at stake. Liberals keep telling us that global capitalism is wrecking everything that’s decent in society, that the U.S. is institutionally racist, and America’s traditional values are so much hypocrisy. I think back to the rapturous reception accorded by the left in 2014 to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital,” which argued, you may recall, that capitalism is an engine of injustice, headed for self-destruction; progressives everywhere nodded wisely in agreement. Here’s what puzzles many of them today: Why does Trump have to be so negative?

Relic

The Introduction to Relic opens this way:

American government is dysfunctional . . . .  As a decision-maker Congress is inexcusably bad . . . utterly incapable of taking responsible, effective action . . .

So why is this happening?  The common view is that Congress’ problems are due to the polarization of the [political] parties over the last few decades.  By this rendering, if the nation could move towards a more moderate brand of politics–say by reforming primary elections or campaign finance–Congress could get back to the way it functioned in the good old when it (allegedly) did a fine job of making public policy.

But this isn’t so.  . . . The brute reality is that the good old days were not good. . . . Congress’ most fundamental inadequacies are not due to polarization.  Nor are they of recent vintage.  Congress is irresponsible largely because it is wired to be that way–and it’s wiring is due to Constitutional design.

[Congress’] pathologies are not really of it’s own making.  They are rooted in the Constitution, and it is the Constitution that is the fundamental problem.

I have concerns over the growth of presidential power in the last few generations, but . . . I love it 41XKcNSIeQLwhen writers undertake such magnificent and almost dashing glove-slaps to our received wisdom.  Authors William Howell and Terry Moe teach at the University of Chicago and Stanford respectively, so this is not a talk-show rant.  They write with an apolitical bent for the most part and take a broad view.  They focus on clarity and concision and don’t try and dazzle us with their erudition.

I don’t think I agree with them, but I admire their efforts.  We need more books with these strengths.

Their basic argument runs as follows:

Before the Revolutionary War each colony acted almost entirely independently of one another.  No one had any idea of a “United States of America.”  During the war we created the Articles of Confederation, which, while it created a national government, made it exceedingly weak.

This then, is their first main point.  Yes, the Constitution created a stronger national government–but not that strong.  We have to understand the Constitution’s grant of executive power not in a vacuum but in relation to the Articles of Confederation.  The Constitution still allowed for states to have the pre-eminent place in people’s hearts.*

The design of our federal government reflects this by giving nearly all the most important powers to Congress.  This in turn makes it very difficult to enact national policy.  This was not a mistake.  This is the exact intention of most of the founders (though not all, such as Alexander Hamilton, who argued for a much stronger executive at the Constitutional Convention).

When we manage to create a national policy, such policies get diluted, confusing, and sometimes absurd because of the fact that all laws have to come through Congress.  Everyone wants their piece of pork, everyone needs something to crow about.   The confusion of many laws, and the expense needed to enforce them, weakens government, expands bureaucracy, and lowers quality of life.  Again, the authors don’t blame Congress for this.  Our representatives have job of representing their districts, not the national interest.

The authors argue that Congress has never solved a national problem.  It has either taken either national emergencies (like war, disasters, etc.) or unusually shrewd or charismatic presidents to get Congress to move.  They concede that perhaps our form of government worked in the pre-industrial era when towns remained largely isolated from one another (though Congress certainly could not solve the slavery issue, the biggest contributor to the Civil War). But the Industrial Revolution created a new country that drew the states much closer together.  We now think of ourselves as “Americans” and need national policies on a consistent basis.  Again, we should not say that Congress will not solve them. Congress cannot solve them, just as pigs can’t fly.  We have, in fact, many problems on the horizon that have existed for decades that Congress will never solve, such as Social Security reform, the tax code, the national debt, and so on.  And while the American Revolution inspired a variety of democratic movements across the globe, no one has copied our system of government.**  This should tell us something.

Their solution mirrors the simplicity of their writing.  They know that rewriting the Constitution is impossible, and officially amending it very difficult.  Instead they seek “fast-track” authority for certain kinds of legislation.

Lest we deride their analysis as overblown, the authors point out that we already recognize the foolishness of our constitutional design with international treaties and trade agreements.  We give the president power to negotiate such agreements without congressional interference.  Presidents then can present them to Congress for a simple “yes”/”no” vote.

The authors propose that we simply allow presidents to submit legislation to Congress involving national policy for this kind of yes/no vote.  No pork, no earmarks, no preferments, no deals. Congress needs to keep its diseased hands away from issues like the national debt, health-care, and national defense. If such laws passed they would have the clarity and unity needed for effective policy.

That’s it.  No fuss, no muss.  It preserves the Constitutional role for Congress and merely expands slightly the powers of the executive.

The authors write with great force, but part of me wonders, has it really been so bad?  Sure, the separation of powers brings problems, but America has a top notch military, technological innovation, a leading economy, a high standard of living, and so on.  Yes, we have difficult social issues, but we also have much greater challenges in this regard than most other nations.  Ok, we have rocky outcroppings in many parts of our history, but so too do other modern democracies.

It’s hard to disagree, however, that Congress annoys us like no other branch of government.

As much as I enjoyed the book, the authors missed the root question.  Of course their suggestion would make government more efficient and policy more workable.  The authors argue that their proposed alteration involves no real philosophical issue.  We simply need something that works.  Wanting a dishwasher that works, for example, need not involve politics, philosophy, or theology.

Part of my hesitation to jump in with the authors, however, lies with just these concerns.  We should concern ourselves with more than whether or not something works.  We should consider the implications of increased executive power.  Many of the founders were philosophers as well as practical politicians.  We owe it to our past to at least consider such things before going far beyond what they intended.

Dave

*I wonder if the authors would have agreed with Napoleon’s assessment of America while in exile on St. Helena in 1816.  Napoleon foresaw the Civil War, among other things.  He commented,

What is needed for national defense? Unity and permanence in government. America remains united for now due to their common interest of their emancipation from the English crown. But their existence as a great nation was impeded by their federal constitution. A dissonance exists between northern and southern states which reflects on the weakness of the federal principle. Either the national government will be strengthened by conquest, or else national unity will be broken by local interests and commercial rivalries.

**This is a good point, but America also had a unique historical situation that preceded their revolution.

The Three Languages of Politics

Like many of you, I feel frustrated at the polarization of politics today.  Some of this polarization comes with the territory of democracy, but some of it I feel results from failures in technique and imagination.

Classical rhetoricians used the term “stasis” to refer to the situation in an argument where both sides argue about the same thing.  If an issue did not achieve “stasis” the argument would get nowhere because the rhetorical ships would pass in the night.

For example, you may have observed this lack of stasis in the abortion debate, where the sides argue in circles similar to this example:

  • Pro-Life – Governments should protect those who cannot protect themselves.  They should give a voice to those without a voice.   Governments must stand for the defense of innocent lives if we want to call ourselves civilized.
  • Pro-Choice – Decisions about our families and our futures are some of the most private and personal decisions one can make.  If we wish to avoid any tendency towards a totalitarian regime, we must keep government out of our most private decisions.

Both sides of the abortion debate could hypothetically agree with both statements in different contexts, thus, an argument with these two premises would spin its wheels.  Ironically, most on the “Pro-Life” side are conservatives, but the argument used above has a distinctly Progressive tinge.  Most “Pro-Choice” advocates might usually reside in the Progressive wing of politics, but when they use arguments like the one above they sound just like Libertarians.

I would suggest a Pro-Life argument that went something like. . .

In general, governments have no business making decisions about our bodies.  What we wear, what we eat, whether or not to get a tattoo–no one who values a free society would want government involved in such things.

However, we do give governments the power to make decisions about our bodies when our actions pose a threat to others.  We ban drinking and driving.  We ban the use of various drugs.  These kinds of laws have a good purpose because they protect innocent lives.  If we protect citizens against drunk drivers, how much more should we protect the unborn?

This is just one possible example of stasis on this issue, though no doubt many better ones exist.  Please feel free to share whatever examples you might have.

In his book The Three Languages of Politics author Arnold Kling addresses the problem of a lack of stasis in our political debate and points to one reason for this.  He argues that we speak three different kinds of political language currently, each with its own vocabulary and coded language.  One goal for the book is to expose others to these three different languages and and make us aware of the various worldviews these languages represent.

I mentioned earlier that a failure of stasis in debate can be traced in part to a failure of imagination, and this leads to Kilng’s second main goal.  To achieve stasis we have to learn to use the languages of those we disagree with, and have to enter into their worlds in order to do so.  This does not mean that we abandon our convictions, but it will mean that we reframe in different modes of thought with different emphasis.  This requires a willingness at times to fall down a rabbit hole, but you will actually have a chance of talking to people rather than at them.  Granted, this won’t bring the NRA and NOW to the hallowed halls of Shambala, but it might start something.

Kling starts his book with a quiz designed to help one to discover their own political language, something like a political personality test.  Some of the questions are Kling’s, some are mine.  Of course you may not like either of the three options offered, or may want to combine answers to create a hybrid.  For the purposes of the exercise, however, circle just one letter for each question.

To score the quiz, make three sections on a piece of paper, labeled “P,” “C,” and “L” and follow the guidelines below when you are done.

Gun violence at schools primarily reveals

A. The need for teachers to be armed to fight back.

B. The need for society to have more control over the mentally ill.

C. The need to curtail the power of the gun lobby.

2. If I were honest about myself, the kind of political ad that would appeal to me most would include

A. Pictures of farms, flags, and hallowed documents like the Constitution.

B. Scenes of ordinary Americans from all walks of life working together.

C. A statement about our financial status and clear plan to help reduce spending.

3. During the 1940’s many ordinary Germans committed atrocities against Jews.  This shows us

A. The dangers of a totalitarian system of government

B. The dangers of a collapse of moral values when a country’s institutions have been corrupted and compromised

C. The dangers of anti-Semitism

4. When the issue of tax law comes up, what question is most important?

A. How will the laws impact and reward people get for hard work and thrift?

B. Does government spend money more or less wisely than individuals?

C. How will changes in law impact the growing gap of inequality?

5. What is notable about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is that

A. Israelis share many of the same values as Americans

B. The Palestinians are an oppressed people

C. Israel, the Palestinians, other Arab and western governments, all share blame for this tragedy.

6. The wave of mortgage defaults known as the “sub-prime crisis” was caused by mortgage loans that were

A. Given to unqualified and undeserving borrowers

B. Government induced

C. Predatory

7. The large number of unwed mothers with low income reflects that

A. Lack of economic opportunities and education

B. Cultural decay, which overvalues sexual gratification and undervalues marital responsibility

C. Incentives built into our tax and welfare system that can reward bad behavior

8. Since 9/11, Presidents have used controversial powers, such as warrantless surveillance and targeted killings.  What do you think of the use of these powers?

A. Because Islamic terrorism is such a difficult and dangerous problem, I support the use of these powers to protect Americans.

B. I am against the use of these powers on principle.

C. I am not sure about these powers, but I am willing to trust the Obama administration more than the Bush administration on the exercise of them.

9. When teaching the history of the United States, the most important goal should be

A. To have the student develop an appreciation for all that makes America great, especially by focusing on the leadership of people like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

B. To have the student realize that our country is far from perfect, and has abused the rights of minorities in numerous ways.  We show our greatness as nation most clearly by reforming ourselves and remedying our past mistakes.

C. To have the student appreciate the vital role of American individualism and self-reliance in making our country free and prosperous.

10. If I was visiting the Mall downtown, the most important place to go would be

A. The Capitol, where the representatives of ordinary citizens sit and debate.

B. The Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorials

C. I wouldn’t want to visit at all.  With its hallowed halls and marble monuments, the Mall downtown encourages a dangerous reverence for government.

11. Which most accurately describes your view of the Press?

A. The Press often functions as an enemy of our civilization, as it artificially makes the margins of society “mainstream” with a distinct liberal bias.

B. The Press works best when it serves as a tool to keep government in check by exposing corruption and abuse of power.

C. The Press works best when it finds societies problems and puts them into public view, thereby giving the organs of representative government a chance to fix the problem.

12.  Of the following, who was the best president?

A. Theodore Roosevelt

B. Calvin Coolidge

C. Ronald Reagan

13. Which most accurately describes your feelings about free markets?

A. Government intervention in the market is counter-productive every time.  The market, unregulated, is one of the best tools of freedom we have.

B. Some form of free market must exist, but government should intervene to minimize the aspects of the market that exploit the poor and create vast gaps in equality.

C. The free market is in general a great tool for a free society, but government should strongly regulate/ban certain items from being sold, like drugs, pornography, and other socially/morally disruptive products.

14. Which most accurately describe your feelings about the War on Drugs?

A. The War on Drugs has failed most notably in that most of those in jail are the poor and underprivileged of society.  Whatever our original aims may have been, the War on Drugs has done little besides incarcerating poor minorities for a host of minor offenses.

B. The War on Drugs has been in some instances a war on what should be personal freedom, and at times it has also been a misguided attempt to enforce purely cultural mores.  It has also costs billions of dollars with little to show for it.

C. The War on Drugs has not had the success we hoped for, but it remains a noble fight with a noble cause.  Drugs ravage lives and communities everywhere, and government rightly acts to try and stop their scourge.

15. Which Most Accurately Describes You?

A. My heroes are people who have stood up for underprivileged and oppressed people.  The people I cannot stand are those who seem to care nothing for the rights of average citizens as opposed to the privileged few, or ethnic and religious minorities.

B. My heroes are people who have stood up for Western values and the beneficial civilizations these values  help create. The people I cannot stand are those who don’t mind, or even encourage, the wanton assault on the traditional values that have made this country great.

C. My heroes are those who have stood up for the right of individuals to make their own choices.  The people I cannot stand are those who want the government to impose their value system on others.

  1. The best thing about a Trump presidency (whether you like him or not, or think he is a good president or not) is likely to be

A. His presidency will shift power away from coastal elites and towards the values and practices of mainstream Americans.

B. He will shine light on the “forgotten” blue collar worker, many of whom have lost jobs due to a globalization process that has moved way too fast.

C. He will “get things done” and help make our government more efficient and lean by getting around the “red tape” of bureaucracy.

The worst thing about a Trump presidency (whether you like him or not, or think he is a good president or not) is likely to be

A. His inflammatory rhetoric and possible racist leanings will hurt immigrants and other minorities, endangering decades of social progress.

B. He will erode the governmental institutions we rely on for a peaceful society, and become a “one man show,” extending the power of the executive branch and growing the reach of government.

C. He is a New York real-estate and tv personality–he focuses only on the bottom line and cares nothing for the values that have made America great.

Question 1

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C” column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 2

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 3

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 4

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 5

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ”L” column

Question 6

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 7

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 8

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 9

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 10

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 11

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 12

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘C’ column

Question 13

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘C’ column

Question 14

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘C’ column

Question 15

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 16

  • If you checked A put a mark in the “C” column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the “P” column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the “L” column

Question 17

  • If you checked A put a mark in the “P” column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the “L” column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the “C” column

“P” stands in this case for “Progressives,” who tend to see the world along an axis of oppressor/oppressed.  “Progressives” here put strong emphasis on “no one left behind,” and equality.

“C” stands for “Conservatives,” or “Civilizers” who put primary focus on good vs. evil, or civilization vs. barbarism.  They tend to see a role for government in upholding certain values and traditions.

“L” stands for “Libertarian” who emphasize individual rights and freedoms apart from group/government coercion.  They fear actions that threaten individual autonomy.

In the interest of full disclosure, I score out this way:

Progressive/2, Conservative/10, Libertarian/5

Chances are that your score mixes the three categories in some fashion, and this in itself will help us recognize the limitations of our own particular perspective.  The Progressive, Conservative, and Libertarian axises are all finite and cannot be our main guide on every question.  Kling cites a few examples to this effect.  Libertarians like Goldwater opposed Civil Rights legislation on the grounds that it would give more power to the federal government and upset the balance of federalism.  They were not wrong about this per se, but wrong in their priorities.  The Libertarian axis (Kling’s own personal bias, as he tells us) did not have the proper framework to deal with that issue.  Some Southern “Conservatives” (be they Republican or otherwise) rejected integration for terribly misguided fears about what would happen to their “civilization.” For the sake of fairness, Kling rejects the Progressive explanation for the sub-prime crisis.  The oppressor/oppressed axis has its own limitations.  The strong “Conservatism” of Churchill served him just as poorly in dealing with India as it served him well in dealing with Hitler.

It is this concept of the finite nature of our political vision that is the most valuable takeaway for me.  Every Christian I know would admit to some degree of mystery and incompleteness about their knowledge of God and the Faith.  Yet we do not always apply that same sense of humility to our political ideologies, and we usually get no help from the media with this.  It may be humility, more than anything, that can salvage our broken political discourse.

Dave

“The Sword and the Olive”

The modern history of Israel poses many questions, their 65 years lived at breakneck speed have given us many lessons.  But the questions about their state, the Palestinians, their neighbors, and so on are enormously complex.  Some historians seek to tackle all aspects of the problem but books of that nature can often be too long, heavy on details, weak on conclusions, leaving readers with no clear answers and no path to discover them on their own.

With problems of this sort, I tend to think that books that focus on one particular aspect of the issues often serve readers better than all-encompassing tomes.  The narrowness of focus makes no pretense to answer every question, but it can provide a clear narrative arc, and thus give definite shape to at least some of the puzzle pieces. Martin van Creveld’s The Sword and the Olive fulfills this purpose, much like Byron Farwell’s The Armies of the Raj.  Creveld does not tackle the broader “should” questions (i.e. should Israel have been given ‘x’ land, should they occupy the West Bank, etc.), but traces the effects of various decisions nicely in this history of the Israeli army.

While various militarized Zionist groups long predated W.W. II, the Israeli army takes as its main starting point the formation of the state.  Early on Creveld introduces one of his main themes, that the trauma of the Holocaust created a moral weight to the Jewish cause.  This in turn formed a social cohesion that enabled an army to achieve near mythical status within a few short years.  Creveld lives in Israel and I assume is Jewish himself, but he attempts no sugarcoating of either Jews, Palestinians, or Arabs.   His seeks to show, however, that whatever the strength of Palestinian claims, the Jews simply had stronger ones in the immediate context of the post-war years.  When Palestine lingered under lame-duck British authority thousands of Jewish immigrants poured illegally into Palestine and settled beyond established boundaries.  These illegal settlements received protection from Jewish militias.  The British discovered that sometimes the strong must suffer the actions of the weak.  How could the British enforce their authority and detain/fire upon people with numbered tattoos on their arms from Auschwitz in 1947?   Every British “victory” over Jewish militias only made their position more and more untenable.

The story of the “War for Independence” in 1948 had a similar theme.  Palestinians outnumbered Jews but tended to spread out in rural areas, whereas Jews settled in mostly urban areas and therefore had a more formal political structure.  The countries that attacked Israel shared few common goals and even had some conflicting ones.  The psychological sense of mission and purpose gave Israel a great army.  As Napoleon remarked, “In war the moral is to the physical as three is to one.”

Israel was a democracy in many ways, but their initial victory helped lead to some generally non-democratic ideas.

  • Democracies at least like to think of themselves as defensive in nature, and so did Israel.  But the nature of their geography led to a sense of being continually under siege.  In war, they developed a “strike-first” mentality — war must always be fought on the enemies territory.  They would have ironically agreed with the Prussian Frederick the Great’s motto of “Audacity, audacity, and still more audacity!”  Even more ironically, this led Israel to develop tactics that strongly resembled the blitzkrieg of 1939-41.
  • As De Tocqueville noted, most democracies have a generally ambivalent attitude toward the army, but not Israel.  After 1948, and especially after 1967, the army had near god-like status within the state.  This led to a political structure where the army had very little official civilian oversight, and even less in practical terms.
  • The sense of unity had to do with their circumstances, but also perhaps due to the settling of Israel by many eastern-European Jews with socialist leanings.  In any case, Israel quickly developed strong censorship laws with anything to do with security.  They deemed this necessary given that they felt alone not only where they stood geographically, but also in the international arena.  The Holocaust showed that the world would abandon Jews if it suited them.  The media helped develop these laws.  But democracies are also open societies, so usually censors had the job of keeping Israeli’s ignorant of what everyone else around the world knew.

Some of these contradictions would have to work themselves out at some point.

The psychological and moral factors of the post-war years created a juggernaut military with sky high morale.  But Israel’s very success would help to change this dynamic.  Occupying more territory meant the need to increase the size of the army.  This in turn meant more recruits, and the social cohesion that once characterized the army — an army where everyone knew everyone else — began to erode.  An army with a civilian-militia ethos turned professional.  Israel condensed about 200 years of Roman history (ca. 202-27 B.C.) into about 20 of their own.

Israel soon developed a much stronger military than their neighbors, but they kept their siege mentality.  This meant that when they engaged the PLO in the 1970’s, and especially in Lebanon in the early 1980’s, that the strong/weak dynamic that had served them so well psychologically had now flipped against them.  They were now strong and secure, their enemies had “weakness” on their side.  The “us against the world” attitude that served them so well now fought against them.  Now Israel faced an identity crisis.  What would they do with success?  Bold, aggressive, and occasional “outside the lines” actions could be tolerated and even expected when “fighting for one’s life.”  But they did not get the same pass under these new circumstances.  No one thought that PLO hideouts within Lebanon posed anything more than a nuisance to the state.  As Creveld commented, the strong should never fight the weak for very long.  Lao-Tsu noted similarly that a sword thrust into sea-water turns to rust.

The unquestioning public support that the military enjoyed for so many years now eroded, and this led to erosion within the army itself.  Their war in Lebanon had far fewer casualties and far less real fighting than their previous wars, but the number of psychological maladies effecting soldiers skyrocketed, as did the number of civilians who refused to serve, or found medical exemptions for their service.  The power of the government to investigate the military increased, albeit only slightly.  Certainly soldiers no longer wore their uniforms off-duty, as once was common.

The Israeli army today still maintains a high level of professional competence and tactical superiority over its neighbors, but they unquestionably lost something of the soul of the army.  And because Israel made the army such a integral part of their identity, something in Israel itself has no doubt been lost as well.  What Vietnam was for us, Lebanon was for them.  If our experience proves any kind of mirror, they can recover some of what they lost, but Israel will not be able to go home again.  The golden age of the Israeli military has come and gone.

12th Grade: Israel, Palestine, and Solutions Beyond Governments

Greetings,

This week and last we looked at Israeli democracy, and tried to understand the dilemma they face regarding Palestinian statehood.  I hope we gained sympathy for both sides of this question.  Through this lens I wanted the students to understand one of the Catch-22’s that many democratic states face.

Democracies appeal to us largely because of their high ideals and goals, not just for the state itself, but for the individual.  But human nature almost guarantees that we will not attain these goals, and so democratic states are much more prone to hypocrisy and blind spots than authoritarian dictatorships, for example.  This should not make us abandon democracy.   As Chesterton and others have said, if you aim at nothing you’re sure to hit it.  But I do hope it will give us greater understanding of democracy’s Achilles heel.  The “processes” of democracy, like voting, representation, etc. have no real meaning unless they have roots in specific values.  If values make a democracy, then one must lead with those values.

The idea of a Jewish state predated World War II to the 1890’s.  The western world in general experienced an intensification of nationalism and heightened awareness of ethnic identity, which bore such horrific fruit in the 20th century.  Many Jews, having been scattered throughout Europe for centuries, began to resettle in Palestine, which the Ottomans then administered.  By the 1920’s Jewish settlement in Palestine looked something like this (darker areas indicate Jewish presence), though I should add that almost every map related to the Israel/Palestine question is polemical and controversial in one way or another.

After World War I, the British administered the area, but could no longer do so after World War II.  At that point England wanted to jettison nearly all of its colonial empire, and so they handed the question of Palestine over to the United Nations.  After the Holocaust the world had to answer the question as to whether or not there should be a specific Jewish state, and if so, where it should be.

Although people debated various sites, including Madagascar, they eventually settled on Palestine, which made sense in relation to Jewish history and the recent Zionist movement. No place would be without controversy, but choosing Palestine came with problems.  During World War I many Arabs fought with the British against the Turks, and the British in turn pledged to grant Arabs independence.  Instead they reneged on the deal and added Palestine to its colonial holdings.

Actions have consequences, even if sometimes those consequences take years to make themselves known.

From the Israeli’s perspective, owning a small sliver of land that did not even include Jerusalem, was the least the world could do.  Europe had persecuted the Jews on and off since the Crusades.  The latent, on again off again anti-Semitism that simmered for centuries metastasized into a horrifically clinical attempt to wipe them out entirely with the Nazi domination of Europe.  The world had shown that the Jews must have a safe haven, and giving them back a small part of their ancestral land made  political and ethical sense.

The Palestinians saw it differently and many continue to do so.

While the Palestinians were not the Jews number one fan, the Holocaust happened in Europe. It was not their doing, either directly or indirectly.  If the Jews need a homeland, and Europeans need to give them one to assuage their consciences, fine.  How about taking some European territory?  How about part of Germany?

Instead, what the Palestinians feel happened is what they felt always happens with the West. The Palestinians felt stomped on by one colonial power or another for centuries, and now it looked like deja vu  all over again.  This time, the guise took the form of the United Nations, but the result is the same:  someone took our land without our consent.  Rest assured, the Palestinians did not vote at the U.N. to cede part of Palestine for a Jewish state.  Thus, the very existence of the Jewish state is another form of colonial imperialism in Palestinian eyes.  The Jews invaded, in a sense, under U.S. and European flags.  In their mind Israel has no legitimacy because they are no better than other colonial occupiers.  When some critics of Israel, be they Palestinian or not, talk of Israel as a state founded on thievery, they have these associations in mind.

Most argue that the wars fought between Israel and her neighbors in 1948, 1967, and 1973 were started by Israel’s Moslem neighbors (though some might dispute ’67, where Israel launched the first physical attacks).  Not so, say the Arabs.  Israel started them all simply by being there.

Time has not favored the Palestinian cause, as the map below indicates:

Upon its creation, Israel had to make some crucial choices about its future.  It chose a Parliamentary style democracy, which did not surprise many.  But what to do with Palestinians living within their territory?  In 1948, Palestinians formed a distinct minority within Israel, but they were protected and given citizenship.  A British parliamentary style usually has less federation and more majority rule.  But that was ok, because Jews had the clear majority.  Still, it stood as a statement that Israel need not be for Jews only, and in the wake of the Holocaust, this was a powerful statement.

But what to do with Palestinians in the territory Israel acquired in 1948 and 1967?  Should they be citizens too?

This dilemma pierced the heart of the whole purpose for Israel’s existence.  They no longer could be both a Jewish ethnic state and a fully functioning democracy.  In other words, they could either

  • Give every Palestinian full citizenship rights, and risk that Jews would no longer be the majority in Israel.
  • Give them no rights and treat them as an occupied people
  • Give them some rights and not others, but this middle ground would probably not make legal or moral sense, something akin to the 3/5 Compromise in the Constitution, which made slaves count as 3/5 of a person.  How can one be 3/5 of a person?

In other words, Israel could be an ethnic state or a full fledged democracy.  The two could no longer go together.  They would have to give up something.  I have enormous sympathy for Israel here.  The whole purpose of Israel was to create a refuge for Jews and create a state run by Jews. To attain peace they would need to give up something of their identity.  For a generation that saw and survived the Holocaust, this would have been a near supernatural act, and it is not my place to judge.  Palestinian Christians have the only solution, but tragically, some of Israel’s policies, at times supported by the West, and at times supported by some Christian denominations, have deeply eroded and marginalized the Palestinian Christian community.

The middle course Israel chose gave Palestinians in newly acquired land some economic opportunities but not political representation.  Such mixed messages are usually deadly for democracies, and in time those contradictions often assert themselves with a vengeance.  One only needs to think of what happened when our own country sent blaring mixed messages for the first 80-90 years of our existence. In essence, the Palestinians got invited to the party, but then got told to eat with the servants in the basement.

Eventually, security concerns led Israel to build a wall between themselves and certain occupied areas.  But this seems all wrong.  We are familiar with walls — the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and so on.  Democracies are not supposed to do this.  But Israel felt that they could not be secure without it.   Some supporters of the wall might argue that it sends a signal, like the Emperor Hadrian’s wall in the north of England, of an end point to expansion in the occupied territories.  In other words, it should comfort the Palestinians. But this is not how Palestinians, or the world-wide community, has interpreted the wall.   Some have called it “the most religious place on Earth.”  The images are powerful:

I think Israel’s history comes with many lessons for democracies, including the need for consistency, and the need to lead with cultural values over strict security concerns.  Ultimately, however, we see the need for something greater than what governments can give.

Many thanks,

Dave M