Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Left's Historical Hubris

The following thoughts came to mind after reading this article by Charles Krauthammer.

For nearly ten years now, the political left has not been what it used to be. It seems to have turned into its opposite, and understanding this change is one of the great questions of political philosophy which is directly relevant now.

I believe in a form of modesty in politics. I first thought about this idea in terms of modesty, or humility, while reading American constitutional law cases in which an ongoing theme of the debate between the "conservatives" and the "liberals" (I put these terms in quotation marks because I am using them here in their distinctly American senses) is that the liberals are more willing to adapt the meaning of the constitution, through interpretation, to match their views of what a just outcome to a particular dispute would be. The conservatives typically oppose this by arguing that the liberal view defeats the whole point of having a constitution and that remaining faithful (to some degree) to the original meaning (whatever that may have been) of the words is a necessary form of respect for the wisdom of the founding fathers. There are many things to be said about this debate, but I want to focus on the question whether we know better than the founding fathers, or whether they, despite having lived centuries ago, may continue to know better than us in some respects. Otherwise stated: what is the extent of our (speaking from the perspective of an American) moral or political duty to obey the founding fathers (i.e. the constitution), despite our own belief that we know better? The conservative argument is that we are blinded by our own narrow historical circumstance, and so what we believe to be best may turn out, in light of broader historical experience, not to be. Though we flounder in our historical solipsism, the founding fathers, on the other hand, are better capable than we of transcending their narrow vantage point and of legislating wisely for great swaths of history. At the very least, one might say that this is demonstrated by the fact that the constitution they produced has brought us this far.

It is two attitudes towards history which are pitted against each other in this debate, and political morality is at stake.

I often hear pronouncements like: "it is inconceivable that in the 21th century, we still have child poverty". It seems incredibly pompous to speak in that way about one's own century over every other century. King David, John the Scott, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Kant all lived in centuries other than ours; it seems the height of brash pride to assume our superiority. This betrays an attitude which looks at history with a sense of smug superiority. I think history should be looked at with humility and with awe.

The left today is corrupted by historical hubris; it thinks itself greater than history. Considering that the left used to be Marxist, this is the Marxist version of revolt against God. In religion, the greatest revolt possible would be against God. The greatest repudiation of religion (from the perspective of the pious), would be revolt against God. Similarly, the left's smug attitude towards history is the greatest repudiation possible of Marxism, for history plays a god-like role in Marx.

A lot more could be said here about religion itself and the way in which belief in God instills humility into men. I have a hard time conceiving of a "God" in such a way as to persuade me towards humility, but thinking about history has that very effect on me.

Israel's Recent Shift from Occupation to Deterrence

[This text was first published as an article in "Dateline: Middle East" (http://www.isranet.org/Dateline/DatelineHome.htm)]

The Israeli invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 is best understood as the second in what is likely to become a series of limited wars meant to define and secure Israel’s borders. The first in this series was the war against Hezbollah in 2006. At stake in these wars is Israel’s ability to defend its borders without occupying the territory lying beyond them. Israel’s success in these wars will be judged by its ability to achieve through them what it previously sought to achieve through territorial occupation: secure borders.

In 2000, Israel withdrew unilaterally from southern Lebanon, which it had previously occupied militarily. In 2005, Israel carried out another unilateral withdrawal, this time from the Gaza strip, evacuating 9,000 Jewish residents. In 2006, Israel fought a war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and now in 2008–9, Israel has fought a similar war in Gaza. Functionally, these two wars attempted to establish a level of deterrence capable of securing these borders without requiring an Israeli military presence beyond them.

Deterrence, where successful, is a much better choice. Rather than risking a permanent state of low-intensity hostility with a guerilla enemy, deterrence provides for long periods of quiet, although it is to be expected that this “peace” will be tentative and interspersed with occasional conflicts. Unlike the endless combat faced by a static occupying force, border wars allow the IDF to be used to its full potential while still benefiting from a level of public and international support which no occupation can sustain.

Israeli success in these border wars is thus best measured by the quality and duration of the calm which follows them: did Israel establish deterrence, i.e. a quiet border? The Israeli campaign of 2006, for all its logistical failures and its inability to remove Hezbollah from southern Lebanon, nonetheless produced a border which, even today, remains effectively quiet. In the more recent Gaza war, the IDF appears to have put behind it the operational glitches of 2006. Israel also made no notable effort to remove Hamas from power. From a broader strategic perspective, the overriding question is the same in Gaza and Lebanon: will Israel’s borders remain calm?

Hamas has been less amenable to deterrence than has Hezbollah, but the six-month ceasefire with Hamas which held, albeit imperfectly, through the second half of 2008 provides an auspicious indication. In the current conflict—in which Israel’s immediate goal is to achieve calm, and Hamas’s immediate goal is to maintain their ability to fire at will upon Israel—the longer a ceasefire lasts, the more it resembles effective deterrence. It is reasonable to believe that Hamas aggression will be more deterrable now than it was in the middle of 2008 and that Israel’s strategic shift from occupation to deterrence will begin to bear fruit in the south as it has done in the north.

The withdrawal from Lebanon can be considered a success, given that the occupation of southern Lebanon has been replaced by effective deterrence and a quiet border for the greater part of the last eight years. The withdrawal from Gaza will prove successful when periodic border wars such as the recent one permit Israel to establish meaningful periods of calm on that border as well. Fortunately, last year’s six-month period of negotiated calm and the extensive bruising suffered by Hamas in the recent war suggest that, while the Gaza situation will no doubt remain bleak and difficult for years to come, definite progress has been made towards effective deterrence. This bodes well for the possibility of future unilateral withdrawals.

The Need for Israeli Electoral Reform

[This text was first published approximately a year ago as an article in "Dateline: Middle East" (http://www.isranet.org/Dateline/DatelineHome.htm)]

On January 12th, the Knesset Central Elections Committee voted to ban two Arab lists from participating in February’s national elections. The ban, which had been proposed by the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, was to apply to the Arab nationalist Balad party and to the joint list of the United Arab List and Ta’al. The committee’s decision to impose this ban was subsequently overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court on January 21st.

The ban highlights Israel’s acute need for electoral reform. The current electoral system based on proportional representation has become a major impediment to the stability and moderation of Israeli political life. Israel is a country of sharp social cleavages, and while proportional representation may once have been necessary to represent diverse groups within the state, today it undermines that state’s very cohesiveness.

The two banned Arab lists represent another brand of Israeli political extremism. Balad’s former leader, Azmi Bishara, has been charged with collaborating with Hezbollah in wartime and has chosen to go into exile rather than face this accusation in Israel‘s courts. His replacement, Jamal Zahalka, loudly denounces Israel as an apartheid state. The Or Commission set up to investigate the violence of October 2000, during which twelve Israeli-Arab protesters were killed by police, found that both Bishara and Abdulmalik Dehamshe (of the UAL) had contributed to the conflict by suggesting the use of violence in achieving the goals of Israel’s Arab minority.

While the possibility of banning extreme political parties is necessary for the defense of legitimate public dialogue, the events of this year brought the ban mechanism itself into the spotlight. When Yisrael Beiteinu resorted to the ban, it was not principally because its leaders had the integrity of Israeli democracy at heart. Instead, the banning of parties served a sectarian electoral agenda. Moreover, the ban’s eventual reversal represented no great victory for democracy either, because, as has been noted, Balad and the UAL also live on the fringe of legitimate democratic debate.

The peculiar thing about the ill-fated ban is that it showcased extremist political forces, marginalised the mainstream, and poisoned intercommunal relations in Israel. The ban’s failure or success is largely beside the point: the salient fact in all this is that the ban mechanism itself served as a central issue for extremist politics, instead of a defence against them. Rather than clearing the way for moderate and rational debate, the ban issue actually forced the mainstream parties into secondary roles. This is a clear sign that a thoroughly reformed electoral system is necessary for the protection of the integrity of Israel’s democratic politics.

The unfortunate upshot of the ban saga is that both extremist camps—ethnonationalist Jews and ethnonationalist Arabs—have made political gains, and Israeli society as a whole is the loser. The unhappy events surrounding the ban have shown that Israel needs an electoral system that favours large parties. In such a system, ethnopolitical extremists would be forced to choose between relative obscurity in the electoral hinterland, or a mainstream party. It would no longer be possible for two opposing fringe tendencies, each representing the extremes of Israeli society, to set the tone of the national debate or to inject into national political discourse such an unwarranted level of bitterness and antidemocratic bombast.