Social and political observations addressed with candor and humor.
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
Finally Dealing with Jewish Settlements
It's been quite a while since I composed anything here. Just as I began my blog, the climate of political discourse in this country unfortunately hit a major low. I was honestly too disgusted to put most of my thoughts into words. However, a year later, I think I have recovered enough to begin writing anew.
Still, in this first new installment of my blog, I will be shying away from discussing American politics. That's not because I feel there's nothing to discuss, or because I still feel uncomfortable writing about such matters. I'm sure I'll get to them in the upcoming days or weeks. I just feel that presently, it's more relevant to talk about what's going on in Israel and the occupied territories.
The Israeli Defence Forces just finished removing all the Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip, plus a few from the West Bank. Frankly, I think it's about time. The settlers have been holding up the peace process far too long. I would be perfectly happy to see all the settlers out of the occupied territories. The publicized justification for having them there at all is that those lands are part of the historical homeland of the Jews, and so Jews should have a right to live there (with the implicit understanding that Jews should also have the right to to live under the jurisdiction of the state of Israel). In some particular locations, there is a history of persecution and expulsion that the settlers are resisting; by dwelling there, they want to make a statement that the Arabs can never again force them to leave that spot. However, by and large, the arguments in favor of the settlements are based on what would be the Judaic version of millenarianism (millenarianism, per se, being a strictly Christian concept).
I think millenarianism of any stripe is foolish, but I am an extremely irreligious person. The settlers in what is currently Palestinian territory envision building up a Jewish population in those places, which will eventually be large enough that the occupied territories could be incorporated into Israel herself, without diluting the state's Jewish majority. Such a goal would probably take centuries. Under other circumstances, I might decry the plan as ridiculous for that reason alone. However, things are different when one is dealing with the Jews. The Jewish people (my people, I feel, although the strength of my attachment to the Hebrew community waxes and wanes) have demonstrated a remarkable staying power. For nearly two thousand years, enduring unspeakable travails, the children of Israel waited to reclaim their promised land. For an even longer time, the Hebrew tongue had been a dead, liturgical language, yet they have resurrected it for everyday use. Nothing like this had ever occured before in human experience. Imagine if the whole of Catholicism were reunited into a new Holy Roman Empire, with Latin as its vernacular tongue.
The Jews have shown remarkable tenacity and perserverence over exceedingly long periods of time. However, the settlement plans in the occupied territories are still unwise. The settlements were born in the wake of the Six Days War. After you hear that name enough times, you forget how striking those words actually are. Six days? That's a very short period of time for a major conflict. Yet in less than a week, the Israelis won one of history's most overwhelming victories. In the late 1960s, Israel was invincible militarily and even agriculturally, having won almost as amazing victories fighting the desert. Yet times have changed. The accomplishments of the Jewish state still command respect, but the magical aura of 1967 is gone. Things might have seemed a good idea then, when Israeli looked unstoppable on every front, that really were not so wise.
In a future Palestinian state, there shouldn't be autonomous enclaves, leftover settlements, scattered all about. Most of the settlements need to go, and it seems that maybe the Israeli public are finally coming to grips with this. (The issue of the settlements in Israeli politics is more complicated than is usually reported in the international press. The settlements provide inexpensive housing for many lower-income Jewish families, and they represent a not inconsequential part of the social welfare system.) However, I don't think all the settlements need to be removed. Some are close enough to Israeli territory than they can be incorporated into the Jewish state. This suggestion tends to generate an outcry that the Israelis are stealing the Palestinians' land. This is rubbish. While there are probably good diplomatic reasons for Isreal to give up some land in exchange for any settlements they absorb, there is nothing special or significant about where the line is presently drawn between Israel and the West Bank. It's an armistice line from the 1940s; that's all. There is no reason why the final borders of two states should be determined by such a detail.
What's maddening to me about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is that all the supposedly sticky questions about "final status" have pretty obvious answers (except maybe the problem of water rights, which is the one that actually gets the least press). It's just that too many people on each side are unwilling to admit what needs to be done. However, this latest pullout from Gaza is heartening news, for it shows a new wilingness on the Israelis' part to make the difficult but necessary decisions.
Saturday, July 03, 2004
A Model Democracy
I'm picking up my younger brother Curran at the airport today. He's coming to visit along with his girlfriend. They'll be staying with us for a few days, then departing, and I probably won't get to see Curran again before he's posted to Tikrit this fall. So his visit has set me to thinking: What are we fighting for in Iraq now?
The Bush administration wants Iraq to become a model of Arab democracy, and that certainly represents a laudable goal. With such a large, oil-rich state setting an example as a functional Arab republic, progressive social and political values should spread throughout the Middle East. The turmoil that has rocked the region for centuries may finally being to subside, ushering in a new age of prosperity for the region, unmatched since the time of the Abbasid Caliphate.
Well, perhaps I exaggerate a bit. However, unlike some other commentators, I am not inclined to dismiss the administration's strategy as hopeless and misguided. I believe that the goal of establishing Iraq as a model for democracy in the region is actually a relatively reasonable one. Moreover, having a democratic Iraq cannot but serve the interests of freedom, although it will still be a lengthy uphill struggle to convert the rest of the region to a more progressive way of thinking.
Given the titanic American investments in Iraq and the oil wealth contained beneath the ground, it seems unlikely that the U. S. will abandon the active defense of the country's regime any time soon. We still have plenty of troops posted in South Korea (although the number is substantially decreasing), where a repeat of the 1950s conflict has become extremely unlikely, and in Germany, where an outbreak of warfare is well-nigh inconceivable. (Heck, we've even got troops in Cuba more than 100 years after the Spanish-American war and nearly half a century after the majority of the island was taken over by a hostile regime!) I don't imagine that the complete withdrawal of our soldiers from Iraq is likely to occur any time within the next two decades. This continuing military support will give the fledgling Iraqi republic the chance to mature and develop. There will doubtless be contention and instability for years to come, but it is not unreasonable to hope that a stable Arab democracy will ultimately emerge.
It is very important that there has never been a functional Arab democracy. This makes the possibility of recreating Iraq as a proper republic especially exciting, but it also raises many problems. If, in ten years, Iraq emerges as a country with a prosperous economy and a climate of political ferment, Arabs in other states will see this example and take notice. They will demand greater liberalization of their own homelands and push for freedom from their oppressive monarchs and dictators. However, many of those same tyrants will probably do everything in their power to resist such change. These men, whose success is measured in their oil revenues and their absolute control over the apparatus of governance, will deploy the state-controlled media to denigrate the success story of Iraq; they will strive to shift the mob's focus toward other issues--the Palestinian question and the unwanted western presence near the heart of Islam; and they will try to maintain their power at all costs.
Now, not all the Arab rulers will behave this way. The kings and emirs generally show a greater degree of flexibility than the military dictators. After the first Gulf War, the pressures of diplomacy and Realpolitik
forced the crowned heads of Kuwait and Jordan to relax many of the strictures on their respective principalities, and there is a potential bright future for such kingdoms. If the Iraqi experiment in democracy survives, then these places will probably evolve, deliberately--eventually into constitutional monarchies like those of western Europe.
With respect to other states, such as Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, it is much more difficult to be hopeful. I hesitate to make predictions about these places, but I am certain at least that there will be no easy transition to open, democratic government that sweeps across the region. If power is to be wrestled away from these autocratic regimes, it will require time, strenuous effort, and, in some measure, blood.
I hope wholeheartedly that Iraq can emerge from its dark age and become a beacon of democracy. This outcome, not by any means remote, will benefit all the people of the Middle East. However, the reforging of Iraq is only one of many steps that must be taken if the region is to become a place where freedom can thrive.
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Damaging the Institution of the Presidency
When Bill Clinton left office, a lot of people talked about his damaging effect on the institution of the presidency. Some pundits and historians deemed the harm he had done to the president's standing permanent and irreparable. Others adopted a more moderate view; they believed that the presidency would recover, in time. However, practically all these thinkers seemed to agree that the damage done during the Clinton years was definitely bad for our country.
I disagree. In fact, I think the presidency of the United States needs to be damaged a whole lot more. All the pomp and ceremony--the banquets, the speeches, the meetings with illustrious and glamorous personalities from all over the world--that surround our chief executive give him an aura of dignity, respectability, and gravitas. And that's the last thing we need--a president with an aura.
Now, I don't oppose having a president who displays dignity, respectability, gravitas, or any of a hundred other laudable traits that are associated with the presidency. I think we need a president with all these things. However, what we don't need is a president who is respected and honored merely for being the president
. Winning that seat in the oval office does not make a man respectable. It does not make an ordinary man (or woman, some day...) more estimable. What it does is give that man power.
Those who hold power should be held to a higher standard. Yet, perhaps because so many people stand in awe of him, the president is held to a lower standard. Or perhaps it's really the opposite: because so many Americans presume that a truly honest and principled man couldn't succeed in politics (or at least could never manage to reach the highest office in the land). There's certainly some truth to this. After all, all our presidents are liars, after a fashion. They tell the kind of little white lies that engage you or charm you, and once they start lying to the people like this, there's a slippery slope, which many of these men glide smoothly down.
Bill Clinton lied about his personal foibles, but he wasn't the first (or, I have no doubt the last) president to have a seamier side to his nature. The elder George Bush lied about nominating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court for purely racial reasons. Ronald Reagan lied about matters of national security, but he did so to build support for political doctrines that he honestly and earnestly believed in himself. Some of these lies are perhaps forgivable, but there's another species of presidential lie that isn't. Some men lie whenever it's politically convenient and they think they can get away with it. Richard Nixon was like that, and so is our current president.
To get us to go to war in Iraq, George W. Bush would have told us almost anything. (Maybe he even actually believed all the things he was saying, but if so, he was just being dishonest with himself along with the rest of the American people.) Everybody in the country knows this (and those who claim to believe otherwise are, again, lying to themselves). Yet many people seem to accept it, as if it were no big deal. Why? Because of the presidency. Just because this man is president of the U. S., people listen to him. They credit statements, which, had they come from another mouth, would be rightly dismissed as utter poppycock. That's why the presidency needs to be damaged a bit more--to keep people from believing the president simply because he is the president.
So whenever a seasoned political observer starts making some maudlin comparison of the weak, distrusted presidency of today, with the strong, admired presidency of the past, I grin. I don't trust a man until he earns my trust, and sitting in a great leather office chair in the White House does nothing to win my respect.
Sunday, June 20, 2004
Your Vote Doesn't Matter
Apparently, college students these days are more likely than ever to believe that it doesn't really make any difference whether or not they vote in our presidential elections. As word of this finding circulated through the news media, it elicited a great deal of chiding and hand-wringing from seasoned politicos and public intellectuals. Yet all the discussion of how much better educated America's young people needed to be about the value of their role in the political process seemed to miss one seemingly minor, but in fact crucial, point.
In truth, your vote doesn't matter, for there are two kinds of presidential elections in this country--those that aren't close and those in which the actual vote counts don't decide the outcome. The former variety predominates, and perhaps this is a good thing. The voting public makes up its collective mind, and our chief executive is thus selected; this is democracy in action.
However, every forty years or so, there's an election whose outcome is truly in doubt. In the days prior to the 2000 election, there existed no consensus as to what the outcome was likely to be. Many pundits projected that Al Gore would lose the popular vote, yet win the electoral college and thus the presidency. Needless to say, that didn't happen, but the actual outcome could only be described as far, far stranger.
Two things made the 2000 presidential election a colossal failure of democracy. The first was the bedeviling presence of the electoral college. The college has never served any purpose except to foment trouble. No less than four times (in 1796, 1800, 1876, and 2000), it has served to interfere with the proper democratic process. Now, those same individuals who decry the idea that "Your vote doesn't matter," often like to cite the "wisdom of the founding fathers" as sufficient justification of the electoral college system. I don't personally believe that the founding fathers were particularly all that wise, and they were certainly not perfect. So why can't the electoral college (whose original purpose was, most assuredly, not
to be the final body responsible for electing the president) be eliminated? It's not as if we haven't made substantial changes to other aspects of the federal elections process. Did the founding fathers ever elect their representatives in congress by district? No. Did they allow the citizens themselves to elect individuals to the senate? No, that task was left the state legislatures. We changed these things, so what makes the electoral college, which has never, ever had a positive impact on any election, sacrosanct?
Maybe I'm biased against the college. In 2000, I lived in Massachusetts, and since then, I've moved to Indiana. And thanks to the electoral college, my vote in a presidential election matters not a whit. Massachusetts and Indiana are not swing states. Indiana will go republican in any close election, and a democrat can probably carry Massachusetts even if the election isn't close. This could explain why I'm so particularly against the electoral college. But then again, maybe it just illustrates why the college is so damaging to democracy.
Yet there was much more to the failure of the 2000 presidential election than merely the idiotic operation of the electoral college interfering with the popular will. What happened in Florida was really much more sinister. Now, I don't know for sure who actually received the most votes in that state (although I could make a very educated guess), for what the events in Florida showed was that, if the election is close enough, the actual vote counts simply don't matter! George Bush had complete control over the apparatus of government in Florida, and that ensured his victory. All his cronies had to do was to make an apparently good faith effort to count the votes, then report the result. Note, however, that there was no need to act in actual good faith. Only an appearance of outright fraud needed to be avoided; there was still plenty of room for fiddling with the results, by various means that were much discussed in the weeks following the election--counting carefully in some areas but sloppily in others, using inconsistent standards for deciding which votes to accept, etc.
Naturally, the Gore campaign went to court; the courts are there precisely to resolve disputes such as this. In fact, given the present tenor of our society, it was pretty much inevitable that an election this close would need to be resolved by litigation. In a better world, the supreme court would have ordered a precise and uniform vote recount in all of Florida, and the actual votes might have decided the outcome in that state. However, in another brilliant
decision, the founding fathers decided that federal judges should be appointed rather than elected. They apparently believed that this would make the judiciary less politicized. Were they right? No. In fact, our system for choosing justices has precisely the opposite effect. The courts are much more polarized than society as a whole, and, thanks to this extreme degree of political partisanship, we got a purely politically-motivated decision that finally decided the outcome of the election. The factual question of who received more votes was pushed aside, and a narrow, legalistic argument in favor of Bush won the day.
The lesson of all of this is that your vote really doesn't matter. I'm going to vote in November anyway, even if I do reside in Indiana. It's a matter of personal and national pride for me; however, I have no illusions about what I'm doing. My vote is not going to make a difference.
06/01/2004 - 06/30/2004
07/01/2004 - 07/31/2004
08/01/2005 - 08/31/2005