Archive | June, 2012

On Human Identity

26 Jun


 

            Early in my blog life I wrote about Jewish identity. It was partly an exercise in self-discovery, and partly a response to those who alleged that I was a self-hating Jew, or worse, an anti-Semite. These attacks on my characterwere hurtful even as I felt their distance from my actual beliefs and worldview. In my mind and heart criticisms of Israel and support for the Palestinian struggle for their rights under international law and in accord with fundamental ideas of justice had to do with taking suffering seriously,which for me is the most solid foundation of human identity.

            It is my conviction that in a globalized world human identity should serve as the moral trump card in relation to conflict situations. Of course, the optic of human identity can produce a variety of interpretations of a particular situation, and is not meant to eclipse other experienced identities. The Holocaust was a most horrifying instance of what the great Catholic monk, mystic, and writer, Thomas Merton, called the unspeakable. The memories of victimization can never function as a moral excuse for the victimization of another. Tragically, the unfolding of Israel’s quest for security and prosperity beneath the banner of Zionism has generated a narrative of severe Palestinian suffering taking multiple forms, ranging from the prolonged and acute vulnerability of statelessness and rightslessness to the humiliations of living decade after decade under harsh military rule in an increasingly apartheid setting.

 

            But our wider concern beyond the specifics of any given situation should also encompass the future of humanity. So long as ethnic, religious, and nationalist identities are given precedence in a world of inequality and critical scarcities of water, energy, food, and health, there will be oppression and widespread abuse. For the modern world the identity of the part, whether state, religion, or ethnicity, has consistently prevailed over the identity of the whole, whether that whole is understood to be humanity or world. As a result, globally reasonable policies to control global warming or world poverty or the instability of financial markets seem unattainable. Primacy accorded to the national interest continues to obstruct the fulfillment of the human interest.

 

            In earlier periods of history this kind of dispersal of authority was sustainable, although often cruel in maintaining hierarchies as during the colonial period and in relation to the annihilation of many indigenous peoples whose pre-modern wisdom has much to teach us about survival in the emergent post-modern world of scarcities and limits.

 

            At the same time, a plural world order allowed for diversities that were consistent with the variety of religions, civilizations, cultural traditions, and worldviews. Warfare and exploitation made such a world order morally deficient, but so were the envisioned alternatives associated with a global state or world government. A potential tyranny of the whole seemed to most of us worse than the anarchic failures arising in a world of sovereign states.

 

            Increasingly, conflict patterns based on the technologies of oppression and resistance are illustrating the menacing realities of a borderless world. Drones ignore borders. Cyber warfare is heedless of space. We cannot go on in  this manner much longer without bloodying our heads against the stone walls of history. We are living as a species on borrowed time. It is not the occasion for panic, but it is a time to recalibrate our relations with one another, with nature, with past and future, with this inevitable and mostly invisible transition of mentalities underway– from the enclosures and openings of a spatially oriented world of borders to the before and after of a temporally shaped world now and in the future beset by scarcities and limits.

 

            In such a global circumstance, human identity is not so much a choice as a destiny thrust upon us. It can produce a spectrum of responses. The tendency is to strengthen border controls, increase surveillance, indulge in blame games, and build high, electrified walls, making sovereign territory resemble at its best ‘a gated community’ of gargantuan proportions or at its worst ‘a maximum security prison.’ In this sense, the captivity of Gaza prefigures one kind of regressive future that resists the imperatives of a world of limits, seeking to lull us in the belief that we can remain safe in a world of borders.

 

            And so my orientation is in support of those who struggle against the odds, and for freedom, and it is in solidarity with those who believe that empathy and compassion bring greater security than guns and guard dogs. For me this means a celebration of human identity, and a citizenship that is derived primarily not from the blessings of a state or the sense of national belonging, but from the feeling that life is a journey toward a just and humane future, a pilgrimage endowed with spiritual significance throughout its unfolding. It is an engagement with impossible possibilities for the future, dreams and dramas of human fulfillment, and the person who fully endorses such a journey and the human identity that accompanies it is what I choose to call, and aspire to be:  ‘a citizen pilgrim.’

Assessing the Israel Palestine Conflict on U.S.S. Liberty Day

17 Jun


I am posting the edited and slightly modified transcript of a talk given on the evening of June 8, 2012 at the University Temple Methodist Church in Seattle. The actual talk is available via YouTube. It is published here in response to several requests. Comments of course welcome.

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Thank you so much. It’s intimidating for me to be in this sacred space to begin with, but I think I’ve never had the experience of three introductions. I’m not sure I can live up to one, but three is quite overwhelming. I also want to thank Rev. Lang for allowing us to meet here in this very imposing atmosphere.  And let me express gratitude to all of these groups that joined together to sponsor this event. They deserve our deep appreciation, because no issue confronting American society more needs the kind of open discussion that I hope we will have this evening than the realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict and how it is distorting the American role in the Middle East.

There is an important price that is more than the monetary price tag. There is a moral and a political price tag that has been associated with allowing such an oppressive structure as Israel maintains in relation to the Palestinian people to be subsidized and for the United States to be complicit through such a long period of time in the subjugation of a people deprived of its land and deprived of its rights.

I wanted to say at the outset that my approach to the Israel Palestine conflict does not proceed very much from my religious identity as a Jew or on the basis of my national identity as an American, but it is mostly an expression of my human identity. And I think if we want to live on this planet successfully we have to more and more think as humans not as Americans, not as Jews or Christians or Muslims. We have to retain the pride of those identities, but they have to be part of a human experience, and the more that we allow ourselves to be human, the more likely we are to take suffering seriously. And when we take suffering seriously, we become inevitably committed to the struggle for justice.

And I really think that’s what this whole set of issues, in the end, is about. Rev. Lang referred to the importance of courage and compassion, and I think that also is an essential part of what is involved here. I would say less courage, although the hostility to truth-seeking in this area sometimes requires at least stubbornness, if not courage, but what I really think it demands of all of us is responsibility, taking seriously our sense of freedom and opportunity as citizens to engage as much as we can in trying to solve a situation that has been so productive of violence and suffering and injustice.

I would contend that it is responsibility and compassion are what guides my understanding of these issues, and that compassion is something very fundamental in our historical space, I believe. Because living in a more and more crowded planet that is fragile and exquisitely complex, we need increasingly to be able to think, feel, and act as if the other is not an object but a subject. We have to find ways to have sympathy with the circumstances of the other, and if we allow ourselves to do that, the suffering of others does become intolerable. In a way I think what seeking the truth leads us to do is to bring us into contact, if we allow ourselves, with such suffering and therefore to recognize that it is intolerable to live passively in its presence.

We meet tonight June 8th on the 45th anniversary of the Israeli attack on the American espionage vessel the USS Liberty. In that attack 34 American naval personnel were killed and 170 wounded This incident happened a long time ago, but it illustrates for me the fundamental distortion of our sense of reality that has been fostered by a very disturbing relationship between our government and the government of Israel. Evidence has long confirmed that this attack on the USS Liberty was a deliberate attack by the Israeli government. This is well documented, including by a former CIA operative, Stephen Green among others. The reason for the Israeli attack was that this ship was listening to message traffic between Tel Aviv and the Israeli forces on the Egyptian border during the Six Day War. The Israeli leadership, particularly the military commander Moshe Dayan, at the time didn’t want the US to hear about Israeli plans to shift its forces so as to mount an attack on Syria and occupy the Golan Heights. The U.S. Government at that time opposed such an attack. It was very nervous about doing anything provocative in Syria, which was allied with Moscow, and could easily draw the Soviet Union into an open conflict with the West, and this was quite likely to escalate the situation in ways that were potentially extremely dangerous. So there was a clear Israeli strategic motive for attacking the U.S.S. Liberty.

I think it is really extraordinary that Israel, America’s supposed close ally, would actually carry out such an attack. The Liberty was well marked and in international waters, but what is more,  I think, and more revealing and most disturbing is that the American government would suppress the reality of what happened and engage in a cover up all these years,  a dynamic of misinformation originally insisted upon by Lyndon Johnson, the president at the time.

Even then, 45 years ago, the U.S. government was more prepared to allow this criminal sacrifice of its own people without a whimper of protest than to tell the American people the truth about what happened and why. It seems that even in 1967 Johnson was worried about a domestic Jewish backlash that would hurt his political standing if Israel were to be blamed for the attack.

What I really think is most important about this sorry story is the degree to which we need, as citizens and as human beings, to pursue the truth on our own. We cannot rely on our government, which is most unfortunate, to transmit the truth, even in such a situation where Americans serving as naval officers and seamen were the deliberate objects of lethal attack by the government of a foreign country. I think we should all think about what the saga of the Liberty tells us about our government, as well as about this unhealthy relationship with Israel.

The other anniversary that overlaps with what happened to the Liberty was the Six-Day War, the June war in 1967, which again was presented to all of us, including myself I must admit, as a war in which Israel had no choice but to defend itself against the prospect of imminent Arab aggression. It’s only now that we in the public are beginning to get a more accurate sense of the reality. There was an important article by Miko Peled the son of one of the leading Israeli generals at the time, who wrote, and somewhat surprisingly his piece was published in the Los Angeles Times, and many of you may have seen the article, in which he recounts on the basis of very reliable documentation that Israel did not perceive a threat in 1967 and that they understood that there was no danger at all that its Arab neighbors could attack them with any harmful effects on Israeli security. But what the Israeli leadership at the time did see was an attractive opportunity for expanded their territorial domain, and as well, they saw an excellent opportunity to destroy the military capabilities of their Arab neighbors. And so what was presented, again with the active complicity of our government, whose intelligence operative knew better, was a complete false conception. Put simply, a war of aggression was portrayed as a war of necessary self-defense, the overall claim being that Israel’s survival was at stake unless it struck first. To indulge such a fiction was to cast aside the most fundamental inhibition embedded in the UN Charter, namely, the absolute prohibition on a war of aggression, what the Nuremberg Judgment treated as Crimes Against the Peace.

This is very disturbing on a number of levels. To begin with, at the most fundamental level, it illustrates that even in relation to these most vital issues of war and peace, one cannot trust our own popularly elected government to tell its own citizens the truth. In situations where people are dying and being killed, one would have hoped that this kind of cover-up and dishonesty would be a form of treason that is regarded as a severe national crime against the people. But we tolerate, almost we legitimize, lying by the state for whatever strategic or domestic priorities it may have at a particular time. This experience also informs us that we have to depend on our own capacities to find the truth and pursue the truth without accepting public manipulations of a sensitive and controversial political reality.

In light of these preliminary remarks, I would now like to call our attention to three areas of falsehood or myth that explain in part the rationale for this unhealthy tight bonding between the United State Government and Israel. It seems almost unique in the history of international relations, particularly the degree to which the much smaller and weaker partner country is able to manipulate the superpower in such a manner as to distort its own interests and subvert its professed values. In this extreme situation, the superpower has actually relinquished its own capability to offer criticism or expose the truth, however justified such clarifications may be from the point of view of American national interests.

Can you appreciate how radical and unusual is such a posture of deference? That this government – no matter which party is in power – is intimidated or inhibited from expressing its own understanding of its own national interests because it doesn’t want to offend pro-Israeli media and domestic Jewish constituencies, agitate Congress, and antagonize certain sectors of public opinion. And nothing illustrates this intimidation more vividly, I think, than the way in which the Iran war is being promoted on the basis of contrived fears and implanted expectations. There has for several months been an insidious build-up toward a confrontation with Iran, threats that have been posed by Israel continuously and by the United States less vigorously have proceeded despite the widespread understanding that to carry out these threats would be disastrous – economically, politically in the region, and would likely have very adverse military repercussions.

And my point is not to make that substantive argument so much as to say our elected leaders are unwilling even to put the policy issue before the people as an issue for debate. In fact, as some of you who follow this question may have learned, all 16 American intelligence agencies are agreed that the overwhelming evidence points to Iran’s abandonment of a program to acquire nuclear weapons back in 2003. If you listen to our leaders or follow the media, you would never even know about this essential dimension of the situation, which should be itself shocking. You would never know that there was any ambiguity about what Iran is doing, which is what these various intelligence capabilities that we pay billions of dollars to possess are telling us about, and yet we refuse to listen or heed their assessment despite the reassurance that would undercut this dangerous drift toward a disastrous war.

I would have expected that at least President Obama would mention when talking about these issues that there substantial doubts exist was currently seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. Instead, the U.S. Governemt has joined with Israel in threatening Iran continuously, while imposing ever harsher sanctions, and we have taken such coercive measures without even daring to refer to the relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Now why is this seeming oversight serious? It’s serious because it indirectly supports what I would call Israel’s incredible geopolitical hypocrisy, and makes clear that for Washington there is one set of rules for our friends and another for our adversaries. Such double entry bookkeeping deeply compromises the rule of law, because you can’t expect a system of law in which equals are treated so unequally to engender respect. Such a regime is not law at all, but power, a form of hard power, because it deals with an essential security issue.

What is I regard as deeply troubling beyond what I’ve already said is that there exists a perfectly attractive alternative to this kind of war diplomacy, and that is to establish a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East that would include Israel. Nothing could be better actually for the genuine longer term security of Israel, among other things, than to get rid of these weapons and their threat. All of  the governments in the region would be welcome such an initiative that would denuclearize the region and avoid what almost any objective observer would view as a disastrous encounter, that is already generating acute tensions in the region and further destabilizing a situation that is already highly unstable.

But my main point here, which is part of my wider effort to convey an understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict, is that because Israel is intent on this threat diplomacy directed at Iran, the U.S. leadership cannot even mention the fact that there exists an alternative to this military approach. Even a coercive sanctions approach is basically trying to impose a solution by force, where there is present a much more constructive way to proceed that is well known and quite obvious.

So there are two problems here that are both in my view fundamental. One problem is the inability or, let me express this more forthrightly, the political unwillingness of our elected leadership to criticize Israeli approaches to problems even when we know they are wrong. And you should be aware of what an extreme claim is being made: I’m saying that even when we know that Israel is taking a wrong course, we can’t propose an alternative, at least not in public, and our leaders are utterly unwilling to offer criticism of even the most ill-advised Israeli behavior.

The other point that I think is equally serious is that Israel and the United States, more than any other important governments in the world, have confined their understanding of security to a matter of choosing among military options. They see security through an outmoded optic that biases policy toward military approaches that have been proven to be, among other things, unsuccessful over and over again in recent decades.

One of the most important unlearned lessons of the post -colonial world is that the stronger military side usually over time loses a conflict. That was the main lesson of the Vietnam war, or should have been. The U.S. had complete military superiority- in the air, on sea, on land. Lyndon Johnson derisively referred to Vietnam as “a tenth-rate Asian power” that couldn’t hope to stand up to the might of the United States–  and yet as we all know they eventually won the war.  The Pentagon has stubbornly refused to learn this lesson, and so we keep reinventing technology and doctrines to say “Next time we can win.” And the most recent next times have been Iraq and Afghanistan, which only the most befuddled or corrupted observer would call victories.

In other words, our leadership and our media have great difficulty thinking outside the military box, and therefore they tend to ignore peaceful alternatives in conflict situations. Their political imagination is blinkered, in such a way as to incline the response to situations of conflict to select military instruments no matter how dysfunctional these may. This is a most disturbing situation if it is a generally accurate commentary on how our leadership approaches these issues of international peace and security.

Let me now consider directly some of the ideological infrastructure of this unconditionally pro-Israeli approach that has been adopted by our government. I think there are three main ‘myths’ that have been widely disseminated so as to constitute conventional wisdom, yet are essentially misleading. The first is that the Jewish people, having endured the Holocaust, have long been persecuted and that only when Jews act from strength can the Jewish people find security in a world that remains essentially anti-semitic. And besides that, in addition to that sense of permanent victimization, is the coupled belief that the only political language that the Arab world understands is the language of force. So it is this complementary set of ideas that shapes this first myth: when Jews are weak and passive, they have been mercilessly persecuted; but when they are strong and use their power aggressively, they are respected and their existed is treated as a valuable asset for others.

I think that such an outlook, admittedly in a somewhat  exaggerated form, is being expressed by Israel’s current leadership, particularly by Netanyahu and Lieberman. In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, David Shulman, who is a widely known and admired Israeli peace activist, conveyed a similar understanding: “Like many Israelis, he (Netanyahu) inhabits a world where evil forces are just about to annihilate the Jews, who must strike back in daring and heroic ways to snatch their life from the jaws of death. I think that like many other Israelis, he is in love with such a world and would reinvent it even if there was no serious threat from outside.”

I believe that this sense of political paranoia, coupled with a stereotyping of the Arab adversary as disposed toward violence unless faced with greater violence, explains a lot about the mentality that has emerged in Israel. Almost everything is wrong with such a stance, including that it greatly undervalues the relevance of peaceful diplomacy, the sort of diplomacy that I just discussed with reference to Iran. Those who subscribe to this first myth become unduly distrustful of genuine efforts to achieve peace by compromise and normalization, and thinking that does move in a political zone that is not dominated by militarist analysis and understanding is discredited. So I think there are many things wrong with such an approach, and its prevalence helps explain this willingness by the United States over the years to subsidize such a world view that is excessively militarist and has made the relationship with Israel unnecessarily costly in a number of different ways.

Peter Beinart challenges this myth in his important recent book The Crisis of Zionism. Beinart is himself an ardent Zionist, but what he persuasively argues is we need a new American Jewish narrative, built around this basic truth: Jews are not history’s permanent victims. To perpetuate this identity as victim is a choice partly being made by the victim and does not fit the world situation that now confronts Israel. Jewish victimization not in any sense a matter of destiny or necessity, and to rely on such an identity in order to justify the victimization of the Palestinians is neither morally acceptable nor politically viable.

A second widely endorsed explanation of this special American relationship is that Israel is the only democracy in the region, which is what you hear sanctimoniously declaimed so often in the halls of Congress – [laughter from the audience] – although you don’t often hear this asserted greeted with such welcome laughter. There are several things wrong with such a generalization. At least since the Arab Spring of 2011, it’s no longer accurate to not recognize that Tunisia and possibly Egypt as at least have become fledgling democracies that are operating within a framework of respect for law and fundamental human rights. These countries have seriously problems, but they are definitely moving toward establishing democracies after engaging in largely peaceful revolutionary movements. Even before the Arab Spring Turkey had established a successful democratic governing system that was also economically extremely robust and pursuing a foreign policy that has resulted in the Turkish leader becoming by far the most respected political leader in the Middle East, and has led Turkey to be the most admired country outside of the Western world. It certainly no longer fits the reality, that Israel is the only democratic country in the region, even if one does not cast doubt upon Israel’s claim to be ‘democratic.’

And if you are more in touch with the circumstances of Israel, you would realize that Israel in many respects doesn’t deserve to be called a democratic county. Not only is it not the only democracy– it may be a democracy at all. There exist at least 26 separate laws in Israel that discriminate against the Palestinian minority living there, which is 1.5 million people or 20 percent of the total population. So it’s a very serious thing to claim, to paper over the reality of this discriminatory structure that has been present in Israel since its inception.  The Palestinian minority in Israel are at best second-class citizens and in many ways are living with increasing vulnerability and in an atmosphere where they’re not wanted, in a state that is proclaiming itself as dedicated to the purification, to the ethnic purification of the population, with the goal of making Israel as Jewish as possible in all its dimensions.

In addition to this pattern of discrimination, Israel’s democratic credentials are tarnished by its the consistent defiance of international law. It is one of the characteristics of a democratic society in the 21st century that it shows respect for international law and international institutions. Israel rejected without bothering to give its own version of the legal issues a nearly unanimous of the International Court of Justice in 2004 declaring that the separation wall built on Palestinian occupied territory was unlawful, should be dismantled, and Palestinians compensated. It’s very rare to have a 14-1 decision rendered by the International Court of Justice. The judges come from all over the world. This was a clear case when it comes to deciding the legal issues present, there was not room for responsible legal dissent. I am sure that you can guess which country the one dissenting judge came from, and of course, you would be right.

But what should have been embarrassing, again from the picture of this Israeli bias that has crept into all corners of our public life, is that the U.S. Government rejected the International Court of Justice’s opinion even before Israel did, seemingly eager to demonstrate that it was more pro-Israeli than Israel itself. And Washington did the same thing after the release of the Goldstone Report on the Gaza war of 2008-2009. Contrary to Israeli this was a very balanced report that identified with clarity those battlefield practices Israel relied upon that were inconsistent with international law. From my perspective the report was actually quite pro-Israeli. It overlooked some very important Palestinian issues, such as the fact that the civilian population of Gaza was locked into the combat zone during the war. This is very unusual. It meant that Palestinians were not permitted to become refugees, they were not allowed to leave the combat zone, which both cruel and harmful to the civilian population, as well as violative of Israel’s obligation to the people of Gaza in its continuing role as the occupying power.

Another example of the Israel disregard of international law involved the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, in May of 2010.  At that time Israeli naval commandos attacked a humanitarian ship that was trying to bring medical supplies to Gaza that were very much needed and was trying to challenge a blockade that was a form of collective punishment that is itself a war crime prohibited by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. And so in a way this defiance of international law and the support that the U.S. has consistently given to such defiance is one further expression of the degree to which American foreign policy cannot fulfill its national ideals because of this readiness to exempt Israel from criticism, despite the fact that we have provided Israel with so much military and economic assistance, and should at least be able to voice our opinions to uphold national interests and core values.

The third of these myths that I wanted to bring to our attention is a kind of hard-power myth, that Israel is the most reliable and important strategic ally possessed by the United States in the Middle East, which is crucial because the region contains such a large percentage of the world’s proven energy reserves. In my view this is a complete misunderstanding of the best means to ensure positive relations with the oil-producing countries in the region. Such a goal could be far better realized if the U.S. were to pursue a balanced approach to the conflict and exerted pressure on Israel to solve the conflict in conformity with respect for the rights of the Palestinians under international law, and thereby help establish conditions needed for a sustainable peace.

In other words, this idea that Israel is so important as a strategic ally is another misinterpretation, it seems to me, of security in the 21st century, because it identifies conflates security with military superiority. There is no question that Israel is the strongest military power in the region, and that its power can be thought of as an addition to American military power. The misunderstanding arises from the belief that security can be achieved by reliance on military superiority. Such a belief was more or less true in the nineteenth century, and it was generally accurate before the anti-colonial movement succeeded, but it isn’t true in the world as it’s constituted today. This change helps us understand why military superiority has generally not produced favorable political outcomes in the major conflicts of the last 75 years. More than ever military capabilities can destroy unlimited amounts of physical structures and kill people, but it can rarely control the political outcome of long and deep conflicts. Military agency is not how history is moving in the 21st century, and as long as we try to ignore the populist movement of history by continuing to believe in the military foundations of security, we will find ourselves more and more mystified by political frustrations in actual conflict situations.

The United States has never been militarily stronger in its history relative to the rest of the world, from a military perspective, yet at the same time never more insecure. It’s this disjunction that our leaders and citizens have yet to comprehend, and therefore our country has been unable to act globally in a rational fashion, unable to uphold its own security. I would revert to the approach being taken to Iran’s supposed program to acquire nuclear weapons as emblematic of this utter failure to understand both the limits of military superiority and the nonviolent alternatives to it that are most often more effective. Both sides of this 21st century reality are important in my view, and neither is being acted upon in an appropriate manner in American foreign policy, and the consequences are most unfortunate.

Beyond these features of the global setting, the absurdly one-sided relationship with Israel has damaged greatly U.S. credibility as a trusted global leader. It has reinforced an image of this country as hypocritical, exploitative, overbearing, and a purveyor of double standards. Activists who were participating in the Arab Spring movements made clear their insistence on gaining distance from the United States. One of the few shared element across was that the Arab publics were not only were eager to get rid of their domestic tyrants, but they also were intent in not having any successor political arrangement restore American influence in their governing process. So the American regional global role was seen in a largely negative way. This was due in large part to the American complicity in the denial to the Palestinian of their fundamental rights.

So what I’m trying above all to express is that the relationship to Israel has reinforced an independent militarist turn in this country that derives from the existence of a permanent war economy that came into being during World War II and persisted during the long Cold War. This wartime atmosphere produced a militarist bureaucracy, what Eisenhower 50 years ago tried to warn the American people about, what he called the military-industrial complex. A government that has become bureaucratized in a way that is biased toward adopting military approaches to problem-solving cannot be reconciled over time with maintaining the inner spirit of democratic government. The militarist turn creates a constant emphasis on security threats and generates fear of and hatred toward enemies, real and imagined. This leads to perceived justifications for many encroachments upon freedoms at home. The post 9-11 period has been dramatically illustrative of the unfortunate domestic consequences of militarizing security.

What I’m trying to convey is that a dominant mentality has emerged out of this long process of militarization that is crippling the national political and moral imaginations. It disables the country from pursuing a rational and moral course that is compatible with the particular challenges of our new century. The relationship with Israel is an extreme version, as well as being a microcosm of a much broader problem that makes it so difficult for the country at this stage to find workable and humane solutions for problems at home and abroad.

I want to say, before bringing these remarks to an end, that there are several important developments in relation to the Palestinian conflict that should be noticed by people such as yourselves who care about these issues, but also to remind us that our understanding of this conflict is filtered through an extremely biased media and an extremely one-sided government set of responses. These atmospheric factors deprive us of the opportunity to think for ourselves about what’s happening in this conflict.

The developments that I wanted to mention briefly are illustrative of this. The first of these is the almost total disillusionment with international negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as at all relevant to a just resolution of the conflict. This mood of disillusionment is widespread, and for different reasons, is on both sides of the fence, Israel and Palestine. I want to point out is that time is not neutral as between the parties. The Israelis have used the failed negotiations ever since 1993, when the so-called Oslo framework was accepted, to gradually annex significant portions of the West Bank and to change the demographic character of West Jerusalem.

In other words, the Palestinians have lost and the Israelis have gained by the absence of progress during several decades of negotiations. Therefore, it has come to seem like a fool’s errand to continue to participate in such a game, at least from the Palestinian side. The most widely respected political leader, Marwan Barghouti, recently made a call from his prison cell to, what saying to his people, “give up the farce of the peace process” and negotiations and have recourse to massive nonviolent resistance. I find this sensible advice.

The second development that both follows from and was really anticipated prior to what Barghouti had to say, is to take proper note of the dramatic turn on the part of Palestinian activists, including its more radical elements, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, toward nonviolence. What I would emphasize consistent with my theme is that you would have to be a reader of online, marginal publication to have any awareness of this trend.  The media blackout should be shocking in view of the earlier discrediting of Palestinian resistance precisely because it was violent and had targeted those who were innocent.

It’s not only that for several years the Palestinians have essentially given up armed resistance, although not totally or with a principled rationale. Palestinian militia groups in Gaza have retaliated periodically when Israel has attacked or assassinated their leaders. These responses have been largely symbolic as the rockets and mortars used have been too inaccurate to cause much harm, although they do generate fear in the Israeli communities within range, and represent unacceptable tactics. The basic Palestinian political strategy is evidenced by how they have resisted for some years the construction of this unlawful separation wall. It has been exclusively by reliance on peaceful demonstrations that have been carried on courageously every week for seven years and have remained nonviolent despite enduring considerable Israeli violence that has produced death and injury. Palestinians and international solidarity groups, including some from Israel, have tried to break the blockade of Gaza by way of the Free Gaza Movement that is essentially a civil society initiative that seeks peacefully to challenge an unlawful regime of blockade that governments and the UN have not been able to do anything about except denounce. And Palestinian NGOs have initiated the global boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign, which is growing in strength and geographic reach and has had an increasing tangible effect on Israeli trade and investment.

And most, perhaps, impressive of all, Palestinians have recently challenged the use of imprisonment and administrative detention through a series of remarkable hunger strikes, which have gone almost completely unreported by the American media. We hear endlessly about Chinese human rights activists or about those that challenge the situation in Tibet, and we should hear about them—I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t – but these hunger strikes, currently there’s one Palestinian who’s a soccer star that’s been on a hunger strike for over 82 days, which is 16 days longer than Bobby Sands’ famous IRA hunger strike unto death back in 1981, and yet there is a complete blackout in the media

In stark contrast, the IRA hunger strike was covered on a daily basis. This anti-Palestinian media bias involves a double movement that has had a distorting effect on American public opinion: a politics of invisibility so far as Palestinian initiatives are concerned and Palestinian grievances are concerned, and there’s a politics of magnification as soon as the Palestinians engage in anything wrong. This style of reportage creates an unreal appreciation of what the circumstances, the existing circumstances are. And this damage is, I think, magnified further by the internal drift of Israeli politics, which has gone further and further in the direction of an expansionist, non-interest in a compromise, no feeling of pressure that there is any need to compromise with the Palestinians so as to reach an agreed solution. David Shulman, in this same essay that I quoted from before, said that what has happened in Israel is a take-over by the settler mini-state of the central institutions of the Israeli state system as a whole.

And this development should be regarded as quite alarming, because the whole settler movement has been premised from its outset on a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. Article 49, Paragraph 6 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits transfer of population from an occupying country to the occupied country, an interpretation that is shared by virtually every government in the world.

So the whole settlement phenomenon is an affront to international law, and the fact that the Palestinian Authority has to be apologetic when they ask for a suspension or freeze of the settlement activity during direct negotiations suggests how distorted our expectations have become as to what is reasonable to expect. And for Netanyahu to be praised when a partial freeze was agreed to for a few months in the West Bank, which wasn’t observed in practice anyway, reinforces this sense that the United States Government is incapable of objective analysis and thought when it comes to addressing the conflict.

There is a further development that I think is important to realize and again has not received much commentary, and that is: American society, much more so than five years ago, I think would be ready to accept a balanced approach to the conflict. It’s the Beltway, that is official Washington, that is completely organized by AIPAC and by the right-wing evangelical movements, in such a way as to not only prevent a balanced approach, but to discourage a serious debate as to what might work equitably and effectively. It’s an extreme distortion that was I think dramatized for anyone who observed the wildly enthusiastic reception that Netanyahu received in the U.S. Congress a few months ago, a reception more favorable than would be accorded any leader of any other country in the world.

So what I’m really saying is that American society cannot find ways at the present time to translate its changed sentiments about the conflict, more desire for a more balanced approach, can’t translate this willingness into policy. There is this growing gap between what the government is doing and what the society would accept. And that is a challenge to all of us, I think, to exert pressure to close this gap.

Let me end with a couple of quotes and a reference to the challenge that we face in light of these circumstances. A famous, or celebrated, Jewish thinker and rabbi, Abraham Heschel, said “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” And I think we as Americans have a particular responsibility. Our funds, taxpayer funds, are used to subsidize this unlawful and cruel occupation, this drift toward promiscuous Israeli and American militarism that is endangering the stability of the region. And there are opportunities to do things. We can certainly be more active in informing our representatives that the American people want a more balanced and truthful policy. We can do things to support the BDS movements in our communities, and I know there have been some initiatives here in Washington. We can certainly object to the sale of products that were made in the settlements and to corporations that profit from their dealings with occupied Palestine. We can also do our best to influence the media presentation of this conflict and oppose military assistance to Israel.

Israel has become a prosperous country with a high standard of living that should be taken into account in shaping U.S. policy. The continuation of lavish economic assistance despite the fiscal troubles here makes no sense, and considering that such funds are subsidizing Israeli militarism makes these contributions a real scandal, or should a policy that deserves to be treated as a real scandal.

Albert Einstein made many illuminating remarks on the human condition, and one of them fits with the tenor of my concluding sentiments: “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” I think that we need to do our best to avoid such deference to authority to overcome the weight of conventional thinking on these issues, to get around the distortions of government policy, and to do something to correct for the biased media filter that gives us such a selective presentation of the facts as the conflict unfolds. And if you ask what is truth is this situation, I think it is getting to understand the experience and the facts as accurately as possible with as little interference from biased sources as can be achieved.

I think we are all challenged to do our part. I feel that the Palestinian people have displayed great courage and steadfastness, and they do need courage, and have expressed that courage in a variety of ways, that I find inspirational. We who are on the outside do not need courage but we do need commitment, thereby to strengthen a compassionate attachment to their struggle, the only path to a just peace for both peoples. Thank you very much.

U.S. Military Suicides and Palestinian Hunger Strikes

12 Jun


             There is some awareness in the United States that suicides among American military personnel are at the highest level since the years of the Vietnam War. It is no wonder. The sense of guilt and alienation associated with taking part in the Afghanistan War, especially multiple postings to a menacing war zone for a combat mission that is increasingly hard to justify and almost impossible to carry out successfully, seems sufficient to explain such a disturbing phenomenon. These tragic losses of life, now outnumbering battlefield deaths, about one per day since the start of 2012, are not hidden from the American public but nor do they provoke an appropriate sense of concern, of better, outrage. This contrasts with the Vietnam years, especially toward the end of the war, when many families with children at risk in a war that had lost its way and was being lost took to the streets, pressured their Congressional representatives, spoke at anti-war rallies, and supported their sons unwillingness to take part. Now there is a stony silence in American society, which seems to be a confirmation that we now are ‘citizens’ of or ‘patriots’ in an authoritarian democracy, or more urbanely, ‘subjects’ of a constitutional democracy. We are less than ever cognizant of the Jeffersonian imperative: the health of this democracy depends on the conscience and vigilance of its citizens.

 

            Anthony Swofford, a former marine, seeking to comprehend what Newsweek in a cover story (May 25, 2012) acknowledges to be “an epidemic” of suicides among combat veterans takes note of the resistance to self-scrutiny on the part of the governmental branches most involved. In his words, “the Department of Veteran Affairs and the military shy away from placing blame directly on the psychological and social costs of killing during combat.” There is some attention given apparently to improving the screening process so that potential suicides are not inducted, but no sensitivity to the deeply alienating experience of being assigned to kill in an utterly unfamiliar human environment as is the case with Afghanistan and Iraq that is naturally hostile to such an occupation by a distant country with an entirely different cultural orientation. If you have seen pictures of heavily armed American foot soldiers on patrol in an Afghan village feelings of surreal misfit seem inescapable. And yet, there is no national sense of responsibility associated with sending young Americans into situations where the harm done to themselves not only puts their lives and wellbeing in jeopardy as a result of being exposed to enemy weapons but also subjects them to often invisible traumatic wounds of the assigned combat duties that rarely altogether heal even many years after leaving the war zone.

 

            These wounds are far more widespread than even the high incidence of suicide suggests, often expressed in less dramatic and terminal ways. It is a monumental expression of insensitivity to the wellbeing of our youth that we put them in harm’s way to carry out a war effort that has long been drained of meaning, and that our leaders are at a loss to explain.  True patriotism in this century should produce an angry uproar and public debate before acquiescing in such a cruel indifference to the fate of our young warriors, who are disproportionately poor and frequently members of a marginalized minority. This insensitivity is, of course, far less pervasive than when the victims are ‘others.’ This is illustrated by the national failure to raise questions about the state terror associated with drone attacks on village communities in foreign countries that undoubtedly spreads acute fear and feelings of vulnerability to the entire population, and not just to those who might imagine themselves to be selected by an American president as a kill target.

 

            The relationship of these suicides to the recent wave of Palestinian hunger strikers objecting to Israeli practices of detention without charges or trial and to deplorable arrest and prison conditions is worth commenting upon. The hunger strikers are arousing widespread sympathy among their population, and a growing commitment to protest their confinement and celebrate their courage, embracing their acts as essential expressions of Palestinian nonviolent resistance to occupation, annexation, and apartheid conditions. Unlike suicides among veterans, which are lonely acts of desperation because the conditions of living have become endurable, the hunger strikers are willingly and knowingly engaging in a punishing self-decreed refusal to accept food as the only means available to call attention to their severe grievances. Their acts express an intense desire for life, not death, but their statement to the world is that when conditions become so dreadful it is preferable to die than to be further humiliated by intolerable mistreatment.

 

            The first hunger striker, Khader Adnan, since his release in April tells of why he engaged in such extreme violence against his body despite a deep attachment to his family and village life: “The reasons behind my hunger strike were the frequent arrests and treatment received when arrested and the third was the barbaric methods of interrogation in prison—they humiliated me. They put dust of their shoes on my moustache, they picked hairs out of my beard, they tied my hand behind my back and to the chair which was tied to the floor. They put my picture on the floor and stepped on it. They cursed my wife, and my daughter who was less than a year and four months old with the most offensive words they could use.” The hunger strikes have finally brought to light such patterns of humiliation long imposed on imprisoned Palestinians. What Adnan did inspired many others among Palestinian prisoners, and at present there remain at least three Palestinians risking death to abide by their plea for life and dignity, and these include a prominent member of the Palestinian national football team who has been held as an ‘unlawful combatant’ since July 2009, Mahmoud Sarsak, now 90 days without food (the two others are Akram al-Rakhaw, 70 days, and Sunar al-Berq).

 

            These dual sad set of circumstances both involve fundamental wrongs associated with the violence of states. The American suicides are essentially sacrifices of lives at the altar of the Martian god of war, while the Palestinian hunger strikes are struggles to survive in the face of state terror imposed in darkness on those who show any signs of resistance to an occupation that has gone on for 45 years and has become more and more oppressive with the passage of time. As Adnan said of his experience of arrest in the middle of the night and release: “..they are trying to hurt our dignity..and released me in the dark, late at night..they only work in the darkness.”

 

            Despite this darkness, we should be able to see what is happening, and respond with whatever means are at our disposal. In America we are mostly kept in the dark with respect to Palestinian suffering, and as for our Americans victims of war, we are informed, but not enlightened, and thus are caught in the headlights, supposing that these military suicides are an unfathomable mystery rather than realizing that they are inevitable byproducts of wars fought in strange foreign lands for no credible defensive purpose. 

A Stronger ‘Political Europe’ might save a Stumbling ‘Economic Europe’

11 Jun


 

            It was only a few years ago that Europe was being praised as the savior of world order, and heralded as the hope for the future of world order. Books with such titles as The European Superpower and Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century were widely read. They celebrated the realities of a European post-colonial recovery, even a new type of ascendancy, results that were welcomed by many who hoped for a more peaceful and equitable world. I shared much of this enthusiasm, believing that the European Union was a bold and generally progressive experiment in regionalism that was better suited to our era of intensifying globalization than a state-centric world of sovereign territorial communities habituated to the dynamics of warfare. This statist world order had been evolving through the centuries, but always with the premise that the sovereign state was not subject to external authorities and law if its fundamental security interests were at stake. The origins of this state system are conveniently associated with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that brought to an end the bloody Thirty Years War, a struggle between Catholics and Protestants to determine primacy within Christendom. 

 

            A world of regions provided a structural vision that seemed an attractive sequel to a world of sovereign states. It seemed more attainable than a quixotic leap in the direction of world government, which neither political nor business leaders took seriously. Populist forces were also suspicious of any advocacy of world government, generally fearing it was intended as or would turn out to be a scheme for Western dominance. From these perspectives the EU seemed to be the most interesting world order game in town!  It was an exciting experiment in world order that had grown through the years far beyond its early modest post-1945 beginnings as an instrument for limited economic cooperation on matters of coal and steel among a small number of European countries. By stages the EU had become the most impressive supranational presence in modern times, seemingly a far more significant alternative to state-centricism than the UN or even the international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF, WTO).

 

            European regionalism was mainly applauded in mainstream circles because of its achievements associated with economic integration that produced benefits in trade and investment, as well as overall economic growth. EU was not only a clever adjustment to European participation in a globalizing world economy that featured the expanding role of such major actors as the United States, Japan, and China, it also seemed to facilitate a positive European future . Perhaps, most notably, Europe had become a culture of peace, not a small accomplishment on a continent long ravaged by devastating wars, particularly in the 20th century. In a stimulating book, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone, its author James Sheehan informs us that “[t]he eclipse of the willingness and ability to use violence that was once so central to statehood has created a new kind of European state, firmly rooted in new forms of public and private identity.” (p. 221) Most especially, this new European outlook, while certainly not pacifist, was generally seemed disinclined to endorse global militarism.

 

            Such a shift in Europe was not without ambiguities. Europe’s habits of obedience to Washington acquired during the long Cold War often led European governments to give priority to their alliance relations with the United States rather than give expression to this altered political consciousness. Some skeptics suggested that Europe had not really adopted a culture of peace, but rather found it expedient to concentrate their collective energies on meeting the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union. NATO waged war in 1999 to end the oppressive Serb occupation of Kosovo in a situation in which there did exist credible dangers of ethnic cleansing and the encouragement of an Albanian majority population that welcomed the intervention. Although European governments were split on backing the Iraq War in 2003, the public opinion in every European country was strongly opposed to the war. NATO had been a defensive regional alliance generated by concerns about Soviet expansionist ambitions and anchored in the military capabilities of the United States that seemed dedicated to the defense of Europe even if meant enduring the onslaught of a third world war.

 

            Above all, the EU evolution confirmed the view that intra-European relations were now insulated from war, that open borders did not pose security threats, and that a common European foreign policy was likely to be achieved in the near future. To some extent, the EU reinforced this positive image by taking the lead in efforts to shape a responsible global policy on climate change.

Their efforts were so successful that the United States at the 2009 Copenhagen UN Conference on Climate Change tried to build a new coalition of pro-growth economies with the intention of marginalizing the European insistence on cutting back drastically on greenhouse gas emissions.

 

            Europe veered in a wrong direction after the 9/11 attacks when it allowed NATO to express solidarity with the United States decision to respond by way of launching a global war on terror that persists. This implicated Europe in the dubious approach by the neoconservatives in Washington to pursue a worldwide grand strategy aimed at global domination. It completely transformed NATO into an instrument of post-colonial Western interventionary diplomacy, having nothing to do with the defense of Europe, and engaged in warfare in such non-European battlefields as Afghanistan and Libya. The claims to achieve a culture of peace were deeply compromised by this participation in these non-defensive wars, and as a result the idea of an emergent progressive European alternative to state-centricism has almost vanished from the imaginary of a preferred future for humanity.

 

            But more than peace, Europe also showcased the realities of a humane form of capitalism in which the mass of society could enjoy a secure and satisfying life, a welfare state in which high quality education and health care was provided, human rights upheld and implemented by a regional judicial process that had the mandate to override national policy, and an economic space that combined robust growth with the free flow of capital, goods, and labor. This 21st century social contract between the state and its citizenry that emerged in Europe seemed to provide a model for others to follow, or at least to be challenged by. Other nearby countries seemed eager to join the EU to benefit economically and politically from such an association of states in which the whole seemed definitely to exceed the value of the parts, and extremist politics of either left or right seemed precluded.

 

            Disappointment with developments pertaining to Europe can be expressed schematically. The preoccupation with economic Europe produced an accommodation with populist insistence on a decent life to produce advances in ‘social Europe’ and this produced a climate of opinion that allowed the radical step of monetary integration. This process proceeded but without corresponding political integration needed to establish a strong European identity. Political Europe, while enjoying some governmental presence in the form of the European Court of Justice, European Court of Human Rights, and the European Parliament, never generated a sense of Europeanness that extended beyond market ambitions, and perhaps the aggrandizing moves that prompted the enlargement of the EU to encompass the countries formerly part of the Soviet Bloc. As the great French Europeanist, Jacques Delors, well understood, without congruence between economic and political integration, the onset of a crisis affecting money and markets will revive fierce nationalist sentiments and accompanying blame games. Instead of a bold experiment in regional identity politics, we seem faced once again with Europe as a collection of separate sovereignties.

 

            All is not yet lost, but there is a message beyond that of the obsessive bailout/default dialogue. It is that Europe to ensure its future must renovate its political architecture. This means overcoming the peculiar capitalist brand of economic materialism that seems perversely convinced that if money and banks are the problem, then money and banks must be the solution. No, the solution a political, ethical, and psychological leap of faith that a European sense of community is necessary to save the EU and the constraints of obsolete nationalism, and therefore it is possible.   

 

UN Alliance of Civilizations, Istanbul Partners Forum, May 31-June 1, 2012

5 Jun


           

               

 

 

 

 

                   The UN Alliance of Civilization (AOC) was initiated by Kofi Annan in 2005 while he was Secretary General of the UN with the joint sponsorship of Turkey and Spain, with its principal center of operations in Istanbul. It was formed under the dark skies that existed after the 9/11 attacks, and seeks to provide an alternative narrative to that of inter-civilizational war, that starkly negative scenario of Islam versus the West associated with the inflammatory views of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington that continues to provide fuel for Islamophobia that burns ever more brightly in Europe and North America. It was several years since I had heard as many references to Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis as I did during the discussions and presentations at the Istanbul Forum, which was opened by speeches made by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, and Ban Ki Moon, the current UN Secretary General.

 

            The primary rationale for the AOC is to provide a ‘platform’ for inter-civilizational dialogue that explores differences among civilizations, but seeks to promote mutual undertstanding and respect, even affection and celebration. The label platform has become recently popular in international circles to convey the sense of a venue that has minimal restrictions as to participation, agenda, and ideological presuppositions. It is open to all perspectives that accept some presumed core values, and tempers disagreements by insisting upon an atmosphere of civility, and by generally avoiding controversial topics of current events. In this regard both Erdogan and Ban Ki Moon affirmed the broad idealistic goals of the AOC, but also made explicit in strong language their condemnation of the Syrian government for its role in recent atrocities committed against civilian communities, with especial reference to the shocking impact of the Houla Massacre that had occurred several days prior to these meetings.

 

            In Turkey the AOC is taken seriously as a new dimension of continuing thought and reflection as is evident both by the establishment of a dedicated academic program at Bahçeshir University and a separate degree granting graduate institute within a new field of academic specialization identified as ‘alliance of civilizations.’ Its first cohort of students played an active part in the discussion periods during the Forum. The AOC is under the administrative leadership of Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal, whose title is UN High Representative for Alliance of Civilizations. It holds periodic meetings on various themes in different parts of the world. I took part in the opening session of the Forum on a panel that included the philosophical founding father of the AOC, Professor Mehmet Aydin, former Minister of State, Rashi Gannushi, the head of the an-Nahda Movement that has emerged victorious in Tunishian elections, and Princess Rym Ali of Jordan, the founder of the Jordan Media Institute. The panel was supposed to address the relevance of global politics, and relied on a Q & A format presided over by the widely admired TV moderator for Al Jazeera, Riz Khan. The session was lively, avoiding the often tedious presentation of a sequence of papers, and led to thoughtful questions posed by members of a disparate audience that included the various constituencies that are brought together by the AOC: governments, international institutions, NGOs, students, and representatives of civil society. Due to the format that I had not known in advance, I had prepared some remarks that were never presented at the session, but I did have the opportunity to make some of these points in responding to questions put to me either by Riz Khan or members of the audience.

 

            It is a fair question to wonder whether sponsoring such events is worth the expense and effort. Skeptics say there is already too much ‘empty talk.’ My tentative response is affirmative. I find that the quality of such global conversations and associated secondary influences to be an essential dimension of a significant 21st century learning experience, not only or even primarily as a result of what speakers from such varied backgrounds have to say, but for the wider audience in attendance and those reached and influenced through media coverage. It is a step in the direction of creating what I described during the discussion period as an emergent ‘cosmopolitan pedagogy’ that is sensitive to divergent cultural styles and understandings. At its best such pedagogy supplements knowledge with wisdom, rationality with ethics and spirituality, and couples concerns about economic development with attentiveness to injustices and environmental hazards. It is through sustaining a creative tension between the particular and the general, the diverse and the universal, as well as between the controversial and the agreed upon that a cosmopolitan pedagogy responsive to the complexities, fragilities, and interactive dynamics of the early 21st century will come gradually into being. I found the discussions at the Istanbul Forum to be valuable contributions to a process of reconstituting cultural cognition for this moment in history.

 

My prepared remarks are published here online for the first time, and were formulated before I had the benefit of the discussions at the Forum, and I hope are of some slight interest:

 

            “I am grateful for this opportunity to participate in this Istanbul Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations.

 

            “As several others have undoubtedly already had occasion to mention the mission of the Alliance as one of promoting understanding among civilizations by way of an open dialogue that stresses differences, I wish to emphasize the commonalities associated with this undertaking. More than ever before in human history there is the need for peoples throughout the world to find leaders who will facilitate cooperation supportive of the shared needs of the planet. The world is faced with a series of problems of global scope that cannot be successfully addressed by governments acting alone or even by coming to agreements about cooperative arrangements based on their mutual national interests. As the failure to act responsibly from a global perspective in relation to nuclear weaponry or climate change illustrates, the peoples of the world remain beholden to the severe limitations of state-centric world order in seeking to shape a global policy that serves the human interest, which is long-term survival and an equitable distributions of burdens.  The risks associated with the possession and deployment of nuclear weaponry and those caused by the inability to fashion a timely response to climate change depend on global policy formed to benefit the whole of humanity, now and in the future, and not just the parts as represented by the governments of sovereign states. Even a global state such as the United States acts selfishly whenever confronted by challenges that threaten its military dominance, diplomatic prestige, and its economic growth

 

            What is particularly appealing about the AOC orientation is the replacement of states by civilizations as the primary units of analysis when thinking about world politics. Such a perspective frees us from the narrowness, egoism, and shortsightedness of nationalist thinking and tribal identities. It also underscores the crucial potential roles of religion and culture in developing an approach to global challenges on the basis of shared and universally endorsed values that draw their inspiration from the East as well as the West. Central to this endeavor is the focus so well expressed by Jacques Derrida on what it might mean for humanity “to live together well” on this planet, a deceptively simple observation that makes a double assertion with profound implications: however we choose as a species to behave, we are destined to live together, which is the inescapable message of globalization, but the more demanding second part of the assertion is the implied encouragement to live together benevolently, that is, in peace, justice, and contentment as attainable ideals. Unfortunately, except as abstractions, we remain mostly in the dark as to how, as a practical matter it could become possible to live, if not well, at least better together: working to achieve real peace, real justice, and real harmony, which presupposes, above all sympathy for and hospitality toward ‘the other’ in all the shapes and forms that human experience presents, and especially, with respect to those others that suffer and are being victimized in various ways by existing societal arrangements. Actually, we have some sense of what such a better world would look like, but we do not have much understanding of how to make the transition from where we are to where we would like to be, and maybe the unstated purpose of the AOC is to bring discussions of such a transition into the domain of public reason, and thus less subject to dismissal as ‘utopian’ wishful thinking. In passing I would note that utopian thought in this period of planetary emergency deserves also to be taken seriously and may provide the world with an emancipatory potential.

 

            The task set for this panel is to emphasize the relevance of global politics to the work of AOC. This is a difficult and speculative task although it is probably better undertaken here in Istanbul than anywhere else in the world. The Turkish political leadership over the course of the last decade has been impressively sensitive to the originality of this young century, and its relevance for the conduct of diplomacy and foreign policy. The essence of this sensitivity has been to give substantive implementation to an awareness that the state is a part of more inclusive configurations of influence and belief—region, civilization, religion—and not on its own.  That without a world government the state remains the most influential representative of the whole—species, world. In effect, the pursuit of national interests, detached from an appreciation of such wider interests as global interests, civilizational identity, and the human interest is not only a betrayal of core values but increasingly dysfunctional for the ends served by the state itself. In the end, this is a fundamental adjustment that calls for vision, ethics, and a practical understanding of how problems can be best solved in a manner that is also mindful of future generations. Fitting together the parts with the whole has always been a challenge to the political and moral imagination of statesmen, but the bearing of problems of global scope and the need for longer time horizons puts a premium on developing responsive modes of thought, policy, and action. It is in this respect that Turkey’s foreign policy based on principled pragmatism has seemed to be a breakthrough in an era where hard power diplomacy has so often failed and the urgencies generated by interdependence tend to be downplayed even as they are acknowledged.

 

            Against this background I think we need as soon as possible to make a conceptual leap of faith. For several centuries world order has been shaped by a preoccupation with borders and walls, along with the related idea of territorial sovereignty. Political community has been established within defended borders, and what is not bounded effectively is open for occupation or shared use. Of course, the colonial period gave a Eurocentric twist to this more general idea, but since the collapse of colonialism this state-centric manner of distributing authority and establishing order has been accepted throughout the world. It is expressed in international law by the ideas of equality among sovereign states, by sovereign authority within the state and freedom beyond its borders as exercised in such global commons as the oceans and space. It is from this perspective that we speak of ‘the freedom of the high seas.’ The United Nations was organized on the basis of the legitimacy of this state-centric imagery, and its Charter reflects this orientation toward world order, although privileging some states in the procedures of the Security Council.

 

            Identity for persons and peoples followed from this basic spatially conceived mapping of the world, giving rise to nationalism and patriotism.  Nationalist ideology and citizenship became in the modern world the exclusive means for individuals and groups to be accorded protection and membership in a state, making statelessness an acute form of vulnerability, an existence without rights. Of course, this conceptual mapping was a crude approximation of reality that overlooked many features of the manner in which this system operated: citizens were frequently helplessly vulnerable to the violence and abuse by their own state; minorities were targets of discrimination; hegemonic and imperial geopolitics encroached upon the territorial sovereignty of weaker states.

 

            Two fundamental developments altered the descriptive accuracy and ethical acceptability of this image of world order. First, the destructiveness of World War II highlighted by the use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities undermined the idea that war could be rationally reconciled with sovereign control over the technologies of warmaking. Secondly, the rise of human rights in the aftermath of the disclosure of the Holocaust challenged the normative idea that states were unrestricted( that is, sovereign) in their internal behavior except as restrained by the rule of law and institutions of constitutional governance. Expressed more vividly we can say that Hiroshima and Auschwitz gave rise to a new concern with limits to complement the earlier focus on borders. This shift has now acquired an ecological dimension through the fears associated with climate change, and the failures to regulate sufficiently the discharge of greenhouse gasses. What has become evident in each of these domains is that problem-solving capabilities of a world of borders cannot address adequately the issues posed by a world of limits, whether these limits refer to political violence, sovereign authority, and the regulation of the global commons, including the world economy.

 

            In other words, the degree to which states, and their perspectives, continue to dominate the formation of global policy has become increasingly anachronistic. It is epitomized by the construction of walls and barriers to keep unwanted people in or out, even sea walls are being proposed and some actually constructed to overcome rising sea levels associated with global warming and the prospect of maritime migrants fleeing from places that are uninhabitable due to heat or flooding. Some states are indulging the illusion that they can escape the downsides of interdependence by establishing for their citizenry the kind of security established by affluent ‘gated communities.’ Similarly, the response of the United States to the 9/11 attacks was to territorialize its quest for restored global primacy by attacking Afghanistan, and then Iraq, in what should have been understood to be an essentially non-territorial conflict of global scope that gave rise to transnational policing and information gathering, but also to self-scrutiny as to whether such extremism, while adopting criminal tactics, might not have been prompted by legitimate grievances.  Such war making after 9/11 was the source of major confusions as a result of the deliberate intertwining of a worldwide counterterrorism campaign with the pursuit of global state-building, the global domination project of the American foreign policy establishment.

 

            In these contexts, and others, we are living in a world of limits but continue to act as if we can address its challenges by acting as if the world of borders remains sufficient. Of course, in many respects our lives and destinies continue to be controlled by these spatial allocations of authority, but the state is stymied when it comes to solving the most basic challenges of the day, whether it be grasping the impacts of drone technology and cyberwar or handling the transnational ramifications of excessive sovereign debt. Issues of scarcity relative to food, water, and energy are also emerging to pose questions about the future viability of our collective lives on the planet, and the need to think now and urgently about how to address limits in a manner that respects the dignity of persons and peoples, and also adopts a precautionary approach to sustainability and survival risks. The preoccupation with borders in what is becoming daily a more borderless world will give rise to waves of despair as problems that could be solved if limits were agreed upon and institutionalized continue to be ignored, or at best, marginalized in the search for the right solutions for global problems.

 

            In conclusion, we can discern the relevance of the AOC theme of civilizational discourse. Only by enlisting the wisdom, core values, and visions of civilizations, including with special appreciation those associated with indigenous peoples, have we any hope of making the necessary transition from borders to limits in our consciousness and governmental logic. It is within the world’s cultures and religions that the sense of limits is inscribed in the deepest recesses of memory and pedagogy, establishing the imperative that human endeavor is doomed unless respectful of limits, either as generated by divine authority or through the enveloping power of nature. Human tragedy, as ancient peoples well understood, is to ignore or live beyond such limits. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris, which conveyed a deep awareness that tragedy befell those who exceeded limits, however powerful and autonomous they might seem.

 

            To learn from others is particularly crucial for the West, which has not heeded these cultural warnings, and especially the United States, that continues to project its military power and neoliberal dogma on a global scale. It means heeding this message of limits whether articulated by native peoples or by the sages of the East. I close with some words uttered long ago by Rabindranath Tagore in his 1913 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: “It is the East in me which gave to the West. For is not the East the mother of spiritual Humanity and does not the West, do not the children of the West amidst their games and plays when they get hurt, when they get finished and tired, turn their face to the serene mother, the East? Do they not expect their food to come from her, and their rest for the night when they are tired? And are they to be disappointed?” This early utterance of such inspirational sentiments was far too generous to the colonizing East and too hopeful about prospects for inter-civilizational harmony, but at the same time prophetic in reminding the children of the Enlightenment in the West that the spiritual accomplishments of the East should not be overlooked. Of course, spirituality is embedded in all civilizations, and it is more a matter of recovering those suppressed spiritualities of the West that succumbed to a spell of secular absolutism while crafting the modern world by means of its technological prowess that proved so useful in war and economic development.

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