Monday, December 29, 2008

questions of extremism

Valued commenter ED Kain, of Indiepundit fame, counsels that I should check myself a bit when it comes to this post. Let me tell you how I feel.

I have a tendency to rhetorical maximalism that is nothing else than a character flaw. I'm working on it. I am perhaps overzealous in the prosecution of my arguments. But I don't back down from anything I said in that post, and this is why I think that examining the context in which those who oppose the hardline regarding Israel operate is so important: while I may be extreme in my language, I think my side's ideas, what we advocate (rather than how I express it) is remarkably moderate in comparison to the consensus position of Israel hawks. (As opposed to Israeli hawks.)

Ultimately, this is an impossible conversation to have in some ways, because you can never really pin down who, exactly, is an extremist in any given debate. Extremism is a relative quality. It seems to me, though, that the side that is consider extreme and the side that is considered mainstream are exactly opposite. As ED points out, there are not actual holistic camps on either side that have signed any affinity statements or endorsed any particular set of beliefs, so this is necessarily general. But I find that there are no real anti-Israel extremists in what I would consider the mainstream, national conversation. The number of people who advocate or justify the killing of Israeli innocents by Hamas or other Palestinian terrorists are nonexistent in the ranks of the mainstream media, cable news, major blogs, or partisan politics. You simply will not find any. And, indeed, even in supposedly extremist political circles-- circles in which I am fairly well traveled-- I find such things vanishingly rare. "Chomskyite", after all, is used casually to refer to the most radical leftist extremism. But Chomsky himself, and his true devotees, have been adamant in denying any legitimacy in terrorist attacks against Israel.

That's as it should be; advocating terrorism against Israel is unthinkable, and is rightly disqualifying of mainstream status. What is lamentable, to me and others like me, is that there is no similar consensus about even the need to minimize Palestinian casualties. Whether or not the acts of the terrorists in Palestine justify killing Palestinian civilians is a matter of controversy in the mainstream; whether the situation in the territories justifies killing innocent Israelis is a settled question on my side, and the answer is no. Whether the Palestinians deserve either a state of their own or citizenship in Israel is a matter of controversy in the mainstream; whether Israel should exist and be defended is a settled question on my side, and the answer is yes. Whether the Palestinians deserve peace or prosperity at all is a matter of controversy in the mainstream; whether the Israelis deserve peace and prosperity I find to be a settled question on my side, and the answer is yes. Hell, whether or not there is such a thing as a Palestinian has only become a settled question in the mainstream in recent years.

Again, these are generalizations, and I just could be way off base. It may be that there are many people out there in the national conversation calling for continued rocketing of Israel, in the mainstream press, on mainstream blogs. If there are, I've been remarkably blind to those arguments. It seems to me, from my perspective, that on basic questions of human rights and democracy, my side respects those of Israelis, while the other side has no consensus at all concerning the basic human rights of Palestinians.

Consider the examples of Norman Finkelstein and Marty Peretz. Finkelstein has said many smart things and many lamentable things. I agree with Finkelstein on many issues, and then he says things that truly make me question his moral compass. Is Finkelstein so radical that he deserves to be written out of the respectable conversation? I don't know; I'm not a very good arbiter of those things. Certainly, I don't want my own name associated with his. What I do know is that he has been written out of respectable conversation. Many people who are principled opponents of the continued Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories have written Finkelstein and others like him off, because they don't want to take the risk of guilt by association. Again, I'm not one to say if that's right or wrong. But it happens.

Marty Peretz, meanwhile, reamins the controlling force behind one of the three or four most influential and important political magazines in the country. He remains a higly quoted and highly read figure. His blog is linked to by mainstream blogs and online magazines. He is a firmly establishment figure. He is also a vulgar and hateful man. The fact that he is a virulent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigot is, really, very hard to dispute. Many people have proposed the game of substituting "Jews" for "Arabs" in the work of Peretz and trying to imagine the outcry. Certainly, if I spoke about Jews the way Peretz speaks about Arabs, I think many of you would never return to this blog, and you would be right not to. But Peretz, though he's become a clownish figure, and is certainly seen on the extreme end, has not been meaningfully marginalized the way that someone like Norman Finkelstein has been. To me, that seems like a discrepancy, and it's the kind that I see in a lot of places in this discussion.

My opinions on extremism and fairness are largely a product of my own opinions, I recognize that. I find though that the most important aspects of this discussion-- the basic assumption that both sides deserve peace and prosperity-- is unevenly held, depending on who you are talking about, Palestinian or Israeli. I feel like that has to have some salience to a discussion of extremism. Ultimately, the important question is not who is more extreme but rather who is advocating what, and which is best for everyone concerned. I feel that the best and most moral outcome for all is an autonomous state of Palestine, and for a cessation of asymmetrical violence on the Palestinian people. Whether or not I am right about what is best or moral for Israel and for Palestine is an open question. Perhaps time will tell.


E.D. Kain said...

Freddie, thanks for the thoughtful response. I've commmented on it in some greater depth here.

Anonymous said...

Israel does not have peace until the
palestinians have peace. If you see Israel as the good actor here, you must still concede that what they are doing has largely not worked. The question should not be whether Israel is being prportional, but are they being smart?