Monday, September 1, 2014

Cowboys and Aliens

It is a tricky thing to pull off a historic atrocity analogy. You have to be very careful with them and you are probably better off just not trying. And, as I have written so many times before, conservatives compulsively rush in where historians fear to tread. So I don't want to mimic their mistakes.

It is, therefore, with great trepidation that I follow conservatives into this treacherous territory. But, I have two analogies which I think might help explain the situation in Palestine to my fellow Americans.

Let's start with this familiar story. Europeans arrive in a promised land with superior firepower and inform the brown inhabitants that God gave them this land. This may involve giving Indians small pox blankets or planting landmines in Palestinian olive orchards.

Note: I am using the word "Indian" here because I will use the word "native" to refer to both Native Americans and Palestinians in this analogy and I want to avoid confusion. This first analogy writes itself and it is totally obvious how it will play out, but bear with me.

From the very beginning, there are atrocities on both sides. In America, scalping was practiced by Indians and Europeans alike. In Palestine, the practice was bombing. Many Israeli politicians were at one time terrorists themselves who had targeted civilians as well as military targets during the British Mandate. As with early America, atrocities continued on both sides long after nationhood was achieved. We had elected Andrew Jackson president and the Israelis had elected Ariel Sharon prime minister. Israel's apologists claim that Palestinians never wanted to share the holy land. Well, Irgun and the Lehi did not either. Hard right Zionists insist they must actualize a "Greater Israel" consisting of all the territory that biblical Israel had conquered. For Ingrun, this included Jordan. The "Manifest Destiny" parallel should be obvious.

In any self-perpetuating cycle of violence, both sides express outrage that is simultaneously heartfelt and ridiculously hypocritical. Such is the inherent nature of all ongoing feuds. But the lopsidedness of the conflict makes the outrage of the strongest party even more absurd.

In both early America and modern Israel, you had/have three main groups - natives, settlers, and the army. The army is supposed to keep the peace between the natives and the settlers; but since the army is made of the same ethnicity and nationality as the settlers, there is zero even handedness. If a settler kills a native, he gets a slap on the wrist - if that. If a native kills a settler, it triggers a punitive strike on the entire native community. This tacit incentive system gets exactly the results you might expect.

In both cases, the natives are restricted to the most barren land and their sources of sustenance systematically squeezed. The strongest side rarely bargains in good faith. Needless to say, this exacerbates resentment and cynicism on the weaker side. Human beings being human beings, the stronger party becomes a bully. The infamous Zimbardo prison experiment illustrates how quickly this can take place.

I am not trying to romanticize anyone. If the situation were reversed, their roles would be too. Nor am I denying that underdogs often get romanticized. Anyone with an elementary sense of fairness is apt to to romanticize an underdog unless their sympathy is already locked-in for the other side for some other reason - often for having been the underdog on some previous occasion. Victims becoming bullies is a pretty familiar trajectory in human history. I would not be the first observer to remark that colonists who came to our shores fleeing religious persecution in England had no problem being persecutors themselves. Benjamin Franklin beat me to it in his June 3rd, 1772 Letter to the London Packet:
If we look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practised it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England, blamed persecution in the Roman church, but practised it against the Puritans: these found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here and in New England.(1)
And as V.G. Kiernan wrote of the Dutch winning their independence from the Spanish Hapsburgs:
It did not escape comment that the Dutch were no sooner gaining their freedom at home than they were depriving other people of theirs, an inconsistency repeated by several European nations later on. But they were only doing to Asians what they were ready to do to their English neighbors, co-religionists and allies in their war of independence. In 1623 the English at Amboina were seized, tortured and killed.(2)
But, sympathy or bias aside, it is a tautology worth examining that the side with the most power has the most power. That side has the most control of the situation and can best end the cycle of violence. It has the brunt of the responsibility for escalating or de-escalating things. Likewise, a policeman probably does not need to empty his pistol's clip into an unarmed black teen with his hands up.

Moreover, the "pox on both houses" opinion ignores the fact that one side are the invaders and the other is the resistance. I don't endorse nail bombs any more than I endorse scalping, but it is moronic to be shocked or get morally indignant when the natives strike back with whatever paltry resources they have. That is just going to happen as naturally as gravity. It is a tragedy the same way tornadoes, volcanoes, or earthquakes are - except instead of cold fronts hitting warm ones or tectonic plates grinding together, it is people. The only difference is that people can do something about it. But the people who can do the most about it are, by definition, those with the most firepower.

America and Israel are both young countries that share the same original sin.

Okay, this native analogy is probably not very original. But I have another analogy.

Imagine, if you will, an interstellar invasion of Earth. The Red Dawn fantasies of paranoid survivalists notwithstanding, no nation could possibly conquer the United States at this time. The absurdity hamstrings any suspension of disbelief. So, why not go for broke, be a geek, and imagine an Independence Day-like alien invasion from outer space?

Realistically, how would we react in that situation? Would we distinguish between civilian and military when they begin bringing their families over? Of course not. We would do our utmost to convince them that Earth is not a safe place to bring your spouse and offspring. And if their military technology were so advanced that any assault against them was a de facto suicide mission, how long would it be before some of us just started strapping bombs to ourselves in acknowledgement of the cold, dark logic of our new circumstances? Probably less than fifty years.

And religion has a way of inserting itself into life and death situations. Religious difference would certainly piggyback on to the conflict. Obviously, all differences would be instantly highlighted, but once again the fear of death would magnify religion even more. Warring nations are quick to claim that God is on their side. Even when both sides share the same religion, they may still call it a "crusade." But when the religions are different, things get uglier. The crusade rhetoric becomes more likely, if not inevitable as George W. Bush unthinkingly illustrated. The distinction between "patriot" and "martyr" would blur for most people - most probably immediately. And the alien invaders would no doubt call us crazed, fanatical "animals" as a result. Again, the dynamic would be as natural as gravity.

Perhaps at this point some conservative will call me a human race-traitor for my dim view of humanity. On the contrary, like that great citizen of the world Thomas Paine, my loyalty to humanity is solid. I share his original humanist patriotism. It is the opposite of narrow, tribal nationalism. And what Paine had to say on the origin of property is relevant to the issue of nationalism too:
It is deductible, as well from the nature of the thing as from all the stories transmitted to us, that the idea of landed property commenced with cultivation, and that there was no such thing, as landed property before that time. It could not exist in the first state of man, that of hunters. It did not exist in the second state, that of shepherds: neither Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, nor Job, so far as the history of the Bible may credited in probable things, were owners of land. Their property consisted, as is always enumerated, in flocks and herds, they traveled with them from place to place. The frequent contentions at that time about the use of a well in the dry country of Arabia, where those people lived, also show that there was no landed property. It was not admitted that land could be claimed as property. There could be no such thing as landed property originally. Man did not make the earth, and, though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it; neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue.(3)


1) Benjamin Franklin, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. by Leonard W. Labaree et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1959, 19:163-68.

2) V.G. Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes to Other Cultures in the Imperial Age (Boston and Toronto: Little Brown and Company, 1969), 11.

3) Thomas Paine, The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine: includes Common Sense, The American Crisis, Rights of Man, The Age of Reason and Agrarian Justice, ed. Phillip Sheldon Foner (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), 611.

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