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Monday, June 21, 2010

The symbiosis of Western guilt and Eastern shame

The WSJ has a fantastic piece that gets to the root of modern anti-Zionism, written by Shelby Steele. I'm reproducing the entire article:

The most interesting voice in all the fallout surrounding the Gaza flotilla incident is that sanctimonious and meddling voice known as "world opinion." At every turn "world opinion," like a school marm, takes offense and condemns Israel for yet another infraction of the world's moral sensibility. And this voice has achieved an international political legitimacy so that even the silliest condemnation of Israel is an opportunity for self-congratulation.

Rock bands now find moral imprimatur in canceling their summer tour stops in Israel (Elvis Costello, the Pixies, the Gorillaz, the Klaxons). A demonstrator at an anti-Israel rally in New York carries a sign depicting the skull and crossbones drawn over the word "Israel." White House correspondent Helen Thomas, in one of the ugliest incarnations of this voice, calls on Jews to move back to Poland. And of course the United Nations and other international organizations smugly pass one condemnatory resolution after another against Israel while the Obama administration either joins in or demurs with a wink.

This is something new in the world, this almost complete segregation of Israel in the community of nations. And if Helen Thomas's remarks were pathetic and ugly, didn't they also point to the end game of this isolation effort: the nullification of Israel's legitimacy as a nation? There is a chilling familiarity in all this. One of the world's oldest stories is playing out before our eyes: The Jews are being scapegoated again.

"World opinion" labors mightily to make Israel look like South Africa looked in its apartheid era—a nation beyond the moral pale. And it projects onto Israel the same sin that made apartheid South Africa so untouchable: white supremacy. Somehow "world opinion" has moved away from the old 20th century view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a complicated territorial dispute between two long-suffering peoples. Today the world puts its thumb on the scale for the Palestinians by demonizing the stronger and whiter Israel as essentially a colonial power committed to the "occupation" of a beleaguered Third World people.

This is now—figuratively in some quarters and literally in others—the moral template through which Israel is seen. It doesn't matter that much of the world may actually know better. This template has become propriety itself, a form of good manners, a political correctness. Thus it is good manners to be outraged at Israel's blockade of Gaza, and it is bad manners to be outraged at Hamas's recent attack on a school because it educated girls, or at the thousands of rockets Hamas has fired into Israeli towns—or even at the fact that Hamas is armed and funded by Iran. The world wants independent investigations of Israel, not of Hamas.

One reason for this is that the entire Western world has suffered from a deficit of moral authority for decades now. Today we in the West are reluctant to use our full military might in war lest we seem imperialistic; we hesitate to enforce our borders lest we seem racist; we are reluctant to ask for assimilation from new immigrants lest we seem xenophobic; and we are pained to give Western Civilization primacy in our educational curricula lest we seem supremacist. Today the West lives on the defensive, the very legitimacy of our modern societies requiring constant dissociation from the sins of the Western past—racism, economic exploitation, imperialism and so on.

When the Israeli commandos boarded that last boat in the flotilla and, after being attacked with metal rods, killed nine of their attackers, they were acting in a world without the moral authority to give them the benefit of the doubt. By appearances they were shock troopers from a largely white First World nation willing to slaughter even "peace activists" in order to enforce a blockade against the impoverished brown people of Gaza. Thus the irony: In the eyes of a morally compromised Western world, the Israelis looked like the Gestapo.

This, of course, is not the reality of modern Israel. Israel does not seek to oppress or occupy—and certainly not to annihilate—the Palestinians in the pursuit of some atavistic Jewish supremacy. But the merest echo of the shameful Western past is enough to chill support for Israel in the West.

The West also lacks the self-assurance to see the Palestinians accurately. Here again it is safer in the white West to see the Palestinians as they advertise themselves—as an "occupied" people denied sovereignty and simple human dignity by a white Western colonizer. The West is simply too vulnerable to the racist stigma to object to this "neo-colonial" characterization.

Our problem in the West is understandable. We don't want to lose more moral authority than we already have. So we choose not to see certain things that are right in front of us. For example, we ignore that the Palestinians—and for that matter much of the Middle East—are driven to militancy and war not by legitimate complaints against Israel or the West but by an internalized sense of inferiority. If the Palestinians got everything they want—a sovereign nation and even, let's say, a nuclear weapon—they would wake the next morning still hounded by a sense of inferiority. For better or for worse, modernity is now the measure of man.

And the quickest cover for inferiority is hatred. The problem is not me; it is them. And in my victimization I enjoy a moral and human grandiosity—no matter how smart and modern my enemy is, I have the innocence that defines victims. I may be poor but my hands are clean. Even my backwardness and poverty only reflect a moral superiority, while my enemy's wealth proves his inhumanity.

In other words, my hatred is my self-esteem. This must have much to do with why Yasser Arafat rejected Ehud Barak's famous Camp David offer of 2000 in which Israel offered more than 90% of what the Palestinians had demanded. To have accepted that offer would have been to forgo hatred as consolation and meaning. Thus it would have plunged the Palestinians—and by implication the broader Muslim world—into a confrontation with their inferiority relative to modernity. Arafat knew that without the Jews to hate an all-defining cohesion would leave the Muslim world. So he said no to peace.

And this recalcitrance in the Muslim world, this attraction to the consolations of hatred, is one of the world's great problems today—whether in the suburbs of Paris and London, or in Kabul and Karachi, or in Queens, N.Y., and Gaza. The fervor for hatred as deliverance may not define the Muslim world, but it has become a drug that consoles elements of that world in the larger competition with the West. This is the problem we in the West have no easy solution to, and we scapegoat Israel—admonish it to behave better—so as not to feel helpless. We see our own vulnerability there.
Steele hits many major themes in this one article:  leftist self-loathing, the re-appearance of anti-semitism in the guise of morality, the Arab world's inferiority complex as a driver for its actions, how Arab and Muslim regimes use Israel as a scapegoat to avoid dealing with their own problems and how this feeds into Western guilt.

There is a solution to this problem, but it will not come easily.

Barry Rubin has been in the United States this year after living in Israel for a while. He sent his fourth-grade  son to a public school. In this way, he was able to see how badly the education system of the US has declined since he himself was a child. As he puts it:

It's the end of the school year so I should sum up my son's experience in a public school American fourth grade class. Different school districts vary a great deal. But in this one the students basically learned three things in social studies: America has been racist and done a lot of bad things; man-made global warming threatens the future of the planet; and immigration is good.

Abraham Lincoln was never discussed; George Washington got his ten minutes of fame; and Memorial Day was dispensed with with a photocopy of a short Washington Post article giving a brief and general explanation of its significance. No class discussion.

Just after Memorial Day, during a free activity period, a teacher looked in horror at my son's notebook. He was drawing pictures of soldiers. The notebook pages were confiscated with the warning that he should never draw anything like that again.

We ended the year with a discussion of the songs my son's class had studied. They did "America the Beautiful" once but spent a lot of time on "We Shall Overcome." Suddenly, a thought popped into my mind and I asked my son:

"Did you learn the `Star Spangled Banner'?" He looked puzzled.

My daughter helpfully sang, "You know, `Oh, say can you see!'"

He asked, "What's that?"
Too many people nowadays mistake self-esteem and patriotism for hubris and national arrogance. This is exactly the opposite of the truth. Arrogance is an attempt to cover up one's own deficiencies; self-esteem is the ability to objectively look at both one's own good and bad qualities.

Those with self-esteem do not need praise; those with arrogance do. Those with self-esteem have no reason to brag; those with hubris cannot help themselves. People with a sense of self-worth can take accurate criticism and use it to improve themselves; arrogant people take offense and lash out at those who dare "insult" them.

Westerners with the proper amount of self-esteem are proud of who they are and humble enough to admit their mistakes. Those whose sense of guilt overwhelm their sense of pride will look at those same mistakes as proof of that same guilt.

Low self-esteem in the Western world brings on feelings of guilt. In the Eastern world, however, it brings on feelings of shame.

One way to get rid of shame is to shift the blame to others; another way is to use honor as a perversion of the idea of self-esteem. Honor and shame are all about appearances, not reality, so the appearance of honor is seen as identical to self-worth.

Hence we have Arabs filled with shame who will blame the West and especially Israel for all of their problems as a band-aid to avoid their feelings of inferiority. And we have Westerners who happily accept this guilt that they feel anyway.

Guilt and shame are equally pernicious; in this case they are also symbiotic. Eastern shifting of blame to escape shame has a welcome recipient with Western acceptance of responsibility to escape guilt. The guilty Westerners are then more than willing to cut off the parties who are perceived as the ones most guilty - or the ones who actually have pride in their own accomplishments - to assuage their own feelings of guilt.

The problem is that neither the strategy of shifting blame nor of accepting guilt will end up helping either side's feelings of self-worth.

If Israel falls, neither side would be satisfied. There will be another Western target, and another, and then the next. Each side knows their partner's dance steps very well. It is a complex game that is meant to avoid looking at reality. The solution is for both sides to have a true sense of pride - one so strong that criticism is no longer something to be avoided or redirected, but rather to be welcomed as a means of self-improvement.

Patriotism is not evil; it is healthy and should be encouraged. Patriotism does not mean mindless sloganeering, though. Westerners can and should be proud of their culture and ideals, they should raise their children with pride for their way of life, and there is nothing wrong with declaring Western philosophy as superior.

And there is nothing wrong with others doing the same for non-Western philosophies.

The catch is that one has to be able to defend that opinion, not to accept it mindlessly. The only way that this can be done is if we shed the competing armors of guilt and shame and start making ourselves vulnerable to the most frightening weapon of all, the one weapon that both guilt and shame are meant to defend against and deny altogether:

Truth.