A Short Ethical Preoccupation
Monday, October 17, 2011 6:47:19 AM
I wrote in April that I felt morally “rooted” on account of my first six months in Palestine. I knew at the time it was a colorful word choice, but it took me until now to realize I had just lied in the absolute: every day here is a small moral earthquake, and me with lots of rooting left to do. A question mark is aptly shaped for that kind of work and you can bet I’ve used it a lot—who has rights, who is right, and what makes right? Does the cumulative “right” I’m doing, if I’m doing any at all, outweigh the wrong? Or merely outshine? Is it possible to be good and happy? What about good and angry? But at some point I was bound to put down my shovel and see what I’d dug.
In Palestine, the one-staters (one state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, equal rights for all) and the two-staters (one state for Jews, one state for Palestinians, your rights depend on who you are) are comparable as people who prioritize long-term goals and people who prioritize short-term goals, respectively. Dangerous ideologues versus selfish collaborators, universalists versus family men, liberals versus conservatives—as long as we’ve abandoned the individual frame, let’s go ahead and say, absurdly, that these are the two principle types of humans in history. When I talk to two-staters, they cite their livelihoods. When I talk to one-staters, they cite their dignity. It’s been said enough times that it’s impossible to live without both, and I should say also that both groups reliably point to their (large) families and say their choice of path is for their well-being. One-staters say their children must know about the Nakba and fight it, must remember and redeem the Palestine that was. Two-staters say their children must move on and be happy, must heal and build whatever Palestine is left.
I am, with qualifications, a one-stater. Here are the two chief qualifications: my life and future are hardly ever in the kind of danger that would make me scream for compromise (my money is in an American bank account, my passport is American, my soul, so to speak, is in America), so I can afford to be radical. I also understand the insurmountable logistical and political obstacles involved in the creation of one state. Since I don’t think it’ll happen, I believe in the one-state solution inasmuch as I believe in capital-lettered concepts like Truth or God or whatever. But it’s a relevant delusion. Westerners get them all the time.
About a month ago, a bunch of Americans dusted off their relevant delusions (called, with a hint of cheese, dreams) and started making a ruckus on Wall Street. The corporate media did their dutiful best to ignore and then laugh them out (phases one and two of Gandhi’s ignored-ridiculed-beaten-victorious paradigm), saying that the protests lacked catchphrase clarity. Now that they’ve been given an inch of legitimacy in the mainstream, the Occupy protests have been termed to be about “economic inequality.” To use the now bumper-sticker-ready model, 99% of the nation is beholden to the greed of 1%, who has control over resources, policies, and actual lives far out of all proportion.
Yes, the economic complaints have been most widely reported and it is the biggest attractive force the protests have: in terms of distribution of resources, it’s just about impossible not to find the stats to prove America is all out of whack, and the obviousness unites. CEOs make 475 times the pay of an average worker. Corporate profits are more than 12% of the entire GDP. The top 1% controls 42% of the nation’s financial wealth. We are the 93rd least income equal country in the world, behind Russia, China, India, and Iran. But at the helm of wasted American capitalism are people, and everyone knows people are unstable and afraid and tend to hate other people. The people we’ve got steering America happen not only to be extremely rich and unwilling to share, but are happy to use war to attain and secure wealth. Economic inequality begets global imperial violence, everything is linked, and the sun rises in the east. I’ll be signing books afterwards.
The only thing I want to add is that American foreign policy—the $700 billion Pentagon budget, the third of a million American troops in 1,000 abroad bases, the drone strikes we don’t even know are happening right now, and of course the cloying obeisance to Israel—is an expression of even greater inequality than in the realm of the economy. At least in the market, Americans have the ostensible luxury of asking can we please, please, please end the Bush tax cuts. We don’t get to decide, however, whether or not to send $8.5 million (or about $35 from your pocket, reader) in military aid every day to a heavily armed settler colony—it just happens. Yet when a war president and several powerful lobbies (arms manufacturing, oil, and Israel) act in the name of 300 million people, we don’t usually think of it as a representative or non-representative act. It just gets catalogued in the long history of dirty things Americans do abroad, while life at home is peachy. Some ugly souls even dare to say American life’s general peachiness must depend on torturing the rest of the world, and that’s called recruitment.
It would be only too easy at this point to get lost in the stories and statistics of American iniquity. This abyss gets deeper every day, as Obama presides over the largest Pentagon budget in history, orders secret committees to authorize airstrikes on American citizens, and now advances the most absolutely ridiculous cock-and-bull garbage about Iranian assassins from Mexico in order to placate Israel hawks in Congress and shore up his “defense credentials.” I’m not voting for Obama again, and if you have treasure the upkeep of your conscience neither will you. But if you thought to bring up the unthinkable alternatives to him, or even if you didn’t, read on.
Occupy Wall Street is in its moment now, but it will soon be in the worst kind of danger from co-optation. By the time of writing, October 16, both parties had begun composing sweet odes to populism, with even Mitt Romney claiming he identified with the 99%. Soon it will be courting season and Obama’s legendary network of ground teams will be encouraging a nation in revolt to shrug its shoulders and say, “Well, it could be a lot worse.” I don’t need to tell you that’s true. But it has to get better. I’m counting on the Occupiers to stay close to the root of the protests, demand outright contrition from the Democrats on Wall Street and Obama, and remain steadfast through whatever happens next November, just as Egyptian protesters have stayed in Tahrir Square long beyond Mubarak’s flight. Of course right behavior and accountability are historically absent from politics, but I want to think that they’re closer than ever before. The binding will be violently resisted, but all that’s needed to pull them together is optimism to believe it’s inevitable, cynicism to say those in power won’t do it, and clarity in the moment to harmonize the two at the right times and places.
Over here on the morality treadmill of Palestine, the perpetual motion of conflict probably strengthens character, but it weakens words. There’s enough scholarship about how poorly speech reflects pain to make that point abstractly, but I myself have floundered in the deep end a couple times, like when I stood and yelled “FUCK THIS FUCKING WALL” or punched a couch after reading this or started crying a few days after the Qalandia incident. And I haven’t really seen anything. It’s enough to lose faith in words altogether, and after words ideas, and after ideas I put on a black turtleneck and sulk for years.
Since living with righteous anger is liable to make me an intolerable dick, I have to recognize compromises here and there as acceptable. I do spend money in the Israeli economy when I travel in to report or see friends in Jerusalem. Similarly, as regards American capitalism, I’m not totally against it; I would like to make enough money one day to fund a pretty nice car. But once you envision perfection in either case, it shouldn’t be dismissed lightly—if, as part of an Occupation or against an occupation, a small dilution of demands is allowed, it runs the risk of being repeated. Even 80% success, over four consecutive compromises, is 40% of the original total. Ask Palestinians: if their grandparents had accepted the unjust and UN-charter-breaking partition in 1947, they would’ve been sovereigns over 55% of historic Palestine. Twenty years later, they had 22%. Today, since Area C can be effectively excluded from Palestinian control, that number is 13%. Sure, there are reasons for all of the historic concessions, first among them being the absurd imbalance of power between Zionists and Palestinians since 1900, but the idea is that if we don’t watch it, what we believe in may end up having an awfully fast half-life.
So, it sounds uncouth to say, but I think the only conscientious attitude at this point is perfectionism—a one-state solution with equal representation for everyone, if we’re talking about Israel-Palestine, and the complete erasure of the securities trade and a halving of defense spending, if we’re talking about the US. Is it wise? I realize ideological staredowns are a big faux pas for us liberals, with whom there is always room for another narrative. But I, and I assume many people capital-O Occupying around the world, will be willing to break with that wisdom in return (eventually) for economic fairness and an end to American imperialism and its dependents. If we were talking in personal terms, asking someone to live a life of conscience might be high-minded, but it wouldn’t be strange: Christianity asks two billion people to do it every day when they wake up, and Islam a further billion and a half, and so on. Why is it strange to ask for upright policymaking?
If, as it appears now, the Occupy movement ends up a kingmaker in 2012, it is incumbent on those who believe in it to refuse the role and crown nobody, asking instead that a democratic system respect the rights of all it serves and touches—meaning not just unpaid American postal workers and debt-bearing postgrads like me, but Afghani and Yemeni civilians whose real lives get passed off as collateral damage literally every day. That would be the closest equivalent to a one-state solution here, which is up to Jewish and Palestinian activists, thinkers and citizens to create. Both models reject existing philosophies of inequality—in America’s case, that certain multibillionaires and banks are more important “wealth-makers” than 150 million workers and therefore deserve a freehold on the nation, and in Israel-Palestine’s case, that Jews deserve a special ethnocratic state all their own at the cost of Palestinian rights and lives. It’s not that late capitalism and Zionism are no longer compatible with universal democracy, it’s that they never were.
It looks like my drivel has run out and I haven’t said much. This isn’t a manifesto. I just feel compelled to speak to something bigger than myself—a generation, as I said in the beginning—in hopes that others are feeling morally stirred as well and do not want to see good principles either hijacked by the “family values” people or ignored altogether by our wormy president. Social liberalism deserves its warriors, and I think one day historians will recognize they started to show up around now. I’m just asking them not to give up.