Monthly Archives: September 2011

A Centrist Party Is Literal Nonsense.

It literally, actually, truly means nothing.

Let me explain. What’s centrist? If you simply define yourself as being halfway between Republicans and Democrats, then one party only needs to become more ideologically polar to move you. If it means compromising, then I don’t understand how Obama doesn’t work for you. But say you want to borrow a few ideas from each side. Then it’s ridiculous.

You could have (literally, mathematically) millions of possible centrisms by mixing just a few positions from each side that have no positions in common. You could be right wing on terrorism, liberal on progressive taxation, believe in global warming, and be anti-abortion. Or any combination of those and you would have a definitive issue that put you at odds with any other “theoretical” centrist party.

That is why Tom Friedman and Matt Miller are full of shit, as Ezra points out in a slightly different way. He more or less says Obama already is the compromise candidate. He’s very right. The fact that a number of people are confused by the moustache of globalism into thinking Obama is left wing shows the truth of my first contention—that radicalization by one party undermines the ability to be “centrist” in a “purple state” way.

Somehow I think some people want an Obama administration with a white face. Some people want an Obama administration with a spine. Finally, and I think this is most Americans who have soured on the President, are just sick and tired of this era in our history and, for right or wrong, Obama is associated with it.

The Constitution of Palestine.

I now believe the conventional “two-state” model for Palestine is not only dead, but an abused corpse. Look at a map of the West Bank and Israel. Then notice Gaza discontinuously off to the west. Even under the best of circumstances, with some kind of Berlin-access-type corridor between Gaza and the Hebron area, Israeli cooperation would be required if the two areas are to be part of one state.

What makes it worse is that the West Bank is not nearly as contiguous as it appears, either. Even if you use the security fence as a starting point, this still leaves the even more patchwork problem of the greater Jerusalem area.

But, as the saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If it were as simple as declaring a Palestinian state, there would not be much of a problem. Yet this doctrine of “the 1967 borders with agreed upon swaps” is only laying out the territorial arrangement. The Palestinian state as already imagined in most people’s minds would be fairly unconventional.

For one thing, there will be all sorts of security guarantees. Palestine won’t have an army. So, I suppose, Israel has to defend it against external threats? I’m sure all of these things are spelled out in different formulas in different proposals, but they are, to me, more or less nonsense.

From the Israeli perspective, they’re buying a pig in a poke. Two states, even if it became real, is no “solution” any more than the lowering of the French flag in Nigeria “solved” the problem of colonialism, the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the US “solved” the race problem here (or the legacy of slavery) and so on. People at a loss to explain the plight of Africa these days tend to blame colonialism’s legacy—and we’re getting close to 50 years since that era ended. Yet most African states have a fighting chance that Palestine lacks in their natural resources. I don’t think selling faux shards of the true cross to Christian tourists is a natural resource. Tourism will only work if the place isn’t a dump and if its revenues can be fairly distributed. Furthermore, I seriously doubt that over a century of preaching hate against Zionists will simply disappear in the afterglow of such an agreement. It won’t make Israel safe. It may not harm its interests, but this “solution” will at best give some Muslim majority countries breathing room in diplomacy and not much else. It won’t restore the comity of the Golden Age in Cordoba.

But that doesn’t matter much to Palestinians, some of whom live in diaspora and some of whom live in a bizarre quasi-state. They also suffer under divided leadership one branch of whom is a masturbatory and corrupt committee leaching funds from other Arab states… or a terrorist organization.

A further problem is the creation of a Palestinian state at all. Arguably, many Arab countries only have the exterior trappings of a state, but actually lack the power to function as such. For better or worse, the fragility of these governments was shown over the course of this past year. Most of these governments simply lack the legitimacy, the ability to provide for the rule of law, or the power to carry out the decisions of the government throughout huge portions of their territory. This is actually a problem world-wide. Most Arab states were created out of whole cloth out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, or out of other Imperial powers in the case of the Maghreb countries. We think of many of these countries as crushing dictatorships. Certainly, the places people have in mind are places where western notions of freedom are limited. Rule can be arbitrary, but it is actually quite finite. This, again, was shown in stark relief over the course of this year.

I doubt that the Israel-Palestine dispute admits of any solution outside of a broader solution to the dreadful condition of governments in the Arab world at large. But it is theoretically possible that a legitimate and effective government in Palestine that could deliver the rule of law could come about on its own. But the PA is nowhere close. Any agreement ultimately is only as good as the de facto existence of both parties as effective states.

I think a creative constitution is called for. One that sees a slightly different model of state and sovereignty—one which is currently based on territory, population, and so on. I’m not entirely clear, first of all, why Gaza can’t be one independent state and Palestine another—they’ve been on a divergent path for 5 years now.

Two models that come to mind are that of the co-principality of Andorra and the former British dominions. In a modified version of the former, the Palestinian state(s) could elect a parliament whose prime minister would be the head of government, and which would exercise normal functions of sovereignty. A designee of Israel and another body (the UN, the Arab League, whoever) could serve as co-presidents, who would have the power to veto certain laws affecting certain issues, such as foreign relations and security.

Another model is the British Dominion model. Marketing this idea might be hard for historical reasons, but the basic framework can be called whatever. In this model, Palestine is granted home rule, and even conducts foreign relations on its own, but certain constitutional functions are exercised by a Governor-General, leaving technical “sovereignty” with the “sovereign,” here, as it is now, Israel. This would simplify a number of issues where the two have to cooperate without creating a multiplicity of entities or requiring a treaty every time the road between Gaza and Hebron needs to be repaved.

With a clever conflict of laws provision embedded in it, the latter model could even work to provide Palestinian rule over whatever exclaves may be agreed to, or even to persons outside the territory. (For example, two Palestinian citizens involved in a dispute over an incident that occurred in one of their houses in Israeli land could seek to have their disputes resolved in a Palestinian court, could vote for the Palestinian parliament but would not be entitled to do so if they resided outside of Mandatory Palestine—this would essentially allow for an approximation of a binational state without undermining the Jewish majority within Israel—you might even be able to get a similar arrangements for Israelis living in settlements that do not get included within Israel’s borders.)

These are just a couple of thoughts that sprung to my mind while thinking about the unlikely resolution of this matter any time soon while thinking about some of the anomalies in comparative law.

Whether or not any of this comes to pass doesn’t matter. But what does matter, I think, is that if there is to be any edifying progress (even if not a solution) it will require new and different ways of thinking about states so that such coinages as “two-state solution” will ultimately be misnomers.

It might even show the way to a broader solution to some kind of stability to the broader and many-peopled Arab world.

Is this how Germans felt about the Versailles Treaty's 10th Anniversary?

I’d love to engage in a good, heartfelt retrospective today. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. This is not merely the 10th anniversary of a terrorist attack or the death of 3,000 people. It’s the anniversary of the beginning of a very dark era of American history that now after 10 long years is the new normal. It’s hard to even remember the feeling of optimism of the 90s anymore.

You can’t take 9/11 out of its context. Ten years after Pearl Harbor, the loss and tragedy of that day were redeemed by the victory in the war, the liberation of Europe, the destruction of the Nazis, and an America that was getting fairer to all classes and races. Ten years after the Oklahoma City bombings, the perpetrators had been brought to justice, Timothy McVeigh had been executed and the right-wing militia movement was dormant (for the time being). Ten years from the first shots of the revolution, the new country had its independence secured by a treaty with the great powers. Ten years from Fort Sumter, the Civil War was over.

But I think Pearl Harbor is really the example most people compare 9/11 to. It is not an apt comparison. It really comes from the adult generation having learned so much about World War II and, perhaps, as George Packer wrote in The New Yorker, a case of generational envy.

World War II was fighting the good fight. Never mind the Nazis. America even naively stuck to its anti-imperialist guns and didn’t allow the British and French to continue their imperial systems. And 9/11 is directly connected to that idealistic decision, because the Wilsonian ideals of the Atlantic Charter were applied to the Middle East that became a battle ground between Pan-Arabists, Pan-Islamists, Radical Islamists, Arab Socialists, military dictators with no ideology, and confiscatory multinational oil companies. States were created based on half-promises made to strong men with no real regard for the people whom they would rule. Add to volatile mix the State of Israel.

Without even whispering the word “Africa” it is hard not to wonder in retrospect if the imperial system was so bad.

But, again, 10 years after Pearl Harbor, America had beaten the Nazis and established a new world order based on the inviolability of the nation state. Even if it wasn’t a perfect order, it was one established through the lessons of millions of deaths over centuries of great power conflict. It allows nation-states to get away with far too much within their own borders, but, perhaps it is the international order that is the worst except for all the others.

Ten years after Pearl Harbor, America had won the war, yet America still felt a sense of purpose. Much of the world had come under control of a different kind of totalitarian regime, the communist one. In the 103 years between the revolutions of 1848 and the tenth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, communism had been corrupted from a radical movement to secure workers rights to a totalitarian movement enveloping the world. The Soviet Union, then Eastern Europe, then China. But we were up to this challenge.

At home we had proved to ourselves that we could come together and give everyone a square deal and a chance at the American dream. Work hard, and you’ll have a home and your kids can go to decent schools. This promise was eventually extended to Americans of color.

But the spirit created by Pearl Harbor—of national purpose—was not absent from the Civil Rights movement. The idea that black-Americans had the right to the American dream and that a national movement should deliver on that promise embodied that spirit. The Spirit of Pearl Harbor put a man on the moon. The Spirit of Pearl Harbor eventually contained the growth of Totalitarian Communism, and then outlasted it until those under its boot couldn’t hold their breath anymore. When World War II finally ended completely in 1991 with the reunification of Germany and the fall of the Soviet Union, we all exhaled a little bit. Perhaps a little bit too much.

Maybe on December 7, 1951 people knew that would be the result, or at least had reason to think the same way they had on December 7, 1941: that we would overcome.

But I can’t say I share that feeling on September 11, 2011.

I feel like we were defeated on September 11, 2001. Not only were 3,000 Americans killed, but the rest of us were sent into a kind of collective paranoia that caused a serious degradation of civil liberties, but worse (to me at least) the pointless folly of the Iraq war and the at least 100,000 deaths it entailed, which caused our national sense of mission to suffer—not just our national prestige, but our raison d’etre. We’re not the young and idealistic but naive strong nation trying to move the benighted people of the world out from under the boot of fascism, Nazism, and communism anymore, in the eyes of the world. We’re just the latest self-centered empire sucking the rest into a vortex of decadence. Rumors of our demise at the hands of the latest Yellow Peril may be overinflated by plastic pundits like Tom Friedman, but the fact of our impurity is undeniable.

If “they” really did hate us for our freedoms, they struck a blow on September 11 that we have not recovered from. A president whose “election” was dubious at best had the chance of a lifetime to unite the country behind a special purpose—an opportunity that former Presidents who were not elected by wide margins were able to make something of, like Kennedy and Lincoln. Instead, he became the most right-wing President in our history, the most divisive, and one of the worst. He could have governed from the center and made sure the people of our military were well taken care of, more well taken care of than the corporations looking to profit from the conflict. He could have persisted in Afghanistan until Bin Laden was killed or captured before seeking other wars and seeking none against irrelevant states who were not aiding Bin Laden. He could have preserved the bipartisan economic consensus of the Clinton era, when our economy boomed—and not always in a bubble as in 2000, but was able to recover from shocks softly as in 1995 and 1998. Instead, he ran men who lost their limbs in Vietnam out of office by questioning their patriotism.

And the parallel on the home front shows as well now as it did then. After Pearl Harbor, we rolled up our sleeves as a team. After 9/11, we didn’t ask why we were all getting less, we said I alone should get more. And the government was completely asleep at the switch—and why not? The government is—they thought—the problem, after all. So a hurricane destroyed New Orleans because government was the problem and no need not to put cronies at FEMA, and a financial crisis destroyed the middle class because government was the problem and we don’t need the SEC. Or whatever.

By the time Hurricane Wall Street hit, the negative vibes of the 00s had transcended orange alerts and spread into all aspects of life. Even the election of a president who we thought could get us back on track could not cancel this negativism. Not even the killing of Osama bin Laden could do much. Bin Laden’s death is just another in a series of bright media orgies that flare out in at most a week along with such frivolities as the Charlie Sheen meltdown.

We were defeated on September 11th and we know it. No one will admit it, but we know it anyway. Our actions betray it. The event showed our decadence, our narcissistic belief that everything we do has messianic importance, our arrogant belief that our way of life is so perfect anyone else would envy it, our pernicious belief that our whole society need not be watchfully preserved but can be be benignly neglected (a legacy of the boomer generations inheritance, not of its labors), our ignorance of the rest of the world, and our belief that the only part of our government that should do anything is the one with bombs, and our belief that “freedom” is a mere slogan—an increasingly Orwellian one at that—and has nothing to do with civil liberties or civil rights.

I imagine that this feeling might find an echo in the 10th anniversary of great defeats. Perhaps this is how Germany felt on the 10th anniversary of the Versailles Treaty. Or how the French felt 10 years after  Waterloo.

But until we admit that we were bested, we will continue to feel this malaise.