Friday, October 30, 2009

We're All Israeli Now

...and it has nothing to do with the easy availability of good falafel.

I just watched Waltz with Bashir (an excellent movie, by the way), and was struck by the contemporaneity of the depiction of Israel's 1981 invasion of Labanon. The catch-all extension of "terrorist" was central to this feeling, I think. But I would go further and say that Israel is now, in many respects, the exemplar of the West, in the way that the US used to be, and Britain was before that. The striking difference is that previous exemplars have also been military hegemons, even if exemplarity and hegemony have not been completely synchronous. Israel remains a client state of the US militarily, but nonetheless articulates in the sharpest way the experience of being Western at the current moment. It is ideologically hegemonic without being militarily or economically so.

What I mean is that the Occupied Territories, the terrorist, the border wall, the settlements, the car bomb -- all originally Israeli phenomena -- are now archetypes of Western life in the same way that cowboys and Indians, the frontier, and the goldrush used to be. What it is to be European or American now takes its reference, to some critical extent, from what it is to live in the midst of enemies who are at once akin to you and alien, and whose mode of life and struggle confound the partitions between secular and religious, military and civilian, national and international, which confounding leads us to question the very reality of those seemingly foundational distinctions in our own societies.

One of the fairly explicit lines of thought advanced by one character in the movie is that Israel has such a hard time remembering and facing up to its role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre because the whole complex of mass murder and camps is overwhelmed by the memory of the Holocaust. According to this argument, there is among Israelis a massive psychic investment in seeing themselves as the victims of the camps, an investment that makes it impossible to see and recall their complicity with anything that resembles the camps in any way.

Regardless of whether this is a good or bad descriptive account of the Israeli psyche, it suggests to me in the context of the present that one of the reasons for Israel's new centrality to Western consciousness is the liberal repudiation of violence. To whatever extent liberalism cannot acknowledge its own complicity --not an accidental or mistaken involvement, but an essential and necessay participation -- in the violence of the past, neither can liberal Westerners see or recall the violence of the present as their own.

"Conservatives" -- bad liberals, authoritarians -- are thus so far necessary for the Western liberal psyche that if they didn't exist they would have to be invented. Conservatives do the things that liberals can then repudiate as merely accidental to Western liberalism. This sort of point is made by liberals about conservatives all the time: that no failure of conservatism is possible, since failure can always be attributed to insufficient conservatism. But this is just one more sign that "conservatives" are liberals in the broad sense; the same structure of repudiation is endemic to liberalisms left and right. Every liberal liberal says they wouldn't bomb Afghanistan, wouldn't invade Gaza, wouldn't target Hamas leadership with missile strikes, wouldn't build a wall, wouldn't hold people without due process, etc. But every liberal liberal who has the chance to do otherwise ends up doing all of these things -- perhaps with greater circumspection than would a conservative liberal, but doing them nonetheless.

To be Israeli, in this sense, means to struggle with self-recognition in this way, to hate and condemn what one does, and yet not be able to do otherwise.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Notes from Texas

Just turned on the TV in my hotel room and caught 5 minutes of Glenn Beck mixing architecture criticism -- he's for real American architecture, like the Chrysler Building -- with a discourse about how imperfect but truthful and transparent politicians are better than those perfect, shiny politicians who only reflect their surroundings and want universal healthcare. Or something.

Anyway, that was interesting to behold, but then the commercial break came. First was an ad for Tax Masters, telling you that if you haven't filed tax returns in years you should hire them to stand between you and the IRS so that the feds treat you with respect and decency.

Then there was an ad for some mysterious quicky face-lift procedure that ended with the tag-line: "In these hard economic times, you should invest in yourself!"

Next up, G. Gordon Liddy hawking gold, the amazing commodity whose price goes up but doesn't come down! In these hard economic times, you need to keep inflating the price of GG's gold stash (which he admits he bought ten years ago)!

Holy shit.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Correspondence Received

From my inbox:

Dear William Clare Roberts:

Your paper entitled, "Post-Modern Aristotles: Strauss, Arendt, Virno" was recently listed on SSRN's Top Ten download list for HPT: Ancient (Topic) and HPT: Post-Modern (Topic). To view the top ten list for the journal click on its name HPT: Ancient (Topic) Top Ten and HPT: Post-Modern (Topic) Top Ten and to view all the papers in the journals click on these links link(s) HPT: Ancient (Topic) All Papers and HPT: Post-Modern (Topic) All Papers.

As of 10/16/2009 your paper has been downloaded 20 times. You may view the abstract and download statistics at:

My ego is kept in check (barely) by the facts that a) 20 is not a very large number and b) my bete noire Brian Leiter has the top three spots in the all-time top ten for postmodernism, with over 1800 downloads spread over those three papers.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

On Obama's Nobel Peace Prize

I think a lot of the commentary on Obama's peace prize is well off the mark. The major theme, from the left and the right, from the major pundits and my facebook friends, is that Obama hasn't done enough to deserve this prize. After all, Obama has only been President for a few months, still presides over two wars, one of which is escalating, and, while he has made some gestures towards international diplomacy on several fronts, the critics left and right are fond of saying that he has only given a few good speeches, and hasn't actually done much.

I think this is analysis is wrong-headed for two reasons. First, the Nobel Peace Prize is as much about encouraging and supporting agents of peaceful change as it is about recognizing already accomplished deeds. Several commentators have quoted the statement of former Nobel Committee chair Francis Sejersted:
The prize [...] is not only for past achievement. [...] The committee also takes the possible positive effects of its choices into account [because] Nobel wanted the prize to have political effects. Awarding a peace prize is, to put it bluntly, a political act.
In other words, the Nobel Committee is, by confering this award, endorsing and encouraging Obama's efforts at international diplomacy, especially in the Middle East and regardign nuclear nonproliferation. They like the direction Obama is heading, and they want him both to succeed in the endeavors he has undertaken and to take his diplomacy further. Whether or not this success and expansion of diplomacy takes place, the Nobel Committee has done the only thing they can to make it so. That is both a legitimate use of the prize and a fairly taditional one.

Ronald Krebs, the author of the Foreign Policy essay I linked to above, lumps aspirational bestowals of the prize in with bestowals upon intranational dissidents and activists in order to conclude:
When the Nobel Peace Prize rewards past accomplishments, it is to be welcomed -- not because it changes the world, but because it celebrates and reaffirms liberal ideals. But in the increasingly frequent cases in which it is bestowed for actors' aspirations and in which it seeks to promote democratic political change, winners beware.
First of all, I don't see anything especially liberal about Alfred Nobel's charge that the prize be awarded "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." Modern liberalism has never been especially opposed to standing armies (republicans and communists are the ones who worried about those), and international fraternity and peace congresses are the purview of no particular political philosophy. But whatever. The more important things to note are that 1) the award to Obama seems to fit Nobel's intention quite well (except for that abolition or reduction of standing armies thing), and 2) all of Krebs' data regarding the perverse effect of the prize pertains to the promotion of democratic political change, not to aspirational awards per se.

This brings me to the second reason the dominant take is so wrongheaded. Without a doubt Obama's biggest accomplishments to date have been speeches, especially the Cairo speech. This is what Obama does -- he talks, and he listens to others talking, and he talks in such a way that his audience knows he has listened. Far from being negligible, this is actually a very big deal. I have mentioned this before; Obama is good at politics because he is good at talking to people who are not like him. Not to go completely Arendtian, but speaking is the substance of political action. There is no divide between "giving speeches" and "doing things," and those who think there is reveal themselves to have a technocratic, antipolitical streak.

This is why diplomacy is interesting -- in a world full of nation states given over largely to technocratic administration, one of the only spaces given over to political action is the diplomatic arena. In his "Critique of Violence," Walter Benjamin indicated "the conference, considered as a technique of civil agreement," as one of the only venues for the deployment of purely discursive means of agreement, unalloyed with any violence. Although it would be a stretch to say that any conference with the executive of the US, holder of more military might than the rest of the world combined, is unalloyed with violence, it remains true that diplomacy, giving rise as it does to no law, and employing the whole range of linguistic communication, seems more political and less violent than anything else in the world right now. And if the reemergence of this power, after the last eight years in which diplomacy seemed to vanish from the face of the earth, does not merit a Nobel Peace Prize, I'm not sure what does.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Promisory note

Among the posts I've been meaning to write but haven't yet:
  1. What it means to call Marx an Aristotelian
  2. Sohn-Rethel 101: why don't more people study this guy?
  3. Why liberals are lucky George Bush was in the White House on 9/11 (it's not what you think...)
  4. How Aristotle can help us think about political violence
  5. Why I'm a member of the surreality based community
There, now I've put those out there, and will either: a) feel a nagging obligation to actually write what I have promised, or b) feel relief from my nagging guilt because I've at least confessed.