Friday, June 12, 2009

Ideologues and Bigots

Ideologues and Bigots.

One of the things that time teaches, if we’re willing to learn, is that human affairs are conducted in a permanent mist of uncertainty and confusion. Such is the complexity of human motivation, the diversity and multiplicity of actors, the unavoidable uncertainty surrounding key psychological, sociological and even material factors and the inherent unpredictability of events, we inevitably operate behind an opaque veil of ignorance.

Except for a relatively small number of genuine experts, such ignorance is compounded by our distance from the issues and personalities involved. Our information is second-hand and frequently distorted by the spin imparted by those responsible for processing the news and analysis. Our own perceptions are heavily skewed by unconscious or poorly understood emotional responses conditioned by our upbringing, our identity, our pervasive modes of cognition and belief systems and by self-interest and social dynamics.

Yet, despite all this, we are compelled to make decisions and form opinions. Most “sensible” people do so with some degree of humility – by that I mean they are aware they may be wrong, that they are willing to learn and to change and that even people with whom one profoundly disagrees may have a point. In the cut and thrust of debate, that realisation may be lost at times, but it is a mark of balance and maturity that sooner rather than later one returns to a measure of humility.

Of course, this can be a recipe for fence-sitting in situations in which such passivity or ambiguity is dangerous or wrong or both. In general, I believe that it important to form, and hold, hard-edged but not immutable opinions. Over the years I have moved from an instinctively leftwing position to a far more centrist and realistic perspective.

It is informed by a belief in the moral values of truth, justice and long-term rationality insofar as humanly possible, but is also conditioned by other beliefs and identities. These include an identification with the broad Jewish community and its history, a secular cosmopolitan predisposition, a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature coupled, at the same time, to a cautiously optimistic belief (or is it hope?) in the possibility of progress. I believe that freedom and democracy is important to all human beings but also in the stabilizing influence of tradition. I have seen that power corrupts and so does powerlessness. I believe that all human beings deserve the dignity of respect unless by their actions they unequivocally forfeit that right. Finally, I believe that we have the duty to fight for our rights and for justice but that extremism and greed will ultimately bring disaster down on the heads of those who go beyond the limits of fairness and a decent respect for other human beings.

All this corncob philosophy brings me to the issue of ideologues and bigots. Clearly, as I have described for myself, none of us come as blank slates to the political arena. But the hodge-podge of broad and often mutually contradictory principles and commonsense the “balanced” person brings to the table, is a far cry from the fixed, obsessive lens through which the true ideologue views the world.

Like pornography it is a question of degree and one can make a mistake. But generally one recognises the ideologue by the utter predictability of their responses, their extremism, their compulsion to revile those who differ from them and their total resistance to contrary facts. Of course, the ideologue and the bigot are kissing cousins. By definition almost, the true ideologue is always a bigot since they dismiss any person or viewpoint which deviates slightly from their own. But bigotry, in my lexicon at least, tends to be prejudice without the support of an intellectualised (religious or secular) belief system which the ideologue uses to support their fixed views.

In my experience, such people almost always respond to disagreement with personal abuse. The greater the public posture of moral sanctimony often the greater the degree of private intolerance and rudeness. It’s a kind of statistical law. I had always expected that from the rightwing and was shocked when I encountered it from the left – but no longer.

In my Quote du Jour on Solar Plexus ( I gave some publicity to comments by Ron Kampeas of the JTA because, though I have some reservations, in broad terms he articulated something which we need as a Jewish pro-Zionist community to get to grips with. Please go and read it and my previous post on the above link

In short, I feel that something needs to be said about some “noisy” Zionists who by their words, and sometimes actions, do almost as much to discredit Zionism as the most fanatical of anti-Zionists. There is no reason to believe that miraculously the Jews, alone amongst the peoples of this world, will be free of stupidity, fanaticism and bigotry. But perhaps it is possible to persuade at least some of them to reconsider their behaviour if only to stop providing ammunition to those who would stigmatise a whole people and Israel itself because of the attitudes of some.

As good a starting point as any is the Cairo speech by Obama. It reflects a major policy initiative and represents a decisive step away from the isolationist and confrontational policy of the Bush years. Every word was carefully calculated and, within the bounds of human capability, it accurately reflects the broad policy strategy to be pursued by the Obama government vis-à-vis the Muslim world.

This has been summed up by Bicom in the following terms (shortened by author):
• It is remarkable that in a speech designed to recalibrate relations between the US and the Islamic world, Obama spent significant time challenging anti-Semitism, busting the myth of Holocaust denial, condemning terrorism and emphasising the unbreakable bonds between Israel and the US.
• There was no detailed policy plan, but the speech combined Obama's ideals with a hard-headed, realist view of the US interests. It was a direct challenge to the idea of a ‘clash of civilizations' between the West and Islam.
• The speech was directed at Muslim people, rather than their governments. The US went to considerable length, by flying in journalists, to ensure it was heard by Muslim people around the world.
I would add to that (see the speech in full, the BICOM article and many others) that Obama went to considerable lengths to reassure the global Muslim community of two things: firstly, that the USA both respects the Muslim world and has no desire to set the West up in opposition to Islam and, secondly, that the USA will act decisively against all forms of terrorism, including that coming from Islamic sources.

Of course it included other themes, including specifically the interconnectedness of the global community, but I am mainly concerned with Israel. It was not intended as a detailed blueprint but as a call for imagination and for transcendence of religious, cultural and political differences through a common commitment to humanity.

I thought it was brilliant. It is easy to dismiss this as mere rhetoric signifying nothing, but I would differ strongly. Words are terribly important for both good and ill, and the Obama speech called to the best of our common humanity. It was an attempt to undercut extremists of all stripes and to appeal to the commonsense and decency of the ordinary man in the street.

Who knows whether it will succeed? There are those who are so ideologically wedded to their positions, that they are simply incapable of seeing a wider picture. They immediately focused on a small part of the speech in order to construct a narrative to take issue with. One commentator suggested that Obama drew moral equivalence between the Holocaust and Palestinian suffering. He did no such thing.

Another suggested that Israel did not come into being as the result of centuries of European persecution (as Obama suggested) but because of its unbroken spiritual connection to the land. You could have fooled secular Herzl or the many religious Jews who for decades opposed the creation of a Jewish state…some still do.

All this could be dismissed as plain silliness, except that it is designed to herd Jews into a obdurate fanatical camp who see the conflict in apocalyptic terms of good versus evil. In this they become the mirror image of some of their opponents. A plague on both their camps.

It is, of course, quite reasonable to challenge parts of the Obama speech; for instance his strong stance on the settlements. There are some real inconsistencies in his position and it is difficult to see how Netanyahu can comply fully with the Obama demands without collapse of his fragile coalition. But already Mitchell is softening the harsh rhetoric and Netanyahu understands the symbolic importance of the settlements in undermining extremist positions on the Arab-Muslim-Palestinian and Western leftwing fronts.

We need reciprocity on both sides and Obama is well aware of this and the legitimate Israeli fears over security. What he, and all those who understand the long-term need for accommodation, reject is the use of legitimate concerns to buttress extreme rejectionist attitudes. Unless of course you are one of those who believe that Jews can only survive as an embattled people fighting against enemies – real or created. So at varying levels of sophistication, they insist that the Jews (and/or the West) are engaged in an inevitable, apocalyptic battle against Islam or the latest incarnation of antisemitism. This is dangerous nonsense, but words and actions can make it a reality.

All this is bad enough but there is a significant camp within the Zionist camp who adopt puerile, provocative and derogatory terms when referring to Obama or to Arabs or Muslims. We have them here and elsewhere. There is a truly repulsive video on YouTube ( which has apparently over 100 000 hits already. The bunch of noisy, bigoted, ignorant and profoundly stupid Jews depicted there are of course not representative. But they do exist and there are too many within the pro-Zionist camp, where I locate myself, to be ignored.

We need to insist that Israel can and must be defended with honour and dignity and with the appreciation that we are all part of a common humanity. When members of our camp descend to the levels of the worst of our opponents, we do our cause a profound disservice and lend ammunition to the malicious forces who instigated the HSRC Symposium.

Back to Obama for a moment. His fine words will need to be matched by an equally subtle but realistically toughminded appreciation of the obstacles to moving towards his dream of global peace based on mutual tolerance, accommodation and commitment to a universal humanity. Such an outcome is far too Utopian but genuine progress towards resolution of some of the conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere is possible. Let’s challenge and resist his strategy where appropriate but keep our hearts open to his intent and call to a common humanity.

Let us also hope, for all our sakes, that Obama will succeed with our help.

Mike Berger (SOLAR PLEXUS)

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