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Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Reem Al Ghussain, an English teacher at Al-Azhar University in Gaza in the Guardian:

[My children] ask me: “Why are the Israelis doing this to us?” My child in fifth grade asks me: “What did we do to them?” I tell them that they want to take our land and they want all Palestinians to die.

It is this attitude, this indoctrination that passes down hatred and a sense of the ‘Otherness’ of the enemy from parent to child, that is at the root of so many long-simmering conflicts. As Glenn Greenwald wrote, channeling George Orwell:

If you see Palestinians as something less than civilized human beings:  as “barbarians” – just as if you see Americans as infidels warring with God or Jews as sub-human rats — then it naturally follows that civilian deaths are irrelevant, perhaps even something to cheer.  For people who think that way, arguments about “proportionality” won’t even begin to resonate – such concepts can’t even be understood – because the core premise, that excessive civilian deaths are horrible and should be avoided at all costs, isn’t accepted.  Why should a superior, civilized, peaceful society allow the welfare of violent, hateful barbarians to interfere with its objectives?  How can the deaths or suffering of thousands of barbarians ever be weighed against the death of even a single civilized person?

So many of these conflicts – one might say almost all of them – end up shaped by the same virtually universal deficiency:  excessive tribalistic identification (i.e.:  the group with which I was trained to identify is right and good and just and my group’s enemy is bad and wrong and violent), which causes people to view the world only from the perspective of their side, to believe that X is good when they do it and evil when it’s done to them.  X can be torture, or the killing of civilians in order to “send a message” (i.e., Terrorism), or invading and occupying other people’s land, or using massive lethal force against defenseless populations, or seeing one’s own side as composed of real humans and the other side as sub-human, evil barbarians.

As Bill Bishop described in Slate the tendency of groups to polarize towards extremes (in the context of the Palin rallies in the news then):

We are constantly comparing our beliefs and opinions to those of the group. There are advantages to being slightly more extreme than the group average. It’s a way to stand out, to ensure others will see us as righteous group members.

“It’s an image-maintenance kind of thing,” explained social psychologist Robert Baron. Everybody wants to be a member in good standing, and though it sounds counterintuitive, the safest way to conform is to be slightly more extreme than the average of the group.

Cass Sunstein, a law professor and adviser to Barack Obama, described how this dynamic works in a social setting as a preface to his discussion of “leaderless jihad“:

A few years ago, Daniel Kahneman, David Schkade, and I were involved in several studies of punitive damage awards by juries. We began by asking one thousand or so demographically diverse people to register their judgments about misconduct by various wrongdoers. We asked them to rate their moral outrage on a scale of zero to six, where zero meant “not at all outrageous” and six meant “exceptionally outrageous.” We also asked them to come up with an appropriate dollar award…

[As our] goal is to understand how juries really behave – or more ambitiously, how outrage develops in the real world…we conducted a follow-up study, involving about three thousand jury-eligible citizens and five hundred deliberating juries, each consisting of six people. Here is how the experiment worked. Every juror read about a personal injury case, including the arguments made by both sides. Jurors were also asked to record, in advance of deliberation, their individual judgments on a bounded numerical scale, and also in terms of dollars. Next they were asked to deliberate together to reach a verdict, both on the bounded scale and on the dollar scale. Our goal was to discover the relationship between people’s individual judgments, in advance of deliberation, and the ultimate views and actions of group members who have discussed the matter.

You might predict (as I did) that deliberation would lead to compromise, and hence that the verdicts of juries would be pretty close to the median of punishment judgments of jurors; but your prediction would be badly wrong. It turned out that the effect of deliberation was to create a “severity shift.” When people began with a lot of outrage, their interactions made them significantly more outraged than they were before they started to talk. And with dollar awards, the severity shift was especially large. The ultimate award of juries was usually higher than the award favored by the median juror in advance of deliberation. In many cases, the jury ended up with an award at least as high as the highest award favored, in advance, by any of the jury’s members.

Sunstein connects this experiment of moral outrage and social dynamics to Marc Sageman’s “Leaderless Jihad”:

Drawing on the data, Sageman offers an arresting conclusion, which is that a major explanation of Islamic terrorism lies in patterns of social interaction that transform moral outrage into extremism. In his account, terrorists are not mentally ill, poor, uneducated, sociopathic, or victims of trauma. In the main, they are ordinary individuals who move to radical positions as a result of discussions with like-minded others. Sageman focuses in particular on the rise of what he calls “global Islamist terrorism” – a large and loosely organized social movement that is subject to no command-and-control structure and has prospered in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. What makes Sageman’s account distinctive is his emphasis on the crucial role of social networks – in the real world and on the Internet – and his effort to show that an understanding of those networks has significant and sometimes counterintuitive implications for how to safeguard national security. At the same time, Sageman offers general lessons about how enclosed enclaves of like-minded types help produce political beliefs and action of many kinds, including violence.

This same dynamic plays out on many different scales in our society and in societies around the world, with differing levels of ferocity. How a society deals with this dynamic helps determine it’s stability, or lack. One of the ways to address this issue seems to be dialogue and communication among polarizing groups – and friendships between these groups – a principle which Obama, to his credit, has often stood for. As Americans increasingly clustering and moving into areas in which they are ideologically comfortable, as they tend to find media outlets that cater to their ideological preferences and ignore as biased those media sources that do not, we are moving away from those aspects of American society that have tamped down extremism and encouraging this dynamic of polarization.

At the same time, we shouldn’t overstate things about American polarization. It’s hard to believe we are close to the point that Russian academic Igor Panarin is predicting – that America will break into six seperate parts [map]. Much more significant is the extent to which this dynamic plays out amongst Muslim populations that are trending towards extremism and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as these situations demonstrate extremely heightened forms of this dynamic. Without understanding this dynamic, we can never address the root of these issues – and we will be tempted to respond without adequate reflection.

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Posted in Israel, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 2 Comments »

Israel and Hamas (cont.)

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

More along the lines of this post, Jeffrey Goldberg:

I’m not a J Street moral-equivalence sort of guy. Yes, Israel makes constant mistakes, which I note rather frequently, but this conflict reminds me once again that Israel is up against an implacable force, namely, an interpretation of Islam that disallows the idea of Jewish national equality.

My paralysis isn’t an analytical paralysis. It’s the paralysis that comes from thinking that maybe there’s no way out. Not out of Gaza, out of the whole thing.

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Israel and Hamas

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

The furious positions of many people on this issue leave me with the feeling that I should take a definitive side. Sometimes, you must stand up and be counted – or become irrelevant. But on this issue, I have yet to hear any passionate argument that is convincing. The best arguments are microarguments, winning some small points. The best writers on this issue are reflective and nuanced, avoiding becoming apologists for either side. I have entered into arguments in which I have felt myself being alternately tugged to justify the worst actions of either Israel or the Palestinians – which I don’t want to do. Neither side has clean hands – but it is also not fair to create some kind of moral equivalence. What is needed is that rarely appreciated virtue, nuance.

In that spirit, here’s a selection of reflective takes on the current situation:


By somewhat the same token, I do read in the comments section what I would regard as a disproportionate level of shock and appalledness from some quarters about Israeli activities as if this action is some kind of unprecedented outrage in human history. The real outrage is how common and banal, how unsurprising and thoroughly precedented it is.

Andrew Sullivan:

In the history of the West, the laws of war are clear enough. You do not launch a just war if it leads to greater evils than the status quo ante. There must be a reasonable proportion between means and ends. Both sides should be able to acknowledge common human values, even as they fight over territory or ideology. And yet Hamas has never done this; has no capacity for abiding by even minimal moral norms, believes it has a moral responsibility to eradicate the Jewish state, and certainly finds the universalist and liberal moral law embedded in Western and largely Christian culture meaningless outside Islamic hegemony. Israel, for its part, is on a different moral plane than Hamas. Its internal critics write op-eds; they are not taken out and shot. But, in the face of what is, essentially, a 60 year war against enemies on all sides and within, it has long since disappeared down the self-reflecting mirrors of survivalist logic and existential panic. It looks to me like a society in danger of losing its sense of restraint to the logic of violence. It is lashing out because it feels it can do no other and senses its long-term survival at stake. Even if violence does not solve the problem and may make it worse, war can seem a better option now than disappearing passively in the next couple of decades. The stunning near-unanimity of Israelis behind the Gaza attack is proof of this. In Israel, it seems, it is always America in 2002.

Carlo Stenger:

I have been a very outspoken critic of Israeli policies for many years. Nevertheless, those who…go into endless diatribes to ascribe sole responsibility to Israel for the current situation are hypocritical at worst and ignorant at best. In this age of political correctness it is always sexy to support the underdog. But political correctness does not always yield wise political judgment

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Hypocrisy or Unknown Principles

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]Hostilities between a small government on the border of a regional power turn into full-fledged war after the smaller power lobs a few military weapons endangering civilians and escalating the conflict into open warfare and violations of territorial sovereignty by the regional power. Both sides are generally considered responsible for increasing tensions with proactive actions in the extensive lead-up to the war. Both sides are accused of committing atrocities and killing or harming civilians during the war.

This description in broad strokes describes both the most recent flare-up of the Israeli-Hamas conflict and August war between Russia and Georgia.

Yet those on the left have tended to favor the regional power in the case of the Russian-Georgian conflict and to oppose the regional power in the Israeli-Hamas conflict. My impression is that while a majority of those on the left have no strong opinion on these issues, seeing each as complicated and unfortunate, a very prominent minority on the left have strongly favored Russia and opposed Israel. Looking at the conflicts and the issues themselves, it’s hard for me to find a single convincing reason that is not America-centric.

The American political establishment has tended to favor Georgia – as it is a liberal democracy on the border of a major competing power. Similarly, the American political establishment has tended to favor Israel as it is a liberal democracy in the midst of a region full of autocracies (as well as for domestic political reasons.) Both countries have been considered strong allies of America and have strong military support from America.

Yet aside from these facts, the circumstances surrounding their most recent wars and their history with their neighbors are very different:

Few would dispute that Hamas is a terrorist organization with a political branch that was elected in a relatively free election. Hamas refuses to recognize the right of it’s neighboring state to exist, accusing the Israel of driving it’s people from their homes over fifty years ago in the mass migration that resulted from the 1948 war for Palestine in which nearly 950 thousand Jews were expelled from or fled neighboring Arab countries and in which 750 thousand Palestinians were pushed out of areas controlled by Israel.

The United National Movement Party is a somewhat nationalist political party elected in a free election which refused to recognize the right of nearby disputed territories to be independent or to join neighboring Russia.  Many ethnic Georgians were driven from their homes in Abhkazia and South Ossetia nearly twenty years ago in ethnic hostilities. For example less than twenty years ago, nearly half of the residents of Abhkazia were ethnic Georgians. Over 80% of that population was driven out of Abhkazia or killed in ethnic hostilities in the early 1990s. After this ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – and ethnic Georgians were not blameless in this – a majority of the remaining inhabitants of these two traditional parts of Georgia sought protection from an international peacekeeping force and eventually, to ally themselves with and perhaps join the Russian Federation.

Israel is the strongest single power in the region but has been attacked by many of it’s neighbors since it’s existence. It is a democracy in an autocratic region. The descendants of  the former occupants of Israel’s land demand the right to return to the homeland of their parents or grandparents, and the official government of the Palestinians has often embraced suicide terrorism and attacks on civilians in order to achieve it’s goals. Israel has been granting the Palestinians some measures of autonomy but is still very wary of the security threat that exists.

Russia is a regional power with great power aspirations that has turned away from an open democracy in recent years in favor of some form of either tyranny or oligopoly. It has long supported the separatists in the disputed regions of Georgia in their bid to win independence. There has been growing concern in Russia that America’s support for Georgia was an attempt to check Russia’s regional influence. Georgia’s push to join NATO only deepened their concern – especially as Abhkazia has strategic importance to Russia due to an oil pipeline being constructed there.

So what am I missing here? Both Russia’s and Israel’s offenses hurt civilians as well as more legitimate targets. Both over-matched their opponents significantly. Both were in measure provoked (although both Georgians and Hamas believe they were the ones provoked.)

If anything, Hamas’ explicit embrace of terrorism should count against it. The fact that Israel is a democracy that faces an imminent security threat from the Palestinians – and especially Hamas, which is officially dedicated to Israel’s destruction – and has been attacked by Hamas and other Palestinian forces in the recent past would seem to partially explicate Israel’s actions, even if one considers them overreactions.

At the same time, Russia violated an international boundary when it was not facing an imminent threat. It has not been attacked by Georgia in the recent past if ever.

I think it’s probably true that most political convictions are based more on intuition than reason – but can anyone enlighten me as to a good reason to oppose Israel’s attacks on Hamas and to support Russia’s attacks on Georgia?

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Posted in Foreign Policy, Israel, Politics, Russia | No Comments »

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