Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Proper Bestowal of Moral Outrage

I've been reading about Israel's invasion of Gaza, and one theme I keep coming across is that Americans are simply too ignorant to properly understand these events. This theme comes most strongly from the more pro-Palestinian writers, but pro-Israel writers use it, too. In this fairly typical example Publius, an intelligent if very young blogger, reacts to reading Rashid Khalidi's The Iron Cage.
To begin, what really becomes clear in reading The Iron Cage is how profoundly ignorant Americans (including me) are about the region and its history. And the ignorance exists on many different levels.

For one, Americans (including me) are simply blind to the region's past. They don’t even see it – or at best see some fairy tale make-believe version. And it's hard to make them see it because our media and educational systems do a horrible job integrating that history into the lens of current events. To us, the world starts anew with each new rocket attack – that’s all we see, and that's where our analysis begins.

But that’s not what actual Palestinians see. They see -- indeed, they have lived -- the institutional obstacles that Western powers (particularly the British, who owe every Palestinian an annuity) have erected against a viable Palestinian state for nearly a century. They also see quite clearly how Western meddling – e.g., the creation of Hamas to undermine Arafat; arming Afghan tribes to fight Communism – are proximate causes of modern suffering in the region. In other words, they see what Americans don’t see, which is that the West helped create much of this mess, but now refuses to help fix it.

Americans are also quite ignorant of Palestinians’ (and Muslims’ more generally) subjective perceptions of these actions. In particular, they don’t understand how the scars of repressive colonialism color modern perceptions. If we were aware that the legacy of colonial occupation still sears the region's consciousness, we'd be less willing to support, you know, imperial occupations of former colonies.

The sad truth is that an honest debate about what’s going today is difficult because so many Americans (me included) just don’t know anything about anything there.

To this I say, so what? As it happens, I know rather a lot about Middle Eastern history, and about European colonialism more generally, and I find that it makes very little difference in how I feel about events in Israel/Palestine. True, western meddling has led to lots of problems in the Middle East. So? We can hardly undo the Sykes/Picot Treaty. And what does it mean to say that the west "now refuses to help fix" the mess we helped create? American Presidents and other western leaders have been trying to broker peace between Israel and the Arabs since 1948, with very little effect. The US has sent billions in aid to Israel and Egypt and hundreds of millions to other Middle Eastern players. I'm sure we would be happy to send billions more if it really purchased peace. What else are we supposed to do?

What difference would greater knowledge of recent or long past events make? Why does it matter who was more vicious in 1948, or whether Israel's 1967 offensive was justified, or whether the settlements or the suicide bombings are a greater crime? Does it matter who broke the Israel/Hamas cease fire, or who has killed more civilians, or tried harder to avoid killing them? Such knowledge is only useful for properly apportioning our moral outrage, and I submit that moral outrage is of no use here. To achieve peace, both sides need to let go of moral outrage altogether. As long as they are arguing over who is more to blame, they will never make peace.

I think the ideal broker for Middle Eastern peace would be someone who knew absolutely nothing about the region's past. If we could find a person who was well versed in peace negotiations but ignorant of Middle Eastern affairs -- say, a wise chief from the New Guinea highlands -- he might do much better than someone who knows the ins and outs so well that he sees every proposal in terms of past outrages and ancient wrongs.

The problem is not ignorance. The problem is that Israelis and Palestinians want to live in the same place, and hate each other. No amount of knowledge will make that problem easy to solve.

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