Saturday, June 8, 2024

A Few Points about Otello

 I just heard Otello performed in concert tonight at the National Symphony in DC. If it weren't already three in the morning I'd write a long post about Otello.

A few points:
  1. Otello is a greater work than Othello. Othello is towering, but it's two plays awkwardly shoehorned into one: Othello's descent into jealous madness, and the rise of Iago's evil powers. Verdi, as practical a man of the theater as the Bard, streamlines it to one story by making Iago evil personified from the first word. Othello sprawls into a hundred directions. Otello is a masterpiece of concision. You know exactly why every note is there.
  2. The way Verdi cuts Othello in half is through Iago's Credo, which literally sets a trifling prose poem Boito wrote as a vent for his own domestic frustration that had nothing to do with Otello. The setting would be astonishingly modern even in Wagner, and it is one of the core glories of all opera. While Shakespeare's Iago evolves, Verdi's Iago is. Iago, like Hagen, is evil: not only is he evil, he is evil itself.
  3. Race is obviously near the core of Shakespeare's conception. One of Shakespeare's many tropes is to show that a villain from a disparaged race is the way they are because circumstances forced them to be. Just as Shylock is a Jew forced into his own stereotype, Othello is a moor forced into his. They are both villains and figures of great pathos. But the primary concern of the Othello story in any form is jealousy, but whereas Shakespeare's Othello is concerned places jealousy in a racial context, Verdi's Otello places it in the context of relationships, how envy leads friends to betray each other, and how envy leads to abusive domestic relationships.
  4. There are moments when what happens in the music is so violent that one can only speculate that the music expresses what the stage directions lack. After Verdi sets Shakespeare's line, 'I took thee for the cunning whore of Venice,' the wrath of the music is so terrifying that one can only infer the actions the music implies.
  5. Next time you hear Otello's shout of 'a terra, e piangi!' think of Pagliacci. Note for note, Leoncavallo literally sets the same musical cell as 'ridi Pagliaccio!'
  6. Much is made by musicologists the subtle ways Iago insinuates his evil machinations in Act II, at least much is made by Ernest Newman. It's important to pace Act II relatively quickly, as Gianandrea Noseda did tonight (too fast elsewhere), because Iago's insinuating chromaticism can seem like mustache twirling unless it's done at the speed of conversation. Whether in Shakespeare or Verdi, Iago has to seem plausibly normal in order to make his devestating effect.
  7. Late Verdi is a master, maybe the master, at coming up with the proper onomatopoetic musical gesture for every action. Such gestures are everywhere in Falstaff, but until tonight, the extent of it in Otello didn't quite occur to me. The Act III domestic squabble proceeds like so many fights do. It starts with one partner's cutting remarks that just barely keep civility's veneer, while the other partner does everything they can to subtly imply the unpleasant thing they need, only to proceed to the place of hurt, where the lid of respect falls off. Points of aggravation are repeated over and over again. And in the worst fights, there is always a place where the unforgivable thing is said, the point from which there is no return.
  8. As the composer who perfected the tropes of grand opera, Verdi is in a unique place to play around with them. At least twice, Verdi seems as though he is about to go into an aria, once with Iago in Act I, once with Otello at the end of Act III, and probably half a dozen times between them in Act II, only to interrupt what seems like an introductory melody for something far more naturalistic.
  9. We always talk about the importance of key and harmony in Wagner, but barely anyone speaks of Verdi as though he has any sort of tonal plan. And yet the harmonic plan in Otello is so clearly laid out. The love of Otello and Desdemona is played out in the tonality of E. The kisses are in a blissful E-major, but the jealousy takes root in b-flat minor, the most distant key from E. The constant rebukes and insinuations are always in a much more complex E-major, like a love that is struggling to remind itself that it exists. But at the most harrowing moments of domestic strife, the music turns to E-minor. The opera ends again in E-major but the most resigned, morendo E-major.
  10. But the harmonic masterstroke is that the Willow Song is in C-Sharp minor - E-major's relative minor. The very note E has become the source of Desdemona's pain, and when it comes time to sing Ave Maria, she sings it in the dominant of C-Sharp, A-flat major. It's like a harmonic signal that heaven hears her pain, and will save her for it. All of which leads us back to the low E on the double basses with which Otello makes his final entrance.

Monday, June 3, 2024

Israel/Palestine 3 1/2 FAQ's

 First the half question, which I won't even put in the form of a question.

There's no reason to talk about the peace proposal Biden put forward. It's entirely political theater to appease a left which refuses be appeased. Biden issued it knowing there is no way the Netanyahu government would adapt it, and knowing that were Netanyahu somehow to change his mind, Hamas would back out at the last minute. There is no peace possible until both Netanyahu and Sinwar are out of government, and the power of both depends on the presence of perpetual war.
So where are we right now? I think the only way to talk about this is to have a bunch of isolated FAQ, or at least, what I would imagine the FAQ is if anybody asked me.
Yes, he was right. It's purely symbolic. The one thing Israel has enough of is weapons, but it's a signal to Netanyahu's government that should Israel pursue its policies aggressively, they can't necessarily count on the US for a blank check to write up everything they need. What any army can never have enough of is manufacturing parts. In war, you never know what parts of your equipment will go wrong and you sometimes need defense manufacturers to ship you parts overnight. Netanyahu's government now has to factor in whether or not they can count on the US completely for every exigent circumstance.
I know long time readers probably expect me to go with 'no, f-ck you' and leave it there. I'm going to say 'No, f-ck you' when it comes to the warrant against Netanyahu's defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who proved one of the loudest opposition figures in Netanyahu's government, dissenting from Netanyahu in full view of the public. Regarding Netanyahu, I'm still going to answer a resounding 'no,' but not a 'morally absolute no.'
This question is not quite as simple as it seems, because for Israel, the ICC is purely symbolic. It has no enforceability, and the fact remains, it is far more likely that an exiled Hamas leader like Ismail Haniya can end up in front of the ICC than Netanyahu ever will. If Netanyahu feels trapped by the worry that he might get arrested abroad, then it's a small price to pay for making Israelis feel trapped by him.
The ICC can only prosecute within states that recognize it, and Israel does not - Israel and the US jointly announced they no longer recognize the ICC as of 2002. They are not alone among world powers who don't recognize it: neither China nor India ever recognized the ICC, and Russia withdrew their recognition in 2016.
This means that the ICC warrant is just another piece of diplomatic leverage, and it's hard for me to believe that the ICC would have issued it without Washington's secret consent. This is just the 'carrot and sticking' of normal diplomacy: do what we want, you're rewarded, go against our wishes, you will be punished. More or less, the only part of the war effort that will be hurt by the ICC ruling is people's feelings.
And 'feelings' is ultimately what the ICC question comes down to. The warrant could not have been more poorly timed. The last thing Israel needs is another way to make themselves feel hated in the international arena, and by making Netanyahu seem like a victim, all the ICC has done is to give millions of Israelis who hate Netanyahu a reason to identify with him.
I've said and written this many times, but just as the world's neglect of their concerns radicalized Arabs, so does the world's neglect of Israel's concerns radicalize Jews.
So yes, no, f-ck you.
And this leads us to our next question:
- WHY IS ISRAEL MAD AT NETANYAHU (part 234124534563457)?
There are literally hundreds of reasons stretching over thirty years, but for right now, the reason is that Israelis realize Netanyahu has no plan for the future aside from his own future. It's true, most Israelis couldn't care less what happens in Rafah - you wouldn't either if these people had wanted to kill you since 1948, but even after all this, there is evidence that Israelis do care a little bit about human rights. I forget the exact number, but the percentage of Israelis polled who do not want military rule of Gaza after this is over is somewhere in the sixties or seventies. Israelis want Gazan self-governance.
On the one hand, it's hard to deny, military rule of Gaza would be the most secure option - so long as Israel is protected by a right-wing government in the US, which, starting next year, the US might have forever. But even now, Israel doesn't value their security to the point that they're willing to countenance a true apartheid government.
From 1967 to 2006, Israel ruled the Gaza strip. Israel was desperate to not have it, but Egypt wouldn't take it back in their 1979 peace treaty (the Camp David Accords) and the Palestinian independence movement was nowhere near what it is today. Israel controlled it as a temporary security measure that became more and more permanent, and while there were settlements in Gaza, Gaza is small enough to be nearly settlement-proof. Settlements in Gaza were nowhere near so serious a threat to a lasting peace as it was in the West Bank, where the settlement movement was serious indeed. In 1990, if you asked the average Israeli whether they wanted to keep the West Bank, it would be a resounding yes. If you asked the average Israeli whether they wanted to keep Gaza, it would have been a resounding 'f-ck lo.'
In 2006, prime Minister Ariel Sharon simply disengaged from Gaza and let them break their own heads. Who knows what circumstances it would have taken to work the way we hope, but the fact remains that George W. Bush insisted on a free and fair democratic election. Hamas won the election by three percentage points, and there was never another election. Had a leader like Mahmoud Abbas simply ruled Gaza as a dictator from Day 1 of the disengagement, it would not have been the disaster it was to let Gazans elect Hamas.
If there is no postwar plan, all that would be left is for Israel to simply retake Gazan territory. Last time, the territory was taken with the intent of getting rid of it, this time, the territory would be taken with the intent of holding it. The intent would be the opposite of what it was from 1967 to 2006. Gaza would be ruled with the intent to rule it permanently, and that, therefore, would very much be an apartheid situation.
Whether for moral, humanitarian, or practical reasons, this is the precise situation most Israelis don't want. 100,000 protest it every week. Whatever is going on Israel vs. the world, Israel is at an internal boiling point over the issue of controlling Gaza again, a notion that, for the vast majority of Israelis, is an unacceptable trauma.

More tomorrow, I mean it this time. I'll start working on it now.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A Liberal Israel

Look, I've said this many many times already, I'll probably say it many times again, but I feel stretched on a cross, and I think most liberal Jews feel the same way. It takes no great insight to see the direction Israeli policy is trending, and our blind insistence on a rubber stamp for Israel aid has lead to the blind arrogance of a now permanently ensconced Israeli government. Even if Ganz leaves Netanyahu's government, there is still a conservative majority until 2026, and I think not even Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are stupid enough to give that up, and no liberal government will ever give the orthodox what the conservatives will.
We live in the real world, and there is no world in which the beginning of this war wasn't justified but fantasy, but going after Rafah is the red line past which this becomes a war of choice, and all the casualties are no longer on Hamas. But whether it's Netanyahu, Netanyahu-lite, or Netanyahu-extreme, we are stuck with some version of his policies for a while yet, and if impartial arbiters eventually confirmed that a few more ten-thousand Gazan civilians died, how would it not be justified to call it an ethnic cleansing? How would it not be justified to call it ethnic cleansing in the most brutal scale and manner?
Hamas is estimated to have 30,000 troops, but ask yourselves, what would happen after they're all gone? Knowing that ending the war ends his chances for keeping his job and possibly avoiding jailtime, would Netanyahu ever end the war willingly? So long as Netanyahu is Prime Minister, he will find new threats. If not Hamas then Hezbollah, if not Hezbollah then Fatah, if not Fatah then god knows what else.
It's one thing for Zionists to turn our backs on anti-Zionist Jews, it's another to turn our backs on the few Jews brave enough to say more than once that these policies can kill us. If Israel is endangered again, there's no decent insurance policy for when things get hairy abroad, and it's difficult to conceive of a future when things aren't about to get hairier.
A large part of being Jewish is dealing with ambiguities that would drive the rest of the world insane, and at the same time as we're endangered in the longer term, we're temporarily more secure than ever. We're heading towards a potential future where Trump is the President again, and it's naive to expect that Netanyahu or whatever sheol replaces him won't have blank checks. Not even Netanyahu or anyone short of a Ben-Gvir is dumb enough to wage a genocide, and were a genocide to happen, it wouldn't be a war like what's waged now, but the real thing where Palestinians are killed with the impunity with which China may have annihilated the Muslim Uighurs. But eventually, Netanyahu will almost certainly try everything he can to deport Palestinians from territories he very much views as Israel's, I'm sure he's tried already, but he will almost certainly fail. And yet, if an Israeli PM of the future offers some nearby country in crisis a price astronomical enough, some country can buy them.
So some form of ethnic cleansing is a very likely future. The worst of it wouldn't be in 2024, but by 2050 after global warming and AI can hit with the force of dozens of atom bombs. No country will get through it without the stink of their shit clinging to them for the next hundred years, but no people is punished for their sins as frequently as Jews are. After war, ethnic cleansing that goes well beyond 1948, that is a very real potential future, but god knows what would follow it for Jews.
Ethnic cleansing is not just Israel's likely future, it's the likely future of the entire world. In the years after World War II, Palestine was just another ethnic cleansing among dozens: German speakers from every Eastern European country, 12-14 million of them, along with 3 million displaced Poles in the Polish Civil War that followed WWII (including my grandparents). India and Pakistan, 11 to 14 million displaced in the partition, as many as 2 million killed. Stalin ordered 3 and a half million ethnic minorities resettled all around the USSR to break them of their national identities - the expulsion of 300,000 Italian speakers from Yugoslavia, the expulsion of 150,000 Turks from Bulgaria, 100,000 Greeks from Turkey, 300,000 Indians from Burma. By the 70s, another 300,000 Rohingya from Burma, 425,000 Chinese from Cambodia, 140,000 Kurds from Syria. By the 90s, another 360,000 Turks from Bulgaria, 60,000 Turks from Uzbekistan, 100,000 Bhutanese from Nepal, another 150,000 Rohingya from Burma, 125,000 in a population transfer between Ossetia and the rest of Georgia, roughly 4 million former Yugoslavians displaced in the wars that followed the country's collapse, roughly 800,000 from the Kashmir province on the India-Pakistan border, untold smaller expulsions, and, don't forget, 270,000 to 400,000 Palestinians from Kuwait! And, nobody cares off course, but 1 million Sephardic Jews expelled from all around the Middle East to Israel by 1970. And yet it's all Palestine, Palestine, Palestine as though the world itself didn't commit the same sin. After war comes, ethnic cleansing is the sin of every peace that follows, and in the whirlwind that follows the worst of it, it won't just be Palestinians that are expelled.
We liberal Jews are neither leftists nor conservatives, and we're reminded every day of how far we are from both camps. We know that there is no Jewish future worth having without Israel. We also know that there is no Jewish future without Israel taking so much more care. We are at an impasse, and there may be no fix for it. Israel must survive, but it must survive as a country worth fighting for.
Yes, it's true, Jewish loyalties are dual to the US and Israel. Get over it. This accusation of 'dual loyalty' usually comes from people who find the US a force for evil and feel no loyalty to the country at all. And yes, it's true, we conspire to make the US pursue Israeli interests. Not in the way people think, but yeah, I guess it has to be seen as some kind of conspiracy, even if compared to most political conspiring, it's relatively benign. We've partaken in a conspiracy to make the US pursue interests which, until recently, were in the interests of both the US, and of human rights. Oh how evil we are. Damn us all to the cross again.
Please try to understand, for Jews - not Israelis, Jews - it is still October 7th. The writing is on the wall again. It's not just about October 7th, it's about the 2000 years of October 7ths which might follow. We had a lifetime off from history's melee, but we are right back to where we were. Some Jews have to be forgiven for not seeing that peace is the only way out. Jews are subject to the same historical forces everybody else is, and if you put the backs of Jews up against the sea, they will radicalize and fight just like any Islamist would. But read Jewish history, not just the highlight reel but the unflattering stuff they didn't teach us in day school. We usually lose, and there were times we probably deserved to lose. We're like any country or peoplehood, we get complacent and arrogant, and we demonize the people who point that out. But there's a reason we remember Jeremiah and Isaiah: they denounced the ways of the Israelites, but it turned out they were right, and we paid the price sevenfold for not minding our sins.
So f*ck human rights. We need to pursue peace to save ourselves. No god would let us win forever.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Ten reasons I haven't written about the campus protests so far.


1. I think they're incredibly silly.
2. I think the counterprotests are incredibly silly.
3. Academia is the last place to encounter meaningful thought
4. This might be the most complex issue on Earth and everybody involved in this silly flareup reduces the issue to something that fits on a fortune cookie.
5. There's not a single person involved in any capacity of these college conflicts who is not willfully toxifying discourse on a scale far more massive than a social media feed.
6. Whether the ideal is justice, security, liberty, equality, halacha, or sharia, idealism untempered by realism about human capabilities is what gets people killed, as untethered idealists inevitably come into lethal conflict with idealists of other stripes.
7. Academia is not only the node of where ideas are created, but of where bad ideas are created. The vast majority of academic ideas are unusably bad. That's fine, because the point of academia is to create ideas, but there is no place in the world more disconnected from praxis than the modern university, so they have no way of knowing that their ideas are bad until they can prove so in practice. Which at this rate they eventually will.
8. All through modern history, from the original Protestants to the original socialists, the academic disconnect from real life has been a reliable unwitting incubator of revolutionary death.
9. What began with a revolution of liberals in 1848 seeking self-determination became the Marxist pre-war revolutionaries of the years around 1900 in which social democrats collaborated with the most violent Marxists and anarchists. And now, the basically liberal precepts of the sixties turn into the illiberal left-wing revolts of the 2020s, in which intersectional social democrats collaborate in real time with a number of actors brutal enough to make Israel look like Switzerland.
10. The funding of these protests by hostile states is comically obvious. So is Israel's funding of counterprotests.
Probably more later.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

One More Thing about Yom HaShoah

There are two Holocaust memorial days. One is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The other is Yom HaShoah. One is for them, the other is for us.

Yom HaShoah may be an official Israeli holiday, but the speed with which Yom HaShoah took over Jewish memory is unprecedented - it's a holiday that feels as though it had always been there, even to Jews alive before the Shoah or the State of Israel. It is just one of a million ways that you could never separate Jewish identity from Israel. I'd never heard of International Holocaust Remembrance Day before the internet, and I guarantee most Jews hadn't either. For us, Yom HaShoah is the day of Holocaust remembrance, it is the day in Israel, it is the day in the US, it is the day for Jews around the world.

I'll spare you the lecture about Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha'Atzma'ut. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Six Out of Seven: How to talk about the Shoah

Eighty years later, we still don't know how to talk about the Shoah. The key figure is not that six million Jews died, the key figure is that six million died OUT OF SEVEN MILLION. THAT's what makes the Holocaust unique in recorded history. Other numbers are larger, and you'll have to excuse me for mentioning some ghoulish figures, for they all defy belief, but six out of seven is the ratio that makes the suffering of Jews unique among all groups of human beings.

On the intersectional side of things, you often hear that ten million died in the Belgian Congo under King Leopold. What's not said is that it was ten million out of twenty, and ten is an extremely high estimate that's sometimes put as low as two. In Russia you hear that Russians suffered as much or more in World War II, and that's true in some ways, something like 27 million Russians died in what they call The Great Patriotic War, but of the USSR's population that was one in six. In China under Mao, somewhere between 40 and 120 million died. It's enough to make you wash your hands of humanity forever, but China in 1950 was about 550 million people, so that's somewhere percentage-wise between 8 and the low twenties. It's true, the genocide of Native Americans wiped out 95% of the population, but it was conducted over 400 years, facilitated in large parts by accidental incursions of disease rather than deliberate murder. The closest modern approximation is the Armenians, and again, we don't have very reliable figures. The percentage may in fact be close to the Jews, as high as 1.2 million out of 1.5 - 80%, but that's only a high estimate. The low estimate is 664,000 out of 2.4 million, roughly 27%.

The horror of it all is unspeakable, and how can we wonder why genocide keeps happening when people don't even know these figures which should be on the standardized tests of every high school student?
What makes the Holocaust unique is its almost complete success. For the suffering of the Shoah, we have, relatively speaking, extremely reliable records - the Germans were, as ever, quite punctilious. It is the only genocide in modern history for which the goal was the complete annihilation of a scattered peoplehood. It is the only genocide in which the victims were chased around a continent from country to country in the effort to end them. It is the only genocide whose effort spanned almost an entire continent all at once; and the vast majority of it took place over just two years.
And if that's not horrific enough, ample evidence exists that Stalin was getting ready to finish in Europe what Hitler started, and only his death prevented his murderous plans. Counting Soviet Russia, before the Holocaust were nine million Jews in Europe. Had Stalin lived just a few years longer, all but a few hundred thousand would be gone.
Jews don't have a monopoly on suffering or genocide, but the Shoah has no parallel in man's inhumanity to other human beings, and those who insist that other groups endured what Jews endured are no friend to the Jews.
The worst fight anyone ever got into on this once very loud wall (much louder than now if you can believe it) was when I insisted on exactly that sentiment. All sorts of left friends and acquaintances I haven't heard from in years recoiled in disgust: 'horror is horror' they exclaimed, 'how can you quantify it?', they brought up imperialism, they brought up the suffering of nearby in Baltimore, they brought up how the Holocaust is always used as a cudgel to minimize other people's suffering.
Stalin is supposed to have uttered two quotes that put all that in perspective. One is the relatively famous: 'the death of a single person is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a statistic.' The other? 'Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.' You can't quantify horror, but you can quantify murder.
There are other forms of horror in the world that are arguably as bad, but Jewish history is unique in how frequently it contains the widespread profusion of nearly all those other forms of horror in addition to the worst of murder. It is also unique in how it prioritizes life over all things. So long as one is alive, there is hope for improvement, all that can cease hope is death.
The point is this: there are ideologies proliferating these days which tell us the suffering of the Jews is held on a pedestal to minimize the suffering of others.
Fuck them.
The purpose of showing the Shoah as the unique crime of history is not to minimize other people's suffering but to prevent anything on a scale nearly so vast - whether inflicted on Jews or on anybody else, by mapping out all the symptoms and signposts. Records are meant to be broken, and the Shoah is there as a lesson for exactly how these events can happen again.
There may be another post later tonight.

Two Further Thoughts on Rafah: particularly the negotiations

 1. There was never going to be a ceasefire agreement, the negotiations were always going to break down. That is Hamas's strategy. The strategic gambit is to bait Israel into offering the maximum number of concessions, then reject them at the last minute as a means of provoking Israel into the maximum possible assault on Rafah and bait Biden into sympathy with Israel's point of view.

Until a significant portion of the world stops making Israel shoulder 100% of the blame and pressures Hamas in the way they pressure Israel, the slaughter will continue.

2. A lot of people are going to say that it's Israel who walked away from the table. That's technically true, but an Egyptian official has already leaked that it was actually Hamas who deliberately blew up the deal. Let's face it, both sides of this table are negotiating in bad faith, and both sides want the Rafah invasion to happen, whether now or in six weeks. The truth, of course, is a much more complicated picture, and you won't get at it unless you're willing to put in the work to see it in the round.

Which everybody is always willing to do when it comes to this conflict...

All reactions:

All reactio

Monday, May 6, 2024

Facts in the round: Some thoughts at the beginning of Rafah

  On the one hand, even if the statistical figures of the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry are true, there is a ratio of civilian to combatant dead that is roughly two combatants for every three civilians, that is unprecedentedly low in modern urban warfare by quite a margin. It means that even the Gaza Health Ministry can't disguise Israelis are generally fighting this war with extreme care.

On the other hand, there are a total of roughly 100,000 Palestinian casualties - casualties is a term that's widely misunderstood, it doesn't mean total dead, it means total dead + injured, and when you add the two, it's roughly 100,000 people. That's almost 5% of Gazans. And this is just the figure at the beginning of Rafah, which, for all we know, could double the figure in just a month or two. It does not include those about to die or get injured, it doesn't include those who are currently starving, or worried about how their routine infections could worsen, it certainly doesn't include those who are psychologically damaged for life, and it can't possibly include all those who are missing.
Even if Israelis are fighting this war with extreme care, even if, as American military observers note, they are using all kinds of safety precautions the US never used in Iraq or Afghanistan, they can't hide the fact that they've also deployed a level of weaponry the US never did in Iraq or Afghanistan. You read that correctly. The level of weaponry deployed is greater than Iraq or Afghanistan: not just relative to the size of the areas, but in real terms: in six months, more weaponry's been dumped on Gaza than were inflicted on two countries in twenty years that are 1500 times Gaza's size.
On still the other hand, the vast majority of these bombs are not dropped on civilians. They're dropped to destroy Hamas's tunnel network, which is forty percent larger than London's subway system in a territory less than a quarter the size. Tunnels built so deep that even the biggest bombs struggle to reach them. You cannot possibly expect that Israel will allow the tunnel system to remain in place, and if it means destroying Gaza to do it, well... nobody was calling Gaza that great a place to begin with, and even now, Israel is far from the sole author of Gaza's shame (we'll get into that another day).
On the other hand again, even with the extreme care taken for human life, there are no guarantees in war, particularly war of this scale. Areas that are planned to be safe turn out to not be safe: sometimes due to incompetence, sometimes due to competent people's margin of error, and occasionally because war crimes are committed - not by the Israeli military, 'Israel' has, thus far, neither planned war crimes nor committed them. Even now, Rafah will be unspeakably bloody, but depending on how the invasion is conducted, it can still be within legitimate rules of warfare. But individual Israeli soldiers? Even individual units? You'd have to be incredibly naive to not guess that war crimes are committed every day, just as individual soldiers do in every asymmetric war since the beginning of warfare. And if Israel does not eventually prosecute those soldiers who commit them, Israel itself will have committed war crimes.
But more often than not, and this is why Israel is in such serious trouble, part of the reason Israel's experienced so many PR disasters is not because Israel has succeeded in its military objectives, but because the cost of Israel's success is so high - and people can't help wondering if success can be procured at a lower price. Even if a 1/1.5 ratio is unprecedentedly low, all combatant to civilian ratios are too high, and any civilian murder will call an army's tactics into question.
There is all sorts of evidence of a trigger happy Israeli army, the World Central Kitchen episode is just one case study among dozens. It would appear that 142 journalists have been killed, 224 humanitarian aid workers, and more than 350 healthcare professionals. Israel can justify it by saying that many of these workers made a decision to embed themselves with Hamas, and must therefore be suspect of collaborating with Hamas - and in a sense they're correct, but surely nowhere near a majority of these workers are Hamas collaborators in any sense. If in six months they can kill so many professionals with so little regard for their collateral damage, how many outright civilians can they kill under a similar calculus? How many children?
Whatever the position about the Gaza war, we on Israel's side are going to have to get as serious about the cost of our beliefs as we wish people on Palestine's side would, not just the cost of our international esteem, but the actual human cost.
It's always tenuous to talk about morality when statecraft is involved, because a more moral world is only attained through immoral acts. But even if you don't want to view the human cost morally, you have to view the human cost politically:
We haven't annihilated a people, but we've annihilated whatever little society we allowed them, and if we don't leave the door open after this for some kind of negotiated settlement, we will have erased whatever chance we had to make this struggle not last generations longer, maybe centuries longer. If, after all this, we simply expect that we can make Gaza into an eternally occupied territory, basically an open air prison for millions requisitioned in an area 1/3rd the size of Philadelphia, we are delusional. If we expect that half the entire world won't rush to their side, do everything they can to subvert Israel's continued existence, and rush to judge every Jew as preemptively guilty helping these Israeli 'jailers', we are delusional. If we expect that Israel can perpetually occupy Gaza without Russia and China exploiting the turbulence it causes in the US to create a larger scale conflict that can topple the political power of democracy in favor of totalitarian dictatorships all over the world, we are delusional.

In history, in politics, moral absolutes are what get people killed. Leave chants and memes to the idiots. There is a far more complex morality at work, and it urgently needs more people to decode it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Clarification #2

 Nothing about criticizing Israel is antisemitic. It's fantastically naive to go around enraged about all the things Israel does wrong if you're not giving similar criticism to dozens of countries around the world, many of them outright authoritarian regimes, many of which are propped up by the US; not to mention that Jews find the frequency of criticism irritating to the point of enraging, and it steps on all our insecurities that our friends won't look out for us when times get difficult (like now) but no, of course it's not antisemitic to criticize Israel. Israel's a state like any other state, in a complicated situation about which the whole world has lots of feelings, and given the stakes, it's going to fuck up a lot. Criticism is natural.

But there is no planet where anti-Zionism is not anti-Judaism. We'll call that a separate phenomenon from antisemitism, but the border between anti-Judaism and antisemitism is incredibly porous. The reunification of Jews with Israel is chanted in prayers at least a dozen times every day over multiple services and has been for two-thousand years. The promise of an Israelite land where Israel is goes back at least three millennia, and getting back there is the only motivation Jews had for surviving since the time of Christ and Rome. No pale skin on some of us can disguise that we are native to this land, and we deserve to live on it without worrying that it will kill us.
So it is what it is and don't kid yourself. If you oppose the State of Israel, you oppose that Judaism exists at all, and some part of you holds Jewish people in contempt. This belief doesn't mean you're an antisemite, but it does mean that some part of you is antisemitic. If you can live with that, go ahead and live with it. Some Jews will be all too happy to exonerate you and say that Judaism exists apart from Zionism, but even if they are Jews, they are not Jewish. Because Judaism IS Israel. Judaism is other things too, but the land of Israel is one of the very most important. You may disapprove of that if you like, but never hold illusions about what that means.

Rattle's Moments

 It's only six months into the Rattle tenure, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony is almost the exact opposite ensemble of what it was five years ago. I'm sure some will view that as a tragedy - and I would number myself one of them except that the Bavarian Radio Symphony of old was a product of its master, and the new one is the product of its master too. If it weren't Mariss Jansons in front of them, the discipline would sound drilled and cold, and if it weren't Simon Rattle now, the lack of discipline would be irritating. Both, however, share a warmth that makes their decisions irrelevant, they are just the outward manifestation of a personality. Jansons was raised in the postwar USSR - born to a Jewish mother in hiding and his musicmaking reflected the drilled nature of his world, Rattle comes from the same Liverpool as Lennon and McCarthy, and his musicmaking reflects the free spirit of his, but in both cases, the warmth of soul is what matters.

I have to imagine his performances are extremely different on successive nights. Rattle is like a surfer who rides the musical wave or a gardener who grows a musical plant. He issues very few 'don'ts' from the podium, he simply listens and paints as he goes - the moment he spots something interesting in the balance, he encourages it and brings it out. Watch the strings and you realize that there is almost no attempt to blend sonority. Some players throb with vibrato, some barely vibrate at all. It always seems he would rather have a collection of 100 soloists than an Orchestra with a capital O.
Rattle is not particularly interested in structure, and as much as he zeroes in on details, there are musicians who bring out far more (I'm sure we'll talk about Kirill Petrenko before long). What interests Rattle is atmosphere. Music for him seems a series of extraordinary moments, and his mind is always in the present. It can result in a kind of interpretive attention deficit disorder in which one phrase has nothing to do with the next. If he thinks the present can be more extraordinary with a sudden change in tempo, he'll change it with little regard for how it affects the form or the harmonic rhythm, but within those moments are the most extraordinary things: eliciting the most extremely varied dynamics, balancing lines to bring out the inner voices, balancing harmonies to get the most luminous colors, and consistently encouraging the orchestra to give their warmest sound. Is there any conductor in my lifetime who gets a sound that warm? There was at least one, his name was Mariss Jansons.
On the drive home from tonight's extraordinary Pastoral I tried playing through the piece in my head to remember all the wonderous things Rattle did with them. A few of the things he did were absurd, many were mannered, and yet the vast majority of them were so extraordinary that a truer music I've never heard. I couldn't possibly remember everything. When I heard Jakub Hrusa the other night, there was far more obvious excellence. If anyone had said five years ago that the Bamberg Symphony would sound objectively better than the Bavarian Radio Symphony, they'd be laughed out of the hall, but the Bamberg Symphony sounded better blended and more precise. The excellence was completely consistent from piece to piece. Yet it's no criticism on Hrusa - still near the beginning of his career, to say that Rattle's concert had far more music in it.
Music is not simply a checklist of tasks successfully completed, music is those moments when extraordinary possibilities take place. These moments can be recorded but they'll never sound quite the same, then again they don't sound the same depending on where you're sitting in the hall. But these extraordinary musical moments can only happen when you put the critical facility down. Certain lovers of the arts, certain critics of the arts, want excellence above all else, but excellence is boring. Excellence is predictable. Excellence can't surprise you, it can't challenge you, it can't change you. Excellence is, ultimately, a forgettable experience, because when experiencing a revelation, the last thing you can be is objective. You know exactly what you're getting with excellence, and you can hear it in your head any time you want.
And that's why Rattle is great. It's rare that every moment of a Rattle performance is true music, and let's face it, a lot of Rattle performances aren't even good, but when Rattle is good, which is often, these moments are so abundant that were you to walk among them you'd have to be careful not to step on them.
Rattle is as true a musician as there is, almost too true. Occasionally even the freest spirits among us listeners find ourselves longing for a podium musician who cares a little bit about keeping the whole thing together (as we did in the Tristan Liebestod - whose climax was dampened by a complete muddle about where the peaks were). Rattle left the Berlin Philharmonic in worse technical shape than he found it, and seems to have devolved the Bavarian Radio Symphony even more quickly, but what he does can only be done by a great orchestra. He takes great orchestras and wrings from them their whole capacity for musical moments. I doubt any conductor had an ability quite like this since Leonard Bernstein.
I've always understood why people dislike Rattle. It's amazing he was chief in Berlin for as long as he was because his whole ethos was a rebuke to Karajan and all those who love the mid-century aesthetic. He wants to play something other than the same 50 pieces, he doesn't jet around the world unless it's a tour with one orchestra, he doesn't seem to worry about recorded sound, he doesn't worry about precision, he doesn't worry about blend, he doesn't worry about clarity, sometimes I even wonder if he has a conception of the pieces he plays; he simply takes things as they come and whatever comes, he grows from them atmospheric gardens of meaning.

Monday, April 29, 2024

One Key Point I Should Have Added Yesterday

There is always a chance that Israel is faking a willingness to invade Rafah as a means of extracting concessions, because if they are, it only works if people truly believe it. But I never put the willingness to do something so reckless past Netanyahu, and I don't put the willingness to sacrifice their people on a scale so massive past Sinwar and Hamas. There has never been a war like this in Israeli history, and there have never been actors on either side willing to sacrifice Palestinians with this much carelessness. This is not just another eruption of brief limited war, this is war in the realest sense: not total war, but the nearest thing to it, and in true war, anything is possible. Whether the threat is meant as a fake or real, it almost doesn't matter, because whether the threat was meant to be real, Israel may be pulled into doing it anyway as a means of keeping their word.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Again: Just in case my feelings aren't clear


Israel should not, should not, SHOULD NOT go into Rafah: the city (town) in Gaza's south where a million to a million-and-a-half are currently situated, mostly refugees. In a territory where there are very few miles, Rafah has literally miles and miles of refugee camps. The more fortunate live in tents but live six or seven to a tent, surrounded by garbage they can't throw out and all the pollutants, parasites and infectious diseases which go with them. Rafah has no functional pharmacies and one functional hospital, the entire hospital has 40 beds and two operating theaters. Even the wounded who are administered to cannot be properly administered to, all their wounds are festering and cross-infecting one another.
Leaving aside any humanitarian issues, the fact remains, to be so close to the brink of something so cataclysmic and then let the suffering avoid the very worst is Statecraft 101. Speaking purely from a point of view of hard-headed realism, to pull out now is the perfect opportunity to let the lesson sink in of what happens if Gazans refuse to hold Hamas accountable. Whereas to not pull out is to ensure an attempt at a massive international and generational boycott that could leave Israelis and Jews more vulnerable than ever.
As I've said 100 times already, after Ehud Olmert ordered a pullout without warning in Southern Lebanon, most Israelis cried foul, but Hezbollah learned the most important lesson, and even as Hezbollah has vastly increased its rocket supply and efficacy, there's been minimal trouble on the northern border for nearly twenty years.
The idea that Israel's enemies will be defeated permanently, whatever the organization, has always been a delusion, but living in an uneasy perpetual detente with them, whether Hamas or Fatah or whomever else comes next, not peace but detente and cold war, is Israel's safest future in my lifetime.
Netanyahu knows all this, but at this point the war is perpetuated not for Israel, but for him and to appease the extremist twits in his cabinet. The longer the war goes, the safer Netanyahu gets. The more strongly Israel is boycotted, the safer Netanyahu gets. The more hated Jews become, the safer Netanyahu gets.
Netanyahu broke the State of Israel, not to keep himself from jail but for his own powerlust. He pretends he's the solution to the problem he caused, there's not a single Israeli who believes him, but they have to go along with it because the rule of law that keeps a democracy running no longer exists. Netanyahu broke Israel not to stop himself from going to jail, but because he wants unlimited power for the rest of his life. Israel's blindness about the necessity of compromise may have created the moral rot Netanyahu exploited, but Israel is only more morally blind than any other democracy because of its proximity to dictatorships, and any other country in Israel's situation would have acted exactly the same way. For those who think they're better than Israel, make no mistake, what happened in Israel can happen anywhere else, and for reasons far less justifiable.
On the other hand, I have interacted with people who are passionately anti-the Israeli point of view, whom when I mentioned Rafah, had never even heard of the city. I was literally giving them their own ammunition. To employ one of the ugliest words of our time, this is how 'performative' all this activism is. When people who know nothing about a conflict and read less are convinced of their points of view, they are the problem, not the solution.
Israel will lose so much if it goes to Rafah, including the Biden administration and bipartisan American support, and with Israel losing so much, so will American Jews. The Jewish world is on the verge of being implicated in something awful and avoidable. It's not genocide, it's probably not even ethnic cleansing, but it just might be a long series of war crimes that, whatever justification there might be for them, can result in a long series of crimes committed on Jews that such actions are meant to protect.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Goddamnit Evan you promised yourself you wouldn't get geshikkered ever again so here is more about the college protests


College is where we go to first encounter ideas. It is not where we go to understand them. Understanding them demands lifelong engagement while also engaging with their real world consequences. The amount of peiple who can encounter both circumstances, let alone have the intelligence to underatand what they encounter, is unthinkably small. For the rest of us, people like me and you, it's all guesswork.
When you look at history, the flames of revolution begin over and over in the universities. Those of you who haven't seen the otherwise marginal show Three Body Problem are missing a perfect demonstration of how Mao's Great Leap Forward began on college campuses. So did the Protestant Reformation. So did the Socialist International. So, believe it or not, did fascism. It always seems to begin with young people who only know enough about the world to know it's a shitty place, and think that with enough change, they can be the ones who do better.
Fuck, I'm too tipsy to know where I'm going with this. My duodenum feels like it's in the shape of a wooden stake.

Friday, April 26, 2024

Five run-on sentences about the college protests:

  I don't ever again want to hear, read, talk, or give two shits about the protestors, for or against. Why does anybody care what happens to a bunch of pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students at places like Columbia who will write their own tickets to an unlimited future when all this is over while the rest of the USA is worried they'll be unable to pay the electric bill in ten years? It's a complete and total distraction from the main story of what's going on over there. Whatever your point of view, it's at least understandable to be outraged about what happens in the main theater of war, but to get outraged about what happens on college campuses is an empty way for powerful people to get you outraged and distracted from the real issues.

All r

Friday, April 19, 2024

So what's going on with Iran and Israel?


No it's not WWIII, it's not even all out warfare between Israel and Iran. Iran sent a small convoy of weapons, Israel sent an even much smaller one. It was just a token weapons exchange, a pose for international news outlets.
But Iran has sworn extreme escalation if Israel retaliates, and knowing that Israel would retaliate, perhaps this all is just an excuse to provoke something very different. That escalation can take many different forms, and if Iran is just that determined to provoke another front in the war, what comes next may well be yet another proxy war, brutal in an all too familiar way. Is Iran that determined? I'd put the current odds around one-in-three.
On Israel's northern border is yet another terrorist government with its own state established in all but name in Southern Lebanon. Hamas had 20,000 rockets at the start of the war, and they're now estimated to have about 6,000. They cannot do all that much damage except in raids along their borders and suicide bombings. But Hezbollah has 150,000 rockets, it can saturate Israel with constant explosions and bring life in Israel to a near halt as everyone goes has to interrupt their lives with scurrying to bomb shelters. Israel's iron dome, stunningly effective against the Iranian missiles, cannot be nearly as effective against this kind of onslaught, and Israel will have to worry that any one of these missiles carries chemical weapons or is a 'dirty bomb' - not a nuclear weapon, but carrying nuclear radiation all the same.
All of this means, you guessed it, another ground invasion may likely be in Israel's future. Back into Lebanon, with another clearance operation against deliberate human shields, clearing the rockets out of hospitals, schools, and mosques. Even as Israel is worried about casualties within it that could dwarf October 7th, international opinion would grow ever more outraged with what they take to be Israel's murderous bellicosity. If people hate Israel now, they will hate Israel twice as much or more after the next invasion.
Iran's strategy is not full-scale war, Iran's strategy is public opinion, and it's a blinding success. Iran's strategy is to convince the world that Israel is the state with genocidal intentions, not them. Their victory depends on depleting Israel's resources, a process that will take the better part of a century, and if a full-scale war erupts before Israel is a shell of the country it currently is, their strategy is an instant failure. For all Iran's surprisingly advanced weapon technology and intelligence, Israel dwarfs them, and however much destruction they rein on Israel, Israel would rein much more, and Iran's mullocracy would collapse. But Iran knows that mass opinion is fickle, naive, lazy and dangerous, and if Israel's good will to the international public is depleted, so eventually will their resources.
Many people, particularly progressives, refuse to concede that many situations have no good options. They see suffering people and automatically believe that the suffering is inflicted directly. They see this war and believe that Palestinian suffering only has a direct author, rather than shared between Israel and twenty Middle Eastern dictatorships who for three quarters of a century use the Palestinian cause as a convenient means to whip up pan-Arab nationalism, Islamic extremism, and leftist outrage.
A large part of modern history is the history of left-of-liberal progressives finding common cause with totalitarian extremists in the fight against right-wing authoritarianism, thinking that totalitarians can be collaborated with, successfully throwing off the right-wing authoritarians, and then being killed off by the left-wing totalitarians in the maelstrom that inevitably follows - along with everybody else. This is the story of how the Soviet Union came to be with all its satellite states, it's the story of the French Revolution, it's the story of radical Islamic dictatorships, it's the story of anti-colonialist dictatorships all around Africa and the Middle East. The chances of an Islamic dictatorship in America is laughably small, but the naivete is inevitably breathtaking - Western left wingers think they can collaborate in resistance movements with political Islamists, but they can't even coexist with their country's own right wingers without viewing them as enemies. No such left-wing dictatorship seems likely until it happens, and by 2100, it's likely there will be some such Islamic dictatorship for a long period in some Western country, or certainly by 2150. Many European right-wingers exaggerate vastly the threat radical Islam poses to the West, but the threat is real, and will only get realer.
I'm an American liberal, I will always be a liberal, but I am no leftist and haven't been in more than twenty years, because few progressives or socialists seem capable of conceiving that some humans are evil enough to poison the solidarity of well-meaning peoples. They see the suffering of people like Gazans, and cannot fathom that there are evils still well beyond that. All too many of those evils are right wing - and American, but the 20th century was ample evidence that the biggest priority is to eliminate the threat of people being killed by the tens of millions, and in the 21st century, the goal of policies has to be to prevent people being killed by the hundreds of millions.
Or more? Or worse?