Wednesday, June 20, 2018

It's Not Even Past #23 - The Transcendental Realism of Ozu - Late Spring - And Still More

So your faithful podcaster has been slightly behind in productivity lately and of course means to get back on his high horse with weekly frequency, though we'll see how successful he is. He had a masterfully hubristic plan for the summer - to read all the great American novelists and see if they saw the American crisis coming. But having begun with Hawthorne, it was somewhere roughly around the sixth short story about a scientist or magician with an experiment which went awry for his subjects that he realized this would be a long summer indeed if he pursued this road. Which is not to say that The Scarlett Letter and Young Goodman Brown weren't transcendently good, but everything else was... well, the sooner I stop thinking about Hawthorne the better. Rather than focus on those things and people we dislike or hate, it's a much better time to focus on those things we love.

We should all probably beware of any concept which wreaks of the grand plan, the magnum opus, the giant work or concept that will explain the world and justify our existence. We defy augury, and the world is much too large to be understood except within the parameters of our little corners within it. Without pragmatic concessions to feasibility, the still shorter days of our lives will grow very long indeed.

So with that said, here's Evan's grand theory of cinematic greatness:

There are four kings on which all quality in the movies are based. Their movies the yardstick by which all other directors are measured, and they were all roughly contemporary with each other, each of which embody the four most important, longest, most fruitful and vital traditions in film. From the beginning to the present day, there are three countries whose proliferation of great movies have been pretty much unceasing from the early 1900s to right now: the US obviously, but also France and Japan. Each of them has a grand master at the height of movies' importance to the world which exemplify the greatness of movies in their classical period - the mid 30s to the early 60s, when, like all classical periods, the movies were in thrall to formal and emotional balance. Every expression was balanced by its opposite - tragedy with comedy, sublimity with vulgarity, compassion with contempt.

But still more important than the emotional balance of these directors' films was the particular focus. The focus was human beings; their frustrations, their triumphs, their dignity and their indignities. What makes a society live on is the belief that life of human beings matters above all else - once we believe that, then the world is worth fighting on against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It may be a lie that human dignity matters at all, but if we want to survive at all, we have to convince ourselves that it does. Before them were the Baroque stylistic experiments of silent film directors which seemed to communicate to us in the language of dreams: Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Wiene, Victor Sjostrom, and yes, Griffith too, and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. After these directors were the romantic generations with yearnings to the transcend our humdrum realities, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini, Godard and Truffaut, Scorsese and Spielberg, David Lynch and Oliver Stone. Directors whose movies electrified and stimulated audiences to the point that the yearning to break free from the confines of reality became a narcotic.

But in between them was a very different, more grounded and settled, conception of art and movies, indicative of a society that, whether correctly or not, believed in itself - that its problems could be changed with proper application, and that there was little enough which needed to change that even if they weren't, it would ultimately turn out alright. This approach involved delayed gratification and didn't necessarily make for the most satisfying lives for the citizens of its time, but the belief in delayed gratification did provide future generations with still greater prosperity which they could use to gratify themselves; prosperity enough that, in some ways at least, it turned their successor generations to various forms of decadence.

And decadence is the name of the game in our own historical period. Following the romanticism that yearned to break free of constraint came the decadent generations who had broken free only to realize that the constraints were ourselves. In film, the creation of stunning imagery has never been easier. Advancement in computer technology means that moviemakers are now free to create whatever images they like. And yet who were the most praised directors of this era? Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, the Coen Brothers, the Andersons PT and Wes, with David Lynch as a kind of transitional figure between the generations. These are moviemakers so enamored of movies that there's barely a movie by any of them without a series of homages to earlier movies. And even if they are not saturated with other movies, how many of these directors make movies that are not saturated with misanthropy? Of course, then you have the genre moviemakers. Peter Jackson may not be misanthropic, but he sure as hell doesn't think much about human beings except as a vessel for his spectacles, or Christopher Nolan, or the Wachowskis, or James Cameron, or Guy Ritchie, or M. Night Shyamalan, or Ridley Scott and George Lucas before them, who created works that seem to appeal to our generation far more than any other director of theirs save Spielberg. Maybe Pixar is interested in human beings and their motivations, but if Pixar is a shining exception to the rule, then think of the extreme visual stylization it takes to get audiences interested in human beings again.

This is the paradox of our own era, beginning with the gen-X'ers, our generations are 'free to be free'; and yet we are so beholden by the weight of our society's history, so incapable of even thinking outside of the constraints of our inescapable American culture - mostly popular culture, that we have no idea what to do with our freedom. It is so difficult to conceive of a different way to live life if you don't have any experience in witnessing them. If you travel to any first-world region or country: Western and Central Europe, Japan and South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and yes, Israel too, perhaps especially Israel, you're still saturated by a culture that America ultimately created. All of these countries, particularly Japan and South Korea, will be very different from ours, but in the ways that they are different from us, they are different because they rebelled against the model we bestowed to them,;and nowhere moreso than Japan and South Korea, whose societies created their new identities by taking our technological advancements and advancing them so far past our own that they've almost completely divorced from the traditional societies and worldviews we coerced them to leave behind.

So unless you travel to what we used to call during the Cold War the Second World, which is the Soviet Sphere, and most particularly the Third World - which doesn't necessarily imply poverty the way we use the term today but rather implies non-alignment in the Cold War, and therefore the traditions of their societies have not been decimated by either Americanization or Sovietization - you will find it extremely difficult at best to find me meaningfully different ways of thinking about the world than the one in which you were raised. At least many of our grandfathers had to travel to truly different societies from America - old Europe and traditional Japan and Korea - so they could destroy them. So since finding a way to perceive the world that isn't Americanized is so difficult, who can be surprised then that many Americans left, right, and center, no longer even think that our problems can ever be solved without destroying the whole edifice of American civilization and starting all over again from scratch? Even many from the American center now seem to be taken in by the idea that American society needs to be changed in a dramatic, and not particularly democratic, way. A number of leftists I know have been crowing lately about a poll which shows that centrists, dramatically more than either conservatives or liberals, are suspect of democracy. I didn't think much of the poll's methodology, which seemed only to offer very simplistic definitions of democracy, and I think one poll doesn't tell you very much, but still, it should give everyone pause. And when you see that Trump still has an approval rating of 42%, and you see the rise of thinkers who flirt with authoritarianism while keeping a thin veneer of moderation like Jordan Peterson, or you see the traction which the supposedly bipartisan 'No Labels' movement gets which alleges that the problems of America are evenly balanced between both sides of American discourse and not the result of one party declaring war on lower-case d democratic process - even after in the last generation we've seen Gingrich's government shutdowns, the Clinton Impeachment, Bush v. Gore, the Iraq invasion, the Katina response, the Party of No, the holdup of Merrick Garland's Supreme Court nomination, the response to Hurricaine Maria in Puerto Rico, and now, concentration camps for children - and we shouldn't sugarcoat exactly that these are concentration camps... so maybe the Republicans have now declared war on democracy itself - you realize that the American divorce from reality is so epidemic that it affects every flank of American life - right, left, and center.

This is what it means to be a decadent society in its actual meaning. Decadence's proper meaning is not that we're somehow spoiled or degenerate, it means that a society no longer has the commonly shared consensus that binds it together. These commonly held assumptions don't have to be true, many of them are demonstrably false. Here in America, that demonstrably false belief so obviously was the American dream. It was a commonly held belief for pretty much the duration of our history that if we work hard we can create an individuated life with prosperity and dignity. All through our history, there were so many obvious contrary forces to that notion, and no doubt, there was and perhaps still is a better chance to create this identity in America over any other place in the world, but that still doesn't mean that the American Dream is ultimately true, and the fact that it isn't largely true has occurred to a particularly large swath of Americans recently. Since 1999, US median income has gone down in real terms, meaning general purchasing power, 9%. The top 1% of America's income earners hold 23% of our wealth, between 1950 and 1970, they held 10%. If wealth in America were as evenly distributed as in 1979, the bottom 80% would be earning an average of 7,000 dollars more.

So what the hell does all that have to do with cinema? Or Ozu for that matter. The answer, insofar obviously as there is one, is that when we look at the most praised works of all time in cinema, clearly the dominant artform of the 20th century, we see a way of looking at life so completely different from ours that the only way to process it is to realize that it was created by a generation who had a completely different outlook - who were in the middle of, or just emerging, from an era of death, yet realized that at the end of that road was something that was at least relatively much better than their current harrowing experiences, and that, contrary to filling them with dread, filled them with an optimism that we, in this era of relative peace when solving problems should at least be much easier than in an era of World War, do not have.

At bottom, we are as irrational as any animal, and in every era when it looks like we've finally solved humanity's problems - whether the solutions are liberal, or monarchical, or religious, or dictatorial, and it looks like all we need to do is apply the proscribed solutions with enough greasepaint, people become in thrall to explanations which tell us that our current society is rotten at its core. It's almost as though mother nature has a homing device to make sure humanity doesn't get too powerful, and let's mass death clean out a significant part of the human population in the same manner that rain washes away toxins into the ocean where they can be diluted.

The old arts became in thrall to various avant gardes, the ultimate decadence, and again, I mean decadence in the sense of unshared consensus, not as a description of its quality either aesthetic or moral. But the popular art of that era, the art that defined that era, the movies, the popular music, the comic books, the television, perhaps even the organized sports, represent the new beginning of this now cleansed world, ready to look toward the future with a newfound optimism.

And in each of the three great cinematic traditions, there is a figure who seems to dramatize in different ways the triumph of this new world against the old - and perhaps above all three of them, a fourth figure, an international figure, who seems to define the ultimate reach of cinema everywhere the way that Michelangelo defines art. In each of them, there's a large, perhaps huge, element of mournfulness for the old world, and ambivalence just as big about the new; but the triumph, the energy, the confidence of the new, the young, the lower class, can sweep all before it when you see how exhausted the figures from the older world are inevitably exhausted, vitiated, made completely aware of their obsolescence. And from this emergence of a new world, every moviemaker since them had to develop their discoveries, their aesthetic, either taking their discoveries still further, or reacting against it.

Obviously, it's much more complicated than that, but this is a weekly podcast and if I didn't feed you a load of shit I would never have enough intellectual authority to keep it gpomg; and yet, while we live in an era in which the intelligensia completely dispenses with archetypes particularly because of their vituperative cousin, stereotypes, the recent resistence, the unwillingness of so many to dispense with this mode of thinking, to the point that they'll elect men like Donald Trump and vote for Brexit and support Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen, has to give one pause. Archetypal thinking is so completely embedded in the human psyche that even if we wanted to get rid of them and treat every individual on a case by case basis, we wouldn't know how. Today's people of the left argue so vociferously against any kind of archetypal grouping of people, that we have to treat every individual with the full measure of their uniqueness, and yet simultaneously, so many of them insist on the primacy of identity, that the groups to which they belong define their experience, how then do they expect for people to let go of archetypes and stereotypes? When they're honest with themselves, do they really think they'll ever be able to educate the public to the point that they can ever educate the better angels of people's nature to the point that they can surround themselves with other people's cultures without also fearing them?

So just as we archetype various groups of people, we also archetype time and space. Obviously, the mid-century was so much more complicated than that, and we are now living with the discontents of the midcentury pastoral, which wasn't all that much of a pastoral period really. Repressed urges to alternate gender and sexuality that were worse in fact than earlier in the century, minorities and women that were only beginning to lift their oppression, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, the US support of dictators like Batista in Cuba, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Montt in Guatemala, Jimenez in Venezuela, Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, Khan in Pakistan, al-Za'im in Syria, the Shah in Iran, the House of Saud, Diem in South Vietnam, Chiang Kai-Shek in China and then Taiwan, a whole series of them in Thailand, at times even communist dictators like Tito in Yugoslavia, and let's not forget Stalin... I know this list is excessive like so many of my lists, but I'm listing all of these to demonstrate the extent of the problem, which only got worse with Nixon and Kissinger in the '70s, to try to give a sense about why so many millions, abroad and increasingly here, feel that American liberalism is a sham.

But the mid-century was, relatively speaking, a prosperous, hopeful time, and the evidence of that is how much more peaceful the world became after 1945, and how much more peaceful again the world became after 1989.

It's Not Even Past #23 - The Transcendent Realism of Ozu - Late Spring - Still More

So your faithful podcaster has been slightly behind in productivity lately and of course means to get back on his high horse with weekly frequency, though we'll see how successful he is. He had a masterfully hubristic plan for the summer - to read all the great American novelists and see if they saw the American crisis coming. But having begun with Hawthorne, it was somewhere roughly around the sixth short story about a scientist or magician with an experiment which went awry for his subjects that he realized this would be a long summer indeed if he pursued this road. Which is not to say that The Scarlett Letter and Young Goodman Brown weren't transcendently good, but everything else was... well, the sooner I stop thinking about Hawthorne the better. Rather than focus on those things and people we dislike or hate, it's a much better time to focus on those things we love.

We should all probably beware of any concept which wreaks of the grand plan, the magnum opus, the giant work or concept that will explain the world and justify our existence. We defy augury, and the world is much too large to be understood except within the parameters of our little corners within it. Without pragmatic concessions to feasibility, the still shorter days of our lives will grow very long indeed.

So with that said, here's Evan's grand theory of cinematic greatness:

There are four kings on which all quality in the movies are based. Their movies the yardstick by which all other directors are measured, and they were all roughly contemporary with each other, each of which embody the four most important, longest, most fruitful and vital traditions in film. From the beginning to the present day, there are three countries whose proliferation of great movies have been pretty much unceasing from the early 1900s to right now: the US obviously, but also France and Japan. Each of them has a grand master at the height of movies' importance to the world which exemplify the greatness of movies in their classical period - the mid 30s to the early 60s, when, like all classical periods, the movies were in thrall to formal and emotional balance. Every expression was balanced by its opposite - tragedy with comedy, sublimity with vulgarity, compassion with contempt.

But still more important than the emotional balance of these directors' films was the particular focus. The focus was human beings; their frustrations, their triumphs, their dignity and their indignities. What makes a society live on is the belief that life of human beings matters above all else - once we believe that, then the world is worth fighting on against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It may be a lie that human dignity matters at all, but if we want to survive at all, we have to convince ourselves that it does. Before them were the Baroque stylistic experiments of silent film directors which seemed to communicate to us in the language of dreams: Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Wiene, Victor Sjostrom, and yes, Griffith too, and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. After these directors were the romantic generations with yearnings to the transcend our humdrum realities, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini, Godard and Truffaut, Scorsese and Spielberg, David Lynch and Oliver Stone. Directors whose movies electrified and stimulated audiences to the point that the yearning to break free from the confines of reality became a narcotic.

But in between them was a very different, more grounded and settled, conception of art and movies, indicative of a society that, whether correctly or not, believed in itself - that its problems could be changed with proper application, and that there was little enough which needed to change that even if they weren't, it would ultimately turn out alright. This approach involved delayed gratification and didn't necessarily make for the most satisfying lives for the citizens of its time, but the belief in delayed gratification did provide future generations with still greater prosperity which they could use to gratify themselves; prosperity enough that, in some ways at least, it turned their successor generations to various forms of decadence.

And decadence is the name of the game in our own historical period. Following the romanticism that yearned to break free of constraint came the decadent generations who had broken free only to realize that the constraints were ourselves. In film, the creation of stunning imagery has never been easier. Advancement in computer technology means that moviemakers are now free to create whatever images they like. And yet who were the most praised directors of this era? Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, the Coen Brothers, the Andersons PT and Wes, with David Lynch as a kind of transitional figure between the generations. These are moviemakers so enamored of movies that there's barely a movie by any of them without a series of homages to earlier movies. And even if they are not saturated with other movies, how many of these directors make movies that are not saturated with misanthropy? Of course, then you have the genre moviemakers. Peter Jackson may not be misanthropic, but he sure as hell doesn't think much about human beings except as a vessel for his spectacles, or Christopher Nolan, or the Wachowskis, or James Cameron, or Guy Ritchie, or M. Night Shyamalan, or Ridley Scott and George Lucas before them, who created works that seem to appeal to our generation far more than any other director of theirs save Spielberg. Maybe Pixar is interested in human beings and their motivations, but if Pixar is a shining exception to the rule, then think of the extreme visual stylization it takes to get audiences interested in human beings again.

This is the paradox of our own era, beginning with the gen-X'ers, our generations are 'free to be free'; and yet we are so beholden by the weight of our society's history, so incapable of even thinking outside of the constraints of our inescapable American culture - mostly popular culture, that we have no idea what to do with our freedom. It is so difficult to conceive of a different way to live life if you don't have any experience in witnessing them. If you travel to any first-world region or country: Western and Central Europe, Japan and South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and yes, Israel too, perhaps especially Israel, you're still saturated by a culture that America ultimately created. All of these countries, particularly Japan and South Korea, will be very different from ours, but in the ways that they are different from us, they are different because they rebelled against the model we bestowed to them,;and nowhere moreso than Japan and South Korea, whose societies created their new identities by taking our technological advancements and advancing them so far past our own that they've almost completely divorced from the traditional societies and worldviews we coerced them to leave behind.

So unless you travel to what we used to call during the Cold War the Second World, which is the Soviet Sphere, and most particularly the Third World - which doesn't necessarily imply poverty the way we use the term today but rather implies non-alignment in the Cold War, and therefore the traditions of their societies have not been decimated by either Americanization or Sovietization - you will find it extremely difficult at best to find me meaningfully different ways of thinking about the world than the one in which you were raised. At least many of our grandfathers had to travel to truly different societies from America - old Europe and traditional Japan and Korea - so they could destroy them. So since finding a way to perceive the world that isn't Americanized is so difficult, who can be surprised then that many Americans left, right, and center, no longer even think that our problems can ever be solved without destroying the whole edifice of American civilization and starting all over again from scratch? Even many from the American center now seem to be taken in by the idea that American society needs to be changed in a dramatic, and not particularly democratic, way. A number of leftists I know have been crowing lately about a poll which shows that centrists, dramatically more than either conservatives or liberals, are suspect of democracy. I didn't think much of the poll's methodology, which seemed only to offer very simplistic definitions of democracy, and I think one poll doesn't tell you very much, but still, it should give everyone pause. And when you see that Trump still has an approval rating of 42%, and you see the rise of thinkers who flirt with authoritarianism while keeping a thin veneer of moderation like Jordan Peterson, or you see the traction which the supposedly bipartisan 'No Labels' movement gets which alleges that the problems of America are evenly balanced between both sides of American discourse and not the result of one party declaring war on lower-case d democratic process - even after in the last generation we've seen Gingrich's government shutdowns, the Clinton Impeachment, Bush v. Gore, the Iraq invasion, the Katina response, the Party of No, the holdup of Merrick Garland's Supreme Court nomination, the response to Hurricaine Maria in Puerto Rico, and now, concentration camps for children - and we shouldn't sugarcoat exactly that these are concentration camps... so maybe the Republicans have now declared war on democracy itself - you realize that the American divorce from reality is so epidemic that it affects every flank of American life - right, left, and center.

This is what it means to be a decadent society in its actual meaning. Decadence's proper meaning is not that we're somehow spoiled or degenerate, it means that a society no longer has the commonly shared consensus that binds it together. These commonly held assumptions don't have to be true, many of them are demonstrably false. Here in America, that demonstrably false belief so obviously was the American dream. It was a commonly held belief for pretty much the duration of our history that if we work hard we can create an individuated life with prosperity and dignity. All through our history, there were so many obvious contrary forces to that notion, and no doubt, there was and perhaps still is a better chance to create this identity in America over any other place in the world, but that still doesn't mean that the American Dream is ultimately true, and the fact that it isn't largely true has occurred to a particularly large swath of Americans recently. Since 1999, US median income has gone down in real terms, meaning general purchasing power, 9%. The top 1% of America's income earners hold 23% of our wealth, between 1950 and 1970, they held 10%. If wealth in America were as evenly distributed as in 1979, the bottom 80% would be earning an average of 7,000 dollars more.

So what the hell does all that have to do with cinema? Or Ozu for that matter. The answer, insofar obviously as there is one, is that when we look at the most praised works of all time in cinema, clearly the dominant artform of the 20th century, we see a way of looking at life so completely different from ours that the only way to process it is to realize that it was created by a generation who had a completely different outlook - who were in the middle of, or just emerging, from an era of death, yet realized that at the end of that road was something that was at least relatively much better than their current harrowing experiences, and that, contrary to filling them with dread, filled them with an optimism that we, in this era of relative peace when solving problems should at least be much easier than in an era of World War, do not have.

At bottom, we are as irrational as any animal, and in every era when it looks like we've finally solved humanity's problems - whether the solutions are liberal, or monarchical, or religious, or dictatorial, and it looks like all we need to do is apply the proscribed solutions with enough greasepaint, people become in thrall to explanations which tell us that our current society is rotten at its core. It's almost as though mother nature has a homing device to make sure humanity doesn't get too powerful, and let's mass death clean out a significant part of the human population in the same manner that rain washes away toxins into the ocean where they can be diluted.

The old arts became in thrall to various avant gardes, the ultimate decadence, and again, I mean decadence in the sense of unshared consensus, not as a description of its quality either aesthetic or moral. But the popular art of that era, the art that defined that era, the movies, the popular music, the comic books, the television, perhaps even the organized sports, represent the new beginning of this now cleansed world, ready to look toward the future with a newfound optimism.

And in each of the three great cinematic traditions, there is a figure who seems to dramatize in different ways the triumph of this new world against the old - and perhaps above all three of them, a fourth figure, an international figure, who seems to define the ultimate reach of cinema everywhere the way that Michelangelo defines art. In each of them, there's a large, perhaps huge, element of mournfulness for the old world, and ambivalence just as big about the new; but the triumph, the energy, the confidence of the new, the young, the lower class, can sweep all before it when you see how exhausted the figures from the older world are inevitably exhausted, vitiated, made completely aware of their obsolescence. And from this emergence of a new world, every moviemaker since them had to develop their discoveries, their aesthetic, either taking their discoveries still further, or reacting against it.

.... I sometimes think I should call this podcast The Orson Welles Worship Factory, even though I've barely discussed Welles in any detail. In movie after movie, we see

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

It's Not Even Past #23 - The Transcendental Realism of Ozu - Late Spring - Little More

So your faithful podcaster has been slightly behind in productivity lately and of course means to get back on his high horse with weekly frequency, though we'll see how successful he is. He had a masterfully hubristic plan for the summer - to read all the great American novelists and see if they saw the American crisis coming. But having begun with Hawthorne, it was somewhere roughly around the sixth short story about a scientist or magician with an experiment which went awry for his subjects that he realized this would be a long summer indeed if he pursued this road. Which is not to say that The Scarlett Letter and Young Goodman Brown weren't transcendently good, but everything else was... well, the sooner I stop thinking about Hawthorne the better. Rather than focus on those things and people we dislike or hate, it's a much better time to focus on those things we love.

We should all probably beware of any concept which wreaks of the grand plan, the magnum opus, the giant work or concept that will explain the world and justify our existence. We defy augury, and the world is much too large to be understood except within the parameters of our little corners within it. Without pragmatic concessions to feasibility, the still shorter days of our lives will grow very long indeed.

So with that said, here's Evan's grand theory of cinematic greatness:

There are four kings on which all quality in the movies are based. Their movies the yardstick by which all other directors are measured, and they were all roughly contemporary with each other, each of which embody the four most important, longest, most fruitful and vital traditions in film. From the beginning to the present day, there are three countries whose proliferation of great movies have been pretty much unceasing from the early 1900s to right now: the US obviously, but also France and Japan. Each of them has a grand master at the height of movies' importance to the world which exemplify the greatness of movies in their classical period - the mid 30s to the early 60s, when, like all classical periods, the movies were in thrall to formal and emotional balance. Every expression was balanced by its opposite - tragedy with comedy, sublimity with vulgarity, compassion with contempt.

But still more important than the emotional balance of these directors' films was the particular focus. The focus was human beings; their frustrations, their triumphs, their dignity and their indignities. What makes a society live on is the belief that life of human beings matters above all else - once we believe that, then the world is worth fighting on against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It may be a lie that human dignity matters at all, but if we want to survive at all, we have to convince ourselves that it does. Before them were the Baroque stylistic experiments of silent film directors which seemed to communicate to us in the language of dreams: Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Wiene, Victor Sjostrom, and yes, Griffith too, and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. After these directors were the romantic generations with yearnings to the transcend our humdrum realities, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini, Godard and Truffaut, Scorsese and Spielberg, David Lynch and Oliver Stone. Directors whose movies electrified and stimulated audiences to the point that the yearning to break free from the confines of reality became a narcotic.

But in between them was a very different, more grounded and settled, conception of art and movies, indicative of a society that, whether correctly or not, believed in itself - that its problems could be changed with proper application, and that there was little enough which needed to change that even if they weren't, it would ultimately turn out alright. This approach involved delayed gratification and didn't necessarily make for the most satisfying lives for the citizens of its time, but the belief in delayed gratification did provide future generations with still greater prosperity which they could use to gratify themselves; prosperity enough that, in some ways at least, it turned their successor generations to various forms of decadence.

And decadence is the name of the game in our own historical period. Following the romanticism that yearned to break free of constraint came the decadent generations who had broken free only to realize that the constraints were ourselves. In film, the creation of stunning imagery has never been easier. Advancement in computer technology means that moviemakers are now free to create whatever images they like. And yet who were the most praised directors of this era? Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, the Coen Brothers, the Andersons PT and Wes, with David Lynch as a kind of transitional figure between the generations. These are moviemakers so enamored of movies that there's barely a movie by any of them without a series of homages to earlier movies. And even if they are not saturated with other movies, how many of these directors make movies that are not saturated with misanthropy? Of course, then you have the genre moviemakers. Peter Jackson may not be misanthropic, but he sure as hell doesn't think much about human beings except as a vessel for his spectacles, or Christopher Nolan, or the Wachowskis, or James Cameron, or Guy Ritchie, or M. Night Shyamalan, or Ridley Scott and George Lucas before them, who created works that seem to appeal to our generation far more than any other director of theirs save Spielberg. Maybe Pixar is interested in human beings and their motivations, but if Pixar is a shining exception to the rule, then think of the extreme visual stylization it takes to get audiences interested in human beings again.

This is the paradox of our own era, beginning with the gen-X'ers, our generations are 'free to be free'; and yet we are so beholden by the weight of our society's history, so incapable of even thinking outside of the constraints of our inescapable American culture - mostly popular culture, that we have no idea what to do with our freedom. It is so difficult to conceive of a different way to live life if you don't have any experience in witnessing them. If you travel to any first-world region or country: Western and Central Europe, Japan and South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and yes, Israel too, perhaps especially Israel, you're still saturated by a culture that America ultimately created. All of these countries, particularly Japan and South Korea, will be very different from ours, but in the ways that they are different from us, they are different because they rebelled against the model we bestowed to them. Nowhere moreso than Japan and South Korea, whose societies created their new identities by taking our technological advancements and advancing them so far past our own that they've almost completely divorced from the traditional societies and worldviews we coerced them to leave behind.

So unless you travel to what we used to call during the Cold War the Second World, which is the Soviet Sphere, and most particularly the Third World - which doesn't necessarily imply poverty the way we use the term today but rather implies non-alignment in the Cold War, and therefore the traditions of their societies have not been decimated by either Americanization or Sovietization - you will find it extremely difficult at best to find a different way of thinking about the world than the one in which you were raised. At least many of our grandfathers had to travel to truly different societies from America - old Europe and Japan and Korea - so they could destroy them. So who can be surprised then that many Americans left, right, and center, no longer even think that our problems can ever be solved without destroying the whole edifice of American civilization and starting all over again from scratch?

This still greater prosperity could be found in art as well as life. Moreso than the experimentalism of silent film, which seem like postcards from a completely different universe, we are still dining out on the conceptions of movies that were codified from the mid 30s to the early 60s.

In America, the codifying figure was, of course, Orson Welles - I sometimes think I should call this podcast The Orson Welles Worship Factory, even though I've barely discussed Welles in any detail. In movie after movie, we see

It's Not Even Past #23: The Transcendental Realism of Ozu - Late Spring - Beginning

So your faithful podcaster has been slightly behind in productivity lately and of course means to get back on his high horse with weekly frequency, though we'll see how successful he is. He had a masterfully hubristic plan for the summer - to read all the great American novelists and see if they saw the American crisis coming. But having begun with Hawthorne, it was somewhere roughly around the sixth short story about a scientist or magician with an experiment which went awry for his subjects that he realized this would be a long summer indeed if he pursued this road. Which is not to say that The Scarlett Letter and Young Goodman Brown weren't transcendently good, but everything else was... well, the sooner I stop thinking about Hawthorne the better. Rather than focus on those things and people we dislike or hate, it's a much better time to focus on those things we love.

We should all probably beware of any concept which wreaks of the grand plan, the magnum opus, the giant work or concept that will explain the world and justify our existence. We defy augury, and the world is much too large to be understood except within the parameters of our little corners within it. Without pragmatic concessions to feasibility, the still shorter days of our lives will grow very long indeed.

So with that said, here's Evan's grand theory of cinematic greatness:

There are four kings on which all quality in the movies are based. Their movies the yardstick by which all other directors are measured, and they were all roughly contemporary with each other, each of which embody the four most important, longest, most fruitful and vital traditions in film. From the beginning to the present day, there are three countries whose proliferation of great movies have been pretty much unceasing from the early 1900s to right now: the US obviously, but also France and Japan. Each of them has a grand master at the height of movies' importance to the world which exemplify the greatness of movies in their classical period - the mid 30s to the early 60s, when, like all classical periods, the movies were in thrall to formal and emotional balance. Every expression was balanced by its opposite - tragedy with comedy, sublimity with vulgarity, compassion with contempt.

But still more important than the emotional balance of these directors' films was the particular focus. The focus was human beings; their frustrations, their triumphs, their dignity and their indignities. What makes a society live on is the belief that life of human beings matters above all else - once we believe that, then the world is worth fighting on against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It may be a lie that human dignity matters at all, but if we want to survive at all, we have to convince ourselves that it does. Before them were the Baroque stylistic experiments of silent film directors which seemed to communicate to us in the language of dreams: Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Wiene, Victor Sjostrom, and yes, Griffith too, and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. After these directors were the romantic generations with yearnings to the transcend our humdrum realities, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini, Godard and Truffaut, Scorsese and Spielberg, David Lynch and Oliver Stone. Directors whose movies electrified and stimulated audiences to the point that the yearning to break free from the confines of reality became a narcotic.

But in between them was a very different, more grounded and settled, conception of art and movies, indicative of a society that, whether correctly or not, believed in itself - that its problems could be changed with proper application, and that there was little enough which needed to change that even if they weren't, it would ultimately turn out alright. This approach didn't necessarily make for the best lives for its citizens, but it did provide future generations with still greater prosperity, prosperity enough that, in some ways at least, it turned their successor generations to various forms of decadence.

This still greater prosperity could be found in art as well as life. Moreso than the experimentalism of silent film, which seem like postcards from a completely different universe, we are still dining out on the conceptions of movies that were codified from the mid 30s to the early 60s.

In America, the codifying figure was, of course, Orson Welles - I sometimes think I should call this podcast The Orson Welles Worship Factory, even though I've barely discussed Welles in any detail.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

It's Not Even Past #22 - Israel, Gaza, The Impossibility of Dialogue? - Final Draft

For whatever little it's worth, and I'm sure it's worth very little indeed, I'm going to begin this with something like the creed of Daniel Pearl. My name is Evan Tucker. I'm a Jewish American from Pikesville, Maryland, USA. There is not a single member of my immediate family, and perhaps even my extended family, who is not a fervent Zionist, and that most certainly includes me. On my father's side I have an uncle who followed Menachem Begin to Palestine in 1930 to fight for IrgunOn my mother's side the lion's share of my relatives who were Communists and Socialists when Israel was a cause of the Left, and when Israel ceased to be a Leftist cause, they seemed from the vantage point of fifty years later to convert en masse overnight to neoconservative Republicans almost purely because of the issue of Israel. I am a practicing Jew who was raised in Jewish day schools and in a Kosher home who still goes many weeks to synagogue on Shabbos and even if I don't technically keep Kosher these days, I spend more than a hundred dollars every week at a kosher supermarket. I am conversational in Hebrew and Yiddish, and I at least used to speak both of them rather well. I lived in Israel for nearly a year, and not only lived in Israel but in the Negev desert, the part of the country not even Israelis live in, to be part of a program that was part of David Ben-Gurion's dream of letting the desert bloom. If I'm not Jewish to the foreskin, if every bit of me from my neurological hard wiring to my kishkes is not Jewish at the cellular level, then I'm nothing at all. So my concern in the Israel/Palestine conflict is not the Palestinians, they seem to have the entire world to look after them, it's the Israelis. Even if I didn't think that the welfare of Israel is directly relational to the welfare of Jews everywhere, and obviously particularly Jews in the United States, I would be a hundred times more concerned about Israel than I am about Palestine. I have family and friends that move back there for years at a time, and I have family and friends who were there long before I ever arrived and will never leave. And even if those family and friends did not ever live in Israel, I would still be 100x more concerned about Israel, because the Jewish right to Israel is a right, not a colonial occupation.

But even if I weren't all that, these affidavits of identity have become so cheapened, so meaningless, so obnoxious, that how can they mean anything? It's a complete non sequitur to say that only Jews have the right to opinions on Israel, or only Israelis do, or only Zionists do, because whether or not they have a right to opinions - they will have opinions anyway. If people say that non-Jews, non-Zionists, have no right to opinions on Israel, the opinions we don't like we don't like will only grow stronger. If Jews dismiss all criticism of Israel, and unfortunately I have all too much experience of how so many Jews do at the most visceral level, then it will be the loudest, most irrational, and strident anti-semites who control worldwide discourse about this most important subject to us. Yes, identity does matter somewhat - and everybody seems to pretend that identity matters completely when it's beneficial to them and not at all when it isn't, one of the many things that matters much more than identity is veracity. And one of the most obvious examples of the foolishness of identity politics in the entire world is how Jewish anti-Zionists are trotted out these days every time the anti-Zionists need a somebody to speak out against this horrible state that is the State of Israel, and Jewish anti-Zionists are all too willing, because what matters far more to them than their identity as a Jew is their identity as an asshole. 


We are living in yet another age in which being Jewish is the mirror image of the rest of the world. In country after country, we seem the most prosperous minority who has little reason to complain when so many groups suffer worse than us, until the moment we're slain in the span of a year at numbers that more obviously oppressed groups don't equal in a hundred. We've seen this movie hundreds of times, and while we don't know how long the movie is, we know its ending. And yet there are always Jews, politically conservative ones, who want to crow about Jewish achievements to the world, who think that all it takes is for us to preserve ourselves better is to be more assertive; more assertive against antisemites, against gentiles, against anyone to whom an antisemitic thought might occasionally cross their mind; which is of course everybody, and in doing so, they sign our eventual death warrants.


The antisemitism of the hundred years before the Shoah would not exist as it did without the 19th century's most obvious precursor to neoconservatism: Benjamin Disraeli. How he was precisely that is material for another episode of course - we won't deal with Disraeli the politician today. Today, we'll deal just briefly with Disraeli the writer. I've never read a novel by Disraeli, I doubt too many people have in a hundred years, but believe it or not, Disraeli was a respected and prolific writer of fiction during an era when, for better or worse, eminent politicians were often quite intellectually distinguished. Adam Gopnik, one of the major writers for the New Yorker in recent decades, compared him to the now late Tom Wolfe. Like Wolfe, the novels of Disraeli are apparently populated with the archetypes of London - satires of every kind of status seeker and fashionable trend, contrasted with a protagonist who is an alpha male from a rural part of the country whom, through his boring manly stoicism, personifies the moral rectitude and wholesome completeness which it would never occur to these fragmented souls to emulate. Such seems to be the weird plight of the conservative intellectual in every age, so pornographically fascinated by all those things they inveigh against that they seem far more animated when speaking of what they hate than of what they love. 


Anyway, when it came to Jews, Disraeli's fiction had plenty of hooked-nose Jewish mizers, but he was often quite triumphalist about Jewish achievement and power. Some of it can be forgiven. According to the Little Brown Book of Anecdotes, Disraeli once responded to an antisemitic insult in Parliament by Daniel O'Connell, leader of the Irish Catholics, with the retort: "Yes, I am a Jew, and while the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon." Though unfortunately, I doubt such an adept politician would have used this retort if were the antisemite an Englishman rather than an Irishman. 


Other quips were, in some ways, playing with fire, and a man as intelligent as Disraeli should probably have probably known better. He once quipped about Lord Rothschild with pride: "Rothschild is the Lord and Master of the money markets of the world, and of course virtually Lord and Master of everything else." The quote goes on to say: "He literally held the revenues of Southern Italy in pawn, and Monarchs and Ministers of all countries courted his advice and were guided by his suggestions.." Rothschild is still the Jewish family around which every conspiracy theory seems to turn, and this Disraeli quote is still used as though it's an admission of guilt. 


But much more damaging to Jews was the novel Conningsby, in which the eponymous hero meets a sage of the forest named Sidonia, who is both a latter-day old testament prophet and a man of the world with unimaginable wealth; who believes that race is a heirarchy of pre-destined power, and that Jews sit atop the racial heirarchy - the true extent of their power over other nations unseen by the world. Here's one quote I found from Conningsby: 

"The Jews, independently of the capital qualities for citizenship which they possess, are a race essentially monarchical, deeply religious, and essentially Tories. The fact is, you can not crush a pure race of Caucasian organization. It is a physiological fact, a simple law of nature, which has baffled Egyptian and Assyrian kings, Roman emperors, and Christian inquisitors."
Sidonia then remarks with pride that Jews lead all the intellectual movements in Europe, monopolize professorial chairs, and climb the ladder of political power and affairs in every country which they live. I have no idea if Disraeli truly believed all this or if it was just ideas he put in the mouth of a character, but antisemites certainly thought these to be Disraeli's beliefs, and what Disraeli's fictional character noted with pride, antisemites the world over noted with delusional, terrified alarm. 

Yes, the beliefs propounded in this novel are certainly offensive notions according to our day, though hardly as offensive as most of the racial theories going around in the 19th century, because Conningsby was a work fiction not stated fact, and even if Disraeli meant it seriously, his theory was nowhere near so fleshed out as most social Darwinist racial theories. But because England had a long standing conservative Prime Minister of Jewish origin who espoused, at least in fiction, a theory of Jewish racial superiority and hidden Jewish power, a century of Europeans were all too willing to believe this fiction fact. They then combine this passage with another quote from Conningsby, "The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes." This quote is not in reference to secret Jewish power, but to the Reform Bill of 1832, pushed through by the Whig Party, Disraeli's lifelong opponents, to change the British electoral system. 


This is hardly the only example from our history that Jewish triumphalism often, perhaps even usually, ends with Jewish death, and perhaps its one of the weaker examples when you consider how destructive the path to which Bar Kochba lead us, and Isaac of Diocesaria, and in a rather different way, Shabbetai Tzvi, who in a fit of what we would today call psychotic delusion, announced himself to the Ottoman Empire as the Jewish Messiah almost directly after the Chmielnicki massacres of the Ukraine in 1648, perhaps even because of them, partially. Old estimates used to put the massacres perpetrated by the followers of Bogdan Chmielnicki at as many as 400,000, which is obviously untrue when you consider that reliable estimates put the total number of Jews in the Ukraine at that period at roughly a hundred thousand, but in the new estimates of this genocide, fifty-thousand Jews died, which meant that the genocide of Jews in the Ukraine was half successful - in fact, the genocide consisted of roughly one-third of the entire Jewish population in Europe at the time. 


Technically, the Chmielnicki rebellion was not against Jews, it was against the Polish landowners who were responsible for oppressing the Ukranian underclass. But Jewish merchant/businessmen were by and large the leaseholders of the land, and therefore were blamed for oppression which was mostly due to the policies of other, more powerful elements. I think you see where this is going, but there is no Shabbetai Tzvi story without the Chmielnicki massacres, because had it not been for Chmielnicki, Jews would never have been so desperate to believe that they had been cleansed for a new era in which the old rules of antisemitism may no longer apply. 


It took another seventeen years for Shabbetai Tzvi to become a mass movement, after the trauma of Chmielnicki, Jews were so willing to believe that Shabbetai Tzvi was Moshiach that the rumors about Shabbetai Tzvi took on a life of their own and neither Shabbetai Tzvi nor his prime promoter, Nathan of Gaza, his St. Paul - as it were, could ever control them. Jews, then as ever, were more literate than the average population, and news through the post of Shabbetai Tzvi spread throughout the Jewish world like wildfire. Every shtetl in Europe, every ghetto in every city, every Jewish neighborhood and town in the Sephardic lands, had followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, and some even sold their possessions so that they could come to Jerusalem to be with him in what they believed was the start of a new messianic era. The year after 1665, when he made his second, much more successful self-declaration of Moshiachdom, Shabbetai Tzvi sailed to Constantinople, where Nathan of Gaza prophesied that Shabbetai Tzvi would place the crown of the Sultan on his own head. 


In pre-modern times, many Islamic lands, generally speaking, were more enlightened than their Christian equivalents - perhaps not overly so but there were certainly many fortunate moments in earlier Jewish-Islamic relations. When Shabbetai Tzvi arrived in Constantinople, he was immediately arrested and taken to prison, where he was apparently extremely well treated with his own private secretary and chef. The Sultan gave him a choice - convert to Islam and receive a Royal Stipend of 150 Gold Crowns every month, or decapitation. Shabbetai Tzvi chose conversion. It is one of the ultimate humiliations of Jewish history, and was bully fodder for Christians and Muslims everywhere Jews lived for generations. 

It's now seventy-three years after the Shoah, and however bad the trauma after Chmielnicki and Shabbetai Tzvi, the trauma of the Shoah is much much worse and may yet take still longer than the seventy years since the founding of Israel and seventy-three years since World War II's end to reveal itself. We have so assembled in Jerusalem now that we even have an American embassy there. Perhaps this era of fake news means that it may soon be easier for journalistic lies to redouble themselves more than it's been since before the invention of the telegraph. In this secular age of ours, messianic claims about the Jewish nation need not be divine, they just need to be false and dangerous. Messianic claims just need to make Jews, or anybody else, believe that our problems don't need to be problems anymore, or that an age is at hand in which we can transcend the old problems that have always existed for our people from generation to generation. Whether a false messiah's lies are merely humiliating like Shabbetai Tzvi's were, or put the vast majority of Jews in mortal danger the way the Bar-Kochba did, the opportunity for another Jewish false Messiah is exceedingly ripe. 


In age after age, we exist as the model minority, the semi-privileged class who serves as a buffer to the truly privileged, and when the truly privileged need someone to blame, they throw us to the lions - every time. The fanaticism of the Likud party has brought us to the most familiar position in all Jewish history - the most protected minority by rulers who allow us to rise to the height of achievement, and therefore earn the perpetual envy of the underclass. We therefore can most easily be blamed when circumstances get particularly dire and the decline of a once glorious and tolerant civilization becomes particularly acute; just as Chmielnicki did, just as Torquemada did, just as you know who did.


Everybody else from every other minority who's enraged with the double standards to which their identity is subject finds themselves on the Left, Jews who are enraged with the double standards to which our identity is subject find themselves on the Right.  If most neoconservatives were of a different racial composition than Jewish, they'd have kind things to say about the Black Panthers or the Sandinistas. Maybe there are a few other ethnic groups who find themselves on the right - Cubans, maybe Kurds, perhaps it was true of descendants of former Russian satellite states before the Trump era, but where on the political spectrum can Eastern Europeans find themselves when after a century of Republican accusations against Democrats of fellow traveling with the Russkies, it's a Republican President who turned out to be our first true executive collaborator with a Russian dictator?

History would seem to show that every time a Jewish leader arrives to proclaim that the pragmatic rules of dealing with antisemites needn't apply anymore and that if Jews proclaim themselves a great nation unashamed because people will finally realize that there is a price for attacking Jews, that leader is proven a false Messiah, and either right before or right after he does so, we pay for that notion in blood unimaginable. 


Netanyahu, fanatic though he can be, has at least pragmatism enough in his makeup that he is clearly not that leader; but if Likud keeps following its rightward tread, Netanyahu's stoking of his right-wing base could end up devouring him. Netanyahu, in comparison to his talk, is wisely relatively gun shy. If he launched a military operation every time he threatened to, Israel would know very little but war over the course of his premiereship. There are so many younger Likud candidates who could unseat Netanyahu, and all it would take is to promise that they would back up the words of Netanyahu with the actions he never provided. Naftali Bennet, Ayelet Shaked, Gideon Sa'ar, Gilad Erdan, Yisrael Katz, Yuli Edelshteyn. With so many younger right-wing politicians jockeying for position, how will any of those six or more distinguish themselves from each other? Every major voice in Likud who believed in pragmatism over ideology followed Ariel Sharon to Kadima in 2005 - Ehud Olmert yes, and also Tzippi Livni, Meir Shitreet, Gideon Ezra, Avraham Hirschorn. Likud is now an ideological party purged of pragmatism that unquestionably believes in magical thinking - that Israel does not have to accommodate the obvious practical realities of its situation and can still pursue a goal of eventual control over Gaza and the West Bank. Should Netanyahu's successor present himself in the next ten years, he or she will, in all likelihood, be the one who tells the most extreme lies about Israel's situation the loudest. 


 But unfortunately, Israel's choices are these:


1. It must disengage from Gaza and the West Bank and learn to live with the possibilities of daily terror which that will provide.

2. It will die.

Yes, that double standard is horrific and outrageous, but it always has been. This is what it means to be Jewish. Enraging as it is, there is no third option. What? You say that no country can live with such terror? Perhaps you're right, but when has being Jewish ever meant anything but living with the possibility of daily attacks on our persons? This is what it means to live as a Jew, it is sometimes what it means to die as a Jew, and it has never meant anything else. The eternal insecurity of the Jewish position, perpetual upstarts, newly prosperous in every civilization, means that the double standard will forever be applied to us. Seventy years into Israel's existence, the full span of a biblically allotted lifetime, it becomes more clear than ever that the return from Galut will never eliminate the threat of Jews getting killed, it only minimized the threat. To riff on an Eric Hoffer saying about Israel, the world expects Jews to be the only real Christians. As there have always been a disproportionate number of Jewish high achievers in civilizations that have always belonged to someone else, there is also greatly disproportionate scrutiny, and, one might somewhat controversially add, slightly disproportionate opportunities for us to sin before we are sinned against in manners far disproportionate to our sins. 


Even since the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, the world has changed immeasurably. And yet many if not most Jews still pretend we live in 1967 – the year when the Jewish idea of a prosperous secure Israel lined up best with the world opinion’s image of a secular, semi-socialist state that took no side in the Cold War. By the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1975, both images were shattered. Within those eight years, it became clear that Israel would be insecure for the duration of its existence, and its survival could only be ensured by the backing of American military and financial power, and sometimes by its most distasteful elements. Since 1975, Israel underwent an eighteen-year quagmire in Lebanon and assumed an endless series of ground assaults in Gaza and the West Bank. Whatever one’s feelings about the morality of these actions, you would have to be blind to not see that this is an unsustainable reality for which, at some point, Israel is in danger of a comeuppance far worse than anything which they'd inflicted. 

The era when Israel was seen as an important liberal cause is a half-century in the past. And yet we address the Israel problem to the larger public as though the Holocaust still means what it did to public memory in the 1960’s, as though Israel is still a plucky little quasi-socialist state with little infrastructure or foreign investment. Every time we allow this discussion to proceed as though we’re still living in 1967, we allow authoritarians who live in 2018 to get away with whatever they wish.  Ze’ev Sternhall, former chair of the Political Science Department at Hebrew University and a worldwide expert on fascism remarked, “The last time politicians holding views similar to theirs (meaning the Sharon administration of 2001-2006) were in power in post-World War II Western Europe was in Franco’s Spain…a crude and multi-faceted campaign is being waged against the foundations of the democratic and liberal order.” In 2008, a American born Orthodox Jew planted a pipe bomb in his house that proved Sternhell's point.

Israel has, Jews in general have, to face the fact that as much as Putin or Erdogan, Netanyahu was a rough draft of right-wing populism of Trump and Brexit and Orban and the Polish Law and Justice party - all manner of political reactionaries around the world who are knee-deep in antisemitism on the one hand and use a benediction from Netanyahu to give them cover as much as political progressives can use an insult from right-wing Jews to give them cover.  

I'm not interested in rehashing the same old Israel/Palestine arguments of who has a right to the land for the fifty-thousandth time which every member of my generation has heard a hundred thousand times already. But I do want to emphasize, in case it's not clear, just how much Israel's presence has meant to the Jewish psyche. You cannot expect that a people who are, again and again, subjected the very worst of Western brutality by mere virtue of their proximity to the West for longer and harder than any colony will suddenly change on a dime just because the West decided on a dime that nationalism was evil the very moment when the West's most oppressed minority finally gets a nation of their own. For two-thousand years, European gentiles didn't let us define the terms of who's the sinner and who's the saint, so now that we have a modicum of power over our destinies, we are as sure as the hell which you introduced to the world, not letting you define the terms of this debate from now on.

Israel is everything to us. It is worth dying for, it is worth killing for, it is worth hating for, precisely because you all have demonstrated, in literally every single era of recorded human history, that you are willing to kill us to a man, woman, and child, for the crime of being among you. There was once a place where we were relatively safe from your evil, and after literally millennia of suffering from you, there is now a place where we are relatively safe from your evil again. You will have to kill us all yet again before we ever give that up, and we have clearly demonstrated that we will kill some people without overly much remorse to keep it ours. 

But that word, some, is the key, the sum total, of the hypocrisy, the crocodile tears, the fanaticism and the dangerously diseased idealism that never stops infecting people from age to age.  The demand for all wrongs to be righted, the demand for the world to be made free of contradictions, the demand that the crooked timber of humanity to be made into something straight. The only direct line that seems to exist in the world is the line from believing that the world can be made into something peaceful on to embracing those people who would kill half the world to make some vision of a peaceful world possible. 
True believers, whether monotheist or Marxist, demand lives completely without indignity, while every indication shows that the world is a prison, tailor made to humiliate us all. And a reminder of that fact, to a fanatical believer, is ultimately much more threatening than a different kind of fanatic. 


Again, the enemy to the fanatic is inevitably not the heathen but the heretic. And in the case of the Left, the real social justice and intersectional Left and not the Left that includes liberals and moderates the way modern conservatives allege - and modern American-style conservatives are almost invariably their own form of fanatics - it is no longer the conservatives who are the primary enemy, but the liberals who have failed to prevent conservatism's onslaught. In one of language's more sinister maneuvers, they group conservatives and liberals together under the rubric of 'neoliberalism.' And instead of preaching the peace and love which they swear is their end goal just as Communists and Christians of the old school once did, they feed off their indignance to add their voices into the fanatical echo chamber that Putin exploits which brought us Trump and Netanyahu and Brexit and Orban and Erdogan and now the Polish Law and Justice Party and, in Italy, the first coalition of our time that unites the League, the far right populists, and the Five Star coalition, the far left populists. I've already heard it told me by a far-left acquaintance that it is "hilarious" that anybody could consider the Five Star coalition a far-left party. But inevitably, when the agendas of far-left parties are exposed to a modicum of air from reality, their principles of peace and universality seem to fold when they realize that the only way their agenda will be pushed through is through the same force and violence which the far right always encourages. I doubt the coalition will last for very long, but I can't imagine some far leftist won't pick up a few lessons along the way about what it takes to achieve power.

No matter how nationalist Israel continues to grow, the Left doesn't deserve to be exonerated for its anti-semitism. It was always a given that the Left's current pathologies would eventually take a bullseye aim at Israel. It doesn't take a genius to connect Israel's operations in the Palestinian territories to the policing tactics against African-Americans in American cities, or to tie Israeli prosperity to what they perceive to be the evils of capitalism and imperialism - which they obviously see as completely interconnected with each other, or to use Israel's misdeeds to defend Hamas and Iran in precisely the way they allied themselves with self-parodyingly evil hard left leaders like Chavez, Castro, and once upon a time, much more famous dictators of the Left still far more evil than they. The Syrian Civil War should have been well over enough to show what happens when you exonerate a dictator who is supposedly anti-imperialism. And yet, when you see the world as a simple syllogism that blames all violence on the West and capitalism, there's no need for nuance or to hold anybody truly accountable.

The difference between my beliefs and the beliefs of most people who are critical of Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza is that if I truly believed that Israel's actions there would actually keep it secure, I would have no problem backing it at all. So much of life, political and personal, is about embracing the lesser evil; and the evil of forcing a few million people to be refugees when any of the 22 Arab countries could have long since taken them in or provided them with some sort of workable assistance, let alone any number of European countries constantly critical of Israeli policy, seventy years after the Arab world expelled just as many Jews from their land in circumstances far less ambiguous than the Israeli expulsion of Palestinians, and after seventy years of the Middle East's only liberal democracy being surrounded by autocracies committed to Israel's extermination, means that yes, I stand with Israel, now and probably for my life's duration. Am Yisrael Chai. 


Israeli wars are always overdramatic events, with the stakes inevitably feeling nothing short of existential when they're just the same teacup tempests as ever before. But I can't deny the sinking feeling that we're living sometime around the long-delayed moment the hard left has been longing for when they purportedly unmask the Zionist enterprise for precisely the imperial/capitalist/police state abomination they think it is. I know, in my head, that this won't be anything like an historical moment in which a Hitler discovers he can whip people up into a frenzy by blaming it all on the Jews, but my protruding gut certainly feels that way.

So how did it all get here? I'm not going to give an entire history of Israel's occupied territories. I have neither the time, the knowledge, or perhaps even the competence to know that I got such an endlessly disputed topic exactly correct. Even in my explanation last week of what I said about what happened in Gaza that led to the massacre, I'm not 100% that I got everything right. Everything I wrote was stuff I read in sources that I trust to tell the truth 80-90% of the time, with some slant, but more truthful than any number of reports about America from prominent American news outlets, and not just Fox News either. But when I looked at the composite image, even I had my moments of doubt. Please don't confuse that with any belief that the alternative anti-Zionist narrative of what happened is anything more than 10-20% reliable. But yes, when it comes to Israel, there is so much pre-determined ideological baggage that comes with any rendering of events in the region that it's almost impossible to ever know that any rendering of events you read is remotely resembling reliabile.

What I will say, however, is that there were clearly two crucial moments in the history of the occupied territories that most obviously led us precisely to this point, though there could just as easily be a catalogue of a dozen more blunders both Palestinian and Israeli. The more obvious moment was a Palestinian blunder nothing short of spectacular, at the negotiations in Tabah in January 2001, when Ehud Barak offered Arafat 97% of the West Bank, complete control of Gaza, Palestinian sovereignty over majority Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, forced evacuation of many settlers, and respective control over each religion's holy sites. Many people whose sympathies lay with the Palestinians have countered that this was a kind of bluff, a cover-your-ass pose made by Barak in the last weeks of the Clinton administration, knowing that an administration more sympathetic to Israeli hawkishness would absolve them of ever following through on their commitments. 

But within a year, the Bush administration did something not even the Clinton administration ever did. George W. Bush was the first American President to ever make the creation of a Palestinian state the official policy of the United States government. In 2002, Paul Wolfowitz, Assistant Secretary of Defense and the neoconservative among all neoconservatives, was sent by the Bush Administration to be its speaker at a rally in support of Israel's 2002 actions in Gaza. At the rally, Wolfowitz incurred the boo's of 42,000 demonstrators by telling them that most Palestinians want peace and a state of their own. I was there, and then I watched it on C-Span with my mouth agape to make sure I wasn't dreaming. Whether or not Arafat or anybody else believed that the Bush administration would have been an honest broker of a peace agreement, the possibility was at least there. 


Palestinian supporters also remind us that Barak did not make any offers when it came to the surrender of airspace patrol, or of allowing for a militarized Palestinian government. Barak furthermore did all this knowing that in less than a month he would have to face a very tough election against the Israeli hawk among hawks, Ariel Sharon. If there was a deal, if there was even the hope of a deal, Barak could still win. If there was no hope of a deal, Barak would lose in a landslide, and Ariel Sharon, "The Bulldozer", would decimate the Palestinian territories to a level well past anything they'd ever experienced. But, of course, Arafat knew all that, and a mountain of evidence points to the fact that that was exactly what he wanted.  

Arafat's response to what is by far the most sympathetic offer a Palestinian state has ever gotten from Israel was not even so much as a counteroffer. It was to then insist that Jews never had any biblical claim to any part of Jerusalem at all, to end the negotiations, purportedly over Jerusalem, and to leave. Shortly thereafter came the bulk of the Second Intifada, we won't get into the issue of whether or not Palestinian intifadas were spontaneous uprisings or officially planned, it'll suffice to say that in a dictatorship, spontaneous uprisings against the dictatorship's main enemy are very easy to exploit. 

But one further point, many Palestinian supporters claim that the Israeli response to small time violence was disproportionately violent. Perhaps it was, but in order to accept that, one also has to acknowledge that it wasn't for any lack of trying to even the playing field on the Palestinian side. In January 2002 came the Karine A affair, when Israel intercepted a shipment of fifty tons of Iranian arms into Gaza. And all throughout the Second Intifada, Arafat made personal payments to the families of Palestinian militants who successfully killed Israeli citizens. 

Any understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict has to accept that Arafat never, ever, had any intention of forming a Palestinian state in any manner but in place of Israel rather than alongside Israel - and even the idea that Arafat's ultimate goal was a Palestinian state in place of Israel is incredibly suspect. Whether or not Arafat left the negotiating table because he was afraid of meeting the same assassination fate as Sadat and Rabin, and Arafat was responsible for well over enough death that he should have realized his own life was a small price to pay to save his legacy, Rabin certainly did. But that assumes that assumes that Arafat was a leader prepared to do anything for his people - he was not, he was a con artist who benefited from the suffering of millions of Palestinians. 

In 2003, the International Monetary Fund conducted an audit of Arafat's accounts and found that he diverted $900 million dollars of Palestinian funds for personal use, much of which, until 2000, was deposited in an Israeli bank! In the same year, Arafat claimed bankruptcy, the United States's Government Accountability Office came to the conclusion that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, which due to Arafat's patronage system was practically indistinguishable from him, had ten billion dollars of assets! Arafat was a calamity who slimed everything he ever touched whether it was to provoke an insurrection against Jordan in 1970 that led to the massacre of 3400 Palestinians, or to pledge support to Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf Crisis twenty years later because Saddam occasionally bankrolled him - knowing that Saddam would lose and leaving 50,000 Palestinians in Kuwait in the lurch at the mercy of Kuwaiti mobs, or encouraging a second Intifada in 2000 which has now led directly to the deaths of nearly 10,000 Palestinians and counting. His concern was not Palestinian welfare, it was his, at Palestinian expense. Without a Palestinian state, he was an international symbol, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, one of the world's great freedom fighters against imperialism. With a Palestinian state, he would have been just another dictator of a small country. 

The other mistake, just as spectacularly wrong if not quite as malicious, was from Israel in the 1970's. To condemn the settlements as an abomination is not to draw moral equivalence between the Israeli government's blunder - which even were it as bad (and it certainly isn't) had many authors, and Arafat's blunder, which has only one. But it is to say that the entire project of the settlements, and the end goal of a Greater Israel that stretches from the river to the sea, is fanatical, and has sowed the seeds of a greater Israeli destruction. In no way is it remotely comparable to the moral bankruptcy of modern Jihad, but the entire settlement project, from beginning to end, plays with a pillar of fire. 

The time to solve the Palestinian question was not in 1993, it was not in 1999, it's certainly not in 2018. The time to solve the Palestinian question was between 1967 and 1977, when Menachem Begin was finally elected to premiership after thirty years of being Israel's right-wing minority leader. 

By 1967, many Palestinians were relieved to be occupied by Israel rather than Jordan, who after '48 controlled the West Bank, and Egypt, who controlled Gaza after the collapse of a Palestinian government in 1959. Palestinians were particularly relieved at Israel's presence after 1970 when, as we said, 3400 Palestinians were massacred on the orders of Jordan's King Hussein - and King Hussein was easily the most moderate, enlightened, tolerant leader of the non-Israel Middle East in his generation. The population of Jordan is still roughly 20% Palestinian. There was economic cooperation between the two sides, and while freedoms were relatively curtailed, compared to what Palestinians face today, it was nothing.

But after the Six Day War of 1967 when Israel found its territory more than doubled, a voice from the older generation was raised whom nobody wanted to listen to anymore. The voice of this 81-year-old man said to give back all the territories except for Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace deal. David Ben-Gurion had his problems, and even he advocated for massive settlement of Jerusalem, but in every other particular, the old fox was right. After '67, there were peace talks with the Jordanians, but they collapsed. Surprisingly, they didn't collapse over the issue of Jerusalem, they collapsed over the fact that Israel wanted control over the complete West Bank with Jordanian administration - in other words, Israel wanted to have its cake and eat it too; military control over the whole territory with none of headaches of administration. 

This is a blunder no less disastrous than Arafat's at Tabah. Losing the West Bank was a tragedy for Jordan, because the West Bank comprised most of the Jordanian economy. No doubt, King Hussein was worried that he would lose his life just as his grandfather did, shot dead when 19-year-old Prince Hussein was right next to him. But apparently Israel would not even concede to Jordan those parts of the West Bank that are worthless to Jews everywhere. Even at the time, under Levi Eshkol, easily the most socialist Prime Minister Israel ever had, Israel did not make the concessions to pragmatism that could have saved Israelis fifty years of suffering. 

The reason for it was not the liberal and social democrat mainstream of early Israeli discourse. The reason was that the right-wing Herut and Gehai parties was forever nipping at the heels of a seemingly permanent but always fractious social democrat Mapai majority, warning that any capitulation to Arabs was weakness that would embolden genocidal Arabs to exploit Israel more. Until 1974, the settlement program was still only a small thing, but the Yom Kippur War ensured that Menachem Begin and Herut/Gehai/Likud hawks like Shamir and Sharon, would be vastly strengthened at the polls, and that their eventual takeover of Israeli politics was nearly a certainty. 

Labor required a way of showing that they believed in a strong Israel that does not back down from Arab intimidation, and so during his first premiership from 1974-77, Yitzhak Rabin approved a vastly expanded network of settlement construction. Rabin, like Ben-Gurion, had his flaws, but he was a hero who was willing to lay down his life for Israel over and over again in both war and peace. Even if the peace talks of the 90's were a failure, they were not a strategic blunder. There was no future in which Arafat did not return from Tunisia to take over the Palestinian territories - had Israel not pursued peace in the 90's, the looming crisis might have happened thirty years earlier. The peace talks called Arafat's bluff and exposed him for exactly what he was, and anybody who refused to see that Arafat was slime was a lost cause to begin with. 

Once Begin came to power in '77, it seems as though the next forty years were written in stone. But there seems a greater than 50% likelihood that Israel had the chance to stop at very least the occupation of the West Bank if not Gaza at something near its inception, and if Israel had shown that it could make a successful and beneficial peace with Jordan that returns its lost territory, who knows? Perhaps Egypt would have taken Gaza too at Camp David, the Palestinians could have had freedom to move around Egypt, and therein the problem would have taken care of itself. 

What stopped it from happening, then as now, was the nationalist triumphalism of the Jewish right wing, which believes that Israel must exist from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. If the majority of the Israeli independence movement sided with Menachem Begin rather than David Ben-Gurion, who said he would have even declared a State of Israel if it was the size of a postage stamp, it would be Israelis and not Palestinians still trapped in refugee camps. No, it's not authoritarianism on anything like the scale of European imperialism or so much authoritarianism elsewhere, but there is no force in the modern world more potentially lethal to Jewish lives than the Likud party. We should have stood up to their Herut and Gehai ancestors fifty years ago, and because we didn't, their vision of Israel now reigns. Jews are never conspicuously prosperous for too long. We might have been able to stop this snowball, or sandball, of Jewish triumphalism before it became an avalanche or snowstorm, but now we have to stop it before it hits the civilization Israel achieved so resiliently, and so fragilely, like a biblical plague.  

Now please, Please, PLEASE, can I talk about something else next week???