Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Demons History Bequeaths Us

History matters. Not because people know about it, think about it, and learn its lessons so as not to repeat its mistakes. As a general rule people don't know history, they often don't think, and learning from history is an extremely rare art.

History matters because it forms the world we live in even when we never give it a thought; it informs our understanding of the world, our decisions and our actions. This is not necessarily bad, though the founders of rational thought did think we should develop the ability to question our inheritance and form our own opinions of it. They were only partially successful, and the counter forces often seem stronger, three or four centuries later.

The pathologies of the progressive intellectuals of rich and pampered Western Europe are so well known I'll merely run by them for a moment, by way of context for a pathology I've written less about. The gang I sometime call the Guardianistas (not my invention, of course) have three major pathologies. First, they're so stricken with guilt for the colonial, or imperial, past of their nations (UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Iberia, and, with a stretch, Italy) that they think colonialism is the arch-template for understanding the relationships between national groups, always and everywhere, and that the top dogs of colonialism are mostly dogs, simply because they were on top: it's an understanding of the world that starts from the need to condemn and the need to exonerate, and thinks in theoretical categories which may be useful for understanding what goes on or went on, but often isn't. I suppose this categorizing imperative comes from Marxism, unless it's the other way around and they used to flock to Marxism because it categorized people so comfortingly.

The second pathology is hatred of the Jews. This emotion is so deeply embedded in Western culture, so central to it, that a concerted and conscious effort is required to extirpate it. Some individuals were always immune, others learned to resist, and the example of both groups condemns the rest by demonstrating that it is possible, and those who don't free themselves from the pathology bear responsibility for their choice not to. Hatred of the Jews, alas, is very much alive and thriving, in a variety of versions, in much of what used to be called Christendom, and in large swathes of the Muslim world.

Declaring the Jews the worst of colonials, contrary to all evidence, combines the two pathologies beautifully and oh-so-conveniently. It even adds potency to the hatred of the United States, perceived of in this scheme as the largest colonial power enamored with Israel, the worst one.

America is a large place, and there are quite a number of self-hating Americans who have eagerly accepted this mantle, but they are nevertheless a small minority (and they have not just elected a like-minded president, as they fervently hoped). America's history dictates that it's pathologies are different - indeed, the new president stands at their center, and demonstrates that sometimes, at least, America is rather good at facing its demons.

The third pathology of of the Guradianistas, but shared with many others, is the destruction of moral thought.

Actually, however, my intention for this post was to write about the Germans. The Germans don't share the Guardianiasta's pathology, because they have a different history. The antisemitism of their history was far more violent and destructive, for starters, which makes them far more wary. Not necessarily more successful, mind you, or more intelligent, but wary. Discussions of things Jewish in Germany are often stilted, shallow, inhibited and frustrating, because everyone is frightened of saying something wrong; as a German-speaking Jew I've often had the comic experience of being the only one in a room full of intelligent Germans willing to speak his mind - to gasps of astonishment from everyone else.

When it comes to Israel, German history dictates that German positions be measured, and indeed German diplomacy traditionally is closer to Israel's positions than just about anyone else in Western Europe. (The Eastern Europeans, with yet another history, do it differently. See the Czech Foreign Minister earlier today saying out loud that Hamas is to blame for the present round of violence. Czech history expressing itself on matters of the Mideast). Former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and present Chancellor Angela Merkl come to mind as impressive examples of this German expression of history.

And yet there is another way to go, too, and it plays out differently. Perhaps the single most important pathology of post-Nazi Germany is the refusal to countenance warfare of any sort. You can see where this came from. Twice in the 20th century the Germans started major wars to achieve goals they'd set themselves. The first time was a disaster, the second time was calamitous on an epic scale - for the Germans. Then, having achieved none of their goals and all of that destruction, the decades of peace gave them just about everything they'd intended to acquire, or a better version of it they hadn't even thought of. Ergo: War is always bad, it can never achieve anything positive, no warlike action can ever be justified in any way, and idiots who insist on waging war are criminals of the worst sort.

Israel insists on waging war from time to time. Do you see where this leads?

For those of you who are germanically-challenged, the article is a silly stringing together of some of the evidence that Israel's wars haven't yet brought it German-style peace with its neighbors, combined with a scrupulous refusal to see any cases where Israeli use of power has ever achieved anything. It's interesting in that the author has no patience for Hamas, and couches his deliberations, sort of, in the normative German template: if you refrain from violence you'll glean all the benefits we'd like you to have (after all, we're not antisemites, and we're not against Israel; only against its stupidity).

It quite overlooks that Hamas has every intention of achieving all sorts of political goals by the use of violence. Which brings us to the German corollary of the Gurdianista's amalgamation of pathologies, anti-colonialism with hatred of the Jews. Germans such as Mr. Schmitz, writing in the second-most important paper in Germany, applies the "no violence ever" thesis to the Israelis, but not to their enemies. One wonders where this selectivity comes from, doesn't one.

As for the pathologies Jews have inherited from their history: tomorrow, perhaps.

PS. No, I'm not following the Marxist tradition of explaining people's actions and determining their moral stature by their group. I'm describing common patterns - but individuals are free to shake them off, and often do.


Anonymous said...

I am not sure whether the article in the Sueddeutsche is mainly a post-Nazi German thing. It rather reminds me of an idea which is quite common among youth workers in German speaking countries: Bad boys just cry for help and therefore need much love and understanding. (No punishment! That could damage the offender's self-esteem!) Actually, the German bleeding hearts I know tend to talk about Palestinians as if they were retarded kids who are not responsible for what they say and do.


Anonymous said...

Good post, but in my view perhaps a too charitable reading of the Herr Schmitz article -- oh, he just loves the pose of preaching German pacifism to those irrational belligerent Jews! The smug self-satisfaction dripping from his lines is really quite nauseating.