Wednesday, November 26, 2014

identity trumps rationality

The Enlightenment concept of rationality and rational discourse, whereby all people should notionally be capable of participating in a common conversation about reality (or just about anything else) has been one of the most powerful ideas in history. Democracy in its modern form is based on it, because of the assumption that the citizenry can have that common conversation about how to arrange their society. It's the basis of modern diplomacy, assuming that people with differing interests will still be capable of finding enough common ground to work out some sort of compromise. It's at the foundation of modern economics, with the assumption that people have a generally common form of rationality which guides their actions. Not to mention the entire apparatus of the UN, international law, and international organizations in general, which all assume that with a spot of patience and good-will, different groups can cooperate for the general good, because that's the rational thing to do.

Sometimes there are indications this isn't all as sewed-up and finished as that, such as when enemies can't be cajoled out of being enemies, though the customary practice in such cases is to admonish one or both sides for being non-rational.

Sometime even really rational types have to admit that living the reality of what they're so convinced of is hard. The folks negotiating with the Iranians, for example, would have reached an agreement long ago if it were only a matter of a calm and patient rational discussion - which of course it isn't and probably never really was.

The events in Ferguson underline how shaky the entire philosophical underpinning of our modern assumptions are. Take this article from the NYT, simply as en example, not for its specifics. Most Americans are Americans. They speak English, and even though their vocabularies, accents and syntax can differ, it's all one language when you compare it with French, or Arabic. They're citizens of the same country. They all have the same president, the same foreign relations, and the same dollar. Yet they don't see the world in the same way. Their ethnic identity trumps the other ones. If that's the case among citizens of the same country, why would one ever assume that any conflict between folks of differing ethnic, cultural, historical or religious groupings, will by necessity be susceptible to working out commonalities?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Prime Minister and the Soldiers. A true story.

We went to present Prime Minster Netanyahu a commemorative volume of documents dedicated to Menachem Begin. With us was professor Arye Naor, who had been Begin’s Cabinet Secretary, and the prime minister was interested in hearing from him how Begin and managed the war in Lebanon, and to compare notes with his own methods in Protective Edge. From there it was but a short and natural step to a discussion about Begin’s agony at the deaths of IDF soldiers, and Netanyhau’s own difficulties in sending men to die.

It proved harder than he had expected. “I thought a lot about Begin this summer, and I understood him better”
“I spoke to each of the parents [of fallen soldiers]. If there were divorced, I spoke to each of them separately. It was very hard”.

There is a profound difference between hearing about bereaved families, and actually being in one: he knows about that difference, and understands it from personal experience. But to his surprise – this was my impression – sending soldiers to their death turned out also to be hard to a degree that one cannot appreciate in advance.

We had expected to spend ten minutes in his office. The ten minutes became fifteen, then twenty; the twenty minutes became thirty, and the prime minster spoke of the horrible price of war, and of the difficulty in deciding to pay it.

“The soldiers fear death. They try to strengthen each other, and try together to be strong as a group, but they are afraid.” He knows they are afraid, and that some of them will be killed, and he sends them. A ground operation, he knows what awaits them, what preparations the enemy has made: “Some of them will die. It is inevitable.”

“They must be sent only when there is no other choice left. They must be brought back at the very first possible moment, as soon as the immediate goal has been achieved. Later, once they’re out, we’ll see what happens, but first, get them out, out, out.”

“And every night I’d get home in the wee hours, and my wife would be awake, waiting for me. She spent the days visiting the bereaved families. I only spoke to them on the phone, with each and every one of them, but she sat at their side, and at night she would tell me about them. We must send them, and we must bring them back, and I didn’t appreciate how hard it would be. A leader who loses the understanding of how difficult it is, ought to lose his job.”

“I thought a lot about Begin this Summer.”

Beyond the window it was dark, gray, and raining.