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Koan 1 — Bibi, Walt, and the concept of buffer zones

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- with sympathy for the real, while holding compassion as the ideal ]
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First, I want to requote two parts of the Times of Israel report titled Netanyahu finally speaks his mind that I quoted a short while ago in my post Israel / Palestine: some delicate balancing acts:

Because, given the march of Islamic extremism across the Middle East, he [Netanyahu] said, Israel simply cannot afford to give up control over the territory immediately to its east, including the eastern border — that is, the border between Israel and Jordan, and the West Bank and Jordan.

and in more detail:

Netanyahu didn’t say he was ruling out all territorial compromise, but he did go to some lengths to highlight the danger of relinquishing what he called “adjacent territory.” He scoffed at those many experts who have argued that holding onto territory for security purposes is less critical in the modern technological era, and argued by contrast that the closer your enemies are, physically, to your borders, the more they’ll try to tunnel under those borders and fire rockets over them. It had been a mistake for Israel to withdraw from Gaza, he added — reminding us that he’d opposed the 2005 disengagement — because Hamas had since established a terrorist bunker in the Strip. And what Hamas had been doing in Gaza — tunneling into and rocketing at the enemy — would be replicated in the West Bank were Israel so foolish as to give the Islamists the opportunity.

I am not blind to the force of that proposition.

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Indeed, what PM Netanyahu is calling “adjacent territory” in the case of Israel and the West Bank is, in my limited understanding of geopolitics, no different from what generally goes under the name of “buffer states” — and what Stephen Walt, not a great Netanyahu admirer to say the least, describes as the “immediate neighborhood” in the case of Ukraine and Russia in his FP piece The Perils of an Itchy Twitter Finger:

No great power is indifferent to potential threats in its immediate neighborhood, and all the more so when it has valid historical reasons to be concerned about particular areas. Furthermore, great powers are usually willing to do pretty nasty things when vital interests are at stake.

Walt approves the existence of the State of Israel, but not Netanyahu’s formulation of the exigencies of that State’s continued existence as a home for the Jewish people — yet in the paragraph I just quoted, he appears supportive of the concept of a buffer zone in the case of a “great power”.

Should “little or no powers” get a say too, Walt? Or are they not major enough to count?

And while we’re about it: Is Israel best seen as a Goliath towering over the Palestinians, or as a David caught between a swathe of Islamic states and the deep blue Mediterranean sea?

What if it’s seen as both?

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Okay, let’s take a step back — reculer pour mieux sauter. Here’s the koan as I see it.

On the one hand, there’s a certain grim reality to the idea that your own people won’t want mortal enemies sitting right on your doorstep — think of those Russian missiles in Cuba, for instance — while on the other, the people whose middle ground would provide a buffer zone between two more powerful powers wind up getting little say in their own affairs if the notion of a buffer zone is accepted and implemented.

Well, about this buffer business — do you don’t you, will you won’t you, Walt?

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I have called this wrangle of rival thoughts and emotions — of ideals and realities, pragmatics and morals — a koan: one of those unanswerable riddles that the zen tradition uses to break the lock of binary logic in favor of holistic insight.

If one starts with a premise that falls on one side or the other of the Israeli-Palestinian koan, there will be plenty of supporting evidence for that side of the matter, and precious little coming from the other side that can’t be argued away or dismissed… as spin, as hasbara, as duplicity, taqiyya even.

The koan itself has numerous variants, grand-parents and cousins:

  • is peace inherently and only peaceful?
  • is peace human nature? really? by no means?
  • must peace be warlike to be achieved?
  • are morals best taken as certitudes, or better understood as ad hoc guidelines?
  • and which came first in any case, the Philistines or the Israelites?
  • I have been smashing my head against these questions for quite some while now. I set out to explore them via the Said Symphony game, but seem to have dropped that particular attempt — and now realize I have been continuing the same exploration in the more informal form of a great many blog posts here on Zenpundit — particularly those in which I use my DoubleQuotes format.

    So this post too, along with a passel of recent posts on Gaza, continues that search — not the search for which side to support, but for enough altitude to see clearly across both sides of the Wall.

    **

    So: is the Wall enough of a buffer zone?

    Is it an affront that should be torn down, like the Berlin wall — or should its remit be expanded, perphaps, to encompass the whole of “Greater Israel”?

    Geopolitics seems to be pretty firmly rooted in the idea of the “outside world” — the world around us. And yet each person in that “world around us” has an “inside world” of their own, and in that “inner world” may find themselves “conlicted” or “at peace”. So that’s another dividing line, another border, another wall.

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    When I limit myself to the world around me and consider peace, it seems to me that the peace doesn’t arise in the absence of a sense of justice, at the very least a sense of justice agreeable for the sake of peace to those on both or all sides.

    But “inner peace”? — where does that fit into the “war and peace” picture? That seems to be a question that geopolitics by definition sets aside, ignores, and effectively denies: geopolitics is by definition inter-human, not intra-human.

    When I open myself to the possibility that “inner peace” and “peace-making” — in the sense of conflict-resolution — are somehow inextricably interwoven, I see the koan, the dilemma with fresh eyes.

  • Which comes first: the compassion, or the negotiated concession?
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    Gaza: A Tale in Two Tweets

    Thursday, July 24th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- this is far from the whole story, just a mild irony really, an echo, and IMO more descriptive of our common humanity than anytning else ]
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    Here’s another of those “compare and contrast” things I do. Tweet the first:

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    And tweet the second:

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    I take these two tweets, juxtaposed, as indicative of something in human nature.

    I don’t much like it, that something – but I’ve never been put in a position where I regarded myself as invaded and occupied, nor one in which I was fighting people who use what I only call “humanitarian shields” such as schools and hospitals in which to hide themselves or their arms and munitions. I can’t say how I’d behave in either circumstance, and until I can, I’ll refrain from judgment and simply express my sorrow at the suffering shared by those on both sides in recent days — and tomorrow…

    Your take may be very different, of course. I’ll hear yours if you’ll hear mine, okay?

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    Rape as Strategy: Gaza and London

    Thursday, July 24th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- at least three ways of looking at a pair of tweets ]
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    If there can be Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, there are at least three or four ways of looking at these two tweets:

    The similarities are eerie, the differences are enormous.

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    You could, I suppose, look at it as an Israel to London comparison, although I don’t think that approach would be particularly insightful. Or gang-members vs academics, which might be a little more interesting. I’d suggest, however, that the first way many people will read the comparison above will be as a statement about the Israeli-Palestinian situation: London fades into the background, a professor’s (from my POV intermerate) statement of a seemingly intractable problem gets equated with an actual gangland threat and praxis:

    On that reading, the juxtaposition is an indictment of the Israeli side in the current Gaza conflict. And that’s a huge pity, because the professor’s words were specifically not about “what should be done” but about “what it would take” to do the job — in this case, of getting suicide bombers to refrain from killing themselves and others.

    So from my POV the second reading, which critiques the first (IMO appropriately) is of a comparison between what in my diagram I’ll call “thought experiment” and “threat, tactic” — the latter word indicating that the threat is one that is carried out in practice, ie in the form of selective, vengeful, punitive rape of the daughters and sisters of enemies:

    Here is a little more of the context — note the professor’s disclaimer, “I’m not talking about what we should or shouldn’t do. I’m talking about the facts”:

    “The only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped.” This assertion was made by Middle East scholar Dr. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University about three weeks ago on an Israel Radio program. “It sounds very bad, but that’s the Middle East,” added Kedar, of Bar-Ilan’s Department of Arabic. [ .. ]

    “You have to understand the culture in which we live,” said Kedar. “The only thing that deters [Hamas leaders] is a threat to the connection between their heads and their shoulders.” When presenter Yossi Hadar asked if that “could filter down” the organization’s ranks, Kedar replied: “No, because lower down the considerations are entirely different.

    Terrorists like those who kidnapped the children and killed them — the only thing that deters them is if they know that their sister or their mother will be raped in the event that they are caught. What can you do, that’s the culture in which we live.”

    When Hadar said, “We can’t take such steps, of course,” Kedar continued: “I’m not talking about what we should or shouldn’t do. I’m talking about the facts. The only thing that deters a suicide bomber is the knowledge that if he pulls the trigger or blows himself up, his sister will be raped. That’s all. That’s the only thing that will bring him back home, in order to preserve his sister’s honor.”

    Now, is that a valid disclaimer — or a slippery slope?

    Mileages, I fear, will differ greatly on the answers to that question.

    **

    But wait.

    What if you’re not a partisan of the Palestinian or Israeli side, but of a humanity long weary of wars but seemingly woven into them by nature and nurture — warp and woof on the loom of history?

    What if you’re a woman?

    I’m not a woman, and it is only through the promptings of friends like Elizabeth Pearson and Cheryl Rofer that I eventually get around to looking at this particular juxtaposition — and other analytic complexities as appropriate — with an eye to gender differences.

    Here the picture may overlay one or both of the previous ones — or obliterate their carefully-drawn distinctions completely. The picture is this:

    Wives, of course, too, aunts, nieces — wherever it hurts, whoever the adversary is honor-bound to protect.

    And some will say, that’s the nature of war! — and not be entirely wrong.

    What a world. And in it, across time, the minds and hearts that gave us the books of Isaiah and Job, the masses of Bach and Beethoven, the Mezquita of Cordoba and the Taj Mahal, Abhinavagupta and Chuang Tzu, Gell-Mann and Francis Crick

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    Sources:

  • Guardian: Gangs draw up lists of girls to rape as proxy attacks on rivals
  • Haaretz: Israeli professor’s ‘rape as terror deterrent’ statement draws ire
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    Of bombs and cemeteries, documents and doubts

    Sunday, July 20th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- a meander of thoughts, from Gaza and Gothic via documentary style photoraphs to juxtaposition and its possible modes of reading ]
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    "Israel bombs the dead in Gaza cemeteries" - Jan 2009

    As the photo above documents, this strange “twist of fated” has happened before — image drawn from Bin Laden demands holy war as Israel bombs the dead in Gaza cemeteries, Daily Mail, 14 January 2009.

    Gazan Gothic.

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    My friend Bryan Alexander hosts the Infocult blog, where he showcases gothic elements in our daily lives. It’s a fascinating blog to follow, and a day or three ago Bryan discussed gothic elements in the shooting down of the MH17 over the Ukraine. One rebel source, for instance, reported:

    According to the information received from the people who collected the corpses, a large number of the corpses are “not fresh” – these are people who died a few days ago.

    Macabre. Gothic.

    Bryan’s post concluded thus:

    Infocult offers this hypothesis: all intense politics ultimately tend to the Gothic.

    – and that’s what brings me back again to Gaza.

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    I ran across Gazan Gothic redux in a Foreign Policy piece titled Ramadan in Gaza — in a paragraph that reads:

    My six-year-old nephew Bashar told me that he thinks Israelis are crazy. After an airstrike hit a cemetery, he asked me innocently, “Have they meant to kill the dead again, aunt?” I have no words to explain.

    That’s gothic for you, and could serve as a fine data point to support Bryan’s hypothesis. But wait a minute…

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    That morning I also read — and this had me off on quite a tangent — Arthur Lubow‘s piece, Documentary Art, in the Threepenny Review. Lubow offers a different trajectory from “intense politics” — one that ends in a form of art, not an expression of gothic.. He asks:

    What makes a documentary photograph also a work of art? When does its news remain fresh, even after the daily paper or monthly magazine that printed it has faded?

    He quotes photographer Walker Evans [Let us now praise famous men] on the difference between two kinds of “current events” photography:

    An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, although it certainly can adopt that style.

    and writes of the photographer Bruce Davidson, two of whose books he is reviewing:

    A photograph of a shattered car in an empty field is a ghastly, violent image. The driver’s window is blown out, the seat is blood-soaked, the doors hang open like broken arms. But to comprehend the horror of this picture, you need to know things that you can learn only from a caption. This was the car that Viola Liuzzo, a volunteer civil rights worker from Detroit, was driving in Alabama when she was shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1965. It is, as Evans would have it, a literal document.

    Compare that to another Davidson photograph, taken six years earlier. A pretty girl with a full mane of sun-streaked blonde hair is primping in the mirror of a cigarette machine. A handsome boy alongside her is carefully rolling up a sleeve of his T-shirt. They have placed their drinks on top of the machine: a can of beer for him, a bottle of soda pop for her. In the background, other young people are heading for the lockers. The photograph was shot in Coney Island, one of a series on a Brooklyn gang called the Jokers, whom Davidson followed for almost a year in 1959. But any facts about the Jokers are extraneous to one’s appreciation of this photograph, which is all about the narcissistic eroticism of youth. The graceful crook of the feminine elbow in counterpoint to the taut extension of the boy’s arm, the tarnished reflective surface that reveals the girl’s fleeting beauty, the self-involvement and the sexual heat—these are specific to this scene, and general enough for a viewer to understand. It is documentary style.

    Further, he writes:

    If a photograph can be reduced to a sentence, its interest is fleeting. When the point is sharp and clear, the afterlife is short. .. It’s a didactic style in which the aphorism needn’t be spelled out in words. On East 100th Street, Davidson photographed a child behind a meshed window, alongside a caged bird, and a boy on a filthy mattress in an alley, almost indistinguishable from piles of strewn garbage. These are valuable as documents. But when he portrays a tiny infant with two figurines, all resting on a couch, or a young man with close-set eyes, holding a pet pigeon, he leaves enough mental space around the image for you to wonder. Like any work of art, a great photograph is suggestive but not dispositive. Its power resides in its ambiguity.

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    We’re seemingly a long way from Gaza here, but photographs of Gaza too can be “documents” or “documentary-style” art photos. So alongside Bryan’s hypothesis:

    all intense politics ultimately tend to the Gothic

    I’ll place my own:

    all intense politics ultimately tend to art.

    My point here is not to deny Bryan’s, but to point up the many tendencies and end points to which “intense politics” may lead simultaneously – carnage, death and grief prominent among them, and a just peace seldom indeed.

    **

    There’s a quote from the same Lubow piece about photographic juxtapositions that has application to my overall DoubleQuotes project. Describing a photo of “an African-American Freedom Rider .. surrounded by .. jeering white youths” Lubow comments:

    The black protestor and several of his tormentors are wearing the same collegiate uniform— — a button-down, light-colored Oxford shirt and dark trousers.

    The similarity of clothing worn by the warriors on both sides of the racial divide raises provocative questions. The best photographs do. Whereas (to pick up Evans’s distinction) a documentary photograph can be introduced as evidence, a good documentary-style photograph will raise more doubts than it resolves.

    Juxtapositions can point to conclusions, but they are most interesting when they “raise provocative questions” rather than scoring “conclusive” points — my DoubleQuotes included.

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    Human reasons for sympathy: a DQ in the Wild

    Thursday, July 17th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- continuing a series reflecting on current events in Gaza ]
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    The tweet titled A Jewish woman and a Palestinian woman protesting together in 1973, 1992, and 2001 shows two women standing together three times in thirty years, each time with the same paired messages.

    I’ve only reproduced the first image of the three here, partly because I am not sure the whole series shows the same two women — but it seems to be yet another instance of a DoubleQuote in the Wild, this time with two people and their respective placards in juxtaposition:

    **

    I am beginning to see the two sides in a conflict as two sides of a human moebius strip

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