This weekend, most of what I accomplished in terms of creative work was some more research for the Utopias book, as well as writing and editing for my play and film projects. Development on the film adapting one of my Alice stories is slowly progressing, and I’m now in completely control of writing the script. So that will be my major creative project over the next two months.
What I want to talk about right now, though, is an idea that has come up in a few casual conversations, but has, as I reflected on it, amounted to an important element of my thoughts for the Utopias book. I’m familiar with the old rule (amazing that this has become old so relatively quickly) that it isn’t worth arguing with anyone over the internet. But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been arguing with some people over the internet. Here’s how the shape of it went down.
As the Gaza bombardment ramped up, I noticed that my thread was increasingly filled with links to articles that were extremely critical of the Israeli government. Any war with the kinds of civilian casualties and terror tactics that the recent offensive in Gaza saw is worth condemning. Of course, any war, insofar as it is war, is worth condemning. But I also noticed that there was very little criticism of Hamas, and among my own circles at least, an acceptance that what they do is correct because it’s a form of resistance.
I went into this in more detail a couple of weeks ago, but I can’t support Hamas because the positive part of its ideology is an oppressive form of Islamic fundamentalism that includes advocacy for the actual genocide of Jews in the Middle East. They paint themselves as liberators, but would liberate no one, instead replacing the economic oppression of the Israeli blockade of Gaza with the cultural oppression that we already see across the region.
An untold story that offended me even more than the bombardment itself was the racist violence against Jewish people, with incidents in Paris, Copenhagen, Calgary, and Mississauga. Conversations I’d had about these incidents resulted, in some cases, at racist epithets being thrown at me and my partner. Nonetheless, I’m proud of having brought at least a little more attention to these incidents. Because no matter how much justified outrage the day-to-day militarization and the specific war in Gaza today may provoke, it’s morally and ethically repugnant to blame all Jews for the reprehensible actions of the Israeli state.
Yet we have to make some kind of decision on the matter. As political leaders, our politicians, governors, journalists, and prominent opinion makers have to take some kind of stand on issues of war and peace, even though no practical option can avoid violence. This is called realpolitik today, but it’s been a central feature of Western political philosophy since Niccolo Machiavelli.
Machiavelli is a complicated figure in philosophy and politics. His name has come to stand intuitively for amoral shenanigans and making political decisions without recourse to any moral or ethical compass or conscience. Of course, the real Machiavelli was much more complicated — his most famous work, The Prince, constantly overshadows his Discourses on Livy, which contains a fascinating theory on democratic discourse.
It’s the same way with politics. Our ideals may be democratic, but our actions are stuck in the real world, where, in my case, I can yell and scream and protest about the need for peace and reconciliation at a world in which such a state is practically impossible. And our leaders, the people who actually make political decisions that direct the resources of states, are stuck with the burden of having to make impossible choices. When the only moral choice is to drop your weapons, mourn your dead, and rebuild society in friendship, being forced to do otherwise should haunt you. If it doesn’t then that leader doesn’t deserve to lead.
|Arab dictators are the hardest motherfuckers alive.|
This brings me to the other kind of unconscionable conversation I’ve had over the last week, about Syria. This war has killed nearly 200,000 people, and the actions of virtually all parties are horrific. Especially terrible were the actions of the Assad government, who responded to democracy protests with the brutal military and secret police crackdowns that drove Syria to the ruin it has become today.
Yet I find voices on the left, which should be the moral conscience decrying the terror of war, not only forgiving Assad for his massacres, but endorsing him and making excuses. I have been told that the Assad regime supplied important social services during peacetime, and is only reacting to a popular movement that was spurred by American imperialism.
Yes, American imperialism, the concept, an adaptation of a dime store mind of dime store Noam Chomsky political philosophy, that the goal of United States foreign policy is to build an empire of allied states to enrich itself and its ruling class. It’s a straw concept that, unfortunately, is widely believed anyway. I’ve already written several times about the inanity of this idea, so I’ll just refer you to a couple of particular posts.
What disturbs me about this mode of politics in the context of this post is its needless embrace of realpolitik. In the conversations I’ve had with folks who say that Bashar al-Assad is worth supporting, despite the terrible things he’s done, they justify this choice on the grounds that he opposes the United States. And I’ll at least take that as a technically valid reason, even though I disagree with it. If you think the United States government and military is dominated by corporate leaders who care nothing for the welfare of its people (which itself is a reasonable, and very persuasive argument), then fine.
But all of the people of this opinion that I’ve talked with lately are pretty much on the same level as me. They’re working stiffs trying to get by, who have a few nice Twitter connections and write things on the internet to express themselves and maybe persuade people of a few things. Yet they justify supporting Assad, a dictator who has killed hundreds of thousands and, even during peacetime, ran a government via a secret police, and systematically disenfranchised and marginalized entire groups of people (Sunni, Kurd, and Yazidi immediately come to mind), on grounds of realpolitik.
To see a working class person, so divorced from the reins of power, embrace the Machiavellian attitude that the leaders of states and armies must, profoundly saddens me. Realpolitik is the decision making framework of a person who is forced by circumstances to make impossible decisions. It is the frame of mind of someone who lives in a war zone, whose life is threatened on a daily basis. When you face a world where everyone around you has guns and is a possible or actual threat, you have to consider allying yourself with monsters to live a little while longer.
But I live in Canada, a country where I do not face these kinds of decisions. I don’t lead the state, and have to choose allies among a world of competing powers and interests. I don’t live in Syria or Israel, where war and political violence have become omnipresent. My surroundings don’t force me to make impossible decisions and abandon my morals for the sake of a political allegiance.
So why would I?
One core dimension of my Utopias book will be able how a person, limited in her power, can confront these impossible decisions and keep her ideals intact, even act according to ideals of peace. It wasn't going to be part of the project when I first conceived of it, nor when I began the research. But when I look at the world in which I'm researching and writing this project, it has become unavoidable.