Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Driving to Rehovot this evening, Once in a Lifetime came on the stereo, and after repeating some of the wonderfully quirky lyrics to my wife, I mentioned that it seemed a very appropriate theme song for Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which of course sent me into a synopsis of the movie…  So here’s the thing:  Am I the only one to have noticed the overwhelming resemblance of that movie to Being There?  They’re both about mysterious cyphers (who appear terribly defective but give occasional glimpses of the supranormal) who fall in with more mainstream people, who proceed to project their own thoughts and expectations onto the mystery men?

It could be that this is basic stuff in Cinema 101, but Googling the two titles didn’t produce any relevant results, certainly nowhere near the top.

Okay, you can go back about your business.

Friday, May 27, 2011

On the matter of realpolitik and the idea that “nations don’t have friends, they have interests,” I’d like to start with some quotes from Thomas Jefferson:

The Moral duties which exist between individual and individual in a state of nature, accompany them into a state of society & the aggregate of the duties of all the individuals composing the society constitutes the duties of that society towards any other.

I am in all cases for a liberal conduct towards other nations, believing that the practice of the same friendly feelings and generous dispositions which attach individuals in private life will attach societies on the larger scale, which are composed of individuals.

I think with others that nations are to be governed according to their own interest, but I am convinced that it is their interest in the long run to be grateful, faithful to their engagements, even in the worst of circumstances, and honorable and generous always.

The interests of a nation, when well understood, will be found to coincide with their moral duties.

We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties.

I think Jefferson understood that there was no way to prove assertions of the utility of morals and friendship in the dealings of nations.  Note in the quotes above that the predictive ones contain clauses like I think and we are firmly convinced, whereas the straight moral statements are presented without equivocation.

In this humility, I think, lies the essential difference between Jefferson and the realpolitik crowd.  The latter will have states behave abominably just to show how far they are above the naiveté of the common ruck.  In the end, though, it’s just vanity and showmanship, since they’re no more capable of predicting outcomes than anyone else.  They may in fact be smarter, and certainly may be more knowledgeable, but those differences evaporate before the complexity of causes that move world events.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Well, obviously I never did make the time to keep posting, but since lately I've found myself commenting on various online publications (David Makovsky in The Washington Post, Jeff Goldberg in The Atlantic, all-and-sundry in The New York Times, etc.) it seemed more efficient to simply post my thoughts to my own blog, though it's still unclear to me how anyone will find it. It has a sort of message-in-a-bottle feel.

Anyway, I find myself incensed not so much by the flood of foolish and unpleasant opinions going around – most recently about Netanyanu’s visit to Washington – as by the almost total absence of certain things that need saying.  Here are a few:
1.   The pundits have been no better at predicting the course of world events than one might reasonably expect, meaning that to the extent they say anything falsifiable they’re almost invariably wrong.  Almost all of these people missed the boat on events like the fall of the Shah and the Soviet Union, 9/11, the war with Hezbollah, both Intifadas, the rise of Hamas and rockets from Gaza, and now the Arab Spring.  This would be fine – we are, after all, talking about predicting the future – if they had come away chastened and more cautious.  Unfortunately, that seems never to happen.  We are thus treated to an endless stream of advice on how to proceed in our dealings with the Arabs, all based on absolute confidence in how things will work out if the advice is followed (or, Heaven help us, not followed).  It saddens me that someone like Makovsky, whom I remember as being too smart for such things, falls into it.

2.   My friends – anyone within earshot, really – can tell you that I’ve always been against realpolitik, and in particular propping up dictators.  I’m not alone in that, but I seem to be alone in my reason for it.  Everyone else seems to have either been sure that it would ultimately be a losing strategy or that even as a winning strategy it was morally indefensible.  The “realists” were sure that the strategy would ultimately do more good than harm, and were willing to excuse it on that basis.  Notice again how everyone seems comfortable with his ability to predict the future.   My take on it was that, given that the dictators are doing wrong now while the harm done by removing our support is speculative, one would need way more support for that speculation than could reasonably be mustered.

3.   It’s amazing how the arguments surrounding Netanyahu in particular and the conflict in general seem never to deal with the fact that the only possible significance of the ’67 lines is that they’re fixed in the Arab mind.  It appears that accepting less than that area as the borders of a state would mean – gasp – losing, which is something that they can’t deal with emotionally.  Everyone talks about the issue as if it determines whether the Palestinians can rule themselves or not.  Without even pointing out the really obvious, which is that in almost every way they are already ruling themselves, someone should point out the merely obvious fact that they can rule themselves in a smaller state just as well as in a larger one.  In other words, they could have a state tomorrow if they were just willing to draw different borders for it, and since our philosophy holds that they have a fundamental right to rule themselves we should support that.  As far as I know, though, there is no such right to a state of a given size, or to tanks and anti-aircraft batteries.
Enough for now.  Let’s see whether I can actually keep this up.