I seem to be obligated to have an opinion of some sort on the current fighting in Israel and Gaza. I am, after all a politically engaged and intellectual sort of person, or claim to be. All sorts of people I know are weighing in on one side or the other of the conflict. Some are quick to assign blame, others make heroic efforts to construct a balanced view where moral faults are parceled out to both sides in accordance with a detailed and sensitive knowledge of the history of the region. (Here՚s the best of those efforts I՚ve found so far, from none other than Amos Oz). I have family and co-workers in Israel, so am pulled in that direction, yet I am temperamentally and politically drawn to support the underdog, and that is not Israel in this fight. So I can՚t easily choose a single side for condemnation or support. But being balanced requires putting more time than I am willing to invest into learning all the agonizing details.
I could just shut up, of course, and mostly I have, because the situation seems to be definitionally hopeless. And my meta-heuristics say to stay away from hopeless topics, no matter how much they seem to want to pull me in. I՚m starting to see some merits in the LessWrongian slogan “politics is the mind-killer” – war and politics are after all basically two variants of the same thing, and while politics may kill the mind, war kills actual people as well. Why join in? If I thought there was some actual good to be done by expressing an opinion, that would be one thing, but the only benefit seems to be the very minor satisfactions of moral posturing, and the downside would be losing friends.
But silence is not really a viable option for me, for a multitude of reasons, social, moral, whatever. Doesn՚t matter – as Trotsky said, you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. So that means having to have an opinion, and that largely means figuring out how to assign blame. Isn՚t that what people really want to know when they raise this subject? They want to know which side to root for, as if it were a football game or pro wrestling or something.
Consider this post an effort to assign blame while avoiding picking a side. And there will be blame, someone or something has to answer. But using our patented refactoring technology may help us find different culprits than usual. And actually being unable to settle on a stable good guys vs bad guys story helps me out, in that it helps me to reflect in as abstract a way as I can manage on the nature of conflict in general. Abstraction is sort of what I do for a living; if there՚s any useful contribution I can make, it has to lie in that direction.
I came up with a refactoring of conflict a while back, a kind of childish and obvious idea really, but I keep it in my intellectual toolbox. Instead of seeing a conflict as between the two ostensible sides, view it as a battle between those who profit from war on both sides and those who are victimized. So in Vietnam the war was not between the US and the communists, but between the warriors on both sides, the military industrial complex in the US and the corresponding war machines of Russia, China, and their allies – and on the other, people trying to live their lives. Sometimes people trying to live are forced to enlist in this battle; hence the anti-war movement. Again, this isn՚t a particularly new idea – during the Vietnam era this was known as “the war at home” – but I rarely see it made explicit, and I haven՚t thought of as a refactoring until just now.
So instead of focusing on the ostensible conflict, focus on the internal conflict between warmakers and peacemakers. The dynamics become pretty visible in something like the Palestinian conflict, where both sides at one time contained a mix of hardliners and more reasonable people, but it was a lot easier for the hardliners to escalate the conflict than for the peacemakers to de-escalate it. Such escalation raises the relative status of the hardliners within their own side, so they have an interest in keeping the conflict going. As a result the Israeli peaceniks like Oz have had their power and stature diminished. In this other war, Hamas is Netanyahu՚s best ally and vice versa.
I՚m sorry, I՚m trying to keep this on as abstract a plane as possible, trying to suss out the utilitarian algebra that generates conflict in general, not this conflict in particular. I shouldn՚t even mention the actual warriors, I՚ll just get myself in trouble, even though I՚m very carefully avoiding even momentarily taking one side or another.
I am very partial to stories about heroic mutinies, like this one about how German workers ended WWI. And related stories that reveal the fractures within aggressive coalitions, like this one about what MPs are really for. It supports my refactoring story, obviously, and makes it possible to see the noble and peace-loving people being manipulated into conflict by their status-seeking superiors. I don՚t know how well this mythology can be applied to the Middle East, though; the very real ethnic hatred seems to be pervasive, not merely a creation of the violence entrepreneurs. Of course Israel is self-selected for Jews who want to turn ethnicity into political/military power – those are the ones who were drawn there (my uncle went there fleeing Nazi Europe; my mother and father turned west and went to England and the US). Palestinians too are probably self-selecting for collective belligerence – the ones who were individualistic and capable emigrated rather than join in ethnic warfare. Part of what makes this fight intractable is that it isn՚t all that refactorable. But people have tried.
A further refactoring occurs to me. In both the normal and refactored framing, we still tend to think of individuals being on one side or another. Jew or Palestinians, hawk or peacenik, it is a question of membership. But a more enlightened and even more refactored view is that everybody has a version of the war-making machinery in them, and peace-making as well, although either may be well-hidden. Then war is seen not as some external conspiracy of a few people against the many but an expression of tendencies we all have. Sometimes the machinery behind those tendencies simply gets the upper hand.
This is also not a terribly original idea. It is, after all, one of the bases for the nonviolent techniques of Gandhi and King, the idea that all humans have a conscience which can be reached.
King’s notion of nonviolence had six key principles. First, one can resist evil without resorting to violence. Second, nonviolence seeks to win the ‘‘friendship and understanding’’ of the opponent, not to humiliate him. Third, evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed….I think back to my childhood, where I was a very junior participant in the movement against the Vietnam war. These sappy posters were everywhere:
The sixties anti-war movement soon moved on from such sweet thoughts into more aggressive forms of opposition. Partly due to increasing pushback by the government and assassination of its prophets of nonviolence, but also because peace is too wimpy a cause to rally around. The only ones who can make war on war without becoming as bad as the thing they aim to defeat seem to be backed by a religious faith which I don՚t share. I could never really see myself as a flower-bearing peacenik, I՚m too contentious by nature, no saint. And more importantly, an approach to politics based on sainthood doesn՚t seem like it is workable, that it could scale.
On the other hand saints do appear on occasion. Somehow we normals have to figure out what to do in the meantime.
It is interesting that religion seems to be the ultimate glue holding coalitions together, whether they are sides in an ethnic war or a movement against war.
Buddhists seem to have their own refactoring of conflict, at least, they talk a lot about aggressive qualities of mind as a distinct thing which can be noticed and worked on and eliminated (or at least tamed to the point where it is non-destructive). Personally I am reluctant to give up my anger, it seems too fundamental to my being, to how I think. The world is full of things that deserve anger, should I let them all slide just for my own peace of mind? I would hate myself if I could no longer hate appropriately.
Still there is something to be said for getting aggressiveness under control, for learning to wield it as a weapon against targets that matter, including itself.
But vain the Sword & vain the Bow
They never can work Wars overthrow
The Hermits Prayer & the Widows tear
Alone can free the World from fear
For a Tear is an Intellectual Thing
And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King
And the bitter groan of the Martyrs woe
Is an Arrow from the Almighties Bow
The hand of Vengeance found the Bed
To which the Purple Tyrant fled
The iron hand crushed the Tyrants head
And became a Tyrant in his stead
— from “The Grey Monk”, William Blake[This post owes something to a recent and widely read post on Slate Star Codex (my favorite blog right now) about how narrow interest-seeking on a large scale makes the world shitty. I՚ve been trying to work up a response; this is not that response but some influence has crept in. ]