Monday, September 29, 2014

The K-12 Killing Fields

“School shooting” -- a term that appears more and more often in the headlines, almost to the point where we're tempted to say “Ho hum, another one, hope it's nowhere around here [quick check of location], things are going to hell, etc. What's for dinner?” Yes, even this – unheard of in any past era – has become almost expected, like some sort of seasonal natural phenomenon. And we get the usual hand-wringing and pointless babbling, all of which reflects an attitude of victimhood and helplessness, and a refusal to delve into the real causes. The only question that is consistently asked is the wrong one, namely: What is wrong with “our society” that “allows such things to happen” by refusing to confiscate everyone's guns? But even that is usually drowned in a sea of “grief counseling”, “healing”, “moving on”, and teddy bears.

Now, I don't mean to sound cynical; after all, tragedy is tragedy, and it happens to individuals, not groups or societies. But to remain on a superficial level and not ask the hard questions is to, basically, give up on finding answers and on really doing anything about the problem.

The most obvious question, which is begged over and over again, is this: Why schools? And, more specifically, why public schools? When's the last time you heard of a shooting at a private, Catholic, or Christian (i.e. Evangelical) school? I can't think of a single instance. Naturally enough, most of the perpetrators are themselves students (in the school in question or one nearby), though there are some exceptions. But ease of access is not enough to explain the statistics – nor is the fact that the public schools have a much larger enrollment than all other types combined. It has to be – it seems to me – something about public schools per se that invite this sort of... let's call it “rage” (and rage, as we all know (or ought to) is most commonly a result of helplessness and frustration). The shootings are typically planned, sometimes far in advance... preparations are impressively complete at times, although an escape plan is seldom included since – also typically – the perpetrator has pretty much planned to be killed in the process – to be, in effect, a martyr to his own ambiguous cause. And they all have reasons, and those reasons typically have to do with bullying, or at least having been a “loner”, albeit usually a fairly intelligent one. “Over-sensitivity” -- on the opposite end of the scale from being a bully, I suppose – is an almost inevitable trait, along with being somewhere on the Asperger's scale.

And yet the victims seem, most of the time, to be chosen at random; they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In other words, the perpetrator does not seek out the bullies who've been persecuting him, instead blaming the student body as a whole for, I suppose, having an “atmosphere” of bullying and intolerance (the way so many sectors of our society allegedly have an “atmosphere” of racism or sexism, even if there is no tangible evidence). There are, after all, in society at large, bullies and those who aren't bullied but who tacitly go along with bullying, i.e. either approve or don't object. (This is a phenomenon frequently discussed when the topic of Nazi Germany comes up, for example. The “silent majority” -- the great, gray middle – may not commit crimes, but they are silent in the face of crime, preferring to protect their own interests rather than “get involved”.)

But are the schools themselves bullies and persecutors? Don't they exist primarily to teach the “3 R's?” Well, no – not in our time. It's no accident that the video of Pink Floyd's song “Another Brick in the Wall” showed a parade of schoolchildren in grotesque masks filing through a dark factory and then plunging into a giant hopper – all to the tune of “we don't need no thought control”. Preparation for good citizenry is less about tangible subject matter than about attitudes and feelings – and public school teachers identify themselves as “agents of change” (and proud of it).

So perhaps the question should be not only what the public schools do on an ordinary, daily basis, but what they represent or symbolize – especially to people who prefer to “connect the dots” rather than drown their sorrows in sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll (or team sports). The school shooters may have diseased minds and twisted thought processes, but they at least get this much right: The public schools represent the Regime... “the man”... the system... and what used to be called the “establishment” before the people who used that term became the establishment. The public schools are rightly seen – and not just by the deranged – as the cutting edge of society's campaign against true freedom, true liberty, and true individuality. They are a key component of the propaganda apparatus, and the first one the average citizen is likely to encounter (unless they overdose on PBS while still toddlers). And for the “normal” among us, they are no threat, because we have already -- by the time we enter that gaping door on the first day of kindergarten – been sufficiently softened up; we have become little authoritarians. We are unlikely to rebel, except for a few pathetic gestures in early adolescence; and, most importantly of all, we are unlikely to ever question the basic premises upon which our system (political, economic, social) is based. The outlier, however, has little if anything to lose by questioning the party line... by wondering whether we all live in the “matrix”. They value their own individuality, flawed as it may be, over group identity; they are unlikely to ever become political animals or “good citizens”. And yes, the system is designed to tolerate (if not encourage) a certain small percentage of outliers; they act as a safety valve, and mostly as an example the Regime can point to and say (to all the others), “Now you don't want to be like that guy, do you? A geek, a loser, a disruptive influence? No, of course not. Now drink your Kool-Aid and be quiet.”

But then a small percentage of these alienated types – the truly wretched souls – get it into their heads that the only way to express their rage against the machine is to kill off some of its other victims, albeit the willing ones. And like terrorism, their act doesn't teach anyone anything (although it should); it just increases the sum total of fear, alienation, and insecurity in the community. And they (the perps) might say, well fine, I'm showing these people how things really are. Maybe on some level that's true, but who will argue that the lesson is worth the price?

Now don't get me wrong; it's still their fault. You can't water down evil by ascribing it to a group, or a race, or “historical grievances”. And frankly, I've never had much regard for the “insanity defense”. Doesn't it implicitly assume that most murders are committed by sane people? And can that possibly be true? I would say it's false by definition. But having said that, there are certainly environmental factors contributing to violent acts; very few are completely random. And what sort of environment have we created in our time? One where the individual feels increasingly helpless and exploited, so tries to assert himself through risk-taking and “extreme” activities, clothes, tattoos, piercings, and other lifestyle choices – anything to show that he still has some small measure of control over his own existence. (And if you want a veritable fashion show of extreme looks, seek no further than the nearest public high school.) What I'm saying is that when you have a society that exerts control over every aspect of life... that attempts to eliminate all sources of danger or hurt feelings... you're going to get a reaction. The human organism is not programmed to accept, and be grateful for, a completely stress-free existence; we crave danger and risk, and when we don't get it in the normal course of things we create it – and by doing so we, and others, may become victims.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Eyeless in Gaza

One of my early memories when it comes to “the news” -- radio news in this case – is that of listening to stories about “fighting in the Gaza Strip”. This would have been at least as far back as when I was in junior high school in the late 1950s. I had only a vague idea of where the Gaza Strip was, and knew very little of the historical background, but it was obvious that that place was nothing but trouble... and here we are, fifty-odd years later, and very little has changed.

Recently, a correspondent of mine called my attention to an excellent interview with an Orthodox Jewish rabbi – a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, no less, who expressed grave doubts as to the morality of Israel's actions in this latest confrontation. A transcript can be found at:
Please go to that site and read the interview if you have the time; it is very worthwhile and enlightening. Then, as to my own comments and observations:

To begin with, when one is confronted with an impossible situation -- diplomatically in this case -- one has to go back and dig a bit to figure out how it got that way.  In the case of Israel, it was all based on Zionism, i.e. the notion that the Jews had a "right" to Palestine that superseded all other rights, not only of other claimants but of the people who already lived there.  This was, in turn, bolstered by the myth of "a land without a people" -- and how could this possibly have been true?  Any idiot could have seen through that scam.  And yet they made it stick.  And, as far as they're concerned Palestine was, in fact, a land without a people -- i.e. without any people who really counted.  (This was especially true in light of World War I, which put an end to the Ottoman Empire and made Arabs into second-class world citizens, which they continue to be to this day, at least as far as the U.S. and Europe are concerned. And by extension, Islam is a second-class (at best) religion, which explains a lot of our attitude and propaganda vis-a-vis the Middle East. We claim that we are only fighting “radical Islam” and “terror”, but our military is subjected to an endless stream of “orientation” propaganda that, basically, identifies Islam in general as the enemy.)

Now, this is not to say that the Jews didn't suffer greatly prior to and during World War II.  But the notion that this gave them the right to just move in (anywhere on earth) and take over, and set up a country, does not automatically follow -- although this was certainly the reasoning at the time and continues to be.  (We forget that, historically, Palestine was not the only location proposed by the Zionists for a Jewish homeland, even though it has much more historical salience.)  But on the other hand, what were they supposed to do?  Go back to Europe?  That would have been awkward at best -- although some did.  Move to the U.S.?  Again, many did, but that was apparently not good enough -- especially given all the supposed racist, fascist, anti-Semitic tendencies floating around this country, which American Jews are always quick to point out even though it's minimal, in my opinion. (Poor Joe Biden is just the latest poster child for “latent antisemitism”, but he gets exactly zero sympathy from me because he is an equal-opportunity offender.)

So yes, it was high time for a Jewish homeland, and if you suggest that they owe it all to Hitler, you'll get great indignation, but in some sense it's true.  Would Zionism have ever won if it hadn't been for the Holocaust?  That's an imponderable of history.  But one thing is certain, it would certainly have never won if it hadn't been for the support of England and France -- and, less directly, the U.S.  England was, I suppose, glad to get Palestine off its hands, because it was nothing but trouble (owing, to a great extent, to the efforts of Jewish terrorists).  So they could get a number of tickets punched at the same time by simply turning it over to the Jews, with the cooperation of the U.N. and us, etc.  And again, the people who already lived there didn't count -- and it also didn't count that the new country would be surrounded by hostile Arab/Islamic states.  Now, anyone who expected Israel to be self-sustaining under those conditions was smoking something mighty powerful, and it wasn't a peace pipe.   

So Blunder #1, for the U.S. at least, was not only allowing this to happen, but encouraging it -- and, by implication at least, signing on for eternal life support of Israel no matter what.  So right away, after a decision of that magnitude, the law of cognitive dissonance requires that we never question Israel's strategies, tactics, or motives -- to say nothing of its right to exist.  That is off the table, period!  We've invested too much, in other words -- which is one reason why we keep exerting and straining ourselves to "help" them come up with diplomatic solutions to their Palestinian problem -- even though we know that no one over there wants peace.  What they want is to get rid of the other guys.  So we don't even have the option of walking away and retaining some of our self-respect -- not that bolstering John Kerry's self-respect is very high on my "to do" list anyway.

In other words, everything follows from that one bad choice back in the late 40s -- and yet most people will tell you that we didn't have a choice, that a Jewish homeland was going to happen no matter what, because of the Holocaust, which we didn't do enough to prevent (the "guilt card" being played at that point), plus all American Jews were in favor, etc. etc.  Well... logically, once we made that initial choice, it's perfectly true that everything that followed made perfect sense -- right up to and including resurgent radical Islam (AKA "terror") and its war on us, and our war with it.  Because Israel became, overnight, a very large thorn in the side of the Arab/Islamic world (literally, if you look at a map), and they could never "get used to" its existence, and they could never forgive us for aiding and abetting it.  So over time, various segments of the Islamic/Arab world became radicalized to varying extents, the most extreme version to date being ISIS, or whatever they're called at the moment.  (Remember when the most radical terrorist on earth was Arafat?  Those were the days!)  And things went into a cyclic mode, where the Arabs would do something, and Israel would react, and the Arabs would react to that, and so on ad infinitum -- the Gaza situation just being the latest in a long line.  And when it comes to "proportionality" -- well, what does it mean when each side really wants the other wiped off the face of the earth?  In that case, even total war would be "proportional", as it was for Hitler vis-a-vis the Jews.  He didn't just want the bankers, professors, and businessmen out of the way -- he wanted Anne Frank too.  That's total war, fans.  So according to that ancient -- Old Testament, if you will -- attitude, Israel should simply line up a bunch of bulldozers at the border of Gaza and start rumbling toward the sea until there is nothing left.  Well?  Isn't that what everyone really wants?  And the thing is, they could probably get away with it -- at least as far as the U.S. government is concerned, except for one small thing, and that's the small remnant of Jewish morality (Old Testament again -- but a different part) that has served to stay their hand to some extent. The irony is that after all that has happened, they are still concerned about their “image” -- in the U.S., Europe, and the world in general, but maybe most importantly to themselves. Contrast this with the moral stand represented by Rabbi Siegman -- by which I mean a real moral stand, faith-based, not the mythical "moral high ground" occupied by secular Jews (including the Israeli leadership) based on the Holocaust and antisemitism down through the ages.

The basic choice in question is this:  Which is more important, Jewish morality or Jewish tribalism (as represented by Zionism and Israel)?  Now, some might say, but aren't they the same thing? -- and there are certainly countless attempts to "spin" Israel's actions in order to make them appear moral, i.e. not just the actions of a country with enemies trying to survive the only way it knows how.  And yet morality, it seems to me, ought to transcend questions of race, ethnicity, nation -- even of religion itself, if we want to talk about Natural Law.  In other words, "is it not written" that some things are evil, or bad, in all times and in all places, and no matter who does them?  Obviously, this is a minority point of view in these times or moral relativism (which really means amorality), and in most places, but it's one that people of faith tend to agree on.  The supreme irony, of course, is that morality from on high -- i.e. from God -- is something that the Old Testament Jews "discovered", and passed on (perhaps not entirely willingly) to Christians, who passed it on (quite unwillingly) to Moslems.  So the "people of the book" all agree on this -- or at least they did at one time.

Ironically, the current troubles in the Middle East involve believers (the Islamists) waging war on nonbelievers (most Israelis and most of us).  But even this can serve to explain a few things.  For example, why was ISIS able to so easily, and rapidly, take over large swathes of Iraq and Syria?  Because they stole all that American equipment?  But the Iraqi forces had that equipment first.  OK, then -- because they robbed banks?  Right.  They were full of Iraqi money.  No, it's quite simple -- they were fighting for an idea.  A wrong one, or an extreme one, arguably -- but people fighting for an idea will always be more effective, other things being equal (or even if not), than people who are just doing it for money, or because they were forced, or for fun, or to show off, or whatever.  Ideas are a "force multiplier", as the saying goes -- and the more radical the ideas, the more likely they are to succeed in this way.  Recall Mohammed's conquest of the Middle East and North Africa?  How about the Crusaders?  How about the Spanish Conquistadors?  All fighting enormous odds.  How about the American colonialists vs. England?  The Bolsheviks?  The Nazis?  And yes, how about the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong vs. us?  How about the Afghans vs. the Soviets?  These are all cases where the winners should not have won -- should not have even come close to winning -- if manpower and resources were all that mattered.  On the other hand, why do armed forces that should know what they're doing, and should be able to accomplish something, tend to vanish in the face of an enemy attack?  (Think the Iraqi army of the present day.)  They're fighting for all the wrong reasons -- or for no reason at all. They are “summertime soldiers” who cut and run when the going gets tough. They run, hide, and blend in with the populace, while the ISIS types stand up on the highest available hill and wave their black flags.

So if Rabbi Siegman represents traditional, Old Testament-style Jewish morality, he is clearly in the minority not only vis-a-vis Israel but also vis-a-vis American Jews, who have been seduced into tribalism as well as materialism and, if not outright immorality then at least amorality.  And, I hasten to add, there are Jewish voices of dissent on this issue, one of the more prominent being the Neturei Karta organization.  But they are drowned out by not only mainstream Jewish organizations, but by Israel's facilitators in the media, politics, government, etc.  It is encouraging, though, that there are chinks in the armor, and that more and more people both here and overseas -- including Jews -- are starting to question not only Israel's actions in Gaza and elsewhere, but asking even tougher questions.  For example, is the State of Israel one gigantic mistake?  Was it doomed from the start to be an amoral, bullying presence in that part of the world?  Or to put it another way, could Israel survive if it strictly adhered to the same Jewish moral concepts that American rabbis, teachers, and writers are so fond of citing?  And if the answer is no, what then?  Do we get a civil war of words among Jews (assuming we don't have one already)? And what will the consequences be in the long run?  

And, if Israel represents the "best and brightest" of Judaism, but if it turns out to be an amoral establishment, then what does this say about Judaism?  Is Israel's failure Judaism's failure?  To the extent that Jews "cling" to Israel as their last, best hope in the world, this would seem to be an unavoidable consequence.  And yet, asking the world's Jews to distance themselves from Israel based on moral considerations?  Especially when we (the U.S.) won't?  That just seems wilder than any pipe dream.

Rabbi Siegman reflects this dilemma when he says, "When one thinks that this is what is necessary for Israel to survive, that the Zionist dream is based on the repeated slaughter of innocents on a scale that we're watching these days on television, that is really a profound, profound crisis -- and should be a profound crisis in the thinking of all of us who were committed to the establishment of the state and to its success." 

But it's not just about Israel and the "moral high ground" -- or any ground at all.  It's also about the U.S.  If our original support for an Israeli state was a blunder (in both practical and moral terms), haven't things just gotten worse in the meantime?  And hasn't what I call "the Israel bill" -- the amount of American wealth that has been squandered on Israel and on the results of that "eternal alliance", including 9/11 and the "war on terror" -- eaten a hole in our economy (amounting to many trillions of dollars) that can never be filled?  Haven't we, in other words, not only placed ourselves on the same questionable moral level as Israel, but also insured our own economic doom because of this relationship?  And some people will say, well, that's what we get for having gotten involved in the first place -- except the people who got us involved are long gone, and we're the ones suffering the consequences.  Others will say, "but it was worth it" -- and into this category I place the Evangelicals.  And sure, if preserving the State of Israel as the key to history is your top (or only) priority, and you're willing to see this country go down the tubes as a result, then OK -- but you should at be honest about it, "man up", and move to Israel, it seems to me. And I don't mean just go over there for a couple of weeks and cruise around on air-conditioned tour buses; I mean take up arms and fight, the way American communists did in the Spanish Civil War.  

Still others will say it's karma -- or something like karma.  It's not just about a single blunder back in the late 1940s, but about an entire history of bad ideas, or good ideas with bad consequences, or just human nature taking over and neutralizing all of our fondly-held ideals.  This is also possible.  At any rate, it has become the case, on many levels, that "as Israel goes, so goes the U.S.", for good or ill.  Our "eternal alliance", while it makes for great speeches, is a two-edged sword, and we are finding ourselves on the cutting side more often than not.

So, in this sense, while Israel is responsible for its actions in Gaza, so are we, because they could not do what they do without our support.  And we can't just dismiss or excuse it with some lame statement like "well, it's only temporary", or "things over there aren't the way they are over here". The Israelis talk about “existential threats” -- why don't we?  Doesn't our own self-preservation count for anything? Our politicians are forever claiming that there is "no daylight" between us and Israel, in any respect -- so OK, that basically means that Israel and the U.S. are, for all intents and purposes, the same country... which means that anything they do, we have also done, and vice versa.  This fact has not escaped the attention of the rising number of skeptics and protesters world-wide (including, as I said, plenty of Jews).  Will their efforts bear any fruit?  It would be great if they did, but you'll excuse me if I have my doubts. It is just possible that, rather than being in a position of making history, we are in the position of being trapped by it. And it's not as if what might come after – after the deluge, as it were – is any better. Russia and China are keeping an eagle eye on the proceedings from their front-row seats, waiting for opportunities to take advantage of the situation; they have their agendas the same as we do. A fundamentalist Islamic Middle East and North Africa – and its extensions into South and Southeast Asia and even Europe – is not likely to be a good neighbor. We and the European colonial powers thought we had long since “tamed” Islam, but now it appears that we just drove the radical elements underground for a while – or, worse, did things that aided and abetted said radical elements, or even, in some cases, created them. And these are people with a world view that we can barely comprehend – absolutist and uncompromising. And yet, the same could be said of some elements on our side. Suddenly it seems that the “reasonable people” are in the minority, caught between two armies of fanatics. Perhaps the “rule of law” and “triumph of reason” were only brief episodes in an otherwise grim and violent historical saga.