Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Analyzing Why and How So Many Western Intellectuals Hate Their Own Societies and People?

By Barry Rubin

Consider this quotation from an Israeli professor which I think wonderfully symbolizes many Western intellectuals’ attitudes toward their own countries today. It reeks with hatred for their democratic, stable, prosperous societies and their fellow citizens:

“The social stage was filled with a procession of migrant workers and their...children; single mothers; people with disabilities; poor, sick, and hungry Palestinians at and beyond the checkpoint; homeless Gush Katif evacuees; victims of terror and of road accidents; residents of the north left defenseless in a war; residents of the south [of Israel] whose homes had become the front line; unprotected workers of sub-contractors and employment agencies; the unemployed and those whose income insurance had been discontinued. All had become see-through citizens whose lives were cheap and whose fate no longer engaged the government. As if from behind a thin but impenetrable veil, Israeli society regarded them all with the same glazed, phlegmatic look.”

I'm not giving the author's name both because it isn't important for the points I want to make and the individual in question is by no means the worst example of this type [for an explanation see note at end]. But I find this statement exemplifies the perspective that dominates so much of the thinking, teaching, and cultural products in Western democratic societies today.

While attuned to Israeli specifics, this kind of statement is easily adaptable to North America or Europe, Australia or New Zealand. For example, “migrant workers” become illegal aliens. You can add in victims of the economic depression, racial groups, homosexuals, and all sorts of other categories.

What are the elements of this analysis? The first is to focus only and exclusively on every negative aspect of the country, all its real or alleged failures. This does not mean it is illegitimate to talk about problems. Of course, it is important to do so since only problems discussed and mistakes criticized can be corrected.

But dealing with such things in isolation, as is so often done, is intended to frame an indictment in which a relatively good society is made to seem like a nightmarish hell in which everyone--or everyone who counts--suffers horribly. The society is then found guilty and sentenced to death, or at least penal servitude.

Western Civilization is no longer taught as a mandatory course in most American universities, and so students don't learn of the great debates that led to democracy and the reasonably regulated free enterprise system. They know far less about what was learned in the past about tyranny. They don't study Communism and its failures. In public schools, there seems little about American heroism or December 7 and what happened at Pearl Harbor, or September 11 and what happened at the World Trade Center.

Bereft of knowledge on all the good things about their country, its history and institutions, overwhelmed with negative visions of its crime, how else might many of these young people view them?

In fact, the vast majority of people in Western democratic societies are doing better than ever. Even those said to be miserable and oppressed are often on examination, not in such an abject state. That doesn’t mean they are all happy and have all their wishes fulfilled, for government and society is incapable of such an achievement though, to listen to the contemporary debate it is unclear whether many “smart” people understand that fact.

Second, there is in this world view no consideration of alternatives. Solving problems costs money and supplies of that commodity are not unlimited. Choices must be made; priorities need to be set. Proposed remedies might be far worse than the problems they claim to fix. In addition, to pretend that society can be utopian or that contradictory problems can be simultaneously solved is to create an unsolvable paradox.

Intellectuals, artists, college professors, and activists of a certain viewpoint are often not fazed by such considerations. They seem to say: That's not my department. Or: I have a perfectly good plan which I present in my book based on the other books I've read. Or: According to the theory of [fill in the blank] this plan will work perfectly well.

In fact, often the most reasonable solutions are dismissed without consideration because they must be based on principles and premises which are dismissed by the vision put forward by such people.

For example, if you want to help the temporary refugees from northern Israel? Support a tougher policy against Hizballah. To help those in the south, back a campaign to overthrow Hamas. To improve the Palestinians lives? Press them to make peace and end the conflict rather than continually finding excuses for keeping it going.

Often, however, the complainers want the exact opposite policy, one that intensifies the problems they decry.

Third, there is a tremendous amount of anger among intellectuals and cultural types with what might be called normality. The intellectual or artist wants drama, excitement, change. That a society is stable, that it can afford not to lose self-confidence or identity from its problems and shortcomings strike the professoriate and the artistic circles as intolerable. For them, happiness, prosperity, stability makes for misery, even as they enjoy the fruits of all these things.

Like Shakespeare’s discontented Richard III, it is at the moment of their side’s triumph that they find the winter of their discontent. It can be a short distance from Richard’s bemoaning the victory of his own house of York to rationalizing the September 11 terrorist attack on New York.

So, of course, there are victims of road accidents! There are unemployed! But are road accidents totally avoidable. Is the professor ready to give up driving and take the bus? If five percent are unemployed (the situation is, of course, much worse in the United States at present) and a smaller portion of that group have run out of unemployment compensation does it prove the society that pays the unemployment compensation (not available to those unemployed in past times) is a miserable failure?

How about the 95 percent who have a job or soon will again, those who can afford childcare (and thus women can work) because of the availability of foreign nannies? If the professor and those current unemployed don’t want to pick crops then foreign workers grateful for the wage are a necessity. And those people are making a better living than they would at home.

This anger is channeled into a crusade to teach people to loathe their societies: To sneer at imperfect democracy, bind free enterprise to the point of paralysis, trash religion, and teach anti-patriotism. Yet this makes perfect sense since if these institutions and attitudes are so evil and have not solved the world's problems why shouldn't they be destroyed?

Fourth, obsession with the marginal blots out the mainstream, normal, average. The sufferings or demands of five or ten, fifteen or twenty percent become the only important factor to be considered. Once again, this does not mean these issues should be neglected but neither should they become the whole picture. It is like the way American history is too often being taught in which it becomes a web of racism, imperialism, sexism, xenophobia, greed, and smugness. The picture, to say the least, is both more complex and far different from a portrait that is part fantasy, part smear.

It should be remembered that historically in all human societies throughout history, the poor comprised roughly eighty percent of the population. In Western societies, there has been a massive improvement in the lives of everyone with relatively few exceptions. After all, it is the rise to comfort of the once-ragged proletariat that killed off the hope of a Communist revolution in the West. Intellectuals have in fact turned away from the working class as enemies since they don’t support the left today.

Then, too, people vote with their feet. The desperation of migrants to get into Western democratic states attests to the superiority of rights, opportunity, and well-being there.

In the specifically Israeli case, those from Gush Katif are settlers displaced from the Gaza Strip by the Israeli withdrawal, which no doubt people like the author of the quote bemoaning their fate passionately supported. What of the “poor, sick, and hungry Palestinians at and beyond the checkpoint?” Should Israelis care for them more than do their own leaders and societies content to use them as revolutionary cannon fodder in order to continue an unnecessary conflict for decades more?

As for the specifics, few Palestinians are hungry (especially compared to other Third World situations). They receive massive international subsidies and those who are sick may get free medical care in Israeli hospitals. When Palestinians could work in Israel, before they staged a terrorist intifada, a lot more money was flowing to them.

Those with disabilities? Laws in Israel and elsewhere have been changed to try to help them in myriad ways, huge amounts of money has been spent for this purpose. Victims of terror? You mean people killed or wounded by those same Palestinians referred to above?

Fifth and finally, this critique of Western civilization implicitly suggests that utopia is within reach if only stupid, greedy people don't block it. Moreover, there is no such thing that can be called human nature which may make the best-laid plans go awry or see--despite the story of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions—how change can be manipulated by the greedy and power-hungry. The success of American and other democracies has been based on successfully implementing balances and restraints to prevent institutions or individuals from grabbing too much power, realizing the limits of what can be achieved, setting priorities, and protecting individual freedoms.

The concepts presented by this sociologist, then, show the basic critique drowning out the achievements of modern Western democratic, capitalist with regulation, societies to the point that they are made to seem worthless and deserving of destruction.

It is also worth noting that the majority, too, has reasonable interest of its own. How much of its income does it want to spend on welfare or on other projects? Having had a tougher time in achieving a good or reasonable living standards, the workers and the lower middle class are often more reluctant than the upper middle class yuppies to see risky, expensive propositions undertaken. And having worked so hard for what they have, they are less prone to being motivated by guilt than those who have been handed an easy life by parents, lucrative professions, and high social status.

That's why Western politics have flipped. The upper middle class and a considerable portion of the wealthy are the backbone of the left; the workers and lower middle class of the more conservative side.

Finally, of course, there is implicit in the analysis of massive victimhood and society's indifference to them an elimination of any responsibility of people to deal with their own problems. Obviously, this varies from case to case and from category to category. Many have no such choice.

Migrant workers chose—quite intelligently—to leave poor countries to earn more money, often to send back to families. They were not kidnapped from their countries of origin. But if you think that the situation of illegal aliens is so terrible, perhaps they should be sent home, right? On one hand, they chose to break immigration laws, after all, which is perhaps the main reason they are vulnerable to mistreatment. But at the same time they don’t want to leave because they prefer the situation where they are now.

Or take the ever suffering Palestinians. They supported radical political forces that refused to make peace and are responsible for their predicament. Feel sorry for Gazans? Overthrow Hamas. Feel sorry for West Bankers? Tell them to make peace and, aside from getting a state and not having to face violent conflict, they are in line for huge amounts of compensation money.

Another neglected factor is how the bad choices made by individuals relate to their difficulties. This doesn’t mean they deserve their suffering or something like that but it does mean that they, not society, are to blame. Single mothers? Might the breakdown of the traditional family and standards of sexual morality have something to do with it? Obviously, these are complex issues. A single mother might have been married to a terrible husband and had to obtain a divorce. The point is not to say that people suffering don’t merit help and compassion, but can their suffering be blamed on governments or everyone else in the society?

Again, outside the specific arguments being made in the analysis quoted above remains the broader view which currently dominates Western thinking: Our societies are evil and rotten; all problems should be solved immediately; government should do everything; and if I support policies that made these problems worse I still blame society and those who proposed better solutions.

Today, however, radicals have transformed this into an indictment of their own country because they see there are problems, ignoring progress, the impossibility of making all pain disappear, and proposing solutions that will inevitably fail or strangle their own societies.

Contemporary conservativism is based on the idea that given human nature and inevitable clashes of interest, limiting risky change and knowing when most people have a relatively good thing going are good ideas.

Liberalism has been based on the concept of the greatest good for the greatest number, favoring well-considered changes balancing free enterprise with reasonable regulation so as not to kill the goose laying golden eggs or engage in ever-larger risks or sacrifices for the sake of ever-smaller constituencies.

Here's the bottom line:

--Every society, even the richest and happiest, has real problems, but those negatives neither characterize that society nor prove it invalid, given all the other problems it has solved.

--The contradictory nature of problems, the trade-offs in solving them, and the limits of resources must be taken into account. Is there really a better alternative than what currently exists?

--Many of the main critics of these societies propose policies or solutions that would make things far worse. For example, a program to give massive loans to people who could not afford to buy houses might set off a huge economic depression. Yes, that really could happen. In fact, it did.

--However much compassion and help relatively small groups might need or merit, the situation of the vast majority must be considered first.

--Contrary to a very popular view in certain circles today, the main task of intellectuals and cultural figures in a democratic society is not to destroy it. They may create far worse situations, as history has so often shown.

--Don't hate your own people, including the "unwashed masses" that after generations of relative poverty and hard work can now for the first time enjoy relatively stable, comfortable lives.

When you hate your own country and its society and people, you are just engaging in the age-old snobbishness of an over-privileged aristocracy which views the “common people” as inferior. You’re not the people who made the French and American revolutions; you’re the people those revolutions were made against.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

[Note: The author of the quote is by no means so extreme as evidenced by this person's other work and by the fact that they included Israel victims of Hizballah attacks in the north, Hamas attacks in the south, and settlers displaced by the government's decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip. I don't intend this article as an attack on that writer but merely as a way of responding to that general approach to contemporary issues and societies.]

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