Bloodlands: What Happens When Nations Go Mad

I have been pondering the fate of Someone Else’s War—I believe it will be part of a trilogy—and so not posting further chapters while I sort out my thoughts. Instead, I decided to read a book I have wanted to, if you can apply “long wanted to read” about Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. I told my husband this and he replied, “Maybe it’s time we got a TV?”

Bloodlands is a history of political mass killing, often but far from always along ethnic lines, in what we now call Eastern Europe, particularly in Ukraine, between 1933-1945. Like any book on a comparable subject, Bloodlands is very tough to read if you have any human feelings at all. It is also a superb work of revisionist history, revising the historical record to take into account what we now know about the killings in Eastern Europe with the collapse of Communism. Finally, the language is extremely accessible.

But there is another reason Bloodlands is an important book that should be far more widely read in American than it is. Bloodlands shows what happens when entire nations go bonkers—as America is doing now, and I write this without once pretending that America is in anything close to the situation of Germany in 1932 or Russia or the Soviet Union in 1924, when Lenin died. The parallels are very far from exact.

America has gone bonkers before, although we usually do it overseas. The last time we really went full-scale, all-out bonkers on our own soil was our Civil War, and the savagery and cruelty of that conflict is something Americans have never really come to grips with. Revised estimates of its toll, from the traditional 620,000 deaths, range from 650,000 to 850,000; 750,000 is now an accepted central figure, out of a pre-war population of 31.4 million. The revised estimate may still be too low: Francis Amisa Walker, superintendent of the 1870 census, estimated male deaths as not lower than 850,000. In modern American terms, those 750,000 deaths approximately equate to 7 million male deaths in 4 years; in the terms of Soviet Russia in 1932, about 2.4 million deaths. (Table “Before WWII.”) This dwarfs the approximately 700,000 Soviets, particularly Poles and Ukrainians, shot during the Great Terror of 1937-38 and is more than 70% of the 3.3 million Soviets, mostly Ukrainians, starved in the Collectivization campaign of the Soviet Union of 1932-33. (Figures are Snyder, in “Numbers and Terms.”)

Moreover, the numbers citied for the American Civil War do not include the appalling suffering of African-Americans after the Civil War, suffering that was a direct consequence of slavery. It should also be remembered that Communism, including Stalinism, was a demented attempt to create a workable future for Russia because its Tsarist past was largely garbage. The cause of the American Civil War was the South’s insistence that some human beings be allowed to own other human beings. Yet our understanding of our Civil War is sanitized nearly beyond recognition: we have never really come to terms with the war in the West, the appalling suffering of newly-freed slaves and the near-immediate campaign of Southern whites to reimpose conditions on African-Americans that might best be described as serfdom. Some states still have the Confederate stars and bars, a banner of treason in an evil cause, as part of their state flag and “heritage.” Without mentioning three hundred years of Indian wars, or the horrendous destruction we let loose upon Southeast Asia, we have turned America’s episodes of madness into entertainment and psychobabble.

While there has been some serious historical examination of American insanity, that examination is not part of our canon—more Americans have probably seen and heard of John Wayne’s The Green Berets than have read Loren Baritz’ Backfire. Instead, America’s madness—and the huge number of bodies it, like any other nation, stacks when it goes mad—is nothing more than a cause of non-binding self-flagellation for most of the Americans inclined to attempt to understand these parts of our history, a source of unearned moral superiority. Most American opposition to our disastrous war in Iraq was not about Americans reasserting their citizenship and their right to demand that the Senate, and the Senate alone, could declare and commit the nation to war. The Anti-Iraq War movement was about people feeling good about themselves, nothing more elevated. (My husband was a conservative who lost his job for his kind of adult, serious opposition.)

The result is that not only does America not realize that it is living within sight of an abyss, with tens of millions of people out of work and tens of millions more with no realistic hope for a stable, satisfying career that allows them to live in dignity and comfort while contributing to their own society, American politics are not equal to America’s situation. The right is stuck with its own viciousness, the left a disorganized coalition of activists in search of unearned moral superiority as much as social and economic justice.

I find the greatest flaw in Snyder’s book, which is necessarily limited in time and geographic scope, is that it does not address the coarsening of societies through mass violence. The enormous scope of Russian losses during the First World War that led to the Revolution and the horrendous Civil War that followed coarsened Russians, who had a lower cultural level than Germans—themselves coarsened by World War One and their own nascent civil war that followed. You subject people to enough violence and what was once unthinkable becomes ordinary; people become coarsened and their souls intincted by violence. Some shut down; others, while remaining functional, even superbly competent, are also quite insane. Stalin himself was as insane as any senior (and perhaps not-so-senior) Soviet of his era, but he was considerably more intelligent than most of his comrades. Above all, Stalin understood how to use their common madness better than his peers and near-peers. When your nation’s past has produced nothing but garbage for quite a long time, insanity can look quite rational. Unsere letzte Hoffnung: Hitler.

The United States tolerates far more violence than we like to think, and this violence is not just gun violence. It is our rising suicide rate, our incredible tolerance of homelessness, of prostitution and pornography—all of which vomit out mountains of corpses; the use of nuisance ordinances to evict women attempting to prosecute domestic violence; the military’s tolerance of rape and predilection for retaining rapists and discharging their victims; the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year from preventable causes due to lack of basic medical care. It is the on-going attempts to deny women contraception and access to abortion in order to force them to bear children, and the only adequate term for forced pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood is slavery. And all of this violence has its defenders: those who make money off the porn and the prostitution and the warping of medicine from a profession into a consumer good, from housing as a basic right to a speculative investment by big institutions, to those who prefer women to be a safety valve for absolutely justified male rage and anger and hurt and humiliation—all of which are shared by American women—as well as those who just think that women are there for their sexual usage. There is also the violence of our immigration system: those who come to American, with or without legal documents, seeking a better life, have their hopes and dreams and aspirations used to expand the pool of desperate workers and depress American wages.

In 1986, the group David + David released their Boomtown album with these lyrics from the song “Heroes”:

Fifteen long years on a losing streak

And a lot of bodies unburied

And there comes a time

When you cannot turn the other cheek

The date on that was pretty good, because by 1971 it was clear that America had serious problems: except for 1973 and 1975, the US has run trade deficits every single year since 1971. Our politics have yet to equal our problems, in no small part because Americans do not demand serious politics. Indeed, we are a fundamentally unserious people. We prefer the right-wing politics of national exceptionalism and the left-wing politics of passive-aggressive temper tantrums and ideological purity. We have escaped serious violence until now because of many factors, one of which is that with all their human flaws and failings, Americans are very often the people or the descendants of people who came here to escape the cruelties of their ethnic and national pasts. But eventually time will run out for America: the Devil makes work for idle hands and above all, idle brains. Tens of millions of Americans are being told they are useless and worthless to their society. Eventually, they will take action against that. We are already seeing sparks of action in Europe. America and Europe today do not have to go mad in ways that parallel the madness of other countries, or even their own past, to do horrendous damage when and if they go mad again.

America desperately needs a politics of standards. We don’t need ideology. Ideology—the ideology of free-market capitalism, and a leftist ideology seemingly more interested in doctrinal squabbles than creating a coherent, humane alternative to capitalism—got us here. Besides, ideals have a habit of being transformed into altars upon which sacrifices are offered. Instead, America needs a politics of standards, a single humane standard by which every American can be judged and measured and treated, a standard to which we hold our government, a standard by which all of us have the right to live.

As for Bloodlands, which is a glimpse, no more, certainly not a mirror, of where America’s—and Europe’s—failed politics can lead us, it is a terrific book, an important new way of looking at and a better understanding of the greatest concentrated violence of the 20th Century.

 

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What President Putin Can Teach Us About Citizenship

There is only one real standard by which a national leader can be judged: did you leave your country better than you found it? By that standard, President of the Russian[i] Federation Vladimir V. Putin was, along with Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, one of the great leaders of the 20th Century. Khrushchev exhibited enormous physical and moral courage in initiating his country’s long, slow, very painful recovery from Stalinism. Putin took control of Russia when President Boris N. Yeltsin’s policies had brought it to the brink of an abyss such as America has not looked into since the aftermath of our Civil War. He has managed to more-or-less end a simmering war in Chechnya and stabilize his country. But stability within sight of an abyss is no way for a country to live, and so Kremlin-watchers have always wondered what Putin’s second-tenure agenda might be.

We now have an idea.

On 12 December, Putin delivered the President of Russia’s Annual Presidential Address, outlining priority targets for national political and economic development. Analysis of the speech was minimal and very superficial in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, to the point that even though the reporters use recognizable quotes and talking points from the speech, you have to wonder if they even read the thing. (You should, even though it is 11,000 words.) For it is a speech that in its broad outlines any serious American politician would have been proud to give, did he hold his audience in any respect.

It is always possible that this is the completely cynical speech of an utterly corrupt man who will say and do anything to achieve and keep power. But I doubt it. And this is why.

Within the first ten short paragraphs, Putin refers to two individuals by name, references which should have sent any responsible journalist running off to Wikipedia, asking Who are these people? The first name is of Soviet historian, ethnologist and anthropologist Lev N. Gumilev. Lev spent most of the years between 1938 to 1956 for the son of the poets Nikolai S. Gumilev, murdered on 25 August 1921, on the completely fabricated charge of participating in a monarchist conspiracy, and his ex-wife Anna A. Akhmatova. The second person Putin quotes is the writer Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn served 8 years in the gulag and during the Brezhnev years was subject to intense KGB pressure, culminating in the seizure of his drafts and a botched assassination attempt. He was awarded the Nobel for literature in 1970 and deported from the Soviet Union and stripped of his citizenship in 1974. (He returned to Russia in 1994 and was buried there with honor in 2008.) These references are not tainopis, or secret writing: any half-cultured Russian high school student knows this history.

Putin was a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, the direct, lineal descendent of the NKVD and the Cheka, the secret police of Stalin and before him Lenin that inflicted such harm on Russia during its madness, while the KGB did its own damage under Brezhnev. For such a man to mention those two writers there in the equivalent of a State of the Union speech, is to acknowledge the role your organization played in your country’s madness and all the horror and human waste that followed from that madness. In that context, one of the few positive points of the speech is a mention that the Russian population is finally starting to grow, that births are finally starting to exceed deaths. This has a cultural meaning Americans don’t really grasp. It means that Russians are starting to turn away from all the death and suffering of their recent past. It means that Russians, especially women, believe their children might have a future. It means that more Russian women are finding more Russian men worth breeding from. In Russia. Here in America, a Republican party that supposedly believes in human freedom has attempted to force American women to bear children by resisting equal pay for equal work and restricting women’s access to abortion and contraception. Putin’s policy recommendation to increase female fertility is better, more flexible jobs for women and more and better child care: in short, to increase women’s life options. And he isn’t very subtle in his call for Russians, particularly middle-aged men, to stop killing themselves out of self-pity, which is what eating, drinking, drugging and smoking yourself to death amounts to.

The speech is neither an anti-American rant nor a paean to his past accomplishments at stabilizing a country in chaos. It is a sober, straightforward speech that lays out what Russia will have to do to survive. “Either right now we can open up a lifelong outlook for the young generation to secure good, interesting jobs, to create their own businesses, to buy housing, to build large and strong families and bring up many children, to be happy in their own country, or in just a few decades, Russia will become a poor, hopelessly aged (in the literal sense of the word) country, unable to preserve its independence and even its territory.” That last word means: China. American meddling in Russian internal affairs is an annoyance, an affront to national pride and self-respect. Chinese meddling is a matter of life and death, of territorial integrity and national survival.

When Putin says that “Russia’s unity, integrity and sovereignty are unconditional” he is not particularly referring to the rags of Chechen and Dagestani separatist movements. He is speaking of the Russian Far East: Russia and China fought a border war in 1969 and neither country has forgotten it. Although President Obama would do well to steal Putin’s words, “Any manifestations of separatism and nationalism must be completely removed from the political agenda,” and use those in a speech to Americans. We’ve been there once, we don’t need to go there again and those who propose doing so are not engaged in civilized dialogue.

Speaking of civilized dialoque, Putin says, “Civilised dialogue is possible only with those political forces that make, justify and articulate their demands in a civilised way, defending them in compliance with the law. The change and modernisation of the political system are natural and even necessary, but I have said in the past that it would be inadmissible to allow for the destruction of the state to satisfy this thirst for change.”[ii] This is not a man who says: shut up. This is a man who says, speak like a citizen, in words of meaning and dignity. It is one of Russia’s tragedies that with all the ways Russians now have to communicate with each other and its great literary history, it is a long and graceless distance from Akhmatova to Pussy Riot. And when Putin concludes his words on civilized dialogue by saying, “The whole history of Russia screams about it,” he is saying, we are not going back to people dying screaming. Not even in the name of political change and modernization.

It is a fact that the collapses of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union happened at a time of increasing liberalization. And you don’t have to hold a brief for either the Tsar or the Premier Gorbachev to understand that those consequences had very real, very bad consequences for a lot of human beings who deserved better. Like the collapse of the Kerensky government, the collapse of the Soviet Union was an unmitigated catastrophe. Everything that should have happened—Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe, the independence of the Baltic Republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and renegotiation of the status and boundaries of the former Soviet Republics (except for the Baltic Republics and Georgia, they are now loosely organized into the Commonwealth of Independent States)—could have happened without the collapse of the Soviet state. When the state collapsed, whole industries vanished, people lost their entire life savings, life expectancy fell due to the collapse of the medical system, as well as people drinking and drugging themselves to death in despair. A massive upsurge in organized crime cost more lives through contract murders and human trafficking, as did a vast increase in disorganized crime—and tolerance thereof—such as street crime and domestic violence. There was also serious ethnic violence ranging from pogroms to border wars.

Few Americans know or care about this. We were too busy congratulating ourselves on the Soviet Union’s collapse. America always maintained that it wasn’t anti-Russian, it was only anti-Communist. And if Russia ever got rid of that damned Communism, we could be friends. Well, they did—and we were very pleased to see them humiliated, powerless, on the verge of famine, an object of our pity and scorn. Western financial institutions also served as a conduit for the wholesale looting of Russian resources.

Putin knows all this. He also knows that—all the screeching by conservative commentators aside—in Western Europe, Marxism helped create the welfare state but the attempt to import Marxism into Russia led to the Gulag, the famines, the purges. The issue, then, was not Marxism but Russia: Putin may love Russia and Russian culture very much, but even a child’s understanding of Russian history leads one to realize that as Solzhenitsyn himself once very uncharacteristically admitted, this wolf comes from our own blood. One significant reason for Russia’s descent into Communist madness was that while it was liberalizing before the First World War, serfdom’s very long, slow abolition, the power of the nobility and the collusion of the Russian Orthodox Church with the nobility meant that its intellectual and material culture was very low. A good education, sincere appreciation for genuine beauty and a life of material dignity will prevent an awful lot of moral trouble and those were missing from the broad base of Russian society, urban or rural. Add to that cultural background Russia’s dreadful losses during World War One and the savagery of the Civil War, and you have a recipe for catastrophe. That much killing and suffering coarsens and brutalizes people—in any culture. And it takes a long time for that culture to recover.

So any attempt to modernize and liberalize Russia means that Russia has to look within itself, cultivate its best and deal with its worst: it can borrow from other cultures and political systems for its own use but those any cultural borrowings must be viewed through the prism of its culture. Russia cannot be a cheap knock-off of America; these years, America these years is a cheap knock-off of our past and what we could be in the future and it’s been very bad for us; our model would be an unmitigated catastrophe for Russia. In her New York Times op-ed, “Backtracking in Russia,” Lyudmilla Alexeyevna—who is the grand old woman of Russia’s human rights movement—writes, “I am absolutely certain they mean to send a signal across the country that we should all re-grow our forgotten Soviet instincts of fear and wariness of foreigners.” But as much harm as foreign invasions and financial institutions have done to Russia, and as great a threat as China poses to Russia, one significant concern any half-decent Russian president must have is the real harm Russians have done to other Russians—including in the aftermath of Communism. While China in particular would be ready to exploit that harm. A little fear of that is wise, prudent, humane.

The means Putin says he is choosing to modernize and liberalize Russia are, in the context of recent American history, conservative. It is an article of faith in political science that a large-broad-based middle class is the key to democracy. It has long been gospel in the Republican Party that education, hard work and home ownership made people more conservative, natural Republican voters. Putin says he want to greatly expand the Russian middle class by creating some 25 million good jobs and making decent housing affordable to people of average and below-average means. He also wants to strengthen Russia’s educational system by supporting “the revival of provincial intelligentsia [“doctors, teachers, university educators, workers in science and culture”], which was once Russia’s professional and moral backbone.” He is, in short, proposing to make good education and a materially dignified life widely available to average Russians, including in Russia’s vast and often poor provinces.

This is not about creating a new Soviet man. This is about raising the standards by which Russians treat each other and live. This is about creating a broad, deep foundation for a serious civil society upon which a democracy can be built. And for that reason, Putin explicitly proposes moving away from Russia’s current extractive economy: “A lopsided raw materials economy, as has been pointed out on many occasions, is not just vulnerable to external shocks. Most importantly, it does not allow for developing and putting to adequate use human potential; it is incapable of giving most of our people the opportunity to make use of their strengths, talents, labour and education, which means, by definition, that it breeds inequality.”

So far, I’ve pulled quotes from the speech in a rather linear manner. Now to loop back to the second way Putin proposes to build this civil society.

He says that ordinary Russians must make common cause against “poor government efficiency and corruption”: “Public opinion must become the main criterion for assessing the effectiveness of state bodies that provide public services as well as institutions in the social sphere.”

A model of bureaucratic reform is laid out, reform that includes “limiting the rights of state officials and politicians [as well as “their immediate families”] to hold foreign accounts, stocks and shares” while “the ownership of foreign real estate…must be declared in accordance with the law, and the official must submit a report on the cost of the property and the origin of the funds used to purchase it.”

Not only did Putin provoke a number of small heart attacks with that statement, he earned a number of deadly enemies. He proceeds to make more when he spoke of reducing the number of people exercising regulatory oversight, introducing public reports by oversight agencies, and “monitoring the expenditures and major acquisitions of civil servants, executives of state companies and their close relatives”. He did not even need to discuss tax reform and reversing the off-shoring of Russia’s economy, although he does. The sums at stake are worth killing over.

Generally speaking, sane politicians do not make the number of deadly enemies Putin acquired with those passages, in order to score cheap political points. To read this speech is to enter the realm of meaningful language: Russia is not America, where we can say anything we want, provided it is sufficiently outrageous. And there are a lot of things you can call Putin—ruthless, cynical, perhaps not a nice man the way Americans wish to be nice—but stupid and naive are not two of them.

And yet the reactions to this speech have been—demonstrations. One of the leaders has been Aleksei Navalny, who founded the website Roszkh, which simplifies the process of complaining about the wretched maintenance of the public areas of apartment buildings. (In America, these areas would be covered by home owner’s association fees and while Russians also pay fees to maintain them, these areas are public, state, property. The flats themselves are private property.) As Mr. Navalny likes to point out—and quite rightly—this means that broken light bulbs and the like are the problems of United Russia, Putin’s party. (Source here.) His website has helped significantly improve building maintenance in the few weeks it has been in operation and Putin devoted an entire paragraph to this: “Active civic participation and effective public monitoring are necessary conditions for effectively fighting corruption. Today, many citizens are already building a system of public control at the municipal level on their own initiative, including for the housing and utilities sector. We are obligated to support this this type of attitude. Just recently, the day before yesterday, we spoke on this topic at a meeting with election campaign activists.”

In American terms, this is the equivalent of inviting Navalny to attend the State of the Union speech, then telling his story: it’s not an olive branch, it’s an entire wreath of olive branches. To quote Navalny: “We are trying to attract people who can fight corruption together with us…It’s clear that an ordinary person has a hard time helping us fight corruption at Gazprom [the big state energy company]…[b]ut unfortunately in Russia, corruption surrounds a person everywhere. We are trying to create a mechanism for people to fight corruption themselves.”

The problem is that corruption cannot be fought with demonstrations. It has to be fought the way Navalny himself is doing: the daily pressure of ordinary people on other ordinary people to do the right thing, one thing at a time. It’s not sexy, it’s not glamorous, it takes energy and drive and determination and sometimes shouting at people. It is not only refusing to take bribes, it is refusing to pay bribes. Or as was quoted in the article liked to above, “People long ago stopped coming to these because of euphoria,” said Zhenya Devyatkina, 30. Instead they show up now out of a sense of duty, she said, “sort of like going to work.”

But that is what government is: work, not euphoria. Especially the work that goes into the constant refusal to accept—or pay; this cannot be stressed enough—bribes. And if people were to take Putin’s speech seriously, “opposition bloggers” like Navalny—a real estate lawyer—would be out of a job in the sense of, they couldn’t mug for cameras. They might have a real job, running a serious department of civil servants—but that’s a different thing altogether. Or to quote Chekov, Any idiot can meet a crisis, it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.

When Putin delivered this particular speech, he was operating on the premise that a lot of Russians would be willing to face the day-to-day living. Might be cynical enough and compromised enough and tired enough of corruption to find the day-to-day, wearing-out of integrity a way to recover themselves and begin the process not of stabilizing their country—that has been done—but making their country and their lives what they ought to be. We do not know. Pundits risk little—and doubt it not, Putin risked his life when he made that speech. People died for far less in the Yeltsin years. In other words, for all the work Putin had to do—the gathering of resources, the making of alliances, the deal-making—just in order to be able to deliver that speech and have a chance of implementing it, his agenda has no hope without widespread, day-to-day support by average Russians. Putin may realistically think he can bank on that support, he may think it’s a risk he can survive, he may be straight-out gambling, but there is no serious media coverage of Russia for us to be able to estimate that.

We only know two things.

The American left, when it thinks of Putin at all, does not like him: he is too tough, too plain-spoken to go down easy. He stabilized his country within sight of an abyss, prevented Chechnya from breaking away, brought Russian organized crime under some measure of control, and reestablished the Russian state. These are not the accomplishments of a saint or anyone likely to ever be admitted to their communion. Also, he’s just a tiny little bit arrogant. While the American right hates him because—for all the unsavory things implicit in those accomplishments—he is not a monster. He just might be the best tsar Russia has ever had, determined to bring his country into the modern world as part of civilization.

There’s a third thing we know about this speech. It’s worth reading, highlighting the parts that apply to America, and sending to our elected representatives. Because its subject is: how to create a democracy of citizens from a nation that has been through the depths.

 


[i] Throughout this essay, I use the term Russia or Russian in several ways. The first is to refer to the Russian federation and before that the Russian empire—or a resident of the Federation or that empire, regardless of actual ethnicity. In that sense, I also refer to the Soviet Union as a Russian state because it was not only the successor to the Russian Empire, but also very Russian in terms of the dominant ethnicity.

[ii] All spellings are in the original, using British rather than American English.

Netanyahu, Israel and President Obama’s Re-Election

With his crude political support of a personal friend and his attempts to badger the President of the United States into a war with Iran, Prime Minister Netanyahu has deeply damaged the American-Israeli relationship. Yes, many things at the working level will proceed, but at the higher level, one can only suspect that the President does not want Prime Minister Netanyahu in America’s national house. And with good reason. Prime Minister Netanyahu committed the cardinal sin of a national leader: he confused what he wanted and what would benefit him with the good of his country. L’etat, c’est moi! is how a Persian-Israeli sabra friend who is “Likud and love(s) Bibi” described him to me.

There are deep, old ties between Israel and the United States: an enormous amount of two-way traffic and business between the countries, and many Israelis have a great and real love for America. However, on a national level, Israelis have also tended to look at America as Uncle Sugar, not because American aid is so generous (it’s not) but because so many Israelis have lived or travelled in America (often before moving back to Israel), worked hard, made good, and sent money and gifts back to family and friends in Israel.

The result is that Israelis tend to think of Israel as the 51st state, forgetting that Israel is not, that Israelis generally don’t vote in American elections unless they are dual nationals, and that they also generally don’t pay US taxes.

What Israelis don’t do is understand the United States. Worse, they think they do. And much worse, when Americans try to explain America to Israelis, they run into the Israeli attitude of, If we don’t know it, it’s not worth knowing. Their attitude is, we live in a tough neighborhood. Which is true: look at Syria and shudder. And at least that’s in a civil war with real-world power at stake. Look at Egypt, where as girls, most women were and are still mutilated expressly to deny them sexual pleasure so that men with few real-world options can lord it over them, and tremble. Syria and Egypt’s political brutality and the domestic sadism from which it springs and in which it is embedded is more-or-less the norm in the Arab world. While Israel is largely populated by the immediate descendants of people who were driven out of communities they had lived in for generations, often centuries, and in the case of the North African and Arab exiles, for millennia. Indeed, Israel is the only country on earth whose existence is debated and people express the opinion that it would somehow be a good thing to destroy a nation of some seven million human beings. Scratch an Israeli and tremendous pain wells up; it ought to be the cruelest country on earth, and it isn’t even close. Yet all of this is an explanation, not an excuse for Israeli ruthlessness, self-centeredness and coarseness. That is because Israel is a minor power and could easily become one of the most remarkable countries on the planet. When you aspire to play in the big leagues, you need to behave according to big league rules.

One of those rules is: one country does not owe another country a war. Certainly great powers do not owe client states wars: and Netanyahu reduced Israel to the status of a client state when demanding that America make war upon Iran on Israel’s behalf; in the past, Israel has always insisted upon fighting its own wars. Let alone when that great power is trying to extricate themselves from two other wars that have wrecked its economy and military. Above all, a great power that has rejected religious messianism as the basis for national policy does not owe a client leader a war so he can continue to pursue religious-based messianic policies. Even if that great power owes Iran some serious payback in an undeclared war waged since 1979.

And no country should ever be in haste to go to war. War should only ever be a last resort, when advocates of war put all and every one of their cards on the table in a transparent fashion—the how, the why, the when, the means in troops and material and funding as well as the opportunity costs of those lives and that money, the ends, the threats, the reasons the threats can’t be contained. The national leader who says, “Can’t tell you. National security. Classified.”, who is any less than completely, entirely forthcoming and honest should be permanently stripped of all creditability. The wreckage, the waste, the callous, unforgivable loss caused by America in Southeast Asia and now in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the sheer deceit and national self-delusion that attended those wars should serve as a profound warning to anyone who is tempted to roll the iron dice and engage in a war of choice—no matter how deliberately provoked.

America is in the process of deciding what country it wants to be; to a significant extent Americans contemplated an ultra-religious agenda on Election Day and said, No. You’re ugly, mean and ignorant, and those are your good points. This is a problem for Israel because Netanyahu has helped turn good relationships with Israel from a bipartisan consensus into the province of America’s ultra-religious, just as his coalition partners in Israel are largely the ultra-religious, and Netanyahu is known to have few, if any, limits in satisfying them.

Now, facing their own January elections, Israelis find themselves in the position of Americans. What do they want their country to look like? Is Israel to be the plaything of the ever-fewer and richer, its policies based upon old stories and myths, when slavery was acceptable and half the population was the sexual and reproductive property of the other half? What is its role in the world and yes, in the occupied territories? Will it continue to tolerate the states within the state that are subject to different laws than secular Jews? The Israeli left, like the American left, needs to begin to create a serious, coherent philosophy to govern their country, and the Israeli (and American) left needs to do so without sneering at people who disagree with them because they genuinely fear for themselves and the future of their country.

As Israelis ponder these questions, it would be well for them to remember two things. In the end, the survival of Israel—and of the Middle East generally—does not depend on the existence of the Palestinian state that Israel is helping to create on the West Bank, or who controls the last few square kilometers under dispute.

America has problems of its own and it is going to take America some time to get right with itself. To the extent that America needs to get right with itself, the Israeli-Palestinian issue serves as a distraction from issues that America does not wish to talk about, such as Chinese influence in American political and economic institutions. (Americans also fail to understand that a lot of Palestinians and other Arabs don’t want a two-state solution and are prepared to kill Palestinians and other Arabs who do.)

Like America, Israel has serious problems that it needs to resolve, and until Israelis get right with themselves about such issues as the structure of the economy and the role of religion in public life, they aren’t going to be able to get right with the Palestinians, either, presuming the Palestinians want a two-state solution, which is extremely questionable. To the extent that Israel needs to get right with itself, Iran and other related security questions are deliberately used to distract Israelis from the even more important issue: how do we wish to live? Who do we wish to be?

Israelis for Obama

Prime Minister Netanyahu has deeply damaged the relationship between America and Israel. His attitude is that America owes Israel a war with Iran, and to get that war, a war many respected Israeli security professionals are deeply opposed to, he has politicized Israeli-American ties, making them the province of America’s ultra-religious. No American, which I am, can avoid the feeling that Prime Minister Netanyahu believes America owes Israel a war against Iran. (In the past when Israel has attacked Arab nuclear sites, it has done so at least as much on behalf of the larger world, especially the Arab world, as on its own.)

Yet Israelis, which I also am, cherish their country’s ties to America. Being overwhelmingly secular, trust the religious right about as much as they can throw the Kotel, and are really reluctant to rush into war with Iran. So why is Netanyahu being allowed to carry on like a messianic warmonger?

The first is that going all the way back to Ben Gurion, there have been no real alternatives on the Israeli political scene. For decades, Ben Gurion isolated, marginalized and drove out of the country every possible successor. He confused himself with the country, doing damage at the time, and leaving as a legacy a profoundly warped and stunted political life. Israeli politicians tend to stay in power until they are carried out; Menachem Begin, one of the few first-class politicians Israel has produced, was also one of the few to retire when he realized he was no longer adequate to the task of governing. Today, Israelis do not see a viable alternative to Netanyahu.

Second, Mr. Adelson, a prominent Republican backer, owns an Israeli newspaper, Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today) that is given away for free, doing tremendous harm to the Israeli newspaper industry. I will allow others to speculate about his political influence in Israel and America. But he does have it, and not for the better.

Israelis do worry about Iran: many Israelis are the children and grandchildren from the 800,000 Jews who were expelled from the Arab world when Israel in the aftermath of Israeli independence, often with little more than the clothes on their backs. Palestinians, by contrast, tended to leave Israel more-or-less voluntarily because they expected Arab armies to do their fighting for them. Incidentally, this is one of the things Israelis don’t like to talk about: it is very painful. Israel likes to pretend that Arab Jews came here voluntarily, because they were Zionists. They had about as much choice as the European Jews who survived but were unable to return home. Israelis were European once, just as they were Arab, and the exile from that culture hurts too.

However, Israelis also know that if Israel—or for that matter anyone else—attacks Iran, Iran will hit back, including through its proxies of Hezbollah and Hamas. Every square centimeter of Israel is within rocket range, so the first thing Israel will have to do is use fuel-air-explosives on rocket-launch sites such as Lebanese caves. And then Israel will have to get really nasty. Needless to say, Israelis don’t want to do this. They have lived through a lot of wars; they would simply like to be a normal country. More often than not, Israelis would like to live in some kind of alliance with the Palestinian state that is—far too slowly and messily and painfully—being created. Chiefly by Israel, in fact, with a lot of help from America and Russia and not enough help from Palestinians. And, needless to say, much less from other Arab states.

Another thing Israelis don’t talk about is how familiar they are with the fact that Arabs kill each other with enthusiastic cruelty. Most of Israelis don’t particularly want to add to that—and that includes an awful lot of Israeli soldiers. The line, The world’s most moral army, is a myth—but it is also a myth that many Israelis cherish very deeply and try to live up to. To this day, there is enormous bitterness and disgust about the Lebanon War and Israeli tolerance of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila—even though those massacres were payback by Lebanese Christians, not Israeli Jews, for Palestinian massacres of other Lebanese Christians.

There’s a final thing Israelis don’t talk about, and that is that old, wise Israeli saying, We will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East—or the third. You could say that Israelis don’t talk about this because they are still subject to censorship, and talking about nuclear weapons is a real red line in Israel. But that is because it is so serious. Israel has one use for nuclear weapons and one use only, and that use is not rhetorical brandishing and threatening. Israelis have lived through the Holocaust—which is ancient history, even here, except when it is, say, your grandmother, as it was a friend’s, or the neighbor, who–sincerely—compliments you on your German manners. They have lived through the destruction of their ancient communities and witnessed the world’s indifference to genocide since. They know the world cares about what happens to Israel about as much as it cared about what happened in Rwanda, or Bosnia, or Cambodia. So there is a national resolution about survival, but it’s nothing they brag or boast about, nothing Israelis are proud of.

As for what Israelis think about Bibi Netanyahu, rather recently HaAretz, the big liberal paper in Israel, and perhaps the most dignified, published an op-ed describing Bibi’s willingness to satisfy his ultra-religious coalition partners in coarse English that cannot be repeated with any decency. A friend of mine swears she loves Bibi but when I asked her if she would buy anything from him, laughed. “I’m not crazy! she told me. “L’etat, c’est moi!” was how she described Netanyahu’s opinion about himself.

Israelis know what Netanyahu is: a problem. They just don’t know what to do about him.

And that is why this Israeli will be supporting President Obama during his reelection campaign.

Because—neither—America—nor Israel—need Presidents or Prime Ministers who wage either class warfare against their own people or wars of choice against foreign powers. And yes, because the example America sets in the world still matters. We were once a great force for good in the world. We can be again. Just as Israel—endangered and grief-haunted as it is, is a startlingly decent place in a very ugly neighborhood—but it can and should do better. And neither country will be able to do so if Mr. Romeny becomes president.

Knitting on 2mm Needles

Almost everyone who begins a craft also begins with a long list of things we won’t do because we think they’re too hard.

When I originally began knitting back in the early 90s, my very first project was a sweater and my second was a vest with cables and moss stitch; my third–I think by Reynolds/JCA, which had superb patterns!—had cabled sleeves; and then I quit when my ex-husband displayed no interest in the sweater I wanted to make him. Fast-forward some ten years, and I began again, this time with a long list of things I wouldn’t do. Seam. Cables. Lace. Colorwork. Also, no charts. I knit in a very awkward, inefficient style which limited my abilities. Basically, the only thing I would do was knit in endless circles from the top down or bottom up. I would do a bit of ribbing. But I chose to master a new technique with every new project—including, rather shortly, teaching myself a far more efficient style, as well as learning to read charts. Both skills make practically any complex pattern far more doable.

Now, I regard charts (which used to scare me) as the most incredible visual shorthand because charts are no more than a picture you compare your work to so you can instantly see your mistakes. And five years, one Shetland shawl and (long before that) a colorwork project that would have been far easier and cost no more had I decided to knit Henry VIII by Alice Starmore later, I find myself knitting a pattern on 2 mm needles. (As a knitter, I speak metric to simplify calculations and because US, UK and Japanese needles have widely different numbering systems: a 3 mm needle is a UK 11, a Japanese 3, and a US 3 is 3.25 mm.)

The garment pattern is Elizabeth of York by Alice Starmore from her out-of-print book Tudor Roses. This is a long vest in beadwork, which is the use of knit and purl stitches in the same row to create texture, just as lace is the use of decreases and increases to create void and structure. The pattern calls for a gauge of tension of 28 stitches by 48 rows per 10 cm square, or 1344 stitches per square. One stitch is about 1.4 x .83 millimeters. I am using both a finer yarn and smaller needles than the pattern calls for to get the gauge measurements it calls for. I am still uncertain if the yarn I am using is right for this pattern: it’s a cotton-wool-angora-cashmere-viscose blend, a pleasure to work with in a beautiful color, but it’s not as crisp and defined as perhaps the pattern deserves. So I hesitate each time I knit a row. This slows me down—and yet the gauge swatch I knit bloomed into something like cut velvet. Incidentally, if you covet a copy of Tudor Roses but can’t justify its prices, wait, unless you’ve got a friend with a copy he’d like to sell: the current word is that Tudor Roses will be reprinted with reknit samples for modern yarns in about a year and a half. I purchased my copy in a knitter-to-knitter sale that while still expensive in terms of what it will cost when it is reprinted, was far cheaper than anything hosted by Amazon.

These pictures are of the lower rear of the vest; stitches will be picked up along the interior edges a border matching the bottom will be worked and the mitered ends sewn to the existing fabric.

When you find yourself doing such work and thinking this level of effort is not demented but rational because it gives you the definition and detail you want, you realize that you are in another realm.

And that is the realm of the craftswoman. As a craftswoman, you understand that nothing you do is really difficult because each finished project is the culmination of dozens of different components, each of which are executed separately and are not terribly difficult. The end result may be maddeningly complex but each component is executed separately and sometimes one stitch at a time. Of course, no one enters this realm without effort and discipline: what my husband calls cow patience is required to create the beautiful and the excellent and the useful.

Entering this realm changes your view of the world to such a degree that malls become saddening. I was in Tel Aviv a few weeks ago and decided to walk to Ramat Aviv mall. I really liked the mosaic tiling around the low walls of the water garden although it was obvious where tiles that had fallen had been replaced with inadequate substitutes. And I noticed one spectacular fish amongst all the brilliant koi, its bronze scales overlaid by a green-black patina—such a beautiful color.

I went in looking for the possibility of craftwork and found a temple to overpriced consumption. I am sure that perhaps somewhere there was craftwork tucked away, but the closest I came to finding it was a spritz of Hermes’ wonderful Eau des Merveilles in a ridiculously overpriced cosmetics store.

It wasn’t the prices that bothered me. I spent 200 hours knitting my first Shetland shawl and would not accept less than $2000 for it—and even that is a ridiculously low price for extremely skilled labor. (Compared to sewing and weaving—even if you spin your own fiber—handknitting is enormously labor intensive.) It was the cheapness and shoddiness of the merchandise and the coarse vulgarity of the advertising that troubled me. The advertising did not say to me: come in, here there are beautiful, well-made things worthy of your money—which is the fungible equivalent of your time, of that period of your life you spent earning it. The advertising said to me, here, wear this and you’ll look hot, like these very young models and Nicki Minaj with her breasts spilling out of her dress, on all fours, while a pale male model loomed beside her holding a giant, uncapped tube of lipstick. Thank you, but even when I wear tight jeans, I neither look like that nor want to. I’m not meat and I won’t present myself as meat. No one should and no one should want to.

The clothing was a worthy accompaniment to the advertising. To say the clothing was expensive for the quality is to be kind. I have seen tunics for 300 shekels—about $75—that were printed after they were sewn into gathers around the neckline. It took no specialized knowledge to realize that: the fabric underneath the gathers was white, with the ink bleeding into them. (Ideally, you would structure both the print and the cutting and sewing so that the gathers would open the fabric and expose the fabric in a ground color or another print in a regular rhythm.) Seams were often uneven, and the cut often poor—while not everyone needs a long rise, nothing good can be said about low rises for anyone of either sex. This is what Israelis are told their money—and thus their lives—are worth. It would almost be acceptable if the goods were produced in Israel and Israel had a relatively flat socio-economic structure. Neither is true, of course, although to a far lesser extent than in America. Walk into Walmart and see the price we have sold our country for. I remember with longing the K-Mart blue light specials of my childhood, and the S&H Green Stamps with which I purchased fishing tackle, and the old ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union) tags on clothing I found in consignment stores, clothing I couldn’t possible wear because my figure was different but was nevertheless often beautiful and dignified and shockingly well-made. Most of all of this was made in America—which hasn’t run a trade surplus since 1975.

With the loss of these industries, the knowledge of how to actually create has also been lost: craftsmanship precedes technology, which precedes science. And along with the lost knowledge of creation, the knowledge of quality has been lost. When you are used to making something well, you are rarely fooled by glitter and sparklies and sequins and bright prints. They may be just the thing to ornament good work—but they do not substitute for it.

To set yourself the task of mastering a craft is to set yourself the task of learning how to create the useful, the beautiful, the excellent: to sustain and contribute to human civilization. But it is also to learn to see again: the beautiful, the useful, the necessary, the enduring, that should be there and is not.

Once you have this knowledge, it’s yours. You live with it, work with it and are cursed by it as well as blessed by it.

In a store at Ramat Aviv, I saw and wanted a short, elegant cape of knitted mink in a beautiful shade of grey. The sales woman wanted me to try it on and I refused for two reasons. I was sweating, but even more than that, I didn’t so much want to buy it so much as I wanted to make it, and I was wondering how I could get my hands on some fur yarn at reasonable prices. I also wanted to see the seams, and to see if I could do better.

There is no English word for this. The Spanish word aficionado comes close but it has implications of lightness, of unseriousness—not of longing.

About Gilad Shalit

An Israeli reader wrote me, “I wanted to ask what you think about Shalit deal. I don’t understand much in politics, but after reading and listening on TV to people, it seems a huge mistake. I am glad for Shalit and his relatives, but such decisions are about a whole country, not a single family. Do you understand Hebrew? (I read a good article that wanted to link). Can you write a post about it, please?”

In phonetic Hebrew, Clavim medibrim Ivrit yoter tov mimeni. Gam korim.

Then, in further correspondence, my reader wrote, “I would be interested what you think should be done in case of future Israeli captives. The one thing I don’t understand is the position of people, who were for Shalit deal, while saying that in case of future captives Israel should behave differently. Why not start this different behavior now, then? Is his blood redder than of future soldiers? And I am unfortunately 100% sure there will be future captives since the war won’t stop anytime soon.”

My initial—and lasting reaction—to the exchange for Shalit was, the price paid was too high. However, over the years, Israel has traded 13,509 prisoners for 16 soldiers. (As irrational as these one-sided prisoner exchanges are, they are preferable to the IDF’s obsession with recovering the bodies of dead soldiers, to the point of endangering living soldiers.)

However, listening to the Hamas entity (in Arabic) saying that they would take more Israelis captive to win the release of their fellow terrorists, I had a different reaction, along the following lines, which is not of course anything close to a policy statement.

You want the Palestinian prisoners? They’re yours, every single last one of them except for those who reject repatriation. We will not forcibly repatriate prisoners. But those whom we release are liable to be summarily executed should they come again to the attention of our security services. Nor in the future will we negotiate for our hostages. We should have taken Gaza apart seeking Sergeant Shalit during Operation Cast Lead, and in the future, that will be our response to such behavior. And we will do it again and again until you get tired of this nonsense.

We give you a choice. You, Hamas, can pick up the phone and recognize Israel and start dismantling your arsenal. We will lift the blockade as Egypt also recently did, and we can trade and you can get down to the business of making something of Gaza. Frankly, we would be delighted to help.

As for the West Bank, we will make the same deal. You want a Palestinian state? You’ve got it. We’ll do everything we can in our power to help you make something of it because frankly, we know what it is to be refugees. It is a simple fact that the Arab world would be delighted to see you continue to be refugees. We, on the other hand, are sick of it. But if you start a war or harbor those who do, we will annex parts of the West Bank and expel those who live there. And then who will take you in? The Jordanians did, and you gave them cause to regret it. Lebanon did, and you helped create a hideous civil war. Gaza? How many of you want to live under Hamas?

We Jews have learned to be builders. We would like you Palestinians to build, too. You need to make something of your lives. But if you want war instead, or simply to feel yourselves victims while victimizing others until it becomes another war—you can have that too. Whichever decision you make, we will honor it.

In the meantime, we’re returning some 6,000 prisoners to you between now and Passover. Figure out what to do with them and how to reintegrate them into society.

We have nothing more to say on the subject.

One of the things I realized, reading Begin’s The Revolt, is that part of the reason for the lasting Israeli Arab/Palestinian bitterness is not that there is no Arab state of Palestine, for there never was (unless you count Jordan, which is reasonable but that’s another story), but that the Jews did what they set out to do in those years of the first Aliyah. In the last years of the Mandate after World War Two, the Jews made the British give up and go away. The Arabs did not. I can’t think of any successful Arab anti-colonial movement with the possible exception of the Free Officers movement in Egypt. Certainly, they did not in Palestine: Begin writes of Arabs gathering around the detritus of Irgun and Haganah actions and thoughtfully considering the situation but doing little else. And then, having let the Israeli Jews drive out the British, the Israeli Arabs expected the other Arabs to do their fighting for them. In fact, during the War of Independence, the Arab armies encouraged Israeli Arabs to flee even from areas where there was no fighting and despite the fact that there was remarkably little Jewish pressure on them to leave. Very likely had the Arabs won the War of Independence, people like Mahmoud Abbas’ father would have returned to their pleasant homes (his was not a poor family) to hear something along the lines of, “an Arab Legion colonel lives here now.”

Lace as a Metaphor for Political Change

I just finished small scarf from some scrap cashmere for my husband’s doctor. While I was knitting it, I pondered the relationship between lace and politics, or at least the relationship that could exist.

When I speak of lace, I am not speaking of the trim you can buy at Wal-Mart, but of fine handmade lace, whether needle or bobbin, knitted or crocheted. And when we wear such things, we often stand straighter and behave with more dignity, imbued by the virtue needed to create or to appreciate such work. We also fear a great deal because we have given these pieces hostage to the clumsy, the careless, the genuine accident and the occasional act of malice. (Some are spurred to accomplishment by envy; others to destruction.) I suppose the same could be said of a good suit, whether one has ordered it made or bought it second hand and had it altered to fit. Clothes do not make us, but they do inform how others think of us—and how we think of ourselves.

In that sense, wearing lace (or a good suit) is something that the Occupy Wall Street movement needs to do. America is in the process of looking into the abyss. The old Cold War political compact has failed completely. It began to fail in the protest movement of the Vietnam era and has now been utterly shredded by corporate greed in a time of globalization. If on the one hand, Communists were seen lurking in every attempt to make America live up to its proclaimed ideals, whether by the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, or the gay rights movement, Communism was seen as the competition. Capitalism had to have something to offer the average worker, both theoretically and materially. When Soviet communism collapsed under its lunatic military spending, as well as the drinking that people used to cope with generations of very bad memories, American-style capitalism gradually ceased to believe it had to offer anything to American workers. We are now at the point that the average American has the same political worth that the average Soviet did during the Brezhnev era—and we are approaching the point that unemployed Americans will have far less human worth.

The true numbers will not be available until the 2020 census, but there is probably no one who does not know someone destitute. And when people have been destitute long enough, they die. They die by their own hand, or provoking someone else’s; they die of hunger and cold and untreated illness, of abusing drugs or alcohol. And there will be political violence: if there is one common theme in human history, it is when the gap between rich and poor is wide enough, the poor figure that if they’ve got nothing, they’ve got nothing to lose. Read Isaiah—after a lifetime of avoiding the Bible, I’m starting to read it—and you see that he is overwhelmingly concerned with what we call social justice. Sin as imagined impurity is really not on Isaiah’s radar screen.

America’s only hope is an organized, serious, cohesive third party that can target vulnerable seats, win them, and form a bloc of votes that the Democratic Party must take seriously. The time for protest movements that were about expressing yourself is long past—was long past during the run-up to the Iraq War. Four and a half years ago, I spoke atTulane University on (amongst other things) the need for a serious protest movement; the need is still there. The text of that speech does not reflect the fact that I was called a Nazi for saying that protest organizers should banish from their ranks those who did not dress and speak like serious adult citizens. (Sure, you can protest—but not with us. Get your own permits.)

The few photos I’ve seen of Occupy Wall Street protestors are disheartening depictions of self-indulgence. Self-expression is even more worthless as a form of political protest—which is to say, political participation leading to redress of grievances—than it was 10 years ago. Self-expression materially enabled the Bush Administration to go to war in Iraq, killed feminism, made the struggle for gay rights needlessly hard, and destroyed the armed wing of the civil rights movement. (Yes, leftist America, the civil rights movement survived because black men and a few black women armed themselves, and no, I’m not talking about the Blank Panthers—who were little better than criminals–I’m talking about the Deacons for Defense and Justice.)

We need people speaking with each other in words of meaning and dignity and reason about creating an economy that works for the bottom 99% of us, particularly the bottom 20%. And if dressing better than Americans are accustomed to—and by better, I do not mean more expensively, because there’s plenty of expensive shoddy clothing out there, but with more formality and dignity—helps us speak with and listen to each other as serious citizens, then we need to do so. You don’t have to make or wear lace to do so, any more than you have to wear a suit. But dressing like a mature, polished adult—rather than a slob or sexual meat—does help. And lace is actually an accurate symbol of civilization and citizenship: something made with infinite skill and patience, usually from material no more rare than silk (and usually linen, cotton or wool), often fragile, which until now has endured because of the care with which it has been treated. In that sense, lace is the antithesis of how we normally dress, and particularly adorn ourselves, which often degrades us.

The alternative to speaking and listening to each other as serious citizens trying to create a workable future is political violence, most likely serious violence. And it is always those with the least political power—on both sides of the divide—who suffer the most. It would be tragic for America and the world if yet another movement for absolutely necessary political, economic and social change in America disregarded the need for mature, dignified presentation to collapse into the indulgence of self-expression.

 

Clear Ideas for Difficult Times

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