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Last night I had the
All of America's wealthy,
conservative and safely belligerent pundits had been delivered by a
just and beneficent Almighty Power to a Palestinian refugee camp,
following the bulldozing of their homes--including vacation
homes--and the expropriation of all their possessions. Instead of
pontificating between beach walks and vodka tonics in Vineyard Haven,
these armchair bombardiers were treated to rivers of open sewage and
hopeless lives of beggary. Those who resisted were arrested, tortured
and selectively assassinated. Meanwhile, editorial pages across
America cheered the "restraint" of their tormentors.
extremely lengthy articles, the New York Times and The New
York Review of Books recently demonstrated beyond any doubt that
the Israelis (and the Americans) shared in the blame for the
breakdown of peace negotiations and ensuing cycle of violence that
now tragically appears to be engulfing the region. To the
punditocracy, however, these dispassionately argued, extensively
reported stories amounted to an existential insult of near biblical
proportions. Marty Peretz's New Republic published a vicious
attack on the articles by Robert Satloff, executive director of a
pro-Israel think tank. William Safire got so excited, he denounced
his own newspaper in a hysterical fit of ad hominemism: "Do not
swallow this speculative rewriting of recent events," he warned
readers. "The overriding reason for the war against Israel today is
that Yasir Arafat decided that war was the way to carry out the
often-avowed Palestinian plan. Its first stage is to create a West
Bank state from the Jordan River to the sea with Jerusalem as its
capital. Then, by flooding Israel with 'returning' Palestinians, the
plan in its promised final phase would drive the hated Jews from the
Mortimer Zuckerman, in his capacity as
chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American
Organizations, insisted, "This is just revisionist history.... There
is one truth, period: The Palestinians caused the breakdown at Camp
David and then rejected Clinton's plan in January." The baldest
comment came from the Zionist Organization of America's president,
Morton Klein: "Whether their account is accurate or not is
irrelevant.... I reject any discussion of what
In the wake of the suicide bombings, three
different Washington Post pundits demanded war three days in a
row. Michael Kelly, recently seen complaining about too many fatsoes
at the beach, advised the Israelis to unleash "an overwhelming
force...to destroy, kill, capture and expel the armed Palestinian
forces." The more moderate George Will called only for a "short war."
(Charles Krauthammer did not specify a length.) To read these
would-be warriors, you would think the Palestinians were summering in
Edgartown. A reader would never guess that a regional superpower is
carrying out a brutal military occupation, coupled with a settlement
policy that directly contravenes Article 49 of the Geneva Convention.
No one with any sense would argue that Arafat and his
corrupt cronies do not bear considerable responsibility for the
collapse of any hope of peace in the Middle East in the near future.
And suicide bombers against civilian targets in Israel are as
counterproductive as they are immoral (though those who settle in
occupied territory are knowingly putting themselves in harm's way and
hence share some responsibility when their families are forced to pay
for this fanaticism with their lives). Nevertheless, a conflict where
"our team" engages in terrorism, assassination and the apparently
routine torture of teenagers to defend a cruel and illegal occupation
is one in which neither side holds a monopoly on virtue.
Since a majority of Israelis supports a freeze in the
provocative practice of settlement-building, the mindless hysteria of
the American punditocracy must have other sources than mere logic.
It's dangerous to draw firm conclusions without any special knowledge
about the psyches of those involved, but much of the materially
comfortable American Jewish community has had an unhappy history of
defending the principle of Jewish sovereignty over captured
Palestinian lands right down to the death of the last Israeli.
Because of the sacrifices they demand of others, many American Jews
feel they must be holier than the Pope when defending Israeli human
rights abuses. The New Republic's Peretz is a particularly
interesting specimen. He reflexively defends everything Israel does
and routinely slanders its critics. Peretz, who owes his prominence
to money, in this case his (non-Jewish) wife's fortune--which allowed
him to purchase his magazine--has never published a single book or
written a significant piece of scholarship, reportage or criticism.
It's not hard to imagine that his self-appointed role as Israel's
American Torquemada--seen in his obsession with smearing the
world-renowned Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said--is
inspired as much by guilt and envy as by more rational motivations.
(I say this as a supporter of the peace process who has respectfully
disagreed with almost all Said has said about the conflict in recent
Whatever the reason, the net result is the same.
For a brief moment in recent history, when Israel had a government
that was dedicated to finding a way to make peace, the warrior
pundits were placed on the defensive and the Palestinians received a
reasonably fair shake from the nation's elite media. More recently, a
review of leading editorial pages by the ADL found that "the major
newspapers across the country are viewing the situation in the Middle
East in a realistic and objective manner." The authors of the study
helpfully defined their terms. To the ADL "realistic and objective"
means "critical of and hostile to Arafat...directly blaming him for
the continuing violence and creating a climate of hatred" along with
the dismissal of all Palestinian peace overtures as "calculated tools
for his goal of gaining further concessions from
In a rational world, the ADL report would at least
complicate efforts by Safire, TNR and others to charge the
media with "pro-Arab" and "anti-Israel" bias. Alas, I'm betting
US employers like Coca-Cola are implicated in Colombia's brutality.
It should surprise no one that the European revolutionaries are not inspired by the American dream. Nobody, after all, expected the fighters for national liberation in the post-Napoleonic era to cherish the memory of Metternich, and the United States is now a much mightier pillar of the new Holy Alliance for the preservation of the status quo. It intervenes, directly or by proxy, wherever the social order is threatened, from Taiwan to Greece to Guatemala. Whenever they are under attack, profit and privilege can rely on the forces of "freedom." In Vietnam the American bombers spell out for the local population the bloody message "Better dead than red." The Green Berets are ready to jump in order to rescue the ruling oligarchies of the banana and other republics of Latin America (though the profits of US companies are now better insured by training local troops for the struggle against "subversion"). Like a black knight in nuclear armor the United States Navy patrols the seas, proclaiming that no more social revolutions will be allowed, that China's in 1949 was the last to be tolerated, while the Cuban affair was simply a misunderstanding. The Vietnamese resistance aroused enthusiasm far from Hanoi and Saigon because it challenged American presumption and proved that human courage still counted even in the world of nuclear balance. The Tet offensive in 1968 drove Western students to action because it revealed that the enemy was not invincible. Che Guevara, alive or dead, was hailed as a symbol of solidarity, of the international nature of the anti-imperialist struggle.
The salesmen of the American dream, and they are legion in Europe, prefer to bypass this role of international gendarme, or to justify it in terms of domestic achievement. They point to the democratic niceties, to the civil liberties the United States can still afford. They stress even more the economic achievement, the technological lead, the intellectual investment that vast accumulation has rendered possible, the level of research and management, the high productivity--in short, the superior wealth of the nation; and they turn to the young revolutionaries with the rhetorical question: Can you dismiss the American model in spite of all this? The answer is not in spite of it but because of it. The most frightening prospect, the American nightmare, is that with so much wealth man should not be able to build a different kind of society. In fact, the Europeans are merely echoing the indictment of America's New Left which, instead of being dazzled by the moon, points to the dark side of American society; its inequality and racism, its collective poverty and private plenty, its derelict health services, its belated discovery of pollution and urban chaos--and to the system responsible for it all.
To its admirers, the United States has discovered the secret of perpetual motion for capitalism. Advertising, as a new dynamic method of sales promotion, is a way of getting rid of industrial surpluses superior to that of coffee burning in agriculture. Above all, with military expenditures absorbing, even in official figures, about one-tenth of the national product, the state has a powerful lever to direct the rhythm of output. Advanced capitalism differs from its predecessor. The vagaries of the cycle are less pronounced, unemployment is relatively smaller, growth comparatively more regular. This is not the place to discuss whether this post-Keynesian equilibrium, resting on a militarization of the economy unprecedented in peacetime, is stable and lasting. The painful discovery of America's rulers is that even while the going is good, the system runs into new contradictions. American expansion meets resistance at home, as well as abroad. The outsiders rebel. The hitherto passive blacks refuse to continue being pariahs in the alleged land of plenty. The growing movement of protest among students and the radical part of the intelligentsia is a symptom of something deeper--the clash between the direction to which the expansion of productive forces is geared and the social needs of our age.
The "consumer society" is a misnomer suggesting that at least, as regards consumption, the average citizen is the uncrowned King. Though his material conditions have in many ways improved beyond recognition, modern man is still an alienated producer and a highly conditioned buyer of goods, a dissatisfied purchaser of leisure and pleasure with very little control over his environment. A producer society, guided by industrial and commercial profit, would be a much more accurate description. That problems such as pollution and urban decay are tackled only when they become unbearable is in the logic of things. Modern capitalism has changed enough in method and manner to face up to the unprofitable when it is under pressure. But it has preserved its essence. Profit remains its ultimate driving force, and it is intrinsically unable to confront the collective or individual problems of our society from any other angle. Consciously or unconsciously, this is what the protest is really about.
The similarity of some of its manifestations on both sides of the Atlantic is quite natural. The Englishman, the Frenchman or the German traveling in the United States is less struck by contrasts than by resemblances. He has the strange impression of making a journey through his own country's more or less distant future. For the most political among them, however impressed they may be by the technological progress, it is a journey to night's end. They know that this is their inevitable prospect unless Europe can forge a different kind of society. The bitter controversies between "Europeans" and "anti-Europeans" are really irrelevant in this context. The conflict that has begun cuts across continental as well as national frontiers. The European protesters who look ahead are joining hands with America's New Left. In Western Europe the real division is between those who seek socialism and those who opt for the American model. "Et tout le reste est littérature." It was no accident if during the French May crisis the United States authorities trembled for the fate of Gaullism. They sensed, quite rightly, that the forces then launching the assault against Gaullism are the same that are waging the struggle against Europe's American future.
The conflict is now intercontinental, and so is the solidarity. Revolutionary "grouplets" across Western Europe used to look exclusively to the Third World, to the Vietnamese or the Latin American guerrillas fighting against imperialism from without. They are now also looking to America's young radicals, who are beginning to carry on the same struggle from within. By the same token, they have discovered their own independent and intermediate role.
In mood at least, there are some parallels between the present period and the middle of the 19th century in Europe. Then, too, solidarity was the order of the day, and during the so-called "Spring of the People," fighters for national liberation journeyed from country to country battling "for your freedom and ours." Now, whatever policemen may think, direct intervention is still rare. The community of purpose and struggle is nevertheless growing. Europe's young students and workers salute their fellows across the Atlantic with the new message: "Against your present and our future."
West wind, east wind.... There is nothing new in the violent reaction of Europe's radicals against American interventionism nor in their hostile rejection of the American model. The real novelty is that the Soviet Union has practically vanished as a counter-attraction. During the French crisis there were many references to the Bolshevik October, but none, apart from contemptuous dissociation, to the bureaucratic rule of Stalin's heirs. This antagonism or indifference to the Soviet model--revisionist for some, Stalinist for others, irrelevant for most--characteristic of the May movement, was one of the reasons why orthodox Communists viewed it from the start with deep mistrust. Yet even the orthodox in the West are by now highly discreet about citing the Soviet Union as an example. They are particularly reticent about dwelling on the prospects of the Soviet bloc since the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Spring in 1968 flourished in unison in Paris and Prague, but hopes faded separately. The French crisis was over, at least temporarily, by the time the Russian tanks rolled into Prague on August 21, and their invasion marked the beginning of the end of the unique experiment of Czech students and workers. The epilogue in Prague came after the French act, and thus could not affect it. But it has affected the European horizon. The Czech tragedy throws a new light on the problem of the dismantlement of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. It makes it necessary to reassess the hope of a Socialist revival within the Soviet bloc and, by the same token, the chances that inspiration in Europe may once again come from the East.