Tag Archives | tragic humanism

✱ It’s complicated

An interesting piece in The New Yorker from Amy Davidson on Obama’s handling of the situation in Syria:

A frequent complaint about President Obama’s Syria policy is that he keeps making matters more complicated.

Stripped of context, this simple statement nevertheless makes for a nice microcosm of the way many of us approach the obstacles in front of us. Things should be simple, not complicated!

Simplicity is often described in aesthetic terms, as elegant, or wondrous. Designers who seek simplicity of form are fond of saying that their work is finished not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away. There is profound truth to this. Simplicity is beautiful. A poem, a song, a novel, a film — the best of these bring order to a chaotic world for a fleeting moment through the artful illusion of simplicity. But simplicity is, nonetheless, illusion.

This isn’t going to be an argument for complexity, mind you. Especially not the kind of complexity beloved of m’learned colleagues in the academic profession who seem to delight in making simple things difficult just because they can, or, when pressed for a stance on the true nature of the problem at hand, say ‘yes, but whose truth?’ and stand back triumphantly, as if they had just won at something.

‘Complicated’ isn’t in any meaningful way better than ‘simple’, or vice versa. That way madness lies, of different sorts — the brutality of mass extermination, or first year cultural studies class, for instance.

Rather, we should aim above all for clarity about the things that matter in any given situation. This means asking questions like what is happening here? Where are we going? What is the good thing to do? What is at stake and who wins and loses by our choices?

This is an orientation towards the world as we find it, not necessarily as we would like it to be. It demands that we acknowledge complexity where it exists, and achieve clarity through asking simple questions like the ones above.

Davidson continues:

The President has brought some of the criticism of his handling of the affair on himself. He has seemed puzzled when people asked how military action would help, and has never successfully explained what’s supposed to happen after American cruise missiles hit the ground. In his address on Tuesday, he spoke with feeling about the unacceptability of a world in which dictators aren’t punished for atrocities. But he deflected questions about the scope and the effect of an attack, with empty phrases like “the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”

Obama’s worst moments, in other words, have come when he ignores complexity, not when he embraces it. Last year, he narrowed his options by talking about the use of chemical weapons as a “red line.” His performance since has had a fly-by-night quality that has not inspired confidence. But, by belatedly turning to Congress and, now, to diplomacy, he has given the process more time and increased the number of possible outcomes. In a situation in which there are no good choices, that’s not a bad thing.

Lack of clarity often leads to loss of confidence. By clarity I mean only the ability of someone, when asked, to give a good account of what they are doing and why. It is a virtue in short supply in our time, partly because of the suffocation of clear language brought about by risk-averse managerialism that insists on avoiding particulars wherever possible. When was the last time anyone explained to you clearly what they are doing and why? I am guessing that if you can recall an example, it is memorable precisely for its rarity value.

In the last sentence of the above quote, Davidson makes reference to a situation in which there are no good choices. Such a proposition is difficult for many of us to swallow, steeped as we are in hundreds of years of the enlightened assumption that knowledge can be perfected, rational progress can be made and therefore all problems can eventually be solved.

I wish to submit that this stance, rather than a sound and pragmatic outlook on the world, amounts instead to a refusal to admit reality — an amiable delusion with dire consequences. Not all problems can be solved. Not all ‘problems’ can even be defined. Making decisions is often not a matter of right or wrong, or even of good and bad, but only of better or worse.

Recently, in one of the university classes I teach, we were discussing the debt crisis in Greece and what is at stake in that situation. After an energetic and substantial discussion, one of my students offered the following half-statement, half-question: ‘But doesn’t that mean there might be no solution?’ There was a kind of plaintiveness in that question — a hope that the answer was about to be revealed, and a fear that it might not be.

The comment surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. Many of my students come in looking for the ‘right’ answers, and most when they leave are still on that quest, despite my many attempts to disabuse them of the notion that they will find the prize they seek. I’m not sure if that’s the way they have been taught previously, or the self-absorbed incuriosity often ascribed to their generation, or a psychic defence mechanism against the state of the world they are inheriting. I try not to read such things into their character. But it is a puzzlement.

There are common themes though. When things go wrong, our impulse is usually to find the right ‘procedure’ to follow to ‘fix’ it, and/or to demand to know when ‘they’ are going to do something about it. We seem to believe that there is a right process for everything. If we don’t know it, someone will. If no-one knows, we need only devise it. There might be problems now, but we just need to find the right solutions. Leaving aside the difficulty that many problems are brought about precisely by those who think they have the right solutions, this is nonetheless not a good recipe for success. Neither is ‘success’ simply a matter of recipes.

The insistent belief in progress by solutions resembles nothing so much as a deep-seated terror of living with uncertainty. The quest for right answers (or the faith that someone somewhere has them) is itself a way of avoiding being in the world, and quite an effective one at that. There are those of course, Obama included, who have renounced ‘right’ answers and ideology in favour of ‘what works’. But this self-styled ‘realism’ is perhaps the most delusional of all. Anything works. If we bomb Syria, that will work. If we don’t, that will work too. So will sitting around and talking about whether we should bomb Syria or whether we shouldn’t. Without attempting seriously to address the questions of what we are doing and why, what goods we intend to bring about and who for, ‘what works’ is just an empty way of keeping ourselves busy to avoid facing the void — it is nothing more than nihilism with KPIs.

If all this seems disempowering and defeatist, perhaps you have missed my point. Life is uncertain. The world is complicated. We can decide not to know these things, but that is the real disempowerment and defeat. The void is there whether we choose to stare into it or not. If however we choose to see what is really there, we are free to realise that while things may never be perfect, we can make them as good as we can, which in many cases is a lot better than they are now. Neither need we wait on ‘them’ to ‘fix’ it. It’s up to us, and only us, to govern ourselves. We can do that by asking each other simple questions like what are you doing and why? Where are we going and who is it good for? We can discuss the answers and decide which are better and worse. It’s not a new idea but an old one, and it’s called democracy. But democracy, and the human flourishing it seeks to bring about, is not something you have, but something you do. Doing democracy, I hardly need to point, bears very little resemblance to the unedifying national self-flagellation a few weeks ago where we all had to go put numbers in the boxes. That was rather an example of what I mean by fixating on process as a way of not having to engage with reality. No, doing democracy is different. Don’t ask me for a recipe. Or a solution. My solution is simply a way of being in the world that offers more empowerment and hope than others I’ve seen. It may not be much when all is said and done, but it’s all there is. Unless you have a better idea…? ◾

What to do with taboo

Daniel Barenboim at the New York Review has written a thoughtful piece on Wagner as a Jewish taboo. That Wagner was a vociferous anti-Semite is well-attested. Hitler regarded him as a great German prophet and a personal hero. Nazi ideology borrowed liberally from Wagner’s mythology.

Nevertheless, Barenboim goes there:

Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, who as a successful journalist was confronted by increasing anti-Semitism in Austria and France, was initially in favor of complete assimilation of the Jews. Interestingly, Herzl’s choice of words was not fundamentally different from Wagner’s in describing the situation of Jews in German society. In 1893 he wrote that “to cure the evil” the Jews would have to “rid themselves of the peculiarities for which they are rightly reproached.” One would have to “baptize the Jewboys” in order to spare them excessively difficult lives. “Untertauchen im Volk!”—disappear among the people—was his appeal to the Jewish population.

Richard Wagner also spoke of Untergang, or sinking: “consider that only one thing can be the deliverance from the curse that weighs on you: the deliverance of Ahasver,—sinking [der Untergang]!” Wagner’s conclusion about the Jew- ish problem was not only verbally similar to Herzl’s; both Wagner and Herzl favored the emigration of the German Jews. It was Herzl’s preoccupation with European anti-Semitism that spurred him to want to found a Jewish state. His vision of a Jewish state was influenced by the tradition of European liberalism. In the novel Altneuland (1902), he describes what the settled Jewish community in Palestine might look like; Arabic residents and other non-Jews would have equal political rights.

In other words, Herzl had not overlooked the fact that Arabs were living in Palestine when he developed the idea for an independent state for the European Jews. In 1921, at the Twelfth Zionist conference in Karlsbad, Martin Buber warned that politics would have to take on the “Arab question”:

Our national desire to renew the life of the people of Israel in their ancient homeland however is not aimed against any other people. As we enter the sphere of world history once more, and become once more the standard bearers of our own fate, the Jewish people, who have constituted a persecuted minority in all the countries of the world for two thousand years, reject with abhorrence the methods of nationalistic domination, under which they themselves have so long suffered. We do not aspire to return to the land of Israel with which we have inseparable historical and spiritual ties in order to suppress another people or to dominate them.

The Israeli declaration of independence of May 14, 1948, also says that the state of Israel

will devote itself to the development of the country to the good of all its residents. It will be based on freedom, justice, and peace according to the visions of the prophets of Israel. It will guarantee all its citizens social and political equality regardless of religion, race and gender. It will ensure religious and intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, education and culture.

The reality, as we all know, looks different today.

Even today, many Israelis see the refusal of Palestinians to recognize the state of Israel as a continuation of European pre-war anti-Semitism. It is, however, not anti-Semitism that determines the relationship of Palestinians to Israel, but rather resistance against the division of Palestine at the time when Israel was founded, and against the withholding of equal rights today, for example the right to an independent state. Palestine was simply not an empty country (as Israeli nationalistic legend has it); it could in fact have been described at the time as it was by two rabbis who visited the land to survey it as a potential Jewish state: “the bride is beautiful, but she is already married.” To this day it is still a taboo in Israeli society to make clear the fact that the state of Israel was founded at the cost of another people.

Barenboim caused a stink when he performed some of Wagner’s music with a German orchestra in 2001:

The pieces were played as an encore following a forty-minute discussion with the audience. I suggested to the people who wanted to leave that they do so. Only twenty to thirty people who did not want to hear Wagner’s music left the hall. The remainder applauded the orchestra so enthusiastically that I had the feeling we had done something positive. Only the next day did the dispute erupt when politicians called the performance a scandal, although they had not been present themselves.

Whether or not such a move constitutes something positive is a fascinating question. How do you heal deep, ugly wounds? Is it just a matter of time, as the old adage would have it? A look at race relations in the United States, or indeed Australia, would suggest we have some while to wait yet if so. Barenboim’s thoughts on this are worthy of some reflection:

The entire Wagner debate in Israel is linked to the fact that steps toward a Jewish Israeli identity have not been taken. All concerned continue to cling to past associations that were absolutely understandable and justified at the time. It is as if they wanted, by so doing, to remind themselves of their own Judaism. Perhaps this is the same fact that does not allow many Israelis to see the Palestinians as citizens with equal rights.

When one continues to uphold the Wagner taboo today in Israel, it means, in a certain respect, that we are giving Hitler the last word, that we are acknowledging that Wagner was indeed a prophet and predecessor of Nazi anti-Semitism, and that he can be held accountable, even if only indirectly, for the final solution.

This view is unworthy of Jewish listeners. They should rather be influenced by such great Jewish thinkers as Spinoza, Maimonides, and Martin Buber than by half-baked dogmas.

Perhaps finding identity in a negative leads to a hollowing out that is ultimately self-defeating. This certainly seems true of fundamentalist Christians whose entire Christian identity appears to consist in being against gays and government. Or those Whitlam supporters who are still maintaining the rage over the Dismissal rather than identifying with the merits of social democracy. Or, lest it need to be said, those whose entire defence of voting for the ALP is that it can’t possibly be as bad as voting for Tony Abbott.

It’s an easy trap. Until quite recently, I was someone who Doesn’t Like Sport, unreflectively (and happily) finding a part of my identity in that. Sport had always been an enemy of sorts — a source of hurt for a gangly intellectual, both personally and because of the fact of it itself and the resources it draws from pursuits that I care about. But as I came to be more satisfied with the positive identity developments in my gangly intellectual life, it occurred to me that to adopt such a position about sport is not only pointless, but silly. New worlds have opened up to me since.

But if such personal hurt and blindness over something relatively trivial is difficult to notice and overcome, how much harder is it to address the legitimate hurt of entire peoples? For all its flaws and controversy, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Australia’s Apology to the Stolen Generations were genuine attempts at this, with some measure of success. It certainly suggests that such things are best talked about than left in darkness, even if the talking is only a necessary first step to be followed up through ethical action, and not as a replacement for it. Perhaps it is insensitive to draw such comparisons as I have at all. But surely it is better that we talk about that than to nurture pain that we don’t talk about at all.