Thursday, August 31, 2006

Pre-Honeymoon Non-Fiction Round-Up

I've read two important non-fiction books in recent months:

The Origin of Capitalism: a longer view by Ellen Meiksins Wood. In this excellent book, Wood locates the origins of capitalism in the changing social and property relations in England in the 1600s. In doing so, she points out where even Marxist historians and economists have assumed the naturalness of capitalism and in looking for its origins merely explained certain historical phenomena (e.g., feudalism, etc) as necessarily leading to capitalism. To Wood, this misses something essential and basically ignores what was quite different about various pre-capitalist economies. This book was fascinating (if occasionally repetitive), and fired my imagination. Aside from needing to read E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, which was already on my list, and several other items cited by Wood, I am now immensely interested in the question of potential alternative routes to modernity. Her distinction between various characteristics of English and French feudal relations, for example, made my head spin, given how difficult it is to imagine life without capitalism. There is much food for thought here. I plan to explore these issues in much greater detail in my reading, some of which may find its way here.

The Case Against Israel by Michael Neumann. In this book, Neumann effortlessly handles the various arguments made in Israel's favor. He establishes with ease the illegitimacy of the Zionist project in the first place, and how it's only natural that the Palestinians would have responded in the manner in which they historically have:
The ugliness of mob violence should not deceive us into supposing that more socially acceptable responses actually do less harm. We find its low-techs attacks on individuals more distasteful than high-tech attacks, even if they are sure to harm individuals just as much. A beheading disgusts us; not so a massive air assault which will have the side effect of blowing the heads off a few children. That both the attackers and we ourselves fully expect such "collateral damage" doesn't seem to matter. This indeed is why we witness the spectacular exercise in obliviousness that sees the apostles of Western civilization berating "the Arabs" or Islam for its brutality. That Western civilization recently produced King Leopold's Congo genocide, Hiroshima, the concentration camps, and two catastrophic world wars should make us think twice before we see any particular evil in the Palestinian response. (63-64)
It's not perfect (I have minor quibbles on some points of his interpretation of certain historical questions, but I do not feel that they negatively impact the power of Neumann's arguments), but this book should be required reading for anyone concerned with the issues surrounding Israel and Palestine, which should be anyone, period. I could quote from it at excessive length, but I will not. I will, however, leave you with some passages from the section addressing Palestinian terrorism (remember that his argument is in the context of generally accepted moral principles):
...the crucial point about collateral damage is not that it mutilates children and is therefore wrong; it's that it mutilates children and may at times be right. There really isn't any question about this. Even if every war the U.S. has fought since 1945 has been wrong, we can easily conceive of wars that are right, or at least in which we were right to participate. Most of us think such wars have actually occurred. And such wars involve just the sort of collateral damage we're talking about.

This is why there can't be any serious issue about justifying terrorism. Yes, it sometimes mutilates children for political purposes. This is clearly wrong if done in an obviously bad cause, or for very stupid reasons. But--I am not in a position to change or judge almost universally accepted moral principles--otherwise it can certainly be ok. That's why we so often cause it to happen.

Why then, would any of us feel entitled to find terrorism morally repugnant?


Whether to engage in terrorism--like whether to start a war--is a very serious strategic issue, fraught with uncertainty. But it is no more than that. I would not pronounce judgment on Palestinian terrorism because I do not, God-like, have all the facts on the ground at my disposal. I do not know if some other tactic would work as well, with less cost. I do know, and have argued here, that the Palestinians don't have any obviously viable nonviolent alternatives. It is also apparent that Palestinian terrorism has done great damage to the Israeli economy and that, for all the brutal retaliation it understandably provokes, from the Palestinian standpoint these very high costs may still be worth bearing, because the alternative seems to be total dispossession and very likely death in the thousands. I also know that the Palestinians have very substantial rights of self-defense that do apply to their present circumstances. Anyone who believes the Palestinians should renounce terror ought at least to provide a plausible argument that some other strategy will be more effective--and I do not see such an argument on the horizon.

The Palestinians have often said that, given an army like Israel's, they would never engage in terror. Perhaps they would be as scrupulous as we are, or ten times more so. One thing is certain: could the Palestinians trade terrorism for conventional, legal, approved warfare, thousands more innocent humans beings would be reduced to bloody lumps of flesh. Why this would be morally preferable is not entirely clear to me. (168-170)

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