Monday, December 29, 2008

Our mis-perceptions

Growing up in the era of the Cold War, I remember realizing at some point that ridiculous-sounding expressions like "capitalist roaders", "running dogs" and the rest of it sounded particularly idiotic in those English translations, but that this was a matter of ridicule-by-translation, and didn't tell you anything about what the what was being said and understood in the other language.

Later on it came to me that where you need to take a system of ideas and feelings and so on, that isn't necessarily your own, understand and deal with it--that's where you need a degree of intellectual and emotional effort, and the whole ridicule-by-translation thing is a way of short-circuiting that. One way among many, to be sure, but still, an important way.

Take Iraqi nationalism, in the face of the American-established sectarian system. That's where you get the "insurgents", the "Sunni terrorists", the "anti-American firebrand cleric" and the rest of it. So if you ask: "Whats behind all that," the answer is ready-made, for the newspaper-reading, TV-watching man on the street, it's right in the language, it's an absurd drive for violence for its own sake.

Weirdly, this is where a lot of social and political "science" gets its footing. For instance, once you accept the fact that Maliki and his shabby group constitute the Iraqi "state", then you're ready for the learned (and mathematical!) game-theoretical studies of competition among the "powers that aren't" for their shares of the spoils, and off you go! But first you need to sideline those aims and aspirations that don't fit, which as it happens are the decisive ones for the people in question.

Or take the Hamas administration of Gaza. Here is where I think Helena Cobban hits the nail on the head this morning with her post: "What does Hamas want?" She says the main Hamas focus isn't on the so-called two-state solution (although they would go along with that under the right conditions) or on an illusory "truce" for which they don't think the political conditions exist. Rather:
Until now they have not seen the political dynamics in the region as conducive to the achievement of any acceptable form of hudna, so they have not spent much time trying to explore this option or guide their people toward it. Instead, they have placed their highest priority on the defensive aim of preserving the Islamic and Palestinian presence within the land of Mandate Palestine as strongly as possible. That includes the Islamic/Palestinian presence inside Israel as well as in Gaza and the West Bank.

3. Because of the movement's historic roots and continuing strong presence in Gaza, they have been very concerned indeed with trying to preserve and strengthen the Islamic and Palestinian presence and institutions in that tiny Strip, which is densely packed with a population, 80% of whom are refugees from lands and properties that are now within Israel . The Hamas leaders saw Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Strip in 2005 and their own win in the Palestinian legislative elections of January 2006 as significant victories for their path of armed steadfastness, as opposed to Fateh's path of relying only on negotiations.

4. To help preserve their gains in Gaza--as well as to win some non-trivial strategic-political depth for the Palestinian movement everywhere--they have placed a high priority on opening the border between Gaza and Egypt for the passage of people and goods, thereby ending Israel's effectively total encirclement of Gaza, part of which Israel has sub-contracted to Egypt.
Compared to the defensive aim of preserving and strengthening the Islamic and Palestinian presence and institutions in Palestine, these other possible objectives--those that are the bread and butter of our "political scientists" among others--are secondary.

So there you go. You can criticize Hamas for failing to prioritize the truce for its own sake, or for not paying a lot of attention to a theoretical "two-state solution", but only if you overlook their main reason for being, which is the defense, first and foremost, of the Islamic and Palestinian presence in Palestine, and secondarily the opening of the Gaza-Egypt border by way of strengthening that.

I believe this is where the issue of American mis-perceptions comes together with respect to Iraq and Gaza both. The English-language media drive is to (1) sanctify in an unthinking way the concepts of traditional political science; and by the same token (2) denigrate and ridicule the proponents of national aspirations that don't fit into that scheme. One result--and one that Helena has pointed to more than once--is that the natural result is to think in terms of military action as if the only enemy was a defined military organization, something that only makes matters worse. Unless the aim really is genocide.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with all this. It's amazing how the U.S. spokesperson justifies the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza by referring to Hamas as a "bunch of thugs." In a way it's illuminating though: what Israel has done in Gaza after withdrawing from Gaza and seeing Hamas come to power, is criminalizing them, placing them beyond the bound of the international and Israeli legal system. For instance, Israel early on declared Gaza under Hamas a "hostile entity".

So the Israeli/U.S. strategy seems to be: further criminalize Hamas, which justifies a massive blockade of goods which collectively punishes the entire Palestinian population, not by any means just Hamas, and then bring "fire" as I heard an Israeli spokesperson say on television during this rain, to the Palestinians, killing over 300 and wounding many more.

One really does wonder whether the Israeli task in this latest round of bombing is to undermine Hamas as a political actor, because victims and families of victims of Israeli aggression are not going to turn to Fatah, who are more inclined to negotiate with Israel, but rather will want revenge and will further support Hamas and others.

Oh well, at least the "thugs" are being taken care of.

8:21 AM  

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