Wednesday 20 March 2002

Intelligence and compromise

Mike Golby praises Michael Webb’s essay, What is a superpower to do? A few remarks on Israel and Palestine.:

I share the gist of Michael’s sentiments, and applaud him for tackling a subject that elicits extreme and irrational responses. If he is to be accused of ‘liberal sentiment’, then let us look at just one of the realities of global politics. For it is forces such as these that those seeking a world free of domination by one of another will have to undermine, destroy, and relegate to distant memory.

And Mike finds Douglas Ord’s pictorial and textual essay, Stereopticon, “simultaneously profound, disturbing, moving, and satisfying.”

Ord’s work has phenomenal power and anybody not moved by it must have something wrong with them.
They will either agree or disagree with what they see and hear. Ord leaves little room to carve a middle path through this remarkable reflection of a world gone wrong.

The first time I experienced Ord’s hypnotic juxtaposition of images and texts I was equally impressed. Later, as I reflected on it, I felt a nagging doubt.

It’s not that I disagree with Douglas Ord. His deconstruction of “a group of Palestinian men and boys watching the attacks on the World Trade Centre from an almost bare room in their refugee camp” is perhaps the best visual analysis of a news event I have ever encountered. It’s not that I disagree with Ord’s ruthless delineation of Arial Sharon’s complicity in the massacre by Israeli-armed Lebanese militia of hundreds (or thousands) of Palestinian men, women, and children in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila. In post-war Japan, the War Crimes Tribunal executed dozens of Japanese soldiers and civilians for crimes less serious and on the basis of slighter evidence than that amassed against Sharon. It’s not that I don’t support Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

It’s because Douglas Ord’s polemical essay, to borrow Mike Golby’s words, “leaves little room to carve a middle path.” I would find it infinitely more compelling if it did; if Ord had also turned his considerable forensic skills on the actions of Yasser Arafat and the PLO. <edit> And, in doing so, addressed the argument that Bill Allison raises today at Ideofact

I think, in 1993, Arafat was presented with a rare opportunity. Oslo allowed him to be the vanguard of the Arab world. Had Arafat embraced peace, played Ghandi rather than the thug, insisted on a democratic Palestinian authority, and given the Israelis confidence that they had a partner in peace, he could very well have created a statelet, and then a state, that would stand in sharp rebuke to the rest of those dysfunctional Arab states. He could have turned to the dictators in Syria and Egypt, in Iraq and Iran, and told them that he was building a democratic, secular Palestine. It would not have been easy, indeed, it might have been suicidal. Instead, Arafat played the role he knew best, that of the thug. Long before the most recent wave of violence began roughly a year and a half ago, Arafat had already managed to impoverish his people and strip them of any chance of a decent life. That’s the price the Palestinians paid for Oslo.</edit>

But Ord’s essay lacks what is most needed—a middle path—whereas this precisely forms the foundation of Webb’s, which equally deserves the adjectives “profound, disturbing, moving, and satisfying.”

Profound in its application of American political ideals to contemporary circumstances:

Washington saw in government an opportunity not for contention of opposing points of view, but their reconciliation, recognizing the common and good. His plea for foreign and commercial efforts was that “we seek to promote the good for all, that only in that will we prosper.”
I see Washington’s Farewell Address as a plea for a foreign policy not disengaged, but disinterested. In plain words, not selfish. We may reflect that much, although not all, of our foreign policy has notably lacked this element, and that unintended consequences have dogged nearly all occasions of protecting or extending “American interests”.

Disturbing in its demand that ideals be matched by actions:

To those who deride these sentiments as “liberal sentiments” and advocate ‘real politic’ or a machiavellian approach, I just remind you that they are the principals and sentiments on which our country was founded, and the source of the strength we now enjoy. America is an adolescent country, founded on hope and a faith in the goodness of man, tempered by admission of common failings. We find ourselves now with the challenges that suggest it is time to grow up.

Moving in its willingness to fuse the personal and the political:

Many of the powerful emotions that sweep people and nations are the same ones that move and trouble me, and ultimately self examination, not external situations are the only solution. But like a drunk who can’t stop drinking, the self destruction of Israel-Palestine needs to be put in detox, some measure of health restored before that healing can start.

and satisfying in its even-handedness:

Who killed hope and the future in the mid-east is not material. Who has right or title does not matter. Who was there first does not matter. Israeli or Palestinian, each locked in their own mythologies and personal histories, have little hope for a future. Those substantial portions of the Israeli population that envision an Israel cleansed of Palestinians, or Palestinians who draw a map without Israel are hallucinating a world that will not be, or that would sacrifice their humanity and their religion to accomplish.

As I walked back from the pool this afternoon I suddenly realized why I responded to Michael Webb’s essay. I’d recalled a moment in La Femme Marieé, which—although it is not one of my favorite Godard movies—contains one of my favorite Godard scenes, a monologue—titled Intelligence—by the neglected critic and director Roger Leenhardt:

… I think this is the best definition of intelligence: “Understand before you act.” In order to search further, to reach the depths, the heights, to understand others, to find a small bridge between oneself and the other, between pro and con… . Not everybody cares for this intellectual approach. Especially nowadays, when things are either black or white, and seeking shadings seems a bit gray. But to me, it’s the fanatics who are boring; you always know what they are going to say… . But people who like paradox are fun. Paradox offers an alternative to the self-evident. And then there is compromise, the finest, most courageous of intellectual acts… . It’s come to mean lack of conviction. Still, I’ll go on looking for the proper synthesis and I insist the world isn’t totally absurd. And intelligence is precisely the attempt to inject a little reason into this absurdity.

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Thanks for these comments on stereopticon, to which I was led by a referral on my site counter. Please appreciate that stereopticon was written not least amid a climate of forgetfulness, in which both Sharon's complicity in the 1982 massacres, and his calculated provocation of September 2000 have conveniently dropped off the public radar screen. Your points regarding Arafat are well taken; I was myself not at all happy watching the direction the Palestinian authority was taking during the period of relative autonomy. But I'll also suggest that Arafat's authority can easily be overrated. My intention with stereopticon has not been to oversimplify a mind-numbingly complex situation. My goals have been mainly to make some connections that I consider important, to provide reminders of "some crimes forgotten," and to suggest the extraordinary dangers that now lurk precisely in the threads that connect the Israeli-Palestinian impasse to September 11th and its aftermath. I had a look at the other essay you recommended. And whatever my general opinion of its assessments of George Washington and the potential of American foreign policy, the blunt fact remains that Washington is not the president, and even the integrity of the Constitution (which I agree is one of the great political documents of human history) is in the process of being breached, by an administration that has at least three more years in office. I could go on at length about this, and probably should in some other forum. But thanks for taking stereopticon seriously enough to offer serious criticism. It's appreciated.

Posted by Douglas Ord on 19 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Douglas, thank you for your gracious and considered response to my remarks about stereopticon which, despite the reservations I've expressed, I regard as the most impressive juxtaposition of images and texts since Joseph Squier's Life with Father.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 19 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Gentle men, thank you both for a remarkable dialogue.

Posted by Raymon on 20 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour