Thursday, October 26, 2023

The Dangerous Weave of Historical Maximalism

The principle that it is wrong to slaughter civilians -- going house-to-house with the express agenda of gruesomely murdering the men, women, and children you find there -- is seemingly so obvious it seems impossible imagine it must be "taught". Surely, it is a principle we all understand at some intuitive, base level. And yet, history is replete with such murders and massacres -- in all parts of the world, in every time period, amongst persons of every social strata and political proclivity -- a history that somehow must be compatible with our knowing, at some deep level, that it is wrong. As a species, we are good at murder. But we're experts at rationalizing it.

It's important to know history. But arguments from history are dangerous things. History offers a near-infinitely rich and diverse series of threads, from which one can weave virtually any tapestry one desires. For a species that excels at rationalizing brutality of the worst forms, this should concern us, for all of us can easily be seduced by a historical narrative that eases us back into apologia, justification, or even celebration of unthinkable atrocities. 

The experience of the past few weeks has been, to a large extent, the witnessing of folks -- sometimes our colleagues, sometimes our friends -- weaving tapestries of death in real time. There is little more depressing than reading Facebook posts and op-eds and blog posts by people you know and, on most days, like, and watching them work through the process by which they become apologists for massacres.

None of us should be too confident in our immunity from the pattern. Indeed, there's a degree to which this danger is most prominent for the well-informed, the educated, the "experts". There's research that suggests that education increases ideological polarization, because every bit of knowledge -- every book you read or conference you attend -- is, or can be, the raw materials through which one can support and fortify one's own preferred narrative against challenge or refutation. It is no accident, I think, that many of the worst voices on Israel and Palestine are "the professionals" who've steeped themselves in the debate for years -- the PhD students, the organizational warriors. It's not just that the debate itself is so toxic that it can't help but have a corrupting effect (though it is that). It's that the process of learning more, if one isn't careful, paradoxically becomes a mechanism to hate better and more righteously than would otherwise be possible.

One can easily tell a historical tale through which Israel is naught but a savage European colonial imposition, to which any form of resistance is necessary and appropriate. Tell this narrative frequently and loudly and univocally enough, and it degrades one's ability to call atrocity "atrocity", potentially beyond repair, as we saw over the past few weeks:

Suddenly forced to decide whether, in the wake of occupation and besiegement, a Palestinian response of "a systemic campaign of house-to-house kidnappings, rapes, and executions" is a valid one, we saw far, far too many individuals unable to say "no" (or at least, say it with any level of decisiveness). This failure stems directly from the tempting broth that assures us that, if the provocation is severe enough and the injury severe enough, no amount of "response" could ever be disproportionate. And so we see that, if you refuse to let yourself think that anything could be "too far", there's no end to the depths of hell you may find yourself apologizing for.

But to be clear: others can tell other tales, wherein Israel is naught but Jewish decolonization and liberation, for which any measures are justified to valorize and defend (there's a story, I've said, where revanchist Zionism is what happens when Fanon wins in a rout); or where Palestine (in quotes) is itself a colonial invasion which cannot be permitted to exist and must be extirpated by any means necessary. All of these tales weave history differently, and all of them (this is important) pull from portions of "reality" (neither the colonial or decolonial elements of Zionism are simply made up), but in their maximalism and extremity they are seductresses back to the pattern of atrocity justification.

That I used some version of "(de)colonialism" in all of those stories is no accident, but not because I think the concept of "(de)colonialism" is inherently diseased. To the contrary, we speak in the argot of the times, and so it is unsurprising (albeit not especially revelatory) that today's maximalist narratives will try to bootstrap them onto those terms which seem most vibrant in the potential for justifying radical action (and what are atrocities if not radical?). In different times and contexts, the argot will be different, and once again that very polysemous character of history is part of what enables it to so easily serve as raw materials for justificatory atrocity. Monsters justify the infliction of atrocities via many words -- "decolonialization", "self-defense", "averting genocide", "patriotism," "turnabout", "just deserts", "liberation" -- and their usage neither discredits the words, nor does their use of the words mean we must credit their atrocity.

So what do we do, when confronted with this vast, untamable polysemousness of history and ideology? One choice is to try to assert, with evermore earnest, desperate, or self-righteous vigor, the One True Story (Zionism IS ethnonationalist colonialism, Palestinian nationalism IS exterminationist antisemitism) that can supply the threads necessary to weave our tapestries of death; that can explain why it is okay (or understandable, or a tragic necessity, or commensurable tit-for-tat) to machine-gun concert-goers or to torch olive trees, or to permanently deprive millions of Palestinians citizenship rights on the land where the live, or to eradicate the one political space on the planet where Jews have control over their own destiny. That so many find that path appealing is, I think, precisely because of the destination it promises -- the seduction of being able to hate and murder and pillage and deface and expropriate and have it all be justified.

But that is not the only choice. We should know history well enough to respect it, and respect it enough to know that it cannot truly be mastered for the service of any one political cause. Historical maximalism is, ultimately, a corruption of history, and for that reason it will never persuade anyone not already primed to be persuaded. In cases of protracted group conflict, what one inevitably gets is dueling maximalists; two sides both utterly convinced of their righteousness and ready to scorch the earth on the path to heaven. 

Precisely because the path of historical maximalism promises everything, it can ultimately offer nothing: "a moral race to the bottom" that is inevitably a path towards death. Acknowledgment of the pluripotent strands of history can be the means through which we resist maximalism and extremity, resist the siren's call of boundless violence, and instead reform around a pragmatic humanism whose very lack of complete self-assuredness serves as a bulwark against our instinct to rationalize atrocity.

One does not need to behead infants near Sderot. One does not need to set fire to Huwara. These are choices, as is the choice to serve as apologists for them. They're choice made inside a weave of history that sings out with the false promise that they are justified or inevitable or in some way not as bad as we know, in our heart of hearts, they truly are. 

It is a terrible thing, to watch people you know and love and care about submit the temptation of history and ideology to defend brutality in the service of maximalism. I hope more people make better choices.


Rebecca said...

And it's heartbreaking and disillusioning when some of one's own students fail the test of condemning murder when it's committed by people they agree with or against a target that they hate.

Benjamin Lewis said...

Great analysis.
I've been reading, researching, and discussing International Humanitarian Law concepts a lot in the last few weeks. Insofar as 'acknowledging pluripotency' and resisting maximalism map to the meta-claim 'historical narratives are not objective standards', this seems to harmonize well with my inclination to say 'we have consensus-agreed on some specific objective standards, they are over here in the IHL texts, can we refer to those.'
Not to suggest that citing the ICRC on "combatant/noncombatant distinction, & target discrimination" somehow prevents people from arguing ad nauseam that atrocity-of-the-day is justified; in my experience they absolutely still do that. But I do find that under this framing the discussion stays more empirical, with less emotion and less historical narrative, and it's easier to keep the discourse honest / accountable.

Lots of people default to saying "good luck" when they want to extend well wishes. The rationalist community to which I'm tangentially connected has tended to substitute "good skill". Your closing reminds me of this very strongly and helps the distinction resonate more powerfully in me - we are not trapped in a pre-ordained arc of history, "the fault is not in our stars", let us all please exercise our skill and make better choices.