The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians seems uniquely, even devilishly, designed to provoke troubling questions concerning the role and scope of justice in political affairs. The latest conflagration proved no exception.
Fear not. This will not be yet another Take™ on that vexing issue. But reading many of the responses to it—especially by concerned critics of Israel—reminded me just how deep the presumption of justice in human affairs really runs. So many persist in believing that actions that offend our sense of justice will eventually lead their states to ruin, despite much evidence to the contrary.
In this case, there seems to be a sense, at least among those who are not outright anti-Zionist, that insofar as Israel’s occupation and unequal rule over the Palestinians is unjust, it potentially produces existential risks to itself. Though the actual mechanism at work remains vague, claims abound to the effect that continued occupation will eventually lead Israel to ruin. The implication is that injustice and disadvantage are joined together in some linear fashion.
When I mentioned this, however, David Rieff made an insightful point in response: that our apprehension of consequences for state action that transgresses decency is not uniform, but rather seems to vary by country. We implicitly hold presumptions that Israel or Myanmar, for example, are subject to the operation of some larger kind of justice, but other countries like China are not.
Now, one way to think about this is as a matter of ideological coherence: the Chinese government does not rest its claims to legitimacy upon democracy or human rights (certain verbiage in its official constitution notwithstanding), and thus its treatment of its Uighur minority creates little dissonance in the minds of its citizens or other observers.
By the same token, Belarus’ recurring crackdowns on dissidents and regime critics may incur international criticism—and its latest move of extending its grasp to include passengers on international flights may yet result in a more severe European or international response. But I have yet to see anyone suggest that these crimes will somehow aggregate to implode the regime as some sort of inherent consequence of its transgressions. Belarus gonna Belarus, in other words.
This mismatch in expectations goes back a long way, and I am inclined to think it even colors our readings of past events. Take Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War—that staple of Political Science and International Relations reading lists. As commonly taught, especially since our own debacle in Vietnam, the terrible losses incurred during the Sicilian Expedition, and indeed the Athenians’ loss of the war itself, functioned as a kind of punishment for its imperial hubris. Not only did Athens violate the peace agreement they had made with Sparta by seeking to conquer the Greek cities of Sicily; they had already embraced the logic of conquest and empire, most notably evinced in their infamous arguments to the Melians. And the outcome of the Peloponnesian War represented their just comeuppance.
It is doubly consoling to see the calamity at Syracuse—and Athens’ ultimate defeat in the Peloponnesian War—as some form of moral or cosmic retribution for its arrogance and cruelty in dealing with Melos. Doubly consoling, both because it makes sense of the terrible destruction of Athens’ empire and the war that brought it down, and because it provides a kind of retroactive justice to the Melians and other victims of Athenian imperialism. In both cases, we are allowed a kind of moral satisfaction across the millennia.
Yet not only is this a superimposition of our moral intuitions across those same millennia, it is also grossly one-sided. The Spartans, after all, as Thucydides reminds us, were the instigators of the war itself, with all the mutual destruction that entailed. They had no qualms over making use of the ruthless Brasidas to achieve their aims in the north of Greece before discarding him. They are unjust to the heroic Plataeans in turning them over to the Thebans, and are utterly hypocritical about the whole thing. And of course their entire society and way of life is premised upon the enslavement of their neighbors and the maintenance of a system of slavery more extensive than that practiced by any of the other Greek cities.
And yet it is only the Athenians whom we now perceive as being subject to universal movements of justice.
To take another example, back in graduate school I took a course on Byzantine history, and the professor was commenting on how the historiography (much of which was Russian or Soviet, reflecting implicit anxieties about Russia’s own national experience) tended to treat the fate of the Eastern Roman Empire as a function of its own internal strength or decadence. In other words, as they allowed weakness and corruption to manifest within, they became increasingly exposed to the encroachments of the Ottomans and other enemies. But he posed the question: what if it didn’t matter? What if the Ottomans were simply effective enough at conquest and siege warfare that the virtue and political cohesion of the Byzantine side was really neither here nor there?
Or, to take what may be the ur-example, the Hebrew Bible depicts the cratering fortunes of the Israelites time and time again, as they are made to suffer from their iniquity and failure to keep to the commandments of the Lord. From wandering in the desert to suffering dissension and civil war to being given over to their enemies, the Israelites are ultimately the authors of their own misfortunes, across the long narrative that extends from Exodus through Kings.
We are now very far removed from that context; in the public arena at least, it is increasingly rare to hear this kind of recourse to the divine as an explanation for our political circumstances. What persists instead—and what ties together these and other examples that vary across time and space—is not the explicit invocation of divinity, but rather a worldview that is essentially characterized by piety. That is to say, the belief that the universe rewards or punishes our conduct according to some cosmic standard of justice. Contemporary expressions of pious expectations about political life are characterized by two things: we generally no longer make explicit reference to a divine being or beings who enforce such a system; and the circle of judgement is limited to democracies—the political order in which all of us notionally have a say in the decision of the state.
And, ultimately, I think this is the reason why we don’t really believe that China will be punished for strangling Hong Kong’s freedom and independence or crushing the Uighurs and Tibetans. Because China isn’t us, just as Sparta wasn’t. And this distinction is not necessarily racial or ethnic or even cultural, but rather political. China’s bureaucratic-authoritarian-nationalist-statist regime, like, say, Saudi Arabia’s oil-state monarchy, falls outside the perceived moral circle of liberal democracies. These states may incur our disapproval and occasionally even sanctions, but apart from Obama-esque references to the “wrong side of history,” they do not fall within the wide arch of the ranged empire of democracy and rights.
Our political imagination, which seems to shrink daily, has trouble comprehending a world of varied political types. Non-democracies exist, of course, but they are not us. We do not assign them the same moral agency, and, in a sense, they cease to be actors in the world who are subject to reward and punishment and instead become part of the fabric of the world itself—not an agent but the terrain.
But are our own regimes not the product of great historical crimes—of slavery, and racism, and displacement, and even eradication? The great city of Mexico is built on the very bones of Tenochtitlan, perhaps one of the most beautiful cities that ever was, and no one seems to expect that its present inhabitants will be subject to some cosmic retribution.
The formula for nations is a lot like Woody Allen’s line about comedy being tragedy + time. We can just about accept these things at a remote enough distance, as we have with the displacement and diminution of the previous inhabitants of the Americas (whom we now mostly call “Native Americans,” and the Canadians rather more accurately call “First Nations”). But when it takes place before our eyes—as with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the Rohingya in Myanmar, etc.—we are compelled to impose a narrative upon it.
Thus, even as we maintain profound disagreements about what constitutes justice and injustice, we are broadly accepting of the idea that it is not merely wrong but somehow dangerous to ourselves to persist in unjust behavior. It is perversely less disturbing to think that we live in a world where we will be punished for our transgressions than that we live in a world where we won’t.
I expect we will continue to operate according to largely unexamined and essentially pious assumptions about the implicit role of justice in political affairs—a form of democratic piety that necessarily persists in the absence of evidence. We sense it somehow, looming above us, just out of sight, as though we might eventually break through, coming out to finally reveal some cosmic superstructure that rewards or punishes the just and the unjust among us according to their deserts.
And yet I picture us, like the narrator in Philip Larkin’s poem, encountering only “the deep blue air, that shows Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”
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