Saturday, December 28, 2002

This is something I wanted to say for a long time: I get somewhat irritated when people talk about politicians as if they were some kind of a different species, either aliens or a product of some devilish cloning scheme. I can enjoy a good politician joke, as I can a good lawyer joke. I am just afraid that there is a bit too much seriousness behind them.

Now let me make clear that I am not about to defend corrupt politicians or even politicians in general: I’ll let them defend themselves, as it is part of their job anyway. I just think that it is a mistake to focus too much on politicians as people, because that is not where the real problem is.

It is true that people with certain personalities are often attracted to certain professions. The common wisdom seems to be that people become politicians because they seek power, or that only people who seek power become politicians. The truth is that most of us seek power to different degrees, consciously or not. While not everyone who becomes a politician was consciously seeking power in the first place, all politicians quickly find power, and many find it addictive. This is what often leads to corruption.

As power and wealth are strongly connected, we find this phenomenon not only in politics, but also in business, especially big business. At that level business and politics are connected as well, and so you get even more problems. But what is to be done?

We can say that politicians and big businessmen are bad, and tell jokes about them, but that is not going to solve the problem. We cannot cancel politics, or ignore them by not voting. We cannot cancel business: communism does not work. We cannot prevent people who seek wealth and power to pursue these careers. Besides, everyone seeks power and wealth to some degree.

All we can do is to make the political system as nonconducive to corruption as possible. I don’t know exactly how it can be done, but I think that in America it will involve some kind of a reform of the campaign financing system.

In Israel corruption is a major problem, as was demonstrated by the recent internal elections in the Likud and Labor parties. I am not sure how much worse it is compared to the US, though. Israel is a very small country, everyone knows everyone, so it is difficult to hide things. Also, Israelis tend to be much more involved, or at least interested in politics, which makes hiding things even harder.

A political system can reach a certain level of corruption, where only people who are corrupt, or are willing to become corrupt to begin with will choose a career in politics. I don’t think that Israel has reached that point. In fact, there were times that it was at least as bad, if not worse (this was one of the major reasons Labor had lost its 30-year hegemony in 1977). But it seems to be getting worse again.

Many Israelis think that the political system needs a major reform, not only because of corruption, but also for several other reasons. Not the least of them is the extortion that small parties apply to a ruling party, be it Likud or Labor (or both), to achieve their narrow political goals. Such a reform is impossible in the current security and economical situation. It will have to wait. In the meantime, I think most Israelis will ignore the recent scandals when they go to the voting booth in January. But I am sure they will not forget them.

Friday, December 27, 2002

Judith is all over this guy. I actually really liked his essay, but Judith does make a valid point in that not all European Jews went to their deaths as “sheep to a slaughter house”.

I find this whole gun debate perplexing. I am not a kind of person who is nervous about guns. I served in IDF, and have handled several kinds of rifles quite well long since, although I still have to acquire some basic handgun skills. I was very surprised that guns were even an issue when I first came to the US. Then, after the wave of the school shootings in the 90ies, I was almost ready to concede that private gun ownership should be abolished, but I realized that it would not solve the problem. I am also still under impression that the regulation part of gun ownership has room for improvement, but I could be wrong.

The claim that private gun ownership deters invasion, or even America's own government’s tyranny is unconvincing. By this logic, private citizens should be allowed to own not only guns, but missiles, tanks and WMDs, just like our, and other governments, do.
I am also ambivalent about the effectiveness of private gun ownership as a crime deterrent. (I do think, however, that it can often be effective as a means to self-defense).

But the symbolic value of gun ownership should not be underestimated. If attacked by foreign power/own government gone nuts/common criminal, and defeated, many people (including myself) would rather die with a weapon in their hands, trying to defend themselves and their loved ones. This is largely the point that the essay makes. It makes other good points as well. If this symbolic value is taken into account, it might make more sense of the reference to Germany, but I’d still rather leave it out of the gun debate.

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Jack Rich did not like this article by Slman Rushdie. In it Rushdie discusses two new movies: "The Two Towers" and "The Gangs of NewYork". He then tries to apply the different war symbolisms found in these movies to America's war on terrorism, and the upcoming war in Iraq, as well as WWII.

Jack thinks that Rushdie is a pomo, which I am sure is true to a certain extent. To be sure, his piece does smell of moral equivalency rather strongly. Jack also thinks that, as a Muslim, Rushdie does not understand Christianity, which he says permiates Tolkien's writing (I wolud not know). This may be true as well, although it would not be due to Rushdie's being a Muslim, but due to him being an atheist.And, I have not seen either movie, so the following is based on Rushdie's impressions from these movies.. But I will see one this Saturday, so more remarks might follow.

In any case, what is most bothersome about the piece is not Rushdie's reading of the movies, or the books on which they are based, but his reading of real wars, past, present and future. He writes: "Tolkien didn't like people calling his great work an allegory of the battle against Adolf Hitler, but the echoes of World War II, the last 'just war', are everywhere." But then comes this: "Gang war is neither holy nor just, Scorsese tells us, and, as one leaves the movie theater with his images dazzling the mind's eye, the thought occurs that maybe all wars are gang wars." Does this, in Rushdie's view, include WWII? I hope not. All wars are about power. Some wars are about survival, as well. And it is quite likely that even some gang wars are about survival.

Jack writes: "While he can not be expected to fully grok the important and substantial differences between Catholics and Protestants, from his perspective, these are nuances not worth fighting over. Reminds me of Tom Friedman's explanation of the title of his book "Lexus and the Olive Tree". He as much as said then that he found that infamous Middle Eastern dispute over a piece of land the size of NJ silly. We should all be busy building Lexus cars instead. Well, we probably should be. But we are busy fighting for our survival.

There some parts of the article that are good fisking material, but not really a new one, so I'll pass. What is interesting in both this war (and in WWII), is that during the few years leading to it much of the world has been behaving like a bunch of gangs: dealing and double-dealing behind each others backs, minding only their narrow short-term interests, their turf. But once the real war starts, the gangs have no choice but to choose which side they are with. And this is when "Gangs of New York" becomes "The Two Towers". "Ambiguity is out of fashion, however. We will be given a war of heroes against villains at all costs. After all, "The Two Towers" is a vast popular success, and "Gangs of New York" is doing no better than modest business. Perhaps when the time for the Oscars comes round, the academy will see fit to reward the more profound complexities of the Scorsese movie. But by March we may all be preoccupied by a greater, darker contest than the one for the Academy Awards." He got that right.

To all my Christian readers: a very merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Imshin discussed this article in Haaretz by Ari Shavit extensively. (Scroll up for a follow-up). The article is about Yosef (Tomy) Lapid. If you don’t know who Lapid is, the article and Imshin’s comments are a good primer, although I agree with Imshin that Shavit is biased against Lapid. Also, for the record, I have been Lapid’s fan for years – not that I think that he is without fault.

Anyway, all this got me thinking again about something I wrote a while back, and that is the role religion plays in Israeli society, especially in its politics. I wrote then that the biggest second problem Israel faces is the conflict that exists between the secular and the ultra-orthodox segments of its population. When I wrote this, I was talking about Israel I knew for 16 years, until 12 years ago. What I failed to take into account is something that mostly happened after I left. What happened is that the demographics of the ultra-orthodox (“haredi”) community have changed significantly. While some 15-20 years ago most “haredim” were ashkenazi, i.e. Jews of European descent, this is becoming less and less true.

Mizrahim, i.e. Jews of Middle-Eastern descent, have always been more religiously observant than ashkenazim. Many of them also have been in a cultural, and thus economical disadvantage in a country founded and initially developed by European Jews. Naturally, there were people clever enough to realize a political gold mine when they saw one. Thus Tami was born in the 80ies, to be later replaced by Shas, which has since held all Israeli governments by its balls, just like their ashkenazi predecessors used to do, beginning with Ben-Gurion’s first government.

The way it works is very simple. Shas appeals to people who are poor and poorly educated. Many of them are religious anyway, or their parents are, so they “find God again” quite easily, and with God they also find the solutions to their problems. You know this scenario well from the US. The big difference is that here the churches get their money from donations by private citizens and organizations. In Israel the yeshivas run by Shas and its rabbis are financed by Israeli taxpayers, most of whom are secular. One of the ways they do this is by demanding from the government support for families with many children (yeah, “Think Of The Children” – yet again), while on the other hand encouraging those same families to have even more children, because the Torah says so. Talk about a demographic bomb.

Now, the interesting twist in all this is that historically there were two major conflicts within the Israeli society (in addition to Left vs. Right, vis-à-vis Arab aggression): Religious vs. Secular, and Ashkenazi vs. Sefaradi. The Shas phenomenon merged the two. What we actually see now is West vs. East in its larger context: Modernity vs. Backwardness. Now, before Mr. Paine jumps in and says: “Aha, I told you so!”, let me just say that I can in no way equate Judaism with Islam, not even with its most peaceful form. Farthermore, this is not so much about religion, as is about culture, of which religion is only a part.

All the usual attributes of backwardness are there: subjugation of women, lack of work ethic, rejection of any secular education - even a vocational one – come to mind. On the bright side: no inherent violence, imperialism, or tribal feuding. But still, not the kind of culture I want to live in.

So, it turns out, Israel has to fight this war on two fronts. On one of them it has to fight not only on its own behalf, but also on behalf of the entire Western world, although with very little support from it. On the other it has to fight only for itself, and entirely on its own. And it has to win on both fronts to survive.

(Crossposted here).