By Roger H. Lieberman
Toward the end of the sixteenth century, the young German astronomer Johannes Kepler was teaching mathematics in the Austrian town of Graz. One afternoon, as the story was recounted by Carl Sagan in “Cosmos”, he was gripped by a notion so powerful that it became the focus of his work for years to come.
Kepler’s original hypothesis was an attempt to reconcile the revolutionary (and, in some quarters, heretical) Copernican model of a Sun-centered solar system with the traditional, Church-sanctioned doctrine of perfect, divinely-inspired, celestial geometry. He proposed that the orbits of the six planets then known, Mercury through Saturn, as well as the distances between them, were based on a nested set of the five regular solids (cube, tetrahedron, icosahedron, octahedron, and dodecahedron) identified two thousand years earlier by the Greek scholar and mystic, Pythagoras.
With immaculate hindsight, such ideas seem remarkably silly, and one cannot help but feel sorry for Kepler that he wasted a good part of his career pursuing what Sagan aptly described as a “geometrical phantasm”. But such doomed efforts to perform an intellectual balancing act between long-established dogma and observable realities are by no means a thing of the past. On the contrary, they are much in evidence in our modern world – and perhaps nowhere more so than in the realm of politics.
As the American presidential race kicks into high gear, one can readily observe among the leading Democratic contenders such an ungainly effort to distance themselves from the Bush Administration’s disastrous foreign policies – while simultaneously assimilating most of the prejudices and misconceptions that have inspired them. No aspect of George W. Bush’s presidency is more overdue for Democratic censure than the horrible humanitarian consequences of his actions regarding Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. Yet these are precisely the issues Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seem most reticent to confront the Republicans on.
This is, alas, not a phenomenon of recent or novel origin. Quite the contrary, it has been a highly destructive fixture of American politics since the end of the Cold War – when both major parties accepted the basic contours of a highly aggressive, unilateral foreign policy that severely undermined international law and led to a series of senseless wars against incomparably weaker adversaries in the Middle East and elsewhere. Since the inauguration of the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 “War on Terrorism”, this “gentleman’s agreement” between the Democratic and Republican party establishments has had devastating global repercussions – from the Iraq war, to the erosion of the US Constitution, to Israel’s brutal repression of the Palestinians.
One has only to consider how different things might be today had the Democrats acted more resolutely on these matters a mere eight years ago. Suppose Al Gore, in the course of the 2000 presidential campaign, had made an effort to distance himself from the Clinton Administration’s foreign policy record by speaking candidly about the appalling loss of life among Iraqi civilians stemming from the draconian US-led embargo. Suppose he had revealed to the American public the degree to which Clinton had mismanaged the Oslo process – allowing Israel to rapidly expand segregated Jewish settlements in the West Bank, undermine the territorial and economic viability of a prospective Palestinian state, and foment disillusionment and radicalism among many Palestinians who found themselves facing a bleak future dictated by closures, barbed wire, and abject poverty.
Not only would such a course of action have helped define Gore as a progressive, independent thinker unfettered by Clinton’s morally compromised legacy. It might also have helped draw out then-Governor Bush’s true agenda for America’s role in the world – an agenda that remained largely hidden until the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
Unfortunately, Gore failed to articulate such a vision, despite many opportunities to do so. And his failure to generate decisive enthusiasm among progressives was to have rueful consequences in the electoral fiasco that November. Had Gore confronted sensitive foreign policy issues of vital importance to young voters, the Florida controversy might never have made it into the papers – and the Democrats might not have squandered the next four years (and longer) smearing Ralph Nader as a “spoiler” for venturing into political terrain where Gore dared not tread.
Four years later, America found itself well into a disastrous, unprovoked war in Iraq, instigated by the Bush Administration’s pet ideologues via a torrent of lies and distortions. Meanwhile, the situation in the Holy Land continued to deteriorate as Israel proceeded to unilaterally “disengage” from the Occupied Territories and build a monstrous, illegal barrier on Palestinian land.
Here, again, events presented the Democratic candidates with a critical opportunity to offer a new trajectory, a new paradigm, for America’s role in the Middle East. Yet once again, the Democratic establishment crippled its ability to confront Bush and the neo-conservatives by submitting to childish self-censorship.
At one critical juncture early in the campaign, Vermont Governor Howard Dean caved into pressure from party honcho Nancy Pelosi, when she chided him for so much as arguing that US policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict should be “even-handed”. As Senator John Kerry overtook Dean for the nomination, he promptly showed deference to dogma by denouncing the International Court ruling against Israel’s Apartheid Wall in the West Bank. Nor could Kerry articulate a consistent opposition to the Iraq war, rooted in the readily available evidence of calculated deceit by the White House and terrible loss of life among Iraqi civilians.
Another anemic performance by the Democrats, another slim victory by Team Bush – again with rumors of wrongdoing at the polls (this time in Ohio). Another four years of war, deteriorating international relations, and general erosion of America’s democratic values. And four years later, the Democrats seem all too willing to repeat their mistakes. A pattern emerges, and it tells a story with all the pathos of a Shakespearean tragedy.
How is it that after a month which has witnessed the killing of over 100 Palestinians in Gaza by Israel – in contrast to 3 Israelis killed by Palestinians – and exacerbated viciousness by the Israelis against the population of Gaza as a whole, Barack Obama can call on President Bush’s to block UN censure of Israel? Where in the body of international human rights law (or good old-fashioned logic, for that manner) can such an obscene policy as Israel’s collective punishment be justified? Obama clearly knows better, yet he feigns “know-nothingness” on this dire crisis because Democratic party dogma maintains the falacious and insulting assumption that Jewish voters will spontaneously reject any candidate who criticizes Israel’s behavior.
The abject failure of the American political mainstream to challenge America’s morally bankrupt Middle East policies has been integral to the perpetuation of wrongs on the ground, and well as to the chronic misunderstanding of the issues at stake by the American public at large. Yet wrong ideas, like savage customs, rarely linger in human societies from generation to generation unless they have some perceived value – if purely a psychological one. And there are very sound historical reasons for suspecting that knee-jerk support for Israel, and general insensitivity toward the suffering of Palestinians, Iraqis, and other Middle Eastern peoples among the US political establishment represents a kind of cult ritual repeated ad infinitum as a mental eraser to avoid lucidly and responsibly confronting a bad conscience.
No country on Earth could have done more to save European Jews imperiled by the rise of German fascism and Hitler’s re-militarization in the 1930s than the United States. And no country was more derelict in its moral obligations to provide sanctuary and livelihood to Jews fleeing Nazi-dominated Europe, or for more pathetic reasons.
To understand why events in North America and Europe played out as tragically as they did, it is necessary to reexamine the intellectual eccentricities of the Atlantic world in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, many white American thinkers, flush with a sense of racially-charged exceptionalism in the wake of the violent seizure of the West from its indigenous inhabitants, became paranoid about the “racial” implications of massive immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.
The argument, as best exemplified by the nativist rants of Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, went something as follows: the American republic was built by “Nordic” immigrants – and especially Anglo-Saxons – from Northwest Europe, so only peoples of that general type could be regarded as “good stock” for sustaining the American way of life, and only they should be allowed to immigrate in large numbers. Eastern and Southern Europeans, on the other hand, were “Alpines” and “Mediterraneans”, who lacked the intelligence to function responsibly in a free society.
Like many racialists of our own time, the Nordic supremacists of the early 1900s called on science to provide supposedly “objective” evidence to substantiate their prejudices. As Stephen Jay Gould masterfully described in “The Mismeasure of Man”, intelligence tests were given to US Army recruits during World War I for the purpose of comparing the supposedly hereditary mental faculties of various ethnic groups. Administered under stressful conditions by officers barking orders to men who often could scarcely speak English, the test results inevitably “demonstrated” precisely what the champions of immigration restriction had “predicted”.
As ludicrous as such crude pseudo-science seems now, it was taken all too seriously by politicians who felt their own prejudices to vindicated by it. The Army IQ tests, together with studies of the “feeble-minded” undertaken by eugenicists like Harry Laughlin and Charles Davenport, were instrumental in convincing Congress to pass the Johnson Immigration Restriction Act in 1924, which President Calvin Coolidge enthusiastically signed into law.
These measures drastically curtailed the ability of “non-Nordic” peoples – including European Jews – to enter the US and acquire citizenship in the years leading up to the Second World War. They remained in place even as terrifying reports leaked out of Germany detailing Nazi atrocities – in no small part because a considerable number of influential Americans shared, to some degree, the violent racial bigotry that ultimately manifested itself in the genocidal horrors of the Holocaust.
The terrible irony of America’s post-World War II foreign policy is that, in ostensibly seeking to make amends for some of its worst prewar failures, these old prejudices were not nearly so much mitigated or disavowed as they were transferred onto new victims. In sponsoring Israel’s establishment as a state privileging immigrant Jews over native Palestinian Muslims and Christians, the US political establishment committed afresh its old sin of presuming some people to be inherently more “democratically inclined” than others – even as it was strenuously forswearing such ideas on the home front. In the name of preventing Saddam Hussein from becoming a “new Hitler”, the US perverted international law by launching an indiscriminate assault on Iraq’s civil infrastructure in 1991, greatly exacerbating that damage through 12 years of sanctions, and ultimately invading and occupying the country on false pretenses in 2003. In the name of “spreading democracy”, George W. Bush and his would-be Republican successors mull a new war against Iran – and their Democratic opponents show little desire to stop them. And in the name of “national security”, right-wing ideologues have fomented crude and inexcusable bigotry against Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia – which resembles nothing so much as the antipathy for Jews, Slavs, and Italians that pervaded American racialist circles a century ago.
Challenging entrenched prejudices has never been an easy affair in human history, but no progress toward a more decent society is possible without it. When Johannes Kepler ultimately recognized the true forces that governed planetary motion, he had the courage to abandon the five solids and articulate his new insights – profoundly changing our understanding of astronomy. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have the power to alter the course of America’s role in the world – by unequivocally advocating withdrawal from Iraq, supporting the Arab League Initiative for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and laying out a plan for the revival of civil society throughout the region. Their duty to exercise that power is owed, not only to their fellow citizens, but to all the world.
-The writer is a graduate student of Environmental, Technological and Medical History at Rutgers University in New Jersey.