AllenCo Energy oil drill site in West Adams’ University Park neighborhod.
Closed since September 2013, the company is asking to resume pumping oil.
Note the immediate proximity of residential housing just over the drill site’s back wall.
Hundreds of people were sickened before the operation shut down.
The AllenCo Energy company, whose 21-well urban oil field at 814 W. 23rd Street in the University Park neighborhood just north of USC sickened hundreds of people from uncontrolled fumes, is now pressing to resume drilling operations, shut down since November 2013. This has brought some serious media attention, revealing a shocking systemic failure of both Los Angeles and California state oversight of such urban oil operations.
The states regulatory agency, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), under pressure for failing to turn in reports for several years, released an audit of its work on October 8, 2015. This revealed that the agency has not conducted its required annual review of "most oil projects" in the Los Angeles area since 2007. The L.A. Times summarized:
"Seventy-eight percent of the projects in the audit did not undergo a required Area of Review. . . . Only five projects had undergone such an analysis in the last five years.Read more: Drastic Flaws Revealed in City and State Oversight of Urban Oil Drill Sites
The spread of homeless camps outward from Downtown Skid Row into every neighborhood spurred seven L.A. City Council members and Mayor Eric Garcetti on September 22 to declare homelessness a city emergency and promise to raise $100 million to ameliorate it. There is a long unhappy back story here. The city for decades has tried to nickel and dime its way out of the homeless morass. It has put what money it has allocated for this problem overwhelmingly into police and Department of Sanitation cleanups of homeless camps, spending $100 million in 2014, of which 67% went to these services, which took no one off the streets.
Shocked by Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) numbers from its January 2015 point-in-time count, the city found that it had 26,000 homeless people within its borders, 12% more than in 2013, but with an astounding 84% growth in the number of street camps and people living in vehicles.Read more: Los Angeles's Homeless Emergency
The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom. John Gray. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 179 pp.
John Gray, English political philosopher and acerbic journalist, is our great pessimist. If at one time raising a lance against the happy illusions of progress was to make one a lonely outsider, today the already creeping cataclysms of overpopulation and resource depletion, worsened by the early effects of global warming, can hardly be ignored - in the rise of fanatical Islamic movements that are destroying the resource-poor Arab Middle East and North Africa, the endless bloodshed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, the failed economic recovery of southern Europe, or the rapid erosion of the American middle class. The sense of decline and of imminent peril is reflected in the avalanche of dystopian films and novels that dominate the cultural landscape.Read more: Is There Any Meaning to Human Life Or Should We Just Get On With It?
Mounting protests over the two new Los Angeles city ordinances, one for sidewalks and one for parks and beaches, that reduces notice for clearing homeless camps from 72 to 24 hours, adopted by the City Council June 23, have prompted Mayor Garcetti to order city departments to withhold sweeps until softening amendments are added. The mayor chose to let the ordinances become law without his signature. These decisions unhappily are mostly cosmetic.Read more: New Laws on Removing Homeless Camps Harsher Than Reported
There are 25,000 homeless people in the city of Los Angeles; 44,000 in the county. Those are the raw numbers found by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority from its late January three-day point-in-time nighttime count, in which 5,500 volunteers, this writer included, went out and covered every block of 89% of the census tracts in Los Angeles County. The bad news is that this is 12% more than were found two years ago.
The findings were presented by LAHSAs Executive Director Peter Lynn at a well-attended May 11 meeting of its Commission at its Wilshire Blvd. headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. I was one of those in the audience.
As Lynn expanded his report, the subpopulations showed worse damage. Those found to be unsheltered in the city in this years count, that is, living in the streets, were 17,687, up 18.6% from two years ago. The rest on the nights of the count were in various public and charity homeless shelters. And of those on the streets, there was an incredible 85% increase in people living in tents, under plastic tarps, in RVs, and automobiles.
Los Angeles has the greatest number of homeless in the nation. There are many reasons for this. Our city has the fifth most expensive rents in the country, after San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, with median rents for a one-bedroom apartment at $1,740, and two-bedrooms going for $2,406. Current California minimum wage is
$9 an hour, or $1440 a month before taxes. The national standard of affordability is supposed to be no more than one third of a familys income on rent or mortgage. A large number of L.A.s poor spend up to two-thirds of their income on rent, while 18% of the people of Los Angeles County live in poverty, higher than the state or national average.
There is little affordable housing, mental health care, or housing specifically for the homeless, except for veterans.
The homeless are not distributed evenly among the citys 15 council districts. Of course, JosÌ© Huizars CD 14, which includes both Skid Row in Downtownand Boyle Heights in East LA, has the lions share, with an estimated 6,292. Much of the Valley, with CDs 2, 3, 4, 5, and 12, have fewer than 1,000 each.
Three districts were counted at just over 2,000: 9, 11, and 13. For 9, the homeless are in the area in South L.A. around USC, then the district stretches east of the Harbor Freeway into a commercial and warehousing area. CD 11 picks up some poor areas in Palms and Venice. CD 13 has a number of neighborhoods that include low-income sections such as Koreatown, Rampart, Echo Park, and East Hollywood.
The rest of the council districts all have homeless in the 1,000 range.
Who Are the Homeless?
The popular perception seems to be that the homeless are mainly the mentally ill and drug and alcohol abusers. Extensive demographic street surveys that followed the count found that picture to be only partially true. Survey questionnaires were administered to several thousand homeless persons. The survey categories are not mutually ex
clusive, as one person might have more than one condition. The surveys were for the whole 44,359 countywide homeless contingent.
27.6% were found to be mentally ill. 23.4% were drug or alcohol abusers. But 19.8% were victims of domestic violence, and 18.4% were disabled.
After Peter Lynn concluded his presentation a black woman in the audience angrily insisted that virtually all the homeless are African Americans and that most of the shelter aid and housing is going to illegal immigrants. Commissioner Kelvin Sauls, who is pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church and was born in South Africa, responded that he is black and an immigrant, and that we must all remain united if we are to end homelessness.
Peter Lynn then produced statistics on the ethnic breakdown from the homeless survey that are not yet on the LAHSA website.
39% were African American
5% described themselves as multiracial
4% declined to state.
The main statistics from Peter Lynns presentation are available on the LAHSA website (www.lahsa.org). Further details will be added there in the future.
City Administrative Officer Miguel A. Santana released a 21-page report on L.A. homelessness April 16 to a chorus of criticism. The annual costs were much higher than people expected, conservatively at least $100 million, and precious little of that went to housing or other expenses that got anyone off the streets.
The amount looked like a lot, but in a city budget of $8.57 billion it came to just .017%, mainly showing that the city doesnt take homelessness seriously and hasnt made a significant investment in trying to end it.
Santanas report concluded that the main achievement of the recent period has been the creation of the Coordinated Entry System (CES), which is working to replace the multiple first-come, first-served places where homeless people register for the extremely limited amount of housing, now with a citywide coordinated database that ranks applicants on the basis of need.
Beyond that, while 15 city agencies interact with the homeless, the study found "no consistent process across departments in interactions with homeless individuals, homeless encampments, or other issues related to homelessness, and no systematic efforts to connect the homeless with assessment and case management."
Basically city agencies telephone or email the grossly under-funded 19 staff members of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authoritys Emergency Response Team (ERT), the police, or, if a homeless person is ill, the Fire Department paramedics. This is where the great majority of the $100 million expense is incurred.
The report said that LAPD "estimated that it spent anywhere from $53.6 million to $87.3 million in one year on interactions with the homeless, not including costs incurred from patrol officers time." Some 14.23% of all LAPD arrests are of transients.
The Fire Department estimated at least 6.6 percent of its ambulance transports were for homeless patients.
Critics of the report demand that the money be spent on housing instead of "criminalizing the homeless." Large numbers of the homeless are mentally ill, or addicted to drugs or alcohol. This is not something created by the police, but a failure of the government, when long-term institutionalized mental patients were made homeless at the beginning of the 1970s when existing institutions turned them out on the streets, and promised community housing and mental clinics were never provided. Later generations have followed on their heels, where they were joined by long-term structural unemployed, as jobs were outsourced overseas. Many people who lost their housing fell into addiction and alcoholism.
There is a high level of petty crime and violence in this population, both as perpetrators and as victims. $6 million of LAPDs expenses, for example, go to a mental evaluation team of mental health professionals, and $6.7 million goes to its Safer Cities Initiative in Skid Row, which has as one of its functions protecting the homeless from gang members and drug dealers. Obviously most of the .017% of the city budget now spent to maintain order, to clean camps, to provide what mental health services there are, and the essential ambulance and hospital services cannot be taken away to build housing. And if every penny were removed, prorated over the 23,000 homeless who were on the city streets in 2013 (we dont yet have the numbers from the 2015 count), it would total $4,348 per person, not enough to house very many people. Plainly a massive additional effort is needed to eradicate homelessness in our city, not some reallocation of the tiny amount now being spent. To have some sense of scale, a single building, the U.S. Bank tower, at 633 W. Fifth Street, back in 1989 cost $350 million to build.
The City Administrative Officers report doesnt include the cost of the homeless on Los Angeles health care system. In a 2013 study of homeless patients in Los Angeles hospitals by the Economic Roundtable (Getting Home: Outcomes from Housing High Cost Homeless Hospital Patients) they found that the most chronically ill 10% of homeless patients cost the hospitals an average of $63,808 each when living on the street. When provided housing, this dropped to $16,913.
Miguel Santanas report says it is in favor of a policy of "housing first," of not demanding that homeless people go sober or give up drugs to get a place to live. Successful Housing First pilot projects have been carried out in Anchorage, Alaska, Atlanta, Austin, TX, Chicago, Denver, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
So far, this seems to be just an aspiration in Los Angeles. There is extremely little money for real housing. The city agencies just mainly call LAHSAs Emergency Response Team. But only in cases where people have just been dumped on the street and dont know where to go are these teams likely to have much impact, or where the homeless person has been unable to establish a stable tent or home-made shelter. Usually all an outreach team can promise is a few nights in a crowded and often dangerous city dormitory. This is most effective for priority cases, mainly for families with children or young people or someone sleeping unprotected in an alley.
There is no realistic incentive for a homeless person to abandon a tent or their own carefully constructed shelter, where they have possessions they cant carry to a city shelter, as in my photo above, taken a few days ago on the 42nd Street bridge over the Harbor Freeway. That man would lose his belongings, only have to move again in a day or two. So, often the phone call gives the feeling that we have done something, but until there is the offer of housing, the feeling is usually illusory. If the offer didn't include housing it was too little.
Aaliya Saleh, the 72-year-old protagonist of Rabih Almeddine's fifth novel, has lived in Beirut all her life. She has seen her once-cosmopolitan city descend into seemingly perpetual communal strife. After Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization's failed attempt to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy in 1970, in which thousands of Palestinians died, the PLO gunmen were expelled into Lebanon. There they staged guerrilla raids into Israel and became one pole in the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. Aaliya recalls reading Calvino's Invisible Cities "while people killed each other outside my window." At the midpoint, in 1982, Israel invaded, forcing the PLO into exile in Tunisia, and leaving behind a new enemy, the Shi'ite Hezbullah militia, which has contested ever since for dominance against Lebanon's Christian and Sunni Muslims, while periodically launching attacks over the border into Israel, which draws the Israelis back into Lebanon.
Aaliya observes these events with stoic distaste, hating all of the gun-toting armies, militias, and gangs with Olympian impartiality. Liberated from an arranged marriage when her nasty, diminutive, and impotent husband divorces her at the age of twenty, still a virgin, she secures a marginal job as the only employee of a small bookstore, operated on a shoestring as a hobby project of a prosperous Beiruti. "There were more stupid stuffed toys than there were books, and everything was covered with dust. The bookstore had as much chance of making it as I did."
She stays there until she retires when she is sixty-eight and the bookstore is sold out from under her. Thereafter she has been a recluse in the apartment she had first occupied on her disastrous wedding night when she was sixteen. It is owned by her ex-husband's family and they resist every attempt by Aaliya's relatives to force her out to allow their larger families to take it over. This gives her space for her books.
During her whole adult life Aaliya has been alienated from her family. She sees them only when one or another of her stepbrothers bangs on her door demanding that she relinquish the apartment to him, as his wife has just had yet another child. Her refusals become easier when, after Palestinian militiamen burglarize her rooms and one of them, in a gesture of spiteful contempt, shits on her bathroom floor - a spot she can never afterward feel is clean - she acquires an AK-47 that she sleeps with and which gives her the reputation of being a madwoman. The stepbrothers hear of this and stop coming. She calls the Palestinian gunmen teenage Thanatophiles.
Aaliya has only one close friend, Hannah, who died in 1972. On the floor above there live the Three Witches, Fadia, Aaliya's ex-husband's sister, who owns the building, and her two girlfriends, with whom Aaliya maintains a tenuous amity.
Claire Messud in a laudatory review in The Guardian writes that this is "a book in which almost nothing happens."
That is perhaps an exaggeration, as the arrival of the AK-47 is not the only unexpected touch, but the novel achieves its power not from action but from the contrast between the emptiness of Aaliya's external life, which is practically claustrophobic, and her intellectual life. Coming from a family of near illiterates who see little point in female schooling, she begins with a traditional Qu'ranic education but soon develops a passion for world literature and philosophy.
Fluent in French and English as well as Arabic, she has spent fifty years translating literary works into Arabic. Every January first she tries to begin a new book. With the exigencies of the civil war, that some of her choices are exceedingly long, and a few were abandoned midstream, she has, at seventy-two, completed thirty-seven books. Her translations include works by W. G. Sebald, Roberto BolaÌ±o, Italo Calvino, Sadegh Hedayat, Knut Hamsun, Bilge Karasu, Imre KertÌ©sz, Danilo KiÁ, Cees Nooteboom, JosÌ© Saramago, Bruno Schulz, Leo Tolstoy. That none of these writers wrote in English or French has a central import on Aaliya's life and work.
In her entire lifeAaliya has spent only ten nights outside of Beirut and never left Lebanon. After her retirement from the bookstore she only leaves her apartment to shop and go to the NationalMuseum, preferably when few others are present.
Her mind is flooded with a torrent of words and images from the outside world. These come not only from the works she has translated but from the vast body of books she has read along the way. The one negative review I found, in the New York Review of Books, captured this while sniffing dismissively that An Unnecessary Woman was "a kind of commonplace book, stuffed with citations from Aaliyas favorite novels and poems."
The criticism is unfair but An Unnecessary Woman is certainly stuffed with citations. At one point Aaliya describes her reading habits. She buys a few books on her almost nonexistent salary, and supplements her wages by bringing home treasures from the bookstore. As she is in charge of ordering, she collects what she is interested in.
"The pile grows and grows until I decide that I'm not going to buy a single book until I read my stack. . . .
"The top book on the pile is Microcosms by Claudio Magris. I've only read one other book of his, Danube, from which, among his many impeccable sentences, one wrapped its octopus arms around my frenetically feeble mind for months. It goes like this: 'Kafka and Pessoa journey not to the end of a dark night, but of a night of a colourless mediocrity that is even more disturbing, and in which one becomes aware of being only a peg to hang life on, and that at the bottom of that life, thanks to this awareness, there may be sought some last-ditch residue of truth.'"
* * *
Rabih Alameddine was born in 1959 in Amman, Jordan, to Lebanese Arab parents. He grew up in Beirut, was sent abroad to boarding school in England. After two years he moved to Los Angeles where he took a degree in engineering at UCLA, then an MBA from the University of San Francisco. He family belong to the Druze religion, which split off from Shia Islam a thousand years ago, incorporating elements of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism; 5.6% of Lebanon's population of 4.2 million are Druze, or about 231,000. There are 125,000 Druze in Israel. Whatever his upbringing, Alameddine shook off religion altogether. He divides his time between San Francisco and Beirut.
Like Salman Rushdie, Alameddine's work is absorbed with the conflicted status of the emigrant, attracted to Western modernism but never fully a part of that ethos, repelled by elements of traditionalism in the homeland but never able to sever that identity and ending not at home in either culture. Aaliya is the most extreme emigrant while never setting foot in the lands she reads about.
Alameddine's juxtapositions are layered. Aaliya sacrifices most contacts with others, family, and career to her self-isolation and endless reading and translating. In a country where almost everything is colored or defined by religious politics, including family and clan connections, Aaliya's non-Arabic and non-religious literature provides an armor that protects her from becoming defined by religious sectarianism. The immersion in an endless variety of foreign cultures allows her to define her own position in Beirut's confessional brutalities as a personal Switzerland. It also stakes out a position:
In a maelstrom, taking sides, any side, not only cannot change the outcome but requires sacrificing oneself to the unforgiving and narrow ideology of a cause, no matter if that cause is Maronite Christianity, the Shi'ite champions of Hezbullah, the Christian Falangists, the Palestinian irredentists, Sunni militants, or some less likely variant such as Marxism.
Alameddine wants to establish Aaliya's choice of life paths as absolute, using the wedge of the foreign cultures to shut the door on being drawn into domestic loyalties, even through a literary career that would eventually bring public attention, create enemies, engender friendships, all with threads leading back into the web of sectarian hatreds she is determined to escape from. This takes us to the peculiarity of her translations.
For the whole of her fifty years in this endeavor she has never translated a book into Arabic that was written in either English or French, the only two other languages she reads. Instead she adopted the method of selecting books for which she could find both English and French translations - her chosen authors wrote in Russian, Dutch, Spanish, Serbian, Greek, German, Japanese, Norwegian, Italian, and other tongues. Her translations were made by comparing the French and English versions. These, of course, would be unsalable, as she never did or could read the originals.
As translation is often looked at in the literary world as drudge work except at the highest level of the chosen translators of very famous books, most reviewers of An Unnecessary Woman passed over in silence what Aaliya might have gotten out of such a prolonged, unremunerated labor. One quoted a sentence where she said doing the work was "bliss."
I don't have the language skills to translate. At most, years ago, working for a Trotskyist news service in New York, I would translate two-paragraph articles from Le Monde. But I have been an editor on and off for a very long time, and copy edited many manuscripts. I occasionally read a novel in my bad French. And in an advanced Chinese class at UCLA in the 1980s we read a hundred pages a week of short stories and essays in Chinese. These activities, like translating, all have in common a deep concentration on each sentence that is absent in ordinary reading. Copy editing, translating, and, if you are paying close attention, reading with care in a foreign language is not the same as reading a book in your own language. It requires immersion in the text. You have to think through each clause and subclause: what is the author trying to say, how would you phrase this if you had to improve it.
For those of us in the vast army of literary minions who spend our time working over other people's words, the pleasure of it, if the book you are engaged with is any good, is grasping at a much more intimate and lasting level what the author is trying to communicate. Aaliya calls it a "blind lust for the written word."
Aaliya never makes any attempt to do anything with her translations. They pile up in boxes in a spare room of her apartment. She explains herself at one point:
"If I tell the truth - and I should, shouldn't I? - I translate books with my invented system because it makes time flow more gently. That's the primary reason. I think. As Camus said in The Fall: 'Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful.' I made translation my master."
* * *
The only other fully developed persons in An Unnecessary Woman are Ahmad and Hannah. Ahmad, a shy teenager, showed up at Aaliya's bookstore one day in 1967, "lanky and wispy, a character out of a Chekhov story, with peach fuzz and kaffiyeh, trying to emulate his hero Yasser." He lived with his mother in a corrugated iron shack in the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp. Curiously, he wanted to see a copy of Alberto Moravia's The Conformist, whose hero, he had heard, "was not a hero, he killed many lizards." Being told there was no Arabic translation (Aaliya refused to translate it herself as it was too boringly didactic), he settled for an English version. His English was rudimentary and he had no money to buy a book, so he came every day for a month and painfully worked through the novel. He asked for a job, and when the owner refused to hire him worked at the bookstore for four years without pay.
After the Palestinian influx into Lebanon following 1970's Black September in Jordan, Ahmad abandoned books and the bookstore and joined George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. IN 1977 Aaliya sought him out after her apartment was burglarized, to ask him for a gun. Water had been shut off in her neighborhood for a long time. "I stank of sewage. I looked like the witch from Hansel and Gretel." Ahmad, now in his late twenties, had become a functionary of the PFLP. His living room was filled with "Balzacian embellishments - a cloverleaf of small lalique ashtrays, Lladro and Hummel figurines approximating a modernist Nativity scene, a grandfather clock, a rug that might have been twice my age at the time."
Ahmad had become what as a teenager he had abhorred. The PFLP, Aaliya mused, "as Marxist-Leninist as it may have considered itself to be, was a mirror image of Mussolini's Fasci Italiani di Combattimento." He had become a lizard killer. He worked as a highly paid torturer for the Palestinian cause. It was said that he knew how to make mutes talk.
He suggested an AK-47, "reliable, never jams, easy to use, lightweight." What did he ask in return? It took him a long time to articulate, but he demanded sex with her. Another ambivalence. She needed the gun. She was filthy. This was not exactly consensual. She agreed - by this time, at least, she was no longer a virgin - took a long, much appreciated, shower and they went to bed. She was just forty. The last time she saw Ahmad was in September 1982. He was boarding the ship for Tunis with Arafat's party.
* * *
Hannah was fifteen years older than Aaliya, born n 1922. She was shy, a little overweight, self-conscious of her slight limp, a devout Muslim, socially awkward. She came to know Aaliya through Aaliya's husband's family, and that through a cosmic misunderstanding.
Hannah, who had only recently begun to leave her parental home during the day, by taking an unpaid volunteer job at a local hospital, went to the hospital by taxi. The Beirut taxis took on five passengers: two in the front with the driver and three in the back. Fearing to sit next to a man, Hannah always paid for two seats. One day, when the only vacant seat was Hannah's preserved space, the driver insisted she give it up so he could take on a soldier who flagged him down. When she refused the driver refunded her fares and expelled her from the cab. Expelled with her was an army lieutenant who had sided with her in the argument. He insisted on walking her home.
The romantically inexperienced Hannah wove fantasies about her lieutenant and convinced herself that he was enamored of her and wanted to marry her. She told her parents than an engagement was imminent and had them invite the lieutenant and his whole family to an elaborate lunch.
The mystified lieutenant and his parents appeared, thinking this was excessive for walking the young woman home. That they came at all convinced Hannah's parents that she was indeed about to be married. This embarrassing encounter came off with neither side quite understanding what the other thought was going on.
Inevitably the two families compared notes and understood a mistake had been made. Just as they were about to tell Hannah that the lieutenant wasn't interested, he was killed in a car crash. She was never told. Instead, for the rest of her life she attached herself to the lieutenant's mother as a grieving almost widow. The dead lieutenant's brother later became Aaliya's unwanted husband. And that is how Hannah and Aaliya met.
Hannah became Aaliya's Sancho Panza, her inseparable companion. She tried to follow Aaliya into the labyrinth of European and Asian literary and philosophical thought. Aaliya certainly didn't choose an easy place to begin. She and Hannah would have dinner together at Aaliya's apartment, and in the evenings, for the two years from 1952-1953, Aaliya would read out loud from a French edition of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea, a book that even she concedes she barely understood, while Hannah sat in the corner and quietly knitted.
But Hannah remained game. They worked their way through Spinoza the following year. One day in the bookstore while Hannah was there, "a chic woman walked in trailing a reek of lily perfume and petit bourgeois affectations." She asked where the books by Heidegger were kept. When told, she pointedly asked, "Which would you recommend?" The question was meant to humiliate. Aaliya had read an essay about Heidegger to Hannah but none of his books.
"Without lifting her eyes from the sweater she was working on Hannah said, 'We wouldn't recommend anything by that proto-Nazi. He's a third-rate philosopher with a ridiculous knit cap, and trust me, I know my knitting. . . . His only interest was in posturing, and only posturers are interested in him. A woman of your intelligence shouldn't waste time reading Heidegger.'"
Around 1970 Aaliya's mother-in-law died. She was also, of course, the mother of Hannah's long-dead lieutenant. On her deathbed the old woman said to Hannah, "You have given me, my dearest daughter, some of the happiest moments of my life. Your presence in our family has made the absence of my son bearable." But then she added, "I promise that once all three of us are in Heaven, I will not be forced to make the impossible decision of choosing between the two of you."
Hannah afterward was so moved by being fully accepted by the lieutenant's mother that she paid no attention to the cryptic last sentence.
“She moseyed along through her life for quite a while after that, nine or ten months, but I imagine that like a mosquito buzzing in your ear, that last sentence,vague as it may have been, wouldn’t let her sleep. A buzz of doubt that became the roar of the crowd at the Colosseum? . . . She may have woken up one morning and realized that the lieutenant had never desired her.”
She took a whole bottle of Seconal and Valium, and survived. In 1972 Hannah jumped from the top of a four story building. She was forty-nine. She never finished Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, where she had gotten as far as the second volume.
* * *
As An Unnecessary Woman begins, Aaliya is just completing her translation of W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, a novel of the kindertransport. Its main character, Jacques Austerlitz, was sent by his parents as a child in the 1939 mass rescue mission of German Jewish children dispatched to Britain to escape the Nazis. Most never saw their parents agen. As an adult, Austerlitz returns to Europe to try to discover how his parents died, in the Holocaust. Aaliya says of this:
“I am proud that I finished the Austerlitz project. I consider it one of the best Holocaust novels. . . . I find that when a subject has been heavily tilled, particularly something as horrifying as the Holocaust, anything new should force me to look with fresh eyes, to experience previously unexperienced feelings, to explore the hitherto unexplored. When I first read Primo Levi, my body shivered and spasmed at the oddest of moments for a week. I couldn’t read Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen without clutching the edge of my desk. But then it took years, wading through mostly melodramatic books until I came across Kertesz’s Fateless, to feel challenged once more.”
Jewish experience and Jewish writers pervade this novel by an Arab author. Walter Benjamin is mentioned repeatedly, and several pages are devoted to the fate of Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jew, an artist, literary critic, author of the book of short stories The Street of Crocodiles. His life was saved briefly when a Gestapo officer, Felix Landau, declared Schulz a “necessary Jew” and used him to paint fairy tale scenes on the walls of his son’s bedroom. Schulz was killed by another Gestapo officer, Karl Günter, Aaliya recounts, “to get back at Landau, who’d killed a dentist Günter favored – a necessary dentist, one presumes.”
She tells us that “The philosopher I feel the most kinship with is Spinoza.” So here we have a truly broad world culture, not only inclusive of Europeans, Africans, and Asians, or only figures of the Left or Right, but, unusual for an Arab author, particularly one of the first rank, full inclusion, even a favored place, for Jewish philosophical and literary culture. This is an essential context when Aaliya at one point declares:
“I’m sure you’ve noticed that I dislike Israel, that ridiculous pygmy state dripping with self-overestimation, yet many of the giants I respect are Jewish. There is no contradictions. I identify with outsiders, with the alienated or dispossessed. Like many nation-states, including its sister pygmy state Lebanon, Israel is an abomination. Israelis are Jews who have misplaced their sense of humor.”
I cannot share these views. They run off the track insofar as Lebanon’s other past and present threats – Hezbullah, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PFLP, the Christian Flange, are nonstate actors whose partisans have selected them by an act of choice, while Israel is a nation of half the world’s Jews, most of whom did not select that country by choice and among whom there are a very wide variety of opinions. And though the Lebanese have suffered from Israel’s 1982-85 invasion and its war with Hezbullah in 2006, in each case Israel was responding to extensive cross border attacks by nonstate forces in Lebanon.
That said, both Aaliya Saleh and her creator, Rabih Alameddine are anything but anti-Semites and from their standpoint the Israelis were mainly one more of the armed groups fighting their way across their country. Alameddine drives this distinction home on the same page where his creation Aaliya denounces both Israel and her own homeland:
“I like men and women who don’t fit well in the dominant culture, or, as Alvaro de Campos calls them, strangers in this place as in every other, accidental in life as in the soul. I like outsiders, phantoms, wandering the cobwebbed halls of the doomed castle where life must be lived. . . . I stopped loving Odysseus as soon as he landed back in Ithaca.”
I have for most of my life chosen the other path: of identification with causes, parties, oppressed groups, threatened small nations and nationalities, most especially Israel, the Kurds, Taiwan. But I had, before the civil rights movement of the early sixties threw me onto the track I have followed, saw myself, exactly as Aaliya has chosen: as an outsider, looking forward with great pleasure to being a phantom wandering the cobwebbed halls of the doomed castle. Those are the two poles of our ambivalent lives.
The price for a barrel of American-based oil (West Texas Intermediate) this morning was $53. The last time it was in this range was in 2009, while in the last three years it had vacillated around $100, a drop of 44%. Regular gas is under $3 a gallon in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. Is this unmitigated good news or is there a downside to the new low prices? And if oil is so plentiful that the price is plunging does this mean we don't have to worry about peak oil any more?
Why Is the Price Dropping?
At its most basic, what is happening is simple supply and demand. As the chart below shows, except for brief periods in early 2009 and 2012, demand over the last five years, until 2014, was running ahead of supply, pushing the price into the $100 a barrel range. Now, as storage facilities fill up, oil needs to be priced to clear.
The gap is being caused as much by a fall in demand as by a growth in supply. This is a result of the persistent recession in Europe, a slowdown in the Chinese and German economies, the aftereffects of the 2008 crash in America, where unemployment has since declined but where good paying jobs were replaced by minimum wage and part time work. Improved efficiency is also a factor.
I will come later to the supply side. First the consequences of the price drop.
For consumers, at least in the United States and in countries that import most of their oil, such as Japan, the effects are like a large tax cut, boosting individual consumption. America is saving $400 million a day by the lower prices. The effect is the opposite for many of those who work in the oil industry, and much future investment is put at risk, halting projects that could reduce future oil output by several million barrels a day, promising much higher prices at some point ahead. Kurt Cobb in his Resource Insights blog writes:
"The oil industry was already cutting back its exploration budgets before the price plunge. The industry said that there were not enough profitable prospects available even at $100 per barrel. What happens to industry exploration and development budgets with oil prices now around $60? Without exploration there can be no new production; and without new production, oil supply falls automatically. . . . With existing oil production worldwide declining around 4 to 5 percent per year, the industry already had a huge task keeping production growth just barely positive." (December 14)
Lower oil prices also make alternative energy less competitive and will retard its adoption, contributing to global warming.
The most hard hit are the petro states, the oil exporters. The Russian economy, which gets 45% of its budget from oil and gas, is in free fall, with the ruble losing 60% of its value and interest rates skyrocketing to 17%. This has been covered extensively in the news because of the international tensions over Putin's military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Equally hard hit has been Venezuela. Below is a graph of the breakeven prices for the major oil producers and sectors.
At $55 a barrel oil remains profitable for Saudi Arabia, most of the other OPEC states, Russia, and the United States conventional oil producers (excluding shale oil, also called tight oil). But Mexico, Brazil, American shale oil, and Canadian tar sands are serious money losers.
Things are actually worse than these figures suggest. A number of petro states depend directly on oil sales to fund important parts of their national budgets. That requires a much higher price than the mere cost of extraction (see the next chart below).
Saudi Arabia can get oil out of the ground for $24 a barrel, but the large subsidies it provides to its people to keep them quiet require that it sell its oil for $95 a barrel. Major world producers Venezuela, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria, and Iran, all need more than $100 a barrel to fund their budgets, with Iran needing more than $120 a barrel.
At the November 27, 2014, OPEC Summit it was expected that Saudi Arabia, the world's second-largest producer after Russia, would cut its output to boost prices. It refused to do so, throwing its OPEC partners to the wolves. Iran and Venezuela protested bitterly but were ignored. Here the Saudi's political concerns came to the fore: by keeping prices low it struck a blow against its regional enemy Iran, and against Russia, which has been backing Iran's ally, the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. Iran's President Ruhani has accused the Saudis of maintaining high production levels as a plot against Iran, while Israeli analysts believe the Saudis are trying to cripple Iranian investment in their nuclear program in the conviction that the U.S. negotiations are too conciliatory and a failure.
Of course, the Saudis also seek to undermine the American shale oil producers, the central source of the growth in world oil supply that is producing the current glut. By its choice the Saudi's are also selling their oil below the price they need, but they have the largest foreign exchange reserve fund and can afford to spend their capital for a while as their opponents suffer.
Where the Glut Comes From
The price drop gives the impression that there is a global increase in output. That is not the case. The difference between feast and famine comes from a single source: U.S. fracked tight oil.
As the chart above shows, based on data from the federal Energy Information Administration, world oil production today is lower than it was in 2005, the sole exception being the fracked product of American oil plays. Note the steep rate of increase in global output in the first five years of the millennium, followed by the undulating plateau that began in mid-2005, with actual decline over the last three years. The next chart zooms in on the last five years:
The depletion of conventional crude faster than the discovery of new sources, that is, its peaking, has been taking place in the United States just as it has in the rest of the world:
How Secure and Long-Lasting Is Tight Oil?
As the figures on the long-term depletion of conventional oil show, the U.S. has all its eggs in the fracking basket. For several years a blizzard of hyped articles have promoted the idea that the United States is at or on the verge of energy independence. Oil executive Chris Faulkner in the December 16 Los Angeles Times writes that the U.S. "has already overtaken Saudi Arabia, OPEC's dominant member, as the world's largest producer of petroleum liquids." He urges Congress to lift its decades old ban on exporting crude oil to compete with OPEC on the world market.
Numbers change on a weekly basis, but essentially accurate figures for 2014 say that the U.S. produces 8.53 m/bd of crude oil. Russia produces 10, while Saudi Arabia produces about 9.6. The recent decision of the EIA to lump in other "petroleum liquids" is misleading. These are mainly natural gas liquids such as propane, which have a lower energy content than oil and cannot be used as a transportation fuel.
America consumes 18.96 barrels of oil a day. It imports abut 10.5 m/bd. It does not currently export crude oil, but does refine imported crude into gasoline and jet fuel and exports back about 6.5 m/bd of that, making a profit on the refining. This leaves a shortfall of some 4 million barrels a day of crude oil imports consumed here by the American economy. U.S. real home consumption is about 12.5 m/bd and it produces from all domestic sources only 8.5. So we are a very long way from energy independence. Exporting crude now amounts to trying to buy cheap somewhere on the world market and reselling some other country's oil somewhere where a profit can be made.
Shale, or tight, oil output in 2014 was some 4 m/bd, about 47% of the U.S. total. No one can predict the effect of the drastic global price drop. Mostly that depends on how long it lasts. The big oil companies never got a foothold in the fracking business. It is dominated by fleet-footed small operators. Some are doing very well, while many are deep in debt and hanging on by a thread. David Dayen in the New Republic comments:
"The real unknown is how much domestic oil and gas production has been driven by debt, which could change this from a local to a national problem. Oil producers who financed their investments with borrowed money may not be able to pay back the loans, and default rates are expected to double over the next year." (December 16)
Shale wells have very different characteristics from conventional ones. In an ordinary well the underground oil forms a liquid pool that can be pumped to the surface. Shale and similar rocks are solid. The oil exists in micropores. It is released by shattering the rock with blasts of high pressure water mixed with toxic chemicals. A conventional well is comparatively cheap to drill and may last for decades, depleting at 4-5% a year. A tight oil well costs around $10 million dollars. The oil is like the water contained in a sponge: most of it comes out in the first squeeze. Hundreds of wells have to be drilled every year just to keep even with the board.
The most definitive survey of the tight oil market is the 300 page Drilling Deeper report (http://www.postcarbon.org/publications/drillingdeeper/) by Canadian energy analyst David Hughes released October 27, 2014. Hughes served for 32 years as a scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada and is currently a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.
Drilling Deeper in turn draws on the data in the U.S. Energy Information Administration's Annual Energy Outlook 2014 (http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/ ), which was released May 7, 2014. What was new in the EIA's 2014 annual report was individual well time series data for the 12 major plays, which account for 82% of tight oil and 88% of tight natural gas production. Hughes took the EIA raw numbers to calculate decline rates, as well as the difference in output between sweet spots where drilling began and the sharp drop-off as these declined and drilling shifted to the larger, less productive, sections of the active plays.
A good summary is available in Chris Martenson's December 13 video podcast interview with David Hughes (http://www.peakprosperity.com/podcast/89793/shocking-data-proving-shale-oil-massively-over-hyped ).
"The average three year decline," Hughes said, "is about 85% in production. The average first year decline is about 70%." A field like the Bakken in North Dakota is a combination of older wells and those newly drilled. Hughes calculated its annual decline rate at 45%, "which means that 45% of production has to be replaced by more drilling in order to keep production flat." For the Bakken, 1500 new wells must be drilled every year, at a cost of $15 billion, to keep output flat. Production is growing because they are drilling 2000 wells a year. So next year they will have to drill 2000 wells to replicate this year's output and then more to increase it.
In late 2014 there were 8,500 producing wells in the Bakken. Hughes estimates that the total capacity of the play is 32,000. The oil companies have been claiming that improved technology is getting more oil from similar wells over time. Hughes confirmed that, tracking a 7% increase in the average well between 2011 and 2013, but said it is hard to differentiate between technological improvement and where the wells were located, as wells in the comparatively small sweet spots produce about twice as much oil before depleting as those in the larger surrounding area. He expects the Bakken sweet spots to run dry in a year or two, after which it would require 3000 new wells to keep level the output that this year was done by 1500. "The technology is never going to make up for bad reservoir rock." As this would be exceptionally expensive for the return, Hughes foresees drilling in the outlying play strata falling to 1,000 new wells per year with the consequent sharp reduction in output.
The oldest tight oil play is the Barnett in Texas. They drilled 20,000 wells, 4,000 of which have run dry. Production peaked there in 2011 and is now down 17% over its high point. Hughes calculates that the two most productive plays, the Bakken in North Dakota and Montana and the Eagle Ford in Texas, which produce 62% of the country's shale oil, will peak before 2020, the Bakken in 2015-2016 and Eagle Ford, which is larger, in 2016-2017.
The EIA projects a slower decline rate, running to 2040. David Hughes commented:
"The EIA agrees that the Barnett peaked in 2012 and it is going to decline but then they have a ramp up to nearly the equivalent of the 2012 peak in 2040. So it doesn't fit with the fundamentals of the play. The only thing I can think of is they have a phenomenal faith in technology." Hughes' summary of the last five years is not based on estimates but on the actual output of every tight oil well in the 12 plays.
Confirmation of this pattern of depletion is suggested by the graph below, from the November 22 online Peak Oil Barrel.
Prepared by Ron Patterson from the same EIA data used by David Hughes in Drilling Deeper. The 7 points in the chart are over the government's drilling permit numbers in the line at the bottom. It tracks 2,171 Bakken wells, grouping and averaging their output by their permit numbers, which are also a time sequence, as the higher numbers were issued later than the lower ones. As the companies did not drill on a rigid schedule there are not the same number of wells in each division. They are ranked by the average amount of oil they produced in their first 24 hours of operation. The earliest wells began at more than 1,200 barrels their first day and peaked at the 24000 permit number set at 1,400, dropping by the 28000 series to a little more than 800 barrels.
Below is the data the chart summarizes, in three columns: the permit numbers on the left, the average first day barrels produced under those permit numbers, and the number of wells in that sample.
Well Numbers B/PD Number of Wells in Sample
18s - 22s 1,235 81
23000s 1,362 134
24000s 1,497 285
25000s 1,320 676
26000s 1,198 591
27000s 1,016 361
28000s 841 40
All indications are that the fracking miracle will be short-lived, while U.S. conventional oil has flatlined since 2005 and is actually declining in the last three years. The tight oil bonanza is real enough while it lasts. It is large enough to throw world production into oversupply in this general climate of economic retrenchment. The bonanza should be used to fund heavy investment in the alternative energy sources we will badly need when the shale oil peters out. Instead it looks like we are on track to pursue business as usual until the day of reckoning pulls us up short.
Western liberalism, despite its many admirable qualities and causes, its antiracism, defense of women's and gay rights, advocacy of the welfare state, and opposition to national or colonial oppression, frequently fails to understand Islamic radicalism in general and its Palestinian expression in Hamas in particular. This is the lingering influence of the Enlightenment, which infused Western society with the idea that religion is passing away, that people are essentially reasonable, and if they engage in violent struggles it must be because they have been wronged over some tangible material benefit they have been denied. All that is needed to fix things is to supply the missing material needs. Marxism is an extreme example of this viewpoint. This amounts to historical ignorance or collective amnesia of Europe's own past with its centuries of bloody religious wars.
Where this involves the conflict between Hamas and Israel there is also an element of the deep cultural antipathy toward Jews that is the inheritance of Western Christendom. This reappeared with renewed virulence during the seven-week Israel-Gaza war that ended August 26, with physical assaults on Jews, firebombing synagogues, trashing markets that sell Jewish food products, and crowds shouting "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the Gas!" These outbursts took place primarily in Europe, in France, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany, but individual Jews were assaulted in several cities in the United States.
We have also seen the consolidation of a pro-Hamas Left in the United States that calls for the U.S. to sever its ties with Israel and brands Israel as committing war crimes without acknowledging that the recent and previous wars with Hamas in Gaza were begun and pursued by Hamas through salvos of rockets and mortar shells intended to kill civilians, or taking account of the disparate war aims of the two sides: Israel's, to get Hamas to disarm and halt attempts to kill Israelis, Hamas's, to seize the whole of Israel and to kill all of its Jewish inhabitants.
As a single example, a group calling itself Historians Against the War collected a thousand signatures of like-minded academics on a July 31 letter to President Obama accusing Israel of war crimes and demanding a cutoff of all U.S. aid and an end to the naval blockade of Gaza. The letter never mentioned Hamas, while putting forward Hamas's demands as its own.
Our American historians said they were against the war but were putting forward a prowar call on the side of Hamas. This endorsement of an ultraright, theocratic, genocidally antisemitic organization's demands would be shocking if it had not become a widespread litmus test for true leftism in a large part of the left and liberal U.S. community. Historian Jeffrey Herf in an article in the online American Interest compared this to the Communist parties during the Stalin-Hitler Pact. http://www.the-american-interest.com/articles/2014/08/26/a-pro-hamas-left-emerges/
So how does Islam affect the Palestinian cause, which seems at first glance to be a dispute over land? Islam, in its dominating influence in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as parts of sub-Saharan Africa, is an immensely powerful force, in regions where modern states have been slow to establish deep roots. Poverty, ecological stresses, widespread political corruption, educational systems that prioritize teaching the Koran, large-scale unemployment, and sharply rising food and energy prices all drive people to look for something that will save them. After the brief heyday of secular Arab nationalism in the 1960s proved a failure there has been a massive turn to the idea that Islam is the answer. This offers reassurance and collective support to believers, but bodes ill for unbelievers.
The region has been dominated for decades by dictatorships of the far right, either military or theocratic. In the wake of the Arab Spring many of these have fallen or been deeply undermined. As they retaliated with brutal violence against their domestic challengers, moderates have been quickly sidelined, leaving opposition mainly in the hands of groups sufficiently fanatical to face and deal death without flinching. These have been ruthless Islamic radicals, most commonly ones infused with the vision of a world Islamic revolt heralding the hoped-for collapse of the governments of Europe and the Americas and their replacement by a puritanical global regime of sharia law that will put an end to infidel religions - and secularism as well. In Iraq and Syria this has produced the Islamic State. Among the Palestinians it is epitomized by Hamas. These are people who say what they mean and mean what they say.
Of course, there are millions of moderate Muslims, content to live quietly under sharia, or committed to modernize Islam by secularizing it. As Arab governments fall or are weakened, more often than not the moderates are shouldered aside or murdered by the more resolute Islamists. While more moderate Muslims often recoil from the brutal tactics of the radicals, this is not because the Islamists do not profess orthodox Islamic theology.
The West commonly misunderstands Islam because it is categorized as a religion. In the United States, Europe, and most of Asia, there is a separation of church and state, so that religion is by definition a private matter of personal belief. Further, Christianity doctrinally tends to focus on achieving personal salvation in an after life and does not intrinsically aspire to rulership in the here and now. That is not the case with Islam, which has from its creation been a doctrine of overarching regulation of human behavior and oversight of political life.
Islam in countries where it is dominant is a comprehensive set of regulations that include what in the West would be the systems of religion, law, and government. This is embodied in sharia law. This is law in the broadest sense, including minute rules that range from regulating the preparation of food, to family life, marriage, divorce, contacts with outsiders, and treatment of nonbelievers. Islam, a word that means "submission," presents itself in its scriptures and by its imams as a system that aspires to govern all human life and in every country. From this all-encompassing system, which originated in an expansionist military movement, it is only a small step to the formation of armed theocratic groups that take seriously the injunctions of the Koran and the Hadiths and join together to impose them on others by armed force. Such is Hamas, and the still more extreme Islamic State now expanding in Syria and Iraq, two examples among scores now rising in the Middle East, North Africa - and the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa, notably Boko Haram in Nigeria.
In a culture in which the eighth century conquests by Islam are constantly taught as a golden age and where magical, apocalyptic thinking is widespread, the groundwork has long been laid for militant and ruthless emulators of the prophet Muhammad's warrior elite. At least since the end of World War II this violent and totalitarian Islamic revival movement has been growing throughout the region. This is a radically different kind of creature from the national liberation struggles that ended European and Japanese colonialism. Those sought national self-rule. Even where there was a colonial population such as the whites in Kenya and South Africa, the independence movements did not advocate expelling them from the country, much less killing them. And when victorious they did not demand religious conversions from the white population on pain of death. Islam has carved out a different path.
Islamic radicalism, inspired by its vision of the period of Islamic armed expansion and glory, has a dream of world conquest for Allah and the subjugation or destruction of all rival modes of thought, religious or secular. This is not a movement set on winning power in this or that local territory, though each expression of it must start somewhere. It is a reactionary civilizational current that lays claim as its religious entitlement and duty to bring sharia to the planet as a whole. It is one more apocalyptical millenarian movement, similar, in deeply religious form, to the totalitarian expansionist creeds of the twentieth century, Communism and Nazism, both of which also physically exterminated those who did not match their blueprint of the model citizen.
Demands for self-rule have been negotiable and were mostly won. The demands of the Islamic revolution amount to the destruction of Western and Asian civilizations and usually include the mass murder of large numbers whose beliefs are too far removed from the specific Islamic orthodoxy being championed. There is no possible point of compromise. The peculiar Western blindness to all but the most obviously barbaric examples of this current, such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram, seems to involve a romantic sanctification of third world uprisings when they are directed at more developed adversaries. One side of this framing of contemporary conflicts has become blurred after the end of colonialism in the 1960s. Since the days of the liberation movements many countries have taken important steps into developing status. On the other side, many opposition movements have formed around the most dubious of goals and methods, leaving this old moral guide more than a little rusty.
Fighting authority in the developing world is not a guarantee of righteousness. Think only of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria that destroyed entire villages in the 1990s and murdered teachers in front of their students, or the Algerian salafists of today who executed 37 hostages in 2013, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, the Taliban and Haqqani Network in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the shooting of Malala Yousafzai to try to prevent Afghan girls from attending school, the Shining Path guerillas in Peru, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, or Al Shabaab in Somalia. All of these groups claim to be fighting for liberation, a liberation poisoned by a heavy dose of murderous totalitarianism. If most of these barbaric groups are inspired by Islam that is not an accident but a symptom of the widespread and mutually reinforcing rise of the armed Islamic revolt, today's equivalent of the Communist revolutions of the previous century. Both imagined that they represented the inevitable future of humanity, promised to them, then by History, now by Allah.
The particular case of the century-long struggle between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine contains elements of the more familiar national liberation struggles in Africa and Asia. This has been misleading. Time has revealed the predominant religious xenophobia that underlies Arab rejectionism. We can see this central component of militant Islamic doctrine in more pristine form in the Islamic State's massacres of the Yazidi minority and its execution of Christians who would not convert to Islam.
Islamic tradition offered an alternative only to Christians and Jews, to which the IS pays lip service for Christians only, that of living as humiliated inferiors under Muslim rule, the status of dhimmis, and paying a heavy tax, the jizya. Those professing other religions or no religion were offered only conversion or death. The IS, almost tongue in cheek, has offered Iraqi Christians the choice to become dhimmis and pay the jizya, after executing so many that the Christians have almost all fled. But the Islamic State, along with Hamas among the Palestinians, promises only death to the Jews, to the last one on earth.
What was not acceptable to the Muslim Arabs in 1948 was only in part a dispute over whether the Jews had a legitimate claim to a portion of the land of the disintegrated Ottoman Empire. Such a claim could not be accepted no matter what its legal standing might be, as what was not thinkable was allowing a non-Muslim group, native to the region or not, to hold land that had once been conquered by Islam and, even worse, to see Muslims governed by non-Muslims in any part of the region where Muslims felt they had an unchallenged right to dominate all other ethnic or religious groups. This is what has made the conflict with the Middle Eastern Jews so inflammatory.
The Jews of the Middle East
In 1914 there were 731,000 Arabs in Palestine (about 10% of the Arabs were Christians) and 60,000 Jews, or 7.6%. In 1910 Jews constituted 64% of the population of Jerusalem. Many of these were European refugees from Tsarist pogroms. After Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 large numbers of Jews tried to leave, but most countries, including the United States, refused to accept more than a tiny fraction. Some managed to emigrate to Palestine, until the British, who controlled the area, halted Jewish emigration in 1939. Almost all of those who did not get out of Germany and the lands it invaded were murdered by the Nazis. In 1946 the Jewish population of Palestine had grown to 33%. (http://israelipalestinian.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000636)
These people were refugees, but hardly colonists in any ordinary sense of the word. Nevertheless, despite remote origins in Palestine, they had come from Europe and were seen as aliens by the Arabs; doubly so as they were not Muslims.
In 1948 the United Nations voted to approve the division of British Mandate Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The Jews agreed, the Arabs refused. Up to this point there is a plausible argument that Arabs were being displaced by European immigrants, even though those immigrants were of original Middle Eastern stock and in their largest numbers refugees from the Nazi Holocaust. A caveat is that the European Jewish immigrants did not come, as European colonists did in India and Africa, with military force, but had from around 1917 bought farms and desert land from Arab landholders. (See Kenneth W. Stein's The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939).
The Arabs begin to lose their claim to the moral high ground when, as the Jewish area, in accord with the UN decision, proclaimed the state of Israel, the standing armies of all the surrounding Arab states - Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq - invaded, with the proclaimed aim of driving the Jews into the sea, that is, to kill them. It was in that war of anti-Jewish extermination that some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled the war zone. Some left out of natural fear of the fighting, some in response to appeals by the Arab states, and some were driven out by the Jews. These became the Palestinian refugees. The Jews were victorious in what became, and until 1967remained, the borders of Israel. Jordan captured the West Bank, while Egypt invaded and seized the Gaza Strip.
Now the story becomes more complicated, as the Arab states, in revenge for the establishment of Israel, undertook the coordinated ethnic cleansing of the whole of the region's large native Jewish population. These are a people of the same general ethnic stock as the Arabs, not "whites" versus "browns" as so many Western liberals and leftists portray the Palestinian issue.
Palestinian and other Arab propaganda as well as that of many Western leftist groups falsely portray today's Israelis as solely European immigrants. That leaves out the million or more native Jews of the Middle East and North Africa and what happened to them.
After the Romans crushed the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 AD and destroyed the Jewish state, razing the city of Jerusalem, most of the Jews were driven into exile. Many fled to Spain and Eastern Europe. But large numbers settled in lands that fell to the Arab conquerors six hundred years later. Islam, like Christianity until quite modern times, was a proudly intolerant religion. It prescribed death for all unbelievers except Jews and Christians, the "people of the book." But these were reduced by law to the inferior status of dhimmi, non-Muslim subjects of the Muslim state. They were required to wear special identifiable clothing, denied the right to serve in the army or testify in court, and subject to the jizya, a fairly heavy tax that under sharia law was supposed to be paid in person, where the Muslim official was required to humiliate the taxpayer with physical and verbal abuse. Jews could be robbed or beaten without legal recourse. Discrimination was ever present, though the murder of Jews was less common than in Christian societies of the period. (Most of today's Islamic jihadi organizations proclaim their intention to impose dhimmi status on all of the non-Muslims they do not kill.)
The point here is that Jews after the Roman conquest of Judea remained a substantial and oppressed native people of what became the Arab and Turkish Middle East and North Africa. They did not all migrate to Europe as present day Arab propaganda has it and as many liberal Westerners seem to believe about the current population of Israel. Though there were few Jews in the Ottoman portion of Syria called Palestine, there were significant Jewish communities in the early twentieth century ranging from Iran and Turkey in the northeastern Mediterranean to Algeria and Morocco in western North Africa.
The Arab League in 1948 adopted a coordinated policy of expelling the entirety of the large native Jewish population from every single Arab country, people who had nothing to do with Palestine or the creation of Israel. In Baghdad, for example, where there was no Zionist immigration, in the 1920s Jews made up 40% of the city's population. (http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/3517/redacted-iraqi-jews) The Jewish community in Iraq had existed continually since 600 BC. In Egypt, since 1300 BC.
The table above estimates the 1948 Jewish population of the Arab countries of the Middle East and the North African Maghreb at 856,000. Wikipedia in a well-sourced table puts the number at 819,000 for the Arab countries alone and 511,000 more from the Maghreb. Some 200,000 more by widely attested sources were expelled from Turkey and Iran. The total of the Jews driven out of their homes and native lands amounted by the most conservative estimate to one million, a third more than the number of Arabs displaced by the Arab states' invasion of the Jewish portion of Palestine. Practically no Jews remain in the Muslim Middle East, an example of massive ethnic-religious cleansing. The expelled Jews of the Arab, Turkish, and Persian world, whose ancestors had lived there long before the existence of Islam, were robbed of their homes and property, stripped of any civil rights, and driven out. They were usually searched at the border and left their native countries penniless. Most of them went to Israel, where for decades they constituted the majority of the population and today still amount to half.
The Israelis immediately extended citizenship to their ethnic brothers and sisters, provided them financial aid, and incorporated them into the country's civic life. The Palestinian refugees, in contrast, were refused citizenship by the Arab states, which has kept them in camps for the next sixty-five years, generation after generation, as hostages to be wielded in a relentless effort to destroy the Jews in their last redoubt. The Palestinians are the longest unabsorbed refugee group in the world. The promise was that they did not need to become citizens of Lebanon or Syria as they would soon dispossess the Jews. After Jordan captured the West Bank in 1948 it made the Arabs there Jordanian citizens, but revoked their citizenship in 1988. It never granted citizenship to the refugees who had crossed the Jordan River into Jordan proper and today 2 million of their descendants languish in Jordanian camps.
That these refugees were a consequence of the war and not of a general Jewish goal of ethnic cleansing is proven by the fact that tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs who did not flee or take up arms against the Jews remained in Israel, where they hold full citizenship and now number two million people, 20% of the country's population. They live, with strained relations, with the Jewish majority, but have full civil and democratic rights, form their own political parties, are represented in the Knesset, publish books and newspapers, and have a level of freedom of speech higher than in the great majority of the Arab states, including in neighboring Gaza. No Arab state tolerates more than the tiniest number of Jews living on its territory. The Palestinians have made clear that they share this attitude.
The Arab League presided over a collective policy in its treatment of both Jewish and Palestinian refugees over the whole of the Arab world. At the time of the ethnic cleansing of the Jews it was widely understood, even on the Arab side, that expelling 856,000 Jews and seizing their property effectively wiped out the claims of the smaller number of Palestinian Arabs. Both groups would have to begin over from scratch in new lands. The Arabs, by their military invasion of the Jewish sector, were the principal creator of the Palestinian refugees and were certainly the creator of the Jewish refugees. Iraq's long-time prime minister Nuri al-Said acknowledged this at the time, as he ordered the expulsion of Iraq's 135,000 Jews, proposing that, as in the partition of India in which vast numbers of Muslims and Hindus were forcibly repatriated into or out of the new state of Pakistan, the two Middle Eastern refugee groups should be treated as an exchange of populations and the matter closed. Today only the Palestinian refugees are acknowledged by either the Muslim world or the Western sympathizers of the Palestinian cause.
A Palestinian State was the Last Thing on the Minds of Israel's Arab Enemies
The Arab states, which govern a vast territory that stretches from Morocco to Iraq, have been united in their determination to extirpate the small piece of land occupied by the Jews. First they tried to expel the Jews outright. When that failed they expelled their own Jewish populations, herding them into Israel, where, in two major wars, in 1967 and 1973, they tried to drive the lot of them out of the region or kill them off. But this had to do with the more general goal of reconquering all lands that once belonged to Islam, not with creating a state for Palestinians.
The Palestine Liberation Organization was founded in May 1964, not by Palestinians but by the Arab League, at the prompting of Egyptian dictator Gamel Abdel Nasser. Its first chairman was Lebanese politician Ahmad Shuqeiri, who was not a Palestinian. He had been Syria and Saudi Arabia's delegate to the United Nations. At a May 31, 1956, meeting of the UN Security Council, Shuqeiri told the assembly that Palestine "is nothing but southern Syria." That is, the PLO's position was that the Palestinians were Syrians and were not asking for a separate state. His main point, which has been much more central to Palestinian organizations than getting a state of their own, was that "The Arab world is not prepared to surrender one single atom of their right to this sacred territory." (New York Times, June 1, 1956, cited by Efraim Karsh, Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2014).
Hamas's cofounder and Foreign Minister Mahmud Zahar, as recently as a September 22, 2005, interview with The Media Line, declared, "Islamic and traditional views reject the notion of establishing an independent Palestinian state. . . . In the past, there was no independent Palestinian state. . . . [O]ur main goal is to establish a great Islamic state."
Even the more moderate Fatah and the Palestinian Authority government it dominates are dazzled by this fantastic dream, in which Palestine, even including the land occupied by the Jews, is but a passing milestone on the great road to a global caliphate. Sheikh Ibrahim Mudayris, a functionary of the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Religious Affairs and a regular broadcaster on the PLO's PATV, in a May 13, 2005, broadcast declared, "Where did Great Britain disappear? By Allah's will, He will get rid of the U.S. like he got rid of them. We [Muslims] have ruled the world and a day will come by Allah, and we shall rule the world [again]. The day will come and we shall rule America, the day will come and we shall rule Britain. We shall rule the entire world."
Does Hamas Share the Islamist Goal?
So, we have Gaza. Hamas is not ISIS, but they share the same program on all of its essential points, though Hamas has not matched the Islamic State's level of bloodthirstiness in carrying it out. It should be recalled that Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a cardinal reason why Egypt, having deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government in an ongoing bloody confrontation, is now an enemy of Hamas. The Brotherhood was founded on the program of reestablishing the Islamic Caliphate, deposing the Arab and other Muslim political leaders who are not pure and absolute defenders of sharia law, and embarking on the path of world conquest to bring Islamic salvation to a hungering world suffering under the rule of infidel regimes.
The Brotherhood, in its formative years, was also strongly influenced by the World War II broadcasts from Nazi Germany by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the principal leader of the Palestinians in the 1930s and 1940s. These broadcasts, supplemented by a copious flow of Nazi propaganda materials, especially against the Jews, left a permanent mark on the variety of Islam preached by the Brotherhood. Hamas, like the Islamic State, is a tribune of this variety of Islam, a particularly totalitarian and theocratic one whose goals give special weight to the physical extermination of the Jews.
Even as a national liberation movement, if it were only that, its repeatedly stated objective for Israel is the murder of all the Jews, and not only those who live in Israel. Nominally its 1988 Charter offers to allow Jews who can trace their ancestry in Palestine to 1917 to remain, as humiliated dhimmi subordinates to the Muslim majority. Those Middle Eastern Jews driven into Israel by the Arab League have not, thereby, acquired the right to remain there. But Hamas has long left those liberal days behind. In a July 25, 2014, broadcast on their Al Aqsa TV a Hamas cleric shouted:
"Our doctrine in fighting you [the Jews] is that we will totally exterminate you. We will not leave a single one of you alive." (http://www.palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=1046&fld_id=1046&doc_id=12219)
As in any struggle, there are steps along the way. So today Hamas, loudly defended by large numbers of Western leftists and liberals as a victim of Israel, calls for an end to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade, and the right to construct an airport and sea port. And it has in the recent past accepted the idea that a Palestinian state should be recognized in both Gaza and the West Bank. But such a state, it has insisted, would be no more than a truce in a war to the death. Its existence would not make Hamas abandon its goal of destroying Israel. Khaled Mash'al, chairman of Hamas's Political Bureau and one of its two central leaders, in a speech on Al-Aqsa TV on December 7, 2012, said:
"First of all, Palestine - from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea, from its north to its south - is our land, our right, and our homeland. There will be no relinquishing or forsaking even an inch or small part of it." (YouTube, December 10, 2012).
But even Israel is only the appetizer in the great hallucinatory dream that has infected Hamas as it has the Islamic State in Syria-Iraq, Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda, the salafists of Yemen, Libya, and Algeria, and the Shiite variety in Iran and their proxy force in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
Fathi Hammad, Hamas's Minister of the Interior, in an Al-Aqsa TV broadcast on November 13, 2013, explained the connection between his organization's war on Israel and the step that comes after that:
"We look forward to future victories, in which, Allah willing, we will liberate our land, our Jerusalem, our Al-Aqsa [Mosque], our cities and our villages, Allah willing, all this in preparation for establishing the next Islamic Caliphate. Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are at the brink of a period of global Islamic culture, whose fuel is Gaza, whose spearhead is Gaza, its Jihad fighters (Mujahideen) and commanders are Gaza, Allah willing."
Then there was the memorial video of recordings by Yasser Ghalban, a commander of Hamas's military wing, the Izzedin Al-Qassam Brigades, killed in a June 16, 2006, clash in Gaza with elements of Fatah. Hamas the next week released some videos of Ghalban, in one of which he prophesied:
"We will rule the nations, by Allahs will, the U.S.A. will be conquered, Israel will be conquered, Rome and Britain will be conquered. . . . The Jihad for Allah ‰Û_ is the way of Truth and the way for salvation and the way which will lead us to crush the Jews and expel them from our country, Palestine." (http://palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=624&fld_id=624&doc_id=2596)
These themes of intended world conquest are a staple on Hamas TV. They were reiterated by Yunis Al-Astal, a Hamas member of the Palestinian parliament, in an April 13, 2008, broadcast, promising that after Rome falls to the Islamic forces, conquest “will spread through Europe in its entirety, and then will turn to the two Americas.” A May 8, 2008, Hamas TV broadcast by former Jordanian Minister of Religion Ali Al-Faqir pledged the reconquest of Spain, then Rome, and finally, “We will rule the world.” A March 5, 2010, Al-Aqsa TV sermon promised that “Just like Constantinople was conquered some 500 years ago, Rome too will be conquered.”
This continual incitement to world domination vastly beyond the borders of the hated Israel defines this movement as part of the civilizational challenge of the Islamic world revolution that has achieved its first serious territorial base in Iraq and Syria. Supporters of the Islamic State in Spain have been posting photos of Moorish landmarks such as the Aljafería Palace in Zaragoza with someone holding up the black IS flag in front of it. The demand is to end the illegal occupation of Spain – by the Spaniards. This should shed some light on how the Islamic movement construes its rights to land, in Israel and elsewhere.
I think many protesters against the Israeli air strikes in Gaza, in response to Hamas’s thousands of rockets and attacks from its tunnel network, either do not know what Hamas says about its aims, or if they do, dismiss it as childish hyperbole. This is patronizing. Hamas, like the Islamic State or the Iranian government, mean what they say. The more than 3,000 rockets lobbed into Israel and the elaborate tunnels dug and fortified under the Israeli border show that this is not just talk. It is the global outlook and program of the world Islamic revolutionary movement, appearing in country after country by determined fighters for this fanatical and intolerant religious cause.
In Iraq, where the Islamic State does not confront a foe as determined and well armed as Israel, they have been beheading and crucifying Christians, burying hundreds of Yazidis alive, including women and children, selling Yazidi women as slaves, and shooting hundreds or possibly some thousands of captured Shiite troops of the disorganized national army. Hamas has refrained from the most barbaric of IS’s tactics but has a long history of murders of Jewish civilians and of Palestinians under its control that question its rule. During the just-concluded war with Israel masked Hamas gunmen executed several score Palestinians it accused of collaborating with Israel. It was widely reported that twenty of these had done nothing more than hold a peace demonstration.
Hamas gunmen prepare to execute Palestinian alleged collaborator with Israel, August 22, 2014.
During the Second Intifada, 2000-2005, some 3,223 Palestinians and 760 Israelis were killed (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3694350.stm). Hamas suicide bombers blew themselves up in the midst of Israeli markets, cafes, theaters, and on buses. This was ruled a war crime by Human Rights Watch.
This last was the third Hamas-Israel war. After intermittent rocket attacks on Israel throughout 2007, beginning in January 2008, Hamas and other jihadi groups in Gaza fired 3,000 rockets and mortar shells into Israel, killing 8 Israeli civilians, wounding many others, and doing a great deal of damage. Tolerating this for almost a year, on December 27 Israel finally struck back to try to silence the rocket barrages in the three-week Operation Cast Lead. A second briefer war occurred in November 2012, when Israel responded to escalating rocket fire with air strikes on Hamas leaders and rocket launching sites.
The escalation in rockets and mortar shells by Hamas in June 2014 opened the third Israel-Gaza war. Firing rockets at civilians, even though, Israel’s extensive bomb shelters and its Iron Dome defense system rendered them largely ineffective, has been declared a war crime by the United Nations and by human rights organizations.
ISRAEL’S BLOCKADE OF GAZA
Westerners who hold Israel primarily or wholly responsible for the repeated wars with Gaza assume that Hamas had no option but armed resistance to the Israeli stranglehold on the Gazan economy. Though there has been significant opinion within Israel to keep the West Bank, for both historical and security reasons, both Israeli and Palestinian majorities down to earlier this year have favored a two-state solution that would include recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel successfully traded land for peace with Egypt by returning the Sinai Peninsula, captured in the 1967 war, in exchange for a peace treaty. A final settlement with the Palestinians came very close on several occasions, in the two Oslo agreements in 1993 and 1995, and in the Camp David talks of 2000. These failed because Yasser Arafat proved unable to retreat from the goal of recapturing all of Israel, and because Hamas acted as a spoiler, sending in suicide bombers or setting off salvos of rockets whenever a lasting agreement seemed to be on the horizon.
The Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005 at the insistence of formerly hard-line prime minister Ariel Sharon. He ordered the destruction of 21 Israeli settlements and forcibly repatriated 9,000 settlers. His decision flowed from the demographic dilemma posed by the prolonged occupation of the lands captured in the 1967 war. Perpetual occupation of Gaza and the West Bank without granting citizenship to the Palestinians would deeply undermine Israeli democracy. But granting citizenship would create an Arab majority that would end Israel as a Jewish state and could lead to civil war. Sharon was a late convert to the two-state solution as the best answer to the demographic threat.
Gaza was to be the test case for withdrawal from the larger West Bank and recognition of a Palestinian state. If the Palestinians in Gaza devoted their energies to building up their economy it would be an indication that it was reasonable to go ahead in discussions with the Palestinian Authority for a Palestinian state. Then the next year Hamas swept the Palestinian elections, and in 2007 seized power in Gaza. For two years there was no blockade and there were hopes that the Palestinians in Gaza would undertake building a peaceful society in the manner of the Kurdish separatists in Iraq. Hamas even before seizing power in Gaza began to fire rockets into Israel’s nearby cities. This expanded exponentially after Hamas had control of Gaza. Israel responded with the blockade to prevent, or at least reduce, the import of weapons, rockets, and materials to build tunnels and bunkers. Thus the blockade was a response to attacks by Hamas.
The Gaza Flotilla of 2010, stopped by Israel at sea, in which nine people on the Mavi Marmara were killed by Israeli commandos, gave wide credence to belief that Israel was conducting a siege of Gaza and preventing it from receiving objects of ordinary food and commerce, even imposing starvation on its people. The ships carried what the organizers described as humanitarian aid, which, after the flotilla was halted, was unloaded at the Israeli port of Ashdod, inspected for weapons, and delivered to Gaza.
The peculiar irony of Gaza’s situation is that it must receive all of its supplies from either Israel or Egypt, the two countries with which it shares borders and of which it has made sworn enemies. Incredibly, Israel keeps the supplies flowing even while Hamas is shooting rockets at its cities.
Israel is the Islamic emirate’s principal supplier of water, gasoline, electricity, and a large variety of consumer goods. A summary of this commerce, dated August 14, 2014, appeared on the website of UN Watch. It read in part:
“Not only do food, medicine, fuel and aid enter freely at all times, but in peacetime, commodities and consumer goods of every type are transferred daily from Israel to Gaza through the land crossing. The types and amounts of consumer goods are determined by Palestinian merchants and depend primarily on market forces in Gaza. . . . For example, in the first five months of 2014, over 18,000 trucks carrying nearly 228,000 tons of supplies entered Gaza. Included in the deliveries were construction materials: since January, over 4,680 trucks carrying 181,000 tons of cement, wood, gravel, iron and other building supplies passed through the Kerem Shalom land crossing into Gaza.
“In addition to facilitating the transfer of goods, humanitarian aid and fuels, Israel also supplies the Gaza Strip with 10 million cubic meters (2.6 billion US gallons) of water annually and more than half of its electricity.” http://blog.unwatch.org/index.php/2014/08/14/end-the-siege-in-gaza-but-there-is-no-siege/
The statement reports that in the first five months of 2014 60,000 Gazans were admitted to Israel, including people seeking medical treatment and Gazan businessmen and merchants.
There is a naval blockade. Gaza has no deep water port, so that the ships of the 2010 flotilla could not have docked there in any case. But given Hamas’s persistent efforts to smuggle in rockets and weapons and to then repeatedly use them against Israel, the Jewish state has stopped uninspected boats from landing on the Gaza coast as an elementary security measure. In 2011, a special panel convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon found that, due to Hamas’s armed attacks on Israel, both the naval blockade and enforcing it in international waters were legal. On March 5, 2014, Israel halted an Iranian ship attempting to smuggle M-302 rockets, with a range of 100 miles, into Gaza. Because of the sea blockade the Iranians had planned to unload in Sudan and smuggle the rockets overland through Egypt. Without the blockade such ships would simply dock in Gaza and bring more massive war materiel.
But Gaza historically got almost all of its supplies by land, not sea, and continues to do so through the Israeli crossings, and in normal times through Egypt.
AFTER THE LATEST HAMAS-ISRAEL WAR
Hamas has to date launched three short wars against Israel. Patently if the combined armies of all the surrounding Arab countries could not put Arab forces in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem nothing these Islamist sectarians can do will bring down their adversary. Israel each time eventually retaliates to stop the rockets, killing many Palestinians and destroying a lot of Gazan infrastructure. Hamas this time, as in the past, promises only to accept a temporary cease fire and announces its intention to renew the attack in the future, near or far.
Israel had only two objectives in the recent war: to destroy the border tunnels and to inflict enough damage to make Hamas stop the rockets. It made no attempt to topple Hamas from power. Hamas, with its policy of using human shields and its boast that its members love death more than the Jews love life, set the terms of when the firing would end. Israel military authorities have estimated that a campaign to eliminate Hamas from Gaza would take several years, with immensely higher casualties on both sides.
The collapse of hope that Gaza would show that the Palestinians in their own area would live in peace with Israel put a major question mark over discussions with the Palestinian Authority on ending the occupation of the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas has acknowledged the right of Israel to exist and renounced violence. But his term of office ran out years ago, and the Palestinians are physically split between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. They nominally have a new united government, but Hamas, which tried to assassinate Abbas in 2007, was caught in the first week of August preparing a military coup in the West Bank to overthrow its governmental partner. The fear that Israel will face a Hamastan in both Gaza and the West Bank chills any enthusiasm for recognizing a Palestinian state while Hamas has its present strength.
Israeli voters responded to the rise of Hamas by moving to the right, in 2009 electing the right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. A more liberal coalition might have been more likely to try to work with Abbas, to take the risk of recognizing the West Bank as a Palestinian state, and, by supporting Abbas, try to isolate Hamas. Netanyahu chose not to do that and has frozen the peace negotiations. This has increased the prestige of Hamas, and emboldened Israel’s right wing, who are expanding the settler movement with the aim of incorporating the West Bank into Israel.
The August 26 cease fire, while it was celebrated in Gaza as a victory, gave nothing to Hamas except the international opprobrium against Israel for the allegedly disproportionate number of Gazan dead. This war was an outgrowth of the turmoil elsewhere in the Middle East, which seriously affected Hamas and prompted its attack on Israel. None of the elements that had alarmed Hamas’s leaders have been allayed by the war. As part of its struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt had closed the Rafah crossing and sealed most of the smuggling tunnels that provide a large amount of Gaza’s imports and, in taxes, 40% of Hamas’s income.
For years Hamas aligned itself with Israel’s most powerful enemies, those capable of giving it material support: the Islamic theocracy in Iran and its client allies, Assad’s Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Arab Spring, which began with hopes of democratic reform in the region, descended into chaos and the mass emergence of Islamic radicals. With the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Hamas, a Sunni Arab organization, sided with the Syrian revolution against Assad, whose government is dominated by the Alawites, a variant on Shiite Islam. This infuriated Iran, which responded by reducing its supplies to Gaza.
Hamas won a reprieve during the year-long tenure of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian presidency, but that ended when Morsi was deposed in July 2013. Hamas has been saved from complete isolation only by support from Turkey and Qatar, but they have limited ability to get war materiel into Gaza.
Hamas’s immediate war aim was to pressure Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing, but it had no chance of winning Muslim sympathy if it attacked Egypt, so it began to lob large numbers of rockets into Israel. A new war with the Jews, in which lots of Palestinian civilians would be killed (guaranteed by Hamas storing and firing its rockets from densely populated civilian areas) would put heavy pressure on Egypt to not appear to be aiding Israel by maintaining the seal on the Rafah crossing. This strategy failed, as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, usually cheerleaders for the Palestinian cause, all pulled back after the rise of the Islamic State, with its similarity to Hamas. The three key Arab states stood on the sidelines and tacitly supported Israel’s battering Hamas in Gaza.
The European Union has joined Israel and Egypt in calling for disarming Hamas and placing Gaza’s borders under Palestinian Authority control. No one, however, is prepared to take Hamas’s weapons, any more than the Lebanese have been able to disarm Hezbollah.
ISRAEL’S ENEMIES IN EUROPE AND AMERICA
For several decades Western liberal and leftist opinion has hardened in holding Israel solely responsible for the dispute with the Palestinians. This demonstrates unfathomable ignorance of the history of the Middle Eastern Jews or of the Arab and Palestinian movement. In the case of Hamas it is blind to the broader Islamic revolutionary movement of which it is a part. People see the individual trees but don’t notice they are part of a forest.
There is much reasonable debate on how Israel should respond to the Palestine Authority’s proposals for a separate state in the West Bank, to live in peace with Israel. There is no such leeway in judging how it is reasonable to respond to Hamas’s persistent efforts, however ineffective, to carry out genocide of the Jews.
The anti-Israel current in the West has ignored or denied that Hamas has defined itself as antisemitic ultraright theocrats, immersed in dreams of Islamic world conquest, though Hamas could hardly say it louder. In asymmetric warfare the weaker side invariably suffers much larger casualties than the militarily superior one. In a world full of fanatical movements of all kinds that throw their small forces against larger societies, viewing such groups as righteous victims is most often going to lead to siding with people who vehemently reject all the values that otherwise define a humane society.
Such movements, including Hamas and the rest of jihadi Islam, create humanitarian disasters. But no matter how much we sympathize with the victims among the people they dominate, the deaths alone are not the test of right and wrong or of the ultimate responsibility for the carnage. As is often said, if Hamas were to stop fighting and disarm, Israel would lift the blockade and there would be peace. If Israel were to disarm, its Jewish population would be slaughtered. There is no equivalence there. Those in the West who chant “Free, Free Palestine” are demanding what? Or those who insist they are not pro-Hamas but charge that Israel is committing war crimes if it responds militarily to Hamas’s rockets and death squad tunnels? On the basis of self-declared antiracism a very large number of Americans and Europeans have slid deep into anti-Jewish racism. It is an old and ugly tradition. They are siding with a movement sworn to destroy not only the Jews but themselves as well. Choosing the side with the most dead in this case means siding with people who in every other respect are your enemy.
The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. John Gray. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 225 pp.
John Gray, 66, emeritus professor of philosophy at Oxford, is the great pessimist of Western intellectuals, the self-conscious inheritor of Schopenhauer. He has been all over the political map, from youthful leftism to Thatcherism in middle age, to New Labour and a current commitment to environmentalism. He is also a principal interpreter of British Jewish social theorist Isaiah Berlin, who was a staunch defender of liberal values against authoritarian currents, and, in consequence, a critic of the negative side of the Enlightenment, its spawning of schemes of generic social engineering to improve humanity by imposing Reason on the world, usually at terrible human cost.
This little book is unusual in Gray's oeuvre. It is not a linear exposition but a series of comments on brief excerpts from novels and poems; works of nonfiction such as The Peregrine, an account of a year in the life of a Peregrine falcon; interspersed with an essay on Freud containing a sidebar on Jung. If there is a common theme it is that despite our technological prowess we humans are animals like all the others, not some special creation, with our animal nature unchanged since it evolved 50,000 years ago, all attempts to improve it to the contrary notwithstanding.
The myth that we are perfecting ourselves, central to the liberal ethos since the French Revolution, and which was in turn inherited from the Christianity of St. Paul, is Gray's target:
"History may be a succession of absurdities, tragedies and crimes; but - everyone insists -the future can still be better than anything in the past. To give up this hope would induce a state of despair."
The notion of human perfectability, he asserts, is largely absent from most intellectual and theological traditions. It was not part of the world view of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists, or Shintos, or even the Jewish Torah onto which Christianity was grafted.
He dismisses Marxism as a secularized version of Christian millenarianism:
"Explaining human nastiness by reference to corrupt institutions leaves a question: why are humans so attached to corruption? Clearly, the answer is in the human animal itself."
Gray is interested in how thin the veneer of civilized behavior is and what happens to us when war or some other catastrophe strips it away. He spends some pages on Norman Lewis's Naples '44, an account by a British intelligence officer of life in the bombed-out city after the Allies drove out the Germans. People ate cats and the fish in the city aquarium. Freed Soviet prisoners of war released from Nazi camps arrived by ship. Lewis interviewed many of them. They had been told by the German camp commandant that there were 10,000 of them and food for only 1,000. As a man would die of starvation, the Russians freely told Lewis, his comrades would instantly in a screaming mass set upon the still warm corpse to eat as much as possible before the guards took it away.
A formerly vastly wealthy prince, now reduced to penury, visited Lewis in his office, bringing his sister. Both were fluent in English. The prince asked Lewis if he could find a place for his sister in an English military whorehouse. When Lewis told him the British had no such facilities the prince turned to his sister to say, "Ah, well, Luisa, I suppose if it can't be, it can't be."
The Russian soldiers were repatriated to the USSR, where Stalin had them shot, not for cannibalism but for having been captured by the Germans.
One day while Lewis was eating in a cafÌ© a group of girl children, some as young as nine, came and stood in the doorway. He saw that they were blind and were crying. He wrote later, "Forkfuls of food were thrust into open mouths, the rattle of conversation continued, nobody saw the tears." It was a transfiguring moment that left him with a lifelong melancholy.
Gray turns to Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon. A Hungarian Jew, Koestler was briefly, 1931-1938, a member of the Communist Party of Germany and an agent of the Stalinist Comintern. Gray writes:
"Working for the Comintern Koestler travelled to the Ukraine during its man-made famine, when anything between four and eight million peasants (the numbers cannot be known with any precision) died as a result of the confiscation of grain for export. Witnessing mass starvation, he nonetheless used his journalism to debunk reports of food shortages: only a few rich peasants suffered in any serious way, he wrote. At times his ruthlessness was more personal. Travelling on behalf of the party in the Soviet Union he had an affair with an attractive young woman, a 'former person' from the old upper classes, whom he then reported to the secret police."
John Gray has an unexpected take on Koestler's choices. While not sympathizing with Communist and Nazi radical utopian leaps with their exterminationist consequences, he views the complacent liberal criticism that Koestler should have better devoted himself to piecemeal reforms as hardly more realistic. Liberal humanists, he writes, "believe that humanity advances to a better world in stages, slowly, in step-by-step increments: while an earthly paradise may be unachievable, incremental improvement is always possible." In the social disintegration of the 1930s "it was the idea of gradual progress that was truly utopian."
For Gray, Koestler had a more realistic view of the European cataclysm than did the liberals, but misread the Soviet project, which "was just another disaster." After the war Koestler abandoned politics and devoted himself to mysticism and the study of the paranormal. Even here, Gray concludes, Koestler's pursuits were "not as fantastic as the idea that humanity is slowly ascending to a higher civilization."
In Gray's next diorama we find Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Austrian Jewish writers and friends, born toward the end of the nineteenth century and, in their last years under the shadow of Nazism, nostalgic for the placid and creaky old Austro-Hungarian Empire of their youth. Roth is largely forgotten, but Zweig is experiencing a certain revival, as his work is the basis for this year's film The Grand Budapest Hotel.
For John Gray, the old Hapsburg regime and its dissolution shed a mordant light on our notions about progress. For example, it was because it was not a democracy that the widespread antisemitism of the Austrians and Hungarians was held in check. (This is an effect we saw in more modern dress in Syria before the civil war and in Iraq before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but under far more tyrannical governments.) The appearance of nationalism and the creation of institutions of civil society, usually regarded as great achievements of modernity, opened the stopcocks on the gasoline that would burn Europe to the ground. Gray writes:
"The inhabitants of the empire were subjects rather than citizens - a status that deprived them of the pleasure of justifying hatred by reference to ideals of self-government. Only with the struggle for national self-determination did it come to be believed that every human being had to belong to a group defined in opposition to others."
As nations came to form out of old empires and principalities, citizenship came to be defined in counterposition to national minorities, which commonly faced ethnic cleansing. (America has been somewhat of an exception to this process because of its multiethnic immigrant origin, but that is wearing thin, as a majority of those of white European stock today are recoiling from the growing demographic of Latino, Asian, and black ethnicities soon to constitute a new national majority.)
Progressives generally viewed the right of nations to self-determination as a major step on the road to human emancipation. For central and eastern Europe, Gray writes, Joseph Roth "had no such illusions. He knew the end-result could only be mass murder." Roth died in Paris of alcoholism in 1939, at the age of forty-four. After Hitler came to power Stefan Zweig, with his second wife, emigrated to England in 1934, moved to New York in 1940, then to Brazil, where, fearing Hitler would win the war, they committed suicide in February 1942.
Another piece looks at George Orwell's 1984 and Eugene Lyons' 1937 Assignment in Utopia. Gray's concern here is his firm conviction that while technology may advance, attempts to radically change or improve the human character not only are doomed to fail but they fail disastrously.
Lyons (1898-1985) was a journalist who became radicalized in 1920 around the Sacco and Vanzetti case. In 1922 he became a Communist fellow traveler, working for the then-underground American Communist Party's pro-Soviet publications. He graduated in 1924 to a job as an American correspondent for the Soviet news service TASS, moving to Moscow in 1928 as correspondent for the American United Press. He remained in the USSR until 1934. While there he wrote dispatches, like Koestler, covering up the government-induced famine in the Ukraine. Finally, disillusioned by what he saw, he published his 1937 indictment.
John Gray cites just one aspect: the special shops where citizens with foreign currency or gold "valuta" slips could buy goods not accessible to ordinary citizens, such as white bread, butter, and cheese, or for the really wealthy, diamonds. The valuta slips cold be used in restaurants, where they were sixty times more valuable than rubles, or to pay whores. People came to the stores to sell gold watches, jewelry, and ornaments.
The shops were monitored by the secret police and people who were suspected of having more gold were arrested and tortured in "sweat rooms," "lice rooms," "cold rooms," and other inventive methods. If there really wasn't any hidden treasure but the interrogators didn't believe the victim, their children were arrested and subjected to extended torture.
Lyons was briefly attracted to Trotskyism, but moved to the right by the early 1940s.
Gray concludes about the Soviet experiment:
"Contrary to generations of western progressives, it was not Russian backwardness or mistakes in applying Marxian theory that produced the society that Lyons observed. Similar regimes came into being wherever the communist project was attempted. Lenin's Russia, Mao's China, Ceausescu's Romania and many more were variants of a single dictatorial model. From being a movement aiming for universal freedom, communism turned into a system of universal despotism That is the logic of utopia."
He writes further:
"Millions died needlessly and tens of millions suffered broken lives, most leaving barely a trace they had ever existed. But under the surface powerful currents were flowing, which in time would wash away the pseudo-reality that enchanted western pilgrims. The Soviet dystopia ended by becoming just another piece of rubbish in the debris of history."
Later in his text, looking more broadly at such presumptively emancipatory revolutions, Gray adds, "The overthrow of the ancien regime in France, the Tsars in Russia, the Shah of Iran, Saddam in Iraq and Mubarak in Egypt may have produced benefits for many people, but increased freedom was not among them. Mass killing, attacks on minorities, torture on a larger scale, another kind of tyranny, often more cruel than the one that was overthrown - these have been the results. To think of humans as freedom-loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake."
He is leading here into a disquisition not so much on the futility of efforts at political reform but efforts that aim at reconfiguring the human character. He quotes a dialogue written around 1851 by the socialist Russian writer Alexander Herzen in which Herzen's protagonist replies to Rousseau's aphorism that "Man is born to be free - and is everywhere in chains," with the retort, "What would you say to a man who, nodding his head sadly, remarked that 'Fish are born to fly - but everywhere they swim!'?"
Gray designates the cothinkers of the nodding man "Ichthyophils," and adds his up-to-date addendum to the dialogue:
"Ichthyophils are devoted to their species as they believe it ought to be, not as it actually is or as it truly wants to be. Ichthyophils come in many varieties - the Jacobin, Bolshevik and Maoist, terrorizing humankind in order to remake it on a new model; the neo-conservative, waging perpetual war as a means to universal democracy; liberal crusaders for human rights, who are convinced that all the world longs to become as they imagine themselves to be."
Sometimes Gray ventures from the abstract terrain of human ontology into the thickets of late capitalist economics and the environmental threats that face us. He charts no new ground here but tells us where he stands on issues being widely debated. Prosperity in America in the last decades of the twentieth century rested on ever accumulating debt for the great majority. With real income static or declining the debt could never be repaid, which marked the prosperity as short-lived. Growing numbers are in prison, permanently unemployed, down-scaled into marginal occupations, or into a shadow world of drug dealing and prostitution.
The emergence of the Tea Party "suggests a retreat into a kind of willed psychosis, with populist demagogues promising a return to a mythical past." This multifaceted decline in turn rests on intractable ecological factors:
"The most likely scenario must be that a resumption of growth is engineered, only to be derailed at some point in the future by scarcities of oil, water and other natural resources."
Interestingly he is not ready to say that these looming, seemingly existential physical limits, will produce a generalized social collapse. He does think that global power will shift to more statist forms of capitalism, in China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Africa.
Civilization and Barbarism
Frederick Engels famously wrote that the future confronted us with a choice between socialism and barbarism. As it played out over the next century, we mostly found that socialism was barbarism, so Engels' advice proved to not do us much good. John Gray's view that humans cannot be reengineered on morally superior lines is not the sum of his stance on the antipodes proposed by Engels. Science and technology "are cumulative" but civilized habits are easily disrupted and then hard to reestablish. Barbarism is as natural for humans as is civilization. Humans are only "intermittently rational."
For modern humanists, he writes, "the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion."
In fact, he argues, the secular humanist prospect presumes salvationist improvement of humanity that is derived more from Christianity than from any consideration of history or of the natural world.
"In a strictly naturalistic view - one in which the world is taken on its own terms, without reference to a creator or any spiritual realm - there is no hierarchy of value with humans at the top. There are simply multifarious animals, each with their own needs. Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science."
Here Gray takes on the most common misinterpretation of Darwinism by its nominal supporters: that it prescribes an onward and upward progression in which humans are its apex. Nothing of the sort, except at the hands of those who illegitimately try to reconcile evolution with religion. All natural selection says about the natural world is that survival of individuals, not species, favors those best adapted to their environment. It does not predict any favoritism for complexity or for intelligence. The HIV virus and the liver fluke are as successful products of evolution as Albert Einstein. Evolution's function is utterly distinct from our needs and values. For only a very small fraction of living organisms is intelligence or complexity of survival value. And the outcome of any branch of the evolution of physical organisms is completely unpredictable. There is not the slightest reason if the film were rerun from the beginning to expect that it would at some point produce intelligent apes who would conquer the planet, destroy most of the other species, and very likely drive themselves to early extinction through population overshoot and vast overuse of natural resources.
Which brings John Gray to myths. He has long argued that the Enlightenment in general and its left, Marxist, wing in particular, have been fundamentally wrong to believe and predict that religion and nationalism will fade away, to be replaced by scientific reason and world brotherhood. Here he sketches his views on myth, mysticism, and what might be termed a non-supernatural spirituality. We need myths to live, he says. He is not a cold scientistic rationalist. But not just any myths will do. The greater the cultural and historic resonance the better. Not so much that we take myths literally, but that they provide a familiar cultural matrix framing our lives in the world. "If there is a choice it is between myths. In comparison with the Genesis myth, the modern myth in which humanity is marching to a better future is mere superstition. As the Genesis story teaches, knowledge cannot save us from ourselves."
The secular humanist myth posits the "realization of human potential as the goal of history," when, Gray affirms, history has no goal. The fact that we never arrive at the moment when people have become exemplars of rationalism seems never to dampen secular humanists' enthusiasm for their project. "Like believers in flying saucers, they interpret the non-event as confirming their faith." Science progresses, civilization does not.
I will not spend time on Gray's discussion of Freud except to note that Freud's positing of the unconscious offers a counterpoint to the presumption that our actions are governed purely by Reason:
"[T]he id, Freud says, knows nothing of the law that forbids self-contradiction - and [is] indifferent to right and wrong." This undoes the myth of progress, "the chief consolation of modern humankind." Freud, he writes, despite the psychoanalytic movement that followed in his name, "never claimed to heal the soul. . . . A loss of instinctual satisfacation came with any kind of civilized life."
Gray has a more interesting digression on Carl Jung. He asserts that Jung the famed psychotherapist took his signature idea of the collective unconcsious from an occultist movement in Germany founded by zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) that aimed at creating a science-based evolutionary religion. Haeckel in 1906 created the Monist League, which preached an esoteric version of Social Darwinism, a melange of eugenics, theories of racial hierarchy, pantheism, and hostility to Christianity and Judaism. Its members included prominent Darwinian scientists, occultist Rudolph Steiner, positivist physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, the butt of Lenin's Materialism and Empirio Criticism, and numerous later prominent Communists and Nazis. This milieu sought to mingle modern science with archaic volkish cultures, in the process going beyond the notion of national character to the idea that whole ethnic peoples have collective souls.
From these beginnings Jung claimed to have discovered archtypes from the collective unconscious that appear to people in dreams or visions. In his later writings Jung said that the archtypes are universal, but Gray cites a Berlin lecture shortly after the Nazi seizure of power in which Jung said that "The Aryan unconscious has a higher potential than the Jewish."
People need myths, Gray affirms, but ones that have resonance in their lives, either from an inherited culture or from recent experience, not the Jungian inventions or humanist wish fulfillment:
"Greek myth contains truths that modern myths deny, but not all true myth is ancient. Nowadays myths can be practically momentary: transmitted through the world by 24-hour news and the internet, they spread virally, entering the minds of tens and hundreds of milions of people in minutes or hours. . . . But myths survive for only as long as they are enacted by those who accept them. As popular uprisings go through their normal sequence of rebellion, anarchy and renewed tyranny, the myth of revolution dissipates to be replaced by new myths of conspiracy and betrayal."
Godless Mysticism and the Silence of Animals
I found the last third of John Gray's little book the most difficult. He presents a series of brief sketches inspired by, today, mostly obscure authors, I will touch on only some of these. He develops some theses on our animal nature and how we should best relate to nature and other animals. From T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) he adopts a preference for nominalism over realism, or in Hulme's usage, Classicism rather than Romanticism. Nominalism has many usages and variants but the usage preferred by Hulme says that the world is made up of specific concrete objects, while terminology that groups these into universals is a human construct and we should be skeptical as to how accurately it reflects an external reality. Philosophical realism takes the contrary position, that humans are in process of perceiving large numbers of universals that accurately describe the external world. While science generally takes the realist side, I can see that a writer wishing to stress our similarities to other animals would want to oppose reifying our capacities for abstrct reason as making us something entirely different and superior to our fellow beasts. Gray summarizes:
"Human beings are animals that have equipped themselves with symbols. Helping deal with a world they do not understand, symbols are useful tools; but humans have an inveterate tendency to think and act as if the world they have made from these symbols actually exists. Their minds - they like to think - are built on the model of the cosmos. A great deal of philosophy and religion is not much more than a rationalization of this conceit."
In Hulme's definitions, Romanticism, a product of the era of the Enlightenment and its contemporary rival schools, holds that humans have infinite potential. His Classicism, based on the views of human nature of the Greeks and Romans, has us with quite limited and fixed potentialities, as do most animals, only surmounted to a small degree by our acquisition of abstract reasoning. Gray comments:
"People talk of humans evolving, as if the views of the world humans take up and leave behind are developiong towards one that will be all inclusive. But world views are like gardens, easily destroyed by bad weather."
Godless mysticism is a bit more sticky to define. Gray attributes it loosely to Fritz Mauthner (1849-1923), a mostly forgotten Austro-Hungarian novelist and philosopher who was an influence on Wittgenstein. Mauthner himself calls this idea unsayable, but Gray cites Mauthner's attempt to explain it:
"There is no God apart from the world, nor a world apart from God. . . . I can experience, for short hours, that I no longer know anything about the principle of individuation, that there ceases to be a difference betwen the world and myself."
This sounds at first like pantheistic nature worship. That is not quite right. Mauthner was an atheist, but in the context of an extreme nominalism that treated virtually all abstractions such as "humanity" - God included - as linguistic conveniences rather than descriptions of reality. From this absolutist standpoint the holder of such a view, unlike Richard Dawkins and other contemporary atheist campaigners, simply has no interest in the subject of God, as the word refers to something inexpressible in language except by difuse analogies. This was not to say that the world does not exist or that universal statements about it might not be true, but that they were not expressible in meaningful ways in language.
So what, then, does Mauthner mean when he says that there ceases to be a difference between the world and himself? As Gray too briefly explains, it seems to be an interior quiescence closest to Buddhist negation of self. Gray writes:
"Godless mystics do not look to merge themselves with something larger they have imagined into being; they look to wipe away their inexistent selves."
Imagining Oneself to Be a Hawk, and the Search for Silence
This brings us to The Peregrine and the silence of animals of Gray's title. The author of The Peregrine was John Alec Baker (1926-1986), a native of Chelmsford, Essex, England. The book, based on observations between October and April, probably for 1962-63, summarized ten years of intense observation of the lives of Peregrine falcons. A high school dropout, Baker worked for the Automobile Asssociation, but never learned to drive, and for a soft drink company. As John Gray says, Baker was not a birdwatcher in any ordinary sense. He sought to understand the psychology of the Peregrine, to the degree that he could with great intensity imagine himself to be the bird. "He followed it," Gray writes, "not in order to observe it, but in an attempt to escape the point of view of a human observer." And from Baker's text:
"Looking down, the hawk saw the big orchard beneath him shrink into dark twiggy lines and green strips; saw the dark woods closing together and reaching out across the hills; saw the green and white fields turning to brown; saw the silver line of the brook, and the coiled river slowly uncoiling; saw the whole valley flattening and widening; saw the horizon staining with distant towns; saw the estuary lifting up its blue and silver mouth, tongued with green islands. And beyond, beyond all, he saw the straight-ruled line of the sea floating like a rim of mercury on the surface of the brown and white land."
Baker did not disguise the brutality of bird life. "The woods and fields and gardens are places of endless stabbing, impaling, squashing and mangling." He did not anthropomorphize his subjects. Instead, "Baker tried the experiment of deanthropomorphizing himself. Seeing the world as he imagined hawks might see it, he was able at times to be something other than he had been."
Our lives, Gray avers, are filled with commotion and distractions that fill our time, compounded by the mental monologue that makes true silence difficult for humans. Animals, though we don't know what takes place in their minds, and most have a language-like repertoire of cries, spend far more of their time in silence. Humans, Gray comments, "seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animls live in silence because they do not need redeeming."
John Gray concludes his peripatetic survey with a few pages on nonreligious contemplation.
"Contemplation can be understood as an activity that aims not to change the world or to understand it, but simply to let it be. . . . Like that of religious mystics, contemplation of this kind involves nullifying the self. But not with the aim of entering any higher self - a figment left behind by an animal mind. God-seeking mystics want this figment to guide them in a new way of living. They are right in thinking that a life made up only of action is the pursuit of phantoms; but so is life passed on a fictive frontier between two worlds. The needy animal that invented the other world does not go away, and the result of trying to leave the creature behind is to live instead with its ghost.
"Godless contemplation is a more radical and transient condition: a temporary respite from the all-too-human world, with nothing particular in mind. In most traditions the life of contemplation promises redemption from being human: in Christianity, the end of tragedy and a glimpse of the divine comedy. . . . Godless mysticism cannot excape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed."
I am unable to give any credence to the myth of the Judeo-Christian God, and see Jesus as a misguided apocalyptic rabbi. Still, I am less certain than John Gray that there is nothing in our universe now dismissed as supernatural that may not with time prove to have more reality than scientific skeptics believe today. As for godless contemplation or mysticism, this seems to be a term invented to describe meditation, defensively assuring others that for this practitioner, at least, it carries none of the baggage often associated with it.
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