Saturday, February 10, 2007

A reminiscence and a reflection

This reminiscence stems from a half-century ago, when I was in my last semester in high school. In those days it was the custom to pass around one’s yearbook so that others might write brief comments. We were going out into the world, and wanted something to remember our fellow students by.

For reasons he himself does not understand, one of my friends, Charles M., scribbled an anti-Semitic comment in the yearbook. The word went around and, for understandable reasons, a group of well-built Jewish students lay in wait for the scribbler as he left the school. Charles was not hurt, as he managed to avoid his opponents. Perhaps they never intended to injure him. Although I refrained from rubbing the point in, I considered the response of the offended students to be well merited.

Charles, for his part, never repeated the occurrence. In adult life, as a respected professor of philosophy, he became, if anything, philo-Semitic. All in all, the response of the offended students was proportionate. It may even have helped my friend to rethink his views.

The incident I am now going to describe does not seem proportionate. Lord Richard Rogers is a distinguished British architect, with many outstanding buildings to his credit. On the strength of his reputation he secured several major New York contracts, including the redesign of the Javits Center and another large project in Queens. Last February Lord Rogers lent premises in his London office to a group called Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine. The participants discussed the feasibility of boycotting architects and construction firms building Israel’s separation fence and West Bank settlements, saying in a statement that they were “complicit in social, political, and economic oppression.” When these statements became known to several important New York politicians, who happened to be Jewish, they went ballistic. The projects were threatened with cancellation.

Naturally Lord Rogers, with billions of dollars’ worth of projects at stake, was distressed. He pointed out that he had not even been present at the meeting. His wife is Jewish and his grandparents were Jewish. He had done building in Israel.

After Rogers had provided these evidences of contrition, his opponents relented. Some, though, continued to grumble, doubting the sincerity of the star architect. Yet their point had been made. A chilling lesson had been administered. Beware of even a perceived slight to the state of Israel. It can be dangerous to your wealth.

In all this controversy (which I summarize from a New Yorker article by Ken Auletta), no one seems to have questioned the oddity of fighting one boycott by imposing another.

Parenthetically, I should note that I hold no brief for the Palestinians. They have shown an amazing talent for sabotaging their own interests. In addition to the human suffering involved, the suicide bombers have set an appalling example. Then there is the matter of the homophobia that is rampant among the Palestinians. When all is said and done, they are the authors of their own troubles.

For these reasons I would not support a boycott to support the Palestinians. But the response of powerful New Yorkers in this matter was disproportionate. Lord Rogers came within a hair’s breadth of losing the jobs. I don’t think that decisions regarding the construction of major buildings in the United States should be based on the perceived interests of the state of Israel, a country where I, like most Americans, am not a citizen.

The contretemps is emblematic of the role that pro-Israel forces have in our daily lives. These interventions are multiple. Currently, there is much agitation in Israel favoring an attack on Iran. Despite denials by Bush, plans to this effect are well advanced, doubtless enjoying the support of those who think that this must be done on Israel’s behalf. Such an attack would not be in our national interest.

Barack Obama is reported as having said the following. “It seems as if the game is fixed, and only works for the rich and powerful.” Very true. The only thing I would change in this statement is the word “seems.” The game is fixed.

Today, most Americans and I find ourselves reduced to the role of spectators in our own country. Special interests, whose interventions are lubricated with enormous sums of money, make the decisions for us behind closed doors. Occasionally, as in the Rogers affair, the curtain lifts. But for the most part this activity goes on surreptitiously. Yet it is pervasive and it is effective. I wish that Senator Obama and others with good intentions could change the system, but realistically I know that they cannot.

Can I be faulted for concluding that democracy is dead in this country?


Blogger Bruce said...

"Spectators in our own country?" Would that it were only that! That would allow that those that are running the show perhaps had the interests of the people at heart. Not democracy, but at least a benevolent oligarchy. I would not even grant them that.

It seems we are careening towards a war in Iran and that nothing, no amount of reason, empirical evidence, or public outrage will be able to stop it.

5:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

F. A. von Hayek advanced to the Odoliberal proposition that all laws had to be universifiable (the coincidence to Popper is no coincidence, since they were friends). The purpose of such a principle was to eliminate "special interest" legislation. Whether it is the super-rich, oil barrons, Israel's supporters, Evangelical moralists, or "identity" politics, the special interests have prevailed, and nothing came of Hayek's universifiable principle. Imagine the difference, if it had?

1:26 PM  

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