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Werner Horvath, “Garden of Peace (Hannah Arendt, Mahatma Gandhi, Bertha von Suttner, Immanuel Kant” (oil on canvas, 2002).

Weekend Review
Gandhi, Terrorism, Bush & Afghanistan

No one has time to read books, magazines, journals, newspapers and the Notebooks. So we read a few noteworthy pieces from periodical universe and summarize them for you. In the earliest days of the Notebooks, when the site could count its readers on the fingers of a Saudi Arabian caught stealing, this used to be a regular and half-way favored featured. It may be revived periodically, as printed matter accumulates in toto with the guilt of not eulogizing it. Here then are this week's eulogies (each link takes you to its virtual plot):

Gandhi vs. Terrorism,” by Mark Juergensmeyer, Daedalus, Winter 2007.

If you have only thirty minutes to spare for reading anything in the next thirty days, aside from the sixty minutes a day you should be spending with the Notebooks, it should be “Gandhi vs. Terrorism,” by the University of California-Santa Barbara sociology professor (and author of Gandhi’s Way, 2005) Mark Juergensmeyer.

The essay quickly dispenses with the misconception that Gandhi was either a pacifict or against violence in all circumstances. “Inaction at a time of conflagration is inexcusable,” Gandhi wrote, and “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” That means taking immediate and, if necessary, violent action to stop a violent act, and not sitting by when, say, acts of terrorism are being committed. The question is how to respond to those acts. Acting violently as a matter of retaliation is not an option except in the extremely rare case when only violence will stop another act of terrorism. But a bellicose stand as a matter of policy is debasing, foolish and useless: it debases those taking it for making them indistinguishable from the terrorists they’re chasing; it’s foolishly counterproductive, because as a strategy violence begets more violence and hardens the opposition; and it’s useless, because the stated goals one wants to achieve with, say, a “war on terror” are made not only more elusive by a belligerent approach but impossible to attain.

The better response is to first make a difference between the terrorist and the terrorism: the terrorist himself is not the heart of the problem, only a symptom, a sickness. The source of the terrorism—the ideology, the aims—is what any sensible policy should focus on. And it should do so with means that may appear counter-intuitive to us today, in the United States, but neither illogical nor immoral.

Namely, be willing to see the other side’s point of view regardless. It’s impossible that the other side, no matter how zany, has no point of view to consider so long as that other side also draws on popular beliefs for legitimacy (that distinguishes, say, Nazism from al-Qaedaism: Nazism wasn’t exactly a popular ideology, al-Qaedaism still manages to draw popular support). Be willing to talk to the other side. The United States mediated the IRA’s long war with England. Why not talk with al-Qaeda? And always, always, maintain the moral high ground, otherwise “a violent posture adopted by public authorities could lead to a civil order based on coercion.” Gandhi was very lucid about that. He opposed terrorism as a way to counter British occupation in India because he asked, simply, who would take over the leadership of India should the freedom-fighting terrorists have their way? The terrorists would. The character of India would have been tarnished as India’s liberty was won. Not worth the loss. In Juergensmeyer’s words,

After a solution was imagined, the second stage of a struggle was to achieve it. This meant ½ghting–but in a way that was consistent with the solution itself. Gandhi adamantly rejected the notion that the goal justi½es the means. Gandhi argued that the ends and the means were ultimately the same. If you fought violently you would establish a pattern of violence that would be part of any solution to the conflict, no matter how noble it was supposed to be. Even if terrorists were successful in ousting the British from India, Gandhi asked, “Who will then rule in their place?” His answer was that it would be the ones who had killed in order to liberate India, adding, “ India can gain nothing from the rule of murderers.”

Talk about parallels with the American “war on terror” and its consequences. The moral high ground was lost the day Bush declared the war, and we’ve been paying the consequences of the bellicosity since, from the behavior of rogue soldiers and torturers in Iraq and Afghanistan on down to the indignities lashed on the prisoners of Guantanamo and the trampling of civil liberties, privacy and constitutional principles in the United States.

The strength of Juergensmeyer’s article is in its persuasive soberness and facts. He presents the IRA-England case as proof that the Gandhian approach does work, and that a similar approach could work in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially—although that’s not what Juergensmeyer posits, but it’s the logical follow-through—as a first, disarming step toward a resolution of this idiotically called, in Bush’s words, “the struggle against radical Islam.” Owning up to a needed struggle against radical inanity would be a better start. The full essay...

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The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush,” by Joseph Stiglitz, Vanity Fair, December 2007.

Joseph Stiglitz is the Nobel Prize-winning economist who two years ago next month declared that the Iraq war would cost $2 trillion, if not more. In the December issue of Vanity Fair, he sums up the worse-than-Hoover economic catastrophe that’s been the Bush administration. His opening lines: “ When we look back someday at the catastrophe that was the Bush administration, we will think of many things: the tragedy of the Iraq war, the shame of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the erosion of civil liberties. The damage done to the American economy does not make front-page headlines every day, but the repercussions will be felt beyond the lifetime of anyone reading this page.”

The piece doesn’t reveal anything new, not even a few original insights we have the right to expect from the combination of Nobel glitz and Vanity Fair gloss. Nor does it live up to its first paragraph’s dire tone. No sooner does Stiglitz announce the end of the American dream as we knew it than he qualify the forecast: “There is no threat of America’s being displaced from its position as the world’s richest economy.” But it’s a good summation of what’s gone wrong—the tax cuts for the rich, the surplus gone sour, the almost $5 trillion debt racked up in the Bush years—and of what the press hasn’t paid enough attention to: even during the Clinton years, when the administration was obsessed with ending the deficit, the nation’s investment in education, technology and infrastructure languished. We’re not keeping up with the Jonses, or in this case, the Kims and Lees and Chens of South Korea, China and the rest of the Pacific Rim. What we’ve done is borrow our way to fake prosperity through cheaper taxes, virtually nonexistent interest rates, a cheaper dollar and mammoth government borrowing: “Bush’s own fiscal irresponsibility fostered irresponsibility in everyone else. Credit was shoveled out the door, and subprime mortgages were made available to anyone this side of life support. Credit-card debt mounted to a whopping $900 billion by the summer of 2007. “Qualified at birth” became the drunken slogan of the Bush era.” Some valuable facts:

  • After the 2001 tax cut, “Those with incomes over a million got a tax cut of $18,000—more than 30 times larger than the cut received by the average American.” Compounded with the 2003 tax cut that was even more skewed toward the rich, “in 2012 the average reduction for an American in the bottom 20 percent will be a scant $45, while those with incomes of more than $1 million will see their tax bills reduced by an average of $162,000.”
  • “Some 5.3 million more Americans are living in poverty now than were living in poverty when Bush became president.”
  • Thanks to the housing bubble gone bust, “As many as 1.7 million Americans are expected to lose their homes in the months ahead. For many, this will mean the beginning of a downward spiral into poverty.”
  • “ U.S. aid to all of Africa has been hovering around $5 billion a year, the equivalent of less than two weeks of direct Iraq-war expenditures. The president made a big deal out of the financial problems facing Social Security, but the system could have been repaired for a century with what we have bled into the sands of Iraq.”
  • “As confidence in the American economy has plummeted, so has the value of the dollar—by 40 percent against the euro since 2001.”
  • “President Bush worked to undermine multilateralism—the notion that countries around the world need to cooperate—and to replace it with an America-dominated system. In the end, he failed to impose American dominance—but did succeed in weakening cooperation.”
  • “Today, China alone holds more than $1 trillion in public and private American I.O.U.’s. Cumulative borrowing from abroad during the six years of the Bush administration amounts to some $5 trillion.”

Stiglitz’s prescription: “What is required is in some ways simple to describe: it amounts to ceasing our current behavior and doing exactly the opposite. It means not spending money that we don’t have, increasing taxes on the rich, reducing corporate welfare, strengthening the safety net for the less well off, and making greater investment in education, technology, and infrastructure.” The full article...

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“Buying time in Afghanistan,” by Carl Robichaud. World Policy Journal, Summer 2007. (Article not available online.)

Afghanistan may look like another version of Iraq, a country sidling toward civil war with assistance from an unlearning American presence (now at 24,000) and per capita aid that didn’t do the necessary job in the first couple of years after the Taliban’s toppling ($57 in Afghanistan, compared with $526 in Kosovo and $679 in Bosnia).

But all isn’t yet lost, according to Carl Robichaud (who directs the Afghanistan Watch program at the Century Foundation) as long as the United States and NATO reverse course from a foolish policy of spending 11 times more on military operations than on humanitarian and reconstruction projects. A militarized approach to development simply hasn’t, and won’t, work. “Overreliance on the Pentagon,” Robichaud writes, “is hardly exclusive to Afghanistan—it could, in fact, be considered the fundamental pathology of American engagement in the world. […] Nevertheless, the overemphasis on military solutions to non-military problems remains—even as the realization grows that this approach is not working.”

The approach focuses on the most dangerous and insurgent-ridden parts of Afghanistan (like the $256 million Kabul-Kandahar highway), where reconstruction money is wasted and projects go nowhere, instead of letting those regions be while reconstruction efforts are concentrated on the safer parts of the country. Doing so would show Afghans that they can have something to build a future on, given the chance. Getting more done where possible would also improve the credibility of the government of Hamid Karzai, corrupt and lawless as it is.

It’s not as if the Taliban is beloved, either: 89 percent of Afghans view the fanatics unfavorably, even in the southeast of the country, where the Taliban is in control. But the United States isn’t doing much to emphasize the rule of law, and its recurrent bombing runs that massacre civilians, allegedly by mistake, don’t help. Robichaud says more spending on building up lower-level “bureaucrats and technocrats to provide provincial governance is every bit as important as training soldiers.” But his best-case scenario isn’t exactly something to look forward to. He concedes, somewhat fatalistically, that Afghanistan will never be a functioning, democratic, “normal” country; he presumes that American and NATO soldiers must remain. And he concludes that “If we succeed, Afghanistan will look less like paradise and more like Pakistan.” Is that really something to shoot for?

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Wayback Machine

“The Protestant Deformation,” by James Kurth; The American Interest, Winter 2005. (The article is only abstracted here.) In a reprise from an article of the same title he wrote in 1998, Kurth extends his theory of Protestant “declension” to the last five years. He argues that “the Protestantism that shapes American foreign policy today is a distinctive heresy of the original religion—not the Protestant Reformation but the Protestant Deformation.” He surveys Protestantism’s reflection through American policy over most of the country’s history. The history lesson is absorbing. The application of the theory to more recent years a bit less so: one expects a more solid pay-off than that “Evangelicals supported the Bush democratization project because it was a Bush project,” or that those Evangelicals who “take their Bible seriously know that Jesus Christ is the light of the world and that to see America as this light is a form of idolatry and heresy.” It’s not a stretch to assume that the Evangelicals Kurth is referring to do take their Bible seriously. So the question Kurth raises, rather than answers, is this: Where are those who see idolatry and heresy in America’s “democratization” campaigns? If they exist, they’re not so visible as to make them a relevant factor either on the political scene or in the context of the “Protestant declension.”

His larger point seems to be that a pseudo-Protestantism has taken hold in America. Based on a rejection of hierarchy and community that was once grounded in the Protestantism of the Reformation, this pseudo-religion has moved away from matters of grace and salvation to matters of “salvation by works” and a “Unitarian transformation” that turned God into a deistic, nameless “Supreme Being,” looking out for Number One (the USA) but virtually as a partner in “the American Creed” of human rights and individualism. “The ideology of individualism,” Kurth writes rather provocatively, “reaches into all aspects of society; it is a total philosophy. […] It is, in essence, a sort of totalitarianism of the self,” where “the widest forces are the agencies of the global economy. Individualism—with its contempt for all hierarchies, communities, traditions and customs—represents the logical conclusion and the ultimate extreme of the secularization of the Protestant religion.” In this domain of “the imperial self,” where God has been displaced, “we no longer say ‘in God we trust’ and really mean it; we trust in ourselves and ask God, if he exists, to say ‘amen.’”

The idea is more provocative than its reflection in the world we’re living in. Once Kurth extends his ideas to the last few years, they don’t quite stick—not in an environment where God, or at least an image of God, has been finagled into a stand-in for supreme authority above the law and the Constitution. The direction and danger of the last few years is precisely that of faith-based foreign policy directed, allegedly, by God’s will rather than the Constitution’s, by God’s law as the president selectively (and messianically) interprets it rather than by the laws of men. This is not a totalitarianism of the self, an imperialism of the self—not unless Kurth means that the United States now personifies that self in its foreign policy, and projects its imperialism, its totalitarian view of its own individual will and desire, on the rest of the world. If that was the end point of his argument, it doesn’t look as if he reached it, though that’s the end point that makes the most sense given the context and trajectory he traced.

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