When I woke up this morning, my head was swimming with scenes from the news my overworked brain hadn’t been able to process, even with a good night’s sleep: Cindy Sheehan encamped outside President Bush’s ranch, young soldiers in Gaza weeping as they pried desolate families from their homes. If I set out to script a week that portrayed the tragedy of the human predicament in all its existential contradiction, I don’t think I could have come up with anything to beat the last seven days.
As I see things in Gaza and in Crawford, everyone, on all sides, is being put to the kind of test any of us might dread, the kind of test no one can pass unscathed.
Many of the settlers in Gaza are people of slender means and much faith, who have been persuaded by ideologues (whether cynics or true believers) that in moving to the settlements, they were taking part in the fulfillment of a divine, unbreakable promise made to their ancient ancestors. That this has proven untrue does not cancel the pain of being uprooted, from one’s illusions as much as one’s home. Many of the soldiers who relocated the last settlers have similar social prospects, and–whether from the right or left–must be feeling comparable ambivalence about the authorities whose orders they carry out. Some Palestinians who celebrated the settlers’ departure exulted at the suffering of the displaced; and when reporters asked them why, they spoke with longing of the homes and olive trees they were forced to leave behind fifty years ago.
The people who followed Cindy Sheehan to Texas believe it is time to stand with their own bodies in the path of a war they abhor, a war with unbearable costs and consequences for their own families and communities. Suffering has sent them to Crawford, but as the hot, dusty wind blows across their faces, they too must feel fatigue or disappointment or doubt. How must it assault their sense of agency, their belief in the force of citizen action, to be opposed by other bereaved parents, to be ignored by the man they came to see and then to see his indifference ignored as well?
Yet put yourself in the president’s place for a moment, and try to imagine from the inside the huge turn he is being asked to make. In his place, I would like to think I would find it in me to stand before the nation and bravely face a woman whose purpose, fired with the moral authority conferred by her loss, is to denounce and repudiate what I have created. But I can’t know for certain, and I hope never to be tested that way.
My two favorite political philosophers are Nicolo Machiavelli and Isaiah Berlin. This might seem odd at first, because Machiavelli is so often associated with ruthlessness in pursuit of power, and Berlin with liberal urbanity. But despite the 500 years of history and huge differences in biography that separate them, I am drawn to both writers for the same reason: they understand there is something to be learned from the way things \are\ that cannot be grasped if all our attention is on the question of how they \should be\.
For instance, as a description of what is when it comes to world leaders, the following piece of advice from Machiavelli is as fresh today as when he wrote it early in the 16th century:
“[I]t is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite….”
“[A] prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you….”
I’m as full of opinions about right and wrong as the next blogger. I don’t have much trouble drawing lines when it comes to Gaza or Crawford: I think the Israeli government is doing the right thing in relocating the settlers. And George W. Bush is wrong to ignore the message Cindy Sheehan has brought to his gate. If he would admit his mistakes and change course, I would be filled with joy.
So what? Now the lines are drawn: you and I can feel all companionable and superior in agreement, or bare our teeth and contend. If you’re like me, sometimes you get tired of the perpetual demand to weigh in with simple approval or its opposite. In \The Sense of Reality\, Isaiah Berlin cautioned against such certainties: “Those who believe that final truths may be reached, that there is some ideal order of life on earth which may be attained, will, however benevolent their desires, however pure their hearts, however noble and disinterested their ideals, always end by repressing and destroying human beings in their march toward the Promised Land.” Do we need any more proof of this than recent history has provided?
In Gaza and in Crawford, progress if it comes will take the form of compromise, and compromise if it is honorable will be grounded in the recognition of multiple truths. As Isaiah Berlin put it in \Five Essays on Liberty\, “The need to choose, to sacrifice some ultimate values to others, turns out to be a permanent characteristic of the human predicament.”
Poor humans: may we choose wisely, and may we see peace.