I miss my optimism. She’s hiding deep in shadow, in a place that has more in common with the Kali Yuga than the messianic era. She’s trying to wedge herself into a future of chaos and oppression in which the old world breaks down, holding onto the hope of rebuilding along lines far more loving and just. I keep hearing this scenario framed as spiritual teaching or political analysis. Either way, the type of encouragement I’m feeling these days says that we are on the bridge between worlds, the old systems crumbling, the new order not yet having taken shape. We are wisely counseled to take heart from history, from those forced to live under the boot of dictatorship who found ways to resist, survive, thrive, and regain freedom. We are wisely counseled to prepare to live through this without forgetting ourselves.
Coaxing my optimism out of hiding, I send her frequent whispers of reassurance. Look at the vast resistance to illegitimate authority and cruel plutocratic policies! Look how far we outnumber those being served by the Present Occupant of the White House, and if only we vote, we will prevail in anything that can be decided by an election! This too shall pass, I tell her, maybe into something surprising and wonderful.
Now I’m starting to get messages in return. “From where I’m hiding,” my optimism tells me, “I see too much certainty about what’s right and true on all sides. If the old order is breaking down, wouldn’t this be a good time to re-examine our ideas about what should take its place? I’m not coming out till that happens.”
She has a point. Consider the action the state of Israel’s right-wing governing coalition took last week, passing a a new law as part of its foundational legislation—kind of a decentralized constitution—establishing Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” Civil rights advocates and Arab Israelis (who make up more than 20 percent of its citizenry) quickly condemned the law as apartheid, racism, and the end of democracy. While the law does not explicitly deprive Arab citizens of rights such as voting, it opens the door to even more preferential treatment of Jews. It flies the flag of dis-belonging, of less than, of unwelcome. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leading the coalition behind this legislation (even while charged with at least two counts of bribery by the police), has lots of support from the White House.
Denunciations have come from many sides, including the European Union, T’ruah and a coalition of other progressive Jewish organizations. Conductor Daniel Barenboim has declared that the new law makes him “ashamed of being an Israeli today.”
It would not be accurate to say that Israel stands alone in asserting an exclusionary nationalism; indeed, the U.S. seems to be heading that way. And not just the U.S. The seeds are all around us. Around half of all extant nations have adopted official languages, and a sizeable proportion have decreed state religions (here’s an interesting list). Many countries make it hard to become a citizen, obtaining the full legal rights automatically granted to all whose parents are citizens. For instance, the child of immigrants to France does not automatically possess citizenship, but must apply after attaining 16 years of age, demonstrating among other things French language proficiency.
But just as the current U.S. administration’s appalling border wall and Muslim ban are opposed by democracy advocates who charge that that they feed and license bias, inviting persecution, Israel’s recent formalization of anti-Arab policies sparks keen opposition for similar reasons: denying human rights, fanning the flames of hatred at precisely the moment compassion ought to be dampening them down.
I know where my own values situate me in relation to these state actions, both the U.S.’s and Israel’s: I oppose exclusionary nationalism wherever it arises.
But I am obliged to examine how my own beliefs may have contributed as well as condemn others I find despicable. For many years, I have praised expressions of nationalism that arise in opposition to colonialism. At the first meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1946, 51 nations were represented. Today there are 193 member states. I have long regarded this entirely from the perspective of cultural rights. Just look at the names and dare to do otherwise: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan; Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania—people declaring their self-determination after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Algeria wresting its freedom from France, Angola from the Portuguese, Kenya from the British, South Africa from the Dutch and English, through the 54 sovereign states of Africa all the way to Zimbabwe, whose freedom after the 1980 landslide victory of Robert Mugabe was formalized in a ceremony presided over by Prince Charles. Nearly every world region tells a similar story, of formerly subject peoples declaring freedom from colonial exploiters.
Yet we have only to turn back history’s clock to discover countless examples of people seeking seeking a life of possibility, seeking to escape persecution, even certain death, and trampling the rights and freedom of others as they did so. Europeans fleeing religious persecution and nearly exterminating Indigenous people as they occupied this continent. Jews fleeing extermination at the hands of the Nazis and their allies, driving Palestinians off their lands. Freed slaves settling Liberia, ruling over the Indigenous Malinke people. The Ryukyu Islands being conquered by Japan made into Okinawa Prefecture, with an extreme agenda of eliminating Ryukuan language, religion, and cultural practices—despite Japan’s long history of forced submission to warlords and missionaries. And so on—and on.
In so many states that freed themselves from colonial domination or extreme ethnic oppression, the oppressed have become oppressors, seeking to subdue, expel, or exterminate those of different heritage or faith, criminalizing minority expressions. As Daniel Barenboim said of the new Israeli law and other oppressive policies normalized in that nation, “I don’t think the Jewish people lived for 20 centuries, mostly through persecution and enduring endless cruelties, in order to become the oppressors, inflicting cruelty on others. This new law does exactly that.” This interesting analysis by Max Fisher takes the question out of the realm of a single nation’s actions, considering the forces that make people choose identity over democracy, and warning that they are spreading.
How then is it possible to end the cycle that forces a choice between identity and democracy?
Not by perpetuating my own failure of understanding. That now seems quite clear to me. I was wrong to celebrate cultural rights without consistently pointing out the absolute necessity of commensurate cultural freedom for all. Without an unbreachable commitment to cultural freedom, the assertion of rights can easily disintegrate into a contest of power: does the right of Nazis to march through Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us!” supersede the right of the residents of that community to safety and belonging? Not if we understand cultural freedom—true cultural citizenship, which has nothing to do with passports—as the counterweight to cultural rights, the force that creates the dynamic tension which makes a free society possible. Without it nationalism evolves to Hobbes’ world: a war of all against all.
What if we really are on the bridge between worlds? Then the breakdown of the old order requires us, urgently, to examine our principles, beliefs, and commitments as a foundation for a truly worthy new social order grounded in love, equity, and justice. Do you believe another world is possible? Then I encourage you to ask yourself this: what have you been taking for granted that must be rethought if that world is to be truly possible?
Many political philosophies force choices between things that must be reconciled if the social order at the other end of the bridge to the future is to escape the terrible errors of the old order. What are the structures, values, practices that keep identity and democracy in right relationship? Eros and safety? Tradition and freedom? Entrepreneurship and commonwealth? Difference and equality? Justice and redemption?
As I was writing this, I saw my optimism peek out of her hiding place and give me a fleeting thumbs-up for admitting my own error. It seems pretty clear that she hasn’t much confidence in our future unless many of us take on this task, and not just once. I am certain she is right.
I really like Boz Skaggs’ new version of Neil Young’s “On The Beach.” “I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day.”