Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments have been in the news recently, and their supporters batted .500 victory in two decisions before the Supreme Court. The debate over their display focuses upon the separation of the Church and State, implying that the issue is mainly a symbolic one—not one over their meaning. In disputes like this, however, one should always go back to the basic text. The Commandments are a fascinating cultural document, not least because several of them have proven so impossible to keep even in the most devout eras, and we should analyze the debate over their display in the context of their text. Several of them do, in fact, relate to the most profound divisions in our society today, and raise the question of whether we are going to try to roll back some of the cultural advances of the last forty years. The Bible includes, in fact, three different versions of the Commandments, but I shall use the first one, which begins at Exodus 20:1, from the King James Bible, Revised Standard Version.

1. I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

I have long had the intention, for cultural and historical reasons, of thoroughly studying the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, but I have yet to carry it out. This, however, does strike me as one of many indications in the text that the Old Testament God does not claim to be the only God, merely the only one to whom the Hebrews should pay attention. More importantly, however, this commandment may easily be read to establish religion, rather than politics, as the supreme value, and it therefore bears directly on our current cultural and political debates. Our Founding Fathers, clearly, did not accept religion as the supreme value, and therefore wrote the Constitution without any reference to a deity at all.

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Since men and women love beauty and create beauty out of love, this has been one of the most impossible commandments to keep. Only the most extreme Judeo-Christian sects, such as 17th-century Puritans (who, of course, helped found the American colonies), have taken it seriously. The rest have created numerous images of both earth and heaven, many of which still excite and comfort us after many centuries. This was a commandment to people not to be human, and it has, therefore, been honored in the breech. It is one of the ones that reminds me of Sgt Warden in From Here to Eternity, who explained to his company commander’s wife (whom he was about to seduce) that he had decided not to believe in sin because he did not think God would damn his creations for giving in to hungers he had put into them. “He might penalize them fifteen yards for clipping,” he said, “but he wouldn’t stop the ball game.” This commandment, in any case, has almost no relevance to the ways that human beings have, and do, live their lives.

3. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

As late as 45 years ago, popular entertainment, including movies and television, observed this commandment. The pendulum is swinging back, I shall be surprised if I see it go that far in my lifetime. In any case, men and women have never gotten through stressful situations without swearing, and this commandment, too, seems to be an order to exercise superhuman self-control.

4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.

This commandment has received far more respect over the centuries, but now, under the relentless pressure of the market, it has fallen away. This, I have argued before, represents a deterioration in the quality of American life. Not only Sunday, but nearly every major holiday, has become a working day for many millions of Americans who toil in retail trade. Were today’s religious right willing to make more of an issue of this I would be glad to make common cause with them. To me, to be fair, this is more of a question of honoring our own needs than honoring the deity; but this, still, is one of the principles in the tablets that we should, in my opinion, respect.

5. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

About twenty years ago I was introduced to the Swiss psychoanalyst and author Alice Miller, whose books (most notably Thou Shalt not be Aware and For Your Own Good) show how much harm this commandment has done. Many of our mothers and fathers do not deserve much honor, and not a few have done more harm than good. Ignoring or denying what our parents may have done to us, as this commandment orders, is a crippling psychological burden. It has been the great cultural change of the last forty years or so that so many people’s eyes have been opened to that point. To religious fundamentalists of all kinds, who rely upon unquestioning obedience to authority, this commandment is, on the other hand, fundamental. They rely upon respect for parents, along with respect for religion, to keep the younger generation in line. The current White House, moreover, portrays itself like a traditional father—omnipotent, omniscient, and incapable of error. More than any other, this commandment straddles the great fault line between those who believe in the personal liberation of the last forty years and those who do not.

6. Thou shalt not kill.

This is, probably, the least arguable of all the commandments, since no organized society can survive broad permission to kill. It expressed a fundamental respect for human life. Yet many fundamentalists, of course, fervently support the death penalty, and some religions even replace the word “kill” with “murder.” Absolute pro-lifers, who oppose capital punishment as well as murder, are not that common, except inside the Catholic Church, for which this is official doctrine. Sadly, we have not outgrown our need for vengeance, so amply documented throughout the Old Testament and in human history.

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

While surveys still show that high percentages of married folk still violate this commandment, few societies have taken it as seriously as the United States, and while tolerance for divorce has certainly grown dramatically here, tolerance for adultery has not. Marriage, Tocqueville observed 170 years ago, was a very serious matter in the United States, and in our own way it still is. Even our gay population now seems more than willing to trade a measure of freedom for respectability—but fundamentalists do not want to give them that right.

8. Thou shalt not steal.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
I have lumped these two together because they strike me, simply, as basic rules essential to the functioning of almost any society—even though we need very complex legal systems to try to enforce them, and even though much of the legal profession, one could argue, is engaged in violating (8) without violating the law.

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.

And this last commandment expresses the curse of western civilization: the idea that certain feelings are unworthy, dangerous, and must be stamped out. It is of all of them perhaps the most impossible to keep, and it is probably the one that we waste the most energy trying to keep. Feelings, as more traditional societies sometimes understood, do not kill; we need only to find safe outlets for them. Envy and jealousy, about which Nancy Friday has written a truly remarkable book, are fundamental emotions we all have.

We have come here to the crux of our cultural debate, best epitomized in the argument over gay marriage and gay rights. The opponents of gay marriage, as a recent New York Times magazine showed very clearly, know very well that homosexual feelings exist, but they regard them as temptations of the devil against which all means must be employed. To legalize gay marriage will encourage their children to act upon them, and this must be stopped. A few weeks ago, the Boston gay weekly, Bay Windows, featured a very provocative article by Laura Kiritsky, who had surveyed anti-gay web sites and found them obsessed with, and filled with links to, the most extreme forms of gay sex. “One has to ask,” she wrote, “Who are the perverts here?” The opposite view, which I share, holds that a minority of us are gay, and it won’t hurt those of us who aren’t to let them follow their impulses. It didn’t bother my children to know, in high school, that a few of their classmates were gay. If anything I think it made them feel more secure in their own orientation.

The fundamentalist movement and the Ten Commandments both strive to make human beings something other than they are. That is, in fact, a fundamental aspect of western civilization, and quite probably the aspect responsible for the dominance of western civilization over so much of the world. Western man has been trying, for many centuries, to escape himself—an addiction in the literal sense, since the quest never ends. Even rationalism is an attempt to escape ourselves, since we are, at bottom, driven more by our feelings than our brain. During the last four decades many of us have learned that we do not have be constantly striving to be other than we are, that feelings do not kill, and that we can forgive ourselves for being human. Those are the conclusions that the fundamentalist movement is desperately trying to resist. Sadly, so far, no one is articulating the opposite position with comparable force.

Monday, July 04, 2005

If We Fail in Iraq

Last Tuesday President Bush went on television to explain to the nation why we must, and will, succeed in Iraq. In another shift of emphasis, he stressed the need to deny terrorists a major victory in the ongoing campaign against terror--which is, in fact, a campaign against Muslim political extremism. Victory, he said quite rightly, depends upon the development of Iraqi security forces that can deal with the terrorists themselves, and the emergence of a stable Iraqi government. The President's speech drew a good deal of criticism, as has the Iraqi effort in general, based upon the claim that his strategies have been ineffective. Nearly every critic, however, especially elected officials in Washington, continues to accept the premise that we have to succeed. Today, in my own small way, I would like to help begin what may be a critical task: to put together an intellectual framework, and a different view of our needs around the world, that will allow us to accept what is becoming a very possible defeat.

Promoting democracy has, of course, been a pillar of American foreign policy at least since 1917, even though our success rate has been quite erratic. Most of the new democracies created after the First World War gave way to one form or another of authoritarian rule within twenty years. The Second World War saved democracy in Western Europe and made it possible in a good deal of the Third World, but spread Communist rule over Eastern Europe and much of Asia. The Cold War induced the United States to tolerate or, often, promote authoritarian rule as an alternative to democracies that seemed vulnerable to communism. When Communism collapsed, promoting democracy officially became the cornerstone of our foreign policy under President Clinton. The current Administration, obviously, has taken a much more aggressive tack.

The premise of our policy, which is rarely articulated directly, has been developed by the Russian-Israeli politician Natan Sharansky in his book The Case for Democracy, which is a favorite of President Bush's. It holds that people--all people--yearn to live in democracies, and that democracies will never disturb the peace. War has, according to him, one main cause--it is how dictators distract their people from their oppressive rule. "Realism," in this view, actually increases the danger to peace by accepting authoritarian rule in other countries, rather than treating it as an aberration that must go. It is an astonishingly simple view of international relations and politics, and its divergence from reality is becoming clear in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where American-sponsored elected governments are contending with a host of warlords, ethnic and religious militias, and ideological revolutionaries as they try to establish real control.

An alternative view would suggest that democracy is an inspiring idea that has been put into practice in a variety of nations, generally with the help of armed struggle. It certainly has appealed to a wide variety of peoples around the globe, but it has also periodically fallen into disrepute--in Europe after the French Revolution and again after the First World War, and even among large numbers of Americans in the 1790s, the 1850s, and the 1930s. We have been fortunate that leaders like Lincoln and FDR managed to revive and re-establish it on slightly different principles. Today we are faced with the huge challenge of renewing our own democracy again. But meanwhile, we have launched ourselves on the extraordinary mission of determining the political future of hundreds of millions of Muslims.

That mission has now turned into a military one. Here the paradox of current American policies and strategies emerges. Our conventional arsenal could easily defeat any possible competitor in the air or at sea, and probably on land as well; but our conventional military edge is not much use in winning the political struggle in Iraq. A large and evidently growing insurgency has been able to maintain or increase the number of attacks it makes upon coalition soldiers and especially upon agents of the new Iraqi government which are trying to put together. Although hard data is difficult to come by (senior Pentagon officials, for instance, refused to tell the Senate how many of the new Iraqi troops are combat ready), individual stories suggest that the training of Iraqi forces is not going very well. A recent Washington Post article by a reporter who had seen it in action described a high level of mutual distrust and low morale and motivation among the Iraqis. Hundreds of recruits and new police have been killed in terrorist attacks. Few units have shown the ability to engage the enemy.

Why is this so? The insurgency includes dedicated fighters and a good many former leaders of Iraq. It draws on resentment against the occupation and economic privation, which it in turn manages to continue by disrupting reconstruction. The new American-assisted government, like the various governments of South Vietnam, is having trouble generating the same kind of loyalty, and it suffers from the huge disadvantage of having to operate in the open. While Kurds and many Shi'ites clearly oppose the insurgency (and the Kurds have militias that can apparently take care of themselves), no real political counterweight has emerged among the Sunnis.

And thus, it is possible that, with the military suffering more and more damage from the war, we may eventually be forced to announce, too soon (as we did in Vietnam) that the job is now up to the Iraqis, and withdraw. That could lead to an anti-American victory in much or all of Iraq. That in turn would enormously energize anti-American feeling all over the region, and we would have proven that we could not stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

That does not mean that fundamentalism would inevitably take over the whole region, any more than Communism took over all Europe in the late 1940s or all Asia in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s. As always, and contrary to the presumed "domino effect," political change in one country can have many different effects among its neighbors, ranging from imitation to heightened aversion and more effective defense. But it does mean that the United States would have to abandon the fantasy that resolute policy, including the use of force, can topple any hostile regime and spread democracy further. It means re-establishing national sovereignty as a value we have to respect; it means recognizing diplomacy as a means of moderating conflicts with enemies, as well as forcing friends to fall in line; it means being realistic about American power.

Leaving aside the issue of our economic vulnerability, it is time, I think, to understand that in some crucial respects our power is declining, not rising. The key here is population--the United States, while larger in absolute terms, is much smaller relative to the rest of the world today than it was 50 or 100 years ago. When the British took control of Iraq in the early 1920s it had less than 2 million people; it has about 25 million today. Iraq's population, in short, as increased tenfold while ours has perhaps doubled (and the major European countries have increased much less.) Numbers count when an army is trying to impose order over a whole population, rather than destroying an enemy army with superior technology. We have never had the requisite numbers in Iraq, and we still do not.

The realization that much of world will pass out of our sphere of influence will certainly come as a shock, just as it did in 1979 at the time of the Iranian revolution, but if we can escape our denial and accept it, it could lead to a healthier America. The idea of reducing our energy consumption (and, along with it, global warming) would become more attractive as an alternative to the idea of transforming the politics of the Middle East. We might begin once again to focus more realistically upon the defense of the United States, rather than finding new excuses to project power around the globe. We might, as Andrew Bacevich suggested in his book The New American Militarism, conclude that military power will not, and cannot, solve the biggest problems the United States faces today. None of this means the end of American democracy. It might, in fact, help re-invigorate it.

Two historical observations, it seems to me, may appropriately be made on this Fourth of July. The first relates to Athens, which in 431 B.C. became involved in a war with Sparta to preserve its large empire. After 10 years of war, in which both sides had suffered major setbacks, they concluded a truce that left Athens with almost all its empire. The Athenians would not stop there, however, and a few years later they launched a huge and disastrous expedition to Sicily. The destruction of their forces led to revolts throughout their empire, which they had to try to put down while fighting the Spartans. Even then, in the third decade of war, they had some successes, but they refused to make peace without having reconquered the whole empire. In 404 their fleet was destroyed at Aegespotami, and they lost everything. That is the scenario we must avoid--to exhaust ourselves and come to complete catastrophe because we will not settle for anything less than maximum objectives.

The second even more apposite incident comes from June 1826, when Thomas Jefferson was invited to Washington to participate in a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, whose only remaining ambition (which he shared with John Adams) was to survive until that day, replied that his health, unfortunately, made it impossible to attend. "I should indeed, with particular delight," he wrote, "have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made." The Declaration, he believed, would "be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. . . The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."

Rationalist that he was, Jefferson could not imagine that the triumph of reason was impermanent, and that the battles of his lifetime would have to be fought again, with uncertain results, every eighty years or so. Like Lincoln or John F. Kennedy, he would surely have been appalled to find from today's newspapers that something very near a religious test is being applied to new candidates for the Supreme Court, and that science is actually losing battles to religious superstition in much of the country today. But he understood that the spread of democracy, while perhaps, as he wrote, foreordained, was not automatic, and he never expressed the slightest faith in attempts to impose it by force of arms. A nation that will not rest until it has imposed its values on the world, one might argue, really has no faith in them, since it cannot bear subjecting them to the test of comparison. We have come dangerously near that point, and we must draw back to preserve the extraordinary contribution which our forefathers made to civilization almost 230 years ago.