Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Good Life

Back when Richard Jeffrey Newman wrote his series on antisemitism, in the last piece, he included this:
I was an undergraduate arguing with another student in my dorm about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict–which was then known as the Arab-Israeli conflict–and I was citing chapter and verse of every argument I had been taught to justify both Israel’s presence in the world and its treatment of the Palestinians, including the horribly racist canard of Palestinian mothers breeding their sons to become terrorists, which was repeated as common knowledge in the circles where I got my initial Jewish education.

I don’t remember exactly how I said it, but when I uttered whatever words I uttered, my dormmate’s lower jaw dropped, and he looked at me with a mixture of speechless pity and absolute disbelief. “Do you really think,” he asked me, “that Palestinian mothers are any different from your mother or mine? Do you really think they want for their sons anything other”–and here he began to count off on his fingers–“than a long and full and happy and productive life?” He went on to say some other things as well, but I don’t remember what they were because I had stopped paying attention. It was my turn to stare, slack jawed and filled with disbelief. How could it never have occurred to me that Palestinian mothers and their sons were actual human beings?
When I read that, I thought it quite obvious that Richard's (now disowned) belief was racist. And yet, I thought the response was reductive. I think it's true every mother wants for their children a good life, but as philosophers have long noted it isn't so simple to describe the good life. It is not necessarily "a long and full and happy and productive life." In an ideal world, perhaps that would be the universal definition of the good life.

Then again, perhaps not. These words -long, full, happy, and productive- can be at odds with one another. There are plenty of people in this world who actively seek martyrdom for a better world. For them, that is The Good Life. For them long and happy are incompatible with full and productive. This is especially true in hard times when comfort and ease are unimaginable. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit describe a number of societies in which this dilemma has become so pointed that the entire societies significantly tipped toward valuing martyrdom.

In one of those societies, Buruma and Margalit discuss a letter written by a kamikaze pilot before his suicide mission. Even though he expects Japan to lose the war, he hopes his death will build character in the Japanese collective psyche. He envisions his life like a cherry blossom. In Japan, the cherry blossom is a symbol of fleeting beauty.

Personally, I'm often taken with expressions of nihilistic "meaning" like Blondie's "Die Young, Stay Pretty." I've generally moved away from asking such questions through music and toward asking them on the cushion, though. Point is, we all struggle with understanding The Good Life.

The word that stopped me in Richard's retelling was breeding. It wouldn't surprise me at all if there are mothers who define the good life for their children as "meaningful" beyond soft comforts, but this word breeding is so loaded. We breed livestock. Does it mean that raising a martyr was the motivation for having a child in the first place? For at least a small number, they answer is actually yes. How many? I don't know, but I still suspect it is the outlier. And yet the outlier is still determined by the mainstream. Especially considering the role of women in Hamas, how difficult it must be for her to claim agency, it isn't hard for me to sympathize somewhat with the woman below. On the streets, the martyrdom posters address her as much as her children.

But I do think we need to be deeply critical of the culture of martyrdom -it is that- that exists in Hamas and Hezbollah. When Richard spoke misguidedly in his youth, it wasn't pure fabrication. If the video were longer, or if my lack of Arabic and reliance on the interviewer weren't so distancing, perhaps I'd have greater difficulty being sympathetic.

Here is a video from National Geographic:
Lisa Ling interviews a Palestinian woman who raised her children to prepare them for suicide attacks in the conflict with Israel.

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