Thursday, April 18, 2013

I think you need a lot of context to seriously examine anything

“I think you need a lot of context to seriously examine anything.”
- Gus, The Wire, Season 5

Lately, I've been lucky to learn a bit about the politics and social justice struggles in Israel and Palestine. I admit, I know very little about this incredibly complicated subject. This past summer, I read Thomas Friedman's first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, which was a good introduction to some aspects of the history and culture and politics that influences conflicts in this part of the world, but it was also a bit more about Friedman, his opinions and experiences. For example, one of Friedman's main cultural analyses of the roots of violent conflicts in places like Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq is that those places, and the people who live there, are inexorably shaped by long standing tribal relations and ingrained practices of blood feuding. For Friedman, those cultural practices and cultural histories explain, for example, the Hama massacre that occurred in Syria in 1982. Basically, Friedman's argument about the powerful influence of cultures of tribalism in this region of the world is that Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Arab peoples respond to threats and attacks with irrepressible violence. Friedman calls this "Hama rules." Any threat against people in this region must be met with crushing, total repression. As I read his chapters on "Hama rules" and his descriptions of how it seemed to be a widespread worldview in the region, I couldn't help think of when Sean Connery's character from the 1987 film, The Untouchables, describes "the Chicago Way," to Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner. To take down the ruthless gangster, Al Capone, Connery's character tells the fictional Ness, "He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone." Perhaps a culture and history of blood feuding and tribal identities is enough to explain some aspects of politics in a place like Syria, but I had a hard time reducing something as repressive and terrible as the Hama massacre to a cultural practice. All the while I read Friedman I kept wondering, where are these combatants in Lebenon, Syria, Israel, Iraq, and other regions he covers, attaining their weapons? Should that factor into our understanding of the root causes and effects of this violence? How much context do we need in order to understand complicated political and social events?

One of Friedman's strengths as a writer is that he takes incredibly complicated political and social phenomenon and distills explanations of them through understandable factors. Why did the leader of Syria murder tens of thousands of people in order to suppress a political uprising? Because that is their culture expressions of power; that is the historical practice of Bedouin tribalism. But while that makes for a good story, and explains some aspects of what is happening it seems like it is only one slice of the context in which those events occurred. Undoubtedly, wider geopolitical factors such as the Cold War, arms trading, oil interests, and regional politics influenced what happened in Syria in the 1980s. Friedman side-stepped those issues, which would have complicated his story.

The character, Gus, from Season 5 of The Wire, is correct: we need a lot of context, conflicting context, contradictory context to seriously understanding anything. Such context does not necessarily help make neat stories, but perhaps we should sacrifice our need for simple stories built around dichotomies of good and evil, right and wrong, in order to really try and understand what is happening in a given political and social situation.

That is my approach to trying to understand what is happening in Palestine and Israel. I want context, not ideology. I want peace for everyone there, especially children. And I want to understand fully the multiple factors that shape people's thoughts and actions.

In my mind, Palestinians should not have to suffer from a violent, repressive occupation and Israelis should not have to suffer from terrorism. Stating that does not make the politics behind each phenomenon equal, but it does equate the common humanity that, I think, is the proper context from which to try and build broad knowledge of what is happening, and ultimately to build and struggle for peace.   




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