If Everybody’s Wrong

Don’t watch the news. The word is that Obama is a weak leader. Everyone knows that – he should tell Putin to stop the bullshit in eastern Ukraine, and tell Hamas to stop the bullshit in Gaza and just let the Israelis have it all and do what they want, and also tell Iran to stop their bullshit with those nuclear reactors and all those centrifuges, and as for Sunnis these days, Obama should just tell ISIS to stop their bullshit about building a new Islamic Sunni caliphate in the middle of a lot of actual countries over there. In short, show some leadership. Take charge. Be a man. It’s all very simple. They’d have to be submissive and compliant. They’d have no choice. Everyone knows this, and everyone kind of knows this is utter nonsense – but they don’t want to believe that it’s nonsense. All this can be fixed, and we can fix it. Obama should fix it. The world cannot be falling apart like this.

But it is. It always has been falling apart like this. This particular date, July 28, 2014, is exactly one hundred years after the start of the First World War – July 28, 1914, the day the Austro-Hungarians fired the first shots in their invasion of Serbia, then Russia mobilized, Germany invaded neutral Belgium and Luxembourg, then moved on France, leading Britain to declare war on Germany, and so on. Nine million died. We’re not there yet, even if things seem dismal. They are dismal, but they’re not unusual.

As a species, we’ve been trying to explain this to ourselves for forever. Forget Eve and the Apple and Original Sin – in Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on Earth. Zeus ordered Hephaestus to create her, so he did, and the gods endowed her with all sorts of gifts – Athena (wisdom) clothed her, Aphrodite (love) gave her beauty, Apollo gave her musical ability, and Hermes gave her speech. Cool, but when Prometheus stole fire from heaven, to help mankind, Zeus was pissed off and had Pandora marry Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus, and gave her a wedding gift – a beautiful jar. Zeus told her not open it under any circumstance, without telling her why, but there was her curiosity – also given to her by the gods of course– so she opened the thing. Oops. It contained all the evils, and they escaped and spread over the earth. She tried to close the jar, which we now call Pandora’s Box for some reason, but it was too late – the only thing left in the box was the Spirit of Hope, Elpis. Zeus, however, shrugged. Yeah, Pandora didn’t follow the instructions on the label, so to speak, and she ruined the world forever, but he knew this would happen. Mortals are useless.

Does that explain anything? As a symbolic argument for why the world is a mess, it’s almost the same as the story of Eve and that nasty snake that talked her into eating that damned apple, except in that story God doesn’t shrug – he gets very angry and casts Adam and Eve out of Eden, and then He sets up the terms under which they can make up for being jerks, maybe, or maybe not. They’d better be really, really good, and subservient and submissive, and worship Him in just the right way. They fail at that, again and again and again, and he has to wipe out all but a handful of them with that Flood, but He wants them to shape up. Zeus, on the other hand, doesn’t give a shit. It’s hard to say which symbolic argument is more comforting.

Either way, we screwed up. In these two patriarchal cultures the problem is always a weak and silly woman, but now that seems only a historical curiosity. Any guy, with any sense of curiosity, left on his own, would open that jar, or box, or take a bite of that apple. That apple comes from the Tree of Knowledge after all. Everyone wants to know what’s going on, and Prometheus probably planted that tree anyway. These two odd stories may be absurd – no one in the right mind even thought that these events actually happened – but we’ve always known that we always screw up.

That’s why myth persists. It’s useful as a framing devise, even now, even here in Hollywood. There’s the small shopping center down on the corner here, with a Starbucks and a multiplex and a trendy fitness gym and a Trader Joe’s – where Schwab’s Drug Store used to sit, where Lana Turner, in her tight sweater, wasn’t really discovered – and there at the southwest corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights, at the foot of Laurel Canyon, there’s a bus stop, a little island of brutal concrete with no shade at all, where there was once a little ramshackle club, Pandora’s Box. Actually it was more of a coffee house, but on November 12, 1966, that’s where the somewhat famous riots on the Sunset Strip began. The evils were loosed.

That may be overstating it, but at the time the local merchants wanted all the long-hair dope-smoking hippie types to just go away – they simply hung around too much, looking strange, driving the paying customers away. So the police obliged, and it didn’t go well. Perhaps they shouldn’t have started at Pandora’s Box. That somehow made it all about the new sixties music and the new counterculture then developing – Peter Fonda, who would later make that Easy Rider movie with Dennis Hopper, was arrested there that night – and rioting spread west and the whole Strip was in chaos. It took a few days for everything to settle down.

Probably no one else in the country heard about these riots – it was a local matter, really – but Buffalo Springfield got a new song out of it. That was For What It’s Worth – recorded a few weeks later, on December 5, 1966. Steven Stills and Neil Young lived just up the hill in Laurel Canyon at the time and had been there. And soon enough all the radio stations in the country were playing that song with words like this:

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong…

A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side…

That was a big hit, and even if no one knew what event Buffalo Springfield was singing about, specifically, they got the general idea. People are always fussing and fighting and not listening to each other, while screaming at each other, and there’ll soon be a riot, or sometimes a war. That’s just how we are, as a species. Steven Stills just happened to write a song about that, and that this particular riot started at Pandora’s Box is only a bit of obscure delicious irony, and fitting. That the place is now just another Los Angeles municipal bus stop is also fitting. Sooner or later people forget what all the fussing and fighting was about in the first place.

That’s hard to see when you’re in the middle of things, and in Gaza, the battle lines have been drawn. Israel is only trying to defend itself, by wiping out Hamas, but the Palestinians in Gaza, after having been starved nearly to death in what seems, to many folks, to be the world’s largest prison camp, for two decades, might be fine with Hamas doing what they’re doing. Fire those rockets at Israel. Let’s fight our oppressor. Hooray for our side, but Israel keeps saying the same thing about their side. They’re the good guys. Either way, the other side is wrong – and each side has good reason to say the other side is wrong. Those who are sort of singing songs and carrying signs in this case seem unaware of the problem here. Israel seems blind to the world turning against them, even if the Hamas folks are as nasty as they come. Who is right and who is wrong?

That depends on who you ask. At Salon, Omar Baddar offers this:

For most media outlets, the current crisis began with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank. This is, of course, an arbitrary starting point. Just one day before the kidnappings, a Palestinian man and a 10-year-old child were killed in Gaza by an Israeli airstrike. Why wasn’t that the starting point of the violence? Has the media internalized Israel’s narrative to such an extent that they only see Israel as “responding” to violence rather than initiating it?

That is possible, making that hooray-for-our-side stuff absurd, and there’s also this:

Israel initially blamed Hamas for the teens’ kidnapping, and “responded” by going on a violent rampage in the West Bank, invading homes, killing demonstrators, and arresting hundreds of Palestinians, including 60 Hamas members who had been freed in an earlier prisoner swap. Imagine the opposite scenario for a moment: When Israeli troops were caught on tape killing unarmed Palestinian teens just a few weeks before the kidnapping of the Israeli teens, imagine if Hamas responded by invading Israeli homes, shooting Israeli demonstrators and kidnapping hundreds of Israeli troops. Would media outlets cover such actions with the same sympathy and understanding afforded to Israel’s actions?

It’s all arbitrary, and there’s this too:

We hear a lot about how many rockets Hamas fired, but rarely in a proper timeline. Hamas had been strictly observing a cease-fire agreement since it was brokered in 2012, and was even arresting Palestinian militants from rival factions who fired rockets at Israel as recently as last month. Hamas ultimately did resume firing rockets into Israel, but only after the massive crackdown Israel initiated against Hamas in the West Bank (and by some accounts, even after an Israeli airstrike on Gaza).

And it turns out the initial crackdown against Hamas was also without basis. Israeli officials now acknowledge, in direct contradiction to statements by Israel’s prime minister, that Hamas was actually not responsible for the kidnappings of the three Israeli teens after all. And this is not just a realization Israel made over the weekend: Israeli intelligence officers reportedly noted as early as June 30 that there was no evidence implicating Hamas as an organization.

Now it’s getting confusing, so Baddar provides context that might explain why Israel rolled into Gaza:

For more than two decades, Palestinians and Israelis have been engaged in a so-called peace process, which aims to establish a Palestinian state on the occupied territories, the small areas from which Israel is legally required to withdraw. But that peace process failed time and again because Israel was never serious about allowing a viable Palestinian state to exist, and insisted on swallowing up more and more Palestinian land through relentless settlement expansion, in direct violation of international law. More recently, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu candidly (though only in Hebrew) ruled out the possibility of allowing a sovereign Palestinian state to exist.

Baddar isn’t lying – follow the links – and one thing leads to another:

Because global perceptions are important, Israel is always looking for a way to deflect responsibility for the failure of the peace process onto the Palestinians. One of the talking points used to that end is the claim that there is “no partner for peace” on the Palestinian side because the leadership was divided. So when Hamas and the Palestinian Authority agreed to end their division in recent months, Netanyahu’s government freaked out and demanded Western governments boycott the new united Palestinian leadership. When, to Netanyahu’s bitter disappointment, the U.S. insisted on dealing with the new Palestinian government anyway, Israel seems to have opted for a direct confrontation with Hamas to break up the unity government. One can see the cynical exploitation of the teens’ kidnapping to this end simply by looking at the Jerusalem Post headline, which reads: “Netanyahu to Kerry: PA’s Hamas-backed unity government to blame for missing teens.”

Evidence for this sort of nonsense, of course, is nowhere to be seen.

As for Israel’s right to self-defense, Baddar offers this:

To personalize this for a moment, imagine a bully sitting on a smaller child, and every time someone objects to the fact that the bully is beating the smaller child with an iron rod, the bully exclaims, “Well, he tried to slap me, so I was forced to defend myself.” No, you can’t claim that you’re beating the smaller child with an iron rod in self-defense, especially when you can end the entire confrontation simply by getting off him. Back to the political reality, Norman Finkelstein put it best: “The refrain that Israel has the right to self-defense is a red herring: the real question is, does Israel have the right to use force to maintain an illegal occupation? The answer is no.”

There’s much more, but Baddar is obviously tired of hearing Israel, and the American press, and every Republican, and every Democrat whose state or district has a sizable Jewish population, shout hooray for our side. It’s not that simple, even if he ends up saying hooray for the other side. On the other hand, the battle lines have been drawn, and there’s a price to pay for not singing songs and carrying signs that say hooray:

Obama administration officials were fuming Monday over a torrent of Israeli criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest bid to secure a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

In unusually harsh language, officials said the criticism of Kerry could put the relationship between the U.S. and Israel in jeopardy. They also said the personal attacks on Kerry crossed a line and were particularly disappointing at a time of active conflict.

Israeli media commentators have leveled almost nonstop criticism at Kerry in recent days over his attempts to bring Qatar and Turkey – two countries viewed by Israel as strong Hamas supporters – into the cease-fire negotiations. Kerry was also being accused of abandoning some of Israel’s key demands during the negotiations.

In trying to implement the cease-fire over the weekend, “U.S. Secretary of State of State John Kerry ruined everything,” wrote columnist Ari Shavit in Monday’s Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper. “Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a ‘strategic terrorist attack’.”

Israel is very mad at us, or at least at Obama and Kerry. They might even cut off all their foreign aid to us, and then where would we be? No, wait… but they’re very angry, and so is our administration. This is nonsense, and Josh Marshall explains the administration’s anger:

Nothing gets the Obama administration’s ire up like the perception (very often grounded in reality) that Netanyahu and his government ministers are trying to scuttle his initiatives by inveigling themselves into domestic partisan conflict in the US. – Specifically, using GOP proxies as cut-outs to push back against the President’s initiatives.

This is not entirely new. There was an episode during the first Bush administration when the shoe was on the other partisan foot. But Netanyahu, who speaks perfect English and lived a number of years in the United States, is better able to do it than many of his predecessors. And the US partisan alignment creates more tools to do it with.

Marshall offers an example of that:

Israel’s current Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, is a former GOP political operative who once worked for Frank Luntz, and only made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) in 2005. He even reportedly played some role (though I suspect a small one since he was just out of college at the time) in creating the 1994 Contract with America. It’s usually good for both countries when a country’s ambassador has a deep relationship with the country’s head of government. It makes more seamless and reliable communication possible. And all seem to agree that Dermer’s relationship with Netanyahu is very, very deep…

Yep, and out of respect for Karl Rove, Dermer has been called “Bibi’s Brain” of course, and all of this seems odd to Marshall:

I don’t know what role Dermer himself plays in the working the general ties with US Republicans, though I suspect it’s substantial. But Netanyahu has made the de facto alliance between the Likud or what remains of the faction he owns (that part gets very complicated) and the US Republican party increasingly explicit. And that’s dangerous – dangerous for all concerned but particularly for Israel. I wish Netanyahu and his government had a better sense of the toxic repercussions of mobilizing GOP proxies as cut-outs in this way. It should go without saying that the Israel-US alliance becomes more brittle as it becomes more clearly identified with a single US political party. And perhaps more than that, as it becomes more clearly identified with the ties between Netanyahu and US Republicans.

The battle lines have been drawn and everything becomes toxic, but one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers tries to step away from this riot at Pandora’s Box:

For 47 of my 56 years, Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza. (Yes, Israel “withdrew” from Gaza some time ago, but it is still very much Israel’s captive.) In modern times, there is no single other example of a nation that supposedly shares “western” values sustaining such a long occupation of another people. Yes, Israel has a right to defend itself. Yes, Israel has every right to question whether it has a partner to make peace. Of course I don’t trust Hamas. Of course the rockets merit a vigorous no nonsense response. But one question sticks in my mind about the position of Israel: If Israel really wanted peace, why does it keep building those darn settlements?

Every answer I’ve ever heard – the irrelevant “there never really was a Palestinian state on this land”, the hopeless “even if Israel did that what makes you think they’d suddenly change their stripes?”, or the more limited “construction is for the most part only expansion of existing settlements anyway”, whatever – all of them only go so far as to try to justify why Israel should be permitted to continue to build. It doesn’t explain why it is a good idea for Israel to continue to build.

This is very simple:

Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. And in that sense, there is no justification I have ever heard for the settlements that one can reconcile with trying to make the two-state solution a reality, or indeed even with leaving it open as a possibility. Just the opposite – until there is an answer to that question, in my mind, Israel cannot and will not be guilt free. Maybe if those of us who love Israel but think it has lost its way focused on that one simple question until it is answered, we might get somewhere.

Sullivan’s response:

That’s where I’m at as well. At some point, the denials and equivocations and diversions and distractions fade away to that core reality: why are they continuing to settle the West Bank? It empowers Hamas, it weakens the Palestinian Authority – it is a constant grinding of salt into an open wound.

The Israelis had a golden opportunity with Barack Obama’s presidency to make a historic peace; and they didn’t just throw it away, they treated the US president with contempt for even trying, and now cast ugly, public insults at the secretary of state.

Hey, that’s what happens in riots at Pandora’s Box. Steven Stills looks on and then drives up Laurel Canyon, and once at home in the hills writes a song about how stupid the whole thing was. Everyone thinks they’re right and the other side is absolutely wrong, and in a way they are wrong, but both sides are wrong in their own way – and nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.

And Zeus shrugs, knowing full well what Pandora has done, releasing all that evil crap into the world. He knew that would happen. It did, and the only thing left in that jar or box or whatever it was, is hope. How useful is that? Ask Obama about his “Hope” thing now. That’s the way it is. All myths are inherently silly, and also useful and true.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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