Friday, August 25, 2006

A letter published on Altercation, and a damn fine one at that:

Name: Tim Kane
Hometown: St. Louis, Mo
Dear Eric: I wanted to thank you for directing me towards Norm Birnbaum's piece on Monday. I would have to say that it contained some of the best analysis concerning current politics that I have yet read. It was efficient, short yet breathtakingly brilliant. To my knowledge, I had never read him before, but I will be looking out for everything I can get from him. First I must say that Birnbaum's piece reminded me why I am so sympathetically fond of things Jewish. Having grown up in a Jewish neighborhood, with lots of Jewish neighbors, I've probably been to as many Bar/Bah Mitzvas (spell?) as any non-Jew, but my affinity has always been deeper than that. It's the realization that the need for plurality to protect the Jewish community lead the Jewish people to apply their influence, skill, intellect and support to helping create and implement Roosevelt's New Deal social contract - which provided plurality, but also distributed wealth more evenly creating the great post World War II economic boom (which doubled global productivity in 30 short years). My father was an uber-mechanic with only a high school education, who gained a supervisor position in a factory that gave him an upper middle class wage - something his father could only have dreamed of, and allowing for him to send me to private schools and college. And my father's siblings did much better than he. Birnbaum's piece reminded me of all these things and renewed my appreciation for the Jewish community in America and while I am glad of where I grew up. And for those who have never had Jewish educators, perhaps it’s harder to appreciate the contributions they make. As Americans, they have been the greatest Americans and all of us have benefited immensely. It seems to me that Birnbaum's piece reflects a reasonable, rational dissent in the Jewish community. Again, the skill and efficiency of his assessment simply amazed me, creating an irony whereby in trying to debunk the myth of Jewish intelligence, he manifests it all over again in the process. Brilliant really.

His assessment of the situation of American Jews and Israel helps me understand Spielberg's movie "Munich". Munich presents a case of Game Theory gone awry. According to Robert Axelrod's "The Evolution of Cooperation" the best, most rational strategy, where two parties are in an iterative relationship with no discernable end, is to cooperate. This phenomena explains why I can trust the person who cuts my hair but not the person who sells me a used car - one represents and ongoing relationship with no foreseeable end, the latter does not. The second best strategy is "tit-for-tat": I punch you in the nose, you punch me back. The thing about tit-for-tat is that it should lead the parties back to civility and cooperation - that is unless one likes ones nose broken. The dark side of Game Theory is that if a party learns that the game is going to end, even many moves from now, it pays to stop cooperating immediately. This phenomena is illustrative of Chamberlain's Munich circa 1938 - to the Western allies (France and Britain), cooperation was rational. By bending over backwards, Chamberlain was trying to send a strong signal to Hitler his intent to do the rational thing, participate in cooperate, civil diplomacy to avoid war. What Chamberlain couldn't grasp is that Hitler saw the game of European diplomacy coming to an end. Hitler saw himself vanquishing his (or being vanquished by) opponents and so logically wasn't interested in diplomatic civility or cooperation. Of course this was both irrational and yet logical - Irrational in seeking an end to the game, but once arriving at that position, became logical to end cooperation and civility in diplomacy. (This same lack of civility and cooperation, by the way, is what really frightens me about Bush and the Neocons in American politics.) This brings us to Spielberg's Munich. He demonstrates the insanity of a continued game of tit-for-tat. The refusal to cooperate suggests that the game is being played by extremists who propose to end the game, as Hitler attempted, by vanquishing their opponent. This view exists on both sides, and as the assassination of Rabin by a fellow Jewish Israeli suggests, not only are their extremist on both sides, but they are willing to cooperate to eliminate moderates on both sides. I have no doubt that this phenomena contributed to Arafat not cutting a deal back when Clinton oversaw our politics. What I now see, from viewing Spielberg's film and reading Birnbaum's piece is that there is a dissenting school of thought in the Jewish community that suspects that the on going tit-for-tat strategy is insane, destructive and perhaps has a nihilistic end - which could never be good for the Jewish community, even if it somehow succeeds, and that salvation lies in pluralism, strictly construed and rigorously applied; In other words, coexistence.

At the end of Spielberg's Munich, the protagonist turns his back, not just on the game of 'tit-for-tat' and the insanity it imparts upon him, but also upon the non-pluralistic premise behind Israel, choosing instead to live the life of a Jew in pluralistic America. To Spielberg, this is much more rational. As Birnbaum suggest, the homeland for American Jews, is not Israel, but America. Spielberg's Munich and Birnbaum's piece make excellent bookends for making the case of a dissenting opinion in the Jewish community. Birnbaum correctly points out the security that comes with functional plurality, for Jews, of course, but also for all. He also points out that the Neocon-Jews are making a Faustian bargain with the evangelical Christians who could turn on them the minute they realize that Christ's second coming is not occurring and perhaps is stalled, and hung up because Jews refuse to convert to Christianity as prophecy says they will on the eve of the second coming. (The evangelicals propose, by their actions, to manipulate God into implementing the second coming simply by recreating the conditions so prophesied in the book of Daniel and Revelations, conveniently ignoring Christ's commandment "though shall not test the Lord thou God). He also points out that the Neocon movement is a reaction against modernism and a refutation of the enlightenment and all its fruits, one of which being our pluralistic constitution and all the protections it affords and has built into it. By aligning with the Neocons one signs up for a brave new world yet to be defined. For a community known for its shrewd business acumen, this is a notoriously and intrinsically bad bargain) By definition, though powerful but still relatively small, in a world of tribe-against-tribe, the Jews just don't have the numbers that would suggest they would succeed long term. Then there is all that blood shed and misery that comes with the tribe-against-tribe paradigm. Wouldn't it be better to just opt for functional pluralism, and get back to the game of making money, making babies, and pursuing knowledge and enjoying everything that comes along with those pursuits? Thanks so much for pointing me towards Birnbaum's piece. That was great stuff.

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