Monday, December 1, 2008

Transcending Tom & Jerry

In the previous few entries I've written about how so much antagonism in the world is actually pushed by an aggressive minority. The tolerant, peace-loving mainstream of any society has more in common with its counterpart in supposedly antagonistic societies than with the hawkish element of its own society. The problem is that the element which responds to provocation with canine energy rather than human wisdom tends, by virtue of its very snarling aggression, to be the element that's clawed itself into authority.

One option is for the pacifists to match the intensity by turning militant. Elements of the anti-war struggle in the 1960's demonstrated the moral subversion and horrific results of this paradoxical approach (the Right falls into the same rabbit hole, e.g. when militant reverence for human life leads to the murder of abortionists). As Christ, Ghandi, and King spectacularly proved, the most moral strategy is also the most efficacious: step back from the Tom & Jerry cartoon and behave in a high-minded, disciplined manner and
unilaterally decline to escalate injustice into a cycle of self-defeating aggression (as any four year old knows, two wrongs don't make a right, but adults are cloudier).

The problem is that the strategy of provocation is now everywhere, and governments, which barely even recognize its contours, are ill-suited to maintaining a rational, moral course through its distinctive emotional echo chambers. However virtuous individual leaders might be, governments themselves are amoral. Governments, after all,
are the Toms and the Jerrys. We, the people, are neither Tom nor Jerry. During the cold war, Russian plumbers never posed the slightest threat to my auto parts store-owning American father, or vice versa! The Pakistani dentist who'd be killed in a war with India did not train Lashkar-e-Toiba.

International relations are like soccer matches, and, as in soccer, the vast majority of onlookers delude themselves by imagining greater kinship with the competitors on the playing field than with their fellow onlookers, regardless of affiliation. Once the delusion is dropped, the crowd in the bleachers easily recognizes their affinity. If reasonable Israelis and reasonable Palestinians, reasonable Democrats and reasonable Republicans, reasonable Pakistanis and reasonable Indians, all of whom are brothers and sisters by virtue of the unity of their peaceful aspirations and the tenor of their temperaments, are ever to conspire to break the demented cycle of provocation, it will be via direct and personal contact rather than via the proxy of their respective authorities.

It's tempting to imagine that Obama might be cool-headed and high-minded enough to resist being manipulated by provocation (though his bellicose - and fatuous - vow to drive through Pakistan's tribal frontier gives pause). But when America is provoked into a vengeful tizzy, it will be politically impossible for any president to take a higher road. For one thing, the Christian right would never cotton to a truly Christian approach.

Read, if you'd like, this follow-up article.


Anonymous said...

Of every post of yours I've enjoyed, thought about and responded to, I'll remember this one the most.

Gandhi said "an eye for any eye makes the whole world blind". Who'd disagree with that? If only the Mullahs would say the Koran prohibits the killing of innocents and if only the Brahmins would stand up and beg to give peace a chance.

Anyway, no Kristalnacht in Bombay yet - and were I there, you bet I'd eat every meal I could at a Muslim restaurant.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, it's great to get the perspective of someone who's spent so much time living in Mumbai.

Good point about the need to reach out re: restaurants. I would send a note to the guys at, the fantastic Mumbai food site, but I see that the site is, alas, closed.

Maybe I'll fly there myself, eat singlemindedly in Moslem places, and get it written about in newspapers. Get this perspective out there a bit. One thing Chowhound convinced me of is that you can definitely get into people's minds via their stomachs.

Jim Leff said...


"if only the Brahmins would stand up and beg to give peace a chance"

Another Gandhi saying: be the change you want to see.

Anonymous said...

I'm begging already! And of course, that gesture about eating at Muslim restaurants comes from yours after 9/11.

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