Ruthlessness

9 Apr

In previous versions of this piece published during past divestment campaigns, I have described the tactics of those who advocate divestment the hardest, those that push organizations to put the divestment agenda ahead of all other considerations, as “ruthless.” Yet what does this term mean, beyond highlighting the aggressive, “by-any-means-necessary” nature of these people’s behavior?

For most of the ideas that follow, I am indebted to Lee Harris, author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History, whose remarkable book defines ruthlessness not simply as a way of engaging in activities involving power politics. Rather, he sees ruthlessness as one of the great foes of civilization, indeed its oldest, original enemy.

Primitive man thought nothing of stealing food from his fellow pre-human, but only the ruthless were willing to murder others for food they could otherwise obtain through honest means or simple theft. As mankind clawed its way to some kind of order, with civilization advancing, halting, reversing and advancing again, the ruthless were always there to threaten any progress towards establishing some kind of peaceful living space where trust and cooperation replaced bullying and butchery as the organizing principles of society.

The power of the ruthless comes from their willingness to engage in activities that the rest of us would never even imagine. In a world traumatized by the global conflagration of World War I, Europe’s nations were willing to do anything to avoid another conflict of that scale or worse. While a worthy sentiment, it provided ruthless actors, like Nazified Germany, the ability to have their way by simply threatening to trigger another World War if their demands were not met.

Turning to a far more mundane example of the phenomenon, when those driving the most radical divestment agenda have come closest to meeting their goals, it has not been through imaginative political tactics or devotion to a cause, but through simple ruthlessness.

It does not require much creativity or organizational skill to bring a campaign like divestment into an open-minded, caring institution such as UC Berkeley. If, for example, I was committed to scoring points against Israel’s Arab foes, I could begin a drive tomorrow to have the ASUC take an official position against the brutal discrimination against women, homosexuals and religious minorities in Islamic lands. I could blanket the campus with images of women stoned in Saudi Arabia, gays being hung in Iran, or Christians brutalized in Egypt and demand that progressives have no choice but to take a stand on the issue. I could insist that student leaders advocating women’s or gay rights must publically join my cause or be accused of hypocrisy or of having blood on their hands for not supporting my positions. And I could continue to do this week after week, month after month, year after year, regardless of how little progress I make, regardless of the torture it would inflict on the campus, and not let any argument distract me from forcing my agenda into everyone else’s face.

It would not be difficult to take these steps, except for the fact that I (and everyone else who forcefully battles anti-Israel divestment) would never inflict the pain and conflict such a campaign would cause on the campus just to publicly embarrass Israel’s critics. Indeed, not only would I never do such a thing, I would never even have imagined this kind of behavior before the divestment advocates provided us all a template from which to work.

And therein lies the difference. What most of us, until recently, could not even imagine, ruthless players like divestment’s champions wake up every morning and do. Subverting the language of human rights for short-term political gain, forcing colleges and religious organizations to take a stand or risk possibly permanent schisms, dragging the bitterness of the Middle East into a struggling, multiethnic college, city, union or church, these are all acts with potentially long-term damaging effects. Yet the ruthless do not care about the consequences of their actions. To them, the leaders and members of UC Berkeley are mere props to be manipulated so that leaders of the divestment movement can feel part of some great, global, revolutionary struggle.

Even the Palestinians, in whose name the divestment-at-all-costs crowd professes to speak, are simply props in a vulgar, political game. As anyone with eyes can see, the only path the Palestinians have from their present misery is through peaceful negotiations. Yet by holding out the prospect of victory through war, supported by propaganda efforts like divestment, these “friends of the Palestinian people” are leading them towards an even darker blind ally than the one into which they want to drag Berkeley and other institutions.

While divestment proponents might be able to convince themselves that the ends justify the means as part of some fantasized higher, noble calling, in truth their means have become their ends. For what defines such movements outside of their willingness to say anything, do anything, hurt anyone, sew conflict, corrupt democracy, abuse the language of human rights and free speech, i.e., to behave in a manner that defines ruthlessness?

While some may wish for a day when mankind has evolved to a point where ruthlessness has been eradicated from the human species, there is nothing more dangerous than imagining that such a day has already arrived when it so clearly has not. Ruthlessness has been with us since humans first interacted, and wishing it away or blaming its victims for keeping us from an imagined utopia has been a recipe for the 20th (and now the 21st) century’s most unimaginable disasters.

One Response to “Ruthlessness”

  1. Anonymous April 10, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    Its been a personal and ongoing struggle for me to maintain the moral high ground when our opponents will do anything to advance their cause.
    For us older activists weaned on “Rules for Radicals” , Saul Alinsky's exhortation to “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules”, brings with it its own morality- you let the opponent establish the rules of engagement. It seems simple, though time and again civility, decency, morality seem compromised when you seek to engage the haters on their own terms.
    Ultimately, I remind myself that when I advocate for Israel, I represent not only myself, but my people and my land, and I'm judged accordingly.
    It always seemed the diminished expectations of the left towards Palestinian behavior (“They have no choice but to blow themselves up at cafes and bus stops! They are that desperate!”) was actually a type of racism. Does holding ourselves to a higher standard also imply a kind of bigoted sense of superiority? I don't know, I never know, but I think as long as we are asking ourselves these sorts of questions we are probably on the right track.
    In many ways this discussion of maintaining morality in tactical advocacy echoes the situation Israel faces every day. And as Israel chooses the difficult moral path, we should do no less.

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