Saturday Commentary and Review #144
Ukraine Endgame in Sight?, "The World at War" at 50, The 'Once-Utopian' San Fernando Valley, Ethno-State vs. Liberal Democracy, David Lynch's "Blue Velvet"
Every weekend (almost) I share five articles/essays/reports with you. I select these over the course of the week because they are either insightful, informative, interesting, important, or a combination of the above.
At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, I made the following prediction:
Big Winner: USA
Small Winner: Russia
Small Loser: EU
Big Loser: Ukraine
I think my prediction has held up very well and will be proven correct by the time that this war wraps up.
Italian PM Giorgia Meloni recently got tricked by two infamous prank callers from Russia, in which she admitted that Europe is suffering from “war fatigue” with the conflict in Ukraine. “I see that there is a lot of fatigue … from all the sides. We [are] near the moment in which everybody understands that we need a way out”, she explained.
This ‘fatigue’ is evident for all to see. Ukraine has been a black hole, sucking in billions upon billions of dollars in aid from the West, without any real oversight as to where that money is going. Those of us in Europe frequently see the most luxurious automobiles sporting Ukrainian license plates on our highways, driven by military-aged men. Corruption in Ukraine is at Nigeria-levels, with billions being squirreled out of the country, into offshore accounts and invested in fancy real estate purchases.
The fatigue also exists because Ukraine has failed to make any significant progress on the battlefield against Russia, and the massive loss in life has drained Ukraine’s ability to engage in further offensive actions. With the war in Gaza now the main focus of the USA, there is little wonder as to why US and EU officials are now asking Ukraine to go to the negotiating table with Russia:
WASHINGTON — U.S. and European officials have begun quietly talking to the Ukrainian government about what possible peace negotiations with Russia might entail to end the war, according to one current senior U.S. official and one former senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions.
The conversations have included very broad outlines of what Ukraine might need to give up to reach a deal, the officials said. Some of the talks, which officials described as delicate, took place last month during a meeting of representatives from more than 50 nations supporting Ukraine, including NATO members, known as the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, the officials said.
The discussions are an acknowledgment of the dynamics militarily on the ground in Ukraine and politically in the U.S. and Europe, officials said.
They began amid concerns among U.S. and European officials that the war has reached a stalemate and about the ability to continue providing aid to Ukraine, officials said. Biden administration officials also are worried that Ukraine is running out of forces, while Russia has a seemingly endless supply, officials said. Ukraine is also struggling with recruiting and has recently seen public protests about some of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s open-ended conscription requirements.
“Quietly” and “delicate”.
This is why Zelensky is able to reject this report, as he did earlier today:
“Stalemate” (from the previous link):
And there is unease in the U.S. government with how much less public attention the war in Ukraine has garnered since the Israel-Hamas war began nearly a month ago, the officials said. Officials fear that shift could make securing additional aid for Kyiv more difficult.
Some U.S. military officials have privately begun using the term “stalemate” to describe the current battle in Ukraine, with some saying it may come down to which side can maintain a military force the longest. Neither side is making large strides on the battlefield, which some U.S. officials now describe as a war of inches. Officials also have privately said Ukraine likely only has until the end of the year or shortly thereafter before more urgent discussions about peace negotiations should begin. U.S. officials have shared their views on such a timeline with European allies, officials said.
A lack of manpower on the Ukrainian side:
President Joe Biden has been intensely focused on Ukraine’s depleting military forces, according to two people familiar with the matter.
"Manpower is at the top of the administration’s concerns right now,” one said. The U.S. and its allies can provide Ukraine with weaponry, this person said, “but if they don’t have competent forces to use them it doesn’t do a lot of good”.
The losses on the Ukrainian side must be horrific.
This report comes on the heels of a very, very negative profile of the situation in Ukraine, and its President, Volodymyr Zelensky in particular:
“Angry” and “messianic”:
After his visit to Washington, TIME followed the President and his team back to Kyiv, hoping to understand how they would react to the signals they had received, especially the insistent calls for Zelensky to fight corruption inside his own government, and the fading enthusiasm for a war with no end in sight. On my first day in Kyiv, I asked one member of his circle how the President was feeling. The response came without a second’s hesitation: “Angry.”
The usual sparkle of his optimism, his sense of humor, his tendency to liven up a meeting in the war room with a bit of banter or a bawdy joke, none of that has survived into the second year of all-out war. “Now he walks in, gets the updates, gives the orders, and walks out,” says one longtime member of his team. Another tells me that, most of all, Zelensky feels betrayed by his Western allies. They have left him without the means to win the war, only the means to survive it.
But his convictions haven’t changed. Despite the recent setbacks on the battlefield, he does not intend to give up fighting or to sue for any kind of peace. On the contrary, his belief in Ukraine’s ultimate victory over Russia has hardened into a form that worries some of his advisers. It is immovable, verging on the messianic. “He deludes himself,” one of his closest aides tells me in frustration. “We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that.”
That was then, this is now:
At the end of last year, during his previous visit to Washington, Zelensky received a hero’s welcome. The White House sent a U.S. Air Force jet to pick him up in eastern Poland a few days before Christmas and, with an escort from a NATO spy plane and an F-15 Eagle fighter, deliver him to Joint Base Andrews outside the U.S. capital. That evening, Zelensky appeared before a joint session of Congress to declare that Ukraine had defeated Russia “in the battle for minds of the world.”
Watching his speech from the balcony, I counted 13 standing ovations before I stopped keeping track. One Senator told me he could not remember a time in his three decades on Capitol Hill when a foreign leader received such an admiring reception. A few right-wing Republicans refused to stand or applaud for Zelensky, but the votes to support him were bipartisan and overwhelming throughout last year.
This time around, the atmosphere had changed. Assistance to Ukraine had become a sticking point in the debate over the federal budget. One of Zelensky’s foreign policy advisers urged him to call off the trip in September, warning that the atmosphere was too fraught. Congressional leaders declined to let Zelensky deliver a public address on Capitol Hill. His aides tried to arrange an in-person appearance for him on Fox News and an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Neither one came through.
Instead, on the morning of Sept. 21, Zelensky met in private with then House Speaker Kevin McCarthy before making his way to the Old Senate Chamber, where lawmakers grilled him behind closed doors. Most of Zelensky’s usual critics stayed silent in the session; Senator Ted Cruz strolled in more than 20 minutes late. The Democrats, for their part, wanted to understand where the war was headed, and how badly Ukraine needed U.S. support. “They asked me straight up: If we don’t give you the aid, what happens?” Zelensky recalls. “What happens is we will lose.”
Zelensky’s performance left a deep impression on some of the lawmakers present. Angus King, an independent Senator from Maine, recalled the Ukrainian leader telling his audience, “You’re giving money. We’re giving our lives.” But it was not enough. Ten days later, Congress passed a bill to temporarily avert a government shutdown. It included no assistance for Ukraine.
Disconnect between Zelensky and his military:
At least one minister would need to be fired, along with a senior general in charge of the counteroffensive, they said, to ensure accountability for Ukraine’s slow progress at the front. “We’re not moving forward,” says one of Zelensky’s close aides. Some front-line commanders, he continues, have begun refusing orders to advance, even when they came directly from the office of the President. “They just want to sit in the trenches and hold the line,” he says. “But we can’t win a war that way.”
When I raised these claims with a senior military officer, he said that some commanders have little choice in second-guessing orders from the top. At one point in early October, he said, the political leadership in Kyiv demanded an operation to “retake” the city of Horlivka, a strategic outpost in eastern Ukraine that the Russians have held and fiercely defended for nearly a decade. The answer came back in the form of a question: With what? “They don’t have the men or the weapons,” says the officer. “Where are the weapons? Where is the artillery? Where are the new recruits?”
In some branches of the military, the shortage of personnel has become even more dire than the deficit in arms and ammunition. One of Zelensky’s close aides tells me that even if the U.S. and its allies come through with all the weapons they have pledged, “we don’t have the men to use them.”
Corruption is endemic:
In recent months, the issue of corruption has strained Zelensky’s relationship with many of his allies. Ahead of his visit to Washington, the White House prepared a list of anti-corruption reforms for the Ukrainians to undertake. One of the aides who traveled with Zelensky to the U.S. told me these proposals targeted the very top of the state hierarchy. “These were not suggestions,” says another presidential adviser. “These were conditions.”
To address the American concerns, Zelensky took some dramatic steps. In early September, he fired his Minister of Defense, Oleksiy Reznikov, a member of his inner circle who had come under scrutiny over corruption in his ministry. Two presidential advisers told me he had not been personally involved in graft. “But he failed to keep order within his ministry,” one says, pointing to the inflated prices the ministry paid for supplies, such as winter coats for soldiers and eggs to keep them fed.
Amid all the pressure to root out corruption, I assumed, perhaps naively, that officials in Ukraine would think twice before taking a bribe or pocketing state funds. But when I made this point to a top presidential adviser in early October, he asked me to turn off my audio recorder so he could speak more freely. “Simon, you’re mistaken,” he says. “People are stealing like there’s no tomorrow.”
It was less than a year ago that the author of this article, Simon Shuster, wrote a fawning profile of Zelensky for Time, naming him the “Man of the Year”.
The Russians are getting stronger every day, and the Ukrainians admit that even with new weaponry, they are lacking the men to use them. Why would Russia agree to negotiations at this juncture?
Growing up in the 1980s in Southern Ontario, I would watch cartoons on Saturday morning (thanks to US television stations beaming out from Buffalo, NY and Erie, Pennsylvania), and would then follow that by switching the channel to CITY-TV, a tiny Toronto TV station that operated on a shoestring budget. CITY-TV would air a series of war documentaries such as “The War Years” that covered both World Wars, “The 10,000 Day War” that was about Vietnam, and finally, the greatest war documentary ever, the UK-produced “The World at War”. After watching these, I would go and play outside with my friends until dinner time..
More than anything else, it was The World at War that sparked my love of history. This was a masterfully-crafted documentary series spanning the whole of the war in 26 episodes. Narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, it was engrossing, frightening, educational, and very, very intelligent. Such a series could never be made today, as its dispassionate approach would never get green-lit. They managed to not only interview Albert Speer, but they also found Hitler’s personal secretary, Traudl Junge, and interviewed her too. Check out the all-star list of participants yourself here.
The defeat of the Axis in WW2 provided us the basis for our current international order. Hitler and the Nazis are the representation of “pure evil”, which is the reason why allusions and comparisons to Nazi Germany are so numerous in discourse today. That regime is to us what Satan was to Christians of earlier times.
The documentary series is now 50 years old, and Aris Roussinos reflects on just how unique the production was, and how important it still remains:
The intellectual gulf between, say, 1997’s The Nazis: A Warning from History (a documentary about the rise of National Socialism) and 2019’s The Rise of the Nazis (a parable about Trump and Brexit, featuring Ash Sarkar and Sir Mike Jackson, doubtless the fruit of a researcher’s Twitter search for a communist and a general) is unbridgeable. It is, simply, unthinkable that any television station today would spend two years and vast sums of revenue hauling out unseen footage from state archives for 26 hours of prime-time history programming, nor present the results with such intellectual and moral sophistication.
But even then, it was prestige television: with an eye to international sales, Lawrence Olivier was drafted in to provide the voiceover, with only his eccentric pronunciation — “Shtaleen”, “the Ukryne”— breaking the illusion of an omniscient observer detailing mankind’s foibles. In tones shifting scene by scene from sardonic dismissal of the human frailties and delusions underlying war to cold contempt and sorrowful, clipped pity at the sheer waste of it all, the pathos of Olivier’s narration is central to the series’ artistic success.
A monumental achievement:
Over the 26 hour-long episodes (streamable today in truncated form on UKTV Play), the Glaswegian-Jewish auteur Jeremy Isaacs produced an epic of unimaginable scope, interweaving the grand narrative of geopolitics with the personal recollections of the soldiers, diplomats and civilians involved, across campaigns reaching from the Russian steppes to the American heartland and the jungles of the Pacific. The cast list of interviewees is extraordinary: whole documentaries could surely be pieced together today from its offcuts. Where else could Admiral Doenitz pop up as a briefly-used talking head to talk us through the intricacies of Germany’s U-boat campaign, Anthony Eden (billed as Lord Avon) and Lord Mountbatten to unveil Whitehall’s thinking, Adolf Galland outline the Luftwaffe’s failings in the Battle of Britain or Arthur Harris and Curtis LeMay give us their unrepentant insights into the virtues and limitations of strategic bombing?
Aris is correct in pointing out that was the interviews that raised the overall value of the production:
Thirty years after the events themselves, the series was made at just the right time for a work of history: long enough for its participants, late-middle-aged in their Seventies suits, to achieve some distance from their younger selves, but too close to have become memorialised, locked away in myth with the rest of the distant past. The passage of time alone means the series is unreplicable now: the great work of television history has become the matter of History in itself. Even the reminiscences of the less notable participants, the French and German and Italian army officers sitting in their book-lined studies recounting their war in cut-glass English accents, the cockneys sharing stories in a smoke-filled East End pub or the Royal Navy veteran matter-of-factly, almost innocently, describing his feelings of what we would now term Post-Traumatic Stress, are visions of a lost world.
The recollections of the survivors interviewed are the series’ backbone, but perhaps taken for granted is the faultless tradecraft of the researchers who tracked down and won their confidence: embedded within this work of history are moments of pure journalism at its best. Perhaps counterintuitively, for a series now coded as “male interest”, The World At War’s greatest strengths are built on the meticulous skill and craftsmanship of its little-praised female production staff. To unlock the memories of the Nazi interviewees, Isaacs wrote, “Susan McConachy, blonde and blue-eyed, was our star” finding and interviewing Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, whose intimate recollections of the regime bunker Götterdämerung have, via the film Downfall, since entered popular mythology. McConachy’s “worst moment”, Isaacs noted, “came when Karl Wolff, Himmler’s adjutant, put his hand on her knee and confided: ‘My dear, you are just the type from whom we liked to breed.’”
The second half of the series (which had a different narrator) had scenes that would shock today’s viewers. For example, they showed huge conventions in which former enemies sat down for dinner and drink (British and German veterans of the North African campaign). The idea that anyone could sit down with Wehrmacht soldiers and have a drink and a laugh with them must horrify modern sensibilities.
The series avoided preaching at all costs, allowing viewers to make up their own minds:
The scene itself, with the mixed emotions playing across Wolff’s face as he tells the story of Himmler turning green beside the pit as his face was splashed with a victim’s brains, is extraordinary. No less powerful, or compelling in its moral complexity, is episode director Martin Smith’s interview with Albert Speer in the Holocaust episode Genocide, the single episode screened without accompanying music or advertising breaks. Hitler’s armaments minister recounts, with a sort of hesitant uncertainty as to how his testimony will be received, being warned not to visit the camps “because horrible things would happen. This, together with other hints I got, should have made — should have made my decision to go to Hitler immediately, or to Himmler, and to ask them what is going on and to take my own steps, but I didn’t do it, and not doing it was, so I think nowadays, the biggest fault in my life.” As Isaacs later noted laconically, “Albert Speer, surely, was economical with the truth,” but the episode doesn’t labour the point and moves on swiftly to the next scene: the viewer was trusted, once again, to make up his own mind.
The series left a lasting impression on Aris, just like it did to 8 year old Niccolo:
When I was young, The World at War made me want to see war for myself, and record it for posterity. Rewatching it now, having experienced a decade of close combat and great human suffering in the intervening period, what strikes me most is the sheer quality of the combat footage, obtained by unnamed cameramen on all sides who may or may not have survived their labours. The intensity reminds us that even the most experienced journalist today has never seen war on such a scale: at least, not yet. The almost expressionist editing of their uncredited footage, the long periods when the voiceover and music trails off for bricolaged images of pure chaos, still pays the appropriate honour to their work.
The last documentary series of this type that comes close to its success is the BBC series “The Death of Yugoslavia”, as the main cast are all present and appearing just shortly after hostilities wrapped up.
Could such a series be made about the war in Iraq? Not a chance. First of all, there has been zero accountability for it. Will one be made for the war in Ukraine when it is all over? Not a chance, as no western documentarian could ever give the other side a fair hearing like Isaacs gave to the Axis in The World at War. Moral lecturing and grandstanding is all that we can expect to receive these days.
Long-time readers of this Substack are well-acquainted with my fascination regarding the subject of California during the 60s and 70s, a time and a place that I refer to as “Peak America”.
One of the many, many aspects of this topic that continues to interest me is the ethnography of SoCal, and in particular, that of the Los Angeles suburbs. I have long wanted to do a deep dive on who settled which parts, where they came from, and when they arrived. My mind is convinced that so much of what came out of that state during those two decades was the result of the mish-mash of very different peoples with their different cultures encountering these strangers in the same new setting.
I will turn to this subject at some point, but only after I do more research than I have already. Steve Sailer calls the San Fernando Valley “The Utopia of the Nuclear Family”, and gives us a great peek at just how much this one corner of LA has changed over the decades, surprising even him, a resident of The Valley.
And yet, the population of Los Angeles County, the city of Los Angeles, and the section I know best, my native San Fernando Valley, have all remained flat since the 2010 Census. So if huge numbers of Southern Californians resident for long enough to become Dodger fans are moving out, who is moving in?
The answer of course is immigrants, typically from countries where, by comparison to the motherlands they helped construct, Los Angeles still looks like paradise. But which immigrants? The hordes flooding across the southern border?
Surprisingly, in the suburban San Fernando Valley in the northwest corner of the city of Los Angeles, immigration has largely taken a different turn. Of the many unexpected developments of the demographic diversification of America, perhaps the oddest has been one so outside our vocabulary that it’s hard to even notice it happening.
It had long seemed inevitable that Los Angeles’ famously white bread suburb, the vast San Fernando Valley, the site of so many Brady Bunch–style sitcoms a half-century ago, would eventually be inundated by Latino immigrants.
If you’re Gen X, a lot of your subconscious is occupied by images from The Valley, thanks in large part to the television programming that you absorbed in your youth.
A new population:
But that has slowed. After decades of rapid increase, the Hispanic share of the Valley’s 1.8 million residents only grew from 40 percent to 42 percent from 2010 to 2020. Increasingly, Latinos are losing out in the struggle for the Valley’s expensive turf with immigrants who are officially classified as white.
These newcomers lack any official term with which to conceptually lump them together, but they tend to overlap. I call them the Peoples of the Three Defunct Empires: Persian, Ottoman, and Soviet. In a sour mood, I refer to them as Men with Gold Chains.
Note that almost none of the strangers are fundamentalist Muslims dressing their womenfolk in chadors: Those obsessed with female modesty know enough to stay away from Los Angeles.
The main nationalities are Armenians; Persians (many of them Jewish); Russians (many of them partly Jewish); Israelis (many of them less Jewish than you’d expect); Russian-Israelis who were Jewish enough to be invited to Israel by Ariel Sharon to vote for him, but who find Bibi Netanyahu’s Israel increasingly too Jewish for their tastes when they can bounce to the similar climate of California; Ukrainians; Turks; Copts; Maronites; Tajiks, and so forth. Many are descended from prosperous mercantile minorities of the old empires and can easily economically outcompete Mexicans for houses in the pricey Valley. But others are here for their beauty or bravery, such as the Slavic blondes on the fringes of the entertainment industry and the Russian flatheads who provide security to ex-Soviet oligarchs in Bel-Air.
For the conspiracy set:
A curious postscript to the Cold War is that ex-Soviets are pouring into places like the east Valley’s Burbank, once home to both Lockheed Aircraft (where my father worked from the 1930s to the 1980s) and studios such as Disney, Warner Brothers, and NBC. Burbank was a major arsenal of American military and cultural power. The Soviets focused intently on the Lockheed Skunk Works, navigating spy satellites overhead, stationing an electronic warfare ship disguised as a fishing trawler out by Catalina Island, and targeting nuclear ICBMs on what is now the Empire big box store mall next to the Burbank airport.
I grew up in the Valley next to Laurel Canyon Blvd., which serves as a synecdoche for the top American rock music of 1969. But to me Laurel Canyon was where my dad’s favorite Sears store was, and if I was, for once, nice to him, he might buy me a Hot Wheels.
There’s now a popular conspiracy theory, outlined in David McGowan’s 2014 book Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon: Laurel Canyon, Covert Ops & the Dark Heart of the Hippie Dream, that tries to link all the local scenes: American rock music was some sort of a CIA psy-op, as proven by how many of the notorious denizens of 1960s Laurel Canyon were scions of the military-industrial complex. For example, Jim Morrison of The Doors was the son of the admiral who commanded U.S. forces in the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Oddly enough, as I was pondering this conundrum last Sunday afternoon, I drove out to Calabasas at the west end of the San Fernando Valley, where, by happenstance, I heard out the car window an outdoor daytime concert by 77-year-old electric guitarist Robbie Krieger playing his classics like “Light My Fire” for elderly Doors fans who want to get to bed by 9 PM.
Side-note: get a copy of McGowan’s book and read it. It’s a very, very fun book which even the late author said drew very tenuous connections.
The San Fernando Valley, however, wasn’t ideal for oranges, so it developed less glamorous forms of farming after 1915 when William Mulholland delivered High Sierra water, in return for which the Valley was annexed by the city of Los Angeles.
That same year, just over the Cahuenga Pass from the Valley, the previously itinerant movie industry landed in Hollywood. Interest began to grow in the hinterland of the Valley as a site for Western movies, permanent studios, aircraft factories, and peaceful rural retreats from the big city.
But the San Fernando Valley developed on a different philosophy than the starchy WASP San Gabriel Valley, one modeled upon the needs of its world famous movie star residents for seclusion.
Instead of building a community as in Protestant Pasadena, the San Fernando Valley, with its greater ethnic diversity of Jews and Catholics, developed with the intention of remaining a bucolic privatopia with few public amenities.
In many ways, this turned out a massive success, as seen by how the Valley that emerged after World War II continues, due to its role in countless movies and TV shows, to haunt the dreams of the world as the utopia of the nuclear family, where everyone had their own house, two-car garage with a workbench for Dad, enclosed backyard, and, perhaps, their own swimming pool. Daughters had their own phone lines for talking endlessly to their friends, by means of which they collectively developed the notorious Valley Girl accent.
More on the newcomers:
Perhaps the Armenians might someday have the numbers and the nerve to lead politically. Armenian parents protesting submission to Pride Month recently got into a brawl with leftists outside a Glendale school board meeting. But it’s more likely that bourgeois Armenians will follow the European-Californian tradition of bailing out of public schools for their own growing network of Armenian private schools. That’s what Valley Ashkenazis did in large numbers when forced racial busing between the Valley and South-Central was briefly imposed at the end of the 1970s. LAUSD has never recovered from this Jewish flight.
Among the newcomers, Russians first made a splash in Southern California after the unfortunate events of 1917 sent White Russian aristocrats into exile. More than a few found work as extras in ballroom scenes in Hollywood movies because they had waltz training, refined manners, and full sets of evening wear. Golden Age Hollywood’s most popular exiled Russian royal, restaurateur Michael Romanoff, was actually a Lithuanian pants presser. But that he was an obvious impostor only added to the con man’s legend.
Emigration from the Soviet Union was largely banned by Moscow in the middle of the 20th century, but American neoconservatives forced an opening for Soviet Jews in the 1970s. By then, after a half century of state-imposed atheism, numerous Soviets were part-Jewish by ancestry and less than pious by religion.
This started a confusing era in which many in Russia who qualified as Jews left, but not all of them stuck it out in Israel. In the 1990s, Ariel Sharon, who was descended on his mother’s side from ethnic Russian subbotniks who had converted to Judaism, organized a great recruitment of vaguely Jewish Russians to emigrate to Israel and vote for him. This worked out well for Sharon, but many of his emigres from Russia grew tired of Netanyahu’s increasingly Jewish Jewish State and have traded in Tel Aviv for the similar Mediterranean climate of Los Angeles.
Hence, Southern California now has a lot of people who are various combinations of sort-of-Jewish, sort-of-Russian, and sort-of-Israeli. Plus many Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarussian gentiles have Jewish cousins and in-laws. It’s all rather confusing, especially to L.A.’s old-fashioned liberal Ashkenazis who can’t understand why the new Jews don’t tend to be as hostile to Russia as they are.
Click here to read the rest.
(Note: David Polansky called me on the phone, crying, telling me that his wife was going to leave him unless I shared one of his articles in the weekend SCR. I do have a heart, so I agreed to his request.)1
Two days ago, I wrote this essay about liberal democracy and how the term is constantly being re-defined while remaining very imprecise and open to wide interpretation:wrote an essay almost two weeks ago in which he questions how some proponents of liberal democracy can square their support of Israel, an ethno-nationalist state, with it:
How can a state that favours one group above the rest lay claim to being a liberal democracy? This is a very, very fair question.
David Polansky attempts to resolve the matter, taking issue with Freddie’s stance:
There are some characteristically fine points here throughout, but I think the central thesis of the essay is mistaken, though it is mistaken in a way that reflects fairly common assumptions about the modern state. His main argument in a nutshell is that Israel’s status as an ethnostate—that is, a state dedicated to protecting and advancing the interests of a particular ethnic group (in this case, Jews)—is in tension with its claim to be a liberal democracy.
My view is that even though we don’t know what the actual definition of ‘liberal democracy’ actually is (see my essay above), I will definitely side with Freddie on this matter due to the overt hostility of today’s self-proclaimed liberal democracies towards ethno-states.
An historical anachronism:
This argument echoes the one made by the liberal (and Jewish) public intellectual Tony Judt some two decades ago: that Israel is a kind of anachronism, having frozen the conditions prevalent at the time of its creation, in which states represented distinctive peoples at the exclusion of others. (For Judt, it was not incidental that these were also the conditions associated with the great power wars of the first half of the 20th century.) Judt’s conclusion—like Freddie’s—is that Israel must dissolve its Jewish self-definition in order to remain a liberal democracy, in conjunction with incorporating some greater number of Palestinians into its citizenry.
Here’s my question: what is the point of having an Israel, or any country, if every country is to be inclusive in this manner? It reduces the state to a branding exercise, stripping away from it any of its exclusivity.
Freddie is quite right about Israel’s status as an ethnonationalist state, and about the kind of cognitive dissonance this imposes on its liberal (particularly non-Israeli) Jewish defenders. This status isn’t absolute of course—about 20% of Israel’s citizens are Arab, along with another ~5%... miscellaneous, as The Simpsons’ Reverend Lovejoy would put it. But it remains the Jewish state, and its majority enjoys certain prerogatives (though also certain obligations) that others do not.
The matter is that I can see no reason in principle why an ethnostate cannot be a democracy; the devil is in the details. Quick ‘Democracy 101’ recap: every democratic government on earth (as well as not a few non-democratic ones), claims to derive its legitimate authority from the people. One way or another, the machinery of government is authorized by the collective body of citizens, aka “the people.” This is also known as “popular sovereignty.” As there is no a priori way of determining what sort of body that will be, you can have a basically civic understanding of it, in which citizens are primarily bound by their living under common laws (e.g., the United States) or a more ethnic one, in which they also enjoy the bonds of a common pre-political ethnicity and way of life (e.g., Japan). One is not necessarily more “legitimate” than the other. And of course even civic nations are going to end up wanting to define themselves in some more specific way than “a random bunch of individuals who happen to reside on a shared territory while claiming similar rights and prerogatives,” etc. Thus, non-Americans have a perhaps-cliched but still reasonably robust idea of what Americans are like.
Conversely, even ethnostates are a kind of imagined community (in the case of Israel, imagining that the descendants of both Iraqi and Polish Jews ultimately share more in common than not—or at least enough to enjoy common citizenship in a state dedicated to that shared identity).
Even civic nations must discriminate, says Polansky:
One can say of course (as Freddie does) that ethnic identities are in conflict with the universalist premises of modern liberal democracies, in a way that civic nations aren’t, but I don’t think this is right. If they are to function at all, even civic nations founded on universalist claims still have to make particular discriminations in ways that can seem historically arbitrary. For example, if you trace your family back to the mid-19th century American Southwest, then whether you are today a citizen of the United States or Mexico will have a lot to do with which side of various lines your ancestors found themselves at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. And I am not even getting into all the inevitable ways that civic nations fail to live up to their universalist claims in practice—slavery and institutionalized racial hierarchies plus the general treatment of the First Nations being just the most egregious ones in the U.S. case.
Japan as an example:
Similarly, there is no essential virtue (or lack thereof) in being a civic or an ethnic nation. Japan was as ethnic nation throughout the 1930s, during which time much of its conduct was frankly terrifying, but it has been no less an ethnic nation since 1945, when it has emerged as peaceable and civilized a country as exists in the world.
I get Polansky’s point, but I think the Freddie is correct when it comes to the spirit of liberal democracy today, at least as it is defined by its custodians.
Click here to read the rest.
We end this weekend’s SCR with another look at a classic of Hollywood Cinema: David Lynch’s 1986 movie, Blue Velvet:
It’s little wonder, then, that Blue Velvet ripped through the critical community in 1986 like an IED that had been planted unexpectedly at the side of the road. While it should have been immediately obvious to anyone that they were watching a filmmaker of serious note from the start—the opening is arguably the signature sequence of his career, though it has plenty of company—it confronts your expectations in so many startling ways. Lynch gives you plenty of Old Hollywood flavor in the lushness of Angelo Badalamenti’s main theme, which sounds a bit like Bernard Herrmann; in the noir lighting scheme, with its beautiful shadows (Laura Dern’s introduction is sensational); and in the town of Lumberton itself, which feels like a wholesome ‘50s community yet isn’t actually tied to any identifiable era. But then Lynch hits you with shocking, thoroughly modern explicitness and dialogue (and dialogue-readings) that has a self-awareness and offbeat cadence that we would later come to describe as simply “Lynchian.”
Most famously, Roger Ebert wasn’t pleased. His one-star review starts thusly: “Blue Velvet contains scenes of such raw emotional energy that it's easy to understand why some critics have hailed it as a masterpiece. A film this painful and wounding has to be given special consideration. And yet those very scenes of stark sexual despair are the tipoff to what's wrong with the movie. They're so strong that they deserve to be in a movie that is sincere, honest and true.” More curiously, he goes on to defend Isabella Rossellini for the degree to which Lynch imposes humiliation and degradation upon her, which recalls a similar defense he made of Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Keith, I think you and I have laughed before over Ebert’s choice to defend two of the most fearless actresses alive. It’s well-intentioned, but pretty off-base here.
I am a big, big fan of this movie. Click here to read the rest.
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