the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2006 February 4


In the West, it is called ‘Romanticism’. It was, among other things, a movement in the arts recalling times past that probably never existed, times of glory and significance. It celebrated beauty and love, certainly, but above all it celebrated heroism and grandeur, and the whole movement was run through with epic tragedy. It was perhaps best exemplified by the British Romantic poets. John Keats wrote movingly of the tragedy of a life unfulfilled, of dying young without reaching his potential; it was the sad fate he expected for himself, and he died at the age of thirty-five. George Gordon Byron wrote of the glory of youth and adventure, and then died while fighting for Greek independence from Turkey; he was thirty-six. This business about dying young is the Romantic equivalent of Jefferson and Adams dying on the Fourth of July. Come to think of it, that was pretty romantic, too.

In music, the Romantic movement, following the transformative work of Beethoven, produced orchestral scores with grand scope and theme, dramatic action, and the most ambitious sublimity; even the chamber music seems possessed of the most profound feeling, whether sadness or nobility. In French, the novel is a ‘roman’; the novels that the ‘romanciers’ produce are great sources of the grandiose, the noble, and the tragic. Romance is in scripture and mythology, it is in legends and folktales, it is in sermons and speeches; and today, of course, it is in the movies. No medium cannot be turned with its allure. But romance works in fiction because it has at least some presence in real life. History, which is simply the past retold through its highlights, is highly romantic. When historians edit out the mundane and the tedious, we are left with the romantic; we are left with world-changing deeds and important times and great individuals, individuals who matter.

Romance fills us from youth, as we take in the culture all around us, and aspire to matter ourselves. If we have doubts in our own abilities, we can at least attach ourselves to something great and glorious and feel great and glorious vicariously. We don uniforms and carry colorful banners. We chant slogans and march in formation. We stand and salute. It is not all symbolic, of course. But even those who dedicate their lives, even those who give their lives, almost always do so only as small, anonymous contributors to some larger cause. They feel their greatness through the cause. While obviously there is more romance in self-sacrifice than there is in a mere gesture, every act along the continuum derives much of its meaning, much of its significance, much of its romance, from the cause.

Romance is inspiring. Because it can give individuals the courage to do difficult things, it has potential value to the good. If those difficult things are necessary, if they are themselves good, then romance has provided a service. But at what cost? This is patently rhetorical: romance can inspire difficult things that are downright awful. By becoming part of something larger, the individual ceases to be so, gives up a part of its personality, and at worst abandons part of its responsibility, to think and judge and choose as an individual. Morality is a specialized function within the group; some individuals serve the cause by determining morality and providing direction, and some individuals serve the cause by following that direction. And if that determined morality includes murder, then individuals serve the cause by murdering.

If you hadn’t yet decided how you felt about all of this, the shocking result of a week ago would have been the time to figure it out. Hamas, which espouses an ideology of extreme Islamism, reactionary social policy, and terrorist attacks, has just won an impressive victory for the parliament of Arab Palestine. No one expected Hamas to win, not even Hamas. It is true that they claimed early in the voting process to have won a majority. But the experience of many campaigns is sufficient to make clear to me what Hamas was doing. Some politicians claim victory because they understand their electorates, have studied the opinion polls and the exit polls, and are scientifically confident of victory. Hamas was not doing that. Some politicians claim victory in order to project confidence, whether they have reason for it or not, because they believe that voters are more likely to vote for winners, that they are drawn to strength and optimism. Hamas was not doing that, either. Hamas was claiming a victory which they expected not to win, in order to lay the foundation for protests against all those who had “cheated” them ― Israel interfered in the campaign, Fatah rigged the vote, the secular West poisoned the people against them. This was their strategy, to position themselves for a massive protest. Hamas likes to protest. Protest is romantic.

Unfortunately, Hamas does not just like to protest. Hamas is also swept up in the romance of war. Nothing is more melodramatic. Hamas is filled with preachers who mix religion and nationalism to create a fervor in the young and impressionable for the Hamas cause. Some of the young and impressionable are recruited for atrocities which the preachers justify with the cause. Hamas is not solely a terrorist organization. It has its redeeming features ― its well-publicized and popular social-welfare programs. But primarily Hamas is dedicated to curtailing innocent pleasures, restricting freedom for all persons, further subjugating the female half of the population, obliterating the state of Israel, and killing as many Jews as it takes to accomplish that. Scholars and reporters seem unanimous in their assertion that Hamas has not carried out any suicide attacks in the last year; but no one, least of all Hamas, denies that Hamas has used the method historically. It takes a twisted sensibility to walk onto a crowded bus filled with non-combatants, including children, and set off a bomb. The necessary hatred would be difficult to produce, if it were not a suicide attack. As it is, the bomber does not live to see the deaths and the maimings; and the whole enterprise is cast as martyrdom. Normally if a crowd full of people is blown up, the last person who would be counted a martyr is the person who purposely and voluntarily set off the bomb; but the others were all just trying to live their lives, and could not be said to be witnessing for any cause greater than getting to school or work or the grocery; unless, of course, we concede that individuals usually have a right to a life free from violence, a life that continues. But the ordinary victims did not realize that is what they were witnessing for, and their families will not be celebrated and rewarded as the families of martyrs, nor are these victims all confident of a place in paradise, to say nothing of a privileged place in paradise. That privileged place in paradise, the posthumous glory of heroism and martyrdom, is promised to suicide bombers by the preachers of Hamas; it is promised by the newly-elected majority in the Palestinian Arab parliament.

I have a fairly-strong romantic streak myself. But, for good or ill, my beliefs do not lend themselves to the usual romantic outlets. It was the historical trend of rationalism and liberalism that led to the democracy that Hamas has just taken advantage of. But democracy is an old project of ours, and if it is yet to be implemented in half the world, there seems little doubt that it is coming everywhere, and virtually all societies pay it lip service. As the movement of rationalism and liberalism becomes more advanced, it is harder to encapsulate in the simplistic slogans and symbols required by romance. This we are learning the hard way at the moment. A Danish children’s author of a picture book on Muhammad ran into difficulty finding an illustrator willing to take responsibility for the requisite art; Muslim tradition forbids the depiction of Muhammad lest it lead to idolatry (and Muslims claim not to worship Muhammad, while at the same time surrounding him with deity-like reverence). The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, in response to this problem, commissioned a set of illustrations ― cartoons, for the most part ― of Muhammad, and published them. Some of these cartoons suggested a connection with terrorism. After months of low-level controversy, the matter suddenly exploded. A boycott of Danish goods spread across the Muslim world. Muslim states demanded action by the Danish government. Newspapers around Europe, and one in Jordan, reprinted the cartoons in solidarity. And, it goes without saying, Muslims took to the streets in protest.

The publication of the cartoons in the beginning was provocative. But that was part of the point, to show irreverence in the face of an absurd piety, in defiance of an illiberal demand that all the world should be bound by the taboos of a minority. Even supposedly-moderate Muslims have been saying that they support freedom of expression while calling for enforced “responsibility” of expression ― which is no freedom at all. The Jordanian editor reprinted a selection of the cartoons and called for Muslims to be reasonable ― they were, after all, protesting against something that their own superstitions prevented them from seeing and judging for themselves. He was fired, and then arrested. He could count himself lucky, though. In Syria, protesters set the Danish embassy on fire, and then, for good measure, moved to the nearby Norwegian embassy, and set it on fire as well. Bit of a tough break for the Norwegians.

These cartoons have become symbolic of the rationalism and liberalism that created the atmosphere of expression in which they were published. That is why they were reprinted so deliberately. But simply pasting them on signs and marching in the streets would not make the full point. It is a sophisticated point, not the sort that Hamas is likely to understand. The proper symbol for me to be carrying on a sign is the thing most offensive to me. Only then have I fully committed to pluralism and freedom of expression. And there could hardly be a slogan that would make the right point about pluralism when shouted in unison by a stomping mob. But no one is expecting Hamas to create a pluralistic society. No one is expecting them to separate church from state, or to treat women as equals, or to give each citizen the freedoms considered fundamental in the West. I think these would be valid conditions for the West to place on its aid, but the West, for its billions of dollars, is demanding hardly anything at all.

Even so, as the Western powers began spelling out their conditions, Hamas lashed out. They denounced those in the West who have threatened to withhold aid until Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist. They refuse to be swayed by “blackmail” and “intimidation”. But Hamas cannot seriously expect the US and other states to continue to provide the Palestinian Authority money ― outright donations, in fact ― for Hamas to implement their stated policies. Their policies are in many cases intentionally provocative. They have hewed to a radical stance that they know to be unacceptable to the people who could help them, and they reject “unfair conditions” for that help, despite having every reason to expect those conditions. They insist on having things their own way, knowing that they are powerless to effect this, and knowing that their petulance actually diminishes the prospects for any assistance. The more support they lose, the louder they will scream their provocations, until they find themselves friendless and helpless and can scream even louder about the great injustice of it all. Poor Hamas. Nobody likes them. Alone against the world. How tragic.


Original version


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