Belmont Club

People of the Flame

Lee Smith at Tablet Magazine examines the militancy within idealism; the paradoxical desire for conflict among those who profess peace and the hidden desire for conquest among those who outwardly advocate brotherly love. There was and still is a tourist industry for those who seek to extinguish themselves in a world of absolutes they no longer find at home. One of the best known recent examples of a modern militant idealist is Rachel Corrie.

Working as an activist with the International Solidarity Movement, the then-23-year-old college student from Washington state was killed when she stood in the path of an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer to protest against Palestinian home demolitions….

Groups like the International Solidarity Movement, then, act as a sort of tour agency for a particular kind of Western adventurer, searching for a level of raw political engagement and ideological commitment that simply doesn’t exist in the United States …

One way to understand Corrie’s story is as part of a longstanding tradition of adventurous, generous, and sometimes vain Western travelers to the Middle East. Among these crusading spirits, the most famous example is perhaps T.E. Lawrence, who saw in the band of Arab tribesmen and former Ottoman officers he led against the Turks an opportunity to serve the underdog and tie himself to a larger cause. Along the way it appears that Lawrence, embracing local customs and dress, recognized that the Arab Revolt also offered him a staging ground for a kind of charismatic search for the authentic self that had the flavor of salvation.

Smith believes Corrie’s hostility to Israel — and America — cannot be explained by simple anti-Semitism or reflexive anti-Americanism. There was about her a search for the arid extremities of experience, something she shared with many disaffected intellectuals in the West, who behave as if having abolished God from their existence they were bent on finding a substitute in people like Hassan Nasrallah.

I’ve written before about why so many Western intellectuals and journalists are attracted to the region’s hardest and bloodiest men—why the peace activists, NGO workers, and U.N. employees fill the bars of Beirut and Jerusalem where they advocate the positions of Hezbollah and Hamas over beer. It’s not enough, or even entirely accurate, to say that they’re anti-Israel, or anti-Semitic, since their positions also put them at odds with those segments of Arab societies that seek to embrace Western political norms.

Their complaint is precisely with their own liberal societies, which, from a safe distance, look dull and meaningless in comparison to the raw power politics of the region. These Westerners are bored of the mediocrity that Western societies breed. The Middle East, by contrast, is a place where winner takes all, enemies are vanquished, and people fight and die for their beliefs. Hassan Nasrallah fought the Israelis and lives to taunt them. Khaled Meshaal survived an assassination attempt. These men pay no attention to lobbies and competing constituencies but legislate by utterance, blood, and fire.

GK Chesteron thought that “when men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” Maybe he should have taken it further: when people no longer find it exciting to believe in Jesus, then there’s Xenu, Gaia and Hassan Nasrallah.

The attraction for the absolute was palpable in some pre-1914 intellectuals. They were bored with the certainties of order. They too mourned, though they professed to scoff, at the loss of faith but sought its replacement. They needed something to fill the emptiness expressed by Matthew Arnold in Dover Beach.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

And what better source of excitement than the Great War? Unable to endure the ennui they sought fulfillment before strange gods — even the god of the incandescent and bloody combat. Rupert Brooke, who died of an infected mosquito bite in British service before the serious fighting had begun wrote these verses in October 1914. He expressed a kind of relief that war had come at last to bring high purpose to a world gone cold.

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

Brooke’s was the voice of a peacetime generation that had not yet had a bellyful of war. That was to change by 1916. Then they couldn’t get away from it fast enough.  But this transitory exaltation might have been the state of Rachel Corrie’s thinking just before the Caterpillar D9 trundled over her.

Would she have been as enthusiastic if she had to live out the rest of her life in the squalor of the Arab world? Or was there in it something of the sense of transitory adventure that comes with knowing you can go back to 3 squares in a heated house? Who can say?

The difference between the two conditions was exemplified by Father Damien, who volunteered to work in the leper colony at Molokai at a time when the disease was incurable. He began each sermon with the words “dear bretheren” until the inevitable day when he started with the words “we lepers”. If you didn’t believe his sermons before, you would at least credit them with sincerity afterwards.

Sincerity requires the willingness to share in consequences. Perhaps one of the reasons that “supporters of Israel” can play so fast and loose with the security of the Jewish State lies in the existence of the Atlantic Ocean and the US Armed Forces; the belief that nothing really bad can happen to them by bending over backward for Israel’s enemies. Senator Chuck Schumer illustrated this vacillating attitude of support in a recent interview on television. Asked whether the administration regarded Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he said in effect: “I don’t know but why ask?”

Yeah, why ask? What difference could it make? Debbie Wasserman-Schultz saw nothing inconsistent with lying for Palestine and being a staunch supporter of Israel. This may spring from the belief that it is in the long-term interest of Israel to be weaker so that it might be loved by its enemies. If you have to lie, so what? It’s just an innocent fib in a good cause.

It’s an attitude that requires a degree of detachment. You can’t be detached in Israel, with Quassam rockets raining down on your head.  Barry Rubin notes that the current Democratic platform on Israel is one gigantic fraud. It is professes support for Israel when it in fact accomplishes the opposite. He writes:

For me, the most offensive passage is this one:

The President’s consistent support for Israel’s right to defend itself and his steadfast opposition to any attempt to delegitimize Israel on the world stage are further evidence of our enduring commitment to Israel’s security.

In fact, no president has done less about fighting the delegitimization of Israel by his own statements and actions than has Obama. And in some cases, especially regarding Gaza, he has not really supported Israel’s right to defend itself in practice. I will leave the Iran issue and U.S. behavior in the UN for your own evaluation regarding this point, but one could compile a long list of items in each case.

And we are back once again at the very place where Lee Smith begin. Asking ourselves why people who love humanity, who profess nonviolence and who yearn publicly for peace are in practice to be found siding with the worst murderers and thugs on the planet. Smith’s answer is that peace, humanity and love are in practice quite boring. As boring as doing a job day after day to build the world, support the kids and raise a family. What they want is stronger stuff. The thrill of victory, though not the agony of defeat. The ethos was captured perfectly in the fictional dialog between Batman and his butler, Alfred.  The for some the world wasn’t about love, or even logic. It was about getting a buzz.

Bruce Wayne: Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.

Alfred Pennyworth: With respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that *you* don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So, we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.

Bruce Wayne: So why steal them?

Alfred Pennyworth: Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

The flames are so beautiful and besides, they’ll never reach me! And perhaps that’s modern spirituality for you.


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