A Civilization with a Heart of Stone

I was much struck last week by an interesting exchange—a minor flurry in the blogging world—sparked by a post at The Atlantic's blog room. Political writer Jeffrey Goldberg, discussing the Carmel fire in Israel, urged his readers not to donate to the relief and rebuilding efforts supported by the Jewish National Fund. The Fund, he pointed out, was planning to pay for things the Israeli government itself should pay for. Well-wishers shouldn't encourage Israel to rely on foreign donations; they should join Goldberg in wanting Israel to prioritize its public spending better.

My longer discussion of the Goldberg appeal can be found here. I won't rehash the arguments, but I think the episode is worth further examination because of the assumption behind many of the reader reactions. Quite a few readers, at Goldberg's blog and elsewhere, asserted in effect that Goldberg was perfectly justified in seeing the issue through a political lens. Although fire victims were suffering and Israel was losing large tracts of forest land to the conflagration, the readers didn't see it as inappropriate, in discussing the topic of donations, to focus on political rather than humanitarian considerations.

What most interested me was the apparent assumption of many readers that if we all simply understood Goldberg's legitimate beef with Israeli government policy, we'd stop criticizing him for urging people not to donate to a relief fund. The obvious point—that such an argument is never made about aid appeals for other victims of natural disasters—has been advanced by virtually all of Goldberg's critics. But the deeper issue, in my view, is our reflexive readiness today to accept the generic idea of relating to our fellow humans in political terms.

There is certainly something to the concern that double standards are often invoked regarding Israel and the Jews. But I'm not sure it's as much of a double standard in this case as it might appear. The justification earnestly pronounced by Goldberg's defenders involves a slight but significant shift in emphasis: they don't suggest that putting politics above humanitarian compassion is fine when the Jews are at issue—they merely suggest that it's fine. That waves a red flag in my mind.

We increasingly approach everyone in this manner. Yet no one, Jew or Gentile, should have to figure as a "victim" in order to merit humanitarian, non-political consideration from his fellow men. But we've reached a point at which we have largely accepted the concept of relating to each other on the basis of political categories or political principles. Even if we don't consciously act on that concept as individuals, we see it as a norm: a fact of life, a pattern we're comfortable with, or at least inured to. We have become complacent in this regard. We may find the concept of politicizing human relations vaguely distasteful, but we have lost the sense that it is terribly dangerous.

The 20th century, however, amounted to one long, bloody, and supremely persuasive argument that it is unsafe for humans to relate to each other primarily in political categories. Categorizing each other in invidious ways—whether as Jews, as blacks, as "the rich," as white European males, as Armenians, as Tutsis, and even as Democrats or Republicans—is an evil practice that cannot be domesticated. We have come to assume, unthinkingly, that this practice can coexist with goodwill, respect, kindness, and compassion—but we are wrong. It is impossible for us to be selectively positive about people: full of piety and compassionate zeal about some, dismissive or resentful about others. This modern model of "political man" is something we are not equipped to be.

We are reaching, I think, a civilizational tipping point. We tend to imagine that because we can study, theorize, and categorize other human beings, these capacities confer on us an authority to manipulate and transcend them: to master the evil in the human heart, or at least negotiate cleverly with it. This complacency cannot be denounced vigorously enough. Schemes for human relations built on theories and invidious abstractions are monsters that cannot be tamed. We coexist in comfort with them only for a time; their danger to us is inherent and unavoidable.

The verses that keep running through my mind are those from Ezekiel in which God says of His people that He will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26). It probably shouldn't surprise us that Western civilization today is what a heart of stone looks like: earnest, verbose, legalistic, hyperpolitical, self-referential, and self-satisfied. As philosopher Hannah Arendt observed in the wake of the Nuremberg trials, evil is banal. And that means it is easy to be inattentive to.