Politics and Apartheid

“Now everyone is prouder–and poorer.”

–Orhan Pamuk

Jimmy Carter’s most recent book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, has raised a storm of criticism from the Derschowitz-AIPAC wing of American Judaism, stung by his even-handed recounting of events and conversations, as well as his straightforward presentation of the failure to implement UN Security Council resolutions. From the criticism one might think that in the book Carter places all the blame on the Israelis, but that is far from the case. There is, in fact, at least one point (page 13) where he seems unbalanced in the other direction, citing the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as among continuing impediments to peace. Fair enough. But is not the rise of Jewish fundamentalism also a continuing impediment, responsible for the persistence and intransigence of settlement expansion, the massacre in the mosque in Hebron, and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin? Of course not every detail can be included. The book is impressive for its plain speaking, its illumination of the big picture, Carter’s personal history in the discussions, and its careful attention to accuracy about the facts.

One of the features of Carter’s style is to recount sympathetically and without judgment conversations he has had with key figures on all sides to the various controversies. It is this unjudgmental reporting that must be so infuriating to the AIPAC-Derschowitz crowd. One can readily understand that the facts and stories about what has happened and continues to happen in the supposedly Arab land of the West Bank and Gaza are on their face outrageous-unless the victims are themselves to blame for their distress. Carter refrains from expressing outrage, keeping instead his focus on the need for peace and reconciliation. But it is a feature of partisans and their pride in their side to regard evenhanded unjudgmental presentations as themselves intrinsically outrageous.

But what about Carter’s opposition between peace and apartheid? Here there perhaps lies a perspective on the world that would be more alarming to world leaders than the even-handedness about Palestine. Does Carter mean to suggest that there can never be peace through apartheid? Is not the idea that you get peace through separation the principle behind a whole host of political sacred cows, including border fences, gated communities, bloated prisons, boycotts and blockades? Does enforced and ideologically buttressed separation lead to the sort of partisan pride that Pamuk has in mind, in the words above that he puts into the mouth of one of the wise minor figures in his recent novel?

Consider our prisons, for example. People are generally sent to prison for offenses against civil order, that is for having upset the peace of our society. One option might be to spend time and money to rehabilitate them, with the underlying thought that punishment is something the offender needs in order to regain his or her place in society (Simone Weil’s idea), so that peace is regained by a kind of reconciliation. In practice, however, we lock them up and throw away the key, with the underlying thought that it is separation rather than reconciliation or integration that will bring peace. After all, we are so far superior to those criminals!! Isn’t that why politicians support life sentences without the chance of parole, and imprisonment of the world’s largest percentage of our own citizens? Has any sheriff or governor in recent history won office by promising to integrate convicted offenders more rapidly into society? One could raise similar questions about each of the other sacred cows mentioned above. And in each case there is partisan pride on at least one side.

The US is not only building a wall to separate us from Mexico but is also maintaining other walls to separate us from Cuba, Iran, Syria, and North Korea, often with the cooperation of wall-builders on the other side. The world might not call it peace, but our politicians think it means peace for ourselves, isolated from the miscreants who disdain our leadership and our good offices. And of course these separations are based on, and in turn reinforce, our sense of being the party of democracy and freedom, much superior to those brutal dictatorships, and better off isolated from them. Peace through apartheid. Just what Carter rules out, by implicit definition it seems, in his title.

Why does Carter disdain peace through separation, so much that he leaves it out of account? Could it be because he addresses this problem, as well as others, with his focus on the needs of government and the requirements of welfare rather than the ideas and tools of politcs?

Government is often confused with politics, but they are worlds apart. The aim of government is stability and prosperity, for which peace and tranquility are very helpful, if not necessary. The aim of politics is control and domination, for which crisis and war are convenient, and sometimes indispensable. Our elections are intensely political, since they concern who will be in power and best able to dominate the affairs of government. Sometimes those in power give us decent government. At other times mediocrity is perpetuated because there is a war, and the emergency powers of the commander-in-chief attracts support that overcomes political opposition. Carl Schmitt, one of the profound thinkers of the twentieth century, pointed out in The Concept of the Political that politics begins with a distinction between friends and enemies-a neglected insight that is confirmed over and over, both domestically and internationally. Politicians in the Middle East know who their enemies are, and they refuse to talk with them, just as Schmitt would expect. So, too, Bush refuses to talk with Iran or Syria, arbitrarily, but definitively, counting them as enemies. As elsewhere, the most successful Israeli and Palestinian politicians are fearmongers, reinforcing the walls of separation. There is little hope for peace along the lines that politics inhabits. Carter, without saying so, seeks to refocus the issues in terms of government and the welfare of people rather than politics, and so he speaks of the requirements of government in Palestine and Israel.

The thing about peace is that no one can be in control, because cooperation is required. Peace is a normal consequence of good government, and it can be achieved through negotiation, when there are legitimate and reliable negotiating partners; but it can no more come through politics than it can be achieved through apartheid.

In the work of Aristotle, politics just means government, but the words diverge sharply in our current discourse. Schmitt has his finger on the pulse of contemporary discourse. Because politics thrives on distinctions between friends and enemies, and enemies (unlike mere adversaries) can never become part of our community, politics entails apartheid. Carter could just as well have called his book, Palestine Peace or Politics. No doubt a different controversy would then have ensued, touching a wider range of issues. Carter’s title is better suited to keeping the focus on Palestine. But the close interdependence between apartheid and partisan politics should not be forgotten.

Carter’s message is one of hope, not fear, as is characteristic of steps toward peace and prosperity. Such a message goes contrary to partisan politics, as well as to apartheid. In a previous article (“Decider vs. Negotiator,” I pointed out that there are many real life circumstances in which nice guys finish first, and meanness leads to impoverishment. In the context of that discussion, apartheid, or enforced and ideologically buttressed separation, together with the partisan politics that supports it, count as one prominent form of meanness, and one cause of the continuing public impoverishment.

NEWTON GARVER is SUNY Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at University at Buffalo. An expanded edition of his book Limits of Power: Some Friendly Reminders (2005) will be published this spring by Center Working Papers.



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