Nobel laureate economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has recently published a column entitled Severely Conservative Syndrome, based on Mitt Romney’s recent pronouncement that he had been a "severely conservative governor." As Krugman points out, the term "severely" is generally used within the context of illnesses; and while Romney certainly did not consciously want to imply that conservatism was an illness, he certainly makes it sound that way.
Sharing problems with others doesn’t really provide too much reason for comfort, but it is quite interesting to see the analogies of the radicalization of the U.S. and Israel’s right. Romney’s breast-beating assertion of his severe conservatism is partially fuelled by polls that show that Rick Santorum is leading him in nationwide polls among Republican voters.
Krugman reminds us of two gems in Santorum’s career: connecting homosexuality with incest and bestiality and his spirited defense of the Crusades against leftists who hate Christendom (no: this is not a typo: he defended the Crusades – obviously a timely topic for America’s current problems).
We in Israel should, of course, not be surprised. After all our right-wingers love to connect to Masada and to praise Bar-Kochba, and to bring school children to Hebron so they can connect to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This makes Rick Santorum’s praise of the Crusades outright modernist – after all they are less than a millennium behind us.
Now comes the interesting point: the Crusades, as a quick look at Wikipedia shows, weren’t exactly a success story. Even if you disregard some small humanitarian issues, like the enormous amounts of blood (much of it Jewish) that was spilled, and, as you may remember Salah-ad Din in the end took the whole thing back to Islam. So it is not so clear what was so great about the Crusades.
As you may remember, Bar Kochba was also not exactly a success story. His insistence on rebelling against the Roman Empire created some minor setbacks – about 600,000 Jews were killed when the Romans decided to make a clear point. There’s also a tiny problem with connecting to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: there is no historical evidence that they ever existed, and in all likelihood the place worshipped as their grave is likely to be the burial site of some sheikh. But, our minister of education points out time and again that nobody should delude himself that Jews will leave Hebron and Shiloh.
What then, is this "severe right wing syndrome"? Why has it been hitting both in as hard as it has Israel and the U.S.? Why does it make Republicans reject reasonable deals that could improve the livelihoods of millions of Americans? And why does it make Israel’s right utterly blind to the simple fact that their gradual killing of the two-state solution is about to lead to the demise of the very Zionist dream of a democratic homeland of the Jews they purport to defend?
We are, of course, speaking about a long-term trend here. As commentators (some conservatives like David Brooks and Ross Douthat) point out, the Republican Party has moved from a sophisticated conservative position to populist radicalism devoid of intellectual foundations during the last decades. Similarly, Israel’s right wing has evolved from a hawkish position based on reasonable arguments to a Manichean worldview that relies on knee-jerk emotional manipulation rather than anything remotely resembling arguments.
There is a common denominator of the coarsening of the right in the U.S. and Israel. Psychological research shows that humans need worldviews that provide a cognitive map, an interpretation of reality and meaning. Our self-esteem is deeply tied to our worldview. When these worldviews come to conflict with reality, one of the more standard defenses against realizing that we need to make strong adjustment in worldview is to radicalize them.
The U.S. inexorably evolves from a country that is white-Protestant and Anglo-Saxon to a truly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-racial society symbolized, of course, by a black President of global upbringing.
The American Ethos of self-reliance and freedom from government also no longer works. As Niall Ferguson, an economic historian with conservative leanings certainly not suspect of socialist sympathies has pointed out, the whole idea that a modern economy can be run without strong state involvement flies in the face of reality. The question is not whether government should be involved, but how.
Hence Republicans face a deep worldview crisis, but refuse to question their basic assumptions. Instead they move towards ever more simplistic, populist slogans.
The situation of Israel’s right is quite similar. It has been in power for more than half of Israel’s history. Its ideology was based on the doctrine that the greater Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, and it has pushed the project of settling the West Bank ruthlessly.
There are hawks committed to liberal democracy like Moshe Arens and Rubi Rivlin who argue that the greater Israel will remain a Jewish state even though Palestinians in the West Bank will receive Israeli citizenship. But they can maintain this fiction only by relying on the theses of Yoram Ettinger that there are only 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, a thesis not even shared by Israel’s Statistical Bureau.
The others on the right largely have nothing coherent to say about how the greater state of Israel will look. They seem to lean towards apartheid, but desperately avoid looking the facts in the eye. Israel’s right simply cannot adjust to the fact that the contradiction between democracy and the greater land of Israel cannot be resolved.
The resulting Severe Right Wing Syndrome deserves to find a place in the annals of political psychopathology. Like today’s Republicans in the U.S., Israel’s right wingers try to overcome their deficit in coherent argument with breast-beating declarations of deep belief in something they can’t even define coherently.
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