Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Durkheim in Israel - war & moral integration

As one aspect of his study of Suicide, Durkheim argues that suicide rates tend to go down during wars and revolutions (except for what he calls "altruistic suicide," examples of which we have been seeing in places like Iraq, Israel/Palestine, New York City, and London). The reasons have to do with the strength or weakness of social or moral integration--that is, the mutually reinforcing dynamics of the overall cohesion and solidarity of a social group, whether this is a family or a tribe or a union or a nation, and its members' sense of involvement in and commitment to the group. In general the weakness or absence of social integration tends to demoralize individuals, in all the senses of that term. On the other hand, more intense social integration tends to strengthen and sustain individuals and to promote a sense of meaning and purpose. And one factor that can strengthen social integration is the experience of collective struggle, including war.

(Of course, one finds similar analyses of what Hegel calls the "ethical moment" in war in other thinkers as well, including Machiavelli, Hegel, Sorel, Fanon, Gramsci, and William James. And this analysis dovetails with a lot of everyday folk sociology, also known as "common sense." For example, older Britons once used to talk with some tinge of nostalgia about the sense of solidarity they remembered--or thought they remembered--from the World War II Blitz. Incidentally, in case anyone is wondering, neither Durkheim nor I would see any of this as a good argument in favor of waging otherwise unnecessary wars. Analysis is not always the same thing as advocacy, and there are other ways to promote moral integration.)

The following piece offers a nice illustration of how these social and phenomenological dynamics work.

--Jeff Weintraub
New York Times
July 18, 2006

The Way We War
By Etgar Keret

(Tel Aviv). Yesterday I called the cable people to yell at them. The day before, my friend told me he’d called and yelled at them a little, threatened to switch to satellite. And they immediately lowered their price by 50 shekels a month (about $11). “Can you believe it?” my friend said excitedly. “One angry five-minute call and you save 600 shekels a year.”

The customer service representative was named Tali. She listened silently to all my complaints and threats and when I finished she said in a low, deep voice: “Tell me, sir, aren’t you ashamed of yourself? We’re at war. People are getting killed. Missiles are falling on Haifa and Tiberias and all you can think about is your 50 shekels?”

There was something to that, something that made me slightly uncomfortable. I apologized immediately and the noble Tali quickly forgave me. After all, war is not exactly the right time to bear a grudge against one of your own.

That afternoon I decided to test the effectiveness of the Tali argument on a stubborn taxi driver who refused to take me and my baby son in his cab because I didn’t have a car seat with me.

“Tell me, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” I said, trying to quote Tali as precisely as I could. “We’re at war. People are getting killed. Missiles are falling on Tiberias and all you can think about is your car seat?”

The argument worked here too, and the embarrassed driver quickly apologized and told me to hop in. When we got on the highway, he said partly to me, partly to himself, “It’s a real war, eh?” And after taking a long breath, he added nostalgically, “Just like in the old days.”

Now that “just like in the old days” keeps echoing in my mind, and I suddenly see this whole conflict with Lebanon in a completely different light. Thinking back, trying to recreate my conversations with worried friends about this war with Lebanon, about the Iranian missiles, the Syrian machinations and the assumption that Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has the ability to strike any place in the country, even Tel Aviv, I realize that there was a small gleam in almost everyone’s eyes, a kind of unconscious breath of relief.

And no, it’s not that we Israelis long for war or death or grief, but we do long for those “old days” the taxi driver talked about. We long for a real war to take the place of all those exhausting years of intifada when there was no black or white, only gray, when we were confronted not by armed forces, but only by resolute young people wearing explosive belts, years when the aura of bravery ceased to exist, replaced by long lines of people waiting at our checkpoints, women about to give birth and elderly people struggling to endure the stifling heat.

Suddenly, the first salvo of missiles returned us to that familiar feeling of a war fought against a ruthless enemy who attacks our borders, a truly vicious enemy, not one fighting for its freedom and self-determination, not the kind that makes us stammer and throws us into confusion. Once again we’re confident about the rightness of our cause and we return with lightning speed to the bosom of the patriotism we had almost abandoned. Once again, we’re a small country surrounded by enemies, fighting for our lives, not a strong, occupying country forced to fight daily against a civilian population.

So is it any wonder that we’re all secretly just a tiny bit relieved? Give us Iran, give us a pinch of Syria, give us a handful of Sheik Nasrallah and we’ll devour them whole. After all, we’re no better than anyone else at resolving moral ambiguities. But we always did know how to win a war.

Etgar Keret is the author of “The Nimrod Flip-Out.’’ This article was translated by Sondra Silverstone from the Hebrew.