04 March 2007

03 March 2007 - Philosophical foundations

Last week, I met with the philosopher Sapir Handelman, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, to discuss his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sapir is a gentle fellow who holds degrees in engineering and economics as well as philosophy. He studied in Israel with the renowned Joseph Agassi, who was a student of Karl Popper. Sapir’s wife Yael, of whom he is very proud, is a formidable classical singer.

I first encountered Sapir at Shabbat dinner at Harvard’s Chabad House. I was wearing my Israeli keffiyeh that night, which attracted a lot of attention (some of it negative—people see the cloth before they see the pattern). Sapir was curious about it and we started talking about the Middle East. Both of us agreed that the major problem was the weakness of Palestinian institutions. It was an “ah ha!” moment.

Over coffee a few days later, Sapir spoke to me about his work. He begins from the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an “intractable conflict,” which in turn is a “complex phenomenon.” A complex phenomenon is simply something that you can never understand all at once. No matter how you decide to describe it—a religious conflict, a national conflict, etc.—you can never have a complete picture of it.

Sapir refers often to the work of Friedrich Hayek, the liberal Austrian philosopher, who wrote an essay called “The Theory of Complex Phenomena” (which I must find and read in the near future). Much of Hayek;s work was aimed at resisting the march of socialism in postwar Europe and argued that rational planning, far from improving society, led society towards tyrannical dictatorship.

The reason, Hayek argued, was that life is full of complex phenomena, and that all attempts to solve complex phenomena have unintended consequences. The only way to manage these consequences would be to have an all-powerful central government. A better way to proceed, Hayek argued, was not to solve complex phenomena but to identify patterns of development that they could produce under certain conditions.

Sapir’s other philosophical mainstay is Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli is best known for The Prince, a work in which he advises rulers to do anything they need to do in order to gain or maintain power. However, Machiavelli also wrote another treatise, The Discourses on Livy, in which he described the institutions that are necessary for the establishment and success of a free and independent republic.

Scholars have long tried to reconcile the two works. Sapir points out that for Machiavelli, the prince was a sort of “ideal type,” a character that could never actually be achieved in reality. Sapir argues that Machiavelli’s prince was, in this sense, like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—a force that guides society’s actions toward the most beneficial outcomes, without actually existing in material form.

In addition, Sapir notes, Machiavelli may have intended one work to lead into the other—that is, to describe a political model in which an authoritarian leader takes control and consolidates power, then designs republican institutions that will survive his reign. He then relinquishes power and allows the institutions to carry on. This may be an unorthodox reading, but one that reconciles the two works.

In any event, Sapir points out, Machiavelli and Hayek, who seem at first to come from opposite poles of the political spectrum, are both motivated to write about politics by their personal experiences. Machiavelli lived through the chaos and violence of civil war among the Italian city-states in the late Renaissance; Hayek lived through the horrors of totalitarianism and war in twentieth-century Europe.

Both philosophers were describing ways in which political failure to solve the problem of social diversity had led to misery. And the misery they described existed between two extremes: civil war and anarchy on the one hand, fascism and tyranny on the other. Both wanted to create something more stable and moderate: a system of “beneficial contest” in which human beings could not only survive, but thrive.

To return to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Sapir argues that it is an intractable conflict, and that the conditions for successful negotiations do not yet exist. He suggests two questions that anyone seeking to solve it must answer: 1. How to solve the conflict; 2. How to construct a decent society in times of conflict. Thus far, more attention has been paid to the first question, but the second may actually be critical.

In Israel, questions of identity have been postponed for decades. The relation between religion and the state; the ethnic character of citizenship; even the boundaries of the state—all of these remain undefined. Among Palestinians, there are intense conflicts over religion and political power, to say nothing of the stalled peace process with Israel, that have now become a simmering civil war.

In Israel, the answers to these domestic questions remain ambivalent because they are rarely discussed. Israel does not even have a constitution yet. And yet it has built institutions that have allowed it to flourish throughout decades of external conflict. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have no clear national vision, except the negative one that denies Israel; Palestinian institutions are feeble and corrupt.

But how does one solve these problems? One answer might be the Machiavellian model. Sapir argues that the Israeli-Arab conflict has seen two Machiavellian leaders. One was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, whose journey to Jerusalem led to peace with Israel; the other was Ariel Sharon, whose policy of disengagement, while flawed, hinted at the possibility of future peace with the Palestinians.

Both men, Sapir argues, gained and maintained power by adopting hard-line and militarist positions. Both changed their stances, perhaps out of self-interest. Yet in both cases, self-interest aligned with social interest. The Palestinians have had one autocratic leader—Yasser Arafat—but his self-interest somehow never advanced the social interest of the Palestinians, and in fact undermined it in many ways.

All I have done so far is cover the content of my conversation with Sapir last week; I have not even touched on his papers yet. Tomorrow, I will write about his papers and the ideas they evoked in me. But the hour is late, and Purim festivities have worn me out. One of Purim’s lessons is that sometimes humor is the best answer to adversity. I’ve ordered the Oscar-winning West Bank Story to see if it has any answers.


Post a Comment

<< Home