Monday, December 1, 2008

Arise Dark Knight

Americans have always been pragmatists when it comes to the truth. From John Dewey to John Wayne, we’re a practical people. Our quest for the purity of truth and justice comes into constant conflict with the jagged everyday landscape of compromise.

Now with a newly elected leader, the country seems to be clamoring for the truth. From the economic hardships that lie ahead and the sacrifices we’ll have to make, to what dangers are being cooked up in caves on the Afghani-Pakistani border — we seek straight answers.

But while it’s a cliché to say the truth hurts, the pure truth, while refreshing, not only stings but is dangerous, as so many heroes (super and otherwise) have found out.

So how does one navigate through such terrain — by sticking to principles or adjusting to the temporary topography?

After the financial meltdown, Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson and the Congress told us their rescue plan was needed to save the economy. However, while implementing it, Hank admitted intervention was against his principles. Nevertheless, he and Congress held their nose and we the people went along.

Closer to home, the electorate voted for slots in Maryland. Just a few years ago many, including Democrats, were against slots. They claimed slots were a tax on the poor, would lead to problems with compulsive gambling and create a slew of slots addicts.

But because we are in the midst of a budget shortfall, slots were served up as a remedy. And even though many voters see slots’ deleterious aspects, the ends justified the means. Again, we close our eyes and pull the lever.

Likewise, as we look at the problems facing the Middle East, we will confront this same dilemma.

This past month I had the fortunate opportunity to hear Matthew Levitt, Senior Fellow and director of The Washington’s Institute Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. He was truly knowledgeable and an expert in his field.

Interestingly, during the Q&A session, one audience member asked why the issue of anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab world typically gets framed in the context of politics and not a religious foundation? The question had the ring of truth. The room paused.

Mr. Levitt’s answer was brilliant in its pragmatic nuance. He replied, and I paraphrase, to inject religion into the equation is dangerous, for it will infuse the Arab world with a higher calling aimed at Israel’s destruction and rally the Arab streets.

Sounds pretty scary. On the other hand, isn’t it true that the Arab world’s sentiments toward Israel have a long history of Jew hatred, going back to the mufti’s support of Nazism? So while potentially volatile it is, and has always been, a very real factor.

For example, when the covenants of terrorist groups such as Hamas commit themselves to the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people, that’s anti-Semitism. When the Muslim world draws on the classical Christian notions of Jewish stereotypes and fills their children’s heads with perverse images of Jews, that’s religious-inspired hatred.

Is not confronting the issue just as dangerous?

President Bush’s desire to remake the Middle East by bringing democracy to it will be replaced with the realist approach of making that region work as best it can, given the circumstances.

With Iran getting closer to nuclear capabilities and the stakes increasing, it will put greater pressure on an Obama administration to be pragmatic. If we’re not at a global tipping point, we can certainly envision one on the horizon.

Put another way, the boundless flamboyant era of Captain America is over and the earthly tactics of Batman, the Dark Knight, begins.

Abe Novick writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES on the intersection of American culture and Judaism.