September 15, 2007


When I argue on the side of Zionism, it is because it seems intellectually right to do so (Howard Jacobson, 15 September 2007, Independent)

I take exception, of course, to the idea that a Jew can think and feel only one way about Israel. There are examples in plenty of Jews who think and feel differently from me, as indeed I often think and feel differently from myself. I also take exception to the assumption that a Jew holds the view he does only because he is a Jew. For one thing, it predetermines the argument, making anything a Jew says on the subject suspect. For another, it discounts the possibility, all round, of arguing disinterestedly.

We are not great believers in disinterestedness these days. Following a column in which I said what needed saying about that fanatic of religious disbelief, Richard Dawkins, the musician Brian Eno wrote to this paper to point out that the "venom of my attack" proved that "religion sometimes brings out the worst in people".

But what had religion to do with it? I am not remotely religious. What brought out the venom of my attack – in so far as that's a fair description, which it isn't – was the complacency of Dawkins' prose, his inability, which he mistakes for a virtue, to imagine how another living soul imagines the universe. All of which I could have said exactly as I said it and still been more of an atheist than he is.

In the same way I had neither to be a Jew nor a Zionist to have written the article which upset the person from London W6. That it's Zionism that fires me is a common assumption of people who write in to castigate me. "A good Zionist," was how a reader from Sao Paulo, Brazil, piteously dismissed me in the aftermath of my offending article. In which case, God help Zionism. For I have never actively supported any Zionist body, never given money to Zionism, never wanted to settle in Israel myself, never liked Israeli music, and generally feel uncomfortable in the company of people fired by zeal, whatever their zealotry is about.

When I argue, sometimes, on the side of Zionism it is because it seems to me intellectually right to do so.

That there is no intellectual basis for defending the manner in which Israel was re-established--or America established-- does not make it wrong to do so. It just suggests how little use we have for intellectualism in real life.

Nation building: A comprehensive examination of America's continental expansion: a review of Seizing Destiny: How America Grew From Sea to Shining Sea By Richard Kluger Eric Arnesen, September 15, 2007, Chicago Tribune)

Two forces propelled the new nation's western expansion, Kluger suggests. The first was ideological. Many came to believe it was America's destiny to spill over its boundaries and take possession of the continent. Benjamin Franklin's vision of the nation's "infinitely expansive future . . . based on a vast territorial dominion" was increasingly shared by his fellow colonists in the 18th Century. Fellow founder John Adams suggested in 1776 that the newly federated American states "intended to secure 'the sole, exclusive, undivided and perpetual possession of the Counties, Cities, and Towns on the said Continent, and of all the lands near to it' " that were under the jurisdiction of Great Britain." His son, John Quincy Adams, in 1818 asserted " 'our natural dominion of North America.' " By the early 19th Century, the "emerging creed of continentalism" advanced the notion that the U.S. was "destined -- indeed, entitled -- to spread its dominion across the breadth of North America, perhaps even owning the entirety of it." Americans "were thinking large, grandiose thoughts from the outset," Kluger observes.

The second force was material: Americans' "land hunger," their voracious "appetite for space," their "territorial cravings." Land, for speculation and farming, was from the outset a key for individual economic advancement, and settlers took every opportunity to acquire, legitimately or not, as much of it as they could benefit from. "The land rush began almost from the moment the boundaries of the United States were certified and its existence an internationally acknowledged fact," Kluger argues, for the land "held the promise of economic deliverance for a hard-pressed people in the early hours of their national travail." Aspiring farmers surged forward each time new territory was acquired or officially opened to settlement (and often before) as they sought to turn "the American frontier into a land of abundance."

Grand ambitions were one thing, achieving them another. If Adams coveted much of British North America on the eve of independence, the British found his claim absurd. Kluger devotes considerable (some might say excessive) attention to the fine points of negotiations between the Americans and the British during the Revolution that settled the original boundaries of the new United States, and between the Americans and Napoleon's France in the early 19th Century that resulted in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, a "colossal real-estate deal" that overnight doubled the country's size. After the Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward, "an incessant booster of national expansion and commercial development," negotiated the purchase of Russian America -- Russia's sole American outpost, Alaska, a vast piece of property considered by many of his compatriots to be a "trackless, frozen wasteland" unfit for white colonization. For all of his misgivings about Americans' "territorial aggrandizement," Kluger seems enamored of the skill and vision of men like Franklin, Adams, Thomas Jefferson and, to a lesser extent, Seward.

Yet the nation's boundaries expanded not only by negotiation but by the use of threat and force as well.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 15, 2007 12:00 AM
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