What Israel Lost...and What America Argues Over

I love watching The Shield. I remember when the complex tale of a good and highly intelligent legionary, Vic Mackey, gone bad in a noirish LA world was broadcast, and how like Battlestar Galactica it pushed out the limits of what TV drama can do. My brother bought me three seasons of the show for Christmas, and watching one the other night (my girlfriend was away) as an escape from mad amounts of work, with a Sidney-Carleton size glass of something Argentinian, I found myself thinking about federalism.

Federalism, in its modern variant, is associated with a peculiar form of republicanism in the Anglo-American mind. Statists constrained by human liberty and individual freedom under law declare the constitution of the USA to be sovereign and argue over the extent of the structures created beneath it.

But people who have any contact with the urban histories of the USA know that this is not true. In one memorable Shield Scene, I think in the Fifth Season, Vic concludes a working agreement with 'Byz-Lat' gang members, by driving into their territory and negotiating with them. It is left unsaid that for practical purposes the state in their compound is them, not the USA, and that their reach is parallel to, if not further than, law enforcement. (and yes, I did think of the Fourth Crusade, as I'm sure the writers did too).

You get a little of the feeling of similar networks outside train stations and the likes in America. I remember a conversation I once had whilst waiting for a friend to pick me up outside the Greyhound depot in Baltimore (it may have been DC) with a huge guy, who wanted a dollar 'for a fix'. I observed that that was cheap, and no way to waste a dollar, and we fell to talking. His world wasn't delimited by the normal markers of others; it was a Pan's Labyrinth of lines in the dust and gang eruvs on the street. At no time did I feel that the police, tooled up as they were, had much to do within his world. They may as well have been Romans.

This is partly because his mates had guns and lawyers, of course, but also because US federalism, born in law officially, and located in individual sentiment and sensibility nominally, can't help but be consociational. That means, almost in a medieval way, that identity in America is corporate. Different parts of a person's being--race, sex, class, gender, faith and sexuality, spring to mind, as well as ethnicity and gang membership, or professional vocation-- can be submitted to different sovereignties and the police and state are in no position to set any of them aside if enough people decide to uphold one thing over another. They can only explain or suppress. As I suggested below, it's the same with militias.

Older federalisms, swept away by Jean Bodin, seem to have recognised this point and proceeded to a position where they would have to accomodate difference, whereas newer ones defang or crush them. So, for instance, as Daniel Elazar points out in this brilliant article that starts off talking about a Martin Buber vision of an Israel of Kibbutzes, it is perfectly possible to think of states as composed of agreed communities of different groups.

The key to this sort of thing, though, seems to be elevating some common consensual system of agreement, and associating it with morality and peace. Althusius thought that people take identity from multiple sources, like family and ethnicity, and should be allowed to consent to society on the basis that those several sources were respected. But he thought Calvinist religion would hold them together.

Who is to say, looking at the Dutch Republic or the Protestant version of Switzerland that he was wrong? My problem with it is what happens when one or two of the groups go beyond anarchic internal jurisdictions and shoot others in the face, or bomb their children, which is what I suppose forestalls Israel's full embrace of a two-state, four faith federalism, and what did for Yugoslavia too. Buber thought in terms of a version of Old Israel--of covenants and multiple tribal agreements and admittedly one-sided negotiations over multiple tribes and states--rather than what many modern Jews and Protestants would prefer to think of as an elaborated but monolithic Jewish identity. What could he have said to the Falasha faced with Hamas, though?

I wish there were several Jewish states. Then things would be a lot easier; but Hitler, Stalin and Nehru forestalled that, I guess.

Or take Europe. It is perfectly possible to see it as a republicanised version of the Austro-Hungarian Empire today, and its competition rules and subsidies to lobbies do correspond to the latter stages of that Empire, or to the Holy Roman one that Althusius lived in. But faced with an individual-elevating, rights-protecting and deeply seductive official American model, who could think of Europe as superior?

The thing is, if one forgets about real identities and sovereignties, and how strongly people feel about them, we are reduced to a pre-Great War world in every society, in which everyone feels that everyone else is a gang whereas they are a legitimate state. But if we don't forget about them, we are a community of gangs.

What's a fellow to do? Twice in the chest and once in the head, or back to the Buber? These are the sort of questions that have characterised most of human history, though you would hope eventually that people learn.

In the meantime, a sort of exasperated and delayed slippage to psychosis, clinging onto the idea that a civilised state under law is achievable and worth something because of the order it creates, even if you have to lie for it, and put up with the lies that others tell who do not see the skull beneath the skin, Vic Mackey's world--is as much as you can ask.

Be warned, I'm also reading The Yiddish Policeman's Union at the minute as well, so it may be difficult to withold further twaddle in the coming days.....


I understand (and i suppose even sympathise to a point with) your summary of the status of the states you mention.

I think that a key point though that is failled to be addressed in your discussion is that the current incidents that you see in Israel/Palestine/whatever you want to label it, are not simply a matter of sociology or anthropology. Within the context of the Middle East, your are dealin with two peoples/religions/gangs that see the 'land' as sacred. In turn that presents an interesting dimension to your 'twaddles' (which I think are quite good if you don't mind me saying)

Let's take your gang image. We are not just dealing with territory within an area, we are dealing with people who see that territory as integral to their image of themselves and their relation to the other gangs on the block.

Jerusalem is as integral to Jewish thinking as it is to Muslim (I actually think that Christian thinking is less concerned with Jerusalem which is an interesting fact in itself)

How do you think this feeds into the argument/discussion?
Martin Meenagh said…
Many thanks for your comment, Pastor Rabbi.

I hope that you don't mind if I offer a quick reply now and another later--I am busy, but have been turning a point over in my head.

Most of our blogs are about ourselves, and often the ones that we think are most distant are actually the ones that are closest. I realised as I posted this one that I am used to worlds of very much overlapping identities. In my extended family, for instance, it matters how one names the cities in the north west of Ulster, and subtle differences between Enlish and Irish people, and in terms of class and other forms of identity are often presented to me. I'm used to people seeing the world in different ways and adjusting to that politically--but, crucially, not to them resorting to guns and bombs and suicidal defences of one position alone.

I would have liked the discussion and dialogue that the Jesuits amongst others were sponsoring in Turkey about overlapping ideas in religion to have led to a wider re-thinking of shared space in the east. But I think that is wishful, because Judaism is in many ways a magnificent, multifaceted manual of how Not to be Non-Jewish, through ritual, liturgy, poetry, history and commensality. I also wonder if Islam can only tolerate when it is dominant.
You're right about some Christians--since the Crimean war, and despite the regular fistfights, I think that Rome, the orthodox, the armenians, and most of the protestants are coapcetic about Jerusalem. Christianity is an hellenistic and roman religion after all.

But how all of this fits into the discussion? I don't know. Until we as animals start seeing god in others, and facets of his being under an imperative not to kill unless we and our families can do nothing else, we will get nowhere. In this regard, a secular space based on a principle of community under law would be a start--but too many have gone mad and too many easy hatreds have been indulged. I wonder if making an area richer won't help, but many states are rich and hateful.

So without thinking I can proffer nothing but a wish.

Thank you for your comments on my 'twaddle', I appreciate them.
Martin Meenagh said…
facets of God in others, I mean. Quick posting does that.