Friday, December 26, 2008

The Hope Cycle
I just finished reading "Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001," a book I'd purchased earlier this year and left sitting on the shelf for some six months before, for some reason, pulling it down a few weeks back.

It's a tough read, not owing to any shortcomings of prose style on the part of author Benny Morris, a prominent Israeli historian, but rather the subject matter. Without delving into the specifics of the subject--I'll just briefly state for the record that both the reflexive pro-Israeli view I absorbed as a kid, and the reflexive pro-Palestinian mindset one can find on some of the farther corners of the American left, are not only simplistic but actively harmful to the generally shared objective of facilitating peace--the main conclusion I took away from the book is that progress generates its own momentum, but more often than not events hit a snag and the resultant disillusionment can leave all concerned arguably worse off than before hope took hold. In the case of Israel and Palestine, the seeming breakthrough of the mid-1990s was the event that launched this cycle: Bill Clinton's intervention, the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn, and the beginnings of a transfer of power in Gaza and the West Bank convinced many on both sides that peace was at hand.

As we now know, it wasn't: Rabin's assassination, dishonesty and malice on both sides, and more political and diplomatic failures undermined that time of hope and left us with a situation in the Middle East as intractable as ever--down to, literally, the present day.

I'm thinking about this--the cycle of hope and disillusionment that can leave a country worse off than when hope first took hold--in the context of the United States and the election of Barack Obama. Having campaigned explicitly on "hope," but never exactly defining what that might mean in operational terms, Obama runs the risk of courting quick popular disillusionment. Critics on the right are already asserting that the electorate voted for a change in management but not necessarily policy direction; some of their counterparts on the left seem to be actively anticipating, if not embracing, near-immediate disillusionment.

If your basic predisposition is to believe it's all pointless and hopeless, it's never hard to find justification for this view. But most of us seem partially or totally impervious to the wisdom of despair: almost involuntarily, we keep hoping.

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