Imagination and Perversity in Politics

In commenting on my previous post, Clarice felt that I was debasing the suffering of the Palestinians by describing Israel’s attacks as “lacking imagination”.  Its worth making some more notes on this.

First, the kind of thinking I am lamenting is nowhere more starkly illustrated, than in yesterday’s Times editorial, ‘In Defense of Israel’, where the paper notes that

70 such rockets were launched from Gaza into Israel in December. This was the criminal act that triggered the current crisis

as if the one and only possible response to these atrocities was a military onslaught that the same article labels a “vision of hell”.

“Meet fire with fire” is the council.  “An Eye for an Eye” is the creed.  “Visit each atrocity back on them, ten-fold” seems to be the doctrine.  When I lament a lack of imagination, I think its just another way of yearning for some new thinking, an alternative route out of the mire.

It seems to me – it has always seemed to me – that there is a virtue in counter-intuitive thinking.  That is, doing the opposite of what is expected of you, the opposite of what your gut demands.  Maybe even the opposite of what the electorate expects.  There is actually great power in turning the other cheek: Just look at Ghandi, who foiled an Empire.  Look at Desmond Tutu who averted a blood-feud that could have lasted for generations.  Look at Christ!

Consider the messy world of Realpolitik: I hate to segue straight from Jesus to Barack Obama, but the manner in which the President-Elect turned his foes attacks against them is worth noting.  While all manner of political mud was thrown at him, he ignored each attack.  He conspicuously declined to retaliate.  In doing so, his opponents were illuminated as the dirty players.  Their poor style of leadership, and their lack of solutions, were also thrown into sharp relief.  They were portrayed as leading America into a dead-end.

Politics in Gaza is more deadly, but has some similarities.  The Venn diagramme of possible solutions depends on the opinions of the people, and with imagination, patience and leadership, these can be shifted.  But it requires stepping outside the cycle of violence.  Whoever achieves this will be a great man or woman.  We don’t yet know who they will be, or which country they will be from.

Returning to this idea of counter-intuitive solutions:  I think perversity is a virtue here.  It seems to be important elsewhere in political philosophy.  Votaire/Tallentyre’s famous adage that

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it

has a certain perverse quality to it – the words of someone who is willfully and stubbornly putting principle before gut-feeling and common sense. Yet it underpins the principle of freedom of speech.  It seems equally perverse for us to be defending the human rights of murderers, terrorists and genocidal maniacs, yet in doing so, we uphold and strengthen those rights for everyone.

Transcending the common urge for revenge, the urge to follow the “natural law”, is what makes us better and civilised.  But this transcendence requires a leap of the collective imagination.  No-one in a position of power is showing any inclination to make that leap at present.  How to do so?  I note that for the three beacons I mentioned earlier (Ghandi, Tutu, Christ), religion is a common thread…

One Reply to “Imagination and Perversity in Politics”

  1. Bravo.

    Though I still maintain that describing what Israel is doing as “lacking imagination”, while it may be true in the sense you describe, is not the first phrase that springs to mind, especially in the context of the varied and highly imaginative ways in which Israel is inflicting unimaginable suffering upon the Palestinians.

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