Gerald Caplan is an African scholar, former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC’s Power and Politics.
“I would slit my wrists,” a faithful reader wrote after last week’s column, “if I thought you were right.” I had argued in the piece that for various reasons, which I spelled out, Israel and the Palestinians were fated to remain mortal enemies for the foreseeable future. Maybe doomed is the better verb. All the evidence convinces me there will be no peace and that conflict will remain the rule for a very, very long time. And I said so.
Of course I understood perfectly well that no column on the Middle East can fail to cause great offence to just about everybody, and this one seems to have done exactly that. That’s par for the course. But I was most concerned about those who would find my conclusion too despairing. Truthfully, it depressed me too – enormously. I had concluded that there was a strong case for this view, and that it was important to spell out the facts that (I believed) led inescapably to this conclusion, even if I might be spoiling the weekend for a lot of decent people. And my correspondent, above, was far from the only one who blamed me for doing just that.
Two schools of thought that emerged: One, that I just might be tragically right – but who needed such lugubrious news? Two, that I was wrong and the fight for a just peace must continue and will someday triumph. As one particularly inelegant reader angrily tweeted: “We all thought apartheid in South Africa would never end, so stuff it.” (She used her real name, which I didn’t recognize, but since I judge that we’re actually on the same side, I’ll not use it.)
Let me acknowledge that I fully understand these reactions, even if I can do without the silly language. I hope I’m wrong in my analysis. I hope my conclusion is wrong. I hope a real peace that gives both Palestinians and Israelis what they want can be worked out soon. But since I don’t believe for a moment that’s remotely possible, what is my responsibility to the reader and to my own conscience?
This is an old question for me. I’ve made countless speeches over many years on other world crises – underdevelopment in Africa is the most obvious example – where the obstacles to progress that I outline seem so overwhelming that I always fear my audience will decide it’s all hopeless anyway and just give up. This is the last thing in the world I want to happen. I’ve always seen my role, whether as columnist or speaker or author, as encouraging people to fight for just causes, not to demoralize them or turn them off. So let me offer my rationale for risking the spread of defeatism and pessimism wherever I go, and why even harsh truths should never be a reason to give up the fight.
First, I always try to be realistic, following the evidence wherever it takes me, even if don’t like where it takes me. Because, second, if you’re going to join the tough fight for social justice, there’s no point in ignoring the realities of the situation, however daunting. I’m sure it’s easier to disregard the evidence and work out a strategy that’s based on wishful thinking. But that pretty much guarantees the failure of your efforts.
Third, if you give up because the slog is long and hard, you can rest assured that the cause will never prevail. So, hard as it, much as it’s easier to ignore the dismaying complexities and obstacles, much as it’s tempting to retreat to purely private pursuits, you only have a chance to win if you at least try. Elementary, I know, but somehow easy to forget.
Fourth, hopelessness is self-indulgent. It’s feeling sorry for ourselves. It’s saying: Poor me, I’ve worked so hard to make the world a better place but I realize there’s no point. Our side is doomed to defeat. The 1 per cent or the elite or the conservatives are just too big and powerful for us to take on. I’m just going to bow out of the struggle and focus on myself. That’s pretty convenient for privileged progressives, but does less than nothing for those on the frontlines we’re fighting together with, and for.
In every case, from the Middle East to global warming to gross inequality, there are any number of steps that would bring more justice, maybe even serious progress. It’s also true – would anyone who has ever tried deny it? – that it’s anywhere from extremely hard to borderline impossible to introduce those steps.
There are powerful interests who stand opposed to all the ways a better world can be brought into being. But that doesn’t mean a better world is not possible. It just means it’s hard as hell. Whether it’s even attainable is neither here nor there. The first step is being honest with ourselves about the task ahead.