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Left Behind by History

To forget can be a blessing.

Hundreds of protestors block traffic on K Street as they rally in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in downtown Washington, DC October 13, 2023. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In China and in France (and the news will continue coming in from elsewhere) there have been “frenzied knife attacks” on innocent people after Hamas called for a “day of rage” to complement the days of rage it already has inflicted on well more than 1,000 innocent people—including babies and toddlers and defenseless elderly people—in Israel. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin reports that there have been more than 100 antisemitic episodes in France since the attacks on Israel on Saturday. In the United States, Jewish schools are closed or operating under heavy security, the students enjoying “indoor activities,” which is a way of saying they are sheltering in place without saying they are sheltering in place. 

At the height of post-9/11 paranoia—and it is possible to be paranoid in a world that is nonetheless genuinely dangerous—we were warned that “the front line is everywhere.” That was always the worst, totalizing line of thought about the so-called global war on terrorism, an invitation to tyranny and lawlessness as the executive claimed extraordinary, extralegal powers such as that of holding “enemy combatants” indefinitely without trial or legal process on basically nothing more than its own say-so. There were certainly abuses, though not of the scale or scope that libertarian-minded skeptics (guilty!) fretted about. The worst aspect of the post-9/11 era turned out not to be an out-of-control security state but our poisoned domestic politics.

There was post-9/11 boobism, including desultory violence, much of it directed against Sikhs by people who couldn’t tell Ruhollah Khomeini’s turban from Auntie Mame’s. But the United States did not sink into tyranny and mob violence, even as later events such as the attempted coup d’état of January 6 show that we Americans do have a taste for tyranny and mob violence in us and a capacity for both. We Americans are the heirs to New England’s Puritans, and so total depravity is no kind of news to us. But we muddle on. Robert Bork is supposed to have remarked that the imbecilic and dishonest attacks on Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings were the beginning of “the end of civilization.” His friend Irving Kristol replied, “Of course it is. But it will take a long time and, meanwhile, it is still possible to live well.” 

And so we do. We Americans have had our share of history’s trauma but much more than our share of the blessings of Providence. The Civil War? Pearl Harbor? September 11, 2001? We remember, but we are not consumed by the memory. 

Not all of us, anyway. 

Far away from Gaza, the city council of Dallas last week took a minute to pass a perfectly anodyne resolution—condemning Hamas’ attacks and calling for peace—and was met by heckling from screaming pro-Palestinian activists, who did not want the city council to pass the resolution. You know, context. “I have attended protests every single time there has been an atrocious act done by the Israeli government to the Palestinian people and never once did I see anything like this happen with the City Council,” exclaimed one Mohammed Ayachi. “Do we not matter to you? Do we not count?” 

But, of course, the Israeli government has never done anything remotely like what Hamas has just done. The Israeli government has its shortcomings, as any Israeli will tell you, but it does not send mobs out to behead children, to drag families out of their homes to murder children in front of their screaming parents, to kidnap women and children so that their rape and torture can be captured on video and shared with the world to the cheering of law students at Columbia. There is no moral equivalence between what the Israeli government does and what the Palestinians permit Hamas to do in their name. It is simply a lie to assert otherwise. 

“Do we not matter?” asks Mohammed Ayachi. To which all of us—us Americans—should answer: Of course you matter. Of course you count. You have the great benefit of living in a free and pluralistic society, which is why you can go scream at the generally feckless members of the generally feckless Dallas City Council, while a Jew who went to scream at the people who run Gaza would have his head sawn off—as would his children, if the people the Palestinians have entrusted with their political power could get to them.

And that, of course, is what this is all about. 

When the world told the Jews to die, the Jews had the bad manners to go on living, and the society they built in their ancestral homeland—free, democratic, prosperous, open, sophisticated, beautiful—is an implicit judgment on the neighboring Arab bands, who have built little and have even less. What do the most successful Arab polities look like? Gaudy little despotisms such as Dubai and the other emirates. One good long bear market in oil and gas and Abu Dhabi will recede into the sands. 

But, of course, life in the United Arab Emirates looks like paradise compared to how those in the West Bank and Gaza live. Why? Because the Israelis have kept them down? Far from it—the Israelis are the Palestinians’ largest trading partners, on both the import and export side. Palestinian enterprises such as olives and olive oil have been stunted by the fact that it is too dangerous for international buyers to visit producers and inspect the goods, and so for years much of the Palestinian olive produce was given away as “gifts” to various royal families and autocratic regimes around the Arab world—who then repaid the “gift” with “aid.” Of course, what that really amounts to is monopsony, a situation in which producers have in effect only one buyer to which to sell, which ensures that the prices they get are terrible and that the terms of trade disfavor their interests. It would, in fact, be in Israel’s interest to see the Palestinians’ thrive economically, for the same reason the United States would (to take a less extreme example) be better off if it had Norway rather than Mexico as its southern neighbor. It is better to have rich, stable, law-abiding neighbors than poor, unstable, chaotic neighbors. It has been a long time since anybody worried about the neighborhood Norwegians sawing the heads off of their children. There aren’t any American schools that have closed their doors this week because the Norwegians are on a rampage. 

“The Norwegians are on a rampage” is such an unlikely thing to write that it sounds like a joke, but it isn’t a joke at all. Norway and Sweden have fought terrible battles against one another, and we Americans might remember from time to time that Norway did not exactly cover itself in glory in World War II. But Sweden thrives, the United States thrives, and Norway thrives. Over the years, the French have done terrible things to the Swiss—French revolutionaries murdered scores of Swiss troops, and Napoleon invaded Switzerland, annexing Geneva, Basel, Neuchâtel, and Valais. It was not a happy episode. But Switzerland thrives, and France thrives. A long memory is not always a healthy thing: In the 1990s, when I was getting ready to relocate to India, an Indian friend explained to me the controversy over the Babri Mosque, which was torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992 as part of a pogrom and riot in which some 2,000 people ultimately lost their lives. “And why did they tear down the mosque?” I asked. Because it had been built over a ruined Hindu temple on a very holy site. “I see. I understand their displeasure. And when was that mosque built?” 

Do you know, dear reader? 

The answer is: A.D. 1528, during the reign of the Mughal emperor Babur, hence the Babri mosque. The principal author of the mosque was Baqi Tashqandi, who was, as his name suggests, originally from Tashkent, now the capital of Uzbekistan. Of course, there was no Uzbekistan as such at that time—the modern sovereign state dates only from 1990—and what is now Uzbekistan has been ruled over the years by everybody from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Joseph Stalin, whose iron-fisted rule is the reason there is an old and established ethnic Korean community in Uzbekistan, forcibly relocated by the Soviets in the late 1930s. 

There are Uzbek people in Dallas, and Russian people in Dallas, and Korean people in Dallas, and they run shops and work in law firms and complain about high mortgage rates and ask you if you are enjoying this brisk October weather—it hasn’t been over 100 degrees since September 24! 

Do they not matter? Do they not count? 

Of course they do. And they aren’t shaking their fists at each other and wailing at the Dallas City Council about the many legitimate complaints the Uzbek people have against the Russians. They are living their lives—living the dream, in Texas, the Uzbek-Texans and the Russo-Texans and the Korean-Texans all pretty well contented to be going to the same barbecue. It isn’t perfect, but it works. 

The Palestinian people have legitimate grievances, and I myself have tried my very best to give a damn about them. But you only get to blow up so many pizza shops. You start beheading children and murdering young mothers and torturing people so viciously and inhumanely that parents pray that their children will be found dead rather than discovered to have been taken hostage into Gaza, then you and your legitimate grievances and any United Nations resolution you want to cite can all go rot. There aren’t two sides to this story. We ought not pretend that there are.

Before he became … whatever it is he has become … J. D. Vance wrote an interesting and useful book, which you may remember, called Hillbilly Elegy. He ended it with an exasperated but sympathetic plea to his hillbilly people: Come on, already. Get it together, people. You’ve been through hard times, I know, but now, you have to take care of yourselves and do it for yourselves. Stop making excuses. Take control of your lives. Not in those words, of course; this is my paraphrase.

There is something very odd about those Palestinian activists standing in front of the Dallas City Council—a city council with many black members representing a city that is one-quarter African-American, the overwhelming majority of that population descended from slaves—and saying, “You don’t know how hard our people have had it.” As though you couldn’t yell at the Dallas City Council in the morning and be at the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation by lunchtime. (The Alabama-Coushatta are very proud of, among other things, having fought beside Sam Houston in the Texas war for independence. It isn’t only people of Mexican background who can boast, “We didn’t cross the border—the border crossed us.”) You can go into any of 300 different bars in Boston and get an earful about how bad the Irish have had it. But people eventually move on—at least, the people who want to be happy, who want to thrive as individuals and as families and as nations do. That doesn’t mean that what happened to the Indians and the African Americans and the Irish wasn’t terrible, or that we should just forget about it and pretend like it never happened. It means that you can’t keep good people down. Not forever. 

A former police officer in Texas who now provides security to churches tells me that his team is taking extra precautions in the coming days. And not because he is worried about resentful Irishmen or enraged Norwegians. 

History moves on, and, if you get left behind—it may not be your fault, but it is still your problem. The Israeli forces should be the least of the mortal worries afflicting those Hamas killers—if the Palestinians had any self-respect, it would be them taking the lead in putting an end to the power of these monsters, who are homicidal maniacs when it comes to the Jews but who haven’t done the Palestinians a lick of good, either. But, unhappily, the one almost universally shared assumption of modern diplomatic discourse is that the Palestinian Arabs are something less than whole and complete human beings, that they are not advanced enough to be true moral actors because they do not have the strength of national character to bear the moral weight that falls exclusively upon the shoulders of the Israelis and the peoples of the other liberal democratic states. The Palestinians, according to this line of thought, just bounce around like windup toys, and only the Israelis, the Americans, and the Europeans can be expected to behave like responsible adults. Nobody ever puts it exactly that way, of course, but that’s the upshot. The Palestinians are treated by their so-called advocates and benefactors as though they were a nation of people who have no agency and, hence, no responsibility. 

The mystery is why the Palestinians continue to put up with it, and have for so long. They don’t need “days of rage.” They need property rights, free enterprise, the rule of law, and decent government. And nobody would be better pleased to see them have these than the Israelis. 

And Furthermore …

There is the immediate matter—and pardon me for being parochial—of dozens of dead Americans killed in the Gaza attack, and American hostages currently being held by Hamas. I don’t know if those hostages are Jewish Americans, Arab-American, Uzbek-American, or what—but our people are our people. Our government must answer that. Even if that means a “disproportionate” response, even if it means—angels and ministers of grace, defend us!—“escalation.” 

Economics for English Majors

People want what they want: They don’t want electric trucks—they want non-alcoholic beer. Self-denial is in, but it isn’t Al Gore’s version of virtue—it is Carrie Nation’s. 

But first, a digression.

Do you know what an orrery is? An orrery—and I love these things—is a clockwork model of the solar system, named for Charles Boyle, 4th Earl of Orrery, an English patron of science in the 17th and 18th centuries, who commissioned the first such model from “Honest George Graham,” a clockmaker who also made some important contributions to science. (Something about compass needles and periodic changes in the Earth’s magnetic field.) Horology nerds will know Graham as an innovator who popularized (but did not actually invent) the deadbeat escapement, which improved the precision of timekeeping instruments. 

In Graham’s era, it was understood to be the most natural thing in the world that scientists would be clockmakers and that clockmakers would be scientists. That the nature of the universe was essentially mechanical was taken for granted, not only in the sciences but even in philosophy and religion—the Deists famously imagined God to be a kind of divine clockmaker, who designed the gears and set the machine in motion but then left it to run itself according to its own nature, structure, and logic. 

The apex of that mechanistic thinking was “Laplace’s Demon,” named for the French physicist Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace. Laplace’s Demon was a hypothetical intelligence that could, by having complete knowledge of the physical state of the universe at any given moment, predict the future state of the universe at every point in time from there on out, the idea being that physical reality is absolutely determined and that forecasting it is only a matter of information-gathering. Later advances in physics and mathematics challenged the deterministic view of the universe—you get into nonlinear differential equations and other things that make English majors squirm. As a matter of physics, Laplace’s Demon is a relic of a relatively unsophisticated past; as a matter of unspoken assumptions of political philosophy, Laplace’s Demon and determinism live on. If we just had enough data, the idea goes, then we could fine-tune practically anything in social life—including and especially the economy—by adjusting and reordering incentives to our liking. 

Which takes us back to the Ford F-150 Lightning. 

I like the F-150 Lightning, though I myself drive a much more old-fashioned diesel-powered truck. I like electric vehicles in general. Teslas are cool. Rivians are cool. Fiskers are very cool. When Teslas first hit the market, new owners were so excited about them that they would hand you the keys and insist that you take it out for a spin. (Nobody has done so with me with the new all-electric Rolls-Royce Spectre; I’m ready when you are.) But cool doesn’t get you from Ronald Reagan International Airport to Buffalo, New York. 

If you’ve rented a car at an airport lately (and that is where most people who rent cars rent them), then you may have noticed a concerted effort to get you to rent an EV. On occasion, the Hertz operation at DCA has had nothing except electric vehicles on offer when I have tried to book a car there. And a Tesla is great for zipping around Washington and environs—it is, indeed, something very close to the perfect city car, I think. I understand range anxiety—I am from West Texas, after all—but the average American typically drives less than 40 miles a day, well within the range of even a mediocre EV. A modest EV range may be great for running from home to the office to the grocery store and back, but it is not great for a long road trip. Last time I was at the Hertz facility at DCA, the poor people in front of me—who already had been kept waiting for an hour—were informed that the only car available to them was a Tesla with a 29-percent charge on the battery. They ultimately were bound for Buffalo, New York, but were coming from Washington for whatever reason—and a Tesla with a 29-percent charge will get you about 77 miles, well short of the 380 they needed to drive. Because my business travel obliges me to deal frequently with the two most incompetent companies in the world—Hertz and American Airlines—I felt their pain. But their pain is not random. 

Hertz has been offering EV rentals for a long time. Customers have been … indifferent at best. In 2017, both Hertz and Enterprise told Car & Driver that they were reducing their electric offerings because of low demand from renters. And then Hertz turned around and ordered 100,000 Teslas a few years later. What happened? A 30 percent credit from the federal government, of course, making the purchase of a Tesla Model 3 no more expensive than the purchase of a Toyota Camry for Hertz, as the Wall Street Journal put it. That’s a nice spread with a reputational bonus on top of it. Car-rental companies are the private sector’s answer to the DMV, and they need all the juice they can get, I suppose. 

The problem with EVs: Most people just don’t really want them. 

Some do. And that’s great. Maybe the F-150 Lightning doesn’t make as much sense for the hauling-stuff-around gang as a diesel-powered Super Duty does, but, as everybody knows, the dirty little secret of the cult of the Great American Truck is that truck owners rarely or never use them to haul anything that couldn’t be put in the back of a Subaru Outback or in the trunk of a Honda Civic. A knowledgeable party in the Jeep world tells me that a modern Jeep Wrangler is put into four-wheel-drive on average one time per owner. But having a big truck or an off-roader is a little like owning an AR-15: You don’t expect to have to use it, but you like knowing that it’s there just in case. 

I can make a pretty good case for why you should own an EV. And, because I am a professional and this is my thing, I can make an equally good case for why you shouldn’t, why you should stick with a conventional gas or diesel vehicle instead. The thing about living in a free country is that you get to decide for yourself. The American people, bless their pointy little heads, will act just as if they had minds of their own!

For the politician who sees the world as a clockwork universe that can be run with a nudge here and a little alteration there until all the orbits match up with his agenda, the human factor is the worst part. It is the one intractable thing. Now, if you had told me 30 years ago that it would be easier to sell beer with no alcohol in it than cars that never need to go to the gas station, I’d have thought you were crazy. But the world is not predictable—because people are not predictable. 

So when somebody tells you that we are going to pass a law that creates a program that is going to reduce our carbon-dioxide emission by x percent before y date, you should do the thing that comes naturally: Laugh at them. 

Words About Words

Who is a “Palestinian”? In our time, the word Palestinian refers to the Arabs of Palestine within the confines of the state of Israel or in areas immediate adjacent to it, such as Gaza. As a matter of linguistic curiosity, it is worth remembering that, until quite recently, “Palestinian” referred mainly to the Jews of Palestine, the people who would go on to build the Jewish state in the region. I recommend Douglas Feith’s essay on the term “Palestine” as very interesting reading. 

The common use of “Transjordan” rather than “Eastern Palestine” had consequences. After the 1948-49 Israeli War of Independence, it allowed supporters of the Palestinian Arabs to describe them as “stateless.” After the 1967 Six-Day War, it allowed people to say plausibly, if inaccurately, that the Jews had taken control of all of Palestine, leaving none to the Arabs.

Numerous books—for example, Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (2006)—now contain maps that attach the labels “Palestine” or “Mandate Palestine” only to Palestine west of the Jordan. Writing that the Zionists “were ultimately able to take over the entire country,” Khalidi endorsed the common but ahistorical assertion that Palestine extended no further east than the Jordan River. By way of contrast, it is notable that another leading American scholar of Arab origin, Princeton University’s Philip K. Hitti, in his History of Syria: Including Lebanon and Palestine (1951), dealt accurately with this point of geography. After identifying Palestine as “the southern part of Syria,” Hitti wrote that Palestine was “amputated” from Syria, and then, “In 1921 Transjordan, with a biblical name but no real historical existence, was in turn amputated from Palestine and placed under the Emir Abdullah.”

Would the world now perceive the Arab-Israeli conflict differently if British officials had adopted that proposal from the Colonial Office to continue to use the term Eastern Palestine, rather than Transjordan? Would world politics be different if people generally understood that the kingdom of Jordan is in Eastern Palestine and Israel is in Western Palestine? Would the conflict have been different if no one had ever contended that the Palestinian Arabs are “stateless?”

I may be a traitor to my tribe, but I generally think that history is not very much moved by choices in terminology. Words matter, but not as much as we think, and not in as direct a way as we sometimes think. You can call your program “gun control” or “gun safety,” you can call yourself “pro-life” or “anti-abortion,” you can call carbon dioxide “air pollution,” you can call yourself a “libertarian” or a “classical liberal,” whatever—people mostly know what you mean, and they mostly don’t react to the labels. People judge the restaurant by what’s on the plate, not by what it says on the menu. 


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In Closing

One of the few scenes in a book that will reliably make me tear up a little is the episode in The Wind in the Willows when Rat and Mole go looking for Otter’s lost son, Portly, who has wandered off. They fear that something awful might have happened to him. Of course, Rat and Mole end up far from home and possibly in danger themselves, when they encounter the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the divine “Friend and Helper” who looks after lost animals and other innocents. He delivers Portly to them and sets them back safely on their way, and then gives them one last blessing: They forget. The memory of the awe and majesty of that divine presence would have robbed the animals of the innocence and simplicity for which they were made, and, so, they forget, catching only a snatch of music and the words sung to it: “Lest the awe should dwell—And turn your frolic to fret—You shall look on my power at the helping hour—But then you shall forget!” To forget can be a blessing. But we aren’t all innocents, and life isn’t The Wind in the Willows. 

I mentioned orreries above, and where there is a clockwork universe, there is A Clockwork Orange. 

By definition, a human being is endowed with free will. He can use this to choose between good and evil. If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange—meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State. It is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be totally evil. The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good in order that moral choice may operate. Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities. This is what the television news is all about. Unfortunately there is so much original sin in us all that we find evil rather attractive. To devastate is easier and more spectacular than to create.

That entire paragraph is, in my view, baloney. 

Except for the last sentence.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.