Monday, 9 April 2012

"What has to be said" - Germany's leading Waffen-SS poet lectures Israel on its right to get nuked - special edition

Günter Grass, German novelist and poet and a Nobel Laureate, is causing a stir with his poem "What has to be said." You can see him read it here. As poetry goes, it is a sad joke; it has no redeeming poetic qualities whatsoever. Instead, it displays every last bit of incoherence and moralistic-condescension-as-politics that makes German left-wing public discourse to sickening to watch, especially for those who (like me) actually can occasionally see some merit in the arguments. This time, however, there are no such redeeming features.

Let's start in the beginning. What is it that Grass feels he has to say? He can no longer remain silent, he says, given that Israel now claims a right for a first strike on Iran. He thinks that this is all wrong. Israel has nuclear weapons, many; and the mean Israelis don't even want those nice Iranians to have a single one! And a pre-emptive strike? How evil. The German involvement, the reason why Grass now has to go public? Selling submarines to Israel. In his book, this is equivalent to collaborating in a crime against world peace. If this all sounds confused and confusing to you, that is because it is. Grass was never very coherent, but old age has not helped. Some of his novels are decent, and form part of German curricula for a reason. 

If you think in abstract categories of "should sovereign states be allowed to decide if they want nuclear weapons", the most you can say is that there a hint of logic here. Almost a century ago, the German economist/lawyer/sociologist Max Weber distinguished two types of ethics - ethics of intent ("Gesinnungsethik") and ethics of responsibility ("Verantwortungsethik"). One cares about feeling superior and good about your own intentions, and consequences be damned; the other thinks through what the results of one's own actions will be, and then decides on a responsible course of action. Tom Lehrer, the American mathematician and comedian, described the left-wing penchant for ethics of responsibility best in his Folk Song Army:
One type of song that has come into increasing prominence in recent months is the folk-song of protest. You have to admire people who sing these songs. It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee-house or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on. The nicest thing about a protest song is that it makes you feel so good...

We are the Folk Song Army.
Everyone of us cares.
We all hate poverty, war, and injustice,
Unlike the rest of you squares.

If you feel dissatisfaction,
Strum your frustrations away.
Some people may prefer action,
But give me a folk song any old day.

Remember the war against Franco?
That's the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.

Grass's so-called poem is ethics of intent at its most maddening. The idea of moral equivalence between Israel and Iran is so troubling that one doesn't really know where to start. Israel is the only more-or-less democratic, open, Western, more-or-less liberal country in the Middle East. Whatever one thinks of occupation policies, the country as a whole has freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, free elections, a free-market economy.  Let's think through where Grass's logic leads. Iraq, accordingly, should have also had a right to build nuclear weapons; Israel was wrong to attack the Osirak reactor in 1981, too. How would a world with an Iraqi nuclear weapon have looked? How much of Tel Aviv would be left after the last Scud missile had rained down on Israel? Not much.

I am not saying that attacking Iran now is a brilliant idea; it may well be very, very stupid, given how advanced the Iranian program is and how hard it will be to degrade Iran's nuclear capability. But the idea that the (not exactly nice) Netanyahu administration should not consider all options, faced with the chance that a madcap regime like the Iranian one might acquire the bomb, is simply bizarre. And it doesn't call for self-absorbed, vacuous and quite frankly bad "poetry" from a former soldier of the Waffen-SS, no less; it calls for considered judgement and hard choices, for responsible pragmatism.

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