Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Kriesberg at ICAR: Various kinds of intractability

In Uncategorized on March 5, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Just came from the very interesting talk in the Truland building by Louis Kriesberg. I had never seen him and it was great fun to finally put a face to the name and to get a sense of what kind of person had written those things that you had read over the years.  The topic was the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hosted by Marc Gopin and his center, and the crowd turned out dutifully to get some pearls of wisdom on this never ending nightmare of a conflict.

There was good reason to attend (for those of you who had thought about it, but couldn’t come) and I am certainly happy to have gone. The reasons were related not to finding the way out of what we all recognize as one of the world’s worst conundrums, shared from a self possessed guru. Kriesberg was not there to mobilize the masses. Instead, he came off to me as something very familiar–a sociologist. Lou’s style, if this is any guide, is to stay within the range of the data. He spoke of his long experience in the field and in studying this conflict and shared some of this legitimacy with Chris Mitchell, who had introduced him. He spoke of his recent trip to the hill and of his futile attempts to make contact with J Street.  These were not the most powerful examples to our high powered and socially active group. We are so engaged as to be almost trigger happy. We want answers. Kriesberg’s style of answer, to paraphrase, was of the form “explanations of a phenomenon by good science can get you the right answer 60% of the time, which is a darn spot better than flipping a coin.” I assume that most of us were not much happy with that kind of answer; but I was. You see, Kreisberg is that old style University of Chicago sociologist (my Alma mater). He is ambitious and active, but he is also unwilling to say he knows something when he doesn’t. I think he came to ICAR to have a conversation with like minded scholars on a problem that many of us have lived with for a long time. He was unapologetic, and he certainly did what I came for.

Among the can’t miss pieces of the meeting were Chris Mitchell’s riff off a Gopin description of the Middle East conflict as “Dancing in the Dark. Mitchell replied that we are Dancing in the Dusk, and have some limited idea of what is working and what not. This is quite close to Kriesberg’s statement on odds of success if you think about it.  Also worth remembering was Marc’s comment that in the struggle for Jerusalem we have billions of spoilers to the conflict. By this, he meant that not only are there thousands of groups who have direct stakes in the outcome, but also all the followers of the Abrahamic religions who trace their spiritual origins to the place. This is quite a nice phrase and helps to get to the sociological side of the problem. Chris reminded us that spolier is fightin’ words. No one sees themselves as a spoiler.

This brings me to my major interest in attending, which was to ask Kriesberg what he thought the major contribution of the Sociological perspective to the field of Conflict Resolution was and what that perspective could offer moving forward. His answer was simple and general, but worth the wait. He said that Sociology helped us to focus on social interaction, on social structure and the power that resides in it, on legitimacy and authority on the example of Max Weber and finally on what I will call the endogeneity of conflict. This was a subtle point, but Lou suggested that we in CR have a tendency to trust ourselves too much and to attribute too little to ongoing processes in the adversarial setting. I had once pinned down Mitchell to clarify this distinction and he was more elliptical, but in retrospect confirmed this point. Now that I know Chris, I know that this is not a kind of hubris, but rather an optimistic style. There may be something really profound in what we might better describe as the Kriesberg-Burton divide, but for the younger generations, the distinction need not amount to all that much. From Lou’s answer, I can say that all of these features can be active in current CR research and practice without much strain.

I had an idea that I will sketch here about the nature of one source of intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that concerns the role of the U.S. This is important because the role of the U.S. was the focus of the conversation. I will locate the source of stalemate in a specifically American chosen trauma. This is the trauma of having been a society riven by racist and anti-Semitic sentiments in a period when across the Atlantic, a brother civilization, Germany, was exterminating some of the brightest and most interesting people on the planet. As recompense, the Pax Americana has been a period in which issues of recognition and inclusion have been ascendant and this for good reason. We came to know ourselves as complicit to a beastly exercise in ethnocentrism that demanded the invention of new terms for horror, Genocide, and new universalistic frameworks for consecrating the dignity of the individual, the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. This suggests that the lack of resolution of the conflict in the Middle East should not be blamed on AIPAC, per se, or on some sinister and unethical Israeli Lobby. These groups are just playing the game of liberal politics better than others. Instead it should be blamed on a local conflict that prevents Americans from having a reasonable conversation about anti-Semitism in  our own past. What that conversation will entail remains to be seen, but as many do not realize, it is occasionally easier to pay reparations that to face up to responsibility. This is why you will have to travel to Israel to have an open conversation about prospects for peace there. In D.C., the conflict is too hot to handle.

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