The Pressure on the Times–Very Tolstoyan

Steven Erlanger wrote a great piece for the Times last week about a study by Peace Now showing the staggering percentage of stolen Arab land being built upon by Israelis (facts on the ground!). The story ran off the front page. The Times should be congratulated for running it and running it so prominently.

The Times is under a ton of pressure. Bloggers can say just about anything they want without that much consequence (though yes, talking about Palestine is what they call a CLM at Goldman Sachs: “career limiting move;” you won’t get a lot of mainstream assignments). But the Times gets a thousand angry letters on a story like Erlanger’s; and then people organize against the Times. It isn’t what you see that matters, it’s the back channel: Influential friends call Times editors. I know this because an editor friend once complained to me how little freedom the Times had.

If you want a glimpse of that pressure, read Steve Erlanger’s letter to Partners for Peace (responding to Michael Brown) a year or so back, defending a piece. It includes such gems as “I’m not an international lawyer, I’m glad to say, but I should have broadened the point…” Reading between the lines, I think Erlanger is saying, If you only understood how much I’m trying to do to get the word out on your side; you should see how much flak I get from the other side. Pressure. Speaking for myself, if I had his job, I think I’d throw myself in the Dead Sea.

The pressure on the Times supports Tolstoy’s theory of history. In War and Peace, Tolstoy said that the more power you got, the less choice you got about what you were going to do. All the forces of history descended on you as soon as you had power to make real choices. Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia in 1812 was one of the great disasters of history, and any moron knew it was a disaster—but how much actual freedom did Napoleon have? The pressures forcing him in were monumental. I think it’s the same point Orwell makes in Shooting an Elephant. He doesn’t want to kill the elephant, it is wrong and pointless to shoot the elephant, but as a colonial official, he’s under tremendous pressure from the population and from the British Empire to represent it. He kills the elephant.

I’d extend the lesson to two American situations. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, and Harry Truman’s decision to recognize the Israeli state in 1948.

I don’t think we’ll ever know just why George Bush made the most calamitous decision a president has ever made. I assume there was a lot of pressure though, it wasn’t a free and easy decision. He was surrounded by ideologues, notably Cheney and Rumsfeld, who had been pushing this endlessly. He gave in. The administrative lesson of the Bush presidency seems to be, Be careful of who you listen to. He’s learned it: today all the neoconservatives are exiled to beyond shouting distance. (You can tell because they’re all shouting.)

Truman’s decision to recognize Israel went against his own best instincts (and now Richard Cohen in the Washington Post says bravely that the idea was well-intentioned but “a mistake.”). Truman was for a binational state. The Anglo-American Inquiry commission had seconded this view, share the land. But he came under tremendous pressure to support partition, and then when Israel declared itself a state, to recognize it. What is pressure? Chaim Weizmann was visiting him at the White House. Eddie Jacobson, his old haberdashery partner, was coming in from Kansas City to talk about a Jewish homeland. His own administration had three or four key Jewish aides in it who were in touch with the Zionist movement. And they were constantly learning the latest actions of the State Department and running circles around them. The Zionist lobby was camped in D.C. Meanwhile, Truman was being threatened that if he didn’t recognize Israel, he would lose the election the following November because of the Jewish vote in New York and Pennsylvania, and also Jewish money. (None of this is an antisemitic canard, by the way; it is all from former New York Times reporter Peter Grose’s great book, Israel in the American Mind). Truman had little choice at all. His presidential papers are filled with complaints about Zionist pressure tactics. Because, pressure works.

Erlanger has little choice either. He and the Times showed boldness last week. Let’s applaud them—and now turn up the pressure.