One of the most important political principles is that history is not deterministic in any sense. It is, rather, a genealogy of human choices. It is shaped by agency, intentionality and decisions that are both individual and collective.
Almost all of the most insidious contemporary political mindsets reject this. Instead they invoke some kind of determinism or historical teleology—the will of God, the hidden hand of the market, biological determinism regarding human beings or their habitat, Malthusian prognostications about population growth. These are all common variants of the theme. And all of them are totally and dangerously mistaken.
I had the pleasure of debating the Iranian-American author Reza Aslan last week at the University of California, Los Angeles regarding the future for Israel and the Palestinians. It was extremely useful in reminding me of the importance of avoiding determinism and the ethical and political imperative to reassert the primacy of human agency in shaping history and, particularly, the future.
We agreed on some key points regarding the diagnosis of the Israeli-Palestinian syndrome but differed completely on the prognosis and the prescription.
We agreed that there was much blame to go around for the fact that peace has not yet been achieved. We both noted the historically corrupt and frequently incompetent Palestinian leadership, the extremist mentality of Hamas and, above all, the ongoing Israeli settlement project as key factors in the absence of peace. But that was more or less where agreement ended.
In the second part of his diagnosis, Aslan categorically asserted that Palestinian statehood was absolutely “impossible” because of demographic and infrastructural changes enforced by the occupation. His prognosis was that a prolonged period of bloodshed, “apartheid and ethnic cleansing” is totally unavoidable. Eventually, he said, “international mediation” would enforce his prescription: a “loose confederation” akin to the Bosnian arrangement. All of this, he insisted, was “inevitable,” with an absolute certainty worthy of Nostradamus himself.
Aslan readily agreed this was not a desirable outcome and frankly conceded the extraordinary amount of violence that would be required to produce it. Perhaps unfairly, I thought I detected in him an inexplicable nonchalance about the nightmarish picture of the future, in the style of Hieronymus Bosch, that he was painting as “inevitable.”
There is, as I noted, nothing “inevitable” in the realm of the political. Outcomes are produced by political, economic, military and social forces. But all of these are expressions of human will and agency, both collective and individual. The word “impossible” is, potentially, a legitimate political category if one can convincingly demonstrate that the forces that produce outcomes, based on their own interests, cannot plausibly yield a given result. But the word “inevitable” is almost never a legitimate political category, most importantly because human agency is always the most important factor, and there are countless unforeseeable imponderables and contingencies.
In our debate, I continued to insist that a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is indeed still possible, mostly because a majority on both sides want it and because there is a huge body of international opinion and law that requires it. I’ve always unhappily accepted that a continuation of the status quo is more likely for the foreseeable future. Aslan’s dystopian vision of a future characterized by increasingly bloody conflicts, “apartheid and ethnic cleansing” is indeed a possibility. But I see no reason to conclude that it will “inevitably” either occur or, less still, yield the outcome he predicts with such astounding confidence—especially not if “ethnic cleansing” is a factor.
Apart from asserting that while a limited number of outcomes can be reasonably defined as “impossible” for the foreseeable future, I argued that almost nothing is “inevitable.” Human beings are, in fact, not only able to decide their future, but that’s exactly what they always have done and will do, barring unforeseeable natural disasters that are rare and usually manageable.
What I was defending was a “secular” perspective on history and politics, in the way its most important contemporary champion, Edward Said, defined it. It’s a position that emphasizes human agency, intentionality and decisions, and rejects every possible form of determinism, not just religious superstition.
I told Aslan that even if I believed he were right about the likely prognosis of bloodshed, “apartheid and ethnic cleansing,” to use his precise words, I would be proud with all the conviction and passion I could muster to fight against this contingency—this set of choices—with every fiber of my being.
Precisely because Aslan’s radical dystopian vision is actually plausible, everyone who does not work against it will be complicit in the horrors he predicts. But because they will be the consequences of human choices, they are by no means inevitable. We have the ability and profound moral obligation to choose differently.