Victor Davis Hanson, Helen Thomas, and the Value of Civil Disagreement

I wish it were possible for me to write about difficult political issues without hearing in my head the exhausted groans of so many, many people I know who react to any type of political discussion the way they’d react to a pinprick. I have many political beliefs — I proudly call myself a pacifist, a libertarian, a moderate progressive — but perhaps my most deeply-held political belief is this: civil debate is always a good thing. Talking about politics is not a waste of time, and it doesn’t have to devolve into the familiar noise of, as songwriter Stephen Stills once so aptly put it, “hooray for our side”.

Not long ago a friend who writes for Litkicks asked me what kind of articles I’d like to see in the future. I said that I’d like more topical relevance, more political/social engagement (I said this partly because I knew this writer was highly knowledgeable in this area). But her response showed that I’d tripped some kind of trigger by mentioning the word “political”. She wrote:

I’m not a big “espouse the party ideals” kind of person.

I was very surprised by this reaction. I wrote back that I already knew this, and that this was why I’d thought her contributions might be valuable. But her response points to a popular general perception that modern political writing is equivalent to party-line hackwork. This is really a shocking and disappointing development. Of course an article that follows a party line is useless, and of course I wouldn’t want to run an article like that on Litkicks. To be useful, a political article must straddle a fence. It must address both sides of a difficult issue, and reach for a synthesis that might persuade some readers to change the way they think. That’s the whole point of political writing, isn’t it? But I’m afraid it’s become a habit for readers to automatically dismiss political debate as pointless self-congratulation. This leaves many people like me, who’d like to sincerely debate controversial and important topics and learn from the experience, with nobody to play with.

I want to help bring civil disagreement back into respectability. Indeed, I don’t think our society can be healthy without it.

In that spirit, here are a couple of topical things on my mind:

1. I recently heard conservative critic and military historian Victor Davis Hanson’s talk about his new book The Father Of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. Hanson uses a few examples from history to support his belief that only military strength and preemptive deterrence can persuade evil regimes to back down. This is a familiar and popular belief (it was certainly at the core of the “Bush doctrine“) and the most familiar example, which Hanson brought up here, is British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938. A show of strength in 1938, Hanson said, would have prevented the horrors of World War II.

I’d like to challenge the basic principle behind this widely-touted example, and I wish I could get Victor Davis Hanson’s attention so as to hear his response to my challenge. The first problem with military strength as the basis of preemptive deterrence is that “evil” nations can use it as well as “good” ones. For instance, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, they believed they had sufficient strength to persuade the United States of America to back away from what they saw as a series of increasingly aggressive and unjust infiltrations into “their” Pacific Ocean sphere. They believed they were acting boldly and preemptively in their show of strength (they also had reason to believe the USA would back down, since they’d had success with a similar preemptive attack against Russia during the Russo-Japanese War, which they won in 1905).

Another problem with military strength as the basis of deterrence is that the nation that commits to this show of strength must go “all in” behind it. Japan in World War II is one example of this, and another is Austria-Hungary in 1914. Austria-Hungary was then a relatively progressive and humane multi-national European empire, and they chose to respond to Serbian provocations with a show of strength that would kick off the war we now know of as World War I.

We know how well that worked out for Austria-Hungary, and for all of Europe. We also know that, despite the popular misconception that the primary cause of World War II was the appeasement at Munich, the primary cause of World War II was actually World War I. We know how well that worked out for Europe too.

I respect Victor Davis Hanson’s work, but I think he’s dead wrong about this basic lesson of military history. I doubt I’ll ever hear his response, but I’d also like to hear anybody else’s response on this topic. I’ve had enough of the “lesson of Munich” and I think it’s time to look at some other examples of the real costs and consequences of preemptive military action.

2. I also respect the long and exciting career of Helen Thomas, and I’m sickened by the way her sad exit went down. I consider myself a moderate on Israel vs. Palestine — I want peace, I want Israel to make major concessions in the pursuit of peace, and I can’t stand the widespread idea that Jewish identity or the tragedies of recent Jewish history in Europe have anything to do with Israel’s right to exist.

I don’t tend to feel offended when Israel is criticized, but I was offended — to a rare degree — by Helen Thomas’s suggestion that Jews should leave Israel. If there’s any basic principle of human citizenship, it ought to be this: we all have a right to live in the land where we were born, where we grew up, where our families live. The Jews established a nation in Israel in 1948. Whether or not this was wrong in 1948 — many believe it was wrong, and many others don’t — I think we should all be able to agree that we cannot fix things in 2010 that happened in 1948. To suggest that any ethnic group ought to be forced off the land where they have lived for sixty years is, really, beyond moral comprehension.

The fact that Helen Thomas offended many people, however, does not mean that her journalistic career ought to end. It’d be much better if we could use this occasion to kick off more discussion. I hate the way this went down, and I think it’s is a perfect example of what I mean when I say that our society needs to improve its capability for civil debate and civil disagreement. We need to stop slamming the doors on those we disagree with. In the end, Helen Thomas’s much-publicized resignation now only seems to support the idea (already widely believed around the world) that American journalists are not free to criticize Israel. I pray for better and more productive public dialogue in the future.

3. Okay, now how about I try to find something positive or constructive to write? Litkicks contributor Garrett Kenyon is involved with Children International, a non-profit organization whose name speaks for itself. He recently sent me a heartfelt note about some work his organization is doing to help a sponsored youth in Guatemala City. Here’s what Garrett says:

César is a poor kid in Guatemala who studied hard in hopes of eventually rising out of the barrio. But he had to drop out of school when his grandmother, Elsa, could no longer bring in enough $$ for food. Elsa was also a student with a bright future long ago. Then she lost her leg in a tragic accident, a handicap that sentenced her to life of depending on the kindness of strangers to survive. When César quit school to work, he’d hoped it was temporary. Then, amazingly, he too was in an accident that left him with one leg. Now he’s missed a lot of school and his chances of a getting a scholarship or even a steady job, are virtually nothing. César’s story is so sad and ironic that my colleague in Guatemala, Javier, and I decided to tell his story. Children International set up a fund so readers could help him. So far, things have gone well. Now César has the prosthetic leg he needed. We purchased equipment Elsa needed to start a home business so she can be there for César. Additional funds will go to any further medical needs, to help Elsa’s business, and into a fund for César’s education. CI wants to give César back the dreams he lost in that accident. Elsa says he’s no longer the smiling, happy kid he once was. He feels like he’s lost everything, and we want to help him get his smile back. The fund for César closes tomorrow, but your readers still have a chance to help.

Garrett tells me their appeal has already generated many contributions, but they’ve fallen just short of the amount they need. Here’s how you can learn more and help. Please do, if you can — thanks.

15 Responses

  1. I think Helen Thomas was way
    I think Helen Thomas was way out of line in her remarks against the country of Israel and the Jews. The idea that the Jews should leave their country of more than sixty years is just ridiculous.

    Much of the land was purchased outright from the arabs. Many of the Jews have been in the Holy Land since the 1880s. In addition, many of the Jews kept to themselves throughout the years of the Ottoman Empire and have been in what is now Israel since the Byzantine Era and even after the burning of the temple during the tale-end of Roman times for two thousand years.

    Only a small portion was conquered by Israel during the Six-Day War, etc. The two state solution is not working…I think the “Palestinians” should go back to Jordan and Egypt if they don’t want to live in Israel.

  2. But, Steve, isn’t it just as
    But, Steve, isn’t it just as wrong for you to suggest that the Israeli Palestinians should leave the Holy Lands as it is for Helen Thomas to suggest that the Israeli Jews should do so?

    My suggestion is that everybody who wants to stay there should stay there, cut the crap, and learn to get along.

  3. Levi — Those three
    Levi — Those three paragraphs of yours on l’affaire Helen Thomas are probably the smartest and most reasonable that I’ve yet read on the subject. Agree with every word: She’s totally wrong, but the way she’s been treated for being wrong is scandalously stupid.

  4. First, I have to agree with
    First, I have to agree with you that the US needs to shed its fear of civil debate. When I’ve traveled to other countries I have been refreshed at the willingness of the citizens of those countries to openly discuss political matters. The knee-jerk reactions of many Americans, in my opinion, only provides escape from the civic and social responsibility that each citizen would have to assume if we were to become a better nation.

    Second, I would have to mildly disagree with you about the need for more fence-straddling. In fact, I think that fence-straddling–a sort of fetishizing of “moderate” positions–is widespread and peculiarly American phenomenon that only reflects our anxiety about civil disagreement. Many irresponsible actions and policies are supported under the guise of being ‘moderate’. Americans should instead become less squeamish about taking controversial stands (even when they are not marketing their own books).

    Lastly, I truly respect your defense of Helen Thomas because I think that she has been a rare bright spot in the sullied enterprise known as the media, but I must heartily disagree with this statement: “we all have a right to live in the land where we were born, where we grew up, where our families live.” This exemplifies just the sort of moderate-sounding position that is, in the larger scheme, totally inadequate to address what it seeks to address. I hate to make analogies but the end of colonial occupation in Africa and the Carribbean Islands most fundamentally meant that settler families–by definition, those who were born and grew up there–had to leave the land, outright and absolutely. What easier way to let oneself off the hook, morally speaking, than by saying “well, I’m here now so I might as well stay”. My point is not that the Israeli’s should up and leave, it is only that the issue is not resolved by that weak proposition that you offered.

  5. Yes, it’s me again.

    Yes, it’s me again.

    Agree with your thoughts on Thomas’ statements, disagree that the resulting furor and her resignation somehow undermine civil debate or disagreement. Her right to freedom of speech in no way guarantees that her employer must keep her on the payroll when she reveals herself to be someone who can no longer be respected by her peers or her sources.

    And, clearly, I disagree with Milton. Scandalously stupid? No.

    It is childish to insist on rules guaranteeing that no statement, however hateful or intellectually vapid, should result in no pain or discomfort for the speaker.

    Finally, Thomas, now retired at almost 90, is perfectly free to continue speaking, blogging, writing, lobbying about this issue and can gather as many acolytes as she can. And her opponents should be free to refute, vilify, isolate, and discredit her.

    Re Hanson, the Publisher’s Weekly review says, “Hanson’s introductory generalization that war is a human enterprise that seems inseparable from the human condition.” You may disagree, and he may be wrong, but the evidence is, unfortunately, overwhelming.

  6. Levi, I’m still mulling over
    Levi, I’m still mulling over your statement a few days ago that war is never a good option. I’m starting to think the idea makes a lot of sense. They might call you a dreamer, but you’re not the only one.

  7. Thanks for the responses.
    Thanks for the responses. Some responses back:

    John Robinson, I don’t know if we actually differ on the question of “fence-straddling”. I was not saying, and certainly don’t think, that political arguments need to be wishy-washy. I am saying that a good political argument needs to acknowledge the valid points on both sides, so as to anchor itself firmly on solid ground before making a strong case for one side or another. The fence-straddling I’m suggesting should be the foundation of the argument, NOT the conclusion or the purpose of the argument. I’ve tried to do this every time I’ve written about controversial issues myself — I hope this helps to explain what I mean.

    Also, John, thanks for pointing out that there is a valid stance against my proposition that everyone ought to be able to live in the land where they were born. I agree that there have been many times in history when populations were forced to leave lands that they had colonized — the massive withdrawal of German populations from all of Eastern Europe after World War II might be the most dramatic example of this. On the other hand, many of these German colonizers had only recently settled in the countries they were then forced to leave. Once a new generation is born, I think it’s a different story. The Europeans did not leave South Africa after the end of Apartheid — South Africa was the only home they had. But, I do appreciate you pointing out that the principle I stated might not be as universally accepted as I think it should be.

    Mark (and Bill) — well, the question of whether or not war is a permanent condition of human existence is, to me, the most important question of our time. Victor Davis Hanson thinks it is, and apparently Mark agrees. I think a majority of people in the world — at least people that I know — also agree. I do not agree, and I feel very strongly about this. I believe that war is a sickness, and I think we citizens of the world are free to cure ourselves of this sickness.

    Here’s an interesting question: why do the people of France and Germany no longer want to kill each other? They carry an incredible history of rabid violent mutual hatred, dating back centuries, culminating in the 150 year period from the Napoleonic wars to the Franco Prussian War to World War I and World War II. And then … the vast, rabid hatred just stopped. Why? How was a sudden outbreak of peace possible? I believe this is an example of populations suffering enough under the sickness of war that they finally cure themselves of the sickness. I’m waiting for the rest of the planet to get a clue and follow France and Germany’s lead.

  8. Hi Levi,
    Europe after WWII

    Hi Levi,

    Europe after WWII was a different Europe than before: it was no longer a world power. European states became vassal states of the Soviet Union and U.S. War was delegated out. They had lost the independence to make war.

    But I’m not really interested in debating the “is war inherent?” question because while it is a fascinating question it is not fruitful to debate. No one can be convinced one way or the other and no change can be effected by argument. We have no choice but to see what happens.

    More interesting to me is the odious assertion by John Robinson that colonizers must leave the land where they were born. You were right to point out that this didn’t happen in South Africa and there is no reason it needs to happen. Without realizing it John is arguing for politically correct ethnic cleansing. And to take it out of the hypothetical, I years ago heard a talk by an Israeli author (don’t remember who) who asked, about the then seemingly close peace agreement with the Palestinians, why all the Jews should have to leave the West Bank? Why couldn’t Jews who wished to remain and become citizens of a Palestinian state do so? Why must Palestine be Judenrein? Pre-1967 Israel includes more than 1 million Arabs. The Muslim call to prayer that so disturbs some Europeans can be heard daily in Jaffa, where a mosque operates across the street from a ritzy hotel. I was there and heard it, and my astonishment confused my Israeli relatives. As should be clear by now, an insistence on complete ethnic homogeneity — beyond what is required for a nation to achieve self-determination (which is the powerful Romantic idea that kicked off this whole thing in the late 18th century) — is not a sign of a healthy society.

    Finally, Ah, politics! It gobbles up everything! I was a literature guy, not a politics guy. I’ve spent more than 20 years in the Bay Area resisting the general urge to make everything political. The benefit of a free society is to have room for non-political life. The life of the mind and what used to be called the soul.

  9. Well, Mark, I agree with you
    Well, Mark, I agree with you (as I’d already said) about any form of ethnic cleansing.

    Also, I don’t know why it hasn’t been mentioned more often in response to Helen Thomas that a large percentage of the Jews in Israel came there not from Germany and Poland but from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Morocco, Egypt and Helen Thomas’s own Lebanon. If the Jews “went back”, these are the countries they’d be returning to.

    But, Mark, agreements aside, I do wish you’d have addressed my point about France and Germany suddenly discovering the value of peace, which proves that it is possible for warlike societies to cure themselves of the condition. There are many other examples in history. Did you know that Sweden was once a major military power? Today, the idea of Sweden as a military power would only be mentioned as a joke. Well, the joke’s on us. They seem to be doing fine.

    Finally, Mark, I couldn’t disagree more with you when you say that “no change is affected by argument”. What a strange vision of political reality that idea must lead to. Do you know much about Gandhi, or Martin Luther King?

  10. Levi, c’mon. I was making a
    Levi, c’mon. I was making a distinction between questions that can be advanced by argument and those that can’t. In a debate entitled, “Resolved: Is War Inherent in Human Nature?” one side will win and one will lose. But it doesn’t matter. It either is or is not. That is not the same question as, “Did Sweden change, or did France, Germany?” Of course, they have changed. I know Sweden was once a major power, what you call warlike. Now it isn’t a power. That seems to me the core of the change, not whether something has happened to the human soul in Sweden to make it more pacific. Power changes hands. The powerless are less likely to want or make war, for obvious reasons. Same for France and Germany (let’s not forget that Germany was divided for half a century after WWII). Have those countries undergone road to Damascus conversion experiences to pacifism? I really doubt it. Are they now largely demilitarized countries greatly outmatched by the powers of the U.S, China, and Russia? Clearly. We’re in a Pax Britannica-type situation in the world now, and relatively at peace (believe it or not). When great powers crumble, a lot is at stake and formerly minor players take their chances to get what they want, and that brings war. That, in a nutshell, was WWI and WWII: The end of Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and British empires and the rise of American and Soviet ones. Then the Soviet collapsed and you had fighting in the new –stan countries. I hope this relative stability lasts a long time, because I have little hope for the appearance of a new enlightened soul of mankind.

  11. “Europe after WWII was a
    “Europe after WWII was a different Europe than before: it was no longer a world power.”

    It’s a good point that you make there, and I would definitely agree that nations who are world powers (or who want to be world powers, or who are disproportionately affected by the actions of world powers) are more likely to make war.

    But then on the other hand, France and Germany aren’t exactly banana republics either, and both eventually broke free of Soviet/American constraints and became completely free, autonomous nations. They both have armies, and they could easily declare war on one another whenever they like. And yet instead of doing that, they actually voluntarily entered into an unprecedented peacetime treaty wherein their citizens can pass freely from one country to the other, and they even use the same currency. That’s extraordinary. Imagine the same thing happening between Iran and Iraq, or India and Pakistan. I mean, why not? That would have seemed equally unlikely just a couple generations ago for France and Germany. Hell, these days the communist Vietnamese are completely comfortable with Americans and infatuated with American culture, and there are still people there who survived Mai Lai.

    And it’s not like the French and the Germans have suddenly decided that they’re brothers — should France somehow come up against Germany in the World Cup (and it could easily happen in the quarter-finals, btw), fans will be brawling on the streets, and there will likely be blood on the pitch — they’ve just decided that they’re not interested in making war on one another any more. There’s a good point to be made there, too.

  12. “They both have armies, and
    “They both have armies, and they could easily declare war on one another whenever they like.”

    No they really don’t have armies. Until 1990, E. Germany was under total control of the USSR and W. Germany under NATO. Since reunification, Germany’s military was limited to a tiny size by treaty

    And again, I’m not saying that Europe hasn’t changed drastically. Obviously, it has. But the question is, does this speak to a fundamental change in human nature there, or a change in political conditions that makes war undesirable? I say the latter, you say the former.

    Let’s call the whole thing off.

  13. why do the people of France
    why do the people of France and Germany no longer want to kill each other? … … the vast, rabid hatred just stopped. Why? How was a sudden outbreak of peace possible?

    A thing called WWII.

    War stopped it. War was the answer. The sudden outbreak of peace was completely forced on them.

    If we ever forget that it will happen again.

    Germans all ready are starting to say things like Helen Thomas.

    How soon we forget.


    I’d suggest write Victor Hansen. He seems a very nice person. He’d probably write you back.

    War, uh, what is it good for?

    Absolutely nothing but saving the lives of millions of innocents and ushering in generations of peace and prosperity

  14. Helen Thomas, in saying that
    Helen Thomas, in saying that Jews should go back to their home, is referring to the FACT that the vast majority of Jews and their ancestors are NOT indigenous to the Palestine Region and are not Semitic. The ancestors of the majority of today’s Jews are from the Caucasus region of Southeastern Europe as evidenced, in part, by their blond hair, blue eyes and lack of kinky dark hair and dark skin.
    The Jews from the Caucasus region converted to Judaism (as it was called then) around 900 AD and thus cannot lay claim to whatever was promised to Moses by God in terms of an Israeli state. Stating that the Jews have been in what is now Israel for 2000 years is a lie covered up and distorted by the Jewish controlled media.

    The statement that “Much of the land was purchased outright from the Arabs” is a half truth, thus a lie. Much such land was purchased but hardly at market-price. MOST was taken (stolen) OUTRIGHT with a variety of criminal schemes (by the Israeli government and their private cohorts) that continues today.

    My question to you Steve, is, where do you get your ideas and “facts”?

    BTW, my ancestors on my mother’s side are Shepardic Jews


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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!