Sunday, August 13, 2006

Hezbollah and the Drawbacks of Seeing in Technicolor

Sometimes I understand all too well the attraction of seeing the world in black and white. To the hard Right, life is simple. We are the good guys, anyone who opposes us is evil; therefore anything that advances our interests is good and no mercy need be shown to anyone who would interfere. To the hard Left, things are only slightly more complex. We are Great Satan. Our interests are therefore inherently evil and anyone who opposes us is, if not actually admirable, at least not all bad and therefore definitely the side to root for. The more fuzzy liberals do not see things so much in black and white, but do have a fairly standard formula to apply to conficts. Empathize with victims, root for the underdog, and be highly self-critical not, as with the hard Left, because you regard America as inately evil, but in hopes that if we do right, we can save the world.

But to those of us who see the world in Technicolor, things are far more complex and fraught with moral ambiguity. Victims deserve our empathy, but it takes more to deserve our applause. We regard as good guys only those who are genuinely good. And genuine good guys are all too rare.

Hezbollah is an excellent example. Hezbollah simply does not classify easily for one who believes in moral ambiguity. Hezabollah hold odious Islamic theocratic views, though speaking for a religious minority in more or less democratic country they do not try to force their views on non-Shiites. Hezbollah was trained by Iranian intelligence and supported the Syrian occupation force, yet they also have the strong support of the local Shiite population. They did an excellent job of providing social services for Shiites that no one else was able to provide and (as I understand it) their medical facilities and the like are open to members of all religions. They also maintained their power through relentless propaganda and partisan mobilization, a crypto-totalitarian enclave in a democracy. Hezbollah is a rigidly centralized, authoritarian organization, yet in a very real way it allows impoverished and marginalized Shiites a place at the table of power and a degree of control over their lives that they never had before. They offer honest administration amidst the corruption that is rampant in Lebanon, and also have a private army that threatens the fragile democracy. And finally, while Hezbollah fought as a legitimate resistance force against a hated foreign occupation, they also practice terrorism and maintain a constant, forever inflamed hatred of Israel as a unifying principle. So what is such an organization, good guy or bad guy?

And Hezbollah is not the only one. Throughout the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalists with vile ideologies and long-run goals are often also the best at providing social services and honest, uncorrupt officials. Hamas, too, became popular by a combination of anti-Isaeli militancy, social services, and anti-corruption, despite advocating a theocracy that almost no one supports. Even Muqtada al-Sadr and his Madhi Army provided security, trash collection and services to Badgad's poorest neighborhood, even as they terrorized unveiled women. (On the other hand, the more the Madhi Army becomes a death squad killing Sunnis for their religion, the easier it is to write Sadr off as a simple villain). Nor did this begin with Islamic fundamentalism. The roles played by such organizations now were once played by the Communist Party. And the crypto-Communist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela emulates his hero, Castro, taking genuinely idealistic measures to provide services to poor and marginalized people while also creating domestic spy network modeled after the one in Cuba.

And so it goes. While there are certainly people who deserve to be unequivocally condemned as evil (Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and al-Zarqawi, for instance), in many other cases things are simply not so clear cut. Moral ambiguity abounds in the world of technocolor. And sometimes the technocolor can strain one's eyesight and make the world of black and white look appealing. How I long, sometimes, for a straightforward good guy I can unambiguously root for.

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