Jimmy Carter’s timing is dorky, as always. The same sanctimonious ineptitude that made him the least successful president in US history prompted him to wager the remains of his reputation on advocacy for the Palestinians, precisely when the Palestinians have shown themselves to be their own worst enemies. Carter’s obsession with justice in Palestine has the same source as George W. Bush’s obsession with democracy in Iraq: horror in the face of the alternative has overwhelmed their better judgment.

Horror is the ultimate weapon of the Muslim world against the West, I long have argued. [1] Traditional society is crumbling, and with it identities of peoples who comprise a good one-third of the world’s population. Many rather would perish than give themselves over to a world that offers them neither hope nor consolation. Suicide bombing is the least expression of their despair, which impels them toward perpetual war. If entire peoples are bent on self-destruction, no outside agency can prevent it. But the destruction of whole peoples overwhelms the Western mind.

Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness gave us the archetype for fatal abhorrence: the degenerate Belgian colonial official Kurtz, who dies muttering, “The horror! The horror!” T. S. Eliot referred to Kurtz’ horrible end in the epigraph to his poem “The Hollow Men,” which concludes with the unpleasant thought: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” The difference between Bush and Carter is that Bush is horrified by the prospective fate of the Iraqis, whereas Carter is horrified by his own history. Bear with me, and I will try to make this clear.

Some of Carter’s Jewish associates have broken with him loudly over his new book, Peace Not Apartheid, observing that it is unfair to Israelis. Carter, though, is more consistent than the Jewish liberals who now reject him. What is happening to the Palestinians is horrifying, by which I mean not simply unpleasant, but subversive of identity, in the sense of Sigmund Freud’s das Unheimliche. It is not nearly as horrifying as what will happen next, however. Carter could not bring himself to confront Soviet aggression during the 1970s for the same reason that he cannot abide the predicament of the Palestinians. As he looked down the river to the end of the journey, the former president muttered, “The horror! The horror!” By deluding himself that the Palestinian predicament is something else than it really is, Carter attempts to keep the horror away.

It is easy to dismiss Carter as the most egregious dork in US politics. He nearly lost the Cold War, and nearly destroyed the US economy. By the most objective measurement of failure, namely margin of loss in a failed bid for re-election, Carter stands at the absolute bottom of the list of all US presidents. In 1980 he lost to Ronald Reagan with 49 electoral votes to Reagan’s 489. The next-worst performer, Herbert Hoover, had a stronger showing against Franklin D Roosevelt during the depths of the Great Depression in 1932 (49 electoral votes to FDR’s 472).

John Lewis Gaddis summarizes the Carter administration as follows:

Americans seemed mired in endless arguments with themselves, first over the Vietnam War, then Watergate, then, during Carter’s presidency, over charges that he had failed to protect important allies like the Shah of Iran … The low point came in November of [1979] when Iranians invaded the United States embassy in Tehran, taking several dozen diplomats and military guards hostage. This humiliation, closely followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a few weeks later, made it seem as though Washington was on the defensive everywhere, and Moscow was on a roll. [2]

After Iran let the diplomats go, the provincial peanut farmer who stumbled into the presidency flew to the US air force base in Germany to meet them. He asked the Central Intelligence Agency psychiatrists who were debriefing the hostages, “Didn’t the Iranians know what they were doing was wrong?” Call it the heart of dorkiness: Carter was so horrified by the Iranians’ capacity for evil that he could not absorb the information, even when it grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and threw him out of the White House.

Where the Palestinians are concerned, Carter keens the same trope. It is repulsive to think that a people of several millions, honeycombed with representatives of international organizations, the virtual stepchild of the United Nations, appears doomed to reduce its national fever by letting blood. The 700,000 refugees of 1948, hothoused by the UN relief agencies, prevented from emigrating by other Arab regimes, have turned into a people, but a test-tube nation incapable of independent national life: four destitute millions of third-generation refugees in the small and barren territories of Gaza, Judea and Samaria, which cannot support a fraction of that number.

The project of a Palestinian economy based on tourism and light manufacturing is a delusion in the globalized economy of Chinese-dominated trade in manufactures. The subsistence-farming fellahin should have left their land for economic reasons, like the Okies during the 1920s and 1930s, and dispersed into cities, like a hundred other rural populations of the so-called developing world. Kept hostage for political reasons, they cannot stay, and they cannot leave. They have chosen instead to fight, and if need be to die.

The Palestinians cannot hope to earn their keep in peacetime; their only hope is to keep the region in perpetual tension, the better to blackmail the West and the Arab Persian Gulf states for subsidies. Voting for Hamas, in other words, was a rational choice on strictly economic grounds. Economics was an afterthought, though. Without a viable alternative, the Palestinians might as well choose the leadership that best flatters their national feeling. Now this balancing act has broken down, largely because Iran has disrupted the fragile equilibrium among Palestinian factions. By turning to Tehran for funding, Hamas has made itself an outlaw, and the West as well as Saudi Arabia has no alternative but to support violent means to reduce a democratically chosen majority party.

The horror of the facts on the ground is one thing, and Jimmy Carter’s response to them is quite another. The former president is hard to read without taking into account the southern US context. A partial explanation for his see-and-hear-no-evil view of the world can be found in southern guilt over the maltreatment of blacks. Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, heard his first briefing on the Middle East in 1977 and offered, “I get it: the Palestinians are the niggers.”

Jimmy Carter knows better than that: the Palestinians are not in the position of southern American blacks, but rather of southern American whites, the exemplar of a self-exterminating people in the modern period. That is why Carter identifies with them. Apart from modern Palestine, there are very few cases in modern history in which a militant population showed its willingness to fight to the death. The US south sacrificed two-fifths of its military-age men during the Civil War of 1861-65, a casualty rate matched only by Serbia during World War I. Southern blacks, by contrast, were pacific, Christian, and long-suffering in their hopes for eventual deliverance.

The Palestinians are not an oppressed people, but rather the irreconcilable remnants of a once-victorious but now defeated empire, living in an irredentist dream world in which a new Salahuddin will drive the new Crusaders into the sea. Pour a few bourbons into the average white citizen of the US state of Georgia, and the same irredentist fantasy will bubble up: “The south shall rise again!”

As I argued in another location, the poor whites of the US south fought for a dream of an empire in which they, too, would have land and slaves. [3] The Scottish and Irish poor of the Confederacy saw themselves as an oppressed people fighting for their rights against Anglo-Saxon oppression. Their battle flag displayed the Scots’ Cross of St Andrew. In defeat, they did not even have the consolation of fighters for a lost but noble cause, only the self-reproach of the frustrated freebooter who got what he deserved.

White southerners who dwell on the subject of forgiveness and reconciliation can evince a unique sort of self-serving hypocrisy. They cannot come to terms with the evil of the ancestors whom they portray as gallant, aristocratic warriors. It is not the descendants of African slaves whom they pity as an oppressed class, but rather themselves.

Think of Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings explaining to Samwise why he cannot give up hope for Gollum’s redemption from the curse of Sauron’s ring, because that would weaken Frodo’s hope for his own redemption. This form of obsessive self-pity produces the unctuous forms of expression that make it so painful to listen to a Jimmy Carter or a Bill Clinton talk about political morality, with a lip-sucking, voice-throbbing, eye-tearing, fixed-staring, self-pitying, and downright creepy form of bathos that is painful to watch. The difference, of course, is that Bill Clinton is an utter hypocrite, while Jimmy Carter is quite sincere – which makes him all the more nauseating.

It is easy to ridicule the fixation of white US southerners. But it is the Americans of the north who embraced the legend of the gallant south and the Lost Cause, in the form of travesties like Gone With the Wind, with its cloying faux aristocratic masquerade of the brutal world of the slave plantation. Americans invented the war of extermination in the modern world – the total war that only can be won killing so many of the enemy that not enough young men are left to be put into the line. The US south chafes in anger and shame at its defeat, and the north recoils in horror from its own victory. Americans, in their amnesia and denial, blot out the idea that other peoples also must fight until they have exterminated the recalcitrant among their own populations.

The Palestinian and Iraqi civil wars, in the deepest sense of the term, are the true American solution, that is, the solution consonant with America’s actual history. It took exactly 100 years between the end of the Civil War and the Voting Rights Act of 1865 for one-man, one-vote democracy to arrive in the US south. The Middle East, in the time-honored expression, has not begun to fight. More killing, please!

1. Horror and humiliation in Fallujah, April 27, 2004.
2. The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis (Penguin: New York 2005), p 212.
3. Happy birthday, Abe … pass the blood, February 10, 2004.



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