Many of us have been excited by the accounts by pseudonymous F.E. Felson on this site, describing the power of the Israel lobby in New Jersey local politics and Congress. Felson is an accomplished journalist who woke up to this issue slowly, and on his own. That excites me. I regard Felson as an American Everyman. I wrote to him recently: You weren't steeped in this, you came to it by your own lights, now you're appalled. I am hopeful that others will make this journey. How do we achieve that?
Actually, my own experience makes me something of a pessimist. Yeah, I eventually woke up about this stuff, but what I hoped people would realize in my essay was how typical I was before I started doing my homework -- how easy, effortless and NATURAL it is to be only vaguely aware of the Middle East and to filter out news related to it.
I grew up with culturally liberal parents (well, at least my mother) in a culturally liberal town with excellent public schools; I went to a reputable university; I was politically knowledgeable (on domestic politics); I talked about current events and politics with my friends; I have covered politics as a journalist. And through all of this, nothing ever intruded on my indifference to the Middle East.
Some of the commenters on my essay were appalled (and angry) when I described this, especially because of my occupation. I get why they would be, but they're missing the point: I finally addressed my ignorance, but how many more like me are still out there?
My pessimism is influenced by something I noticed covering politics: When a low-profile candidate lands a story on page A7 of a newspaper, his/her campaign always gets excited -- it's a coup, people are taking notice, we're on the move! But they're the only ones who noticed. It's page A7! It's a newspaper! The electorate is indifferent to politics; no average voter is reading the page A7 story. To shake up mass opinion, the news has to be big, loud and persistent. I don't see any momentum in that direction for the Palestinian cause in the U.S.
Weiss rejoinder. Here's my hopeful chant:
Something's changed. I just feel it. You're a fairminded Everyman. There are more American Everymen now engaged by this. A few anyway. (Steve Walt and Duncan Kennedy being two examples) I didn't follow Lebanon 82 but I followed Lebanon 06 and my theory of history is It doesn't stay in one place. You cant do the same stupid thing twice. Iraq showed Americans you dont win occupations. That understanding played some role in 06/08 elections. Jewish identity changes are significant. In Lebanon '82 Begin said, We're going to Hitler's bunker (Arafat in Beirut). They still say that stuff, but it's 26 years later and my mom's generation might buy it but not my nephew.
Felson: I hear you, and I am tempted to feel the same way -- I'd certainly like to. I just don't see people putting the pieces together. To me, the biggest thing that stuck out about the politics of Iraq was this: In the summer of '08, when 70 percent of the country was convinced the war was a mistake and never should have been waged, the same polls showed that voters believed that McCain would handle Iraq better than Obama. It was a perfect example of how disengaged from news, information and history mass opinion is. The volume of news coverage had satisfied just about everyone that Iraq was dumb. But why? They didn't understand. And there was McCain, Mr. War Hero and Maverick -- God, wouldn't he be perfect to clean up that mess? I imagine the numbers shifted as the campaign progressed, and the economy ended up being the big issue in the end, but I think that's an instructive example -- the public had been listening to John McCain for 10 years and they still didn't understand anything about what he was saying (or doing in the Senate). I think that applies to the Israel-Palestine situation. People get that some serious shit just went down in Gaza and that civilians paid a price. But I don't think it's going to prompt them to put the pieces together any more than they did with Iraq and McCain.