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In San Francisco and in Palestine, It’s Time To Grow Up and Take Responsibility

From smashing Google Glasses to rejecting peace talks, failing to understand natural rights is leading to some very dark places

Liel Leibovitz
April 18, 2014
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry boards a plane while leaving Ben-Gurion Airport after a meeting with Israeli prime minister on April 1, 2014.(Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry boards a plane while leaving Ben-Gurion Airport after a meeting with Israeli prime minister on April 1, 2014.(Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this week in fog city, a young reporter was assaulted for wearing Google Glass. A woman ran up to him, grabbed the wearable computing device, shouted some slogans, and then smashed the gadget to the ground. The attack was the latest in a slew of Glass-triggered incidents, the device having come to represent the struggle between the Bay Area have-nots and the young, savvy, and affluent techies who, so goes the public outcry, have priced them out of the city. From targeting a Google executive’s home and demanding $3 billion to “create autonomous, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist communities throughout the Bay Area and Northern California” to staging rowdy protests against the designated buses that ferry employees from downtown San Francisco to the various Silicon Valley campuses where many of the newly gilded gentlefolk work, an anti-technology backlash is making the city’s streets unsafe for the young, the affluent, and the digitally savvy.

What’s behind these outbursts of malice? The glass-smashers and yard-invaders cry income inequality, arguing, like so many on the left these days, that America’s economic and moral woes can both be boiled down to the single fact that the gap between the nation’s wealthiest and the rest of us has increased dramatically in recent years.

There are many reasons why this cri de coeur is, at best, misguided, some of which were neatly captured in an unfairly maligned column by David Brooks. The real problem, as Brooks poignantly noted, wasn’t that a sliver of Americans were earning very big bucks; it was that too many Americans were sinking into poverty, pushed down the ladder by thorny socioeconomic issues, like lack of decent educational opportunities or teen pregnancy, that have little to do with the boom enjoyed by the few and the fortunate. Still, march into too many hallowed halls these days, from newsrooms to college classrooms, and you’ll hear little but chatter about the 1 percent. No wonder: Ideas—the real stuff that helps fix lives and create opportunities—are hard to come by and demanding to execute. Indignation is cheap and easy.

Imagine, for a moment, a different scenario. Imagine the Indignati approaching Google not with clenched fists but with useful suggestions, like offsetting the footprint of all those no-longer-affordable two-bedroom apartments in the Mission District by setting up local centers where normal folks can learn a bit of coding and improve their chances of survival in a rapidly shifting economy. To anyone interested in the actual lives of real people on planet Earth, this is a win-win situation, but to those who sanctify instead the politics of identity and class, such an arrangement is corrupt for further cementing the inherent imbalance of power between one group who controls all the means and another which has access to none.

What San Francisco teaches us, then, is that we have a choice. We can yowl that life’s unfair, that the capitalist order is unremitting, that those who have gained from the normal tribulations of economic innovation and growth are evil for having taken advantage of their good luck and great skills. Or we can assess the situation and prescribe concrete solutions, real paths toward redemption that focus first and foremost on getting as many people as possible to live fulfilling, prosperous, and meaningful lives. We can dwell on ethereal injustice, imagined or otherwise, or we can work to correct its afflictions. It’s as simple as that.

In the Bay Area, sadly, it more and more appears as if the Indignati have the upper hand. The same seems true of the Palestinian Authority as well. The purported reason for the Palestinians having walked away from the talks had to do with plans to further building in Gilo, a neighborhood of Jerusalem Israel had never put on the negotiation table and that would not exchange hands even if a treaty were signed this afternoon. That this bit of muddled-minded argument passed muster with John Kerry is remarkable, but even more remarkable is what the Palestinian refusal suggests about the prevalent worldview of the P.A.’s leadership. Having swerved away from the U.S.-sponsored talks by moving to join a smattering of international organizations hostile to Israel and adamant in his refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a recognition his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, granted freely and repeatedly—Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas comes off as one of those San Francisco fools who are all rage and no substance. Facing his own mighty foe, he clings to the position of righteous victimhood and demands what can hardly be interpreted as anything but the reversal of history; how else to interpret rhetoric that dreams of the return of Palestinian refugees to what would never be recognized as a Jewish homeland?

There are several ways to pick such logic apart, the easiest of which, of course, is merely pointing out the profound lack of responsibility demonstrated by any leader who chooses absolutist ideals over the welfare of his own people. But the fallacies in Abbas’ thinking run deeper, and to fully understand them another peek at San Francisco is instructive.

After having been jumped and vandalized, Kyle Russell, the young reporter who was the victim of the latest neo-luddite attack, wrote a piece in which, keeping with the mandatory empathy of the times, he expressed his identification with his assailant’s grievances. “People are being evicted or priced out of their homes,” he wrote. “What’s the difference between losing your home and having property destroyed?” Writing in The Washington Free Beacon, Sonny Bunch laid such drivel to rest: “There’s a pretty huge difference, involving natural rights related to one’s ownership of property and the legal system’s treatment of renters vs. owners and the fact that no one has the right to physically assault you on the streets of a major American city because he may or may not believe in some vague ideology that permits such action.”

That’s putting it too mildly. The seminally disturbing thing about the San Francisco smasher and her ilk isn’t that they adhere to their own set of values, but that they fail to understand the very foundations on which this nation is predicated. “Reason, which is that Law,” John Locke famously declared in what is arguably the single most profound bit of inspiration for the American experiment, “teaches all Mankind, who would but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.” Drawing on several sources, including the Hebrew Bible, Locke objects to the notion of the divine right of kings and defends instead the idea of certain innate rights to which we are all entitled by virtue of being human. That’s not what the anti-Googlers believe. Judging from their actions and their words, they believe in a societal structure of sheer helplessness in which the plebes must wrestle the rights from the hands of the monarchs. The most disturbing thing about the attacks in San Francisco, then, isn’t the wanton violence but the utter lack of a sense of agency: Like children petitioning for their parents to intervene in a play date gone sour, the protesters see the plutocrats as bullies who have unfairly seized their toys, a condition for which the only response is a temper tantrum. Like their predecessors, the paltry occupiers of Wall Street, the San Francisco brigades are above coming up with concrete suggestions, crafting plans, or engaging in adult politics. They just want their displeasure heard.

And so does Abbas. It is becoming increasingly clear that in his worldview, Israel is not only the oppressor but also the source of all agency. Israel must act first. Israel must make the concessions. Israel must apologize, erase its history, and bestow upon the beleaguered Palestinians their human rights. Which—does it even need saying?—is absurd: Even given the distinct imbalance of powers between Israel and the Palestinians, the basic rights the Palestinians should focus on demanding—life, liberty, possessions, happiness—are theirs by divine decree. What is necessary, then, in Bethlehem and the Bay area alike, is not a process by which one side addresses inequality by stripping itself of its rights and privileges, but a process that targets the deep-seated problems that are keeping the neediest and most deserving from getting their just deserts. Salam Fayyad, the ousted Palestinian prime minister, understood that point well, and his insistence on security, good governance, and economic growth brought the Palestinians as close as they’ve ever been to something that looked like a de facto state, exercising his and his people’s rights and shaping reality without putting the onus on some external, omnipotent force.

In Ramallah and in the Presidio, then, the problems are the same. They’re not political, economic, or social, or at least not only. They are ontological. They involve clashing worldviews. They pit adolescents against adults, dignity against helplessness, prosperity against perpetual misery. It’s not too hard to choose our sides.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.