Unilateralism and dignity: I agree with Shira Herzog, who wrote in The Globe and Mail that one casualty of the war in Lebanon has been Israeli unilateralism. That means its attempts to impose peace by withdrawing from Gaza, erecting a wall on the West Bank etc., on its own terms, without negotiation. I know that got a good press here and sounded on the surface worthy.

But it ignored a huge need that humans have: to be recognized; it is the basis of our sense of dignity. That need can supersede even the necessities of survival. It was unsettling to hear Gazans say they welcomed Hamas attacks against Israel, despite inevitable retaliation, because it made them feel their side had done something, proving it existed.

There was a similar response from Lebanese returning to smashed villages. You can’t impose peace, any more than you can inflict democracy.

This is ironic, since Israel has always insisted on recognition of its own right to exist, an unusual concept in international relations. Nations usually recognize each other’s borders, not their abstract right to exist. The claim may arise from the trauma of the Holocaust, when Jewish existence was not just destroyed but negated. Think of the numbers that people in the camps were reduced to.

Yet, each refusal of acknowledgment tends to deepen the need to force recognition out of others, in collective or individual terms. Unilateralism also appears in Israel’s claim that it has no “partner for peace,” another uncommon term. If you had a congenial foe to negotiate with, you’d already have a rudimentary form of peace. You don’t make peace with partners, you do it with enemies, who may then become partners.

The parallel to unilateralism on the Arab side is rhetorical rejection of Israel, which the Palestinian “prisoners’ document” tries to override. The point is not that negotiation is a panacea. It may lead nowhere, as it has in the past. But unilateralism is not an option.

Judging Fidel: During Fidel Castro’s recent illness, Sasha Trudeau wrote a warm, admiring piece, almost a pre-obit, on his famous dad’s famous friend. (The sight of Fidel at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral, alongside other world leaders, was a unique Canadian visual.)

In the National Post, Jonathan Kay was aghast at Sasha’s take on the Cuban “thug” and his repressive record. It sounded as if Jonathan might never trust Sasha again. I’d like to offer a criterion for passing these judgments. The test is not what leaders do, but what they do given the circumstances that constrain them.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton gave an example of this at the Toronto AIDS conference. He was asked about refusing, as president, to support needle exchanges. “I was wrong,” he said, using the “it takes a big man to admit he’s wrong” ploy, first invoked by John F. Kennedy when he admitted it was stupid to try to invade Cuba in 1961 to depose — Fidel Castro! But Bill Clinton sounded genuine and warned the audience not to think a leader can ignore the temper and pressures of his times. Why, it was the 1990s!

This must be the question that haunts those who hold real power. Did you do everything possible to accomplish your goals, given the brakes applied by your foes, your era etc.? It’s a hard question because there’s no answer somewhere in an envelope. What you do will affect what you can do.

Fidel’s goals were to liberate his nation from foreign (i.e. U.S.) control and advance it economically and socially. He faced massive, foreign-based opposition: invasions, assassination attempts, expatriate plotters in Florida. Political repression and “thuggery,” you can argue, arose in response. Does that excuse it? Does 9/11 excuse what has gone on in the U.K., U.S. and elsewhere, including on Cuba’s own, U.S.-occupied extension, Guantanamo?

You can apply this test to Nelson Mandela: He accomplished a lot, but his goals for the betterment of life in his country went largely unfulfilled. Was it the times? Could he have done more? Is he haunted? You can also apply it to your friends and yourself. Not: What did you do? But: Where did you arrive, given where you began and what you had to deal with on the way?


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.