The Breakfast Table

Unchanging Aspects of Human Nature

Dear Alexander,

I’m not sure if e-mail makes the culture meaner, more treacherous, or more cowardly. Generally speaking, it has always seemed to me that new forms of communication actually add very little to the culture at all. They are, after all, just new ways to transmit information and don’t actually change the content of that information. Remember back in the prehistoric, early days of the World Wide Web—oh, about three years ago—when everyone was so shocked by the quantity of pornography on the Internet? Or by all of those Internet chat groups that revolve around picking up members of the opposite sex? There was no reason, in retrospect, to have been so surprised: It’s what everybody was doing most of the time anyway, only now they were doing it online as well.

By that token, mean, treacherous, and cowardly e-mails may just reflect the meanness, the treachery, and the cowardice of human nature: People have been stabbing one another in the back for as long as there have been backs to stab. Last week I was in Budapest at the opening of a new museum dedicated to the victims of Communist and Fascist terror. The museum is located in a building that was the Hungarian Fascists’ headquarters from 1941 to 1945 and the Hungarian Stalinists’ headquarters from 1945 to 1956. During the reign of the former—as Hungarian black humor would have it—people would line up to denounce their Jewish neighbors. During the reign of the latter, people would line up to denounce their bourgeois/capitalist neighbors. The victims were different, but during both eras (so the “joke” goes), the people standing in line doing the informing were the same.

If they could have done it by e-mail,  they surely would have preferred not to stand in line at all.

On the subject of unchanging aspects of human nature, I was struck this morning by the ease with which we have now come to accept bad news from the Middle East and the inconsistency with which we report it. The Washington Post headlines spoke of “Five dead” in Israel. The Guardian led with “Seven Die …” The Telegraph wrote of “Eight dead.” Only the Israeli newspaper Ha’artez dedicated three separate articles to the various victims who died in different places as a result of different attacks.

Not that the exact numbers matter since their very inconsistency tells a story: Rather rapidly—too rapidly to keep track of events—what we’ve come to call the Middle Eastern “conflict” appears to be sliding gently into full-scale war. This may not, in my view, be an entirely bad thing. I’ve felt for a long time that outside intervention, whether American or European or Arab, has only had the effect of delaying and prolonging the inevitable. On both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is possible to find people who believe they can win through violence. Until they’ve been proved wrong (as I think they ultimately will be), these advocates of violence will maintain a powerful hold over the popular imagination. Their theories need to be disproved before it is possible to seriously pursue peace.

Tragically, a lot of people will die in the meantime—too many to count.