What Are Friends For?

FIRST LORD: Might we but have that happiness, my lord, that you would once use our hearts, whereby we might express some part of our zeals, we should think ourselves for ever perfect.

TIMON: O, no doubt, my good friends, but the gods themselves have provided that I shall have much help from you: how had you been my friends else? why have you that charitable title from thousands, did not you chiefly belong to my heart? I have told more of you to myself than you can with modesty speak in your own behalf; and thus far I confirm you. O you gods, think I, what need we have any friends, if we should ne’er have need of ‘em? they were the most needless creatures living, should we ne’er have use for ‘em, and would most resemble sweet instruments hung up in cases that keep their sounds to themselves. Why, I have often wished myself poorer, that I might come nearer to you. We are born to do benefits: and what better or properer can we can our own than the riches of our friends? O, what a precious comfort ‘tis, to have so many, like brothers, commanding one another’s fortunes! O joy, e’en made away ere ‘t can be born! Mine eyes cannot hold out water, methinks: to forget their faults, I drink to you.

Timon of Athens, by William Shakespeare

Maybe it’s just because I’m working on a screen adaptation of the play, but it seems to me that Timon’s psychology is highly relevant to understanding our receptivity to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assertion that “America has no better friend than Israel,” which Matt Yglesias found so absurd.

Timon is an enormously wealthy Athenian who has spent his adult life dispensing benefits – giving extravagant gifts to everyone he knows, from his servants to his fellow lords. He is, consequently, everybody’s best friend. The arc of the play has him eventually give everything away, leaving him destitute, at which point he – with considerable relief – turns to his friends and beneficiaries for help, and discovers that nobody loves you when you’re down and out.

I’m not interested in drawing an analogy between America’s financial situation and Timon’s (not at this point), but rather between America’s psychological situation and Timon’s at the beginning of the play, when Timon still thinks he is wealthy. Timon has a desperate need to be loved. Not loved by a particular someone – he has no wife, no children – but loved generally. He showers the world with gifts as a way of buying that love, but he knows, deep down, that because he is the giver he is, in terms of love, in the inferior position. If he were the one in need, and others helped him, then he’d know, like George Bailey at the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” that he really was the richest man in town. And so he is semi-consciously spending himself into that position of dependency.

On some level, Timon cannot accept the idea of friendship on the basis of mutual and equal recognition – or, rather, he longs for this, but cannot imagine how it would work in practice. He gives, and acquires flatterers and dependents, because he wishes he could be a dependent, be cared for – but so long as he is wealthy, he cannot accept reciprocal return of kindness, but must always make sure that the other fellow is in his debt. There is something scary about the idea of being independent equals. He would rather live out vicariously the experience of being dependent and cared for through his beneficiaries than have a genuinely equal relationship.

The United States’ relationship with the world – for whatever reason – is similarly fraught. We have, from the earliest days of our nationhood, had a problem with the idea of mutual and equal relationships among states. Many, many nations on earth consider themselves to be exceptional in some way or other – the English, the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Japanese, all have national myths about possessing a unique spirit that destined them for greatness or dominion. Even smaller nations often have flattering national myths – the Poles and Serbs have a myth of national martyrdom for (respectively) Catholic and Orthodox Christianity; the Swiss have a myth of national superiority to the barbarous foreigners around them; the Jews . . . well, that national myth is probably well-known enough not to need repeating.

But America’s national myth is distinct, I would argue, in that we swing wildly between an idealistic self-conception as entirely separate from the rest of the (fallen) world and an alternate idealistic self-conception that is globally imperialistic – in both conceptions, America is not merely better than the rest or the natural leader of the rest, but somehow is the world, unto itself. Our nation lacks a clear mental conception of its own boundaries. And such a conception is necessary for mutual relations on the basis of equal respect.

How does this play into our relationship with Israel? Israel is useful to America psychologically because it allows us to live vicariously through her, and thereby experience the tender care that we long for ourselves. Being universal is an extraordinary burden for any person or any nation. It is, among other things, a terribly lonely condition. America is not actually alone, but we experience our national existence as lonely precisely because we deny ourselves the experience of fellowship, as that would imply definitive boundaries between ourselves and more or less equal others. Israel experiences an isolation of a different kind, but when we show our friendship for her, the psychic benefit for us is that experience of feeling as if we received that friendship, as if someone else broke through our national loneliness. And that’s a considerable psychic reward.

Yglesias says in his piece that Israel does nothing for America – Israel is a burden, nothing more. This isn’t entirely true – Israel has, for example, proved a useful partner in intelligence-gathering in the past, helped battlefield-test American weapons back when we weren’t fighting so many wars ourselves, and was a useful proxy for undertaking certain unsavory tasks. But against this must be set Israel’s repeated violations of basic rules of friendship – spying on us, re-selling sensitive technology to our rivals without permission, etc. And that’s before you get into the question of whether Israel is a geopolitical asset or a significant liability.

But Israel has been a particular friend to America in one respect. When we want to assert our exceptionalism, Israel has consistently supported that assertion. Much of the rest of the world wants to subject American power to something resembling a system of laws and norms through institutions like the International Criminal Court. America, for understandable reasons, has resisted this, even when parts of the system were our own creations, designed to legitimate our own supremacy by limiting its absolute scope. We can debate whether our resistance is wise or not, but my point is that Israel has been consistently supportive of our resistance – again for obvious reasons. The psychological component of this comraderie is that we are simultaneously able to maintain our sense of ourselves as boundless and universal, and relieved of some of the burden of our solitude in such a position.

Obviously there’s more to the US-Israel friendship than the psychological dynamic I’ve outlined above. But I do think it’s a vital component of that relationship, a component that talk about the potency of the Israel Lobby on the one hand, or of America’s natural affinity for a fellow democracy on the other hand, doesn’t really capture.

By most objective measures, Israel is not our “best” friend. Myself, I’d bestow that title on the same country Yglesias does: Canada, whose friendship we take almost entirely for granted. But Israel is a unique kind of friend for America, a friend that provides us psychic benefits that we really cannot get from any other country. Asking America’s relationship with Israel to become “normal” is really another way of asking us to reevaluate why we want those psychic benefits, and whether we wouldn’t really be better off without them.