Dissent and the Media

A few weeks ago a college student came to my door, asking me to support his dream to go to college by buying a six-month subscription to a local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times. I don’t read physical newspapers much anymore, so I demurred. But this kid was a natural-born salesman. “Your neighbor has already subscribed, but gave me the $25 for the subscription anyway. I can just give you a free subscription instead of pocketing the money.” Okay, kid, I’ll do that for you.

The papers have been coming to my door ever since, and I still barely read them. Today I decided to open one up along with my morning coffee, and I turned to something I never would have expected in a mid-level newspaper. Take a look at the title of this op-ed, by Stanford researcher Thomas Sowell: “Scientists who might dissent face a new inquisition.”

A new inquisition? I am intrigued! Let’s read further:

“…attempts to shut down people whose free speech interferes with other people’s political agendas go on, with remarkably little notice, much less outrage.

The Internal Revenue Service’s targeting the tax-exempt status of conservative groups is just one of these attempts to fight political battles by shutting up the opposition, rather than answering them.

Another insidious attempt to silence voices that dissent from current politically correct crusades is targeting scientists who do not agree with the “global warming” scenario.”

Would you look at that? Two hate facts in one paragraph, in the Bay Area no less! The third paragraph in that quote is the topic of this piece, and the professor marshals some pretty disturbing information to bolster his accusation:

The head of the National Academy of Sciences has chimed in, saying: “Scientists must disclose their sources of financial support to continue to enjoy societal trust and the respect of fellow scientists.”

This is too clever by half. It sounds as if this government bureaucrat is trying to help the dissenting scientists enjoy trust and respect — as if these scientists cannot decide for themselves whether they consider such a practice necessary or desirable.
The best part is when he turns the rhetoric back on the leftists themselves:

The idea that you can tell whether a scientist — or anybody else — is “objective” by who is financing that scientist’s research is nonsense. There is money available on many sides of many issues, so no matter what the researcher concludes, there will usually be somebody to financially support those conclusions.

Some of us are old enough to remember when this kind of game was played by Southern segregationist politicians trying to hamstring civil rights organizations like the NAACP by pressuring them to reveal who was contributing money to them. Such revelations would of course then subject NAACP supporters to all sorts of retaliations, and dry up contributions.

The emphasis is mine, of course. Modern news media is like a vampire: it attacks in the night and sucks its victims dry, but it can’t stand the light. Professor Sowell totally nails the modern machinations of leftist media, which attacks all dissent from the party’s narrative, usually through a variety of public shaming strategies: concerted campaigns on the spammier side of media, like Gawker; followed by a requisite Five Minutes Hate on social media; ending with public apologies and then ostracization of the sinner. Everyone who has seen how much media works now knows how this goes. That the media itself is now commenting on it, sanctioning it in the pages of their own publications, is new. It’s a welcome sign.

Read the rest of Sowell’s piece here.

Facts vs Narrative: American Peronismo

Anyone who has written anything other than an accident report, maybe even only three letters to his mother, knows or guesses the following: facts often interfere with the quality of a narrative. Only very great writers manage to incorporate all the relevant facts without damaging the beauty of their narratives. Or, they make up facts that will fit without damage into their narrative. I am thinking of Mark Twain among a few others. But that’s in mostly fiction writing, intended as fiction and perceived as such by the reader. The other option is to leave out all the hard facts to the benefit of narrative beauty and then, you have poetry!

Writers in genres other than fiction – old-school journalists, for example – face the same issue, the same dilemma. While they wish to communicate facts, they understand that an attractive narrative helps them in their task. If nothing else, an enthralling story, does keep the reader, and the listener awake; even merely a pleasantly told story Only the un-gifted who face what they think is a captive audience (no such thing, I think) abandon narrative altogether. They insist on bullet points of facts, a method that seldom achieves much of anything, or anything lasting, I believe.

There is thus another, more subtle reason to craft one’s narrative when transmitting facts, a reason to which I just alluded: Facts embedded in a good narrative are retained longer than facts thrown out at random.

Form really matters when you tell others things you believe they ought to know. But facts are often undisciplined, they often refuse to be choreographed into the opera you wish to stage.

Every writer of other than fiction faces the same issue although more or less frequently. The issue is this: what to do with facts that injure an attractive feature, or the whole integrity of the narrative to which it belongs, like this:

“Dear Mom and Dad: I really, really enjoy Camp Iroquois. In the morning, with have this huge breakfast outside with huge omelets and as much bacon as we can eat plus pancakes with syrup and jam. Then, we wash a little and sometimes the counselors make us brush our teeth and we throw wet towels at each other. After that we, play baseball or touch football until noon. (Don’t worry, Mom, I am wearing my cap and lots of sunscreen.) After games, we all have barbecued lunch with hot dogs and lots of relish and cold coke. And then, we rest under a big tree and a counselor reads us adventure stories. After the story, we go and bathe naked in the pond that’s very close. Just the other day, I went to the pond early by myself and I slipped into water that reached above my head. You couldn’t see anything underwater and there was lots of mud at the bottom. So, I forgot that I could swim a little and I swallowed some pond water. Fortunately, Counselor John, the tall one I told you about was just walking by the other side of the pond. He ran and he pulled me out just in time. I coughed a lot of brown water but I guess I am fine, now, so, don’t worry. And, Mom, don’t worry about the laundry either because we hardly wear any clothes most of the time. Plus, I have found a way to make my underwear last for more than one day by just turning it inside out. Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that right after diner, every night, the counselors make a big bonfire and we sing songs until we feel tired and we have to walk to our tents to sleep.

So, Mom, and Dad, you see, I am having a great time at camp so, don’t fret about me.

Your son, Peter.”

You see the problem? The narrative of a happy kid whose parents need not worry about a thing would be improved by the removal of the near-drowning episode. If the child were wise beyond his years, he would leave it out, right?

The same problem arises with every political narrative, including the long-flowing narratives that serve as action guides by default for political parties and for political currents:

Do you tell a good story on an ongoing basis or do you include the relevant facts even if they interfere with its flow?

It seems to me that there is a major difference between political left and right in their willingness to worsen the narrative with facts. I may be wrong. I will listen to criticism and to contradictions. If my perception is correct however this preference for the narrative explains a great deal. It explains the fact that the left everywhere is inured to its own failures and to the success of its adversaries. Curiously, it explains why there is such a preponderance of leftists in practically all the arts, from Hollywood to French singers.

This preference for form over fact even explains the continuing puzzle that is the country of Argentina. I explain: There is no reason why Argentina is not Canada, as prosperous as Canada or nearly so. In fact, three times in one hundred years, the Argentinean standard of living nearly equaled that of Canada. Each time, it was after an important conflict elsewhere. Each time, Argentinians squandered their wealth; each time, they allowed themselves to fall back into poverty instead of taking off and out of underdevelopment for good.

The current government in Buenos Aires is the third iteration of a populist movement called “Peronismo.” The movement is based on a good story: a benevolent, and originally elected dictator, distributes the unjustly acquired wealth of the insolent rich to the poor to the “descamisados,” to those who don’t even have a shirt on their back. Sure the process, is sometimes a little messy but it does not matter; it’s the intention and the goal that matter. And if you stop the clock at any time during the re-distribution process, you will easily find poor families that are better off this year than they were last year.

Peronismo promises to create social justice and a decent life without the rigors and the discipline of communism, for example. The first two times, Peronist regimes ended in economic disaster, the second time, also in a brutal, murderous military dictatorship that lasted for seven years. The current Peronist regime recently had to assassinate a prosecutor in his home because he was about to splash the presidency bloody with a precise, well documented tale of murder and corruption in high places. (Argentina is not a stereotypical Latin American dictatorship however; the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was properly elected .)

The thing, when you talk to Argentinians of the middle class is how civilized they are, how courteous, how well educated, how well informed, (much better informed that middle class Americans in general, if you ask me). And they speak a beautiful Spanish that bears lightly the faint echo of the millions of Italians that form the bulk of Argentina’s population. And their songsters and their singers are second to none. I am listening to Mercedes Sosa as I write, whose “Gracias a la vida” would make me shed tears if I could shed tears. Before her there was Atahualpa Yupánqui, a singer and poet of the poor much better than any country music singer I know (and I know many). Even Buenos Aires pimps invented the tango which is more than you can say about pimps anywhere else. And then, there is that gaucho sitting on his skinny horse sipping hierba mate from a silver tube in a gourd. He always looked to me like a more authentic version of Western movie cowboys because he is not that well groomed, if truth be told; he is just more manly.

In brief, Argentina, the nation, has an excellent narrative. It’s all the better because it is not spoiled, it does not contain disturbing facts: Destiny and history favored Argentinians from the beginning but they are poor most of the time. (Currently, the country has a GDP (PPP) per capita of $19,000, against Korea’s $33,000, a country that had nothing in 1955, and $53,000 for the US – CIA Fact Book) Argentines always dive into poverty for the same reason: They insist that dividing into twenty a pie intended for six will be just fine. They give no attention to the requisites for baking a bigger pie. They are quick to endorse concrete injustices committed in the name of abstract justice. (After all, the expressed wish of the sovereign people must take precedence over constitutional formalities.) If all these obvious historical facts were woven into it, the narrative would not be nearly as attractive; it would be disfigured. It might be disturbing enough to force them to pay attention and begin fixing what’s wrong with their society at last.

It seems to me that a preference for the flow, the coherence of a narrative over the inclusion of relevant facts is commonplace but I think it’s routine among the tribes of the left.* Communism killed at least 100 million people. Yes but it fought injustice. Cubans lead miserable lives in Cuba; those who fled with the shirts on their back are twice richer than those who stayed, after only a couple of years parking cars in Miami. Yes, but the Cuban revolution was deserving of a great movie and it ended by providing free medical care for everyone. That is justice.

Even worse, the US is an international bully variously attacking other, weaker countries for their oil or to force them to adopt institutions they don’t like. A sense of decency requires that Americans stop the bullying.

In the US, the Democratic Party, propelled by its energetic left wing, often garners the extra votes it needs to win – beyond the obligatory black votes, union votes and teachers’ votes – by telling a good story: It’s the party holding the fort against the “war on women,” it’s the party of the little guy; it’s the party of the perpetually racially oppressed, of those oppressed merely because of their sexual preference, even of the newly oppressed “middle class.” Its narrative tugs at your heart strings unless you are very critical and very well informed. It’s a narrative that is squarely opposed to facts. Here are some facts that would change the liberal American story’s face, if they were allowed into that story:

  • The War on Poverty may have been a good idea originally. Fifty years later later, we are allowed to take stock. There is no reason to believe it was a success. There are reasons to think it was a failure.
  • The death rate of young black Americans is stupendous. Few die at the hands of police however. Mostly, they kill one another and they succumb to drug overdoses.
  • At any one time, at least half of American adults are opposed to abortion on demand. A high proportion of these think it’s murder plain and simple.
  • There is no evidence that, on the average, women earn less money than comparably situated men. There is a law forbidding this and there is no evidence that it’s often violated.
  • Out-of-wedlock birth is highly correlated with poverty for all social and racial groups.
  • The thesis that human activities (industrial, cars) are causing a rapid rise in global temperature that will cause catastrophes for the environment and, eventually for humans, that thesis is not well established, if it is established at all. Evidence against as a well as evidence in support is amassing quickly.
  • When the US does not act as a world policeman, unspeakable horrors multiply.

I could go on and on, obviously. Liberals don’t want to include these basic facts in their narrative of injustice and of oppression, domestic and international because it would simply destroy it. Absent the narrative, they would lose almost all elections. That’s why it matters to contradict tirelessly with facts the fairy tale in reverse tirelessly propagated by the left and by media now mostly at its beck and call.

Under the guidance of the Democratic Party (today’s Democratic Party), America would become another Argentina. The Democratic Party is not “socialist” as old Republicans are fond to grumble. (“Socialism” is a word that has lost any fixed meaning. It may never have had one. Perhaps, it was always only an incantation.) The Democratic Party is Peronist. Peronism is a form of soft, self-indulgent fascism that drags everyone except the dictator’s buddies into poverty. (See my short essay on fascism on this blog: “Fascism Explained.”)

* Here is an example of a conservative narrative that would be spoiled by relevant facts. Conservative media heads keep repeating that the first thing to do to solve the problem of illegal immigration, is to “secure the border.” Let’s not kid ourselves, they mean the southern border of the US, the border with Mexico. Missing from this concise and manly, energetic-sounding narrative:

The fact that most illegal immigrants today do not come from Mexico, or from elsewhere in Latin America.

The fact that those who do come from south of the Rio Grande don’t actually swim across that river or trudge in the desert at night but that they drive in and fly in and then, overstay their visa.

The fact that arrests of illegal aliens where they are easy to catch, at places of work that concentrate them such as slaughter houses, the fact the number of such arrests is tiny, year after year. (I mean that this requires an explanation.)

The fact that illegal immigrants who are arrested and who, under the law, are supposed to be deported by priority, criminals, often get to stay, mysteriously.

All these facts who detract from the “secure the border” narrative for the simple reason that none of facts above would be altered if the National Guard stood right on the border with Mexico elbow to elbow, fingers on the trigger of their machine guns.

The Framework Agreement on Iranian Nuclear Everything: Questions

Today, the day after President Obama announced in the Rose Garden a “framework agreement” intended to limit the Islamic Republic of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, I read the Wall Street Journal account carefully but it did not help. I don’t understand it. It may just be too early for a good analysis. In the meantime several questions loom large in my mind.

  1. If I don’t understand the details, do I believe in an agreement with a hostile country described by a man who promised that “you could keep your doctor”?
  2. Do I believe that this agreement is to the advantage of the United States? The question arises because it was negotiated principally by two men with a track record. The first, Pres. Obama, succeeded in exchanging five terrorist generals for a single American soldiers who is a deserter according to those who were on the battlefield with him. The second, the current Secretary of State, demonstrated that you could leave the Palestinian/Israeli relationship in an even worse state than you found it.
  3. The President and the Secretary of State did not manage, as a part of this supposedly momentous agreement, to get three Americans held by Iran released. One of them is a former Marine. It should have been a tiny footnote to the main text. Ah, well, there is no text, just an oral argument! Frankly, in the bigger picture the freeing of three people is a small, symbolic thing. Symbols matter a lot though when you don’t have access to the hard facts. I don’t, you don’t.
  4. Is the mullahs’ government – that always cheated in the past – going to abstain from lying, this time? If it does not, is this agreement going to be the cause of the death of thousands of innocent Iranians (as collateral damage)? I ask because, the next administration may not have the current administration’s difficult-to-believe indulgence. It may just decide to take care once for all of a sore festering for twenty years. If an American administration does no such thing, what is the likelihood that a future (future) government of Israel will take the chance to see millions of Jews murdered? This is not gratuitous fear mongering. Two days before the announcement, an Iranian general was on TV affirming that Israel has no right to exists.
  5. Do I believe that our European partners will stand firm and renew their sanctions if Iran is caught cheating? The question arises because they were salivating on all their national TV at the prospect of selling, selling anything in Iran once the sanction were lifted.

On the bright side, the lifting of some sanctions will unleash a torrent of Iranian oil on the world market. This will further depress of global oil prices. One more thorn in the foot of the gangster Putin.

We Must Have Order!

I sometimes think that the small daily vexations of government do more to wake up regular people than the really big abuses of government. Below is a relevant anecdote.

Seven or eight years ago, the City of Santa Cruz forbade me from cutting the tree figuring in the picture below. It’s a redwood tree. It’s in my tiny front yard. Its invasion of a sewer line cost me $10,000 before I asked humbly for permission to remove the tree. Now, the tree roots are destroying the foundations of my house as well as the sidewalk in front of it. The city says that I am responsible for fixing the sidewalk, indefinitely, apparently because redwood tress grow at least for several hundred years.

redwood in santa cruz

Now, to be fair, the City arborist told me a few months ago privately that if I asked for permission to cut the tree again now, it would probably be approved. It does not do me much good now. She said no when I could afford to cut it now, I can’t afford it. Besides, the city insists that I have to pay for a permit to remove the tree I did not want in the first place. This is more offensive than the much higher cost of taking the tree down which involves real work, at least. (It’s true that I bought the property with the tree on it. I had no idea then that I could even be denied the permission to cut a forest tree.) I am quite insensitive to the need of my city to have redwood trees, specifically, within its boundaries.

First, everyone knows that redwoods are destructive. Moreover, they sterilize the area where they grow. Second, it’s not as if our citizens were deprived of trees, as people might be, say, in Arizona. In fact, there is a large forest a four minute drive from my house, seven minutes by bicycle, tops. It’s a 90% redwood forest. It’s not clear to me that I must recognize a duty to subsidize the redwood viewing of residents and visitors who are too lazy to drive or bike there.

Note my delicateness of mind: I admit that many of my fellow Santa Cruzans would be morally torn between the desire to commune with redwood trees, on the one hand and their fervent wish to not contribute to global warming by driving four minutes, on the other hand. But I think they can just bike there, or walk. I also admit that there are people in Santa Cruz who don’t own a car and who are physically unable to bike or walk to the forest. I would be in favor of a city-sponsored collection to bus them to the redwood forest four times each year. I would gladly contribute, voluntarily, that is.

Two deeply different views of the world are at odds here. Now, let me assure you that although I am a conservative, I like trees. I like cherry trees and apple trees mostly, for obvious reasons, but redwoods are OK because they give high grade lumber. And, yes, they look wonderful. That is, they look wonderful where they belong, in a forest, with their brothers and sisters and all the cousins around. My own redwood tree (the tree that my family and the City apparently jointly own) is a object of shame. It’s so bad, that I never use it to give directions to my house although it stands right out. It’s an object of shame because PG&E, the publicly regulated monopoly, has the right to shape it in any way it chooses. I am sure there are technicalities that escape me here but the shape it prefers makes my redwood tree look like an old, overused toilet brush. Sorry for the vision, I call them as I see them!

Well, I planted a yellow rose bush nearby and the bush found the spot attractive. It grew and grew under my firm benign neglect. Eventually, it had to discover that the nearby redwood tree makes a good ladder to the sun. The result is in the photo above. Well, I think you are not going to believe this but a member of the leftist and left-liberal city council complained about the rose bush on the tree. She says it looks unkempt. Here you have it – not left-wing thought, there is no thinking involved here – but the leftist temperament in a nutshell: Things have to be neat; personal preferences do not matter; bureaucracies give you predictability even if at stupendous cost, the market is inherently messy. We must have order even if it impoverishes our lives.

Mexican immigration and the Open Border: Mexicans Go Home and Mexican Kindness

I just returned from a two-plus weeks stay in Mexico for the second time in less than five months. A couple of comments to add to my previous essay on Mexican underdevelopment. Plus, some unrelated political sociology comments.

In 2009, my friend and I published a long piece on Mexican emigration to the US in the libertarian periodical The Independent Review. (Nikiforov and I are both immigrants to the United States.) The article is entitled, “If Mexicans and Americans Could Cross the Border Freely (pdf),” and the full text is available through a link on this blog. In that article, we argued that we would all be better off if the southern American border were open to crossing by citizens of both countries with no expectation of a change in citizenship for either.

Well, the politicians did not listen to us then and their inattention led to the recent Republican fiasco whereas, President Obama used an executive order to more or less legalize five million illegal aliens, most of them Mexicans whereas, the Republican Senate called him out and ended up caving piteously. (Do you remember or have you already forgotten? Stupidly, Republicans tried to use the threat to de-fund Homeland Security at a time when aggravated terrorism news fill the airwaves.) As often happens, the Republican leadership confused the issue of constitutional principle with the substantive issue of limiting immigration. Myself, I would chose total firmness on the first and flexibility on the second, for fear of ending up the A.H., no matter what the outcome. The Republican leadership lost the constitutional arm wrestling and still ended up the A. H. Congratulations, guys!

Our article was long and intricate as is normal for a scholarly piece. Here are two highlights from that piece on which I wish to comment after my two recent stays in Mexico:

A We argued that Mexicans – who constitute the largest immigrant group to the US – should be given special treatment over other aliens. Several reasons for this: They are our close neighbors; they have been joined to us through NAFTA for now 23 years, insuring that our lives are tightly enmeshed economically. Then, because of a long series of past interactions some may find deplorable, Mexicans tend to make very good immigrants. Two reasons for this superiority, in turn. First, nearly everyone agree that Mexicans (in the US) tend to be very hard workers. Even their direct competitors in the work place tend to assent to this judgment. Second, sociologically, Mexicans make good immigrants because they are astonishingly familiar with our society, including with our institutions, before they set foot on American soil. In particular, Mexicans don’t find perplexing our fundamental constitutional principle of separation of religion and government. (That’s, as opposed to immigrants from other areas I could name.)

Nikiforov and I argued that Mexican citizens should enjoy unimpeded passage into the US, and the freedom to take any job for which they qualify, all without any path to American citizenship because, Mexicans already have a citizenship, that of Mexico. We point out that the European Union has used this model for more than twenty years and experienced few downsides. (The current ferment in Europe about and opposition to immigration does not involve neighbors from the EU, with one single exception I will discuss if someone asks me.)

B We proposed that many Americans would find it comfortable to spend their last years in Mexico because of a specific aspect of Mexican culture, to wit, contemporary Mexicans tend to be sweet in general and considerate to older people in particular.

This is what I found in twice two and half weeks in Puerto Vallarta in the pas five months that is relevant to these issues.

First, on the matter of Mexicans wanting to work in the US but not necessarily wishing to live there, we were much more right than we thought when we wrote about this. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming that this would work. Everywhere I went in Puerto Vallarta , I bumped into people who knew some English that they had learned in the US, mostly as illegal immigrants here working at undesirable jobs. None of those people had been expelled, deported. All had returned to Mexico under their own power after saving some money. Thus, they had chosen to go home because it’s home, just as we predicted in the article.

One middle-aged man sticks to my mind, a taxi driver. He had stayed in the US (illegally) for several years. He had refrained from visiting with his family in Mexico for stretches of two or three years at a time to avoid being unable to return to the US. You might say that he was trapped in the US for longer periods than he wished because of our immigration laws. He finally decided to go back to Mexico and to his family for good after he had saved enough money to build a house for each of his three daughters. He specified that only one of the daughters was of marriageable age by the time he had the three houses standing. To my mind, this is an exemplary story of emigration/immigration. On my query, the man declared himself satisfied with his choice and with his life since his return from the US.

He was earning, driving a taxi, about 1/5 or less of what he earned in the US doing unpleasant work. He liked his job; he enjoyed returning to his family every evening; he liked the schools; paradoxically, he liked Mexican schools. (This is paradoxical because daily life in Puerto Vallarta, including in the schools is much more relaxed, much more genteel than what prevails in the US except in the most elite neighborhoods. In that part of Mexico, the bloody drug traffic-based blood-thirsty banditry is found strictly in the newspapers. It is not at all apparent in daily life. The quality of this daily life is at the antipodes of the impression of Mexico reaching us through the US media. Gangs are not in the school unlike in Salinas, California, for example.)

On point B, the attractiveness of Mexico to older Americans, I find that I tend to censor myself anytime I write about the topic because I fear appearing to be gushing like a teenage girl. During my last stay, of two and half weeks, I did not meet a single Mexican man, woman or child who was not completely pleasant except two. One was a taxi driver and he was morose but, that’s because he was drunk. (Nobody is perfect.) The second was a female merchant who acted displeased because I tried to bargain down an item in which I was interested. Another merchant – from whom I actually bought and whom I befriended – told me later that my bargaining had been reasonable and that the woman was undergoing a painful divorce. Mexico is not perfect and I may have looked like the woman’s soon-to-be ex-husband. You never know; these things happen.

Absolutely everywhere, my gray beard drew the kind of respectful behavior I don’t expect in the US. (And that I don’t deserve, to be honest!)

I can hear the snickering from here: “Of course, he stays in a tourist ghetto were everyone is occupationally obligated to appear nice.” No, I did not spend all my time there; I was forced to go out and I liked to go out. I found that everyone smiles a lot, including at each other, even among perfect strangers, that everybody ceded passage, that waiting lines are always orderly. Being a formerly great social scientist, I yielded, of course, to the temptation to conduct verbal experiment. Unfailingly, I made everyone I wanted to laugh at the drop of a hat. I mean small children, old ladies and adults of all sexes. (Yes, my Spanish is that good. Eat your heart out or learn to conjugate irregular verbs! Those are your choices. There are no others.)

Issue A and B are joined in the strangest way within my latest short stay in Mexico. Puerto Vallarta in the winter is swarming with Canadians. Their flight from the cold may have a great deal to do with this fact but it has a virtuous side-effect. I suspect many flew in to warm up and ended up warmly loving Mexicans for the reasons I depicted above. They beat Americans at it, in that city, at least. Oh, and the only sullen faces around Puerto Vallarta all belong to them. It became a game of pop-sociology for me: guessing from afar who was American and who was Canadian. It soon become embarrassingly easy: The Americans are the loud ones who say hello and who laugh easily. (Besides, I think the presence of Canadians explains much of the bad food there.)

After this last experience, I am very tempted to start a new racist fad: Speaking ill of and persecuting Canadians. It could be fun and they are not (yet) a federally protected minority.

Israel/Palestine, an Encyclopedia: Part Two

I confess I became incredibly tired of this topic when, seven months ago, I wrote the first entry. Israel/Palestine always dominates the news to a boring degree, the debate’s participants are all fulsome demagogues, and more important evildoers like the governments Gulf Arabs or the Chinese are routinely ignored for this stupid and aggravating slice of the world. The discourse over Israel/Palestine is so poisoned by divisive rhetoric that it seems a waste of time to try and inject reason into the maelstrom. However, I must confess, I have quite a bit of Schadenfreude over Likud’s flagging poll numbers in this recent election, so in preparation for giving King Bibi the boot, I felt like reviving my plan for a series of posts on Israel/Palestine.

To summarize my last entry, I focused on three topics: the occupation, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement, and “pinkwashing.” In this entry, I’m going to switch gears and summarize some arguments used regarding Zionism and the Zionist project, and what I think of them. There are many, and they are all mostly tiresome, so I doubt I will be able to get to them all.

1. Israel has a right to the land/has a right to exist:

This has always struck me as an inherently weird claim. It appropriates the discourse for individuals and applies it to an abstract entity, the state. How can something abstract have rights? We must return to discussing individuals if we are to understand what it means for a state to have such “rights,” as it is the treatment of individuals that legitimates the state. The state of Israel is the geographical entity between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River from West to East, and the Lebanon and Egypt to the South. It may or may not include Gaza and the West Bank, depending on whether you think the Occupation and the blockades, the complete military control of those territories, and the very real power the Israeli state apparatus wields there constitutes political sovereignty. Within the state of Israel, there are not just Israeli Jews, but foreign-born Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, Druze, Bedouins, Africans, and smaller minority groups.

The proper theory of a state is that it somehow acts as a steward to the people that it governs, and in doing so, protects their individual rights. All concepts of a nation-state built on the exploitation of some for the benefit of others must be categorically rejected as wrong. For Israel the state to have a right to the land, it must protect the individual rights of all the people within that land, and only upon fulfilling that criterion is it able to wield power over them with any measure of legitimacy. Under that criterion, Israel does not have a right to exist. It cannot claim to act as a steward for the people that it governs, as it treats many of them much like human chattel, and lashes the rest to a military occupation that forces them to fight, and kill, that chattel for their own “protection.” The dictum “war is the health of the state” is clearly expressed in the total mobilization of Israeli society for warfare, which is inculcated as a sacred duty into the minds of its citizens almost from birth.

The fact that Israel, as it stands, certainly does not have a right to exist is well-stated in this post on al-Akhbar:

“What moves me instead in this post-two-state era, is the sheer audacity of Israel even existing.

What a fantastical idea, this notion that a bunch of rank outsiders from another continent could appropriate an existing, populated nation for themselves – and convince the “global community” that it was the moral thing to do. I’d laugh at the chutzpah if this wasn’t so serious.

Even more brazen is the mass ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population by persecuted Jews, newly arrived from their own experience of being ethnically cleansed.”

Israel, like all states, only has a right to exist insofar as it serves the purposes of the people it purports to govern. Israel is not serving the interests of any of its people, and so this canard of an argument must be thrown out.

2. Jews have a right to the land: This is a fundamentally different argument than (1), for Israel is a political entity, a nation-state that represents Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, the Druze, and other ethnic groups domestically and internationally, and provides various goods and services to those people considered citizens. In (2), however, it is not a state and a precisely defined nation that has a right to the land, but the Jewish people themselves.

There is certainly a conflict between (1) and (2) that most Zionists seem to not have conceived, or which they ignore. If Israel as the nation-state has a right to the land, then this is inclusive of all the citizens of that nation-state, the Jews, Arabs, Druze, and others. However, if it is the Jewish people that has a right to the land, and an exclusive right at that, then this precludes any other group from having a right to it. All the people that were there previously – I will not say originally, for now – do not have a right to it, as they are not Jews.

Now, if someone has a right to a piece of land, that does not automatically exclude others from having a similar right. A well held in common by the community may be rightfully used by all the members of that community. Pray, however, look at the way the land is administered by the Israeli government. The “Right of Return” is open to all Jewish people everywhere, and so I, a Jew, could hop on a plane to Israel tomorrow morning and receive my citizenship that evening. A Palestinian refugee, who has a greater claim to the land than I do, may not even be allowed to return to that land at all. At the very least, this implies that, even if other groups have rights, I have greater rights, which supersede theirs. This is because Jews, more so than other groups, have a true right to the land of Israel.

The logic rests on two basic premises:
P1. The original possessor of a land is the rightful owner of that land
P2. The land was continuously inhabited by its rightful owners, though their claim to the land was not granted by its de facto rulers

(1) is simply incoherent for the goals of the Zionist, because none other than the Torah itself declares that the Jews were not the original possessors of the historical land of Israel. They conquered it by force from whatever Canaanite tribes lived there, and then were in a perpetual contest with other groups over it until the final expulsion by the Romans. If the Zionist wants to claim that Jews were originally there, he would be historically wrong, and if he wants to claim that this premise is the basis for the rightful possession of the Jews, he would also be wrong. Instead, we ought to track down the remnants of the dispossessed Canaanites and give them back their rightful territory. Israelites were simply conquerors, and as conquest is deemed illegitimate – at least, I assume it is, as most Zionists vehemently deny modern Israel is a conquering nation – then the Israelite possession of the land was also illegitimate, which in turn means that Jewish Israeli possession of the land is illegitimate.

(2) builds off of the authority of one, for if members of the original possessors remain in the land, that gives legitimacy to their claim that the land is truly theirs. “Jews have lived in the land of Israel ever since they moved there” may be true, but does it do any productive work for the argument? If I have a claim to a plot of land, but my neighbor wants it, and so drives me off the land, then the land is still mine by right. If I was forced to leave my child there, and in a benevolent state of mind he decided to raise it in my absence, then the presence of the child is irrelevant to my claim of the land. If I were to die, then the claim would pass on to my heir, as the rightful inheritor of my property. This doesn’t require that my heir even inhabit the property, though, for if we all were to be dispossessed, my heir and I, when I die he would still be the rightful heir of the land itself. If (1) is correct, then (2) does nothing additional to legitimize reoccupation of the land by the descendants of the Israelites. Indeed, this sort of principle is what governs real estate in some of the older settlements in Israel. In Tzvat, for instance, it is nearly impossible to buy a home in the old city, because the rightful owners of the plots are very difficult to track down, and that ownership may be divided between multiple heirs, many of whom do not even know they are heirs to a property at all! Their presence, or lack thereof, is immaterial to determining property rights.

The real purpose of these arguments is to deflect the obvious fact that Israel began as a settler colonialist project, which became a project of conquest after the departure of the British. The principle of conquest has been legally rejected since Nuremberg, but that does not mean it has been practically rejected. Such quibbles have not stopped nation-states from practicing it, such as Russia with the Crimea (notwithstanding the various arguments in favor of the annexation). Nor has it stopped private forces such as ISIS from attempting to conquer Syria and Iraq, and then onward to all of the Muslim world. Law is the muslin veil over the cruel heart of man. It is periodically lifted when groups and individuals cannot, or do not desire to, achieve their goals through the proper legal channels.

Though Zionists attempt to mask this with claims that “Jews have a right to the land,” they are tacitly affirming it as the true guiding principle of the philosophy. Why do Jews have a right to the land? Because they were there first, or at least, before the Palestinians. Why were they there before the Palestinians? Because they conquered the land from the Canaanites. Therefore, Jews have a right to the land because they took it by force, and maintained it by force against others. This has the unsavory effect of legitimizing the conquest of the Jews by the Romans and others, but that is a mere historical matter, as the Jews successfully reconquered the land from the Palestinians after the British departed. It also has the unsavory effect of elevating force to the primary principle of politics – but that is what it has always been, hasn’t it? I would tell my Zionist friends that if they want to defend Israel, they should keep the points about Jews having a right to the land, but drop the nonsense about historical possession, or historical inhabitance, or the divine right nonsense. Simply affirm the basic truth, that they took it by force, and will keep it by force, and that is enough.

3. You haven’t been there (so you can’t comment): This is one of the stupidest of them all, and I think anyone with a sound mind can see the stupidity for himself. The argument goes like this.

P1: First-hand experience is more reliable than second- or third-hand experience
C1. Therefore, one ought to prefer first-hand experience

P2. First-hand experience can only be gained by people who have been physically present in the area they are speaking about.
P3. Because first-hand experience is more reliable, it is more preferable.
P4. Because first-hand experience is more preferable, second- and third-hand experience is useless
P5. Many commentators on Israel/Palestine have not been to either place
C2. Therefore, they do not have first-hand experience
C3. Therefore, their experience is useless

The problem is with P(1) and P(4), as you might see. (1) may be mistaken because first-hand experience, though more raw and visceral, may not be more reliable than second- or third-hand experience. Take, for example, a victim of a bombing and a forensic examiner. The victim experiences the horrific event, and has his own account of what happened: “I saw a man place down a suitcase, and then I went back to my iPhone. Then, *boom*! The suitcase blew up, and I was thrown back twenty feet. I’m fine, but the person in front of me was vaporized!” Then the examiner comes, and based on this account, begins to look for pieces of the bomb to reconstruct its design, and the suitcase to reconstruct its container. First she goes to the surveillance tapes to see what happened and, lo! she sees the man put down the suitcase, and then the explosion. But here’s the kicker: the suitcase didn’t explode, but another package, discretely tucked away from the victim’s view. He had been there to witness the event, but had misconstrued a random person for the bomber, and conflated the true cause with a mistaken cause.

First-hand experience is often plagued with problems, as people misremember, misconstrue, and outright contradict the established facts of a case based on whatever conscious or subconscious mental biases they may have. In such cases, second- and third-hand sources of information, established by latecomers such as the forensic examiner, may yield an account of greater truth than anything a witness might say, in opposition to the claim of (4). The lesser reliability of these sources is due, then, not to their ability to establish truth, but to their proximity to an event. And such proximity  may, instead of heightening the truth, distort it. Another example: in the graphic novel Maus, the author is questioning his father about the famous brass band that played for the workers coming in and leaving from Auschwitz. “There was no such band” his father says. “But the historical records are clear, as are the testimonies of the victims” his son retorts. “Yes, but the band was never there, I never saw it.” Even two direct witnesses to an event may contradict each other. What this suggests is that there must be skepticism regarding sources, both from first-, second-, and third-hand experience.  We must look at each source, and to the best of our ability, determine its proximity to truth. This can be harder to do with sources like news media that do not give us direct access to events, or the places where they happen, but that does not make it impossible.

A more substantive objection, though, is that even if this argument is sound, it completely vitiates the claims that history is able to offer an adequately clear picture of the happenings of the past. If we are required to be first-hand witnesses of events, and to experience life from the very place we are commenting on, how can we say anything about the past? Especially, about the past that no one directly remembers, such as the 19th century? Or, more pressingly, the past conquest of Canaan by the Israelites? Who is to say it isn’t all made up? After all, no one living has ever seen an Israelite, because all the evidence is in archaeological finds, and tattered old documents, and folktales like the Bible. If Zionists wish to hold this line of argument, they cannot also hold the second line of argument, viz. that Jews have a claim to the land, unless they modify it along my lines.

4. American/University of California/whatever money implicates us in Israeli “apartheid”

This isn’t a Zionist argument, but it is equally as stupid, so I will address it now. Let’s say I am the head of a corrupt government, call me Georgios Papandreou. And let’s say you are the head of a fiscally sound government, let’s call you Angela Merkel. Now, I want money to pad my private mansion, oops! to pay civil servants and build my pet infrastructure projects back in Hellas. The times are good and the gravy train is rolling on, so you say, sure, why not? And I receive billions in loans from you. Then, oh no! I go bust because I’m a corrupt idiot, and my people vote me out. You are angry, but at least, still in power. Who is at fault? Me, or my people?

Angela Merkel answers the latter, but its a ridiculous argument. The Greeks are no more implicated in decisions they have no control over than the people of America or the students of the UC system are in the decisions of their administrators. The state, and systems of power, generally run in the same direction regardless of voter indignation or agitation for this or that. The great lie that democracy means power of the people enables us to escape this truth, but the fact of the matter is this: groups and individuals with power, whether it be through money or influence, are the ones who drive policy. Poor and impotent citizens have little oversight over the prerogatives of their governments, and so attempting to morally equate the actions of government with the actions of its citizens is foolhardy.

Whither the ‘Liberty Canon’ series, amongst other questions?

For those of you who have been wondering what happened to Dr Stocker’s posts here at NOL, the man has been busy:

Apologies for lack of blogging. Rather basic tasks, particularly very detailed note taking on Homer for a philosophy and literature class on Homer and Vico, are the main reason. Hopefully the immersion in Homer will pay off soon in blogging, research and writing, as well as teaching.

Anyway rather appropriately given my current preoccupation, I have very recently been offered a contract by Macmillan Palgrave to co-edit the Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Literature. It should be out in 2017, comprising a large number of essays on basic topics in philosophy and literature, with the editors contributing an apparatus of an introduction, conclusion, index and the like, along with an essay each.

The other editor is Michael Mack of the Department of English Studies, Durham University, UK. Do have a look at his university homepage and see details of his extensive and excellent contributions to philosophy and literature. I’m very fortunate that he has agreed to work with me on this project.

Back to Homer now. Blogging here again and getting on with other commitments soon.

Congrats are in order to Dr Stocker, though I have to say I’ll miss him while he’s working. Maybe when he’s done with his very serious work, I can convince him to blog not only about the history of thought in the Western world, but also to blog more often about domestic Turkish politics and liberal (i.e. libertarian) UK politics, and affairs in the Middle East (three more areas where his expertise is second to none; see here and here, for example). What do you say?

I know I state this often, but be sure to follow along in the ‘comments’ threads to some of our conversations. Unlike a lot of blogs, they’re of pretty high quality (if you ask me!).

I know Jacques just got back from Mexico, and Matthew is still trolling Europe (last I heard he was in Greece), so hopefully their travels will elicit some expert notes about the world.