July 16, 2006

The Impossibility of Discussing Anything at All

We live in a militantly anti-intellectual culture, where it becomes increasingly impossible to talk about any serious issue for more than a few minutes without smears and personal insults being exchanged. In its general outlines, this is nothing new in American life: it has been going on for many decades, if not longer. But we are now a nation where "millions of Americans find evolution preposterous. Polls consistently show that roughly half of Americans believe the biblical account instead." This is self-imposed and deliberately cultivated ignorance on a massive scale. It was for this reason, and many others, that I titled the earlier post about that story: "Becoming the Stupidest Country on Earth."

In the midst of technological abundance of a kind never before seen, surrounded by time-saving and life-enhancing wonders on all sides, we are reverting to the mental state of the most primitive and superstitious savage. The savage was incapable of knowing better, and there was no one possessing greater knowledge to lead the way. The struggle toward enlightenment, reason, the triumph of science, and the understanding of the requirements of political liberty took thousands of years.

Yet today, with the blessings of these achievements all around us, many of us are enthusiastically willing to throw it all away. And we do so for the basest and most petty of reasons: because we refuse to give up the ancient superstitions that we falsely believe are the only basis for "meaning" in our lives, and because we allow ourselves to be ruled by fear.

I personally became painfully aware of the smear tactics that concern me when I began writing seriously about foreign policy in the spring and summer of 2003. Because I offered an extensive critique of the Bush administration's embrace of an aggressively interventionist foreign policy, a policy that history demonstrates always fails, always leads to destruction, and always leads to results that are the opposite of those intended by the interventionists themselves, the same people who had previously found considerable worth in my writing consigned me to "the other side." For many people, I was a "Saddamite," a particularly vicious and dishonest smear that I discussed just recently.

Let us be very clear about the purpose of all such smears. Very simply, it is to prevent all questioning and criticism, and to end debate. That's all. The dishonest smearers hope that their intimidation will cause those with differing views to shut up and go away, never to be heard from again.

But the irrationality of our public discussion is revealed in all its pathetic, emotion-driven futility most strongly whenever the subject of Israel comes up. It is only the debased nature of our discourse that requires me to state obvious truths, which it would be completely unnecessary to identify in this manner if people were capable of thinking in the most rudimentary form:

1. It is not "anti-Semitic" to criticize the state of Israel, even in the severest of terms, without more. A state is only a political designation, referring to the government that controls a specified geographic area. The state of Israel is not coextensive with the "Jews" or with the "Jewish people." The concepts do not refer to the same things at all.

2. It is not "anti-Semitic" to criticize the government of Israel, without more. When we use "government" in this manner, we refer to those individuals who hold power in the state of Israel, and who choose and implement that government's policies. The government of Israel is not coextensive with the "Jews" or with the "Jewish people." The concepts do not refer to the same things at all.

3. A person can fully recognize and condemn the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust -- just as we should condemn all horrors that are similar in principle but usually don't, especially when they are committed by our government, either in the ongoing destruction of an entire country that never threatened us or with regard to the possibility of a nuclear confrontation, which might well be the last -- and simultaneously condemn many or even all of the policies of the state and government of Israel. It is entirely possible to hold more than one thought in one's head at the same time. These particular thoughts are not contradictory in any respect, and they do not even refer to the same subjects.

I go through this exercise in pre-elementary logic because of a post earlier today. In that post, I linked to this Geov Parrish column. In introducing the excerpts from Parrish's article that I wanted to focus on -- and which are entirely correct -- I wrote: "Leave aside the more controversial aspects of this column, if you wish." I realize that some mysterious religious scruple prevents people from following links, but to appreciate what follows you need to see what I actually excerpted. I included the qualifier because I am keenly aware that most people are incapable of clear thought about anything whatsoever related to Israel. But even if people are strongly pro-Israel, I desperately want them, as I want everyone else, to focus on the devastation that is likely to follow an Israeli attack on Syria or Iran, and the horrors that would inevitably come with a broader Middle East war.

It appears that I am now among the worst monsters of all time. Despite my focus on one aspect of Parrish's remarks, despite the fact that the particular excerpts I offered are true, I am among the damned -- because the column opens with this paragraph:
The leaders of Israel are brutal, and could not care less about human rights, civilian casualties, international law, or the commission of war crimes. But they are not stupid.
Of course, I was attacked from both sides. One group thinks I am endorsing a vicious "anti-Semite" -- because Parrish criticizes the leaders of Israel at this particular moment with regard to certain of their policies. Does Parrish talk about the "Jews"? No. Does Parrish wish for the elimination of the "Jewish people"? No. Does he say anything at all about Jews or the Jewish people? No, he does not.

He speaks only of Israel's leaders and their policies and actions, and by necessary implication, of the state of Israel. A lot of you need to learn that concepts have definitions, and that they refer to one thing in particular, not to everything that is cluttering up your brain. You may think Parrish's evaluation of the leaders of Israel is gravely, terribly, horribly wrong. Fine. Make your case. Even if you're right, that does not make Parrish or anyone expressing similar views an "anti-Semite."

The ignorance continued on the other side of the debate as well. One commenter, who only a scant few days ago considered me "the best blogger on the internet," now thinks I may be a "Zionist apologist" parading as someone who is phonily and insincerely "anti-war." He (or she) finds all of these fatal character defects in my opening qualifier. He (or she) also is incapable of rigorous thought, or even of careful reading. Note that I did not say that I "set aside" Parrish's other observations: I urged the reader to do so, for the reasons explained above, so that the reader could focus on the more urgent matter. This commenter also apparently failed to note my first piece of advice to the Bush adminstration in this post only yesterday: that they rein in...yes...Israel. Obviously, reining in Israel will be the very first thought that occurs to a "Zionist apologist." Since I now realize I need to spell out all such matters: yes, that was sarcasm.

I repeat: the purpose of all such smears, no matter the direction from which they come, is to prevent all questioning and criticism, and to end debate.

This is why I tend to take such praise as I receive (which is not very much) with more than a few grains of salt. With some treasured exceptions, it often turns out that the person offering it finds a few thoughts here and there in my writing that echo sympathetically in the vast, empty reaches of his unfocused mind, but for the most part, he has failed to understand my overall perspective at all. Please do not misunderstand me: I remain deeply grateful to all those who support my writing in any manner, and to any extent. But the thoughtless, often cruel criticisms I've received this past week alone will suffice for several years. I wouldn't care so much, except for one overriding fact: I have spent months and years writing the essays that appear here and at The Sacred Moment. (I again note that many of them are temporarily unavailable for various technical reasons; I'm reposting them as I can.) I write about the issues I do because I hope my writing will have an impact and an effect, however small. I think these issues are crucial if we are to save ourselves from the orgy of barbarism, cruelty, bloodletting and death that may now only be beginning.

But I often wonder if anything I write makes any difference at all. It appears to me that it does not, and that it probably cannot. All of us have our blind spots, places where our preconceptions and prejudices prevent the understanding and appreciation of a new thought. I do not exempt myself from this problem in the slightest degree. But today, many of us have blinders that are so overpowering that it all but makes meaningful discussion impossible.

So I often wonder why I bother. I'll sleep on it.

For now, I will leave you with one very simple idea, one I often express to friends these days. Even though I write long essays about current events, history and other subjects, as I contemplate the growing devastation around the world, I have one thought above all others. I often feel that I simply want to say to everyone: Look, we can talk about anything you want. We'll talk for as long as it takes. We'll work it out, even if takes years. But, please, for God's sake:


That's all. That's everything.

MORE: Listen to Michael Lerner.

AND: Related and provocative further observations in this post from several months ago. The bad news: we are getting stupider.