Thinking It Through
June 19, 2013
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I will start off by acknowledging my long absence from these pages. It was a time of recuperation, reorganisation and reassessment.
I have also come to realise in this time that our Jewish communal structures are either unwilling or unable to provide an effective platform for independent commentators like myself. This conclusion has been reached after many serious efforts to set up just that kind of relationship have failed.
But I enjoy communication and the cause is worthwhile so that I am sure that together with my readers I will find ways to ensure that SOLAR PLEXUS will flourish. Remember that it is also a vehicle for those of you with ideas and information to share – as many of you have in the past.
I could have entitled this talk “Reality and Perception”. But a serious consideration of that topic would have taken us into very complex and profound philosophical (and scientific) realms. So, modesty being a virtue, in this post I will review some material and ideas relating to the current propaganda war centred in the Middle East but with global ramifications and implications.
The first thing to realise that, despite passionately articulated arguments to the contrary, there is no simple formula for success. For example, Mike Konrad in the American Thinker claims that we should accept that the mass audience is essentially illiterate with short attention spans but powerful emotional responses when the right buttons are pressed.
Given this, pro-Zionists should cease already with boring responses (like this for instance?) and hit home relentlessly and ruthlessly with images and descriptions of Islamic transgressions and atrocities. For this purpose the Internet is ideal and we need communication-savvy individuals to maximise the reach of videos and graphic depictions of Islamic violence, intolerance, abuse of women and the sacrifice of their own children. After all THE MATERIAL IS ABUNDANT, and it is frustrating to see the denial of such dysfunctional and menacing Islamic realities by an ideologically invested media and progressive intellectual class.
So Konrad has a point and I am tempted to say it is about time that such programs were initiated in response to the coordinated campaign to delegitimise Israel – and the West more broadly. But something holds me back from dropping the Queensberry Rules entirely, and when I analyse it comes down to the following:
- I believe that ethical behaviour pays off in the long run – and it is the long run we’re talking about. When I use the term “ethical” I am not referring to some Utopian concept divorced from all context. Ethics has no meaning apart from individual and political realities. But even in this world I believe that that the personal virtues of integrity, restraint and empathy are powerful in their own right. There are 1.4 billion Muslims and 14 million Jews. We cannot fight effectively by making enemies of those who could be friends, by demonising them as some of them demonise us and by descending to the lowest common denominator. We must offer something better, and thus while not shying away from the unpleasant realities of Islamism and its apologists and allies, we must not get into the dirty business of bigotry and demonisation.
- The world is not homogeneous and does not consist only of semi-literate bigots and fanatics. Many people who badmouth Israel (and the West) are intelligent and creative. They would potentially be open to information and argument which challenges the host of unexamined assumptions which shape and configure their (and our) reality. But to do that we need good information, reasoned argument and creative ways of putting that across. I’m going to give some examples of this in future posts.
- We need to appreciate how reality is configured by constant repetition. In many ways the spread of ideas can be modelled as the conflict between invading organisms and the immune defenses of the host. If the poisonous ideas/misinformation disseminated by ruthless propagandists are not countered rapidly, they will infect many more minds and thus spread by simple contagion. That is, the sequence is: Propaganda -> Contagion -> Critical Mass -> Conventional Wisdom. Once we get to Conventional Wisdom, as it already has in certain circles, there is a massive task to transform such ingrained perceptions. Thus propaganda needs to be countered rapidly and effectively to prevent spread.
- But good information and good ideas are needed in place of bad. It is one thing to show that supposed facts are false or distorted or decontextualised – or all of those – and that specific arguments do not hold up to scrutiny. That helps prepare the mind to consider alternatives, and that is when we get to the really hard part. What alternate organising principle is available to help structure one’s thoughts? Here is one: (1) Jews have a legitimate claim to a land of their own in Israel. (2) Israel is a modern Western State sharing many of the good (and some of the bad) values of the modern West. (3) It is a resounding success despite the complex demography, inhospitable geostrategic position, absence of natural resources and existential threats from neighbours it has encountered in the 7 or so decades of its existence. These achievements are quite exceptional and should be recognised and respected as such. (4) In so doing Israel has sometimes and legitimately needed to be ruthless and deceitful. Regret but not guilt is appropriate in such instances. (5) However, despite its enormous achievements, Israel is imperfect and has inflicted needless harm on occasion. It remains an imperfect society with significant social and political issues to deal with fairly and effectively. It is part of the normal democratic process to point this out and to call for acknowledgement and redress. Thus criticism is both legitimate and vital to Israel’s future as a flourishing democracy. (6) Whenever exercising one’s legitimate democratic right to criticise, bear in mind the nature of the propaganda war being waged and consider how it can be used by enemies. Each of these points can be fleshed out, and challenged, but that broadly is the intellectual framework in which I approach issues affecting Israel. It clearly does not of itself answer many of the specific dilemmas which confront the Jewish State. These each have to be considered on their own merits within this broad framework. (In passing I should mention that over and above this framework lies another, often ill-considered, unarticulated and even contradictory, cognitive and emotional architecture which structures the way we interpret the world. It is part of intellectual maturation to consider this architecture carefully.)
- Finally, therefore, the war of ideas is a good thing. It is multipronged and requires considerable organisation and creative energy. Israel is not doing as badly as some of its supporters fear (partly due to the disastrous condition of its opponents) but could do much better. The fact that it isn’t is something that should concern those who support Israel and poses some sharp and uncomfortable questions about Jewish society to ponder.
To all of you out there in the trenches – good work and I wish you every success in your endeavours. Hopefully we can work together towards our common goals.