WHAT’S WRONG WITH THOSE TRUTHERS?

The nineteen martyrs of 9/11 were never charged let alone convicted of a crime. This is because – so as not to squander precious prosecutorial resources – we tend not to indict dead people.

But now let’s suppose the Truthers are right. Since these nineteen young men didn’t do it, they’re probably not dead. Or if they are, it’s because they were killed as part of the cover-up. In either case, nothing that gets turned up about 9/11 can have any effect on those nineteen young men, because either they’re dead or they’re happily ensconced in some not-to-be-a-witness protection program. I’m picturing them in a charming turn-of-the-century Victorian in a small town in upstate Vermont, with a giant oak out front and a generous vegetable garden in back. The neighbors, being unfamiliar with the sound of Arabic, just assume they’re from Bangladesh. “Who knew?!” they all say. “They all seem so nice.”

All right, so let’s suppose, as do the 9/11 Truthers, that they didn’t do it. Of course if they can’t tell us who did, they don’t have a very interesting story. They’d be a bit like the revisionists. “Yes, there are six million missing persons reports, and we don’t claim to have closed the file on any of them. But the one thing we do know is that none of them were gassed.” Helpful, I suppose. But not very.

So let’s suppose we’d just discovered who did do it. Let’s suppose further, given that it’s still only been sixteen years, that the guilty parties, or at least most of them, are not dead. What would have to happen for there to be any consequences – any consequences at all – for these devilishly clever dastardly fellows? Or for anyone else for that matter?

Well first, who is this ‘we’ who’ve just made this discovery? Whoever we are, we’d have to share this revelation with someone with both the wherewithal and the willingness to affect those consequences. Presumably some district attorney or other

Most Truthers have this one covered. “It’s not that the authorities won’t believe us. It’s that either they were all in on it from the get-go or else they’ve been warned off by, you know, those men in the black Suburbans.”

To be fair, that a hypothesis is non-falsifiable like this doesn’t show that it’s false. It’s just that non-falsifiable hypotheses can be multiplied until the cows come home. And then there are just too many of them for any one of them to be very interesting.

So to make it more interesting, let’s suppose our district attorney has the requisite chutzpah to do his job. Even so, he would have to be confident he could persuade a jury to convict. If it did, then certainly some heads would roll. But how far up the conspiratorial ladder those heads might be is hard to say. I’m guessing you might get a couple of colonels, or maybe a senator. But hey, boys will be boys! A stern talking to will certainly be in order. But beyond that, probably just time to move on.

So what we have so far is nothing very momentous. No matter how high up they go, those involved were by definition rogue actors. So sixteen years ago the government of Israel did something roguish. Or the government of the United States did. Or maybe it was the Koch brothers. Or maybe it was the second gunman on the grassy knoll who’d been coaxed out of retirement. Whatever the case might be, what exactly would anyone like to do about it?

If it was the Israelis, should the U.S. now nuke Tel Aviv?

No, because Israel has nuclear weapons of its own.

All right then, surely the least it should do is break off diplomatic relations.

And leave thousands of pimply-faced Jewish-American teenagers doing their Aliyah without consular services? I think not.

All right then, suppose it was the American government itself. Would this be the first time it’s been caught committing atrocities on its own soil? No, it’s targeted its indigenous peoples, people of colour, trade unionists, commies …

But never before white-skinned chartered accountants!

Point taken. Except it’s probably not a point any Truther would want to be heard taking. From Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound the Truther lives on land made available to him by state-sponsored genocide. And yet it’s only when the beneficiaries of this genocide get a little comeuppance that he gets his dander up. Not great PR. So best not to be too vocal about “what [you didn’t] ask your country [to] do for you.”

Look. Governments kill people, often people of another country, but sometimes their own. Without the threat of violence both abroad and at home – and the occasional Clausewitzian following-through on that threat – it’s hard to imagine how any government could govern. And so if it’s unmanly to whine when the people one’s government has been killing in another country manage to get a few licks in in return, how much more unmanly is it to whine if, to gets its people pumped for a little bloodshed abroad, it sheds a little of it at home?

And in fact, contrary to what the Truther hopes, voters have pretty short memories. And even when they don’t, they can be very understanding, even when they don’t really take the trouble to understand. Were the American people outraged over the premie-ward lie of 1991? Were there calls for impeachment in 2003 when it became clear that the Bush administration had cooked the intel on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction? No? Why not? Because when the truth would just take the wind out of their sails, people need to be lied to and want to be lied to.

So the bottom line is this. A lot has happened over the past sixteen years. Even if any of what’s happened could be reversed, sixteen years on no one’s going to have the slightest inclination to do so. Unless, that is, they were already so inclined; and so inclined quite independently of 9/11. Netanyahu would still be bulldozing Palestinian homes to make way for yet another Jewish settlement. American soldiers would still be in Iraq because, well, it had always been on the Bush dynasty’s bucket list. The Trump administration would still be pushing for its ban on Moslems entering the country. And social justice warriors, both on the left and on the right, would still be peenging about how the Koch brothers and the rest of the point-zero-zero-one-percent are hijacking American democracy. So the official line on 9/11 would simply be adjusted to read, ”Okay, but just because those Ay-rabs weren’t involved this time doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like to have been.”

If any of this be doubted, draw the distinction, if you can, between September 11, 2001 and November 22, 1963. Suppose the second gunman on the grassy knoll had just made his deathbed confession. Suppose it was the mafia, or the Cubans, or the CIA, or Lyndon Johnson. What would any of us say, other than either “Told you so!” or “Now whodathunkit?!”?

The difference between 16 years after the fact and 54 is 38, as is the difference between 1 and 39. But we’re not just talking numbers. We’re talking about the interval in years before justice delayed becomes justice denied. If the Truthers could have made their case by September 2002, things might have gone differently. But to have made the case if and when they ever do – and as time goes on that if-and-when becomes increasingly unlikely – will be about as earth-shattering as when Pluto lost its place as the ninth planet. To a so-what not a whole lot of what.

I’m told that Egyptologists are becoming increasingly doubtful that there ever was an Exodus. But they’d be embarrassed to assign themselves the moniker ‘Exodus-Truthers’. Truthers fancy themselves serious historians. But by pointing out, “It couldn’t have been this way!” without adding, “So it must have been that!”, one is no more doing historical revisionism than she’d be doing a Kuhnian paradigm shift by saying, “The speed of light can’t be that!”, without adding “So it must be this!”

Building 7 is to the official story what the magic bullet was to the Warren Commission. Fair enough. But you can’t just make up whatever story you like, like the theist’s God of the Gaps. The God of the Gaps doesn’t explain anything. It’s a bedtime story. Children like bedtime stories. And apparently so do adults.

I like the official bedtime story, because it makes heroes of the underdog. Perhaps you don’t like it because in your mind it makes villains of them. So instead you make villains of those you already regard as villainous. It was the Jews, say some of you. It was the point-zero-zero-one-percent, say others. Who was it really? I don’t know, and neither do you. But other than in the service of this independently motivated vilifying, what difference would it make?

And this, I think, is why Truthers – be their ‘truth’ about the Holocaust or the Kennedy assassination or 9/11 or global warming – are so kneejerkedly treated with such suspicion. No one’s ever going to do anything about the Holocaust, or the Kennedy assassination, or 9/11, or global warming. So getting at the ‘truth’ of these things is not about making more informed public policy decisions. It’s about proselytizing the Truther’s particular vitriol, be it against Jews or the CIA or the neocons or the Koch brothers.

At one time we Jews celebrated Easter by drinking the blood of Christian babies. Now we collapse skyscrapers. At one time the federal government controlled the America people by fluoridating the water supply. Now it kills a few Americans so the rest of the country will demand that it kill a whole lot more o’ them thar Ay-rabs. At one time the point-zero-zero-one-percent were content to sponsor conservative think tanks. Now, apparently, they fund false flag terrorist attacks so they can keep the money coming in via all the security companies they own.

Is any of this true? Probably not. Well, except for that bit about how we celebrate Easter. But the problem with ridiculing Truthers this way is that, on pain of begging the question, it cuts both ways. In what sense are any of the official stories about the Holocaust, or the Kennedy Assassination, or 9/11, or global warming, not themselves Trutherisms? Trutherisms that just happened to have caught on.

So apart from those half dozen people in the world who actually know who did it – know in the robust sense of having justified true belief – there’s a discomforting symmetry – is there not? – between the stories that’ve caught on and those that haven’t. Or at least haven’t yet. So though I mock my 9/11-Truther colleagues – and yes I do mock them mercilessly – I keep a little intellectual humility in reserve just in case I have to eat some crow.

Why am I so cautious? Because when the premie-ward story came out after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, I remember saying to myself, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kuwaiti government-in-exile hired some Madison Avenue PR firm to come up with something like this to get the American people to support going to war.” Well, I was wrong. I was wrong because I was surprised when it turned out I was dead right.

As they say, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. The Truthers think he does. I have no opinion on the matter, one way or the other. My point here, however, has been that if all the Devil’s going to do is lie about a few things that don’t matter, then we really needn’t get our tail feathers in a knot about him. So for those of us who don’t have a pre-existing grievance against Jews or the Bushes or the point-zero-zero-one-percent, we should move on to things that do matter, even if only a little. Like what? Well, like whether the toilet paper should come from the front of the roll or the back, or in an egg cup which goes up, the big end or the little end? The answers, by the way, are the former and the latter respectively.

DENIALISM

‘Denialism’ is a neologism in search of a meaning. Let’s see if we can find it one. As it turns out we’re going to fail. As it turns out calling someone a denialist is going to have about as much cognitive content as calling him an asshole. It’s an expletive. A term of strong disapproval. But it says nothing about the grounds of that disapproval, beyond its having something to do with one’s espousal behavior. A denialist is someone who espouses a view at odds with that of the speaker.

Well, not quite. I think the Riders are a better team than the Stamps, and you think the opposite, but it would be odd for you to call me a denialist. So denialism must be some particular collection of views I hold but you hold in contempt. What’s the common denominator? As it turns out there isn’t one, other than it’s a pejorative you attach to certain of my beliefs because in your mind it sounds like you’ve scored some kind of three-pointer by doing so. Perhaps you can do better, but that’s the best I can come up with. Now let’s see how I’ve come up with this best.

Some years ago I was in Pakistan, and I was gobstruck to discover that even among the more educated, hardly anyone had heard of the Holocaust. Would we call these people Holocaust deniers? Surely not. To be a denier one must at least have heard of whatever it is she’s denying. The case is similar, I suppose, to what it is to deny Jesus. This is why even mainstream evangelicals are prepared to let those who had yet to be told about Jesus off the hook. Heaven certainly not, but perhaps a stint in Purgatory, where and until they’ll be given a more fully ‘informed’ choice about whether to believe in Jesus or not.

Of course there’s a difference between being told something and being informed about it, by which I do not mean that to be informed is necessarily to be told the truth. To be informed is simply to be given adequate information to forge an opinion, an opinion which still may, for all that, turn out to be false.

For example, most of us, I take it, are reasonably ‘informed’ about the Alamo. We know the who – on the one side the evil Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and five thousand of his soldiers, on the other the heroic

 Colonel Travis, Davie Crocket, and a hundred eighty more,

Captain Dickenson, Jim Bowie, present and accounted for.

 We know the what – a siege, at the outset of which,

 “You may ne’er see your loved ones,”

Travis told them that day.

“Those who want to can leave now,

Those who fight to the death let ‘em stay.”

In the sand he drew a line

with his army sabre.

Out of a hundred eighty five

not a one to cross the line.

And then, after thirteen days, a battle, in which he, Santa Anna, “killed them one and all.” We know the where – “In the southern part of Texas near the town of San Antone.” We know the when – “Back in 1836.” And we know the why – Travis was asked to delay Santa Anna long enough for Houston to raise an army.

Is all this true? Well, there might have been a little embellishment, but certainly nothing like God parting the waters of the Red Sea. In fact Egyptologists are now telling us that the Exodus narrative may be false not in some of the details but in its entirety. Which is pretty much what contemporary revisionists are saying about the Holocaust. The Exodus is the myth by which Jews lionized their ancestors to justify the ethnic cleansing of Canaan, and the Holocaust is that same myth reprised to justify the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

My own view, for what little it’s worth, is that, Antarctica aside, there isn’t a square inch on this planet that hasn’t been conquered, at one time or another, by people not of that place. And so if conquest requires justification there’s going to be a whole lot of people moving back to where they came from. So you go right ahead and tell yourselves whatever foundation stories you like, but in the end they’re your stories, not ours. So no, God didn’t give this land to these people and that land to those. And even if He did, what makes Him think it was His to be handing out in the first place?

But I digress.

So someone has to at least know what she’s talking about to count as denying what she’s denying about it. If you’ve rung my doorbell to tell me about Jesus but I’m too distracted with other things to pay you any mind – the baby’s crying, or that damn washer in the basement is banging because it’s out of balance again – I’m not a Jesus denier. If you’ve come to tell me about Jesus but I’ve already had the Hari Krishna’s at the door this morning, and then the Mormons, and then the Heaven’s Gate people – and so I’m just not interested because I’m suffering road-to-perdition fatigue – I’m not a Jesus denier. Even if you tell me my immortal soul hangs on what you’re telling me – or in the case of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) that the future of the entire human race is hanging by a thread – if I have more pressing concerns or I’m just suffering from end-of-the-world fatigued, I am neither a Jesus denier nor an AGW denier. I’m just a mom trying to get the kids dressed for school.

The issue gets a tad muddier if, at your urging, I do become a tad informed about the issue but then declare myself an agnostic. This can mean one of two things. I might be saying – call this the weak version – I don’t yet, and perhaps never will, feel confident enough of my command of the issue to take even a tentative position on it, be it AGW, or vaccination safety, or the truth about 9/11. This will get me into some trouble, but not nearly as much as denying – call this the strong version – that any of us do, or perhaps even can, know enough to pass judgment on AGW or vaccination or 9/11.

In the case of weak agnosticism I’ll be accused of moral turpitude, that is, vis a vis AGW of shirking my epistemic duties as a member of the human race, or in the case of vaccination of allowing my kids to free ride on their herd immunity, or in the case of 9/11 of being culpably less than requisitely vigilant as a citizen of the democratic polity I enjoy.

The problem with these kinds of accusations, fair though they may be, is that they open the accuser to a tu quoque. And there’s no shortage of tu quoque’s to be tossed hither and fro. With so many nations on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons, we’re closer to Helen Caldicott’s nuclear midnight than we’ve ever been. Why are you not out there campaigning for nuclear disarmament? The particulates of plastic on the ocean floors are rapidly making their way up the food chain to us. Why are you still buying bottled water? If they lied about 9/11 what makes you think they’re not lying about the real purpose behind fluoridation? How did you let your government fail in its responsibilities to Omar Khadr? And so on.

But the True Believer is impervious to tu quoque’s. What should matter most to all is just what happens to matter most to her. And the fact that others can and do say the same just shows that they’re wrong.

Again, for what little it’s worth, I’m grateful that there’s something that matters most for you so that something else can matter most for me, because there’s not a whole lot that shouldn’t matter most to anyone. For someone it’s the salt water filling his lungs because his ‘fare’ from Tripoli to Lampedusa didn’t cover the cost of a lifejacket. For another it’s his child dying from juvenile leukemia. And for yet another it’s balancing the municipal budget between snow removal and homeless shelters. AGW, vaccination safety, the truth about 9/11, they’re all in our collective mental hopper, but there’s nothing that warrants top priority categorically. Well, except of course for accepting Jesus as our personal savior. “For what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world” – including his life and that of his child – “and lose his own soul?” (Mk 8:36)

Is there anything that matters most to more than one of us? I doubt it, but perhaps. Are there things that, though they don’t matter most to more than one of us, they nevertheless do matter to more than one of us? Certainly there are. And do they not sometimes require collective action? Desperately! And is this collective action not sometimes in conflict with what matters to several others of us? Unfortunately yes. When this happens we do our cause no service by claiming the high ground. Either we resort to force of arms – not usually the best option – or we negotiate, in both good faith and moral humility.

A constituent of moral humility, by the way, is epistemic humility. Epistemic humility is not the forte of the True Believer. This is why True Believers, like Torquemada, eventually resort to the sword, and for their sins die by it. And this is as it should be. Yes, “Nature red in tooth and claw!” But it is the defensive wound that is most beloved by the gods of all our religions.

So, is the weak agnostic a denialist? No she is not. She neither asserts nor denies because she doesn’t claim to know. And she doesn’t claim to know because she’s rightly averse to epistemic hubris.

But what about the strong agnostic? Strong agnosticism is just skepticism by another name. If none of us can know, or at least we never will, then, like Buridan’s ass, we’re frozen in stasis and we starve to death.

Well, not quite. This is because there’s no such thing as “I ain’t doin’ nothin’.” What we call doin’ nothin’ is really just doing something else. So the question is always, what shall we do?

The answer can be guided by all kinds of considerata, including the direness of certain outcomes multiplied by their relative probabilities, the fortuitousness of other outcomes multiplied by their relative probabilities, the precautionary principle when operating under two-dimensional uncertainty, and so on.

But the denialist is not a skeptic. If he were he’d be suspending judgment. But he’s not. He’s denying what others are asserting. Is he denying the certainty with which what he’s denying is asserted? Of course he is. One can hardly deny that p without denying the certainty of p. Does he deny he could be mistaken? Of course not. Certainly no more than does the asserter deny he could be mistaken. These are not disputes between disputants who take themselves to be infallible. An asserter or denier who claims he couldn’t be wrong, save on a matter of simple logic, is declaring himself a god. If God couldn’t get the rational value of pi right, chances are neither can any mere mortal.

“That,” you might say, “is because pi doesn’t have a rational value.”

Says who? You, a mere mortal?

Okay, so so far we have what the denialist is not. He is neither an agnostic nor a skeptic. But neither can he just be a denier. This is because to assert that p is just to deny the denial of p. So every asserter is every bit as much a denier as any denier. In fact, what is AGW assertion other than the denial that AGW is a socialist hoax? What is a pro-vaxxer if not one who denies that vaccines are unsafe? What is it to subscribe to the official narrative if not to deny each of the 9/11-Truthers’ alternative truths? Clearly we need something more. But what?

Enter the dual notions of dissimulation and the scientific consensus. And here there be dragons!

The charge of denialism is one of disapprobrium one levels against an opponent. With the rare exception of those who’ve subverted the term by turning it into an honorific – like kike for Jew, fag for gay, nigger for black, crone for post-menopausal woman – no denier self-identifies as a denial-ist. The ‘-ist’ suggests an ideology behind the denial, or if not an ideology then at least something driving the belief other than simple belief. So a charge of denialism is automatically an ad hominem circumstantial.

“Well, as a Republican you would argue for the trickle-down effect of lower taxes, now wouldn’t you?!” Or, “Of course your research is going to show that AGW is false. You’re a shill. You’re being well-paid by your oil company employers to show precisely that!”

The trick here, of course, is that – not unlike “Oh, that’s just a denialist trope!” – these ad hominems relieve the speaker of having to actually engage the claim that lower taxes might have the trickle-down effect being claimed, or to engage the data and analysis on AGW being offered by the oil industry’s shill. But the problem, once again, is that these ad hominems can cut both ways. “It’s only because you’re a Democrat that you argue that the rich should pay more of what you’re claiming is their ‘fair’ share of taxes, which of course merely begs the question.” Or, “Of course your research shows that AGW is real. If it didn’t, you’d have a hard time getting yet another NSERC grant to research a problem you claim doesn’t exist. Do you have any idea how much Chapters and Indigo make on what they call their Chicken Little shelves? A helluva lot more, I assure you, than the Koch brothers can afford to pay their stable of shills!”

So if a denialist is someone who may be ‘laterally motivated’, once again we have no way to distinguish the AGW denier from his counterpart. We need something else. And this is where ‘the scientific consensus’ is thought to do yeoman service. Motivation aside, a denialist is someone who denies what the scientific consensus asserts.

Of course this could be as readily expressed as someone who asserts what the scientific consensus denies. But this would be a quibble that does no work. Since nothing hangs on it, except the mind’s preference for a ‘tis-so over a ‘tis-not, let it be granted that the denialist denies. And let it be granted not just that he denies what the asserter asserts, but that it’s the asserter, not the denier, who has the scientific consensus on her side. Now all we need to know is what counts as the scientific consensus, and why having it on one’s side should count in one’s favor.

Now look. I’m not going to bullshit you. I haven’t done the research. I don’t think I’d even know how. So I’m just going to conjecture that the most frequent error in argumentation – second only, of course, to the Studies-Show-That fallacy – is begging the question. So we need to come up with a definition of the scientific consensus that doesn’t presuppose itself. And I say the scientific consensus because there’s no shortage of consensuses, scientific or otherwise. Nazi Science boasted a very strong consensus, though threat of execution might have had something to do with that. But certainly there’s a reasonable degree of uniformity among Creation Scientists, enforced, I suppose, by the PICS, the Principle of Internal Christian Seemliness.

So to get past all these consensuses to the the one, we’re going to have to argue that neither the Nazis were nor the Creationists are doing what we mean by science. By science we mean investigations and assertions grounded in, well, the scientific method. Experimentation with a control group to preclude false positives, inductively adequate sample sizes, replicability … You know, that sort of thing.

But the Method has its limitations. No one’s been able to replicate the magic bullet, so we cover it with the Butterfly Effect, which is just an ass-covering way of saying, “Gee, I dunno.” The replication of the collapse of Building 7, though it would be fun to watch, might be a tad too expensive. And without the cooperation of the Creator – I guess we’d first have to ask Him to be the Destroyer – Creation is pretty much a one-off. And besides, science includes lucky guesses, stumblings onto things, connections made in our sleep …

Moreover, even when we can confirm, we can’t really. All we can do is fail to falsify. But that’s generally good enough. Good enough for what? Prediction and control. What we mean by science is whatever we do, and however we do it, that yields prediction and control. Or, since prediction and control aren’t bivalent values, a claim is scientific to the degree that it yields prediction and control.

If this be doubted, ask yourself what we’d do if there were a Seer, somewhere up in the sky, we could ask any question whatsoever, and He’d always give us the answer that afforded us impeccable prediction and control. What we now call science would be a burden without compensatory payoff. Or maybe we’d just resurrect the etymological meaning of the word science and redefine it as the consulting of the Great Seer?

Of course some claims – Creationism is probably among them – though not offering much in the way of prediction and control, earn their keep in the coinage of explanation. Explanations that offer no prediction and control are a dime a dozen, and for most of us uninteresting. But for others they satisfy their (perhaps too easily satisfied) curiosity.

In my view, to try to undermine that satisfaction is just churlish. Every people has its myths – creation myths, foundation myths, myths about this or about that. We Jews have our Exodus and our Holocaust. Americans have their Mayflower and their Alamo. Always to be outdone, Canadians have their Vimy Ridge. I wish all of them God’s speed. But since these narratives neither predict nor control anything, they’re not scientific assertions, and so an explanatory consensus about them can’t count as a scientific consensus.

I suspect most philosophers of science would disagree. And perhaps for good reason. For if my analysis were right, it would yield some rather counterintuitive corollaries, one of which being that neither the denial of the historicity of evolution (Creationism), nor denial of the historicity of the Holocaust, could count as a species of denialism. Why? Because a denialist has to be denying a scientific consensus, and views about the origins of the cosmos, or the whereabouts of six million missing persons, are epiphenomenal. They’re epiphenomenal because nothing action-guiding, i.e. involving prediction and control, hangs on them.

Not so, one might argue. They’re not epiphenomenal if one chooses to assign them consequences. They wouldn’t be epiphenomenal if one says, for example, that because Creationism is true, evolution ought not to be taught in science class, or because the Holocaust was a Zionist myth, the Jews ought to be driven into the sea.

But I’m going to bite the bullet on this one. If the theory of evolution, though false, gives us prediction and control, but Creationism, though true, does not, then I say teach the falsehood as science and leave the truth to literature. Why? Because science is about our physical survival and delectation, whereas literature is about the world we inhabit in our heads.

And if the justification for the State of Israel – assuming it needs one – is overdetermined by the Holocaust and the simple right of conquest, then consign the Holocaust wherever you like. If its Arab neighbors had the power to throw the Jews into the sea, they would have done it by now, and the historicity of the Holocaust would have had no more to do with the case, tra la, than the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la.

But none of this tells us what a consensus is, nor how to find the the one. The consensus can’t simply be the majority view, because then most of the great breakthroughs in the history of science were made by denialists. And the moment one acknowledges that, then induction would instruct him to encourage denialism rather than condemn it. So the argument has to be that it’s only the consensus if it’s been faithful to the Method. But then on pain of circularity the characterization of the Method can make no mention of the role of consensus. But if all that matters is the Method, then the notion of consensus is no longer doing any work.

In fact it’s hard to see what work the notion of consensus can do. If one bucks the consensus, if she’s an ‘outlier’, then isn’t this precisely what John Stuart Mill argued we should want her to be? So our critique of the notion needn’t even proceed to the two real theory-killers, the first being that being the consensus can’t be much of a virtue if it turns out it consists of nothing but multiple copies of the same view. A hundred copies of the same newspaper is not a hundred reports of the same story, it’s one. So if 97% of scientists agree there’s been AGW, and they think so because that’s what the one colleague they rely on for such matters has assured them, then that 97% represents no more than the assurance of that one colleague.

We need also take into account, when we’re doing our counting, the number of scientists who’ve been bullied by peer pressure into drinking the Kool-Aid. If we know it’s true of Holocaust denial – and we certainly do! – what makes us think it’s any different with AGW denial? I can attest – and I’ve read more than a few scientists who attest – that it’s not.

And the second is that we’re presupposing who counts as one of the scientists whose views are to be consulted. I’m Canada’s foremost philosopher of war. According to whose judgment? That of Canada’s foremost philosopher of war.

What we have, then, is a bootstrapping problem. And how do we solve a bootstrapping problem? By fiat. What’s a Jew? Someone born of a Jewish mother. Helpful, but not very. Not unlike the apostolic succession, ultimately one simply designates a valuation day and then enumerates a list of deciders. Who are we? We’re the people who take as our scientific bishops those who’ve been so designated by those they take as their scientific bishops. It’s an embarrassingly arbitrary way of assigning authority. But one that’s worked remarkably well over the years, if not the centuries.

And that’s just the point. If an institution, no matter how arbitrary in its foundations, nonetheless delivers the goods, that’s not just good enough. That’s as good as it can be. Some scientific institutions are better than others. By what measure? By delivering verdicts that deliver in turn on prediction and control.

The Pope ex cathedra aside, no institution has proven itself infallible. But the measure of failure is not some one-off. It’s number multiplied by consequence. So of course after Thalidomide consumers have been wary of governmental oversight of the pharmaceutical industry. Contrary to what the pro-vaxxer lobbyists try to argue, this isn’t irrationality. It’s rationality in perfect working order. It’s fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice, shame on me. Is the anti-vaxxer overreacting? Not if it’s her child we’re talking about.

Are we done? No, what remains is the refuge of last resort for the intellectual fakir, namely the claim that his opponent doesn’t really believe what he espouses. A denialist, says he, is one who knows the truth but for personal gain advances the falsehood anyway.

How does the accuser know this? There’s no point asking a liar if he’s lying. The accuser could induce that his opponent might be lying for personal gain if he himself is prone to lying for personal gain. But he’s not, so the accusation must be grounded on … On what? On that he must know what I know because I know it, and so if he’s asserting otherwise he must be lying. Or if he’s not lying, he’s been duped by those who are.

So who’s a denialist? He’s either a liar or a dupe. Why a dupe? Because he’s someone who doesn’t trust who I trust. Of course I’m not a dupe. How could I be? How do I know that he’s a dupe and I’m not? you ask? It’s self-evident.

To whom?

To me, of course. What other self have I got?

So what is there left for denialism to be? A move in a language game, and not a very laudable one. It has no cognitive content, but it’s thought to have perlocutionary heft, though only on those stupid enough not to notice the con. It pretends to say something, but really it’s an attempt to win the argument by pretending the argument’s already won. It’s a facon de parler “twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.”

In all these debates – over AGW, vaccination, 9/11, the list goes on and on – plenty are the knaves. And plenty more are the fools. Don’t be a fool. Or better yet, do us all a favor and just don’t be a knave.

JEWS, THE SHOAH, AND IDENTITY POLITICS

 

There’s not a whole lot that’s special about us Jews. Yes, we do celebrate Easter by drinking the blood of a Christian baby, preferably one still wet from the baptismal fount. But other than that we’re pretty much like everyone else. As Shylock asked rhetorically, “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

What’s a little bit different about us, however, is that most of us have far fewer relatives than most of our gentile friends and acquaintances. And this oddity has provoked some of us, myself included, to wonder why. It’s not that I miss the relatives I don’t have, or just wish I had more. Given the relatives I do have the ones I don’t would probably be very much like them, which I realize doesn’t say much, except that, well … Nor do I feel sad on their behalf for their not being, since not being they can hardly feel anything at all, let alone sad about it.

Still, there’s something that niggles. Other than had they otherwise been destined to be childless from either infertility or choice, for every person who isn’t there’s a whole string of people who won’t be as well. What of it? But there’s something different about the whole string of people who won’t be notwithstanding there was someone who was. I suppose this is why we feel sorry for people who want but can’t have children, or disapprove, if only mildly, of people who choose not to. And so – no, I won’t say what’s special, so I’ll just say – what’s different about the string of people who aren’t but would have been my relatives if they were, is that they aren’t notwithstanding there were people who were, and so would have been their ancestors and mine, were it not for …

Well now, that’s the wondrous part. They were, but then of a sudden they weren’t. Of a sudden, not in the trivial sense that everyone who’s ever been or ever will be has gone or will go from being to not being, pretty much of a sudden. Rather of a sudden in the sense that the lion’s share of the ancestors of the relatives most of us Jews don’t have, all ceased to be within an unnaturally short period of time, namely from September of 1939 to April of 1945.

The Hebrew word for this mass ceasing to be within an unnaturally short period of time is ‘shoah’, which roughly translates to disaster or catastrophe. And the word for the particular shoah that happened during those five and half years is the same word but capitalized.

I’ve already confessed that their having ceased to be within this unnaturally short period of time is not much of a catastrophe for me. After all, I managed to squeak through. And I can’t see why I should be a whole lot different from any other Jew of my generation. So the capital-S Shoah must refer to its having been a catastrophe for those who ceased to be during those years, and for those who knew and loved them. And since – give it another decade or so – all of those people will be dead, any disastrousness will shortly be entirely over. That it was a disaster will perdure, but that it is one will not.

But surely this can’t be right. Surely as a Jew I have as much right to appropriate to myself the disastrousness of the Shoah as did any of those handful of orphaned children who walked out of those camps.

Or do I? Let’s see.

I say “as a Jew” for two reasons. First, no one has an automatic right to grieve. It has to be, if not earned, then at least inherited. So no, a gentile is not entitled to share in our grief. This is why most Jews are not comforted by gestures of solidarity over the Shoah, and only pretend to be so as not to offend their well-meaning gentile friends.

I realize this is a bit off-putting. “Why can’t I feel your pain?” you might ask. For the same reason I can’t feel yours. You need it said more philosophically? Okay then, pain is theory-laden. The difference between a muscle spasm and an orgasm is in the head. It’s in what it means to you. You’ve lost a child. So have I. Do you really want to say what you’re feeling and what I’m feeling are indistinguishable?

And second, though there’s no gentile who hasn’t suffered some shoah of her own – be it a tsunami, a car crash, a plane crash followed by the collapse of a building – these people didn’t die because they were gentiles.

In fact there’s a sense in which, even if a sick one, because the Shoah was racial it wasn’t personal. That’s no consolation, of course. For any one of us his death is his death, and we all die alone.

Of course in that sense neither was 9/11 personal. But it wasn’t collective either. That is, they weren’t sought out as gentiles. They were people who both just happened to be gentiles – or at least most of them were – and just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their dying, as distinct from three thousand other people dying in an office tower in LA rather than New York, has no more significance than the three thousand people who died on American highways the weekend before 9/11 and the three thousand who’ve died on its highways every weekend since. And the fact that it was done deliberately rather than accidentally makes it no more significant than the number who die every week in gun violence in America. So no, those kinds of shoahs are one thing, the Shoah was something else.

Why? Because of the numbers? In part yes. Since we emerged from the cave, if not before, people have been slaughtered because of their race, or their religion, or their whatever, by the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands … I don’t know. How many Amalekites were there when God told the Israelites to leave not so much as an anencephalic alive? Met any Amalekites lately? Well now you know why. And if the Final Solution had proven truly final, and the entire history of the Jews expunged as was the history of the Amalekites – tried any Amalekite recipes lately? – in a couple hundred years we’d shrug off the Shoah with the alacrity with which we shrug off the ethnic cleansing of Canaan. “Oh well,” we’d say, “nature red in tooth and claw. So, moving on …”

So the numbers yes, in the sense that we don’t place the Maori extermination of the Moriori anywhere near the category of the Shoah. But also, I suspect, it matters that, unlike the former, the latter was unfinished business. The Sephardic population was left pretty much intact. We Ashkenazis were cut to about a third, So combined our numbers were pretty close to halved, from about 13 million in ’39 to about 7 in ’45. And since ’45 we’ve almost, but not quite, kept up with the rest of the world, current estimates running somewhere between 16 and 18, depending on who counts and who’s doing the counting.

And so that, unlike the Amalekites, we weren’t wiped out – though certainly until Stalingrad it looked like we’d soon be on the endangered species list – is important in two ways. First, that we’re here to play our Jew cards, and second that, well, let’s face it, we’ve got great PR! So, it would seem, for a genocide to claim the status of anything approaching the Shoah, it needs numbers, check, incompleteness, check, and probably – but maybe now I’m reaching – at least a modicum of systematicity.

By which I don’t mean that it has to be done efficiently. By most accounts neither the Armenian nor the Rwandan genocides were. In fact that lack of efficiency has been used by both the Turks and the Hutu to show that the violence, such as it was, was entirely spontaneous, and only appeared systematic and so government-sponsored, from the outside. And at that only because of the unusually high body count.

In fact the same argument is used by Holocaust [sic] deniers. Yes, they concede, conditions in the camps were less than ideal, and became especially desperate towards the end of the war. And had there been gas chambers, that would be a sure sign of the intention to exterminate rather than intern and harness these internees for the war effort. But there weren’t, and so there wasn’t. And they have the forensics to prove it!

But I’m not sure that the significance of systematicity ends with the establishment of intention. I suspect we focus on it because it betokens a kind of Nietzschean transcendence of morality that runs a shiver up our spines. Hannah Arendt saw it as a rendering ho-hum the whole genocidal enterprise, in her words “the banality of evil”.

But whether rightly or not, we sense that the same cannot be said of the Turks or the Hutu. There’s probably no small measure of racism in this judgment. These people, we tell ourselves, are in (what John Stuart Mill called) their nonage. Their passions of the moment overtake them. Whereas not so the Germans. They’re white. White violence, though certainly violent, seems less passionate, and hence all the more frightening, precisely because it’s measured, under strict rational control.

I’m not the first to try, however fumblingly, to capture what makes the Shoah unique, or at least what makes us think it is. Nor will I be the last. But very soon now – I give it another fifty years tops – I would be the last, because this navel-gazing will be lost on high school history students a couple generations hence. In fact it’s already beginning to fade.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. This idea of Santayana’s that “those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it,” stirring pith though it be, is just patter. As the treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza clearly demonstrates, the lesson learned from the Warsaw Ghetto was not “Never again!”, but rather “Never again us!”

But in saying that the ethos of the Shoah will gradually fade, I’m clearly adding yet a fourth consideratum, namely that the Shoah stands out because it’s still relatively recent.

But so is Rwanda.

Yes, but Rwandans are black.

So as I say, if what makes the Shoah special was that it was genocide, then it really wasn’t. It wasn’t special, that is, not that it wasn’t genocide. It was genocide, but that didn’t make it special. The Armenians can file a similar grievance, as can the Tutsi. For that matter, so can the Hutu. The reason why we don’t make much of the Hutu genocide as such is because we think they had it coming. But of course some think the same about the Jews. And I know of at least nineteen young men who thought the same about 9/11.

So sympathy turns out to be more than a little partisan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fair game, but Auschwitz and Treblinka were not. If the Manhattan Project had succeeded a few months earlier than it did, would Berlin have been fair game? Or would Germans have been given a pass because they’re white? If the Israelis don’t stop treating Gaza the way the Nazis treated the Warsaw Ghetto, would a second Shoah – supposing, however implausible, the Palestinians had the wherewithal – inherit the injustice of the first? Or would it have to be assessed on its own merits?

But back to my right to play my Jew card, which, to my credit, I do only very sparingly. What’s at issue, I suspect, is this business of collective inherited entitlement, and its inverse, collective inherited liability.

Philosophers of law warn that this way there be dragons, because our intuitions are all over the map on this. On the one hand, why should I be liable for acts of malfeasance committed before I was born? On the other, how else could a treaty between two peoples ever end a war?

On the one hand, one’s Confirmation is needed to confirm what was done in her name by others. On the other, in the absence of our foundation myth – according to which Abraham made covenant with God on behalf of his seed – we wouldn’t be Jews.

So we want to be able to claim some entitlements for ourselves – the summer cottage, the Land of Israel – and at the same time deny others – aboriginal land claims, that the invasion of Iraq, a.k.a. the Tigris-Euphrates valley, was really just a homecoming.

We want to be able to impose some liabilities on others – war reparations, Christian guilt over the Shoah – and yet shirk those that others would impose on us – compensation for the internment of Japanese-Canadians, or for the failure to provide proper consular services to Maher Arar and Omar Khadr.

What masquerades as principle, in these cases, is really just expense. We’re not going to just get on our boats and go back to wherever our ancestors came from, so we tell ourselves that the cannons trained on those Blackfoot villages couldn’t have had anything to do with the signing of Treaty 7. Ultimately Arar, and then more recently Khadr, did get a payout, but it was much less than what it would have cost Canada diplomatically, and therefore economically, to have protected them from American malfeasance back when that malfeasance took place. So yes, justice is a bean counter. Entitlements and liabilities are always just a function of cost. And the same holds for entitlements and liabilities claimed and imposed past the lifetimes of the original actors.

But all this establishes is that I could claim the Shoah as my personal tragedy, not that that claim should be honored. I play my Jew card and you might answer with, “Sorry, that came out of your sleeve, not the deck.”

And it’s here, I suspect, that we’ve hit pulp. Whether I can play my Jew card is just a matter of whether you’ll let me. And you might let me even if I’m not Jewish. After all, what are you going to do? Ask to see my circumcision? I have a friend who regularly plays his I’ve-had-a-child-die card. What am I going to do? Ask for the death certificate? So since I can play either card to the same effect whether real or counterfeit, it’s really just a question of your giving or declining to give uptake to its domain-specific trump. If you’re a Palestinian I’m guessing you won’t. And not because you’re a Shoah-denier or because for you, because Moslems also circumcise, my circumcision doesn’t establish my Jewishness.

A card laid is a card played. Fair enough. I’ve lost a child too, a daughter as it happens, though that’s a card I’ve never played nor ever will. But an ace is high in only some games. It would be churlish for you to call me on my child-of-the-Shoah card, just as it would be churlish of me to call you on your I’ve-had-a-child-die card. So to trump in whatever games they’re being played, both cards, it seems, must be accompanied by the don’t-be-churlish card, which can only be trumped in turn by the don’t-play-your-don’t-be-churlish-card card. And so on.

This is the problem with identity politics. Identities are cards. Cards are constituents of games. We pick the card we think will be treated as trump. When it’s not we feel cheated. I probably have as many alleles in common with Nelson Mandela as I do with Moses. But you’re not allowed to point this out. Those drummers performing down in the Atrium for Native Awareness Week have no more awareness of what they’re drumming than I do. But I’m not allowed to say that either.

So the bottom line seems to be this. The Law of the Return [sic] covers me, notwithstanding it’s possible, indeed quite likely, that not a single ancestor of mine has ever laid foot on Palestinian soil. But it doesn’t cover my Palestinian neighbor whose birth certificate proves he was born there. Why? Because a) I self-identify with the fiction that some ancestor of mine had laid foot on Palestinian soil, and did so as an Israelite, and because b) those administering the Law of the Return have accepted that identification. And because my neighbor, notwithstanding he was born there, in the judgment of these administrators, he was born there as a Palestinian rather than an Israelite.

And what this shows is that self-identification is neither a sufficient nor even a necessary condition of identity. Plenty are the gentiles who were gassed having had no idea they were Jewish. In a very real sense, then – and for many if not most intents and purposes – you’re Jewish just in case other people regard you as Jewish. And this raises the question of whether it makes sense to ask whether they could be mistaken. If self-identification is analytic and so infallible, why should other-identification be any different? And this just leads to what logicians call ‘detonation’. That’s where absurdities multiply exponentially ad infinitum.

We can prevent these absurdities by doing away with identity politics altogether. No borders, no citizenship, no treaties, neither collective entitlements nor collective liabilities … But we can’t function without these. So we’re stuck.

We can’t prevent detonation, but unlike with logic, we can limit it. We limit it by saying, Yes, such and such is a logical implication of how we’ve identified who’s entitled to what, but that particular implication is unacceptable to us, and so we’ve just decided not to recognize it.

That might not get us a pass on a logic test, but we’re not trying to pass a test, we’re trying to pass muster. Political identity, not unlike the status of the foetus, is just one of those things that can’t be jammed into one our either-it’s-a-this-or-it’s-a-that categories, and when we try to force it we just get jam on our hands. No, Virginia, the foetus is neither a person nor someone’s property. It’s a possible someone’s premains. No, Virginia, Jews aren’t a race or a religion or an ethnicity. They’re a collection of damned-if-I-know’s. There are plenty of other damned-if-I-know’s in the world. Learning to live with them is sometimes a bitch. We’re very sorry about that.