ISRAEL’S NEW NATION STATE LAW

 

Eighty-three years after the National Socialist government of Germany passed the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935, the Zionist government of Israel has decided to follow suit.

It wasn’t inevitable, but perhaps predictable. Eighty-three years is a long time to hope history wouldn’t repeat itself, even with some of the same players. And besides, whatever’s happening today with Israel’s treatment of its 1.8 million Palestinian citizens bears no resemblance to what happened back then with Germany’s treatment of its Jewish citizens; though of course they weren’t citizens after 1935, so perhaps the comparison isn’t apt.

The Nation State law in Israel merely privileges Jews, which can’t possibly amount to second-class-ifying Palestinians. And any resemblance between the wall surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto and the fence surrounding Gaza – and the shelling of those imprisoned within it – is purely coincidental. Just because two things look the same doesn’t mean they are. The identity of indiscernibles is an anti-Zionist trope. And anti-Zionism is just another word for anti-Semitism.

Hmm …

Critics of the new law concede that it doesn’t change anything. It merely reiterates what was unequivocally promulgated seventy years earlier in 1948.

True, but not entirely. It puts the world on notice that more sinister things are on their way. Those 1.8 million Palestinians – and their 3.5 million brothers and sisters in the Occupied Territories – are costing seven million Jewish Israeli taxpayers considerably. One way or the other they have to be got rid of. A two-state solution provides relief from both the economic and human costs of occupation, but it also provides a place to which Palestinians must ‘return’, as distinct from the may return cited in the Israeli Law of the Return.

And why not? Most Jews were no more native to Palestine than most Palestinians will be to the West Bank and Gaza. What’s important is having one’s own country. What’s less important is where.

The Palestinians know this is what a two-state solution is all about. And it’s that awareness that accounts for their being less than entirely sanguine about an ‘independent’ Palestinian state. The two-state solution is just the Israeli euphemism for what, prior to the fall of Apartheid in 1989, the South Africans euphemistically called the ‘Homelands’.

And the Israelis, for their part, want guarantees of security from any sovereign ‘homeland’, a guarantee they can never have without that second state being governed, as is the West Bank today, by a Quizling regime.

So some of us Jews – and by the way, in much the way only blacks can call each other nigger, we call ourselves self-loathing – are still holding out hope against all hope for a one-state solution, in which Jews and Arabs alike will share all of what was once Palestine, with a Law of the Return applying to Jews, certainly, but equally to Palestinians displaced by the wars of ’48 and ’67.

The ratio of Palestinians absorbed by the world outside of Palestine is not orders of magnitude off that of Jews still in Diaspora. Both run at about twice the number living in-country. That’s also on par with Italians living outside Italy, Greeks outside Greece, Portuguese outside Portugal, and so on. But to refer to them as in diaspora would be a bit of a stretch.

Not so with Jews and Palestinians. Why not? Because Jews and Palestinians living abroad identify in a way that Italians and others do not. That identification is unlikely to dissipate soon, in part because of the Shoah and the Nakba, but also because there are those in-country who depend on those out-country to so identify.

In this Israel/Palestine is not entirely unique. For many years Irish-Americans considered themselves Irish first and Americans second. One of the vectors that brought the Troubles in Northern Ireland to an end was that Irish-Americans began to perceive the silliness of the Catholic/Protestant divide.

And so one source of hope is that Jewish and Palestinians in diaspora will begin to feel a similar embarrassment, and start sitting around each other’s tables. For one thing Palestinians can cook and Jews can’t. For another Jews are funny and Palestinians aren’t. Ultimately these are the things that matter. Walls that wail and domes that rock are the things of children’s songs.

 

 

A MODEST WORRY AND A MODEST PROPOSAL

 

Living next to the American juggernaut puts Canadians in an ambiguous position. It’s not that we’re worried that the current American drift towards fascism is going to spill over the border. Not all, but I think enough Canadians find the level of political maturity south of the 49th so risible that we’d be too embarrassed to imitate it. But not unlike the Poles in the summer of 1939, we do worry – perhaps too much, perhaps too little – that his base will find our ridicule of their Fuhrer too “curbing of their enthusiasm,” and they’ll feel a need to do something about it. North Korea and Iran could and would fight back, as did England and Russia. But we’d be little Denmark.

It wouldn’t last. Fascism never does. But putting up with it while it does would be, at the very least, an inconvenience.

The signs of this approaching courtship with fascism are multiplying daily. Economic, military, and moral brinkmanship are always the three dead giveaways. But so are the signs of seeing the signs. Already many Canadians are avoiding flights that touch down in the U.S. en route to or back from Europe or the Far East. There are just too many horror stories. Why court that kind of anxiety?

I live abroad a third of the year. Republicans don’t travel. And certainly not abroad. So when I encounter an American I never get other than a shaking of the head and deep embarrassment. This time it’s not the Jews who are thinking twice about returning home. This time it’s everybody else.

There’s a culture war taking place in America. It’s about who can use what bathroom and who must use what pronouns. And, well, maybe a few other things. Americans caught in the middle aren’t going to go to the wall over bathrooms and pronouns, so they go to ground instead, leaving everything above ground to the alt-right. Who knew the alt-right was even there?! And now it’s everywhere.

Fascism can’t grow and survive without an enemy. And the forces of bathroom and pronoun silliness are providing it with one. It’s the makings of a perfect storm.

I’m an anti-awfulizer. I’m guessing it’s all going to just blow over. But I think there are a few things the rest of the world can do to ensure it does.

Start by insisting that every international scientific, academic, and professional association moves its convention to a venue outside the U.S., and do it on the grounds that Moslem would-be attendees can no longer be confident they’ll be allowed into the country. That threatens to turn America into a hewer of wood and fetcher of water, which earns precious little foreign currency compared to software programs and MRI’s. In very short order the best minds in the country will have left it, and the best students, both foreign and domestic, will have followed them out.

In short, shun and isolate where it hurts the most. Where it hurts the most is not in Iowa. Where it hurts the most is in Silicon Valley and Seattle. That’s what “makes America great”. Soybeans don’t.

But it wouldn’t need to come to any of this. No need to threaten. Just do. The talking heads will figure it out soon enough. Soon enough that it needn’t come to any of this.

But, of course, this is a collective action problem. And as Garrett Harding pointed out, all too often the result is a tragedy of the commons. This tragedy – the tragedy of a bout of fascism in America – won’t destroy the world, but it would be, at the very least, an inconvenience.

 

 

CAN UNSOLICITED POETRY BE SEXUAL ASSAULT?

 

I have no problem with your sexual orientation provided you stop calling it that.

You say you’re not attracted to women. Well, I’m not attracted to most of them either. And of the ones I am attracted to, the last thing I want is to have sex with them. Kissing, fondling, cuddling, oral, anal … sure. But what do any of these have to do with sex? I was taught that sex is about how certain organisms reproduce, namely that amoeba duplicate themselves by cell division whereas we do it by combining reproductive cells. But unless the birds-and-the-bees talk I was given when I was ten was all tongue in cheek, nothing from the list above is going to eventuate in offspring.

It’s true that some things on that list arouse in us the same feelings we have when aroused sexually. But so does having to sneeze. It’s true that the release we feel when we ejaculate into a hand or an anus or a mouth is indistinguishable from the release we feel when we ejaculate into a vagina. But that doesn’t make them the same thing.

I’m not saying that it’s the intention that marks the distinction, because more often than not what we’re intending when we ejaculate into a vagina is the same thing we’re intending when we ejaculate into a mouth. Rather I must be drawing a strict liability distinction. If but only if you ejaculate into a vagina are you, knowingly or not, incurring the possibility of offspring. And that’s why it’s called having sex.

But hang on. I had a vasectomy when I was thirty, after which I wasn’t incurring the possibility of offspring, and so on my account I haven’t had sex in thirty-eight years. Moreover, what if I have vaginal intercourse but fail to ejaculate? I might say I had unsatisfying sex, but would I say I hadn’t had sex at all?

So clearly I have to modify my account. The problem is that any such modification is going to invoke an endless series of embedded counterfactuals. But what will constrain my counterfactualizing? If I say something about how it would incur the possibility of reproduction if I hadn’t had a vasectomy, why can’t my critic point out that anal sex would too if the anus was also a vagina? I suspect the more I try to repair my position the worse it’s going to get for me.

So all I have to offer is a tu quoque. Your definition of sex is too broad. If I read you a poem without asking if you’d like to hear it, I could be guilty of a sexual assault. Oh the fun I could have if you try to define what you mean by sex!

There is, of course, the fallback we-know-it-when-we-see-it position. But that’s precisely the protocol that’s been getting us into so much jurisprudential trouble. Someone feels she’s being sexualized, and so she must have been. It’s the way he shook my hand.

So all I’m saying here is that the term sex, and those innumerable words in its locution-set, are carrying too much baggage to be of any use save in their original and so paradigmatic heterosexual coital sense. So all I’m suggesting here is that we coin another term for the kind of physical and/or verbal contact we’re concerned about, and then add adjectives like ‘consensual’ or ‘uninvited’ or ‘sensitive’ or ‘exploitative’, or whatever positive or negative spin we want to put on it.

Some jurisdictions have already done this, re-describing rape as simply a species of assault. Others never did distinguish between the two. So to what purpose do we feel a need to distinguish assault and sexual assault? To the same purpose, I suppose, we feel a need to distinguish a crime and a hate crime. The latter is an aggravating element, which we’d like to see decided by the jury in its verdict rather than the judge in her sentencing. All other things being equal, being beaten is one thing. Being stripped and then beaten is something worse.

But since, on the account I’m flogging here, neither being beaten nor being stripped and then beaten bear any more relation to sex than does being read a poem, I’m proposing we re-describe the stripping as having something to do with involuntary bodily exposure, or at least something like that, and penetration as having something to do with the violation of one’s bodily boundaries, or something like that.

Why? What’s wrong with the current grab bag of these being sexual aggravations? Nothing, except that, as things stand, for aught I know your sexual orientation refers to your taste in poetry. Call me a recalcitrant bigot if you like, but dammit I want to be free to mock your love of Emily Dickinson without being accused of being whatever-you-are-phobic!

THINGS YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW

 

We all have things we’re better off not knowing. I don’t want to know how my meat gets from field to supermarket. Others don’t want to know just how fair Fair Trade coffee really isn’t. And I’m betting you don’t want to know what I’m about to tell you. So stop reading. Now!

No? Okay, you asked for it.

For thirty-six years, from 1975 until 2011, I worked – albeit pro bono dammit! – with a private charity that funded the lion’s share of all the orphanages in whatever territories had been, as of the filing for its charter in 1903, under the protection of the French Republic. This included Indochina until the fall of Saigon in 1975. But to this day it covers what was, until the mid-60’s, all of French West Africa. So when I say what I’m about to, I know at least somewhat whereof I speak.

As I’ve said, my foundation was a private one. It was founded by the French rubber tycoons of the turn of the century and then the nascent pharmaceutical industry of the interbellum. It neither needs nor desires to raise money. But most charitable foundations do. So this is really only about them.

Borderline poverty is quaint. But real poverty is just ugly. Ugly doesn’t sell. Pathos combined with cute does. So the poverty industry – and that’s what it is – hires photographers who pick the kids with the roundest faces and the biggest eyes, and then they smear sugar water around the eyes and nose and mouth to attract the flies. Flies are big sellers. Emaciated bodies too. There’s a science to this. It’s all been focus grouped.

As has the better destinations for poverty tourism. The hotel has to have a minimum of three stars. And when your church – it’s usually fundamentalist, but occasionally mainstream – sends certifiably devout Steve and Cindy and their six young children to help dig a well – because Africans have yet to learn how to operate a shovel – their home has to have a swimming pool. And, if I may be forgiven the word, hell hath no fury like sweet Cindy when the power goes out and there’s been no air conditioning for well over an hour.

Some organizations – not mine, thank God! – maintain show orphanages, not all that dissimilar to Theresienstadt, where children are schooled in how to hug the white visitor. You’ve seen the pictures. The gratitude could only be genuine, and it’s truly heart-warming.

On average over sixty percent of the orphans my foundation funded were not. Nor were they abandoned by their parents. They were sent to us because we could feed them, which their parents couldn’t. And because we could provide them a rudimentary education, which their parent’s couldn’t. But these not-their-parents parents took unstinting pains to visit whenever they could, which is why we were always reluctant to move these facilities out of range of Boko Haram, or their north-of-Nigeria affiliates, who’d otherwise treat them as their private supermarket for child soldiers. In fact that’s why, in 2012, we pressured Nicolas Sarkozy to send French soldiers to Mali. To his everlasting credit when he meets his Maker, he did.

It’s impossible to garner the percentage rake-off – more charitably known as overhead – for public foundations, because each invents its own creative bookkeeping. The lion’s share goes to raising the money. Your $100 a plate dinner is mostly about you and your spouse being seen at it by other couples who are there to be seen at it by you. A goodly part of the rest is siphoned off by all those hundreds of outstretched hands between the scraps from that dinner and anyone’s mouth.

But lest you think there’s ground for outrage here, don’t. People who need to curry your favor will parrot your language just as they do your dress code. But not unlike democracy, corruption is your concept, not theirs. People in your world can afford to decline free money. People in theirs can’t. That’s one of the things that make the Third World third, and that keep it that way.

I once managed to manage a transfer from foundation to stomach with less than a 97% rake-off, and prided myself for it, because very early on in my involvement with this stuff I came to realize that it’s not about the 97, it’s about the 3. $3 was a lot of money on the streets of Saigon in 1975 to the children of mostly black American soldiers and ethnic Chinese prostitutes. The soldiers had returned to the States, and the prostitutes – the ones who weren’t just shot outright – were sent to re-education camps. Tabs were hard to keep in those circumstances, but few if any of them ever returned to reclaim their children.

Wars eventually end. The detritus takes a bit longer.

One day I met a soldier from the Darfur who assured me, “We’re not stealing their food drops. The people give it to us. They want to make us strong so we can defend them against the rebels who’ve been stealing their food drops.” Between a rock and a hard place. That’s where civil war places most of the people involved who’d rather not be.

But it’s also where civil war places would-be decent people like you and me. Organizations like B’nai Brith tell us that our contributions are earmarked for humanitarian purposes only. But this is obfuscation. Money is fungible. Whatever Hamas or Hezbollah doesn’t have to spend on schools it can spend on resistance to the Occupation. Whatever the Israeli government doesn’t have to spend on hospitals it can spend on gunships. So designating one organization but not the other as terrorist, and then criminalizing the funding of one but not the other, is a political act, one that either turns the non-partisan philanthropist into a partisan one or puts the kibosh on his philanthropy altogether.

These are not great options, especially if you and your spouse want to be seen at that $100 a plate dinner next week. But be fair. I did warn you. Still, one saving grace of human cognition is that with a little effort we can and do learn to forget the things we don’t want to know. Were this not so I’m not sure we could function in the world.

TRUMP, VOLTAIRE, AND EDMUND BURKE

In real estate it all comes down to location, location, location. In comedy it’s all about timing. Put the two together and that’s all that can be said about one’s own take on the world. From the here and now, from within this moment in history, it looks to me like fill-in-the-blank.

Well then, from the here and now, and from within this moment in history, it looks to me like we’re in for a bout of fascism. How deeply in depends on where I’m standing and on what day. But there’s certainly something going on, don’t you think? And if it looks like a pig, sounds like a pig, and smells like a pig … well, chances are it just is an oncoming bout of fascism.

To be fair, when two things look alike, there’s no guarantee they are. So that the fence surrounding Gaza, and the shelling of those imprisoned within it, looks an awful lot like the Warsaw Ghetto, could be mere coincidence. The devil is always in the details. On the other hand, “Ah, but that’s different!” is precisely the devil’s stock refrain.

Of course this seeing the mark of Satan behind every Trumpish smirk could all just be awfulizing. Maybe, as that schlocky poem we all have on the fridge assures us, the universe is unfolding as it should. Maybe, as Voltaire counsels, we just need to tend our garden.

But if a bout of fascism is upon us, how long it will last is anyone’s guess. Mussolini held it together for twenty-one years. The Thousand Year Reich lasted twelve. Trump has at most another six and a half to go. Will I live to see it crest and then recede? Probably. But in the interim I needn’t worry too much, because I have a garden.

But a goodly number of the other seven and a half billion people in the world don’t. The gardens they once had are scorched by drought. Or civil war. Or just too many hands pulling at too few stalks from the same vegetable patch.

I’m not a political scientist. I’m not qualified to opine on what’s caused the current drift towards fascism in Europe and America. I know it’s not everywhere, any more than it was everywhere in the 30’s. The worry is not that it’ll spill over to where it’s yet to take hold. The worry is that it will consider itself threatened by where it hasn’t, and that it will take measures to ensure that threat is eliminated. Thus as a Canadian I’m beginning to feel the same vulnerability that must have been experienced by the Poles in 1938 living next door to the National Socialist juggernaut. Hitler was as risible then as Trump is now. But a year later no one was laughing.

So I’m caught between the poem on my fridge and Voltaire on the one side, and my knee-jerk post-Shoah paranoia on the other. My problem is there seems to be no way to calculate the probabilities and bet accordingly. In this it’s exactly parallel to the global warming debate. If I join the Chicken Littles and it turns out Trump and Salvini were just comedic interludes in the otherwise perfectly normal story of human folly and redemption, I’m going to squander a lot of intellectual energy. And what’s worse, I’m going to look silly. But if I heed the poem and Voltaire, and it turns out Edmund Burke was right that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” then I’m going to have been no less complicit than was Pius XII in the evil about to be unleashed on the world.

So in the face of this damned-if-I-do and damned-if-I-don’t, here’s my provisional policy:

The walls of our City have many gates and many towers, each of which has to be manned twenty-four seven. Let the gatekeepers beware of Greeks bearing gifts. My own watch, from nine to five Mondays through Fridays, is on one of the towers. What happens on her watch from her tower falls to her, and on his watch from his tower to him. But what happens on my watch from my tower falls to me.

Her watch looks out onto the Libyan Coast Guard vessel turning away from rather than rescuing the dinghy that’s just capsized. His looks out onto the purging from our public institutions those who would speak truth to power. And mine looks out onto Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

For all our vigilance, at the end of the day the City may fall nonetheless. There’s a distinct possibility Trump will be re-elected, that players who take a knee will be banned from the NFL that the ongoing slaughter of Palestinians will be condemned by the Pope, but not too strongly, since he’ll reason as did Pius XII that he doesn’t have the cura for non-Catholics. And so on. In short it’ll be the Nuremberg Laws light. Maybe some of these things are unlikely, but none is impossible.

Fortunately noxious memes replicate until they kill off their hosts. It’s only a matter of time. I realize that’s small consolation for those who don’t have time. God works through history. Injustice doesn’t. It’s very particular, and very personal. I suspect that’s what Voltaire was trying to tell us. Tend to your garden, because that’s where a Jew may be hiding from the Gestapo, or a Salvadorian from ICE,

AN ALIEN PERSPECTIVE

 

Three score and eight years ago I landed on this planet, but I think it might have been from another one. I say this because I understand so little of why humans think as they do, and they seem to understand even less of why I think as I do. So that my cognitive apparatus wasn’t naturally selected for for living on this planet seems a not unreasonable hypothesis.

Where I think the stork was meant to drop me was a place as “red in tooth and claw” as this one, both between and within species, but where people with common cause knew it and acted accordingly. Here people seem to know when they have common cause, but they seem incapable of joint action even when such action is risk-free and guaranteed to win them the day.

It could be that what they’re afraid of is not failure but success. We don’t need to storm the Bastille and behead the tyrant. A critical mass of us could bring down a malfeasant government, be it of a nation or a village or a university, by simply withdrawing uptake to its authority. But if we do we’re worried that others might deploy the same surefire tactic against us. And so there’s an unwritten understanding that we won’t do this to each other.

If this is right, and I suspect it is, it’s a fascinating – I won’t say departure, so I’ll just say – twist in the logic of social evolution. It places stability ahead of virtually every other value, including prosperity, justice, even survival. Think of the hundreds of thousands who, even when the war was clearly lost, walked upright into volley after volley of Soviet artillery because the Fuhrer told them to. Think of our own policemen who, knowing full well that the law was unconscionable, nevertheless felt it their duty to arrest some acne-ed kid for enjoying a spliff in the park.

“Ours is not to reason why …” And yet I would have thought it is.

On the planet where I think I come from, we don’t march on the capitol or city hall or the Dean’s office demanding that he step down. We just all act as if he has. What can he do? Yes, he can appeal to due process. But to suppose due process is going to shield him from our indifference presupposes we’re not indifferent to what process is due. But we are, at least when it cease to do what it’s there for. It’s almost as if Germany had won the war

Another thing I don’t understand is why people think every question is a rhetorical one. I made the mistake of wondering aloud how 9/11 could’ve been an inside job with nary a one of the hundreds who’d have had to have been involved spilling the beans, and for my troubles I was dubbed a paid defender of the official story. Mind you, the same 9/11-Truther who’d reasoned this way about me got his own comeuppance recently when he asked a question about the Shoah and found himself written up in the newspapers as a Holocaust denier. So I suppose what goes around comes around.

On the planet where I think I come from, if the sentence is an interrogative we’re not asserting anything, we’re asking a question. By contrast, when we want to assert something we make it a declarative. I figured out fairly early on in my sojourn here how rhetorical questions function in human speech. But what I can’t figure out is how humans go about asking a question to which they don’t pretend to already have the answer. Is it possible that so many questions remain unanswered on this planet because no way has been found to ask them?

If this is right – and I think it might be – then this would explain why people can’t seem to get their shit together about global warming, or vaccination safety, or any of a hundred other challenges to the survival of the species. Solutions require answers to questions. But if no question can be asked without coming across as already having the answer, then no new answers can be forthcoming. Wouldn’t it be a cosmic embarrassment if the human race rendered itself extinct because of a grammatical trope? Grist indeed for Douglas Adams, though sadly he’s no longer with us.

I could go on, so I will.

There’s a South Park episode in which there’s a plane crash, and the deceased are being processed through the Pearly Gates. One of them asks which religion got it right. The presiding official checks his clipboard and, looking very surprised himself, announces, “The Mormons. Now who would have guessed that?!”

Well, as a matter of fact the Mormons did get it right. But after visiting the New World, Jesus went on to the one I now remember I do come from. He came, we chatted, and, not unlike what He did when He was here, on His way out to His next appointment He graced us with the set of rules it was His Father’s wish that we henceforth live by.

It’s not that we didn’t read them. In fact we agreed with the ones that were analytic. For example, “Thou shalt not kill,” He told us.

Ever? we asked.

“Well no, not when you should.”

And when is that?

“Well, that’s something you’re going to have to work out among yourselves.”

So you’re telling us we shouldn’t kill when we think we shouldn’t kill. Is that it? Yeah, I guess we could manage that.

But some of the more substantive ones we thought were patently ridiculous. I shouldn’t lie with a man as with a women? But what if I want to?

“No, that’s gross.”

Have you looked at some of the women some of us sleep with?

So to make a long story short, we asked Jesus to thank his Dad for His kind counsel, and carried on as we had before.

But when I got here, people seemed to think that this kind counsel was somehow incumbent upon us, as if someone Who’d never shared an incarnate life with other incarnate creatures knew something we didn’t know, notwithstanding we’ve had thousands of years of experience to inform our judgments.

I just don’t get it. I’m not sure that even God gets it. I think why any of us would think we need to comport ourselves to His druthers is as much a mystery to Him as it was to my people back where I now remember I came from. But people here, thinking the answer is too self-evident to articulate, have forgotten what it is.

This happens a lot among the Earthlings. It’s like having the name of that actor on the tip of your tongue, but …

That you can google. But I’ve tried googling why I should want God to make me an instrument of His will, and all I get is a do-you-mean “Make me an instrument of Thy will,” followed by millions of sites offering to pray with me, and millions more offering to pray for me. I especially appreciate the latter. It is a much-needed service. Many of us are too busy to pray for ourselves. But for all that, not one of these sites seems to understand my question, let alone tries to answer it.

So there you have it. Just three of what are hundreds of disconnects between me and those of you who’ve been kind enough to host me lo these last three score years and eight.

I knew you’d ask, and so yes, I have called home, and I’ve been assured I will be picked up in the fullness of time. In the fullness of time, they said. In the fullness of time. What the hell does in the fullness of time mean?!

THINGS THAT DON’T BEAR THINKING ABOUT

 

There are certain thought experiments that ought not to be performed. Here’s one:

Does the visceral reaction we all have about the Shoah – and by ‘all’ I mean we Jews and you Gentiles alike – have a best-before date? I’m thinking it does. And I don’t think it will be any later for Jews than for Gentiles.

It seems to me there are two elements to the Shoah that have been doing all the heavy lifting. These are its pathos and its injustice. With respect to the former, the Anne Frank diary is designed to remind us that these were all people like you and me.

But hold on. So were the victims of Mount Vesuvius.

Ah, but that was almost two thousand years ago.

And almost two thousand years hence won’t the Shoah be almost two thousand years ago? Masada was almost two thousand years ago. We might think it tells us something different than does Jonestown. But do any of us feel its pathos?

Then how ‘bout the Shoah’s injustice? These were all the victims of an injustice beyond human comprehension.

But hold on. So were the Amalekites. Moreover, if systematicity adds to the horror of an injustice, wasn’t the Amalekite genocide just as systematic?

So once again it would appear that time heals all wounds, be they inflicted on the ancestors of others or on our own.

When people die they need to be buried. But on a finite planet from time to time cemeteries have to be emptied and turned over to the more recently departed. And it’s likewise with memorials, regardless of what they memorialize. Shoah memorials sit atop some pretty pricey real estate. I give the ones in Berlin and Washington another fifty years tops. I give Yad Vashem even less. Why? Because when we run out of Palestinian land to expropriate to our own uses – and that day is rapidly approaching – we’ll have to reassign our own land to something more productive than commemorating our grievances.

There is no Italian who can trace her roots back to the Colloseum, nor can any modern day Greek lay claim to the Parthenon. Picture a grammar school field trip to the Alamo a thousand years from now. How many of these kids will identify with a bunch of white men who died fighting to ensure Texas would remain a slave state?

In many jurisdictions it’s a criminal offense to question the historicity of the Shoah. 1500 years after the fact it still made sense to Torquemada to burn at the stake anyone who questioned the historicity of the Empty Tomb. So maybe a hundred years hence revisionism will still be in the German Criminal Code. But I doubt it. Not unlike asserting the Armenian Genocide in Turkey, the criminalization of historical revisionism is a political gesture, and politics is never static.

As I say, these are the kinds of things that don’t bear thinking about. Not only are we cheapened by what we end up thinking about them; we’re cheapened by our thinking about them at all. This didn’t bear thinking about. So let’s not.

THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE WORLD

Once upon a time – or outside of it, if we’re to have it Boethius’ way – having nothing else to do, God decided to conjure in His mind all the worlds He could bring into being were He so inclined. (By a ‘world’, at least at this planning stage, is meant that set of propositions that would be true of a world if God decided to make it.) Then having made a print-out of each, He began picking them up pairwise, keeping the one He preferred and consigning the other to the trash.

In virtue of what He preferred this one over that one shall forever remain a mystery to us. But that plays no part in this story. All that matters is that at the end of the day He held in His hand the one He most preferred. And then, still having nothing else to do, He brought it into being.

How He brought it into being shall forever remain a mystery to us. But that too plays no part in this story.

That’s Leibniz’ story and he’s stickin’ to it. And as the setup to my story, so am I. So here’s my story.

Sometime later – though how much later is what this is all about – someone came along and, having nothing else to do, decided to conjure up all the possible histories of this world that God had created. In other words, all the possible sets of the sets of propositions that could be true of this world, from the moment of its creation to and including the present moment. Then, having made a print-out of each, he began picking them up pairwise, trying to decide which was more likely to actually be the history of the world, his hope being that, at the end of the day, what he’d hold in his hand would be the print-out of the set of propositions most likely to be the true history of the world.

Why anyone would want to know the true history of the world shall forever remain a mystery to me. But that plays no part in my story. All that matters is that there are people who do. And that it’s my job, as a cheque-casher of the widow’s mite, to help them get what they want.

Some of these possible histories were fifteen billion years long, others a scant six thousand, and still others only five minutes. But unlike how God did it, how long ago He did it – or if He didn’t do it someone or something did – seems to be the one part of the story the taxpayer wants to see resolved. So let’s see if we can fill that in.

Now some people think that histories leave footprints. That’s how I can tell there was a prowler in the yard last night. But what makes me think that’s how I can tell? Don’t I have to already believe that footprints – which there clearly are! – are caused by the temporally prior footfall of feet? And how did I come to know that?

Well, presumably because I saw someone step on a patch of ground, and immediately thereafter there was a footprint that hadn’t been there before. One such observation doth not a causal relation make, but enough of them, in the right order and without exception, doth. That’s just what and all a causal relation is. Histories leave footprints because what it is ‘to leave’ is just another way of saying ‘to cause’. Whatever happened, whenever it happened, caused other things to happen. And so even if we can’t always trace backwards from what’s happening now to what must have happened sometime back then, we can be reasonably confident that there was something that happened back then which was among the causal antecedents of what’s happening now.

Well, perhaps. But doesn’t this presuppose that this footfall followed by this footprint was a single event? Isn’t it possible that the footprint was one event, and a second event was the memory of a footfalling? In fact isn’t that a more precise account of what actually transpired? So it’s not that you saw a footfall causing a footprint. Nor is it even, as David Hume suggests instead, that you inferred the causal connection between the footprint and the footfall. It’s that you inferred the causal connection between the footprint and the memory of the footfall.

But it seems to me that once one grants this, she’s given away the farm. For what comes next is the possibility that that memory is in fact a pseudo-memory. What if the world came into being just at the moment you observed the footprint, but it came into being with the pseudo-memory of a footfall in your head? How can this possibility be discharged?

Note that you can’t discharge it by citing your observation that this kind of thing just doesn’t happen, since that presupposes what needs to be shown. But there’s no way it can be shown.

So what is shown? That philosophers of science are wrong to argue that what disqualifies the Five Minute Hypothesis is that it’s non-falsifiable. It is non-falsifiable, but then so are any of the more standard hypotheses about the age of the world. What would count as evidence that whatever data we could appeal to to falsify some hypothesis could not be merely pseudo-remembered? Certainly not that we have data we can appeal to to falsify the hypothesis that that data is only pseudo-remembered.

These same philosophers of science insist that the asymmetry they need to dismiss if not discharge the Five Minute Hypothesis is that science is grounded on induction, induction on observation, and observation presupposes realism about the past. So the Five Minute Hypothesis cannot but be a species of scientific skepticism.

The argument is valid but unsound. Induction is not grounded on observation. It’s grounded on reports of observation. If the Five Minute Hypothesis is true, then what accounts for the fingers-crossed reliability of those reports is precisely what would account for their fingers-crossed reliability if the Five Minute Hypothesis were false. That is, if the Five Minute Hypothesis is true, we’ve just been damn lucky. But given that there’s no reason to suppose the future will resemble the past, if the Five Minute Hypothesis is false we’ve been just as lucky.

So contrary to its critics, the Five Minute Hypothesis is not a species of skepticism. Skepticism is not the view that we can’t know what’s true. It’s the view that we can’t rely on what we take to be true. Subscribers to the Five Minute Hypothesis put precisely as much reliance on those pseudo-history books and those pseudo-memories as does the straightforward realist about the past. And for the same reason. We’re all just crossing our fingers.

So why bother advancing the Five Minute Hypothesis if it makes no difference? Because it does make a difference. Not to science, but to ethics. It allows us to correct a number of metonymy errors in our ethical and political judgments. Such as? Well, it tells us that what’s wrong with pedophilia can’t have anything to do with the disparate ages of the participants. It tells us that entitlement can only be contingently a function of contribution. These are hard cases to make, but they’re made considerably easier when one can ask, “What if the world came into being only five minutes ago?” The most incorrigible intuitions immediately take a nosedive. Trust me. I’ve seen it.

In short, my colleagues are right. In flogging the Five Minute Hypothesis as I do, I am mad. But there is method to my madness.

THE PERILS OF PATTER

 

Given the number of times a politician’s heart goes out to the families of this tragedy or of that, one wonders whether it ever stays home.

This kind of patter isn’t as innocent as it might appear. It’s not that anyone’s so Asperger’s that she doesn’t understand the metaphor. Nor is it that anyone’s so untutored in the nature of human emotion that she thinks the speaker really does feel equally and deeply saddened by each and every tragedy he’s required to publicly lament. It’s that at a certain point we become so inured to the patter that we cease to hear it. Having ceased to hear it we cease to listen to what’s actually being said. And then before we know it we’ve let pass a blatant and dangerous falsehood.

“All Canadians are outraged by …”

No they’re not. I wasn’t. In fact I thought the bastards deserved what they got on 9/11.

“Global warming is the most urgent problem facing the world today.”

Then certainly it’s the most urgent problem facing you too. More urgent than your having to pee? Or driving your wife to the hospital for her knee operation? Or flying off to your next save-the-world conference? If you’re wondering why none of us is doing anything about global warming it’s because there’s not a single person on the planet – nor a married one for that matter – for whom it’s an urgent problem, let alone the most urgent one. But your saying that it is blinds you to why it isn’t.

We have a colleague who’s bragged that he “can’t even imagine what would count as evidence that the Holocaust didn’t happen.”

If he meant that he couldn’t have an IQ over sixty. So let’s hope it was rhetorical flourish. But what it says is worse. It says that he’s not open to counter-evidence. That neither should anyone else be. And that therefore the historicity of the Holocaust is no more an empirical question than the existence of God, or that homosexuality is contra natura.

And that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it leaves it open to the Holocaust denier to likewise declare, as some have, that nothing could count as evidence that the Holocaust did happen. And then, since any and all evidence has been ruled out of court, the question can only be settled by who can muster the most deafening ad hominem circumstantial, as in:

“How much is B’nai Brith paying you?”, countered by

“Less than what the Iranians are paying you!”

It will, of course, be objected that getting from some politician’s heart going out to the irrelevance of evidence in the vaccination safety debate is a bit of a stretch. I don’t think it is. I think they’re of a piece. Tolerating sloppy reasoning in one domain encourages it in another. We’ve been watching this dialectic in action on the other side of the border. And some of us, my colleagues included, are watching it creep northward with growing alarm. Our mistake is focusing on its right-wing content rather than its form. But idiocy is ambidextrous.

Many of us have reached what Jonathan Kay calls the ‘Legacy Stage’ of an academic career. Not content to let the chips fall where they have, we’re desperate to convince ourselves, before taking down our shingle, that we changed the world. In that desperation decades of training gets cast to the wind. Our students can see it even when we can’t. What’s consoling is they love us all the more for it. One could even say their hearts go out to us.

IT WAS ALL FAKE!

I knew it was bound to happen, but I was floored by the speed with which it did. Even before the last of the boys and their coach emerged safely from the cave – indeed even before the rescue operation got underway – there were already posts about the whole thing being, not unlike Sandy Hook, a complete sham.

What had happened – and as with the moon landing I’m sure the bloggers had incontrovertible proof of this – was that some Hollywood producer thought a story about some kids and a couple of adults having to be rescued mission-impossible-like in a race against time because of the water rising in a no-way-out cave, would be a surefire box office hit. But what would seal the deal would be if it could purport to be “based on a true story.” So a pre-production team, let’s call it, was put together and set to task staging the true story, while the ironically labeled real production team went to work on the movie about it.

This explains two things. First, it explains why the story had such a happy ending. Another true story, A Perfect Storm, but in which everyone dies, was a complete disaster at the box office. And second, it explains why at least one person had to die – and one did – so there’d be the requisite pathos linked to his requisite heroism.

What it doesn’t explain is why 1) Thailand instead of Kentucky, why 2) they-all-look-alike-to-us Thai kids instead of blond blue-eyed American teenagers, each with his own endearing trademark quirks, and why 3) all boys instead of a few girls so there could be some sexual tension as they considered what to do with their final hours of life. The beads of sweat from the humidity in the cave would have provided a perfect visual for this.

Perhaps there could have been some additional sexual tension between one of the teenagers – I think this should be her first role, so as not to undermine her virginity – and her much older coach. Either of George Clooney or Brad Pitt would do. If they had sex, do either of them now regret it? And if they didn’t, I think he should be relieved and she not.

So why none of this? Because first you’d have to entice a dozen or so guileless American teenagers – all of whom have real-world helicopter parents, remember – plus a couple of unsuspecting chaperones, into a one-way-out cave, then flood that one way out, and then hope like hell that nothing in the plan your mission-impossible scriptwriters and technicians have concocted goes amiss. Plus you’d have to sacrifice an American Navy Seal instead of that much more expendable Thai one. And you’d have to insure the whole operation to the hilt.

So the project had to be either scrapped entirely or, as turned out to be the case, downgraded to the one we were following for those seventeen days.

Okay so that’s one scenario making its rounds of the blogosphere. But the more plausible one that’s also been circulating is that it was the Thai government itself, or perhaps just the local authorities, who decided they needed something to attract foreign tourists away from the more popular coast up to the less attractive north of the country. And, though I’ve yet to hear it from him, I’m sure Tony Hall will put the entire affair on either Mossad, American neocons, or more likely something involving both.

But what’s certain is this. Whatever it may be, the truth is out there. And the truth is never what it appears. How dull would it be if it were?!