LEAVE IT BE

 

I think there might be some tension in my position.

‘Tension’ is the term professionalized philosophers have been trained to use in place of the less charitable terms ‘inconsistency’ or ‘contradiction’.

Okay, I think I might have inadvertently saddled myself with a contradiction, which I now have to try to repair.

I’ve taken the position that there’s no fact-of-the-matter as to whether, for example, a woman does or does not have the right to control her own reproductivity, save that fact-of-the-moment reflecting the equilibrium of political forces that have been brought to bear on the assignment of such rights. And yet at the same time, like everyone else, I seem hardwired to adjudicate such disputes with reference to some ontologically antinomous entities called principles.

There’d be no contradiction if I conceded that these principles, and any pretended realism about them, are themselves just one of the forces involved in arriving at this equilibrium. But the moment I concede that I can no longer keep a straight face when pressing any such appeal to principles. How likely am I to move the pro-Lifer by saying, “A body belongs to whose body it is,” and in the same breath add, “but of course I’m only uttering these sounds because I hear tell – go figure! – they sometimes move stupid people.”?

So I can only escape inconsistency by making the object-language/meta-language distinction. When I’m appealing to principles, I’m engaging in object-talk. When I’m taking a philosophical position about my appealing to principles, I’m engaging in meta-talk.

But as just demonstrated, meta-talk about object-talk takes the wind out of the sails of object-talk, So as a matter of psychological necessity I really can’t appeal to principles while simultaneously being aware of what I’m doing. So insofar as I have appealed to principles, I had to have self-effaced that awareness. I am not now self-effacing that awareness. But then neither am I now appealing to principles. For the duration of meeting the need to do so, I’ll have no choice but to self-efface this awareness once again.

This rescues my position, but at the terrible cost of empowering my interlocutor to defeat me at his leisure. He need not himself subscribe to this meta-understanding of what we’re doing when we’re appealing to principles. He need only remind me that I do.; and then my appeal to whatever principle I’ve appealed to disintegrates like a dried dandelion in the breeze. In short, I can be a spectator, but never a player, in the sturm und drang of flesh and blood human political discourse.

There is this thread hanging from the garment of such discourse. Wittgenstein understood this. Give it even a gentle tug and the entire garment unravels. The body politique thus denuded is defenseless against moral and political nihilism. So on pain of inviting the apocalypse, leave that thread be!

In the name of all that’s decent and holy, just leave it be.

THE NEXT FOURTEEN YEARS

 

In the words of Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony, “The evil that men do live after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”

Fortunately it’s the opposite with political prognostications. No one remembers if you get it wrong. But if you get it right, you’re forever cited for being incredibly astute. So yes, it’s a cheat. But it’s only cheating if you can get caught. And as just argued, even if you can be, you won’t be. So here’s my risk-free prognostication for the next fourteen years.

Left and right, anti-Trump and pro-, are orthogonal cuts, though clearly there are orders of magnitude more people in the left-anti and right-pro quadrants than in the other two. The doctrinaire libertarians and anti-Trump Republicans, who make up the right-anti, don’t know where to cast their votes. And the doctrinaire socialists and pro-Trump Democrats, occupying the left-pro, find themselves similarly stymied. So both of these constituencies are out of the picture. This leaves the 2020 presidential to hang on three key contingencies:

1) who the Democrats put up against Trump,

2) who wins the media war between right wing pro-Trump Fox News on the one

side, and left wing MSNBC and anti-Trump CNN on the other, and

3) whether Trump will be evil enough, but also savvy enough, to start a winnable

but not-yet-won war.

The Democrats will need a candidate free of the kind of cement footware that sunk Hilary Clinton. Well let’s see. Joe Biden would clearly make the best President, but he’s probably too sensible to make the best candidate in this era of political infotainment. Bernie Sanders is too old, too pontifical, and too Jewish. Elizabeth Warren lacks the presence to command the enthusiasm needed for a Presidential campaign. Even the most misogynist racist can’t help but love Michele, but she’d be rightly seen as just a front for another eight years for her husband. Oprah would have to answer for every line in every book she ever recommended. And progressives would have to hold their noses for California Junior Senator Kamala Harris, whose tenure as Attorney General for that state did not speak well for her civil libertarian credentials.

That leaves Obama-clone Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Kennedy-spawn Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts. I’d put my money on Booker for the nomination, because Kennedy will want to hold back until ‘24. But in the actual election I’d only bet the family farm on Kennedy. Whites won’t come out for Booker, but blacks will for Kennedy.

By holding Trump’s feet to the fire, CNN has only been doing its job. Unfortunately by doing its job in this age of all-news-is-partisan-news, it’s forfeited its former role as the non-partisan voice in America. So it would come down to CNN versus Fox if there was anyone who tunes into both. But there isn’t. Either you watch Fox because you’re with Trump, or you watch CNN because you’re agin’ him. There’s plenty of room for apathy in America, but none at all for fence-sitting.

But it does come down to which of the two can get out the vote by selling the importance of the outcome. Unless, that is, Americans can be offered, quite independently of policy, some one to get excited about. And that’s where a Jack or Robert Kennedy come back from the grave could be the king-maker.

Trump’s trump card, however, would be the same one played by George W. Just start a winnable but not-yet-won war. It wouldn’t have to be North Korea or Iran. There are plenty of provocable easy pickings out there. But I suspect Trump thinks he can win re-election as a shit-disturber, not as a commander-in-chief. Besides, a bomber jacket just isn’t his style.

So here’s my prediction. It’ll be Trump again in 2020 unless a) Kennedy can be inveigled to run four years ahead of schedule, and b) Trump makes the mistake of thinking he can emerge victorious without first having to start a war.

That said, 2024 looks like a shoe-in for the Democrats. This is because Mike Pence has about as much charisma as your tax accountant, and no new Republican face can emerge while Trump remains the face of the party. So it’s precisely as the Republican establishment worried it would be. A Trump presidency would render the party irrelevant while his presidency lasted, and then doom it for eight years thereafter. That’s both the beauty and the beast of American presidential electoral politics. Image matters. Policy? Not so much.

So if I were an American – which thankfully I’m not! – I’d pray for a) a Joe Kennedy challenge in 2020, and if Trump does realize he needs a winnable but not-yet-won war, that b) some saboteur on his staff recommends Denmark.

Anyhow, remember folks: if I’m right – which I probably won’t be – you heard it here first.

THE RECURSIVITY OF SELF-DOUBT

 

If I retired now – which not long ago, at sixty-eight, people would have thought was well overdue – how would my life change? I might have to tighten my belt a little, but probably by only one notch. I’d still have my wife, my kid and hers, my bro and hers, our friends, our cats, our dogs, my chess buddies, our theology reading group, our house, our car, a full fridge, our annual week of narrowboating on the canals in England, and our second home for the summers in our village overlooking the Amalfi coast. And I’d still read and think and talk and write.

But what would change is that to what I say and write, no one would pay me any mind, whereas now my students have no choice. It’s that now what I think matters – whereas then it wouldn’t – not because what I say and write is right, though it is, but because even if it weren’t, my students still have to respond to it.

This is a profoundly humbling thought. My self-esteem is entirely parasitic on my power over others. Well now, doesn’t that make me feel special?!

Thoughts that humble don’t bear thinking about. So instead what I have to tell myself – and so I do – is that whoever would replace me will be as stupid as my colleagues, who’ve proven their stupidity by having made no secret of thinking I am.

My only worry – and it’s really only a niggle – is that we once had a colleague, now thankfully retired, who I’m pretty sure thought exactly as I’m thinking now, and yet he really was stupid. So is it possible that …? No. How did Descartes put it? Ah yes, to doubt that I’m capable of thinking straight is just to shut down my thinking altogether.

We had another colleague who knew when he’d lost it, and did the honorable thing. But I don’t entirely trust myself to do likewise. So I’ve assigned one of my better students the unenviable task of telling me when it’s my time to fall on my sword. This requires a whole lot of trust in the judgment of others. And that in turn requires the wisdom to know that some things just do require a whole lot of trust in the judgment of others. Of course whether I’ll exhibit that wisdom when that time actually comes is another …

But hang on. What if that time has already come? What if I’ve fired the obviously malfunctioning canary in the coalmine, and replaced her with a sycophant more to my liking?

Is there a test one can perform to assure himself he’s still got it? In his First Meditation Descartes argued not. But in the Sixth he reversed himself and concluded there’s a coherence within waking and within dreaming – or in my case within having lost it – that’s not there between them. That would be helpful if I were experiencing some kind of disconnect between my thoughts. But when I’m dreaming I don’t, do I? And so if I were dreaming I wouldn’t, would I? So in the same way that there’s no way out of the global dream argument, neither is there a way out of having lost it, unless there are moments in which one hasn’t. But then, in those moments in which he hasn’t lost it, he’ll dismiss those moments in which he has as no big deal because they’re corrigible.

Am I having even these corrigible moments of having lost it? Absolutely not! Not once! Never!

DON QUIXOTE’S BLESSING

 

Why is it that some truths have to be learned over and over and over again? I suppose it’s because they’re just too hard to believe. I learned about fifteen years ago that many of the people I work with don’t share what I thought were the values we all share, because, well, surely we must! It turns out not that they don’t share my values. It’s that I don’t share theirs.

The difference between these seemingly equivalent propositions is who’s the odd man out. Turns out I am. So the question is not why they don’t share my values. It’s why I don’t share theirs. And the answer is I was just wrong about the values of the institution I was joining.

So about fifteen years ago – borrowing from Pierre Elliott Trudeau – I took what I call my “walk in the snow”. Like Trudeau, I could have resigned and found something else to do with the rest of my life. But why? Why not just do the job I thought I’d signed up for, and instead of trying to browbeat others into joining me, just leave them to their own devices? Which, to be fair, they’ve by and large left me to mine. It’s a resolution that’s not always easy to stick to. My own idiosyncratic values keep getting in the way. But it’s like any other resolution. Falling short is no excuse to stop trying.

Still, these occasional lapses are God-given opportunities, if only I’d take them, to rethink who needs to do the rethinking. I thought my colleagues didn’t understand there are solutions to collective action problems. As it turns out I didn’t understand that they don’t think these are actions that need to be taken in the first place.

Examples are legion, but the most recent has been the attack on academic freedom exemplified by the Tony Hall case. Tony is – I guess I should now say was – a colleague down the hall and around two corners. Tony’s an affable enough fellow, but not, perhaps, the sharpest pencil in the box. Tony is convinced 9/11 was an Israeli false flag operation.

Well, say I, that would be grounds to believe we Jews really are the most clever people on the planet. As if the official story wasn’t caper enough!

But apparently I’m the odd man out here. Most people, including Tony, view this charge as a criticism of the State of Israel. And apparently any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism, and so, by associative implicature, 9/11 Trutherism is Holocaust-denial.

Once again, odd man out. I just don’t get these connections.

In any event, the Zionist lobby seized upon this ‘indiscretion’ – and who could blame them? – to make Tony the standard bearer for everything up with which no publicly funded university should put, and demanded his immediate dismissal. The Administration – acting, as I say, on values I alone don’t share – acceded to this demand. The invertebrate faculty association came to Tony’s token defense, a war of attrition dragged on for almost two years, and finally, having taken its intended toll, Tony retired.

And all this time, like a fool, I was trying to come to Tony’s defense. Why? Because I thought at least he shared with me the value of academic freedom. Turns out that wasn’t it at all. Turns out for him it was his crusade against the neocons he’s convinced are ruling the world, not his right to crusade against them.

So now I just feel foolish. I understand that people get tired, especially people Tony’s and my age. That’s one of the reasons I’d long since resolved never to enter a fight I don’t have the stamina to win. And I’ve never wavered from that resolution. But the lesson I keep having to learn, over and over and over again, is never enter a fight for or along side an ally who hasn’t adopted a similar resolution.

Don Quixote never did figure out he was tilting at windmills. I suppose that was his blessing.

THE HAIDT HYPOTHESIS

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued, quite convincingly, that a university can dedicate itself to the search for truth, or to the promotion of social justice, but not both.

Truth and justice are seldom about the same thing. But when they are, what’s true may not be just, and what’s just may not be true. Suppose it was true that the rest of us would be much better off if we could just rid ourselves of those damn _____, you fill in the blank. But I take it we’re all of a mind that genocide is just not on.

It’s also widely believed, at least in Turkey, that there’s no injustice in criminalizing the historicizing of the Armenian genocide, notwithstanding most Turks know full well what happened. Jesus taught that ‘the truth will set you free.” But often enough it’ll just bury you!

But there’s a more straightforward philosophical argument that can be appended to Haidt’s case, and it’s this:

There’s a fact-of-the-matter as to whether nineteen (mostly) Saudi young men did or did not hijack and pilot those planes on September 11, 2001. And that fact is, in theory at least, empirically discoverable. But there’s no such fact-of-the-matter as to whether a woman does or does not have the right to control her own reproductivity. That’s a political decision.

So it’s not that a truth-seeking university couldn’t or shouldn’t host a lively debate between 9/11 Truthers and the official story about what happened that morning. That’s what historians do. Nor is it that a justice-seeking university couldn’t or shouldn’t host a lively debate about whether the Start-by-Believing and #MeToo campaigns will or will not accrue to the empowerment of women. That’s what seekers after justice try to work out. But the two debates involve very different kinds of questions.

The historian – the good ones at least – will be looking at the evidence for and against some historical hypothesis, and let the chips fall where they may. The social justice seeker will be looking at the impact of some policy or program on those on whose behalf she’s looking. In short, he has his work, she hers. God is in His heaven, and all’s well with the world. Except that …

Except that the social justice seeker will also be looking at the impact on her political agenda of the historian’s or scientist’s pronouncements on these facts-of-the-matter. And therein lies the problem. At a social justice university, a pronouncement that undermines some political agenda will be rightly disallowed. For that matter, even a question the asking of which undermines that political agenda will be rightly disallowed. Thus, for example, at a social justice university questioning the Holocaust is Holocaust-denial, Holocaust-denial is anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism is grounds for immediate dismissal.

Here’s a less dramatic case in point. Shortly after it opened, the Women’s Centre at my university launched an awareness campaign about violence against women, in the service of which it distributed a poster pointing out that 60% of the victims of domestic violence are women and children. But hang on. Doesn’t that mean that fully 40% of the victims of domestic violence are adult men? And since more than 20% of victims of this violence must surely be the children in the home, that means that the targets of domestic violence are more apt to be men than women. So whoever thought these posters would raise awareness of violence against women was either too stupid to draw this simple inference, or else she hoped others would be too stupid to draw it.

But now suppose that this stupidity had been brought to her attention. Would she have gone ahead with the posters and let the chips fall where they may? Certainly not. She would have suppressed the information, and been damn quick about it! That’s just the nature of advocacy. It’s not about what’s true. It’s about what works. And that’s just as it should be.

What she could have done, I suppose, is point out that because of the physical and political asymmetry between men and women, the subordinating effect of a man beating a women is orders of magnitude greater than that of a woman slapping a man. But though obviously true, and even more obviously relevant, that would be far too subtle for an eye-catching poster. So even though her point is a sound one, she either has to make it stupidly or not make it at all.

Haidt doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with a university dedicating itself to social justice, just as long as it’s upfront about it. He just thinks that if it is upfront, it won’t have very many takers. This is because employers aren’t usually looking for people who know what’s politically correct. They’re looking for people who have a better than random chance of knowing what’s true.

People trained at social justice universities like Yale get jobs at other social justice universities. People trained at the truth-seeking universities like the University of Chicago get jobs at other truth-seeking universities. Neither MSNBC nor Fox News recruits out of the University of Chicago. MSNBC recruits out of Yale, and it shows. Fox News recruits out of Ronald Reagan Elementary, and it shows.

The social network is currently engaged in what appears to be a winner-take-all culture war. It’s over bathrooms and pronouns, immigration and health care, gun control and abortion counseling … On the one side are the Alt-Right, who are, for now at least, united behind their new Fuhrer. On the other are the LGBTQQIP2SAAISA+, who are currently fighting amongst themselves about the politically correct ordering of these letters. Taking cover – because what else can they do? – are the Jonathan Haidts and Steven Pinkers, who can only wish a pox on both their houses.

Left and right, liberal and conservative, and cross-overs that boggle the mind of any non-aligned observer … Has it always been thus? I’m not old enough to say with any confidence. But I do remember the Sixties. We liberals won that one. That was two-steps-forward. So even if the Alt-Right takes us back a step, we’re still one ahead. So yes, God is in His heaven, and all’s well with the world. Except that …

Except that the university at which I work is currently poised between Haidt’s two models. Since it’s relatively small, its students predominantly rural, and not yet very racially diverse, the pressure for political correctness is much weaker than it is in larger universities in more cosmopolitan centers. But the fields surrounding it don’t entirely set it apart from the world beyond those fields. So a decision has to be made. And it has to be made clear.

But because, like at most universities, our Administration is made up of ex-academics turned bean-counters, and because members of faculty who should know better don’t, what we’re getting, and what our students are getting, is a hodgepodge of mixed signals. It would appear – and who can blame them? – that all the stakeholders want to have it both ways, notwithstanding Haidt’s admonition that they can’t. Neither mandate is being well served. As a result it’s just not a very good university.

I’m in the twilight of my career, and I’m not a believer in leaving a legacy. Que sera sera. But the future is ours to see.

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,