UNDERSTANDING SERIAL KILLERS

It never ceases to amaze me that for whatever it is, it’s almost invariably a thing. Who knew, for example, that if you google “diary” and “Holocaust”, there are tomes upon tomes of articles on whether the Anne Frank diary was forged, and thousands upon thousands of people taking a keen interest in what I had no idea even could be an issue.

Well, turnabout is fair play. I know you know that serial killing is a thing. But I’ll bet you didn’t know that being a serial killer is a thing. By which I don’t mean we have our own chat lines. As with pedophiles that goes without saying. Rather I mean we have our own organizations – I’m VP External of the Southern Alberta Chapter of OYKSK – online conferences, how-to seminars, how-not-to seminars … In short, it’s a thing. And it’s a thing as multi-layered and multi-faceted as 9/11-Trutherism, anthropogenic global warming, and yes, pedophilia.

And just as pedophiles take umbrage at all being painted with the same brush, so do we serial killers. We are not tokens of some type. We are individuals, each with his own axe to grind – or wield – his own strengths and weaknesses, his own penchants and would-never’s, his own religious affiliation, party membership, sexual orientation, allergies, underlying medical conditions, hopes and dreams and fears – usually of getting caught – and so on.

In a blog entry of this size I can at most touch the tip of the iceberg. But some consciousness-raising is better than none.

There is an organization called Serial Killers Anonymous (or SKA), but we consider them outliers, because they’re trying to quit, which we liken to apostasy. Do LGBT clubs welcome members who are ashamed of being LBGT? Why then should we welcome members of SKA? That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily proud of being serial killers, any more than heterosexuals are proud to be heterosexuals. Pride is just the wrong concept here. Each of us is what he is.

And I say ‘he’ here because yes, almost all of us are male. (Well okay, ‘male’ according to our birth certificates. Sheesh! One has to be so careful these days!) According to StatsCan – Canada, by the way, is the only jurisdiction willing to regard this data as important for social policy purposes – only 3% of serial killers are female, whereas our own internal survey shows it’s actually even lower. Some psychologists argue that this has to do with lower testosterone levels in women. Others conjecture that it’s because men place a higher value on justice, whereas women tend to value maintaining social relationships. I suspect they’re both right. But I digress.

We don’t deny that there are, among us, those who fit the stereotype promoted by Hollywood thrillers, according to which we kill prostitutes because our mothers laughed at our penis, or we kidnap and starve fat women so we can harvest their skin to make ourselves a coat less hirsute than the one we were born in. But there are crazies in every organization or walk of life. Not unlike what you call terrorists, their numbers are less than miniscule, and yet those are the people you’re obsessed with. Get a grip, we say. We have a grip. That’s why we harbor our ‘damaged’ people the same way you’re finally learning to harbor yours. With compassion. But we don’t give them the reins of our government, which is more than we can say for who you’ve elected as your President. (Okay, that was a Trump-shot. Not terribly clever, I admit, but it had to be inserted somewhere.)

No, the vast majority of serial killers are, as the Blues Brothers put it, “on a mission from God”. Only the sexually repressed think God has a problem with prostitutes. Or Kantians that He has a problem with your garden variety murderer. (We call the latter ‘one-offs’, by the way. We use it in the sense wizards use ‘muggles’.) Or with abortionists. Or with the ‘greedy’ point-zero-zero-one-percent. Truth be told, we don’t really give a shit what God has a problem with. We have a problem with what we have a problem with. And on that score there’s no limit to the variation within our ranks.

What I can attest, however, is that to the best of my knowledge there are no racists in our ranks, no homophobes, no anti-Semites, and no Islamophobes. We simply don’t tolerate intolerance. There are, amongst us, two who kill Scots, but not because they’re Scots. It’s because of the haggis. There’s one who kills country-and-western signers, but not because, with the exception of Charlie Pride, they’re all white. On the contrary, we all kill with a reason, and for the most part with good reason.

Of the 8,861 members currently on our books here in North America, only eleven have been brought up on BWJ charges. And of them only three have been found to be killing with Beyond Wonky Justification. We may not be “stomping out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored” – we leave that to the Salvation Army – but we’re doing the work God should be doing but is otherwise occupied because of His own personal hang-ups about seafood and fabric blends. In fact there’s more than a few us us who’ve filed for permission to put Him on our hit list. But because the Christian Caucus still controls 41% of the vote, we’re still 8% shy of the two thirds we need to override their theological squeamishness.

And you’d be amazed at what some of us are squeamish about. Like Leon in The Professional, some won’t do women and children. Others, for reasons intelligible only to them, give vegetarians a free pass. As is said in Sad Cat Diaries, “There is no logic in this place.”

And yet there is a logic of sorts about who does not get a pass. For example, mass murderers don’t get a pass. Does that mean none of us can kill mass murderers en masse without having to then commit suicide?

Nice try, but no cigar. Attend to the meaning of the word ‘murder’. A murder is a wrongful killing. But since killing a mass murderer isn’t wrong, it’s not murder, and so nothing prevents us killing any number of them, especially if – as would be the case with the thousands of SS officers involved in the Shoah – killing them en masse would be a matter of efficiency.

Some of our members have argued that, by parity of reasoning, mass murderers of mass murderers – the Tutsi militias in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, for example – aren’t really murderers at all, and therefore not mass murderers, and therefore ought not to be targeted, at least not on the grounds that they’re mass murderers. This is my own position. But others have argued that the mere sight of Tutsis mass killing Hutus, even though they deserved it, triggers the same visceral reaction in the ‘avenging angel’ in us as did the mass murder of Tutsis by Hutus, and therefore that visceral reaction should be serviced with like abandon. But these non-cognitivists – or Non-Cogs, as we call them – are as much an embarrassment to us as are Hasidic Jews to sensible-hat Jews. I agree that we should have a visceral reaction to mass killing. But we need to override those instincts. Killing killers of killers isn’t fair. If you want to kill Tutsis for killing Hutus who had it coming, do it because of their cooking.

Because as I say, we don’t only kill killers. I’ve already mentioned our two serial killers of Scots, and our serial killer of country-and-western singers. And, of course, we also have serial killers of abortionists, of anti-abortionists, of overly officious bank tellers, rude immigration officers, university administrators … As I said, we’re a motley crew. In fact the only thing that keeps us from killing each other is, as Thomas Hobbes explained it, that no one wants to be killed himself.

Which busts yet another myth, namely that we all have a death wish, or subconsciously want to be stopped. No we don’t. (Well, yes, obviously we do have a death wish, but not for our own.) We do what we do because we think we’re in the right. Some of us, no doubt, are not in the right. For example, one of us has been killing Roughrider instead of Stampeder fans. But we believe in live and let live, or in our case kill and let kill.

All this said, let’s turn to some of the conceptual issues surrounding our ‘thing’. And those issues are legion. To begin with, suppose I want to kill all whooping crane chefs, but there being a serious shortfall of whooping cranes in the world, it turns out there was only one whooping crane chef to kill. Having killed him, how do we distinguish between a whooping crane chef serial killer and a one-off? This should be a question of import not just to us but to members of any Genocide Studies Department. Suppose the Wannsee Conference included a plan to keep a few Jews in a zoo after the war. It’s the same question, is it not?

A related but more general issue is whether one can remain a serial killer if he’s run out of victims. Can he say to the judge, Yes I was a serial killer, but I’m no longer a danger to the public? And if so, should it be, like the sign by the pond in the park, “Catch and release!”?

And then comes the obvious problem of distinguishing the serial killer from the solider. The standard distinction – at least since we decided going to war needed justification – has hung on this business of killing in self-defense or in defense of others. That, in turn, hangs on satisfying the clear and present danger test. And both ‘clear’ and ‘present’ can be mean whatever one damn well likes. So the more honest answer has been that the soldier, but not the serial killer, has leave in the jurisdiction which would otherwise treat him as a serial killer. It would seem, then, that ‘serial killer’ is a political designation, not all that distinguishable from ‘insurgent’ or ‘terrorist’.

Not so, counters the legitimacy realist. An insurgent or terrorist is challenging the authority of the state, whereas your garden variety serial killer is not. He votes, he pays his taxes, he gives uptake to all the institutions of the state. Most importantly, he considers himself a criminal, albeit the criminal protagonist, not unlike the George Cluny or Brad Pitt character in one of those caper movies.

This helps, but only a little. What about the serial killer of abortion doctors? He too votes and pays his taxes, he gives uptake to all the institutions of the state. He just thinks the state is in error in not protecting the unborn, in much the way you and I would consider the state in error if it thought, as in Canada, that aboriginal women don’t matter, or in America, that black lives don’t matter. So what’s the difference between the so-called terrorist, the serial killer of abortion doctors, and the cop-killer who’s killing cops not to resist arrest but to avenge those of his brothers and sisters who are being gunned down in America like a replay of Sharpeville?

So yes, other than the crazies, all serial killers regard themselves as crusaders, but only some – I’d say about a fifth – are making a political statement. The rest – typified by our anti-haggis activists – aren’t trying to have haggis outlawed. So in that sense they don’t consider their crusade political.

And so once again, drawing these distinctions isn’t a challenge peculiar to us. Drawing the same or similar distinctions is central to the concept of a hate crime and/or of a terrorist attack. If the victim was a Jew but it would have been any Jew, then it’s a hate crime. If he bombed the tax office because it wouldn’t recognize his golf clubs as a business expense, that’s one thing, and perfectly understandable. If he bombed it because it collects money to buy ordnance to be dropped on children playing in an Afghan playground, that’s something else. That’s terrorism.

So the governance of the serial killer community is in many respects a microcosm of the governance of society at large. Some of us consider ourselves dissidents, but most do not. The crazies aside, we all consider ourselves justified in what we do. But then so do all of you. You might want to sit us down and disabuse us of the justifiability of our actions. But then how open are you to sitting down with your interlocutors and working out how best to accommodate conflicting views about vaccination safety or anthropogenic global warming?

You think you have the moral high ground on us because you’re not killing each other over the issues that divide your polity. An alternative interpretation is that that’s because your Precious, whatever it happens to be, is just something to identify with so that people won’t think you’re shallow. I think Sartre would call this your inauthentic self. By contrast, the one thing that cannot be said about us serial killers is that we’re inauthentic.

REGARDING HEROISM

Each of us has heroes. And in that, the having is enough. Which is just to say my hero needn’t be someone I aspire to be. I don’t aspire to be Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks or Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela, because I don’t aspire to be black. Not aspiring to be Irish don’t aspire to be Bobby Sands. Not aspiring to be Arab I don’t aspire to be one of the nineteen martyrs of 9/11. But for what little I’m sure it would’ve been worth to them, these are the men and women who would’ve had my respect and admiration.

To say I hope I’d have done what they did is incoherent. If I’d been them I wouldn’t have been me, and so it couldn’t have been me doing what they did. But the role this hero-izing does play in my life is this: Whenever I’m faced with something requiring the kind of principled backbone they had, I ask myself, “What would Parks or Mandela or Sands do?”

Note that I do not ask what would Martin Luther King do. That’s because having a backbone is a necessary condition of being a hero but not a sufficient one. I shared with King his aspirations for social justice, but I did not share his convictions about how to achieve it. So I respected him for the strength of his pacifist convictions, notwithstanding in my view that strength was ill-placed. King wasn’t among my heroes because, put simply, what he would do I wouldn’t. Or more accurately, what I would do he wouldn’t. In my view – I thought this then and I continue to think it now – what turned it around for blacks in America, to the degree it has turned around, wasn’t the march on Washington. It was the return from Vietnam of a half million black soldiers who knew how to use an M16. For me the heroes weren’t the men who marched. They’d done plenty of that in boot camp. For me the heroes were the men who would have used those M16s. And white America knew it!

Ayn Rand was a brilliant writer and a terrible philosopher. But in The Romantic Manifesto, her attempt at a philosophy of literature, the one thing she did get right was the what-would-John-Galt-do account of fiction. It’s not that we put ourselves in the place of the hero in the story. It’s that we import the hero from the story into our place. This is just Aristotle’s virtue ethics said so much better than Aristotle did. The question is not, what should I do? Rather it’s, what kind of person do I want to be? Picture him and then simply do what he would do.

Think of the number of times you tell yourself what you should have said. Almost invariably it’s what you imagine your hero would have said. And it’s when you’ve internalized him, when he’s so in you that he’s there even when you’re not, those are those rare times when you high-five yourself because, dammit, you did say it, with not a split second’s delay and not a quaver in your voice. Those are our finest moments. We get maybe a half dozen in a lifetime. But it takes decades of living with our hero to prepare for those moments.

No, Virginia, fantasizing is not a waste of time. Of everything we do, it yields our highest return on investment.

Not unlike our bookshelves – and for the same reason – our heroes tell us something about ourselves. As I say, not about who we’d like to be, but rather about what kinds of behaviors we take to be heroic. I’m a thinker and a writer and an orator, and I take some not-inconsiderable pride in how well I do what I do. But I find nothing heroic in it. Rather I find my heroism in the man of action, notwithstanding I’m not. I’d much rather just lay on the couch. I find nothing heroic in the soldier, but I do in the assassin. I find nothing heroic in the per se exercise of force, but I do in the precision of its exercise.

I find especially heroic the unsung hero, because the song cheapens him. This is why the mandatory medals scene at the end of every Star Wars movie makes a bad movie even worse. No Star Wars character has ever done anything heroic, so the medal is for just being the one who hit the target. But hitting the target has to do with aim, not character. And so lucky-shot-gets-the-princess is how on-the-cusp-of pubescent boys learn to fantasize.

As he gets older his fantasies mature. But the most mature are not about having superpowers, or saving the planet with only two seconds to spare, or becoming the President. They’re about breaking a dissident out of a Soviet or Israeli prison, and then turning up to work in the cafeteria in the Kremlin or Knesset the next morning. Heroism has to be undetectable. What’s crucial is that a) it could have been anyone but that b) it wasn’t just anyone.

Maimonides understood this.

There is nothing heroic about seeking opportunities for heroism. The true hero is the one who has heroism thrust upon him. This is why the village buffoon, played by Anthony Quinn in The Secret of Santa Vittoria, was, for me, the paradigmatic heroic character. It’s a story about rising to the occasion. And in keeping with the role of the hero in our lives as described above, it’s mustering the backbone to rise to the occasion we didn’t seek that heroism is all about. It’s about what just so happens to happen on my watch.

No one but me can tell me where my watch begins and ends, though of course everyone else has an opinion on the matter, which they’re more than happy to share. The truth about 9/11 is not on my watch. Neither is anthropogenic global warming. That the former is on the Truthers’ watch, the latter on some of my colleagues’ watch, is what they’ve decided, and I wish each of them God’s speed. It’s enough that we tend our own garden, Voltaire counseled. But there’s no theory of ethics that can dictate how far and in what directions my garden extends. Hence, from Tennyson’s Ulysses, “He works his work, I mine.”

I have, if I’m lucky, twenty years to live. I’ve noticed something about men and women my age, at least those of us who don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, and don’t, touch wood, have a loved one requiring extraordinary care. We become a Don Quixote in search of a dragon to slay. And we delude ourselves into thinking our experience makes us better lancers. But at the risk of overgeneralization, no, Virginia, it’s men and women in their prime who change the world. And if that prime has passed us by, but we feel no dragon has yet to quiver at our approach, we have to prove the manhood [sic] we didn’t prove when we should have, even if, having had loved ones to care for, we really couldn’t have.

I find this at the same time both noble and sad. Noble in myself. Sad in others. I’d like to learn to overcome this myopia. I think there might be something heroic in that.

 

 

THE NON-IDENTITY OF INDISCERNIBLES

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!”

“Mais non, monsieur, zis eez our fly zupe, zee specialite de la maison.”

How do we resolve this issue? By deferring to the intentions of the chef? But he might dissimulate, to save the restaurant from having to offer a reduction off my bill. So the more general question to be grappled with here is how ought we to deal with extensional equivalences? And deal with them we must, because as with my bill at the restaurant, much can hang on how the matter is resolved. Such as? Such as a charge of false advertising, the distinction between capitalism and socialism, the defensibility of Creationism, the laudability of being law-abiding. The list goes on and on.

A return flight from here to there is advertised as $59, but when I get to the website’s checkout it’s $319. Is this bait and switch advertising? Certainly not. The difference of $260 is all taxes imposed by the government, or the fee charged by Paypal, neither of which has anything to do with the airline. Are you going to say the 12% sales tax bringing a $9.99 shirt up to $11.19 is false advertising?

But hang on a minute. Aren’t there all kinds of taxes embedded in the $59 as well? Isn’t the percentage of the company’s contribution to its employees’ government-run mandatory unemployment insurance scheme likewise a government tax having nothing to do with the airline? So isn’t it entirely arbitrary which expenses to the airline are just part of the cost of doing business and which are not?

Arbitrary yes, but $319 sounds like too much to spend, and $13 sounds too good to be true, whereas $59 is what the focus group has decided sounds just right.

Many years ago, while I was putting myself through university, I drove a school bus two hours a day five days a week and lived in government-subsidized single parent housing. I had a friend who worked as a crisis intervention worker, alternating between ten hours a day for four shifts one week and then ten hours a night for four shifts the next. She lived in the identical unit next door, but paid fair market value. So after rent we each came home with identical disposable incomes. Wasn’t a school bus driver making four times as much per hour as a professional social worker? Certainly not. Unlike me, she had the dignity of full time professional work, which she hated, by the way. And she complained bitterly about having virtually no time to spend with her kid.

I’m not even a theist, let alone a Creationist. But I like to ridicule my Creationism-ridiculing colleagues by advancing in its place the Five Minute Hypothesis, according to which the world came into being five minutes ago, precisely as it was fine minutes ago, with all our pseudo-history books on the shelves where we now find them, and all our pseudo-memories in our heads where we now pseudo-remember them. All three hypotheses – my colleagues’ fifteen billion year, the Creationist’s six thousand, and my five minute – are non-falsifiable. Whatever would count as evidence for one would as readily count as evidence for either of the other two. So, I argue, since what’s at issue can’t be the so-called science, it has to be the politics.

Certainly not, says the atheist. Certainly not, echoes the Creationist. My father always said, Do what you’re best at. Well, my signature forte, or so I’m told, is my irritating supercilious grin.

According to Justice Devlin, if what the sovereign commands is egregiously immoral it can’t be a law, and therefore one needn’t obey it. By contrast, according to H.L.A. Hart, if it’s a constituent of a legal system and it has the right pedigree, it’s a law all right, but egregiously immoral laws ought not to be obeyed. So wherein lies the difference? It lies in Devlin wanting never to be a criminal, and Hart, in these circumstances, taking it as a badge of honor.

Differences that can make no difference are no differences at all. But the difference between fly soup and a fly in my soup does make a difference. It makes a difference in the bill. So the question before us is under what conditions should we allow a non-difference to make a difference? Then we can infer backwards to whatever it is that’s making this difference. This should be straightforward enough, shouldn’t it? Well, let’s see.

Okay then, suppose the chef experimented by putting a fly in a soup, tasted it, approved, and that’s how it ended up on my table. In that case I think I should pay. Suppose a fly landed in the soup, the chef tasted it to see if it was still acceptable, and decided it was actually an improvement. Once again I think I should pay. Suppose he saw the fly land and drown, but this time he served it without tasting it. Now I’m beginning to waffle. The intention was still there. But did he intend for me to eat a soup with a fly in it or to eat fly soup?

Suppose I make an atom-for-atom replica of the Mona Lisa and burn one of them but I don’t know which. Suppose further that this has become known. Is the surviving painting worthless, halved in value, or unaffected? Surely this is an empirical question. What sense would it make to say how it should be?

Suppose I might have just made up this story, but the art world doesn’t know whether I did or didn’t. Since there’s a 50% chance I made it up, there’s a 50% chance there’s a 100% chance it’s the original, which means there’s a 50% chance it’s the original. But since there’s a 50% chance I didn’t make up the story, then once again there’s a 50% chance it’s the original. So what difference does it make whether I did or didn’t make up the story? How would the art world deal with these equivalent probabilities?

It might be supposed that what matters here, in both the soup case and in this one, is whether there’s been a possible actus novus interveniens. The mere announcing that I could have duplicated the painting raises a question that wasn’t there before. It’s like my saying there’s no evidence whatsoever that so-and-so is a pedophile. If that were true, why would I be saying it? To say there’s no debate about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a performative contradiction. And so on.

What’s going on here, I think, is what’s being rendered salient. It’s always been the case that the original Mona Lisa could have been destroyed and replaced by a replica. It’s always been the case that my wife could have been switched with a functionally indiscernible android. What’s always been part of the background has just been made foreground, and now I’m creeped out by it. Could be fly soup. Could have been advertised as $319 in the first place. Could have been we’re all paid the same but some of us put in four times the hours that others do. Could have been only five minutes. Could have been do what’s right rather than what’s lawful unless it’s not right.

All men are mortal, except Jesus. All men are immortal, except everyone other than Jesus. These claims are extensionally equivalent, but do they mean the same thing?

Suppose you concede that there was nothing Jesus said that hadn’t been said a thousand times before. So the entire Christ story hangs not on its social gospel but on the salvific power of the Cross. Then what theological difference would it make at what age Jesus was crucified? So since we can represent Jesus as black as readily as we can white, we should be able to nail a plastic infant to a cross and parade it through the village on Good Friday. But we don’t. And that we don’t should be taken to falsify the claim that the Christ story hangs on the soteriology of the Cross. And what this shows, in turn, is that analyzing non-differences that make a difference is a way, indeed the way, to get at what’s really going on in the back of our heads. What’s going on in the back of our heads – if by ‘our’ I was speaking as a Christian – is that it’s not enough that God was willing to sacrifice what He had begot in order to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself. It’s that what He had begot must itself understand its sacrifice as a sacrifice to that end. An infant couldn’t do that. Only a grown man could.

But hang on. In saying that an infant couldn’t have understood that, we’re explicitly denying that the omniscience of God passed directly to what He’d begotten. And this, in turn, puts a lie to the opening passage of John. If at one time the infant knew not, but at another the adult knew, then sometime in the interim he must have learned. For him to have learned it must have been imparted to him. But to have been imparted to can’t just amount to God saying to him, “Just trust me on this.” Presumably he must have explained how the Cross would reconcile humanity to Him. But if God could explain it to Jesus, why can’t He explain it to us? Let it be granted that Jesus was smarter than the average bear. But it’s not a matter of intelligence. It’s a matter of conceptual coherence. So if God can’t explain it to us, neither could He have explained it to Jesus, in which case the adult was as much of a mindless dupe as the infant would have been. This does not bode well for kindergarten Christianity, if one thinks about it. Well, I guess some things don’t bear thinking too much about them.

Impressions to the contrary notwithstanding, my point here is not to trash any particular view about any particular subject. My point is simply that analyzing the difference a non-difference might make can do important conceptual work for us. It’s revelatory. It reveals to us what we might not have known we’ve been thinking. In some cases we’ll double-down on what we’ve been thinking, in others we’ll realize our thinking has been idiotic. In the case of pricing and incomes, I’ve learned to go straight to the bottom line. Hence capitalism and socialism are terms of rhetorical flourish, not economics. In the case of the Creationism debate it’s not about cosmology. It’s about the social conservatism that’s sometimes contingently attached to Creationism. In the case of criminality I’ve decided that the law of the land be damned, an occupied people do have the right of armed struggle. And in the case of my might-be-android wife, I’ve decided she’s fungible, and so I’ve kept a spare in the closet.

That leaves the soup, for which my solution is to ask before ordering. If I’m averse to fly – just as were I allergic to it – I’d order something else. Though more likely my wife Andry – I mean Pam – and I would eat in a less expensive and pretentious restaurant.

NECESSITATED HYPOCRISY

There are a few things that I get that other people don’t. If this weren’t so I wouldn’t be of much use to them, now would I? So no, since it’s not hubris, no apology warranted, so none forthcoming.

And then there are a few things other people get but I don’t. For example, I don’t get homophobia. Never have. Many if not most non-homophobes are proud of their non-homophobia. I’m not. I’m a little embarrassed by it, because it’s not that the non-homophobe gets something the homophobe doesn’t. It’s that the non-homophobe doesn’t get something the homophobe does get

And then there are things I get that everyone else gets too, but some of them only pretend not to get. For example, racism. Look, it’s not rocket science. The people I’ve always hung out with look a certain way, and I’ve come to know what to expect from them. These people don’t look like them, so I don’t know what to expect from them. Simple rule of survival: if you don’t know what to expect from something, stay away from it.

So notwithstanding I totally get racism, the degree to which I’m not a racist is because I have hung out with people who don’t look like the people I’ve always hung out with. And what I’ve discovered is that the theme song from Cheers is right. “People are all the same.” But I only know this because I’ve had the opportunity to know it. People who haven’t are just going with what they know.

So what’s unseemly about racism is not the racism itself, but the gratuitous hostility that sometimes accompanies it. If we feel ourselves entitled to be hostile to Moslems or blacks or First Nations or whomever, by parity of reasoning we should recognize their entitlement to be hostile to us. But we don’t. We think their hostility is unwarranted. Why? Because we know what to expect from ourselves, so why don’t they?

Here’s another example of pretending not to understand what one understands perfectly well. Suppose I told you I’m into sex with ants. My guess is you’re going to think I’m joking, because you can’t imagine what sex with an ant would be. And if I told you I’m serious, you’d just be befuddled. But if you say you don’t understand how anyone could be into sex with young children, you’re lying, because you’re not the least befuddled. You might disapprove. But if so you’d be disapproving in precisely the way it would be odd for you to say you disapprove of someone having sex with ants. Disapproval in the ant case seems out of place. But it’s not out of place in the pedophilia case precisely because you do understand it. That understanding doesn’t make you a pedophile. But it does mean that if you enter a discussion about pedophilia, you know what you’re talking about, which you quite literally wouldn’t if you truly didn’t understand it.

Change of subject, but you’ll see in a minute that it’s not. I had a lover once who wanted me to hit her, and I don’t mean a playful slap. I’m not a prude. I’m of the view that when it comes to sex, it’s whatever pleases one’s lover. But I couldn’t go there, and so I didn’t. Why? Because I knew something about how things like this tend to escalate. And that’s not the direction in which I wanted my sexuality to develop. What this shows, I submit, is that we know ourselves well enough not to trust ourselves.

What’s this got to do with the subject at hand? Just this. I have a colleague who’s a 9/11-Truther, for which I mock him mercilessly. He’s used to this, so he doesn’t get angry. But he’s invited me on innumerable occasions to do a little research before I beak off about something about which I readily confess I know absolutely nothing. I invariably decline, and for any number of reasons, each perfectly defensible. I don’t have the time, and even if I did I don’t think the truth about 9/11 really matters, any more than the truth about the Exodus or the Alamo matters. But the one reason I don’t share with him – or anyone else for that matter – is that I know myself well enough not to go there. What I know about myself is that I’m hardwired to follow the evidence wherever it takes me. And what if it takes me to where there be dragons? Then I’d be as much as a nut case as he is. And I have better things to do with my life than spend it being another nut case.

My 9/11-Truther, in turn, has a friend who’s a Holocaust denier. When she went public with this she went from being a highly respected and valued member of her community to a social pariah. She’s done a helluva lot of research into the Holocaust. I’ve done absolutely none. If I did I have no idea what I’d find. No, that’s not true. I do know what I’d find. I’d find that one question would lead to another, and in no time at all I’d be instantly pulled down into the quicksand of trying to reconstruct what did happen and what didn’t. But the very act of even looking at the evidence would get me immediately disinvited to every dinner party in town.

So as long as, and only so long as, I don’t look, I’m safe. I’m safe socially, and I’m safe morally. I’m safe morally because I have the same perfectly defensible reasons not to question the Holocaust as I do not to question 9/11. I don’t have the time, and even if I did I don’t think the truth about the Holocaust matters, any more than does the truth about the Exodus or the Alamo. But what makes me just a tad uncomfortable with myself is that if I didn’t have these perfectly defensible reasons not to look, I still wouldn’t look because I couldn’t trust myself not to find what I wouldn’t want to find.

To 9/11 and the Holocaust, let me add yet a third example. I know dick all about anthropogenic global warming (AGW). I don’t think my True Believer colleagues do either, but that’s another story. Because I’m so kneejerkedly averse to reaching conclusions about anything too hastily, I worry that, not unlike Buridan’s Ass, I’d be frozen in perpetual agnosticism. But agnosticism about AGW, not unlike agnosticism about the Holocaust, is taken as AGW denial. And AGW denial would get me disinvited to the same dinner parties to which Holocaust denial would get me disinvited.

So when my colleagues rant about AGW – and God help me they do – to delude myself into thinking I’m maintaining my integrity, I nod knowingly but remain silent. And the silence, I tell myself, is not hypocrisy because I do not hold a contrary opinion about which I’m holding my tongue. Look, I tell myself, I don’t watch hockey. When my bar buddies are prattling on about who’s going to win the Stanley Cup this year, by not joining in I’m hardly being a hypocrite. Why then am I a hypocrite by not making a display of my ignorance and indifference to AGW?

And yet like a hypocrite is exactly how I feel. Why? I think it’s because I subconsciously suspect that agnosticism about the Holocaust or AGW is a substantive third position, a position which can be defended, and so should be advanced, just as asserting or denying the Holocaust, or asserting or denying AGW, are substantive positions that should be advanced and defended. I think I think I’m a hypocrite because I hold a substantive position on these issues that I’m declining to advance because I’m afraid of being disinvited to dinner parties if I do.

The fact that agnosticism is not denialism is irrelevant. Even my colleagues who are supposed to know the difference between “It’s not the case that S believes that p” and “S believes that not-p”, just lose the distinction when p is their Precious. So I can at least console myself in citing their stupidity as necessitating my hypocrisy. Barry Goldwater once remarked that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Well, neither is hypocrisy in the face of stupidity.

I wouldn’t be blogging about this if it weren’t a serious problem in my workplace. Less so for me. I’m tenured and near the end of my career. But I worry about our students. The abuse of academic authority is worse than that of the clergy diddling with our kids. Most of these kids, though not all, are not scarred for life. But our students are damaged for their entire careers. What they’re supposed to be learning is how to speak truth to power. Instead they’re learning how to be Uriah Heaps. When and only when they think it’s safe will they then strike a blow to recoup their dignity. But they’ll do so by striking out at their own students, perpetuating this pattern of abuse.

Here’s what I’d like to see. If a student – or anyone else for that matter – is yet to be convinced of your Precious, it’s not because she’s stupid. It’s because you’ve yet to make your case.

Except, of course, in the case at hand. It can’t be because I’ve yet to make my case, so it must be because my colleagues really are stupid.

A COMPLETE COURSE IN ENVIRONMENTAL PHILOSOPHY SHOULDN’T TAKE MORE THAN TWENTY-THREE MINUTES. TIME ME.

LESSON #1: DEFINING ONE’S TERMS

Environmental Philosophy (henceforth EP) is that series of phonemes and/or chicken scratches that sustains itself by assiduously refusing to define any of the dozen or so terms which can then be randomized to form sentences which sound deep but say absolutely nothing. Unfortunately this same definition also applies to Continental Philosophy, so what distinguishes the two are their constituent defining undefined terms. Whereas Continental Philosophy drones on about things like – as if there are things like – being, nothingness, authenticity, in short all the brooding words, EP plays its game of jacks with environment, biosphere, sustainability, all the warm fuzzy ones.

“What’s the environment?” you ask?

You’ve just failed the first quiz. What did I just say? You don’t ask. Got it?

“Got it!”

LESSON #2: ITS SCOPE

The word universe means all that is. At one time we thought that wasn’t much. Now we know it’s a helluva lot more. More specifically the universe consists of a whole bunch of worlds, one here, one there, and so on, and a whole bunch more nothing – or maybe something, who knows? – in between. But EP isn’t concerned with any of that. It’s concerned only with those worlds which are life-sustaining, and of those only the ones that are anthropic.

Well no, that’s too quick. Most environmentalists – remember: don’t ask! – hug trees, but not rocks. But there’s nothing in environmentalism per se that rules out concern for the integrity of rocks. That said, we’re going to stick here with the tradition, if the fifty years since EP became a thing can be called a tradition. Traditional EP takes no interest in worlds without a biosphere. And since the only biosphere we know of, at least for sure, is our own, that’s where the scope of EP’s inquiry stops.

For some it would stop at the top of the biosphere – that’s about 200 kilometres, right? – even if our planet was not anthropic, or anthropic but as yet uninhabited by humans, or anthropic but no longer inhabited by humans. These are the crazies. They’re the people who’d mourn the extinction of the human race only because then trees would have no one to hug them. These are the dangerous people. They’re dangerous because if they thought the trees would be better off without us – and let’s face it, they probably would – these people would wipe us out without a second thought the moment they found the wherewithal.

LESSION #3: ITS ETHOS

 Fortunately – not for the trees obviously, but for the rest of us – the crazies are few and far between. Most EPers confine their interests to the one world we know is inhabited by humans, and because it’s inhabited by humans. But even here there’s a palpable split between those who think of us as being merely on the world, and those who think of us being of it. On the former view we’re alien invaders. Even if technically native to the planet, we’re like the Morlock, having recently crawled up from some cavern deep under the earth’s crust.

On this view our task is plunder, albeit plunder constrained by principles of husbandry. And it’s that constraint which, as we’re about to see, renders this first view indistinguishable from the second. But only from the outside. From the inside, that’s to say phenomenologically, the two are night and day, because they have completely different vocabularies by which to say the same thing.

For example, only on the second view are we as much a natural part of our biosphere as the trees, the frogs, and the lichen. As we’re assured by the “Desiderata”, “[we] have a right to be here.” And so on this view EP is the study of our rightful place in the natural order. Here there can be no suggestion that we’re acting contra natura, because nothing can act contrary to its nature; otherwise it wouldn’t have been its nature.

There’s no fact of the matter as to which of these two conceptions is correct. But there is a fact of the matter about which is the more useful perspective to adopt. If I’m an SS officer in Warsaw, or an IDF soldier in the West Bank, it would be unseemly to expect a great deal of cooperation from the people over whose lives I’m running roughshod. But if I shed the uniform and my sidearm, apologize for my past intrusions, and ask to be accepted, if only provisionally, into the Polish or Palestinian community, I might be pleasantly surprised. And if I cast my lot in with the Poles or Palestinians, even if against my erstwhile own, I might be more pleasantly surprised still.

This is precisely the state of mind that dominates the Sane Wing of the environmentalist movement. It doesn’t naively abandon the view of “nature red in tooth and claw”. It inserts itself into nature, from whence it had always been in the first place. It accepts, as Val Plumwood once remarked, that we too are food. And it doesn’t require, as some have insisted, that we now become submissives. We can still walk upright and tall, but gingerly. Not with mincing steps, but with footfalls carefully placed nonetheless.

LESSION #4: ITS THEOLOGY

 If we have a right to be here, then so does everything else. And this talk of rights is not, for the Sane Wing EPer (or SWEPer), just a facon de parler. She thinks of her world, and of herself, as being governed by laws of nature, laws of physics and chemistry, certainly, but also by some kind of moral natural law. The so-called lower animals follow these laws by instinct, but humans have to discover them. So there’s no contradiction in supposing both that a) we cannot act but according to our nature, and b) we sometimes act contrary to the moral law.

This idea that there are moral laws, and hence duties incumbent upon us independent of having been posited by some sovereign or community of sovereigns, is pulled out of the environmentalist’s ass. How did it get there? you ask? Well, you get pregnant by sitting on a toilet after a man’s peed there. So you must get moral natural law up your ass by sitting on a pew in church. There’s simply no other way it could have got up there. And once you’ve got the moral law in hand – you might want to give it a rinse first – you’ve just assigned purposivity to the cosmos. How so? Because if there’s no answer to the question, “What do we want the law to do for us?”, there’s no answer to the question, “Why should we obey it?”

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that at the very core of the SWEPer’s weltanschauung is an oft unrecognized but ineluctable theological commitment. She may not believe in God, but she sure as hell believes in teleology, and in herself being duty bound to fulfill that telos. She is, in short, a Thomist. And from her Thomism we get the predictable litany of stupidities philosophers qua philosophers have always railed against.

Why, then, do they suddenly get stupid when teaching a course in EP? I think it has something to do with what makes them volunteer to teach EP in the first place. Analytic philosophy is a blood sport. “If you want to bleat about ‘justice as fairness’,” we tell them – well, okay, I tell them – “or about a learning environment safe from feeling offended, take it outside!” In short, analytic philosophers come across as assholes, because, well, we are. But EP, not unlike Women’s Studies or Feminist Ethics, is this outside invited back in. It’s a time out. It’s an opportunity to show the kinder side of philosophy, and so to be thought more kindly of. It’s self-promotion. Speaking of which, this is why it takes them a full semester to teach what I can in twenty-three minutes. You are timing me, right?

But I digress. We’re talking about stupidities. Let’s start with …

LESSON #5: NATURAL KINDS

 Here’s the argument that’s driving our intuitions:

  1. A turkey is best carved at the joints.
  2. If it didn’t by its nature have joints, it couldn’t be best carved at So
  3. turkeys have natural joints.
  4. Turkeys are part of the world. Therefore
  5. the world has natural joints. That is, even if turkeys were the only constituents of the world that had natural joints, the distinction between things that do and do not have natural joints would itself be a natural joint. So since, cf. (5) the world has joints,
  6. the world can be carved at its joints.

Now it might be supposed there’s some equivocation here, and there is. But only because it’s trying to be pithy. That pithiness is not enough to undermine the soundness of the argument were it more carefully formulated. So yes, the world has joints. If you bend it it’ll break at some places but not others. And that’s just what we mean by having joints. Now let’s see about kinds

The world is not an amorphous mass of atoms in the void. There are regularities in the configurations of these atoms. Were this not so, then save by the perpetual grace of some mother hen God, we couldn’t live in this world. But we do. We survive, in fact flourish, by noting these regularities in our environment and exploiting them. And these regularities are what we call natural kinds. So, for example, a turkey is a token of one natural kind, a stick a token of another. What makes us think so? Because tokens of the type turkey can be used for one thing, tokens of the type stick for something else.

Some discussants get hung up on the word ‘natural’, which they rightly take to be distinguishing natural regularities from artificed ones. A toaster performs as reliable a function for us as a tree, but whereas “only God can make a tree”, only Tim Horton’s can toast the perfect bagel. So a toaster is a token of a kind, though not a natural one. Now we just need to know whether a regularity that is of no use to us can be, though natural, not a token of a kind. And the answer is clearly yes.

Think of all the things that are artificed and yet not tokens of a kind. This pen is a token of a kind, as is this sock. But this-pen-and-this-sock is not a token of a kind. If it were then the kind of which it is a token would have a name, because the regularity it betokens would have a function for us which would have behooved us to give it one.

All the more so, then, must this be so of natural useless regularities. If we want to say that every useless natural regularity is also a natural kind, then we have to find a way to define a regularity independent of its possible use. But that, as any information theorist will tell you, can’t be done. And because it can’t be done, and yet we want to be realists about natural kinds, every configuration of atoms in the void will count as a token of a natural kind, and then the concept of a natural kind will cease to do any work. So it follows as a matter of logic, never mind of metaphysics, that there are no natural natural kinds, and any non-natural natural kinds there might be owe their being a natural kind exclusively to us.

Or, to put the case another way, if there are x atomics, there are a set number of ways those x atomics can be configured. If, over the course of their existence, a small subset of those atomics are configured the same way twice, that configuration is a regularity. Given the number of atomics, and the sheer size of the universe, that’s likely to be a helluva lot of regularities. In fact what would astonish would be if there were a subset of those atomics that didn’t configure the same way twice in the course of their existence. So there might not be anything left that isn’t a token of a natural kind. But if there’s nothing that isn’t a token of some kind, it’s being what it is isn’t very interesting.

Hence natural kinds, if they’re anything at all, are just one of those meaningless dozen or so postulates I referred to in Lesson #1. Call me Torquemada if you will, but I say consign that kind of patter to the flames!

LESSON SIX: REVIEW

Since I promised twenty-thee minutes, let’s save ourselves some time. Without natural kinds we can’t get the concept of life, without the concept of life we can’t get the concept of species, and without the concept of species we can’t get notions like equilibrium, sustainability, extinction … the list goes on and on and on. In other words, EP can’t have a domain of discourse. And if it can’t have a domain of discourse, there’s nothing for it to talk about.

How do we salvage it? By dropping all pretense at realism and acknowledging that all these terms – animate versus inanimate, speciation, equilibrium, sustainability – they’re all about us, about our needs and druthers, about the way we need to carve up the world and manipulate it, given our aspirations to survive and flourish in it.

But in the service of these ends we already have carved these concerns up into their various disciplines: the natural sciences, ethics, economics, political sciences, and so on. So by all means keep EP, but keep it as one of those fluffy liberal education interdisciplinary touchstone courses. You know, like Lib Ed 1000. What’s it called again? Ah yes, “Getting in Touch with Yourself”.

Good grief! Or in the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, “I shall retire to Bedlam!”

Okay, time! I make it twenty-two minutes, eighteen seconds. Forty-two seconds to spare. I feel like I’m on a roll. Phil of Science? Phil of Mind? Bring ‘em on! Bring ‘em all on!

Or maybe not. What if T.S. Eliot was wrong? What if the world doesn’t end with a whimper, but with brevity?

URGENCY

I have a colleague who’s become a little bored with teaching modus ponens and the Meditations, and instead now fancies himself something of an authority on global warming. The way you become an authority, by the way, is by so declaring yourself. And so provided you’re not in proximity to anyone who really is an authority – whatever that ‘really’ might mean – you get to be one. Not only that, but provided you surround yourself only with other self-declared authorities who agree with you, and provided you keep your bookshelf clear of anything that doesn’t, you get to be an advocate, and as such you get to hold in contempt anyone who doesn’t think “global warming is the single most urgent problem facing the world today.” You don’t hold them in contempt for not doing anything about it, because then you’d be expected to do something about it yourself. You only demand that, like yourself, they lose sleep over it, losing sleep being, apparently, the sine qua non of membership in the human race. A well-rested countenance, by contrast, is the dead giveaway of the psychopath.

Now then, my colleague in turn had a student who wrote her honors thesis not in defense of one side or the other but rather on the rhetoric of the global warming debate. Her research being impeccable, he had no choice but to give her an A+. But not before his having taken high umbrage at her having taken some umbrage at the sloppy deployment of the notion of ‘urgency’ in the global warming literature. But it wasn’t until he dismissed this concern as a “philosophical quibble” – yes, his exact words – that she realized he’d pretty much left the building.

Others of his students have noticed it too. This happens, especially when an academic gets a little too long in the tooth. In fact I’ve assigned my most trusted student the task of letting me know when it starts happening with me. He hasn’t yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Which is not to say it’ll be time to retire. Without a few has-beens – or in my case perhaps a never-was – a Philosophy Department would be far less productive. Progress is often the product of play. And play can’t happen when one’s still looking to make a career for oneself.

But I digress. For my purpose here is to see, quibbler that I am, if I can put some flesh on the niggle that senior student had about the notion of urgency. Her worry, if I understood it aright, was that “X is urgent …” is not a well-formed-formula. Not unlike “X is valuable …” it requires a to– or a forwhom. And the problem is that a world just isn’t the kind of thing to which or for which anything can be urgent.

This is sometimes what happens when we speak metonymously. When the news reports that “The White House announced today that …”, we all know what’s meant. We all know as well that the world isn’t the kind of thing for which anything can be urgent. But when you tell me that “Global warming is the most urgent problem facing the world today!”, you might be intending one thing and I’m hearing something completely different. That difference will hang on with what, to render the claim syntactical, each of us is mentally substituting for the word ‘world’.

When pressed for his substitution, what will my colleague answer? That it’s the most urgent problem for everybody? Surely not for any of the hundreds of would-be boat people, just two hours down the coast from where I’m writing this, whose lungs are filling up with salt water at this very minute because their ‘fare’ didn’t cover a life jacket. To suggest that global warming is the most urgent problem facing them isn’t just factually wrong. It’s morally obscene.

But we needn’t stray that far from my colleague’s own home to note that before he does anything about global warming first he has to pee. For that matter, let’s suppose the sky really is falling. That is, there’s a planet killer that’s about to hit the earth in twenty minutes. If I have to pee then as desperately as I have to pee right now, well then, I suppose I’m just going to meet my Maker with my schlong hanging out.

So in any normal sense of the word, global warming can’t be the most urgent problem facing anybody. In the normal sense of the word, for any one of us there are hundreds if not thousands of things more urgent than global warming, including peeing, getting those papers marked, picking up the dog from the groomer’s … So surely that student and I are right to wonder in what stipulated sense of the word global warming is even an urgent problem let alone the most urgent one.

The principle of charity would suggest that, though urgency must surely have a temporal component, its intended meaning in this context is less akin to the Italian ‘subito’ than to the legal notion of a clear and present danger. Global warming is a clear danger, in the sense that there’s no doubt, at least in the mind of my colleague, that it’s happening and it’s going to have devastating consequences. And it’s a present danger in the sense that those consequences don’t need any actus novus interveniens to materialize.

Moreover, one wouldn’t use the word urgent for something that’s inevitable. For example, notwithstanding it’s a minute before sunrise, the sun isn’t about to rise urgently. In fact if global warming is a problem in the face of which we’re utterly powerless, then even calling it a ‘problem’ seems something of a misnomer. It’s a problem only if we can do something about it, or at least try. So to say that it’s an urgent problem is to say that if we’re going to try to do something about it, we had better get onto it sooner rather than later. And the ‘most’ in ‘most urgent’ doesn’t refer to how soon we had best get onto it, but rather to the direness and breadth of the consequences if we don’t get on to it at all.

But if this is what my colleague means, then he’s at best facing some very stiff competition, and at worst he’s just straightforwardly mistaken. John Leslie wrote a book entitled The End of the World, in which he catalogued all the ways the world – by which he meant a world amenable to human existence – could come to an end; and he provided a rough ordering of most to least likely, though even the least was by no means un. Global warming barely got a mention. Nuclear warfare certainly did. And I’ve just been reading about the particulates of plastic in the oceans that are rapidly making their way up the food chain to us. So by reckoning that’s by no means idiosyncratic, before we sweat to death we’ll either be vaporized or we’ll suffocate as surely we would with a plastic bag over our heads. So by this clear-and-present-danger interpretation of urgency, we – by which I mean everybody – should be trying to rid the planet of nuclear weapons and bottled water before worrying about our carbon footprint.

Or does my colleague know otherwise? In addition to being an expert in climatology, is he also an expert on nuclear proliferation and microplastic pollution? Would he like to pronounce as well on the great cloth versus disposable diaper debate?

No doubt he’d concede that all of these issues are important. But then what makes him so sure that, not unlike the Archbishop of Canterbury, global warming is the first among equals? First by what measure? If the end of the world is overdetermined, such that if the climate doesn’t get us then the plastics will, then each is the most important. But then the sheer number of problems the solutions to which are each jointly necessary to save the world would render global warming completely un-special. One might even say unremarkable.

So there are at least three dimensions along which global warming must rank first to count as the most urgent problem. It has to outrank everything else in terms of the number of interested parties who’ll be affected. It has to outrank everything else in terms of the direness of those effects. And it has to outrank everything else in terms of how soon we need to get on to it. But in order to make the claim that global warming wins on all three counts, my colleague would have to know how each of these other threats measures up by these same three criteria, which means he’d have to be at least as much of an expert on all these things as he is on global warming. That’s a lot of expertise. That’s more expertise than I could hope to master in a lifetime. That’s either genius or hubris. I’m left to wonder which.

But here’s why the student’s quibble was one worth raising. Her supervisor, my colleague, pronounces himself baffled as to why virtually no one is giving global warning the priority its urgency demands. His student was giving him the answer, if only he’d listened. It’s no one’s priority because for no one is it urgent. That’s something, as an environmental activist, he needs to know, so he can adjust his argumentative strategy accordingly. If it’s not about urgency what is it about? A little more of his time spent on that question might not go amiss.

And that is why we philosophers quibble. Philosophical quibbles direct us to the right question. If you quibble with quibbling it’s because you’re really not looking for the right question. Even if it’s wrongly posed, you want to stick with the question that baffles you so you can remain baffled, because being baffled by the stupidity of others is the mark of the truly superior mind.

Yes, our cosmic insignificance is a bitch! We each deal with it in our own way. My colleague fancies himself Laocoon, and the Koch brothers the giant serpents. I see him more as Don Quixote, though I don’t pronounce on whether he’s tilting at windmills or real dragons. But I do think he should listen more to his page, or in this case his honors student. He took her as mocking his Precious, when she, like Sancho, was really just trying to give him a reality check.

IN DEFENCE … NO, MAKE THAT IN PRAISE, OF OMAR KHADR

Here’s a newsflash for all those American servicemen serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. And for their wives.

When you enlist in a nation’s armed forces, there’s an understanding that at some point you may be asked to go off somewhere to try to kill some people. No, not people who were trying to kill you first. They’re only trying to kill you now because you’re there trying to kill them. If you went home, they wouldn’t be trying to kill you anymore. Maybe, so long as you’re not still trying to kill them, they’d even invite you to stay on for a while, as their guest. But as I say, not if you’re only staying to try to kill them.

It might be supposed that they were trying to kill you first. Certainly your government has taken pains to describe 9/11 as unprovoked, as in “We wuzn’t doin’ nothin’!” If you believe that you’ll believe pretty much anything, including that the cannons trained on their villages had nothing to do with the aboriginal peoples of your country signing away their land in exchange for the promise of … What was it again? Ah yes, a medicine bag.

But don’t get me wrong. To say, as I’ve just done, that 9/11 was your due, is not to say you ought not to have done the things you did to earn it. On the contrary, the occasional lick the people you’ve aggrieved manage to get in – 9/11 was just a lucky shot, and probably a one-off – pales when compared to what your people have gained from your government’s policies abroad. Nature’s red in tooth and claw. It’s how natural selection works. It’s the way God intended it to be.

Some day God will intend that it’s someone else’s turn to be the Amalekites. Maybe yours. But not today. Today you’re riding high. So enjoy the ride. But do not whine about the pittance you have to pay as your fare. Whining is unmanly, the gender-neutral term for which is unseemly. And the one thing God cannot abide – I’m one of His Chosen People, and He and I’ve talked about this – is unseemliness.

Joining the army is different from just joining the police force back home. Between law enforcement officers and those over whom they’re charged with enforcing the law, there’s an unwritten understanding. If you tell me to move along now, and I go quietly, you won’t shoot me. That’s win-win all around. But when we’re at war, if I have to move from where I am it’s a loss for me, because which of the two of us has to move is precisely what we’re at war about.

You can bethink yourself just a peace officer, a peace keeper, a keeper of the peace, call yourself what you will. You’re just lending a hand to the local government – right? – albeit the quisling one you’ve just installed. But thinking so doesn’t make it so. Or at least not your thinking so. What matters is what I’m thinking. If I’ve given uptake to the quisling regime you’ve installed, then I’ll move along when instructed to do so. But if not we’re going to have to try to kill each other. And this is why you can’t just install a quisling, instruct him to invite you to remain, and then redefine our war as a mere police action.

Well, you can. But then you should be neither surprised nor offended when someone tosses a grenade into the open window of your police car.

So in bringing our jurisprudential intuitions to bear on a particular killing – was it a crime or an act of war, and if the latter was it a war crime or fair game? – we need to decide, before anything else, whether the parties were at peace or at war. Here, however, we can’t allow the answer to depend on what the belligerent in question might think, because then every petty criminal will demand to be treated as a POW, immediately thereafter declare surrender, and then, since there’s now a cessation of hostilities, claim his right to be released. The Japanese soldier who hid in the jungle because he didn’t know his Emperor had surrendered was one thing. But if he’d known but decided to fight on anyhow, that’s something else entirely.

And it’s for drawing that distinction that we have both the concept and the institution of something we call sovereignty. Sovereignty is not a normative notion, it’s a descriptive one. A nation is sovereign if there’s someone who, in his negotiations with other sovereigns, can reliably speak on behalf of his citizens, not because he has their proxy, but because he has the power to force their compliance with the terms he’s negotiated.

And it’s here wherein lies the rub. In neither Afghanistan nor Iraq was there a sovereign in place to enjoin his subjects to lay down their arms and then enforce that injunction. The installation of a quisling doesn’t alter this unless that quisling can now enforce the order that we all lay down our arms. But even if he can, is he the new sovereign or just an agent of the occupier? And if just the latter, aren’t an occupied people supposed to resist their occupation?

Well yes and no. If I raise the white flag I thereby forfeit my right of resistance in exchange for you forfeiting your right to kill me. If I don’t honor my forfeiture I can hardly expect you to honor yours. In the course of specific battles in both Afghanistan and Iraq, white flags were indeed raised. But since no sovereign was in place to surrender on behalf of all his subjects, any combatant who did not signal surrender remained legally and morally free to resist.

The occupier, of course, will disagree. But it’s a specious disagreement. And a disingenuous one. The only people who’ll buy it – and they’re really the ones to whom it’s addressed – are the same ignorant citizens back home who thought, vis a vis 9/11, that “We wuzn’t doin’ nothin’!”

So with respect to the firefight that took place in the Afghan village of Ayu Kheyl on July 27, 2002, in which one Christopher Speer was killed, one Layne Morris was wounded, and Omar Khadr was captured, the first issue that must be resolved is the jurisprudential status of that firefight. And that, in turn, hangs on the jurisprudential status of the type of which that firefight was a token. If Khadr was an ‘illegal combatant’, indistinguishable from a cop-killer on any street in America, then he’s entitled to the same due process as that cop-killer – which, by the wasn’t afforded – but also liable to the same kind of post-conviction punishment. But if Khadr was an unencumbered soldier when he threw the grenade that killed xxx and wounded xxx, he is to be congratulated for having done his job well. If, upon his capture, he remained a soldier, but now an encumbered one, then there’s no question that his treatment at and after Guantanamo Bay has been unconscionable. He is owed an apology, by the Canadian government, by his American captors, by Morris, and by the widow of Speer. If they think he owes them one, they need to pull their heads out of their asses.

As a political philosopher, and as a philosopher of war, I can attest that this is the single most difficult problem in either, and therefore in both. It surfaces and resurfaces like the dolphin off the port bow. It dominated the jurisprudence, both in the court of law and in that of public opinion, with the hunger strike deaths of Bobby Sands and nine others in 1981. And now, with Guantanamo Bay, it’s come back to haunt us yet again.

Why? Because it was never resolved. It was never resolved because it can’t be, and it can’t be because there’s no fact of the matter to which we can appeal or on which we can triangulate. Unless Khadr and his captors are willing to refer the matter to compulsory arbitration and abide by that arbiter’s decision – and that ain’t never gonna happen! – any talk of justice will be mere phonemes in the wind. As Hobbes put it, “[In] this warre of every man against every man … the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place.” So yes, Abu Ghraib was, and Guantanamo Bay remains, a blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions to which the Americans are signatories. But so what?!

A law is enforceable. If not it’s just entreaty. A convention lies somewhere in between. It’s enforced by nothing other than the retaliatory behavior-in-kind of one’s co-negotiators. Under normal conditions that nothing-other-than is not nothing. It’s what stands between us and a return to inter-tribal savagery. But the Americans don’t have to worry about their POWs facing like treatment, because they’re dropping their Daisy Cutters from altitudes beyond the range of the enemy’s SAMs.

And so ISIS has rightly taken its gloves off to fight as dirty as it can, given its limited wherewithal to fight at all. Such is the nature of ‘asymmetrical warfare’. Always has been, always will be. Fighting clean is the luxury of symmetrical pugilists, like the jousters of old, or the battle lines at Jena or Waterloo.

Some fights can be fought clean. Others cannot. Occupations can get particularly grotty. And whether fairly or not, the stench tends to cling disproportionally to the occupier. The Germans found that out in Poland and the Ukraine, the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza, the Americans in Vietnam, and now they’re finding it out again in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In fact opposition to those invasions was driven not so much by worries about body bags – no one thought the cost of Afghanistan or Iraq would come anywhere close to the 55,000 in Vietnam, and it hasn’t – but by the moral morass a long-term occupation would invite. And they were right to worry. Soldiers at the end of their tour bring that morass back with them. Hence the epidemic of Islamophobia in America, and the emerging fascism that invariably accompanies xenophobia.

The occupied eventually recover from their occupation. The occupier never does. Which is not to say occupation is invariably a bad thing. It’s to say only that it carries costs, some of which defy quantification by the usual designated bean-counters.

Since we’re comparing war and mere criminality, I should add that a parallel analysis can be drawn about capital punishment in America. Most abolitionists hang their case on their worries about wrongful conviction, the argument being that a wrongful execution cannot be repaired. Well, neither can time lost in prison. Nor, save where there’s been malicious prosecution, will it even be compensated.

A better argument – one which police associations are too thick to recognize – is that the bank robber who’s already killed someone in the bank, isn’t an idiot. He knows that with a hundred cops surrounding the building, he’s not going to miraculously escape. But the prospect of capital punishment removes any reason not to just go down fighting, taking a cop or two down with him. So given that the deterrence argument is well known to fail, capital punishment can’t save lives, it can only endanger them.

But even in Texas, the number of executions is very very small. And so the better argument still is the symbolic one. It’s what capital punishment signals to all the rest of us. In a polity in search of civility – and God knows America could use some – it brutalizes instead. It’s hard to kill without a healthy dollop of hatred. So if killing is acceptable, so is hatred. Fascism feeds on hatred. And so Americans have allowed yet another vector to encourage rather than combat the fascism lurking within the American ethos.

But I digress.

I’ve said that there’s no fact of the matter to which we might appeal to decide whether Khadr was

a) a soldier entitled to whatever our conventions on the treatment of our POWs affordhim, or

b) a criminal who, having been charged with a promulgated offense, is entitled to due process, including a jury of his peers, or

c) some third category concocted ad hoc for the sole purpose of ducking both (a) and (b).

There is, however, a fact of the matter – even if difficult to precisify – about the consequences of whichever of (a) or (b) or (c) we select. But there are certainly some general inferences we can make:

Opting for (a) is going to encourage resistance to occupation. Opting for (b) is going to require amendments to America’s criminal code that the rest of the world will consider laughable. And opting for (c), though it might marginally discourage resistance, is going to set any progress we’ve made in jus in bello and post bellum back about two-thirds of a century, pretty much to the beginning of the Second World War.

Of course an additional consideratum – albeit now only in retrospect – is how each of these options would have sat with the American military, and with American public. Neither (a) nor (b) would have sat well with either. So from the purely short-term political perspective, (c) was pretty much a duh. And that, no doubt, is why your government chose it.

But have these short-term gains been worth the long-term damage? I think not. But then I’m not an American. But neither am I a disinterested onlooker. I’m a philosopher of war, not because I’m a pacifist – I’m not – but because I think that when we have to draw blood, there are more and less pareto ways of going about it. I think that by honoring Khadr, as option (a) would do, yes we’re rewarding resistance. But by rewarding resistance we might encourage the occupier to be less provocative of that resistance. And that, I think, would be pareto. The occupier would get less of the fruits of victory, but at a lower cost, and the occupied would retain some of that fruit at virtually no cost at all. Back to win-win.

Win-win yes, scoffs, the pacifist, but not nearly the payout of not going to war in the first place. If America hadn’t invaded Afghanistan, Omar Khadr would have had no reason to toss that grenade. If America hadn’t invaded Iraq, there’d have been no Malachi regime, hence no persecution of the Sunni minority, and hence no rise of the resistance to that persecution which then morphed into ISIS.

All of which may be true, but so what? Nations don’t go to war to make the world a better place. They go to war to make the world better for them. Tooth and claw, remember, tooth and claw. If “men had all agreed to put an end to war,” then “last night” you did indeed “dream the strangest dream [you’]’ve ever dreamt before.” War is how natural selection works. It’s the way God intended it to be.

The invasion of Afghanistan was a bad idea. The invasion of Iraq was a worse one. The latter is now the second longest war in American history, but only because the former is the longest. Neither have been the most expensive. That was still WWII. Vietnam takes first for lowest return on investment. In short, America has a rather checkered track record in victories and defeats. But there’s something churlish – is there not? – in taking one’s humiliation out on a hapless fifteen year old kid after the fact for just doing what he was there to do in precisely the way Speer and Morris were just doing what they were there to do.

Some people think Khadr should be excused because of his age. I think he should be lionized all the more for it. Child soldier my ass! Fifteen year olds have been going to war since before we emerged from the cave. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if fifteen has been at or above the average age of ‘enlistment’ since before we emerged from the cave. And to suggest that he was a mere dupe of his even more infamous ‘terrorist’ father is even more myopic. It suggests that xxx and xxx were not dupes of whomever or whatever sent them into battle. Doesn’t the obituary of every soldier who’s fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq include the mandatory assurance that “He believed in the mission.”? I suspect Khadr knew a helluva lot more about what he was fighting for than pretty much any of the soldiers he was defending his country against.

“Not his country!” you counter.

Why? Because he was born in Canada? If so, then what do you want to say about the young people, some of them no more than fifteen, who came from every corner of the world to fight against Franco and the fascists in the Spanish Civil War? They too lost, and many of them died for trying. But some of the greatest literature of the century was penned to honor their courage, while for his Khadr has spent a decade in a brutal prison, and a couple more years behind bars in the country that was complicit in the violation of his military, civil, and human rights.

Yes, in 2015 he was finally released. And yes, just recently he’s been given a begrudging apology and a few shekels to try to make something of a life for himself. But it’s not an apology if it’s begrudging. And an out-of-court settlement settles nothing if it’s opposed, as apparently it is, by two thirds of the taxpayers whose ‘settlement’ with him it is.

A judge in Utah awarded Morris and Speer’s widow $134,000,000 for the injury to the former and the wrongful death of the latter, though thankfully neither will collect a penny of it. Still, the suit was unmanly of Morris, and unseemly of the widow Speer. Both of them knew, or should have known, that when you enlist in a nation’s armed forces, there’s an understanding that at some point you may be asked to go off somewhere to try to kill some people. And that when you do, there’s an understanding that those you’re trying to kill are going to try to kill you first.

If you can’t accept that, then you had no business enlisting in the first place, or allowing your husband to. If they want compensation for their loss – and I wish them God’s speed in getting it – their claim is against their own government, not the outnumbered and outgunned kid who had the good fortune, but also the balls, to take two of the enemy down with him, and then, after thirteen years of unlawful confinement, the dignity to stand tall and just get on with his life.

I’ve never met Mr. Khadr. But I’d be honored to. Some men aspire to greatness. Others have greatness thrust upon him. I doubt whether Omar Khadr is a great man. But I have little doubt he’s a good one. If, at the end of the day, just that is the most that can be said of me, I’d be okay with that.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THOSE TRUTHERS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, because Israel has nuclear weapons of its own.

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

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

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

But never before white-skinned chartered accountants!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DENIALISM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Dickenson, Jim Bowie, present and accounted for.

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

 “You may ne’er see your loved ones,”

Travis told them that day.

“Those who want to can leave now,

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

In the sand he drew a line

with his army sabre.

Out of a hundred eighty five

not a one to cross the line.

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Says who? You, a mere mortal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To whom?

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

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

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

JEWS, THE SHOAH, AND IDENTITY POLITICS

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or do I? Let’s see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But so is Rwanda.

Yes, but Rwandans are black.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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