Over the past couple of weeks we've been joined by a new active response writer, Ibrahim ibn Yusuf, he of the Spanish anti-Zionist blog, though it turns out he's in Argentina, not Spain. I've already dedicated one post to him, so this is already the second: partly because so long as we remain civil, I'm in favor of such dialog, and partially because I'm simply using him as a foil with which to make general statements. If I do it on the Guardian, why not on Mr. ibn Yusuf?
Yesterday Mr. ibn Yusuf was defending Hamas, or perhaps, he was claiming that Israel is just as bad. His line of reasoning, so far as I understood it, was roughly thus: The Israelis are as anti-Palestinian as the Hamas is anti-Israeli, and Israeli Jewish children are inculcated with as much hatred as the Palestinian children, except that the Israelis, being more sophisticated, have learned to cloak their nastiness, while Hamas hasn't.
(Devious, aren't they, those Israelis? The honest but unsophisticated Palestinians will never be their match, but perhaps it's better so -- haven't we heard this line of reasoning before? Elsewhere, in other dark days?)
There are so many levels on which to reject this argumentation that's it's hard to choose. However, I'd like to do so on a methodological level, by addressing the question of how we know what we know in history.
I don't mean the question of documentation, which is comparatively straightforward: is there documentation to demonstrate that something happened, or isn't there? This is a juncture where historians have no choice but to diverge from their post modern friends over in the literature departments. No, what I'm addressing is the less precise but often more interesting question about how to understand and interpret the historical facts. Can a society inculcate its children with a Weltsanschauung while hiding it from everyone else, and is this the same as using the full force of the media and everything that goes with it, for example.
I'm a student of Karl Popper in this. My reading of him (many years ago) was that since in history we cannot create laboratory conditions so as to repeat an experiment someone else has said he's just done and thus verify it, we can only strive for second best. And second best, in history (or politics, I'd add) is to formulate your thesis, and then do your utmost to find facts that will disprove it; only when your repeated attempts to disprove your thesis fail, and you can find no facts that might weaken your position, only then can you begin to assume that perhaps you're right - and perhaps not, since there still may be facts out there that will disprove you, only you haven't found them yet.
Cherry picking for facts that will bolster your position is worthless, if not a type of deceit.
Do any of us consistently live up to this standard Popper formulated? Probably not well enough. But some are better at it than others. Another point I seem to remember Popper making was that in free societies with freedom to express yourself, people have no choice but to resort at least partially to his method, since if they don't someone else will for them; in the dictatorships, meanwhile, there is no one to guard the truth.
So, Mr. ibn Yusuf, next time you start collecting incriminating evidence about how bad we are, try pausing for a moment and asking yourself if there might not be even more compelling facts that might say the opposite.