Wednesday, April 2, 2008

On Being Plausibly Right

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.


Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

Are my facts cherry-picked?

I mentioned Moledet and Avigdor Lieberman, who are unabashedly anti-Arab. Are they representative of Israel? Absolutely yes!!! They have entered government coalitions and there has been no discernible opposition from the society. Of course, most people don't vote for them, but the key element is that they are socially acceptable. No eyebrows are raised when these hatemongers join the government.

I mentioned the rejection of Arabs among Israelis. Do I say so just because the Betar soccer fans cry "Death to the Arabs," or because the graffiti "Arabs to the gas chambers" can be read on certain Israeli walls? No; that would be cherry-picking. But when I present polls consistently showing that more than 60% of Israeli Jews think Arab citizens should be encouraged to emigrate, that's not cherry-picking, that's making a general statement on a scientific basis.

except that the Israelis, being more sophisticated, have learned to cloak their nastiness

Yes, you got me right, and I stand by my statement. EXAMPLE: When Kach said "expel the Arabs," it was illegalized; but when Moledet says "voluntarily transfer the Arabs" (meaning "expel the Arabs"), it is invited into government coalitions.

Moledet is more sophisticated than Kach, it has learned to disguise its nastiness. The same is true of the Israelis as compared to the Palestinians.

Anonymous said...

Yaacov: Mr. Yusuf understands exactly what Hamas is and has few problems with their enterprise. But he may be shrewd enough to know that when addressing English-speaking audiences, who do not share what may well be his own Muslim-jihadi sympathies, the game is not to defend Hamas but to delegitimize Israel. He does this through moral equivalence: Hate Hamas? Of course, but the Israelis are just as bad!

You probably recall Hitler's famous January, 1939 speech before the party elders. He understood how to work moral equivalence: if the Jews bring war they will be destroyed. Listening to Hamas justify endless streams of suicide bombers based on the what the nutjob Baruch Goldstein did years ago is in principle on a par with this.

If not Yusuf, then certainly those of his ilk would have few problems if tomorrow's headlines announced the murder by his co-religionists of every single Jew in Israel, and perhaps the world. Yusuf's game, intentionally or otherwise is to pave the way: the Jews, you see, have it coming, for if you think Hamas should be expelled, then so should their moral equivalents, the Jews.

Public double-speak is a marvelous Islamist project: as Arafat delivered very different speeches in English and Arabic, so the Hamas leadership now appears to do the same: their leadership issues seemingly moderate statements about Israel in English; however, these remain untranslated into Arabic and rigorously censored from Gaza media.

And Yusuf does the same on this site. I would encourage him to continue, indeed, were it my site, I might give him his own column. His elastic facticity and moral bankruptcy, like that of Khalid Mashaal (see the recent Sky News interview--it would be hilarious were it not for the fact that the interviewee is little more than a glorified serial killer) need greater exposure.

Lydia McGrew said...

Apropos of your use of Popper and reference to trying to find contrary facts, I think you would like Richard Feynman's lecture "Cargo Cult Science," which says much the same thing in Feynman's inimitable style:

(Hope that link comes across. You can also find it at the bottom of the Wiki article on "Cargo Cult Science.")

Yaacov said...

Excellent article, Lydia. Thanx! I especially liked this:

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be
given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know
anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it. If you
make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then
you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.

Those of you who have read Right to Exist know that one of the things that made it effective was precisely this, that I tried to tell the problematic parts of the story, not only the comfortable parts.

Yaacov said...

Ibrahim -

I of course fully disagree with you, but here's one small point: when the Palestinians ever get around to dealing with their "Kach" parties as the Israelis did, the world will be a far better place. In the meantime, however, the Palestinian versions are far uglier by their actions, which are more significant than mere words which is what Meir Kahana was good at, and unlike him, they have won elections and they ARE the government.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

I'd like Anonymous to get a nickname, so that we don't confuse him (her?) with other Anonymouses that might join the conversation.

My whole point in a nutshell: My problem is not so much with Israel adopting a questionable behavior; it is with its doing so under a pretense of moral superiority.

Take, for instance, Yaacov, who claims to specialize in a balanced presentation of facts. According to him, Israeli Jews don't hate Israeli Arabs, but respect them as law-abiding citizens! That would show their moral superiority vis-à-vis the Palestinians, who can do nothing but hate.

But as Anonymous has pointed out (and all surveys confirm), Israeli Jews do hate Israeli Arabs.

I can understand that hate, but I can't endure the patently false claim that it doesn't exist.

The same goes for terrorism. It's crystal-clear that the Jews committed acts of terrorism equally perverse as the Palestinians'. The usual defense is that the Jewish terrorists were rejected by the population. Which, of course, is at odds with the existence of State ribbons for the terrorists of both Irgun and Lehi.

As I said in my blog, I would have no problem with Zionists claiming "it's us against them, and I'll always support my people whatever happens and whatever they do." It's the pretense of moral superiority that irks me.

Anonymous said...

Well, Mr. Yusuf, aren't all Zionists Orientalists? Or is it safer to say that your co-religionists have simply abandoned the moral high ground by gratuitously providing images of mind-boggling savagery.

Here are but a few such images and sound bites: Palestinian streets erupting in celebration after 9-11. Palestinians handing out candies after the recent murders of Jerusalem Yeshiva students; Palestinians with blood-saturated hands holding the murdered bodies of Israeli reservists out of a West Bank window; Nasrallah boasting about owning the "body parts" of Israeli casualties.... I could go on, but there's no point because an apologist for your creed, you perfectly understand this issue (and may well have handed out some candy yourself.)

No, if Israel has the moral high ground, in part it's because you and your ilk handed it to them on a (shall I say, bloodstained?) platter.

Islamic hi-jinx were quite literally designed for media, and there are many editors who daily thank their lucky stars for the Prophet Mohammad's teachings about dealing with the infidel.

As we say in the journo business, "If it bleeds, it leads" and to be sure, Islam has given the 24/7 news world enough blood for enough leads for the rest of this century.

Rafe said...

The convenor of the Popperian Critical Rationalis Yahoo group cited your interpretation of Popper as a good example of the critical rationalism in practice. For a broad view of Popper's contriubution to political philosophy there is now a comprehensive summary of his book The Open Society and its Enemies on line.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

Mr. Anonymous, you didn't answer my point. If Israel has the high moral ground, why do Zionists need to base it on demonstrable falsities, claiming for instance that Israeli Jews don't hate Israeli Arabs, or that Jewish terrorists targeted military facilities only?

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