Monday, September 10, 2007

John 18, 38

And Pilate asked Jesus "What is Truth?"

An interesting question. When we swear in court "to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," are we searing to what is, to what we know, or to what we believe? The dictionary says truth is "the actual state of the matter." What in the hell does that mean?

Philosophers have long argued over whether or not truth was changing. Clearly when Jesus said that he came to bear witness to the truth he saw truth as something that was concrete and could never change. But that's not the way we use truth today. Some have argued that truth changes as we gather facts. Joe Friday asked for "just the facts, mam," not caring at all what people thought or believed. Had people told him the truth as they knew it it would have confused the issue.

This much I know: the truth for a sixty year old white man living in six bedroom house in the Hamptons is not the same as the truth for a fifteen year old black girl living in the Marcy projects, and their truths would make no sense at all to a ten year old boy living in Faluja.

But why am I interested in truth? Well, truth has come up a number of times for me in the last few days. Sander works on something called "the 9/11 Truth Movement," which is a collection of people trying to prove that the September 11th attacks were an inside job. We published his book on the subject, "Big Wedding: 9/11, The Whistle-Blowers, and the Coverup." On Bill Maher last night Mos Deaf proclaimed, loudly, that he doesn't believe in Osama Bin Laden, the Boogie Man, 9/11, Al Queda, terrorism, or anything else the Bush administration tries to scare us with. He also doesn't' believe we went to the moon. (though apparently he does believe in Big Foot). He is sure, absolutely sure, that all of it has been a creation of the conservatives to create panic in America so that the Bush administration could suspend civil liberties and fight a war in Iraq that pours huge profits into the pockets of Bush's big business cronies--especially Haliburton. That is his truth. And Sander would agree with him. He'd cite the report from the Project for the New American Century from the year 2000 titled "Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategies, Forces, and Resources For a New Century." This report argues for American military dominance throughout the world and especially in Iraq. In a section titled "Rebuilding America's Defenses" it stated that "the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event––like a new Pearl Harbor." (page 51) Because several members of the Bush administration were also members of the PNAC, including Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, and because the PNAC is one of the primary sources for the Bush policy of regime change in Iraq (they were arguing for it as early as 1998), this statement has been used by 9/11 conspiracy theorists to suggest that the PNAC planned 9/11 as way to jump-start the new American dominance. And it certainly gives one pause--although the statement in question was actually part of a section about changing over from old to new paradigm weapon systems (Rumsfeld's new, fast, flexible army that did so well in Iraq), and not about regime change in Iraq. But the parallel is clear: America was unwilling to go on a wartime footing and invest in new military technologies until Pearl Harbor (the state of the Ameircan Military in 1941 was pretty pathetic), and 9/11 provided exactly what the report calls for. Why shouldn't Mos Deaf find a "truth" in there?

But what really has my hackles up--as usual--is a tenure fight. It was covered in today's New York Times. There's a Palestinian-American Anthro professor at Barnard named Nadia Abu El-Haj who's been recommended for tenure, partially based upon a book she wrote titled “Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society.” Apparently, she argues that Israel uses archeology to justify its claim to the the state of Israel, ignoring evidence of other cultures in the area and promoting the Jewish state as the rightful holders of the land. This is, of course a hot topic, and I haven't read her book. It sounds to me like she's got an ax to grind. But the book has won a lot of awards and she is highly regarded in her field. But that didn't stop a bunch of pro-Israel scholars and Barnard grads from circulating a petition labeling her work as "shoddy" and fighting her promotion--nor a bunch of pro-Palestinian scholars and journalists from adopting her as a cause celebre and circulating a counter petition.

Last week the public tenure fight surrounding DePaul professor Norman G. Finkelstein ended with a settlement between him and the university. This fight, which didn't receive much coverage in press (though I remember seeing it in the Times about a year ago), was pretty similar. Finkelstein argued that some Jews abused the history of the Holocaust to justify their own "oppression" of Palestinians. This incurred the wrath of no less a personage than Alan Dershowitz, who waged a furious fight against Finkelstein's promotion, which was played out on blogs throughout the ether, supporting either one side or the other.

Both of these cases illustrate just how hot button a topic Israel is. I live in New York City, which has seven boroughs: Manhattan, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Florida and Israel. Israeli politics is deeply intertwined with politics in NYC, as there is a constant movement back and forth between citizens. I live in a place where anti-Israeli sentiment is both common and widely condemned. A recent book review in the New York Sun, a conservative and pro-Israel daily, is a case in point. Criticizing the new book "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" by Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, Ira Stoll of the Sun does exactly what he accuses Walt and Mearsheimer of doing: he writes a piece of propaganda. He accuses the professors of Anti-semitism in their book,w hich criticizes the influence Israel has over American foreign policy. In today's Sun, Seth Geittel heaps praise upon a book by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League called "The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control," which disputes the premise of Walt and Mearsheimer's book--or rather what Geitell calls "allegations and claims, errors and hyperbole of 'the Israel Lobby' set." According to the Sun, the point of Foxman's book, which also Takes on President Jimmy Carter for his "Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid," is that all of this criticism of the "Israel Lobby" is an old anti-semetic "canard" about Jews having too much influence and only caring about themselves. But the Sun reviews of both these books (not to mention Sun editorials) add fuel to the fire by being not only pro Israel but so strident in their attacks upon those who are not.

Admittedly, Walt and Mearsheimer leave themselves open to such criticism because they going out of their way to try and prove that they are *not* anti-semetic, setting themselves up for rebuttals to the contrary. Also we can't ignore that Israel is a nation that is at a constant state of war and is surrounded by countries who have sworn to see it destroyed. American citizens have the right to petition their government for anything, including support of Israel. And with all due respect to Mr. Finkelstein, the truth of the Hollocaust *should* weigh heavy over Israel as the reason the state was founded in the first place. It is possible that Finkelstein, Walt, Mearsheimer, Abu El-Haj, and President Carter really are Anti Israel. They may even be anti-semitic. I don't know.

What I do know is this: anyone who comes out against the state of Israel in a public forum risks being labeled an anti-Semite. Any scholarship that is critical of Israel is automatically lumped in with the writings of holocaust deniers and racialists. There is no room for debate on these topics. The conflict is ongoing, the wounds too raw, the passions to high for anything resembling discussion to take place--and historians will correctly observe that dispassionate discussion and scholarly debate took place all over Germany alongside the hate speech of Hitler and the Nazis, which produced scholarly works that helps to justify the holocaust. This is what gives people the belief that they have not only the right but the duty to shout down people who disagree with them.

Those who have different truths.

I don't have any answer to all of this. Hitler spoke the truth as he saw it too. It just pisses me off.

Maybe it's not truth we should look for but fact-just as some have suggested that thought is less important than deed. The holocaust is a fact. Good. That millions of Palestinians live in refugee camps is also a fact. With you there. The state of Israel is a fact too. The towers came down on 9/11 and 3000 people died. Fact. But what any of it means is where we get into the questions of truth. Truth is untrustworthy. I give up.

But here is a truth of my own: tenure is based on scholarship, not on politics. Outside lobbying on questions of tenure is just plain wrong--which is why I'm not signing either petition. But I'd happily sign one telling all those people on all sides of the tenure debate to shut the fuck up.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

With you on the tenure thing. And on many others where outside interests are poisoning the debate.

You're circling the most difficult question: "what is truth?" Keats concluded truth is beauty, beauty truth. Never have figured that one out.
My experience is this. At a seminar on suicide, participants responded to the question: what do you believe about suicide? My answer was that life is a gift from the creator, and that He determines our life and death. That elicited a vehement response from another member, who held her hand out like a cop stopping traffic, "that's YOUR truth, not mine!". Of course, my point was that there is an external and separate source of truth...which we can choose to believe or not, but we can't own.

Much of what attempts to pass as "truth" is really "my opinion". Ergo, the debate over tenure is really one or another side trying to force their opinion to the annihilation of every other.

2:56 PM  
Blogger MAC said...

Of course, that is *your* truth..... :)

6:51 PM  
Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

Those archaeology interpretations: aren't all of them, anywhere a matter of a few more or less certain points, extrapolated to a whole picture in living color?

10:25 AM  
Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

PS: funny thing about Florida, not only is it a boro of NYC, but it's a province of both Canada and Cuba, too.

10:26 AM  

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