Archive for April, 2013

Freedom and High Anxiety in the USA – An Analysis (23 April 2013) by Lawrence Davidson



Part I – High Anxiety


Americans may assume that public insecurity is a condition you find under dictatorships, where the agents of the state can burst through your door and cart you away without a warrant. That can now happen in the USA too, but only to those the government calls “terrorists.” Perhaps naively, ordinary folks see themselves as immune from that sort of treatment. However, public insecurity has many roots. Americans actually experience, but almost never acknowledge, the fact that there is a correlation between U.S. democracy’s relatively broad array of freedoms and public high anxiety. Here are some of the ways this works:


  • Economic freedom can, theoretically, break down class barriers and open up opportunities for enterprising citizens. It also leaves you free to become abjectly poor and produces a socio-political environment in which ideologically driven leaders hesitate to use the power of the state to solve the consequences of poverty. Being poor is, usually, a high-anxiety state.


  • Political freedoms can become lopsided in favor of well-organized special interests with the financial ability to corrupt the political system. It might be that 90% or more of Americans favor reform of the gun laws and would feel safer if there were universal background checks on those purchasing firearms. It does not matter, though, because this majority does not know how to effectively use its political freedom to achieve this end. As a consequence lobby groups that specialize in working the system (such as the National Rifle Association) can easily override the wishes of the majority and, as just happened, arrange for the most innocuous of gun reform legislation to be defeated in the Senate. Moved by the same lobby influence, the Senate is expected to reject the recently created UN Arms Trade Treaty. Thus the rest of us, and our children, are stuck in a situation that is very free for gun owners who can give their fantasies full play, but spells high anxiety for the rest of us.


  • Media freedom, such as it is, is perhaps the greatest contributor to public insecurity because it has produced a consistent concentration on the negative. This occurs because either those who own the media outlets, and thus literally select the news we receive, hold an anxiety-producing worldview, or they see such an approach as good business. The spectacularly negative seems to sell newspapers and boost ratings.


At this point, one can ask who are those who are most inclined to use freedom, either as economic, political, or media policy makers, or leaders of special interest groups, to promote practices and policies that are anxiety producing to great majority? It is often rigid, single-issue protagonists who are anything but free in their own minds. In fact their single-mindedness has blinded them to broader community interests and needs.


Take for instance, the Christian and Jewish ideologues making up such groups as Christians United for Israel and the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The former is an your classic Christian Zionist organization which claims to be “the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States serving 1.3 million members.” AIPAC, of course, is one of the most influential lobby groups in the country. And just how do these groups “serve” their constituents? Well, one way is by going around trying to convince the rest of us that we are in mortal danger from a nuclear Iran (which happens to be a country at odds with Israel). They have done a good job of implanting this anxiety-producing fantasy in the minds of both the public and many members of the U.S. Congress. But, how do I know the claim that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons is a fantasy? Because every time the heads of our government’s intelligence services are asked about this they say it isn’t true. Oddly, this gets very little press.


Such Zionist organizations also spread public insecurity through the promotion of Islamophobia, another fantasy, which states that just about every Muslim in the U.S. is an al Qaeda agent. As one friend of mine, Peter Loeb of Boston, has put it, “the word ‘terrorist’ has become equated with ‘Arab/Muslim’ in the American mind.” Thus, referring to the recent Boston Marathon bombing, ABC news reports that “the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 has left many people anxious. But Muslim Americans await the identity of the perpetrator with particular dread.”


Part II – The Example of the Boston Marathon


The recent anxiety that hit the nation over the Boston Marathon bombings is good example of just how exaggeratedly frightening a world our freedom (in this case media freedom) has created for us. If one bothers with the facts, one learns that terrorist attacks are not numerous in the U.S. and are in fact declining. Most of them are not carried out by Muslims but by animal rights advocates. Finally, U.S. law enforcement is getting better at dealing with these incidents. But all of this good news makes no impact in the face of something made into a major anxiety-producing national event by the media.


The Boston Marathon affair was carried out by two young immigrant brothers of Chechen ethnicity. The older brother, who was probably the leader in this escapade, appeared to be a disenchanted misfit. He was an aspiring and talented boxer who had his heart set on making the U.S. Olympic team. However, he had recently learned that as a “foreign athlete” (he was not yet a citizen) he could not compete in the U.S. national championships. He had come to feel that “there are no values anymore” and that “people can’t control themselves.” By the way, these are feelings that no devout Muslim would ever seriously entertain.


Part III – Freedom and Responsibility


Unfortunately, freedom as practiced in the U.S. has its drawbacks. It has encouraged an often heartless individuality that disregards serious levels of poverty. It has allowed the evolution of interest group politics that often works against national interests in both domestic and foreign policies. And, in the guise of a free media, it has produced an environment that breeds exaggeration, fantasy, and a general concentration on the most spectacular, and most negative, of news stories.


Does this make America’s freedoms, in principle, bad things? Not at all. But it does call attention to the fact that such freedoms, practiced unconditionally, can give free rein to the less communal and more selfish aspects of the human psyche. The result can be a form of negative blowback. An intelligent, mature community will be aware of this fact and implement non-abusive regulations to assure that along with economic, political, and media freedom comes responsible behavior.


Alas, America as a society is not particularly intelligent or mature, so such reforms encouraging responsible behavior are unlikely. The irony of it all is that it will be in the name of preserving freedom, in its peculiarly American radical individualistic form, that powerful elites and influential special interests will resist any effort to mandate the responsible use of those freedoms. As a consequence, high anxiety and freedom will continue to go along with each other.

In Defense of Amira Hass – An Analysis (13 April 2013) by Lawrence Davidson


 Amira Hass


Part I – Claiming the Right of Resistance


Amira Hass is a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. She reports on Palestinian affairs in the occupied territories and, over the years, has come to understand the Palestinians’ plight from their own point of view. On 3 April 2013 Hass wrote an op-ed for her newspaper entitled “The Inner Syntax of Palestinian Stone-Throwing,” in which she wrote,


It would make sense for Palestinian schools to give classes in resistance: how to build multiple “tower and stockade” villages; . . how to behave when army troops enter your homes; . . . how to use a video camera to document the violence of the regime’s representatives; . . . how to identify soldiers who have flung you handcuffed to the floor of a jeep, in order to submit a complaint. 


Hass has been writing in this fashion since 1991. She and Gideon Levy, another Haaretz reporter, are among the very small number of Israeli journalists who tell the truth about the Israeli occupation. And, as far as I know, they are the only ones who are regularly translated into English.  


In this particular op-ed Hass goes on to contextualize the major resistance practice of Palestinian youth, stone throwing.  


Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule.  Throwing stones is an action as well as a metaphor of resistance. Persecution of stone-throwers, including 8-year-old children, is an inseparable part – though it is not always spelled out – of the job requirements of the foreign ruler, no less than shooting, torture, land theft, restrictions on movement, and the unequal distribution of water sources.  


The violence of 19-year-old soldiers, their 45-year-old commanders, and the bureaucrats, jurists and lawyers is dictated by reality. Their job is to protect the fruits of violence instilled in foreign occupation – resources, profits, power and privileges. 


Finally, Hass asks why such instruction in resistance is absent and answers that it is because the Palestine National Authority has decided to “adapt to the existing situation.”  This puts the PNA in a position of fearing truly effective resistance as much as the Israeli occupiers do.


Part II – Reaction to the Claim


Hass’s truth-telling precipitated a flood of protest among Israeli nationalists and expansionists. The hate mail came pouring in to both Hass and her newspaper, and demands that she be prosecuted for “incitement to violence” were made by rightists and settler groups.  One Israeli, the mother of a child seriously injured in a stone-throwing incident,  accused Hass of encouraging Palestinians to use deadly violence in their struggle. “There isn’t a person on earth who will achieve freedom and liberty by means of an instrument of death,” she said. Unfortunately, this assertion is historically untrue. It is the opposite that is the case. It’s very rare that any group wins its freedom and liberty except through the use of “instruments of death.” Indeed, armed resistance seeking self-determination against “colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes” is recognized as legitimate under the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions. That Israel, not surprisingly, chose not to be a party to the Protocol is irrelevant.  


Perhaps the most interesting objection to Hass’s position came on 4 April 2013 from Cellu Rozenberg, a historian and “national security specialist.”  It too was printed in Haaretz under the title “Amira Hass’ Glass House.” In this rebuttal Rozenberg sometimes misrepresents Hass, as when he asserts that “the claim that stone-throwing is the right of every human being . . . is futile and invalid, certainly in ethical terms.” What Hass actually said was “throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule.” 


But, let us set aside this error and concentrate on a more important assertion.  Rozenberg argues:


  • Stone-throwing is a potentially lethal activity and is unacceptable when used against civilians. 


  • Rozenberg says that Hass recognizes the legitimacy of this deadly form of resistance in both the occupied territories and inside Israel proper because, she asserts, Palestinians face “institutionalized violence” (albeit in different forms) in both areas. According to Rozenberg “this is a dangerous crossing of the boundary, because it implies a rejection of the Zionist enterprise.”


  • Rozenberg says Hass’s argument amounts to an assertion that  “Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel are a crime against the Palestinians.” That puts Hass’s position in line with the one taken by Hamas.


In all of these assertions, Rozenberg is twisting Hass’s intent. Rozenberg does not acknowledge that Hass calls on the Palestinians to make a distinction between armed and the unarmed occupiers. Hass indicates in her op-ed that there are limitations and “rules” to be learned when practicing resistance “including the failures and narrowness of using weapons.” That certainly puts her in a different place than Hamas. Nonetheless, Rozenberg reveals a seminal question when it comes to the Palestinian struggle:  Is Israel legitimate or is it “a crime”?


Part III – Country Verus State Ideology


If Israel is a criminal venture, then it has no more right to exist than any other criminal organization.  However, it is to be noted that Rozenberg, being a good Zionist, conflates two different things: the country of Israel and the Zionist state philosophy and apparatus that runs that country. Must we see them as the same thing?  If it turns out that they can be separated, then can we apply the charge of criminality to one of these and not the other?


Zionists will fiercely insist that the country of Israel was born of the Zionist vision and therefore is inseparable from that ideology.  But this is not the way history works.  South Africa was born of a European racist vision and for a long time was identified as a manifestation of apartheid.  However, that turned out to be an impermanent situation, and since 1994, the country of South Africa has run on a very different model.  The country of Russia was founded as the expression of one ideology in the 15th century,  transformed into quite a different state in 1917, and then something else again in 1991. If the history of nation-states proves anything at all, it is that state ideologies are much less permanent than the countries they are initially identified with.  


So what are we to say about the country of Israel?  A good argument can be made that the country, which is now a recognized member of the modern array of nations, has a right to exist.  However, at the same time, it can be asserted that its present racist state apparatuses that practice ethnic cleansing and institutionalized discrimination, as well as the Zionist ideology that justifies such practices, are increasingly unacceptable in the modern world and therefore can claim no inherent right to exist.  


Part IV – Conclusion


The vision of the country of Israel with a different form of government, one that functions to support equally the rights of all of its citizens, is a quite sensible one.  It is a goal that is being pursued in many ways (for instance the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) and, eventually, has a fair chance of success.  And, just so that this writer is clearly understood, this criterion for an acceptable form of government should be a universal one.  It makes no difference who the marginalized group is, non-Jews in Israel, Sunnis in Shiite Iran, Shiites in Sunni Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Muslims in Myanmar, Native Americans in the U.S., etc., etc. (the list is depressingly long).  All governments should be pressured to reform in the direction of democratic equalitarianism. 


One might dismiss this as naive idealism, but the South African case suggests otherwise. And, one might ask, what are the alternatives for those of an activist frame of mind? Are we to retreat into passive acceptance of the world’s criminality?  Are we to bury our heads in the sands of localism and quietude?  Are we to join the exploiters and oppressors and reap the material benefits of doing so?  There are many choices. Why not follow the example of Amira Hass and choose one that may make the world better?


Critical Thinking Gone Missing — An Analysis (5 April 2013) by Lawrence Davidson



Part I – Ignorance As a Default Position


In 2008 Rick Shenkman, the Editor-in-Chief of the History News Network, published a book entitled Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (Basic Books). In it he demonstrated, among other things, that most Americans were: (1) ignorant about major international events, (2) knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it, (3) were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country, and (4) were readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears, and public relations babble. 


Shenkman spent 256 pages documenting these claims, using a great number of polls and surveys from very reputable sources. Indeed, in the end it is hard to argue with his data. So, what can we say about this? One thing that can be said is that this is not an abnormal state of affairs. As has been suggested in prior analyses, ignorance of non-local affairs (often leading to inaccurate assumptions, passive acceptance of authority, and illogical actions) is, in fact, a default position for any population.


To put it another way, the majority of any population will pay little or no attention to news stories or government actions that do not appear to impact their lives or the lives of close associates. If something non-local happens that is brought to their attention by the media, they will passively accept government explanations and simplistic solutions. 


The primary issue is “does it impact my life?” If it does, people will pay attention.  If it appears not to, they won’t pay attention. For instance, in Shenkman’s book unfavorable comparisons are sometimes made between Americans and Europeans. Americans often are said to be much more ignorant about world geography than are Europeans. This might be, but it is, ironically, due to an accident of geography. Americans occupy a large subcontinent isolated by two oceans. Europeans are crowded into small contiguous countries that, until recently, repeatedly invaded each other as well as possessed overseas colonies. Under these circumstances, a knowledge of geography, as well as paying attention to what is happening on the other side of the border, has more immediate relevance to the lives of those in Toulouse or Amsterdam than is the case for someone in Pittsburgh or Topeka.  If conditions were reversed, Europeans would know less geography and Americans more.   


Part II – Ideology And Bureaucracy


The localism referenced above is not the only reason for widespread ignorance. The strong adherence to ideology and work within a bureaucratic setting can also greatly narrow one’s worldview and cripple one’s critical abilities.


In effect, a closely adhered to ideology becomes a mental locality with limits and borders just as real as those of geography. In fact, if we consider nationalism a pervasive modern ideology, there is a direct connection between the boundaries induced in the mind and those on the ground. Furthermore, it does not matter if the ideology is politically left or right, or for that matter, whether it is secular or religious. One’s critical abilities will be suppressed in favor of standardized, formulaic answers provided by the ideology.  


Just so work done within a bureaucratic setting. Bureaucracies position the worker within closely supervised departments where success equates with doing a specific job according to specific rules. Within this limited world one learns not to think outside the box, and so, except as applied to one’s task, critical thinking is discouraged and one’s worldview comes to conform to that of the bureaucracy. That is why bureaucrats are so often referred to as cogs in a machine.


Part III –  Moments of Embarrassment 


That American ignorance is explainable does not make it any less distressing. At the very least it often leads to embarrassment for the minority who are not ignorant. Take for example the facts that polls show over half of American adults don’t know which country dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or that 30% don’t know what the Holocaust was. We might explain this as the result of faulty education; however, there are other, just as embarrassing, moments involving the well educated. Take, for instance, the employees of Fox News. Lou Dobbs (who graduated from Harvard University) is host of the Fox Business Network talk show Lou Dobbs Tonight.  Speaking on 23 March 2013 about gun control, he and Fox political analyst Angela McGlowan (a graduate of the University of Mississippi) had the following exchange


McGlowan: “What scares the hell out of me is that we have a president . . . that wants to take our guns, but yet he wants to attack Iran and Syria. So if they come and attack us here, we don’t have the right to bear arms under this Obama administration.”


Dobbs: “We’re told by Homeland Security that there are already agents of Al Qaeda here working in this country. Why in the world would you not want to make certain that all American citizens were armed and prepared?”


Despite education, ignorance plus ideology leading to stupidity doesn’t come in any starker form than this. Suffice it to say that nothing the president has proposed in the way of gun control takes away the vast majority of weapons owned by Americans, that the president’s actions point to the fact that he does not want to attack Syria or Iran, and that neither country has the capacity to “come and attack us here.” Finally, while there may be a handful of Americans who sympathize with Al Qaeda, they cannot accurately be described as “agents” of some central organization that dictates their actions.  


Did the fact that Dobbs and McGlowan were speaking nonsense make any difference to the majority of those listening to them? Probably not. Their regular listeners may well be too ignorant to know that this surreal episode has no basis in reality. Their ignorance will cause them not to fact-check Dobbs’s and McGlowan’s remarks. They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth.  


Unfortunately, one can multiply this scenario many times. There are millions of Americans, most of whom are quite literate, who believe the United Nations is an evil organization bent on destroying U.S. sovereignty. Indeed, in 2005 George W. Bush actually appointed one of them, John Bolton (a graduate of Yale University), as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Likewise, so paranoid are gun enthusiasts (whose level of education varies widely) that any really effective government supervision of the U.S. gun trade would be seen as a giant step toward dictatorship. Therefore, the National Rifle Association, working its influence on Congress, has for years successfullyrestricted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from using computers to create a central database of gun transactions. And, last but certainly not least, there is the unending war against teaching evolution in U.S. schools. This Christian fundamentalist effort often enjoys temporary success in large sections of the country and is ultimately held at bay only by court decisions reflecting (to date) a solid sense of reality on this subject. By the way, evolution is a scientific theory that has as much evidence to back it up as does gravity.  


Part IV –  Teaching Critical Thinking?


As troubling as this apparently perennial problem of ignorance is, it is equally frustrating to listen to repeated schemes to teach critical thinking through the public schools. Of course, the habit of asking critical questions can be taught. However, if you do not have a knowledge base from which to consider a situation, it is hard think critically about it.  So ignorance often precludes effective critical thinking even if the technique is acquired. In any case, public school systems have always had two primary purposes and critical thinking is not one of them. The schools are designed to prepare students for the marketplace and to make them loyal citizens. The marketplace is most often a top-down, authoritarian world and loyalty comes from myth-making and emotional bonds. In both cases, really effective critical thinking might well be incompatible with the desired end. 


Recently, a suggestion has been made to forget about the schools as a place to learn critical thinking. According to Dennis Bartels’s article “Critical Thinking Is Best Taught Outside the Classroom” appearing in Scientific American online, schools can’t teach critical thinking because they are too busy teaching to standardized tests. Of course, there was a time when schools were not so strongly mandated to teach this way and there is no evidence that at that time they taught critical thinking. In any case, Bartels believes that people learn critical thinking in informal settings such as museums and by watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He concludes that “people must acquire this skill somewhere. Our society depends on them being able to make critical decisions.” If that were only true it would make this an easier problem to solve.


Part V – Conclusion


It may very well be that (consciously or unconsciously) societies organize themselves to hold critical thinking to a minimum. That means to tolerate it to the point needed to get through day-to-day existence and to tackle those aspects of one’s profession that might require narrowly focused critical thought. But beyond that, we get into dangerous, de-stabilizing waters. Societies, be they democratic or not, are not going to encourage critical thinking about prevailing ideologies or government policies. And, if it is the case that most people don’t think of anything critically unless it falls into that local arena in which their lives are lived out, all the better. Under such conditions people can be relied upon to stay passive about events outside their local venue until the government decides it is time to rouse them up in some propagandistic manner. 


The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors. They are called gadflies. You know, people like Socrates, who is probably the best-known critical thinker in Western history. And, at least the well educated among us know what happened to him.