Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Israel, atheism, and unremarkable things

In the comments section of the post where he generously linked here, Alan Jacobs replies to a commenter saying

Francis, I’ve always thought it a given in rational discourse — the kind that, I think, we practice at the Scene and Freddie practices at his blog — that none of us holds with threatening to kill people we disagree with. Aren’t there some things that Go Without Saying?...I tend to think that we don’t need to spend much time belaboring the obvious — for example, that it’s wrong to threaten to murder people — but instead should focus on matters that (for some people anyway) aren’t so obvious

Right. Let me say, since I guess it needs to be said, that I have no tolerance for those who make death threats, against PZ Meyers, or Webster Cook (the guy who tried to take the communion wafer out of church), or anyone else, for that matter. And I do, indeed, recognize the dangers of theocracy and the need to combat it. But the fact that death threats are terrible is, as Alan said, uncontroversial; and the attitude that the United States should not be a theocracy is nearly as uncontroversial as that. I'm not really in the habit of arguing against ideas that have close to zero proponents.

What's more, I find the argument ad death threat tiring. I'm told that Webster Cook received death threats. That's terrible, and as it happens, illegal. But that fact has no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether or not PZ Meyers is a jerk, or the quality of his post. It's a perverse sort of censorship that holds that because someone received death threats, we can't argue in good faith against him, or his side. (I actually have no data on Webster Cook's personal views on God or atheism.)

This idea really is one of message prioritization. The notion seems to be that I should privilege my belief that death threats are bad over my belief that PZ Meyers made an extraordinarily ugly and rude blog post, and that I should therefore post more often about the ugliness of death threats, or use more extreme language when denouncing death threats, etc. This is a strange line of thinking; to what degree does anyone hold any particular notion to be true, and how does that question relate to what we should write about or talk about? I submit to you that what we tend to write about or talk about has little to do with how important those ideas are to us. But since it seems important to some, let me say clearly: I am opposed to death threats against PZ Meyers or any other atheists. Being a jerk does not mean that you deserve to be threatened. I am opposed to theocracy. I am in favor of free speech, which both protects PZ Meyers ridiculing Catholics and me criticizing him for doing so.

These kinds of questions of message priority are also common, it seems to me, in discussing Israel.

It's commonly the case that those who are critical of certain actions by the Israeli government or military are accused of caring more about Israel's failings than those of Hamas, or Iran, or Syria, or Hezbollah. This thinking seems to me to be cousin to the mindset that says because I criticize PZ Meyers, I must therefore be unmoved by death threats. I do consider it uncontroversial that the government of Israel is light-years ahead of the thuggish theocratic autocracy in Saudi Arabia. I do consider it uncontroversial that the government of Israel is superior in almost every way to the terrorists within Hamas. (Though I don't, I have to say, find my dissatisfaction with Hamas sufficient grounds to stop negotiating with them. But that's another topic.) The fact is, however, that regardless of their relative morality compared to the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah, there is a question about the absolute morality of Israel's actions in the world. And so I comment on them, when I feel compelled by my conscience.

Is it naive of me to believe that the superiority of the Israeli government to, say, Hezbollah is uncontroversial? Perhaps. I think it depends largely on how the question is framed. Because though I find much about the Israeli government superior to its assorted enemies, that doesn't mean that I can't condemn Israeli actions. I don't find the killing of a child by the IDF to be any less undesirable than the killing of a child by a Palestinian suicide bomber. But it does seem to me that there is a difference in kind between the problems of Israel and the problems of its enemies. With the exception of Iran's (troubled and incomplete) democracy, Israel's enemies have a problem because they lack democracy. Israel's problems, from my point of view, are incorrect policies derived from democracy. One is a problem of outcome, or is if you think like me. The other problem is endemic, deep-rooted and significantly harder to erase.

And the number of people who actually support Hezbollah kidnapping Israeli soldiers, or Hamas sending suicide bombers into crowded Israeli marketplaces, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for the eradication of Israel? It really is vanishingly small. You won't find a national American politician who supports any of that, not in the House or the Senate or a governor's mansion. You won't find a prominent national commentator on the radio or TV who supports those things. You won't find a prominent presidential candidate from any party who supports those things. In contrast, you can find legions of pundits and politicians who support Israeli policies I disagree with. On a simple level, in American discourse, arguing against acts of violence against Israeli is arguing with almost no one of consequence. Are there people who will tell you, out there, that Hamas is a more moral agent in the world than Israel? I'm sure there are. But there are also those who insist that the government is secretly run by aliens. They are not generally considered people of much influence.

There's another reason why I find it necessary to argue against Israeli policies but don't often argue against the actions of Hamas, or Hezbollah: my arguing about Israel at least hypothetically can do some good. Israel is a robust liberal democracy; it has a functioning national dialogue that shapes policy and influences governmental action. This isn't true for Hamas, or Hezbollah, or the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia. I don't pretend to any influence on Israeli affairs or that anyone cares about what I have to say at all, really. But discussion is a sacrament of democracy, and as Israel is a functioning democracy, my discussion of Israeli policy (good, bad or indifferent) has a salience and utility lacking in a discussion of Saudi Arabia or similar.

So I argue against Israeli policy I disagree with in the belief that Israel is more amenable to positive change. It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, true-- but it's the problem that we have the ability to meaningfully address that we're first to confront. I don't think that people who make death threats are going to be moved by what I have to say; if you've gotten to the point where you're threatening the life of someone else because of what they believe, you've crossed a threshhold that I'm afraid I can't drag you back across. PZ Meyers and I may not agree, but we're in the conversation, in a way that people who lob death threats aren't.

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