Saturday, November 15, 2008

Academic fictions

I have just posted the following on the Engage website. It follows several pieces there on a recent talk at Goldsmith's College by a certain Suzanne Weiss, entitled 'From the Warsaw Ghetto to the Gaza Ghetto', in which a false analogy was made between the situation in the Nazi-controlled Warsaw ghetto and that in modern Gaza (a region not controlled by Israel but by cuddly, peace-loving terrorist enterprise, Hamas).

This tiresome series of analogies (Jews=Nazis, Israel=apartheid South Africa) are, in one sense, remarkable. They are manifest fiction, yet large numbers of well-educated academics, writers, intellectuals, and commentators believe in them with an almost religious fervour. This Warsaw/Gaza comparison strikes me as particularly painful. It has also alerted me to where the root of this may lie. If I put on my hat as a fiction writer, I can see it straight away. Putting a plot together can be great fun, especially if you are writing stories that incorporate fact (I write thrillers, but this is true of other genres, notably historical fiction). I may take one fact, then read more about the subject and stumble on another, unrelated, but fictitiously useful fact, then be led to a strange Wikipedia article that draws my attention to something else that can be fitted in. As the plot itself develops during writing (and this is the crucial thing), it acquires richness, and this richness allows me to embed quite disparate information within it. For the purposes of authorship, the writer 'believes' in his characters and plot elements, and as new 'facts' enter the story, the whole thing acquires a believability that makes the novel resonate with readers. More than once, I've had letters from readers declaring how wonderful I am in 'knowing the truth'. It's pure fiction, of course, but if it has been crafted well, there is a verisimilitude that provokes the classic suspension of disbelief.

This happens with conspiracy theories, in which often genuine fact is blended with hearsay (4,000 Jews stayed away from the twin towers) to persuade the gullible to screw up their lives trying to secure 'justice' or retribution for a supposed crime. While some conspiracy theorists may be intelligent, it is rare to find mainstream academics, lawyers, scientists and others among them (I think I'm right in saying that).

But the IDF soldier/Nazi stormtrooper analogy and all the others that cluster around this trope have become the conspiracy theory that has been made respectable by intellectuals and academics worldwide, to the point where patently false history has been allowed to replace archived records as the basis on which political decisions are take. I have worked with historical controversies in the past, and I believe I know how to distinguish between, say, hagiographic accounts and those formulated on the basis of eye-witness statements an do on. The processes that have taken Benny Morris from his earlier positions to his present views (based on a more complete engagement with archive resources) are ones I recognize. Whatever debate emerges from all that is a manageable academic debate. But where can we go when academics stray so far from the standards of debate that they use fantasy to bolster their views, much as religious believers use hagiography?

The most worrying aspect of these analogies is their very deliberate juxtaposition of extreme images. Logic tells us that 'Jew' and 'Nazi' belong at opposite ends of a spectrum. Or that Israel and apartheid South Africa have nothing in common. A balanced approach would say, perhaps, that Israelis sometimes do bad things to Palestinians (how bad depending on debatable emphases) or that anti-Arab discrimination in Israel is a form of racism. But Israel's (or, more plausibly, Jews') detractors are not context with a normal discourse. They must grow perverse. And that perversity extends to making the sufferings of the Palestinians hagiographic, even iconographic (especially in the extreme Christian belief that makes Palestinians the body of Christ, crucified by Jews once more). Large numbers of Palestinians are terrorists who commit dreadful deeds, yet their defenders can only portray them as innocent victims.

Again, this is novelistic. Making the Palestinians victims 'fits' a perverted theology, combining the old view that the Jews killed Jesus with a new dimension, all of which meshes in the believer's mind because it feels somehow 'right'. As a novelist, I can make you believe half a dozen bizarre things before breakfast. But at the end of the book, you should awaken from the fantasy and smile a wry smile and move on to the next story. Our anti-Israel academics seem unable to do this. What academic has not made some sort of journey, from the views adopted for his/her PhD to those in his last article? That journey is made by recognizing our mistakes, whether these be misreadings of factual information or misinterpretations of a text or an experiment. Since the arguments currently being used to demonize Israel are patent falsehoods, what is preventing these academics seeing them for what they are and at least moving on to more rational criticisms? Instead, they give lectures at academic institutions, ennobling their conspiracies and doing untold damage to impressionable students. That is where I believe we should focus: on convincing university authorities that students are being subjected to a level of argument that is not a centimeter above the conspiracy theorists that claim Jews and the CIA destroyed the twin towers. Surely someone has a duty to insist that all such talks come with a health warning at least, or a proper rejoinder at best.