On the low expectations of bigotry: Chuck Schumer/data matters edition
Picking up a thought from before the weekend, when John Cole posted on a gem of insight moment of uncharacteristic clarity from the senior senator from New York. It was notable for an admission that the Gaza blockade has as its overarching purpose not the military one — but a collective punishment, a starve-them-out intention. Schumer said that beyond the search for weapons, the blockade is
actually to show the Palestinians that when there’s some moderation and cooperation, they can have an economic advancement. When there’s total war against Israel, which Hamas wages, they’re going to get nowhere. And to me, since the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas, while certainly there should be humanitarian aid and people not starving to death, to strangle them economically until they see that’s not the way to go, makes sense.
Alright — that’s grotesque. (Not to mention stupid: last time I looked near-starving someone’s kids was not the best hearts and minds strategy, but maybe that’s just me.)
You didn’t need me to tell you that. Cole, and the folks over at Think Progress caught the malevolent absurdity of this is a strategy. (I am not a huge sci-fi fan, but I’ve long thought that John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider was more than worth the price of permission. It’s last thought (paraphrased): treating human beings as things defines evil. To echo the tradition in which both Senator Schumer and I were raised, such thoughts are the outcome of giving in to one’s yetzer hara.)
But there was another line that really struck me as evidence of the damage done not just to Schumer’s credibility, nor simply to the Middle East and US policy towards same, but to our whole politics:
The Palestinian people still don’t believe in the Jewish state, in a two-state solution. More do than before, but a majority still do not.
There’s the rhetorical cheat there: “The Palestinian people don’t….More do than before….” which leads to the Which-is-it response. And this isn’t mere pilpul* either: the answer matters to policy and the approach to any hope for a peace process.
If the numbers of Palestinians welcoming a two state solution is growing, then it would be worth knowing why and how one might encourage it. And while arguing from a priori principles is not all that helpful in lots of real-world situations, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, again, that starving someone’s kids until they concede the point is not obviously the best way to go about nurturing human empathy between communities.
But there’s a bigger problem here.
Schumer is not telling the truth.
As of 2007, a substantial plurality of Palestinians favored a two state solution. 46% in fact, with 26% seeking a single, binational state and about a quarter refusing to choose between the two alternatives. To suggest, as Schumer does, that Palestinians are committed to the destruction of Israel to the exclusion of other possibilities is to give cover to those in the Jewish community who oppose a two-state solution — some of whom, one must sadly note, are now in cabinet positions in Israel.
Now, 46% is not a majority, to be sure; Schumer could perhaps cover himself with a figleaf. But it is a strong majority of those expressing an opinion, and damn near an absolute one. The clear implication of Schumer’s remarks, if not the most charitable reading of it, is that the Palestinians obstruct the path to peace, leaving the poor Israelis with no choice but to devastate Gaza. And if the numbers are now worse (as, data-less, I’d bet they are) then that’s a useful datum too.
And even if they are, that result doesn’t make me forgive Schumer’s sin here. He makes a claim. There are data that bear on that claim. They contradict it. Schumer himself roundly ridiculed the Republicans for their refusal to pay attention to the real world in the matters of health care and financial reform. He gets no more lee-way, for this good reason: it’s too damn easy in politics/policy to choose to ignore inconvenient data. It makes the narrative run better, and the country run worse.
If this is a science blog, this is where that heritage comes in. The one great virtue of science is that it has a method for both uncovering facts about the world and analyzing them. It is not a perfect system; no human enterprise could be. But it is damn good, and it has built in the mechanism that permits self-correction. And most of all, it is a practice, a habit of mind inculcated through years of training and acculturation. That we desperately need such practice in politics, Senator Schumer inadvertently attests.
*in the colloquial, derogatory sense.
**That Judaism that is, in his words, “the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all men” combined with a passion for “every form of intellectual aspiration and spiritual effort.”
Image: “The Siege of Tripoli,” before 1400.