Lines and Inanity*
Among the many odd bits of education I’ve picked up here and there, I’ve had the pleasure of receiving some very useful training in General Semantics – a rather obscure discipline that is very difficult to define, but which can be described as a system for promoting accuracy of thought and feeling. (One of my principle teachers was Robert Pula, who I just found out – thanks to Wikipedia’s wonderfully rich cross-referencing system – died two years ago. Rest in peace, Bob.) A good bit of my rather annoying analytical style can probably be attributed to my exposure to General Semantics almost thirty years ago.
One of the fundamental concepts of General Semantics is that the map is not the territory; the word is not the thing – meaning that our verbal and non-verbal representations of reality are, at best, just representations, and not reality itself.
If we want to think accurately, we need to be aware that it’s all too easy to use these representations in ways that radically distort our understanding of the world. For example, I frequently see some of my fellow Zionists saying and writing things like, “The Palestinians don’t want peace; they just want to destroy Israel.” The problem here is that there is no such “thing” as “the Palestinians”; several million people can be classified (more or less accurately) as Palestinians, and they lack even a means of expressing a majority opinion on this or any other subject. To talk about “the Palestinians” as if they were a unitary object with a single opinion on Israel – or, for that matter, on anything else – is non-sense. (I’ve written in this vein before; see the second paragraph of my response to A____ in “Strategic assets and white elephants”.)
Since – with our limited and imperfect senses – we can never perceive reality entire, all we have is representations: words, maps, and other abstractions from the reality that is “out there” but which remains forever inaccessible to us. If we want to get along well with the universe, we should seek the most accurate representations we can get: Someone trying to understand the Middle East can no more afford to think in terms of what “the Palestinians” think than an American long-distance bus driver can afford to use a map that shows New Jersey next to Idaho. Successful navigation requires maps that fit the territory.
All of this brings me to one of this month’s existential crises in Israel: Yuli Tamir, our Minister of Education, has come under a barrage of criticism from the Right for her decision to order the inclusion of the “Green Line” (Israel’s pre-1967 de facto border, which was in fact an armistice line recognized by neither Israel nor its Arab neighbors as a legal border) in maps to be included in new elementary-school geography textbooks. According to some (but by no means all) Israeli Rightists and their supporters overseas, including the Green Line in our children’s maps will somehow turn them all into raging members of Peace Now and otherwise sap and impurify all of their precious bodily fluids.
This controversy highlights one of the more surreal absurdities in a region that possesses over 60% of the world’s proven absurdity reserves: Although the Green Line is a significant factor in our lives, it is entirely absent from most of our maps. Since a November 1967 government decision decreed that Israeli maps should show only the post-Six-Day-War cease-fire lines and not the previous borders, the Green Line has achieved a kind of massive, intrusive invisibility.
This might make some kind of sense if the Green Line were in fact irrelevant; but it isn’t. Not only is it still a major part of Israel’s history and a constant point of reference in the debate about an eventual settlement of the Israeli/Arab conflict; it’s also a significant influence on the day-to-day lives of many Israelis:
In short, the Green Line is important – historically, politically, legally, economically, and socially. So where the hell is it? An awful lot of Israelis have no idea.
By eliminating the Green Line from Israeli maps, our government did not eliminate the Green Line; all it accomplished was to create a lot of inaccurate maps and ignorant Israelis. If we intend to navigate our future successfully, we need to know where the Green Line is and what the Green Line is. So let the maps be reprinted; let the Green Line show forth in all its wriggly and impractical glory! And when, eventually, it really does become merely a fact of history, let it enjoy an honorable, dignified – and visible – retirement.
* This is a rather wretched play on the title of the seminal – and rather impenetrable – textbook of General Semantics, Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski. I apologize abjectly – although I suspect that Korzybski would have approved of it.
(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)