Tuesday, December 19, 2006

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:

  • Until about six years ago, Israelis living across the Green Line received reductions in their income taxes. Many Israelis think we still do, and resent us for it.

  • People living across the Green Line (myself included) have an easier time obtaining gun licenses than otherwise-similar people living inside “Israel proper”.

  • Many banks will not give mortgage loans on houses across the Green Line, or else will finance a lower percentage of a home’s purchase price than they would inside pre-1967 Israel.

  • People living across the Green Line know that they can be evicted from their homes by their government, as a result of an eventual agreement with our Arab neighbors or else as part of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. (When we bought our house, Vaguely Sinister Wife and I had to sign papers acknowledging this; in fact, according to what we signed the government can, at least in theory, evict us without compensation for the loss of our home.)

  • As soon as you cross the Green Line from pre-1967 Israel, you come under military rather than civilian legal jurisdiction. This is easily forgotten, since Israelis living in the West Bank are normally dealt with by the Israeli legal system just as other Israelis are; but this is a privilege extended as a courtesy, and can be revoked at the government’s will. This means that if the government should decide to evict us from our homes, and should we decide to protest this decision, we could quickly find ourselves without the civil rights we normally take for granted; martial law is already in place, merely held in abeyance for us as long as it’s not needed.

  • Stuff grown or manufactured by Jews across the Green Line is apt to be boycotted by members of the Enlightened Public overseas, and even by some Israelis.

  • The Green Line features prominently in our social lives. Many people won’t visit me at home since I live on the “wrong” side of the Line by a couple of kilometers. (Others, of course, avoid me because they’re allergic to cat fluff, or simply because they don’t like me.)

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.)

Categories: .


At Wed Dec 20, 10:14:00 AM GMT+2, Blogger Liza said...

Well said. Really enjoyed meeting you at the conference the other day, and I'm sorry we didn't have an opportunity to chat longer. Gave you a mention in my post about the conference...

At Wed Dec 20, 01:39:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger tafka PP said...

What a great post. Required reading, one might say.

At Wed Dec 20, 04:33:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger SnoopyTheGoon said...

Yep. Ditto.

At Wed Dec 20, 04:56:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger lisoosh said...

Logical, clear and concise as always.
Wish there were more of them.

At Wed Dec 20, 06:31:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

So if I'm so smart, how come I've got 30 readers on a good day?


At Wed Dec 20, 07:31:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger lisoosh said...

Don - because you don't post regularly.

At Wed Dec 20, 08:02:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Hmph. You mean that "every so often" or "when I feel compelled to get something off my chest" isn't "regularly"? Seems terribly unreasonable to me! ;-)

At Sat Dec 23, 05:14:00 PM GMT+2, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't agree more. We visited Israel from the U.S. this past summer. Spent several days doing the Northern loop, returning to Jerusalem by driving down the Jordan valley where all the greenhouses are. First, I couldn't believe how much more space there is out there (and even around Jerusalem) than I thought from all the reading I've done. Second, no one really knew where the green line is. Third, all of your maps for school (and people like me) need to be 3-d because the line of sight issues become apparent when you're on the ground. We loved it there! And love your blog! I started reading your stuff years ago when you were commenting on other sites.

At Sun Dec 24, 08:40:00 PM GMT+2, Anonymous Eyal said...

I was actually a bit surprised to hear the Line wasn't in the books - as far as I remember, it was certainly on the maps we used when I was in school (I graduated in 1994)


Post a Comment

<< Home