The boycott law and bullshit
Bullshitting, to a certain extent, is an unavoidable facet of political life. But once it goes beyond a certain limit, it endangers open society and liberal democracy.
MK Zeev Elkin, who initiated the boycott law that was passed by the Knesset this Monday, said that the law was not meant to silence people, but to “protect the citizens of Israel.” Elkin’s statement would, in and of itself, not carry much interest, if it didn’t highlight a hallmark of the eighteenth Knesset that is undermining Israel as a liberal democracy step by step.
American philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote a much quoted paper titled “On Bullshit” in 1986. In 2005, after George W. Bush was reelected, this paper was re-published as a booklet by Princeton University Press, and became a bestseller. Frankfurt’s philosophical concept of bullshit is of much help in analyzing Elkin’s statement and the current Knesset’s culture.
The Bullshitter’s eye, says Harry Frankfurt, “is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
It seems to me that Elkin’s statement is a precise instance of what Frankfurt means by bullshitting. Elkin tries to generate the impression that calls for boycotts threaten the citizens of Israel. The truth is, of course, that calls to boycott do not threaten anybody in any serious way: they call to exert pressure on Israel to end the occupation; nothing more, nothing less.
Furthermore Mr. Elkin is trying to give the impression that his boycott law is not an infringement on the right to free speech, and that it does no harm to Israel’s democracy. That, of course, depends on how we understand democracy. Syria and Iran have regular elections, as did Egypt before Mubarak was toppled. But clearly they are not liberal democracies: there is no freedom of speech; there is no open critical discussion; and there is no clear separation of powers.
Liberal democracy depends not only on institutional structures. It also depends on a culture that values clear speech; coherent, logical argument; and truly critical discussion. This is what philosopher Karl Popper called open society. Because we humans are fallible, errors are unavoidable, and the value of open society is to lower chances to get stuck with falsehoods and wrong strategies, because a truly critical discussion allows for falsification of wrong ideas, for correction of mistakes and for innovation.
Bullshitting, to a certain extent, is an unavoidable facet of political life. But once it goes beyond a certain limit, it endangers open society and liberal democracy. Totalitarianism, as George Orwell showed poignantly, hinges on clouding the mind by polluting our speech. This is precisely what the majority of the eighteenth Knesset and the Netanyahu government have done: they have crossed the line where bullshitting pushes towards totalitarianism.
A few examples to show to what extent the current coalition is based on bullshitting. Netanyahu keeps repeating that the world is attacking the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. He wants to create the impression that peace would neither bring security to Israel, nor end its international isolation.
As Shlomo Avineri has pointed out lately, this is blatantly false: except for Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and the far fringes of the European and American Left nobody says that Israel’s existence is illegitimate. The overwhelming majority of the world simply wants Israel to end the occupation. No more; no less. Netanyahu bullshits, because it is in his interest to hide that his political survival depends on not confronting the ideological right in his own party and in his coalition; and that his ideology, and not the Free World, condemns Israel to ever-growing isolation.
He similarly bullshits Israeli citizens when he states flatly that the 1967 borders are indefensible, as if this was an established fact of nature. If it were, the former generals and former Mossad and Shabak Chiefs Lipkin-Shahak, Mitzna, Ayalon, Yatom and Peri would not subscribe to the Israeli Peace Initiative, which calls for negotiations based on the 1967 borders. In an open society, Netanyahu would engage with their arguments. But the one thing Netanyahu and his coalition must avoid like the pest is a open, critical and calm discussion. It would be their political demise.
Rational discussion would expose the blatant falsehood of its major ideological dogma: that Israel can be a democratic country with a Jewish character while continuing the occupation. A clear-headed discussion would show that the greatest danger for Israel’s future today lies not in the Arab world, but in the disintegration and radicalization of its political culture
Let us therefore not bullshit ourselves; we get enough of this from our politicians.