A Compelling Lesson

In the interests of journalistic craftsmanship, it is vital to continue the legacy of Arie Caspi's writing, as showcased in this volume.

"Hazakim al halashim" ("Strong Over the Weak") by Arie Caspi, Xargol/Am Oved, 332 pages, NIS 84

Arie Caspi's writing is a masterly example to be followed. There have been, and still are, other good journalists in Israel, some of them brilliant and impressive, but from Caspi you can actually learn how to write. Severe and generous, Caspi's writing sets high standards of integrity, feeling and lucidity in a simple, clear style, and it calls on us to meet these standards (which we can only rarely do).

In the genre of the article or short essay, his writing stands out for the luminous quality of both its content and its form. (I am writing this in the present tense, because, although he died in 2003, Caspi's writing remains accessible today. The publication of the book, a collection of his Haaretz columns, is a happy event precisely because of that, and it offers a cause for optimism; this is an incomparably vital contribution to anyone who wishes to continue imbibing, or instilling, the values of journalism at its best.)

On the content side, no one today has Caspi's talent of challenging, subverting and shaking up. He was the sharpest critic of Israel's most powerful religion, neo-liberalism. He was deeply familiar with this religion's language and churches, with its customs and leaders, and with the fantasy it constructed for believers. He showed us its failures and cruelty.

In an article published in late 1999, for example, he described "the heavy price of cheap products," aptly describing the sweatshops of East Asia as "slave repositories," a concept that should certainly continue to be echoed today. In a column from 2000, he referred to the high-tech industry, with its capricious investment culture, as "an industry without a conscience," and he showed how the development of the start-up culture caused socio-economic rifts in Israel to deepen. In 1999 he compared the free market culture to the culture of lottery gambling: "The incentives provided by the smaller prizes and the futile hope of someday winning the 'big one' are what encourages most people to support a system that works against them."

Caspi pulled the rug out from under the economic axioms and disproved the widespread justifications that made it possible to dismantle Israel's welfare state while its society looked on, but did not really protest. He proposed a different way of thinking about society and economy, about poverty and wealth, about justice and charity - from the perspective of the weak rather than solely from the viewpoint of the powerful or the upper middle class, to which most economic writers in Israel's newspapers belong. (I am writing this in the past tense, because that voice is now so deeply, palpably absent from Israeli journalism.)

Driving and human nature

Concerning form, Caspi's writing offers a compelling lesson. Take, for example, the article "A bad girl from a bad home," published in November 1995, and dealing with car accidents. It begins by presenting a common claim (you can't put a price on human life, the number of road fatalities in Israel is steadily growing, Israeli drivers are a disaster, and so on). The column then proceeds to examine the data cited in support of this claim, and it shows that two different sets of figures are used in a manipulative fashion.

Caspi compares data from Israel to figures from other countries, showing that, in fact, "the average Israeli driver is no more psycho than the European one"; the number of people killed in local traffic accidents "resembles the average numbers in Europe and is lower than in several countries, such as Italy, France, Finland and Switzerland. Only in two European countries, Norway and Sweden, is the rate of road fatalities significantly lower." And he suggests, in mid-column, that we step out of the magic cycle of the common discourse about car accidents. In other words, he points out what seems self-evident and shows us that it is not evident at all, in any context.

"Even if we manage to reach a Scandinavian level of cool-headedness," he writes, "the number of road fatalities will drop by only 20 percent. Even if we implement all the wise advice offered by experts, as well as all the sillier recommendations, we will still have hundreds dead every year. The problem is that driving a car clashes with human nature. It demands of us skills that only a select few possess. The skills required of a bus driver are not considerably less than those required of an airline pilot. But almost anyone can get a license to drive a bus, and only few are allowed to fly an airliner. The difference is not the number of passengers, only the cost of the plane."

Caspi points to the underlying assumption of the predominant view - and proceeds to disprove it: "The producers of slogans like to say that you can't put a price on human life. Anyone involved in economics knows that you actually can. There are some costs that society is not willing to pay in order to conserve lives. The freedom of movement provided by the car and the economic benefits it brings are profits, which modern society will not relinquish in order to save lives."

Toward the end of this piece, Caspi offers an alternate approach: Instead of spending so much on cars, on roads, on police work and on training the Israeli driver, he writes, "we might experiment with alternative transportation, close the big cities to private vehicles, transfer most of the inter-city transport to trains. But these are pipe dreams. Next year and in the years to come all the usual nonsense will continue to be voiced here, blaming the Israeli driver, the roads, the police. In short, everything that is nearly impossible to change."

And indeed, it seems as though Caspi's dire prophecies have come to pass, with all the money channeled into Highway 6, the increased suburbanization, and the new helmet laws, which will adversely affect bicycle riders instead of reducing the control of private cars over the city and encouraging new habits of transportation. And again the self-evident is not evident at all.

And so, even if good writing of this kind cannot change reality, only deepen our understanding of it and increase our frustration; and even if these words, which Caspi wrote years ago and which are now included in the book, sadly remain relevant, unusual and important, even more so than before; in other words, even if the world continues turning, with the parade of power and cruelty marching on, and the watchdogs of democracy unable to halt its progress with their hoarse barking - even so, it is possible and desirable, in the interests of journalistic craftsmanship, to continue the legacy of Caspi's writing after his death. To question prevailing assumptions; to identify the interests that shape the accepted public discourse; to be skeptical readers of publicly distributed materials - statistical data, reports, press releases and budget books; to compare with other databases; to ask questions about figures and assumptions; to offer a well-argued, well-grounded alternative; and to write it all in simple syntax and short sentences. To continue, even after Arie Caspi, in his spirit and under his inspiration, to get the job done.