Thursday, June 3, 2010

Facts and Artifacts About Gaza

Consider Nicholas Kristof’s comment on the flotilla incident in today’s New York Times:
“Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems locked in a self-defeating dynamic in which it feels misunderstood and gives up on international opinion. It lashes out with force in ways that undermine its own interests. It is on a path that could eventually be catastrophic. . . .

“President Obama needs to find his voice and push hard for an end to the Gaza blockade. He needs to talk sense to Israel and encourage it to back away from its plans to intercept other flotillas now headed for Gaza — that would be a catastrophe for Israel and America alike.

“Above all, he needs to nudge Israel away from its tendency to shoot itself in the foot, and us along with it."
I don’t have any quarrel with what Kristof thinks about the merits of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I’m more interested in why it’s so obvious to him, and apparently so many other people, that the occurrence of the flotilla incident is a good reason to revise our views in that connection. When you think about it, that’s a little odd because, as vivid as the developments on the aid boat were, they generated virtually no new information about the merits of the Gaza blockade or the issues dividing the Palestinians from the Israelis.  

To see why, recall the difference between “facts” and “artifacts.” Facts are states of affairs that obtain independent of anyone’s will. That’s what we’re getting at when we say that “wishing doesn’t make it so.” Artifacts are embodiments of our wishes, things that exist because we made them. The difference between “facts” and “artifacts” holds, indeed it’s especially important, when the fact in question is about the production of an artifact. It makes sense to say that “it’s a fact that someone wants other people to think that his version of events is factual.” But someone’s wanting other people to think something is factual doesn’t furnish anyone with much of a reason for thinking it, especially when the someone in question is an interested observer.

The flotilla incident was the product of a contest between the Israelis and the Turks about whose Gaza blockade narrative would shape worldwide perceptions. It’s pretty clearly a fact that the Turks were the more adroit artificers in this instance. But that doesn’t make the Turkish narrative any less, or the Israeli narrative any more, of an artifice. We already knew what each side wants us to believe and not to take what either side says at face value.  Why should the success or failure of either side’s visible stagecraft make us more or less inclined to believe what it's saying now?

The strange thing is that Kristof and so many other people who would never think that their wishing something makes it true, seem anxious to believe that other people’s wishing something does.

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