When Is an Open-Air Prison a Terrorist Camp?


(This post originally appeared in the Algemeiner on December 11, 2012.)

It is a term we hear a lot in the twenty-first century anti-Israel propaganda storm, flung wildly against the truth – that Gaza is an “open-air” prison. We hear it not only from Arab and Muslim anti-Semites and the committed anti-Israel ideologues, but from well meaning people on the left who speak out of compassion. They know of a densely populated land area with significant poverty, an area the borders of which are controlled by third parties – Israel and Egypt, though most of these people purposely or ignorantly neglect to remember Egypt – and they are moved by what seem to be longstanding and intractably oppressive living conditions. It is simply inconceivable to them that these conditions – the density, the poverty, the external controls – are conditions that the people who live in them, in fact, choose for themselves rather than opt to alleviate . Who would act so against reason and manifest self-interest? An alternative historical narrative is thus required to render such hateful self-destructiveness more comprehensibly as pitiable oppression.

Overwhelmingly, the facts refute two of the three themes of this contemporary narrative of Gaza. Truly, any poverty anywhere is a misfortune to be assisted and overcome. The fact is, however, according to the CIA World Fact Book, that 45 nations of the world have higher percentages of their people living in poverty than does the Gaza strip. Among these nations are most of Africa, including Kenya and South Africa, and most of Central America, including one of the two closest neighbors to the United States, Mexico.

It is commonly affirmed, as a second theme of the story of Gaza, that Gaza is, in the very words present right now at the website of the storied and esteemed BBC News, “one of the most densely populated tracts of land in the world.”

In fact, of sovereign states and dependent territories, Macau, Monaco, Singapore, and Hong Kong are all considerably more densely populated than Gaza, the first two nearly five and four times as densely populated. Of the top 49 densely populated cities of the world, all are more densely populated than Gaza, the first, Manila, ten times more densely populated, the forty-ninth, Malé, capital of the Maldives, still four times more densely populated than the Gaza strip. Even the island of Manhattan in New York City, which has a nearly identical population to Gaza, yet is one fourth the size, is thus four times more densely populated than is Gaza.

The claims of wretched poverty and oppressive population density in Gaza are quite simply among the great lies of contemporary world affairs, and, so easily disconfirmed, are, as reportage, among the most scandalously incompetent or malign.

Thus we come to the third theme, the control of Gaza’s borders, which, woven among these first two themes, leads so many to adopt the “open-air prison” metaphor. That is, indeed, what the term is, and what all who even dare to use it forget that it is – a metaphor.

After all, we know it is not an actual prison, do we not?

In what kind of prison do the inmates hold elections to choose a government, and within the bounds of which prison that government exercises complete control?

In what kind of prison do we find not gangs, but a genuine military force, arrayed against no force of guards policing the inmates’ lives in “the prison”?

What kind of prison is it in which the inmates possess a force of thousands of rockets and missiles smuggled from sovereign nations and actually fired beyond the prison walls, in the hundreds and more per year, into the surrounding civilian population?

What kind of prison is it in which the prisoners hold the keys to their cells? In which the prisoners themselves, on a schedule of their own choosing, might convene a parole board and make what declarations and commitments as to future behavior are required to gain their almost immediate release? And failing to have done so on any one day, might simply choose to do so on the next, and the next, under the conditions of an open-ended, never concluded parole hearing, with no fear ever of finally serving out their terms till death against their will?

Does this seem absurd? Does it seem that I am too literal here? Do I seem to make mockery, by ridiculous comparison to the actual conditions that govern real prisons, of the intent of the metaphor?

But what is the intent of the metaphor? Is it not to deceive the judgment and manipulate the moral imagination of those addressed by it so that they will conceive Israelis truly as brutal jailors, while the Gazans, never duly convicted through any process of law, are drawn falsely as unjustly imprisoned?

What those who believe the metaphor forget, but those who concoct it ever recall, is that the goal of political metaphor is to refashion reality, which is to say lie about it but bury the lie. They bury it in metaphorical equivocation. I happily fancied that I had myself discovered this logical fallacy, which I reasonably conceived as the metaphorical fallacy (or the fallacy of transference), only to discover that just three months ago, Bryan Caplan of George Mason University had held the same vain hope for himself, where upon he discovered that two philosophers at Brock University in Canada had got the drop on us both by two years.

The metaphorical fallacy is first a kind of  fallacy of equivocation, because it misleads through the use of a term with more than one meaning, performing a semantic shift. That is the very nature of metaphor, which is an act of transference, transferring the quality of some object – a bird let’s say – to my real subject, some guy I’m talking about, whom I call “flighty as a bird.” That formulation I have used is a simile, which is a kind of metaphor, which is itself a kind of analogy. The clarity of the “as” or “like” constructions in simile is in making plain that metaphor is a special form of analogy.

In typical straight political analogies – “another Vietnam,” “another Munich,” “it’s the Cold War all over again” – we understand that two distinct phenomena are claimed to have sufficient similarity as to make one understandable according to our knowledge of the other.  The fallacy of false analogy is committed by analogical overreach: there may turn out to be, with scrutiny, many potentially significant points of comparison, with too few among them demonstrating true similarity, thus making one phenomenon a poor standard by which to asses the nature of the other.

The metaphorical fallacy is, second, a form of false analogy. As I said, metaphor is by definition an equivocation. If I turn my simile of “he’s as flighty as a bird” into a pure metaphor, I would say, “he’s a flighty bird, that one.” I say this, perhaps, because he is erratic in his behavior. A true “flighty bird” hops and skips around a lot, taking off and landing often and rapidly. I conjure that quality in the metaphor and transfer it to the man of whom I speak. I do this for effect, a rhetorical effect. I do not literally mean that the man hops and skips around or that he flies, and even if he is physically prone to something like the former – and not quite – he certainly does not do the latter. When I says “he’s swift as a tiger,” well – not really that fast. If I call him “a lion” in the boxing ring, well, you know, notactually a lion. We are equivocating in the application and acceptance of the transferred quality, which is to say, literally speaking in two voices, pretending to be literal in order to make the imaginative leap, but in the end, and even in the beginning, not being literal at all.

If I said ten years ago that Afghanistan would be “another Vietnam,” I would not have intended to fool you into believing that Afghanistan was itself Vietnam, that is, identical to it. I would just have intended a useful comparison. However, to attempt what is not political analogy, already itself a risky enough proposition, because so often questionable and faulty,  but political metaphor is to begin in the wrong, at fault and deceptively, because I would be pretending accurately to describe circumstance by use of inaccurate, ambiguous, words –  because political reality is concrete, not rhetorical: there is not rhetorical genocide or rhetorical invasion, rhetorical rocket attacks or rhetorical economic recession. And when, through the magic of words, we create these things nonetheless, they are metaphorical only, not concrete and politically “real.”

The pressing questions I posed above about the metaphorical comparison of Gaza to a prison would have to annoy any proponent of the term because he would be compelled to insist that I was missing the point: obviously, Gaza is not an actual prison, like San Quentin. The point, he would argue, is that Gaza is like a prison because of the deprivation and the close quarters and its borders, its boundaries, are controlled by people other than those who live inside them, with passage in and out similarly controlled and limited, just like a prison – and school buildings, and military bases, and movie studios, and the White House.

Those are the points of comparison, the only points of comparison, and as we focus now on that last point of comparison, we need to consider why those boundaries are controlled. We need to think about what a blockade is, and why it was put in place, and remains in place, and how a blockade – and a legal one, too – is not like a prison.

“But don’t you get it – it’s a metaphor.”

And the purpose of the political metaphor, employed and repeated, and accepted by the well meaning but soft headed and the BBC, like the narrative of Gazan poverty and the refrain of its population density, is to beguile the listener into forgetting it is a metaphor – an abjectly false and slanderous metaphor – and then to accept it and repeat it as literally and shamefully true.

Then there is the matter of the terrorist camp.


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Culture Clash

Higgs Boson, or What’s the Meta in Metaphor for?


Let’s get God out of the way to start. The Higgs Boson particle/field is not the God particle. (I keep telling everyone – the neutral B-meson is the God particle.) In part because of that name, and, certainly, the momentous confirmation at the largest site of physics experimentation in the world of a near sixty-year-old mathematically theorized element of the Standard Model for explaining the universal forces (whew!), the general public has taken a greater than usual interest in the doings and don’tings of particle physics.

Has come, then, the question from parts far and wide, “Do you really understand what this thing is?”

This, too, is unusual, because generally speaking, when people talk about particle physics at the breakfast table or over their martinis, it is pretty commonly accepted as being not worth the effort to mention that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Why, now, the big deal?

Well, God, I guess.

But let’s, as I say, forget about God. Let’s consider “understanding.” (Not “peace” and “love,” for now – just understanding.) What do we mean by that word?

Among the more read and discussed expressions of mystification over the Higgs Boson have been several by Robert Wright, at his Atlantic blog. The Wall Street Journal even took one of them up as the basis for its own call for humility. Wrote Wright, and the WSJ in citing him,

In sum: I personally continue to have no idea what the Higgs boson is. And I think the physicists who ‘understand’ what it is can do so only because they don’t have the layperson’s compulsion to think about the world in ways that are ultimately metaphorical. Or, at least, these physicists have dropped the idea that to truly understand something is to have a crystal-clear metaphor in your mind, a metaphor that doesn’t break down at any point and doesn’t contain internal contradictions. For them, apprehending a purely mathematical description of something is tantamount to comprehending it.

Now, again, this normally is not an issue. Have Wright and the rest until now lived contentedly in complete knowledge of what a charmed quark is, but are only now finding themselves fully up against the brick wall of understanding in their attempt to fathom the Higgs Boson? No, and my interest here is not in enlightening anyone about HB, but in challenging a rather dim presentation of what knowledge is, including the usual cheap devaluation of metaphor.

Knowledge – or the word that Wright carelessly uses in its stead, understanding – is not one thing only.  Many thinkers have subdivided it. One fundamental division from the last century, from information science, is known, in ascending profundity, as DIKW: data, information, knowledge, wisdom. Some formulations exclude wisdom. Some replace it with – hey! – understanding.

(The exclusion of wisdom sometimes is not casual. Data – as they say about dying and living – is easy; wisdom is hard. Let’s just get rid of it…)

Then there is, from the field of education, Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives, which presents its own hierarchy of ascending degrees of knowledge. In Bloom’s pyramid, as we see, “knowledge” so called is actually the lowest order cognitive skill.

I can say for instance – probably you too – that I “know” the formula for atomic energy. Sure: E=MC2. Ha! But do I – to move to the next level – comprehend it. (There is no question, take my word for it, whether I can bring any applied knowledge – next level up again – to bear on whatever it is I know. I cannot produce atomic energy.) The answer depends on what we mean by “comprehend” and is one of the two points at which I think Wright makes himself dull.

Do I, any more than Wright, and likely you, comprehend the mathematics behind the formula? I do not. To the extent that ultimate reality – the constituent structure of the universe, and the inciting event that caused that structure to arise – is expressible in numbers, only the mathematicians and physicists who have the math comprehend the deepest levels of what we know of it.

If that is what we mean by comprehend…

If we are modern day Pythagoreans, sworn to the mysteries of our secret society and convinced that the universe is really numbers, a numerically encoded Matrix presenting itself in appearance, as astral bodies, frequencies and rays, attractions and repulsions. As if, in analogy, we were to present this

and say that is what a human being is in his or her totality.

There are many scientists who believe so.  Lawrence Kraus, most recently, publically does. To explain the physical origin and workings of the universe, goes this way of thinking, is to explain the universe. All the rest is contingent human creation and, thus, a form of meaning we make only for ourselves, and not, therefore, an integral element of reality contributing to its greater account. That belief is a subject for another day, but such an assertion about reality is an entirely unsupported claim, and not thereby dispositive – no proof one way or the other – and a faith in itself if clung to absent a different kind of humility than the kind of which Wright spoke.

There is manifest and abundant evidence of features to our reality beyond the merely physical. For most of human existence, people have made of those features a sandbox for castle creation, the wonders of an imaginary architecture. That history then leads the more literal, less figurative minded among us to dismiss those elements as mere fancy, or worse. Data does not give them foundation, support their ultimate truth, and we have no reliable standard other than the data. There is, too, no reason other than the mere assertion of God‘s existence and nature to expect the universe to meet our expectations – not even that of the scientists, that the universe is, finally, orderly and mathematically beautiful. God, Einstein famously said, speaking of something other, does not play dice with the universe.

So maybe, contra the Eleusinian mysteries, the parables of Jesus, the visions of Plato and Hegel and the ratiocinations of Kant, not to mention the insights of the Buddha and the ineffable flights of poetry – maybe the real elect among us are, lo, the physicists, and the answer to it all, all our coming and going, a series of mathematical calculations, and that, friends and family, is finally the accounting of what we can call wisdom in the world.

Could be.

And all the rest merely the most enduring matinee, with a late, late curtain, any of us could ever have imagined.

Or maybe, let us consider, metaphor is not just a curlicue of the imagination, a rhetorical ornament of language, a human trill between data points. That is the common derogation. Affirming to a non-literary colleague not long ago my general antipathy for political poetry – because of its usual attachment to the politics in negligence of the poetry – my untutored fellow understood me to lament a lack of metaphor. She thought I meant that political poetry is not pretty enough, and metaphor is a ball gown for a literary coronation. That is what most people think who are not readers, or only passingly so, of poetry and literary prose.

What, though, if unlike Wright, we did not believe of physicists that, along with the math, they can understand Higgs Boson

only because they don’t have the layperson’s compulsion to think about the world in ways that are ultimately metaphorical. Or, at least, these physicists have dropped the idea that to truly understand something is to have a crystal-clear metaphor in your mind, a metaphor that doesn’t break down at any point and doesn’t contain internal contradictions.

I rather do not think that most people believe that “to truly understand something is to have a crystal-clear metaphor in your mind.” Most people, I think, believe what Wright seems to – that metaphor constitutes in varying degrees (depending on how clear or breakable is the figure of speech) some rude pretense of understanding. A fake kind of knowledge. “I mean, sure, I understand the words, sentence by sentence …” says Wright. But he still doesn’t get it, he says.

As long as we think of metaphor as a colored glass through which to see reality prettily and differently from what it really is, we limit what metaphor can be, which is itself another way of knowing. It is true that metaphor can be no more than just that filigree to place around an object. It can be bad, often is. There is lots of mistaken math, too, and high flying scientific theory that does not pan out. The bad does not obviate the good. What, though, of thinking about metaphor as a pick that cracks open the object and reveals it? What if it is a Buddhist koan intended first to confound, a Zen master’s slap to the face meant to startle? That is, for instance, what catachresis is – a jarring, paradoxical, even senseless metaphor, an unknown meteor crashing out of your head instead of the gentle rain of an oft-told tale on your noggin, lulling you to sleep.

Wright offers in another post,

For example, Garance writes that bosons are a special kind of particle: two of them can inhabit the same space at the same time. Now, that by itself just doesn’t make intuitive sense. We don’t think of two rocks as being able to inhabit the same space–or two pebbles or two grains of sand. Garance acknowledges the problem and suggests we think of bosons not as particles but as “entities”. Sorry–doesn’t help. To the extent that I can envision something as generic as an “entity” at all, I think of it as a “thing”–and in my intuitive universe two “things” can’t inhabit the same space.

Here he seems purposely to be boxing himself in. He cannot conceive anything other than the way it already is in the world? He has never seen a double exposure in a photo, a dissolve and superimposition in a film? He cannot imagine the sub-atomic level (come on, Bob, be that microscopic eye zooming in) at which it is revealed that matter is mostly empty space? Cannot pretend, then, the particles of each thing might occupy the empty space of the other? Never listened to a Firesign Theater recording? (How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All.)

He never lived in contradiction, with what Keats called negative capability?

Mere metaphor is a one-trick pony, a blind man holding an elephant’s trunk. The best metaphor, metaphor that enlightens, does not simply offer observation of the world; it puts us in relationship to it, and no account of reality that does not include us and our consciousness of the world, of our being in it and in relation to it, is remotely complete.

The map is not the territory.




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