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I ran into an older, retired Israeli colleague who is a fine scholar in his field. We hadn’t met for 25 years and agreed to have coffee in a nearby Tel Aviv cafe. In the ensuing conversation I learned some key things about why current  intellectual and political discussion is such a wreck.

The retired professor has read nothing I’ve written. He is on the left-wing politically, in the historic non-Communist sense, but his work has always been first-rate and untouched by any political slant. In addition, he has worked amicably with people of different views.

And that’s why I was dismayed by his first question: “Are you left-wing or right-wing?”

I sighed, partly because I hate this starting point of dividing people into two categories. A more appropriate question would have been: “what do you think of … ?” To classify someone is to decide in advance to agree or disagree with whatever they say. To ask someone their view makes it possible to listen and think about the quality of their ideas.

A scholar or analyst, whatever his personal views, should do work that is beyond politics.

Many years ago I wrote a scholarly article on American radical professors of the 1930s and 1940s. I was almost unable to find a single case in which anyone had even been accused of politicizing their academic work or classroom teaching. They viewed such behavior as inappropriate, and perhaps some were worried about how being outspoken might hurt their careers. At any rate, even during the McCarthy era people were pursued for their organizational memberships and not their classroom behavior.

Today, all those old issues of professional ethics have vanished. Professors may spend most of their time being propagandists: throw away scholarly standards and energetically persecute dissenters.

Back to my cafe meeting: if one puts people into a box, all that follows will either be banal agreement or total argument. If this encounter had been in an American context, the next hour or so might have been spent on endless consensus on how great or terrible Obama is. Alternatively, the discussion would have been characterized by a heated argument in which each person would not concede that the other had a single valid point to make. Either way, nobody probably would have learned anything new or need to exercise their brain.

So I gave my standard response:

The international issues I deal with have no “left” or “right” wing aspect to them. The important question is how one analyzes situations, issues, and events. They should be approached as objectively as possible with an honest attempt to be accurate, to produce evidence proving one’s assertions, and to follow where the facts lead.

Perhaps because he is a pre-politically correct person on the left, he completely understood my response and he correctly added an additional point: “And not to conceal things that don’t coincide with your thesis.”

A generation ago, this is how people thought.

You could hold totally different political views, but how you wrote history or taught about works of literature was something else entirely. Not everything people said was predictable, because they actually thought about things rather than merely apply a preexisting political standpoint. Academics across the political spectrum respected what some call the “scientific method” — I prefer “Enlightenment values.”

I continued:

Figuring out whether or not, say, the Muslim Brotherhood is a radical organization is not a matter of political viewpoint. One’s politics should be expressed by what one wants to achieve, not in one’s analysis of the situation.

Although I didn’t say so, an example I had in mind was this: I would like to see a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That puts me left-of-center in Israel. But my good-faith assessment of the Palestinian political scene (leadership, ideology, groups, public opinion, options) and of the regional situation is that overwhelming evidence claims this is impossible to achieve at this time. The evidence — and there is hardly any actual evidence — offered by those who argue otherwise is not persuasive.

Consequently, I draw policy conclusions from that analysis. No two-state solution is possible at this time. I then go on — I won’t go into this right now — to develop my view of the best policy response to the situation.

Instead, I asked him how he saw this methodological problem in which one’s politics determined whether the Brotherhood was radical or moderate. Here’s approximately what he said:

People on the right slant the facts to fit their political views while people on the left don’t.

After I questioned this, he altered his statement to “most people” in either case. I then asked for examples. He gave two and I will take them one at a time.

He continued:

Rightists say that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is so extreme that you cannot talk to him. He is eager for war to wipe out Israel. You can’t talk to him so therefore war with Iran is necessary.

That’s a fascinating mixture of points from which I think we can learn a lot. Let’s dissect.

The opening point — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is so extreme that you cannot talk to him — is clearly correct, not wrong at all. What is needed, though, is to separate analysis from policy proposals and always to look for alternatives.

I think these are the two points that people don’t understand, and they are destroying any productive discussion of intellectual or political issues at present. So let me repeat them:

  1. Analysis should be separate from policy.  If people conflate the idea that the Iranian regime is extremely radical, intransigent, and dangerous and thus no deal can be made — the perception of reality — with what should be done about it, people will reject the correct analysis because they don’t agree with the proposed response. Example: We must lie about Palestinian politics or we will damage the cause of peace; we must lie about revolutionary Islamism or we will provoke a war. Of course, lying is most likely to hurt peace or to lead to creating a crisis that will end in war.
  2. When moving from analysis to policy, one should think creatively and not just give a knee-jerk response. There are many alternatives to going to war with Iran. But an accurate assessment of the threat’s existence must be the starting point. Examine each issue and the needed policy response on an individual basis rather than impose an ideological template on it.

To prove how the above two points apply, let me go to his second example, which precisely paralleled the one on Iran:

The right-wing says that the Muslim Brotherhood is radical. Egypt is an enemy. Hence, the only response is a major military buildup.

Here we see the same two points. The Muslim Brotherhood is indeed radical. But that doesn’t make Egypt an enemy, at least certainly not right now. Equally, it does not foreclose other policy responses and a more sophisticated third alternative between pretending all is fine (even worse, supporting the Brotherhood!) and going to war next week.

But before answering how one should deal with these two specific issues, let me explain how ludicrous is this line of argument — we must lie rather than admit the “right-wing nuts” are right — which currently governs our discourse. Consider this:

We are on a ship. Some of the crew says that the ship has sprung a big leak. Some passengers and crew are yelling that the ship will sink and everyone is going to die.

That is a horrible situation that I don’t want to believe. Personally I don’t like the individuals who are crying out warnings. And I don’t believe everyone will inevitably die.

So therefore I will respond: The ship is just fine. Those who say the ship is sinking are right-wing extremists and should be ignored.

Or a historical example:

(This is completely hypothetical and does not correspond with historical reality) 1941: any analyst who suggests that Japan might attack the United States is a warmongering right-wing racist who is more likely to get the United States into a war with Japan. We must insist that no such war is possible because we don’t want war.

(There was, however, a real-life parallel to that one: Stalin punished any Soviet analysts or intelligence agents who warned that Germany might attack the USSR. Yes, that’s how debate is conducted in a dictatorship, but shouldn’t be the method adopted by a democracy).

Here’s an example closer to home:

There are those who say that the U.S. government has a huge deficit that’s only growing. Entitlements are unsustainable. Tax increases won’t even begin to cover it. But I don’t want to admit that is true (especially because conservatives are saying it and I hate those people!). So I will instead insist that everything is fine, we don’t really have to make any major changes, and all we have to do is raise taxes on the rich.

And that’s what’s killed historic moderate liberalism — which would have tried to come up with some solution to a real problem — and empowered radicalism, which ignores reality and just calls the other side nasty names. If you deny the problem exists at all because you don’t like your rivals’ proposed solution, then you are doomed, baby.

My central point: We should agree on what is real using proper and honest methods of analysis.

Then we can discuss what to do about it in a rational fashion. But disagreeing with someone else’s analysis because you don’t like their proposed policy amounts merely to lying deliberately, or to making a fool of yourself by denying what is obviously true and being totally unprepared to deal with the resulting crisis.

What about alternative solutions? I am against attacking Iran militarily at this time. Iran’s firing of nuclear weapons is not inevitable. Covert methods, sanctions, building alliances, supporting the opposition, containment, and other methods offer a way to counter the Iranian threat. Moreover, the ultimate strategy is that if there is a clear and present danger of Iran firing nuclear weapons, it can be attacked at that time. And the interim period can be used to prepare for such a possible operation.

Regarding Egypt, the armed forces pose one force constraining the Islamists. The election of a non-Islamist president (Amr Moussa) in June is another one. There are many things that can — in some cases are — being done to deal with this threat. Unfortunately, the U.S. government isn’t doing them and in fact is helping the “bad guys.”

In conclusion, let me lay down some proposed rules:

  1. Forget about your political view or the view of the writer/speaker. Is their description of reality accurate? Does it take the facts into account and provide evidence? Does it ignore or conceal evidence that undermines their thesis? Is the argument persuasive? Does it successfully answer criticisms of the claims being made? If so, then that person is right. You may then proceed to draw some conclusion about the proper response.
  2. Is the policy response proposed merely a knee-jerk one based on a preexisting ideology, or does it make sense? Is it creative? Does it deal with the nuances of the problem? What aspects of the problem wouldn’t it solve? Would it make things worse in some ways, including unintended consequences?

In other words, don’t ignore reality because you don’t like others’ proposed solutions. Even worse, don’t ignore reality because it conflicts with your preexisting ideological assumptions. If necessary, change your assumptions.

(If you are interested: after laying things out this way to my colleague, we had a useful discussion and found that we could agree on a lot of things that didn’t fit narrow stereotypes of how people think nowadays.)

Also read my article, “Arabism is Dead! Long Live … ?”

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