maandag 30 november 2015

Europe is my country

Defining one’s territory is still, in spite of a high-minded kind of idealism that discards that as something barbaric, a legitimate action. And it’s almost hypocritical to, on the basis of your own lofty ideas of a borderless world, not to demarcate borders yourself but to ask that from your neighbor (ie Erdogan).

By the way, demarcation dóes work indeed, despite the skeptical voices who deny that. Just look at the shift in flows of refugees with each new fence that is placed.

If still – as the diehard moralists among us – you keep having problems with drawing borders, I would like in compensation to remind that demarcation now no longer needs to take place in each country but can be done in larger formations, eg, for Europe as a whole. Due to which we learn to think in larger units and possibly to once handle a world government. Wouldn’t that be nice?

But now it’s not like that. It appears that every country now is being thrown back on old boundaries, while we do feel that they are not functional anymore. Here we are hampered by a late awareness of the need of European borders. If we had earlier  recognized the legitimacy of physically guarding European borders, Hungary and Croatia and other countries would not have had to care for themselves and populist noises about closing the Dutch border would not have as much power as they have now. The rhetoric of war might have sounded less shrill than it does now. Anyway, I prefer the rhetoric of defence to the rhetoric of war.

I am convinced that as yet we need to firmly harness the European border surveillance. If this is performed well, the now raised internal barriers are likely to be broken down again, although before that happens a lot of time will be involved in regaining confidence.

Indeed, Dutch border control seems to be absurd to me. But I think European border surveillance is a good idea, because Europe is my country. After all, throughout Europe we love coffee houses, cafes, concerts and football matches. As to me, in that order.

Also see Alcohol and Borders

dinsdag 17 november 2015

Information is always good

Few things are as hard as to get insight into processes that take place stealthily. One way to somehow establish that insight is by having good information. Whether it comes to climate change, increasing or decreasing crimerates, or a social-economic split in society.

Or, to developments in Israeli policy regarding the West Bank. The gradual movement in that case is expressed in the terms that have been used in the course of twenty-five years to designate that area. Those designations have evolved from ‘occupied territories’ (around 1990), through ‘territories’, to (now), ‘Israeli regions’.

This – indeed stealthily unfolding – process can easily cause a feeling of impotence. The best weapon against it, also in this case, is detailed, precise (and of course correct) information that restitutes the possibility to choose. Allowing you, for example by whether or not buying certain products, to no longer stand completely powerless on the sidelines.

I therefore welcome the labeling of West Bank products. Not in order to boycott Israel but – on the contrary - the settlements. Because they are no Israel, right?

Also see The Green Line and the Red Line

vrijdag 13 november 2015


For me the most appealing passage of the article The  Exodus and  our Conscience by Paul Scheffer was this one, about Germany, and actually about the whole of Europe: “Why would a highly developed country, which eavesdrops its citizens day and night, no longer be able to guard its boundaries? Open borders, that’s something you may opt for, but if you don’t want to monitor national or European borders any longer, please don’t put this political unwillingness in the guise of police impotence”. Especially when the huge social experiment of integration of perhaps a million refugees is answered with “We make it”.

The passage even had some extra weight because a few days earlier Angela Merkel had visited Erdogan to ask him to better control his borders and to let pass fewer refugees through to the West. In exchange for money and other things.

That did not feel good. Erdogan was just trying, through some of his dirtiest tricks, to manipulate the elections and to bomb the Kurds, and precisely then Merkel will come and beg for his help. Actually I’m not against Realpolitik, and sooner or later you will have to deal with dictators. But you do not have to do so too early, and certainly not because of the strange consideration that self-guarding your borders would be indecent or Europe unworthy. Indeed, with her visit Merkel jeopardized European dignity.

Apparently the concept of dignity no longer suffices. In terms of dignity everything scores badly: it is unworthy to possibly accept Assad as a negotiating partner, and it is unworthy of refugees to let them be dunked in the heat, the rain and the cold of Central Europe. But it is also unworthy to beg Erdogan, who is just doing his dirtiest tricks, to stop the stream. Perhaps the only worthy thing is to let everybody in, but that’s impossible.

In this swamp where Europe lets its policy be defined by everyone and everything from outside, the sheer possibility of dignity threatens to evaporate. At such a moment you have only your own worthiness to hold on to, so that’s what Europe will have to do. If Europe wants to save its own dignity than for a while it must let itself be goverend less by external impulses then is the case now. Whether that be refugees or Erdogan or Putin.

And if there are borders required – I mean very physical barriers such as pontoons on the Aegean Sea or fences on the land – so be it. That’s not too unworthy, is it? Our entire physical and perhaps spiritual existence depends on borders.

Or, as Scheffer puts it in another powerful passage: “If people with liberal attitudes do not want to think about borders, then eventually people with an authoritarian slant draw boundaries. That is at stake and therefore a morality that takes its own crisis of conscience as a starting point, is not a sustainable morality.”

woensdag 4 november 2015

Wittgenstein as Talmudist

It is not obvious to bring Wittgenstein in connection with Talmudic thinking. He himself would probably have been the first to object because he did not like to be reminded of his Jewish ancestry. And also because in Wittgenstein’s own eyes clear thinking was his trademark while Talmudic reasoning, especially in his time, passed for obscure and incomprehensible. He wanted to have nothing to do with it.

But there is more to say about Wittgenstein. His initial striving for pure, linear logic and unequivocal truth at some point gave way to the belief that multiple contextual logics could coexist in plurality. ‘The’ truth was no longer his goal, rather clarity in the practical use of words and language. This change in Wittgenstein’s thinking is the cause of a fairly common distinction made between an early and a later Wittgenstein.

The said change of direction in his philosophy does not please everyone and some are even inclined to describe Wittgenstein’s late philosophy as obscure and incomprehensible. For example, Bertrand Russell – a big fan of the early Wittgenstein – believed the later Wittgenstein simply gave up the philosophical quest for true knowledge and thus betrayed  the duty of a philosopher. According to Ernest Gellner, the late Wittgenstein leads to relativism or conservatism.

Others, such as John Austin and Gilbert Ryle, enthusiastically follow in Wittgenstein’s footsteps. In the Netherlands, Bert Keizer praises him for the revolutionary break with Plato that Wittgenstein performs.

I belong to the second group. Although I have some reservations when it comes to a possible conservative effect of Wittgenstein’s work, on the whole I find it refreshing and relaxing. The remarkable thing is that my appreciation relates to a number of elements which I also find and appreciate in the style of the Talmud. Therefore for me Wittgenstein’s thinking is closer to Talmudic thought than is recognized in general, and than he himself would have liked.

What do I have in mind when I say that? What are those possibly parallel elements? I think of two things: a pragmatic interest in finding passable paths and  his abandon of the notion of ‘the’ truth.

For the later Wittgenstein the criterion for determining the ‘correct view’ is whether we have something to go on with again. He wonders what it takes to achieve that, and how to act according to what the situation asks from us. So, Wittgenstein quite deliberately does not invoke universal truth as a criterion for action, his criterion is pragmatic in nature.

Do not ask what a thing is, so is his motto, but look how we speak about them and act with them. In doing so he arrives at contextual meanings of language, the meaning of a word is its use. “To know how to go on” is what it’s all about. What is right depends on the game you are playing.

Take for example the public debate about smoking. Thinkers in the line of the later Wittgenstein don’t care much about the scientific truth in this area, ie about the question whether there is conclusive evidence that smoking produces health damage, and if so how exactly.

What these thinkers dó wonder about is what is socially accepted as a fact, on the basis of which we actually (can) act. Such as: that we have seen enough to assume a link between smoking and lung cancer, and are inclined to put some responsibility on tobacco manufacturers. And that in the course of time other accents can be laid. Thus the conversation about smoking becomes more of a practical-normative question than a truth issue.

In the Talmud discussions can proceed in the same way. Also for Talmudic statements a central criterion is the question of whether a passable path emerges. Not for nothing the word ‘halacha’ (the whole of rabbinic regulations) is derived from the verb ‘to go’. And if a collectively passable path is at stake, then a set of guiding rules and etiquette may be more convenient than the availability of a solid truth.

An example of Talmudic reasoning is the treatment of the question whether a given furnace is kosher or not. Rabbi Eliezer, for his answer to that question, relies on divine truth, and emphasizing that, he manages to move God to all kinds of supernatural signs: “If I’m right”,  Rabbi Eliezer says, “this tree will now be uprooted and that river will flow in the opposite direction”, and indeed they do. But the other rabbis in the meeting appear not to be impressed by that truth. “We pay no attention to a heavenly voice, for long ago You, Eternal One, at Mount Sinai have written in the Torah: Follow the majority”. So, just decide democratically, without divine intervention.

It is remarkable that such a way of reasoning, both in the case of the Talmud and in the case of the Philosophical Investigations (from the later Wittgenstein) has an effect on the style in which the books have been written. Both have a capricious character in which reasonings take place through associations rather than through a strictly logical, linear structure. Furthermore, both works pay a lot of attention to individual, specific situations and cases. In Wittgenstein this is a deliberately chosen style: he speaks judgmental about the ‘contempt for the individual case’ and he fights the human tendency to generalize. “I'll teach you differences”, Wittgenstein says, an endeavor that can be also attributed to the Talmud.

An indelible difference is that in the Talmud the possibility of reduction of sentences to a Biblical verse is required. It presses the associative way of thinking of the rabbis to great heights, but the extent of associated squirming and wriggling would undoubtedly greatly go against the grain with Wittgenstein.

Remains that both Wittgenstein and the Talmud with their organizing work aim at clarifying lived human practices. Who knows, if Wittgenstein had not been bothered by time-bound prejudices against the Talmud, he would perhaps have recognized the parallels.

Also see The portable homeland and I-lit