Caution – natural selection at work

This is a guest post by Paul M

It’s not controversial to say that ideas, like other living things, are subject to the law of natural selection. Ideas are thrown out into the world in competition with other ideas. The ones that seem most persuasive live on, the others are discarded and either forgotten altogether or dragged out from time to time for a laugh: Look at what people used to believe, back in the old days.

I have been coming to the conclusion lately that natural selection works on ideas in a different way as well, a way I haven’t considered before. I think that bad ideas ultimately select against the people that believe them.

You may choose to believe that the world rests on the back of a giant turtle, or that it is flat, or at the dead centre of an infinite series of spheres holding the other planets, the sun and stars. These ideas are all quaint antiques, but they’re more than that. Societies that hold beliefs like these can’t send men to the moon or put telecom satellites into orbit. They fall behind the ones that see more clearly.

You may believe that a supreme being created the universe entire & stocked Earth with life forms of his own design and manufacture 6017 years ago. Most contemporary people will think you’re odd, but far more importantly you’ll have a hard time developing a functional understanding of medicine, genetics, microbiology, embryology or pretty much any of the other life sciences. Crucial parts of the world will be a closed book to you.

So far, so obvious, but it’s not the hard sciences that have been on my mind. Aside from a few mopping-up operations, those battles have largely been fought & won and science rules in its domain. The soft science of Middle East studies is where the action is nowadays, and it is the recent piece by Joseph Massad that made me sit down and put pen to paper (or whatever it is we do these days).

I’m not going to spend time rebutting Massad’s arguments. Their sheer lunacy and malice relieves me of the need to: If you don’t immediately see it for yourself, nothing I say will open your eyes & I can save myself the trouble. But what do we make of Massad? There are only two options. It’s certainly possible he doesn’t believe a word of the rubbish he puts out, and its a straightforward case of lying to serve his cause. The other case is that he does believe. He is, after all, like any academic, paid to think outside the box and as Orwell famously pointed out, no-one beats an intellectual for gullibility. Massad’s essay reads like a classic of the self-delusion genre and it’s of a piece with his previous work. I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt: I think he actually believes it. Furthermore I’m sure there’s a ready audience out there, in the Middle East but also in parts of the West, who will believe it too.

Jews, Israel & Zionism, however, don’t exist in isolation. You can no more turn their history and meaning upside-down without seriously distorting your understanding of the world, than you could put your fingers through the holes in a fishing net and twist them 180 degrees without tangling and deforming the rest of the net. The consequence for Massad is that, if he really believes that Zionism is antisemitism is Nazism, he’s trying to navigate his world from a false map. Not only his understanding of Zionists and Israel, but also of the wider Middle East and the West in its relationship to it, will be wrong—and all this is the subject of his professional life. Much of his output, in other words, rests on imaginary foundations and when current political fashions are corrected by history, as they sooner or later will be, it will be largely discarded. If it contributes at all to future scholarship, it’s likely to be as a cautionary example.

What’s true for the individual is also true at larger scales. A Middle East Studies department that provides a congenial environment for a Massad is not likely to contribute to a usable understanding of the region; a university that can’t maintain the intellectual standards of its departments, or even express its displeasure at their decline, is itself en route to losing its prestige to those that can.

Transferring the focus back to the Middle East, there are whole societies there—essentially all of them—the majority of whose people seem ready to believe what Massad believes, and more. What effect will natural selection have on political cultures built around the notion that evil Jews control their world, and that nothing is more important than expelling the Jews from their sliver of land by any expedient means?

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