Thinking about Trump’s impending visit to the middle East on another US foray into peacemaking and the (low) standard of political debate generally evident today at both the professional and lay levels, I was reminded of an element of early high school life which annoyed me at the time.
You see, back when I was new to high school (mid ‘60s), teachers, the news, camp fires, walks through the woods and the TV sometimes managed to stimulate classmates, friends and me into “serious” debates on issues other than dating, food and sports. We’d go back and forth, forever (or until the bell rang for the next class, whichever came first), repeating and repeating our basic position without much success in convincing the other(s). But, generally, we’d continue until somebody pulled the “debate stopper card”.
The “debate stopper card” was a simple 5-word phrase, which, magically, ended the debate, usually entitling the user to a smug sense of having won and causing a perplexed frustration on the part of his/her opponent. What was the “debate stopper card”? Simply this:
“Well that’s just your opinion”.
What can one say in response to such an argument, that cannot be absolutely rebutted by a repetition of “Well, that’s just your opinion”? “Yes, it is my opinion, but I’m right” simply won’t cut it. Facts won’t cut it as, in such debates over the really important things in the high-school debates of the era (“isn’t communism better than capitalism?”, “America, good or bad?” “Why is Canadian history so boring?”, “is violent civil disobedience productive or counterproductive”?) there are no facts which can withstand the WTJYO response. A call to authority (“Ayn Rand said so”) would achieve nothing, as the authority was obviously wrong in the eyes of the other party to the debate, and, in any event, the authority just stated what was only his/her opinion. So, standardly, one would respond with a silent or (if no teachers were present) audible, “Fuck off” and things would then shift back to the really important issues, dating, food and sports.
Sure, it is easy to write off the WTJYO response as the unsophisticated escape route of an unformed mind unable to marshal arguments. But I think that there is something more here than pimple-faced intellectual immaturity. I think that there is an important insight into how the human intellect works (or not) especially when translated to international relations and peace-making.
There comes a point in most discussions where we simply refuse to be convinced — debates only very rarely end in agreement with one or other of the two positions. We’ll disengage before radically changing our views.
This was not much of a problem in high school, where, as I said, we could just get on with other things. But when the issues are somewhat more serious – e.g. peace for Israel – just walking away from the debate achieves nothing positive, especially where neither side will accept the judgement of an outsider.
So, if here is to be progress one cannot expect accession to one’s position but must strive for a compromise agreement – thesis and antithesis being worked into a synthesis. This an attempt at finding some point at which the needs and interests of each side are sufficiently met that both sides feel that stopping at this point is better than putting all at risk in an effort to gain more. Typically, one finds that both parties walk away disappointed – one having paid more than considered optimal, one having got less than considered optimal.
Which brings us to Trump. He believes that a negotiated agreement is possible – and woe to the world (or at least the Middle East) if he (or somebody more competent and predictable) is wrong. He believes he can be a mutually agreeable mediator. Maybe. If his business background has taught him anything, it has probably taught him the art of the deal. But he must be aware that to be an effective mediator, he must appear neutral. So in the lead up to his visit, we will hear fewer and fewer of the pro-Israel statements we heard during the primaries and election. He will say, and perhaps do, things which will likely perplex and disappoint his Israeli supporters on the right. But if he can pull it off, if he can get Israelis and Palestinians to get to a point where second best for each means the same thing – then there might be real progress. We should give the man a chance and cut him some slack in the meanwhile.
And that’s just my opinion.