The Writing Not on the Wall

Note: I’m going to leave this post as is, but I intend to re-write it and re-post it this weekend. All of the relevant information is here, but it was recorded as I learned new facts in real time. As a result, some information is in the original post and some is in the comments, making it hard for the average reader to follow. My bottom line view: Hicks is flat-out lying, Freiman is grandstanding in an intellectually dishonest way, and Balhorn’s view is as unjustifiable as I said it was, for just the reasons I gave. 

It’s kind of sad that neither party to the dialogue of the deaf below–Stephen Hicks or Jacobin–shows much awareness of the fact that an “ugly, menacing,” and for many non-citizens “no doubt heartbreaking” wall has stood for 20+ years between Israel and Occupied Palestine, with armed guards and barbed wire, intended precisely to contain and control people.*


I guess Jacobin is content to defend walls, guns, barbed wire, and wanton killing in the name of East German socialism. Meanwhile, Stephen Hicks and his Randian comrades are happy to attack the same wall, as long as it’s safely socialist, and safely buried in the distant past. Would Jacobin defend Israel’s wall in the name of “economic and geopolitical stability”? Israel does. Would Hicks and his Randians find the defense of such a wall reprehensible and “pathetic” if it served to contain and control Palestinians? I can’t remember the last time they did. And not for lack of memory on my part.

You don’t have to “return” to the Wall I have in mind or merely imagine it. You don’t have to speak of it in the past tense, either. Dozens of my friends and acquaintances live behind it right now. It’s been containing, confining, and controlling them now in all of its barbed wire glory for over two decades. It divides their families, denies them a livelihood, expropriates them, chops up their cemeteries,** and permanently walls them off from the sight of the Mediterranean–among other things.

You really want to talk about walls? Go to Abu Dis, or Bethlehem, or Qalandia, stand in front of what the locals appropriately call the Apartheid Wall, and speechify to it in the mode of Jacobin or Hicks. You’ll soon figure out how much sense that rhetoric makes there when confronted by the hardest of realities. Until then, feel free to take my word for it: not much.

*Disclosure: I wasn’t able to find the Jacobin tweet myself. I don’t know whether that means I missed it, or Jacobin took it down, or Hicks and Christopher Freiman (the original source) have gotten something wrong. My only sources for the authenticity of the tweet are Hicks and Freiman, neither of whom I regard as trustworthy on factual matters. That said, I find it hard to imagine how they could be misrepresenting something this clear-cut. I’m happy to stand corrected.

**The cemetery for the Palestinian village of Sawahira is cut off from the village itself, making it impossible for villagers to visit the cemetery without a permit–which can be granted or denied at will by the Israeli authorities. The father of a friend of mine, a former employee at the US Consulate, died of a heart attack while standing in line at an Israeli checkpoint. He’s buried on the western side of the wall; his family lives on the eastern side, divided by the wall and denied permission for decades to cross over to the other side. Wikipedia notes (see link above) that “Israel has confiscated land from As-Sawahira ash-Sharqiya in order to construct two settlements,” Kalya and Qedar. When I tried to enter Qedar in 2016 with a US passport, I was denied entry on explicitly ethnic grounds: as an “Arab” (I was told by an armed, angry guard), I had no business being there. Meanwhile, the residents of Qedar shop without a moment’s thought in the nearby Palestinian town of Eizariya. Such things–routine expropriation, ethnic profiling, ethnic double standards–are commonplace occurrences in the West Bank, indeed, among the mildest of the offenses one encounters there.

Postscript. Screenshots relevant to the first footnote, and discussion in comments section.

Postscript 2. The latest from Stephen Hicks, holding the passive-aggressive higher ground, as usual. He’s now managed to figure out that his Facebook post was misleading. I wonder how. A priori deduction from first principles?

Anyway, having figured it all out on his own, Hicks now cites the original source from Jacobin–no need to admit error, of course–but decides to mischaracterize it: “Socialists 2020. Just kidding! Bring back the Wall!” Unfortunately, that’s the opposite of what Balhorn is saying in the article. He’s saying: though justifiable or excusable the first time around, don’t bring back the Wall. There’s a difference between the two things, but the difference only matters if the truth does. Stephen has made a career of attacking post-Modernism for its rejection of truth as correspondence, but I guess those homilies don’t apply to him.

What’s the point of this particular deception?, you might wonder. Why mischaracterize an article that anyone who clicks the link can read, and after having done so, can figure out that you’re bullshitting them? Not a problem, I guess, if you’re writing for audience that doesn’t mind being bullshitted. And I guess his doesn’t. We all find our level. He calls Jacobin a “true believer” magazine. All I can say is, better true beliefs than willfully false ones.

11 thoughts on “The Writing Not on the Wall

    • In my first footnote to the post, I said that I’d be “happy” to be corrected about Hicks’s and Freiman’s representations of the Jacobin “tweet.” I guess I’m grateful to have gotten the source, but not exactly “happy.” I also said that I didn’t regard either of them as trustworthy on factual matters, but that I couldn’t imagine they could misrepresent something this clear-cut. I give myself half credit there. If someone isn’t trustworthy, the best inference is not to trust them at all. Lesson learned.

      Hicks posted his criticism of Jacobin on Facebook, where he was asked by a reader about the source of the Jacobin passage. He said it was a “Jacobin magazine tweet.” So I went on Jacobin’s Twitter feed looking for it. Spent an hour and found nothing there, but found Freiman’s tweet of it, dated May 17–no indication whatsoever that it came from a whole article published three years ago, much less of the larger context of the article. I can see how someone might, on reading Freiman, have thought he was re-tweeting a tweet. What I don’t see is how Freiman could have thought it was fair or honest to present the Jacobin article that way. I’ll put screenshots of both things up later.

      I read the article. Though I think both Hicks and Freiman are unfair to the author, I don’t ultimately think that I was. That said, his article is something more subtle and complicated than a defense of the Berlin Wall. More on that later. Thanks for finding the article.


  1. I just posted the screenshots I promised in the previous comment.

    The first screenshot is from Chris Freiman’s Twitter feed. I regard it as a fundamentally dishonest presentation of Loren Balhorn’s article in Jacobin. It fails to mention that the quotation is a brief, out-of-context passage from a much longer (9 page) article, fails to give an original source, and fails to mention that the article is three years old. It also fails to acknowledge the existence of any of Balhorn’s arguments, much less to engage with them. Even if Freiman wanted to delimit his concerns to this one quotation, he owes his readers the acknowledgment that he’s dealing with an article, not a tweet. As I said, I don’t regard Freiman as trustworthy on factual matters, and I regret having trusted him even as far as the accuracy of this tweet. Yes, the words in Freiman’s tweet appear in Jacobin, and I myself happen to disagree with Balhorn, but the fact remains: Freiman’s handling of the quotation is dishonest.

    The second screenshot is from Stephen Hicks’s Facebook page. A reader asks for the source of the quotation, and Hicks says that it came from a “Jacobin magazine tweet.” Given Freiman’s presentation, that’s an understandable mistake. But it’s a mistake guaranteed to waste the time and effort of anyone who tries to find the “tweet.” It’s telling that Hicks made no effort to find it. I’d like to think that if alerted to the fact of his error, Hicks will correct it. But I’m not on speaking terms with him, so I can’t say that that’s my problem. Suffice it to say that he’s in error.

    As for Balhorn’s article, he makes some legitimate points that his critics would do well to acknowledge and answer. Both Freiman and Hicks adopt a triumphalist “gotcha” tone that evades about 90% of what Balhorn has to say. Despite their tone, it’s not clear that they have any answers to Balhorn’s arguments, or, between them, even approximate Balhorn’s knowledge of the subject. If they have arguments to make, they haven’t made any of them public. We are, after all, talking about an article that came out three years ago. Freiman’s claim is particularly idiotic: “Here’s a pretty good heuristic: political regimes that people flee to tend to be better than political regimes that people flee from.” Right, but the article wasn’t offering “a pretty good heuristic”; it was offering a mitigated defense of the Wall given the particular, and highly idiosyncratic circumstances of East Germany after World War II, intended to apply only to that case (or cases like it), and not as general advice for other cases. In ignoring this fact–going well out of his way to ignore it–Freiman evades the claims of the article, sets up straw man and a red herring, knocks down the former, virtue-signals with the latter, and emerges triumphant on his own battlefield. If he regards that as a forensic victory worth winning, he’s welcome to it. Likewise Hicks.

    I had said, “I guess Jacobin is content to defend walls, guns, barbed wire, and wanton killing in the name of East German socialism.” That turns out to be basically true. To be precise, it’s not Jacobin that’s “content to defend” those things but Balhorn, the author, who really is content to defend them, but the rest is fully accurate. Though I can’t literally attribute Balhorn’s view to them, Jacobin at least regarded Balhorn’s defense of the Wall as worth printing. Though I disagree with Balhorn, I would, as a magazine editor, have run the article myself. So I can’t really blame Jacobin for anything. I only said “Jacobin” because I followed Hicks in thinking that the quotation was a tweet from their Twitter feed.

    Balhorn defends the Berlin Wall as a tragic necessity that he blames on the Cold War, which he blames, in turn partly on the Nazis and partly on “the West.” He’s not eager, enthusiastic, or happy about having to defend it, but I think it’s entirely fair to say that he’s “content” to do so. So if we substitute “Balhorn” for Jacobin, I have nothing to take back. I should emphasize that Balhorn is in fact defending the Berlin Wall, and by implication defending East Germany’s enforcement of the wall. He’s not simply pleading that we understand or take stock of the extenuating circumstances that led to the wall’s construction. He’s telling us that it needed to be there, and that the people trying to get past it should have been prevented, in many cases by being shot. He may find it “heartbreaking” that they had to be shot, but he’s in favor of shooting them, all the same.

    I had then said, “Would Jacobin defend Israel’s wall in the name of “economic and geopolitical stability”? Israel does.” The point of this question is not to ask whether Jacobin would defend Israel’s wall per se. I know that they wouldn’t. It’s to ask whether their grounds for denouncing the Israeli wall are compatible with “their” (or rather, Balhorn’s) defense of the Berlin Wall. Given that Jacobin is irrelevant here, let me rephrase: given his defense of the Berlin Wall, is Balhorn in a position to reject the Israeli Wall? Or is he, by virtue of his defense of the Berlin Wall, obliged to concede the case for the Israeli one? My answer: he’s not in a position to reject the Israeli Wall; he’s obliged to concede the Israeli case.

    Here is a fuller account of Balhorn’s defense of the Berlin Wall:

    That harsh repression and pervasive censorship characterized life in the East is a given. But reducing the GDR to the Wall and the secret police does little to help us understand how and why it came about, and obscures everything else that happened within its borders. Millions of people in East Germany and other socialist countries actively supported and identified with the system, albeit to varying extents, for decades. Angela Davis even completed her doctorate at the Humboldt University in East Berlin. Are we really to believe that they were all brainwashed? Or were there perhaps redeeming elements about the society and their lives in it that led to such support?

    The Wall was ugly, menacing, and, for many citizens, no doubt heartbreaking. But the economic and geopolitical stability it ensured also gave the GDR the chance to build a society that was broadly characterized by modest prosperity and social equality between classes and genders. Workers were guaranteed employment, housing, and all-day childcare, while basic foodstuffs and other goods were heavily subsidized. Though wages were only half of what they were in the West, adjusted for prices in relation to earnings, GDR workers’ actual purchasing power was more or less the same. This fact, combined with the chronic lack of certain consumer goods, taught citizens to rely on each other and help each other out in times of need — a reality that still resonates today in polls showing that Easterners are considerably more sensitive to social inequality and the importance of solidarity.

    There’s nothing in this defense that the Israelis couldn’t, mutatis mutandis, reproduce in an argument for their Wall. Suppose we take the harsh repression of the Occupation as a “given.” Can we reduce Israel to the Occupation? No. Millions of people have actively supported and identified with Zionism and with Israel, many of them very eminent. Are we to believe that they were all brainwashed? I suppose we can’t. Or aren’t there perhaps redeeming elements about Israel that led to such support? As a lifelong anti-Zionist, I’m the first to say “yes.” And yet, none of the preceding manages to rebut the claim that the Occupation is fundamentally unjust, and that the coercive methods used to enforce it lack moral justification.

    Balhorn says:

    But the economic and geopolitical stability it ensured also gave the GDR the chance to build a society that was broadly characterized by modest prosperity and social equality between classes and genders. Workers were guaranteed employment, housing, and all-day childcare, while basic foodstuffs and other goods were heavily subsidized.

    This says: the economic well-being of some necessitates wanton rights violations, up to wanton killing, of others. I don’t accept that.

    The East German and Israeli cases are, as far as I’m concerned, basically parallel. Israel is, for Jews at least, an egalitarian society inspired by socialist ideals. The Israeli welfare state is nearly as generous, and certainly more functional, than East German socialism. And Israelis can invoke any number of excuses on par with the East German ones to explain why this or that policy didn’t quite work out as expected.

    Both left- and right-wing Israelis have argued that the Israeli Wall was/is needed as a defensive measure to protect the “stability” of Israeli society from the de-stabilizing fact of the Palestinian presence. One reason given is terrorism. Another is simply demographic: free movement from the West Bank into Israel proper would threaten the Jewish character of the state, and de-stabilize the Israeli welfare state. These considerations, they claim, justify the construction of a wall that imposes collective punishment on millions of people, expropriates thousands of people (since the wall is built on their property), and (supposedly) justifies shooting people who try illegally to cross the line that the wall is supposed to mark. As someone sympathetic neither to socialism nor to Zionism, I find both the East German and the Israeli rationalizations for their respective walls understandable but ultimately unjustifiable and immoral. Nothing in Balhorn’s article addresses such a view.

    Both walls treat certain people’s lives as dispensable, and certain rights as violable at will, given the imperative to achieve some collective good. I see no reason to accept that in either case, and regard Balhorn’s defense of East Germany as morally on par with every defense of the Israeli Wall that I’ve seen. If he has a response, I’m content to hear him out, but all things considered, I don’t find his arguments convincing.


  2. Just to underscore the irrelevance of Freiman’s comment to Balhorn’s argument:

    Freiman: “Here’s a pretty good heuristic: political regimes that people flee to tend to be better than political regimes that people flee from.”

    Balhorn: “The experience of the GDR is not one that socialism should aim to repeat” (p. 9).

    In other words, Balhorn isn’t denying Freiman’s “pretty good heuristic,” and Freiman isn’t dealing with any part of Balhorn’s argument.


  3. In my previous comment, I said, apropos of Hicks: “I’d like to think that if alerted to the fact of his error, Hicks will correct it.” He has corrected it–I wonder who alerted him?–but true to form, doesn’t admit having made an error, and instead of leaving the matter there, decides to append a more willful and culpable error to the correction. Now he accuses Balhorn of wanting to bring back the Berlin Wall, a claim that obviously flouts the text of Balhorn’s article. See the second postscript to my original post.

    The usual wisdom when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. Stephen’s solution seems to be to put a mechanized excavator to work, digging so zealously and creating a hole so deep, that people will assume that a canyon had been there the whole time.


  4. To draw attention to the blatantly obvious to anyone who has spent time in the area:

    Tens of thousands of Palestinian workers cross illegally into Israel every single day. The Israeli economy thrives on their cheap labor. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to cross over illegally; it just means that if tens of thousands of determined workers can do it every day, so can a determined militant. It also means that if tens of thousands cross every day, and a large proportion of those Palestinians are terrorists, we should expect to see tens of thousands of terrorist attacks in Israel every day. What we see are a few sporadic attacks every now and then. How is that different from what we see of violent crime in American cities? Why don’t we hear demands to confine urban communities behind walls so as to immunize the rest of us from urban violence?

    Another blatantly obvious fact: since the wall bisects neighborhoods and communities that Israel regards as full of terrorists, it should be obvious that everyone on the west side of those divisions is as much a “terrorist” as anyone on the east, but cannot be deterred by the wall, being on the “wrong” side of it. Defenders of the wall make zero effort to explain how the residents of, say, Eastern Sawarih are more “terroristic” than those in Western Sawarih, or those in Abu Dis more so than those in Ras al Amud, or Az Zaim are more so than those in Issawiya, etc. etc. There is no fundamental demographic difference between those on the east and those on the west side of the wall, particularly in Jerusalem, where Palestinians are not candidates for full citizenship (at least under conditions acceptable to most of them). So facile invocations of the wall’s “security function” ignore obvious facts.


  5. And in case you think this is all “foreign stuff,” irrelevant to life in these fine United States of ours, never forget that when it comes to “Security,” including the threats posed by “Illegals,” our nation is committed to blind, dogmatic genuflection before all things Israeli:

    Naturally, no mention whatsoever in this report of any of the rights violated by the wall, just lessons learned from our tutors in all things security-related.

    File Under: “The Immaculate Birth of Apartheid, and American Complicity In It”


    • So many things to be disgusted by in this post! I really know how to pack it in. But then, I have great materials to work with.

      I actually forwarded the post to Loren Balhorn, the Jacobin writer. I’m curious to see whether he’ll be more annoyed at my comparing his defense of the Berlin Wall to the Israeli one, or to Freiman and Hicks’s misrepresenting him as wanting to “bring back” the Berlin Wall. I almost regret wading into this particular shithole, but it’s also a kind of morbid learning experience.

      On a different topic, I wrote a brilliant comment on your “Should the West try to save the third world” post, but as so often happens, WordPress ate it! That’s not a complaint about your blog; it happens on mine, too. WordPress is a ridiculously glitchy platform. I suppose I can afford to call my comment “brilliant,” since at this point, no one will ever see it, but I haven’t had the chance to re-write it, and am not sure I can reproduce the brilliance of the lost one.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s