SMH at BHL: Munger on Trump, Locke, and Religious Toleration

Should I stop reading BHL? Or should I keep reading and stop criticizing it? You tell me, PoT readers, because I find myself shaking my head at some of the stuff they’ve been producing lately.

Take Mike Munger’s latest post on religious toleration. Munger opens with some comments on Trump’s views on Muslims, then quotes a bit from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, then “concludes” (sort of, but not really) that while he thinks Trump is wrong, Locke’s Letter convinces him that he’s not sure that Trump is wrong. The conjunction of the two claims skates perilously close to Moore’s Paradox, but set that aside, if you can. What exactly is the argument that convinces Munger that Trump might be right?

It’s mainly this passage from the Letter, overtly discussing Muslims, covertly discussing Catholics, but taken by Munger to apply implicitly to Trump and to Muslims today:

It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

Munger’s comment:

The relevant question for present purposes is whether one can, and perhaps should, understand Trump’s point in the same context.  That is, the claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.  Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

I think the “relevant question” is how any commentary on this subject could get this confused this fast.

First, a pedantic opening criticism: Munger gets Trump’s views wrong. He describes them like this:

He [Trump] has apparently slathered onto this steaming dish the claim that even American citizens who travel abroad in Muslim countries should not be readmitted.

The link goes to a December 7 article in The Washington Post. A day or two later, however, Trump had changed his tune:

But on Tuesday Mr. Trump clarified his proposal, saying that he would exclude only foreign Muslims, not Muslim American citizens who travel abroad and then seek to come home. That distinction, legal specialists said, made it far less likely the courts would strike it down.

“If a person is a Muslim, goes overseas and comes back, they can come back,” Mr. Trump said on ABC. “They’re a citizen. That’s different.”

I quote this not just to score points–though I don’t mind doing that–nor just to make hay, for the nth time, of BHL bloggers’ strained relationship with the realm of fact. I say it because there’s something really implausible about thinking that Trump’s views are stable enough or theoretically interesting enough to have their roots in Locke’s Letter. Trump doesn’t mention Locke. Nor does he make arguments. What he does instead is to tweet 140 characters at a time, yell down his interlocutors, and let everybody else do his work for him by pretending that he’s said something that counts as political discourse.

So I have to wonder: what is the point of putting theoretical arguments in the mouth of a politician who doesn’t have any arguments of his own, and seems to want to turn the country into a police state? From treating Trump’s claim in heuristic fashion as if it were Lockean, Munger somehow skates in a clause or two to the claim that it just is a Lockean argument. At this rate, I guess BAIR is a Lockean organization, and an armed mob’s surrounding a mosque is a Lockean activity. What next? Lockean internment camps?

So let’s return to the text and try to understand the contorted route by which Munger wants to make Locke relevant to Trump. Though the passage is about Muslims, Munger takes it to be a shot against Catholics, then infers that what is true of the Catholics of Locke’s day might be true of the Muslims of ours. Here’s a suggestion: why not skip the pointless intermediate step and just read the passage as stated?

Here it is again:

It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

I won’t comment on how this passage applied to the Muslims of Locke’s day, but it has almost zero application to the Muslims of 2015.

First, the passage presupposes the existence of a caliphate, but there is no caliphate today (even ISIS only aspires to become one), and there hasn’t been a “real” one since 1924.

Second, the passage presupposes the existence of a caliphate to which Muslims universally or at least ubiquitously swear allegiance, but Muslims didn’t universally pledge allegiance to the Ottoman caliphate even when it did exist. To cite just the simplest and most obvious example, the Muslims of the Palestinian national movement rebelled against the Ottomans during World War I.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find universal allegiance to any caliphate since the death of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632 AD). The disputes over caliphal succession began with his successor, Abu Bakr, and have continued to this day. Dispute over the legitimacy of this or that caliphate has been one of the major themes of Islamic history ever since. (Has anyone at BHL heard of the Sunni-Shia split?) To write about Islam and not know this (or not show any sign of knowing it) is like writing about Islam from the historiographical equivalent of a blank slate.  You might as well write about Christianity without having heard of the Protestant Reformation. It adds insult to injury when what you’re doing is making Trump into a Lockean while scratching your head about the plausibility of his proposals to violate the rights of American Muslims.

Third, caliphate aside, there is no global analogue to a “Church” among contemporary Muslims. The closest analogues might be individual mosques or Islamic Centers, or at best larger scale organizations like the Islamic Society of North America. But these don’t differ from their Protestant or Jewish analogues, and no respectable person is sitting around wondering whether we should deprive Protestants or Jews en masse of their rights because they belong to religious organizations that could conceivably (in someone’s morbid thought-experiment) rival the states we live in.

Nor is any decent person asking whether we should do the same for Catholics, despite the fact that the Catechism of the Catholic Church effectively makes adherence to consequentialism a sin against conscience (#1789), and regards abortion as morally on par with murder and genocide. The potential for conflict with the rule of civil law is pretty obvious on both counts: abortion rights are the law of the land, and “interest balancing” is an essential feature of contemporary jurisprudence. In fact, experts on the subject tell us that anti-abortion views entail violent civil disobedience, not that I agree. So  if we’re going to take Lockean worries about Catholicism seriously, we needn’t get lost in the thickets of Locke’s polemical intentions or the details of English history ca. 1688. Locke’s worries can be raised about Catholics today and used to buttress Trump-like proposals today–used, at any rate, by anyone whose commitment to the principle of rights is weak enough to be tossed about by the winds of Donald Trump’s oratory.

And then there’s the issue of the Church’s view on its lack of accountability to “the civil authorities” regarding accusations of pedophilia engaged in by Catholic priests. In the Apostolic letter Sacramentoriam sanctitatus tutela (2001), then-Cardinal Ratzinger  argued that “Cases of this kind [=accusations of pedophilia against priests] are subject to the pontifical secret,” i.e., that the Church has no binding obligation to report the findings of internal investigations into allegations of pedophilia to the civil authorities, even if it finds the accused guilty. I think by now we all know the story of how Cardinal Law escaped the law, whether or not we’ve seen “Spotlight” (I haven’t, yet).

The Vatican has long regarded itself, and its canon law, as above the civil law of any country and above international law as well, at least in cases of conflict between them.* And canon law binds all Catholics as firmly as sharia binds Muslims. So once again we confront a moral-political equivalence, not an idiosyncrasy of Islam: adherents of both faiths claim the right to supersede civil law, and both claim that God’s law stands above human law. (It should go without saying that I don’t mean that Catholics or members of any other religious denomination should be treated in the way that Trump wants to treat Muslims.)

Bizarrely, despite Munger’s misinterpretation of Trump, he doesn’t think Trump is limiting religious freedom, even if we (falsely) take Trump to be barring literally all Muslims from the United States. Here is Munger again:

That is, the claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.  Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

“The claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.” No, not at all. I wonder whether Munger has heard of Trump’s proposals to close down mosques. Or to put Muslims in internment camps. Or the suggestion (if that’s what it is) that Muslims be put on a registry–not ruling out the possibility that they have to sign up and register for it in the way that 18-year-old males currently have to sign up for Selective Service.  If these aren’t limitations of religious freedom, how would he characterize them?

But maybe he wants to focus narrowly on the issue of barring entry to Muslims, including citizens. Fair enough: here’s a real-life example. My parents spent the last three weeks in Pakistan, returning last night at JFK via Dubai. They’re both naturalized citizens. Though my mother is religious and my father is not, for present purposes let’s call them both believing Muslims.

So imagine that my parents arrive at JFK bearing visa stamps from Pakistan and the UAE, and bearing a Muslim-sounding name like “Khawaja.” On Trump’s original proposal, they wouldn’t be allowed back into a country that they had lived in for forty years. They’d never see friends or family again–and if Muslim, their American friends and family would never see them again, for fear of not being allowed back to their homes after visiting them abroad. My parents would forfeit all of their assets, including their house, and possibly including their bank accounts and their prospective retirement income. Since they’re not dead, their will wouldn’t apply, so all of those assets would revert to the state. They would have to find a home back in Pakistan, a place they left forty years ago–or else in the UAE, where they would lack citizenship and not know the language. They’re both in their 70s, but they’d have to begin their lives anew. (Would it be money laundering if I cut my parents a check or two for food? Would I be materially aiding the enemy if I sent them a care package of rice, lentils, and achaar?)

Perhaps Munger thinks that a barrier on entry back to one’s home country is not a limitation of specifically religious freedom, since the people in question are not returning home for a specifically religious reason. (Well, let’s be careful here. My mother is a kind of folk occasionalist, so as far as she’s concerned, every action is a divine action, and everything is a “religious reason.”). But obviously, their freedom would be limited on religious grounds–i.e., because they were Muslims. It seems obvious that Trump’s claim can accurately be characterized either by saying he wants to limit religious freedom, or more pedantically by saying that people’s freedom should be limited on a religious basis. One obvious way of reading “limited” would be to take it as a euphemistic synonym for “violated.” In other words, the proposition Munger is considering is: “Should we or should we not, on a Lockean basis, violate people’s rights, as long as they’re Muslims?” Is that really an improvement on Trump, or is it evidence that he’s managed to sweep libertarian academics into his juggernaut?

We’re left with one last issue. What if Islam “ipso facto requires…that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws”? Gee. In other words: what if Muslims were…anarchists, like half of BHL? Then we’d really have a case for keeping them out of the country. I guess this means that the next time Michael Huemer leaves the country, he’s indefinitely to be detained at the border and refused entry back into the United States. Same with Gary Chartier, Roderick Long, and all those other anti-authoritarians at C4SS. I can’t wait for the next time APEE holds a conference in Guatemala City, and half of the libertarian movement is stuck there for the rest of their lives. That’s a long time to have to pore over Locke’s Letter.

I guess the advice I’d offer here is: instead of speculating whether Islam “ipso facto requires” the rejection of non-Muslim civil authority, why not do some actual research and discover the answer? Every religion, and probably every major secular doctrine, can be interpreted in such a way that it entails a rejection of “civil authority and its laws”–Judaism, Christianity, Marxism, and (believe it or not) Lockean libertarianism. And every religion and every major secular doctrine has been interpreted so that it has implications that involve the rejection of such authority on particular occasions. The same is true of Islam. But the obvious inference is that every religion and every major secular doctrine can also be interpreted so that it’s compatible with civil authority, and compatible most or a lot of the time.

The vast majority of American Muslims interpret Islam in this latter “compatibilist” way. (The majority of them are garden-variety Democrats.) The relative minority who don’t accept Islam’s compatibility with “civil authority and its laws,” are, to be sure, a political, cultural, and security problem. But they aren’t a unique security problem, and we don’t need to target every adherent of the faith to deal with them. In case you haven’t noticed, Trump is focused on Muslims as such. He intends to target all of them. So it’s not to the point to haul out a version of Islam that no longer applies, to haul out centuries-old texts entirely irrelevant to our situation, and to wonder whether that’s why Trump is saying what he’s saying, and well, if so, maybe he’s got a point. That’s not why he’s saying what he’s saying, and he doesn’t have a point.  To write as Munger has is to ignore the obvious while creating mysteries where none exist.

Predictably, the BHL discussion devolves into claims like this:

Is there anything in American experience that could say that US government and laws cannot coexist with domestic radical Islam?

I suggest an experiment. Widely publicize and hold a Draw Muhammad Contest. Offer a $100,000 prize for the most insulting entry. Observe the results.

I’m sure the results would be pretty ugly. Of course, they’d be equally ugly if we widely publicized and held a Draw Fagin and/or Shylock Contest, offering a $100,000 prize for the most insulting entry, and permitting contestants to festoon their drawings with choice quotations from “On the Jewish Question,” “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” or Mein Kampf.  But even if all of the contestants of this would-be contest ended up dead at the hands of Jewish terrorists, it wouldn’t follow that we ought to embark on a witch hunt against “domestic radical Judaism.” Practically speaking, the implication would be that we’d have to exercise vigilance against these terrorists, and (without banning them outright) also have to question the wisdom of holding such contests. Exactly the same reasoning applies in the Muslim case.

Speaking of anti-Semitism, every passing day brings increasing confirmation of Edward Said’s much-derided but very prescient speculation that anti-Muslim bigotry (“Orientalism”) is a covert and modified form of anti-Semitism. He speaks in this passage of Arabs, but the point he’s making applies generally to Muslims, whether or not they’re of Arab ethnicity.

The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target [is] made smoothly, since the figure [is] essentially the same. …

Thus the Arab is conceived of now as a shadow that dogs the Jew. In that shadow–because Arabs and Jews are Oriental Semites–can be placed whatever traditional, latent mistrust a Westerner feels toward the Orient. For the Jew of pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish hero, constructed of a reconstructed cult of the adventurer-pioneer-Orientalist…, and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental (Orientalism, p. 286).

Try that hypothesis on for size. I think it explains a lot about life in the Age of Trump, Cruz, and Carson.

In any case, witch hunt is a good description of what Trump is after. I realize that one isn’t apt to discern a witch hunt if one has never been accused of witchcraft, but take it from someone who has: Trump & Co are out hunting witches. It’d be nice for libertarians, of all people, to see that, and to deal with it with the seriousness it deserves.


*For a book length argument, see Geoffrey Robertson QC, The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse (2010). Coming from the reverse political direction, many left-wing Catholics have insisted that illegal immigrants should enjoy legally incontestable sanctuary in Catholic churches. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the move, it’s a rejection of civil authority.

When I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, my mentor Alasdair MacIntyre used to make a special bragging point of Catholicism’s rejection of civil authority when it clashed with some claimed prerogative of the Church (e.g., the confidentiality of confession vs. the duty to report a crime to the police). He interpreted his liberal students’ indignant reaction to his views as evidence of their debt, and liberalism’s debt, to Hobbes’s anti-Catholicism (cf. Leviathan, Part IV).

Postscript, December 29, 2015: Having seen “Spotlight” since I wrote this post, I highly recommend it–for the acting, for the story it tells, and for being the rare movie to dramatize intellectual inquiry in an effective way. It also nicely focuses some of the issues discussed in the original post. The next time someone describes political Islam as being a unique threat to American liberty–there’s no Catholic equivalent of ISIS, Al Qaeda, or sharia, after all–it might be worth asking what Islamic institution has sexually violated as many children and done as much damage to the rule of law in the United States as the Catholic Church. Still, that’s not a reason for violating the rights of Catholics or of anyone else. It’s a reason for re-doubling our commitment to respecting and protecting rights on principle across the board.

Eleven years ago, by the way, I was writing online essays like this one. No one can legitimately accuse me of being uncritical of Islam or of events in the Islamic world. But my views haven’t changed. What’s changed are the double standards that surround us. From cutting Muslims a bit of slack in the name of multicultural tolerance, we now seem to have slid to the reverse extreme of demonizing Islam as the root of all evils in the contemporary world. A little objectivity and sense of balance would be nice.

Postscript, February 25, 2016: I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I wish I’d said this in the first place. Munger had said:

Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

How is covert rejection of the civil authority and its laws an overt incitement to violence and revolution? That claim is self-contradictory.

On the other hand, if incitement is overt, and we assume that incitement is justly illegal, where is the puzzle involved in dealing with it? The solution is obvious: arrest all and only those engaged in the illegal activity.

Munger appears to avoid this dilemma by predicating “threat” and “incitement” not of agents but of “religion” as such. But since a religion is not an agent, its content only becomes threatening or inciting when an adherent makes it one. Threats and incitements that sit within the pages of some dusty tome can only sit there until someone makes use of them. If the sheer existence of claims is to be regarded as inciting or threatening, you may as well start legal proceedings against the books themselves.

Bottom line: in addition to all of the other problems Munger’s view faces, it faces a fatal and obvious dilemma. And yes, I’m done discussing it.

Ad Blocking and Tacit Consent: An Exercise in Lockean Theory

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Locke on property and consent, partly inspired by my recent travels, and partly by preparations I’m making for a workshop I’m doing this weekend in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania with Fred Seddon on his book, Ayn Rand, Objectivists, and the History of Philosophy.

Given that, this item in yesterday’s New York Times caught my eye, apropos of Locke (and/vs. Hume) on consent. The ostensible topic is Internet ads and ad blockers, but the underlying assumption is one about tacit or implicit consent.

Some background on Internet ads:

Advertising sustains pretty much all the content you enjoy on the web, not least this very newspaper and its handsome, charming technology columnist; as I’ve argued before, many of the world’s most useful technologies may never have come about without online advertising. But at the same time, ads and the vast, hidden, data-sucking machinery that they depend on to track and profile you are routinely the most terrible thing about the Internet.

Here’s the connection to tacit consent:

Now, more and more web users are escaping the daily bombardment of online advertising by installing an ad blocker. This simple, free software lets you roam the web without encountering any ads that shunt themselves between you and the content you want to read or watch. With an ad blocker, your web browser will generally run faster, you’ll waste less bandwidth downloading ads, and you’ll suffer fewer annoyances when navigating the Internet. You’ll wonder why everyone else in the world doesn’t turn to the dark side.

Well, everyone may be catching on. Ad blocking has been around for years, but adoption is now rising steeply, at a pace that some in the ad industry say could prove catastrophic for the economic structure underlying the web. That has spurred a debate about the ethic of ad blocking. Some publishers and advertisers say ad blocking violates the implicit contract that girds the Internet — the idea that in return for free content, we all tolerate a constant barrage of ads.

The link that goes to the “debate about the ethic of ad blocking” goes to a blog post by a programmer named Marco Arment who is arguing against the idea that there is any such implicit contract or tacit consent. He suggests, almost in passing, that there are two different issues involved here: By surfing the Web, do we tacitly consent to: (A) tolerate Internet ads (so that it would violate our tacit agreement to block them via ad blocking technology)? and (B) be tracked via the data associated with our computers, where the tracking is typically activated by clicking a hyperlink? In that case, there would be no “invasion” of privacy when that information was used for whatever purposes the trackers had in mind.

My inclination is to answer “no” to both (A) and (B), but in saying that, I can’t help thinking that my argument is potentially ambiguous as between three interpretations:

(1) There is a clear distinction between tacit consent and non-consent. These cases clearly fall on the latter side of the divide.

(2) Tacit consent is so defective a form of consent that it only counts as consent in a very special kind of case–a case in which you don’t actually have express or explicit consent, but you obviously don’t have coercion either; where it’s extremely plausible to think that if you asked, you could get explicit consent, but for some reason, it’s either impossible or impractical (or impracticable) to ask. The cases under discussion don’t qualify as the relevant kind.

(3) There is no clear distinction between tacit consent and non-consent. “Tacit consent” is a vague (or confused) idea, and the distinction between tacit consent and non-consent is itself unclear. Given the ambiguities of the idea and the fuzziness of the distinction, the default assumption should be that where you don’t have explicit or express consent, you don’t have consent. Since ex hypothesi we don’t have explicit or express consent here, we don’t have consent.

Claims (1) and (2) are distinct, but not exclusive; both are incompatible with (3). For now, I’ll just say that I reject (3) and am inclined toward some version of (2), with the proviso that the version of (2) I espouse might well reduce to (1). In other words, I’m inclined to think that there are contexts in which tacit consent makes good sense, don’t think (A) or (B) qualify, but think that some things might, and that we might ultimately be able to get clear enough on the issues for (1) to be the case. Anyway, let me deal with issue (A) here, leaving (B) for another time.

There’s a common tendency to conflate the reasonable (or prima facie reasonable) with the consented-to.  It seems eminently reasonable to think that if the Internet costs money to operate, and is paid for by ads, then anyone who uses the Internet ought to tolerate the ads that pay the “service” he’s using. The phrase “Internet costs money to operate” is of course ambiguous. In one sense, it refers to the World Wide Web as such: it costs money for the WWW to have been brought into existence, and to be maintained in existence. In another, it refers to individual websites: the content on any website involves labor that has to be paid for. Ads pay for the Internet in the latter rather than the former sense. But they do pay for it, and many if not most of us enjoy the content we enjoy because of it. It seems like free riding and also like an indulgence in self-defeating behavior to undermine the revenue source that pays for all of that (otherwise) free content. Of course, the “indulgence in self-defeating behavior” is only self-defeating in an extended, and possibly metaphorical sense: no single act of ad blocking by itself is liable to be self-defeating, but once ad blockers reach a certain critical mass, and become a “bloc,” so to speak, they’ll tip the revenue scales in such a way that the cumulative effect of all of their behavior will become self-defeating.

Even if we grant all that, however, I don’t think it establishes a tacit contract or implicit consent to ads. At least, I don’t think it establishes a contract or quasi-contract that is breached by the use of an ad blocker. Arment offers a reductio for thinking that there can’t be implicit consent in this case: if there were implicit consent, he says, we would be obliged to read every (word of every) ad that pops up or impedes our web surfing, but that’s obviously too demanding, so there can’t be implicit consent. I agree with the conclusion but not the argument. It seems to me that you could have a tacit obligation to tolerate web ads without having an obligation to read them every word of every one of them. You could likewise have an obligation to skim web ads (or “consider” them in some weak sense) without having an obligation to read them all the way through. In either case, you’d have an obligation incompatible with ad blocking.

My argument against tacit consent likewise takes the form of a reductio, but its logic is simpler and more transparent than Arment’s. It’s this: it cannot come as a total surprise to you that you’ve tacitly consented to something. In other words, in order to test whether you’ve tacitly consented to something, ask whether, in retrospect, you recognize having consented to it. If you make a sincere and conscientious effort, and come up with no recognition whatseover of having consented to the activity, you cannot have consented to it.

I realize that in other contexts, this would be a problematically permissive argument form. If p entails q, you can’t deny the entailment by asking yourself whether you recognize the entailment, and then deny the entailment in the case in which you don’t recognize it. But consent is in that very respect different from entailment. Consent is something that by definition you knowingly engage in and can remember having engaged in. I don’t mean that a momentary lapse of memory gets you off the hook from an act of consent. I mean that if you can’t in principle remember having consented, you can’t have consented. And if you don’t at all recognize the act of consent as an act of consent, there couldn’t have been one. That’s what makes consent such a weird concept–its extreme relativity to the agent’s states of mind while operating within a realist moral philosophy that in many contexts regards such relativity as irrelevant.

I’m sympathetic enough to the idea of tacit consent to acknowledge that you may not, in the moment of consent, recognize that the action A in which you’re engaged constitutes consent to something X, which consists of elements (i), (ii), and (iii)–at least not under that description. But once the moment of having performed A is past, you have to be able to recognize, in the first person, that the performance of A amounted to consent to X and/or consent to some (=1) of the element(s) constituting X. If you really, honestly, sincerely can’t do this, you can’t have consented to X, no matter how obvious it is to someone else that performance of A amounts to consent to X, and no matter how reasonable it is that performance of A ought to lead to performance of X. You may well be culpably ignorant for not grasping that performance of A ought reasonably to lead to performance of X, in the sense that any idiot grasps the connection that you’ve managed to miss. But being culpably ignorant of a connection is not the same as having tacitly consented to the existence of the connection. Even if I ought to know the connection between Internet ads, revenue, and the existence of the Internet, my not knowing it–even my culpably not knowing it–is not equivalent to my tacitly consenting to it.

That’s the long and short of my argument against tacit consent to Internet advertising. Before I read the Times’s article, I was well aware of the fact that there was a causal connection between advertising and the existence of content on the Internet, so that the one thing enabled the other. (Of course, I was also dimly aware of the bizarre exceptions to that rule, like Wikipedia, whose funding mechanisms still strike me as mysterious.) But I had no idea whatsoever that anyone had regarded recognition of the connection as one of tacit consent, so that in using the Internet I was consenting to advertising in a sense that would have made ad blocking the moral equivalent of a breach of contract (or even a quasi-breach of contract, or a breach of quasi-contract, or whatever). Maybe I’m the only idiot in the world who believes that. Maybe I’m culpable for not knowing more. But I still don’t think there is any clear sense in which I ever consented to the existence of online advertising in a sense that rules out my trying to block it.

I think something similar might be said about issue (B), but I won’t belabor that here. The basic point is that even if I was aware of the fact that when I clicked a hyperlink that allowed various entities to track me, I never took myself in that act to have consented to data-tracking. Hence I didn’t consent, even if data-tracking is a perfectly reasonable idea, and even if I should consent to it. (Of course, in case [B], there is sometimes express consent to data-tracking, e.g., when a site owner comes out and tells you that he’ll be tracking you if you click the following box. But that’s a separate issue.)

How does any of this relate to consent to government? As is well known, Locke relies pretty heavily on tacit or implied consent in his argument for the legitimacy of government in the Second Treatise. D.A. Lloyd Thomas puts the point nicely:

Locke is looking for some act the performance of which, though it would not count as the giving of express consent, would bind us to relinquishing our executive power of the law of nature just as if there had been an act of express consent. (D.A. Lloyd Thomas, Locke on Government, pp. 35-36).

Candidate acts include residence, immigration, inheritance (and/or bequeathal) of property, voting, acceptance of government benefits, and so on.

On my view, however, there is only one way to tell whether someone has tacitly consented to government. You have to ask them whether they recognize that some act X amounted to consent to government. I have no idea about the state of the social science research on this topic, but I’m inclined to think that if you ran my test on a representative sample of Americans and/or Western Europeans, you would discover that a good proportion of them had tacitly consented to government. My point is not that sheer consent to any old set of options establishes the legitimacy of the relevant governments, or that the consent that obtains in the actual case is consent to the right things in the right ways. It’s simply that the disposition to consent to government is there and can’t be waved away by appealing to the fact that we have no evidence in hand of express consent to a limited, rights-respecting government.

Given that, the usual gloss on Lockean consent is less of a problem than it seems:

The literature on Locke’s theory of consent tends to focus on how Locke does or does not successfully answer the following objection: few people have actually consented to their governments so no, or almost no, governments are actually legitimate. This conclusion is problematic since it is clearly contrary to Locke’s intention.

Few people have actually consented to their governments because, naturalized immigrants aside, few have been given the opportunity to give express consent. But if many or most people tacitly consent, there is reason to believe that if you clarified the issue of consent for them, and then properly structured the consent-options for them, they would consent. That they would consent doesn’t meant that they have consented, but it also takes some of the sting out of the claim that they haven’t. And that, it seems to me, is all that a Lockean theory of consent needs in order to be taken seriously.

I can’t resist adducing a counter-example to the common assumption I quote above–that “few people have actually consented to their governments.” The counter-example is American Indian tribes. Tribes are by all accounts sovereign governments, but to belong to a tribe, you must expressly consent to membership within it.

The rule is (implicitly!) stated in the 1981 Supreme Court case, Montana vs. United States 450 US 544. On the one hand, with respect to those non-Indians who don’t consent to tribal authority, tribal authority shrinks almost to non-existence unless licensed by consent (from the Wikipedia entry):

A tribe may regulate, through taxation, licensing, or other means, the activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the tribe or its members, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements. A tribe may also retain inherent power to exercise civil authority over the conduct of non-Indians on fee lands within its reservation when that conduct threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe.”[1] No consensual relationships existed between the Crow tribe and the non-member sportsman. The tribe had also not said that the outdoor use of their lands by non-members would “imperil the subsistence or welfare of the tribe.”[4] As a result of these conditions, the Crow tribe was not entitled to regulate the activities by non-members on their fee lands. The tribes “retain their inherent power to determine tribal membership, to regulate domestic relations among members, and to prescribe rules of inheritance for members.” However, this case was dealing with non-tribal members who were not endangering the tribe.[5] Due to the court’s statement that the tribal court could regulate conduct that “threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity , the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe”, the tribe did not have the authority to impose fees and taxes on the non-Indian hunting and fishing use of tribal lands.[10]

On the other hand, tribes can regulate the conduct of Indians (most obviously, members of the tribe itself), but tribal membership is essentially a matter of consent:

It is not always necessary for an individual to be formally enrolled in a recognized tribe to be regarded as a member for jurisdictional purposes….Nevertheless, [voluntary and consensual] enrollment provides by far the best evidence of Indian status. Whether enrollment is viewed as a most important factor, as in [United States v.] Bruce, or as a dispositive one, as in United States v. Stymiest…enrolled members are almost always found to be Indians. (William C. Canby Jr., American Indian Law, 6th ed., p. 11).

So essentially, American Indian tribes rule by the consent of the governed.

Postscript, August 24, 2015: A letter in today’s New York Times suggests that Social Security involves tacit consent:

To the Editor:

Re “Republicans Against Retirement” (column, Aug. 17):

We agree with Paul Krugman’s analysis, but we wish he would bolster the understanding of Social Security by liberally using the term “earned benefits.” After all, the system is not a giveaway. It is a “social contract” wherein workers agree to contribute a portion of their earnings through payroll taxes for the common good of present retirees in return for their future retirement funding by future workers.

This isn’t a government gift. It’s an earned benefit that the government facilitates. Unless we consistently reiterate the true nature and mechanics of this transaction, Republicans will continue to misrepresent it as an “entitlement.”



Redmond, Wash.

Whatever the merits or demerits of Social Security, I don’t see that it passes any plausible test of tacit consent. It certainly doesn’t in my case (not that I’m militantly against it, either: my point is simply that I haven’t consented to it). If anything, it’s likely to seem to pass a tacit consent “test,” ex post facto, in the eyes of its imminent beneficiaries: once the benefits are on the horizon, it may well seem, as a matter of confabulation, that you “tacitly consented” to their arrival. But  the test I was defending rules out consent-by-retrospective-confabulation. To tacitly consent to something, you have to have consented to it (past perfect); you can’t project your current approval backwards onto an “act of consent” that never took place.

It’s worth noting that the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) “Understanding the Benefits” pamphlet makes no reference whatsoever to the Gallers’ so-called “social contract.” It merely says that when you work, you pay into the Social Security trust fund. It says nothing about your agreeing, whether tacitly or expressly, to pay. And since it describes workers as paying a tax, it’s easy to understand why they’d do things that way: if SSA admitted that Social Security taxes were contingent on some voluntary act, the government might have to concede that taxes as such were contingent, and indeed, that some literal, non-hagiographical content had to be given to the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That’s more contingency than most governments have ever consented to.

Anyway, if the Social Security Administration really believed that the legitimacy of its program rested on your consent, you’d think it would tell you at precisely this point–when it was explaining the nature of the program to its putative beneficiaries. That it doesn’t bring up consent suggests that consent is not involved. It’s an interesting question whether you can unilaterally consent to something that’s being forced on you. I don’t think you can.

It’s also worth considering this: Imagine that you’re employed (hence paying Social Security taxes) but belong to a demographic cohort whose unemployment rate is 80%, whose disability rate is high, and where life expectancy is well below 65. Would it be rational for you to consent to pay Social Security taxes? I don’t think so. Yes, by paying in, you get access to Supplemental Security Income (SSI, or “disability”) if you needed it (and you might). But if there’s a low probability you’ll make it to retirement age (and there is), is it fair to ask you to pay into a trust fund that supplements the retirements of people who not only will make it, but will far surpass it, and be living on Easy Street as they do? Again, I don’t think so.

In a case like this, a person confronted with the alternatives of paying an unfair tax versus being a free rider on the benefits conferred by an unfair system could, in my view, justifiably opt for the latter. In other words, if you belong to that cohort through no fault of your own, and can’t escape your circumstances through no fault of your own (or at too high a price to constitute a reasonable expectation), I think it’s perfectly justifiable to evade Social Security taxes, as long as you have a safe way of doing so. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I think it’s legitimate to evade Social Security taxes and benefit from SSI in a case like that (there’s the free riding I was talking about).

Lesson 1: we should avoid conflating tacit consent with pious liberal mythology.

Lesson 2: free riding isn’t always wrong.

(I deleted the video I originally inserted after the post.)

Postcards from Abu Dis (2): Pedagogy Under Occupation

My political philosophy class here at Al Quds University has met either once or twice so far, depending on how you count. I’m told that 19 students are enrolled, but only one showed up on the first day, so I didn’t really teach that much. Four students showed up for class two, so we had a full class. I’m told that this pattern of attendance (or non-attendance) is a bit of a tradition in this neck of the woods: things start slowly at first, and then, little by little, build to a pedagogical crescendo. It’s the reverse of the pattern I’m used to at Felician, where everyone on the roster shows up on the first day of class, but fewer and fewer show up as the term wears on, so that by the last day, you’re lucky if anyone shows up–and at some level, they’re lucky if you do.

There’s a sense in which what I’m doing here at Al Quds is pedagogically controversial and a departure from my usual approach to teaching. Without literally engaging in advocacy in the classroom, I’m taking an overtly political approach to how I’m framing the class. I am, in effect, unapologetically teaching not political philosophy per se, but “Political Philosophy (and the Occupation).” Though it’s not what I would do in the average American classroom, I’d like to think that it could bear scrutiny by observers from back home. So I thought I’d say a bit about it, and invite some scrutiny.

There’s no way to teach political philosophy from a literally neutral perspective. You can’t successfully teach, say, Plato’s Republic or Hobbes’s Leviathan simply by showing up in the classroom, knowing nothing about the interests or psychology of your students, and “covering the material.” That’s a recipe for pedagogical failure. It may work in other disciplines, but it can’t work in philosophy. The problem with it is that philosophical “material” is too open-ended and protean to be approached in this way. There’s no single, standardized “right way” to teach a philosophical text. There are too many choices to be made–regarding translation, selections, questions to be pursued and not pursued–and too many legitimate ways of making them. Choices of that kind are dictated in part by the audience you want to reach, and what you want to achieve with them.


Suppose you decided to teach Plato’s Republic, and “simply” wanted to “cover the arguments,” whether in the sense of merely summarizing them, or summarizing them, laying them out in deductive fashion, and testing each of them sequentially for validity and soundness. I suppose you could do that, and at some level, anyone would have to do a bit of it. But you couldn’t leave things there. The “material” you’d ideally want to cover is not reducible to a summary of the arguments in “the” text, or even reducible to a summary plus a sequential set of tests of the soundness of each argument (assuming that that’s even possible, and waiving questions about how to individuate the arguments in the text). At a minimum, what you’d need in addition to all of that is analysis of the contested concepts of each of the premises of every major argument–and not just a straight “conceptual analysis” as analytic philosophers often use that phrase, but a sort of dialectical and rhetorical analysis that takes stock of what those concepts mean to your students both cognitively and emotionally.

Putting things slightly differently: if you want the material to sink in—in any sense of “sink in”—you have to ask how it connects with the beliefs, desires, habits, practices, preoccupations, etc. (call it the ‘context’) that the students bring to the text. How do they conceptualize “justice,” “friendship,” “harm,” “advantage,” “promises,” “debt,” and so on? If you ignore that personal context, the class will backfire: the text becomes a series of alien and alienating abstractions without connection to the students’ experiences. That’s what makes teaching both challenging and enjoyable, and somewhat analogous to psychotherapy. Whether you’re teaching philosophy or engaging in therapy, you can’t waltz in, hit your “audience” with a Power Point presentation and waltz out. You have to interact with themgoing back and forth between the text and the context they bring to it, until each thing manages actively to illuminate the other. (By the way, this is why online teaching will never become a literal substitute for on-the-ground teaching in philosophy.)


The issue becomes particularly acute when you’re teaching a dialogue like the Republic: dialogues are stories, and readers either relate or don’t relate to a story.There is no successful way to teach “the arguments” of Plato’s Republic while ignoring how students relate to Socrates, Glaucon, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus as characters. You might as well read The Brothers Karamazov “for the arguments” while ignoring the brothers.

In fact, the dialogue form is what makes Plato’s Republic such a hard but great text to teach. What would make Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Mill easier to teach would be some way of presenting them in dialogue form. But that, of course, is what a class on such texts has to become. What Socrates says to those characters in the Republic is informed by his knowledge of their personalities, and the same thing has to be true of a successful instructor teaching Aristotle and the rest. Absurd and presumptuous as it may sound, once you teach Plato’s Republic, and move on to the rest of the class, you the instructor have to play Socrates to the Glaucons, Adeimantuses, Polemarchuses, and Thrasymachuses in your classroom–but on Aristotelian, Machiavellian, Hobbesian (etc.) material. The classroom has to become an extended dialogue.


As an American, 99.99% of the teaching I’ve ever done has been done in the United States. Even there, regional and institutional differences have always necessitated adjustments to my pedagogical methods. I saw this with blinding clarity one semester when I happened simultaneously to be adjuncting at Princeton University, The College of New Jersey, and Mercer County Community College—three institutions within a few miles of each other, but that may as well have been located in different galaxies. Princeton is an Ivy League university, TCNJ is a small state college, and MCCC is a two-year county college devoted to remedial work.

I’ll admit that I had a few Stand-and-Deliver-type fantasies about teaching my MCCC students by exactly the same standards and methods as my Princeton students, but mercifully, those plans didn’t get past the fantasy stage. The differences between Princeton and MCCC students, learning philosophy within five miles of one another on different sides of Route 1, are a blog post in themselves, but suffice it to say that they demanded drastically different pedagogical treatment. I didn’t happen to teach the same class at both places, but if I had, they’d have to be taught in radically different sorts of ways. And what applies to two or three different schools in Mercer County a fortiori applies to a school thousands of miles away in the Jerusalem Governorate. It makes no sense to teach Palestinians philosophy the way I teach it to Americans.


In general, the American students I’ve taught—twenty-one years’ worth of students at seven institutions in three states—are politically disengaged. They’re preoccupied with personal concerns and personal pleasures that push political concerns to the side: clubbing, drinking, drugs, sex, sports, shopping, and parties on the frivolous end; friends, family, romantic relationships, career choices, money, logistical worries (e.g., transportation, child care, etc.), and medical-mental health issues at the more serious end. Military veterans aside, the political world doesn’t interest them, and to put the point somewhat uncharitably, they rarely have anything of interest to say about it, either. The political issues that concern them are hyperlocal issues of direct consequence to them, e.g., the rules and regulations governing student loans. (It seems to me characteristically New Jersey-esque to think that defaulting on one’s college loans is a significant form of political protest. But I’ve complained about this attitude too recently to spend time on it now.)

The sort of issue that consistently makes its way to the front page of The New York Times strikes most of my students as distant, abstract, and ultimately meaningless. Take the headlines above the fold in today’s edition of the Times (meaning the June 9 edition): “Justices Reject Passport Law on Jerusalem”; “A Raid on ISIS Yields a Trove of Intelligence”; “Evangelicals Open Door to Debate on Gay Rights”; “A Rare Gambit Seeking Justice for a Shot Boy.” I can just hear my students asking:  What does any of that have to do with my life?

It’s tempting to respond that while the details of these stories aren’t directly related to their lives, surely justice, rights, intelligence and passports/constitutionalism are relevant. Isn’t that enough to get students engaged with politics? The answer is “no.” The response presupposes a concern with principle and a degree of empathy for others that isn’t always there (=usually isn’t there), and can’t easily be taught, if it can be taught at all, at least in a classroom (cf. Plato’s Meno).

In my experience, not even crime and race relations are an exception to the general rule of political disengagement, at least not in suburban New Jersey. The events of the last year–Ferguson, Cleveland, etc.–haven’t really changed anything. After all, race relations on campus (my campus) are generally good, and a black guy is president: that tends to be good enough to preserve the equilibrium of complacency. As far as my students are concerned, Ferguson, Cleveland, and even Staten Island may as well be foreign countries. So the pedagogical task in the American context is to find a way to make the political personal–to make it matter to students in a personal way.

Here in Palestine, the situation is just the reverse: the political is already personal; the (merely) personal is relatively unimportant. More specifically, for the Palestinian students I’ve met, occupation is their preoccupation. Like anyone, they may well be preoccupied, more remotely, with personal concerns and pleasures (hookahs, cigarettes, coffee, hanging out in cafes), but the burning issue that concerns them is life under Israeli military occupation. What they need (as I see it) is a means of standing back and taking a broader perspective on things than the daily grinding outrage they feel about the situation they’re in. That said, one can’t expect them simply to ditch the outrage and theorize in the abstract.

There’s a balance to be struck here, and it’s a hard balance to find. From experience, I’ve decided this time to push things in the politically engaged direction after having made the mistake last time I was here of pitching things in an overly abstract way. When I lectured here two years ago on Locke, I’d intended to give a relatively uncontroversial overview of themes in Locke’s political philosophy, along with a sketch of Locke’s relevance, at a very high level of abstraction, to the Israel-Palestine dispute. That first lecture (of three) didn’t go well, and its failure was a valuable learning experience for me. (I learned quickly enough to make the second and third lectures more successful, but they were on different topics anyway.) I still don’t think I said anything false, but much of what I said was irrelevant to the audience I was facing. And it’s not that I knew nothing about my audience’s concerns; I knew that they were living under a military occupation and resented it. But I had misjudged the degree and intensity of that resentment. I also knew less than I thought I did about the occupation itself.

Psychologically, I came to realize, my Palestinian audience simply could not focus on Locke qua Locke, abstracting entirely from Locke’s relevance to the occupation. My Locke lecture was, for them, like an outlandish two-hour thought-experiment offered for reflection to people in prison. “You keep talking about rights,” I remember one guy saying. “But we don’t have any of these rights.” And not having them became an insuperable barrier to hearing what I had to say about Locke. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, an objection to anything I had said. I hadn’t after all said that they had the rights Locke says we have. The objection was that in jumping straight into Lockean theory, I had made demands of them that flouted their experience.


Pedagogically, one has to make a choice here that one doesn’t, I think, have to make back home. If I’m going to get students here to open up psychological space for theorizing, I can either motivate that theorizing as a good thing in general, or as a good thing as a form of resistance to the occupation. And I’ve decided to go with the latter. I don’t see the point in pretending that I’m neutral on that subject, or even that the purpose of the class is neutral with respect to it. I’m not neutral, and neither is the class. The occupation is unjust. The class is a form of resistance to it. Enough divides me from these students as it is, even in the context of that agreement, to justify using the agreement to forge a common bond, and letting it promote classroom rapport. I’m teaching here to help them think their way out of the occupation, insofar as that can be done.

I’m teaching Plato tomorrow, but I think the point can more easily be conveyed by thinking about Locke. In teaching Locke here last time, I realized that one can’t teach Locke in Palestine by putting the text of the Second Treatise at the forefront and keeping the occupation on the backburner. One has to bring Locke to the occupation, and vice versa. To give a sense of what I mean, imagine a hypothetical class or set of classes on the first five chapters of Locke’s Second Treatise, as follows.

The class begins with Locke’s account and definition of “political power” in ST I.3. The definition seems straightforward enough; I don’t recall any of my teachers or interlocutors spending much time on it. But the details of the definition have a certain subtle significance in a Palestinian context, as applied to the Oslo definitions of Areas A, B, and C in the West Bank. Who (it’s worth asking) has Lockean “political power” in each place under that arrangement–Israel or the Palestinian Authority? That way of asking the question turns out to be both illuminating and disorienting. On a conventional view, the Palestinians rule Area A, there’s joint rule in Area B, and the Israelis rule Area C.* But that’s not the question. The question is: Who has Lockean political power over the West Bank? And the answer is that the Israelis do. That’s why the tripartite division of the West Bank doesn’t change the fact that the West Bank remains as occupied as it ever was: it remains occupied by Israeli political power in the specifically Lockean sense, not the conventional one, something worth bearing in mind when one faces someone who insists that the West Bank is “no longer occupied.”

Move to book II of the ST, which discusses Locke’s conception of the State of Nature. Most of PoT’s readers can probably recite some version of an undergraduate lecture on this topic: “A Lockean State of Nature is a hypothetical state of affairs in which persons exist with rights of freedom and equality, but without a common political power.” The sticking point is “hypothetical.” Yes, that’s what the words say, but what is a State of Nature really like? Nozick is somewhat helpful in clarifying this a bit:

To understand precisely what civil government remedies, we must do more than repeat Locke’s list of the inconveniencies of the state of nature. We also must consider what arrangements might be made within a state of nature to deal with these inconveniences…Only after the full resources of the state of nature are brought into play…will we be in a position to see how serious are the inconveniences that yet remain to be remedied by the state, and to estimate whether the remedy is worse than the disease. (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 10-11).

At this point, however, Nozick offers a very abstract (some would say implausible, fantastic, and rationalistic) account of protective associations, dominant protective associations, invisible hand explanations, and the task of backing into the state. It’s intended as a just-so story, but it sort of seems like a fairy story.

But there’s another way, a more concrete way, to see how serious are the inconveniences of life without a state. Go to a place that doesn’t have a state and take a look around. For instance, go to Area B in the West Bank and ask: is Area B a Lockean State of Nature? What inconveniences arise from the absence of a state here? What improvements, if any, would be made if a state could be brought into existence? What kind of state would improve things, and how? Your answers may not generalize to every State of Nature, but they may tell you something that you won’t get by reflecting from your armchair (a la Nozick) on Proudhon, Schelling, Rothbard, and Boulding. (Incidentally, go back and re-read p. 4 of Anarchy on this very under-remarked issue–how exactly do we conceptualize the State of Nature–and the question turns out to be both central to Nozick’s conception of political philosophy, and totally unresolved. But that’s a topic for a different post.)

Move now to book III of the Second Treatise, on the State of War. It might be valuable to apply a similar approach to this topic as to the last one. We can all read Locke’s definition of the State of War without any trouble, but how does it apply to particular cases? For instance: is the Palestinian Authority in a (Lockean) State of War vis-à-vis Hamas and/or Israel right now? Can the Palestinians be in a State of War vis-à-vis the Israelis if Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) has sworn off “armed struggle” as a means of dealing with the occupation? Can a State of War obtain between two parties, like the PA and Hamas, that have formed an alliance with one another, albeit in a state of nature? Questions like that give Locke a poignancy in the Palestinian context he wouldn’t otherwise have had.

Book IV of the Second Treatise discusses slavery: some sensitive topics come up here. On Locke’s view, slavery is “the State of War continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive” (ST IV.24.16ff). Does that mean that the Israeli occupation is a form of slavery in Locke’s sense? Arguably, it does. Though Locke is famous for the view that suicide is morally impermissible (since we’re all God’s property, ST II.6.19), he leaves the door open for suicide under slavery (ST, II.23.13) while “resisting the will of [one’s] master.” But if you can commit suicide under slavery as a form of resistance to your master, can you kill your master while you’re at it? If the occupation turns out to be a form of Lockean slavery, that gives Locke a closer kinship to Hamas and Islamic Jihad than anyone might have expected, a thought that seems to have escaped most academic interpreters of Locke I’ve read.

Finally, consider Locke on property, with an explicit view to the implications of his views on property disputes in Israel and the West Bank (ST V). Here’s a short laundry list of questions that occur within the first few paragraphs of Locke’s discussion:

  • If, as Locke tells us, we’re to rely on reason and revelation for our account of property (ST V.25.5), does that mean that Islamic sharia is a legitimate source of norms regarding property rights? Sectarian prejudices aside, why wouldn’t it be?
  • While we’re on the topic: Is Locke pro-Palestinian or pro-Zionist or neither? Is Locke’s labor-based conception of property an implicit defense of the Palestinians’ natural right to stay on the land in defiance of legal processes that evict them, or is just a set of anachronistic apologetics for Labor Zionism?
  • According to Locke, initial appropriation of land proscribes wasting it, demands its improvement, and requires leaving ‘enough and as good’ for others (ST V.31-33). The model Locke seems to have in mind is agriculture—even more specifically, the English enclosure movement. But how does that relate, if at all, to nomadic Arab Bedouins in Israel/Palestine?
  • According to Locke, God gave the use of the land to “the industrious and rational” (ST V.34.5). Do Bedouins qualify as “industrious and rational” in the relevant sense? Or is Israel right to think that they’re neither: that nomadism wastes land, environmentally degrades it, and uses too much space, so that there’s a justification for expropriating Bedouins by force and putting them in settled and civilized housing projects?

That’s just a hypothetical set of classes on Locke. I doubt even the most proficient instructor could do more than scratch the surface of the issues I’ve mentioned in an actual class. But what’s true of Locke ends up being true across the board. To teach Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli (etc.) in Palestine, you have to ‘Palestinianize’ those texts. I don’t mean, of course, that you read them for things that aren’t in them. I mean that you have read them for what’s in them in relation to the context that surrounds you, where the context picks out features of the text or approaches to the text you might not otherwise have focused on.

The irony is that doing so makes these texts both easier and more difficult to teach at the same time, but in different respects. Easier because it gives them a concentrated focus that they would otherwise lack. More difficult because one rarely reads them in this way back home, and the task of integrating theory and practice is a difficult one where an outsider like me is forced to do a fair share of groping in the dark.

I told my students the other day that life under occupation gave them an advantage that few people have, and that as students of political philosophy, they ought to be grateful for it.

That got their attention. One of them asked me (with all due respect) what the hell I was talking about. I told her (them) that the advantage in question was epistemic: few people in the world live under military occupation, from which it follows that few people know what it’s like to live under one. Arguably, that goes for most philosophers, including most (though not all of) the philosophers we’re about to read in the course. Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Mill didn’t (as far as I know) live under occupation-like conditions, though arguably, Machiavelli, Locke, and Marx did.

Since (I suggested) Palestinians can’t wish the occupation away, they might as well capitalize on whatever features of it can be put to their advantage. Political philosophy gives its devotees a perspective on their immediate political situation that facilitates a comprehension that they might not otherwise have had. But it works the other way around as well: ‘naïve’ readers may well have something to teach the giants of philosophy what they would never have thought of on their own.

That, at any rate, is my bet. I’m curious to see if I win it.

*Thanks to Kate Herrick for spotting a typo in the original version of this sentence.