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One liners from the Jerusalem Hotel

I don’t use Twitter, so one-line (or so) posts from the hotel computer at the Jerusalem Hotel will have to suffice for now. Today’s object-lesson one-liner: selling Lockean political philosophy to Palestinans in East Jerusalem is an uphill battle. But I think I’m getting some cardio out of it.

Had a long, intense conversation about Locke on initial appropriation last night over dinner with a small group of Sari Nusseibeh‘s colleagues. A great time, but intense disagreement about whether Locke is friend or foe to the downtrodden. On their nearly unanimous view, Locke is friend to “the colonizer,” as the history of Native American (or “first peoples) in North American would suggest. There’s something to this (read Locke on slavery, Second Treatise 4) but ultimately I don’t buy it, and made the case of revisionary correction of Locke by way of the best in him. Also made the case that Locke raises questions that no appeal to “collective property” genuinely addresses or resolves. Lots of anger here about what they call the de facto expulsion of East Jerusalemite Palestinians into the West Bank by revoking their East Jerusalem ID cards. I hadn’t seen the story in The New York Times, so it hadn’t previously made it into my political ontology. (One’s parochialisms are well exposed while traveling abroad.)

I’m waiting for my ride to Abu Dis where I’m going to try to persuade a larger group–described to me as a mixed group of faculty, students, and activists–of all this. Let’s see if three espressos, a couple of handouts, and a Jersey accent manage to placate this not-easily-mollified crowd.

I spent four hours in security questioning at the airport, suspicions aroused because of my Pakistani and UAE visa stamps (which I expected). One guy in the holding room said that his record was eight hours. Meanwhile, some guy in an Atlas Shrugged T shirt trotted right past me and through security in five minutes. Next time I’ll know what to wear.


PS.  Got the name of the hotel wrong the first time around–Jerusalem Hotel, not Palestine Hotel.



  1. irfankhawaja says:

    Thanks. I’m going to need to sit down when I get a chance and work through this. I’ve said I was visiting “Jerusalem,” but actually I was lecturing in Abu Dis, a town in the West Bank, aka the Occupied Palestinian Territories, within sight of the Israeli separation wall. (The wall originally ran through campus. Now I think, it stands on the border of campus.) The audience consisted of a small handful of philosophy students, a large group of law students, and a bunch of “popular resistance” people who practice “non-violent resistance” to the Israeli military presence in the WB. Few of them spoke English, and my Arabic is functionally non-existent, so my lecture was translated simultaneously into Arabic, and their questions were translated into English. I eventually realized I had to slow way, way down from my normal mode of lecturing, eliminate idiomatic expressions from my speech, and boil everything down to a form that would be understandable to everyone in the audience. There was also (almost an afterthought) the task of defending Lockean political philosophy (not “Locke” as I incautiously put it before) to people who, if they’ve heard of Locke at all, regard him as THE theorist of imperialism. (I had a very interesting Arabo-English discussion with a student who insisted that there were no fundamental differences between Locke on the State of Nature and Machiavelli’s views in The Prince. And many similar conversations.) A challenge, to put it mildly, but very worthwhile. I’ll blog about it after I’ve recovered a bit, and can find some time for it.


  2. eliminate idiomatic expressions from my speech

    I hope you didn’t say “I’m tickled to death to be here.”

    no fundamental differences between Locke on the State of Nature and Machiavelli’s views in The Prince.

    Was any argument offered?

  3. I mean, I can imagine a sort of argument: first conflate Locke with Hobbes and take him to be saying that all moral considerations are suspended in the state of nature; then link this with Machiavelli’s claim that the prince should be evil rather than good when the situation calls for it. But of course it starts with “conflate Locke with Hobbes.”

  4. irfankhawaja says:

    Yes, that was the argument. And the response you gave is the one I gave.

    There was a bit of language barrier between my interlocutor and myself, but I think his point was that Locke’s view reduces to Hobbes’s regardless of Locke’s insistence on proportionality and the like in responding to threats in the State of Nature (e.g., ST 8). For after all, by ST 16 Locke is saying that we may destroy those who make war upon us as we destroy beasts like lions or wolves, and it makes no sense to insist on proportionality if your adversary is the moral equivalent of a beast. But it’s Locke who goes out of his way to insist on that comparison, so if we take him seriously, Locke seems inconsistent at best. He wants moral constraints but he wants us to see our adversaries as animals, i.e., as entities against whom constraints are of no importance. Further, since Locke offers nothing determinate in the way of a justification for proportionality–and no real account of what it is–an uncharitable reader can take him to be saying that during the State of War, anything goes.

    Moreover, if we can kill thieves who merely set out to rob us of our possessions because we suspect that they may be after more (ST 19), then how meaningful are Locke’s constraints? How different is Locke’s view from one that says: if someone crosses your boundaries, and you feel fear, kill him; he may want to kill and rape you, and “may” is enough to justify pre-emptive killing. Finally, if slavery is the price of lawful conquest (ST 24), then the differences between Locke and Machiavelli shrink to insignificance.

    If you put the whole thing together, you get this line of reasoning: Locke makes a big show of saying that in the State of Nature, we are governed by moral rights, proportionality and the rest. But it’s all a smokescreen. Imagine a situation in which group A meets group B in the State of Nature, and group A is stronger. Both groups settle side by side. There is no common authority to adjudicate their disputes. Group A knows that it can dominate B. Group B resents A but doesn’t wish to come to terms with A. One day, Group A takes B to have encroached on “its” (A’s) lands. Group A reasons: “Those fucking animals! Today they’re after our orange orchards. Tomorrow they’ll be out to kill us and rape our women. Time for war! Death to Group B!” So A makes war against B, and wins, killing some of its population, and reducing the rest to slavery, i.e., social death. How can Locke disagree with Group A’s reasoning? What theoretical resources does he have to disavow what they’ve done to B? Yes, we’re now discussing groups rather than individuals, but run the same thought-experiment on individuals and it’s no better–and the emphasis on individuals was a misdirection anyway, since human beings live in groups, not as atomistic individuals. If Locke can’t disavow Group A-Imperialism, how ultimately does he differ from Machiavelli except on inconsequential details?

    It’s ST 24 that’s particularly offensive from a Palestinian perspective, since it seems directly to justify the Israeli occupation. Israel won the 1967 war, regarding it as a just war, and has since then treated the West Bank, Golan, and Gaza as belonging to it in perpetuity, treating its inhabitants as slaves. Not only does Locke’s view lead straight to that conclusion, his obvious partiality for the Hebrew Bible (which he repeatedly cites as a proof text throughout the ST) suggests that he is a proto-Zionist of sorts. No good can come of him.

    I’m embellishing the one guy’s argument, and combining it with anti-Lockean claims made by other people I spoke with, but integrated into a single argument, that’s the gist. I’m summarizing throughout, not endorsing.


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