Think what you may of their incendiary words and actions, Donald Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu continue to give us a series of political and philosophical lessons. This past week, the theme of their pedagogy of oppression (to paraphrase the great Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, who coined the term the pedagogy of the oppressed) was neither Jerusalem nor the long-dead Israeli-Palestinian peace process nor, even, the meaning of international recognition and legitimacy. They taught us about the nature of facts.
In his declaration, Trump emphasized that Jerusalem was in fact the capital of Israel: “Israel is a sovereign nation with the right like every other sovereign nation to determine its own capital. Acknowledging this as a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace.” He implied that his decision was merely closing the gap between what was de facto the case and a de jure formality. More than that, he made the fact transcendental in the Kantian sense by identifying in it “a necessary condition” for peace. He only forgot to mention that granting the sovereign right to determine the capital to Israel but not to Palestine was a necessary condition of impossibility, rather than that of the possibility, as far as their future coexistence is concerned.
Netanyahu’s remarks in Paris echoed those of Trump. He proclaimed the status of Jerusalem–a major point of contention in the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis–a reality, while drawing the following analogy: “Paris is the capital of France; Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.” (This ridiculous parallel deserves no comments, because, of course, unlike Jerusalem, Paris is not claimed as the capital of two different nations.) And, he continued, “the sooner the Palestinians come to grips with this reality, the sooner we will move towards peace.” There is no arguing with facts that hit one with the hefty and painful obviousness of a rock or a bullet. That is the philosophical ad lapidem fallacy in a nutshell—the “appeal to the stone,” so called because of how in the eighteenth century Samuel Johnson endeavoured to refute the idealism of George Berkeley by kicking a rock and saying: “I refute him thus!”
Except that nothing is murkier and more ideologically charged than facts. In the Middle Eastern context, decades of Israel’s illegal settlement activity, notably in and around Jerusalem, have been “creating facts on the ground” by cutting Palestinians off from the city with the help of new and mushrooming settler enclaves. The stone of factual reality is never found as it is, but hewn, shaped, and carefully placed at the chosen spot.
To a significant extent, Trump’s and Netanyahu’s assertions mark the completion of a long process of fact-creation, which shadowed that other hapless process, of peace negotiations. (That said, I doubt that settler activity as such will henceforth end or taper off; what is complete is the political purpose it has served.) After actively creating facts on the ground, the occupying forces now conclude that those facts are indisputable. All that remains is to omit the “creation” part of the formula and to present the fact of Israel’s grip on Jerusalem as something that simply is the case, a brute reality independent of anyone’s ambitions.
The core lesson that reaches us courtesy of the pedagogy of oppression is that to gain an upper hand over the opponent one must divide, carve and chisel reality into facts supporting one’s position, throw away the scaffolding and the instruments that aided one in this operation, and assume a public stance of serene neutrality. If we recall, as I do in my Energy Dreams: Of Actuality, that the Latin factum derives from the verb facere, meaning “to do” or “to make,” then the ideological sleight-of-hand becomes more glaring still: the recognition of political facts is the recognition of the made without the making and, in the final instance, of the unmade, uncreated, merely given character of that which has been laboriously manufactured. In other words, the recognition is, paradoxically, a nonrecognition. The expression “the creation of facts” is, for its part, redundant because, in and of themselves, facts are already creations.
Add to the ideological motivation behind the use of the word the insight that facta did not originate in our techno-scientific worldview wherein they are fetished but in religious, Christian discourse—and the political theology of facts will appear in its full glory. What St. Augustine baptized as facta are the works of God, all the created things taken as a whole: “the Wisdom of God, through which all things were made, contains all things in accordance with his creative knowledge before he constructs all things [Sapientia Dei, per quam facta sunt omnia, secundum artem continet omnia, antequam fabricet omnia]” (In Evangelium Ioannis I, 17). The act of producing actuality (a political actuality, above all) as a series of determinate facts thus erases its own theological prehistory before it goes a step further and expunges the very actively interventionist, sovereign approach that brings the status quo about. With the violent and contingent origins of the situation thoroughly obfuscated, it asks everyone to bow their heads before and passively accept the outcomes of political machinations as an inevitability.
The dynamics I am describing here are not unique to the present explosive situation concerning Jerusalem. But it is telling that the discourse of facts, oblivious to its theological beginnings, has blockaded a city that is not only pivotal to the national aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis but also to the three religions known as “Abrahamic.” So, what is the take-home lesson of the political masterclass on facts, in the first place for those who have been still further symbolically dispossessed of their homes?
It is not enough to perform the negative critical gesture of unveiling the nonfactual grounds of facts and berating their disingenuous construction. I believe that the key positive (Machiavellian) message here, albeit definitely not the one intended by our ignorant schoolmasters, is: If you want to survive and flourish politically, then create your facts. The inability to do so is the reason why, incidentally, Hillary Clinton stood no chance against Trump; she and her supporters insisted on “fact-checking,” and so kept to an unquestioned notion of truth presumably lying outside the political realm.
In the early days of the Trump administration, Kellyanne Conway’s quip about “alternative facts”, referring to the inflated figures of inaugural crowds provided by Sean Spicer, was subject to widespread ridicule. But unwittingly Conway disclosed the name of the political game. In response to facts—to those manufactured pieces of the world that reach us without the label Made in… or just Made…—create other facts! When someone kicks the rock, do not kick it back in a sure admission of defeat. Come up with your rock, an alternative rock, or even a counter-rock—another set of “facts on the ground.”
Philosophers since Plato have despised the truth of politics, which they have associated with falsity and which, in modernity, has been marching under the banner of ideology. But politics produces its own truth that cannot help but shape the kind of truth typically considered non- or apolitical. After all, what are Lenin’s prerevolutionary speeches appealing to the historical necessity of proletarian victory, if not a series of alternative facts, formulated in a period when the Bolsheviks were in dire straits? And did those alternative facts not become reality in 1917?
The above example from an entirely different context one hundred years ago is especially fitting because of the relative lack of resources at the disposal of Lenin and his comrades. As we know from decades of Israeli settlement activity in Palestine, the “creation of facts on the ground” requires large sums of money from American donors, heavy machinery and a cheap labor force, as well as an army backing up the constant threat of physical violence to be unleashed against anyone who stands in the way of fact-making. It seems that only the powers that be have the privilege to create facts. Yet, the history of the 1917 October Revolution shows that those with the dice loaded against them, those in an “objectively” disadvantaged position, can nonetheless win the right to fact-making. It is then, in such rare historical moments, that the pedagogy of oppression flips into the pedagogy of the oppressed.