Check out my review of Ken Wilber's latest book Finding Radical Wholeness

Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Jeff MeyerhoffBald AmbitionJeff Meyerhoff, M.A., L.S.W. is the author of "Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything" and other essays on integral theory. He majored in economics and sociology and has studied philosophy, psychology, politics and spirituality. He's been employed as a social worker for the last 25 years. His weekly radio show, "The Ruminator," is archived at His blog is and his email is [email protected].

From: Integral Thoughts on the Middle East Conflict


Debating Debate

A Third Reply to Ray Harris

Jeff Meyerhoff

Note: I wrote the following before seeing Part II of Ray Harris's most recent reply to me. The following piece applies to the bulk of what Harris has recently written on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but not to Part II, which I reply to separately in Facts and Judgements.

As I wrote my second reply to Ray Harris - which, like my first, took me two weeks to research and assemble - I wondered, with a mixture of curiosity and dread, whether it would again take him only one or two days to respond. After repeatedly emphasizing in my second reply that his assertions were almost wholly undocumented, I figured he would feel obligated to cite scholarly sources to justify his assertions. But again, astoundingly, the bulk of his assertions are undocumented and too often they don't respond to the arguments I make.

I now realize that we have very different conceptions of what debate entails and I had mistakenly assumed that there were some tacitly agreed upon ground rules. Since this exchange is not working at the level of debate itself, I'd like to step back and speak to the process of debate. To speak to the process of debate, I will describe what I think a debate is and should be trying to do.

To understand my conception of debate, think of concentric circles. At the center of the concentric circles is the phenomenon, the event-to-be-known or what happened. For example, the fighting in Palestine in 1947-48 is an event or phenomenon to be known and understood.

Radiating outward from the event in the center are concentric circles or levels. The closer a level is to the center or the event the closer it is to the event. The first level from the center contains the remnants of the event lodged in memories, documents and artifacts. This is the evidence of the event. The event itself has passed and is now lost to us. The fighting in Palestine in 1948 produced newspaper reports, radio broadcasts, eye witness accounts, bureaucratic documents, diaries, memoirs and memories in the minds of people who lived the event.

On the second level outward from the event itself, and one step outward from the first level documentary remnants, are those who examine the documentary remnants and the results of their research. They try to determine what occurred; these are the scholars, usually lodged in academies. For the events in Palestine, these would be the scholars of the 1948 war.

On the third level outward, there are those who read what the scholars say in order to understand the event. They, like the scholars, are trying to get an accurate version of the event itself, but, unlike the scholars, are one more step removed from the documentary record and the event itself. This is the public who read the scholars work and learn about the event. They can also experience, usually in a less systematic fashion than the scholars, first level documentary remnants by reading memoirs or listening to stories told by participants in the 1948 war.

As one moves further outward from the center to higher levels one gets further from the event itself. To understand the event it is necessary to get as close to the center as possible.

To summarize my conception of debate there is:

  • The center: the event, what happened, the phenomenon to be known.
  • The first level: the documentary remnants of the event.
  • The second level: the scholars or those who devote themselves to studying the remnants to understand the event.
  • The third level: those who read the scholars in order to understand the event.

Neither Harris (as far as I know) nor I have done original research on the Arab-Israeli conflict and so are on the third level. To get a more accurate version of the events under discussion we must move towards the second level by reading and citing scholars who have examined the first level documentary remnants. Those second-level scholars debate by using the first level remnants. If third-levelers like Harris and I don't cite any scholarship, like Harris, we are stuck on the third level, more distant from the events we are discussing. I have tried to move us closer to the events by citing the second-level scholars. Harris says my sources are biased or one-sided. That is of course possible, but it doesn't mean much unless he cites other second-level sources to counter mine. This is very different from something he does do which is cite people who say my sources are biased. There is an important difference between saying that a source is wrong, or biased, or controversial and showing it.

In contrast to mine, what is Harris's understanding of debate? The very first paragraph of his second reply suggests what his conception of debate is not and seems to run counter to my conception. He writes:

I have no problems with debate; it's just that the Israel/Palestine debate can get bogged down in ‘he said, she said'. That's okay; we can go down that path. Meyerhoff can quote his sources and I can quote my sources, he can discredit mine and I can discredit his - tit for tat. You see, I said in my original article that one of the features of this debate was a dispute over history. Who did what when and what weight should be given to particular events.

This statement is unintentionally revealing and rewards careful scrutiny. It is oddly ambiguous and shows Harris's ambivalent attitude towards documentation and debate. It apparently welcomes the kind of debate I am advocating while at the same time depreciating it. It is tossed off quickly, an ostensive assertion that is actually a dismissal. It is reminiscent of his earlier dismissive statement about debate that "All Meyerhoff has done is to select some alternative views. So what?" I replied to that statement that offering alternative views is debate and asked what his alternative to offering alternative views is?

So Harris's conception of debate is still an open question.

So Harris's conception of debate is still an open question. If we don't want a "tit for tat" argument through the "discredit[ing]" of each others sources, how is that avoided by not citing anyone and simply asserting back and forth, contrary, third level views? How does he understand how two people with differing views would have a discussion about an intellectual topic without bringing relevant evidence to bear on the issue? The very sources that Harris read to create his own view presumably were and are involved in such debates and learned what they know through an examination of the original sources and sometimes heated exchanges with intellectual opponents.

Harris talks of how we have discredited each others' sources. But no sources have been discredited. None of his have been discredited because he cites almost no one; and none of mine have been discredited because he offers no documented counterevidence to the sources I cite that mostly contradict his views. He did cite the well known orientalist Bernard Lewis and I offered another view from Lewis himself, but that doesn't discredit Lewis. I identified some of my sources as "new historians" and he suggested that their views are disputed, but didn't show what facts were disputed. That's not discrediting anyone. He did cite Peter Novick casting doubt on the reliability of Norman Finkelstein, but that doesn't discredit Finkelstein because we still don't know if what Finkelstein says is true or false.

One discredits a source by repeatedly demonstrating that what they assert to be true is not supported by the evidence. Only after many repeated demonstrations such as these does one start to doubt whether that person can be a reliable source. They become discredited, not by someone saying "He's biased" or "She's controversial" but by showing bias. Harris cites almost no one and so does not show that my sources are wrong and so discredits no one. The only person that may have been discredited is Harris himself. I have shown repeatedly that he makes statements that are contradicted by scholarly opinion. To redeem his view he would need to cite the scholarly sources that support it. I know it's time consuming and seems tedious, but it's the only way.

I on the other hand, have cited numerous sources to show that many of Harris's assertions are countered by scholarly sources and so it should dawn on the attentive reader that Harris may not be a creditable source.

Now this does not mean that what I say is simply right and Harris wrong. I am arguing from a particular position, one that has a critical edge. My perspective opposes a dominant and often taken-for-granted view. This means that there are sources that espouse the dominant view. I think Harris could find sources to cite to defend his view, but he chooses not to, instead pejoratively referring to the citation of evidence as a mutual discrediting, "tit for tat" debate. He suggests a negative attitude towards debate by referring to a "tit for tat" argument which he says would occur if we just quoted sources. But if we do not quote any sources and simply said what we thought with no reference to the relevant literature, how would that be any less a "tit for tat" argument? And wouldn't it be a worse argument for its complete lack of scholarly sources and documentary evidence? Why does he think it better not to cite sources? What is his conception of debate?

Adding to the ambiguity is Harris's contention that he will enter into the "tit for tat" debate in which we "discredit" each others sources, but then doesn't, instead citing sources that demonstrate that there is a controversy about some scholars I cite. Harris asserts that it is not just a controversy, but a big controversy. But the point I made about controversy was that degree of controversy was not important. To be arguing against my point he needs to argue for the importance of controversy as a category, not the degree of controversy. We already agree that there is a big controversy about Chomsky, Finkelstein et al. So what? It suggests the issues are hotly contested. At the most this means a person entering that debate will be wary or careful in assessing what is going on. But Harris seems to think it has something to do with degree of truth or rightness on one side or the other. Is it the case that the lack of a controversy suggests greater truth and more controversy less truth? We don't know. We have to examine the facts and arguments of the participants of the debate. Harris repeats his points about my sources being "controversial," so I ask: What are his uncontroversial sources?

I am presenting a perspective to counter Harris's perspective. He needs to reply by asserting why his perspective has legitimacy. This means going beyond merely expressing what he thinks. We have to be shown why he thinks what he thinks, otherwise it is just one person against another person, the "he said, she said" situation that Harris confuses with adducing sources. I am advocating citing sources to avoid the "he said, she said" situation. "He said, she said" is a phrase is used to identify a situation in which it is just one person's word against another's with no other way of deciding who is right. By not citing the sources that validate his statements, Harris is keeping the debate in that kind of situation. I keep advocating that we move towards the center and get beyond the two of us - "he said, he said" - by citing the relevant scholarly literature on the subject. That could get us out of the "he said, she said" situation where Harris is content to remain.

My conception of debate requires that the participants cite relevant sources.

This explains why my conception of debate requires that the participants cite relevant sources. If they do not cite relevant sources then they can just say anything and there is no way to resolve disputes. In an intellectual debate, unlike a "he said, she said" domestic dispute, we ask why and look for the reasons that justify statements. If I cite sources that Harris thinks are biased, he should cite other sources who might demonstrate the bias. The bias is determined by showing that the source is clinging to an indefensible view. One shows that a view is indefensible by citing evidence. The evidence comes from the scholarship and, ultimately, from the documentary record. To just say or imply a source is biased, as Harris does, or that there are those who disagree is to not say anything. So when Harris refers to a Wikipedia article that says that the "new historians" that I cite have been criticized, our reaction should be: "So?" Wouldn't we expect opposing views in a scholarly debate?

The reason Ken Wilber had 250 pages of endnotes in his magnum opus and made a point of referring to scholarly sources was because he wanted to give his statements legitimacy. At least since the Enlightenment that is what we do in our culture.

So while it is tempting to answer his new round of assertions, as I have done twice before, with quotes from scholars who have studied the issues, for the above reasons, I don't think it would be productive. My years of training and experience as a therapist have taught me to spot dysfunctional interpersonal patterns. After two go-rounds with Harris I see the dysfunctional pattern already: Harris makes undocumented assertions, I counter with a wealth of evidence and he simply makes more undocumented assertions. Harris is content to remain on level three, far from the phenomenon itself.

Responding to Hamas

But I can't resist the temptation completely. Since I have so many choice pieces of evidence I will allow myself just two responses. My first response is to the anti-Semitic portions of the Hamas charter that Harris quotes. This is one of the few instances where Harris does cite evidence, and to good effect. The charter is certainly awful as he says and that kind of bigoted conspiracy mongering is common in the Middle East. That is part of the reason I quoted Noam Chomsky saying he's "opposed to Hamas' policies in almost every respect." But here is an alternative view of how to respond to Hamas, given that they exist, were democratically elected according to the stated wishes of the US and Israel and must be dealt with. Again, as in my second reply to Harris, I quote the former Israeli security minister, foreign minister, Camp David negotiator and historian, Shlomo Ben-Ami. Here are his views regarding Hamas stated in an interview with "Democracy Now" host Amy Goodman:

[SHLOMO BEN-AMI:] When it comes to the new situation in the Palestinian Authority today, I am less pessimistic than many others. I don't think that we need automatically to rule out the new rulers in Ramallah and Gaza as peace partners. There are things that need to be done.

AMY GOODMAN: Hamas, you mean.

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Yes, Hamas. I think that in my view there is almost sort of poetic justice with this victory of Hamas. After all, what is the reason for this nostalgia for Arafat and for the P.L.O.? Did they run the affairs of the Palestinians in a clean way? You mentioned the corruption, the inefficiency. Of course, Israel has contributed a lot to the disintegration of the Palestinian system, no doubt about it, but their leaders failed them. Their leaders betrayed them, and the victory of Hamas is justice being made in many ways. So we cannot preach democracy and then say that those who won are not accepted by us. Either there is democracy or there is no democracy.

And with these people, I think they are much more pragmatic than is normally perceived. In the 1990s, they invented the concept of a temporary settlement with Israel. 1990s was the first time that Hamas spoke about a temporary settlement with Israel. In 2003, they declared unilaterally a truce, and the reason they declared the truce is this, that with Arafat, whose...system of government was one of divide and rule, they were discarded from the political system. Mahmoud Abbas has integrated them into the political system, and this is what brought them to the truce. They are interested in politicizing themselves, in becoming a politic entity. And we need to try and see ways where we can work with them.

Now, everybody says they need first to recognize the state of Israel and end terrorism. Believe me, I would like them to do so today, but they are not going to do that. They are eventually going to do that in the future, but only as part of a quid pro quo, just as the P.L.O. did it. The P.L.O., when Rabin came to negotiate with them, also didn't recognize the state of Israel, and they engaged in all kind of nasty practices. And therefore, we need to be much more realistic and abandon worn-out cliches and see whether we can reach something with these people. I believe that a long-term interim agreement between Israel and Hamas, even if it is not directly negotiated between the parties, but through a third party, is feasible and possible.

While we in the US rightly shudder with disgust at the Hamas Charter, do we also cringe when Middle Eastern Muslims are routinely referred to, in and out of the military, as "terrorists" and "rag heads," and two of their countries are said to be a part of an "Axis of Evil" by the US president? While these bigotries are milder than the Hamas Charter, we Americans have not had our land occupied by Arabs and been abused for the last 40 years as have the Palestinians in their occupied territories. If the US had suffered what the Palestinians have suffered, US mainstream opinion would be justifying the bayoneting of the occupier's babies.

I guess Harris thinks he has demonstrated something by showing that there is pervasive anti-Semitism among Arabs, but, as I have had to write several times, that is not the point at issue. We were disagreeing on the cause of the anti-Semitism not its existence. Harris is arguing that it is something inherent to Islam and the Koran, and I am arguing that it waxes and wanes according to the more important determinants of territorial conflict, economics and political power. A debate cannot take place unless the points made are comprehended and responded to.

Dershowitz's "Scholarship"

My next irresistible example is from Harvard Law professor, self-proclaimed champion of Israel and Harris source, Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz apparently exposes Noam Chomsky's anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitic bigotry by quoting Chomsky's own words:

[T]he Jews do not merit a "second homeland" because they already have New York, with a huge Jewish population, Jewish-run media, a Jewish mayor, and domination of cultural and economic life.[1]

Pretty awful. Isn't it obvious from this quote that Chomsky does not think Jews have a right to Israel and that they control New York City? Typical anti-Semitic drivel, right?

Let's look more closely.

The above quote from Chomsky is from Alan Dershowitz's recent book, The Case for Peace. It appears above the main text introducing Chapter 16, "A Case Study in Hate and Intimidation." Dershowitz says he got the quote from Werner Cohn. Cohn states that Chomsky's comment is a response to A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times who argued, in Cohen's words, that "Jordan is a Palestinian state (Jordan's territory is situated in the original British Mandate of Palestine), and [Rosenthal] opposed the creation of a second Palestinian state in that territory [i.e. the West Bank]." So Rosenthal is arguing that the Palestinians do not deserve a state because they already have Jordan. In response to this commonly asserted point Chomsky wrote, "We might ask how the Times would react to an Arab claim that the Jews do not merit a ‘second homeland' because they already have New York, with a huge Jewish population, Jewish-run media, a Jewish mayor, and domination of cultural and economic life."[2]

From Dershowitz's source we now see that Chomsky was using a sarcastic analogy to argue that it is as ridiculous to say the Palestinians do not deserve a homeland in the West Bank and Gaza (i.e. where they live) because there are so many Palestinians in Jordan, as to say the Jews do not deserve a homeland in Israel because there are so many Jews in New York. Cohn's citation clearly shows the context of the quote that Dershowitz has willfully taken out of context in order to make Chomsky appear to say the opposite of what he actually said and believes.

And we know this is a willful misrepresentation because even Dershowitz's source for the quote, Werner Cohn -a man who argues that Chomsky is "the most important patron"[3] of the neo-Nazi movement - places it in its proper context. Dershowitz's dishonesty and vindictiveness are further evident in his intentionally editing out "We might ask how the Times would react to an Arab claim that...." to make it sound as if it was simply Chomsky asserting his view. It is rare to see such willful dishonesty in a supposedly scholarly book. There are many more examples of Dershowitz's poor scholarship.[4]

So, those are my two examples. I could adduce much more evidence to contradict and correct Harris's many false assertions in his latest reply, but, for the reasons I give above regarding debate, I won't. According to my conception of debate, I would be the only one debating.


There is a peace to be had... but the Israelis, with US backing, do not want it because they want the land.

I think it fair to say that the difference between Harris and I is that we weigh the responsibility for the current Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts differently. I argue that Israel has more responsibility and he argues that the Palestinians and Arabs have more responsibility.

To summarize my position: The Israeli's initiated a war in 1967 and took the West Bank and Gaza where the Palestinians lived. This has been deemed an illegal act under international law. Since at least 1988, there has been an international consensus on how to rectify the situation: land for peace. The US and Israel have voted against successive UN resolutions attempting to rectify the situation according to this international consensus. This is termed a "rejectionist" position because it rejects the settlement that the international community - including US allies, the major Arab states and the PLO - have agreed upon. There is a peace to be had, and Hamas could probably be brought to it much like the PLO was, as Shlomo Ben-Ami says, but the Israelis, with US backing, do not want it because they want the land. That is why they have continued their illegal colonization (euphemistically called "settlements") of the occupied territories for all these years.

There is always some level of bigotry between groups separated by culture, ethnicity or religion - after all they are defined, in part, as not the other - but whether that bigotry is a mild, private affair or a violent fanaticism depends upon the political, economic and social arrangements within which the differing groups are living.

One understanding I assumed in a discussion such as this was that if we stayed on the (third) level of "he said, she said" or "discredit[ing]" we would get nowhere. And so it went.

Appendix - Deconstructing My Own Conception of Debate

The above conception of debate is a heuristic and pragmatic device and should not be reified. I think it could serve our purposes well, but if examined closely it will fall apart. This would be a deconstructive or skeptical reading of my conception. The conception described above assumes that there is one way in which things happened and that we are all trying to get our depictions to match that one way - represented as the center of the circle. Yet it also asserts that what happened is forever gone. If it is gone where does its existence reside? What is it that we are trying to get our depictions to match? How is "what happened" a guarantor of our right representations if it no longer exists?

What aspect of what occurred is properly in the center? Perhaps the collective lived experiences of the event. Yet once the event has passed it only gains its reality through the interpretive reconstructions of people naming and depicting it. In what way is the reality of what happened still informing the interpretations of it; especially if it no longer exists? Perhaps through the effects those events caused.

The first level of documentary remnants and the second level of scholarly interpretations seem clearly distinguished, with the remnants retaining what is left of the actual events. Yet what kind of existence do the remnants have without scholars or others to interpret them? Without the scholars, the remnants remain dormant as evidence for what occurred. So there is a way in which those two levels are merged since each does not exist without the other. And since the center or the event is no longer, and never really existed as an integrated unity, it can be said to not be there and never really to have been there at all.

For example, was there a "Vietnam War"? In a way no, because for many years it was not called that. Up to a certain time, when I was a child, to refer to the Vietnam War as "The Vietnam War" was to make a political statement because it was still referred to in the US as a "police action" or "the Vietnam Conflict." Yet some would argue that it is more accurately referred to as the US invasion of Vietnam. Yet didn't the US defend South Vietnam from North Vietnam? That too is disputed since there was no such official separation, the most there being was a temporary distinction between Northern and Southern Vietnam for the purposes of voting after the Geneva Accords of 1954 which the US wouldn't allow because, as Eisenhower stated, "had the elections been held, possibly 80% of the population would have voted for communist Ho Chi Minh." All would probably agree that there was fighting in Vietnam, but once we get past certain basic facts, the interpretations of the participants and those who study events become central.

In my conception of debate the locus of reality lay in the center and, to diminishing degrees, the successive proximate levels. But it can be looked at differently. The event is no more and only becomes a coherent unit named what it is by those who interpret it. The documentary remnants don't interpret themselves and have no meaningful life without the interpretations of those involved in the event, those who hear about, scholars who study it and those who study the scholars' works. So in this conception the locus of reality lay with the interpretations of people. And what counts as fact or fiction is determined by the criteria the people involved believe hold sway.

So if the center is a fiction that never really existed, what are the various interpretations reconstructions of? Without the existence of the event itself to adjudicate between differing interpretations what guarantees the rightness of one rather than another interpretation? Are there no constraints on our interpretations?

There are constraints on interpretations, but they are not the facts themselves.

There are constraints on interpretations, but they are not the facts themselves. The facts are determined by the criteria we employ and agree upon to create the facts. There are many criteria embodied in such epistemological directives as: "see for yourself," "God told me," "test it," "it feels like the right thing to do," "conduct an experiment," "that's contradictory," "trust your intuition," With this welter of criteria how do we know what is right? I think the ultimate origin of, and constraint upon, our criteria is our desire to live together in a particular way. The way we determine what is true and right has, at its base, a conception of how we should behave towards each other, which in turn depends upon what we think an individual and community are and should be.

In the US, on cable news stations - as opposed to the established network news - people will spout off and say the most ridiculous things in the "debates" they have nightly. Their conception of how to live together is based on images and appearances, it is a simulacrum of debate. Nothing is determined based on evidence that can be justified using criteria that the participants accept. The goal is to appear to prevail and so persuade the audience into believing that there is some greater validity to one's rhetoric. One scores points, much like in a sporting event, which the average American follows much more closely than current events.

If it is not the plain facts that have caused us to have our view of a situation, what does? What is the difference between two people with differing views? Think of the conflicting experts at legal trials. Or contentious academic debates. Why, if the facts do not convince all one way or the other, do the two people have opposing views? What is the origin of the opposition if it is not just one person being mistaken?

My conceptualization itself, which gives greatest reality to the center and proximate levels, arises from the second and third levels. It is there in the reigning intellectual culture that different aspects of existence are deemed more and less real. It is a bit of a trick, like humanity's positing of God and then using that posit to say that their God gives them absolute authority. In like fashion, we moderns posit or designate what is reality and then say that our interpretations of it gain their legitimacy from that reality, which was originally posited by us. Knowledge as trompe l'oeil.

How do we determine what is right and true? Individually, we fasten to our array of beliefs for an array of psychological reasons. But, socially, we must justify those beliefs according to the criteria of validation which we share with whomever we are debating. That means finding the criteria held in common in any given discussion.


[1] Chomsky, Noam, cited in Alan Dershowitz's The Case for Peace, (John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ, 2005), p.167.

[2] Cohn, Werner, "Chomsky and Holocaust Denial," in Peter Collier and David Horowitz, eds., The Anti-Chomsky Reader, (Encounter Books: San Francisco, CA, 2004), p. 117. A recent version of the analogy was made by Chomsky to Alan Dershowitz himself in a debate. Here is the whole quote:

The matter reached a head in 1988, when the PLO moved from tacit approval to formal acceptance of the two-state consensus. Israel responded with a declaration that there can be no, as they put it, "additional Palestinian state between Jordan and the sea," Jordan already being a Palestinian state -- that's Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir -- and also that the status of the territories must be settled according to Israeli guidelines. The U.S. endorsed Israel's stand. I can only add what I wrote at the time: "It's as if someone were to argue the Jews don't need a second homeland in Israel, because they already have New York."' (

[3] Cohn, p.119.

[4] For many more examples of Dershowitz's poor scholarship, dishonesty and plagiarism see Norman Finkelstein's detailed dissection of Dershowitz's The Case for Israel in Finkelstein's Beyond Chutzpah.

© Jeff Meyerhoff 2007

Comment Form is loading comments...