It is a term we hear a lot in the twenty-first century anti-Israel propaganda storm, flung wildly against the truth – that Gaza is an “open-air” prison. We hear it not only from Arab and Muslim anti-Semites and the committed anti-Israel ideologues, but from well meaning people on the left who speak out of compassion. They know of a densely populated land area with significant poverty, an area the borders of which are controlled by third parties – Israel and Egypt, though most of these people purposely or ignorantly neglect to remember Egypt – and they are moved by what seem to be longstanding and intractably oppressive living conditions. It is simply inconceivable to them that these conditions – the density, the poverty, the external controls – are conditions that the people who live in them, in fact, choose for themselves rather than opt to alleviate . Who would act so against reason and manifest self-interest? An alternative historical narrative is thus required to render such hateful self-destructiveness more comprehensibly as pitiable oppression.
Overwhelmingly, the facts refute two of the three themes of this contemporary narrative of Gaza. Truly, any poverty anywhere is a misfortune to be assisted and overcome. The fact is, however, according to the CIA World Fact Book, that 45 nations of the world have higher percentages of their people living in poverty than does the Gaza strip. Among these nations are most of Africa, including Kenya and South Africa, and most of Central America, including one of the two closest neighbors to the United States, Mexico.
It is commonly affirmed, as a second theme of the story of Gaza, that Gaza is, in the very words present right now at the website of the storied and esteemed BBC News, “one of the most densely populated tracts of land in the world.”
In fact, of sovereign states and dependent territories, Macau, Monaco, Singapore, and Hong Kong are all considerably more densely populated than Gaza, the first two nearly five and four times as densely populated. Of the top 49 densely populated cities of the world, all are more densely populated than Gaza, the first, Manila, ten times more densely populated, the forty-ninth, Malé, capital of the Maldives, still four times more densely populated than the Gaza strip. Even the island of Manhattan in New York City, which has a nearly identical population to Gaza, yet is one fourth the size, is thus four times more densely populated than is Gaza.
The claims of wretched poverty and oppressive population density in Gaza are quite simply among the great lies of contemporary world affairs, and, so easily disconfirmed, are, as reportage, among the most scandalously incompetent or malign.
Thus we come to the third theme, the control of Gaza’s borders, which, woven among these first two themes, leads so many to adopt the “open-air prison” metaphor. That is, indeed, what the term is, and what all who even dare to use it forget that it is – a metaphor.
After all, we know it is not an actual prison, do we not?
In what kind of prison do the inmates hold elections to choose a government, and within the bounds of which prison that government exercises complete control?
In what kind of prison do we find not gangs, but a genuine military force, arrayed against no force of guards policing the inmates’ lives in “the prison”?
What kind of prison is it in which the inmates possess a force of thousands of rockets and missiles smuggled from sovereign nations and actually fired beyond the prison walls, in the hundreds and more per year, into the surrounding civilian population?
What kind of prison is it in which the prisoners hold the keys to their cells? In which the prisoners themselves, on a schedule of their own choosing, might convene a parole board and make what declarations and commitments as to future behavior are required to gain their almost immediate release? And failing to have done so on any one day, might simply choose to do so on the next, and the next, under the conditions of an open-ended, never concluded parole hearing, with no fear ever of finally serving out their terms till death against their will?
Does this seem absurd? Does it seem that I am too literal here? Do I seem to make mockery, by ridiculous comparison to the actual conditions that govern real prisons, of the intent of the metaphor?
But what is the intent of the metaphor? Is it not to deceive the judgment and manipulate the moral imagination of those addressed by it so that they will conceive Israelis truly as brutal jailors, while the Gazans, never duly convicted through any process of law, are drawn falsely as unjustly imprisoned?
What those who believe the metaphor forget, but those who concoct it ever recall, is that the goal of political metaphor is to refashion reality, which is to say lie about it but bury the lie. They bury it in metaphorical equivocation. I happily fancied that I had myself discovered this logical fallacy, which I reasonably conceived as the metaphorical fallacy (or the fallacy of transference), only to discover that just three months ago, Bryan Caplan of George Mason University had held the same vain hope for himself, where upon he discovered that two philosophers at Brock University in Canada had got the drop on us both by two years.
The metaphorical fallacy is first a kind of fallacy of equivocation, because it misleads through the use of a term with more than one meaning, performing a semantic shift. That is the very nature of metaphor, which is an act of transference, transferring the quality of some object – a bird let’s say – to my real subject, some guy I’m talking about, whom I call “flighty as a bird.” That formulation I have used is a simile, which is a kind of metaphor, which is itself a kind of analogy. The clarity of the “as” or “like” constructions in simile is in making plain that metaphor is a special form of analogy.
In typical straight political analogies – “another Vietnam,” “another Munich,” “it’s the Cold War all over again” – we understand that two distinct phenomena are claimed to have sufficient similarity as to make one understandable according to our knowledge of the other. The fallacy of false analogy is committed by analogical overreach: there may turn out to be, with scrutiny, many potentially significant points of comparison, with too few among them demonstrating true similarity, thus making one phenomenon a poor standard by which to asses the nature of the other.
The metaphorical fallacy is, second, a form of false analogy. As I said, metaphor is by definition an equivocation. If I turn my simile of “he’s as flighty as a bird” into a pure metaphor, I would say, “he’s a flighty bird, that one.” I say this, perhaps, because he is erratic in his behavior. A true “flighty bird” hops and skips around a lot, taking off and landing often and rapidly. I conjure that quality in the metaphor and transfer it to the man of whom I speak. I do this for effect, a rhetorical effect. I do not literally mean that the man hops and skips around or that he flies, and even if he is physically prone to something like the former – and not quite – he certainly does not do the latter. When I says “he’s swift as a tiger,” well – not really that fast. If I call him “a lion” in the boxing ring, well, you know, not actually a lion. We are equivocating in the application and acceptance of the transferred quality, which is to say, literally speaking in two voices, pretending to be literal in order to make the imaginative leap, but in the end, and even in the beginning, not being literal at all.
If I said ten years ago that Afghanistan would be “another Vietnam,” I would not have intended to fool you into believing that Afghanistan was itself Vietnam, that is, identical to it. I would just have intended a useful comparison. However, to attempt what is not political analogy, already itself a risky enough proposition, because so often questionable and faulty, but political metaphor is to begin in the wrong, at fault and deceptively, because I would be pretending accurately to describe circumstance by use of inaccurate, ambiguous, words – because political reality is concrete, not rhetorical: there is not rhetorical genocide or rhetorical invasion, rhetorical rocket attacks or rhetorical economic recession. And when, through the magic of words, we create these things nonetheless, they are metaphorical only, not concrete and politically “real.”
The pressing questions I posed above about the metaphorical comparison of Gaza to a prison would have to annoy any proponent of the term because he would be compelled to insist that I was missing the point: obviously, Gaza is not an actual prison, like San Quentin. The point, he would argue, is that Gaza is like a prison because of the deprivation and the close quarters and its borders, its boundaries, are controlled by people other than those who live inside them, with passage in and out similarly controlled and limited, just like a prison – and school buildings, and military bases, and movie studios, and the White House.
Those are the points of comparison, the only points of comparison, and as we focus now on that last point of comparison, we need to consider why those boundaries are controlled. We need to think about what a blockade is, and why it was put in place, and remains in place, and how a blockade – and a legal one, too – is not like a prison.
“But don’t you get it – it’s a metaphor.”
And the purpose of the political metaphor, employed and repeated, and accepted by the well meaning but soft headed and the BBC, like the narrative of Gazan poverty and the refrain of its population density, is to beguile the listener into forgetting it is a metaphor – an abjectly false and slanderous metaphor – and then to accept it and repeat it as literally and shamefully true.
Then there is the matter of the terrorist camp.