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Eureka: On research, writing and anti-Semitism
by Joseph Gatt
2018-03-11 10:37:38
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Research, writing and anti-Semitism in Q & A format.

Question: What is research? And how do you go about doing research?

Answer: You basically have two types of research. You have research done for career purposes and research done for curiosity purposes. Sometimes research done for career purposes can also be for curiosity purposes. Let me elaborate further.

antis1_400In research done for career purposes, you basically have a professor or an institution or a client telling you what kind of research they want. Sometimes they will be vague as in “I want you to research labor movements in China during the cultural revolution.” Sometimes they will be more specific as in “I want you to go to China and interview about 100 people who had something to do with labor movements in China during the cultural revolution. I want you to go to museums, universities and families and do semi-structured interviews with people who were involved in such movements. I want you to use snowball sampling to find those who were involved in the labor movement.” If you are lucky, you will spend several hours with your adviser or client discussing the details of the research project, if you are unlucky, you will have to settle for vague terms.

Now what exactly is research? Research usually involves an academic discipline or can span across several academic disciplines. Research is usally done in four distinct ways: you can do an experiment, you can observe, you can interview people or you can do what I like to call an “exercise in deductive reasoning” as in math or even in the social sciences.

What's the best way to go about research? To me the best way is to read voraciously to find out what has been written and done in the field. You can also attend as many conferences as you can to see what other people are doing in terms of research. You can then see what has been discovered, what is being tapped, and what is being untapped. Once you have read a lifetime of books and that you have reached saturation of sorts in your field, you can easily conduct an experiment, an observation, interview people or use deductive reasoning.

The trick is how much literature review is enough literature review. A lot of people I know, including me, conduct research only to later read research that had been done that contradicts their own findings. In sum, you have to be bold and to be able to face rejection, criticism and contradiction. And when you respond to criticism, which is really defending yourself, you will either be called chicken for refusing to defend yourself or will be called a narcissist for defending yourself.

In sum if you're in the middle of a Ph.D. and have a dissertation to write, you want to read a couple of hundred books in the field, take a year or two to read voraciously, then come up with a research project that includes one or several research questions and at the same time decide what method you will use. Will it be an experiment, an observation, will you interview people or will you simply use deductive reasoning? The idea is to be precise, to write an honest dissertation and to have an adviser who is willing to take time to discuss your research.

Question: Now to writing. What's the best way to be a good writer?

Answer: Well that's kind of like asking how do I find a good wife. Writing works kind of like cooking. The more you cook, the better you become at it. The more you try, the better you cook. Reading a bunch of cookbooks is useful, but only if you try a few recipes in the process. Otherwise you will forget the recipes even exist.

How do I become a good writer? You want to write a lot, you also want to read a lot. As you read good books, some of the flaws in your writing will emerge and you will fix those.

Writing has two components to it: ideas and style. You want good ideas and you want good style. Some writers read very little and I can tell by seeing that they are basically telling the story of their life, that they are allegorizing their life. Then you have those who read a lot of newspapers, and you can tell that they are allegorizing what they read in the media. Then you have those who read a lot of books, and you can tell by looking at a good mix of style and ideas.

Now let me confess something. I am a failed writer. When I send papers to big name publications, I often get stares, and the stares have something to do with my ideas being too deep probably because I have had a good lifetime of reading. Most big publications are a mix of gossip and anger, when a lot of my writing is giving some headlines their context.

Finally, let me give you a quick trick. When writing, you want to have four dimensions in mind. You want to have the three space dimensions, and then you have the fourth dimension which is time. A lot of stories are flat, two dimensional stories. You want a good story that catches the three space dimensions, and that evolve well in time.

Question: Final question. The Global Forum on Combating anti-Semitism is coming up. Anything you want to say?

There are basically 6 lens in anti-Semitism. There's the nationalist lens, the religious lens, the Marxist lens, then there's the citizen-government lens, the gossip lens and the intellectual lens.

As I said before, if you take most history textbooks, you get a quick view on Jewish history. It starts with Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon. Then it says something about the Roman invasion in Jerusalem in 70 AD. The you have 1800 years or so of usury and banking, then the Holocaust, then the “stealing” of Palestinian Arab land. So basically that the Jews like the smell of money and steal other people's land.

You have the nationalist lens, where people believe leaders in the business, entertainment, political and public spheres should be ethnically and culturally homogenous. Then you have the religious lens, let's say some Christians or Muslims don't understand how the Jews can reject Jesus and Mohamed. Then you have the Marxist lens, which sees Israel as an imperialist state and the Jews as supporters of imperialism. You have the citizen-government lens, which believes that the Jews lobby governments too much and should stay out of politics. The gossip lens, giving examples of Jewish entertainers or politicians or public figures who misbehave, i.e. Dominique Strauss Kahn or Harvey Weinstein, therefore all Jews. Finally you have the intellectual lens, where anti-Semites like to discuss and dwell on history as I described it above. Of course a lot of times the lens overlap.

If we can fix the historical narrative and put forward a realistic lens to discussing Jewish history and contemporary Jewish studies, then maybe we can move forward. 

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