The Transit of Pluto
A planet’s demotion forces a new way of seeing war and peace
Just last week, I was hit by the devastating news that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. A stranger holding a crying baby told me about it while we were waiting for a pediatrician who had overslept. I don’t remember how we got onto the subject, only how shocked I was when I heard the news. “That’s not right,” I said to the man. “It just can’t be.” The screams of his baby went up an octave, and my sniffly son started to cry too, as if they were joining the protest, and the stranger, who felt slightly under attack—and rightly so—said he had nothing to do with it, and anyway, it had been decided more than a month ago. “I didn’t say it was your fault,” I said rather coldly, “just that it isn’t right. You can’t tell people who for years have been looking up at the sky and seeing a planet that the next time they look up and see it, it won’t be one anymore.”
When I got home, I Googled for more information on this revolution that had taken place behind my back while I was distracted by the Lebanese War and other urgent problems, and saw that the man from the pediatrician’s waiting room was right, Pluto was no longer a planet. The astronomers, it seems, had changed the definition of the word “planet” so that a new heavenly body discovered in the solar system wouldn’t be granted the sought-after title, and our Pluto—which hadn’t actually been part of the initial debate—paid the price. From now on, Pluto would be just an ordinary rock, and in another few decades, would probably sink into relative anonymity while the glory of Venus and Saturn, its old friends, would be preserved by high school astronomy clubs.
That’s just how it is. Sometimes the name given to an object is no less important that its actual existence in the world. When I was in Australia a few years ago, an amiable local drunk told me about the Tasmanian tiger, an indigenous animal that had become extinct. The main reason for its extinction, according to the drunk, was the fact that it was called a tiger. “Everyone wants to catch himself a tiger,” he explained. “That’s how this not very scary animal found itself being hunted by all kinds of people who wanted a dead tiger on their résumé. Imagine for a minute that someone had called it a ‘Tasmanian cat’ instead, which, in zoological terms, is no less exact. I bet it would still be living here with us.”
Which leads me to another object whose designation has somehow changed over the last few months, with far-reaching consequences. Up until June, the Israeli army was known as “the strongest army in the world,” and suddenly it seems absolutely unworthy of the title. This designation was invalidated right before our eyes, and just as in the case of the Tasmanian tiger, this fact is also of utmost importance in terms of survival. Such a change in status—from an omnipotent, invincible army to one suffering from intelligence and organizational defects—could be the difference between an attacking Syrian or Iranian army and one that stays put. But this change is important not only for Israel’s enemies; it could be even more important for the citizens of Israel itself. It might lead to a perceptual change from the belief that Israel can solve every future conflict with force to the idea that maybe, when all is said and done, there is only one real way we can ever feel safe in this region—through negotiation.
Which brings us to a concept with a dubious definition in our painful Mideast reality: the concept of peace. Can this concept also change its meaning? Can a quixotic, euphoric pursuit of harmony and brotherhood become a pragmatic agreement devoid of mutual affection, but terribly practical as far as avoiding war is concerned? On paper, the chances are very slim, but they’re apparently slightly greater than the chances that a planet which has been sailing round the solar system for millions of years can stop being a planet overnight. So who knows? Maybe despite everything, there’s still hope.