Friday, July 28, 2006

Middle East Prisms

A very nice, normally mild-mannered and peaceable friend has written us privately to say about the ongoing war in Lebanon and the West Bank:
I see Israel as, above all, a tolerant, live-let-live society, desperately wanting to survive -- yes, to keep its own hard-won little piece of the world -- but otherwise simply to be left alone to go about its own business peacefully. Seems to me they've shown their intentions in this regard in myriad ways. In recent years they've compromised and withdrawn and compromised and withdrawn and turned cheek after cheek, and all it's earned them is more treachery and terrorism, and support for same, from those who would wish Israel and all its people dead and gone, and who don't hesitate to say so loudly at virtually every turn.

* * *
[T]he way I see it, Hezbollah is like the bully on the playground when we were kids -- let him win, cower before him, and he keeps coming back to dish out more. But fight back, punch him hard in the nose, knock him over a time or two, and his stupid, cowardly self goes away, or at least thinks twice before trying it again.

* * *
We can take the moral high road all we want; it doesn't earn us one mote of respect or forbearance from those radical factions, because such doesn't suit their own purposes. And I most certainly can't blame Israel, a country that lives every single day with the prospect of unpredictable doses of death and mayhem at the hands of its neighbors and beyond, for taking big time action in the interest of finally making a "Look, buster, don't try it here again!" type of statement in the form of an aggressive military response.
In another part of her message she concludes --
I'm about ready to say let 'em all rot, let all the bullies of the world and their associates and their cities and towns go to hell. I know this is heartless and cruel to the innocent; it's truly destructive, and it won't work in our favor. But diplomacy apparently won't work, either, and we have tried that, over and over and over again.

* * *
[R]ight about now I want to kill 'em all, because their very existence forestalls even the dimmest hope of world peace. Diplomacy? Feh! It's useless. Useless! I have to believe the entire world laughs now every time there's a Middle East treaty. Everyone sits around his version of the pub or bar and guffaws. Big joke. Yeah, yeah, peace - sure, sure, treaty. Ha ha ha.
The frustration, anger, hopelessness, fear -- always these days there is the fear -- and even the murderous emotions with which our friend views the current violence in the Middle East are palpable. Although she barely, by the thinnest of whiskers, shys away from saying it outright, the sense of her message is unmistakable: she's ready to obliterate every last Muslim and let someone else sort the innocent dead from the guilty.

Our friend freely (and with excessive modesty) admits she's not deeply conversant with "history, international politics, or much of anything else." But as she asserts, and recent polls confirm, her opinions are "probably about on a par with much of your average American thought today."

A few days earlier, almost exactly the opposite opinion was expressed in the pages of Israel's daily newspaper Haartez by Tel Aviv University professor Ze'ev Maoz. He wrote:
There's practically a holy consensus right now that the war in the North is a just war and that morality is on our [the Israeli] side. The bitter truth must be said: this holy consensus is based on short-range selective memory, an introverted worldview, and double standards.

This war is not a just war. Israel is using excessive force without distinguishing between civilian population and enemy, whose sole purpose is extortion. That is not to say that morality and justice are on Hezbollah's side. Most certainly not. But the fact that Hezbollah "started it" when it kidnapped soldiers from across an international border does not even begin to tilt the scales of justice toward our side.

Let's start with a few facts. We invaded a sovereign state, and occupied its capital in 1982. In the process of this occupation, we dropped several tons of bombs from the air, ground and sea, while wounding and killing thousands of civilians. Approximately 14,000 civilians were killed between June and September of 1982, according to a conservative estimate. The majority of these civilians had nothing to do with the PLO, which provided the official pretext for the war.

In Operations Accountability and Grapes of Wrath, we caused the mass flight of about 500,000 refugees from southern Lebanon on each occasion. There are no exact data on the number of casualties in these operations, but one can recall that in Operation Grapes of Wrath, we bombed a shelter in the village of Kafr Kana which killed 103 civilians. The bombing may have been accidental, but that did not make the operation any more moral.

On July 28, 1989, we kidnapped Sheikh Obeid, and on May 12, 1994, we kidnapped Mustafa Dirani, who had captured Ron Arad. Israel held these two people and another 20-odd Lebanese detainees without trial, as "negotiating chips." That which is permissible to us is, of course, forbidden to Hezbollah.
He might have mentioned, too, the matter of Israel's continued occupation of other people's lands since 1967, including Palestinian territory and the Syrian border areas and the still-disputed Lebanese territory of the Sha'ba Farms. (Presumbly, these are not among the territories from which our own friend mentions Israel "has withdrawn.") Nor does he acknowledge the unceasing years of targeted assassinations by the Israel military and Mossad.

Prof. Moaz' views are not that far removed from the incomparable Billmon, who wrote the other day in an essay that attracted considerable attention:
The military and political leaders of the Jewish state are doing and saying things that go way beyond the blustering arrogance of a powerful nation at war. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they are behaving like a gang of miltaristic thugs -- whose reply to any criticism or reproach is an expletive deleted and the smash of an iron fist.
So, who's really the bully? More to the point, how could three such mild-mannered, peaceable people with such diverse backgrounds -- Pensacola Beach housewife, Israeli political science professor, Wall Street analyst -- come to hold such varied views?

One answer was the subject of a panel discussion aired yesterday on Jim Lehrer's News Hour. As panel member Lawrence Pintak, formerly of CBS and now Director of TV journalism at American University in Cairo, put it:
[I]n the American media, we're seeing another version of the story. We're seeing it through a different prism and, in part, a very simplified prism. So, again, we have a situation where Americans are looking at a conflict saying, "Bad guys, good guys, white hats, black hats." And Arabs are looking at a conflict and seeing a different set of hats. And that has big implications for U.S. policy yet again.

* * *
American television is sanitized. We don't see the real blood and gore of war. Now, it's a cultural thing, sure, but you turn on the television in the Arab world, you are seeing the disemboweled babies, you are seeing the burned children, you are seeing the pieces of flesh in the streets. And that has a visceral impact.

Americans, we talk about this plethora of prisms now in the Arab world with this media revolution, but Americans in many ways still live in an information ghetto, because we are not seeing the images coming out of the Arab world.
To again use the word that repeatedly popped up during the News Hour discussion, the broader opinions we Americans hold are largely formed in the "prism" light of modern media through which we learn about events. In the U.S., that prism is predominantly commercial television, which has an exceedingly short historical memory, something of a strong religious and xenophobic bias, and a shallow appreciation for the many repeated, albeit never permanent, diplomatic successes the U.S. engineered as an "honest broker" in the years before George W. Bush took office in 2001.

Diplomacy doesn't make for exciting television. Ever heard of a reporter asking to be truly "embedded" with a diplomatic team? American commercial television, in particular, is a prism built for audience entertainment rather than information, the easier to schlepp dogfood, deodorant, and prescription anti-depressants.

This week, for example, Chris Matthews and Fox News both showcased a biblical prophesy charlatan as a "Middle East expert." ABC's "Good Morning, America" program featured Biblical end-times fiction writers Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins to share their "insights" (host Robin Roberts' word) into how current events supposedly resemble Armaggedon. CNN anchors Kyra Phillips and Paula Zahn twice featured Biblical "Rapture" proponents Jerry Jenkins and Joel C. Rosenberg. The anchor and her "experts" among other things treated viewers to this exchange, according to media monitor David Brock:
At one point in the discussion, Phillips asked Rosenberg whether she needed "to start taking care of unfinished business and telling people that I love them and I'm sorry for all the evil things I've done," to which Rosenberg replied: "Well, that would be a good start." Throughout the segment, the onscreen text read: "Apocalypse Now?"
Is it little wonder the judgment of so many Americans continues to be overrruled by their fears?

Another panel member, former New York Times and CBS correspondent Donatella Lorch, said, thanks to our domestic media, "We see everything in good and bad here, in black and white." To correct for that skewed prism, she made a valiant effort to share a few good bias-testing tips for American television news viewers:
[L]et's see what appears first on the news broadcast. Is it going to be news about Israel or the news about Lebanon? How do they place it? The length of the pieces, how they're cut, how much do they show of the killings on the Lebanon side, particularly of the civilian killings on the Lebanon side. I think this is all very telling, in terms of analysis of the bias that is going on right now in the American media.
All sound and good. But there are more ideas, too.
Above all, bear in mind that few things seen through a prism are monochromatic or as simple as they may appear.


Bryan said...

Very nice piece.

Seven Star Hand said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Linda L. said...

A case could be be made that just about everything, if not in fact everything, humanity sees, hears, or reads is presented with some bias, being as everything - even "holy scripture", is generated by those very same, naturally biased, human beings.

This blog piece, interesting and informative as it is, is nevertheless in itself a fine example of subtle prismatic presentation: one view in favor of Israel's military response presented by an admittedly uncredentialed 'Pensacola Beach housewife', and the balance of the piece's quotes -- all of them -- coming from named, obviously 'anti' sources that the average reader would more likely accept as credible on face value.

I'm generally considered an average reader, and that's the way it hit me, though I did find myself asking in my mind, after reading Maoz's opinion -- Israeli professor or not:

"And I am to assume that these many Israeli infractions were, to a one, all unprovoked?"

If BB's only intent here were to urge everyone who had questions such as mine to go out and educate him or herself beyond what's presented on commercial TV, that'd be one thing. As it is, it's quite another.

Just talking about prisms here, folks - nothing more.
;-) __LL