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War by other means

In my previous post “Israel tortures Palestinian children – true or a fraud?I outlined the techniques whereby media could contribute to a false narrative without actually publishing outright falsehoods under its own name.

It is worth summarising briefly:

By  DISTANCING – that is, by publishing second-hand allegations of dubious veracity and balance under the umbrella of “reportage”. It can thus distance itself from the views and information expressed therein and deny any complicity in spreading hate or disinformation.

By UNCOUPLING – namely, by failing at any stage to connect the dots between two issues closely related. Thus, for instance, information about the Middle East-North Africa meltdown and violence can be disseminated while keeping the dominant anti-Israeli narrative insulated from these clearly relevant events.

By SELECTION – that is, by simply not reporting policies, statements and actions which may disturb the image of Palestinian victimhood at the hands of Israeli oppressors.

All these techniques are apparent in our media – some offenders being worse than others. Generally such bias is best revealed by studies over time which uncover patterns not apparent when considering single items. This is vital information when devising a counterstrategy.

But there are other aspects of Total Propaganda which also need to be factored into any consideration of how to mount an appropriate response. We need to understand how a propaganda network can arise without intensive coordination and direction. Almost always some degree of coordination does exist and certainly funding can facilitate the process,. But experienced propagandists are adept at catching whatever political and cultural currents are flowing in their direction – as we shall see.

So let’s start:

It has been claimed that “war is politics by other means” but it is equally true that “politics and propaganda is also war by other means”. However you put it the global arena, like the many smaller regional and sub-regional arenas which dot the globe, are scenes of struggle between conflicting ideologies, religions, ethnic groups, nations and so on down the scale.

The great ideal of democracy was not that it would put an end to such struggles, but would civilise them. By setting out strict rules whereby conflict was to be conducted and by ensuring that winner does NOT take all, democracy hopes to incentivise civilized struggle in place of unstable zero-sum brutal conflict. Such a prospect has held sway in a limited number of countries for the past couple of centuries, but is always precarious and vulnerable to a host of destabilising influences.

Amongst these are the rise of Utopian and/or totalitarian movements which see the expediency and compromise inherent in democracy as shameful and weak. Civilised conflict and the tolerance of other beliefs and systems  are anathema to those who are driven by the urge to power and by the messianic belief in their own virtue. Against such foes, democracy either collapses or must take on some of the ruthless characteristics of their opponents.

If democracy is difficult to achieve within national boundaries in which the populace is united by some common identity and shared value systems, how much more difficult is it in divided societies and in the global arena.  Utopianism or perfectionism is always a prelude to greater levels of conflict and frequently to totalitarian and fascist movements. Whether couched in secular terms as socialism, racial purity or human rights or in religious terms, they share the same psychological foundations of intolerance and the urge to impose upon others. These frequently go hand in hand with the more mundane drives to power or simple greed and ambition.

It might seem that that conflict of this nature are simple: Jew against Arab or Palestinian, black against white, Protestant versus Catholic, one country against another.  That is rarely the case. Every conflict, especially in our globalised world, is an opportunity or threat to some other player not engaged in the ostensible primary struggle. Thus the Cold War of the 20th century permeated all the local conflicts around the globe and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians involves not only a host of regional actors with stakes on one side or another – which are subject to continual change with shifting strategic balances – but even further afield.

Thus outside the primary region of struggle, for instance in the developed West and in a host of undeveloped nations, the Israel-Palestinian conflict can serve to advance all sorts of personal, organisational, group and ideological interests. If the intractable nature of the conflict in the Middle East is to be fully understood, the secondary ramifications and implications may be as or more important than the primary struggle.

For example, local South African politicians can demonstrate their radical fervour and purity by vehemently supporting the Palestinian Cause through fiery speeches and a host of provocative actions. South African activists can find new meaning and sources of funding and prestige through the BDS campaign. Moral entrepreneurs in academia and the creative arts can burnish their reputations and incomes by applying selective and decontextualised morality to the issues of the day. Malcontents or bigots or narcissists can find in a cause a meaning and a call to action which alleviates unconscious psychological needs and pressures. That is not to say that many beliefs are not sincerely held, especially if scrupulous introspection is avoided, but that even pure motives are corrupted by the attractions of money, prestige, sense of purpose and superior moral virtue. And to be fair, sheer ignorance and lack of analytic skills can also play a role.

Thus, in addition to the core of politically and ideologically motivated individuals who are committed to the destruction of Israel, many of them directing the BDS campaign, a network of allies and fellow-travellers can arise for a host of quite different reasons and coming from quite distinct historical, cultural and ideological backgrounds. For such allies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represents an opportunity.

These thoughts are a prelude to understanding the fluid and multi-dimensional nature of propaganda.  This is relevant to the ongoing delegitimisation campaign against Israel. Such apparently distinct events as the UN Report on alleged Israeli torture of Palestinian children, the film ‘The Village under the Forest’, the threats to boycott and harass Obama and so on are all part of the same campaign carried on by very different  groups with different ideologies and histories but united by the rewards of such activism under the broad moral umbrella of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These goups perpetuate conflict and Netanyahu was quite right in saying “Let no one among us delude him or herself that if we make a peace agreement with the Palestinians, that this agreement would eliminate the wild defamation of the state of the Jews.”

Only by tailoring our response in kind and by a willingness to engage with the multiheaded hydra of Total Propaganda in all the theatres in which it is expressed can we counter false narratives and provide the broad public with contextualised, honest and balanced information. This general principle must ultimately be translated into CONCRETE ACTIONS without lapsing into formulaic oversimplifications.

That, in simple terms, is our challenge – and opportunity.

Mike Berger






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