A few days ago I published a post entitled “Fortress Israel…” which examined some moral and political issues involving Jews in Israel and the Diaspora using identity as an entry point. Before continuing I strongly suggest everyone stop right here and read, carefully, the article by Matti Friedman at the following link http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/183033/israel-insider-guide.
Why? Because it says critically important things about how (and “why”) Israel is routinely misrepresented by the MSM as they systematically flout the basic norms of ethical journalism. But it also raises even larger issues: by simple extrapolation, Matti’s brilliant dissection conveys essential truths about the ways in which our perceptions of the world are shaped and distorted by modern communications technology.
So read his article before you go on, please, since in the remainder of this post I move from the “mundane” to the “profound” without muddying the waters too badly, I hope. Please also note that I use parentheses in this article for purposes of brevity to highlight “loaded” words which deserve deeper analysis and more precise definition than I can provide here. So use due caution and care when dealing with these complex terms; best to make that a habit!
It is no exaggeration to say that without some essential insights into the potentially toxic dynamic between “the media“, using the term in the broadest possible sense, human psychology and deliberate propaganda, we are in danger of repeating all our mistakes of the past – only on a much greater and more horrific scale. The potential tragedy is rendered even more poignant since the enormous power science has placed in our hands also offers us, collectively, the option of an immeasurably richer life (in all senses) than hitherto possible.
One of the points I made in the original post was that our perceptions of events in the modern world are most often secondhand, mediated by the enormous explosion in communications technology. I’m not sure the majority of people fully appreciate the implications of this simple statement of reality.
So in this post I am going to introduce a couple of themes which I believe need to be seriously taken on board if we are not to become pawns in the service of our own unexamined impulses or in other peoples ignorance, prejudices or agendas. The role of “useful or useless idiot” is neither dignified nor one which designed for survival and flourishing in any imaginable universe.
Theme 1. EVERY “report”, including our own observations and interpretation, is mediated through someone’s consciousness, prejudices, limits of understanding, frame of reference, standards of integrity, agendas and so forth.
This applies across the board to cartoons, photos, films, oral testimonies or written reports and commentaries of any description. My focus here will be on secondhand testimony, using “testimony” in the widest sense of the word to mean any amalgam of conventional observation (or reportage), opinion and interpretation. I use the term “secondhand” to refer to the reality that, by default, most of our “knowledge” about the world come to us after having been filtered through the minds of others, almost certainly many “others”.
Even in the most primitive of hunter-gatherer bands the secondhand nature of most information was already a reality. In fact, cultural anthropologists refer to this as “gossip” and assign it a major role in establishing group norms, personal reputations and assessing complex and dangerous environments. It was an important avenue of survival and flourishing.
But the secondhand component of information and opinion has increased with the size and complexity of society and, increasingly, with the spread of powerful communications technology. Thus we need to examine it thoroughly for its potential pitfalls, as well as for its advantages
So by now it is a truism to say that this profusion of “information” has profoundly affected human societies and individual human psyches. It is an equal truism that few of us have taken this seriously on board and adapted to that changed reality by adjusting our own responses to the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the world about us.
Of course, we do, and should, place greater trust in some sources than in others. Science, in theory and generally in practice, takes considerable pains to avoid outright misrepresentation. The standards of evidence in the professional journals are increasingly being tightened and serious errors of interpretation are generally picked up by editors and even more effectively by a critical scientific community. A trusted and thoughtful commentator, like Friedman, may be relied upon to a first order of credibility. Scholarly articles are held to higher standards and levels of scrutiny, in theory at least, than material in the MSM (see below) and more especially in the informal media where everything and anything goes.
Amongst the least reliable items are those which play to one’s own psychological needs, preconceived notions and prejudices. To cast a critical or skeptical eye on “testimony” which provides us with immediate psychological gratification is especially difficult. Thus we need to take extra precautions when such material lands on your desk or screen – as it probably does daily.
Photos, cartoons and films especially are especially powerful sources of misinformation since they create the apparently authentic appearance of truth and carry enormous emotional charge. But every such visual depiction of truth has been selected by someone else. This “filtering” may be innocent or with malign intent – or an amalgam of both. But often, especially in the fraught political arena, it is far from benign in either intent or outcome.
Theme 2. Propaganda can be crude and obvious or it can be subtle. The first appeals to the street and the second appeals to the ivory tower, metaphorically speaking. We need to arm ourselves intellectually and psychologically against both through the medium of informed skepticism.
Let us assume for the moment that most of the readership of this post will easily pick up crude propaganda. That assumption may indeed be way too optimistic considering the amount of crude, highly dubious material sent to me as the “real” thing. But for the present let us take the optimistic stance and focus on somewhat more subtle misrepresentation.
Just to take one example of many…on 23 July that “respected” magazine, The Economist, published an article entitled “The enemy of my enemies: As Arab states warm to Israel, the Palestinians feel neglected“.
Ostensibly impartial, even magisterial in tone, The Economist subtly ensures a jaundiced attitude towards Israel and sympathy for the “neglected” Palestinian in the article. The frame is set by the cartoon, reproduced below, which heads the article.
The picture shows 2 well-dressed prosperous gentlemen, Netanyahu and Sisi, comfortably and complacently strolling arm-in-arm while in the foreground crouches a disheveled man (clearly Palestinian) with his wide-eyed, innocent boy. The man looks extremely suspicious and resentful at his impotence in the face of wealth and power, and behind them is a wall pock-marked with bullet holes.
Now where have we seen that image before?
Of course, it is the Mohammed al-Durah iconic image of Jamal and his son, Mohammed, crouching behind a wall caught in the cross-fire between Palestinians and Israelis. Until, that is, the bloodthirsty Israelis mowed the boy down, at least according to the edited video and accompanying story put out initially by Charles Enderlin, Israeli Bureau Chief of France 2, the TV company that broadcast the story – and the identity of the villain, Israel – to the world.
The impact was immediate and catastrophic. The narrative of Israeli killing of Palestinian children has become one of the defining tropes of the Arab-Muslim-Palestinian narrative as pointed out by The Economist itself. But that trope, while it might have originated in part from the Palestinians themselves, would not have gained the enormous traction it did without the active complicity of the Western media – see Matti Friedman and especially here for more details. It has become a key component in the cognitive-psychological (cog-psy) war against Israel
I am not going to enter into a detailed discussion of where the “truth” of that incident lies. For those interested in some of the details see an excellent discussion in Wikipedia. In any case the “whole truth” goes well beyond who fired the fatal bullets, if indeed Mohammed al-Durah is dead, which remains an open question. The important point is that it became the foundation stone of a virulent “grievance industry” used to incite Arab-Muslims to genocidal hatred and to portray Israel in Western eyes as the Nazis of the post-World War 2 era.
And “impartial”, reliable The Economist just happened to chose this image for their article. Was it an accident? A mere inadvertent slip of editorial discretion? Such naivete is potentially lethal. The writers and editors of The Economist know just what they’re doing when they write on the tinder-box of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. Images send powerful messages and where they are placed frames the narrative. The top Brits are very good at this: much better than crude, gross Donald Trump for instance.
The subsequent story subtly reinforces the insidious narrative of the cartoon “wealthy, corrupt and callous Israel in cahoots with equally corrupt…etc, local rulers against impoverished, neglected, despised Palestinians“. Here are some subliminal “messages” in the text: “Israel wants normalisation and political ties with the Arab states, and to achieve this without solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” says Elias Zananiri of the Palestine Liberation Organisation…”. “Violence over the past year has left dozens of Israelis and more than 200 Palestinians dead.” “Most Palestinians, according to polls, back a return to an armed intifada (uprising)… (with) progress towards a two-state solution halted, they may see no other way to capture the world’s attention.” (Highlights added).
Israel must “solve” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! Really? Just how and why should it be solely responsible? And where did this “violence”, that left 200 Palestinians dead, come from? One presumes they are referring to the stabbings, baby killings, car rammings and shootings designed to elicit some sympathetic attention from the likes of The Economist.
Such acts are condemned as “terrorism”, with no caveats, should they take place in London, Paris, Berlin or the USA. In Israel the identical actions metamorphose into desperate attempts to draw the world’s attention to the Palestinian plight. Many of my readers will have noticed that when Western leaders from Obama to David Cameron to Hollande mention “Jihadist terror”, they never refer to Israel. I wonder how many others have picked up that omission, together with the “message” it conveys?
And, we are to understand, the Palestinians see “no other way” to capture the world’s attention. How about some internal political reform, admission of, at least, joint responsibility for their present predicament, less genocidal incitement and engaging Israel honestly regarding their shared future? Which could of course include the recognition (in the full sense of “legitimisation”) of Israel as a Jewish state.
None of this is intended to exculpate Israel from any human rights abuses of its own, whether intentional or carried out by individuals. Or indeed for political postures which diminish the likelihood of resolution and prolong an immensely undesirable status quo. There is no doubt that both these accusations are not without some truth. I am not giving this issue the attention it deserves here but hope to take it up later. This article is set within the reality of the misrepresentation of Israel and is not an attempt to provide a “balanced” account.
The problem is that such accusations are generally made within the context of a highly politicised environment in which ruthless cog-psy warfare against Israel is the chief weapon of the Palestinian front, including not only the Palestinians themselves, but Western BDS ideologues, anti-Semites and just ordinary brainwashed, well-intentioned idealists. Given this, it is reasonable to demand higher standards of evidence and argument than in a less fraught setting, and to assess expectations of Israel in the context of the Middle East.
Theme 3. The skeptical informed stance: its problems and uncertainties
A skeptical stance vis-a-vis information which aligns with our prior emotional and cognitive preferences is contrary to most of human nature. It is a cultural innovation (which must mean that it finds some resonance within the foundational human psyche) but it is contrary to the conformity impulse, to the confirmation bias and to the preference for cognitive simplicity. So it does not come easily.
It is an innovation of cultural evolution which finds its highest expression within the rational, secular Western Enlightenment, notably in science, even though we find examples throughout history and most cultures. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is one of my favourite expressions in poetry, but see also our own Gus Ferguson for some delightful, ironical examples in verse: (Omward Bound: Oh simple is the holy man/Unfettered does he roam/With sandals, stave and begging bowl/While chanting “Om Sweet Om”.)
How many of us had a course at school or at University which seriously taught the multiple disguises and devices of propaganda? I certainly didn’t but such knowledge is an essential tool if we are to remain relatively free of manipulation by special interests of all kinds, especially political. But like all skills we need to inform ourselves and practice it especially when it hurts us.
Skepticism, however, without information and some tethered world view and loyalties is empty and barren. (It reminds me of Roy Campbell’s lines on literary critics “They use the snaffle and bit alright./But where’s the bloody horse?) Well the “bloody horse” is represented by hard-fought emotional and intellectual insight and one’s own broad ethical commitments. While these may, and should, change with time, experience and personal maturation, without such grounding we lapse into complete moral relativism and indecision.
I am busy reading the Tyranny of Silence by Flemming Rose, who was scheduled to deliver the Annual Freedom Lecture before being disinvited by UCT ‘s very post-enlightenment Vice Chancellor and his Executive Committee – see here – in which he deals with such issues. Part of Rose’s message is that there are no formulae for us to clutch onto; only the application of our ethical and intellectual frames of reference to the complex concrete particular. This discussion was what we missed because of UCT’s cancellation; we are all the poorer for it.
Theme 4. The impact of communications technology
Like almost all human innovations it comes with potential for good and evil. I have neither the depth of knowledge nor the time to deal with this immense topic here except to emphasize what we are all conscious of, that it adds enormously to “the blooming, buzzing confusion” of life to borrow from William James.
As a tool for the dissemination of misinformation, hatred and prejudice the “alternative media” is unparalleled. It has become the arena for moralistic social media mob frenzies which we thought were erased by political and moral progress. It has become fertile ground for provocateurs, agitators, opportunists and scoundrels of all stripes. It is the prime recruiting tool for Islamist terror movements and others.
The recent global rash of violence demonstrates the contagion facilitated by the instantaneous transmission of violence and fear by appealing to the volatile, the sadistic, the disordered psychopath, the narcissist, the excluded, the cold-blooded fanatic in thrall to an all-absorbing ideological obsession and, yes, the desperate and angry.
This is the negative face: spin the coin and the other face offers us riches beyond measure.
The same burgeoning technology which enables fanaticism and brutality can shine a light into the shadows to show hidden abuses and corruption, reveal the future fault lines of our society and bring the creative ideas, beauty, potential and wonder of the world to our attention This cornucopia of information is the great amplifier of all that is good or bad in humanity. It’s loss would be a tragedy, but misused it can be fatal.
The integration of this power into human societies and the global political network is Mankind’s greatest current test. It will make demands on our institutions, our individual cultural-political systems and on ourselves as individuals which may exceed almost any challenge hitherto confronted in our trajectory to become the supreme species on planet Earth and, for all we know, in the Universe.
As with nuclear power we need to learn how to live with it in such a way as to release its positive potential and minimise its unlimited destructive power. To do this Robert Oppenheimer’s quote (on the occasion of the first artificial nuclear explosion) from the Bhagavad Gita “I (Shiva) am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” is apposite. The Hindu concept of trimurti (Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer) perhaps applies to humanity itself in its evolutionary journey to an unknown destination.
My original post “Fortress Israel…” elicited a number of comments. I’m going to publish one from an old friend and colleague, Prof Geoff Boner, who has lived and worked in Israel for most of his adult life. He provides a useful personal perspective based upon intelligent observation and a sensitive commitment to progressive politics within the limits of reason.
“Trying to think about Israel, I am of the opinion that Israel is still trying to create an Israeli identity. When Israel came into being the controlling powers were in the hands of the European, mainly secular Jews, who had immigrated to Israel prior to WWII. Large sections of the people were unable to find an expression of their opinions and political influence. In the last 30 years this has been changing with the rise of the Jewish and Sephardi or Eastern identity. The present government is exaggerating the differences between the various identities. We can only hope that with time there will be an integration of the various groups and establishment of an Israeli identity.
Almost all Israelis identify positively with the IDF, most having served and continuing to do reserve duty for many years. This does not make them militaristic in their everyday life. I, personally am proud that we are now three generations who have done our service in the IDF. One of my grandsons decided to postpone his service by one year to do community service in a socio-ecconomical depressed area with a mixture of Jews and Arabs. He and a group of similarly devoted youths lived as a commune in the specific town, helped in the school and after school with homework and other social activities. He is now completing the year and has found it an unbelievable experience… He will now do his service as a more mature and understanding person.”