Spielberg: Cognitive Egocentrist

David Brooks has an sharply critical piece on Spielberg’s movie about Munich. In an interview with Time Spielberg articulates classic liberal cognitive egocentrism.

“I’m always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it’s threatened. At the same time, a response to a response doesn’t really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual-motion machine,” he says. “There’s been a quagmire of blood for blood for many decades in that region. Where does it end? How can it end?”

This is classic Politically Correct Paradigm (PCP1), from the concessive clause — “I’m all for (or against)…” followed by the inevitable “but the Israelis have to….” Here we have the “cycle of violence” which has locked “both sides” into responding to what (presumably) are similar or equivalent provocations, based on the equally classic presupposition that, by ceasing the violence, somehow the “cycle of violence” (or in Spielberg’s language, the “perpetual motion machine”) will wind down. Obviously the onus here is on the Israelis not to respond to Palestinian violence. What diplomat can, with a straight face, say “Let the Palestinians cease the violence, and then see how Israel responds.” And, to return to the obvious scenario, the Israelis restrain themselves until… what? Until the Palestinians grow tired of killing Zionist pigs? Is that what Spielberg really thinks?

No, it turns out he has a more active solution:

“The only thing that’s going to solve this is rational minds, a lot of sitting down and talking until you’re blue in the gills.”

This is nothing short of breathtakingly careless (including the colloquial reference to being fed up). Maybe Spielberg should try talking to Benny Morris about what went wrong people at Camp David in 2000, and spend a few hours a day reading the contents of Palestinian Media Watch and MEMRI. Instead, Spielberg surrounded himself with a sterling team PCPers including Dennis Ross, evangelist of “peace negotiations” at almost any risk, and most importantly, screenwriter Tony Kushner, a “doctrinaire progressive” according to Leon Weiseltier, and, to judge from the book he edited and his recent interview with Ha’Aretz, someone who’s got few doubts about his criticism of Sharon and Israel, and even fewer about dismissing his Jewish critics as base and, basically, un-Jewish.

And in my opinion the hysteria comes from the fact that these people fundamentally know that their position is indefensible. That they are advocating for something that they know is almost impossible to advocate for. Namely, a Jewish state that does not acknowledge its own crimes, because that’s not Jewish.

Together, and without consulting the main actors themselves on either side, they have apparently put together a politically correct movie… Hollywood makes room for Pallywood.

Where will Spielberg find his Palestinian “rational” actors ready for his decisive all-nighter? Rationality means, by him as by so many of us liberals, a positive-sum thinking, But as anyone who pays attention to what is said in Arabic may have noticed, that approach has, until now, found few if any proponents among Arab leadership, Palestinian or otherwise. On the contrary, what seems to characterize most decision making among Arab leaders about Israel is a hard-line zero-sum approach — Israel must lose in order for us to win — one that has willingly inflicted great suffering on its own people just to get a PR advantage over Israel. Indeed, repeatedly getting nothing rather than all, Arab elites have consistently chosen lose-lose: instead of the zero-sum joke “poke out one of my eyes, so that my neighbor will lose both eyes,” Palestinian leadership seems to prefer to poke out both its people’s eyes just to get one Israeli eye.

And if Spielberg finds some real moderates, like Sari Nuseiba, will they carry any weight in a society whose elite culture publicly preaches a self-destructive, hate-filled paranoia, and who groom demopaths like Saeb Erakat to play the victim card?

“What can we do if we can’t find them…? I’ve got it! Create them in Hollywood!” Simone goes to the Middle East.

So in support of his liberal dream, Spielberg has apparently fantasized such a figure and put the kinds of words into his mouth that both he and Kushner want so desperately to hear:

There is an entirely fictional scene in the movie in which Avner and his Palestinian opposite number meet and talk calmly, with the latter getting a chance to make his case for the creation of a homeland for his people… Without that exchange [Spielberg comments], “I would have been making a Charles Bronson movie–good guys vs. bad guys and Jews killing Arabs without any context. And I was never going to make that picture.”

Of course the Munich massacres themselves constitute quite a context, along with the kind of hate driven “ideology” that produced them and the barbaric attacks in Israel that preceded. And then there’s the astoundingly self-destructive tendency of the West to lionize Arafat (thank him for your wait in security lines at airports) and to play down any outrage at the attacks on Israelis (the Olympics did go on). Of course, the problem with that is, were Spielberg to explore that angle, he could no longer fantasize publicly about rational people sitting down and working it out.

Spielberg’s final remark here about how, without his moral agenda “I was never going to make that picture…” reminds me of the numerous times that people in the MSM told me they would not either make or run a documentary about Muhamed al Durah as a fake without “balancing” it. Unless we can find an equivalent Israeli fault/crime/shortcoming, we won’t show the Palestinians in such a bad light. At one point, the Nobel Peace committee considered giving the prize to “Peace Now,” but decided not to because they couldn’t find a Palestinian equivalent. Heaven forbid the world should become aware of how committed many Israelis are to peace despite the dangers (some consider Peace Now suicidal), and how little that sentiment plays in Arab culture. Moral Equivalence become dogma, even-handedness become compulsion.

Granted Spielberg wanted to get the voice of reason and hope into his film: he is by instinct optimistic and it is one of his great strengths. But why put that voice in the mouth of a terrorist? How does Spielberg count on the near-miraculous redemption of a culture of men who have convinced themselves that targeting civilians by teaching their children merciless hatred is the way to get what they want? Is he so religious that he can rely so heavily on God’s intervention?

Where does all this hope lead Spielberg? Apparenlty towards solepsistic Jewish self-criticism: four dimensional Jews, agonizing over the need engage in violence when they’d rather not, against a backdrop of two dimensional Arabs, cardboard figures with no depth, no real passions — except, of course, the acceptable ones like civic nationalism, that we liberals believe they should have. Notes Brooks:

Understandably, he doesn’t want to portray Palestinian terrorists as cartoon bad guys, but he simply doesn’t portray them. There’s one speech in which a Palestinian terrorist sounds like Mahmoud Abbas, but beyond that, the terrorists are marginal and opaque.

And that’s not Mahmoud Abbas, necessarily, that’s the Mahmoud Abbas he wants us to believe in, that Dennis Ross believes in, and that we all want to believe in. No wonder Speilberg did minimal historical research, especially with the real players, in this international drama. This is his fantasy, and it makes him feel morally virtuous: without that, he “never would have made the film.”

This optimism about the “other” is hardly new for Spielberg. His early movies on UFOs systematically projected the best onto these “others” from Outer Space. The following is an exerpt from a chapter on UFOlogy in my manuscript on millennial movements, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (without the footnotes). The opening quotation is from Richard Dreyfus (who plays the protagonist Neery) on the filming of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first UFO movie in which the ETs were kind, cuddly creatures.

“We all felt that this particular project had a noble agenda. This was a big idea that Steven was talking about. It wasn’t just a sci-fi movie, it wasn’t about monsters from the id. It was that we are not only not alone, but that we have relatively little to fear. People don’t realize, or it’s hard for people to remember, that Close Encounters was truly the first cultural iconic moment that said, ‘Calm down we’re okay. They can be our friends.’ That really was a huge statement that I and lots of other people wanted to participate in.”

Some of Close Encounters pushes the limits of self-parody – the artistic soul of a gentle French movie maker (Truffaut) frees us from our paranoia so we can greet the aliens properly; the alien beings send out their children to call the best of us (Dreyfus) on their ship.

It has been deservedly spoofed. Prof. Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan) in Mars Attacks articulates precisely this voice. Asked by the media-hound president (Jack Nicholson), what to make of these creatures, who have just vaporized the general sent to welcome them along with other troops and by-standers, the professor responds: “Logic dictates that given their extremely high level of technological development they are an advanced culture, therefore peaceful and enlightened. The human race on the other hand is an aggressively dangerous species. I suspect they have more to fear from us, than we from them.” Meantime the Mars aliens read a message from the President filled with vapid wishes for understanding and laugh as they plan their invasion.

Spielberg, on the other hand, gives us a determinedly optimistic take in his two first UFO films: uncanny but adorable childlike aliens, one of whom would return to visit 6 years later in the “saccharine movie ET…[where] a merely alien-looking entity… at heart is just like us” – or rather, like our inner child. Here the generation gap between simple and good-hearted children and insensitive, conspiratorial, and destructive adults takes up where Childhood’s End had left off. UFO pop psychology – we’re okay, they’re okay – tells us the monsters in our closet are of our own imagining… all we need to do is hug them. “We have seen the enemy,” says Pogo famously, “and he is us.” Just us?

Of course we know nothing about ETs, and imagining them is purely a Rorschach test. We know a lot more about Palestinian terrorists.

What might Spielberg have done had he not been a prisoner of the Politically Correct Paradigm (PCP1) with its built-in susceptibility to become the dupes of demopaths? He might have consulted Neo-Neocon’s meditation on shame and the sources of rage and violence. He might then have begun to meditate on the dynamics of honor and shame culture, their role in the Arab world, and the relationship between Israel’s very existence as a humiliation to both Arabs and to Islam and the development of global Jihad.

The problem of course, is that when you bring Arab concerns with honor and shame to the attention of egocentrist liberals, they try as hard as possible not to further bruise that wounded pride, not to embarrass them, not to criticize them publicly. It may work for children some of the time perhaps, but not with hostile adults who take our unwillingness to criticize them and our corresponding eagerness to “affirm” them through our own self-criticism, as an invitation to further violence. And the demopaths and their enthusiasts know how to play on our unwillingness to confront the touchy Arab pride, know how to mobilize our moral indignation with accusations of racism, apartheid and colonial subjection not about their own morally base behavior, but Israel’s.

(I remember vividly a session in an Arab-Israeli dialogue group I was in during the worst of the suicide terrorism. I was looking to the Arabs to condemn it simply and clearly, and not excuse it or explain it. In vain. And when I voiced my opinion that encouraging children to blow themselves up in the midst of civilians was a moral abyss that linked child-abuse to mass murder, one of the nicer participants got vehemently indignant, and accused me of de-humanizing the Palestinians. I thought I was pointing our how the Palestinian leadership was dehumanizing its people; the Israeli/Jewish participants jumped on me for being so critical, for not validating our Arab interlocutors.)

To avoid this trap, Spielberg would have to think one step further. Were he to show the (by any liberal standards) grotesque culture of hatred that motivated the Munich massacre (along with attacks on children’s houses in kibbutzim), and depict the irredentist, wipe-out-the-humiliation-that-is-Israel rhetoric that animated the PLO well before the “occupation,” he could have made several major contributions to the peace he allegedly wants to see:

1) He could have warned the dupes of demopaths about what the real sources of the problem are and made them less susceptible to claims that “if only Israel would… then there would be peace.”

2) He could have shamed Palestinians who, being susceptible to what others think, would find this exposure of their ugly (and, amazingly, hidden) dark secrets deeply shameful in the eyes of those people whom they try most to “win over” — namely the liberal/progressive westerners who make such useful dupes.

3) He would have strengthened the hands of real moderates in the Arab world who fear even mentioning this world of cultivated hatreds lest they be accused of “betraying” their “people”, and who can only bring this up when it is clear that others’ awareness of it is causing problems. Indeed, he could have put his eloquent speech of reason where it belonged, in the mouth of beleaguered genuine moderate ignored by a western media too eager to think well of terrorists — insurgents, freedom fighters, future moderates — to notice him.

“But,” you reply, “if you shame them, you enrage them, and therefore produce more violence.” (This, incidentally is the French intellectuals’ argument for why no one should say the M-word in discussing the riots.) On the contrary, such behavior at this point only encourages threats and violence from people who realize that they can do almost anything to westerners and meet with timidity and appeasement. Masochistic omnipotence syndrome (MOS): “It’s all our fault, and if only we were better we could fix anything.” It’s how battered wives and children of divorces (sometimes) think; it’s how dhimmis think.

I would suggest the opposite approach: only by using the major weakness of Arab culture — their overriding concerns for what others think — can we hope to turn this situation around without too much violence. Only when the “moderate” Arabs and Muslims are ashamed and humiliated before the world (as they were by the grotesque behavior of the Chechin terrorists at Beslan), do we find truly self-critical voices emerging from their midst. Only when Palestinians and Muslims have to face public disapproval for the hate-mongers and mass-murderers in their midst, will they begin to react against them.

Until then, as long as the heat only comes from their own terrorists — who do not hesitate to terrorize their own — why should “moderate” spokesmen and women of the Arab world choose integrity and courage (no matter how often they appeal to these standards to judge Israel)? The easier path (one we make easy) is to appease their own terrorists and indulge in misplaced pride as entitled victims. If we let them do it, why shouldn’t they blame us for their violence and in so doing, hide their shameful and dangerous hatreds?

It is quite notable, that when you listen to the moral indignation of the Palestinians about Zionism and Judaism and think about what they do to both Israelis and their own people, and what they glorify in other Arabs be they in Iraq or Sudan, you realize how fragile their moral position. Take, as a topical example, what Mohamed Daoud, the master-mind of Munich, would have told Spielberg had he bothered to consult:

They [the Israelis] carried out vengeance against people who had nothing to do with the Munich attack, people who were merely politically active or had ties with the PLO… If a film fails to make these points, it will be unjust in terms of truth and history.

This indignation about Israeli collateral damage comes from a man who masterminded a deliberate attack on civilians at an international celebration of brotherhood. And instead of puncturing this moral charade, progressives try to assuage wounded egos by leveling the playing field, and focusing on morally compromised Israelis. Daoud need not fear that no one consulted him: Spielberg and Kushner are on it.

By giving the Arab and Muslim world a pass, by making them the beneficiaries of a grotesque moral affirmative action that “understands terrorism,” we only encourage the worst. And that will not — Steven Spielberg’s best intentions aside — lead to peace.

My advice to the great filmmaker: If you wish to be the great storyteller of this critically misguided generation — and you could be — if you want to help us find a way through the heavy whitewater and jagged shoals of early 21st-century globalization, and towards a properous, responsible, peaceful and pluralistic world, tell the tale of Muhamed al Durah. It might help you recognize that, like everything, film can be used for good and for evil; that evil really does exist; and that disguising it in liberal egocentrism only makes it stronger.

After all, this battle with Jihad still may be won with discourse and minimal violence. For that, however, we need real courage, not doctrinaire progressivism, no matter how well written and performed.

PS. As the professor said, “Read the book? I haven’t even lectured on it yet.” Stay tuned for when I’ve actually seen the movie.

11 Responses to Spielberg: Cognitive Egocentrist

  1. Adina Kutnicki says:

    Andrea Peyser in the NY Post on Dec. 14 deconstructed Spielberg down to even smaller size. Her article, “Israel Blaming Spielberg has lost direction” touches on many important points.

    However, she finds Munich’s biggest flaw to be “Munich reeks of moral relativism. It puts the terrorists and those who respond to terror on even moral footing. It suggests that Israel must pay, one way or another, for vengeance”. She goes on to add, “In Time magazine, Spielberg reveals how Hollywood he’s sunk. About the Israelis, he said, tellingly, “A response to a response doesn’t really solve anything”.
    Read the whole article. Spielberg might yet be shamed by his revision of history.

  2. im Kaufman says:

    I found the comments about the need to motivate moderate Arabs to condemn Arab violence by focusing the international spotlight on the dishonor of their fellow Arab’s murderous behavior right on the mark. It is difficult to imagine, however, what will motivate the key potential critics, the delusional Europeans, to finally ‘get it’ and apply such pressure. Thanks for the insightful analysis of the central issues.
    Jim Kaufman

    about the only thing that will motivate the europeans is to realize how much trouble they’re in which, to judge from the Finkielkraut affair (see below) is not anytime soon. i think of the Europeans as similar to a man with a 300 cholesterol count who just can’t stop eating those moral Schadenfreude truffles of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism. when will they start dieting?

  3. Peaktalk says:


    When I read last weeks Time Magazine and in particular Spielberg’s interview about his new film Munich, I made a mental note to say something about it. Mind you, just about the interview for I havent seen the movie. But,…

  4. Exit Zero says:

    “This is REALITY Greg…”

    – Eliot from ET

    Richard Landes believes that Steven Spielberg’s

  5. Israpundit says:

    Spielberg’s “Munich”

    The Augean Stables has a major article entitled, Spielberg: Congiitive Egocentrist. Don’t miss it and do look at the other important articles there. Three other important links “>Spielberg’s TelegramBy Jack Engelhard, Israel Insider ISRAEL-BLAMING S…

  6. […] demonizing Jews in Arab culture. Now here’s something the media can do to wind the “perpetual motion machine of violence” down. So why is the i […]

  7. Kesher Talk says:

    Munich, the movie: “Inspired by Real Events”

    This entry is part of a series on the Munich Massacre and “Munich” the movie, to provide factual background to accompany the movie’s release. The authoritative documentary on the massacre is One Day in September. Several small films had already…

  8. Jessica M. says:

    Jessica M.

    I’m sorry for little off-topic, but I want to ask you about design of this site. Did you make this template yourself or got from any templates website? Looks pretty cool for me :)

  9. […] Notizen, dass sein „Avner“ von Spielbergs Team zur Beratung hinzugezogen wurde. Allerdings meint ein Kritiker wohl zu Recht: [Der Planer des München-Attentats] Daoud need not fear that no one […]

  10. […] Richard Landes believes that Steven Spielberg’s ‘let’s do lunch’ solution to the current war against Israel is an example of Liberal Cognitive Egocentrism (LCE): The projection of good faith and fair-mindedness onto others, the assumption that “other” shares the same human values, that everyone prefers positive sum interactions. In a slightly more redemptive mode, LCE holds that all people are good, and if only we treat them right, they will respond well. This is a form of empathy that, like MOS, aspires to the radical victory of justice, and robs the “other” of his or her own beliefs and attitudes. It projects onto rather than detects what the “other” feels. […]

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