Max Fisher, formerly of the Atlantic Monthly, now the WaPo’s “foreign policy advisor,” just posted a reflection on the war of images in the current Gaza operation. In it he makes every effort to be “even-handed.” And in the end, comes up empty-handed. A remarkable example of how intelligent people can look carefully at evidence and learn nothing. If I didn’t know better (which I don’t), I might think he was doing some “damage control,” if not for Hamas (in which case, presumably it would be unconscious), then for the paradigm that permits him not to acknowledge Hamas’ character.
Left, a journalist for BBC Arabic holds his son’s body. Center, an emergency worker carries an Israeli infant from the site of a rocket strike. Right, Egypt’s prime minister and a Hamas official bend over a young boy’s body. (AP, Reuters, Reuters)
Wars are often defined by their images, and the renewed fighting between Israel and Gaza-based Hamas has already produced three such photographs in as many days. In the first, displayed on the front page of Thursday’s Washington Post, BBC journalist Jihad Misharawi carries the body of his 11-month-old son, killed when a munition landed on his Gaza home. An almost parallel image shows an emergency worker carrying an Israeli infant, bloody but alive, from the scene of a rocket attack that had killed three adults. The third, from Friday, captures Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, in his visit to a Gazan hospital, resting his hand on the head of a boy killed in an airstrike.
Each tells a similar story: a child’s body, struck by a heartless enemy, held by those who must go on. It’s a narrative that speaks to the pain of a grieving people, to the anger at those responsible, and to a determination for the world to bear witness. But the conversations around these photos, and around the stories that they tell, are themselves a microcosm of the distrust and feelings of victimhood that have long plagued the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Studiously even-handed. One of my favorite memes: “both sides…”
The old arguments of the Middle East are so entrenched that the photos, for all their emotional power, were almost immediately pressed into the service of one side or another.
Actually, there’s a huge difference between the sides. Israel has, over the years, shown enormous reluctance to use the photos of their dead and wounded to appeal for public sympathy; whereas Palestinians have actually created victims in order to parade their suffering in front of the public. Indeed, Palestinian TV revels in pictures of the dead (so much so, that when my daughter wanted to help me with some logging of PLO TV footage, I had to decline lest she be brutalized by the material). They systematically use the media to both arouse sympathy from an “empathic” West, and to arouse hatred and a desire for revenge among Arabs and Muslims. Nothing uglier.
Israel, on the other hand, studiously avoids pictures of the dead, and only a shocking incident like Ramallah can break those taboos. They were so reluctant to exploit these images that, even at the height of the suicide campaign (2002-3) they refused to release pictures of the dead victims. The two cultures could not be more different on this score, and yet, Fisher has no problem finding his symmetry.
To obfuscate this fundamental difference with a pleasing even-handedness symbolizes the literal stupefication of our culture that necessarily accompanies the politically correct paradigm (PCP1), founded on a dogmatic cognitive egocentrism. It forces one not to see critical information. It’s as if we were under orders to not notice everything that a good detective should pick up on, as if we were required to assist the clean-up crews that want to frame the story to their advantage. In such a world, the protagonists of the Mentalist, Lie to Me, Elementary, CSI, House, are not merely unwelcome, they are banished.
Stephanie Gutmann, in a brilliant book worth rereading many times, nails this particular dynamic, in a Bob Simon (star of Pallywood) “60-minutes” segment where he managed to violate reality in order to come to the gratifying frame of Israeli-Goliath and Palestinian-David. Speaking to Israeli General Benny Ganz, Simon brings up the question of children being killed at the beginning of the Intifada:
Gantz: Well, if the Palestinian people want to be safe regarding their kids, they must make sure their kids stay in place [sic] where kids should be. And when they are sending their kids forward and they are firing at us, and then the kids are in the killing zone, so unfortunately sometimes, really unfortunately, those things happen.
Simon: Do you think that the Palestinians are actually pushing their kids to the front line?
Simon: With the objective of creating casualties
Gantz: That’s right, sir. I’m sure that they are trying to get the world to see that Israel is a terrible, cruel people and cruel army, and that’s really what they are want-what they want to do.
Let me just pause here and note that although what Ganz said is obvious to both Israelis and Palestinians (and today, especially by Gazans), at the time (late 2000), it was an unthinkable thought. Note that Ganz is not eager to make this claim. Simon is really putting the words in his mouth, but it’s so obvious (to him), that Ganz didn’t deny it.
Simon: Is this something that you can really imagine, that there are people who would do that, who would get their-their kids killed or wounded to make good television?
Simon: In other words, the Palestinians are really different from Israelis in that respect?
CBS then cuts to a taped interview that Simon did with Palestinian Authority spokeswoman Dr. Hanan Ashrawi:
Simon: You’re aware that the Israeli military claims that Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority pushes those children to the front so that they can become casualties, because it will be good for the image.
Ashrawi: Yes, I’m aware of that.
Simon: What do you have to say to that?
Ashrawi: To me, this is the essence, the epitome of racism.
Simon in voiceover: Hanan Ashrawi is a Palestinian legislator. She’s been in the forefront of the peace movement for years.
Note that Hanan Ashrawi voted against the repeal of the “destroy Israel” sections of the PLO charter that the PA had promised as part of the Oslo Peace Process. This so violated her status as “peace activist” that some in the mainstream news media literally did not allow that datum to get across. I have heard of a stringer for a major American network who, when she reported the detail had her editor explain: “that can’t be true because, Ashrawi is a moderate.” Here is Chas Newkey-Burden on his own experience with this phenomenon:
The editor of another magazine once told me I was not allowed to write that Yasser Arafat turned down Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David in 2000. I asked why and he replied, ‘because of a need for balance’. I pointed out that nobody, including Arafat, has ever disputed that he rejected Barak’s offer and the editor replied, ‘Well, I don’t know about that but you still can’t write it.’ Julie Burchill and Chas Newkey-Burden, Not in My Name (p. 69).
When I first realized how deeply ingrained these anti-intellectual and self-defeating patterns had penetrated the mainstream news media, I started my blog, The Augean Stables to address the problem. I’m still looking for the river to clean them out.
Gutman analyzes Simon’s modus operandi (his 60-minute episodes on Israel belong in a case study of how to degrade the journalistic profession).
Simon used a 60 Minutes trademark-the openly skeptical, interrogative style-to interview Gantz, but he did not challenge Ashrawi in the same way, and she was allowed literally to have the last word:
Ashrawi: They’re telling us we are-we have no feelings for our children? We’re not human beings? We’re not parents? We’re not mothers or fathers? … I don’t want to sink to the level of responding, or proving I’m human. I mean, even animals have feelings for their children.
This accusation of racism is classic demopathy, in which the dupe literally does the work for the demopath. The victim, the man who deals with the real world, and not the astoundingly indulgent “takes” on reality to characterize the post-60s public sphere.
Let’s return to Fisher who, in good fashion, seeks to do damage control for this generous “take” on reality where a) the Palestinians cannot be depicted as at fault, lest one sound racist, and b) anyone who does so describe reality is a rightwing warmonger. Had Simon wanted to, he could have easily posed the question, “So why do Palestinian mothers show pride that their families had killed their daughters or had produced a martyr?” Just ignore that rather anomalous bit of evidence over there, eyes on the paradigm.
The photo of Misharawi wailing as he carried his son was attached to tweets accusing the Israel Defense Forces of “infanticide” or worse, feeding into dark stereotypes about Israelis’ intentions. Other critics marshaled Misharawi’s photo as evidence of senselessly irresponsible airstrikes.
Supporters of Israel’s airstrikes countered by suggesting that Misharawi’s home was bombed by an errant Hamas strike. And they insisted that the photo of the wounded Israeli infant was more relevant, and proof that Hamas’s rockets are ultimately to blame for the conflict.
Here Fisher achieves even-handedness by dumbing down the Israeli response so that it matches the equally (presumably, but you never know with today’s readers) unacceptable position.
Note that the Pro-Palestinian side uses the information to attack Israel, it completes Hamas’ cognitive war strategy: use the deaths of Palestinians to attack Israel. The fact that Hamas would have developed an elaborate set of tactics that cannibalize their own civilians in order to get these photo-ops, suggests that they have can rely on the cooperation of the media to make their case. Ironically, MSNM dupes bear direct responsibility for Hamas’ cannibalizing its own people. They literally make the sacrifice worth while.
In response to this astonishingly immoral behavior (certainly by Western empathic standards), the Israelis — in his version, I suspect he either doesn’t know or listen to a coherent defense of the Israelis by a supporter — offer weak counter-accusations and claims to greater victimhood. Nothing important going on here, folks, just take a glance and move on…
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official Twitter feed posted the photo with the message, “I saw today a picture of a bleeding Israeli baby. #Hamas deliberately targets our children.” It’s hard to find fault with the not-subtle argument in support of Israel’s campaign against the Gaza-based group, which does fire many rockets at civilian neighborhoods, but such pointed use of the harrowing photo to make that case can be jarring.
So either Fisher is unaware of the huge and highly civilized taboos that surround Israeli press culture, despite the pressure on them to try and compete with the avalanche of thanotography that pours out of the Palestinian culture. His jarred sensibilities are no greater than Israeli and Jewish ones, but, ignoring the contrasts — what can be left of such sensitive sensibilities when a person so jarred, watches Palestinian TV? — gets to sniff at the Israelis on this one. (Am I wrong, or is this a minor expression of moral Schadenfreude? “You Jews, do you really have to be so crass?”)
Okay, so then how does Fisher handle the other side?
When Kandil and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh arrived at a Gaza hospital just as an ambulance pulled up with the body of a local boy, and a photographer captured the two reaching compassionately for the body, Web discussion quickly turned to two questions: Was it posed? Was it populist showmanship? Though anyone who has spent time covering Egyptian politicians might doubt their ability to elaborately stage a photo op with this degree of precision.
This is actually a fascinating paragraph to deconstruct. And since it offers the key moment in this argument where the key issues are voided of significance, et’s take it one sentence at a time:
When Kandil and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh arrived at a Gaza hospital just as an ambulance pulled up with the body of a local boy, and a photographer captured the two reaching compassionately for the body,
Compassionately? Where does Fisher get that? From a “straight reading” of the actors as sincere. That’s the message they want conveyed, and Fisher’s complying. How does one see Haniyah’s behavior when one considers the likely scenario that he knew that his own men had been responsible for the lad’s death.
Web discussion quickly turned to two questions: Was it posed? Was it populist showmanship?
Now here’s an interesting problematic, but one for which Fisher has no time to tarry. It was obviously posed (duh. what else?). But I’d argue it was not for populist showmanship. My guess is that the “street” in Gaza knows only too well who’s responsible for that child’s death, possibly down to the details of the incident. To them, this charade could only register as the most rank hypocrisy.
On the contrary, I think it was staged for the west, for empathic outsiders, committed to giving the Palestinians many many benefits of the doubt. That was the target of the staging, locals (whom Hamas controls) be damned. If I’m right, imagine the anger, despair (and possibly contempt) that people of Gaza must feel for us, knowing that their leaders can fool us so.
Note that in all this, there’s no sign in Fisher’s discussion of that “jarred” sensibility about exploiting tragedy that he felt when the Israelis are involved. Whereas Bibi’s use of an injured girl is distasteful, these men kissing dead babies in public draws no comment. Is this a sign of the “human rights complex“? Do we have one set of standards for white people (a fortiori for Jews), and another for people of color (a fortiori Palestinians)? Does this not betray a not-so-subtle reverse racism, in which we do not have any moral expectations of the Palestinians?
Though anyone who has spent time covering Egyptian politicians might doubt their ability to elaborately stage a photo op with this degree of precision.
So instead of tackling the ghoulishness of Palestinian politics (you expected otherwise? is it even worthy of mention?), Fisher closes off the discussion of Haniyah and Kandil with an Orientalist toss-off about incompetent Arab culture, based on his recent experience with the chaos in Egypt. “As for all that stuff about staging it, they couldn’t even pull that off.”
It’s just what Enderlin said to me when, after agreeing that the Palestinians stage stuff “all the time,” I asked him the question, “so if they could stage all that, why couldn’t they have staged al Durah?”: “Oh, they’re not good enough to get something like that past me.”
In fact Kandil was a secondary player here (one might even guess, a dupe, who didn’t know that Hamas had killed the kid), and the whole operation was a Hamas operation. The Palestinians have been playing this game with the Western MSNM for decades. They are quite competent at it.
Fisher, is, by contrast, a neophyte. He just doesn’t know it. Which makes him an anasognosic.
The mere fact that we’re asking these questions shows the degree to which images of human suffering in Israel-Palestinian violence are treated as necessarily, even primarily, political; as pieces of evidence to bring before the court of global public opinion. The photos are evaluated on their political strengths and weaknesses: Is the Egyptian prime minister leaning unnaturally into the frame? Do we know for sure that the 11-month-old son of a journalist was killed by an Israeli munition? Was Netanyahu’s tweet too strong?
Here’s the key paragraph: everything reduced to a mush of equivalences. “Isn’t it sad that victims have become politicized by ‘both sides’?” Note the huge asymmetry between questions about ghoulish hypocrisy and possible criminal complicity on the Palestinian side, and the question of bad taste for the Israelis. “Can’t we all agree these children’s deaths are tragedies and not turn them into a media circus. So juvenile, so sad.”
Implicit in these debates, still raging on social media, is the assumption that the photos and the tragedies they represent are inherently political. You might find yourself wondering who politicized them first — who is more to blame — but that question, though natural, is in many ways an extension of the same bickering.
Classic move. Cycle of violence. Let’s not get into name-calling shall we?
Of course, as such a move demands, Fisher stupefies, covers over – in an act of good will towards all — the awful truth, that the Palestinians, as part of their culture of death, have taken thanatography to stunning new heights, which they never could have reached without the full, indeed enthusiastic, cooperation of the press, eager to snatch at Palestinian lethal narratives about Israel.
The accusations of misusing photos to tar the other side, of faking injuries to generate outside sympathy are all part of a wider, shared assumption that the world would feel differently if only everyone knew how badly “we” suffered, and how much “they” are faking it.
In this thinking, each new image is an opportunity to finally show the world the truth, as well as a danger that the “other side” will continue to distort. That mutual emphasis on blame, as well as the deep mistrust behind it, are of course just one small part of the larger and more complicated Israel-Palestine conflict. And that conflict, it seems, even extends to the conversations around photos of children killed in its long and bloody course.
Journalist reclaims the moral high ground. Israelis put down in the mud pits with the Palestinians. It’s all part of the cycle of blame and violence. It’s precisely this “take,” that makes the West so vulnerable to cognitive war. “If you Israel-firsters point it out to me, I’ll just accuse you of the same thing, and go about my business (of assisting their cognitive war against you). And if you complain, well then, I’ll just tell you to stop whining. Generals don’t complain about the weather.”
This article, far from the worst of Augean journalism, is nonetheless a clear example of the stupefication of the West by its intelligentsia. In the end, it’s a win-win for the negative-sum Hamas (if we lose, we win; if we win we win), and a lose-lose for the positive-sum west (the Palestinian people, the Israelis, and the West lose). Why on earth would we want the war-mongering, genocidal Hamas to win?