Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Limits of Polite Discourse: Exposing People to Evil Ideas or Exposing Evil Ideas as…Evil?

[Update, September 10: Following publication of an op-ed calling for a boycott of Israel, the Los Angeles Times has now shown how "balanced" its coverage is by running a Daoud Kuttab article about how great and moderate is the Palestinian Authority. This is balance: An op-ed by an anti-Israel Israeli calling for a boycott of Israel is balanced by an op-ed by a Palestinian speaking about how great the Palestinian side is. One Israeli, one Palestinian. That's balanced opinion!]

By Barry Rubin

After publishing an op-ed by a radical Israeli professor urging a boycott of Israel, Los Angeles Times editorial page editor, Jim Newton, said, “Had Hitler submitted an excerpt from Mein Kampf in the late 1930's [I would have published it] because the world would have benefitted from exposure to evil ideas."

This is an interesting subject for discussion but first it should be noted that Newton misworded his answer, a rather serious mistake for a professional journalist and editor. Perhaps it is even a Freudian slip.

Presumably the world would have benefitted from the exposure of Hitler’s arguments as evil and dishonest. But does the world, to take Newton’s own phrase, benefit “from exposure to evil ideas,” that is, just giving them a bigger audience?

No. After all, those who spread evil ideas do so precisely to win over those who hear them. The world did get exposed to the evil ideas of fascism. One of the main results was a lot of support for it by millions of people in many countries.

And that’s certainly happening a lot nowadays for the contemporary equivalent evil ideas.

But first, let's note that Newton is not telling the truth or rather, to paraphrase George Orwell, some evil ideas are more equal than others. There are many op-eds in the American media nowadays from leaders of Iran, Libya, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah, but not from European right-wing parties. A comparison shows the hypocrisy of these claims.

Aside from showing favoritism to a certain kind of extremists--the leftist and Islamist type--the media not only publicizes but actually reinforces evil ideas on many occasions. Newton’s error shows the problem: the media does not expose evil ideas as evil. It often portrays them as correct and accurate or good or at least just another credible opinion.

Newton’s point also raises another issue: the limits of what has been called “polite discourse.”

In societies practicing free speech—at least up until recently—anything could be said. The pernicious influence of the “hate speech” concept, first applied to Holocaust denial, has been terrible in limiting free and open discussion. In Canada, nominally one of the freest of countries, you can be tried and sentenced for saying or writing something that a group deems offensive.

Newton opposes this, correctly I believe, and upholds the concept of free speech. But, again, he’s not implying he’d publish Hitler because the German dictator had a right to express his views but rather precisely in order to expose them as evil. How does one know that they are evil?

Does this mean the newspaper must publish other material—even a critical introduction—to say that these are evil ideas?

Or does the readers’ common sense and political culture innately tell them these are evil ideas? Surely not all of them would see it as such, as Pat Buchanan, Hitler’s leading contemporary American admirer, or David Irving, his counterpart in Britain, repeatedly remind us.

[Let me digress here for a moment. Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, makes interesting reading and I analyzed it in my book Modern Dictators to show parallels with Communist and Islamist thinking. This is not to say the three doctrines are alike but they do share a lot in their basic approach to politics, rationality, critique of Western democracy, and prescription of a dictatorship that controls all of society and its institutions.]

Yet when it comes to channels of communication limited by time and space—newspapers, wire services, radio, television, and book publishing—choices must be made. The people who make choices decide what will be published, printed, aired, or broadcast.

The same issue applies to the Swedish government’s treatment of the Israel is murdering Palestinians to steal their organs tall tale. Swedish officials self-righteously portray themselves as defenders of free speech. In reality, though, Swedish government money paid the author who made these outrageous claims and financed publication of his work. The Swedish government did not choose to subsidize someone to write a book in defense of Israel or to point to the very real crimes of radical Islamists and terrorists.

We’re not talking about freedom of speech here but about choices made by government officials and editors.

How do they make those decisions?

These choices are supposedly governed by professional ethics and practices. One factor determining what stories are published is importance; another is balance (representing different views); still another is fairness, giving some reasonable response from those criticized. The “public’s right to know” what its own government and institutions are doing is another consideration. Building ratings or selling newspapers through sensationalism or human interest, is also part of the mix.

Yet there is a limit, boundaries beyond which opinions are not represented. Today, things beyond the pale include anything deemed, racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and various other categories.

I hesitate to add the word antisemitism to this list since in some ways it is and in others it is not included. Indeed, the acceptability of antisemitic claims and arguments for publication has sharply increased or at least the term has been defined out of existence:

Jews murder little children to drink their blood—antisemitic? Israeli Jews murder little children to drink their blood—not antisemitic? A cartoon showing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian child won a prestigious prize in the United Kingdom.

A credible newspaper would not use its space to run articles saying the world is flat, space aliens live among us, or witches are operating in local jurisdictions. There is a range of items ruled absurd, crackpot, unworthy of consideration. Standards are supposed to rule out the irrational.

Irrationality has played a big role in the history of antisemitism. Being different and not understood, Jews (the original “other”) were deemed capable of anything not within the norm for other humans: poisoning wells, murdering God or gods, conspiring to gain world hegemony, controlling all behind the scenes.

It is common to hear that criticism of Israel does not equate with antisemitism. That’s true. But it is equally true that the way Israel is criticized lied about, demonized, and treated with double standards does duplicate historic antisemitism.

The more extreme will accept the far-out scenarios like Israel murdering people to steal their organs or controlling the world media. The more moderate will only accept scenarios that seem more rational but still include massacres without proof, war crimes without evidence. Indeed, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, opinions remain unchanged both out of partisanship and the view that Israel and/or Jews in general are evil, or at least strange and unpredictable.

Take for example the so-called “Jenin massacre.” The story of this non-event is bizarre. After an Israeli operation in Jenin against terrorists, a single Palestinian individual of unknown background charged that Israeli troops had massacred dozens of Palestinians.

There was not then or afterward a shred of supporting evidence, yet the international media went crazy with the story. After which, Palestinian Authority officials picked it up and further purveyed it.

Even the UN, not exactly friendly to Israel, concluded the story was a hoax, yet today no doubt millions of people believe it. In fact, not long ago I spoke to a former television producer, now member of the governing board that runs television in his English-speaking country, who remains firmly convinced that the story is true.

There are literally hundreds of these propaganda stories produced every month. Like UFO sightings, some may be true but they are all unproven. Now and then one particularly outrageous—as in the Swedish organ theft case—gets exposed but the damage is done nonetheless.

This may not seem responsive to the Los Angeles Times case. It is always tempting to run a “man bites dog” story: Israeli professor calls for boycott of Israel.

But the media is not so innocent for several reasons. First, it sets the tone of debate. The choice is between: Israel should be boycotted! No, it shouldn’t! Rather than: The Palestinian Authority should be pressed into being moderate! No, it shouldn’t! The context is: Israel is or is not a nation of war criminals, not the equivalent case about the Palestinian Authority.

Second, it gives increasing access for extremists and crackpots telling explicit lies, as in the case of the New York Times op-ed where made-up quotes are attributed to Israeli officials.

Here’s an example of a different issue, chosen at random. I’d bet there have been 30 articles and quotes in news stories, op-eds, etc., claiming Syria can be lured away from its alliance with Iran for each one on the other side.

To return to Newton and the publishing Hitler analogy, the problem nowadays is not giving Hitler a platform at all but doing so every day for the contemporary equivalents (Iran’s regime, Hamas, Hizballah, Libya, etc.) in a context implying he was right or at least had a good case. Of course, for ideological reasons Hitler is an unlikely person for such treatment, and perhaps deliberately chosen for that reason. The real area of threat is not on the extreme right but on the far left or among radical Islamists.

There is another problem here as well. Since Palestinian, Arab, and Islamist sources have proven themselves so unreliable in their claims about Israel in the past, shouldn’t they be treated as such now?

When Newton writes about Hitler, he is saying that either the context or readers’ knowledge would tell them Hitler is lying or wrong. But the context of coverage about Israel is such as to validate false claims, while understanding Middle East culture and politics lies too far outside readers’ experience for them to judge for themselves. Indeed, inasmuch as they apply their own experience to such situations, they will be seriously misled.

If, however, the American media was to publish the kinds of things written about the United States in Arabic, then, yes, readers would reject it. For example, al-Ahram, Egypt’s leading newspaper, regularly publishes articles claiming that America is behind international terrorism. Egyptian textbooks claim that the U.S. military attacked Egypt in 1967 and destroyed the country’s air force. Iranian, Syrian, and Saudi media publish worse things.

But the Western media can get away with this sort of thing about Israel to a far greater extent, since it is not only an “other” country but an “other” people. The media often does seem to believe that the world would benefit from “exposure to evil ideas.” Unfortunately, though, these same ideas are portrayed in the newspapers’ pages as being good ones.

The truth is that on many issues, balance and fairness has been tossed away. Journalists and editors not only have strong political views but have abandoned professional standards by promulgating them shamelessly in news coverage. Since journalists and editors are no longer afraid of being punished by losing jobs or damage to reputations by such behavior, there is nothing to hold them back.

With Newton and other journalists denying that this problem even exists—though it’s as evident as the existence of gravity--what hope can there be they will address and remedy it?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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