Friday, January 16, 2009

The Myth of the Virtuous Middle

It is more accurately called 'The Middle' — with scare quotes. If "it's all relative" holds any substance in popular discourse, it is in the relativism of what counts as "the middle". This should be obvious and probably is, but "the virtue of the middle" does work for those in that 'virtuous' position — it provides a fig leaf behind which they can hide — and so the myth goes unexamined.

So let's examine a case: The New York Times on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Times, like NPR and CNN and many others, are fond of saying that they are criticized "by both sides". Conclusion? "Since both side are criticizing us, we must be doing something right."

Possibly. Or one side might be right and the other wrong. In the case of the Israeli occupation, major supporters of Israel are convinced that the Times is too critical of Israel. At NPR, to cite a similar case, former ombudsman (equivalent to the Times's "Public Editor") Jeffrey Dvorkin expressly stated that he felt NPR's coverage tended to favor the Palestinian side.

  • "Israel has done some not very nice things." I heard these words first from Elie Wiesel. Quite a move for him. He had and has typically exonerated Israel of any wrongdoing of any kind or degree. I later heard precisely the same words from Brian Lehrer of WNYC and Daniel Schorr of NPR. Quite a coincidence. This is as close as you will ever hear any prominent media personality get to actually criticizing, much less condemning, Israeli atrocities.
    The prevailing view of the US and Israel is that neither is capable of committing war crimes. So it is some indication of just how awful things are in Gaza that The New York Times, NPR, etc., can even mention that elsewhere in the world people are calling for prosecution of Israeli war crimes. The worst you will typically hear said about Israeli actions is something to the effect that they are "counterproductive" or "not in Israel's best interests".
    Rarely will you hear mention of "Palestinian rights". So, for example, a January 16th Times editorial stated, "the assault on Gaza has passed the point of diminishing returns." As strong a condemnation of Israeli action as you will ever find in a Times editorial. There, it must be said, a handful of prominent, mainstream American figures who have criticized Israel more harshly. The most notable, of course, is Jimmy Carter, who was rhetorically drawn and quartered for his transgression. Years ago Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes wrote a critical column, as did the former Times legal commentator, Anthony Lewis.
"[S]ome of the worst chemical weapons were never excluded by any international agreement.
"White phosphorus, for example, is considered to be an incendiary weapon, not a chemical weapon, and under the ambiguous rules of war is acceptable for military use, both for creating smoke screens and for starting fires. But this waxy substance adheres to flesh, and when it is exposed to air, it bursts into flame. The seven allied bombing raids that leveled the German city of Hamburg in July and August 1943 started a firestorm with white phosphorus. Many of the city's phosphorus-smeared residents sought refuge in Hamburg's two lakes, but when they stepped out of the water the phosphorus on their bodies reignited. Some were shot by German troops to end their suffering. Hamburg suffered more than 50,000 killed, many of them victims of white phosphorus. . . .

"Some deadly poisons are not considered weapons at all, yet they have been used to kill and terrorize, and may be used again."

BUT today, the Times takes quite a different tone on white phosphorus [again, as noted by FAIR]:

"White phosphorus is a standard, legal weapon in armies, long used as a way to light up an area or to create a thick white smoke screen to obscure troop movements. While using it against civilians, or in an area where many civilians are likely to be affected, can be a violation of international law, Israel has denied using the substance improperly. On Wednesday, Hamas fired a phosphorus mortar shell into Israel, but no one was hurt.
  • Whose word is heard. Because Israel has barred journalists from Gaza, we are hearing from even fewer Palestinians than we normally would. It was already a staple of US coverage that many more Israelis are typically interviewed "on the street" than Palestinians.
  • Whose dead count. Until the Palestinian death total really soared, the Times and other US media groups were treating fatalities on a 1-to-1 basis, this despite the fact that Palestinian losses greatly exceeded Israeli losses from the very first day. Over the decades of the occupation, the probability that an Israeli fatality goes reported has been vastly greater than the probability that a Palestinian one does. The usual fig leaf here? Newsworthiness. (A sobering, presumably unintentional, admission.)
  • Suffering. The conditions in the territories are routinely described incompletely or not at all. Those who insist on raising the issue of Palestinian suffering will often find themselves accused of playing the "blame game" or of unfairly claiming that "our suffering is greater than yours." The catch? Palestinians are suffering more. Simple fact.
  • The buddy system. Leading reporters for the Times and others live in Israel, not the territories, never the territories. Mere association would understandably foster sympathy for those associated with. Israel further fosters this with an exceptionally competent media management, spin control, manipulation system.
  • Prominent critics of Israeli behavior are downplayed or dismissed. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have both described conditions in the territories as apartheid, both have been largely ignored. When President Jimmy Carter condemned Israel behavior, the Times did hatchet job on him, citing the notoriously pro-Israel Alan Dershowitz (without any mention at all of Dershowitz's record on the subject.).
  • Israel operates a small army of spin controllers (including "historian" Michael Oren) whose job it is to "guide" western coverage.
  • If the Times (or NPR's or CNN's) coverage is consistently pro-Palestinian, how is it that most Americans are not even aware that Israel occupies the Palestinian territories. (Yes, a fact borne out by at least two studies.)
Not conclusive, but I'm only getting started. currently has a great piece surveying British coverage of the Gaza attacks with the Serbian attacks on Kosovo in the 1990s.

In '99 Europe and North America rallied to condemn Serbian attacks. Indeed, Serbia was charged with genocide and since then several Serbian figures have been brought to trial in the Hague. Kosovo did attack Serbian forces and in some cases civilians. But this did not stop the charges against Serbia. Casualties rates among Kosovars were then what Palestinian casualty rates are now approaching. And Kosovo had not suffered months of crippling blockades and years of occupation and land theft.

Now, however, nothing comparable to the charges leveled against Serbia is being leveled against Israel.

There was no privileged "middle" in the Serbian-Kosovan conflict. But here there is.

The middle is not the privileged position of "Truth". It is the fig leaf for wrongdoing. For political reasons, among others, neither the US nor Europe will charge Israel with the crimes is unambiguously committing. So, assert the "Virtue of the Middle", assert — tacitly — the equal moral status of the two sides (while arming and funding one and often explicitly asserting the moral superiority of that one) to avoid a costly admission regarding the crimes of the client.


"Here Comes Kosovo." Roger Cohen. The New York Times. February 14, 2008

[more to come]


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