The Grand Guignol
Thursday, August 10, 2006
If there's an artist who might understand how to capture the Israeli-Lebanon war it's French dramatist Antonin Artaud, known for his Theater of Cruelty, a company producing highly visual, wildly murderous stories, sometimes known as Grand Guignols. Dramas that were spectacularly bloody and horrific.
Artaud's work was rooted in the following ideas: most human beings are incapable of understanding the violence that drives us, but once we see it externalized, we can finally process it, then act with compassion and grace. Artaud viewed his Grand Guignols as a spiritual effort to bring the most horrific of our psychic fears to the surface. Like ancient rituals of animal sacrifice, he thought such theater could reflect back to us our own vulnerabilities under a mysterious and sometimes terrifying God.
I wonder if everyone involved with this war, from its civilian victims to willing soldiers to even those of us watching outside are all part of the actors in a piece of similarly bloody theater. Only instead of a God in the heavens, this theater piece seems to have us driven by absolutist bureaucracies in America, Israel and Iran, non-state terrorist actors and ideologies, and a general fear of a future that promised the erasing of more and more of the world's boundaries.
As an anthropologist told me when I talked to her about 9/11, the fear from terrorists weren’t started by that heinous act, only exacerbated. Rather our horror was growing organically with the rise of globalization. “People seem to like fences,” she said. “When they can’t see boundaries it is very frightening for many. Very frightening.”
That’s about the only story I can find that explains things. But then I’m probably as guilty as anyone of looking for easy narratives for a very complex story. Unfortunately, easy narratives are ruling the day, at a time when such stories are too often just inspiration to legitimate violence.
A few examples. This last Sunday (Aug. 05th) CNNs Media Matters host Howard Kurtz interviewed Thomas E. Ricks. One of America's most respected Pentagon journalists, Ricks is the author of Fiasco, a devastating account of the Bush Administration’s handling of the Iraq War.
Ricks claimed he’s heard two theories from American generals about Israel’s Lebanon campaign.
1. Israel's military is deliberately ignoring certain Hezbollah positions, allowing them to keep firing rockets. Why? So long as the rockets are flying into Israel, the IDF has an excuse to attack Lebanon.
2. Israel is targeting journalists, or giving them the sense they are, to frighten them.
Ricks has stature and seems like a no-nonsense guy. Is that reason enough that even though he offered no proof, names, or anything more substantial than a few sweeping accusations, the CNN host let them pass without an ounce of examination? As the head of a program that explores media accuracy, Kurtz showed no capacity to embrace his responsibility.
At the least, he should have pointed out clearly, if accurate, Ricks’ statement would be enough to do what Hezbollah has failed to do, namely create mass hysteria in Israel. It would mean that this Israeli government isn't just lying to foreign journalists, but that it has asked its citizens to accept the possibility of its soldiers dying, as well as demanded that hundreds of thousands of Israelis spend the last month either in bomb shelters or leave their homes... all less motivated to protect its citizens than wage war.
When Ricks claims he heard this all from some anonymous generals, I doubt he's lying. I also think Ricks knows the difference between rumors, innuendo, and truth. Well, here he was spreading innuendo, with Kurtz playing uncritical facilitator. Given the gravitas of the situation, this makes both men as bad as liars, if not worse. Because without offering context or substance they were breezily tossing inflammatory charges towards an arena which is in a raging fire.
Listening to such careless accusations, Ricks and Kurtz seemed eager to group the Israeli citizenry and its government as a monolithic block. It reminded me of the miserably provincial Europeans who I’ve met overseas who lump Americans together as all enthusiastic followers of every single policy taken by our government.
Sunday’s program made me think that we’re creeping to a similarly hyped-up period, one in which the media world is so lost in creating a clear narrative that they will grasp at anything, no matter how shallow, to come up with some analysis that momentarily sounds logical.
Earlier last week on NPR's To The Point, host Warren Olney interviewed political scientist Robert Pape. The interview followed an NYTime’s Op-Editorial Pape published that suggested that Israel can never defeat Hezbollah because it is a social movement akin, as he put it, to America's “Civil Rights movement.”
Pape’s inference was clear. Given the history of America’s Civil Rights movement, he was suggesting that if it’s a "social movement" it automatically has integrity, and thus certain success. Someone might want to remind Pape that the Klu Klux Klan was also a social movement. The fact that it had roots in a particular society did nothing to legitimate its existence or survival.
Pape has spent the last year selling a theory based on quantitative research on suicide bombers, the results published in a book that concludes that suicide bombing and terrorism only grow out of situations where people are occupied by aggressive powers. Though his Op-Ed piece didn't categorically state it, he inferred that if Israel would quit its violence against Lebanon, Hezbollah would leave Israel alone. While highly suggestive of solutions, Pape's essay had offered nothing to substantiate it.
On NPR, both he and Olney had a chance to explore or, as anthropologists say, “unpack” the theory. Instead Olney approached Pape with a brush as wide as the Hudson River. Basically, "give us what you think." So Pape simply gave boilerplate, namely such startling insights as the following: Hezbollah grew out of Israel's 1982 Lebanese invasion. That Hezbollah runs schools and hospitals. And that every day of the fighting, more and more non-fundamentalist Lebanese will become members of Hezbollah.
No argument from me. But anyone who has listened to the news about this violence for more than three minutes would have heard it all before. You'd think Olney and Pape might want to explore deeper issues motivating Hezbollah. Given the way they have never proved themselves big friends of Lebanon's own huge Palestinian refugee population, their attack on Israel at this point deserves thorough examination.
Here are some things Olney and Pape might have examined: perhaps Hezbollah was simply driven by a momentary political gain within Lebanon. Perhaps beyond Shaba Farms they are after more territory that are is part of Israel but which were open to question in the 1948 armistice. Perhaps the return of "all the prisoners" (the specificity of exactly who they are a wee little fact of which no media outlet seems willing to question, but a phrase Arab scholars like Fawaz Gerges seem to repeat without question) was really about smaller scale political interests.
But Olney or Pape didn't seem interested. In an exchange that reminded me of one of those late night infomercials that pose as talk shows, Olney turned to Joel Greenburg, reporting for the Chicago Tribune from Israel, and asked whether Israel understands Hezbollah's depth as a social force in Southern Lebanon. Greenburg answered a quick "too often it gets lost." It was as if the three men were unconsciously or consciously conspiring to sell one big idea: Israel is led by people with absolutely no idea of what they are doing, and with little morality to guide them.
That same week, on PBS Television's News Hour, host Margaret Warner interviewed two "experts" about the view of "who is winning?" The first guest was Mark Perry, part of a British-American based group called Conflicts Forum, which "promotes dialogue between the West and Islamist groups like Hezbollah." The other guest was Gal Luft, executive director of the "Institute for the Analysis of global Security," and a former lieutenant colonel in the IDF.
Luft was most convincing about his inability to do anything except toe a party line. At least Perry was animated, his pent-up posture giving him the look of an angry coach paralyzed on the sidelines by hapless referees. According to him, Hezbollah has “made it clear they're ready for a ceasefire, but they need a trade to pull that off, and they want diplomacy.” As he put it, “they made it very clear to me -- we met with the leadership of Hezbollah over the last two-and-a-half years -- that they're ready to talk, and they're ready to do a political negotiation. I don't see what's wrong with that."
At that point, I thought Warner would examine exactly of what Perry's sense of what Hezbollah's "political negotiation" consisted. She didn't. Why? Perry raised something that demanded answers. Like exactly what drives Hezbollah. Warner listened to Perry with a pained expression, as if frightened or embarrased to ask. I was hoping Luft might be inspired to inquire, himself. Instead the Israeli analyst sat there staring ahead like a man incapable of any discussion that didn't have a formulaic answer.
Honestly, if I sound upset only about Israel’s media image, it’s not just the image that worries me; it’s their entire military campaign. Honestly, Pape’s research strikes me as being about as “scientific” as a professional “Pepsi vs. Coke” marketing study; lots of data but, as the expression goes, “big whoop." Ricks seems smugly manipulative, as in, "I know what I know, and I don't have to tell you how I know but you have to believe me!" As for Perry, he seemed to have real information but, for whatever reason, not quite willing to share it.
All that said, Israel’s air war against Lebanon strikes me as indefensible. Not only have they spent far too many weeks destroying the infrastructure and lives of their neighbors, but what the hell have they accomplished for themselves? The man designing the military strategy, Dan Halutz, is the same guy who once said, so long as Israel gets a “targeted terrorist” he slept soundly despite sending his men to drop bombs that kill innocent civilians. Watching him last year interviewed by Bob Simon on CBS 60 Minutes, I remember he laughed about the craziness of Palestinian suicide bombers. At the time, he came off to me as a very careless human being. Someone whose bigotry is sold as professional certainty.
As someone who cares about Israel, their “strategy” seems to me to have a basis in nothing tangible, outside of a small country with an over-supply of air-power and human will showing how frightened it is of getting extinguished. All just seems like blind wrath. From Hezbollah I expect nothing but the worst. As Israelis find Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting next to them, Pape may prove correct about them as social movement. What he ignorantly fails to acknowledge is it’s a social movement with deeply violent and imperialistic ambitions. A movement whose rhetoric, and history, seem to make them willing to exterminate any rivals, regardless of whether they’re Israeli, Druze or even Shiite.
Regardless, the Israeli air war seems totally blind to Lebanese suffering. There will be an awful lot their leadership must answer in coming weeks and months. I would hope there was a professional press out there doing a better job of making them accountable. Not by taking strident positions but by the slow, difficult work of looking at whatever is found to give clarity. The agonizing detail work that define the value of real world detectives.
For now, in the urge “to get the story,” the media is too eager for seamless narratives to the detriment of creating any accuracy. While there’s been great coverage of the human costs of this war to both sides, on the military and political front, our media leadership is looking to put away the suspects before they even know what they have for evidence. Worse that they’re operating according to a paradigm that demands the most superficial aspect of “clarity.” Namely creating clear bumper sticker type thinking for sides to root for.
Talking with my That’s Capital colleague, Titus Levi, he pointed out the way pressures to “fill up a news hour” leads to frantic and shallow news-gathering. It’s a process that has a similarly uncontrollable momentum as a heroin addict addicted as much to ingesting himself with drugs as the effect. No longer feeling any real high, he is still willing to stick himself with infected needles, simply to maintain a psychic routine. Ultimately such folks don’t just hurt themselves. Their carelessness helps spread plagues. Like AIDS.
Finally, Israeli editors have done an awful lot of complaining about bias from the foreign press, but given that they keep their complaining hermetically sealed by restricting it to their own papers, it all sounds like whining. If they're monitoring the foreign media and have a problem with it, they should request air time. For me, the only trustworthy voice exploring what drives Hezbollah comes from Lebanon’s Daily Star, namely editor Michael Young. For some interesting viewpoints, read the links below.
August 9, 2006
Michael Young's piece in the Times - excellent
Matthias Küntzel - about Iran's Ahmadinejad, who apparently was interviewed by CBS' Michael Wallace who in publicity cheerfully reports that he "found him very intelligent." He may well be, but Kuntzel finds his type of intelligence suicidal on a massive scale.
Meron Benvenisti - an Israeli geographer and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, scathing about modern Zionism
Amotz Asa-El - an examination of this war from a Jerusalem Post writer who seems honest and accurate
Avi Sagi and Yedidya Stern - a long but excellent portrait of why Israelis may travel the world, but they are rooted where they live... someone should send to leadership in Iran, Hezbollah, and the too often-myopic so-called supporters of Palestinian rights who so often view Israel's Jewish population as some temporary visitors to a foreign land.
Imad Shaku - a remarkable piece by a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council
Robert Fulford - a more biting review of media coverage from a Canadian journalist.
Muneer Karram - from an Israeli Arab who is a doctoral student in history
Riad Ali - from an Israeli Arab news commentator
Danny Rubenstein - another remarkable piece from a terrific Israeli reporter who here writes about better times between Zionists and Lebanese Shiites
Yitzhak Laor - Israeli analyst critical of what it sees as his country's over-reliance to military solutions to political problems
Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff - a piece showing a particular Israeli take on Nasrallah
The Thinking Lebanese - a Lebanese blog co-written by Faysal Itani who may be the bravest and disciplined man who ever showed up on a New Republic message board.
Annia Ciezadlo - a Beriut writer who shows up in The New Republic and may be the bravest reporter in Lebanon. Excellent piece about Nasrallah.
Radio Open Source - while a previous post of mine criticized some of their shows, they've been refreshingly open to exploring all sides. This program featured two novelists, one Israeli and another Palestinian. It was about the only media I've heard that has offered long term hope about co-existance.
Ari Shavit - another Israeli Radio Open Source has interviewed, someone worth reading
Bitter Lemons - a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. One of the producers, Yossi Alpher, is particularly good at examining Israeli politics.
Anything by Amir Oren and Aluf Benn in Haarutz or Barry Rubin in Jerusalem Post.