My conservative friends ask me how I can be supportive of Obama given his stance on Israel. I usually explain to them what friendship is like and point out how they are getting hysterical over little. His relationship with Israel is no different than that between two friends who argue politics, often think the other is crazy, but each is the first to call the other in time of trouble. Sure things are a little tough at the moment and Netanyahu’s visit certainly was an offense, but they still have each other’s back.
Conservative Republicans and blind Israel supporters continue to cast Obama in the role of Israel’s antagonist. They embrace Netanyahu and criticize Obama. Obama is regularly cast as unsympathetic toward Israel or, worse, ignorant of Israel’s true security needs. Those on the fringe end of the conservative spectrum, the ones that call Obama a socialist, continue to believe that Obama prefers international liberal rights to individual group rights. Consequently, they assume Obama is willing to kick Israel to the curb while placating Arabs and the international left.
Those of us who spend many waking hours thinking, or writing, or teaching about these issues are not surprised that the big brother and little brother fight. The suggestion that a two state solution use borders somewhere along the 1967 lines is so common in the literature and in discussions about resolving the conflict that the statement has little effect on me. Most people, including the majority of the Israeli public, prefer a two state solution with borders being defined as somewhere along 67 lines. Netanyahu is correct that those borders would not be sufficiently defensible. But with buffer zones, electronic surveillance, and swaps it’s possible to establish borders for a Palestinian state. To pounce on this single statement was simply inaccurate and unfair.
Moreover, Obama’s has made some very supportive statements throughout his presidency. And playing politics or simply grubbing for the Jewish vote does not explain these comments
because they commit Obama to a course of action. Hence Obama told AIPAC that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.” This is an unbelievably provocative statement and probably will not be included in some final two state solution. Obama has stated clearly that the two state solution is subject to negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians in order to determine a final status. But even with the latest moves in the UN I bet this issue just fades away. Any ultimate solution will be negotiated with the Israelis and Palestinians. I trust Israel will do nothing that undermines its own security.
Obama has chastised Assad; he has encouraged Yemen’s president Saleh to leave office; he has supported the people in the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. Calling on him to send in troops or overtly assert American power is simply politically irresponsible. Obama has recognized emphatically the special relationship between Israel and the United States.
Obama is not trying to appeal to everyone. He is encouraging the Israelis to make necessary movements in an effort to stimulate discussion. Right now nothing is going on. Netanyahu is not going to negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas; he’s adamant about 67 borders not being defensible so he wants to encroach into land east of Jerusalem toward the Jordan River. The Arab world is in flux so it does not seem to be the time for discussions. I credit Obama was trying to encourage additional contact.
Having said all this, it is clear that Netanyahu is not Obama’s favorite international leader. Obama does have a more accommodating and diplomatic style whereas Netanyahu knows exactly what he thinks and has little interest in modifying it. But Obama believes that he is serving the needs of peace and thereby the needs of Israel. He has acknowledged the problems of dealing with Hamas. He knows that the 67 borders will require adjustments and land swaps. And Obama supports and has stated as such Israel’s right to be a Jewish and democratic state, including its capacity to defend itself. This is important because the Jewish nature of the state remains problematic. Israel faces tremendous demographic pressures as well as political ones that threaten the Jewish and democratic nature of the state. Netanyahu is making a mistake if he thinks the special nature of the US – Israel relationship means he can behave any way he wants. The world grows weary of this conflict and is already turning its attention elsewhere, and everyone’s patience has limitations.
Obama was very helpful to Israel by avoiding issues such as the Arab Peace Initiative, settlements, and discussion of refugees. It takes leadership to talk about the Middle East “as it should be.” Obama recognizes that the current situation is untenable, and that any UN vote will precipitate many problems. Of course, Obama’s primary lesson is to value human
rights over locked-jaw nationalism. In the past Obama has recognized Arab freedom fighters and advocates for democracy and rhetorically positioned them along with Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Praise for Arab freedom fighters is good for Israel.
Post based on May 25, 2011 post
Well, Netanyahu has been elected for an historic fourth time. His path to the Prime Minister’ s office this time is strewn with damaged relationships (think US), international political stunts (speech before Congress), the race card (“the Arabs are voting in droves”), and desperate political appeals (“there will be no Palestinian state”). As much as I understand that he can be a charismatic leader, and Israelis obviously respect him, I also cannot shake the feeling that he is increasingly embarrassing. He has moved from being a strong and impressive leader to just another crude politician. But he also seems to have lost his political sophistication by failing to satisfactorily consider the negative consequences of his behavior. Let’s look at a few examples.
First, trying to scare Israelis about how many Arabs are voting was equated by the White House to the tactics of Southern racists who tried to scare the population about the black vote. Now there is a smart move if you’re dealing with the Obama administration. This is a president who is steeped in issues both professionally and personally related to minority rights. They were not going to be sympathetic to such talk.
Secondly, the statement about there being no Palestinian state, as a few observers have pointed out, undercuts the US argument in the United Nations. We have consistently supported Israel on the basis of bilateral negotiations; that is, the argument has been that solutions should emerge from discussions between the two sides. But if Israel is on record as opposing the future Palestinian state then why have the negotiations in the first place. Then again, Bibi does not want the UN to be involved in outlining a Palestinian state anyway.
There just is not going to be a Palestinian state on Netanyahu’s watch. Netanyahu is not going to be the leader of Israel who goes down in history as responsible for the establishment of the Palestinian state. And this is why Netanyahu is actually dangerous for Israel. No one can think about Israel in the future as an intact stable political system that is both democratic and Jewish without imagining a separate Palestinian state. Netanyahu has become a force leading increasingly in the direction of one state and all sorts of demographic difficulties.
I want to underscore the importance of a stable Palestinian Authority. Israel and the United States subcontract out security issues and border patrol to the Palestinian Authority and as they teeter things get more unstable. Even Israel would rather deal with the Palestinian Authority then some other more politicized and religiously fueled group (e.g. Hamas). So there are incentives to keep the Palestinian Authority stable even though this is distasteful to Netanyahu. Of course, there is the entire matter of settlements which I will not take up here but suffice it to say that Netanyahu’s predatory settlement expansion is a major sticking point.
Finally, there is the looming presidential campaign and US politics. Leaders of the Democratic Party have to find a way for Hillary to run to the right of Obama on Israel if she wants to guarantee the Jewish vote. Running to the right of Obama on Israel is not particularly difficult but it would be far easier for her to run if there is an actual UN resolution outlining final status parameters.
It is distressing that Israel continues to reelect the one person who is resistant to final status preparations. I just have the feeling that Bibi’s heart isn’t in it and he is trying to play both sides. What I mean by that is Netanyahu fundamentally rejects the idea of a Palestinian state, but must present himself as receptive to it. The US will maintain its deep commitment to Israel, but Bibi is not making it any easier.
Just for the fun of it if you want to hear Minister Farrakhan’s take on Israel and Netanyahu click here.
I was listening to an old Charlie Rose interview (from about two years ago) with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Mohammed Khazaee. At the end of the interview Rose asked the ambassador if he had seen the movie Argo about the escape of some Westerners from Iran during the revolution. Khazaee said that he had seen the movie and there were numerous mistakes such as Iranian linguistic conventions for “hello” and “goodbye.” He then went on to demand the movie producers (that would be George Clooney) apologize to the Iranian people for this great insult. Such heated and indignant insults simply demand retribution! Again, I thought about how these demands for an apology were more damaging than anything else and tensions would diminish if people just “didn’t give a damn.”
Muslims regularly report that they feel humiliated by the West, which most Westerners do not understand, and some genuine political events notwithstanding, there seems to be little reason to feel such humiliation. Let’s take a brief look at the value of not giving a damn, or the philosophy of apathy.
I’m not suggesting that we should not care about some things just that too many people care about too many things. One of the tricks of maturity for both an individual and an ethnopolitical group is to develop a sufficiently strong self-esteem that you find little interest in caring about greed, status, self-righteousness, and minor slights. Of course, care about community, the environment, and fairness but always maintain enough empathy and knowledge of the other side to temper your own feelings and recognize even minor legitimacies of the other side. Moreover, we value passion and engagement but it is not worth being passionate and engaged in something you have little control over and can even do without. It is possible to care too much and hence hurt others with words and deeds.
Again, I’m not diminishing the intensity and difficulties of ethnopolitical conflict such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I understand enough about human psychology to understand the accumulation of anger and distorted messages that result from generations of conflict. But containing and framing that anger is equally as important. Just as every child who matures into adulthood should understand the mistakes his or her parents made, it’s equally as important for personal development and maturation to “get over those mistakes.” The same is true for conflict groups; there are certain slights and humiliations that must recede into the background. Here are a few additional suggestions: 1. Most other groups – most, not all – don’t care about you. If you do not bother them they will not bother you. 2. You do not have to be friends with everyone; you do not have to like everyone in the same way. 3. A certain amount of obscurity is desirable. There’s a pleasure in fading into the background and not being noticed. The people engulfed in the passions of political conflict could use a few more experiences where they shrug their shoulders and sound like teenagers. They should say things every once in a while like “whatever.”
Anything interesting, novel, or exciting about Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was absorbed by the flap over the diplomatic slight. And even if President Obama was feigning a gigantic yawn to signal his disinterest, it was an apt response. To be sure, the Prime Minister is an interesting and engaging fellow who is always worth listening to. But this time there was very little new and the content of the speech was rather bland.
Benjamin Netanyahu lives in a world of 1% decisions. These are decisions that have a low probability of occurrence (1%), but the consequences of being wrong are catastrophic. Hence, the probability of Iran actually using a nuclear weapon – even on Israel – is small, but if you are wrong, well, you will not recover. Decision-makers in these conditions of 1% decisions usually figure they have to protect themselves, that they cannot take the chance of being wrong, so they respond aggressively in order to prevent the low probability occurrence in the first place. This sort of thinking and decision strategizing escalates the consequences quickly. One side, say Netanyahu and Israel, immediately takes more extreme measures because even though the threat is small it is existential. What Netanyahu would really like, although he will not say this directly, is for the United States to bomb Iran. I don’t think this is going to happen under any sort of President but clearly the Prime Minister is trying to scare the United States so we will react more aggressively.
I actually waited a little while before posting about Netanyahu’s speech because I wanted to see what issues emerged. I was pretty sure he would do three things. First, as I said above, he would try to scare the United States into feeling the same existential threat as Israelis. That is, he would work to enlist the support of the United States (and especially the people in that room) with some bonding discourse characteristic of groups with much in common. There would be lots of references to the shared cultural, political, and democratic nature of the United States and Israel. Secondly, I was quite convinced he would portray Iran as a crazed Islamic Republic seeking to dominate first Arab capitals and someday Western ones. There would be references to religious extremism and the triumphalist mentality of jihadism. And third, I knew he would argue that the current efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear capabilities or stop it completely through negotiations was either impossible or as he put it a “bad deal.” He did criticize the nuclear deal implying everybody’s naïveté but his own.
Israel’s foreign policy is based on existential threat. And one cannot be naïve, they do have their share of enemies and anti-Semitism and the equation of Zionism with colonialism is on the increase. But from a rather “rational” standpoint rather than the gut feeling that describes most thinking about Iran’s barbaric and aggressive nature it is just as easy to argue that Iran would not use a nuclear weapon. First, if Iran used a weapon they certainly know that they would invite a response. It would justify the other country, namely Israel, using their weapons. Secondly, any culture that used a nuclear weapon would immediately become an international pariah and suffer in such a way that they might not recover. Third, there are some solid ways to include the international community in Iran’s nuclear program and maintain some control to ensure that its nuclear material does not become weaponized. Netanyahu, as we saw from his acceptance of the speaking engagement without consulting the president, has a tin ear when it comes to diplomacy so why would we expect him to be any better at diplomacy when it comes to Iran?
I don’t think that other issues (such as his upcoming election) are particularly pertinent although Israelis may have enjoyed the image of their strong leader speaking to the U.S. Congress. It is possible to view Netanyahu’s appearance before the U.S. Congress, which is a fairly conservative Congress, and his bonding discourse as dangerous. When divergent groups “bridge” and try to close gaps between them, more extreme positions are moderated. So, if the Israelis and Palestinians have contact and build a bridge from the discourse of Zionism to Palestinian nation building, then extremists will be marginalized and the discourse of violence will subside. But bonding discourse, which is what Netanyahu did with the Congress, among the like-minded exaggerates differences, intensifies the sense of cohesion, and creates polarization. Netanyahu probably did not accomplish much with respect to the specifics of the treaty with Iran, and he probably did not scare too many people, but he did make his case to the world.
The only problem is that Netanyahu was talking to the wrong people. He does need to talk to the world or bond with his friends – he needs to walk over the bridge and talk to his neighbors.
One of the biggest tensions in both politics and culture is the balance between membership in an ethnic community and the sense of belonging it provides versus a more capacious mentality with respect to respecting democratic ideals of inclusiveness and fairness. Many current cultural and political problems trace their roots to multicultural situations and settings where social cohesion is lost as settings become more diverse. Consequently, politics is essentially about the management of differences. And one of the most difficult differences to manage is ethnic identity which offers a strong sense of belonging but is quite dumbfounded when it comes to developing intergroup cooperation and an identity sufficiently broad enough to include both sides of a conflict.
The “received” deliberative democracy literature is mostly broad and normative focusing on abstractions about how to reconcile differences in a democratic manner. But one of the underappreciated difficulties of the more theoretical approach to deliberation is that it fails to sufficiently embrace the matter of power asymmetries. These are when values and interests are deeply entrenched and inequality is part of the natural state of affairs between two groups such that one side is economically and militarily superior.
The first and most important question is how one imagines deeply divided societies or groups coming together. Ethnopolitically divided societies might live near each other and tolerate a side-by-side existence, but they can’t share trust and a sense of community. The two sides must ultimately work to transform the context, the individuals, and their cultural differences in order to create a relationship rooted more in mutuality than rank group identification. On one level, this involves transforming identities – which is theoretically possible because identities are described as social constructions which means they can be constructed, deconstructed, and reorganized. This is the transformative and epistemic sense of deliberation which believes in the gradual process of creating new relationships and shared communities. Again, the question remains as to how this transformation happens. Or, what is the mechanism or interaction pattern responsible for achieving this new state of affairs.
Rigorous and serious deliberation is an antidote to communication based on bargaining, trading off interests, and manipulations designed to achieve private goals. Deliberation is about interest and preference formation. But in the case of deliberation for divided societies power asymmetries must be accounted for. In fact, it makes little sense to ignore just the defining issue that is the root of the conflict. Differences between divided societies are usually moral and cultural in nature but it is close to impossible to arrive at moral consensus between ethnopolitically separated groups. This is where what I call “Reasonable Disagreement” (Chapter 3 in my most recent book Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict) can be helpful. Reasonable disagreement – the details of which are beyond the concerns of this posting – begins by treating the other not as an enemy but as an adversary as Iris Young argues. Reasonable disagreement is simply the assumption that there is more than one defensible way to make an argument or hold a belief. It recognizes that one group’s worldview is not necessarily or clearly superior or correct. There is simply no way to manage differences and develop cultural sensitivity between groups without their remaining gaps of meaning and understanding that simply must be tolerated.
Viewing the other side of a divided society as an “enemy” requires vanquishing him or her because the other side is typically considered wrong and worthy of annihilation (either literally or symbolically). “Adversaries”, on the other hand, are respected worthy opponents that cannot be thoroughly vanquished. Reasonable disagreement has two senses: the first is as a political value to be nurtured and developed in a democratic society. It is a foundational plank of the requirements for tolerance and diversity in liberal democratic societies. The second sense is as an epistemic value responsible for new and creative decision-making.
I think the challenges of ethnopolitically divided societies are going to be the subject of increasing research and theoretical attention in the future – and rightfully so.
I’ve been a little surprised at the number of people who want the President of the United States, a man of dignity and diplomacy, to sound like some macho character out of a movie. Obama has lately been chastised for not labeling ISIS an Islamic threat and identifying its specific religious motivations. I personally have no problem recognizing the religious roots of ISIS despicable behavior and have even pointed it out myself on occasion. But it is not fitting for the President who speaks to numerous audiences and is responsible for maintaining the peace and representing the interests of diverse groups (even mainstream Muslims).
When it comes to the language of contention as soon as you label a group that label begins the construction process – the construction of characteristics and emotional responses associated with the group. “Naming” is the first step in the stereotype and prejudice formation process. As soon as ISIS or some other jihadist group is named and becomes increasingly defined as “Muslim” the name becomes the basis for perceptual discriminability and these characteristics are more likely to become the basis for defining groups.
Very simply, by labeling these groups as Islamic the act of categorizing them triggers negative stereotypes associated with the term “Islamic.” Consequently, the problem is exacerbated rather than managed. Moreover, labeling extremist groups as Muslim exaggerates ingroup-outgroup biases and increases the sense of essentialism that accompanies the definition of outgroups. Having a world leader label the international criminal behavior of groups such as ISIS just makes them more salient.
Hate is a powerful unifying passion and it is even more dominant in extremist movements. As soon as a movement or ideology is associated with “hate” other meanings creep in – meanings such as disgust, fear, contempt, and others. Elites and those with regular public voices (such as the President of the United States) can more easily energize the feelings of ordinary people against groups labeled negatively in some way. And this activates what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” The story below exemplifies the fragile state of group relationships when they are isolated and differentiated to such a degree that “any difference seems to be a difference”.
I was walking across a bridge one sunny day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: ‘Stop. Don’t do it.’
‘Why shouldn’t I?’ he asked.
‘Well, there’s so much to live for!’
‘Are you religious?’
He said: ‘Yes.’
I said. ‘Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?’
‘Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
‘Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?’
‘Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?’
‘Baptist Church of God.’
‘Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?’
‘Reformed Baptist Church of God.’
‘Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?’
He said: ‘Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915.’
I said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off the bridge.
If the President of the United States begins to label mainstream Muslims, who are more like us than not, as dangerous or violent or any other even minor characteristic then the narcissism of small differences triggers because according to Freud and a few that follow him we reserve our most intense dislike and feelings of threat for those who are more like us than not like us. The very strange “other” can certainly be threatening but we don’t identify with that person or group. But the more a group or an individual is “nearly-me” the more I project my own distasteful qualities. The narcissist’s natural tendency to distinguish and separate himself from others causes him to exaggerate differences in the service of his narcissism. So, small differences that should be ignored or evaporate become big differences. The President of the United States can halt or prevent this process by carefully choosing his language and avoiding the “language of contention.”
Last week a respected friend and colleague sent me an email making the standard claims about how all the problems in the Middle East are the result of imperial borders, colonialism, and US foreign policy. It’s the “blame the US” refrain. If you believe the West is responsible for ISIS and Middle East violence then you are easily manipulated by the Islamic state into believing just what they want you to believe. Sure, there is much to criticize about colonialism but borders are not so central to contemporary problems. Let’s take up the case of Iraq (for additional reading go to an article in The Atlantic available here). The three provinces of Iraq – Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra – were historically treated as the one area (called Mesopotamia) and Iraq’s eastern border with Iran dates back to the early Ottoman Empire. The boundaries of Iraq are not so arbitrary. Interestingly, the country with some of the newest Western carved out borders is Jordan and it is the more stable country as a result of King Abdullah.
We fool ourselves into believing that how the Middle East was carved up after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire is responsible for all the problems. Did you ever ask yourself what it is about a political culture that allowed extremism to take root in the first place! I can give you five explanations for the spread of fundamentalist violence and jihadism. The answers to these issues are always complex, and surely the United States is not completely innocent, but the list below better captures the realities of the political system that absorbs extremism.
- It is not a stretch, and an easy connection to make, when one blames so many leaders in the Middle East who failed to deliver a semblance of prosperity and freedom. Countries like Egypt modeled their secular world on the Soviet Union rather than Western market economies and have paid the price ever since.
- Political participation is one of the last things authoritarian leaders want so they have encouraged citizens to take solace in mosques. Consequently religion and the language of religion is the most common currency. Saudi Arabia has directly supported the fundamentalist Wahhabi strand of Islam.
- Ruling elites must give up something and guide the transition to democracy and open economies, but they have failed to do so in many places. Elites are crucial for the transition to modern political systems.
- The Middle East has lived by oil and will die by oil. An economy based on one resource is doomed to fade away in time but for now provides tremendous wealth to some but not others. The Gulf economies have failed to develop in certain economic areas and once again Islam stepped in as a refuge. The work of diversifying economies has yet to be done.
- Finally, the Muslim confrontation with modernity has partially damaged the culture rendering it less able to adapt and once again reinforcing religion as the common identity binding language.
It’s natural to look for explanations for things but reducing the violence, and confusion, and complexity of the collection of countries in what we call the Middle East to American foreign policy or humiliations is not very productive.
ISIS, which probably constitutes the most stable future threat, was created by all sorts of forces very few of which are rooted in US foreign policy. An excellent reading on this matter is “Who is to blame for the rise of ISIS?” It explains how the Iraqi Army has failed to defend borders and people; the Iraqi people have not challenged ISIS sufficiently; Nouri Al-Maliki the leader of Iraq failed to put together a majority power-sharing government; and even premature troop withdrawal is partially the blame for the rise in ISIS’s power.
In the end, ISIS came to power because individuals made the choice to adopt and support the movement. They chose violence over reconciliation. The vile quality that allows ISIS to consider itself murderously superior is well enough understood in history and social scientifically. Western democracies such as the US are not primarily responsible for the creation of ISIS, but will certainly have to play a major role in its elimination.
Below is a video of Obama’s comments at the prayer breakfast where he compared the Crusades to the religious extremism of ISIS. It was a clumsy comparison and I probably would have counseled him to find another way to make the point. But he was speaking casually. Still, he was not wrong. The general principle that any exclusivist claim to truth – whether it be religious or secular – creates a psychology of sanctity and sets into motion extreme justifications is defensible.
The sense that a group or an idea is larger than us and we identify with it is basic to our evolutionary psychology. Group and ideational identification has a survival value and it is deeply set in our consciousness. That’s why people identify so strongly with political groups, national entities, belief systems of various types (communism, socialism, capitalism, Stalinism), and of course religions. But it remains true, as others have quipped before, that you will die for your ethnic or religious group but not for your golf club. You might belong to a book group and acquire some group identity as a result, but you cannot imagine dying for your book group in the same way you would for your country or your religious group. The difference is sanctity or the belief that your national or religious group and its actions have divine reality. Nobody believes their book group is divine.
In the most extreme cases death and an afterlife become a truer reality for believers. One Muslim extremist group commented after a bombing that they “chose death as a path to life” a sentiment that on its face makes no sense but upon reflection refers to a truer and higher reality yet to come. They seek and believe in a divine reality that transcends individuals and requires integration. Violence in the service of this higher divine reality is simply a tool. The Rev. Paul Hill, who killed a doctor at a women’s clinic, spent his days in jail exclaiming that “the Lord had done great things through him.”
When something is sacred it takes precedence over everything else. In the heart of the true believer nothing stands in the way of duty to God, sacred land, or artifacts. Yet it remains worth asking the question why some resort to such vicious violence and others do not. Some Christians, Jewish religious settlers, and Hindus (BJP) have all engaged in violence, and have a strong sense of the sacred, but not on the scale of ISIS. One explanation is the centrality and intensity of sanctity along with the politics that requires purification. The more this world is considered “unclean” and the next world is “more real than this reality” then moral and ethical frameworks that soften judgments of others begin to melt away.
Acting in the name of a nation or the simple politics and power of resource acquisition is a mundane concern that has pragmatic value only. But when a territory or an idea is sacred boundaries close in and walls go up with almost no room for interpretive latitude. Moreover, the actions of an individual or group hold no value when they are simply pragmatic and consequently it is easier to perpetrate violence against them. And one reason managing conflict with the sanctity motivated is so difficult is that the very act of changing your behavior either for others or because of secular incentives is understood as a violation of the sacred. It becomes proof that the “true path” is being violated.
So, it is nothing doctrinal about Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam that supports greater violence; rather, it is the intensity of the sacred.
Matti Friedman writing in The Atlantic wrote a trenchant article about what the media gets wrong with Israel. Friedman makes the point that the press is failing the public when it comes to its duty to inform and provide a platform for issues and debate. In a number of publications Friedman has pointed out stories that are purely ideological, an overemphasis on stories with a certain perspective, and a disproportionate amount of media attention on the conflict without being particularly informative. You can read The Atlantic article here.
His analysis is important because it recognizes the banality of news gathering (the pressure of deadlines, journalist fatigue, financial constraints, distractions) and how it influences news gathering and results in mistakes and minor distortions. But Friedman claims that the true explanation lies elsewhere and that the flow of information is intentionally manipulated. Here’s his explanation.
First, international journalists in Israel live in the same social context and have a certain uniformity of attitude and behavior. The people in these groups know one another and that’s why four or five stories written by different people sound alike. There is a uniformity to the stories because this group of people share information and talk on a regular basis. Journalists also tend to be liberal and that’s one reason that the Israeli story, according to Matti Friedman, is less known and understood then the Palestinian story.
The same is true for NGOs and humanitarian organizations. Journalists view them through a positive humanitarian filter and consequently write about them in the language of public relations puff pieces. The truth is that these NGOs and humanitarian organizations have political agendas, plenty of funding from international sources, and are happy to buy drinks in the American Colony Courtyard.
A disdain for Israel is almost a prerequisite for admission to this journalist social club. The conscientious new reporter arriving in Israel will spend time educating himself or herself about the conflict including its history, religion, and cultural implications. But many new journalist arrivals to Israel cling to their colleagues who already have a framework and a “story” about who’s a good guy who’s a bad guy. Many of the standard criticisms have already been described and producing a story is little more than coordinating and repackaging stories that have already been written. The Middle East is full of failed governments that are authoritarian and corrupt, but there is more likely to be a story critical of Israel than anyone else.
Friedman bluntly indicts the Associated Press for having moved from a journalistic tradition of careful description to one of advocacy. Moreover, there has developed a narrative, or a story with standard plot lines and characteristics, that is increasingly consistent and coherent for both Palestinians and Israelis. But the Israeli narrative is fueled more by ideology than facts. The standard script for Israel has more bad guys (settlers, far right politicians, IDF, Netanyahu), but the only Palestinian “bad guys” are abstract groups (e.g. Jihadists).
There has always been a gap between what journalists write and what is actually going on, but in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict the gap is too large and the distortions too intentional. The Israeli narrative, in addition to its long list of bad guys, portrays the Palestinians as weak and innocent victims and the Israelis as oppressors. Groups like Hamas choose journalists to talk to carefully and use them to magnify messages.
There is a cynical attitude about truth in the modern world which denies its existence and claims that any agreed-upon truths are social constructions anyway. Such an argument might be defensible on the basis of philosophical discourse but less so on the basis of political discourse. Much of what is written about Israel fits that narrative constructed by others and is either completely untrue or “untrue enough.” Ferreting out and reviewing as much truth as possible is a continuing journalist challenge.
There was a time when surveillance and security concerns did not trample on the rights of individuals or democratic principles because the entire matter was too difficult and cumbersome. In the old days when the threat was only ideological (e.g. communism) security issues were far less immediate and gathering information was a slow and lumbering process. But now there is a marriage of violence and digital technology. It is no accident that the correlation between terrorism and media presence and sophistication is strong and positive. As digital technology has advanced, along with the ease and availability of violence, so has terrorist activity and the technology and security requirements necessary to control it.
The threat to individual rights and democratic processes is always easy to defend when faced with rank violence. Of course we cannot let extremist ideologies and easy violent behavior dictates the political environment. But digital technology allows nonstate actors as well as other participants to engage in violence with ease by historical standards. Again, during the relatively simple period of security issues during the Cold War if an individual were a potential threat to the United States he could be detained or we could even enlist the help of others and subject the individual to legal processes. In the modern digital age the means and techniques of interrogating individuals and gathering information are less compatible with legal principles and offer more options – some of them unpleasant and questionable legally and morally.
In the Cold War if we wanted to learn secrets about somebody someone could be assigned to “tail them” and see what they could learn. This was slow, unreliable, and not a very productive use of resources. It was impossible to have enough people assigned to potential sources of information. Searching your person or your property required legal permission. New digital media can gather vast amounts of information from your cell phone, websites, credit card purchases, etc. The state has the legal right to gather information from organizations and it can all be done by a few people in a single place. Moreover, all of the electronic data about you is potentially more informative and revealing than any information obtainable from a coworker or close friend. Purely human information is fallible; people are not paying attention to what you’re doing, or you forget what you did at a certain time and place. But your cell phone and computer don’t forget. It’s all there in simple searchable form.
In the Cold War there was no technology available for massive data-gathering like collecting phone messages from entire communities. Today, the technology is available along with the software sophistication for massive meta-data collection. In fact, Facebook does the equivalent every day.
The security issues in the modern era are serious because of the easy availability of violence and technology. The security sector of the state measures itself by its ability to prevent incidents and is thus motivated to do more and more, regardless of how far the edges of acceptability are pushed, to ensure that there are no more 9/11s. These conditions threaten our democracy as they push the pendulum more towards the security side of the continuum. Still, surveillance and security are part of any state and targeting an opponent of the state capable of violence is legitimate.
Practical limits and approval from proper chains of authority are the only answer to maintain the balance between security and democracy. But new challenges and interesting questions still are on the horizon. Google and Apple, for example, are planning on encryption devices in new versions of cell phones. Security forces are legitimately concerned that this will make important information even more difficult to obtain. But such devices will strike a blow for privacy and individual rights while maintaining the tension between security and democracy.