HomeVEA Section Arab “moderates,” demopathy, and the incomprehension of media moralism
Arab “moderates,” demopathy, and the incomprehension of media moralism
On the 9 pm (Jerusalem time), December 28, 2008, CNN International channel, anchor Ralitsa Vassileva challenged Tsipi Livni in an interview. Livni claimed that this attack was meant to strength the moderates on the Arab side. But Vassileva countered: “Couldn’t this backfire? Isn’t it more likely that the Arab moderates will necessarily rally around beleaguered Hamas? Isn’t that what we’re seeing around the Arab world?”
Not satisfied with Livni’s response, like a teacher who keeps calling on students to get the “right answer,” Vassileva then turns to Diana Buttu, an “independent Palestinian analyst.”
Livni says this should help the moderates, but, she adds helpfully, don’t you think it will help Hamas? Buttu, who is anything but “independent,” and follows the Palestinian narrative quite crudely (it’s a “massacre, a war crime… the Israelis are telling a “complete lie… Tsipi Livni’s head is in the sand…”), needs no leading questions.
This exchange, like so many others from CNN anchors (Rosemary Church, Ralitsa Vassileva) and BBC (Peter Dobbie), reflect an interesting standard in the moral reasoning of our newsmedia, a standard that, when examined closely, reveals on the one hand, a puerile notion of morality (intention doesn’t matter) and on the other such a low set of moral expectations from the Palestinians as to almost constitute a kind of unconscious (racist?) prejudice against the Arabs. And, ironically, that serves the worst elements in the Arab world and undermines the very values each of these anchors think they uphold.
In order to understand the issues at play, I have analyzed the issue of two different cultural styles of moderation at work in this conflict. On the one hand we have a “fair-weather moderate” discourse that lasts only as long as it serves “my” side (my family, clan, people, state). When it comes time to chose between a self-critical adherence to moderate principles or a “my side right or wrong” solidarity, fair-weather moderates choose solidarity over principles of reciprocity, while committed moderates choose self-criticism and the principle of reciprocity over solidarity. These two styles align closely to what I have characterized as the difference between an “honor-shame culture” and an “integrity gult culture.” For those who wish to explore this issues further, I recommend my essay “Meditations of Moderation and Demopathy,” the final paragraphs of which are included below.
During the Oslo “Peace” Process, one could see the contrast between Israeli and Palestinian “moderates” in precisely these terms. The Israeli peace camp constantly criticized Israeli extremists, in particular, the settlers who, in their PCP conception of the conflict, were the base cause of Arab hostility. The settlers’ belligerence towards their Arab neighbors was inexcusable, culpable, worthy of public denunciation in no uncertain terms. Thus Israel abounds in groups and individuals who are once fiercely Zionist and fiercely moderate, who do not hesitate to publicize every Israeli sin that they can possibly find. As opposed to Arab moderates, they move in the remarkable direction of being even more severe on their own group rather than the hostile “other.”
The Arab peace camp and NGOs might have denounced the terror of the extremists, but they never even considered arguing that those terrorists should not dominate the political and cultural public discourse. On the contrary, the Arab moderates put far more effort into “softening” the image of their extremists in the eyes of the West than they did into fighting their extremists. Indeed, the genocidal Jihadism that drives suicide terrorists to their inhumane frenzy still dominates Palestinian TV and radio and schools on both parts of the Palestinian divide (i.e., “even” where the “moderate” Abbas “governs.” Instead, the vast majority of Palestinian “moderates,” spoke little of the self-generation of these hatreds and “explained” suicide bombing as the “understandable” rage created on the one hand by Israeli intransigence and on the other by the “hopelessness and despair” that intransigence “inevitably” instilled in the suffering hearts of the Palestinians.
Human Rights organizations are the product of integrity-guilt culture. Only when you view the “other” as equal to yourself, can you develop the notion that he or she deserves the same treatment before the law as you do, both in theory (constitutional government that guarantee such rights legally) and in practice (NGOs that try to remedy the injustices of the system). Thus Human Rights Groups in the West, from the ACLU to HRW, to B’tslem, scrupulously observe the human rights of the “other,” as the real measure of a commitment to egalitarian principles – my principles applied to all sides.
Most (all?) Israeli “human rights organizations” are genuinely moderate by my definition, dedicated to documenting Israel’s violation of the human rights of others. Indeed, they are so moderate, that they will unfairly side against their own side. The excessive predilection for this counter-intuitive direction produces what Charles Jacobs calls “the Human Rights Complex.”
Palestinian HROs, on the other hand, reflect a paper-thin moderation that has no principled adherence to any kind of reciprocity. Thus, they regularly document the violation of their own human rights by the (Israeli) “other”; but when it’s time to self-criticize, they beg off; what self-criticism one finds often appears only in the foreign language version of the website. Understandably, public self-criticism is taboo in serious honor-shame cultures: it shames those criticized. And of course, in a culture where any male who wants authority is expected, allowed, even required to shed someone else’s blood for the sake of his honor, public criticism regularly elicits violence against the critic.
Thus the classic demopathic pattern emerges – Palestinian “moderates” demand their side’s human rights, even as they defend fellow Palestinians who seek not just the systematic refusal of rights to the Israeli “other,” but even their annihilation. And of course, Israeli and Jewish dupes, eager to believe that by assuring the rights of the other, peace will come, embrace the Palestinian moderates. Mix such a near-unbeatable combination of demopathy and credulity with blood libels like Al Durah, stir with the potent cry of western radical and Islamic jihadi outrage, and voilà, the demopaths delight… Durban I, and, coming soon, Durban II.
Fortunately the picture is far more interesting than this stark and disheartening contrast. There is, for example, Bassam Eid’s Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. When throughout the Second Intifada, while other Palestinian NGOs shouted Israeli genocide to the world, he remorselessly documented the systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights by Palestinian “authorities,” noting that over 15% of Palestinian casualties during that Intifada were inflicted by Palestinians on themselves! (There is no corresponding figure on the Israeli side.) When Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, he documented their brutal application of Machiavelli’s “economy of violence” in a depressing detail that should be read by every foolish pundit who talks about Hamas as a democratically elected – and therefore democratic – government.
Nor is Bassam Eid alone. MEMRI, for all the paranoid, frenzied and genocidal incitement it documents dominating the Arab and Muslim media globally, dedicates a special section to highlighting the work of real reformers, genuine moderates, in the Arab world. There we find that Lafif Lakhdar, for example, has just denounced
Hamas as another link in the chain of Palestinian rejectionism, i.e., in their tendency to refuse all suggestions of compromise. This tendency, he said, is rooted in religious extremism and brings disaster upon the Palestinians. Thus, not all Arabs think with their shoes. But these folks are always in danger of being accused of being sell outs (coconuts: brown on the outside, white on the inside), an honor-shame accusation people like Saïd make against serious intellectuals like Kanan Makiya and Fouad Ajami, and Western commentators too readily accept.
The Western acquiescence in this honor-shame demand for solidarity no matter how inexcusably Hamas behaves has reached such a consensus that news analysts have no hesitation representing it as a given. Here Alvaro de Soto, former UN envoy to the Middle East takes it as a given that the Israelis have no right to try and restrict their dealings to the moderates, whom he contemptuously refers to as “the ones who mark the x’s on the appropriate boxes…”
Rather than negotiating as if one portion of the Palestinian didn’t exist, the portion that supported Hamas in legitimate elections, the sooner it will be possible to get something serious. Because on the current path when you negotiate only with Palestinians you like and the ones you check the appropriate boxes, you won’t get anywhere.
Note that de Soto has already taken the position that Hamas — legitimately elected — has a right to the negotiating table, regardless of her stated goals, her principled acts of terror, her revolting discourse. Is this because he doesn’t know about it? Or because he is afraid to challenge it? Or because he really wants to see Israel forced to try and deal with a group that wants her destruction. In any case, he’s “objectively” a dhimmi, that is, someone subjected to Sharia law which demands public submission to Muslims.
This Western eagerness to submit to Arab honor-shame demands goes very far. It can actually have a Westerner egging on an Arab to show the kind of fraternal unity that their honorable cause demands. Here Nisha Pillai of the BBC, after having badgered Bibi Netanyahu for Israeli-caused casualties in Gaza, then challenges the Arab League spokesman (no fan of Hamas), not to moderation, but to a show of solidarity in response to Israel.
Where she has no hesitation telling Israel to play by civil rules, she has even less hesitation telling the Arabs to get their act together and fight back.
This astoundingly misplaced Western “peer-pressure” can make it difficult for Arabs to maintain “moderate” positions. Take the case of Mahmoud Abbas, who made a statement that looked a lot like that of a genuine moderate, although may well be that of a pragmatist who, like the Egyptian ruling party, happens to hate Hamas.
We want to protect Gaza, our people there, we don’t want genocide for our people. There are some who say, even if Gaza is wiped out, so be it. We reject this, this logic annot be accepted, has nothing to do with the interests of the people. We want to protect every drop of blood of our people… Here’s a stark contrast between Abbas here and Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum who assured reporters that his organization “will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood,” and the Palestinians that Abbas refers to (presumably West Bankers) who say “even if Gaza is wiped out, so be it” (note the sweeping gesture). Now how genuine is Abbas’ moderation? When the Arab street starts screaming for Israeli blood, will he hold the line? When other Arab leaders start to abandon their silence and weigh in behind Hamas as the honor-shame imperative now demands, will he hold the line?
And note the vast contrast between how flabby Arab “moderation” and how vigorous, even extreme, Israeli moderation. In Israel there’s a whole world of intellectuals ready to say something quite close to “the other side, right or wrong,” who criticize relentlessly even when their “peers” (i.e., their own people) pressure them heavily to tone down their public criticism, especially when it’s based on dubious information. Not all the demonstrations or threats in the world could get them to rally round their own flag.
The stakes here are enormous. As Farid Ghadry, President of the Reform Party of Syria (a real moderate) points out:
How could Arabs and Muslims help their societies if their program for progress is built upon violence?… [Hamas or Hizbullah] seek power instead of duty, money instead of benevolence, and longevity in both instead of renewal for the good of their people… Hizbullah and Hamas must be destroyed and the regimes in Damascus and Tehran must be changed for all Arabs and Farsi people to survive and prosper… Their poisonous rhetoric of violence feeding a frenzied mass of ignorant Arabs leaning on their extreme religion to honor their incapacity to compete with the West is destroying future generations of hopeful saviors of our culture and traditions… We Arabs must be the ones to stop Hamas and Hizbullah, rather than support their demonic and twisted logic of resisting development, enlightenment, and progress of the region. Let’s return to Ralitsa Vassileva’s question to Bibi. She assumes that the vast majority of Arab moderates are fair weather. Won’t your attack backfire? Won’t it force the moderates to side with Hamas? This is a question they repeatedly ask of their Arab “analysts” (with a distinctly leading tone), which they dutifully answer: “Of course.”
What we have here is the soft racism of low expectations. Vassileva not only does not expect real moderation from the Arabs, she assumes they will rally round their people. And the people she interviews, and introduces as “independent analysts” all represent the Arab honor-shame consensus that this is Israel’s fault and all Arabs should rally together to fight her.
Here the CNN anchor questions reporter Nic Robertson about the support for Hamas as a result of this onslaught. He first summarizes the remarks of a “human rights” reporter whom he then channels without the slightest caution: Hamas gets more support every day.
Notice how Robertson fails to inform his audience of the brutal means that Hamas uses to extract its unanimous support, or mention the alternate reading that suggests that although they’re ruthlessly intimidated into silence, as with the last time they started a bloodbath that killed many Gazans, they’re losing support.
After all, given Hamas’ revolting behavior, who would expect the people to rally around them other than someone who thinks they’re moral and rational idiots? To amend PT Barnum’s famous dictum, “the only way you can fool all of the people all of the time, is by knee-capping dissidents.” But rather than expose his audience to an alternative take, Robertson, along with his “Human Rights” worker, becomes the advocate of a united response: The Israeli Goliath is not going to pound this proud Palestinian David into submission.
Of course, when it comes to the Israelis, these same anchors have a radically different set of expectations. Challenging Bibi Netanyahu over when Israel will stop creating this humanitarian crisis, Nisha Pillai got the following response:
Her reponse to him was to interrupt and repeat her challenge — the international community’s great concern for innocent Palestinian civilians:
She’s missed the moral point entirely. He says, “watch out for playing the moral equivalency card” (in which case Israel loses the mathematical game because it kills more civilians than Hamas), because when you do, you basically favor people who target civilians. (In terms of this article, you basically support the anti-moderate honor-shame “unity” of Arab “resistance” to Israel, and feed Jihadi sense of entitlement the world over.) Her response resembles that of some of the less accomplished Israeli spokesmen who, when challenged, return to talking points rather than answer the question. Ironically she ends up answering Bibi by doing what he warned against: reiterating the scapegoating narrative that focuses exclusively on Israeli-caused civilian casualties.
Bibi patiently explains:
Her response? End of interview.
Even though one might be hard put to offer a different explanation, I don’t think her moral incomprehension reflects a lack of intelligence so much as an inability to even conceive of the vast gulf that separates Arab and Israeli moral culture. Politically correct insistence on moral equivalence makes such a thought not only inutterable, but unthinkable. In a sense, she cannot think this one through. Instead she takes refuge in an even-handedness that pleases no one except, perhaps, an audience that thinks this makes sense. And as a result, she makes a perfect dupe.
But given the huge global audience that these CNN and BBC anchors have, it offers a troubling prognosis for a troubled world. Here we find Western intellectuals incapable of even perceiving, much less analyzing the interests of the civil society in which they thrive, and which they endanger, precisely as Bibi described it, with their foolish moral equivalence.