Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Myth of "Both Sides"


I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all
Joni Mitchell, "Both Sides Now"

The photo above was initially misidentified by ABC-TV News in the US when announcer Diane Sawyer said it showed an "Israeli family salvaging what they can" from the devastation caused by a Palestinian rocket.  In fact, this is a portion of the wasteland in Gaza resulting from several days of bombing during Operation Protective Edge, the cutely named Israeli military campaign intended to wipe out the influence of Hamas in the Palestinian enclave that has been called by others "an open-air prison."  

From the New York Times:

Gaza Deaths Spike in 3rd Day of Air Assaults While Rockets Hit Israel

This headline two days ago is typical of the western coverage of the latest violence.  It pretends to be objective by covering "both sides" of the story.  Air assaults = rockets (both bad).  Last week I got into a Facebook debate with a couple of friends who were arguing that both Israel and Hamas were at fault for their current troubles.  These are friends who agree with my general criticism of Israel's oppression of Palestinians for the last 60 years.  But they also wanted to blame the Palestinian leaders, from Arafat to Abbas, for missing every possible opportunity to make peace with their Jewish neighbors.  I accused them of succumbing to "both sides rhetoric" in their stretch to balance blame for a situation that has defeated every peacemaker (Carter, Clinton, etc.).  By trying to see both sides as culpable, in my opinion this lazy rhetoric obscures the real culprits.

Here is a horrifying photo that shows the results of Israel's relentless bombing campaign against a captive population, a people who lack any means to defend themselves against the high-technology military hardware supplied by American taxpayers.  In its all-out war of collective punishment for several hundred rockets sent into Israeli territory (that killed no one), the victims are not terrorists but innocent civilians.  Many of them, like those lying here, are children.  Both sides?  Where are the photos of Israeli children? A French news source published a photo of Israelis sitting at night in deck chairs, eating popcorn, and watching the bombardment of Gaza. Each explosion brought cheers from the entertained crowd. Is this the other of "both sides"?

While the western press might by seduced by the myth of "both sides," in Israel there are journalists who challenge this paradigm. According to the courageous Haartez columnist Gideon Levy:
"There is no way to reach a just peace when the name of the game is the dehumanization of the Palestinians. No way to achieve peace when the demonization of the Palestinians is hammered into people’s heads day after day. Those who are convinced that every Palestinian is a suspicious person and that every Palestinian wants 'to throw the Jews into the sea' will never make peace with the Palestinians. Most Israelis are convinced of the truth of both those statements."
Farmer hugs olive tree while soldier looks on
Looking to identify both sides in the long-standing Israel/Palestine issue is morally abhorrent.  It blinds one to obvious facts.  Among them: Despite some well publicized terrorist bus bombings in Israel, the overwhelming number of casualties during the 60-year-struggle has been suffered by Palestinians.  Israel has ignored numerous United Nations resolutions calling on it to stop its territorial expansion.  Even though collective punishment is a war crime, Israel continues to target relatives of those it seeks and to demolish homes and olive groves, without even the fig leaf of law.  Israel controls access to Gaza and the West Bank and can turn off both water and electricity in the occupied territories, and has threatened to do so.  Numerous checkpoints make travel long and difficult, and the notorious wall, largely built on Palestinian land and often cutting through villages and farmland, has turned the West Bank into discontinuous ghettos (see map below).

Click on map to see shrinkage
News media usually attempt to find both sides of an issue in a quest for an objectivity which many critics believe is impossible.  Better to be obvious about one's biases, whether coming from upbringing, experience, or the powerful forces of culture, advertisers or governments.  For example, many stories propose that Israel is under siege by Arab terrorists who wish to eradicate the Jewish state despite the collateral damage to civilians caught in the middle.  But this is a chicken-and-the-egg argument.  Which came first?  Israel has paraded its victimhood for decades, despite having the most advanced military (thanks to the U.S.) in the region.  This story --- poor Israel terrorized by radical Islam -- obscures the steady theft of Palestinian land from 1947 until today and the obvious objective (to some) of the ethnic cleansing of the "Promised Land."

Finding "both sides" requires a great degree of generalization. My friends agree with me that Israel has long posed the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East and its oppression of Palestinians has done much to fuel Islamic extremism in the region.  Terrorists, after all, must use weapons of the weak to fight an overwhelmingly superior foe.  This is no excuse of injustice in whatever form it takes but it is an explanation.  For a short while after 9-11, some asked, "But why do they hate us so much?"  This question was largely abandoned in the run up to the Iraq war when Bush & Co. chose to attack a potential terrorist adversary rather than an actual one.  In rhetoric of "both sides," a future terrorist is equal to a present one.

"Both sides" rhetoric can also be found in Thailand where the forces of change, symbolized by Thaksin (the red shirts), have been struggling since the beginning of the 21st century with the conservative forces symbolized most recently by Suthep (the yellow shirts).  This way of putting it indicates an equivalence of the two forces.  When Gen. Prayuth declared a military coup seven weeks ago and took over the government, he said it was to stop the conflict between the two sides.  Many Thais bought this argument and have praised the military for stopping the endless pro- and anti-government demonstrations, the blocked streets, and the damage to the economy that harmed the wealthy as well as the poor.  He told all demonstrators, yellow as well as red, to go home while the military brought happiness back to Thailand.

Despite the rhetoric, it has become apparent since the coup that the military junta is carrying out the same agenda Suthep advocated during his seven months of agitation for the eradication of the Shinawatra regime.  The Pheu Thai government was overthrown and a new military constitution will probably make it all but impossible for anyone associated with the Shinawatra family to ever enter politics again. The double standards under the governments of Abhisit and even Yingluck, have continued. Red shirt media outlets have been shut down and leaders "invited" to government camps for an "attitude adjustment."  In Bangkok Suthep holds fund-raising parties with his supporters. Red shirts are disproportionately arrested and denied bail, while yellow shirts go free. The illusion of fairness was perpetuated by the claim that the coup's purpose was to stop the violence (which had declined even before martial law was declared) in order to allow democracy to return someday.  The general acknowledged "both sides," and had to step in like a referee to stop the fight.  But perhaps he was also the trainer of one of the fighters?

Looking at life from "both sides" is an illusion, as Joni Mitchell sings in her song.  It's a cognitive and rhetorical method to put our perceptions in boxes so as to categorize them and judge between them.  But life doesn't permit such an easy solution to the "blooming, buzzing confusion" that William James characterized as a baby's experience of the world.   We spend our lives trying to make sense out of it.  Often we are ruled by cultural and nationalist values that limit what we can see and understand.  Jews have been raised from birth to support Israel no matter what; urban and upper-class Thais have been taught to respect the monarchy and the military above all and to look down on the uneducated peasants outside of Bangkok.

It's probably impossible to avoid embracing some myths.  I was raised to believe in the myths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.  Even after learning that it's author remained a slave holder and women were denied the right to participate in politics over over 100 years, I continued to feel that the notion of government directed by "the people" is a powerful force to motivate justice and impede injustice.  The reality of course is that money and power co-opt good ideas as well as bad.  Today America is controlled by corporations and banks whomever sits in the hot seat, and foreign policy is at the service of a military designed and funded to control the world (although it's not looking very successful at the moment).  "Both Sides" rhetoric dominates domestic politics and obscures the dismal failure of the two-party system.  It shoehorns a wide variety of of perspectives into two small boxes labelled "Democrat" and "Republican."

If you want to understand the fallacy of the myth of "both sides," look at what happened in America following the Declaration of Independence and the revolution against British control.  The native peoples of the continent, who perhaps mythically helped the European settlers with poor farming skills to survive the brutal first winter, were treated as impediments to expansion of the 13 colonies.  They were dehumanized, just as the Palestinians and the Thai peasants are dehumanized today by Israelis and the Bangkok elites.  This led to their virtual elimination and confinement on reservation where many remain over 200 years later.  Were there two sides to the Indian question?

1 comment:

Loam said...

Thank you sir. May life bless you.