Monday, May 7, 2007

About Nicholas Berg

I had kept meaning to write down a few stray thoughts from your visit but things kept getting in the way.

It was only after you left that it dawned on me why I objected to describing the strategy of corporations regarding [see "MSG and Fears of the Yellow Race"] MSG as a “conspiracy.” My objection to the word was not because corporations did not act stealthily in the matter (I assume they did; such is “PR”), nor because their aim was not to subvert the public good for their own gain, but because “conspiracy” as a word belittles and mocks. “Conspiracy” implies “over-active imagination,” “paranoia,” and in general the fact that one’s suspicions are not just self-generated but worse, the kiss of death in American politics – out of the mainstream.

But I think my hypothesis, still unresearched, is justified. Numerous examples exist of corporations suppressing evidence of their own wrongdoing for private gain. What was CNN doing in hiding the story of Hussein’s torture of their employees but this very thing? What of the corporations which confidently asserted the harmlessness of DDT in the 50s when there was no evidence either way? What of Fox News killing the story examining the health impact of Monsanto’s bovine hormone in the ‘90s? When only the bottom line matters, higher goods like “truth,” “health,” and “transparency,” are very easily pushed aside.

As for the proposal that Americans watch Berg’s execution, I think one can take it either as a statement of principle – and applicable in general – or as a nationalist statement. By nationalist I mean a position meant to apply only to one nationality – one’s own – and not others. I consider such proposals and positions to be essentially “opportunistic,” because they seek opportunities to reserve for one’s own nationality the right to commit certain acts. I think this proposal is probably nationalistic, but without hearing or reading it from the person you mentioned, I cannot be sure. Support for the war on the Right is generally expressed in nationalist terms, not philosophical or moral terms. (Bush uses moral terms in order to appeal to the center, of course.) I doubt, for example, that proponents of the doctrine of preemptive war would agree that every country has the right to attack other countries. This doctrine applies, I suspect, only to the US and its friends – democratic or not.

The men who behead foreigners on camera are certainly nationalist, believing that they as Arabs have a particular right to do so, warranted by the circumstances. Hence they take a morally relativistic position: normally it is wrong to do this, but in these circumstances, it is justified. No doubt the American commentator too would not normally advocate the watching of the death of an innocent man, but in the circumstances, and for America in particular, it ought to be done. Atrocities and barbarous acts are always justified, relativistically, by what “the other side” is doing. And certainly while advocating people watch Berg’s death is nothing like the atrocity of actually killing him, such a proposal does nevertheless seek to use his death for what I consider an immoral end: to lower American’s moral standards. The more we view the atrocities of others, the more we are willing to commit bloody acts ourselves (euphemistically called “supporting the war”). I do not consider such an aim to be worthy of a great country, and I am surprised that people who call themselves Christians would advocate that we become more like the savages we face. Abraham Lincoln would have seen through this ploy very easily.

If the proposal stated that all parties to the conflict should watch images of atrocities done only to themselves, rather than to the “other side,” then the effect of course would be an intensification of mutual demonization and the spilling of more blood. Advocating that in principle all people should bear witness to the suffering of both sides would, on the other hand, serve to humanize the “enemy” and decrease the appetite for war. I personally would advocate such a principled, universal, exposure to the effects of war. I would advocate an end to media censorship of the war. People who seek to intensify war, on the other hand, tend to want a selective censorship of the enemy’s suffering and a selective showing of one’s own side’s suffering. It is the latter position – a selective, opportunistic emphasis on one’s own victimization – that best fits the proposal you described to me in July. This is nationalism, as opposed to a morality that applies universally to all.

The Arab media has been consistently criticized in the American media for constantly showing images of Arab death and suffering. It is said in the US press that this practice leads to a sense of victimization, humiliation, and finally, outrage. No doubt this is the case. The charge against the Arab media is that they incite Arabs to hate the United States. These charges include the point that such overexposure breeds a culture of victimhood. The American charge is that the Arab media is, in my terms, nationalistic and thus unable to understand the other side.

In the US, in contrast, few images of human suffering, whether Arab or American, appear on TV. Death and decimation is described in written reports. Photo or video that is shown here usually show the aftermath of carbombs or missile strikes, but very rarely do we see pictures of wounded or dead – whether Arabs or Americans. Why is this? Perhaps the general aim of the American media is to hide the basic brutality of the war – or rather, to minimize it visually. In the US media, the war is presented as a principled war, but with nationalist trappings. American deaths are counted and described; Arab deaths are sometimes described but not counted. If the media were to begin hyping American suffering even more, it would begin to look more and more like a nationalist war: violence unleashed for the benefit of one’s own side. In my opinion, the US media plays along with the government’s story that this is a war of principle by downplaying (visually) its brutality. The proponent of watching Berg’s killing is in essence arguing that, since the story about this war as a war to benefit others is failing – no Arabs really want us there, and never asked us to be there – then it is time to push the blood-lust, “war of civilizations” aspect. It is time, in his opinion, to create a culture of victimhood among Americans which would lower American’s resistance to increased violence and death. This aim entails breaking the taboo on watching images of violence done to individual Americans.

I assume the proponent of watching Berg’s death would like to break this censorship or self-censorship of the US media. He wants this censorship to end for depictions of atrocities against Americans; this same censorship should continue, I assume, for images of Arab death. Video of civilians in Fallujah dying by the dozens under US attack in the spring would not qualify for his aim, which is to create the rage of victimhood and martyrdom among Americans. If such strategies work – and they may, the more the war drags on unsuccessfully – then the original story of the war waged idealistically, for principle, will disappear in narcissistic anger and rage. He would like Americans to learn the same sense of outrage and victimhood displayed by Arabs. The interesting part of this aim is, of course, that Americans started the war and have suffered far fewer dead than the Arabs, not to mention suffering no destruction of our cities. The Arabs are not unjustified in seeing themselves as victims. They most certainly are: first under Hussein, then under Bremer, now under Allawi and Negroponte. America is hardly a victim, and I, liberal that I am, refuse to consider myself one. I will let the conservatives play that disingenuous role: no one who drives a big car and enjoys DVD’s, paved roads, clean water, and air conditioning is a victim.

Of course, the US government has played the victim card ever since 9/11. If it plays it more openly in the future, I would not be surprised. I never believed the Iraq war to be about principle, but only about hegemonic nationalism masquerading in principles. If desensitizing our moral consciences by watching brutality is what is required to keep up support, I am not surprised that the nationalists would propose it. They would propose anything to achieve their violent aims.

But the impact of images is not at all predictable. Showing Berg’s death to many Americans may not necessarily increase support for the war. The fact that Berg was only in Iraq because of the American invasion, and thus died as a direct result of the war, is one example of how watching his death could very easily weaken support for the war. Iraq was only a magnet for anti-US terrorists after March 2003.

Finally, from the moral angle, I consider the moment of death to be a moment of supreme vulnerability, loss, and even holiness. To view such a thing is an intimacy which, uninvited, constitutes a violation. The proponent you cite would exploit this degradation and barbarity, this tragedy, in order to support further killing. What results is war for revenge, not for democracy. And America sinks to the level of the Israelis, our morality progressively eaten away by our brutal acts until it is a mere shell. To exploit the death of a young idealist in order to fuel a nationalist war of victimhood and vengeance, is only to add our barbarism to their atrocity.

Hearing such proposals, I am even clearer about the contradiction between basic morals and nationalism – the opportunistic manipulation of images to create a culture of (false) victimization. There is nothing within the Christian tradition which would support such an idea.

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