The Problem of Being Gentle in the Holy Land

The war in Gaza has The New York Times wondering about the distortions of the truth that occur in wartime. At the same time, its correspondents cultivate their own talent for distortion by failing to recognize the reality they are supposed to be reporting on and engaging in their own methods of bending the truth … sometimes to comic effect.
Panorama Timna

Panorama Timna national park Israel © Jiri Stoklaska / shutterstock.com

October 25, 2023 02:52 EDT

The New York Times (NYT) coverage of the increasingly relevant topic of “Biden’s wars,” which he manages with no boots on the ground, has reached the point of generating journalistic nonsense. If nonsense literature, from François Rabelais and Miguel Cervantes to Laurence Sterne and Lewis Carroll is a noble genre, nonsense journalism, except when deliberately comic, such as in the case of Private Eye or The Onion, is itself nonsense. The art of twisting reality into its opposite for a generally uncomfortable but perfectly targeted laugh requires a lot of skill, which no one working for the Gray Lady has ever quite sought to acquire.

NYT’s descent into irrelevance derives from its pathological crush on and unconditional loyalty to the Washington establishment, and more particularly to the Democratic party establishment. The newspaper of record has become, more than ever, a fawning slave of the current administration led by aging Democratic President Joe Biden. Instead of following its own motto of offering “all the news that’s fit to print,” it has shown a clear preference for all the news that’s fit to distort in the interest of promoting the policies of the nation’s current leadership. I’m not the first to point out that the Democratic party’s worldview has become indistinguishable from the worldview of the US military-industrial complex, six decades after Republican President Dwight D Eisenhower’s candid warning that the growing tentacles of the MIC were at risk of overturning American democracy.

In its effort to flatter the policies of its masters in Washington, the Gray Lady spares no pains. When not engaged in boldly asserting utterly unfounded assumptions – for example, concerning Russia’s culpability for the Havana Syndrome, which we have regularly highlighted  – NYT resorts to another technique. Let’s call it the art of calculated understatement. This is particularly useful when reporting on actions by one’s own government that appear mistaken or dangerously aggressive. 

The strategy can prove risky. It works so long as the asserted fact doesn’t inadvertently produce the exact opposite of the intended reaction. Last week that happened. In an article titled “In Tel Aviv, Biden’s Embrace of Israel Came With a Gentle Warning” Peter Baker, NYT’s chief White House correspondent,” treated us to a borderline comic example of attempted understatement that, to anyone attentive to history, could be seen as an obvious inversion of reality.

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Gentle warning:

A quiet gesture — meant to appear friendly and considerate when used by someone supposedly in a position of authority or force –  that can easily produce the unintended effect of revealing one’s helplessness or simply lack of a backbone.

Contextual note

“In a way,” Baker wrote, “Mr. Biden flew to Israel on Wednesday to give the whole country a hug, to say how much America grieves with Israel and stands by Israel and has Israel’s back. But with the hug came a whisper in the ear as well, a gentle warning not to give into the ‘primal feeling,’ not to let overwhelming grief or overpowering anger drive the country to go too far as he believes America did after Sept. 11, 2001.”

When governments with a history of ideological extremism, like that of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, engage in aggressive belligerence easily inclined to slip into the category of war crimes, the idea that a powerful external moral authority might bring it back to reason with a “gentle warning” can only appear laughable. This is especially true when the warning comes from the US president, commonly referred to as “the leader of the free world.” By “free world” everyone understands, not some sort of coherent geopolitical reality, but rather the heavily financialized global economy to which all the world’s nations are now subjected.

Israel is a bona fide and influential member of the financialized global economy. That means that if it feels threatened, the “free world” will not apply any brakes even to its most extreme actions or reactions. But that is not all. The great liberal powers who write the rules by which the free world is governed feel themselves bound not only to approve Israel’s actions but also to actively support it financially and militarily. They do so despite the fact that Bibi’s governing clique has never shown any aptitude to obey anyone’s rules, either domestically or internationally.

The powers that stand up as Israel’s unwavering friends are easily recognizable. Most of them are part of NATO. Israel of course has nothing to do with NATO, just as Ukraine officially had nothing to do with NATO until a bellicose President George W Bush decided otherwise in 2008. 

In both cases, what should now be called “the NATO mentality” has become the principal defining feature of the foreign policy of Western powers. This NATO mentality, ignored or denied by Western media, is now easily recognized in the non-Western world. It can be defined as a military and militaristic attitude focused on perpetuating the unipolar order that emerged thirty years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many observers have noted that the unipolar order has already been seriously weakened. Most serious observers have begun tracking the emergence of a multipolar order.

From a diplomacy point of view, given the quasi-genocidal bombing campaign Israel is now conducting in Gaza, Biden’s “gentle warning” becomes hard to distinguish from complicity in what some are already describing as war crimes. Baker describes it as a “warning not to give into the ‘primal feeling’” associated with the US reaction to 9/11. Anyone who knows Biden’s history can only chuckle at this idea. As the Democratic Senator heading the Foreign Relations Committee two decades ago, Biden was in a position to oppose President George W. Bush’s shameless exploitation of “primal feelings.” Instead, he championed Bush’s rush to war in Iraq on false pretenses in 2003. At the time, he had had 18 months to mull over, digest and discard his own “primal feelings” in the wake of 9/11.

Another NYT reporter, David Sanger, followed Peter Baker’s lead with the gentleness meme. “Mr. Biden’s response,” he writes, “is that experience has taught him that the best way to moderate Mr. Netanyahu’s behavior is to wrap him in support — and whisper a warning into his ear.” 

Instead of holding Bibi accountable, Biden has attempted to embrace gentleness in a different way. At the very moment when the world awaits Israel’s expected ground invasion of Gaza and the international fireworks that are likely to ensue, Biden has decided to prove his commitment to justice and peace, not by reining in Netanyahu who has already promised “unrelenting attacks,” but by organizing humanitarian aid for the ever-increasing-number of civilian victims of Israel’s seemingly random bombing campaign.

Historical note

The controversy surrounding blame for the explosion at the Al-Ahli Arab hospital last week illustrates the difficulty of reporting meaningful information about Israel’s war. NYT made this point very clearly. “Covering wars is always fraught, both because journalists on the ground are often in harm’s way and because the sides at war aggressively push information in their favor. The war between Israel and Hamas has proved even more difficult than most conflicts, because it has generated vast amounts of misleading and false information online. There are so many untrue claims that some people question the true ones.”

For the attentive reader, this too produces a potentially comic effect. NYT has been no stranger to much of the “misleading and false information” generated over the past 19 months around the war in Ukraine. From creating the absurd belief that Ukraine was winning the war and was certain to come out victorious, to accusing Russia of sabotaging the Nord Stream pipeline and then ignoring Seymour Hersh’s still uncontradicted account of Washington’s culpability, NYT has enthusiastically embraced its role as an organ of White House and CIA propaganda.

The story of the “gentle warning,” for all its unintentional comedy, actually does tell us a lot about the power relationships in a world hovering uncertainly between what some persist in seeing as a comforting “rules-based” unipolar order and an emerging and seemingly inexorable redistribution of geopolitical influence and power. But NYT has consistently avoided reporting on that unfolding drama. From the rise of BRICS to the destructive chaos of Western-led supposedly “existential” wars, the historical significance of such events is a topic NYT has no time for. Its journalists seem to be more interested in the “gentle” side of the news.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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