For the news media in the US, ideas have no importance. Only words count. They function as badges of identity. In the 20th century, nutritionists bandied the slogan, “You are what you eat.” Despite the warning, obesity and diabetes have continued to spread. In today’s “woke” society, you are not so much what you eat, but the words you choose to use and the words you know how to avoid. Every American needs a list of offensive words to banish from their vocabulary. The various social media people subscribe to play an important role in establishing those lists. The owners of the media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. — have taken on a major part of that burden, and, of course, the users of social media have honed their collective skills at the cancelling such lists permit.
The list is constantly growing. This past week, John Dickerson, interviewing Senator Bernie Sanders on the prestigious establishment media program, CBS’ Face the Nation, used the occasion to make a major contribution to the list. The word he selected for permanent exile from conversations about Israel is “apartheid.”
In the era of fake news, some things simply stand as facts. For example, for any serious political analyst with an objective understanding of historical governments, Israel is an apartheid society. Full stop. The only reason to cast doubt on that assertion is the fact the word is native to neither Hebrew nor English. A purist might say it can only apply to a country where Afrikaans is spoken. Israel has not succeeded in replicating every detail of South Africa’s notorious system of racial segregation, but it has produced something so close in act and spirit that the two systems can easily be confounded.
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Not many Israelis speak Afrikaans, but the Israeli government hates the word and has decided that uttering constitutes a confession of anti-Semitism. And, of course, because Israel hates it, right-thinking Americans automatically reject it. That was clearly Dickerson’s message to Bernie Sanders. Like any self-respecting establishment journalist in the US, Dickerson believes in always aligning one’s thought and approved vocabulary with the good guys while opposing the bad guys. As the Israelis are the good guys, they should control the vocabulary we use to describe them.
Sanders dared to object to the automatic alignment of US thinking (and vocabulary) with Israel. Instead, he advocates “an even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Dickerson, who knows the good guys from the bad, saw his opportunity to challenge Sanders. “You mentioned an even-handed approach … How do you have an even-handed approach to terrorists who want to destroy Israel?”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
An ideal shared by the established media in the United States that consists of presenting all issues as a contest between two rivals (one of whom is identified as less legitimate) while ensuring that, in the interest of fair play, the weaker one will be allowed to make one point before the dominant position steps in to crush it by refusing to acknowledge any form of reasoning put forward to defend itself.
In this case, Dickerson wastes no time trying to appear objective. Rather than asking Sanders what an even-handed approach would look like, he cites Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tendentious criticism of Sanders, rejecting even the possibility of being even-handed. It isn’t about the suffering Palestinians. It’s about the terrorist organization, Hamas. Consideration of the people and their history can only be a distraction. Conflicts are about the struggle for power, a contest between the good guys and the bad guys.
Leaving aside Palestinian misery or the fact cited by Sanders that “the Netanyahu government has become extremely right wing and that there are people in the Israeli government now who are overt racists,” Dickerson moves on to a more important point: the recrudescence of anti-Semitism in the US. He notes that “there were 193 reports of anti-Semitic incidents this week, up from 131 the previous week.” This permits him to counter Sanders’ claim that it’s “possible to be a critic of Israeli policy, but not be anti-Semitic” by remarking that “it doesn’t seem to be playing out that way with this uptick in random attacks.” Sanders is too polite to point out the absurdity of Dickerson’s logic. The fact that anti-Semitism exists for some people, and that its manifestation tends to increase during moments of conflict, in no way implies that those, like Sanders himself, who criticize Israeli policy must be anti-Semitic.
But just mentioning anti-Semitism allows Dickerson to score a point. In any conversation, as soon as anti-Semitism is mentioned, every other issue pales in significance and fades into obscurity. That is how the establishment media, including the supposedly left-wing Guardian newspaper, destroyed Jeremy Corbyn’s reputation in the UK. It has even been used against the Jewish Sanders himself. Dickerson knows it’s the easiest way to end a debate on the consequences of Israel’s actions.
All this leads up to the big question, the scandalous fact that other progressive Democrats have begun using a forbidden word: apartheid. Dickerson advertises his disgust, calling it “that kind of language,” even though it’s merely a word with clear historical connotations. He blames “that word” for increasing “the level of vitriol that has contributed to this anti-Semitism.” Put on the defensive, Sanders responds: “I think we should tone down the rhetoric. I think our goal is very simple. It is to understand that what’s going on in Gaza today.” Sanders vainly wants to put all these questions in their real historical context. Dickerson sees no need for history.
The not-quite-but-nearly establishment outlet, The Huffington Post, seized on Sanders’ reply to back up Dickerson’s assault while developing a somewhat more even-handed account. The author of the article, Sanjana Karanth, cites elements of the historical background rather than representing it as a simple contest between Netanyahu (the good guy) and Hamas (the bad guy). She delves into the meaning of apartheid: a regime that “uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another.”
She cites the members of Congress who accused Israel of being an apartheid state. Dickerson cited only two witnesses, Netanyahu and Biden. Karanth makes the pertinent point that Israel’s critics vehemently condemn anti-Semitism, disproving Dickerson’s claim that the two are inextricably entangled.
But then Karanth offers the disingenuous comment that spokespersons for representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib “did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on whether they would follow Sanders’s recommendation and stop calling Israel an apartheid government.” Sanders never suggested banning the word or the idea of apartheid. At most, by suggesting the critics “tone down the rhetoric,” he was suggesting it would be prudent not to speak the truth too boldly, given the current hypersensitivity of the American media. And yet the title of Karanth’s article reads: “Bernie Sanders: Progressives Should ‘Tone Down’ Calling Israel An ‘Apartheid’ State.”
Karanth then switches gears and cites some other voices to demonstrate that the attribution of apartheid to Israel has some merit. This included South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s remark “that the violence in Gaza reminded him of the apartheid era in his own country.”
These two examples, from the corporate giant CBS and the corporate-owned but more freewheeling Huffington Post, illustrate one of the most serious failings of US media. We could call it the hyperreal problem of even-handedness. It is hyperreal because commercial news media clearly adhere to what they consider a “safe” editorial stance, discouraging them from being even-handed while at the same time trying to appear objective.
Investigative reporter and media commentator Matt Taibbi weighs in on the issue this week, remarking that “the news business is a high-speed operation whose top decision-makers are working from a knowledge level of near-zero about most things, at best just making an honest effort at hitting the moving target of truth.” But most media have also strictly defined their “zones of truth,” which defines the truths they will talk about and the ones they will avoid.
Dickerson, for example, can talk about the truth that Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization, but he avoids acknowledging the truth about living conditions in Palestine. When you combine zones of truth with near-zero knowledge, it’s no wonder people have little confidence in the news media.
*[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 The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.