SPEAKING FREELY Sharon and the art of self-deception
By Jason Hirthler
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
In the 1970s, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers pioneered the biological roots of self-deception and theorized that self-deceit may confer a survival advantage on humans - mostly because lying is more effective when you believe your own lies. With
nothing to hide, the telltale physical signs of deceit - flared nostrils, higher vocal register and a distracted gaze - are diminished. When peddling a false product, sincerity sells. Nowhere is this daunting proposition better exemplified than in politics.
In her tome on the origins of totalitarian politics, Hannah Arendt notes that the structural design of totalitarian systems are intended to shield the masses - but notably its leadership - from reality. In fact, totalitarian politics are marked by the insularity of the ruling regime. The effect is to reinforce the fictional narrative the inner circle has embraced, ingested, and declared allegiance to. In Nazi Germany, it was the bizarre vision of a purified Aryan species. In Stalinist Russia, it was a perverted vision of class struggle. And although America hasn't yet achieved full-blown totalitarian status, there are enough heralds of its coming to draw parallels between its practical blueprint and ours.
Media as a front organization
One popular totalitarian method by which to insulate leadership from the potentially painful realism of the outside world is through the use of front organizations. These are associations and support groups that are not technically part of the organizing regime but share its narrative and ethical assumptions. These groups serve as buffers designed to shield power from the censure of its minions. Sheltered Nazi leaders never caught a whiff of dissent or counter argument in their fascist hermitage, since counterpoint could never penetrate the wall of zealotry and reaffirmation that enveloped them.
An exemplary storyline of this kind appeared with the death of Ariel Sharon. On word of Sharon's demise after years in a blessedly harmless coma, the mainstream media leapt into action, penning and presenting a thoroughly counterfactual narrative to the public, a story invented in the inner sanctum of American and Israeli power and perpetuated through the mediasphere - not simply to the masses, but crucially back to the believing crowd of liberal and conservative leadership. Like a positive feedback loop, convictions are confirmed each morning when Barack Obama or Joe Biden or John McCain leafs through The New York Times or are briefed on media activity. The air of sensible deliberation and cautious judgment is the narrative tool by which the "paper of record" legitimizes its fatuities.
Butcher, bulldozer, or man of peace?
After Sharon's death, both the Times and Washington Post, the liberal intelligentsia's go-to resources for groupthink, soft-pedaled Sharon's legacy. The Times even headlined the paper with the line, The Israeli Hawk Who Sought Peace on His Terms. It's subheads were suitably benign: "Pragmatism and Resilience", "A Zionist Vision", and "A Reputation for Boldness", a "Turn to Politics", and "Lebanon and Beyond". This cleansed presentation shelters government leaders and the educated classes from which they are drawn from troubling questions about America's support for a reputed war criminal. It's hard to ferret out a resume of war crimes from such a tepid portrayal. Doubtless it never crossed Vice President Joe Biden's mind, as he represented the American government at Sharon's funeral, that he was delivering a paean to a terrorist.
But the crimes are confirmed, evinced succinctly by Sharon's bloodthirsty nicknames, "The Bulldozer" and "The Butcher of Beirut". The former refers to the fact that Sharon, as relentlessly rehearsed on leftist media channels, made his reputation with the butchery of Arabs both Lebanese and Palestinian in Qibya village in the West Bank in 1953, Lebanon in1982, and Gaza and the West Bank in 2002, but also for pioneering the now familiar practice of bulldozing Arab homes, occupied or not. Some 27,000 Palestinian homes have been leveled since 1967. In that same span, zero Israeli homes have been destroyed by Palestinian bulldozers. Yet the victimization narrative, the narrative of oppression, danger, and imminent threats - indeed, existential threats - is so powerful as to invert the facts.
Sharon also sparked the second Palestinian intifada with his visit to a contested holy site, Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque. The subsequent crackdowns were criminal and vindictive, the slaughter of refugees - Sharon's specialty - in the West Bank's Jenin being a much-popularized and much disputed instance of, at the very least, significant human rights violations if not a full-fledged massacre (a claim later rejected by the United Nations, despite eyewitness accounts). The "separation wall", quickly dubbed the "apartheid wall", was another Sharon maneuver, giving the lie to the hope that Israel might one day re-establish the legal borders specified by United Nations Security Council Resolution 242.
The Post whitewashed Sharon's culpability in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, even falsely presenting a libel suit against Time magazine as evidence that he had been exonerated of the crime. Another example of the softening of a profile so that it is easily absorbed into the delusory normalized world of the fanatic. Even war criminals are "good guys" in this counterfeit history, which reduces the world to its basest black-and-white, us-and-them formulae.
That he was sometimes said to want peace, was in actuality another inversion of reality, (unless one confines oneself to the notion of "peace on my terms", as indeed the Times did; one could say the same of any jihadist - they want a peaceful caliphate ). Israeli historian Avi Shlaim called Sharon "the father of the settlement movement". Shlaim might have added that the settlements are not only illegal but as such have perpetually derailed the so-called peace process with Palestine. Just last week, as a fitting coda to the Sharon legacy, Israel announced the development of new settlements in Jerusalem, perhaps the most valuable piece of real estate in the occupied territories and would-be capitol of Palestine. This announcement was made as John Kerry played the perennial role of the spineless American diplomat consigned to the thankless task of facilitating Israel's slow-motion takeover of Jerusalem and the West Bank, but somehow representing it as a peace process.
Sharon was likewise a virulent adherent of the Zionist vision of a Greater Israel, once described by Zionism founder Theodore Herzl as stretching from Egypt to the Euphrates. Later concepts envisioned pauperizing surrounding Arab states and transforming them into satellites under Israeli purview.
To that end, Sharon who continually supported the absorption of the contested Palestinian lands that the United Nations has long condemned Israel for occupying. He later reversed himself with the cynical ploy to voluntarily abandon the hellhole of Gaza, illegally resettling already illegally settled Gazan Israelis in the much-preferable and illegally occupied West Bank as part of his plan to completely annex the latter territory.
Gaza was then fully transformed into an open-air prison suited for stateless Arabs fighting vainly for their dignity and historical legitimacy. Yet despite the death knell these actions signaled for an Israeli-Palestinian accord, both mainstream papers reinforce George W Bush's ludicrous statement that Sharon was "a man of peace". The facts say otherwise, but American leaders won't hear the truth, buried as they are beneath this avalanche of disinformation.
Polishing the headstone
Noam Chomsky opened his Democracy Now! discussion of Sharon's legacy by noting that the convention of not speaking ill of the recently deceased would consign us to a "vow of silence" regarding Sharon. No truer words were spoken about the man, but who in the American administration will hear Chomsky's estimation of the Bulldozer? Rather, they'll be treated to takeaway images of an avuncular Sharon, with his "large paunch and a soft, gentle smile that gave him a grandfatherly image".
In the Times, the final word was given to his aide Raanan Gissin, surely an objective observer, who claimed that Sharon, "was not an ideologue, but a political architect". Only a deeply deceived propagandist could produce a statement at such odds with reality.
In fact, all of Sharon's aforementioned behaviors reflect an odious and all-too-common ideology among Zionists and American militarists - that force is all Arabs understand. (Shlaim noted this position was referred to as an "iron-wall strategy".) This concept is part of the psychological underpinning of Western ideology that justifies Israel's and America's litany of criminal violence in the region over the decades.
This, though, is all part of the media's role, to act as a salve on the conscience of American leadership, a congeries of violent, radicalized imperialists who must nevertheless conceive themselves as reasoned and judicious arbiters of global justice. Israel, of course, is a pivot of the American imperial strategy, and thus must be perceived in the corridors of power as aligned with the confected value system of elite American rule. The historical atrocities and legacy of the Holocaust provides an ideal "moral high ground" from which to justify Israeli security activities.
As such, leaders such as Joe Biden, who spoke at Sharon's interment, can envision his pro-Israeli stance as a humble service to human rights and the protection of persecuted peoples.
Fellow speaker and British Prime Minister David Cameron can likewise, without a trace of irony, credit the deceased leader with "brave and controversial decisions in pursuit of peace", permitting himself and his liberal supporters to interpret "controversial" as a benign signifier of nothing more than well-intentioned disagreements between reasonable parties with a shared commitment to conciliation.
The media perpetually reifies these statements about Sharon and the ideological fictions they represent, such that the rank and file American, Israeli, and British politicians can ingest them with their morning coffee, quack nostrums that nevertheless help immunize the conscience from fact. The evolutionist Trivers referred to a form of collective self-deceit that he termed "false historical narratives", a chilling concept not least because nearly anyone can immediately point to historical examples.
The American interpretation of the Israel-Palestine conflict is a sad case study of one such narrative. Likewise, the American corporate media, in its role as official stenographer and rationalizer of state policy, is as comprehensive a front organization as ever existed, buffeting US leadership from the sordid realities its imperial policies create. Instead, the occupiers of the White House, Capitol Hill, and the Pentagon, can all relax in the knowledge that their chimerical vision of themselves as champions of democracy is shared by all right-thinking people.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He is a frequent contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, and other political communities. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at [email protected]