Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gaza: The Bigoted Stuff Will Hit the Fan

I'm sure that almost no one in the Middle East or elsewhere actually relishes the prospect of renewed and intensified fighting in Gaza. (Well, I'll qualify that:  the Hamas leadership evidently looks forward to killing or martyrdom or both.)

There are many historical perspectives on the conflict, but scarcely less important than the conflict itself is the way that it will be treated in the media and integrated into future historical consciousness.  Given the nature of asymmetrical warfare, and the relatively low level of military and historical understanding on the part of press and public alike, as well as the high stakes that numerous parties have in the outcome (sometimes multiple ones on the part of the same actors, depending on whether we are dealing with public comments or private sentiments), we should particularly be on the lookout for careless or wantonly distorted historical analogies, and for language inflation.

Among the high-yield epithets that we can expect to see launched against Israel (for this tendency most clearly manifests itself in one direction):  anything having to do with Nazis (individual entries sure to rank high: Warsaw Ghetto, genocide, concentration camp, holocaust [with big or small "h"]), massacre, extermination, disproportionate/disproportionality. In addition, expect a barrage of standard-issue, low-grade but serviceable platitudes, such as "cycle of violence."

Already, the Nasty Nazi Analogies are cropping up, and we'll talk about them in due course. For the moment, let's scroll back, though.

At the UN Security Council this past spring, as widely reported (here, by Al Jazeera, quite objectively), "Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's deputy UN ambassador, ended a long speech about the plight of the Palestinians by comparing the situation in Gaza to the concentration camps set up by Nazi Germany to exterminate Jews."  The representatives of the US, Britain, Belgium, Costa Rica, and France--led by the latter--walked out, and the South African ambassador, who was chairing, closed the meeting, saying "members 'could not agree' on the statement."

Will the press and the public now have the civil courage to--figuratively speaking--"walk out" when they hear similar abuse of language, history, and basic decency? That is:  refuse to let such abuse go unchallenged, or at least not willingly become complicit in it?

The erosion of language and the erosion of moral principle go hand in hand.  Those on all sides of the conflict owe it to themselves and everyone else--their opponents, the public, and the casualties--to choose their words carefully.

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