Context Management and Stripping

A basic technique of news and opinion management and propaganda is the manipulation and stripping of context. This often takes the form of an intensive focus on the terrible plight of worthy victims and the villainous behavior of their tormentors, and the downplaying and antiseptic treatment of the condition of unworthy victims, along with ignoring or providing apologetics for their attackers. It sometimes calls for the avoidance of context that challenges a narrative that makes a villain purely villainous and the victims entirely virtuous.


Thus, following 9/11, there were harsh attacks on critics who, while strongly condemning the attacks as major acts of terrorism, insisted on calling attention to the likelihood that the attacks were based on resentment at U.S. foreign policy, not simply evil ideology or hostility to U.S. freedoms. As Christopher Hitchens wrote shortly after 9/11, if the 9/11 terrorists had bombed his neighborhood in Washington DC, “I am quite certain that in such a case the rationalizing left-liberals would still be telling me that my chickens were coming home to roost.” Hitchens acknowledged that the U.S. did support the evil Taliban and other nasty actors, i.e., that there were chickens. But for Hitchens, while this cannot help explain 9/11, it makes it even more our moral responsibility to remove such baddies from power. (“The Fascist Sympathies of the Soft Left,” Spectator, Sept 29, 2001). Thus, whereas an analysis of probable causes of the attack is impermissible, allegedly even a form of apologetics for the criminal acts, the rush to provide apologetics for imperial attacks, along with de-contextualized non-analysis, has been common.


This distinction is often barely hidden in word usage. A good illustration is the use of “terrorism” versus “retaliation.” In the West, the Israelis have never been terrorists, but only retaliate, although occasionally perhaps a bit disproportionately. But the Palestinians never retaliate, they only terrorize. This has nothing to do with causal sequence, it has to do with political bias. In fact, it regularly reverses the basic causal sequence. It is pointed out by analysts like Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Committee, and hardly biased against Jews and Israel, that the essential feature of the failure of any settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is the Israeli desire to continue to take over Palestinian territory. “The reality is that Israeli governments— even before Netanyahu—have opted for territory over peace. From the very beginning in 1967, Israel’s goal has been to prevent a border being drawn between them and the West Bank. The goal has been to retain permanent control over the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli governments—and especially the current one—believe that peace is not nearly as important as territory…. The problem has never been finding a formula that would allow the diplomatic process to succeed, because one of the sides has no intention of letting go of the territory” (“U.S. Should Get Out Of The Way Of Palestinian U.N. Bid,” Think Progress, July 15, 2011). But this basic and first cause of violence cannot be admitted in the Western mainstream, as Israel must only be “retaliating” to Palestinian terror as Israel refuses to settle and continues to steal land. The Siegman point is impermissible context, and in a good propaganda management operation it will be buried. On the op-ed page of the New York Times since January 1, 2000, we find the byline of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Dennis Ross appearing nine times, the Brookings Institution’s Martin Indyk’s eight times, but Siegman’s only once (February 21, 2002). Among the three Israeli writers—Uri Avnery, Amira Hass, and Gideon Levy—we find a grand total of one during the same period—Hass’s (September 2, 2001).


Another important and currently relevant illustration of word usage aligned with a policy agenda is in the use of “anti-semitism.” In recent years it has been applied to hostility not only to Jews but to Israel and often more specifically Israeli policy. It actually evolved from the classic form of hatred of Jews as an ethnic and somewhat distinctive group with a common religion and culture to the Israel-hostile form. It is of great interest that numerous traditional anti-semites became strongly pro-Israel and were much appreciated by pro-Israel forces. This transformation was epitomized in the shift of Xavier Vallat, Marshal Petain’s Minister of Jewish Affairs, responsible for the Vichy regime’s deportation of thousands of Jews to the death camps, from his pro-Nazi alignment to his warm lauding of Zionism in a rightwing publication in 1967 (“Mes raisons d’etre sionist,” Aspects de la France, June 15, 1967). He explained this in terms of his new appreciation for the spurt of exclusive and aggressive nationalism on the part of the Jewish occupants of the Israeli state and their “tendance dominatrice.”


Of course, Arabs are semites, and it is revealing on the alignment of word usage and political power that the phrase “anti-semitism” has long been confined in the West to hostility to Jews (and then Israel) but never to Arabs. The more recent intensifying hostility to Islam and its demonization in the West is a further step in the shift of “anti-semitism” from Jews to Arabs. Uri Avnery calls it “The New Anti-Semitism” (subtitled, “Is That Dr. Goebbels Laughing?,” Counterpunch, July 29-31, 2011), but, while not really new, it is increasingly virulent as a feature of the escalating “clash of civilizations,” with most of the initiatives producing that clash and violence coming from the West and its clients, including Israel.


Impermissible Contexts: Srebrenica


A fine example of impermissible context is provided in discussions of the Srebrenica massacre. Like 9/11, this is a case where Western vested interests and passions were raised to a high pitch and any critical context was quickly anathematized. Both cases were politically important to Western policymakers, with 9/11 providing a foundation stone for the “war on terror” (i.e., war on anybody who stands in our way) and Srebrenica showing the potential evils that the West should be prepared to rectify with “humanitarian intervention.” As regards Srebrenica, it quickly became “genocide denial” to question whether “8,000 men and boys” were executed by the Serbs in July 1995, or to put the killings there in the context of a bloody civil war and the aftermath of the slaughter of several thousand Serb civilians by Bosnian Muslim forces using the Srebrenica “safe area” as their military base. The latter set of facts caused UNPROFOR military commander Philippe Morillon to tell the ICTY that those killings were the key to the Serb killings of July 1995. (“Are you saying, then, General, that what happened in 1995 was a direct reaction to what Naser Oric did to the Serbs two years before?… [Morillon] Yes, yes, your honor. I am convinced of that.”) But that would be intolerable context, and you may be sure that this interchange with Morillon has never been quoted by Marlise Simons in the New York Times.


The impermissibility of this sort of context was driven home recently with George Monbiot’s assault in his “Left and libertarian right cohabit in the weird world of the genocide belittlers” (Guardian, London, June 14, 2011), where he features David Peterson and my alleged “revisionism towards Srebrenica and Rwanda.” Monbiot doesn’t know much about the two cases, but he knows that the truth is settled and that these are two of the “best-documented acts of genocide in history.” Because of the firmness of these truths, questioning them in any way “belittles” them, but oddly enough, calling an alleged 8,000 dead in Srebrenica “genocide”—where incidentally women and children were bussed to safety—isn’t belittling the use of a word commonly applied to the extermination of 6 million Jews. On the question of documentation, Monbiot says that the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has so far “identified the corpses of 7,789 Bosnians reported as missing…by using DNA screening.” But Monbiot races past the fact that DNA identification says nothing about mode of death and many Bosnian Muslims were killed in the fighting as the 28th Division fled from Srebrenica in July 1995. (In an analysis of forensic evidence based on the approximately 1,920 bodies recovered between 1995 and 2002 from what the Yugoslavia Tribunal alleges to be “Srebrenica-related” graves, Lubjisa Simic found that while for many the mode of death was unclear, for the rest a larger number were evidently combat rather than execution victims, as shown, for example, by fragmentation rather than bullet injuries.)


Thus, two outstanding illustrations of context-stripping are the pretense that all 8,000 of the alleged missing from Srebrenica population were executed rather than killed in combat; and, in parallel, ignoring the large number of Serb civilians killed by Bosnian Muslim forces based on the supposedly disarmed “safe area” of Srebrenica, 1992-July 1995. Monbiot does this stripping with an efficiency probably assisted by sheer ignorance, and the Guardian certified this stripping effort by refusing to publish our replies to Monbiot that gave data and sources on these points.


Monbiot also takes it for granted that the Bosnian Muslim dominated ICMP, whose work has never been made available to the defense or outsiders, is entirely trustworthy. He says that “like Karadzic, the book [my edited volume on The Srebrenica Massacre, Alphabet Soup, 2011] claims that the market massacres were carried out by Bosnian Muslim provocateurs.” Monbiot’s lack of intellectual integrity is on full display here—Karadzic may have said it, but the different contributors to this book in various places cited Boutros Boutros-Ghali (who was himself citing Warren Christopher), Lord David Owen, the British General Sir Michael Rose, the British Joint Intelligence Committee, U.S. Lt. Colonel John Sray, a U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee report, at least 11 “confidential” military and intelligence sources interviewed by the Dutch intelligence expert Cees Wiebes, and the then-chief Balkans correspondent for the New York Times, David Binder. Monbiot pretends that none of these citations exist.


In fact, Monbiot pulls the same dishonest trick in discussing Rwanda. After expending space discrediting former Living Marxism editor Mick Hume, he says that “in 2004 Hume repeated a pair of long-discredited deniers claims: that the genocide [in Rwanda] began when ‘supporters of the old regime lashed out’ after Paul Kagame’s army ‘shot down’ President Habyarimana’s plane.” But as we pointed out in detail in our book The Politics of Genocide (Monthly Review Press, 2010), which Monbiot assails, but shows no evidence of having read, this claim of a Kagame-based shoot- down was made by the Rwanda Tribunal investigator Michael Hourigan—and also by the French Judge Jean- Louis Bruguiere’s November 2006 indictments of Rwandan Patriotic Front members, the Spanish Judge Fernando Andreu Merelles’ February 2008 indictments of the same RPF, and many others. In short, the allegation of an RPF-shoot-down is hardly discredited, but Monbiot pretends that it is by attributing it to Mick Hume alone, while ignoring a mass of substantial evidence. Monbiot’s “genocide belittlers” article should become a classic of smear practice larded with misinformation.


Impermissible Contexts: The Norway Massacre


Commenting on the recent Norway massacre by the “new anti-semite” Anders Behring Breivik, Uri Avnery stresses the fact that whether or not Breivik had literal accomplices, he did not act alone. His action was a predictable facet of a new frenzy of hate that has coursed through Europe (and the United States).


Avnery wonders whether Yigal Amir, the Israeli murderer of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, acted alone, and he answers that Amir did not: “During the months leading up to Rabin’s murder, a growing hate campaign was orchestrated against him. Almost all the Israeli right-wing groups were competing among themselves to see who could demonize him most effectively.” Baruch Goldstein, murderer of 29 Palestinian worshipers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron in 1994, also did not act alone, but lived in a similar environment of hate—posthumously, Goldstein was widely admired for his sacrifice. (And his home was not demolished by the Israeli state, as it has done frequently for stone-throwing Palestinians.)


Turning to Norway’s Anders Breivik, Avnery points out that: “He is the prototype of a Nazi anti-Semite of the new wave. His creed consists of white supremacy, Christian fundamentalism, hatred of democracy and European chauvinism, mixed with a virulent hatred of Muslims.


“This creed is now sprouting offshoots all over Europe. Small radical groups of the ultra-Right are turning into dynamic political parties, take their seats in Parliaments and even become kingmakers here and there. Countries which always seemed to be models of political sanity suddenly produce fascist rabble-rousers even worse than the U.S. Tea Party, another offspring of this new Zeitgeist. Avigdor Lieberman is our contribution to this illustrious world-wide league.


“One thing almost all these European and American ultra-Rightist groups have in common is their admiration for Israel. In his 1500 page political manifesto, on which he had been working for a long time, the Oslo murderer devoted an entire section to this. He proposed an alliance of the European extreme Right and Israel. For him, Israel is an outpost of Western Civilization in the mortal struggle with barbaric Islam.”


But it is not just on the extreme right that the anti-Islamic alliance with Israel is supported—it is the common policy of the NATO states and has roots in these countries’ populations at large. All genuflect to the demands of Israeli “security” and the global threat of Islam, terrorism, and “Sharia law.” Breivik’s murders are not seen in the context of Western-based terror and hatred of the other. He is just a mad loner, provoked by the growing Islamic challenge to Western civilization and possibly modeling his actions on the techniques of Al Qaeda.


It was an understandable rage, although pushed to regrettable extremes. The media did perhaps jump the gun in assuming that his operation was another manifestation of Islamic violence, but this is understandable as the West only retaliates, it does not aggress and terrorize.


As Avnery points out in his concluding paragraphs: “It is the beginnings which are critical, when political opportunists realize that arousing fear and hatred is the easiest way to fortune and power, when social misfits become nationalist and religious fanatics, when attacking helpless minorities becomes acceptable as legitimate politics, when funny little men turn into monsters.”


Is that Dr. Goebbels I hear laughing in hell?


Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic, and author of numerous articles and books. His latest is The Politics of Genocide(with David Peterson).