Post-Modern War in Gaza

by Ira Straus
Israel has a degree of immunity from the media’s moral inversion. Can we learn from it?

Post-modern war is an upside-down kind of war. It has two intertwined convolutions:

1. Side 1 tries to get civilians killed on both sides — its enemy’s side, out of hatred for them; its own side, for the sake of blaming the deaths on Side 2, expecting to get propaganda leverage against its enemy.

2. Side 2 is blamed for the deaths on both sides. It is held responsible for protecting the civilians on both sides, and made to fight the war with its hands tied behind its back, lest it get so massively blamed for civilian deaths that its allies peel off and it is left isolated and weakened.

The post-modern way of war is wrong, both practically and morally. Practically, it increases civilian casualties and makes war worse. This effect depends, to be sure, on the global media’s playing along with the strategy of Side 1. Normal, healthy media would not do this; they would report without the bias, and the malign strategy would fail. But the media have in fact done the wrong thing with considerable consistency.

The post-modern way is wrong morally, because it gives Side 1 an incentive to get its own people killed and use their deaths for fanning hate. It fails to give Side 1 the normal moral disincentive for this behavior, namely, blame for it, and not just an occasional pro forma condemnation but a blame that is taken seriously and used as a basis for policy responses. Further, de facto, it gives Side 1 open season on Side 2, since it shifts all the actionable blame to Side 2.

It is also wrong morally in another, more fundamental sense: that in most instances, it privileges the wrong side — the side that is more brutal, the side that is globally more harmful. Significantly, in our time, these two wrongs usually correlate.

In other words, the post-modern attitude to war is not merely perversely neutral between right and wrong, something some people think of (mistakenly) as the way to be objective. It is actually in most instances on the wrong side — biased to the benefit of the side of local harm and global harm.

The case of Israel is almost unique in that Israel talks back to post-modernism. It takes pains to refute, time after time, the narrative that supports it. And many people listen.

But the moral inversion has also taken place, unnoticed, in a myriad of other wars in the post–Cold War era. The practice began during the Cold War, as a product of the two great anti-Western ideologies, Communism and anti-colonialism. It has grown worse since the collapse of Communism; its ideological roots, apparently, have become more deeply embedded within the West itself.

The phenomenon is seen even in Ukraine, where on the surface the media have been very much on the anti-Kremlin side. The pro-Russian side uses its own people as human shields, and then makes propaganda about the “fascist” “coup-appointed government in Kiev” killing them.

It was seen in Libya as Qaddafi defended himself against NATO in the same manner.

It was seen in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is still seen there on occasion.

It was seen in the 1999 war between Serbia and NATO. Disloyal Westerners, trained like Mr. Snowden to be proud of their disloyalty, leaked to the Serbs what bridges and other sites we planned to bomb. The Serbs would then send hundreds of civilians there as human shields. NATO would avoid bombing them lest it suffer a damaging propaganda defeat.

It has been seen in numerous other wars.

In each case, it is the side that is adjudged Western that gets its hands tied behind its back. It is the side that is adjudged non-Western that is given the benefit of this attitude and free rein to exploit its civilian deaths for propaganda.

The attitude is found in the media, in NGOs, in academia, even in government. Law professor Jeremy Rabkin has argued that the preference for the malign and the disruptive has become embedded sub rosa in parts of international law itself, through a confluence of non-Western powers and Western intelligentsia-based NGOs.

The “Western side” in these situations has a meaning, but it is not a simple one. It does not solely mean the West proper. It means whichever side seems more Western, or more Western-backed, or more in the interests of the West. Sometimes it requires a difficult calculation to figure out which side this would be; but it seems that the calculation is always somehow made, and it is made seemingly by everyone — by both sides, by their supporters and opponents worldwide, and by the mass media through which it is communicated instantly.

The effectiveness of the strategy used by Side 1 depends entirely, as we have seen, on the media’s playing along with it, and of its making the same calculation as to who has the “right” to use this strategy. The frequency of that play-along is reflected in the frequency of the practice. The very fact of the use of this strategy, therefore, tells us something serious about the internalization of an ideological bias, something about the culture in the Western mass media.

There are often several narratives used to justify this, yet they all come to the same result. One narrative is framed in terms of the West’s being the global Power that needs to be taken down a notch (with the media accepting, here, that the West is in fact the leading Power in the world, even while talking elsewhere about its decline and replacement, and urging it to shrink its power as a necessary realistic adaptation). A second, the seemingly reasonable belief that it is the West that we are morally responsible for. A third, a feeling that it is Western journalists’ “job” to catch the Western side in wrongdoing; this wins them applause and journalistic rewards and makes them feel proud, like good oversight people for their own society and government. A fourth, that it is right to bend over backwards against “our side,” since we will be presumed inherently biased in favor of it. A fifth, that it is good to bend over backwards against “our society,” to show that we are not selfish and crude like that society.

These several narratives seem logically distinct, mutually reinforcing by coincidence. But what about narratives that come to opposite results — and there are plenty that are available, in fact more powerful ones logically and morally? They are more rarely heard and are not acted upon. That makes it something other than coincidence.

Underlying the prevalent narratives and explaining their complementarity is an ideological narrative that was imbibed by virtually all our journalists in the last half-century, in their years of higher education. In this narrative, the West is described as — indeed, convincingly analyzed and shown to be, in the minds of those who have not paid serious attention to contrary literature — the main source of the world’s problems and oppressions and sufferings, from imperialism and unfairness to poverty and inequality to wars and brutalities to environmental degradation and global warming. Few journalists subscribe to this ideology in full, but nearly all are influenced by it as a moral orienting guide.

The result is an underlying orientation of the intellectual conscience against the West. Thus the instinctive calculation we have seen, in nearly every conflict in the world, as to which side is the relatively pro-Western one, and the Power that is accordingly to be blamed when possible. And conversely, which side is the relatively anti-Western side, to be given the benefit of the doubt.

This bias can be subconscious, yet it is present even when the media feel themselves to be on the pro-Western side. It is seen, for example, in the euphemistic language used for the “pro-Russian insurgents” in Ukraine, who to a large extent are Russian-directed forces. Similarly, many prominent journalists have used FSB (the post-Soviet version of the KGB) leaks of phone calls among Western officials, repeating and spreading, as if fact, the plainly untrue spins Russia has put on them; while ignoring the Ukrainian SBU’s leaks of truly scandalous Russian conversations. In one of the latter, a Russian nationalist’s phone instructions to his operatives in eastern Ukraine were to just go ahead, run pro forma secession referenda, and claim an 89 percent vote in favor of secession. Which a couple of days later was exactly the result announced. The Western media ignored the tape and merely said the referenda were poorly run and somewhat unfair.

The bias was seen, similarly, in the insistence on reverting, only a few months after 9/11, to calling terroristic Islamic groups “insurgents.” It is an Orwellian practice that is protected by an aggressive defense: by branding it as “simplistic” — or, indeed, “Orwellian” — when the government factually calls them “terrorists.”

And 9/11 was an unusual event in this regard. It was so huge a shock that, for a few brief months, it broke our educated classes out of their habituated orientation. One could hear, in their reasoning, a genuine support for our society, an unusual lack of excuses for its enemies. There were some strategic analyses on our own behalf; there were analyses of the ideological roots of the enmity, not just blame-ourselves social roots; and there were not so many denials of it, not so much shielding of culpable circles from “unfair” “simplistic” criticism. The change was wide but not, alas, deep; the effect quickly wore off. Which shows how profoundly embedded the ur-orientation is.

If it requires quite a complex calculation to determine which side is the more Western one, to be held to the higher standard and given the presumptive blameworthiness, how then is the calculation made so readily? One can sometimes sense it being made in the minds of journalists as they talk their way to their conclusion. It is apparent in the reasons that are privileged, the points that are branded for exclusion, e.g., as racist or rightist; in the hesitations at contradictions, and the one-way hypocrisies used to get past them; in the one-way direction of most of the actionable anger in the intonations and language used; and of course in the conclusions.

One example: What to make of Islamists who fight against the West and oppress women? They are treated as good progressive forces when they come to power by elections and work to weaken Western influence in their country and worldwide; they are labeled “conservative” when they oppress women and sexual minorities. In this manner, the mass media parse the contradiction that Islamism, an ideology which on the whole belongs doctrinally on the Far Right, gets media support in the context of the global struggle for power against the global Right — i.e., the West — but gets media opposition when acting on its anti-minorities mindset. By calling it “conservative,” journalists treat it as if it were part of the Western Right in the latter cases.

This example points to another complexity in the equation: It is not precisely the West that is presumptively blamed, but the global West cum the global Right. Rightists abroad — even quasi-Nazis, such as Islamists — can be accepted into the anti-Western front as long as they are oriented against the global West. Intra-Western rightists, such as paleoconservatives and libertarians, can be accepted also, on the occasions when they are oriented against the global power of the West. They become “conservatives” again, a part of the global enemy of good people, when they are not acting against the West.

This makes the calculation easier, in practice if not in logic. The people who are to be deplored globally are the ones who can be lined up in the mind with the people who are habitually deplored as the Right domestically. One can extrapolate on the spot, by instinct.

However, there is one big difference when it comes to the case of Israel. It is that, as we have observed these weeks, Israel has the moral stamina to talk back and get the world to place at least some of the blame where it belongs: on the side that tries to get its civilians killed for propaganda purposes, and on the media that play along with this. The rest of the Western and pro-Western world does not seriously challenge the media’s unfairness; Israel challenges it, and expresses outrage about it — justified outrage, the same outrage that would be no less justified in all the other cases, but that no one expresses.

Israel recognizes the bias against it as a dangerous form of anti-Semitism. It accurately names it as such. It reminds the world that its own people are human beings just as much as the other side’s, not fair targets for killing and then blaming. And it does not merely plead helplessly for fair treatment from a world that is not going to listen; it uses force in ways that take its own point seriously, the sort of thing that deprives the world of the option of ignoring the point completely. Moreover, Left and Right in Israel are united in supporting the effort in Gaza to destroy the tunnels and rockets that are being used to target Israeli civilians. The world media may habitually dehumanize and delegitimize the Right, but journalists feel a connection with the Israeli leftists and find it hard to dismiss them the same way. While the Jews are more Western and more powerful than the Palestinians, and in this respect a part of the global “Right,” the Jews are also mostly “Left” personally. They were, within living memory, the underdog and subjected to genocide — a real genocide, not the rhetorical kind that has become fashionable recently. Moreover, it was a genocide committed by the same Western Far Right that the world media treat as the ultimate enemy. There are many Jews in the mass media, people with relatives who died in the Holocaust. They cannot easily lie to themselves about how terrible anti-Semitism is. They cannot stand by silently when they hear the line, prevalent in the Mideast and popular in Europe, that “the Jews are doing the same thing to the Palestinians as the Germans did to the Jews.” They see this moral equivalency as an obvious lie, and it repulses them in an instinctive way as an apologetic for Nazism; which in fact it often is. To be sure, many of them go about expounding similar moral equivalencies about America and the West; but when it comes to Israel, the blinkers fall from their eyes. They see straight and feel straight.

And so there is a powerful combination of factors that creates an ambivalence in the mass media about Israel. The media do not want to fan anti-Semitism; they retain a primordial memory of anti-Semitism as a fundamental evil of the West, something that they are supposed to combat in all circumstances. These factors are not present in the other instances, where post-modernism is applied for the benefit of a more generic anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism.

Let us not underestimate how hard this is on Western journalists. On the one hand, they feel they ought to support the anti-Western underdog, and do what they view as their main moral job in the world: put blame on the side of the Power and show the world the suffering undergone by the Other. On the other hand, they do not wish to transgress their primal taboo against anti-Semitism; it is the archetype of the Power of Western Right Christendom oppressing the “Other,” the Jews being the primordial “Other” that Christianity historically blamed for killing Christ.

This is not to say that Western journalists deserve sympathy for their feeling of being morally torn about Israel. They are not torn between legitimate moral imperatives; rather, they are torn between a genuine moral imperative (to support the more benign side) and an ideological imperative (to support the Left side, no matter how phrased — “underdog,” “victim,” “people getting hurt”). They are wrong for being torn. There are plenty of genuine things to be torn about in the world, as a matter of being morally healthy; this, however, is a case of being torn for the sake of trying to maintain an unhealthy ideological orientation.

One can be thankful that the American media are torn in the case of Israel. Their humanity in this one instance is still substantially intact: compromised, but not fundamentally trampled as elsewhere. There is some of the same perverse pride that predominates in the other cases — pride in getting a sense of independence from one’s own society through inversion of the normal societal morality — and perhaps this attitude is growing. But as yet the media’s moral consciousness is still more right-side-up than upside-down when it comes to Israel.

Is there a chance that the knowledge industries — the media, academia — could learn from this unique experience, and liberate themselves from their upside-down moral language about the rest of the world’s conflicts? Could they take their one major case of morally accurate standing and figure out how to overcome their moral inversion in the myriad of other cases? After all, anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism are as wrong as anti-Semitism, and deserve to be condemned no less strongly. Indeed, they are even more dangerous for the world as a whole. The three anti’s are all intertwined; one cannot successfully refute the one unless one refutes the others as well.

An extrapolation of moral learning, from the Israeli case to the wider American and Western cases, is thus not merely something to be wished for. It is something that is necessary for the world. Indeed, it is needed for Israel, as otherwise the moral good sense that still survives in its case will continue to be eroded. It has to be encouraged; it will not emerge on it own. Unfortunately, it will be hard to achieve, even with an effort.

There are almost unfathomable depths of ingrown social pressure and ideological conformity that have been documented in the knowledge industries, and they militate against this learning. Not for nothing has the phrase “media-university complex” been coined to suggest the closed-off nature of this universe. It is a universe within which a number of people have lived their entire mental lives. The numerical level of ideological closure is staggering. In both the media and academia, surveys have found supermajorities in favor of the same point of view, that of the liberal-left. The supermajorities range from a huge 3 to 1 ratio to a ridiculous 15 to 1 ratio. Alongside this is a general acceptance of language patterns that exclude other points of view; here the acceptance verges on unanimity.

For the proximate future, Western leaders have to expect to be working within an environment in which the talking universe around them, from the mass media to the research institutions, is pervaded by moral inversion and an orientation against Western interests. What is most needed from Western leaders is to understand this profoundly — to understand how wrong it is; to understand the harm it does; and to understand also the points of moral contact on which they can engage journalists and show them why they are wrong. Why they are horribly wrong, wrong in a manner of doing wrong, not just speaking unfairly, wrong in a way of wreaking serious harm on the world and its real living human beings. Western leaders need, in a word, to learn how to regain the moral capacity to respond to this evil and refute it, somewhat in the manner that Israel does.

This will not be easy. It cannot be expected of all Western leaders. Most of them have been raised in the same atmosphere as the journalists. It is a deep mental hole, with the way out blocked by phobias and vilifications; not many are likely to think their way completely out of it. But it has been known to happen. There was Prime Minister Thatcher, who, facing off against an unrelenting media hostility, achieved a significant degree of ideological and institutional reconstruction of Britain. There was President Reagan, who called the West’s main enemy, Communism, both evil and practically unworkable, and helped it find its way with surprising speed to its demise — with the assistance to be sure of millions of Russians, including Mr. Gorbachev, who knew they had been living in an upside-down universe. Reagan understood the moral-inversion problem. He  spoke accurately of the delusion of our Left-neutralists that, by denying the West’s moral superiority, they made themselves morally superior to the West. Reagan hired Jeane Kirkpatrick on the strength of her deconstruction in Commentary of the perverse double standard that privileged America’s enemies over its friends and allies, something that she later encapsulated as the “blame America first” mentality; he gave a Medal of Freedom to James Burnham, who had analyzed the roots of the orientation toward suicide in the West and had shown a way out of it. And he knew how to connect with the general public over the heads of the uncomprehending media.

It continues to be possible for such leaders to emerge, since Western leaders are elected by the people, not selected by academic and media hierarchies. It could happen more often, if moderate and conservative politicians were to pursue consciously, as a part of their necessary duties of office, the thought of opposing the inverted morality that predominates in the public discourse. At this stage of the development of the West — and of the deconstruction of the West — it is what can be realistically hoped for.

— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own responsibility.