Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Propaganda, Ideology and Reality

In reality there is no "reality". All views of the world, especially our political views, are constructed through our early socialisation and on-going experiences, sifted through our individual minds.

Propaganda is the deliberate attempt to steer that process in a particular direction. When propaganda is infused with an ideology (that is, a systematic world-view whether religious or secular - like communism, liberalism, conservatism) that tendency is amplified and reinforced.

Even without deliberate propaganda and ideology, social forces and individual psychology tend to maintain a consistent set of beliefs and perceptions in individuals and groups. That is probably to the good, up to a point, since a wildly fluctuating set of perceptions is hardly an effective way to confront the challenges of the world.

But, in the ideal modern democratic state, the individual is (or can be) exposed to new information and different views which allow that person to alter his or her positions in the light of these new experiences. In fact this is one of the fundamental reasons why democracies are generally so much more effective (in both war and peace) than despotisms. The ability to adjust one's view of the world to take into account changing or hitherto novel information is probably a necessary precondition of personal and collective growth.

Propaganda, especially when linked to ideology, is an attempt to prevent such growth and reorientation. In an open and free society such efforts can usually be effectively combated. Where social and political factors limit choice, the re-orientation process is curtailed and constrained.

These general ideas are especially relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab-Muslim conflict. Israel has been so effective largely because of her democratic institutions, imperfect though they are. For those living outside the focal point of the conflict, our views are shaped by the information which comes to us indirectly through the media, through friends, acquaintances and through the occasional visit. Where the media is one-sided, especially through the deliberate use of propaganda, the perceptions of the ordinary person is is distorted.

This is happening in South Africa where both the Independent group and the Mail & Guardian have taken on the role of pro-Palestinian propagandists. Whether this is cynical and conscious or simply the consequence of closed minds and prejudice, the outcome is to limit and distort the perceptions of South Africans fed a steady diet of one-sided information and analysis.

The Pilger article in the M & G of 14 March 2008 is a prime example of outright and extremely cynical propaganda. My letter in response (reproduced below) has been sent to the M & G but remains to be published as of this writing. Besides this, the general tenor of discourse in the post-Apartheid South Africa tends towards a facile comparison of Israel-Palestine with apartheid and anti-colonialism in general. This fallacy has been widely critiqued and exposed (see previous post on this blog referring to the Kadalie, Bertelsmann article "Franchising Apartheid" on Z-word), but one doubts that these contrarian voices are reaching many of the opinion makers, never mind the general population. Besides crusading media and biased public discourse, there clearly exist Muslim groups and their non-Muslim supporters actively disseminating anti-Israel and anti-Zionist propaganda.

This blog is one response to this onslaught. We live in a free though imperfect society and we have the tools to counter these distortions and outright lies. Despite the existence of "media teams", staffed by committed and able people (many of them volunteers), the response of the major communal Jewish organisations is still inadequate. The offending newspapers and media are reluctant to publish views which oppose their own perspectives, or do so in such a way that their impact is minimised.

Rather than pollute the public space with more propaganda from the other (pro-Zionist) side, we need to bring higher quality information and analysis to the attention of the wider, interested community. This requires due space and prominence in the conventional media and the use of unofficial channels. I would like to see the SAJBD and the SAZF take up this challenge more seriously and creatively. Our cause will not be advanced by talking to ourselves.

Letter sent to Mail and Guardian:

So, according to John Pilger, 6.5 million Jews on a tiny piece of semi-desert set amongst 300 million hostile Arab-Muslims is the 4th largest military power in the world (M & G, 14 March). I suppose it all depends on how one defines military power, but Pilger in full propaganda mode couldn’t be bothered with such niceties.

Nevertheless, taking Pilger at face value and that, according to him, "(Israel) used satellite-guided American aircraft and missiles against a population of largely children, most of them malnourished", it is amazing that the Israeli Defence Force only managed to kill 120 Gazans over the course of a week - most of them militants. As we know a single decent car bomb in Baghdad or a crowded Pakistani street market can accomplish that.

Such paltry results implies either extraordinary levels of Israeli incompetence, which makes their standing as any sort of military power absurd or, as Pilger is well aware, it reflects extraordinary skill and a determination to minimise civilian casualties despite every attempt by Hamas to provide a respectable body count for people like himself to exploit.

Contrary to Pilger’s idiotic suggestion that Israel has an interest in the destruction of Gazan society and the creation of more violent militants on its borders, as any sane person knows Israel wants nothing more than to be left alone. For this reason it withdrew fully from Gaza in the hope that the Gazan population would create a viable and peaceful state.

The plain fact is that Israel is constantly goaded and threatened by suicide bombers, rockets and mortars directed indiscriminately at its civilian population by Hamas, Hezbollah and the other terror groups flourishing in that region. Simply stated Israel is at war with people, with significant support in the West as well as locally, who have never accepted the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East and who are dedicated to its destruction by any means possible - preferably by violence. This is openly stated, and Pilger's role is to contribute to the propaganda arm of this war. This situation also suits some of the states in the region who play the dangerous but profitable game of keeping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the boil in pursuit of their own regional and global ambitions and to mollify their own restive populations reared on a toxic diet of anti-semitism and anti-Zionism.

But Israel will persist, despite its enemies and despite the fears, doubts and imperfections of its own people, partly because decent people everywhere will eventually turn against the purveyors of hatred and death.

Mike Berger

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