Why Helen Thomas's Fate Makes Sense

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When Helen
Thomas was vilified and presumably forced into retirement following
her remarks that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine"
and return to "Poland, Germany, America… anywhere else,"
many commentators cheered, but a few expressed outrage:

another example of how one-sided the American media is in framing
the issue of Israel," wrote
Andrew Steele, "veteran journalist and opinion columnist
Helen Thomas has been chased into retirement because of some remarks
she gave when questioned on the street by a blogger."

central issue," said
Glenn Greenwald, "is not the perception that she’s guilty
of bigotry, but the wrong kind of bigotry.  Anyone who doubts
that should compare the cheap, easy and self-righteous outrage
orgy against the powerless, 89-year-old columnist to the total
non-reaction in the face of the incessant
and ongoing
anti-Arab bigotry of The New Republic’s Marty Peretz, or
to the demands
of then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey
that the Palestinians
leave the West Bank and go back to where they came from, and similar
statements from Mike Huckabee

While it may
well be that the attacks on Helen Thomas do reflect the media's
pro-Israel bias, they are more fundamentally a product of a much
deeper hypocrisy, one in which the vast majority of us are complicit.
Thomas is not the
to have suffered for having committed
the offense
of offending.
Whatever the specifics of the offending speech, or the specifics
of which group was offended, each of these incidents has one thing
in common: They each make perfect sense within the framework of
our culture's beliefs, and are in fact a necessary part of sustaining
those beliefs.

To understand
why this is so, compare the fate of Helen Thomas to that of Madeleine
Albright. In 1996, when Albright was US Ambassador to the UN, she
famously asserted
that whatever benefits the US government derived from imposing an
economic embargo on Iraq were "worth" the deaths of perhaps
half a million Iraqi children. Far from being drummed out of the
public sphere for her offensive remarks, Albright went on to become
US Secretary of State and was awarded honorary degrees from five
universities. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of
the Council on Foreign Relations and reportedly
brings in between $60,000 and $75,000 for speaking engagements.

Or take the
current secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, who more recently threatened
Iran with a pre-emptive strike — an act that once
upon a time
was considered to be a war crime. Or, for that matter,
all of those government officials who did in fact participate in
a war of aggression against Iraq. Indeed, there is nothing out of
the ordinary about politicians calling for mass murder, torture,
preemptive war and other acts of barbarism, while their careers
remain intact. Meanwhile, a comment that can be construed as racist,
or offensive to certain groups, can ruin a mere plebeian. We have
elevated name-calling to a higher offense than advocating (state-sanctioned)
mass murder and wars of aggression. That the hypocrisy of this is
not evident to everyone is an indication of our collective blindness
to acts of evil when they are committed by those in authority.

This blindness
is not solely an American phenomenon. Most people across the globe
accept that there is a different standard of morality for governments,
particularly in times of war. Even Christian Just War theory acknowledges
the special privilege of those in "authority" to make
war, and allows for civilians to be killed under the right circumstances.
"War is different" is the unanimous mantra, asserting
that even if we try to put limits on war (which will inevitably
be enforced after the fact and by the victors, if at all) they will
never be the same limits on violence that are imposed upon ordinary
people in ordinary times. It doesn't take much to extend this principle
to all acts of government, creating an entire class of people and
agencies for whom the normal standards of morality simply do not

Like abused
children, prohibited from engaging in the same violence their parents
routinely inflict upon them, most people have come to internalize
the twisted logic of their abusive relationships with their governments.
Why is this? Through some combination of cultural conditioning,
tribal instincts, our innate fear of our own independence, and outright
propaganda masquerading as education, the great majority of the
world's population — and in particular, those who reside in democratic
societies — have come to identify themselves with the governments
that rule over them.

A nation's
government is the creation of its people, the thinking goes. It
represents them, and its interests are aligned with the interests
of "its" people. The notion that those in government have
their own agendas that have nothing to do with the well-being or
expressed interests of "the people," and that they pursue
these agendas to the detriment of "the people," is heresy
in this worldview. It is a worldview that persists despite an endless
parade of corruption and broken campaign promises to demonstrate
its fallacy.

Of course,
accepting this belief also makes it easier for people to accept
the murder of innocent civilians in countries thousands of miles
away. After all, if a government is the creation of its people,
then those people are also responsible for the evil acts of their
governments. It is this kind of thinking that allows many Americans
to rationalize the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians
because they had failed to topple Saddam Hussein, or the indiscriminate
bombing of Japanese and German cities in World War II because civilians
in those cities had not prevented "their" governments
from committing evil.

Following from
this belief is another myth: That governments engage in wars for
the good of their people, to protect them from the people and governments
of other nations who wish them harm. We are taught that wars are
fought as a last act of desperation, as sole recourse to protect
the people of one nation from those of another. We are told that
our leaders hate war, but that it is sometimes necessary – always,
to protect a nation's people.

Of course,
a close look at the vast majority of wars fought throughout history
reveals the bankruptcy of this kind of thinking. Rarely if ever
are wars fought by governments with the interests of those they
rule in mind. And rarely if ever is there any justice or morality
to them. It is testimony to the power of our cultural blindness
that despite governments' unparalleled record of nearly 170
million murders
in the 20th century alone — a figure that does
not include those who died in combat, or non-targeted civilian
deaths — most of us continue to believe that government is a force
for good, or at worst a necessary evil, and that it is needed to
ensure "peace and stability."

The real enemies
of humanity are not those who hurl offensive slurs. The real enemies
of humanity are those who perpetrate real crimes against real people.
More to the point, they are the institutions that allow these crimes
to be perpetrated on a grand scale and with impunity. Foremost among
such institutions is the monopoly on force itself.

Those who would
maintain these institutions need enemies like Helen Thomas. They
need to have established boundaries defining what is and is not
acceptable behavior, and they need for acts of government to be
included within the "acceptable" part. But something
needs to be unacceptable. There need to be some forms of behavior
at which we can all shake our fists and declare "shame!"
Everyone wants to feel righteous, to feel that they stand on the
side of the good and against evil, and when someone like Helen Thomas
makes a remark that offends an entire group of people — particularly
a group of people who have been persecuted in unthinkable ways —
she provides an outlet for that need. Those in government pile on
too, not so much to deflect attention from their own acts of actual
violence, but to reinforce the idea that while state violence is
legitimate, name-calling and insult are not.

As Paul Jay
of The Real News Network

“Look who’s
attacking (Helen Thomas): the former Bush Press Secretary, who
was an apologist for the killing of perhaps a million Iraqis,
the former Clinton Press Secretary, who was hired recently by…
the equivalent of the Honduran Chamber of Commerce to defend an
illegal coup and a government that is now killing journalists
and political activists.  These are the people who are being
quoted in the press all over the country, that helped lead to
Helen Thomas’ — I assume — forced retirement.  But it’s OK
to defend an illegal coup, it’s OK to defend an illegal war, and…
her comment, that’s what everyone is going to get all excited

Thomas' fate serves as a reminder of what we all know, and what
the vast majority of us accept without question: That there are
different rules for those in power than there are for the rest of
us. Those who rule us are free to torture, murder, annihilate. But
lowly peons must adhere to the rules of polite society — or risk
being cast out of that society.

As long as
we continue to accept this, there will continue to be wars, mass
murders, genocide and democide.
If we are to have any hope of ending these institutionalized horrors,
we must first address the collective blindness that afflicts so
much of our society, and the entrenched beliefs that allow for that
blindness. One place to start is the notion that saying nasty things
about people is more offensive than doing nasty things to them.

16, 2010

Bretigne Shaffer
her mail
] is a writer and filmmaker, and the author of Why
Mommy Loves the State.
her website.

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