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:
"In 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."
"(T)he 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 first 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 apply.
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.
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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.
“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 about?”
Helen 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.
June 16, 2010