Monday, 6 October 2008

Marcuse, the Media and Perpetual War

Here is a quotation from Herbert Marcuse (from his essay "Repressive Tolerance") that touches on the issue of peace.

"The authorities in education, morals, and psychology are vociferous against the increase in juvenile delinquency; they are less vociferous against the proud presentation, in word and deed and pictures, of ever more powerful missiles, rockets, bombs - the mature delinquency of a whole civilization."

In connection with the debate about peace Marcuse's essay has an interesting implication: We need to understand the delinquency of our civilization. The cause of peace needs more John Lennons and more songs in the style of "Imagine" but it also needs more thoughtfulness. The thinking is especially necessary because of a strange phenomenon - the strange coexistence of a popular belief in peace and a popular tolerance of perpetual conflict and war. Many people have got John Lennon's message and they support the ideal of peace, but they see it as nothing more than a dim and distant goal - little more than a pleasant dream - and they accept that in the meantime the fighting is bound to continue. For the sake of peace we need to understand how people can believe in peace but tolerate war.

Undoubtedly there are numerous causes. One of them, though, must be the influence of the media. In addition to turning violence into a form of entertainment and allowing each child to see thousands and thousands of entertaining murders, there is also the peculiar way that violence is treated in the news.

For the editors of news programmes, terrible acts of violence make good news. If Palestinian rockets hit an Israeli house, this is news. People must see the house, the hole in the roof and the fragments of the rocket. They must hear the local people denouncing Palestinian terrorists. The average viewer is left with the impression that the world is filled with warring parties. There cannot possibly appear to be a solution because nothing is explained. The terrorists appear to be incomprehensible beings who were presumably born to hate. But behind every Palestinian rocket is a long history - almost invisible in the media - of injustice. I don't think I have ever seen a report on the news of Israeli checkpoints on Palestinian soil, and it does not take much imagination to appreciate the damage that is done when the Israeli army controls the movements of Palestinians in and out of their villages on land that is internationally recognised as theirs. Similarly, I have never seen a report about the Israeli policy of cutting the supply of water to Palestinian villages in the area where the Israeli Wall is being built. If the events leading up to the violent outbursts were better understood, people might be able to see how easy it would be to prevent the violence and the so-called terrorists would cease to be incomprehensible aggressors.

Another questionable aspect of the news is its attempt to be "objective" or "impartial" or "neutral". There are two sides to every coin. If there is an interview with the spokesperson of one side, there must be an interview with the spokesperson of the other side, and the interviewer cannot appear to take anyone's side. Every report of a violent outburst carries the silent message that we cannot say who is in the right and who is in the wrong; there are just these two parties fighting and so far the death toll is X and the number of injured is Y. In this message there is a lesson for the viewer: Like us (we who speak and write in the media) you should not take sides; just tolerate the fact that there is so much conflict in the world.

The cause of peace does not need this kind of objectivity, impartiality and neutrality. Rather it needs people to speak out against injustice. It also needs people to speak out against the lying declarations of those who profit from war. If someone says: "To stop the spread of the weapons of mass destruction we must use our weapons of mass destruction and unleash the mother of all battles," they must be criticised ruthlessly, not treated with impartiality. No one promotes the cause of peace by treating oppression and injustice with neutrality.

Although the media want to project an image of impartiality, they always end up on the side of the victors. In many cases there are vested interests in the background or there is simply the assumption that every government announcement is news whereas the reports from peace groups and human rights groups are not. Because of the refusal to criticise they also have to accept the terms of the debate which are usually set by the strongest groups in society and those with the funds and the connections needed to promote their views. Hence, the "objective" reporter will tell us about the "violence" caused by the terrorists in one place and about how "effective" the army (our army) has been in another place. Similarly, before the war in Iraq American spokespeople were matched with their Iraqi counterparts on the news. After the defeat of the Iraqis few people in the media see any point in giving the defeated an opportunity to express their point of view. The war becomes history and the media (the writers of the news, at least) just accept the new status quo.

If the media were on the side of peace they would also be more careful about their coverage of protests and demonstrations. Demonstrations for very honourable causes are not seen by the media as occasions to highlight people's grievances. Instead, the cameras wait for the inevitable clashes with the police and the impression is created that demonstrators are aggressive hot heads who have nothing coherent to say.

With satellite television and the internet there are now some alternative channels that are commited to the cause of peace - channels such as Democracy Now. Unfortunately, they are not able to gain a wide audience. Partly, this is a problem of funding but it is also because most people have already been quietly persuaded that peace is a lost cause, and that, anyway, it is much better to just sit back and enjoy the entertainment than worry about issues that require a little thought. It's nice to imagine a world of peace, but let's face the facts, it's just not possible, is it?

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