Of journalists, students and power

by Patrick Lawrence*

The American media are never short of red-letter days when it comes to their wonderful combination of superciliousness and irresponsibility. But lately the mainstream dailies and magazines have gone all the way to scarlet and alizarin crimson. The brighter the better, I say, when the derelictions of our media are on display such that readers can no longer miss the deceptions and distractions that are at this point their intent.

Reality and meta-reality

I was reading along over breakfast the other day in search of the overnight news on the Israeli-US genocide in Gaza when I came upon the headline in “The New York Times”, “Laundry Detergent Sheets Are Poor Cleaners.” Wow. This is a story “The Times” had been following since its 5 April opener, “The 5 Best Laundry Detergents of 2024,” but my friends on Eighth Avenue left me hanging. At last, I could go forth into the day confident I was a well-informed American, altogether engagé.
  Twenty-fifth April, 25th April: Wasn’t that the day the U.N. Relief and Works Agency reported that Israel’s military operations “continue from air, land and sea” and that “in northern Gaza only five hospitals remain operational, and in the south only six”? Yes, I read this on a UN website, but “The Times” didn’t have room for it.
  Then I was even better informed the following Sunday, when “The New Yorker” published a long, delightfully inane conversation between David Remnick, who has very excellently overseen the ruination of what was once a good magazine, and Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian who always has a lot of important things to say. The occasion was … I shall let Remnick explain:

And now, for the first time, he has directed a movie. It is about a Russian Orthodox monk in the sixteenth century who starves himself to death rather than give in to the depredations of tsarist society. No, it isn’t. It’s about the race in the early sixties between “Kellogg” and “Post” to invent the “Pop-Tart”. Yes, really. It is called “Unfrosted” and will air on Netflix on 3 May. It is extremely silly, in a good way.

Extremely silly in a good way. I think I understand.
  Elsewhere in the news, as they say in the broadcast trade, the Israel Occupation Forces continued bombing Rafah as the Remnick item came out last Sunday – Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where the IOF had ordered Gazans to flee for their safety as they, the Israelis, bombed and bulldozed northern Gaza to the point of uninhabitability.
  But let us not allow brutalities of Medieval gore, savagery for which we pay, to disturb our psyches. With what shall our media fill our minds? The dropping of American ordnance on Palestinian children or the history of Pop-Tarts, humorously told?

White House Correspondents’ Dinner

We knew the answer by the time “The New Yorker” published the adolescent, time-wasting badinage Remnick and Seinfeld shared because we had watched – the ne plus ultra these past weeks – the White House Correspondents’ Dinner a couple of weeks back. We watched a stream of reporters eager for some passing social connection to celebrity and power stride disdainfully by people demonstrating against the Israeli–US genocide. We watched Medea Benjamin of Code Pink get thrown out of the dinner for holding up a placard reading, “100 journalists killed in Gaza.”
  And we heard Colin Jost, the star of the Saturday Night Live television program, conclude his 23 minutes of sometimes-pithy humour with his ode to what was most conspicuously missing in that roomful of feckless poseurs. “Decency is why we’re all here tonight,” the television comedian said with unfeigned seriousness. “Decency is how we’re able to be here tonight.” By then Jost, at bottom a court jester, had already told his audience of narcissists, “Your words speak truth to power. Your words bring light to the darkness.”
  Yes, believe it, in the spring of 2024 people still say these sorts of things about corporate journalists. And the people so addressed take them to be true.

Language and reality

Words. Words. Language, its use and misuse.
  As I reviewed the week that was in our media, I thought of a book that greatly impressed me when it came out in the mid–1990s. In The Unconscious Civilization (House of Anansi, 1995; Free Press, 1997) John Ralston Saul, the Canadian scholar and writer, was early in identifying the disconnection between language, as used in our public discourse, and reality. The expansion of knowledge has not produced an expansion of consciousness, Saul observed. It has instead caused us to take refuge in a universe of illusions wherein clear language becomes a kind of transgression. We render ourselves unconscious. Ideologies substitute for thought.

Student protests – 
bound up with reality

And then I thought of something else altogether. I thought of all those principled, clear-eyed students pitching tents, occupying buildings, and holding placards across the US in support of the Palestinian cause – which is to say the human cause. What is the difference, I came to wonder, between the demonstrating students and the journalists writing about laundry detergents and junk breakfast food or obscuring best they can the daily atrocities in Gaza? If the question implies the two are comparable, good. I think they are in some essential respects.
  If we understand those who populate corporate media as painfully representative of the unconsciousness of our civilisation – and I cannot see disputing this – we can stay with Saul’s terms and rotate our gaze to recognise those demonstrating in many American colleges and universities as, before they are anything else, highly conscious human beings. May the future lie with them. May they stay forever young. They are riveted to reality, while the media class flinches from it. While corporate journalists hide in forests of frivolity, the students we read of daily take refuge in nothing unless we count all those tents they’ve pitched on campus quads and greens. At writing, students at Columbia and other universities are besieged by police in riot gear – or, at UCLA, marauders, presumably students but maybe not, who swing sticks in defense of the Zionist cause.
  Listen to the language of the demonstrators, not only for what they say but for how they say it. The diction, simplicity, and clarity of their placards and public statements have the force of true conviction. Reconnecting language to reality lies at the core of our recovery into consciousness, Saul argued. Or there is Hannah Arendt’s variation on the thought: “We humanise what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.” So: As demonstrators speak, they make themselves humanisers.

The business of anti-Semitism 

Put this next to the mainstream’s coverage of the protests. It is replete with foggy language, intentionally obscure pieces casting the perfectly obvious distinction between anti–Zionism and anti–Semitism as some kind of insoluble conundrum. Nonsense. I have heard any number of Jews complain that Zionism rips off their religion, their beliefs, and their identity, and in this way they consider Zionism what is truly anti–Semitic in our midst.
  This business of “anti-Semitism” everywhere, or “anti-Semitism” as “shadowing the demonstrations” – a phrase from “The New York Times” brimming with mal-intended suggestion but with no discernible meaning – is a case of language misused for the most cynical and corrupt of reasons. Two weeks ago we were treated to a House vote, 320 to 19, that  defines criticism of Israel as anti–Semitic. I blame mainstream media for encouraging over many years this outright abuse of language by pretending the equivalence deserves to be taken even the slightest bit seriously.
  Between the demonstrators and the journalists, you have clarity and you have blur – language well used and language misused. There is, once again, much hope implicit in the former, none in the latter.

Power and its servants

There is one question that divides, more radically than any other, those acting on behalf of the Palestinian people and those either ignoring or obscuring Israeli-US aggression. This is the question of power. 
  Look at the David Remnicks, or those at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (which became an idiotic obscenity long before the Gaza crisis), or The Times’s laundry correspondent. What are these people doing if not running for their lives – or at least their careers – from any serious confrontation with power? Those at the White House dinner, so eager to identify with power and its demotic distant cousin, celebrity: Are they not merely power-worshiping wards of the very state they are supposed to report upon?
  You may have noticed that I have treated together those refusing to cover the daily atrocities in Gaza truthfully – or any of the other crises confronting our lapsing imperium, for that matter – and those filling their newspapers with … what’s my phrase? … insidious garbage. To explain this, I propose to introduce the notion of passive dereliction.
  Outright fabricators such as Jeffrey Gettleman are the most craven servants of power, true. And parenthetically, I can hardly wait to see what “The Times”, which is very inventive when it comes to punishing correspondents who embarrass it, does to Gettleman now that his “sexual violence” stories have so publicly collapsed. The Manhattan real estate desk, maybe?

Distractions in the service of power

But no reporter writing stories about the merits or otherwise of laundry detergent, or the importance of Beyoncé washing her hair – yes, I read a piece on this the other day – can claim to be outside the loop of responsibility as to the duties of professional journalists. Those helping to fill newspapers with distracting rubbish to crowd out worthy news reports, especially during a time of crisis such as ours, are also complicit in keeping the public distracted and misinformed in the service of power. This is what soma, that perversely calming drug Huxley imagined in “Brave New World”, looks like. These people administer daily doses of it, precisely because it renders those taking it unconcious.
  By contrast, if there is one thing shared in common among the demonstrators who have their administrations, police departments and a lot of people in Washington quaking, it is their unabashed, right-out-front determination to confront power. What has brought them onto the streets and the commons of their universities is a world-historically depraved use of power to exterminate a people. They are exactly where they ought to be. But I hope they understand that the Israeli – US genocide is but one manifestation of a vastly larger question, the question of late-imperial power.
  And I hope they stay with it when they recognise, as eventually they must, that it is this larger question that requires address if the humanity for which they stand is to be served. Cubans, Syrians, Venezuelans, Iraqis, Nigeriens, Nicaraguans, others – let’s take the famous post–11 September phrase and make it: They are all Palestinians now.  •

Source: First published by Scheerpost on 2 May 2024

* Patrick Lawrence is a long-time foreign correspondent, mainly for the “International Herald Tribune”, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His latest book “Journalists and Their Shadows” was published by Clarity Press in 2023. His website is patricklawrence.us. Support his work via patreon.com/thefloutist.

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