Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Is It Too Much To Ask That Middle East Correspondents Not Be Fans of Folks Who Want Me Dead?

CNN's Senior Editor on Mideast Affairs, Octavia Nasr, has stepped down after writing about her "respect" for Sayyed Fadlallah, a top Hezbollah spiritual leader.

Ms. Nasr explained that her respect did not mean a whole-hearted endorsement of everything Mr. Fadlallah stood for -- including his claims that the Holocaust was exaggerated and his desire to exterminate the Jewish state. Rather, she believed that Mr. Fadlallah had, with regards to women's rights, been forwarded a more moderate vision of Shi'ite Islam that condemned "honor killings" and abuse against women. To call him "progressive" on women's rights would be a gross exaggeration, but he was perhaps notably less retrogressive, and grading on a curve I guess that counts for something. And I don't doubt that Ms. Nasr is being totally honest in stating that her feelings of respect stemmed from these issues.

But it doesn't obviate the tiny detail that the organization he was affiliated with, you know, wants Israel to be annihilated (and possibly wants me, personally, dead as well*). As Ms. Nasr admits, Mr. Fadlallah was marginalized in Hezbollah because he was too aggressive in demanding that Hezbollah focus solely on destroying Israel. Given that, I'm frankly stunned by the reaction in some liberal quarters to the news -- essentially alleging that this was kowtowing to a requirement in the media that all figures by biased in favor of Israel. "Bias", here, means a requirement that one not praise folks actively wishing for Israel to be obliterated. That alone demonstrates just how far the plaintive whine about how "the Israel Lobby" suppresses all dissent has extended itself. Why, you can't even praise folks who want to see Israel completely destroyed, and who think its completely okay to murder Israeli civilians (and possibly Jews worldwide), without facing their wrath. Oh, the muzzling! Oh, spare me.

Hezbollah generally, and Sayyed Fadlallah particularly, promote a radical anti-Semitic and anti-Israel agenda which is quite well-known. It is not whitewashed just because Fadlallah supports some progressive less retrogressive reforms inside Shi'ite Islam. I'm reminded of Naomi Klein's hideous reaction to the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Durban II speech, which conceded that it was anti-Semitic, but nonetheless that Jews dared protest it because it distracted from other progressive goals of the conference. Progressivism, here, simply means Jews have to take it in the teeth, because paying attention to our concerns might distract from those of real human beings.

And yes, it's pretty clear that CNN (and other media giants) have a bevvy of rather appalling figures on their payrolls. It's obviously a blot on CNN that it hired someone who referred to a Supreme Court Justice as a "goat f@$king child molester", but I hardly think a universal reduction in standards is the way to solve the issue. I likewise think anyone who thinks Palestine should not exist does not deserve a place on CNN, and certainly not in a senior position in CNN's Mideast desk. If such people are currently working in such a position at CNN, they should step down as well (make me a list -- I'll sign a petition). But it isn't right to ask Jews to play the sacrificial pawn in your media wars. If your progressivism means ignoring equal Jewish rights, it ain't progressivism to me.

* From the New Yorker article:
On the killing of Israeli civilians, Fadlallah said, "In a state of war, it is permissible for Palestinians to kill Jews. When there is peace, this is not permissible." He does not believe in a peaceful settlement between two states, one Palestinian, the other Israeli; rather, he favors the disappearance of Israel.
"We are against the killing of Jews outside Palestine," Fadlallah said. "Unless they transfer the war outside Palestine." When I asked if they had, Fadlallah raised an eyebrow, and let the question go unanswered.


joe said...

It's obviously a blot on CNN that it hired someone who referred to a Supreme Court Justice as a "goat f@$king child molester", but I hardly think a universal reduction in standards is the way to solve the issue.

The point is that selective enforcement is, yes, a sign of "bias." I may think that we need to lower the speed limit, but if only people who voice certain viewpoints get stopped going 55 in the 54, that's bias.

And there's the not insubstantial question of whether one slip up should always cost a competent person in the public eye her job. There are any number of public figures who have done any number of reprehensible things. Bill Clinton may well be a rapist, for example. Where is the line? Is any sign of approval of anyone now fair game?

Everyone loves to take umbrage in politics, but it's not always a very honest enterprise. You are acting as if it was Fadlallah himself who got fired instead of someone who said one nice thing about him in a tweet. Sorry, but that is not equivalent to "anyone who thinks Palestine should not exist" (like the current PM of Israel -- would praising him be grounds for termination at CNN)? To be clear, the equivalent would be if Nasr said she thought Israel should not exist. Which she didn't.

joe said...

I should also add that you're not exactly coming across as the calm figure you urge Peter Beinart to be when discussing Israel/Palestine when you make that kind of guilt-by-association viewpoint conflation.

David Schraub said...

First, I'm not sure what I've said regarding Beinart (whom I mostly agree with) that conflicts with thinking it's bad when folks praise other folks who want to wipe Israel off the map. I think a major part of what Beinart contributes to the conversation is that there are lots of folks who criticize Israeli policy who don't want to wipe Israel off the map (much less flirt with wiping Jews period off the map); I think it's a disservice to his mission to conflate reactions to him with reactions to Hezbollah. And while I think senseless aggression and pugnacity are at surfeits in Israel/Palestine discussions, I don't think I've ever called for Broderesque placidity to any and all offenses either. Stop strawmanning.

Second, I don't think it's a bad thing when a media organization is attentive to legitimate gripes by an interest group; and I think its wrong to say it's wrongfully biased in favor of that group (as opposed to against another group) simply because it is not responsive to another group's legitimate complaints. This goes back to saying that the goal should be to raise standards all around, not lower them, as well as asking that one not fight your media wars over my back. If Mort Klein gets hired to replace Ms. Nasr, I'd be happy to use this as a precedent to get him ditched. But sure, let's all race to the bottom. That'll end well.

And finally, I don't really think it's that scary, or that large of a deviation from general public norms, to say that certain groups are so far beyond pale that one really can be attacked simply for praising them. The Klan, for instance, or other White supremacist groups (I don't feel bad tarring Tony Perkins for associating with the CCC). Al-Qaeda, for another. And yeah, Hezbollah, which normally would be another of my "extreme" examples.

joe said...

David, suffice to say you've prevailed for calm, said the debate doesn't need more anger, etc. What I find intemperate (and strawmanning, for that matter), is comments where you imply that Nasr's comment was equivalent to saying Palestine should not exist. That is patently untrue. It's untrue because beliefs are not transitive.

Let's take an example:

You mention the KKK. Well, what about Obama's praise for Robert Byrd?

Guessing you'll say Byrd reformed, so what about Obama (or any other liberal) befriending Rick Warren (or sundry other social conservatives)? You know, people who say gay marriage is an abomination. People who say gays should even be imprisoned, or forcibly "cured." Maybe even stoned to death, according to the inerrant Word of God. Well, how sympathetic would you be to claims Obama should be removed from office for the association, or at least if he said something nice upon the occasion of such an individual's death. Don't tell me you'll go to the mat for Israel but poo-poo people who do the same for something that's important to the identity of gays? And here I thought you cared about GLBT rights! Surely you want to raise standards all around by calling for Obama's impeachment (or at least for the firing of any journalist with similar connections).

If you find fault with that reasoning (and I hope you do), take a long look at the arguments you've been making here.

Final example. What is to be done with some employee of CNN who says something supportive of the unforgivable Nasr? (Full disclosure: I actually know such an employee -- though I will not publicly say anything further to identify this individual -- who for obvious reasons has not voiced said support via twitter. And since I know this person, this is more than just some abstract discussion to me.) Should %i(that) person be sacked by the transitive property of Hezbollah? And what about the next person, down the chain? Are we playing the Kevin Bacon game, stopping at some arbitrary number of degrees from Hezbollah?

As for your "bias for/against" distinction, it's hairsplitting, and totally unnecessary for your point that we should raise standards all around. The vast majority of people talking about the Middle East would treat it as a distinction without a difference. But fine. For the sake of marginal improvement of discussion I'll gladly say we see an anti-Arab bias in the US media and watch everyone but you have exactly the same reaction.

PG said...

I think Joe's "transitive property of bad views" point is worthwhile. And you don't even have to go to Byrd The Repentant to find someone Obama has praised who had some sketchy views in the areas about which Obama was NOT praising him: what about Rev. Wright or Bill Ayers? Should we think Obama is pro-terrorism if he thinks Ayers has done good work on education reform and explicitly stated that he's opposed to Ayers's terrorist acts?

Nasr's Tweet was unclear as to why she respected Fadlallah, but her subsequent statement was fairly clear that she was speaking only about Fadlallah's stance on one particular issue, where he was better than many of his peers.

I think that's comparable to praising George Wallace for having been progressive on certain issues despite his politically-opportunistic racism (a racism in which nearly all his peers participated -- that's exactly why Wallace joined in, because he couldn't afford to get "out-n***ered" in elections). And that's praise many have issued to Wallace. Should one prefer Wallace to people who *aren't* racists? Of course not. But given a bad lot, what's wrong with saying one guy was better on one issue than many of the others? And what's so egregiously wrong about saying this that it's a firing offense?

joe said...

The other issue with firing a reporter based on an expressed viewpoint (which, to re-iterate, in this case was merely one positive comment about one guy) is that it's a shell game. Do we really expect journalists to provide in depth coverage on the issues of the day and not form opinions? That strikes me as unreasonable.

So maybe we accept they have their views but we don't want them aired at all in any form because it conveys bias. I supposed that makes sense from the business end of things... at least if you're CNN and don't want to brand yourself as a partisan network like Fox, or MSNBC to a lesser extent. But as a consumer of news I say screw that. Since I know everyone has beliefs that could create bias, I damn well have an interest in knowing what those beliefs are when you come selling me a narrative on various happenings. I expect you to distinguish between reporting and commentary, but that's just basic professionalism. I want to know where you're coming from so I can check for the more subtle, creeping biases.

Okay, you might argue, let's welcome everyone to express their opinions and sack the ones we find especially objectionable. Yeah, because that will ensure honesty. No one would ever dream of misrepresenting his or her view as being within some politically acceptable range, not where his or her livelihood is concerned.

I submit that the only way to get an honest accounting in this area is to be extremely disinclined to go headhunting based on personal opinions. Question the narrative that is presented -- the primary signs of objectivity or lack thereof are right in front of us; don't get bogged down with the personalities.

This all reminds me of the game we in the U.S. now play with Supreme Court nominees. It doesn't really matter what they'll hold in the future. But Reagan Almighty help the poor soul who is honest with us about his beliefs, or lays bare his approach to judging without some bland baseball analogy, for he has provided The Other Side with Soundbites and pretext to vote no. So we just cloak the process in platitudes to draw as little public interest as possible and wind up with the same damn bench for all those efforts.

I dare say the justice's political opinions play a more central role in their jobs than does a journalist's. So if we accept that it's a better world when we give a judicial appointee broad latitude in ideology*, how much stronger is that principal when applied to journalism.

*I'm with Jonathan Adler, Dahlia Lithwick, and countless others (from the left, the right, and the center) in saying enough with the confirmation games.

Jack said...

"To call him "progressive" on women's rights would be a gross exaggeration, but he was perhaps notably less retrogressive, and grading on a curve."

Positions on issues are *always* graded on a curve. There is no objective feature of a position that makes that position progressive or retrogressive. What are today conservative positions were once and in some places still are progressive positions. In the context of a Hezbollah spiritual leader... hell yes we're grading on a curve.

Since Nasr is a woman from the Middle East, yeah it sort of makes sense that this issue would be at the front of her mind in her thoughts about Fadlallah.

Consider; what if some conservative, Arab, Muslim cleric were to break new ground, issue a fatwa against anti-Semites and anti-Israeli terrorists and call for a two-state solution that only requires Israel to give up the most recently colonized land. Then he dies. An male Israeli correspondent for CNN tweets that he is sad this cleric is dead and that he respected him greatly. Would you want that correspondent fired for being a fan of someone who wanted to kill women who commit adultery, force them to wear headscarves, and took all manner of other anti-woman policies?

David Schraub said...

I don't think any of you actually believe your position can be taken to its logical conclusion. We all agree that if Jim Smith praises Tom Jones for being a good soccer coach, and it turns out that Jones swears a lot, Smith shouldn't be fired from his job as a pipefitter. Likewise, we all (hopefully agree) that if the head of the Holocaust Memorial Commission writes how much he "respected Hitler" (meaning only his force of will and organizational power), it isn't a bad thing when he inevitably gets fired. Those are the poles -- the question is where our case falls between them.

The inquiry, I think, flows out of three considerations. (1) How awful are the views of the subject (here Hadlallah); (2) How closely related to the controversial views is the speaker (here Nasr); and (3) How, if at all, did the speaker distinguish the parts she was praising from the abhorrent parts?

Now, if we're going to play the analogy game, we have to play it right. First, we'd need to find a public figure whose unrepentant views were the equivalent of destroying Israel, and sanctioning the murder of its residents and possibly Jews worldwide. It's a tough gig -- Rick Warren doesn't really qualify, nor, even, does George Wallace. In an American context, it would be something like an explicitly pro-lynching Southern leader who wanted, at the very least, to maintain Jim Crow perpetually, if not expel Blacks back to Africa. I don't doubt such a leader exists, but I'm too lazy to look up a perfect analogue, so lets call him "Strom Wallace".

Second, Nasr was the senior editor of CNN's mideast desk. Her position is intricately related to her views on such matters as "should Israel be obliterated and its citizens murdered en masse", in a way that, say, CNN's chief reporter covering the gulf oil spill isn't. Similarly, the person offering praise to SW should have some important connection to American racial discourse -- we'll say she's CNN's senior editor in charge of Race and America. Praise to Strom Wallace from that quarter is qualitatively different than praise coming from an Executive VP at Citibank.

And finally, we get to the statement itself. "Strom Wallace may have been a fanatical racist, but he also supported women's suffrage when nobody else did. The latter may not outweigh the former, but it's worth remembering" is quite different from "Sad to hear of the passing of Strom Wallace.. One of the Southern giants I respect a lot," even if we think (and it is clarified) that the speaker meant to refer to the women's rights issues. If the head of CNN's desk of Race and America had issued that statement, they'd be gone, and I wouldn't be crying about it.

In this context, this doesn't seem like a tough call. People do offer conditional praise to George Wallace, but the point is they condition it -- they don't just say how much they "respected" him as a Jim Crow leader, and we expect the conditional to not be an after thought. Trent Lott was toast for praising Strom Thurmond, even though I don't actually believe Lott thinks segregation or Jim Crow is better than what we've got now.

What most people call PC, as PG tells us, is often just code for "don't be an asshole". Another element of it is "think before you speak". It's not too much to ask a person intricately involved in covering these issues to do that. And it's not unreasonable for me to worry when someone, reflecting on the life of a person who (at best) thinks its an open question whether I deserve to die, has a first thought of "well, he said some stuff about women's rights".

Steve Rappoport said...

"Likewise, we all (hopefully agree) that if the head of the Holocaust Memorial Commission writes how much he "respected Hitler" (meaning only his force of will and organizational power), it isn't a bad thing when he inevitably gets fired."

You leave me a bit confused. As worded, the comment is inept. But is it not useful to be able to analyze Hitler to see what made him successful? In many respects, he was phenomenally successful in the sense of achieving the goals that he set out to reach (at least for a while). The goals certainly were bad ones, to be sure, but I think it useful to take apart his conduct (or that of anyone else) to see what worked and why it did so.

Even monsters are human beings. It is not irrelevant in appaising the worst person to note that he had views on cetain subjects that were good. Hitler, for example, was ahead of his time in opposing smoking. This certainly does not make up for everything else, but it does show that he was quite complicated. See, e.g.,

joe said...

Jack makes a good point: We're all relativists, we just don't like to admit it. This is why Americans can get away with praising a bunch of sexist, classist slave owners and their sexist, classist friends who merely believed in white supremacy without legally owning others. Merely because they founded an independent country governed by, and with a lot of rights granted to, that selfsame group.

And barely anyone bats an eye at effusive praise for the founders. Much less can I think of anyone in the media or elsewhere who had to fall on his or her sword for such praise.

joe said...

A classmate of mine made an interesting observation about Nasr's firing today. We need only look at the glass a bit differently to see CNN's reaction as anti-womens' rights, even supportive of honor killing; if that seems absurd, what does it say about this entire exercise?

Jack said...

"Similarly, the person offering praise to SW should have some important connection to American racial discourse -- we'll say she's CNN's senior editor in charge of Race and America."

This isn't comparable. Nasr was senior editor of Mideast Affairs not senior editor for Israel-Palestine Affairs. Her position covers stories from Egypt, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, etc. In another words the issues she thinks about are not exclusively or even mainly about Israel-Palestine (as the comparison to an editor of Race and America would suggest).

Your analogy also doesn't take into account Nasr's experience as a woman from that part of the world and how that experience would affect how she reflected on Fadlallah's life. Moreover, Nasr is Lebanese making it likely that when she thinks about Hezbollah she thinks about their domestic politics as much their foreign politics, whereas you, for good reason, are mostly concerned about their foreign politics.

Nor does your analogy take into account the context issue. Supporting Jim Crow in 21st Century American is an extremely marginal position, being an anti-Semite in Hezbollah isn't. That doesn't make being an anti-Semite okay but when we evaluate the lives people have led we usually take into account how they live up to our expectations. This guy's views on Israel are unfortunately baseline for people with his background and religion. I guess we could just refuse to ever say anything nice about hardline, fundamentalist Muslims (and most of the time I say nasty things) but it doesn't really make sense to fire someone for acknowledging and respecting those hardline fundamentalist clerics who do better than the rest.

"Trent Lott was toast for praising Strom Thurmond, even though I don't actually believe Lott thinks segregation or Jim Crow is better than what we've got now."

I don't really think Lott deserved to get run out of leadership either (at least not for being nice to an old guy on his birthday, he probably deserved to get run out of leadership for the policies he promoted though). Also, in this case Lott explicitly said he thought the country would have been better if Strom had been president. That seems to imply sharing Strom's views in a way that saying "I respect him" doesn't.

joe said...

Yeah, a politician being brought low by his opponents making attacks of opportunity over a soundbite on cable news is really a great model for the way the news should be run.

About the best thing that can be said about that kind of thing is that, as you suggest, it can be a pretext for someone who really does something reprehensible getting his just desserts. (Lott's politics are currently socially acceptable even if his birthday jokes aren't.)