Belmont Club

Shimmer

Lee Smith describes how hard it is to maintains street cred — especially when the street is run by Hezbollah.  “CNN has fired senior editor Octavia Nasr for tweeting that she was “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” Fadlallah was one of the spiritual leaders of Hezbollah, and regarded by the U.S. government as a terrorist,” according to Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy. And well it should. The NYT says “western intelligence services, … held the ayatollah responsible for attacks against Western targets, including the 1983 bombings of two barracks in Beirut in which 241 United States Marines and 58 French paratroopers were killed.” But Lee Smith argues that Nasr is hardly unique. “If every U.S. journalist who quoted Hezbollah mouthpiece Amal Saad Ghorayeb as a respected “scholar” was fired, the bars of East Beirut would lose 25 percent of their business.”

In Beirut, it’s well understood that the U.S. press corps is at least deftly managed by Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian lapdogs, if not actively in the party’s corner. First stop for most is Michel Samaha, Lebanon’s former minister of Information, an apparatchik of the Damascus regime, who arranges interviews with Hezbollah higher-ups and other friends of the Islamic resistance. The only people who don’t understand how the game is played in Lebanon are American media consumers, because the foreign desk editors back in the U.S. surely know what’s up.

In the end there are two kinds of cred: one with the Hezbollah and another in the journalistic industry and together they write the narrative. The narrative’s current talking point is that Hezbollah is a legitimate Lebanese party that is “also a social welfare outfit that provides educational opportunities”. One day it may change for reasons that will not even be clear to the foreign desk editors. But right now that’s what it is; and when it finally changes there will be gratitude all around. How could you maintain a story line without them? The trouble is that fixed narratives tend to distort our understanding of reality because the facts have to amended to fit the story. So when Hezbollah, after being predicted to win in the Lebanese elections was relatively beaten by the opposing March 14 forces, how did the narrative deal with it?

Through modifiers. Whenever a narrative fails there are always words like “surprising” or “unexpected” to use as escape hatces. When the economy tanks despite being talked up just say jobs creation is “unexpectedly” low or that inventories are “surprisingly” sluggish. Dennis Prager, writing in Townhall calls these shared narratives “world opinion”. They are possible to impose because many people don’t have strong or informed opinions about scientific issues, public policy or far-away places. So we we fill the vacuum with “world opinion”. Why do we believe the following?

  • Manmade carbon emissions lead to global warming and devastation of the environment. Therefore, the world’s nations must tax carbon-based energy.
  • The American invasion of Iraq was morally wrong, motivated by desire for oil.
  • Israel is bad, as exemplified most recently by the Turkish flotilla incident.
  • The American health care system is inferior to that of all other wealthy countries

Because it’s on the front page and not because we know anything about it. If we do know something about it, we are likely to blame ourselves for error. After all, if the something is “settled science” or opinion who are we to say different? Authority is a wonderful thing. If the NYT were suddenly to print the opposite for that too would be believed. Hanin Ghadar, a journalist based in Beirut explained the power of clerical authority in an article she wrote about her own experience with Fadallah.  Banished from her paternal home when she decided to pursue an independent life she was prepared to accept a separation from her parents. But her mother, who understood the way things worked, went to Fadallah and secured a ruling from the cleric declaring that her father should allow her to pursue her own independence and “since then, I have been able to visit my family anytime I want. Fadlallah’s letter said I could.”

People who position themselves as anti-Hezbollah, critics of resistance, or atheists, will rarely be heard within the Shia community because people will not listen to them. The Shia who support Hezbollah and those who practice religion with deep faith will be on the defensive when someone like me for example presents a different point of view and any conversation will go nowhere.

And if Ghadar lived immersed in a family world of Shia culture, maybe Octavia Nasr inhabited one permeated by political correctness. As a member of the Western press she had to live inside a religious organization that was perhaps as confining in its own way, as any other. To live inside it is to respect its customs, taboos and fatwas. Most especially for Octavia Nasr, who as a Lebanese Christian was automatically suspect kind of creature the left regards as inauthentic, if not secretly falangist, fascist and right wing. Lee Smith writes:

Who knows if Nasr was overcompensating for the way her American colleagues perceive her confessional sect, or even what she meant by “respecting” Fadlallah. In the Middle East the bar is famously low–a religious figure who thinks it’s wrong to mutilate women’s genitalia is hailed as a progressive–and in Lebanon it’s further skewed. Hassan Nasrallah is “respected” as a man of vision and probity, even as he hides in a bunker four years after dragging his country to war on behalf of Iran and Syria. On the other hand, Samir Geagea, the Christian leader of the Lebanese Forces, is despised even after he spent more than a decade in solitary confinement as the only militia leader to pay for his crimes during the Lebanese civil war rather than make his amends with the regime in Damascus. …

The U.S. media actually likes Hezbollah–it is an impressive thing, after all, to be able to kill your enemies–whether they are Jews or fellow Lebanese–whereas liberalism, non-violent resistance, rule of law, and opposition to political murder lacks sex appeal. Let’s not forget that since the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri the U.S. media had tended to dismiss the Cedar Revolution as insufficiently authentic. The multi-sectarian coalition was not, in the eyes of most American journalists, made up of “real” Arabs, like Hezbollah; rather, it was a “Gucci” revolution.

Although journalists like to think of themselves as free to write whatever they want in reality they are constrained by the need to maintain access, ensure their safety, and do the equivalent of visiting their press parents. That means you play the game. Like Hanin Ghadar you might not agree, but ultimately you’ve got to get along, with your parents at least. In consequence the information on the front page must pass through successive filters simply to see print. Therefore the image we see is not so much RAW but Photoshop. That’s how it is and will continue this way for as long as information is passed through multiple layers of intermediation. The Octavia Nasr incident provided a glimpse into the wilderness of mirrors that is the crafted narrative. She was punished not for the crime of expressing admiration in Fadlallah but for exposing the adaptive optics of the newspaper industry. Can you say what you believe? Or can you say only what you can get away with? Here’s Elena Kagan arguing that in judging a case it shouldn’t matter what she believes.

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