This article is prompted by two isolated sets of events, which may, in some not-too-subtle way, be connected. The first is a purulent outbreak of hatred over at the Western Standard, the gist of which can be found over at Cerberus' place. This pathetic loathe-fest is brought to you courtesy of Ezra Levant, the owner of the Standard, a person whose evidently visceral dislike of Muslims has already landed him in some minor trouble with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. A month or so before that, he attempted a hatchet-job on Liberal candidate Omar Alghabra, which I dealt with here. His place makes a comfortable home for those who feel the same way about things.
Leave no Muslim unstoned seems to be the credo over at WS. The present imbroglio was caused, in part, by a common-or-garden attack on Muslims by one of the Usual Suspects. A long series of hysterical, foamy, racist, hate-soaked words proceeded to slither into the combox, prompting a spirited post by Chris Selley, who didn't mince his own words. (What on earth is the humane and urbane commentator of Tart Cider doing posting over at the Standard anyway? But I digress.) This only led to a fresh spate of venomous comments.
Right-wing bloggers are quick to pounce on any comment from the Left that they feel crosses the line of decency. You can hear the contrived huffing and puffing clear across cyberspace. But the reaction to the poison being vomited forth at the Standard, as noted at the Cerberus site, has been...silence.
Meanwhile, back on the topic of the Middle East, differing standards are also an issue. It is a common complaint in some quarters that "Israel is held to a higher standard" than other nations, particularly Middle Eastern ones. Indeed, unquestioning supporters of Israel insist that the country not only has those higher standards, but lives by them. All civilian deaths in Lebanon and Gaza are accidental, for example, despite reports like this. Israel is a Western-style democracy in a sea of Islamofascism, fighting for its very survival against...well, Others.
Could there be a possible kernel of truth in the charge, nevertheless? I for one have certainly reflected on the possibility that some of us may be holding Israel to higher standards than its neighbours. Perhaps, in a naive fashion, some of us expected better of Israel, at least those in the crowd who imagine that suffering enobles people. (It doesn't. It hardens them, if anything.) Maybe we do have higher expectations of a country that actually endorses those standards itself. Possibly we are indulging in the "racism of low expectations" by being less surprised by, and therefore less noisy about, the violent intolerance of theocratic regimes like Iran.
Or is a manipulative media to blame? Mark Collins over at Daimnation asks rhetorically: "Why are a few hundred dead Lebanese a crisis? And not millions of black Africans? My answers: television news; racism on the part of all non-blacks; and political agendas completely remote from any concern with real human beings, their lives, and their deaths."
I would quarrel with his answers on several counts, but it would be less than honest not to admit some difficulty in dismissing them out of hand. Blaming the media is a little problematic, I think: what processes, after all, determine what is deemed important by the media? But racism is undoubtedly part of it. Stephen Lewis has been trying to awake the conscience of the world to the pandemic AIDS crisis in Africa, with indifferent success. It is hard to imagine the same inattention were this happening in Europe or the United States. For whatever reason, in any event, the media chooses some spots and not others in which to plant its tripods.
In the case of the Middle East, though, the media might have made the only available choice. All of us are affected immediately in some way. At the level of the trivial, gas prices have risen once again. Organizations on both sides of the divide have given the war considerable profile; and significant numbers of Canadians, as we have recently learned, actually live in that part of the world. When the lens is brought to bear, however, no matter what the reason, we can see the deaths and injuries, and feel them. There is nothing inconsistent in that reaction; we know, for example, that the grief of a single family closer to home can result in a massive outpouring of emotion. We don't react to death based on numbers: that's not how empathy works.
We invoke our common standards when we see what we can't accept or rationalize. We are now looking, every day, at the on-the-ground results of conflict in the Middle East. I think that there is merit--and I don't know whether we should be criticized for this or not--in the suggestion that our expectations of Israel might be higher than those we hold of an irregular non-state armed force calling itself the Army of God. Although the latter isn't doing much of the killing at present.
In any case, when we see the pictures and hear the reports, it is Lebanese civilians whom we encounter, in extremis. And our aroused feelings demand that we lay blame. But many are not predisposed to see Muslims/Arabs in a sympathetic light; crude propagandists like Ezra Levant bear their share of responsibility for constructing that threatening, cartoonish Other, although more mainstream commentators, journalists and editors do their bit as well. Israel gets a far better press in these parts, and Muslims do not fare as well as Jews in this venue. Imagine substituting the words "Jew" and "Jewish" for the Islamic references in the Western Standard commentaries and the point becomes obvious. The human suffering brought to you by satellite TV, therefore, will be blamed on the guys with the black hats, not the white ones. And that's human, isn't it?
Our personal sense of the Middle East conflict arises immediately from empathy. We experience that most essential of emotions in a multitude of ways, and our rational frameworks are then forced into play. We reach radically different conclusions because those frameworks are socially constructed, and part of that construction is the too often unreflected-upon, mediated image of the Other.
Perhaps we can at least agree, though, that comparing tragedies around the world makes little sense. Our response, as the tsunami relief effort indicated, depends very much on where the camera is pointed. A few hundred dead Lebanese civilians do not mean any less because genocide is being practised in Darfur, largely out of our sight and without much media attention. We need to question more closely why we are allowed to see some things and not others; how it is decided what the media will mediate, and how--because we are affected by what we see, and the media are our eyes. But in the final analysis, in or out of sight, numbers don't matter. Last word to Kenneth Patchen:
Because the snow is deep
Without spot that white falling through white air
Because she limps a little - bleeds
Where they shot her
Because hunters have guns
And dogs have hangman's legs
Because I'd like to take her in my arms
And tend her wound
Because she can't afford to die
Killing the young in her belly
I don't know what to say of a soldier's dying
Because there are no proportions in death.