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Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Author Bios

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Columnist

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also "The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation and a fellow of The Nation Institute, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where he writes and edits the "Think Again" column, a senior fellow (since 1985) at the World Policy Institute. Alterman is also a regular columnist for Moment magazine and a regular contributor to The Daily Beast. He is the author of seven books, including the national bestsellers, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (2003, 2004), and The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (2004). The others include: When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, (2004, 2005); His Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (1992, 2000), which won the 1992 George Orwell Award; It Ain't No Sin to be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen (1999, 2001), which won the 1999 Stephen Crane Literary Award and Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, (1998). His most recent book is Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals (2008, 2009).

Termed "the most honest and incisive media critic writing today" in the National Catholic Reporter, and author of "the smartest and funniest political journal out there," in the San Francisco Chronicle, Alterman is frequent lecturer and contributor to numerous publications in the US, Europe and Latin America. In recent years, he has also been a columnist for: MSNBC.com, Worth, Rolling StoneMother Jones, and the Sunday Express (London), a history consultant to HBO films and a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. A former Adjunct Professor of Journalism at NYU and Columbia, Alterman received his B.A. in History and Government from Cornell, his M.A. in International Relations from Yale, and his Ph.D. in US History from Stanford. He lives with his family in Manhattan.

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It's that time of the decade again; time to ask the time-honored question, "Whither the Public Intellectual?" We did it in the 1980s when Russell Jacoby first published his still-well-regarded jeremiad, The Last Intellectuals. We did it again in the 1990s with the discovery of Harvard's "dream team" of black intellectuals (currently in the news again). The circus is back in town because America's most prolific celebrity jurist and legal theorist, Richard Posner, has just published a highly publicized study of the topic, with the imprimatur of Harvard University Press.

The book is a decidedly curious artifact. It purports to be a rigorous analytical study replete with graphic depictions of regression analyses and lengthy tables of mathematical equations. Posner deploys a market-based model to fashion an indictment of contemporary public intellectuals for their neglect of genuine academic research in pursuit of fame. Moreover, he argues, they have deliberately confused the general public with claims of omnicompetence--all in the service of an egoistic fantasy of "speaking truth to power."

A felicitous writer with a marvelously caustic wit, Posner can be a pleasure to read. The iconoclastic brilliance that has earned him unparalleled intellectual influence in the legal profession--along with an entertaining New Yorker profile--is occasionally on display in these pages. Too bad he chose to place it in the service of so fundamentally flawed an enterprise. Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline is to public intellectual life in America what The Bell Curve was to genetics and intelligence: an incompetent political tract dressed up in pseudoscientific clothing.

The book's centerpiece is a list of those Posner deems to be the top 546 public intellectuals in America, ranked by mentions in the media, the web and scholarly publications, followed by another list of the 100 public intellectuals most frequently mentioned in the media. Both are pure nonsense.

Admitting that the construction of any such list is necessarily a subjective enterprise, Posner has nonetheless proven himself to be a profoundly deficient craftsman. Even with so bloated an assemblage, he manages to exclude, among others, Paul Berman, Alan Ryan, Ian Buruma, Simon Schama, David Kennedy, Tzvetan Todorov and Robert Hughes. These "public intellectuals" belong not merely on a list of 546 but on any competent grouping one-tenth its size. The quality of his methodology, moreover, is laughable. According to Posner, the nation's most prominent public intellectuals when judged by media mentions are Henry Kissinger, Pat Moynihan, George Will, Larry Summers, William Bennett, Robert Reich and Sidney Blumenthal. Aside from perhaps Kissinger, and even more generously--though no less deplorably--Bennett, not one of these people's media recognition is a function of his role as "public intellectual." Moynihan was, until last year, a prominent politician. Will is a media pundit and a Republican Party flunky. Summers, Reich and Blumenthal were all, during the period under study, either Cabinet members, close advisers to a President involved in fractious and heavily covered political battles or both.

The further one travels down Posner's list, the nuttier it looks. He divides his list into Jews and non-Jews, adding that Jews have a harder time getting quoted in the media than do minorities. But as intellectuals rarely offer up their religious affiliation when pontificating on say, impeachment or civil society, his data on this distinction can be no better than those used by my late bubbe and zayde when they played this game (and leveled similar complaints). Moreover, he does not bother tabulating scholarly citations of the works of nonacademics like Nicholas Lemann or Doris Kearns Goodwin or even George Kennan or Walter Lippmann, although each has written key works in their respective fields. He does not include John Rawls at all, whom he acknowledges to be the most influential political philosopher alive, for reasons he attempts to explain but then contradicts. And what can any list say about anything when Ann Coulter and David Horowitz are said to outrank Isaiah Berlin and Garry Wills? To the reader it says you are wasting your time with this stupid book.

Since Posner is obviously not a stupid man, we have to wonder what is really going on. How curious, for the conspiratorially minded, that the work suffers--in extremis--from exactly the foibles Posner attributes to public intellectuals: namely, the pretense of scholarly expertise in a field in which the author fails to demonstrate even rudimentary competence. Writing an entire book and getting Harvard to publish it is an awfully elaborate means of proving this point. (Then again, Alan Sokal's wonderful hoax of the smart/stupid editors at Social Text also seemed unthinkable until he pulled it off.) There's also the fact that Posner includes himself in the indictment. Hmmmm.

A more likely explanation, unfortunately, is the political one. Posner says he was inspired to write the book after reading what he deemed to be the inferior contributions of the professoriate to the debate over the Supreme Court's decision to end the Florida recount and hand the 2000 election to George W. Bush. This explains the singular attention he pays to two prominent public intellectuals: the historian Sean Wilentz, who organized a number of efforts to prevent that antidemocratic outcome from achieving the legitimacy the media have since accorded it (following his equally spirited opposition to Clinton's impeachment); and legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who eviscerated Posner's apologia for the Court in The New York Review of Books. Both come in for criticism more befitting a beheading than a scholarly disagreement.

While Posner evinces little sympathy for Straussian virtuecrats like Robert Bork and Gertrude Himmelfarb, he is most unabashed in his criticism of those intellectuals who continue the venerable tradition of speaking up for social democratic values in the face of an almost totally corporatized public sphere and money-driven political discourse. Fortunately, given the slipshod nature of his "scholarship," the only scholarly reputation upon which this book inflicts any lasting damage is that of its author.

The New Republic strains credibility with its 'Idiocy Watch'—it might want to keep itself in its sights.

As the country tilts toward war, media voices are craven in their obsequiousness.

George W. Bush, whose administration is addicted to secrecy, wants presidential papers classified indefinitely, not for the usual 12 years.

Mark Green was a worthy candidate for mayor, but for a variety of reasons he could not prevail.

The story of what historians call the second cold war often begins with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which shocked Americans into their own overreaction in Central America and Africa, as well as into arming the mujahedeen resistance. Today, it is a truth universally acknowledged in the punditocracy that while the United States may have played an indirect role in the creation of the Taliban and perhaps even the bin Laden terrorist network through our support for the radical Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan, we did so only in response to that act of Soviet aggression. As Tim Russert explained on Meet the Press, "We had little choice." Speaking on CNN, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Peter Tomsen speaks of our "successful policy with the ordnance we sent to the mujahedeen to defeat the Soviets." Writing on "The 'Blowback' Myth" in The Weekly Standard, one Thomas Henriksen of the Hoover Institution rehearses the Soviet invasion and then notes, "First President Carter, then, more decisively, Ronald Reagan moved to support the Afghan resistance."

The truth is that the United States began a program of covert aid to the Afghan guerrillas six months before the Soviets invaded.

First revealed by former Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates in his 1996 memoir From the Shadows, the $500 million in nonlethal aid was designed to counter the billions the Soviets were pouring into the puppet regime they had installed in Kabul. Some on the American side were willing--perhaps even eager--to lure the Soviets into a Vietnam-like entanglement. Others viewed the program as a way of destabilizing the puppet government and countering the Soviets, whose undeniable aggression in the area was helping to reheat the cold war to a dangerous boil.

According to Gates's recounting, a key meeting took place on March 30, 1979. Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocumbe wondered aloud whether "there was value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going, 'sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire.'" Arnold Horelick, CIA Soviet expert, warned that this was just what we could expect. In a 1998 conversation with Le Nouvel Observateur, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted, "We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would."

Yet Carter, who signed the finding authorizing the covert program on July 3, 1979, today explains that it was definitely "not my intention" to inspire a Soviet invasion. Cyrus Vance, who was then Secretary of State, is not well enough to be interviewed, but his close aide Marshall Shulman insists that the State Department worked hard to dissuade the Soviets from invading and would never have undertaken a program to encourage it, though he says he was unaware of the covert program at the time. Indeed, Vance hardly seems to be represented at all in Gates's recounting, although Brzezinski doubts that Carter would have approved the aid unless Vance "approved, however unenthusiastically."

No one I interviewed--those who did not mind the idea of a Soviet invasion, and those who sought to avoid it--argues that Carter himself wished to provoke one. Gates, who was then an aide to Brzezinski, says the President did not think "strategically" in that fashion. "He was simply reacting to everything the Soviets were doing in that part of the world and felt it required some kind of response. This was it." Brzezinski, similarly, says he did not sell the plan to Carter on these terms. The President understood, he explained on the phone, that "the Soviets had engineered a Communist coup and they were providing direct assistance in Kabul. We were facing a serious crisis in Iran, and the entire Persian Gulf was at stake. In that context, giving some money to the mujahedeen seemed justified." Why Carter actually approved the aid remains unclear, however. Carter, it should be added, does not seem to remember much about the initial finding. Otherwise, he would not have asked his aide to fax me the pages from his memoir Keeping Faith, which ignores it entirely, and like the rest of the pre-Gates memoirs of the period, professes great shock and horror regarding the onset of the Soviet tanks.

The news of the covert program has provoked considerable confusion among those who seek to blame the United States for the September 11 massacre. Proponents of an overly schematic "blowback" scenario, including at least one vocal supporter of the Soviet "rape" of Afghanistan, have seized Brzezinski's comments to claim that Osama bin Laden is merely one of America's "chickens coming home to roost." This is both simplistic and obscene. Blowback exists in absolutely every aspect of life, because nothing comes without unintended consequences. Does it make sense to blame the destruction of the World Trade Center on a $500 million nonlethal aid program that took place more than twenty years ago? We cannot even know for certain why the Soviets decided on their invasion.

Nor can we ever know for certain whether the US officials wished to inspire one. Memories deceive, records get destroyed and even original documents can be written to be deliberately misleading, as were the period's official memoirs--save, ironically, that of Gates, the former spymaster. The covert action was undoubtedly approved by those involved for a host of reasons, some of which may be contradictory. Helping the Afghans resist Soviet domination was not exactly a controversial policy in 1979, though no one at the time could even dream that it might lead to the evil empire's eventual disintegration.

Brzezinski argues that even given the 20/20 hindsight after September 11, the covert aid remains justified. He shares the common view that America's most significant mistake was to abandon the nation to its unhappy fate following the Soviet withdrawal. Our terrorist problem, he insists, would be much worse with the Soviets still around to support their terrorist minions among the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Libyans, the Iraqis, etc.

Certainly this is much too kind to the Reagan-era military aid to Taliban-like elements. But a more accurate historical record can only lead to more intelligent debate about the future.

Patriotism requires no apologies. Like anti-Communism and anti-Fascism, it is an admirable and thoroughly sensible a priori assumption from which to begin making more nuanced judgments. Nor does patriotism need to be exclusionary. I am an American patriot, a Jewish patriot and a New York chauvinist pig. My patriotism is not about governments and armies; it's about unions, civil rights marches and the '69 Mets. It's not Kate Smith singing "God Bless America"; it's Bruce Springsteen singing "This Land Is Your Land."

Of course, not everyone on the left concurs. While many nonpatriots share an idealistic belief in a kind of cosmopolitan, humanist internationalism, some--like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on the right--really do hate this country. These leftists find nothing to admire in its magnificent Constitution; its fitful history of struggle toward greater freedom for women, minorities and other historically oppressed groups; and its values, however imperfectly or hypocritically manifested in everyday life. This became obvious in a few of the immediate reactions we heard in the wake of September 11. How could anyone say with certainty why we were attacked when we couldn't be sure who attacked us? All they could know, really, is why they thought we deserved it.

This "Hate America" left must be rejected for reasons of honor and pragmatism. It is difficult enough to "talk sense to the American people" in wartime without having to defend positions for which we have no intellectual or emotional sympathy. Many on the right are hoping to exploit a pregnant political moment to advance a host of antidemocratic policies. Principled dissent is never more necessary than when it is least welcome. American history is replete with examples of red scares, racist hysteria, political censorship and the indefensible curtailment of civil liberties that derive, in part, from excessive and abusive forms of superpatriotism. We are already seeing the beginnings of a concerted attack on civil liberties, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Given the importance most Americans place on patriotism as a bedrock personal value, it is folly to try to enjoin them in a battle that fails to embrace their most basic beliefs.

Moreover, the refusal to draw this line invites the kind of McCarthyite thuggishness we see on display in the writings of pundits like Andrew Sullivan and Michael Kelly, and in the pages of (predictably) National Review and (sadly) The New Republic, tarring anyone with a wartime question or criticism as a pro-terrorist "Fifth Column" (Sullivan's term). Casting as wide a net as possible for their poisonous attacks, they choose examples so tiny as to be virtually nonexistent. In defense of his slander of the people of New York as well as virtually everyone else who voted against George Bush in the "red" areas of the nation, Sullivan pointed to an obscure website based in Denmark run by something called United Peoples. To smear opponents of unfettered free trade and globalization, TNR editor Peter Beinart seized on a bunch of anonymous postings to another, no less obscure, website whose name I cannot even remember. Kelly has now devoted two Washington Post columns to attacking all pacifists as "evil," "objectively pro-terrorist" and "Liars. Frauds. Hypocrites." But in neither column could he find the space--or the courage--to name a single one.

Because none of these writers have yet developed the reputation for malevolent hysteria enjoyed by, say, Marty Peretz on Israel or David Horowitz and Ann Coulter on everything, there is a serious chance that the larger mass media, never good at making distinctions on the left in the best of times, will swallow and repeat their reprehensible assertions. The net result will be the exclusion of all progressives, America-hating or no, from the spectrum of "responsible" debate where decisions are made and the nation's future is determined.

The potential for politically motivated official censorship--beyond that which is genuinely necessary to protect the safety and security of our troops--is never far away in wartime. Politicians and generals quite understandably find the temptation to abuse this power irresistible. We saw countless such examples during the Gulf War, and we can discern hints of future threats from the lips of presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer, who endorsed the attempts of a few Madison Avenue mullahs to withdraw advertising from ABC's moronic talk show Politically Incorrect when host Bill Maher used the word "cowards" regarding the US military's use of cruise missiles. "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is." (Speaking of cowardice, the White House edited Fleischer's remarks in its official transcript of the exchange.)

Yet another wartime peril to democracy derives from hyper-caution and self-censorship on the part of the media themselves. Why are newspapers like Newsday and the Daily News censoring comics who raise even the gentlest questions about George Bush? Exactly whom does the communications conglomerate Clear Channel imagine it is defending when it instructs its deejays not to play "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or "Ticket to Ride" on the radio? Why do newspaper publishers in Grants Pass, Oregon, and Galveston County, Texas, feel the need to fire writers and editors who wondered why the President "skedaddled" into a "Nebraska hole" on the day of the attack? Most disturbing of all, why has the consortium of national news organizations decided to postpone, apparently indefinitely, the news of who really won the Florida election last winter? The estimated publication date for the collective effort, overseen by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center and costing more than $1 million, had been September 17. But New York Times political reporter Richard Berke wrote that the now "utterly irrelevant" report "might have stoked the partisan tensions."

In other words, the threat of "partisan tensions" arising from a potentially stolen election is more dangerous than continuing to live the lie. How wise of our media minders to decide that America needs to be protected--not from terrorists, but from truth.


Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
        --As You Like It, II. i. 12

On the ground in downtown Manhattan, I see the best of our collective selves. Firemen and rescue workers risking their lives to save others; anonymous individuals pitching in to help strangers. Nobody whines about their losses, the inconvenience or even the inevitable screw-ups. It's a city I never knew existed. I go for walks and come back all choked up.

But then I get home, check in with my television and computer to see the latest screeds that pass for analysis in our benighted punditocracy, and my inner cynic is rekindled. "Nothing will ever be the same in America ever again," we are instructed. Well, yes and no. For many pundits, this tragedy is just one more excuse to explain how right they were in the first place. The discourse is dominated by a center-right argument, expressed most cogently by ex-Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, advising his successors, "We've got to be somewhat irrational in our response. Blow their capital from under them." (Not to put too fine a point on things, but terrorism has no capital. Remember, that's the problem.)

Sometimes it takes the near-destruction of a village to discover just how crazy some of these erstwhile respectable conservatives can be. George W. Bush did backflips and handflips during the Republican primary season to win the endorsements of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who concur that we got "what we deserve," adding that the ACLU has "got to take a lot of blame for this." Just in case anyone misunderstood, Falwell clarified their position: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'" (Robertson and Falwell apologized, but did not really retract.)

These crazies are not exactly alone on the Republican right. Over at National Review Online, Ann Coulter published an ostensible tribute to Solicitor General Ted Olson's wife, Barbara Olson, who died in the Pentagon crash, in which she first noted that Olson "praised one of my recent columns and told me I had really found my niche. Ted, she said, had taken to reading my columns aloud to her over breakfast." Finally came the red meat: "We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." This column, quite amazingly, also appeared on the website of a right-wing outfit, Jewish World Review, until the geniuses there figured out that by Coulter's theology they were next, and dumped it. Another confused NRO/JWR writer, Iran/contra adventurer Michael Ledeen, believes Olson "was killed by a fraudulent and arrogant establishment."

In another not quite shocking development Marty Peretz explained that the crime was the fault of insufficient hatred of Arabs. "I do not understand why so many people are so surprised by the radical evil emanating from the Muslim world," Peretz writes. To be fair, I suppose those of us who witnessed the terrorism of Meir Kahane, Baruch Goldstein and Menachem Begin have only ourselves to blame if we are surprised by the radical evil emanating from the Jewish world.

Over at the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the editors discovered in this self-consciously low-tech attack yet another argument for space-based missile defense. Why? "Hijacking a jet and flying it into a target is now yesterday's threat." Now they tell us. Even the discredited "terrorist expert" Steven Emerson, who once upon a time tried to blame the Arabs for Oklahoma City, has seen his fortunes revived as a talking head: a perfect metaphor for a medium without a memory.

The right has been without a rallying point since the end of the Soviet Union. Now they have one again. By fortunate happenstance it coincides exactly with the desire of many of them to make Israel a vassal state of a global American empire. Note that among the commentators who seek to blame Yasir Arafat in some way for the atrocities and even mention the Palestinian Authority on a possible list of targets--a group that includes Seth Lipsky, Michael Kelly, Mark Helprin and George Will--not one even bothers to argue that Arafat had anything to do with the attacks. Rather, this horrific tragedy looks to be just one more excuse to try to get the US military to do Israel's dirty work rather than pursue the more difficult but constructive business of resuming the search for a workable peace.

To achieve the ends they have always sought, these conservatives demean considered analyses of our predicament with the epithet "appeasement." Andrew Sullivan--the author of a book on friendship--has already accused his friend Robert Wright of exactly this crime in response to the latter's thoughtful musings about some of the difficulties of retaliation. As if possessed by the spirit of an A. Mitchell Palmer or J. Edgar Hoover, the famed "gaycatholictory" has taken to listing the names of those he considers to be appeasers. And if that's not enough, Sullivan also warned that "the great red zone that voted for Bush is clearly ready for war. The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead--and may well mount a fifth column." Yes, you read that right.

The grave risk in allowing these self-serving arguments to hijack the public discourse is that we will embark on a self-destructive cycle of retribution that does little more than indulge our wholly understandable desire for vengeance as it simultaneously exacerbates the problem we attempt to address. No, I don't have a better idea right now, but what's the rush? We are a great nation. We can afford to take our time.

CNN, regularly derided as 'liberal' by conservative commentators, is only liberal if that word stands for 'somewhat sane.'

Last night I had the
strangest dream...

All of America's wealthy,
conservative and safely belligerent pundits had been delivered by a
just and beneficent Almighty Power to a Palestinian refugee camp,
following the bulldozing of their homes--including vacation
homes--and the expropriation of all their possessions. Instead of
pontificating between beach walks and vodka tonics in Vineyard Haven,
these armchair bombardiers were treated to rivers of open sewage and
hopeless lives of beggary. Those who resisted were arrested, tortured
and selectively assassinated. Meanwhile, editorial pages across
America cheered the "restraint" of their tormentors.

In
extremely lengthy articles, the New York Times and The New
York Review of Books
recently demonstrated beyond any doubt that
the Israelis (and the Americans) shared in the blame for the
breakdown of peace negotiations and ensuing cycle of violence that
now tragically appears to be engulfing the region. To the
punditocracy, however, these dispassionately argued, extensively
reported stories amounted to an existential insult of near biblical
proportions. Marty Peretz's New Republic published a vicious
attack on the articles by Robert Satloff, executive director of a
pro-Israel think tank. William Safire got so excited, he denounced
his own newspaper in a hysterical fit of ad hominemism: "Do not
swallow this speculative rewriting of recent events," he warned
readers. "The overriding reason for the war against Israel today is
that Yasir Arafat decided that war was the way to carry out the
often-avowed Palestinian plan. Its first stage is to create a West
Bank state from the Jordan River to the sea with Jerusalem as its
capital. Then, by flooding Israel with 'returning' Palestinians, the
plan in its promised final phase would drive the hated Jews from the
Middle East."

Mortimer Zuckerman, in his capacity as
chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American
Organizations, insisted, "This is just revisionist history.... There
is one truth, period: The Palestinians caused the breakdown at Camp
David and then rejected Clinton's plan in January." The baldest
comment came from the Zionist Organization of America's president,
Morton Klein: "Whether their account is accurate or not is
irrelevant.... I reject any discussion of what
happened."

In the wake of the suicide bombings, three
different Washington Post pundits demanded war three days in a
row. Michael Kelly, recently seen complaining about too many fatsoes
at the beach, advised the Israelis to unleash "an overwhelming
force...to destroy, kill, capture and expel the armed Palestinian
forces." The more moderate George Will called only for a "short war."
(Charles Krauthammer did not specify a length.) To read these
would-be warriors, you would think the Palestinians were summering in
Edgartown. A reader would never guess that a regional superpower is
carrying out a brutal military occupation, coupled with a settlement
policy that directly contravenes Article 49 of the Geneva Convention.

No one with any sense would argue that Arafat and his
corrupt cronies do not bear considerable responsibility for the
collapse of any hope of peace in the Middle East in the near future.
And suicide bombers against civilian targets in Israel are as
counterproductive as they are immoral (though those who settle in
occupied territory are knowingly putting themselves in harm's way and
hence share some responsibility when their families are forced to pay
for this fanaticism with their lives). Nevertheless, a conflict where
"our team" engages in terrorism, assassination and the apparently
routine torture of teenagers to defend a cruel and illegal occupation
is one in which neither side holds a monopoly on virtue.

Since a majority of Israelis supports a freeze in the
provocative practice of settlement-building, the mindless hysteria of
the American punditocracy must have other sources than mere logic.
It's dangerous to draw firm conclusions without any special knowledge
about the psyches of those involved, but much of the materially
comfortable American Jewish community has had an unhappy history of
defending the principle of Jewish sovereignty over captured
Palestinian lands right down to the death of the last Israeli.
Because of the sacrifices they demand of others, many American Jews
feel they must be holier than the Pope when defending Israeli human
rights abuses. The New Republic's Peretz is a particularly
interesting specimen. He reflexively defends everything Israel does
and routinely slanders its critics. Peretz, who owes his prominence
to money, in this case his (non-Jewish) wife's fortune--which allowed
him to purchase his magazine--has never published a single book or
written a significant piece of scholarship, reportage or criticism.
It's not hard to imagine that his self-appointed role as Israel's
American Torquemada--seen in his obsession with smearing the
world-renowned Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said--is
inspired as much by guilt and envy as by more rational motivations.
(I say this as a supporter of the peace process who has respectfully
disagreed with almost all Said has said about the conflict in recent
years.)

Whatever the reason, the net result is the same.
For a brief moment in recent history, when Israel had a government
that was dedicated to finding a way to make peace, the warrior
pundits were placed on the defensive and the Palestinians received a
reasonably fair shake from the nation's elite media. More recently, a
review of leading editorial pages by the ADL found that "the major
newspapers across the country are viewing the situation in the Middle
East in a realistic and objective manner." The authors of the study
helpfully defined their terms. To the ADL "realistic and objective"
means "critical of and hostile to Arafat...directly blaming him for
the continuing violence and creating a climate of hatred" along with
the dismissal of all Palestinian peace overtures as "calculated tools
for his goal of gaining further concessions from
Israel."

In a rational world, the ADL report would at least
complicate efforts by Safire, TNR and others to charge the
media with "pro-Arab" and "anti-Israel" bias. Alas, I'm betting
bubkes...

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