Media and Middle East Peace

Remarks delivered by Alan Bock December 19, 2003 at the Middle East Peace Initiative symposium of the Interreligious and International Peace Council, Sheraton Plaza Hotel, Jerusalem.

Being in this city at this time, at a conference devoted to the great subject of peace and eventual reconciliation between two great peoples, cannot help but induce a deep sense of humility. What can I, an outsider to this place, however benign and constructive my intentions, bring to a conflict so steeped in history and tragedy, so suffused with mutual pain and recrimination, so charged with meaning for believers in at least three of the world’s great religious traditions?

I come from a sunny and – despite our recent political upheavals – largely untroubled place, Southern California, which is not quite the land of lotus eaters and devotees of the relentlessly superficial that it may seem in the popular imagination, but which is still a place where it is possible to live without paying too much attention to the cares and travails of the rest of the world. I have lived most of my life, apart from an eight-year sojourn in our country’s capital, in that hardly perfect but nonetheless generally pleasant place. What have I to offer to peoples locked in mortal struggle?

However deeply I may have read, however widely I may have conversed, however many people I may have interviewed, there are things I don’t understand, and things I will never understand, about what motivates those who live in this place – rather similar in climate and topography to where I live, but with a history so different, so much more fraught with implications for the rest of the world.

There is an old, only partially whimsical job description of an editorial writer. His job is to stand on the mountainside and watch the course of the great battle occurring in the valley below him. Then, when the battle is over, his task is to walk down, mingle with those who are suffering and dying – and shoot the wounded.

I hope I can do better than that, but it is prudent to remember that you can’t always predict the outcomes and consequences of your actions and recommendations. If actions by political leaders almost always have unintended and unpredicted consequences – and I strongly believe that they do – then how much more unpredictable can be the consequences of those whose function is to offer advice and then move on to the next topic (or unaccountable fashion or trend) in the news of the day?

With that deeply felt caveat, let me move on to some suggestions for journalists and participants alike.

I should start by acknowledging that I begin with some preconceptions, perhaps even biases – which I prefer to view, of course, as deeply and intelligently held beliefs and principles.

My newspaper, which has just been through a corporate upheaval whose end result was to confirm that commitment (even while spreading responsibility and ownership in ways that may well turn out to be unexpected) takes an editorial stance in favor of human liberty and personal responsibility that is roughly consistent with what Europeans understand as the classical liberal tradition.

Briefly stated, then, we favor free minds and free markets, a market regulated more by open access and competition than by direct government regulation. We think freedom is the birthright of humankind and the condition in which genuine civilization has the best chance to emerge and prosper. Among the implications are smaller government with more modest ambitions. Establishing conditions in which freedom can flourish is challenging enough for any government, and, based on my reading of history, well beyond the capacities (or desires) of most governments at most times and in most cultures.

Of consequence for this region, the Middle East, is that we urge our own government – which was founded in freedom but whose presidents, at least in my lifetime, are subject to the conceit or delusion that they can design and enforce justice well beyond our borders – to approach the conflicts here with the kind of modesty and humility that just a few hours in this great city have reinforced in my own soul. In short, the notion that those who don’t live here can design plans and patterns for those who do live here strikes me as deeply flawed.

The United States, and others who weep at the bloodshed and hatred, and share deep frustration at apparent intractability, can offer advice, offer good will, and be available at key junctures, to help to facilitate agreements and institutions that will give shape and form to any emerging reconciliation. But a peace that does not grow from a deep desire on the part of a significant portion of those who live here to find a way toward peace – whether based on idealism, hope for a brighter future, or simple frustration and war-weariness – whatever it takes – will have little chance of lasting long.

For those who live and work here, I offer the view that peace is the handmaiden of freedom and commerce. That may seem counterintuitive to those steeped in this age’s dismissal of commerce as a lower form of human endeavor than intellectualizing or warmaking – or intellectualizing about warmaking. But it is a deeper truth that it would behoove humankind to recover.

A producer or merchant gains little or nothing from war or conflict (unless he is one whose wealth arises from political connections rather than honest trade); indeed, most dealers in commerce are hurt by the destruction and uncertainty of war. Prosperity, commerce and peace are natural partners. So the more governments in the region respect their people enough to honor their natural freedom, the more channels are opened to commerce and mutually beneficial trade, the better the prospects for peace – although nobody can predict how quickly or comprehensively it will emerge.

As for what journalists can contribute, the most constructive thing they can do is to be good journalists who report without fear or favor – with the caveat that this is neither automatic nor easy. What good journalism consists of might not be as simple or as obvious as it might seem at first glance.

The first job of a journalist is to find and report the facts, but determining what the facts are is more challenging than many will – or can – acknowledge. Facts, at least in part, are a function of deeply held, sometimes almost unconsciously held, opinions or predilections. Beyond searching for facts (beyond the relatively simple ones involving dates and spellings) lies the necessity of challenging one’s own premises.

It is the prerogative and the glory of a journalist of the best type to be skeptical – to start with the assumption that official spokespeople are not giving you the whole picture, that they are concealing or spinning salient aspects of developments. That’s a healthy way to start, but it should be applied impartially to spokespeople from all sides – and with a certain judiciousness that is ready to acknowledge that against all your expectations and experience somebody might actually be telling you the truth – or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

In short, it is virtually impossible for a writer or presenter to be completely free of bias or predilection. But the obligation to your readers or viewers, who should be seen as the real constituencies of any journalistic endeavor, the people to whom you owe your best efforts, is not to be a cheerleader for one side or the other. There are several ways to check this.

Do you present only one side, or do you present only the weakest arguments or contact mainly the most inept, clumsy or extreme spokespeople of the side with which you feel the least sympathy? Do you create, by reporting in a certain way, conflicts and obstacles to agreement that may not be as deep or intractable as you lead people to believe?

We might as well be honest enough to admit that conflict and problems are bread and meat for journalists. Conflict often produces the best stories, the most dramatic opportunities – and to be honest again, the best prospects for recognition and promotion – for journalists. If there were no conflict, if peace were magically to break out throughout the world, some of us might be stymied or frustrated. Some few of us might actually have to seek honest work as the opportunities to be observer and chronicler (who is yet able to avoid responsibility for the results of inaccurate or dishonest chronicling) declined.

Even so, we don’t have to act as fight promoters. I suspect we can be confident that even without our efforts to deepen hostilities, to describe minor disagreements as major stumbling-blocks, the world will provide us with a plenitude of real conflicts. We don’t need to blow them up into something larger than they really are.

This is not a plea to ignore real conflicts and disagreements, simply to approach them with a sense of proportion. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both sides currently embrace demands that are known deal-breakers for the other side, and both sides know how to push the other side’s buttons. Reporting this fact honestly still doesn’t obviate the possibility (remote as it might seem under current conditions) of eventual reconciliation.

At least in theory, stories about people who manage to get along reasonably well despite the handicaps of history and ethnic, religious or tribal loyalties could be as informative, as instructive, and as of much genuine service to readers and viewers as stories of conflict. We don’t have to paint a utopian picture, determine that all stories will be happy-face stories, or abandon reporting on conflict. But it is part of the larger picture to recognize, even to seek out, stories about how people have resolved their conflicts or muted their hostilities, then try to understand and explain how they have come to a tolerable modus vivendi.

It is certainly possible to view this part of the world with deep resignation and the conviction that peace is an impossible dream. But it is also important to remember that while historically rooted resentments and conflicts over necessarily scarce land and resources are unavoidably part of the picture, attitudes and opinions about those issues are also important, and they are not necessarily inevitably ethnically determined.

Indeed, ideas about the problems may be more important than the problems themselves. What we think can be more important than the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Mind over matter is not a conjurer’s trick or an illusion. Mind can triumph over matter – indeed, in a deeper sense the triumph of mind over matter is the story of humanity, the only way the species has made real progress.

In his recent book, At the End of an Age, historian (and, I would add, philosopher) John Lukacs made a telling observation on a slightly different but still relevant subject:

“Another central portion of the Marxian structure – indeed, of the Marxian philosophy of history – was his idea of the Accumulation of Capital, whereby the big fish would eat up the little fish, especially in the last critical phase of the capitalist phase of history. Had Marx only considered something more evident (and more insidious): the Accumulation of Opinions – which is, again, a matter of mind and not of matter, involving not manipulation of masses of monies but of masses of minds, part and parcel of the age of popular sovereignty. It was an accumulation of opinions that made Hitler the chancellor of Germany, and soon the most popular and powerful leader in the history of the German people, just as it is the accumulation of opinions that governs, if not decides, every election – indeed, the history of most democracies.”

Minds can change, and when they change the circumstances will change, Peace will come to the Middle East, if it ever comes, one mind at a time, as people understand, desire and find ways to make its benefits real in the here and now.

As people in the media, our job is to work with, to express and explain, to tease out the implications of ideas and opinions, as well as working with and explaining concrete facts and circumstances. Without getting too grandiose about our possible influence or puffed up with our own importance – and with the understanding that our best opportunities will come not by worrying so much about how our work will affect events, but by just doing our jobs as fairly, as conscientiously, as diligently and as much in concordance with the highest standards of our craft – we can take some comfort in the possibility that we can change perceptions. And changing perceptions just might be the most hopeful way of promoting peace.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).