Saturday, June 12, 2010

Change IV: Bias, our Default Position

A couple of days ago, as I was sitting at my desk in my office, one of my co-workers looked up from his desk and asked, "When did Israel become the enemy?" It wasn't an ideological irritable prelude to a rant, it was a genuine question. A moment later, he admitted, "I don't really follow the news." He was at a loss as to why Israel was suddenly being pilloried in the media, because he had only the vaguest sense of what had happened. He knew that Israel was embargoing Hamas to prevent the flow of weapons, and he knew that some civillians had died in a fight with some police officers.

Sensing that the room wasn't fully agreeing with his bafflement, he asked me (as the token Israeli on hand) what my "take" on all this was, I described to him the missing facts: the nature of the embargo (in terms of what precisely is being banned), and the outrage aimed at the decision to board the boat, rather than use another strategy to stop the boat. I don't know whether he changed his mind, but he clearly had his question answered as to why Israel was in the position that it is today.

It reminded me what the biggest barrier in terms of public opinion about Israel: the inertia of not keeping up with the news. For those people who are not reading Andrew Sullivan's torrent of updates or listening to NPR daily, suddenly there's splashy news, and people around them are talking about the need to "take action" about Israel -- talking about Israel the way that we've been talking about Iran. What happened? Without the facts, this is just irrational, baffling. It would be as though all the chatter was suddenly about sanctions against Canada, or trying to erase the word French from the language (okay, bad example...).

And this is the inertia in the political process that leaves politicians vulnerable to AIPAC. American voters don't seem to be interested in a debate as to the nuances of the Israel-Palestine-America-Lebanon-Syria-Turkey-Iran-Iraq-Saudi Arabia-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India web (IPALSTIISAAP? Ipalestisap?). They just don't want us to be "on the side of terrorists." That's what bias looks like: it's our default position, in the absence of other facts.

By the way, the same co-worker asked me why Egypt is enemies with Hamas. I explained to him about Egypt being a secular dictatorship, and he said, "Oh, so an enemy of an enemy is my friend?" That sentence is the big stumbling block here. Why? I'll let Jon explain:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Headlines - Enemy Plus Enemy Equals One Ally
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Which is not to say that Egypt is our enemy. But neither are they our friends. Actually, maybe this one is more appropriate:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Billions and Billions
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party


Ian Thal said...

"Billions and Billions" is one of Jon Stewart's finest bits.

CultureFuture said...

I love Jon Stewart's approach to headlines in general, but there's a big difference between his on-point skewering of a moment in time, and the bits where he takes a step out and actually looks at the parts of the system that are lasting, or that sum up things in a lasting way.

"Billions and Billions" is a great example of that; today's latest stupid political gaffe may fade, but those "Billions and Billions" persist.

Ian Thal said...


And part of the reason it works is that it demonstrates the great folly of politic pundantry: that the simple short term solution is a wise one, or that the simple, clearly stated analysis is the most apt.