During my studies and for my dissertation on postmodern American literature, I focused not so much on what a text might say, but how it says what it might say. Not on the grand arguments, but on rhetoric, figurative language, structure, and hidden agendas or ideologies. But it doesn’t need a university degree to feel either drawn toward, or appalled by, closely related arguments, depending on their respective rhetorical modes.
Although I’m usually trying to see beyond my personal angle, I can’t claim to not be biased here when it comes to Cast Lead. If you’ve seen rocket damage at a children’s playground less than 100 yards from the balcony of a friend’s apartment, and you keep hearing, unhappily ever after, about more and more rockets raining down (for Sderot, we’re talking about 7,500 rockets in the course of the last eight years), you urgently wish that someone please just go and make it stop. But that certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t see the horror and the suffering this “please go and make it stop” entails.
On Twitter, I linked to this article by Ari Shavit in Haaretz, which comes very close to what I think should be done—should have been done from the get-go, not just now. Equally, I linked to this statement from Mordechai Eliyahu as reported by the Jerusalem Post, which I sincerely think is the most despicable statement from whichever side so far. Is that what the Tanakh has to offer in terms of ethics? I’m appalled doesn’t even begin to describe it. Every non-combatant Palestinian should be helped and protected, and not only because that would help eliminate Hamas in the long run, but because it is what we should do. And browsing a bronze age text and cherry-pick atrocities from the past to justify atrocities from the present doesn’t become less horrible just because the other faction does it too.
Now every time I listen to the stories that Juan Cole, historian and public intellectual, tells me on his blog Informed Comment, and to the stories my friend Maggie, CNN iReporter extraordinaire, tells me on her various channels, up and down, on and off, I certainly find a lot to disagree. But Maggie’s stories make me stop and think, while Cole’s stories piss me off. While Cole’s stories make my trigger finger twitch to eliminate Informed Comment from my feed reader, Maggie’s stories leave me less sure than I was and more willing to discuss these topics.
But wait—Maggie’s outspokenly influenced by Cole and is fond of quoting, or linking to, his articles! Now how can this be.
Let’s have a look at storytelling in a first step, for the what, and then at the rhetoric, for the how. Stories are compelling and might even make readers change their minds and/or make them act differently than before if they are a) plausible, b) authentic, and c) start out from at least one premise the reader can identify with, is familiar with, is comfortable or consentingly uncomfortable with. There are others, of course, but these three points are important, and they are very important here.
Time to take a closer look at two examples. First, read carefully this entry by Cole on possible ceasefires. To quote:
If a Palestinian cleric convinced tens of thousands of civilians to stream into Gaza City and they were in the way of the Israeli war aims, they would likely just be mown down. … [vs.] … Note that I am not alleging, and neither is the letter writer, that Israeli troops are deliberately killing civilians.
When threatened by an indigenous population trying to expel it, settler colonialism is vicious. It is after all facing an existential threat. [T]he French killed at least half a million, and maybe as much as 800,000 Algerians, out of a population of 11 million. That is between nearly 5 percent and nearly 10 percent! … [vs.] … The Israelis have not killed on the French scale, but I would argue that they kill, and disregard civilian life, for much the same reasons as the French did in Algeria.
I wouldn’t exactly call it difficult to see the heave-ho rhetoric employed in both examples. That’s neocon caliber rhetoric. Spew forth the most outrageous accusations, then backpedal just enough to not invite a lawsuit, and hope that it’s the original accusation that will stick.
And, to add insult to injury, it’s the same article in which Cole parades China, of all countries, as an arbiter for peaceful coexistence. An arbiter for peaceful coexistence like in Darfur, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Taiwan, I suppose, to name a few. 1967 comes to mind, when the Russian envoy, calling for Israel’s immediate withdrawal from all occupied territories, voiced Russia’s staunch disapproval of territorial gains through military action. Yeah, right.
This is not what makes me think. This is not what makes me change my mind. And I’m a far cry from being a conservative. I’ve read Informed Comment for quite a while now, and although I appreciate many of his sentiments, I’m sorry to say that Cole has an agenda. A political agenda, a cultural agenda, and also a religious agenda. If you focus not so much on the what but on the how, you’ll see that his comments are indeed “informed,” in the sense of being informed by a certain ideology. Now, we all have our agendas and our ideologies. But I can expect from an academic of Juan Cole’s caliber that he would at least make an effort to look at the particulars of a situation before hammering it into the shape that fits his grand arguments in extenso. Another example would be his constant insidious insinuations, bordering on concern-trolling, that Israel endangers American security and American lives because Israeli actions “are equated with American actions” and U.S. soldiers and U.S. citizens will die because of it. I wouldn’t know where to begin to call bullshit on this one. Cole has a disturbing tendency to flatten out complex situations into ideologically flavored pancakes.
Now, in contrast, close friends with whom I disgree on these topics, and for whom Maggie functions as a prominent stand-in here, more often than not make me feel that I could be made to change my mind, or make me change my mind, at least with regard to certain aspects. And—equally important—I feel that I could make them change their minds with regard to certain aspects too. One of the strongest indicators is that I know from experience that they do change their minds if need be, that they scramble for more information, for viewpoints that make sense. That’s why their arguments feel plausible and authentic, starting out from premises I can identify with, I’m familiar with, I’m comfortable or consentingly uncomfortable with.
To put it more bluntly, while Cole instrumentalizes the Gaza crisis, Maggie feels that people suffer. That’s what’s important here. It’s a very complex situation with many possible viewpoints, and when people suffer, the question of being right or being wrong should precisely not be prioritized every step of the way.
In such situations, talking about right or wrong, black or white, isn’t helpful in the least. I think we should see beauty in gray more often. Leaving the strongest impressions on people who are not pre-indoctrinated into authoritarian mindsets are usually those stories that make us think, not those that tell us what to think. Those that leave room for thoughts, not those that clutter our heads with ideological furniture. Those that leave it to us to make decisions that make sense, not those that condemn every decision save one in advance. Those that make us weep, not those that piss us off.