As the editor of a progressive Jewish and interfaith magazine that has often articulated views that have prompted condemnation from both Right and Left, I had good reason to be scared by the murders of fellow journalists in Paris. Having won the 2014 “Magazine of the Year” Award from the Religion Newswriters Association, and having been critical of Hamas’ attempts to bomb Israeli cities this past summer (even while being equally critical of Israel’s rampage against civilians in Gaza), I have good reason to worry if this prominence raises the chances of being a target for Islamic extremists.
But then again, I had to wonder about the way the massacre in Paris is being depicted and framed by the Western media as a horrendous threat to Western civilization, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, I wondered about the over-heated nature of this description. It didn’t take me long to understand how problematic that framing really is.
When right-wing “pro-Israel” fanatics frequently sent me death threats, physically attacked my house and painted on the gates statements about me being “a Nazi” or “a self-hating Jew,” and called in bomb threats to Tikkun, the magazine I edit, there was no attention given to this by the media, no cries of “our civilization depends on freedom of the press” or demands to hunt down those involved (the FBI and police received our complaints, but never reported back to us about what they were doing to protect us or find the assailants).
Nor was the mainstream or Jewish media particularly concerned about Western civilization being destroyed or freedom of thought and association undermined when various universities denied tenure to professors who had made statements critical of Israel, or when the Hillel association, which operates a chain of student-oriented “Hillel Houses” on college campuses, decided to ban from their premises any Jews who were part of Jewish Voices for Peace. Nor was the media much interested in a bomb that went off outside the NAACP’s Colorado Springs headquarters the same day as they were highlighting the attack in Paris. Colorado Springs is home to some of the most extreme right-wing activists. It was a balding white man who was seen setting the bomb, some reports claim, and so the media described it as an act of a troubled “lone individual,” rather than as a white right wing Christian fundamentalist terrorist. Few Americans have even heard of this incident.
And when the horrific assassinations of 12 media people and the wounding of another 12 media workers resulted in justifiable outrage around the world, did you ever wonder why there wasn’t an equal outrage at the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed by the American intervention in Iraq or the over a million civilians killed by the U.S. in Vietnam, or why President Obama refused to bring to justice the CIA torturers of mostly Muslim prisoners, thereby de facto giving future torturers the message that they need not even be sorry for their deeds (indeed, former Vice President Cheney boldly asserted he would order that kind of torture again without thinking twice)?
So don’t be surprised if people around the world, while condemning the despicable acts of the murderers in Paris and grieving for their families and friends, remain a bit cynical about the media-circus surrounding this particular outrage while the Western media quickly forgets the equally despicable acts of systematic murder and torture that Western countries have been involved in. Or perhaps a bit less convinced that Western societies are really the best hope for civilization when they condone this kind of hypocrisy, rather than responding equally forcefully to all such actions repressing free speech or freedom of assembly. I could easily imagine (and regret) how some Islamist fundamentalists will already be making these points about the ethical inconsistencies of Western societies with their pomposity about human rights that never seem to constrain the self-described “enlightened democracies” from violating those rights when it is they who perceive themselves as under attack.
Yet there is a deeper level in which the discourse seems so misguided. As Tikkuneditor-at-large Peter Gabel has pointed out, there is no recognition in the media of the dehumanizing way that so much of the media deals with whoever is the perceived threatening “other” of the day. That media was outraged at the attempt by some North Korean allied group to scare people away from watching a movie ridiculing and then planning to assassinate the current (immoral) ruler of Korea, never wondering how we’d respond if a similar movie had been made ridiculing and planning the assassination of an American president. Similarly, the media has refused to even consider what it would mean to a French Muslim, living among Muslims who are economically marginalized and portrayed as nothing but terrorists, their religious garb banned in public, their religion demeaned, to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded.
To even raise this kind of question is to open oneself up to charges of not caring about the murdered or making excuses for the murderers. But neither charge is accurate. I fear those fundamentalist extremists just as much as I fear the Jewish extremists who have threatened my life and the Christian extremists who are now exercising power over the U.S. Congress. Every form of violence outrages and sickens me.
Yet the violence is an inevitable consequence of a world which systematically dehumanizes so many people who are made to feel powerless and despairing and deeply depressed about the possibility of finding the milk of human kindness anywhere. The representation of evil dominates the media, and becomes the justification for our own evil acts. And that evil is made possible because so many among us avert our eyes and shut our ears to the cries of the oppressed.
The U.N. estimates that some 10,000 children will die of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition today and every other day in 2015. 2.5 million live on less than $2 a day, 1.5 million on less that $1 a day. Every day thousands of young women are sold into prostitution or “voluntarily” join it in order to raise enough money to help feed their families. Tens of millions of others work in horrendous “sweat shop” conditions. When some of them and some who know about them and feel outraged turn to various forms of nationalist or religious fundamentalist extremism, their violent actions rightfully get condemned. But the silence at the violence that is structural and a pervasive consequence of the globalization of capital is rarely brought to anyone’s attention.
All of us absorb this global reality into our unconscious, just as we absorb the violence, hatred, and demeaning of others. We tolerate the kind of endless put-downs that the “humor” magazines and even supposedly liberal comedians like Bill Maher perpetrate, not realizing how much damage all of this does to our souls. The spiritual consequences are all around us: people despairing of ever being understood by others, growing distrustful of others, and feeling that no one really can be trusted. A collective and global emotional depression makes so many people withdraw into themselves, sometimes in relatively harmless ways, but often in ways that undermine the possibility of any human community emerging that would be capable of dealing with the social and environmental problems that face the human race, thereby giving freedom for the global corporations and their hired guns in the media and politics to continue to run the world for their own narrow interests and without regard to the wellbeing of other people or the environment.
“But they ridicule everyone’s religion, not just the Muslim’s, so isn’t that fair?” we are reassured. But the reassurance isn’t reassuring. That they ridicule everyone is exactly the problem — the general cheapening and demeaning of others is destructive to everyone. But of course not equally destructive, because people who are already economically and socially marginalized are in far greater danger of having this demeaning sting rather than feel funny.
“And shouldn’t free speech and individual human liberties be our highest value? This value that is put into danger if you ask for some kind of responsibility from comedians.” Two responses: 1. No, individaul human liberties is not our highest value. Our highest value is treating human beings with love, kindness, generosity, respect and see them as embodiments of the holy, and treating the earth as sacred. Individual liberty is a strategy to promote this highest value, but when that liberty gets abused (as for example in demeaning women, African Americans, gays in public discourse) we often insist that the articulators of racism, sexism and homophobia be publicly humiliated (not shut down, but using our free speech to vigorously challenge theirs). 2. Free speech is not defeated when we use it to try to marginalize hateful or demeaning speech. So lets call demeaning speech, including demeaning humor, what it really is — an assault on the dignity of human beings.
None of this is reason to stop mourning the horrific murders in Paris or to excuse it in any way. But it is reason to wonder why the media can never tell a more nuanced story of what is happening our world.