Richard Landes: The Media and the Dysfunctions of the 21st Century: Address at the 7th Annual Herzliya Conference, January 23, 2007

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We live in an unanticipated era.

Who in the heady, philo-Judaic years of the 1990s,
– when Oslo looked like a winning formula for peace in the Middle East, indeed a prelude to a prosperous and peaceful globe,
– and some predicted the disappearance of anti-Semitism in the West,
who in those years would have imagined the looming nightmare that takes shape in the anxious skies of January 2007?
– in which a paranoid, demonizing narrative, has moved to the center of the Muslim public sphere around the globe…
– where this explosion of hatred has activated apocalyptic millennial dreams of Jihadi world conquest and genocide…
– where suicide terrorism has struck at the heart of the American and European continents…
– where Europe has a Muslim “Street” where demonstrators promise a European holocaust, riot and vandalize, attack police in gangs, murder critics and their own daughters…
– where serious analysts wonder how many more generations – or even decades – democratic European civilization can last before overtaken by a demographic and theocratic Islamic revolution…
– where, starting in 2000, a global wave of anti-Zionism overnight spread to attacks on Jews and Jewish sites around the world.
– where Nobel Laureates compare the Israelis to the Nazis,
– where demonstrators cheer on suicide terrorists,
– where Jewish intellectuals call for the dismantling of the state of Israel based on the most facetious of post-colonial paradigmatic thinking…
– where mainline Christian churches vote for divestment from Israeli firms, and academics for a boycott of their Israeli colleagues…
And who, told of such an astounding developments, would have thought that the responsible leaders of the West – Gentile and Jewish – would respond to this madness with a reflex of placation, apology, concession… in short, appeasement?

As I said, we live in an unanticipated era.

Let’s start with the bad news.

First of all, as a historian of civil society, of the millennium-long struggle in the West to achieve this extraordinary marvel of the modern world, this experiment in human freedom, I want to say: European democratic civilization can fall before the Islamic challenge. Something similar happened before, in the 5th century, when a culturally superior Roman civilization fell to a primitive tribal Germanic culture. And if Europe continues on its current path, that will happen sooner rather than later.

Second, this is going to get worse before it gets better. Starting in October 2000, the most terrible form of apocalyptic movement, active cataclysmic – we are the agents in the vast destruction that precedes our millennial victory – entered the public sphere of world culture and rather than being beaten back, took hold and grew stronger. Once these movements, which in the past have killed 10s of millions, “take,” they are like forest fires. They cannot be stopped, at best they can be channeled. We are in for a long and unpleasant conflict that will demand a great deal from us.

Third, modern media play a critical role in Global Jihad’s success. Not just the use Jihadis make of modern technology to spread their message, but the role our modern MSM play in both disguising and encouraging the phenomenon. And the core of the problem, the ground upon which this dysfunctional relationship between Jihad and MSM first emerged, but also the most dramatic on which it plays out, is the MSM’s treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

There has been much discussion of whether or not the MSM has been unfair to Israel, including formal investigations into particularly obnoxious organizations like the BBC, and, by and large the answer is, “well, maybe… but it’s not so bad.” And Israelis, like the protagonist in Richard Farina’s novel, have been down so long it looks like up to them. “It could be worse… it has been worse… it’s getting better.”

But all of this is not nearly good enough. The MSM are the eyes and ears of modern civil societies. Without them we cannot know what is going on outside of our personal sphere, with them we can make our democratic choices in elections, assess foreign policy, intervene humanely in the suffering around the globe. But as any paleontologist will tell you, any creature whose eyes and ears misinform it about the environment, will not long survive. So it is with our civic experiment: especially in this period, where predators grow increasingly bold: a MSM that misinforms us, betrays the very people it is supposed to serve.

Let me cut to the chase. If this wondrous experiment in human freedom that was launched on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 18th century survives to the middle of the 21st century, historians will look back on the performance of the MSM in the first decade of that century, in particular its coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and give the journalists’ “first draft of history” an F.

– An F for failing to source-check – any impartial study will show that journalists systematically and incorrectly favored Palestinian over Israelis sources of information during the Intifada
– An F for failing to correct their errors – leaving Israel between libel and silence.
– An F for obsessively reporting the Arab Israeli conflict while people suffered from genocidal campaigns in other parts of the world
– An F for giving into intimidation and practicing access journalism without informing their public
– An F for scarcely mentioning the tidal wave of paranoia and hatred that currently dominates the Muslim media
– An F for echoing and amplifying the demonizing narratives told about Israel which they treat with unqualified credulity
– And F for allowing our media to be exploited by totalitarian forces as a theater of war rather than protecting that civic public trust from such vicious propaganda.
So when historians look back, I think they will identify the MSM’s appalling performance as one of the main sources the West’s vulnerability to Global Jihad at the beginning of this century. How else can we explain the astounding success of what, only a decade ago, seemed like a racist bad joke: Islam wants to take over Europe? You must be kidding.

Apparently not.

The free Western press encouraging the victory of totalitarianism? You must be kidding.

Unfortunately, whether they mean it or not, the MSM today has fallen into so many bad habits, so many pervasive compromises, that like the Augean Stables of old, they have encrusted layers of manure that resist any effort to clean. And unlike the old Augean Stables, which stank up the only the Peloponnesus, thanks to new technology, the MSMs failures stink the world over.

Which brings me to the basic problem Israel and the Jews face in this young and so-far deeply disturbing 21st century. They have been the major target of the Jihadi assault, and the main victims of the MSM’s failures. And so far, the response has been to take the same stance of concession and placation, to the Western media that the Western media take towards the Muslims: don’t criticize, don’t challenge, placate, mollify. Whatever you do, don’t attack.

“We don’t dare start a war with the media,” said one MFA official, “we can only lose.”
“Don’t expect the Israelis to fight back,” warned a prominent diaspora lawyer, “They won’t. They just won’t.”
Nor is this merely a problem of Israeli official hasbarah. The Jewish leaders in the diaspora, playing by the positive-sum rules of the late 20th century, responded painfully slowly to the sudden zero-sum turn of direction at the end of 2000. Indeed, like the Israeli government, they discouraged those – leaders or rank and file – who started to fight back.

I understand the arguments, the concerns, the kinds of damage that can come if the media turns on us. But that’s beginning to sound more and more like the joke about the two Jews in line for the showers at Auschwitz. One sneezes and the other whispers sharply, “Hush, Yankl, you’ll make it worse for us.”

I understand. When Israel has tried to defend itself, it made it worse; they have antagonized those who, if they want to, could do Israel even greater damage than they are already doing. As the Israelite leaders who had pleaded in vain with Pharoah for mercy reproached Moses: “You put a sword in his hand to slay us.” And as Moses complained to God: “Why will they listen to me? And I am uncircumcised of lips!”

So far, the bad news. Now to the good news:
– we have a window of opportunity,
– a growing audience, and
– an independent access to that audience.

First, as the Chinese ideogram for crisis indicates: danger also means opportunity. The worse things get, the more people wake up, the more they are willing to reconsider their paradigms and policies, the more they are willing to make sacrifices necessary to survive. And this is true across the boards: When did Pharaoh listen? When it hurt. When did his heart harden? When things got better. So not only are Europeans beginning to awaken to the nightmare they have inherited from their irresponsible leadership, but also to the role of their MSM in blinding them to its onset. Similarly, Jews and Israelis are beginning to realize that we must fight back. Even the MSM may begin to realize that, whatever excuses they come up with for their performance, they cannot, we cannot afford it any longer. And, as Bernard Lewis commented yesterday, maybe even the Muslims, realizing the power of the Jinn they have released from the bottle, and the unhappy fact that they will be the first consumed by its murderous zeal, will also reconsider who the enemy is.

Secondly, there are people waiting to hear from you, waiting for Israel to confront the suffocating dysfunction of paranoid Muslim defamation and MSM complicity, people waiting to hear Israel fight for its honor and dignity. Indeed they’ll be better equipped to defend themselves with Israel’s example.

Third, the blogosphere, and more broadly, cyberspace offer a means to reach the public without pleading for better MSM coverage. In the blogosphere there are legions of sharp analysts who do not answer to the siren call of political correctness and the pack mentality that has so many journalists cramming every incident into the storyline of the Israeli Goliath and the Palestinian or Lebanese David. Internet sites permit vast amounts of information, including systematic critiques of the media’s performance to reach increasing numbers. Every paper, radio program and TV news station should have a blog that monitors it, critiques it, contradicts it where appropriate. In the end, a responsible MSM will thank the blogosphere for the criticism.

The 21st century has begun as an age of information affluence. We have access to seemingly limitless amounts of information. The real premium in the coming years and decades, will be on reliably accurate and relevant information. And although it’s the traditional job of the MSM to determine that, it will be in cyberspace that the issue will sort itself. Just as early modern science emerged in the city of letters created by print, not in the parchment culture of the medieval universities.

And so, let me conclude with some advice from a deeply troubled historian.

My advice to the Israeli and Jewish people: Know who you are. Do not become blinded by a compulsive self-criticism, in which it is always, it must always, be your own fault. Do not allow the narcissism of small differences between left and right wing, between secular and religious Jew, blind you to the exceptional range of shared values that have made Israel the sociological and historical miracle that it is. Take the occasion of the collapse of the Oslo paradigm – land for peace – and the revelation that the conflict is today land for war, a clash of theocracy with freedom around the world, to reexamine all the misconceptions that have plagued your political thinking for decades now. Cast off both your false sense of agency – we control this process – and mistaken finger-pointing at your Israeli foe – if only they would stop doing what they’re doing, things would be okay. Cast off the ridiculous language of political correctness that cannot distinguish between race and culture, between genes and education. Wake up to the open vistas and immense challenges of a new paradigm, a massive reinterpretation of what’s going on in our world, both inside and outside Israel. Rediscover your sense of moral outrage, your ability to fight back against a morally insane world.

My advice to the Israeli government: Open a mouth. Go on the offensive. Stop beating your breasts in agony over civilian lives that your enemies happily sacrifice into the maw of their death cults in front of an eager media that can turn the grotesque parade of dead children at Kafr Qana into a tale of Hizbullah resistance to Israeli aggression. Get yourselves a review committee to look over all the footage of the “lethal narratives” that come out against you, from Muhammad al Durah, the first blood libel of the 21st century and clarion call to global Jihad, to, most recently Gaza Beach and Qana. Challenge the fakes, the pervasive staging. And demand that the media do their own reviews before rushing, breathless, before their public with the latest tales of Israeli sins. Remind them of how often and how destructively they have been wrong. Hold journalists who work here to their own professional standards. Feed information to the blogosphere, not the MSM. Coordinate with the army of grass roots hasbarah organizations that have arisen, especially since 2000, to meet this tidal-wave of hatred and incitement. Identify and address, in every language you can muster, audiences of people who, instinctively, know that something is terribly awry, and want to hear your side. And spend a great deal more money on the effort: There is no theater of war on which you do not expend billions of dollars. And here you spend 10 million!? Hizbullah alone outspends you threefold in Hasbarah.

My advice to Jews in the diaspora: Stop being embarrassed by the media-driven image that you get of Israel. Stop trying so hard to please your liberal friends with your compassion for Palestinian suffering. Stop apologizing and start blaming the key contributors to that Palestinian suffering – the Arab elites who pointedly make the Palestinians suffer in order to blame Israel, and a media who present that suffering to us, just as that elite wants them to. Your fellow Jews in Israel have done wonders in the world of civil, open society; they represent the farthest outpost of civilization in a region still gripped by a typically medieval combination of theocracy, exploitation, and tyranny. In this global war, Israel is an invaluable, an irreplaceable ally to the forces of democracy and freedom.

My advice to Jewish leaders (this includes Israelis as well), especially the men: Stop the ego-battles, the cash-cow manipulations, the competitive, zero-sum career strategies, the monopoly on the podium, the hostility to new voices. Learn not the ways of sibling rivalry like Joseph’s brothers, but those of fraternal cooperation, like Moses and Aaron. We cannot afford to play by the old rules.

My advice to Europeans: Get over the politics of resentment in which you so want to see George Bush forced to leave Iraq that you don’t even think about the impact that will have on arousing your own Muslim populations against you, including those who will come from triumphant Iraq to your continent. Rediscover the Atlantic Alliance, your origin and geographical base, and work in concert against the Muslim world’s global pretensions, especially Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Get over your addiction to moral Schadenfreude about the Jews, in which being able to point the finger at Israel, blinds you both to the nature of an enemy who despises us all, and to the value of your natural ally, Israel. Start addressing the problem of Islamic theocracy now, and at all registers of the political spectrum, so that it is not a problem delayed until it’s too late, and left in the hands of the right-wing parties. Awaken! And soon! And sanely.

My advice to journalists, especially to the young ones. Be true to your profession – a noble one – not to your guild; to your standards and your readers – not your editors and your peer group. You move today in a drama akin to The Emperor’s New Clothes, where your guild plays the role of courtiers, insisting that the politically correct, post-colonial garment fits the situation magnificently. Your job is to provide information, as accurate and as relevant as possible. We, the citizens of a free society, will make our individual and collective decisions based on your reliable information. Do not prepackage and predigest our view of the world.

Break out of the pack. Pay attention to the compromises that violent intimidation demand, and be as honest as you can with your readers. And above all, blow the whistle. Break the shameful silence of omerta that has made of your “fourth estate” a rogue power that neither self-regulates nor accepts regulation.

***

The fundamental freedom, the one we can exercise at any moment in our lives, is the freedom to speak honestly, to challenge, no matter what the danger, the embarrassment, the ostracism, the economic hardship, the physical aggression. So this I say to all those who believe in the effort to establish a just and free society: Speak up!

Moses had God and Aaron on his side to convince Pharaoh despite his “uncircumcised lips.” But now, especially in the age of democracies, lo bashamayim he: matters are no longer in the hands of heaven, but bephicha uvilvovcha, in your mouths and in your hearts. So all we have is each other – our fellow Jews, our fellow humans around the world. And when that moment of truth arrives, as it has now, we can pass the test of freedom and speak with the voice of honest indignation.

Richard Landes: The Media and the Dysfunctions of the 21st Century: Address at the 7th Annual Herzliya Conference, January 23, 2007

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AUTHOR

Richard Landes

Richard Allen Landes is an American historian and author, specializing in Millennialism. He retired from teaching history at Boston University in the Spring of 2015. He currently serves as the Chair of the Council of Scholars at SPME.

His work focuses on the role of religion in shaping and transforming the relationships between elites and commoners in various cultures. He has coined the expression "demotic religiosity," an orientation that prizes 1) equality before the law, 2) dignity of manual labor, 3) access to sacred texts and divinity for all believers, and 4) a prizing of moral integrity over social honor. Trained as a medievalist, his early work focused on the period around 1000 CE, a moment, in his opinion, of both cultural mutation (origins of the modern West), and intense apocalyptic and millennial expectations.

From 1995-2004, he directed the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University which held annual conferences and published an online journal, Journal of Millennial Studies. This involvement refocused his work on millennialism the world over and in different time periods, and has resulted in the Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements, (Berkshire Reference Works; Routledge, NY, 2000); Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (Oxford U. Press, 2011), and The Paranoid Apocalypse: A Hundred-Year Retrospective on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (NYU Press, 2011).

His work on the apocalyptic currents that built up during the approach to 2000 has led him to focus on Global Jihad as an apocalyptic millennial movement, whose relationship to the internet may parallel that of Protestantism to printing, and whose active cataclysmic apocalyptic scenario (Destroy the world to save it), makes it potentially one of the most dangerous apocalyptic movements on record.

In addition to his courses on medieval history, he offered courses on

Europe and the Millennium,

Communications Revolutions from Language to Cyberspace

Honor-shame culture Middle Ages, Middle East

The Biblical origins of the Democracy.

In 2011, he is a fellow at the International Consortium on Research in the Humanities at Alexander University, Erlangen, Germany. There he is working on the study with which his medieval work first began, the history of the “sabbatical millennium” with its expectation of the messianic kingdom in the year 6000 from the creation of the world: While God Tarried: Demotic Millennialism from Jesus to the Peace of God, 33-1033.

In 2005 he launched a media-oversight project called The Second Draft in order to look at what the news media calls their “first draft of history.” Since January 2005 he has been blogging at The Augean Stables, a name chosen to describe the current condition of the Mainstream News Media (MSNM) in the West.

As a result of this work on the MSNM, he has come to understand the role of cognitive warfare in the campaign of apocalyptic Jihad against the West in the 21st century, and the abysmal record of the West in defending itself in this critical theater of War. He plans a book addressing these issues tentatively entitled They’re so Smart cause We’re so Stupid: A Medievalist’s Guide to the 21st Century. 

Books

  • Landes, Richard A.; Head, Thomas J. (eds.) (1987). Essays on the Peace of God : the church and the people in eleventh-century France. Waterloo, Ontario: Waterloo University. OCLC18039359.
  • Landes, Richard A.; Paupert, Catherine (trans.) (1991). Naissance d'Apôtre: Les origines de la Vita prolixior de Saint Martial de Limoges au XIe siècle. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols. 9782503500454.
  • Landes, Richard A.; Head, Thomas J. (eds.) (1992). The Peace of God: social violence and religious response in France around the year 1000. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. ISBN 080142741X.
  • Landes, Richard A. (1995). Relics, apocalypse, and the deceits of history: Ademar of Chabannes, 989-1034. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674755308.
  • Landes, Richard A. (ed.) (2000). Encyclopedia of millennialism and millennial movements. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415922461.
  • Landes, Richard A.; Van Meter, David C.; Gow, Andrew Sydenham Farrar (2003). The apocalyptic year 1000: religious expectation and social change, 950-1050. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195111915.
  • Landes, Richard A. (2011). Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Landes, Richard A.; Katz, Stephen (eds.). The Paranoid Apocalypse: A Hundred Year Retrospective on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. New York: New York University Press.


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