When I read two op-eds last week in my local newspaper, warning the public against Obama’s plan for “socialized medicine” and a “government takeover of health care,” I wasn’t surprised. It’s a staunchly conservative paper in a traditionally conservative middle-American town. We’re used to distortion, misinformation, and outright lies appearing in print, as long as they serve right-wing causes.
When I read an op-ed last week by Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post, stating flatly that “Hamas remains implacable in its refusal to recognize Israel,” I wasn’t surprised either. It’s a centrist paper and the most influential news outlet in the world’s most politically influential city. But when it comes to Hamas, we’re used to just as much distortion, misinformation, and outright lies from our nation’s most distinguished journalists as from the underpaid, struggling staffers of any small-town rag.
There is one big difference, though. The lies and distortions about the health insurance debate are getting some media attention. A column by Diehl’s colleague at the Post, media critic Howard Kurtz, documented the corporate media’s efforts to debunk the right-wing “death panel” hysteria. That column got swamped with reader comments. There is a huge media debate about what exactly is in the various health insurance reform proposals, and lots of people know it.
But when Diehl, with all the influence he wields over political opinion, misrepresents the Hamas position and passes it off as fact, no one notices. Over 100 readers commented on Diehl’s column. Most who mentioned Hamas were critical of that party. Even the three or four that seemed sympathetic to Hamas failed to make the most crucial point: The top leader of Hamas have publicly declared that they are ready to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. They are ready to negotiate with the Jewish state, knowing that their talks will end with Palestine agreeing to live peacefully alongside that Jewish state. If that’s not recognition, then what is? Yes, it’s de facto recognition. The official Hamas charter still calls for the liberation of all of Palestine. But weeks ago, Hamas leader Khaled Mesahl told the New York Times that his party “has accepted a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders including East Jerusalem … This is Hamas’s program regardless of the historic documents. Hamas has offered a vision. … It’s not logical for the international community to get stuck on sentences written 20 years ago.”
And guess what: The official charter of Fatah, the ruling party of the West Bank, is scarcely different from the Hamas official document. Fatah, too, call for the “complete liberation of Palestine.”
Jackson Diehl surely knows all this. So do the legions of other top-flight U.S. editors and journalists who also go on repeating the worn-out cliché about Hamas’ supposed “refusal to recognize Israel.”
Why the double standard? When it comes to Fatah, everyone discounts the official words as empty rhetoric because there’s real hope that a Fatah-led Palestine will be dependably friendly to U.S. and Israeli interests. When Yassir Arafat (still Fatah’s revered guiding spirit) signed the Oslo Accord in 1993, Benjamin Netanyahu (now Israel’s prime minister) applauded — because, as he explained, Fatah had agreed to become Israel’s “sub-contractor,” doing the dirty work of reigning in anti-Israeli militants and relieving Israeli soldiers of that dangerous task.
Israeli leaders eventually rejected Arafat for a sub-par performance as sub-contractor. But now they are generally pleased with his Fatah successors, who pretty well follow the marching orders of U.S. General Keith Dayton, the top officer training and supervising Palestinian Authority security forces. Dayton has so much influence that Fatah opponents and even some of its supporters call the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank “the Dayton government.”
As long as Dayton’s Palestinian legions to their job as sub-contractors, Israeli and U.S. leaders and our corporate media laud Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas as the one and only “partner for peace.” No one seems to care what is in the Fatah charter.
But Hamas is a different story. As long as its leaders appear unwilling to heel to the U.S. will, it has to be cut out of the negotiating action. So even editors of our leading news sources go on purveying the same old falsehood — one that’s been repeated so often by so many distinguished news sources that nearly everyone assumes it’s true.
We know the name of that technique: The Big Lie. Say anything often enough, no matter how contrary to the facts, and it will eventually be taken as fact.
That’s how the right here in the U.S. is attacking health insurance reform, with depressingly successful results. If the Democrats pass a reform plan, it won’t be nearly as strong as it might have been, because the Republican-fed Big Lie machine has been so effective.
If the Israelis and the Fatah-led faction of Palestinians reach a peace agreement, it won’t be nearly as effective as it might have been with Hamas participation. In fact there is good reason to think that in the long run it won’t be very effective at all.
There will be plenty of blame to go around. But part of it will have to fall on the many influential editors and journalists here in the U.S. who, like Jackson Diehl, continue to repeat The Big Lie about Hamas refusing to recognize Israel.
That’s not to say they all have a conscious political agenda. No doubt some of them really believe the old clichés about Hamas. That’s the most insidious thing about The Big Lie. It’s like a narcotic; it puts people’s brains to sleep. Or perhaps it’s more like a partitioned hard drive; it splits people’s brains into two parts that can’t communicate with each other. Even people who know the facts perfectly well simply forget or ignore them and go on repeating the same old fictions.
The only antidote to The Big Lie is The Big Truth: facts repeated over and over again, until you get tired of stating them and you assume everyone is tired of hearing them. But according to conservative messaging guru and master truth-manipulator Frank Luntz, people don’t even start paying attention until they hear something for the tenth time. Maybe it takes twenty times, or a hundred times, before they take it for granted that what they are hearing is true.
The conflict between The Big Lie and The Big Truth is really about which side can repeat its points most often. It’s an endurance contest. With so much at stake when it comes to issues like health insurance reform and Middle East peace, now is no time for the side of truth to quit.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews at his blog.
Republished with the author’s permission from Common Dreams.org, where it first appeared.