Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Dersh Bag

Debates about the Middle East, esp Israel and Palestine, are seldom genial affairs. The region boasts so much hatred, distrust, bloodshed and corruption that just talking about it can heat one up, since you can point in any direction and find something deplorable. For a few years, I found myself writing about and debating Middle East issues, primarily as they related to the American media. I fell into this racket rather quickly, and took to it instantly, reading all the relevant texts and those mags, like the New Republic and Commentary, which helped spread rhetorical poison, making the ground even more toxic than it already was. Oh, the shrillness I encountered. There were some debates where I stood with my mouth gaping open, wondering how in the hell I ended up in such a dreadful environment.

While watching Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky debate this past weekend at Harvard's Kennedy School, I was reminded of some of my richer matches, though no one I engaged was ever as rude and belligerent as Dershowitz was toward Chomsky. I don't think Dersh has ever recovered from being played by Ron Silver in "Reversal Of Fortune," where he was shown as a wily legal genius who got Claus von Bülow off the death row hook. Dersh doesn't speak, he hectors. He yells. He interrupts. He waves his arms and arches his brow, then scowls and flings out whatever pops in his head. He is his own reality, and a crazed one it is, too. Maybe such tactics work in a capital murder case, esp if it's televised (Dersh can hear a lens cap being removed at 200 yards); but in what is supposedly a serious political debate, it is maddening when not cheaply entertaining.

I'm sure Chomsky's seen it all before. As Dersh went through his various gyrations, Noam stood calmly at his podium, glanced at his notes, breathed in and breathed out. I suspect he knew that it was pointless to rebut Dersh while in mid-performance, so he waited for his turn to speak. And when it came, he'd get off a few lines before Dersh began howling about how crazy and out of touch Chomsky was -- "Planet Chomsky," Dersh called it, a strange world where statements are supported by exact dates, specific quotes and assorted footnotes, a place where Chomsky encourages those listening to look up this book or that article and see for themselves whether or not he's speaking accurately. To Dersh, such a world is for the insane. Those with rational minds will simply take Dersh's word for whatever he spouts. No need to research a spoken point, a subtle propaganda trick employed by Chomsky to deceive weaker souls. On Planet Dershowitz, truth is what he says it is, or what somebody else told him. Dig any deeper and you flirt with if not embrace anti-Semitism, and give terrorists an endless green light.

As many of you probably know, Dersh has long been an avid supporter of Israeli violence and aggression. He's come out in favor of torture and political assassination, though in this recent debate, he said that he no longer backs the demolition of Palestinian homes, a "concession" that seemed tailored for applause, but got none. Not that this slowed Dersh in any way -- he kept shouting his solution for what he views as a "just" political settlement, which is, in essence, keeping the Palestinians walled off, penned up and under wraps, calling their open-air prison a "state," and then congratulating himself for taking such a "humanitarian" stand.

It was quite a performance, a shameless exercise in hyper-vanity and political and moral cretinism. If you knew nothing or very little about the historical record, Dersh's recounting of "facts" probably wouldn't faze you, and there were plenty of Dersh supporters present hooting their appreciation. But, of course, Dersh was plainly full of shit, speaking reverently about Israel in tones that recalled American communists praising the Soviet Union in the 1930s. He bangs on about terrorism and terrorists, but praises the likes of Ariel Sharon, a documented war criminal with so many dead civilians under his house that were he Palestinian, would have been compared to Hitler and knocked off decades ago. But it was Dersh's use of the word "conspiracy" that truly revealed his fact-free mania.

At one point in the debate, Chomsky noted that in response to the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, the Clinton admin sold Israel a fleet of attack helicopters, to be used, naturally, on the Palestinians. It was, Chomsky said, the largest weapons shipment from the US to Israel in a decade's time, and that no major American media outlet reported this major sale, even after it was pointed out to them by Chomsky and others. In short, the corp media either suppressed the story or didn't find it worth their precious time. This set off Dersh, who yelled at Chomsky, calling him a "conspiracy theorist," suggesting that such a sale couldn't have taken place, because if it had, the New York Times and the Washington Post would be all over it. Chomsky replied that perhaps Dersh should ask the editors of those publications why they failed to report a story that had severe human rights implications, and added that Jane's Defense Weekly, a solid source for matters military, did indeed report on the sale. But that was about it.

Dersh wasn't persuaded. His faith in the US elite press to catch such things borders on the mystical, since he offered no factual rebuttal to Chomsky's point. But Jonathan Weiler, a writer for The Gadflyer, thought to actually research Noam's claim, and here's his account:

"I am fortunate enough to work at a big university with a good library, so I am able to access the print version of Jane's. And, in a small item on October 4, 2000, Jane's did in fact report an agreement between the US and Israel for the sale of over a half a billion dollars in advanced helicopters, including a generation of helicopters similar to the ones then being deployed by Israel against Palestinians. It is not possible that those helicopters could have been used in the initial stages of the Al Aqsa Intifada, because Jane's was reporting an procurement agreement in principle – not the imminent shipping of the choppers themselves. But, there is no disputing that a major sale took place, involving a very large sum of money, and that it went unreported in the American press, when Chomsky said it did. Incidentally, though I can't access the original story itself, there are numerous references on the web to a report in Ha'aretz, on October 3, 2000, of the same weapons agreement. Ha'aretz is, by most accounts, Israel's most respected newspaper, and would also appear to be an unimpeachable source on this matter, though, again, I was not able to personally eye-ball the Ha'aretz account.

"So, now that we know that the sale did take place and was, in fact, entirely unreported in major American media at the time (as a lexis-nexus search confirmed), a larger question, not specific to Israel and Palestine arises: how could someone like Alan Dershowitz, an evidently brilliant man with a long and distinguished career in public life, have such a simpleminded and naive understanding of the process of news gathering and reporting in America, at least as exemplified by the above-noted exchange? One could suppose that news editors did not regard just another weapons sale to Israel as newsworthy, though given the size of the sale and the timing of it, this would be a highly questionable judgment. But, this was not Dershowitz' claim. The premise of his attack on Chomsky was that this was a major news story, if true, and therefore, it could not have been true, because major American media simply don't miss, or fail to report, let alone deliberately omit, major stories like this one from their coverage.

"But, contra Dershowitz . . . we know of course, that major media do fail to report on major stories. We know that the excellent work of Project Censored and of outfits like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) provide a steady drumbeat of stories that, by any measure, merit attention and yet receive little or none. Just today, an article at Counterpunch discussed the extensive documentation on the ACLU's website of military autopsy reports providing perhaps the strongest evidence yet to substantiate claims that American forces are torturing to death detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. On October 25, the ACLU issued a press release drawing attention to these reports and the AP and UPI immediately picked up the release. The Counterpunch piece points out, however, that most American media, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe, have simply ignored the ACLU's report.

"As for why these omissions take place, the reasons are varied and often complex. In the two most recent issues of the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing has an excellent two-part discussion of media self-censorship and other impediments to journalistic practices conducive to a well-informed citizenry in the United States. But, as the Dershowitz/Chomsky exchange suggests, regardless of the causes of such omissions and distortions, the onus should not always be on media critics like Chomsky to explain how in the world big media miss big and relevant stories. The fact is, they do. If the Alan Dershowitzes of the world are so evidently discomfited by such simple truths and so prepared to attack such basic claims, it bodes poorly for our ability to sustain a fully open dialogue on important developments in the world and how adequately we in America are to be informed of them."

But then Weiler, by actually looking into the story to see if it was true (and it was), merely shows himself as a gullible dupe living on Planet Chomsky. For when you know the Real Truth, as does Dersh, things like facts and research serve to muddy an otherwise clear picture of events. Why? Because Dersh says so.

Funny thing is, Dersh does believe in one conspiracy theory, where Chomsky, colluding with writers Norman Finkelstein and Alexander Cockburn, are trying to suppress his pro-Israel stance and otherwise destroy his fine reputation in an effort to scare others from defending Israel, a position that only the bravest people dare take. How true. Indeed, I'm amazed that Chomsky simply didn't shoot Dersh in the head rather than risk that the Real Truth get out. Which is why Dersh has to yell and scream his opinions while repeatedly interrupting those who disagree. How else can this Harvard professor of law and frequent TV talking head with access to mass media get his point across?