Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Argumentum ad misericordiam:

A short study in media absurdity from Santa to Homer Simpson

I was reading this post on Simply Jews about media generated, manufactured and staged events:

Jooz got Santa or how to deal with the writer's block

This is an updated post from December 23. I promised to publish the best answer.These days, when the movie industry is clamoring for new ideas for a narrative (and, incidentally, suffering from the writers' strike), the ever creative Palestinian folks keep surprising.

The two following pictures have one thing in common and significantly differ in their fate. Guess the commonality and the difference, and you will get absolutely nothing bad in return.


When I was unexpectedly reminded of a novel I read when I was in grade 8.

A short detour: My mother had a collection of novels from 'The good book club" which I was not allowed to read because they were too adulty for me. But by that age, I had already exhausted all the books suitable for my age at the public library, so my mother decided to allow me to dip into those books, with her approval.

One of the first books I read was Don Mankiewicz’s novel "Trial". I was much too young and ignorant to understand fully what it was about. I was mainly interested in the plot and was terribly upset by the story of the subversion of justice. But something about the politics underlying that novel must have seeped through because I remember reading one passage over and over again, trying to understand what it meant. It was at the end of the novel, when the verdict is announced and the Mexican defendant's mother breaks into a great wail. The scene is described from the narrator's point of view, who is the defendant's lawyer. He describes in shock how her yells and anguished grimaces became luridly more pronounced whenever a journalist camera was trained upon her figure. As if her sorrow was deliberately overplayed, exaggerated, staged, for the sake of the cameras.

The post on Simply Jews about a staged "barbarity", intended to generate outrage and pity tugged at that memory, so I searched for the novel on google and sure enough, I found the following precis of the novel. Please note parts highlighted in red by me. They are the ones that point to the grotesqueries that result from the melding together of the radical politics of pity and media willing receptiveness:

Then in 1955 the Scottsboro tale was resurrected indirectly in Don Mankiewicz’s successful novel Trial, which won a Harper prize and was made into a film. Trial was neither a history of Scottsboro nor an historical novel based directly on the case. Yet so many events in the Alabama incident paralleled those of the Mankiewicz novel that the book must be considered a thinly veiled and extremely partisan view of the Scottsboro case. Trial was set in California. Marie Wiltse, a white girl with a history of heart disease, is approached by Angel Chavez, a young man of Mexican descent. They kiss; his hands wander. The girl becomes frightened, she screams, and the boy attempts to quiet her. In the struggle the girl dies of a heart attack, and the youth is charged with murder. A lawyer for the Mexican Advancement Association plans to defend the boy, but he yields the case to Bernard Castle, who shares the defense with his new associate and the protagonist of the novel, David Blake. Castle is to raise money for the defense while Blake manages the legal phase of the case.

Tempers flare in the California town because of the death of Marie Wiltse. Racists nearly convert her burial into a lynching party. Meanwhile, Castle induces the defendant’s mother to accompany him to New York to raise funds. After a few weeks, he calls Blake to the East to aid the money-raising effort. In a New York taxi taking him to the Arena, Blake related to the driver that he is going to attend a rally. The chauffeur responds, “Ah read about that rally. . . . Some Nigger raped a white gal, and a bunch of yids are trying to get him off.”

Blake discovers he is working with Communists, who are diverting funds from the Chavez defense to other radical efforts. Dejected, he returns to California to try to save Angel in court. Blake’s attempt appears successful as the trial nears a close, but then Castle demands that Blake place the defendant on the witness stand. Blake opposes the move at first, but he yields. The lad testifies and becomes confused under cross-examination. Chavez is found guilty and is electrocuted. At the climax of the story Castle’s disillusioned secretary confesses to Blake that Castle is a Communist, that he snatched the case from the MAA attorney through blackmail, and that it was he who told the racist lynchers where the family burial of Marie would occur. Finally, it was Castle who insisted that Chavez testify, because the attorney wanted the jury to convict the young Mexican. Why?

Because Barney’s new world’s acoming. A world where a man’s color won’t make any difference. A world—oh, hell, you’ve heard about it. And to bring that world about, there have to be sacrifices. And Angel has to make his sacrifice, just the same as Barney would make, if their places were reversed. Get Angel off, and what have you proved? That there’s no prejudice in San Juno. In the whole State, for that matter. But that’s not true. There is prejudice. The kind that’ll railroad a Mex to his death on a charge that wouldn’t take a white man past the coroner. That’s the truth. And to bring that truth into focus, to prove it, the prejudice has to be permitted to do its work, to do its murder right out in public, where it will drive the truth home to the people who have to be brought together and united, to fight the prejudice, so that it won’t be here any more and the new world will be here. Only— . . . of course Angel won’t be here to enjoy that wonderful stinking day.

Although the novel deals harshly with racists and the un-American activities committees; the main criticism of the Mankiewicz work is directed at the Communists. The author, foe of both right and left, received the applause of liberals.

In the light of what I have come to learn about the media's dubious ethics, this novel seems to have unraveled all the strings that are woven into the making of a victim, and by necessity, a villain. There seems to be a triangular complicity* between those who purport to care for the victim's rights, those who hound the victim, and the media. The paradox lies in the nexus between the victim's advocates and the victim's adversaries. The advocates have an interest in aggravating the victim's condition all the better to point an accusatory finger at the opposition. And the media, which is supposed to maintain a camera-like objectivity, uses that camera, or allows it to be used, in order to further enhance the warped images.

Since the sensational and lurid images which tell a story in primary colours are rarely, if ever, available, then manufactured they must be. Palestinians have become extremely savvy about the needs of mass-media. It is not, unfortunately, a savvy born out of great sophistication of thought but rather a savvy that makes the most of that rhetorical fallacy, Argumentum ad misericordiam (argument or appeal to pity).

The English translation pretty much says it all. Example: "Think of all the poor, starving Ethiopian children! How could we be so cruel as not to help them?" The problem with such an argument is that no amount of special pleading can make the impossible possible, the false true, the expensive costless, etc.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to point out the severity of a problem as part of the justification for adopting a proposed solution. The fallacy comes in when other aspects of the proposed solution (such as whether it is possible, how much it costs, who else might be harmed by adopting the policy) are ignored or responded to only with more impassioned pleas.


* In trying to define the role of media complicity in these staged events, I was reminded of the words I once read in a now defunct blog:

The amount of data and the speed at which it is transmitted may magnify small anomalies into systemic failure. More is less.

Conversely, what, in perspective, are small (on the scale of a war) events are magnified by hypermedia into hyperevents, which may be inherently uncontrollable.

... Working on a new definition of one of the functions of mediadream, which right now has the handle, cascade. Cascade is the snowball, dreamers. Entropy out of the cage.

Follow it: Hi-tech armed forces get lots of data, really fast, and launch a lightning strike on a perceived threat. Small errors in data are magnified by all that blistering speed, and, oops--mistakes happen. Hypermedia picks up this relatively small event, acceleration and amplification turn it into a hyperevent.

This description provides an explanation which puts the blame for corrupted media reports on the speed of technology and the need to feed the insatiable appetite of the viewer/reader for immediate thrill and interest. It refrains from accusing the media for sloppy ethics and bad-faith journalism. Or, conversely, it aims at exposing the extreme vulnerability of the media to cynical manipulation, as in the example which kicked off this blogpost.

Still, if you think about the irreversible damage, conditioning the public for the existential threat for an entire nation, you have to wonder if, the media should be let off the hook so easily. Sometimes, entrusting a journalist with a camera is tantamount to the nightmarish spoof of the US entrusting its nuclear facilities to the most famous Nuclear Safety Inspector, Homer Simpson.

3 Comments:

At 1:29 PM GMT-5, Blogger SnoopyTheGoon said...

Wow, Noga - this is a whole essay!
Cool, and re Ahmed - you just have to look at his site to get to know him better. You shall see what I mean immediately.

 
At 5:00 PM GMT-5, Blogger Bald Headed Geek said...

CC, if you want a chuckle--or to pull out your hair, depending on your reaction--take a look at my posting today on Iran (captioned "What will it take?"), and the thread of comments that followed. Apparently, I incurred the wrath of a Las Vegas talk show host!

:-)

BHG

 
At 10:29 AM GMT-5, Blogger The Contentious Centrist said...

I checked Ahmed's blog. Is he for real? I think it might be an Israeli imposter trying to sully the name of Palestinians by pretending to write as a Palestinian shoveling all this stereotypical manure. It really overstreches my credulity muscle to believe anybody could be so stupid. But then...

 

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