"While Rome burned" . . . an all-purpose phrase for a multitude of everyday sins throughout the ages of Western Civ, the actual historical record long lost to all but a handful of serious students in the great winnowing process of meme evolution, with apologies to Witold Rybczynski. ("The burning of Rome" by Robert Hubert, 1733-1808, Musée André Malraux, Le Havre, France)
"Why did they want me?" asks medieval historian Richard Landes in "Camera Obscura: How French TV fudged the death of Mohammed Al Durah" at The New Republic Online, drawing together the threads of four years of scholarly detective work to reveal a rich tapestry of deception and delusion wherein Palestinian journalists -- aided and abetted by credulous Western media -- presented the Palestinians as "hapless victims of Israeli aggression." We've blogged before about Richard's work. Now he is providing expert testimony in three trials being held at the Palais de Justice in Paris this fall, challenging France2's promulgation of staged and doctored "news" footage:
In trying to dismiss my first testimony, the plaintiff's lawyer wondered, "what does he know about images? He's a medievalist." Well, I know about the power of images, of narratives, and of forgeries, and especially blood libels. And, since my first book, Relics, Apocalypse, and the Deceits of History, was about a set of forgeries that continued to fool historians for decades even after a critic revealed them as fakes in the 1920s, I also know something about the difficulty of getting specialists to acknowledge they were duped.
But this image goes beyond blood libel and anti-Semitism, beyond blackening Israel's image and whitewashing Palestinian violence. Al Durah became the icon not only of the Intifada, but of global jihad. Within months of the incident, bin Laden came out with a recruiting video that featured extensive Pallywood footage and highlighted Al Durah. Months later, Pakistani jihadis killed Daniel Pearl, interweaving Al Durah's image into their tape of the execution.
"I tried unsuccessfully to interest the mainstream press in this obvious fakery, but nobody was interested," writes our friend:
"I don't know how much appetite there is for this material here," one person at a major studio told me. So I made Pallywood (Palestinian Hollywood) -- a video-essay showing the dishonesty and the still-more-astounding Western complicity in using this footage to inform us about the Middle East. Then I made a follow-up, Al Durah: The Making of an Icon (and soon, Icon of Hatred). I established a website, The Second Draft, where I posted the movies along with my evidence so that, unlike France2, people could check my sources. And now the accused have asked me to testify . . .
Three court trials, then -- in which France2 seeks to bury any serious assessment of their coverage -- are also trials of France's ability to defend her republican values against an Islamist onslaught that it seems ill-equipped to resist. And, as France goes, so goes Europe. (Would France have it any other way?)
"Civil society is a miracle, and one of the pillars of civil society is an accurate and relevant media. And right now, I'd say we're in terrible shape," Richard told our mutual blogpal Sol in an interview published at Solomonia in August of 2005 on the occasion of the launch of the professor's online media watch-dog project:
I see this issue as a portal to modernity for both the Palestinians and our supposedly already modern press. If you can self-criticize you can learn and you can grow. If you can't self-criticize and all you can do when you're criticized is turn and attack the critic, even when you win you lose because there's no learning curve . . . The press is the eyes and ears of a functioning civil society, and no creature whose eyes and ears deceived it has ever survived for long.
Richard considers himself a man of the left, yet his reading of what's wrong with media elites whistling past the graveyard calls to mind conservative thinker Thomas Sowell's reading of what's wrong with the frozen-in-amber persons of the left who dominate the halls of academia, as blogged here a few months back:
Even if every conclusion with which students are indoctrinated were true, unless those students develop their own ability to weigh opposing arguments, these conclusions will become obsolete as new issues arise in the years ahead. These "educated" people will have developed no ability to analyze opposing sides of issues.
Students are getting half an education at inflated prices and learning only how to label, dismiss and demonize ideas that differ from what they have been led to believe. Their "educated" ignorance is a danger to the future of this country.
In a related development, Stanley Fish -- who, like Richard Landes, started his career as a medievalist but then went on to fame and fortune "vigorously debunking pieties of both the left and the right" according to Wikipedia -- had this to say [via Ann Althouse] on the recent unpleasantness at Columbia where the head of the anti-illegal-immigration Minutemen was physically assaulted and shouted down by thuggish members of the audience:
The question to be asked is not did it further free speech or contribute to a robust democratic culture or provide a genuine educational experience? Rather the questions to be asked are: Did it rock? Was it a blast? Was a good time had by all?"
Too clever by half? Scintillating intellectual playfulness, Professor Fish, but try telling it to the jihadists. One of Ann's commenters, Joan of Arc, suggested we check out "Smug Rich Kids," a brilliant, commonsensical essay by Columbia junior Matt Mireles in today's N.Y. Post. Unlike Thomas Sowell's "educated" people with no ability to analyze opposing sides of the issues, Mireles cuts through the jingle jangle razzle dazzle of Fish's fatuousness:
But the radicals on campus exist and act -- much as radicals anywhere -- with the tacit support of the broader community. Why is Columbia a sanctuary for these people? Why was Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minutemen, forcibly silenced and not just ignored?
Call it white guilt, though in a mutated form . . .
Of course, having never seen much grit for most of their lives, Columbia students tend to balk at the first sight of too much reality -- like going above 125th Street. On the other hand, joining a protest group is easy and safe but still "edgy" and cool. It lets students feel good about themselves and their convictions and their fight against "the man" without ever having to leave the shelter and structure of campus.
Perhaps Fish's playful "Did it rock" catches the conscience of the kids only too well. Feeling good about themselves is where they're at. Consequences be damned. While Rome burned. As we ourselves blogged in one of our own favorite posts, "Bloggers are 'cracking, popping, drilling and peeling their victims open," last year:
Leftists have become soft and flabby in their thinking over the last 20, 30 or more years because their fellow travelers in the mainstream media -- supposed to be keeping them honest -- have been giving them a free ride, even as thinkers of the right, not enjoying such reflexive support, have been honing our debating and intellectual survival skills. That leaves the left soft and lazy and the right battle ready. Enter the bloggers, stage right.
Let justice be done.
Update: Pajamas Media links.