The blind misleading the blind


Edward Said accuses the western media of cowardice, prejudice and gross over-simplification in their coverage of the war in the Balkans

17th May 1999
by Edward Said

As I write these lines, the Nato campaign is in its second month, with none of the alliance's announced objectives anywhere near being accomplished. The tyrannical and xenophobic regime of Slobodan Milosevic is still in power, gathering more Serbian adherents, even from among his former enemies in the country. Dissidents, democratic opposition figures, anti-government radio stations and papers have either been silenced or now support him against Nato, an unsurprising thing given that the increasingly damaging air campaign is correctly perceived as a war against all of Serbia.


Meanwhile, a conspiracy of silence has been fobbed on to the public. The media has played the most extraordinary role of propaganda and encouragement, which seems to get worse every day. Obviously Serbian propaganda has been playing its own role, which I make no attempt to justify or minimise. There is a vicious politics of identity at work in Yugoslavia, intensified by both the media and the opponents.


But CNN and its co-conspirators have played the part of a cheering partisan team. I appeared on BBC television and at one point had to remind the announcer who was questioning me that he should allow me to speak without further interruptions. When I drew attention to the shortcomings of the Nato position, he started screaming at me, demanding why I justified Milosevic's ethnic cleansing and how I, as a Palestinian, could endorse the ethnic cleansing of "fellow Muslims". Most TV broadcasters refer to the Nato forces as "ours" and regularly challenge military consultants about the folly of not using ground troops and attacking more Serbian targets, including Serbian television itself.


No journalist has dared raise the question of how it is that the number of refugees has actually increased since the bombing began (the bombing that was supposed to save them), and any suggestion that Nato may have made matters worse is scarcely given a hearing.


The co-operation between Nato government spokesmen and journalists has eliminated real investigative reporting. We know next to nothing of what has happened inside Kosovo except that, far from stopping Serb atrocities, Nato has managed to increase the number of Serbian soldiers; it is impossible to know from CNN and the others what exactly is being hit, where, and with what effect.


A further irony is that the constant references to "ethnic Albanians" prevents people from realising that most of the refugees are Muslim. Consider that whenever Hamas or Hezbollah, or Iranians or Palestinians, are referred to by the media, the adjective "Muslim" never fails to appear. In Yugoslavia, the tactic used is to suggest that these are European refugees and hence more deserving of Nato attention. Therefore the word "Muslim" is never used. I have yet to see a programme on the families of the 46,000 Kurdish victims of Turkey's genocide, or the continued starvation of Iraqi civilians (who are also mostly Muslims) taking place right now, with active US participation (supplying Turkey, a Nato member, with Apache helicopters and F-16s, for example). Why that isn't considered as bad as what Milosevic does puzzles me, but one supposes that there is at work a higher logic that ordinary humans cannot easily comprehend.


The worst thing about the Nato campaign as it is reported in the media is not only that it simplifies the enormously complicated histories, societies and peoples that exist in the Balkans, but that, in focusing unquestioningly on what Nato says and what pictures Nato gives out, the media in effect is part of the Nato campaign, obliterating history and reality with propaganda. As Tony Benn said, the result is that democracy is threatened, to say nothing of a decent future for a portion of mankind.


Perhaps the most dangerous side effect of the new Balkan war is that it may have permanently damaged the United Nations. What US power signals is that it, and it alone, can dictate the shape of things to come - intervening unilaterally where the whims of its leaders may choose, destroying or rebuilding as it wishes for no other reason than that it can do so.


The working policy assumption seems to be that the world is a dangerous place for the "west" (ie, the US) and therefore it is always better to take the offensive directly, going into the enemy's camp to do one's will inside it.


The triumph of this idea is the triumph of a ludicrously aggressive picture of our world that assumes that all civilisations necessarily are in conflict and that the only basis for politics is ethnic identity; and of a false dichotomy and a false logic: one is for Nato, that is, for "western values" of "humanity, democracy, decency", or for the inhuman, atrocity-mongering tyranny of Slavic-Orthodox civilisation as represented by Slobodan Milosevic. This is a caricature of reality: no moral choices are that simple. Nor should they be made that simple if the world is to survive as something more than a jungle of all against all, regulated by a "free" market that is controlled by the US.


Moreover, there is a profoundly anti-democratic logic at work here, as if to say hurry up and join us, otherwise you will be demonised and perhaps even destroyed. The US today is the only country in the world that has intervened militarily all across the globe in the past 12 months.


With its planes flying 600-plus missions every day, with General Wesley Clark requesting more planes and more bombs and troops, and with at least half a dozen powers in possession of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons on a large scale, humanity is at risk in the immediate future.


There are no quick solutions, no ready-made tactics to replace the prevailing logic of false dichotomies.


But by raising awareness of what the media at present distorts and hides, we can at least begin to stiffen our resistance to the leadership offered by men like Milosevic, or like Clinton, who has never experienced war and is drunk on the miracles of hi-tech electronic warfare where you do not see or come anywhere near what your victims are suffering.


The answer is not to refuse to look at the endless pictures of refugees, but to develop the resistance that comes from a real education in philosophy and the humanities, patient and repeated criticism, and intellectual courage.


Identity politics, nationalist passions and murderousness, an aggravated sense of victimhood or a saviour complex cannot be dealt with in any other way: these are universal problems requiring universalist solutions, not spontaneous war or quick fixes.


Copyright Edward Said

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