For several years now, I have been writing regular posts on my blog with one end in mind: to help open a door for readers and encourage them to step through. I select issues, usually those that dominate western media coverage and represent a consensus that we might term the Great Western Narrative, and try to show how this narrative has been constructed not to inform and enlighten but to conceal and deceive.
It is not that I and the many other bloggers doing this are cleverer than everyone else. We have simply had a chance – an earlier one – to step through that door ourselves, because of a jarring life experience that the Great Western Narrative could not explain, or because someone held the door open for us, or more usually because of a combination of the two.
My personal awakening
It is easy for me to identify my own process of awakening. It began with the dislocation of moving to Nazareth and being immersed in someone else’s narrative – that of the Palestinians. Then, I faced for the first time in my career as a journalist an impenetrable wall of opposition, even from my own former newspaper, the Guardian, as I tried to explain that counter-narrative. In fact, I found that the Palestinian narrative was invariably misrepresented as anti-semitism. These were dark years of disillusionment and the loss of a professional and ideological compass.
It is in such a moment of bereavement – deprived of the consolation of the Great Western Narrative – that one searches for a door to enlightenment. It can be a long journey to find it. My door appeared while reading about the Propaganda Model of Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent, as well as stumbling across a website called Media Lens. They helped me understand that the narrative problem was not restricted to Israel-Palestine, but was a much more general one.
In fact, the Great Western Narrative has been developed and refined over centuries to preserve a tiny elite’s privileges and expand its power. The role of journalists like me was to keep feeding these illusions to readers so they would remain fearful, passive and deferential to this elite. It is not that journalists lie – or at least, not most of them – it is that they are as deeply wedded to the Great Western Narrative as everyone else.
Once one is prepared to step through the door, to discard the old script, the new narrative takes its hold because it is so helpful. It actually explains the world, and human behaviour, as it is experienced everywhere. It has genuine predictive power. And most importantly, it reveals a truth understood by all figures of spiritual and intellectual enlightenment throughout human history: that human beings are equally human, whether they are Americans, Europeans, Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Russians, Venezuelans, or Iranians, whether they are North or South Koreans.
The term “human” is not meant simply as a description of us as a species, or a biological entity. It also describes who we are, what drives us, what makes us cry, what makes us laugh, what makes us angry, what elicits compassion. And the truth is that we are all essentially the same. The same things upset us, the same things amuse us. The same things inspire us, the same things outrage us. We want dignity, freedom, safety for us and our loved ones, and appreciate beauty and truth. We fear oppression, injustice, insecurity.
Hierarchies of virtue
The Great Western Narrative tells us something entirely different. It divides the world into a hierarchy of “peoples”, with different, even conflicting, virtues and vices. Some humans – westerners – are more rational, more caring, more sensitive, more fully human. And other humans – the rest – are more primitive, more emotional, more violent. In this system of classification, we are the Good Guys and they are the Bad Guys; we are Order, they are Chaos. They need a firm hand from us to control them and stop them doing too much damage to themselves and to our civilised part of the world.
The Great Western Narrative isn’t really new. It is simply a reformulation for a different era of the “white man’s burden”.
The reason the Great Western Narrative persists is because it is useful – to those in power. Humans may be essentially the same in our natures and in our drives, but we are very definitely divided by power and its modern corollary, wealth. A tiny number have it, and the vast majority do not. The Great Western Narrative is there to perpetuate power by legitimising it, by making its unbalanced and unjust distribution seem natural and immutable.
Once kings told us they had blue blood and a divine right. Today, we need a different kind of narrative, but one designed to achieve the same end. Just as kings and barons once owned everything, now a tiny corporate elite rule the world. They have to justify that to themselves and to us.
The king and the barons had their courtiers, the clergy and a wider circle of hanger-ons who most of the time benefited enough from the system not to disrupt it. The role of the clergy in particular was to sanction the gross imbalance of power, to argue that it was God’s will. Today, the media function like the clergy of old. God may be dead, as Nietzsche observed, but the corporate media has taken his place. In the unquestioned premises of every article, we are told who should rule and who should be ruled, who are the Good Guys and who the Bad.
To make this system more palatable, more democratic, to make us believe that there is equality of opportunity and that wealth trickles down, the western elite has had to allow a large domestic middle class to emerge, like the courtiers of old. The spoils from the rape and pillage of distant societies are shared sparingly with this class. Their consciences are rarely pricked because the corporate media’s function is to ensure they know little about the rest of the world and care even less, believing those foreigners to be less deserving, less human.
Nothing more than statistics
If western readers, for example, understood that a Palestinian is no different from an Israeli – apart from in opportunities and income – then they might feel sympathy for a grieving Palestinian family just as they do for an Israeli one. But the Great Western Narrative is there precisely to ensure readers won’t feel the same about the two cases. That is why Palestinian deaths are invariably reported as nothing more than statistics – because Palestinians die in large numbers, like cattle in an abbatoir. Israelis, by contrast, die much more rarely and their deaths are recorded individually. They are dignified with names, life stories and pictures.
Even when a moment arrives to single out a Palestinian from the mass of death, western corporate media show great reluctance to do so. Just take the case of Razan al-Najjar, the 21-year-old Palestinian medic executed by a sniper’s bullet as she tended to the unarmed demonstrators regularly being killed and wounded at the perimeter fence encaging them in the prison of Gaza.
Gaza is slowly sinking into the sea, but who cares? Those primitive Palestinians live like cavemen amid the rubble of homes Israel has repeatedly destroyed. Their women are hijabbed and they have too many children. They don’t look like us, they don’t speak like us. Doubtless, they don’t think like us. They cannot be us.
Even those young Palestinian demonstrators, with their faces covered with strange scarves, launching flaming kites and throwing the odd stone, look different. Can we imagine ourselves standing in front of a sniper to protest like that? Of course not. We cannot imagine what it is like to live in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, in an open-air prison over which another nation serves as jailers, in which the water is becoming as saline as seawater and there is no electricity. So how can we put ourselves in the demonstrators’ shoes, how can we empathise? It is so much easier to imagine being the powerful sniper protecting the “border” and his home.
But al-Najjar undermined all that. A young, pretty woman with a beautiful smile – she could be our daughter. Selflessly tending to the wounded, thinking not of herself but of the welfare of others, we would be proud to have her as our daughter. We can identify with her much better than the sniper. She is a door beckoning us to step through and see the world from a different location, from a different perspective.
Which is why the corporate media has not invested al-Najjar’s death with the emotional, empathetic coverage it would if a pretty young Israeli female medic had been gunned down by a Palestinian. It was that double standard in his own newspaper, the Guardian, that outraged cartoonist Steve Bell last week. As he noted in correspondence with the editor, the paper had barely covered the story of al-Najjar. When he tried to redress the imbalance, his own cartoon highlighting her death – and its oversight – was censored.
The Guardian’s editors argued that his cartoon was anti-semitic. But the truth is that al-Najjar is dangerous. Because once you step through that door, you are unlikely to come back, you are unlikely ever again to believe the Great Western Narrative.
The true message of Israel
Israel-Palestine offered me that door, just as it has so many others. It is not, as Israel’s apologists – and the upholders of the Great Western Narrative – will tell you, because so many westerners are anti-semitic. It is because Israel lies in a grey zone of experience, one that is readily available to western tourists but at the same time gives them a chance to glimpse the dark underbelly of western privilege.
Israel is enthusiastically embraced by the Great Western Narrative: it is supposedly a liberal democracy, many of its inhabitants dress and sound like us, its cities look rather like our cities, its TV shows are given a makeover and become hits on our TV screens. If you don’t stand too close, Israel could be Britain or the US.
But there are clues galore, for those who bother to look a little beyond superficialities, that there is something profoundly amiss about Israel. A few miles from their homes, the sons of those western-looking families regularly train their gun sights on unarmed demonstrators, on children, on women, on journalists, on medics, and pull the trigger with barely any compunction.
They do so not because they are monsters, but because they are exactly like us, exactly like our sons. That is the true horror of Israel. We have a chance to see ourselves in Israel – because it is not exactly us, because most of us have some physical and emotional distance from it, because it still looks a little strange despite the best efforts of the western media, and because its own local narrative – justifying its actions – is even more extreme, even more entitled, even more racist towards the Other than the Great Western Narrative.
It is that shocking realisation – that we could be Israelis, that we could be those snipers – that both opens the door and prevents many from stepping through to see what is on the other side. Or, more troubling still, halting at the threshhold of the doorway, glimpsing a partial truth without understanding its full ramifications.
To explain what I mean, let us digress for a moment and consider the allegorical film The Matrix.
Neo, the hero played by Keanu Reeves, starts to realise that the reality around him is not as solid as it once seemed. Things have become peculiar, inconsistent, inexplicable. He is shown the door to an entirely different reality with the help of a mentor, Morpheus. Neo discovers that in truth he exists in a dark world taken over by computer-generated life forms that feed off the consciousnesses of him and the rest of mankind. Until that point, he had been living in a dream world created to pacify him and other humans as they are exploited for their energy.
Neo and a small band of others who have liberated themselves from this false consciousness cannot hope to defeat their opponents directly. They must wage war through the Matrix, a digital world in which the computer life-forms always triumph. It is only when Neo finally grasps that the Matrix is an illusion too – that these life forms he is battling are simply binary code – that he becomes strong enough to triumph.
Back to us. On the other side of the door lies a truth that humans are all equally human. From this vantage point, it is possible to understand that a privileged westerner or Israeli would react exactly like a Palestinian if he had to endure the experiences of living in Gaza. From this location, it is possible to understand that my son might pull the trigger, just like most Israeli teenagers do, if he had been bombarded, like them, with brainwashing all his life from his media, school and politicians depicting Palestinians as primitive and violent.
From the other side of the door, Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad look as rational, or irrational, and as criminal as George W Bush, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump. In fact, they look less criminal – not because they are better humans than their western counterparts, but simply because they enjoy less power and face more constraints in trying to impose their will. The issue is not about who is better. They are the same humans. It is about who has more force at their disposal – and more will to use it – to perpetuate their power.
Enslaved to power
The conclusion from this is that the way to change our societies fundamentally for the better depends on a change in our consciousness, on liberating ourselves from false perspective, on stepping through the door.
If we remain in a world of illusions, of false hierarchies of virtue, oblivious to the role of power, we will continue to be Neo living in his dream world.
And if we step only to the threshhold, glimpsing the shadows on the the other side, we will be equally in thrall to illusions, just as Neo took his battle back into the Matrix, fighting ghosts in the machine as though they were flesh-and-blood enemies.
This danger can be seen in the case of Israel-Palestine too, where the horrors that Israel inflicts on Palestinians justifiably radicalise many observers. But not all step fully through the door. They linger at the threshhold, angry with Israel and Israelis, and beatifying Palestinians as nothing more than victims. Some manage to find false consolation again, this time accepting readymade conspiracies that “the Jews” are pulling the levers that make such outrages – and western inaction – possible.
To stand in the doorway is as bad as refusing to step through. The illusions are as dangerous, the false consciousness as profound.
Our planet and our children’s futures depend on us liberating ourselves, seeing the ghosts in the machine for what they truly are. We have to begin rebuilding our societies on the basis that we share a common humanity. That other humans are not our enemies, only those who wish to enslave us to their power.