Sunday 21 April 2002

Warblogging and the warm inner glow

This morning, the Channel Nine current affairs program Sunday ran two related Middle East stories. First, Jim Waley and a Sunday camera crew visited the Jenin refugee camp “avoiding the Israeli military on the outskirts of Jenin by using back trails to walk into the city.” Then, the pièce de resistance:

In the middle of all this, Sunday decided to organise a town meeting in the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, on the border between the Arab and the Jewish parts of the city. We invited both Israelis and Palestinians alike, from all walks of life, holding a wide range of views … to see if there was any common ground for resurrecting the peace that was seemingly buried when Israel launched its Operation Defensive Shield on Good Friday. Jim Waley was the moderator of a sometimes fiery debate …

The Nine Network loves to stage these “town meetings.” Drugs, in-vitro fertilization, child abuse, Aboriginals, asylum seekers… the moment any controversial issue crops up in Australia, Nine rolls out a town meeting with Jim Waley or Richard Carleton or Ray Martin on hand to moderate the mandatory fiery debate. Now it seems they decided to inflict a town meeting on a bunch of hapless Israelis and Palestinians.

As I sat down to watch this Fiery Forum in Jerusalem, only one thing was certain: the meeting would end in acrimony, as Nine-sponsored town meetings generally do, with the participants trading barbs across a gulf of hostility. Then the moderator—having overseen a process that invariably generates vast amounts of heat but very little light—would thank the participants before delivering a homily about how we all now know a little more about this difficult and complex issue.

And that’s how it played out, largely. You can read the transcript, though it conveys little of the emotional tenor of the exchange. In any case, half-an-hour later we were back exactly where we’d started. Nowhere.

The Fiery Forum in Jerusalem encapsulated the entire Middle East debate for me: I sat on a sofa thousands of miles away drinking coffee while the participants argued their respective cases, disagreeing on practically everything. Jim Waley might have “lift[ed] the lid, a little bit, on what is a very complex and protracted issue” but, when we peered inside, it was as murky and intractable as always.

It’s not about finding answers or exploring the merits and deficiencies of each position. It’s about pitting one side against another and trusting that the sparks will fly. Toss some lions and Christians into the Coliseum, let the audience settle back to enjoy the show, and the network and its sponsors laugh all the way to the bank.

You may never have seen a Nine town meeting but you know the formula. It’s Jerry Springer or Ricky Lake for the intelligentsia, though with far less intellectual and emotional honesty—on the part of the producers—than you find on Springer’s show, or Lake’s.

The most obscene aspect of the exercise is that hundreds of thousands of Australians will switch off their TV sets believing that by becoming “better informed” they have in some way contributed to finding a solution to the Middle East crisis, whereas all they have really done is allow themselves to be briefly entertained by the spectacle of other people’s misery.

In Australia, this confusion of feeling with action is called the politics of the warm inner glow.

The warm inner glow is a perjorative term that Australian conservatives use to describe the liberal preference for feeling good at the expense of making tough decisions. In a speech to the right-wing H.R. Nicholls Society, Dr Colin Howard defines the warm inner glow as

an attitude… characterized by a marked preference for feeling good rather than doing good. It dislikes facts that prevent the beholder from feeling good. That is not surprising. We all like feeling good and we all dislike facts that deprive us of that pleasure. But what matters is how we react to those facts.

Nothing illustrates the warm inner glow better than this sign, on a door not far from where I live:

Sign on door: Escaped refugees welcome here

An escaped refugee is no more likely to knock on this door than a Martian. For all I know the inhabitants of the household are kind, well-meaning people—but their hollow gesture irritates me beyond belief. What worth is an offer of shelter and assistance made in the almost certain knowledge that it will never be taken up?

Late last year, Don Arthur addressed this question in an essay published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Web Diary.

Most criticisms of Australia’s elite consists of variations on the same themes - pragmatism versus idealism, responsibility versus deliberate impotence, realism versus mythology and healthy cynicism versus naivety. The criticisms are fuelled by irritation at a group whose moral purity seems to come at no personal cost - citizens who claim the right of free speech but will not support the actions needed to protect a free society from its enemies.

I share the conservative exasperation with those “who claim the right of free speech but will not support the actions needed to protect a free society from its enemies.” But it cuts both ways. Many conservatives (and, it seems to me, most warbloggers) attempt—by carelessly throwing around terms such as anti-Semite, moral equivocator, and terrorist sympathizer—to deny to others the right of free speech they claim for themselves, a right that is the absolute foundation of any democratic society.

It’s for that reason that I was so deeply dispirited by Mike Sanders’ statement: And the equivocation and silence of the non war bloggers is deafening.

Mike’s assertion troubles me since it seems to imply:

  • that it is incumbent on every “non war blogger” to transform their weblog into a platform from which they decry terrorism and suicide bombing
  • that in this sharp and precise time, when one must be either for the warbloggers or against them, the failure to politicize one’s weblog equates to moral cowardice.

As if spewing an endless stream of right-wing populist rhetoric requires even the tiniest shard of moral courage.

People blog for a multitude of reasons. Like everything in life, some weblogs have greater value and/or more serious intent than others. But the demand, no matter how well-intentioned, that bloggers all fall into line and support any particular political, religious, or moral position strikes me as not only totalitarian, it also demeans the sacrifices of everyone who has fought or suffered or died in defence of our democratic freedoms.

A few days ago, I posted excerpts from two biographies of Samuel Beckett, under the title Why Samuel Beckett joined the Resistance, a post that was correctly interpreted as a statement of protest against the growing tide of anti-Semitism around the world. I have spent the last couple of weeks reading, watching movies and documentaries, and thinking about the Holocaust. But my Beckett post was intended to communicate much more.

When World War II broke out, Beckett—as an Irish citizen living in France — felt no obligation to fight the Germans on behalf of either the British or the French. Instead he intended to “live quietly as a neutral alien, to tend to his writing and to see if he could help any of his friends who were still in Paris.” When it became clear that the Nazis were arresting and killing his Jewish friends, “he found himself unable to remain neutral any longer.” At that point he joined the French Resistance, putting his own life at risk.

Like Beckett, I have little faith in either religion or politics and I respond with deep mistrust towards anyone who attempts to coerce me on either religious or political grounds. I believe that the only thing that lasts is art, and that even art is ephemeral.

Beckett was in many ways an exemplary artist. Wanting nothing more than to write, he put that desire to one side and went to war—not for some abstract ideal, but for entirely personal reasons. His Jewish friends were being persecuted and so he took up arms against their persecutors. Beckett, whose whole life was devoted to words, abandoned words and took action.

Warbloggers confuse words with action. And, not surprisingly, their moral purity seems to come at little personal cost.

In that way, warbloggers are hardly different from the liberal do-gooders they castigate. The ultimate aim of the warblogger is to make himself and his readers feel good. This privileging of words and feelings over meaningful action most resembles a kind of emotional pornography; it constitutes the most grievous insult to those who are suffering and dying on both sides.

What a fucking irony. That I, who am regarded by all of my closest friends as irretrievably conservative, should be mounting an argument against conservative orthodoxy. And yet, how could anyone find the glib assertions, pompous certainty, and smug intolerance of the warbloggers anything but deeply offensive? Particularly when compared with the everyday actions and responsibilities of those who are truly engaged.

This morning I watched as Jim Waley and his Sunday crew, having avoided “the Israeli military on the outskirts of Jenin by using back trails to walk into the city” suddenly stumbled across an Israeli patrol. The young lieutenant in command warned the Australians that they had entered restricted territory but then he agreed to be interviewed. Waley asked the officer what he was most afraid of. The Israeli thought for a long, long time. Then he answered. He was afraid of making the wrong decision in a firefight. He was afraid that a choice he made would result in the death or wounding of either his troops or of Palestinian civilians.

I am not yet sufficiently cynical to believe that, in taking such a long time to formulate his answer, he was trying to recall a training lecture he’d attended on how to handle foreign journalists. Rather I believe that he was running through in his mind the catalogue of all the good and bad decisions he’d made, of everything he’d learned during training and since, before attempting to choose one fear out of a hundred or more. The interview could have been a setup yet he came across to me as the kind of soldier who stands as a credit to any army.

Strapping on explosives and blowing up yourself and others is pathetic when measured against the willingness to accept total responsibility for the lives of the men under your command while trying at the same time to minimize civilian casualties.

As I see it, the combined outpourings of all the warbloggers have less worth than one of that young lieutenant’s toenail clippings. I wish Jim Waley had asked him another question. I wish he’d asked the officer what kind of men make the most honorable, dependable, and courageous soldiers. I doubt the Israeli would have answered, “Self-important bombastic loudmouth warbloggers.”

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Delacour (1), warbloggers( 0), 2nd half to come?

Posted by Gerrit Fokkema on 21 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Well said, Jonathon.

Posted by stavrosthewonderchicken on 21 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Interesting. You manage to meld a refreshingly sober perspective with pointlessly over-the-top insults. What a strange mind!

Posted by Mike on 14 October 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour