Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Year: 2023

Christmas 2023

Merry Christmas

When propaganda overreaches

Despite the UK Government’s rhetoric (Suella Braverman was not alone, merely the worst), I cannot think of a more appropriate event on Armistice Day than a march for peace. In London an estimated 300,000 people took the streets to call for a ceasefire in Gaza in a protest organised by Stop The War. The sheer numbers are telling in a city that is itself no stranger to terrorism and whose immediate sympathies lie with the victims of such attacks. It suggests that the Israeli PR strategy, which for decades has sought to present itself as a victim despite its ongoing occupation of Palestine, is finally failing.

Palestine Peace Protest

The very day after the Hamas attacks in Israel, I saw paid adverts on social media platforms like Tik Tok denouncing the attack and extolling Israel’s resilience. There was nothing wrong with this message but — as a Londoner who has seen (and even written) similar messages after terrorist attacks — I found it strange for two reasons: firstly, the speed with which they had been produced; and secondly, in age of target advertising, these were clearly seeking an overseas audience, not the population directly affected. This deliberate propaganda response became clearer over the coming week with a deluge of adverts on platforms like YouTube which listed the number of dead, injured and missing civilians. They ignored, of course, that within just a few days of carpet bombing those numbers were dwarfed by Palestinian casualties. Strangely, not all of my friends seemed to receive this propaganda blitz. That is the problem with algorithms that control our viewing diet based on “engagement” as — even if we inhabit the same platforms — we truly have no way of seeing what our neighbours do. It is not a case of simply reading multiple news sources. We do, to a material extent, now inhabit different realities.

Hasbara (Hebrew: הַסְבָּרָה) — Hasbara has no direct English translation, but roughly means “explaining”. It is a communicative strategy that seeks to explain actions, whether or not they are justified.

Propaganda during conflict is nothing new, though Israel’s hasbara is a particularly acute form in the digital age, a broad information warfare strategy to bolster domestic belief, maintain support from allies and delegitimise critics. It has been incredibly successful, convincing Western allies to overlook repeated breaches of international law for decades by exploiting Western Islamophobic sentiment whilst accusing critics of anti-Semitism. In reality, it is not anti-Semitic so much as anti-semantics, objecting to Israel’s description of apartheid regime and colonian occupation as “self defence”. As Israel hides behind the Jewish community (many of whom joined Saturday’s protest) its actions make them less safe.

Perhaps it was complacency from past success that led to a lie about babies being beheaded during the Hamas attacks, walked back almost immediately by Israeli ministers — those lies continued to circulate in the USA and there seemed to be little ramification for peddling falsehood in a post-truth world. The trouble is that is that once such blatant lies were exposed, there was no reason at all for the rest of the world to believe the IDF’s purported exculpatory analysis of the Gaza hospital explosion. Even US ministers must be cautious having been embarrassed by unquestioningly parroting the first lie.

Western mainstream media continues to be slanted in favour of Israel but in the UK the extent appears to be waning as biases become increasingly obvious to viewers (if not Britain’s responsibility for creating these circumstances in the first place) and mercurial presenters like Piers Morgan detect the shifting tide of public sentiment. In the UK and US political support remains strong but the reasons are increasingly transparent: a video resurfaced of Biden in 1986 declaring Israel America’s “best $3 billion investment” to protect its interests in the Middle East, and the financial incentives are similarly clear — just two weeks ago, Israel granted 12 gas exploration licences off the coast of Gaza to giants like BP and Eni. Platforms like Twitter and Tik Tok allow this information to circulate more widely, whilst Palestinian citizen journalists document attacks in real-time, and users can respond and dismantle the messages fed by hasbara. Support for Palestine is less stark than social media may suggest, though that reinforces the idea that younger people may be the ones shifting away from historic Western support for Israel whilst the older generations remain unswayed.

Palestine Peace Protest
Watermelon became a symbol of Palestinian solidarity as the emoji (which shares its colours with the Palestinian flag) is used to circumvent censorship on some social media platforms.

Hasbara evidently remains effective within the global Zionist community, with many returning to the IDF ahead of its ground offensive, and even moreso within Israel (though of course not all support the war). It is horrifying to hear some Israelis describe Palestinians as “animals”, parroting the dehumanising language of their right wing politicians, the same dehumanising language that allows them to justify the incarceration of generations of Palestinians in the inhumane conditions of Gaza and the West Bank, the same dehumanising language that finally led to Suella Braverman’s sacking, and the same dehumanising language that Israelis ought to remember all to well was previously levelled at the Jewish population in Nazi propaganda. When the powerful phrase “never again” is being weaponised to justify genocide, it should be clear to all that hasbara has overreached.

Authorship and Ownership

The recent literary furore over new versions of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books has fascinated me because I think it misses a larger point about our modern relationship with stories themselves. For those unaware, the Dahl estate decided to reprint his stories with edited text that makes frequent small changes to alter descriptions like “fat”, “ugly” and “crazy”. Media coverage of the changes (which was not entirely acccurate) prompted widespread cricitism. However, the issue strikes me not as a matter of language but of ownership and immutability of the printed word.

Roald Dahl books

Humans, as we are frequently told, are storytelling creatures. It is how we understand our relationship with the world and each other, how we reconstruct our memories on a daily basis and how we interpret our histories. Until the last few hundred years, almost all of those stories endured through oral tradition which made them inherently malleable. On each retelling the stories would change, being adapted to fit the sensibilities of the time, the orator and the audience.

It was really the printing press which led to the mass adoption of a single version of a story, stamped with its author’s name, which could survive beyond the author’s lifetime. That, together with the concept of copyright, resulted in the monopolistic ownership of a story by its author which now effectively prohibits any unauthorised retelling until (under UK law) 70 years after their death. Literary criticism identified the artificiality of this ownership in Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author, opining that the author commands no definitive interpretive control over the text once it has been published.

“Don’t gobblefunk around with words.”

Roald Dahl, The BFG

The changes to Dahl’s books are not the result of censorship but of capitalism: the estate plainly saw the opportunity to sell more copies of the books by making these changes, as evidenced by their rapid decision to keep reprinting the original text as well when it became clear that some would refuse to buy the edited versions. That is not the reversal of a principled decision but a series of pragmatic adjustments to fit the market.

Ascribing new words to a dead writer makes me inherently uncomfortable — this blog will turn 20 later this year, and even in that time I imagine I would cringe at some things I may previously have said, but it would be galling for anyone but me to change those words. I would much rather that Dahl’s choice of words be used to educate about societal changes and why we no longer ridicule people for being “fat” or “ugly” or “crazy” (from my own childhood, I recall my dad explaining the problematic existence of golliwogs in Enid Blyton’s Noddy books, which is when I began to understand how racism could be normalised within a society). I consider the high water mark for acknowledging the issues with past artistic works to be the Warner Brothers warning plate which precedes recent releases of old cartoons.

Warner Brothers content warning
The text reads: The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.

The better way to excise content entirely is to retell the story. The estate could have selected an author to do so, but they are invested in Dahl’s name as much as the stories themselves. As a society we continue to maintain the close link between the author and their creations but it is something that warrants consideration. I have written previously about the way that comicbook superheroes can be killed and reinvented to reflect the values of each decade in manner more similar to the oral myths of old. This is made possible due to lack of authorial ownership, meaning that multiple authors can provide a variety of perspectives. To be clear, publisher ownership is not a solution, having its own issues in exploitation of creators and gatekeeping of new works. However, there is a longer term decision that society needs to make as to whether we are being best served by the current system of story ownership, rooted in capitalism, or denied a cultural tradition that was once fundamental to our species.

"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2024 Priyan Meewella

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