Salman Rushdie: Take it from a meta-columnist: these days even opinion is a metaphor

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The speed of life is now so great that we can't concentrate on anything for long. We need capsule meanings to be attached to news events instantly, explaining and pigeonholing their significance, so that we can move on, secure in the illusion of having understood something. In the days after two catastrophic crashes, of the Middle East peace process and the Air France Concorde, an army of commentators has been trying to come up with (on a postcard, preferably) the brief sound-bites that bite.

The speed of life is now so great that we can't concentrate on anything for long. We need capsule meanings to be attached to news events instantly, explaining and pigeonholing their significance, so that we can move on, secure in the illusion of having understood something. In the days after two catastrophic crashes, of the Middle East peace process and the Air France Concorde, an army of commentators has been trying to come up with (on a postcard, preferably) the brief sound-bites that bite.

Of the two disasters, the Concorde crash yields up its Instant Message more easily. It represents, as a thousand pundits have told us, the End of the Dream of the Future. In a world in which no Concorde had ever crashed, this most graceful of aircraft embodied our dreams of transcendence. In the new reality that is still smouldering on the ground in Gonesse, France, our expectations must be lowered.

Transcendence kills. The pictures tell us so. In our aeroplanes, in our lives, in our fantasies of what we might be, we must give up the idea of breaking unbreakable barriers. For a brief, fabulous period we exceeded our limits. Now we are gripped once more by the surly bonds of earth.

Unfortunately, the other crash seems, after analysis, to insist on meaning exactly the opposite thing. Everywhere I've been in the past week or so, and in much of what I've seen, heard or read, one question has kept coming up: if it were left to you, how would you solve the riddle of Jerusalem? And the op-ed and dinner-table consensus seems to be that the old place must become a free city, a World City, neither Israeli nor Palestinian but capital of both.

Seems fair and ultimately do-able. Yes, we like that idea ... what's that you say? There's a hot breaking news story? ... Quick, switch on CNN ... Oh, very well, we can go into this a bit more if you absolutely insist. It's simple, really. Barak's government has already given ground, but Israel must have its arm twisted by the United States until it agrees to this essential further concession. And, yes, Arafat was intransigent, in part because Hosni Mubarak persuaded his major backers to insist on the hard-line, we-get-East-Jerusalem-or-bust position. So, the Arab states must have their arms twisted by the United States until they agree to the Only Possible Solution....

You see, sometimes people just have to be bigger than what holds them back. We, they, just have to find it in ourselves, themselves, to transcend. Because peace is the Dream of the Future, and cannot be denied....

Instant analysts are thus faced with an apparent black-and-white Message Contradiction. If the "meaning" of the Concorde crash is right, then the puncturing of human dreams is inevitable. There will therefore be no peace in the Middle East. And when the intifada returns in a more violent form - because now the Palestinians can fight with guns, not stones - Israel will retaliate with maximum force, and the region will slip towards war. But if, on the other hand, the post-Camp David, free Jerusalem can be conjured into being, it will give us all new hope, and reinvent the idea of the future as a potential Star Trek utopia in which technological marvels - safer, cheaper Concordes, perhaps, Concordes for All - arrive hand-in-hand with a universalist, brotherhood-of-man philosophy of human relations.

In reality, however, the contradiction doesn't exist. In the real world the present is always imperfect and the future is (almost) always a region of hope. The problem lies in the way we all now insist on reacting to the news. Is it a Good Thing? Is it a Bad Thing? What's in it for us? What do they tell us about ourselves? Or about the other guys? Where's the angle? Who's to blame? Gimme the zapper. Let's surf!

In her famous essay "Illness as Metaphor", Susan Sontag pointed out the dangers of thinking in this quasi-mystical way, of, for example, seeing curses and judgements in sickness and disease. This argument also applies to the news, or, rather, the current obsession with finding symbolic meaning in headline-worthy events. News as Instant Metaphor turns a random catastrophe such as an air crash into a generalised cultural signifier, or, more dangerously, over-interprets events like the Camp David negotiations until the overlaid resonances and echoes complicate and obscure the difficult, half-resolved, half-stymied thing itself.

News as Instant Metaphor is excessively emotive, often politically slanted, inevitably shallow. It idealises or demonises its subjects, and dulls or inflames our responses. (The vile murder of young Sarah Payne in Britain, totemically represented as a symbol of innocence endangered by evil, has turned sections of the British media into a frothing lynch-mob.)

The British government - among others - has recently been attacked for its preoccupation with spin rather than substance, presentation rather than reality; with, in other words, Government as Metaphor. But if the comment-heavy news media themselves - provocative opinion columns, however glib, are so much cheaper than old-fashioned journalism - were less eager to spin the news the moment it happens until it becomes a dazzling, hypnotic blur, we might see more clearly through the political spin-doctors' smoke and mirrors.

© Salman Rushdie. Distributed by New York Times Special Features.

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