There is something deeply ritualistic as well as outrageous about our coverage of the latest mummers play in the Middle East. The US president tosses off another tweet to the world and – however infantile or medically insane its contents – we treat it as some serious political statement. Then millions march on the streets of the Arab world, shouting “Death to America’’ and “Death to Israel’’, and we report this nonsense as if these slogans – which I have been listening to in the Middle East for decades – are actually the product of some serious political debate. Their cries may be understandable, but they give no indication of Iran’s future reaction to the murder of Qassem Soleimani.
Then the international channels dress up all this verbiage into the language of “crisis journalism’’ – scrupulously fair to both mendacious sides – and open an old journalistic notebook. Escalation, retaliation, backlash, revenge, hatred, the gravest crisis since the last gravest crisis, you name it. This is familiar territory and I am reminded of the early days of the Northern Ireland war when we played the same preposterous, childish word games.
In one of his exasperated poems of the early Seventies, Seamus Heaney – later a Nobel laureate and now, alas, the late Seamus – expressed almost identical fury. He wrote of journalists in Belfast “who proved upon their pulses ‘escalate’,/‘Backlash’ and ‘crack down’…/‘Polarisation’ and ‘long-standing hate’…” Heaney’s poem, titled Whatever You Say, Say Nothing is all too applicable. The more we journos utter, the more banal we become. And the more banal it becomes, the less we understand. Or, more to the point, the less we are supposed to understand.
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