What A Difference Difference Makes

Baudrillard once said, when speaking about the WTC attacks on 9/11, that.

The hatred of non-Western people [for the West] is not based on the fact that the West stole everything from them…[but]…on the fact that they received everything but were never allowed to give anything back [Jean Baudrillard, “Violence of the Global,” Ctheory.net, May 20, 2003].

On the pages of US media publications, the divide between the modern/backward, advanced/under-developed, knowledgeable/helpless, and West/Other is carefully manufactured by a combination of ignorance and obtuse refusal to allow reality to intervene in media fantasy. It is done with a refusal to accept something back. It is done to celebrate the Western self, the one all can only aspire to but not quite reach. It is a form of journalism that is a form of autobiography–self-aggrandizing, myth-making, and self-delusion.

But journalists, more often than not, travel the globe and find only mirrors of themselves, confusing their individual experiences, reactions, and revulsions as significant. They assume an epistemology of the self, using their own personal responses and rewriting them as generalizations, essentialisms, and the basis of conclusions. Their ignorance becomes wisdom.

At times, this refusal becomes pure comedy.

For another example of such construction of difference, see the case study Genetically Corrupt.

In a New York Times article about the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa, the writer never bothered to interview or speak to a single local epidemiologist, doctor, nurse, or other healthcare provider on and from the continent. Instead, she turned to a professor in New York City to tell her about the response to the virus in various African nations. When a Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF) representative tells her that the low level of COVID-19 cases in Africa may be because of their effective policies and planning, the writer dismisses this as unrealistic and never offers any evidence of why that would be. She does speak to some people from Africa: a government office bureaucrat, a casket maker, and a man who is dead. The entire continent has no medical experts, virologists, researchers, or academics intelligent enough to be spoken to for the New York Times.

In the newspaper’s pages, we find a backward, under-developed, clueless, death-ridden continent of hapless and lost people without any political and medical infrastructure leadership. There is nothing that Africa can give. Not knowledge, not wisdom, not experience, not insight, not advice, not ideas, and common sense. It seemed to matter not that there is a plethora of logistical, medical, and bureaucratic knowledge in dealing with pandemics and virus infections on the African continent. It is why the nations reacted quickly and decisively to close the border, impose lockdowns, and other measures that most Western countries chose to ignore in their superior wisdom. That hundreds of thousands of citizens of so-called democracies were allowed to die, and no political leader held to account tells us much about what passes for citizen rights and political accountability in the West.

Africans cannot be seen to give anything back, for that would mean giving up the game. The US is exceptional and perfect; even when not, it needs minor reform. US journalists are fanatical US exceptionalists and justify wars, genocides, torture, assassinations, sanctions, starvation, and vast human suffering, all in the service of the “beauty” of this exceptionalism. Bill Keller of the New York Times triumphantly welcomed the return of the American discovery of their missionary spirit, which he argued: “manifests in everything from quiet kindness to patronizing advice to armored divisions” [Bill Keller, “The Return of America’s Missionary Impulse,” New York Times Magazine, April 15, 2011].

The US is the giver of all things good and valuable. It is the only giver. It is the one meaningful source of worth, values, and dreams. It is the only source. US media is US exceptionalism writ large.

The ideals of US exceptionalism pervade US media narratives from the Third World, frequently informing how they represent and interpret US interventions. These narratives of American exceptionalism are at the core of creating the ideal American subject, and we repeatedly find it informing media stories and reports, particularly those in and related to the Muslim and Arab world. And US exceptionalism is today “required common sense for many feminisms within US public culture” [Inderpal Grewal, Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms, Duke University Press, 2005:152].

Zora Neale Hurston, the African-American novelist, poet, and anthropologist, once remarked, “I have been amazed by the Anglo-Saxon’s lack of curiosity about the internal lives and emotions of the Negroes” [Zora Neale Hurston, “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” In Zora Neale Hurston, Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, edited by Cheryl Wall, 1995:950–955, 1995]. I would argue that the same can be said of US and Western journalists operating in worlds beyond the mythical geography of the West.

They are remarkably indifferent and uninterested in the inner lives, emotional complexity, creative agency, and intellectual breadth of the non-Western subject. They reduce the non-Western subject into caricatures, as if “made of bent wires without insides at all” [Ibid.] As a result, they drape these bodies “without insides” with their own ideological, political, and professional garb. The journalists can then become the ones who give “voice,” represent, and document.

That being said, I will add that the US media has no problem with practices, worlds, habits, and values antithetical to its self-proclaimed liberal priorities. When necessary, it can bestow garlands of praise and petals of appreciation on practices that would otherwise be considered inappropriate, unmodern, and reprehensible. It is a question of whom they are writing about. Some warrant only disdain and denigration. Others are received with open arms and an openness of spirit that further underscores their calculated disgust at some Others.

For example, a 2014 Time magazine story about Orthodox Jewish women in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. [Olivier Laurent, “Finding Faith and Beauty in the Lives of Orthodox Jewish Women,” Time Lightbox, November 16, 2014]. “For a lot of people,” explained photographer Federica Valabrega, “there’s something wrong with a woman who shaves her head as a sign of respect for her husband, but if you talk to that woman and photograph her in her everyday life, you realize that it’s a choice she’s made. You see her beauty come out.” Writer Olivier Laurent, who wrote the text accompanying the photo essay, thought that Valabrega’s work “seems to explode…the patriarchal clichés around orthodox families and women in particular.” Perhaps, but only if you ignore the well-documented history of the Orthodox Jewish community’s patriarchal, misogynist, and abusive behavior toward women.

Similarly, A New York Times article reproduced a similar hagiography of the Orthodox Jewish community. Its writer argued that the deep gender segregation enforced by the community allowed for a “richness in the all-female spheres they inhabited.” [Sarah Maslin Nir, “A Glimpse Inside the Hidden World of Hasidic Women,” New York Times, September 19, 2018]. The women “take things that can be seen as gender roles and make it something special. They are making it their own, making it into something they are proud of.” The writer quotes a subject claiming that the rigidly enforced gender segregation offered a “beautiful tension between self-expression and following the rules and finding yourself within this religious world.” Indeed.

Under the pen of the journalists, religious fundamentalist patriarchy becomes beautiful, its demands become “choice,” its strictures become “self-expression,” and its dictates become something the women are “proud of.” The Hasidic community, a frequent source of hagiographic journalism stories, is, of course, riddled with misogyny and violence against women. Even Hasidic women themselves have been protesting and struggling against its strictures. Still, you would not know this because to say it would go against the unthinking, knee-jerk silence that surrounds anything to do with the Jewish community and anything to do with Israel.

These silences have continued over decades. In the wake of the latest Israeli genocidal campaign against the Palestinians, which began on October 8th, 2023, we saw the US and other Western media repeatedly rely on the fabrications and lies perpetuated by a so-called “rescue” group, ZAKA. Israeli media covered this group because of the long history of grotesque sex crimes committed by its founder, ultra-Orthodox bigwig Yehuda Meshi-Zahav. Meshi-Zahav is infamous as a hustler who illegally siphoned millions of dollars from the organization to finance a lavish lifestyle [Brad Pierce, “If You Say Anything to Anyone, a Zaka Van Will Run You Over,” The Wayward Rabbler, October 18, 2023]. Despite the sordid history of this group and its leader, Western media used their fabrications unquestioningly and repeatedly. They relied on their claims of rapes, babies in ovens, beheading of babies, and killing of pregnant women to continue to justify Israel’s genocidal campaign. US media later reluctantly rescinded these claims, but not before they had become a truth beyond facts and took on their own life. The group has repeatedly been frequently investigated in Israel by Israeli journalists who have revealed its corruption, criminality, unreliability, and its founder’s sexual depravity and repeated run-ins with the law. Despite these publicly available facts, it has repeatedly been quoted as a reliable news source by US media. Go figure [Max Blumenthal, Scandal-stained Israeli ‘rescue’ group fuels October 7 fabrications, The Grayzone, December 6, 2023].

[For stories related to the Hasidic Jewish community and its treatment of women see Joshua Mitnick, “Battle Over Women Praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall Continues as Compromise Stalls,” Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2006; Dina Kraft, “Growing Gender Segregation Among Israeli Haredim Seen as Repressing Women,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, November 13, 2011; Yair Ettinger and Liel Kyzer, “Haredi Teargases Woman for Using ‘Men Only’ Sidewalk,” Haaretz, October 27, 2009; Heather Saul, “Stamford Hill council removes ‘unacceptable’ posters telling women which side of the road to walk down,” The Indepenent, September 20, 2014; Giles Fraser, “Ultra-orthodox Attitudes Towards Gender Segregation Go To the Core of What Israel Is All About,” The Guardian, October 4, 2013; Naomi Alderman, “Britain’s moderate Jews must stand up to the Orthodox women driving ban,” The Guardian, June 1, 2015; Hayley Gleeson, “Chained Women: The Jewish wives being held hostage in abusive marriages,” ABC News (Australia), February 26, 2018; Susan Donaldson Janes, “Hasidic Hell: Married at 17, Girl Runs From Her Orthodox Roots,” ABC News (USA), February 8, 2012].

When inconvenient, the difference disappears, and the illiberal becomes liberal. The difference is erased, and what is intolerable in a denigrated Other becomes a source of inspiration and pride in a welcomed Other.

We need something more imaginative, creative, and compelling. US journalism has reached a dead-end, unable to cope with the marvelous complexity and potentiality of the world it may have the power to represent but lacks the imagination to appreciate. It cannot find within itself an “assertion of a common humanity [that] relies not on some resemblance or shared experience, but on an understanding of the need for an ethical relation with the other as other” [Jane Hiddleston, “Aimé Césaire and Postcolonial Humanism,” Modern Language Re­view, 105, 2010:87–102].

It cannot find the heart nor the imagination to produce works where even “the average, struggling, non-morbid Negro” can “do away with that feeling of difference which inspires fear” [Zora Neale Hurston, “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” In Cheryl Wall, (Ed.), Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, Library of America, 1995:950-55]. It insists on producing representations that alienate, isolate, separate, and divide. It revolts against “the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies,” insisting on separation, isolation, and amputation of communities and peoples into neat categories of “us,” vs. “them” [Edward Said, Culture And Imperialism, Vintage Books, 1994:408].