David Frum's "skepticism" and the Israel-Palestine conflict

There's no foreign-policy issue I've found as frustrating and hard to get a grasp on as the Israel-Palestine conflict. When a conflict flares up, especially one with longstanding roots, the natural thing for someone like me to do is try to get up to speed on the basics: What did I miss while I was growing up (or not yet born) that will help me understand what's going on now? But when it comes to Israeli politics, that neutral accounting of facts has always been nearly impossible to find. Try to find someone who can explain what's going on over there, and they skip directly to an impassioned rebuttal of the other side's views. Everyone wants to tell you why the other side is wrong and their own side is misrepresented. Everyone wants to tell you how it's all about bias. It's the one issue that, to judge from the public discussion, seems to be ideology all the way down.

That's finally changing for me; with this latest flare-up I finally feel like I can get a handle on what's happening and why. I'm skeptical of "how social media changes everything" arguments, but in this case I do think there's a lot to be said for the power of Twitter in helping me find arguments and reporting and images I wouldn't have seen otherwise -- a lot of it coming from journalists in my age cohort who, I assume, are also fed up with the "pro-and-anti-Israel" posturing that has dominated any discussion of Israel and its actions (and U.S. involvement in same) throughout our lifetime. They want to move beyond the calcified positions and tired slogans and try to see what's really happening now, because that might lead to a way out instead of just more retrenchment and identity politics. (Read Paul Waldman's excellent post at the American Prospect on that.) I finally feel like I can follow the events as they unfold without having to choose a side first.

Which is why I've been so fascinated by what's been happening with David Frum, now a Senior Editor at the Atlantic, regarded by many as an independent thinker because, after serving as a speech writer for George W. Bush, he distanced himself from and became highly critical of the radical elements in the Obama-era GOP. Frum is smart and sharp and right about a lot of things, but also smug, and surprisingly sloppy in his thinking when it suits his ideology. (Just because he's not totally partisan doesn't mean he's not ideological.) And when the subject is Israel, he puts his critical-thinking skills on a shelf and goes all in on the propaganda. He has become a vivid illustration of the poisonous conversation around Israeli politics, and the way it reduces otherwise responsible thinkers to frothing idealogues eager to jump to the worst conclusions about anyone who they think might see things differently than they do.

To get a sense of where Frum is on the Israel issue, look at this tweet. A senior editor at the Atlantic tweeted this:

See what he did there? a journalist noted the disparity in casualties in the fighting between Israel and Palestine; Frum accused him of calling for more Jewish deaths. Pretty vile. And almost a parody of the tendency to deflect any criticism of Israeli policy -- even reporting of statistics -- by labeling it anti-Semitic. And he was just getting started.

Almost a week ago, on July 24, David Frum came across, and tweeted a link to, a blog post by one Thomas Wictor, debunking what Wictor said was a faked pro-Hamas propaganda video. Frum followed that by retweeting a link to this blog post alleging that photos of grieving Palestinian victims had been staged, and then weighing in with his own snide reaction: "OTOH [on the other hand] nice composition in this faked photo."

Now, Wictor's argument, which centers on discrepancies between two photos of brothers mourning their dead father, is short on evidence, long on wild conjecture, and not actually convincing at all. He relies on nothing but his own observations -- no attempt to talk to the photographers, for example. And his chilling lack of compassion is something of a red flag: "[N]o tears in either image," he notes confidently. "In the photo on the right, he looks like he’s singing opera, doesn’t he?"

What would induce someone like Frum to endorse such a shabby and paranoid argument? I believe David Frum would call it "human nature."

It's human nature to assess difficult questions, not on the merits, but on our feelings about the different "teams" that form around different answers. To cite a painful personal experience: During the decision-making about the Iraq war, I was powerfully swayed by the fact that the proposed invasion of Iraq was supported by those who had been most right about the Cold War -- and was most bitterly opposed by those who had been wrongest about the Cold War.

Unfortunately, when Frum wrote that he was talking about something else. Still, given enough time he may come to see its applicability to this phase of his life. And feelings about "teams" were certainly ascendant in this case. To a certain kind of mind -- including, obviously, Frum's -- it is an article of faith that the U.S. media is biased against Israel. And now Frum jumped at the chance to prove it. "Faked photo leads NYT story today," he tweeted.

He followed that with three more tweets taunting the Times for its alleged complicity in anti-Israel propaganda, prodding Margaret Sullivan, the public editor, for a response, and making snotty reference to her column on the Kinsley-Greenwald book review controversy (with the implication that the Times cares more about Glenn Greenwald's reputation than it does about reporting with integrity about Israel, which is apparently something David Frum thinks is not only true but self-evidently true).

Meanwhile, Frum was airing some theories of his own about the "faked atrocity photos," which he had decided were conclusively exposed by that authoritative blog post of Wictor's. Why, he asked (citing "a friend"), would Hamas use such photos "when it [could] photo real casualties?" Hmm, yes, it's almost as though the accusation is as pointless as it is ill-founded. But Frum had an answer: "My guess: real civilian casualties occur in Gaza when Israel strikes a military installation or fighters nearby.... Photos of real civilian casualties would show too much truth about *why* those civilian casualties occur... Fakes on the other hand can be composed to suggest that Israel strikes Gaza civilians at random, purely to terrorize."

This is a particularly strained version of the argument that the media, in featuring a disproportionate number of images of the disproportionately suffering Gazans, is giving the public an unbalanced impression of the conflict. But what exactly is Frum insinuating? That real victims of bombings in Gaza would look less innocent and more terrorist-like? That "fighters" and military paraphernalia would be obviously identifiable in any authentic picture of a bloodied Palestinian? The message a person with a normal moral compass gets from those awful photos of the grieving, blood-covered men is not "Israel's only motive is to terrorize these people." It's "Israel's bombing campaign is taking a horrific human toll." If your position can't survive acknowledging that basic fact, then your position is the problem, not the photos. ("[I]t's a basic rule of politics," David Frum once wrote: "If you can't disprove the message, you try to discredit the messenger.")

Well. It took almost a week for someone to give Frum's claims about the "faked photos" the fisking they deserved. A post by Michael Shaw at the BagNews blog -- "dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images" -- did the work that Frum did not bother to do, including talking to the photographers who, he'd implied, were colluding with Hamas to disseminate propaganda, and demonstrated that the photos were real.

Another blogger, Ali Gharib of LobeLog, took a closer look at Thomas Wictor, the source whose testimony Frum had relied on in lobbing his accusations at the Times et al. "If Frum had done a little more digging, he would have found other posts on Wictor’s blog that call into question his credibility," Gharib writes -- including one about "the second coming of a ghost cat" based on a photo Wictor himself had taken. It's a great post. But the truth is, Frum shouldn't have had to read beyond the posts he linked to to get the sense that Wictor's word was not definitive. He's a journalist; he should have at least enough skepticism to ask a few questions of his own. The problem was that in this case he was so sure he knew the answers. He didn't even bother to say "Could these photos be fakes?" He went straight to smug certainty.

When, yesterday, Frum became aware of the BagNews blog post debunking his claims, he tweeted: "I cast doubt on authenticity of a casualty photo from Gaza. This blogger says I was wrong.… I’ll review & reply."

He hadn't even admitted he was wrong yet and he was already minimizing his mistake. "Cast doubt," is that what you call it?

Frum was then silent until after noon today, when he posted his "apology" on the Atlantic's site. That's a long time on the Internet -- especially when a retraction is so obviously in order -- and Twitter was feasting on the carcass of his credibility in the meantime. In his apology, Frum began by emphasizing that his was a private mistake, and not one "to which Atlantic editors were party in any way" (besides himself, of course), and he suggested that they had let him apologize on their site ("in a less abbreviated form than Twitter allows") as a kindness to him -- rather than because the magazine insisted that he repair the damage to its reputation caused by his recklessness and dishonesty. Could be.

"In three tweets," Frum writes, "I expressed disbelief in the authenticity of the images." Actually, as Ali Gharib has pointed out, it was eleven tweets. We are not off to a great start with this apology. But at least "expressed disbelief" is a little more accurate than "cast doubt on."

I'm sorry to say that Frum wasn't spending all those hours examining his worldview and asking how he could have gotten so wrapped up in his own propaganda that he couldn't see anything else as anything but. After withdrawing his negative judgment of the images in question, he goes on to justify it: "Yet I also think it important to explain my skepticism when presented with such images." Even after his "skepticism" -- or, more accurately, his indefensible lack of skepticism -- led him horribly astray, to the point where he was mocking photos of grieving Palestinians covered in blood, he still thinks the important point is that sometimes those people do fake photos, so. "As anyone who follows news from the Middle East knows, there is a long history in the region of the use of faked or misattributed photographs as tools of propaganda." Yes, if you only knew as much as David Frum knows, you too would have been wise enough to make the same mistake.

Except that most people did not make the same mistake, and not because they're gullible fools unfamiliar with the wily ways of Middle Eastern propagandists. As soon as Frum began his Twitter crusade, people were lining up to tell him, sometimes politely and often not, that he was out of line and embarrassing himself. Look at the responses to any of the eleven tweets mentioned above. He ignored them all, for a week, until it suddenly got too hard to keep ignoring.

And he still insists that the many images of Palestinian civilians, dead, injured, and grieving, "present a picture of seemingly one-sided violence, in which apparently all the casualties are unarmed civilians" -- without considering any of the obvious reasons other than bias that might explain the scarcity of images of Hamas fighters in action, or conceding that the violence, at least in its effects, has been pretty one-sided. And tell me what to make of this, coming at the end of an apology for having maligned the work of war photographers and the news outlets who publish their work: "Photographers who work in war zones work under dangerous and potentially deadly conditions.... As we honor the sacrifices made by journalists, we also should exercise realism about how photos are obtained." Amazingly, "we also should exercise realism" is not Frum's way of saying "don't let your preferred conclusions run away with your good sense, like I did," but rather "I may have been wrong in this case, but I was right to be suspicious." This is Frum still leaning on the "wrong for the right reasons" logic that led him to support the Iraq war, by his own account. So, I am not sure that David Frum has learned a whole lot.

Still, people no longer need rely on David Frum, or major newspapers, or any other elite or powerful source for information and opinions about what's going on. If you try, today, to find out what exactly is up with Israel and Palestine, you will still run into a lot of people anxious to tell you only why the other side is lying, but you won't hit a wall. You can read what they say, and then read people who disagree with them, and then read someone actually on the ground in Gaza or Israel tweeting what they see and hear. There are liberal Jews who are confident that it is not automatically anti-Semitic to be critical of Israeli military policy. There are Muslims and Arabs who point out how dehumanizing the Palestinians has too often been a feature of debate about Gaza. There are reporters and analysts who try to paint a fuller picture of Hamas and its motivations than has been available in the past. And there are reports like this one on the peace process and its many disappointing dead ends. Good sources link to other sources, with other information, other takes, and let you put it all together on your own -- without deciding before you start which side you will support unquestioningly. People like Frum will keep cheering on the "teams" they've committed to. But those voices are losing their hold on the conversation. As Paul Waldman writes, other people are figuring out that "you don't have to buy into the dichotomy. And once you step outside it and stop worrying about which team you're on, it can become easier to see things clearly." The alternative -- as exemplified by David Frum this week -- is pretty grim.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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