‘NYT’ finds no ‘camera-ready villain’ in Yemen (because those are our child-killers)

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Sometimes the most interesting thing you can learn from reading the New York Times is not information about the world, but information about how the New York Times wants its readers to think about the world. The piece by Amanda Taub on why the war in Yemen gets so little attention is, or should be, an instant classic in the realm of Orwellian thinking. If it was a subtle piece of irony or satire, an attempt at undermining the usual New York Times attempt at molding public opinion, it was a masterpiece. But more likely this is just an illustration of how mainstream liberal journalists actually think.

The piece is titled, “Why Some Wars (Like Syria’s) Get More Attention Than Others (Like Yemen’s).” Here is the crucial section:

“Yemen’s death toll is lower than Syria’s, and although Al Qaeda does operate there, Yemen’s conflict has not had the kind of impact on American and European interests that Syria’s has. There is no obvious good-versus-evil story to tell there: The country is being torn apart by a variety of warring factions on the ground and pummeled from the air by Saudi Arabia, an American ally. There is no camera-ready villain for Americans to root against.

The war’s narrative is less appealing to American political interests. Yemen’s Houthi rebels pose little direct threat that American politicians might rally against. On the other side of the conflict are Saudi airstrikes that are killing civilians and targeting hospitals and aid workers, at times with United States support.

No American politician has much incentive to call attention to this war, which would require either criticizing the United States and an American ally, or else playing up the threat from an obscure Yemeni rebel group. It is little wonder that, when several senators recently tried to push a bill to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia over its conduct in Yemen, they found only a few sponsors and the motion was tabled in a 71-to-27 vote.

It is rare but not impossible for far-off wars to cross the threshold to gain national attention. The crisis in Darfur, Sudan, for instance, became a national cause célèbre in the early 2000s even though it had little direct effect on American interests.

But Darfur offered a simple and compelling story: that the dictator Omar al-Bashir and his henchmen were committing genocide against innocent civilians, and that America could stop them. That seemed to offer a way for Americans to atone for their failure to stop the Rwandan genocide a decade before, and to prove that they had learned the right lesson from that horrifying atrocity. That made for an appealing narrative and an appealing cause.

This is very revealing. In Yemen the Saudis are killing civilians and bombing hospitals and also creating a famine (unmentioned by Taub) which is causing children to die of malnutrition, as shown on a recent BBC documentary, and this is being done with American help. The Senate had a debate on ending the sale of weapons to the Saudis and the Senate sided with the child-killers.

There seems to be a rather obvious good vs. evil story to tell here, just as much as in Syria.

Of course what Taub means concerning Syria is that the enemies of the US, the Syrian government and ISIS, commit atrocities. She doesn’t mean that the people the US arms also commit atrocities. She doesn’t mean that our “moderate” rebels are allied with Al Qaeda. There are villains in Syria, but on all sides. Taub only sees the ones condemned by the US government.

She doesn’t see any villains at all in Yemen, because the US is on the side of the biggest child killers. Obviously, then, they can’t be villains. They kill children, but they are the right sort of people or they know the right people. The morality she has is one shared by many self-described American liberals–it has nothing to do with condemning atrocities and everything to do with condemning the politically appropriate groups.

Orwell wrote about this in detail in “Notes On Nationalism”. It’s depressing how timeless the following passage is. Change a few names and it is as compelling a description of modern journalism and punditry as it was in 1945.

If one looks back over the past quarter of a century, one finds that there was hardly a single year when atrocity stories were not being reported from some part of the world; and yet in not one single case were these atrocities — in Spain, Russia, China, Hungary, Mexico, Amritsar, Smyrna — believed in and disapproved of by the English intelligentsia as a whole. Whether such deeds were reprehensible, or even whether they happened, was always decided according to political predilection.

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.

It actually has occurred to me that Taub might be trying to sneak a condemnation of the New York Times and mainstream view into the paper; she gives what one might call the official New York Times view of the world while simultaneously undermining it by including facts that show how ridiculous and obscene it is: “Saudi airstrikes… are killing civilians and targeting hospitals and aid workers, at times with United States support.” But if so, her sneaky attempt at getting the truth out underneath the noses of her editors only works if people read it and are outraged by it.

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I’ve noticed now three articles/observations from “blogs of substance” on this “enginereed ignorability” phenomenon. Boomer linked to Informed Comment/Juan Cole, b @Moon of Alabama had a great piece about randomly and/or interest-driven manufacturing of “good” and “evil” (ie. protagonists and antagonists), and now Donald, here, via the Orwell quote. It’s a theme – and a darn important one for we consumers of “info” to recognize as THE operative construct of journalism today.* The question and… Read more »