They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. What they don’t tell us, and what an intelligent consumer of information should know, is that the existence of a picture is no guarantee of the veracity of the thousand words it may be worth. Sometimes, as in the works of Salvador Dali, the thousand words serve merely to describe the picture; certainly “The Persistence of Time Memory [Thanks, Lex; the watchfaces always throw me off]” is not meant to be a faithful representation of the world as it is.

But what happens when the news media, which proclaim themselves the final arbiters of impartial truth, buy into staged or exaggerated productions? A picture of a corpse on the ground, for example, tells you nothing about how the death occurred, or when, or wherefore. A still image can be useful in capturing a moment, but that moment must not be taken out of its context. Indeed, Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty dictates that we may know an object’s momentum or its exact location at any given moment in time, but not both.

Michael Costello applies this principle to the news media:

THE most powerful influences on global opinion are television pictures. An experienced TV journalist will tell you that the picture is the story. No picture, no story. Those same journalists will tell you that a powerful picture will overwhelm reality. The picture becomes reality.

After considering the current conflict in its proper context, that of Israel’s struggle for recognition and existence, Mr. Costello notes:

This is the true heart of the problem. The Palestinian issue cannot be resolved because a significant part of the Arab and Muslim world still do not accept Israel’s right to exist. They will not accept the two-state solution beloved of analysts because they do not accept the existence of one of those two states, Israel. This is just not a matter of politics to them; it is a matter of religion. It is non-negotiable.

Until this changes, Israel will remain as it has for 60 years: under siege. Those who seek Israel’s elimination will engage in conflict and terrorism against Israel and its friends.

So what are we to conclude? That Israel is just too much trouble? That it causes all of us too much grief? That in defending itself against these implacable enemies Israel offends our sensibilities by the manner in which it feels compelled to use force?

Already there are growing whispers from the so-called realist school of international relations that it would be a really smart thing if we just quietly walked away from Israel because it has become an embarrassment and inconvenience to our larger interests. Such is the consequence of privileging the power of the TV image over reason.

I wonder if he had this piece by Charles Krauthammer in mind:

The United States has gone far out on a limb to allow Israel to win and for all this to happen. It has counted on Israel’s ability to do the job. It has been disappointed. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has provided unsteady and uncertain leadership. Foolishly relying on air power alone, he denied his generals the ground offensive they wanted, only to reverse himself later. He has allowed his war cabinet meetings to become fully public through the kind of leaks no serious wartime leadership would ever countenance. Divisive cabinet debates are broadcast to the world, as was Olmert’s own complaint that “I’m tired. I didn’t sleep at all last night” (Haaretz, July 28). Hardly the stuff to instill Churchillian confidence.

His search for victory on the cheap has jeopardized not just the Lebanon operation but America’s confidence in Israel as well. That confidence — and the relationship it reinforces — is as important to Israel’s survival as its own army. The tremulous Olmert seems not to have a clue.

Faith, Charles, and courage!

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

3 thoughts on “Perception”

  1. I don’t think Krauthammer is being unduly alarmist. For some time it wasn’t clear whether the Israeli govt was following some clever plan or screwing up. There wasn’t and isn’t enough public information about the military campaign for outside observers to evaluate it. However, a lot of what the Israeli political leadership does is public. The past few days have seen a consensus form, among intelligent outside observers, that Olmert and his cabinet are not behaving the way competent Israeli govts usually behave during crises. From the incessant leaking to the press of proceeds of secret cabinet meetings, to the stupid promise not to attack Syria, to Olmert’s attempt to keep the divisive issue of West Bank withdrawal on the political front burner, the govt has made one major geopolitical blunder after another. And it has continued to hold back from committing forces to Lebanon at a time when it should have quickly realized its earlier mistakes, ramped up troop levels and attacked Syria.

    If they win it’s going to be a much closer thing than it would have been if Olmert hadn’t been so inept and indecisive. And if they don’t win, Hezbollah will rebuild, rearm, absorb the lessons of this war and eventually attack again — from a stronger military position and perhaps as the rulers of all of Lebanon. Israel had better not pull any more punches.

  2. I’m just a little bit suspicious. These public displays might be contirved to give the impression to Hezbollah that the Israeli leadership is weak and indecisive. Thus inducing Hezbollah to stand and fight rather than fade into the hills.

    And we all know what happens to guerrilla armies that try to hold ground and fight a conventional army on its terms.

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