Satire, humor, bias


I can’t get the Israel television parody of the BBC off my brain, which bespeaks dedication to an idea, or encroaching madness.

First, about the humor: I referred in an earlier post to its "middle-southern European absurdist humor." It’s hard to explain this: It’s lateral humor, the introduction into one fraught and volatile situation of another fraught, yet utterly alien force. The juxtaposition is what makes it work, but which juxtapositions work and which do not almost defy analysis. (Almost.) A dragon in Gaza, for instance. Northern European/American humor is linear: How did the dragon get there? Was it a case of mistaken identity? Further south, it’s the mere suddenness of the Dragon’s appearance that piques.

My parents were Turkish, they raised me on the stories of Nasrudin Hodja, and I get it. Scrambling for a litmus test, I came up with this: Waking up as a cockroach: Funny? Or horrific? Or both? If you went with just horrific, you don’t get it.

But what appeals to me especially about the BBC parody is its satire. (If you think analyzing humor ruins it – and you think this particular satire is funny – stop reading here.) It’s a pitch perfect rendering of how alien narratives obscure the facts of a story – and hinder instead of advance understanding of a conflict.

I’ll embed it again:

The opening, where "Jonathan Aldridge" sets the scene:

"Right here, Jesus drank from the Holy Grail. Right there, the Israelis are today drinking the Palestinian blood."…

directly recalls the BBC’s Orla Guerin’s miserable Scrooge-like depictions of Bethlehem at Christmastime:

If Joseph and Mary had the misfortune to come back today they could take their pick – every inn has empty rooms, but no reason to open its doors. The square is as empty and desolate as a classroom after school – no Christmas tree, no lights, no decorations. The Israelis have stolen Christmas, the Palestinians say. At the Nativity Church, where Christians believe their savior was born, there is no hint that his birthday is coming.

How is one to read this other than, "Once again, the Jews are ruining the birth of Christ."

So what happens? In the Israel television satire, the woman in Gaza whose home was demolished presents a sympathetic figure – she has suffered through a night of shelling – but she is drowned out by Aldridge’s bizarre fantasies of dragon rape (punctuated wonderfully with a typical BBC-ian explanatory: the dragon committed the rape "with a Shtreimel – the Jewish traditional hat.")

Similarly, the Israeli army spokesman is hardly sympathetic; he is clueless and smug, and his mere appearance evinces laughter of recognition. "The army is doing all it can" is less than adequate – it says absolutely nothing. But again, Aldridge’s Swiftian fantasies ("I am so big because I have eaten two Palestinian children") drown out what should be the real object of our derision.

This is the real object of the satire: Not the BBC reporter’s imaginings, but how they create a noise so big that they do the real story a disservice; How is one to treat the miseries of Gaza if they are drowned out by bigoted fantasies?

This does not absolve Israel – or its defenders – from paying attention to the sufferings in Gaza. The real test of good faith is how it deals with bad faith; Even the vilest bigotries do not relieve us of the obligation of separating the wheat of real reporting from the chaff of bias. It’s like confronting any other incivility: The person behind you may say "Excuse me" or he may say "Outta the way m—–f—–," but it’s the better man who stands aside in both cases.  We don’t get a free pass because others are biased.

On the other hand, it’s so much easier to shut down when the you hear the noise of prejudice. In southern Africa, Zimbabwe’s neighbors are under pressure to bring Robert Mugabe to heel. They are resisting, in part, because of his iconic status as a pioneering freedom fighter; Imagine how much easier it would be for them to let him get away with his homicidal governance were western news media to depict Mugabe as a rabid ape or – maybe with a little more subtlety – as an inner city thug. What responsible media would resort to such hateful stereotypes?

And yet Israel, at least in the European media, gets dunked as immutably bloodthirsty and here, a pro-Israel lobby that that plays the same hardball politics as any other interest group is transformed by people who should know better into a tentacled government sucker, unmatched in the fear it evinces.

There are plenty of Israel critics out there who don’t slip into hateful clichés, and who deserve a full court hearing. And yes, there are plenty of Israel defenders who imagine anti-Semitism where none exists.

That doesn’t absolve the bigots. And, as the Eretz Nehederet satirists point out, the bilious obscure not just their intended targets, but those they would seek to defend.

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