Saturday, May 17, 2008

How Not to Write an Article

I was going to write a nice, tame post about a movie I saw last week and why it reminded me of plotting techniques, but then something appeared on the opinion page of the Montreal Gazette that nearly drove me out of my mind, as happens every single weekend with the Montreal Gazette. (A legitimate question might be: “why do you read the Montreal Gazette, Nadine, when it incenses you so?” and I don’t have a better answer than quoting the Gazette’s branding motto which is: “The Gazette – The English Language, daily”. In overwhelmingly French Quebec, it’s The Gazette or nothing, I’m afraid).

This is how the article, by David Brooks of the New York Times, begins:

“Hezbollah is one of the world’s most radical terrorist organizations. Over the last week or so, it has staged an armed assault on the democratic government of Lebanon.”

Contrast this with what Robert Fisk, award-winning British correspondent for The Independent, author of several excellent books (one in particular I’ve read and that made me cry with empathy, sadness and nostalgia all at once, Pity the Nation) and longtime Beirut resident had to say:

“That [the widely held perception that if Lebanon plunges into another civil war, it’s because of religious strife] is the problem. For the war in West Beirut is not about religion. It is about the political legitimacy of the Lebanese government and its "pro-American" support (the latter an essential adjective to any US news agency report), which Iran understandably challenges.”

David Brooks of the New York Times has also authored a hard-hitting, non-fiction book, so in the interest of full disclosure, I must give you the title: “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There

I must say, it sounds pretty fascinating (plus, it’s on sale!) and I’d love to read it if I didn’t have better ways to send my time than supporting self-important nincompoops pontificating on subjects they know little about, but I digress.

For my problem with Mr. Brooks' article isn’t based merely on his lack of credentials, but it’s because he, and pundits like him, are the reason many people are stunned to learn that Hezbollah (should be written “Hezb’Allah, btw, since it literally translates to “Party of God”) currently holds seats in Lebanon’s parliament and enjoys support from a cross-cultural swath of Lebanese society, which is saying a lot in a tiny country gutted by clashes between its 16 religious sects, ravaged by Israeli military occupation, and destabilized by a large Palestinian refugee population (spilling over from Israel).

Out of the multitudes of guerillas the 15-year long Lebanese civil war spawned, Hezb’Allah was the only one allowed to hold on to its weapons after the war ended.


Because it is largely due to Hezb’Allah’s military campaign against Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, an occupation distasteful even to Israelis themselves, that the south of Lebanon was eventually liberated in May 2000.

So, while the US still considers Hezb’Allah as a terrorist organization, the Lebanese parliament crowned the group with “national resistance movement” status.

Mr. Brooks does not expend time and ink explaining to his readers why Hezb’Allah deserves to be listed among the “world’s most radical terrorist organizations”. Are they as bloodthirsty as say, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia? The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka? Why does Hezb’Allah, a guerilla movement consisting of Muslim Shia leadership more popular among Lebanese of different faiths than say, the Phalangist party (created to represent “Christian” interests) which has lost so much support, even among Christians, as to be virtually irrelevant? I doubt Mr. Brooks is using Hizb’Allah’s killing record as a basis for his conclusion, because until the summer 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hizb’Allah’s offensive was targeted at soldiers, and soldiers only. Never any civilians.

Of course, Mr. Brooks would not mention that. This is why Hezb’Allah is the only ex-Guerilla movement to hold seats the current Lebanese parliament. Because when everyone was busy killing each other, Hezb’Allah focused only on driving Israel (and US Marines) out of Lebanon.

David Brooks' opinion piece is not about Hezb’Allah. He is simply using Hezb’Allah to paint Barack Obama as someone who panders to “one of the world’s most radical terrorist organizations” and counting on reader laziness, misinformation and stereotype to advance a point without a shred of backup.

And that, dear readers, is exactly how a principled journalist should never write an article.

For a lucid, short, and easy-to-understand assessment of the current situation in Lebanon, you can read Robert Fisk’s latest piece here.


Fran├žois Paradis said...

For a country to be governed by the rule of law, the state must hold a monopoly on the use of force. The fact that Hezb'Allah has thus far been "allowed" to maintain an armed militia is at the root of the current turmoil in Lebanon. The alleged support it enjoys among the population would undoubtedly falter if the ballots it garners were not backed by the bullets it packs. The very existence of such an organization runs contrary to the interests of all lebanese citizens. An iranian lapdog in Israel's backyard can only serve to annoy the peace process by barking at the participants on its master's command.

Concerning your frustration at the bias you find in Montreal's english newspaper, you might want to take advantage of the many french langage sources of information available in the city; in search a more balanced viewpoint, you might, for instance, come across an Agence France Presse story published 19/05/08 quoting Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister, confirming his government has engaged in ungoing discussions with Hamas representatives...

While David Brooks' article may contain expressions you perceive to be lacking in political correctness and may not reflect the opinions of more neutral observers of the middle eastern scene, his words hardly warrant you refering to him as a nincompoop (by the way, any bloodthirsty zealot worth his or her salt is unlikely to be offended at being labeled a terrorist); this sobriquet should instead be reserved for the region's political class, a group whose diplomatic acumen would be greatly enhanced by reading a book as benign as Dale Carnegie's "How to win friends and influence people", nevermind Machiavelli or Von Clausewitz...

On that note, cutie, I congratulate you on all your success and wish you even more in your future endeavors!

Nadine said...

Mr Paradis,

Wow! I have to thank you for your lucid, thoughtful response to an issue that rarely receives any lucid, thoughtful discussion in this part of the world. I don’t agree with you, but I respect all thoughtful debate. So thanks.

In theory, armed militias are bad. Very, very bad. I spent a big chunk of my childhood trying to figure out which militias I should be worried might kill me or my relatives (the answer is the Kata’ib, the Maronite Christian militia, and possibly Amal, a Muslim but bloodthirsty militia). I realize that while my family members might have blanched at mere thought of the Kata’ib raiding through our neighborhood, I’m sure that somewhere in East Beirut, a 5 year-old Christian kid was probably worried sick that some nasty Muslims in army fatigues might decapitate her parents in front of her and leave her a orphaned. Sadly, these aren’t exaggerations. All militias in Lebanon engaged in atrocities at one point or another, and figuring out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys was an impossible task.

That being said, Hezb’Allah distinguished itself from the pack and earned respect by doing the government’s job when the government proved completely inept at safeguarding Lebanon’s borders against invasion. And they did so while sparing civilian lives. (Perhaps the reason why Hezb’Allah is respected is because it is NOT the government… Arabs, as you pointed out, have reason to be very wary of their governments… Plus, many would prefer an “Iranian lapdog” in their midst over an American one any day – which is how the Siniora government is widely regarded.)

All Lebanese, Muslim, Christian or Druze get to enjoy having their country in one piece, as opposed to losing part of it to Israel. Many continue to believe that Hezb’Allah, and not government troops (and certainly not “international opinion”), is all that stands between them and a (partial) Israeli takeover today.

Continuing to call Hezb’Allah a “terrorist” organization when it enjoys support from most Lebanese (even non-Shiites) is sowing disinformation. It is purposefully confusing the issue. This is why David Brooks is a nincompoop, and I stand by it. He is also a propagandist. He is trying to make a point (Obama panders to ‘terrorists’) by making a ridiculously simplistic, empty statement along the lines of “Mission Accomplished” and “they hate our freedoms” (and who says Hezb’Allah are terrorists? The Lebanese? Or David Brooks….?). Life in the developing world is, alas, a little bit more complicated than that (hey – in Iraq they’re starting to refer to Saddam’s rule as “the good old days”!!!), and I expect someone of Mr. Brooks’ age and status as an author and a journalist to understand that.

As for picking up French dailies… you’re absolutely right. They are much better for my blood pressure than the Gazette, and my household has cancelled its subscription in a fit of irate fury only to go through Gazette withdrawal and re-subscribe a few months later. I’m a creature of habit, and I like my ‘Extra’ and ‘Living’ and “Entertainment’ sections, and so I continue to read the Gazette, and try to skip over the opinion pages. Clearly, I need a new strategy!


Fran├žois (Luc) Paradis said...

Cutie is the nickname I affectionately gave you back when you were still a teenager and I was a "way too old" co-worker who enjoyed your wit and knowledge, even then, during the conversations we would have together between calls...

Bride-to-Be said...

loved this post and its replies. you should submit them as a series for the opinion wont have to skip over the pages if you do that.

i have to tell you though, most "experts" or even knowledgeable people will NEVER get this issue. no matter how smart they are or how long they spend in the region.

there is a huge lack of understanding for a culture so deep, rich and yes, very complicated and highly nuanced. to canadians and all other "khawagas" these are issues they'll never understand. like why we'll never smoke in front of our parents. why we don't confront our parents when they meddle in our lives, even in adulthood and many more examples that are not so simplistic.

but beyond that, north americans will never be capable of undestanding these issues because somehow their laws and beliefs are lost on middle easterners and only apply to themselves.

murderers, child molestors and criminals are excused based on childhood traumas and psychological disorders. no one is branded a "terrorist".

meanwhile in the middle-east...millions are kept under siege, in a jail that the world does not recognize, beaten, abused, occupied...the ones that fight back against this reality (one we would never accept for ourselves) are called terrorists.

how about trying them in the court of law in canada. remove their identity (hezb'allah, palestinian, iraqi, lebanese) and have them explain why they decided to blow themselves up.

Nadine said...

... between calls? A teenager? You must be talking about the survey place (can't remember the name anymore). Wow, that was a seriously long time ago! The Internet never ceaseses to amaze me... thanks for the well wishes!

Nadine said...


I took a Humanities class in Uni once that I can't remember the name of anymore, but the central question of the whole class, and the issue that stayed with me after all these years is that of universalism vs relativity. Should basic human values be considered universal or relative to individual cultures? If you say "universal", then who decides which values are truly "universal" and which just make sense to certain group of people? If you're a relativist, then what happens when you are faced with cultures that practice female genital mutilation? Do you turn your back and say that's ok? What about those who discriminate against gays/minorities, etc?

In college I fell into the relativist camp. I figured that if we were to sit down and come up with a universal chart of rights, then Western ideas would trump Eastern ones simply because of racism. In Quebec they sponsored a massive study, went around the entire province and held town hall style meetings about "reasonable accommodation", a fancy expression for what Quebeckers should put or not put up with from foreigners. Then the people who did all this research authored a study and made it public.

One of the most startling conclusions is that an overwhelming majority of Quebec women who wear the veil do so freely, that it is NOT a sign of male domination, and that Quebeckers are attaching way too much importance to it.

I would reword this conclusion to say this: Westerners are deeply racist when it comes to Islam. They think that devout Muslims are brainwashed, and that no one could actually choose, freely, and especially not women, to live the way they do.

That being said, I do also look at the effect religion has on the world's poorest, those who cannot choose. When religion mates with poverty and perceived injustice, it breeds conditions that are totally contrary to our idea of human decency.

So, all this to say that in theory, I do think there are values that everyone can agree on and I am starting to lean more towards universalism, but you need to define a guiding value. That's the problem. Right now, everyone considers their guiding value to be the preservation of their culture. Child molesters and psychos can bring up past injustices to defend their actions but "terrorists" can't? That's ok, because child molesters are not foreign to Western culture. An American may not like a child molester, but he understands what a child molester is. And better a future with those kinds of people in it than people with wacky values like God knows what (I say 'God knows what' because Westerners really don't know about what's considered mainstream Islamic values and what's totally extreme... this ignorance makes Islam that much scarier in people's minds).

Now - imagine if 'the avoidance of human suffering' were the guiding value? What would happen then? Well - for starters, pretty much everything the Homeland Security department does would have to be stopped. Illegal immigration would be looked through the lens of how it affects the poor. The legitimacy of multinationals and the idea of "reasonable profit". All the things the masses have been battling the privileged few over since the inception of modern civilization.

And who wants to think about that? : )