The Phantasmagoria: Media Suggestion, Public Gullibility and Intellectual Dissimulation

by NORMAN SIMMS August 3, 2014

It was all done with smoke and mirrors: eerie music, darkened atmosphere, magic lanterns, and days of expectation.  It began late in the eighteenth century, while everyone was in a state of terror, anxiety and enthusiasm-all those changes in so few years, that was the French Revolution of 1789, just too much to take in.  It was a form of showmanship to draw the crowds in, make them climb down winding stairs by candlelight, to pass through slipper, shimmery cloths hanging down, and then to hear singing and moaning from a distance, to see images projected on to clouds of smoke, familiar faces of the ancient Romans, recent glimpses of the leaders of the Revolution, tempting visions of erotic dancers; and the close pressure of everyone else, equally excited and excitable.  This was the phantasmagoria. 

Later it would be elaborated by the first motion pictures shown by Georges Melies, a master magician, the created techniques of stop-gap photography, superimposed pictures, disappearing figures, split-screen characters, mixtures of real life and fantasy, passions roused by background singing and music, dancing letters forming and unforming words, a whole new world of illusion and self-induced delusion.  And eventually there would be talking films, television, and the whole symphony of digital trickery and hypnosis.  Our world seen through a glass darkly, in enigmas. The loss of the ability to discriminate between history and fiction.  Gaza produced by Pallywood. 

A phantasmagoria, once an actual stage show to play on people's anxieties and fears by teasing their senses into emotional excitement, has now become a massive effort to induce a demonized version of Israel and the Jewish people in general.  All the old images of anti-Semitism have been fitted out with digitalized bells and whistles, so that it is made to seem that Israel is the cause of all the world's troubles, and that the innocent and utterly vulnerable Palestinian people, above all frightened children and old screaming women, had become the embodiment of all our guilt for centuries of persecution of the "other" and shame for our helplessness in the face of war.

Can you argue with that?  Seeing is believing, isn't it?  It doesn't matter that it is more than a century and half since we learned that photographs can lie, and that reality itself (as opposed to the Truth of science and logic) is a social construct, or rather, a cosmetic art.  Nor does it matter that we know perfectly well how delightful it is to scream with fear in a darkened movie theatre when 3-D horrors are seemingly thrown in our faces.  Nor that, no matter how many times we see the same tricks, or the same actors not very subtly playing different roles and wearing different make-up dying and coming back to life in new films, or the same props and scenery trucked out again and again, audiences can be duped when they are told this is a street in Gaza, this is a school run by the UN, this is a mosque where people take shelter: we simply don't notice the weapons stored along the walls of the hospital, the tunnels built under the floor of a private house , the young boys racing along street with guns and intimidating anyone who tries to run away. 

Hostile, prejudiced and mesmerized journalists solemnly intone the lies they are forced to speak, although a few, finally out of harm's way, back in Italy or France, do reveal that they have not only seen the evidence of Hamasniks executing their political enemies-that is, anyone who refuses to become a human shield-but also photographed the rockets fired by "militants"-in other words, innocent civilians under the age of twenty, or perhaps a few dozen years older-that fall short, as apparently a quarter of them do.  And why do the newspaper editors or the directors of television networks not show those pictures, interview those people who are not professional supporters of Hamas, or speak to the parents of Israeli boys shot by "children" who emerge from tunnels and shoot them on Israeli soil, as more than half the victims of this conflict have been?  It doesn't make good copy.  The function of the news now is confirm prejudices, and deepen sentimental states of feeling so as to alleviate the guilt and shame of not responding the ethnic cleansing of Christians from Mosul and a hundred other cities in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and so on.  If we show the wrong images, they must say to themselves, these pious venders of entertainment on the six o'clock news, we may not be allowed to go in for more pictures tomorrow.  Business is business.

And yet we cannot blame viewers who are horrified and disgusted by the sight of mothers and children killed or wounded amongst the ruins of war. It is no pleasant sight.  Our human compassion cries out for their pain and suffering.  But we have to stand back just enough before we assign blame here or there, exaggerate the meaning of what we are supposedly seeing, or even believe all that we see and hear.  In books written during the first two years of World War I and edited by well-meaning authors, musicians, artists and philanthropists, the shock of destruction and death on a massive scale was too much to bear, the myths of one side devouring the babies of the other accepted, not as metaphors of the grotesqueness of battle-with new kinds of weapon, such as airplanes, poison gas, and the whole melding of blood and mud in trench warfare-but as literal statements.  At times, too, the writers were aware that they were forced to shift gears radically, replacing the caricature of the Russian barbarian with that of the Prussian savage; but no one was ready to adjust their vision sufficiently to see events in the long-run of history.  Poor little Flanders was being ground into the mud.  Simple farmers were crushed by the machinery of battle.  Later, too, a generation further on, newsreels churned out propaganda, some of it based on true events, and Blitzkrieg was matched by carpet bombing of cities filled with civilians refugees.  The account of twenty thousand (at least) innocents killed during the D-Day invasion did not come into focus or the Allied liberation of Europe mighty have to be called a war crime, as almost happens with the double atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  War is hell.  But as the last survivor of the American crew that flew over those Japanese cities recently said, sometimes you have to do terrible things to avoid even more horrendous things.

The fog of war.  Smoke and mirrors.  The phantasmagoria.  It is sometimes necessary. 

But the concerted effort by some now to bamboozle and befuddle the public by making the good guys into the bad guys is unconscionable.  The concept of justifiable or a defensive war is brushed aside, as though the enemy were not an enemy at all, though it is recognized as ISIS or the Taliban or Al-Qaida elsewhere, but a passive body of victims.  Partisans and supporters of Hamas are given much airtime to vent their fury and their tears, with no one questioning their authority or sincerity. Incomplete passive constructions fly by, as though things just happened, without anyone causing them.  Statistics are often made up-or repeated holus bolus from the previous Israeli invasion of Gaza, when a similar vile attempt to blacken Israel's integrity and moral caution overwhelmed political discourses.  Now, however, what is added is nothing less than a world-wide sequence of pogroms-synagogue burnings, street thugs beating up Jews on the street, wild hate-speech married to violent actions in city after city.  

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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