Through a Glass Darkly?

I love This American Life. As the worst – or, depending on your point of view, the best – kind of liberal, left-wing, arts academic, the combination of innovative approaches to culture with a focus on the perspective of the oppressed and silenced throughout history appeals to me. And also, Ira Glass’s voice – Woody Allen meets Fozzie Bear – is strangely comforting.

But this week, there was a story that I found very uncomfortable — and not just in terms of its subject-matter, which is par for the course on TAL. The piece described Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, rousing Palestinian families in the middle of the night to take snapshots and record ID numbers, in a process called ‘mapping’. The narrative was presented from a pro-Israeli perspective, with the reporter (Nancy Updike, from memory) referring to the ‘un-drama’ of these episodes: soldiers would knock on doors, ask how many children lived in each house, and tell the parents to wake them so they could be photographed.

In the context of missile attacks, evictions, and demolitions in the West Bank and Gaza, the narrative has this right: it really is an ‘un-drama’; nothing much happens. But from the point of view of the Palestinian families – and, in particular, the children – subjected to this treatment, this is anything but. The soldiers enter the house, primed for duty, in full battle gear, uniforms, helmets, and weapons; the families stand around, sleepy and unfocused, in their pyjamas. The whole thing is an exercise in humiliation, control over others, and the power of an occupying regime.

The reporter’s first justification for this, that the photo records allow the army to target arrests after watching videos of episodes of violence at Palestinian demonstrations, only reinforces this sense of authoritarian, Big-Brother control. There is, as Ira Glass admitted in introducing the story, much bloody, painful disagreement over the meanings of signs, symbols, languages, geographies, and existences in this part of the world. To approach stories about the conflict in the Middle East (and I would disagree with three out of the last five words, but that’s a whole other post) by siding – as TAL does, here – with this small-but-significant example of Israeli intrusion, is to make a worryingly easy mental shortcut.

(Caveat: I’m writing this having only listened to the beginning of the episode; knowing TAL, it wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of possibility for the story to be turned on its head and presented from the point of view of the sleepy, concerned Palestinians. I shall listen to the rest later, and I hope very much that it is.)

(Edit: owing to my habit of downloading a week’s podcasts on Monday morning only, I’m usually about 6.5 days behind the times when it comes to TAL. This was in fact last week’s episode, and has been covered here. While I agree with the assertion that the episode ‘shone some light’ on the situation in Palestine — and that can only be a good thing — I maintain that Updike’s narrative didn’t seem as troubled by events as I’d have liked. [H/T Ben White])


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