RTÉ – Through an Orientalist Prism

“…..neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other. That these supreme fictions lend themselves easily to manipulation and the organization of collective passion has never been more evident than in our time, when mobilizations of fear, hatred, disgust and resurgent self- pride and arrogance- much of it having to do with Islam and the Arabs on one side, “we” Westerners on the other – are very large scale enterprises.” Edward Said, 2003

Due to factors outside my control and to be discussed soon, I’ve been sitting at home, hugging my laptop for the last week. During that week I’ve had lots of time to listen to the radio,  our national broadcaster RTÉ radio one and in particular the Pat Kenny show, presented by Myles Dungan.

On Thursday 16th August Palestinian Raja Shehadeh was interviewed about his book Occupation Diaries. From the outset Dungan frames the interview in terms of negativity, stating that Shehadeh has said he is “angry” and that anger is generally seen as a negative emotion. In the usual Irish journalistic obsession with discussing personal relationships between occupied and occupier, Dungan asks Shehadeh to describe his friendships with Israelis. Why does this constantly happen in such interviews? I don’t think it’s a genuine interest in how people relate to each other, I think it’s orientalism – we will tell your story, partly, but we want the Israeli narrative in there too…your own is not adequate.

When Shehadeh has described his and his father’s friendships with Palestinian Jews and the current situation whereby Israelis are prevented by that state’s law from visiting Palestinian neighbourhoods, Dungan segues into the next section with this: “Now, not all Israelis see you as some sort of potential terrorist”. Why would he say that? Shehadeh at this point has not mentioned the perception Israelis have of him or of other Palestinians, it comes out of nowhere in relation to the interview but it definitely comes out of somewhere deepseated when analysing journalistic depiction of Palestinians in the Irish mainstream media.

Dungan then describes how Shehadeh writes of the way he is viewed as a threat or a non-person by Israeli “border guards” and asks him: “Can you not see it from the point of view of, say for example, an Israeli border guard, some of their comrades perhaps have died as a result of terrorist activity?” This is an astonishing question to ask, especially in the context of zero empathy displayed by Dungan for either his interviewee or the people subjected to military occupation by said “border guards”. He doesn’t wonder how a Palestinian must feel having seen thousands of his sisters and brothers murdered, imprisoned and oppressed by the Israeli state.

For Dungan’s final flourish he asks: “Is Palestine itself, it is blessed or is it cursed by its own political leadership?” Now there are very valid questions to be asked about the Palestinian political leadership, as there are about the Irish one etc, but they have to be contextualised and they are not here, they rarely are in such programmes – Palestine is portrayed as a lawless, violent place with ineffectual at best leadership, absolutely without context, with no situating of it within the reality of the Nakba of 1948, the further occupation of 1967 and the fracturing of Palestinian society by Israeli apartheid.

While querying whether things have improved since the days of Arafat,  Dungan then goes on to ask this astounding question: “But did Arafat himself, did he not play into Israeli hands by creating the impression of a corrupt state which was undeserving of independence?” What? – “a corrupt state which was undeserving of independence” – who decides whether states are worthy of independence? Is Ireland? The US? This question encapsulates Dungan’s patronising opinion of the Palestinian people and the orientalist prism through which he conducted this interview. It is depressing that on one of the rare occasions we get to hear Palestinian voices on our airwaves, that they are subjected to this type of interview.

The next morning on the same show, American writer Karl Marlantes was interviewed about his book: What It Is Like To Go To War. Marlantes was a marine in the US war against Vietnam and has written this book on how those who become soldiers are, in the main, unprepared for war. By contrast with the interview with Raja Shehadeh, Dungan, while mentioning that Marlantes had seen his fellow soldiers commit “acts of savagery”,  never asks him whether he could see the perspective of the Vietnamese people who had seen their people slaughtered by the US army. He never asks this man who was part of an occupying force about his relationships with the Vietnamese people, or about whether he could understand their point of view.

The previous day he asked a man living as part of an occupied population to see the perspective of the occupier but in this instance he does not pose similar questions, even when Marlantes is describing how soldiers dehumanise their ‘enemy’ in order to kill them better. He does ask Marlantes about an occasion when he was “forced to kill”, as the ‘enemy’ would have killed him. Can you imagine a situation where he calmly would ask a Palestinian about such a scenario? I cannot and it would not happen because, looking through the orientalist prism, it is ok for US or Israeli soldiers to kill, we must understand their motivation, realise they have no choice and that anyone who resists that is a terrorist.

It’s just one week, one journalist, one broadcaster but it is typical of the way occupation is depicted in our complicit media. While such journalism pervades, governments find it easier to murder people as we are rarely reminded of our shared humanity with all people, just a manufactured one with some.

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