November 21, 2010
Bias Expected, Evidence Optional for NYU Professor
An audience of forty journalism students and die-hard fans packed the TV studio at New York University's Carter Journalism Institute on Wednesday, November 3. Visibly excited to meet cartoon journalist Joe Sacco after a discussion of his work with NYU's Middle East professor Zachary Lockman, a number of students arrived early to get their copies of Sacco's new graphic novel, Footnotes in Gaza, and his older work, Palestine, autographed. After thirty or so Starbucks espressos were discarded and most phones were silenced, the "conversation," part of an NYU series entitled "Primary Sources: Coverage in Context," began on schedule. The conversation focused mainly on Footnotes in Gaza, which employs comic strips to chronicle alleged Israeli abuses in Gaza in 1956.
Immediately noticeable was the mutual agreement between cartoonist and historian that objectivity should be scorned. In Lockman's words, "People approach history from current concerns...which forms how they look at the past. It's inevitable." Similarly, "The old 'just the facts' history is no longer with us, thankfully." He cited Sacco's disregard for unbiased analysis approvingly:
[In] your work, you're clearly siding with the victims, the dispossessed. ... People will always ask, "Why are you not also looking at the Israeli side?" Didn't you once give a talk called "Who the Hell Cares about Objectivity"?
Sacco believes that the ideal of impartiality, an ostensible aim of American journalism, is "ludicrous," citing his own rude awakening -- that is, his "discovery" that Palestinians were "victims," "historically wronged." He admits an indifference to objectivity and a disregard for journalistic standards: no story, it seems, is too baseless for him to report:
There are many historical episodes that don't have a smoking gun or some equivalent, but that doesn't mean they didn't happen.
In other words, Sacco's journalistic methodology dismisses altogether any need for evidence. A cartoonist taking liberties with facts is not especially unusual, but Lockman, in agreement, revealed his own prejudice:
That's what happened with 1948: There's no document that says Ben Gurion said "Expel all the Palestinians," but I'm not sure you need one. There's also no paper from Hitler saying "kill all the Jews" ... The point is, you don't always need documentary evidence to draw conclusions.
Perhaps Lockman, the Middle East historian, has never heard of the Wannsee Conference, though that would make him a poor historian of any region. The smoking guns of the einsatzgruppen and the crematoria of Auschwitz are meticulously documented; the "ethnic cleansing of Palestine" is no more than a fabrication by revisionist and prejudiced historians. At the factual level, Lockman's analogy is nonsensical. More incredibly, he dares to juxtapose the actions of Ben Gurion during Israel's War of Independence with those of Adolf Hitler during the Holocaust -- denying any intention to equate them, yet making comfortable use of the analogy.
Another quote from Sacco indicates the degree to which radical bias leads directly into demonization of Israel and Israelis. A questioner asked why Sacco rarely draws the faces of Israeli soldiers in his comic slides, both in Footnotes in Gaza and in Palestine. Sacco's explanation is that he won't draw Israeli faces because he can't understand "what's going through a soldier's mind when he does things like that, when he pulls the trigger." So instead, he draws faceless monsters, dehumanized and gun-toting figures. When the cartoonist was asked to spell out his goals in the publication of Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco admitted that his goal was to present one side to the exclusion of another, because the only document touching on the events of 1956 that he wrote about, a U.N. document with a single footnote alleging rumors of a "massacre," is just too fair:
If there are people who remember this, maybe they can come to some conclusion or present what happened. So my mission was to not leave it with that document, which is unclear, which gives two sides to the story.
Naturally, Sacco interviewed "people who remember" from the Palestinian side, since the accounts of Israelis are to be dismissed out of hand, while any Palestinian in Gaza claiming to be an eyewitness deserves an audience. More surprising is that a tenured historian, Zachary Lockman, aware of Sacco's attitude toward documentation and eyewitnesses, said he is willing to cite Footnotes in Gaza as a worthy source in a history book:
In terms of footnoting I wouldn't hesitate to cite the book. There are ways to cite it, because in terms of categories scholars accept it has a complex location. I'd cite it; I think it's valuable to know what was going on in Gaza during the Israeli occupation of '56.
Students, take note. This is how some Middle East specialists write history.
Alan Jacobs is a student of Middle Eastern Studies in New York. This essay was written for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.