Monday, August 20, 2012

Power of the Misquote

In my professional career I've had several occasions to eat humble pie following the publication of a controversial article. The common denominator to all these instances was a combination of two factors:

1. A sad overestimating of my true power in the overall scheme of things.

2. An unrealistic assumption on my part that whatever I had written would actually be read.

And so I've learned the hard way that organizations and the nice men and women who run them are more inclined to unload employees who had caused them some embarrassment (or, worse, potential loss of revenue), than to protect them. On occasion, my offending piece caused threats of sacking my editors as well.

It is my sincere hope that by now, as I'm moving into the second half of my allotted 120 years, I no longer harbor delusions of my personal indispensability.

As you can see, I accept without a hint of resentment the commercial realities I've just described. If I wanted job security I should have taken the civil service exam. I picked this racket and so I abide by its rules.

What saddens me is the second part. Nine times out of ten there's no connection between what I've been accused of writing and what I actually wrote.

Following Yitzhak Rabin's murder, I published in my column in the U.S. edition of Yedioth a kind of lyrical eulogy. It spoke of Rabin the fair haired poster boy of the 1948 war. It described my conflicts with people in my shul on the Shabbat afternoon when we heard of the murder. It also concluded with a criticism of his unremarkable political career and his part in the failed Oslo agreement.

All my bosses at the paper knew was that some faraway columnist writing for them said that it was a good thing Rabin was assassinated. They were very much disinclined to have their mind be changed by actually reading my column.

On another occasion I criticized a Long Island yeshiva principal who packed a bus with his students and took them to demonstrate in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, because some geriatric ex-SS man awaiting his extradition was allowed to stay under house arrest rather than rot in jail. I wrote that the respectable rabbi was possibly mad, given that, as the republic of Estonia was not interested in trying the elderly monster, the rabbi insisted Estonia lose its Most Favorite Nation status, and promised to schlep his flock to demonstrate in front of Congress until such a ruling passed.

The day my column was published, Israel's radio news announced that I was a holocaust denier. Someone called up their correspondent in Washington DC and the latter passed on the message to the nation. That simple.

Recently I've googled myself (not recommended) to discover an article lumping my name with that of James Zogby (head of the Arab Anti Defamation League) and Noam Chomsky, all of us radical left-wing enemies of Israel. My offense? Back in 1994 I wrote that terrorism is something weak people do, while governments have armies to advance their causes.

People don't read what you write. They read quotes, underlined paragraphs, and those are the literate ones. Most people only hear what you wrote through some talk radio host, or worse, the maligned excerpt on some website.

Recently, a colleague of mine questioned a major Jewish organization on rumors she heard that they were taking out the term "Zionism" from their fundraising campaigns. She tried to get an answer from them, but they stonewalled her. When she published the rumor and the fact of the stonewalling, they launched a campaign to try and ruin her reputation, up close and personal. They said she said they hated Israel. But she didn't. And nobody gave a damn.

The result of this grim, semi-literate reality, where your job is at risk as soon as you piss off somebody important, or the neighbor of somebody important, or just a marginal reader from Oshkosh who hates your Obama joke—and after which point they get to say what it was you wrote—is the loss of creative spontaneity.

In an intellectual environment in which you're guilty without anyone bothering to check anything else, not a smidgen of a fact, no one gets to try out really new ideas. Because to get one good idea one has to test out a lot of bad ones, and if you get nailed for those every time, you stop testing.

The US is incarcerating 2 million drug users? Shut up or they'll brand you pro-drugs. Gay marriage has some merit? That's all you need, to be known as pro-homo. No one has ever managed to establish a democracy in the Arab world? Shut up, you unpatriotic miscreant. Racial profiling can be useful if applied reasonably? Shut up, you racist. Shouldn't we ask older drivers to test their competence at the wheel as their bodies are aging? Discriminating against the elderly, are you now. And so on.

In a world in which pissing off important people and special interests is verboten, you end up with a cultural paralysis. Welcome to our cowardly new world.

Finally, my advice to anyone in politics, whether an elected official or pundit, is to avoid as much as possible the statement: "You have to give Hitler credit for the economic recovery of Germany between 1933 and 1936." In fact, I suspect that this very sentence is bound to appear as a quote in some publication, on some radio show, as a factoid dug up by some overworked researcher. It'll go, probably something like:

Yanover: I admire Hitler.

Yori Yanover
Netanya, August 20, 2012

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article!

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