The importance of truth

The Arab-American community is routinely subjected to political nonsense on the Internet and in many other media and forums. The most damaging form of nonsense is not bad analysis or angry idiocy, damaging though that certainly is, but factual inaccuracy and blatant falsehoods that are all too common and create serious confusion and misapprehension. If we don’t have our facts right, there is no hope of coming to an accurate analysis. Without an accurate analysis, there is no hope of coming up with a workable strategy to deal with a situation. Extraordinary and extravagant nonsense is to be readily found, but at some point someone has to draw the line.

When I was communications director of ADC, there were numerous occasions in which we had to intervene with public statements to clarify misapprehensions, rumors and false information that were circulating through the Internet and causing harm in the Arab-American community. When the second intifada began, a rash of forged advertisements purporting to show the enthusiasm of various corporations like Coke and McDonald’s for Israel circulated online and were believed in by very large numbers of people. It took a great deal of our effort to convince many people that these were crude forgeries. The same thing applied to ridiculous rumors about various corporations supposedly donating percentages of their profits to the Israeli military.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a rumor spread like wildfire online that a nonexistent Argentinian professor in a nonexistent University who maintained a nonexistent database of news footage had demonstrated that images of a tiny handful of Palestinians celebrating the attacks was actually footage from the time of the first Gulf War in 1990-91. This was, unfortunately, completely false. But it quickly gained so much currency, and was so demonstrably false, that we felt compelled to issue a statement refuting it and confirming that the footage was, most regrettably, genuine, although it certainly didn’t reflect the generalized Palestinian sentiment.

These are only two examples among many of the instances in which when I was at ADC we took it as part of our mission to not only make sure that what we were saying was accurate but also to advise people when wild inaccuracies were coming from other quarters. These days, it seems there isn’t anybody prominent in the Arab-American community who is playing the role of proactively and authoritatively putting the brakes on falsehoods, rumors and nonsense, and that’s extremely unfortunate.

The most recent case in point was a press release issued yesterday (somewhat ironically) by my former employers and colleagues at ADC that announced, with some fanfare, that the IRS had pledged to investigate tax-exempt funding for Israeli settlement activities in the occupied territories. Obviously, the subject line which contained this “information” was exciting and I immediately read the e-mail in hopes of learning about the IRS’s pledge to get tough on settlement funding by tax exempt US organizations. I was utterly dismayed to find that there is, in fact, no truth to this at all.

Here’s the truth: IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman appeared on a local Washington DC public radio call-in program and was asked by a caller about the problem of settlement funding by tax exempt US organizations and what the IRS would do about it, if anything. This is an excellent question, and I think there’s no doubt that the IRS should be pressed to take such action. It would be wonderful if they really pledged to do so and even better if they actually did. Unfortunately, Mr. Shulman, rather than giving any kind of pledge to investigate settlement funding as advertised, merely gave the following generic answer: “I really don’t know the specifics of the case that they brought up. But if I wasn’t clear, if a charity is breaking the tax law, is engaged in activities that they are not supposed to be engaged in, we certainly will go after them. Every year we pull 501(c)(3) charity status from a number of charities. We’ve got thousands of audits going on regarding charities, and so we don’t hesitate to administer the tax laws and make sure that people are following the rules.”

I’m sorry, and I wish this were not the case, but this is NOT a pledge to investigate settlement funding by tax-exempt organizations, and even though he was asked directly by the show’s guest host, Susan Page, if settlement activity funding was illegal or violated 501(c)(3) tax status, Mr. Shulman did not express any opinion on the question. He simply said he was going to enforce the tax law in all cases. What else is he going to say? It’s an obvious and standard dodge to a question that is either unanticipated, uncomfortable, or difficult to answer for an official to give a generic pledge to uphold the law or fulfill the mission which they have been appointed to perform. I immediately had to ask myself if ADC thinks it’s being clever by spinning this answer in this frankly ridiculous way in order to try to create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and that if we all say the IRS has pledged to investigate settlement funding enough, even if they haven’t, then perhaps they actually would. Or, perhaps they genuinely fail to appreciate the actual meaning of the Commissioner’s remarks. I’m not sure which it is, and I’m not sure which is worse.

Having been excited and then disappointed by this indefensible bait-and-switch of falsehood and truth, I decided to try to find out more about the matter. This proved even more depressing. ADC’s press release is simply a warmed over version of a statement issued on January 11 by some outfit called the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (no, I’ve never heard of them either), whose director was the individual who asked Mr. Shulman the question on the call-in show to which he gave that generic reply. The organization then issued a statement claiming that, “Commissioner Douglas Shulman today publicly committed the Internal Revenue Service to fighting US charities that launder tax exempt US donations into illegal Israeli West Bank settlement activities.”

So that’s the genesis of this particular tidbit of hogwash: a staffer at a small and virtually unknown organization asked an official a very good and politically sensitive question, got a generic reply, and then decided to spin it wildly and grossly inaccurately for not very mysterious reasons. Why, on the other hand, ADC decided to parrot this rubbish, thereby spreading it far and wide in the Arab-American community, is simply incomprehensible, but obviously at some level they thought it would be in their interests to do so.

At some point we have to decide whether or not we value the truth, both as a category for its own sake and as an important element of effective political engagement. Obviously, everybody prefers to hear what they wish to hear, and everybody wants to put their own spin on matters, but at a deeper level telling people things that you know, or certainly should know, are totally inaccurate doesn’t serve any useful or defensible purpose. It gives people the wrong impression leading to mistakes of judgment and it makes you look pretty silly in the process. Everyone gets their facts wrong sometimes, but errors have to be corrected and one ought to try in so far as possible not to give people false information. Analysis, evaluation and interpretation are another matter. But I can’t see any rational, responsible explanation for saying something has happened when it simply and obviously hasn’t happened.

Of course, it’s not mysterious why people do this: it’s pandering and an effort to generate positive responses in the target audience whether or not there is any validity to the claim. I’m not trying to single out or pick on ADC, although that might sound a little hollow at this point, because many organizations and media outlets in the Arab-American community do this sort of thing all the time. But it’s particularly poignant to me because when I was working there we did our best to try to be the grown-ups and clear up inaccuracies and falsehoods even when we could easily have ignored them. We tried to tell people what they needed to hear as opposed to what they necessarily wanted to hear.

Probably the greatest single source of misleading information among Arab-Americans has to do with the boycott movement. My regular readers will know that I take a nuanced position supportive of certain kinds of boycotts and skeptical of others. They will also know that I’m quite skeptical that a large number of major American institutions can be convinced to divest from Israel and I think the difficulties of achieving this goal are greatly underestimated by a lot of people. Nothing would please me more than to be proven wrong, but my opinions are not based on a lack of knowledge and experience. One of the most salient features of BDS rhetoric is the rather large number of reported successes that turn out, on closer inspection, to be either nothing of the kind, or certainly very different than they are being portrayed.

In numerous instances including Hampshire College a large investment fund and several other recent and highly publicized cases, the entities that supposedly divested from Israel insist loudly and publicly that they did no such thing and that their actions were not prompted by political motivations. These statements are almost always ignored in BDS rhetoric, so that it would be and indeed is entirely possible for people to hear about these developments and not realize that the entities that were supposedly making a political statement by divesting in fact have gone to great lengths to insist that they are not making any political statement or taking a political action. It could be argued that the reality is murkier and that either pressure from pro-Palestinian organizations that prompted consideration of the issue played a role in the eventual decision no matter what the institutions say, or that the institutions are actually taking a powerful political action in spite of their denials. I would say that whatever the reality of the motivations behind some of these actions, if the entity supposedly making a political statement denies that they are making a political statement, then as a practical matter and in reality they are not making a political statement, and it’s misleading to tell people that they have. In instance after instance I find that some of the most celebrated supposed acts of divestment prove on closer inspection to be either nothing of the kind, or at best extremely murky and difficult to interpret.

My objection to being repeatedly told that something has happened, only to discover that, in fact, it hasn’t, is not in any way based on my opinion about whether it should happen or not. I think it would be great if the IRS actually started investigating tax exempt funding for Israeli settlement activities, and I think the more pressure that’s put on them to do it, the better. This whole posting was prompted by my disappointment to learn that there is no basis for thinking they’re going to do that even though I received an e-mail from my former colleagues alleging that they pledged to. I’m not opposed to boycotts as much as I’m skeptical about their plausibility and efficacy (there is a difference, but this is lost on a lot of people who are passionate about the issue), and I think certain kinds of boycotts are extremely useful. I don’t look into these matters hoping to find out that supposed acts of divestment from Israel didn’t actually take place as advertised. But it’s certainly an annoying, unnecessary and indefensible burden to place on your audience if they have to fact-check everything you say because of the amount of inaccuracies you are tossing in their direction, the awkward facts you leave out or a level of spinning that constitutes misleading manipulation.

I don’t question the personal or political motivations of organizations and individuals that engage in this kind of distortion of reality in order to advance their often laudable goals. But I do question their judgment and their tactics. And I think there’s no doubt that this sort of thing does harm. Like all other people, and perhaps even more than most, Arab-Americans frequently are not in possession of very good bullshit detectors, and those who put themselves forward as communicators, whatever their political orientation, have an obligation to at least get the basic facts right. This is yet another Ibishblog posting that isn’t going to win me any friends, but as a member of the target audience of various Arab American websites, publications, blogs and e-mail lists I have a right to be annoyed when someone has told me something that I can easily discover is simply untrue. Moreover, someone has to be the grown-up and say, stop talking crap.