Imagine you opened your newspaper and discovered this: “A “statistic” we see trotted out frequently says “12 million Jews died in Nazi gas chambers Where did it come from?…In other words is it true?”
Outrage may soon yield to apoplexy if you discovered the answer was: “No, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. The original source of the oft-cited figure may be Israelis, trying to marshal support for their occupation of Palestine.”
What if you went further and discovered this, well down in the article, in the closing paragraph: “There were an enormous number of Jews who died in concentration camps. But the numbers are more on the order of six million dead, not 12 million. And a lot of Jews died by malnutrition and sickness, not in gas chambers”?
Would you conclude that this was written by someone who really believes the Holocaust didn’t happen? You couldn’t. The writer acknowledges the death of six million Jews, but conveniently, at the end of the article, when many readers have moved on to other news. And then he adds the obfuscatory point about many Jews dying from sickness and malnutrition, as if these were somehow separate issues.
No, there’s something sinister here. A deluded, stupid person, who genuinely believes the Holocaust didn’t happen might be forgiven. But someone who clearly knows it happened, but is trying to mislead others about it having happened, can’t be forgiven. His motivations are suspect, his political agenda plain. This is a deliberate attempt to mislead, employing a hoary rhetorical device — the straw man. Make a claim that sounds like the claim you want to divert attention away from, but isn’t exactly the same, and then topple it. Did 12 million Jews die in the Holocaust? No, of course not. It was six million, but that, you tuck away in some obscure part of your answer, to be acknowledged, but when no one’s really listening. You avoid the sprit of the question, manipulate the question so that it’s larded with error, then target the errors in the question as a way of attacking the underlying claim. Straw man demolished.
That’s not something you’d expect to see in a major newspaper. Indeed, any newspaper that stooped so low as to deny the Nazi’s genocidal policies toward the Jews would be rightly branded anti-Jewish and deservedly held in opprobrium. But journalists don’t have political agendas that make them deliberately mislead readers about genocide, do they?
Decide for yourself. On September 27th, at a time many people were asking questions about what motivated the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington, in the run-up to retaliatory attacks that could target Iraq, The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, ran a feature called, Ask the Globe, in which this question was asked:
“A ‘statistic’ we see trotted out frequently says ‘a million children died in Iraq as a result of the United Nations embargo on the country.’ Where did this come from?…In other words, is it true?”
The straw man, ready to be toppled, is the claim that “a ‘statistic’ we see trotted out frequently says ‘a million children died in Iraq as a result of the United Nations embargo on the country’.” This is the keystone of the argument, the crucial piece. It’s crucial because it’s a lie. No one says one million children have died as a result of sanctions. The figure is 500,000. But if you can inflate the figure, you can shoot it down.
The answer begins:
“No, according to the United Nation’s Children Fund.”
So, in other words, all you’ve heard about a genocide in Iraq, is a complete fiction.
The next sentence, were the journalist honest, should read, “Actually, UNICEF estimates that 500,000 died between 1991 and 1998, not one million”. Instead, it reads, “The original source of the oft-cited figure may be Iraq itself.”
And now you know where the fiction originated. In the crafty, media-savy Iraqi government, trying to enlist the support of gullible people in the West.
Five paragraphs later, the report acknowledges the figure of 500,000 dead. A belated, and grudging admission that sanctions are implicated, awaits the final paragraph, but even there, sanctions are held up as only part of the explanation for why 500,000 children have died. The Gulf War and Iraq’s failure to maintain its social services — which the Globe presents as somehow unconnected with sanctions — are also responsible.
And so ends an extraordinary answer and an obvious attempt to mislead readers about a genocide. If the Globe tried to do the same about the Nazi Holocaust, we would be outraged. But the atrocities we commit against people half way around the world, whose skin color is different from ours, who speak a different language, who we never see, are readily denied. The atrocities the media commit against the truth, in the service of governments preparing to visit more atrocities on the same people we’re already visiting atrocities upon, are overlooked, tolerated, and if recognized, dismissed as understandable errors that arise out of the pressure of meeting deadlines.
Denying the Nazi Holocaust would never be excused as an understandable error. Why should this?
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.