Perhaps the most difficult intellectual problem of human consciousness always has been sorting out perception, what seems to be, and reality, what is actually true.
It is clear that the digital revolution has intensified the conundrum. For the internet is a constant flood of false evidence but dressed in a seeming reality that often makes it indistinguishable from the real thing. So, a “photoshopped” picture of a bare-chested President Vladimir Putin riding horseback with a President Barack Obama behind him looks for all the world as an actual event. Although, immediately, in this instance, we know it is a good laugh – a joke, a hoax, perpetrated by one of Obama’s many critics with bitter humor since it is obvious no such meeting could have taken place without considerable publicity we never heard.
The very fact that a still photograph captures only a second in a more complicated scene or action in continuing life can be totally misleading. I marvel now looking at a splendid photograph [even if I do say so myself] I took more than a half century ago, published in my A Sense of Asia [Scribner’s,1969]. It is a serene Madonna-like portrait of a Lao mother and child with mist floating in behind their heads. Idyllic? Yes, but what’s missing, of course, are the terrible smells, the filth, the disease and the generally primitive living conditions that surrounded them in their isolated village in Southeast Asia on the edge of the Ho Chi Min Trail.
There was no suggestion of the danger they constantly lived with, both from nature and the North Vietnamese Communists passing through en route to South Vietnam.
But now an “audioshopped” recording of a human voice can be manipulated to sound, for example, just like a conversation that never took place. Some of those radio “interviews” between talk radio hosts are, in fact, conversations between backroom “producers” and the interviewee with the master’s voice and his questions inserted as an afterthought [Transparency alert: I recently was inveigled into one.] Not exactly a total hoax but …not reality either.
Since the permanent capture of images began in mid-19th century, photographs have often been responsible, either by being falsely identified or tampered with, for faulty argument. They can play an enormous role in propaganda.
The heart-rending photograph of an Arab father unsuccessfully shielding his son from Israeli military gunfire played into the saga of the Palestinians as only victims of the Israeli-Arab conflict. It just happened to have been concocted for a major French TV network which had to finally admit it was a fraud. But probably never wiped out was the effect of the whole affair on world opinion. Or we are still sorting out a photograph of the execution of a group of soldiers in the Syrian Civil War, presented as an atrocity of rebel jihadists but perhaps, in fact, a staged event by the Assad regime.
In the pre-internet world, newspapers, radio and TV provided a diet of news and comment, at least to some extent vetted by the professionalism of the journalists, who, if for no other reason, were in pursuit of their reputations. But in the anonymous world of the Internet, launching a canard of whatever proportions may have no repercussions for the author since only the most technically skilled recipient is capable of detecting subterfuge or even its origin if the author chooses to remain unknown.
It came as something of a shock a few years ago – I hadn’t given the whole issue that much thought – from the head of a business organization for hire to investigate financial and other business fraud that his field had mushroomed. “It is virtually possible to counterfeit any signature, any document and any transaction through the new digital tools”, he said. No wonder he was employed then by a Swiss “private” bank.
Thus, once again technology has proved itself neutral in the battle of ideas and the struggle between good and evil. Islamic terrorists, for example, have now learned not only to use the internet for propaganda of all kinds, but for instruction in terrorist techniques, and recruitment of jihadists. The sheer volume of the flow of the internet with few if any “intellectual” filters is what cascades down on those of us with even a minimum of computer literacy these days.
There was a time when, if you were interested in politics or even just general affairs of the world, you chose a newspaper with something of your “worldview” – and there were in “the good old days’’ a variety to choose from. You left it to the editors to give you their choice, for better or for worse, of what was important – even if as a New York Times Sunday reader that might amount to a heavier load than one hand could lift from your doorstep. Of course, that was when that august periodical was “the ‘paper of record” and not part of the current claque for a failing presidency.
This all comes to mind trying to sort fact from fiction in what is, obviously, whatever else it is, the campaign of the Iranian mullahs to ingratiate themselves with the Obama administration and a war-weary American public. They have wielded a wide pitch to all and sundry, probably at the behest of their hired American public relations firm, or the instigation of their American-schooled Foreign Minister Javid Zarif who has also been a very busy salesman on TV and radio as well as in the printed media.
President Hassan Rowhani has been interviewed repeatedly by everyone from Christiane Amanpour, herself reared in Tehran of a Muslim Iranian father and British Christian mother, to Ann Curry, who spent part of her childhood in Japan. [Speaking of perceptions: Curry’s interview was dominated – for me at least] – by a grotesque version of the Muslim hijab, a floor length veil which has been a symbol for centuries of the misogyny and subjugation of women in Islam and other traditional pre-industrial societies.]
There were the UN speeches, and in another jerk of President Obama’s zig-zagging Mideast strategies, there was an on and off again scheduled handshake and personal meeting which finally ended in a telephone call by Obama with Rowhani enroute to his departure from New York City. [Was the NSA listening?] All this was followed by a report from Obama on the call – all of 15 minutes we are told with time out for translations, one assumes, although both managed a “goodbye” in the other’s tongue.] Obama in a public statement gave assurances progress might be achieved on reaching a settlement of the long-standing issue of the Tehran mullahs’ pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and opposition to it from virtually all its neighbors as well as the U.S. and the European Union.
Mmmm. Perception versus reality? We are told Rowhani is a “moderate” [even if he did publicly brag of outfoxing the Americans, the EU and the UN International Atomic Energy Agency by “negotiating” for some two years while the Persians got another enrichment facility up and going at Isfahan]. And he was met by [supposed?] protesters at the Teheran airport on his arrival with the 30-year-old slogans of “Death to America” and “Wipe Out Israel”. He even had a shoe tossed at him, that symbol of Muslim disrepute [which once almost caught President George Bush but he ducked]. Yes, it may well be that there is dissension among the mullahs over policy. Yes, the sanctions – particularly the recent third party financial measures of the U.S. Treasury – have impacted on the Iranian economy despite a series of “passes” we have given allies to trade in Iranian oil.
But the question remains whether an authoritarian government, which is the principal support for the bloody Assad family tyranny in Syria, and Hizbullah [which until 9/11 had killed more Americans in terrorist attacks than any other organization], Hamas, and other American enemies around the world, and which waged bloody war on our troops in Iraq, will give up nuclear weapons in its continued pursuit of hegemony in the Middle East? Is it not far more likely, having seen President Obama march up the hill with flags flying and trumpets tooting, and then march down as quickly, the opportunity for another round of talking while progress continues on a nuclear weapon?
Hmmm. Perception or reality?