Propaganda, Pathos and Power

Yesterday the Syrian ambassador to France defected in protest of the government’s violence against civilians. Oh, wait, actually she didn’t. The truth is, nobody really knows what did or did not happen. Yesterday France 24, a French television network, broadcast a telephone interview in which Lamia Shakkour, the ambassador in question, announced her resignation. Little more than an hour later, Syria state television broadcast a different telephone interview in which Ms. Shakkour denied resigning. She later actually appeared on television (not by telephone this time) in front of the Paris Syrian Embassy, confirming that she had not resigned, and threatening to sue France 24.

So did Ms. Shakkour resign and then change her mind under pressure and threats from the Syrian government? Did an intrepid Syrian employee of the Embassy borrow the cell phone used for the call (which France 24 claims it had used previously to contact Ms. Shakkour) and Shakkour’s Embassy email account (which France 24 insists was used to confirm the resignation after the interview) and stage a perfectly-timed political hoax? Did France 24 fabricate the whole thing? At this point, all three of the above seem plausible. Pretty much equally plausible, in fact.

The thing is, if you read too much Middle East news lately, particularly about Syria and Libya, you start to feel a little disoriented; a little dizzy. There’s a disturbing quality to much of the information that has been trickling out of the embattled Middle Eastern dictatorships in the past few months. Government and opposition accounts of what is obviously the same event are so eerily disparate that it feels like two alternative realities being built simultaneously, one on top of another.

I’d like to think that it’s the big, bad governments promulgating misinformation, and the embattled revolutionaries holding up the inviolate truth. But how many times in Libya did the rebels misrepresent or downright lie about their actual position on the ground? And what’s going on in Paris at the Syrian embassy anyway?

When I attempt to understand what’s going on, I tend to drift uncontrollably into the realm of science fiction. Like the protagonist in Ursuala LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, I find myself waking every day from a different disturbing dream of what the world is really like. Ultimately, it all seems to lead toward doubting the reality of anything and everything.

It would be easy to say that the truth exists, and we just need to find a way to find it out. But that’s the paradox and predicament of living in a totalitarian society. When the government controls the window through which you view the world, your options are to see it their way, or to go crazy. And the “crazy” can’t be tolerated in a world of absolutes. For those who don’t remember a time when the current regime didn’t spy on and control their every action, thought, and perception, perhaps it’s a little difficult to imagine a society in which truth can be spoken and reported impartially.

It was surreal a few months ago to hear Qaddafi declare a cease-fire, and then immediately break it. Or Bashar announcing the end of the decades-long state of emergency, and then carrying on as usual with the same brutal repression. Imagine living for forty years under a rule where truth is an arbitrary thing, to be manipulated whenever and however it happens to be convenient. No doubt each of these governments has its own equivalent to the darkly ironical Orwellian “Ministry of Truth.” The question is, when the Ministry of Truth is under attack, where do we go to find the truth? We need to get our information from somewhere. Do we just believe the opposite of whatever the Ministry says?

I’m almost inclined to say yes. I have read eyewitness accounts like this about what is going on in the black box of Syria, and I believe that the government is committing atrocious crimes against its own citizens. But the little that can be independently confirmed and explained is like a frightening patchwork of half-remembered nightmares. And then there are the seriously weird things happening in the Syrian Embassy in Paris.

Please let me know if you’ve sorted out the mysterious truth behind exactly what’s going on in Syria. Because my own private Ministry of Truth is seriously confused.

photo credits: Bashar, Qaddafi

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