Calm reflection forces a conclusion: “Two years of meta-narratives: how not to cover Syria”, by Audrey Ann Lavallée-Bélanger and Ella Wind, is utterly harmless. They're just havin’ fun with a Mean Girls take on people who write about Syria. No one will suffer because of their piece. But actual pro-Assad propaganda aside, they have produced what may just be the most distasteful article on Syria yet.
They have cute things to say about the missteps of amateurs, the posturing of experts, the Syrian-Americans overplaying their tenuous connections to their supposed homeland, the pretentious Beltway Analysts, the over-the-top FSA apologists, the grumpy anti-imperialists. What really matters to the authors, the important common factor uniting all these types, is that they’re all such losers. It's embarrassing!
What I want to know is: why Syria? No one cracked jokes about reporting from Stalingrad, or the concentration camps, or today, from the Congo, or yesterday, from the Tamil enclave. No one got witty about reporting on 9-11, or the Iraq war. People do make jokes about individual journalists like Tom Friedman or Robert Fisk, but they do not indulge in sweeping hilarity about reporting a whole conflict. Why would Syria be an exception?
No reason. The deep nastiness of the article doesn’t come merely from its connection with a panoply of horrors. Syrians joke constantly, and brilliantly, about their situation. And it's not about who has the right to joke - a joke is funny or not, whoever makes it. It’s rather that the authors are utterly oblivious to the need to take sides - so much so that they are unaware of the side they have taken.
Their position emerges from the snark of their send-ups. The Amateur Journalist is a dummy because he believes the Idlib warlord’s bullshit about an inclusive future - which will however exclude “women, young people, and Alawites” . The Seasoned Journalist, who holds that Assad and his “regime are bad but so is the opposition” is, incomprehensibly, a cynical “advocate for a Free Syria”. The Syrian-American FSA Revolutionary is a poser, utterly deserving of ridicule - only his maternal great-grandmother "was born in Damascus and immigrated to the US in her childhood.". The Activist is a wannabe media star, whose ridiculous idea is: “ get rid of Assad first, by whatever means, and talk about other problems later (critiquing abuses from the opposition will only be counter-productive).”No doubt these parodies are meant to be balanced by The Beltway Analyst and the Fumigating [sic] Anti-Imperialist, but, tellingly, these people are nowhere near the Middle East and have no involvement on either side. In other words, everyone seriously pro-FSA is a bit of an asshole. To top this off we get a concluding paragraph and more sarcasm: "there is no doubt that their ideas are meant to move forward a peaceful resolution of the conflict."
So there are two messages here. One is that what matters is whether people are of good character, that is, whether they are unpretentious, self-effacing, prudent, and above all, free of any association with clichés. The other this that the right position on Syria is the detached position: indeed these women are as distant as The Beltway Analyst, with the same air of mature superiority. Here's how we're told to think: we should be sceptical of reports from both sides; we should worry about Women and Kurds and Alawites. We should acknowledge that Assad is bad, that the FSA isn't that great. Beyond that, somebody should maybe try to do something to "move forward a peaceful resolution of the conflict." That's the word as of 5 February 2013.
These sophisticated thinkers have, in other words, adopted approximately the position of Obama and the feckless Europeans. Like Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and other disgraceful platitude-machines, they want a 'peaceful resolution of the conflict'. They kind of maybe like the opposition a little bit, apparently because it's included some well-groomed brave young people, not just oldsters like the FSA leader in Idlib with the 'long scruffy beard'. But what we absolutely mustn't do is - to repeat - "get rid of Assad first, by whatever means, and talk about other problems later."
Well, that's pretty much exactly what we should do. We should not, that is, stand stylishly at a distance and snipe at both sides, justifying our pot-shots with the very serious underlying message that Assad is bad but others are worrisome and there ought to be a peaceful resolution of the 'conflict'- such a nice antiseptic word. And the refusal to offer whole-hearted support for the FSA is nothing but a gift to Assad, a moral failure far more serious than the pretensions of activists or the credulity of amateur journalists. Better to be a poser who's on the right side than someone who titters from Olympian heights about a slaughter.
Doubtless the authors would insist they were only making light of reporting about a slaughter. True, that's what they offer, buttressed by a sub-text - since we're talking not just narratives but meta-narratives - that we should watch the show from somewhere and wish for peace, good writing and objectivity. You can't get much colder.