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The tiger of terrorism and the tyranny of print

Since my New Statesman article, Israel, Palestine and the tiger of terrorism, was put online here some two weeks ago, it has received almost 9,000 hits, most of which have come through a welcome listing in the columns of 
Arts and Letters Daily. As is almost always the case on the internet (or so I am told), only a small proportion of these readers have responded by sending in their own comments or criticisms. Nevertheless the responses which I have received have been invaluable, and I am grateful to everyone who took the trouble to write.

The experience of receiving readers' feedback, including some fierce and well-aimed criticism, in response to an article which is not fixed and finalised on a printed page has been an interesting one. I have long thought that, sometimes at least, the written word is one of the most unhelpful and dangerous methods of communication. I still haven't got over the shock of discovering that some people actually communicate with their neighbours by writing letters to them - and then wonder why their relationship with them is not of the best.

The problem with writing is that it is, or can too easily be, a hard and cold medium. Premised upon the isolation of the person who seeks to communicate from those he or she is trying to influence or persuade, it can too easily become a form of non-communication. Speech, in comparison, particularly when it takes the form of a face-to-face conversation is (or can be) almost infinitely more sensitive and responsive. A puzzled look from one's interlocutor is in itself sometimes sufficient to prompt a reformulation of the words which have just been spoken. An anguished expression may prompt the speaker who has provoked it to unsay the very words that have just been uttered because the evidence of their hurtfulness is immediately visible on another human face.

The written word, generally speaking, has none of these safeguards. It is therefore much more likely to generate misunderstanding, confusion and hurt, (or simply alienation) than its living counterpart. And one of the most difficult dimensions of the medium of print is the fact that what has once been printed cannot easily - or sometimes at all - be revised or changed. Not only that, but because our own culture massively overvalues the written word, and underestimates its many dangers, some people seem reluctant to revise and change what they have written even when they have the opportunity to do so, and even when it is clear that their original words were misjudged or ill-chosen. It is all too easy for writers to be seduced into investing their own words with the terrible rigidity and inerrancy of scripture and to come to believe that what has once been written cannot, or should not, subsequently be retracted or revised.

One of the great attractions and potential advantages of the internet as a medium of communication is that it does readily permit second thoughts and revisions. In one the the most interesting online journals to have appeared recently in the United States, De Spectaculis, the author (who styles himself as 'Martial'), acknowledges this:  

'I've been finishing a paper for work. There is something about the act of "finishing" that drives me a little bit crazy, that makes the thought of writing toward any other purpose seem futile. These thoughts here at De Spectaculis can be half-formed (a word I far prefer to ill-formed, thank you). They can be worked over, responding to reader feedback, or to time, or to changing circumstances. A paper (a case study in this case) for a project is something else altogether, something that, once finished, will exist in that form forever. Which is the more terrifying?'

In my mind there is no doubt about how this question should be answered. It is the finality and fixity of print which is always most terrifying. The more controversial and difficult the subject you addresss, the more terrifying is the prospect of committing to print thoughts which will not admit of any revisions. It for this reason that I am particularly glad that the article which I wrote recently about Israel and Palestine is not doomed for ever to remain in the form in which it appeared in the New Statesman at the end of last month. On the contrary it is now, as perhaps everything on the internet should be, an interactive article. Thanks to the comments and criticisms I have received, it has already been revised on numerous occasions.

The most recent edition of the article, which includes new material both about the colonial dreams of Zionism and the events of 1947-8 surrounding the establishment of the state of Israel, was posted early this morning.

The aim of almost all the revisions I have made is to try to arrive at a better understanding of the problem as it is seen from both an Israeli and a Palestinian
perspective while at the same time declining to surrender to the dangerous doctrine of 'balance' as a result of which it can happen, as John Pilger put it in a recent piece in the New Statesman, that  'impartiality holds sway over the truth'.

If my own article in its present (longer) form is, as I believe, a significant improvement on the version which appeared in the New Statesman, this is almost entirely a result of the feedback I have received.

I cannot, of course, guaranteee that the article will not change again. Indeed it is almost inevitable that at some point it will. 

15 December, 2002 

Tiger, tiger!

One of the most unexpected responses which has been sent in by a reader concerns the origin of the Tiger illustration which appeared on the front cover of the Spectator, and which I have borrowed for this page. Ann Haker of Los Angeles points out that the inspiration for this illustration has almost certainly been drawn from an artefact in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. She draws my attention to a web page which makes clear that this must be one of the most extraordinary artefacts in existence.

Since it also illuminates one aspect of British colonial history in India which tends to be forgotten, the Tippoo Tiger has a serious significance as well. If you're unable to fit in a visit to the V & A this Christmas, don't miss the fascinating virtual substitute which you can have, by courtesy of the website of the First Foot Guards, simply by clicking here.  

15 December, 2002 

Richard Webster, 2002