Wednesday, June 9, 2010
“Well, that was just a symbolic thing. It wasn’t important.”
That’s what I heard from a couple of people in response to my howl about Helen Thomas when I pointed out that for decades, she’d served as Dean of the US Washington Press Corps.
There's certainly no need to reiterate Miz Thomas most recent tirade, but for anyone who’s followed Washington politics, it’s clear that Helen Thomas has being saying similar things for well over 50 years. The only thing different about her anti-Semitic remarks this time was that there was an outsider there -- not a crony who would pass it off with a ‘that’s just Helen being Helen’. This outsider came equipped with a video camera coupled with the will to post it on YouTube.
That disturbs me, this ‘Don’t worry. It’s just a symbol’ mentality. The Washington Press Corps is a 25- member official body charged with translating a sitting Presidents words into the sound bites we read and hear in newspapers and television. They had a loose cannon as their titular head -- one who could and would say any darn thing she pleased -- and they did nothing. They allowed Helen Thomas to serve as their symbol, as the Dean of their organization.
True, the duties of the Dean are not complex: As Dean, Thomas had a special seat saved for her during Presidential press conferences. She was granted the privilege of asking the first question – which occasionally, by setting the tone, did represent real power. At the conclusion of the conference, it was she who uttered the final words, “Thank you, Mr. President.”
The real value of the position of ‘Dean’ lay in its prestige – no small matter at all in position-hungry Washington. Thomas’ status was acknowledged not only by her fellow correspondents but by the Presidents, too, not to mention other world leaders who acceded to her credibility based on her position. Wherever she went, whatever she said, she was accorded the honor and status of being first among equals.
That’s why I’m puzzled by the “So what?” brush off concerning Helen Thomas position as Dean. What do you mean, ‘It’s just symbolic’?
The flawed thinking goes well beyond Helen Thomas. About a year ago when I was howling about Neve Gordon, the bad-boy terrorism-supporter who holds forth at our local Ben Gurion University of the Negev, I heard the same thing. Whenever I wrote about the odious Neve, I pointed out that his fellow Department members had just elected him Dean of the Department of Politics and Government, a position approved by BGU President Prof. Rivka Carmi. What kind of University would promote such a regular practitioner of treason as Neve Gordon, I wondered. How could they honor a professor who advocated a world-wide boycott of his own country, who was pictured in world newspapers in a victory photo with terrorist-in-chief Yasser Arafat, their joined hands held aloft in brotherhood -- even as Arafat’s terrorists were blowing up Israeli cafes and wedding halls?
But there, too, I heard the same reaction: ‘It’s no big deal. Being Dean is just a symbolic thing. It’s really just administrative.”
Are we to understand that among today’s critical thinkers, symbols aren’t important? That they don’t matter?
I don’t believe that for a minute. A symbol is a thing that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention – that’s from Webster’s Online Dictionary. A symbol is a short summary, a whole entity summed up in one recognizable icon.
Not important? Well, a STOP sign is a symbol -- we know what it means, even though it’s not spelled out on the sign itself. A country’s flag is a hot-button symbol – try burning the local flag wherever you are and see what happens. A cross summarizes everything Christians believe, while the Kotel, the Western Wall, symbolizes Judaism. A drawn heart symbolizes love. Flashing the ‘peace’ sign tells you everything you need to know about the politics of the person making the sign. The swastika still sends shivers into the hearts of many, while a circle with a line through it spells “NO” in any language. A simple man/woman outline means “rest room” – a symbol we’re all been glad to see at one time or another.
Far from being “no big deal”, symbols are enormously important – they represent the whole of the thing. In one simple unit, they summarize what it is and what it means, in terms everyone instantly understands.
So when BGU repeatly honor anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli professors by naming them heads of their departments, those Deans symbolize BGU whether that’s what the University intends or not. It tells us something we need to know about BGU -- what they value, how they think, what they see as important. The honors they bestow mean something.
The Washington Press Corps is no different. In her 57 years as a Washington reporter, Helen Thomas has been honored more times than can be listed here. She’s been granted over 30 honorary degrees by universities all over the world. In 1998, her own press colleagues honored her by creating the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. As author of several books on the Washington scene, she’s regarded as the ultimate insider. Because of her position and its legendary access to eight successive US presidents, she used her bully pulpit to propound her own slanted views all over the world, to all kinds of audiences. She sold her books, for crying out loud, precisely because of her long-time status as Dean of the Press Corps.
Yet abuse of power by Helen Thomas was the order of the day. Some Presidents chided her a little – George W. moved her seat to the back of the room – but most apparently chose to follow the political wisdom of never picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Ignoring Helen Thomas seemed smarter than taking her on.
Still, she was becoming increasingly obnoxious. In 2006, during a Bush White House press briefing, Thomas attacked Bush over his policy on Israel. "The United States is not that helpless,” she ranted from her seat – allegedly as a reporter. “It could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon. We have that much control with the Israelis... we have gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine." Tony Snow was Press Secretary then, and he responded, "Thank you for the Hezbollah view.”
A few other ‘outside’ reporters complained. Washington Post television critic Tom Shales noted that her “questions” sounded more like "tirades" and "anti-Israeli rhetoric." But her colleagues did nothing.
Again during a November 2007 press briefing, Thomas tried to pin White House Press Secretary Dana Perino to the wall, asking why Americans should depend on General David Petraeus’ opinion. Perino started to answer, but Thomas interrupted, "You mean how many more people we kill?"
Perino was furious. "Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements. This is a...it is an honor and a privilege to be in the briefing room, and to suggest that we, the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive."
Exactly. Helen Thomas used her position – a largely symbolic one, bestowed on her as an honor and a privilege by her colleagues – to attack American military policy during wartime. Perino objected – but her colleagues did nothing.
Anytime they wished, her colleagues could have moved her to the back of the room, appointed someone else as Dean or ousted her all together. They choose not to.
Why? Probably several reasons, including, presumably, the fact that at least some agreed with her. But most seem to have regarded being Dean as a symbolic thing – let her have it, she’s been around a long time, she’s getting old, she was a forerunner in women’s rights in the Washington power arena. There’s no real power to it, let her have the honor.
Personally, I think it’s time we revaluate the power of symbols. Next time you hear someone say ‘It’s just symbolic, it’s no big deal”, think again.