After blogging about Angelina Jolie’s and Brad Pitt’s visit yesterday to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to promote her film “In The Land of Blood and Honey”, I couldn’t stop thinking about an Israeli reporter’s persistent question to Jolie. It was embarrassingly unoriginal and didn’t sound serious: Would she make another film about a geopolitical conflict, like say, the one between Israelis and Palestinians?
I’d have expected Gil Tamari, the Washington bureau chief for Channel 10, to do better than that. But then I realized he wasn’t asking in order to get a scoop, or because he didn’t have anything more intelligent to say, he was asking because he actually wants Jolie to do it.
Somewhat coincidentally perhaps, the NYU Skirball’s Intelligence Squared debate series had, the night before, presented the motion: “The U.N. Should Admit Palestine As A Full Member State.”
An audience of voters responded, unsurprisingly I’d say, in the affirmative. Arguing for the motion were Mustafa Barghouthi, former Palestinian National Authority presidential candidate (and relative of Omar, founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), and Daniel Levy, a former Israeli government negotiator who worked under Rabin and Barak and is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Against the motion were Dore Gold, the former U.N. Ambassador and an advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast negotiator.
I attended one of these debates last November (the topic: “The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion” – also, apparently, the prevailing belief) and the way it works is that before the debate begins, the audience votes their conscience, then a bunch of reputed experts present their views, they spar back and forth, and then the audience votes again for the “winner”.
Prior to the debate, the poll results regarding U.N. recognition of Palestine were 37% in favor; 30% against; and 33% undecided. By its end, 55% were in favor; 7% were against and 8% were undecided.
It is the opinion of the series’ primary benefactor, Robert Rosenkranz, that bringing the world of ideas to a public forum in which the most provocative and topical issues of the day are discussed and debated in front of a live audience serves an important public good.
But do they really change people’s minds? Do they resolve conflicts, or do they fan the flames of discord?
Lively and exciting though it was, the Intelligence Squared experience is probably richer in entertainment than enlightenment. And while I’m certainly not convinced audience opinion reflects the most cogent argument, the debaters they select are each at the top of their fields, which makes for intelligent and persuasive argumentation – and even more exuberant derision. Ultimately, though, the battle becomes less about ideas and more about delivering the cleverest quip.
Real influence flows from good ideas encased in emotional skin. Movies derive their power this way.
One strength of Jolie’s “Blood and Honey” was its uncritical, sympathetic view the Bosnian War. Though the film’s focus is the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by Christian Serbs in the early 1990s, Jolie alludes to the long and complicated backstory that preceded it. Opinion should not hinge on this one event, she seems to be saying, noting both sides, both stories, illuminating each side’s claim to the truth.
Only, she also seems to be saying that in conflict what matters most is not truth, but moral courage. Kindness and compassion can end violence and mitigate pain, not a debate that determines one side is right and the other wrong.