Conflict is deeply ingrained in the human mind. Like a cloud of electrically charged particles, it remains potential and shapeless, in an ideal resting state. When it is given ideological meaning, however, it’s as if the particles were suddenly exposed to an electromagnetic field. The latent conflict acquires a memetic nature, and animosity becomes orderly, vectorial. Ideological meaning works as a framework which allows hostility to be interpreted rationally by those who partake in it. It provides a cultural scaffold, a channel for violent impulse to develop and become political. It is through this process that the primal, schmittian distinction between Friend and Enemy is born.
In other words, political conflict cannot be deducted from ideological contradictions and divergences. On the contrary: ideology is induced from conflict, which is ontologically previous to it and which arises from real events, which are physical phenomena. We can observe how the parts in a conflict perform their confrontation, and after identifying the ideological differences found among the parts, we place said differences at the root of the conflict.
This notwithstanding, once a conflict is memetically well defined, the inverted phenomenon can also happen. An occurrence, which by its physical nature is non-disputable, can acquire a memetic load and become a mediatic fact, which is something entirely different. A mediatic fact can be completely counterfactual: in the age of deep fakes and counterfeit news, any story is suspect of having been distorted, misrepresented or plainly invented from scratch. Whatever the case, the mediatic fact becomes such by virtue of its ability to fit into an existing narrative, the previously established memetic framework of the conflict.
The recent blast in Beirut can serve to illustrate the difference between this closely related concepts. On August 4th, a huge explosion devastated the port of the city and the surrounding areas. The death count is by now past 200. Initial reports immediately pointed to a container where ammonium nitrate had been unsafely stored, after it was seized by port authorities six years ago. So far so good. But then, when it’s time to lay blame on someone, interpretations start to diverge according to one’s political stances. Was it a terrorist attack by Shia group Hezbollah? An intelligence/military operation by Israel, or by somebody else? Perhaps just a horrible accident?
It is important for those involved in a conflict to establish a mediatic fact immediately after an event, so that it’s successfully propagated among potential friends. Violence is a creative force. Integrating every violent occurrence into a wider narrative strengthens intra-group links, fosters cohesion, and breeds identity. The mediatic fact is born from highlighting certain aspects of what happened, downplaying others and, if necessary, bending the factual truth. This is all a fancy way of describing propaganda, as should be obvious: nothing new about fake news, despite the pedantry of network theorists.
So what is going to happen now in Lebanon? Nobody knows for sure. As always in matters of geopolitics, we are dealing with incomplete information. We can’t even be sure the tragedy was intentional, let alone try to guess the motives of any potential culprit. The mediatic fact each actor is constructing, though, can be analyzed to shed some light on what the future could bring.
The explosion comes at a delicate moment in Lebanon. The country is being heavily affected by COVID-19 and deep in a financial crisis which will require a bailout of more than $93 billion. This is a gigantic sum, and the problem is aggravated by the fact that nobody wants to pay it. An important sector of the Lebanese economy is controlled by Hezbollah, which has a formal political representation in the country but is considered a terrorist organization by most of the American Empire. It is estimated that Hezbollah extracts at least $0.5-1 billion every year from Lebanon, while enjoying important clout in the legislative and executive branches; its military wing owns an impressive arsenal of 150,000 precision-guided missiles and is arguably more powerful and experienced than the government’s Lebanese Armed Forces. A lot of Hezbollah’s military effort is spent in supporting Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria, backed by Iran and Russia. Any help delivered to the Lebanese regime would be fueling this system, something the West is reluctant to do.
Interestingly, Hezbollah has not rushed to accuse Israel directly in its formal statements, and has taken a more defensive stance, calling for an investigation of the blast to find out the truth, even going as far as initially ruling out Israeli involvement in the catastrophe. The Lebanese Cabinet, which was under the stranglehold of Hezbollah, resigned en masse in the aftermath of the blast. But instead of seizing the opportunity to exacerbate tensions with Israel and take over, the militants have called for a “national unity government” (preferably under their control, of course). In other words, the mediatic fact for Hezbollah is that the status quo has been altered by a fateful accident, and going back to it is the solution.
Israel has denied any involvement in the affair and offered humanitarian aid through UN channels, as it is still technically at war with Lebanon. While there have been accusations on social media of the Jewish State being behind the explosion, these are unlikely and in any case hard to prove. There is no interest either for Israel in escalating the situation more than it does already: the Israeli Defense Forces continue to clash with Hezbollah in Lebanon’s southern hills, with the last cross-border shelling happening only last month. In summary, the mediatic fact for Israel is that all of this has been a terrible tragedy, and an indicator that it’s time to move on from old policies; if somebody is to be blamed it’s Hezbollah, for storing explosives in populated areas.
This said, the truly remarkable event concerning Israel in these last few days is not the explosion, but the US-brokered agreement between the country and the United Arab Emirates to restore formal diplomatic relations. Again, this is a mediatic fact: the UAE and Israel have been in contact behind the scenes for years, and Israel’s supposed concession of suspending its West Bank occupation is just it acquiescing to postpone something which it can’t do anyway. Making all of it official after the blast is a way of building a united front just in time for possible regime change in Lebanon.
Mediatic reactions haven’t come far behind the mediatic fact of the agreement. Hezbollah condemns the act, calling it a “betrayal of Islam” and criticizing the other Arab regimes which are “standing already in turn awaiting the order” to make peace with the US before the November elections. Turkey’s Erdogan declared “the move against Palestine… can’t be stomached”. For Syria and Iran, the deal means the chasm with the Sunni world is widened. For Turkey, it is another reason to move away from the USA and towards new friends in Europe, Russia and China.
Israel, the US and its Arab allies have waited for this turbulent moment to tease Lebanon with the prospect of a relatively peaceful Levant, set to balance the Turkey-Syria-Iran axis. They don’t need to push for change in Beirut, as the tide is already going on that direction by itself. Once food shortages and disease start kicking in, the Lebanese system is bound to fall apart. If anything, the US, Israel and the Gulf States are interested in seducing Lebanon to fall on the right side if all hell breaks loose. If this process happens in the form of a controlled demolition instead of an explosion, all the better… But you can’t plan for what lies across the Rubicon. There are steppe wolves out the door, and many of them yearn to see the sunset over the Mediterranean’s wine-colored waters.