In "Journey to Nowhere," Shiva Naipaul's perceptive chronicle of the Rev. Jim Jones' hecatomb in Guyana, Naipaul views the ruin of Guyana's radical regime: its rusting facade of progress, the rude posturing of its leaders, "the broken grammar, the fractured nebulous prose" of its revolutionary tracts; and he laments over "what seems to hint at a kind of universal mental retardation." Eureka! Here is the precise term by which to explain the PLO's ebullient retreat from West Beirut last week.

Dr. Arafat and his grisly gang had just suffered a bloody and unforeseen defeat of such dimensions that many experts on the Middle East are now whispering that the PLO is washed up as a political force. Certainly as a conventional military force the PLO is defunct.

Yet while departing they hold raucous celebrations. For hours they fire machine guns and even rocket-propelled grenades into the air. Such is their elation that their comrades are again dying, not from Phalangist bullets or from Israeli artillery, but from the reckless small-arms fire of other devil-may-care PLO revelers. How else can we explain such idiocy than by laying it to a sort of mental retardation?

Not that it has not been induced by outside stimulants. Last week London's Sunday Telegraph reported that "Young Palestinians marched alongside the lorries carrying banners, and the flag of Palestine. Portraits of Yasser Arafat were held aloft for every camera." Camera? Yes, camera. What do you suppose the evacuation from Beirut would be like were there no cameras? If there were only a contingent of foreign correspondents covering the withdrawal, would there be such jollification and all those victory signs flashing from a defeated army? Without the cameras, the PLO revelers would be vastly more subdued -- and then they would be gone.

Malcolm Muggeridge has written insigntfully of the camera as a great falsifier of reality. Here we see boisterous proof of Muggeridge's allegation.

The cameras are not recording reality. They are recording pretense and gesture. The reality is defeat. It is also brutality and treachery. The PLO shielded itself behind civilians. It held an entire city hostage. Earlier it destroyed the delicate balance in Lebanon, throwing the entire country into civil war. By its ambushes and other acts of terror it made an invasion by Israel inevitable.

Moreover it has suffered a grievous political defeat. Contrary to PLO hopes, its withdrawal will not lead to its participation in future negotiations. The United States will not recognize the PLO or have direct contact with it. The PLO is not even being allowed to maintain a political and information office in Beirut. Nonetheless the cameras record smiling PLO members whooping it up over their illusory "victory." In so doing the cameras present a falsehood.

What the cameras record depends on what those behind the cameras want us to see, and apparently our media want us to see the PLO's false pretensions. In presenting this sham, Western media have become a tool of PLO propaganda. Resisting PLO manipulation, the cameras could show the signs of defeat: Israeli gunners overlooking Beirut's evacuation, Phalangists where the PLO was once sovereign. By focusing on the strutting PLO, Western media contribute to the madness and give hope to what should be a spent political force.

If the PLO is to remain a political force, it must mask the extent of its setback. So it makes its demented claim of victory, and our cameras are there assisting in the great work. Who can say for a certitude that members of the American media do this out of stupidity or out of sympathy for Dr. Arafat's killers? My guess is that they do it from a mixture of motives. Yet to sympathize with the PLO is itself a kind of madness or perhaps a kind of evil.

These are not nice revolutionaries, nor are they very civilized. Last week The Washington Post reported that in the first five days of evacuation more than 100 PLO members had been killed or wounded by these joyous celebrations. In any other age this violent little band would now be dispersed, never to be heard from again. Thanks to the nature of modern communications and to the sympathies of those in charge we may not yet be at this happy pass. A world swarmed over by camera crews and talking heads at least partially explains the "universal mental retardation" Naipaul writes of.