Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Arab Spring and the American Perception (Part 2)

Libyan rebels.  They look pretty scary, huh?
America has a problem with reactions.  It's natural: aside from a couple of Aleutian islands, our territory hasn't been conquered in living memory, and our position astride the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the preeminent global naval power means we're virtually secure from any land-based invasions for the indefinite future.  Think about it.  We were the only major participant in World War II that didn't have to rebuild.  Our cities were never bombed, and we're effectively an impenetrable island here in the North American continent.  So when American society (and thus its media and politicians) shit a collective brick over an attack on the homeland (9/11), I'm willing to be understanding.  As George Friedman at STRATFOR likes to say, Americans have a long history of underestimating, and then overestimating the power of their enemies.  It makes perfect sense.  But how much collective social and media hysteria is too much?  I don't think anyone could make a case that it's helping right now.  And the fact of the matter is, I can't get decent domestic coverage of Arab Spring from any American news outlet.  I'd like to offer my theory as to why.

Since the advent of cable television and the internet, the celebration of controversy has become a fetish of the American media.  I'm not going to sit here and pretend that sensationalism, hyperbole, and magical thinking haven't always been a part of human discourse, but as we both individually and as a society become more and more exposed (saturated, even) with information during our waking hours, their effects multiply, and our ability to make sense of it all hasn't caught up yet.  So while a literalist would argue that these forces have always existed in the same quantity to some degree or another -- and I would agree with that sentiment -- their power has increased dramatically in the past thirty years, and that in and of itself is unprecedented in the modern era.  This is both a windfall for free thought and a tremendous danger.  It's a windfall because our ability to project our ideas has increased tremendously, and that is empowering.  It's dangerous for exactly the same reason: with no ability to reason and filter the cacophony of opinions and thought, sound ideas have the same weight as really, really bad ones.  If you think I'm wrong, read any three conservative blogs Google Blog Search pulls up and tell me what you see.  (If you want to see a left-wing version, look up 'natural diets' or 'natural health'; 'natural' anything for that matter.)

Enter the 24 hour, round-the-clock television media, which for all intents and purposes has always somewhat dissonantly prided itself on thinking for the American public.  As journalists such as Robert D Kaplan and Joel Garreau have noted, journalistic objectivity is a myth; wishful thinking; a fantasy.  As I've also discovered through my own exposure to the media that the heavier a news outlet, reporter, or pundit rests on this label, the less self-aware and objective they ultimately turn out to be.  All a system like that needs is one competent and disingenuous ideologue to start lying and bending the truth in accordance with his or her beliefs, and the whole damn thing becomes fouled in a giant cascading chain reaction.  See this article, in which Fox News is so focused on opposing President Obama that they inadvertently contradict their own ideology as proof.  Want a liberal counterexample?  How about this nugget from the Huffington Post about veganism as a cure for diabetes.

Over my lifetime, I've watched the media become more and more self-absorbed and more and more self-aggrandizing about this license.  What was once a novelty has evolved into a celebration of baseless claims, overanalysis, and gladiatorial cheerleading.  Which is fine, if you want to talk about fiction or sports.  When it comes to foreign affairs and politics, this is a very big problem.  When reporting becomes about winning, you lose all perspective.  When you lose all perspective, the truth is almost irrelevant: the only way you're going to know is when the truth violently intervenes, and even then there's always denial.

So long as speculation and opinion are being packaged and sold as truth, and so long as a majority of opinion holders remain incapable of telling the difference, the American media and the public at large will be unable to perceive anything resembling a rational, reasonable reality.  Denialism will reign supreme.  This herein is my point: the United States overreacted to 9/11, and it continues to overreact to foreign affairs today.  It overreacts to politics, it overreacts to sports, celebrities, crime, and social change.  So long as we maintain this shroud that effectively prevents us from being self-aware producers and consumers of news, we will continue to be hysterical and overwrought.  That is neither a judgment nor a condemnation: it's a simple cause and effect.  Will we straighten it out?  Of course.  We're living through a completely natural transition in global history, and since American society is on the leading edge of it, we take the brunt of its full effects.  What do you think al-Qaeda is about?  At its core, it's about the same thing as the Christian Right.  Conservatism by its nature opposes change.  Contextualize that in whatever culture you want.  The greater and faster the change, the more extreme the response.

Arab spring will probably usher in a temporary, chaotic transition phase in the Middle East, until whatever new order that will arise will set in.  I don't think it will necessarily be an Islamist one when all is said and done.  I think it will return Turkey to its role as a preeminent regional and world power, and that it will probably ultimately limit Iran's power and influence on regional and world affairs.  Whether that takes place under an authoritarian Middle East, a democratic one, or some hybrid of the two remains to be seen.  That's as much as I'm willing to predict, and as much as any layperson should be willing to predict.  We'll have to see.  But one thing we don't have to do is be hysterical about it.  Whether we ultimately will or not is in our own hands.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Arab Spring and the Consequences of Democracy

This will be the first of two related posts.

Rebels in Libya are on the outskirts of Sirte, in what could be a pivotal moment in their campaign to dethrone Muammar Gaddafi.  In the meantime, popular uprisings and pro-democracy protests in the Middle East have spread even to Syria, one of the most tightly-controlled and repressive Arab states.  Other protests are ongoing in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia.  Governments in Eygpt and Tunisia have already fallen.  Some in the media are calling this Arab Spring.  But what does that mean and what are the consequences?  And perhaps even more importantly, how are we perceiving it here in America?  I want to find out.

To start, the Mideast is undoubtedly experiencing one of its greatest upheavals since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.  Ironically, one of the results of the protest movement may be to ultimately strengthen Turkey's military and diplomatic clout in the region, as we're already seeing in Libya (see the first link in the post).   I'm not going to pretend I know what the consequences of a democratic Egypt, or Syria, or Yemen or Libya specifically are.  However, there are some general patterns to the unrest and to young democracies in general that we can use to make some rudimentary forecasts.

I see two major patterns in these uprisings.  The first has to do with where the uprisings are taking place and where they are not, and the second has to do with the consequences of the uprisings that have taken place.  First, and most importantly, it's important to remember where these protests are not taking place on a wide scale.  These countries include Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait.  As you can see on a table of the UN Human Development Index, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar rank very high on that list.  Oman and Kuwait are also relatively wealthy and stable countries. You'll note that Bahrain is also on that list, however Bahrain also contains a Shi'ite Muslim majority (whereas the ruling party is Sunni), and we've all seen the power of sectarian strife in the Muslim world in Iraq.  The pro-democracy protests in Bahrain may be a natural result of Bahrain's wealth, but the Shi'ite-Sunni factor is enough to allow me to set it aside for the sake of this particular argument.  I'll write more on it later.

Countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar however, have, over the past several decades, wisely invested oil revenue in infrastructure and education, and can now be considered "developed" countries with a very high standard of living relative to the rest of the Middle East.  While it's true that Libya has significant oil wealth, its oil revenue has largely gone to enriching Muammar Gaddhafi, his inner circle, and favored tribes, rather than in infrastructure or education.  Egypt and Tunisia are not significant oil producers.  We can also add to this list Yemen, whose oil reserves are largely depleted, and for which little to no investment in infrastructure has taken place over the past several decades.

Clearly, infrastructure and education are two major reasons for stability.  All of the countries currently facing uprisings are both economically stagnant and suffer from major unemployment problems.  Indeed, it was unemployment and the rising cost of food and other basic necessities that initially sparked the protests in Tunisia.  People want a better standard of living, and their governments have been unable to provide for them.  Geography and sectarianism may at times and in places exacerbate these sentiments as well, as it did in Libya and it seems to be doing in Syria and Bahrain.  A population without jobs, food, or shelter is always going to be a restive population.  We're seeing the natural consequence of it now.

My second point on democracy regards its consequences.  Because American democracy has facilitated a system in which a lot of wealth has been produced over a long period of time, I think there is the tendency in the American media and government to believe that democracy can "cure" the conditions that generate repressive authoritarian governments and/or anarchy.  Certainly that's a lesson that the Bush Administration learned rather harshly in Iraq.  In truth, imposing democracy has had at best mixed results worldwide.  In places like Chile and South Korea, where democracy has evolved from fiscally-minded and at times brutally repressive dictatorships, it has been rather successful.  It has also been largely successful in former communist central and eastern Europe, though at times chaotic.  It has also been successful in Turkey as well, albeit with the influence of a politically powerful armed forces.  Democracy as a system is not inherently "better" or "worse" than any other system; it all depends on the circumstances.  A nation with an educated populace poised to take advantage of a strong and robust internal infrastructure is a good place for democracy to succeed.  One thing democracy does very well is ruthlessly and mercilessly expose the health of the society that participates in it.  Indeed, a place like Egypt will need a powerful army willing and able to intervene on democracy's behalf to prevent creeping Islamism, corruption, and neo-authoritarianism.  Whether or not that's actually the case and democracy will succeed remains to be seen.  Doubly so in Libya, should the rebels eventually succeed.

It may ultimately be the case in Bahrain that the ruling party is a victim of its own success.  That remains to be seen as well, however, due to the sectarian makeup of the country.  I don't know.  It's possible we could see the Emirs of the UAE peacefully overthrown and replaced with democracies in the next few decades.  As I stated above, such an occurrence is not unprecedented, as examples in South Korea and Chile illustrate.  But it may also be that in ethnically and religiously divided countries, democracy ultimately weakens society rather than strengthening it.  Case in point, Syria and Iraq.

As unpleasant as figures like Hafez al-Assad (and his son, Bashar al-Assad) and Saddam Hussein were, we saw the effectiveness of their admittedly brutal regimes at holding their respective countries together.  A democratic Syria, like a democratic Iraq, means chaos and civil war.  Their borders were drawn artificially by the European powers following World War I with little to no regard for demographics, and the entire Mesopotamian and Syrian region is a sectarian powder keg.  As for Yemen, there are four times as many guns as people, and much of the country is ungovernable even for an authoritarian dictator like Ali Abdullah Saleh.  Democracy will only exacerbate this problem.

Hopefully this illustrates some of the nuances and complexities surrounding Arab democracy and Arab Spring.  I'm not saying it will fail or succeed -- I'm only attempting to illustrate both the circumstances that allow for it and some of its consequences.  Undoubtedly in the short term, a democratic Middle East will be a less stable one, but that instability was probably inevitable given the economic stagnation and underdeveloped infrastructure.  Ultimately, there may be little that President Obama, or David Cameron or Nicholas Sarkozy can do to influence the course of events, despite their intervention in Libya.  When I talk next about the media and our perception of these unfolding events, that will be of major consequence.  For now, though, I'll leave with what I've already written and come back tomorrow with the follow up.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Review (via Goodreads): George Friedman -- The Next 100 Years

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st CenturyThe Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

George Friedman is a respected futurist and forecaster. I think any attempt to make any kind of concrete speculation on the scale that he does is undoubtedly going to be rife with errors, but he does a good job of contextualizing his claims, and they're not implausible. While I disagree with some of the fundamental bases of his predictions, it is nonetheless an excellent compliment to other authos on geopolitics and foreign affairs such as Robert D Kaplan. For a good companion piece, try Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau, which focuses exclusively on the technology.

View all my reviews

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Bad Journalism Shuffle

A journalist.  I think.
NPR is in the news again for controversial comments and behavior on the part of its staff.  A longtime public radio and television supporter, I've largely kept my comments to myself as this has unfolded.  The media in this country makes me angry, and anger usually prevents any attempt at rational discourse.  This blog is in part about peoples' perceptions of things, and in an era of mass communications and the internet, the media plays an even greater role in public discourse and opinion than it did before.  So as I ponder the arrival of fascism in the heartland (yes, I went there), I feel the time has arrived when I can no longer be silent on the sorry state of America's news media.

First off: James O'Keefe is a sociopathic slime ball who contributes nothing to society and in fact takes so much away.  Regardless of his methods, Ron Schiller's comments should really have come as no surprise.  But the issue here is larger than just public radio.  This is a matter of whether or not we want to have an objective, independent media in this country, or whether we'd all just rather have our beliefs confirmed regardless of what's really going on.  To that end, let me posit a question: why is Gawker, which is owned by Playboy, the only reliable source of American investigative journalism left, and why is a Comedian, Jon Stewart, the only reliable news man left on television?

The way I see it, the media in this country has a real problem, and the problem is money.  Let's leave Fox News and their bizarro alternate universe alone for the time being.  Their flaws are obvious, and trying to debate the obvious with somebody who does not see the obvious is like debating a brick wall -- it's a waste of everyone's time.  Everybody knows how newspapers are getting squeezed by the internet. Cable TV is largely obsolete, and on its way out.  Whatever the reason, the media is in an outright panic, and engaged in a pretty devastating Darwinian competition for its very survival.  The public attention span is about thirty seconds.  90 million American adults are functionally illiterate.  As much as we may not want it to be, circumstances have turned the industry into a zero-sum game.  And most major outlets have figured out that opinion journalism brings in advertising revenue, so that's what they run with.

So what's an inquisitive and earnest person to do in this sprawling, sticky morass of journalistic bilge?  You'd better be damn sure you know your source and what motivates them.  When Roger Ailes says in an interview "These people we're [fighting] are basically Nazis," and not apparently intended ironically, that's when you change the channel.  Even the AP, that stalwart of independent journalism, has succumbed to the crippling need for political expediency.

Generally speaking, I find that news outlets that react to a narrative, as opposed to actively cultivating a news narrative, to be more reliable than those seeking to contextualize a story themselves.  Whenever news occurs, it occurs in a specific context.  Part of the journalistic process is finding that context and presenting it to the public.  What we have now is an industry machine that manufactures its own contexts to suit its own particular point of view (something virtually no news media save for the critics and satirists themselves has escaped).  Even worse is to present said news in no context, which leaves the individual consumer to decide it for themselves -- a feedback process that has produced some of the worst excesses of rumor, speculation, and baseless claims.  We Americans have collectively lost the ability to keep up with the amount of contextualization, analysis, and synthesis required to function in today's global society.  And until I see some proof that that's changed, I simply don't trust the news consumer themselves to hold informed opinions anymore.  Go ahead and call me an elitist, but at least I'm honest.  I hold myself to these same standards as well.  The political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon calls this an ingenuity gap (and his book of the same title is an excellent read, if slightly dated).

What are we going to do about this?  I don't know.  A good place to start would be in our school systems and universities, which need to return to the curriculum of civics and mandate coursework in basic media literacy (this current emphasis on testing is fundamentally flawed, though that's for another entry).  Second, we -- all of us, liberal, conservative, young or old (but especially old) -- need to collectively chill out.  Our country and the world are changing very quickly, and I understand that scares a lot of people.  The problems I see in our society today are as psychological as they are ideological.  And of the two potential solutions, that's going to be the far tougher nut to crack.  Absent a charismatic leader or leaders who can bring us together (which of course many hoped Obama would be, but rather he turned out to be the face of this massive change), but without an objective, independent media such a figure is unlikely to arise.  So the problem thus becomes circular and feeds back on itself.

These are not easy problems, nor are they simple.  But despite it all, I still maintain there is cause for optimism.  The solutions, while difficult and complicated, are also logical inevitabilities: the system will break down unless they're implemented, and a breakdown in the system will directly lead to their implementation.  So, there is cause for hope.  What comfort that brings progressives like me in the meantime is pretty small, I admit, but then nothing is simple or easy in life, either.