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.

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