Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Exploding Narratives -We Need to Learn the Lessons from the Latest Middle East Crisis

Many commentators have made several points concerning how limited our perspective on the Middle East has been prior to the recent uprisings. As far as some were concerned it was all about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of Iran as a menace in the region. Of course there was more to the story but since journalists were not provided easy access in the countries that are exploding we now know differently-- the question that was not really on the table to answer was the brutal scale of the repression that existed in countries like Egypt as well as Libya along with many other so called "moderate regimes." What was also largely hidden from public view is the way western governments particularly those of the US and the UK and out of office leaders were all too willing to make deals with tyrants and brutal dictators to preserve these cruel regimes and more painfully for self gain. This was a massively under-reported story. Now the media feel free to spill the beans, or at least some of the more palatable ones. Some recent examples include:

o Philip Stephens writing in the Financial Times makes the point it was one thing for Tony Blair to want to encourage Col. Gaddafi to join the fold of nations that did not want to trade with terrorists etc etc., it was quite another for Blair to go cap in hand to represent UK arms companies in Libya to scoop up some lucrative deals.

o The case of the departing London School of Economics (LSE) Director who had to resign--having been caught out by his energetic efforts to take donations from anyone it would seem with a checkbook and a desire to wash their reputations clean is another example of this ethical grey zone behavior.

And Nick Cohen writing in The Guardian starts off provocatively by stating that "The Arab revolution is consigning skip-loads of articles, books and speeches about the Middle East to the dustbin of history. In a few months, readers will go through libraries or newspaper archives and wonder how so many who claimed expert knowledge could have turned their eyes from tyranny and its consequences. To a generation of politically active if not morally consistent campaigners, the Middle East has meant Israel and only Israel. In theory, they should have been able to stick by universal principles and support a just settlement for the Palestinians while opposing the dictators who kept Arabs subjugated.

The right has been no better than the liberal-left in its Jewish obsessions. The briefest reading of Conservative newspapers shows that at all times their first concern about political changes in the Middle East is how they affect Israel. For both sides, the lives of hundreds of millions of Arabs, Berbers and Kurds who were not involved in the conflict could be forgotten..:

• Gaddafi was so frightened of a coup that he kept the Libyan army small and ill-equipped and hired mercenaries and paramilitary "special forces" he could count on to slaughter the civilian population when required.

• Leila Ben Ali, the wife of the Tunisian president, was a preposterously extravagant figure, who all but begged foreign correspondents to write about her rapacious pursuit of wealth. Only when Tunisians rose up did journalists stir themselves to tell their readers how she had pushed the populace to revolt by combining the least appealing traits of Imelda Marcos and Marie-Antoinette."

We also learn from Dominic Kennedy writing in the Sunday Times that one powerful source for the boycott of Israel came from the influence peddling Libya was able to exert through their contacts with the LSE. If the allegations are proved it will another blow for the reputation of the LSE.

These stories can come out now and only just because Stephens (see above FT article) argues the all encompassing power of Britains' antiquated libel laws has to take much of the responsibility for the failure of the British media to go after those who would aide and abet brutally repress their own people.

"The media has been muzzled. To dig deep into the dealings of peripatetic billionaires and foreign despots is to invite instant legal challenge. The (libel) law demands journalists provide absolute proof of dubious dealings. That’s hard to find in the wild west of the former Soviet Union or the closed world of Middle Eastern autocrats. So, in spite of the occasional bouts of indignation, Britain shrugs its shoulders and gets on with the washing. Depressing really. Then again, it pays well."

The problem with Stephens' argument is that the US and the western press in general felt no real compunction to tell the truth either. Anne Applebaum reciting a similar sorry saga in Slate recounts a similar sorry saga of the rich and near rich like Prince Andrew, Blair and a whole host of the aspiring super lawyers and lobbyists on both sides of the Atlantic and makes an effort to draw out the lesson. Applebaum's piece is worth reading in its entiriety as it dares to name names and recounts in some graphic detail who dined and groveled at the knees of despiscable people like Gaddafi's son,

"If Western governments want to have any credibility at all in the post-revolutionary Arab world, they need to stop hiring people, even as "envoys," who are already in the pay of current or former Arab dictators. Blair should resign immediately from his role as an informal negotiator in the Middle East; Prince Andrew should be told to stay home. The Wisners of the world should be sent back into retirement. Finally, for good measure, the legions of former public officials now in the pay of Chinese, Russian, or Saudi businessmen should be kept far away from their previous places of employment, just in case. Come the revolution, you can be sure they will turn out to have embarrassing friends, too."

Plenty to ponder here about the relationship of powerful leaders, staggering personal wealth and the political and media elite. None of this items taken individually shocks but collectively it adds up to a disturbing picture. We have always had a set of hypocritical western leaders and their hacks who are all too ready to cash in their influence and sell out to the highest bidder. It is the lack of media interest in all this that is truly disturbing. Is it that the popular media has caved into cynicism? The disastrous nature of media monopolies and their role in framing news stories that support only certain narratives that are commonly pedaled, pundit supported and while not always inaccurate leave too much out so much in fact that we are left with half truths and a deeply distorted global picture. How do teachers correct for this?
Certainly by acknowledging the notion of how story framing works and how while it is convenient for editors to run with known frames and narratives -- they need to check-in with reality once in a while--because once in a while if you don't --well need I say more...This is not all bad--certainly for journalists..refreshing in fact--but maybe not so good for the rest of us and clearly not a good basis on which to frame long term foreign policy decisions. We could prepare better for all this if as Thomas Friedman so brilliantly said in a recent column. "we had not built our house at the bottom of a volcano!"

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