Of Bhakts, Deplorables and More: Posthuman Communities Performing Political Partisanship in the Age of Social Media
Sushant Kishore / BITS Pilani

kishoremoditrump

The 2014 General elections in India and the 2016 Presidential elections in the USA shared a list of attributes, from two-terms of incumbent liberal governments to the rise of the extreme right to power. Both elections laid bare the complex virtual/real helix that constitutes the digital sensorium that is the contemporary world. Large numbers of netizens were called upon in both constituencies to join ranks with the candidates. In the case of India these groups appropriately called themselves, “Modi’s army”. Neither internet, nor politics has been the same since the 2014 elections. The internet emerged as a political tool where false truths, rumors, sentimentality and sensationalism could explode with a click and eclipse all opposition and politics became more internet marketing than polity. Campaign rhetoric and name-calling became hashtags and hashtags became social media communities.

Theoretically, at the intersection of the digital, the political and the performative, this column attempts to explore the changing terrains of politics with respect to the digital media and the performatives of communitas and political partisanship in the context of the 2014 General Election in India and the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States. The objects of interest are the posthuman social media communities that extensively participated, through multiple social media platforms, blogs, micro-blogs, etc., in the aforementioned election campaigns and continue to shower uncritical and absolute loyalty on the candidates for the highest administrative post in the two largest democracies of the world: India and United Sates of America.

The Digital-Political

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Graph of Internet Penetration

Articulating, the mid-20th Century techno-human condition, Marshall McLuhan wrote –

During the mechanical age we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both time and space as far as our planet is concerned. (( McLuhan, M. (1964). “Introduction.” In M. McLuhan, Understanding Media : The Extension of Man. London: The MIT Press. ))

This was in the 1960s when the electronic medium had started gaining traction in the west, the television and radio had become common household furnishing. The computer had just reached its adolescence and internet was yet to be conceived. In the contingent milieu McLuhan foresaw what the future of technology had in store for humans. With the internet boom, the McLuhanian the digital sensorium expands to envelope all aspects of quotidian life. The internet is growing exponentially and covers over forty-six per cent of the world population. If technology was the extension of the central nervous system in 1960s, the internet embodies the prosthetization of consciousness itself (another Mcluhanian prophecy). A consciousness that is rhizomorphic – networked and hyperlinked with infinite others, virtual and built/stored on inconspicuous corporate servers yet personal and quantifiable with a cornucopia of information – facts, fictions, news, rumors, data, memory – easily retrievable through keyword searches. (( Lyman, Peter and Hal R. Varian, “How Much Information”, 2003. Retrieved from http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/how-much-info-2003 on 07 December 9, 2016 )) These attributes that make the silicon consciousness remarkably seductive and widely accessible to all, also evoke an impression of democratic rapture where a user has the luxury of disembodied presence and disembodied unreasoned voice. Any individual can set up a blog or a website at minimal cost and with minimal skills and social media removes even these hurdles. Social media allows and encourages (with Twitter’s 140 words microblogs) instant, knee-jerk reactions to be posted to the world without any inhibition and/or fear of intellectual confrontation. The episode of the first presidential debate best illustrates what I mean by the “luxury of disembodied presence.” Donald Trump confessed he refrained from bringing up Bill-Lewinsky because he saw Chelsea Clinton in the audience but he could uninhibitedly do so, about Hillary and several other women, on Twitter.

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Trump’s Uninhibited Online Sexism

Very often the social media does indeed give “legions of imbeciles the right to speak, when they once only spoke at a bar after a wine, without harming the community.” (( Il Messaggero. (2015, June 12). Umberto Eco attacca i social: «Internet ha dato diritto di parola agli imbecilli». Retrieved December 7, 2016, from Il Messaggero: www.ilmessaggero.it/societa/persone/umberto_eco_attacca_social_network_imbecilli-1085803.html )) Within seconds the post snowballs with likes, comments, retweets, shares, reposts of like-minded individuals until the unreasoned impulsive argument/opinion starts to “#trend”. Manufacturing consent becomes easier in this digital prosthetization of the consciousness where users, through their Twitter feeds, Whatsapp, Facebook walls, and more, are constantly bombarded with information/misinformation and search engines literally froth with content manipulated with keywords, backlinks and shock-value. This is the picture – this constant wrestle of attention and distraction – that informs politics in the age of social media. Our ability to assess political candidates and make political decisions has become impetuous, conforming to the configurations of the digital milieu. “Once scuba diver[s]…. Now… [we] zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” (( Carr, N. (2008, July). “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/ ))

2014/2016 – Performing Political Partisanship

Performativity in this disembodied virtual space is reduced to profile pictures, tweets, retweets, blogs, posts, likes and shares. Political assemblies transform into social media communities, and political rhetoric transforms into hashtags. “Bhakts” and “deplorables” became the highest trending ‘tag’ that were used against any candidate in both constituencies. Bhakt is a Sanskrit word which means devotee. In the context of the 2014 General Elections in India, it connoted the apotheosis of Narendra Modi – the Prime ministerial candidate for the Hindu Right party, Bharatiya Janta Party (Indian People’s Party). His campaign team had mobilized an army of Twitter accounts (mostly fake) to campaign for their candidate and slander and heckle politicians and/or supporters of other parties. In a snowball effect, many supporters took the cue and took to social media to glorify their leader and bracket every other alternative as traitor, Muslim-appeaser, pseudo-secular and/or anti-national. The trend has continued even after the elections and dissenters are subjected to frequent online abuse. In November 2015, BJP’s Twitter army launched a campaign against a popular Bollywood actor who expressed his views on rising religio-cultural intolerance in India. The campaign asked people to boycott his films and the products that he endorses. Being a Muslim made his situation worse. It led to the termination of his advertising contract. Several others who have disagreed with governments policies or questioned its objectives have faced similar flak at the hands of these swarms of devotees. The situation would be reiterated with every activity. (( Pal, J. (2015). “Banalities Turned Viral: Narendra Modi and the Political Tweet.” Television and New Media, 16(4), 377-386. )) On 16th May 2014, Modi posted what would be the Golden Tweet of the year and the most retweeted tweet ever in India.

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Top five tweeters during 2014 Election Campaigns

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Modi’s Victory Tweet, “India has won! India’s Victory. Good times are coming.”

While the keyboard wars were largely tilted in one direction in India, the Presidential Elections in the US witnessed widespread digital campaigns. Although Donald Trump was unbeatable in his bullying and name-calling (despite a limited vocabulary), Clinton’s prognosis of Trump’s followers as “a basket of deplorables”. shocked people but quickly started trending. After a long campaign that Trump ran on lies, fear and hate, no other word could describe the people who continued to support him as one after another skeleton popped out of his closet.

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Popularity Trend for #Deplorables

Filtering through claims of sexual harassment, misogynist statements, unfounded theories on migration-crime, blatant generalization of ethnic groups as criminals and terrorists, of women as sexual objects who “should be treated like shit”, the only sections of the demography Trump did not abuse in his campaign were uneducated working class/middle class white men. There were pro-Trump automated Twitter handles consistently tweeting false news and to their advantage there were groups of teenage content writers with absolutely no interest in the U.S. elections accept the attention economy it was generating. (( Tynan, D. (2016, August 24). How Facebook powers money machines for obscure political ‘news’ sites. Retrieved December 8, 2016, from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/aug/24/facebook-clickbait-political-news-sites-us-election-trump )) Thus, Macedonian teens would spin and publish scandalous and sensational stories that would be picked up by Trump supporters and extensively retweeted or shared.

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Sample Stories from Macedonian content writers

It appears in both cases that in an abundance of information and a decadence of research or critical thinking, people filter information based not on ideology or interest but on a certain kind of inertia that this information highway affects. More than creating bubbles of self-interest or self-preservation the propaganda creates communities and cults of a leader. The two years since the General Elections in India have witnessed a number of radical policy changes, some quite progressive and others outright blunders of management. The notion of dissent as akin to anti-nationalism still dominates social media discourse and the fickle nature of the medium prevents any intellectual debunking of these views. What turn will politics take once Donald Trump assumes office is still unpredictable. Unlike India, partisanship might dwindle once he starts backing out of his poll promises. On a lighter note as a cyborg completely incorporated within the Twitter ecosystem, his quips on China don’t bode well for diplomacy.

Image Credits:
1. Modi Trump
2. Internet Penetration
3. Trump’s Sexism
4. Top 5 Tweeters
5. Modi’s Victory Tweet
6. #deplorables
7. Macedonian Content Writers

Please feel free to comment.




Indigeneity for Life: Bro’town and Its Stereotypes

by: Ilana Gershon / Indiana University

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Brotown Creators and Characters

Bro’town creators and characters

The South Park sensibility has traveled all the way to New Zealand. Bro’town, an animated television series clearly influenced by South Park and The Simpsons, focuses on five schoolboys, four Samoan Pacific Islanders and one indigenous Maori, and their adventures in an urban working class neighborhood called Morningside. When this show first aired in September 2004, controversy quickly bubbled around it. Academics such as Melani Anae and Leonie Pihama argued that Bro’towns’ portrayals were racist and enforced widespread and unwelcome stereotypes about Pacific Islanders and Maori. Journalists began to raise this question in every interview with the show’s writers, asking whether Bro’town was racist. The writers uniformly responded by pointing out that they make fun of everyone on the show. This isn’t a terribly satisfying answer to the accusation of racism — equal opportunity stereotyping only seems to sidestep the issue. Here I want to discuss how Bro’town disavows many of the principles structuring ethnic identity in New Zealand. Through this rejection, the show provides a critique of how what it means to be ethnic ends up limiting people’s interactions.

In New Zealand, issues of indigeneity haunt every relationship the nation has with a minority group. Since the late 1970s, the indigenous Maori have been increasingly successful at persuading the New Zealand government to heed its obligations to respect and promote Maori well-being. This is widely acknowledged to involve seeing New Zealand as a bicultural nation first and foremost, and a multicultural nation only within the context of Maori’s prior demands for social justice. Practically, this means Maori are the dominant group shaping the New Zealand government’s policies towards minorities. This takes two forms. First, the gains Maori have made in gaining funding and infrastructure support are eventually also provided to other minorities. When Maori receive government support for language pre-schools or funeral leaves from work, other minority groups will have the same opportunities a few years after Maori do. Second, and what I focus on here, what it means to be a minority is largely shaped by how Maori politicians and activists have explained to a general New Zealand public what it means to be Maori. The ethnic in New Zealand is a Maori-inflected ethnic.

Maori have had to pay a price for their relative success, they have had to engage with the New Zealand nation’s politics of recognition. It is not just the state that is being called upon to recognize certain groups’ rights or histories. The groups themselves have to perform in a way that is recognizable. People constantly and repetitively demonstrate the already agreed upon markers of their ethnicity — that in acting as themselves they are also engaging with the range of stereotypical qualities linked to the identity that people attribute to them. Now that does not mean that people have to perform their stereotypes in their entirety or without parody. But to be properly recognizable, people have to engage with these stereotypes, and have to engage with these stereotypes in such a way that does not challenge the most fundamental assumption of a nation’s politics of recognition — that people possess ethnicity, race, or culture in an inalienable way. In short, ethnics are asked to perform an essentialist relationship to identity.

Brotown characters

Bro’town characters

In New Zealand, the self-mimicry that ethnic groups have learned to perform in response to the government’s “Hey you” emerges out of a historical dialogue Maori have had with the government in their efforts to change government policies. For indigenes more than any other ethnic group, radical cultural difference of a particular type frames the ways in which they can articulate their claims on the state. Indigenes are presumed to have knowledge of what traditional laws and other social practices used to be prior to colonialism or other encounters with a transformative modernity. They do not live according to these principles currently, because they are forced to navigate the treacherous demands of modern life, such as the capitalist market. Not all nations demand that ethnic identity has operates in this way. But in New Zealand, every ethnic group’s identity is framed in relationship to Maori — the indigenous functions as the ur-ethnic in this particular ethnoscape. As a consequence, when the NZ states asks — “how are you an ethnic group?” — every ethnic must respond with an explicit account of what their culture is in terms already agreed upon between Maori and the NZ government.

What is striking about Bro’town is the television series’ systematic refusal to do this. When I first started watching Bro’town, I was caught by the ways this show never addressed many of the concerns about culture that I kept hearing about while doing fieldwork with Samoan migrants. The show never refers to fa`alavelave, the Samoan ritual exchanges that everyone who goes to a Samoan church or a Samoan wedding or funeral comes in contact with. The show never discusses concerns widespread in Samoan communities that Samoan children are not learning how to be properly Samoan. Or portrays Pacific Islanders with large extended families — the only person with a complicated family is Jeff the Maori, who has eight dads and one mother — a parody of the nuclear family instead. In short, the show skirts questions about what it means to be culturally Samoan, focusing instead on the consequences of being a relatively generic brown minority with Pacific Island markers in this particular ethnoscape.

But the show does more than simply avoid answering with culture to the question of ethnic identity. The show also depicts every character as a pastiche of phrases, with characters often recycling other people’s words or sayings. This primarily takes place through code-switching — characters are constantly peppering their language with words or phrases that mark their ethnicity. Characters don’t only codeswitch ethnicity markers — they reference songs or other people’s catch-phrases. These juxtapositions happen not only at the level of words, but also in terms of who populates the series. Every Bro’town episode opens in Heaven, with Jesus portrayed as a slightly annoying teenager and God as a tolerant and wise, and very well-built Samoan father — marked especially as Samoan by the tattoos. Jesus has frustrating interactions with various historical figures, and God always has to intervene with words of wisdom. When John Lennon shows up in heaven, the point of the scene appears to be to insert as many John Lennon song lyrics as possible into an intelligible conversation. With scenes like these, Bro’town writers avoid making ethnic markers the only source of codeswitching. Ethnicity becomes merely one of many markers that the characters animate and juxtapose.

The white characters on Bro’town are an intriguing exception. They too will make pop culture references, but the other codeswitching they do is invariably about the ways they engage with racism. The white teacher of Maori language is constantly using Maori words, and then defining them immediately afterwards in an attempt to visibly accept Maori and other Pacific Islanders. Intriguingly, she is the only person on the show who codeswitches ethnic markers that are not her own. Other white characters are also defined largely in terms of how they treat people of other ethnicities. For example, the white South African teenage bully is invariably portrayed both as a sycophant and as a racist, someone who is bringing a racism fostered elsewhere to New Zealand. In this case, his racist comments are phrases that circulate from another ethnoscape.

Brotown cast

Bro’town cast

While Bro’town does not do away with stereotypes altogether, the show does provide an alternative to the ways New Zealanders construct ethnic identity. It offers a vision of ethnicity that does not rely on essentialized cultural markers. Instead, ethnicity is one marker among many that people recycle through their words and practices. In addition, the show offers a strong critique of any attempts to make ethnic relations hierarchical — no ethnicity should be privileged over any other ethnicity. Throughout the show, government representatives in particular are frequently criticized for trying to position some ethnicities as more valued than others. For example, whenever the police are called, they inevitably suggest that the boys or parents call back when any other ethnicity other than a Pacific Islander is in trouble. Capitalists too are attacked for implicitly trying to insist on ethnic hierarchies. The villians of very first episode of Bro’town were a secret wealthy white cabal who wanted to rig a quiz show for high school students. They did not want brown students to be successful, and sought to maintain an unequal ethnoscape. In short, Bro’town uses pastiche as a rebuttal to any effort to value ethnicities in relation to each other. The show insists instead that ethnicity can be but one of many ways to express differences that distinguish but in the end do not determine people’s futures or friendships.

Bro’town explores the question: is it possible to engage with stereotypes without being racist? In exploring this question, the writers insist on a distinction between stereotypes used to reinforce historically and economically grounded inequalities and stereotypes used to indicate differences without consequences. Through various plots, the writers insist that difference alone is not enough to spark violence or economic disparities. The show offers the possibility that ethnoscapes in themselves do not necessarily disadvantage people. Too fittingly, this is an animated show that uses cartoon drawings as a vehicle for arguing for the possibilities and advantages of flat ethnic relations in real life.

For futher reading:
Bro’Town’s website

Fairburn Dunlop, Peggy, and Gabrielle Sisifo Makisi, eds. Making Our Place: Growing Up PI in New Zealand. Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmoore, 2003.

Sissons, Jeffrey. First Peoples: Indigenous Cultures and Their Futures. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

Image Credits:
1. Bro’town creators and characters
2. Bro’town characters
3. Bro’town cast

Please feel free to comment.




“Captive TV:” A New Reality Format

by: John Corner / University of Liverpool

The deep involvement of television in the conduct of war and conflict, not just as an agency of relay but as a constituent factor in the construction of political and military “reality,” is well documented in the literature of international research. However, a new marker of its defining impact would appear to have been reached with the coverage given last month to the Royal Navy’s 15 “hostages” detained in Iran for some 13 days after their seizure in the Persian Gulf while on patrol, allegedly for straying into Iranian waters. This coverage, initially for Iranian television but broadcast selectively across the world, got eerily close to a Big Brother-style reality show in aspects of its portrayal, although how far this was by conscious design remains unclear. The implications of the styling, and of the performances that were required for its “successful” projection, continue to be a major factor in the debate about the whole incident and its aftermath.

Of course images of captives, and of hostages, have a history, one which goes back to forms of triumphal exhibition well before the availability of the symbolic currency of photography, film and television, which so crucially extends the terms and modes of display. More recently, these terms have increasingly shifted towards strategic use – the photo or video sequence as a counter in a game of pressure and sometimes negotiation often played-off in relation to a watching “public” placed by the media in the role of bystander, as well in relation to specific political and military authorities.

What was so different about this affair, this use of “display,” however, was the way in which the whole “theatre of captivity” constructed by Iranian television drew so strongly (and to a degree, persuasively) on benign framings, on the idea of the prisoners as “guests.” The open indication of subjugated status (blindfolds, signs of physical violence, ragged appearance or prison clothing) which has accompanied previous imagery was exchanged for a bizarre range of more affirmatory signs. These included performances not only of “admission” (carried out briskly in confident lecture style, accompanied by maps and pointers), but also of sociability (eating together, smiling and joking, playing chess and table tennis, watching television and reading).

British navy personnel on Iranian TV

British navy personnel on Iranian TV

Perhaps most astonishingly of all, the theatricalization extended to a final performance of gratitude at release, including handshakes with the Iranian president, much open celebration among the group, interview comments into reporters’ microphones, acceptance and opening of presents and a seemingly cheerful group waving of farewell (dressed not in uniform but in civilian suits).

Not surprisingly, this all presented the British media with some challenges as to how precisely to handle the story in relation to expectation and dominant values. These challenges to tone and to reported detail affected both coverage at the geopolitical level and its routine pitching at the level of the individuals and their families. Uncertainties were latent in nearly all the reporting and explicit in some of it. Even before the captives’ release, media accounts criticising their behaviour and comparing it unfavourably with more conventional notions of prisoner-of-war “refusal” to cooperate were widespread, some issuing from journalists and some from former military personnel and not all from Britain. With the further “performance” of their release in Iran, accompanied by scenes that could, indeed, have come straight from a reality series, the talk of “humiliation” and of “embarrassment” increased.

This caused noticeable tensions in the reporting of their return, where a strong early move to emphasise the need for privacy and to respect personal feelings outside of the limited accounts offered at the press conference was quickly thrown into crisis (indeed contradicted) by the news that those involved would be allowed to sell their stories to the media, in some cases for six figure sums. Such an open commodification of the captivity experience, an experience whose public representation had already been the subject of massive, strategic styling by the Iranians, opened up further lines of public opposition and dispute. However, the continuity of media logic was clear. Having been made against their will into kinds of reality show performer, the sailors and marines were being transformed into what in many ways is a now familiar kind of transient celebrity – their temporary but intensive tele-presence as “news” generating further audience “attraction,” the economic justification for a little longer in the mediasphere. Once again, established ideas of “proper behaviour” were initially no match for the volatile dynamics of mediation and the belief, by at least some senior navy officers and their political managers, that to risk playing directly into the media appetite for the story was worth it in order quickly to counter the Iranian-generated version. This phase lasted only two days, after which the earlier decision about allowing stories to be sold was reversed by the Government as a result of a huge political backlash, partly fuelled by the continuingly unflattering portrayal of events coming through from even the captives’ own accounts.

The tensions at work in media and public engagement with the incident were both political and cultural. In both cases what had been seen on television was an absolutely central reference point, even if different interpretations of its status were also part of what was being contested. That levels of duress had been applied to obtain the “performances” was hardly ever in question (although pointed reference to the established record of treatment at Guantánamo was made a comparative marker by some). However, the issue of precisely what degree of co-operation was justified in the circumstances remained in play, however mutedly or with whatever qualification.

British sailors waving goodbye

British sailors waving goodbye

How can we summarise television’s involvement in this incident, the political implications of which are still reverberating? Clearly, the main emphasis must be placed on the way in which the Iranian version of events offered a developing narrative of apparent well-being and co-operation rather than the isolated or at least sharply episodic moments of hardship, suffering and the possibility of imminent death which most previous exercises in captive or hostage images have entailed. This version was certainly not believed “straight” by most of the British audience who watched the sequences, and it is certainly possible that it was not believed (and nor, therefore, was the authenticity of the “confessions”) by many in the Iranian audience either. However, as a performance whose precise conditions of fabrication were unknown, it achieved a sufficient legitimacy of reference beyond that of the complete and obvious “fake.” It was this interweaving of doubtfulness and plausibility which connected it, if only indirectly and by disturbing parody, with the performances of mainstream reality television and which, for many viewers, made the experience of watching it, right through to the handshakes, presents and farewells, so much a matter of conflicting and perhaps alternating frameworks of interpretation and assessment.

Such a strong core of visual portrayal, watched by millions (and often used in loop format by the channels to extend its durational impact) was always going to be central to any subsequent expansion of the range of accounts. This included those short statements issuing from the press conference and follow-up interviews back in the UK (the BBC rolling news channel actually ran the Iranian-sourced “captive” footage on a split screen alongside images of the same person talking live at the British press conference).

Finally, we can note how this whole project of strategic mediatization only worked effectively within the terms of global television, its technology of trans-national relay and its dedicated news channels being quite central to the impact (varied though this is likely to have been) on distant publics.

At the UK press conference on the day following their release one of the marines remarked that the whole thing had been a “media circus.” He would not have known then quite how apt this metaphor would continue to be as the focus of managing, and attemptedly re-working, the depiction of “what had happened” shifted from Iran to Britain.

Image Credits:
1. British navy personnel on Iranian TV
2. British sailors waving goodbye

Please feel free to comment.




La televisión mexicana y la transformación del poder en México en el siglo XXI

por: Javier Esteinou Madrid / Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Xochimilco

(for English, click here)

Napoleón Gómez Urrutia

Napoleón Gómez Urrutia

Con la introducción de las tecnologías electrónicas de información de masas en México, con la radio en 1920 y la televisión en 1950, el poder ideológico de las industrias culturales paulatinamente desbordó la esfera de control y de orientación del Estado tradicional. De esta manera, éste moderno poder entró en una nueva fase de desarrollo vertiginoso que rápidamente rebasó los límites de los controles políticos y jurídicos convencionales creados por el Estado mexicano y se fue conformando paralelamente como un poder ideológico independiente que se enfrentó a los otros tres poderes republicanos formales que constituyen al Estado nacional (Poder Ejecutivo, Poder Legislativo y Poder Judicial), e incluso en algunos casos los reformuló y en otros los substituyó.

A partir de este momento histórico que se constató que si a mediados del siglo XX el Estado mexicano estaba constituido por 3 poderes formales como fueron el Poder Ejecutivo, el Poder Legislativo y el Poder Judicial; a principios del siglo XXI, en términos reales, el Estado mexicano ya está compuesto por 4 poderes: 3 poderes formales tradicionales que son el Poder Ejecutivo, el Poder Legislativo y el Poder Judicial; y un reciente poder fáctico, que es el nuevo Poder Mediático. Este último poder, cada vez más, silenciosamente frente a nuestras narices, se convirtió en el Poder del Poder que progresivamente subordinó y presionó al resto de los 3 poderes constitucionales formales de nuestro Estado-Nación para someterlos a su voluntad mediático empresarial e imponer su proyecto de construcción de sociedad, de economía y de seres humanos.

En éste sentido, si la lucha por nuestra independencia nos dio la edificación de la Primera República, la realización de la reforma Juarista aportó la cimentación de la Segunda República y la Revolución Mexicana colocó los fundamentos de la Tercera República en el país[i]; con la consolidación del nuevo poder mediático, especialmente de 1960 en adelante, se conformó lentamente en nuestro país la Cuarta República que dio origen a la nueva República Mediática en el siglo XXI con su respectiva mutación estatal y social. Dicha entidad poco a poco, creó culturalmente un país opuesto al de los anteriores espíritus constitucionales de nuestra historia nacional e incorporó una mentalidad únidimensional de la vida funcional para el proyecto de super acumulación económica.

Eugenio Hernández Flores

Eugenio Hernández Flores

De ésta manera, sí en el terreno comunicativo la sociedad mexicana pasó de la declaración del espíritu de los Sentimientos de la Nación de 1800, que buscaban fundar la nueva República Federal para darnos un nuevo orden civilizatorio superior a nivel nacional, con el reconocimiento de los nuevos derechos civiles y creación de modernas instituciones públicas; en la etapa del 2000 se pasó a la declaración de la pragmaticidad de los sentimientos del mercado autorregulado, regidos por la Mano Invisible de la ley de la libre oferta y demanda informativa, que lo que pretenden es la consolidación del modelo de mercado como regla básica para vivir, relacionarnos, comunicarnos y ver la vida en comunidad.

En éste sentido, las primeras 3 Repúblicas Nacionales se gestaron por necesidades históricas consensuadas de la mayoría nacional para darle forma estructural equilibrada al proceso de gobernabilidad social en México y de maduración de diversos procesos históricos colectivos de participación socio política que buscaron la creación de contrapesos a los poderes públicos para gobernar armónicamente en el país. En cambio, la 4a República Mediática emergió por la introducción de la fuerte revolución tecnológica en el terreno comunicacional del país, por la formación de los monopolios de la comunicación electrónica, por la concentración de grandes cuotas de poder de las industrias culturales a nivel comunicativo, por la incapacidad del Estado mexicano de poner bajo un orden jurídico justo a los poderes mediáticos salvajes, y finalmente, por la necesidad unilateral de la ampliación de los requerimientos del mercado, a escala ampliada, en la esfera ideológica de nuestra sociedad.

De esta forma, a diferencia de la construcción de las otras 3 Repúblicas anteriores que significó un avance democrático para darle forma y organización al funcionamiento colectivo de la sociedad mexicana, bajo la estructura de tres poderes federales diferenciados, autónomos y complementarios; la creación de la 4a República Mediática no es un avance democrático, sino que es la fuerte imposición de un nuevo poder fáctico y “autorregulado”, e incluso salvaje, que compite en el campo de acción y de influencia de los otros 3 poderes públicos establecidos constitucionalmente. Es decir, es un nuevo macro poder ideológico-político independiente que interviene significativa y crecientemente en la dinámica por la disputa de la estructuración, la conducción, el reparto y la explotación de la nación.

En éste sentido, mientras que durante el siglo XX el Estado mexicano cuidó celosamente que las redes de su poder tradicional no se debilitaran a través de la corporativización de las centrales obreras, la seducción de los intelectuales disidentes, el control de los brotes de insurrección campesina, la manipulación de las movilizaciones populares, la canalización de las protestas estudiantiles, la coptación de los descontentos burocráticos, incluso, la represión de los movimientos populares, etc; paradójicamente no pudo ver que el verdadero poder real que se construía y consolidaba abiertamente frente a sus narices ya no residía en las viejas dinámicas de los movimientos sociales de oposición, sino que se gestaba alrededor del avance de la revolución tecnológica que introdujo la presencia del modelo comercial privado de la radio y la televisión en nuestro país. Así, paralelamente al tejido de poder corporativo que construyó durante más de 70 años el Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) para gobernar a la sociedad mexicana, se cimentaron y desarrollaron las bases del Primer Gran Poder Ideológico en la historia del México moderno, que escribió la otra historia mental y política de nuestra sociedad: El Poder Mediático.

PRI tachado en graffiti

PRI tachado en graffiti

Con la emergencia de la 4a Republica Mediática en México a través de la incorporación de los medios electrónicos de difusión colectivos en la estructura de conformación básica del Estado mexicano, éste se transformó sustancialmente para adquirir paulatinamente los rasgos de un Estado mediático que es el que opera cotidianamente en la fase de la modernidad nacional. Así, el ejercicio ideológico político del poder cotidiano quedó mediado por la acción concreta del Estado mediático desde mediados del siglo XX en México.

Por todo lo anterior a principios del siglo XXI el poder de los medios dejó de ser una variable de presión aislada e importante sobre el Estado Mexicano y de reconducción anímica de la sociedad en general, para convertirse ahora en un poder fáctico que forma parte de la columna vertebral del poder para estructurar ideológica y políticamente de forma cotidiana a la sociedad mexicana, especialmente en las grandes ciudades. Dentro de ésta perspectiva, entramos en la fase histórica de vivir bajo el imperio del nuevo poder informal de los medios de difusión colectivos, donde su fuerza fáctica compite permanentemente con el desempeño y las funciones de los otros 3 poderes constitucionales del Estado mexicano , hasta llegar, en ocasiones, al grado de minimizarlos, subordinarlos o disputar con ellos su centralidad y rectoría, para imponer a la colectividad su proyecto de desarrollo social y de vida que fijan las exigencias del mercado desregulado.

Nota
Martínez Álvarez, Jesús Emilio, Discurso de Posicionamiento del Partido Verde Ecologista de México (PVEM), IV Informe de Gobierno del Presidente Vicente Fox Quesada, Primer Periodo de Sesiones del Segundo Año de Ejercicio de la LIX Legislatura, Palacio Legislativo, México, D.F, 1 de septiembre del 2004, versión estenográfica, páginas 5 y 6.

Imágenes
Imágen cortesía de autor.
3. PRI tachado en graffiti

Javier Esteinou Madrid es Investigador Titular del Departamento de Educación y Comunicación de la Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Xochimilco, México, D.F.

Favor de comentar.
Por favor comente.




by: Javier Esteinou Madrid / Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Xochimilco

When electronic mass information technologies were introduced in Mexico, including radio in 1920 and television in 1950, the ideological power of cultural industries slowly overcame the sphere of control and orientation of the traditional state. Thus, this modern power entered a new period of frenzied growth which quickly overcame the limits of the conventional political and judicial controls created by the Mexican state; it thus developed in a parallel fashion as an independent ideological power that faced the three formal republican powers, the powers that embody the national State (Executive Power, Legislative Power, and the Judicial Power). In some cases, it even reformulated or substituted these powers.

In this historical moment, one can recognize that in the midst of the 20th century, the Mexican State was constituted by 3 formal powers: the Executive Power, the Legislative Power, and the Judicial Power. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, one recognizes that in real terms, the Mexican state is constituted by 4 powers: 3 formal and traditional powers, the Executive Power, the Legislative Power, the Judicial Power, and another, recent factual power, the new Media Power[a]. This last power, with increasing frequency, both silently and before our very eyes, became the Power of Powers, a force which progressively subordinated and pressured the other three constitutional powers of our Nation-State in order to subjugate them to its entrepreneurial and media-infused will; it attempted to impose a project which involves the construction of society, economy, and human beings.

In this manner, one can argue that our struggle for independence resulted in the First Republic; the Juarista reforms brought about the establishment of the Second Republic; the Mexican Revolution built the foundations for the Third Republic in the country[b]; with the establishment of this new Media Power, especially after 1960, our country slowly saw the establishment of a Fourth Republic, which resulted in the new Media Republic of the 21st century, with a resulting political and social mutation. This entity slowly created a country that was culturally opposed to the previous constitutional spirits of our national history; it incorporated a one-dimensional mentality, one that dealt with the functional life of a super-accumulation economic project.

Thus, one can state that from a communications perspective, Mexico used to embody the spirit of the Sentimientos de la Nación of 1800, which sought to establish the Federal Republic in order to give us a new, superior civilizing order on the national level, recognizing a group of new civil rights and the creation of modern, public institutions. In 2000, we stepped into the declaration of the practicality of the feelings of the self-regulated market, ruled by the Invisible Hand of the supply-and-demand law. These forces attempt to consolidate the market model as the one basic rule through which one must live, relate, communicate, and envision the existence of the community.

Thus, the first 3 National Republics emerged through historical necessities that received consent from a national majority, allowing them to give a balanced and structural form to the social governance process in Mexico. These processes also allowed for the growth and establishment of a diverse group of collective historical processes, which included socio-political participation which sought the creation of counterweights to the public powers, thus allowing for the country to be governed harmonically. In contrast, the 4th Media Republic emerged through the strong technological revolution which took place in the communications arena of our country, through the formation of electronic communications monopolies, through the concentration of huge power quotas in the cultural industries on the communications level, through the incapacity of the Mexican State to impose a fair judicial order to the savage media powers, and finally, through the one-directional necessity of amplifying the requirements of the market in the ideological sphere of our society on a broad scale.

In this manner, the construction of the 3 previous Republics served as a democratic advance which brought about the establishment of the collective functioning of Mexican society under the three differentiated, autonomous, and complementary federal powers. In contrast, the creation of the 4th Media Republic is not a democratic advance, it is a fierce imposition of a new factual and “self-regulated” power, one that even qualifies as savage, which fights within the field of action and influence of the three other public, constitutionally-established powers. In other words, this is a new, independent, macro-power, one that intervenes in growing and significant ways with the dynamics and debates around the structuring, conducting, distribution, and exploitation of the nation.

In this way, during the 20th century, the Mexican State jealously guarded the networks of its traditional power, ensuring that these webs would not be weakened, fostering the bureaucratization of worker syndicates, the seduction of dissident intellectuals, the control of farmer insurrections, the manipulation of popular mobilizations, the channeling of student protests, the co-opting of bureaucratic discontent, even the repression of popular movements and more. Paradoxically, the Mexican state was not aware that the real power that was building itself and consolidating within its midst did not lie in the old interactions of opposition-based social movements; this new power was growing within the advancements of the technological revolutions that lead to the establishment of a privatized, commercial-market model of radio and television in our country. Thus, even as the Partido Revolucionario Institucional [The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI] built a network of corporate power for over 70 years in order to rule over Mexican society, a parallel power network was growing, developing the foundations of the First Great Ideological Power in the history of modern Mexico, a power that wrote an alternative mental and political history of our society: the Media Power.

Thus, we see the emergence of the 4th Media Republic in Mexico through the incorporation of electronic, mass media into the basic structure of the Mexican State. This entity was transformed substantially in order to slowly exhibit the characteristics of a Media state, which is the one that operates on an everyday level in the national modernity phase. Thus, the political-ideological exercise of everyday power was mediated by the concrete actions of the Media State as far back as the middle of the twentieth century in Mexico.

Because of all of the above, in the beginning of the 21st century, the power of the media stopped being an isolated and important pressure variable over the Mexican State; it stopped being a catalyst of feelings and states of mind of society in general. Instead, it became a factual power which belongs to the very vertebrae of power, allowing it to politically and ideologically structure Mexican society in the realm of the everyday, particularly in large cities. From this perspective, we are entering a new historical phase, one in which we live under the empire of the new informal power of collective mass media, where this factual force permanently competes with the development and function of the three other constitutional powers of the Mexican State. At times, this new power can minimize, subordinate, or threaten its domains and centrality, allowing the new power to impose a project upon the community at large. This project consists of a social development and life that is set by the demands of an unregulated market.

Notes
Poder Mediático in the original Spanish. [Translator’s note.]
Martínez Álvarez, Jesús Emilio, Positioning Speech of the Partido Verde Ecologista de México (PVEM), 4th State of the Union Speech by President Vicente Fox Quesada, First Period of Sessions of the Second Year of Legislature LIX, Legislative Palace, Mexico, Mexico City, September 1, 2004, Stenographical Version, 5-6. [Original: Discurso de Posicionamiento del Partido Verde Ecologista de México (PVEM), IV Informe de Gobierno del Presidente Vicente Fox Quesada, Primer Periodo de Sesiones del Segundo Año de Ejercicio de la LIX Legislatura, Palacio Legislativo, México, D.F, 1 de septiembre del 2004, versión estenográfica, páginas 5 y 6.]

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
Images 1 and 2 provided by author.
3. PRI written over with graffiti

Author: Javier Esteinou Madrid is a Researcher in the Department of Education and Communication in the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana [the Metropolitan Autonomous University], Unidad Xochimilco, Mexico, Mexico City.

Translator: Alberto McKelligan Hernandez is a Ph.D. Student in Art History at the City University of New York (CUNY).




War, “Incendiary Media,” and International Law (Part III)

Newspapers

Newspapers

[Read Part 1]
[Read Part 2]

This third Part of my comments focuses on media intervention and re-development in post-conflict Iraq, examining the legal environment with which post-war Iraqi newspapers, television, and radio are being created and regulated. I will limit my observations on the media intervention activities conducted by the interim government before the more recent establishment of the permanent constitution.

Rebuilding the Media Space in Post-Invasion Iraq: New Dilemmas

Shortly after Bush declared victory in Iraq, a transitional government was set up (the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)). As a governing body headed by L. Paul Bremer, the CPA helped establish the Governing Council of Iraq on 13 July 2003, pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1483. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council also established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) through Resolution 1500 (adopted on 14 August 2003). A foundation for legal governance was thus erected in Iraq. As with former interim governing bodies and UN-authorized assistance missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the like, the media field was very much on the agenda of reform. The CPA was particularly sensitive about media activities; this was understandable given the unrelenting violence that continued to threaten basic stability and safety in the country. In May 2003, the CPA established the Iraqi Media Network (IMN) to replace the defunct Iraqi Information Ministry. The IMN included a TV channel, two radio stations and the newspaper Al-Sabah. The television network reached about two-thirds of Iraqi homes.

As Occupying Power, the US-led governing body utilized the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 to protect civilians and suppress any public activities that were deemed to incite violence. On June 5 and June 10 of 2003, the CPA issued ‘Public Notice Regarding Public Incitement to Violence and Disorder’ and ‘Public Notice: Towards a Responsible Iraqi Media’ respectively. The first public notice prohibits any individual making a ‘prohibited pronouncement in a public place or distributing or attempting to distribute any prohibited material in whatever form’. The second public notice reiterates the concern for inciting violence but targets media broadcasting. It is noted that this second notice was issued in the context of a feverish boom of the media in the country. However, the journalistic quality and political independence of the newspapers that mushroomed during that period were highly questionable. The end of repressive rule meant that the Iraqi media space was left without regulation. It was alleged that anyone with US$1,000 could publish his/her own newspaper, assign him/herself the job of the editor-in-chief, prominently display his/her photo on the front cover, and run the newspaper without any prior knowledge of journalism. As a result, in this unregulated space, benign bad journalism was mixed with a more sinister journalism manipulated by various political factions to create misinformation and even incite disturbance.

The CPA’s public notice regarding public incitement to violence and disorder authorized the security forces to ‘immediate detention’ of any one found to violate the notice’s order, the detained being held as a security internee under the Fourth Geneva Convention. This was so even though the CPA defined public notices as ‘hav[ing] no penal consequence’ (as opposed to Orders and Regulations). As for the public notice regarding the conduct of the media, a violation would result in the withdrawal of license, closing of operation, confiscating the property, and sealing the premises of the media organization. This was done even though Iraq’s media commission would not be formally established until a year after the issuance of the public notice. But even with the establishment of such a commission, the question of whether it would be vetted with legal authority to prosecute media organizations was itself an open question. The problem of the CPA’s self-expanded legal power was becoming more apparent as time went by.

It was soon discovered that the CPA’s administration of Iraq was alienating the Iraqi public. While it continued to fail to keep the country’s security situation under control – it was reported that Bremer’s top priority was economics, not security – it also failed to tackle basic problems of daily life. Meanwhile, over 2003-2004, the Governing Council and then the elected Prime Minister exercised censorship of the media in contradiction to the Constitution. The banning of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite-transmitted programmes in Iraq in 2003, the closing down of Al-Jazeera‘s Baghdad office in 2004, and the arrest of around 60 journalists at gunpoint from a hotel in Najaf, including reporters from the BBC, Guardian, Independent, Time and Telegraph, were a few high-profiled acts of aggression against media organizations and personnel who were not part of the media sector controlled by the post-war government. In sum, as the professional and ethical conduct of Iraqi journalists were uneven, to say the least, in an environment of free-wheeling publication and broadcast, and as the interim government was bent on outright censorship and intimidation of journalists, how could public interest be served? And how was this situation different from the repressive era?

Man With Camera

Man With Camera

Formal Decrees and Proposals for Media Reform

On 20th March 2004, the CPA issued formal Order 65 for the establishment of the Iraqi National Communications and Media Commission (NCMC) and Order 66 for regulating Iraqi Public Service Broadcasting. Formal Orders, unlike the Public Notices mentioned above, were binding instructions or directives that carried penal consequences or had a direct bearing on the way Iraqis are regulated, including changes to Iraqi law. Order 66 was a fairly standard media standards document aimed at creating a public platform for broadcasting that covered political, economic, health, cultural, educational, scientific, religious, ecological, sporting and other developments in Iraq. As for Order 65, a more detailed discussion is needed.

Order 65

Order 65 was not only a blueprint for developing a democratic media space in Iraq, it also served to promote a capitalistic media space in the country. The stated purpose of establishing the NCMC was to balance the interest of creating a pluralistic media environment with commercial and investment interests in telecommunications. In other words, the NCMC would double as a regulatory agent and a free speech promulgator. In Section 9 of Order 65, the NCMC was empowered to enforce sanctions, including: (a) issuing warnings; (b) requiring publication of an apology; (c) requiring mitigation or repair of harm to consumers; (d) imposing financial penalties and placing liens on relevant bank accounts, if the penalties are not paid on time; (e) suspending licenses; (f) seizing equipment for which access into the licensee’s premises is granted hereby; (g) suspending operations; (h) closing operations; and (i) terminating or withdrawing licenses. In addition, Section 9(2) empowered the NCMC to enlist police and coalition forces support when carrying out its mandate. It must be noted that the power to enforce the sanctions listed above and the power to enlist law enforcement and military forces, essentially positioned the NCMC as an adjudicating body in civil and criminal proceedings. The constitutionality of this positioning of the NCMC, as well as the legality of other regulatory provisions proposed by the NCMC, has been questioned by critics.

The London-based independent organization promoting freedom of speech rights, ARTICLE 19, has examined the various codes of practice proposed by Iraq’s NCMC. These include a Code for Media during Elections; an interim Broadcasting Programme Code of Practice; and an Interim Media Law. In their report, ARTICLE 19 expresses a number of detailed concerns regarding the specific content and other rules in the interim media law and the broadcasting and election codes. There are concerns, for instance, about the vagueness of the documents, in which phrases like ‘standards of decency’, ‘exercise care and consideration’, or ‘incitement to violence’ are not defined at all. The draft code of practice also gives little concrete details about standards that would be useful for practical daily operations.

More troubling is the restriction on free speech proposed in the Interim Media Law. Section 2.1 states the ground for restriction:

It shall be an offense for the Media Outlet to publish, broadcast or otherwise disseminate any material that, by its content or tone:

(a)Carries the clear and immediate risk of inciting imminent violence, ethnic or religious hatred, civil disorder or rioting among the people of Iraq or advocates terrorism, crime or criminal activities (particular care is required where a programme carries the views or transmits the messages of people or organizations who use or advocate terrorism or the use of violence or other criminal activity in Iraq); or

(b) Carries a clear and immediate risk of causing public harm, such harm being defined as death, injury, damage to property or other violence, or the diversion of police, medical services or other forces of public order from their normal duties.

While Section 2.1 realistically referenced the kinds of everyday terror experienced by ordinary Iraqis, and while it might even be appropriate to link the media to these types of unrest, it had not complied with international law since it exceeded the exceptions to freedom of speech provided by Article 19 of the ICCPR. Subsection (b), for instance, made ‘diversion of police, medical services or other forces of public order from their normal duties’ a ground for restriction of speech. It clearly exceeded the ‘legitimate aims’ stated in Article 19(2). Moreover, the principle of proportionality was not observed in subsection (a), whereby the media’s carrying or transmitting of violence-inciting views belonging to others was considered an equal offence as the media’s advocating the subversive view. The European Court of Human Rights has indeed ruled, in Jersild v. Denmark, that the prosecution of journalists who merely relay others’ hate speech violates the journalists’ freedom of expression: ‘The punishment of a journalist for assisting in the dissemination of statements made by another person in an interview would seriously hamper the contribution of the press to discussion of matters of public interest’.

The NCMC’s Interim Media Law was most troubling when it accorded the NCMC itself the role of judicial enforcement. ARTICLE 19 states that the NCMC was not appropriately constituted to act as a ‘court’, for to recognize it as acting as judicial body violates both Article 14 of the ICCPR and Iraq’s own transitional constitution (the Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period, or TAL). Article 14 of the ICCPR designates that a fair and public hearing be conducted by ‘a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law’. This means a lawful appointment of judges, and matters of substantial judicial qualifications and duration of judicial experience. Unless safeguards are made as to the careful and legal appointment of members of the NCMC according to strong evidence of judicial experiences and qualifications, the regulatory body does not qualify to adjudicate cases. Besides, the TAL also states in Article 43 that ‘[t]he judiciary shall enjoy exclusive competence to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused pursuant to law…’ This effectively rules out a regulatory agency as an enforcement body.

In fact, the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly warned against excessive use of national security laws to restrict freedom of expression. It considers that states ‘cannot, with reference to the protection of territorial integrity or national security or the prevention of crime or disorder, restrict the right of the public to be informed by bringing the weight of the criminal law to bear on the media’.

Just when those in the media field were working to adapt to professional codes transplanted from outside, they were met with an interim administration that does not appear to be more egalitarian or less draconian in its policies than those in the Hussein era. The interim authority’s heavy-handedness was ironically preserving the old culture of totalitarianism. Concepts of freedom, fairness, pluralism, and even human rights might be perceived as empty promises, or worse, as codes of neo-colonialism. The interpretation of neo-colonialism must be taken seriously, as Iraq’s history demonstrates a collective misgiving toward, and mistrust of, the very notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ underlined by western capitalism. In the context of a media boom in Iraq after the invasion, and more importantly in the context of continued daily terror in the country, a delicate balance between the promotion of a free and independent press in line with human rights norms and an appropriate intervention into the media space to halt
rampant spread of misinformation and of incendiary speech, is not easy to achieve.


Notes

See CPA-Iraq.org. Due to the dissolution of the CPA, the site for the CPA-Iraq Coalition is no longer being updated. It will remain available for historical purposes until June 30, 2006.

By mid-2003, it was estimated that in Baghdad alone newsstands held about 90 newspapers between the daily, bi-weekly, and weekly ones. In the rest of the country the number of publications had also mushroomed, with small radio and TV stations joining in. Meanwhile, the main
political groups within Iraq have set up or revived publications, such as Al-Adala of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Al-Manar (which was very critical of the occupying power). In addition, Al-Ittihad, organ of Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Taakhi(Brotherhood), of the Kurdish Democratic party of Massoud Barzani, were the two Arabic-language Kurdish papers distributed in Baghdad. In the field of print news, the most credible as well as the biggest in size was Azzaman (The Times), founded in London by an exiled journalist formerly working under Hussein, selling 30,000 copies in Baghdad. Countless shops were selling TV satellite dishes, receiving foreign all-news stations as well as Arab stations such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabyia and LBC-Al Hayat. The TV station set up by the Iraqi Media Network (IMN) broadcast soap operas, Iraqi folk songs, and football matches. Programmes were interspersed with announcements by the Coalition authorities and the UN. While the IMN had a virtual monopoly of non-satellite TV in Baghdad, radio broadcasting in Baghdad was more diverse; the IMN station had an AM and an FM station broadcasting around the clock. But the BBC, Radio Sawa and RMC-Moyen-Orient (RMC-MO) were the most listened-to stations.

See, e.g., Arab Press Freedom Watch Final Report of its Fact Finding Mission to Iraq, ‘Working with Iraqi journalists: Towards a free and independent media’, available at AFPW; Khalid Serhan Hurrat, Lisa Isabel Leidig, ‘Iraq’, in Mass Media in the Middle East: a comprehensive handbook 96-108 (Yahya R. Kamalipour and Hamid Mowlana eds., 1994); Richard Keeble, ‘The myth of Saddam Hussein: new militarism and the propaganda function of the human interest story’, in Media Ethics 66-81 (Matthew Kieran ed., 1998).

Luke Harding, ‘Iraq extends Al-Jazeera ban and raids offices’, The Guardian, September 6, 2004.

See CPA-Iraq.org.

See ARTICLE 19, Memorandum on Draft Iraqi Media Laws, November 2004.

Jersild v. Denmark, 25 September 1994, Application No. 15890/89, para. 35.

Erdogdu and Ince v. Rurkey, 8 July 1999, Application Nos. 25067/94 and 25068/94, para. 54.

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2. Man With Camera

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Intellectuals

Edward R. Murrow

“I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of culture and our defense.” –Edward R Murrow (1958)

“It is all in the grand tradition of American anti-intellectualism: the suspicion of thought, of words. And it very much serves the purposes of the present administration. Hiding behind the humbug that the attack of last 11 September was too horrible, too devastating, too painful, too tragic for words — that words could not possibly do justice to our grief and indignation — our leaders have a perfect excuse to drape themselves in borrowed words of contempt.” –Susan Sontag (2002)

Outside the pedagogical tasks of babysitting (high school), transitioning (college), re-infantilizing (graduate school), and hegemonizing (professional training for business, the law, and medicine), intellectuals have two roles in US public life. The first is to be technocrats, providing solutions to problems that will make money or allow governments to achieve policy targets. The second is to offer cultural critique and political intelligence to the élite, both inside and outside the state. Sometimes it appears as though critical public intellectuals in the US are, in the words of the Economist, ‘a tiny, struggling species, whose habitat is confined to a few uptown apartments in New York and the faculties of certain universities’ (“Susan” 2005).

Neoliberals and conservatives utilize the media spectacularly. Policy proposals are left up to their corporate masters, because right-wing media discourse does not undertake rational analyses aimed at technocratic outcomes. Instead, it works via a blend of grass-roots religious superstition and public outreach that stresses column inches and shouted seconds, not professional expertise (Kallick 2002). Funded by some of the wealthiest US foundations and families, such as Olin, Scaife, Koch, Castle Rock, and Smith Richardson, there are over three hundred right-wing ‘coin-operated’ think-tanks in Washington, dealing with topics from sexuality to foreign policy. They hire ghost-writers to make their resident intellectuals’ prose attractive — a project to market opinion, rather than to conduct research. Each “study” they fund is essentially the alibi for an op-ed piece. The corollary numbers for media coverage are striking. Progressive think-tanks had a sixth share of media quotation compared to reactionary institutions during the 1990s. In the decade to 2005, reactionaries averaged 51% of citations and progressives 14%; journalists even call the supposedly independent Heritage Foundation when the White House has no-one available. If we believe in market-based rhetoric, then the people who appear on the major three TV networks’ newscasts as experts should be indices of consumer desire; in which case, the public “wants” 92% of these mavens to be white, 90% born between 1945 and 1960, 85% male, and 75% Republican. That might expose us to the cohort that is responsible for our troubles, but not to disinterested critique (Karr 2005; Alterman 2003: 85; Dolny 2003 and 2005; Hart 2005: 52; Claussen 2004: 56; Love 2003: 246; Cohen 2005).

Media attention does not correlate with scholarly esteem or achievement, and the academics most likely to be interviewed have worked in government. These public intellectuals are general rather than specific in their remarks, and disdainful of both theory and fact — an unusual combination. They have displaced expertise and journalism with position-taking. It can be no accident that Fox News Channel, which employs few journalists and foreign bureaux, has the most pundits on its payroll of any US network — over fifty in 2003 (Tugend 2003). Margaret Carlson, a correspondent for Time and one of CNN’s vocalists, explained the key qualifications for her television work in these damning words: ‘The less you know about something, the better off you are … sound learned without confusing the matter with too much knowledge’ (quoted in Alterman 2003: 32).

The system bespeaks the right’s success at culture capture. This taps into a rich vein of anti-intellectualism that derives from creepy Christianity, populism, and instrumentalism. It dates back to newspaper assaults on John Quincy Adams for ‘book learning’ and Adlai Stevenson as effeminate (Claussen 2004: 18-21, 40-41). There is minimal room for intellection on network television, as the still-extant mass audience is the target, and is assumed to despise universities. So few if any professional academicians appear on air to explain the history of US foreign policy, despite the country’s relationships with oil interests, arms manufacturers, and despots to keep oil prices low; its complex twists and turns supporting and undermining various brands of Islam and Arab rule; and its bizarre insistence on an ethical reputation, while essentially rejecting international law other than over copyright. Nor do we see consistently competent contextualization of the hypocrisies and horrors of its opponents. Instead, a jingoistic and spiritual message comes through, juxtaposing freedom and decency with repression and fanaticism in a way that always seems to break down the binary rather disturbingly, and heightens a sense of risk without explaining it other than via the clash twins. E pluribus unum is part of the networks’ discourse, but it is applied as a loyalty test, where talking in a way that is counter to the Administration is equated with lack of professional objectivity, and the unity of the nation is embodied in military action, seemingly the last legitimate government arena.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi was unusual — a critical Arab intellectual able to enter the lists of such discussions. He was ushered in because his work had been plagiarized by a British intelligence dossier that Colin Powell formally presented to the Security Council in 2003. Al-Marashi (2004) hoped to use this as a platform to differentiate himself from on-air Iraqi-Americans, who were calling for invasion and destruction. But of the hundreds of interviews he gave, virtually none presented the opportunity for commentary on the war. He was restricted to the discourse of secreted weaponry. Not surprisingly, my search through Lexis-Nexis found that Edward Said’s by-line did not appear in any US newspaper in the 18 months after September 11, finally reemerging in July 2003 (Said 2003). By contrast, subscribers to the Independent, El País, the Guardian, the Observer, Rebelión.org, and the Weekend Australian had the opportunity to read him during this period.

Academics are sometimes excluded through direct political action rather than deregulatory pressures, popular-cultural obsessions, ignorance, or jingoism. For example, the right-wing think-tanks that dominate Washington policy on the Middle East have sought to discredit area studies across US universities, especially Middle-Eastern programs. The Washington Institute for Near East Studies is the key front organization for the Republican Party, while institutions like the American Jewish Congress, Campus Watch, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (run by the Vice-President’s wife) warn against ‘Middle Eastern Arabs’ in universities, and place conservatives in vital opinion-making fora that feed into TV current affairs, such as the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times (Beinin 2003 135; Whitaker 2002; Brynen 2002; Davidson 2002; Abrahamian 2003; Merriman 2004).

Away from the live media, the Arab world has been chided for being closed to ideas from the outside, as measured by the fact that only 330 books are translated from foreign languages annually. But the US, with an almost equal population and a vastly bigger book trade, translates the same number! The comparison of these two regions with the rest of the world is highly unflattering on this score. Still, with books can come knowledge, and something must be done about that. Attorney-General John Ashcroft recognized their importance when he interpreted the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act) to permit FBI scrutiny of book-buying and borrowing — but not fire-arm purchase (Dilday 2003; Grieve 2003).

Meanwhile, the government establishes front organizations to select, train, and promote apparently independent figures. The State Department financed the Iraq Public Diplomacy Group, which coached Iraqis to appear on US television in support of positions prepared for them, on the grounds that they would be more effective than Yanquis. The Iraqi National Congress was the creation and creature of the CIA, via the Agency’s public-relations consultant, the Rendon Group, whose motto reads ‘information as an element of power.’ Its advertised services run the gamut from generating ‘a favorable environment before privatization begins’ to providing alibis for state violence. It coordinated propaganda for the 1989 invasion of Panama and the 1991 Gulf War, and has received more than US$100 million from the CIA (Alterman 2003: 82-83; Rampton and Stauber 2003: 55, 43; Downing and Husband 2005: 73; Chatterjee, 2004).

The press should be interviewing intellectuals trained in area studies, military strategy, international law, business ethics, and battlefield medicine. But that would provide media coverage that was multi-perspectival. Instead, the paranoid form of reporting favored by US networks militates against journalistic autonomy, other than when the information comes directly from battlefields and is a “soldier’s story” — or derives from the Pentagon or the Israeli government (Fisk, 2003). The prevailing doctrines of regulation favor a small number of large entities that appeal to anti-intellectualism, regardless of their niches. Scott Adams’ comic-strip Dilbert (Los Angeles Times, August 21 2005) parodies this beautifully via the fictitious ‘Dogbert Easy News Channel.’ Easy News provides ‘all the news that’s easy to gather’ and features ‘a debate between two middle-aged white guys’ about why ‘[p]eople in other countries want to kill us.’ One of the guests says it’s because ‘we are so wonderful.’ The other warns ‘[b]uy my book or you will all die.’

I have some limited experience of these tendencies. I worked for many years in Australian radio, and later as an academic commentator on popular culture. On coming to the US, I was interviewed fairly regularly across the media, I suppose because I was at NYU and had a plausibly English accent. Just days before September 11, I appeared on CNN International to talk about a crisis involving Afghan refugees in peril off the Australian coast. At the time, CNN had 23 satellites, 42 bureaux, and 150 foreign correspondents. But you’d never know it from watching the network’s parochial domestic stations, with their blinking, winking, walking-dead presenters, for all the world propped up by formaldehyde and dedicated to eastern-seaboard storms, missing white children, and entertainment news. The day I was interviewed, most of the workers at CNN in New York were tuned to CNN International, which actually covers news stories, as opposed to the network’s laughable domestic programs. Even so, during the interview, the anchorman looked at me disbelievingly as I listed the history of racialization by successive Australian administrations. He asked incredulously ‘So are you telling us that the Australian Government is racist?’ — another sign of the deluded faith in official sources that dogs contemporary Yanqui journalism’s ‘stenographic reporting’ (Moeller 2004: 71).

When I appeared on New York 1, a local cable news channel, shortly after the attacks on the US, I was asked to comment on the psychology of terrorists in a trans-historical way: What makes people do these things? Are they maladjusted? I endeavored to direct the conversation towards US foreign policy and its support of totalitarian regimes in the Middle East that restricted access to politics, hence turning religion into a zone of resistance. And I spoke of US TV journalists’ sparse and prejudicial narrative frames and background knowledge. The production staff later told me that the board lit up with supportive reaction when the program accepted phone calls from the public, and those I spoke with thanked me for saying the non dit. The staff said I would be invited back (but they may say that to all the boys). I was not. Station management eventually acknowledged that most of its coverage at the height of the crisis had not been ‘analytical,’ because the attack was ‘an open, gaping wound’ (quoted in Boehlert, 2002). By contrast, when Radio Scotland came to town and interviewed a stand-up-comedy venue owner, a media consultant, and myself about cultural reactions to these events, we were not dealing with overdetermined presuppositions from our questioners. There was time for me to draw on theory and history to complement their approaches. The same thing happened when I was interviewed on All-India Radio in Delhi. But when CBS News contacted me in 2005 to discuss George Bush Minor’s admission that he had instructed the National Security Agency to spy on US citizens sans judicial review, contra the law, something quite different occurred. The producer first asked me if I could contextualize this in terms of the history of the media during wartime. I replied that I could. He then asked me about the limits to publicizing information, and I indicated that whilst most critics would agree that the precise timing and location of an event such as D-Day could legitimately be kept secret, extra-juridical contravention of civil liberties would generally be considered another matter. The producer thanked me for my time, and noted that my services would not be required. He already had a lawyer to support the revelation, and needed someone who would attack the New York Times for having broken the story and forced Bush to tell the truth. He had not wanted the history of the media during wartime. He had wanted a nationalist, opposed to civil liberties.

WORKS CITED

Abrahamian, Ervand. (2003). “The US Media, Huntington and September 11.” Third World Quarterly 24, no. 3: 529-44.

Al-Marashi, Ibrahim. (2004). “An Insider’s Assessment of Media Punditry and “Operation Iraqi Freedom”.” Transnational Broadcasting Studies 12.

Alterman, Eric. (2003). What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: Basic Books.

Beinin, Joel. (2003). “The Israelization of American Middle East Policy Discourse.” Social Text 75: 125-39.

Boehlert, Eric. (2002, August 26). “Too Hot to Handle.” AlterNet.org.

Brynen, Rex. (2002). “Cluster-Bombs and Sandcastles: Kramer on the Future of Middle East Studies in America.” Middle East Journal 56, no. 2: 323-28.

Chatterjee, Pratap. (2004, August 4). “Information Warriors.” Corpwatch.org.

Claussen, Dane S. (2004). Anti-Intellectualism in American Media: Magazines & Higher Education. New York: Peter Lang.

Cohen, Mark Francis. (2005, April/May). “The Quote Machines.” American Journalism Review.

Davidson, Lawrence. (2002). “Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America.” Middle East Policy 9, no. 3: 148-52.

Dilday, K. A. (2003, May 1). “Lost in Translation: The Narrowing of the American Mind.” openDemocracy.net.

Dolny, Michael. (2003, July/August). “Spectrum Narrows Further in 2002: Progressive, Domestic Think Tanks see Drop.” EXTRA!Update.

Dolny, Michael. (2005, May/June). “Right, Center Think Tanks Still Most Quoted.” EXTRA!: 28-29.

Downing, John and Charles Husband. (2005). Representing ‘Race’: Racisms, Ethnicities and Media. London: Sage.

Fisk, Robert. (2003, February 25). “How the News will be Censored in the War.” Independent.

Grieve, Tim. (2003, March 25). “”Shut your Mouth”.” Salon.com.

Hart, Peter. (2005, February 4). “Struggling MSNBC Attempts to Out-Fox Fox.” EXTRA!Update.

Kallick, David Dyssegaard. (2002). Progressive Think Tanks: What Exists, What’s Missing? Report for the Program on Governance and Public Policy. Open Society Institute.

Karr, Timothy. (2005, April 12). “Is Cheap Broadband Un-American?” Media Citizen.

Love, Maryann Cusimano. (2003). “Global Media and Foreign Policy.” Media Power, Media Politics. Ed. Mark J. Rozell. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 235-64.

Merriman, Rima. (2004, March 11). “Middle Eastern Studies Seen as Against American Interests.” Jordan Times.

Moeller, Susan D. (2004). “A Moral Imagination: The Media’s Response to the War on Terrorism.” Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime. Ed. Stuart Allan and Barbie Zelizer. London: Routledge. 59-76.

Murrow, Edward R. (1958, October 15). Speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, Chicago.

Rampton, Sheldon and John Stauber. (2003). Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq. New York: Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin.

Said, Edward. (2003, July 20). “Blind Imperial Arrogance: Vile Stereotyping of Arabs by the U. S. Ensures Years of Turmoil.” Los Angeles Times.

Sontag, Susan. (2002, September 16). “How Grief Turned into Humbug.” New Statesman.

“Susan Sontag.” (2005, January 8). Economist: 77.

Tugend, Alina. (2003, May). “Pundits for Hire.” American Journalism Review.

Whitaker, Brian. (2002, August 19). “US Thinktanks Give Lessons in Foreign Policy.” Guardian.

Image Credits:

1. Edward R. Murrow

Please feel free to comment.




Football Talk

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University, UK

Real Football

Chelea/Thailand

To be simultaneously a football fan and a critical academic is not easy. By ‘football’, I mean what Americans call ‘soccer’, which was originally an abbreviation of ‘Association Football’. It is what most people around the world call ‘football’. There are other games that call themselves ‘football’ but they do not really count, although what I have to say here largely applies to them as well. In the game that I am referring to, the player is not allowed to touch the ball by hand, that is, except for the goalkeeper, who is permitted to do so.

Why is it difficult for a critical academic to be a football fan? Well, for a start, there is so much to criticise. I know there are scholars of media and cultural studies who are not critically minded so this is not a problem for them. However, I am not one of their number. Frankly, I cannot see much point in what I do if it is not critical. There are plenty of other people outside academia actually employed to celebrate and promote prevailing media and cultural arrangements. They do not need my help. There are fewer of us in any case and we may be a dwindling band.

The difficulty here is greatly exacerbated by liking what you criticise. Perhaps ‘liking’ is too vague a word. ‘Addicted’ might be more appropriate. What is it that I like? The game itself, to be sure – I also like talking about it, perhaps even more so. Furthermore, I like listening to other people talking about it too: footballers, coaches and commentators as well as other fans. To tell you the truth, I do not much like listening to fans of other clubs than mine talking about their own teams. I do not mind so much listening to commentators talk about other clubs. I also listen to them talk about international football, especially the trials and tribulations of the England team having to face other countries that have the temerity to try and beat us. Yet, I do not generally regard myself as being particularly nationalistic or even patriotic.

Where do I listen to all this talk? On television, of course. In Britain, not unusually, there is a great deal of talk about football on television, including the older terrestrial channels and the newer Sky Sports channels, owned by Rupert Murdoch. One of these channels is almost entirely devoted to football but does not actually show any matches. Instead, it gives minute by minute reports on what is happening in football or, rather, what is being said about football. These reports are repeated endlessly with updates. Much of what is said, very often by retired footballers, about what is going on now is utterly banal, no more sophisticated than that which might be said by any reasonably competent football fan. However, when it comes to matches on other channels, Sky and terrestrial, the talk becomes very analytical. When Sky screens a live match, which it does several times a week, the programmes are usually twice as long as the match itself. There is an hour or so of talk about football before the match and, then, an hour or so afterwards. Clips are commented upon, coaches, fans and players are interviewed.

Sky and the BBC both have preview shows around Saturday lunchtime for the matches that afternoon. The BBC one recently featured Tony Blair, who spoke much more truthfully about football than he ever does about politics. Sky has a regular panel of ex-footballers who also watch the matches while they are being played on screens that we viewers cannot see; and they tell us about them. On Sundays there are discussion programmes on yesterday’s matches, one of them a breakfast session of journalists from the national newspapers talking about the issues, with them eating their breakfasts whilst pontificating. There is a great deal of talk about football on television. You can attend to it all day long if you want.

Why? Several years ago, Umberto Eco commented upon this kind of ‘sports chatter’ from an Italian perspective. He remarked, generally speaking ‘there exists only chatter about chatter about sport’. It consists of ‘evaluations, judgments, arguments, polemical remarks, denigrations, and paeans follow a verbal ritual, very complex but with simple and precise rules’. According to Eco, this was ‘the parody of political talk’. I think it is true that a great many men prefer to talk about sport and football, in particular, than about politics; quite a few women do so too, though most women usually talk about something else that is not to do with the world of official politics. It has often been remarked that people do not talk about politics because their say does not count and it’s boring anyway. As Jean Baudrillard observed, talking about politics is for the political class, not for the masses. It is ‘the evil genius of the masses’ to demonstrate their contempt for that remote discourse by being interested in and talking about something else that is much more entertaining.

However, this is troubling from the point of view of dialogic democracy. After all, if we do not talk, we do not participate. Instead, we talk about something like football. Football talk on television — and in ‘real life’ — displays all the features of a kind of dialogic democracy where everyone’s opinion counts and is violently disagreed with. Much of the talk is dialectical. People who know very little about politics and care less about it do know a lot about something else and they talk about it passionately in a keen spirit of debate. It is obvious to say, then, that football talk is not just idle chatter but, in some sense, a displacement of politics. Whether this is a safety valve or not is open to debate. No doubt it does not fully explain such fascination with sport and especially football, the pleasurable release and all that. However, it might go some way towards explaining why something that is so unimportant seems so important.

Image Credits:

1. Chelea/Thailand

Sky Sports

Please feel free to comment.




Reflections on Katrina in Brazil

I think I know where I am. To my university, I am in the Amazon, land of myth and enchanted Edens, in the words of Candace Slater. To Brazilians, I am in Manaus, home to the eighth largest city nationally and the largest free trade zone in the Americas. To residents, called Manuaras, I spend my time in the peripheries of the city, Jorge Teixeira, Sao Jose Operario, and Compensa. Here, I am interviewing workers, mostly women, who work for television set factories. Outsiders to these neighborhoods cannot imagine where I am aside from the usual stereotypes of jungles and Indians or slums and criminals. When Hurricane Katrina flooded my city of New Orleans and occupied the news media here for more than a week, however, insiders no longer understood where I was from.

old world map

Old World Map

I see the satellite image at the cyber-cafe cross the street from the hotel I have called home for the previous month. The swirls of red and green are moving towards a dislocated peninsula somewhere in the United States. The map seems as foreign to me at that moment as the culture of the city I was calling my temporary home.

There’s a hurricane coming, I tell a group of women casually at a sewing collective for unemployed factory workers. It is the Friday pre-Katrina.

Quizzical responses. You get those a lot, no? That’s just a lot of rain, right? They shrug, reminding me of the way longtime New Orleanians have done the same every rainy season.

I try to punctuate the words. No but it’s so big it could destroy the entire city. More shrugs and perhaps an attempt to sympathize. We get a lot of rain too. You should be here from December to June.

“What did she say?” another asks the room.

Some kind of earthquake in her city, responds the first.

*****

Monday I am at the offices for a local newspaper looking at archive photos for my project. In my selections, workers smile through empty TV cabinets on the assembly line. They will reproduce well, I think to myself. Images seem to cajole us into thinking that we can understand a context anonymously. A journalist asks if he can do a short article on me and Katrina.

“What is a levee?” the novice writer asks.

“It’s like a dam, but it looks like a big hill that protects the city from water.” I don’t know how to translate this word.

Sounds very advanced.

“I’m afraid it won’t work and people will die.”

Are you sure that people will die or just afraid people will die? He is trying to clarify my meaning, but he can’t understand. He faces the computer screen as he types and retypes my words. “But you have no family there.”

“But I have my friends, my work, my house,” I justify.

I went back to the cyber-cafe. Two more levees broke and the city has been filling with water all day.

Tuesday morning the newspaper story takes about one-fifth of a page inside. There is a profile shot of me, tan and smiling, like the women behind the TV cabinets. The article read, “She had no family here.” His notes meant that I was not really from there.

*****

The beginning of the week and New Orleans news now dominates Brazilian media over reports of widespread government corruption. Our hurricanes are different, repeat several observers to me. Despite the lack of all communications in the city, Brazilians become completely fluent in the details of Furacao Katreeennaa. The cyber-cafe owner explains the topography of New Orleans to me and the problems with budgetary funding for the levee system. The sewing group recites to me the differences between a Category 4 and a Category 5 storm. Meanwhile it has not rained in the Amazon for months, causing the most dire drought there in 60 years.

In contrast, I continue to be hopelessly ignorant. Four nights and counting, I’m watching CNN (I can’t watch this in Portuguese). I gasp at what I think I recognize. I know that intersection, that building, that neighborhood. But what about my street? My apartment? I have to struggle not to fill the void in my head with the reports of looting, mayhem, and death. This happens every hour as the same images are re-broadcast. I want to save the outdated satellite images of my building from Google Earth as a momento.

*****

Still Brazilians “know” that the U.S. is rich.

“How are you doing?” asks a concerned university professor here at the federal campus.

“I think we may have lost everything,” I sigh.

“Oh but the insurance will pay.”

“I don’t have insurance.”

“Then the government will just give it all back to you.”

The prime-time telenovela passing on the television now is America. Set in against a colorful yet gleaming Miami skyline, the Americans that Brazilians imagine continue to be blessed with easy fame and fortune. Even when the furacao came into the storyline, it brought gentle rain and a light breeze.

*****

Thursday I go to a city-sponsored fair where the sewing group sells their crafts. They have not sold anything today and middle-class people sniff at the prices. The woman that everyone refers to as the happy one, talks to me for the first time since I met her three weeks ago.

“I lost my house last April. We were sleeping when the rains eroded the wall holding it. I’ll never forget the noise. Pieces of the house started falling down the hill. I left with the kids but my husband was trapped in a part where the roof collapsed. The room was filling with water. When my cousin came, he broke through the metal and gashed his foot. When we got to my husband, the water was up to his neck. We survived.”

“And your house?” I ask.

“We lost everything. We live with my mother.”

I take inventory of the luxuries I have in my hotel room: hot water, cable television, and an air conditioning unit. I am not from Miami, nor from Manaus.

*****

New Orleans Under Water

New Orleans Under Water

For me, news bytes become ironic ways of seeing similarities and differences between two cultures that misunderstand each other. On Friday both Manaus and New Orleans are 36-degrees Celsius with over 80 percent humidity. In the former, 80 percent of the city was without water after a power generator that fed the water company had to be shut off. In the latter, 80 percent of the city was under water according to the Mayor. This means that in both cities, bodies are dirty and thirsty. I roll the blue anti-malarial pills around in my hand after a CNN reporter cites the possibility of malaria in Louisiana. Here, the papers cite the highest incidences of malarial deaths in eight years. And I have not even been bitten.

Before the hurricane, I made a class presentation to a university extension class in the periphery. In the question period, a returning student asked what it was like to come from a developed country to an underdeveloped country.

“I don’t like those terms,” I parried in my best professorial voice. Some have called Brazil “Belinda,” part-Belgium, part-India. I think that in some ways Manaus is very developed. To demonstrate, I asked them how many of them owned cell phones. All hands in the classroom of working class people rose affirmatively.

A week later, though, I get the response that the student was expecting. The continuous blog for the New Orleans newspaper reports that my city has lost all modern communications, electricity, and potable water. New Orleans has become a Third World city.

Image Credits:

1. Old World Map

2. New Orleans Under Water

Please feel free to comment.




War, “Incendiary Media,” and International Law (Part II)

\

“Incendiary Media”

In Part 1 of this article that appeared in Volume 3, Issue 2, I introduced to critical media studies practitioners a human rights legal mode of examining the problem of media intervention in post-conflict societies. Media intervention refers to the means of getting involved in a humanitarian crisis where there is evidence that the media space has been manipulated to incite hatred and violence. In post-war times, as in present-day Iraq, the intervention switches to a focus on the redevelopment and democratization of the damaged media space. In this second part of a three-part exploration, I turn to international human rights norms that justify the legality of media intervention practices. In the next and final part, I will examine the problems faced by Iraq regarding the media intervention projects conducted by the interim government before the current moment of constitution legislation.

In international law, the primacy given to the jus cogens principle of non-interventionism presents a serious legal challenge to the media intervention model. The same principle also tends to underline international telecommunications law governing territorial sovereignty with respect to the protection of airwaves and the flow of information. The principle of non-intervention has clearly appeared since the creation of the League of Nations. Explicitly, Article 2(7) of the UN Charter states that “[n]othing in the present charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” Some United Nations General Assembly declarations have also enshrined this principle, such as that on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (G.A. Res. 2625 (XXV), 24 Oct. 1970). Although not legally binding, these Declarations establish that every state is sovereign and equal in law vis-a-vis every other state.

If the veneer of humanitarian intervention has been demystified and hence its legal basis denied, how can media or information intervention campaigns be executed legally? For those who endeavor to advance media intervention as a human rights practice, the UN Charter has indeed provided an inspiring source of legal support. The Charter can authorize Security Council resolutions in order to extend humanitarian aid to conflict-ridden zones. Yet there is a stronger ground for the Charter to exert authority into sovereign states, and that is through the very concept of constitutionalism. Insofar as governance and self-determination within a state rests on constitutionalism, at least two legal consequences follow. Besides the obligation to protect “the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society,” the state’s constitution is at the same time bound to international legal obligations through the UN Charter and other international treaty norms. In the relationship between national constitutionally derived obligations and international norms, a given state and its sovereignty is rendered not an absolute or exclusive sovereignty. Under Article 41 in Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council may decide measures to maintain peace and security, including “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.” As such, a UN-authorized information intervention campaign aimed at restoring peace and security (or aimed at thwarting media outlets that threaten peace and security, or impede the effect of prior Security Council resolutions) appears to be prima facie legal.

Jamie Metzl

Jamie Metzl

One form of aid that the Security Council can authorize in the area of information intervention is the facilitation of “peace broadcasting.” Jamie Metzl defines peace broadcasting as “any non-incendiary transmissions broadcast from an intervening state directly into a target state as part of the intervening state’s attempt to prevent or stop a human rights crisis.” Aided by the vast technical capability of media broadcasting across national territories today (e.g. through Direct Broadcasting Satellites), non-incendiary transmissions broadcast can therefore be presumed to be a legal practice as long as it satisfies humanitarian obligations. Further, peace broadcasting can be seen as a pre-emptive action that does not necessarily violate the non-intervention principle.

Further legal justifications can be found in international treaties. Article 19(2) of the ICCPR provides for the right to freely receive information regardless of frontiers. Even more broadly, media intervention aimed at preventing mass suffering can be justified legally by applying Article 20 of the ICCPR. Article 20(1) states that “[a]ny propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law,” while section (2) states that “[a]ny advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” Moreover, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination condemns all dissemination of ideas of racial superiority by individuals or organizations that incite racial discrimination. In still broader terms, the American Convention on Human Rights prohibits any advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitements to lawless violence “on any grounds including those of race, color, religion, language, or national origin.” Further, the European Convention on Human Rights also puts restriction on freedom of expression should speech or any other activities are aimed at the destruction of other rights and freedoms set forth in the Convention (Article 17). Undoubtedly, it is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide that provides the strongest and clearest statement allowing media interventions. Article III (c) makes explicit a punishable crime to the “direct and public incitement to commit genocide.” Formerly appearing under the name of “crime against humanity” used in the Nuremberg trials, the crime of “incitement” to commit genocide has been identified today largely with media outlets and practitioners, as seen in the high-profiled ICTR trials and convictions of media personalities responsible for spreading hate speech that led to the Rwandan genocide. This and other legal precedents can be cited to lend support the need for preventive, pre-emptive, and proactive measures to predict and intervene in potential mass suffering due in part to the role of incendiary media.

In sum, it may be instructive to briefly contrast the “freedom of speech model” underpinning general civil and political rights and the customary principle of non-intervention, with the “media intervention model” that requires the restriction of speech rights and the exception to the non-intervention principle.


Freedom of Media Model (underpinned by Non-intervention Principle)

Information / Media Intervention Model

1 Protection of freedom of expression as a high standard Restriction of freedom of expression in crisis conditions
2 Media are conceptualized as diverse and free-flowing, i.e. “marketplace of ideas” Media are seen as political tools subject to nationalistic and regime-controlled manipulation
3 Rooted in classic liberalism Highlights the virtue of interventionism and humanitarianism
4 Rests upon constitutional legal foundation in the national and international contexts Emphasizes compliance with international humanitarian principles at the inter-governmental level
5 Based on normative provisions Based on pre-emptive and/or restorative actions
6 Promotes indigenous use of media and dissemination of information Promotes Western model of democratic information flow
7 Reliance on power and trust of local media and national government Reliance on credibility of international legal norms and institutions (e.g. UN, donor governments)
8 Permits space for all speech types and forms Empowers voices of moderation, stability and peace
9 Supported by major international conventions, treaties, and customary norms Ambiguous legal authority (although may be authorized by the UN Charter); May be driven less by law than by politics
10 Tends to retreat from responding to situation of human rights abuse by rogue media Tends to over-exert influence, potentially crossing the line into new forms of media censorship and hegemonic control

Notes
Jamie F. Metzl, “Information intervention: When switching channels isn’t enough,” 76(6) Foreign Affairs, 15-21 (1997).
See, for instance, Hussein Amin, “Social Engineering: Transnational Broadcasting and Its Impact on Peace in the Middle East”, available at http://lass.calumet.purdue.edu/.
Unfortunately, the Rwanda tragedy was partly the result of a total lack of political will in the international community to intervene. Likewise, the Bosnian war led to the Dayton Peace Accord that contained next to no provisions about the media. Weak international intervention prolonged these wars. See Alison Des Forges, “Silencing the voices of hate in Rwanda,” in Forging Peace (eds. Peter Krug and Monroe Price. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), at 236-256. See also Mark Thompson and Dan de Luce, “Media intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” in Forging Peace, at 201-235.

Image Credits:

1. “Incendiary Media”

2. Jamie Metzl

Please feel free to comment.




When Mullahs Ride the Airwaves: Muslim Televangelists and the Saudi Connection

Dishes and Mosque

Dishes and Mosque

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“Soccer is not an illicit form of entertainment, but when practiced in violation of shariah, then it is as abhorrent as any other sin…. When we fanatically love non-Muslim players who perform the sign of the cross upon entering or leaving the field…or when Muslim players imitate the pagan dance of famous infidel players when they score, or put forbidden things on their chests, that’s not acceptable.” The author of this soccer fatwa is Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-Munajid on a set of Islam’s powerful spokeschannel, Iqra’ TV.

Until recently sheikhs like Al-Munajid were only able to reach their audience through audio and video recordings sold on Arab black street markets. Those who preached a rigorous interpretation of Islam had a minimal impact among fringe groups of Arab populations, but as satellite technology becomes greatly appealing to the religious and the secular alike, television channels with a strict religious message as Iqra’ are quickly setting shop. Inaugurated in 1998, Iqra’ is Saudi Arabia’s most recent and probably most effective campaign of spreading its Wahhabi doctrine, which the channel’s producers temper by saying on their website that their mission is to bring “the teachings of Islam into the homes and hearts of Arabs worldwide.” The Saudis take issue with the Wahhabi label because it makes them look less as the real Islam and more like a sect that is highly disputed in some respectable religious circles. But the systematic indoctrination of imams and financing of religious schools and mosques around the world reveal a rigid reading of Islam which forbids close interaction with non-Muslims and calls for the literal application of shariah laws across the region, including hand amputation for theft, sword beheading for capital crimes, and denying women any role in public life.

For years, Saudi Arabia had to flaunt its generosity towards poor Muslim countries by building hospitals, schools, universities and mosques even in Western Europe and the United States. According to Saudi officials, between 1975 and 2002, the Riyadh government spent more than $70 billion on Islamic projects around the world, excluding the millions of dollars volunteered by Saudi charity foundations and unidentified philanthropists. An estimated 80 percent of mosques in the U.S. are funded by Saudi Arabia, according to Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of America. While the funding of mosques and the ideological direction of those who frequent them do not necessarily correlate, the influence of the Saudis over the content of the sermons, the training of imams, and the substance of Islamic schools’ curricula is undeniable.

Religious spending per se is not the problem here, but it is the extremist ideology promoted thanks to this cash availability that is disturbing. The voices of intransigent Islam are featured frequently on the airwaves of Iqra’, and their edicts are often consistent with the Wahhabi attempt to purge Islam of what is perceived as foreign threat disguised as societal change. In fact, some of the messages on the channel can be extreme like Saudi cleric Aed Al-Qarni’s recent on-the-air endorsement of suicide bombing. “Houses and young men must be sacrificed,” he says, “Throats must be slit and skulls must be shattered. This is the road to victory and to shahada (sacrifice). Oh brothers, the idolatrous Vietnamese, Cambodians, and South Africans….Nations with no calling or divine law make sacrifices–sacrificing people, blood, and souls. All the more so should we, the nation of Islam.” And some show moderators often appear as enlightened by their guests’ revelations as when Egyptian historian, Zaynab Abdel Aziz tells a show host that the “Vatican delegated the US to carry out 9/11.”

While religious platforms such as Iqra’ do not call for jihad bluntly, theycontribute to an increasingly radicalized religious culture in the Arab world, making every facet of social, cultural, and economic life a religious issue in need of a fatwa. Fatwas range from Muslim women needing to comply with their husbands’ desire in bed even if they don’t want to, to why hands of stealers should be chopped, to whether Muslims should shake hands with Jews. Iqra’ (literally: “recite” or “read in an
intelligent way”), has found a fertile ground in a region still lacking basic political reforms and jaded with repetitious autocratic and corrupt regimes. For years, religious groups–mostly underground–in the Arab world have become the only viable alternative: when the health
system fails customarily in these countries, Islamic groups with disposable cash can intervene with their own doctors for free; when schools educate poorly, the same groups offer their own teachers for free. In the wake of natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, religious groups often respond quickly and more efficiently than governments to help the victims and alleviate their losses, as was the case in the earthquakes of Algeria and last year’s floods of northeastern Morocco. The failure of secular regimes to provide minimum social welfare and secure political freedom in the region has steadily nurtured a new perception whereby the state benefits the elite while religion benefits the masses.

This is why the world of Arab media seems swamped with religious messages, but by now, Arabs have evolved since the state-owned, everything-is-fine, and dull television channels. So, in order to appeal to a more media saturated audience, the producers of Iqra’ are taunting their skills by making religious preaching less shabby and threatening. The on-screen graphics and studio sets are comparable to entertainment television, but nothing is more alluring than the new look of Islamic scholars and sheikhs who do not always conform to the conventional image of a preacher in a mosque. In fact, many of these preachers and scholars wear suits and use softer tones than usual. Some of them are young and do not claim to be a religious authority like the channel’s superstar preacher, Amr Khaled, a 38-year-old who hosts one of the most popular programs on Arab television, Sunaa al Hayat (Life Makers).

Khaled, who has become a household name across the Arab world, is seemingly an anomaly in the Saudi quest to popularize Wahhabism: he is young, a business accountant not a religious scholar, and with a somewhat liberal and tolerant approach to Islamic preaching. Khaled’s fame at Iqra’ was preceded by a long showdown with Egyptian authorities who expelled him from Egypt after his religious lectures had become spiritual revelations for thousands of well-to-do women and youth in the country. His age, modern look (wearing jeans or a suit and clean-shaven), and the use of colloquial Arabic make him accessible to a young Arab audience extremely tired of the staid, disconnected sheikhs of Islam. But what made Khaled’s message appealing to the Saudi channel Iqra’; is that it is liberal only in style and quite conservative in substance. During his lectures and discussions on the hijab, Khaled is rarely original in citing the reasons why Muslim women should be veiled. Women are the pillars of Islamic education and wearing the veil, he says, is a selfless gesture to protect the sanctity of the faith itself: “I think that the primary purpose of legislating hijab, other than preservation of virtue, is…to remind people in the street about Islam; there will be no way better than hijab.” Islam’s integrity, he says on his show, depends on the virtue of its women and since their responsibility in the temptation of men is inevitable, veiling is a must, even if you don’t understand. While Khaled’s message lacks in originality and critical quality, his highly emotional, talk-show style provides an innovative and soothing statement that you can be pious and still remain modern and cool. And the Amr Khaled phenomenon has just begun despite some already unprecedented television ratings for his show: five million viewers tune in to his weekly show and his web site records millions of hits daily.

By putting Khaled next to the old and conventional sheikhs, Iqra’s producers are hoping to change the moral path of young Arabs who are still deeply influenced by Western popular culture. Major Internet chat rooms in the region are teeming with testimonies, particularly of young women thanking Khaled for convincing them to put on the veil. Programming this year included not only talk shows and lectures, but dramas and cartoons. It is hard to quantify the impact of Khaled’s hip preaching and Iqra’s religious broadcasting, but religion has never been this popular from Cairo to Casablanca. At a time when political regimes in the region continuously fail their constituency and Islam is the subject of humiliating headlines, Khaled and a wave of young preachers seem not only innovative, but also vengeful in a let’s-go-back-to-the-roots fashion. It is therefore not a surprise to find Saudi Arabia at the helm of this religious survival in disguise. Though Wahhabism may never become a preferred doctrine of Muslim Arabs, its signature of uncritical, exclusionary spirituality is quickly infiltrating Arab living rooms and delaying badly needed reforms both in religious interpretations and political rule.

The 30-year-old executive manager of Iqra’, Mohammad Hammam, likes to think of his channel as serving a double mission: counter the post-September 11 image of Islam and guide Muslims to understand better their own religion. Many of the ideas propagated from the sets of the channel, however, belie the core of this mission. If there is one, it seems to be to flood the airwaves with a fatigued interpretation of religion simply refurbished with funky jingles and beardless preachers.

Link
Iqra’ TV

Image Credits

1. Dishes and Mosque

Please feel free to comment.




War, Incendiary Media, and International Law (Part I)

War Protesters In Iraq

War Protesters in Iraq

In numerous major military conflicts of the past twenty years, of which the Iraqi war was/is the most recent, there has been an increased focus for observers in international law on the abuse of the media to engender violence, ethnic hatred, and even genocide. The media, particularly radio and the internet, have been identified as significant political tools for mass manipulation by dictatorial governments to drive deep seated animosity between social and ethnic groups, resulting in an intense atmosphere of mistrust, misinformation, and devastating killings. Nationalistic and propagandistic constructions of ethnophobia in the media helped shape wars and justify mass violence, through pitching Serbs against Croats, Hutus against Tutsis, Muslims against Roman Catholics, the Iraqis against the Kurds. What these media-influenced atrocities have made clear is that critical media studies must be reconfigured to respond to these and other crisis conditions.

The pre-conflict abuse of the media to inflame inter-ethnic differences is seen as the catalyst for war. Once warfare breaks out, the media can become a centerpiece of the struggle between factions that want to utilize the media to escalate hatred and spread fear against one another. In post-conflict times, with the media infrastructures possibly destroyed, journalists killed or fled, and the entire media space quickly becoming a site of renewed struggle between the interim authority and remaining factions, there are critical questions that urgently concern critical media studies from the perspective of international human rights law: To what extent should foreign agencies such as the EU, UN, USAID, etc. intervene in the post-conflict reconstruction of the media space in order to prevent it from being abused again as well as to help produce and maintain public order? What is the legal basis in human rights law for such an intervention? How do different forms of intervention stand the legal scrutiny for managing’ and even restricting the freedom of the press in the post-conflict state? How is the line drawn between a “media intervention” aimed at achieving urgent military goals of stabilization and peace-keeping, and a media intervention aimed at longer-term development of a civil and human-rights respecting society? In what ways are the perspectives different among inter-governmental agencies, donor nations, and non-government organizations (e.g. journalist associations) regarding the legality of, and the actual protocol for, media intervention? What perspectives do they share, especially as benchmarked against international legal norms? This is the first of a three-part analysis that attempts to open up these questions and introduce to critical media studies practitioners a legal mode of analyzing media and warfare from a human rights perspective. This first piece outlines what media/information intervention is.

The most pressing legal and humanitarian consideration about the mass media, to which the whole question of media intervention is directed, is the profound problem of “hate speech.” The discussion of hate speech in human rights law has indeed moved beyond the confines of racial discrimination in community settings. It has moved into the contexts of inter-ethnic violence, armed conflict, and genocide. Indeed, underpinning a part of the mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is the explicit association of the media and genocidal violence as well as the prosecution of media-generated hate speech. The legal definition of hate speech has been most clearly articulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Article 20(2) of the ICCPR prohibits “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” Article 4 of the ICERD defines racist speech as “ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination” and “propaganda activities, which promote and incite racial discrimination.” In addition, “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” is punishable pursuant to Article 3 of Genocide Convention.

“We need to explore what can be done between the impossible everything and the unacceptable nothing. The political cost of doing everything is usually prohibitive. The moral cost of doing nothing is astronomical. If we accept that we are not going to do everything possible to stem a given conflict, what can we do to have as much impact as we are willing to have?” (Thompson, 2002a, 41-42). Jamie Metzl, a key proponent of information intervention, describes in the above the need for intervention as a moral obligation exercised in the context of limited influence. Media/information intervention refers to the means of getting involved in a humanitarian crisis where there is evidence that the mass media have been manipulated for inciting hatred and violence. Where there is humanitarian intervention taken to avert mass suffering, media intervention campaigns are designed to supplement such an action. But where there is weak or even no political will to take action in crisis situations, media intervention campaigns are to compel an ideological force in the international community to confront the crises. Such campaigns are supposed to adhere to human rights norms.

Regarding methods, information intervention can take place in pre-conflict, mid-conflict, and post-conflict times. Strategies such as broadcasting counter-information, dropping leaflets, and the most controversial of all, jamming broadcasting signals from the target state, are best applied in pre-conflict and mid-conflict times. As for after the conflict, reconstruction work typically calls for a robust “media development” program, which can include

  • human rights training and education of journalists
  • enhancement of independent local media outlets
  • setting up interim media commissions
  • establishing licensing mechanisms linked to hate speech laws and other codes of conduct to ensure quality balanced programming
  • creating programmes that promote inter-ethnic conversation
  • protecting safety of journalists from intimidation and other violent threats
  • forging a monitoring role for the media during the transition to a stable government through election
  • other democratizing activities of the media sphere.

However, while the ultimate legality of such intervention methods created in the name of reconstruction will continue to be debated, the legal ground for more aggressive measures taken in times of imminent or present conflict appears to be tenuous, such as in jamming broadcasting signals, techniques of information manipulation (such as cyberwar), seizure of transmitters, or even bombing broadcasting towers. These aggressive actions resemble the “use of force,” which is prohibited by the UN Charter and other long-standing international norms. Peter Krug and Monroe Price (2002) warn: “[T]he human rights rationale for what might be called ‘aggressive peacemaking’ and the intrusiveness into the zone of freedom of expression is a precarious one. [Moreover][w]hen an international governmental organization engages in regulation of the press, its actions may affect the nature of the political system that follows. How a regulatory rule is shaped, how it is presented in the society, how those who will be subject to a seemingly censorial rule react and accept that rule–all these are part of the difficult process of democracy development in a conflict zone” (164). Certainly, it is one thing to prevent violence, it is another for the information intervention program to intrude upon the target state’s autonomous public sphere and even to exert influence and authority in the target state.

Not surprisingly, Jamie Metzl has been criticized for promoting “a more adroit spinning of United States foreign policy represent[ing] a fashionable means of enhancing United States predominance within the international system, using information technology”(Thompson, 2002, 56). It has been argued that the entire effort smacks of hegemonic intention under the guise of humanitarian intervention. In Part II, I will examine in closer detail the legal framework for scrutinizing media intervention according to international human rights norms.

Note
This list is compiled from several media development experiences in post-conflict Bosnia and Kosovo. See, among others, Pech (1999/2000) and Price (2000).

Sources

Krug, Peter, and Monroe Price. “A Module for Media Intervention.” Monroe E. Price and Mark Thompson, eds. Forging Peace: Intervention, Human Rights and the Management of Media Space. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2002. 148-74.

Pech, Laurent. “Is Dayton Falling? Reforming Media in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” International Journal of Communication Law and Policy 4 (1999/2000): 1-28.

Price, Monroe. “Intervention: Bosnia, the Dayton Accords, and the Seizure of Broadcasting Transmitters.” Cornell International Law Journal 33 (2000): 67-112.

Thompson, Mark. “Defining Information Intervention: An Interview with Jamie Metzl.” Forging Peace. 2002. 41-68.

Image Credits:

1. War Protesters in Iraq

Links:
Ferdinand Nahimana page on Trial Watch website
International Crime Tribunal for Rwanda
Media Development in Post-war Iraq

Please feel free to comment.




Bring the War Home: Iraq War Stories from Steven Bochco and Cindy Sheehan

FX\'s Over There

FX’s Over There

American television has been telling two separate but interestingly related stories about the war in Iraq this past month. One is Over There, producer Steven Bochco’s highly touted new series for the FX cable channel which purports to be the first dramatic television series depicting a war while the country is still engaged in combat. The other is the non fictional story the cable and broadcast news shows have been telling about Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain American soldier who has been protesting outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas during his rather long summer vacation. Both these stories are instructive for what they suggest about how this war is being made sense of right now. They also provide instructive comparisons to the way U.S. television handled the last war-as-quagmire into which Americans found themselves sinking.

Publicity and commentary about Over There have made much of the fact that the series depicts fictional US soldiers while their real-life counterparts are still fighting and dying. Let’s remember that M*A*S*H also debuted while the war in Vietnam raged. Of course M*A*S*H wasn’t actually about Vietnam, even though, of course, it was. However, as I’ve written about elsewhere, prime time TV, especially during the so-called “season of social relevance” of 1970/71, but to a lesser extent before that as well, did acknowledge and represent versions of the conflict, albeit largely about the “war at home” (Bodroghkozy, 2001). It took the entertainment divisions of the networks a significant number of years before they decided that they needed to take notice. Nevertheless, Over There is not as remarkable a moment in TV programming history as many observers seem to think. What is novel about the series is its attempt to portray ripped-from-the-headlines combat, and to do it without the cover of comedy or without displacing the events into an easier-to-manage past.

As sentiment about the Iraq war have been getting increasingly polarized of late, it is interesting to look at the debates that have gathered steam about whether the show is fundamentally pro or anti war in its portrayal of the conflict.

Commentary is all over the map: The show is antiwar. The show is pro war. The show is inaccurate. These conflicted and clashing readings may be exacerbated by Bochco’s insistence over and over again that the series does not take a political position about the war. Larry Gelbart, M*A*S*H’s producer, was similarly reluctant to admit that his show had a political stance about the specific situation in Vietnam (Gitlin, 1983, p. 217). In both cases, we have classic cases of the “polysemic” text, although the preferred anti-war encoding of M*A*S*H seems hard to miss, even though some viewers apparently negotiated readings that were positive about military service (Gitlin, p.217). Bochco’s series is in some ways not unlike Gelbart’s show in its representation of war and its personnel (whether soldiers or doctors). Both shows focus on daily life and “muddling through.” The grunts of Sargeant Scream’s unit do so grimly, doggedly, and humourlessly. The doctors and nurses of the 4077th did so with jokes, wild antics, sex, and an appreciation for the absurd. In both cases, the reasons for the war are largely unexplored. By focusing so closely on the “grunts’ eye view,” Over There gives us a war that is mostly about staying alive and seeing enemies everywhere since there is no defined battlefield. All Iraqis could be terrorists, much like all Vietnamese could be VC. The show’s representational strategies owe a great deal to the visual codification of the Vietnam war, especially in cinema. More generally, it’s a war with no articulated purpose, rationale, or definition of victory. A conversation between two characters (one Arab American) let’s us know that both enlisted because of 9/11; episode three gives us a jihadist terrorist to hate. But are these troops in Iraq to fight a war on terrorism? The show doesn’t tell us. In the interests on avoiding “politics” Bochco and his team have managed to give us a Vietnam-esque war, both visually and thematically. It isn’t absurdist the way that M*A*S*H’s “Vietnam” was (war on godless communism — yeah, right!), but it certainly isn’t heroic.

The series’ inability or unwillingness to posit a clear purpose for the war connects it neatly to the other major Iraq story that television and other media outlets have been following intently this summer. The Cindy Sheehan story is a narrative of the home front and one that is probably easier for television to tell than the one Steve Bochco wants to tell. (Ratings for Over There, which started very strong for a cable offering, have sagged since the premier.) The costs of the war are effectively personalized in the figure of the grieving, but strong mother. Soap opera-ish drama gets injected into the story by the continuing question of whether an emotionally callous president will meet with this lone embodiment of suffering motherhood. The story also produces great visuals of emotional impact such as the tiny crosses representing dead soldiers that Sheehan’s supporters at the Camp Casey encampment erected. The dramatic visuals were only enhanced when the crosses were mowed down by opponents of the protest. The melodramatic qualities of this story are then further enhanced with the failed attempt to “swift-boat” Sheehan. Our heroine must suffer, and suffer, and suffer some more. That Sheehan needed to attend briefly to her own mother’s medical crisis and that her husband filed divorce proceedings against her only solidifies her status as a quintessential melodrama heroine.

This is the kind of war story that television knows how to tell. This is the kind of war story that audiences may find more compelling. Like Over There, the Cindy Sheehan story begins with the premise that there is no clear rationale for the war. The problem with Bochco’s series is that it takes this as given and then proceeds with the assumption that the narrative doesn’t need to grapple further with this matter. Sheehan’s story is a “successful” one because it doesn’t accept the “muddle through” theme. Sheehan’ story is a quest to find meaning and truth: why did her son die? That her quest galvanizes large numbers of supporters who either join her vigil or who support her with candle lit vigils from afar only increases the poignancy of the story. Over There just cannot compete with the legible “moral occult” Sheehan’s Iraq story constructs.

The Bochco series and the Sheehan story share another similarity: both focus entirely on the Iraq war as a story about military personnel: soldiers and their families. American civilians and those not in some way connected to military life are irrelevant to the story. Over There‘s major home front story involves a member of the squad whose leg was blown off by a roadside bomb. In episodes to date, we see him struggling with the VA hospital and his diminished sense of masculinity, while his loving and supportive wife provides nurturance. Other home front stories also concern themselves exclusively with the loved ones (faithful and not) of the troops overseas. Sheehan’s story is remarkable for the emphasis on “Gold Star Families” as the representatives and activists of this new antiwar movement. Those who have joined Cindy at Camp Casey and make the news are mostly other military moms. Those who are trotted out to provide a counterbalance to Cindy’s arguments are also mothers of soldiers.

These narratives suggest that both the fighting of this war and the protesting against it are jobs for non-civilians and their loved ones. The role of civilians (either those who may support the war or those who oppose it) is a vicarious one: you can watch.

The war in Iraq has been an odd kind of non-event for most Americans. Unlike World War II, the Iraq war has not resulted in total war mobilization by the entire population. Unlike Vietnam, all able-bodied young men (and their families, girlfriends, and wives) don’t need to confront the prospects that they may be drafted to fight this war. The war is already rather fictitious to most Americans. Aside from news coverage (which one can avoid and which gets easily knocked off the headlines by natural disasters like the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina or by human disasters like Michael Jackson), little in Americans’ daily lives forces them to confront, engage with, or acknowledge that there’s a war going on. I suspect that there may be a certain amount of unease about that. Shouldn’t we be sacrificing something for the war? Aren’t we supposed to be doing something? If we support it, shouldn’t we be participating? If we oppose it, shouldn’t we be protesting in the streets?

To some extent Over There and Cindy Sheehan’s narratives provide a simulated way by which Americans can use their TVs to pretend to be involved with this war. Consider the audiences for the Bochco series. Why would anyone want to watch a relentless, graphically violent fictionalization of a war that, especially recently, has generated significant up ticks in the number of U.S. casualties? I’m wondering to what extent watching this show allows some viewers to experience emotionally and viscerally a war that otherwise is largely a nonevent in most Americans’ experience. Bochco’s series gives audiences something to do: they can go to Iraq vicariously with the troops. They can identify and empathize with these fictional stand-ins for the real troops and feel patriotic doing so. In a hyperreal war fought on television (although not cleanly and according to a predetermined script, a Baudrillard’s Gulf War), and fought by a professionalized military not needed a civilian population to assist, what else can the folks back home do to feel involved?

And what about those who oppose this war? Considering how quickly the war has become unpopular and considering how widespread the dismay and disillusionment has spread about both the reasons for the war and its winnability, the lack of an activated grassroots protest movement seems odd. However, if the war, for the majority of Americans, is a hyperreal conflict fought on television, then perhaps it makes sense that when antiwar activity finally does erupt, it does so as a made-for-TV soap opera. And because the majority of Americans really aren’t involved, our antiwar activists could only be those connected to the institutions of militarism. Those of us who hate the war, but really aren’t affected by it, align ourselves with Cindy and turn her into our heroine. She and the other grieving Gold Star mothers become our televisual surrogates. They organize a hyperreal antiwar movement made up largely of military families, the only Americans actually impacted by the growing carnage in Iraq.

Will this hyperreal antiwar movement centered around one melodramatic heroine develop into an actual movement with grassroots mobilization among citizens not directly connected to the military? Or will it remain a media event like the professionalized war it protests? I suspect we will mostly remain spectators, voyeurs, tricking ourselves into believing that we are actually engaged with and involved in this awful drama of human slaughter.

Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Bodroghkozy, Aniko. Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion. Durham, NC. Duke UP, 2001.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Image Credits:
1. FX’s Over There

Links
Over There homepage
Cindy Sheehan website

Please feel free to comment.