I know you’re not stupid, but the mainstream media seems to think you are.
Why else would Newsweek’s front page feature a picture of an angry man wearing a turban and run the headline, “Muslim Rage”? Why else would TV anchor Joe Scarborough insist, “They hate us because of their religion, they hate us because of their culture”? And why else would thousands of features and op-eds paint a monolithic “Middle East” and a monolithic “Muslims”—“others” who all think and act one way?
A lot is missing from media representations of the global protests that recently captivated the world. And what’s missing should be at the heart of our national discussion of foreign policy.
But rather than engage with complexities, the media, the US presidential campaigns and the candidates have all pushed their own agendas—from higher cable ratings to continued military presence in the Middle East—in ways that distort our perceptions of one another as real human beings.
What’s missing from the foreign policy conversation? A sense of the moment in which these protests occurred and how they were shaped by specific context and history.
In Libya, we were told that the lethal violence at the US embassy was ubiquitous “Muslim rage.” What happened was actually the result of a moribund religious right desperate to reassert its dwindling influence and armed with weapons courtesy of the US and NATO, not a spontaneous uprising of an angry populace. People also took to the streets to denounce the violence and mourn Ambassador Stevens. But the talk of “Muslim rage” dominated.
In Yemen, protests broke out denouncing the US’ unfettered use of drone warfare and the practice of killing citizens without fair trial–including, in one terrible instance, a 16-year-old. In Egypt, there are accounts that the protests were not “spontaneous” but planned, and that people were paid to attend. None of these complexities were raised in the media’s coverage of the monolithic, angry “other.”
What’s missing from the foreign policy debate? The millions of voices of those around the world who have engaged in progressive, peaceful struggle for years on end.
Most recently, there are the activists in Iraq, often led by women, who have gathered every week for months in a Baghdad square, to voice their demands for democracy and human rights. Or there are the young Sudanese women who staged a walk-out at their university to protest soaring increases in the prices of food and transportation, triggering a national mobilization.
In Iraq and Sudan—and the many other places tagged as violent hotspots by the media—progressive people have always organized for peace, despite repression from their US-backed governments. Yet you’d never know it from the media coverage.
What’s missing from the foreign policy conversation? The vital, substantive debate that can help shape the world we want to live in.
While covering the worldwide protests, the media’s narrow lens showed only a public relations crisis for the US presidential candidates. Missing from the picture was what the candidates’ positions reveal about the foreign policy they would espouse for the next four years—and what it will mean for people worldwide.
We could look at Mr. Romney’s revelation at a recent fundraiser that he does not believe peace between Israel and Palestine is possible, because Palestinians do “not want[…] to see peace anyway.”
We could look at the way President Obama has ratcheted up drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Four times as many people have been killed by drone attacks in Obama’s first term than in the entire Bush presidency. Certainly, these killings of civilians are a valid reason to protest.
Either of these things should call for substantive discussion. Instead, the media, politicians, and talking heads on cable news create laughably simplistic, divisive “us” and “them” narratives that save us from having to ask hard questions. The answers are, apparently, already obvious.
These narratives have tragic and violent consequences. They create exactly the world Joe Scarborough thinks we live in.
But that simple, polarized world of “us” and “them” isn’t the one we truly occupy, and we know it. We need a real, open conversation to reveal not only the world we live in now, but the world we want to live in tomorrow–and how we are going to get there.