not understood by a fearful and proudly ignorant population

Wallflowers at the Revolution

A month ago most Americans could not have picked Hosni Mubarak out of a police lineup. American foreign policy, even in Afghanistan, was all but invisible throughout the 2010 election season. Foreign aid is the only federal budget line that a clear-cut majority of Americans says should be cut. And so now — as the world’s most unstable neighborhood explodes before our eyes — does anyone seriously believe that most Americans are up to speed? Our government may be scrambling, but that’s nothing compared to its constituents. After a near-decade of fighting wars in the Arab world, we can still barely distinguish Sunni from Shia.

The live feed from Egypt is riveting. We can’t get enough of revolution video — even if, some nights, Middle West blizzards take precedence over Middle East battles on the networks’ evening news. But more often than not we have little or no context for what we’re watching. That’s the legacy of years of self-censored, superficial, provincial and at times Islamophobic coverage of the Arab world in a large swath of American news media. Even now we’re more likely to hear speculation about how many cents per gallon the day’s events might cost at the pump than to get an intimate look at the demonstrators’ lives.

Perhaps the most revealing window into America’s media-fed isolation from this crisis — small an example as it may seem — is the default assumption that the Egyptian uprising, like every other paroxysm in the region since the Green Revolution in Iran 18 months ago, must be powered by the twin American-born phenomena of Twitter and Facebook. Television news — at once threatened by the power of the Internet and fearful of appearing unhip — can’t get enough of this cliché.

Three days after riot police first used tear gas and water hoses to chase away crowds in Tahrir Square, CNN’s new prime-time headliner, Piers Morgan, declared that “the use of social media” was “the most fascinating aspect of this whole revolution.” On MSNBC that same night, Lawrence O’Donnell interviewed a teacher who had spent a year at the American school in Cairo. “They are all on Facebook,” she said of her former fifth-grade students. The fact that a sampling of fifth graders in the American school might be unrepresentative of, and wholly irrelevant to, the events unfolding in the streets of Cairo never entered the equation.

The social networking hype eventually had to subside for a simple reason: The Egyptian government pulled the plug on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger. “Let’s get a reality check here,” said Jim Clancy, a CNN International anchor, who broke through the bloviation on Jan. 29 by noting that the biggest demonstrations to date occurred on a day when the Internet was down. “There wasn’t any Twitter. There wasn’t any Facebook,” he said. No less exasperated was another knowledgeable on-the-scene journalist, Richard Engel, who set the record straight on MSNBC in a satellite hook-up with Rachel Maddow. “This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “This had to do with people’s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families.”

No one would deny that social media do play a role in organizing, publicizing and empowering participants in political movements in the Middle East and elsewhere. But as Malcolm Gladwell wrote on The New Yorker’s Web site last week, “surely the least interesting fact” about the Egyptian protesters is that some of them “may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.” What’s important is “why they were driven to do it in the first place” — starting with the issues of human dignity and crushing poverty that Engel was trying to shove back to center stage.

Among cyber-intellectuals in America, a fascinating debate has broken out about whether social media can do as much harm as good in totalitarian states like Egypt. In his fiercely argued new book, “The Net Delusion,” Evgeny Morozov, a young scholar who was born in Belarus, challenges the conventional wisdom of what he calls “cyber-utopianism.” Among other mischievous facts, he reports that there were only 19,235 registered Twitter accounts in Iran (0.027 percent of the population) on the eve of what many American pundits rebranded its “Twitter Revolution.” More damning, Morozov also demonstrates how the digital tools so useful to citizens in a free society can be co-opted by tech-savvy dictators, police states and garden-variety autocrats to spread propaganda and to track (and arrest) conveniently networked dissidents, from Iran to Venezuela. Hugo Chávez first vilified Twitter as a “conspiracy,” but now has 1.2 million followers imbibing his self-sanctifying Tweets.

This provocative debate isn’t even being acknowledged in most American coverage of the Internet’s role in the current uprisings. The talking-head invocations of Twitter and Facebook instead take the form of implicit, simplistic Western chauvinism. How fabulous that two great American digital innovations can rescue the downtrodden, unwashed masses. That is indeed impressive if no one points out that, even in the case of the young and relatively wired populace of Egypt, only some 20 percent of those masses have Internet access.

That we often don’t know as much about the people in these countries as we do about their Tweets is a testament to the cutbacks in foreign coverage at many news organizations — and perhaps also to our own desire to escape a war zone that has for so long sapped American energy, resources and patience. We see the Middle East on television only when it flares up and then generally in medium or long shot. But there actually is an English-language cable channel — Al Jazeera English — that blankets the region with bureaus and that could have been illuminating Arab life and politics for American audiences since 2006, when it was established as an editorially separate sister channel to its Qatar-based namesake.

Al Jazeera English, run by a 35-year veteran of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, is routinely available in Israel and Canada. It provided coverage of the 2009 Gaza war and this year’s Tunisian revolt when no other television networks would or could. Yet in America, it can be found only in Washington, D.C., and on small cable systems in Ohio and Vermont. None of the biggest American cable and satellite companies — Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner — offer it.

The noxious domestic political atmosphere fostering this near-blackout is obvious to all. It was made vivid last week when Bill O’Reilly of Fox News went on a tear about how Al Jazeera English is “anti-American.” This is the same “We report, you decide” Fox News that last week broke away from Cairo just as the confrontations turned violent so that viewers could watch Rupert Murdoch promote his new tablet news product at a publicity event at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Unable to watch Al Jazeera English, and ravenous for comprehensive and sophisticated 24/7 television coverage of the Middle East otherwise unavailable on television, millions of Americans last week tracked down the network’s Internet stream on their computers. Such was the work-around required by the censorship practiced by America’s corporate gatekeepers. You’d almost think these news-starved Americans were Iron Curtain citizens clandestinely trying to pull in the jammed Voice of America signal in the 1950s — or Egyptians desperately seeking Al Jazeera after Mubarak disrupted its signal last week.

The consequence of a decade’s worth of indiscriminate demonization of Arabs in America — and of the low quotient of comprehensive adult news coverage that might have helped counter it — is the steady rise in Islamophobia. The “Ground Zero” mosque melee has given way to battles over mosques as far removed from Lower Manhattan as California. Soon to come is a national witch hunt — Congressional hearings called by Representative Peter King of New York — into the “radicalization of the American Muslim community.” Given the disconnect between America and the Arab world, it’s no wonder that Americans are invested in the fights for freedom in Egypt and its neighboring dictatorships only up to a point. We’ve been inculcated to assume that whoever comes out on top is ipso facto a jihadist.

This week brings the release of Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir. The eighth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is to follow. As we took in last week’s fiery video from Cairo — mesmerizing and yet populated by mostly anonymous extras we don’t understand and don’t know — it was hard not to flash back to those glory days of “Shock and Awe.” Those bombardments too were spectacular to watch from a safe distance — no Iraqi faces, voices or bodies cluttered up the shots. We lulled ourselves into believing that democracy and other good things were soon to come. It took months, even years, for us to learn the hard way that in truth we really had no idea what was going on.

Marie Burns
Fort Myers, Florida
In another New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell makes a strong case that social media do not a revolution make. He cites as a prime example the 1960 Greensboro lunch counter demonstration that grew exponentially within days, even though the only "social medium" in those days was the telephone. Gladwell explains that "high risk social activism" like the Greensboro sit-in (and the Egyptian uprising) "requires deep roots and strong ties." Reading a stranger's tweet that such-and-such is an atrocity -- even if it is -- doesn't make you want to risk your life for somebody else's problem. People show up at these high-risk events because the issues have deep meaning to them AND they have friends who share their beliefs and are participating in the demonstrations.

One of the minor upsides to the Egyptian uprising has to be all the Americans who suddenly discovered Al Jazeera was a news organization that knocked itself out to get the news on the air, even in English, despite the best efforts of our friend and dictator Hosni Mubarak. As Liz Sly wrote in the Washington Post, since the uprising began, Al Jazeera's "phone lines have been cut, nine of its staffers have been detained at various times, its satellite signal has been repeatedly blocked and on Friday, al-Jazeera said..., a 'gang of thugs' stormed its bureau, smashing equipment and setting it ablaze."

Sly added, "... in what represents perhaps an ultimate act of defiance to the effort to shut the network down, demonstrators in the square have rigged up a giant screen so that even those protesting can follow al-Jazeera's supposedly banned coverage."

I have no doubt the international media, including Al Jazeera, are responsible for saving many Egyptian lives. Mubarak's Plan B, demonstrated most forcefully on Wednesday & Thursday, was to take out the media so the government could proceed with more brutal measures against its own people. The media's success, which required incredible bravery on the parts of reporters, photojournalists & crews, exposed Mubarak & Co., and caused them to back off in the face of international condemnation. If ordinary Egyptian people are the heroes of Tahrir Square, the media are a darned close second.

So thank you again to Nicholas Kristof, Nicholas Kulish, Souad Mekhennet, and all the other Times reporters & other media personnel who risked their own lives to report the news and, in so doing, saved Egyptian lives.

The Constant Weader at www.RealityChex.com

Karen Garcia
New Paltz, NY
It is indeed laughable that our clueless mass media attributed the Egyptian uprising to Twitter and Facebook, when 40 percent of that country's people live on $2 a day and must spend 40 percent of their incomes on food. I can just envision the poor hungry hordes clutching their Blackberries and i-Phones as they plan their next insurrectional step.

Al-Jazeera may not be carried by the corporate American media, but that hasn't stopped millions of Americans tuning in via their laptops and PCs. As a matter of fact, most Americans get their news from the Internet these days, where a whole new world of unbiased, uncompromised-by-the-government sources of information are available. There is Truth-Out, Pro-Publica, Alternet, as well as countless other blogs and links throughout global cyberspace. We don't have to watch millionaire TV anchor Brian Williams hover helplessly in the background, as Richard Engel and Rachel Maddow tell it like it is. From the establishment side of things, Nicholas Kristof's daily New York Times dispatches have put a human face on the revolution through his heartbreaking interviews with ordinary Egyptians.

Tweets are for twits who don't have the attention spans to care about the difference between Sunni and Shia. Leave Facebook and Twitter to the likes of the Sarah Palins of the world who have nothing substantive to say. In her case, though, crow-like cackles would be a more apt description than innocuous little tweets.

Meanwhile, the USA, after more than a week of its "delicate tightrope" balancing act of not wanting to side with the Mubarak government, is siding with the Mubarak government in its obvious status-quo seeking "transition to Democracy." Hillary Clinton, the Goldwater Girl of yesteryear, has even resorted to repeating a Fox News rumor of an assassination attempt on torturer and dictator-in-waiting Suleiman. When all else fails, the Policeman of the World will use the fear factor (Islamophobia) to hasten the transfer of puppet strings from one USA-bribed despot to the next. Keeping the Suez Canal open for all that oil bound for our shores trumps the human rights of the Egyptian people. And even without benefit of American social media, the people in the square are aware of what's going on. Word of mouth and human-to-human contact still rule. Contrary to popular belief, the world can go on without with Facebook.

Frank, excellent summarizing of last week's events. I see the problem in the US as two-fold, one being the prism of Israel through which everyone views all that goes on in the Middle East and North Africa part of the world. This distorted view reflects in out foreign policy as well.

The second point is that we are so used to the US being an active interferer/player in everybody's affairs that we expect immediate and instant reaction, by our diplomats, by our administration, and by our journalists and media. All these past 11 days, the media has been blaming Obama administration for being "tardy", for not doing enough, OMG what will happen to Israel? Without realizing that Egypt is an ancient civilization and a very mature and sophisticated one at that. The Egyptians are totally capable of creating their own revolution in their own terms. They are energized, they need time, we as observers can voice our support, but we should not interfere in their affairs. If they need help, let them ask. Let us not make another Iraq mistake. Lord, so much bloodshed, when the Iraqis are so capable to do their own revolution, they too are an ancient civilization, wisdom runs in their veins. Why did we have to cause so much pain?
I suppose Americans in general suffer from the conservative disease of assuming that nations in turmoil probably deserve it. Those folks over there shouldn’t have let themselves be manipulated or exploited by their government. If the wealth of their country has been stolen by a few powerful individuals, and if jobs and resources are meted out by a handful of well-connected corporations, well, they asked for it. If religion is used as a force to interfere in citizens’ private lives, they should refuse to accept it. If they get their information from news media that have ties to the government, or that make outrageous, inflammatory partisan pontifications, or knowingly spread false information, they should change the channel and look for alternative sources. When Twitter and Facebook reduce information to short blurbs, or embed so much advertising in the content that the content is lost, they should know enough to unplug themselves and start communicating in full sentences again.

And when other nations look at us and shake their heads, we should forgive them for assuming that we deserve what we get, too.

20 spruce
Our American civilization currently is more docile than Egypt's. We have lots to protest against, but remain uncharacteristically subdued.

The N.S.A. is enabled to spy into our private communications without warrant and in conflict with the Fourth Amendment. I didn't go out and protest. Did you?

The President campaigns against "stupid" wars, but he continues to wage an abysmal and stupid war in Afghanistan. No substantial demonstrations have followed.

Wall Street continues to bonus its nasty double-dealing crooks while the rest of us try to cough up enough money to keep our schools running with class sizes under 30. No protests in my town.

The Supremes mock the Constitution in Bush v Gore, followed ten years later by Citizens United. Which is more unbelievable, the decisions or the lack of protest?

Mr. Obama does Bush and Cheney one better by proclaiming he can keep Guantanimo prisoners jailed, even if found innocent in an American court of law! Again, no protests. (But then, these people are "the other," so of course we needn't worry about them.)

I have enormous respect for the Egyptians' courage. We, too, have been a courageous people in the past hundreds of years. May we find our way again, even if it finds us in the streets contending for what is right and honorable and undeniably American.

New York, N.Y.

I agree with Rich on his second point, but not on his first.

There is no question that the U.S. MSM has a very "1984" quality to it: "Who controls the past controls the future; Who controls the present controls the past." By not permitting access to Al Jazeera English (and other alternative media sites), the U.S. MSM has, as Rich points out, created a kind of "media blackout" of anything that is not U.S.-based (with the notable exception of the BBC).

However, I vehemently disagree with Rich's cavalier dismissal of social media as a crucial element in the events occuring in North Africa and the Middle East. It may be true that only 20% of Egyptians have Facebook or Twitter. But I would bet that among those in Tahrir Square and other gathering sites in Egypt, a wildly disproportionate number are among those 20 percent. As well, there is absolutely no argument that the very first protest in Tunisia - the one that effectively began the ENTIRE upheaval throughout the region, the protest tied to the self-immolation of a frustrated vendor - was set up via social networking; that non-connected citizens also participated is almost certainly the result of the "connected" spreading plans of the protest by word of mouth.

However, Rich's biggest faux pas is his central claim that social media could not have been a major underlying factor in Egypt because when the Egyptian government shut down the Internet (and access to social networking), the crowds only got bigger. It apparently doesn't occur to Rich that he has it exactly backward: it was BECAUSE people who had formerly had access to social media no longer DID that they were even ANGRIER, and, again, used word of mouth to increase their numbers.

Ultimately, Rich is wrong about social media's impact on the upheaval in the region. But he is correct that Americans have become "dumbed down" - particularly re foreign policy and foreign affairs - by a tightly controlled media that wants to "control the present."

Sandy Lewis
Lewis Family Farm, Essex, New York
Outrage and a Facebook Page That Gave It a Voice, Jennifer Preston, page A10, February 6th, 2011, The New York Times: If there is a face to the revolt that has sprouted in Egypt, it may be the face of Khaled Said.

That 28-year-old Egyptian businessman was pulled from an Internet cafe in Alexandria last June by two plainclothes police officers who beat him to death in the lobby of a residential building after they learned that he had posted a video on his personal blog showing them with illegal drugs.

The Egyptian police and security services have a well-earned reputation for brutality and snuffing out political opposition. But in Mr. Said, they unwittingly chose the wrong target.

Within five days of his death, an anonymous human rights activist created a Facebook page — We Are All Khaled Said — that posted cellphone photos from the morgue of his battered and bloodied face, the video of the corrupt police officers and other YouTube videos contrasting his corpse with pictures of his bright and smiling face from happier days. By mid-June, 130,000 people joined the page to get and share updates about the case.

It became and remains the biggest dissident Facebook page in Egypt, even as protests continue to sweep the country, with more than 473,000 users, and it has helped spread the word about the demonstrations in Egypt, which were ignited after a revolt in neighboring Tunisia toppled the government there.

“There were many catalysts of the uprising,” said Ahmed Zidan, an online political activist marching toward Tahrir Square for a protest last week. “The first was the brutal murder of Khalid Said.”

The Tunisian rebellion was set off after a fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, burned himself to death after being humiliated by the police. His desperate act led to protests, which were recorded on mobile phones, posted on the Internet, shared on Facebook and eventually broadcast by Al Jazeera.

But Mr. Said’s death may be the starkest example yet of the special power of social networking tools like Facebook even — or especially — in a police state. The Facebook page set up around his death offered Egyptians a rare forum to bond over their outrage about government abuses.

“Prior to the murder of Khaled Said, there were blogs and YouTube videos that existed about police torture, but there wasn’t a strong community around them,” said Jillian C. York, the project coordinator for the OpenNet Initiative of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University. “This case changed that.”

While it is almost impossible to isolate the impact of social media tools from the general swirl of events that set off the popular uprisings across the Middle East, there is little doubt that they provided a new means for ordinary people to connect with human rights advocates trying to amass support against police abuse, torture and the Mubarak government’s permanent emergency laws allowing people to be jailed without charges.

Facebook and YouTube also offered a way for the discontented to organize and mobilize — and allowed secular-minded young people to seize the momentum from Egypt’s relatively neutered, organized opposition.

Far more decentralized than political parties, the strength and agility of the networks clearly caught Egyptian authorities — and American intelligence analysts — by surprise, even as the Egytian government quickly attempted to shut them down.

Mr. Said, who was from a middle-class family and worked in the import-export business, was not an activist or involved in politics: he was simply offended by the corruption he saw. After police officials lied to his family, saying he was involved in drugs and died of asphyxiation from swallowing a package of marijuana while in police custody, witnesses went public, telling their stories in YouTube videos. Cellphone photos of Mr. Said’s shattered and broken face began to circulate online and provided evidence that eventually authorities could not ignore.

“What made this case different is that Khaled Said was just an ordinary person,” said Gamal Eid, 47, a lawyer and executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in Cairo. “He was just a guy who found evidence of corruption and he published it. Then when people learned what happened to him, when people saw pictures of his face, people got very angry.”

Mr. Eid said that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and mobile phones made it easy for human rights advocates to get out the news and for ordinary people to spread and discuss their outrage about his death in a country where freedom of speech and the right to assemble are limited and the government monitors newspapers and state television.

“He is a big part of our revolution,” said Hudaifa Nabawi, a 20-year-old student in Tahrir Square on Saturday.“ Khalid Said was a special case. He didn’t belong to any faction, and he didn’t do anything wrong. He became the way to focus our perceptions around the oppression that all the youth all face

N. Ray
North Carolina
I was among the many tuned in for hours via laptop to Al Jazeera English for something of a real look at Egypt. As I watched I was impressed by the bravery of the AJE crews and the professionalism of their production. I also marveled that such a fresh window on the world was available in America only to those with both the equipment and curiosity to find and open it on the internet. And this in a "free" country, with a sizable Muslim population.

It is a measure of the pinched imperialism afflicting many Americans that we believe that a desperately poor Arab population is capable of revolt only because the white man has provided new and wonderful communication tools. Over the years, dictators much worse than Moubaric have been dumped by populations without any access to so much as a telephone.

However, the unavailability here of news outlets such as AJE, and the active hostility to them by the Fox News faction of our population, is yet more indicative of how deeply Americans have adopted an imperial outlook on the world. While AJE zeroed in on the drama in the streets, most of our domestic commentary centered on what sort of government would replace that currently running Egypt, and whether the new bosses would be friendly to the US, or to our extension in the Middle East, Israel, as usual, as though it were the 51st state. The running subtext was a near hysteria that some sort of jihadist regime would come to power. Beck offered that a caliphate would soon engulf the entire Middle East and North Africa, and maybe even Europe. American narcissism was on display in full color. It was all about us. A few words were spared for the poor in Egypt who have finally decided they have taken enough. But for the most part, the folks forcing the changing with their blood and courage were treated as little more than the chorus, occupying the streets while the stars of the show within the Egyptian and American governments got a "transition" all worked out and maintained stability. Heaven forbid that those Egyptian protesters should somehow derail our economic recovery.

Our narrative seemed to ask just who needs worry much over facts ordering the lives of little people in a poor part of the world that seems to cause us nothing but trouble, when we have so many interests to attend to world wide. Many Americans don't know and don't want to know about the problems of these foreigners. After all, the sun never sets on a real empire and the work at the acquisition of the resources necessary to sustain it. Most Americans seem to have accepted the difficulties of running their own, but they've also lost patience with and sympathy for the predictable efforts by the oppressed out there to improve their lives. Our own revolutionary ideals of freedom and liberty seem to have become little more than words spoken but not understood by a fearful and proudly ignorant population.

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