March 7, 2011

3 Media Narratives About The Middle East You Should Defend Against

if you're watching it, it's for you
(that's why the signs are in English)

1.  Youth In Revolt

Ha!  That's hilarious.  Wait-- you're serious?  You know Jay-Z is 40, right?

According to Time, these are the guys who toppled Mubarak.  That one guy in the back punched him and the girl poked him in the eyes.  The guy in the back right ate the body.

The New Revolutionaries: a liberal, pro-democracy group of consumerists concerned equally with global warming and expressing themselves, discreetly lip-synching the words to Lose Yourself as they march on Freedom Square.

You'll have to excuse my cynicism: I've seen this exact same movie a lot of times, admittedly to a CCR soundtrack.

Of course the young(er) are looking for social changes and a better life.  And I don't doubt that they at least believe themselves to be earnest.  But the media narrative that it is they who are the force behind the acute changes is both wrong and manipulative.

It's manipulative because it is easy.  We can understand that kids might not like the world as it is, and the youth certainly appear to have enough energy drink to march for a week straight or yell anti-Bush obscenities, so it is logical that they're the ones to focus on.  It gets Time, et al, out of the hard work of trying to figure out why the revolution happened, happened now, and if it's a good thing or a bad thing. Even Obama's not sure how this plays out, so the more we hear about youthful idealism on the march, the less we have to worry that Israel doesn't first strike Iran, just in case.

Also, it's self-aggrandizing.  This is the folks at Time saying, "hey, man, we get this hip generation."  It makes them think they're young and in touch, ("they even figured out how to use the internet for something other than porn!") and I'd bet 10 piastres every guy working at Time thinks the girl in the bottom right would find them interesting.

The narrative is wrong, or at least woefully inadequate, because-- in the simplest terms possible-- the guys in the picture aren't the ones changing the world.  I'm sure they'd have thought voting for Obama was going to bring change, too, but they'd have been way wrong about that as well.

Here are some sobering statistics for the Time readers. There are 80M people in Egypt, 10% unemployment and 40% in poverty, as defined as  less than $2/day.  About a third don't know how to read.  None of those people are in the picture.  None of those people want the same things as those in the picture.  None of them will ever listen to those in the picture.

There may have been 100k students in that Square, but if their 50 year olds are anything like our 50 year olds, then their 50 year olds might actually find those students infuriatingly arrogant regardless of what side they're on. 

The sad truth is revolutions start with the disenfranchised, get attributed to the idealism of  "students" and "the youth," and are ultimately resolved by thugs or corporations.   Sideways Glasses Guy is in for a jarring quarter-life lesson in economic history, and I'm guessing he's not going to pass.

1b. The Young Are Mad As Hell, And They're Not Going To Take It Anymore.  Sorta.

In the next issue of Time after that one, I found this picture of the Wisconsin union protests (click to enlarge):


Some observations:

1.  Look at the crowd in the background.  They're all older people.  But Time has put the young ones front and center.

2.  They do not appear to be members of the teacher's union.  Or particularly fond of teachers.

3.  They are smiling. 

They're not angry, they're not outraged, they're... socially conscious?  I'd bet a lot of money those kids aren't there to support the unions, that's not exactly their fight, but that fight happens to have a common enemy (feel free to speculate who that common enemy might be.)  This explains precisely what is wrong with so many fights and positions and ideals: they are not for something, but against something else. 

"What's wrong with coming out in support?"  Well, go ahead and ask Time: "what's wrong with putting them front and center?"  Because if I was agnostic about unions, and interested in really deciding who I supported in this fight, one look at that picture guarantees I side with whoever they're yelling at.   If you want to know exactly what is wrong with the "political discourse in America today," it's that we are trained to pick a side against something we hate.

So choose your "face of the revolution" carefully because if it's an emotional response you are trying to evoke, there may be some unintended consequences.  That's what happened in the 60s, too-- Woodstock the revolution and you landslide in Richard Nixon with a victory margin 3 times higher than Obama's.  Guess music can't change the world after all.

2.  The Mad Dictator That Has To Go

Oh, he may be a nutjob, but once he's out-- what, exactly?  He's not a lone nutjob.  There was an entire government in place there and while they don't all have voluptuous nurses you can be damn sure they want voluptuous nurses, and if they can't get that they'll settle for all your money and your obedience.

It's a narrative that existed long before the nights of Saddam, get rid of the dictator and things will get better.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and if your country has oil in it it usually doesn't.

mubark and algheit.jpgyes, Mr. President, I'm going to get a haircut and try and ride this one out

Imagine you replaced George Bush with Obama, but kept Cheney and Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Pearle, Rice...   Imagine you get rid of all the Congressmen, but kept all the lobbyists, all the civil service employees, intelligence services, all the guys previously on the take-- and the media infrastructure.  "The media supports the people!"  Oh, yes, that has long been my experience with media.

It's so easy to get distracted by the Evil Despot that we aren't horrified that Egypt's chaperons of future democracy are the military.   Really?  "They didn't turn on their own people!"  Wow, that's your metric?  Do you think they're just going to step aside when the kids show up to sell off the tanks to pay for education?   

I am certainly in no position to decide whether you Paul Bremer everybody in a uniform or keep specific people on the payroll, but I can at least tell you this "new" government isn't going to have any room for the likes of Sideways Glasses Guy.

The best thing that can happen to him, is a long, boring, bureaucratic shuffle towards elections, because if you do them in anything less than a year the old entrenched powers will win.  Or the Muslim Brotherhood, who are going to win anyway (my prediction.)  

If the kid in Time wants to participate in government, he needs at least a year to get his act together, not to mention money from the U.S. (You didn't think we were going to stay out of it, did you?)

The media likes the Mad Despot narrative because, again, it's easy, but, again, it's wrong and manipulative. And it backfires.  When George Bush pulled the Mad Despot card, the media reacted against it-- but that was itself a manipulation, because they wanted the Mad Despot to be Bush himself.  Offered no other choices than "one of these guys is utterly, completely, evil," America was forced to choose who they thought was actually the Mad Despot; and-- tip for the media-- most Americans will think it's the foreign guy.

3.  The Power Of Social Media

The intended subtext of this myth isn't that facebook and twitter aided people in their revolution; but that those were somehow the cause of the revolution.  That the technologies themselves "need" freedom, they force freedom, they cause freedom, by their very existence.

This is a letter to Time:

Re: Why It's Different This Time"  What we have on our hands today is not only a revolution in Egypt but also the beginning of an era when a new medium finally proves to the world its equal and comparable importance to that of the printing press.  Social media are no longer just how we stalk ex-girlfriends or update the world about where we bought coffee.  It fuels revolutions...

In my short time on earth, I've lived through: papyrus, morse code, radio, yelling, mobile phones, and I have only just recovered from TV.  All of these "disruptive technologies" share two commonalities.  First, they empowered the people to communicate, congregate, and share ideas.  Second, and more importantly, all of them were eventually co-opted by the government and business to manipulate those people, who didn't mind one bit as long as the ads were under 30 seconds.

It's fairly obvious why media companies would push the idea that the media itself is responsible for puppies and Reese's Pieces cookies, but when the medium becomes the message, there's no message.

II.  So What Are The Lessons Of History?

From The Economist:

In Tunisia Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali met peaceful crowds with concessions. In Egypt Hosni Mubarak tried to ride out the protests by mixing concessions with force. In Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa resorted to violence, but did not have the stomach for the fight. In Libya Mr Qaddafi seems to crave blood. Screaming ghastly defiance in an hour-long tirade on February 22nd, he vowed to "cleanse Libya house by house". If he prevails, dictators the world over will know which course to follow.

Or: every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.


Imagine if you replaced Bus... (Below threshold)

March 7, 2011 7:22 PM | Posted by Dan Dravot: | Reply

Imagine if you replaced Bush with Obama, and DIDN'T keep Cheney, Perle, Rumsfeld, or any of the other Evil Demonic Scapegoat hateobjecthatehatehate villains.

Yep, same thing. Except we've prosecuted more fedgov employees for leaking information in the past two years than we did in the previous 40. But... look! Green Jobs! Shiny! Shiny!

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Screaming ghastly defian... (Below threshold)

March 7, 2011 7:34 PM | Posted by Balsamred: | Reply

Screaming ghastly defiance in an hour-long tirade on February 22nd, he vowed to "cleanse Libya house by house". If he prevails, dictators the world over will know which course to follow.

Yep, this is what I'm afraid of. Also that historically military dictatorships haven't worked out well for the people of those countries, and it seems unlikely that the Egyptian military is going to turn over the keys to the castle without further trouble.

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The generation that is allo... (Below threshold)

March 7, 2011 8:03 PM | Posted by Valentine: | Reply

The generation that is allowing us to do a story to distract you from the fact that QE2 is causing inflation of damn near every commodity and driving oil through the roof.

Isn't this middle east turmoil occurring at an awfully convenient time? Right when QE2 is about to end and our economy is on the brink of collapse?

Isn't "middle east turmoil" a great scape goat for the state of the economy as opposed to "idiotic economic policies developed by american bankers"? Perhaps all this "turmoil" will allow them to rip even more money out of your pocket to sustain the greatest ponzi scheme there ever was.

Don't be surprised if the hard times ahead are entirely blamed on the middle east, and not the idiots that drove up the price of commodities like wheat on the world scale, causing people in the middle east to starve and revolt. "It's not the fault of the federal government or idiots like Bernank, it's all those revolutionaries in the middle east!"

Corporations can try to continue to cut internal costs in America so the increase in commodity prices doesn't show in the American market but they can't do it forever (e.g., your starbucks should be double right now).

Bankers can try to continue to artificially suppress the prices of precious metals like silver, but they can't keep shorting their non-existent holdings forever, and when PM's go to the moon these banks will get hammered.

What's going on in the middle east is not a revolution and it's not "hip"'s the beginning of something very very terrible...economic collapse on a worldwide scale.

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The cover of Time looks lik... (Below threshold)

March 7, 2011 8:09 PM | Posted by Claudius: | Reply

The cover of Time looks like the Arab cast of The Jersey Shore.

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My only question: If the pr... (Below threshold)

March 7, 2011 8:23 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

My only question: If the price is going up, where do I invest?

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What I learned after a thou... (Below threshold)

March 7, 2011 8:51 PM | Posted by CoconutChef: | Reply

What I learned after a thousand TLP post about the media:

- Shoot your TV
- Molotov News Stand

And I'm almost certain I'm wrong.

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If you're asking on a psych... (Below threshold)

March 7, 2011 8:53 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Valentine: | Reply

If you're asking on a psychiatrist's blog you should definitely do more research and not believe someone giving you an answer on a psychiatrist's blog with a handle named after a holiday. As we say, "the medium is the message." With that preface, here are some starting points/hunches for you to look into:

1. Any mining stocks that directly deal with precious metals and are not in debt
2. Futures trading if you do your homework
3. Sell off/take money out of securities not directly linked to PM's.
4. Research: physical metals shortage, silver backwardation, silver manipulation in the COMEX (e.g., artificial price suppression); the bankers are probably going to attack again this week and try to suppress silver's price significantly, but this just gives us an opportunity to buy at a discount price
5. Put in stops/limits, especially if you have miners. Government policies (e.g., QE3) could cause a serious dip in PM prices but, like the previous stimulus, this is only a temporary solution. If this occurs BTFD (by the....dip). This market is extremely volatile, which allows for many points of entry/rebuying. There are also plenty of points for profit taking, so do so/put in your limits but do not get greedy or lazy.
6. Buy physical PMs

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Of course the Egyptian revo... (Below threshold)

March 7, 2011 9:53 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Of course the Egyptian revolution wasn't just young people but they have certainly played a big role in both Egypt and Tunisia. Essentially Time Magazine's for people who aren't really interested in the news or the facts but who want to hear stories about newsy kinds of stuff (and, hey, they're rather desperate to be relevant to someone...anyone).

And, of course the reasons for people in the Middle East wanting to overthrown oppressive governments (that keep the rich very rich and the poor very poor) are more complex than the 90210 version that Time Magazine pimps to sell Americans magazines. You know, stuff like Egypt being one of the US' main torture destinations and the torture culture that the US not only propped up in Egypt but heavily funded. (Whether the US will allow something so useful to them and the military industrial complex to be dismantled is a very valid question. If one looks at the US track record in South America vis a vis dictators and torture, one can be quite sure that a great deal of US effort is going into two things - trying to cover their tracks and ensure they maintain control of Egypt.) You can see why Time Magazine wants to make it all about kids who want iphones - Time is a pretty soft target to critique.

That said, technology and being able to get information and images out into the world (which includes to the rest of the Middle East) certainly played an important role in both Tunisia and Egypt (otherwise there'd be no reason to shut down telecommunications). It's also helpful for Gaddafi in Libya that the world can't see what he's doing to people (and that he's got armies of mercenaries from elsewhere killing Libyans). Instead, we get Gaddafi being interviewed and we laugh because he's crazy like Charlie Sheen - except he's not, he's in a psychotic rage and got armies of mercenaries to use to try to kill as many Libyan people as he can. Sheen may yet try to kill his ex-wife or current girl toys but he doesn't have the power or wealth of a US supported dictator like Gaddafi.

A big impetus for all the uprisings in the Middle East - which are hardly some surprise, there have been attempted ones by young people in Iran at various points - was also people who were sick of being tortured or threatened with being tortured or disappeared for speaking up. And of course food scarcity and economic disparity has also played a big role.

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Interesting take. I actuall... (Below threshold)

March 7, 2011 10:43 PM | Posted by Anon: | Reply

Interesting take. I actually think "The Power of Social Media" angle is pushed because it sells so readily. Sometimes the media pushes stories simply because people consume them more readily. And it sells because it provides meaning to our love for social media.

You're not wasting your life trying to get other people to buy into your self-image on facebook, you're using the instruments of freedom and democracy.

"As we work with Congress in the coming year to chart a new course in Iraq and strengthen our military to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we must also work together to achieve important goals for the American people here at home. This work begins with keeping our economy growing. … And I encourage you all to go shopping more."

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The other thing that's rele... (Below threshold)

March 7, 2011 11:22 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

The other thing that's relevant to the Time narrative is that Facebook (and Twitter) are the most commercial/corporate aspects of social media - not only are they being seen as the great white hope of corporations looking to replace sharing with selling (or pretend they're the same thing) but commercial social media built on proprietary software is also being very heavily invested in financially in the US. FB, at this point, is really an advertising platform and market research tool (even if most of us use it differently and for social purposes, that's what it's actual function is at this point and why it's able to raise so much investment capital). Social media is essentially the new dotcom boom, exactly how the bubble will burst remains to be seen.

Of course, even the most corporate or commercial mediums can be used for other ends (both by users and governments, just look at the US military plan to try to create virtual FB people as a means to influence the public). What worries the corporate West the most is that there'll be a revolution that successfully manages to create a real democracy that strives for some form of fairness and equality - and doesn't go for torturing people or "rendition" as part of everyday business. It's why Egyptians were fighting to change a system and not just get rid of one man. And it's why the US will keep painting this as being about one bad man and not a system that the US invested in heavily (and used themselves)

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Quality post TLP, good anal... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2011 5:05 AM | Posted by Rookie: | Reply

Quality post TLP, good analysis of some bullshit media stories. Life is always more complicated than is convenient to fit between two covers or between an ad break. The solution is to communicate aspects of a story (like the role of youth or social networking sites) in a measured way, realistically adressing its role in a greater and complex situation. But that just makes an audience think too hard right? We're stupid, feed us simple absolutes so we can switch off and know exactly where we stand. No tolerance for ambiguity wanted here...

Melanie Klein is rolling in her grave.

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I'll grant that saying the ... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2011 8:43 AM | Posted by Guy Fox: | Reply

I'll grant that saying the revolutions are caused by youth is like saying that global warming is caused by heat. It's too simple, but it's certainly not wrong either. Have a look at some population pyramids (e.g., and you'll see that the numbers are too strong to ignore. Egypt's median age is 24 (!). Ditto Lybia. Tunisia's is a methusalan 29 (compare that to the US: 36). Sure, many are illiterate, about as liberal as a Westboro United Church inquisitor, or in uniform, but it's undeniable as a mere statistical certainty that most of the people pushing the revolution have to be young because most of the people in general are young.

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"If you're asking on a psyc... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2011 8:57 AM | Posted, in reply to Valentine's comment, by Lisette: | Reply

"If you're asking on a psychiatrist's blog you should definitely do more research and not believe someone giving you an answer on a psychiatrist's blog with a handle named after a holiday."

I think anonymous was making a joke about the mercenary nature of real world politics and economics. Where to invest right now is probably occupying the minds of a lot of people, who are most likely very grateful for all the distractions.

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In Tunisia the youngh inter... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2011 10:57 AM | Posted by Arthur: | Reply

In Tunisia the youngh internet hipsters got a ministery, so they must matter.

The guy was even a member of the pirate party.

But they got the ministery of sports. So I guess they don`t matter that much.

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I really don't understand w... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2011 11:06 AM | Posted by anon: | Reply

I really don't understand why you'd write a critique of stories in Time magazine on a blog where absolutely none of the readers pay attention to Time magazine.

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Well, although Time is garb... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2011 4:11 PM | Posted, in reply to anon's comment, by Gary: | Reply

Well, although Time is garbage, I see the cover whenever I'm in line at the grocery store. Those images add up.

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Great post. This solidified... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2011 6:08 PM | Posted by John R: | Reply

Great post. This solidified my suspicions about what's really going on over there. Sometimes I think these pop media outlets think Americans are stupid.

Anyway, my take on the Libyan revolution: not our country, not our problem. The U.S. is destined to collapse if we continue hemorrhaging money to fight foreign wars. Democracy will materialize when the people - hipsters or no - decide they want it badly enough. There's no need for a paternalistic intervention.

That's my hopeless idealism. But the unfortunate reality is that wherever there's an oil field crying for help, the U.S. will swoop down to the rescue. Sigh...

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"Girl in the right corner w... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2011 7:11 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

"Girl in the right corner would find them interesting." LOL!

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"I really don't understand ... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2011 10:41 PM | Posted by Information addict: | Reply

"I really don't understand why you'd write a critique of stories in Time magazine on a blog where absolutely none of the readers pay attention to Time magazine."

Its what the rest of the folks are reading....ignore at your peril!

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It is very much our problem... (Below threshold)

March 9, 2011 1:23 AM | Posted, in reply to John R's comment, by Valentine: | Reply

It is very much our problem because Americans do not want to pay for $10 gas prices so to prevent that from happening we go to war. At least, that's how it used to be...

We should be isolationist. Even if it's sushine and rainbows over there, $10 gas is going to be here soon anyway, not because of anyone in the middle east but because of how our own leaders and our own banks have screwed us. Oh, and the corporatocracy that is based in our country but has no allegiance to any country or any thing.

Inflation is here already. If you can do a google search on commodities and precious metals, and can read a chart, you will see this. What's the point in engaging in a war over Libya and getting in even more debt? This time, the rest of the world is not going to buy off our debts. But, again, this is happening at a convenient time and will make a great dis traction from the real issues in our country.

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It's pretty obvious why Tim... (Below threshold)

March 9, 2011 8:41 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

It's pretty obvious why Time is playing the Youth angle and the social media, or why they did so in the 1960's. Media tells more about itself and its desired image in the stories it tells.

What they wanted you to think:

1.) the muslim kids are alright
2.) being on Facebook and twitter isn't just about selling your image.
3.) the protests were specifically about "democracy" and pro western.
4.) The youth of the world are fighting to be just like us.

It's an image of a patriotic or psuedo-patriotic magazine that wants to be hip and pretend it "gets" facebook and twitter. The message is basicly "exposing heathens to our technology makes them want to be like us". Calling Bullshit. They don't want to be like us. They're using our stuff, they dress in western clothing, but to say that 20-something muslims have the same ideas about good governance as Wisconsonites is stupid.

A secular government has never bubbled up in the middle east. When it happened, it was imposed from the top. When the people revolt, the government is usually more Islamic, not less. Iranians revolted for the Ayatollah, Pakistan is revolting for more Islam in the government. Why is it suddenly different because they twittered? I expect that the governments of Egypt and Lybia will be more Islamic rather than more like Thomas Jefferson would have made.

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when the medium becomes ... (Below threshold)

March 9, 2011 3:45 PM | Posted by FunkyJ: | Reply

when the medium becomes the message, there's no message

Marshall McLuhan would have something to say about this, no doubt.

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<a href="http://thirdtierre... (Below threshold)

March 10, 2011 8:05 AM | Posted by Guest: | Reply

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What Time says does matter.... (Below threshold)