Should the real ‘war’ be against lazy thinking and bad English?

As early as 1946, George Orwell argued that English language is facing a ‘decline’ of sorts. In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell pointed out that English writing in his age – and I would argue, even in our age – suffers from two main problems, i.e., staleness of imagery and lack of precision. Using five paragraphs written by eminent thinkers and writers of his age, he suggests that we are witnessing this ‘mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence’ which has become the ‘ most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.’ He argues further that a word like ‘democracy’ has not only no agreed definition (just like the word ‘terrorism’) but the attempt to make one is resisted from all parties, involved. I quote Orwell at length about democracy, because it is such an important argument

In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. 

Whether it is the US Elections or the recent terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, news media (and those who write for social media) have resorted to use of words that seem to have lost their meaning. Orwell points out that the words ‘democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.’ What he is implying here is true of other words, concepts, ideas and phrases – used often for the ‘value’ they project- good, useful or pleasant and unpleasant, rather than any real concept that we are trying to understand or idea we wish to express.

In the age of social media, where ‘content curation’ has become far more important, than ‘content creation’ this problem has only become worse. I am as guilty of ‘sharing’ ideas that are not mine, in an attempt to sound cool or look profound, but not realizing that my own intellectual contribution to this idea has been zero. No input, no hard work, no clear thinking – just agreeing or disagreeing with something – with often a very superficial understanding of what has been said.

Photo credit : wikipedia.org
Photo credit : wikipedia.org

Similarly, English media outlets around the world use terms like ‘tolerance’ ‘terrorism’ ‘violence’ and ‘sectarianism’ and ‘democracy’ without really critically examining what these words mean. What does each of this word mean in a specific context – what are its consequences and what do people in each region/ country think about the word and the concept associated with it. How is the lived reality of a Lebanese different from that of an American when it comes to his/her experience of democracy or inter-faith tolerance? Much of this is lost in the rush to explain the ‘extremist violence’ gripping all of Lebanon and the blame is usually assigned to one or two actors, and that somehow satisfies our sensibilities – given that we want easy explanations, much of the time.

Consider this a call for greater vigilance against lazy thinking and mental banking. We need a great war against bad use of English words, phrases and expressions, which obfuscate and confuse as much as they illuminate. We need a ‘global war on bad English’ as much as we had a ‘Global war on terror’. While the latter has failed, I do believe that with some vigilance, we can start to win the first one. The choice is truly ours to make!

Does Islam need ‘reform’?

I am truly upset and angry that more than 12 people have died because of some vile cartoons. It should not have been, but it is so. I think the important task for people in France now, as well as around the world is to come to terms with it and deal with the aftermath. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a lot of questioning along the lines of: Why aren’t Muslims condemning the attack (the answer: Yes, most Muslims are condemning these killings) and Why aren’t Muslims ex-communicating the killers (Pierce Morgan said this, in his recent column). The answer to Mr. Mogran is that unfortunately there is no ex-communication in Islam – This is because there is no ‘Church’ in Islam, like the Catholic faith, to which he belongs. So, before we all start pontificating and becoming ‘experts’ on Islam, extremism and French culture of ‘freedom of speech’, which as we have seen has been quite shallow – given that Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist, not too long ago, for drawing ‘anti-semitic’ cartoons, here are a few points to consider:

  1. Can we please see this for what it is : An attack on a publication, by three lunatics, who were motivated by some motives – we still don’t know what they were – the only ‘facts’ we have are that they shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and that the prophet has been avenged. Beyond this, we don’t know much about their real intents, who sent them and for what purposes. So, any speculation about Islam’s role and its impact on creating a chaotic world should be tempered.
  2. Though there are violent Muslim groups and militias that claim to work for bringing about an ‘Islamic world order’, it is more a chimera than actual reality. The worst of the lot, ISIS has been an aberration of the vilest kind that came about after the collapse of Iraq and the ongoing civil war in Syria. Religion the cause for this group to emerge? No. Geo-politics: Yes.
  3. Yes, there is a problem in terms of how Muslims in Europe respond to provocation. A similar provocation in the U.S, would resulted in an articulate response – perhaps with some mockery thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the immigrants who go to Europe are often impoverished, not too educated and are at the very bottom of European societies. This does lead to resentment and (perhaps) radicalization of youth.
  4. Why is the media framing this as a problem with ‘Islam’? Though similar protests have occurred in the past, during the Salman Rushdie controversy and the Danish Cartoons one, the issue really is one of relations of power. Muslims in many part of the world are marginalized, colonized and often attacked with drones. This reality fuels anger and resentment. I think many of the violent actions that we see are a result of such perceived and real oppression. Will the ‘West’ recognize this and amend the real and (perceived) injustices in places around the world?
  5. Before we call for ‘reform’ in the Muslim world, let us in the West also realize that we need reform too. We need to reform ourselves and get rid of our addictions to war, easy credit and perhaps Coca Cola. This too, is causing many health hazards and deaths.

I am personally tired of all of that is going on. Tired of people who carry out such attacks, tired of the apologies and those who ask for it and tired of those who publish these cartoons, to lampoon, attack and insult. Freedom of speech has to be placed in context. As much as I defend freedom of speech – remember I am in the Academic world, which wouldn’t be as it is, here, if not for freedom of speech – I do think there is such a thing as irresponsibility. And with power to shape opinion, create dialogue or mock, comes responsibility. Those in positions to write, think and create ideas should be sensitive to this.

The Fall of Journalism and Rise of PR?

Are we witnessing the fall of journalism and rise of PR? I find myself asking this question, quite often. As a former Public Relations man, I can spot a plug, a media story that is promoting either a product, a person or an organization – off a mile – and unfortunately, this seems to be happening all too often. From the lowliest yellow journalistic papers to the venerable New York Times, this phenomenon is becoming all the more common. And this means that what we are being fed as news is often propaganda, marketing or at worse – lies. And we are willingly consuming this, with very little critical thinking. Journalism seems to be failing in its duties and we are getting more PR in the guise of journalism. While the three functions of media are to inform, educate and entertain, current mainstream media in the West seems to be all about entertainment, with very little, if any information or education happening. Let me explain what I mean.

source : artofmanliness.com
source : artofmanliness.com

Many years ago, when I was an employee at the Ogilvy and Mather PR firm in Bangalore, I read the very famous book – Fall of Advertising and Rise of PR – by Al Ries and Laura Ries. I remember their advice clearly and I devoured literally every word of it. I was a young PR professional out to prove myself. Very soon, I learned the tricks of the trade and did rather well for myself. I was one of the top performers in the network – nationally and won recognition fairly soon. One of the first things I realized and internalized was that it was hard for ‘truth’ to be known. With special interests, government agencies and media industry’s own will to survive thwarting genuine dialogue or debate, the changes of the ‘truth’ coming out is hard, if not impossible. This is what makes WikiLeaks sensational. While I believe that most people are smart and are able to see through the mediocre coverage and analysis that we receive, I think the problem facing us is not lack of intelligence, but rather lack of critical information in the public sphere. Media houses and journalists are making us lazy, if not stupid. This has got to do with the overt commercialization and consolidation of media houses, among other things. There are a few reasons why this phenomenon seems to be occurring.

The first reason why journalism is failing is because it is becoming more and more like PR. Journalism’s basic function – to function as the ‘fourth estate’ of democracy is being lost. Whether it is following meekly the administration’s line, as the American media did, while the George W Bush administration sought to beat the drums of war against Iraq or the almost servile attitude that the Indian media has towards the business community and the national government of Mr.Modi, this aspect of media is visible, quite clearly. What this does to our public consciousness is that it dumbs us down. Media in this sense force-feeds us press releases that are supposedly news. While genuine dissent becomes a luxury, even the tiniest differences between opposing views becomes part of a big ‘debate’. Non-issues become issues and comedy shows – like the Daily Show- become the only way to actually get to the truth. Remember the foreign policy debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama?

Secondly, advertising revenues dictate how media houses operate. While the Times of India, the most widely read English daily started selling ‘advertorials’ in India, there was a huge hue and cry. This meant that the editorial page – the holy grail of the broadsheet – was up for the highest bidder. The sanctity of the holy space is no longer kept pure. As this report adds, the selling of editorial space created not only a conflict between the media marketing departments and Medianet type agencies, it also further created a divide between ‘genuine news’ and ‘fake’ news. As Ranjona Banerji adds : “ To add to this corporatization of news, there then came the new element of “paid news” which was noticed to be widespread in the 2008 general elections. Here, editorial space was sold – apparently without the knowledge of journalists – to candidates and political parties. This practice was and is prevalent across the media – which includes TV. It has emerged since that in some cases journalists were also involved – not always voluntarily – to approach politicians to put money into buying editorial space to further their election prospects.” There is good reason to believe that this occurred during the recently concluded elections in India and will occur in the upcoming elections too. While this phenomenon may not occur as blatantly in the U.S., the purchasing power of big names and corporations with deep pockets will definitely influence the way certain issues get covered. To deny this is to be naïve.

Finally, Media consolidation is a problem that is facing us all. While corporate ideals dictate increasing bottom lines at every quarter, this means that journalists are fired often, they are under paid and increasingly forced to toe the line of the establishment. Democracy Now shows how Comcast and Time Warner merger could form the largest media conglomerate in the U.S., making it almost a monopoly. Good news for the corporate houses, but not the consumers, who may not have much of a ‘choice’ in terms of either content or pricing. Michael Copps argues in this story that this consolidation, like others would continue the private sector consolidation of the media sector that would make costs higher. “What this means is the cabelization of internet, and to be controlled by a few gatekeepers, who can block websites, we are doing irreparable damage to the free speech ideal.” Copps further points out that our increasing marketization decreases the media democracy. The Federal Communications Commission should step back and break these consolidations, he suggests. This also implies that if a company is in charge of both production and distribution, it gives them power way beyond what others had, in the past, allowing them to block content that they do not agree with, thus limiting the democratic discourse.

Media buying and political influence seem to go hand in hand. With the Citizens United judgment that removed all caps on corporate spending on politics, the Pandora’s Box has been opened. And this has direct implications on how media houses are run – especially in the context of political campaigns. It would not be a surprise to see this, and we are perhaps already witnessing an onslaught on our senses by both political parties in the U.S., by way of political ads and campaigns, that aim to malign the other, rather than actually seek to inform or educate the public of genuine choices.

When media becomes all about PR, the question is not whether one is receiving quality news or bad news. It becomes a question of whether what one is receiving is news, at all. That is the danger facing us all. An informed citizenry is crucial for any democracy and unless the media is free, this is not possible.

 

 

Why you should be Skeptical of Media Pundits’ Commentary

Are the pundits (or experts) on TV actually making us more ignorant? I am starting to wonder if all this explosion of ‘experts’ around us is really helping us understand the complex issues in front of us, or are they ‘dumbing down’ things, in order to reach us, and in essence not really helping us ‘know’ and ‘learn’? With the proliferation of social media, TV and 24 hour news channels, it is easier for everyone to have an opinion about everything. Even if we don’t know anything about a topic, it is quite possible to have an idea about that topic – I would even say that this current flood of ‘knowledge’ around us forces us to have an opinion, however ill informed. I am guilty of this, myself and catch myself having an ‘opinion’ on a random topic that I don’t know much about.

source:brietbart.com
source:brietbart.com

Are we are living in an age of illusions – where the ‘illusion of knowledge’ is very real, while the actual knowledge of the topic or subject may be minimal. The most egregious form of ‘knowledge sharing’ is the 2 minute interviews on TV. In fact, there has been much criticism about this form of discussion. How much can you realistically aim to teach or inform someone about complex topics such as the unemployment in America, War in Iraq or Global Warming? While TV anchors force their interviewees to churn out wisdom in sound bites, are they not really asking these ‘experts’ to dumb down, so that the lay person can really ‘get it’ in two minutes? Whose responsibility is it, then, to inform and educate the public – that of the public scholar or the media houses?

This brings us to the question of ‘what is knowledge’? Knowledge can simply be defined as what is agreed upon by people in a society. While observation and logical deductions form the tools of creating knowledge, they must also be validated by the ‘experts’ in the particular field, before it becomes ‘knowledge’, as Earl Babbie(2011) reminds us. “In general a scientific assertion must have both logical and empirical support: it must make sense and it must not contradict actual observation.” (p.4). This means that what our society determines is actually very critical, if not the only relevant criterion, to what we consider authentic ‘knowledge’.

Let us use one example to illustrate a point I am trying to make. Recent debates about Islam in the US media are also an example of what is going wrong, when it comes to ‘knowledge’ about Islam. A recent Pew Survey shows that 42% of Americans believe that Islam, more than other religion promotes violence. While the findings of the survey may be true – that is a whole different argument – what I am concerned is how terms are defined and how this comes to constitute what we ‘learn’, in other words, the epistemology behind it.

What the surveys do not tell us is how they define violence. This should be balanced with ‘facts’ such as structural violence, which are defined as ‘hunger and poverty’ are growing enormously in the US alone. Is poverty ‘structural violence’ as I have argued above, in which case the US society would be very high in this form of violence? And in comparison, many of the answers that we see in this survey may not hold true, even if we were to compare societies by religious belief.

While surveys are surely useful in aggregating opinions and ideas of large numbers of people, these very surveys can be quite problematic too. False respondents, social desirability and interviewer distortion are some of the methodological difficulties in survey research and in using the data that is collected. Also, surveys do not tell the ‘full story’ from the perspective of the group that is researched. Data and numbers can only inform us partially and only in a very dry, scientific manner, that may be misleading at times. So, while data alone cannot help us understand religion, we realize that tradition and metaphysics are crucial tools too. So, the real question is – what do we really ‘learn’ from such efforts? Not the entire story, I would argue.

Another problem with study of religion is that of tradition. While scientific research and methods often disregard values and tradition, as being anachronistic to research methods, one cannot ignore the force of traditions in studying religion. This does not mean we need to disregard tradition completely. While a purely positivistic paradigm of research may reject tradition and values outright, a constructivist may regard them as valid and often required. But for one who is practicing religion, tradition is part and parcel of the practice. I speak here of most Abrahamic religions, and perhaps some Eastern faiths too – Hinduism and Buddhism included. So, how do we incorporate tradition with the modern notions of how contemporary religious people see themselves? Speaking of Islam as an example, Talal Asad (1986) has argued that there is a need for studying Islam as a discursive tradition, i.e., a tradition that is evolving and adapting to the circumstances around it. Additionally, the work of Anthropologists who have studied Islam- scholars like Ernest Gellner and Clifford Geertz place representation of Islam in the social structure that is ‘entirely in terms of dramatic roles and this tends to exclude other conceptions”. By this, he means that Islam can be reduced to a battle of ‘big traditions’ of the city with the ‘small traditions’ of the villages. Asad says that Gellner’s Muslim protagonists do not speak, they only behave. Asad’s biggest critique of both these scholars, and by extension of a way of writing about Islam is that it ignores indigenous discourses i.e., how Muslims themselves talk about Islam and how they understand it. Their own notions of ‘knowledge’ about Islam are ignored. Pundits usually rattle off numbers, statistics and latest ‘reports’ by think tanks to prove their point, without telling us the weakness of this data and the many fault lines that exist there. Traditions, values and understandings of norms – that are crucial to behavior are often ignored or ‘essentialized’, making simple the complex and ever changing dynamic of how groups behave and negotiate with their circumstances.

Another recent example of the fuzzy logic that media pundits use to convince people is on Politico. Here, the authors points to data shared by Fareed Zakaria, who has argued that ISIS holds about one third of Syrian territory. This is blatantly untrue, argue Weiss and Itani. They further say “Most troubling is Zakaria’s fuzzy math about the opposition, its ideology and the terrain it is said to control. He writes: “The Islamic State controls about one-third of the country, and the other militias control a little less than 20 percent. But the largest and most effective of these non-Islamic State groups are al-Qaeda-affiliated and also deadly enemies of the United States. The non-jihadi groups collectively control less than 5 percent of Syria. These data points are dubious and misleading. A look at reliable maps of ISIL-dominant zones in Syria indicates that the terrorist army holds much of the Euphrates River Valley and Raqqa province, as well as parts of Aleppo province.” This seems – at face value – to be a more sound argument, based in facts rather than the one that Zakaria has made. Which facts do we choose and why? Not easy answers, unless we know a whole lot about the issue and the sources of research that are being presented before us, as ‘valid proof’.

While all that I have said should not mean we should totally disregard ‘experts’ on TV, who can be thoughtful and knowledgeable people – their comments should be treated for what they are – appetizers for us to start our meal of knowledge – rather than treat their summary remarks as the entrée. Doing so will only ensure we remain hungry for more knowledge! And at worst, our limited knowledge will blind us to the realities of the world that we do not see, in our own ignorance, and the illusion of knowledge.

The illusion of knowledge is tempting. Indifference and ignorance aren’t sexy, anymore.

How to write about Islam?

Amidst all the noise about the end of the world scenarios being portrayed as a result of ISIS conquest of parts of Iraq and Syria and equally banal assertions that Islam is somehow inherently violent, and needs ‘reformation’, the common man out there is left confused. As someone studying Islam in America, I am at a loss for words, at times, and have to remind myself that unfortunately much of what we read and hear is from people who have no clue what they are talking about. Propaganda, vested interests, media hype make a clear political or sociological analysis of what is going on in the MiddleEast and the U.S. very hard, if not impossible.Blue mosque

What is the best way to write about Islam, then? Is it to be an ‘apologist’, and ‘defend’ Islam against all the attacks and criticisms? Though this approach is needed sometimes, it doesn’t sound very helpful, because there are genuine criticisms of Islam and Muslim societies that should be considered and weighted in, if one is writing in an honest manner. The alternative is to take a critical stance and call for a radical reform of Islam, as several atheists and former Muslims have done. The most egregious and distasteful manifestation are people like Irshad Manji and others like her, who are often seen coddling with the pro-Israeli or extreme Right-wingers in the U.S. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how these two groups get along. The criticisms that they level are often steeped in broad stereotypes and an almost anti-intellectual approach to Islam and its rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The third way to write about Islam is to write it from a perspective of how Muslims themselves understand Islam and I will delve into this approach, in a bit of detail here.

For starters, what is Islam? Is it a ‘religion’, as we understand it? There is serious debate among scholars of religion about what constitutes religion. Is Islam a religion by the classical definition, or is it an ‘exceptional’ religion, in that many definitions of religion do not apply to it- by virtue of its origins, growth and universal appeal? A few scholars that have written extensively on Islam. Dr.Talal Asad is one such scholar, who I will quote extensively in this article. Asad reminds us that Islam has been studied by Anthropologists – he names Ernest Gellner in particular – as someone who has tried to present Islam as a totality. This Islamic totality, according to Gellner, is formed as a result of social forces, political ideas as well as historical facts. This view that is often informed by Orientalism, and is premised on an opposition between Islam and Christianity – with Christianity located in Europe, while Islam is situated in the Middle East, Asad contends. Even current media representations of Islam use these binaries to define a ‘modern’ West and a ‘backward’ ‘Muslim world’. There are several problems with this binary approach, not least of which is how does one speak of Muslims in the West? Are they ‘negotiating’ with modernity in the West, or are they excluded from modern notions by virtue of their religious beliefs? No easy answers to these questions. With this in mind, Asad reminds us that writing about just social interactions or social constructs such as ‘tribes’ is not very helpful, as this approach, adopted by scholars such as Gellner reifies the Islamic norms, social relations and other aspects.

Another problem with this approach that Gellner and others take is that religion, power and political authority are often represented as having fused in Islam, while this has not occurred in Christianity. This view is not wholly accurate since there is a vast diversity in how power and religion interacted, historically, argues Asad. The perspective that Gellner and Clifford Geertz take is not helpful in understanding the perspective of Islam as an analytical concept that is as much part of the present as it is a construction of the ‘past’. Further, this perspective grounded in history misses out on the diversity of Islamic practices in contemporary societies.

Asad’s key argument about Islam is that it should be treated as a ‘discursive tradition’. He says “No coherent anthropology of Islam can be founded on the notion of a determinate social blueprint, or on the idea of an integrated social totality in which social structure and religious ideology interact.” This means that all that Muslims do is not ‘Islam’. What Muslims around the world do is not necessarily a reflection of their religious traditions, just as much as all Christians’ actions are not a reflection of Christianity. He suggests that the only way for studying Islam and its Anthropology is how Muslims would do, i.e., examine how their actions relate or should relate to the founding texts – the Qur’an and Hadith. He further argues: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” By tradition, he means: “A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history.”

Finally, it is helpful to remember that the ‘Muslim world’ is just a conceptual ideal, not a ‘social reality’. Asad reminds us that “It is too often forgotten that “the world of Islam” is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. This is not to say that historical narratives have no social effect—on the contrary. But the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation.” This should be kept in mind, when we speak of a group of people that are over 1.6 billion in number and are present around the world – in every conceivable corner of every country.

One might also be tempted to ask: Why isn’t India a part of the ‘Muslim world’, since there are over 150 million Muslims there, despite being a minority? This is something every person who writes about Islam should consider. Broad generalizations, stereotyping and inaccurate analysis won’t help. On the contrary, such analysis will only confuse us, rather than clarify what we are seeking to study and understand. To quote Asad again, he says that the fatality of character among Muslims in Islamic society that Geertz and other invoke is the object of ‘of a professional writing, not the unconscious of a subject that writes itself as Islam for the Western scholar to read.’ As with Orientalist representations, what others write about Islam says as much about the author, as it does about the Islam or the actors they describe. A profound insight that should help us think critically before writing about a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith.

Why you don’t need so much “breaking news”

 
terrorism

 I read an interesting article on Guardian critiquing novelist Rolf Dobelli’s ideas that reading news can be dangerous for you. The kind of “breaking,” “live,” news that characterizes much of our experience these days is not very helpful and at worst, actually can be harmful to your well-being   His argument is that real insight and understanding is never instant. “ It takes time to piece together complex causality, and the global news machine of bite-sized nuggets doesn’t do complexity,” he adds. In this day and age of global violence, financial crisis, natural disasters; even the smallest incident can (usually) be blown out of proportion and become part of our consciousness like never before.

In his article, he makes a few claims that are worth examining. I use some of his claims and also add a few, that I think are relevant:

Firstly, that news media misleads. Often confusing correlation with causation. Pick any big issue, and chances are that many journalists are making this mistake. He says:” Take the following event (borrowed from Nassim Taleb). A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). But that is all irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges. But the car is flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.” This is a compelling argument and one that one sees occurring, all the time.

Media exaggerates: Just to put this argument in context, here is an interview with a Terrorism expert, David Schanzer, from Duke University. Here is the article about the recent Boston Marathon bombings and his reaction: “ Q: What is the trend today? Is terrorism being used less now than it was a few years ago, or are we just not hearing so much about it?

David Schanzer: The decade since 9/11 has seen less terrorism (of all ideologies) than other recent decades. There were 168 attacks in the ten years after 9/11, but in the 1970s, there were 1357 attacks.” But given the massive coverage that these events receive these days, one is inclined to believe that violence related to terrorist attacks is on the RISE, whereas it is not so.

 

Media is part of the mass consumption ethic: If one were to critique media, perhaps the most honest critique comes not from the capitalist or libertarian framework; but the Marxist framework. Here is Theodore Adorno, pointing this out in Minima Moralia. He says:” To speak immediately of what is immediate, is to behave no differently from that novelist, who adorns their marionettes with the imitations of the passions of the yesteryear like cheap jewelry, and who sets persons in motion, who are nothing other than inventory-pieces of machinery, as if they could still act as subjects, and as if something really depended on their actions. The gaze at life has passed over into ideology, which conceals the fact that it no longer exists.” This observation points to an ethic, where reality is manufactured, produced and sold, with happy consumers sitting by and waiting for their problems to be produced, analyzed and often solved – all in “real time” TV. This is the ethic that makes slacktivism possible, and also one where often “analysis,” and even “thinking,” is outsourced to the “experts,” because it is more efficient and easy to do.

The problem of spreading ignorance and rumor: This is all too evident at the outbreak of every “major” disaster. Be it a hurricane, fire or a “terrorist” attack, rumors are aplenty immediately following the disaster. While more than 90% of the material just following most incidents is chaff and useless, this is precisely what captures the imagination of most of us. It is this voyeuristic, dark side of our personalities that media aims to feed, with the constant, live updates and rumor mongering and (often) half-assed assessments by “experts.” While those who understand communications and crisis management know that this is where “framing” of events is occurring, and it is where “truth” is defined, often the media outlets behave with callousness.

So, am I advocating a return to the stone-age? No twitter, Facebook, live CNN coverage? The short answer is no, while the longer answer is ‘may be.’ While media has become a part of our consciousness and is critical in shaping our understanding of who we are, I believe it is in some ways even impeding our thinking, unless we are able to carefully discern the wheat from the chaff. As a regular user of media outlets (print, online and social) and having been a news junkie for most of my formative years, I realize the value of careful, thoughtful analysis and also somewhat skeptical of instant news or reports that claim to explain the world in 10 minutes. As researchers, journalists need to be more careful, methodical and also aware of the issues they are reporting on. Barring a small fraction, I would hazard a guess and say that most do not know what they are talking about. As a parting thought, and further proof that journalistic knee-jerk reactions often do more harm than good, here is Bill Maher trying very hard to prove to an expert that his knowledge of Islam and history is far superior; since he gets to be on TV and is considered a “star”. This is nothing but polemics, hatred and bigotry, passing off as “analysis.” And nowadays, you don’t have to watch the right-wing media for this kind of shallow reactions, unfortunately ; this is becoming all too mainstream. 

 

Q and A with Riz Khan, Anchor at Al –Jazeera English

It is not everyday that you get to meet your childhood hero. To me, Riz Khan has always been a role-model and continues to do the kind of work that I would love to do, though in a different format. Even though I am a bit star-struck by him, I managed an  interview about an issue that I have followed closely for a few years now, and am researching for a project  at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

In this interview, he talks about the role of media in framing issues pertaining to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He also discusses the way in which  USA’s  domestic politics impacts the process.

Q: What are your impressions of the failed  Middle East peace talks – 2010 ? What do you make of it ?

Riz Khan: To be honest,  I don’t know all the specifics. But I do know one thing – that the USA has been pre-occupied and the Obama administration has had a lot to deal with in the last few months. The economy, coming close up to the re-election campaign, the president himself has been pre-occupied. And also I don’t know how strongly they felt about the legitimacy of the players involved.  Mahmoud Abbas has been considered the main person to talk to, but his power base has been fragmented by the Hamas; so people wonder if he truly represents the Palestinians.

The other thing  as well  is that the Palestinian papers have compromised what we know. According to them, the Palestinians were willing to give more than what we are told and the Israelis were unwilling to compromise. Netanyahu also had a terse relationship with Obama and the power of the lobby – AIPAC forced the president if he would continue the support, and to do this; he would have to be a bit soft on him.

So, it seems that president Obama has had to back down so many times. I have been to conferences where people have even described him as a “coward”, for not being strong enough in his convictions.  He came in with these strong convictions, with the Cairo speech and vision; but failed to deliver. He has been bowing to power, and the horrible thing about political life is compromise and I remember Hillary Clinton going to the Palestinian territories and being shocked with the conditions. But she had to run for senate, following her visit, she had to keep mum about these issues. She again had to flip-flop on her position as well.  Like her, President Obama also has not been in a strong position. He has been pre-occupied with one issue after another and allowed himself to be pressured.

There is also limited value and prestige when it comes to leadership when it actually comes to achieving things.

Q: In terms of media process, how has the framing taken place ?

Riz Khan : You must remember that there is media at various levels. At the US national level, international level.

Essentially, international news, like most other news is reactive. The local news in the USA is not going to give you anything of any value when it comes to coverage of  the Middle East. So, people here don’t have any clue of what’s going on. The national media here is also limited except for a few media such as the NPR, which had a few interesting discussions around the peace talks, and PBS too.

The American public is blind as to what is going on about the mid-east process. The international media is guilty of knee-jerk reaction. They are obsessed with the question : What’s the story of the day ? For example, visit of Netanyahu or Secretary of state Clinton to the region becomes the biggest news that  there is.

We at Al-Jazeera ( AJ)  are a bit different in that we have been able to provide more context, breadth and background; and that is largely due to the heritage of  our channel – being Arab and Middle Eastern.

In general, the trouble is that we do have a knee-jerk reaction in most international coverage of events and the over-all picture is lost in the sound-bites. AJ has tried to shift this paradigm and that is our strength.

There is also a merging of issues and a growing consciousness in the Arab world about common grievances. I was on a panel today with the former ambassador of Jordan to USA, and he actually said the trouble is that people expect us to keep issues separate . What is happening in Tunisia, Egypt  and Libya. Mixing the Palestinian –Israeli issue and looking at the impact of the Arab spring on this issues is  just confusing for people. But he is right in saying that if unless we  solve the issue of Palestine, there is a lot that is going to come back and bite the leaders  of US back.

The leadership here ( in USA)  is talking about safety of civilians, security; while the Israeli  government  is bombing civilians in the Middle East. Consider the case when Israel struck Lebanon in summer of 2006. Gaza also witnessed the same thing; so we are seeing the same double-standards, which is what upsets people. Of course, the US is in a tricky position; and is considered to have an uneven hand. But the good thing is that even many American politicians are coming to understand and appreciate this.

We have seen this in the fracture that has appeared , in the emergence of J-street and other groups who are challenging this one-sided narrative.

That is  another critical factor, but overall the media has failed  to truly educate the public because they don’t have the motivation, or any interest.  The American public has very little interest in news in general, so it’s a difficult game for them to play.

Q: What do you make of J-street and other alternate voices that are emerging in the political advocacy spectrum ? How influential have they been ?

Riz Khan: They have tried a bit. There are a number of groups, One voice and others, who have come together. They are trying to be pro-active and engaged. Unfortunately, when there is good news, the media is not going to be interested.  Bad news makes for news.

The media is not going to write much about stories that say Palestinians and Israelis are sitting side by side and doing good things. Only there are bullets hitting people, is there news. That’s very sad, and the issue we face here is that, to get the counter-movements to have any real space is hard.

I don’t think people in this country realize, how strong the movement in Israeli public to counter what is happening. There are big divisions in Israeli society about what is the right thing to do.

Some realize that the occupation cannot go on.  There are Israeli groups protesting at the check-points and helping Palestinians get through. I was there for the 60th anniversary of the creation of Israel – Nakba – as the Palestinians call it, and witnessed the various voices in the spectrum of Israeli society.  It’s easy to understand this new generation, who don’t know their history well. They don’t understand why the Palestinians live such a miserable life. Many of them are brought up to believe that the Palestinian lands were empty when the Jews arrived.

I think some of them have been indoctrinated into thinking that this is their land and  the Palestinians have no claim . In theory they coulld be sharing this piece of land.

Now the question of a two state solution is very much in question, because the land in the Palestinian side is fragmented heavily. The wall, the settlements are creating g huge bridge.

Q: When we speak of inclusiveness of Hamas,  Is there a trend in the media not to give it legitimacy even though the group won the 2006 elections ?

Riz Khan:  We at AJ have discussed this a lot. In the West, there is a failure to understand that Hamas  does not have  just the military arm, but there is also a social service arm to it; and it fills the gap, which people need. The same is with Hizbollah, so unfortunately on the ground, the reality is different from what is shown on TV and picture. These organisations have provided them what the Palestinian Authority has failed to.

The rhetoric about Hamas and other groups  tends to be one-sided and echoes what the politicians want you to see and hear. AJ was framed as a terrorist network, sponsored by Osama bin Laden by Donald Rumsfeld, the former Defense secretary.  His statements were inaccurate, that we had shown beheadings etc. There was a lack of understanding, and also mis-information.

Now, people watch AJ and most recently, Hillary Clinton was recently quoted  as saying that we cover these issues properly and how others don’t.  I think it is the height of ignorance to criticize something without having any knowledge of the issue.

So, I have no time for such people who criticize us with no basis and background of the work we do. It goes back to my school days, when I knew a guy who did not apparently like Pizza, and I finally established that he had never tasted Pizza. So, it’s the same principle.

You know, it’s a shame, but it is how it is.

Q: Will the Arab spring directly impact the Middle East peace process?

Riz Khan  : Not yet. I think it’s going to take some time. No one has really covered how the Palestinians have reacted to this movement in the Arab world.  

I think everyone is waiting to see if the change in the Middle East will change the paradigm in the peace process, but so far; there is no indication of that.

We thought of Saudi aligning with the US to fight Iran, and the sectarian ( Sunni-Shia) split which was highlighted with Bahrain, raised fears about the Middle East being an ethnic battle field more than anything else.

This is intriguing and may come up more and more.

I have heard many commentators say that Iran is just sitting and watching all of this, while the other guys are just beating themselves up.

Q:  How can one make sense of US ambivalence towards the issue. How can one understand this, in the context of  it being the sole super-power and the only one with the ability to influence the decision substantially ?

Riz khan : It depends on who you mean by the US ?  If you mean the US politicians, yes, they are totally pre-occupied with domestic issues – deficits, collective bargaining issues etc.  What bothers me most is that the previous administrations over-emphasis on American security. This whole sense of creating a sense of fear was detrimental to the quality of life in this country.

When I see Colin Powell and actually seeing him being searched and wanded electronically a the Airport by security guards. It shows you that things are really going to be crazy. Even top officials are going to bear the brunt of it.

Ironically, Al-Qaeda has succeeded in doing far more than just killing people and destroying two buildings. They have disrupted American lifestyle to a degree where I don’t see it recovering quickly.

Media continues to exaggerate these issues.

The peace talks have to be addressed. Hillary Clinton is a smart woman and she knows that this is something that needs to be dealt with. Sadly, when people play politics, people do know that the real issues get sidelined. When people are looking to get re-elected, or looking for support or funds; the issues that affect people’s day to day issues are lost. The Israelis and Palestinians are caught up in the shadows of an election cycle. It’s more vigorous than ever.