'Pseudo Events' Stir Mideast Pot

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In
The
Image
, Daniel Boorstin’s groundbreaking and magisterial
study of the rise of the modern media and the public relations profession,
the renowned historian coined the term "pseudo-event."

He
was referring to a "happening" that is designed to be covered by
the news. It is not spontaneous, but come about because someone
has planned, planted or incited it. It is planted for the immediate
purpose of being reported or reproduced. Its relation to the underlying
reality of the situation is ambiguous. And it is usually intended
to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When
Mr. Boorstin, the 12th Librarian of US Congress, published The
Image in 1962, its notion that the American media was manipulated
by powerful forces to create a "synthetic novelty" aimed
at influencing opinion makers and the public was considered really
newsworthy.

Mr.
Boorstin, as the Economist magazine noted in its obituary of the
historian, was "the first to describe the phenomena of non-news,
spin, the cult of the image and the worship of celebrity."

In
short, Mr. Boorstin was predicting the kind of media environment
that engulfs us in the first decade of the 21st century, in which
much of what our 24/7 cable television news networks are engaged
in is covering "pseudo events" that are designed to fill
newspapers and television screens, and to stimulate the never-ending
chatter by pundits.

I
reread The Image in recent days as I was watching the television
images of demonstrators in Beirut and recalled a short 70s film
that focused on the making of a pseudo-event. The film began by
showing a three-minute-long segment from the CBS Evening News reporting
on a group of young anti-Vietnam War activists protesting in front
of a Pentagon military-recruiting office.

Those
were very powerful images of sexy and "cool" women and
men, chanting anti-governments slogans, carrying colorful placards,
creating a sense that they were about to break through the barricades
and storm the Bastille. But then the film also showed the viewer
the raw film material that ended up being cut and edited into three
minutes of "news."

As
the camera lenses refocused on the setting of the "demonstration"
we discovered a small group of less than 10 protesters standing
all alone in front of an entrance to a huge office building. People
go in and out of the building without paying any attention to them.
The "pseudo event" is exposed as a hoax. What we have
here, we say to ourselves, is not a rerun of the French Revolution,
but a bunch of uninvited losers trying to crash a party.

Leaders
of the two camps that have held demonstrations in Beirut in recent
days – the members of the coalition of Christians, Muslim and Druze
demanding that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon and the Hizbollah-led
Shiite activists who praise Syria’s role in that country – have
both claimed the other side is involved in spinning "pseudo-events."

Shiites,
about 40 per cent of the Lebanon’s citizens, allege that the anti-Syrian
demonstrations were orchestrated by outsiders (read: Americans)
and ridicule them as the "Gucci Revolution," arguing that
the anger is confined to the small section of the Westernized upper
classes.

The
heads of anti-Syrian demonstrators, on the other hand, celebrate
their demonstrators as the "Cedar Revolution," in support of political
freedom and suggest that the protests in support of Syria have been
staged by Damascus and its lackeys in Lebanon.

But
if Lebanon has become a stage for clash between two contrasting
"pseudo-events," it’s the proponents of the "Cedar
Revolution" in the West who have been responsible for igniting
it.

Indeed,
for close to three weeks, US President George W Bush and his aides
have been very effective in spinning the "happening" in Beirut so
as to ensure that it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We
were told that the "Cedar Revolution" was nothing less than another
grand episode in an 1848-like cycle of political uprisings that
include Georgia ("Rose Revolution") and Ukraine ("Orange Revolution"),
and that are now, thanks to American policy and propelled by the
elections in Iraq ("Purple Revolution") and Palestine, spilling
over into the Middle East, and include the first-ever municipal
elections in Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak’s
announcement that the forthcoming presidential election would involve
candidates other than himself.

What
the Shiites in Lebanon have tried to achieve through their own "pseudo
event" in Beirut was to counter the American-induced one by making
sure that the proponents of the "Cedar Revolution" won’t succeed
in setting the agenda.

The
Shiite demonstrators were not as sexy and "cool" as their anti-Syrian
counterparts, but they projected enormous political (and demographic)
strength that has raised questions about the spin adopted by the
American media – that the "Cedar Revolution" was a genuine manifestation
of the wishes of most of the Lebanese.

In
fact, both in Iraq and Lebanon, "pseudo-events" have been
utilized to advance the spin (that seems to be embraced by many
liberal internationalists) according to which we have been witnessing
the birth of a political spring in the form of Western liberal democracy
in the Middle East.

But
to apply Mr. Boorstin’s insights here, the relation of the vote
in Iraq and Palestine, the demonstrations in Lebanon, and the steps
by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to the underlying situation in the Middle
East is quite ambiguous. Both the elections in Iraq and Palestine
have been conducted under foreign military occupation – the
kind Washington wants to end in Lebanon – and from that perspective
they don’t necessarily mark the coming of a spring.

Moreover,
the large plurality of Shiites in Lebanon and the majority of their
co-religionists in Iraq are not advocates on Liberalism by any stretch
of the imagination. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal
reported this week that Iraqi Shiite women, including powerful female
politicians, are pushing Islamic law on gender roles and want to
scale back the rights of women that had prevailed even under Saddam
Hussein.

Similar
powerful Sunni Islamic groups are expected to achieve enormous political
power, and probably control the governments, if and when open democratic
elections take place in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

For
the Shiites in Iraq, the ability to enforce religious law that discriminates
against minorities and women – not to mention strengthening ties
with Iran – is what "freedom" is all about, as it is probably for
the Shiites in Lebanon.

In
a way, the process of Shiite political and religious revival in
those countries (as well as for the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia)
should be seen as part of what is really starting to happen in the
Middle East these days. That is: The collapse of the old political
order that was kept in place by the US, and earlier by the British
and French empires, and by the Soviet Union during the Cold War
with regard to its allies.

Ironically,
if Washington really wanted to help accelerate the process of freedom
in the Middle East, it could recall its ambassadors not only from
Damascus, but also from Cairo and Riyadh, and cut off its military
and economic aid to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Those moves – unlike
the recent "pseudo-events" staged by the ruling regimes
in those countries – could (perhaps) force Egypt to adopt a
real multiparty system and to (perhaps) encourage Saudi Arabia to
grant women full political and civil rights.

But
the fall of the old elites and the energizing of the masses in those
countries are not necessarily going to fit with the Western democracy
scenario drawn in Washington. After the political spring, we will
probably witness the coming of the winter in the form of anti-Western
and undemocratic regimes.

And
the only way to prevent that would be for America to continue applying
its military and diplomatic power in the Middle East and help produce
even more powerful "pseudo-events."

March
12, 2005

Leon
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore
and the author of the forthcoming Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East
(Palgrave Macmillan).

Leon
Hadar Archives

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