Monday, January 12, 2009

For Gaza

Excerpts of a paper I wrote for a communications elective some time ago about how the American public was primed to go to war in Iraq. Over two dozen theories. Imagine that.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been there since before most of us were born. I imagine it will remain so in the forseeable future. What we can do as people who have no direct interest in the escalation of hostilities since Christmas is to be critical of what we read before we "choose sides." I have been accused of defending Islamists etc. etc. Yes, our brains just might be linguistically configured to frame reality as a narrative - a story. But surely, we cannot simply cast characters as protagonists and antagonists. It would not matter if our judgments were cast in a movie house. But this. Lives are at stake.


The War for Hegemonic Meanings

Cultural Studies’ concepts of hegemony and culture wars are useful in piercing through the Clash of Civilisations rhetoric and formulating alternative courses of action that do not necessarily end in waging or supporting military action.

Briefly, the paradigm makes two core assumptions; that culture is part of all human behaviour and the society has hierarchies of power. Culture, as it is created and consumed, is shaped by dominant groups to win the non-dominant groups’ compliance to the status quo. Hegemony, drawn from Gramsci’s work on coercion and consent, problematises the relations between meaning and power. The drawing of consent consolidates political power.

Cultural Studies assumes that the media is not a neutral carrier of culture. It is a tool for dominant ideologies through its functional power of controlling the flow of information. It follows then that the media is an important site in the battle for the creation of meanings and identities, what Stuart Hall calls the ‘theatre of struggle’.

Marco Tarchi (2001) systematically reveals how the dominant groups in the United States were able to win the battle for the hegemonic meaning of the September 11 attacks to achieve multiple goals. The attacks were reified to justify the use of force, to rally support domestically and internationally, to classify who were the players, and to define what was at stake. He notes that in the media, there seemed to have been an automatic mechanism for self-disciplining - an internal logic to how the coverage was conducted:

The new war has suddenly been prepared, justified, and administered competently
by ‘Western’ media, which has internalised and automated the codes of NATO
propaganda. All of this has taken place without specific directives, which helps
understand the depth of the homogenisation of contents and of the media’s mode
of expression in this part of the world (Tarchi 2001: 169).

The concentration of media coverage on the World Trade Centre towers, rather than the Pentagon, achieved two goals. First, it gained sympathy from the international community as photos of the ‘innocent’ civilians were beamed world-wide, their deaths rendered more tragic than deaths elsewhere. Second, it served to ‘decontextualise’ the historical precedent of the existence of Al Qaeda – both a product and a consequence of the heart of the US military machine.

President Bush’s use of language helped define who were the protagonists and who were the bad guys. In his first statement after the attacks he used the word ‘evil’ five times. He would “eradicate evil from the world,” and “smoke out and pursue…evil-doers, those barbaric people.”

To make sure that there was no ambiguity, Bush categorically made us choose, “either you’re with us or against us” in the US-led effort to quash “the War against Freedom.” His pronouncements simultaneously forced the international community to identify with the United States and defined that ‘freedom’ was at stake. In the bid to win consent for what it was about to do, the Bush administration transmuted the attack against the US to the attack against the whole of Western civilisation and anyone who valued freedom. ‘Freedom’ is never explicitly defined. Whose freedom needed defending? What kind of freedom needed defending?

Making the Frame Work for the War on Terror

Framing is the selection of certain images, facts and developments over others and assembling them in a certain order to promote a particular interpretation of events. It also entails the conscious use of language to evoke ideas. A complete frame is able to perform four functions; define the problem, provide causes, give moral judgment and promote solutions. It enables the condensing of complex issues to simple, easily digestible narratives.

The events of 9/11 signalled a ‘critical culture shift’ in the way US mass media frame issues of national security. American perceptions of global terrorism have changed more than the reality of terrorism. For example, studies from the US State Department show that the incidences of terrorism have actually fallen in the past decade.

In the previous section we have outlined the dominant groups’ ascription of meaning to 9/11 – that it triggered a war between Good and Evil and there was an urgent need to defend ‘Freedom.’ How has this hegemonic interpretation been operationalised in the media? How has a set of profoundly complex issues, in the context of decades-long historical events and involving millions of lives in different continents, been framed?

Following Entman’s framing functions, how has the problem been defined? The problem, if George Bush is to be believed, is that these Islamic evil-doers hated the West for its freedoms.

What is the cause of the problem? To unravel the complexity of causal factors, let us first begin with journalistic omissions. The problem is not caused by US military presence in the Middle East since the first Gulf war. It is not caused by the deaths of as many as half a million Iraqis as a consequence of US-sponsored trade embargoes. It is not caused by the resentment in the Arab world over the decades-long Israeli conflict and the perceived injustice of Palestinians losing their land. It is not caused by foreign powers’ struggle to control the region and its most precious resource.

Instead, what are the framed causes given? That ‘Islamic civilisation’ is inherently incompatible with the ‘West,’ and the differences between the two are the source of the former’s envy and hatred. That Islam is a religion that drives its practitioners to extremism. The fact that it is a centuries old creed which has had as many permutations as Christianity, the fact that it is practiced by over a billion people in varied cultural contexts across the globe, is glossed over. Islam is one just as the West is one.

Edward Saïd’s scholarship on Orientalism details the systematic manufacture of the ‘Other.’ The project of separating the Western ‘Self’ from the Islamic ‘Other’ entails omissions in history, extirpating all traces and influence of the ‘Other,’ denying cultural borrowings, denying commonalities. Only after having successfully excised the foreign in the ‘Self’ can the West declare its superiority.

Because Islamic civilisation breeds fundamentalists and terrorists and because it practices a backward, regressive religion, it is imperative for the West, led by the embattled United States, to set its people free. The choice of words to frame the issue is telling. The Pentagon first named the war against terror ‘Operation Infinite Justice’ inferring that the use of armed force is just. As supreme leader of the morally righteous America, George Bush “will not waver” in this “test of the nation’s faith.”

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