A second major academic review of Voices of the New Arab Public just came out. This one is by Jon Anderson, in the Middle East Journal - which is one of the most important reviews for any Middle East studies scholar. It's an honor to have my book paired with one by Ambassador Bill Rugh, the dean of American public diplomacy practitioners in the Arab world. Full text of the review can be found here.
Anderson is very generous in his praise, concluding that "the study of Arab public opinion has matured to the standards of American political science.... Lynch has not only described voices of the new Arab public; he has provided the point of departure for all serious analysis of it in the future." Along with the praise, Anderson raises this absolutely fascinating critique:
there is a residue in Lynch's analysis, which he identifies with the absence of any institutional formation through which Arab public opinion can be expressed or through which the Arab Public Sphere can be conceived as more than a site of discourse and subjective reflexivity of differences of opinion. Why this should be a problem lies in part in modernist understandings of politics to include mobilization, thus rendering what Lynch observes as mere "identity" politics, which he struggles to depict as a precursor to more pluralistic politics. Here, Michel Foucault's concept of "governmentality" might be more useful than Jurgen Habermas' "communicative action" for retrieving what his model--which triangulates opinion, sites of expression, and reflexivity--can only treat as a residue. What this misses is the institutional apparatus and common culture that tied intelligentsia loosely to their putative publics and tightly to political elites... The crucial next step in thinking about this public sphere is how it can be detached, if it can be detached at all, from media, which Lynch has started by respecifying public opinion as what polling data measure.
This is the kind of thing you like to see in a review - a genuinely challenging critique drawing on an alternative theoretical framework which might open up productive new lines of inquiry. Anderson is right about the problems created by my desire to link public sphere arguments to political mobilization. I devote a substantial part of chapter two trying to trace out the different pathways by which the new public sphere might affect political behavior - including by "changing the strategic calculations of rational politicians, by shaping worldviews, and by transforming identities" (p.69). Were I writing the book today, I would probably add more explicitly here the ways in which the new Arab media empower contentious politics (which I discuss at greater length in the conclusion than in chapter two). Anderson hits on a key issue in any analysis of Arab public opinion here, and one which can and will stand much more thought and research.
At the same time, I'm not entirely convinced that his Foucauldian alternative would be better. While it likely would help capture some of the constraints shaping these Arab intellectuals and activists, a Foucauldian approach (or one drawing on Bourdieu, for that matter) might miss the real potential for disruptive change introduced by new media technologies and newly empowered voices. For all the shortcomings of the Habermasian communicative action and public sphere tradition, it at least holds out more promise for agency, for the ability of these determined social actors to change the terms of politics through their public action. They might well fail, but - as with my response to the Faksh review in Perspectives on Politics - I would prefer to keep these questions open. I've no doubt that Anderson would agree, and that this could be a potentially fruitful theoretical dialogue.
That's two major, positive, and stimulating reviews of my book in one day - not bad. Time to write another one, I suppose.
Voices of the New Arab Public is reviewed in the new issue of Perspectives on Politics (vol. 4, no.4, December 2006), the American Political Science Association journal which took over the book review section from the American Political Science Review a few years ago (and therefore a key review for any political scientist). I've posted the full text of the review over on the Voices blog, for those who are interested.
Overall, it is a very positive review, and I'm quite pleased. The reviewer, Mahmud Faksh, gives a fair summary of the book's main arguments about the impact of the new Arab public sphere and its significance for American public diplomacy, although for some reason barely touches at all on the empirical heart of the book (Arab arguments about Iraq). The review concludes that
the study represents a significant contribution to the emerging field of the media and politics and the budding literature on the new electronic media and Arab politics. It is a highly scholarly study, extensively researched, well documented, and lucidly written, combining a wealth of data and keen analysis, which offer an excellent understanding of the nature, evolution, and impact of the Arab media and the rising Arab public sphere.
Aside from the summary and the praise (both of which I appreciate), I would like to take minor issue with the one major critical point raised by Faksh:
The author correctly assumes that this cataclysmic transformation of Arab political culture is “vital to any meaningful pluralist politics” (p. 2). But this raises the question: Is the new open Arab public sphere really paving the road to a liberal, pluralist politics, as the author seems to imply? The answer is simply no. Indeed, as the study shows, the emerging Arab public discourse, open and free though it may be, remains cloistered in an Arab narrative anchored in Arab-Islamic identity and culture, spewing populism, anti-Westernism driven by past and present grievances (colonialism, the plight of the Palestinians under occupation, the suffering of the Iraqi people under the weight of the U.S.-imposed sanctions, the subsequent U.S. occupation, and perceived or real Western double standards), and obscurantist Islamism—all the antithesis of a civic liberal culture that promotes tolerance, trust, compromise, and reason in the marketplace of ideas. It is doubtful that such a populist, identity-based public enclave can provide the foundation for liberal reforms in the Arab world.
While this critique is perfectly justifiable and legitimate, I am dissatisfied with it on two levels.
First, it doesn't get the book's argument quite right. Voices certainly does lay out a strong argument for the potentially positive effects of the new Arab media: shattering state monopolies on information and opinion, challenging taboos and red lines which have shackled Arab political debate, consistently highlighting democratic elections and political reform, and empowering contentious politics from below. The book argues that building a culture of pluralism and public debate is a necessary condition for achieving real democratic reforms.. but not a sufficient one. The book is explicitly ambivalent about the liberalizing effects of the new media, as opposed to its contributions to pluralism and contentious politics. It argues that the new Arab public can not alone produce democracy, is constantly tempted by populist mobilization, and will not necessarily advance liberalism. Ironically, the book actually begins with precisely the question raised by Faksh:
Whether such a populist, identity-driven, enclave public could be the foundation for reform and liberalization - at a time when neither Arab states nor the most powerful popular movements such as Islamism offer such a foundation - represents one of the most urgent problems facing the Arab world today. The centrality of identity politics to the new Arab public, with its avowed goal of giving voice to an oppressed and long-silenced Arab political society, is rife with paradoxes. It is fueled by a determination to bring publicity to the closed, repressive Arab political world, shattering every taboo and crossing every red line with abandon. At the same time, its politics of identity could all too easily slide into a tyranny from below, excommunicating those who disagree and demonizing outsiders to enforce internal unity. (pp.3-4)
Later in the first chapter, I note with concern that "Even if the power of a new international public sphere is growing, it is not at all clear that it is a liberal public sphere... the politics of the new Arab public sphere tend towards populism, the politics of identity, of authenticity, and of resistance." (p.26). And in the conclusion (pp.248-249), I pose "a populist public or a liberal public" as one of the crucial issues which will determine the future of the impact of the new Arab public on the region. In short, while the book may "imply" that the new Arab public is paving the way to liberalism, that simply isn't what the book says.
The second level on which I've been thinking about this review has to do with degrees of certainty. My unease is well captured by this juxtaposition:
Faksh: "Is the new open Arab public sphere really paving the road to a liberal, pluralist politics, as the author seems to imply? The answer is simply no." (p.793)
Voices: "Whether the Arab public sphere develops in a liberal direction or in a populist direction, consumed by questions of identity and authenticity, is one of the most pivotal questions shaping the Arab future." (p.27)
I understand (and to some extent share) the widespread skepticism about the new Arab public's liberalism or about its democratizing potential, and Faksh offers interesting arguments in support of his skepticism (and draws some of his support from my own evidence). But I am troubled by such a direct, confident answer to such complex and unpredictable questions. Voices of the New Arab Public presents the rise of new media and public argument as a powerful set of forces reshaping the deep structure of Arab politics. But such deep structural changes will necessarily have complex, unpredictable implications: they will differentially empower a wide range of actors and movements; they will generate a backlash from those powerful forces threatened by the changes; they will shape the political impact of all kinds of other events and actors (whether events in Iraq and Lebanon, or elections in the region, or al-Qaeda's campaigns). The forces unleashed by the new Arab public have barely begun to be studied by political scientists. Faksh would be better served posing his perspective as a question, a competing hypothesis, than as a confident empirical assertion of fact - as would we all.
I don't want to suggest that the review was either hostile or poorly done. As I said, it was very positive and quite thoughtful, and raised important points, and I'm quite appreciative of getting such a good review in POP so quickly after publication (by academic standards). Nobody should take this blog discussion as an attack on the reviewer: it's more a way of trying to explore some of the issues it raises, respond to some of its critiques, and increase the overall value of the review. Hey, here's a radical thought: Wouldn't it be great if more academic book reviews could be done in a dialogic format, as in the Qahwa Sada forum on Bob Vitalis's America's Kingdom or the Crooked Timber forum on Shari Berman's The Primacy of Politics (PDF version here)? Let reviewers post their review, authors respond, have a week-long dialogue about it, then publish the results? That seems like one area where academic and blogging are a natural match... could this be the future?
Hey professors! Perhaps you, like me, are starting to think about books to use in your classes next year. Perhaps you, unlike me, are teaching a course on Middle East politics, the global media, Iraq, or even American foreign policy. If so, remember that Voices of the New Arab Public: Al-Jazeera, Iraq, and Middle East Politics Today would make a great addition to any course syllabus. Just check out these reviews!
OK, enough of that. Back to work for me.
I mentioned yesterday that I had been profiled in Variety. It isn't online, alas, but it's based on a chat I had with Steven Kotler, and it runs on page A1, continuing onto page A10, of their March 27 special section on "Mideast TV". It has a picture of my book rather than of me - no doubt a wise choice - and a picture of Nancy Ajram alarmingly close by. Fame and fortune and pop tarts...
Anyway, here's the opening of the piece:
In the 1970s and '80s, Arab television was a staid affair. Repressive regimes stocked the airwaves with political puppets towing the party line. But then came Al-Jazeera.
Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science at Williams College, spent six years translating nearly 1,300 hours of Al-Jazeera programming - focusing on the five most popular talkshows. The results can be found in his book "Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today."
"It's a great model, but maybe too great," says Lynch. "The days of Al-Jazeera's monopoly are over. They now face strong competition in nearly every market. There are dozens of stations that have sprung up that buy into Al-Jazeera's approach and are competing for their audience."
Lynch has said that Al-Jazeera is fundamentally about argument. It seems as if argument - be it haggling in the bazaar over goods or discussing political theory in universities or cafes - is intrinsic to Arab culture and is the key to Al-Jazeera's success.
.... "It changed the culture of the entire Middle East. Suddenly everyone had access to the news, and all of those arguments that used to take place in private burst into the public sphere. Now you almost have to disagree to be an 'Arab' - which is important since it's such a key idea in democracy. Satellite TV has rearranged all aspects of Arab life."
I also put in a plug for the Nancy-Haifa wars:
Al-Jazeera certainly has a relentless dislike of the status quo, especially the political one, but it's not as much of a hard driver for social change, for better treatment of women, for gay rights, for sexuality and so forth.....
"What really seems to be driving social change is reality TV and music videos," Lynch says..... "If Americans saw how sexy these music video clips by singers like Haifa Wehbi or Elissa get, they'd be shocked. These music videos and reality TV shows can be really sexually bold and show women in all kinds of strong roles.... They've become incredibly popular in the last few years. Those shows and videos offer all kinds of alternatives to the Islamist project and let young Arabs really engage with a more open pop culture."
There's a bit more, but I don't want to be violating copyright or anything until they actually post it online. The rest of the special section is also quite interesting, with profiles of MBC, religious satellite TV stations and music videos (what I've taken to calling the "Rotana-Risala Axis"), reality TV, al-Jazeera and al-Jazeera International, LBC, and more.
Nothing about that alleged TV pilot "The Aardvark," though, and no mention of Joss Whedon, David Duchovny, Catherine Zeta-Jones, or Eliza Dushku. Hmmm... is that kind of suspicious? What are they trying to hide?
Another review of Voices of the New Arab Public, this one in the Jordan Times (link should be good for about a week):
This is not a study of Al Jazeera or Iraq per se, but of the effect that the combination of the two has had on Arab discourse.
Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science at Williams College, argues that the advent of the Arab satellite stations, Al Jazeera in particular, created a totally new Arab public sphere that cut across borders and censorship. While the new Arab public is united by a sense of common identity and consensus on core issues, such as Palestine, it also offers a platform for radically divergent opinions and unprecedented, open debate: “The remarkable impact of the new Arab public sphere rested upon its bringing previously private political debates into the glaring light of publicity.” (p. 58)
Thus, a new phenomenon burst into the open in 1998 in response to American and British bombing of Iraq. “The open arguments on Al Jazeera could not be restricted to just the television screen, and soon began to spill out into open political mobilisation in almost every Arab country.” (p. 159)
In the ensuing years, with extensive coverage of the Palestinian Intifada and Iraq, these two “issues increasingly merged into a common narrative, with the United States playing the villain's role in each.” (p. 128)
Lynch notes that while anti-Americanism was not predominant in the aftermath of Sept. 11, it rose dramatically under the combined impact of Bush's “Axis of Evil” speech, Ariel Sharon's reoccupation of the West Bank, and the beginning of the campaign against Iraq.
“The grinding violence in the West Bank, and especially the bloody Israeli reoccupation in April 2002, ensured that any American moves on Iraq would be viewed through the lens of Palestinian suffering.” (p. 155)
Based on research in a number of Arab countries, including Jordan, and extensive monitoring of the political talk shows broadcast by satellite stations, Lynch disputes claims that Al Jazeera is a mouthpiece for radical Islamists or Al Qaeda, or that its journalists were on Saddam Hussein's payroll. Contrary to American preconceptions that Arab media are biased, the Arab public now has greater access to all sides of the question, especially when contrasted with the tight media control imposed by the Bush administration during the invasion of Iraq.
In Lynch's view, the new Arab public can be a catalyst for change and democratic reform, but as yet its impact on policy is still limited. The fact that it “enabled both a new kind of open public argument and a more potent politics of identity would over time develop into a major contradiction. During the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the struggle between the politics of identity and the public sphere imperative of rational discourse would come to define much of the debate over the performance of the Arab media”. (p. 142)
The most valuable feature of this book is that it gives the English language reader direct, unparalleled access to contemporary Arab political debate. Lynch quotes from scores of participants in the talk shows, thus giving voice to the opinions of a broad range of people, from intellectuals, media commentators, politicians and the Iraqi opposition to ordinary Arabs who call in from around the world.
Compared to the comprehensive data that Lynch presents and the insightful way in which he analyses it, his conclusion is disappointing. Everything in the book points to the fact that the vast majority of Arabs today oppose US Middle East policy not because the media incite them to do so, but because this policy is destructive, unjust and detrimental to their interests and goals. Yet the author proposes only that the US administration engage the new Arab public in a rational debate, with the need for policy changes only mentioned in passing without any specifics. The implications of his analysis, however, point to the need for major changes.
Nonetheless, “Voices of the New Arab Public” is a unique contribution among the many recent books on Al Jazeera and Iraq. No other has addressed the intersection between the media and the prospects for social change in such a meaningful way.
(Cross posted on the Voices "page 2" blog)
A review of Voices of the New Arab Public by Jean Seaton in The New Statesman:
Since the launch of al-Jazeera in 1996, a wild frontierland of international satellite television has revolutionised life in every Arab nation and across the Arab diaspora. A fiercely competitive set of stations has sprung up in the Qatari channel's wake, all attempting to capture the attention of highly politicised Arab audiences. News and political debate may be low-ratings stuff in the UK, threatened by audience indifference and revenue crises, but all over the Middle East new satellite stations are acting as centres for a release of energy and the fluid formation of opinion.
It is an exhilarating story of the emergence of an Arab public voice, frustrated by the oppressive incompetence of most of its rulers and hungry for better government. But it is also a cautionary tale of a huge energy that we have hardly begun to appreciate. For if this torrent of argument has a rational political side, it also has a potential populism that should chill us because we have been so blind to it.
Although there are significant differences between countries in the Middle East, with Lebanon's historically freer press, Jordan's greater tolerance of dissent and Egypt's long history of opposition, Arab states routinely censor, intimidate or buy up their local media, drowning out independent thought with "official messages". Forced underground, Islamist groups have created a parallel universe of pamphlets, CDs and cassettes. Al-Jazeera and its competitors burst into this unhappily narrow world, creating what Marc Lynch here calls "an autonomous counter-public" quite simply by beaming over the heads of the national opinion managers.
The novelty of Voices of the New Arab Public depends on its analysis of the talk shows that dominate the new stations. On these programmes, members of elites, governments and every political group battle it out - but the real excitement is provided by the opinions of the Arab public, elicited by means of a new phenomenon: continuous phone-ins and broadcast voting. The format is loud and plebiscitary, and everyone wants a say in it.
Lynch observes that debate over the Iraqi conflict has caused an important shift in the quality of this discussion. For the first time, he suggests, there has been real disagreement, not about the centrality of Iraq, which, as he points out, "has become a touchstone of Arab identity as the result of the intense public arguments in the new Arab media", but about how the situation should be resolved. Despite their fundamental political bias, these new international stations are creating a "public sphere" of responsive argument between different points of view. Even though some of the talk shows are crudely polemical, others present multi-layered arguments that evolve as you watch and listen. They are certainly having a direct impact on governments in the region.
The satellite explosion has its own dangers, however. As competition grows, there is tremendous pressure to indulge in sensationalism. Reservations about screening made-for-television beheadings, for instance, were drowned out in a ratings battle. Although Lynch fails to examine what is unsayably taboo in the Arab forum, he does show how few programmes feature the environment, unemployment, health, child abuse or anything else that affects everyday life - except politics.
Yet Lynch's authoritative and exciting book, rooted in local knowledge, urgently demands that we engage with this modern Arab world. Out there, along with the wildly popular mobile-phone downloads of the pan-Arab equivalent of The X Factor and the beautiful (unveiled) female news presenters, people are engaging in a fragile but vital rational argument. We have everything to learn from listening to it, much to gain from a conversation with it, and have already disastrously lost much by ignoring it.
(Cross-posted at the Voices "page 2" blog)
Hey, remember that review of Voices of the New Arab Public in the Straits Times by John R Bradley? Turns out, the review was actually written for Newsweek (International)! It runs today under the title "Al-Jazeera Unmasked". It's a shorter version, about two thirds the words I'd say - but it keeps that "subtly subversive" quote that I liked from the Straits Times version.
My first book was not, shall we say, reviewed in Newsweek. This is rather exciting.
I can't find an on-line version of this yet, but Voices of the New Arab Public has been reviewed by John Bradley in the Straits Times:
THE Egyptian-American scholar, Dr Mamoun Fandy, provocatively wrote in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat in April 2004 that there are no real journalists in the Arab world, and anyone who thinks Arab satellite television has a constructive role to play 'is at best deceived, or at worst a liar or ignorant'.
The Qatar-based Arabic network Al-Jazeera is now often condemned by pundits as 'jihad TV', its journalists labelled 'killers with cameras' complicit in terror attacks or accused of filling the airwaves with anti-Semitic, anti-American and pro-fundamentalist propaganda.
Whether true or not, reports that US President George W. Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera certainly reflect the sense of outrage among many in the West at what is perceived as a steady stream of beheading videos and Osama bin Laden tapes broadcast by the network.
Now Professor Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science at Williams College who runs the www.abuaardvark.com blog, has set out to prove that consensus wrong. The result - Voices Of The New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera And Middle East Politics Today - is a closely argued and provocative study that calls for a far more nuanced Western response to the phenomenon of Al-Jazeera.
Asserting that 'it is manifestly untrue that the Arab media are dominated by a single perspective', Prof Lynch points out that often the most hostile critics of Al-Jazeera neither speak Arabic nor bother to watch the programmes they castigate. By contrast, he himself has amassed a breathtakingly wide range of network data, allowing him to rely 'primarily on what Arabs themselves have actually said'.
They include the full transcripts of 967 episodes of five of the most important Al-Jazeera talk shows aired between 1999 and 2004, a separate database of those episodes that dealt specifically with Iraq, and another containing thousands of opinion essays published in Arabic newspapers between 1992 and 2004.
Prof Lynch's startling conclusion: Arabs are 'relentlessly bombarded' by their media not with crude propaganda but with diverse 'political arguments'.
In 1999, long before the US-led invasion of Iraq, more than a dozen Al-Jazeera talk shows, he writes, criticised the absence of democracy in the Arab world. In response to revelations of the sexual torture of Iraqis by Americans at Abu Ghraib Prison, the network's most popular show, The Opposite Direction, provocatively discussed conditions in Arab prisons.
'In this new Arab public, Iraqi opposition figures argue with their critics on television. Islamists and feminists square off over women's rights - Kurds openly challenge Al-Jazeera on its own broadcasts over its alleged silence about Saddam's mass graves,' Prof Lynch adds.
By focusing on the sensationalist side of the Arabic-language satellite media, Westerners may be overlooking their many positive characteristics. They have certainly shattered the ability of Arab states to control information or to stifle political debate. They have made it normal to argue publicly about political and cultural issues that used to be completely off-limits.
America, he adds, should stop 'scapegoating' the Arab media for US policy failures in the region. In his reading, Al-Jazeera and other stations have probably done more to advance democracy in the Middle East than anything else. They have empowered political activists in their struggle against regimes. In the case of the Egyptian pro-democracy movement Kefaya, 'it's clear that one Al-Jazeera camera is worth tens of thousands of protesters in the streets'. When Arab regimes feel threatened these days, he points out, the first thing they do is arrest any Al-Jazeera reporter they can get their hands on.
All of this adds up to a 'genuinely revolutionary change' in Arab politics, one whose impact is only just beginning to be appreciated both inside and outside the Arab world.
While this subtly subversive book will become the focus of what is too often a shrill debate over the role of the Arab media, there will likely be many counter-arguments that try to show Prof Lynch has engaged in little more than a clever whitewashing exercise. There is little here on Al-Jazeera's murky relations with terrorist outfits in Iraq and elsewhere, for which the network's correspondents have been arrested and prosecuted. And there is little, either, on the backroom deals between the US and Qatari governments which have seen the network truncate Osama's speeches, remove 'anti-American' cartoons from its website after protests from Washington, and recruit mostly right-wing reporters for its new English-language channel, Al-Jazeera International.
Voices Of The New Arab Public would have been an even greater achievement if it had also dealt with these issues head on, and tried to prove that they did not undermine its central thesis. But in reality, we will probably not get to know the true inside story of Al-Jazeera until an insider writes an expose of his time there. Until then, this book is likely to remain the best starting point.
Much appreciated review, especially the Abu Aardvark link!
I think that Bradley's criticisms towards the end are fair enough. On the relationship between al-Jazeera and the Iraqi insurgency, I do have a few pages on that - but basically I end up falling back on the simply point that no evidence of such links has ever been produced, despite great incentive on the part of al-Jazeera's enemies to produce such evidence (see the al-Sharq al-Awsat/Hazem Sha'alan/Omar Hadid fiasco). I do say that this doesn't mean that such evidence won't emerge in the future, but until then it's just allegations. And on the relations behind the scenes with the US, I will say that here at Abu Aardvark I was one of the ones who broke and/or pushed the story of an al-Jazeera on-line slideshow about anti-Americanism which appropriately drew official American ire and mysteriously disappeared soon after.
As to the "insider's acount", he's right - but then, I never set out to write one, since I'm not an al-Jazeera insider. I say in chapter one explicitly that I didn't set out to write an
insider's story of al-Jazeera, and in the book I try to fairly
rigorously stick to what was actually aired or written rather than to
speculate about the production process. That's a weakness, no doubt
about it, but one built in to the methdology. But overall, Bradley is right that my account of the
"receiving end" (on the air broadcasts, published newspapers) would be
usefully supplemented with a parallel account of the "production end" -
(inside the studio, inside the newsroom). Somebody go write that
Philip Seib, professor of journalism at Marquette University, has published what I believe to be the first review of Voices of the New Arab Public in today's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (and can I say how cool it is that the first review of my book was published in my hometown newspaper - my parents probably saw it before I did!).
Throughout the world, the news media have significant influence on the agenda and tone of politics. This is particularly true in the volatile Middle East, where the proliferation of new media - most notably the satellite television channel Al-Jazeera - is profoundly changing how Arabs view their own countries and the rest of the world.
In "Voices of the New Arab Public," Williams College professor Marc Lynch does an excellent job of appraising the impact of this change. Lynch did a tremendous amount of work in writing this book, translating hundreds of transcripts and articles from Arabic and scrutinizing their content. The result is a fascinating look at media-driven political discourse.
Lynch focuses on "the Arab street" as the center of public opinion, which is both shaped and covered by Arab media. The new Arab public, he says, "has already conclusively shattered the state's monopoly over the flow of information . . . (and) rejects the long, dismal traditions of enforced public consensus."
A key part of this change is the rise of political talk shows, which are often even livelier than their counterparts on American television. Americans take for granted this kind of public give-and-take, but in countries where debate has long been restricted by government, the rise of the political talk show has a transforming effect. This is something American policy-makers should pay attention to because these programs - the on-camera discussions and callers' questions and commentary - provide valuable insights about the Arab world.
Lynch's analysis of these programs reveals that much of the resentment toward American policy in Iraq was based not on support for Saddam Hussein, who was widely despised, but rather was rooted in anger about the long-running U.S. economic sanctions that did terrible damage to the poorest Iraqis, with many children dying of hunger and disease. Perhaps the sanctions could be blamed on Hussein's intransigence, but that rationale could not compete with horrifying news stories and images.
Most Americans paid little attention to the sanctions' effects and have also failed to understand the extent of Arab sympathy for the Palestinians, who are seen as being oppressed by Israel, which is considered an American client-state. Pan-Arab opinion about these and other issues grew more cohesive after the 1996 birth of Al-Jazeera, which, says Lynch, brought "into the public eye not only graphic footage but also arguments that had previously taken place only in the elite press and private forums."
By the time of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, says Lynch, extensive war coverage by many new Arab media organizations "posed a serious challenge to the American strategic objective of maintaining information control." This was a big change from the 1991 Gulf War, when Western media coverage was far more dominant.
Looking ahead, if American policy-makers would cease their reflexive denigration of Arab media, they might realize that, as Lynch says, "Al-Jazeera and the new Arab public have been consistently and forcefully insistent on discussing reform in the Arab world, putting almost every issue - social, economic, cultural, political - and every regime under fierce public scrutiny." This can lead to constructive change, and Lynch thoroughly and thoughtfully illustrates why this is so important.
Thanks to Philip for the kind review!
(cross-posted to the Voices Blog)