From the Editors
This is just the beginning.
As we were boarding a flight from Washington to Istanbul, this image appeared on the screen at the gate, with the CNN headline, “Was The Arab Spring Worth It?”
Generally, one is used to seeing and hearing very “special” commentary about the region from the mainstream media. But every once in a while, something spectacular rears its head and continues to amaze. This headline —which captures the tenor of some of the mainstream reporting beyond CNN after the violent responses to a film that insulted the Muslim prophet— is one of them.
Surely, the film was insulting and deplorable, and surely the violent responses and the killing that ensued are lunatic and deplorable as well (whatever the alternative explanation for the motive). These are matters on which most reasonable/learned observers agree. But then comes this brilliant off the cuff, from the hip, and casually barbaric headline: “Was the Arab Spring Worth It?”
The manners in which this is problematic are too numerous to count. And though there might be a good six or seven thousand reasons to address, the flight allows for listing only a few reactions, lest one misses more zoological headlines. Here are some of the possible reactions in order of viscerality:
The First and Last Straw
After nearly one hundred thousand deaths since January 2011 when the uprisings started, and after decades of brutal repression that were steadfastly supported and partly funded by Western powers (namely the United States), we wonder about the value of breaking from such shackles, as though it was a bad investment in Facebook stock. "Maybe we should keep supporting these lovely dictatorships.”
All About Power
But this is just academic to many. What is significant here is “who” can actually produce these thoughts, and actually be able to do something about it. The arrogance of power from which such thoughts and words can be uttered is really the main event. Casually, the ability to dismiss history, culpability, and rationality in favor of an emotionally immature, intellectually narrow, historically amnesiac, and morally myopic compass can only come from a place of brute power. And only from such a place, can the claim be made aptly, as though that particular power initiated the Arab uprisings (when in reality, the Arab uprisings proceeded against US clients, despite US power, with the exception of Syria, which proves the rule).
The corollary of the previous point dawned on me when I realized that just in the waiting area hundreds of passengers were looking (or could have glanced) at the screen—and would have legitimately entertained the statement’s flippancy. If CNN and other mainstream media are good at one thing, they are good at understanding their audience and market demand.
The voyeuristic perspective ought not be missed either. The Arab “Spring” (a misnomer to begin with for reasons that require their own list) is like a spectacle. But not any spectacle. It is a spectacle in which “we” the democrats and “developed” world watch the “others” trying to catch up, despite so many efforts to support their oppressors. Until last week, the voyeurism was sympathetic, even if patrimonial or patronizing. But after the recent events, the voyeurism and subsequent reactions to the violence that killed a US ambassador in Libya turned into something else. It recast the entire spectacle in terms and imagery reminiscent of what we are used to observing in the center’s gaze towards the periphery: a sense of amazement and intrigue that can under certain circumstances quickly turn into something associated with zoology. Was it really worth it to let these creatures out of their cages? After all, look at what they are doing. Only now do we know that fighting for one’s dignity may not have been worthwhile because a bunch of fanatics did what they did.
Colossal Blind Spots
Such approaches remind us how insignificant the people of the region can be regarded with a switch of a button, and how insignificant history is in the minds of so many in powerful places. On the one hand, the Arab uprisings are reduced to the process itself, that of seeking democracy. Democracy becomes the event. People are secondary. If the process suits interests, then it can be good. If not, then maybe it is not such a good idea, irrespective of how many tens of millions of people are affected. Rhetorically, the fate of an entire people hangs in the balance. Clearly, we are talking here about the level of perceptions and claims that, thankfully, are not always consequential. But they continue to speak volumes about how the region and its people are viewed, studied, and appropriated. We also must note how history, and with it accountability and responsibility, are almost completely discounted in the mainstream press' coverage of the region, and of the recent events. This incident only highlights this omission and does not create it. The culpability of not just US foreign policy in perpetuating and funding brutality in the region, but also of the media in reinforcing rather than checking power is all too clear. Thank goodness Anderson Cooper was beaten up* in Cairo for CNN to realize that it should stand firmly with the Egyptian people and against the Egyptian dictatorship which the US administration supported for nearly four decades and on which CNN reported as though it was Switzerland in those regards. *(I am clearly not serious when I say "thank goodness.")
Was the civil rights movement really worth it? Was the movement for women's rights really worth it? Was ending slavery really worth it?
"The Arab Spring TV Show"
If dismantling authoritarian rule and its correlates ends up being, well, not worth it, what should we do? The callousness of considering such alternatives is more appropriate for deciding whether a switch from AT&T to Verizon was worth it. If some of the consequences are ugly, do we write off the entire process? Are we simply watching a TV show called "The Arab Spring"? Now that the show went sour because our favorite actor was compromised, we change the channel... until the next time when we must contend with the region that houses the world's most important energy source and our most valuable dictatorial and apartheid partners. Another show, another crisis, another blind-spot in the making, coming to a theater near you.
Value of an Arab Life
So, everything that happened during the past twenty months somehow was good, but after the events of this past week, it must all be questioned. Granted, the killing that took place this week is deplorable and senseless (let alone stupid and shortsighted), but what if those killed were Arab officials? Would anyone be asking this question? The value assigned to Arab life, whether in the two wars on Iraq, the devastating sanctions on the same country, or Israel's wars on Lebanon and Gaza, is always comparatively quite low, if not insignificant.
It is conceivable that matters may get so much worse that one might ponder the thought “is it really worth it?” First, the events of the past week do not constitute such deterioration, and are far from it. Second, if anything, the tens of thousands of people killed after the NATO attack, compared to a fraction before the intervention, might have been that point, but of course, the wrong kind was dying then, and NATO had the biggest guns on the scene. Such metrics do not rise to the occasion.
But all of a sudden, the statement is made not just vis-à-vis Libya, or where angry mobs ransacked and burned. Rather, it pertained to the entire series of uprisings, the so-called Arab Spring. Why settle for contemplating a return to the status-quo ante in just a couple of places? Let's “sweep it all up.” It is all the same anyway and the circumstances and trajectory of individual cases matter little (except, perhaps, Syria, because, from the US perspective, “Asad must go” for reasons beyond authoritarian rule).
The Seeming Innocuous Nature of Liberalism
Finally, it is not a priori that one cannot ever ponder the thought of whether it was really worth it, per the above note. As many know, this thought was pondered in both Libya and Syria by those who lost limb and loved ones, and by those who might see their country falling apart. So it does depend on who is doing the pondering, what they know, what they experienced, on what basis they are pondering, and where/how to actually utter it! To do so on CNN casually, considering all that can ben considered here, is the kind of liberal brutality that has historically damaged not just one life, but whole countries, and without being insulted, attacked, or even threatened (Iraq being a case in point). But that war was legally sanctioned domestically, and voted for in a nicely air-conditioned room, by people who dress well, and speak of liberal values, and might not mind if someone insulted their prophet or God.
. . .
But if CNN feels that the whole uprising thing was not worth it, let's just move on as though it never happened.
[Screenshot from CNN's website. The link to the story can be found here]
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