‘Pseudo-Events’ Stir Mideast Pot

In The Image, Daniel Boorstin’s ground-breaking 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 comes 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 re-read The Image in recent days as I was watching the television images of demonstrators in Beirut and recalled a short 1970s 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 colourful 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 re-run 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 Shi’ite activists who praise Syria’s role in that country – have both claimed the other side is involved in spinning "pseudo-events."

Shi’ites, about 40 percent of 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 Shi’ites 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 Shi’ite 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 Shi’ites in Lebanon and the majority of their co-religionists in Iraq are not advocates of liberalism by any stretch of the imagination. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal reported this week that Iraqi Shi’ite 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 Shi’ites 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 Shi’ites in Lebanon.

In a way, the process of Shi’ite political and religious revival in those countries (as well as for the Shi’ite 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 multi-party 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."

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved