Saturday, 5 March 2011

Accept no substitutes

I've had only one eye on the crisis in Libya in the last few weeks. As usual, a greater tangle of events, narratives, confusion and cruelty is hard to imagine, until the next one comes along. But, at the same time, one cannot help having a certain scepticism that the proposed solution of democracy is what the Libyan rebels desire.

This is not just the scepticism one has to show to all press accounts of whatever happens in the world these days. If we believed the press, then where would the reputation of Pope Benedict XVI be right now? But what I'm getting at goes deeper. This scepticism comes not just from fear of the accuracy of the media, but also from the fear that its representation of events creates a kind of imposture of what is really happening.

How many Libyan rebels are there in fact? Thousands? Millions? Hundreds, as Gaddafi himself would like everyone to believe? And what is it they actually want? In the depiction of these events, how many layers of real Libyan experience and desire are being painted over by the whitewash of liberal expectation elsewhere?

The drunken Marxist theorist Guy Debord gave us the term 'société du spectacle' for such social illusions, created by the turning of experience into a commidity. It would be radical scepticism to suppose that that was all the media were interested in. But then there is no doubt that the spectacle of Libyan revolt is feeding the self-referential assumptions of liberalism elsewhere.

Meanwhile, we have to wonder what other factors underpin the unfolding of this crisis. Local tribal histories? Exterior strategic interest in Libyan resources? Or the simple refusal to tolerate any longer a man who is a thug of a ruler by anyone's standards?

And in all this, we mustn't throw out the baby with the bath water. The social illusions created by the media do not mean that all journalism is bad or that everything is a pantomime. The media remains in many ways a poor answer to that perennial question: quis custodit custodes? Who will oversee those who oversee us?

So, must we retreat into subjectivism on all these questions? By no means. I think, however, a healthy profession of agnosticism about the explanation of complex events is a perfectly acceptable position with regard to history, even if it is not so with regard to doctrine.

Indeed, a certain scepticism about explanations of events is always a useful method when approaching any historical account which underpins some prevailing power; historical truth and justice are not matters of revelation after all.

Be as wise as serpents, our Lord tells us. Would that we always were.


Genty said...

A little knowledge of the history of these nations and their culture might be useful for journalists. And that goes for their editors back home.
Reporting seems so subjective and emotional these days; encouraged, I suppose, by that wretched mantra "empathise". But it can skew the real story 180 degrees by sheer superficiality and then everyone is amazed it doesn't turn out as predicted.

GOR said...

Good observations, Ches. When these eruptions occur in countries about which we have little personal experience or knowledge of their history, the tendency is to compare them to revolutions of the past – American, French, Russian, etc. – and assume that these are about ‘democracy’ and we should be ‘doing our part’ to help these downtrodden people (“Send in the marines!”). Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind as well as assorted African countries.

The observations about resources and tribalism are also ad rem. The people of many of these countries do not self-identify with the country itself, but with their tribe or religious affiliation (Sunni, Shiite, Pashtun, Tajik, Hutu, Tutsi, etc.). And when Western countries intervene, are we being humanitarian or utilitarian? Cui bono?

The dust-up in Tunisia reportedly began over the price of bread (shades of Marie Antoinette…?) and of course the American Revolution was just about tea. What is one to believe?