Of course no one knows how it will turn out. The politics of regime change are at best tenuous and at worst, well, we have already seen what a band of thugs armed with machetes and razor blades can do to a peaceful crowd. To say nothing of the obvious fact that the Egyptian military doesn’t intend to give up its power or influence in whatever government follows this one. Or that protesting in the streets for democracy does not automatically translate into a fully functioning democratic society.
Whether the Obama team will be successful in helping to engineer a peaceful and timely transition to a post-Mubarak democratic era is questionable. We are not exactly credible peacemakers in the Middle East. Nor is our official posture aided by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs statement yesterday, in which he affirmed that the U.S. would only work with the Muslim Brotherhood if they renounced violence, something the Muslim Brotherhood has done, repeatedly, for the past twenty-five years
Not that it matters a whit “over there” what our news media says about their protests, but it does matter here in ways that directly influence how the Obama administration and congressional representatives--sensitive to pollsters--and talk show hosts and financial analysts--sensitive to investors--portray it.
So far, that story is predictably contentious and already dominated by extreme views on the right. Chris Matthews’ display of Glenn Beck’s “connect the dots of the worldwide conspiracy” lunacy—a lunacy that somehow pulls together into the same plot communists, socialists, and radical Islamists—is just one example.
But given that right wing pundits make reputations and fortunes by applying FDR’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” to anything perceived as left of far right, as well as their undeniable success in using fear narratives to influence elections, should be reason enough to at least pay some attention to them. Like Mubarak’s use of the same fear strategy to suggest that without him the extremists will take over the government—which Egyptians and knowledgeable academics roundly dismiss—this fear narrative won’t just go away.
The battle of narratives over Egypt is just beginning. But there is something missing from the emerging storyline on both sides of the political spectrum here in America. It is the failure of the media to accurately and intelligently report on the real cause of the uprisings in the Middle East, or at least not to bury it amid the riveting images of crowds, and the spectacle of bloodied shirts and armored vehicles separating the mobs from each other.
Here it is: people take to the streets when the low wages they have been earning fail to pay for the basic necessities of life. Food consumes about 40% of the average Egyptian’s paycheck. The cost of food often prevents young Egyptians from being able to afford to get married. The rising cost of food threatens their future.
Of course they want democracy. It’s not just about votes or freer elections; democracy is a code word for more affordable food, better paying jobs, and greater fairness in how the system works. It is also about what we call “income inequality,” which is a shorthand term that too often obscures the real pain and suffering caused by a vast divide between the haves and the have nots, a divide in Egypt that is flaunted by overt theft and corruption in government as well as by the rich having friends in high places.
In a more democratic society Egyptians on the streets believe food would be cheaper and economic opportunity more widely available. There would be less for the rich and more for the poor and middle class. What Egyptians want is a better, fairer life. It’s not so much the audacity of their narrative that is missing from journalistic accounts of the protests, but what “democracy” really means to them. Which is to say, what is missing from the reporting is the part about “promoting the general welfare” that is otherwise known as an appeal to common humanity.
And why is that so? Why are reporters missing the point?
Stories about food shortages don’t sell, unless accompanied by widespread death and famine as well as images of emaciated women and children. That, fortunately, is not (yet) happening. Neither do stories about unemployment captivate viewers and readers. And income inequality is a hard sell to an American audience stoned on “rags to riches” myths
If you doubt me, just think about how little we are told by the media about food and jobs and income inequality in America. When was the last time you shook a fist at the television when a story came on about rising food prices? Or how about unemployment? Or how about how the rich get away with not paying their fair share of taxes?
So long as it isn’t our family that can’t afford food or a member of our family who loses a job, it’s just a bunch of statistics, story filler used as transitions to more compelling murders, fires, and mayhem. To underscore the point, our government representatives—from the lowliest new congressional electee to the high office of President—acting on the propaganda-engineered will of the people, just voted tax extensions for the wealthiest Americans despite a looming national debt. The rich have friends in high places. Their election contributions are bribes. Some might call it corruption.
Collectively, we Americans often behave badly when confronted with reality. We say, “it’s sad, yes, but hey, pass me another Kentucky Fried drumstick and watch how fast I can change that boring channel. Isn’t Snooky on? Or a game?” In media-saturated America, nobody likes to hear bad news.
We used to feel the same way about the housing prices. Until the home foreclosures began. And until the value of our own property diminished faster than the worth of our retirement accounts. Then all of a sudden we were collectively stunned. How could this happen? Why didn’t anyone see it coming? Surely, someone should have stopped it from happening?
Anya Schiffrin, in a new book, tells us that American journalists missed the true cause of the economic collapse, or the so-called “housing bubble” that caused the middle class to use their homes to finance a life they could no longer otherwise afford while the government voted again and again for tax relief for the wealthy. They missed it because they didn’t cultivate a wide enough circle of informants who questioned the authority and the logic of so-called “experts,” and because they focused instead on the glitzy surfaces and commercial appeal of stories about superstars, celebrities, successful entrepreneurs, and the triumph of the markets to fuel “a better quality of life.
It may well be the case that journalists are also missing the “food bubble” that currently dominates futures markets. If a recent United Nations report is accurate, we can expect an unprecedented rise in the cost of food in the near future—as much as 40%. Coupled with the stagnant unemployment picture and the burgeoning national debt, we have more to fear from food prices than fear itself, or from the Muslim Brotherhood.
If food prices increase as predicted, there aren’t more jobs and the rich still live far better than you or I, Americans, too, may take to the streets. But we won’t be crying out for freedom or democracy. Instead, we will be crying out, like Egyptians today, for relief from the high cost of food, a continuing lack of jobs, and an ever-wider inequality. Call it a cry for democracy if you want to. But that’s the real story at home and abroad