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Third Eye

Don't Want to Be a Cowboy

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 1/15/2003

At a panel discussion on a recent Wednesday night at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, some 80 people gathered to talk about news coverage of the Middle East, especially from the perspective of local African-American journalists. Some attendees expressed mounting frustration at the trigger-happy gleam in President Bush's eyes as he fixates on Iraq; some Jewish audience members decried unabated violence between Israel and Palestine. Panelists also raised concerns about culturally biased coverage of Arab-Muslim issues in the mainstream media--not to mention the increasing risks taken by American journalists abroad who get tagged as spies for the U.S. government.

The talks didn't lead to any sweeping ideas on how to address age-old political grievances or terrorism while maintaining peace. Nor was there any brainstorming on how to stop Bush's Wyatt Earp antics. The event did, however, foster a meaningful dialogue among people who crossed myriad ethnic and class lines--citizens who remain convinced that "We the People" means everybody.

Having recently sojourned to Jordan, Baltimore Times associate publisher Anthony McCarthy and moderator Donnie Glover spoke candidly about their surprise at being viewed as homogenous Americans, stripped of a social identity that includes a history of oppression and struggle for freedom and civil rights. "I had a problem with that," Glover admitted, citing an incident in a Palestinian refugee camp with a boy wearing a Tupac T-shirt. Given the language barrier, Glover tried to communicate using the image of the slain rapper. But when Glover pointed to the boy's shirt, the young refugee apparently misunderstood the gesture and grabbed a rock as if to defend himself against an attack from the brown-skinned American journalist.

In that instant, Glover says, he witnessed the unmitigated fervor of "people who are willing to die for what they believe in." But Arab-Muslim beliefs, McCarthy added, are difficult to get a handle on when information is slanted or, even worse, inept. Facing tight deadlines, McCarthy says journalists often "produce shallow stories that never get to the heart" of the clash between cultures. "We aren't comfortable as a people . . . with talking honestly about race and about war in relation to religion," he said.

So we journalists become, as one audience member put it, "spin doctors," threading together bits of history with lingering social and economic aftereffects of worldwide terrorist attacks to produce an "informed" analysis for the public. To wit: "The Burden," a Jan. 5 story by Michael Ignatieff that appeared in one of this nation's most respected publications, The New York Times Magazine.

Writing about America's burgeoning role as a global empire, Ignatieff, who directs the Carr Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, called Iraq

an imperial fiction, cobbled together at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 by the French and British and held together by force and violence since independence. Now an expansionist rights violator [Saddam Hussein] holds it together with terror. The United Nations lay dozing like a dog before the fire, happy to ignore Saddam, until an American president seized it by the scruff of the neck and made it bark. Multilateral solutions to the world's problems are all very well, but they have no teeth unless America bares its fangs.

That's just a quote. Read all 6,750 words of the article and you come away steeped in latent images of America as a righteous badass. But do some mind-play with those images and up crop visions of thousands of dead bodies in New York and hundreds more at the Pentagon--victims of foreigners' righteous analyses about America as an imperial hypocrite.

Whether the real crux of the matter is control of oil or, as another popular theory goes, baby Bush's grudge over Hussein's long ago attempt to kill daddy Bush--there's no getting around the fact that if we proceed on the present course a lot more people will die. They will die, as Glover said, because of adamant social and religious beliefs. And they'll die--in the case of those who serve in the U.S. armed forces--because, no matter their beliefs, they obey orders. (America, democracy that it is, has got it like that.)

Meanwhile, citizens such as those who participated in the panel discussion--and lots of other people across the nation--are coming together to better assess the matter, looking not just to the media but to themselves for answers to the swelling Middle East crisis. As U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy said during a speech on pre-emption in Iraq delivered to his Capitol Hill comrades last October, talks will inspire "vast numbers of well-meaning Americans who have honest differences of opinion about the best way to use U.S. military might. The debate will be contentious, but the stakes--in terms of both our national security and our allegiance to our core beliefs--are too high to ignore."

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