Edward Said & American Media Imperialism
Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings (Said 7).
In 1991, at the outbreak of the first Gulf War, I was nine years old, living in Virginia Beach, VA, the coastal neighbor to the Atlantic’s largest Naval station in Norfolk. The window-shaking noise of fighter jets was as Virginian as the blue crabs of the Chesapeake and wouldn’t even interrupt the conversation of life-long locals. Bumper stickers showcasing the silhouette of a F-16 stated solemnly that jet noise is “the sound of freedom.” Although most of my political knowledge at that tender age consisted of Dana Carvey’s impersonations of then President Bush on Saturday Night Live, it was impossible not to get swept up into the fervor of the then mobilizing agents of the media when the drums of war began to bang.
Radio spots on the local radio rock station thunderously declared our boys would be bombing Saddam back into the Stone Age. “Hulk-a-mania” was running rampant after Hulk Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik for the WWF championship, and Hogan’s theme song, “Real American,” whose chorus chanted, “I am a real American, fight for the rights of every man / I am a real American, fight for what’s right, fight for your life!” was a simplistic, macho mantra echoing throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s. These aspects, coupled with, “. . . at least a decade [of] movies about American commandos pitted[-ing] a hulking Rambo or technically whiz-like Delta Force against Arab/Muslim terrorist-desperadoes,” served to comprise the cultural ephemera that saturated my young mind and the imaginary of the collective American male consciousness en masse (Said 294-5). The American drive to war was thus not seen as a hubristic, imperial mission, but rather our tautological responsibility as the world’s one and only superpower to be “a righter of wrongs around the world, in the pursuit of tyranny, in defense of freedom no matter the place or cost” (Said 5).
Historically the American, and perhaps generally the Western, media have been sensory extensions of the main cultural context. Arabs are only an attenuated recent example of Others who have incurred the wrath of a stern White Man, a kind of Puritan superego whose errand into the wilderness knows few boundaries and who will go to great lengths indeed to make his points (Said 295).
“Arabs” are only one in a long line of those deemed the dangerous “Other” in American history, including Native Americans, African-Americans, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, ‘Reds’, et al. At a certain point in time, all of these racial and ethnic distinctions served to compose an ‘otherness’ that, in a Lacanian sense, helped to define our own national identity by exemplifying what we are not, serving to “separate what is non-white, non-Western, and non-Judeo-Christian from the acceptable and designated Western ethos, then herd it all together under various demeaning rubrics such as terrorist, marginal, second-rate, or unimportant” (Said 28). This ethnocentric ideological formation is the end result of an education system and mass media bent on cultural indoctrination that prizes, “identity, always identity, over and above knowing about others” (Said 299).
At the time of writing Culture and Imperialism, nearly twenty years ago, the mainstream American media was internationally dominant. “A handful of American trans-national corporations control the manufacture, distribution, and above all selection of news relied on by most of the world . . ." (Said 292). By controlling the flow of information, Anthony Smith, in The GeoPolitics of Information, describes:
[a] threat to independence in the late twentieth century from the new technology [that] could be greater than was colonialism itself . . . The new media have the power to penetrate more deeply into a ‘receiving’ culture than any previous manifestation of Western technology (Said 292).
Unlike the past physical presence of imperial colonists, which allowed for a manifest resistance, this phantasmal occupation of hegemonic culture through satellite broadcast enacts its methodologies of indoctrination not through revealed force, but in the barely perceptible, latent undercurrents of modern media. This ‘presence’ not only serves to undermine the unique cultures and mores of specific localities, acting as a conduit in the rise of a modern global monoculture (for example “American Idol”, “Turkish Idol”, et al), but more insidiously, act as “instruments of social pacification” (Said 292). Sean McBride dubbed this the “New World Information Order,” and Raymond Williams described it as, “a new and powerful form of social integration and control” (Said 291 & Williams 23).
Americans watched the war on television with a relatively unquestioned certainty that they were seeing the reality, whereas what they saw was the most covered and the least reported war in history. The images and the prints were controlled by the government, and the major American media copied one another, and were in turn copied or shown (like CNN) all over the world (Said 302).
At this stage of technological development, it was impossible for anyone (excepting Negroponte, and Al Gore would argue himself) to realize the drastic changes that the rise of the Internet would have in terms of the traditionally oligarchical control of information and the concomitant rise of previously subaltern voices. With the advent of new technologies, new voices began to emerge on the national and global media scene, for example, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now and the Al-Jazeera network, respectively. What is disheartening, in terms of the means now currently at the general populace’s disposal, which can be felt as a general malaise when it comes to politics and has now been proven empirically, is a complete lack of “public connection” (Gripsrud 22).
Public connection is the minimal precondition of at least periodical attention to what goes on in the central processes of democracy, in the political public sphere . . . Voter turnout around 50% in national elections was long unimaginable in Western Europe, but is now not very uncommon there and quite normal in the US . . . 60% of UK citizens now agree that ‘people like me have no say in government’ . . . Such a lack of interest and confidence is matched also in the use of various media . . . only 12% use the internet as a ‘regular’ news source, i.e. between two and five days per week . . . Several studies reveal that, even for its most frequent and active users, the internet is rarely used as a source of information on news and current affairs. Many . . . were very updated, interested in and knowledgeable about celebrities or sports, but they found no signs that such interests ever lead to interest in the central political processes of the country (Griprud 22-23).
Because advertising dollars drive content, substantial news coverage in the US media has been subsequently replaced by what has been termed ‘infotainment.’ Content is no longer as highly valued as high-gloss production graphics, and CNN’s decision to chase ratings rather than maintain an editorial standard, has seen a shift to a large segment of Americans getting their news from the cable network Comedy Central on their satirical shows “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”
American news has devolved to the point that even Secretary of State Clinton, before the Senate Foreign Relations committee in March 2011, decried that America is now losing the “information war” in the world.
Viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You many not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and . . . arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners (huffingtonpost.com 3/3/11 “Hillary Clinton Calls Al Jazeera ‘Real News,’ Criticizes U.S. Media").
For a figure of Clinton’s political stature to herald the coverage of Al-Jazeera, which was harshly denounced by the US government in the past for airing Al-Qaeda video messages in the post-9/11 world, is emblematic of how far the power dynamic has shifted. This contemporary inability of America sustain its imperial hegemony and to maintain complete control over “the apparatus for the diffusion and control of information” is more apparent in the cases of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, disseminated images of innocent victims of Predator drone strikes, and most recently, the burning of the Qur’an (Said 291). In this new era wherein all one needs is an Internet connection to broadcast their voice globally, the once stalwart “image of Americans as virtuous, clean warriors” will never be the same (Said 301).
Gripsrud, Jostein, ed. Relocating Television: Television in the Digital Context. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Random House, 1993.
Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.