Back in Grade 11 I took a class called “World Issues”. It was taught by this lovely old British woman, with a twinkle in her eye. There were a few of us in the class who all happened to be children of Aid workers. We called ourselves the “CIDA kids”. We smugly thought we knew world issues. I remember learning about the media spotlight in that class. Our case study was the little Buddhist revolution in Myanmar (or Burma, depending on who you’re talking to). This would have been back in the fall of 2007. The media was intensely focussed on the so-called Saffron Revolution for a few weeks. All of a sudden the hidden and secretive junta controlling Myanmar was in the spotlight.
Everyone was talking about them. But then something happened after a few weeks. I don’t quite remember what, but the spotlight shifted, and I didn’t hear anything about Myanmar for years. I’ll always remember that moment. The moment I was taught something theoretical by a teacher, and saw the clear evidence of the theory in practise right before my eyes.
By now, we’re all fairly media literate, and the notion of the media spotlight is self-evident. Every few weeks there’s a new crisis. Here in the cushy and cloistered West, it’s easy to forget the intractable nature of conflicts around the world. Egypt has been in a state of revolution for four years now. Afghanistan has been consistently chaotic since the Soviets invaded in the late 1970s.
Iraq has been a clusterfuck for over ten years. Every few years, we’ll hear a report, or there’ll be an insightful piece of investigative or experiential journalism. Vice News does a better job than any other Western media conglomerate of at least paying lip service to the unreported. And specifically how it affects the people. The people like you and I.
So does this really matter? I mean, none of us here in the West live with intractable conflict around us. Nor blatant injustice. We take the rule of law for granted. The safety. No trade embargos to worry about. We can just pop over to the store and buy whatever we want for the market rate. And then we can hear about conflict and strife in the global south from the safety of our living rooms.
Remember Libya? I’ll admit, I haven’t kept up to date at all. There was a Western coalition in 2011 that ousted America’s old bête-noir, Colonel Gaddaffi. Who had the temerity to question Western Imperialism. A classic cold-war strongman. He ruled the country with an iron fist. But also raised living standards, provided food and shelter to the underprivileged, provided universal education. And the cherry, he nationalised oil. Before the revolution back in 1969, the old king of Libya was siphoning oil off to the West. Specifically Italy and France.
Gaddaffi and the army took over, and nationalised oil. And used the money to develop infrastructure. Sure, plenty was gobbled up through nepotism and corruption, but we can’t be so arrogant here in the West to think that’s not a universal problem. Every job I’ve ever gotten has been through nepotism. People will always help their friends and family, given the opportunity. How can we possibly explain political dynasties (Trudeau, Martin, Bush), or the intractable power of the aristocracy in the UK? And sure, political opponents of Gaddaffi were either imprisoned, or disappeared. But didn’t the same thing happen in Latin America between the 1960s and 1980s? Military Junta’s disappearing thousands of dissidents. Thrown from helicopters into the sea. With tacit western support. We helped Pinochet come to power. We helped him depose the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and then turned a blind eye when Pinochet started killing. Ideology trumped.
Libya was always chastised for its undemocratic tendencies. Forgetting of course our own long path to democracy. Of how women had to fight for the right to vote.
Of how even today, there are more disenfranchised African-Americans than during slavery. (Yes, that’s true. In gross terms. Link at the bottom, Gary Younge article) Forgetting of course that most countries in the global south were constructed by Western powers over the last 100 years, whilst Western powers evolved relatively organically. But I digress.
I could go into more historical detail, maybe discuss the relationship between Gaddaffi and Reagan in the 1980s. How the Americans bombed Gaddaffi’s presidential palace, and killed one of his daughters. How two Libyan men set off a bomb on an airplane flying over Lockerbie in Scotland. Or maybe how Gaddaffi was one of the main proponents and funders of the African Union. How he became respected as an elder statesman on the continent. How he kept espousing Pan-African unity.
Or perhaps how there was a secret accord between the French and the rebels in early 2011, that guaranteed the French access to Libyan oil, provided they help the rebels overthrow Gaddaffi. Or perhaps how, today, there are two factions fighting for control of Libya’s oil. One group with ties to Islamists, the other with ties to the old Gaddaffi regime. The old theory about strongmen rings true again. The strongman was able to keep society relatively cohesive, keep all the fringe elements at bay, and post-revolution the chaos is palpable. Much like in Egypt. Much like in Iraq.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not in favour of autocratic dictatorships. But let’s not forget that in our own historical political evolution, autocracy was an important step.
Democracy is the best system we’ve figured out so far. Much like capitalism. But that doesn’t mean it’s unimpeachable, or that it’s the final stage of human political-economic development.
The point of all this, really, is to spare a thought for Western Imperialism. We invade countries in the global south. We have regularly since the 1950s. The media will shine the spotlight whilst we invade. Pomp and circumstance. Who can forget the shock and awe campaign from the invasion of Iraq. We’re all suddenly aware of people, living in conflict, somewhere far away. They might wear funny clothes, speak in different languages, and generally just look different. And for a few weeks, we’re all aware. But then the spotlight finds something else. Much like the eye of Sauron, its focus is constantly shifting.
The thing is though, once the spotlight fades away, we forget. Which is a bit of an issue when you invade a country and remove the political leadership. You know, democratic or not, the leadership of Iraq and Libya had control of their territory. It goes back to Max Weber’s definition of the state: any human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given territory. But post-invasion, it’s heavily contested. Sectarian conflicts have arisen. And because our western media spotlight no longer shines, we don’t know. We don’t remember. We remember invading, and being told it was for the “right reasons”. Market democracy. We prefer to avoid conducting an autopsy though. Because the autopsy might just reveal something about ourselves and our motivations. That perhaps we’re not the knights of moral justice that we claim to be. That perhaps economic imperatives were central in our decision-making processes. That perhaps a few people in positions of power in the West stood to benefit from an invasion.
Paging Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton. Not like Halliburton won multi-million dollar defense contracts after the invasion of Iraq. Not like the reason for the invasion was entirely spurious. Weapons of mass destruction. Terrorist cells. The irony of course, that the country is now more unstable. An incubator for Islamist cells. Just like Libya.
So why does this matter? Because in our democracies in the west, we are all accountable. At least that’s the idea. Our political representatives are meant to reflect us. Are meant to be responsive to us. So by that logic, we are all responsible, at least indirectly. And that we have a duty, at some level, to explore how and why we chose to invade a country and depose its leadership.
And it especially matters because the fourth estate has let us down. The fourth estate was supposed to be a bulwark against the established powers of government and business. The fourth estate was supposed to be the voice of the people. But the fourth estate is a business. An entrenched business. That only shines a spotlight when it’s expedient. The fourth estate needs to make money, so it sensationalizes. Just turn on the news.
Which leaves the fifth estate as the bulwark. The one to call out the power structures. The one hoping to expose injustices. This whole thought process started when I went to The Atlantic Monthly’s website, and saw an article entitled “The Battle for Libya’s Oil – On the Frontlines of a Forgotten War”. And that’s just it. The fourth estate has been co-opted. But the fifth estate has risen. Edifices like Vice News, saving us all from ourselves, one report at a time. Power to the people, they say.
Gary Younge, The Guardian, January 15th 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jan/15/jail-reflects-collapse-black-communities-us
Frederic Wehrey, The Atlantic, February 9th 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/02/the-battle-for-libyas-oil/385285/
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