Learning to Overcome the Public Opinion Industry, at Home and Abroad

 

There is an American pain and a volatility in the face of judgment by elites that stem from a deep and enduring sense of humiliation. A vast chasm separates the poor standing of Americans in the world today from their recent history of greatness. In this context, their injured pride is easy to understand.

In the narrative of history transmitted to schoolchildren in states purchasing Texas-selected textbooks and reinforced by the media, [], Americans were favored by divine providence.

[snip]

If America’s rise was spectacular, its fall is accelerating and unsparing.

As the Administration continues to insist that the widespread protests against US symbols are merely a response to a crappy video, more and more people are rebutting that by describing the many grievances people in the Middle East have with the US. There’s Fouad Ajami’s unselfconscious version emphasizing pride, which I’ve parodied above (the italics and links are the changes I’ve made). Robert Wright talks about drones, Palestine, US troops in Muslim countries. Flynt Leverett talks about some of the same issues as Wright as well as our support for dictators.

And while I agree with Wright and Leverett, I want to look more closely at something Leverett somewhat acknowledges, but which AJE host Shihab Rattansi discusses at more length in the segment including Leverett.

As Leverett notes, in countries where there are no dictators policing speech in the Middle East, the US will need to engage in public opinion much more aggressively–and ultimately, the US will need to acknowledge that its policies are not favorable to most residents fo the Middle East.

But as Rattansi notes, our allies–Saudis and Qataris and others–are funding the Salafists behind the protests. These Saudi-funded Salafists are using the opportunity created by the Arab Spring and many of the same tools used by Arab Spring protestors to create the image of a PR problem that will polarize the region and with it create a demand–even among some in the US, I suspect–for more authoritarian control. The Saudis are spending money to, among other things, create a desire for less democracy. And they do that by tapping into and magnifying that underlying discontent.

And we don’t seem to understand how–or frankly, have the leverage–to respond to that.

That should surprise no one. The elite in the US don’t have a response to utterly parallel efforts here in the US. We need look no further than the Islamophobic sources who funded the Innocence of Muslims in the first place.

But I think a more apt parallel is the Tea Party. It arose out of a very real discontent, largely rooted in the decline of the middle class that had already been channeled from class into race. But then oil oligarchs like the Koch brothers funded it and fed it into a carefully channeled protest theater. And it has had an effect very similar to what the Salafists are trying to accomplish in the Middle East: generating electoral support for extremist candidates who in turn embrace policies that bring the country closer to oligarchy. And now both the Democratic and Republican parties are terrified of the protest theater the Tea Party can muster. Yet rather than engaging and winning on the issues, both parties cow before Tea Party confrontation, usually letting the Tea Party lead the debate further to the right.

As we talk about how to respond to unleashed public opinion in the Middle East–now being aggressively purchased by oligarchic elites–perhaps it’s time to consider what we need to be doing better here at home? We have a tough time demanding that President Morsi more aggressively take on the Salafists when both parties shy away from taking on the Tea Party, either by calling out its now completely artificial status or by winning the debate on the issues.

Of course, there’s an even better issue, both in the Middle East and here. One of the underlying sources of discontent is the effects of the neoliberal policies American elites (again, of both parties) continue to push. It’s not improving the lives of average people, anywhere in the world. And so in the same way our policies on drones and Palestine need to improve if we want to win over public opinion, we also need to address another major underlying source of discontent that makes it so much easier to polarize crowds and make them desire more authoritarian solutions.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

9 replies
  1. OrionATL says:

    from moon of alabama:

    “…These protests were not about that film.
    The action at the consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday/Wednesday was a deliberate, well planned attack by some AQ affiliated or Salafist group. It seems that the storming of the embassy in Egypt was launched as a coordinated diversion for that attack.

    The attacks on the U.S., German and British embassies in Khartoum today were state sponsored for local political reasons. Omar Hassan al-Bashir needed to prove his Islamic credentials and even designated the targets:

    State-backed Islamic scholars in Sudan have called for a mass protest after Friday prayers over a film denigrating the Prophet Mohammed that originated in the United States and an Islamist group threatened to attack the U.S. embassy.

    Sudan’s Foreign Ministry also criticized Germany for allowing a protest last month by right-wing activists carrying a caricatures of the Prophet and for Chancellor Angela Merkel giving an award in 2010 to a Danish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet in 2005 triggering demonstrations across the Islamic world.
    There was also a storm on the embassy in Tunis today. I do not know enough about that countries inner policy to guess who was behind that but it wasn’t the government. Troops defended the embassy and even shot some protesters.
    There were also rallies in Gaza, Malaysia, Jordan, Kenya, Bahrain, Qatar, Bangladesh, Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq and even in India.

    But all of these rallies were rather small and mostly peaceful. In all a few thousand out of 1.3 billion Muslims protested. Were this then really protests about religion?…”

    when the media lens becomes a grossly distorting magnifying glass – repeating from above:

    “…But all of these rallies were rather small and mostly peaceful. In all a few thousand out of 1.3 billion Muslims protested. Were this then really protests about religion?…”

    and from the comments section:

    “s @ 3

    No protests in Saudi Arabia? What does this tell you?

    Client states know not to offend their protectors too much..There’s been no protests in Turkey, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait…

    What do they all have in common? They all have US BASES on their soil..In short, a US satrap…

    Posted by: s | Sep 14, 2012 4:14:47 PM”

    and a lesson in ambiguity:

    “this sequence of events is telling … are they FOR or AGAINST us?

    1. Shiekh Yusuf Al Qaradaw of International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) spoke at Friday prayers [Doha]

    2. He said about the Movie, ”It’s unfair to put all the guilt on a full nation… Going to the embassies and breaking it or throwing rocks at it or burn it is not the right solution…

    3. The second part of the speech was about Syria; Al Qaradawi asked all the Arabic countries to help Syria, in many ways including sending reinforcements of soldiers or weapons to the free army. “It’s their duty, religiously.”

    4. After that a charged crowd head to the US Embassy which is very near to the mosque in many controversial chants such as “Obama, Obama, we are all Osama”…

    from: http://sheshtawy.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/dohas-us-embassy-protest-is-useless/

    P.S. the saudis have been working overtime to block all internet access to youtube videos depicting the anti-muslim film protests

    Posted by: Kim Sky | Sep 14, 2012 11:35:09 PM”

    all to be found at:

    http://www.moonofalabama.org/2012/09/were-the-protests-really-about-that-film.html#comments

  2. OrionATL says:

    ambassador stevens is reported to have died of smoke inhalation incurred in a “safe room” inside the embassy.

    not to be rude or anything, but american architects and security personnel typically control embassy-related building.

    on another sensitive matter, embassy staff were reported to have evacuated the consulate without stevens when he could not be located.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @OrionATL: A security contractor actually ran away.

    Keep in mind, too, that there are two safe houses that were breached that no one is really reporting on. Not sure whether the press just hasn’t thought about what that means or whether they’ve been asked not to report it since the initial reports, bu it very clear this was not about the video.

  4. Brindle says:

    Sean Smith, State Dept employee killed, noticed Libyan guards/police talking photos of their building the night of the attack.

    http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/09/vilerat/

    “On Tuesday, Sean Smith, a Foreign Service Information Management Officer assigned to the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, typed a message to the director of his online gaming guild: ”Assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures.” The consulate was under siege, and within hours, a mob would attack, killing Smith along with three others, including the U.S. ambassador.”

  5. scribe says:

    More to the point the problem is that the elites, in the US and elsewhere, actively desire authoritarian solutions. To them, authoritarianism isn’t such a bad thing, seeing that they figure they’ll come out on top in such a system.

    It’s as though we’re watching a rerun of Germany of the late 20s and early 30s, with the gutsherrn (oligarchs or MOTUs to you) having a bit of a tighter and shorter leash on their teabaggers this time around. Last time, the guy they funded got a bit out of control and we all know how that turned out. This time around, the Kochs have been able to turn on the teabaggers pretty much on demand. And turn them off, too.

    But, make no mistake: avoiding authoritarian solutions is not on the agenda. Avoiding them is deeply unserious.

  6. prostratedragon says:

    OT:— Interpreting the title of this post in its broadest sense and in keeping with the tone of scribe’s remarks, I see where someone likely to have been wielding a very small camera has shown us the way.

    (Recall, we began a certain sequence recently with a throw in from right field …)

  7. Rayne says:

    We have a global disaster unfolding, the magnitude and damage not pieced together very well in a way that the average global citizen can easily grok. At the heart of the climate change problem is our reliance on oil.

    If we can build a cohesive narrative about the need for immediate change in oil consumption, we can undermine the current power dynamic dramatically.

    Once said at a summit the problems we face are not insoluble; we merely lack willpower.

  8. mlnw says:

    I’m reminded of a story about Al Haig and Henry Kissinger on a trip to China in preparation for Nixon’s meeting with Mao. At the time there was little information available to the West about what had happened to Lin Biao. To find out, Haig and Kissinger decided to ask a man in the street and they got a two word response. Their translator was baffled and they all rushed back to their hotel to look it up in the dictionary. Even then they could make no sense of it. What the man said was “belch, fart”, which was from a Chinese proverb of the man who belched, farted and went to hell. So, it has been with our foreign policy and standing in the world.

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