BEIRUT — Just as I left New York City a few days ago to return to Beirut, I read in the New York TimesDan Barry’s powerful obituary of the late Jimmy Breslin, a New York City columnist and book author. Breslin achieved his initial fame in the 1960s, when I was a journalism student in the United States, by writing about the views and conditions of ordinary men and women — the “poor and disenfranchised,” in Barry’s words — who were otherwise mostly ignored by the elite mainstream media.
The “new journalism” that Breslin and many others developed explored how political power impacted the lives of ordinary men and women, especially low- and middle-income citizens. It made it more difficult for corrupt politicians or uncaring corporate leaders to get away with their misdoings. That was half a century ago, and Breslin’s death warranted a page one and full-page obituary in the New York Times because the story was not about the passing of a single scribe; it was and remains about how power is exercised unjustly in societies where, broadly, those who are not rich, white, male, and politically connected suffer throughout most of their lives. Breslin and his many daring colleagues broke through the political screens and the media/information barriers that had relegated stories of the needy and weak in society to marginal and special interest media.
Why do I mention this in my column that is mainly about events in the Arab world and the wider Middle East? I do so because the hidden suffering of millions of Americans half a century ago is replicated today in the lives of hundreds of millions of Arab men, women and children across the Middle East, whose condition, sentiments, and rights are largely off the mass media agendas in our region. The critical and dangerous difference between the United States in the 1960s and the Arab world today is that governments and media organizations linked to the ruling power elite actively work to prevent serious dissent or alternative views from appearing in the public sphere, while configuring political governance systems in a manner that guarantees perpetual dominance of the decision-making mechanisms by the ruling power elite.
I estimate that about 200 million of the 400 million Arabs today live on the edge — in conditions defined by constant, structural pain, helplessness, and vulnerability. They usually lack decent pay, formal contracts, medical insurance, retirement plans, minimum safety and working hours, and other important elements of an advanced, wage labor-based, commercial economy. The 200 million other half of the Arab world live more comfortably, but they do not see that the chronic hopelessness of their poorer compatriots in such large numbers represents a massive source of vulnerability for them also.
The most troubling aspect of this situation is that it is becoming increasingly difficult, sometimes even dangerous, for journalists, poets, creative people, activists, or others to speak out in public and point out the catastrophe that await our region, as hundreds of millions of people who once lived relatively decent middle class lives quietly slip into poverty and desperation. The uprisings of 2010-11 were a massive wake-up call that our governments — and the foreign governments that support them — totally ignored.
Our power elites continue to stifle serious dissent, even when it is simply loyal citizens saying they deserve to live in societies where political and economic decisions — like spending hundreds of billions of dollars to buy advanced weapons — should be made on the basis of wider citizen participation and greater government accountability. Tens of thousands are now in jail in countries like Egypt, Turkey, Iran and others, mainly for their political views, rather than for committing criminal acts. Israel, with the support of the United States, refuses to allow any discussion of peaceful political, economic, social, or sports boycotts and sanctions against Israel because of its repeatedly verified criminal actions in occupied Arab lands. Foreign supporters of such peaceful protest, that was central to the U.S. civil rights movement and the struggle against South African Apartheid in which many Jews were pivotal participants, now will be forbidden entry to Israel, and Washington may withdraw funds from international organizations that dare to discuss Israeli policies. Some Arab governments now even prosecute their own citizens for making political criticisms of other Arab governments.
As Arab, Israeli, Turkish, Iranian, Russian, American, British, and other power elites continue to pursue some illegal, irresponsible, exploitative, and uncaring actions, public protest against them has become criminalized, and will become rarer. The story must be told of ordinary men and women in the Middle East who are caught in this terrifying cycle that sees them relinquish their humanity. Many journalists and artists across the Middle East are doing precisely this, but mostly on internet outlets, out of sight of the mainstream public sphere. Jimmy Breslin’s memory should remind us why freedom of expression and press are so important to a wholesome society, whether in America half a century ago or in the Middle East today.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 22 March 2017
Word Count: 832
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