BEIRUT, Lebanon – I’ve been here for more than three weeks now, and the period of culture shock I had expected has yet to materialize. I suppose the ease with which I’ve made myself at home stems largely from the fact that college students anywhere are, in essence, college students. Same foibles, bar outings, road trips, late nights, papers, pizza orders, dating problems … you know the drill.
There are little differences. It’s strange to be asked for an “American” perspective on matters of culture or geopolitics, especially because I hardly think of myself as an “average American.” I’m not sure who is an average American, so as not to misrepresent anyone, I’ve carefully explained before every “American perspective” I present that I’m speaking for myself. Here are some answers I’ve given more than once, see if you can guess the question:
“No, I don’t think George Bush planned September 11.”
“No, I don’t think the Mossad planned September 11.”
“Sure, I guess it’s possible either one of them could have planned it. They both benefited from it, anyway.”
“Shakira is definitely hot.”
“Invading Iraq is silly. For the money the U.S. will spend on it, we could buy everyone in Iraq a pony. That’s what Saddam Hussein really wants out of all this. A pony.”
It occurred to me after answering some of those questions that people here understand us about as well as we understand them. Mass media provides the bulk of their impressions. At a pro-peace demonstration in downtown Beirut last month, a television crew approached myself and other international students to request foreign perspectives on a U.S. invasion of Iraq. We weren’t hard to identify; a group of Europeans and Americans standing amongst Pan-Arabists and the local Progressive Socialist Party. So some of us smiled for the camera and explained (presumably on behalf of all) why we were demonstrating against a war. Here in the Middle East, the prevailing view is that an invasion isn’t a fight about how far Saddam’s missiles can travel or whatever this week’s excuse for aggression is, but the first part of a U.S. strategy for indefinite global control. Whether people here think it’s a conspiracy, the next crusade, empire building or just sensible realpolitik, they’re onto it, and the sense of hopelessness in the face of it all is overwhelming. “If so many people are against it, why is it happening?” they ask. “Why does the American government ignore the opinions voiced in its streets and around the world?” I moved away from the TV crew, not wishing to have my moppy hair beamed into the homes of Lebanese viewers as part of a soundbite on the 11 o’clock news, a soundbite that for local viewers might seem contradictory to what most Americans must think as war seems ever more inevitable.
As I watched the crew finish the interviews and leave, I wondered, “How to show them what Americans really think?” and it hit me: Turn off your TVs. Keep them off until we are assured there will be no war. If there is one, keep them off until it ends. Sound crazy? Think about it. It’s the ultimate act of protest. If enough people did it, Nielsen ratings would reflect drops in viewership and advertising dollars would slow down. The Bush junta would lose its most effective mode of delivering pro-war propaganda – the unquestioning news channels and networks that deliver whatever they are given. If we all stopped watching, media moguls like Rupert Murdoch would be forced to start paying attention to us even if our leaders won’t. Is it unfair to target them? Of course not. They have political agendas, as well as some weight to throw around. Celebrity journalists like Katie Couric might take a stand against war if no one is watching just to get our attention back. After Congress has rolled over to allow Bush to move troops around like a game of Risk, somebody has to do something. I can’t think of anyone bigger than the “independent” American TV media. (I’ll make an exception for the Public Broadcasting Service.)
I’m not advocating that we should stop paying attention to what’s happening. Pick up the paper. Pick up a magazine. Read. Think. Discuss. The print media is by no means perfect, but it’s certainly more thorough, and you can spend more time searching out information the increasingly homogenous TV news won’t give you. And there could be beautiful side effects. The pro-peace movement in America, the strongest citizens’ campaign since Vietnam, has opened a new sense of dialogue. I’ve seen people at demonstrations introduce themselves and begin talking to total strangers as no one would ever do on campus. Turning off the TV and fostering that growing sense of community would be a great thing for everyone, but most of all it should be done for the people everywhere else. Let them know what Americans think.