Sunday, February 6, 2011

Facing the Storm: The Egyptian Whiteout

In Chicago last week, there were reports of thundersnow - thunder and lighting during a snowstorm that brought the city to a screeching halt. During the height of the blizzard, many were forced to stop their cars in the middle of the street, get out, and walk. Imagine how it must have felt to step out of your warm, dry car, face first into the ripping winds of a huge blizzard, your face pelted by stinging ice pebbles as you stride down Lakeshore Drive, with crashing thunder all around you! It must have felt somewhat apocalyptic. I mean, really, a thunderstorm within a snowstorm!?!

Many have commented on these rare, but increasingly common weather events, suggesting that this extreme weather may signal a new era of global unpredictability, instability, and uncertainty. But does it? Should we see any single storm, drought, mudslide, or crashing iceburg as a curious but isolated event, or as emblematic of larger, more consequential sea changes in the global ecosystem? As a prelude to annihilation?

While we may not always know how to interpret these extreme events, we should at least be paying more attention to them. Viewing these events as the culmination of complex, interrelated forces, whether they manifest as natural or man-made catastrophes, is crucial to seeing our way through the blizzard of disinformation and political hype that blows around us. Regardless of its form, an extreme event serves as a warning beacon, illuminated to get our attention. During these moments, we need to pause from our daily lives and take stock of these events because they often represent the balancing of an extreme imbalance, and too often we fail to see it coming.

Whether it takes the form of thundersnow in Chicago, a tsunami in Indonesia, rampant unemployment in an economic crisis, or a mass revolt in Egypt, extremities in the world tend to represent uneven forces leveling out. When the seas rise and a levee breaks, the turbulent water razes everything in its path, but it will eventually flow into equilibrium, a state of harmony with its surroundings. The same might be said of social unrest, likened to a cracked wall holding back an ocean of oppression. When the force of inequality grows into a hurricane of upheaval, there will naturally be chaos as the wall of injustice breaks and as the liberated masses flow into the streets. Eventually, though, it flows into reform, a balancing of the social seas.

This ebb and flow of societies can have a numbing effect, though, much like watching the rhythmic pattern of snow passing through dim headlights while driving through a snowstorm. We have been trained to focus on the road and not the storm. Don’t panic. Stay in the car. Just stay calm, look forward, and keep driving until the storm passes. As such, it is easy to think of a public protest or even a massive political revolution as a singular and temporary state of imbalance - a seemingly natural cycle of action and reaction. Stability, then increasing instability, extreme event, and then balance. The storm grows, the energy is released, then the calm. One by one they come and go, flowing across our TV screens and over our heads. Stay in the car and keep driving forward, knowing that this too shall pass. So it goes.

So, as we watch events unfolding in Egypt, it is easy to dismiss this most recent political upheaval as just that - another political upheaval in the Middle East, the latest storm to pass by. A real yawner this one is too - they don’t even have guns in Egypt, just some rocks and a few Molotov cocktails! No need to crane-neck on this one. Keep driving. Turn up the volume and tune out the struggle. Besides, American Idol is on tonight and CNN has just broken coverage of the revolution for breaking news - Lindsay Lohan is under investigation for theft.*

But stop your car for a minute and consider what we are witnessing in Egypt today. For those tuning in, what we are witness to is something new to the landscape of revolt, a mass protest unlike any other in history, and one that signals a new path through the extreme storm that encompasses all of humanity today. To really see the storm, though, you have to get out of your car and look outside for yourself. Look past the media blizzard.

A famous lyric from a 60's song says, "The revolution will not be televised". At first glance, the classic quote has seemingly lost its prophecy, as evidenced by the Egyptian revolt which has garnered almost round-the-clock coverage on 24-hour news stations. In fact, since the first Gulf War, every American has enjoyed the option of watching bombs fall and buildings burn, all live in HD on a 52" plasma TV screen. But are we truly embedded, or just in bed with these images? For the most part, we are watching a studio version of the truth, a larger truth that has been shrunk down to fit our TV screens - and our worldviews.

Consider how Fox News narrates the Egyptian uprising as a story of chaos between opposing, morally neutral, but equally threatening forces, rather than describing what is actually happening in Egypt – a full blown peaceful uprising by a wide cross-section of educated, moderate people who have been at the hands of an oppressive dictatorial regime for generations. Facing a hardened dictator, a daunting police presence prone to violence, and a military power with questionable intent, hundreds of thousands of people - entire families in fact - poured out in solidarity into the streets, knowing they would have to endure for days on end. These people stopped what they were doing, walked out of comfortable homes and into chaotic streets, and faced the storm - a storm not made of ice pellets but of rocks, tear gas, Molotov cocktails, and global criticism. Incredibly, they stand victorious! Their obvious thirst for freedom overpowered their exhaustion and, coupled with savvy use of social media and some good ol’ fashioned non-violent civil disobedience, they have proven themselves to be formidable. In fact, they have demonstrated a new model for future revolutions in the region. Powerful dictatorial regimes can be toppled with just collective will, Facebook, and a few rocks. And it can be done with relative peace!

We should remember our own country’s origins and stand in solidarity with them, because their struggle is also ours – a fight for equal rights and a participatory democracy. The democracy they want might not look just like ours, but so what? What gives us the right to dictate how democracy looks in every other country around the globe? Democracy as a strategic model for freedom is not a one-size-fits-all program. Thus, we should stand against totalitarianism wherever it exists and worry less about how more easily our American interests are furthered under more easily controllable dictatorships. The true ideals of freedom, the very revolutionary ideals our own country was founded on, are expressed in the struggle for equality. It is a struggle for balance.

These ideals seem obvious, really, when you stop to look at what’s really going on over there. But the truth is obscured by Fox’s corporate camera lens, refracting truth and adjusted to the narrow worldview of the conservative mainstream - middle-aged, white, conservative Christians who assume most Muslims are terrorists anyway. The narrative put forth is this: Some radical Muslims, spearheaded by a dangerously radical group known as the Muslim Brotherhood, are attempting to overthrow our political ally and benevolent dictator, Hosni Mubarak, so that they might institute Islamo-fascism and another political safe haven for Al-Quaeda. Fox News has even taken false consciousness to a new level by suggesting that, in the likely event all Egyptian antiquities are looted and lost, that our American economy will suffer immensely as tourism ceases in this part of the world. One has to wonder if the Muslim Brotherhood might also steal the Sphinx and pyramids as well? Hard to say. It’s like reading hieroglyphics.

In a real sense, then, the revolution is NOT being televised, in that a truly democratic uprising has been obfuscated by corporate media with a profit-driven shock doctrine that requires fear and political propaganda to fuel it. This is why we get the fictional narrative instead of the truth. This is why Fox News chose to break away from live coverage of the uprising, during a critical conflict between pro and anti-Mubarak forces, for what was essentially an infomercial for Rupert Murdock to sell his interest in the new Apple/iphone news application. This is also why, when coverage returned to Fox News, the “breaking news” was that the Egyptian Museum had been set on fire by protesters (which it had not), and why the running narrative that afternoon was fear of chaos, fear of radicalism, fear of protesters. And this is why Lindsay Lohan remains front page news.

It is hard to see truth clearly in such a whiteout. Like driving in Chicago during a blizzard, you have to squint to see the road. You hear booming thunder in the distance but at that moment you can only focus on the vanishing yellow line just beyond the hood of your car. What was that over there? A protest in Egypt? Scary terrorists taking over another country? It’s hard to be certain, so many distractions.

To see clearly you have to stop. Pull your car over to the shoulder and turn it off. Wipe away the fog from your window and squint through the faint light. Remember your destination. Then, step outside your warm, dry vehicle and take a look around. Face the storm. What do you see? See your destination and the road that leads you there. Start walking. Keep walking. Walk straight through the corporate media blizzard, into its pelting ice and wind. Walk in full stride toward more truth and justice in the world. Walk like an Egyptian.**

Ken Laundra
*occurred on CNN while I was writing this essay.
**yeah, I know it was a long way to go to get to this; no the link does not go to the Bangles homepage.


  1. Nice post, but could you provide the bangles link?

  2. pretty good view from a long way away.
    you watch c n n? not fox?

  3. At Truman State University in MO students organized a teach-in on Egypt that they called "Conflict in Cairo" and 5 faculty members and a student from Egypt participated. Packed house in one of largest rooms on campus and most stayed entire 2 hours :-)