Posted 14 March, 2011 by Christopher Wilson

Jump-starting the engine room (With a Cheap Shot at Punditry)

This is the first post here, just to get things started. Sara Carr’s recent skewering of Thomas Friedman seems like a good place to start, given this blog’s ambition to move beyond armchair platitudes.

This is just the start and it never fucking ends

Future historians will long puzzle over how I was given an international platform to freely pontificate on the Arab people and be remunerated handsomely for it. It is true that I am not the only person in the world who formulates dubious theories based on scant or no evidence which I then harangue people with. Other people do it. They are called taxi drivers. But they are not as rich as me and haven’t been awarded three Pulitizer Prizes.

Since I’ve been here in Egypt I’ve been putting together a list of “the-absolutely-irrelevant forces” that have captured the captive Arab mind and ignited the simmering coals of the instant garden BBQ that is the Middle East. You might ask why, since I am in Egypt, I don’t ask an Egyptian – possibly two Egyptians – about what inspired them to completely ignore my theories on the Arab peoples and take to the streets. The answer is this: I am Thomas Friedman and I write a column in the New York Times.

The entire satire is worth reading, as consistently entertaining as it is well-considered (read the original first to get catch all the moves).  But the Friedman editorial it parodies is far from anomalous—dust still refusing to settle as ill-informed pundits across the west scramble to offer their two cents on what all this revolution business means.

Of course, the mad rush to get close to an historic and inspiring story is not monopolized by idiot pundits. Academic seems to be suffering mass afliction, or in the Arabist’s more diplomatic terms, “Egypt specialists (mostly in the US) are re-evaluating old assumptions.” Even in Cairo (perhaps especially in Cairo), ask anyone on the street when they joined the protests and 9 out of 10 will tell you day 1 (unless the schizoid Egyptian army happens to be cracking down that day). Facebook is awash with pics of peace signs in front of Egyptian tanks.

This dis-inhibition to hop on the revolutionary bandwagon ruffles my feathers a lot more, however, when it comes packaged as authoritative analysis, which seems to be the dominant trope in American media. Of course the problem here is that at bottom one of subjecthood and consumer-capitalism in developed information markets.  The problem is that Thomas Friedman does not have to ask an Egyptian (or even two) what they think, because that will not boost paper sales (or the @NYTimesFriedman brand).  The problem is the echo-chamber and the problem is the insulation of a commercial  information market from the “shadow economy” in which activists and engaged citizens increasingly communicate with such sophistication and efficacy. The commercial-ideological blockage of Aljazeera English in the US is relevant here, as is the fact that the NY Times closed online comments on Friedman’s editorial after just two hours, and has responded to criticism with silence. The problem is that despite the revolution we now see in information production, one still has to work a bit to get informed information, and that can’t hold a candle to brand recognition in the open market.

Of course, some would also probably argue that the problem is how anyone at all can publish their authoritative opinion these days. And on that note, I hereby launch this blog.


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