[Marxism] Lawrence of E-rabia: Facebook and the New Arab Revolt

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 18 08:08:55 MDT 2011

(Know nothing about the author except that he is a FB friend.)

Lawrence of E-rabia: Facebook and the New Arab Revolt
1 Oct 17 2011 by Greg Burris

As the growing tide of protest, resistance, and insurrection 
across the Arab world began to threaten regimes once considered 
permanent fixtures of the region’s political landscape, it was 
almost as if everything had been turned upside down. That which 
always seemed so fixed and constant suddenly appeared temporary, 
vulnerable, and fragile—not concrete but conditional, dependent 
entirely upon the people’s willingness to tolerate it, and 
tolerate it was precisely what they would do no longer.

For a Western audience, long trained to view North Africa and the 
Middle East through an Orientalist prism, news of the mass 
upheaval was difficult to fathom. It did not match the 
preconceived stereotypes. When an ideology runs up against its 
limits, a choice must be made, and, as is so often the case, many 
chose to remain wedded to obsolete ways of thinking. Indeed, how 
else can one make sense of the moronic spectacle of the rightwing 
blogosphere suggesting that we interpret these events as a sign of 
Biblical prophecy? Mistaking a reflection of the light in a video 
of nighttime demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for a ghostly 
apparition, bloggers for WorldNetDaily and the Fox News 
Channel-associated Fox Nation asked readers if the green glow on 
their screens might actually be one of the Four Horsemen of the 
Apocalypse. If reality is a bitter pill to swallow, they seemed to 
be saying, then why swallow it at all?

Most commentators searching for an appropriate interpretive 
framework within which to make sense of the new Arab revolt 
managed to resist the tantalizing lure of Biblical revelation. 
Yet, many still manufactured their own fictions to help them 
digest a news story for which old stereotypes and prejudices 
proved too powerful to overcome. Thus, the apparent spontaneity of 
the events and the completely noncompliant actions of a supposedly 
compliant people were made sensible by conjuring up a rather 
different illusion. Alas, the fantasy of the Facebook revolution 
was born.

People, when pushed hard enough and long enough, will use whatever 
means are at their disposal to fight back. Thus, it is only 
logical that in organizing the protests and communicating the 
events to the world, demonstrators across the region have utilized 
the new media—not only social media sites like Facebook and 
Twitter, but also the mobile phone. Consequently, the old was 
traded in for the new, flyers and pamphlets replaced by texting 
and YouTube videos, the bullhorn by the blog.

But it is one thing to acknowledge the role of the new media and 
quite another to glorify them as the primum movens of the rolling 
revolutions. Before Ben Ali had even fled Tunis, the new media was 
already being extolled as the harbinger of the upheavals. On 13 
January, a writer in Foreign Policy declared that in Tunisia, 
“WikiLeaks acted as a catalyst: both a trigger and a tool for 
political outcry”—a sentiment apparently shared by WikiLeaks 
founder Julian Assange who went so far as to suggest that his 
organization was responsible for the ongoing events. Similar was 
the view of New York Times editorialist Roger Cohen. For him, 
however, the catalyst was not WikiLeaks but Facebook. Cohen 
proclaimed in his 24 January editorial that the Ben Ali regime 
“had fallen in perhaps the world’s first revolution without a 
leader. Or rather, its leader was far away: Mark Zuckerberg, the 
founder of Facebook.” Thus, just as the 2009 Green Revolution in 
Iran was hailed in the West as a “Twitter revolution,” the 
uprisings of North Africa and the Middle East have been variously 
understood as a reaction to Western technology.

Quite tellingly, the view of technology as agent provocateur is 
not employed evenly across the board. Indeed, when social media 
sites like Twitter have been used to coordinate demonstrations by 
protesters in the West at events like the 2009 G-20 meeting in 
Pittsburgh, the newswires do not usually come alive with talk of 
how Facebook and YouTube caused the unrest. No, technology is 
assumed to be the cause of upheaval only when it is used in their 
protests, not ours. It is the logic of a supremacist; we use 
technology, but they are used by technology. As Mahmood Mamdani 
observed in his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, “It is said that our 
world is divided between those who are modern and those who are 
premodern. The moderns make culture and are its masters; the 
premoderns are said to be but conduits.” Thus, in Middle Eastern 
hands, the new media are thus mistaken for the agent of change itself.

Denial of Arab agency is part and parcel to Western approaches 
towards the Middle East. Today it is Facebook, but in years past, 
there have been other mythical instigators. “Arabs,” as a certain 
writer once observed, “could be swung on an idea as on a cord; for 
the unpledged allegiance of their minds made them obedient 
servants.” The author of these words was not some neoconservative 
lackey dwelling in the subterranean depths of the Pentagon, 
wickedly planning the invasion of yet another Arab state. No, the 
writer in question was actually a person who considered himself to 
be a friend of the Arabs—an Arabophile and not an Arabophobe. 
These words are to be found in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the 
autobiographical tome of T.E. Lawrence, that much venerated 
“Lawrence of Arabia” who has so often been celebrated over the 
years in the Eurocentric historical imagination as the British 
agent who, like a latter-day Pied Piper, organized the docile 
dwellers of the desert and led them in battle against the Ottoman 
Turks nearly a full century ago. In this way, the Arab Revolt is 
taken out of its historical context, and the people who 
participated in it are treated not as active players but as pawns, 
as clay on the potter’s wheel, being shaped and molded by 
Lawrence’s expert hand.

Like a ghost that refuses to leave this world but continues to 
return again and again to haunt the living, the phantom of 
Lawrence is still very much with us to this day. With the new Arab 
Revolt of 2011, it is as if Western commentators needed a new 
piper in order to make sense of the people’s actions. Alas, new 
life was breathed into that hideous, old archetype of the Great 
White Hope, and a digital reincarnation of the famed Lawrence was 
conjured up and imagined as being responsible for organizing the 
slumbering rabble once again; only this time, he came armed not 
with a camel and a keffiyeh, but with Facebook friend requests.

Thus, to construe the Arab Spring as a response to Facebook and 
the new media is not as innocent of a gesture as it may initially 
appear. It is, in fact, the latest method of perpetuating an old 
stereotype. To suggest that these events were heralded by the new 
media is to give in to an old, racist fiction and to resurrect the 
fabled figure of the primitive who, having no agency of his or her 
own, is compelled to action as a response to superior Western 
technology. Twitter becomes to the Arab populace what the Coke 
bottle was to the “bushman” of The Gods Must Be Crazy (dir. Jamie 
Uys, 1980). The new media become not a conduit for change but the 
acting agent itself. In this way, the self-immolation of Mohamed 
Bouazizi is replaced by the digital wizardry of Julian Assange and 
Mark Zuckerberg, and the people actually taking part in the 
protests are denied their own voice and their own will. The 
perpetuators of this fantastic delusion are thus no better than 
those hyperbolic bloggers at Fox Nation. While one points to the 
ancient scriptures to explain Arab actions, the other looks to 
Western technology. In both cases, the people who have risen up to 
oppose their dictators are marginalized, their contributions 
forgotten, their brave acts relegated to the sidelines of history. 
Like Lawrence’s “obedient servants,” they are treated as secondary 
actors who are easily manipulated and controlled by foreign 
stimuli. The Arabs, it seems, know not what they do.

There is yet another danger in exaggerating the role of the new 
media. Intentionally or not, by turning Facebook into a kind of 
new Lawrence, one effectively obscures the class dimension of the 
revolts. Participation in the protests has not been limited only 
to a tech-savvy youth, and indeed, to pretend otherwise is to 
neglect all of those people that have bravely put their bodies and 
lives on the line who cannot afford a computer, who were never 
allowed an adequate education, or whose long days of restless toil 
do not easily permit the leisure of a Twitter account.

As Rabab El-Mahdi has argued with Western media coverage of the 
uprisings, “the class composition of dissent has been cloaked by a 
new imaginary homogenous construct called ‘youth.’” For El-Mahdi, 
such depictions signify nothing less than a new form of 
Orientalism—a Western embrace of those elements of the uprisings 
most “like us” and a disavowal of the rest. Yet, despite the force 
of her argument, there is perhaps another reason why Western 
commentators would want to fixate on the tech-savvy youth, 
especially in the case of Tunisia. Focusing on Facebook allows one 
to conveniently disregard what protesters in Tunisia were 
rebelling against: a neoliberal success story. Thus, one can talk 
about the protests without placing the blame where it truly 
belongs, on a government that had implemented IMF and World 
Bank-sanctioned economic reforms and structural adjustment 
programs. To talk of a Facebook revolution in Tunisia, then, 
functions as a way to avoid recognizing that the people were 
rebelling against the Western-imposed economic model itself.

“Class,” as Michael Parenti put it in Make-Believe Media, “is the 
colossal reality right before our eyes that we Americans are 
trained not to see.” That is, like one of Houdini’s illusions, 
class is often made to simply vanish. The media play an important 
role in the execution of this magician’s parlor trick, and U.S. 
journalists have a long history of scrubbing news stories clean of 
their class content. People protesting against Western-style 
economic policies and Western-supported authoritarianism are 
imagined instead to be protesting in favor of Western-style democracy.

Can we not see this exact same agenda at work in the 
corporate-owned media’s coverage of the Arab Spring? Indeed, there 
has been a tendency to frame these rebellions purely as protests 
against political repression, as struggles only to attain 
democratic rights. One can catch a glimpse of this journalistic 
inclination in the wordy moniker chosen by Thomas Friedman to 
describe the events in Tunisia and Egypt: “relatively peaceful 
Arab democracy revolutions.” Once again, the economic plight of 
the majority of the people—even in those “successful” countries 
like Tunisia that had so closely followed the neoliberal path—is 
conveniently obscured.

The attention given to the role played by the new media in these 
protests is part of this whitewashing operation. When the new 
media become the main headline, the story of the tech-savvy, 
well-educated, English-speaking, middle class youth overshadows 
the struggle of other protesters in the street—namely, those 
people at the absolute bottom. The eruption of the Arab Spring 
represented a collective cry from those impoverished masses in 
North Africa and the Middle East who have so tragically been 
forgotten by their governments, their leaders, and by the 
neoliberal advisors of the jetsetter capitalist class. By focusing 
only on the demonstrators with blogs and active Twitter 
accounts—that is, by resurrecting that old spirit of Lawrence—do 
we not run the risk of forgetting these people yet again?

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