Who benefits from democracy?

To the reader who might  wonder what I meant in a previous post when I talked about  the \”framing\” of a news story I direct their attention to a CNN piece I watched February 27th of this year.
The question leading into Fareed Zakaria\’s commentary was:

  \”who benefits from democracy in the middle east, Iran or the United States\”
Zakaria gave the following explanation to his audience of what \’led to\’ the current unrest in the Middle East:

two American shifts have taken place that have unlocked the region. First, after 9/11 Washington become acutely aware that supporting middle eastern dictatorships had a down side. It was breeding an extreme anti-American opposition movement that had embraced terrorism, al-Qaeda, so the United States began pushing its allies towards reform and offered much less  unqualified support for the dictatorships and monarchies of the middle east. Second, American power itself was waning–Iraq, Afghanistan, the financial crisis– all showed that the US was an exhausted superpower. The result? The United States is less willing and less able to play the old imperial role and prop up the old regimes. [1]

I admit that as the SO and I sat and watched this we yelled, in unison at the television set \”The people benefit from democracy — that what the word means.\”[2]
Notice how the question is framed. 
First, the unspecified audience member to whom this question was addressed is fairly clearly not the average middle eastern resident. There are many legitimate questions that Zakaria could ask such a resident about the outcome of the protests. He could ask \”do you think that these protests will make the life of your family, on the whole, easier or safer?\” He could ask \”do you think that the United States or Iran will be more or less friendly to the government of your country in the aftermath of these protests?\” But he asked neither of those questions.
Notice how the \’resident of the middle east\’ has been moved from the center of hir own story. That which happens to hir is judged and valued in terms of what it means for other governments and other peoples.
Second, the question is framed as a dichotomy. It is framed as a zero-sum game. Either the United States benefits or Iran benefits. Thus anything that might be seen to not benefit the United States is presumed to benefit Iran (that which does not make us stronger makes them stronger.) The consequences of the protests in the Middle East must then be examined to determine if they might benefit Iran. If they do benefit Iran then they cannot benefit America and therefore should not be encouraged–even though they may bring great benefit to the actual residents of the Middle East.
Third, it changes the story from one of Egyptians or Tunisians or Libyans acting to one of Egyptians or Tunisians or Libyans reacting. People are being beaten, jailed and hounded in their attempts to win liberty and justice–and their actions are framed as being due to shifts in American policy and strength.
So I wondered how a typical member of Zakaria\’s American audience would react to a documentary about the American revolution that opened and closed with the following question:
\”Who benefited most from the American revolution, France or Germany?\” How would that typical American react to seeing the history of hir own revolution told without even a mention in passing of the names of the founding fathers? How do you think the typical American would feel if they learned that in the history books of European countries scholars explained that the American revolution occurred due to a shift in the balance of power between France, Germany and Spain?
Well, that is how many people in the Middle East feel whenever they get a glimpse of what passes for news coverage and commentary in the United States.
 

[1] Fareed Zakaria. CNN. GPS. Feb. 27, 2011. 
[2] You know you were meant to be together when you find yourself responding in unison to annoying people on television. 
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2 thoughts on “Who benefits from democracy?

  1. \”Who benefited most from the American revolution, France or Germany?\”I don't think Germany even existed as a state back then, but as for France… I'd say they definently benefited overall, even if the French royalty certainly didn't. The American Revolution served as one of the impetus' for the French Revolution, which, unfortunately didn't quite take the first time… but it did lead to the dissolution of the broken monarchy, and ultimately to the establishment of a republic.Admittedly, I don't have a lot of history books from various countries, but I've always imagined they do tend to focus on how various issues and events affected the parent country… Fareed's explanation, meanwhile, isn't the whole story, but it's certainly not neccessarily *wrong*. Shifts in American policy *did/do* have a ripple effect on the Middle East and everywhere else, and while asking 'which benefited, Iran or the USA' is badly phrased, asking which benefited most isn't exactly an invalid question, and certainly something an American audience would be interested in.

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