Wednesday, July 8, 2009

MSNBC: World Running Amok?

Iraq and Afghanistan. Pakistan. Iran. Honduras. Nigeria. Somalia. Uganda. Palestine. The list goes on-and-on.

On MSNBC, the question was raised as to whether the world is running amok these days. Is there greater violence? And is the new media feeding the unrest?

In a way, yes. Media is being used by people for propagandistic reasons: to sow ethnic tensions, breed distrust, and to foment conflict. However, that can be done even more effectively through traditional mass media: print and television and radio broadcast systems.

For centuries, atrocities and uprisings have been the source of civil changes. Paintings, printed cartoons and articles in newspapers, and popular songs inspired, and were inspired by, the American and French Revolutions.

Goya was commissioned to depict the atrocities of the Napoleonic Wars and their impact on Spain in the 19th Century.

A century later, in the same nation, Picasso painted his famous Guernica in the teeth of the Spanish Civil War, capturing the shattered spirit of his nation by depicting the bombing of a village by Fascist forces.

The 20th Century added the radio report and movie newsreel, which affected the popular support of World War II. And in the latter half of the century, television reports dramatically altered public perceptions of many conflicts, from Vietnam to the Balkans.

So today we have podcasts from battlezones, and Twitter and YouTube revolutions. Should we expect any less?

During the history of the world, powers-that-be and counter-regime movements all used the available technology to promulgate their visions and foment conflict and raise their points of view to their domestic audiences and to appeal to the masses overseas. To its credit, at times media has also been used to sooth tensions, promote unity and call for peace and resolution of violence.

Conflicts have gone on for millennia, so human violence is not new. The technology to conduct or put down civil instability and insurrection is more advanced today. The technology to report about such civil disorder and martial action is more advanced and permeated globally than ever before.

In absolute terms, I would argue that global violence is increasing greatly in potential terms, but has so far only been bubbling up modestly in actual incidence rates.

There has never before been 6.7 billion people in the world. Thus the total amount of potential and actual violence is greater these days simply because there are more people who can, and do, enter into conflict.

Yet we should also thank our lucky stars. While we have many regional wars around the world, we have so far, fortunately, avoided an all-out regional or full-scale world war between major powers, potentially involving weapons of mass destruction.

The question is: what are the desires of people today to use their communications technology? To resist unjust oppression, to promote truth, or to stir ancient enmities and fuel bitterness based on falsehoods? What are the aims and purposes? What is the trend globally towards raising the bars of tension and violence, or to find civil and just solutions to the world’s problems without resorting to the fist, the bullet, the bomb, or the IED.

One thing is certain. Between 1914-1918 there was the First World War. Between 1939-1945 we had World War II. Since then, though anti-colonial wars and the Cold War, and various regional conflicts have been bloody and brutal, we have avoided further nuclear war, and we have avoided a total war on a global basis between superpowers.

Today’s violence is troubling because it harkens back to the days of the Balkans Wars that proceeded World War I, or the expansionist wars and jostling for global dominance that proceeded World War II. Many regional wars can each become flashpoints for larger conflicts.

Each conflict, when taken in isolation, can be rationalized for why it exists. From the uprisings against the oil-backed regime in Nigeria, to the Muslim extremist conflicts of Taliban forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the violent mobs of Uyghurs in China. Solutions to such chronic problems are more elusive, especially when the populations involved would rather remain in conflict rather than seek mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence.

Americans can sometimes be at odds with our own nature when it comes to consideration of other nation’s civil unrest and uprisings. It is natural rebellion against tyranny. Should we support such causes, much as we venerate the original American Revolution? Or is it the work of power brokers and even criminal elements disguising themselves under layers of propaganda capitalizing on popular unrest?

Media is required to see the acts of repression of brutal governments. Media is required to expose agents provocateur bent on causing violence regardless of whether it is justified or not, for their own private agenda’s benefit. Media both promotes the acts of terrorism by making them more visible, and it also makes possible states to repress civil disapproval through propaganda and social controls. Yet media is also required to put all such stories in context and perspective.

The world has not yet run amok. Not yet. It is vital for humanity to collectively discuss what needs to happen to prevent a global war over the course of this century as we suffered from in prior centuries. It is appropriate to confer, both as political regimes and as private citizens and public groups to devise strategies to prevent an unprecedented risk to the billions of people around the world presently and in the decades to come.

It is also folly to believe good wishes and thoughts alone can prevent calamity. For everyone who benefits from a peaceful, stable world economy, there are those for whom the concept of peace is anathema. The harmony and stability do not serve their ends.

We must also allow for the just expression of grievances and changes to social structure over time. There must be permissible “safety valves” of civil unrest to allow peoples to collectively choose their own desired states rather than live with domineering regimes that offer “peace and stability” in false measures through insidious means. For one person’s peaceful and pleasant society is often another person’s brutally repressive regime.

This past week has been the celebration of the U.S. Independence Day. A day that marked a declaration to the world of the principles of liberty and the ends to which people would go to oppose repressive tyranny. Yet increasingly, many people around the world worry that the U.S. has become the same sort of dominant, repressive power that we once fought to overthrow.

I marvel and worry this year. Not so much for the survival of the centuries-old American experiment in democracy, as for the vitality and long-term viability of the new hatchling popular movements for justice around the world. Will they lead to peaceful redress of civil grievances, or plunge the planet into countless fractious civil wars?

Will we, as a civilization, be trapped by our centuries of past means to solve our problems, or will we evolve? Unless we devise new means to settle differences, we will have a hundred Guernicas played out through Twitter and YouTube every year.

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