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Truth-telling in the Age of Opinion

October 2, 2011

Hannah Arendt Center Thinking Challenge

October 1st 2011

In the age of rapid- response media, truths are deployed like hard drives, consumed and then over-written by newer, faster, more expedient truths. We want instant insight and commentary, not hard- won wisdom. Contemporary journalism in the United States is broken when there is no culture of analysis to support it, when pundits offer pre-packaged opinions that are wielded with nonchalance by everyone from citizens to senators alike. Debate meanders circularly and there is no resolution because there are no facts or values held in common. This is how something like climate change which is recognized by 98% of scientists can become a matter for debate. The remaining 2% of scientists can become a credible reason for doubt. After all, truth is all in how you tell it, which facts you reveal and which you keep hidden, which are distorted and which are twisted beyond recognition by losing their context and history. The appearance of fact is enough in a timeless, soulless world. What is truth-telling in the age of opinion?

Listening to Syrian- American hip-hop artist Omar Offendum’s album, SyrianamericanA, throws into relief the tensions and richness of cross-cultural experience. The narrator is living a life that is familiar to those who cross between the Arab world and the West. Each verse becomes a meditation on colonialism, Orientalism, the nomadism of “success,” feeling torn between two cultures, two moralities, two inseparable, dissimilar lives. ” Look up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane,” he sings. “it’s an Arab super hero and he came to bring change.” The voices of truth-telling in the future belong to those who are caught, by chance or circumstance, in between two or more conflicting narratives of power– when ideologies are examined in the light of lives we must live, the story unravels and we can see beyond the frame.

Tunisian revolutionaries have expressed “we don’t want to be called by the names of flowers!” Especially after the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism has marketed the country for years as a land of exotic fragrances and accessible to Europe Mediterranean charm. The Arab revolutions, not “the Arab Spring,” or “the Jasmine Revolution,” offer new possibilities for speaking and thinking from and to the centers of power. Once ignored by the mainstream media, activists, in particular from the Egyptian youth movements, have been featured on Al-Jazeera and honored by establishments of “human rights.” With this recognition, however, comes an even greater challenge. The call by Egyptian activists at the beginning of the revolution was for each man, woman and child to come down into the square. Not only those who have access to blogs, Twitter or  Facebook, those who are young, globally connected, or connected to leftist politics were responsible for the events which are continuing to shake the foundations of the world we thought we knew. We all have a responsibility to the cities, the politics we find ourselves in. Hannah Arendt said famously that “freedom has a space, a place.” (The Promise of Politics) These spaces, Arendt says, are the heart of the city or polis and contain the essence of democracy. The Bahraini regime knew this perfectly well when they destroyed the Pearl Roundabout which had been the epicenter of demonstrations in March of 2011. Around the world, public spaces are being reshaped and reclaimed as spaces of dissent, debate and action.

These spaces are not given for free. Waves of development have ripped out the collective spaces from cities, turning historic neighborhoods into block of “luxury flats” or boutique hotels which cater exclusively to foreigners. Gentrification pushes families further away from the centers of cities into hard to access suburbs. Beirut’s cosmopolitan charm is largely a fiction invented by the tourism industry. Recently in Beirut, several friends have been wounded by thugs of the Syrian regime. People are pulled off bar stools for criticizing Assad’s regime and beaten up in nearby alleys. The freedom that we struggle for is not an abstract, but a daily sensous reality. It demands an awareness and a greater attention to the small politics of daily life. Sometimes a revolution can be a few previously unspoken words, sometimes it can be a look for or against what is easily apparent. At all times, it is the will to resist “the way things are.”

A friend of ours who was being prosecuted by a military court for his activism committed suicide last week in Beirut. “I die as I have lived,” he wrote, “a free spirit, an anarchist, owing no aliegance to rulers heavenly or earthly.” In the discourse surrounding his death, however, one truth risks being drowned out by the fervor to write his death as a heroic gesture, a revolutionary position. That truth, rather quietly, is that Nour had struggled for many years with severe depression. It seems wrong to paint him as a hero in death when he might have lived as a man. If we were to follow Nour’s example, we would work tirelessly and quietly for the causes we believe in. Truth, in the manner of an enduring wisdom, is always soft-spoken, always humble and often found in unexpected places.

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