I don’t read Slate for their foreign affairs coverage and I sincerely hope that you don’t either. This is exactly why.
Ruthie Ackerman, reporting from southern Beirut, gives Slate readers an ass-backwards take on democracy, Lebanon, and Iran. The article sounds like it was written by someone who only knows about the Middle East from reading the Washington Post’s editorial page.
What am I talking about? Take, for example, this passage:
But standing on the airport road Wednesday morning, watching the crowd of thousands shower Ahmadinejad with rose petals and rice as he waved from his black SUV, the uphill battle that activists and democracy-dreamers face here seemed formidable. Young children shook Iranian and Lebanese flags energetically, while over the loudspeaker a voice urged onlookers to welcome Ahmadinejad and warned about the Great Satan that is America.
Stop and think about that for a minute. Why does an overwhelming support for the president of Iran mean that “democracy-dreamers” in Beirut face an “uphill battle”? Ackerman doesn’t bother to explain, but it seems like readers are supposed to assume that because Ahmadinejad’s regime is anti-democratic in Iran, it will, by virtue of its popularity, somehow transfer its repressive ways to Lebanon.
There’s no reason to think Ahmadinejad’s popularity in Lebanon has anything to do with that country own (exceedingly complex) democracy. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that an un-democratic demagogue can’t be popular in foreign countries
The article continues with this kind of nonsense. A few paragraphs later, she writes:
Even Ahmadinejad’s supporters seem to be torn between their love for the Iranian leader and their desire to live in the United States. A 22-year-old woman wearing a veil said she really liked Ahmadinejad, but in the same breath she told me that her father had lived in North Carolina and that she dreams of going to America. “Take me with you,” she pleaded, half-jokingly. She saw no contradiction.
Anyone who has traveled in the Middle East (and, I suspect, other regions of the world where anti-American sentiment is prevalent) knows that it’s common for people to say they hate the U.S. in one breath and then they want to live there in the next. It’s certainly not notable. For now, let’s ignore the fact that Ackerman’s only example of Ahmadinejad supporters being “torn” between their allegiance to the Iranian leader and love for the United States is one 22 year old.
In another major faux pas, Ackerman writes that it was “odd” that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addressed the crowd via videolink rather than in person. Of course anyone who follows Lebanon even marginally knows that Nasrallah speaks almost exclusively via videolink. The last time Nasrallah appeared in person was in July 2008.
The article ends with a nice flourish of old-fashioned Orientalism, including some talk about camels in Isalmic culture.
It may seem excessive to unload on a single article like this, especially one in Slate of all places. But it’s not. It’s worth it because this is what is wrong with U.S. coverage of the Middle East. Americans are all too often provided with reports by journalists who have a complete ignorance of the place from which they are reporting. The only point of reference these correspondents have is U.S. foreign policy interests and the coverage becomes a tautological mess (i.e., Ahmadinejad is bad because he’s bad and dangerous because he’s dangerous). In the end, Americans — in this case Slate readers — get “news” that teaches them nothing and only reinforces their preconceptions.