I am not good at flying kites. But during a recent visit to
the Olympic Village of Beijing, I felt compelled to do so.
Despite the cold and late hour, there were many kite runners
around me. A salesman insisted that I try my hand before committing to any
purchase, and I did. Once I finalized the purchase of 10 small kites, I shared
the one I was already flying with a most adorable boy. He thanked me, then
asked me not to play with his hair.
Earlier, at Tiananmen Square,
I had watched throngs of people giddily roam the vast expanse, snapping endless
photos in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, in the Imperial City
and around every monument in the square.
A formation of about 10 soldiers was suddenly in tatters
when I asked if I could take a photo with them. Their excitement seemed to
None of this should by any means take away from the
seriousness of the violent crackdown at the Tiananmen
Square protest of 1989. That date should be remembered and lessons
must be gleaned. But why the reductionism? When one thinks of Tiananmen, why
does one only conjure visions of hordes of protesters and gangs of soldiers?
The bloody scene is used time and again to single out China as an
anti-democratic regime, juxtaposed conveniently against Western �democratic
One hardly ever reads positive news from China, or any other
�non-Western� countries -- unless an agenda exists for promoting selective
positive news from those countries, for example, a supposedly successful
election in Afghanistan conducted under the auspices of Western armies.
last week, I saw no signs of the Red Shirts, or the Yellow Shirts either. I
did, however, see some shirtless Thais. Considering the heat and humidity, this
was not surprising. The point remains that aside from a standoff at a major Bangkok shopping center,
the rest of the metropolis seemed to operate as normal. A Thai man struggled to
communicate his political views to me in English. I had found him watching a
video on some social network website. The video featured a dog and a cat, the
cat representing the Red Shirts, and a dog, the current government. They
barked, meowed and hissed, but they didn�t physically engage. The man
laughingly commented, �This is how things are in Thailand.� Then, in a more somber
tone, �It�s all about power and control; no one cares about Thais who cannot
afford a shirt -- red, yellow, or otherwise.�
True, but it also seems that Western media cares little
about these countries, outside of a very narrow context. The story of China is only
worthy if it involves government restriction (e.g., of Google), or economics,
i.e., how China�s
economic growth will affect Western economic recovery. Even if the story is
related to art rather than politics, somehow it finds its way back to the same
old theme, for example, the government censoring struggling artists.
Once the Red Shirts and the government sort out their
will certainly disappear off our radar. It would take an economic crisis,
rigged elections, or even a tsunami to bring it back as a story worth telling.
In the meantime, the country will return to its convenient role for the West --
a cheap destination for adventure-seeking travelers with some money to spare, a
topic in blogs advising ways to get more money for your buck, or baht, and
clever ways to dodge Thai con artists.
China and Thailand
are the norm, not the exception. In a recent discussion with a Reuters editor,
I complained about the fact that every story on Malaysia had some kind of negative
undertone. Example include: Muslim, Christian clashes over the use of the word
�Allah�; the trial of Anwar Ibrahim; the ugly politicking. The news makes it
easy to quickly imagine Malaysia
as the most dysfunctional and unfortunate society on earth.
This was not the impression I got during my last visit to Malaysia. It
is, in many respects, a thriving society. It has its internal politics, like
anywhere else, but essentially Christians and Muslims seem to be getting along
just fine, as they have been for many years.
Media channels -- especially those dispatching their news
from various Western capitals - focus not simply on sensational news, but they
also intentionally sensationalize news, and purposely relay the news so as to
be understood within Western contexts. Thus �democracy,� �elections,�
�government restrictions� and �terrorism� are the usual buzzwords.
Sadly, the south is also stereotyped in the south itself.
Newspapers in non-Western societies depend on coverage provided by Western news
agencies for their international news. An Indonesian friend recently commended
on my �bravery� for going to South
Africa. For him, South Africa is just �Africa,� where �primitive� people, along with lions and
other wild animals prey on innocent white tourists. Thank you, Hollywood, for
perfecting the art of stereotype.
Similarly, some people show utter disbelief when they
discover that Iran is one of the world�s busiest travel destinations -- not
necessarily for Americans or Israelis, but for people across the globe. Yes, Iran has much
to offer in terms of culture, history, scenery and societal achievements. There
is far more to the country than clashing soldiers and youth, or fiery
statements pertaining to nuclear weapons, Israel and the Holocaust.
A few years ago, in Stockholm,
I asked a group of officials to tell me the images that popped in their heads
when they thought of Palestinians. I asked them to be honest, assuring them
that nothing they said would offend me. But when I heard back from them, I was
indeed very offended. The images were unfailingly gory. Even the �positive�
images amongst them were disturbing and stereotypical.
The Western media will continue to reduce non-Westerners,
for they have a vested interest in doing so, and it has become habitual. A
first step in overcoming this would be to empower our own local and regional
media, and to create rapport amongst them. We can only challenge the abhorrent
narratives about us when we start to present our own truth and experience, and
support others to do the same.
Baroud is an
internationally-syndicated columnist and Chief Editor of the Brunei Times. His
latest book is �My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza�s Untold Story� (Pluto
Press, London), now available on Amazon.com.