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Reflections on Joris Luyendijk's People Like Us
It’s funny being in a line of work that involves books as inputs. There’s a lot of material—tea cozies, bookmarks, Levenger—marketed to people who have apparently decided that their personality is Books. The underlying theme of these bookish mementoes is to celebrate the book as transportation and retreat, and that bookishness is a form of morally virtuous defense against the world. I guess I had something like that attitude, once upon a time, but as someone whose professional life involves books and texts and reports and blogposts and newsletters I don’t have the luxury or inclination to celebrate texts, any more than computer programmers worship at the altar of ASCII standards. Books are, in a sense, the raw materials of my trade, ingots to be turned into the structure of arguments rather than comforts to be set against the world.
There’s also the twist that, as a full-time professor, I find I have next to no time to read. Like many of you, I finished the bulk of my workweek last week at Friday at 5 pm after full days of sitting before a computer, dealing with what cyberspace really is: not the steampunk, gender-bending, slickly designed futurama we were promised but instead the constant manipulation of digital artifacts. I made a spreadsheet; I recruited some survey respondents; I tweaked a questionnaire; I dispatched messages via electronic mail. The twist, of course, is that I’m officially on leave this term, and yet still somehow just getting through the administrivia of employment takes a soul-crushingly long time. If these newsletters sometimes seem cynical about the life of the mind, it is because that is something that is the first to be shaken up by the life of compliance—of forms and online trainings.
Heinlein, in one of the juveniles, has a mentor observe that the protagonist shouldn’t go off in search of adventure, but should instead become a banker and read about adventure instead. Well, in much the same way, I sometimes feel that if you want to live for ideas you should do something besides academia: the world of professional research is not a world in which you can abandon your cares to engage with ideas, but rather a world in which the engagement with—and devising of—ideas will become your care. Despite that, the football coach will earn multiples of your salary, even if your football team is bad.
Still, at times one encounters books that are more than just utilitarian, such as:
People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East, Joris Luyendijk
This is a timely book in the sense that 9/11 plays a transformative role, even if offstage, in Luyendijk’s memoir of being a Middle Eastern reporter for a series of Dutch outlets so unfamiliar to me I didn’t even bother keeping track. Suffice it to say that Luyendijk worked at places that were prestigious as a Middle Eastern correspondent, even though he was not a professional journalist and even though, as he quickly came to learn, his function was more to lend authority to scripts that were already dictated rather than to find out what was going on.
There are two major halves to this book. The first part is Luyendijk’s memoirs about living in various dictatorships of the Arab world and about the difficulty he encountered in finding out what was really going on. The problem, he discerns, is that in an unfree society there is no way to know the truth because everyone is acting and nobody wants to dare to break out. In a dictatorship, one lives according to explicit and tacit rules about behavior, and the penalty for breaking them can be extreme—not just death, but losing jobs, utilities, and family. So why speak out? And if nobody speaks out, then nobody else knows what to say about what others are saying or thinking. Luyendijk shows that the implications of this are not just a feeling of unfreedom or oppression but also the perennial circulation of conspiracy theories, as with no open scrutiny there’s no reason not to subscribe to beliefs about shadowy forces, whether internal or external, controlling everything. In fact, in some cases, it might even be accurate.
So much is obvious, nod the political scientists in my audience, who are probably thinking of the same set of three or four citations. Yes, but. I’ve read those too and I can say that there’s a lot about Luyendijk’s painting of greige authoritarian realities that fit with my own dilettante-ish experiences living in Polity -9s and -10s. In particular, Luyendijk is not critical but sympathetic. Despite the absence of reliable information, as a reporter, Luyendijk still had to feed the news machine by doing stand-ups and writing articles about what the Middle East was like. That meant relying on tropes and standard stories about the region, and taking the slightest glimpses and offhand remarks about private beliefs to stand in for an entire country or region’s worldview. At the same time, his audience in the West would not have wanted to hear what Luyendijk came to feel, which is that the Middle East was not suffering under oppression in the dramatic way that Western storytellers loved to talk about but rather that it was wrestling with the long-term consequences of oppression both domestic and foreign—which is to say, Western. When the United States invades Iraq, Luyendijk notes that this fit a script of liberation that had been designed and marketed in the West, but which neither bore any resemblance to what was going on in the region nor which was able to be challenged by Western media, reliant as they were on official sources for access. But the pain and the consequences were real.
This brings us to the second part of the book, which is that democracies are much less free of illusion than they suppose themselves to be. If the overt message of Luyendijk is that thought and expression are not free in dictatorships and that this is the real “news” about the region, not the occasional deviation from that blunt fact, the subtle message is that democracies are awfully good at choosing to conceal the facts from themselves. Governments wage war through opinion formation to command their audiences’ sympathies, but they do so in a terrain—the news, and particularly television—that already favors the use of certain shorthands and reliable narrative frameworks that prevent true understanding. If the truth doesn’t have a strong visual component, it won’t get on the television news—but since the television news has to show something, something other than the truth will be aired.
This leads to the question: What is news? News, for Luyendijk, is not about relaying the facts, and it is not about promoting understanding. It is a form of affirmation, of entertainment, of control. And yet it is also the way the world is portrayed to us, as any of us have only the slightest engagement with the world. That is not satisfying, but it is what is.
Luyendijk’s portrayal of life and his portrayal of how life is portrayed is a masterwork. Is it social science? No. Did it do more to capture my own impressions than most social science? Yes. Does it illustrate the dilemmas of trying to understand inter-cultural, international, and domestic politics? Absolutely. I would pair it with Witold Szablowski’s Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Communism for a corrective to the self-flattering stories about other societies that Americans love.
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