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The Impact of Global Media upon Society

"The Far Side of the Satellite" is an occasional series of articles challenging the conventional wisdom regarding contemporary mass media. In this essay, delivered at IKIM (Institute for Islamic Understanding, Malaysia) conference on "The Impact of Globalization on Social and Cultural Life: an Islamic Response" held in Kuala Lumpur in March 2001 and reproduced here from IKIM's 2003 publication of the proceedings, S. Abdallah Schleifer continues his argument, initiated in TBS 9 (Electronic Media & the Arab-Islamic World), that modern communications technology does violence to the social fabric, and expresses his pessimism as to the likely impacts of globalization.

Perhaps the most serious misunderstanding about global media is to see it as an effect of globalization—be it beneficial or harmful—when in fact media, or more accurately, mass media, are an intrinsic, and perhaps the most pervasive, dimension of the latter.

Let me qualify my own position from the beginning and before I pursue the thesis I have just suggested. I am deeply pessimistic about the implications of globalization in general and global media in particular - not only about globalization in and for itself and the way in which media is effected by globalization - but also for the reaction that it is quite capable of stirring up. In that sense one might compare this present phase of globalization to that of a previous epoch - the great imperial expansions of the West that culminated by the end of the 19th century in the almost total colonization of the non-Western world. And I am pessimistic because I consider it to be, in the nature of things, fairly irreversible, like the industrial revolution and the electronic revolution of this past century from whence comes the technology that is part and parcel of globalization.

The best I can hope is that all people who cherish those ultimately religiously-inspired expressions of social solidarity that we both relish and invoke as family and community, and all the traditional social ties, restraints, and joys that sustain both family and community within the qualifications of equity or justice before a natural law (that Edmund Burke suggested is to be found not in "right reason," as suggested by Cicero and later St. Thomas Aquinas, but shared and derived by all of the recipients of God's various revelations) will develop survival techniques. Such survival techniques would enable them to conserve and pass on as much as is humanly possible, of those aspects of a God-centered civilization which we must cherish but which is most challenged by globalization. I hold this hope for all people and in particular for my own—the Islamic Umma.

I quote Burke not simply because he sought to conserve the best of a religiously-derived traditional social order without blinding himself to the requirements of the times, or because Burke saw quite acutely that the barely emergent mass media of his time was part of the social-political order - it was, Burke said, "the Fourth Estate"- and that only if the media accepted the responsibilities of being part of that Order would it, like freely moving finance capital, which Burke the conservative feared for its destabilizing and tyrannical possibilities, avoid playing the seditious role that both the press and finance capital were to play in the tragedy of the French Revolution. And I quote Burke not only because of his sympathy with and defense of Mogul India (a Muslim sultanate sustained by Hindu as well as Muslim elites) from the brutalities and subversion practiced against what Burke perceived to be established, legitimate, and aristocratic Islamic rule by the British East India Company; nor do I quote him solely because of his appreciation for the Shariah as one of the clearest examples of how mankind can derive its law and order from God's Revelation. I also quote Burke because he saw presciently the implications of the most explicit universal ambitions of a global secular, materialistic world order - the militant and Godless universalism of the most extreme manifestations of the French Revolution and what terror it would let loose upon a religious-based social order. And finally I quote Edmund Burke at this gathering in Kuala Lumpur because I feel he would sympathize with contemporary Malaysia and its attempt to balance within a both religious and most contemporary secular perspective, duties and rights, freedom and legitimate authority, parliamentary democracy, monarchic tradition, and an aristocratic ambience.

The clash of national interest in that last epoch of globalization that I alluded to in the beginning of this paper resulted in World War One. But that was not a reaction. It was simply that the clash of national interests within the late 19th century global system could not be restrained because of the absence of any single uncontestable super power capable on imposing an unchallengeable imperial peace, which may in any case be illusionary and may have always been illusionary.

The reaction would come later, for World War One led to the breakdown of the first modern global economic system. It accelerated the intellectual triumph of materialism which, hidden by the tattered cloth of residual religiosity, had inspired that first epoch of globalization. That residual or alienated religiosity was by and large shed in the cynicism that followed World War One, and the foremost dispenser of this new materialism that had shed most of its pretensions and was on its way to becoming the mainstream of modern urban Western life, was the new, truly mass, media. A marriage of mass literacy and the high speed press, mass media emerged in late 19th century Europe and America in the form of giant-circulation newspapers. The even more mass audience—the audience for the "new" post-World War One media of radio and film—even more openly advanced an unembarrassed materialism.

In its most extreme version, modernist materialism took on the form of a distinctive political economy with global or internationalist pretensions - Marxist Leninism. The reaction would be fascism - usually masking itself as a false traditionalism when in fact it embraced the very techniques and assumptions of materialism and modernism, be they the pseudo-science of racism, advanced long before Hitler by the intellectual spokesmen of late 19th century globalization to rationalize the conquest of the non-Western world, or the totalitarian structure of the modern revolutionary party and modern mass media to mobilize the masses - which is why we can think of fascism as a Leninism of the Right, a Leninism that invoked nation instead of class and was in league with private capital rather than state capital.

I mention all of this so you understand why my pessimism about globalization in general and global media in particular encompasses not only it own immediate effects upon society but also the potential effects of our reaction to globalization, namely the danger of zealous, intolerant, ultra-nationalistic ethnic or religious fascism, some symptoms of which have already made themselves manifest over the past decade in Europe, and especially in the Balkans, as well as in the developing world and particularly in the Muslim world.

(I have not mentioned Israel because ironically the Zionist state is the only successful survivor reflecting both the earlier epoch of a Western colonial globalization and the subsequent European racist/fascist reaction, which is not to deny that in very short-range terms Israel would be the most immediate beneficiary of the new globalization if it managed to impose its own version of peace upon its neighbors).

But to return to my initial premise as to the intrinsic role of media in globalization - this is acknowledged in the most enduring definitions, such as Thomas Friedman's summary definition of globalization for The New York Times back in February 1997 as "the integration of financial, information and trade networks to create a single high-speed global marketplace." Of course "high speed" is an effect—what Friedman really meant was high-tech, generating high-speed networks. I also suggested global media was also conceivably the most pervasive of these components.

Indeed it is conceivable the current crisis in the American stock market which is threatening to undermine the European recovery as well as further accelerate the American recession precisely because of the high-speed networks of globalization may lead to a global recession, if not depression, which could rapidly reduce the global movement of capital, technology, trade and labor - without in any significant way reducing the rate of activity of the global information networks, which are, for consumers, primarily the internet and the direct or indirect experience of satellite television.

There is still another way to consider the pervasiveness of global media as an intrinsic aspect of globalization rather than as effect or result of globalization. Much of the debate over globalization is argued in strictly materialistic terms: will it produce more jobs and reduce poverty in the developing world and stimulate high tech employment in the developed world or will it impoverish the working class in both worlds and reduce job creation in the developing world? Or, in the sphere of production, will globalization spur production in the developing world, or as Jonathan Alterman notes in his contribution to The Middle East in the Global Arena (Middle East Institute), hasn't Arab world exposure to Western lifestyles through global media and the internet increased consumption to a rate unmatched by the rate of production in the region.

And if globalization has increased overall production, including exceptional cases in the developing world, then won't globalization's apparent success lead, as William Greider points out in One World Ready or Not, The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, to inevitable over-production of manufactured goods? This is the classic recipe for depression in a cycle that this time will be global in immediate impact rather than be limited to a handful of industrialized countries as in the Great Depression of the nineteen thirties and a global process that may have already begun.

Yet the most sensitive American critics of globalization, like William Pfaff who writes a thoughtful column regularly for the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune (which is ironically probably the only truly global daily newspaper) points out that this debate, by definition, reflects the utterly materialistic criteria of globalization, where it is universally assumed on both sides of the argument that economic success automatically promotes human success. Even moderate globalizers like Thomas Friedman invariably defend the process in purely materialistic and individualistic terms. Friedman, for all his eulogies (or rather, for all his pre-New York stock market crash eulogies) to America as the most perfect globalizing nation, can take note that there are indexes of social crisis in modern-day America - such as an appallingly weak secondary education system, teenage suicide, high shootouts, family disintegration particularly in the inner cities—but he fails to see the connection of such social phenomena to an intrinsic spiritual malaise. Yet it is precisely this spiritual malaise that is at the root of the breakdown in America and most particularly in its most global-sensitive sectors in the urban East Coast and West Coast environment. As Robert Putnam observes in his recent work on the breakdown of social connectedness in America, Bowling Alone, one can go beyond the appalling statistics for the past half century of American material progress—of the breakdown of marriage, of the rise in clinical depression, teenage suicide, crime, and rape-and note that "having dinner with your family declined by about one-third in the past 20 years." It is astonishing that such a fundamental feature (in America) of social connectedness, of social solidarity, has been transformed in such a brief period of time.

But then marriage in America has never been weaker. In a report (released in July 1999) the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University found the marriage rate had fallen 43 percent since 1960. The divorce rate is near its all time high. One outcome of these "wrenching social shifts" according to Jeff Jacoby who analyzed this study in a column published in the Boston Globe, is that 22 million or 40 percent of America's children live apart from their fathers. Everyone accordingly suffers: Jacoby notes that men who stay married or get married in the first place before having children spend far more time with their children, on the average, than fathers who are not married. A boy who grows up away from his father in America is twice as likely to end up in prison; a girl raised by her unmarried or divorced mother is five times more likely to become an unmarried teenage mother. A teenager from a single-parent is more likely to possess drugs, own a weapon or assault someone at a school than an American teenager from an intact family.

More than four years ago, Pfaff observed in a column warning against the Westernization of the non-Western world that seemed to him to be implicit in globalization that the West ignored the dangers of incorporating the non-Western world into a globalized economy and believed "that trade is overwhelmingly benevolent" in part because Western leadership, and in particular, the American leadership "can scarcely imagine a valid alternative to the materialism and political values of the modern West."

Now trade, finance, and technology are all by definition worldly but they are not necessarily or intrinsically materialistic. Market economies existed in the great Ages of Faith in the East and the West, and without undermining the great civilizations built upon religious faith. What was critical was that the markets themselves were not objects of faith as they are today; on the contrary they were always subject to judgment and even regulation by the higher values of faith, family, and personal honor. It is the "information system" then which imposes or subverts the hierarchy of higher values imposed upon markets; which discourages a worldly tendency to materialism or aids and abets that tendency. It has always been so.

To understand the impact of globalization and in particular the impact of global media upon society one must constantly return to this analysis of trends in American life and the cultural wars being fought in America, precisely because America is, as Friedman observes, the society most perfectly prepared to lead, as it does, the globalization process.

And in the 1997 study What Money Can't Buy, Prof. Susan Mayer tried to match parents' income with their children's outcome. (Good outcome meaning staying out of jail, not dropping out of school, avoiding unwed motherhood, etc.) Mayer discovered that, "the parental characteristics that employers value and are willing to pay for, such as skills, diligence, honesty, good health and reliability also improve children's life chances. Children of parents with these attributes do well even if their parents do not have much income," she concluded.

It is not simply that 50 percent of the major multi-national companies are headquartered in America. It is also that it is in the specifically information network aspect of globalization - which ranges from technologies of fast data movement and even so-called smart bombs to the global media of Internet an satellite television-that content means entertainment and news and where values indifferent or hostile or openly subversive of a religious-based society are most deeply embedded.

So we must be obsessed by the American experience. To consider the impact of inescapably Americanizing global media upon an undefined "society" is too much of an abstraction; far better to consider global media's (American media's) impact upon American society. Which is to say we must understand that while the internet helps some of us undertake swift if somewhat shallow research, the overwhelming number of those internet sites which are in wide demand and truly profitable - and they number in the tens of thousands, are primarily devoted to pornography - hard as well as soft, child as well as adult, homosexual as well as heterosexual, and we must seek answers to problems such as these.

How does it happen? Just listen to the lyrics of most pop music over the past four decades, which began judicially with the Supreme Court forbidding school prayer in America in cases brought by the same militantly secular if not openly anti-religious forces that established a "free-speech right" for pornography. To the degree these values rapidly spread through the artistic and intellectual communities in the nineteen sixties and could not be suppressed legally, they came to be considered increasingly attractive in the form of song and film to a generation enthralled with rebellion (further down the road rap music would eulogize killing policemen and raping women). And to that degree "youth culture" became the market shorthand for profiteering in degeneracy.

Corporate executives in America who cannot conceive of a transcendent restraint upon the free market above or below the bottom line, however respectable otherwise, began to promote these cultural products - film and song - that degrade family life and community and social order. The same holds true for hard-core pornography. Once the exclusive commercial territory of sleazy book stores and the Mafia, pornography is now a 10- billion dollar industry in America according to Forrester Research of Cambridge and the federal Security and Exchange Commission, as reported recently in The New York Times. According to the New York Times article, "The financial rewards are so great that some of the biggest distributors of explicit sex on film and online include the country's most recognizable corporate names."

General Motors Corp, the world's largest company now sells more graphic sex films every year than does Larry Flint, owner of the sleazy Hustler publications empire who was transformed into a popular hero for American youth abut a decade ago by a Hollywood movie devoted to Flynt as a struggler for free speech. The same can be said for EchoStar, largely owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose porno revenue is now greater than all the publications and video sales of Playboy. AT&T, which markets a hardcore sex cable channel called the Hot Network, sells sex videos to nearly a million hotel rooms. The list is impressive—Time-Warner, responsible for some of the most pernicious rock and rap music, is also into high-profit pornography, as is Liberty Media Corp, Marriott International, Hilton Hotels, and Murdoch's News Corp. According to the New York Times, 40 percent of all the hotel rooms in America are now equipped to see pornographic videos and the New York Times estimates that at least half of all hotel guests rent these movies, generating 190 million dollars a year in sales, while at home Americans buy or rent more than 4 billion dollars-worth of graphic sex movies from retail outlets.

This thirst for hard-core pornography is starting to seep into mainstream American television programming, which in turn is increasingly a major part of global media's entertainment fare. Even without hard-core porn, the most popular sitcoms (like "Friends" or "Seinfield") or Reality TV specials in America (like "Temptation Island") are comedy or Reality TV shows that eulogize recreational sex—be it pre-marital or homosexual—and frequently TV sitcom characters will approach the simulation of sex that characterizes soft-porn Hollywood productions. Seepage of hard core occurs by allusion—a quick glimpse of a video that is part of the storyline; so the boys in Friends are seen watching porno videos and one of the heroines of "Sex and the City"—now available to most of the Arab World courtesy of Showtime (owned by the American media giant Viacom in partnership with the Kuwaiti Investment Group) goes out with a man who video-records all of his sexual adventures. The audience gets a quick eyeful of these videotapes.

Please forgive my pessimistic understanding of the history of mass media, but one could argue that the modern world, with its intrinsic bias to materialism did not produce mass media but is the product of mass media. Elizabeth Eisenstein, in her extraordinary study The Printing Press As an Agent of Change (Cambridge 1979) makes exactly that argument, without necessarily sharing my own deep concerns about the spiritual implications of such a development.

The dominant traditional or pre-industrial mode of mass communication - to a relatively large group of people but without benefit of mediation by modern technology—was the khutbah or sermon delivered from an elevated minbar in a large mosque or from a pulpit in a large cathedral—and we would characterize the elevated minbar or pulpit today as "soft technology."

The dawn of mass communication then is the late 15th - 16th century overthrow in the West of the pulpit by the printing press, and the overthrow of the clergy by the printer-businessman as the arbiter of what is relevant information and what values inform that information. I would suggest that this is not a historic accident, and that its duplication in the Muslim world in the 19th century is not still another historic accident, but rather it is an inescapable component of an axiom that the quantification and impersonalization of any human phenomenon is inescapability desacralizing, since the sacred is by definition qualitative and personal rather than quantitative and impersonal.

I am here suggesting origins and historic implications. In the greatly accelerating desacralization of all societies impacted by globalization, it is precisely digitalization - the reduction of all meaning to number-that is at the heart of the high tech information networks, be they internet or satellite television, which is increasingly driven by digital system that reduce costs of global broadcasting to nearly one tenth of the pre-digital analogue system by increasing the capacity (quantity) of satellite transponders by a factor of at least ten. Very soon this same quantitative explosion of television capacity will apply to terrestrial or non-satellite broadcasting with the introduction of digital terrestrial broadcasting.

But let's return to that same dawn of mass communication - Guttenberg's printing press, which also heralded the overthrow of the scribe by the printer. Scribal culture is the existence of a written literature prior to the invention of printing. In Europe scribal culture was sustained by communities of monks or groups of religiously-educated laity working under the direct discipline of ecclesiastical authority. In Islam scribes were usually members of the ulema, or if not, then at least pious literate amateurs, whose efforts were invariably for the sake of otherworldly reward. One thinks of the 14th-century Mamluk sultan, Mu'ayyad Sheikh, who spent his nights copying the Quran by hand in emulation of the Companions and first generation of Followers of the prophet (s.a.w.). Our memory as Muslim intellectuals is still sufficiently close to a pre-industrial culture that when someone alludes to a great edition of the Quran we think of the Suhrawardi calligraphed Quran, or the great hand-calligraphed Mamluk Qurans at Dar al Kutub in Cairo and the British Museum in London and not, as in the case of the West, of a printed bible—the Gutenberg Bible.

In either case, however, control and values in the prevailing pre-industrial system (which then was not so much the determination of what is written as of what is reproduced) rested in the hands of men specially trained in religious disciplines, who obviously had a broad, and liberal attitude born of spiritual confidence, as will be obvious to anyone who has ever studied the content of late medieval libraries in the West or Islamic scribal libraries up until the 19th century. In other words in the hands of men who at the very least formally acknowledged what they took to be Truth as their fundamental guidance and pursuit rather than a printer-businessman's pursuit of profit.

I am not trying to suggest that printers then or now were or are by definition impious (on the contrary the earliest Protestant printers were ultra-zealous in their faith and the first book to be printed was Luther's bible) as no doubt much of the storefront Islamic printers are ultra-zealous, even narrow and intolerant, in contrast to Al-Azhar in its broader understanding of Islam. But that in no way negates the long term transformation, whereby the invention of moveable type took news and literature out of their respective traditional formats - the pulpit and the scribal center-and into the print shop; which meant out of the hands of the educated moral and spiritual authority of religion and into the hands of whoever and whatever the printer might be. And whatever else he might be, the printer was in business, which meant that news and literature had at least as much significance as commodities for sale as they had a vehicle for truth and salvation.

Since most people in Europe in the 15th century were by contemporary standards deeply religious—much like the Muslim world in the late 19th century—even secularizing forces operated within a religious ambiance. Initially printers continued to publish many of the same religious books the monks once so painfully coped - again a situation which has held true in the Muslim world, even to present times, given the crumbling but still apparent consensus among Muslims that the most religiously significant and scholarly literature of our various Islamic sciences were almost all written prior to the introduction of the printing press.

News or journalism is very much part of the global component of information networks (it was the ability of CNN to cover the Gulf War live in 1990 - 1991 and do it almost round the clock that first set me to writing about globalization, which at that time had a political cover called "The New World Order"). And it, perhaps more than any other form of global information, has an origin that perhaps explains why the developing core is so socially destructive—a core, I would suggest, that is inherently anti-social, particularly from an Islamic perspective. I allude here to the contemporary principle that the public has the unqualified or unconditional right to know, which easily translates into the invasion of privacy, an appeal to idle curiosity, an appeal to a sovereign public opinion, however unqualified, and the circulation of discomforting news that exposes the vices of the Muslim rather than covering them up, as we are advised to do by the Prophet (s.a.w.). In other words the professionalization of gossip.

The prophet was asked, 'Which of the Muslims is better?" He said, "The one from whose tongue and hand the Muslims are safe." Al-Nawawi, the great commentator on Sahih Muslim, said this means the one who refrains from hurting the Muslims in speech or deed and restrains from scorning them. There are of course exceptions to all of these prohibitions but the exceptions concern military and security affairs and specific requirements of administering, justice, not the needs of an enterprising reporter.

As I much more briefly noted in passing at a panel discussion on globalization some months back in Washington DC, Burkhardt, the great historian of the Renaissance, honored the 16th-century Venetian vagabond, blackmailer, and pornographer, Pietro Aretino (known in his time as the Scourge of Princes) as "the father of modern journalism." Aretino's publicly distributed journals containing reportage and commentary on his times were generally directed at the Pope and at monks and priests. Aretino's journals were popular precisely because they invaded privacy, although they were originally prepared as a vehicle for blackmail.

Modern journalism's seemingly contradictory professional standard of accuracy, truthfulness, and objectivity is to be found in large part in an alternative historic stream, originating, again during the Renaissance, in the newsletters reporting on commodity prices and other market conditions by the earliest Christian banking houses. Here was the utilitarian rather than principled source of what constitutes modern journalistic objectivity—that it be paid to "get it right." Now I am grateful for whatever accuracy and objectivity is to be found in media and I try to instill those values in my students but I would be naive not to know how spiritually shallow are the sources of even these positive values in the global media.

As for global media's transmission of largely American television entertainment, the degree of vulgarity and incivility and the undermining of the most basic assumptions of good manners are appalling. Television is far more invasive than print and Internet still more invasive. They penetrate the home in a way that print media never could do.

And given their electronic nature—the media as message—in which there is no true image or even shadow of a true image, but rather virtual reality, be it on the Internet or the electronic TV camera, there is no way the silent but undeniable presence of spiritual grace, or baraka, as we would say in Arabic, can be transmitted or even accounted for. Imam Al Ghazali wrote that "Religion is belief in the unseen." But television can only acknowledge the existence of the visible, which means that, from the strictly technological perspective of television, God, the Angels, Heaven, and Hell, and above all spiritual grace—baraka—which is a vehicle by which the Divine makes itself most accessible in this world, are all invisible and thus metaphorically do not "exist."

As for the visible, the more possessed of physical movement and visible emotions it is, the more easily it can be captured by an electronic camera and recreated as a recognizable virtual image. Therefore, technologically-speaking, the better the TV. That's why "sex and violence," above and beyond their obvious emotional content and from a purely technological point of view, make such good TV.

All of this suggests that global media is shaping world consciousness into a consciousness devoid of the sacred or even a sense of the sacred-a world with diminishing spiritual grace, which is the result of a global civilization sliding towards death. 

About Abdallah Schleifer

S. Abdallah Schleifer is editor-at-large of  Arab Media & Society. He is the former director of the Adham Center and now professor emeritus in journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Prior to joining the AUC faculty, Schleifer served as NBC News Cairo Bureau Chief and Middle East producer/reporter based in Beirut, and has covered the Middle East for American and Arab media for over 20 years. Schleifer is honorary and former chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Cairo.

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