Authority and Orientalism in the Media

Happy New Gregorian Calendar!  I hope everyone enjoyed a season of merriment, relaxation, and, if you’re anything like me, playing videogames until your fingers hurt.  That’s what the holidays are all about, right?

Not everyone was relaxing for the last two weeks, however – the LA Times apparently spent their downtime recruiting for a new Middle East correspondent, in a job description so overflowing with cliches I’m honestly amazed it doesn’t have the word ‘Orient’ in it anywhere.  The original ad has since been revised and reposted, but thankfully Sarah Moawad preserved the original on Muftah, along with her own fantastic cover letter in response.  Go read it now – it’s definitely worth it!

I agree with Sarah’s analysis that it seems unlikely that the ad is a sign that the LA Times is overrun with Orientalists – it seems far more plausible that the ad is the result of the slow conglomeration of a lot of subconscious prejudice.  It’s also not surprising that so many of the jokes about the posting on social media focus on Aladdin, as it’s easy to imagine that at least one person in HR was humming “Arabian Nights” when they posted this.  However, I think the fact that this ad exists in the twenty-first century – and made it all the way to print and received criticism before it was changed – also signals an important, albeit depressing, reality about authority and expertise in the modern age.

In general, I’d guess that most of us today consider ourselves more savvy and more skeptical about authority than generations past; however, the reality is far more complicated.  All of us have people we treat as authorities, and often those figures receive that position of authority not due to their training or background, but by circumstance.  News media has always been one of the places this plays out – I’d guess that most of us feel more skeptical of the news than our parents or grandparents were, but we probably can all still name one or two news reporters who we tend to believe, and even quote, generally without fact-checking them first.  Whether it’s Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow, we all still have authority figures who we accept as authorities without necessarily thinking a great deal about how much of an expert they could really be.

The LA Times posting demonstrates just how far removed from experts reporters can be, however.  Even the revised version, from which almost all of the Orientalist language has been removed, does little to suggest that the postholder will be an ‘expert’ in any sense of the word.  Fluency in Arabic is still preferred, but not required, and they’ll still be expected to ‘wander back roads,’ which may be a great way to write country songs, but actually is not the best way to learn about geopolitical conflict.  It’s easy to imagine that the postholder of the position could become an expert in the Middle East from wandering the back roads and eventually picking up the language, but how long do we expect that would take?  Five years?  Ten?  In that period of time, this same person could have published hundreds of articles about the Middle East while still being, essentially, a layman.

Despite living in a society that puts more and more emphasis on higher education and training as necessary for any career, we seem to have doubled-down on the idea that ‘expertise’ can be substituted with ‘commitment’ or ‘passion.’  Indeed, this belief has always been part of the American identity – we all grew up knowing that you don’t need to be a big city lawyer or have a bunch of fancy degrees to be successful, you just have to believe in yourself, pull yourself up by bootstraps, put your mind to it, etc.  These cliches are great as motivators, but it’s terrifying to think we’re actually now believing them, and believing that anyone can do anything.  Anyone can, but there needs to be a lot of steps in between, and we need to understand that authority and expertise are the outcome of these steps, not the result of the passion to undertake them.  Without that, we’re left to hear about geopolitical change from someone who spent their days wandering the backstreets of Cairo, asking for directions in broken Arabic because we don’t have any better options.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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