Shadow puppetry in the global media age

Shadow puppetry in the global media age

Back in 1910, British author Norman Angell published a runway bestseller, “The Great Illusion.” His thesis was that a European arms race could never lead to war. This was, Angell argued, because the inevitable disruption of credit in the international trading system would dissuade governments from actual resort to arms.

No need to mention just how this narrative of an unfolding global era of peace was so completely wrong. 

I make this comparison of prevailing public opinion and ultimate reality only to suggest a moment’s reflection on the still-emerging narrative that the age of new media and global interconnectedness will deliver us from evil. Dictators cannot outrun the empowering technologies of Facebook and Twitter, WikiLeaks and its imitators will bring the mighty to heel, politicians’ lies and manipulation will be unveiled by instant worldwide communication.

Perhaps it is the opposite. From the many current examples from which one might pick, I’ll make my case with the growing standoff between Iran and the United States that has drawn two navies face to face at the chokepoint of world energy supplies, the Strait of Hormuz.

The danger that a careless move by either side could quickly escalate to a cataclysm engulfing us in a regional war is not far-fetched. As oil prices skyrocket, the tipping of the world economy into chaos would not be far behind.

So one more historical comparison. What would have been the outcome of the U.S.-Soviet standoff known as the “Cuban Missile Crisis” of 1962 if President John F. Kennedy had been operating in today’s media and “new media” environment? The crisis ended when, out of public view, Kennedy and U.N. Secretary General U Thant cut a secret deal with the Soviets’ Nikita Khrushchev. The resolution of the crisis turned on American agreement to dismantle the Jupiter missiles deployed a year earlier here in Turkey.

That wouldn’t happen today, when leadership is really the navigation of a ceaseless and highly emotional electronic referendum on every move and nuance. Leaders have become like gladiators in a 21st-century version of the Roman Coliseum: their (and our) fates determined by the thumbs up or thumbs from a drunken crowd of revelers.

I have no doubt that Barack Obama is as aware as virtually all independent experts are that the mid-November report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s alleged nuclear program produced absolutely nothing new. The program stands just where it’s been since 2003 and Iran is not on the cusp of a nuclear bomb.

But he is exiting the debacle of Iraq while Iran – as long predicted – fills the power vacuum left by U.S. bungling. A string of lobbies and a deafening chorus from Republican presidential hopefuls (Ron Paul being the admirable exception) accuse Obama of being a sort of Muslim-run Quisling, stirring passions on TV talk shows and web blogs. Iran must respond in kind amid this media-enabled geopolitical hyperventilation.

So on Dec. 31, Obama signed a new sanction law to force penury on Iran. The Iranians responded by test-firing a missile the next day. There is no puppet master in this game of Karagöz shadow puppetry. The puppet master is the passion-driven audience itself.