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A Meme Is Born

Three articles in three major publications- yes, TNR is still a major publication, at least in my heart, and people do in fact read the Huffington Post. And then, of course, the New York Times article, this one dealing with the problems in shutting down Guantanamo. Greg talked some about it yesterday, but I’m going to try to take a slightly different tack here. The article had some problems, you might be surprised to hear us say, probably the most egregious being the shocking omission of a Greg Johnsen quote.

But there were others. I won’t even count the obligatory “homeland of Osama bin Laden’s father” as a mistake, because I believe to be in the journalist’s guild you have to pledge to include that in any Yemen story. Most everyone reading this blog knows why that is an infuriating trope- it is lazy, it has that feel of arching an eyebrow to simulate a devastating point when you don’t have anything to say, and adds exactly nothing to the conversation. Yemen has enough problems and there are enough reasons to be worried about it- patrilineage of one dangerous guy hobbled up in the Af-Pak wilds is pretty low on the list. I would be willing to bet quite a bit that no one in Yemen joined a militant group based on that sales pitch.

Then there is this: “The Bush administration also failed to reach a deal with President Saleh, but the Obama administration had hoped to get increased cooperation from Yemen, which critics say has a history of coddling Islamic extremists and releasing convicted terrorists.”

See, I don’t get this, and it irritates me. The fairness code in journalism can be taken to an extreme- every article about global warming has to include a quote from some mouth-breather harping on how “it snowed here last week- where’s the damn warming?” Yes, critics do say that, with cause- but there is also a reason for why Yemen does what it does, something we harp on again and again on this blog- the history and internal dynamics of Yemen’s politics frequently force it to make deals just to get to the next day. This isn’t a justification, per se, but it is an explanation (granted, a shallow one, but this isn’t going to be a 20,000 word post). The article fails to even hint at that.

Instead, what it does is make Salih look like Omar al-Bashir, a terrorist-loving fanatic, and plays into deep Novakian paranoia. This is: not helpful. It is frustrating that as Yemen comes more and more into play, as they say, and the idea that it is an important country and whose future will affect ours, that there is a hardening of misleading or even wrongheaded memes. Greg talked below about how a few weeks, or even a few years, of studying Yemen won’t allow you to understand it. I don’t think we all have the luxury of years to learn about Yemen- most of the country is playing catch-up, starting from scratch. I’d like to think we might be leaving the era of simple formulations and easy answers, but it seems a little doubtful the media is going to play along. One naively hopes that these memes don’t affect policy, but they do. I worry, a lot, that the hardening of the “coddling terrorist” and “ancestral homeland” will shape the way we deal with Yemen. Am I being too paranoid? Thoughts?


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