Egyptian State TV and the Challenge Posed by Reality

February 3, 2011
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Watching Egyptian state television is like getting lost in a Philip K. Dick novel in which the protagonist is psychotic, drug-addled, and unclear about his identity; in which alternate universes clash and leave the reader under a pile of conflicting images trying to sort out truth from fiction. In A Scanner Darkly (1977) the protagonist is ordered to perform surveillance on himself and gradually begins to forget what’s real and what’s not.

Trying to watch itself, Egyptian state TV has lost its collective mind. They have slid into a self-comforting psychosis. They don’t reject reality as much as they simply create a whole new one. It’s painful to see the announcers, dressed in their clean suits or dresses, perfectly made up as if it were just another day at the office and yet with a subtle kind of fear in their eyes, scramble about reading the latest pronouncements from the government. As they castigate the demonstrators, treat them, using the very words of the government, like children, as they describe the paralyzing crisis overtaking the country there is one thing they never, ever do: say why this is all taking place.

Although on every other media outlet on the planet the message is loud and clear — “Mubarak Must Go!” — the words have never been mentioned on state television. Never has a protest sign been allowed to freeze on the screen calling for the president to step down. While the world shows the millions of demonstrators throughout Egypt, state TV cameras frame the calming images of the river Nile, flowing from south to north as it has always done. An observer untrained in critical thinking faculties — and there are millions of these in Egypt as the result of a deliberate weakening of the national education system — would think that a group of radical criminals had suddenly descended on the mother land with a solitary purpose: destroy everything. I think of the black-dressed nihilists smashing the Dude’s stuff in The Big Lebowski (1998) as they snicker, “we believe in nothing!”

Egyptian state television is psychotic. Is it possible that because they say a tree is a house plant or a pebble is a mountain that this becomes true? Do they believe their own nonsense? Will they wake up tomorrow or next week and blurt out to themselves, “sorry, sorry, sorry. I lied, I’m shameless. I could have quit”?

Earlier today a group of what can only be described as pro-government thugs posing as counter-demonstrators came riding into Tahrir square on horses and camels to smash the faces and crumple the bodies of pro-change demonstrators. I found myself watching those images and thinking about Lawrence of Arabia. Specifically the scene where the heroes go rolling into Aqaba on their camels to throw off the oppressive Turks with all of their industrial military might. But when some of these thugs were torn off of their horses and camels, they were found to be in possession of police ID badges. Not heroes at all, but dastardly villains. (In fact Omar Sharif, the doe-eyed star of Lawerence, came out in support of the demonstrators, but he’s too old for a camel counter-charge now.)

Do these villains really, really believe the alternate reality of Egyptian state television? Does saying something over and over in the face of material reality make it true either to yourself or to those who are listening to you? As I watch Al Jazeera replay the images of charging camels I begin to doubt all truth. Maybe this is a teaching moment; maybe I can ask both myself and my students to reflect on the ways in which American television might be forcibly birthing its own reality through constant repetition.

I am tempted to think, as I watch Egyptian state television, that I’m watching the end of a regime of representation just as surely as I’m watching the end of a political regime. That in their last dying kicks, isn’t it symptomatic of the end that state broadcasting is repeating the same kinds of lies for which it was famous in the 1973, 1967, 1956, and 1948 wars? Surely these dinosaurs are on their way out and there is no room at all in the modern world for such an utter disregard for reality.

But then I remember the Bush administration and how, despite coming from the most consciously modern nation on the globe, they also made up their own reality.


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