Wednesday, February 2, 2011
What is Politics? What is Political? A Hybrid Open Thread on the Egypt Uprising
Let's play this as a hybrid open thread of sorts...
The pundit classes are chattering away on the street-level events in Egypt. I choose to demure. For now, I am just sitting back and enjoying the ride so to speak as Mubarak and 30 plus years of U.S. policy get's shaken, rattled, and rolled. My thoughts on the uprising in Egypt are also more meta-level than policy oriented. I have been increasingly struck by the question of "who watches the watchers?" and how the American media is 1) framing the event and 2) how "experts" of questionable expertise are trotted out for their obligatory 30 seconds of analysis where they offer unqualified observations in the service of very narrow policy agendas.
On an existential level the crisis in Egypt is about politics. This is an observation to which a superficial reader would reply, "and so what?" But, the idea of "politics" and what constitutes "the political" is laden with assumptions (of culture, time period, and social location). By implication, these assumptions go uninterrogated and unreflected upon. Moreover, I would bet dollars to donuts that most Americans (and people elsewhere) could give you examples of things that are political, but would struggle with providing an actual definition of politics.
This is an important exercise if we are going to offer a critique of how the American media is covering the crisis in Egypt. For example, if one watches Fox News there is an implicit narrative that the protests in Egypt are an example of "abnormal politics." If one watches Al-Jazeera the frame is one where the protests are an ideal example of politics as action--regular people are fighting for their share of power against an oppressive State.
For folks in political science this is a basic debate--and one that can become quite heated. In the discipline there does exist a broad agreement on what constitutes politics. However, it is on the margins, in interdisciplinary spaces, and where questions of power, culture, and identity are at the forefront where the "politics" in political science can become very contentious.
A question then: Of this less than exhaustive list, which definition applies most directly to the events in Egypt?
Politics is about how societies negotiate the distribution of power, resources, and access to private and public goods;
Politics is essentially the study of power and authority;
Politics is about who gets what, when, how, and why;
Politics is the study of the large N: institutions, public opinion, mass behavior, and international relations.
Or is the Egyptian uprising an example of some other type of politics (or even a phenomenon entirely apart from Western notions of the idea)?
The floor is yours.