We all have that feeling. Coming across a piece of writing that so clearly articulates a deeply-held idea that resonates.
“I wish I’d written that.”
The sweetness of excitement and discovery tinged with the slightest sour of regret and professional jealousy.
I came across just such a moment while reading a great account of the state of play in Egypt over the last few months.
The fallacy of misplaced concreteness is a besetting sin of journalism. Where good ethnography opens up all the fascinating and frustrating contradictions of everyday life as lived by people, journalism summarizes and papers over these differences, subordinating them to the persuasive power of narrative.
There’s a place for both but having been a journalist, I prefer ethnography.
And yet, even after 15 years as an anthropologist, I still find it easier to write narrative like a journalist.
This is from Mark Allen Peterson’s remarkable blog Connected in Cairo. The post is dated 6 February 2012.
Peterson is a journo-turned-ethnographer. A well-worn path for people moving from a professional life into an academic second-life.
I love the line about the misplaced concreteness of journalism. It is the type of blinkered thinking that leads to ideological blindspots and the pack mentality of political reporting.
It is appropriate to in relation to most of the coverage I’ve seen of the Egyptian revolution.
it’s also why the story of Australian freelance Austin Mackell is important.
Austin and his colleagues were arrested a few days ago by authorities for travelling to Mahalla, a hotbed of trade union activism against the military regime in Cairo. Some trade union activists were also rounded up.
It seems like Mackell is to be released and deported from Egypt, which is a shame because not many other reporters are getting to the trade union story.
Instead the prefer the misplaced concreteness of what they understand – the parliamentary politics and machinations of the political parties. The heroes of the street – those who made the revolution of a year ago – are now relegated to walk-on parts as props, not actors on the main stage.
Mackell was in Mahalla to interview a trade union leader, but as he explained on ABC’s The World Today, he did not get a chance. Soon after arriving in the city the group was mobbed:
AUSTIN MACKELL: I was totally doing my job as a journalist. I was interviewing a labour union leader. I was only – I was with a masters student, who’s doing his on labour movements in Egypt, and my translator and the driver. And we got out to interview Mr Fayyumi, we had time to shake hands and we were immediately set upon. So there was not chance for us to give any provocation.
SIMON SANTOW: And you were accused of offering money to local youths in order for them to cause chaos?
AUSTIN MACKELL: Yeah, yes. I mean this is the standard line that the people who are protesting, that the people who are fighting for their rights in any regard are actually being paid by foreign agents. This is the line that state TV has run with on a number of occasions in similar cases, and it’s what happened with us as well.
SIMON SANTOW: And you can be absolutely unequivocal that you were there entirely just as a journalist?
AUSTIN MACKELL: Absolutely.
SIMON SANTOW: No crossing of any line?
AUSTIN MACKELL: No crossing of any line.
It seems the arrest of Mackell is part of the general crackdown on foreigners instigated my the military regime as a way of undermining protest against continuation of the Junta’s anti-democractic policies.
There are reports that the charges against Mackell and the others have been dropped, but I can’t confirm it.