Filled with repeated images and standard stereotypes, world news in the U.S. comes to us mediated by unquestioned presumptions about culture, privilege and normalcy. U. S. identity negatively defined by what it is not. Throughout history, another culture, nation or system of government has been presented to the public as the opposite of what this country stands for. The Soviet Union, Islamic nations, and various Asian countries have and continue to serve as a contrast to national ideology. Fed a steady diet of preconceptions, the media and politicians can make sweeping generalizations about a group without hesitation or apology. On 20/20, Nightline and other news shows, most stories on the Islamic countries include obligatory shots of a mosque or large crowd of people praying. These images serve to homogenize and dehumanize a group of people in the public's mind.

In a wonderful lecture for the American Association of University Women, Dr. Zayn Kassam, a religious studies professor at Pomona, showed a video of a U.S. news show to illustrate the stereotypes applied to Islamic countries. As I sat staring at the screen wondering why there were so many shots of barking dogs and what in the world a turtle crossing the road was relevant to the report, the show suddenly seemed startlingly familiar. This recycled rhetoric has been applied so many times it often goes unquestioned. It has served to justify military intervention, imperialism and domestic inequality. Once a group has been reduced to a caricature, cultural/racial/philosophical difference becomes synonymous with biological difference. Those individuals are seen as essential foreign, incapable of evolution and reform.

This can be seen in media portrayals of Asians; collapsed into one category, the differences between parts of Asia are ignored, as is the distinctions between nationality and race. According to Neil Gotanda in "Towards the Repeal of Asian Exclusion," this broad categorization makes it so "no explanation or justification necessary for the boundaries of the category, only a discussion or argument over the characteristics of the Asian race." The assigned traits of foreignness and inassimilabilty are attributed to Asians, Muslims or any group used to define what mainstream U.S. identity is not. Failure to recognize diversity within socially constructed categories, allows the assumptions and attitudes formed about groups outside the U.S. to be applied to groups within the nation.

For example, in writing in the National Review (11 May 1992), former National Security Council member Peter Rodman made sweeping and faulty generalizations such as: "the West finds itself challenged from the outside by a militant, atavistic force driven by hatred of all Western political thought, harking back to age-old grievances against Christendom" and that "much of the Islamic world is rent by social divisions, frustrated by its material inferiority to the West, bitter at Western cultural influences and driven by its resentments." Despite his lack of evidence, his assertions are given credibility because they coincide with existing misrepresentations. He can ignore that most of the surviving classical Greek philosophy was preserved and translated by Muslim scholars, who also were pioneers in logic and astronomy, established medicine as a science and invented algebra. However, these facts can be ignored and Rodman is free to assert that over one billion people from various cultures and continents feel rage and inferiority towards "the West."

By portraying a culture or race as fundamentally contradictory to U.S. culture, it allows individuals and the media to become so inflamed against that group that it is permissible to assign blame without justification. Six years ago, when the Oklahoma City bombing took place, the media and much of the U.S. public assumed it was Muslim terrorists and were shocked when Timothy McVeigh's guilt was discovered. His face was not the one that the media has conditioned the nation to fear. Similarly, the Washington Post relied on stereotypes and bad journalism when they attacked Wen Ho Lee, who as a result was fired from his job at Los Alamos and was placed in solitary confinement for nine months. Benign stereotypes do not exist. In the end, the media needs to rethink the way it portrays other cultures.

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