BEIRUT — "Lebanon isn't a country so much as it's a place, full of people," a Lebanese friend told me recently.
In your average country, the thinking went, citizens share a sense of national identity -- not to mention a basic sense of common interests and purpose. The Lebanese on the other hand, my friend meant, seem thrown together at random: Their social and political views run the gamut, from sexually liberated supporters of liberal democracy to teetotaling partisans of Islamic theocracy.
Lebanon likes to celebrate its diversity. And it's true: It boasts the Middle East's largest Christian population, one of the largest proportions of Shiite Muslims in the Arab world, and a Sunni middle class that often appears more concerned with commerce than about Islam and jihad. All these disparate parts, however, don't add up to a nation: Lebanese often spend their lives within a few blocks of each other and often remain virtual strangers clustered into neighborhoods or enclaves, and the country remains violently divided on the political issues of the day -- most recently, the bloody 22-month civil war in neighboring Syria.
As a result of Lebanon's sometimes comical, often tragic political scene, locals and foreigners alike often overlook that the country boasts perhaps the freest media environment in the Middle East. Like its famed religious eclecticism, however, media diversity does not translate into a melting pot -- rather it just provides each side a foxhole from which to launch potshots at its enemies. The result is channels that reinforce all their viewers' prejudices and biases in a manner that can make Fox News look pretty close to its comical slogan of "fair and balanced."
While it's not entirely true that you can judge a person's background by what he or she watches on television, in Lebanon a pattern does appear to exist. Right-wing Christians have MTV and LBC, owned by businessmen with close ties to the Lebanese Christian Phalangist movement. Lebanon's Shiite Muslims have Al-Manar, Hezbollah's television station, and its more secular, trashier cousin, NBN. Meanwhile, Sunni Muslims have the Saudi-centric Future TV, a media appendage of a major political party owned by the Hariri dynasty.
The least bleak perspective can often come from New TV, a station that began as an independent voice in 2001, but one that leans toward a secular audience generally not fond of Israel. It's usually the best source of journalism with the fewest number of forehead-thumping moments of absolute propaganda. And in my neighborhood, the Christian bourgeoisie looks to French satellite channels to remind it of the myth of its "Phoenician" roots and help equip them to make the often ridiculously racist argument that they are indeed not Arabs.
There are some moments of popular unity: Lebanon used the earlier part of the 2000s to pioneer reality-television programming in the Arab world. And during the month of Ramadan, which can feel like the old-fashioned "sweeps week" on American networks, miniseries draw strong attention from across the political spectrum, as do old Egyptian movies and trashy music videos of local stars. Hyperaware of the increased audience share throughout the Arab world, the plotlines often reflect the attitudes of the ownership but with a strong populist tendency toward Israelis as villains.
But beyond this, there's little mixing of ideas. If you support the rebellion in Syria or don't ache for the destruction of Israel, you're unlikely to watch Al-Manar for very long. For the most part, pro-Syrian regime partisans don't sit down in front of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which have played a central role in cheerleading for the rebels. And Hezbollah members don't really watch a lot of music videos and ribald soap operas -- at least, in front of me.