The Massacre: Who will answer?

16 Apr

On March 11th 2012, one of the most horrific war crimes took place in the history of America’s ten year campaign in Afghanistan. Among the seventeen that died were 9 children. Their deaths shook Kandahar for days. It was not only a period of deep mourning, but a one of reflection. What is America’s role in this war? What purpose do we have with our continued presence in Afghanistan? Are we really solving anything by staying in a country in which we become more and more despised every day?

The murders were perpetrated by Seargent Robert Bales – a man who was a highly decorated Sergeant in the U.S. Army. It is an understatement to say the whole incident was curious. It is claimed that the sergeant was under the influence of alcohol and was in deep stress and mental anguish due to his financial difficulties at home, but this still doesn’t nearly absolve the accused. The army spokesman’s explanation is ridiculous. There are many in this country that have the same problems, or even worse, but don’t go on a killing spree. The sad thing about it is that the accused doesn’t even seem to have the slightest feeling of remorse; he just hired a lawyer immediately after his crimes, and was unavailable for comment. Due to the lack of reaction, one gets the feeling that Robert Bales may suffer from the Savage War trope. His seeming disregard for Afghan lives may come out of Semmerling’s idea that the Afghans are savages (based on blood or culture) who are incapable and opposed to progress and civilization, which means that in order for progress and civilization to exist, the savages must be eliminated

Although, one may feel that I am jumping the gun to accuse Bales, and make him a scapegoat. I am not; it’s just that he handed himself over to authorities immediately, so he’s clearly the main suspect for now. The U.S. Department of Defense confirms this, and doesn’t claim otherwise. Although compensation was given, of US $860,000, to provide financial aid to the family, compensation through a lawsuit seems unlikely, as there is seemingly a lack of evidence to convict Robert Bales. Anyhow, a compensation of any nature cannot replace the loss of loved ones, especially those as young two years old. The fallout of this had been that the Taliban has called off peace talks, which admittedly were not going anywhere. But at least there was hope. As it stands, the blood is on Bales’ hands; with the meltdown of peace talks and an angered Taliban, the blood of not only more Afghan civilians, but also American troops could be as well as America’s presence in Afghanistan endures into the unforeseeable future.

Additional Citations:

Lecture slides from Evelyn Alsultany, Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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On the Brink of War: Does Iran Pose a Legitimate Threat to the US and Israel?

16 Apr

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The possibility of war with Iran has become a hot-button topic in the recent GOP debates. During the Iowa Republican Presidential Debates, Senator Rick Santorum firmly stated, “Iran is a country that must be confronted… Iran will not get a nuclear weapon because the world as we know it… will be no more.”[1] Many of the other Republican candidates followed suit. Before dropping out of the race, Michele Bachmann shared the same sentiment, stating, “Iran will use a nuclear weapon to wipe our ally Israel off the face of the map.”[2] Bachmann continued, providing her own skewed interpretation of the Iranian constitution, “The Iranian constitution states unequivocally that their mission is to extend jihad across the world and to eventually set up a worldwide caliphate. We would be fools to ignore their purpose.” [2] The only outlier in the Republican Party is Dr. Ron Paul. In terms of the accusations posed against Iran, Paul states, “They’re building up the war propaganda just like Iraq!”[2]

Many Republicans like Bachmann and Santorum claim they know the causal factors of terrorism; terrorists are motivated by their deep seeded hatred towards America- for its democracy and freedom. However, Dr. Paul provides a counter-hedgemonic explanation for terrorism. Paul states, “Yes…they’re some radicals out there… but they don’t kill us because we’re free and prosperous. Do they go to Switzerland or Sweden? I mean, that’s absurd!” Dr. Paul believes that the causal factors for terrorism are much deeper and complex; Paul identifies “blowback” (a CIA term referring to foreign retribution for interventionist foreign policy) as the underlying reason for terrorism. Paul states, “They come here and they want to do us harm because we’re bombing them!”[2]

Many of Paul’s contemporaries criticize his foreign policy for being too soft and lenient. However, on the topic of Iran, Paul is not alone. Many counter-hegemonic, alternative media sites have denied the accusations against Iran- claiming it to be war propaganda. Organizations like The Young Turks, Russia Today, Al Jazeera, and the Daily Show with John Stewart have criticized the Republican candidates for speaking recklessly about Iran. Counter-hegemonic media simply refers to a form of discourse that challenges/resists the dominant ideology. Unlike mainstream organizations like Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, these counter-hegemonic news organizations provide an alternative point of view.

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Why do we have to Bomb so many countries?” – Ron Paul Iowa Republican Debates

So the question is, does Iran pose a threat to the prosperity of American? Granted, this is discussion is greater in scope than a blog entry. The political, economic, historical, and social aspects of the situation can be discussed for hours on end. But whatever opinion we form about Iran, it is important for us to understand the relationship between power, truth, and representation. According to Foucault, what is often regarded as “knowledge” and “truth” is simply the manifestation of power. Foucault believes every society has its own regimes of truth; “regimes/politics of truth” refers to types of discourses which allow an idea to be accepted and function as “truth”. Truth and knowledge are generated by a few important institutions (media, government, army, education, etc.) Because of this, we must accept that what we believe to be true about Iran may actually only represent the manifestation of power. Politicians like Santorum and Bachmann claim to have knowledge about Iran; however, this self-proclaimed “knowledge” may be the result of a power struggle- to control the Middle East for its natural resources.

It’s important to realize that the media functions as an ISA (Ideological State Apparatus). Stations like Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN are all ISAs. According to Althusser, an ISA is an institution which relies on ideology to exert its power & notions of the truth onto the masses. Eventually, the ISA is able exert its influence over the subject via interpolation. Interpolation refers to the process of an individual eventually embodying the ideology of the ISA into their own belief system. Eventually, manufactured “truth” is regarded as common sense.

The goal of this blog entry is to understand Iran through a counter-hegemonic lens. Since the mainstream media functions as an ISA, it is important to recognize other alternative news sources- for the sake of keeping an open mind and not accepting the dominant ideology (which may not always be “true”, but just the manifestation of power). The rest of this blog entry will focus on an alternative understanding of Iran.

First, the Young Turks have covered the propaganda against Iran in great detail. The Young Turks is an alternative media source, having 344,000 subscribers on YouTube (85th most subscribed channel on YouTube). Cenk Ugary, the host of the show, starts his argument by first citing Israeli Mossad chiefs. Mossad chiefs are in charge of Israel’s national intelligence. According to Uygar, many Mossad chiefs think a war with Iran is not necessary. Uygar states, “Three former and current Israeli Mossad head chiefs think war with Iran is a bad idea. Current Mossad chief Tamir Pardo doesn’t believe Iran to be an existential threat”[3]. Uygar also refers to four-star American general Michael Hayden, Director of National Intelligence under the Bush Administration. Uygar quotes General Hayden, “A preemptive attack will guarantee that which we are trying to prevent- an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon.”[3] Uygar cites many other Israeli and American generals who disapprove of a war with Iran. However, none of these concerns are vocalized in the mainstream media. Furthermore, these concerns are never addressed by politicians like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in Republican debates. If American and Israeli Intelligence officials do not see Iran as a legitimate threat, why is the war propaganda so evident in the news and GOP debates? According to Uygar, the war propaganda yields an excuse for Middle East intervention, and subsequent access to their natural resources. 

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Cenk Uygar of the Young Turks, quoting Former Mossad Dan Halutz. “It is not in the power of Iran to destroy the state of Israel”

Despite multiple Intelligence officers criticizing the war propaganda, the media persists in its depiction of Iran- rendering it as an irrational actor, on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon. As we’ve discussed before, the media is an ISA which serves power. Famous news anchors like Diane Sawyer and Matt Lauer have explicitly reported that Iran is willing to use a nuclear weapon on the United States. One ABC News reporter claims, “There’s a good chance that this Persian Gulf region could explode in a matter of months”[4]. However, not only are the accusations exaggerated, but also very much ambiguous. There’s a good CHANCE that the region could explode in a matter of MONTHS? The time frame is ambiguous and so is the likelihood of an attack. And still, the mainstream media contends that Iran will develop a weapon and cannot be trusted with one.

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Multiple mainstream newscasters building the war propaganda

Unlike the American media, the BBC has provided a counter-hegemonic view of the situation in Iran. In a recent report, the BBC reported on which nations have nuclear weapons. In terms of nuclear stockpiles, Russia has 10,000 warheads and America has 8,500. China has 240 nuclear warheads and North Korea has 10. Pakistan has around 100 [5]. China and North Korea are often portrayed in the media as enemies of the United States. These countries already possess nuclear warheads. Nevertheless, the media hardly mentions this. Currently, there is no war propaganda being directed at China or North Korea. Instead, the focus is being turned to Iran. Why Iran? Once again, the WMD argument doesn’t hold any logic in this context. If America is worried about other nations developing a nuclear weapon, why not invade Russia, China, or North Korea? The most obvious explanation is that North Korea and China do not have oil- or any other critical resources for that matter. Once again, there seem to be ulterior motives at work. Why is the media deflecting its attention to Iran? It is interesting to note that there are no WMDs in any Middle Eastern country- except for Israel (which has 80 warheads). Many believe that Iran cannot be trusted with a weapon. However, Israel has had a reputation of bombing Iraq (Operation Opera, 1982) and other Middle Eastern countries. 

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Nuclear stock piles in the world.

Comedian John Stewart has also commented on the accusations against Iran. Stewart was a guest on The O’reilly Factor, in which he stated, “Iran, like most countries, has a self-preservationist streak. There is no theory of mutual destruction with Iran. Let’s say they get one off. It would be tragic.” According to Stewart, Iran is a rational actor. If Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon, it would not be in Iran’s best interests to attack Israel or the United States. Iran will not attack, for the sake of self-preservation. Stewart also addresses the current nuclear stockpiles in the world. Stewarts asks Bill, “Doesn’t Pakistan have nuclear weapons? Couldn’t they give it to somebody? Doesn’t Russia have nuclear weapons? Couldn’t they give it to somebody? The problem isn’t the country that gets them… the problem seems to be the weapon.” Much like the BBC report, Stewart realizes that there are other countries with nuclear warheads- other countries that cannot be trusted. For this reason and more, Iran should not be a priority right now. Stewart also criticizes Fox News for the war propaganda. Stewart tells Bill, “Thank you guys for ratcheting up the fear on this.”

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Recently, whistle-blower cite Wikileaks has released sensitive documents incriminating the US and Saudi Arabia. In the released documents, the Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, encouraged general Petraeus to “cut off the head of the snake [Iran]”[7]. The Wikileaks articles suggest that both the US, UAE, and Saudi Arabia have special interests in Iran. On the Young Turks program, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole commented on this stating, “In the case of the UAE, the crown prince said a surgical strike won’t do it, we need ground troops.”[7] Cole comments on how many Arab nations feel threatened by Iran and conspire for its oil.

This discussion is endless; there exists a wide array of different viewpoints, motives, and articles of evidence. No matter what we conclude about Iran, it is important for us to always do our homework. Before allowing the ISA to interpolate us with its message, it is important for us to understand how the ISA (the media) serve power. Ultimately, the “truth” surrounding Iran may only represent a global power struggle for resources.

External Links:

1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3JkUm0zLww (Santorum on Iran)

2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sW9-RRRD14I (Bachman and Paul on Iran)

3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCCkA2K5vqk (Cenk Yugar on Iran)

4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzaxRm9CkPE (ABC REPORT)

5: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-17511816 (BBC Nuclear stockpile)

6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wZADFK5qUA (Jon Stewart on Iran)

7: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnC-bnOMBVw (WikiLeaks)

Appropriation needs appreciation

16 Apr

One would be hard pressed to argue that Arab influence on American culture is fully appreciated.  Hell, appreciated?  How about realized?  An Arab comedian was quick to point out the existence of a Black History month, Latino heritage month, Irish American heritage month, etc. (granted, these ethnicities have been present in America for a longer period of time, but still..) The dominant idea about the split, and difference, between Arab nations and Western nations is that Western nations broke off with scientific exploration, conquered the rest of the unknown world, and now sit atop a pedestal that clearly and definitively exists.  This notion, of course, is entirely false.

A beautiful thing about American culture is its unprecedented diversity of thought, norms, ethnicity, and culture.  This diversity exists not because of some linear trajectory of Western invention and ingenuity, but is rather due to the timely appropriation of inventions, tools, ideas, and information from co-evolving cultures around the world.  bell hooks, an American author and social activist, has written extensively on the concept of “eating the other“.  Eating the other refers to the cultural commodification and consumption of non-white culture and is a continuation of the power/dominance hierarchy, with subtler mechanisms.  I like to think of this concept as appropriation without appreciation.

In her article Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance, bell hooks analyzes the cultural commodification of non-whites as a continuation of the power/dominance hierarchy and how this behavior is rampant in American culture.  She states: “Cultural appropriation of the Other assuages feelings of deprivation and lack that assault the psyches of radical white youth who choose to be disloyal to western civilization… Masses of young people dissatisfied by U.S. imperialism, unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, afflicted by the post-modern malaise of alienation, no sense of grounding, no redemptive identity, can be manipulated by cultural strategies that offer Otherness as appeasement, particularly through commodification.”

What I wonder is where is the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?  How can one enjoy/appreciate a different culture without participating in its commodification?  hooks’ analysis seems to be in search of recognition and reconciliation without consumption, which is valid, but provides a formidable challenge.  What could, say, a western white youth do to approach such a situation?  It seems assuming a leading role in such a movement could be viewed merely as a continuation of the power/dominance hierarchy.

Regardless, the purpose of this post is to show some appreciation for cultural items (goods, inventions, ideas, art, etc.) that I consume frequently that were appropriated from the medieval Islamic world.  Here’s a quick list:

1) Coffee

2) Numbers

3) Algebra

4) Beer

5) Guitar

As a college student studying mathematics, there isn’t a single one of these items that I could presently live without.  This simple list of 5 appropriations consists of things that I haven’t gone a week, much less a day, without in a number of years.  I am thankful for the existence of these items, and appreciate the historical context and cultural context from which these inventions emerged.  I appreciate these appropriations.

Are there things that you utilize frequently that you haven’t fully appreciated?  I encourage you to do this simple exercise, post it below and let me know what you think about how to properly appreciate cultural appropriations.

 

Devin Riley

Burning the Holy Qu’ran: No Big Deal?

16 Apr

Burning the Holy Qu’ran: No big deal

The mass-burning of the Qu’ran and other Islamic texts on February 22nd this year at the Bagram Air Base wasn’t the first instance in which the holy book of Islam was incinerated by American authorities. It’s happened before at Guantanamo bay, and it is likely to happen again. The presence of American forces in Afghanistan should be reassuring for the average Afghan civilian but, over the last ten years, it has been anything but. But more about the safety of the Afghan people in a later post.  We find that the sentiments of the Afghani people are rarely being considered when an action such as this is carried out. American troops are in Afghanistan to try and win hearts, and yet, the Afghanis are probably feeling more alienated since the 22nd.

It seems like the American government and military leadership maintain the same principle that has been a cornerstone of U.S. involvement in the Middle East over the last twenty-one years; Samuel Huntington’s theory of Clash of Civilizations. This is the theory that that there is an inherent difference between “Islam” and the “West”. It proposes that Islam is totalitarian and intolerant by its very nature; that Islamism has replaced communism since the Cold War as the greatest threat facing the West and only the use of military force will eradicate this threat. It also purports that global conflict used to be ideological (e.g. The Cold War), but is becoming increasingly cultural. There are deep irreconcilable cultural differences that will lead to conflict in the new millennium.

The American Benevolent Supremacy, is unable to work its magic in Afghanistan and is failing miserably.  America neither rules by principles of generosity and kindness, nor promises to lead Afghanistan into democracy as the Karzai regime runs into a period of further turbulence and instability; this is largely due to the government’s “failure to bring to the Taliban to the discussion table”.  Furthermore, Afghanistan used to be under the control of the former U.S.S.R. in the mid-80’s, which was a time of subjugation,  but the American involvement in the country hasn’t translated to delivering freedom from oppression.

Since the Qu’ran burning, one would think the Afghans would be up in arms, and a nationwide agitation would be brewing. Aside from protests in Kabul in the north, which is Tajik-dominated, the rest of the county has been fairly quiet in spite of the sensitive nature of the Qu’ran burning, as highlighted in “Unsettlement in Kabul”. In fact, the protests in Kabul have less to do with the Qu’ran burning and more to do with the Tajiks, “the second largest ethnic group”, having a problem with U.S. army trying to have a dialogue with the Taliban, which is Pashtun-dominated. The protests cause is basically the long standing enmity between Tajiks and Pashtuns.

One can then deduce that crimes against Islam are something that the Afghan layman have become used to. Taliban extremists use violence and massacre to protest it, but despite the attention they receive in the U.S. media, they are simply a minority. The “Taliban way” is not a solution, and shouldn’t become one for other Afghans, especially for other Pashtuns. America clearly has a Hegemony over the Afghans. This is because the U.S. army presence is a dominant feature of life in the majority of Afghanistan; the presence of the army in villages, in trading cities, and in the capital ensures that the American presence is taken for granted, and that the Afghan culture is subdued. The U.S. army can burn a Qu’ran and Afghans do anything about it. America’s leaders and army have chosen to see Afghanistan as a “playground for terrorists in the War on Terror” rather than a nation with its own complex culture and history. Gramsci’s notion of Hegemony has been achieved through the production of “common sense” that America’s presence and actions are a reality that the Afghans feel they can do very little about, so it is taken for granted. While Hegemony works through force, such as the action of burning the Qur’an, “it’s effectiveness depends on subordinated peoples accepting the dominant ideology as “normal reality of common sense”” (Lull, 63). The Afghans have learned to live with the threat of violence, whether it is to themselves or to their religion. Over a period of ten years, with the constant attacks, collateral damage, and killing of innocent civilians, the “U.S have continually won and secured Hegemony over time” (Lull, 64).

The unfortunate situation is that the American occupation of Afghanistan doesn’t seem like it will come to an end any time soon.  The Karzai government wants America and NATO to remain in Afghanistan, for fear of an overthrow by the Taliban. This is clear instance of where this U.S.-backed government has become so molly-coddled and infantalized that it cannot survive without big brother to support; the lack of confidence that the government has suggests that U.S. presence will not end in 2014. The American government for knows that this ten year war is going nowhere; the Taliban are not willing to recognize the existence of the Karzai government, let alone sit at a table and talk peace . America does not want another Vietnam, whereby the Vietnam Syndrome recurs after the war. The U.S. cannot be seen globally as “failing in nerve” or “masculinity”. After having invested over $400 billion and 1,848 American lives – cannot afford Afghanistan to erupt into civil war. The damage failure in Afghanistan could, both in terms of image and sunk costs, be irreparable.

Additional Citations:

Lecture slides from Evelyn Alsultany, Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Completing the binary?

16 Apr

Binary arguments are ubiquitous in and among modern media outlets, and undoubtedly they create simplified views of complex, adaptive, and interrelated issues.  This is a problem.

A crucial issue is that the way people internally model the social world isn’t an isolated, non-interactive process.  Not only are the issues to be understood complex and adaptive, the agents involved in deciphering such issues are complex and adaptive.  Thus, these internalizations are not only models that attempt to explain how the world works, they create meaning in the world they are attempting to explain through their existence, application, and the construction of ideological discourse (a formalized way of thinking that can be manifested through language; a social boundary defining what can be said about a specific topic or possible truth)and thus self-fulfill their own incorrectness further deepening the illusion that is desired to be maintained.

However, the reality of the situation is that these arguments exist, and they shape the way that millions of people view the world in which they live, and therefore the way the world moves.  Now, inherently there is nothing wrong with a binary argument in and of itself.  In fact, this type of binary opposition can be thought of as an explicit evolutionary strategy for survival (conditional logic, etc.).  But when it is unbalanced, incomplete if you will, the categorization doesn’t allow for more complex arguments, rules, and schemata to be developed over the binary.  These unbalanced binaries are what we call binary oppositions.  More formally, binary oppositions are a cultural logic that constructs meaning through categories that are opposite and hierarchical (think culture vs. nature, mind vs. nature, male vs. female, East vs. West, etc.).  These binary oppositions lead to the creation of the ‘other’, the binary opposite of the normative category.  In effect, one sided arguments are perpetuated, and those with an oppositional model of the world are incapable of understanding conflicts, relationships, and issues in the world today.  From economic globalization, to cultural integration (and consumption), interactions in the world today are to complex, and indeed too sensitive, to be modeled in an oppositional fashion.What I claim in this post is that binary oppositions are what we can call incomplete binary arguments, and the best strategy to eradication of unbalanced, incomplete arguments is the completion of the opposition, rather than fighting to eliminate the other side.

Discussion on the best methods to eliminate binary arguments as the dominant ideological models is an important topic in resolving racial, political, economic and religious conflict today.   In Contesting a racialized regime of representation (an excerpt from Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices), Stuart Hall states that “the problem with the positive/negative strategy is that adding positive images to the largely negative repertoire of the dominant regime of representation increases the diversity of ways in which ‘being black’ is represented, but does not necessarily displace the negative.  Since the binaries remain in place, meaning continues to be framed by them” (p. 274).  It does seem, however, that this type of counter-representation is the most frequent, and, within many forms of media, is the most feasible.  Naturally, if given the choice, as the ultimate purveyor of media, one would chose to eliminate negative stereotypes, but lacking total control, and being one producer in a field of many, it seems the best course of action would to be to create positive images (given that they are true) and let them work against negative images.  The real battle is in altering the manner in which people perceive images (or other forms of media), which is not entirely based on the content of the image (media) itself as we know.  Is this strategy still formalized from the binary argument?  Or, is it that the binary structure can simply be layed over any sort of argument?  Or, given that it is formalized from the binary argument, can the completion of the binary allow the representations in question supersede or transcend its simplified argument?

While Hall seems to be skeptical as to the effectiveness of this strategy, I believe completing unbalanced binary arguments is the most feasible manner in which negative stereotypes, tropes, and poor representations can be diluted and eventually stripped of their meaning.

According to Hall, ‘the marking of “difference” is the basis of that symbolic order which we call culture’. In this context, binary oppositions are crucial for maintaining difference which is fundamental for producing cultural meaning.  This marking of difference is articulated within clear boundaries; it does not tolerate ambiguous or unstable spaces of indeterminacy.  According to Hall:

‘Stable culture requires things to stay in their appointed place. Symbolic boundaries keep the categories ‘pure’, giving cultures their unique meaning and identity. What unsettles culture is “matter out of place”– the breaking of our unwritten rules and codes’ (Hall).

My impression is that the nature of symbolic boundaries is formalization built from an underlying unbalanced (incomplete) binary, and the remedy to the dissolution of these boundaries is a completion of the underlying argument.  Addressing ‘difference’ and ‘difference’-making symbolic boundaries involves addressing the internal models of agents interacting with with predictive strategies in which this difference is implicit and based on pure superiority and imbalance.

Let me know what you think about fighting representation, and the effectiveness of various strategies.  Drop a comment, reply, question, criticism, or whatever.

For some extended discussion on binary oppositional representations of Arabs in Western (U.S. in particular) media, I suggest checking out this brief article by Mohammed Hirchi, a professor of Arabic at Colorado State University.

Citations

http://www.waccglobal.org/en/20072-mediating-the-middle-east/456-Media-representations-of-the-Middle-East.html

Hall, Stuart. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices.  Sage 1997.

Lecture slides from Evelyn Alsultany, Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The Dictator: Beyond the Film Reel

16 Apr

This summer you will be inundated with countless political ads, pay over $4.00 a gallon for gas, spend 10 hours swimming, watch the Olympics in London, and another Sacha Baron Cohen film, The Dictator, will be released. This will be the third in a notorious trilogy which includes: Bruno and Borat, and is expected to be a summer block buster. Though it will probably not have the frenzied fans and fandom that The Hunger Games has, it’s will probably make a killing at the box office. If you are familiar with Cohen’s previous two films, you already know what to expect and what not to expect. Though I have yet to see this film in its entirety and have only seen the trailer like the rest of you, I cannot say that The Dictator deviates too far from his style. The movie appears to show a fictional Middle Eastern dictator from the Republic of Wadiya and his odyssey in America. At some point he loses his nobel status and has to fend for himself as an average American. The trailer is only 2 minutes long, but is a strong preamble to a 2 hour picture filled with stereotypes, camels, elegance, beards, caricatures, sheiks, bad 80’s aviator sunglasses, and harems. About every stereotype you can imagine about an Arabian dictatorship is there except a link to international terrorism. O wait, that joke is made in the trailer too. Of the scenes shown in the two minute teaser, one portrays the leader parading down the streets of New York City, adorned in honorary garment, and joined by a caravan of camels. The movie seems to be as over-the-top as the fictional character for which it portrays. But the events and people parodied in the film is strikingly similar to real life.

For anyone aware of global politics and its players, the The Dictator is meant to parody the life and times of the former ruler of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi. The real life Colonel Gaddafi has been but the butt of international jokes for as long since Jimmy Carter was President. When addressing the London School of Economics about his country’s tolerance of other religions, freedom of speech, and democratic rule, the crowd openly laughed and scowled at him. The stoic Gaddafi continued on seemingly unaffected. The same thing happened in an interview with Christiane Amanpour when Gaddafi responded that, “All my people love me.” This is mirrored in the film in scene which Cohen’s character says, “ I’m for free press, fair elections, and equal right for women,” only to start laughing abruptly as he says women. While the scene depicting the Colonel riding through the streets of New York via camel seem ridiculous, they are not that far from reality. When traveling abroad in his later years, Gaddafi often brought his tent and nixed the 5 start accommodations he would receive as a diplomat. It was reported a time or two that the former Libyan leader actually brought a fleet of camels. In the case of his 2009 visit to New York, he set up his tent in the yard of a mansion owned by Donald Trump. While the film satirizes the dictator of Wadiya, it is intended to lampoon the hijinks of the real Mummar Gaddafi.

The trailer is not the only piece of media associated with The Dictator. A fictitious Republic of Wadiya website, republicofwadiya.com, was set up to promote the country. This isn’t your typical website which promotes a movie, and it is not your typical governmental website either. Viewers have four language choices; English, French, German, and Wadiyan. If you haven’t heard of Wadiyan before don’t feel bad, it is not a real language. However, it sure appears to be similar to Arabic or another Middle Eastern script. The website is flooded with all sorts of external links. North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and Zimbabwe all have links on the Wadiyan website. What’s notable about these links is that they are the official government site to the respected religion. If you click on the link to Iran, you will be directed to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s own site. Back on repulicofwadiya.com, you will also find the complete history of Wadiya. Of course all the proper nouns are fictionalized, but so are the events. One event reads, “Supreme Leader Shabazz Aladeen gave a great gift to the world when he decided to be born. He was seventh son of the glorious Wadiyan President-For-Life Omar Aladeen. His mother was an Air France stewardess who tragically died of an oxygen underdose shortly after Aladeen’s birth in 1982 – this fact means he is now 30 years old. Any photos you may have seen of Aladeen as a child in the mid-70s, including a great one of him at the premiere of Saturday Night Fever, were doctored by the corrupt Zionist Western media.”

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The website and trailer for the film The Dictator employs many of the techniques often used to depict Arabs and Muslims in American media. Often countries are fictionalized, given a false location or name, in order to subdue any offense a real nation might take to the jokes made on its behalf. In this case, the real country Libya is replaced with the Republic of Widya. The fictional Widaya is nestled between Somalia and Ethiopia on the Horn of Africa. This is a change from Borat which used the real country of Kazakhstan. Another tactic used is to associate or depict an Arab or Muslim character as a terrorist. This has certainly become prevalent after 9/11 but has been a common trope of empire since the mid 1970’s. There were two scenes which imply that this will happen in The Dictator. The first features Sacha Baron Cohen’s character being greeted by John C. Reilly’s. As they are walking up the stairs, Reilly says to Cohen, “You should check out the Empire State Building before you or any of your cousins take it down.” Obviously this is drawing a parallel between 9/11 and the government of that country. This was a similar parallel drawn between the government of Iraq and their former leader Saddam Hussein.

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This film also features example of both inferential and overt racism. While the example of overt racism are pretty clear, the inferentially racist comments are not. Inferential racism works covertly and work through what it implies. The most clear example of inferential racism occurred on both the trailer and website. I am referring to the mockery of Arabic that is present. Cohen’s character declares, “WTF, What the Fuhurmahjalaharmajeah.” A continuation of this sort of thing is done on the official website as you have the option viewing the page in Wadiyan.

From what I have seen,the veil between this film and Borat is very opaque. Many criticized Borat for perpetuating stereotypes and ruining the reputation of Kazakhstan. However, it also made many people look very silly for doing this. Gender equality was lampooned in one statement in Borat. The gender gap is often exaggerated to be much higher than it is in some countries and the character Borat made it look ridiculous when he stated that, “Kazak women plow the field like oxen do in other countries.” It was comments like these which peppered the movie that I believe embellished stereotypes and made them so ridiculous that they must be false.

This type of film can be both helpful and harmful. While any benefits this movie might have a minimal at best, the negative consequences carried as an externality could be heavy. The danger is not that smart people will see this movie and have their mind changed. This movie will not sway the opinion of anyone who has taken the time to research the man Mummar Gaddafi. I would go out on a whim and say that this movie will not even influence those smart enough to know who Mummar Gaddafi is. Chances are this will just be a parody to them, depending on their sense of humor, it may be a funny one. The problem with this film is that it can prey upon peoples’ false pre conceived notions or lack of knowledge towards the subject.

This can become the single story. While just about everyone knows that this movie is fiction, it could be interpreted as reality. One could start assuming that all government and countries in the region are similar to that of the fictional Wadiya. The scenes within the country blend together and become the reality of all countries in the region. Similar events in the world make this film contemporary and relevant, therefore they bear more influence.

It is not fair to judge the whole movie The Dictator based on a two minute trailer. Trailers do not tell the whole story of the film. While this seems to be a continuation of everything that Borat was, I cannot make that claim. Certainly there will be all the cheap laughs that the previous movie had, but was the film meant to belittle or satire? One could argue that this film is extremely hegemonic and portrays the often stereotyped Middle East in the same traditional ways. However, a contrary argument could be made. You could contest that this film satirizes those same traditional representation and makes them look ridiculous. Ultimately, people will walk away with their own opinions. Perhaps the best advice to keep in mind comes from the film itself, “Viewer discretion is advised.”

The three B syndrome

16 Apr

The “3 B Syndrome” is the term frequently used to describe the portrayal of Arabs in the mass media: as bombers, billionaires or belly dancers. The alliteration, humorous in its simplicity, is actually an apt summary for the bulk of stereotypes and illinformed representations of Arabs in news media, film, and daily life.

One person fighting against these stereotypes is Laila Lalami, a Moroccan writer who wrote the sarcastic piece “Arab-bashing for Fun and Profit”, which includes a facetious 12 step guide for how to stereotype Muslims (great piece of counter-hegemonic sarcasm, my personal favorite strategy).  The piece includes tips like, “the villains must all have beards” and “have [the villains] threaten to blow something up.” Published initially in the Los Angeles Times, the piece got a great deal of attention and has been reprinted in many places, and I suggest you check it out.  What Lalami’s post consists of, though she doesn’t refer to them as such, are tropes of empire.  A trope of empire is a familiar and repeated theme, character, narrative, etc., which performs ideological work through the use of language (metaphor, figurative, non-literal) and discourse.  The work done by the perpetuation and ubiquity of these tropes is manifested in the way they essentialize (characterize by unchanging essences), otherize (essentialized characteristics polar opposite of Western characteristics), and create absences (‘other’ is depicted as lacking in positive traits) in the subject.

 

One man who studies the relationship between tropes and the ideological work that they perform is Dr. Jack Shaheen.  Shaheen, is an internationally acclaimed author and media critic who also fights to halt (or progress from) the 3 B Syndrome in American media. His award-winning book and film Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People follows the history of the media’s slander against Arab people and shows how stereotypes have grown in the film history over the years.

Watch this clip from the documentary Reel Bad Arabs, the film translation of Shaheen’s book:

Shaheen’s work also offers solutions for how Hollywood can change their defamation Arabs, and he has consulted for films such as “Three Kings”.

Through work like that of Larami and Shaheen, appealing to humor and logic to reveal the absurdities of Hollywood representation of Arabs, the 3 B Syndrome is slowly disintegrating and tropes of empire are being brought out into the open where they can be dispelled.

 

Devin Riley