By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD |
Exclusive – Islam News – I’d been planning for a while to write an article about Fatima Bhutto’s prophetic New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop (New York: Columbia Global Reports, 2019) but kept putting it off, till I watched aghast what was taking place in Washington D.C. as pro-Trump protestors stormed the US Congress. I was caught unawares, to my dying shame, reading an interesting little novel by Balzac at the time, which kind of prefaces what this article is all about. I’m normally glued to either the TV or computer screen, when it comes to news or movies or social media coverage (of news or movies) but made my mind up to focus on this classic of 19th century literature instead and turn off the electronics. American soft power has been corroding, from the inside, something I’ve been tracking since the turn of the century and that Fatima Bhutto has now catalogued so thoroughly and unexpectedly in her globe-trotting book. (My copy of the book has her signature on it!)
The irony is that economic globalization and popular culture, the very instruments of US soft power in the past, have been the chief culprits in the decay of the country’s international appeal. We can add social media to the list of corrosive forces, the whole reason I was trying to blank myself out of the global information village to get down to reading such a difficult but rewarding a stylist as Honoré de Balzac. The endless updated newsfeed that is Twitter and Facebook and the internet and satellite television and Whatsapp doesn’t give you pause for thought, constantly distracting you from the kind of ponderings that come from reading a novel or watching a classical movie or a substantive work of drama. I’ve always argued that high art is the way to go. Movies and plays like The Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman have appeal to us in the Third World because we can relate to the plight of our surprise counterparts in a First World country; hence, the Iranian Oscar winner The Salesman (2016). Shortly before this ruckus in Washington I’d shared a downloadable movie with a Sudanese friend the original black and white version of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and he loved it because the morality debates in it were couched in terms we as Arabs and Muslims could understand. (This is in marked contrast to the sexual violence and needless explicitness you see on display in the amoral remake of the movie in 1981). Fatima Bhutto has now found similar patterns in the global pop culture market since it is the (relatively) more substantive works of art that are winning the soft power game. Turkish soap operas, for all their faults, had already beaten American soap operas in many an international marketplace, including Spain in one instance. Why? Because family values and people, men and especially women, fighting for their honour were the central themes that appeal to audiences from Latin America to Europe to India. Individualism and cheap thrills galore, what US soaps and much of Hollywood are all about, were are losing their appeal internationally and the reason for that was, reveals Bhutto, that these freedoms and self-indulgences did not resonate with the sufferings of the bulk of people in the Third World, especially those forced to migrate from their homes in search of non-existent jobs, robbed of them specifically thanks to US-instigated structural adjustment policies via the IMF and World Bank. Mass migration and internal dislocation, from the countryside to the city, or to the shanty towns and slums and random housing in and around cities, means families struggling to stay together, to maintain their moral upbringing, and boys and girls defending their honour in the face of temptation and exploitation. That’s what Turkish soap operas were all about, which is why so many people’s around the world can relate to them, as opposed to Sex in the City, argues Fatima Bhutto. Gone are the days of international sensations like Dallas and Knots Landing, let alone The Fugitive, starring Glenn Ford.
There are precedents for this, mind you, almost forerunners for what’s happened now. There was the international sensation of María Mercedes, a Mexican TV series widely watched in the Arab world in the 1990s, and before that the Japanese series Oshin from the 1980s, also very popular in Egypt. What’s changed is the technology of transmission, combined with the plight of the Third World, and the about face taking place in the US thanks to the anti-immigration sentiments of the people who put Donald Trump in the White House. Isolationism is always a recipe for soft power disaster, something Fatima Bhutto has also documented in her book when it came to the tragic transformation overcoming Bollywood at the hands of the nationalist jingoism of Prime Minister Modi. To be fair to the entertainment industry in America some movie makers have noticed this retraction of and seepage of their country’s soft power appeal and have tried to counter in. Watch Black Panther (2018) and you have an American movie starring a black African hero commanding an army made up predominately of women and vying with himself over what to about the immigration problem on his continent thanks to refugees and civil wars. Should his mythical country of Wakanda conquer and subjugate the continent through its superior technology, to lift the continent out of its poverty and chaos, or engage in cultural outreach (hint, hint) and provide much needed leadership? You can’t help but notice how it’s the Border Tribe that betrays the King and how they deploy an electromagnetic ‘wall’ up against the Black Panther’s loyal forces, no doubt a reference to the exclusion wall Trump was trying to build across the Mexican border. (Oh, the Jabbari tribe, for all their xenophobia, supported the Panther and helped win the day. ‘Jabar’ is an Arabic world).
There was Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) where you have the leader of the future, a Mexican girl (Dani played by Natalia Reyes), who loses her family thanks to the evil terminator sent after her from the future. A blonde resistance fighter from that future (Grace played by Mackenzie Davis) is sent to protect her, true enough, but the story begins in Mexico, a developing country chafing under unemployment caused by automation, with a Dani’s brother trying to keep up to speed with American pop stars and culture through social media, and dreaming of the day he gets to go there and ‘fit in’. Then Dani and her helpers make their way into the US, illegally, only to have to confront automated killer drones and detention centres that resemble concentration camps. Grace later gives her life to rescue Dani, eliminating the platinum blonde from the picture, so to speak. The Germanic Arnold Schwarzenegger also sacrifices his life. There was also, interestingly, Jupiter Ascending (2015) staring the (tanned, brown-eyed) Ukrainian Mila Kunis as Jupiter Jones playing an ‘illegal alien’ from Russia living with her family while she is forced to clean toilets for a living, cleaning the houses of privileged white middle class families. The men of her family aren’t terribly feminist but even the head of the household is infuriated to learn that one of his nephews is trying to profit off of selling Jupiter’s eggs, harvesting her like she was a chicken. In the meantime aliens from outerspace want to harvest the human population for their genes to feed the immortality of decadent aristocrats who seed and harvest entire planets. Jupiter’s father, by pure coincidence, is half-English, the son of a British diplomat and a man who believes in people’s better nature. The message there is that the US should have faith in the inherent goodness of people, immigrants in other words, and let them in. (The alien overlords in the movie, however, speak with pompous Englishy accents and are portrayed as being like vampires who live off the labours of others). Indie movies like Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town (2017) have done even better, with repeated white-black couples along with an Arabic (Salme Geransar) and an Iranian (Alia Shawkat) actress, a movie that was very popular in the Arab world (online and on satellite television) and starring a Canadian actress, the aforementioned Izzy (Mackenzie Davis). Thank Indie director-writer Chris Papierniak for this lovely mix.
Still, these notable exceptions are not enough to reverse the tide. Social media has only made things worse because it has fed the fires of self-indulgence, cutting people off from what’s going on in the rest of the world and creating an illusionary picture of what’s going on even within the borders of your own country. Social media allows users to preselect the newsfeeds that they want to read and cherry pick the social communities they want to interact with, a peer group that cuts you off and sets you above everybody else. (Look at the role of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in both Trump’s election and Brexit). Look at how conspiracy theorists have become social influencers in the US and how the man elected to the White House was himself a conspiracy theorist, basing his policy decisions over everything from Global Warming to COVID-19 on the basis of such theorises instead of scientific facts. The protestors who marched on the capital and stormed the Congress were themselves captivated by conspiracy theories, prompting them to take democracy into their own hands to free the country from non-existent elites and cliques, forgetting Trump’s own elitist real estate credentials. And what’s just happened in Washington D.C. may very well spell the end of the country’s soft power once and for all. The appeal of US democracy had already taken a knock with the Florida election count and the legal battles that guaranteed George W.’s victory; this was referred to in Lord of War (2005) as a kangaroo court by an African dictator. Likewise the country’s economic leadership of the world fell into question with the financial crisis of 2008 with Trump reengaging on an economic leadership role in the face of the corona crisis, a move that left the doorway open to the Chinese. Now commentators all over the world, not least in the BBC World Service, are comparing what happened in Washington to democracy in Venezuela or ‘banana republics’, with rival powers like Russia and China gloating and erstwhile allies like Boris Johnson disowning Trump. The very language of US foreign policy, post-9/11, has been inverted with this latest travesty, with the violent protestors not only being called thugs and mobsters but ‘terrorists’ (and extremists) with Trump being charged with inciting them to violence, even the well-behaved civilised ones, as if he was a radical imam moving mindless minions through murderous fatwa’s and fiery sermons.
This has been a long time coming. Media globalisation has led to transparency of all of the country’s ills as well as its virtues. When mass shootings take place at high schools in the US, let alone the massacre in Las Vegas, President Trump had to apologise to the world. Police brutality and racism in the US has also been laid bare. One American commentator speaking to the BBC went as far as saying that white supremacists are the main culprits behind terrorist actions in the US, not Muslims. 6th January has now been described, in the resumed Congress, as a day that will live in infamy forever, like the day of Pearl Harbour. Trump’s twitter account was finally muzzled, after four long years of provocations and misinformation. (Facebook followed the next day). Other commentators and political figures in the US went as far as to disown American ‘exceptionalism’ altogether as they watched the citadel and temple of democracy that Congress is desecrated, in their own words. (Listening to Mitch McConnell just before the protests was like watching the Avenger’s movie Captain America: Civil War).
President-elect Biden himself explained how the words of a president matter, that people should couple freedom of speech with a sense of social responsibility, how these words can either inspire or incite. So, if anything good comes from this it is that words like terrorist and extremist and conservative will not be batted around needlessly and irresponsibly when it comes to Arabs and Muslims. People will realise that these terms apply just as appropriately domestically – we are all partners in crime, face the self-same problems – or do away with the terminology altogether. One added bonus is that Hollywood and American television can revise itself and begin to speak a language of symbols and images that will win them back international audiences and maybe even get US society back in line with the language of morality and family values that the US used to share with the world in the heyday of American cinema and television.
Just putting an end to the reign of social media and the mass paranoia it thrives on and feeds in turn would be victory enough. (Cinema can play a role in clearing up that mess itself, as evidenced by references to Facebook and Twitter in the Indie flick Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town). If it gives you more time to read 19th century novels or watch black and white reruns, that’s fine by me!!
This article is dedicated to the memory of Leo Pantich, a devoted socialist and someone who spurred me onto critiquing American soft power in light of the paradoxical forces of globalization.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not necessarily express the website views.