The void at the center of the anti-Islam video crisis

The irony of the uproar connected to the now infamous anti-Islam video is this: almost everyone who has involved themselves in it has voluntarily taken on a role as grotesque, poorly scripted, vacuous, and disconnected from reality as the absurd characters in the cheap YouTube clip that is nominally at the heart of the crisis.

The video itself is the kind of sordid but forgettable drivel that gunks up plenty of corners of the Internet, and would be utterly inconsequential in another context. Having forced myself to watch the clips — they are certainly hateful but also less than mediocre, far less — it’s plain that the real story is not the video, but how it has been promoted by rabble-rousers like TV presenter Sheikh Khalad Abdalla (who has been called a sort of Egyptian Glenn Beck), and those like his dependable foil, Islam-hating Florida Pastor Terry Jones. John Hudson of The Atlantic Wire explains this well here, and also makes the excellent point that the mystery of the day — the identity of the real producer of the clip — is a sideshow barely related to the uproar.

And yet the main question murmured around American water coolers today seems to be, “Why are they so angry about a movie?” The answer has little to do with the clip itself, or with belief. What we’re likely seeing is the savvy manipulation of public sentiment, under the guise of religious dignity, mostly for domestic political gain in the countries where there are demonstrations or worse. It’s too early to ponder the particular details of how this is happening — and commentators everywhere are venturing opinions at the risk of contradictory revelations in the next days and weeks — but in broad strokes, it is clear that these originated as political actions, not spontaneous faith-based responses.

There is lots of raw anger toward the U.S. in the Middle East still, despite what your tour guide at the Statue of Liberty told you about America being the inspiration for the Arab Spring. It may have something to do with, say, 10 years of a bloody war on terror that has fractured societies and occupied countries and … well, a lot of other things besides a 15-minute video with mind-bogglingly crappy production value. That anger is an amorphous commodity that is available for use at the hands of skillful populists.

Thus, the out-of-control flag-burner is one role that people have taken on in the crisis, and the amateur provocateurs who made the movie are undoubtedly thrilled and surprised at the impact of their handiwork. (They may or may not realize that they are essentially in league with their supposed nemeses — other extremists who would also like to move us all irrevocably toward a worldwide war on religious lines.) 

But other responses have been equally one-dimensional. If you’re an American, a perusal of your Facebook feed will show that at least a few of your acquaintances are freshly astonished with the “barbarity” of Islam. Others condemn the filmmakers as the real cause of the violence. Still others respond that, however bad the video is, what’s really on the line is our free speech. Shouting matches erupt; accusations are thrown; positions become more polarized.

While the movie is undoubtedly condemnation-worthy, and also protected in the United States by the First Amendment, all of this gives the producers(s) far too much credit. The abject inferiority of their project is apparent to anyone remotely familiar with contemporary media. This is how, one must guess, they wanted us to react.

It’s all a bit sad. People everywhere are retreating into caricatures of themselves and fulfilling each other’s worst stereotypes. In doing so, the protesters, their denouncers, their apologists, and most especially those who would cast this as a clash of religious values, have become poor players acting out a script written by idiots.

As such, we’d all do well to take the whole conflagration with a bit of skepticism, and recognize the real political aims — both domestic and international — of those who are fanning the flames. 

Because if everyone buys into this tale’s sound and fury, things could get a lot uglier still.

The power of social media — and its lack of inherent goodness

Shame on me, I still haven’t read Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion. But I just found this clip from Al Jazeera English’s The Stream from last September, in which the presenters give Morozov the space to reorient the conversation away from the not-very-useful debate about whether social media is good or not. Worth a watch.

Here, I think, is the heart of the matter:

So social media is a catalyst for democratization? asks the presenter (9:13), after Morozov acknowledges that it helped the protesters in Egypt. Morozov’s answer:

Of course [it’s a catalyst [for democratization]. It’s a catalyst for many other processes. And it may empower certain factions more than others. In some cases, depending on the existing political and social dynamics, it will favor the protesters. In others it will favor the autocrats. There’s nothing about social media itself that predetermines which side is going to win.

I like this guy.

Making sense of Mortenson

All day long I have been utterly fascinated with the revelations about Greg Mortenson’s falsehoods and mismanagement of his organization, the Central Asia Insitute, which he created to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I vowed to write a lengthy essay tonight to get out all the thoughts this episode has provoked — but it’s 1:00 AM and I still haven’t finished the esteemed Jon Krakauer’s 75-page exposé, “Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way.” Thus, I offer just a few disjointed comments, pending my completion of the article and, ahem, the book.

First, let me suggest a partial reading/watching list, which my Twitter feed should continue to augment in the next few days:

  • Ideally, at least one of Mortenson’s books, especially Three Cups of Tea. In fact, I haven’t read them, though they have been recommended and gifted to me on numerous occasions.
  • The 60 Minutes episode from Sunday, 4/17/11.
  • Mortenson’s response in an Outside magazine interview.
  • CAI/Mortenson’s response to 60 Minutes’s questions (I believe they came too late to make it into the program).
  • A blog of the Economist parsing of one of at least two insidiously racist assertions in Mortenson’s Outside responses: that the “archaic” Balti language makes locals unfit to retell the dates of his arrival in their village. As a friend who is an anthropology professor specializing in this region wrote to me: “I find that claim to be rather dubious. Even if their language is an archaic dialect of Tibetan, Baltis have been Muslim for centuries and are presumably well acquainted with the Islamic clandar. Also presumably there would be at least one or two teachers or officials in even the smallest village who would be invested in being modern. Or there would be in China at any rate…”The other insidiously racist passage (and shameless passing of the buck) is Mortenson’s suggestion that there is something called a “confidence trick” in “Africa and Asia” whereby local staff take advantage of donors after years of gaining their trust. While certainly possible, this is not limited to Africa and Asia (dude, I’ve heard about some stuff working for the San Francisco city government, believe you me), and is just a lazy reference to a trope, which is an artifact of colonial times, about the dangers of the wily native.
  • Finally, and most importantly, read Krakauer’s article (downloadable for free for about the next 48 hours). It’s astonishing —  even if I haven’t finished it yet — not least because the CAI/Mortenson fabrications occurred in plain view for a decade and a half.

This affair illuminates an intersection of many social and political issues. It’s about much more than the individual, Mortenson. I’m thinking here of the narratives of GWOT; the fundamental problems with accountability of private nongovernmental work overseas; the unquestioning of the American public when we are spoon-fed facile stories of foreign lands populated with casts of wild-eyed fundamentalists, noble savages, and their helpless babies, who need us oh so much.

More deeply, it makes me suspicious of charity as a solution to complex problems. The violence and inequality in regions such as AfPak — and indeed the world — are political in origin and demand political solutions. To the extent that we can ameliorate problems with charity, without also reforming the power imbalances, laws, and crippled economies beneath them, we sometimes risk simply whitewashing, and we will necessarily create cases like Mortenson/CAI.

And the truly saddening thing is that a lot of evidence shows we want to continue believing fairy tales like Mortenson’s rather than face the difficult necessity of reforming our relationship with the world. A saccharine story and a donation are exponentially easier to digest than the systemic reform that is truly needed for any lasting change.

Take the fan base’s responses to Krakauer and 60 Minutes. Monitoring the comments to the articles above and the #Mortenson Twitter feed, it is easy to see that many, many people are ready to forgive Mortenson, without further ado.

His heart was in the right place. He really raised awareness about the need for education. Sure, some money was wasted, but a lot of it ended up in good places. The media is sensationalist. It’s a beautiful vision.

Please, please, don’t take our easy, breezy bedtime story away from us…

Digital Utopians, Party Poopers and Real Revolution

There have been some snickers of late at the timing of Evgeny Morozov’s new book, The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (good NY Times review here). The revolutions in the Middle East supposedly gave the lie to his criticism of cyberutopians and their hypocritical Western government backers. I must admit I was momentarily caught up in the snickering — Facebook, social networking and more generally, the amazing advances in communications technology played a huge role in the overthrowing of Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s regimes.

But two things have recently led me back to my fundamental sympathy with Morozov’s view (part of which I wrote about last year in one of my best-named blog posts ever, “Mao and the Facebook Panoptican“).

"My social network" by Luc Legay

One is the incomplete revolution in Libya, which has reminded us that although the Internet has made social networking more efficient than ever (it didn’t invent it, obviously), the price of change in violent systems will still be sweat, blood and sacrifice. And the Internet does not reduce complex history and politics — like that in Libya — into simple stories of good and evil that read like the Readers’ Digest version of Lord of the Rings (or worse).

Second is this short piece in Mother Jones about unabashed video game booster Jane McGonigal. The comments here from some of the notable cyperutopians are so patently, jaw-droppingly absurd that I re-realized how much we desperately need voices like Morozov’s. Take a brief look at this interview of Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly (referenced in the MJ article). Or McGonigal on the power of video games:

“When every family in the remote villages of Africa, or in what today are the slums of India, or throughout Nicaragua—when they and everyone else in the world has access to The Long Game, that will mean greater access to education, culture, and economic opportunity as well.”

Point is, even if his timing is slightly off — through no fault of his own — a smart cynic like Morozov is essential to taking this ridiculousness down a notch. (HT to my pal grist.)

I leave you with an Outkast classic you may find relevant… or at least good music.

Too much to keep track of

A few of my loyal readers have asked me why I haven’t been more vocal as of late. It’s a darn good question. The events in the Arab world in the last few weeks are a culmination of all the things that I have written about most on this blog.

Below, I offer a few rather pitiful explanations for my silence, which I hope you will indulge.

  • This is a particularly bad time for half-baked long-distance punditry. The information we have — and I am, of course, expecially thinking of Libya here — is mean and unreliable. With real lives in the balance, I have been reticent to contribute to the din without having firsthand information to contribute.
  • Events are unfolding too fast for me to offer the kind of thoughtful commentary for which I try to reserve this blog. My last post was practically irrelevant, news-wise, in about a day. Should I write a blog post about how calling the Libyan government’s apparent massacres of unarmed protesters does not qualify as genocide? (Which is how a number of interviewees, including defecting Libyan officials, are describing it on TV.) Such points are important (HT @texasinafrica), but it doesn’t feel right devoting a whole post to them from afar.
  • Most of all, there’s just too much to keep track of. I admit this reluctantly. As much as the wave of revolt washing across the MENA region emanates from some common urge for freedom, the local grievances of people are dizzyingly different from place to place. Bahrain’s Shiite majority is not Egypt’s multitudinous shebaab are not Yemen’s impoverished throngs are not Libya’s dying young people are not Syria’s somewhat more restrained malcontents, etc. The uprisings are all drawing from the same font of dignity, but they are nurturing different species of trees. Analytically, this makes it very difficult to comment on them en masse. And I would need to spend all day, e’eday blogging to comment on them all individually. Regrettably (for this purpose), I have a day job.

By way of consolation for these unsatisfying explanations, let me offer a list of what I am following in a vain attempt to keep up with everything.

Got recommendations for other good resources that I should be on? Please let me know.

Finally, a ditty I was thinking about for some reason today:

My thoughts with the people of Libya tonight.

ممكن يسقط؟ - Pic taken during unfortunate 26-hour layover in Tripoli airport, 2006.

Referendum Kenya

The big vote is tomorrow. (Pretty good article (I think) by Gettleman.)

In addition to the news, here’s what I’m watching: anti-apathy clips from Kuweni Serious :

(Browse through their stuff for some others featuring Makmende, like this one where dude is complaining about government efforts to encourage birth control.)

(HT to LL.)

On Planet Money’s “just give the oil money away” report

Photo by Jonathan Wheeler. Used with a Creative Commons license.

My favorite podcast, Planet Money, had a great report last week on a novel idea for avoiding the resource curse: just give the revenues away to a country’s citizens. The report was prompted by the announcement of huge deposits of precious minerals in Afghanistan and the discovery of oil in the last couple of years in Ghana — a country that desperately wants to avoid having its economy or government end up anything like Nigeria‘s, where there’s been a decades-long oil bonanza.

It’s easy to see the potential benefits of giving money away to poor people, if you’re at all sympathetic to the idea that welfare systems work to stimulate economies. Giving disposable income to people with pressing needs is great for boosting a country’s economic growth — a poor person who gets $100 will immediately inject it back into the economy by spending it on pressing needs, whereas a rich person might stick it in a savings account. Also, individuals may be better suited to decide what their needs are — and use money for innovative ventures — than bureaucracies, NGOs and government contractors (who might very well have corrupt relationships with those handing out the contracts).

But as you’ll see when you listen to the podcast, the idea is incomplete. Probably the biggest flaw is the fact that there are many collective ventures — schools, roads, hospitals — that individuals are in no position to take on, no matter how much extra income they have. (The advocates of the system would tax the transfers to pay for this, but it doesn’t seem like enough.)

Still, it’s funny to hear a Nigerian oil official in the podcast claim that individuals would do a bad job of allocating their payouts — it’s hard to imagine the situation getting much worse than it is when it comes to squandering the Delta’s riches.

It seems to me there’s a strong argument for having a big portion of oil revenues — but not all — earmarked for cash transfers. Whatever the solution to ending the resource curse and improving revenue transparency in extractive industries around the world, one important element is going to be getting more good journalism like Planet Money’s — but even more from local media — on the topic. Once again, I will shamelessly plug the report I wrote with several classmates on this subject: There Will Be Ink. Great title, huh?

More on convergence of war and gaming

Yesterday, I described two different perspectives about what it means to fight wars remotely and through computers. I’m not a gamer, so I wasn’t aware just how similar video games are to the video from Wikileaks. If you had the stomach to watch that clip (beware, it’s extremely violent and disturbing), you will probably shocked to see just how similar the game Call of Duty is to the actual experience:

My point here is not so much to slam video games, but to suggest there is something remarkable — and awful — about this convergence of technologies. Entertainment, since its earliest forms, has always used war as inspiration. But until now it has been impossible to have a simulated experience that is so nearly exactly like the real one.

And it’s not that entertainment has chased war as much as some experiences of war — the remote ones — are becoming more like entertainment. Part of the appeal of entertainment that shows killing is that it removes all the nastier aspects of the experience — from the humanity of an enemy to the feeling of immediate vulnerability. Old west gunfights were probably nothing like those in High Plains Drifter. Saving Private Ryan might be uncomfortably real, but it certainly can’t be a substitute for participating in D-Day. The similarity between coordinating drone strikes, though, and playing Call of Duty seems unprecedented.

Does this influence how we as a country decide which wars to wage? It’s hard to say for sure, but there are certainly some interesting parallels between our foreign policy and the experience the technology helps create: god-like feelings of omnipotence, invulnerability, superiority, cold detachment from others’ suffering.

It is awe-inspiring technology, but it is also dangerous — not just for journalists carrying video cameras around the streets of Baghdad, but, I think, for the people pulling the trigger (or pushing the buttons). Or maybe I just think that way because my parents read me Lord of the Rings when I was 10.

(Hat-tip MB.)

Video game wars -The Times vs. Wikileaks

The New York Times just printed a gushing (one might even say jingoistic) report on how the military is using new technology to tap into Generation Y’s social networking skills to nail insurgents and protect American troops, all from thousands of miles away. Read the Times’ account, and you’d think this is mostly an exciting technology, which earnest, freckle-faced youths can use to scrub bad guys while they befriend their tougher colleagues on the ground, via chat rooms.

But as even that article acknowledges, the technology sometimes goes awry, like the time in February when Predator drones in Afghanistan snuffed out the lives of 23 innocent men, women and children — just one of many such incidents.

Well, here’s another perspective on what it means to turn the enemy (or those assumed to be) into pixelated blobs: Wikileaks’ video of a U.S. helicopter annihilating as many as 12 people in 2007 on a Baghdad  street, including two Reuters journalists.

I’m not embedding the video on this site because it makes me feel physically sick to watch it, and there’s really no commentary I can give that will add to its value. You will note, however, how much the clip looks like a short segment of Grand Theft Auto. Right down to the dialogue: After the first round of shooting is finished, a voice says, “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards” and another begs a dying man to pick up a weapon, implying that he’d then have a license to kill.

In some sense, this is just a raw dispatch from war. I’ve never been in a war, and I can only assume that its dialogue has been and always will be full of the most unpleasant things imaginable.

There is a particular coldness to this killing, though, and I think the technology has something to do with it. I hardly think we should celebrate it. The military says that rules of engagement were followed. If that is true, that is an indictment of the technology.

To see a sanitized version of the Wikileaks video, take a look at this BBC report on the detention of a US military analyst, possibly for leaking the tape.

Credit where it’s due — second NY Times article on Shahzad

It’s always easy to criticize. Let me offer a bit of praise. Last Sunday’s Times article on Faisal Shahzad was a massive improvement — from the perspective of implied narratives — over the previous week’s article on the influence of Awlaki, which I criticized. Mainly, it’s better because it focuses on the personal travails of Shahzad and their intersection with larger forces, which to me gives a more complete — if less scary — account of why he did what he did. (I can only assume the editors read this blog and responded accordingly!)