Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Historical blindness

(...or why children should be seen and not heard...)


Several years ago, after watching a movie about the Israeli raid on the Entebbe airport, I wrote about the way that we tend to develop blind spots in relatively recent history, that make it difficult for us to discuss current events intelligently.
There are blind spots in the educational process, no matter what type of schooling you take, whether you're in the public schools, or private schools, or, like my kids, schooled at home. There's a transition period that you live through in your youth, that you live through but never learn. It's a period that is current events when you're too young to care, and not history yet when you begin to study history.

My youngest brother, who's now in his early 30s, has been working his way through college over the past decade-plus. He's also hung a lot of sheet rock and siding, covered a lot of roofs, and pulled a lot of lobster traps. Last fall, he was talking about one of his classes where a professor had been talking about the Berlin Wall, and one of the girls in the class, probably 19 or 20, had interrupted with "you keep talking about a Berlin Wall. Is this a figurative expression, or is there a real wall?" And, of course, to anyone who was of age after before 1990, it sounds like an absurd question. But if you were five years old in 1990, you weren't paying much attention to current events when the Berlin Wall fell. The Berlin Wall wasn't news when you were studying Current Events. And it was too recent to have been integrated into your history curriculum. So you've got a massive blind-spot, a perspective on the world that is un-impacted by what was a seminal event to someone just 10 years older.
I was struck by this same phenomenon again when a much younger cousin posted - un-ironically - a link on facebook to an article that is breath-takingly preposterous to anyone who grew to adulthood in the late 70s or early 80s. She's not entirely to blame - you don't know what you aren't taught - but when you don't know what you're talking about, you can end up saying some pretty stupid things. As can be seen in the story she linked. This article attributes the current "wave" of anti-Muslim bigotry to the "overwrought Reagan/Bush-era pop culture that first equated 'terrorist' with 'Muslim.'"
Why do so many like King see extremist acts by non-Muslims as mere isolated incidents that "make no sense to talk about," yet see extremist acts by Muslims as a systemic problem worthy of military invasions and now congressional witch hunts?

The short answer is 9/11 -- but that's oversimplified. Anti-Muslim sentiment was embedded in American society well before that horrific attack stoked a bigoted backlash. The real answer is connected to overwrought Reagan/Bush-era pop culture that first equated "terrorist" with "Muslim.”
[LB - Yes, that good old Republican control of Hollywood has been a problem for a long time, hasn't it? If there's one thing Reagan and Bush were known for, it was their iron-fisted control over the entertainment industry...]

As film scholar Jack Shaheen discovered in his book "Reel Bad Arabs," roughly a third of the most blatantly anti-Muslim films of the last century were made in the 1980s alone. These movies used sporadic atrocities committed by individual Islamic extremists (the Lebanon bombing, the Berlin bombing, etc.) to demonize all Muslims. Consequently, Hollywood's go-to villain in the 1980s became the Muslim terrorist -- whether it was "Iron Eagle's" unnamed Middle Eastern country or "Back to the Future's" bazooka-wielding Libyans.
There's so much wrong there that it's difficult to know where to start. It really isn't worth the effort to try to correct it - better to just dismiss it out of hand. The author may be a bright young man, he may have a future as a writer, but he don't know what he don't know.

But I do want to make a couple of observations.

The first is relatively trivial. I haven't read Jack Shaheen's book "Reel Bad Arabs" so I can't comment on whether there's some truth and accuracy to it or not. But having looked at Amazon's site for it, and having wracked my own brain for portrayals of Muslims in 1980s movies (and I saw a lot of them), I strongly suspect that, rather than an actual analysis of portrayals that revealed a bias, his "scholarship" represents a thesis in search of supporting evidence, to be noted whenever and wherever possible, no matter how tenuous1. I strongly doubt that he "discovered" anything other than support for his own pre-existing bias.
"The Protestants hate the Catholics,
and the Catholics hate the Protestants,
and the Hindus hate the Muslims,
and everybody hates the Jews..."

- Tom Lehrer, National Brotherhood Week (1965)
Secondly, while I would never deny the presence of anti-Muslim2 bigotry in this country, I am skeptical that it is a major problem. (In fact, William Bennett wrote about this just yesterday.) I see no evidence of persecution, there are no "pogroms" or mosque-burnings. I believe that you have to stretch the terms to declare that there's a wave of "anti-Muslim bigotry" in America right now.

Thirdly, even if there were, the idea that the generic throw-away terrorists in Back To The Future3 are somehow responsible is beyond laughable. (You don't suppose that the producers made them Libyan instead of, oh, Swiss, is that Libya was in the terrorism business in the early 80s, do you?) To buy that line of "thinking," you've got to say that current American attitudes toward Muslims are more heavily influenced by a few old movies than by
  • 2001 - 9/11, NYC and the Pentagon hit by Islamic terrorists
  • 2000 - US Cole heavily damaged by Islamic terrorists in Yemen
  • 1998 - US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania destroyed by Islamic terrorists
  • 1996 - Islamic terrorist explode a truck bomb at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia where US military personnel were stationed
  • 1995 - Car bomb in Riyadh set off at US military headquarters by Islamic terrorists
  • 1993 - First attack on the World Trade Center in NY by Islamic terrorists
  • 1988 - Islamic terrorists blow up a plane traveling from Frankfort to NY over Lockerbie, Scotland
  • 1986 - Libyans bomb a German disco frequented by US military personnel
  • 1985 - Islamic terrorists linked to Libya take the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean, kill one American. Hezbollah hijacks a flight from Athens to Rome and kills a Navy Seal
  • 1984 - Islamic terrorists explode a truck bomb outside the US Embassy annex in Beirut, Lebanon. Later that year, more Islamic terrorists explode a car bomb at the US barracks in Beirut killing 241 American military personnel. Later that year, Islamic terrorists explode a car bomb at the US Embassy in Kuwait
  • 1979 - Islamic revolutionaries take the US Embassy in Tehran, holding 52 hostages for 444 days.
One could keep going, of course. Munich. Entebbe. Countless incidents in Israel. This is all relevant, because, while many of the "incidents" could be classified as "isolated incidents," they are all related to an ideology, to a religion which divides the world into the Dar al-Islam and the Dar al-harb - the House of Islam and the House of War. There is a common driving force behind all of those events. And when you don't recognize that, you end up saying stupid things.

Things like Americans are anti-Muslim because of Back to the Future.




1 - It seems to me that Hollywood's "go-to villains" are, and have been for a long time, white business executives, politicians and out-of-control military officers.

2 - Or anti-Black. Or anti-Jewish. Or anti-female. Or anti-male. Or anti-White...

3 - The "terrorists" in that movie were a plot device. They were on screen, or mentioned, for less than two minutes total. The "villain" was a white male.

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