Cartoonists: the foot soldiers of “democracy”

in In January 2015, 11 people at the offices of French “satirical” cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered, allegedly by two gunmen acting under the al Qaeda banner. Driven by both political and media figures, the response generated more noise than almost any other event in recent memory. This response included widespread calls to share cartoons in order to antagonize pious Muslims for the good of Western civilization, and over 40 world leaders positioning themselves as great champions of human rights. As I wrote at the time, the sheer deafening volume of the event—and the almost-thuggish calls for skeptics to fall in line—was grounded in what the raw material of the event presented to the ruling class. With its tidy narrative of whimsical artists mercilessly “martyred” by savage Islamist demons for exercising their free speech, the response to the killings was a perfect opportunity to reinforce the narrative of the West’s essential goodness, and a related series of myths about Western civilization.

Embedded in the response was a narrative about cartoonists. According to the official accounting, democracy is powered by dialogues and discussions—and these are driven by information. By crystallizing ideas, cartoonists perform a valuable service. More than that, by acting as impish provocateurs against the predations of undemocratic, illiberal regimes, cartoonists act as “the foot soldiers of democracy.” This was a connection too hyperbolic for me to make, but fortunately the 2014 French documentary Cartoonists: the Foot Soldiers of Democracy made the point for me. Given a Charlie Hebdo editorial from this week, and certain recent successes in the world of graphic novel memoirs, the point is correct, but not in ways its advocates may have intended. “Democracy,” the euphemism used in high places for the free-market capitalist system, is well-served by cartoonists. With their generally vacuous liberal politics, cartoonists are ideally positioned to perpetuate smears against the West’s designated enemies and convey an air of authenticity to propaganda masquerading as conventional wisdom.

In an op-ed conspicuously translated and released in English, the Hebdo editorial board asks “How did we end up here,” claiming to answer the question of how the Brussels terror attack of 22 March happened. Opening by invoking “Law and order fans,” “xenophobes,” “urban-planners,” and “sociologists,” the piece thus distinguishes its authors from both ivory-tower technocrats and more vulgar authoritarian racists. According to its authors, the culprit behind Islamist terrorism is not necessarily Swiss intellectual Tariq Ramadan, who had spoken at a French research institution earlier that month. However, Ramadan, a halal baker, and a hijab-wearer all bear a collective guilt. According to the editorial, political correctness has created an “iceberg,” of which non-murderous Muslims are merely the visible minority. Soon after 9/11, the favored metaphor to describe the cause of the terrorist horror was, rather than an iceberg, a swamp, that had to be “drained” in order to “find every snake in the swamp,” as Donald Rumsfeld said. Though the op-ed doesn’t come out and advocate for a solution, it follows that the only conceivable answer, now as then, is more military violence.

This sort of advocacy stops short of an overt call for war in order to maintain credibility with its squishy left-liberal target audience, and it’s understandably popular with various progressive-branded figures who align with the US State Department. However, the capitalist class is currently dealing with numerous issues that the rest of us would call crises. As it becomes increasingly apparent that the era of social democracy has effectively ended, and numerous governments stubbornly resist the Washington consensus, that means more security and terror for the majority of human beings whose whims aren’t turned into statecraft. It also means more propaganda to invert reality, like the idea that the West has been insufficiently violent. The Charlie Hebdo editorial board echoes Tony Blair, who in the past weeks has blamed terrorism on “flabby liberalism” and excess Western humility, too many concessions to political correctness and tolerance, and what Blair identifies as the fact that millions of Muslims are primitive and backwards. In America, Donald Trump channels far-right anger over political correctness by speaking his various bigotries freely, horrifying millions of liberals in the process. However, since liberalism and fascism are slightly different dialects of the same language, the messages of Hebdo and Blair carry weight with a target audience Trump could never reach.

For cartoonists, the Charlie Hebdo editorial board was atypically open with the service they were rendering. Cartooning is obviously an art form that’s as varied as writing or filmmaking, but publishers keep pushing certain kinds of work. Two of the biggest graphic novel memoirs of the last decade were Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Perseoplis 2. Documenting the author’s journey from childhood in Iran to adulthood in Europe, the two volumes were released in 2003 and 2004, right before and after Iran joined the Axis of Evil. French-Canadian author Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang was released the year after North Korea joined Iran and Iraq on the list. A film starring Steve Carrell was in pre-production until it was cancelled in 2014 following the very excellent Sony leaks and subsequent cancellation of The Interview. Last year, I was struck by how hard Riad Sattouf’s graphic novel memoir The Arab of the Future was being marketed, and it’s not hard to see why.

Translated into 15 languages, former Hebdo contributor Sattouf tells the story of his upbringing in 3 different countries: the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya under Muammar Gaddafi, Syria under Hafez al-Assad, and France. In the last 5 years, a NATO war killed Gaddafi and reduced Libya to a failed state controlled by armed factions—a fate numerous NATO countries and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council are trying to impose on Syria. With this background, a book that’s already being hailed as a modern classic offers a look at life in these countries. Despite being a child, Sattouf—and by proxy, the reader—“gets a serious education in the mysterious vectors of power that shape…the political world.” The book “takes its place alongside other classic animated retrospectives memoirs from the region, Persepolis…and [Israeli shoot-and-cry] Waltz with Bashir.” A reviewer for The New York Times fills us in on the specifics:

The Sattouf family lands in Tripoli in 1978. It has been almost a decade since Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi took power and three years since the publication of the first volume of the Green Book, which presents his “vision of society.” The country resembles a construction site, with many buildings in states of repair or disrepair. From this point forward, the story relies on Riad’s perception of the family’s experiences in Libya, even though he was only a toddler at the time. We are being given not memories but reconstructions of memories, whose sources are unclear.

[Sattouf’s father] gets another job, this time in Syria. Like all exiles and immigrants, he returns home dreaming of glory. But Syria under Hafez al-Assad is its own nightmare. There too a cult of personality persists. There too everything is in disrepair.

The Arab of the Future Libya panels

From “The Arab of the Future,” via “The New York Times.”

As ironic introduction, the Times story opens with two panels of the book: a local grotesque claiming that Libya is the most advanced country in the world, among other social achievements. A reader whose knowledge of Libya came from graphic novel autobiographies and the Times would come away with an understanding that Libya was a shambolic, dilapidated ruin—not unlike Syria, which was a “nightmare” of “disrepair.” One would have to get their Libya news from sources other than the Times, or anything hailed as a modern classic, to know that the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya had the highest GDP per capita and life expectancy on the African continent. In interviews, Sattouf cautions that he’s no expert on the Middle East/North Africa region, claiming “It’s inevitable that people ask me my opinion…I knew Syria in the 1980s but I can’t say I know anything about Syria today. I’m no more informed about the situation in the Middle East than the average person who watches TV.” It would be a strange divide that the author professes such a surface-level knowledge of Libya and Syria, given that Sattouf’s graphic novel is hailed as something educational. Obviously, though, what’s useful about a comic memoir of the two most recent victims of NATO violence is precisely that it conveys the same political information one would get from a steady diet of CNN or MSNBC. This way, the State Department line can reach the sort of urbane reader who might think themselves above watching cable news. “The Arab of the Future,” writes the Times reviewer, “will do little to complicate most people’s perceptions of Libya or Syria. Life in both countries seems like a living hell, with no moments of relief or pleasure.” In other words, life before a NATO war doesn’t sound appreciably worse than life after a NATO war—no harm, no foul.

Cartoonists are the perfect vectors for delivering these messages, because of both who they are and what they’re doing. Most don’t evince openly crypto-fascist leanings like the Charlie Hebdo editorial board, and the far-right in America has traditionally been drawn to editorial cartooning. The ones who publish autobiographical travelogues of the designated enemies generally have vague centrist core, consequently they can reliably parrot whatever the mainstream line is on a given target country. As a writer for The New Statesman claimed in a piece on Tintin, cartoonist “Hergé was a sponge. Not known for being a very political person, he often absorbed the dominant narrative on an issue and made it part of his comics.” The same could be said about nearly everyone doing similar work today. Continue reading

Michael Bay is the only man who can give America the Benghazi film it deserves

bay armageddon

The announcement that Michael Bay is going to direct a movie about Benghazi seems tailor-made to provoke paroxysms of snarky schadenfreude in a prominent section of the internet’s pop culture commentariat. It was an announcement to rival Nicolas Cage’s unveiling as the star of the rebooted evangelical apocalypse thriller Left Behind. Even more than the meme-factory Cage, Bay is thought by many to represent every over-the-top, fraudulent strain that’s currently tainting cinema—and here he is, at the helm of a story whose only natural audience are the Fox-watching philistines of the flyover states (and ironic hate-watchers). According to the AV Club it’s “news that seems like it’s designed simply as a setup for the sharpest political joke of all time.”

If the reason Michael Bay exists is to create big, loud cultural events that will satisfy people and get them talking, he may have already made his masterpiece. Bay’s films are renowned for being big, loud, over-the-top money-making machines. His signature style, often called “Bayhem,” involves having as many elements moving onscreen as possible; swirling, larger-than-life. For this, his movies make obscene amounts of money, but have made him a convenient target to represent all that’s hollow and commercial about contemporary Hollywood. As far as the excess charge goes, it’s true, that’s what he does. Even Michael Bay’s most “modest” film, Pain & Gain (with an indie budget of $26 million) has physically gargantuan men as its selling point.

Michael Bay doing scaling it down.

Michael Bay doing scaling it down.

However, he incites the sort of critical pile-ons that have reviewers regularly invoking “the death of cinema.” A vlogger for Escapist Magazine posits that this kind of critical reaction isn’t just a swipe at Bay, it’s a proxy for attacking the perceived low tastes of America as a whole. Since it’s an unbreakable taboo for a critic to denigrate the “average American moviegoer,” the politically correct alternative is to trash with unrelenting zeal the filmmaker who’s seen as most emblematic of their unrefined tastes. To slag Bay, the logic goes, is to stake a place above the perceived bovine intellect of the typical popcorn-gobbling Cineplex rube.

Michael Bay isn’t just film’s most excessive artist, he represents things—he embodies totalizing statements. And now he’s going to make a film based on the book Thirteen Hours: A Firsthand Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi.

The non-partisan backstory is that on September 11, 2012, members of a Libyan militia attacked the US consulate in Benghazi and the nearby CIA station, killing the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, a diplomat, and two CIA contractors. Eastern Libya had historically been a center for takfiri extremism—according to Newsweek, “an astoundingly large number of men traveled from there to Iraq to fight Americans during the war, and in a 2008 telegram released by WikiLeaks, Ambassador Stevens wrote that “By contrast with mosques in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country, where references to jihad are extremely rare, in Benghazi and Derna they are fairly frequent subjects.”

A story of weaponized Salafism resulting in “blowback” doesn’t put asses in movie theater seats, though. It’s actually just about the most unpopular story there is—just ask Jeremiah Wright (Still, Reverend, please reply to me about my screenplay, God Damn America). However, this all happened in the run-up to the 2012 election, when any news story was subject to being mashed through one of two partisan sluices.

Rallying around the President and against their hated Republican uncles on Facebook, liberals declared that there was absolutely no story to be told, and any intimation otherwise was hilarious on its face. Smelling another shot at impeachment after Obummer produced that birth certificate, reactionaries quickly declared it a matter of existential national importance, spinning it off into stories about rescue planes sitting on tarmacs and Hillary Clinton’s fake concussion. With an American national disgrace as the crime, and a dubious story about a spontaneous anti-hate film demonstration providing the cover-up, the Benghazi scandal as it’s currently understood was born.

Into this melee steps Michael Bay, a filmmaker who elicits Benghazi-like reactions. Naturally, since Benghazi is so thoroughly coded the domain of the right, and Bay’s movies are so throbbingly patriotic, it’s tempting to see the attraction as something Republican. However, Bay is less a traditional patriot than a maximalist, so if the biggest, most explosive political event is the Benghazi consulate attack, then Michael Bay’s Benghazi will see America in 2016. Continue reading

Checking Chickenhawks: the limited leverage of enlisting the elites

For a term deployed so often on the left, chickenhawk has a conservative core. The accusation—that someone is agitating for war only because they’re not affected—implies that someone should be fighting in a war, rather than war should be opposed, point blank. Maz Hussain has a piece at The Intercept on the latest generation of Americans to serve in what was once called the Global War on Terror, which he concludes with a bellicose call to “finish the job,” preferably using the children of the Bush administration and their supporters.

Millions of moviegoers might remember this idea from the highest-grossing documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. In the film, Michael Moore, a Marine, and his crew cruise Capitol Hill, trying to convince Congresspeople to enlist their kids for the war in Iraq. In Rachel Maddow’s 2012 book Drift, she connects the “unmooring of American military power” to a constellation of factors, one of which is the perceived disconnect between America’s leaders and the families who fight “our” wars for us. Conservative historian Andrew Bacevich makes a similar point in his 2013 book Breach of Trust.

The idea is that if the elites bore a greater brunt of the suffering, there would be less war. Again, there’s a conservative idea at the core, and it’s an appeal to an imagined time when such a relationship restrained American warmaking. In their critiques of American power, conservatives like Bacevich or Garry Wills harken back to a pre-Cold War golden age, when Edna and Mabel happily forewent their nylon stockings for our boys Over There. A liberal may point to Vietnam as a high-water mark—Maddow’s book begins with this period. In the ’70s, the draft caused such opposition to the war that President Nixon felt compelled to sneak out of the White House for 4am parlays with anti-war demonstrators.

The narrative goes that these links created leaders who were circumspect about the use of American power—like Colin Powell, the “most popular man in America” circa 2000. The “Powell doctrine” provided a template for a war that even liberals can love, and sure enough, Powell enumerated it on the Rachel Maddow Show in April 2009. The archetypal divide between the “reluctant warrior” produced by a holistic elite-military connection and irresponsible, trigger-happy politician is best illustrated in an anecdote from the Clinton administration. Powell, with his knowledge of the realities of combat and son in the Army, sagely reined in American military power, leading an exasperated Madeleine Albright to scream “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

American imperialism would like to align itself with the image of the “reluctant warrior”: reasoned and mature, strong but justified. However, the Empire isn’t Colin Powell, it’s Madeline Albright—nakedly, murderously amoral in the calculus of its own interests. Though the Bush administration obliterated Iraq, it was Clinton’s “genocidal” sanctions regime that murdered more than half a million Iraqi children. In 1996, Albright famously remarked it was “worth it.” War is a racket, but traditional wars are just one tool of opening up markets. More often, as with sanctions, Empire exploits, immiserates, and kills without firing a shot.

The idea that war would be “better” with a more ideal alignment of the elites and the armed forces sacrifices this wider critique for a criticism riddled with conservative tropes: it’s rhetorically tepid, substantively empty, and strategically counterproductive.

As Nathan Fuller points out, the accusation of chickenhawk-ism is weak. It can’t be leveraged because it’s not remotely actionable. Is it a call for a 1% draft? Does it attend a proposal for a ratio of elites, which the armed services must meet before war can be waged? If a hawkish Senator supports war and has military-age male children at Georgetown instead of Forward Operating Base Lightning, what then, exactly? Continue reading

“Lone Survivor” is a passion play for America’s civic religion

Lone Survivor, Peter Berg’s film about the doomed 2005 Navy SEAL mission Operation Red Wings, was a pop-cultural phenomenon. The film made $100 million in less than two weeks of release, and Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze posted a picture of a theater in Texas that had cancelled screenings of other films due to the popularity of Lone Survivor. The film’s reception by eggheaded Coastal Elites was more mixed, but critical reviewers were nearly unanimous in drawing comparisons to Mel Gibson’s 2004 megahit The Passion of the Christ. The comparison was made so often that in a piece titled “5 reasons the Left is hating Lone Survivor,” one exasperated Patriot said “enough with the The Passion of the Christ references already…nearly every negative review of Lone Survivor brings up Gibson’s epic.”

The similarities between both films are deeper than just the onscreen violence, though. The comparison is ubiquitous partially because so few films are so devoted to visiting excruciating violence on their heroes and gazing on it in such detail. However, the film’s reception and the cultural space it occupies are totally different than in the cases of other violent films. Lone Survivor and The Passion share more in common than just violence: both are martyrdom narratives. Lone Survivor is received and defended with the same vehemence as a movie like Gibson’s crucifixion epic because the military occupies a quasi-religious space in the American national imagination.

Lone Survivor opens with a credit sequence over real footage of BUD/S training, and takes about half an hour before the discovery of the four-man SEAL team deep in hostile territory that precipitates the film’s brutal battle sequence. During the SEALs’ fight for survival, the four are shot with Kalashnikovs, blasted by rocket-propelled grenades, repeatedly forced to leap off cliffs, and endure bodily harm that most people can’t fathom. The sequence and the real-life events it recalls are meant to impress upon the audience valor, sacrifice, and great physical courage (It’s also meant to recall the event that precipitated America’s posture of endless war. Berg has told interviewers “The cliff jumps were reminiscent of September 11, jumping out of the towers.”).

However, Lone Survivor isn’t unique in its depiction of graphic violence. Plenty of films—12 Years a Slave, for instance—depict gruesome, durational violence. 2013’s Academy Award winner for best picture is undoubtedly brutal. The violence includes a group lynching, rape, a long sequence in which the main character must stand atop his toes to avoid being hanged, and an even longer sequence in which the slave Patsey has the flesh whipped off her back. It’s “visceral, graphic, [unrelenting,] and so very, very bloody.” However, neither 12 Years a Slave nor any other movie in memory has earned all these comparisons to The Passion.

Lone Survivor shares with The Passion a unique symbolic resonance, not just a visual one. The violence in Mel Gibson’s pre-Vatican II opus is the violence of religious martyrdom. The signifiers of Christ’s martyrdom are unique—the crown of thorns, the Via Dolorosa, the crucifixion—but the narrative is universal. In Shi’a Islam, for instance, the martyrdom of Imam Ali commemorated during the Holy Day of Ashura has its own vocabulary but shares the same tropes. Ali and his retinue chose to face an insurmountable force, were brutalized and martyred, and in death provide us an example for how best to live. Lone Survivor resonates because it tells a secular martyrdom story beatifying the sacrifice of its military heroes. Continue reading

Stewart Sanitizes Barry’s Bombs

A recent popular Daily Show segment exemplifies the worst aspects of the show’s tepid centrism

Though Jon Stewart is quick to tell people that he’s “just a comedian,” The Daily Show has a unique ability to frame politics in the public consciousness. As a comedy show, it’s able to reach viewers who would otherwise be politically disengaged. Large numbers of people who get their news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and these people tend to be better informed than consumers of other media sources—belying the idea that it’s “just a comedy show.” The fact that the show appeals to both an audience who considers themselves politically left-leaning and a wider audience that’s more apolitical gives it the ability to shape the popular discourse that a lot of traditional news shows would envy.

However, though the show is a liberal pop-culture institution, the show is profoundly respectful of the status quo. While Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert skewer the most obvious hypocrisies of our political system, they show respect and deference to a political system that exports tremendous violence abroad and increasing repression and inequality at home. A widely shared Daily Show segment from February 19th illustrates how pernicious show can be. Reflecting the show’s broad appeal, the opening segment received praise and exposure in both mainstream outlets like Yahoo! TV and leftist news sites like TruthDig.  TruthDig called the video “hilarious and scathing,” but it’s anything but.

The opening segment, with the headline “Jon Stewart calls Obama the ‘Barry Bombs’ of drone strikes,” dealt with the Obama administration’s extrajudicial killing policy, specifically the issue of targeting Americans for assassination without due process. When discussing a state claiming an Imperial prerogative to kill its own citizens, Stewart offers only a mild reproach of individual foibles. Worse than insufficient criticism, though, the segment is an active whitewashing of Obama’s assassination policies and his administration’s theories of limitless executive power. The piece is embedded with multiple misleading claims, actually flattering Obama in the guise of a critique. The segment encapsulates all the worst aspects of The Daily Show’s tepid, establishment-serving centrism. Continue reading

The Middle East’s “artificial borders” and America’s history of unleashing chaos

On a recent road trip from the Bay Area to northern Washington, I noticed a strange phenomenon: the borders between US states, and even the border between America and Canada, were only indicated via man-made cues like signs and checkpoints. It was strange because I keep hearing about violence in the Middle East, chiefly in Syria and Iraq, and how the region’s problem is its “artificial” borders. Conventional wisdom has coalesced around the idea that the original sin that’s lead to the Syrian Civil War and the resurgence of violence in Iraq is that those countries are “invented,” with illegitimate borders decided upon by the whims of mere humans. What I saw on my road trip made me think that all borders are invented, and maybe every country is man-made, not just Middle East regimes outside the Washington consensus. But who am I to argue with this kind of establishment consensus! Talking about the resurgence of Al Qaeda, journalist Dexter Filkins explained:

“What’s developing in front of our eyes is this very terrifying kind of regional, sectarian war that is basically stretching from the Iranian border all the way to the Mediterranean. The longer this war goes on in Syria, the greater the impact in the region, whether it’s Lebanon, or Iraq, or Jordan. These countries are artificial countries, most of them were drawn on a map in 1919 after World War One.”

The current Middle East conflicts, as Filkins explains, are due to the “artificial” nature of the countries in question. As opposed, one presumes, to the countries of North America and Europe, whose shapes were ordained by Providence. Filkins isn’t alone in ascribing the current violence in the Middle East to the arrogant whims of Sykes and Picot. The idea that century-old cartographic laziness is at the root of today’s Mideast violence is a popular one, repeated in the pages of the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, and by Fareed Zakaria, one of the theory’s early adopters. In a segment on The Daily Show, a personification of the British Empire named Sir Archibald Mapsalot explains the “bad borders” theory as the unfortunate result of British imperialism and the ignorance of its administrators. America’s wisest pundits have found the culprit behind the current bloodshed in the Middle East, and it is the 19th Century British Empire. How convenient, and by sheer coincidence, exculpatory for the Middle East’s current imperial master, the United States. Continue reading

It’s time for regime change in Canada

This was inspired by a satirical piece in the Washington Post titled “Canadian regime roiled by provincial scandal, sparks fears of instability.” The series talks about Canada as if it was “China or Afghanistan,” highlighting the different way that the media covers countries that fall outside the Washington consensus. If only the idea of invading Iraq or overthrowing governments in Latin America was as absurd as the idea of regime change in Canada.

The increasingly erratic behavior of regional chieftain Rob Ford has forced the international community to ask if Canada is descending into anarchy. Ford’s prolific drug use and propensity for violent threats is reminiscent of the warlords of Liberia’s Civil War, but he’s merely the latest example of Canada flouting international norms. The regime of Stephen Harper has overseen a decade of unprecedented Canadian military buildup. Harper has demonstrated increasingly authoritarian tendencies upon assuming power, repeatedly shutting down Parliament on a whim. A prominent Canadian commentator has warned the world of Harper’s “billy-club governance, ironclad controls, scorning of accountability, censorship, smearing of opponents, [and] power unto one.” As Harper and his cadre have dispensed with the façade of Canadian democracy, his government has strengthened ties with Beijing and declared its commitment to the exploitation of Africa. Canada has also militarized its presence in the Arctic, threatening free trade, energy resources and global stability. The international community must set a clear red line that Canada cannot violate with impunity. The world has stood idly by in the past when authoritarian leaders set their sights on territorial gains abroad–never again. Continue reading