Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"The Sheikh's Batmobile" (2009): the freedom to trash-talk

In America where so much of culture is a commodity (here today, gone tomorrow, resurrected weekly: Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen), many of us hardly pay attention any more to its impact. At the local check-out counter of U.S. consumerism, "culture" with quotation marks included just seems another come-on along with the gum and candy -- all sticky-sweet and really, really bad for you. Forget regulating the holistic vitamin-supplements in the Nature's Garden aisle: would it be possible to put a FDA ratings-system grade on, say, the National Enquirer? The Globe? Soap Opera Digest?

Of course trash culture is fleeting. Thank goodness. (The newsprint-brick of The Sunday New York Times, on the other hand, seems to clutter up floor-space indefinitely. That's how you can tell it's serious about culture.) Beyond the admirable political yearnings in their respective countries, what's happening now in Egypt, Algeria, Libya and elsewhere is, not surprisingly, becoming about media control and what is done with it by various factions. Here's a thought: Is it possible to think that ideas of democracy and freedom may hinge on free access to America's trash culture?

Inexorably, people with internet connections and twitter accounts in Cairo and elsewhere learn the United States, and the Western world in general, is not "an enemy of the people," no matter how many times a day the mantra is repeated in state-supported news broadcasts and officially-sanctioned government decrees. Wikileaks show that state departments and government leaders are still playing cautious tag-you're-it games with each other, mostly about the serious issue of who controls the oil, while the crowds of people in Tahrir Square are demanding freedom of access to the equally-serious ephemera of Western culture.

To be fair, the system is working in reverse here in the U.S.: we have our own, opposite, and commercially-funded fear-of-Muslim-culture machine going, which seems just as trash-culture driven. Democracy, it appears, will only happen when the Bagdad Galleria opens and there are Coke machines at President Ahmadinejad's headquarters. That may take a while: a recent Wikileaks report indicated the Iranian Prime Minister was slapped by the head of the Revolutionary Guard for suggesting in January -- well, just a bit more freedom in the press:

"Ahmadinejad claimed that 'people feel suffocated,' and mused that to defuse the situation it may be necessary to allow more personal and social freedoms, including more freedom of the press ... Ahmadinejad's statements infuriated Revolutionary Guard Chief of Staff Mohammed Ali Jafari, who exclaimed 'You are wrong! [In fact] it is YOU who created this mess! And now you say give more freedom to the press?!' Sources said that Jafari then slapped Ahmadinejad in the face, causing an uproar."

Since WWII American culture has always been a viable commodity to the rest of the world: there are Pepsi logo T-shirts on the crowded streets of Mumbai. it may not be long before the streets of Cairo flutter with the blue globe of AT&T. Not to be underestimated: the impact of Al Shamsoons, an Arabic version of America's favorite dysfunctional family, The Simpsons, already a hit in Egypt.

Here's an excerpt from
The Sheikh's Batmobile: in Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World, by Richard Poplak (Soft Skull Press, 2009). The corporate branding in Muslim countries is already underway. And like it or not beyond the wishes of Donald Rumsfeld, the winning of hearts-and-minds in Muslim countries may be accomplished by unimpeded access to the lyrics of that great American ambassador, Eminem.

Her English was as perfect as it could be . . . but what surprised me was her popular culture lexicon, which was missing only one or two elements.

“No,” she said. “I have never heard of this Borat.”

She gave a lengthy encomium on the Porsche Cayenne, spoke passionately about the work of action film stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Vin Diesel, and ran through some Eminem lyrics. Child of an isolated ex-gulag, resident of a town populated mostly by kids in third-hand Nike tracksuits, old Manchester United swag and Michael Jordan–era Chicago Bulls T-shirts — refugees from Planet Nineties all — Misha was surprisingly erudite when it came to Western junk-culture.

Which is perhaps, why she seemed so at home in the bowling alley. I, on the other hand, was struggling with a particular condition of the twenty-first century. With “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blaring, I was hit with a profound disorientation, the feeling that I’d slipped through time and space and landed in the middle of a nowhere/everywhere land ...

[Misha] was playing a dancing arcade game—a version of what I remembered as Bust-a-Groove ... What struck me was the expression on her face — one of fierce concentration and unmitigated joy. I knew precisely where Misha was: She existed within the song, inside that moment — and I knew the feeling well. I understood that her liberation — however momentary — burst forth from the range of popular culture she had borrowed from a land that was, at least ideologically, the enemy.


Bill said...

god bless our wonderful trash culture

Beth said...

Good one, Mark. Gotta read this. Andy and I cherish our collisions with our own culture reinterpreted by overseas friends and colleagues. This is a popular topic with us. Made more interesting as FB opens us up to more regular contact. Thx.