Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fitna and the YouTube revolution

Like others, Sageman believes the Iraq war, which appeared to legitimize the idea of a rapacious West in conflict with Islam, was a spectacular own-goal for America. Unless the idea can be successfully countered, he says, America may find itself confronting not just a terrorist fringe but a substantial segment of the Muslim world, which would intensify and prolong the conflict to a disastrous effect.

Recently, Holland saw the release of the controversial Geert Wilders film, Fitna.* The film prominently features the usual cast of jihadi nut-cases; the bearded outback characters who George W. Bush single-handedly turned into internationally renowned mega-villains. I can't help but think this film -- whether its purported purpose is to defend freedom of speech or serve as a warning -- only compounds this East-West problem in much the same way Bush did when he initiated his "War on Terror." The film seems to give free publicity -- not to mention fodder -- for those extremists who have hijacked Islam for their own purposes. To make extremists appear to be influential and historically potent is surely to hand them greater power. In today's media-delineated world, perceived power is quite easily convertible into to real power. To so empower an otherwise impotent enemy is to score "own goals."

Out of China this week comes rage about a Western media bias concerning Tibet. And as for "proof" of a CNN "plot" aimed against China, someone only needed to post a cropped photograph, and then make video about it along with various examples of slipshod newsroom editing ("Riot in Tibet: True face of western media" which is approaching one million views on YouTube). Another polemic guised as an authoritative history, "Tibet was, is, and always will be a part of China," has been viewed over two million times on YouTube.**

In the emergent Youtube culture, there is a market for history that packs an emotional punch -- whether the issue is the legitimacy of China's occupation of Tibet or the emergence of radical Islam. Viewer outrage can be choreographed. But the more serious injustices, issues open historically curious, dependent on reasoned argument and analysis and a sympathetic stretch of the imagination -- will uncovered and unexamined in this environment. Shock sells. And the are made to appeal to peoples preformed prejudices. (Islam? Terrorists. CNN? Biased to the core). The new passionate histories may be in English, but they seem tailor-made for ethnic groups, whether Han Chinese or white Europeans.

For those of us who hoped that personal broadcasting would free us from the metal blinkers of the broadcast TV, 2008 has been a rude awakening to the world wide war of images. More than any time before, as Marshall McLuhan put it, "the medium is the message."
* Wikipedia has a plot synopsis for the controversial film Fitna.
** Government manipulation: Whether the topic du jour concerns radical portraying radical Islam as existential threat to the West, or extols China's claim to Tibet, it looks as if it would be relatively easy for a government to manipulate new media platforms like YouTube for covert propaganda purposes. I think we should keep this in mind.

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