A former student of mine - who now works in TV/film - shared the above trailer for the movie that supposedly set off the riots in Benghazi, Libya with the observation
soooo this is the trailer for the movie that caused people to riot? Horseshit. Unless the riot was lead by hollywood critics opposed to the terrible quality of the film and acting. Which then I would not blame them.
And, he’s right, it is truly awful. There is no criticism that could be leveled against the artistic quality of this film because it truly lacks any of them. It has a no narrative - even for a trailer - the cuts are random; the acting is terrible on its own, made worse by the illegitimate dubbing it appears the criminal filmmaker did after the fact in order to concoct this juvenile, xenophobic compendium of criminally reductive stereotypes. Mind you the crime here is not intolerance alone, but of the sheer idiocy of this piece of propaganda. The only thing it does for viewers in this country is caricature the worst banal racisms, casting them in a truly offensive light - here, in other words, it is propaganda that will have the least possible effect (unlike, for instance, the Danish cartoon contest, which seems to have at least placed these caricatures in an aesthetically pleasing shell.
However, it does seem to have worked as black propaganda - or that is what they say. I was still unclear as to why anyone would see this as anything more than the ravings of a single lunatic. But something struck me in this interview with a journalist on the ground there in Libya, complements of Al Jazeera:
In it, the journalist - who it does seem is interested in projecting the Salafist side of the story, but in this case that seems like a wise thing to understand - mentions that the groups had called for a protest at the US Embassy, on the anniversary of 9/11, because “they heard the movie was going to be broadcast in the states on that day.” (c. 00:30 seconds).
So, in other words, the people in the streets (or some of them) had seen this film - or the trailer for this film - and been told that it was not just the Syphilitic ravings of an instigator, but it so closely represented the U.S. citizens’ basic understanding of the Arabic world it was set to be broadcast on national TV or released in some broad fashion. This gives another perspective to the story - and makes it slightly more explicable why people are in the street.
To the question of what they have done now that the crowd is out of control, the Salafist groups that called for the protest insist they didn’t call for violence, only protest, thanked the embassy for their condemnation of the film (via Twitter) and according to the journalist they are working to quell the violence on the ground. The anchor was skeptical of this, but it is plausible that they got people in the street and are now unable to channel that energy in any way. And, not exactly knowing how it got out of control, they may not have the tools to single-handedly restore order.
The same goes for the U.S. itself. The sitting administration has received inane criticism for condemning the film - and, really, there are so many reasons to insist that it is both a terrible film and not the dominant view of the majority of US citizens, up to and including our reputation for making occasionally tasteful, intelligent films. But there also seems to be a belief that there is something that the U.S. could do to settle down the situation. As one observer in this later conversation on Al Jazeeera said:
“I’m afraid there’s really nothing the US can do in the short run. I mean, if you’re young, unemployed and angry, do you really need a good reason to throw rocks? No, you don’t: it could be about anything and it happens to be about this.” (c. 02:00)
Here there are two lessons I see - assuming either of these reports/expert observations is anything approaching the truth - emerging from this. They both relate to the dominant understanding of how social groups should operate. GOP friendly critics here (believing as they do that the Arab Spring basically just code for the Brotherhood taking over) can accuse Salafists of sparking this, Salafists can claim they’ve lost control, and the U.S. can claim there is nothing they can do about it - and all of them can be right.
As the first expert here points out, whatever you want to call what is going on here, the people in the region are flexing their muscles as they wake up. This is what organizations like Al Jazzeera (cf. the film Control Room) have long wanted to facilitate with their reporting. But as theorists of revolution have been pointing out for years, there are always competing parties vying for control - and they are almost always on the verge of losing control. And this is where the ideological argument about what is needed or what started this runs aground.
The problem is systemic and the moral imperatives we would like to take for granted - for instance that people don’t riot in the street or throw rocks - become increasingly less salient the more desperate people are made (and the more they begin to expect something other than desperation.) The quote above about young, employed, angry people throwing rocks is one we should all take to heart as we decide what path we need to take.
I’ve heard some disturbing comments recently about the “entitled” generation of today’s U.S. 20 somethings. I have heard it secondhand from people already safely employed, taking advantage of the high unemployment to tell the latest graduates they need to expect less - of themselves and of their employers. In realist terms, this may be very true: but coming from the mouths of employers, it reeks of a certain self-interest. And in the mouths of elite apologists it appears as ideological posturing.
Likewise, I’ve heard it from people holding strong to the argument that the center-right Democratic President is overseeing the transformation of the country into a socialist dictatorship. In this context, the youth of today (and especially the Occupy Wall Street movement) are simply looking for a handout, unwilling to do any real work and expecting the world in return. Since this is usually mentioned by people who came of age in the 1960s - when there were actually rising expectations - I’m usually inclined to accuse them of calling the kettle black. But even that misses the point.
The problem is that simply telling people they shouldn’t do this - that they shouldn’t demand more of their society, their government, each other - is an empty platitude that offers those who disagree only one option: to keep fighting with increased intensity until they are allowed to be heard. It also recommends the complete repression of this outburst as the only possible route to retain social stability. In other words, if people who are unemployed, young, and angry and all they see is desperation in their future, no amount of moralizing will keep them from throwing rocks: the only thing you can do is crush them politically and militarily.
And, of course, this is just what the real GOP strategy for the 2012 election entails: voter ID laws around the US are meant to disenfranchise those who, to paraphrase a 17th century reactionary, don’t have an “eye to property.” In other words, the already disempowered and disenfranchised - those who are obviously losing under the current arrangement and who, if given the chance, will likely want to have someone help them get a better deal. In other words, there is a long, curving line that connects all these outbursts. And until there is some material, political, economic changes made to inspire hope, the potential for that outburst - in the U.S., Egypt, and throughout the world - will only increase. Whether it will be in the well organized channels of rank and file union action, as it is today in Chicago, or in the less organized attempt at a controlled ignition of seething anger elsewhere in the world, things will continue to happen. And no amount of moralizing will stop it unless there actually is a moral system behind it.
So, in short, I don’t exactly know what ignited the protest - though the broadcasting of this film would certainly be enough for me to protest in those circumstances - but its spread and intensity seems best explained by the fact of present conditions on the ground.
I think there is also a lesson to be learned by the GOP, who seem bent on using the most reactionary elements of American culture and society to propel themselves back into power. It is a bargain they seem to have made in the 2010 election and, like the Salafists, I don’t believe they really have control over it. Maybe I don’t give them enough credit, but my hope is, if they do win, they will be able to ratchet back the discourse enough to keep people from heading down the path they seem to be advocating. For although ideology doesn’t in itself explain why people take to the streets, it can be a powerful organizing principle that offers solutions to perceived ills. And the more the problem is seen as one involving immigrants, minorities, and leftists, the more likely it is that they will be forced to act against their scapegoats once they get into power - possibly in ways that will make for an increasingly barbaric civilization for us all.