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The Cultural Landscape as a Metaphorical Killing Field

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People might have been shocked and awed to read that Hitchens (like Bin Laden) felt exhilaration when two planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11 and (like Bin Laden) saw the acts as answering a higher calling – 9/11 was the means in which to finally engage perceived enemies in an endless war from the trenches of his writing desk. Mass murder had become the occasion in which to commit mass murder in turn, but it was for a much better cause of course: exporting secular democracy to the Middle East under false presences. Indeed, it had become a good time for war and the use of cluster bombs on identifiable enemies had a heartening effect upon him.


But wait, there’s more bloodlust and fanaticism in the name of the greater good: widely banned cluster bombs were morally defensible in this war because it could go “straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that too” (Adam Shatz, “The Left and 911”, 23 September, 2002). Instead of continuing to speak truth to power, Hitchens increasingly spoke to power on the grounds that the ‘liberation’ and occupation of Iraq justified the rising death toll and civilian casualties. We were finally seeing the “tree of liberty of being watered in the traditional manner” – with other people’s bloodshed (Christopher Hitchens, “Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War”, 13 January, 2004).


Hitchen’s argument with God merely revealed his own grandiose thinking: it was narcissism and zealotry writ large. While his attempt to make the world reflect a more rational ‘design’ was not without justification (or irony), such arrangements traditionally had their own boundaries and limits. Indeed, the higher faculty of reason was ideally not to be used to sanctify favored positions or falsify (negate, diminish) alternate viewpoints when more charitable approaches abound. Instead of adopting the principle of charity to ensure our shared humanity, (his) reason became a poison chalice to be passed around.


Its no coincidence that the hitchslap has claimed many victims and will continue to be an enjoyable spectator sport – Hitchen’s gladiatorial approach satisfies the widespread desire to turn our own cultural landscape into a metaphorical killing field. Consequently, he appeared to believe his own publicity and encouraged others to worship at the altar of idolatry. Perhaps that’s why he tended to pick his targets and audiences – unlike (say) the famous debate between Friar Copleston and Betrand Russell, our defender of civilization seemed incapable of having a civil conversation about the existence of God (amongst other things). And therein lies the problem of an increasingly combative and imperial Hitchens ‘terrifying’ rhetoric: Like his enemies, Hitchens used the power of reason to exalt himself and/or build temples to self serving beliefs. And not unlike Charlie Sheen, he was all about the ‘winning’ – he might ‘win here’ and he might ‘win there’, and somehow believed that small minded victories would make a provincial world view omnipresent. Reason had become an instrument of violence and colonization for him, and the ‘force’ of his arguments had little to do with encouraging others to participate in an ongoing dialogue or strengthening their positions. Indeed, Hitchens’ intolerance of competing and/or ‘weaker’ views throws into question his commitment to the homegrown democracies he wanted to export.




First Bloom of Democracy Award


“In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, and then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again”. No, these are not the lyrics to the new Rebecca Black single. They’re banal words famously mistaken for illuminating advice in Being There. As our idiot savant Chance Gardner reassures us: “There will (always) be growth in the spring!” Perhaps what is most illuminating about the advice given is the way it was taken. The meaning of Chance’s words grew out of the consciousness of observers, and people merely saw what they wanted to see.






Unfortunately, such simple mindedness (and opportunism) could be seen in the West’s response to upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East. It’s true, of course, that the Arab uprisings officially had their roots in an argument over the sale of fresh produce. Mel Brook’s Producers, however, had already established that ‘springtime’ was a laughable political concept and deserving of its bad rap in To Be or Not To Be . Western media outlets nonetheless jumped on the bandwagon and ‘branded’ the waves of anger the Arab Spring. The images of Arabic people calling for more equality and freedom was obviously seen as a sign of growth in the West. The ‘power of the people’ was taken as vindication of Western values and civilization. It’s not by chance, then, that the Western ‘brand’ had two popular labels: the Facebook  and Twitter revolutions.


While recent studies readily confirm the role social media actively played in planting the trees of liberty, many Westerner’s failed to notice something staring them in the face. The Arab people were already in the process of changing – otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible to cultivate anger online in the first place. Facebook and Twitter registered shifts that had been occurring offline for years. The use of social media fails to explain, for example, why online activism failed to bring about the anticipated spring in Iran’s 2009 Presidential election or why an internet savvy Bahrain remains rooted in a winter of discontent. The disparate 2011 ‘revolutions’ (however fruitful) had their roots in the more fertile ground of culturally specific dynamics and issues.


As Sourcewatch documents, however, the popular brand name predates the 2011 uprisings; namely,  ‘Arab Spring’ coincides with the American led invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent spring cleaning (sic) speaks more to Western aspirations and policies. The reality is that a freedom loving West was helping to prop up repressive regimes like Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the first place. A coalition of powerful democratic nations had been undermining ‘the people’ and their ‘power’ until (or unless) it suited its purposes. A complicit free press was equally disinclined to tell the story of ‘the people’s’ daily struggles and aspirations – which is presumably why the Western media appeared to be similarly caught off guard by the uprisings.


This is not to suggest that the branding should be viewed with complete skepticism. It’s to caution against the Orientalism that continues to inform the West’s selective and/or wishful thinking. We therefore need to resist the tendency to view a wide spectrum of people as the same being there.

Steven Aoun was the film and television critic for Australia's leading film journal Metro magazine. He has also written music criticism for Melbourne's daily newspaper Herald Sun and been an editorial assistant for CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, the peer-reviewed quarterly of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. He is currently writing a PHD on the nature of critical theory and may even finish it within this lifetime. Steven regularly contributes to PopMatters as a feature writer and previously wrote the column Through the Looking Glass and the Flashpoints series. Steven can be contacted at bonnee01@gmail.com when he is not also writing the novel "On Caroline Jane's Happiness".


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