Friday, March 19, 2010

Blind Truth

An essay written concerning Orientalism in contemporary society for a sociology class, based on the image above.

The lines between reality and dramatization are bisecting in such a way, that the concept of truth is becoming difficult to discern. During the war on Iraq, the world watched on live television the toppling of a thirty-five foot steel statue of Saddam Hussein carried out by Iraqi civilians. This event came to symbolize the end of Saddam’s dictating regime. However, the event was later discovered that it had been unsuspectingly staged by the American army who used such figurative imagery like the American flag, to dominate, conceal and distort Saddam’s Islam into one that gives the Western world a sense of superiority and patriotism while they “liberate” the Iraqi people. Having such an event staged by the American army impels one to consider their motives and if it was carried out for political advancement. Iraq, at the time, was being shown by the West, through numerous media outlets as a place of chaos and violence, summoning the notion that the West should come to their aid by annexing and occupying areas deemed “uncivilized”. How the East is shown, framed, and interpreted by the West is often an idiosyncratic expression that has been termed Orientalism, by the cultural critic and author, Edward Said.

Orientalism itself, is nothing but “a created body of theory and practice” (Said 133), which the West latently utilizes to identify and label other, non-Western cultures. It is built upon numerous stereotypes and biases accumulated throughout history and applied to Eastern culture in a myriad of forms. From the beginning, Orientalism was a “product of certain political forces and activities” (Said 142). For instance, when the Imperialist West first set foot in places such as Egypt they brought with them armies of botanists, architects, biologists, historians, and so on, to survey the land to create a large body of knowledge that documented the region for a strictly European audience. Such a work exemplifies a dominance over a foreign territory, its people, and its culture, while manifesting a sense of superiority and power. Harkening back to such events is the iconic act when an American soldier blinded the face of the statue of Saddam Hussein with a star-spangled flag before toppling it during the Iraq war. Such a readerly act (a deliberate, fixed meaning, not open to interpretation) came to symbolize that Saddam’s regime has been attacked and dismantled. Having an American soldier standing face to face with Saddam, the secular dictator, and blanketing his face with the American flag instilled a sense of “superiority over Oriental backwardness” (Said 134) throughout the West and proposed the notion of taking over Islamic forces. During the physical dismembering of the statue, Iraqi men were unsuccessful in toppling Saddam themselves, so an American armored vehicle was called in to take over, exhibiting the relationship the West has with the East; “a relationship of power, of dominance...” over the Eastern people who are “submitted to being - made Oriental.” (Said 133). Orientalism signifies this power and dominance that the Western world holds over the Orient, more so “than it is [a] veridic discourse about the Orient” (Said 133). Said states, that Orientalism is a fabricated ideology composed of “modern political-intellectual culture,” that has “less to do with the Orient than it does with [the Western] world” (Said 138), which then enables the West to utilize this Ideology to their political and economic advantage.

The act of toppling the statue of Saddam signifies our understanding of the Orient, where we conceal, control and manipulate unknown, foreign, and misunderstood culture with something unambiguous, that has a common resonance, in this case the American flag. This event defames Islamic culture by being blatantly iconoclastic, with the intention of destroying Islamic imagery and replacing it with American imagery, and subjects Islam to American politics and occupation. From the beginning, “American interest in the Orient was political” (Said 137), however it was American culture that created this interest among the masses. By showing the Orient, through various mediums, as a place of despotism, eccentricity, backwardness, of silent indifference, American culture made the Orient seem like a place “requiring Western attention, reconstruction, even redemption.” (Said 144). The way the West viewed Iraq, was of a culture uncivilized through the confrontations the East had with the West; through terrorism, secular dictatorships, ties jihad had with the muslim religion, leading to assumptions that this area “ought to be annexed or occupied by advanced powers” (Said 145). After the statue was toppled, the crowd was shown on Western television close to chaos in their chanting, jeering, kicking, and hitting the fallen Saddam with their shoes (a symbolic gesture of contempt) leading to the eventual parading of the decapitated head through the streets, strengthening such notions of savagery and uncivilized behavior associated with the Orient by the West. The West was not showing any peaceful satisfaction amongst the Iraqi people after Saddam’s regime was brutally torn down. Said states that “more advanced cultures” when dealing with “other” cultures have “rarely offered the individual anything but imperialism, racism and ethnocentrism” (Said 143), which is a daunting thought considering through Imperialist actions Americans are possessing such a place. During the toppling of the statue, the Iraqi crowd did not welcome the American flag and saw it as “a step too far towards American triumphalism” (BBC), so the flag was quickly taken down because Americans “...didn’t want to look like an occupational force” (Zucchino). This act alludes to the eventual control America has in Iraq during and following the “War on Terror” and the Iraq war, where through occupying, annexing, and possessing, Americans were attempting to liberate and bring peace to the Iraqi people, while dominating their oil supplies for the West’s benefit. A flag of the region was later produced by the crowd and erected in its place.

Western politics is interested in matters that either directly affect it, or in issues that can be translated into economic terms. Benefits such as oil, and political allies like Israel, located in the Middle-East whose religion clashes with that of Islam are major contributing factors that led to the occupying of Iraq. The political societies of the United States (the police, the army, the central bureaucracy) generate a sense of political infusion in civil societies (schools, families, unions, state institutions) by “impart[ing] to their civil societies a sense of urgency,” when “matters pertaining to their imperial interests abroad are concerned.” (Said 137). To fulfill imperial interests, such as the occupying of Iraq, political society exercised the indispensable concept of hegemony onto culture, where it dominated civil society and culture itself, through acts of coercion and consent. Said states that such a political imperial presence is an “intellectual and historical impossibility” to avoid as it spans “an entire field of study, imagination and scholarly institutions” (Said 139), allowing it to indoctrinate society through a number of mediums, like television, at an efficient pace. The toppling of Saddam’s statue, watched by millions around the world through a live television feed, saw an event unknowingly staged by “a quick-thinking Army psychological operations team that made [the event] appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking.” (Zucchino). An unidentified Marine Colonel thought of the idea to demolish the statue, not the Iraqi people as assumed by the television footage, to create a memorable image of the invasion of Iraq. Such an event gives the West the impression that they are treating the situation in Iraq (by occupying it with the military) in an unquestionably appropriate and moral way, as long as the Iraqi people are shown as being grateful of such an American presence, while their formal system of government collapses in front of them. The psychological operations team “used loudspeakers to encourage Iraqi civilians to assist” in the toppling of the statue and even “managed to pack the vehicle with cheering Iraqi children” (Zucchino), the same vehicle that was used to bring down the heavy steel statue. The coercing power of the event was produced by the army, framed by the media of news broadcasting (who are seen as a source of truthful and unbiased information), and consumed by the public through television, all with political interests in mind. This shows that the media itself is controlled by commercial and political interests, where it reiterates ideas of the government more so than it demonstrates investigative reporting.

A powerful envisage of superiority from the West over the East led to an intended, fabricated geographic division made up of “us” and “them”, where “they” are seen as alien and subordinate, is a product of Orientalism. Orientalism itself, seems to be fixed eternally, outside of time, where it spans from when explorers first saw the new world and its residents, to the present day, where we manifest assumptions about the Orient and its peoples based on the culture around us, sometimes subconsciously. Subconscious Orientalism, or latent Orientalism, as used by Edward Said, is an amalgamation of willed, imaginative concepts, theory and practice of the East by Western society, to such an extent that the West makes assumptions and stereotypes the East unintentionally. However, in instances such as the toppling of Saddam’s statue, the act of “Orientalizing” Iraq was deliberate, that it was manifest Orientalism. Through fast-thinking choreography, the United States army managed to show the Iraqi people in an expedient, formulated manner that delivered, and reinforced preconceived notions of the East, while all the while giving America the upper-hand. Identifying that the toppling of the statue was staged and shown through the media as a live event, makes one think critically about what is, and what has been projected on to the masses. Soon, will we be unable to distinguish what is really, sincerely happening because truth is too concealed, or will everything be portrayed in a choreographed manner that simply reiterates lines of the government?

Works Cited
Said, Edward. “Orientalism” (1978), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Zucchino, David. “Army Stage-Managed Fall Of Hussein Statue” The Los Angeles Times. July 3, 2004.

BBC. “ On This Day: 2003: Saddam Statue Topples With Regime” BBC. April 9, 2004.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010