An All-American narrative that fails on many fronts: Why Hollywood can do better

I watched ‘American Sniper’ last night, to see what the fuss is all about. The first thing that struck me is  that the narrative of the film is so simple minded: us versus them, that it could only appeal to the uber-patriotic, All-American gun-trotting rednecks. Yes, this is about a war and also about the life of a soldier who loved his country (nothing wrong with that), but what the film does commit, in terms of egregious omission is to leave out the context of the war itself. That is the biggest flaw of the film. If this film is meant to be a bio-epic, meant to uncritically worship a war-hero, it has succeeded well, but if it has attempted anything slightly more than that, then it has failed miserably. And we are poorer, for it.

First things first: I love Clint Eastwood (as an actor and a director).Second: I have no problem with patriotism, as long as it is a ‘thinking’ kind of patriotism, one which has space for criticism for one’s country. Blind patriotism for any country, even if it is the ‘greatest country in the world’ is just that – blind – and often open to abuse by others, especially those who have authority over us. Extreme nationalism has often led to the worst kind of crimes in recent memory – from Nazi genocides to genocides in Bosnia, Kosovo, India/Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Where the film fails is in its uncritical and almost banal portrayal of the Iraq war as a ‘normal’ war. There is no nuance in the film, whatsoever and I am not surprised Clint Eastwood is behind the film. I love Westerns and if he was trying to re-create one, it wasn’t a good idea and it has turned out to be rather banal. The narrative of us versus them is so clichéd, that it is boring. There are absolutely no efforts to humanize the enemy and that is the most disturbing part of the film. It is too simple a narrative for a very complex set of events, which was initiated by a lie – anyone remember the WMD scare? By now, most rational human beings acknowledge that the Iraq war was an absolute disaster on all fronts – geopolitically, economically and politically, for Americans and those who were at the receiving end of the war too – namely, the Iraqi people. ISIS is but a side-effect of this war, just to put things in perspective.

I don’t intend to review the film here, but think that a barebones outline is important, for those who haven’t watched it or don’t plan on doing so. The movie is about Chris Kyle, a sharp-shooter from Texas. He is the most talented shooter in the US Seals and is sent on missions to Iraq to hunt down the ‘bad guys’. And given his acumen at shooting targets, he gets to be one of the top snipers. Or infact, THE top sniper in the U.S. armed forces. The first half talks about his coming into his own, after failed attempts at becoming a cowboy and he ends up joining the Seals, to serve his country. This is also where he meets his future wife, gets married and is deployed to Iraq, almost immediately after his wedding. The second half of the film shows a stressed Kyle, who wants to ‘go home’ and be with his wife and kids. It shows the numbing impact that all the killing and mayhem has on a human being and the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, only that Kyle doesn’t seem to recognize it, or even acknowledge that he killed (some) innocent people, who were caught in the cross-fire. To Kyle’s simple mind, all Iraqis are enemies or allies of enemies. In a scene, where a civilian Iraqi invites Kyle and his buddies to dinner turns out to be a snitch. So much for showing Iraqi hospitality. Perhaps this happened in real life, but nevertheless, my only beef is that there is absolutely no good Iraqi in the film and that was a disturbing and nagging thought in my mind, as I watched the film.

The bigger question that this movie is raising and one that needs to be raised, is who do we eulogize as heroes? While war is a terribly complex phenomenon, where soldiers are often told to follow orders or face consequences, there are also those who choose to shoot, kill and participate in these wars, many of which are unjust. Granted, that not all soldiers are critical thinkers and don’t devour Adorno or Horkhimer and ponder about the meaning of it all, I would presume that some would question the validity of such a war and its basis in fact. This aspect of the war is almost completely ignored. So is the context of the war itself, which I think it critical to understanding the actions of the people involved. While earlier wars like the Vietnam forced conscientious objectors such as Muhammad Ali to stay away from the battle field, recent wars have perhaps have had the opposite effect, namely, to get young, unsuspecting and often naïve youth to sign up for a war that is not just unjust, but perhaps one that has caused the most devastation in the last 20 years.american-sniper-poster-fb1

If this film was meant to create a hero out of someone who killed about 160 people and had absolutely no regrets about taking human lives, including that of little children, then it has done a fine job. On the other hand, it fails miserably in portraying the complexity of the Iraqi lives. Civilians, combatants and everyone are clubbed together into a simple narrative. The enemy. Surprisingly, we don’t meet a single ‘good Iraqi’.

If I could meet Chris Kyle, that is the only question I would ask him: Did you come across any Iraqi who was NOT your enemy. The answer to that would reveal a lot about the character of a man, who many are worshiping today.

So, you want to get a Ph.D ?

About half a dozen friends have reached out to me, over the last two and half years since I have been in a Ph.D program (in the U.S.) to ask me what it is like. While it is impossible to fully describe what it is to be a full-time student, and the joys of going through this process, I’ve tried to condense a few key issues into the points below. Much of what I have written here applies to American academia. I hope it helps those who are sitting on the fence or are undecided if a Ph.D is for them. Here goes:CaH

  1. You will be poor – for a long time: While the glamor of being surrounded by intellectuals, really smart professors and access to (quite literally) all the books in the world is sexy, remember that unless you have a lot of savings of your own, a significant other who is supporting you financially or are from a rich family; you will be poor. And this means, deciding between indulging in a $5 pizza or saving it for a book, that you need. It can be depressing, at times. And this could range from between three or five – at times ten years, depending on how quickly you can finish your work and how cooperative your committee is.
  2. You will be terribly lonely – also for a long time: This is another fact. Unless you have a super-high IQ and a photographic memory, you’ll have to read, re-read and discuss ideas, books and films that will form you as an intellectual. This means that you will have to spend time alone. By nature, I can be reclusive, while maintaining a social personality, so this has been easy for me. But I do wish my program had more social events/ gatherings and occasions to meet people. Remember that in your undergrad or Masters level courses, there are dozens of likeminded people you can meet, but in a Ph.D program the cohort is typically small, sometimes as small as six people, three of whom you may not like. The other two may be whackos. So, good luck making friends.
  3. Get used to feeling stupid – hopefully not for ever: The first year is the hardest. I felt incredibly stupid in my first year in the Ph.D program. But I have started feeling better, incrementally. Remember that almost all the people you will interact will have a Ph.D and may not necessarily understand your work, unless they are all in the same field, which is unlikely. So, putting a bunch of very high IQ people together, who don’t understand each other makes for an interesting situation. Much of the time, you may end up being the most junior person around and as a consequence, feel like you don’t know anything worth knowing. Unless you are a cocky son of a bitch! In which case, everyone will hate you.
  4. You will be criticized, called out and perhaps attacked – All in good spirit, though! Academics are notorious for tearing each others ideas apart, telling you that none of what you are researching makes sense. I have been told more than once that I should consider an alternate career, rather than research and teaching. We’ll see what comes of this process…on the other hand, there have been people (academics) who are incredibly supportive and think that I will ‘re-define the field of research on Islamic philanthropy’. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Only time will tell. The point is, that everyone is trying to finetune their ‘critical thinking’ and being critical of others intellectual output  becomes second nature. I am much more critical of issues in general now, than when I started the program.  But this also means that you need to find a group of supportive, faithful friends who will see value in your work and help you grow intellectually.
  5. Your life will change : As one of my mentors at the Maxwell School said: “If you are single, you’ll get married, if you are married, you (may) get divorced and if your parents are alive, they’ll probably die, during your Ph.D program.” A sobering reality indeed. And yes, in my case, some of his predictions are turning out to be true.

Now that i’ve delivered the bad news, here is some good news, some of the  redeeming factors:

  1. It can be the most intellectually rewarding experience of your life– The process of thinking through, debating, writing on issues that you care about deeply can transform you, as a person. Also, I’ve been terribly lucky to have met, worked with and hung out with some of the smartest people in the world.
  2. You will start feeling smart about yourself, after some time – I’ve gained some of the confidence that I lost in my first year in the program. Once you start realizing that there are few people who are as focused as you are, in your area of research, your confidence will (usually) grow. That is, if you are putting in the effort, getting ‘peer review’ that is positive and getting published in peer-reviewed journals – a sure sign that you are doing ‘something right’.
  3. You will perhaps be the only person in the world who will know (almost) everything there is to know about your topic. An economics professor shared this wisdom with me, about a year ago. Her words still ring in my ear. She said “Once you finish your Ph.D, you will probably be the only person who knows the most about your topic, in any room you enter.” Think about that for a minute.
  4. You will probably end up in a very stable and rewarding career, after the struggle is over.
  5. June, July August: As one of my other mentors said, the best reason to get a Ph.D and enter the Academy – June, July and August. You get three months off work. And if you are lucky to get a tenured track position, this means you get to write a book, research or travel during these three months. Which other job allows you to be so free and independent? I can think of a few…

“We Are All…. – Fill in the Blank” – Guest post by Dr. Noam Chomsky

Yes, we got Chomsky’s thoughts on this issue! Read on…

MENASA World

The world reacted with horror to the murderous attack on the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo. In the New York Times, veteran Europe correspondent Steven Erlanger graphically described the immediate aftermath, what many call France’s 9/11, as “a day of sirens, helicopters in the air, frantic news bulletins; of police cordons and anxious crowds; of young children led away from schools to safety. It was a day, like the previous two, of blood and horror in and around Paris.” The enormous outcry worldwide was accompanied by reflection about the deeper roots of the atrocity. “Many Perceive a Clash of Civilizations,” a New York Times headline read.

Photo credit : Chomsky.info Photo credit : Chomsky.info

The reaction of horror and revulsion about the crime is justified, as is the search for deeper roots, as long as we keep some principles firmly in mind. The reaction should be completely independent of what one thinks about this…

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Does Islam need ‘reform’?

I am truly upset and angry that more than 12 people have died because of some vile cartoons. It should not have been, but it is so. I think the important task for people in France now, as well as around the world is to come to terms with it and deal with the aftermath. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a lot of questioning along the lines of: Why aren’t Muslims condemning the attack (the answer: Yes, most Muslims are condemning these killings) and Why aren’t Muslims ex-communicating the killers (Pierce Morgan said this, in his recent column). The answer to Mr. Mogran is that unfortunately there is no ex-communication in Islam – This is because there is no ‘Church’ in Islam, like the Catholic faith, to which he belongs. So, before we all start pontificating and becoming ‘experts’ on Islam, extremism and French culture of ‘freedom of speech’, which as we have seen has been quite shallow – given that Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist, not too long ago, for drawing ‘anti-semitic’ cartoons, here are a few points to consider:

  1. Can we please see this for what it is : An attack on a publication, by three lunatics, who were motivated by some motives – we still don’t know what they were – the only ‘facts’ we have are that they shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and that the prophet has been avenged. Beyond this, we don’t know much about their real intents, who sent them and for what purposes. So, any speculation about Islam’s role and its impact on creating a chaotic world should be tempered.
  2. Though there are violent Muslim groups and militias that claim to work for bringing about an ‘Islamic world order’, it is more a chimera than actual reality. The worst of the lot, ISIS has been an aberration of the vilest kind that came about after the collapse of Iraq and the ongoing civil war in Syria. Religion the cause for this group to emerge? No. Geo-politics: Yes.
  3. Yes, there is a problem in terms of how Muslims in Europe respond to provocation. A similar provocation in the U.S, would resulted in an articulate response – perhaps with some mockery thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the immigrants who go to Europe are often impoverished, not too educated and are at the very bottom of European societies. This does lead to resentment and (perhaps) radicalization of youth.
  4. Why is the media framing this as a problem with ‘Islam’? Though similar protests have occurred in the past, during the Salman Rushdie controversy and the Danish Cartoons one, the issue really is one of relations of power. Muslims in many part of the world are marginalized, colonized and often attacked with drones. This reality fuels anger and resentment. I think many of the violent actions that we see are a result of such perceived and real oppression. Will the ‘West’ recognize this and amend the real and (perceived) injustices in places around the world?
  5. Before we call for ‘reform’ in the Muslim world, let us in the West also realize that we need reform too. We need to reform ourselves and get rid of our addictions to war, easy credit and perhaps Coca Cola. This too, is causing many health hazards and deaths.

I am personally tired of all of that is going on. Tired of people who carry out such attacks, tired of the apologies and those who ask for it and tired of those who publish these cartoons, to lampoon, attack and insult. Freedom of speech has to be placed in context. As much as I defend freedom of speech – remember I am in the Academic world, which wouldn’t be as it is, here, if not for freedom of speech – I do think there is such a thing as irresponsibility. And with power to shape opinion, create dialogue or mock, comes responsibility. Those in positions to write, think and create ideas should be sensitive to this.

Do Scholars have a social responsibility?

The amount of b&%* shit that I see in the ‘public domain’ on a regular basis makes me want to cry. Really.I am researching Islam in the U.S. and one can only imagine the amount of non-sense that there is, out there, along with genuine, credible scholarship. I would hazard a guess that at least half of the stuff on internet, about Islam is wrong or misleading information. That is another story, but in this piece, I want to focus on what responsibility scholars have, if any, to correct this anomaly.

Take the story of the Pythagoras theorem being an Indian invention or that Indians inventing flying and that they had airplanes over 7000 years ago. Absurd? Well, for some, in the hallowed corridors of power, in India, this is the ‘truth’, as absurd or illogical as it sounds. And there are well-meaning people who will point out that this is part of making India a ‘great nation’. What? A great nation, based on falsehoods and myth? One cannot build self-esteem by claiming thing that one has not done or by outright falsifying history.

Photo courtesy: beautifultrouble.org
Photo courtesy: beautifultrouble.org

To be clear, my beef is not with Indian culture. I love my country of birth and have no issues with my ‘identity’. I am very secure in who I am and have a lot of affection for my people and our ways of life. Thankfully, my identity is fully formed, despite having moved around, a few times. I do not place myself in the category of the self-hating Indian who wants to diss on Indian culture, while extolling the ‘West’. The West has as many problems as the East and we can talk about this till the cows come home. That is not the point.

My problem is with this self-congratulatory attitude of attributing all good exists in the world to some Indian scientist or mathematician . The same sort of myth making is at place here that exists when one speaks of the Israel/ Palestine conflict, an issue I am intimately familiar with, having studied it during my MA in International Affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. I do believe, on the contrary that tradition is important, culture is valuable and that we should draw inspiration from our past. But how do we do that?

Let’s first start with the question: Do scholars have a social responsibility? I have been thinking about this for a while, as I prepare to enter the hallowed field of the American academy. I must admit, I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with, studied and spent a great deal of time with some world-class scholars, who have contributed to the study of American society, religion, nonprofit management, international relations etc. in the past four years and have nothing but enormous respect for the time, energy and dedication that they bring to their work. But the question remains: beyond the three core responsibilities of – teaching, service and research, do University professors /scholars have a broader social responsibility? When debates of race, religion and war and peace come up, are academics supposed to provide only their ‘scholarly opinion’, i.e., specialist knowledge and not ‘take sides’ or actively jump into the fray and help the lay man make up his/her mind? Not an easy answer, that one.

In a debate of this sort, there are several large and small-scale issues involved. I list just three here,

  1. The State’s legitimizing of certain forms of knowledge
  2. Scholars own careerism and search for legitimacy
  3. What counts as ‘knowledge’

Each of these is a configuration and does not stand on its own. What the ‘state’ apparatus denotes as ‘valid knowledge’ is key. Think of the times of war and peace, when propaganda becomes ‘truth’ and all versions of truth that do not match up to this are considered ‘lies’. McCarthyism and Bush era propaganda are enough proof to show anyone that this has happened in the past, and will occur in the future. Sometimes, scholars get too cozy with the powerful, especially if they legitimize one’s knowledge. Think of Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, in the recent past and their relationship with the Bush administration. They have been discredited in part because of the policies of the government, but they also gained legitimacy and power through the regime, when their ideas were being converted to policies and these policies were being implemented. A more recent instance of blowback is that of John Yoo, who wrote the torture memos, for the Bush administration.

For a more theoretical and nuanced take on this, see Michel Foucault, here.

As the article points out, power and knowledge are not seen independently but linked – knowledge is an exercise of power and a ‘function of knowledge.’ Further:

Perhaps his most famous example of a practice of power/knowledge is that of the confession, as outlined in History of Sexuality. Once solely a practice of the Christian Church, Foucault argues that it became diffused into secular culture (and especially psychology) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through the confession (a form of power) people were incited to “tell the truth” (produce knowledge) about their sexual desires, emotions, and dispositions. For example, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that a new discourse of “sexuality” had fundamentally changed the way we think about desire, pleasure, and our innermost selves. In Foucault’s argument, discourses about sexuality did not discover some pre-existing, core truth about human identity, but rather created it through particular practices of power/knowledge.”

Applying this to any form of knowledge production, one can see how a ‘regime of truth’ produces the kind of knowledge necessary.

So, in the case of India’s glorious past or that of Israel being the ‘promised land’, power/knowledge do come together to create myths and ideas that legitimize state policy. As the ‘New Historians’ in Israel Israel’s Ilan pappe and Benny Morris have shown, Palestinians did not ‘voluntarily’ leave the region, but were forced out in 1948 and the years following. Many of the myths held by Israelis as ‘truths’ have been debunked, with recent scholarship by these two scholars. Then there is Shlomo Sand, whose book The Invention of Israel

As this Guardian article points out:

“In 2009, Shlomo Sand published The Invention of the Jewish People, in which he claimed that Jews have little in common with each other. They had no common “ethnic” lineage owing to the high level of conversion in antiquity. They had no common language, since Hebrew was used only for prayer and was not even spoken at the time of Jesus. Yiddish was, at most, the language of Ashkenazi Jews. So what is left to unite them? Religion? But religion does not make a people – think of Muslims and Catholics. And most Jews are not religious. Zionism? But that is a political position: one can be a Scot and not a Scottish nationalist. Besides, the majority of Jews, including many Zionists, have not the slightest intention of going “back” to the Holy Land, much preferring, and who can blame them, to stay put in north London, or Brooklyn or wherever. In other words, “Jewish People” is a political construct, an invention.”

Myths, truths and half-truths

Then there are articles such as these that speak of airplanes in ancient India that went from one country to another. Myth and facts don’t seem to be separated in any of these accounts. While fantasy, myth and the like have a role to play in life, I think we cannot base the teaching of history on these ideas. The article, in a prominent Indian magazine says “Aeroplanes existed in India 7,000 years ago and they travelled from one country to another and from one planet to another, the Indian Science Congress was told today in a controversial lecture that examined ancient aviation technology in the Vedas. The hosting of the lecture, presented by Captain Anand J Bodas, a retired principal of a pilot training facility, had recently attracted criticism from some scientists who said it undermined the primacy of empirical evidence on which the 102-year-old Congress was founded.”

Where does myth end and facts begin? For the faithful, doubt has no place in mind. Blind-faith in any ideology can be harmful – be it nationalism, religion or science. In this case, Indian nationalism is being revived with utmost force and I am guessing the consequences are not going to be good. Each time this has occurred, there has been a war or a mass murder. Think of the partition of India, Wars with Pakistan, China and of course the countless ‘communal riots’ that take place in India, on a regular basis – that pit the Hindus and Muslims each as a ‘nation’, fighting it out. It looks like some people never learn their history right. And if they do, they do it in a way that boosts their own self-image and ego.

Scholars such as Shlomo Sand, Edward Said, Michel Foucault have all challenged, questioned the existing discourses of power that have legitimated certain forms of ‘knowledge’ as being true. Countless others continue to do so, in the academy and through their writings. Teaching of history, arts and social sciences is inherently a political exercise and one can take ‘sides’, while being honest about it. But I argue, what one should not and cannot do, is to be so blind to facts and one’s own biases. One cannot  blindly follow the path that legitimizes one’s world-view without seeking out alternative modes of reality, or reality, or peddling one’s own ideology as the ‘truth’.

To sum up, here is my take on whether scholars have a social responsibility. In short: Yes. They do. They do, because they are ‘powerful’ in that they have invested a lot of time, energy and money to acquire knowledge that is not accessible to all. They also have the power to legitimate a discourse. To misuse this power, either for personal gain or for gaining others favors is not only irresponsible, but also unethical. To ensure that one acts responsibly and ethically is the greatest responsibility that a scholar has. And this, I believe will be the test of true scholarship. Scholars are supposed to produce good, credible knowledge that advances our knowledge of the world, or questions injustice. Everything else is irrelevant.