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Wednesday, 19 September 2012

When 'the story' isn't the story

The murderous attack on the American consulate in Benghazi has been followed by further assaults on other western embassies. It is claimed that the ‘reason’ for these so-called riots is that locals have taken offence at the content of a low-budget film produced in the US. The film, "Innocence of Muslims" (by all accounts, a pretty amateurish production), portrays the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, a ruthless killer and a child molester.

Depressingly, much of the reporting of these terrible events has chosen to focus on ‘who’ made the film and ‘why’ they made it, as if any of that matters. Some commentators even decided to focus on how certain Western political figures interpreted the attacks.
One particularly striking headline in yahoo news -"Romney politicises embassy killings"- provided a near-perfect illustration of the ‘let’s-just-put-our-blind-eye-to-the-telescope’ approach some people have taken to this story.
The truth is that ‘the story’ here isn’t about why or how a bunch of amateurs made their little film. Nor is it about how a politician who isn’t even in power reacted to the events. The story is that innocent people got murdered by an ugly mob intoxicated on a heady mix of belligerent ignorance, a childish sense of grievance and sheer political opportunism. All of this, we should not flinch from pointing out at every available opportunity, is depressingly underpinned by a myopic, literal, atavistic interpretation of a text written around 1400 years ago.

To pretend that the motives of the folk who made the film is somehow the story or that Mitt Romney’s reaction to events is somehow the story, is to collude in giving the murderers an easy ride. Instead of apportioning blame in the right places and making some rational judgements on an irrational, pre-medieval set of superstitions and values, some have chosen to retreat from responsibility and focus instead on what they perceive to be the political bad manners of the film makers and the Republican party candidate.

Let’s get this clear: Mitt Romney didn’t ‘politicise’ this event; the act of attacking the American consulate was not only hugely symbolic, but explicitly political. To deny that is to patronise and belittle those who carried it out. Radical Islam has a global political vision, about which it is deadly serious. None of us really know exactly how much of a threat it carries, but it has enough of a track record to suggest that we should at least accord it the respect of taking its political acts and political intentions seriously.

Another egregious element of that headline was the clearly pejorative use of the word ‘politicise’. To use ‘politicise’ as a dirty word demeans political discourse. Politics doesn’t have to be about consensus and constraint. It can be awkward, dirty and rife with conflict. By denying ‘politics’ -that is, adult, frank, no-holds-barred political discourse- we willingly diminish our cultural options. Little wonder then, that today’s political landscape is as sterile as Teletubbyland, wherein each photogenic protagonist is merely a colour-coded deliverer of the latest vapid sound bite.

It is this very de-politicisation of politics that has helped smother our cultural discourse. Framed within the stiff, formal and stifling boundaries of political correctness and cultural relativism, we are reduced to interpreting events like the Benghazi attack by focusing on anything other than the naked truth.

Sadly, the US government, by asking youtube to ‘consider’ its policy on sensitive material, now seems to believe that freedom of speech is not such a noble cause, after all. By bringing the film-maker in for questioning, the administration also appears to have adopted the same view on "Innocence of Muslims" as the folk who burned down the consulate.
These actions alone will have confirmed to the ‘rioters’ that they are on the right track. It’s hard to see how they could conclude anything other than the fact that they can, with impunity, carry out similar attacks on American and other western embassies.

But some folk still want to put that blind eye to the telescope. Some folk still want to believe that ‘the story’ isn’t really the story.

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