Middle East

Press the patriotism button, baby
By Sreeram Chaulia

In George W Bush's America, it is the season for political dolls to again become big hits with shoppers, reminding toy market analysts of the Saddam Hussein "action figures" that stole the Christmas sales in the winter of 1990-91. A small firm in the state of Connecticut, Herobuilders Inc, is raking in fabulous profits generated by unique 12-inch talking world figures that utter politically correct dialogues when the button on their heads is pressed.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein comes wrapped in a pocket-sized sado-masochistic outfit, holding nukes and germs in either hand, threatening to blow up the "free world". Herobuilders' figure of the US president, spouting 17 tough-talking Bushisms, sold out its inventory of 50,000 dolls in less than a week in early December 2002. Among the doll's aphorisms are Bush's landmark declaration made at Ground Zero in New York after the twin World Trade Center towers were destroyed, "The people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon." This dialogue is followed by raucous background cheering of construction workers and rescuers: "USA! USA! USA!"

The piece de resistance of Herobuilders' repertoire is the talking doll of Osama bin Laden, costing US$36. Press down on his white turban and he squeaks in a rather Yankee-doodle style, "I suck! Would you stop bombing me? You're killing me. I suck! My turban is too tight, I made a big mistake, all jihad go home. I was just kidding. I suck. Oohoohoohoohoo!" Toyshops claim that this doll has beaten all previous action figure sales records and that makers are planning a second version programmed with even more funny quotes from the sheikh.

Toys of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani are struggling to compete with this all-star lineup, but they, too, have interesting comments to make. Blair convinces buyers that it is in the "interests of world peace that Saddam is disarmed". Giuliani praises the "spirit of New York which can never be cowed down by mad terrorists".

What is to be made of all this? One way of looking at the phenomenon is to argue that Americans are a very informal, sporty people and enjoy spoofs of politics and politicians. Ever-popular WWF wrestlers mimic the president and wear underwear with the stars-and-stripes on it. "Dubyaman" comics and pictures of Bush reading "Presidency for Dummies" circulate with rapidity. Talk show comedians come on television and rubbish Kim Jong-il as a dissolute dimwit. Irreverence and casualness, according to this line of thought, is endemic to the American way of life and no icon is too big to be spared some debunking in popular culture.

The alternative view, which I hold, is that Herobuilders company is nicely buttressing the Bush doctrine of preemptive war to "extend the benefits of freedom across the world". (See The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002). When legendary trainer Nick Bollettieri was asked the secret of America's monopoly of world tennis champions, he replied, "We catch them young." Political dolls do a similar service - they capture and color the psychology of American youth at a formative and impressionistic age. The norms and ideas the Bush, Saddam and bin Laden dolls impart are far more effective than what children learn in school textbooks.

As subtle carriers of propaganda, a-la James Bond films during the Cold War, the dolls help shape a new generation of proud, nationalistic and president-saluting citizens. They sow the seeds of a peculiar American morality whose first canon is "we" are good and "they" ("Russkies", "commies" or "jhadis") are evil. The simplistic dichotomy of good against evil, which the Bush doctrine reiterates, does not raise eyebrows in average American homes, thanks to the groundwork laid by action figures and Superman cartoons. It is the same spadework that results in a singularly American trait: "flag patriotism", which far supersedes the occasional underwear buffoonery of wrestlers. In no other country does one get to see the national flag so profusely exhibited in front of homesteads, on motor vehicles, in shopping malls and on school bags of tiny tots.

These visual symbols collectively assist in inculcating the unquestioning sense of loyalty toward a regime that is waging war after war after war. Latest opinion polls conducted earlier this month reveal that 87 percent of Americans consider Iraq a "threat to national security". That such an overwhelming majority has bought the Bush line - without conducting any objective analysis or common sense thinking - is living proof that the business of "getting folks to rally behind the flag" is roaring in America.

Noted historian Tariq Ali has likened Bush's Americanism to another form of religious fundamentalism that thrives on whitewashing domination, manipulation and extermination, and relying on the good-evil paradigm to prepare domestic constituencies for foreign misdemeanors. Taboo questions that are not encouraged in this "religion" range from "Why are we going after some evil, and ignoring or mollycoddling other evil?" and "Did you know that the US air force used chemical and biological weapons extensively in the Korean War?" to "Why do we spuriously parrot that our actions always defend democracy and liberate oppressed people when we know that it is a lie?"

The most that adherents of this religion are willing to acknowledge, as the character named "Control" does to Richard Burton in the classic Cold War flick The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is that "we" sometimes use "evil methods" to counter evil, thereby preserving good in the end.

A tiny segment of American civil society, located in university campuses, church dioceses and human rights organizations, is without doubt vibrant and vigilant, organizing peace marches and asking the taboo questions. But their efforts are largely met with apathy, or worse, antipathy from the mainstream. Last month, I marched in a peace rally in Syracuse, a small New York town, and found to my consternation that the 50-odd banners we planted on the grass along pavements near the city center were crossed out with red paint the morning after the demonstration.

Our script had read "No blood for oil in Iraq". In red sanguine-looking paint, someone had retorted: "Be American. God Bless." Only a religion, thoroughly internalized, can propel citizens to brave the cold of snowy nights simply to overwrite a few taboo questions on innocuous placards. Here was a first-rate illustration of Tariq Ali's "clash of fundamentalisms".

In 1988, John Mackenzie published Propaganda and Empire. The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, a remarkable history of ideas and norms that formed the societal consensus behind the last round of British worldwide expansionism. Glorification of martial virtues and the persona of Queen Victoria, backed by misinformation about the civilizing mission of colonizers like Cecil Rhodes, spread to all layers of British society from the 1880s onward. Textbooks, imaginative brochures, advertising, theater, radio and institutions like the Boy Scouts were used by the crown to trumpet the "liberation" (more accurately, the selective genocide) of the "heathen lands". No room was left for doubt whether the colonial project was causing irreparable human and psychological damage to the subject peoples.

The air in America these days is a lot similar. The Cold War ended de jure in 1991, but the glory and religious fervor of unipolar empire is sinking in only after September 11. More and more common citizens are getting touchy about "pacifists" who oppose the Bush doctrine. More and more school kids are punching the plastic helmet on Herobuilders' Saddam Hussein toy to hear the Iraqi dictator guffaw and warn, "America, I'm coming for you with all my germs." More and more children, asked what they want to be when they grow up, say "Real American Hero".

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Jan 22, 2003

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