Monday, June 28, 2004

J Lo's backside - the new shock and awe 

American popular culture once again wins hearts and minds where the armed forces not always can. Nicolas Rothwell of the "Australian" wanders the streets of Baghdad and chats to the locals:

"Some of us in Salam City only like the Americans, singers like Shakira, Westlife, J-Lo; very beautiful, and a big butt as well," says Sadiq, a recently graduated maths teacher, as he shops at Bahgdad's best music store, owned by the new Iraqi president's cousin.

"The time for American troops to take a step back may be coming closer, in the minds of the young Iraqis of Salam City - but there are some new things, gifts of the invasion, that they don't want to do without: the ubiquitous Nokia 3310 mobile, for instance. 'We call it the family phone, everybody has one,' Sadiq says, 'and we didn't have all this one year ago'."
Elsewhere, Haidar, a refrigerator repair technician, muses on Western movies:

"Iraqi people really like the new releases coming out these days. We've got Army of Darkness and Terminator 3 and Air Strike and The Rock with Sean Connery - that one's about the first Gulf War, and it's full of important lessons for Iraq today, and for all the Middle East... We don't like the American army any more but we really like the movies."
All this sounds like good news of sorts, and on one level it is, but it's so much more important that ideas like free elections, representative government, protection of minorities, freedom of speech and worship, and free market capture the imagination of Iraqis and people elsewhere throughout the Middle East, rather than J Lo's ass or Arnie's muscles.

Cultural influence is good but clearly insufficient to make the world a better place. I remember reading P J O'Rourke's adventures in Lebanon, some twenty years ago now, where he got stopped at a Hezbollah checkpoint by heavily armed militants in Western t-shirts who told him they would like to move to Detroit. Not much has changed since then, either for the better or for the worse.

The real transformation will come when people understand that they can have only so much of the Western imports they long for - popular culture, fancy consumer goods - while rejecting the superstructure that makes it all possible: the free society and the open markets.

Many in the "Orient" have in the past tried to cherry-pick and acquire the Western veneer without the Western substance. Peter the Great comes to mind in Russia, the Meiji emperors in Japan, and most recently Mahathir of Malaysia with his pep talk to Muslims (we "must build up our strength in every field, not just in armed might. Our countries must be stable and well administered, must be economically and financially strong,industrially competent and technologically advanced" in order to counter the nefarious Jewish and Western influences).

Yes, you can take what you want out of the West - technology and economic progress, for example - you can modernise without Westernising. But only in the short term. In the long term, you have to realise that the reason the West (broadly construed) is so rich and powerful is because it's open and free. In the long term you cannot grow the fruits that you desire without the soil that makes it all possible.


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