The war between the civilised man and the savage

A provocative ad which debuted last month in San Francisco is making its way to New York subways today.

A pro-Israel ad that debuted in San Francisco last month depicts Muslims as savages and Israelis as civilised [EPA]

Starting from Monday, September  24, 2012, as the UN General Assembly picks up momentum in New York and heads of states from around the world come to the Big Apple for their annual gatherings, New Yorkers and their out of town guests are treated to quite an advertising spectacle.  

“In any war between the civilised man and the savage,” the ad will read, “support the civilised man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”  

The ad began its debut last month in San Francisco on city buses, and is now heading to New York subways. According to CNN: “New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority initially rejected the ad… But the authority’s decision was overturned last month when a federal judge ruled that the ad is protected speech under the First Amendment.”    

An organisation called the “American Freedom Defence Initiative” has produced the ad and “has been fighting to place the message in New York’s subway system since last year after the authority refused to display it”. 

According to the Washington Post, “A conservative blogger who once headed a campaign against an Islamic centre near the September 11 terror attack site won a court order to post the ad in 10 subway stations next Monday… The blogger, Pamela Geller, said she filed suit Thursday in the nation’s capital to post the ad in Washington’s transit system after officials declined to put up the ad in light of the uproar in the Middle East over the anti-Islam film.” 

Over the last few days, since the news of this ad started circulating the media, pictures of the ad have appeared on the internet – with many Americans categorically denouncing its evident racism, while the more enterprising New Yorkers initiated a Twitter campaign to protest the ad to start on the same Monday with the hashtag #MySubwayAd. 

What’s in an ad? 

Two crucial aspects of this ad have far reaching implications that its immediate and boorish racism can in fact conceal. We need to unpack this ad for the sign of something else that it is – first, who exactly is its audience, and second, what to make of its vintage vulgarity.  

“We need to unpack this ad for the sign of something else that it is – first, who exactly is its audience, and second, what to make of its vintage vulgarity.”

The timing of it with the UN General Assembly may create the impression that it is intended for a primarily global audience, while its astonishing vulgarity might make it appear as exceptional and the work of a lunatic fringe. Both these impressions need further scrutiny.  

Though the timing may in fact have targeted a global impact, a proposition compromised by the fact that the UN delegates don’t usually take the bus or the subway in New York and are in fact chauffeured around in their diplomatic limousines while escorted by the New York police motorcades, the primary target of the ad is in fact domestic and only by extension global. That it is intended for Washington, DC may also mean targeting foreign embassies, but coupled by its initial campaign in San Francisco almost definitively marks its domestic targets. Targeting the domestic and foreign audiences need not be mutually exclusive, and can in fact be complementary. But given the foreign policy implications of the ad, the domestic audience should not be overlooked.  

Domestic targets 

The fact that this ad is primarily (but not exclusively) targeted for domestic use is evident in the two dominant tropes of “civilised man” and “savage” – the two terms immediately applied by the white supremacist European colonial settlers in the US and the Native Americans, respectively. As I have said on many occasions, the visual tropes and active vocabularies of white supremacist racism is very limited and they keep regurgitating it against one target of their anxiety or another. The “civilised man” was (and remains) the white European man and “the savage” was his designated trope for the Native Americans. “Savage” has in the course of American history been subsequently extended and transmuted to include African Americans, Latino Americans, and now only by extension Muslim Americans – all the moving targets of anxiety for white supremacists.  

Like all racist adages, the ad partakes in very old racist tropes and the appearance of the phrase “civilised man” twice in the span of a short sentence reveals the racist pedigree back to the early American history – and that it is in fact a woman who is using this phrase is an absolutely delightful mot juste that reveals the supreme victory of the phrase in the collective consciousness of racist brutes beyond age and gender!  

The target of the ad is thus primarily domestic against what is called multiculturalism, old and new immigrants, and the massive demographic changes in American society – a deeply anxiety-provoking fact for the fictive white man and his white supremacist limited regime of knowledge at work here.    

Precisely the same anxiety had led only a decade ago to “the clash of civilisation” thesis by Samuel Huntington, which Gellar now violently vulgarises. In my critique of “the clash of civilisation” thesis, published more than a decade ago in the International Journal of Sociology, I have already demonstrated in detail how the rise of civilisational thinking during the 1990s in the US was already targeted far more domestically than globally – a claim I made in 2001 and confirmed four years later when Samuel Huntington published his Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2005).     

The “clash of civilisation” thesis was the Harvard University professoriate version of this illiterate buffoonery that is now riding on New York subways – identical racism put in two different parlance, one polished and careful and the other vulgar and naked, both targeting domestic non-white Native Americans, African Americans, and recent immigrants by way of consolidating a fictive white man at the centre of American history and political culture.  

The fact that the principal culprit behind this bigotry is in fact a domestic danger to reason and sanity in the US has not been lost on progressive Americans who have been on her case for quite some time. The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a non-profit civil rights organisation “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society”, has in fact done a thorough exposé on her 

In a way, this ad is in fact a badge of honour for Muslims to have joined the ranks of Native Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans and others who have periodically been the subject of white supremacist hatred. Muslims have finally arrived in America!  

“The ad is not an exception that proves a rule, but an exception that camouflages the rule.”

In this sense, Geller’s pathological utterance in public is thus identical to Mitt Romney’s now infamous tape in which he openly denigrates and dismisses half of the American population as lazy freeloaders. Romney and Gellar are just not too intelligent to say what they mean in more guarded language. Indeed as Romney subsequently said in an attempt to justify his 47 per cent comment, he did not put it elegantly. Exactly. He is a badly educated and vulgar rich man who says things very nakedly, as is Geller. Two vulgar racist class-conscious supremacists thrown into the public ill-prepared to camouflage their racism as a Harvard professor would.    

The exception that hides the rule 

The second most visible aspect of this ad, immediately connected to the first, is its astonishing vulgarity. That vulgarity in effect and unwillingly mimics Zionism – stealing other people’s homeland and crying uncle! By incitement to murder, by encouraging ethnic cleansing, by being associated with a vulgar Zionist who has been an inspiration to the European mass murderer, Anders Breivik, this ad stages a particular brand of American Zionism appropriately placed where usually advertisements for Calvin Klein underwear or “Gentlemen’s clubs” and other similar commercials appear. 

By thus commercialising the Zionist cause, it places it squarely within the visual regime of loutish consumerism – where it now squarely belongs. It thrives on mimicking Zionism in its advanced stage of having wedded the ethnic cleansing of Palestine to the consumerist fetishism definitive to American militarism. 

But Americans and non-Americans alike baffled by the depth of this vulgarity in effect blind themselves to what this blatant vulgarity conceals and reveals at one and the same time.  

To understand this concealment, this commodified mystification of Zionism, we need a quick detour to the sublime insight of the exquisite French semiotician Roland Barth (1915-1980) in his reading of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). In one of his most insightful short essays in his Mythologies (1957), “A Sympathetic Worker”, Barth speaks of a certain kind of “truth vaccine” by which he means how in Elia Kazan’s film “a small gang of mobsters is made to symbolise the entire body of employers, and once this minor disorder is acknowledged and dealt with like a trivial and disgraceful pustule, the real problem is evaded, is never even named, and is thereby exorcised”.   

This is exactly what we are seeing here. The thick vulgarity of the ad turns it into a caricature, safely distances it from Harvard political scientists theorising “the clash of civilisation”, as it distances it from the very core of American imperialism, so that “once this minor disorder is thus identified and acknowledged” as “a trivial and disgraceful pustule”, the real problem – namely the fact that the entire American foreign policy, its demonisation of Muslims in the courses it teaches in its military academies, its flushing the Quran down the toilet by way of torturing Muslim “savages”, by drone attacks on innocent people in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and by its unconditional support for Israel repeatedly articulated by President Obama are all “evaded, never even named, and thereby exorcised”.   

So if you are angered, disgusted and outraged by this ad, watch it, you are being taken for a ride, and not just on San Francisco buses or the New York subway cars. For the ad is not an exception that proves a rule, but an exception that camouflages the rule.  

As to what exactly should be the Muslim response to this racist Islamophobic ad – well you just read one response: no kicking, no screaming, no climbing any walls, no burning any flag, no act of violence, no room for any corrupt Pakistani politician to cover up his own corruption by inciting to murder – just a little theoretical tit for a bit of vulgar tat. They want to terrorise you into silence; you turn around and theorise their vulgarity. That’s all – on to the next atrocity.  

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.  His most recent book is The Arab Spring:  The End of Postcolonialism (Zed 2012).