Opposite day: Arabs and Our Surveillance Society

Curator's Note

My first thought upon being asked to present something on media and conflict in the Middle East was ah, they must be talking about my stout, short aunt Mahassan arguing with her sister, my stout, tall aunt Salwa over whether to watch The Bold and the Beautiful or an Egyptian soap opera. But then I remembered that Middle East conflict means something different to my fellow Americans.

The video on the left is a clever amalgam of the representation of Arabs in American film and TV. It shows just how yummy we find consuming the image of Arabs doing violence to us. Now, I’m not asking you to empathize with all those poor, misrepresented Arabs or to momentarily dwell in the irony that we’ve done a lot more violence to them then they’ve ever done to us. Instead, I want simply to ask: what makes consuming the Arab terrorist taste so good? Maybe Arabs in conflict taste so good because they impart a real flavor to what it means to be American? Their brutality towards ‘their’ women makes us feel soft and fuzzy about ‘ours.’ Their overly profound attachment to their religion, makes us feel pretty comfy at having abandoned our own, whatever that may be. Maybe their irrational violence helps us a bit to rationalize our own culture’s profound need to inflict violence upon the Middle East?

But realistically, who cares about sympathy for the Arabs? I’m interested in sympathy for us Americans! So, let’s pretend that it’s opposite day. Let’s reverse the binary of representation and pretend that what we see in media is not a case of Americans representing Arabs for whatever reasons, but that the familiar leering Arab images are the result of Arabs representing themselves in American media the way they really are.

If we’re willing to accept a connection between the ‘reality’ of media representation and the ‘reality’ of political choices, then on this opposite day you can see all too clearly what the Arabs did to us by showing their true face in our media. You’ll understand when I point to the Patriot act and say “look what those violent Arabs did to us!” For surely it was those Arabs in constant conflict who twisted our collective arm until we released our grip on civil liberties. Surely the Arabs forced us into the necessity of allowing our government to keep a watchful eye on our bank records, library withdrawals, telephone calls, travel plans, and who forced us into having to engage in the distastefully Eastern act of torture (though it’s not really torture when we do it.)

You’ll see that the Arabs, representing themselves in our media as they really are, are responsible for all of the new reflexive monitoring regimes in marketing and governance that build upon fear of the violent other to secure our submission to surveillance and control. The critical contrarians among you will now be hemming and hawing… am I suggesting that Arabs have changed our notions of subjectivity? Our notions of space, time, and social control? Pshaw. You will be pointing out that if while maybe-just-maybe demeaning airport security checks, near-limitless power of government surveillance, and regressively limited constructions of contemporary American national identity might be down to those pesky Arabs and the fearsome image they created in our public sphere, those are only part of our new surveillance identities. Nanny-cams, traffic-cams, RFID’s, and instrumental corporate surveillance of our consumption patterns for the purpose of profit and control have nothing to do with Arabs.

You will want to argue the following: despite the fact that the increasingly total surveillance of Americans in a corporate environment has become naturalized, especially amongst our youth; despite that we engage in self-reflexive surveillance through cell phones and social networking websites as a matter of choice; and despite that all of this is happening in the same conceptual universe and at the same time as the security state’s penetration into what we once called our ‘personal lives’ as part of our Arab-inspired War on Terror; or that this sea-change in the monitoring of the individual might be happening in the same spatial schemes (airports, the internet, shopping malls, sporting events, in short: public spaces) as those places where Arabs manifest their representation to us so violently: they are separate beasts completely. Arabs have nothing whatsoever to do with how we live our lives, or rather how others monitor how we live our lives.

And, if it weren’t opposite day, you’d be right.


Tarik, your idea of a conflict made me smile, as we do often forget how the word can have such a different, unexciting, everyday meaning that has nothing to do with the larger geo-politics of world affairs. In that sense, I’m sure all households have ‘conflicts’ over who controls the remote, what show to watch, which music to listen to, etc.

I enjoyed your idea of ‘backwards’ day, laying the blame for everything we (Americans) do on them (Arabs). It got me thinking of different kinds of opposites as well: representations of Americans in the Arab media; ‘positive’ or ‘truer’ representations of Arabs in American or Western media (I’ve had students argue that films like Syriana don’t mis-represent Arabs); the more ‘positive’ influences of Arabs and Arab culture on the West, whether in the mundane and ubiquitious growth of hummus and falafel sandwiches (at least here in New York!) or the historically more significant translations of Greek philosophy… So many different kinds of opposites to consider.

Thanks for this interesting post, Tarik.  I love & am grateful for this video.  Helga mentions Syriana -- I wonder what a "War on Terror" update on Planet of the Arabs would look like.  Also, I wonder what it would be like to compare media which are critical of the GWOT with those that are not.  Also, has the increasing presence of Arab films in independent film circles in the U.S. made any difference for representations of Arabs in U.S. media, independent or mainstream?

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