The stories we tell ourselvesComplications Ensue
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Saturday, June 06, 2015

The latest issue of The New Yorker has an article on ISIS and its poetry. It seems the ISIS members, when they're not blowing themselves up, or brutalizing people, spend a fair amount of time reading, reciting and writing very old forms of Islamic poetry.
The views expressed in jihadi poetry are, of course, more bloodthirsty than anything on “Sha‘ir al-Milyoon”: Shiites, Jews, Western powers, and rival factions are relentlessly vilified and threatened with destruction. Yet it is recognizably a subset of this popular art form. It is sentimental—even, at times, a little kitsch—and it is communal rather than solitary. Videos of groups of jihadis reciting poems or tossing back and forth the refrain of a song are as easy to find as videos of them blowing up enemy tanks. Poetry is understood as a social art rather than as a specialized profession, and practitioners take pleasure in showing off their technique.

They seem to like to think of themselves as medieval knights fighting the infidels:

Wake us to the song of swords,
and when the cavalcade sets off, say farewell.
The horses’ neighing fills the desert,
arousing our souls and spurring them onward.
The knights’ pride stirs at the sound,
while humiliation lashes our foes.
My immediate reaction was: good Lord, these guys playing in some twisted kind of LARP.

But, then, we all are. We think of movies and games and TV shows as entertainment. But the stories they hammer into us shape how we see the world. It matters that American movies are so often about the natural hero who trusts his gut over the smartypants scientists and corporate suits, who is brave without necessarily being smart or educated. It matters that Chinese movies so often show their heroes dying at the end.

The stories we tell ourselves are about what's important. They're not the only thing that shapes our behavior. The market shapes what we can making a living doing, or there would be no corporate suits after all. But stories are not just entertainment. Culture is not just a luxury good. It is the glue that keeps everything sticking together.
The culture of jihad is a culture of romance. It promises adventure and asserts that the codes of medieval heroism and chivalry are still relevant. Having renounced their nationalities, the militants must invent an identity of their own. They are eager to convince themselves that this identity is not really new but extremely old. The knights of jihad style themselves as the only true Muslims, and, while they may be tilting at windmills, the romance seems to be working. ISIS recruits do not imagine they are emigrating to a dusty borderland between two disintegrating states but to a caliphate with more than a millennium of history.
That is not to say that, you know, there is a direct connection between kids playing Grand Theft Auto and stealing (or downloading) cars. But the society that ignores the value of its culture, or doesn't tend its cultural garden at all, is taking a risk. The idea that entertainment and culture are not important is, itself, a story that we tell ourselves. Possibly a dangerous one. I'll leave you with a quote from Neil Gaiman in The New Statesman:
You know, I was in China in 2007, and it was the first ever state-sponsored, Party-approved science-fiction convention. They brought in some people from the west and I was one of them, and I was talking to a number of the older science-fiction writers in China, who told me about how science fiction was not just looked down on, but seen as suspicious and counter-revolutionary, because you could write a story set in a giant ant colony in the future, when people were becoming ants, but nobody was quite sure: was this really a commentary on the state? As such, it was very, very dodgy.

I took aside one of the Party organizers, and said, “OK. Why are you now in 2007 endorsing a science-fiction convention?” And his reply was that the Party had been concerned that while China historically has been a culture of magical and radical invention, right now, they weren’t inventing things. They were making things incredibly well but they weren’t inventing. And they’d gone to America and interviewed the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft, and talked to the inventors, and discovered that in each case, when young, they’d read science fiction. That was why the Chinese had decided that they were going to officially now approve of science fiction and fantasy.


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