Thursday, May 03, 2007

Dissecting Ideology in a Mainstream Canadian News Article on Afghanistan

Witness ideology in action.

That link is to a truly gross puff piece from the Canadian Press wire service about 'our boys in Afghanistan', to borrow some dated sexist lingo that fits with the feel of the piece. Now, I don't read mainstream media that often, and I read this article more or less by accident. I had heard that there had been a shift from bad to worse in the Canadian media's approach to the U.S.-led Global War For Dominance Via Control of Oil (commonly misnamed the Global War on Terror) over the last year or two, as more openly bloodthirsty voices like General Hillier and Prime Minister Harper came into their moment of dominance over the hypocritical neoliberal Liberals within the machinery of the Canadian state. This article does nothing to contradict that assessment.

Normally, upon reading such a wretched piece of pseudo-journalism, I would turn up my nose and move on. However, this scant few hundred words is such an easy target for taking apart some of the ideologies that keep Canadian involvement in Afghanistan feeling like it "makes sense" to a significant portion of the population, I thought maybe I'd do just that. Well, that and my pre-schooler is having an afternoon nap for the first time in months, so I have an unexpected block of time.

The piece begins by focusing our attention on one Canadian soldier, a teenage white Canadian man from a small village in Newfoundland. My concern, by the way, is not with this individual or any of the others in the article, but with the way they are used in creating the web of images and stories that make up the article.

By beginning with a very humanized picture of this young fellow, the author is setting out to create a powerful sense of innocence, of virtue. There are all sorts of things that go into creating this sense. For one thing, there is this soldier's Canadian-ness. In the dominant Canadian narrative, Canada and its inhabitants are assumed to be innocent, to be virtuous actors at home and on the world stage who may not always be able to talk sense into their belligerent neighbours but who, by definition, are good. As Canadian legal theorist Sherene Razack has described, there is also a powerful ideological fusion in dominant narratives between whiteness and notions of innocence, and this functions both in discourse and in the beahviour of individual white people around issues of racism. There is a sizeable literature on Canada as a settler state which shows a tight intersection in the dominant imagination between whiteness and "Canada" as well, from our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald's declaration that Canada would be a "white man's country" on up to somewhat more subtle forms in the present. The fact of the central subject's youth and the fact that he is a small town guy are both attributes that also tend to be associated with innocence and virtue, at least in some situations, and in this article they serve to reinforce those ideas.

From this focus on a single individual, the article expands outwards to a more collective focus. This collective is in fact a unit of Canadian soldiers currently stationed in Afghanistan, but functions rhetorically to stand in for the Canadian presence in Afghanistan more broadly. The strong sense of innocence and virtue established at the level of the individual is fairly easily expanded to encompass the group.

There are a number of features of this group that are not necessarily advancing pro-war sentiment directly but rather serve to normalize -- or, when disected, to illustrate -- some key components of the militarism that is being wratcheted up in Canadian culture today. The first is the intimate connection between militarism, with all the attendant hierarchy and violence, with masculinity. Everyone in this piece is gendered male except for the mother of the soldier the piece started with, who is obviously at a physical remove from the actual imaginary space being created, and the generic reference to a common leisure pastime among 'our boys': "talking trash and discussing their favourite subjects - girls, guns and cars, in that order." In other words, women are permitted in this piece only to function as providers of care for men or objects to be discussed by men -- presumably at least at times sexualized discussions, as anyone who has been exposed to such 'boy talk' can attest.

Of course, the quote about what these guys talk about for fun also reinforces that it is not just any kind of masculinity that is present but a very conventional, dominant form of masculinity, because of the stereotypically masculine subjects they discuss. The inclusion of "girls" in that list also functions to slip in a particular, dominant notion of "sexually normal", which papers over the realities of soldiers serving abroad. Again, I'm not claiming anything about these particular individuals, but there is plenty of documentation in Western militaries in recent history of (a) desire and sexual contact between men who are serving, which there is nothing wrong with but which would, if admitted, destabilize the oppressive (heterosexist, patriarchal) basis of the particular kind of image of collective innocence and virtue that the military and this journalist are working to create; and (b) purchase of sexual services by occupying soldiers from local women, something that, given the context, it is hard to understand as anything but oppressive even if your analysis of the world allows for the possibility of non-oppressive exchange of money for sex in some circumstances, and also something that militaries try to hide from the folks back home in order to preserve that image of innocence and virtue.

And, for all that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar and the association of the phallus solely with masculinity arguably has an air of heterosexism about it, the prominent placement of quotations emphasizing our original innocent individual subject's enthusiasm for firing his "big guns" can't help but put a dominant form of masculinity front and centre in the reader's experience of the piece. "It's a big rush to fire the big guns. That's why I like it."

This intimate connection between our innocent subject and the joys of firing artillery also serves to prevent us from paying attention to what it actually means to fire artillery, a specific example of the piece's overall use of innocent subjects to distract from the violence being done by Canadian involvement in Afghanistan. Most people who have died in wars in the last century have been civilians. That is surely true in Afghanistan. The larger and more destructive the weapon, the more likely it is that it will kill civilians. That is not to make any accusations about this particular soldier, but it is notable that the article does not address this reality by showing in a detailed way what the unit is actually doing and how it is operating, but by distracting us with innocence and virtue.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the article, because of what it shows about what the author expects readers to unquestioningly accept, is the icky juxtaposition of words like "family" and "care" and "love" with this situation. Not to deny the fact that an ethic of care and significant emotional bonds form between men in such a situation. But what does it say about our dominant (patriarchal) notions of "family" and "love" that they can be grafted so comfortably onto a situation that is explicitly hierarchical and organized around creating violence? Where a "a fierce, profanity-laced rebuke" from a father-figure is accepted as a normal part of this "car[ing]" "family" environment?

A final notable feature of this piece is the understated way that the Canadian mission is framed by situating our innocent collective with respect to Afghanistan itself. Afghanistan, in fact, is almost completely absent from the piece except as a passive back-drop for 'our boys' that is given a bit of exotic (that is, Orientalist/racist) inflection by mention of "nasty 10-legged creature[s]" and such. The fact that this is a small group of Canadians dropped into an already-existing vibrant, complex society, and the fact that a proper understanding of their role can only be gotten by a sophisticated understanding of the existing social relations in the country and how the Canadian presence is placed within them, are erased. There is one mention of "locals", which is contrasted to several mentions of "the Taliban", and that is it for acknowledging the existence of Afghani society.

Despite this minimal acknowledgment, it is enough to create a powerful frame for the Canadian mission. I don't feel I know enough to completely dissect the ideology of "Taliban", but I can at least paint some broad strokes. It is, first of all, a very powerful word, saturated with all sorts of imagery of evil, in part thanks to state-led propaganda campaigns in the West going back at least six years, and in part because the people who actually embrace the label do have quite oppressive politics. There is quite a divide between the actual organization, with particular ways of doing things and a specific history, and what the word has come to mean in the Western media, however. Even just the use of "Taliban" to designate the enemy is highly misleading -- as Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis has pointed out on multiple occasions, the opponent being fought by the Canadian forces appears to be not one political organization but an entire ethnic group, the Pashtuns, within which the Taliban is only one force. At least some of the people being fought by the Canadian Forces are probably more accurately described as "locals" than "Taliban", in fact.

The article creates a powerful binary between the innocent and virtuous (and humanized) Canadian presence, and the abstracted and inherently evil Other, the "Taliban". This binary is sufficient to completely erase any additional complexity in the situation, including the fact that the government of Afghanistan was installed by the United States, that it does not really function in much of the country anyway, that our allies are often warlords with horrific human rights records who make huge amounts of money from supplying most of the world's poppy-derived narcotics, that our allies also include the U.S. military with all of the baggage it carries with respect to well-documented use of torture and killing of civilians. It also obscures the fact that there is significant dissatisfaction even in the non-Pashtun areas of the country with the imposed regime, the occupying troops, and the ongoing killing of civilians by Western soldiers. In short, the simplistic binary creates an implicit narrative of good and evil that is completely without foundation in what is actually happening in Afghanistan but that serves to prop up support for the mission in the Canadian public.


thwap said...

A good use of your young 'un's nap time.

I agree. Theses individual portraits of Canadian soldiers (or any national media's portrait of their individual soldiers) are the thin edge of the wedge in jingoism.

And certainly, there's lots of little projects that soldiers do, and whether they're merely p.r. or whether they are but the soldiers don't know it, ... the thing to do isn't to list all of these half-finished schools, village wells, soccer fields, etc., ... but look at nation-wide indicators that tell you whether over five years' time, we've actually achieved anything.

And more honest reporting about the wider issues please.

How does it help the citizenry to make decisions when all they get are anecdotes about individual soldiers? What is our ally/puppet government doing? Who are the Taliban's supporters (i'd like more analysis on the ethnic rivalries and their significance if you please ...)and are they increasing?

More analysis, less anecdotes. But of course, this assumes that a capitalist media can be a professional media.

Scott said...

Hey...sorry it took me so long to partner is out of town for a bit so it is just me and L, so I've been otherwise engaged for much of the time...


Yeah. Even when you have the time to try and educate yourself on Afghanistan, it ain't easy. Like I said, I still don't feel I can point out the idiocy of reducing the whole conflict to "But the Taliban is EEEEEEVIL!" as well as I'd like. I mean, I know a lot more about what is going on in Iraq than Afghanistan even though there are no Canadian troops there simply because there is a lot more English-language -- which is to say, U.S.-based -- alt/indy media energy focused there.

You're right, of course, that there are definite limits on what you can expect from capitalist media...sigh...

Red Jenny said...

Excellent analysis. Thank you for taking the time to post it, because it is a valuable read.

I have to say I'm somewhat shocked how easily so many Canadians have swallowed the whole framing of the debate. Stories like this are part of the problem: it's easy to support a war in which our innocent boys are playing with guns and the only other actors are the vague and evil Taliban.