By Zarrar Khuhro
January 11th, 2016
YOU’VE certainly heard of Donald Trump’s call to (temporarily) ban Muslims from entering the United States. You’ve probably also heard about the Public Policy poll in which about 54pc of Republican respondents said they supported the said ban. But have you heard that in a poll conducted by the same organisation 30pc of Republican voters also supported bombing Agrabah? If that’s not shocking enough, note that 19pc of Democrats also supported bombing but, in a display of open-heartedness, 44pc also were willing to accept refugees from the possibly soon to be bombed Agrabah.
The debate on social media started immediately. Who were America’s allies in Agrabah, the deposed sultan or the revolutionary forces led by Jaffar? Was Jaffar in fact a pro-democracy revolutionary or just another dictator in the waiting? Was the goal to keep Agrabah out of the hands of terrorists or to instal a pro-Western regime?
Some rubbished the claims of the presence of 70,000 moderate rebels who would help the US cause, pointing out that these rebels were armed largely with large swords and were ‘poorly integrated with air power’. Others rejected the idea that any kind of intervention would prove successful in such a ‘den of thieves’ while the business-minded wondered what would become of lamp oil and carpet prices, Agrabah’s main exports, in the wake of a bombing campaign.
Is it that we now live in the age of the instant opinion?
By now you may have guessed that Agrabah isn’t a real place; it is in fact the fictional kingdom of the Disney movie Aladdin. It just sounded Middle Eastern enough for the people polled to fall back to their default entrenched positions.
Recently, American talk show host/ comedian Jimmy Kimmel did a segment on his show called ‘liewitness’ news. In this segment a straight-faced reporter asks outrageous questions of the ‘man on the street’ and sees how they respond. In this show, which was focused on the new Star Wars episode, the questions were, naturally, Star Wars-themed.
One question went like this: “This morning North Korean leader Kim Jong un announced his replacement, Kylo Ren. Do you think Ren will be a good leader for the people of North Korea?”
Nonplussed, the man replied that he would be a good leader because “he’s a real outspoken person, he’s nice and kind and all that”. Kylo Ren, for the uninitiated, is the new Sith Lord in the latest Star Wars episode, and the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia. Another was asked if the Ewoks of Endor needed foreign aid in their struggle against their oppressors, and the reply was “Yes, absolutely”. The Ewoks are a fictional race of teddy bear-like aliens in the Return of the Jedi. Another blamed the “freeezing temperatures on Hoth” (the ice planet from The Empire Strikes Back) on HAARP, the supposed American weather control device that features prominently in many a conspiracy theory. How did he arrive at that conclusion? “Research.”
Back in 1993, the satirical (and now sadly defunct) Spy magazine ran a similar prank, but this one was targeted not at the public but at US lawmakers. Posing as the host of a popular talk radio programme, Spy magazine staff called US Congressmen and asked what should be done to prevent ethnic cleansing in Freedonia. Responses ranged from calls to action to advocating a more cautious wait-and-see approach. After all, the situation in Freedonia, according to Republican congressman Steve Buyer, was “different from that in the Middle East”.
He was right, because Freedonia has nothing to do with the Middle East or even the real world. Freedonia is the name of a fictional country in the 1933 Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup.
When asked to comment on the responses, Spy’s then national editor responded that these were “completely understandable … in campaigning [politicians] are asked a lot of dumb questions and they are all used to supplying answers”.
To be fair to the Congressmen, 1993 was when ethnic cleansing in Bosnia was a hot topic, just like the Agrabah question comes at a time of great turmoil in the Middle East. But while one can understand the need for politicians to have a quick answer to any question at the ready, what explains the need for the public at large to have an answer when they don’t even understand the question? Is it that we now live in the age of the insta-opinion, where social media, blogs and Internet comment sections provide not just a medium for our opinions but often end up supplying those opinions as well, regardless of how uninformed they may be?
Certainly, social media does provide a validating peer group for even the most off-kilter views. It also makes it easier to borrow and echo popular opinions that seem to fit one’s worldview. It’s a short cut to thinking that all of us, at one point or another, have been guilty of taking. Except sometimes that short cut may strand you in Agrabah without a magic carpet in sight.
Zarrar Khuhro is a journalist.
Source: The Dawn, Karachi