Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thoughts on Benghazi, Libya: How Movies Change the World

As I write this, the airwaves are flooded with stories about the tragedy in Libya. Seems a crudely made American film defaming the prophet Muhammad has inflamed devout Muslims and given forces hostile to the fragile new post-Gaddafi regime an opening to attack the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Now, at least partly because of a movie, four people are dead. Among them is the American Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, by all accounts a good man and a good diplomat with a wealth of understanding about the Middle East.

I hardly want to wade into matters of international politics. But I’m struck once again by what a powerful force movies can be, for good and for ill. A century ago, it was books that changed the world. Think of how the last one hundred years were shaped by readers who found in The Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf or Quotations from Chairman Mao enticing blueprints for a radically new society. Think of how Darwin’s Origin of Species shook up the certainties of science, and how the writings of Simone de Beauvoir gave women a cause around which to rally. Works of fiction have also had a profound impact. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle led to public scrutiny of food safety issues in the meatpacking industry, and ultimately to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath promoted a broader awareness of the plight of migrant workers. Alex Haley’s Roots galvanized America regarding the life sagas of its black citizens; it also prompted an interest in genealogy that has never gone away. And of course published versions of the word of God (whether the Bible, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, or whatever) have become virtual weapons in holy wars across the globe.

Yes, books still matter. (As a lover of written language, I’m personally grateful for that fact.) But movies have so much more immediacy -- so much more purely visceral impact -- that their power can barely be overstated. Documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth mold public perception of key social issues, sometimes even (as in the case of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line), helping to reverse legal rulings. Feature films too can be responsible for shaping the attitudes of their viewers. In 1915, Birth of a Nation convinced many viewers that African American men were dangerous thugs, and that the Ku Klux Klan was on a heroic mission to hold them in check. Fifty years later, the on-screen dignity of Sidney Poitier in such films as The Defiant Ones and In the Heat of the Night told a different story, one that helped to advance the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t think anyone who saw Brokeback Mountain came away unaffected by its sympathetic attitude toward gay men doomed by popular morés to hide their love.

What’s different today is that, thanks to the mixed blessings of modern technology, virtually anyone can make and distribute a film. Now it’s not only the studios and big production houses, with their cautious views and armies of lawyers, who are in a position to spread the word. The democratization of mass media has its positive side, of course: we can all express our views via YouTube -- whether we’re touting a political perspective or our cats’ talents on the piano –- and be sure that someone out there is paying attention. But of course when hate speech can travel so far, so fast, we are also courting big trouble. So sad that Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues had to bear the brunt of that realization.