Benedict Anderson coined the phrase “imagined communities” to point to the way that humans believe they are meaningfully connected, by virtue of some commonality, to people they will never know, and may have very little in common with.  He applied the idea to the nation.  Why do all of the citizens of China, for example, have in common with other citizens of China?  In some cases little, other than their citizenship.  Yet, the fact that “we are all Chinese” can motivate many people to do and feel things.

In an RSA video featuring Jeremy Rifkin, sent in by Dmitriy T.M., it is argued that the human ability to imagine a community is a neurological capacity for empathy that has evolved, both neurologically and socially, throughout human existence.  First, he argues, we identified with close relatives, then with our religious community, and later with our nation-state.  Our future, then, he argues, is dependent on our ability to imagine the whole world as a community.  New technologies may very well enable this and Rifkin has his fingers crossed.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Lester Andrist, at The Sociological Cinema, alerted me to a 9-minute short film revealing “Hollywood’s relentless vilification and dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims.”   Created by Jaqueline Salloum and Dr. Jack Shaheen’s book, Reel Bad Arabs, it is a stunning and disturbing collection of clips.  The depictions are grossly prejudiced and relentlessly violent.  Andrist summarizes:

It demonstrates the way Arabs and Muslims are consistently depicted as religious fanatics, perpetual terrorists, backwards, and irredeemably tribal… [T]he media consistently propagates the idea that the Muslim or Arab terrorist is not only a threat to life, but also Western civilization.
Taking the analysis a bit further, I think the clip also allows one to contemplate how these depictions of Arabs and Muslims are simultaneously about constructing an American national identity, and in particular, a masculine one. In several places, one sees how an American masculinity, characterized by stoicism and poise, is set in contradistinction to an irrational, Islamic fanaticism.
It’s really a worth a watch, but very disturbing.  Consider yourself warned:

The Media Education Foundation also made a full length documentary based on Shaheen’s book.  The 5-and-a-half-minute trailer is a good indication of its content.  It contains many similar disturbing depiction, including a discussion of Disney’s Aladdin, but also points to how Arabs are frequently shown as buffoons (“rich and stupid,” “oversexed,” and “uncontrollably obsessed with the American woman”).

See also our posts on how Arabs are portrayed in video games and Reel Injun, a documentary about the representation of American Indians in Hollywood.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Dmitriy T.M. sent in this Dodge ad that associates cars with liberty and, by extension, America itself:

There are a few problems with this conflation of Dodge with patriotism and Americanness. For one, Dmitriy says,

Washington ( as the general) would’ve never been leading the charge. The commanders always stayed back ( preferably on the high ground) so that they could observe the progress and give commands ( and get away as quickly as possible in case of a loss).

So the image of the brave leader charging ahead of his troops into battle is misleading.

In addition, many Dodge vehicles aren’t made in the U.S. So Dodge wants us to associate its brand with the U.S. in a symbolic way that makes irrelevant, and invisible, where the car is made. What’s important is that Dodge, founded in the U.S., builds cars that represent a masculinized, tough version of “freedom,” and of course, freedom is uniquely American. It reminds me a lot of the symbolic identification Pabst Blue Ribbon drinkers often feel with blue-collar workers, an identification that has little to do with the actual production process.

(NOTE: I am writing this post on January 2nd, 2010… almost a year before it will publish.  As I write it… I wonder if the wars in Iraq and Afganistan will still be ongoing.)

Last year Christmastime, Gin and Tacos highlighted this Walmart commercial:

He writes:

That commercial has nothing to do with Wal-Mart. It tells you nothing about its products, services, prices, or policies. It’s just sentimental pap, a cheap effort to bypass logic and score points on an emotional level.

Indeed, Walmart is attempting to associate its company with the admiration inspired by those risking their lives in war.  Why this doesn’t result in a strong and consequential backlash is lost on me.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

George H.W. Bush’s 1988 “Willie Horton” campaign ad is infamous for racializing fears of crime, encouraging stereotypes of African American men as violent and threatening. The ad is widely believed to have destroyed Michael Dukakis’s chances for winning the presidency, presenting him as soft on crime. It’s a classic example of race-baiting in political campaigns — ads that present racial/ethnic minorities as threatening. Jesse Helms took a different approach with his affirmative action ad, which draws on some Whites’ fears that they are losing out on jobs because of affirmative action.

This election cycle, a number of candidates have produced ads that clearly attempt to stoke and benefit from anti-Hispanic immigrant sentiment. Talking Points Memo posted a mailer sent out by the Yuma County, Arizona, Republican Party as part of its campaign against Democratic state Representative Rae Waters. One side shows a stop sign full of bullet holes and makes a link between immigrants and neighborhood crime:

SB 1070 is the controversial Arizona law that allows law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of people they have stopped for other violations if there is a “reasonable suspicion” they might be undocumented or not carrying the appropriate papers.

To drive the message home, the other side of the mailer contains an image of a blond child, looking a little disturbed, and again links opposition to SB 1070 to “drugs and violence”:

Here in Nevada, Senate candidate Sharon Angle is currently running this commercial that calls Harry Reid the best friend of “illegals,” who are “putting Americans’ safety and jobs at risk.”

The commercial ends with this image:

She has a second commercial that plays on the same themes:

In West Virginia, this ad against Nick Rahall, a Christian Lebanese-American, prominently displays the phrase “Arab Americans” (he chaired Arab Americans for Obama) while scary music plays in the background:

If you have other examples of racialized or anti-immigrant imagery in current campaign ads, let us know.

UPDATE: S. Elle let us know about this ad by Senator David Vitter, of Louisiana, which is very similar to the Angle commercials:

And kantmakm provided a link to this billboard outside Grand Junction, Colorado:

I found this Levi’s ad a while back and kept forgetting to post it:

What I think is interesting is the implicit class element, in which “men in suits” (presumably middle- and upper-middle-class white-collar workers) are less authentically American. The message is that hard working, jeans-wearing people are true Americans (notice the flag). Of course, it’s also a commentary on masculinity; the type of men who dominate economic and political life today are, from this perspective, lesser men compared to earlier generations of blue-collar workers.

For other examples of class and masculinity in ads, see old vs. new money in a Smirnoff video, upper-class dogs are sissies, and Acura says trust-fund money is out.

Majd A.-S. sent in a link to a review at The Brainy Gamer of the Wii videogame Heavy Fire: Special Operations, which was released last week. Michael Abbott, the reviewer, starts by saying that he doesn’t find First-Person Shooter (FPS) games inherently problematic, but that after playing the game he found this one disturbing. He suggests it should be renamed “Arab Shooting Gallery.” Here’s an extended trailer:

Notice that the game specifically points out that it has a “destructible environment”; not only can you kill enemies, you can make sure you leave the surrounding city as demolished as possible. Woo hoo! Fun!

Abbott mentioned the article “Digital Arabs: Representation in Video Games,” by Vit Sisler, so I checked it out. Sisler conducted a content analysis of 90 European and American video games and 15 Arab-language ones, all set in the Middle East (or fictional settings clearly derived from the Middle East):

The methodology used for content analysis involves playing the whole game while taking notes and screenshots of relevant visual signifiers, recording the narrative and analysing the structure of gameplay… Correspondingly, other paratextual materials related to the game were analysed (booklets, manuals and websites).

There are a number of video games set in the Middle East broadly defined (Sisler lists Delta Force, Prince of Persia, Conflict: Desert Storm, Full Spectrum Warrior, and others). In most, the shooter is a member of the U.S. military or the coalition forces associated with it. Sisler says,

While the US or coalition soldiers usually are humanized and individualized by their nicknames or specific visual characteristics, the enemy is collectivized and linguistically functionalized as ‘various terrorist groups’, ‘militants’ and ‘insurgents’ (Machin and Suleiman, 2006). At the same time, the moral mission, professionalism and courage of the forces controlled by the player are emphasized by the in-game narrative and scripts. However, the enemies are presented in a way that suggests they are not ‘real’ soldiers, thereby removing the legitimacy of their actions (Machin and Suleiman, 2006). This could be manifested even on the level of the artificial intelligence controlling the enemy soldiers via scripts including undisciplined poses, shouting and yelling (Full Spectrum Warrior), or raising weapons above their heads, laughing mockingly after they kill (Delta Force).

Some Arab groups have responded to this by creating video games of their own that present a more sympathetic view of Arabs and/or Muslims. For instance, Hezbollah released a game called Special Force (Al-Quwwat al-Khasa):

The game presents members of Hezbollah as heroes or martyrs while the Israeli Defense Force is the enemy. As Sisler points out, this doesn’t change the basic narrative of the games mentioned above, it just switches the roles of “us” vs. “the enemy.”

On the other hand, the game Under Ash (Tahta al-Ramad), based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (from the Palestinians’ point of view), humanized Palestinians by giving them significant backstories that explained how they came to be involved in the Palestinian resistance. It presented Israeli soldiers as the enemy but specifically prohibited players from harming either Palestinian or Israeli civilians (in a sequel to Under Ash, titled Under Siege, Tahta al-Hisar, killing a civilian automatically leads to a “game over” message). It doesn’t allow any type of peaceful interaction with Israelis, but it is one of the few games based on the Middle East that presents cities as full of inhabitants whose lives are valuable, regardless of which side of a conflict they’re on.

Sisler argues that the depictions of players and their enemies have implications beyond all of these video games themselves. Particularly when games are set in locations with current real-world conflicts, the narratives presented in cultural products such as video games help shape understandings of the conflict, including its morality, hero-izing some groups while dehumanizing others, and normalizing particular forms of warfare. In the U.S., these types of images, as well as those included in movies like The Siege and TV shows such as 24, also reinforce the perception of Arabs and Muslims as racialized Others, bloodthirsty terrorists whose acts of aggression are inherently illegitimate, while any by the Coalition forces are, by definition, moral and justifiable in the face of such an enemy.

For other examples of how Arabs and Muslims (the two categories are usually conflated), whether in the Middle East or in the U.S., are culturally depicted as untrustworthy, brutal, and/or backward, see our posts on representations of Arabs in TV and movies, the unseen Middle East, and anti-Arab signs in Pennsylvania,

Claude Fischer at Made in America offered some data speaking to the idea that Americans are especially patriotic. That they, in other words, are more likely than citizens of other nations to think that “We’re Number One!”

Fischer provides some evidence by Tom Smith at the International Social Science Programme (ISSP; Tom’s book).  The ISSP, Fischer explains…

…involves survey research institutions in dozens of countries asking representative samples of their populations the same questions. A couple of times the ISSP has had its members ask questions designed to tap respondents’ pride in their countries… One set of questions asked respondents how much they agreed or disagreed with five statements such as “I would rather be a citizen of [my country] than of any other country in the world” and “Generally, speaking [my country] is a better country than most other countries.”

Smith put responses on a scale from 5 to 25, with 25 being the most patriotic.  Here are the results from some of the affluent, western democracies (on a shortened scale of 5 to 20):

As Fischer says, “Americans were #1 in claiming to be #1.”  Well, sort of.  Americans were the most patriotic among this group.  They turned out to be the second most patriotic of all countries.  Venezuela beat us.

(In any case, what struck me wasn’t the fact that the U.S. is so patriotic, but that many other of these countries were very patriotic as well!   The U.S. is certainly no outlier among this group.  In fact, it looks like all of these countries fall between 14 and 18 on this 20-point scale.  Statistically significant, perhaps, but how meaningful of a difference is it?)

Fischer goes on to ask what’s good and bad about pride and closes with the following concern for U.S. Americans:

We believe that we are #1 almost across the board, when in fact we are far below number one in many arenas – in health, K-12 education, working conditions, to mention just a few. Does our #1 pride then blind us to the possibility that we could learn a thing or two from other countries?

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.