How ‘Pop-Culture’ influences 21st century international politics

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How ‘Pop-Culture’ influences 21st century international politics

There was a time when United Kingdom was free from foreign aggression and any form of foreign influence due to it’s land insularity that further helped the organic process of development of its political institutions and more definitely, the British political culture. Over the years, the components constituting political culture has seen a paradigm shift. Especially in the globalised world of the 21st century when the deregulated world wide web has made accessible communication channels complex, diverse, integrated and faster than the speed of sound. And, it is also very cheap. This has led to the booming ‘e-industrialization’ through the rise of several social networking medium and forums for interpretive discussions in multiple fields. Furthermore, the rise of such enterprises online has made the people around the world well connected giving them an outlook of a flexible international civil society. 

Political Culture prevalent in a region always depended on factors such as the presence of ethnic groups, geography, demography, socio-economic conditions, occurrence of a war or revolution, presence of colonial rule, among others. Among these, the 21st century has seen a momentous increase in the role of ‘popular culture’ influencing international political behaviour on a daily basis. India, a nation that was under British colonial control some 70 years back now has more number of internet users annually than the current population of the entire British Isles taken twice. However, the penetration rate of the internet in India is extremely low providing access to not more than 11% of its citizens as of today. The rise of the use of English language beyond the borders of its native speakers has only aided this process. 

The dissemination of popular culture has its own ways. While a video game might not resemble the sources that we are more used to studying, such as presidential statements, policy papers, and international agreements, it is still a site of micro-politics where political subjectivities, geopolitical and security imaginations, identities, and imagined communities are reproduced in a digital framework. Games such as Call of Duty provides a lucid idea of war-torn situations and simulates the same to provide the player with the feels of a battleground. Games such as Hitman bring to light the underlying mannerisms of how mercenaries operate and lead attacks on reputed plenipotentiaries of world geopolitics. Counter Strike, a multi-platform online gaming platform provides the gamer with a choice between ‘terrorists’- whose mission objective is to plant a bomb and protect it being diffused while executing the opposition(just like in reality) and ‘counter-terrorists’ whose objective is to diffuse the bomb if planted or prevent it from being planted in the first place by killing all the terrorists. Even the manner in which the characters are equipped and dressed suit their respective roles with the terrorists dressed in guerrilla, camouflage outfits and bandanas with an AK47 as their default weapon while the counter-terrorists have modern headgears, black kevlar outfits and MP40 assault rifle as the default weapon. 

Jack Shaheen (2009) demonstrated an overwhelmingly negative character attributed to ‘Arabs’ in Hollywood films ever since the silent era. Disney’s Aladdin (1992) provides a notable example, both in the grossly stereotypical visual representations of the Arab characters- Aladdin and Jasmine, as the protagonists appear strikingly white and Western in comparison to the other characters. However, quite controversially the original opening lyrics, which were later replaced after several complaints from, the Arab-American anti-discrimination committee were racial slurs directed towards the Arabs:

‘Oh! i come from a land, from a faraway place-

Where the caravan camels roam,

Where they cut off your ear,

if they don’t like your face-

it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.’

The concept of the ‘blood diamond’, too, is an aspect of popular culture, having been globally popularised by the 2006 classic ‘Blood Diamond’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio  and by Kanye West’s award-winning song ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone’. These also drew the issue of ‘blood diamonds’ to gain media and public attention. The film reproduces the colonialist representation of Africa as relentlessly chaotic and backward simultaneously encouraging legitimate diamond consumption. West deliberately draws attention to the complicity of US blood diamond consumers such as himself, linking their purchases with the ongoing conflict in Africa. He also connects the violence of the blood diamond trade with the drug-fuelled, violent ‘bling’ culture prevalent in parts of urban and suburban United States.

In the recent past, two major events received a great deal of global attention: the international response to the release of The Interview in December 2014 and, in early January 2015, the violent attacks in Paris– primarily on the offices of the satirical publication agency- Charlie Hebdo. The Interview is an American comedy movie produced and directed by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg. The film features Seth Rogan and James Franco as journalists who set up an interview with the infamous and notorious North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un played by Randall Park, and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate him discreetly in the course of the interview. The film is also heavily inspired by a Vice documentary which was shot back in 2012. In June 2014, the North Korean government threatened action against the United States if Columbia Pictures released the film. Columbia Pictures delayed the release from October to December, and reportedly re-edited the film to make it more acceptable to North Korea. In November, the computer systems of parent company Sony Pictures Entertainment were hacked by the ‘Guardians of Peace’ a group the FBI claims has ties to North Korea. The group also threatened terrorist attacks against cinemas that showed the film. Major cinema chains opted not to release the film, coercing Sony to release it only for online rental and purchase on the Christmas Eve the same year which was then followed by a limited release at select cinemas the following day.

‘Pop-culture’ does not belong to just the elites and it is not officially or ideologically acknowledged as the dominant culture any level, yet its discourse has enormous significance in the formation of public attitudes and values, as well as a profound impact on both domestic and international affairs. In India, for instance, Bollywood movies are used as the medium to disseminate information on health and hygiene, sex-ed, maternity and family issues especially among the backward rural communities. 

With the rise of populist politics, it has become more important that we consider pop-culture to be a definite factor affecting international politics of today. Publicising a political campaign to target any nation is a more complex task than establishing policy. In the United Kingdom and the United States of America, internet ‘memes’ have played a crucial undeniable role in the election campaigns. Making fun of politicians often serves as a release valve, a way to make difficult truths into something digestibly viral. Brown Political Review defined memes as- humorous concepts that spread rapidly through the Internet with the essential function as an inside joke that a large number of internet users are ‘in on.’ Usually the meme is an image, video, or piece of text that can be slightly altered to react to various circumstances.

The Conservatives of the United Kingdom are said to have spent around 1.2 million pounds on Facebook and social media advertising for the 2015 elections with the eventual loss of their parliamentary majority while labour spent only around 16 thousand pounds for the same purpose and spread almost all of its content online for free using basic social media norms available. The rise of such elements have been a consequence of the rise in youth participation in political discussions and dialogue both online and in the field. The Tories however did not target this cohort correctly. The distinct rise of this meme culture played a crucial part in almost all of modern political campaigns and it was the young Labour supporters who particularly capitalised on this for the recent election in the United Kingdom creating meme pages and accounts to promote the politics of the Labour party in a concise and accessible manner. There still exists Facebook groups with active Labour supporters as members who share memes and similar content with an underlying humour almost at a daily basis receiving over 10 thousand shares almost always. 

Such components of entertainment politics, including ‘meme politics’, gets the mainstream youth engaged and triggers conversations that usually mobilise people who usually prefer to sit out of election season in a manner that their effect resonates even to the activists who take interests in elections. While this may simply be a case of correlation, it is perhaps not a coincidence that in this election season, when young voters for the first time have memes at their disposal as a political tool, they also showed a record turnout among voters aged between 18-29 who have shown up at primaries. While we tend to look at memes as absurd, silly and trivial concept of internet based ‘time suckers’, perhaps it is time to re-conceptualize them as effective devices for diversified and accessible communication with a dash of humour.

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