Getting Carried Away

You might remember several weeks ago the viral hit du jour ‘Stop Kony’ (or maybe not, as such things tend to very quickly become ancient history in cyberspace), a campaign mounted by an American charity to ‘raise awareness’ about the ravages committed by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. The 30-minute video was a huge success for the charity, Invisible Children, being viewed (at least in part) over 120 million times, and allowed it to shift a staggering amount of its $30 ‘action kits’, the proceeds of which will no doubt go towards the making of further viral super-productions. After the initial blaze of enthusiasm and outrage, brickbats began to rain down on the campaign, coming from rival NGOs, political commentators and, ultimately, those very Ugandans who were themselves victims of the LRA.


Invisible Children was accused of naivety, arrogance, simplifying the facts, of dangerously and inadvertently encouraging a Kony cult, and, most notably, of an imperialistic mindset, of knowing what was best for their helpless African subjects. One of the most persuasive voices of dissent against ‘Kony 2012’ was the Nigerian novelist Teju Cole, who responded in a number of messages on Twitter on March 8 (which were later developed into a longer piece for The Atlantic). Pinning Invisible Children as part of the same ‘White Savior Complex’ as the New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, Bono and economist Jeffrey Sachs, Cole astutely noted the destructive urges that are driven by what, on the face of it, ought to be a positive quality:


The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.


Literary types might recognise in this one of the more enduring archetypes of 20th century fiction - Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, from the 1955 novel of the same name. The figure in Greene’s novel was an idealistic young American aid worker in late colonial Vietnam whose enthusiasm masks a darker, more Machiavellian intent, an intent which would later be embodied in the US’ disastrous imperial war in South-East Asia. It has since become a common, if often unnamed, trope in both geopolitical discourse and popular culture.


The attitude of Greene and Cole towards enthusiasm has its antecedents in the former British prime minister Arthur James Balfour, who remarked in a letter in 1891 that ‘it is unfortunate, considering that enthusiasm moves the world, that so few enthusiasts can be trusted to speak the truth.’ (There are many Palestinians who would smile bitterly at such an invoking of trust by a man who played such a key role in selling off their homeland, but that is another matter). But perhaps it is enthusiasm itself that we ought to be wary of, even when it is ourselves whom it motivates?


There are few examples of enthusiasm so destructive as gung-ho patriotism, which in the late-Victorian era (from which both that term and ‘jingoism’ date), was the battle standard for warmongering. This attitude lost its lustre in Europe after the carnage of the first world war, and in the US after the aforementioned Vietnam War, but it has not died out completely, as the wave of media cheerleading that preceded the Iraq War in 2003 will testify. Enthusiasm may not drive us all to support wars that slaughter civilians while purporting to free them but there are more benign, everyday instances where it can play tricks on us. One of these is the way our critical faculties can be scrambled by an initial sense of overwhelmingness when confronted with a cultural phenomenon, a book, a film, a song even. Hype, of course, plays a part too, but that is so often these days quickly countered in the media that whatever enthusiasm is engendered is really our own responsibility.


There have been many books and films I have seen in my life where my first reaction was a bit too effusive and a second viewing, or even a little critical distance, has later shown that reaction to be a little embarrassingly misguided. It’s not unlike the pangs of shame you might feel after your behaviour or comments while drunk. The opposite is also of course true, where your initial revulsion at a film or a book is later rectified by a second look (Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised/The Elementary Particles are cases in point for me). Sometimes your enthusiasm can be unsportingly manipulated by overpowering stimuli. I can think of few better examples than the famous opening half-hour of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.


Spielberg’s film was one of the early Dreamworks productions —  the company he formed with David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1994 —  and like all of those early releases, it was accompanied by a unprecedented fanfare that often made wild claims of originality for the film, which was attending to a detail of the subject in hand that had been shamefully neglected by previous filmmakers. The hype machine was of varying effectiveness for many of these films (few now remember the George Clooney vehicle The Peacemaker or even Spielberg’s own slave-revolt drama Amistad) but with Saving Private Ryan it would be different. The viewer was going to be exposed to the horrors of battle for the first time, to a visceral and horrific experience that had been hitherto sanitised on screen. 


That opening half-hour is indeed a technical tour de force, with the sound effects particularly frightening — as bullets ping and shells explode all over the place during the Normandy landings. The rest of the film is pretty mediocre stuff, but it somehow seemed validated by the ‘seriousness’ and masterliness of that opening sequence. On a second viewing though, the film’s violence looked grimly pornographic — these are real life incidents we are talking about after all — and its overweening insistence on showing everything with such slavish fidelity might be taken as an insult both to the memory of the dead and the intelligence of the viewer. Did Spielberg really think anyone went into the cinema doubting the horrors of war? Would he make a film about Srebrenica dutifully filming each execution in glaring detail to hammer home his point? Would he treat mass rape in Congo the same way?


There were a number of veterans who bristled about a civilian like Spielberg presuming to tell their story better for them, and others pointed to makers of previous D-Day landing films who were themselves there on the beaches in June 1944 — Daryl F. Zanuck and Sam Fuller. Zanuck’s The Longest Day is a mild-mannered fresco of the events, made only 15 years after them, that doesn’t seek to traumatise its audience. Similarly Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One treats the violence of the battle scenes much as any other World War II film till then had done. Fuller studiously avoided showing carnage onscreen as he wondered who in their right mind would want to watch it — he likened to it to ‘being taken on a guided tour of an abattoir’. It is unlikely he would have been overly impressed by Spielberg’s portrayal, much less by Dreamworks’ implicit dismissal of his own fine film. (As an interesting aside, there was one area where Spielberg was less keen to be realistic than Fuller: in The Big Red One, the soldiers protect their weapons from water-jamming when debarking by wrapping condoms around them; in Saving Private Ryan, such vulgarity was out of the question — the guns are covered improbably, and pointlessly, in open-ended cellophane wrappers).


Like many others that watched it, I was sufficiently impressed by the sensory overload of that opening sequence to laud Saving Private Ryan and even to bemoan the fact that more war movies weren’t like that. Watching it a second time however made me cringe a bit at my initial reaction. I probably shouldn’t be too hard on enthusiasm, something which clearly has its more constructive outlets too (it may well be that, as Emerson said, ‘nothing great was ever created without enthusiasm’). Perhaps another blog post on this other side of it is called for. In the meantime, it’s worth meditating upon what happens to our judgement when we drink from the cup of enthusiasm. Even Invisible Children seems to think so, having last week released a follow-up video to ‘Stop Kony’ that is a great deal more sober than its predecessor.

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