Thursday, June 05, 2003

Odd Basis for Hope: Charles Paul Freund, in Reason Magazine, on Arab music videos, some of which would shock Americans. Not because the sensuality and raciness is unheard of here, but because, in our minds, it's unheard of there. Still:
One of the more interesting music videos released last year features an attractive brunette who, according to the video's narrative, is involved in a liaison taking place in a Paris hotel room ... For example, in one imagined sequence she isn't wearing much more than a skimpy bustier; in another she's lying suggestively prone, apparently thinking about the mysterious smiling man (who is seen in the background but not really present). Several times the camera invites the viewer to assume the role of the man, with the woman gazing at us with all the erotic intensity she can muster. As is usual in music videos, many shots feature the same woman in the role of singer, appearing onstage and performing the song we are hearing. But there are shots where she is both the singer and the character, including a curious shadowy sequence where several makeup women are busily applying powder to her exposed cleavage.
This may seem an odd foundation on which to build hope for Arab liberalization, but Freund is compelling in his optimism:
If the audience for these videos uses them to foment a long-term cultural revolution, it would hardly be the first time that "vulgar" forms were at the center of significant social change. In fact, "low" culture has almost certainly done more to transform the modern world than has "high" culture. That is because, as communications professor Joli Jensen argues in the recent Is Art Good For Us?, it is the low, "expressive" forms of art that people use to engage with and understand the world around them, and not the high, "instrumental" cultural forms that are collected in museums because they are supposed to be good for a public in need of uplifting ... For nearly a century, a series of utopian political systems has been advanced in the region to attempt to break this cycle of conflict and stagnation: Pan-Arabism, Ba'athism, Nasserism, Islamism, etc. These have all failed, sometimes disastrously. What may yet work in the region is what has worked elsewhere for centuries: commercialism that does not transmit a regime’s utopian dreams but addresses the personal dreams of the audience ... The Arab world will eventually achieve its long-delayed goal of liberalized modernity; it might just as well dance itself there.
Worth reading the whole. I think he's right. Free media combined with a free market makes the most potent liberalizing force there is.

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