Monday, August 22, 2011

Anti-Americanism as Inception

           The movie Inception is a 2010 blockbuster that made a ton of money.  It was a box office success and a great entertainment.  What no critic has said, however, is that it is perfectly suitable for a TED lecture about ideas.  Inception teaches us that the simplest idea, one that fits a concise sentence with only one subject and one verb, is formidable enough to disintegrate a multi-billion dollar conglomerate.  After penetrating through the layers of dreams that can only be properly explained through a three dimensional diagram, the idea at the core is a mere phrase no more than ten words.  Indeed, the main theme of the movie is not “we have to go deeper.”  It is “I have to break down my father’s empire.”

Cillian is the Star of the Show, not Leo

           Soon after watching Inception, I experienced this great teaching materialize in my own life.  As I read The Man who Owns the News, a journalist’s observation of Rupert Murdoch, I realized that I was a victim of inception.  I first heard of Murdoch when I was in Macalester College, a place so liberal that even international students canvassed for Obama.  Thus, Murdoch, the monopolistic owner of Fox News, was vilified at the same level as Bush, Cheney, and Bachman.  What I learned from The Man who Owns the News is that Murdoch is in fact a lot more complex.  His company owns a lot more media outlets, including trade magazines, local newspapers, and my personal favorite, Fox Entertainment.  He is politically conservative, but he is also a traditional newspaperman, turning several papers from money losers to money makers.  As I read this exciting biography, I found the possible trace of my inception.  The NY Times and Murdoch have always been at odds against each other, and when Murdoch was trying to acquire the WSJ, the NY Times took advantage to vilify Murdoch.  Surely by reading the NY Times is not the only way that my colleagues at Macalester acquired his or her anti-Murdochism, but what is rather regrettably sure is that my personal disdain of Murdoch at first stemmed from a simple idea, and it was a resilient impression that did not change until I read a 500 page book about him.

Wow it has terrible customer reviews.  I endorse it though.

            I have taken the liberties to assume that anti-Americanism can be a result of inception as well.  It stems from a very simple idea, yet it is so resolute.  Back in March, I had a heated hour long debate with my dear colleague, Mr. Seiph, over the NATO bombings in Libya.  Seiph’s anger towards America started with its association with violence.  He was angry that America was “killing people.”  I then persuaded him that violence is an unfortunate but inevitable result of this very important campaign to remove Gaddafi.  From here on, we went back and forth.  He remarked that Libya has been a model example for African countries, providing free health care.  I rebutted that the large number of protestors alone is a sign that Gaddafi has been a poor leader.  He said that America is equally wrong to use missiles to cause civilian casualties, rather than containing the damage to military facilities.  I then said that the deaths are an unfortunate consequence, but America is not acting unilaterally.  It is acting under NATO guidance and UN Security Council agreement.  At this moment, Seiph seemed to be persuaded that Gaddafi is in fact a proper target, but he was still angry at America.  You know Kim, he said, I have heard that America has sophisticated assassination technologies, like a remote controlled mechanical bee that can kill with toxins.  Why not resort to these measures?  I then explained that this would not be a legitimate move as NATO wants to see regime change come from inside Libya, so that another snafu like Iraq is not repeated.  I was surprised at this moment, because he was supporting regime change.  It was a layer deeper than the most vocal African opinion on the matter – American air strikes are bad – championed by South African President Zuma.

           Towards the end, the discussion has obviously sidetracked from Libya, but the center of discussion was still America.  Seiph mentioned the Jewish 9/11 conspiracy theory: that all Jewish people were notified and evacuated before the twin tower attacks.  After debunking the theory, I thought to myself: Seiph is the most religious Muslim I have met in school, so perhaps his religious inclination is the source of his anti-Americanism.  Of course, this was just one of many hypotheses on how the inception was performed, but what I saw was that Seiph’s anti-Americanism was neither complex nor specific.  My impression was that to him, America = bad. What appeared to be his anger towards the NATO air strikes was in fact his personal dislike of America.  His opinions towards Libya, Gaddafi, and the legitimacy of violence went back and forth throughout the debate, but his anti-Americanism was consistent.  Just like in Inception, Seiph’s anti-Americanism was intransigent and firm, but a mere simple idea at its core.

Good or bad?  Doesn't matter, I hate America

           Here is another related story.  A couple of months later, Osama Bin Laden was captured and promptly executed at sea.  This caused some discontent from Muslims, as it is against Muslim custom to be buried at sea.  Amidst the murmurs of the news, a student wearing a hijab asked me about this matter, and why a Muslim was buried against his customs.  She seemed to be discontent with the American desecration of a Muslim body.  To which I remarked the American government’s desire to negate Bin Laden’s burial ground as a sanctified place for current and soon-to-be terrorists.  During the short discussion afterwards, it was shocking that nobody seemed to know or remember that Al Qaeda was responsible for 1998 US Embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, which claimed 11 lives and 85 injuries in Dar es Salaam alone.  Indeed, anti-Americanism was both resilient and prevalent to the extent that it made people forget that Bin Laden killed Tanzanians. 

You forgot THIS?

Mild anti-Americanism is prevalent in Tanzania.  Each individual must have picked up his or her anti-Americanism differently, and I believe the process was a lot like inception, subtle and deep.  Anti-Americanism is a simple idea concise enough to fit in a sentence, but it is solid.  Although one may change his mind about a country, a leader, and the legitimacy of violence, and forget that Osama Bin Laden killed her compatriots, one will still hate America.


kabcity said...

Nice article Tom! I think the ultimate "inceptions" are religion and nationalism. A flood of logic and reason is still not enough to disentangle these from the way people look at the world and understand personal, local, regional, and global functions. Thoughts?

TK said...

Thanks Kabcity! Though I am inclined to protect fellow believers, many (if not most) do hold resolute opinions, and answer "I don't know, but..." to critical questions. I think religion and nationalism are more resolute because those would be results of multiple inceptions. Those two, unlike Rupert Murdoch, are so engrained in people's culture that inception happens monthly, if not weekly.

There are tons of examples of inceptions, and as Nolan implies, perhaps that is because it is the nature of ideas. I am a bit cautious on expanding the scope of inception because thought-wise it mixes with other concepts and theses. So at this moment I would ask if you can think of any discoveries of your own inception, nothing too critical of yourself.

kabcity said...

I guess it depends on how one defines inception. I was thinking of it as ideas that are strongly believed without any evidence or logical reasoning, although now that I think about it I'm not sure Murdoch and anti-Americanism fall into that.

There was this incredible NYT article a few years ago about a study that showed how we believe things regardless of the source:

It's a bit tangential, but interesting nonetheless.

kabcity said...

Also on a personal level the best inception I can think of was "Coca Cola invented Santa's image - red and white". Turns out it's an urban legend, but I fully believed it for around 2 years. Although to be fair my IB econ prof told me this.

TK said...

That's a good example. By inception I am referring to ideas that have been implanted to our minds unconsciously, but the it holds a firm position. So I am not talking about all ideas, but this one type.

One's favorite soccer team is also a good example. Although, your decision to "like Inter from now on" doesn't really fit.