The Syrian presidency’s Instagram account shows the banality of evil writes Jonathan Jones in the Guardian Saturday 7 September 2013.
(read the article here)
Jones is outraged by the Syrian leader publishing Instagrams which show Asma al-Assad dispensing food and kindness at the same time as the al-Assad regime attacks and kills its own people in this horrendous civil war.
How dare they squawks Jones. Well, how dare they indeed. They dare because pictures persuade and so Asma al-Assad is put into situations with children and the hungry to show off her husband’s regime in a good light.
Jones claims ‘It’s too simplistic to describe these images as “propaganda.” No it isn’t – that is exactly what they are. But you see Jones wants to fit his theory to Hannah Arendt’s phrase banality of evil which she applied to the normal and ordinary behaviour of extraordinary figures such as the Nazi Adolf Eichmann.
It is the apparent purpose of this article by Jones to apply self-delusion to al-Assad but is it? Are his Instagrams self-delusional or are they simply a propaganda weapon?
These banal images which have Jones so worked up are his proof that al-Assad has succumbed to the fantasy existence of all dictators.
Perhaps Bashar al-Assad does exist in such a state but Jones has fails to demonstrate the truth of it. A picture is worth a thousand words as any politician in search of a baby knows. The ones which illustrate Jones’ article may well be ‘”shameless” and “grotesque”’ but that’s the game and not one confined to the al-Assad regime or even to dictators.
In this simplistic and sensationally written piece Jones, who is I believe an art correspondent with the paper, tells us that ‘Dictators don’t just fool the people. They fool themselves first’. Well maybe aye and maybe no.
It is surely likely there is purpose behind the online publishing of these al-Assad Instagrams after all the ones in the paper are demonstrably political so it’s difficult to follow Jones’ argument.
He asks the question if the regime really can believe such pictures of happiness and generosity can obliterate the dreadful images of death and suffering in Syria – well yes up to a point and for some people they can. That is their purpose and therefore suggests their use as propaganda.
When people were scratching a living during the hungry years of the 1930s wasn’t Hollywood pedalling myths about how wonderful life was in the States? It was seen as escapism and a way of boosting the public morale through fantasising life in the States. It is not accidental that these things occur.
Jones suggests the Syrians ‘drug themselves with such images’ but how does he know? Couldn’t his argument be applied in less dramatic circumstances to most public figures? According to Jones, ‘Dictators don’t just fool the people. They fool themselves first. Dictators’ private lives are often kitsch fantasy worlds that enable a ruler to believe in a myth that is then projected outwards and buttressed by violence.’ Where is his evidence that dictators any more than bog-standard politicians actually believes their own propaganda?
When Jones turns to Libya to strengthen his case he really has found a barrel to scrape when he cites photographs found in Muammar Gaddafi’s compound showing him and his children posing with pet camels along with a photograph of Condoleezza Rice. Jones tells us these photos were not intended for ‘public consumption’ so were not propaganda. He says that Gaddafi liked to look at images of his private life (how does he know?) because they strengthened his sense of identity (how can he be sure?). It would be unusual for someone not to occasionally look through family photographs – which might include pets or indeed work colleagues – even if not of the stature of Condoleezza Rice.
Does Jones and his family have any family pictures and if so does he look at them in private? If he does is his purpose to strengthen his sense of identity? Maybe that is a function of photos. So what?
To clinch his theory Jones turns to Adolf Hitler without whom no work on dictators would be complete. Jones enlightens us about Hitler’s ‘private fantasy’ world. How does he know about this? Well it seems Hitler had a secret stash of photographs of Bavaria and Berlin. Even more damning he had pictures of his girlfriend Eva Braun and his dog. This is where I have to admit that I also have photographs of Bavaria, Berlin and dogs though none of Eva Braun.
According to Jones’ cod philosophy such images are ‘eerie’ and ‘props’ in building Hitler’s self-image. And he alerts us to ‘Hitler’s real relationship with Braun [being] a mystery – observers said he was awkward in her company.’ He lost me at this point.
It may be that if you are a budding dictator you would be well advised to steer clear of taking any family snaps because one day some simple soul might come along and find that pic of you and Fido and use it as evidence of your inherent malevolence. I suppose it depends what you were doing to Fido or indeed what Fido was doing to you.
To clear this up – if you are a dictator and place photographs on public display you are not presenting propaganda but creating your own mythic image and if you take snaps and don’t show them to anyone else you are still creating your own mythic image. And they have in common what exactly apart from photographs?
It’s a big stretch to suggest any politician/dictator who has his own photo album lives an empty and unsatisfying life…only the ones who come a cropper I would suggest, otherwise life is probably pretty cool for the average bigwig politico.
I wonder where Jones’ hypothesis would fit with, say, the US President. Obama speaks fine words quite a lot actually but then he goes and messes things up by bombing people and overseeing drone flights to destroy even more lives.
Bruce Thornton wrote in FrontPage Magazine, “The President said, ‘We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale.’ Who’s he kidding” We already have, in Hussein’s Iraq. Change ‘gassed’ to ‘bombed,’ ‘fire-bombed.’ ‘hacked to death,’ machine-gunned,’ and ‘starved’ and you can cover the globe with the victims whose deaths on a ‘terrible scale’ we have ‘accepted.’
It may be that the Obamas do not take family pics or allow themselves to be photographed as ordinary people.
And what about that man whose name is now coupled forever with hypocrisy – step up Tony Blair. The man who gave us the Iraq war, who still kids on he’s a peace envoy for the Middle East – an earlier Guardian piece, ‘ Tony Blair is effectively one of the architects of Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip.’ http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jan/06/gaza-tony-blair-hamas-israel
His role as peace envoy still earns him headlines – more recently he voiced his fury that the West has not gone to war against Syria – peace as a flexible concept – but what is the difference saying one thing and doing another? Is it the image which makes hypocrisy so bad rather than words and deeds and defines a dictator-type personality? Now there is a man who is clearly delusional or is that megalomania we see strutting the world stage? Perhaps Jones should turn his attentions to the Blair family albums – does anyone know if Blair has a dog?