"Ali" and the Manipulation of Imagery
If the theater that I visited yesterday to see the newly released, "Ali" was any indication, this movie, featuring Will Smith in the title role, will be a huge box office success (and for good reason). The trailers used by the producers to advertise the movie over the last few weeks, are evocative of a time in America when ordinary citizens were called upon to do extraordinary things, in order to help this nation purge itself of some of its deeply entrenched contradictions. The man formerly known as Cassius Marcellus Clay, who would later stun the world stage as Muhammad Ali, was a product, and would go on to become one of the enduring symbols of that age.
The evolution of this courageous brother reminds me of the words of one of the great freedom fighters from the Afro-American tradition, Frederick Douglas, who wrote: "A man (and this of course equally applies for a woman) is worked on by what he works on; he may carve out his circumstances, but his circumstances will carve him out as well." I couldn't help but wonder, how many people (esp. younger folk) in the packed theater in which I sat - or the countless number of other theaters around the country - would walk away at the end of the movie having learned this very important lesson.
Now, almost four decades after that transformational period in Ali's life, history is once again repeating itself. However, instead of a war against communism, with the principal theater of conflict centered in Southeast Asia, it is a war against "Islam," with the theater of conflict principally in the Middle East (and other parts of the "Muslim world"). And in the mother of all ironies, the shining symbol of principled resistance of yesteryear (Muhammad Ali) is being asked to become a facilitator for America's unjust warmongering today.
Perception is a powerful thing
"Every American foreign policy setback, from Indochina to Somalia, has resulted from the failure to define objectives, to choose means appropriate to these objectives, and to create a public opinion prepared to pay the necessary price over the requisite period of time." These words are taken from the opening paragraph of an op-ed piece written by former Secretary of State Henry Kissenger, published in the September 22, 1997, edition of the Washington Post, and serve as a useful backdrop for the information to follow.
Many of you reading this commentary will no doubt remember hearing something about the meeting held a few weeks ago between cabinet level advisers of the Bush Administration and top level executives of the motion picture industry. The meeting was reportedly called by administration officials to request the industry's assistance with a very important propaganda campaign. Administration officials, from the president on down, were concerned that attempts to sell their campaign as a war strictly against "terrorism," was not going over well among the masses of Muslim people. Enter "Hollywood."
The New York Times published in its recent Sunday edition that Muhammad Ali has been asked to film a one-minute "public service announcement" to explain American policy to Muslims in the Middle East. According to a related Associated Press report, Jill Siegal (identified as Ali's spokesperson) told the Times that "Ali 'definitely wants to do that,' but said he was waiting for details of the project before making an agreement."
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, told the Times, "Ali will hopefully be able to convey the idea that Muslims in America lead a free life, [and] practice their religion in a form in which they choose to practice it." And further noted that the second point of the "public service announcement" would be to convey the message that America's aggression is "not a war against Islam. It's a war against murderers who kill innocent people."
As was the case in the so-called "Cold War" against communism, no mention is made of America's own murderous campaigns against innocent people (aka "collateral damage") in different parts of the world, and the significant increase that will undoubtedly come, as the world's only remaining "superpower" continues to pursue what it narrowly defines as its own "national interests."
While some prominent Muslims, and Muslim organizations, have already signaled their willingness to become "team players" in what may very well be the final campaign of the "New World Order," our prayer is that the experts of mind manipulation will not be able to "draft" an exceptional man of courage and conviction, into a campaign today that is substantively no different than the campaign of yesterday. It is our prayer that those with access to Muhammad Ali, who truly mean him well, will get to him, and advise him, before the vultures do.
p.s. I highly recommend the movie. (It is the type of movie that has the potential to impart valuable lessons for life.)
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