Masha and the Bear

Masha and the Bear

I just received an invitation to watch a neat video from a friend I made while still active in our university Polish-Canadian cultural association during undergraduate years. I was initially wary of the lightsaber battle because that’s just been waaay overdone, but when I realized the metaphor behind it, it suddenly didn’t seem as bad. The clip has since been taken down, but it was “an epic lightsaber battle between Reagan and Gorbachev”, highlighting how children growing up under repressive governments were able to have “something of a regular childhood” through Hollywood movies.

After seeing the video I immediately took to writing a quick note to Filip congratulating him on a job well done… but the ink just flowed. So I’m posting it instead; lots of rumination here. Grab a tea and off we go!

The video reminds me of my recent studies in Germany, where I saw just how Americanized they are over there. Reading up on German-American relations sheds lots of light on this, particularly looking at how much the US has helped Germany after the war. Artefacts of this special relationship exist everywhere, from Munich’s river surfing hotspot in the middle of the city (the story goes Californian soldiers posted there in the 70s first started this tradition), to Germany’s maintenance of their opinion that the US remains their most important ally in spite of the US spying on Merkel, to their having regular shows and expositions on this relationship (one was on permanent display at the museum in downtown Leipzig throughout the entire semester I was there), to even the majority of their social events. I remember seeing an 80s party advertised in the street in Nuremberg, and literally every single thing on the poster I knew from my own childhood, from Ninja Turtles to Power Rangers to Salt-N-Pepa.

Surfing the Eisbach

And this made me sad. Because this “liberation” from a dreary, oppressed world into one of vibrant colour and action presents a problem. Local culture can quickly fade as cultures of great empires take over, leaving in its wake whole swathes of people who feel very closely tied to — but awkwardly not completely at home in — the empire’s culture. After all, they didn’t really participate in it apart from merely gazing in.

I’m reminded of a Biggie vs. Tupac Christmas party we organized with an American friend while studying in Greece, with many foreign students in attendance. I found it hilariously strange how the Romanian, who made himself out to be very worldly and a huge fan of American culture in particular, didn’t actually know how to act when it came to even pretending to be of that culture. He tried to look a rapper, but ended up looking something like a farmer, with an undershirt neatly tucket into his jeans and a streamlined bike racing cap he couldn’t decide if he should wear backwards or forwards. Our Dutch friend knew that tats were big with rappers and so commissioned our Indian friend to draw a rainbow unicorn along the full length of his triceps. To this day we’re not entirely sure if this was some sort of joke or if he was serious. It was as if these guys knew all the words but not the tune. Of course, the Romanian continued blaring heavy rap music in his room for the duration of the semester.

There is also the worry that children growing up in such restrictive settings end up tying their views of freedom and even of life meaning to the culture presented in the “good guys'” media. These become new cultural norms, and people can quickly get caught up with this new value set to the exclusion of exploring other lifestyles (or even just values) that may actually be better, something that is especially true if it has been lived in the mind for years while the real world continued to oppress. Between growing up first-generation here and traveling quite a bit throughout these past few years, I started seeing that it’s not all rainbows and butterflies beyond our silver screen. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who didn’t really get that Gary Cooper Solidarność poster (“Why don’t they use their own guy?” I kept wondering).

Now I’m thinking of all the Polish families I know who came to Canada with nothing and worked tremendously hard to finally buy a house, a car, furniture, appliances… and how many of these I now see almost addicted to the tremendous problems that are inherent in capitalism without even realizing it: overconsumption, exploitation of people and resources, apathy regarding the developing world… just to name a few quick but glaring examples.

A final thought on this topic is from when I was home and saw a huge billboard advertising a local lawyer. After seeing it a few times around town, I could easily name the lawyer and, worryingly to me, felt as if I knew him. I’d been thinking a lot about Dunbar’s number at the time and I quickly realized that what was happening here was he was trying to get into my brain as an acquaintance, taking up a spot even at the periphery of my 150. And he was succeeding. This, after a few days of mulling-over, led to the realization that business, and indeed culture, takes two forms of payment: cold hard support (cash and other more materialistic forms that allow it to grow), and attention — or even just awareness from an audience. The latter gives it a reason to keep growing, and both rely on the other. This is why it makes sense to shell out sizeable sums of your first pile, of cash or time, for example, for things like advertising or community engagement. Without your second pile growing at a matching speed, your first pile will inevitably wither away to ashes because no one will care about its continued existence. This idea neatly explains things like celebrity sex tapes, 24-hour news networks, and Donald Trump’s political campaign.

Flash forward to the media phenomenon in this video. It is very clearly a case of an exceptionally successful billboard lawyer entering a drab part of town. Everyone looks to him and knows a better life is possible, even if that better life is a dream right now. But of course, the billboard lawyer will not be advertising any of his failures through this window you view, no… and so he shines on with an otherworldly radiance. The whole scenario points to Dawkins’ interesting theory of culture evolving just as frenetically as biology, with memes of cultural behaviour constantly fighting each other for prominence and, in the end, existence. With empires’ ever-growing resources, their stories will inevitably become better and better: better crafted, better scripted, and now, better tuned to subtle cultural differences so they can more easily be consumed by an ever-widening audience. And the consumption of an empire’s culture goes hand-in-hand with the eventual recognition of that culture’s increased value in the eyes of the world.

This can be seen in recent years with Russia. Up until recently the country was openly viewed as something of an untrustworthy, quietly looming enemy, just biding its time for the right moment to cause more havoc in the world. Putin was called a whole rainbow of names, from dictator to fascist to the devil himself. Well, since the inception of Russia’s official, state-funded English- (and now Arabic- and Spanish-)language TV program in 2005, public opinion regarding the cold bear of the north has very much thawed, and criticisms of American imperialism and neocolonialism have started trickling into mainstream news, commanding a consistently increasing presence (despite the West’s continued denouncement of RT as an untrustworthy news source). Russia’s protection of Edward Snowden, its recent apparent victories in the Middle East, and how delicately it sidestepped being painted as aggressor in the EU following its annexation of Crimea all point to its finally having mastered PR… and a key to this success is no doubt simply having their culture consumed by the other side, by us. That one of the top YouTube videos of all time is a Russian children’s story speaks to the success of this strategy.

Adorable. It makes you want to learn Russian, with over two billion views encouraging this decision.

With more and more countries realizing the power of global relevancy in changing global politics, I’m only curious when other voices will start emerging from currently exotic places, showing us they are the same as we are, and that maybe some of our own policies beg questioning. Have you ever had a chance to consume news from France, Germany, or even the Arabic world? Or even read the same Wikipedia article in a different language? It’s a real change, both the fresh perspective as well as the surprise that awaits you when you see what each linguistic community focuses on, and how they go about presenting their information. France, for example, has a huge amount of resources dedicated to African communities, something we never really hear about here unless there are pirates or starvation or rebellion or other such disasters… which, no doubt colours our view of that part of the world quite negatively. Conversely, Germany tends to have a very comprehensive, logical approach that makes you wonder where the balance is in our news teams.

In the end, this culture-as-bridge phenomenon is great for linking us across communities. I’m reminded of the Iraqi lady who owns a kebab shop near my work. She has ladies working for her from Afghanistan, from Iraq, from Syria… but whenever they can’t understand each other they switch to Egyptian Arabic. Why? Because, even though the Saudi Arabian variant is said to be closest to the “standard” in that tongue, Egypt is the region’s Hollywood and so this culture is consumed by all others in the region… naturally becoming an immediate lingua franca, sneakily carrying with it many other trappings of Egyptian culture.

I wish this was more our reflex: integration

Now the spoiler: the shaking of hands at the end of that first video is an honourable, happy end to the bitter rivalry, not unlike what happens in a successful migration story. But that Reagan was shown being the underdog, then winning the lightsaber match, then suing for peace at the end just goes on to show how the “winning culture” continues being viewed as such, long after the conflict is over and new conflicts emerge. History quickly redraws into different polarizations, and happy reminiscences though watching American comedies in difficult times may be, it’s important to remember that everything isn’t perfect on the other side of that billboard either. The way forward is necessarily through and beyond the victim/villain/hero triangle, no matter how seductively it seeks to ensnare. For this reason I applaud the use of foreign culture as a bridge, but I remain wary of making that bridge my home.

To finish on a light note, Filip’s video was great in showing different perspectives of people growing up through oppression, really focusing on the solidarity felt by them in first believing that a better world is possible, then in making it so. I am grateful for people like this who share their stories; they show us that the struggle is not only real, but ultimately winnable.

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