The war stinks of shit.
— Pier Paolo Pasolini (May, 1944)
Enough of smoke and mirrors and smooth talking hustlers.
— Edward W. Said (April, 2003)
Walt Disney Studios’ now infamously racist film, Aladdin, must, to use Raymond Williams’ phrase, be placed in its structure of feeling. “Our success in the Gulf will shape not only the new world order we seek but our mission here at home,” president Bush (41) said in 1991 after our (the U.S.A) brief (but bloody) incursion into Iraq, a year before the release of the Disney film. The Cold War was over and the United States was on top, the former president seems to be saying to the New World. But the elder Bush does not stop there; the imperial homeland must itself recognize the might of their state, and the weakness of its enemies in the face of such exceptional might (a “clash of civilizations,” the reactionary Samuel Huntington would famously call this relationship around the same time). As Edward Said made clear in his book Orientalism (1978), the process of imagining the other is part and parcel with that modern process of imaging the self (power, of course, is fundamental to Said's analysis of the colonial period). In the late capitalist, as it was called then, United States, the image of the other was increasingly drawn in Arab garb.* Two decades later (as a second Gulf War was winding down, at least in the official discourse of the state**), president Obama — after presiding (as the leader of the free world, so called) over the extensive bombing of Libya by that military relic of the Cold War, NATO — addressed the Libyan people: “The rule of an iron fist [more Cold War!] inevitably comes to an end. You have won your revolution.” Our philosopher king becomes the emperor of the liberated.
In the June 1986 issue of American Film, the late Alexander Cockburn, one of the Anglophone fourth estate’s most reliable challengers of empire, reviewed Tony Scott’s Top Gun.*** He ended his stinging critique of the “high flying” military-industrial romance, by pointing out the irony in the fact that the fighter pilots in the film (Tom Cruise et. al.) were portrayed in such noble and heroic terms only ten years after the end of the United States’ bumbling imperial air-war on the people of Vietnam. A few years later, with the extensive media coverage of George H.W. Bush’s war in the Persian Gulf, the American public could for the first time virtually follow the aerial bombing of Iraq on television and imagine themselves the pilots of their own jets, just like their heroes Maverick and Goose. Fast-forward a year later, and Disney’s Aladdin is in theaters.
In his “The Monstrous Births of ‘Aladdin,’” scholar of Arabic literature, Michael Cooperson, traced the process through which characters and themes were translated into different versions of the famous folk tale.**** Cooperson notes how the producers of the 1992 animated film changed the moral of the story, originally an 1980s-style message of “greed is good,” in order bring it properly into the a post-Cold War American milieu of superpower as enlightened policeman. Thus, the genie in the Disney feature places a limit on the amount of wishes he can grant and Aladdin — whose look, Cooperson notes, animators modeled after Tom Cruise (!) — saves his third and final wish to liberate his friend the genie, literally, from his chains. In the end, the genie, voiced by Robin Williams, decides to remain with Aladdin despite his “freedom.” More than 20 years after the initial war, after a decade of brutal sanctions, and finally the total destruction of its neighboring state of Iraq, Kuwait remains a staunch ally of the United States and an essential staging ground for its imperial maneuvers in the Arab world and beyond. The recent release of Sacha Baron Cohen’s film The Dictator — a latter day Orientalist-minstrel created by a devout Zionist of the so-called liberal stripe — in the aftermath of the western takeover of Libya and in the midst of the United States’ continued assault on the Arab/Islamicate world even as its people rise up in courageous and imaginative revolution, is another instance of an empire rehearsing its role (as leading civilization à la Huntington) on the silver screen.
NOTE: This is a short thing I wrote for a long thing I never finished. Also, and by the way I don't know how to make proper footnotes on this thing. So, you know, deal.
*Though, as any passing look at Said’s encyclopedic book or a viewing of John Rawlins' 1942 film Arabian Nights would prove, such tropes have long existed in both scholarly and popular discourses.
**Though the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is the largest in the world, not to mention the drones…or the sanctions on Iran...etc. etc....
***Alexander Cockburn, “Top Gun,” in Corruptions of Empire (London: Verso, 1988) pp. 163-172
****Michael Cooperson, “The Monstrous Births of ‘Aladdin,’” Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review v. 1 (1994), pp. 67-86.