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October 17, 2006

Buddy Jesus

Buddy-Jesus

Just like the long running SNL News gag announcing Franco, the former dictator, as “still dead,” I imagine a modern equivalent tracking the moribund condition of irony.

In a humorless reality where Popes hurl daggers and cultures do battle over cartoons, news comes that a sophomoric Hollywood creation, designed to give the fundies a poke-in-the-eye, has been converted to ammo in the GWOT.

Buddy Jesus originated in the 1999 slacker movie, “Dogma,” as part of a (fictional) marketing effort on behalf of the Catholic church to inject more “cool” into their main man.  Although this film was firmly planted in the “glory of dumbness” genre, Buddy had enough going for him to strike a popular chord.

As a result, his visage — with a “ceramicized” or cartoon-like countenance — earned an afterlife as a sticker, t-shirt, poster and dashboard figure.  Not content with that action, however, Buddy acquired a recent feature role in an all-too-real drama starring the Mahdi of Sadr City and the U.S. military.

Carolyn O’Hara of the FP blog is not sure how the whole thing started.  One possibility is that the Iraqi’s inserted Buddy into a forged U.S. pamphlet outlining potential abominations to be inflicted on the local militias.  The other possibility is that U.S. soldiers had been circulating Buddy as a joke, or even an article of incitement.  Either way, Buddy made the rounds, with the terrible result that the locals mistook him for one of their holy own.

As you can tell from the image, the mistake — once discovered — was not appreciated.

Maybe it’s obvious to a domestic audience that Buddy’s focus-group is drawn from the skate park and IM’ers whiling away the hours at the mall.  Imagine the trouble, however, when Buddy, with those signs he throws, smugly encounters a radically different demographic.

In the sanctuary of the local cineplex, that right hand is safely buffered in double-meaning.  If anything, the primary reading equates with empowerment:  A workable translation might come out: “I see you, brother” or:  “You’re the man.”  It’s only in the layering you add the darker code — making the point that the good word historically goes hand-in-hand with the trigger finger.

If these Shiites also see multiple associations in the gesture, I’m afraid they are not the same ones.  For instance, the Iraqi’s seem well conditioned to recognize when an admonishing finger is being wagged in their direction.  Providing little offset, the firearm gesture must also seem matter-of-fact emerging from the holy Christian sleeve.

So, what kind of hemispheric translation is served by the more retracted left hand?

From the West, it seems to further soften and buffer.  Combined with “you’re the man,” the (irony free) thumbs up seems to add: “you’re saved,” or “you’re perfect as you are.”

From the East, in contrast, I’d say it further sharpens the edge.  According to Brendan I. Koerner in Slate, it originally meant “up yours.”  Shockingelk, citing the Defense Language Institute, interprets it as: “I’m winning.”  Both sources, however, indicate the meaning (especially as our hosts have gotten to know us better) also implies: “everything is okay.”

In almost any direction you take it, however, the thumbs up — in combination with the admonishing/gun slinging message — has an almost “Abu Ghraib-ish” undertone to it.  The pointed finger/thumbs up cocktail, mixed with with the sadistically stupid grin, conjures a larger narrative the occupying forces never seem to live down, sometimes to the hymn of: “You’re going to see the light, or it will be my pleasure to show you there.”

If irony is, in fact, dead, probably the cruelest element here is the heart.  It’s hard enough to face these expressions.  The larger difficulty is being in the mind, and the senses, of the actual person in Buddy’s line of sight.

(image: Wissam Al-Okaili/AFP.  Sadr City.  Distributed October 1, 2006.  Via YahooNews.)

  • Steve Talbert

    The Iraqis were NOT upset because they thought it was a Christian figure, they thought it was mocking Imam Mahdi, one of their holy men. From everything I have read about the incident, they were clueless about the hand gestures and couldn’t get over the associated text and pictorial image itself.
    Although I agree that irony has lost alot of its power when you are dealing with multi-cultural situations, if we don’t have a shared base on experience, then the references become meaningless. I see the same thing happening in the US as more and more people get home schooled and we are able to select our specialized news source. I wonder if that is forcing us into some sort of literalness in order to communicate.

  • Mona

    The kitsch of Empire

  • readytoblowagasket

    Once again, Americans are the true terrorists. It doesn’t matter if WE understand the image or know where it comes from. It matters that it was used in conjunction with *text* that specifically mentions raping and killing the women, assassinating the men, and instilling panic in everyone by blowing things up. Without the text of the pamphlets, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to say if this image would have the same power. We can guess all we want after the fact, but it’s hopelessly academic since we *still* understand nothing about the Iraqi people in the first place. From the linked article:
    “The pamphlets outlined a so-called plan to discredit the militias in the sprawling Baghdad slum of two million people, a stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
    ‘Destabilize security in the militia areas with explosions and assassinations to create panic’ and ‘killing, raping and kidnapping women’ were all measures the pamphlet recommended to cause people to lose faith in the militias.”
    The clue it’s written by an American is the reference to rape, because we repeatedly go for the rape idea (raping the Iraqi women is like raping the Iraqi men too, which is a triple hit of power).
    Here’s the profoundly ignorant American (aka “coalition”) response to the trouble this “prank” ignited:
    ” ‘If it wasn’t so serious it would be funny,’ said a coalition spokesman, Major Will Willhoite.”
    Excuse me? Major Willhoite is unfit for his position and should be removed and demoted.
    Besides the murdering, maiming, and rampaging destruction of another country’s people and culture, the reason we must get out of Iraq is because Americans are viciously cruel, incurably arrogant, and insufferably STUPID. If we could get away with enslaving the Iraqi people we would. Since we can’t, we terrorize them.

  • PTate in MN

    wow. A Hollywood for-profit entertainment–intended to mock the earnestness and delusions of Christian religiosity–takes on a life of its own.
    How many layers in this image? Let me count: 1)Buddy Jesus, with his hippyish sacred heart, from a film created to entertain an American audience that 2) lampoons Christian religiousity and ends with a violent bloodbath; 3) a photograph of buddy Jesus held by Muslim Iraqis (the specific image that we see here) and 4) who are, as we are painfully aware, suffering their own bloodbath thanks in part to 5) American zealotry and the failed leadership of the POTUS; and 6)that buddy Jesus looks enough like an Iraqi that the Iraqis were confused, and 7) that buddy Jesus may have been deliberated misused.
    oh, yes, and 8) the hand gestures, and 9) the Christian/Islam/West/East cultural differences.
    This picture is dizzying, like falling head over heels down the rabbit hole into wonderland.
    One thing that strikes me is the larger image of Buddy Jesus in Iraqi hands. On the one hand, the silly, dumb, American surfer-dude Jesus and on the other, the Iraqis, particularly the young man at the center of the picture. His eyes are lost in dark shadows, but we can still read the anger on his face, his Otherness, the hardship & stress of that world.
    In this photograph of a photograph, these many layers, we can observe ourselves, just a little, through the eyes of the Other. Buddy Jesus embodies the crass soullessness, indulgence, cultural self-centeredness and ignorance of the American popular culture. We can also glimpse the bitter consequences for Iraq’s people. Americans are treating the world like a film set, and they are living in the reality.
    As a sidenote, I’m happy to see BagNewNotes touch again on the topic of how the West views the ME. We haven’t done that for a while.

  • margaret

    This points up what is wrong with our push for globalization. We have lost all respect for other cultures by cramming our own down reluctant throats for economic reasons. Remember, this is why OSB-L attacked us in the first place: our cultural vulgarities, our lack of sensitivity to people’s beliefs, even to those from our own western traditions. Misinterpretation of an image is just one more result of the abominations we are perpetrating in Iraq.I become more and more ashamed with the memory of what inspired my American Revolutionary ancestors.

  • http://www.dock.net/fuming_mucker/ Darryl Pearce

    …maybe the Muslim admonition to avoid artistically the human form was a good idea after all? …since it incites so much?
    As a people on the “pale blue dot” of a planet, how do we have fun and be excited without being incited?

  • transitory

    Isn’t it ironic that stoner hippie Buddy Jesus is taking the fall for His doppleganger, Warrior Jesus, King George’s own personal emissary of Divine Justice or as HRM George would say “Just-us”.

  • ummabdulla

    Even if these Iraqis had known this was supposed to be Jesus, it wouldn’t have been too much much better. Jesus is a prophet in Islam, mentioned many times in the Quran (there’s even one chapter called Mary or Maryam, about his birth) and loved and respected like the other prophets. He is expected to return before the end of the world (appearing first in Damascus). They wouldn’t take kindly to his being mocked by American soldiers.
    But apparently this also looks like how they portray the Mehdi. Sunnis also believe in the Mehdi, but Shias believe that he lived along time ago and is in hiding until he appears again. He seems to be quite an important figure for them; Iran’s President Ahmadinejad refers to him often, and Moqtada Sadr’s militia is called the Mehdi Army. Moqtada Sadr said recently that the U.S. was building up their military presence in the region to be ready to fight the Mehdi and his followers.
    (Shias don’t seem to have the same aversion to having pictures of their religious figures, which is why you often see pictures of their leaders, and of historical figures who are important to them.)
    It’s not too surprising that Buddy Christ looks like the image of the Mehdi; after all, Jesus was from Palestine.
    I see it as another demonstration of the gulf between Muslims and the West. Many Westerners just don’t understand that Muslims still take their religion seriously. Either that or they don’t care.

  • tina

    ummabdulla is right. Muslims actually believe, a concept Americans can’t seem to get their heads around. American evangelicals are superstitious, but their churches seem to be more a place to recreate the kitschy elements of the popular culture than a place where faith in God is exercised (baking clubs, “Left Behind” movie showings, kiddie groups, weight loss meetings, rock concerts, etc. etc. all with a “Christian” bent–just another marketing ploy for second tier talents who couldn’t make it in the mainstream. Are you a washed-up 80s child star? Go Christian!)
    The really weird thing is, I see the Muslim communities in the U.S. starting some of the same things. Heck, they’re even using each other’s propaganda. I get fundie articles in my email with “Allah” substituted for “God” or “Jesus” and its like whoaaaa…don’t do this, guys. But it seems a lot of my Muslim friends don’t know the difference, and are genuinely surprised to learn that the same email was making the rounds of the evangelical Christian groups the month before. The problem is that from an Islamic point of view these writings are usually doctrinally wrong.
    European Christians, by the way, are quite different from American ones, both Catholic and Protestant. They have to pay a church tax there, so the ones who don’t believe leave the church. Maybe they should do the same thing here, as the American churches are really glorified weekly social clubs.
    That said, there will never be a “buddy Muhammed”. The very thought gives Muslims one of those all over body shivers. I’m sure the feeling in Iraq is that Americans make a mockery of their own religion (which they do, in all kinds of ways) and they look down on us all the more for it.
    We’re not being too impressive over there.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Why do we even think Buddy Christ would look like *Jesus* to the Iraqis? Because of his trademark clothing, dark hair, and beard?

  • lower_case A

    In the part of America I now reside in, irony is, indeed, dead. I’ve been here for several years, and it has been R’ingIP for at least that long.
    I’m quite certain that plenty of the Iraqi people understand Buddy’s hand gestures. If these posters were circulated by the Americans, it only adds to my rapidly growing list of this administration’s many stupid moves.
    On the other hand, if the Iraqis themselves circulated them, it proves that they have a far better understanding of our culture than we will ever have of theirs.

  • http://molly.douthett.net momly

    For an exercise in irony and the use of Buddy, go to Jesus’ General.

  • jt from BC

    Margaret, I too must often remind myself that;
    “We have lost all respect for other cultures by cramming our own down reluctant throats *for economic reasons*,”
    This is precisely what we did when we hoped off the first boat.
    “I become more and more ashamed with the memory of what inspired my American Revolutionary ancestors”
    After which we then proceeded Westward to complete the subjugation of this continents Indigenous people but under a different flag.
    We are accomplished in these endeavors, for we have been at them a long time. Have you never puzzled over our collective, short, illusionary or selective memories ?

  • thom

    the fact that muslims would “shutter” at the thought of a ‘buddy muhammed’ shows that as far as religion the west is more evolved or evolving past religion. which is a good thing. the muslims will be where christians are now in a couple hundred years if, god willing, we make it that far.

  • ummabdulla

    Yes, of course, thom, the West is more “evolved” and “civilized”, too, as we’re so often told.
    “the muslims will be where christians are now in a couple hundred years”
    Which Christians? Because there’s a big difference between the state of Christianity in different Christian denominations, and in different parts of the world even within the same denomination. I guess because people in other parts of the world aren’t as “evolved”.

  • http://ruinsofempire.blogspot.com/ Rafael

    ummbdulla:
    I can only imagine a Muslim scholar in the Alhambra saying the same thing to a Christian counterpart some 600 years ago.

  • ummabdulla

    Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite?
    FOR the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”
    (Short answer: They haven’t got a clue…)
    You have to be registered at the New York Times to read this, but there are lengthy excerpts at Obsidian Wings.

  • ummabdulla

    You can read the full article here, too.
    And you’re right, Rafael…

  • erthsister

    I still can’t get over the hand gestures. *Two* offensive hand gestures at once! I am just stunned by it, thinking of how that looks in this context.
    (Pointing is rude, which is why you see so many openhanded gestures. Then there’s the crude suggestion of unmentionable actions… uhm yeah, no, that’s not classy. Meanwhile, the grin is unrepentant.)
    Very interesting, transitory. I think this rendition might look ‘more offensive’ because of its mocking tone. There’s a fine line between humor and offense sometimes, and this one staggers along on both sides at once. In regards to your thought, maybe the Warrior Jesus image is so pervasive and unquestioned that it takes more conscious perspective to confront. It’s like violence on television–it’s so pervasive as to be invisible except to those of us still awake. Also, the Warrior version is not a spoof. They really mean it. I’m not sure this was quite what you meant, though.

  • gleex

    Great story. Great picture to go with it.
    “American churches are really glorified weekly social clubs.” – tina
    And how may churches in how many states have you visited in America conducting you scientific evidence gathering, or is this your divination?

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