July 13, 2008

Guantanamo Bay . . . it is to laugh

How pop-culture satire is helping Americans confront the bitter joke of post-9/11 excesses
Jul 13, 2008 04:30 AM

National Security Reporter

When the waterboarding of a Sesame Street character named Gitmo can't help but make you laugh, it's clear a 9/11 milestone has been passed.

It's the same cultural evolution that has allowed Harold and Kumar's Escape From Guantanamo Bay to shoot to the top of box-office hits. The surprise success of the R-rated stoner flick that features the arrest of two hapless Americans carrying a bong on an airplane – not a bomb. There's a pot-smoking and insecure U.S. President George W. Bush, sodomizing prison guards and a selection of xenophobic American stereotypes – all of which draw plenty of giggles.

But the growing popularity of post-9/11 satire is about more than laughs.

Political pop culture is also playing an important role in creating the legacy of the Bush administration's Guantanamo Bay war-crimes trials. And that's shaping up to be a far different picture than history paints of the World War II Nuremberg trials.

Guantanamo is largely being portrayed as a bad joke – especially on shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report.

"I think we're in a period now because of people like Colbert and Jon Stewart, where comedy is really an important part of the civic equation," said Bob Thompson, a professor and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"What's going on in those comedy shows is a pretty good treatment of some of these stories,"

Take for instance Stewart's waterboarding last month of the supposedly long-forgotten Sesame Street character called "Gitmo," who looks startlingly like Elmo, the red, fuzzy puppet known for his high-pitched giggle on the children's TV program.

The Daily Show segment titled "Guantanamo Baywatch" also featured a captured photo of Gitmo made to look like the famous shot of a dishevelled Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks captured in Pakistan in 2003.

The clip was quickly passed around the Internet and mocked what the Pentagon had hoped would be a flawless start to the trial of the prized captive.

(The CIA has admitted Mohammed was subjected to waterboarding, a process whereby suspects are made to believe they're drowning, which many argue amounts to torture.)

"Humour can be used to point out the absurdity of something. It has a very definitive purpose in our culture and The Daily Show does that on various levels. That's the purpose of satire," American comedian, writer and actor Aasif Mandvi said in an interview.

"We live in a democracy, and often humour is a way to deal with incredible, really macabre, grotesque violations and behaviour."

Mandvi is best known as The Daily Show's fake news "Middle Eastern affairs correspondent" and made headlines when he joined Stewart's team in 2006.

His first segment was a mock stand-up report from Beirut during which he said people were buzzing with excitement about America's plans for the Middle East.

When Stewart questioned him about the violence, Mandvi brushed it off: "You can't get hummus without smashing some chickpeas."

Though Mandvi is known best for his comedy, he's also a playwright and serious stage actor.

Much of his recent work has been political, including the 2004 off-Broadway production of Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, in which Mandvi played British Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, who was freed in 2005 after the British government intervened on his behalf.

The point of the play was to highlight the illegality of holding terrorism suspects indefinitely without trial, Mandvi said. Just last month, four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in a landmark decision granting detainees access to U.S. federal courts.

"We were there to agitate the audience and make them do something," explained Mandvi. "I think there's a sense of, 'Well that's happening over there in Cuba and I guess eventually we'll get around to doing the right thing.'

"I think most people sort of feel that the Supreme Court is on the right track, it's going through the process of doing the right thing but that seems absurd to me – that there's this kind of patience about it.

"When you make the argument that it's okay for us to do something illegal because we are under attack, then you throw the entire book out. Then, everything is up for grabs and you're in a very dangerous situation, which is where America is right now."

Mandvi is also a Muslim American and 9/11 ushered in a sense of urgency and responsibility that he said he didn't feel before the attacks.

Born in India as Aasif Mandviwala, he moved with his family to England as a baby, and then on to the United States when he was a teenager.

"Listen, I'm not even a devout Muslim," he said. "I don't always go to the mosque. I have my own issues with my religion just as Jews and Christians do.

"But I think 9/11 changed everything, obviously, and suddenly artists like myself, who were raised Muslim . . . suddenly you find yourself in this position where you're defending and speaking up for this thing that is part of your culture and your heritage. You find yourself in the position where you're politicized as an artist."

Actor Kalpen Suresh Modi – better known by his stage name Kal Penn or his movie character's moniker, Kumar – also has an intellectual and political life that couldn't be more different from his movie persona's.

While he said he recognizes the importance of satire in shaping public opinion, he is quick to downplay any importance of his Harold and Kumar film.

"The only real intention or motivation behind the film was to make people laugh," Modi said in an interview.

"With that said, we each obviously have a personal opinion on this type of subject matter.

"I remember Jon Hurwitz (one of the writer-directors) saying something to the effect of, `Sometimes the greatest sources of comedy come from the greatest tragedy.' ... If that humour gets people talking about the reality of Guantanamo, wiretapping or the war, then I think that's great – no matter what the result."

Modi said he's registered as an Independent voter but has campaigned for Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, his first venture into political campaigning.

He also became a guest instructor this spring at the University of Pennsylvania's Asian American Studies Program.

"Out of a class of 125, we had 20 drop the course after the first lecture because they realized that I wasn't 'Kumar' and the course was actually challenging," Modi said. "The remaining 105 students were driven, motivated and passionate about the subject material."

Guantanamo Bay's days are now numbered following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that granted detainees the right to challenge their incarceration in civil courts, and with both Obama and Republican presidential hopeful John McCain vowing to shut down the detention centre if elected.

"The question is how much credit do you give the comedians for all that has happened" to discredit Guantanamo and other Bush post 9/11 policies, said Thompson.

"One has to acknowledge, they are certainly part of the recipe. Comedy's popular, it goes down smoothly and a lot of comedians have been really hammering a lot of these issues in ways that people can understand because they're not framed in complex political arguments, they're framed in funny little bits.

"There isn't a sense now that if comedy deals with these important issues that it's somehow being disrespectful or trivializing it. These days, in fact, comedy, in more and more people's eyes, is not that trivial."

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