ISIS’s Marketing Campaign

In response to yesterday’s post on violence, a friend sent me this excellent, challenging piece on the marketing savvy of ISIS. It does a great job of bringing out the perverse way that ISIS has been able to enter the West’s popular imagination. Marshall Sella cites one fact that I found especially remarkable: polls show that Americans were more aware of the beheading of James Foley than of any news event in the last five years – including, for example, Assad’s use of chemical weapons. No wonder we are going to war – the tail wags the dog.

The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s an especially resonant passage.

“ISIS, though, has reached marketing maturity. The militants’ media portfolio — its slickly designed magazine Dabiq, the grim John Cantlie Show, all of it — represents their message in full. On one side of it, there’s the recruiting effort, beseeching life’s losers in the East and the West to come and be welcomed, to be a part of something. On the other side, the message to those who will not join the cause is: We are going to destroy you, but first, utterly defile you. ISIS has now threatened not only to “See you in New York,” but also to fly its square banner over the White House.

Their icons, unlike the one-off images of Al Qaeda, have the ability to continue and expand, with an eye to distribution worldwide and one hundred percent of the back end. The creation of corrupt icons, the 2014 sort of icons, and the mass production of them — that’s fairly near the modern definition of branding. That’s the horror of it. (Well, the real horror is in, you know, all the killing.) Terrorists have co-opted methods of the comparatively innocent world of consumerism in order to pitch barbarism.”

Great Article about the Tea Party, and some thoughts

This article by J.M. Bernstein on the Tea Party in the New York Times is really excellent.

I think he is exactly right to identify a nihilistic reaction against dependency, in particular on government, as a driving force behind the Tea Party. And I think Hegel is an excellent foil for explaining what is wrong with that vision of politics: in short, Hegel makes the point the independence is a myth, that we are always already interdependent.

Bernstein explains more clearly and in more detail the kind of existential anger that I was also trying to capture in this post. But I think it’s worth emphasizing two points which Bernstein doesn’t dwell on.

First, I think that the nihilistic, anti-political, anti-dependency sentiment is not limited to the Tea Party, or the Right generally. I think Occupy shows elements of it, as do most ‘radical’ leftist programs. I mean, that’s a pretty good definition of the word “radical” – if you believe in incremental change to the existing order, you aren’t radical. Tear-it-all-downism certainly finds expression in some feminist, post-colonial, and anti-capitalist circles.

And if the reaction against dependency is wider than Bernstein suggests, that’s because the phenomenon that is being rejected is also broader. The Tea Party, and therefore Bernstein, limit their definition of dependency to dependency on government. But the creep of governmental bureaucracy into basic aspects of our lives is only one part of a broad shift. We live today in mass societies, and no one more so than Americans. This means that we rely upon large, distant institutions for the material and cultural goods that form the fabric of our day-to-day life. Hollywood dominates our cultural horizon. A handful of huge companies like Procter and Gamble define how we now conceptualize a ‘household’. Food is engineered and delivered to the local supermarket in forms that stretch the meaning of the term. In one of the most shocking and recent developments, self-identity itself is increasingly mediated through large institutions; aesthetic changes to Facebook Walls have important implications for the personhood of people who (like me) experience and maintain a significant portion of their intimate social relationships online.

In a certain sense, no human being has ever lived outside of a “structure” – a set of institutions which, even if only implicitly, determine the possible courses their lives can pursue. But the sheer scale of modern communication infrastucture and the scope of neo-liberal capitalism have made this fact more obvious and more acute. Under the conditions of “advanced western capitalism” or whatever you want to call it, it is difficult to avoid the realization that who I am is intensely shaped by my relationships – not only to other people, as Hegel describes in his famous master-slave dialectic – but to large institutions. The shows I watch, the music I listen to, the city I live in, the stores I shop at and the political parties I support – these are signifier that we grab on to to help us “get to know a person”. But there’s no escaping the fact that what we are talking about is really how I relate to a massive cultural edifice over which I have very little control.

I agree with Bernstein that what is both fascinating and difficult to explain about the Tea Party is its anger “or, the flip-side of that anger, the ease with which it succumbs to the most egregious of fear-mongering falsehoods”. And I agree with him that a knee-jerk rejection of dependency is at the core of this anger. But I think that reframing the issue as I have, as a broader response to some of the fundamental conditions of modernity, both helps one understand the emotional attractiveness of the movement, and provides the basis for a critique of that movement. So long as you identify dependence as dependence on government, and independence as freedom from it, the myth of freedom remains deeply plausible. But if you open your eyes to the way that we depend on alienating, massive institutions not only for our welfare cheques but also for our potato chips, it becomes much less clear that the solution is to undermine and retreat from the institutions of democratic government, while leaving the rest of our mass society intact.

On the popular piety of modernity

Lately, I have been fascinated by the idea of a popular piety. My engagements with religion tend to be extremely intellectual, and I privilege that kind of religiousity. But it occurs to me that complex theology is neither the most common nor the most important thing that religion does. The extraordinary accomplishment of the world’s great religions is that they give all sorts of people from various intellectual, social, and economic backgrounds a set of tools that help them live well. This is ultimately the test of any given religious practice; do its adherents find that the doctrines, rituals, and traditions meaningfully improve their lives.

Contemporary liberal Christianity – my own religious background – seems to be having a hard time meeting this test. It has become hard for lots of people to see the “value-added” of going to church. Hockey practice, yoga, and dining with friends crowd church out.

Obviously there is a temporal element to this – there are only so many hours in a day, so things have to get dropped. But I think church is also getting crowded out in a spiritual or ethical sense. These other activities – like team sports or yoga – are providing a lot of the meaning-making, community-building, transcendence-inducing functions that religion typically provide. Because of its religious history, Yoga is a clear example of this, but I think many “scenes” and political and social movements play this role as well. Everything from the rave scene to feminism to being a liberal arts student provide people with sets of practices, beliefs, and rituals that help them navigate the world.

So something that I am interested in doing – and that I hope to do on this blog – is examine some of these practices as popular pieties. In the back of my mind will always be the question – is there something missing here? These practices mimic the functions of religion, but are there some things that only a religion can do?



I have been meaning to start a blog for a while now, and I’ve decided its time to just do it. I’ll be publishing a combination of things I have already written, and things that I will write for the blog. The main purpose of the blog is to help me practice my writing and story-telling, and to keep me engaged and thinking about things now that I am no longer enrolled in an academic program.

I don’t know if the blog will have a theme; I’m not going to force one, but something may emerge. I do intend to use this space in a broadly academic way – I will be offering analysis and commentary, not reporting or sharing. I will aim to be somewhat provokative in my claims, in an effort to generate some disagreement and debate.