Banksy and Syria: The rebels who hide and the rebels who fight

No war has ever been captured on film more extensively than the war in Syria. Yet these images of war — mostly delivered by YouTube — seem to have done little to heighten awareness and trigger empathy among those who witness this war on the screen of a computer. On the contrary, the more we see, the less we feel; the image has become the analgesic.

Enter Banksy — the pseudonymous graffiti artist currently performing in New York City. He epitomizes the contradictions in the spirit of rebellion in the internet age — a craving to be seen, wrapped in a fear of being known.

The man whose public life began in the early 90s must by now be approaching middle age and yet he clings to his adolescent persona, convinced apparently that if his real name were to be known and his real face seen, the Banksy bubble would burst; the unmasked rebel would rebel be no more.

That Banksy would release a YouTube video mocking rebels in Syria probably says much more about the ways in which he finds his own rebel identity threatened than it says about the men fighting against the Assad regime.

That in two days, Banksy’s video would have been viewed more than four million times while an award-winning documentary film about Syria, Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, directed by Matthew VanDyke, has only been viewed 61,000 times, shows how readily the internet caters to our insatiable appetite for mindless entertainment. In this era, the internet delivering YouTube, Twitter, endless apps and GIFs, is the opium of the people.

In VanDyke’s film, Omar Hattab (Mowya), standing next to a cat notes with irony that most Americans show more interest in cats than Syrians.

“I am sure that the animals have rights in America more than the people here. They don’t care about us… Maybe you filming three of four cats and putting it on YouTube — maybe one million will watch the video in one hour.”

It turns out that Syria animated by a Disney character is just as popular.

Syria is not short of satirists, as the residents of Kafranbel continue to demonstrate.

Banksy’s latest stunt is just that: a stunt which calls for attention yet speaks of little more than the universal desire to be noticed. It is a shout to be heard made by someone who has nothing to say — not a sharp piece of political commentary.

In Syria, teenagers have been thrust into adulthood by war, while in the West pseudo-rebels performing their acts of digital defiance turn out to be adults who lack the courage to leave their adolescence behind.

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Comments

  1. Louis Proyect says:

    Nice work, Paul.

  2. Thanks, Louis.

  3. Muhannad Sraihiny says:

    Thanks with appreciation Paul, from all honest Syrians..

  4. omar hattab or (Mowya) it's doesn't matter .. says:

    when i said that words ..i didn’t know that it’s will be true ..
    a few months ago i watch a video on youtube about a police officer shooting a dog
    it’s happened in america and the people start screaming ..
    the video got’s more than 5 millions View ..and most of the comment’s are talking about the Brutality of the policeman ..
    i don’t know if i said a Prophecy or it’s just the bad Reality that we have to live
    Because i didn’t hear a 100 Thousand americans screaming against the Crimes that’s happen in syria …!!

  5. omar hattab or (Mowya) it's doesn't matter .. says:
  6. Omar — For people living in much of the rest of the world, one of the things about America that must be hard to comprehend is the degree to which Americans live solitary lives. In major cities like Washington DC or New York, about 50% of people live alone. A lot of them have pets to keep them company.

    For the last century, Americans have been taught to believe that the best life is a carefree life with the maximum amount of convenience. The ways in which people traditionally take care of each other — parents taking care of children and families taking care of the elderly — get delegated through child care and elder care. But convenience easily slides into neglect. When people can’t find enough time to care for their own children or parents, it’s not surprising that they don’t care much about people in other countries.

    America’s lonely freedom has produced an inner poverty.

  7. Very well said. I was appalled by Banksy’s ignorant piece of orientalism, but not surprised. A racist/orientalist narrative on Syria now dominates both rightist and liberal/leftist media in the West. It seems too late to change this story.

  8. Seth Edenbaum says:

    The film you prefer uses all the tools of melodrama, from the first shot -a slow pan up, shot from below, of a “heroic” central character- to the mood music. And it has cats! It’s useless as analysis; it’s propaganda. I’m no more a fan of Assad than I am of Al Qaeda, but I prefer irreverence to reverence. And I prefer the honesty of the Jihadi videos to your earnest pabulum. Franky, I learn more from them.

  9. Mr James Jones says:

    Hi there,

    Nice article, I just wondered why you think the Banksy clip is Syrian? It does not claim to be Syrian rebels. Also it has more views because Banksy has a huge following. The video is also quite short. People have short attention spans nowadays and will watch a 2 minute clip but not a full documentary. I’m also curious as to what you think about his “Crazy Horse” piece? http://www.banksyny.com/2013/10/09/lower-east-side

  10. “Mr James Jones” — for better or worse, I’ll take these questions at face value. Banksy’s video features the al Jazeera logo and the use of a MANPAD by a group of “rebels.” No, there is no reference to Syria, yet neither is there a more plausible explanation of the location that the video intends to represent.

    Yes, people have short attention spans — or to put in another way: Banksy is targeting an audience who have little interest in exercising their brains.

    What do I think about his Crazy Horse piece? Some people will have no idea it alludes to the “Collateral Murder” video released by Wikileaks and for those that do, I can hardly imagine it will add any depth to the reflections which that video may or may not have provoked.

    I have not given Banksy much attention, but the impression I get is that he suffers from the same nihilistic affliction that burdens many modern artists: contempt for the people who take them seriously.

    Unfortunately there is a corresponding affliction among the viewers: the idea that if the meaning of a creative work seems obscure, then it must also be deep.

  11. Seth Edenbaum says:

    I’m amazed at the response to this vid. I’m almost shocked. Earnest liberalism is as deluded as reactionary panic. My favorite quote from my favorite journalist, Nir Rosen:

    “i’m a journalist, not an american journalist. my job is not to serve as a propagandist for anybody, just to tell stories and my advantage is that i can tell stories that are hard to come by. any comparison to WWII or the nazis always shows a lack of imagination, but in this case also a lack of understanding. the whole reason why its important to have people like me, able to hang out with militias in somalia, afghanistan, iraq or lebanon, is because they are not a formal army of a formal state, with clear goals, structure, hierarchy etc. on the contrary, their motives are not known and diverse, often at odds, they take up arms for different reasons and as anybody remotely interested in COIN knows by now (except for sassaman perhaps), they do not put down their arms through force, unless you’re willing to use force like the russians in chechnya (and that hasnt worked for the israelis), but instead their goals and motives must be understood, and eventually a political accord must be reached.
    moreover, journalists regularly embed with the american military when it is conducting operations, attacks, killing. whats the difference? imagine if that one taliban commander had not screwed up my plans to go with them when they conducted attacks, and i had seen that too. isnt that interesting? isnt it important to understand who they are? and most importantly, wouldnt it make for a fun read?”
    http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/an-american-journalist

    Banksy does not pretend to be an expert on Syria but is it morally responsible to romanticize a civil war as a “revolution” when the most powerful forces on the side you’re defending are clearly far more more nihilist than the joker you find so offensive?