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Jewish World Review Dec. 24, 2001 / 9 Teves, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
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Taliban Idyll -- A WHILE back, when the kids were toddlers, I had a conversation with another writer and his wife, then expecting their first child. Upon discovering my deep, dark secret -- that my husband and I denied the lifeblood of Barney, "Sesame Street" and "Rugrats" to our wee ones and had no intention of hooking them up to the IV of popular culture any time soon -- they were shocked. Upon learning we privately hoped our children might develop imaginations unaided by googly dinosaurs, hyperactive alphabet letters or sassy cartoon characters, they began to see this for the truly countercultural act it was. "Now, that's subversive," he said (I think) admiringly.

I liked the notion, never having thought of it quite that way. Such "deprivations" had simply struck us as an obvious course of child rearing. Why institutionalize something we didn't particularly like for tots who hadn't even begun asking (or screaming) for it?

My friend and I talked over the more fanciful extensions of this singular world view, even imagining a colony for people who shared a desire to escape the crushing ubiquity of pop culture, from Barney to Brittany, and seek their own way -- as stimulating or mundane as that might be. In this land, MTV wouldn't set behavioral norms; girls would be free from the tyranny of designer labels; boys could play without Pokemon (or Nintendo; or fill-in-the-fad); and citizens wouldn't be required to prove their cultural fealty by rending all their garments for the late George Harrison.

Colony citizenship would begin with the act of pulling the cable (or junking the dish) and an effort to abstain, with exceptions, from mass entertainments created after, say, 1960. This self-selecting group would come together regardless of race, color and creed; indeed, I have found that a vague yearning for something like this exists across political lines.

Take Disney. I find Disney animation, particularly since the "Little Mermaid," unappealing on an aesthetic level. I don't like the garish palette or the airbrushed look of the characters. (Beyond aesthetics, I once returned some slippers because the plastic Little Mermaids on them had plastic little cleavages--which seemed all wrong for a youngster's real feet.) But left-leaning friends fault Disney for its portrayal (or nonportrayal) of minorities and women. They don't even like Snow White. But there is common ground -- as long as you don't dig too deep. Barbie is another image that iconoclasts on the left and right can disavow together -- libs for its objectification of women, and cons for its sexualization of children. The same may be said for the latest in soft-pornish pop stars.

The culture-colony idea went no further than that conversation, forgotten until recently. One night this fall, CNN was broadcasting the docu-shocker "Inside the Taliban." The bestial stadium executions; the despair of the ghostly women; the misery of brutalized children: These horrific images were unforgettable. So was the truly weird sight of utility poles decked with snarled wreaths of unraveled cassette and videotapes. In order to achieve Islamist perfection, the narrator said, the Taliban banned entertainment --music, movies, books and more -- on pain of something awful. The tangles of tape were reminders that rock 'n' roll was out. Western-style cine-flesh and -violence were anathema. My husband and I exchanged glances: Could we be looking at our retro-topia? A Taliban idyll was not exactly what we'd had in mind.

Experts point to Islam's dysfunctional relationship with "modernity" -- as vividly illustrated by those cassette-tape crucifications. This, of course, is the kind of thing that gives dysfunctional relationships with modernity a bad name. It's one thing not to let your daughter out of the house wearing Christine Aguillera's latest threads (emphasis on threads); it's quite another not to let her out of the house. The fact is, this form of Islam rejects more than contemporary culture; it also rejects both the past and future of anything alien, obliterating the offending symbols -- quite literally as in the case of the 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan. That means that not only is 21st-century-Marilyn Manson verboten, so is sixth-century Buddhism, along with Renaissance art, the Bill of Rights, Chanel suits and Fred Astaire. Such a monolith nullifies all individuality -- in taste and expression, not to mention politics and religion.

By contrast, retro-topia, while rejecting what could be described as modernity, seeks a place apart from a different sort of monolith -- the all-absorbing entertainment world that squelches individualism and originality. The idea is probably rooted in an appreciation of the cultural past (another contrast with history-eradicating Islamic conquest) and the realization that our own pop culture has marginalized, if not completely obliterated, that past. Of course, given that great void, it's little wonder retro-topia is an idea whose time has gone.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Diana West