Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Making Sunni and Shiite stick? Myth, facts and memory.

Over the weekend I heard a great On the Media radio show that was a perfect showcase of sticky versus unsticky ideas. (I am a huge fan Made to Stick. This new book has really helped me reframe the way I look at communication, which has always fascinated me.)

I think we Americans have finally gotten the idea that it is relevant and necessary to learn the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as we try to understand their factional conflicts. On the Media presented a fairly detailed analysis of this issue, featuring Dr. Vali Nasr, an undisputed expert on the topic, who has briefed President Bush on the religious divide. Unfortunately, two days later, I cannot remember a single word of what he said. I think I don't have enough of a frame of reference to understand the conflict when it is presented abstractly. Yes, I have read that Shiites and Sunnis are different denominations of Islam who disagree about the true inheritors of the Prophet Muhammad's wisdom. But what does that mean in modern terms? (Just read this Wikipedia entry explaining Shia Islam and see if you come away understanding what it says.)

I don't even need this to be translated into American terms, such as "it's like the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism" (which it may or may not be like at all). I do need it explained concretely, with the modern-day implications made clear.

It's not just that I was driving or not paying attention when I listened to Dr. Vali Nasr, because a later segment of On the Media was incredibly sticky. It was a perfect showcase of unmemorable and memorable stories side by side. Remember hearing about the stories of Vietnam Veterans being spit on when they returned home? Sociologist Jerry Lembcke investigated this story and reports that it is more myth than truth. He could not find any contemporary reports of Vietnam Vet spitting incidents; rather, the stories started "popping up like mushrooms" in the 1980's (see for example, Rambo). Lembcke himself is a Vietnam Veteran, and he has written an entire book on this issue called Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam.

Lembecke's analysis of the relevance of this myth was startling. The story goes back at least as far as WWI when returning German soldiers were supposedly spit upon. This created a face-saving "betrayal narrative" for the military, by blaming a lost war on unsupportive citizens back home.

Does this sound familiar, as President Bush warns us that dissent "emboldens" the enemy? Fox News showcased Iraq veteran Corporal Joshua Sparling, who claims he was spit on at a recent anti-war protest. (See YouTube clip.) Questions abound regarding the facts of this incident and original reporting by the New York Times, but in the meantime Cpl. Sparling is reigniting the entire storyline and debate brought on by this myth. It is notable that Sparling was part of an organized counter-protest and has made something of a career of confronting anti-war protesters and reporting that he has been harassed as a veteran.

This story is memorable and sticky (with apologies for the unintentional pun), but does it really matter? Sociologist Lembecke asserts that spitting stories in World War I Germany were the beginning of "stab in the back" legend explaining why Germany lost. This was a factor that led to the scapegoating of Jews, their eventual genocide, and the second World War. Never underestimate the impact of a powerful cultural myth.