Osama as youth organizer

MPR’s midmorning has a talk with Ebrahim Patel, author of “Acts of Faith”.

The radio interview mentions that Osama Bin Laden’s real strength is as a youth organizer / storytelling workshop organizer. His organization tells kids a story of their culture that stars them in the power role.

This makes me ask, “How well does our society inoculate us against such stories?” and “What are we prepared to do when extremists start selling compelling alternatives to our youths?”

We have cultural antibodies against what Patel calls totalitarianism of belief. First among them is ridicule. In the face of late night TV and south park, it is hard to get any mass berserker rage going with today’s youth. Individual berserker rage, sure, but collective berserker rage based on some shared cultural story is hard to come by.

When the time came to try on different masks on my journey into adulthood, I couldn’t do it fully. I found self-consciously adopting a persona impossible and comical. I couldn’t maintain it because it felt silly, obvious and false. When Greenpeace came along and told me a compelling story and put me in the power role, I retained some comic understanding.

We have in our society a built in protection against extremists, against groups taking themselves too seriously. For example, I have, taped to the inside of my skull, a picture of the Simbionese Liberation Army holding up a bank. The media took that and examined it and stuffed enough copies of that image down our collective pie hole so that it can never be done again except maybe at a 70s nostalgia party. In other societies, that image might be buried and never examined.

I’ve seen ads from the armed forces that try to appeal to youth, but they don’t try to manipulate our feelings of culture and heritage, probably because they want to appeal to people of many different cultures. Instead they try to sell military service as an adventure and as a coming of age story. So, that is another form of inoculation. We don’t exactly have a common past that a clever communicator can exploit.

I’m reminded of a storefront near Macalester where students gathered under the wing of a certain charismatic patriarch. It isn’t important what particular ideas were shared at this storefront. I did get to see several of my classmates slowly change and get a clear-eyed distant gaze, become hard to talk to and go off somewhere. Patel’s ideas help clarify what was going on there. They were told a tale of their history and culture, with the story continuing with them in the staring role. These were bright, affluent kids steeped in mainstream American culture, but with no innoculation against the specific story they received. No violence involved there, as far as I know, but life-changing forces were at work that were fully understood by the patriarch but not understood by the students, I think.

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5 Responses to Osama as youth organizer

  1. Jim says:

    I wish I could manipulate people like that.

  2. Robin says:

    If you read fiction, you might try Robert Wilson’s latest:” the Hidden Assassins”.It’s about a terrorist attack in Seville, and relationships between extremist, muslims, and Europeans. Very well written and interesting. Speculation that US invasion of Iraq was to protect the Saudis from increasingly radicalized elements in the arab world…

  3. dave d says:

    “With the Power of Greenpeace at my command I’ll TAKE OVER THE WORLD! NOTHING CAN STOP ME NOW!!”

  4. dave d says:

    That must have been INTENSE to feel the RAW POWER of Greenpeace.

    Did you feel like Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart? When you yelled “FREEDOM” really loud, did all the bad people around you instantly die upon hearing your voice, because you were just so tough and so awesome? That kicks ass.