October 17, 2006

Buddy Jesus


Just like the long running SNL News gag announcing Franco, the former dictator, as “still dead,” I imagine a modern equivalent tracking the moribund condition of irony.

In a humorless reality where Popes hurl daggers and cultures do battle over cartoons, news comes that a sophomoric Hollywood creation, designed to give the fundies a poke-in-the-eye, has been converted to ammo in the GWOT.

Buddy Jesus originated in the 1999 slacker movie, “Dogma,” as part of a (fictional) marketing effort on behalf of the Catholic church to inject more “cool” into their main man.  Although this film was firmly planted in the “glory of dumbness” genre, Buddy had enough going for him to strike a popular chord.

As a result, his visage — with a “ceramicized” or cartoon-like countenance — earned an afterlife as a sticker, t-shirt, poster and dashboard figure.  Not content with that action, however, Buddy acquired a recent feature role in an all-too-real drama starring the Mahdi of Sadr City and the U.S. military.

Carolyn O’Hara of the FP blog is not sure how the whole thing started.  One possibility is that the Iraqi’s inserted Buddy into a forged U.S. pamphlet outlining potential abominations to be inflicted on the local militias.  The other possibility is that U.S. soldiers had been circulating Buddy as a joke, or even an article of incitement.  Either way, Buddy made the rounds, with the terrible result that the locals mistook him for one of their holy own.

As you can tell from the image, the mistake — once discovered — was not appreciated.

Maybe it’s obvious to a domestic audience that Buddy’s focus-group is drawn from the skate park and IM’ers whiling away the hours at the mall.  Imagine the trouble, however, when Buddy, with those signs he throws, smugly encounters a radically different demographic.

In the sanctuary of the local cineplex, that right hand is safely buffered in double-meaning.  If anything, the primary reading equates with empowerment:  A workable translation might come out: “I see you, brother” or:  “You’re the man.”  It’s only in the layering you add the darker code — making the point that the good word historically goes hand-in-hand with the trigger finger.

If these Shiites also see multiple associations in the gesture, I’m afraid they are not the same ones.  For instance, the Iraqi’s seem well conditioned to recognize when an admonishing finger is being wagged in their direction.  Providing little offset, the firearm gesture must also seem matter-of-fact emerging from the holy Christian sleeve.

So, what kind of hemispheric translation is served by the more retracted left hand?

From the West, it seems to further soften and buffer.  Combined with “you’re the man,” the (irony free) thumbs up seems to add: “you’re saved,” or “you’re perfect as you are.”

From the East, in contrast, I’d say it further sharpens the edge.  According to Brendan I. Koerner in Slate, it originally meant “up yours.”  Shockingelk, citing the Defense Language Institute, interprets it as: “I’m winning.”  Both sources, however, indicate the meaning (especially as our hosts have gotten to know us better) also implies: “everything is okay.”

In almost any direction you take it, however, the thumbs up — in combination with the admonishing/gun slinging message — has an almost “Abu Ghraib-ish” undertone to it.  The pointed finger/thumbs up cocktail, mixed with with the sadistically stupid grin, conjures a larger narrative the occupying forces never seem to live down, sometimes to the hymn of: “You’re going to see the light, or it will be my pleasure to show you there.”

If irony is, in fact, dead, probably the cruelest element here is the heart.  It’s hard enough to face these expressions.  The larger difficulty is being in the mind, and the senses, of the actual person in Buddy’s line of sight.

(image: Wissam Al-Okaili/AFP.  Sadr City.  Distributed October 1, 2006.  Via YahooNews.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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