Thanks to Wonkette I found out about the most asinine snippet of fabricated outrage since Falwell warned us all about that sinister homosexual Teletubby. This time, right-wing cheer squad Michelle Malkin and Charles Johnson have frothed up at the mouth over the fact that Dunkin Donuts and Rachael Ray are colluding to support anti-Semitic terrorism.
Look, right there! In the middle of the picture. No, above the “artificial sweeteners and skim milk are better for you” latte she’s hawking… she’s wearing a black and white scarf! Or more precisely, what the froth squad are calling a keffiyah — the traditional Arab headscarf that, in a particular black-and-white pattern, became a symbol of the Palestinian people and their struggles for sovereignty. Sadly, they’re not joking. Although I have to say I laughed out loud at the phrase “hate couture.” The thing is, if you look at the scarf Rachael Ray is wearing in that picture, it doesn’t even remotely resemble the pattern traditionally associated with the keffiyeh, which resembles an interlocking net or a chain-link fence. Look, here’s Yasser Arafat wearing one… a fairly iconic and well-known image. But Ray’s scarf doesn’t even have a regular geometric pattern on it.
It’s easy to joke about the obvious problems here. Dunkin Donuts has already responded to the controversy by saying:
Thank you for taking the time voice your concerns about the Dunkin’ Donuts Rachael Ray advertisement. In the ad that you reference, Rachael is wearing a black-and-white silk scarf with a paisley design purchased at a U.S. retail store and selected by her stylist for the advertising shoot. This is not a ‘kaffiyeh’, which is typically a checkered and cotton/wool fabric.
It has paisleys on it. You can see one if you look closely enough. At this point, we’re in the territory where any black and white scarf becomes suspect, whether worn around your head like Arafat or draped loosely around your neck. Extra Axis-of-Evil points if it has knotted tassels! And yes, Jon from Exurban League seems to feel perfectly fine jumping into that territory and saying that no, you shouldn’t wear a black and white scarf unless you want to send an anti-Semitic message of hate and support for terrorism. What’s next… is Santa Claus a Communist again because of the red suit? You know, we really shouldn’t stop at black and white scarves; even more radical Palestinian groups than Arafat’s (such as Hamas) have been known to adopt checkered scarves in red or other colors. We better check the whole Urban Outfitters catalog and boycott suspect neckwear — especially that one called “Desert Scarf,” that’s very suspicious.
However, there are bigger fish to fry here than the extensio ad absurdum of black and white scarves. The keffiyeh, the actual keffiyeh and not just any patterned monochrome scarf in existence, really is a symbol of Palestinian liberation. And this issue has come up before, when outrage from the blogosphere convinced Urban Outfitters to pull their strikingly familiar “anti-war” scarves off the shelves. Oh wait, except they didn’t really pull them off the shelves at all. They just renamed the products, calling the scarves shemaghs, a name also adopted by US and UK troops when wearing this kind of scarf as a face covering for harsh desert weather, or even just “desert scarves” as mentioned above. Fashion and marketing mutate the name, the pattern, even the material (silk’s not quite as good in a sandstorm, Rachael) until the symbol starts slipping out of your hands, and you start looking like a raving lunatic if you try to fix it onto a political opinion.
I actually think a lot of the criticism leveled at retailers like Urban Outfitters was valid. As Sieradski pointed out on Jewschool, the merchandising of the keffiyah dilutes and trivializes any connection the piece of clothing has to actual political conflicst. Posts from the Arab-American forum Kabobfest were quoted saying much the same thing:
With a great deal of discomfort and a tad bit of pissed-off-ness, I regret to (re)inform the KABOB-o-sphere that Palestine has officially become a trend…That’s right folks, for a mere $20.00 (or 75.0127 Saudi Riyal) you too can jump on the socially stupid hipster-doofus bandwagon by rocking your very own “Anti-War Woven Scarf!” (available only at Urban Outfitters… or..err..uh… the Middle East).
It’s another example of the fashion industry thriving on scavenging and appropriating whatever cultural traditions they can find to profit off of, but perhaps more saliently, it’s a fusion of military and political chic — much like Alberto Korda’s famous photograph of Che Guevara. A visual motif becomes popular because it originally meant something; 20-somethings in more affluent metropolises of the world adopt it to look countercultural, to express their political solidarty; finally, Urban Outfitters wants to make some quick cash.
I really do believe that some symbols mean something real. I disagree strenuously with anyone who claims that you can appropriate a meaning-laden symbol and turn it into a simple fashion statement; there are reasons global culture won’t let anyone get away with doing that to an angled swastika motif in black, white and red. (At the same time, I do wish more people knew the much longer history of the symbol and how it’s used in Asian cultures.) But there are two problems in this case. One is that the right-wing zealots are trying to foist their own blanket meaning on a piece of clothing that has a long history as a national symbol. I’ll come back to that later. The other problem is that Malkin and Johnson are complaining about a symbol that has basically escaped and vanished, lost its meaning in the Land of Miscellaneous Consumer Scarves.
The more popular the symbol becomes, not to mention the more permutations it gets put through, the less likely anyone is to make any kind of political connection. Regardless of how you feel about Israel and Palestine, isn’t that what we should be mourning here: the complete dissolution of an important issue that’s killed countless people, destroyed families, and ripped a region apart, into a meaningless fashion statement? The hilarious thing is that the right-wing froth squad have everything exactly backwards; it’s not like they can really stop anyone from wearing any generic black and white scarf, but they can yell about it as if the trivialization and dilution of real life-and-death geopolitical events isn’t happening. As if people’s fashion choices really did mean something, but the whole point of consumerism is that these kinds of meanings get sucked out and replaced with price tags.
Finally, here is the real question we should really ask ourselves: what about celebrities and political figures and everday folks who really do wear keffiyahs, unlike Rachael Ray, and wear them to express support for the Palestinian people? Malkin and Johnson would have you believe that this is a clear statement of support for terrorism and hatred for Jews. There’s something very, very rotten in that assumption — do I really need to explain it? Equating Israel with all Jews is suspect enough; just for starters, it’s an equation that a whole lot of Jews object to strenuously. Even in the United States, pro-Israel political leadership is having an increasingly hard time mobilizing support for Israel’s policies from American Jews, especially all the urban, liberal Jews in this country.
On top of that, the “keffiyehs support terror” mindset makes Palestine and any support for the Palestinian people equivalent to terrorism. You can’t really make that kind of claim with a straight face and also say you hope for peace in the Middle East.
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