Episode 96: Raw Ginger Tea

The Overthinker’s tackle M.I.A. and Romain-Gavras’ video for Born Free.

Matthew Wrather hosts with Natalie Baseman, Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, Josh McNeil, John Perich, and Ryan Sheely to overthink the aesthetic, political, artistic, and social implications of M.I.A. and Romain-Gavras’ video for “Born Free.”

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16 Comments on “Episode 96: Raw Ginger Tea”

  1. Martin #

    A few of my ginger friends are angry, but for perhaps the first time, someone on YouTube makes a valid point regarding this video:

    “Dude, I’m ginger, but the video is meant to be showing what goes on in other countries, but not with gingers obviously, but to people of different creeds, races and beliefs. It’s not meant purely as a dig to people with ginger hair, it’s a message on persecution against minorities. Don’t be offended by it.”

    I thought the video was interesting. It was definitely meant to shock by showing genocide against people like us (i.e. white Westerners), which we don’t tend to see or think of because of the race/cultural barrier whenever such atrocities happen in the world.

    In that way, I think it makes an original statement, not just that racism is bad (which has been done many times in music videos and films), but that it prevents us from taking more action when fellow humans are in trouble :(

    Didn’t really care for the song though.


  2. Perich #

    To give more credit to a point that Pete made on the podcast: I agree with Pete (if this is what he meant) that art is a poor means of conveying policy. One should never look to art to decide “what is to be done?” The Wire is not an argument for drug legalization; For Whom The Bell Tolls is not an argument for stricter separation of Church and State; “Born Free” is not an argument for foreign aid to radical terrorist factions. Or if they are, they’re terrible arguments.

    The reason I objected was because I don’t think most “political” art strives for this. I don’t believe that there is a logical policy that flows necessarily from “Guernica,” or The Age of Innocence, or “Born Free.” And I think that these were still important pieces of art in changing the political consciousness.


  3. El Acordeonachi #

    Good episode, one point to clarify. The Doctor wasn’t glad he wasn’t ginger. It was a reprise of a line delivered by David Tennant during his first episode, “The Christmas Invasion” The original lines are…

    “Am I … ginger?,” The Doctor asked.
    “No, you’re just sort of… brown,” Rose replied.
    The Doctor said: “Aww, I wanted to be ginger. I’ve never been ginger.”

    And so, when the next Doctor takes over, he expresses his disappointment that again, he is not ginger. I guess it’s a understandable mix up if you haven’t seen both episodes, or if you’re not a nerd (as most of the complainers weren’t). And so, The Doctor is not biased against redheads, in fact, the last full time companion (Catherine Tate) is a redhead, and so is the current one.


  4. James T #

    The thing that bugs me about YouTube moving the video is that they cite their rules which prohibit “gratuitous violence.” While reasonable people may differ on how important M.I.A.’s artistic message is, I think it’s clear to all that the violence is not gratuitous. To be gratuitous, it would have to be lacking in aesthetic purpose or relevance; in “Born Free,” violence is used quite deliberately and is integral to the point being made.

    Of course YouTube is a private entity and its owners are free to do whatever they want, but if they’re going to make up a reason for why they did it, it should at least be a good one.

    Here’s something you might find interesting, if you haven’t seen it: the boy (yes, he is a boy) in the video spoke to MTV recently. http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1638169/20100430/mia__4_.jhtml

    Thanks for giving a nod to Suicide as the source of the sample in the song, by the way. I was having one of those “I know that riff, but I’m never going to place it and it will drive me insane” moments.


  5. El Acordeonachi #

    One more thing… I only had to watch about a two minutes of the video before I knew exactly why it had been taken down by Youtube. If the version of the video that you linked to was the exact same version they uploaded, it’s simple. Nudity. At the two minute mark. I’m sure the graphic violence helped, but showing a nipple on Youtube is a quick way to get your video yanked.


  6. Johann #

    Perich’s explanation of his view of the video’s message was a total “Aha!” moment for me. Up until then I just thought “well this is blunt stupid anti-Americanism, why portray US police when it is militia groups in Darfur and other places that actually do this kind of thing”. I had read a lot of German/Swiss news that emphasized this view of simple anti-Americanism. So, thanks for that clarification!
    For anyone interested, Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the Stanford Prison Experiment gave a TED talk on the “psychology of evil”. He was also an expert witness at Abu Ghraib. As much as Zimbardo has been criticized for his experiment, I like how much he as made out of that knowledge (despite the ethically questionable ways of obtaining it).
    Here’s the link:


  7. Gab #

    I think it’s safe to say the controversy isn’t over the political point being made, but the method in which it’s made.

    I’m struggling with how to word this, so I apologize if I come across as crass, insensitive, or racist. I think choosing redheads as the group with the scarves and being murdered served the purpose of not only enlightening American and Westerners to the fact that genocide and ethnic cleansing exists like that, but also to humanize terrorists, especially Middle-Eastern ones, and remind Westerners that we are all “the same” in an abstract sense. Much media depicting terrorists is demonizing and thus de-HUMANIZING, and it’s made easier by how “other” Middle-Eastern culture is from Western. The desert and the way the guys were shooting at the bus made me think of Afghanistan/Iraq visually, not L.A. or any AMERICAN city- every portrayal of Middle-Eastern insurgency or terrorism I’ve seen had visuals that could have been edited into M.I.A.’s video (and hers could have been edited into theirs) if not for the red hair- men with scarves covering their faces, grafitti depicting their causes, fast camera shots, buildings all but abandoned except for the people attacking the “good guys” as the latter is attempting to go through, etc. But like Wrather said, no matter what location it’s supposed to be, picking a group quite arbitrarily different from “Us” as the group being rounded up and shooting at the bus puts the Other in the video in a position we can much easier see ourselves in. They’re redheads to show how small and insignificant the differences between Us and Them are when you get down to it: We’re all people and human beings, we all live, love, breathe, and bleed. It isn’t to say “anyone can resort to violence” in a way meant to be a warning (as in we should fight the terrorists), but instead to show how a response of violence like that by the “good guys” is just as bad, if not worse, and it leads to just as much, if not more, horrendous acts and deaths of innocent people.

    Red-Headed-Step-Child: I had always taken that as the child is an extreme outsider. Having naturally red hair is pretty uncommon, much less than blonde (as far as I’m aware), so a child with red hair brought into a family will stand out like a sore thumb and thus be marginalized within the family, as well as singled out by people outside the family a not belonging.

    Colored groups still take place in schools, or at least in the one I work at (K-5). The group being singled out changes, but it isn’t a ruling class thing so much as an organizational thing in the classrooms I’ve seen. It’s more like the order the groups do stuff or where they go. Example: Purple table starts at the math station, green table starts at free play, Green at the computer station, Red at the reading table; and when the teacher rings the bell, they rotate stations. Or it’s the end of the day, so the teacher calls one color at a time to get their backpacks to prevent the entire class from going to their cubbies and stepping all over one another. And that’s how I experienced it when I grew up, too, so I can’t say I’ve seen the hegemonic tendencies of kindergarteners first-hand, myself.

    Fenzel: Using art to represent history in a fictionalized/ political way is a method for creating interest in the topics with people that normally wouldn’t be interested in those topics in the first place, not necessarily to SOLVE any problems being highlighted. Those meanings it articulates are not always accessible to everyone in textbook, fact-list format, if only because they are “boring” or “dry” (etc.) to some. Not everybody likes reading a history textbook or a nonfictional account of an event or series of events, but if they like watching movies, reading fiction, looking at cartoons, etc., sometimes political art is how to make them aware of what’s going on or has happened in a roundabout way. It’s not meant to solve the problems, but to make them known so that more dialogue can occur- and *then* plans of action can be drawn up. It’s meant to get the ball rolling, not flatten the issue. The intent (point!) of that kind of art (fiction!) is very, very different from the Art of which you seem to have in mind, and I’d like to ask you first to clarify what you think “art” really is or should be, and then if you’d thus consider works like “1984” or “The Aeneid” or the political cartoons of the _New Yorker_ as non-art (if it’s okay with you); and, if so, what are they?

    Sidebar: I was first made aware of the term “ginger” by this viral video from January (and its response, “ATTENTION HATERS”):


    I couldn’t help but think of it as I was watching the M.I.A. video for the first time, a crime for which I am a little ashamed.


  8. Bob #

    I love this site and this podcast. Just had to be said. Where else can I go to get, in the first five minutes, a ‘Hey Dude’ and a ‘Once More With Feeling’ reference and latter here a South Park and Doctor Who shout out.

    Thank you!


  9. fenzel #

    @Gab (and sort of digressing just in general)

    While it is sometimes true that political art is intended to spark dialogue or drive awareness, not all political art is intended to spark dialogue or drive awareness. Some of it is inended to influence people to make a certain choice or think a certain way.

    In this case, it isn’t about solving problems or making people think, it’s about increasing the relative power or influence of one faction against other factions.

    This is not always bad, but if this is the case — that the art is reductive enough that this is pretty much its only function, then my judgement about whether it is a good thing or not is going to rest on whether I think the ends it aspires to is good or at least if the intention behind it is good.

    But if you disagree with what such art is trying to accomplish, then it is your responsibility to be against it — allowing propoganda for something you think is wrong to manipulate you into offering it your approval — or even condoning it — is a form of betraying your morals or principles. It’s letting the bad guys win.

    And in this case, I don’t think flattening the definition of genocide so as to use it as a tool against all neocolonialism equally, regardless of the situation or what may be going on, is an admirable thing to do or serves an admirable purpose.

    There is something to be said for praising the technique of its execution, sure. That’s one thing you can do for art that is transparently expository to the near-exclusion of other value. But doing it from a place of emotional distance is wise, lest it, again, manipulate you into betraying what is right.

    Of course, the key words here are “near-exclusion of other value.” That is a pretty tough test to pass (fail?). Most stuff that is art has other value. Heck, Darkman III: Die Darkman Die!!! has othervalue.

    And in truth, the M.I.A. stuff does have some other value. But the piece is just so flat and workmanlike that I don’t really feel compelled to talk about it that much. It’s just so on-the-nose.

    Plus, I’m just so G-D tired of these same derivative armchair-Che-Guevara pieces and so disappointed to find them so often in service of lazy, undercooked, easily transposed agendas that they have to do a fair amount of other stuff to start interesting me.

    As a side example, you’re not going to fix Israel by showing pictures of people getting shot, no matter who you are, no matter who they are. You may win temporary relative advantage, but you won’t make anybody any more aware of the actual problems (in fact, you obscure them with sensationalism), and you sure won’t fix anything. I guess if you don’t know people are being shot in Israel for a wide variety of regrettable reasons, you have some catching up to do, but most of us should have it figured out at this point.

    Get over yourself and your emotions — outrage is a poor substitue for vision — and let’s see if we can find some people who are willing to be adults about things.

    I am all in favor of crazy uncouth emotional displays, extreme symbolism, rampant jingoism or anti-jingoism or partisanship — but it has to come with a certain humility or wink at itself, or I lose my taste for it.

    It’s only good if it knows why it is funny. Like Ben Franklin.


  10. fenzel #


    Oh, and also, 1984 is definitely art, I just don’t like it very much.

    Well, 1984 the book.

    1984 the album is awesome.


  11. lee OTI Staff #


    What’s in the intersection of the 1984 book/album Venn diagram (besides the title)?


  12. cat #

    I don’t like 1984 the book very much either. Just felt like putting that out there…


  13. perich OTI Staff #

    @Fenzel: I think you and I attack this from nearly opposite theories of polity, then. I feel sincerely that political discourse would benefit more from genuine displays of emotion than trying to abstract things into policies. As a f’r’instance: if people had a stronger emotional reaction to death tolls of ten thousand or more, it would change the nature of the discussion surrounding sanctions (currently being debated re: Iran) or military occupation (as we’re seeing in Baghdad). I find the ability to coolly debate economic sanctions or extending troop presence incredibly frustrating.

    (Then again, I may unwittingly be proving your point. I don’t think my take on those policy decisions is a secret, and I’m hoping that more public outrage would swing those decisions the way I prefer. So … hmm)


  14. Gab #

    Oh, Fenzel, I had a loooooooong rant, but I realized it’s kind of pointless because, well, we’re kind of at odds, here, and Perich has already countered you pretty well about the main point. I’ll just clarify/bolster him by saying that the action you desire must come from somewhere, and so if it’s from an emotional response, then, well, is that so bad?

    But I would like to go on a tangent, sort of, because I think it will explain the fundamental difference in our viewpoints. I don’t think something’s general value is necessarily determined by one’s agreement or disagreement with it. What I mean is, just because I have one idea doesn’t mean the other/ its opposite is inherently worthless. The latter has value because, at the very least, 1) others hold it dear, and 2) the intellectual exercise I get in determining its worthless to me personally is good for me. I’m sort of channeling Mill, here, and I realize this isn’t necessarily a free speech discussion, but it’s an applicable way of viewing things, I think, because of something you said that struck a cord with me:

    “But if you disagree with what such art is trying to accomplish, then it is your responsibility to be against it — allowing propoganda for something you think is wrong to manipulate you into offering it your approval — or even condoning it — is a form of betraying your morals or principles. It’s letting the bad guys win.”

    I’d say the duty of which you speak is exactly what gives that with which a person may disagree a LOT of value. So, from my perspective, the fact that this discussion is taking place gives the video value, regardless of whether the people discussing liked it or thought it aligned with their own pre-conceived notions.

    Which is why, even though I hate those damn books (and movies, merch, etc.), I recognize there is value in the _Twilight_ series.

    Oh, btw, I didn’t like 1984 all that much, either. ;)


  15. James T #


    I don’t think M.I.A.’s video is aimed at you. I think it’s for people who don’t know (or would rather forget) that people are being killed in Israel. People who couldn’t find Sri Lanka on a map, and don’t care to. Willful ignorance is a very real political evil, and that’s part of what M.I.A. is combating. To this end, I’m not convinced obscuring things with sensationalism is a big problem; people who see this video are likely to have their misconceptions corrected through conversation about it. When you see a kid shot on film, you tend to have an opinion about it, and want to share it. The issues are clearly not as simple as they are portrayed here, but they don’t need to be; this is a work of fiction. It’s aimed at people who have yet to engage in the simple thought-experiment presented. You have to learn to crawl before you can learn to walk.

    I know, I know. The people who most need to see the video probably aren’t going to see it. This is aggravated by M.I.A.’s method of distribution. YouTube wants no part of educating the populace; they’re perfectly content to be the 21st Century version of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” I’m not sure what to suggest; the situation kind of paints the artist into a corner. It’s a lot easier to drop leaflets on the street if you have access to a printing press.


  16. Jonas #

    Fenzel: Well, actually, 1984 is against all forms of totalitarianism. Victory gin isn’t that far away from freedom fries.

    I love the book. I’ve only read it in Swedish and Finnish, so maybe it has gained something in translation.

    What is “political art”? Don’t all forms of expression contain an ideological message? Lady Gaga is very political. Her ideology isn’t perhaps as altruistic or enlightened as M.I.A’s ideology appears to be, as Lagy Gaga is completely comfortable with the fact that people are being shot in Israel. Or maybe she doesn’t know about all the horrors in the world?
    Lady Gaga just wants to dance, occasionally avoid speaking on the telephone and perhaps sell some hamburgers to children while she’s at it. Lady Gaga is also manipulating emotions and opinions.

    What is considered political can not be limited to something which is unequivocally a policy proposal.

    Who knows, maybe Lagy Gaga’s next album will be on the virtues of Keynesian economics with some rhyming legislation to go.


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