There is something in Orson Welles’ acting, directorial and writing debut film, Citizen Kane , which defies logic. For one, after 79 years of its release, many critics still consider it the greatest film ever made. For two, in an industry now inundated with reboots of old classics it has never been successfully rebooted. A multi-angle exploration of the American dream, it is a tale of a rich man’s life viewed from a host of vantage points, full of flashbacks, told and retold in so many ways that a thing as mundane as a child’s sled called Rosebud becomes a mystery in itself. Primarily about the media industry, this film can teach today’s journalists a thing or two about the art of storytelling.
If Citizen Kane was the peak of Orson’s performance, co-authored, directed, produced and performed by him, the twilight of his career came in 1981, in the shape of The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, a documentary made on the obscure and constantly faltering predictions of Nostradamus. It was plain that Orson’s heart was not in it and he made it clear he did not agree with the central theme even as he was contractually obliged to act as the narrator.
For a Hollywood studio too, this was a strange subject choice. The trash bin of history is full of shamans, soothsayers and seers who made wild claims about the future. Occasionally, if accidentally, these predictions come close to reality. But if the success rate of your prophecies is one in a 1,000 you do not deserve much attention. By that token Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and why even The Simpsons deserve far more credit than Nostradamus. But here is the clever bit. When you want to establish a grifter’s bona fides you slightly tweak the meaning of their claims and of historical facts and viola you have a story. So, what if none of the future predictions land anywhere, for the short-term the propaganda power of the said prophecies is inimitable.
The most striking part of this film is its culmination point with a focus on a third World War. A Muslim antichrist’s arrival, invasion of Europe, a nuclear attack on a new city at 45 degrees latitude (supposedly New York), and the undoing of the entire world in a 27-year-long war. Given the film was released in 1981, the heyday of the Cold War, when the West was using Muslim militants against the Soviet Union and courting the Muslim Central Asian states under Soviet control, politically it makes little sense. Until that is, you see its all three versions. The first version titled The Prophecies of Nostradamus hosted by John Waters was commissioned by Australia’s Seven Network and was an instant success. The second hosted by Welles was commissioned by the Warner Brothers with Alan Hopgood’s original script. And then in 1991, a slightly tweaked version of the script, at the peak of the Gulf war crisis, hosted by Charlton Heston, replaced the reference to the three antichrists with that of the three despotic tyrants and the last one, the king of terror, assumed a guise vaguely resembling Saddam Hussein. So, there was an element of political propaganda involved. But it seems unlikely that the impetus for the 1979 and 1981 films came from within the US deep state which was busy using Muslims against the USSR. Then where else do we look for the source of the impulse?
If you were old enough to remember the Gulf war, you would remember CNN’s breathtaking coverage of Saddam’s Scud missile attacks on Israel and how the missiles were shot down by the Patriot defence system. If you look at the propaganda material containing apprehensions about a Muslim threat before the Gulf war you see Israeli fingerprints all over it. The 1972 Munich Olympics massacre had already proven that the Israel-Palestine conflict could easily spill out of the region. Israel was the first country to see it as a Muslim problem. The second one was India.
In 1992, when Samuel Huntington gave “The Clash of Civilizations” lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, apart from Albert Camus in 1946, the term had been used twice in political jargon. One by Bernard Lewis, the Jewish Anglo-American orientalist in 1990, and by The Times of India ’s Hindutva-inspired editor Girilal Jain in 1988 who was later sacked for his far-right leanings to describe the Ayodhya dispute. Khushwant Singh is on record in pointing out Jain’s “anti-Muslim, anti-Christian and anti-Sikh bias”. In 1987, Kashmir was already heating up and Hindutva revival was taking a distinct anti-minority shape. So, you can see how the countries might be moving closer. When in 1993, Fareed Zakaria, of Foreign Affairs , a protégé and colleague of Huntington decided to publish latter’s monograph in the magazine, India had already opened its embassy in Tel Aviv.
I have written extensively on Huntington’s proposed clash of civilisations thesis. Only that it views Muslims, the West, China and India as distinct primitive elemental units. China for instance is Confucian and not communist. Islam is a monolith, not a deeply divided identity. And the West, well that construct fell apart in Huntington’s hands. After writing books after books like Political Order in Changing Societies, The Soldier and the State, and The Clash of Civilizations to please the powers that be Huntington ended his career by writing Who Are We ? — a book that reduced the US to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity. This book as we shall see next week has done more damage to the ideas of the West and the US than any other.
While Israel’s confrontation with Islam has a brief history, the Indian Hindutva case against all three Abrahamic faiths views the world with a distinctly Nazi lens. Hitler was not averse to Christianity but believed it had been ‘corrupted’ by Judaism. That philosophy can be expanded to include Islam too. I have already written about Savitri Devi’s project to appropriate Hinduism’s tradition of monism to develop a religion for Nazis and how it has already taken root among neo-Nazis. India’s Hindutva project and the West’s neo-Nazis now see themselves as allies. And their common enemy is not global Jewry but all Abrahamic faiths. So, today’s Jewish hawks and Christian evangelists may not realise this but the rise of far-right politics poses a grave danger to them as well. In a way, the thesis which brought the West and Muslim world at loggerheads now threatens to destroy both simultaneously.
History’s conflicts and the momentary hate they produce can always be recycled and put to political use. But in an age when mankind is faced by multiple existential challenges, these divisions and hatred take a life of their own and only undermine humanity’s attempts to survive. There still is a path ahead that may lead to a win-win scenario for all. But if life permits, we will try to examine it next week. For now, the fact that Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and the US decided to call their mutual agreements the Abraham Accords show there is a growing realisation about the growing threats.