Monday, June 22, 2009

Must brown people be martyred for Americans to be motivated?

On May 13, 2008, I wrote:

Saturday night I was watching as CNN covered the tragedy in Myanmar (Burma). I was well aware of the devastation caused by Nagris, the cyclone that ripped the country apart. What shocked me was the graphic nature of CNN's report. There were bodies and bodies and more bodies--Burmese men, women, even children, dead, bloated, discolored and rotting in the Southeast Asian sun; arms and legs akimbo as if their owners had been tossed like rag dolls. I know this is what death looks like, especially when it takes place in a poor country where the people have been colonized, militarized and rocked by ethnic strife and drug trafficking. But I watched the television and couldn't help thinking that this video desecration of the already desecrated was another example of how American culture sees brown people as somehow less human. Read more...

I am thinking about this again because of Neda Agha Soltani, the young Iranian woman who was gunned down during political protests in Tehran. According to CNN, the martyred woman's name, which reportedly means "voice" or "calling" in Persian, has become a rallying cry for those protesting fraudulent elections in Iran. This post isn't about how Neda's life and death have affected her people, though. It is how her death is being used in this country that is making me uncomfortable.

Neda's horrific death was captured on video and is all over the Web, including several high-profile blogs and You Tube. Even has linked to the unedited video, though the news outlet ran a pixilated version on air. The video shows the young woman, clad in jeans and bright, white tennis shoes, collapsing to the ground, seconds after being shot in the heart. As her father and others attend to her, Neda's brown eyes seem to focus momentarily on the camera before shifting, glazing. Blood begins to pour from her mouth and nose, covering her face. Her life is gone. You can see it when it goes. It is shocking. If you do not care about what is going on now in Iran, you will after seeing Neda die in the street with her father's screams growing louder and louder.

But why does the Western world (and here I refer mostly to the dominant culture, not marginalized groups) have to see these things to be shaken from its complacency?

We did not need to see bloodied bodies to understand the horror of Columbine. After the first live footage of people in the World Trade Center jumping to their deaths, those gruesome images disappeared. It was too much. We don't need to see carnage to understand horror when the bodies involved are mostly white. To show brutal images of the dead is generally seen as unseemly and disrespectful. Consider the uproar when some newspapers published images of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in the early 90s. But deaths like Neda's we feel we must see, need to see. What does it say when we feel squeamish and protective about the deaths of some, but not others?

On blog threads, commenters are thanking bloggers for posting the video of Neda's death. A Jezebel commenter said:

...people need to see this. This is not some voyeuristic irrelevant video; it is wholly representative of the kind of brutality that the government is trying to stifle communication about right now. Her story needs to be told.

Another offered:

I showed it to my husband and he got really upset and said he didn't need to see stuff like that. I told him that he did need to see it, and understand, and that everyone needs to see and know what is really going on over there. I can't stop crying. Read more...

I understand these readers' sentiments, but why? Why must we see an Iranian woman die on a city street in order to understand the gravity of the country's political upheaval? Why must we see brown bodies bloated and floating to give a damn about the tsunami in Myanmar or the hurricane in New Orleans? Why did we have to see Oscar Grant killed in cold blood by police on a BART platform to talk about racism and the justice system? Why did it take the mangled body of 14-year-old Emmitt Till to give America an inkling of the tyranny and danger that black folks faced in the South every day?

I think Americans are fetishizing video of Neda Soltani's death in a way they would not if she were a young, blonde, American college student shot down on an American street. We do not need to see the lifeless bodies of those women in order to care for them. But people like Neda owe access to their deaths so Americans can access their own humanity.

Isn't there something wrong with this?


Renee said...

Tammy, you have left me absolutely speechless with your forthrightness and honesty. I have no words to express my thoughts but I could not let this moment pass without acknowledging my complete agreement.

Dean said...

Hey, Tami - greetings from the Piedmont!

You ask, "Why?" I think it touches many different levels, and there are probably four or five graduate theses just waiting to be written as a result.

Part of it, I think, is that here in the West we tend to react in a more visceral manner when we receive more than just written or direct verbal input. And that's not new; think about reaction to, say, pictures of the Hindenburg. Or the TV reports during Tet.

Some of it may be a form of transference. Close to home there are dozens of things we see or experience even more directly than remote scenes and situations. But we are largely powerless to change things, so a redirection of energy and emotion to the more distant may provide, even if via exchanged links, or tweets, a temporary salve for our collective souls.

Still another aspect could involve a bit of nationalism; the somewhat more benevolent side that tries to surface periodically. Showing the Shining Beacon and all that.

I could dig up even more notions. Then we could stir them all up, season with a liberal dash of the idea that this potential 'Revolution' is taking place alongside new technologies that make the information flow almost organic, and we might begin to come close to some answers that start to approximate the Why.

[Disclaimer: I'm thoroughly into that last bit myself since I've been involved in building bits of the new tech since 1984. Vested interest, I guess.]

And I'm not sure about the brown people aspect of the matter. Geo-politics as a whole has become increasingly globalized since the end of the Cold War, so there's something of a mathematical certainty that we in America will, from the Global Grid, be exposed to calamities involving folks who don't remotely resemble Opie and Anthony. [Which then begs the meta-question: Do we care where the motivation comes from so long as the motivation occurs? Oops...there's another thesis or two.]

Of course, ultimately, the answer may be very simple: Every Revolution needs a Face. A centrally defined, stark yet elegant, meme. Neda, in this case, may just be It.


Tami said...

Thanks (as always), Renee.

Dean! Hey!

I think all your points are valid and play some role in this issue. (Though, I kind of put the Hindenburg in another category. I thought about, say, graphic images from the Civil War and Word War II when writing this, too. Those get played over and over on The History Channel every day. I think there is a desensitization that comes with time that puts historical stuff on another plane.)

I do think there is a race aspect to this, though. I think it comes down to relatability. Often, unless we work at it, it is easier to relate and thus sympathize with people who look like, live like, worship like...we do.

I think there is a parallel between this and the recent controversy over why young, white women like Natalie Holloway garner so much media attention when they go missing vs. American women of other races.

Say "hi" to Mary for me!

RiPPa said...

I don't know Tami, do they really care? I mean if they did there would be more anti- Afghanistan support, no? Last time I checked innocent women and children were being killed there just like the 1.5 million Iraqis. Did anyone "go green" for them?

Mary said...

I don't know if it is a brown/white thing, as much as it is related to circumstance. Someone was there, at that horrific moment, with a cell phone, and seized that moment to show the world the sorrow and the consequence of fighting against a totalitarian regime, with only their voices, cell phones, stones, and their will. Think of Kent State. Google that famous photo of the dead young man, and the anguish on the young woman's face, her arms outstretched, as if begging to know - why? Without that photo, re-printed for all to see with their next morning's coffee and donuts the next morning, the peace movement would have only meant dirty hippies, druggies and commies. Not intelligent, college students, peacefully protesting their government's ambiguous and highly questionable war.

If it weren't for the circumstance, in either scenario, the authorities would have closed in. "Nothing to see here, move along." Sometimes we need to see in order to identify with, and know, that brown or white, or whatever shade, we are all the in many ways the same. We live, if we're lucky, in relative peace and freedom, we work, we dream and we hope for the best for ourselves and our children. We die.

If we don't see, we won't know. Without knowledge and a way to communicate it, we are all of us alone and forever separate from each other.


Dean said...

Hey right back!

Your hubby has the fresh new family site link info with pics showing everything we've been up to whilst settling down here in the ATL.

I latched onto the Hindenburg because it was one of the first major examples of Real Time (radio) and Near Real Time (photo w/mass newspaper distribution) dissemination of crisis information. [And an interesting exercise in irony in a sense, as in that case a big chunk of the country got quickly worked up over an incident involving a rather elite sub-class of people who could afford airship travel.]

I absolutely concur that the White Girl Missing Syndrome in the MSM, and all the variants thereon, is symptomatic of a more pervasive cultural problem that still needs to be addressed and confronted. [Sidebar: Most of the VRA left largely intact by SCOTUS today. Maybe *some* of the wealthy white elites still understand the 'confronted' part.] My hope, with matters like the tsunami coverage and the more recent tussle in Iran, is that situations like those will slowly, steadily, cause our fellow citizens to broaden their attitudes and ultimately become more color-blind.

Of course, thirty years ago I was convinced that by now I'd have my jet pack, flying car, and be planning summer vacation in Luna City. So I could easily be getting my hopes up far too much with respect to timing.

Mary says hello back, and already offered her opinion via the comment from RantingBanshee.


Anonymous said...

IMHO people of the dominate culture need to see first hand the suffereing of POC in order to believe it. If they don't see it themselves they dismiss it. If they only have our word on it then they can disbelieve or play down this event. ..."Did people really die, was she really innocent, did he really say that... ohh it is not what you think... there must be another reason for it."

I do also agree with you that there is a general devaluing of brown poeple so that it is okay to show them dead and dismemebered on TV. They warrent no dignity in death becasue they really didn't deserve it in life.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree with you! It is different for white people when it is brown people being shown/treated like that. Speaking as a white person, white people see others as just that, "other" and "different," less human, and it is deeply ingrained that many of us believe it's better to be white. We may not admit to it, or acknowledge it to ourselves, and well meaning white people may confuse 'easier to be white' with 'better to be white,' but 'better to be white' is the underlying assumption. I am talking about thinking, aware, conscious white people, not just skinheads. This is the legacy of racism left to white people, and why racism hurts all of us.

Joseph said...

Thanks for this. i am big fan of your writing and I thought I'd reiterate my comment from the x-post at Racialicious here on your home turf.
Over there the poster NancyP called for showing these images in context and I responded:

“Horrific images do need some context, though, for maximum effect…”

Yes, and the unspoken context(s) here–and I think this is what Tami is getting at–are the reasons that some images of mutilation and murder are permitted, while others are not. Skepticism/naiveté re: the racialized element of this dynamic disregards the historical practice of displaying racially “other” bodies that we see in the United States in relation to slavery.

In her excellent book Scenes of Subjection, Saidya Hartman interrogates the practice of displaying the tortured bodies of African slaves to incite moral outrage against the practice of slavery because it perpetuates the objectification of black bodies that made slavery possible in the first place. She writes, “(I want to) to call attention to the ease with which such scenes are usually reiterated, the casualness with which they are circulated, and the consequences of this routine display of the slave’s ravaged body. Rather than inciting indignation, too often they immure us to pain by virtue of their familiarity… because they reinforce the spectacular character of black suffering.” (Hartman, 3) The question for Hartman is, “Are we witnesses?…Or are we voyeurs?” (Hartman, 3)

As far as the image of Neda’s death is concerned, in Orientalist terms, gender is the other context we should note. The death and suffering of Middle Eastern/Muslim men does not inspire similar moral outrage in the West. That is because the narrative of Middle Eastern/Muslim women as “victims” who must be “saved” by the West is as prevalent on the US American Left as the Right. The suffering of Arab/Muslim men? Not so much… especially when the West/US/Israel are the cause of that suffering.

The relatively tepid response to the Abu Ghraib photos illustrates this.

missincognegro said...

Honestly, Tami, I don't know if seeing Neda on video impacted Americans - White or of color. I think that unless it's happening to US, here in the US, global events are simply too far removed for Americans in general.


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