‘I am Gaza’ – 2009
‘I am Bradley Manning’ – 2013
‘I am Trayvon Martin’ – 2013
‘I am Mike Brown’ – 2014
‘I am Charlie’ – 2015
‘I am Ahmed’ – 2015
“This kind of low-cost, risk-free, E-Z solidarity is only possible in a social-media age, where you can strike a pose and somebody sees it on their timeline for 15 seconds and then they move on and it’s forgotten except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave you”.
Let’s be honest from the outset, you are none of the above. However much you sympathise – with Palestinians in Gaza, whistle blowers in the Armed Forces, urban black people in the USA, French satirists or Muslim law enforcers – their struggles are intimate and vastly different. Each occupies a unique position culturally, geographically and, significantly, in relation to power. Even if you have been marginalised since conception you might find it hard to relate to any of the people above, and conflating our differences as if we are all the same only feeds into the status quo. In a sense these individuals are murdered more than once, first physically and then by a neoliberal (social) media that wants to put their memory into the frontline of a diatribe seeking to extent ‘security’ measures at home and promote imperial wars abroad.
Take the most recent incarnations ‘I am Charlie’ and its immediate response ‘I am Ahmed’. I find it hard to believe that either person wanted to be dichotomized as some sort of ideal for white-imperialist-cartoonists or liberal-Muslim-law enforcers. Such ‘I ams’ fulfil two significant strategies, the first is to sanitise and purify murdered individuals so that they can be idolised as pillars of who we should be as individuals and as societies – they are forced to become ‘heroes of free speech’ and western values. The second follows on, by embodying these sanitised individuals we can righteously claim that we are the Goodies and anyone opposing us must be the Baddies. If ‘I am Good’ there is only one possibility for the attackers, to be dehumanised as Evil. Thus we fool ourselves into thinking that we are the Goodies in a battle between Good and Evil. Collectively we apprehend their memory and turn it to our own means, something immediately recognised about the status of Dammartin-en-Goele – while the suspects were under siege, a resident acknowledged that the small town will now be remembered as the last stand for the suspects of the Charlie Hebdo killings.
To those that whine along the lines ‘solidarity, solidarity, solidarity’, a non-thinking solidarity is the type worth throwing out with the trash. Regardless, neoliberal media outlets are clearly taking time to think, applying shock doctrine tactics to promote aggressive policies. Fox News used the attack to promote the militarisation of the police in the USA, CNN similarly conflates the attacks with ISIS and Muslims everywhere, while the Guardian summarised the attack with, “the real clash is between free speech and a tiny number of jihadist murderers”, seemingly forgetting far more insidious governmental attacks on free speech! In an exchange between Art Spiegelman and Tariq Ramadan on Democracy Now the history and context of Charlie Hebdo is explored, but surely this is beyond satire. Solidarity can occur in diverse ways and tackle such events creatively to promote fresh lines of dialogue. This is the expanding gulf to fill in the presence of a increasingly coopted academia and media.
We do not need to whitewash the histories of communities, individuals and organisations in order to say that they did not deserve to die in such a manner. This is all the more poignant with the Charlie Hebdo attack, an organisation with a historical mission is to be “inane and nasty” and a legacy of homophobic, racist and sexist paraphernalia to prove it. In such a context ‘free speech’ becomes a sanitised catchphrase to validate the unquestioning promotion of any literature, but if you are homophobic, racist or sexist you deserve to be challenged. At the same time, the attackers can be utilised to raise questions about a system that has normalised racism, war and xenophobia. A few questions that the attack has sparked in my mind are ‘how does popular culture cultivate and promote desires for war?’ ‘How do we find and promote alternative opinions effectively?’ ‘What are the links between Western extremism and Islamic extremists?’ Surely this would make for a more meaningful dialogue rather than falling into the well-laid trap of ‘Muslim terrorists versus not all Muslims are terrorists’.
For those that need clarity, and building on the excellent piece by Jacob Canfield, ‘I am not Charlie, I am not Ahmed. They did not deserve to die like that. Fuck those cartoons, fuck police racism, and fuck the corporate media’s response – glorifying xenophobia and war.’ Lest we forget that this attack is of such media importance because of Paris’ centrality to white imperialism. More horrific attacks of greater and lesser scale have occurred in the past few days, for example in the Yemen and on NAACP offices in the USA while murdering journalists is simply not worth mentioning in other parts of the globe; the Centre to Protect Journalists has not yet listed the first journalist killed of 2015. If extremist western governments are permitted to arbitrarily kill people around the globe, and this is endorsed by popular culture, should we see such events as ‘blowback’ or ‘feedback’?
PS. Freedom of expression in France, oh yeah, those raising awareness about the situation in Palestine can face a year in prison!