Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Death of Neda Agha-Soltan: YouTube's Most Important Moment

Last Saturday, I watched a woman die. It was not something I set out to do, and had I known what I was going to see, I probably would have opted not to watch. But I was checking FaceBook updates as usual, and clicked on a link posted by a friend, urging me to "watch before the video was deleted". I hadn't scrolled the entire post into view; had I done so, I would have seen his warning that the video was quite disturbing.

Disturbing was an understatement. I've never actually seen someone die. It was so disturbing that I had to immediately stop what I was doing and try to find ways to take my mind off what I'd seen. It wasn't the kind of visual to induce nightmares, but had me close to tears.

In Hollywood feature films, we've all seen countless people die. But - and this is where I think film-censorship paranoia has it wrong - I believe people are fully capable of separating film fiction from real life. I remember seeing the Arnold Schwartzenegger blockbuster Total Recall, in which the crowd cheered loudly when one of the villains got his arms amputated by a fast-moving elevator. The one-upmanship in action movie violence has reached complete absurdity. We laugh because although the on-screen visuals become increasingly realistic with advances in film make-up, computer technology, and special effects, it also moves farther from reality in its scale. The more excessive film violence becomes, the more it seems to mimic video game shoot-'em-ups.

But watching this video of the protests in Iran was unlike anything I had seen. I was unprepared for the true horror. This is the morbid fascination of car wrecks: it comes from our wonder at knowing that this is reality; this is what death really looks like. And unlike film fiction, we want to help, as fellow human beings, we need to. But we are helpless to do so.

I wondered if the video should be freely available for all to watch. For a brief moment, I thought others might be spared my own discomfort or grief if the video were taken down. Then I remembered a conversation I'd had only the night before. Sitting around with friends, discussing films, we got onto the subject of "torture porn". This seems to be a phenomenon of the young - teens and twenties - who provide Hollywood with repeat business by attending films like Saw and its disgusting sequels. I know of no older adults who are willing to watch any of these films.

Two years ago, I was lucky to see a screening of the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, about gays and religion. It follows the stories of half a dozen gay men and women and their coming out to strongly religious families. The saddest story is of a woman who responded harshly to her lesbian daughter's coming out; before they could reconcile, the daughter committed suicide. The film director included police photographs of the suicide, which drew revulsion from much of the audience. In the following Q&A, the director was questioned about his decision to include the photos in the film. He tells of agonizing over the decision, until he had a chance meeting with a stranger on the NYC subway - a mother whose daughter was with friends, seeing one of the Saw sequels. The mother urged the director to include the photos - because young people need to see what death really looks like.

I don't know if YouTube did remove this video in the hours after I saw it. All I know is that countless people have begun to post links to it (possibly different links or using different online video providers). But a couple of days later, YouTube had added a link at the top of every page, leading to other videos on the situation in Iran. While YouTube will remove videos it sees as inappropriate, apparently nothing speaks more loudly to YouTube than a video that draws hundreds of thousands of hits.

I've used YouTube practically every day in recent months. It's become the leading source for all video - home movies, music clips, comedy, news, and film (much of it unauthorized). But the death video of Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran is a turning point for YouTube, and for all online video. It is significant in so many ways: a symbol of injustice by Iran's government, a visual record of the protest movement, another sign that cameras and cellphones are ushering in an era in which crimes by the state will not be covered up. And it is a real look at death itself - something we cannot and should not ignore. We don't all need to watch it, but for Neda's sake - and for our own - the option to witness this death is important. It reminds us that these world events we are watching are not just academic debates; they involve real human beings, just like us.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On "Immigrants" Who Protest in Canada

As our headlines have turned to the turmoil in Iran over concerns about election fraud and the resulting protests and violent action to suppress the dissent, I have watched with increasing concern the distress of my neighbour, who is Iranian. Normally very quiet on FaceBook, she was suddenly posting frequently throughout the day - photos, video clips, news reports and politcal analysis, and personal accounts from people there.

On Sunday, I joined her for a rally at Mel Lastman Square in North York. It was a wonderful demo: peaceful, well-organized, and lively, and attended by thousands, including families with children. There was a nice vibe, although I can't say "happy"; this was, after all, motivated by worries about family, friends, and simply, the millions of Iranians who are protesting, and some of whom have been killed by the authorities there.

The demo ended with something I haven't seen at a demo before: a request from the organizers to clear the square. I assume it was an effort to honour an agreement for the use of the square - an attempt to make the event successful and free of controversy in every way. People started to wander slowly toward Yonge Street and the subway, although many, deep in conversation and/or socializing, and were in no hurry. As we waited on the sidewalk for my neighbour's friend, a number of the protesters - many with placards - began a march south along Yonge. My neighbour remarked that she didn't approve. She was worried about the reaction from the general public to an impromptu march - a vocal and visible protest taking to the street without permission from the authorities.

It has taken me a couple of days pondering this to realize how much it bothers me. This is a common reaction, attitude - even strategy, from many minority groups: be good, don't stand out, don't annoy or offend the general public. What would they think? The strategy to avoid anything which might create a negative reaction is natural, but it is also a reflex to the bigotry or racism that every visible minority faces.

Few in Canada know this phenomenon better than the Japanese Canadian community. Thrown into prison camps during WWII as "enemy aliens" (although 75% had been born here), they decided that they had been victimized because they were seen as a visible minority - and let's face it: nothing gets under the skin of racists faster than a visible minority that congregates, speaks a different language in public, and displays different customs or signs of their heritage. So when the Japanese Canadians were released from the prison camps, they made a conscious decision to assimilate into the white majority: don't speak Japanese in public, don't congregate, excel in school and work so that there will be no basis for criticism. As a result, there are no identifiable Japanese Canadian communities in the cities where they settled after the war.

Another example of the "don't stand out" strategy is seen in the gay community, from gays with "internalized homophobia". This is more common among gays who are just coming out and do not yet have the confidence to thicken their skin against homophobes, and who do not understand the historical struggle which has won whatever acceptance we may have in society (varying widely depending on where one lives). The common intent here is to avoid any behaviour or action which may earn disapproval from the straight population, to the point that gays should not be seen to behave any differently than straights. Again, this reaction is natural, but is borne out of fear - a fear which gays live with constantly while in the closet, and which, for some, never goes away. No one has the right to judge us - especially based on sexual orientation, and thus, we should not be fearful of celebrating who we are. It is only the bigots who are offended.

And this is the crux of the problem: too many of us are governed by our fear of bigots. During the biggest Tamil protests, the racism in newspaper comments and online discussions was rampant. "They shouldn't come to our country and protest." "What does this have to do with Canada?"

I'll tell you what it has to do with Canada: the crimes and injustice seen on the other side of the world affects us to our core - just as much as if it were happening here. Election fraud? Censoring of media? Suppression of free speech? Criminalization of dissent? Genocide? If we value our way of life, then we have an obligation to speak out about these things, regardless of where they are happening. And we certainly should not be criticizing anyone who is speaking out about them; we should be giving them as much support as is humanly possible. The real irony is that the people who decry "immigrants" making protests are often the same ones who support war on the basis that our soldiers are "protecting these freedoms".

We are all immigrants in this country, except for the First Nations, and I have never heard First Nations people tell anyone to go back where they came from. (I wonder why not. They certainly have reason.) For the rest of us, this idea that people should not protest problems in other countries is ludicrous. We should all hop on a plane whenever we want to comment on anything negative that happens in another country?

Back to the Iran protest: Iranians are Canadians too. They live here; this is their country. They have as much right to rally and protest here as anyone. They are doing the rest of us a service in calling our attention to a very serious matter - something we should all know about. They are calling for change, and raising their voices for a better world. And in doing so, they are - perhaps unknowingly - calling for a better Canada, a Canada in which we don't sit on our asses and ignore the problems of the world around us. Each time we ignore that call - as the majority of us did during the big Tamil protests - we move a little further from the country we should be. We move from the peacekeeping nation, one of the best places to live - to a place where people don't care. We're fine; screw you.

We're all immigrants. We came from all corners of the world. We need to work at maintaining those ties. When we see injustice or wrongdoing, be it in Sri Lanka, Iran, Palestine, the US - we need to speak out. When the country of our ancestors is affected, we educate others. When a crisis strikes a country we know nothing about, we need to make an attempt to learn about it. It takes some effort. But when we can say we got involved - particularly involving a place we don't know, we make our own country a better place to live. There is nothing more patriotic.