Monday, April 26, 2010

M.I.A., Violence and Pop Culture

M.I.A. has a new video out, and though the song doesn't do much for me, the video is a different story. Jezebel linked it with some good queries to ponder, and included a pretty good synopsis: "armed soldiers — with American flag patches on their uniforms — break into homes, looking for something or someone. It becomes clear that people doing drugs or having sex are not the intended target when the soldiers take a man with red hair and throw him into a bus full of red-headed boys and men. That these guys are being treated like criminals, when we have not seen them engage in any illegal behavior, leads us to believe that their only crime is their appearance. As the bus full of gingers is driven out of town, it passes a crudely drawn mural depicting red-haired men in uniform, with the words "our day will come." The bus is driven to the desert; the red-haired boys and men are killed."

Here's the video, but please note that there is nudity, drug use AND extreme violence.

Personal disclosure: I have some issues with M.I.A. because I would prefer that she come out harder against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), a now-mostly-defunct(ish) terrorist group that her father was associated with. I don't think that she herself is a secret Tamil Tiger, but she has not made a clean break from the organization and I think that failing to do so weakens the very real cause of the Tamil ethnic group of Sri Lanka and makes her look like she's leaving a loophole for the LTTE which is quite frankly unacceptable. She tends to comment on LTTE violence with a "but Sri Lanka has done terrible things too" disclaimer and she's also included some imagery that's too close to LTTE logos for my own comfort (ex. kids dancing in front of a roaring tiger in her "Bird Flu" video). I think she is rightly averse to extreme violence, however, I do believe that she gives the LTTE more room than they deserve as one of the most prolific suicide-bomber-per-capita groups in the world, a massive recruiter of child soldiers, and a group that has responded to devastating oppression by the Sri Lankan government with....ethnic cleansing. I sincerely hope that with the death of their leader last year that the civil war in Sri Lanka can move on without the fear of extreme violence overshadowing any negotiations.

Now, that being said, I think this video addresses a very difficult problem that faces those who would fight crimes against humanity. I'm taking a course called Political Mass Murder right now (become a poli sci major: examine the world, discover new people, and find out ways they kill each other!) that studies the history of genocide, and we've heard a lot about Raphael Lemkin, the man who worked so hard to make the word "genocide" something meaningful and actionable. Among many other problems, Lemkin's pleading for the world to take genocide seriously fell on deaf ears because countries would have had to face up to problematic actions in their of histories. We're seeing the same issue now confronting those looking for a working definition of terrorism - it demands that nations admit that some of their actions may in fact be acts of terrorism.

The interesting thing about this shared guilt is that a fear of the "other" and the violence undertaken to combat it, along with acts of terrorism seem to be a universal part of political power. We are all guilty - the US of both terrorism and genocidal acts in its own way - but we cannot let those missteps overshadow our overarching desire to do good in the world. As it is now, we allow incredible violence and genocide to continue unabated, crippled by our inability to stand up and say "this is wrong." Much of our reluctance to intervene comes from our respect for sovereignty, and that's something that SHOULD be valued, but a regime that transacts or allows genocide on its people does not have a legitimate claim to sovereignty.

Just a couple observations on the imagery in the video...the whole thing is rife with references to terrorist groups. "TemptressofDoom" in the Jezebel comments noted that "'Tiocfaidh ár lá," is, "Our day will come," in Gaelic and is a popular slogan for Sinn Fein [the political face of the IRA]"; the red-headed rebels appear in front of a street mural (common in Belfast, which seems to strengthen the reference) with that slogan. Even if it don't limit the reference to Sinn Fein, it's common rhetoric for genocidal and terrorist regimes. The rebels are also wearing red keffeyahs, a color typically seen on HAMAS militants. These references, along with general tone, seem to point quite clearly to a statement on terrorism.

[NB: A couple of people mentioned that the American flag patches on the soldiers' shoulders are backwards. The flags are technically backwards, but they are correct according to the military standards for uniforms. The idea is that the flags should always look like they are moving forward; you'll see this on aircraft fuselages as well.]

M.I.A. is saying something here that most politicians are too scared to say, and it's an important message. It's interesting to see a sudden burst of women Saying Things on this scale in their music and corresponding videos: Lady Gaga's encouragements to consider the way we see ourselves and live, Erykah Badu's "Window Seat" video (and most of her catalog), etc.

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