Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Neda; or, the Question Suzanne Malveaux Didn't Ask

This post requires the sort of warning that has preceded the airing of many amateur video clips from Tehran on CNN over the last few days, even those so edited and censored as to make the most disturbing portions of the clip virtually unintelligible, dulling their ability to disturb.  In this case, some will find some of my comments on the clip in question and the response to it disturbing.  Since such a response would mirror my own reservations about the selectivity of outrage and the lessons we all need to take from the coverage of the Iran election protests, it seems a risk worth taking.

Anyone who has paid any attention at all to the coverage from Tehran over the last ten days knows about or has seen in some version the footage of the death by sniper's bullet of Neda Agha-Soltan, a largely apolitical woman in her mid-twenties engaged to be married and embarking on a career as a cultural tour guide.  She apparently got out of her car near the corner of Salehi St. (hence an early mistaken version of her last name on Twitter) because the a/c had broken down in the heat.  She, her music teacher, and a couple of people they knew began to join the edges of a rally, about a block from the main body of protesters.  One video shows her leading her music teacher away from the direction they'd started to take.  Then a gap of unknown length ensues.

The second and best known of the videos begins after a sniper concealed on the roof of a house has shot her in the chest.  It shows the music teacher and one of their friends laying her down on the street, where we can already see a pool of her blood, presumably from her exit-wound, and continues as the men try to comfort her.  At some point she apparently says "I'm burning, I'm burning," and the men, beginning to sound like so many mourners we have heard in recent years in Serbo-Croatian, Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Hindi--one could go on and on--exhort her not to leave them.

Then comes the moment that one suspects has made this video the icon it has become, and with it Neda herself.  As the music teacher reaches to cup the left side of her face with his right hand, blood begins to stream out of both corners of her mouth and both nostrils, covering her left eye, her right eye open but glazed and uncomprehending.  At the conclusion of this tape and another that captures only these last few moments,  her head tips over to the right.  The hospital to which the men brought her declared her dead that evening.  Her life as the symbol of the election protests had only begun. 

It has taken a few days for the details of her circumstances to emerge in various sources on the Web, including Wikipedia.  A parallel effort of disinformation has emerged as well.  An Ahmadinejad supporter had claimed by early Saturday evening ET that Neda and her teacher and friends had staged the whole thing.  When her music teacher put his hand to her face, according to this tweet, he actually poured the blood that then appeared on her face.  I have a weakness for the crime investigation show NCIS, and did something their Goth forensic scientist has done hundreds of times in countless episodes.  I took the video back, again and again, to the moment in the tape when she begins to bleed.  I could have written off the Ahmadinejad supporter as a biased crackpot, but something in me wanted  certainty, wanted to know that I can trust what I see, that the web cannot play with my emotions helter-skelter without some recourse to verification.  In the video the music teacher has nothing in his hand with which to pour anything; the hand in fact reveals nothing but helpless tenderness.  The moment in the tape when the blood begins to issue from her mouth and nostrils says all that needs saying about the veracity of her death.

The Ahmadinejad line has shifted.  They now argue, in one version, that an Israeli entered the country illegally and shot her to create mischief, and in another that the basij sniper mistook her for the sister of a monafeghin, an outlawed Iranian Marxist mujahedin, executed by the government last year.  One fails to see quite how the latter account would justify Neda's murder, unless the sniper's "mistake" issued from some sort of misplaced heroic hatred of all associated with any opposition to the government.  One begins to wonder not only why Ahmadinejad thought he could get away with voter fraud on a massive scale, but why he even bothered with the farce of an election in the first place, other than the obvious failure to understand the depth of mistrust and, if not then, certainly now, hatred with which his people view him.  Will the protests lead him and Khamenei to abolish all pretense of democratic process? 

The death of Neda has become something of an obsession for many of us.  Saturday night one got far more hits on Twitter, refreshed at a remarkable speed, using a hashtag that included her name, appended to the phrase "iran election" or not, than if one neglected to use her name.  Josh Levs reported this phenomenon on CNN, and I confirmed it on my own computer.  In thirty seconds anything from 423 to 2,436 tweets--for one brief moment at the peak--would appear.  The protesters had a martyr, Mousavi knew it, and soon the cycle of mourning would begin that Mousavi and his colleagues used to such effect in the Islamic Revolution, though how aggressivly they will use it one cannot yet tell.  Neda had become the international symbol that linked all those anywhere following events in Tehran.  Her face has become an avatar on Twitter and Facebook.  By last evening a touching film appeared, with soft, sad Persian music and the most flattering of the few photos of Neda alive that have surfaced, scarved and unscarved.

Suzanne Malveaux of CNN asked President Obama at his news conference yesterday if he had seen the images of Neda's death, and if so, how had he responded.  He replied that he had, and that he found them "heartbreaking."  And here I have to pose the question for which you have received fair warning.  Why Neda?  We have seen so many corpses these last few days, so much blood, most of it on men.  I have begun to find it all numbing, to the point that I don't know how I would have answered Malveaux's question, which struck me as rather sensationalist and cloying.  Clearly Neda's image has stuck because it comes with a narrative, albeit a partial one that has needed some filling in to complete.  At the center of the narrative, unmistakably, blood flows.  Somehow flowing blood, not the stains on a dead man's shirt, but the evidence of lungs still just barely alive pumping out blood with each last labored breath, grips us by the emotional privates and says "Watch.  Watch again.  And again."  Beautiful young women shouldn't die this way.  

I just wonder.  Does Neda's story say anything at all about the reach of feminism in Iran, or even here?  After all, in the video we see a young woman in a short chador and blue jeans, a professional woman in her leisure time.  In some Islamic countries she couldn't have aspired to work as a cultural guide, nor gotten away with the blue jeans.  On the other hand, though she is hardly beautiful in her struggle, we see her beauty from photographs of her that have appeared.  Sadder because beautiful?  Have we made that little progress?  

Mousavi's wife wears a chador or a kind of double-scarf combination in all her appearances on video, by herself, with friends and associates, and with her husband.  She certainly has every right to the chador, as do all Iranian women, indeed all Muslim women anywhere.  I used to admire my Muslim students who would  come to class with beautiful silk or wool scarves, making many of their classmates look as though they'd just gotten out of bed--as they had--or come from the gym.  I just wonder if we accept the notions behind the protection of women by the veil, the dangers of their beauty and the fragility of their sex, in lavishing on the one unmistakably beautiful Iranian victim whose death we have watched on our computers and blackberries and i-phones and televisions the attention of the last few days, and the status of martyr.  

I, for one, do not feel entirely comfortable either with the numbing of affective overload from trying to absorb all that has come through the electronic media, or with the focus, my own included, on this one young woman whose car a/c broke down at a particularly inauspicious moment in a brutally dangerous place.  I mourn her, but do not want that mourning to distract us from all those others we need to mourn, whose friends did not happen to have an i-phone or whatever to film the last moments of their lives, and whose sex and physical appearance might not have inspired as much pity in us as did Neda's.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tweet, tweet, wiki, wiki, Facebook Youtubes revolution!

I swear the world underwent astounding changes in 2007, the year I spent in a monastery.  I knew very little about Youtube before I entered Mepkin Abbey as a postulant in February of that year.  I don't remember learning of Facebook until after my departure ten months later.  My serious introduction to both came at the hands of the Obama campaign.  I now access Youtube fairly regularly for clips or speeches I missed or cannot find on television or network websites. Seventy-seven Facebook friends later, that networking site has become a welcome source of contact with former students and far-flung friends and colleagues.  Twitter I resisted at first introduction, again thanks to the Obama campaign.  Any of you who have read this blog before can imagine the obstacle a 140-word limit poses for me.  Gertrude Stein distinguished Hemingway and Fitzgerald very aptly.  Hemingway, she thought, wrote in sentences; Fitzgerald wrote in paragraphs.  I never put on a blue blazer, striped tie and poplins to watch For Whom the Bell Tolls or to read a Nick Adams story with a glass of scotch in hand.  

Which leaves Wiki.  In a twist of irony I'd find wonderful in other circumstances, I owe this discovery to Mir Hossain Moussavi, who also gets credit for my decision to embrace Twitter, after all.  An article I read on RealClearPolitics.Com the other day convinced me we had gotten a superficial and distorted version of events, the players, and even the stakes in Iran from the majority of media coverage.  "Rick," said Claude Rains to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, "I'm shocked!  shocked!..."  Since then I've joined Moussavi's Wiki blog, Juan Cole's blog as suggested by my Facebook and Twitter correspondent (Him Tarzan, me fan) Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, and watched as much Youtube footage from Teheran as I could find without repeating myself.

This expansion of the sources of information leaves the obvious and oft-tackled question of the quality and reliability of said information.  I have gotten the best-researched, most thoughtful and, one wants to say, useful information, from conventional media and academics, though often from the internet.  With this caveat: what use can we make of it, exactly?  Can you imagine the patience or even purposeful neglect and compartmentalization the fluidity of the situation in Iran must require of Pres. Obama?  I have always valued staying informed, but I wonder how many of us--a few dozen, at most, definitely not counting myself--really understand the dynamics of the election in Iran and its aftermath.  

Moussavi competently ran Iran's government, the secular apparatus, at least, during the Iran-Iraq war, as widely reported.  He came to power as one of the radical faithful of the Islamic Revolution, in the circle of Ayatollah Khomeini.  He counts as a close ally, though perhaps one of convenience, one of his successors, Imam Rafsanjani, characterized by our press twenty years ago as the hothead of all hotheads.  Rafsanjani, an opponent of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and one who had hoped--and may still--to attain Khamenei's position,  has apparently withdrawn from Teheran, the secular capital, to Qom, the religious capital, if you will.  There he has apparently taken over the back-room maneuvering aimed at achieving either a recount or a nullification of last week's election.  Or, perhaps, his real agenda:  the ouster of Khamenei.

That much I've gleaned in a few days.  What I haven't gleaned I find more troubling.  We have demonized Ahmadinejad in the west, and for good reason, as with any other Holocaust-denier who wants to erase the state of Israel off the map, as he has put it.  Here comes Moussavi opposing him, a one-time radical revolutionary, apparently backed by Rafsanjani, whose headlines in the the western press used to read rather like Ahmadinejad's now.  Moussavi seems "mellower," and certainly more willing than Ahmadinejad to engage the west in general and Pres. Obama in particular.  All good things.  

I just have one question.  Glutted as we we can become with the information we can get from traditional news sources distributed and complemented by the web and its own original sources, and struck with the sympathetic reaction one would need a hard heart not to have when faced with the images of truncheoning cops and bleeding corpses (but what did they do to merit the truncheons and bullets, and who set whose fires to whose property?), what judgements can we reasonably reach?  One cannot help but admire the courage and restraint of the bulk of the protesters, not to mention their stamina.  One senses something more genuine than lip-service in Moussavi's call for peaceful demonstrations.  One can hardly want Ahmadinejad, or even Khamenei, at this point, to survive all this.  But what then?

Flashback:  1979.  Robin MacNeil of PBS did a breathtaking series of interviews with Khomeini from Paris as the Islamic Revolution unfolded in Iran, resulting in the deposition and departure of Shah Reza Pahlavi.  The Carter administration, against the judgement of the intelligence establishment (up to its armpits in collaboration with Pahlavi, its creation if not its monster), stood back, permitting the Iranian people self-determination.  To many of us, this seemed the only moral thing to do.  Even if we could have foreseen what would ensue, we could hardly have done much else.  1979 seems perhaps a slightly overdrawn comparison--whatever changes in Iran next week or next month will almost certainly not match 1979 in the scale of transformation introduced.  I also realize that in 1979 we had in Khomeini the enemy of a "friend."  I wonder, though, if we will have to use quotation marks again, if we declare prematurely that Moussavi, the enemy of our enemy Ahmadinejad, might in some sense become our friend?  

Obama, Secretary Clinton, National Security Advisor Gen. Jones, and anyone else who matters knows this.  Nicholas Kristof and his colleagues at The New York Times and throughout the mainstream media know this.  But do those of us getting Wiki posts and Twitter tweets and Facebook pokes after watching Youtube clips fall into the trap of embracing those for whom we feel sympathy simply for that reason?  Which gets us to the heart of the quintessential question about the web--when does so much information become both too much, and not nearly enough?  The answer, of course, lies in if and how one uses it.  The web wonderfully increases our reach as humans, but does it do anything to deepen our grasp?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Who cares about health care?

Allow me one assumption that some might consider generous.  Nobody engaged in the health care debate wishes anyone else ill, at least not literally.  They may, however, wish for a system in which others would have no way to treat their illnesses, or those of their loved ones.  They simply don't actively wish anyone ill.  As you can see, this does not confer quite the degree of humanity upon them one might have thought at first blush.

Care.  The word comes into English via the Latin verb "curo, curare," meaning to care for or about, applied in any number of ways.  One can, for instance, care for art objects, as curators do; or souls, the job of priests, to whom we used to refer in the Catholic Church as curates.  Doctors care for patients, and when one says that one cares for someone in a romantic relationship, the statement implies a similar level of concern for the other's well-being.  So an affection can quickly become a worry, a concern:  a care, as in "the cares of the world."  And that kind of care usually involves money these days, at least at some point.

The health care debate illustrates the multiplicity of meanings we attach to the word care.  We have almost forgotten that we got into this debate to protect people's health, to alleviate their cares and allow them access to proper care.  Or so one would hope.  Instead, some would make this into an argument solely about finances and profits, taxes and deficits.  Apparently the access to affordable health care does not count among the truths some folks hold as self-evident.  

Put another way, the cares associated with preserving the incomes of the haves trump the health care of the have-nots, or even the have-not-quite-enoughs, a group which has perhaps reached the critical mass necessary to force a resolution to the health care crisis, at least the insurance side of it.  Some of us, nonetheless, continue to lack the imagination, or willingness, to understand the cares of those who can't afford health insurance, or can't get it because of precisely the pre-existing condition for the treatment of which they most desperately need it.  

One irony looms large here.  Our financial crisis has not only made health care reform more necessary; it has probably made it more possible.  The crisis has, after all, made the haves feel more vulnerable than they have felt in years, and made it hard for them to ignore the general need.  As soon as they consider how we will pay for a genuinely fair health care system, however, that very vulnerability makes them more concerned about their cares than about others' care.

Let me play the anti-Jonathan Swift here and make a latter day modest proposal:  that we either grant the equivalence of access to health care and enfranchisement and follow that equivalence to the logical conclusion of a health care bill by whatever means, or stop pretending that we aspire to any unalienable right but selfishness.  We must pay for it somehow, obviously; but if we count nickels and dimes till the cows come home, we will nickel-and-dime people out of something far more important than nickels and dimes:  their health, and with it their human dignity.  And we may find ourselves with a lot more financial cares than we have even now, to boot.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Time is no healer

President Obama speaks tomorrow in Cairo.  The Muslim world seems to expect a great deal of him.  Some commentators worry that he cannot possibly meet their expectations without offending their leaders.  He sees a way forward, but can he point it out in enough detail that others can go there with him?  Only a man with absolute confidence in the power of negotiation and compromise would consider the constellation of suspicions and misunderstandings at stake here capable of solution.

One wants to look forward, but Ahman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden have issued tapes in the last two days.  The competing voices of reason and hate, of charity and fear take me back to two events, one seared in the memories of all of us, the other much less well known.  They represent as bookends the problems Obama takes on as he ascends the stage at Cairo University.  

Even though all of those reading this blog remember 9/11, all necessarily remember it somewhat differently.  I remember a vague awareness of students and staff gathered around a large-screen tv in a student lounge visible through the blinds of my office window as I spoke with a student.  When we finished, I joined them, but could not grasp what I heard and saw, that one of the towers had fallen.  I simply didn't believe it, using the cloud of debris as the excuse for my recalcitrance, until the second tower fell.

Less than two hours later, in the chapel, we tried to make sense of our fears, our sorrow, our anger, though I remember feeling sad, and resentful of those who expressed anger, though that resentment seems churlish at this remove.  Most of all, I remember a student who spoke from the podium, tears on her face, her voice trembling, one of our many Muslim students, a Pakistani.  "Please," she pleaded, to an audience that knew and loved her but which suddenly frightened her, "don't blame all Muslims for this."

The second event happened five years earlier.  A band of vaguely Islamist Algerian insurgents kidnapped and later killed seven Trappist monks from the monastery at Tibhirine.  The monks had fostered dialogue with their Muslim neighbors, gradually allaying the suspicions of many that they intended to proselytize.  They performed acts of charity; one of the monks ran a medical clinic of sorts.  A much beloved figure in the town, he died in the attack.  

Many in the Trappist order and some in the Vatican hierarchy had for years doubted the wisdom of their presence, and some went so far as to consider the abbot a dangerously inflexible zealot.  To those, the sad ending at Tibhirine came as no surprise, if an utterly avoidable tragedy.  The monks at Tibhirine had tried to do the impossible, in this view, in so doing had touched a nerve they could not help but touch, with results all too easy to predict and too hard to repair.  The last I knew the monastery at Tibhirine remains abandoned by the Trappists.

President Obama has taken an enormous gamble:  that the world, particularly those who sit on the Christian/Jewish/Muslim divide--not to mention all the fissures within those only apparent monoliths--can learn to see each other without hatred, fear and suspicion.  It means learning to know each other in the broken mirrors of social division and religious difference, repression, chauvinism, fundamentalism and realpolitik.  It requires an enormous good faith effort on the part of many people who do not feel they can afford it, or feel on the contrary that they can make a mockery of it at will.  It requires that the Rush Limbaughs of the world see themselves in the al-Zawahiris and bin Ladens.  It requires the vast majority of us at neither extreme to find a way to isolate the extremists and wrest from them the power they have to sustain the current dangerous standstill, while the precipice erodes beneath us.  

More than anything, Obama's gamble requires that we learn to remember in order to forget.  9/11 and Tibhirine teach us what mistrust can lead us to do and what fear follows in the wake of hatred.  We must learn to unlearn that cycle.  If, as T.S. Eliot wrote in The Dry Salvages, "time is no healer," we must learn ultimately to discard the broken mirrors and, as he says a few lines later, paraphrasing the words of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, "[f]are forward."  Obama understands this; let us hope he can persuade others of his wisdom.