Saturday, January 29, 2005

Abu Ghraib and real violence: a pitiless liberal speaks out

Susie Linfield’s essay The Dance of Civilizations subtitled The West, the East, and Abu Ghraib deserves consideration. It was posted on the left-leaning blog wood s lot on the day the world commemorated the liberation of Auschwitz and the injunction not to forget.

Linfield presents the impact of the photographs in the US and around the world. It seems that the images are now "internationally recognized icons" and that they have become part of US national consciousness. They will not be forgotten.

She says that what makes the photos so powerful is the pleasure with which the torture is depicted. The soldiers seem to enjoy the suffering, and are oblivious to its criminality. When "shame and fear are lacking", Linfield writes, "we all feel threatened". Hence the shocked response.

The essay divides this response into left-wing and the right-wing critiques. The left give a political explanation, blaming the Bush administration for encouraging lawless tactics, while the right blame the "casual brutality of American pop culture - embodied in Internet pornography, video games, rap music, movies, and television shows".

Linfield herself claims not have much knowledge of such culture: "I am not the most happenin' gal" she says. However, she is still suspicious of cultural critiques because campaigns against "mass-produced cultural forms" has a correlate in freedoms such as "the availability of birth control and abortion; the ability to live outside marriage; the freedom to read, see, and write anything I want, including this article." As Augie March - that great herald of American individuality and freedom - puts it: "Everyone knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining." However, she does point out that the left also see the impact of popular culture on what happened at Abu Ghraib (and, specifically, why we are aware of it): Susan Sontag observes that "photographing the torture was simply the natural extension of the image-world in which we moderns dwell: An erotic life is, for more and more people, that which can be captured in digital photographs and on video . . . .To live is to be photographed.

Linfield dislikes the "paroxysms of self-hate" of the US left over Abu Ghraib, and the sneering of Europeans (she cites the London Review of Books!) who depict the United States "as a uniquely depraved force of destruction". In her opinion, this is excessive if we compare the photos with those of the beheadings by the Islamic terrorist known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. His followers:

number far more than those [Lynndie] England could ever hope to attract. The most pitiless, most graphic, most celebratory and, yes, most lovingly photographed violence - real violence - emanating throughout the world today comes precisely from those who are expressly opposed to the lazy trashiness of American popular culture.

Her point though is not to reveal that the East is more barbaric than the West, but to ask how the West should proceed in this "diabolical pas de deux of violence and death". For this reason she believes it is the task of US citizens to strengthen US democracy rather than continuing on Bush's road of repression. However, the US, she says, must still fight a war on terrorists groups. Opposing torture does not end the discussion about the "ways and means in the war on terror". This is what she presents as important.

Yes, human rights belong to every human; but this does not tell us all we need to know about how to fight pitiless nihilists who regard suicide-cum-murder as life's best experience - and who do not, alas, represent an isolated, disowned lunatic fringe of the Muslim or Arab world.

As a result, there are "tragic choices" to be made by the US in order to "save the lives of innocent civilians".

In this last point, Linfield has more followers than al-Zarqawi. They are the same people who are appalled at the Abu Ghraib images. But they are also the people who funded two unilateral and illegal invasions of sovereign nations, with the subsequent loss of 150,000+ lives, and then re-elected the people who initiated them. Not one of these deaths has become an "internationally recognized icon" (despite the odd photo in obscure places). From reading this article, one would think there was no connection between US foreign policy and Islamic terrorism (or should that be US terrorism and Islamic self-defence?).

It seems that, ironically, for all her protestations of distance from popular culture, Linfield has fallen under its solipsistic spell. Nowhere does she mention the recent slaughter in Afghanistan and Iraq. The civilian death toll is staggering, yet it has no bearing on Linfield’s unhappnin' consciousness. As "associate director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University", she might have missed the coverage given to it. It hasn't wormed its way into communal memory like Abu Ghraib because it cannot be contained in a photograph. For sure, Linfield has the freedom to write about the slaughter but for some reason she doesn’t. Perhaps she made one of those "tragic choices".

Elsewhere, Linfield reveals that she didn’t protest against the imminent invasion of Iraq. There is no fear or shame here either.

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