Friday, February 21, 2003

Between Iraq and a Hard Place

“If Tom Brokaw came, then it would be real.”
– A Paducah, Kentucky resident discussing reports of radioactive pollution leaking from the town’s uranium-enrichment plant.

Being on the fence is not always the most pleasant place to be. There’s a constant, nattering conversation going on in my head, as I argue back and forth with myself. It’s a bit like the buzzing noise you get from florescent lights.

This debate, this mental duelling, is particularly annoying right now because I have a bit of a cold and so my head is stuffed up enough as it is.

Anyway, I can’t suffer this whirring and churning alone right now, so in today’s column, I offer you a peek into the thought processes of a young man afflicted with fencitus.

Q. All right. The Columbia, AIDS in Africa, the definition of Palestine, midterms… What’s on your mind today?

A. Media literacy.

Q. Are you kidding?

A. No, I’m serious. I think our education system does an okay job of teaching kids how to read, understand, and interpret words. But even though North American children spend an average of three hours a day watching television — this is just television, forget time playing video games or on the computer – they don’t spend any time learning how to deal with images.

Q. Why is this on your mind?

A. Well, all those issues you just mention tie in. The only subjects that hold our interest are those with compelling imagery. It’s why the 6650 people who die every day in Africa from AIDS aren’t news, but seven people dying in an exploding space shuttle is. One has boring pictures, the other a fireball in the sky and scattered debris.

Q. Okay, but television has been a force for good on occasion. People turned against the Vietnam War after the pictures came back. Civil Rights protestors would shout, “The Whole World is Watching.”

A. Absolutely. The emotional impact of those images was huge. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with television, per se, or with images, but just that we haven’t figured out how to make rational sense of them yet, which is a problem because our lives are now dictated by images captured on film.

Q. Hmmm… What does Don Delillo have to say about that?

A. Interesting you should ask. In The Names, he writes, “The twentieth century is on film. It’s the filmed century. You have to ask yourself if there’s anything about us more important than the fact that we’re constantly on film, constantly watching ourselves. The whole world is on film, all the time. Spy satellites, microscopic scanners, pictures of the uterus, embryos, sex, war, assassinations, everything.”

Q. Which makes us behave differently?

A. Yes. Take last Saturday’s anti-war protest. It was the largest worldwide protest in history. I don’t think more people oppose this war than did, say, at the height of the Vietnam War, but people are a lot more conscious these days about how important the television image of millions of people marching in the streets is.

Similarly, the American government invokes the powerful image of the Twin Towers collapsing to try and persuade people to go to war. Chemical weaponry? Oppression? Boooring…. Show us a colour-coded chart that tells us what the Terror Weather Report is for today, and videos of Saddam firing a gun into the air….

What I am burning and yearning for is some actual discussion, some back-and-forth that doesn’t simplify the world into “war is bad” or “Saddam is bad.”

Q. What should we be asking?

A. When should the international community intervene in a state that is controlled by a dictator? Is there a way to get Saddam out of power without war? Are Afghanistan and Yugoslavia better off after NATO/American intervention? Could something have been done to avert the genocide in Rwanda? If there is to be no war, what can we do for the Iraqi people, who die by the thousands every month because of sanctions? What kind of reconstruction plan is there for a post-war Iraq? How can we make sure that the revenue from the oil in Iraq goes to the Iraqi people? Will war destabilize the region? What does that mean? Is stable tyranny worth keeping stable?

These are questions that can’t be answered in pictures, at least not how we currently use them. They can’t be answered by sound bites or slogans.

Q. So tomorrow, SSMU is holding a General Assembly on whether or not to hold a student strike to protest the war. Are you on the fence about that?

A. These people are well-intentioned and my heart was on the street last Saturday. (Nagging doubts and a rehearsal kept me inside.) Still, I don’t know what a student strike does. Wouldn’t it be somehow more useful to organise some round tables, to debate the issues, to figure out what can be done for the Iraqi people? Granted, it won’t get us pictures in the paper.

Bah. I sound so conservative and boring.

Who am I kidding? I desperately want to be out there in the streets, chanting and marching, but I have trouble believing what I hear these days. I certainly don’t believe what I see.

Q. So what do can you do?

A. Close my eyes, and try to see with my mind.

Damn it. I have a midterm in, like, ten hours.

On the Fence appears in The McGill Daily on Thursdays. You can email Kelly at jkelly@cup.ca.

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