I wrote for Foreign Policy about how consumer drones are much better at terrifying people than they are at killing them – and why it is important that we recognize this.Read it here.
“The camera shook with the sound of an explosion and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro looked up, confused. Guards swiftly surrounded him with protective shields; soldiers in the military parade he was addressing scattered for cover. So did everyone else around him, reacting to the sound of a nearby explosion from the sky. Maduro and the Venezuelan government say—and video evidence seems to confirm—that someone tried to attack him with an explosives-laden consumer drone, likely made by Chinese drone manufacturer DJI. Open-source reporting organization Bellingcat and other investigative outlets agree that the attack involved drones, despite early reports claiming otherwise.
There have been fears for years that commercial drones would be turned into deadly weapons. But was this their coming-out party, the incident where death-by-drone moves from the military into the hands of terrorists and assassins? I don’t think so. Neither does European Council on Foreign Relations policy fellow Ulrike Franke, who told me: “To put it bluntly, I don’t think that this was the event that changes the view of smaller commercial drones from good to bad.”
Supposedly Boston is known for free speech: the sort that leads to epoch-altering revolutionary wars, fancy tea getting dumped in harbors, and the occasional massacre. Perhaps that is why the organizers of this summer’s two Boston “free speech” rallies chose a notoriously Democrat-leaning city as their venue. Perhaps it’s because organizer Daniel Medlar is an early-twenties kid from Boston with a distinctly limited understanding of both his surroundings and of basic optics.
Regardless of the reasons: there have been two “Free Speech” rallies in Boston since the start of 2017, one on May 13th,and the other on August 19th. One was very small and you probably didn’t hear about it. The second was very large and you almost certainly heard about it. I went to both of them to observe, out of both a sense of documentary responsibility and the same perverse instinct that compels children to turn over moldy logs in the forest.
I want to write about both rallies because I think that what happens at the first represents what the organizers had naively assumed would happen at the second. That is because Boston largely shrugged at the first “Free Speech” rally: it was a tolerance of right-wing loonies that would not persist after Charlottesville ripped away the fig-leaf of peaceful disagreement from the alt-right once and for all.
The First Boston Free Speech Rally: May 13th:
The first “Free Speech” rally was held on May 13th, in the middle of an unusually cold spring. The organizers had chosen the vaguely-Grecian-if-you-squint Parkman Bandstand on the eastern side of Boston Common as their venue, and had optimistically declared that it would run from 12:00 PM until 5:00 PM. The Free Speech ralliers milled around in brightly-colored packs around the bandstand: a walking path separated the stretch of land they occupied from Flag Staff Hill and the Soldiers and Sailors monument, which black-clad antifa protesters had arrayed themselves around. Boston bike police officers in bright yellow jackets stood in a tight line on the walking path, presenting a human-and-bicycle shield for the protesters in case anybody got particularly restive.
The Free Speech Rally was organized in part by actual high schoolers, including one Steven Verette, who proudly told The Daily Beast that the idea for the event had “originated on 4Chan’s /pol/.” (The oldest organizer was, apparently, the advanced age of 32). The organizers were youthful, but they had still managed to attract a half-decent slate of big-name alt right stars, or what passes for a star on the nasty bits of the Internet. The biggest-ticket name was Based Stickman, who is actually Kyle Chapman, who is actually a thrice convicted felon from California best known for beating anti-Trump protesters in Berkeley with a leaded stick. There were the Oath Keepers, a virulently anti-government organization that was founded as a direct response to Barack Obama’s election in 2009: largely comprised of former military and law enforcement officers, they are particularly fond of showing up as self-appointed and often distinctly unwanted armed guards for people they decide they like. They claimed on their website that they had “been asked to assist with security” and would coordinate with other alt-right groups to “ensure the safety of the event from several terrorist organizations.”
There were dewy-faced high school boys and college freshmen with hand-made “Kekistan” signs and red Trump caps: one held his sign up for me to photograph like a beaming 3rd grader who has just drawn a somewhat serviceable picture of a giraffe. A number of protesters had showed up with crash helmets, gas-masks, goggles, body armor, and other tactical gear, as if they were preparing for a pitched machine-gun battle in Fallujah and not for a mildly damp day in a verdantly green park in spring in Boston. One helmet-wearing boy showed off a hand-painted wooden shield with a slightly wobbly rendition of the Bennington flag, while another carried a shield with a bald eagle painted on it. Some people were waving the Japanese flag, for reasons I am too lazy to look up. Many people had appeared in camo, perhaps under the impression that it would make it harder for antifa to see them. A few men had showed up in full Centurion armor. (Did they just have it lying around? Did they buy it for the occasion? Was this armor set aside for dual LARPing and white supremacist protesting purposes? Does anyone have answers?).
A young and very skinny man in a purple greatcoat was holding a large wooden stick: he used the stick to guide a group of snickering alt-righters into some simulacrum of a military formation while he shouted, presumably as a show of organizational superiority to the shouting counter-protesters on the other hill.
“Man, I hate to admit it but they’ve got hotter girls over there,” I overheard one free speech rallier say to another, as they surveyed the counter protesters on the other hill. (I know this sounds implausible, like wishful thinking on my part, but I swear I actually heard it).
Off to the side were the Proud Boys, who emanated great waves of frustrated masculinity, in such quantity that I am pretty sure they could be be captured by any normally sensitive camera, perhaps sensed from miles away. The Boys were members of Gavin McInnes white supremacist fraternity, which is (I swear to God) actually named after a song from the Aladdin Broadway musical. It is meant to evoke a sense of chummy, supportive white male solidarity, and I guess that it is what these men to the side were up to, all these lumbering beardy men in baseball caps who shouted and hooted at each other in the same fashion as any group of thwarted male primates.
The Proud Boys were feeling very thwarted indeed. Despite the line of police in neon-green vests separating them from the counter-protesters, they hyped each other up as if they would, at any moment, bum-rush the police and burst through the line. “We’re going to take back that hill,” they shouted at each other, casting angry glances at the counter protesters on the other side.I later read social media chatter that indicated they and a number of other attendees were angry at the Oathkeepers for (apparently) holding them back from getting rough with counter-protesters and by proxy the police – which indicated to me that the Oath Keepers, for all their other flaws, at least had a sense of basic self-preservation.
Prevented from punching any liberal arts undergraduates, the Proud Boys occupied themselves with their central initiation ritual. Picture it like this, although you can also watch video. One Proud Boy stands in the middle of a circling of shouting Proud Boys, and then he begins to recite different, beloved brands of breakfast cereal. As he does this, the other Proud Boys punch him. He is supposed to name six different types of cereal before he gives up. “Frosted Flakes, Cheerios, Cocoa Pebbles,” he squeaks, as the Proud Boys rain not-exactly-ferocious blows upon him. “Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Wheaties, Froot Loops,” he continues, as his other Boys hit him. Sometimes there is giggling.
This ritual is then followed by the recitation of the Proud Boys oath: “I am a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.” (This seems to imply that the assembled Proud Boys had personally discovered weaving, the printing press, thermonuclear physics, and the Internet, which I am reasonably sure they did not). They even have a manifesto, which you can read here, and which they take very seriously. It begins with ‘clear the area of all women,’ which should give you an idea of the contents to follow. They politely ignored me as I filmed them: maybe they assumed I was a fan, like the “Proud Boys Girls” who cheer on their men’s minimalist achievements on social media.
At one point, a young man with a scraggly beard walked swiftly through the crowd from the counter-protesters side, his head down. He was spotted, as he presumably walked towards the subway: the thwarted Proud Boys and a few other free-floating Free Speech Ralliers formed into a pack and circled around him hungrily. One Proud Boy acted as if he’d dump a cup of soda over his head, perfectly fitting all known stereotypes of damp-pitted and vicious lunchroom bullies. Others screeched “REEE” at him in ear-splitting tones, which is the sound that white supremacists on the Internet like to believe that both people with autism and “social justice warriors” make. The young man with a beard looked less afraid than he looked disgusted, or maybe disappointed, and he began to argue with them.
A few of the Free Speechers had a bullhorn, and they were attempting to carry their voices over to the counter-protesters on the other side with extremely limited success. “Your women want to sleep with us!” one guy with a beard in olive-green army fatigues shouted through an underpowered megaphone. Everyone cheered. The speeches began on the bandstand, behind an American flag backdrop. I did not stick around for these, in part because I knew they’d all be on the Internet anyway, and in part because I was much more interested in the anthropological weirdness of watching the alt-right tribes mingle than I was in the usual boilerplate about Taking Back Our Country and Western Chauvinism and Why Can’t I Use Racial Slurs When I’m Just Telling Lighthearted Jokes.
I had edged away from the speeches and was walking back towards the counter-protester side when I noticed a certain large Proud Boy with an orange shirt and a neon-green belt who had been creeping closer and closer to the line of police. I had turned my back when I heard a commotion behind me: a police officer was already twisting the Proud Boy’s arms behind his back and was preparing to cuff him. “He tried to punch that girl!” someone said by way of explanation: apparently he’d lunged over the cops and attempted to deck a female counter-protester, but she was able to get out of the way. I got out my phone and began filming as the police perp-walked him away. Later I cut it to the theme music from Curb Your Enthusiasm, at my boyfriend’s request, which perfectly captured the hapless look of *surprise* on the Boy’s face, as if the universe he’d been promised had suddenly dissolved beneath his feet and left him stranded.
The counter-protesters began to filter away in boredom. We did, too. Later, on social media, the free speech ralliers posted images of themselves standing on the hill where the counter-protesters had been, smiling and celebrating. “WE TOOK THE HILL!” said one caption. I suppose winning an ideological battle on the basis of simply boring the other side to death is a sort of strategy.
All told, the May 13th Free Speech Rally attracted roughly 200 participants and a smaller number of counter-protesters. The tiny baby organizers figured it to be a great success, on the basis of their exultant Facebook posts after the fact and the underwhelming numbers of counter protesters. They began feeling confident. They began planning for a second event on August 19th.
We got down there early, unsure of what to expect. There had been hope that the city would deny the event its permit, in part because an honest-to-God anime cosplay picnic had been scheduled for the same space at the same time – but the understandably spooked cosplayers dropped out, and the alt-right were able to appropriate the slot.. As we walked to the Common, we scanned for signs of right-wingers but saw no one who seemed to obviously fit the bill: no Trump hats, no Gadsen flags, no American flags inappropriately used as capes. Media trucks lined the Common. A tour guide in a large pink duck boat said “Yes, that’s where it’s going to happen,” then rumbled by again.
I assumed that the ralliers would mill around loosely as they did at the first event, but the Boston Police had other plans, plans that were obviously influenced by footage of the horror in Charlottesville. As we walked into the park by the Boston Massacre monument, we saw an intricate pattern of chain-link barrier fences: the police had apparently decided to fence in the bandstand and the free speech ralliers for their own safety, aware that keeping thousands of irate counter-protesters with a taste for fascist tears would be impossible.
Thousands of counter-protesters were expected, who had been rallied in large part by Monica Cannon, Violence in Boston, Angie Camacho and the Black Lives Matter Global Network in its Fight Supremacy Facebook event. Rally organizers had offered non violent direct action free training on Thursday and Friday at multiple locations. The early estimates of 20,000 counter-protesters proved to be a major underestimate: city officials would later estimate an attendance of 40,000.
By the time we arrived, many had begun to mass on the same hill the counter-protesters had used last time, except there were already vastly more of them. Another huge contingent of protesters, led by Black Lives Matter, were set to begin marching in from Roxbury by 11:00 AM. People joined us to lean over the fence and squint, looking for Nazis. “Is there even anyone there?” they asked each other.
The crowd grew and grew and grew from 10:00 AM onwards, and had turned into a large and rowdy summer block party by 11:00 AM. A huge swath of Boston humanity was represented, from some weird shirtless white guy with bulging veins doing one-handed pushups and growling “Fight me!” in the general direction of the Nazis to glittery pink drag queens with magic wands to bandanna-wearing Antifa clad in all black to a very large and very discordant array of musical instruments and speakers blasting mid-2000s emo music (for some reason). The Nazis served as hard-to-see entertainment – not that we could hear them, and I’m pretty sure they couldn’t hear us, beyond a distant, threatening roar.
We positioned ourselves on a hill and looked out over the roiling mass of shouting, largely cheerful humanity below us. I was taking a photograph of the crowd when I noticed a group of black-clad Antifa members moving in a line below me on the hill: I had just snapped an iPhone photo when I realized that someone had winged a mostly-full bottle of Polar Seltzer in watermelon-lime flavor at Antifa, overshot their target, and nailed me in the thigh. It only hurt a little (although the bruise would end up being impressive): I picked up the seltzer bottle, nonplussed, and looked into the crowd for the thrower, the person who had inflicted upon me the most New England injury I will likely ever have. But whoever it was had disappeared again.
There were some skirmishes when a very small number of foolhardy MAGA’s and Trump supporters wandered the crowd attempting to rile people up, but rally marshals and Black Lives Matter did a good job of crowd control. I saw one skinhead looking guy on the ground after apparently being punched, while a counter-protesting black woman defended him and told other people not to attack anyone. People who were angling for a fight didn’t get one, although there was a lot shouting and anger at the white supremacists, which is, after all, as it should be.
I noticed that some people were moving through the crowd, down the road between the hill and the field that sloped down to the bandstand. I put it together that the police were leading a couple of the right-wingers through the crowd and out of the park, right through the center of the counter-protest: people were following behind them as if the right-wingers were a particularly punchable ice cream truck. “Get the fuck out of here,” people shouted. “Fuck Nazis” people roared, collectively.
I joined the scrum, which pushed through the crowd until the police held everyone up for a second to give them some lead time – after about 30 seconds, they nodded and let us through again. Some of the counter-protesters began to jog and then to run in the direction of the police and the retreating ralliers. I began to run too, with my phone in my left hand – it looked like the police were headed to the gates of the park and to the street beyond it. I got out in front of the crowd and videotaped the two right-wingers, who were smiling nervously and pretending not to be frightened: one was wrapped in an American flag and the other wore a red newsboy cap and was wrapped in the bright-yellow Gadsen flag.
They made it past the green truck that was being used as a temporary barricade at the gate to the park, and the police hustled them through at a brisk jog – it appeared they were making for a white police van that was parked in the middle of the road. Another police van came screaming down the road and made a quick three point turn to block off one access point to the van. I was in the scrum of press and protesters as the guy in the American flag was stuffed bodily into the back of the police van by police, like a racist sack of potatoes. The van drove away quickly, and we all stood around, this former and now dissipating scrum, and appreciated each other. “Wow, I hadn’t done that in years,” one grinning news photographer said to another, mopping his sweaty brow. “That was fun,” a butch woman wearing black said to her girlfriend. We all smiled at each other.
That woman expressed the general feel of the day, which I can sum up as joyful release – and it was something I felt too. It was an opportunity, a moment for the quivering rebels to finally get a chance to score back. For these were 40,000 people who had since November been watching in powerless anguish as the Trump administration vomited upon American norms and pimpley Nazis stomped through the streets and the GOP ceaselessly attempted to take away relatives access to inhalers and cancer treatments. And then, just a week after Charlottesville, the proud fans of this stress, this horror, this fear, had decided it would be a good, an absolutely skippy idea, to parade around in an easily-accessible park with little wooden shields. Right smack-dab in the middle of a very Democratic city in a very Democratic state. We came out to meet them in anger, certainly, but in the great gathering of enraged people I do think there was a lot of fun, a sense of beer-drinking-in-the-park commitment to the great cause of frightening Nazis out of the public sphere.
We had begun walking back across the street and into the park when I stopped and looked up the road at the wavy, black blobs of a group of unidentifiable people approaching: were the other protesters coming that way. I began walking up the road, back towards the city: a few people who were counter-protest organizers were already running ahead of me, talking into their cell phones. “Yeah, the riot police are moving,” I heard one of them say: and sure enough, a big crowd of the riot police I’d seen standing around at the Au Bon Pain strode into view, decked out in body armor and holding billy clubs.They paused briefly and began walking in tight formation into the park. Were they coming out to extract the other right-wingers from their bandstand enclave? Were they going to empty out the Gazebo Full of Racists before the end of their appointed time? I began following them.
The “Free Speech” ralliers social media accounts from around this time indicate that a siege mentality had begun to set in, which strikes me as the natural thing to feel when you’re huddled in a gazebo with a bunch of your fellow racists and are surrounded on three sides by enormous numbers of people who think you suck. They seemed just as surprised as the Proud Boy was, when the police marched him out of the Common: they’d expected to be met unopposed, or at least met with light and easily mockable opposition, but they hadn’t expected this sheer mass of pissed-off Bostonians to sally forth on a pretty Saturday to tell them to go eat a dick.
The alt-right forum banter before the event involved a lot of tough talk about turning out numbers to intimidate the liberal weaklings of Massachusetts. It had not anticipated this. And so they decided to turn back, and had presumably asked the police to escort them out. They had lasted for a total of 40 minutes. Former Infowars “reporter” and PizzaGate proponent Joe Biggs Tweeted a picture of himself inside of the Parkman Bandstand: “We are huddled around in the common waiting to find out if we have police protection or we have to fight our way out. This is America,” he wrote. The photograph shows half of his face (worried, scrunched-up brow), and just visible in the distance, a fence with a huge mass of cheerfully fascist-rejecting humanity behind it.
At approximately the same time that the Free Speechers were begging to be escorted by police out of their Gazebo of Refuge, a huge contingent of marchers organized by Fight Supremacy arrived at the Commons: they had walked over from Roxbury, and they soon began to fill the Commons up, even more than it had already been filled. The police, I realized, had been sent out to escort the alt-righters out of the park, through the protective corridor that ran from the bandstand out to Tremont Street. I walked around the fencing and down to Tremont Street to what looked like the usual park maintenance entrance – all walled off – and joined the group of people peering over the iron fence.
We could see police vans lined up behind the gate, that presumably contained the frightened alt-righters within them. Police began to line up on Tremont Street, wielding billy clubs and standing in formation with their black helmets on and black boots, perfect fodder for dystopian photographs. I accidentally got too close to one of the police officers forming a human barrier around the entrance from the utility gate to the street: he wheeled around and snarled “Don’t startle me like that!”
I apologized and stepped back: soon enough, the gates opened up and, sirens flashing, the police vans drove through, surrounded on all sides by police protection. People followed the vans out of the park, yelling “Make them walk!” and other appropriate missives of love, and I followed. I was at the corner of Tremont and Park Street when I saw a black man on the ground, who was soon entirely surrounded by police, blocking our view. He was getting arrested for something: “I think he punched a cop,” someone speculated over my shoulder, but they weren’t entirely sure. No one was sure, but there was a man on the ground, on his face, getting arrested with the police blocking our view of it all.
The protesters showed no signs of dispersing. Next to me, two men were conversing: a white man in a t-shirt who seemed to have arrived on the scene only recently, and a black man in a green bucket hat. “Who chased off the Nazis?” the white man asked.
“Man, the whole city,” the black man replied.
It seemed over; I mean in that the dramatic climax of the Nazis being repelled off to their suburban dens had happened. But it wasn’t over. We’d walked to get celebratory drinks downtown, to get out of the heat and to stop sweating for a moment or two. Our chosen bar was on Temple Street: so were the riot police, wearing gas masks and black gloves. “What the hell is going on?” I asked a nervous-looking guy with swim goggles around his neck. (He’d been in Occupy). “Some people got tear-gassed down there,” he said, and by that he meant Washington Street, which runs parallel to Boston’s featureless downtown mall. “People were throwing rocks at police or something. Don’t go down there – they’re going to shut the street down.”
I debated going down there anyway, and advanced forward a bit, but I couldn’t see anything happening still. We decided that we’d get a drink at the bar on Temple Street, operating under the perhaps dubious logic that if a street-fight went down, we’d hear about it and be able to rush out and take photographs. So we had a couple drinks, and then we re-emerged back onto the street an hour or so later, and it still wasn’t over and everyone hadn’t gone home yet.
We walked all the way down Temple Street this time, towards the T, when we found a group of angry people gathered on Washington Street. They were shouting at a line-up of police in full-riot gear with gas masks on. Hanging out behind them was Boston Police Department Superintendent in Chief William Gross. “It’s your job to protect us,” a woman screamed in his direction. “These are our streets!” a man yelled. A skinny white kid wiped tears from his eyes: he’d been tear-gassed earlier and was attempting to flush out the poison with milk. I took his picture, and asked him if it was OK if I posted it on Instagram. “Oh, I’m also on Instagram!” he said, excitedly. We added each other.
Gross smiled and came forward from behind the line of cops, walking right into the crowd. He had gentle words for everyone. He behaved as the personification of a warm hug, your nice grandmother, a plate of warm cookies. He told everyone that he understood how they were feeling, and that he just wanted everything to stay calm. He was deeply complimentary. “You should be proud of yourselves, you all did this the right way,” he said, beaming, as if we were his children and we had just learned an important lesson by means of doing something understandably naughty. He described how Martin Luther King had spoken at the same bandstand back in the 1960s, a remarkable analogy, considering, and people nodded. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring enough doughnuts for everyone,” he cracked. The woman who’d previously shouted at the police ended up hugging him. People took photographs with him. It was an act of raw charisma.
As Gross benevolently worked the crowd, we spoke with a young woman and her friend, who had been there when the police started tear-gassing people. “I had to rescue this dumb old white guy,” she said. Apparently, he’d been taunting the largely non-white protesters, and they were about to attack him. But she felt as a black woman that they wouldn’t attack her, so she grabbed him by the back of the shirt in a sort of protective tackle and dragged the idiot backwards down the road, towards the T, away from danger. “They interviewed me on the news,” she said, contemplatively. She worked at Northeastern University and studied education, and we exchanged our information, mentioned getting drinks sometime: another meeting of professionals under slightly curious circumstances, as is the way of things for our particular millennial subset, in the year of our Lord 2017.
Almost to the T, we passed by a couple of reporters wearing flak jackets and helmets. Up against the wall, they were fiddling with their video cameras and adjusting their helmets, wondering if it was over yet. We assumed they were some easily-scared local reporters who’d hyped themselves up for something worse than this was. “Hey, what’s with the jackets?” one of us asked. “Oh, early Halloween!” said one of the men, with a fairly thick accent. “We’re Al Jazeera!” the other man said. “You’ve had a rough couple of months,” I said, thinking of the Saudi government’s ever-more aggressive efforts to shutter them. We fist-bumped each other.
“You don’t care about the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, but you do care about Charlie Hebdo,” some pissed-off Twitter user says. “All this anger over attacks in Paris, but none over children freezing to death in Syria!” another rages.
It’s a familiar pattern, one that bubbles to the surface whenever a terrible event hits the international news and dominates the social media conversation: why do you care about this, but not that? Why is the media intent on promoting one story, and not another? Why do Westerners seem to care so much more when an attack strikes Paris, or London, or NYC, than they care about the Boko Haram slaughter of thousands (or hundreds, or…) in Nigeria’s northeast?
These comments are both utterly predictable and almost entirely useless. However well intentioned they may be, they are fighting a very elemental part of human nature: our biases, our fondness for that which is close to us, easy for us to understand. We crave novelty. We are naturally subjective, tribal beings. We only have so much capacity to care, lest we suffer from the modern ailment of “compassion fatigue.” What’s more, they are grounded in some ignorance of the historical context of the request for More Compassion Over Here Please, and perhaps too, of the privileged state of the complainer to begin with.
The media of every free nation in the world covers the death of a countryman overseas with more concentrated interest than the deaths of those local to the country – and usually extends the favor to foreigners with racial and cultural ties to themselves. This tendency was lampooned in a 1970 Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit in which a serious-looking Michael Palin notes, “No parrots were involved in an accident on the M-1 today…. A spokesman for parrots said he was glad no parrots were involved.”
It’s satire in the finest British tradition, but the “Python” riff on the tribal nature of parrots is also a clear-eyed observation about human nature: if something bad happens to someone who is more like us, we are programmed to be much more concerned about it. For those of us who live comfortable lives in comfortable places, it is far easier to imagine ourselves being shot in the head in our office downtown or blown to pieces on a subway than it is for us to imagine being kidnapped by rebels in a Nigerian forest or succumbing to Ebola in the slums of Liberia.
Nor does this particular brand of parochialism suggest we care equally about all such deaths of those we consider our own. When was the last time the death of an American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan made international headlines, warranted a segment on the evening news, or trended enormously on Twitter? US soldiers killed in battle in some lonely Central Asian outpost rarely seem to warrant more than a mention in their hometown paper or, at most, a poignant but impersonal wire photo of a flag-draped coffin at a funeral, evoked in service of some larger point about some aspect of the war. If this is the blasé reaction that even our supposedly beloved and venerated soldiers get when they die in battle in pursuit of our agreed-upon, national interests, then something more than mere nativism is going on.
To understand why, we must consider the power of novelty, which even the most woefully stupid marketing or media executive is intimately acquainted with. Tragic as it is, a dramatic and bloody terrorist attack on the refined streets of Paris is more exciting, more unexpected, and even more entertaining than the steady and interminable drumbeat of children dying in the streets of Aleppo or Baghdad. The stage-managed for media death of a Western journalist at the hands of ISIS is more interesting to an American audience – perhaps only dimly aware of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq in the first place – than the brutal death of yet another Syrian cameraman.
Beyond just novelty, to truly garner attention in both the traditional media and on social media, a death or disaster usually must also have a connection to a larger societal concern, especially if it happens overseas. A resurgent ISIS, feeding anxiety over homegrown jihadists, has brought the issue of Islamic terrorism to the forefront of the American consciousness once again. Likewise, freedom of speech rights are seen as under attack by both all sides of the political spectrum: cultural critics such as David Brooks fret over campus activism and micro-aggressions, while the supporters of Edward Snowden worry about the chilling effects of NSA surveillance. We evaluate terrible events overseas through the prism of our own anxieties: are the victims like us and could this terrible thing happen here?
As a kind of calculated equation, with a final value of how much we end up caring for something, these elements: novelty, relatability, and a story’s relationship to our broader cultural milieu seem crass and cruel. Perhaps in a moral and unbiased world, we would be spending just as much time being enraged about Syria, kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, Ukraine, and the continuing Ebola crisis as we have all been this week about Charlie Hebdo. But what is the alternative to our current imperfect system of choosing what to pay attention to? Not everything can be covered equally, certainly not in an era where foreign correspondents are roughly as endangered as the white rhinoceros. How then do we decide what warrants conversation and coverage, and what doesn’t – beyond dictating just how much time the media must give to any story, which is very much the crux of the Charlie Hebdo argument?
International conflicts and problems are often terrifyingly complex. While raising awareness and drumming up compassion for the suffering can accomplish good things, awareness and compassion by themselves are not nearly enough to solve problems. Going around on Twitter demanding that people care more about some things than other things is yet another form of armchair activism: it makes us feel good and righteous, like we’re doing something, but it rarely actually accomplishes anything concrete.
The Kony 2012 campaign captured the attention of the social media world, but accomplished nothing at all with regards to ending the abuse of child slaves by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, and wasted a lot of well-intentioned money on splashy adverts and stickers in the process. What do we hope to accomplish if we get people to divert some of their attention from the dead of Charlie Hebdo, and towards the plight of Syria, or Boko Haram? Is there a concrete benefit for that starving Syrian child if a college student on Twitter whose avatar is a picture of his dog decides to give Syria’s plight a hashtag and a pithy little quote?
Complaints about why people in America seem to care more about one international tragedy than another also evince a certain ignorance of history, of just what that request means. In our media saturated and interconnected world, it is easy to forget the demand that people in America or India or Cambodia care deeply about the plight of people in Syria or France or Somalia is a profoundly new one.
The widespread and swift dissemination of international news and tragedy dates only to the mid-nineteenth century with the proliferation of international telegraph communication. Previously, news from overseas had taken months to travel from Asia to Europe and vice versa. When these far-away tragedies finally did hit the news, they were atomized, already out of date. People may have cared about starving millions far away, but it was a very abstract thing, and even the educated elite probably did not feel pressured to make public displays of feeling bad about it. On the whole, most people only worried themselves about distant tragedy when it had some kind of economic impact on them.
Technology has since made prodigious new demands on our reserves of compassion and time. The rise of instantaneous international news 24-hour cable networks, and most recently, social media, has prompted many people to develop empathy for exponentially more humans than they were ever asked to do before, at any time in human history. It has also produced the expectation that a good and educated person should be aware of all the world’s suffering, and be vocal about that awareness and empathy. We are not only bombarded with dozens of new and horrifying stories every day: there is considerable pressure to make it clear that we are aware, we care, and we’re not going to take it sitting down (whatever that may mean).
On the whole, we do a surprisingly good job of this newfound demand for both total awareness and total compassion. But, no, we do not do a perfect job. How could we? Susan D. Moeller’s “Compassion Fatigue” described the issue very well back in 1999, and her discussion of how 24-hour television news coverage of international events contributed to the public’s exhaustion of empathy seems absolutely quaint in the Twitter era. We in the international spectator class may have developed considerable new powers of empathy for people who do not resemble us, but we have yet to figure out how to develop inexhaustible stores of empathy.
Those of us who care about things like Charlie Hebdo versus Boko Haram, those of us who with time enough to read an article like this, constitute a particular and privileged segment of humanity. We who spend our free time and energy shouting at each other on Twitter about how much (or how little) we care about things should also remember that we are among the blessed of the earth for being able to get into Internet fights to begin with.
Susan Sontag, in her “Regarding the Pain of Others,” put it well: “To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment… It assumes that everyone is a spectator.”
And not everyone is, of course, and this is easy to forget if you live in a urbanized place in a wealthy city and have friends who spend their time glued to social media and to current events. Many people, even those in our wealthy Western countries, have neither the time, the energy, nor the inclination to spend their free time spectating and worrying about misery in foreign countries. Many other people lack any access to an open media and to public forums at all. If you are going to reprimand someone for not adequately caring about something in a certain part of the world, the object of your ire has got to be on Twitter or Facebook or the Internet and somewhat interested in your opinion in the first place – to forget this is to run the risk of dangerously universalizing our comfortable online echo chambers.
So if you’re angry about people on Twitter caring more about Charlie and less about Boko Haram: I understand, but stop and think about what you’re asking. The problem is bigger than merely telling people to give a damn: it is hardwired into our basic psychology. Not only that, the problem of biased compassion about one disaster or killing is a historically new one – and a problem that today, many people around the world still lack the tools to even engage with in the first place.
Someday we might solve or mitigate it. Perhaps we can find a way to direct our compassion in effective ways, and spread it around more evenly. But shouting at people on Twitter for inadequately caring about whatever story has caught your attention is unlikely to be the answer.
Protests against a Vietnamese officials statement about the historical ownership of Kampuchea Krom – what is now Southern Vietnam – continued into a third day on Monday, as members of various groups allied against the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia gathered outside the Vietnamese Embassy on Monivong Boulevard.
By my estimation, around 100 people were at the Embassy by 11:00 AM, and I was told that other activists had convened at the French Embassy and at the National Assembly – I’d appreciate it if someone could verify that for me.
Many monks had turned out to support the nationalist cause, and they had brought sundry burnable items with them. First to go was a flag, set ablaze to shouts denigrating the “Youn,” a term for the Vietnamese many feel is pejorative. (One of the monks told the Phnom Penh Post that the flag burning, while effectively symbolic, was also rather expensive).
People smiled and laughed as the flag burned, snapping photos with their mobile phones and tablets. The monks added a rather showman-like element to the burnings, posing dramatically for the cameras, and shouting their complaints about the Vietnamese and their spokesman’s statements about Kampuchea Krom into a large white microphone.
As the day wore on – punctuated with occasionally bouts of heavy rain – the monks brought out a sheaf of conical hats, meant to represent Vietnam, and proceeded to write upon then destroy them. “This blood is black blood” read the hats, which were alternately sat upon, spat on, and crushed beneath the sandaled, sticker-adorned feet of the activists present.
I chatted with a few of the activists who were present there, including 26-year-old aluminum factory worker Rakin Sok, who told me he works in South Korea and recently returned to participate in the protests. “Cambodia is not a free country – it’s Communist like Iran or China,” he said, noting that the government prioritizes benefits for foreigners (such as the Vietnamese) over those doled out to its own people.
“If we don’t have negotiations, we will burn the Embassy,” 45-year-old retiree Pearun Nuon told me, taking a harder tack that has been stated publicly before by the activists. “All Cambodian people, they don’t like Vietnamese people, you know – they’re thieves, they stole my country, they stole my land.”
There is, perhaps, some precedent here: in 2003, the Thai Embassy in Cambodia was sacked and partially burned, after a Khmer newspaper claimed that a Thai actress said Angkor Wat historically belonged to Thailand.
Nuon told me that there are “now around 4 million Vietnamese” illegally living in Cambodia, and expressed his desire that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party take power in the next national election. “I hope some future new government will send them back to their country,” he said.
Chantou, a 29-year-old local government volunteer for the Chankarmon district, claimed that the Vietnamese largely control the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and by proxy, Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Ho Chi Minh always tried to drive away the government of Vietnam, to get Cambodia to belong to Vietnam,” he said.
While he believes that the Vietnamese enjoy special privileges, he prefers that the problem be brought to the Hague, rather than violently dealt with. A new government might help accomplish that, he said, albeit with the people’s consent. “Sam Rainsy has lots of promise, but if he doesn’t follow that promise, the people will protest, and Mr Sam Rainsy will stop his powers.”
Eighteen-year-old Em Chhuna told me he’d come to demand an apology from Vietnamese officials, claiming that the government is “under the slavery of the Vietnamese.”
“Last year I read a book by William Shawcross,” he said. “Even my King, Hun Sen, and others, they vote for Vietnam. Everything is prepared by Vietnam. I absolutely want Vietnam to leave Cambodia.”
Chhuna lamented that his neighborhood along the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh was being taken over by the Vietnamese, but said he would be willing to accept a small number of Vietnamese immigrants if they arrived legally.
What does he think of these protest tactics? “It could become a violent demonstration,” he told me.
Thailand Has Ousted Its Prime Minister – Here’s Why You Should Care
It’s over: Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has finally been ousted by a Thai court after a contentious and occasionally bloody political standoff that has dragged on since last summer. In office since the summer of 2011, Shinawatra rode the Thai political tiger for as long as she could — but was eventually brought down by allegations that she transferred a bureaucrat illegally for her own political ends.
Yingluck is now the latest political casualty in the ongoing battle between “red shirt” supporters of the Pheu Thai party and her exiled brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the “yellow shirts,” who largely are composed of Bangkok residents and wealthier, urban Thais.
Already removed from power, her troubles don’t end there: she was indicted by Thailand’s anti-graft body over a rice subsidy scheme, and may be impeached by the Senate if found guilty.