Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Seeing Dead People

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Unlike the Anglo media in the United States where every corpse has a shroud over it, French TV shows violence more or less uncensored. When people are killing each other in Iraq or Chad or the Sudan, or New Orleans, for that matter, we know what it looks like.

Limbs aren't strewn artistically, but are mangled and awkward. The dead look like sacks of garbage on the curb leaking a particularly disgusting liquid. Nobody falls in slow motion. And a gun going off can make a small unimpressive sound and still get the job done. Pop. Show's over for you, doll.

There have been plenty of bodies lately, what with bombs in Baghdad markets and machete wielding mobs all over Sub-Saharan Africa. And the Caribbean, too, at times. One by one lives are emptied out in violence, and the shells are piled up there for the dogs.

It gets you thinking, why a country might choose or not to show violence and the result of it. I suppose the censors in the U.S. would say that showing death is obscene and deadening, though you could also argue "out of sight, out of mind" is more disrespectful for those sacrificed on all sides in inconvenient, unpopular wars.

As for why they put the dead on TV here, maybe there's some French pride in their unflinching gaze, maybe, a desire for accuracy, though French media isn't exactly known for its investigative reporting. All I know is they show them, and I have to watch, though I do flinch. The least we can do with what's out in the world is keep our eyes open even if we have to wedge open the lids artificially like in Clockwork Orange.

It would be better, of course, to do something. Anything. Maybe lie down on the pavement in front of one of those tour busses candidates ride on with all the journalists hanging on their words, and at least cause a very slight bump someone can remark on.

Failing that, we must respect knowledge itself. Bear witness. Let the vision of evil change us. Try to understand, or reject understanding. Simmer. Hope one day to explode.

It means something to have watched Benazir Bhutto gunned down in her car in Pakistan and feel something crumble in myself. A long-time leader of the opposition, Bhutto knew what was waiting for her, and went out anyway, time after time, standing up in her car to show her face to the crowds until the Taliban killed her. What else can a secularist and democratic woman expect in the Islamist world?

Likewise, it means something to read every word of the articles describing how once again in Jamaica fundamentalist mobs slaughtered another gay man, and injured a couple more.

What a species! Ayaan Hirsi Ali was in Paris this week to ask for French citizenship and all its protections. Despite the fatwa against her, the Dutch government has decided not to protect the ex-Parliamentarian (and queer rights supporter) when she travels outside the country. You can hear them grumbling. "Too expensive. Too much trouble. And though she's not a bad writer in a non-fiction sort of way she's no Rushdie when it comes down to it."

Still, she was out there refusing to stay in her Dutch closet. She gave interviews, insisting on freedom, free speech, civil liberties even for Muslim women, describing the train wreck of a flailing multicultural society in which abuses are tolerated in the name of tolerance and the danger she's in is all her fault.

"Even if I shut up now and never said another word, it's too late. These people never forget," she explained for the thousandth time. And I thought of Audre Lorde's "A Litany for Survival," a poem I reread every so often as a kind of meditation on fear which concludes that if we're afraid whether we speak or not, "it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive."

And Hirsi Ali isn't. As a black woman, ex-Muslim, atheist, and enemy of an Islam she sees as fascist, odds are she'll end up a sack of garbage on the sidewalk like her collaborator, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. It's a peculiar and moving thing watching a dead woman demand that democracy live up to its promises.

It's just as peculiar, maybe, to sense the great silences like knives at the center of election year demagoguery and blather, in the midst of so much optimism and blindfolded hope to watch shadows gathering. I wonder sometimes as a writer if I make it worse, if one day I might be of greater service by instead of publishing another editorial analyzing the sorry state of our country I instead offer a blank page, empty and ominous, for everything we refuse to see.

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