Be wary of what you protest about. The modern moral constabulary are out, and they are assisted by their Silicon Valley friends in the Social Media Club. Should you dare take a stand on anything, especially in a dramatic way, you will be found out and eviscerated on the altar of hypocrisy.
The latest round of huffing and strutting on moral causes came about with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As this spirit of a man was being appropriated, packaged and adjusted for protest, anger and disgust, Gore Vidal’s words on Carl Sandburg’s treatment of Abraham Lincoln proved more poignant than ever. Sandburg’s “six-volume scrapbook” turned that great defender of the Union into a “national god”. Nuance and flaw were eschewed, and Lincoln the master politician was condemned to hagiographical mistreatment at the hands of a second-rank poet and “biographer of awful badness”.
Minneapolis, a city many outside the United States would struggle to point on a map or a screen, became an ideological ground zero of rage, energised virtue and splutter. It led to a brushfire of protests in solidarity in other countries with their own accountant’s book of race problems. Floyd has ceased being the vulnerable man whose life was stolen by brutality; he has become a fixation, an obsession, the iconography of protest, a weapon to be fashioned. His own individuality has long been erased, leaving him as shell and cypher.
In the rush to camps of solidarity, leaders keen on snatching public attention to further noble causes were out and about. They forgot that the first rule in public office or celebrity status in the Twitter-Instagram Age: If you are shallow, your depths will be found out. Canada’s Justin Trudeau, the perennial whore of the photo-op, did not see the warnings in wading into the Floyd show of magical protest. He kneeled, he observed, he respected in making a surprise appearance on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. But then it came: “Go home blackface,” came the words of a heckling protester.
Last September, three photos emerged showing Trudeau, then a teacher, enjoying himself in “blackface” guise. One features him in costume during a 2001 Arabian Nights party. Despite Trudeau’s profuse apologies over what took place in a pre-social media era, he would not be spared the indignation of social media storms.
This was far from Trudeau’s only problem. Making a stand, or taking a knee against police brutality in the United States on Canadian soil was one thing; when questioned about US President Donald Trump’s response to protests in the United States, including his calls for military action, he remained speechless. Speechless, that is, for 21 seconds. “He opened his mouth, then shut it – twice. He softly groaned,” noted the correspondent for the New York Times. In politics, seconds can count as lifetimes, and those viewing it were baffled. Had US President Donald Trump gotten Trudeau’s tongue? The pause gave room for Trudeau to state the unremarkable. “We all watch in horror and consternation what’s going on in the United States.”
Trudeau is far from the only one to be scalded by Floyd’s commemorative water. No gesture, or show of solidarity, can withstand the withering and screaming assaults of social media, which only exists in the moment. When mixed with race and culture, an explosive mix is in the offing.
This point has been found out by certain Arab celebrities who have purchased tickets for the Floyd bandwagon. Algerian singer Souhila Ben Lachhab was oozing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement when she posted a picture of herself on Instagram with the following caption: “Just because we are black on the outside, doesn’t mean we are black on the inside. Racist people are the true black heart ones. They are black on the inside, though they do not know it.” Not necessarily the most coherent message (are racists the only ones who are truly black inside?), but jarring given the picture, featuring the singer’s half-darkened face.
Lebanese singer Tania Saleh also went one photo too far, altering an image of herself to include an afro hairstyle with darkened skin. “I wish I was black, today more than ever… Sending my love and full support to the people who demand equality and justice for all races anywhere in the world.”
Moroccan actress Maryam Hussein is perhaps most honest of all by her confession that history is an untidy thing best left in the past. She had also added a blacked-up photo of herself on Instagram, garnished with a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad: “There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, nor for a non-Arab over an Arab. Neither is the white superior over the black nor is the black superior over the white – except by piety. Humans come from Adam, and Adam came from the soil.” These updated sentiments did not spare her criticism, though much of it ignored the discomforting fact that Arab slavers were not too troubled by any hadith on race when it came to the economics of a thriving slave trade spanning eastern and northern Africa, central Asia and Europe.
None of this proved too troubling for the actress, who was casual in her dismissiveness. “I don’t like stories or history. I’m a person who lives in the present time. Past is Past.” Be it “influencers”, or the galvanised moths of social media seeking the flames of notoriety, the past is not merely another country, but another galaxy. After the rage of the present, then what?
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com