A Wave of Mindless Mimicry?

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

A highly connected world spreads information as fast as lightning mainly from liberal democratic countries to every other country and their citizens. How news is understood and interpreted is a complex issue which the quick delivery system of press and online media does not address. If they did, it would give more data to help create a balanced view of events which hit headlines. Media outlets are on constant look-out for fresh news, so a pedagogical approach for deeper analysis to enlighten readers and viewers is not on their agenda. Now if their job is mainly to attract viewers with eye-catching titles and pictures, and create sensation and a lot of noise, you might as well take the flow of information with a pinch of salt. Forget about impartiality and fairness. Keep away from the sheep mindset in emotional chain reaction to sensitive issues.

Statues have been pulled down in Minnesota, Virginia and Florida. The statue of Christopher Columbus in Minnesota, a gift donated by Italian-Americans in 1931, was pulled from its granite base by Native Americans objecting to honouring someone whose expeditions led to colonization and genocide. Photo – video.cgtn.com

The general outcry triggered by recent events which are presented as the ugly face of racial prejudices in the world’s oldest democracy has led to a grotesque polemic on statues of historical figures in a few countries. Minority groups feel emboldened to bring down statues without any warning to the authorities. Which groups are justified to rise against past figures or not in their respective countries is also a sensitive issue.

Pulling down of statues

The statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader in Royal African Company who is honoured for his contribution to the prosperity of the town and his philanthropic works in the 18th century, was toppled in Bristol, England, by citizens of African descent because it is considered as a standing insult to Black people. The toppling of the historical figure was a disturbing act to other sections of public opinion, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed his regrets at the act of vandalism. There was a mild claim to mete out the same treatment to the statue of Winston Churchill.

If claims aired from various groups are not to be given the green card for a destructive spree, British authorities will have to speak out fearlessly without sweeteners of political correctness on the meaning of a country, its people, history, and cultural foundations and development. Whose prerogative is it to decide which historical figures represent the country’s past and should be honoured? Should groups hailing from migrant stocks accept the host country with its own vision of history or not? The free-spiritedness which characterizes British people and the uncompromising guiding principles in the running of the country’s affairs are likely to have the final say on the topic.

Countries should be self-confident enough not to succumb to obliterating symbols of their history, Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand opines. Cheering spectators looked on while the bronze statue of Captain John Charles Hamilton, a naval commander who fought against Maoris in the 19th century, was brought down by anti-racist groups following requests from Maoris. The statue is considered culturally offensive to indigenous Maoris. The PM Jacinda Arden considers making the study of New Zealand wars compulsory in schools. The deputy PM deplores the wave of idiocy which makes people feel the need to mimic mindless action imported from overseas.

The ‘wave of idiocy’ rolled back to the epicentre of the outrage in the US. Statues have been pulled down in Minnesota, Virginia and Florida. The statue of Christopher Columbus in Minnesota, a gift donated by Italian-Americans in 1931, was pulled from its granite base by Native Americans objecting to honouring someone whose expeditions led to colonization and genocide of their ancestors. A key military figure of the Confederates, who opposed the abolition of slavery in the civil war of 1860-1865, was vandalized to the dismay of President Trump. In the US, as in Britain and New Zealand, due importance is given to statues as key figures who represent landmarks to present and future generations in the study of history.

Ambivalent views

Such events might bring grist to the mill of far right-wing movements and spark a backlash which no governments wish to handle right now. A gathering of Black Lives Matter was cancelled in Hyde Park. France forbade demonstration of African associations in front of the American embassy. Other minority groups jump on the bandwagon of protests to air victimhood discourses, express wish for toppling French statues and claim entry to illegal migrants. For once, all of this is brushed aside by the government. There are ambivalent views on slavers and colonial military figures who are reassessed worldwide. One narrative has to predominate as regards the self-definition of a country by its people bound by history, language and cultural ethics, and on the other hand, the relation to the host country of people of migrant stock.

While some groups are angry with statues in response to general outcry sparked by police brutality in Minneapolis, others in Africa do not join the chorus of protesters. Media presentation of black and white picture and a binary vision of aggressors and victims fail to take on in the African continent. An African journalist explains that policemen and prison guards are pitiless with their own people; arbitrary arrests and killings are commonplace, and attempts to address wrongdoings and demand justice are an arduous task as compared  to advanced democratic western countries.

As of today, thousands of Africans have migrated to the US where they can seize opportunities to carve out a living for themselves. They have equal access to law like other migrants to settle any grievance within the framework of democracy. The US has been home to countless numbers of refugees from several countries, fleeing persecution and seeking a better life for the past two centuries.

‘We can’t breathe’ could have come out of the mouths of thousands of children who died from chemical weapons in Syria. But atrocities committed on people by their own kind does not suit the self-flagellation mode of western editorialists who favour a sectarian approach in presenting world events, run down their Establishment, cajole minorities and focus on race relations in its black and white version. Political leaders in the west are expected to queue up and issue a public apology to all and sundry. This posturing may embolden various groups to run wild and tear down the very fabric of democracy in host countries. The very Christian inclination to apologize and repent has to draw the line somewhere.

Giving the whole picture

Police brutality is rampant in loads of countries, but it is much more mediatised in democratic societies. Several cases of policemen assaulting unarmed black men to death occurred during President Obama’s term of office, but they did not trigger an outcry. The presidency was spared of any criticism. A white president fits better into the picture of the oppressor and the oppressed. President Trump commented on how delinquency may end up in some cases. A stance which does not condone brutality and homicide.

The middle-aged African-American already served a five-year sentence for drug dealing, and was recently tailed for circulating fake dollars. It all happens in a crime-ridden area of Minneapolis. In the wake of the outrage from various corners, the Adama Traore case was brought in the limelight in France and a mass demonstration of 20,000 people gathered in the centre of Paris. The conditions in which the 24-year old breathed his last are totally different from the recent case in the US. There was no pinning down for 8 minutes on the ground. After being handcuffed he managed to escape and was caught in an apartment of a North African friend who gave him away. He was held down only to be handcuffed again. He was breathless and exhausted from the running, and said to have had a respiratory issue because of drug addiction.

The police were tracking down his brother Bagui for extortion of money and drug peddling when they ran into him. Adama also spent some years in jail for drugs and was accused of rape on a cell inmate. In the hot city of Val d’Oise several rival gangs of African and North African origin settle scores with one another. The Traore clan is well-known for violent reprisals against other gangs.

Mainstream media dish out flash information, stirring revolt and anger in people prone to mix up things indiscriminately. While the history of Africans is a long tragedy, the UN should give the whole picture starting with the slavery and castration of millions of men during the African slave trade in the Arab-Muslim world. Journalists in some countries and small islands tend to seize the opportunity to present the image of Whites as the only oppressors. Western countries still attract millions of people for their democratic institutions. Grotesque self-flagellation of western media and endless repentance of leaders will have to make way to a rational and frank discourse.

* Published in print edition on 26 June 2020

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