HOW REAL IS REAL?

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 28 November 2008

by Jake Lynch

Can you imagine being caught up in the attack on the Indian city of Mumbai? If so, how? What images do you summon to your mind’s eye, and where do they come from? Such an ordeal is, thankfully for most of us, far removed from personal or social experience. It is, to use a vogue word of academic jargon, ‘incommensurable’ within the frames of reference provided by everyday life.

So we draw upon our mediated experience for help in picturing the situation, perhaps the lurid mises en scenes of 24, in which Kiefer Sutherland leads an anti-terrorism unit based in Los Angeles, or the original Die Hard movie, with hostages cowering in fear of an evil Alan Rickman, while New York cop Bruce Willis works solo to contrive their eventual release.

For Indian audiences, A Wednesday, which sees Naseeruddin Shah call up a retiring commissioner of police played by Anupam Kher to tell him that he has planted bombs in five places around Mumbai, provides a vivid sense of panic and havoc on the streets. Cinema-goers had already had the unsettling experience of seeing the scenario portrayed in the action thriller, Contract, released in July, played out almost to the letter a week later with the bombings in Ahmedabad, where low-intensity strikes were a prelude to attacks on the hospitals that received the injured.

The Mumbai carnage has, in other words, entered the postmodern condition, and it is to the ‘hyper-reality’ – another academic favourite – of celluloid that we turn, in order to make sense of it. The codes and structures of signification supplied by Hollywood and Bollywood supplement those provided by news and political discourses in enabling us to make meaning out of something so extreme and shocking.

Which are more real? Journalism, after all, supposedly tells us what happened – who, what, where, when, why and how. But journalists, too, are decoding fragments of information with reference to readymade meaning structures, which they internalise as conventions, or news values, and one of them is the primacy of official sources in their own country (see text in About Peace Journalism here on TMS). Police allow access and release operational details, and politicians make statements, all shaping the facts as they reach the outside world according to their own interests, and those interests may lead them to blot out important slices of reality and behave as though they never existed.

One is the motivation of the gunmen. Why did they strike, why now, why at Mumbai and why at these particular targets? The Indian government is one of many over recent years to reach for the explanation that their country has become the victim of ill-intentioned outsiders, just as the Moroccan authorities blamed the strikes on Casablanca, in 2003, on “international terrorism” and Tony Blair, in the UK, attributed the London bombings of 2005 to the malign influence of “terror networks” based – and this is where some of the loose ends begin to tie up – in faraway Pakistan.

In both of those earlier instances, there was a clear motivation to float alternative explanations to the obvious one – that their own policies were partly to blame. The grinding poverty of Morocco’s slums and villages could have been designed as a recruiting ground for those with desperate political messages, especially when contrasts could be pointed out with the opulence of the expat lifestyle which – as in Mumbai – appeared to be the focus of the attacks. And could the detonations on the Underground by young British Islamists have had anything to do with Mr Blair’s own decision to join the US-led invasion of two Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan?

The latter suggestion was one that Blair slapped down by collapsing the distinction between explaining and excusing the atrocity – so any attempt to raise the question, ‘why’, would automatically be seen as suspect. Such acts are officially characterised, the novelist Gore Vidal says, as examples of ‘motiveless malignity’. But this is where the news parts company with the real. Blair’s bromides came after a national newspaper poll showed the vast majority of Britons saw the bombings as ‘blowback’ from his foreign policy.

In the Mumbai case, the author and commentator Tariq Ali has scorned the ‘malignant outsider’ theory as “a meditated edifice of official India’s political imagination”, pointing out some of the myriad home-grown grievances that could plausibly form the background to the mayhem. Kashmir provides perhaps the text-book example of where political energy was stymied, and subsequently found expression in violent resistance. Yousuf Shah, denied victory in the rigged election of 1987, later emerged as Syed Salahuddin, the head of the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Chief of the United Jehadi Council. Indian dominion over its part of the territory is based on state of emergency rules, which allow arbitrary arrest and detention. As Ali points out, the human rights violations bear comparison with those in Tibet, but have raised, by comparison, scarcely a peep of protest in western capitals.

It has been noted, in some accounts, that the targets in Mumbai were those associated with the US and UK, with attackers picking off American and British citizens in luxury hotels. Since July, a stealthy invasion of Pakistan has been underway, with US forces in Afghanistan now operating under an executive order from President Bush to cross the border at will. The trademark airstrikes from Predator drones and helicopter gunships inevitably inflict civilian casualties, so, if the gunmen did come from Pakistan, or were somehow connected with the situation there, these might very well be revenge attacks (with the British, as number one ally, ‘guilty’ of providing political cover for attacks on the Taliban as well as military back-up).

Then the Taj Mahal hotel could offer a meaningful target in itself, owned, as it is, by the Tata group, which has been attempting to switch production of its new car, the Nano, from West Bengal to Gujarat. The state government there has been accused of breaking its own rules to accommodate the project – the same state government, albeit under different leadership, which connived in the horrific sectarian violence against Muslims as recently as 2002. On the ground, the complaint is a familiar one – building the Tata factory will displace poor farmers, widening the divide between haves and have-nots. In Tariq Ali’s words: “The absurd notion that the trickle-down effects of global capitalism would solve most problems can now be seen for what it always was: a fig leaf to conceal new modes of exploitation”. And that, in a nutshell, is the cause driving the Maoist Naxalite rebellion, described, by India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as the most serious security threat facing the country today.

How do I know, that any of these injustices motivated the strikes on Mumbai? I don’t, of course, and in any case, complex social behaviours are never mono-causal. I am aware that the very iteration of ‘justice issues’ in connection with the events of recent days constitutes an entry into the ‘codebook’ we use to interpret such perturbations; that speculation, on the part of the actors, about the interpretation people are likely to make of their actions, is always part of the calculus behind them and that therefore the reality and the representation of it are inextricably entwined.

Are we, then, adrift, cut loose from ‘the facts’ and at liberty, as a cinematic auteur, to create our own reality, with our imagination the only limit? If so, what would be the point of journalism, a report of the facts? There are a few pointers of enduring value. One is what Johan Galtung calls the “general hypothesis” that attitudes and behaviour in conflict are, in essence, responses to underlying contradictions, and that any account of a conflict that omits these – as so many do, in news and politics – is therefore misleading. Another is the notion of human needs. We all need air to breathe and food to eat, but also the opportunity to experience our identity and to have it respected by others. Kashmir, to name but one, is a place where that need has been systematically denied, and – needs being non-negotiable – it stands to reason that people will seek to satisfy them by whatever means necessary. Then, the motivation to aggression is sharpened by relative deprivation – when inequalities widen, societies become more violent. All insights backed by extensive social research.

The food that poor farmers can no longer grow for themselves, when displaced by development projects, and the roads made impassable by US air strikes, belong to what is called the ‘intransitive dimension’ – things people experience regardless of how they interpret them. But to make meaning out of them is inescapably to take a position on why they have occurred, what the consequences are likely to be and – if we don’t like them – how to avert any repetition. The theologian, NT Wright, whom I once interviewed in his guise as the Right Reverend Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, is one who has championed the useful concept of ‘critical realism’, as a way of squaring this circle:

“A way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’)”.

We need to find a more appropriate dialogue for the mediation and representation of the realities now confronting us. It must lift issues of justice up the agenda from where they presently languish, at the margins of mainstream political discourse, obsessed as it seems to be with economic growth, while ignoring widening disparities of income and wealth. To do so would be to connect with a common-sense appreciation, on the part of global publics, that we all have human needs, and that, where there’s trouble, it’s usually because they are being arbitrarily denied. As things stand, we’re often more likely to find that in the cinema than while watching the news.

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