There is an excellent post on Tiger Beatdown about Lynn Hirschberg’s recent article on M.I.A. in the New York Times, which was condescending, offensive, and misogynistic even before we learned the truff about the interview. As Sady Doyle points out attacking M.I.A. in this way is in large part a refusal to deal with her politics:
You can’t attack M.I.A. head-on. You can’t say that it’s a problem that she is being heard. But what you can do is attack her reasons for making herself heard; you can take her to task for being selfish, for being ambitious, for not being pure or authentic or poor or unknown or selfless enough: Call her a thrill-seeking opportunist, a ruthless mercenary, out to make her fame and fortune. I should be clear: I don’t think that Hirschberg was somehow doing this on purpose, trying to silence M.I.A. or shut her down because she consciously perceived her as a political threat. I just think it was inevitable that our cultural discomfort with someone like M.I.A. would eventually surface, in a piece that looked very much like Hirschberg’s. She was the one to write it — and to get her phone number Tweeted, which: BOOOO, bad pool Maya — but it had been a long time coming. It was inevitable. And that’s what makes me sad.
Because no-one, in the wake of this piece, is talking about the Tamils. No-one’s talking about Sri Lanka. No-one’s talking about M.I.A.’s most provocative belief, the one that’s really threatening: The idea that violent oppression can and should be met with violent resistance, which is a complicated and scary proposition, one that people have been evaluating and fighting over for a long-ass time, one that we’re nowhere near figuring out as yet. No-one is talking about that; no-one, to be blunt, really cares. What we’re talking about, instead, is a plate of fucking fries.
OK, then, so let’s talk about meeting violent oppression with violent resistance!
When M.I.A.’s video “Born Free” first came out, some people were talking about M.I.A.’s politics and whether they’re worthwhile, and at a slightly more sympathetic level than Hirschberg who condescendingly wrote, “As a meditation on prejudice and senseless persecution, the video is, at best, politically naïve.” The “Born Free” video depicts an murderous raid on red-headed people committed by soldiers with U.S. insignia on their uniforms. It’s very graphic and violent, but in terms of political naivete, the violence itself shouldn’t be what’s at issue. As Voyou Desoeuvre perceptively points out, the video in fact seems to trivialize genocide and racist violence: it’s not “too shocking,” but “not shocking enough.” In having a murderous raid resembling an ethnic cleansing fall on redheads, an apparently trivial, “silly” category, it seems like M.I.A. is making the point that racism and genocide and ethnic cleansing are all based on silly categories. Voyou says:
This is wrong: racism is indeed unfounded and constructed and arbitrary, but it is not silly. The mistake here lies in thinking that, because racism is based on a social construction rather than a biological reality, it is therefore unreal, a mere error or fiction with only a mental existence in the psyche of racists. But in fact there is little more real than social constructions, because they create, and exist through, a material reality of practices and distributions of people and things. By eliding this materiality, and suggesting that an alternative racial reality could be produced simply by an arbitrary switch of what signifiers are racialized, the MIA video flatters its liberal audience, reinforcing the belief that racism a matter of ignorance or error that can be avoided by the sufficiently enlightened.
Something else that really bothered me when I first saw the video was the apparently deep disconnect between the lyrics and the action. In the presence of genocidal violence M.I.A. sings, “I don’t want to live for tomorrow, I push my life today!” And: “I don’t want to talk about money, ’cause I got it!” Combined with the shot of the man blissfully smoking up as his neighbors are carted away, it seems like the song and video valorize individualistic refusals of the violence of imperialism. All these are linked: a kind of methodological individualism is behind the move that Voyou describes of dehistoricizing racism by turning it into ginger genocide, and the move that ads without products describes of turning the state violence of the guards into “individual or aggregated sadism,” again divorced from history and our understanding of group action by methodological individualism. The most striking moment of individualism gone wrong is when the triumphal “Woo!” that opens the track becomes the horrifyingly banal yell of the soldier driving the truck.
If we are meant to consider the lyrics and the video together, then the video seems to be suggesting that the most powerful thing that a person can do in the face of violent orders such as racism and imperialism is to celebrate her freedom. But if we’re taking M.I.A. and her politics seriously–a politics of meeting violent oppression with violent resistance–then how can we understand “Born Free”? I think we can understand it as a strong deconstructive response to this kind of individualism. An uncomplicated “I was born free!” is an obviously hollow response to the violence portrayed in the video. The juxtaposition of genocidal violence with the punk individualism of the lyrics and music to “Born Free” really should just lead us to consider the lyrics more carefully–
Yeah man made powers
Stood like a tower higher and higher hello
And the higher you go you feel lower, oh
You could try to find ways to be happier
You might end up somewhere in Ethiopia
You can think big with your idea
You ain’t never gonna find utopia
Take a bite out of life make it snappier yeah
Ordinary gon super trippyer
So I check shit cause I’m lippyer
And split a check like Slovakia
Yeah I don’t wanna live for tomorrow
I push my life today
I throw this in your face when I see you
I got something to say
I throw this shit in your face when I see you
Cause I got something to say
Individualism is subtly attacked in these lyrics. “Think big with your idea,” and “find ways to be happier,” two capitalist-individualist slogans to be sure, won’t lead you to “utopia”–and neither will shouting “I was born free.” What to make of the comparison of splitting a check at a meal to the fall of Communism in Europe? Perhaps this: when an individual “splits a check,” she’s spending money; but organized political forces can also “split a check”–i.e., a Czech–more monumentally. And similarly, though “I was born free” is a weak and problematic individualism if it’s depoliticized and means “I am free to do what I want right now,” (i.e., “I push my life today”), the same phrase as the starting point of political revolution can be very powerful, i.e., when it concludes, “…and everywhere I am in chains.”
It seems like an obvious first response to the video that the mere individualist shout “I was born free!” in the face of genocide wouldn’t be likely to help. The individualism that we think we hear in the lyrics to “Born Free” is the manifest political theory of the video “Born Free,” and the one that Voyou and others are rightly attacking. But in associating the supposedly punk rock individualistic “Woo!” with the violence of a soldier perpetrating the genocide, M.I.A. is leading us to deconstruct that individualism. It’s important to remember that in the world of “Born Free,” whose theory of state violence seems marred by ahistoric individualism, we also see, albeit briefly, organized armed resistance that is eminently historical.
In giving the resistance movement in “Born Free” the rocks and keffiyehs of the Palestinian resistance, we shouldn’t take M.I.A. to be “naïvely” comparing Palestinian resistance to resistance against genocide (though ethnic cleansing was certainly committed against Palestinians, this video would not be a very intelligent or interesting analysis of Palestine–nor does it attempt that). Rather the historical particular of the keffiyeh is a reality effect, reminding us that violence and resistance to it is not imaginary but exists and occurs in our historical moment. You can respond to violence by asserting your freedom and individualism, M.I.A. is saying, or you can support armed resistance. Whatever you think of this political statement, like most of M.I.A.’s political statements it is an argument that must be reckoned with and, I think, a very skillful deconstruction of individualism both in music and politics.