Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On letting Neda be Neda

Okay, so on Saturday, Neda Agha-Soltan was shot by a sniper on the edge of a demonstration in Tehran. Almost immediately, camera-phone footage of her death was on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook in an impressive display of citizen journalism in the face of the Iranian government's media restrictions. And almost immediately, a cry went up - "We're Neda! I'm Neda! We're all Neda!"

I'm not.

Doug identified the beginning of the "We Are All..." meme as the aftermath to the September 11 attacks. "We are all Americans," Europe said - because in a way, they were. They had experienced terrorism, they understood the culture in which it was happening, and it was something that could easily have happened to them. Their solidarity and understanding made our tragedy easier to face.

Since then, "We Are All..." has gone from an expression of empathy and support to an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. We show solidarity in meaningless ways with causes we can't possibly identify with. We paint our thumbs purple in support of people who dodge bullets and stand in line for hours for the privilege of voting, trying to borrow their courage and make their moment our moment. We color our Facebook profiles green in support of men and women who are risking their lives to stand against their government, just to touch their moment in history; we equate their blogs and tweets to those of "oppressed" House Republicans who had to tweet with the lights off. We live, collectively, a privileged life in relative comfort and safety, and so if we want struggle and heroism, we have to borrow theirs. And it's easy. So this time, We Are All Neda, because it's easy to be Neda when you don't have to be the one bleeding in the street.

No one even really knows why she was there. One account says she was there with a few friends to add her voice to demands for a recount. Another account says she had gone with her father just to watch the protests. Yet another says she had been on her way back from a voice lesson with her music teacher, who was with her as she died. But does it matter, in the end, whether she was a freedom fighter, willing to take a bullet for the cause of fairness and democracy, or a young woman on the way back from a voice lesson? Would that make her parents mourn her loss any less? Would the man who was with her in the end - her father? Her music teacher? - remember any less vividly holding her as she died?

It matters to us, though. We need her to be a hero. We need a face to attach to the cause - an innocent, young, Western-pretty face to give us a reason to care. Most importantly, we need a face without a history, an easily blankened slate onto which we can project our own ideals, our own reasons, our own hero fantasies. We need someone we can de-person and make her us.

That's not the same as us being her.

Posters and banners and avatars have been made of her bloody face, her face at the moment of her death with one eye glazed and staring and the other covered in her blood. The very moment of her death has been turned into political iconography, a crucifix for us to gaze on and pretend that she died for us all.

"We are indeed all Neda," one commenter writes at "What they have done to Neda, they have done to us all." Except they haven't. What they did to Neda was hide on a rooftop and put a bullet through her heart. What they've done to us is give us a perfect, pure cipher for our own purposes.

And with those purposes, a sad story becomes steeped in irony when we look back on past years and months, McCain singing cheerily, "Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran," suggestions that we bomb them back into the stone age or turn them into a parking lot and to hell with the thousands of Nedas who would die in the process. She's always kind of been nothing, a non-person, in that respect; that makes it much easier to put her on when it's expedient.

Maybe she was the hero who said, so presciently, "Don't worry. It's just one bullet and it's over." Maybe she's the woman described by her fiance as a student of philosophy, music, and tourism - "not political" - the woman who was just hot and thirsty and got out of her car. Maybe - probably - everyone who promises to keep her voice alive has no idea of what she'd actually want to say. We know for sure only what she said in the video - "I'm burning, I'm burning." Anything else is our words, not hers.

One commenter did seem to have some perspective on it: "We don’t know if this is what you wanted your death to mean," she says, "and we hope you don’t mind."

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