Born Free in the Age of The Problem From Hell

M.I.A.’s new “Born Free” music video isn’t safe for work. Or for the squeamish. Probably shouldn’t watch it if you are eating anytime soon, or if you are in a hurry. I’d embed the 9 minute YouTube video here, but it has been dropped from the site. It is that controversial.

This is a clumsy screencap, but it is legal. And also, one of the least violent images.

The blogosphere is abuzz about this entertainment bombshell.

Most of the criticisms are aimed at the depiction of the U.S. military and the ‘needless violence.’*

Picking on redheads is nothing new for kids on an elementary school playground, or for South Park. Nevertheless, it is a shocking and blatant metaphor. The video’s director, Romain Gavras, is apparently making a feature-length film, Redheads, with similar content.

The video’s text is clearly asking Americans to imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have the beauty of being born free in the 21st century (Native American history offers a counter-example), by showing a visibly different population targeted by our own military. Or as my Arabic professor, who is Palestinian,  said: “Yes, September 11th was absolutely horrifying, but if you Americans only knew about the civil war in Lebanon, Yemen, or the war on Gaza…”

American political history shows an unexpected response to genocide. We honor the memory of the thousands of people who were systematically murdered in the Holocaust with vigils, monuments, museums, and the assertion “Never again,” but the American response in 20th century genocides, from Turkey to Darfur is, as Samantha Power describes in A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, one of “non-engagement, non-condemnation, and non-interest.”

As an international superpower, we are not doing our part to set a precedent for stopping genocide. M.I.A.’s video asks, what if there is no one left to notice if they come for us?

In the case of the Armenia genocide and very notably in the case of Darfur, religious organizations have spoken out against these atrocities and raised awareness. (There is also the counter-example of LGBT persecution in Uganda, as described elsewhere on this blog.)

NGOs, religious groups, the United States, and The United Nations need to create a new template for intervention interaction. The old one was shown to be unequivocally flawed in Turkey, Cambodia, Rwanda, Iraq, Bosnia, and Darfur; the inspiration shouldn’t be a music video, but rather humanitarian concern.


* Re: video’s depiction of US military:

I would usually stay away from personal chit-chat about myself, but it is germane to note (bias-wise) that my father is a Colonel in the National Guard and has served in Kuwait, and that I am proud of him, and have immeasureable and tremendous respect for the military. U.S. foreign policy is a different matter.


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