The Selective Nature of Performative Politics

It’s now common for online activists to quickly – or, as some of my Facebook friends do, two weeks after the fact without checking an article’s publication date – call attention to atrocities in non-Western countries that mainstream media deem unworthy of attention. Although this style of activism pushes back against the media’s racist obsession with Western victims of terrorism, too often these activists stumble over violence carried out by their own government or fail to recognize their own government’s complicity in the very atrocities they are calling attention to. For some, it’s simply a form of performative politics to prove to everyone that They Care™ about black and brown people.

Most recently this activism has centered on the killing of 14 civilians by AQIM gunmen in the Ivory Coast (which this Washington Post journalist reported on as if he were writing a tragic novel in his sophomore year of college during his free time), an ISIS suicide attack on a soccer stadium in Baghdad that killed 25 people, and the Taliban bombing in Lahore whose death toll surpassed 70. In November 2015, while the establishment media had a context-free field day – several field days, rather – with the Paris attacks, it was ISIS’s other attacks in Beirut and Baghdad that forced online activists to do the work of journalists.

Though these activists deserve credit for bringing attention to the racist nature of corporate media, it’s quite rare to see them condemn the U.S.’s role in Saudi Arabia’s brutal year-long war on Yemen, the nearly unconditional American support of the apartheid government of Israel, or U.S. complicity in the creation of ISIS. Similar to how establishment journalists in the U.S. reflexively exonerate their government, this type of activism is a form of selective, borderline nationalist outrage that fails to criticize the actions of one’s own government. It’s easy to condemn a terrorist group for killing innocent civilians and the media for blatantly ignoring violence against nonwhite people, but it’s a whole other thing to criticize your own team.

One could argue that the very reason these activists fail to point out the wrongdoing of their government is the deferential nature of mainstream media, and thus they deserve some slack. But if they are clearly savvy enough to notice what our malleable media isn’t covering well, shouldn’t they also be able to see how it acts as the government’s PR wing, uncritically filing reports that are essentially the same as press releases from governmental agencies?

But perhaps this is my own form of performative politics: criticizing other people for not seeing what I’m seeing, for not getting angry at what I’m angry at, and positioning myself at the ultimate arbiter of noncontradiction; and if so, I’ll willingly accept that critique.

What inspired this particular post was the lack of outrage at a new report by Human Rights Watch which found, after comprehensive on-site investigations, that U.S.-made bombs were used in one of the deadliest airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in the year-long war on Yemen. The March 15 “double-tap” bombing of a market in the town of Mastaba killed at least 119 people, including 25 children. The report so far has only gotten the attention of the usual lefty journos: Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Ben Norton published write-ups at The Intercept and Salon respectively. Vice, whose Yemen coverage has been fantastic lately, did the same. But this latest news of continued U.S.-sponsored war crimes in Yemen has not yet been signal boosted by the activists who love to point out when the media ignores victims of terrorism in places like Pakistan and the Ivory Coast. Who knows, maybe I’ll see HRW’s report being shared by all my Facebook friends two weeks from now. In this case, much better late than never.

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