Madonna’s #secretprojectrevolution and #ArtForFreedom

When I found out that Madonna’s long-trailed ‘secret project’ was going to tackle ‘human rights’ I was, it must be said, apprehensive. Having finally watched it tonight, I sadly think I was right to be. Here I’ll focus on its broad message, though the accusations of hypocrisy re:  Madonna endorsing products and partnering with an organisation part-owned by Rupert Murdoch while decrying branding and corporations are hard to combat.

Everything I write about Madonna comes from a place of love. Amongst friends (and enemies) I have a reputation as a Madonna nut, someone who is incapable of objectivity towards her and loves everything she does. I plead guilty to the former charge: objectivity is for chemistry, not pop music. I’ve written here countless times about how important Madonna has been and remains to me. I’ve also expressed my admiration for her outspokenness and willingness to involve herself in issues which most other pop stars shy away from. This remains the case. Even though I think #secretprojectrevolution is enormously flawed, I’d rather she was doing something like this than another perfume or gym launch; particularly as she must surely know that she’ll be torn to shreds for it and has little to gain. In the accompanying interview you are given the sense of someone who continues to try and seek some ‘truth’ and publicly work through the issues she cares about. So yes, to re-iterate, this comes from a place of love.

The film itself looks fabulous, continuing the aesthetic of the MDNA tour and producing some of the most arresting visuals of Madonna’s career. As a political statement it’s almost certainly too opaque to have any effect on the non-converted but as the launch for a new website/campaign called ‘Art For Freedom’, it piques interest. It also feels like a serious work worthy of our attention, albeit one which will be dismissed out-of-hand by many because of Madonna’s infamy.

I wrote earlier in the year about Madonna’s speech to GLAAD and how it found her firmly ensconced as an ‘archetypal American liberal’. Rather incongruously this saw me labelled as a ‘Madonna hater’ for possibly the first time in my life – some really do seem to think that being a fan means loving everything an artist does. The one message from #secretprojectrevolution’s somewhat rambling voice-over which jumps out to me, however, is the ‘revolution of thinking for yourself, of having your own opinion…of inquiring further’. That message reminded of a graphic I saw earlier today on the Progressive Development Forum

For all her talk of a ‘revolution of love’ it seems to me that Madonna actually wants people to be more politically conscious and more capable of critical analysis. This is by itself a great message but it’s one which means accepting/realising that these issues are more important than any pop star. This ‘revolution’ cannot possibly mean fawning over Madonna for ‘saying something’ and swallowing everything she says; if we buy into this message, we have to parse her words.

Indeed, there are times when her words demand to be challenged. Consider the following:

I keep telling everyone that I want to start a revolution, but no one is taking me seriously. If I had black skin and an afro, would you take me seriously? If I was an Arab waving a hand grenade, would you take me seriously? If I was wearing combat gear and I had an AK-47 strapped to my back, would you take me seriously? Instead, I’m a woman. I’m blonde. I have tits and ass and an insatiable desire to be noticed.

Now, if Madonna wants to say that she’s taken less seriously as an artist because of her gender, her use of sexuality and her notoriety, that’s fine…but that’s enormously different from what she actually says. Her words invoke the black civil rights movement, the struggle to ‘free’ Palestine and armed struggle in general: none of these things are Madonna’s to claim. She is an enormously privileged, wealthy, famous American and it’s flat-out offensive to draw parallels between her being booed at some shows or torn apart by some critics and the systematic oppression of an entire race or an entire people. People don’t dismiss Madonna speaking of ‘revolution’ because she’s a woman but rather because a) her class makes it difficult to take her use of the word seriously and, following on from that, b) she strips the word of most of its meaning.

We see the latter in her repeated assertion that ‘the enemy’ lies ‘within’ ourselves. Sure, we all have issues we have to deal with and a lot of hatred in the world surely does stem from personal problems. We do not, however, exist in a vacuum. Our beliefs and ideologies don’t just appear within us like hairs upon our head; they come from our engagement with the world. Politics, the media, popular culture and more all shape us and people with agendas manipulate all of these to try and encourage us to think certain things. Failing to understand this makes demands to ‘do something’ little more than self-help speak encouraging us all to ‘be nicer’. Instead any artistic statement for ‘freedom’ must surely be a didactic one, encouraging people to think about the structures of society and the operation of power – it must be something which actually enables people to identify targets rather than leading them to believe that the world’s problems all arise because some folk are just dickheads.

Madonna’s failure to grasp this is evident in the interview where she keeps speaking about touring the world, seeing problems everywhere and feeling like everything was ‘collapsing’. She talks about it as if some black cloud just descended one day, complaining about people’s ‘consciousness not evolving’ and even seeming to blame the internet at one point. Aside from one throwaway comment in the film (drawn from her L’Olympia speech) she doesn’t draw links between the world’s unrest and the massive economic crisis which it is still going through. She certainly doesn’t draw any links between unrest and global capitalism (or neoliberalism).

The shallowness of her analysis is sharply illuminated when she gets onto geopolitical specifics. As she did at GLAAD and has done elsewhere, she points the finger at a series of acceptable ‘bad guys’. What is happening in Iran ‘breaks her heart’ but she insisted on starting her tour in Israel even when she thought the latter might be about to bomb the former. There is no hint of a notion that Israel could be at fault in that situation and certainly no consideration of Israel’s own diabolical human rights record when it comes to Palestine. She again speaks of Russia and Pussy Riot, complaining about Putin’s censorship and record on gay rights; nothing about Obama’s unprecedented persecution of whistle-blowers or the fact that America’s own gay rights record leaves much to be desired in many states. She again mentions Malala Yousafzai, a shooting which rightfully horrified her; nothing about the many shootings of children which have taken place in America even in the past year, let alone the drone killings of children (and others) led by the US. She again speaks of Le Pen in France, labelling her a ‘fascist’ and expressing bewilderment that France should ever be unwelcoming of ‘difference’; she has nothing to say about Obama’s record deportations or the fact that, under the guise of the ‘war on terror’, America has ramped up its own persecution of Muslims both at home and around the world.

It’s when Madonna explicitly speaks about America that her facileness simply becomes unavoidable. Her big problem with the Americans she encountered on tour? That they take ‘freedom’ for granted and many weren’t going to vote (and weren’t going to vote for Obama). She thinks you become complacent when ‘you can have whatever you want’, something which must be news for the millions of Americans living in poverty in one of the world’s most unequal countries. More unequal, even, than many of the South American countries which are, she says, riddled with ‘corruption and poverty’ (once again, an easy target). At one point the interviewer is clearly inviting Madonna to articulate some disappointment with Obama, asking her why so many were disillusioned by his first time. Her response is just embarrassing: he was left a bad situation by Bush (which didn’t stop him appointing some of the people responsible for that situation to his administration) and people didn’t trust him on the economy. Then, astoundingly, she says that she doesn’t want a ‘warmonger’ for President. For a second I took this to mean Obama, especially given her recent admirable stand on Syria. In the context of her continued defence of the current President and a comment about saving money for everybody, however, it would seem that she’s continuing her blinkered argument and criticising Romney.

I would never argue that people should ignore abuses and injustice around the world. I do however think that any starting point for this should be that old saying about throwing the first stone – we have a duty to speak out about the abuses and injustices in our own societies first and foremost. Avoiding this while proclaiming a desire to ‘give these (foreign) people a voice’ as Madonna does is at best misguided orientalism and at worse a path to brutal imperialism. This is why the critical thinking and political consciousness – the ability to think for oneself – is the best message which anyone could take from #secretprojectrevolution. Simply lifting its agenda whole-heartedly is missing the point. It remains to be seen how the Art For Freedom project develops but in its conception as a social media platform devoted to ‘freedom’ it’s certainly potentially exciting (the current ‘daily feature’ depicts a Palestinian man escaping from the Gaza Strip “about a mile from the northern Israeli border fence and under the watchful eye of an Israeli destroyer vessel in Beit Lahia”, already filling in a big gap in Madonna’s words). Madonna speaks of wishing to inspire others to thought and action; as a fundamental this is impossible to argue with, even if Madonna’s own thought and action here leave a lot to be desired (personally). At the very least, I’ve seen people discussing some of these issues on internet forums throughout the day. You wouldn’t get that from Celine Dion now, would you?

Drone

I have to say that the drone strikes and the targeted killing program have made my passion and mission in support of America almost impossible in Yemen. In some areas of Yemen, the anger against America that results from the strikes makes it dangerous for me to even acknowledge having visited America, much less testify how much my life changed thanks to the State Department scholarships. It’s sometimes too dangerous to even admit that I have American friends. Late last year, I was with an American colleague from an international media outlet on a tour of Abyan. Suddenly, locals started to become paranoid. They were moving erratically and frantically pointing toward the sky. Based on their past experiences with drone strikes, they told us that the thing hovering above us – out of sight and making a strange humming noise – was an American drone. My heart sank. I was helpless. It was the first time that I had earnestly feared for my life, or for an American friend’s life in Yemen. I was standing there at the mercy of a drone. I also couldn’t help but think that the operator of this drone just might be my American friend with whom I had the warmest and deepest friendship in America. My mind was racing and my heart was torn. I was torn between the great country that I know and love and the drone above my head that could not differentiate between me and some AQAP militant. It was one of the most divisive and difficult feelings I have ever encountered. That feeling, multiplied by the highest number mathematicians have, gripped me when my village was droned just days ago. It is the worst feeling I have ever had. I was devastated for days because I knew that the bombing in my village by the United States would empower militants. Even worse, I know it  will make people like Al-Radmi look like a hero, while I look like someone who has betrayed his country by supporting America.


Testimony from Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee: Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on April 23rd 2013. The subject was the ‘Drone Wars’ and al-Muslimi spoke about how the drones were radicalising many in Yemen; as he put it, “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.” His words are an important counterpoint to what we are and will read in the media regarding what’s happening in Yemen right now. Drone strikes are only against “alleged al-Qaida members”. The Guardian reports that AQAP is the regular target of drone strikes”. You will read little about how it’s been reported by prominent officials that all military-aged males are automatically classed as combatants (a claim which sparked such outrage that the administration has since back-tracked without ever properly addressing it) or that attacks are often made on the basis of circumstantial evidence with little real knowledge about who is being targeted. You won’t read much about the children killed by drone strikes or about the American citizens assassinated by drones.

No, instead you will read reams about Al-Qaida in Yemen and the atrocities they commit.

Madonna at GLAAD

No one would doubt Madonna’s commitment to gay rights but more importantly, few would doubt that she’s an archetypal American liberal. This is underlined in this speech to GLAAD, the American body which is widely seen (outwith American liberal circles, anyway) as the hobby horse of privileged white men. The American version of Stonewall, if you will, and as such hugely averse to radicalism and any meaningful discussion of inequality and the use of power. Madonna’s speech pushes all the right buttons in this regard: the American enemies of the great and the good gathered in the room are religious bigots who fixate on sexuality; some truth to this, of course, but neatly feeding the sense of victimisation which many of these people thrive on while obscuring wider and more complex inequalities.

If Madonna had restricted her comments to the Boy Scouts and religious bigotry in America, however, there would have been little wrong with this speech. Where it becomes worthy of criticism is when she moves onto the wider world with some banal but damaging observations on inequality and oppression. Israeli apartheid becomes a question of two mothers sitting down to speak to each other, the pervasive and pernicious fiction that the conflict is one of two equal ‘sides’ rather than one of oppressor and oppressed. Worse, there is a throwaway reference to “an Iranian gay man being hanged for falling in love with a man.” This is a favoured trope of liberals, even in situations where there is absolutely no evidence to support it, and it is unforgivable as it serves to increase the drumbeat for ‘intervention’ in Iran while completely ignoring America’s own complicity in and hypocrisy regarding the Iranian regime (and indeed support of regimes seen to be even more oppressive).

The reference to Malala Yousafzai and the Taliban at first seems straightforwardly ‘good’ – who could have an issue with this, after all? Yet it undeniably further serves American fantasies of promoting equality and justice in the world against dangerous, dark, barbaric enemies. It’s easy to be horrified when the Taliban attempt to kill a child – it’s braver to use your platform to draw attention to your own government murdering hundreds (at least) of children with its drone strikes and sanctions.

Indeed, the sense that you should hold your own government to account before deigning to wag your finger at others looms large in one inexcusable omission from Madonna’s speech. She speaks of Putin and Pussy Riot – again, a worthy cause but one which flatters Western notions of superiority. It is ‘insane’, she says, that Pussy Riot have been locked up ‘because they criticised the government’. Further, she notes that she doesn’t ‘know many brave people’ and draws attention to the line in ‘Nobody Knows Me’ which observes that “it’s so hard to find someone to admire”. You have to wonder, then, if Madonna (and indeed GLAAD) is aware of Chelsea Manning, a truly brave American who has spent over 1000 days in prison and faced torture precisely because she wanted to draw attention to her government’s horrendous abuses of its power. I’ve written before about the silence of ‘Gay Inc’ on Manning and it is truly inexcusable for this room to loudly whoop and applaud their sense of righteousness over Pussy Riot while they continue to turn a blind eye to their own government’s persecution of someone who courageously spoke up. It’s possible to go further still, as Glenn Greenwald does here in a piece on Anwar Awlaki, an American citizen who was subject to extrajudicial assassination (ie murder) by the CIA. Greenwald argues that:

What prompted my opposition from the start to the attempted killing of Awlaki was that it was very clear he was being targeted because of his anti-American sermons that were resonating among English-speaking Muslim youth (sermons which, whatever you think of them, are protected by the First Amendment), and not because he was a Terrorist operative. In other words, the US government was trying to murder one of its own citizens as punishment for his political and religious views that were critical of the government’s policies, and not because of any actual crimes or warfare. (my emphasis)

You may have to read that a few times to fully take in its shocking message – one which completely demolishes liberal fantasies of a superior, secular America which can afford to cast its eye over the abuses of other governments and find them wanting.

Predictably, Madonna’s speech is proving popular with many; it’s being described as ‘courting controversy’ and ‘brave’. Yet what was difficult or shocking about it? It flattered the egos of everyone present, assuring them that they were on the side of ‘right’ and ‘good’ while still facing oppression from wicked religious people. The man the speech honoured is a mainstream journalist who waited until he was firmly embedded at the top of his profession before choosing to come out and there seems to be little that is truly ‘brave’ about his overwhelmingly conventional views. What would have been truly brave, truly shocking, truly controversial, would be if Madonna had challenged the smug complacency of GLAAD and, indeed, of the wider American liberalism and exceptionalism which she so perfectly embodies.

EDIT – A response to this blog I’ve had several times now is for people to state that the differences between Pussy Riot and Manning are obvious; that the former case is clear-cut and indefensible while the second is ‘controversial’ and ‘disputed’. The first point to be made here is that within Russia, the Pussy Riot case isn’t remotely clear-cut. It is in fact as ‘controversial’ and ‘disputed’ as these people present the Manning case as being. A cursory Google of Russian public opinion on the case will reveal this. Following on from that, the second point is that the reasons these cases are so disputed in their countries of origin are worth focusing on in themselves. As this piece puts it:

There are some U.S. citizens who see Manning as a hero (I am one of them), and some who see her as a traitor. Manning’s target population was and still is all of the rest. Yet the sad truth is most of this remainder doesn’t care much about Manning’s fate and will, in the end, accept the government’s verdict on her. This is how I reasoned out the situation back in 2010, and I think my conclusion is still sound.  On the assumption that most people are locally focused and apolitical I conclude that this vast majority are unconcerned about the Manning case because it seems not to touch their lives. And, on the assumption that the government and its allied mass media control the information flow, I conclude that most of the minority who are aware and concerned share the official view that Manning is a traitor. (my emphasis)

Indeed, the fact that the one line repeatedly wheeled out to me is that Manning ‘put American lives at risk’ would tend to confirm the notion that people are blindly parroting what the authorities have told them.

The third and most crucial point is that support for freedom of expression, for freedom of conscience, for opposition to government and for bravery in opposing and exposing its abuses means nothing if it must be uncontroversial and widely accepted. This is precisely why I write above that Madonna’s speech served the dominant narratives of power – it is both fed by and feeds ideas and causes which are acceptable to the American liberal ‘elite’. The idea that raising the cause of Manning would have been too ‘controversial’ is to argue that no-one should ever make a meaningful stand for justice. There is never a ‘time and a place’ for that – that’s kind of the point in calling such actions ‘brave’.