I had a realization while traveling to Courtenay yesterday (driving being good for unbroken periods of reflection which almost no other activity invites) that since the beginning of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I have studiously avoided looking at any photographs of the wreckage. It’s not that they aren’t available, posted in my Facebook feed, screaming from my news aggregation on Google. In front of me many times a day as my screen would have it. But every time a link to them appears, I tell myself I already know the story without having to envelop myself on the gory details and move on to something less unpleasant in my queue. Really, do I need to see the dying birds, the choking seals and ruined beaches? It’s not as though I can’t conjure these exact images from every other oil disaster in my lifetime.
This isn’t only my approach to the oil spill but to many things these days. Reading The End of Major Combat Operations by Nick McDonnell (published as one half of McSweeney’s #34 last month), I acknowledge that for the last several years I have avoided the photographic evidence, the documentary movies, even in-depth journalism about Iraq and what our governments have done there since 2003. It’s not that I don’t care, but beyond the basic contours of an unjust war, I’m not sure I can handle the atrocities as they have mounted against the computer screens of our faraway perspective. Outsiders peering in to the suffering of the other. It seems more obscene than informative at a certain point, and beyond that, allowing it inside somehow freezes me against action.
Back in 2001 when the planes hit the twin towers in New York City, I had cable television in my apartment, which was on almost non-stop for those first three weeks of looping reports. CNN, Newsworld, BBC. I didn’t really care which station was on, as long as I felt connected to the information as it came in. Not about who or why, but about what the US was going to do next. Were they going to start rounding up domestic activists? Were they going to bomb the crap out of one or more countries? I was obsessed. And as the weeks wore on scanning the Internet at work, watching the TV at home, I became increasingly frightened and depressed. There were other things going on in my activist life that I’m sure didn’t help, but what I identified after several weeks of non-stop coverage was that the television news was making me psychically and psychologically ill. And so I turned it off. Stopped reading Internet wire stories. Started attending anti-war protests as the US and Canadian governments talked strategies for annihilation. Futile maybe but at least I was outside in the street with thousands of other people who had similarly broken through the sickness to come together in support of human and ecological life.
In 2003, when the war in Iraq restarted for real, I got a call from the cable company wanting to upgrade my television package and instead of doing what they agent expected me to do I said, “Oh great, I’ve been hoping you’d call. I’d like to cancel my television service.” To which he asked me why I would want to do such a thing. “Because,” I said, “the media just feeds the sickness of war, and by allowing this bullshit broadcast into my home I am tacitly supporting the war in Iraq being started right now.” To which the agent was just speechless, because what the hell was he going to say to that smart-assedness anyway? Really, it just came down to the fact that I knew I would sink back into my news junkie ways with another war starting (I had already watched the first bombs hit Bagdhad narrated by a choked up Peter Mansbridge), and that I just wasn’t up for another round of television-fuelled ennui.
There’s something about the visual that both enrages and pacifies, so as the the images burn themselves into me, disturbing the edges of my psyche – they simultaneously create a freeze – a hopelessness that squelches action. To look at the BP-spill images is to invite into my heart some of the worst abuse on our planet, without giving me any tools with which to resist the devastation. So why look at all?
But I sometimes feel that cop-out, shouldn’t we at the very least bear witness to our human darkness as an act of atonement? Self-flagellated the side of humanity fostering avarice, predation, blood-thirst and vengeance?
If only to do so didn’t drive me further from my vital connectivity, the tissue which binds me to others and gives me a reason to write and take photographs and be a union steward and march in the streets and make love to my partner. It’s not that I want to be ignorant, and I don’t think I am. But I do want to live free of every horror brought live via the Internet, and I don’t need to broadcast it into the home I attempt to build with love and social prosperity.