The last week has been what you would call the opposite of a slow news week. It started off last Friday when a delusional terrorist (is there any other kind?) decided to take the lives of 68 innocent people in Oslo. The following day Amy Winehouse was found dead in her apartment at the age of 27. Then, during the week, a beloved Lebanese landmark was supposedly threatened with destruction, and a Lebanese singer was briefly thrown in jail for a song he recorded three years ago.
What do these events have in common? Not much on the face of it. I guess, in a way, they show various aspects of the tragedy of the human condition. Heavy stuff. But on a far simpler level, all these events took over my Facebook news feed over the last few days, and quite rightly so. Where LOLcats, Justin Bieber jokes and wedding photos once reigned supreme, people were now discussing terrorism and addiction.
However, I have some observations I’d like to share. I can almost hear your sigh of exasperation seeping through the screen, but bear with me.
Let’s take the first two events. The day the bombing and subsequent mass-shooting took place in Oslo, I could hardly believe what I was reading. I had to reread the story a few times before it sunk in. This was human atrocity at its basest level. I sent out rather pointless messages to my Norwegian friends, which were more of a sign of shared humanity than anything else. But at this point my news feed remained rather barren. Then, the next day, Amy Winehouse passed away. And suddenly my mini feed was packed full of condolences and heartfelt agony. And this got me rather angry.
A day after no one had reacted to one of the worst terrorist attacks in years, everyone suddenly seemed to be bereft over a celebrity who had been on a path to self-destruction for years. So I posted a status to that effect, wishing for some perspective on the scope of human tragedy. And the comments started pouring in. People angry that I was comparing tragedies that weren’t comparable.
They might not have been comparable as tragedies, but they were comparable on Facebook as entities of concern. I obviously can’t quantify human suffering, but I can quantify responses to it. And the disproportionate amount of people who cared more about Winehouse than about Norway felt rather grotesque.
It seemed to completely exemplify our obsession with celebrity over the past decade. Most of the comments were along the lines of “Amy touched me with her music, and I knew more about her, so it affected me more”. Well I’m sorry, but the day you identify more with a multi-millionaire drug addict than with innocent teenage bystanders, there’s something wrong with the world.
After about 60 comments on that status, I thought I was done arguing on Facebook for the week. Then came the news, through Lebanese NGO Save Beirut Heritage, that the beloved Egg in the Downtown area was to be demolished in a matter of days. When I read that, I was sceptical for two reasons.
First of all, I attended a writing workshop last week sponsored by Solidere, and got to meet with their head of Urban Development. I asked him all the questions I thought would make me sound concerned and lefty in front of the group. “Why aren’t there any green spaces?”, “Why have you made the city centre a soulless, semi-public place designed for the elites and guarded by an army of private security firms?” and “What is going to happen to landmarks like the Egg?”. I was assured that the Egg, whose real name is the City Centre, would stay where it was and that it would become part of a new structure. My second reason for being dubious, was the last big Save Beirut Heritage campaign that I remember, about Ahwet el Ezezz. We were told that this beloved Gemmayze hangout would be turned into a Bank Audi. This brought together a lot of outraged people at the time, but at the end of the day its just being replaced by another café and the whole building just got a lick of paint.
The tone of voice of the update on the Save Beirut Heritage Facebook group sounded alarmist and attention grabbing. And throughout the course of the day it turned out that no imminent plans for destruction were scheduled at all. I spent the day arguing with the organizers on their page, telling them that crying wolf and attention-seeking harms their cause tremendously. I am no activist, but I don’t claim to be. If you’re positioning yourself of the saviour of our city’s Heritage, take it seriously. Don’t form infantile campaigns to “chain yourselves” to buildings two days before you think they’re going to be demolished. Create awareness campaigns throughout the year; make sure the population at large knows why these buildings are important, why collective architectural memory serves a purpose. Don’t just show up at the last minute with a load of self-righteous bourgeois bohemian indignation, and then disappear again until the next alleged wrecking ball rears its ugly head.
Which brings me to that last event that took over my Facebook feed, the arrest of musician Zeid Hamdan on charges of defamation for his song General Soleiman. The social media sphere went crazy, and rightly so. The arbitrary detention of an artist on a flimsy charge can only be a source of worry for the population at large. I don’t know the details of the case, so I won’t comment further, but I will comment on the squandering of human capital. In the hours after his arrest, Facebook pages sprung up to get him released and people changed their profile pictures in support of the cause. I thought the profile pictures depicting him as a fallen martyr were a tad overzealous, especially considering he had been released by the time most people had joined the page and put up the pictures. But the real tragedy is that these thousands of people who clamoured in that moment of need, will disappear today and tomorrow. They will forget about the threat to our liberty here at home and on idyllic islands off the coast of Oslo. That is the real tragedy.
While it is a perfectly acceptable exercise to berate each other on Facebook and flex our intellectual/rhetorical muscles, it doesn’t do much. I remember a Facebook event for a Save Beirut Heritage march having hundreds and hundreds of attendees online, but when I actually showed up there were about 50 of us. Indignation is fine. One-off indignation is pretty pointless. Misplaced indignation is useless. If we can direct and sustain our indignation, then we’ll get somewhere.
As things stand, we have a lunatic terrorist bent on ridding Europe of immigrants, we have a talented artist who died far too young and far too lost, we have a complete lack of understanding of where our heritage is going and we still lock up musicians in 2011. It’s been a busy week for Facebook, and a sad week for humanity.