Man on Fire, Sign of the End-Times
How Scorched Earth Politics Inflames Extreme Protest
How Scorched Earth Politics Inflames Extreme Protest
“Every moment is a memory that has shaped our life in one way or another.
The beauty of these moments is there is something to learn. What if these moments were presented in the form of a story? Even better, as Art. My name is Arnav.” — Arnamania.com
The World Ablaze, the News Strays
Arnav Gupta. Remember his name. One year ago today, on May 29th, 2019, this Maryland citizen self-immolated and marched on to the White House lawn, shocking onlookers in a surreal suicide that unfortunately one has to see to believe. He died the following day in hospital. He did not leave behind a message other than the haunting act itself, but his biographical depth and the political relevance of his act was ignored by mainstream media. Fact is stranger than fiction, as this true story is a reality check to shake people out of complacent fantasy.
The USA t-shirt, walking tall, the head hung slightly, seemingly stoic even, the ominous location, while his flesh is engulfed in flames. There is something perversely theatrical and revolutionary to it, but only if people even pay attention. Like an ancient tree toppling in the amazon, does anyone hear it? I do not wish to invent a false narrative about this mysterious man, nor do I want to condemn or lionize him for his actions. I certainly do not want to trouble his family. But I do want to honour his life and death, share his story, understand the nature of his actions, help carry his burden, and spread awareness about the relevance of self-immolation and how it relates to the meta-crisis. He deserves the best possible treatment historically.
Whatever Gupta’s intentions and the ripple effects were (or were not), I can speak for the impact it made on me, not least through the stark archetypal symbolism and what the act of self-immolation generally represents and embodies, but through my specific remembrance of it and attitude towards such events. I dive in to the weltschmerz (world-pain) everyday, I see the contradictions of capital pit us against each other and the meta-crisis unfolding, while I listen to the human story beneath the news, but this was a particularly different feeling. That this event made almost no impact at all in the news cycle is just as memorable. Pundits tend to write about the same thing at once, and this didn’t make the cut, as several concerned Redditors lamented:
I know what its like to be invisible and ignored, really. I’m feeling it right now, and the urge to light myself on fire out of sheer desperation and anger at the world has occurred to me. I’d be forgotten as quickly as Arnav Gupta though. This very article will probably be passed over, as my efforts usually are. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to difficult truths or people in pain, and even some of the smartest people I know are guilty of this subtle crime against humanity, prioritizing all sorts of mental gymnastics and personal pet projects over engaging in a truly collective and transformative project. But I gaze into the abyss, and I write this, because it has to be done, and I know nobody else will. This is my eulogy for a friend I never knew.
If I wasn’t already radicalized a hundred times over, events like Gupta’s death would certainly put me over the edge. But there is no edge anymore, I am in free fall. It is my hope that this feeling spreads. Gupta’s final performance had the terrifying shock value of 9/11, but localized in a single distressed person standing ablaze at the epicenter of Empire. He literally walked into the middle of “The Ellipse” and stood there, figuratively burning it to the ground, until first responders extinguished him.
It was very ominous, a sign of our times, a microcosm of the world-pain. Yet in Trump’s America, a brown man on fire wearing a USA t-shirt on the White House lawn barely registered in the news cycle, let alone entered the public discourse. It was noted by a handful of outlets, but no deeper story or cultural reflection followed in the days that passed thereafter. At best we can say that such an event is just too complex for commentators, let alone the national psyche, to process. This is one of those inexplicable events that connects everything, which is what I’m attempting to communicate here. I remember seeing the video on Twitter the day of, and disbelieving what I was seeing.
The video captures everything all within a hot minute: the immolated victim, the stunned impromptu camera man, the blazing sirens, charging police wielding extinguishers, the panicked scene that overtook the park. Jesus fucking Christ, it’s a horror show. The day after, the NY Times had a small write-up — Man Who Set Himself on Fire Near the White House Dies From Injuries (May 30, 2019) — but really no story or details were given, and for the most part this day is the last we hear about it. Many other news outlets that reported it did so in a similar minimalist fashion, like a press release. Though Mr. Gupta himself offered no clear explanation for his self-sacrificial event other than a final tweet attributed to him, the contours of his story and work leave some bread crumbs of clues.
I gleaned some insight about the basic background from this short article on Heavy.com, Arnav Gupta: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know, which I abridge below:
- He was reported Missing by concerned family on May 29, 2019
- He was a Boston University alumni, International Relations
- He was an education consultant and coach
- He was an artist, poet, and Green Party member
- He died at age 33 through self-immolation, to which a phone wielding public bore witness locally and virtually.
These facts humanize Gupta and help us understand who he was or might have been. None of points 1–4 suggest that he was deranged or violent, but rather it seems to indicate that he was intelligent and compassionate, fulfilled even. Number 5 is the one thing that people know, if they know anything about this event at all, as most reporting sources gave no details. But he was loved by his family, he was educated, he applied that education to teaching, and he was creative and progressive. This could almost be describing me, except it is not. He also had a documented history of mental health problems, which I can also relate to (as a function of injustice in the world) and have solidarity with solving in the broad sense. But we have little concrete information about what Gupta was struggling with, whether on a personal level or otherwise. We have no suicide note or political manifesto. What would drive a many to such apparent insanity? I will tell you.
There is however a 15 page long poem written by Gupta that satisfies some of that curiosity into his artistry and politics. It appears to be an incredible artefact of who he was, and what he thought and felt. It is a mysterious document, full of sharp geopolitical critique, vivid metaphor, and strong hip hop vibes. Titled Memoirs of a Shadow President (listed on Genius. See also on Scribd), it seems to be a reflection on the Trump era, including a reference to Cambridge Analytica, but from a somewhat transient critical POV. Coincidentally, an expose on Mike Pence is titled The Shadow President. It is all open for interpretation, and I am no authority on poetry, but I certainly can resonate with it’s artistic merit and political significance. Below I list the first four phrases with some of my interpolations:
Whilst you remain
An asylum for the criminally insane
Mark Twain’s Yankee brain rolling all over this polarized terrain.
It’s clear and succinct, rhyming effortlessly, seeming to open with an address to the country itself, a direct comment on the absurdity of the premise of America and its mental health crisis. Mark Twain is invoked, a notable satirist who drew stark contrast across America’s polarization under slavery and after, and how that perhaps leads directly to today in the next words…
Finger on the pulse
Vegas was repulsed
Culture wars leaving the populace tremulous
A reference to mass shootings, in particular the Pulse nightclub in Florida by Omar Mateen, and the Las Vegas shooting, by Stephen Paddock. The issue of guns is always a bloody battlefield in the US, and this expresses acute collective remorse over these events. These cases were both framed largely in terms of identity crisis and the breakdown of authority, which leads into the next lines…
Battlelines are drawn
The Order of the Golden Dawn
Tribal elders looking forlorn
A grim invocation of the occult and our failure to reconcile conflicts. Perhaps lamenting the slide into fascism such a sinister memetic election represents. Perhaps also an allusion to the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi party in Greece. These types of things are thus far the legacy of the Trump administration.
We must protect this house
Not quiver like some Obama mouse
Louis C.K. jerking off on a fallen Angel’s blouse
This seems like a desire to protect the apparent sanctity of the White House, a stand in for the country, acknowledging how Obama’s legacy and diplomatic skills did nothing to stop Trump becoming his successor. We must do better. Gupta then seems to scorn popular culture and the hypocrisy of powerful men in the #MeToo era, taking a shot at disgraced comedian Louis C.K.
The poem continues to unfold along these diverse lines, lamenting the erosion of Obama, noting the Iran deal loss amidst the general clash of civilizations and hyper-capitalist pearl clutching. The next line invokes the ‘art of the New Deal’, or lack thereof, a double-entendre also referring to Trump’s (bad) deal-making. Each line compresses some vivid insight or imagery. Suffice it to say there is a lot more to the poem than I can do justice, much of it requires decoding, but here are some more highlights:
We are all but players
The truth obfuscated under multiple layers
Hollywood elites relying on surveillance capitalism to peddle their
Weinstein’s Jabba the hut blob
DNC chairs did a Bernie nomination rob
America not yet ready for a Democratic Socialist heartthrob
Sisyphus pushing his boulder
Icarus’ wings begin to smolder
The myth of the Golden Donkey
Prometheus turns into a Charlottesville honkey
Divide and Rule
The first lesson in Empires School
A mass media tool
It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS
Powerful words, that tragically will never be heard or understood by many people. Having enjoyed this type of conscious poetry/ lyrics for a long time, and also having written some myself, I feel a sorrowful kinship with Gupta that goes deep. I just wish he and his family could know that at least his sacrifice was not lost on me and a handful of other people out there.
A reddit post provided a little more diverse detail, links, and comments, taking us further down the rabbit hole. One particular comment clued me into some of Gupta’s visual art on his website. I had to use to Wayback Machine to even access the site, which was scrubbed within weeks, may he rest in peace.
About Me: “Born in New Delhi, Raised in the DC area, educated in the school of hard-knocks; Arnav now lives in the Bay Area. After a fulfilling career in the intersection of Education, News-Media, Artificial Intelligence, and Global Politics, the artist now enjoys working on less weightier subjects such as nature-scapes, wildlife, and portraiture. He aspires to one day write fantasy literature in the mold of his favorites: C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkein, and Roald Dahl.” — Arnamania.com
“HARAMBE OR BLACK PANTHER: THE WORLD IS AS YOU SEE IT”
The caption reads: “While I was volunteering as an Anti-Racism activist in a home-school cooperative in Washington, DC the 2016 Presidential Elections were underway. It was a very tense time that involved drivers trying to run me off the road as I home returned from work. Marines on motorcycles dangling nooses from their handlebars as they overtook me on the beltway. You must have heard about the Gorilla that was shot in the Zoo when a child fell into the enclosure. Well this was a political message being sent to me. Politicizing my art gave “Art Appreciation” a meaning that I could never have imagined. Below you can see some of my students with their class mascot, a black panther. “Harambe or Black Panther: The world is as you see it.” Being a pioneer Artificial Intelligence guinea pig was highly amusing at times, confusing at times, and scary as well. When your data is weaponized with military efficiency, the results can be amusing and at times highly destructive. Information security is the battle-ground that we now operate on. Many of you must have heard about Huawei’s recent troubles gaining the trust of western countries. In a world where one spymaster is constantly trying to outwit rivals, he who controls the data controls the world. Being caught up in between the rivalry of MNC’s that wield the full power of nation-states was truly something that I could never have imagined.” — Arnamania.com
“MEMOIRS OF A SHADOW PRESIDENT”, same as the title of his poem
The caption reads: “Heavy lies the head that wears the crown.” “Be careful what you wish for.” The stories we learn as children define the outcomes that we manifest in life. The myths of our combined past define our communal existence, but it is our free will that allows us to interpret our history and to chart a new and more prosperous future. Those who can not consciously and honestly understand and accept our own self-imposed pain will be forced to relive our traumas throughout the ages. Overcoming the shadows of our bestial nature is a task that every man can aspire to yet few have the courage to. It is a task worthy of our inner King.” — Arnamania.com
His website (now deleted) had an unrelated post on the day of his final act (May 29, 2019) simply titled “the complete beginner’s guide to oil painting art on canvas”, nothing to do with the dramatic event that would unfold in DC. He just wanted to teach the world how to art. After being neutralized in the park, Gupta was taken to the hospital but did not survive. The news of his life and death was over in 24 hours.
One thoughtful but brief treatment of Gupta’s case came from Petula Dvorak, writing for the Washington Post: Self-immolation can be a form of protest. Or a cry for help. Are we listening? (May 30, 2019).
“Whatever Arnav Gupta was trying to tell us when he set himself on fire Wednesday near the White House while wearing a USA T-shirt, America needs to listen. Self-immolation is a shocking, final act, the primal scream of a person who is feeling completely unheard. And it has long been the ultimate act of political protest.” — Dvorak
Dvorak’s article is short overall, and gives much of its space to other cases of self-immolation, which seem more common than one would expect. It happens for all sorts of reasons; protesting corruption, poor healthcare, racism, climate change, war in general, etc… It is almost too horrific to really understand. Given what a prominent phenomenon self-immolation takes historically, we should not be naive, pessimistic, or disinterested on such occasions. While Gupta’s case is not as clear cut as others, sometimes these acts are very explicit, such as the case with David Buckel (please remember his name too). As the Guardian reported, David Buckel, prominent New York LGBT lawyer, dies after setting himself on fire (April 15th, 2018);
A prominent gay rights lawyer and environmental advocate has burned himself to death in New York on Saturday, reportedly using fossil fuel in a protest against ecological destruction. — Guardian, 2018
I remember this day just like I remember the day Arnav Gupta self-immolated. Buckel’s death was slightly bigger news and more resonant, since he was already a well known lifelong activist, and left a profound and direct message with his suicide. Nevertheless, the depth of the meta-crisis he was expressing did not reach the public discourse. I recall hearing tidbits come from various outlets. I mourned the loss of this man, and I scorned the loss of his clear message in the noise of culture wars. (What does it take to stop people in their tracks, a pandemic? Apparently. And even that is not enough). There is something additionally haunting that we have such clear video and pictures of Gupta’s self-immolation and none of Buckel’s, to my knowledge.
Just as I publish this a year after Gupta, a year after Buckel’s self-immolation, J. Oliver Conroy wrote on it: A lawyer set himself on fire to protest climate change. Did anyone care? (The Guardian, April 15th, 2019). Indeed, this is the question, as with Gupta, and with all of them, and everything. Does anyone care? Who cares enough? What does caring look like? Conroy brings us back to the scene of Buckel’s death to prime our emotions:
“Early on the morning of 14 April 2018, Buckel — a 60-year-old retired gay rights attorney — left his cozy, garden-surrounded Brooklyn house and walked to nearby Prospect Park. He made his way to a stretch of grass, where he emailed media outlets a statement decrying humanity’s passivity in the face of pollution and global warming.
A few minutes later, he doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire.
“Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result,” his statement said. “[M]y early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
With characteristic care, he also left a short note at the scene for emergency personnel. “I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide,” he wrote. “I apologize to you for the mess.” — A lawyer set himself on fire to protest climate change. Did anyone care? (The Guardian, April 15th, 2019)
The tragic profundity of Buckel’s life and legacy speaks for itself, to those who can listen, but we have to remember and echo these messages. Conroy’s thorough essay recounts other historically notable cases of self-immolation, such as Thich Quang Duc (pictured below), Jan Palach, and Mohamed Bouazizi, taking us into the relevant history and discourse. The article goes through Buckel’s prominent career as a lawyer and environmentalist, winning many landmark cases. Conroy notes how far Buckel’s cultural impact reached, such as the case portrayed in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), for which Hillary Swank won an Academy award, and yet as we regress it seems to make no difference.
Amidst all this, Conroy is lamenting the failure of the world to still really listen to Buckel’s story and to care when he died, how he died, and most importantly, why he died. Buckel died for our continued collective negligence and sins against the Earth. Buckel lived for the world, to fight for it, while most people do nothing but take from it. He died of desperation, forsaken by the world he tried to save. Conroy decries the story getting swallowed by a 24-hr news cycle obsessed with the Mueller probe and Syria strikes, at the time.
“The mass action Buckel had hoped for did not come. There was no Prague spring or Tunisian revolution for the planet. Writing in the New York Times less than a week later, the novelist Nathan Englander asked why Buckel’s death received so little attention compared with the “AR-15-level attention that we give the very worst among us”, mass killers.” — A lawyer set himself on fire to protest climate change. Did anyone care? (The Guardian, April 15th, 2019)
Towards the end of his article Conroy pivots to things like Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, and UN reports to make the case for immediate action on global transformation. Coincidently, the anniversary of Buckel’s death lined up with XR’s global wave of disobedience that week (April, 2019). Such synchronicities should be cherished, honoured, and converted into more mass action, Conroy suggests. It was only six weeks after that Arnav Gupta would set himself on fire on the White House lawn, and be ignored.
These stories of extreme self-sacrifice and political activism almost never really end once you start looking into it, as several think pieces of the last decade seem to suggest. A Brief History of Self-Immolation (Time, 2011). A Terrible Act of Reason: When Did Self-Immolation Become the Paramount Form of Protest? (New Yorker, 2012). Flames Of Protest: The History Of Self-Immolation (NPR, 2013). See also a List of political self-immolations (wiki). We need to create a world where self-immolation is unthinkable, rather than an end point of a long chain of evil causation. But why does changing the world seem so futile that so many humans are driven to the brink? We need to listen to the cry of the Earth, especially through those voices that bare the burden the most, like Arnav Gupta.
Epilogue: Bonfire of the Humanities
The title ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ borrowed by novelist Tom Wolfe refers to a 1495-97 event in which Italians burned art, books, and other personal objects deemed tempting or immoral. This was an anti-Renaissance expression of a festival and symbolized the purging of sin and vanity, and it was a horrible, senseless loss. Ironically, the guy who started the practice was eventually judged, crucified, and burned to death. Releasing our vanities without destroying anything seems like a better idea.
Today, it seems such vanities are not burned nor discarded (except maybe at Burning Man), but gilded and fetishized in consumerism and status-quo politics. There is also figurative book burning in the act of demonizing scholars and whole fields of practice, expressing a new wave of anti-intellectualism (a la Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, 1964). I call this the bonfire of the humanities; the destruction of reason through the culture wars, in the name of reason itself, no less.
Dave Rubin’s awful memoir/ ‘book’, aptly titled “Don’t Burn This Book” (foreword by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, no less) captures the supreme irony of purporting knowledge production while actually destroying it for a living. Moreover, Rubin very likely burned the book himself just for the photo op, as if to be the contrived punchline of an endless unfunny conservative joke. Rest assured, none of his Intellectual Dark Web friends give a shit about any of these serious matters either, which is not hard to fact check; just try to engage any of them on social justice, or process my critiques of them (1, 2).
By May 30, 2019, this mocking collage had been posted on /pol/.
In other (far-)right-wing flame wars, this horrendously offensive collage from 4chan combined Arnav Gupta on fire with various symbols or caricatures of leftist and liberal culture. By juxtaposing images of resistance on the scene of the death of a Syrian refugee child, perhaps the image attempts to show how we’re all supposedly hypocrites under the brutal horrors of capitalism. There is Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the foreground taking a selfie. Is that Conan O’Brien wading in the water with a coconut?
Then there is more grave and inexplicable superhybridity. Colin Kapernick takes a knee to protest police brutality and racial injustice, but with his cleat on the dead child’s back. The man seated in the chair with sunglasses is actually a dead teenager, tragically slain while walking his dog, the photo taken from his funeral in which his body was staged to be playing video games and eating junk food, his favourite pastimes. It is not entirely clear what the message of all this is supposed to be, but it is a sad detraction from the spirit of protest, and represents a foreclosure and appropriation of meaning; the eclipse of reason.
As Dvorak asked, ‘are we listening?’ As Conroy asked, ‘did anyone care?’ Often I wonder what I have to do to be heard, what extremes must I go to, or not? Or what I have to do to even amplify others voices effectively? How can we come together and save people Arnav Gupta and the countless others he and David Buckel die for? I think I know the answer, and you aren’t going to like it; you need to feel the revolution within you. The least you could do towards these ends is actually care, not just say you do. This issue is connected to every other issue. Do not let it be mystified by those who would ignore them. Listen to the dead speak, so they did not die in vain, to be forgotten. And let the living do good in the world, so that they do not burn out for your sinful negligence.
Arnav Gupta was an anti-racist educator who had suffered racist attacks himself, and America sorely needs to be schooled in these hard lessons. The current eruptions in Minneapolis over the murder of George Lloyd by racist cop Derek Chauvin are taking the form of citizen uprisings and militarized cops being deployed in response. It is a perfect storm of American white supremacy, white moderate complacency and ignorance, mass media distortion, and dysfunctional neofascist governance coming to the fore. The timing is another temporal coincidence, another synchronicity, not to be missed. The world must converge, come together, to enable a peaceful revolution.
The refusal to arrest and charge Chauvin (who beyond the shadow of a doubt murdered George Lloyd) has led to the local police precincts being destroyed, which also reflect the institutional rot that plagues the country as a whole. Many more disturbing details are emerging about the story as it unfolds, and as anyone who cares about these issues knows, it is only one exposed instance of a widespread systemic problem. While the city of Minneapolis burns, remember that one year ago to this day Arnav Gupta, a metamodern artist and martyr, was consumed by the fire within for these exact kinds of reasons, and virtually no one noticed or cared; or worse, they will say that they care and then invest their attention and energies in all sorts of contrarian places. That kind of hypocrisy and negligence is what reproduces the meta-crisis.
The Abs-Tract Organization (TATO) is a boutique research and media think tank, centered around the broad concept of “abstraction” and metamodern theory.
If you appreciate the work we do, please support us on Patreon for $1.