Thursday, May 1, 2008

"Scream for Freedom"

The above picture, entitled "Scream for Freedom," is a reproduction of a cartoon drawn by Sami al-Hajj, a cameraman for news agency al-Jazeera, while he was imprisoned in the Guantánamo prison facility.  It's a reproduction because the original cartoon drawn by al-Hajj's own hand has been banned from publication in the United States.  Al-Hajj had to describe the drawing to a Canadian artist, who was able to re-produce it from his detailed description.  Freedom of the press is a wonderful thing - remember to cherish it always.

Al-Hajj was just released from prison today, having been incarcerated at Gitmo for seven years.  He was, like all detainees in the prison, labelled an "enemy combatant," but never charged.  That's right: he was in prison for seven years and was never charged with a crime.

He was, however, encouraged to spy on al-Jazeera, and most of his questioning did not refer to his own purported "terrorist links" (he was accused of having al-Qaida training and supplying some Chechnyan rebel groups) but rather to the actions of the Qatar news network, according to al-Jazeera itself.  I hesitate to use al-Jazeera as my only source on this, and I think we should take the network's assertions with a grain of salt, considering the fact that al-Hajj is their employee.  I actually have no choice, however: BBC and CNN only give al-Jazeera's account, and FoxNews doesn't have a clue that this has happened at all (or, more likely, doesn't want us to have a clue).

I think there is plenty of information out there, from the New York times to Slavoj Zizek, about the chargeless detention of these executively labeled "enemy combatants" at Guantánamo; I don't feel there's anything for me to add.  Just be aware that this guy was a cameraman and had a legitimate work visa with a respectable international news agency; he now has gone on hunger strike and been force-fed, interrogated regularly, acquired a kidney infection and throat cancer, and has not seen his young son since he was a toddler.  He's 38.  And he was never charged with any crime.

And second, what about his drawing?  Banned in the United States?  Let me just say this: if America is so afraid of a cartoon of Guantánamo being released, then our government had damn well better clean up whatever the hell is going on in there, because this whole situation is worthy of absolutely nothing better than a fascist state.  I'm thoroughly disgusted.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Agamben, terrorism, and the power of designation

I was recently reading a quotation from the Sri Lankan singer M.I.A., who is the daughter of a Tamil revolutionary named Arul Pragasam, or "Arular." I'm almost completely unfamiliar with the ethnico-political strife in Sri Lanka, so I don't mean to pass any sort of judgment on the actions of this individual or anyone else, but I found the M.I.A. quotation to have some pertinence to the current state of the world. Here it is:
You can't separate the world into [...] good and evil. But America has
successfully tied all these pockets of independence struggles, revolutions, and
extremists into one big notion of terrorism. (Wikipedia)

I think that's a fairly astute commentary on the global, indeed catholic, nature of the "War on Terrorism" (better yet: "War on Terror" - the precursor to the "War on Nightmares"?) which has been "declared" in the usual unconstitutional manner of the past half-century: by executive fiat. It seems that executive fiat is also sufficient to designate almost anyone in the world a terrorist, even if the entity in question is a democratically elected government (I thought terrorists were de rigeur stateless).

The problems here are manifold, but not perhaps the exact problems you would imagine. I doubt if the U.S. Government has called very many genuinely good, harmless people "terrorists." Nor am I afraid that will happen soon. What it does, however, is create a monolith out of a whole lot of different kinds of people, and the temptation to do so is easily explained. Just watch any film or musical set in a high school: individuals are difficult to deal with as long as they remain such, but relatively easy once they become "jocks," "cheerleaders," or "terrorists." We're fighting terrorists. They are terrorists. Okay, we're fighting them.

Alas, just as not all jocks are poor students and not all cheerleaders blonde, not all "terrorists" are cut from the same cloth. Just look at the way in which the media has recently been forced to mention something called the "Mehdi Army" led by Moqtada al-Sadr, and the existence of people called "Sadrists" and even a "Sadr City" in Baghdad. Surprise! Someone is fighting us, and it isn't al-Qaeda. They're not even Sunni Muslims, as al-Qaeda members tend to be; they come from the Shi'a majority in Iraq. This isn't "terrorism," it's internecine strife, and I wonder whose fault it is that said strife is exploding now?

Another example is the Palestinians. Again, I in no way mean to condone any of the civilian attacks performed by PLO members in any way. However, what they're trying to do is break away from a fundamentally hostile nation who continues to provoke them by expanding settlements in territory that was supposedly going to be "not Israel's" in the two-state solution. So, while we applaud the breakaway of Kosovo from Serbia, we continue to be rather unhelpful in the quest of Palestinians to actually have a state that is not riddled with checkpoints or paved over with illegal Israeli settlements, and that designation "terrorist" seems to have a lot to do with it.

I had thought of writing about this a few weeks ago, but what really spurred me on was a passage from Giorgio Agamben in his short essay "The Sovereign Police." He argues that the identification of the State with the Police is a pervasive but dangerous concept, seen perhaps most clearly in the "police actions" taken by the U.S. in places like Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. Here's a pertinent quotation:

The investiture of the Sovereign as cop has another result: it entails a
criminalization of the adversary. Carl Schmitt has shown that in European
public law the principle according to which par in parem non habet
(a peer among peers has no jurisdiction) precluded the
sovereigns of enemy states being judged as criminals [... but] we have seen with
our own eyes that [...] the enemy has come to be excluded from civil humanity
and declared a criminal from the firsdt; at that point it becomes legitimate to
annihilate the enemy through a "police operation" that is not in any way subject
to the rule of law" (Massumi, "The Politics of Everyday Fear," 63).

Police operations are not subject to the rule of law because they are seen as commensurate with it; hence American "policing" of the world against criminal "terrorism" can by all means employ such techniques as the appropriation of sovereignty from criminalized states, "special interrogation procedures" as seen in the recently declassified "torture memo," and even clumsy occupations that spark states of near-civil-war and prove lethal to a minimum of 90,000 citizens. The power of designation, it turns out, is a significant one indeed.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Election '08; or, the tricky correspondence of image and ethos

The New York Observer recently published an article contradicting, to some degree, the received wisdom among nearly all conservatives and a number of liberals: that Barack Obama is all flash with no content.

The article isn't a perfect defense of Obama's campaign style, and perhaps it would be unhealthy to spend too much sweat and tears defending anybody's political campaign. With the (possible) exception of that of the maverick Ron Paul, every political aspirant will de facto indulge in some image-mongering and dishonesty in the interest of saying things that will get votes, rather than lose them. This is just human behavior, and we see it in corporate meetings, at dinner parties, and on blind dates every day. Nobody is deliberately going to create a repulsive image for himself/herself.

However, it is fairly evident that Obama is coming in for more than the usual rueful/sarcastic "oh, those politicians (pat pat)" criticism. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that opposition media (and the Clinton campaign) are trying to torpedo his candidacy with this accusation of insubstantial posturing and hope-mongering. I won't linger on the depressing idea that "Hope" is evidently a commodity we can no longer deal in, or the implied preference for candidates who hawk More War, Tax Burdens for the Middle Class, Corporate Dominance of the Polity, Pervasive Surveillance, Torture, And So On. I'd personally take vacuous Hope any day.

I would like to linger a little, however, on this idea of "image" and how an image might relate to "ethos," which I here take to mean the "true truth" about a person and his/her views (insofar as that is even knowable). According to the New York Observer's article, "the style is indivisible from the substance" in the case of Obama. His "oratory" and "inclusivity [...] signify profound differences in approach and philosophy from Mrs. Clinton." Gasp. The idea! That an oratorical style might actually "signify" something! The point, as the article mentions and as we've all known for a long time now, is that the policy differences between Clinton and Obama are relatively insignificant. The angle from which they approach these views, and the image-construct via which they present them to the constituency, is where the difference lies. Hillary Clinton's approach has been far more "traditional" thus far, emphasizing (as has been repeated by pundits ad infinitum) long-term political conflicts and the division-lines between parties. Obama consciously seeks out common ground with Republicans and Independents, and even (notoriously) with "Axis of Evil" leaders like Hugo Chavez. Although his message about the state of America isn't always a sunny one, he offsets it with tremendous optimism, which has been the hallmark of many of our greatest 20th Century leaders.

I also want to emphasize that *all* of the '08 candidates, and all the candidates who have ever run for office in any public arena, have constructed images for themselves. Clinton, as the article points out, "proudly referred to herself as [...] 'battle-scarred.'" John McCain is the dogged, uncompromising veteran; John Edwards was the Common Man (who just happened to make millions as a lawyer, ehm); Mike Huckabee is still the divinely-inspired prophet who's cool enough to play the bass; Giuliani, in Joe Biden's wonderful quip, was "a subject, a verb, and 9/11." Some of these might be more ingenuous than others, but the point is that Obama is not the only candidate occluded in a mantle of hoopla and linguistic prestidigitation. Every candidate presents himself/herself in a manner that is delimited by a hundred factors, including genuine personality, well-paid image consultants and campaign managers, media bias, etc. Our job is to look at real statements from these candidates to determine how well they line up with the image. I suggest skepticism of these images, but we also must remember that they give some indication of each candidate's fundamental attitude. And after George W. Bush's attitude of insolence, arrogance, and confrontation, a more conciliatory approach looks more appealing than I can say.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tariq Ramadan

It is really tragic, in my mind, to see the world of intellectual scholarship damaged by the "War on Terror." In a recent court case, the U.S. Government's decision to revoke Professor Tariq Said Ramadan's visa, thereby barring him from accepting a position at Notre Dame University, was upheld.

Ramadan, a Muslim Swiss professor of Islamic Studies, is a controversial character -- his statements on what he perceives as "human rights violations" on the part of the Israeli state have brought him under suspicion of anti-semitism, and he has been vocally critical of the Iraq invasion -- but the revocation had nothing to do with any of these positions. His visa was revoked because he gave money, over a period ending in 2002, to two Swiss charities set up to aid Palestinians. The U.S. declared the charities "terrorist funding organizations" in 2003, a year after Ramadan quit donating to them. This is the sole reason (at least the sole stated reason) for denying him the visa; the government mentioned that he "should reasonably have known" that the organizations funded terrorists. Ramadan pointed out that it would have been hard for him to have known before the government itself did, and I have to admit he has a point there.

Now, the ironic thing is that Ramadan has been speaking out his whole career about Euro-Muslim identity and the urgent need for Muslims to use non-violence, give up the death penalty, and respect the laws of whatever nation they reside in. He encourages them to respect the freedom of religion they are given in the West and not worry that Westerners drink alcohol or tolerate pre-marital sex, since none of this is forced on any Muslim. He strongly condemned the 9/11 attacks, called for punishment to be wreaked on the perpatrators, and has specifically spoken out against suicide bombing. Goodness, he even said that Muslim anger at Pope Benedict XVI's (in)famous speech was disproportionate and made Muslims look bad.

So this leaves, in my view, three things to object to:

1. The official reason -- Ramadan did not anticipate, by at least one full year, the U.S.'s discovery that two charities he gave a thousand bucks to subsequently gave some money to Hamas;

2. The fact that Ramadan opposes U.S. foreign policy, indicating a desire to admit only those scholars deemed ideologically sound by the oh-so-scholarly Bush administration;

or 3. His last name is Ramadan, and we know that is some scary thing that terrorists celebrate. If he would just change that name to something nice, like "Wolfowitz" or "Mukasey" . . . . . .

Saturday, November 24, 2007

"Political Correctness"

I was reading over a couple of articles recently that brought to my mind the slippery and oft-cited concept of "political correctness." One of them, about a Seattle public school teacher who asked her pupils to remember that Thanksgiving is not a happy time for Native Americans, comes from the FoxNews Network, which like all media has a radical left-wing bias. The other, an opinion piece by Michael Medved, gives historical evidence for a unicultural America.

I don't mean to interact with either of these articles point-by-point, but each is worth reading, and I do not wholly disagree with either. However, I have a bone to pick with some assumptions that underlie each article. The former asks us to share a laugh (or a scandalized ubi sunt?) over the state that this country (or at least its radical coasts) has come to. Apparently, the idealistic teacher tried to build a case for Thanksgiving being a time of sorrow and lament among the Native American community, which is apparently not quite factual. My response to this would be "stop being silly and try to make your otherwise good point without recourse to inaccuracy." The article (I read between the lines here a little) asks us to gripe "Look at that. Undermining our sacred values, by God."

Medved argues for some kind of "melting-pot" uniculturalism by stating, among other things, that the Know-Nothing party's machinations against Catholics demonstrate an American unwillingness to accept the unassimilated other. All he really seems to prove is that yes, in the past, immigrants to America were expected to "Americanize" and desist from their bizarre foreign behavior. True enough; people in this era also sold cocaine as children's headache relief and believed the Negro to be closer to the original ape than the enlightened whitey, so I'm not sure that archaic views on society and culture are appropriate corroborations for one's argument. All of this aside, however, I was still left wondering what the fundamental reason behind this argument was; why, after all, are we so against multiculturalism or cultural diversity?

I think the answer lies in this vague and mutable little concept of "political correctness." The term originated from the well-known early 20th century totalitarian regimes that forced individuals to either spout the party line or risk being "purged." No one would argue that this is going on in the USA as of now, so a new definition came about: basically, the ridiculous stuff that the Left wants to replace our values and heritage with. Hyphenated names, gay pride, class consciousness, the right of women to vote ... etc.

I am more than willing to concede that some of these concepts, and the people who push them, have significant cloud of the ridiculous hanging about them. But so does any political ideology. My problem is when anything that seems to smack of social justice for any minority, or of an attack upon corporate misdeeds, or even the vague and demure suggestion that sometime, somewhere, in all the decades since Jamestown, it is possible that misdeeds have been committed on the American continent by white men of British descent, is instantaneously branded "PC," which apparently then gives us license to ignore it and/or rail against it. The Right, by fostering an almost paranoid skepticism of government (but not big business, for some reason) and then trotting out this label, has conveniently found a way to ridicule many voices that, despite any attendant silliness, are really quite well-intentioned and helping fight the battle for justice and equality. All this based on the assumption that rights are somehow a zero-sum game, and that if Native Americans or homosexuals are freed from discrimination, then somehow white, straight Evangelicals will be in for a round of persecution.

Instead of the paranoid and perjorative definition of "political correctness," I would like to offer a re-contextualization. "Political," at heart, just means "social" or "pertaining to the polis." What if PC could just mean acceptable in the polis -- i.e. polite, just, non-discriminatory? It doesn't have to mean that we hate America or white people, or that we intend to establish draconian racial quotas, or make Spanish an official language, or condition our children to be gay. It does mean that we should treat everyone with respect, whether in speech, or hiring, or education; and that applies to a lesbian Khazakh-American muslim just as much as it does to me.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sullivan on Obama

I read over most of this article today while at Barnes & Noble, and found it very interesting. According to Sullivan, Obama is the only candidate who will not polarize voters along lines drawn in the 1960s and growing ever more acrimonious. Let me know what you think ...


Hello everyone ...

I was tired of logging in as "anonymous," so instead of, like, writing a poem and like, not attributing it to myself, I made a new blog. I think the old one is still accessible, but I was writing in it about three years ago and then stopped, so I think it would be a little discontinuous and weird.

I cannot promise frequent posts, but I can make sure that the ones you get will be relatively interesting.