Glenn Greenwald is right to be skeptical of any direct causal links between the horrific events such as the Sikh Temple Massacre or the Joplin Mosque and US foreign policy. As he pointed out yesterday,there are usually a diverse array of complex motives (psychological, emotional, ideological, religious) that drive individuals to engage in violence of this sort, and an equally diverse list of complex causes (legislative, political, cultural) as to why our society fosters and enables it.
And to be fair, most white men who have grown up in the shadow of 9-11 do not shoot up theaters and temples or burn down mosques. But I want to try to be clearer about the links that I’m trying to argue for:
Dylan Rodrigues, a scholar in Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside and author of a great book on Black Radicals in prison, has argued that we need to pay attention to the parallels between the massive numbers of Black and Latino men who are in prison, and our tendencies to incarcerate Muslim men in Guantanamo, or Abu Ghraib. These parallels can alert us to a certain carceral mentality that is mirrored in a country’s international and domestic policies. A number of philosophers and sociologists have argued along similar lines, including Michel Foucault, Angela Davis, and Loiç Wacquant.
Similarly, in my last post and a number of others, that is what I’ve tried to argue that we need to consider: when Dharun Ravi sets up a camera to spy on his gay roommate’s trysts, or Wade Michael Page shoots up a Sikh temple, when US soldiers rape Iraqi women, urinate on dead bodies, and shoot civilians in cold blood in Iraq, we need to move beyond the level of shock and start thinking about the larger political and legal and cultural mentalities in which these events happen.
In particular, we live in a country in which the federal office that oversees the strict regulation of immigrants, visitors, and—yes—citizens, guards the homefront through border security, pre-emptive policing of people’s social, political and financial activity, their emails and phone calls, i.e., “counterterrorism.” That office, ceremoniously renamed the Department of Homeland Security six months after September 11, 2001, is an ostentatious chest-beating symbol of waging a war on “threats to national security.”
In the name of Homeland Security—a hallowed reference to Nazi Germany’s urge to purify their own “heimat”–we have seen the prevalence of United States’ domestic and foreign policies: state-led surveillance of its own people, of the decision to harass foreigners until they leave, i.e., “self-deportation,” of Muslim communities, to incarcerate Muslim men without habeas corpus or a serious legal defense, to outlaw political protest, to give the U.S. president full authority to assassinate and incarcerate “terrorists,” and to the fact of state-led mass destruction in the form of drones, rockets, bombs, chemical warfare and guns?
Why then, talk about white supremactists as if they are loners or part of private gangs? Shouldn’t we remember the US’ emphasis on the Homeland when we watch these shootings and mosque-burnings? When we see images of war and strife in the Middle East? Is it such a strange leap to think of US domestic and foreign policy as part of white supremacist, racial contract, as political philosopher Charles Mills argues (read his book for more on this; it’s clearly written, even for non-philosophers)?
As Greenwald says:A country which venerates its military above all other institutions, which demands that its soldiers be spoken of only with religious-like worship, and which continuously indoctrinates its population to believe that endless violence against numerous countries is necessary and just — all by instilling intense fear of the minorities who are the target of that endless violence — will be a country filled with citizens convinced of the virtues and nobility of aggression. (the links are in his original piece).
He’s right. I think there’s something else going on as well. At the risk of stating the ridiculously obvious, we live in a country (and still at a time) that has a very difficult time with race politics: And it’s not merely about racial antagonisms having to do with Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis or South Asians and Arabs generally. It has to do with racial hostilities that are legislated against Latinos and Blacks (and by this term, I include all folks who are the victim of anti-black racism, not just African Americans)—and Americans turning a blind eye to these hostilities that are waged against black and brown folks, while expecting white men to act out the scripts of entitlement: declaring and waging war, AND deploying black and brown and working-class whites to war. Americans cheer when whites, blacks, and browns act out their scripts within the confines of state-led policies and laws—and are shocked when whites, blacks, and browns act out their scripts outside of those institutions and laws.
Again, Charles Mills calls this the epistemology of ignorance, that is when whites and elites are completely baffled by—and claim NOT to understand– the very same world that they (through slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, mass criminalization through anti-terror and drug laws)—produced. Mills coined this term, the epistemology of ignorance, hand in hand with the racial contract back in 1997. Can you imagine the furor he caused then?
I agree with Mills—mostly.
As importantly it has to do with the very difficult time we have in calling our political leaders to account whether they are white or non-white; but at the present moment, we are having an especially difficult time calling our current President, who is black, into account—especially for those of us who are politically progressive and constructively race-conscious. The tensions that lie in this political dilemma—during this election year—are enormous. But it doesn’t make us racially or politically progressive to turn a blind eye to the President’s racially destructive policies: like deporting 400,000 migrants a year; like tearing apart families through forced deportation; destroying childhoods through indefinite detention and deportation of their parents without judicial review.
So, taking a page out of Mills’ book, I would suggest that another term that better describes what’s happening today: the epistemology of indifference. White and elites understand perfectly well the world that they have produced. And those liberals AND progressives who vote for them—despite this knowledge—are guilty of the epistemology of indifference: they know and they don’t care. At least, they don’t care enough to reject the false choices handed to them by the Democratic Party.
It doesn’t make us racially or politically progressive to turn a blind eye to the President’s imperially expansive policies. It makes us callous, indifferent, and frankly, part of the problem. Calling him to account doesn’t necessarily make one a racist, unless you are calling him to account because he is black. Similarly, not calling him to account because he’s black is also problematic.
Race in America is an enormously tricky terrain to navigate carefully, justly, ethically. But it needs to be addressed alongside our policies of violence, of invasion, of mass murders in the name of a Secure Homeland, and in ways that don’t celebrate OR vilify single individuals. Rather, we need to clearly, firmly, effectively call those politicians and appointees to account: by voting with our feet to find leaders who share their moral principles, and reject officially sanctioned mass-murders and wars, instead of promoting them as solutions to the racial fears and xenophobia of Americans.