Response to Responses to The Onion’s Hipster Misogyny

Singling out a young girl—a child—for that kind of treatment was gratuitous and hostile. It’s hurtful enough to hear it as a young or older woman—but by the time a young woman of color is an adult, she has already heard it: tens or hundreds—or—ouch—thousands of times.  Even Quvenzhané never hears of this tweet, she will likely hear the term directed towards her before she becomes an adult. And it will have affected her in any number of ways; perhaps her wounds will have scabbed over, only to be refreshed by each such horrific insult anew. Or maybe, it will amplify her by then–already politically and socially vulnerable existence, reinforcing a horrific message that women should be understood, not as human beings, but as sexual vehicles.

This is an excerpt that I deleted self-censored from my last piece, a critical response to the Onion tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, on the grounds that it was too pathos-laden. The editor asked if I really wanted to cut it out.  After five minutes reflection, I asked him to cut it.  On 72 hours’ reflection, perhaps I should have left it in–as a way to anticipate and meet the anger that my own outrage generated.

I was surprised that this article generated way more controversy than the previous piece that I wrote on racial double-standards.  I thought it was a kind of obvious argument for political liberals—and so must have others, because later I read similar pieces about the Onion tweet, including two cited below.  And it wasn’t just disagreement, or indifference [“Onion fatigue”—which is funny when you think about it, because presumably fatigue typically causes lethargy]—but serious heated anger.

Some wanted to point out that the Charlize Theron’s ‘mortified’ expression was ‘canned,’—as if that somehow invalidated my point about the nature of the skit or the tweet. Others wanted to teach me about racism. Others thought it was ridiculous to use Critical Race Theory to think about an Onion Tweet. Others couldn’t possibly understand how the Onion tweet was racist. Sexist maybe. Misogynist? Only if you were really sensitive. But racist? Never! After all, we’re libs/progressives and we know that racism is found in political/legal/economic structures–not in satire.

As well, there wasn’t a single interpretation about what made the tweet funny–I was given multiple–often conflicting–explanations. Ditto about what made the tweet humorless/tasteless/bad.

In the US, the term ‘cunt’ is a sexual epithet–of the most painful kind, to be sure. Does it make it automatically racial if the label is directed toward any woman of color? I don’t know.

My motivation in discussing the racial and sexual implications of the Onion tweet was this: I was surprised/upset that there was any context in which it’s okay to call a young child a cunt. At least in the context of the US, it is almost exclusively leveled at women. Many objected to my characterizing the tweet as racist: would it have been racist if it were leveled at a young white girl? Probably not, though it would still be misogynist.

But here is what I wonder: Colleagues tell me that many young—famous—girls such as the person who plays Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies, have had their sexuality unraveled and graphically discussed. But how many young famous or otherwise–white girl-children are laughingly referred to as cunts?  Someone suggested that the same epithet would have been directed toward Shirley Temple in the 1920’s.  I can’t know for sure, but somehow I doubt it.

Others, if not livid, were puzzled that I chose to write about this tweet. But my surprise about the tweet was about a point that I found obvious and had therefore not articulated. As Roxanne Gay said eloquently, the objection is not about the Onion tweet per se, but

 the cultural disease that spawned this tweet, the one where certain people are devalued and denigrated for sport and then told to laugh it off because hey, you know, it’s humor.

But as much, my objection is about the re-iterative, intimate association between the vulgar obscene reference to this intimate/sexual/reproductive body part and Black women, for whom the association has long-standing political, historical, social, significance: as slaves who were but dehumanized/objects of pleasure for white slave-owners. Who, even post-slavery, have less recourse to sexual and political and economic justice—because on the continuum of sexual justice, they fall way below in terms of so many gauges: protection from rape in courts as well as in prison, where so many poor Black women are incarcerated; access to reproductive justice is much more limited for women of color, especially if they are poor; associations with women in power rather than as (single) mothers, nannies, etc. are also extremely limited in media and entertainment.

In large part, this is because Black women are considered still–still–sexually promiscuous beings [through denigrated discourses about welfare, having too many children, lack of moral awareness].  In this case, the term ‘cunt’ is being used in reference to someone whose gender/racial identity overlaps with those who descend from Black women slaves, whose bodies were used as sexual vehicles—forcefully, coercively (even consent isn’t truly consent under slavery—we know that).  There is a long history and ample literature about the continual re-iteration of the sexual objectification of the bodies of Black women.  And context—and consciousness—about this history (even when deeply buried), doesn’t (pdf) disappear quite so quickly. I daresay this is why Blacks—among other populations– worldwide are still politically, socially, denigrated and subjected to dehumanized treatment.

Part of my concern was expressed by this writer:

The underlying assumption is that folks who are outraged about the Onion’s tweet are not also vocally opposed to state-sponsored violence. It’s a snarky way to belittle the justified anger that people were feeling about the Onion’s actions. It also assumes an inability to hold at least two thoughts in one’s mind at once.

The rest of the piece is as poignant and speaks to the concern that underlies the critical comments about the tweet.

Was the Onion tweet so significant? More significant than, say, massive incarceration of Black men through Drug wars? The unjust imprisonment of Black and Latina women? More important than other forms of institutional injustice? Larger than the injustice of a flawed judicial system? The death penalty? Drones? Renditions? Torture? CIA Black Sites? Pre-emptive Detention? OLC White Papers? The Supreme Court’s dismissal of FISA in the Clapper v Amnesty case?  Aren’t these the real issues? The serious issues?

Why must we make the comparison? Can’t, shouldn’t, we resist both? Is it so difficult to allow that the general cultural and social psyche that facilitates the acceptance and casual dismissal of the Onion tweet is part and parcel of a political and legal context in which the status of Black women (and men) is that of sub-persons, as Charles Mills describes in his book, The Racial Contract? That Black women were neither the explicit focus of the 13th Amendment (for emancipation), nor the 15th Amendment (Black suffrage), nor the 19th Amendment (for ‘women’s’ suffrage)?

Is it that outrageous to consider that the attitudes towards people of color, as expressed casually in a satirical tweet is connected to the absence of empathy towards people of color in a variety of other dehumanizing situations—such as all of those listed above?

Many theorists and writers and activists have expressed the connections between material and legal circumstances and the psyche. Alienation is, among other things, the forced disconnect between one’s material conditions and self-understanding. How does one begin to participate in resistance to injustice—except through empathy? It seems that empathy is the place to begin the challenge to legal, political, material denigration.

That is why, I think, we must consider these links—as trivial, as ‘pc,’ as trite, as they may seem.  As importantly, I think this is so for those of us who argue and write about more lofty topics: how we can expect empathy for Black and Brown folks internationally, who are daily assaulted through US-led unjust practices in the name of the War on Terror, when we are unable to muster empathy for US—vulnerable, dehumanized, minority populations who suffer—not just serious political and legal injustices—but the casual denigrated—satirical–reference or treatment as sub-persons?

I think there’s another element here, as well: Quvenzhané is a young Black child. She is hardly threatening, but also considered barely worthy of serious awe or respect—in part because of her youth, in part because of the lack of any formal political status.  It makes it easier to have her be the stand-in to denigrate someone in a humorous context.

But that should also be part of what makes her off-limits for such references: youth, vulnerability, and absence of a legal status of her own.  While I wasn’t a huge fan of the film in which she acted, I thought she was a remarkable actress, especially given her youth. I wish for her achievement to stand without taint.

Maybe it’s just me. But I cannot imagine the Onion making a similar comment about Michelle Obama. Not just because she is FLOTUS and the FBI/DHS/CIA will all come after you for doing so (“Drones! You won’t even know what hit you.”), but because she is considered to be plenty worthy of respect–or least, unworthy of sexual denigration/satire/humor. Ditto the late former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, or Condoleeza Rice, the former Secretary of State under the Bush Administration, or Hillary Clinton, the current Secretary of State?  They are all women whose are either deeply loved or deeply despised.  Yet, I can’t imagine such things because they are so worthy of a sexual (and in several cases) racial hands-offness.  To denigrate them with that kind of a satirical reference would be considered beyond the pale. In part, I think this is because—they are considered worthy of respect in regard to “that” aspect of their personas.  But maybe that’s just me.


The Onion’s Hipster Misogyny

Another piece I wrote. The rest is over at Salon….

The Onion’s hipster Misogyny

Being ironic, self-aware, and knowing something is offensive doesn’t make it funny — or OK

I turned off the Oscars a short while after MC Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boob” routine. The skit was framed by a stern-looking William Shatner playing Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, returned from the future. He was chastising MacFarlane for the trashy routine that Kirk predicted he would soon be doing. There was very little funny about it, and a quick pan of the audience revealed a bunch of famous women not laughing—including Charlize Theron—who nevertheless “classed up” the trashy routine by following up with a ballroom style dance with Channing Tatum.  I’m not sure how Theron felt about it, given her subsequent participation, but I’m assuming my response was somewhat shared by many of the straight-faced actors in the audience.

That was bad enough. This morning, I woke up to the news that The Onion decided to take up MacFarlane’s “humorous sexism” prompt and notch it up to ironic racist misogyny with a tweet on its official account about 9 year old Quvenzhané Wallis, the heart of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. (rest is here)…

Response to the Responses to Liberal Racial Hypocrisy

Happily, my article over at Salon has generated a lot of conversation.  I wanted to respond to the comments, but came up against technical obstacles, so I’ve decided to post my response here.

According to some of the comments, some readers have misread my point. I am not comparing the murder of Trayvon Martin to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden or Anwar Al-Awlaki—at all. Ever.  However, the deaths of 16 year old Trayvon Martin and 16 year old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, both of whom were US citizens, are devastating, heinous, and reprehensible. Again, as Jemima Pierre at Black Agenda Report points out: Trayvon Martin was killed based on a perceived threat by a lone individual.  Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki was also killed based on perceived threat—by the US government, under the auspices of national security.  He was killed by a drone 2 weeks AFTER his father, Anwar—also a US citizen–was droned to death. The US government has shuffled its explanations for Abdulrahman’s death, at first claiming that he was 21 years old, then claiming that he was standing next to another member of Al-Qaeda, and at another point, refusing to confirm that he was killed.  I mentioned the two teens’ names as one example of a larger argument about the double-standards of liberals under a Democratic President—and the lack of outrage –with regard to the ethics of the project of American Empire.

Even with ‘proof’—given the shoddy system of due process that is afforded to African Americans and other vulnerable populations–we must reconsider state-led executions, whether of Black Americans or foreign nationals. It is no better when government policy dictates the murders of foreign nationals or American citizens or teenagers–than when a lone racist individual kills an African American teen–or adult.  Indeed, it is exponentially devastating to condone such acts when they are part of government policy—as there is no recourse to law, to appeals, to evidence. Such actions, on the part of the state, implicate all of us.

Some were offended by the comparison that I made between racism domestically and racist policies administered under the auspices of the global War on Terror by the current Administration.  It is hardly an original argument: Cynthia McKinney, (several articles by) Glen Ford, Bruce Dixon, Jemima Pierre, Cornel West, and others have made this point. In their days, Dr. Martin Luther King, W.E.B. DuBois, and many others made comparisons between racism domestically and international racism/empire.

Many commenters found my argument unbelievable because I cited too few liberals. Yet, I cited 5 liberals—2 politicians, a blogger who self-identifies as ‘liberal,’ and 2 MSNBC commentators, in the space of that article.  In addition, at the end of the article, I cite an article about a study by Michael Tesler, a political scientist at Brown University. Tesler found that racially progressive liberals were significantly inclined to change their minds and approve targeted killings when they found out that President Obama supported the policy. I’m not sure how many liberals I must cite to be convincing, if one refuses to consider the argument. According to a very recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 77% of liberal Democrats supported the policy of targeted killings. That seems like a fairly high number. 83% of Americans in general supported the President’s drone policy.

In the article, I was drawing attention to the much larger acceptance of state-led killings—by liberals—under a Democratic Administration than under a Republican Administration. But the other part of my concern is that these policies are being conducted under the project of American Empire against Muslims. As Deepa Kumar wrote in an excellent article published last July in The Nation, Islamophobia has been a long-standing bipartisan project, beginning well before 9/11.  I’m also concerned about the dual functions of the US Homeland: to guard its borders, and to police internal and external populations.  The war on terror, with its ubiquitous, elusive enemy guarantees a perpetual war.

Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish refugee, philosopher and political critic, pointed out in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, that the point of Empire was to create unity at home.  Part of this unity includes the positing of presumptive divergences between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Americans, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foreigners, and ‘good’ Americans and ‘bad’ foreigners.  Witness Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s suggestion that Anwar Al-Awlaki was a “so-called American.”  Al-Awlaki Sr’s moral disposition has little do with his legal citizenship or legal treatment.  Feinstein’s insinuations entrench the assumption that Americans are upstanding; but she has yet to reconcile this assumption with our judicial system. Al-Awlaki was American; and like other Americans, if he is suspected of committing a crime, then he should be charged and tried. If he is as compelling a danger as the state insists, then presumably proof can–and must–be provided to show why it is necessary to execute him.

Finally, politicians, regardless of their political affiliations, must be treated with wariness and skepticism. That is part of the larger point in my article. The increasing jingoism of the last decade has found its counterpart in the internal policing, harassment, and exploitation of darker populations—through anti-immigration laws, among others. As an example of how closely these purposes are linked, consider the example of Kris Kobach. Kobach is the architect of racial profiling laws that are currently directed towards migrants in several states. He initially devised that approach to racial profiling as a counterterrorism strategy, when he was a young attorney working under Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Liberal Racial Hypocrisy

Today, Salon has published an article of mine. I’m thrilled to publish it there. Article starts below. Click below to read the rest of it. And I hope to get another piece up here early next week.

Liberal Racial Hypocrisy:

Killing people of color just for being a suspected threat is a total outrage for liberals. Well, sometimes

Since the reelection of President Obama, liberals have made some bold admissions. Commentators like Touré Neblett of MSNBC’s The Cycle have enthusiastically and repeatedly defended the president’s authority to launch drones against anyone, including American citizens, if he suspects that they are “trying to kill us.”

At no point in his several defenses did Touré reconcile his position with once-popular Constitutional precepts that every person should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and know the charges and evidence against him, and have the right to a fair trial. Neither did he explain why ordinary Americans should suspend their longstanding skepticism of politicians in power or withdraw the demand that the president and Congress be accountable for their actions, especially the taking of someone’s life…

The Department of Homeland Security Wants YOU to Help Keep America Safe

I’ve been posting less frequently in the last few weeks, in part because I’ve returned to my other work commitments on a full-time basis. It leaves me less time to write during the week. For the next few months, I still hope to post twice a week.

This week, I’ve been writing a piece for Salon, which will appear in tomorrow’s edition on their site. I’ll link to it from this site once it appears.. As part of that piece, I link to this video from the Department of Homeland Security, which carefully instructs Americans how to participate activity and responsibly in catching terrorists.  It is around 10 minutes, but it is SO worth your time and indignance to watch.

Notice, among other things, the self-conscious race reversals between (good) by-standers and (evil) perpetrators. And in each case, it is not merely a suspect–it is someone who absolutely needs to be prevented from the inevitable terrorist act that s/he is about to commit.  America’s–the Homeland–safety depends on you, good people. If you see something–don’t doubt yourself. Don’t hesitate. And above all, don’t move away too far from the perpetrator–even if it means he can hear you make the call to the police.

Racial Profiling, Islamophobia, and Whistleblowers: Targeting the Unruly Threat

Revised (11:05 am/Feb. 18, 2013).

I’ve been dithering about writing this column for a while. But my Twitter feed in the wake of today’s “Up with Chris” segment about U.S. Air Force veteran Saddiq Long, an African American Muslim who has been placed on the TSA’s no-fly list in both directions, tells me it’s time.

Categorical distinctions are thought to be the cornerstone of philosophy. But there are sometimes important reasons to challenge distinctions, especially when they cleanse reality of important political implications.  Example 1: The CIA didn’t torture detainees. They used “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

As many social science and humanities scholars write, race is not biological, or physical, or about phenotype. Rather, it is ‘socially constructed,’ a once-promising notion that is now stultifying. In part, the ‘social construction’ trope is troubling because it seems to quell further curiosity about what to do with this thing (race) that doesn’t seem to have an objective basis, but which is still very real for many people. There is also the concern, which I share, that the term ‘racism’–or its counterpart, “White Supremacy”—does not address the reality that persecution, harassment, and exploitation isn’t just limited to darker people. I agree: exploitation, persecution, harassment certainly extends to poor whites and sexual minorities, and other marginalized groups—like Muslims of various backgrounds. White Supremacy also seems to ignore that people of color—like Condoleezza Rice, John Yoo, Alberto Gonzalez, Eric Holder, Carmen Ortiz…and yes—President Barack Obama can be actively involved in spearheading racism, exploitation, and persecution against people of color, among others.

Certainly, nothing here can annul the urgency of acknowledging class exploitation and marginalization of various populations. As Prof. Dylan Rodriguez and others, including myself, have discussed elsewhere, White Supremacy can be multiracial.

But there is another lens by which to view the exploitation, marginalization, harassment of various populations throughout the centuries: black, Muslim, brown, poor white, various women, sexual minorities. In that framework, ‘race’ isn’t the foundation, but the effect, of harassment. Race is about power as deployed against the vulnerable, the (much) less powerful, the scary threat.

On my Twitter feed, some disagreed with my insistence that racial profiling (as found in WoT-era policies) are not just randomly directed towards Muslims. Some wanted to insist that the same policies could easily be redirected towards whites, or that it’s a matter of coincidence that darker Muslims– not whites–are being targeted. In fact, the argument that some civil liberties proponents give for being concerned about the extrajudicial and undue profiling of Muslims—is that such policies could easily be extended to whites. Others pointed out that there are white men and women who have also been placed on various watch lists: Jesselyn Radack and late Sen. Ted Kennedy, among others. True. We can safely guess that Julian Assange and Bradley Manning have also been placed on those lists.

Others wanted to insist that because religion and race are distinct categories, “religious profiling” should be distinguished from “racial profiling.” Yet others insisted that Muslims should be profiled because ‘most terrorist acts are committed by Muslims.’  Nope. Not even if you don’t quibble with the definition of terrorism. Also not if you look at the demographics of mass murders, committed with the intent to terrorize some population.

According to Mother Jones, 44 of the last 62 mass shootings since 1982 have been committed by white men. According to UNC sociologist Charles Kurzman’s report, “Muslim-American Terrorism in the decade since 9/11,” Muslim terrorism is a negligible threat: 14,000 murders were committed in 2012 alone. Yet, fewer than 20 Muslims have been indicted annually since 9/11. Between 2000-3000 Pakistanis have been killed by U.S. drones in the last 9 years, although only 900 are defined as non-combatants. Over 114,000 Iraqi civilians have died under the false pretenses by which the US invaded Iraq in 2003. Hundreds of Muslim men have been rendered and tortured at CIA black sites.  U.S.-led terrorism is rampant.

‘Racial profiling’ (as seen in US counter-terrorism policies as well as immigration-regulation and drug wars,) does accord with certain populations being targeted: darker Muslims, African Americans, Latin@s, (Muslim and non-Muslim South Asians and Arabs, Iranians, Palestinians).  Policies like TSA watch and no-fly lists also include some relatively upper-class whites who used to work for the CIA or NSA.

Obviously, we don’t identify all these groups as “races,” per se. Some are ‘religious,’ ethnic, sexual, national, cultural, or class-based groups.  Yet, most of us would be hard-pressed to disagree that under the War on Terror, those groups are more often profiled—for any number of dubious reasons. But these reasons remain largely unknown. As attorney Gadeir Abbas said about Saddiq Long, the reasons he is on the no-fly list are known only to the FBI and God.

So what do they all have in common?  They are perceived as unruly threats. Some might have customs that are hated or feared (being visibly Muslim or not ‘generically’ American). They might have accents, appearances and comportment that the population has been taught to fear (dark skin, hoodies, baggy low-hanging jeans, beards, turbans, hijabs).  Or they are unruly because they criticize/challenge the state (as do dissenters and whistleblowers).

Criminalizing the unruly publicly (and under the pretense of public safety/national security) “clarifies” the good guy-bad guy distinction. It also perpetuates the stigmas that made them vulnerable and hated in the first place.  Which makes them even more vulnerable being kicked outside the gates of the city, so to speak. But look on the bright side: at least this way, the “patriots” know exactly where to stand. Behind the state.

There is little random about this. Those who are stigmatized or feared or hated are likely to be targeted. Those who are wealthy are less likely to be targeted. Those who vociferously champion or parrot the state’s policies are less likely to be targeted. Those who have powerful political connections are less likely to be targeted.

There is nothing universal about this—not all people are equally vulnerable at any given time.  Dick Cheney is hardly about to be placed on the TSA’s watch/no-fly list. And if he is, as Sen. Ted Kennedy was, it will be loudly and publicly announced as an error. Some whites will be vulnerable—if they are critical enough and loud enough for the state to hear. If they are poor. If they are part of a stigmatized group. Most whites don’t need to fear. Ditto for many (not all) wealthy brown and black people who closely conform to a generic, non-threatening, stereotype of “American.”

Racialization is the effect, not the cause, of stigma, vulnerability, and state-led targeting of unruly peoples/groups. Most often, groups are vulnerable because of their darkness or foreignness or relative poverty. We have seen the pattern of targeting the unruly threat over and over again: Enslavement of West Africans; Jim Crow; one-drop rules; Chinese Exclusion in the 19th century; the internment of Japanese migrants and Japanese-Americans in the 1940’s; the criminalizing of protesters through the second half of the 20th century; drug wars; the War on Terror.  But also vulnerable are those who can encourage the public to question the state or other authorities.  Think Socrates, Rosa Luxembourg, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Or white or upper-class whistleblowers and political dissenters such as Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.

There is little accidental about these events, except the precise event that will precipitate the fear, and thereby ‘compel’ the state to clamp down and tame the ‘threat.’

What does all of this have to do with Saddiq Long? Was he placed on the no-fly list because he is African American? Because he embraced Islam? Because he decided to make his post-Air Force life in the Middle East? Probably all of those are relevant to his stigmatization and political vulnerability. Would he still be on the no-fly list if he weren’t Muslim? If he were white?  I don’t know.

But I doubt that “religious profiling” is different from racial profiling in this context.  Among other reasons, those who fear Muslims don’t know jack about Islam; but they do know that they despise what Muslims supposedly represent. If we understand racialization as the systematic attempt to humiliate, dehumanize, and marginalize those who (baselessly) signify a threat to–a state or another population, then race is about the kind of persecution that applies to a range of populations across a range of situations. And it is also possible to understand how a multi-racial White Supremacy is possible.

It makes sense to point to the overlap between GWoT policies and the racial profiling of certain groups. But race doesn’t always pertain to the 3—or 5—or 7—or 42—‘races.’ Rather it points to those who are seen as unruly threats who are vulnerable to the state’s wrath. And that unruliness is hardly accidental or random.

White Papers, Targets, and U.S. Citizens: What’s All the Fuss?

Revised 6:59 am.

The last few days, the mainstreamish media and Congress have professed shock and outrage over the Office of Legal Counsel white paper and its ambiguous rationale on President Obama’s targeted killing program. But, really, there’s very little new about it, save some ostensible rationale that will facilitate a long-standing politics of execution.

But, much news media and Congress (except for DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz) have known about targeted killings for years. As Tara Kelvey and Josh Begley have noted, the New York Times has covered drones for years, even when they have ostentatiously skirted around the reasons for those killings. Similarly, the Brennan hearings were a perfect place for Congress to engage in, as Jeremy Scahill called it on Up with Chris this morning, “Kabuki oversight”—namely, the spectacle of watching senators like Dianne Feinstein and others to act as if they were overwhelmingly outraged by the non-responsiveness of the CIA, OLC, and WH to their repeated requests for an answer to the question of the rationale for targeted killing without oversight.

Why then are they suddenly exercised over it now? I’m puzzled by the fuss, given the way the sudden controversy is framed is shock and horror that a U.S. citizen might be fingered for death if they are suspected to be an “imminent” threat to America. So, suddenly—what—everyone cares that U.S. citizens Anwar and Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki , Samir Khan, and Kamal Derwish were killed?

Why weren’t our esteemed media and Congress that exercised about the provisions in NDAA 2012 that authorized POTUS to arrest and detain U.S. citizens (um…and foreign nationals) anywhere for posing an imminent threat?

After all, many more U.S. citizens are likely to be intercepted and indefinitely detained by the following NDAA 2012 provision (the one that Obama insisted be included on threat of veto. Remember?):

Subtitle D–Detainee Matters
    (a) In General- Congress affirms that the authority of the President to use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note) includes the authority for the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons (as defined in subsection (b)) pending disposition under the law of war.
    (b) Covered Persons- A covered person under this section is any person as follows:
    (1) A person who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored those responsible for those attacks.
    (2) A person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.

The rest of the clause is just as interesting.

After the November elections, Sen. DiFi tried an interesting re-do in NDAA 2013 with an amendment that limited indefinite detention to non-citizens—but you’ll remember that it ‘mysteriously disappeared.’  If anything, U.S. citizens are much more vulnerable to the arrest and indefinite detention provisions from these bills than drones strikes. Right?

Mind you, it is heartening that even ‘forward leaners’ like Kristal Ball are so worked up over the undue authority that the WH/DoJ/OLC is taking to dilute the grounds by which they justify the targeting of U.S. citizens.

But the issue with drones is not just that they target U.S. citizens. But that they miss. And kill thousands of non-US citizens. And thousands of innocent civilians. And hundreds of children. On other sovereign lands. And turn peaceful foreign nationals into hostile, understandably vengeful, potential allies of organizations that the US has deemed to be our enemies.

There are compelling reasons to review the underlying rationales and “logic” of an Administration that wants to maintain a thick shell of secrecy around policies and authoritarian practices as heinous as killing U.S. citizens. The urge to dissect these policies is especially important as we consider future elections in relation to the executive authority that has been expanded for future presidents to exploit.

While the white paper is in the news, it’s worth taking advantage of the timeliness to explore other, older, facets of the Bush and Obama Administrations’ expansion of power.  In the short run, U.S. citizens stand to be much more vulnerable to the provisions of NDAA 2012 than the targeted killing rationale of the white paper.  This is especially true of Muslim-American men, who have been vulnerable to Sec. 1032 of NDAA 2012 since the endless, borderless, War on Terror was declared. And have been vulnerable to much, much, much, muchmuch, more than that.

Drones are being used for tracking here in the U.S, but not yet as lethal weapons. On the other hand, the (ex post?) rationale of Sec. 1032 in NDAA 2012 stands to round many more up in conjunction with anxieties about their acquaintances, associations, and communications in relation to the monstrous fear of Al-Qaeda and the all things “terrorist.” But we know that those ‘more’ will less likely be young white men from the burbs of Mill Valley (to date, we’ve only seen one like that–and he got a trial), than young brown and black men from the “terrorist-laden” terrain of Queens, the Bronx, or the less-than-affluent suburbs of Boston and Portland, OR.

And in so saying, perhaps I’ve answered my own question: maybe we care more about the OLC white paper because it obfuscates the obvious: these aren’t policies intended towards non-Muslims. We can scrutinize the rationale of the white memo as a way to distract most Americans from focusing on the fact that policies like indefinite detention, pre-emptive policing, and—yes—targeted killings—haven’t been and won’t likely be directed towards innocent (non-Muslim) Americans. Rather, such policies will continue to be aimed many more Muslim-Americans (and non-Americans) who won’t–can’t–possibly expect the U.S. to respect their innocence unless there are clear and evident reasons to suspect otherwise.

In America, Journalists “Push Back”: The Magnificent Hypocrisy of Touré

Update (2/17/13) below:

Yesterday, the news of the leaked Department of Justice white paper brought on a flurry of “debates” about whether POTUS’ ever-expansive rationale for targeting U.S. citizens was acceptable. The rationale is that a mere suspicion WITHOUT evidence that a U.S. citizen was a senior official in Al-Qaeda (designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S.) is an acceptable basis to target him via a drone strike.

It’s hard to have a believable “debate” when folks who should be aware and up-to-date on the Administration’s doings are ignorant, skeptical, or indifferent. Those were the reactions of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, when she was challenged about the legitimacy of WH-directed kill lists and drone strikes. This clip is from last fall, after the second Presidential debate at Hofstra University. Wasserman-Schultz–an elected Congressional representative from Florida–has NO idea about the secret kill list whatsoever (FF to 00:25 and again to 00:35-60 for “the look”):

Wasserman-Schultz appears confused and skeptical when asked about the kill lists. In fact, she has the same blank look on her face that Touré, a political commentator for cable tv’s “left-leaning” MSNBC’s SpinCity, does when his co-hosts Steve Kornacki and S.E. Cupp confront him about the fact that a drone was used to kill 16 year old Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, the son of the alleged “#2 official in Al-Qaeda.” His father, Anwar Al-Aulaqi, was killed by drones on Sept. 30, 2011, 2 weeks AFTER John Brennan, the Obama nominee to be the next director of the CIA, argued for upholding transparency and rule of law when deciding the targets of drone strikes. Abdulrahman was killed exactly 2 weeks later. Both father and son were U.S. citizens.

Compare Wasserman-Schultz’ reactions to those of Touré on the same topic (unfortunately, this clip won’t embed on this site, so you’ll have to click it. It’s short, and I promise it’s worth your time).

Touré was embroiled in a controversy last year with Piers Morgan over the death of Trayvon Martin, whose 18th birthday would have been yesterday. Martin’s ‘crime,’ as “journalist” Geraldo Rivera and prosecutors allege—was not that he was black, but that he was wearing a hoodie in an exclusive gated community. Touré was especially critical of Morgan about not having interviewed George Zimmerman–who shot and killed Martin–and his brother Robert, critically and forcefully.

You will see from the below clip one such heated discussion between the two of them where, invoking certain nativist sentiments, Touré insisted that because Morgan was not American, he didn’t understand true journalistic rigor.

Morgan is hardly an icon of journalistic responsibility, but Toure’s comments are remarkable and self-righteously patronizing:

Let me explain to you a little bit at what’s at stake here. This is a major moment in American history and America’s reaching a bit of a boiling point in terms of dealing with this issue. And when we allow for misinformation and obfuscation and people to become confused about the truth about what’s going on, then we become part of the problem and not part of the seeking a solution.

He continues to berate Morgan for “being a part of the problem” for allowing the Zimmerman brothers to come on the air and spread misinformation and lies that “we know many people will believe.”

Do you know that in the hallways of MSNBC we were laughing at you today? We wouldn’t even take ‘em–standards of practices at MSNBC wouldn’t even let them through the door. (1:15)

I’m hardly a fan of Piers Morgan; but Touré’s response was an especially interesting one. Remember this part from the SpinCity clip?

If you join Al-Qaeda, you lose the right to due process, you become an enemy of this nation. And you’re committing treason. And I don’t see why we should expand (sic) American rights to people who want to kill Americans. This is not criticizing the United States. This is going to war against the United States.

Treason is a charge that can be leveled at a U.S. citizen, not a “foreign” enemy. He is also surprised to learn that Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki is American minor. Take a look again at 00:34.

Touré: What do you mean a 16-year old who is killed? I’m not talking about civilians.

Steve Kornacki and S.E. Cupp (the ‘conservative’) assure Touré that they are talking about a 16 year old Denver-born teen who was killed. Touré looks confused.

Touré: If people are working against America, then they need to die.

According to Touré’s own standard, he is part of the problem. Is MSNBC laughing at Touré, one wonders?

There is a certain nativist, if not xenophobic, consistency on Touré’s part. Rightfully insisting on paying attention to the racist context surrounding Martin’s death, he nevertheless challenges Morgan’s attitudes on the grounds that Morgan is not “from here.” For all of Touré’s understanding about the racial context of unfair murders, he appears to be ignorant of and indifferent to the fact that a young Muslim (American) boy was killed by a drone under the auspices of the POTUS.

We see a similar nativism in Touré’s sentiments about restricting due process to “Americans”—even after he learns that Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki IS American. [Not to worry though, Kristal Ball jumps in to assure us that this issue is not “black and white,” but “definitely one of those areas of grey.” As S.E. Cupp points out, killing 700 children through drone strikes is hardly “an area of grey.”]

According to Touré (5:30), what Morgan understands as “challenging” interview subjects is barely critical, barely journalistic. Says Touré:

What you understand as challenging, perhaps, maybe that’s what goes in England. That’s not what we do in terms of challenging in America…I would have liked to see him pushed and challenged, more followup, more pushback, more research to understand.

Really? Considering that Touré’s “version” of critical (“leftie”) journalism takes the form of vociferous unwillingness to ask for proof of one’s “terrorist credentials,” or to question the validity of the white paper (never mind the range of “counter-terrorism” law that has increasingly shrouded executive decisions in secrecy), I have to wonder what it is “that we do here in America.”

Touré goes on this vein for another 10 minutes: a lecture to Piers Morgan about aggressive journalism, and how impossible it is that Zimmerman’s story is true, so “at that point, we can’t give him a light pushback; we have to give him a much tougher follow-up than that.” (6:20).

I’m waiting for Touré’s tough follow-up on POTUS’ kill lists, the WH’s Terror Tuesdays, and the white paper on targeted killing. As Touré snidely pretends to be impressed that Morgan has been covering the Trayvon Martin story for “a whole week, wow!” I’m wondering why Touré knows not at all about the 2011 murder of 16 year-old Awlaki or of the deaths of 700 children by drones.

Given his anger over Martin’s death and apparent ignorance about who Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki was, or what his crime was (namely that of having an “irresponsible father”), one could accuse Touré of having double-standards about the value of the lives of African American v. Muslim American 16 year old-teens, not to mention his own hypocritical indignance about Morgan, given that Touré is vociferously spreading misinformation.

Even then, his position regarding the white paper on targeted killings is that America is being attacked, Al-Qaeda is fighting a “post-geographic” war, and therefore the President, as the Commander-in-Chief is correct to decide who to kill–in secret and without any due process.

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The last person in this thread is correct; her words point to Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England–back in the 1760’s–when they had kings with political clout (Book 1, Ch. 7):

THE king, moreover, is not only incapable of doing wrong, but ever of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly or weakness.

One wonders how exactly how our “left” political class is “leaning forward.” If they dare to concede that wrong is done, it’s purely an accident. Which must make it morally acceptable.

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Feet to the Fire! Or is it “Lean Forward”?


Update (2/17/13): This article by Jemima Pierre on Black Agenda Report is a MUST READ. Written one year ago, it is dead-on accurate and precise. Pierre compares the assassinations of Trayvon Martin and Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki. Pierre, rather than Touré, should have been on this segment of The Cycle–without spin.

Central Park 5: Over Again

Revised (4:35 pm).

Last week, I attended a screening of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Central Park 5, which is based on a book by the same name, written by his daughter, Sarah, a former lawyer. It is a remarkable piece of investigative story-telling. It illuminates the banal—and horrifying–ways that five black teens were railroaded into falsely confessing to having participated in the rape of a Central Park jogger on April 19, 1989.  I draw upon Sarah Burns’ book to compensate for my faulty memory regarding some names and other details from the documentary.  Janell Ross has a marvelous, detailed article which overlaps with this piece in several ways; I should note that I found Ross’ article as I finished the penultimate draft of this essay.

Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Jr., Kevin Richardson, Yusuf Salaam, and Antron McCray were 5 among the 15-25 teens who gathered in Central Park on that fateful night.  Most of them did not know each other until well after their police interrogations.  Two of the teens had gone home; Korey Wise was not on the list of suspects that the police were looking for that night. Yet, when the police searching for Yusuf Salaam encountered him, they urged Wise to go to the station anyway (sadly, he cooperated, and consequently served the most time in prison).

From there, their night unraveled. These young black and Puerto Rican teens were railroaded into spoken, written, and even videotaped confessions of a crime they knew nothing about. But how could the five of them confess—individually and not knowing each other—to such a crime? That is the question that occurs to all who watch the documentary. It is also a question that will occur to anyone who has considered the relation of torture to confessions over the last decade.

That is one of the many brilliant insights of this documentary: to illustrate vividly how such obviously counter-intuitive and ultimately self-destructive actions could be undertaken by 5 youth.  At the point of their videotaped confessions, many of them had been in custody for 24, 27 hours—without sleep, without food, but under plenty of duress and fear.  They were all minors—under 16, and some as young as 14.  Some were under the watchful presence of parents who urged them to say what the police wanted, so that they could finally “go home” as they had been promised by numerous policemen. Ross offers an illuminating recounting of how such confessions were extracted. An important point to note here: if these—false–confessions were obtained in circumstances considerably less forceful than the overt torture that was initially conducted under the direction of the highest echelons of the Bush Administration, imagine the excrement that passes for “valuable information” garnered under torture—um–“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.”  As Marcy Wheeler points out, the same information gathered under EIT has been deployed to involve the U.S. in a war in Iraq under false pretenses, resulting in the “unnecessary deaths of 4,000 Americans and to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.”

Someone at the screening referred to the tragedy that destroyed the lives of these five young men as the result of “a perfect storm.” On this understanding, these young men spent 7 to 13 years in prison due to the unique confluence of public anger; the pressure on law enforcement to find and arrest someone; the pressure placed on the 5 black male teens to confess to a crime that occurred before they had entered the park; and the need to convict someone in order to assuage the public’s fears, fears that were fanned and amplified by local and national newspapers reportage–if we can call it that.

To describe the situation as ‘a perfect storm’ is to point to that moment as a singular or idiosyncratic event.  It is a refusal to see the glaringly obvious: this was not all that unusual or unique.  It was a profoundly racist response to a single event that snowballed in response to public racial anxiety and safety fears about a city that was then thought to be one of the most dangerous in the country. It occurred because newspapers, law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense attorneys refused to do their jobs with integrity, conscience, or diligence. These same reporters, cops, and lawyers may have been obstinate, indifferent, or indolent due to the racial character and the class of the suspects—and the contrasting attributes of the victim (a white female investment banker, who exemplified the aspirations of women and their families around the US in the world before bank fraud became a household phrase). Or they have just been continually rewarded with excessive discretion that allowed for an unctuous indifference—something along the following lines of thought: “They’re poor black teens. Who’s going to give a rat’s ass whether they get locked up or not? And hey, in the meantime, we get to be heroes for finding them!”

It is difficult to remember that these events happened over a decade before September 11, 2001. Well before “terrorism” and “torture” became household phrases. Well before “national security” laws allowed prosecutors to withhold evidence from defendants and their lawyers. Well before torture was used to cruelly and systematically dehumanize Muslim men.  Before Omar Khadr—who was only 16 years old—was locked up in Guantanamo. Before 16 year old Muslim men found in proximity to “terrorist cells” in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, as “military age males” were deemed military combatants and hence, legitimate targets of drone strikes. Before Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi was droned to death as he ate dinner with friends in the open air—for the crime of having an irresponsible father. Before Mohamed Mohamud and many other young men were entrapped into plotting “terrorist” actions.

The resonances, the similarities, between the events related to the “Central Park 5,” and those related to the War on Terror are striking.

As Jim Dwyer, a long-time NYT reporter whose comments frame Burns’ documentary, pointed out: reporters, police enforcement, defense lawyers and prosecutors did not do their jobs. There were inconsistencies throughout the case—between the evidence found and not found (like the absence of these young men’s DNA on any of the victim’s clothing; the 18-inch wide path through which the victim’s body was dragged—too narrow for 6, let alone 26 people to have walked; the implausibly long distance between where the group of men were known to be from the location when the rape actually occurred, etc.).

We could apply Dwyer’s words to the numerous cases being aggressively tried by the Department of Justice: from Adnan Latif’s wrongful imprisonment  to those of Omar Khadr, Tarek Mehanna, Syed Fahad Hashmi, Jose Padilla, Rezwan Ferdaus.  In each instance we see the determined lack of interest on the part of federal courts in making evidence public, in allowing defense attorneys to press prosecutors about inconsistencies (hell—to press about access to evidence); we see the zealous interest in federal prosecutors like Preet Bharara, Carmen Ortiz, or others who fight on behalf Attorney General Eric Holder’s office, to insist that more scrupulous evidence need not be made available—not to the public, not to journalists who actually want to investigate, not to defense lawyers. We see successful entrapments—like that of Korey Wise (who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was packed off to prison for over a decade) —  of Mohamed Mohamud, and numerous others.

After the Central Park 5 mens’ verdicts were overturned after the actual rapist confessed and his confession was affirmed by DNA testing, these five falsely framed, convinted and imprisoned men sued the NYPD in 2003. The NYPD has spent the last decade fighting the lawsuit, and has gone after Burns and his team in order to stop the film and confiscate the unused outtakes, claiming that Burns is not a journalist and therefore is not entitled to keep his research and sources confidential. The federal court has agreed—on the grounds that Burns advocated for the families.

In a parallel gesture, the federal courts today side with the Obama Administration in prosecuting whistleblowers to the hilt—an attempt to shield the US government from accountability for its extensive and documented wrongdoing. Similarly, the lawsuit filed by Chris Hedges and other journalists against provisions giving unprecedented authority to POTUS to detain and intercept anyone anywhere for engaging or associating with ‘terrorists,’ has a chilling effect on journalistic work, as Naomi Wolf argues. Jailed Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haydr Shaye knows all too well the power of POTUS to punish those who embarrass his drone program by revealed horrific murders.

Another parallel: The young black men in the Central Park 5 were put in extreme and dangerous prisons like Riker’s Island; whereas Mehanna, Hashmi, Padilla and others have been sentenced to anywhere from 15 or more years in supermax prisons, known for their solitary confinement and inhumane conditions. As Jeff Kaye notes, some, like Fahad Hashmi

 …accepted a plea bargain on the single charge of conspiracy to provide “material support” to “a foreign terrorist organization. (Three other charges were dropped.) But lacking any actual links to terrorism, or any history of violence whatsoever, evidence points to governmental animus against Hashmi for his outspoken public criticism of denial of Muslim civil rights and constitutional protections in the post-9/11 period. which are known for their lack of due process, weak charges, and and even weaker evidence.

Others like Omar Khadr, as Andy Worthington notes, was picked up and interrogated at Guantanamo when he was 16. Below, Kevin Gosztola draws on Worthington’s detailed examination of Khadr, who “was put on trial for the “war crime” of allegedly throwing a hand grenade that killed a US Delta Force soldier.” His lawyer said, “There is no evidence that he violated the law of war,” if he threw the grenade. Whoever threw the grenade was “attacking a lawful military target with a lawful weapon,” Worthington added. Khadr was sentenced to forty years in prison but could only serve eight because of a pre-trial plea deal for fighting back.”

Khadr was a child shamelessly exploited, pressured, tortured, and confined by various political authorities for shameless political gain, much like the 5 teenagers discussed here.

The evidence against the NYPD and the DA’s office is damning: The NYPD tricked—lied to–these young men and pressured them to confess.  Elizabeth Lederer, one of the Assistant District Attorneys on the case, seems to have known even before the trial that the evidence could not convict these young men.  As Burns’ documentary showed, Lederer seems to have known of the inconsistencies; the haunted look on her face after having convicted these men appears to confirm her bad faith.

Speaking of bad faith, late last night, a white paper was leaked by the Department of Justice, in which they insist that the United States doesn’t need proof of Americans as Senior Al-Qaeda members in order to put a hit on them. Contrary to Attorney Eric Holder’s insistence that no U.S. citizens would ever be targeted by the U.S. government, in fact, a mere suspicion without evidence is sufficient to target someone for the Obama Administration’s kill list.

Then, as now, newspapers knew that they could sell, sell, sell by playing to the centuries-old public anxiety and fears. In 1989, the fears focused on the sexuality of black men, of black crime.

As Sarah Burns puts it, “News outlets competed to see who could be most outraged by the attack and who could make the boys look most guilty. The Daily News and Post headlines screamed the loudest. In the week following the attack, each paper conspicuously displayed the story on its front page six out of seven days. Never did those articles question whether the suspects had committed the crime, or use the word alleged in reference to them” (69).

Sound familiar? Today, the fear focuses on the ‘Muslim threat,’ the “culture of terrorism,” the practice of “suicide bombing,” the tendency of young men to initiate terrorist plots.  It wasn’t a perfect storm. Then, as now, it is a perfect scapegoating. A perfect targeting. A perfect witchhunt. Perfect. Perfect in that it repeats and anticipates the racial targeting of men (and women), while intimating that ‘no one is to blame,’ and that while race is a factor, it is not the primary factor in this event.  What Burns’ documentary illustrates is the way that a confluence of actors participated in assuaging the public pressure on themselves to “solve” the rape case—not by injecting some common sense into the discussion, or by challenging the hoopla, or by appealing to the norms or rules of due process or appealing to the notion of “innocence until proven guilty.”

S. Burns writes: “Beyond the fact that these mainstream outlets assumed the guilt of the Central Park suspects without any sense of journalistic skepticism, the media coverage also employed blatantly racist language and imagery. Animal references abounded. When referring to the suspects, the words wolfpack and wilding were used hundreds of times and came to be emblems of the case, a shorthand that nearly everyone used and that still elicits memories of the Central Park Jogger’s rape in many minds.” (69)

For the last decade, mainstream media, including the New York Times, have happily, profitably demonized young Muslim men under the guise of providing “public information.”

Then, as S. Burns points out, Donald Trump—without ever mentioning the Central Park case–went so far as paying $85,000 for full-page ads in multiple New York daily papers calling for the return of the death penalty and demanding the executions of the “roving bands of wild criminals.” (73)

Today, Pamela Gellar and her ilk advertise throughout metro and subway stations across NYC and Washington, DC about “War on Civilized Man.”

This, then, is why I refuse to accept the idea of a “perfect storm,” namely that what happened to these young teens is 1) random; 2) racially neutral; 3) an isolated event; 4) the confluence of unfortunate circumstances that exacerbated a terrible situation. We are seeing a replay of the same confluence again. Does any of this sound familiar?

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