Guns, Violence and Entitlement

The national focus on the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida has pointed to an ever-increasing agreement on the best policy action: Take away guns. Now. Indeed, 20 years after Columbine, there have been 122 murders of children and school employees, and the number of school shootings has mounted to 208. The outrage surrounding this massacre is completely warranted, as is the response to ban assault rifles and to regulate weapons in the United States. The reasons have been well-rehearsed and are plentiful: we can’t control who uses them; they are used irresponsibly; they are not necessary for a well-functioning society—in fact they are antithetical to a well-functioning society, etc.

The unceasing shock can be heard in a Broward county commissioner’s remarks about the Parkland shooting: “This is not a community where you would expect…not that you would expect it anywhere.” He was quick to point out that Parkland was a close-knit community, that the Douglas High School was an “A” school (presumably that is a very good thing), and that it was “safe,” etc. In other words, horrific events like that are not supposed to happen “here.” I’m left with the question: where are they supposed to happen?

Are they supposed to happen in poor communities with sub-standard schools? Are they supposed to happen in Black or Latino communities? Is that why we don’t see the same level of concern and horror? Are the deaths of civilians and children at the hands of U.S. firepower supposed to happen in Yemen and Pakistan and Somalia? Is that why we don’t see the same level of concern and horror?

Taking away guns is an effective measure. I agree absolutely. It is also a provisional measure that will not get to the heart of a more deep-seated, burning issue: the anger, the violence, the entitled rage behind many of these events. I want us to consider how much we take violence for granted as a part of our daily psyche—but as something to be deployed against those we don’t value, or fear, or despise. Such violence might be effectively seen as emerging from a culture of entitlement: to hurt, injure, damage those who we see either as a) threats or b) less deserving of life or c) both.

I don’t know why Cruz did what he did. Some argue that it was because he was mentally ill. Perhaps. Violence is not restricted to likes of young men like Nikolas Cruz. Whereas Cruz is depicted as ill, when Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. soldier and psychiatrist who shot other soldiers at Ft. Hood Army Base, he was seen as a terrorist. In both instances, they felt entitled to do shoot in order to kill people: there were no threats upon their lives, or at least no discernible ‘cause,” if that is even a relevant concept.

It is a violence that is taken up vigorously by our police forces, our Army, our Navy, our Marine Corps, and is deployed against so many different segments of the world’s population. “Legitimate” injury is always connected to a “just dessert.”

He got shot in the back by a police officer? “Why didn’t he just stop running”?

The police hauled her into custody and she died: “Why didn’t she put out that cigarette?”

He’s been detained in a military prison without charges and tortured for 17 years? “He got what was coming.”

Some trace this violence to the entitled anger of white men. Certainly, that is part of the issue. But it is not just the anger of white men that we need to worry about; we need to worry about the collective, entitled violence embraced by a population that has mostly dealt with its fears, desires, greed, and conflicts through war, incarceration, torture, bombings against populations around the globe. These are collectively, institutionally, socially approved formulations and enactments of violence.

“Good” philosophers are supposed to make distinctions, to insist on comparing like kinds, to refuse to compare “oranges” with “apples.” And yet, by attending to precise distinctions that are based on some skewed sense of the lowest common denominator (“gun violence” is not sexual violence”), by framing events in isolation, then we depoliticize the features that these events have in common: violence, the sense of entitlement to impose violence on certain groups, while decrying similar forms of violence on other groups.

I am a bad philosopher.

War, whether fought on the ground, or remotely: through drones and missiles, seems to be taken as a routine inevitability. “Sure…we have wars. We need to protect ourselves from the enemy, from terrorists, from the people of other nations who breed those terrorists.” [1] We hardly question these [unless we mark ourselves as pacifist, hippy, peacenik types] since, after all, we need a military and police force—don’t we? To protect ourselves? “Our” property? “Our (whose?) children and women?”

Still, we refuse to grapple with that larger issue of violence: the one that is met with muted cries of outrage at best when the U.S. invades Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds of dubious charges of WMD’s. We have refused to grapple with the larger issue of injustice and violence when the US drones children and civilians who are part of wedding celebrations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia ad elsewhere.

We’re only now beginning to confront the issue of sexual violence when it affects beautiful wealthy white women on the screen—but many—white women AND white men– were blissfully oblivious to the sexual and physical violence imposed on Black women under slavery, and post-slavery. In contemporary times, UN peacekeepers are only now being called out for raping and violating children and women around the world: Haiti, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and elsewhere. And yet, when such actions take place in organizational/institutional contexts, some of those who should know better find ways to justify the barbarism of the “civilizers” as being difficult to maintain primitive locations.

It’s not just the violence enacted through weaponry and warfare and rape that we need to worry about. We condone violence against rapists, sexual offenders, murderers. And even though this attitude is now attributed to Trump and his white supremacist/nationalist bedfellows (since we have forgotten that this policy position has been decades old), many of us approved violence against those who refused to stay away from U.S. borders.

By insisting that school shootings are about freely accessible guns, without connecting the issue of gun violence to the larger acceptance of violence deployed around the world, we are shortchanging our ability to find other effective solutions. We need to understand violence in its systematicity. —The violence of the lone shooter is not unconnected to the remorseless droning, shooting, or rape of civilians. The violence deployed against beautiful, wealthy white women is not unconnected to the rapes and sexual exploitation of Black and brown human beings—under slavery, under Jim Crow, under the post-Civil Rights era, under the guise of UN Peacekeeping or NGO’s like Oxfam trying to civilize “barbaric” regions.

Many folks on social media point to Australia’s reduction of the gun violence problem to zero after having decided in 1992 to confiscate all guns. Other nations have done the same. But most of them aren’t nations that have lead the world into global wars time and time again. The U.S has been one of those nations. Does this mean that I think that eliminating guns won’t have a productive effect on the reducing some part of the violence in this country? No. I emphatically agree with the predictions that extreme gun regulation will have an impact in reducing deaths. As Emma Gonzalez also pointed out: Nikolas Cruz would not have been able to kill so many people with just a knife.

It is absolutely important to end easy access to most guns, and all assault weapons. But ending access won’t eliminate the underlying, systemic problem. It may just make it easier to ignore.

 

[1] It irritates me to no end to have the term ‘terrorist’ appropriated casually in order to redeploy it towards anyone else. The term needs to be questioned and deleted, not incorporated casually into household use—even if it is for the purpose of highlighting the evils of white shooters, or our president, or the NRA. The more casually the term is deployed, the more we normalize it as a term to be deployed against anyone we want to vilify, without having to argue for it.

Which Mothers Do We Honor?

Which Mothers Do We Honor?

 

 

As many folks paid homage to their mothers on social media yesterday, I worried a bit (okay, a lot) about the way that their public sentiments papered over the ways in which societies (and yes, “we”) dishonor mothers around the world: the ways in which judges and juries refuse to acknowledge and protect women who kill their spouses in self-defense–spouses who are violent and abusive toward their wives and children. I wonder about the tension where the respect for mothers gets invoked in the breath in which we neglect to support black and brown and undocumented mothers who are un/under-employed or making insufficient wages. I question the ways in which we (myself included) chirp Happy Mother’s Day while legislators annul the reproductive autonomy of poor women, or women with few social or material resources to abort pregnancies.

 

I can’t help but contrast the ways that “we” honor “our” mothers in individual and highly public ways while we simultaneously uphold a political and cultural system that punishes children who mention sexual or physical abuse–by refusing more feasible options than removing children from the household and depriving them of parents altogether.

 

I worry about the ways in which the state (yes, even the pre-Trump state) criminalizes women who engage in prostitution because there are no better ways to make an income needed to care for their children. I worry about the ways in which women’s pleas for economic, psychic, emotional assistance, or the need for networks gets ignored by their families, friends, neighbors who are “too busy,” to help, or read these pleas as pathologies, as reflecting an unwillingness to “buck up and deal” or “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

 

I am concerned about the ways in which “we”—both on the right and the left disparage abused women who refuse to leave their spouses. Disparagement even when they and the subjects of their derision—the women who are already injured and suffering—know that leaving their spouses, while providing relief from a daily onslaught of abuse, still invites an open-ended future-often an indefinite future in which they flail about through insufficiently funded battered women’s and homeless shelters, where they unceasingly try to shield their children from the trauma, the stigma of having left their father, left their school systems, left their routines and beds. All of this–while suffering yet again, through social and familial ostracization for having breached patriarchal normative frameworks of relationships

 

Lest y’all think I’m being too cynical: Anna Jarvis, daughter of Anna Reeves Jarvis (founder of Mother’s Friendship Day in the1850’s—a much more structural political battle), died penniless trying to fight the commercialization of Mother’s Day. Still, Jarvis Jr.’s was less of a political celebration of Mother’s Day than was her mother’s vision.

 

I don’t begrudge those who wish to observe various moms on this Hallmark holiday (I’ve done so as well). But as we know, the point of Hallmark holidays is to render a deeply political, often oppressive structure “apolitical,” sentimental, devoid of power, injustice, and hierarchical politics. When we honor mothers on Facebook, or elsewhere on social media, we are submitting to the political economy of Hallmark. Buying cards, making breakfast, cleaning the house, offering a gift to one’s own mother offers a joy to both mother and child—but it is a fleeting joy. It enjoins one to forget the political structure in which “we” incarcerate mothers who enter the country illegally, or break up those families by deporting undocumented parents, or insist that applicants for asylum (often mothers) need to prove even harder their dire need of refuge from gangs, or rapists, or civil war, or famine—when in fact all of these are real and often caused through our United States foreign and economic and energy policies: whether structural adjustment polices through the World Bank, or loopholes in climate protocols, or through the introduction of war in the name of National Security.

 

All of this to ask: which mothers are we honoring?

The Politics of Distraction and Chaos

The latest Executive Order from DT, banning Syrian refugees and putting a 90 day hold on Iraqi nationals who want to enter the US has, at least on the surface, put us on a new playing field it seems. I tried to find the list of the other 5 countries that the press, from the NYT to CNN, has insisted is on the list of banned countries. There is nothing in the executive order about it, although there are references to earlier segments of US law that appear to list those countries. According to CNN, an earlier draft of the order (why can’t we have access to that??) listed the seven countries to which this EO applies. But I see no other confirmation, apart from the media parroting each other.

Here’s the upshot as far as I can tell: those five countries were listed on an original list of exceptions to Visa waivers, passed in December 2015 as part of an Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2016 (h/t to Emory Law School professor Deborah Dinner for helping me figure where to look, and for pointing me to Seth Frantzman’s site for some leads). I don’t agree with Frantzman’s conclusions, but still his efforts to find where the assumed countries are listed are commendable.

Frantzman points us to an announcement from the DHS website, wherein in they list 3 more countries to the list of 3 others already on the list to be exempted from the Visa Waiver Travel program, i.e., travelers from this list will not be eligible for visa waiver exemptions). The six countries are as follows: Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria (already mentioned in DT’s EO).

 

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You will notice that these are seven countries listed under a Travel Visa Waiver restriction that was passed in December 2015, announced in February 2016, that is, under the Obama Administration. Trump’s EO in effect develops further the policy enacted under Obama’s DHS, namely suspending visa issuances to those foreign nationals. To be sure, The Obama policy was narrower than the Trump EO, But let’s also be clear: these were countries of concern under the Obama Administration’s watch.

Trump’s EO suspends the Visa Waiver altogether, requiring in-person interviews for all persons seeking non-immigrant visas.

It is also the case that Trump’s EO is much more sweeping than the DHS restrictions, in that it seeks to suspend the entry of all refugees for 120 days, pending further scrutiny, and suspends the entry of all Syrian refugees until further notice (which is not the same as forever, but perhaps that’s a distinction without a difference).

Trump’s is a rather cleverly crafted EO, in that there is no explicit reference to all Muslims, but rather to “Islamic terrorists” (which we can certainly read as an “existential threat,” to paraphrase Judge Bruce Selya in his 2013 opinion on the Tarek Mehanna case. And we know that “terrorist” is a salient and legally acceptable category in a way that “banning all Muslims” is not. So, I suspect that this EO will-through conventionally narrow legal readings—be upheld as constitutional.

But all that is neither here nor there. I think there is another point here which is extremely salient: This is a politics of distraction and chaos in to which we would do well not to cave. Remember that this EO was effective in stopping exactly 109 travelers in the first 24 hours of the EO taking effect. 109 of 325,000 foreign nationals who fly into the US in a 24 hour period. Of course, this doesn’t include the number of travelers who were turned back in international airports, who are stranded elsewhere. But I worry that the Trump Administration in delivering these splashy—incredibly incompetent, ill-planned, insufficiently vetted EO’s–is leading us around like trained seals. They know we’re protesting, they’re expecting it, and it expends our energy while other less visible chaos is being wrought. In that sense, (and I did join the protests yesterday), I’m reminded of Walter Benjamin’s comments about the aestheticization of politics in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.

Agreed, we are not proletarian masses, and I hestitate to use the term “Fascism,” because it is overused. But I’m struck by his point that property is preserved while political expression is exercised. I’m also reminded of Hannah Arendt’s point about how the success of authoritarian regimes depends upon throwing us into confusion and chaos, while other devastating acts are undertaken under “dark of night,” as it were (my phrase).

This is not to say that there isn’t important reason to be on record as dissenting. This is not to say that there is no cause for concern—but Trump/Bannon et al are continuing a certain politics of distraction that has been in effect for a long time, including under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations—namely getting us to focus on a certain social politics of antagonism and hate, while they enact other deeply destructive economic policies: NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall (leading eventually to the massive mortgage foreclosure crisis), financial treats for pals in the investment banking industry, the loss of pensions, bailing out the banks, cowtowing to the health insurance industry, etc.

We know that Trump has put Steve Bannon, clown and white supremacist extraordinaire (excuse me, his “Chief of Staff” on the NSC), along with the NSC Executive Secretary, while removing the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs from permanent status. This is a WTF moment. Responses from the Trump administration responded that they didn’t want to waste the DNI’s or Chairman’s time. I repeat: WTF?

We also know that over the weekend, Trump launched a barely-noticed drone strike in Yemen that killed the the 8 year old daughter—and the second, US citizen, child– of suspected terrorist and US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki’s children (the first, American 16 year old Abdulrahman having been killed during an Obama Administration drone strike). You can read all about the heinousness of the Obama Admin’s actions at the previous link.

The big question for me here is: what else are these bozos up to? What are they trying to pass under the radar while keeping our noses focused on this superficial “Clash of Civilizations” approach to foreign policy and immigration/visa policies? What kind of economic destruction are they playing into? Funnily enough, even Benjamin Wittes, on his Lawfare blog (with whom I agree about almost nothing), also thinks there’s something else going on besides “national security concerns”.

Something to consider while we’re being distracted and thrown into chaos.

 

 

 

Some thoughts as we head even further* into the KaliYuga (the epoch of terrible things)…

This post comes after a long hiatus from this blog: almost 2.5 years later. As some of you know, I lost my darling almost 2 years ago next week, and I moved to the South  which, remarkably, has showered hope on me again despite the current moment.  Salon has dropped me from their masthead (without notice), and so I return to my blog. I’d like to think that this piece constitutes a happy (re)inauguration of this blog. Happier than the one happening in DC today in any case. This piece honors the memory of Robert E. Prasch III, and speaks to some of our shared concerns. Love to you all and thanks for reading.

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Two days ago, I was called in for jury duty in my new home territory of DeKalb County, Georgia. That’s part of the 5th district, for all y’all who are keeping track of the spat between Rep. John Lewis and the Trumpster. I spent nine hours in total in the DeKalb County Courthouse. Six of those hours were in a courtroom with 17 others while lawyers for the state of Georgia and the defense asked us a series of questions. The questions were designed to weed out potential jurors who might present obstacles to either side of the case. The charges involved domestic battery, leveled against a young black man, probably not older than 20.

We were ushered out of the courtroom several times so the lawyers could confer privately or speak with some of us who declined to elaborate on our answers publicly. As the day wore on, the 17 of us (one was dismissed immediately for an important reason which I won’t share with you so as not to give any of y’all ideas) developed a sense of camaraderie, kind of like “feeling close” to the participants of your favorite reality TV show. And people’s most intimate views came out. In particular the following 2 views were ringing loud and clear: 1) the accused guy was guilty of the charges. 2) they were hoping to be excused from the jury, because they had a bunch of important work meetings. It was patently clear that a number of us were grasping at straws, but giving lame answers to questions in the hopes of getting off jury duty.

Many of us, I’m betting, were anti-Trump folks. I know that the two who expressed the previous comments were definitely anti-Trump. When they (both women) found out that I was a WGSS faculty member at Emory, they anticipated that I was going to participate in the Women’s march. I’m wondering if anyone else besides me sees the tension in this story: Participating in the Women’s march was important. But giving the man in front of us the benefit of the doubt, and feeling obligated to participate on a jury of his peers somehow didn’t occur to them.

****

As I read lots of suggestions about what do instead of/after the Women’s March (talking circles, get-togethers for strangers who don’t talk to each other, be nice to people, make space for everyone to speak, “resist hate, exclusion, and policies that impoverish your community”…run for office, etc. etc.), I’m struck by how there has been little mention of practices that seem to be the least glamorous and the most important:

Maintain your civic responsibilities. Undertake your political obligations as citizens: not just to vote and to speak. But to try NOT to get excused from jury duty if you think you can be a fair juror (being impartial, I think, is next to impossible, but one can try to be fair). Juries are hugely important sites of social change and justice. Thinking thoughtfully, deliberatively, generously, and fairly is one of the most underestimated values of civic citizenship. And remember that for many decades, non-whites, women of any color or status, COULD NOT SERVE on a jury as the peers of the accused. This is, as problematic as it is, an important civic responsibility—undervalued, and casually dismissed by many of the most otherwise justice-minded of our friends and family.

On a broader level:

Figure out what kind of assistance/advocacy you can offer to men/women/children who are inadequately represented in our legal system. Be a children’s advocate. Join organizations that assist those who are charged with crimes and don’t have adequate laws or protections of their dignity and interests: the elderly, children without parents/legal guardians, men and women of color (Black, Arab, Latino, often) to protect their interests in the courtroom or in prison.

It’s important to be nice and generous and practice kindness and organize gatherings where we talk to each other and make each other feel better.

But there are a lot of folks who are already suffering under policies that, if not enacted under the Obama Administrations, were continued or exacerbated over the last eight years: Muslim men in solitary confinement due to specious material support statutes that make it nearly impossible for them to get a fair trial; men and women of color who are falsely accused of crimes against police officers; undocumented migrants who are penned up in prisons for months because they have “made the mistake” of trying to flee violence (public or domestic or sexual), disbelieved by overworked, harried, or indifferent bureaucrats. The list could/should be continued indefinitely, but you know the details.

Often, the best resistance is that which is everyday, obvious, and unsung. Be a citizen if you still have that privilege and defend others who don’t have—or who may have lost that right–through no fault of their own.

*As Jane Bunker aptly reminded me, we’ve been in the KaliYuga for a while. And it doesn’t really mean the epoch of terrible things, although it does suggest the Dark Epoch. Forgive my idiomatic interpretation…

Shoot first, ask later: Why the concept of “reasonable fear” is anything but reasonable

Hi, all. I’ve taken a Twitter breather. I’m finding that my work is a little more focused off Twitter, but will probably be back a little later. This post came out in Salon earlier in the month, but I thought I’d post and link to it here for readers who might have missed it:

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Recently, Tamara Nopper and Mariame Kaba authored a haunting article, “Itemizing Atrocity,” analyzing reactions and analyses of the police shooting of Michael Brown and the seemingly sudden militarization of the police. They point to Ferguson as an example of the excess of the spectacle that draws attention to the most extreme cases of brutality or violence, and simultaneously renders the daily, hourly, violence faced by black Americans as ordinary and therefore unworthy of the empathy engendered in extreme cases.

Attention is drawn to the “spectacular event” rather than to the point of origin or the mundane. Circulated are the spectacles — dead black bodies lying in the streets or a black teenager ambushed by several police officers in military gear, automatic weapons drawn.

Their insights resonated as every major media outlet covered the repeated, more extreme, ever-growing confrontations between protestors and Ferguson law enforcement. The sympathy for the brutalized in Ferguson emerged as a response to the documented ill treatment of relatively privileged and protected whites (reporters, supporters, observers) who momentarily faced the same treatment that is de rigeur for vulnerable blacks — in Ferguson, St. Louis, Chicago, Paterson, Charlotte, Houston, New Orleans, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Read the rest at Salon.

What Do You Mean “We” Tortured Some Folks?

About a week ago, for the first time ever, the US government, through the comments of its Chief Executive no less, confirmed that “folks were tortured.” Simultaneously, he observed that there “was little need for sanctimony” given the heightened fears of the American public in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and the enormous pressure that law enforcement officials were under to prevent future attacks.

The President’s official confirmation that “folks” were tortured and not just undergoing “enhanced interrogation techniques”–was remarkable. They were striking not so much because the public learned something new, but because they should have ramifications for those who designed, justified and endorsed torture as part the US’s National Security strategy to combat terrorism.

For those who provide the legal cover for torture, including John Yoo and Jay Bybee, there might be some fear that an official US confirmation of torture will have ramifications for them. But they claim not to be afraid of prosecution. Given the soothing, exculpatory tone of the President’s remarks and AG Eric Holder’s lapdoggish compliance, (despite his 2009 resolute acknowledgment that waterboarding is torture), they have every reason to believe it.

Yet, his remarks are notably deceptive on a number of fronts.

Read the rest at Salon.com.

Ferguson: Not a revelation, but a reminder of White Supremacy

The news that a police officer shot an African American teen several times in the chest was shocking, horrifying, gut-wrenching. But it was not surprising. As even a weekly perusal of newspapers tells us, the murders of Black teens and men by private white citizens or police officers are common, ordinary, every day events. Two days after the shooting of Michael Brown, another young unarmed Black man, this time in Los Angeles, was shot by a police officer.

Yet, in the initial twenty-four hours after Michael Brown’s shooting, I saw flashes of the same questions in the comments to news articles and on Twitter: “What did he do?” “Why?” “Wtf?” Certainly, some of these were plaintive questions asked by grieving persons. But others reflected an earnest, though frustrating, innocence—one that found a shooting of a Black teen by a policeman to be unusual, accidental, coincidental, extraordinary. Their questions echoed as I flipped through the fleeting images that followed the news of the shooting—rows of police officers with shields and batons and terrifying looking dogs, pumped up and ready to attack–accompanied by articles about “looting and riots,” tear gas, sniper guns, and bullets.

Photo 6 in this New York Times slide show, among others, remains in my mind.

In the first three days after Michael Brown’s shooting, as the Black community gathered to protest his death, “left” media analyzed this event as if it were just a case of the police accidentally losing control. Elsewhere, mainstream news sites reported on the protests as if commenting on two equally strong baseball teams: The Cops versus Black people, rather than a case of Black protests against continual injustice. Other news sites report “rioting” and “looting,” as if looting is the prime obstacle to safety, rather than protecting Blacks against an arrogant, secure police force.

Read the rest at Salon.com

 

 

 

Human Rights and Selective Amnesia: Gazans’ expulsion from humanity

In 1946, mostly due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, the spouse of the late president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a committee was convened to draft what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As Mary Ann Glendon and Johann Morsink, individual authors of separate books on the UDHR, point out, the context for this document was hardly ideal: it was being developed in the midst of the increasing tensions of the Cold War, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the British handoff of Palestine to form the new Jewish state, and in the midst of an emerging insistence on self-rule in South Asia, among other places. Passed in 1948, ratified by 48 nations initially, the UDHR is heralded as a guidebook for human rights, presumably obligating all 192 UN member nations to acknowledge, if not observe it. It is, by most accounts a “Western” document, crafted by philosophers among others. It evokes the ideals of liberalism and the sacrosanct rights thought to be afforded to the individual, as well as the Kantian notion of human dignity (as something that is beyond value, that does not have a market price). It expresses the unconditional protection that individuals are thought to have with regard to their lives, their health, their ability to marry who they wish (an idea that has taken on a new light in the last few years), to form community with whomever one chooses, to have the ability to determine oneself as one pleases.

The UDHR is a breathtaking document, a mix of unadulterated optimism and seductive naïveté. It is impossible to read without asking how such a framework would ever be enforced. Indeed, this is exactly what students in my courses ask (or more cynically, scoff at). Hannah Arendt, writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust, criticized a human rights framework because of this paradoxical nature:

 

The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable—even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them—whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state.[1]

 

The question of enforceability ironically reveals the point of the UDHR: these protections should be assumed to be universal, unconditional, unanimously observed. And yet, as Arendt implies—the loss of human rights is predicated on the increasing dehumanization and vulnerability of those same human beings. The loss of human rights is preceded by the loss of one’s home, the loss of recognition of one’s “distinct” and precious existence.

The question of human rights arises when a people is inexorably moved toward dehumanization: displaced, violated, removed from their land. But the removal of people from their community, their home, already signals “the loss of government protection,” as Arendt says, and the loss of status as beings worth protecting: political beings, legal human beings. This loss is succinctly clinched by philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s phrase “bare life”—the unique, sacred existence of a people rendered into a barely distinguished mass of existence.

The long-standing paradox of human rights is that the declaration to observe them is a hollow scream that follows their loss, which is the consequence of the loss (if there ever was) of government interest in valuing a people.

We see this loss in US government policies since 9/11, most recently inaugurated by the Bush Administration but continued and enhanced under the Obama Administration: solitary confinement in Supermax and Guantanamo Bay; the tortuous force-feeding of Guantanamo hunger strikers; the aggressive detention of undocumented migrants in the US; the aggressive deportation attempts of child refugees from Central America, the rendition of suspected terrorists in CIA black sites (and eventually to US prisons); the entrapment of Black and South Asian Muslim men in FBI stings.

Today’s most vivid example is the continued support of Israel’s assault on Gaza, and the US’s support of that assault. Even as pictures of severely injured and dismembered children proliferate on-line, the Washington Post publishes team editorials and op-eds insisting that Israel must “crush Hamas.” Israel justifies carpet-bombing Gaza and the death of hundreds of children by insisting that Hamas uses “human shields.” Even while confessing to being traumatized by pictures of dead civilians, Senator John Kerry repeated the White House line that Israel “has the right to defend itself.”

The latter is a stale and hollow canard, reiterated by American newspapers and politicians alike. It is especially hollow in the face of an obviously one-sided genocidal pummeling of a tiny region. Gaza is, let’s remember, one of the most densely populated regions in the world—where there are no exits or escape from the relentless bombing except into the sea.

As of last night, the sixth UN school was bombed by Israel despite 17 warnings as to the shelter’s location. The UN schools were supposed to be protected shelters—intended as refuges for Palestinians who feared their homes would be targeted by Israeli missiles, Yet, despite reports of massive numbers of injuries and casualties, no one in the Israeli government has seen fit to issue an apology. “Self-defense.”

Let us assume for even a moment that despite many first-hand accounts to the contrary, Israel is correct in that Hamas is using “human shields.” Shouldn’t this very possibility give Israel pause? If it were indeed a brinksmanship game, given that Israel has been—will be—barely scathed by Hamas’ rockets, shouldn’t it refrain from blanketing Gaza with missiles that are seen to be annihilating hospitals, children, doctors—all unanimously agreed to be innocent targets? (Never mind that Palestinian men, too, are innocent targets, even as few acknowledge that.) It may be relevant to mention here that Israel is familiar with practice of using Palestinians as human shields. Despite a 2005 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that banned the Israeli government from doing so, it was accused of the same practice as recently as last year.

Yet, the constant Israeli retort of “self-defense” obscures Palestinians’ entitlement to human rights as channeled into the UDHR, prioritizing a selective amnesia in the aftermath of the genocide of European Jews. This robotic line is hardly unique to Israel. It has been echoed in justifying the U.S.’s “war on terror.” Remember President George W. Bush’s insistence, in the aftermath of 9/11: “You’re with us or against us”? This is what the assemblage of a “national security” apparatus is—the totalizing, synchronized governmental rhetoric that surrounds us whichever way we turn: From the creation of the US Department of Homeland Security, to the expansion of the NSA (the National Security Agency), to the shift in name from INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to ICE (Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement), the modern Western discourse reminds us that “national security” takes priority above any other consideration. The message emanates from its paid lackeys and chicken hawks alike, from Senator Dianne Feinstein to NSA Director Keith Alexander and to DNI Director James Clapper to politicians looking forward to their next campaign (witness Elizabeth Warren’s page and the votes of “progressive politicians from Bernie Sanders to Patrick Leahy) to mercenaries looking for their next million. But “any other consideration” includes not just cost, labor, energy—but also the Lives of Other People (Just Not Ours).

In effect, this is the current post 9/11 global paradigm: F*ck the Lives of Other People (FLOP) in the name of national security. Pundits have called it the New Imperialism, but I think it’s much more apt and succinct to label it as National Security FLOP. This is not to say that NatSec FLOP is original, unique, or singular, but it heralds in a (relatively) new epoch, in which human rights have no currency (except when convenient to a government’s rhetorical ethos). Herein lies the brilliant rhetoric of “self-defense,” used all too often to launch an overwhelming, disproportionate attack on an already vulnerable group, invoking the human rights of those that are not in danger: Kill, but always insist that it’s in order to protect “our own”—even when the facts say otherwise.

The seduction of NatSec FLOP is contagious, especially when consumed in conjunction with the self-aggrandizing allure of hunting “TERRORISTS.” Indeed, both of these positions were enthusiastically adopted by nations whose agendas were conveniently enhanced and justified by riding the coat-tails of American muscularity: the UK, India, Turkey, Pakistan, to name a few.

This is the paradox of human rights that seems to be in play in current moment: the rights of certain individuals can only be secured through the promise to kill others in the name of human rights. This is the supposed trade-off promulgated by the United States, borrowed and appropriated by other nations as convenient: National Security versus Rights. For the US, the trade-off promises, at the domestic level, to be deceptively effective: Freedom v. Security (if you want to be safe, then agree to give up (“some of”) your rights—to privacy, to your public dissent, to your conscience, to the violation of your home, your person, your speech, your freedom. Except that most of us–especially Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, the poor–residing in the US were never offered that choice.

Internationally, National Security has become the defense, the Maginot line against which cries of human rights evaporate.

We see this with regard both to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to condemnations of Israel’s bombing of Gaza hospitals, UN schools, private residences, and massive number of children dead: Israel has the “right to defend itself.”

Here’s the thing about self-defense: Self-defense means the deployment of sufficient force to block attacks or injury on one’s property, home, or person. It does not mean initiating and sustaining attacks that are disproportionately larger than any imaginable provocation. Self-defense does not mean continuously bombing innocent bystanders—not even accidentally—not one, not two, and certainly not thousands of them—children, women, men, doctors, safety personnel.

According to Norman Finkelstein, who recently wrote a piece on Human Rights Watch’s artful evasion in blaming Israel for its large-scale killings:

International law prohibits an occupying power from using force to suppress a struggle for self-determination, whereas it does not prohibit a people struggling for self-determination from using force.[…]The International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated in its 2004 advisory opinion that the Palestinian people’s “rights include the right to self-determination,” and that “Israel is bound to comply with its obligation to respect the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” Israel consequently has no legal right to use force to suppress the Palestinian self-determination struggle. Israel also cannot contend that, because this self-determination struggle unfolds within the framework of an occupation, it has the legal right, as the occupying power, to enforce the occupation so long as it endures.

It is difficult to reconcile Israel’s actions with its claims to self-defense, when it has complete control over Gaza’s borders. Self-defense is usually accepted as reasonable when one (person, community, region, nation) is unable to leave the region under attack. Self-defense does not mean blockading all possible openings to a densely packed region that has no other exits nor avenues to get out of the way of these rockets.

In the U.S., it is easy to be habituated to corporate media’s spin and ideology surrounding Israel’s actions toward Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank: it is a fairly standard position that has had long-standing, even when contradicted by opposite realities. And certainly, it is no secret that the US and Israel share the close intimacy, from providing Israel’s funding, weaponry, and moral support, even in the face of heinous crimes.

Here is Arendt again:

What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one. Suddenly, there was no place on earth where migrants could go without the severest restrictions, no country where they would be assimilated, no territory where they could found a new community of their own…this moreoever had nothing to do with any material problem of overpopulation; it was a problem not of space but of political organization. Nobody had been aware that mankind, for so long a time considered under the image of a family of nation, had reached the stage where whoever was thrown out of one of these tightly organized closed communities found himself thrown out of the family of nations altogether.” (Arendt, 1951, 293–4)

 

Arendt here is referring to European minorities who had been displaced, survived the camps, been relocated into refugee camps. But it doesn’t take much to extend this discussion to Palestinians today.

Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity expels him from humanity. (Arendt 1951, 297)

 

How does one go about resurrecting the humanity of a people that has been completely, politically, legally, internationally, abandoned? The answer is obvious, but the solution can only occur when Israel, the US, and the rest of the West drops their convenient, selective, amnesia.

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[1] Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, 1951). P. 293.

Treating Prisoners as Well as Farm Animals

The legislature in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is now considering passing Bill S.2232. Officially entitled, “An Act to ensure continued humane animal care in Massachusetts,” this commendable bill is designed to prevent cruelty and ill-treatment to farm animals. Here are some key excerpts:

The purpose of this section, subject to exceptions, is to prohibit the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.

(b) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person is guilty of unlawful confinement of a covered farm animal if the person is a farm owner or operator who knowingly tethers or confines any covered animal, on a farm, for all or the majority of any day, in a manner that prevents such animal from:

(1) Lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs; and

(2) Turning around freely.

[snip]

(d) For the purposes of this section:

[snip]

(3) “Enclosure” means any cage, crate, or other structure (including what is commonly described as a “gestation crate” for pigs; or a “veal crate” for calves used to confine a covered animal).
[snip]

(6)”Fully extending his or her limbs” means fully extending all limbs without touching the side of an enclosure
(7) “Person” means any individual, firm, partnership, joint venture, association, limited liability company, corporation, estate, trust, receiver, or syndicate.
[snip]

(9) “Turning around freely” means turning in a complete circle without any impediment, including a tether, and without touching the side of an enclosure.
[snip]
(e) Any person who violates any of the provisions of this chapter is guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000).

This simple, yet precise bill raises the standards for the ethical treatment of animals that will, eventually, be slaughtered for food. Thus, while it is clear that the animals in question will most likely meet their demise intentionally, according to this bill, they should be treated humanely.

Perhaps I should say, “better-than-humanely” or “animal-humanely,” since as we know some tens of thousands of human beings, if not more, are currently confined and shackled in small cells, which certainly impede their ability to “fully extend their limbs without touching the side of an enclosure,” or to “turn around freely without any impediment, including a tether.” As we know, even when we choose to ignore it, our well-deserved sympathy for farm animals or house pets, or many other animals, often does not extend—even as a matter of federal policy—to human beings considered undesirable: imprisoned Black men and women, undocumented migrants or children, and mostly Muslim men who were casualties of American fear in the endless War on Terror—namely those who have been or still reside in Guantanamo.

Some significant portion of these prisoners are in solitary confinement in US prisons. The numbers, as the organization Solitary Watch (SW) states, are difficult to determine. Official numbers do not appear to include those who are undocumented and in “detention facilities”—including thousands of child migrants. None of these prisoners are likely to be granted the same range of unshackled movement, or even the same level of “animal-humane” treatment from their captors or guards. As a recent story by Katie Pavlich demonstrated, child migrants are expected to live inside caged facilities while the US government considers how to process them. The photos obtained on townhall.com show multiple children stuffed into chain-link cages with hardly any room to turn around “without impediment.” The slideshow at a CBS news website shows similar crowding and cages.

There are too many stories are out there about the subhuman treatment of pregnant prisoners who give birth while chained, with prison officials by their side. While there is a federal prison policy, passed in 2007, that prohibits shackling pregnant women, there are only a few similar prohibitions against state prison facilities, pertaining only to about 20 states. To its infinite credit, Massachusetts is among the most recent of states to pass such a policy. S.2063 was passed earlier this year, although its standards are lower than the humane animal care bill under consideration.

While S.2232, the humane-animal care bill, mandates unconditional freedom of movement for farm animals, Massachusetts’ prohibition against tethering pregnant prisoners onlymandates “the opportunity for a minimum of 1 hour of ambulatory movement each day.” Also, unlike a similar bill passed in California, the Massachusetts bill does not pertain to undocumented women. Plenty of other states have no such restrictions, as seen in this horrific recounting from the documentary Checkpoint Nation, of Maria, a woman who was taunted by an ICE official by her side in Tucson, Arizona, while giving birth.

Similarly, the stories of men locked up in tiny cubicles for years at a time proliferate without limit. Listen to these comments by Anthony Graves, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death row. Graves spent 18 years imprisoned, 16 of them in solitary confinement. He has also likened his 8 x 10 cell to a cage fit for animals, prompting prison officials to taunt him like an animal. In similarly dehumanizing fashion, Khalif Brauder was held in solitary confinement, without adequate nutrition, in Rikers as a teenager for fraudulent reasons. Mahmud Abouhalima is imprisoned in a Supermax prison where he has been shackled and forced to live for years in a cage no bigger than 8 feet wide. Yet others tell of being imprisoned in cells that are even smaller, as in these answers to the question of how large a prison cell.

There are countless stories of men who have been beaten and tortured so badly their spines have been broken.

But every single story that is published about these sub-human standards of treatment—in light of S.2232, perhaps we should call them “sub-animalistic” standards—is met with contempt or indifference. Others cheer that these men and women (and children) are being met with appropriate, well-deserved or justifiable treatment. And this Old Testament attitude persists despite the countless—yes, countless—cases of wrongful convictions or, in our post-9/11 legal world, the normalization of the complete absence of proof.

Back in 1997, political philosophers Robert Goodin, Carole Pateman and Roy Pateman published a scholarly article entitled, “Simian Sovereignty.” In it, they argued that simians—apes, orangutans, chimps and others of that species closely resembled human beings, and thus should be able to live and co-exist side by side with human beings. Goodin et al. cited several philosophers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who argued for the close resemblance between human beings and simians. For example, they cite Lord Monboddo, as being “optimistic” that “the Orang Outang is, if not in the beginning, at least in one of the first stages of society, and in the progress towards a more civilized state.”

The premise of Goodin et al’s article was that simians most closely resemble human beings and therefore deserve to be treated in a superior fashion (as presumably human beings are). When I first read their article in 1997, I was rather skeptical of the comparison, because I wasn’t convinced of their premise. Today, I am still rather skeptical of the comparison, but for obverse reasons: the superior standards that they argue be extended to simians have not yet been extended to many who are supposed to fit into the category of”human”— particularly those who are undesirable, vilified or marginalized.

We are accustomed to thinking of human beings as autonomous, of being individuated, of—through long periods of Kantian story-telling—according them a certain level of respect, of ascribing them a certain dignified status, and by extension, a certain level of protection. In the Kantian story, humans exist between angels and animals, with their intellectual faculties rescuing them from the status of the latter. Their faculties are utilized to govern and restrain their material sides and impulses. Kant’s story continues to be a predominant linchpin in organizing our understanding of the world. In French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s posthumously published book, The Animal That I therefore Am, he points to Adorno’s stance that an idealist insults man by referring to the animal in him. It is certainly true that for many centuries to be understood as merely an animal was an insult. It was a condemnation of all that was unreflective, irrational, morally uncontrolled by one’s intellectual faculty.

There is a documented history that demonstrates how sympathy for animals is elicited much more prolifically and easily than is sympathy for others who suffer similar conditions to caged animals. We see it in this story, from 1994, about how orphaned mountain lion cubs elicited two and 1/3 times more donations ($21,000) than did the children ($9,000) orphaned after their mother was attacked by the cubs’ mother. Today, all 50 states have felony penalties for cruelty to animals.

Notably, in February 2006, a 38-year old man in Columbus, Ohio, was arrested for dog fighting, after officials found twenty-six wounded pit bulls confined in wooden crates. As the chief deputy sheriff reported then: “These dogs were kept in these things with no windows…It is still a phenomenon to me that people enjoy watching these animals suffer like this. It’s just so brutal.” I point to a case that is nearly 8 years old, because the sympathy (rightfully) expressed for the dogs—caged in crates with no windows–is still withheld from men and women and children  who are imprisoned in similar conditions: in Supermax prisons or in Guantanamo Bay or in immigration detention facilities.

We seem to have arrived at a moment when the term “animal” no longer refers as accurately to the non-human animal. If anything, as we have seen over the last few decades, non-human animals are seen to resemble human animals more and more: dolphins can think and sing and feel; chimpanzees can communicate. Octopi have been discovered to wield and implement tools. These facts shatter the foundation of Karl Marx’s celebration of the singularity of human potential.

Yet, there seems to be an inverse disparity between our unadulterated love for animals and our shame and moral outrage in the face of mistreatment and cruelty and the relative lack of concern for human beings facing similar conditions. What are we to make of the seeming fact that certain human beings will not be recognized as having the same kind of protections afforded to animals? How do we understand both their status and their continued misery—a misery that continues and hears fewer objections, less outrage?

The strongest argument in favor of cruel treatment to prisoners is that they have been convicted of heinous actions, and as such, they merit such treatment. But that argument is easily undermined in the face of the fact that so many prisoners who are caged have never seen the inside of a courtroom for their supposed crimes. Most detainees in immigration facilities or in Guantanamo have neither been tried nor convicted, as we well know.

A more cynical reading would suggest that S.2232, pending in the Massachusetts legislature, only offers super-humane treatment to animals that will eventually be slaughtered and eaten, and as such, is not a real fix. But shouldn’t treatment of human beings who are vilified approximate the treatment of farm animals?  It is not too cynical to say that if we had a federal, uniform standard of treatment for imprisoned men, women and children matching the standards of S.2232, that would mark some level of progress in a world in which the US government professes to believe in human rights.

________________________________________

A version of this piece was published on truth-out.org today.

Recent pieces

I have been writing, just not on here. Here are the excerpts and links to some recent pieces published on Salon over the last few months, but which weren’t posted on the blog. I also have some new pieces coming up, to be posted soon…

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Our endless “War on Terror”: the truth behind an incoherent foreign policy, July 14, 2014

The implicit rules of what counts as a just or fair attack — and what doesn’t — can be discerned from recent statements by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Secretary of State John Kerry. On Wednesday, Earnest made the following statement:

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me start by saying that we strongly condemn the continuing rocket fire into Israel and the deliberate targeting of civilians by terrorist organizations in Gaza.  No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and we support Israel’s right to defend itself against these vicious attacks. (emphasis added).

Earnest, responding to a reporter’s question about whether there was any chance of negotiating a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, insisted that countries have a right to defend themselves when their civilians are attacked. This appears to be the White House catchphrase, as Secretary of State John Kerry repeated the statement nearly verbatim.

The ironies of these statements should be obvious. (link to rest of article here…)

________________________________

The real Bergdahl scandal: What about the other Gitmo detainees? June 5, 2014

Last week’s highly publicized prisoner exchange conducted by the Obama administration suggests that, despite years of inaction, it is entirely possible to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.  On Friday, the White House announced that it was going to transfer five “high ranking” Taliban officials in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. Army soldier who was captured in Afghanistan by the Taliban almost five years ago. The five Guantanamo detainees, who were released into the custody of the government of Qatar, are prohibited from traveling outside the country for one year, after which point they will be free to return to Afghanistan.

Though Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., is drumbeating about how their release poses threats to American soldiers for years to come, he needn’t worry. Simply put, those detainees can and will always be tracked — by drones, Internet, telecommunications companies, or simple house arrest monitors. As the Obama administration has demonstrated, it is as capable as it is enthusiastic, about droning any real or perceived potential threats to the U.S. (I do not endorse droning anyone, whether Taliban officials or U.S. citizens; I am merely reminding Rogers that, over the last decade, the U.S. has demonstrated through rather drastic examples and self-legitimizing bills such as the NDAA 2012 and 2013, its capacity to engage in global “peace-keeping” through whichever means it autocratically deems.) (link to rest of article here)…

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Mos’ Def’s false alarm: why a harrowing Internet rumor seemed so credible, May 27, 2014

Last week, several news sites reported that rapper and political activist Yasiin Bey had canceled his U.S. tour. According to Together Boston’s website, Bey, also known as Mos Def, had been denied entry into his country of citizenship, the U.S., due to “immigration/legal issues.”

While there was some skepticism about the veracity of the story (given that it had not been confirmed by Bey or his lawyer, and had only been originally reported on Together Boston’s site), it was picked up unquestioningly by media sites as varied as New York Daily News and Democracy Now. Several days ago, however, the South Africa Times reported that Abdi Hussein, a close friend of Mos Def, insisted that the original story was false: Bey, who had been living in Cape Town, South Africa, had not been denied entry into the U.S.

All of which raises the question: Why did so many of us, myself included, find this subsequently discredited story so credible? The answer provides a lens into the current state of U.S. foreign policy: If it can drone its own child citizens for the sin of having a fundamentalist cleric for a father, why would it be so hard to believe that it would deny reentry to one of its own adult citizens? (link to rest of article here…)

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Greenwald and Poitras’ return: What’s the real reason they weren’t arrested? April 14, 2014

When the news broke in February that Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras were going to attempt to reenter the United States to accept a journalism award in person, the obvious question that loomed was whether they would be allowed to enter. Since last June, when the two journalists helped release classified documents obtained from the NSA through former contractor Edward Snowden, they have come under fire by top Obama administration officialsmedia celebrities and congressional officials alike. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., has argued that Greenwald’s publishing of NSA materials was a criminal activity while Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has repeatedly called for the arrest of Greenwald, even though a number of other journalists have helped to screen and release the documents obtained by Snowden.

Greenwald and Poitras had good reason to fear that they could be arrested. The State Department did move against Snowden by revoking his passport in an attempt to thwart his efforts to elude the long reach of the U.S., and it appeared to silently consent to the U.K.’s day-long interrogation of Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow Airport as he tried to return to his home in Brazil, after relaying documents to Poitras, who lives effectively in exile in Germany. (link to rest of article here…)

 

 

Is Violence Cultural?

 

As the #YesAllWomen hashtag trended over the weekend, I tweeted out a few of my own. In response to one of my tweets [about having been menaced on 3 separate campuses by male students who were antagonized by the low grades or critical evaluations that I gave], a friendly tweep asked whether my experiences could be ascribed to a culture of violence. It was an important question, and I didn’t respond as 140 characters seemed to be rather limiting. I want to think through one part of that question here. But I want to note: my comments are not a reflection on my friendly interlocutor; rather, I’m trying to explore my concern about the phrase.

I’m always surprised when the words ‘violence’ and ‘culture’ are placed in close proximity. Much like the phrase “social construction of race,” the notion of a “culture of violence” seems to create an artificial stopping point at what should be the beginning of an analysis. These days, the phrase ‘social construction of race’ indicates a moment in the political development of theories of race rather than some meaningful insight in itself. Similarly, the notion of a ‘culture of violence’ is often the description given to explain the pro-gun discourse that marks the US in international lights, or the massacres that seem to be occurring with increasing frequency in the United States. The most recent one to come to public attention was the one that a young man, Elliot Rodgers, carried out a few days ago. The phrase ‘culture of violence,’ seems to be immediately problematic in several ways. First, it obscures the specificity of various kinds of violence (a shooting in cold blood versus a woman who shoots at an ex-lover in self-defense; a serial massacre by a young man versus a military massacre of a village). I’m not suggesting that they are all horrific or heinous. Rather, I want to suggest that the level and quality of (dis)approval in each case is affected by the conditions and institutions which supported that action. The second, closely related, way in which the discussion of a ‘culture of violence’ is problematic is that it elides state-led policies that endorse certain kinds of violent actions—based on who is committing the violence and who the violence is committed against—rather than on the action in question.

Examples of the second would include executive policies such as a memo that authorized the use of drones to kill people who are suspected of terrorism (or having a governmental body vote in favor of a federal judgeship for the lawyer who co-authored that memo); or the actions of federal judges who exculpate police officers who shoot young black men while sentencing a political protestor to prison for elbowing a policeman for a boob grab, or a range of bills that unanimously approve the pre-emptive policing, or potential detention, or profiling and entrapment thousands of people who loosely fall into the same group as the 19 men who flew into the World Trade Center in 2001.

You get my point.

‘Culture,’ like ‘social construction,’ seems to sidestep an assumption that certain traits are permanently embedded, without confessing to that assumption. It seems that culture is most often used in 4 different ways:

1. As a marker of identity: Indian culture, Russian culture, Irish culture, etc.

2. As a comparative descriptor, such as when praising a group of people affiliated with a certain society as having superlative values: French culture, Western culture, progressive culture.

3. To ascribe ‘primitive’ or ‘regressive’ traits to a group of people who are united on the basis of some practices or beliefs or (mutual) recognition of identity: Muslim/Islamic culture, Black culture, Masculine culture, etc.

4. To describe a set of (negative) practices that people abide by or embrace (wittingly or not), and therefore become part of that group: A culture of: consumerism, rape, terrorism, narcissism, violence.

Over a decade ago, at the first philosophy conference I attended after receiving my doctorate, my excitement melted into despair as I heard the keynote speaker, a white feminist philosopher of some renown, painstakingly describe how Palestinians and other Muslim cultures were more prone to a ‘culture of terrorism’ than those in Western societies. It seemed to link violence to a population while avoiding references to biology, ontology, or nature. [Uma Narayan, Talal Asad and Edward Said have challenged such a link in their considerable writings, but to judge from its frequent invocation, it still seems to remain an easy go-to place.] And in forging this link, the keynote speaker indicated that these actions were compulsive, driven by the culture to which said people belong.

This kind of deployment of ‘culture’ is striking for its complete bifurcation from a discussion of historical, (geo)political, economic, social, legal structures: what is the history of Palestine (or Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, etc)? What are the material, geopolitical, social circumstances in which certain men and women engage in certain specific practices? What are the legal structures that punish certain men and women for acts of violence while retaining a blind eye towards others? How do we construe violence or terrorism, when lone individuals or groups associated with non-state entities who blow up cafes become the prime figures of terrorism (and if they survive, will most certainly face punishment at the hands of government or military forces)–while other figures–surrounded by government security personnel as they instruct others to deploy drones against certain persons in Yemen selected by a computer algorithm–are hailed as heroes and voted repeatedly back into positions of power? All this, while those who provide legal validation for such practices are elevated to the nation’s highest courts (the most recent example being, of course, David Barron)?

Such a disarticulation from a discussion of underlying structures entrenches the belief that these practices are inherent – perhaps uniquely so — to the group with whom they are associated. So, to talk of a ‘culture of violence’ suggests that there is a set of violent practices that constitute the fabric of a society, bringing that very society together as a unit, which that society (or some part at least) doesn’t necessarily question, criticize, or challenge.

That may not be the intent of using this phrase, since—in none of the above 4 senses is culture used as a factual descriptor (even when that is the intent of the speaker) but more as a rhetorical descriptor. It is always possible to falsify a statement about culture that presumes that most if not all of its people ascribe to a certain belief. Hindus are not all vegetarian; Not all feminists believe that the hijab is oppressive; Not all Muslims (women or men) believe that the hijab must be worn. The French don’t all believe in republicanism. All of these groups have internal debates about various issues, and it may be impossible without (even with) extensive surveys, to discover which part of the group practices/believes in the belief under question, and whether that part of the group constitutes a majority.

My concern with the above deployment of term ‘culture’, is that the speaker obscures the very structures that s/he claims to take into account by locating violence/narcissism/entitlement/rape in a generic culture. It is true that the phrase ‘culture’ can accurately connote a set of embedded attitudes regarding violence, rape, narcissism or consumerism. But—especially when ascribing these attitudes to a group that is already the subject of criticism—s/he connotes that the actions of these populations are driven by their culture. By ascribing certain events to a ‘culture of violence,’ I wonder if it prevents us from having a more insightful conversation about the specific elements that drive a certain event.

Let me be clear: I do NOT want to exculpate men (or women) who benefit from patriarchy, white supremacy, or other systems validating hierarchies or endorsing oppression against groups on the basis of race, gender or nationality. These are systems—grounded through laws, economic policies, geopolitical history, and social policies of rewards and benefits–which can engender acceptance about the privileges that accrue to some persons on the basis of being – say — male or white (often without regard to class), or to being middle- or upper-class white women. And while it’s possible to talk of a set of beliefs that seem to be shared by those who benefit from patriarchy or white supremacy, I think it’s much more effective and important to prioritize a focus on systems rather than culture.

A useful followup to this rumination might be to problematize the discussion of “privilege”—as in in white privilege, male privilege, etc. That will be for a future post.

Children murdered, homes foreclosed: How the government makes “mistakes” with impunity

Anyone who’s been at the mercy of the DMV, the IRS, or a health insurance company knows that bureaucracies make mistakes. Most people are accustomed to bureaucracies making mistakes. And even presidential administrations and U.S. Armed Forces make mistakes.

Yet when considering U.S. national security policies, raising the question of mistakes that cost lives is chalked up as a minor issue: “We have to expect collateral damage in wars/drones/bombs/armed conflict.”

If we know that organizations make mistakes, then it’s not that hard to see that organizations without external oversight and accountability will be empowered to make mistakes with impunity.

Not rectifying mistakes, not allowing oversight, refusing to be accountable to an external judicial body is considered by many an abuse of power. But abuse can only be claimed when a state promises to be accountable. If the state claims that it can’t be accountable, can’t be reviewed for mistakes, can’t rectify mistakes because such practices would be dangerous (the reason isn’t really important here), then at most levels, it’s hard to name the state’s attitude as abuse.

Moreover, as journalist Margaret Kimberley points out, the Obama Adminstration has claimed the right to kill American citizens without charge or trial. That’s not an abuse of power. It’s a complete usurpation of power. There is no space by which to claim the Administration should have acted differently by its own lights.

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call this, not the abuse of, but the monopoly of power?

In 2005, Rahina Ibrahim was “cuffed, detained, and denied a flight” to Hawaii to deliver a conference paper about sustainable housing. She was allowed to return home to Malaysia, but because her name was on a U.S. government no-fly list, Ibrahim’s visa was subsequently revoked; she was prevented from returning to the U.S., thus effectively ending her doctoral studies at Stanford.  She eventually finished her dissertation in Malaysia, and sued the US government to have her name removed from the no-fly list. But the courts initially ruled that she had no legal standing to sue the US to change its policies because she is a non-citizen, and the US’s efforts to fight terrorism could not be challenged by a foreign national.

Ibrahim persisted, and at least in the most recent round, won.  Despite the US’s best efforts to the contrary, Ibrahim is the first to successfully force the US government to remove her name from the list. U.S. District Court William Alsup’s ruling points out that the US government had erred: an FBI agent confessed to having filled out the No-Fly list form for Rahina Ibrahim in exactly the opposite way as he should have. Alsup had suspected as early as December 2009 that Ibrahim had been the victim of a “monumental” government error.

Murtaza Hussain, in an excellent assessment, points out that Attorney General Eric Holder abused the state-secrets privilege in the Ibrahim case. In an affidavit from April 2013, Holder invoked the state secrets privilege as the reason that the Department of Justice could not turn over the records regarding why her name was put on the no-fly list. Referring to the 2009 State Secrets Policyy established under a young Obama Administration, Holder promised that he would not claim the state-secrets privilege to hide wrongdoing, incompetence, inefficiency, or embarrassment. Nor would he invoke it to “prevent or delay the release of information the release of which would not reasonably be expected to cause significant harm to national security.”

Clearly, Holder lied. The reason we know that Holder lied is because of what was revealed in Judge Alsup’s decision.  In this specific instance, we have clear evidence that the Obama Administration abused its power—on the view that the abuse of power is constituted when an government has promised to behave within certain procedural bounds and legal limits, but has stepped beyond them.

As journalists Kevin Gosztola and Marcy Wheeler demonstrate, the Obama Administration is completely indifferent to its own state-secrets policy, except as a subterfuge. They have invoked it time and time again, for horrendous ends. As Shahid Buttar, head of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, communicated to Gosztola back in 2012 about the invocation of state secrets privilege:

 

the ability of the FBI to “stand above the law” and not answer to any authority when they outright lie or make deliberate misrepresentations about what kind of operations they are or are not conducting. Also, it makes it possible for the Executive Branch to enjoy extraordinary immunity from punishment when incredible abuses of power are committed and cases on torture, warrantless wiretapping or spying are brought forward in court.

State secrets privilege is but one of multiple excuses that the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, has used to expand its own power without any accompanying review or oversight of it. Whether the continued renewal of FISA (which candidate Obama voted in favor of in 2008), the NDAA 2012, NDAA 2013, or a myriad of other laws, under the Obama Administration has endorsed the unchecked expansions of power claimed by the FBI, the CIA (often in collusion with the NYPD, the DOJ. Countless foreigners have been rendered from Somalia, Sweden, and elsewhere, and interrogated without defense lawyers; numerous men have been placed in solitary confinement in prisons around the country, still unaware of the charges against them, with sketchy trials at best. Some of these men have been rendered stateless with the help of the British Home Office, such that their kidnappings could not be contested. Muslim communities all over the United States–in Southern California, Oregon, Minnesota, NY, Pennsylvania, New Jersey—have been subject to spying and entrapment.

Let’s not forget Terror Tuesdays and the Disposition Matrix, where Obama Administration officials gather to determine which alleged terrorist to execute next—without evidence, without oversight, with impunity.

It’s also been recently discovered that the FBI—the agency whose agent made a mistake in placing Rahina Ibrahim on the no-fly list–holds the power to delay the citizenship applications of Muslims—a policy enacted under the Bush Administration but still in effect today.

Mistakes, shmistakes.

The targeting of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, the 16year-old U.S.-born son of Anwar Al-Awlaki was a mistake.

Putting post-surgery, wheelchair-bound, Stanford doctoral student Rahina Ibrahim’s name on a federal No-Fly list in 2005 was a mistake.

Hundreds of thousands of people were subject to housing foreclosures due to mistakes.

The Obama mortgage settlement allows for a threshold error rate for mistaken foreclosures.

Killing scores of civilians by drones is a mistake.

Incarcerating innocent (but not guilty) men without charges or trials is a mistake.

Holder’s behavior and that of many of his colleagues in the Obama Administration, such as DNI James Clapper, indicates that they have no problems with mistakes, or with lying about government practices, evading demands for evidence, or concealing violations with law.  This may make them corrupt—on the view that there should be a higher standard of behavior from government officials, one that conforms to consistency and accountability.

To the extent that the Obama Administration has conceded to calls for oversight, it has facilitated pseudo-review boards, as when Obama appointed the DNI Clapper to review the NSA’s protocols. Even the name of the group, “Director of National Intelligence Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies,” indicated no interest in external oversight.

On the view that lying, evading and concealing are the (counter)part and parcel of the Obama Administration’s approach to national security—the other part being that any and all strategies will be utilized without regard to accountability or oversight–because these are necessary actions to protect the public at all costs, then Holder’s and Clapper’s actions don’t reveal an abuse of power, but rather the precise and intended application of power.

 

If the Administration promises to behave within certain procedural bounds–along with the proviso that it will be the sole arbitrator on when and how to proceed to execute its power, whom it will delegate its power, and who will be subject to its power—then we should not name that the abuse of power, but the ultimate monopoly—indeed, the ultimate expression of power–and laud the Administration for resolutely carrying out its own promises and marvel at its own rare consistency!

In fact, as many have pointed out, the Obama Presidency is following in the footsteps of the Bush Administration. It might be more accurate to say that the current Administration is carving out even bigger footsteps for itself, what with its impressive record number of drone murders, solitary-confinement based incarcerations, domestic and global surveillance, deportations of migrants, and its pointed indifference to looting bankers. By claiming the right to wield power without apology in all areas of national security domestic and foreign, and on behalf of Wall Street, the Obama Administration is claiming the status of the Leviathan, as the sovereign authority in Thomas Hobbes’ 16th century treatise on politics is named.

The Leviathan claims both to be the actor and author of the collective will: once people have handed over their consent to the sovereign (demonstrated by abrogating each individual’s rights to kill), then the Leviathan claims that power in the name of the people completely. The Leviathan can do no wrong and admits to no wrong. What’s more, unless a person can find a stronger protector, they have no choice to but to submit to the Leviathan’s authority.

So, the Obama Administration—by refusing to admit that its policies are fraught with mistakes, by refusing to concede that its mistakes have hurt innocents needlessly, by refusing to correct those mistakes in the name of state security—and by resisting all attempts to make it accountable by resorting to incarceration (John Kiriakou), mock trials (e.g., Chelsea Manning) or no trials (Barrett Brown), rescinding passports (Edward Snowden), coercing other sovereign states to incarcerate challengers to its power (Yemen/Abdulelah Haider Shaye), and killing citizens and foreigners alike without review or impunity (whether by drones, financial starvation), it claims to be the ultimate sovereign authority—without challenge, dissent, or resistance. It makes the same claim as the Leviathan.

At some level, the question that needs to be addressed is not whether the Obama Administration is interested in holding itself accountable—it clearly does not—but whether we are interested.

If US citizens are interested in the accountability from an Administration that considers itself to be not only above the law, but is unilaterally creating law and (by extension) determining others’ criminality through its own (often secret) standards, then we have to decide how to wrest back power from an absolutist state. By an absolutist state, I mean an Administration that considers dissent, scrutiny, and criticism from any lowly individual unforgivable, while insisting that its own mistakes (real and contrived) are necessary to its self-awarded status as the ruler of the world.

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This piece was originally published at Salon.com.

Correcting the Poor: The Civilizing Impulses of Homo Corporatus and Private Charities*

This is the next post in my series on Neoliberalism and Charity. Part 1 is posted here and at New Economic Perspectives.

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Should anyone—the state or any other source–have an obligation to interfere with you in order bring your best, flourishing, self about?

Certainly, this is the debate that philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin and libertarians such as Robert Nozick have engaged in heartily, with a view to socialist frameworks that redistribute resources in order to produce certain kinds of outcomes. Should the state impose certain ideals and goals upon you, and why? There are certainly examples of very good certain state-imposed expectations such as seatbelts or prohibitions against drunk driving, as well as terrible examples, such as state-imposed prohibitions on certain kinds of drugs.

In a neoliberal era, the corollary to above question is whether non-state organizations should have the ability to interfere with you in order to bring about your best, flourishing, self?

This question emerges in the wake of the heralded contrition of Sam Polk, as expressed in a New York Times opinion piece, where he offered a self-congratulatory description of his decision to give up being a Wall Street trader and “money addict,” and instead to form a charity that awards “grocery scholarships” to “poor moms.”

Polk’s charity, Groceryships, on its face appears to be a thoughtful idea.  Indeed, the basic Groceryship is a “scholarship for groceries.”

 Soon a simple one emerged: what if we bought groceries for a family for six months. I imagined a single mom, working overtime to try to put food on her table, and falling short. We wanted to give that mom some breathing room, and her kid some healthy food in the process.

The language of Groceryships is certainly neutral, but tells a story that reveals a number of assumptions about poor folks. In his tale about how Groceryships started, Polk gives a narrative about how he and his physician wife learned about eating better. And how they might be healthier if they ate better (apparently, this was previously unknown to them).  So they got to work, switching to whole foods, eliminating processed and fatty foods. Though they suffered “withdrawal” from their addiction to unhealthy foods, they were able to kick their habit. (addiction seems to be the lens by which Polk understands many phenomena).

We started buying tons of vegetables and whole grains, and cut down on fatty meats, sugar, and processed foods. It was hard. Very hard. Kirsten and I both experienced what we can only describe as withdrawal symptoms—nightmares, panicky feelings, irritability.

After a few weeks those symptoms faded. We found we enjoyed eating healthy and especially how good we felt. We no longer had to battle ourselves about whether to eat another Cheetos, or felt shame about eating too much cake. That everyday battle-stress just faded away. We ate at mealtimes, snacked when hungry, and felt great. After three months, Kirsten got her cholesterol levels tested. They’d been cut in half. She went off Lipitor.

Polk and his spouse were so impressed with the results that they wanted to share their newfound knowledge and to give back to society at the same time.

A few months later, we watched A Place At The Table (sic), a documentary focused on the staggering numbers of Americans, especially children, facing food insecurity. Each day 50 million people in this country (including one in four children) go hungry.

Growing up, my parents struggled, living paycheck to paycheck. But it never got so bad that food wasn’t on the table. Kirsten and I were horrified that so many people—kids!—were hungry. We were especially horrified that many of these kids lived down the street from us. Los Angeles is a segregated city. It’s easy to forget that just a few miles away people were starving.

I guess the truth is that we had known that; we’d just never taken ownership of our responsibility to do something about it. That day, we decided to help.

Polk recognizes the correlation between poverty and hunger, but he frames this correlation in the language of “choice” and options:

Hunger in America looks strange; there is a definite correlation between food insecurity and obesity. You’d think that people who can’t afford food would be rail thin, but it’s often the opposite. People that struggle to make ends meet tend to opt for the cheapest calories, processed/fast food. They often live in Food Deserts, areas where nutritious produce is simply not available. (Emphasis mine)

Perhaps the implied causation was inadvertent. Perhaps Polk recognizes that such “opting” is the result of being short of cash. In which case, the solution would be to distribute sufficient money to buy healthier food. And certainly, that seems to have been the initial idea, but Polk frames the solution in these terms:

…we realized that mom could also use some nutrition education and group support. We remembered how difficult quitting sugar and processed/fast food was for us, and we realized that a structure of support would be helpful, necessary.

It suggests helpfully, liberally, perhaps due to no fault of their own, that poor moms don’t know much about nutrition.  So, families who receive a “Groceryship” will be supported not only financially, but medically, educationally, and emotionally. Support typically means resources are available to help one advance towards a goal, but not mandated. By contrast, mandatory resources are not forms of support, but a form of discipline: if you must avail yourself of a resource, then you are not supported, rather you are compelled.

Groceryship awards are not merely the distribution of groceries with the “option” of attending nutrition classes; rather the classes are required. “Poor moms” who apply for the meritorious award must swear their allegiance and commitment to attending nutrition classes, “weekly meetings” and to do weekly homework. It’s as if they were young, naïve, subservient children.

Indeed, Polk acknowledges that his program is different from “but can be used in conjunction with SNAP (food stamps) which provides financial to support to struggling families (link not in original),

 but doesn’t insist the money be spent on healthful foods, or teach families how to prepare and shop for those healthy foods.” (emphasis mine)

In that simple sentence, Polk reveals more of his (limited) worldview: the state “does not insist that the money be spent on healthful foods.”

Had Polk searched, he would have found that, if anything, food stamps severely constrain the purchase of healthy foods. According to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, the maximum monthly budget for a family of 4 (i.e. those who have no other income) on food stamps is $632.

That boils down to $5.64 per person per day. Whole Foods, expensive as it is, accepts food stamps; there are multiple sites where families have accepted the “Thrifty Whole Foods” challenge to shop for whole foods on a food stamp budget. I’ll let them tell their stories—many of which have various helpful hints about how to shop and cook on a limited budget.

In short: it is possible to cook healthy foods on a severely restricted budget. But healthy foods require adequate kitchen facilities to process and cook them.  Poor families, who can presumably afford housing that is cheap (cheap because landlords don’t make repairs to provide decent stoves, rat- and cockroach-proof storage, adequate refrigerators needed to store fresh foods), often do not have those facilities, therefore tenants are forced to choose processed, sealable, storable foods.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, time (or more its scarcity) becomes a severe constraint if a “poor mom” is also working or doesn’t have access to child-care so that she can schlep to her Whole Foods easily/quickly, and also process said healthy foods. The issue of access to transportation that allows her to get to her Whole Foods will also, chances are, constrain her free cooking time further.  But all of these constraints raise another urgent issue: namely the assumption that someone who is both cash- and time-poor is expected to cook whole foods after long, difficult, days. How many working professionals are expected to cook full, healthy meals after a full day of work?

Aside from the sheer difficulty of spending money on “healthful foods,” there is also the issue of why any state should impose a certain standard on those who are dependent upon public monies for survival, when it does not impose the same expectations on the rest of its citizens.  It calls to mind Isaiah Berlin’s discussion of positive liberty.

For Berlin, positive liberty–defined as the ability to “be my own master,”[1] is least harmful when I am able to decide how to live my own life, to make my own decisions, rather than to have to depend upon external forces. As a counterpart to negative liberty, namely that where I would be protected from being harmed by others and the state, positive liberty allows me to find a way to flourish, to decide how I want to live.  In this idea, Berlin marks an idea that re-emerges a decade later in Hannah Arendt. Arendt criticizes the “Social,” that dimension of society that is subsumed by the economy, where one’s acts are instrumental—where one works in order to make a living.[2]

For Arendt, this idea undermines our very humanness. It coerces us into thinking only about life, about living, rather than acting, understood as great words and great deeds. The economy, with its inducement to consume, to work in order to live and consume—was anathema to Arendt. Arendt was critical of the notion that one’s goals must have utility. Being healthy is exemplifies this idea: Health has become naturalized as an end in itself, but in fact is about usefulness: to be less of a drain on society, to be aesthetically pleasing, to appear successful.

To be fair, Arendt’s is precisely not a socialist ideal, where one’s needs are met through a communal society, where one hunts, fishes, reads, in the model of a balanced life. Nevertheless, Arendt’s fear comports with Berlin’s, who skeptically asks:

“What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”

To find a way to flourish without being forced to live out another’s expectations for you—this was both Arendt’s and Berlin’s concern. This question was a challenge to the authoritarian state whose creeping influence, in their experiences, had been detrimental, to say the least.

But the creeping state is not the issue at stake with regard to Sam Polk and Groceryships. Rather, the issue of state-imposed expectations has been derailed with the forceful emphasis on civil society as the arena by which to solve various social and economic problems.

Civil society, a term that G.W.F. Hegel used to indicate that arena where the public and private meet, has a distinctly different sense today. Whereas Hegel circumscribed civil society as that where the individual and the state can interact through intermediate organizations such as guilds, or unions, today’s civil society is that arena where the state has dialed back its obligations in order to allow private organizations and individuals to pick up the slack.

Polk’s charity, like that of many others (such as Teach for America, charter schools, Kiva) that have sprung up in the last several decades, reflects the success of a paradigm that has emerged over the last 3 decades. This paradigm endorses private, faith-based, or “non-profit” charities as the foundation of civil society (defined as a non-government sector). These organizations, endorsed by every U.S. President since Ronald Reagan, have facilitated the evacuation of a public safety net—an evacuation that goes hand in hand with the deregulation of the banking industry, and the steady erosion of unions, public pensions, and labor protections.

Certainly, it is unreasonable to expect that the state can or will address all levels of public need. But private non-governmental charities have fewer Congressional or procedural inhibitions  what they may demand of the constituents that they claim to want to help, such as the ability to impose certain behavioral features.

Groceryships imposes many strings for the mere flaw of being poor.  According to the rules of applying for a Groceryship, being poor apparently means one chooses to eat unhealthily. Being poor apparently means that one is “addicted” to fast foods and sugar (this isn’t such a far-fetched idea for Polk, who frames his past actions in finance as the result of an “an addiction” to wealth).

Thus, to be eligible for a Groceryship, poor moms can’t have excessively large families (“no more than 3 children”), and be only moderately poor. And they “must” need/want/be eager/be motivated/be ready to adopt a healthy lifestyle, to want to be healthy, to be open to new ideas. See here.

Groceryships’ expectations fit into the neoliberal paradigm that I discussed in another piece, namely that poor people, more so than the non-poor, have an obligation to be moral, aesthetically reasonable, healthy, happy, and eager about it.

The most vulnerable—or as I say elsewhere, those who are perceived to be unruly—are seen as scary, dangerous, frightful because they are seen as “failures” due to their personal characters rather than through their circumstances: Why are they poor? Why don’t they eat better? Why are they fat? Why are they rude? Why are they noisy and loud?

If the poor just worked harder, smoked less, didn’t do drugs, shunned McDonald’s and cooked more, then they too could be as aesthetically pleasing—and perhaps as successful and happy as Sam Polk and his spouse.  This is one of the pernicious implications of a neoliberal economic model: the poor are expected to fulfill the aesthetic and moral expectations of the upper-class of what it means to live “a good life,” to flourish. And they are subject to those who are precisely in a position to be able to dictate the life goals for those who are more vulnerable.

Being poor means that if one wants to have one’s poverty relieved slightly or temporarily (remember, the Groceryship is for 6 months, after which one still remains poor), one is at the mercy of the ex-money addict Sam Polk and his neoliberal buddies, who are cheered for “helping the poor.”

Let’s remember that Polk’s money-addiction days were part of a milieu—a group of traders/financiers/bankers who were engaging in a set of practices that were both induced and condoned by state power and general pre-financial crisis societal approval. That is to say, his role in JP Morgan Chase, or other financial corporations who contributed heavily to the banking crisis (including mortgage foreclosures on the working class and minority populations) was seen as a positive contribution, until around 2008/9. Moreover, the state—both Congress and the Executive Branch–continues to condone it through (pro-banking) legislation that allowed CEOs to receive large bonuses in spite of their roles, or through supposedly punitive legislation that slapped banks lightly on their wrists, and paid out less than $2000 per person to those who lost their homes over a three year period. Moreover, this settlement changed nothing in the relationship between the borrower and loan servicing company.

By framing Polk’s actions within an individualizing framework (be it therapeutic or moral conscience), and without locating them in a larger political/cultural structure, this frame precisely engenders the kind of glorification that is showered upon Polk, by Jacqueline Novogratz and many others such as Rachel Cook, Jessica Jackley…and the Nobel Peace Prize winning innovator of microfinance himself, Mohammed Yunus, who are engaged in similar, if not identical, shifts.

What Polk et al. appear to be doing here is making a move from a “corporate free market” to a “non-profit free market,” which in no way challenges the idea that poverty and wealth are exclusively about individual choices. Rather, Polk’s (and Novogratz and Yunus) shifts still emphasize the ideology and primacy of the “free market,” coupled with a rhetorical emphasis on hard work, along with individual moral, personal, social accountability for darker or non-American population.  In Yunus’ case, micro-lending is tested in Bangladesh; for Novogratz, it’s taken to East Africa, India, Pakistan and Ghana, and for Polk, it’s applied to black and Latino populations of Southern California.

But there is another aspect of this that is also troublesome: the self-satisfaction experienced by these “free market successes” who reclaim their moral sensibilities through the act of walking away after making millions in profits and then turning to “help the poor” on their terms. They are cheered for their charity work (in an individualist frame) without being asked about their participation in a financially corrupt, morally bankrupt “free market” system that allowed these individuals to “flourish” at the expense of millions of individuals who are unable to access the free market system because they don’t have the connections or “moral luck” to have been born in the right place at the right time.  As economist Dean Baker clarifies in his book, The Conservative Nanny State, there is nothing “free” about the free market: it is rigged to benefit those who already have at the expense of those who don’t.

As well: this kind of neoliberal framework ensures that the ruling class will shape the poor, by forcing them to behave, reshape themselves through these seemingly neutral, or generous, charities in Sam Polk et al.’s own ill-informed visions of what it means to be a successful citizen.

This, then, is an expression of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics: those who are induced to cultivate themselves in the image of the ruling class are those who are the most vulnerable—subject to the whims and dictates of the wealthy and the powerful.  This is the success of the neoliberal paradigm: it renders to Homo Corporatus (or Homo Wall Streetus) the freedom and flexibility to shape the actions and character of the most vulnerable to those who have the money, the power, and the favor of the state; simultaneous Homo Corporatus’ contributions, the results of plunder and the corporate nanny state—are read as an individual/private acts of generosity to help those who are most needy, those were rendered needy through institutional/governmental/financial practices.


[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 131. In Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford U Press: 1969.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, ch. 6. University of Chicago Press, 1958.

*Updated version. Thanks to Robin James, Janine Jones, and Robert Prasch for their helpful comments.

 

Consumer Activism and the Biopolitics of Consumption

In my research, I’ve been exploring neoliberalism and the biopolitics of charity. How do we understand consumption and activism in a society whose social/public safety nets are increasingly eroded?

I’m going to try to post a series of pieces on neoliberal practices.  This is the first. And there’s a fun snarky video at the end.

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Last month, I wrote an article about former financier Sam Polk, whose move from Wall Street to Groceryships has been celebrated as an example of the 1% awakening to a moral conscience.  Groceryships is a charity that gives “grocery scholarships” to “poor moms” in order, ostensibly, to alleviate their meager budgets for healthy foods. But the scholarships come with many strings attached: to swear an allegiance to want to be healthy; commitments to attend weekly nutrition classes, do homework, take cooking classes. More on Groceryships in my next piece.

In my original article, I suggested that this kind of charity was an instance of a colonizing mission akin to religious charities who deliver sermons along with meals to the poor. And…needless to say, I challenged the legitimacy of this mission.

Polk’s shift from being a trader to the director of this charity (and the existence of such a charity) represents but one datapoint in an increasingly hegemonic neoliberal society. He characterizes his past existence as about addiction: he was addicted to making lots of money, as he understands it. As Chris Maisano has discussed in an aptly named article, “Chicken Soup for the Neoliberal Soul,” this kind of self-assessment is but part of a dominant therapeutic culture in which certain socially disapproved actions (e.g., excessive drinking/extramarital sex/public prayer/corporate plunder/civilian violence) are attributed to personal flaws. Therapeutic discourse individualizes the action and isolates it from larger, societal phenomena that are indicative of a certain worldview. It also locates anti-social practices in personality attributes that must be corrected and improved by the individual, presumably in ways that are easily visible to others.

This model underlies a range of consumer-activist campaigns: from spending a year producing zero trash, or without spending or shopping or driving or using toilet paper or electricity, or “voting with your fork.” The idea is that one’s politics is best enacted through what one consumes (or doesn’t).

Although the details of each of these various campaigns differ, there are some details that they have in common: each project centers on the individual as the locus of responsibility, thereby depoliticizing the issue at hand, and reducing it to an “individual” choice: to make garbage or recycle; to spend or not; to have a carbon footprint or not; to consume only healthy foods or not.

Such campaigns don’t take into account the context of the issue about which they drumbeat: whether it be waste management (such as where landfills are located, or the health impact of these landfills on surrounding populations), or trash production (involving the notable absence of regulations requiring companies to produce goods in recyclable containers).  The precise point of such consumer-activism is that larger social structures that induce ill impacts on a larger society can be ignored in favor of the “every individual can make a difference” model.  True: if 350 million individuals discarded their cell-phones, or decided to live off the grid, or stopped spending or producing trash simultaneously, we would certainly notice the impact right away. But this hope ignores several important things:

1. It is easier and morally satisfying to shame individuals about their individual behavior, even though it is not as effective as changing the choices they face.

2. It is possible to achieve changes in collective social behavior: by regulating certain practices and penalizing individuals who violate the law.

3. Passing legislation that compels companies to stop polluting, producing trash, (or encouraging them) to grow healthier crops, distribute whole foods widely, find alternative energy sources, etc., may be much more effective in reducing the overall destructive impact—though much more difficult—than changing collective behavior.

4. Consumer-activism reinforces the myth of choice and the neo-classical emphasis on free-markets by focusing on the individual as the locus of change rather than considering the role of social structures (such as the practices of corporations that benefit from the myth of free markets and individual choice).

In other words, the standard corporate response to individual-consumer activism can safely remain: Buy our products if you like them. Or don’t. It won’t really affect our profits or force us to change our practices if individuals act alone. Because hey, the state doesn’t really care, and it is the only force that can compel us to change or lose money. And they (Congress/Senate/President) won’t compel us to change, because we are among their major contributors.

Consumer-activism is but an expression of neoliberal society. There are multiple aspects to neoliberalism, but for my purposes here, a neoliberal society is one in which state support of citizens is evacuated in favor of the privatization of individual well-being. So if you want to be healthy, spend more money and eat better and join a gym, or (“less expensively”) buy sneakers/”cheap” workout accoutrements. If you want a better environment: recycle more, produce less trash. If you want to be less stressed: work less, get off the grid, go for nature walks in the woods across the street.

This model ignores the class dimension of “choice”: one doesn’t just decide to eat better, work less, use less electricity, spend “less,” in a vacuum. In fact there is an invisible context for each “individual” decision, which because it is invisible becomes depoliticized. That context requires an indefinite supply of time or money, preferably both:

1. Money and time are trade-offs. One often spends money in order to save time. One may eat out to save the time of making and packing lunch. On the other hand, it is much easier to eat better—especially in US society (where street and fast foods are often greasy, fried, and/or made of low-quality ingredients)—if one has the time to cook whole grains and unprocessed foods at home.

2. Money buys access to better resources/ingredients: organic, chemical-free, exotic unseasonal foods that are often grown across the country and shipped to one’s local health food/Whole Foods Market-like store.

3. Time is a scarce resource for the professional-class, working-poor, and the indigent. For different reasons. Some of them have to do with “labor-markets,” in which our job hours are not regulated by the state, or by other factors such as job-precarity (I may lose my job if I don’t work the longer hours my employer quietly/implicitly demands).

4. Those with limited access to money must make up for it with time:  For the indigent and working-poor, time poverty is further exacerbated by bureaucratic demands and long waits at social service organizations (public health clinics, etc.), long distances from and public transportation to areas where higher-quality/lower-cost goods can be found; time-poverty is also exacerbated by limited access to affordable child-care (when it cannot be outsourced to a private nanny or day—care center) among other constraints.

By contrast, those with money but limited time can buy their way out of politically, socially, economically exploitative situations. Likewise, those with money, to differing degrees, can buy their way out of limited choices, such as:

-Low-quality food (and thus move to more-expensive foods)
-Low-quality or resource-constrained health care (public medical clinics)
-Child-care constraints

Those with time (and a lot of money, or some money but other abundant resources, such as large plots of land, clean water, decent housing, and robust social networks) can “choose” to grow their own food, can preserves, eat organically, etc.

While this group may contain poor folks, these are often those who have been able to “downsize,” from a wealthier life. These (I’ll call them “Downsizers”) should not be confused with those who are forced to live frugally because of forced unemployment, limited employment, disability, or other imposed financial constraints (“Forcibly Poor”).

The “Forcibly Poor” do not necessarily have time in the way that “Downsizers” do, since they can’t trade in their time for money (They can’t just pick up a paying job or liquidate some of their stocks in order to access money). The corollary to this is that those who are forced, but do not “choose” to live frugally, are also treated with less dignity.

I suspect this is because those forced to live in poverty are seen as hapless, incompetent, and unable or unwilling to “choose” to have money. Therefore, they are treated as lesser rational beings, like young children, who must be instructed, guided, disciplined and ushered along.

This assumption, too, is part of the ideology of free-market liberalism: Those who are wealthy or actually choose to live frugally, are more rational than those who are poor. And those who are poor just don’t know how to live a good life. Their poverty is presumed to be an expression of their lack of desire to live a good life. This logic follows straight from John Locke’s 2nd Treatise of Government: God has given the world to all men (sic) in common. Since the earth is accessible to all, then property (wealth) can be acquired by all who choose to labor.

How else, then, to explain poverty, except by lack of rationality? The poor must be irrational (insane/idiotic/criminal/indigenous), because otherwise they could have used their God-given intelligence to labor and acquire a sufficient share of God-given resources.

If these assumptions make sense, then it seems that several things follow:

1. Consumer Activism is a certain way of comporting oneself in the world so as to appear politically conscious, without necessarily being effective.

2. Charity organizations that distribute various goods/services to the Forcibly Poor with various strings that require behavior modification, are enacting a certain mode of Consumer Activism and imposing it on the Involuntarily Poor. But instead, without the accompanying discussion of the evacuation of public safety nets, or the reasons behind the lack of money and time, such models of Charity become normalized and celebrated as the primary means to “help the (forcibly) poor.”

3. Imposing Consumer Activism on the Forcibly Poor, as Sam Polk does with Groceryships, looks a lot like colonizing/civilizing the poor. More on that in my next post.

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*An earlier version of this article discussed the “Forcibly Poor.” In this version, that term has been changed to the “Involuntarily Poor.”

**The phrase “Involuntarily Poor” has been returned to its original “Forcibly Poor.” It’s more accurate.

Sam Polk and his civilizing mission

A shorter, cleaner, version of this article was published over at Salon.com on Jan. 23, 2014. Here’s the messier, longer, less clean version:

Part I (yes, a few more parts to come):

In the Sunday New York Times, former trader Sam Polk has a weepy confessional candid opinion piece, “For the Love of Money,” about his addiction to money, and how he’s overcome it (but not before pocketing the millions, mind you). It doesn’t really stand out, whether as contribution to the genre of former plunderers financiers, or a redemption narrative. But it is helpful in understanding the “pipeline” from the “free market” to the neoliberal (bio)politics of charity.

You see, Sam Polk locates his “addiction” within the context of his addictive personality, to cocaine, to alcohol, and finally, to money. He points out that he was the child of a Willie Loman-like father, who always wanted to be rich, always dreaming the big dream, but who never got there. I suppose, inpart, his piece is supposed to locate his desires as part of a quest to fulfill his father’s dreams. But even in this, he doesn’t stand out. After all, many children grow up to be adults who strive to fulfill their parents’ hopes for success, however that turns out.

But the issue that really pisses me off troubles me is his proseletyzing zeal (like the kind that envelops ex-smokers and new vegans or philosophy students who’ve just discovered Foucault) with which he points out that having all that money really isn’t that great, and that it’s better put to use in distributing among the less fortunate.

Conspicuously absent in Sam Polk’s heart-warming confession is any description of the role he played in a financial sector that led to one of the most destructive economic decimations since 1929, and to a widespread societal poverty or misery. Apparently, his only sin was gluttony.

And voila: back to a moral accounting. After all, this is a Judeo-Christian framework, isn’t it?.

What better way to atone for one’s sins than to confess and pursue redemption by distributing alms to the poor. And coincidentally, it dovetails with the ongoing neoliberal mode of addressing widespread social crises: increase pressure on “civil society” to remedy hunger, poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, access to reproductive rights social problems through private charity.

As we know, these are social problems created through the decimation of federal budgets, because its much more urgent to feed the chickenhawks by funding the War on Terror through its respective bureaucracies: the NSA, DHS, ICE, the DoD, etc., etc. And they’re created by the same corporations who are now bereft of the voracious, graciously hedge funded presence of Sam Polk.

But then again, maybe redemption has an upside. Here’s what Sam Polk has decided to do in his saintly afterlife: he has created a charity that “gives” six months of groceries to needy families (those who make less than $40,000 annually). You might think, kudos to Polk! Wow, what a guy!

But as we know, nothing in life (that actually matters) is ever free. In a very beautifully worded story, Polk and his beloved physician spouse, watch a show about eating more healthily. Spouse bursts into tears at the new idea (New? Really?) that eating more whole foods and grains will make her healthier. And sure enough, after a few weeks of better eating, the Polk clan feel better, lose weight, get off Lipitor, lower their cholestorol, etc.

So they decide to share their newly discovered insights to (drumroll, please)–say it with me:  Help. The. Needy. Watch out, Bill and Malinda!

And how will they do so? By using their So. Cal networks to pressure Gov. Jerry Brown to commit more money for poor families to be able to buy better food? By hounding the California State legislature to expand welfare budgets? By using his former Wall Street influence to pressure their Senators DiFi and Barbara Boxer to start winding down the War on Terror so as to make local foods more affordable? To re-allocate defense spending in favor of transportation subsidies?

Um, in case you haven’t guessed already, no.

Instead, the Polk family (and there are many of them listed on the website; check it out) will “award” grocery scholarships to those who REALLY want it (I kid you not).  Yes, the allusion is certainly to “merit”—because not every single poor family is worthy of eating well, simply by being alive—instead they must commit to taking weekly nutrition classes, meetings, counselors, tests, etc.

Much like a Christian charity, where the needy must accept a healthy lecture on their sins along with their dinner, the Polks have created a cult of granola, in which the needy will be helped only if they realize that it is in their own best interest to eat better.

Apparently, that is what is missing for poor people: knowledge and know-how about nutrition, at least according to Sam Polk and Doctor Spouse. Not money, time, or the social space and dignity to arrange their own lives on their own terms, but “rewards” with strings attached.  That’s because—remember–the poor don’t have beliefs; they only have compulsions and misguided beliefs and ideas. True moral uplift means the poor must be cultivated in the image of Southern Californians and other bourgie liberals who focus on the body as the site of virtue. You are what you eat. So fat, dark people (let’s face it, that’s who Polk and friends are targeting—look at the website!) must be cultivated to seek self-improvement. Morality, yet again, is individual. To hell with pressuring the state to reallocate funds for a well-funded social infrastructure enabling people to decide how to live a healthy life (say, expansive healthcare, subsidized public transportation, no-strings attached food subsidies. Just a thought).

Groceryships reveals Sam Polk to be the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (surely you haven’t forgotten his failed ban on large sodas). Just add photogenic dimples, long sunbleached hair and a tan.

“What’s wrong with helping poor people eat better?” you ask “Even you eat kale and legumes on a regular basis. Are you such a classist hypocrite that you want to deny poor people that chance, too?”

It is true. I am more into granola and yoga these days than in my youth. But it is a decision that I made after years of a diet weighted toward animal proteins and fermented grape and barley. And my partner has mostly disdain for it and doesn’t join me. And doesn’t have to. Because each of us can afford to make the decisions we like without having to account for it to anyone else (except to my mother, who was a strict religious vegetarian tee-totaler her entire life. No eggs, no meat, no booze, no cigs—licit or otherwise. But she died after succumbing to diabetes, breast cancer twice (20 years apart), kidney failure, high blood pressure and cholesterol, all before she hit 70. She lived a fairly healthy life. But there are no guarantees. And she, like me, offered no explanations or accountability to anyone.

And that is the point. The ability to live a dignified life should not be dependent upon the whims of others—or on one’s personal (lack of) wealth. And if one or many do not have sufficient money—perhaps because they lost their already meager homes, wealth, and livelihood in the course of the recent financial machinations and ensuing crash (with hedge fund traders, among others, at the helm), then they should certainly not have to be at the mercy of private monies funneled by the formerly predatory do-gooders who are seeking a new colonizing mission (to help the poor learn how to eat healthily!)–to redeem their immoral souls.

The perhaps not-worst aspect of this is the sheer condescension of the former parasites. They preach nutritional moral uplift for the poor (not because they don’t have time and energy and money, because they don’t know better, apparently). But wouldn’t subpoenas to testify about legalities of their previous business dealings be a better way to save their own souls? Now there’s real redemption.

Will We Ever Close Guantánamo Bay Detention Center?

I’ve drifted away from blogging the last few months, but hoping to put up some original pieces soon. In the meantime, here’s a piece that I published over at Salon last month. Guantanamo has been on my mind ceaselessly, especially as I teach my Global War on Terror course this term.

I’ve been writing away, and so more pieces on other topics to be post over the next few weeks…

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January 11th marked the 12th anniversary of Guantánamo Bay Detention Center, which, according to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is the “least worst place to house” men suspected by the U.S. government links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.

But Rumsfeld’s statement reeks of incredulity. Beginning with the Bush administration, the U.S. has done more than merely house them. Through its military and medical personnel, it has inflicted physical brutality, extended torture, solitary confinement, force-feeding upon these men, all the while remaining publicly indifferent, even righteous, about the absence of charges, due process and legitimacy of the imprisonment.

Of the nearly 800 prisoners who have been confined there, 115 remain. Eleven were released in the last five months, twice as many as were released the previous three years.

Yet, as artist and writer Molly Crabapple pointed out in her recent Guardian column noting the prison’s anniversary, we also know — we have for some time — that over half of all the detainees who have been imprisoned there were handed over for U.S.-paid bounties, rather than because they were hostile or dangerous enemies of the U.S.

Crabapple is not asserting this as a fantasy of her own making. She cites an important but not widely known report written by Seton Hall law professor Mark Denbeaux, lawyer Joshua Denbeaux, and several Seton Hall law students. The Denbeaux are legal counsel to several of the detainees. In their report, the authors show extensive evidence that over half (55 percent) of the 517 prisoners that they profiled committed no hostile acts against the U.S. or its allies. Of those 517, only 41 (8 percent) are “characterized” as al-Qaida fighters. One hundred ninety prisoners had no connection to al-Qaida, and 86 had no links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. And of those 517, 445 were captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance were handed over to the United States at a time in which the United States offered large bounties for capture of suspected enemies.

Offering a large bounty doesn’t disprove the assertion that these men were a serious threat. But when a government creates these classifications without external accountability, and it is supported in this by a supine judiciary, the circumstances do present a serious — overwhelming, unmitigated — doubt about whether these prisoners are a danger to Americans. The Denbeaux have made evidence of this doubt available since 2006.

What should have amplified this doubt even further for all of the serious, fact-finding, mainstream media is that the Combatant Status Review Board – enacted under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense, and which has no incentive to be critical of the U.S. government — also made the same evidence of this doubt available as early as 2005.

As striking was a second report published by the Denbeaux group. This report pointed out that of the 72 groups recognized as terrorist organizations by the Department of Defense, 52 of them (72 percent) are not on any of the terrorist-watch lists maintained by the State Department. By this measure, the DoD keeps its own list of terrorist groups that are neither reviewed, confirmed nor double-checked by any other government office. As the Denbeaux report concludes,

This inconsistency leads to one of two equally alarming conclusions: either the State Department is allowing persons who are members of terrorist groups into the country or the Defense Department bases the continuing detention of the alleged enemy combatants on a false premise. (my emphasis)

Given that we have had few further terrorist acts committed within the confines of the United States by foreign nationals in the last decade, the second conclusion is more likely.

What is striking about this truth today is that it is possible to state it in print in established media such as the Guardian. Even as several more prisoners were released this past month, there appears to be a slight opening in the conversation, one enabling human rights advocates’ criticisms to echo for more than a few seconds.

This was not the case a decade ago, when early critics of the Bush administration’s policies tried to suggest that there was little proof that captives brought to Guantánamo were a danger to the U.S., and that the prison should not be treated as a “legal black hole.” Those critics’ voices included several U.N. high commissioners for human rights as well as Richard Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor of the International Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia, and American lawyers such as Michael Ratner, the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Michael Posner, the head of the Lawyers’ Committee. But their criticisms were drowned out by officials and polls indicating that Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of the prison and the inhumane treatment meted out to Afghan men.

Indeed, the original head of Guantánamo, Maj. Gen. Mark Lehnert, recently confirmed his own early doubts. Writing forcefully, Lehnert insists that Guantánamo never should have been opened, and many of the detainees should have never been sent there.

As cynics will suggest, that is how politics works, as even a casual perusal of American history reveals to us.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent were incarcerated across 10 prisons for little reason other than the fear shared by the U.S. government and non-Japanese populace alike. The fear, suspicion and contempt acted on by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was that these civilians, if allowed to live in the populace freely, might turn their freedom toward aiding the “enemy,” the Japanese government.  This fear was pursued, despite the Roosevelt administration’s knowledge that these civilians, many with American citizenship, had few ties to the country of their parents’ origin.

These same residents had been scapegoated by the U.S. for decades. In 1913, in California, a law stripping Asian non-citizens of their businesses had been passed. That law was a mere continuation of decades of policies designed to manage the “Japanese problem,” as historian Greg Robinson’s book, “By Order of the President,” informs us. By May 1942, many Asians, residents and citizens alike, were being ordered to board trains and buses to whichever “internment camp” they had been assigned, with only what they could carry with their own two hands. At that point, nearly any Japanese American families who still owned businesses had to forfeit them as they were dispatched to stark campsites, thousands of miles away from their towns, any towns where they might be in danger of talking to other non-Asians. (See here for a remarkable pictorial spread published by the Atlantic several years ago that show some moments from that period.)  The internment had the extended benefit of politically and socially ostracizing the internees. Friends, if any remained or wished to claim that mantle, would have found it prohibitive to visit them.

I visited one of those former camps about six years ago—Manzanar Camp, which sits at the foot of the Sierras, just outside of Death Valley. A U.S. park ranger, with a degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Irvine, had painstakingly curated the camp, whose vast desolate grounds had been denuded of most traces of that shameful period (scroll down for photos of what Manzanar looked like in 1943). In the main auditorium — the only structure that was left standing — the ranger had retrieved or reconstructed several barracks in which these families lived. Each housed several families of four, five, seven, eight or more: grandparents, babies, young children, teenagers, newlyweds and others. According to accounts made by former inhabitants of other camps, such as Tule Lake in Northern California, the sheds would be marked by makeshift curtains to divide the rooms into smaller, closet-like sleeping areas, for some semblance of privacy in which occupants could retreat for a while. Other inhabitants remarked on the unceasing wind that threatened to drive them mad, along with the fine layer of sand that covered every possession, including tablecloths, beds, makeshift dressers or dry goods.

Outside the auditorium, the vast grounds were marked by signs indicating where the canteen had been erected, and the school for the children had been built. There were maps that indicated the order of other structures, including watchtowers to ensure that none of the civilian internees escaped. Also remaining were traces of some old Buddhist gardens, created by some of the internees in an effort to bring beauty and life in that desolate, dry place.

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Buddhist gardens in Manzanar (Photo credit: Falguni A. Sheth)

As well, there were several burial places, marked by stones. One was as small as 2 feet, marked by the usual ring of stones, and several toys, indicating that an infant was buried there.

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An infant’s grave in Manzanar (Photo credit: Falguni A. Sheth)

I remember that the map indicated a building marked as a fire station, which presumably held water to be deployed in the likely event that a blaze might decimate the brittle wood buildings that sat on the desiccated land.

Manzanar was one of 10 camps to which American citizens and residents of Japanese descent were incarcerated during the remainder of the war. There, as with the prisoners in Guantánamo, the internees attempted to challenge their resistance in a myriad of ways, procedurally and physically.

As well, there was another group, nearly forgotten, who were also victimized by the U.S. Several thousand Japanese Latin Americans were arrested by their own governments (mostly Peru) and shipped to U.S. camps, including one in Panama.  The U.S. had hoped to trade them to Japan in exchange for American prisoners of war (it was unsuccessful). Many of these men and women, like their U.S. counterparts, had little actual connection to Japan. They had their passports confiscated. They remained in these camps for the duration of the war. After the war, betrayed by their home countries, both groups were essentially homeless, due to no fault of their own. They had no desire to return to Japan or the countries that had betrayed them, and the U.S. had revealed itself to be a hostile land.

Even though I had previously studied the historical and political aspects of the internment of Japanese Americans, thanks to the effort of this ranger, that trip to Manzanar foregrounded for me the extreme consequences of the unthinking panic legislated at the executive and congressional level little over 60 years ago.

It reminded me of the collective panic that recurred just over 12 years ago, a panic cynically exploited by U.S. leaders and representatives. Though these functionaries might have been zealous to protect their country, they could not see past their immediate interests to the moral stanchions of judicial procedures and habeas corpus, or to the effects of their short-sightedness: the ubiquitous ether of injustice that still mars this country’s reputation.

It appears that this is how politics has worked again and again. But such politics can only work when leaders and functionaries can savor the successes of their deal-making with immunity; when their decisions are not expected to be compelled by moral dictates, when they are affirmed and rewarded for their egregious human rights violations by being reelected; when military commanders and politicians prioritize “the masculine logic of the security state,” as the late philosopher Iris Marion Young called it.

This country and its leaders have never figured out how to redress wrongdoing. The U.S., beginning with President Ronald Reagan, paid out $1.6 billion to the 82,000 descendants of the Japanese internees, along with an apology. But these “reparations” can not make up for the damage done to an entire people; and it has little effect if no lessons are learned from such recent mistakes.

As Carol Rosenberg points out, in the intervening decade, the suspicions against these prisoners have diminished, perhaps because the panic has abated and many more have had time to reflect on the hasty actions that have led to Guantánamo. Many prisoners have been released, finally. The next remedy is obvious, but it will take a moment of courage by the current administration to enact it.

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A version of this article was published on Salon.com on Jan. 16, 2014

The Interest-Divergence Dilemma Between the Tech Companies and the NSA*

The intensity of the semester has precluded me from writing much on the blog over the last few months. But as the term ends and the winter session begins, I hope to post more frequently here. This post marks the beginning of that aspiration.

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As philosopher Robin James has insightfully pointed out last week, “privacy is a red herring,” that is, it is not a relevant consideration in the debate over surveillance and government power. Rather, the real issue is the balance between “security and freedom,” as Obama and DNI Director James Clapper repeat ad nauseum the trite pro-surveillance mantra. Balance, according to James, can be considered either as “the average of two extremes” or it “could mean a dynamically-adjusting continuum (the kind of balancing done, for example, by an audio equalizer or an electrical resistor).” She argues that the discussion over balance is about the latter—how to continually fine-tune the precise resting place between security and freedom.

James’ point is well taken. One of yesterday’s major stories seems to confirm the success of neoliberalism in precisely this vein: Eight top tech companies published an open letter to the POTUS, in which they urge him to limit the state’s surveillance activities because the “balance has tipped.” It’s not clear what the balance is, though here is how they describe it in their letter:

The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual – rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.

Prima facie, the tech companies are concerned about the encroachment upon individual freedoms, such as privacy.  Coincidentally, such “tipping” dovetails with profit losses for these companies, since as customers continue to hear about how these corporations have turned over supposedly private information to the government (sometimes making even more profit in the mix), they may challenge them by shutting down their Facebook, LinkedIn, and Yahoo accounts (which in turn induces further lost revenue from advertisers). They may engage in some other form of resistance (as encouraged through a neoliberal environment—of relocating their money (and potential corporate profits elsewhere), such as by shifting to non-profit tech organizations or open-source browsers, software, etc. whose primary mission is to protect user privacy. As such, the tech companies’ own “balance” of interests–located between complying with government requests and profiting by (falsely) claiming to protect their customers’ privacy for profit–also tips: in favor of the state.

Elsewhere in their (advertising) campaign to reform government surveillance, they suggest five “principles.” This is the first one:

Governments should codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data that balance their need for the data in limited circumstances, users’ reasonable privacy interests, and the impact on trust in the Internet. In addition, governments should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications.

So, the “balance” that the tech companies suggest is a balance between the government’s “need for data,” “users’ reasonably privacy interests” and “impact on trust in the Internet.”

Funny how the “principle” is rather an exercise in pragmatism: The tech companies don’t disagree that the state “needs” private information. They just insist that the state restrict its demands to that information that falls outside of “users’ reasonably privacy interest.” Presumably, “we” would all be okay if the NSA just collected the data of only those who might be terrorists and threatening American security interests.

Still, on this “principle,” I wonder how the US would distinguish between terrorists and reasonable privacy unless they collected everyone’s data. Doesn’t that bring us full circle back to the premise of all-encompassing surveillance?

I would add that, as the tech letter shows, while the language they resort to is the time-honored liberal discourse between security and freedom, in fact the balance they care about is the balance between corporate profits, government power, and customer complacence. It is not necessarily a problem to tip over from freedom to security, as long as government surveillance doesn’t begin to cause unrest among their customers such that they lose their profit machine.

Presumably “being sensible means not undermining “trust in the Internet,” which makes total sense, when your business profits depend on your customers’ trust in the Internet. So the appeal from the tech companies to the USG, in essence, is to continue their collaboration with the corporations to mine and acquire as much data as possible, but to be less obtrusive, less extreme, less confrontational about it. One way to do so, is to re-institute strict controls on which persons are the focus of data collection.

This is the quintessential neoliberal environment: corporations and the government converge to strip the focus away from rights so as to have better control over individuals. But at the moment that corporate profit is threatened, corporations no longer act in complete concert with the state, but rather each “institution” (the government and corporations) battle each other for control over consumers/citizens.

I think there’s a different (or another) red herring, to borrow from James: It is the red herring of “interests.” In other words, the discourse of interests distracts the “public” conversation from naming several realities (i.e. this is what is NOT printed as part of the official record, as in Reuters or the NYT; it doesn’t mean that many of us don’t see it).

1) It distracts us from being able to identify the struggle over the limits of surveillance as being about the limits of corporate power versus the state’s power and not, as its typically articulated, to protect persons/subjects/consumers/citizens.

2) This struggle is better understood as that between corporate interests for profit and (managing its customers’ behaviors for that purpose) v. government interests to acquire all information as a mode of securing control over subjects and companies.

In other words, the struggle between the tech companies and the government is over managing individual actions en masse, and by extension, its dialectical counterpart: consumers’/subjects’ resistance to being managed.

And this battle reflects the red herring of interests: The discourse of “interests” saturates the public conversation, such that privacy is no longer a relevant question. In fact, the prime concern that governs state actions is “its” own interests. This makes more sense if we revert to the assumption that the state’s interest is in its own survival, not that of its subjects/citizens. The corporations have their own interests in mind is obvious, but their interests are profits as extracted through the control/management of consumers’ actions (such as through Google’s and Facebook’s datacollection methods, which in turn are enhanced by targeting personalized ads at each user, which in turn extracts more information about user behavior.

The issue at stake is not about principles, or ethics, or privacy per se. Rather, the real concern—from the perspective of the tech companies is their profits being lost. That is the tipping point that shifts the balance away from profit in the service of overwhelming government desire to know everything that’s going on.  That interest was okay, so long as the public (customers) didn’t know (or didn’t focus so much on) the fact that their information was being handed over in volume by the tech companies. But when that knowledge threatens to drive away their customer base, then the “balance” qua fine-tuning has been lost.

I think James is right when she questions the relevance of privacy: she and I don’t disagree per se. But my emphasis on “interests” emerges by shifting the analytic:  The language of “interest” distracts us from the question of privacy. In part, this is because the language of privacy reflects an old liberal discourse of principles in relation to the limits of state power. But the discourse of neoliberalism concentrates on interests rather than rights or principles per se.

As such, the political framework changes from individual security to question of “what’s in my interest?” That’s why the common articulation of “disinterest” takes on so much resonance: But if I’m not doing anything wrong, then why should I care?”

The discourse of “interests” has begun to hegemonize the shape of public concerns. Because the language of interests is so commonplace, very few raised an eyebrow when the state appropriates the same language to explain its actions. For example, the US military announced this past weekend that it will no longer communicate information about Guantanamo detainees who are on hunger strike.

Officials have determined that it is no longer in their interest to publicly disclose the information, said Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, a spokesman for the military’s Joint Task Force Guantanamo.

Filostrat has reported that is more important to worry about the welfare of GiTMO guards (sympathy for whom had to have been enhanced by 60 Minutes’ report inside Camp Delta, which consisted of prisoners yelling, and reports of feces being flung at the guards, among other atrocities), and that of the detainees rather than reporting these strikes.

As the Washington Post reports, of course, the reports on the detainees’ hunger strikes was itself the barometer of the prison. Thus, the absence of information shuts down journalists and human rights advocates, not to mention the public’s, access to this information. But the reason cites was that it was NO LONGER in the interest of the government.

Since when does the interest of the government become an express–and justifiable–factor in which information is publicly reported? It is hard to imagine the state making this the basis of its defense in an earlier era. Arguably, this has been the overwhelming concern for the decade since September 12, 2001, but government policies have always been articulated as having the “interests” of the public in mind: i.e., national security.

The convergence of the language (e.g., of interests) that marks corporate motives and state motives illuminates how the force of biopolitics (or ontopolitics, as I write elsewhere—namely the creation of moral monsters in contrast to good citizens) shifts from one group to another. This is not a question that Michel Foucault answers: how does the focus of biopolitics change from epoch to epoch? Why are some groups persecuted in one moment, but not the next, and how does the focus change? In this moment, as the case of surveillance suggests, it is because the state has taken up the language of interests, as the corporations did already, to manage/discipline their subjects. But, the next chess move is that the corporations have taken up the debate of “freedom/security” in order to battle consumers/subjects’ resistance to being managed or controlled, in order to ensure the corporations’ continued existence and profit-making capacity.


*With a nod to the title of the late Prof. Derrick Bell’s article, “Brown v. Board and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma.”

The Clintons: Back on the campaign trail with the help of the New York Times

This article was published at Salon.com on December 4, 2013 under the headline, “New York Times’ blind spot on Clinton and race.”

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The New York Times published a piece this week in the service of the Democratic Party’s campaign for the 2016 elections that reveals a grave misunderstanding of recent history. Reporters Amy Chozick and Jonathan Martin profiled the tactics of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, the 42nd president of the United States, to restore their fragile relationship with African-Americans in anticipation of the former’s 2016 presidential run. The Times frames it as an attempt to “to soothe and strengthen their relationship with African-Americans,” apparently strained after Bill’s 2008 comments about the Obama presidency.

Here is the motivation they assign to the Clintons:

This task [of courting the black vote] has taken on new urgency given the Democratic Party’s push to the left, away from the centrist politics with which the Clintons are identified. Strong support from black voters could serve as a bulwark for Mrs. Clinton against a liberal primary challenge should she decide to run for president in 2016.

It would have been illuminating, and accurate as well, to distinguish between Democratic Party functionaries and Democratic voters in their description; I don’t see much in the way of Democratic politicos’ “push to the left”: NDAA 2012/2013, bank bailouts, the ACA, among other laws, don’t strike me as overly progressive.

Chozick and Martin assiduously cover the various black leaders with whom the Clintons have consorted since Hillary’s resignation as secretary of state earlier this year. Along with that coverage is a telling, if not accurate, description of Bill Clinton’s legacy, which Hillary will surely be relying on to vouch for her “progressive” credentials. Here is perhaps the most remarkable paragraph of the article:

Mr. Clinton has a rich, if occasionally fraught, history with African-Americans. He was a New South governor and a progressive on race who would eventually be called “the first black president” by the author Toni Morrison. But he infuriated blacks in 2008 when, after Mr. Obama won a big South Carolina primary victory, he seemed to dismiss the achievement by reminding the press that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had won the state twice and calling Mr. Obama’s antiwar position “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

Many African-Americans took Mr. Clinton’s fairy tale comment to mean that Mr. Obama’s candidacy itself was a hopeless fantasy.

It is true that black Americans were mightily irritated by Bill’s comments. But that’s hardly the only source of the injury.

(Un)surprisingly, even as Chozick and Martin tritely repeat Toni Morrison’s description of Clinton as the first black president, proudly repeated by Bill (and ad nauseam by mainstream media), they don’t offer any context for her remarks.

Morrison, writing in the New Yorker in 1998, was reflecting on the Republicans’ move to impeach Bill Clinton in the aftermath of revelations of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, his intern at the time. She says:

African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.”

It is clear that Morrison is poetic and pained here. She analogizes the experiences faced by Clinton to those faced all too often by black men. There is much that can be said about this piece. But the cynicism of Clinton and his supporters is such that her phrase was co-opted as an endorsement of his “progressive” politics, rather than what it signaled at the very least; it is a searing insight into the inferior, abject status of black men in the United States at the end of the millennium. And here is Morrison in her own words in 2008.

But Chozick and Martin, in their own perhaps subconscious cynicism merely repeat Morrison’s endorsement and omit any discussion of Clinton’s policies during his two terms as president, or during his time as governor of Arkansas.

The first “black” president and his partner in devastation proudly designed the prototype of Clinton’s famous 1996 welfare reform bill when he was the governor of Arkansas. Women who applied for aid from the state were required, among other indignities, to name the potential fathers of their children. Yes, yes, save your objections: This policy was created to search out “deadbeat dads,” and get them to pay child support.

But somehow it never occurred to many — not the press, not white liberals, not liberal feminists, much less the Clintons (if they cared at all) — that such a reform would only be effective in further humiliating already poor women, women who, had they other options, would never have resorted to the state for help. Here’s a brilliant letter from a Seattle feminist to N.O.W. back in 2007, which sets out the various assumptions and implications of welfare reform.

The ballast for welfare reform exploited the racial antagonism against black women that was inflated and gained momentum under Ronald Reagan’s administration. But as many, from Barbara Ehrenreich to digby to Jason DeParle, point out, the Clintons and their Democratic buddies endorsed the righteous smokescreen that “workfare” was needed to teach the poor how to keep a job rather than asking for money, and to teach poor (black) women “chastity training.” Patronizing? Racist? Those words don’t even cover half of it, especially as they’re accompanied by the convenient selective amnesia about the legacy of slavery and the still-existent practice of institutional discrimination against blacks. We can see this in the history of the drug war, the prison industry, red-lining, not to mention plain old-fashioned racism as seen in our public school system, post-secondary admissions practices, and employment across multiple industries.

Hillary’s express support for welfare reform enabled Bill to get the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act passed. Peter Edelman, a senior Clinton appointee who resigned in protest of the bill, pointed out that this was the “worst thing Bill Clinton has done.” Due to the remarkable efforts of the “first black president” and his wife, and like-minded “liberals” and conservatives who believed that the poor needed to be taught to climb out of a “culture of poverty,” welfare was no longer the entitlement that it had been for decades (and should have remained as such). Rather, it was transformed into a sporadic privilege periodically and provisionally bestowed on the poor, all the while leaving millions more in poverty. As Edelman pointed out in 2011, that 1996 bill made things much worse for the poor: “There are now people who cannot find work, and who cannot get welfare.”

Needless to say, Democrats and Republicans have managed to augment, enhance, exacerbate the level of nationwide poverty through its support of banking deregulation and absence of serious sanctions for bankers and subprime mortgage companies.

When Chozick and Martin write about Bill Clinton as a “progressive on race,” I have to wonder which criteria they use to measure. They use certain famous black politicians’ comments (such as those of Democratic Rep. James Clyburn or Rep. Elijah Cummings) or public gestures (such as sitting next to “friend and rival” and former Democratic Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder at Howard University’s May 2013 commencement) at face value and out of context. To gauge race progress by which friends a white Democrat sits next to — doesn’t this strike anyone as uncomfortably close to the “Some of my best friends” cliché?

Why not consider the effects of NAFTA and WTO, which decimated the manufacturing industry that employed enormous numbers of African-Americans? Many journalists and left economists have detailed the detrimental impact of the offshoring of corporations, the forgiveness of taxes, the eradication of labor protections for foreign nationals who work at formerly American companies. Why does none of this figure into the assessment of “racial progress”? Even one paragraph might have allowed for the possibility that the Times was engaged in some critical questions about the releases and information that they were being fed by the Clinton campaign.

Why not consider the effects of the 1996 Immigration Reform Bill, which was a precursor to the enormous anti-immigration tide that has swept the country, enhanced by the right-wing and neo-patriotic impulses of both Democrats and Republicans in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks?

Why not consider the effects of the 1994 Crime Bill, which heralded in “three strikes” legislation at the federal level, also signed under the “first black president”? The expansion of the death penalty in the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Death Penalty Act?

I can hear objections that Hillary should be able to run on her own record. OK, why not examine a few of her votes? Remember, it was Sen. Russ Feingold — not Sen. Clinton, or Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, or Secretary of State John Kerry — who stood up against the USA Patriot Act, as a harbinger of a (by now) vengeful, 12-year, racist and arbitrary tide of vitriol against Muslims in the U.S., Iraq, Afghanistan, U.K., Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere in the world. How about on the 2002 authorization to invade Iraq? AUMF 2005? The 2007 surge in Iraq? She voted in favor of them. To her credit, she voted against the 2008 FISA bill, citing checks on presidential authority, even as elsewhere she has been in support of increasing it. How does she feel about WikiLeaks? Edward Snowden? The death penalty (supports it, but not for Iran).

These are hardly left votes. These are hardly liberal votes. These are hardly racially progressive votes.

Let’s not judge whether someone is a “race progressive” — especially a politician — by the utterances of his/her friends. Presumably, journalists understand that the notion of an alliance does not confirm the truth of one’s race politics; it merely demonstrates that all other concerns have been provisionally subordinated in order to further one particular goal. Sure, we can call it pragmatic, strategic, realpolitik. But regardless of the term used, journalists — of all people — know that citing such alliances does not offer a valuable insight or confirmation about the truth of one’s politics.

I tell my students that if they want to write about politics effectively and forcefully, they must major in something other than journalism: history, sociology, ethnic studies, politics — something other than a field that disciplines its students to forget that accurate narratives have a long-seated, deeply buried history that cannot simply be articulated through a repetition of sound bites aired by corporate news media or covering poll results. Facts, those snippets that refer to a certain state of the world, must be assembled and grounded by searching through indirect, long-buried records that have long slipped the public (and corporate media’s) memory. Such an excavation requires the skills of an archaeologist and the critical distance of an outsider — not the propitiatory writing skills of someone familiar with the well-worn seat of an election press bus or who lunches with his subjects on a regular basis.

Of course, that assumes that establishment media such as the Times is interested in reportage from a critical perspective. Perhaps that’s the most flawed assumption of all.

Don’t Buy the Spin on Guantánamo: It doesn’t mean what you think it does

This article was originally published on Salon.com on November 18, 2013.

 

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Technically, President Obama appears to be making strides on his 2008 promise to close down Camp Delta at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. But despite Fox News’ takeaway, let’s not get confused: closing down the prison has little to do with releasing the remaining prisoners, some of whom have been held there for nearly 12 years—almost none of them ever charged with a crime.

In fact, closing down the prison doesn’t clear up the issue of what will happen to the 164 prisoners, all of whom are foreign nationals, except that they will be “transferred,” a term that can mean whatever the President wants it to mean: relocating prisoners to another prison, releasing them to the custody of their home governments, placing them in “rehabilitation” facilities, or just simply: get them off the base.

The ACLU, surprisingly, didn’t speak to that distinction when it showcased the costs of keeping Guantánamo open over the last decade. They pointed out the millions that could be allocated to other important programs by “transferring detainees” out of Guantanamo: keeping down healthcare costs for military families, fully funding assistance in transitioning U.S. veterans to civilian life, covering the military’s body armor budget, funding prosthetics research (presumably for vets who lost limbs).

To be fair, the confusion can be partly attributed to the President’s waffling on the issue. He has offered several renditions of  “closing down” Guantánamo: Shortly after he took office in his first term, he conceded that some of the prisoners, despite lack of sufficient evidence or due to “contaminated” evidence, could never be tried. By implication, they could never be released.  Sometime after that, he toyed with the idea of relocating them to a new prison in Illinois. That plan would have allowed him, technically, to keep his promise to close Gitmo. Protests from various corners of the U.S. quickly put a kibosh on that idea.

More recently, the Obama Administration has been in talks with the Yemeni government to transfer somewhere between 55 to 80 Yemeni prisoners to Sana’a, on the condition of a new Guantanamo prison rehabilitation facility of some sort being built there. It would be funded by anyone but the U.S. — most likely the Saudis, who according to the LA Times, have had a successful track record of “rehabilitating” terrorists, presumably so that they will not fight back (against governments who’ve done them harm). The U.S. has promised that the “rehab” would include “counseling, instruction in a peaceful form of Islam, and job training in Yemen before any decision on freeing them.”  Still, I shudder to think which other tactics will be used. See this recent clip, which shows torture being inflicted under the watchful eye of American military personnel in Afghanistan (warning: it is extremely violent). Is it unreasonable to anticipate that that the transfer of Yemeni detainees to Sana’a will be accompanied by the transfer of torture, death, and harm to their families?

Given its own track record, the Yemeni government hardly inspires confidence in the promise of ethical treatment: at times, it purports to represent the interests of the families of the Gitmo prisoners; in the same breath, it reveals itself to be a faithful servant of the U.S. by justifying or covering up U.S. drone attacks into Yemen. And now, it is engaging in negotiations with the U.S. to build a prison/halfway house to house the as-of-yet uncharged Yemenis, going so far as to offer to pay for it before rescinding its offer due to a tight government budget. It is noteworthy that the home-governments of other Gitmo prisoners have refused to imprison them again upon “transfer,” on the grounds that they have not been convicted of any crimes.

Like me, Sen. Saxby Chambliss also thinks transferring prisoners to a prison in Yemen is a bad idea, but for different reasons. Chambliss believes that the Yemenis, at least 20 of whom have been deemed “low-risk” detainees, would be a danger to the U.S. even if they were not released but transferred to a Yemeni prison. Chambliss’ logic makes sense, and could even construed be an implicit acknowledgment that the U.S. has treated these prisoners abominably. After all, if the agents of a foreign government kidnapped and tortured you, threatened to hurt your family, locked you up in a tiny cage for twelve years while guards disciplined and humiliated you, mashed up your Bible, periodically beat you for having the temerity to be unsatisfied with the arrangement, and challenged your ability to hunger strike by violently forcing a tube up your nose three times a day— all without ever charging you with a crime or showing evidence of wrongdoing — you’d be angry enough to dream of ways of getting back at that government and its officials if you were ever released.  Thomas Jefferson suspected as much back in 1781, when he suggested that after emancipation, ex-slaves should be expelled for fear of retaliation against their former owners for the inhuman treatment they had received.

But Chambliss’ fears are not substantiated. As Adam Hudson cites in a brilliant analysis of the supposedly concluded Gitmo hunger strikes, the “recidivism rate” for released Guantanamo prisoners is 4 percent. That low rate suggests that these men, if they ever were prone to violence (which we can’t determine, given the lack of evidence) are remarkably forgiving of those who have inflicted serious violence and other wrongdoing on them.

There are other reasons to oppose “transferring,” rather than releasing prisoners. Relocating human beings who’ve been caged for 11 or more years— despite any public evidence of wrongdoing–to a prison in another country is yet another feature of the quest for global hegemony by the U.S. empire.  The Post-Human Rights State, we might call it.

In this instance, U.S. imperial power, disguised as a liberal polity concerned with protecting the freedom and rights of all human beings, is revealed when it selectively showcases certain human rights that support the destructive actions planned by the state. WMD’s in Iraq.  Women’s rights in Afghanistan. Such “principles” are clearly exhorted almost exclusively to enable voters to support otherwise dubious or indefensible policies.

The issue here is one of principle as well as of realpolitik. Under the Bush Administration and its minions, heinous and unconstitutional actions were undertaken in the name of national security. Those minions, as we know, included plenty of Democrats, like Senators Feinstein, Kerry, and Clinton, who approved and supported those actions. Counter-terrorism, as we now understand it, is about exchanging sacrificing selling out human rights principles in the name of American security while chiseling away at the rights long claimed by American citizens and residents: free speech, privacy, dissent, knowing the charges that warrant my arrest, fair trials before an impartial judge, publicly shared evidence in order to convict.

The Obama Administration unabashedly continues the destruction that the Bush Administration began in 2001 in the name of national security.  Highlights include pushing for NDAA 2012; winning back on appeal (in the lawsuit filed by Chris Hedges, Alexa O’Brien and others) the right to detain people infinitely (sic) with impunity; wiretapping Americans, foreigners, the press, and heads of state alike; and persecutingwhistleblowers through dubious laws and the revocation of passports, and in collusion with foreign governments.

It is not possible to continue to violate the freedom and bodies of so many people — American or foreign, citizens or otherwise — without confronting the inevitability that those chickens will come home to roost. I don’t mean revenge. History has disproven Jefferson’s fears wrong, despite the continued persecution and mass imprisonment of Black Americans up to this day. I mean the disintegration of a society that claims to respect the bodily and psychic integrity of human beings to live and speak without fear of despotic retribution. Consequently, the United States can no longer credibly claim to be a beacon of democracy or protector of rights without hearing the loud, widespread, jeers of derision and contempt from the victims of the US’s unceasing violence: the families of droned Pakistanis and Yemenis as well as those of Gitmo detainees who have already ended their own lives; the family and friends of Aaron Swartz, as well as those of Chelsea Manning, Barrett Brown, John Kiriakou and many others. The list is long, too long.

In the face of this knowledge, closing Guantanamo and releasing its uncharged prisoners may be a trivial act. But it would constitute one step in the right direction — of trying to observe human rights principles while beginning to forge international relationships on a basis other than the force embodied in the long reach of destructive weapons and aggressive, unchecked, despotism. Perhaps then, we might be able to look forward to reclaiming the US’s integrity as a champion, rather than the destroyer, of human rights.

Miriam Carey’s Temper, or Why Post-Partum Depression Doesn’t Mean You’re Crazy

 

Yesterday Miriam Carey, a 34 year-old African-American dental hygienist from Stamford, Connecticut, was shot dead by police after having veered her car into some blockades near the White House and Capitol building, after having gotten out of her car.

Ms. Carey managed to get out of the car, and was shot by several officers. According to a law enforcement official, she was not armed, and it was not known whether she presented an immediate danger.

There is a video clip of her trying to escape the horde of security people, while being pursued by a police car. There may be other clips as well, more graphic, more heartbreaking—but I can’t stand to look for them.  It’s still not clear how much of this event was instigated malevolently or was the consequence of a series of misinterpretations, errors, or overreaction. Initially, media outlets were reporting that the woman in the car had a gun and was a shooter. Only later did we learn that Carey was unarmed and had her 1 year-old daughter in the car, who was not hurt. Of the exact story, I am not sure.

What I am sure of was the immediate leap made by police and the media suggesting that Carey had “mental health issues.” Yet, even though various sites ran with headlines suggesting that Carey was mentally ill, they did not provide any solid evidence of this detail beyond a mention by a former employer, a periodontist, that she’d had a head injury resulting from falling down the stairs and the suggestion she had a temper and was fired because of it.

Carey’s former boss, Dr. Brian Evans, told The News that she “fell down some stairs and she had a pretty significant head injury” toward the end of the nearly two years she worked for him.

The story uses Evans’ words denying that her firing had been connected to mental illness to imply the opposite conclusion.

When they let Carey go last year, “it was nothing related to any mental problems that we were in tune to,” he said. But Evans added that Carey had a temper, and he recalled how she became incensed when he asked her to quit parking in a handicapped spot at the medical building.

“She got very angry with that, so that started some friction. And then from there she was never insubordinate per se, or anything like that, but she tended to go against the grain a bit,” said Evans, whose practice is in Hamden, Connecticut.

The story goes on to note her Facebook comments about ‘wack men,’ and her presumably frustrating dating experiences—as if that is a strange thing for a single, presumably heterosexual woman to post.

On NBC, the framing of Carey changed somewhat, but the main impression was that she was still crazy and violent.

Dr. Barry Weiss, a dentist, told NBC Connecticut that Carey was working for him in January 2012 when she suffered a fall and missed two to three weeks. He said that she appeared increasingly stressed after an unplanned pregnancy. Relatives have said that she may have suffered postpartum depression.

Weiss said that he fired her in August 2012 after patients complained that she was too rough.

Her mother has confirmed that Carey had post-partum depression after the birth of her daughter a year before. It is certainly true that defense attorneys for women on trial for killing their children, such as Susan Smith or Paula Thompson, have used post-partum as the basis of insanity defenses. But defense strategies are a poor foundation for identifying post-partum depression with violent tendencies, unless substantial proof is demonstrated.

The fact that Carey is Black has “politely” been ignored, much in the same way that Aaron Alexis’s racial identity was not mentioned by most media in the aftermath of the Navy Yard shooting. In fact, when I heard about the Navy Yard shooting, I assumed that the shooter was a white male. My assumption was partially based on the conspicuous absence of any mention of the shooter’s religious or racial identity and the immediate dismissal that the event was connected to “terrorism” (which amounts to the same thing).  As importantly, I knew that most mass shootings are committed by white men, as Mother Jones reported earlier this year.  It wasn’t until later in the day, after his photo was posted, that I realized Aaron Alexis was African American.

In his case, as in the case Miriam Carey, we’re starting to see the linguistically polite meme (because every group has got to have a meme!) that is being ascribed to non-teen-aged Black Americans who are associated with violent events: mental illness.  For male Black teens, they are still closely associated with inherent criminality, “thuggery,” and other violent, animalistic, and sexualized personifications. We have seen this for centuries. We still see it: from the slanderous superpredator mantle of the 1980’s, to the Central Park Five, who were convicted in the media as beasts and brutes, and the defense of stop and frisk by Ray Kelly, Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD.

And still true to form, mainstream media reporters notoriously strain their necks trying to find a way to legitimate these stereotypes on behalf of the powerful and political authorities—repeating innuendo without proof—until they can string together a narrative that justifies the faulty assumption with which they began. And so, an unarmed black woman is again quickly assimilated into the meme of crazy, angry women who must have been at fault for the racial perceptions imposed upon her.

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A longer, different, version of this article entitled “The Smearing of Miriam Carey: How the Media Bungled the Capitol Hill Shooting,” was published on Salon on Oct. 7, 2013.

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