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.


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

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.

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.


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.”

Race, Murder, and Mayhem in America: Considering the Links

Glenn Greenwald is right to be skeptical of any direct causal links between the horrific events such as the Sikh Temple Massacre or the Joplin Mosque and US foreign policy. As he pointed out yesterday,

there are usually a diverse array of complex motives (psychological, emotional, ideological, religious) that drive individuals to engage in violence of this sort, and an equally diverse list of complex causes (legislative, political, cultural) as to why our society fosters and enables it.

And to be fair, most white men who have grown up in the shadow of 9-11 do not shoot up theaters and temples or burn down mosques. But I want to try to be clearer about the links that I’m trying to argue for:

Dylan Rodrigues, a scholar in Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside and author of a great book on Black Radicals in prison, has argued that we need to pay attention to the parallels between the massive numbers of Black and Latino men who are in prison, and our tendencies to incarcerate Muslim men in Guantanamo, or Abu Ghraib. These parallels can alert us to a certain carceral mentality that is mirrored in a country’s international and domestic policies. A number of philosophers and sociologists have argued along similar lines, including Michel Foucault, Angela Davis, and Loiç Wacquant.

Similarly, in my last post and a number of others, that is what I’ve tried to argue that we need to consider: when Dharun Ravi sets up a camera to spy on his gay roommate’s trysts, or Wade Michael Page shoots up a Sikh temple, when US soldiers rape Iraqi women, urinate on dead bodies, and shoot civilians in cold blood in Iraq, we need to move beyond the level of shock and start thinking about the larger political and legal and cultural mentalities in which these events happen.

In particular, we live in a country in which the federal office that oversees the strict regulation of immigrants, visitors, and—yes—citizens, guards the homefront through border security, pre-emptive policing of people’s social, political and financial activity, their emails and phone calls, i.e., “counterterrorism.” That office, ceremoniously renamed the Department of Homeland Security six months after September 11, 2001, is an ostentatious chest-beating symbol of waging a war on “threats to national security.”

In the name of Homeland Security—a hallowed reference to Nazi Germany’s urge to purify their own “heimat”–we have seen the prevalence of United States’ domestic and foreign policies: state-led surveillance of its own people, of the decision to harass foreigners until they leave, i.e., “self-deportation,” of Muslim communities, to incarcerate Muslim men without habeas corpus or a serious legal defense, to outlaw political protest, to give the U.S. president full authority to assassinate and incarcerate “terrorists,” and to the fact of state-led mass destruction in the form of drones, rockets, bombs, chemical warfare and guns?

Why then, talk about white supremactists as if they are loners or part of private gangs? Shouldn’t we remember the US’ emphasis on the Homeland when we watch these shootings and mosque-burnings? When we see images of war and strife in the Middle East? Is it such a strange leap to think of US domestic and foreign policy as part of white supremacist, racial contract, as political philosopher Charles Mills argues (read his book for more on this; it’s clearly written, even for non-philosophers)?

As Greenwald says:

A country which venerates its military above all other institutions, which demands that its soldiers be spoken of only with religious-like worship, and which continuously indoctrinates its population to believe that endless violence against numerous countries is necessary and just — all by instilling intense fear of the minorities who are the target of that endless violence — will be a country filled with citizens convinced of the virtues and nobility of aggression. (the links are in his original piece).

He’s right. I think there’s something else going on as well. At the risk of stating the ridiculously obvious, we live in a country (and still at a time) that has a very difficult time with race politics: And it’s not merely about racial antagonisms having to do with Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis or South Asians and Arabs generally. It has to do with racial hostilities that are legislated against Latinos and Blacks (and by this term, I include all folks who are the victim of anti-black racism, not just African Americans)—and Americans turning a blind eye to these hostilities that are waged against black and brown folks, while expecting white men to act out the scripts of entitlement: declaring and waging war, AND deploying black and brown and working-class whites to war. Americans cheer when whites, blacks, and browns act out their scripts within the confines of state-led policies and laws—and are shocked when whites, blacks, and browns act out their scripts outside of those institutions and laws.

Again, Charles Mills calls this the epistemology of ignorance, that is when whites and elites are completely baffled by—and claim NOT to understand– the very same world that they (through slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, mass criminalization through anti-terror and drug laws)—produced. Mills coined this term, the epistemology of ignorance, hand in hand with the racial contract back in 1997. Can you imagine the furor he caused then?

I agree with Mills—mostly.

As importantly it has to do with the very difficult time we have in calling our political leaders to account whether they are white or non-white; but at the present moment, we are having an especially difficult time calling our current President, who is black, into account—especially for those of us who are politically progressive and constructively race-conscious. The tensions that lie in this political dilemma—during this election year—are enormous. But it doesn’t make us racially or politically progressive to turn a blind eye to the President’s racially destructive policies: like deporting 400,000 migrants a year; like tearing apart families through forced deportation; destroying childhoods through indefinite detention and deportation of their parents without judicial review.

So, taking a page out of Mills’ book, I would suggest that another term that better describes what’s happening today: the epistemology of indifference. White and elites understand perfectly well the world that they have produced. And those liberals AND progressives who vote for them—despite this knowledge—are guilty of the epistemology of indifference: they know and they don’t care. At least, they don’t care enough to reject the false choices handed to them by the Democratic Party.

It doesn’t make us racially or politically progressive to turn a blind eye to the President’s imperially expansive policies. It makes us callous, indifferent, and frankly, part of the problem. Calling him to account doesn’t necessarily make one a racist, unless you are calling him to account because he is black. Similarly, not calling him to account because he’s black is also problematic.

Race in America is an enormously tricky terrain to navigate carefully, justly, ethically. But it needs to be addressed alongside our policies of violence, of invasion, of mass murders in the name of a Secure Homeland, and in ways that don’t celebrate OR vilify single individuals. Rather, we need to clearly, firmly, effectively call those politicians and appointees to account: by voting with our feet to find leaders who share their moral principles, and reject officially sanctioned mass-murders and wars, instead of promoting them as solutions to the racial fears and xenophobia of Americans.

Homophobic Harassment, Self-Deportation, and Surveillance

The New Yorker ran a thoughtful piece by Ian Parker on the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide in the fall of 2010, sometime after he discovered that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, had used a webcam to spy, and invite a public-spy-in, on Clementi’s encounter with a male-lover in their shared dorm-room.  The article, relying on electronic records from emails to tweets, suggests that there may be an ambiguous link between Ravi’s spying and Tyler’s suicide.  It is not clear that the spy-in happened, nor how disturbed Tyler was over the news that he was being spied on, but it was clear that he was aware that his roommate spied on him, however briefly.

Ravi stands on trial for, among other things, invasion of privacy (sex crime) and bias intimidation (hate crime). Regardless of whether Ravi’s actions can be closely traced to Clementi’s suicide, Ravi is—even if his own accounts are to be believed—still culpable for harassment and extreme violation of his roommate’s privacy.

Clementi, who had come out as gay to his parents only three days before he began at Rutgers, doesn’t reveal–in his electronic records–a level of emotional devastation  that might be consistent with his decision to commit suicide. But I can’t help but wonder about the psychic devastation that Clementi felt upon discovering that his intimate relationship was subject to surveillance, public spectators, and public mocking.

A few days ago, I was listening to a story on This American Life (#456, Reap What You Sow) about the concerted campaign to induce undocumented migrants across the country, but especially in Alabama, to self-deport. Reporter Jack Hitt discussed the strategies of Secretary of State of Kansas, Kris Koback, to induce “self-deportation.” Koback is considered the “mastermind” of “attrition through enforcement” throughout the country. Kobach is also the proud creator of the National Security Entry-Exit System (NSEERS), which is based on legal precedents that were used to detain and hold citizens and migrants of Japanese descent during the second World War, among other populations. According to a 2004 report on Special Registration by the Asian-American Legal Defense, through NSEERS, the Bush Administration rounded up over 82,000 Muslim men in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks; over 13,000 were put in deportation proceedings.  After that wildly successful anti-immigration maneuver, Koback turned his crafty mind and overpriced education to other issues:  he has helped author the anti-immigrant legislation in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Texas, Arizona, and Alabama’s HB 56. He so modestly describes himself as helping states “restore the rule of law.”

Two things to keep in mind: first, the restoration of the “rule of law” doesn’t involve punishing Goldman Sachs or Lehman Bros. investment bankers for squandering away the pensions of career pipefitters, teachers, and nurses, nor lobbying President Obama to cut off their “bailout” bonuses. Rather, it involves the creation of laws that pivot on the intersection of citizenship and surveillance. Koback’s contribution here is to centralize surveillance through the checkpoints of immigration and citizenship: For example, through Alabama’s HB 56, proof of legal status is required for all children entering public schools; birth certificates are required in every business transaction with the state; any citizen may challenge private business owners’ hiring practices as illegal according to this law. This law has also induced Alabamians–illegally–to take HB 56 into their own hands, refusing to conduct private business transactions without proof of papers in grocery stores. Employees at several Wal-Mart stores across the state refused to allow one migrant to receive a Moneygram from her mother without proof of legal status, even though such proof was neither part of the law nor store policy. Other migrants were told they wouldn’t be paid for work they had already done, or that they would no longer be allowed to rent their apartment, because these acts would be considered engaging in “illegal contracts.”

One migrant’s daughter was enrolled in a Birmingham, AL public school, where there has already been a conversation about what would happen if their parents are picked up by Immigration and citizenship enforcement (ICE): Their teachers have told them that they would be fine because they were American citizens; needless to say, that conversation terrified those kids even more than they already were.  Moreover, we know, according to ColorLinesShattered Families Report that they will NOT be fine. In fact, the undocumented parents of US born children may very well be rounded up during a routine traffic stop, or a routine grocery store purchase, or during an ICE raid conducted in their place of employment, in which case they will be shuttled off to a detention facility and, chances are, deported before they ever have a chance to make arrangements for their children to be cared for by friends or family or to bring them with them, regardless of whether the parents are deported or released. And of course, children without guardians would be considered “abandoned,” and become wards of the state, ready to be shuttled off to a nice white family in need of a child to adopt.

These laws have created a climate where all brown people, regardless of citizenship and national origin, are acutely aware of being monitored: Women have quit their jobs and children have been taken out of school and kept at home, deprived of the chance of a routine life of education, playing with friends and socializing with family and neighbors.  The climate of “self-deportation,” is in fact a climate of self-monitoring, of the acute awareness that one is always being surveyed, that one’s comportment, behavior, existence is always under acute scrutiny. Your own fellowchurchgoers will refuse to shake your hands during the passing of the peace (16:50)  This is what it means to be an outsider. The law prescribes the attitude that “good law-abiding citizens” should take.

As Hannah Arendt points out in 1958,

The administration considers the law to be powerless because it is by definition separated from its application. The decree, on the other hand, does not exist at all except if and when it is applied; it needs no justification except applicability…People ruled by decree never know what rules them because of the impossibility of understanding decrees in themselves and the carefully organized ignorance of specific circumstances and their practical significance in which all administrators keep their subjects. (Origins of Totalitarianism, 244)

[Arendt has another passage that I can’t find on totalitarianism leaves us constantly vulnerable to criminality because offices and the law we are supposed to obey change constantly; a cookie for anyone who can find it].


Before you respond by insisting that “if they don’t want to live like this, they should just go “home,” do remember: those of us who are members of this blighted polity are also subject to the same scrutiny: As Bill Newman and the Mass ACLU have uncovered, the United States is now populated with Fusion Centers. These are local sites which collect, through the marvel of the 2006 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (which your President Obama returned to DC from the campaign trail in August specifically to vote for), yours and my data: collecting your Weight Watchers food diaries online, crossing tollbooths with your EZ pass, pictures of your license plates in cities where you’re not supposed to be at that hour, your encounters on Craigslist and online porn sites, your telephone calls to your best friend and your shrink, your phone sex sessions with your traveling spouse, scrolling through various religious websites for inspirational lectures, online purchases for medications to relieve the symptoms of embarrassing diseases, email interactions with our lefty or radical or….god forbid, Muslim, students.

These Fusion Centers are regional: they collect data locally and then share it with national FBI data centers—this is, indeed, “the rule of law.” It is done legally. And after all, the difference between what is legal and illegal is inscribed through the stroke of a President’s pen on the signature line of a bill. The difference between what is moral and immoral, between privacy and violation of your most sacred thoughts—those too are established through the votes of your Senators and Congresspersons, as well as through the President’s pen. And don’t you worry—it’s a bipartisan effort: Senators Leahy (VT), Boxer (CA), Di-Fi (CA), Pelosi (CA), Gillenbrand (NY), Cantwell (WA), Kerry (MA), Reed (NV), Udall (UT), and the list goes on and one–all voted for the NDAA. The simpler question is, who didn’t vote for it?

The homophobic harassment of Tyler Clementi by Dharun Ravi was a violation of the sacrosanct right to privacy as deployed by an arrogant, young male migrant upon another young, gay, man. Immaturity, narcissism, bias, and youth all appear to be contributing factors in Ravi’s stupid, selfish act. His actions should at least be scrutinized carefully in a court of law, and condemned regardless of the outcome of the trial.  Still, how interesting that the extreme, systematic, violation of a group of vulnerable migrants through the concerted surveillance and coercion of state legislation is not to subjected to the same condemnation. “Self-deportation,” as Mitt Romney describes it, is considered less “messy” and less “expensive” than having officials track down, arrest, detain, deport, and break up families. There are records, evidence, and perhaps culpability in the latter. Self-deportation expresses a similar dislocation and pain, a similar fear, the same kind of harassment, coerciveness, and systematic psychic violence that a sole individual with a webcam does to another single person. Need I extend the argument to Fusion Centers? The difference, of course, is that the psychic violence is much more detrimental when leveled against groups who are already vulnerable, groups who are Muslim, South Asian, Middle-Eastern, brown, angry, dissenting, racially conspicuous.

As worse is the climate in which we have accommodated ourselves to having our everyday habits, routines, foibles, peculiarities, private habits, dislikes, sexuality subject to scrutiny by a state—by 50 states—by The State—that records, organizes, classifies their findings against us, ready to bring out at a potentially threatening moment (threatening to the state) to use against us.

Arendt again (in 1951):

Rule by decree…is superior simply because it ignores all intermediary stages between issuance and application, and because it prevents political reasoning by the people through the withholding of information.

She refers to the totalitarian state as one in which there is no distinction between public and private: both meld into one, and freedom, public as well as private, is an illusion. There is no home to seek refuge in from the public light of day. Even worse, spontaneity—to laugh, love, inquire, explore—becomes even more rare. One’s every move becomes a defensive calculation against potential violence: should I explore this website? Should I speak out? Should I argue with this administrator? He could turn me in—even falsely—and make my life a living hell. Should I go out to buy groceries this morning? Should I let my child out to play? Can I drive to work today? Psychic violence, violations of intimacies, shredding privacy are equally harmful whether done by one or done by a systematic set of laws, officials, networks, warehouses and databases.

I’ll leave with you a last thought by Arendt:

We are not concerned here with the ultimate consequence of rule by terror—namely, that nobody, not even the executors, can ever be free from fear; in our context we are dealing merely with the arbitrariness by which victims are chosen, for this it is decisive that they are objectively innocent, that they are chosen regardless of why they may or may not have done…
In order to establish a totalitarian regime, terror must be present as an instrument for carrying out a specific ideology; and that ideology must have won the adherence of many, and even a majority, before terror can be stabilized…And an ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily. (Arendt, OT, 6-7)

Where is Their Refuge in This World?

Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless, once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth.” Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), ch. 9.

I’m still troubled by many (white and non-white) progressives’ diffidence over U.S. foreign policy.  Besides some of the principled and humbling speeches of Dr. King this week, I reread selections from Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece, Origins of Totalitarianism (Origins), published in 1951. Arendt, a philosopher and a journalist, fled to France from Germany in 1933.  In France, besides working to assist other Jewish refugees, she was imprisoned in a concentration camp. Eventually, with the help of friends, she escaped. She made her way to the United States, where she taught at the New School and the University of Chicago. You may have read her series of searing critical articles on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, published in the New Yorker in 1961 (eventually published as a collection under the title, Eichmann in Jerusalem).

Origins is a sobering analysis that tries to make sense of how hundreds of thousands of Jews and other minorities could have gone from being seemingly secure in their political status as members of a nation to being—first—homeless, then stateless, then rightless.  As usual, I come back to Chapter 9, which is entitled, “The End of the Nation-State and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.”  Did I mention that Ch. 9 is brilliant? Please go read it.

“The soldier during the war is deprived of his right to life, the criminal of his right to freedom, all citizens during an emergency of their right to the pursuit of happiness, but nobody would ever claim that in any of these instances a loss of human rights has taken place.”

I disagree with Arendt about what citizens lose “during times of emergency.”  I don’t think it’s simply the “pursuit of happiness,” a la Alexis de Tocqueville. I agree with Katha Pollitt that civil rights (24:10)—the right to sit at a lunch counter, to be waited on, to vote, to move about without fear of assault, without fear of violence or rape, the right to reproductive health–are unconditionally important.

But I want to make two points here:

1. The right to sit at a lunch counter, to vote, to move about without fear of violence can’t be enjoyed when one is under aerial bombardment or being shot by soldiers. Or dead.

2. Civil rights are national rights, but they are not exclusively national rights. They are not merely rights based on membership.  Rather, they are human rights that should belong to every human being, regardless of nationality, that should be enforceable through the state.

These rights must be extended to migrants and residents living in the US, regardless of political status: the right to water, the right to schooling, the right to medical care, the right to walk down the street without fear of assault or racial profiling or being arrested. But the right to know why I am being arrested, being detained—the right to know the evidence against me, the right to a lawyer, the right to a trial based on Constitutional—aren’t these really human rights protections (Look at how similar these rights are to those listed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights)?

I think Arendt wanted to distinguish the loss of civil rights from the loss of those rights that get to the heart of what it means to be human. We see something of this in the epigraph above and in the quotation below:

The first loss which the rightless suffered was the loss of their homes, and this meant the loss of the entire social texture into which they were born and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world…[t]he second loss…was the loss of government protection, and this did not imply just the loss of legal status in their own, but in all countries…By itself the loss of government protection is no more unprecedented than the loss of a home…The more the number of rightless people increased, the greater became the temptation to pay less attention to the deeds of the persecuting government than to the status of the persecuted.

Her words seem so urgent as I think about the indifference of US nationals to the continuation of war under the current Administration. This isn’t just jingoistic foreign policy, as anti-racist activist Tim Wise suggests. We can’t make a qualitative distinction between racism at home versus racist actions internationally. Wars—on terror, on Iraqi and Pakistani civilians, on the bodies of Muslim men (through torture, indefinite detention, solitary confinement), on MEMSA* families– is an assault, a violation of, the homes, the communities, the culture, the livelihood of millions of civilians. The loss of a physical home is mirrored by the existential loss of home.

Where is my refuge, my sanctuary, in this world?  Many of us asked as we felt that existential loss of home on September 11, 2001. We were devastated by the complete rupture in our sense of safety, the deep rent in our communities’ sense of permanence.

The women and men and children on whom we are waging war are asking that same question. The men and women migrants–in detention centers around the US for the simple crime of wanting to sustain their lives and families—ask that same question:  Where is my refuge in this world?  MEMSA’s, who are beaten, tortured, in detention centers around the country, ask that same question: Where is my sanctuary in this world?  Lakhmar Boumedienne, an Algerian relief worker detained in Guantanamo for 7 years before being released, wonders the same thing: where is my refuge in this world, where I did nothing wrong except commit the crime of being Muslim?

The right to live—for US citizens or nationals, for Pakistani, Iraqi, Afghan nationals is not—should not be–dispensable. Ditto Iran. The right to live a life free of terror, free of aerial bombardment, should be indispensable. The ability of children to grow up without fear of drone attacks, without fear of soldiers shooting: is this not a right?

Equally indispensable are the rights to one’s home, one’s culture, one’s social world, one’s status as a political being.  Should it not be an indispensable right to be recognized as a human being with dignity?  For Arendt, this could occur only when people were recognized in their political dimensions: as citizens of a nation. But without those political protections, human beings are seen, as Arendt says, as the scum of the earth.

It is not just US foreign policy that deprives human beings of these rights. Our domestic policies, including the NDAA, deprives us of these rights. Anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia deprive us of these rights even when NO crimes have been committed: right to live without fear of arrest. The right to live with privacy. The right to water and electricity.  The right to hospital care. The right not to be detained. The right to live within our communities. If the world can recognize that these are human rights, why can’t we here in the US?

Why are we not outraged when our own President approves these violations of human dignity?  A few years ago, Judith Butler, a philosopher who has been critical of US policies over the last decade, asked why certain lives are more grievable than others. She points out that we have very few images, frames, stories to associate with the deaths of Iraqi or Palestinian (and, I might add, Pakistani) children. Is it because, as she suggests, their lives are “unreal?”  “If violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those whose lives are already negated.” (Precarious Life, ch. 2)

Are the lives of brown men, women, and children abroad unreal? Already negated? Can they be worth less than the lives of US nationals?  I wonder if this is why the victims of the War on Terror seem so negligible that there is no urge to have our politicians, pundits, progressives, political organizations, race-advocacy organizations insist on bringing those lives to the forefront for discussion?  Would Dr. King approve of our prioritizing the status quo of our privilege (and yes, I mean mine and yours)—black, white, brown—over the lives of children who don’t live here? Over the lives of men and women who don’t live here? Can we—as progressives and liberals and feminists and anti-racists—be that inhumane as we think about our political future as a society?

Where is their refuge in this world? Where is our refuge in this world?


*Muslim/Middle Eastern/South Asian