If Thomas Friedman Weren’t a Propagandist Looking at the “Arab-Muslim Sea”

iran israel deal
That President Obama’s recent agreement with Iran limiting its nuclear enrichment capabilities stands as a diplomatic victory remains largely undisputed in the most prestigious circles of academic and journalistic discourse. Without this deal Iranians, much like their Iraqi and Afghan neighbors, would have suffered the wrath of the US armed forces the argument goes. Disregarding the fact that Iran, as a signatory the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has a legal right to enrich uranium and evidenced no intention to develop a nuclear weapon, the world is justified in breathing a sigh of relief knowing that “the greatest threat to world peace” is exercising its power less belligerently.

Nonetheless, this pause in international violence and aggression is unlikely to survive if some of the media’s most dedicated servants to power have their way. Enter New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In an article that can only be described as a toxic brew of anti-Arab racism, blatant falsehoods, and borderline criminal incitement we are provided a graphic illustration of the resilience of imperial doctrines in the American press and the psychological ease with which its most ardent enthusiasts petition its demands.

Headlined If I Were an Israeli Looking at the Iran Deal Friedman begins by stating if he were an “Israeli grocer” he would “hate [the nuclear deal] for enshrining Iran’s right to enrich uranium, since Iran regularly cheated its way to expanding that capability, even though it had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.” Notice Iran is “cheating” by disobeying US demands to restrict its capabilities, a capability legally protected under the NPT, but Israel (a non-signatory to the NPT) is not “cheating” in its casual disregard for every conceivable norm of non-proliferation.

Furthermore, it is not the nuclear deal that’s responsible for “enshrining Iran’s right to enrich uranium,” but the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Not only has this been repeatedly declared by Iranian government officials but in 2012 the Non-Aligned Movement affirmed Iran’s “inalienable right to develop research, production and uses of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” Only under the assumption that the majority of the world and established international law should be subordinated to US rules of Good Behavior can we take Friedman’s contention seriously.
nonproliferationThe same can be said of his condemnation of “Iran’s proxy, the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah.” Hezbollah, according to Friedman, “started an unprovoked war with Israel,” in 2006 “and when Israel retaliated against Hezbollah military and civilian targets, Hezbollah fired thousands of Iranian-supplied rockets all across Israel.” Here we have a total inversion of the historical record. That the 2006 war was a war of aggression by Israel (Washington’s proxy), and not Hezbollah, is so well documented that any argument otherwise can only be interpreted as a deliberate evasion of the facts if not apologetics for Israeli violence.

As scholar and activist Steven Salaita observed in his 2008 collection of essays Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, “the immorality of Israel’s wanton destruction [of Lebanon] does not present much of a political or ethical debate for those who would distinguish between military targets and civilian ones, or between terrorists and ordinary people. The problem is that American media repeatedly omitted either distinction, thereby transforming Israel’s aggression into an act of self-defense.” Hence, Friedman can write about how Israel “retaliated against Hezbollah military and civilian targets (my emphasis)”, the implicit assumption being Lebanese civilians were just as culpable in their deaths as Hezbollah fighters.

And the easy resort to dehumanization did not end here. Friedman proceeds to inhabit the mind of an Israeli general, proud and confident in the assertion that “No enemy will ever out-crazy us into leaving this region”, a sentiment with a great deal of merit in lieu of recent history. Yet we gain the most insight into the unadulterated racism that influences commentators like Friedman when he lays out Israel’s war strategy:

“Israel plays, when it has to, by what I’ve called ‘Hama rules’ — war without mercy. The Israeli Army tries to avoid hitting civilian targets, but it has demonstrated in both Lebanon and Gaza that it will not be deterred by the threat of civilian Arab casualties when Hezbollah or Hamas launches its rockets from civilian areas. It is not pretty, but this is not Scandinavia. The Jewish state has survived in an Arab-Muslim sea because its neighbors know that for all its Western mores it will not be out-crazied. It will play by local rules.”

Israel, a nation with a first world military and nuclear weapons, unleashes an aerial assault on densely populated strip of land, 50% of whose inhabitants are children. Over 2,100 people are killed, the majority Palestinian civilians. Hamas, a military faction under foreign occupation without a navy, air force, tanks, or a hegemonic military superpower bankrolling its soldiers, fires low-grade rockets into Israel killing 73 people, the majority Israeli soldiers (66). That anyone can be aware of this disparity in power and designate Hamas as the exemplar of “war without mercy” defies rational explanation, as does the ludicrous claim that “the Israeli Army tries to avoid hitting civilian targets.”
palestineIt takes little effort to see that a vulgar racism underlies these conclusions. Nightmarish scenarios of the Jewish state being swept away by the turbulent “Arab-Muslim sea,” compels this island of western civilization and “Western mores” to “play by local rules”, namely the rules of “savages.” Inherent in this characterization is a sharp distinction between enlightened, restrained, white, Europeanized (“this is not Scandinavia”) Jews and crazy, impulsive, uncivilized Arabs so maniacal in their desire to kill Israelis that they would readily sacrifice the lives of their children to achieve this end (this human shield myth has also been thoroughly refuted).

Perhaps the greatest irony of Thomas Friedman’s latest contribution to the booming industry of anti-Arab racism is that he embodies perfectly the mindless bloodlust and impulsive thinking that he so baselessly directs at the people of Gaza and Lebanon. Informing readers on what he’d do as Israeli Prime Minister to diffuse any suspicions about Iranian misbehavior, Friedman states the following:

“So rather than fighting with President Obama, as prime minister I’d be telling him Israel will support this deal but it wants the U.S. to increase what really matters — its deterrence capability — by having Congress authorize this and any future president to use any means necessary to destroy any Iranian attempt to build a bomb. I don’t trust U.N. inspectors; I trust deterrence. And to enhance that I’d ask the U.S. to position in the Middle East the U.S. Air Force’s Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a precision-guided, 30,000-pound ‘bunker buster’ bomb that could take out any Iranian reactor hidden in any mountain. The Iranians would get the message.”

Essentially, Friedman is proposing that President Obama hold together a diplomatic agreement by threatening to drop a 30,000 lb. bomb on a sovereign country (a blatant violation of the UN prohibition against the threat of force in international affairs) citing the Mafioso doctrine that such an exercise in “deterrence” would force Iranians to “get the message.” Apparently, the “local rules” of military savagery expands beyond the provinces of ultra-violent, ethno-supremacist occupier states. These rules also must be advanced by their ideological courtiers in the American press lest the menacing unpeople of the “Arab-Muslim sea” get the impression that they can’t be “out-crazied.”

Any student of history will immediately recognize that Friedman is not the first and will by no means be the last to espouse this imperialist, orientalist, and racist worldview. Indeed, the perceptions put forth in his article permeate our academic, political, and intellectual culture so deeply that it would not be an exaggeration to describe them as foundational to the American national self-image. Nevertheless, the regularity of its expression does little to diminish its insidious influence in how we, as citizens of declining empire, think of the world around us and the solutions available to solve its many crises. So while Friedman peers out at the world through the eyes of Israeli generals and prime ministers we should dare to look at the world from the perspective of those who are victimized by their decisions. Hesitation in this regard would only prolong the needless suffering that only a genuine culture of solidarity with the oppressed can combat.


The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought




Culture and Imperialism

51u0IYeW9DLWhenever the US decides to bomb another country it is not uncommon to have that decision accompanied by debates about the efficacy of the bombing campaign, its stated pretexts, and its long term goals. Always underlying these displays of state violence is an unavoidable truth namely that these military attacks can only take place on the scale and frequency that they are occurring because the US is an imperial power and therefore feels entitled to behave as other imperial powers before it. Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism explores this unavoidable truth in many dimensions. Drawing from the wealth of cultural and literary traditions of France, Britain, and the United States, Said demonstrates how doctrines of colonial domination permeate nearly every aspect of life within metropolitan society.

One of the sites where this colonial ideology is given full expression is in the British novel. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is a particularly dramatic example. In this novel, Said asserts, the pleasant and bucolic atmosphere that prevails at Mansfield can only be sustained through oppressive of slave plantations in Antigua. As Said states “If this is a novel about ‘ordination’, as Austen says, the right to colonial possessions helps directly to establish social order and moral priorities at home.” It is this kind of re-reading of classic European literature that Said terms “contrapuntal reading.” Under contrapuntal reading a work is read “with an understanding of what is involved  when an author shows, for instance, that a colonial sugar plantation is seen as important to the process of maintaining a particular style of life in England.” Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and E.M. Forester’s A Passage to India are also subjected to contrapuntal reading. Innate to all these novels is an ongoing interaction between the reigning norms within the dominant colonial society and those within colonized societies. It was this interaction between the colonizer and colonized within the British novel that laid the basis for Said’s assertion that “imperialism and the novel fortified each other to such a degree  that it is impossible … to read one without in some way dealing with the other.”

Celebrated liberal theorists like John Stuart Mill also participated in this overarching culture of colonial domination. In his Principles of Political Economy Mill casually notes “our West Indian colonies … cannot be regarded as countries with a productive capital of their own … [but are rather] the place where England finds it convenient to carry on the production of sugar, coffee and a few other tropical commodities.” In this passage Mill adopted the “ruthless proprietary tones of the white master used to effacing the reality, work, and suffering of millions of slaves, transported across the middle passage, reduced to only an incorporated status ‘for the benefit of the proprietors.'”

Very much like members of today’s elite media, these proponents of Enlightenment ideology were critical of the crimes carried out in the domains of rival states but embraced crimes carried out by their own government. The writing of French political philosopher and author of Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville presents a classic example of this phenomenon. While harshly critical of the crimes carried out by European colonists against the indigenous and Black population of North America, he accepted French massacres against Algeria’s colonized population as legitimate: “Tocqueville said nothing ‘in 1846 when it was revealed that hundreds of Arabs had been smoked to death in the course of the razzias he had approved for their humane quality.” Within the apologetics for imperial power given by these Enlightenment philosophers one can vividly perceive the outlines of what in today’s international affairs jargon is called “humanitarian intervention” or the “right to protect.”

Another trait that 19th century European intellectual culture shares with elite opinion of the contemporary United States is that there was a strong consensus that brutally subjugating foreign populations was only problematic insofar as this use of force created difficulties for the aggressor and not the victims. “During the nineteenth century … debate over colonialism usually turned on their profitability, their management and mismanagement, and on theoretical questions such as whether and how colonialism might be squared with laissez-faire or tariff policies; an imperialist and Eurocentric framework was implicitly accepted.” Furthermore, “liberal anti-colonialists” did not “dispute the fundamental superiority of Western man or, in some cases, the white race.”

Pernicious beliefs of this kind were accepted as uncontroversial fact until the onset of decolonization and the emergence of an anti-imperialist discourse led by scholars like George Antonius, C.L.R. James, and Frantz Fanon. Realities which were previously ignored or suppressed were acknowledged and the hegemonic hold that imperial discourse exerted on mainstream scholarship was, in many respects, undermined. Said describes the emergence of this culture of resistance as a development that “effectively took away the monopoly of discourse held by Eurocentric intellectuals and politicians”, what he in another chapter terms  “the consolidated vision … of the globe.”

Though the majority of Culture and Imperialism deals with the theoretical implications of imperial power, it would be a mistake to think of it as irrelevant to the practical concerns of current political struggles. Many of these same doctrines articulated by imperial France and Britain are repeatedly endorsed by the Obama administration and its allies around the world (Israel’s colonial ideology is a prime example).  Instead of celebrating the “humanism” of the “white race”, contemporary centers of power hail the benefits of the “western liberal tradition”, “American exceptionalism”,  and its other ideological variants which encode (poorly, it should be added) long-held notions of racial supremacy. How else does one explain the behavior of a National Security State that refers to Muslims as “Mohammad Raghead” or newspapers that routinely dehumanize those whose have historically been on the receiving end of imperial violence (Palestinians, the Latin American left, the domestic immigrant population, the domestic Black population, etc.)? In this respect, Said’s Culture and Imperialism is a valuable contribution to a culture of critical analysis that is desperately needed to mitigate and ultimately, it is hoped, put an end to the lawlessness that is pushing the planet closer and closer to total destruction.


Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where it Comes from & What it Means for Politics Today

Anti-Arab RacismThe University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign has come under intense criticism after Chancellor Phyllis Wise decided to un-hire professor Steven Salaita. Salaita, an outspoken critic of Israeli terror, was denied the teaching position after complaints arose about Tweets he posted condemning the Israeli massacres in Gaza (“Operation Protective Edge”). The primary argument given to justify this removal was that Salaita’s Tweets violated University standards of “civility” or as the Chancellor stated “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

John K. Wilson of the Academe Blog described this justification as “ridiculous”, noting “Respect is not a fundamental value of any university, and being ‘disrespectful’ is not an academic crime.” Moreover, a petition has now surfaced urging Salaita’s reinstatement. Underlying this entire affair is a deep history of complicity between seats of power and domestic institutions (colleges for example) which purportedly exist to challenge such displays of authority. Steven Salaita’s Anti-Arab Racism in the USA unveils how profoundly racist doctrines of American exceptionalism, colonialism, and white supremacy have permeated US discourse about Arabs (both domestically and internationally). The endemic culture of racism directed at Arab communities, Salaita argues, is but the latest iteration in a long history of racism that has its roots in the European genocide of North America’s indigenous population and the subsequent crimes against humanity carried out through the enslavement of Africans. “Modern American racism developed as a result of the imagery of Indians and Africans promulgated by White settlers,” observes Salaita. “Indeed, the covenantal Messianism with which early American settlers invested their identity invents and reinvents itself based on deeply encoded notions of racial superiority.” In this sense, Salaita’s text views anti-Arab racism as derivative of a larger discourse of racism that targets multiple ethnic groups in distinct ways.

One area of particular focus is what Salaita calls “imperative patriotism.” Under imperative patriotism statements are made that represent “a stable fixed identity rooted in a physical and cultural Whiteness for which many immigrants do not qualify.” Exclusivist doctrines of this kind are often voiced in xenophobic remarks such as “If you don’t like America, go back to where you came from” or equally ludicrous comments concerning Arabs who threaten the American “way of life.” Salaita samples a range of media, from the “liberal” and “progressive” to the “neoconservative” end of the spectrum, and they all parrot, in one way or another, these reductionist tropes. For example, Salaita critiques Michael Moore’s critically acclaimed documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Particularly, Salaita criticizes the Eurocentric character of the film, noting “one would think that only middle-class Whites are inconvenienced by [the passage of the Patriot Act].” Moore, Salaita continues, “could have profiled thousands of Arabs or Muslims who have been detained on undisclosed ‘secret evidence,’ denied access to legal representation, and held for months in solitary confinement.”

Apart from these illustrations of “progressive” contributions to anti-Arab racism, Salaita thoroughly analyzes the pernicious role of neoconservative lobbies in influencing the quality of instruction within institutions of higher education. Here Salaita writes with a prescience and clarity that perfectly anticipates the treatment he eventually received at the hands of Chancellor Wise and her associates at the University of Illinois.  Years before Salaita was denied employment for the crime of incivilty the US House of Representatives passed a bill with the explicit goal of undermining any effort to educate the American public on the extraordinary oppression Palestinians have been forced to live under: House bill HR-3077. This remarkable piece of legislation was unanimously passed by the House Subcommittee on Select Education in order to “create a federal tribunal to monitor criticism of Israel on American college campuses.” Furthermore, any professor who violated its totalitarian strictures would be “subject to investigation.”

On October 21, 2003 “the bill was passed by the full House,” with the objective to “set up a seven-member advisory board that has the ability to recommend cutting federal funding to universities harboring academics accused of endangering Israel’s interests.” The undemocratic removal of professor Salaita is merely an affirmation of this insidious principle that was articulated in perhaps its most virulent form in 2003. Tragically, such treatment is not new for Salaita, as he has been ostracized and marginalized for most of his academic career. He opens the book with a recollection of how he was subjected to cruel racism in his grade school years. “The foreign kid never wins crack fights in American schools,” he solemnly remarks. In one childhood memory Salaita recalls how “a first grade teacher once referred to the warang dawali (grape leaves) [his] mother had packed [him] as ‘little pieces of doo-doo’ in front of a crowd of laughing children.”

Unlike  Salaita, who was made to endure the scornful words of the colonial administrators at the University of Illinois, these teachers were not censured for their lack of “civility.” In fact, Salaita could not “remember a single instance, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, when a teacher intervened to stop others from insulting [him],” and “it was teachers who articulated racism with a cruelty unsurpassed by students.” It is within this cultural environment that deeply reductionist narratives about Arabs are allowed to flourish, creating an acute sense of foreboding among many Arab students in the University setting. Consequently, “most Arabs in American universities exist in contradictory and problematic spaces: for an Arab academic (in, say, the humanities), the simple act of raising one’s voice can be controversial.” As a result, the dominant function of the University conforms with that desired by anti-Arab racists which “isn’t to foster critical thinking … but to enhance the image of the United States at home and abroad and to work with policymakers to transform students into good citizens.”

Crucially, this intersection between American imperial policies abroad and state-capitalist policies at home brings into sharp focus the ideological underpinnings of anti-Arab racism. Included in this ideological makeup are Christian evangelicals eager to bring about the apocalypse (what Salaita refers to as the “dispensationalist” camp), Zionists (of the Christian and Jewish variety), and state terrorists from the Bush administration. The anti-Arab racism fomented by the Bush regime was graphically displayed after the gruesome revelations of US torture carried out in Abu Ghraib prison. In this crime against humanity the American intelligentsia participated in a “racism of denial” whereby the relentless cruelty and savagery of US soldiers was written off as an aberration—the “bad apples” argument—rather than an illustration of the fundamentally racist character of the Iraq war.

While Rush Limbaugh compared the images of torture to “anything you’d see Madonna or Britney Spears do on stage,” commentator Tammy Bruce indifferently remarked “I consider the vast majority of what happened at Abu Ghraib to be hazing—nothing more, nothing less.” Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Cucullu intoned “until [Iraqis] begin to wise up to the fact that they are thwarting those who are fighting to liberate them, I worry less about the Arab Street losing its ‘good will’ than I would fret about a recurring Ice Age.” Cucullu was plausibly articulating a worldview held by many within the US military which was thoroughly immersed in anti-Arab literature like Rafael Patai’s The Arab Mind, “a viciously racist work of pseudoscience.”

In this book Arabs are described “in explicit detail as lazy, sexually obsessed, incurably hostile, and irrationally dedicated to an honor-bound culture.” Writing on the circulation of this book within the US military Guardian reporter Brian Whittaker observed “according to one professor at a US military college, The Arab Mind is ‘probably the single most popular and widely read book on the Arabs in the US military,'” and “it is even used as a textbook for officers at the JFK special warfare school in Fort Bragg.” It was within this military culture, shot through with racism, that Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England, in that infamous photograph, held “a leash attached to the neck of a naked Iraqi man, who was lying on the floor in obvious pain.” Though “universally overlooked” in the corporate press, University of Toronto scholar Sherene Razack decoded the “visual symbolism” of this atrocity, a symbolism which revealed a “racial relationship.” Salaita recreates the scene: “The brown, bearded man is naked before his White captor. He is subdued on a leash, a device usually reserved for animals, and made to lie on the floor, although the White captor seems to be trying to pull him onto all fours, thus to force the man to emulate a dog and complete the act of dehumanization.” It was this image—the “juxtaposition of England and the prisoner”—that Salaita identified as the “perfect metonym for the invasion of Iraq, in total, in which the uncivilized brown people were to be subdued for their own good by their enlightened (and benighted) Western liberators.”

Aside from this review of media complicity in crimes against humanity, perhaps the most surprising element of Salaita’s examination of this ideological campaign is his incredibly nuanced analysis of Zionism. “Surprising” because of how sharply it conflicts with unsubstantiated allegations of anti-Semitism directed at him, mainly by University of Illinois professor Cary Nelson. In a section titled Is Zionism Racism? Salaita states “it is unfair to say ‘Zionism is racism,’ a blanket statement that leaves no room for group or individual nuance.” He continues “I wish to be clear that I object to this statement not on moral grounds but in the interests of intellectual probity, for I believe that the majority of worldviews that arise from Zionism are infused with anti-Arab racism, or directly purvey it.”

Careful and nuanced analysis of this kind illustrates how absurdly authoritarian it is to un-hire a professor based solely on 140 character Tweets (Tweets which, despite the hysterical propaganda about their contents, accurately captured the savagery of the Israeli military bombardment of Gaza). Quite apart from advancing anti-Semitic views, Salaita is a victim of those who propagate the doctrine of “the new anti-Semitism.” The new anti-Semitism slanders anyone who criticizes the policies of Israel as incurable racists who are unable to overcome their seething hatred for Jewish people. Embedded in this construct of the new anti-Semitism is “an ulterior motive”, namely to “increase financial and philosophical support for Israel, thus tying it even more closely to Zionism.”

Instead of portraying the fight against anti-Jewish hatred as inherently antagonistic to the fight for Palestinian self-determination, Salaita sees both of these struggles, when sincere, as complimentary. Indeed, he acknowledges that the history of persecution carried out against Jews is but one part of a larger edifice of white supremacy that today is routinely imposed on Arabs. Referencing a 1994 essay by Ronald Stockton on “negative ethnic imagery” Salaita astutely notes “anti-Arab racism is derived from the same attitudes that produced American anti-Semitism.” This is an “ironic” fact because “one way Americans now marginalize Arabs is by labeling them anti-Semitic when they articulate their (legitimate) political sensibilities.”

Very much in the tradition of post-colonial scholars like Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, and Rashid Khalidi, Steven Salaita’s profoundly complex and cogently argued study of anti-Arab racism powerfully captures the prevailing sociocultural norms of the society he inhabits. Furthermore, he offers viable and potentially transformative ways forward to combat this soul-deadening phenomenon that has afflicted far too many in America’s internal and external domains of control. On “Arab violence” Salaita proclaims “you either promulgate the assumption that Arabs are irrationally violent, or you simultaneously examine the context in which that violence arises. There is no other option intellectually: you are either a thoroughgoing racist or you take your responsibilities as a citizen and commentator seriously.” Unless these elementary truths are absorbed—in television studios, editor board rooms, University classrooms, and among the American public at large—the toxic myths and stereotypes that currently saturate “educated” discourse will spread unimpeded. While Academic Proconsuls like Phyllis Wise work vigorously to turn this ominous prospect into an unalterable reality, conscientious scholars like professor Steven Salaita are essential if this outcome is to be avoided.







Dismantling the Fiction of “Black Criminality”

Black criminalityAmong the many unavoidable facts that have bubbled to the surface since the murder of Mike Brown at the hands of St. Louis police is the deep racial character of the killing and the equally racial character of the police response to the popular protests that followed it. This uncontroversial fact can be perceived in the abundance of media reports exploring the dimensions of Black life in America. One of the more glaring additions to this national discussion occurred on the popular Sunday morning political program Meet the Press. Hosting a round-table on the topic of the “Racial Divide in America,” Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal remarked that we shouldn’t “pretend that our morgues and cemeteries are full of young Black men because cops are shooting them.” Rather, Riley argued, “the reality is that it’s because other Black people are shooting them and we need to talk about Black criminality.” The two white guests silently nodded in approval, granting Riley’s comment a level of legitimacy it did not deserve. Aside from the clearly degrading and dehumanizing nature of this statement, it has absolutely no basis in fact.

Anyone with a minimal level of intellectual curiosity and a mild tolerance for empirical data (admittedly, an intimidating task for America’s leading cultural managers) would have noticed this. Writing for the Daily Beast, journalist Jamelle Bouie observed that quite apart from some innate drive to kill (the “thug” mythology), internecine killings among Black people can be attributed to the geographic “proximity” of Black communities and the chronic lack of socioeconomic “opportunity.” Further, “racial exclusivity was also true for white victims of violent crime”: “86% of white victims were killed by white offenders.” Bouie also highlighted the crucial reality that “while it’s true that young Black men are a disproportionate share of the nation’s murder victims, it’s hard to disentangle this from the stew of hyper-segregation (often a result of deliberate policies), entrenched poverty, and non-existent economic opportunities that characterizes a substantial number of black communities.”

Given the transparent absurdity of this myth of “Black criminality”, one would think empirical analysis of this kind would suffice. Nonetheless, this myth and its many analogues cannot be meaningfully debunked unless that empirical critique is coupled with a critique of the ideological prejudices on which they are based. Moreover, these cultural stereotypes are not exclusive to domestic politics. They arise in international affairs as well. As Columbia University political scientist Mahmood Mamdani observed in his brilliant study Good Muslims, Bad Muslims “the history of the modern state can also be read as the history of race, bringing together the stories of two kinds of victims of European colonial modernity: the internal victims of state building and the external victims of imperial expansion.” Accordingly, within the dominant discourses about oppressed communities (Black “thugs”, Arab “terrorists”, Mexican “illegals”, etc.) there exists a sharp ideological continuity in the empire’s portrayal of the inhabitants of its internal and external colonies. That ideological continuity consists of three basic components:

1.) Excise the decisive role of the oppressors in stimulating retail violence through policies of wholesale state-violence.

The “Black criminality” myth and its analogues cannot be sustained unless the role of the oppressor is hidden from view. The violence and misery in oppressed communities is supposed to be the product of “bad culture” or “corrupted values”, not the rational outcome of social and economic policies consciously designed to dispossess and disenfranchise an entire group of people. A graphic illustration of this understanding can be found in the mainstream discussion about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. The typical line goes that Israel, the benevolent guardian, “granted” Palestinians territory in Gaza, but Palestinians, due to their backwardness and insolence, squandered this gift and transformed what could have been a shining example of prosperity into a “haven for terrorists.” As NYU Law Professor Thane Rosenbaum asked in a Haaretz article “Unoccupied for nearly a decade, why do Gaza’s people know little else aside from explosives and martyrdom?”

Systematically omitted from this highly deceitful narrative is the fact that Palestinians in Gaza, unlike populations in US-backed petromonarchies, were able to choose their leadership in a democratic election. Furthermore, and this is a crucial fact, the Bush administration punished Palestinians for this crime of democracy. Also excluded from this fairy tale is the suffocating state of siege that Israel refuses to lift, despite clear requirements to do so under international law. Israel is free to control Gaza’s airspace, borders, territorial waters, electromagnetic spectrum, and even the calories that Gazans are allowed to consume (what Israeli official Dov Weinglass chillingly calls “keeping Gaza on a diet”). Rarely is any of this mentioned as a precipitating factor behind Hamas “rocket” attacks. Like Jason Riley’s mythology of “Black criminality”, the Israeli government relies on the mythology of “Islamic terrorism” or Palestinian “child sacrifice”, as author Elie Wiesel described the Israeli murder of Palestinian children in one of his more appreciated hasbara soup recipes.

Other examples of this norm can be found in the US discourse on sectarianism in Iraq. When Islamic State factions moved into northern Iraq commentators were quick to reduce the internal bloodshed to “ancient hatreds”, which had been simmering just below the surface for over a thousand years. This orientalist narrative has been thoroughly debunked by journalist Murtaza Hussain, nonetheless it persists as a potent explanation of Arab “barbarism.” Any reference to the fact that the Bush administration’s criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent destruction of the Baathist government elicited the sectarian violence is beneath serious consideration in mainstream circles as is the uncontroversial fact that the Obama administration, quite apart from leaving Iraq “to its own people”, was forced out of Iraq after the Maliki government refused to grant the US legal immunity (seriously undercutting claims of US “benevolence”).

2.) Concoct frightening fairy tales about a uniquely nefarious threat with an added racial/religious label or insinuation.

Here propagandists are given free rein to let their imagination run wild. Frightening stories about the evil deeds of a domestic or foreign enemy are concocted to mold the minds of the public into the required shape. As in the first component, Israel excels in this field as well. When Israel commenced its latest round of “mowing the grass” (a euphemism for killing innocent men, women and children) it was necessary to produce elaborate horror stories, all of which were baseless, about the “terror tunnels” that Hamas fighters use to inflict death and destruction on Israeli citizens. “Israelis exchange nightmare scenarios that are the stuff of action movies: armed enemies popping up under a day care center or a dining room, spraying a crowd with machine gun fire or maybe some chemical, exploding in a suicide belt or snatching captives and ducking back into the dirt.” These are the haunting words of New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren, a journalist who, in addition to producing vulgar propaganda of this kind, reserves little, if any, time for Palestinians, plausibly because she’s too busy hanging out with imperial cheerleaders like the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman.

One can document endless examples this culture of demonization from Thomas Jefferson’s condemnation of “merciless Indian savages” to 19th century hysteria surrounding the “Yellow Peril” of Chinese immigrants. In the case of the Yellow Peril, political officials received ample assistance from the intellectual community, foremost Jack London, who envisioned exterminating the entire population of China via bacteriological warfare—“the great task, the sanitation of China”—in his novel The Unparalleled Invasion. Nearly two decades prior to the publication of this genocidal fantasy the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, effectively banning Chinese immigration. Rutgers University cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin examined this phenomenon of anti-Chinese hysteria in his penetrating study War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, writing “the snarling racism of the Yellow Peril literature expresses cultural furies that have shaped the ugliest features of American history,” among them the “savage exploitation of ‘coolie’ labor.” At bottom, this language of fear is designed to neutralize any sympathy for the victims of state-corporate power, thus clearing the way for their oppressors to commence the required task of “taming” the unpeople within the empire’s domestic colonies.

3.) Display how much you are overflowing with compassion for the victims of the fratricide.

While the erasure of the oppressors role in the creation of crises and the construction of frightening narratives certainly probes the depths of moral depravity, the third component of this mythology is arguably the most insidious. In addition to maintaining a situation where the role of the oppressor is concealed from view, the feigning of compassion for the victims of fratricidal violence is consciously carried out in order to elevate the oppressor to a moral plane over and above the oppressed. The violence of the oppressor, under this mode of thought, attains a “moral character” (the IDF is the most “moral army in the world”, America is “exceptional”, etc).  As a result, the oppressor is not only blameless for the suffering of the oppressed but their standard of morality hovers so far above that of the victim that their compassion, unable to be contained, extends just as easily to those outside their group. Embedded in this construct is a racist assumption that people of color are so tribalistic and obsessively attached  to their racial identity that any act of murder within their group is irrefutable proof that they are savages. The most common illustration of this doctrine can be found in the regular refrain among the Washington elite about disobedient leaders in foreign countries who kill “their own people.” For instance, the violence of Saddam Hussein was perfectly understandable (if loathed) when it was portrayed as being directed at “westerners” but when he used poison gas against Iraq’s Kurdish population this marked the height of savagery. Unlike violence toward “western” leaders, here he was killing “his own people”, which in the racist mind resonates like watching a warthog kill another warthog or an ape killing another ape. Killing within the group, according to this logic, is the supreme transgression of the tribal norm.
fergusiibNotice how conspicuously absent this doctrine is when the fratricide is occurring within predominately white countries. Take for example the violence in the Ukraine. How many commentators described the violence between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian factions as Ukrainians or Russians killing “their own people”? Incidentally, that phrase would be more appropriate here since both Russians and Ukrainians are of the same race, namely white. This could not be said of Saddam Hussein (an Arab) gassing Kurds (not Arabs).

And political elites in Washington are by no means alone in using this “he-kills-his-own-people” tactic. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also indulged this doctrine in a recent speech. Responding to news that the United Nation’s launched an inquiry into Israeli war crimes carried out in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, he ridiculed the UN committee for “giving legitimacy to murderous terror organizations like Hamas and the Islamic State.” “Instead of checking Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians and the use it makes of Gaza’s residents as human shields, instead of checking the massacre carried out by (President) Assad in Syria, or the massacre of Kurds by Islamic State members, the UN has decided to come and check Israel.” He continued by saying the UN committee should “go see the Syrian army,” where “they will find war crimes.”

Much like Jason Riley, who abhors “Black-on-Black crime”, Netanyahu focuses, laser-like, only on those conflicts where the violence is Arab-on-Arab. Even in the case of Hamas he made sure to note that Hamas uses the people of Gaza as “human shields.” Incidentally, it’s Israel, not Hamas, that has a history of using Palestinians as human shields. Israel also uses Palestinians as guinea pigs for their hi-tech weaponry courtesy of US tax dollars. Through this discourse of Palestinian infamy the specter of the Arab “terrorist” looms large alongside that of the Black “thug.” Anyone who objects to their liquidation under the guardianship of their moral superiors can be written off as hopelessly ignorant or utterly oblivious to why the “morgue” is really full of “young Black men” and Palestinian “terrorists.”

Generally, it’s quite easy to erupt in hysterics when confronted with violence among the oppressed. Self-reflection has always been anathema to power systems. This refusal to look in the mirror isn’t entirely irrational as serious interrogation would inevitably render these myths obsolete and undermine the very power systems that they were formulated to defend. The fact that Jason Riley could utter these patent falsehoods despite the color of his skin is a dramatic testament to just how dangerously intoxicating these fictions remain. Still, they don’t have to be accepted. Other lies have been overcome. We no longer nod in approval to descriptions of America’s indigenous population as “merciless Indian savages” nor would we remain silent in the face of racist descriptions of Chinese immigration as an ominous “Yellow Peril.” The same standard should be applied to the mirage of “Black criminality”, “Islamic terrorism”, “Mexican illegals” and other contemporary iterations of this doctrine. Such a level of intellectual honesty is demanded of those who genuinely empathize with the people of Ferguson County and the countless others in America’s colonies (internal and external) who share their tragic fate.


Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani

War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination by H. Bruce Franklin






On an Orientalist Masterpiece

The subject: hijabhttp://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/01/08/this-fascinating-chart-shows-how-middle-easterners-think-women-should-dress/

XB: Best comment on this orientalist masterpiece by Max Fisher: “Max learning little bit of geography will be helpful. Pakistan is not in middle east.”

ND: People love talking about how Muslim women should dress. Any discourse concerning Muslim women, particularly in the West, always comes back to clothing and what they’re wearing. Should they cover their heads or not cover their heads, cover their faces or not cover their faces? Nobody actually asks what Muslim women want or how they feel about the way they dress.

Furthermore, this obsession with hijab is just another way of reducing women to their physical appearance. Forget that Muslim women in the U.S. are as likely as Muslim men to hold college as well as postgraduate degrees and women in Iran make up 70% of engineering and science students. Forget the Muslim women winning Nobel prizes or fighting to stop gang violence in Chicago.

No, the important thing is what they’re wearing. /rant

DS: I disagree with you on this one, XB. I don’t think the issue is about what women are wearing, but about the mere fact that men and women are expected to dress differently. That’s a social construction. And an oppressive one that, under certain circumstances, can get women raped or killed if disavowed. Don’t forget that here we’re not talking about a veil that can/must be used by both genders without distinction. This is the issue. The day men also start to cover themselves, then, sure, this will become a different conversation.

@ ND: I’d like to engage some of the comments you stated above. #1: for many of us, citizens of the world, the reason why we engage with this topic is not as much the result of an “obsession with hijab” as it is a reflection on the ways used by patriarchal societies to objectify women. In my case, I’m not concerned about what women are wearing as long as their wardrobe is not a clear means for the perpetuation of male domination. #2: you stated above: “Nobody actually asks what Muslim women want or how they feel about the way they dress.” – I find this statement a little bit problematic. Given that there are places where Muslim women are not allowed to even step outside their homes without the supervision of a male, I believe assuming that these women can have a voice that is not being monitored at all of times by their oppressors is naive at best, misleading at worst. Now, I understand this comment of mine also calls for a caveat: not all Muslim women live under the same conditions, so, it may be argued that my comment does not apply to the majority of Muslim women. Still, if it applies to some, I think it’s worthy to consider its implications. Also, to this kind of arguments I normally reply: so what if some Muslim women have rationalized the tenets by which their oppressors have educated them? Just as during the American Civil War it was possible to find some slaves who argued that there lives were not as bad, and that their masters were not always “bad,” or today you can find very poor people in America who claim that capitalism does not oppress them because (if they work hard) they have “choices,” similarly, we can find Muslim women who embrace their situation and consider it to be the product of their choice. I challenge such assumption. In other words, just because the oppressed have come to terms with their oppression, such behavior does not make their situation “fair” or “natural.” The issue of the veil is delicate. I can see how questions of identity and autonomy intertwine to complicate an across-culture discussion of the topic. But it is my opinion that we should not let artificial borders and nationalism to push the conversation astray. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim women from Indonesia, Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia, you should have the same rights that any other women (and men for that matter) in the world must have. The notion of “equality for all” should be religion, race, gender, and ethnicity blind. In your previous comment, you also talk about “Muslim women in the U.S. are as likely as Muslim men to hold college as well as postgraduate degrees and women in Iran make up 70% of engineering and science students. Forget the Muslim women winning Nobel prizes or fighting to stop gang violence in Chicago.” (point #3): To this, I would like to say that this information is beyond the point of this conversation. While these facts you mentioned are great, they do not invalidate the need to fight for those Muslim women who don’t enjoy the same kind of opportunities. Otherwise, we would be engaging in the dangerous exercise of assuming that the reality of the privileged can be assumed to be the reality of the whole. Also, I would like to know whether these Iranian women you referred to have any voice in public policy making. Because if they are only getting degrees in order to serve a male-dominated society that still addresses male-concerning issues only, then, I don’t see their academic success as a big challenge to the existing status-quo. Lastly, I would like to say that I hope that engaging in these kind of exchanges, we would be able to come up with new ways to “live” a multicultural way of life, instead of simply talking about it.

XB: @ DS: I’m assuming you’re responding to a comment I posted in response to this article but have since deleted. To paraphrase my response, I stated that this article was emblematic of what Deepa Kumar described in an interview as “the notion that Muslim women are horribly oppressed (without actually consulting or talking to Muslim women) and that Muslim men are misogynistic,” and “What followed from this was that Muslim women needed to be rescued by white men swooping in on their horses.”

I went on to say this poll conformed with this view of “misogynistic” men because it makes the assumption that Muslim men are moralistically judging what women wear and therefore feel they have the authority to decide what form of dress is “appropriate” for them. I said that the poll guaranteed this outcome because it didn’t ask should men have the right to decide what women wear at all.

I also criticized Fisher’s reductionist view that political identity in the Middle East could be separated into neat groups of secularists and religious conservatives. I said this separation makes it difficult to think of a religious person also endorsing the idea that a woman should be able to decide what she wears. In this sense, I said the characterization of Islam in this poll was that of an imposing set of beliefs that forces itself on women, in accord with the imperial norm.

I deleted this comment because I discovered that it was simply false that the poll did not ask if men should have the right to decide what women wear at all (It asks should women be able to decide to wear what they wish). I still think the poll could encourage stereotypes about misogynistic Muslim men but not using the argument I made. Also in my last comment when I note that Fisher separates religion and secularism to the point that it excludes any kind of self-determination in the religious context is possibly challenged when Fisher concludes the report by saying “piety” and “feminism” are not mutually exclusive.

If I’ve overlooked anything in this reproduction of my comment let me know. But I agree with you that the norms of dress are a social construction. In fact, I recall pointing out that Karen Armstrong describes the wearing of the hijab as a tradition borrowed from Byzantine Greeks. So I agree here that there are certain gender assumptions that influence what men deem appropriate dress for women but I think the heart of my comment was that this article furthered the portrayal of gender oppression as a unique feature of Middle Eastern societies that manifests itself in men policing the dress of women, an assertion I find categorically false.



ND: Note: My writing always sounds angry – it wasn’t intentional. lol

DS, thanks for your response, but I’m sorry to say I find it largely problematic. I understand what you were trying to express, but I can’t quite agree entirely.

So we can’t deny that oppression exists in the world, particularly the Muslim world. It does, and it’s a major problem. Muslims in many Muslim (and non-Muslim, for that matter) countries face intense struggles for equality, fights that they are indeed fighting and that female Muslim activists and female Islamic scholars are vocal about changing.

I disagree with your disagreement that the world is obsessed with hijab. I find the concept that hijab a “reflection” on the oppression of women shallow and also incredibly offensive as a Muslim. Now, I understand that you weren’t saying that exactly, but that is what was implied – it’s not an uncommon opinion whatsoever but it stems from a misunderstanding of Islam and the Muslim world.

1. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the only Muslim countries will laws requiring women to veil themselves, and if we’re talking about Saudi Arabia and Iran and their human rights violations, I could rant for hours about dozens of other things, including or not including hijab depending on how the conversation went. There are other pockets of areas where women face extreme pressure/force to cover by forces such as gangs or terrorist groups, like in areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, that leaves a whole world of Muslim women who dress is a million different ways. I can’t say they’re all wearing hijab out of deep-seated religious conviction – maybe they’re doing it because their friends are, maybe their parents want them to, maybe they don’t like their hair. I am a firm believer that every woman should have the freedom to dress as she wants – and honestly, the idea that what Muslim women choose for themselves to wear is oppressive bothers me.

As for your arguments about women who live in situations that abound in Saudi Arabia due to their laws (although don’t represent all Saudis), where women and their movement is severely restricted – this is again a major issue facing the Muslim world. And their voices absolutely should be heard – Muslim women are working as we speak to help their voices be heard, but that doesn’t really get discussed much in face of ‘look what Islam does to these poor women.’

When I say ‘what about what we want’, you say ‘well, what about the women who rationalize their abuse?’ Honestly, that sounds to me as though they’re saying ‘you don’t know what you want.’ I’m not arguing that the situations you described doesn’t exist, but it seems like a way to sidestep the many Muslim women who do choose to cover up.

When I mentioned the successes of Muslim women, I was not saying so to ignore the plight of Muslim and non-Muslim women around the world who may be oppressed. The study was done to see what people think women should be wearing – and I’ve read several articles about the poll that are frankly ridiculous (“Gallup poll reveals what Muslim women should be wearing” – excuse me?). The conversation about Muslim women is always, always centered around their dress – we never go beyond that. In some European countries (and Muslim countries too, actually), forced un-veiling is required, which is also oppressive and traumatic, but is largely uncovered in the discussion.

My point is that this obsession with what Muslim women are wearing (or well, women in general, if you want to take this society as a whole) is not about trying to better the lives of Muslim women. Saying that women can’t better themselves with or without a hijab is ridiculous. The idea is to pat ourselves on the back about how these backwards people still do this silly oppressive thing we see no need for anymore because we do in a different form.

To your point about Iranian women, I’m sorry, but I’m a bit confused. The first step to releasing a group from oppression is education – the first step to oppressing a group is always taking education from them. An educated group is harder to control. Something like a quarter of people with STEM degrees in the US are women – in Iran, it’s becoming close to 70%. That to me seems like a magnificent way for women to start asserting their rights in society. Aside from ovethrowing the government, what other way do women have to claw their way up the ladder? I mean, the glass ceiling is still real in America – women make less money, and are hired and promoted less often. Misogyny is not a Muslim characteristic.

So finally, in closing, tl;dr – hijab has become the banner and easy marker for whether a Muslim woman is oppressed or liberated. That’s crap.

Also I’d like to respond to your comment to XB – while some definitely do argue that men and women being expected to dress differently is oppressive (and I won’t get into that now), this is something ALL societies do.

Last I checked, XB (sorry for using you as an example) wasn’t wearing dresses to class. Most women have longer hair than men – that’s the social norm. It is not to say that individuals should not have the freedom to dress however they please, but the idea that men and women dress differently isn’t a uniquely Muslim trait.

While one could also argue that not dressing “appropriately” could get someone killed (in places like Taliban-controlled Afghanistan), the idea that women are raped for removing a veil sounds like rape culture. Women don’t get raped for the way they dress.

Also, if the issue would be different if men veil, I would point you towards Saudi Arabia, where men are required to wear long-sleeved white shirts that reach the ankles and a headpiece that essentially covers all the parts of the body that hijab does. Indeed, historically, Muslim men have covered their heads nearly as often as Muslim women have.

Finally, I think the idea of the hijab being a distinctly female concept bothers some and leads them to deem it oppressive – but just because women do something men don’t does not make them oppressed. In a male-dominated society, the hijab or niqab obstructs the male gaze and creates a private sphere wherein the Muslim woman can see but not be seen, placing her arguably in a position of power. It allows her to control the parts of her body she wants to reveal and it allows her to demand interaction or respect/attention/whatever based on her actual intellectual merits rather than her physical appearance.

Now, is this why all women wear hijab? No. But to dismiss the hijab as something inherently oppressive because men don’t do it too is something I can’t agree with.

Another fun fact and then I’ll leave, promise:

More Muslim-majority countries have laws that prohibit women from wearing hijab than countries have laws requiring women to wear it.

XB: To add to ND’s point about the significance of education in conferring a certain degree political autonomy, it’s also important to note how facts of this kind undermine a hegemonic discourse that seeks to keep Muslim women in the judgmental “gaze” of the imperial power.

Notice the context in which these kinds of polls take place. It’s usually the US looking into the Middle East and making conclusions about the culture and social norms of Muslims. Typically the studies result in a negative portrayal of these societies. In Fisher’s article this is shown when he says “it’s too bad that, even in the countries most supportive of this very basic freedom, only about half support it.”

The underlying problem with this format is that it totally obscures the crucial and verifiable fact that the US has played a decisive role in propping up some of the most regressive ideologies throughout the Middle East, ideologies that exploit religious sentiment to brutalize others. This includes the funding of the mujaheddin, the sectarian warfare the US invasion elicited through its invasion of Iraq and the multi-decade support for the Saudi monarchy.

In this sense, the neutralist, seemingly disinterested study of gender relations in the Middle East serves to conceal more overt political ideologies. It’s supposed to appeal to people’s sense of justice without stimulating any serious self reflection about our role in creating conditions of inequality or how we have come to conflate certain norms–the hijab for example–with oppression irrespective of historical context or individual preference.

All of these forces are at work in most “western” descriptions of Middle East society therefore highlighting the central role education plays in the lives of women, quite apart from being “beyond the point”, opens up new interpretations of “the Other”, interpretations that are nearly inconceivable within the conventional narratives.

DS: @ND: Thank you, ND for engaging my comments. I really appreciate that you are taking the time to consider my opinion in this issue. To begin answering your response, I need to point out that I find it necessary to clarify that a clear definition of “choice” is needed before we can continue to engage with each other. But before we get there, I want to point out that your assertion “I am a firm believer that every woman should have the freedom to dress as she wants – and honestly, the idea that what Muslim women choose for themselves to wear is oppressive bothers me” is still not addressing my concern for those who do not have a choice. As I clarified in my former comment, I’m not implying that this is true for the majority of Muslim women, I’m just saying that the oppression of these women is not less real in face of the alleged “freedom” of other Muslim females. That being said, now is when we need to define what we understand by “choice.” And I have to admit, I don’t have a definite answer to this question. Yet, I do think that having a choice seems to imply that one has some level of power to decide what to do, embrace. But, is this really the case? When one is limited to pick an option among a restricted number of possibilities, is this a genuine “choice” or a strategy the status quo puts in place to simulate a sort of involvement with its subjects? Now, if you were to tell me that Muslim communities have specific laws in place to protect the integrity and well-being of those Muslim women who “choose” no to wear a hijab at all, then I’d have to agree with you that the women who still wear it are, indeed, exercising an individual right by using any kind of veil they choose. But, as far as I know, this is not the case. This allows me to move into another statement I find problematic, according to you: “The conversation about Muslim women is always, always centered around their dress.” I can only talk for myself, and, in my case, the conversation about Muslim women is not so much about their dress, but about their choices, and the way these choices are handled down to them. I really don’t mean to be offensive here, but you must admit that the fact that there are some successful Muslim women out there does not erase the fact that there are many who live in very different conditions. At risk of repeating what I’ve already stated: I don’t want to make this issue a question of glorifying, demonizing the non-Muslim world versus the Muslim-world, I don’t have any interest in doing that in the context of this conversation. That’s not my point. If people in South America were to start to do this, I would have the same kind of objections. So, I hope by now it is clear that my comment does not have anything to do with the idea that you mentioned in your response: “The idea is to pat ourselves on the back about how these backwards people still do this silly oppressive thing we see no need for anymore because we do in a different form.” I understand where you’re coming from. I’m not aligning myself with people who enter this conversation to push such agenda. Yet, your statement “Saying that women can’t better themselves with or without a hijab is ridiculous” sounds like a tergiversation of my argument. I was not claiming that the hijab, in and by itself, can serve as the only obstacle of women’s progress. The point here is that the hijab symbolizes, as I claimed before, a very specific understanding of femininity, and one that involves a specific subjectification of women while serving the purpose to attribute specific social roles to female subjects. Does this happen in the West? Sure. It does. I fight it too. I understand that many people, in order to utter and resist the imperial ways of the West, systematically oppose discussing the issue of the veil. But “defending” the hijab is a way, in my view, to align with a different kind of oppression, which, for many, seems to look less real because it is not that close to home (and by this I’m referring to the many, many women who do not have to see the oppressive conditions surrounding Muslim women who are forced into wearing a veil). I know you shared that the reality of these particular women is being addressed, “as we speak” by “Muslim activists and female Islamic scholars,” but, does this mean that we cannot talk about it anymore? Just because around this country there are activists fighting, say, for the increasing of minimum wage, does that mean we should not talk about it anymore? I don’t understand your comments in this regard.

Lastly (for now, as I really have to go :)), I want to address your comment “The first step to releasing a group from oppression is education – the first step to oppressing a group is always taking education from them. An educated group is harder to control.” I’m completely with you here, as long as we understand education as the fostering of critical-thinking. That’s not always the form that “education” takes. In theory, also the United States has a very educated population, if you look at its rate of college graduated citizens. We all know that this is an euphemism to refer to a well trained labor force. In America, it is more and more the case that people just learn recipes that will enable them to be good soldiers (literally and figuratively speaking). Likewise, if all these Muslim women in Iran are “educated” to enter their work force as it is, the percentage you mention does not say much about their agency, or level of equality they have reached. Also, if they do not have a real say in policy-making, I still see a problem with interpreting these statistics as evidence of women’s achievments. I also agree with your comment that gender-base inequality is not exclusive to the Muslim world. Sure, it is not. But, how does help your argument that obtaining a college degree challenges the idea that Muslim women are oppressed? How many women poiticians are in Iran right now (I’m asking an honest question here, because I don’t know). I’ve a lot more to say, but, as I say, I have to go now. I’ll be back

@XB: I will be happy to engage further when I have more time, but, for now, I have to say that while I wholeheartedly agree with most of what you stated above, I don’t see how your statements invalidate my point: hijab remits us to a context of inequality where women are systematically objectified and denied agency. I agree with you that reflecting on the historical, politic, and socioeconomic circumstances that brought about such “reality” is absolutely relevant, in particular for people engaging with the topic across-cultures. Yet, I don’t think the acknowledgement of such requirement should prevent us from calling things by their right name. I’m against all kinds of oppression, across the board, I don’t buy the rhetoric that says “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In this way, I feel freer to challenge both enemies. I know there are Muslim women who are doing the same as we speak: they challenge the imposition of the hijab, without being “irrespective of historical context or individual preference.” It is my opinion that everybody should be able to fight or contest oppression beyond borders. I think this is what solidarity, in my opinion, is about. I do not believe that recognizing the influence, or impact the West had, and still has, in “propping up some of the most regressive ideologies throughout the Middle East” should prevent us from addressing and challenging the practices resulting from such ideologies. I believe the hijab to be one of such practices.

@ND: Okay, here we go again ND: in your second response to me, you mentioned “Last I checked, XB (sorry for using you as an example) wasn’t wearing dresses to class. Most women have longer hair than men – that’s the social norm. It is not to say that individuals should not have the freedom to dress however they please, but the idea that men and women dress differently isn’t a uniquely Muslim trait.” With all due respect, the fact that guys are not expected to wear the same kind of clothes women wear is, in effect, a truism. That doesn’t change the fact that the practice of requiring women to wear a hijab also involves the acceptance of a certain understanding of the female body that deems it as sinful, or provocative in nature. If you ask me,it is wrong that men in many cultures have to restrain themselves from wearing certain clothes because they are considered to be female-specific. That does not make the issue of veiling less controversial. In other words, I don’t think the issue of wearing or not wearing a hijab is so much about cultural autonomy, even though I understand that this is what it has been reduced to, but about the burden that it places on women’s shoulders and identity. Why do Muslim women have to ashamed of their bodies in a way that only applies to them and not to their male counterparts?

Moreover, you claimed “While one could also argue that not dressing “appropriately” could get someone killed (in places like Taliban-controlled Afghanistan), the idea that women are raped for removing a veil sounds like rape culture.” If we follow your rational, we have to wonder: isn’t the social practice of asking a woman to preserve their “modesty” by hiding their bodies as much as possible from the gaze of others, the clear product of a way of thinking that sees women as objects of temptation? How far is this way of thinking from that embraced by rape cultures?

Your comment ” In a male-dominated society, the hijab or niqab obstructs the male gaze and creates a private sphere wherein the Muslim woman can see but not be seen, placing her arguably in a position of power” is also disturbing to me. I really don’t see/understand the kind of power you are referring to here. Sure, obeying, following the rules that are imposed upon women in “male-dominated society” affords women a relative level of piece of mind, perhaps the peace of mind of knowing that they are not going to be censured, punished, or attacked for not conforming to what is expected from them. This does not make their conditions any more “fair” to me. Wearing the veil can guarantee a certain sense of belonging, sure. Does this award any kind of agency/power to the oppressed? I don’t think so.

Finally, you said “But to dismiss the hijab as something inherently oppressive because men don’t do it too is something I can’t agree with.” – No, this is not the reason why I object to the use of hijabs. The reason why I see it as a problematic issue is because, in my eyes, it legitimizes and perpetuates an understanding of the female body, and its role in interpersonal relations as problematic, and disgusting. The fact that some women have internalized this sense of guilt and have assumed the responsibility to police themselves in order to affirm their loyalty to their culture, religion, and/or ethnicity, still does not make the whole practice less disturbing in my opinion.

XB: @DS: I just want to comment on two sentences in your previous comments. You state “the hijab symbolizes … a very specific understanding of femininity, and one that involves a specific subjectification of women while serving the purpose to attribute specific social roles to female subjects.” You also state the hijab “legitimizes and perpetuates an understanding of the female body, and its role in interpersonal relations as problematic, and disgusting.”

Are you making this determination based on your understanding of the history of the hijab or some author who has written about it? Because this is a pretty significant statement to make without citing any evidence to support it. In fact, it’s a radical departure from Karen Armstrong’s explanation of the hijab. In her biography on the Prophet Muhammad and in an article in the Guardian she describes the hijab as “a symbol of resistance to colonialism.”

To be precise, Lord Cromer banned the veil in Egypt during Britain’s colonial rule. He called the veil a “fatal obstacle” to integrating Muslim women into Western “civilization.” Armstrong also notes “In Iran, the shahs’ soldiers used to march through the streets with their bayonets at the ready, tearing off the women’s veils and ripping them to pieces.” In fact, the shah banned the chador and afterwards women “wore it as a matter of principle – even those who usually wore western clothes.” This alternative, emancipatory meaning of the veil is completely absent from your explanation. I just don’t think the hijab can be described in such absolute terms.



Muhammad: A Prophet of Our Time by Karen Armstrong

DS: @XB: I made my previous “determination” as you called it based on the experiences of women “on the ground” as I have read them. I didn’t notice ND citing any sources, and I didn’t realize sources were needed. Moreover, I believe that your “understanding” of the hijab describes only in part the motivation that inspires many Muslim women to wear the hijab. Sure, we can talk about the history of the hijab. According to Geraldine Brooks, in Egypt, for example, the hijab “was the most obvious sign of the Islamic revival that had swept up […] many young women.” According to this writer, Muslim philosophers encouraged women to wear the veil as a way to object Gamal Abdel Nasser’s extremely secular government, and “urged Egyptians to return to the Islamic views they had abandoned.” At the same time, Brooks also cites other instances through history (Iran in 1935) where the hijab was banned capriciously, and how this affected a certain fraction of the population who just could not adjust to this change overnight. In my opinion, all these quotes do not invalidate my point. Independently of the reason why women pick the veil, the underling truth is still the same: women have no voice in the context of male dominated cultures, and the only way they can gain a little bit of agency is by endorsing practices that are put in place by men, and which prescribe them to feel ashamed of their bodies. Does this mean a “‘fatal obstacle’ to integrating Muslim women into Western ‘civilization.'” I think it does. Does this “liberate” women at all? I don’t think so, it just allows them to have some “choice” with regard to the type of oppression they feel more comfortable embracing.

Source: Brooks, Geraldine. Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women. New York: Anchor, 1995. Print.

XB: I didn’t ask ND for sources because much of what she wrote conformed to what I’ve read about the hijab. For example, when ND describes the hijab as a item of clothing that allows women to “to control the parts of her body she wants to reveal and it allows her to demand interaction or respect/attention/whatever based on her actual intellectual merits rather than her physical appearance,” this reminded me of Karen Armstrong’s comment that “the uniformity of traditional Muslim dress stresses the egalitarian and communal ethos of Islam.” I only ask people for sources when I find something questionable in what they write. If ND wrote something I found questionable I would’ve asked her for sources.

I agree that my explanation of the hijab “describes only in part the motivation that inspires many Muslim women to wear the hijab.” This was the purpose of my comment. I felt your explanation was missing this motivation. This is why I conclude my argument by calling it an “alternative, emancipatory meaning” (“alternative” because this is not the only meaning). You ask if I think imposing norms that make women “feel ashamed of their bodies” present a “fatal obstacle” to integrating women into Western “civilization.”

In the cases where the hijab is used to make women “feel ashamed of the bodies” I would say it does pose a threat to integrating women into civilization (civilization in the actual sense of the word and not in Lord Cromer’s sense) but I simply don’t think this understanding of the hijab, the dominant understanding in “the west”, engages with the social, cultural and historical background in the same way Armstrong’s explanation does. I think this kind of engagement is important because it helps repressed groups appropriate symbols for the purpose of dissent instead of oppression.

DS: @XB: I don’t see how ND’s statement “the idea that women are raped for removing a veil sounds like rape culture. Women don’t get raped for the way they dress” does not qualify as “a pretty significant statement to make without citing any evidence to support it.” But, in any case, what I really want to address in this comment is the connection you establish between ND’s assertion regarding the hijab as a means “to control the parts of her body she wants to reveal and it allows her to demand interaction or respect/attention/whatever based on her actual intellectual merits rather than her physical appearance,” and Armstrong’s claim “the uniformity of traditional Muslim dress stresses the egalitarian and communal ethos of Islam.” So many points to make here! Reading ND’s comment, I couldn’t help thinking: how can we say that a world where women need to cover themselves up in order to deserve some respect, in order to be valued for their “actual intellectual merits” is a world inherently “egalitarian”? There is nothing egalitarian about not being able to interact with a man without having to cover myself so that he can actually focus on what I am saying. I understand Armstrong’s quote was taken out of context for the sake of this conversation, and I understand that she is talking about “traditional Muslim dress,” and the ideal spirit of Islam, but that does not say much about the way things are in practice. I know that nowadays, in many Muslim countries, women are not allowed to own private property, only men can. How is that egalitarian? Likewise, when it comes to dress code, in how many Muslim countries today (with the exception of Saudi Arabia, according to ND’s previous comment) do men have to cover their bodies as well, and for the same reasons women must? If the idea is to resist imperialist oppression, why don’t men and women “appropriate” the same “symbols for the purpose of dissent”? I’ll tell you why: because these men and women are not equal in the context of their culture. As a consequence, Muslim women decided to “resist” the oppression from outside by accepting their place as subordinates at home. They may not be conscious of it, because they have internalized the interests of their direct oppressors as theirs. This is what Marx calls “false consciousness.”

To add to my previous point, I’d like to provide an example of what I consider a more egalitarian ways of resistance. The Spanish Civil War, for instance, provided an opportunity for women to make the cause of resisting oppression theirs, and this is why they joined their comrades at the battlefront. According to Dolores Martin Moruno, engaging in this fight gave Spanish women an opportunity to “become aware of their subjugated position for their first time in history.” According to this author, the eagerness to fight the Franquists insurgents that were trying to overthrow the democratically elected government of Spain, also enabled women’s emancipation insofar as they engaged in a fight that also sought to establish women’s legal and social rights for the time to come. This, Martin Moruno tells us, was the beginning of “Spanish Feminism.” At this point, it is important to clarify that most of the Spaniards who left their homes to go fight against Fascism and capitalism, were very modest workers, with little or no education at all. In addition, I’m not saying that Muslim should do exactly what Spanish women did or in the same manner, but I’m challenging the notion that, in order to resist imperial oppression, the only way women have to gain some agency is to embrace symbols that validate male-domination. It does not have to be this way.

Mangini, Shirley. “Memories of Resistance: Women Activists from the Spanish Civil War.”Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 17.1 (1991): 171. Print.

XB: @DS: When ND says “the idea that women get raped for removing the veil sounds like rape culture,” and “women don’t get raped for the way they dress,” I think she means that we should not take it seriously when a rapist says he raped a women because she was not wearing a veil. There are cases that can be cited where women have been raped and their rapists have claimed that they carried out the crime because the woman wasn’t wearing a veil but that doesn’t mean we should believe it anymore than we should believe an alleged Christian who murders a doctor under the pretext that abortions violates their religious beliefs. To entertain these excuses as anything more than an attempt to conceal more vulgar motives–hatred of women, delusions of power, etc.–diverts attention away from the responsibility of the rapist. This shifting of responsibility is a dominant feature of rape culture. This is my interpretation of ND’s statement, a statement I agree with. That’s why I didn’t ask for any evidence. If this wasn’t what ND meant by her statement she will have to explain it.

You state “How can we say that a world where women need to cover themselves up in order to deserve some respect, in order to be valued for their ‘actual intellectual merits’ is a world inherently ‘egalitarian’?There is nothing egalitarian about not being able to interact with a man without having to cover myself so that he can actually focus on what I am saying.” If I may offer my interpretation, I think ND’s description of the hijab is basically saying that the ideas that we hold and the thoughts that motivate us to act are our most valuable human qualities, not how we look. It’s perfectly possible to converse with someone without a veil. ND was simply saying the veil is, to her, a commentary on the ephemeral nature of our bodies when compared to our ideas. One of the more interesting aspects about the life of Muhammad was that he held the concept of common humanity in higher esteem than the concepts of man or woman.

Probably the most illustrative example of this is in what Armstrong called the Prophet’s “revolutionary surah” where he states “men and women who remember God oft,” will receive “a mighty wage.” The inclusion of women alongside men in this particular surah broke with the patriarchal conventions of 7th century Arabia. In this respect, I think ND’s interpretation of the hijab has more to do with emphasizing the insignificance of the body within a religious context that gives precedence to our common humanity rather than an attempt to suppress sexual urges. Again, if you think I’m incorrect on this I think it would be better to ask ND.

You also state that “men and women are not equal in the context of their culture.” While I would agree that the distribution of power between men and women is unequal (not only in Muslim majority countries but in much of the “western” world as well) I’d be hesitant to use terms like “in the context of their culture” because this kind of oppression is so pervasive in virtually every society that I don’t think we can make these kinds of neat distinctions between “their” culture and other cultures. It would be like saying maximizing profit is part of General Electric’s culture and not corporate culture in general.

I disagree that “Muslim women decided to ‘resist’ the oppression from outside by accepting their place as subordinates at home.” In the case of Iran, where women wore the veil in defiance of the Shah, they were resisting oppression at home, not from the outside. Women also were resisting oppression at home during the British colonization of Egypt. Armstrong talks about Egyptian sycophants who ” obsequiously praised the nobility of European culture, arguing that the veil symbolised everything that was wrong with Islam and Egypt.” More than “accepting their place as subordinates at home,” these women were fighting to preserve a place they could recognize as a home.

Muhammad’s life also carries some relevance in your observation that “in many Muslim countries, women are not allowed to own private property, only men can,” because in his time he challenged the property relations of Arabia which advanced similar forms of gender discrimination. The Prophet devised what Armstrong called a “shocking innovation” in challenging pre-Islamic traditions concerning dower rights. Under Muhammad’s innovation “the dowry was to be given directly to the woman as her inalienable property , and in the event of divorce, a man could not reclaim it.” This was a sharp departure from custom where the groom would present a dowry to his bride but “in practice this gift had belonged to her family.” So if these Muslim majority countries were to follow the example of Muhammad they would devise new ways to undermine the property discrimination you speak of, property relations that are at odds with the egalitarian ethos of the Islamic tradition.

Lastly, I’d like to comment on the writings of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, a group that is at the forefront of the women’s rights struggle in Afghanistan. They have decided not to wear the veil because the Taliban is trying to force them to wear it. They describe this as “fundamentalists … [using] the Koran as a bogey.” They conclude by saying “To wear, or not to wear, the Islamic veil is a completely personal issue and no one has the right to interfere with this decision or impose the veil upon us.” The main phrase to take away from this is that “no one has the right to interfere with this decision.” They don’t say the veil, in itself, is a form of oppression but the imposition of the veil to “unleash … misogynism through terror” is oppressive. This has been my argument all along, that Muslim women who choose to wear the veil are not participating in a “comfortable” form of oppression insofar as it is a decision they have made without coercion. To treat the veil as an oppressive symbol in its essence is to disregard the political realities that women face in their particular country and moment in history.

Though I think more can be said, I’ll limit my response here. And thanks for the link to the Academia article. I’ll be reading it.




The Enjoyable Banality of Evil

Battlefield4The subject: “new frontiers of cultural warfare”.

XB: While I disagree with the Chinese government’s assertion that a video game could in any way pose a threat to the “national security” of another state, I think it’s not only true but uncontroversially true that American depictions of Chinese people has long been a central component in advancing what can be called a form of “cultural warfare.” The history of this is quite deep with consequences that resonate to this day. In fact, the origins of this hostile depiction of Chinese people can be traced back to the late 19th century when there was a proliferation of literature that warned Americans of the so-called “Yellow Peril.” H. Bruce Franklin discusses this cultural project in great detail in his 1988 book War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination.

Popular books at this time included Pierton Dooner’s The Last Days of the Republic, which was published in 1879 and warned readers of the “holy tradition of China” embodied in the ambition to “rule the world.” In this book Chinese workers win “civil rights” and take over the governments of California, Nevada and Oregon. The novel ends with a horror-filled scene of “Asian hordes rampaging and pillaging their way into Washington,” or as Dooner wrote, “the Imperial Dragon of China … floated from the dome of the [US] Capitol. The very name of the United States of America was thus blotted from the record of nations and peoples.” Incidentally, it deserves notice that just three years after this book was published the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed, banning Chinese immigration to the US.

Other authors like Jack London went considerably beyond Dooner in racist jingoism. His 1910 book The Unparalleled Invasion glorified the genocidal extermination of the entire population of China via bacteriological warfare, what he chillingly called “the great sanitation of China.” An interesting contemporary analogue to this genocidal fantasy emerged recently on an episode of Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel when a kid (doubtlessly unaware of this huge, historically-based culture of racism) suggested America deal with its national debt by “killing everyone in China.”

So while I think the Chinese government is overstating the importance of the game (presumably for their own doctrinal purposes) by discussing it in the context of “national security,” I think it would be really unfortunate for Americans to summarily dismiss these allegations as if they carry no credibility or present no opportunity for serious self-reflection. As deeply ingrained as the demonization of China is, it’s worth remembering that this is merely one expression of a much larger intellectual culture of orientalism that expands to Pashtuns, Arabs, Persians and so-called “eastern” people generally.

Quite apart from a mere video game, this intellectual enterprise is highly influential in shaping popular attitudes about “the Other” and its imagery and concepts are regularly invoked for use in official US policy. If the conversation were to be steered in this direction–asking serious questions about the social, cultural and historical factors that could have possibly informed the creation of a video game like Battlefield 4–I think a lot can be learned from this dispute. If not, it will just serve as another distraction to illustrate the “irrationality” and “emotionalism” of “easterners.”


War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination by H. Bruce Franklin

WF: I was going to say something like what XB said, but FAR less articulately. Only thing I can think to add, is that this, or things like it, has happened before with video games, Mercenaries 2 was almost banned in Venezuela a few years ago. North Korea has banned, or at least [condemned], most Tom Clancy games, Command & Conquer Generals was banned in China (smearing China’s military), Football Manager 2005 & Hearts of Iron (recognizing Tibet).

As for the “new frontiers of cultural warfare” I think, as XB said the assertion that it’s a threat to national security is nonsensical, but I do think that the idea that video games can be cultural propaganda isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

I mean look at games like Homefront (which plays to almost every one of the “Us V. Them” of the cold war), Call of Duty (war porn, casual war crimes, etc. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcckHAYCxGk is a pretty good video on this), America’s Army (U.S. Military recruitment tool, and taxes at work…). Bluntly, yes I think that some games really are legitimate pieces of propaganda, but China’s claims of a threat to national security is nonsense.

Only other thing I can think to add: according to a kotaku article [from] a few days ago (http://kotaku.com/why-china-banned-battlefield-4-modern…) China has, apparently, banned some Call of Duty games (2, 4, 5, and Modern Warfare 2), plus the True Crime series, Scarface & the 50 Cent games (published by Sierra, when it was active, a subsidiary of Activision) also published by Activision. That said, a LOT on that list of those were published by Japanese companies, Square Enix (or a subsidiary thereof) 5, 6, 20, 21, 26, 37, 38, and 39.

EH: I have little to add to, as I agree with, what XB and WF said about prefacing the banning with security concerns. Perhaps, that the Chinese government is reaching imperial status is indicated by their US-like obsession with “national security”. But in the spirit of “serious self-reflection” that XB invoked, I have a few thoughts to share about video games as “cultural warfare”. This form of “warfare” is a well-studied phenomenon. Since the release of America’s Army in 2002, the research into this form of “warfare” has increased and is readily available.

Brian Keilen in his dissertation titled “Echoes of Invasion: Cultural Anxieties and Video Games” does a thorough study of a collection of video games and observes how in every one of these narratives the aliens “are linked to cultural anxieties concerning Otherness.” The infamous Call of Duty that portrays “Muslim and Arab people as invading Others” play into the bipartisan state-terrorism that mushroomed under the name of “War on Terror”. Such a game “renders Otherness inhuman and an object of fear.” This game also attempts “to validate American foreign policy since September 11 by guiding players towards specific subjectivities.”

Another researcher, Aaron Hess, studying “Narrative Public Memory Construction in Medal of Honor: Rising Sun”, points out how this particular Electronic Arts’ game “constructs a narrative of World War II that selectively retells history and constructs an Orientalist representation of the Japanese Empire.”

This tendency of selectively retelling history appears in all war games studies I have come across so far. Certain aspects of these retellings deserve our close attention.

In these games, Tanine Allison argued, “the focus of history is on the enlisted man and his experience of close combat, not on the strategy or overarching view of the generals… This narrowing of the scope celebrates the citizen soldier, allowing for th‘apolitical’ stance of honouring those in the service, while ostensibly being ‘antiwar’.”

Although in these games, “history is made interactive… in just about every case, it is still already written. The success or failure of battles cannot be changed and does not hinge upon the actions of the individual player. As long as the player has the requisite skill, he or she will continue progressing through a preplanned route. And since death in a video game is never final, the player has unlimited chances at success.”

Such games form a bridge between military training and home entertainment as “the digital interface of a video game mirrors the interface on dozens of computerised instruments and weapons currently being used by the American military.” There have been reports of corporations like Raytheon hiring “video game developers to redesign their drone aircraft guidance systems to look and respond to the user more like the video games with which military recruits are increasingly familiar.”

I find it particularly disturbing that such games portray war as “something that can be controlled and mastered, without post-traumatic stress disorder or real death,” or war crimes, massacres. In other words, a war without any substance, not only devoid of the Real, but erasing the Real. “History becomes action, and action only. Broader historical connections, larger causes and consequences, considerations of strategy and supply—these are neglected in favour of the immediate gratification of activity.”

We can talk about the massive worldwide market of buyers and sellers that has spawned around this militainment, but for a dialogue of self-reflection we must take into account the ideological forces and powerful institutions that form the bedrock of this military industrial complex. It is precisely in this fashion that video games, on all sides, are becoming a form of rhetoric, a form of re-writing collective memory which can, in the lack of education, be a selective memory riddled with prejudice and repressed violence always ready for state powers to tap into in time of need.

To deal with this form of rhetoric and warfare, whether in US or China or Israel, I claim, we need to study games and develop public education programs that enrich the public’s understanding of video games as transitional spaces where intersubjectivities develop into subjectivities. We need to study the ethnographies of the players themselves. In a state-capitalist paradigm, in East or West, that commands us to “enjoy” everything from medicine to work, and tells us also how to “enjoy”, video games will otherwise, in the absence of education about them, become, to parallel Arendt, the enjoyable banality of evil.

The Washington Connection & Third World Fascism

Washington ConnectionIn a recent C-SPAN interview on the US-Iran nuclear “deal” Republican representative Duncan Hunter cautioned against those who are quick to let down their guard at the negotiating table because “Middle East culture” fosters dishonesty and Iranians subscribe to a culture of lying. To those of us spared the psychological violence of a good education it would seem that a simple reference to George W. Bush’s infamous lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Ronald Reagan’s lies in the Iran-Contra scandal, or the constant stream of deceit flowing from NSA headquarters–most recently in James Clapper’s confessed act of perjury–would suffice in revealing the glaring hypocrisy of this orientalist cliche. Regrettably, these notorious examples of deceit in high places only scratch the surface of an actual culture of lying with deep institutional implications. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s 1979 study The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism offers an exhaustive analysis of this culture of lying that prevails in the pages of the “free press.” Reviewing a sordid record of US sponsored terror in Latin America and Southeast Asia, Chomsky and Herman illustrate how prominent media organizations framed, downplayed, and utterly distorted massive human rights violations in the service of state power and its ideological objectives. Perhaps the most grotesque example of this subservient relationship to power can be found in the US press’ treatment of the genocide in East Timor.

Fueled by US, Australian, British and French power, these mass murders were routinely interpreted from the perspective of Indonesian generals or Timorese collaborators. When Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 the press received it as an Indonesian intervention to quell a civil war and not an act of military aggression rivaling the brutality of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Eastern Europe. Reporters were barred from investigating the atrocities as they unfolded and the few legitimate human rights reports that filtered through the media blackout, often church sources, were dismissed as non-credible by the “humanitarians” in the Carter administration and the compliant press. Death tolls from the Indonesian assault (1975-1976) on Timor reached conservative estimates of 80,000 people (approximately 10% of the total population). State Department Legal Adviser George Aldrich revealed  that the Indonesian army was “armed roughly 90% with [US] equipment,” in a congressional inquiry of the invasion.  In addition to arming Indonesian generals to carry out the slaughter, Washington defied the international community in 1977 by voting against (along with Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) a resolution introduced in the UN General Assembly to send a special committee on decolonization to investigate the atrocities in East Timor. The previous year the US voted against a General Assembly resolution which rejected “the claim that East Timor has been integrated into Indonesia.” The General Assembly cited the Timorese “right to self-determination and independence,” as a basis for the resolution,  a legal fairy-tale among “civilized” people exemplified in  today’s rejection of the “right to self-determination and independence,” in occupied Palestine.

Meanwhile, this callous indifference over US-sponsored atrocities in Timor (“constructive” or “benign” bloodbaths) was not to be found in the indignant denunciations of “communist” atrocities in Cambodia, what Chomsky and Herman call “nefarious bloodbaths”. Double standards of this kind were not in short supply and persist to this day. For instance, when Malala Yousafzai was nearly killed by a Taliban member from a gunshot wound to the head there was an outpouring of support from the “free press.” Dianne Sawyer interviewed her and President Obama invited her into the Oval Office. Compare this to the general response when the Rehman family from Waziristan visited Washington to testify before Congress detailing the horrors of President Obama’s drone program, a campaign of international terrorism without parallel. A mere five Congress members attended the testimony. Much like Chomsky and Herman’s commentary on the American press’ obsession with the plight of Soviet dissidents over Latin American corpses, it’s only their terror that captures the attention of journalists who understand the strict boundaries of acceptable thought.

Along with this extensive analysis of media support for state-terror is an equally thorough analysis of what Chomsky and Herman call “the systematic positive relationship between US aid and human rights violations.” Using human rights statistics from a series of US client states, Chomsky and Herman detail the horrors forced upon defenseless populations as a result of increases in military aid and the restructuring of economies to attract corporate exploitation. One of the more gruesome cases of this “systematic relationship,” can be observed in the Carter administration’s support for the Videla dictatorship in Argentina. During Videla’s rule an estimated 15,000 people were “disappeared”, 4,500 killed and 8-10,000 people were detained in state prisons (Argentine journalists generally estimated 15,000 killed). In a pathetic attempt to justify this gangsterism Videla maintained that “a terrorist is not just someone with a gun or a bomb but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilizations.” Ideals in conformity with “Western and Christian civilizations,” guided President Carter’s policy decisions as his administration continued to sponsor Videla’s tyranny while real wages in Argentina dropped 60% and food consumption dropped 40%. David Rockefeller  gleefully embraced this imposition of US-backed structural violence as confirmation that the country was now governed by “a regime which understands the private enterprise system”, a development that presented ruling elites with “a combination of advantageous circumstances.” None of these easily verifiable facts interfere with Carter’s reputation as a peacemaker, an enduring tribute to the really existing, and far more consequential, culture of dishonesty in the US.

A persistent theme of this well-researched review of state criminality is not only the venality of government officials and their clients but the moral monstrosity of an intellectual class ready and willing to construct the ideological foundations for these bloodbaths to go unnoticed, to disappear in Orwell’s memory hole. In the introduction of this work Chomsky and Herman state “If facts were faced, and international law and elemental morality were operative, thousands of US politicians and military planners would be regarded as candidates for Nuremberg-type trials.” Not surprisingly, not a single US politician or military planner has yet to appear in such a trial, a graphic illustration that “elemental morality” remains inoperative. It is for this reason that books like The Washington Connection are so vital to the survival of an intellectual culture immune to the toxic allure of illegitimate authority and the institutions of deception on which it depends.

CORRECTION: In the initial book review Argentina’s Economic Minister Martinez de Hoz was cited as saying Argentina had finally understood “the private enterprise system.” This statement was actually made by David Rockefeller who, according to Chomsky and Herman, was a close friend of de Hoz.