Monday, June 30, 2008

Colin Powell Is Flawless — Inside A Media Bubble

Driving down from L.A. last night, I was listening to an interview with Norman Solomon on Air American that revealed much about Colin Powell that I was completely unaware of. Although the piece below is quite old and is not particularly comprehensive, I thought I'd post it since it is an excellent example of the fucked-up-ness of mainstream media glorification.

Colin Powell Is Flawless — Inside A Media Bubble
Media Beat (2/6/03)
By Norman Solomon
www.fair.org

There's no doubt about it: Colin Powell is a great performer, as he showed yet again at the U.N. Security Council the other day. On television, he exudes confidence and authoritative judgment. But Powell owes much of his touted credibility to the fact that he's functioning inside a media bubble that protects him from direct challenge.

Powell doesn't face basic questions like these:

You cite Iraq's violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions to justify the U.S. launching an all-out war. But you're well aware that American allies like Turkey, Israel and Morocco continue to violate dozens of Security Council resolutions. Why couldn't other nations claim the right to militarily "enforce" the Security Council's resolutions against countries that they'd prefer to bomb?

You insist that Iraq is a grave threat to the other nations of the Middle East. But, with the exception of Israel, no country in the region has made such a claim or expressed any enthusiasm for a war on Iraq. If Iraq is a serious threat to the region, why doesn't the region feel threatened?

You say that the Iraqi regime is committed to aggression. Yet Iraq hasn't attacked any country for more than 12 years. And just eight days before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, the U.S. envoy to Baghdad gave what appeared to be a green light for the invasion when she met with Saddam Hussein. An Iraqi transcript of the meeting quotes Ambassador April Glaspie: "We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary (of State James) Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction ... that Kuwait is not associated with America." Mr. Powell, why don't you ever mention such information?

Washington tilted in favor of Iraq during its war with Iran in the 1980s. Like other U.S. officials, you emphasize that Saddam Hussein "gassed his own people" and used chemical weapons against Iran, but you don't talk about the intelligence data and other forms of assistance that the United States provided to help Iraq do those things. If the history of Baghdad's evil deeds is relevant, why aren't facts about U.S. complicity also relevant?

When you warn that the U.N. Security Council "places itself in danger of irrelevance" if it fails to endorse a U.S.-led war on Iraq, aren't you really proclaiming that the United Nations is "relevant" only to the extent that it does what the U.S. government wants?

If Colin Powell faced such questions on a regular basis, his media halo would begin to tarnish. Instead, floating inside a media bubble, he moves from high-level meetings to speeches to news conferences where tough questions are rare. And when Powell appears as a guest on American media outlets, he doesn't need to worry that he'll encounter interviewers who'll challenge his basic assumptions.

Tacit erasure of inconvenient history — including his own — is integral to the warm relationship between Powell and U.S. news media. There's a lot to erase. For instance, in January 1986, serving as a top aide to Pentagon chief Caspar Weinberger, he supervised the transfer of 4,508 TOW missiles to the CIA, and then sought to hide the transaction from Congress and the public. No wonder: Almost half of those missiles had become part of the Iran-Contra scandal's arms-for-hostages deal.

As President Reagan's national security adviser, Powell worked diligently on behalf of the contra guerrillas who were killing civilians in Nicaragua. In December 1989, Powell — at that point the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — was a key player behind the invasion of Panama.

The Gulf War catapulted Powell to the apex of American political stardom in early 1991. When he was asked about the Iraqi death toll from that war, Powell said that such numbers didn't interest him.

At the U.N. on Feb. 5, in typical fashion, Powell presented himself as an implacable foe of terrorism — much as he did on Sept. 11, 2001, when he denounced "people who feel that with the destruction of buildings, with the murder of people, they can somehow achieve a political purpose." While aptly condemning the despicable hijackers who murdered thousands of people on that day, Powell was also using words that could be applied to a long line of top officials in Washington. Including himself.

At this point it seems that only a miracle could prevent the Bush administration from going ahead with its plans for a horrific attack on Iraq, sure to kill many thousands of civilians. The U.S. leaders will demonstrate their evident belief that — in Colin Powell's apt words — "with the destruction of buildings, with the murder of people, they can somehow achieve a political purpose." To the extent that the media bubble around them stays airtight, Powell and his colleagues are likely to bask in national acclaim.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Politics of Marriage

Last week, June 17th, 2008, marked a long awaited, long overdue, moment in Californian history. San Diego, in particular, witnessed the exchanging of vows by a 100 same-sex couples.

Of course, there are many among us - most of whom are horribly blinkered, some downright hateful - that continued to pursue their crusade (and I use that word quite intentionally to include its religious connotations) against "gay marriage" way before the California Supreme Court even handed down its decision terminating a state ban on same-sex marriage. Oppositional groups have already collected the requisite signatures to introduce a proposition for the Nov. 4 elections (re-)banning same-sex marriage. Of course, I hope that the proposition fails miserably, although it's still going to require a lot of education and activism to make sure it does. (If you vote in CA, go here to VOW TO VOTE NO. If you're on Facebook, go here to learn more.) And while I undoubtedly support marriage equality, the issue of marriage itself is complicated for me, as it for so many, and therefore I am somewhat ambivalent about today's significance.

Now, when forced to identify, I self-identify as "straight," although, given the reprehensible history and baggage of that word, I wish there were some other word I could use; and although I profess a queer politics, I am a little apprehensive about identifying as "queer" lest I be buying into "queer chic;" so overall, I'd rather not identify at all (the same is true of identifying racially, but that is a story for another day). So, as a so-called "straight woman" I guess I am supposed to have "dreamt" of my wedding day - and although I have no real recollection of doing so, I do know that I often did wish I were "christian" so that I could relinquish the traditional white sari in favor a fairy-tale-ish white wedding dress - images of which I was inundated with thanks to my exposure to Hollywood and, later, STAR TV. In any case, the idea of marriage has really never been too enticing for me, never given me goosebumps or anything of the sort. For a long while, when I was single, I pretty much looked down upon marriage - but back then I was probably just being spiteful. And now, although I've been in a pretty serious relationship for a while, I really haven't changed my tune much.

As I see it, the question really isn't about being pro-marriage or anti-marriage, it is about choice - and I am pro-choice. At this historio-political juncture, I choose (and I hope that when the time comes I will continue to choose) not to be get married. The choice is, as far as I am concerned, very simply, a political one. So long as the institution of marriage is appropriated by the state in order to regulate bodies and minds, marriage equality can never truly exist.

Now, I am not super-familiar with the history of marriage, but here's my take on it. First, sociological/anthropological thought suggests that marriage is a system of exchange. This system of exchange is embedded, of course, within notions of a market (capitalist) economy (based on commodity value), but, more importantly, is complexly intertwined with the economy of kinship (constructed through notions of the sexual). Georges Bataille brilliantly brings together these two dimensions of marriage by writing of it as an integral part of gift-giving economies, wherein the value of the gift is defined not merely by the intrinsic value of the exchange commodity (in this case, the sexuality of the woman) but rather by the sacrificial act executed by the gift-giver (here, the father or brother) in renouncing unfettered access to, and control of, the gift. This idea of marriage, then, constitutes the social dimension of the institution.

There is, however, also the religious aspect of it. In addressing religion, I refer specifically to ideas of the sacred and profane that, as Emile Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life suggests, is the common thread running through religious thought across the board. In any case, Bataille writes that marriage is also a means of neutralizing the erotic and sanitizing, or legitimizing, the sensual. That is, it the sacredness of marriage, as channeled from the Divine through the priest, that delivers the consummating act from the profane to the sacred. Furthermore, according to Bataille, the reproductive function of the sex act, as practiced within the bo(u)nds of matrimony, is what allows the act to preserve its sacredness, despite its sensuality. The profane-ness of the erotic, on the other hand, bars it from having any space within marriage. (All of this is discussed by Bataille in the context of his critique of the fear of the erotic, but I won't go into that here. Those interested can read The Accursed Share Volume II - The History of Eroticism. It's a pretty interesting read... I myself have to finish reading it soon...)

In any case, what I am trying to highlight here is that, per the history of marriage, it has two somewhat distinct dimensions - the social and the religious. Now I know that some may object that these two dimensions are not distinct but instead mutually constitutive. But I think that if one is to consider marriage in its contemporary context, we must consider these two dimensions of marriage separately. Let me begin with the religious aspect of it first since that is the easiest to dispense with.

The most audible argument against "homosexuality" and same-sex marriage is that "homosexuality is a sin." If one were to follow Bataille's argument then we could argue that such arguments stem from the idea that since a homo-sexual act is, per definition, erotic and hence, profane, it should not be sanctified by marriage. Like I said, I don't really want to engage in a discussion on the de-merits of such an argument. The important thing here is that such arguments are fundamentally religious in nature and hence, if one upholds the separation of church and state, must not be within the purview of the state. However, I do think that this is a very weak argument and somewhat of a cop-out in taking a stand on marriage.

The far more complex part of this argument is that dealing with the social. Recently, John McCain was a guest on Ellen DeGeneres' show and she asked him to comment on her upcoming nuptials to actress Portia de Rossi. McCain's response was relatively simple, "I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman, but I also believe two consenting adults can enter into a contract." McCain's answer articulates the oft-spoken distinction between marriage and civil unions - i.e. same-sex couples are sinners and not good enough for marriage, but we have to respect them as adults and thus grant them a modicum of "rights." Civil unions are the newest version of the illusionary possibility of "separate but equal."

But that is not the only problem with civil unions. While it may be perfectly appropriate for the state to enter into contracts with its subjects, the problem with the state according benefits through the institutions of marriage, civil unions, or the like, is not only that it normalizes heteronormative structures of kinship, but more importantly, in undertaking the coercive function of regulating private lives, it deligitamizes certain persons and certain relationships. Thus, whether it be marriage or civil union or whatever else, in their contemporary form, these are essentially political institutions designed to maintain structures of domination and subordination. And, as Carol Pateman suggests in the Sexual Contract, a mere expansion of the rights accorded by such political institutions does not make the institution itself more equitable or less problematic.

The political gesture, then, to be undertaken here is to "de-politicize" marriage, civil union, etc. - i.e. to destabilize and delegitimize the political powers of these institutions. And, if one were to agree with the definition of politics as that which defines "friends" and "enemies," then, the way I see it, we need to position ourselves as enemies of the institutions for that is the only way to dismantle them. Being enemies means refusing to participate.

The logical outcome of such a strategy is somewhat awkward though because the real threat is not marriage but civil unions. For it is civil unions that consolidate the juridico-political power of the state. Marriage, on the other hand, if treated merely within the realm of religion, actually seems to allow for the possibility of uncoerced choice (this of course is debatable, but I won't get into that here).

So, for now, if we're truly interested in achieving social justice for the ideas and persons that constitute various intimate relationships, we must refuse to partake in the so-called "benefits" (or carrots) that the state lures us with for practicing compliance. Of course, that is much easier said than done - for both practical and sentimental reasons. Thus, even while I oppose the idea of marriage, civil unions, and the like, I do recognize the lifting of the ban on same-sex marriage as a crucial step towards equality. Indeed, this June also marked the 51st anniversary of Loving v Virginia, the civil rights case wherein the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Virginia's anti-miscegenation as unconstitutional. The fact that this anniversary went relatively unnoticed points not only to the willful amnesia of the U.S. nation-/state but it may also suggest something positive about the ways in which "marriage equality" has been expanded and, in some ways, come to be taken for granted. In a similar way, I hope that a few decades from now the anniversary of the CA decision (and hopefully, soon, a national decision) will go by relatively unnoticed. But, more importantly, I hope what each of these legal decisions ultimately enable is a complete dismantling of state control over the intimacies that constitute our lives.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

If You Must Mourn Me, Please Shut Up!

There have been several, scattered moments in my life that have had me considering "life's meaning." Now I don't mean that I sit in dark corners with a furrowed brow examining the deepest recesses of my heart and mind or doing whatever else it is that one imagines old philosopher guys doing. It's general some quick thought or quirky object that sets off a short flurry of ideas - some stick, others don't. The closest I have come to "understanding the meaning of life" is when staring into the grill of a car.

A couple of years ago I found myself walking along a street in Oberlin, Ohio, passing by a row of parked vehicles. Walking past one car after another I was struck - as I have often been in the past - by how much the grill of a car looks like a wide, human grin. Add in the headlights and bumper and you've got yourself a dorky face. I was then led to thinking that this resemblance between the face of a car and a human is probably no coincidence - after all the human body is the most sophisticated machine (at least on the planet earth) that we are aware of. The infinite wonders of the human body are, as I understand them, unknowable and irreplicable. Which led me to giving a huge shout-out to whatever it was that has created us for being so damn amazing.

Now I consider myself somewhat of an agnostic which means I am a person of non-denominational faith and I believe in "god" but only as a signifier of that something out there which is, again, unknowable and incomprehensible. So, no, for me it's no old man with a snowy beard seated on a throne in the sky. But walking along the street that afternoon god sprung into my head as a puppeteer - a terrible sadistic one at that - who was cruel enough to make us believe that we really counted for something, that we had some control over "life," indeed that our lives meant anything. Zoom out, way, way, WAY out from the street, and I became a little, self-important thing, believing that I was functioning, at least in part, of my own accord but really was just being played - BIG time. Now I know I haven't said anything particularly unique or insightful here, but the reason that moment has remained with me because that was when I came closest to realizing that the meaning of life is that life is meaningless.

I'm not being a cynic here - instead I think that this meaninglessness of life is quite productive. I'm sure Jacques Derrida would have something wonderfully poetic to say here - something like the only way to live life is through meaninglessness for once we try to infuse meaning into life we begin to die. I'm not familiar enough with Derrida though, so he may not agree with me or for all you know he's already made some comment about the meaning of life somewhere. I'll update this post if I come across something of the sort. The reason I think meaninglessness is productive is the precisely that which brought me to this post - death.

Yesterday, I was incredibly shocked to hear of the passing of (MS)NBC journalist Tim Russert. My partner gave me the news in passing, in a very unremarkable, matter-of-fact tone. For a moment, although I heard him say Tim Russert, I thought he was referring to Russell Crow. But even I detected the dissonance, so I asked "who's Tim Russert?" When I realized that it was indeed Tim Russert, the journalist, who had died, I was struck with decided disbelief and yes, some grief. Now, am I no fan of Tim Russert's, I haven't ardently followed his career or admired his work... I've barely "know him" a few months, since the presidential primaries began. But over the past few months, while I've been hooked onto MSNBC, Daily KOS and Huffington Post, Tim Russert has definitely been a huge part of my everyday. And when someone becomes so much a part of your everyday that you take their existence for granted, death can come as a very rude jolt.

Death often has a huge impact on me even if it's not a particularly personal one. My first encounter, so to speak, with death was when the son of a family acquaintance contracted rabies. I don't recall exactly how old I was - maybe around 7-8 or so - but I remember first hearing the news that this young man, barely in his twenties, had been hospitalized for rabies; his heart stopped beating at some point but he had been successfully resuscitated and was now in intensive care. I had never know the man, I can't at this point even recall his name; all I knew about him was that he was the son of this popular figure in our neighborhood. Yet, I found myself praying incessantly for his recovery, asking my parents for constant updates, and finally bawling for hours when, after a few days, I found out he had passed away. I didn't understand then, and I'm not sure I understand now, why the death of someone I had never met, and probably never laid eyes on, affected me so much.

When I turned on MSNBC yesterday to learn more about Tim Russert's passing, I was moved at times but more often frustrated and disgusted with the spectacle. MSNBC of course had wall-to-wall coverage of the event which meant they had an unending line-up guests being asked for their reactions to the news. The valorization and romanticization of Tim Russert that was underway seemed, to me, in many case, so superficial and disrespectful. What really upsets me in situations like these is that those folks who might have been disrespectful and dismissive in life to the now deceased, suddenly turn to more glowing, flowery language to describe the person in death. I remember as a child watching the funeral of Rajiv Gandhi, the assassinated Prime Minister of India. The massive procession of mourners accompanying the PM's body to the funeral pyre, marched to the chant of "Rajiv Gandhi zindabad" (i.e. Long live Rajiv Gandhi). Watching this spectacle, I recall blurting out through tears, "Now, they say zindabad. When he was alive they said 'Rajiv Gandhi murdabad' (i.e. Death to Rajiv Gandhi). "

I guess the point I am trying to make is that the reason death affects me so much is because the valorization and romanticization that follows death reveals the triviality and falseness of life. The valorization and romanticization is false because of the superficiality of the source (i.e. enunciator), but more importantly it is false because it makes heros out of flawed humans. Thus, the spectacle of mourning death through its very grandiosity in fact points to the triviality, the meaninglessness of life. For if life did have meaning, I believe, it would be unspeakable in death. Which is why those that are most intimate to the deceased tend to have the least to say about the person and instead focus on the incomprehensibility of the death. The closest one comes then to finding "meaning" in life is not through the performance of life, but rather through the silence of being (existence). Perhaps that is why I was impacted so much by that young man's death - because, precocious child that I was, I knew how death would shatter the illusion that was his life. And maybe that is why I have such a discomfort with visible acts of mourning because the act of speaking one's life robs it of the very little meaning that it has, to begin with.

So if you ever find yourself in the position of mourning my death, please shut up!

Friday, June 6, 2008

If This is Feminism, Count Me Out

This post might be a little outdated given the stage in the electoral campaign we are now at. My opinions of Hillary Clinton have softened marginally... especially since I saw clips of the horribly sexist things said about her (I'd been protected from them thus far thanks to my revulsion to Fox News... but given that the most sexist crap said about her was on Fox News, why would she go ahead and call them "the most fair and balanced" news channel of all?) In any case, some of rubbish that is spewing forth from her supposed supporters on various blogs makes me think the time for this piece might not have passed yet. So here goes...

Over the past couple of months, following the democratic primaries as closely (read geek-ishly) as I have, one thought has recurred to me – Hillary Clinton has set feminism back a hundred years. She might have made great strides in American politics, may have survived, to use her own words, “the all-boys club of Presidential politics,” but her (or her supporters’) idea of ‘feminism’ reminds me of the time when my own (mis-)conception of feminism was men offering up bus seats to women. (Gladly, that was also the time I was decidedly ‘anti-feminist.’ Today, however, my understanding of feminism having become WAY more critical and progressive, I am happy to be a feminist, a third world feminist, a postcolonial feminist, a woman of color feminist…)

To clarify, I do not believe that Hillary Clinton has asked for any favors (she may have a sense of entitlement, but that’s a separate issue.) Yet she has taken us back to the days when 1) only a woman could be as an authentic feminist; and 2) being a feminist meant proving that ‘women were as good as men,’ or more precisely, proving that women could perform heteronormative masculinity just as skillfully as men. Black/third-world/postcolonial feminist thought has critiqued precisely this form of ‘women-better-than-men/women-as-good-as-men’ feminism, suggesting instead that feminism should fight for an intersectional anti-oppression analysis, that resisted the multiple and overlapping ways in which racism, patriarchy, classism, sexism, homophobia, ableism – all forms of oppression – where they were encounter. Another key aspect of this tradition is that feminist thought could, in fact should, be practiced by all individuals who are committed to anti-oppression and social justice struggles. Hillary Clinton, her campaign and her supporters have failed dismally on both these counts. Of course, this is not to suggest that all contemporary feminisms adhered to the more critical form. But that is precisely why HRC has taken us back by a century because she failed to set a new standard for American feminism. In fact, as on of her ex-new-agey-gurus commented on the Huffington Post, Barack Obama possibly displayed a progressive feminism more than she ever did.

To put a finer point of this, HRC’s brand of feminism harkens back to first wave feminist thought which put ‘woman’ above all else, but more importantly, wherein ‘woman’ implied ‘white woman’ and even when it did include women of color it was always through the lens of ‘whiteness.’ The ways in which HRC supporters have articulated their disappointment that the election has been ‘stolen’ from the ‘first-ever viable woman candidate’ reminds me of an account of the 1865 Senate debate on the 15th Amendment which proposed granting voting rights to citizens regardless of race but not sex. A group of woman who lobbied Congress for the addition of ‘sex’ to the amendment, argued that by giving black men the right to vote but not women implied that white women would now constitute lesser citizens than black men. In fact, after the amendment passed without the inclusion of sex, Elizabeth Cady Stanton released a statement claiming that:
While the dominant party [Republican party] have with one hand lifted up TWO MILLION BLACK MEN and crowned them with the honor and dignity of citizenship...with the other they have dethroned FIFTEEN MILLION WHITE WOMEN...and cast them under the heel of the lowest orders of manhood.

Such a pitting or hierarchization of race against gender has been highly reflected in the HRC campaign. Again, this is not to suggest that women of color are not attracted to the Hillary candidacy because she is viewed as a powerful role model for women. Or that women across the board are not justified in supporting her candidacy because of their own struggles against sexism and patriarchy. But those decisions are personal decisions… to suggest that Hillary is the candidate for all women, that is absurd and patently privileges the supposed universality of ‘white woman.’

Also, I am not suggesting that the charge of sexism leveled by Clinton and her supporters is unjustified. In fact, the one issue that this primary season has highlighted is the extreme pervasiveness of sexism and racism in the States, but also that sexism is in fact more acceptable, less politically incorrect, than racism. But the ways in which the issue of sexism has been articulated by her campaign is very racially tinged itself. I mean simply put, why is it a bigger deal that Hillary Clinton, a white woman, has made it in presidential politics, than Barack Obama, a black man, having made it? If Hillary’s femaleness if pitted against his maleness, shouldn’t her whiteness also be pitted against his blackess?

And if Hillary Clinton, the woman candidate – who has, in my opinion, run a decidely masculinist campaign – is receiving a little over 50 % of the ‘women vote,’ shouldn’t that say something about her ‘woman-ness,’ let only her feminist credentials?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Really?

I've thought about blogging for a while now... especially since my partner is an avid one... but it was generally just a passing thought, taken over quite quickly by thoughts of all the other writing I had to do (I'm a grad student, you see, so writing rules my life). And then the presidential primaries happened, and I got caught up and all bent out of shape because of them. Generally it was sufficient to vent to my partner about them.

A few weeks ago though I started 'writing' this bit about Hillary Clinton and Feminism in my head... eventually I put it down on paper, and as the words began to flow out I realized just how therapeutic writing really could be. So, here's my shot as self-therapy.

Now, I have tons of friends who start blogs, write a couple of entries and then never post again. There's a really, really good chance I might join that legion of bloggers quite soon. But I hope not. For now, the presidential campaign, my grad school experiences and the general 'excitement' of my life should provide enough fodder for a few good posts. All I need, then, is some discipline...

Welcome to my blog!!