Archive for May, 2009
If you’ve been following the increasingly racist, sexist, and thoroughly disgusting attacks on Sonia Sotomayor, then you’ve no doubt seen this headline: “G. Gordon Liddy on Sotomayor: ‘Let’s Hope the Key Conferences Aren’t When She’s Menstruating.’ ”
These statements are obviously grossly offensive and fairly reek of profoundly sexist ideals. I do not claim to be a Supreme Court expert, but I’ve been following nominations pretty closely since the Clarence Thomas debacle in the 1990s and have yet to hear any criticisms of any male justices’ appearance or emotional tenor. As far as I can tell, when it was time to consider his nomination to the Court, no one cared what Antonin Scalia looked like or bothered to describe him as dumpy, fat, or bloated. No one asked whether Clarence Thomas had the temperament for the Supreme Court, even though he looked mad enough to spit nails when he had to face accusations of sexual harassment, while Anita Hill remained calm and unflappable when Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter basically called her a liar. The double standard here is a glaringly obvious, clear cut, basic example of sexism in American politics. How else to explain that looks and emotion suddenly became significant issues for Judge Sotomayor when they never mattered for any of her predecessors?
But I don’t need to point all this out, because fortunately we have a number of prominent feminist women who are quick to use their public platform to denounce obvious cases of sexism, and to condemn those who are instrumental in perpetuating these assaults against women…right? Why, just last year, noted feminist icon Gloria Steinem (image from here), wrote a widely discussed editorial in the New York Times defending then-Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton against charges of sexism, and lamenting that “the sex barrier was not taken as seriously as the racial one.”
During this same election cycle, Geraldine Ferraro made controversial statements arguing that Obama’s race was an advantage, and contended that “if he were a woman of any color he would not be in this position,” implying, like Steinem, that male privilege was so endemic that it could elevate a black man over any woman of any color. Martha Burk got a lot of attention a few years back for demanding that the Masters golf tournament allow women to join its hallowed ranks, and was a clear, cogent voice in drawing attention to this institutionalized sexism in the athletic world.
Funny how I haven’t heard any statements from these women castigating G. Gordon Liddy, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, or Michael Steele for their repugnant, sexist, and racist remarks about Judge Sotomayor. Funny how they haven’t jumped out in front of this issue the same way they did when Hillary Clinton was the one on the receiving end of a barrage of sexist statements. Funny how the PUMAs (Party Unity My Ass) who were so outraged at the way the Democratic Party ostensibly treated Hillary Clinton now don’t seem to see this as a worthy cause of their efforts, and aren’t outraged by Democratic politicians’ unwillingness to call these abhorrent statements the blatant misogyny that they are.
What’s not funny are the implications this has for women of all races. When white feminists look the other way when Michelle Obama is callously referred to as “Obama’s Baby Mama,” when Sonia Sotomayor is savaged by right wing conservatives who engage in the basest types of sexism, or more broadly, when women of color across the country face higher rates of abuse, incarceration, and poverty than white women, it sends a clear message about their lack of respect for and interest in the ways sexism impacts women of other racial groups and class positions. It reinforces the idea that white women feminists are interested in maintaining their white privilege while undermining sexism, a process that keeps women of color oppressed but broadens the category of whites who have access to and are able to wield power over others. It perpetuates the (erroneous) message that feminism has nothing to offer women of color, even though they too suffer from the gender wage gap, sexual violence, and all the other manifestations of gender inequality.
I do not understand why white feminists like Steinem, Ferraro, Burk, and others still don’t seem to get this message that intersections of race and gender matter and that the feminist movement cannot succeed without the influence and involvement of ALL women.
This point has been made for years, by many progressive white women (playwright Eve Ensler, sociologist Margaret Andersen) and feminists of color (sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, activist Pauli Murray, writer Alice Walker). It would be really nice if the rampant sexism being directed towards Sonia Sotomayor finally served as an overdue wake-up call about the importance of both race and gender.
I was downtown today and crossed paths with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly leaving City Hall. I can only hope that he was there because he was being held accountable for the deadly consequences of white racism by the New York City Police Department. In the most recent example of this, a white cop shot and killed an off-duty black cop he assumed was a criminal.
The off-duty and out-of-uniform man who was killed was Omar Edwards, pictured here with his wife and two small children (photo from NYDaily News).
Edwards had seen someone – an actual criminal – breaking into a car and decided to pursue him, even though he was off duty. The suspect breaking into the car started to run away and Edward chased him with his gun drawn. It was at this point that a white cop, later identified as Andrew Dutton, saw Edwards, yelled “Police! Stop!” and when Edwards turned with his gun still drawn, Dutton shot and killed him.
The local news here is filled with reports about this story, as it should be. Unfortunately, the reporting on the story mostly obfuscates what happened rather than illuminates it. The incident is being called variously: “friendly fire” and a case of “mistaken identity” by the mainstream press. What this leaves out is the crucial fact of race.
Why did Dutton assume that Edwards was a suspect? The plain fact of it is because Edwards was a black man and that Dutton interpreted that to mean that Edwards was, therfore, a suspect. In New York City, racism is a persistent reality of urban life. What that means for the city’s black and brown men is that they are much more likely to be targeted by police for “frisking,” arrest, or assault. Within this context, hard-working black men like Mr. Edwards often rely on uniforms, whether as police, bus drivers or the ‘uniform’ of a college student, to protect them from this nearly constant onslaught from police. Without his police uniform, Mr. Edwards looked like just another suspect in E. Harlem to Mr. Dutton.
Surely, part of this tragedy – and it certainly is a terrible tragedy – is Mr. Dutton’s inability to see beyond the white racial frame that blinded him to the possibility that Mr. Edwards might be something other than a suspect.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not accusing Mr. Dutton of being any more racist than any other white cop; what I am saying is that Mr. Dutton’s worldview was shaped by his experience and racial background in such a way that it predisposed him to assume that Edwards was a suspect rather than a fellow officer. Details are coming out now about Mr. Dutton’s life, and one of these is that he lives in the predominantly white suburban Long Island. Choosing to live in a white suburb while policing a predominantly non-white city doesn’t necessarily make one more racist, but it does little to challenge the predominant white racial frame. Perhaps if, as community activists have long argued, Mr. Dutton were required to live in the city he might have known Mr. Edwards, or at the very least, hesistated before he made a deadly assumption he did.
This case is more than merely “mistaken identity” on the part of Mr. Dutton, but rather it is part of systemic racism that black police officers face again and again. As one unnamed source quote in the NYDaily News says:
“This is always a black cop’s fear, that he’d be mistaken for a [suspect],” a source said.
What this source is saying is that he recognizes that if a case of “mistaken identity” happens, it’s going to happen in only one direction. That is, it’s going to be a black cop that’s shot because he was thought to be a suspect. This is not routinely happening to white cops. As Kai Wright at The Root notes, this is part of a consistent with a larger pattern:
This is a pattern for NYPD’s confrontations with black men: Massive, lethal overreactions that turn difficult situations into disastrous ones. And it’s a pattern for police violence against black men nationally. They get scared; we get killed.
It’s (long past) time for this to end. Mayor Bloomberg should hold Commissioner Kelly responsible for the actions of officers on the NYPD. And, even more than that, we need to challenge the white racial frame and the deadly consequences of white racism.
I will do a long post over the next week or so, but for now their summary is fine:
It is with great sadness to announce that Professor Emeritus Ronald Takaki passed away on the evening of May 26th, 2009. He is survived by his wife, Carol Takaki, his three children Dana, Troy, and Todd Takaki, and his grandchildren.
Ron Takaki was one of the most preeminent scholars of our nation’s diversity, and considered “the father” of multicultural studies. As an academic, historian, ethnographer and author, his work helped dispel stereotypes of Asian Americans. In his study of multicultural people’s history in America, Takaki seeked to unite Americans, today and in the future, with each other and with the rest of the world.
He was a professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught over 20,000 students during 34 years of teaching.
We can add yet another racial hoax to a long list of incidents involving white “victims” and imaginary black assailants.
A Pennsylvania woman, Bonnie Sweeten, and her 9-year-old daughter, have been detained in Orlando, Florida this past week after the mother claimed they were abducted and stuffed into the trunk of a car:
In the frantic 911 calls, Sweeten, said two men had bumped her 2005 GMC Denali, carjacked her and stuffed her in the trunk of a dark Cadillac. She implied that her daughter was with her in the trunk, according to Philadelphia police Lt. Frank Vanore, who listened to tapes of the calls. Sweeten, who is white, described her assailants as black but otherwise gave few details about their appearance, Vanore said. “It was pretty generic,” he said.
Later in the day, she and her daughter were caught on surveillance tapes in the Philadelphia International Airport heading to a Florida Disney resort. Sweeten had apparently taken out $12,000 out of several bank accounts in days prior and it is unclear whether or not the money was stolen.
Unfortunately, racial hoaxes like Sweeten’s are all too common. Last fall we witnessed the case of Ashley Todd,a white 20-year-old student at Texas A&M and McCain supporter who claimed she had been pinned to the ground, robbed, and had the letter B scratched into her face by someone she described as a 6’4” black man wielding a knife. Besides the obvious backward B on her face, she soon admitted to investigators that she fabricated the entire story. She was later sentenced to nine months of probation for filing a false police report.
In her 1998 book The Color of Crime, Katheryn Russell-Brown provides data for 67 racial hoaxes between 1987 and 1996. Of those, 70% involved whites claiming black assailants. More than half of these stories are revealed as false within a week, but she writes:
The fact that so many white-on-black hoaxes are successful indicates society’s readiness to accept the image of blacks as criminals (Russell-Brown)
It is interesting to note that, “racial hoaxes are devised, perpetrated, and successful precisely because tap into widely held fears” (Russell-Brown). Perhaps unsurprisingly, media coverage has virtually ignored the fact that Sweeten’s story resembles so many that have come before her. Her racialized claim of being abducted by two black men (in a widely stereotyped Cadillac, no less) has only been presented as an afterthought.
While these recent racial hoaxes involving Sweeten and Todd were resolved rather quickly, racial harm still abounds. Media stories such as these serve to embolden the white racial frame by perpetuating stereotypes and images of black men as both dangerous and criminal. Hoaxes such as these are so easily believed because they readily hang on the white racial frame and touch upon (white) people’s racialized fears.
In addition, racial hoaxes involving white “victims” are more likely to receive significant media attention and an outpouring of support at the national level, as illustrated by Russell-Brown’s analysis and widely publicized cases such as the ones above and others (e.g., the case of Susan Smith, a woman who drowned her two children, first claiming she had been carjacked by a black man).
Lastly and perhaps most disturbing, is the fact this is clearly not the case when black victims make claims against white assailants, either as hoaxes, or as very real and disturbing [] events that are often ignored or are met with incredulity. What does our willingness to believe only some victims’ voices and stories, but not others, say about us?
[NOTE: I got two posts today from contributors, Terence and Danielle, on this key and troubling story. I am posting both over next 12 hours. Please add your comments.]
Yes, unfortunately in these here United States of America, my skin is my sin. The luck of possessing a hue associated with Africa and the ownership of a Y chromosome carries a heavy burden. The burden was front and center this week within the story of Bonnie Sweeten of Feasterville, Pennsylvania . Ms. Sweeten made a frantic phone call to 911 from Philadelphia, on May 26th from the trunk of a car where she told authorities that she and her 9 year old daughter were, after being rear ended earlier. She went on to say that after the accident, after exiting her SUV, she and her daughter were then kidnapped. The story caught national attention from NBC to Fox news. The police, the amber alert system, and the FBI all pulled their efforts together to save them damsels in distress from the “evil doorers” ( photo credit: JLaw45 ).
You might ask yourself, who would commit such a disreputable deed? Well it was “two Black men” of course! And of course they were driving, of all cars, “a Cadillac.”
Well today, we found out it was all a disgusting hoax. In fact, the two were bound for Disney World. After taking out thousands of dollars from her family account and buying two tickets to Florida, mother, with her child, were later spotted boarding a plane in Tampa which led the local police to their hideout with Mickey at the Grand Floridian Hotel in Orlando. On Thursday, May 28th, the Today Show discussed the issue of Michelle Henry; District Attorney for Bucks County Pennsylvania, who was asked by the newscaster whether this was a case of racial profiling. Ms. Henry avoided the question raised .
My frustration observed in writing this entry is not without merit. For this country has a long history of feeding a stereotype of Black males as dangerous, oversexed, with out a moral compass [See the book, The Assassination of the Black Male Image by Earl Ofari Hutchinson]. Where again you might ask?
Within the 21st century there is an effort to still demonize the Black male and depict them as a threat to society. Black males have been historically and presently seen as a sexual, physical, and emotional threat to Whites. Some Blacks and other people of color have also helped to feed the stereotype. It is time for us all to bash this image when it is presented.
Opponents have alternately claimed that Sotomayor is (a) not smart enough for the Court (despite degrees from Ivy League Universities and an apparent history of exemplary academic performance), (b) racist, and (c) perhaps most bizarrely, saddled with an unpronounceable name
While these conversations themselves warrant another post (and analysis of their racist and sexist assumptions, particularly the one that she’s not smart enough), what strikes me the most about Sotomayor’s nomination is what it suggests for the future of race relations in this country. Not in terms of the “role model” argument (the idea that young people need to see someone like them in positions of power to help them see that their options are plentiful and far-ranging), though I think there is some merit to that claim.
Sotomayor’s presence on the Court, in my opinion, reveals much about the way Obama intends to address racial inequalities in his role as president.
Of late, Obama has not said much about racial matters, particularly issues of racial inequality. Many of his statements about race that I’ve read date back to 2006 or 2007, well before he was a serious candidate for President. In several these statements, he acknowledges the existence and consequences of systemic racism:
“I don’t believe it is possible to transcend race in this country. . . Race is a factor in this society. The legacy of Jim Crow and slavery has not gone away. It is not an accident that African Americans experience high crime rates, are poor, and have less wealth. It is a direct result of our racial history.” (Essence magazine, October 2007)
However, on the campaign trail and while President, Obama mostly remained quiet about the ongoing existence of systemic racism and his plan to put policies into place that remedy it. In fact, he has gone on record talking about the need for class-based policies, using the metaphor that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Of course, President Obama walks a very difficult line, one none of his predecessors have had to balance. If he appears racially conscious, he runs a high risk of upsetting supporters who like to see him as color blind, offering easy ammunition to opponents looking for anything to use as a source of criticism, and maybe most significantly, seeing his support and ability to get things done erode in a wave of racially-tinged suspicion. If we assume that eradicating racial inequality matters to him, how then does Obama put policies into place without sacrificing political capital and losing control of his momentum?
Enter Judge Sotomayor, the first potential Supreme Court justice who will have personally experienced the multiple, overlapping oppressions of racism, sexism, and poverty. Who has observed that dealing with these intersecting factors would likely render her more capable of reaching a wise, sound decision on cases of discrimination than her white male peers who benefit from their race, gender, and class privilege. Who at the same time acknowledged that these intersecting factors do not preclude elite white men from reaching sound, fair decisions on cases of discrimination (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education), but sees the reality that living her life as a woman of color gives her a particular insight into oppression that might escape her white male colleagues.
What makes Sotomayor’s nomination especially relevant right now is that Chief Justice Roberts has issued some of his most telling decisions and statements on cases related to racial discrimination and civil rights . Despite his clear intelligence and stellar academic credentials, Roberts is woefully uneducated when it comes to the realities of racial oppression in this nation. Operating from the color blind racist perspective, Roberts is apparently of the opinion that any focus on race—even with the intent of diversifying, correcting ongoing racial inequalities, or addressing systemic racial imbalances—is in and of itself racist. This willful refusal to recognize that racism is built into the very core of the political, economic, and social foundations of this nation, has always worked to disadvantage people of color, and will continue to do so if left unchecked, is an egregious blind spot on the part of our Chief Justice. So too is his inability to distinguish between taking race into consideration when trying to make a school system diverse (in compliance with Brown v. Board) and focusing on race in efforts to create and maintain segregated, unequal social systems.
Right now Sonia Sotomayor is being savaged by people who refuse to respect her intelligence and hard work, and instead seem to think that her status as a Latina signifies a person who is dumb and unqualified. It’s particularly ironic that she may sit on a Court that decides whether affirmative action policies are legal or even remain necessary. It seems to me that Sotomayor’s experience having her qualifications disregarded in a way that evokes common racial/gendered stereotypes would give her a perspective on the necessity of affirmative action that might elude Judges Roberts, Alito, and Scalia.
People often mistakenly assume affirmative action just elevates unqualified minority candidates, but when used wisely and correctly its purpose is to create opportunities for racial minorities who work hard, are eminently qualified, but still face discrimination because of potential employers’ biases (like the automatic, reflexive assumption that people of color are less intelligent). It seems to me that what Sotomayor is facing right now is a prime example of said biases, and this speaks directly to her statements for the value of a diverse bench. These are the types of experiences that can help Sotomayor see aspects of the law that Chief Justice Roberts, with his color blind worldview, will likely miss.
Obama is a smart enough politician to know that a candid focus on policies openly designed to eradicate racism will impair his ability to fulfill his other priorities and will pretty much guarantee him a one-term presidency. But he can select a Supreme Court nominee with stellar credentials, extensive legal experience, and the personal history to allow her to see what her colleagues are comfortable ignoring. She can’t make policy from the bench, but she can make sure the law works for everyone. In doing so, she can be Obama’s voice for racial and gender equality.
The New York Times has yet another story on how segregated life often is in this supposedly “post-racial” United States. The reporter describes the “tradition” of a white prom and a black prom in Georgia’s Montgomery County ( photo credit: Caveman 92223), an area with several small towns:
The future looms large. But for the 54 students in the class of 2009 at Montgomery County High School, so, too, does the past. On May 1… the white students held their senior prom. And the following night … the black students had theirs.
This is not a new reality. This has mostly been the pattern now for nearly three decades of “school desegregation.” And this town is not unusual, for Jim Crow proms are still the rule in various small-town areas of the South. In this county the proms are regularly referred to by students and parents as “the black-folks prom” and “the white-folks prom.” The driving force, not surprisingly, is white not black:
All students are welcome at the black prom, though generally few if any white students show up. The white prom, students say, remains governed by a largely unspoken set of rules about who may come.
The Times reporter portrays the situation as one of white parents’ fully in control of the Jim Crow reality:
Black and white students also date one another, though often out of sight of judgmental parents. “Most of the students do want to have a prom together,” says Terra Fountain, a white 18-year-old who graduated from Montgomery County High School.
And a white male senior is quoted thus:
“I have as many black friends as I do white friends. We do everything else together. We hang out. We play sports together. We go to class together. I don’t think anybody at our school is racist.” Trying to explain the continued existence of segregated proms, Edge falls back on the same reasoning offered by a number of white students and their parents. “It’s how it’s always been,” he says. “It’s just a tradition.”
Well, there are no young whites there who are racist, even as they collaborate in old racist stuff. Reminds me of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists book and data from interviewing whites.
Interestingly, seven black high school students did go to this year’s white prom, and watched from the sidelines. After the ceremonies, they were ushered out with other bystanders. They went to a restaurant and talked about the prom segregation. The black students, according to the reporter, talked about
whether white parents really believed that by keeping black people out of the prom, it would keep them out of their children’s lives . . . . And finally, more somberly, they questioned their white friends’ professed helplessness in the face of their parents’ prejudice (“You’re 18 years old! You’re old enough to smoke, drive, do whatever else you want to. Why aren’t you able to step up and say, ‘I want to have my senior prom with the people I’m graduating with?’ ”). . . . Angel checked her cellphone to see if any of the white kids had texted from inside their prom. They hadn’t. Angel shrugged. “I really don’t understand,” she said. “Because I’m thinking that these people love me and I love them, but I don’t know.
This Jim Crow reality seems to be about a lot more than some white parents’ desires for their children to go to separate proms. There is nearly complete white student conformity to the Jim Crow “tradition,” yet the reporter portrays the youth as being quite different in their racial interactions (they have “black friends”) from their parents. But, for three decades now, each new group of parents (which includes many who were once students at this “integrated” high school) has maintained the old Jim Crow tradition. And then there is the likely segregated reality of much else that goes on in this town, and many others across the South. One can step into areas like this in numerous southern states where everyday life in many ways does seem more like the 1950s than like 2009 is supposed to be — as my graduate students from these areas regularly report. (Hint for grad students and other researchers: We really need some in-depth studies of everyday Jim-Crowing in these small towns across the South today, and probably in other US areas as well.)
There is also some naïveté in the black students viewing white students as liking, even “loving” them. Is this a case of many white young people just being “nice” in public frontstage settings, and professing not to be racist, and yet more like most of their parents – that is, more openly racist — in the private backstage settings?
And then, of course, there is the deepest aspect of the old white racial frame – white fears of black sexuality, as a “threat” especially to white girls and women. Proms have great symbolic significance when it comes to teenage sexuality.
What do you make of this?
In this second installment about racism, empire and torture I continue my analysis of this cultural moment by using the lens Errol Morris’ documentary about torture, “Standard Operating Procedure,” (and the companion book), one of the most popular representations of torture. I contend that we are neither post torture nor post empire nor post racial.
By way of moral contrast, let me begin with some altogether different narratives about Iraq. In March of 2008, hundreds of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan gathered in Maryland to give their eyewitness accounts of the occupations of both countries. The veterans modeled their testimony after the Winter soldier hearings organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971. As Amy Goodman reported on Democracy Now:
“the war veterans spoke of free-fire zones, the shootings and beatings of innocent civilians, racism at the highest levels of the military, and the torturing of prisoners.”
Most major news outlets did not cover the Winter Soldier event. Goodman broadcast the hearings in which soldiers tearfully described in detail (often illustrating with pictures of themselves) the acts of violence they perpetrated upon Iraqi and Afghani people. In one such account, Jon Michael Turner stripped his medals and ribbons from his chest and ended his testimony as follows:
“I just want to say that I am sorry for the hate and destruction I have inflicted on innocent people, and I’m sorry for the hate and destruction that others have inflicted on innocent people…I am sorry for the things I did. I am no longer the monster that I once was.”
Carl Rippberger, commenting on a slide of himself in Iraq, said:
“I am extremely shameful of it. I’m showing it in hopes that none of you people that have never been involved ever let this happen to you. Don’t ever let your government do this to you. Its me. I’m holding a dead body, smiling. Everyone is our platoon took two bodies, put them on the back ramp, drove them through a village for show, and dumped them off at the edge the village.”
As these excerpts reveal, the Winter Soldiers acknowledge personal responsibility for their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as they believe that they were a part of a violence orchestrated from the top.
Their stories confirm that a pattern of terror begins with individual soldiers who are asked to, and who do, unspeakable things. Some find the courage to say no on the spot; most do not. But in the case of the Winter soldiers, all now believe that what they were asked to do, and what they did, was wrong. Their testimony is intended to rectify these wrongs by taking personal responsibility and by speaking out against practices of torture and terror, and against war and occupation. Along the same lines, a blog quoting former interrogators reports that some interrogators, when asked “If you had been ordered to waterboard someone or engage in other cruel/inhumane/degrading mistreatment (e.g. hypothermia, long time standing), what would you have done?” offer the following answer: “Refused the order. That would probably have resulted in my getting fired or re-assigned but so be it. In addition, I would have documented the incident and reported it to the Army’s (assuming that’s the environment I would have been working in) Criminal Investigation Division, or otherwise appropriate authorities.” This response is not one that occurred to the majority of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib and it is not one that Morris or Gourevitch ever consider possible.
In “Standard Operating Procedure” Morris intersperses vivid reenactments of torture, the Abu Ghraib photographs, and interviews with the soldiers, the latter often shot close up so that their faces fill the entire screen. The viewer has a sense of being face-to-face with torture and literally present with both torturer and tortured. The tortured, of course, do not speak; their bodies are meant only to contrast to the calm and reasonable voices of the soldiers who give us their accounts of what they did in Abu Ghraib prison. There remains a voyeuristic gaze throughout as we are invited to consume pyramids of naked prisoners. As Lasreg writes, today for the French, as the former colonial power in Algeria, the:
“cumulative effect of this speaking and writing about the war [of Independence in Algeria] has resulted in a trivialization of the significance of torture as glossy pictures turn war into an orgiastic intellectual entertainment.”
Similarly, documentaries such as “Standard Operating Procedure” offer avid descriptions and images of torture. The documentary begins by informing us that American soldiers were so depressed and so low when they got to Abu Ghraib that they felt “already dead.”
In the book, Gourevitch and Morris ensure that we, their readers, understand that Abu Ghraib was an intolerable place that was constantly under mortar fire (although in 2003, no American soldier was killed from this). A combat unit, the 372nd regiment of reservists finds out that instead of going home they will be posted to guard duty at Abu Ghraib, something for which they are not trained. Untrained, alienated, stressed, frustrated, and overcome by the climate, we are coached to understand that normal, wholesome American soldiers, each with their own dreams, soon fall apart in the hell that was Abu Ghraib. The film and the book each begin with this equivalent to Marlow’s journey into the heart of Africa.
As I have shown elsewhere in the case of the violence of Western peacekeepers towards the populations they supposedly came to help, the savagery of the racial Other, and the savagery of the place of the racial Other become the reason why violence is authorized against them. As Hugh Ridley memorably put it recalling the themes of colonial novels and the mind set of the masculine subjects who inhabit these fictional colonials worlds, “In Africa, who can be a saint.” The civilized man “loses” it in Africa on account of the dust and heat, as Canada concluded in its inquiry of the violence of Canadian peacekeepers towards Somalis. In Africa, the soldier feels compelled to engage in violence anticipating the savagery of the racial Other. It is this narrative line, a combination of “Rumsfeld made me do it” and “in Iraq who could be a saint” that runs through the accounts of the Abu Ghraib soldiers, an account very much fostered by Morris and carefully installed in the film and book. Read More→
The news today is filled with reports about torture, but there is no discussion of the many ways racism and empire are implicated ( photo credit: cudmore). As I wrote five years ago when the photos of prisoner torture began appearing from Abu Ghraib, I know this is about racism (“When is Prisoner Abuse Racial Violence,” ZNet, May 24, 2004). Torture is also about empire. To understand the torture debates, reinvigorated through yesterday’s speeches by President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney, we must once again confront the ghosts of Abu Ghraib which return to haunt us in uncanny ways, reminding us that the imprinting of colonial power on their corporeal form is a central way in which the abstract concepts of white supremacy and empire are made concrete.
Empire, where a superior civilization defends its values from barbarians through annihilating them, is evident in torture talk, whether pro or con, whenever the idea is invoked that an all powerful America confronts an especially savage, culturally different enemy from which it must defend itself. Long ago, Michael Taussig pinpointed the racial divide that lies at the heart of the contest that is imagined as one of savagery over civility.
Writing on the culture of terror of colonialism, Taussig ventured that neither the political economy of rubber nor that of labour accounts for the brutalities against the Indians of the Putumayo in Peru during the rubber boom. Terror, he reminded us, is the mediator of colonial hegemony par excellence, an “inscription of a mythology in the Indian body, an engraving of civilization locked in a struggle with wildness whose model was taken from the colonists’ fantasies about Indian cannibalism” (Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man. A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987, p.27).
Despite a persistent belief that torture is instrumental – designed, that is, to extract life saving information from an enemy who would not otherwise divulge it, torture is intrinsically about the staking of identity claims on the bodies of the colonized. Because torture is Read More→