Roots of “Redskins”: Savages, Saints, Saviors in the American Psyche

The root of “Redskins” is the ideological stereotype of the initial savage of Hispaniola, the fearsome enemy icon of the colonial conquests, the Hostile other of the Plains wars, and finally the caricature of the once feared but now mocked dangerous Other, compliant in being released in the gladiator’s arena and told what an “honor” it is that the dominant spectators have chosen this image over the animals and undead violent gangs from the past.

While we are indeed concerned with the team name and its mascotry function, what remains central to any analysis of its importance to the broader society, is that the root of genocide and conquest, is the real reason behind the masked popularity and indeed, a desperately deep need to revel in the inferior status of the indigenous, the Native, the Indian. In other words, it is an expression of the supremacist discourse of racism.

By mocking the image, the dominants feel released from any guilt or thought of how their society came to be, or what may have happened to those peoples who preceded them in the lands they now call their own. This is why it is only in America, the “land that never was yet” according to Langston Hughes, where the image of the defamed and destroyed original people becomes so central to their popular professional sports teams.

The other reason is simple – the “Noble Savage” as the antithesis of the Hostile or Uncivilized Savage, is still a savage, is still the unreconstructed Other that needs to be obliterated in the national psyche as having any legitimacy, buried in its final phase as the painted Redface, theatrical dancing and prancing to the cheers of an audience in its self-absorbed orgy of monocular and militaristic patriotism. The terrorist enemy of today is rooted in the savage of yesterday.

Full denial of the genocide of the indigenous, requires an all-encompassing narrative, which the Redskins terminology provides in naming, and icons such as the Wahoo illustrate in a comfortable and cartoonish dehumanization of the first peoples of the land. Thus in their twisted version of how the New World came to be, these sports fans are “honoring” the savage warrior of the past, celebrating their conquest, and defining terrorism only in the violent actions of the Other, never in the “homeland” itself. Indigenous activists, scholars and leaders therefore will not, must not be satisfied if there is a name change of the Washington team, encouraging as that might be. Because the background narrative, the root “savage” of the 17th and 18th centuries linked to the redskin of the 19th century, is all about who is civilized and who is primitive, and operates to deny genocide and distort the defense of Native Nations into a civilizational discourse.

California is a case in point. The mission-forming priest Junipero Serra was the spearhead of Spanish conquest in the region, forcefully “converting” Native peoples into subordinated people at missions, where their labor built the system and provided profits for expansion. Catholic hierarchies also took advantage of the Natives coerced into the missions, as a rationale for taking lands and creating new governance that did not recognize indigenous societies or social structures. Soldiers would garrison forts and out posts for “security” and to enforce the laws, religious and secular. In many cases there was also sexual predation, often of young children. Because of these severe conditions, with high death rates and low life expectancies, nearly all missions experienced uprisings against the injustices. After they were put down, there were executions. Within a few decades, accompanied by disease and changing habitats, the numbers of native people dropped more than half, then again by half, with a demographic collapse termed genocidal or cultural genocide.

Fast forward to 2014, when relatively small numbers of surviving California Indians are bolstered by much larger Native populations from elsewhere in the United States, and by sovereignty battles often leading to economic development because of Indian Gaming, with support for telling their own stories. Historians had dubbed Father Serra as the “founder of California” and represent him as bringing people to Catholicism and Christianity, underscoring ideas of uncivilized primitive people needing religious and social guidance. These were found in museum installations, such as the one at the Huntington in 2013, where he was praised as a “savior” to the Native people.

Thus it is Western man, the priest, the scholar from great universities, the unimpeachable source who tells us how to perceive Redskins names or terms. This is higher order supremacist thought, but it’s still supremacy racism, just veiled in academic language, that obscures its deep condescending tautology of savage versus civilized savior. This ideological dualism is displayed every day in the mainstream media, with college classes seeing who is a Savior, and in saying who is a Hero in wars and rumors of wars.

Note the new movie “American Sniper” where a disgruntled Texan cowboy who grew up hunting animals in “the wild” joins the military after seeing bombings of U.S. Embassies and an Al Queda attack on the Twin Towers, becoming a SEAL sniper deployed to Iraq where he looks to kill “bad guys” and “savages” in order to save lives of his fellow soldiers, and ultimately “Americans” back home. There is wild cheering at many movie theaters at the killing of the made-up mythical “Mustapha” sniper and end of the movie, where the sniper is seen as a great hero, misunderstood at home and unable to reconcile his killing overseas. There are two huge issues to be aware of in the book, the movie, and the public American psyche that has made this the most popular January box-office movie of all time, and up for many academy awards.

First, obviously, is its use of “savage” for an enemy of the United States, or for all Americans back home, which is applied to all people from the enemy icon nations and cultural groups. Savage has its origins in the Papal Bull used to justify Columbus’s second journey and invasion, leading to the greatest genocide of its time, the Holocaust of Hispaniola, and used to justify ongoing genocides of the Spanish and English colonial conquests, finally moving into the U.S.A. fighting “merciless Indian savages” in its Declaration of Independence, and similarly in every war and killings in the 19th century, morphing into use of Redskins to underscore racial construction. Both terms are used in the build-up to Wounded Knee in 1890.

Fast forward again through its use in every non-western conflict of the next two centuries, (See The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building by Drinnon), to the initial briefing by General Schwarzkopf to the first Iraqi invasion, that U.S. forces were going into “Indian Country” to take out and destroy “Hostiles” (Hostiles was put into official language in the 1876 prelude to U.S. re-invasion of Lakota lands under the rubric of “Indian Country” emerging from treaty technical terms of 1830’s genocidal Indian Removals). Thus the pejorative charged term Terrorist related to Hostiles that emerged from “savage” enemy icons, used to destroy people in their own lands fighting for their own nationalities, has a consistent place in the American arsenal of seeking out and killing the Other opposed to western civilization. If not for the geography and new fears of being charged with racism, they might as well have used Redskins.

Thus the dark-skinned Mustapha character, completely fictionalized, realizes the rough “honoring” and hating of the uncivilized, “savage” enemy in the name of civilization and the good guys. His name could just as easily be Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Tecumseh, Metacom (King Phillip), Po’pay or even Anacoana, leaders of indigenous resistance movements. Without discounting the heroic endeavors of Chris Kyle, we observe how his simplistic acceptance of the enemy icon as “savage” underscores centuries of very similar military conquests, and resonates with a supremacist American creed that “honors” its enemies in Crazy Horse Saloons, or in paratroopers yelling Geronimo as they jump, (replicated in Operation Geronimo to kill OBL terrorists they earlier feared were hiding among the “tribals”) and so on it goes.

The second use is found in the dark side of the American Sniper who has returned “home” to find his massive killings haunts him, and so he makes up incredible stories of brave stands against a homeland “enemy” of black carjackers whom he kills, or of sniper killing up to thirty civilians from the New Orleans superdome when they were supposedly looting or causing mayhem. If he lived in real “Indian Country” we could easily assume both the stories and the realities would be of killing the first savages, the Indian. The book and film, and all media stories resonate with Cowboys and Indians, Good Guys and Bad Guys, Savages and Soldiers – that simply underscore the ideologies of supremacy firmly rooted in Redskins.
Our Homeland Security, itself a misnomer for all natives, becomes the guiding principle of reducing and eliminating the savage, the uncivilized, the potential Hostile from the Friendly Indian, the assimilated and fully colonized repeater of hegemonic histories that never include the Holocaust of Native Nations, terrorism toward indigenous communities, which never bring up the horrific death rates of the Mission system followed by outright genocide in the state of California, that discount the massive killings of so many communities from Mystic Lake to Wounded Knee, that refuse to see the reconstituted Savage as Hostile Other in the wars of the twentieth century.

Rather, in benign neglect and intentional cultural destruction, the American psyche (especially white American psyche) becomes comfortable in brave discoverers, saintly priests, and with heroic soldier-saviors who protect a racialized US from the dangerous hostile Other, a terror to civilized society that will torture and kill and raze villages to the ground to protect its settlers from the savage, embodied in a dancing Red-faced racist Wahoo and a capital team named Redskins. It’s time to change from the caricature of the conquered Wahoo and Redskin racist naming to imagery of respect and words of honor, a true recognition of First Nations and Indigenous Peoples.

James V. Fenelon is of Lakota/Dakota Indigeneity, is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies, United States Navy veteran, and co-author of Indigenous Peoples and Globalization (Paradigm, 2009).

“Our Values”: White Eurocentric Framings of Muslims

The International Association for the Study of Canada (a division of the Association for Canadian Studies) and the Canadian Race Relations Foundationrecently commissioned the firms Leger Marketing in Canada and Caravan in the U.S. to ask several questions concerning immigration, integration, and diversity, which included the following question: Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree that “Muslims share our values.”

In each country some three in ten respondents agree that “Muslims share our values.” Disagreement is somewhat greater in Canada with approximately 55 percent of respondents saying they do not think “Muslims share our values,” compared to 50.3 percent in the U.S.

The survey leads us to raise other, arguably more central questions: Are North Americans, who happen to be Muslim, not part of the collective us?

A survey, even a well-intended one commissioned by groups admirably fighting racism, which includes the phrase “our values” might inadvertently suggest that Muslims are outsiders and/or conjure up the us versus them dichotomy. To borrow from Joe’s excellent post, written on the heels of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent speech at the Munich Security Conference

here is some old white-centric framing, with the [‘our’] obviously not including the Muslim … folks, who are othered as a ‘they.’ Presumably this means the [‘our’] are the virtuous … and the stereotyped “they” must conform to this conception of (white European) [values].”

What do Muslims value?

Instead of promoting (deliberately or inadvertently) the idea that Muslims are perpetual foreigners, and/or Islam is antithetical to the professed values of this country’s political culture, we need to educate ourselves. We should not lose sight of the diversity within the Muslim population (or any population for that matter). Muslims who immigrate to Canada do so for a variety of reasons and originate from numerous countries. Islam and Muslims are not new to Canada, though some people who identify as Muslim are new immigrants. The acknowledged history of Muslims in Canada actually dates from the mid-19th century. In fact, the Muslim community is almost as old as Canada itself. Four years after Canada’s founding in 1867, the 1871 Census recorded 13 Muslims among the population.

In the U.S. historical accounts of Muslims include extraordinary tales of African slaves who retained their religion despite great hardship. Furthermore, there are common roots and mutual elements associated with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which all originate from the Abrahamic tradition (see here and here).

A.G. Noorani in Islam and Jihad: Prejudice versus Reality (Zed Books, 2003) provides fundamental concepts indispensable to offsetting prejudice against Muslims and counterbalancing any tendency to romanticize un-Islamic brutalities of fundamentalists whom he argues are impostors abusing the faith as a political weapon. Similarly, as Dr. Amr Abdalla of the United Nations University for Peace points out, the life of Mohammed (considered the founder of Islam, and regarded by Muslims as a messenger and prophet of God) contains more stories of non-violence and forgiveness then it does militancy; and yet–just like in Christianity—certain stories are emphasized to fit particular political goals and ideologies.

Why does this matter?

The final question we raise is “why this matters,” and why it should matter to those of ‘us,’ such as the writers, who are permanently included in the ‘our.’

It matters because Canadians, like many in the U.S., are not immune to fear, prejudice, and/or even hatred, of Muslims and Islam as a religion. It matters especially at a time when the Canadian federal Christian Heritage Party (CHP) is calling for a national moratorium on immigration from Muslim countries to curb what it deems increasing radical Islamist power. Mike Schouten, a CHP candidate, considers the British Prime Minister’s recent words “powerful” for acknowledging that “multiculturalism has, in essence, been a failure” and demonstrating “just how complacent the West has been towards radical Islam”.

Tessa M. Blaikie is a sociology honours students at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. Kimberley A. Ducey is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.

Anti-Immigrant Nativism Growing in Germany

It is not just the U.S. that is seeing a significant increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in the middle of this worldwide capitalistic recession. Agence France Presse has a story about the German chancellor’s moving to more of an aggressive anti-Islamic-immigrant stance:

Germany’s attempt to create a multi-cultural society has failed completely, Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the weekend, calling on the country’s immigrants to learn German and adopt Christian values. Merkel weighed in for the first time in a blistering debate sparked by a central bank board member saying the country was being made “more stupid” by poorly educated and unproductive Muslim migrants.

This right-winger resigned his bank position but his anti-Turkish, anti-Muslim views and book are popular in Germany, which is the country that helped accelerate modern racism under Hitler and his crew -– and where German Jewish scholar Magnus Hirschfeld actually coined the modern term “racism” for the anti-Semitic oppression of his day (the 1930s).

According to the French press story,

“Multikulti”, the concept that “we are now living side by side and are happy about it,” does not work, Merkel told a meeting of younger members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party at Potsdam near Berlin.

So the concept of multicultural pluralism is under even more open pressure from those who want more aggressive one-way assimilation to white-Christian-centrism in Germany. The contradictions in Merkel’s view are also clear in this article:

While warning against “immigration that weighs down on our social system”, Merkel said Germany needed specialists from overseas to keep the pace of its economic development.

Apparently, many German leaders are not aware that the mostly hardworking immigrants from Muslim countries are among the workers who can help bail out Germany from its falling and aging population problems over the next few decades.

9/11 — and Anti-Muslim Attacks and Sentiment

Rinku Senator and Fekkak Mamdouh, longtime (59 years altogether) residents of the U.S. have a good piece I recommend over at Colorlines titled “Long time residents This 9/11, Let’s All Take Responsibility for Ending a Summer of Hate.”

It is sad that many Americans, including numerous leaders and media analysts, use this time to make intensive verbal and/or other attacks on Muslim Americans and Islam. We should remember the victims of this atrocious attack by overseas extremists in New York City without using it as an excuse for the (often white-generated) racial framing of Muslim and/or Middle Eastern Americans. We do not go crazy with racial framing, hostility, and profiling on April 19 in the 1990s, do we? That is when the white Christian Tim McVeigh and his white Christian group conducted the most damaging terrorist attack in recent decades before the 9/11 attack. Yet, fortunately, the contemporary hatemongers do not call for a ban on Christian church centers near the bombing site in Oklahoma City.

Rinku Senator and Fekkak Mamdouh make this point:

… this summer marks the worst anti-Muslim backlash we’ve ever seen here. As the nine years since 9/11 have passed, Americans have forgotten an essential fact: Extremists can use any religion to justify murder, and the stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists sacrifices both American values and community safety. .. .Attacks on Muslim people have escalated. Opponents of the Cordoba House keep saying that 9/11 was the worst attack ever on American soil, therefore Ground Zero is “sacred” and nothing as profane as a mosque should be built there. …It presumes that it is impossible that Austrian Muslims, like Mamdouh himself, who worked at Windows on the World, could have been in the World Trade Center, could have lost friends, colleagues or relatives there….

Too many Americans think uncritically about these matters and require scapegoats to explain too many contemporary social issues. The sharp increase in anti-Muslim attacks is not just about the 9/11 attacks as the numerous attacks on mosques and Muslim Americans over decades, across the country, clearly show. Recent surveys are very disturbing:

A recent TIME/CNN poll found that 55 percent thought Muslims could not be patriots. …. Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey popularized the notion that Muslims don’t deserve the same religious freedom as everyone else….

The following analyses summarize some more detailed points I make in the ninth edition of this book (the references can be found there):

The array of discrimination against Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans in recent years is broad–racist jokes, cartoons, e-mails from fellow employees, not being hired or promoted because of Islamic religious observance, taunted with slurs. Many cases of employer discrimination involve workplace prohibitions against religious practices, such as not allowing Muslim men to wear beards or not permitting daily prayers.

The 9/11 attacks by a few Middle Eastern terrorists have stimulated many hate crimes by non-Middle-Eastern Americans, crimes principally about a hostile racial-religious framing. Yet no Middle Eastern American was implicated in the attacks. Seventeen of the nineteen men involved were from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, close allies of the U.S. government. In just nine weeks after September 11, there were at least 520 violent attacks in the U.S. on people thought to be of Middle Eastern ancestry.

The hastily passed 2001 USA Patriot Act and related acts gave the government broad authority to detain noncitizens with little due process. Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans have been targeted by federal agents and private personnel. In one case Muslim religious officials were taken off a plane just because they were praying. This surveillance problem has become so general that Arab Americans have a term for it—“FWA,” for “flying while Arab.” In addition, one CAIR report indicates there were 116 hate crime incidents targeting Middle Eastern Americans in 2008–more than a thousand since 2001. One national poll found since 2001 nearly three-quarters of Muslim respondents had experienced anti-Muslim harassment or physical attack, or knew someone who had.

Senator and Mamdouh also point out who should take action:

….a few have become nostalgic for George W. Bush—who spoke no less than 11 times in the fall of 2001 about Islam being a religion of peace and love and having nothing to do with Al Qaeda. Others have called for President Obama to speak up more often to protect Muslims. But the real problem is that everyday Americans keep silent about too much of this.

And over at Dailykos, Michael Moore argues that the mosque and Islamic Center should be built at “ground zero” if America is to be the America it claims to be!

Islamophobia: Popular, Acceptable Form of Racism

Islamophobia, and the racial profiling of almost anyone not white, seems to be the popular and acceptable form of racism these days.  Following the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airplane bound for Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, a Nigerian and a Muslim, a majority of Americans favor racial and ethnic profiling be used in airline security.   Recent poll data from Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds:

“…59% of adults say factors such as race, ethnicity and overall appearance should be used to determine which boarding passengers to search at airports. Twenty-six percent (26%) say these factors should not be used to determine which passengers to search. Another 15% are not sure. Interestingly, however, even more Americans (71%) believe such profiling is necessary in today’s environment. Eighteen percent (18%) disagree and see profiling as an unnecessary violation of civil rights.  Men feel more strongly than women that profiling is necessary in the modern environment. Sixty-eight percent (68%) of men say profiling should be used to determine which boarding passengers to search, but just 51% of women agree. Sixty-two percent (62%) of whites and 52% of those of other races say profiling should be used at airports. African-Americans are more closely divided on the question.”

This is striking data suggesting that Americans are quite willing to jettison civil rights in the service of stereotypes and racial prejudice.   It’s also based on faulty reasoning.  Quite simply, racial profiling doesn’t work.  As Arsalan Iftikhar, writing for CNN, points out:

For years, the concept of “racial profiling” has reportedly undermined important terrorist investigations here in the United States. Most notably, these examples include the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in which the two white male domestic terrorists, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, were able to flee while officers operated on the theory that the act had been committed by “Arab terrorists” for the first 48 hours of the investigation.

Similarly, during the October 2002 Washington-area sniper investigation, the African-American man and boy ultimately accused of the crime reportedly were able to pass through multiple road blocks with the alleged murder weapon in their possession, in part, because police ‘profilers’ theorized the crime had been committed by a white male acting alone.

According to a report last summer by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rights Working Group to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination: “Both Democratic and Republican administrations [in the United States] have acknowledged that racial profiling is unconstitutional, socially corrupting and counter-productive, yet this unjustifiable practice remains a stain on American democracy and an affront to the promise of racial equality.”

If the fact that racial profiling is tremendously ineffective doesn’t seem to deter the American impulse to want to “do something” following this lastest attempt at a terrorist act, perhaps considering the fact that this sort of knee-jerk, McCarthyism stands in stark constrast to democratic ideals of equality will temper this reaction.  I fear that such an appeal will fall on deaf ears and there’s growing evidence that this is so.

Consider, for example, a recent interview with Retired Lt. Gen. on Fox News (opens video), in which he flatly states that we should profile and strip search all 18-28-year-old muslim men.  In my view, this qualifies as Islamaphobia – prejudice and discrimination against Islam and against Muslims.  It seems clear that this is a popular, and increasingly acceptable, form of mainstream racism.

And, as another example, Ed Koch – former mayor of New York City – saying in another recent interview (opens video) that “not every Muslim is a terrorist, but “hundreds of millions are,” which is just patently false as the protest by peace-loving Muslims in Detroit, outside the courthouse where Abdulmuttalab was being arraigned, demonstrates.   But, as we see again and again on this blog, such racism is unlikely to be moved by logic and rational argument.

A writer using the name ‘unspeakable’ asks at Daily Kos: do Arabs and Muslims have a place in America? I want the answer to this rhetorical question to be a resounding, “yes, of course!”   Increasingly, I fear that my country is saying “no.”

Racism, Empire and Torture, Pt.2

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. Continue reading…

Racism, Empire and Torture, Pt.1

P1010072The news today is filled with reports about torture, but there is no discussion of the many ways racism and empire are implicated (Creative Commons License 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 Continue reading…

Juan Cole on New FBI Racial Profiling

Juan Cole has a good Salon piece on the FBI’s proposed guidelines that could well lead to racial profiling:

The U.S. Justice Department is considering a change in the grounds on which the FBI can investigate citizens and legal residents of the United States. Till now, DOJ guidelines have required the FBI to have some evidence of wrongdoing before it opens an investigation. The impending new rules, which would be implemented later this summer, allow bureau agents to establish a terrorist profile or pattern of behavior and attributes and, on the basis of that profile, start investigating an individual or group. Agents would be permitted to ask “open-ended questions” concerning the activities of Muslim Americans and Arab-Americans. A person’s travel and occupation, as well as race or ethnicity, could be grounds for opening a national security investigation.

There are many problems with this, including that it is a violation of the law for police agencies to use racial identifiers to screen Americans:

In contrast, using race and ethnicity as the — or even a — primary factor in deciding whom to stop and search, despite being widespread among police forces, is illegal. Just this spring, the Maryland State Police settled out of court with the ACLU and an African-American man after having been sued for the practice of stopping black and Latino men and searching them for drugs. New Jersey police also got into trouble over stopping people on the grounds of race.

It seems like every day there are attempts to make this country more like a police state, one in which security concerns as defined by those at the top (almost all white men) trump our civil rights and civil liberties as American citizens. And the white racial frame in their heads makes them comfortable in focusing on Americans of color.

Film Star Bardot Fined for Anti-Muslim Writings

European and US news outlets, including BBC News are  reporting that famous French film star, Brigitte Bardot (now 73, but a legend in the 1960s-1970s), has been fined yet again by a French court for violating laws against writing and speaking in ways that attack racial groups.  The BBC reports that she was fined for

inciting racial hatred. She was prosecuted over a letter published on her website that complained Muslims were “destroying our country by imposing their ways.” It is the fifth time Ms Bardot been convicted over her controversial remarks about Islam and its followers. The fine – equivalent to $23,000 – related to a letter she wrote in December 2006 to the then Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, which was published on her website, in which she deplored the slaughter of animals for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

As a prominent animal rights activist, she has also allied herself with those who vigorously oppose the Muslim immigrants to France:

She said she was “tired of being led by the nose by this population that is destroying us, destroying our country by imposing its acts.”

In 2004, again according to BBC News, she was fined substantially for what was terms a “race hate” book, her book A Cry in Silence:

The charges against Bardot, 69, related to her best-seller, A Cry In The Silence, in which she said she “opposed the Islamisation of France.” Last month the former actress apologised in court, and said: “I never knowingly wanted to hurt anybody.” In her book she wrote about issues such as racial mixing, immigration, the role of women in politics and Islam. The book also contained a section attacking what she called the mixing of genes and praised previous generations who, she said, had given their lives to push out invaders.

For her anti-immigrant and anti-gene-mixing writings, she angered French anti-racism groups, and they started legal proceedings against her. She lost and the court ruled that:

“Madame Bardot presents Muslims as barbaric and cruel invaders, responsible for terrorist acts and eager to dominate the French to the extent of wanting to exterminate them.” It awarded a symbolic one euro in damages to France’s anti-racism movement MRAP and to the League for Human Rights who brought the case to court. The court also ordered a 5,000 euro fine against the head of Bardot’s publishing house, Le Rocher, and ordered both to pay for advertisements in two newspapers announcing their convictions.

Reports note too that her husband is Bernard d’Ormal, who has been an adviser to the French racist-extremist group, the “Front National” party.

Anti-Muslim racist framing by this political party and by prominent whites like Bardot has spread rapidly across European countries and is also quite strong on the racist right in the United States, as a quick look at numerous arch-conservative US websites will reveal. With some types of racism being forced, at least to some modest degree, backstage among whites, it seems that those who wish to can more openly attack Muslims and Africans in Europe and Latin Americans in the US, especially the impoverished immigrants. In the United States Bardot could continue such racist commentaries with no fear of punishment, since we allow very harmful racist stuff perpetrated by those at the top of the racial hierarchy to hide behind extreme absolutist interpretations of the First Amendment in the United States. We have criticized this absolutist defense of racist speech by powerful whites here before, and Bardot’s case shows what some countries with more advanced human rights laws than our relatively backward country can do to at least reduce overt hate speech by those with power who are targeting those who are relatively powerless.

Anti-Racism in Amsterdam

Today, I attended an anti-racism rally in Amsterdam along with about 1,300 other people, most of them Dutch (all photos by Jessie Daniels).   The purpose of the rally was to draw attention to what German magazine Speigel calls the “risky stunt” of Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders and what protesters call “racism.”   Wilders “stunt” is that he has made a 15-minute film that is not yet released which reportedly juxtaposes excerpts from the Koran with beheadings and stonings on a split screen.  Wilders’ message is clear; he wants the West to resist “the threat of the growing Islamization of Western society.”   It’s this sort of rhetoric that has people in Holland gathering at the Dam, in central Amsterdam, protesting. 

To put this in context, it’s important to understand what happened the last time a Dutch filmmaker made a film critical of Islam.   This piece from the Spiegel magazine article summarizes it well:

“On Nov. 2, 2004, an Islamic fundamentalist murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a descendant of the painter Vincent van Gogh, in broad daylight on a street in Amsterdam.

The killer, a 26-year-old Dutch citizen, the son of Moroccan immigrants, shot the filmmaker at 9 a.m. as van Gogh was riding his bicycle. He then slit his throat and, using a knife, pinned a note to his victim’s chest, claiming responsibility and explaining his motives. The killer’s true target was politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But she, unlike van Gogh, was under 24-hour police protection. The bloody act was also a declaration of war against Dutch society, which, as the murderer was convinced, was controlled ‘by the Jews.’   Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali had collaborated to produce a short film called “Submission,” which uses four real-life examples to illustrate the poor treatment of women in Islam.” 

The rise of Somalian-born and Muslim-raised politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali is also important to understanding the context of race, gender and anti-racism politics in Holland.  Ali, a former Member of Parliament in Holland (and current U.S. resident), is also a radical opponent of Islam based on gender oppression – her own experience and on behalf of other Muslim women – and what she views as the violent and intolerant core of the religion.    In the U.S., Ali has been deployed by the right-wing to put a more respectable (and visibly black, female, Muslim, African) face on anti-Islamic sentiments.   And, yet somehow, the advocacy for gender equality gets lost in all that rhetoric within most of the mainstream reporting about her.   Still, Theo Van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are forever linked because of the note that Mohammed Bouyeri penned then stabbed into Van Gogh naming Ali as an enemy of Islam. Continue reading…