An Open Letter To A Select But Not Small Group Of American Political Commentators Who Will Not Read This:

Being a journalist or a pundit with the privilege to be able to voice your opinions, however risky, burdens you with the moral imperative to a) hold your own government accountable for every immoral, illegal, or imbecilic action it commits or openly intends to commit and to b) thoroughly educate yourself on the historical context and political nuances of a foreign country’s present situation before delivering commentary (that erases the imperial crimes of your own government).  

Hey (group of mostly middle class white men),

I’m feeling, along with billions of other people all over the place, very voiceless and frustrated these days and you’re not helping much. I’m glad that you’ve become momentarily interested in this week’s Twitter Trending Topic (i.e. massive Egyptian political protest and Morsi’s ousting), but the tone you’ve chosen to discuss these events makes me more than a little ticked off. I’m going to explain two main sources of my disdain for your commentary, and then I’m going to make sure you understand what I’m not saying, and then I’m going to explain what I want you to do (as opposed to what you’re doing right now).

One phrase you group of chest-puffing, hubris-smoking pundits have been using generously is “a setback for democracy.” You think this thing is a “setback for democracy,” and this other thing is also a “setback for democracy.”

Okay, forgive me for my love of acknowledging historical context (when it comes to discussing politics), but you know what was an *unparalleled* setback for democracy in Egypt? The fact that your government, by that I mean the government of America, Land of the Free and Spied-On, was a key force in the maintenance of Mubarak’s brutal, thieving, and very long dictatorial rule. It wasn’t that Bush and Mubarak, or Obama and Mubarak, occasionally sent each other cute texts for support in times of crisis. The U.S. has a vested and destructive interest in Egypt (see: Suez Canal, Israel as a neighbor, etc.) and America’s role in Egypt is not separable from the rampant poverty, infrastructural problems, etc. in Egypt. And when Mubarak fell in 2011, it wasn’t as though Egypt suddenly recovered and should have gotten a great democracy running smoothly without pause. The effects of those decades are still here and they are worsening (why do you think millions of people were on the streets protesting?).

So here’s one source of my anger: Every time you use the phrase “a setback for democracy” without acknowledging the symptoms of the neocolonial poison that your government is so very responsible for, you reinforce undying implications that the lack of healthy, pluralist democracy in the Middle East (or in any majority-colored country) is solely the result of a fundamental savagery and/or backwardness, rather than acknowledging the fact that the West has a very long history of ensuring that “setbacks for democracy” keep happening in places that are not the West. Please remember that in America, democracy is something to be downright revered at home, but destroyed and/or subverted in “foreign” countries where and when it suits U.S. interests (this is not unique, necessarily, to America, but seems to be something that superpowers do based on what little history I know). When you don’t acknowledge this, your political analysis will never be accurate and only reinforces ever-present imperialist attitudes toward the Middle East which is the kind of thinking that in the worst cases justifies bombing people all the way to “liberation” and “democratization.”

Here’s another source of my anger and frustration: You know too well that in the Western-favoring hegemonic construct your voices are going to receive a lot more attention/traction than a lot of Egyptian voices. Why use it to pimp bad commentary? Why not interview and amplify the voices of the Egyptian protesters, who can know things that you cannot from your perch at your laptop? Why not use your privilege to get the West, for once, to engage in legitimate, mainstream dialogue WITH the Middle East, as opposed to AT the Middle East? Remember that one time you got that incredibly intelligent Yemeni boy (whose village was targeted and hit by a drone) to testify to Congress about the deadly and counterproductive effects of drone strikes in Yemen, and in about 15 minutes he peacefully and calmy explained to you EVERYTHING that is wrong with U.S. drone strikes? WE NEED MORE OF THAT. Dialogue (that is balanced and not racist) is the ONLY way to dismantle imperialism and exploitation in a non-violent way. As a vehement opposer of any and all violence, especially when wielded mercilessly by an imperial power with a neoliberal agenda, I BEG YOU TO HELP ME FACILITATE GOOD DIALOGUE. For real, I would be on my knees if I weren’t already comfortable in my quasi-cushy desk chair.

Now, here’s what I’m not saying: That events in Egypt, and everything that takes place in Egypt, whether good or bad, is directly the effect of American influence (I repeat: I do NOT think this).

I think that American influence needs to be accounted for by you, in no uncertain terms, and by that same token I think that Egyptians need to take their fair share of responsibility in terms of holding their government accountable when it fails to protect their interests. While Egyptians must hold themselves and their government accountable (rigorously), you must hold YOURS accountable for its misdeeds. That is not an option: that is YOUR JOB. You are supposed to be journalists and analysts. But until you get it together and indulge in some actual professionalism by understanding Egyptian history and politics and America’s role in all of it, you’re nothing more than gossip queens discussing the new hot couple.

So here’s what I want: If you’re going to continue to comment on MENA politics, it’s inexcusable for you to not have a thorough understanding of the region’s history. A good way to know whether or not you really know what you’re talking about is if you only use the terms “Middle East” and “MENA” ironically, for example (that’s an inside joke with the subaltern blogosphere, humor me). Understand the effects of colonialism (past, post and neo), of the drive toward Western-molded modernization (a.ka. embracing neoliberalism), and try to actually listen to subaltern voices. Spivak once famously said, “Can the subaltern speak?” Well, the subaltern has been speaking, but you’re not listening, so start for heaven’s sake. (“Everything that needs to be said has already been said, but since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” – André Gide).

Here’s what I promise: Once I myself completely (or as much as I possible can) educate myself on Egypt and its neighbors, I will likely do nothing for the rest of my life other than rigorously hold Egyptian governments accountable for every crappy, idiotic, unjust, and inhumane thing they do (as a dual citizen of Egypt and Canada). While I do that, and while other Egyptians are already doing that, you hold your own accountable. Enough with the hubris, enough with the thinly veiled orientalism, and enough with the overnight evolutions into self-proclaimed “Middle East” experts.

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Kanye and Camus

Above: Kanye’s performance of “Black Skinhead” on SNL.

“I’m aware I’m a king.” 

“I am a God.”

Two lyrics from Kanye’s album Yeezus. The first from “Black Skinhead,” the second from “I Am A God.”

The anger, resentment, pride in the face of degradation, egomania that poses a threat to the white-supremacist ego, and skillfully articulated energy that informs Kanye’s “Yeezus” makes it a special pleasure to devour repeatedly. My favorite track from the album is “Black Skinhead,” with beats so powerful it reminded me of a famous quote from Albert Camus:

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

In a world where black men in America are frisked, imprisoned and shot because their bodies have been stamped with supposed criminality before they make their first decisions as children, there is an unambiguous, silent statement that colored bodies are less deserving of the space they take up. And if a colored person takes up space that makes the white-dominant sphere uncomfortable, it is very likely they will be looked at with suspicion, hostility – feelings that too often become a a child’s death or an adult’s humiliation.

In this now Yeezus-blessed world, Kanye not only takes up the tenuous space that he rightly deserves; he lethally, artistically, fearlessly dares you to try and police him. When Kanye declares “I am a God” or “I’m aware I’m a king,” he’s not just indulging in the great American pastime of individualism as megalomania: he’s laughing in the face of the idea that his body, his person is not the dominant one. What many mistake as base egomania is more accurately described as an expression of unchecked freedom put to a rebellious, energizing beat. In a sphere that didn’t give him the White privilege to play God, Kanye, through Yeezus, grabbed us by the jaw, and, laughing at our surprise, he turned our eyes to his, and, in no uncertain terms, took that privilege.

As Teju Cole recently wrote, “Always be humble. Unless you’re non-white or female or disabled or queer (you’ve already had your turn).”

Paula Deen, The N-Word, and the Politics of Reclamation (A Quick Word)

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In the wake of the Paula Deen n-word “scandal,” something has come up over and over on my twitter feed and once in my email, which is this trendy statement: “Well, if she can’t say the n-word, then shouldn’t we ban all of hip-hop music, too??”

Feel free to read “hip-hop music” as “black people using the n-word,” because that’s what people mean when they say that (it’s a racially coded phrase).

This issue has already been explained really well by people who understand the politics of reclamation much better than me, but here’s a quick, choppy thing about that: As the offended community in question (historically and presently), black people are the sole rightful voices on the n-word discussion (in terms of whether or not it can be used). Only black people can use that word in a movement to reclaim it and its oppressive power, and only black people have the right to argue over whether or not the word should be abolished completely (from anyone’s vocabulary). White people (or others from other communities) are not allowed to say, “well, okay, if Paula Deen can’t say it then black artists can’t use it in their music.” Actually, no. You and me don’t get a say in whether or not black people can use it or whether it should be used at all. It’s not your/my word. With regard to this specific word, you and me live in a safe space in which it has not been used to degrade us nor is still being used to degrade us. So we get to be totally silent and listen to the only people who can legitimately say whether or not this word can be used at all, and who can use it. I’ve made it sound like the black community is all connected and gets together to vote on these issues on hump days, but that’t not what I mean. I mean as the only population that has this specific relationship with the n-word, black voices are the only ones that count when it comes to deciding how to use it, if at all, even if there is massive disagreement between various individuals (as there will obviously be disagreement). Reclamation has to happen from within a community for it to be an effective take-back of the power in a word. Do you hear me, the writing staff of Girls? Quentin Tarantino, you too. Stop with that crap. Oppression and it’s buddy ‘racial slur’ are not here for you to exploit for drama and spice because you get to live in a world in which you have never been affected or degraded by that word, and you (and me) will always have that privilege. Maybe if we could just reign in our egos for a minute and admit that the verdict on the n-word cannot and should not be delivered by the likes of Lesley Arfin or any hipster racists.

And, to the people who still don’t get hip hop and rap: It’s a bumping call for social justice and change and an unparalleled form of articulating angering experiences (imo on that last part). It’s not hip hop’s fault that the stuff that went mainstream isn’t the best, now let’s stop trying to police hip hop music with suspiciously sporadic outbursts of fondness for political correctness (that always happen when we start talking about rap or “urban music”).

Anyway here is a lethally good spoken word poem on the topic:

Selfie Apologetics

I will never cease to be amazed at how much anger some people – not all, just some – express toward girls who upload lots of selfies (they’re just designing/presenting their own image), but never toward the boys behind cameras who position girls like props (they’re objectifying human beings). It’s inane to condone or participate in the (male-driven) fetishization of female beauty (which is a narcissistic act) but then turn around and demonize female vanity.

if you like to, upload your selfies, gurlz, i like them especially the ones where you have that winged eyeliner going

 

From the curator, Gorgonetta:

[Self-portraits by Carrie Mae Weems, Käthe Kollwitz, Judy Baca, and Frida Kahlo, text “Never apologize for selfies”]

Via: pushinghoopswithsticks

Original source: Gorgonetta

Men, Heels and History

A rare sight – men in high heels at a gay pride party in Spain in 2005.

Warning: I rely heavily on the gender binary due to having trouble discussing the topic without doing so.

As I was scrolling through street-syle-themed tumblr sites this morning, I thought, as I always do, how ridiculously painful it must be to wear the heels I see in these style photos, especially since the “street style” theme indicates that these outfits, and the killer shoes that accompany them, are supposed to be semi-casual daywear.

As a person who shops almost exclusively in men’s sections (because I have no tolerance for uncomfortable clothing made for women), I have complicated feelings toward “femme” clothing and heels. While I unabashedly love all things considered traditionally “femme”, I only love them from a distance. I love the idea that you can reshape your entire bone structure with some cleverly applied bronzer, but I would never spend an hour – or however long – doing that in the morning. I love the way those on-trend oval nails look like shiny claws, but I can’t give myself a manicure that would make typing arduous. I love “femme” fashion, but I can’t adopt a style that would make me so uncomfortable. I’m not making a defiant statement about female beauty, by any means, I’m just lazy when it comes to appearances and would rather spend the time it takes to put on make-up watcing “Community” reruns. So, unhappily, I wear frumpy boys’ clothes. I say ‘unhappily’ not because I don’t like wearing clothes that sometimes have “MENSWEAR” on the tag: I say ‘unhappily’ because I too often have to go to the men’s section to find clothes that meet my standards of comfort and practicality.

Every time I think about gendered dress, I get a little upset. Why does female clothing connote beauty but not utility? Why does male clothing connote utiliy and/or status symbolism but not sexual attractiveness? You already know why, so I’m going to answer my question succinctly: gendered fashion reflects patriarchal gender values (re: women and beauty, men and status/wealth or practicality).

I’m tired of this trend. I want cisboys in killer heels and stick-on nails, and cisgirls in killer heels and stick-on nails. I want cisboys with stubble they can’t be bothered to razor off in the morning, and cisgirls with leg hair (gasp!). I want style to be determined not by gender, but by how willing or unwilling a person is to walk in near-stilts in order to look fierce (because people in heels do look fierce). I don’t want “WOMENSWEAR” to code for “here, wear this to look uncomfortable but sexy” and “MENSWEAR” to code for “this will let her/him know how much you’re worth” or “this is a practical oufit for your practical concerns.” Girls shouldn’t have to go to the men’s section to find pants that are not so tight they basically X-ray their legs, and men shouldn’t have to face serious shame for wanting to wear “femme” clothing (we shouldn’t degrade femininity in general).

As I was thinking these things this morning, I remembered this awesome article that I’d read on BBC’s website entitled “Why did men stop wearing high heels?” by William Kremer. It is one of the best articles on clothing (and the historical origins of an accessory) that I have ever read. The author explains how shoes with high heels entered the European style scene (originally, they were worn by men) and how over time the purpose of men’s clothing shifted away from flamboyance and status symbolism toward the bare practicality championed during the Enlightenment. Heels were then left to women, who were seen as, frankly, uneducatable decorative ornaments. I cannot reccomend this piece enough. Read the full thing. Here is a very short excerpt from the end of the article:

The 1960s saw a return of low heeled cowboy boots for men and some dandies strutted their stuff in platform shoes in the 1970s.

But the era of men walking around on their toes seems to be behind us. Could we ever return to an era of guys squeezing their big hairy feet into four-inch, shiny, brightly coloured high heels?

“Absolutely,” says Semmelhack. There is no reason, she believes, why the high heel cannot continue to be ascribed new meanings – although we may have to wait for true gender equality first.

“If it becomes a signifier of actual power, then men will be as willing to wear it as women.” (emphasis added)

A Note on Patriarchy in the Middle East and Imperialist Feminism

Of course there is misogyny in the Middle East.

Of course there is oppressive patriarchy in the Middle East

…of course there is also patriarchy in America and in Canada, in Britain and in Italy.

Point me to the place with no patriarchy and I’ll be there in five minutes.

But Middle Easterners (a very diverse group who are bunched together under this blanket term) deserve, just like people in the ‘West’ deserve, just like ‘Western’ women deserve, to negotiate notions of gender on their own terms.

How do you expect Middle Eastern women to gradually dismantle oppressive gendered systems, to weed out the patriarchy – as everyone everywhere has to – when we in the ‘West’ often don’t even allow them to have the right to life? When we play video games with real weapons that spell death for them and their children?

It is not our deadly ‘benevolence’ that is admirable, but the fact that women in the ‘Greater Middle East’ are still fighting, and will always fight, and have undying strength, in spite of us.