As the Zimmerman trial continues, remember those who just want to live.
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.
“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).”
Linda Sarsour, Palestinian-American Activist recently involved in the passing of the CSA in New York, posted this piece on her blog. It’s a piece about the impact of racism and Islamophobia on youth in America. In it, she includes excerpts from an essay her young son wrote for school – an essay in which he reveals some of the ways he’s been affected by racism. I encourage you wholeheartedly to read the full thing. The most heartbreaking part (to me) is included below:
“Sometimes my culture is portrayed as the evil culture. But we are probably the most down to earth people anybody would know. One way people have put me down is only knowing my people as “The Terrorist”. A Second way is that they won’t let us speak on our behalf. My last reason is because my experiences show people are ignorant.
My first reason is many people portray Muslims as terrorists. None of us are like that. One time in the fourth grade I got an extremely challenging question right. Nobody else got it. So when the teacher said I was right a kid shouted “He is going to use an equation to build a bomb.” At that age, I didn’t know how to react so I just smiled. But now I knew I should have been angry.
Another white privilege Tim Wise and other white anti-racists carry is the ability to emotionally express their views about racism without having that expression dismissed as “angry” or “too emotional”. When Wise speaks passionately and fervently about racism, his expression is understood as a sign of a person standing up for what he believes. As such, it is championed even when he is derisive or sardonic in his remarks. When we, people of color activists, speak passionately about racism, we are maligned and ridiculed as being angry, militant, even hateful and dangerous. If we wish to be heard (let alone understood), we are expected to speak calmly and politely about our experience and analysis regarding racism. Otherwise we are demonized. White moral indignation is justified. Black moral indignation is vilified. This has long been the case.
– Ewuare Xola Osayande
After a recent discussion on Twitter, I’ve been thinking a lot about the colonial politics in James Cameron’s atrociously offensive (albeit aesthetically pleasing) film “Avatar.” I have done a quick scan of the various articles written on the racism in “Avatar” and have decided to include choice excerpts here (although I recommend you read each piece in ints entirety, as usual):
1. From David Brooks’ Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled, “The Messiah Complex:”
“Avatar” is a racial fantasy par excellence. The hero is a white former Marine who is adrift in his civilization. He ends up working with a giant corporation and flies through space to help plunder the environment of a pristine planet and displace its peace-loving natives.
The peace-loving natives — compiled from a mélange of Native American, African, Vietnamese, Iraqi and other cultural fragments — are like the peace-loving natives you’ve seen in a hundred other movies. They’re tall, muscular and admirably slender. They walk around nearly naked. They are phenomenal athletes and pretty good singers and dancers.
The white guy notices that the peace-loving natives are much cooler than the greedy corporate tools and the bloodthirsty U.S. military types he came over with. He goes to live with the natives, and, in short order, he’s the most awesome member of their tribe. He has sex with their hottest babe. He learns to jump through the jungle and ride horses. It turns out that he’s even got more guts and athletic prowess than they do. He flies the big red bird that no one in generations has been able to master.
Along the way, he has his consciousness raised. The peace-loving natives are at one with nature, and even have a fiber-optic cable sticking out of their bodies that they can plug into horses and trees, which is like Horse Whispering without the wireless technology. Because they are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls.
The natives help the white guy discover that he, too, has a deep and tranquil soul.
The natives have hot bodies and perfect ecological sensibilities, but they are natural creatures, not history-making ones. When the military-industrial complex comes in to strip mine their homes, they need a White Messiah to lead and inspire the defense. […]
…would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?
It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.
It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.
2. This is a response to Brooks’ piece, which argues that the natives in the film were not saved by the white male lead, but rather he was saved by them. Since Brooks’ somewhat addressed this in his piece, you might find this response tiring or shallow. I disagree with it but it is worth reading because it takes into account that the white male lead actually assumes the native form in the film (i.e. he leaves his white body for a native Na’vi body).
3. From Matt Goldberg’s “Avatar Review” from Collider:
Avatar is a noble savage story. For those unaware of what that means, the “noble savage” concept came about in the 18th century and says that a civilization untouched by modernization is the most pure. Man’s ambition is the undoing of his natural good, and in order to reclaim that good the modern man must leave behind the corruption of the modern world and go live with the noble savages. But that’s just the dumb part of the concept. The offensive part, although not inherent but often present, is that the modern man is white and he not only regains his humanity by living with the “savages” but turns out to be nobler than all of them and their true savior.
4. From Jesse Washington’s “‘Avatar’ Critics See Racist Theme,” published by the Huffington Post:
Robinne Lee, an actress in such recent films as “Seven Pounds” and “Hotel for Dogs,” said that “Avatar” was “beautiful” and that she understood the economic logic of casting a white lead if most of the audience is white.
But she said the film, which so far has the second-highest worldwide box-office gross ever, still reminded her of Hollywood’s “Pocahontas” story – “the Indian woman leads the white man into the wilderness, and he learns the way of the people and becomes the savior.”
“It’s really upsetting in many ways,” said Lee, who is black with Jamaican and Chinese ancestry. “It would be nice if we could save ourselves.”
Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of the sci-fi Web site io9.com, likened “Avatar” to the recent film “District 9,” in which a white man accidentally becomes an alien and then helps save them, and 1984’s “Dune,” in which a white man becomes an alien Messiah.
“Main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color … (then) go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed,” she wrote.
“When will whites stop making these movies and start thinking about race in a new way?” wrote Newitz, who is white.
Black film professor and author Donald Bogle said he can understand why people would be troubled by “Avatar,” although he praised it as a “stunning” work.
“A segment of the audience is carrying in the back of its head some sense of movie history,” said Bogle, author of “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films.”
Bogle stopped short, however, of calling the movie racist.
“It’s a film with still a certain kind of distortion,” he said. “It’s a movie that hasn’t yet freed itself of old Hollywood traditions, old formulas.”
Writer/director Cameron, who is white, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that his film “asks us to open our eyes and truly see others, respecting them even though they are different, in the hope that we may find a way to prevent conflict and live more harmoniously on this world. I hardly think that is a racist message.” (emphasis added)
5. From Joseph Mayton’s (problematic) “Why do Egyptians love Avatar?” which was posted on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ section:
“Egyptians don’t like to see reality on the big screen, this is why films such as Syriana and The Hurt Locker are not popular. Egyptians want an escape,” said Mohsen Goma’a, an aspiring filmmaker. But their support for Avatar also misses the mark. They have escaped from reality only to enter a new imaginary world where a film speaks directly to their struggle. “Through Avatar I lived the story of the Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan and Lebanese peoples and the wars waged against them; where the west treats these peoples as if they were the children of the Na’vi” wrote the blogger South Lebanon.
There are numerous short films on YouTube paralleling the stories of the Na’vi and the Palestinians. One Arabic blog argues that Avatar is delivering a message to Americans that is “optimistic and hopeful despite the current situation”. What are Americans supposed to be optimistic about? That they are the holders of the world’s destiny, much in the same manner that Jake Sully is with the Na’vi? Sully, not the Na’vi, is the hero of the film. He becomes their leader in order for the Na’vi to defend themselves from the vastly superior technology of his former brethren.
Egyptians want something to believe in and Avatar offers a vague picture that is being co-opted into something it isn’t. These arguments that Pandora represents the modern Middle East are essentially people pulling an idea out of the sand in order to connect with a very entertaining film. One could see the struggle of the Palestinians and other occupied societies as akin to that of the Na’vi in Avatar, but why would we want to? If Palestinians are dressing in blue and going to the streets in protest to show how connected they are to the fictional people of Pandora, does it not also reveal a stark reality that they would deny: a foreign saviour is needed if they are realise their goal of throwing off the yoke of Israeli occupation?
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: