Archive by Author

Allow his prophetic voice to be heard…

23 Jan

I was thinking of writing on Dr King’s legacy (again) to mark MLK Day this past Monday, but it turns out that Dr Cornel West has already said what needs to be said.

 

American Vignettes (I): Totalitarian Undercurrents

9 Jan

The airport is a totalitarian space; sometimes the truth is hyperbolic.

You re-enter the United States, land of your birth, as part of the stream of arriving passengers. It is an everyday experience. You leave the airplane slowly, on stiff limbs, trickling with the mass of travellers into Newark airport.

The imperatives are issued as soon as you enter the terminal building. No smoking. No cell phones. Stand in line. Fill in your declaration form. Foreigner here. Citizen there. Wait behind the red line till you are called. The armed immigration officer checks your papers, holding the power to pronounce your worthiness to enter this sanctified space.

Border Control

With the imperatives come the questions. Where are you coming from? Where are you going? As if the answers are clear. As if these are simple questions. The man with the gun, holding your passport, asks, “Where are you flying next?” But he already knows and he answers for you, “Chicago, on Friday.” This is a test.

“What were you doing in London?” You answer but the officer is not interested, he looks at you with an unarticulated accusation, why would you leave your homeland? Your suspect status is confirmed when he asks, “How long are you staying?” Until you please the armed man with your answers everyone is a foreigner no matter where they were born. Continue reading

Something in the Way of Things

7 Dec

Hip-Hop Head

When you look at it head on, from just the right distance, the world seems solid. The order of things presents itself as impenetrable. Yet a change in the angle of vision reveals fissures, fusions, flukes – a world of pieces shifting ceaselessly. One vision of the world promises stability and order, the other freedom and creativity. Which of these is more attractive depends on where one finds oneself: pressed upon by the weight of the world, or abraded by the shifting fragments.

Which of these worlds is real? This is the metaphysician’s diagnosis: “If you want to calm your nerves, then find the arrangement of the world as it really is.” But the physician can only prescribe convalescence or catharsis: “Accept the reality of the given world or realise the subliminal essence of the immanent world.” This regiment exhausts us rather than making us well. It lacks the vigour of creative activity. We don’t need to know; we need to make.

William Connolly suggests that the political condition of late-modernity is to experience this impasse without means to bridge the gap.

In our times we can neither endure our thoughts nor the task of rethinking them. We think restlessly within familiar frameworks to avoid thought about how our thinking is framed. Perhaps that is the ground of modern thoughtlessness.

Creativity requires us to leave the metaphysician behind – the making of the world requires dreams, contradictions, promises, lies, empty space, messy abundance. Turning away from knowing does not force us to apologise for the durable architecture of the world – this is the vice of Richard Rorty’s ironic liberalism. He calls on poets of the self to write their lines on the walls of the world as if they were solid, so not to upset things too much – a consolation of the comfortable, irony in the face of human disaster.

The condition of the world impels those caught between the monuments of the given to return to the fissures, fusions and flukes, in hopes of exercising our creativity on the social architecture. We need world makers. We need lovers.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I return to The Roots. Phrenology, the follow-up to Things Fall Apart, explores the creative challenge the band faced after producing an album that reconstructed hip-hop – trying to avoid becoming a parody of themselves or reducing their message to braying didactic verses. The difficulty of achieving real creativity is political as well as artistic and it demands not knowledge but love, desire and risk; it is the Roots’ exploration of how to make worlds anew that offers up lessons of wider import.

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Call for Papers: The Power of Rights and/or the Rights of Power in Global Politics

23 Nov

Call for Papers for the 1st European Workshops for International Studies (EWIS), 5th – 8th June 2013, Tartu (http://www.sgir.eu/upcoming.php)

Workshop 12: The Power of Rights and/or the Rights of Power in Global Politics

Conveners: Louiza Odysseos and Anna Selmeczi

While detractors of human rights have long argued that they form the moral and intellectual keystone of a liberal hegemony, their proponents have countered that ‘human rights are meant to be good news for the underprivileged, the downtrodden, and the dispossessed’ (Dallmayr), historically demarcating the growing power of the king and, later, the state and today enabling the politics of resistance in symbolic, discursive and legal terms. This proposed workshop seeks to combine theoretical discussions and empirical examinations to explore how human rights are essential to both the sustenance of hegemony and to the politics of resistance in global politics. The workshop will examine how human rights instruments and discourses aim to curtail power while often legitimating and reinforcing its operations in distinct political and ethical ways. It will facilitate discussions exploring how rights ‘enable disciplinary projects’ (Golder) by channeling practices of resistance into legal frameworks that delimit campaigns for justice. Central to its objectives is to assess how human rights also provide opportunities for challenging such projects of power, opportunities that are grounded on a rethinking of humanity as the ‘community of the governed’ understood within the history of colonialism.

A number of scholars have expressed interest in interrogating this important dualism of human rights. The workshop therefore would generate discussions about the emergence of human rights’ subjectivities and discourses within struggles towards emancipation that have had varying success in challenging preexisting power relations, for example, in the recent waves of protest in the Middle East. Other potential contributions would analyse how neoliberal technologies of governing use the discourses of human worth to discipline human rights in cases of immigration; how the tension between human and positive rights incites resistance practices by political subjects in the case of undocumented migrants; how, in varied geographical locations such as India, South Africa, Italy and Mexico, neoliberal governmental rationalities deny the subjectivity of the rights-bearing citizen to the poor; how direct action by activists seeks to reconstruct particular rights as strategies of resistance, such as the right to housing in the midst of the global financial crisis.

Please submit your 200 words abstract online through the EWIS website:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dC05d3BnaVp4V3R3b2NCVXV3bmxoM2c6MQ.

Deadline: 15 December 2012. Applicants will be notified by 15 January 2013 about the outcome of the selection process.

Reviewing the Torture Report

11 Aug

The Nation recently ran a review of The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America’s Post-9/11 Torture Program, by Larry Siems. The book is drawn from the online report that Siems developed from documents that the American Civil Liberties Union obtained from a series of freedom of information requests – those documents are publicly available on the site as well.

I don’t work on torture nor do I have any specialist knowledge of the US policies after 9/11, but Siems’ work looks fascinating. Not only is he using a massive collection of primary sources, but the way he assembles and analyses the material brings out the systemic use of torture and the dubious ends pursued on the bodies and minds of its victims.

20120811-123525.jpg

Key out takes from the Nation review, written by Peter Baker:

This is oddly apt: failures of understanding are part and parcel of institutionalized torture, which seems to require a systemic aversion to detail, especially the details of other people’s experiences. The most publicly visible manifestation of this aversion was the replacement of “torture”—in both the legal memos and the pages of the nation’s leading newspapers—with terms like “enhanced interrogation.” This same preference for detached vagueness pervades The Torture Report. “Cramped confinement involves the placement of the individual in a confined space,” the administration lawyer John Yoo wrote in a 2002 memo. “The confined space is usually dark.” Depending on the size of the space, “the individual can stand up or sit down.”

Abu Zubaydah’s descriptions of his “cramped confinement,” which Siems quotes, dwell on several aspects that Yoo passes over: how a cloth was draped over his confinement box to restrict his air supply; how the box was so small he could neither sit nor stand but instead had to crouch, which caused a wound in his leg to rupture; how he was given a bucket to use as a toilet, and how it tipped over and spilled while he remained inside for hours; how he lost all sense of time. It is unclear whether Yoo left such details out intentionally, or whether they simply never occurred to him. Similarly, it’s hard to know what to make of a note written by Donald Rumsfeld in ink at the bottom of a 2002 memo on detainee treatment that, among other things, set limits on forced standing. “I stand for 8-10 hours a day,” he wrote. “Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”

America commits torture, funds torture research and encourages torture around the world. It is easy to point the finger at one particularly dark corner or another, be it the CIA or the derelict grunts on the night shift. These documents suggest that a bigger problem might be the sheer number of dark corners: American force abroad is wielded and managed by so many overlapping but distinct organizations that it creates plenty of useful ambiguity as to how, exactly, the overlap is meant to work. There’s a clear sense, especially in memos related to the early days of Guantánamo, of all these various people—Army, Navy, Air Force, CIA, FBI—wandering the cell-block halls, unsure of who is doing what, when and to whom. In the absence of a plan, everyone takes turns dealing with the detainees as he or she sees fit. The guards watch, picking up ideas from the pros for later. One could call the disarray a design flaw, but that would involve assuming that torture wasn’t part of the plan. Given that we know it was, all the confusion seems to have helped; CIA agents reveled in exploiting it, often identifying themselves as FBI agents to avoid having their presence exposed or accurately documented. Defense Department agents pulled a similar move, more than once impersonating State Department officials during torture sessions.

The spectacle of lynching, and the photos documenting that spectacle, served as a boast and a warning: look what we can do—and will. With post-9/11 detainee abuse, the exact same message is being communicated, only so too is its negation: look what we disown, what only the bad apples among us desire, and for which we will duly jail them. Endless memos dissecting torture techniques and parsing existing laws out of existence are a key part of this ritual: they insist that nothing terrible is happening. In a 2002 meeting, a military lawyer was surprisingly honest: “We will need documentation to protect us.” A CIA lawyer chimes in his agreement: “Everything must be approved and documented.”

Feminist Notes, part I

12 Jul

By including what violates women under civil and human rights law, the meaning of “citizen” and “human” begins to have a woman’s face. As women’s actual conditions are recognized as inhuman, those conditions are being changed by requiring that they meet a standard of citizenship and humanity that previously did not apply because they were women. In other words, women both change the standard as we come under it and change the reality it governs by having it applied to us. This democratic process describes not only the common law when it works but also a cardinal tenet of feminist analysis: women are entitled to access to things as they are and also to change them into something worth our having.

Thus women are transforming the definition of equality not by making ourselves the same as men, entitled to violate and silence, or by reifying women’s so-called differences, but by insisting that equal citizenship must encompass what women need to be human, including a right not be sexually violated and silenced. This was done in the Bosnian case by recognizing ethnic particularity, not by denying it. Adapting the words of the philosopher Richard Rorty, we are making the word “woman” a “name of a way of being human.” We are challenging and changing the process of knowing and the practice of power at the same time.

-Catharine MacKinnon, “Postmodernism and Human Rights,” Are Women Human?

What We Talked About at ISA 2012: A Human Right to Housing

20 Jun

Housing is a Human Right Exhibition, Philadelphia (original photo by Annie Seng)

I ain’t got no home. I’m just a roamin’ round,
just a wandering worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard wherever I may go.
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
 
My brothers and my sisters they’re stranded on this road.
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod.
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door.
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
 
Was a farmin’ on the shares and always I was poor.
My crops I lay into the banker’s store.
My wife took down and died upon the cabin floor.
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
 
Now as I look around it’s mighty plain to see
this world is such a great and funny place to be.
Ah, the gamblin’ man is rich and the working man is poor.
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
 
-”I Ain’t Got No Home in this World” by Woodie Guthrie

Beginnings Are Difficult

How to start something new? This question troubles the academic as well as the activist. At the moment it troubles me both as a question of inquiry and as a meta-question of method.

In my previous work I have argued that human rights should be judged first and foremost by the consequences they bring about. Do human rights enable new forms of politics? Do they enable politics that increase the control we have over our lives, or that reduce the suffering and humiliation we are exposed to? Or do they confine us in a liberal subjectivity that makes wider visions of justice impossible, which push us to reconcile our beautiful revolutionary dreams to the limited horizon that contemporary liberal capitalism imposes?

I have offered a qualified defense of human rights as a democratising ethos, which suggests that human rights can enable everyday people to challenge the terms of legitimate political authority, including the institutional shape of their government and the makeup of their communities. This is done by formally opening up the identity of “rights holder” to anyone, regardless of their social position. This opening, however, is only formal and in that formality human rights have an ambiguous significance. For this reason, I have argued that to think of human rights as a democratising ethos also requires that we attend to the politics of human rights. This means that ensuring that human rights support democracy and equality is a political struggle as well as an ethical vision.

Continue reading

Friday is for Beautiful Revolutionary Dreams and Pragmatist Notes

8 Jun

Imagination is the chief instrument of the good. It is more or less a commonplace to say that a person’s ideas and treatment of his fellows are dependent upon his power to put himself imaginatively in their place. But the primacy of the imagination extends far beyond the scope of direct personal relationships. Except where “ideal” is used in conventional deference or as a name for a sentimental reverie, the ideal factors in every moral outlook and human loyalty are imaginative. The historic alliance of religion and art has its roots in this common quality. Hence it is that art is more moral than moralities. For the latter either are, or tend to become, consecrations of the established order. The moral prophets of humanity have always been poets even though they spoke in free verse or by parable. Uniformly, however, their vision of possibilities has soon been converted into a proclamation of facts that already exist and hardened into semi-political institutions. Their imaginative presentation of ideals that should command thought and desire have been treated as rules of policy. Art has been the means of keeping alive the sense of purposes that outrun evidence and of meanings that transcend indurated habit.

-John Dewey, Art as Experience

Kind of a big deal…

14 Mar

But I suspect it’ll get slightly fewer views than that other video…

Kony 2012 and The Choir of Saviors: You got a song you wanna sing for me?

11 Mar

You got a song you wanna sing for me?
Sing a song, singing man.
Sing another song, singing man.
Sing a song for me.
One for the pressing, two for the cross,
Three for the blessing, four for the loss.
Kid holdin’ a weapon, walk like a corpse
In the face of transgression, military issue Kalash
Nikova or machete or a pitchfork.
He killing ’cause he feel he got nothin’ to live for
In a war taking heads for men like Charles Taylor
And never seen the undisclosed foreign arms dealer.
Thirteen-year-old killer, he look thirty-five,
He changed his name to Little No-Man-Survive.
When he smoke that leaf shorty believe he can fly.
He loot and terrorize and shoot between the eyes.
Who to blame? Its a shame the youth was demonized.
Wishing he could rearrange the truth to see the lies
And he wouldn’t have to raise his barrel to target you,
His heart can’t get through the years of scar tissue.

-”Singing Man“, The Roots

60 million people and counting have now heard about Invisible Children’sKony 2012“. Criticism of the group has been substantial and judicious. The group has defended themselves. Humorous memes are proliferating. Over-exposure has already begun to create awareness fatigue. Yet there is a serious issue largely unaddressed: the most troubling elements of the “Kony 2012″ phenomenon are not unique to Invisible Children, but reflect serious moral and political problems with the pursuit of international criminal justice, and in particular the mission and politics of the International Criminal Court and their controversial prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

To put it bluntly: while Jason Russell addresses his audience in the same way he addresses his five-year-old son Gavin, which is clearly inappropriate given the complexity of the issues he’s asking us to consider, Russell’s framing of the evil of Joseph Kony and “our” responsibility to stop him is importantly similar to the narrative of international criminal law, and Ocampo in particular. We should not be too quick to denounce the moral idiocy of Russell as a personal failing – his sentimental and messianic film represents a revealing apotheosis rather than a transgressive break from our sense of international justice. There are unpleasant resonances between Russell and Ocampo – the ICC prosecutor has already praised the group, saying,

“They’re giving a voice to people who before no-one knew about and no-one cared about and I salute them.”

But the commonalities run deeper than a strategic endorsement and should give us pause before we conclude that while Invisible Children may be unscrupulous and ill-informed, some form of outside intervention is needed to save the children of the Great Lakes region of Africa (to say  nothing of the adults being killed) – and yes, an arrest warrant and possible trial by the ICC is as much an intervention as a military invasion. Russell’s call to “stop Kony” is disturbing beyond his narcissism and the organisation’s inept policies and campaigns, his messianic moralising, in which he positions himself (and those like him who just need to be roused to action) as the hero for the powerless victim, is a single melody line in the score that guides the choir singing for international justice. His self-regarding indignation, and our discomfort, should inspire introspection into the desires that lead us to demand that Kony stand trial at the ICC or to insist that “we” must do something to stop the evil that besets that part of Africa.

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