Among the Atavists

If there is one especially lazy characterization among the many about Scotland’s independence referendum, it is the description of the Yes movement as motivated by ‘atavistic ethnic tribalism’ or the like. Toss a pebble at the UK commentariat and you will come across it soon enough: from the Guardian to the Financial Times, the argument is the same. Britain is the outward-looking future, an independent Scotland a reversion to the barbaric past.

Taken literally, the idea of reverting to a period before Scot and Englishman jointly exported the apparatus of colonial power and racial supremacy they forged in Ireland to the rest of the world does not seem at all regressive. One can scarcely imagine an Indian or Ghanaian, for example, objecting to the move on these grounds. In the same breath as condemning the Yes campaign’s alleged ethnic tribalism, Unionist commentators give as their prime reason for retaining the UK its 300 years of success. Of what, in large part, does that success consist? Why, expanding into other territories and enforcing a hierarchy by which the indigenous inhabitants were plundered of their resources and denied self-government on the grounds of their alleged genetic or cultural inferiority. A textbook case of ethnic nationalism, you might say. One might think that someone celebrating centuries of such behaviour would baulk at condemning the ‘tribalism’ of others.

There is no insincerity in such condemnations. We can have no doubt that when Sir Jeremy Greenstock says of the referendum:

in this ­complex, unpredictable and sometimes threatening environment, the instinct to return to the tribe is understandable. Yet it is creating momentum for global chaos.

he believes it. So profound a substratum is British nationalism that men such as these, its prime beneficiaries, cannot see that their tribe – easily identified by its common modes of dress, speech and rituals of adolescent sequestration – dominate all the institutions of the British state and therefore articulate their interests as universal. Were a Kenyan of Gikuyu heritage, or a Syrian of the Alawite faith to do the same, we can imagine what would be made of her.

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Living Knowledge Traditions and the Priestly Caste of the Western Academy


The Western Academy, especially in its social science and humanities wings, incorporates as a priestly caste. Perhaps Kant is the first high priest of this caste when he argues for the Aufklärer to become a corporate entity equivalent to the hierocracy and nobility but exceptional in its duty to provide a truly public service of reasoning. The psalm of this priestly caste is “have the courage to use your own understanding”, its catechism: to singularly possess and hold aloft the flame of revelation, known as science, or, nowadays, the modern episteme. Even Marx holds the flame aloft when he takes Hegel’s Philosopher, who breathes world spirit, and makes him inhabit the skin of the Communist.

This priestly caste, as it founds the church of modernity, is instantly and integrally involved in founding a broader colonial division of labour.  These new priests conjure up the traditional/modern divide by the use of history –  differentiating old and new European Western societies – and by the use of anthropology (later, sociology too), by differentiating the colonized from the colonized. The living knowledge traditions of the colonized are pronounced dead on arrival in the present. And their cosmologies, philosophies, social practices – are entombed into opaque “cultures” the contents of which can only be clearly illuminated by the keepers of the flame. 


Ultimately this mapping of difference works through race, gender and class coordinates so that even the “poor” living in the West, as well as un-mastered women and single mothers intersect with (post-)colonized subjects to become part of this opacity. The episteme of the Western Academy thus differentiates between the knowers and the known.

In this respect, the modern episteme is as seminal as gunboats to the maintenance of colonial difference. Key to this difference is not just the attribution of extra-ordinary exploitation, oppression and dispossession to colonized peoples but also their epistemic erasure, i.e., the outlawing of the possibility and desirability of intentional self-determining community amongst the colonized and their post-colonized descendents. It is in the colonial world and not Europe where Europeans develop the art of objectifying peoples into populations such that the basic competency of the colonized to self-define is deemed absent by the instruments and mores of European sanctioned international law. Postcolonial populations have only been able to become peoples under very specific conditionalities; and many who make the transition become the new police of colonial difference. Those who fall between or prefer a third way become the ungoverned, or ungovernable.

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Stop and Search: Race and the Politics of Suspicion

banksy-searchStop and search at Notting Hill carnival

BETWEEN me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

– W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (1905)

Video from excellent activist group Stop-Watch.

The political pause over Stop and Search

The riots of 2011, and the research that was conducted afterwards, have had multiple political effects. Of these, one of the most important has been a clearer public exposure of the deep animosities generated by police use of stop and search powers against young people and especially those of black and Asian backgrounds. Whilst the idea that stop and search causes animosity is not news to anyone interested in British race relations or human rights, it has unusually become the focus of increasing political attention. For many years the Independent Police Complaints Commission has warned that the use of stop and search powers may be being exercised in a discriminatory and unaccountable way, and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission have been investigating police forces on this front.  Yet it was only following the riots that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe began a large overhaul of the use of the power in London in 2012. Following this, parliamentary briefings were issued which pointed to the broader ineffectiveness and abuse of the powers, and the Home Office has launched a consultation into the use of stop and search. In launching this consultation, equality-sceptic Home Secretary Theresa May acknowledged, in very measly terms, the discriminatory ways in which these powers had been exercised:

The official statistics show that, if someone is from a black or minority ethnic background, they are up to seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than if they are white. Now we should not rush to conclusions about those statistics, but everybody involved in policing has a duty to make sure that nobody is ever stopped just on the basis of their skin colour or ethnicity. The law is clear that in normal circumstances, stop and search should only ever be used where there is a reasonable suspicion of criminality—and that is how it should be. I am sure we have all been told stories by constituents and members of the public about what it is like to be a young, law-abiding black man who has been stopped and searched by the police on more than one occasion. If anybody thinks it is sustainable to allow that to continue, with all its consequences for public confidence in the police, they need to think again.

House of Commons Debate, 2 July 2013 Continue reading

The Queer Art of Whistle Blowing

What should we make of the fact that Bradley Manning has become Chelsea, that Glenn Greenwald is gay, that David Miranda loves a man enough to submit to the harassment incurred by his partner’s work, that Greenwald’s detractors sought to tarnish him by association with—of all things—a porn company? Possibly nothing generalisable, except that gender is doing work here.

There has been no shortage of voices denying a straightforward connection between sexual orientation, gender identity, and patriotism. (Part of the reason I feel compelled to write about this is that there isn’t one.) San Francisco Pride Board notoriously repudiated Manning’s election as a Grand Marshall in the 2013 Pride in that city, declaring: ‘even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms [sic] way the lives of our men and women in uniform—and countless others, military and civilian alike—will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride.’ That statement has not been retracted, notwithstanding its now patent inaccuracy in light of the prosecution’s inability to cite any evidence that Manning’s leaks led to any deaths and the court’s decision finding her not guilty of the charge of ‘aiding the enemy’. Kristin (formerly Chris) Beck, ex-US Navy Seal who recently announced her gender transition, has been harsher in her condemnation of Manning: ‘For this person, whether male or female to use gender identity to act “BADLY” is a slap in the face to me and everyone who does not fit the “Binary Gender Norm.” It is not an excuse for anything illegal or unjust.’ Pablo K is right to point out the dangers of the temptation, for those who see a link between sex/gender and truth-telling, to make the reverse move—’to relegate Beck to a minority report, and so to re-inscribe the hierarchy of authenticity, this time with Manning as the actual face of resistance, and Beck the mere puppet of militarism’—while pointing out, also, that the gap between these contrasting appropriations is constitutive of the space of contemporary politics. So let’s talk politics.

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Washington, DC: a human rights city?

Below are some initial reflections on the work I’ve been doing in Washington DC on the human right to housing. They are not terribly substantive and serve as much as a tribute and thank you to those who hosted me as disquisition on the topic. But I wanted to post the piece for those who might be interested in my broader project, or what’s going on in Washington DC. Enjoy.

In December 2008 Washington DC was declared a human rights city. The DC City Council passed the resolution, pushed for by the American Friends Service Committee. While this is a lovely idea, it leaves one wondering what does it mean to be a human rights city. In particular, what does it mean in a city defined by inequality, where more than 15,000 citizens do not have homes, where 20% of the population lives in poverty, where housing is more unaffordable than anywhere in the United States, and where public and affordable housing is under constant threat. Perhaps the declaration of DC as a human rights city would seem less cynical if the DC City Council or the Federal Government had shown themselves committed to protecting the human rights of residents of the District, particularly the right to housing.

Housing is a Human Right

Human rights promise us many things. The right to housing, however, is perhaps the most fundamental. What do our rights mean if we do not have a place to call home? Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promises that

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The right to housing is fundamental because it is in our homes that we find the space to rest, to pursue wellness, to find love, to raise families, and build communities, to collect our energy and thoughts so that we can participate in democratic politics, and it is where we find the safety, security and privacy that make a dignified life possible. Continue reading

Constructing National Security: U.S. Relations With India and China

Jarrod HayesA guest post from Jarrod Hayes on his forthcoming book. Jarrod is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2003 he received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder in astrophysics and political science. He completed his Ph.D. in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southern California in 2009. Prior to joining the Georgia Tech faculty, he was the ConocoPhillips Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Oklahoma. His areas of scholarly and teaching interest focus on the role of social orders in shaping international security practice. His scholarship appears in the European Journal of International Relations, German Studies Review, International Organization, and International Studies Quarterly.

Srdjan originally approached me about doing this guest post six months ago. So my thanks to Srdjan and the gang for their patience and for giving me an opportunity to discuss my forthcoming book Constructing National Security: U.S. Relations With India and China, set to come out with Cambridge University Press in September (available on Amazon for a discount). What I would like to do is discuss a bit of the background of the book project before addressing the substance of the book and conclude with some of the implications and questions raised by the work.

The book initially started as a project on the democratic peace. When I was in graduate school, I was captivated in my very first semester (Introduction to IR theory with Robert English) by the law-like regularity of the phenomenon—loads of papers and books demonstrate that democracies do not fight each other (see among others my 2012 article in the European Journal of International Relations, also Harald Müller and Jonas Wolff’s ‘Many Data, Little Explanation’ in Democratic Wars: Looking at the Dark Side of Democratic Peace and Ungerer’s 2012 review in International Studies Review). In part owing to how the subject has been investigated (more on that below), academics have lost perspective on the significance of the phenomenon. Security seems to be everywhere, and applied to almost everything. The initial impetus for the highway system in the United States was national security. President Dwight Eisenhower’s avowed purpose for building the massive transit network was to facilitate the movement of U.S. military forces in the event of a land invasion. Two years later security was used to justify education policy in the form of the 1958 National Defense Education Act. The list goes on. Almost any topic one might think of has probably been included under the rubric of security. The democratic peace, however, points to a notable exception. As reams of evidence indicate, democracies have been consistently unwilling to label their peers as security threats. The puzzle is obvious: how is it that democracies have avoided constructing each other as threats while so many other subjects have been labeled as such.

US Army Books

The significance of the democratic peace is self-evident in my opinion. As I read more of the democratic peace (DP) literature, however, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the collective effort to identify the forces that generate the phenomenon. Methodologically, regression-based studies dominate the field. While these studies have been invaluable in establishing the claim that the democratic peace phenomenon exists, by their very nature they are able to demonstrate only correlation, not causation. Not surprisingly, what effort these studies do make towards understanding and explaining the democratic peace focuses on causes — norms and institutions — that could be quantified, sometimes through tenuous proxies. Yet, because the quantitative nature of the studies does not enable access to causal forces, the mechanisms behind the democratic peace remain shrouded in shadow. Perhaps surprisingly given my educational background, I was particularly dissatisfied with the theories and causal assumptions that underlie them in the literature (for the sake of brevity and focus, I will not go into this critique in depth, but interested readers can find it in my 2012 article in the European Journal of International Relations). My dissatisfaction with the literature, specifically with its tendency to brush by the big questions of how the democratic peace is possible, led me to begin pursuing my own theory of the democratic peace.  The book is the result, although it has since grown into an effort to understand how identity shapes security outcomes in democracies.

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The Manning Trial, Truth-Telling, and The Precariousness of Democractic Society

The following is a piece written as part of an interview I did at City University on the political and ethical significance of the Bradley Manning trial currently ongoing (links to potentially embarrassing video to follow).

I think that the most important thing that the Bradley Manning trial shows us is the gap that opens up between our legal institutions and our sense of right and wrong, between the law and morality. Many people around the world are shocked by Manning’s imprisonment. People are shocked partly because he has been held under conditions that the UN said violated his human rights, but also because Manning is being tried for exposing the actions of US soldiers and diplomats, including evidence of many potential and confirmed human rights violations. Manning’s supporters are incredulous and view the proceedings now taking place at Fort Meade as illegitimate.Bradley Manning War Crimes

I understand this incredulity and on a level I share it. What I want to suggest, however, is that what we are seeing in the trial of this young man is even more troubling than the corruption of the law by politics – it reveals that the law is always suffused with politics. The law is a technical code. Yes, it is also a normative system that is supposed to determine right and wrong, guilt and innocence. But it is vital that we do not forget that it is a technical code first and foremost, a code that political authorities use to justify their power. Therefore, those with the capacity to influence and manipulate the legal code will always be at an advantage, will always be able to shape that code not towards the pursuit of justice but towards their own interests. This is what Finnish legal scholar Martti Koskenniemi calls this the gap between apology and utopia. The law has its utopian moments and this is especially true of human rights law – for example, Manning supporters see him as a hero who has exposed the grievous crimes of the US government and its military, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. They appeal to human rights standards that are quintessential moral claims, but which sadly lack the force of political authority and so are not reliably protected. This is important, but the law also has its moment of apology, where it serves the interests of established authorities, of powerful actors like the US government.

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