Category Archives: western lifestyle

reality check: American radicalism

At the start of December 4th 1969, Fred Hampton was drugged by a FBI informant after teaching a political education course at a local church in Chicago. Later, when he was passed out, fourteen cops burst into his apartment and murdered him in his bed, next to his pregnant girlfriend. After two shots to the head to confirm his death, he was dragged into the hallway and left in a pool of blood. He was 21 years old.

Almost 100 years earlier, John Brown sat at his desk, waiting for execution at the age of 59. He wrote his last words to his wife. She was waiting nearby, but he was refused the right to spend the last night of his life with her, that refusal being the only time his stoic comportment threatened to break down. He had helped lead a militant uprising of enslaved people. He was hanged and then put in his coffin, noose still around his neck, and sent back north to be buried.

The list of American radicals who died in battle against a massive system of oppression is long and should be a source of pride for Americans who seek to follow a life fighting for economic and social justice. They were those who were expelled by the society they lived in because of their beliefs, because of the color of their skin, because of their sex, the list goes on. These were people willing to die for their beliefs. Even those who were possibly not ready still died sometimes. They were those whose death would perpetuate the American machine of oppression and pain.

What is a radical? A radical is a thorn in the side of what she opposes. The radical is pushed outward like a splinter under the skin. The radical accepts that she will live a life of lack unless she gives in and changes her mind. Even then, she might not make her way back into the fold. This is to be expected – a radical seeks to disrupt the reproduction of  oppression, not negotiate or change it warmly. As we edge closer to the abyss, as the planet itself threatens to crumble underneath our feet, those who would call themselves radicals must make a decision. Are they pleading or are they demanding? Are they negotiating or are they accusing?

When I was a little girl, I learned about my great-grandfather, shipped over from the old country as a child and sold to a mining company in Montana. He grew up to become an IWW organizer and was beaten, threatened and blacklisted. Blacklisted was the first radical word I learned. To be blacklisted is a heavy thing for sure, and my grandfather grew up in crushing poverty. My great-grandmother begged for food. No one offered him a warm hand because he was a thorn in the side of capitalism, because he demanded that workers have the right to the means of production and to the fruits of their labor. The labor movement was fighting for an eight-hour day. Now, as the eight-hour day slips through our fingers, today’s self-proclaimed radicals write television reviews for major American newspapers and hold court at academic conferences.

They claim they are interested in building a party – but where is the phone number? How do I get involved? Is it a party that will vote Democrat? The academics – and I am an academic, considering my education – fight over semantics and whether or not pornography is ethical. Meanwhile, people all over the country are ready for more. They are ready for disruption. Sectors of this generation see the ability to reproduce themselves being eroded away. Nearly seven million Americans are under correctional supervision. Schools are being closed. Poison is being poured in our lakes and rivers, in our oceans and all over our land. Be sure – this will not hold. It’s not sustainable. But the people in power will try every trick in the book to sustain themselves.

We’ve seen it before. We talk about women as if their biggest problem is what sort of clothes they’re wearing. We talk about race as if we have the first black president. Now the very term “radical” – a comforting dogwhistle nowadays for sleepy anticapitalists – is being appropriated, subsumed into the project of class reproduction. When you broadcast your opinions and find it thrilling that major media outlets have brought you on board, you need to consider your part to play in the reproduction of class. Do you make a living on your radicalism? Do you want to? My beloved once told me: “I want to be a low-level Soviet bureaucrat, but you live the life you have, not the life you want.”

There is nothing wrong with carving out a corner and trying to feed yourself. It is quite another project you are envisioning, however, when book deals with no outlines line up and event coordinators begin to court you. When you imagine a new party, one that appeals to the so-called masses through the capitalist propaganda machine, you must be very careful. When you start getting printed in the New York Times and Washington Post, when you see your face staring back at you as the primary photo accompanying a story, you must be even more careful. A story about you is not a story of the system of oppression that cracks skulls every day in this country.

When your critics become your trolls, this is because you somehow think your points are correct because you have more of a space to speak. You forget how you got this page space, you forget why it was given to you. You (yes, you dear reader!) are part of this machine now. The skin is not pushing you outwards, it is pulling you in towards its organs. Close your eyes and imagine what is is like to have paid staffers, then wonder why so many Black Panthers were sleeping in the same apartment that tragic night in Chicago. When you yell down that someone is a troll because they have less twitter followers than you, remember that you are calling yourself a radical and placing yourself in a pantheon of radicals who gave their lives to end capitalism. Wonder then, why Fred Hampton wasn’t published in the New York Times.

Slavoj Zizek is honest when he says that he thinks there must be a vanguard party because he himself wants nothing to do with struggle, with politics. He wants to be a boring man with a boring life somewhere. Who then, will execute the ideas of those who proclaim to be on the vanguard of the Left today – who are the radicals? Do they exist? The Left Forum is this weekend in New York, and Verso, the leading publisher of leftist books, sent out invitations to their after-party. Have we ever seen such a crowd of communists who are so willing and able to rationalize away their own inaction? Watch them drink cocktails and discuss the importance of this or that idea, watch them rally around positions like it’s some sort of game. I went to an ISO meeting in Brooklyn and met fund managers, people in advertising. We must look at the way that these “radical” ideas should shape our lives. What worth does a bunch of words on paper have when there is no one that is willing to put their thoughts into action? What do these “writers” even think of their own ideas when they do not even inspire themselves to make the necessary sacrifices, adopt the necessary discipline? Here we suddenly find shivering cowards, insisting that they are caught up in their everyday lives too much to put a shoulder to the wheel and push.

Overthrowing capitalism is about sacrifice and discipline. When we fantasize class revolution or wars against Nazis, we fancy ourselves willing to give our lives to the cause. Yet when it comes to choosing paths in our lives, we hesitate in committing fully to our positions. It becomes about this or that obligation, the desire and right, we bark defensively, to lead a normal boring life. Tough shit, comrade! If even Marx shivered in poverty while shoveling what money he had into failed revolutionary causes then surely you puffing up about twitter followers, an appearance on television or in the pages of a society magazine is nothing to brag about. If people like John Brown were willing to put their head in a noose, if strikers willing to be shot in the streets for demanding eight-hour workdays, if tens of millions of Soviets died fighting the Nazis, isn’t steering clear of a lifetime of normalcy and comfort the least you can do?

somatophobic feminism I

Dying was the best piece of publicity Shulamith Firestone ever generated. A name I did not hear much in 2012 seems to be making a comeback in 2013. I could not grasp what made her so rehabilitatable at first. “Radical feminism” is almost a slur nowadays, while hissing at and even physically attacking “radfems” is quite  nearly applauded on the left. So when Laurie Penny tweeted about how fond she was of Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex” I had to finally raise my hand and ask why. The most memorable chapter I could recall was Chapter 5, “Rasicm: The Sexism of the Family of Man” which was one of the more shockingly racist things I’d ever read from a second wave feminist. Penny said her favorite was the chapter that comes after, on love, and that she could effectively divorce the underlying premises from the previous chapter. How? Even within that chapter we find abhorrent essentialism, totally unhelpful analysis based more on Firestone’s own life than on conditions women face.

The underlying theme to Firestone’s work – and part of why I think it’s been rehabilitated – is a very vicious somatophobia (fear of the body) that complements contemporary racist and classist feminism very well. On request, I emailed Penny to ask her what could be gleaned from such a feminism – she has not responded. This destruction of the female body – either from thinking sex work is “just like any other job” or from the surgical/chemical feminism that holds hands with liberal trans feminism – is rooted in a dangerous essentialism. The woman is unable to escape her body, therefore she must destroy it. Reminders of her body, e.g. birth, menstruation, voluptuousness etc, are considered traumatic.

Masculinity is being able to transcend the body by immersing oneself in the “world of the mind”, by utilizing technology, by challenging the mystification of the body, of reducing people to individuals and individuals to their individual parts. Federici writes on surgery theaters of the late middle ages, of women being cut open and their mysteries being laid bare as a kind of terrorism and disciplining of the female sex. The mystical experience of pregnancy and birth reduced to organs, the rearing of children (reproduction of labor force) reduced to individual events and biological needs, schedules and regimins. In Firestone’s technofetishistic fantasy of babies grown in vats and raised by the state we have made quite a leap. The oppression of woman under capital is found in her body that betrays her by swelling large with children, by losing its perkiness with age, by gaining wrinkles around the eyes. The betrayal trans people describe in the process of puberty is the same betrayal women face as they go through puberty, as they age. The solution to this oppression posited here (with Firestone) is to embrace the flesh and conquer it and shape it to our will using technology and surgery. By embracing  masculinity-through-technology we too can escape our oppressive bodies. The hate is turned inward, festers like an ulcer. We blame ourselves, our lack of spirit, our lack of ability to change our own situations. It is atomizing and alienating.

In this, liberal and pink feminists willfully ignore the forces that assign such values to the body that make us hate them. Infuriatingly, they say there is nothing to be done about this. They say that men will always want to buy sex, they say that women are programmed in their brains to be the way they are, that gender is an essential biological condition as opposed to a system of active oppression under capitalism.

Birth is a powerful thing. Reproducing society is essential to our continued existence. There is no shame in breast feeding, no shame in menstruation, no shame in pregnancy or varicose veins. These are positions of great power for women, it is male technofetishism and capitalism that have turned these things into cause for shame and weakness. That Shulamith Firestone hates the body, hates weakness in the self is understandable, considering the pain that women go through on a daily basis in being women. However, she is misdirecting her hate and fear, putting the blame on women themselves. Her essentializing logic is dangerous, and the fact that her ideas have once again found traction in a “new generation” of “feminists” is troubling indeed. I hope that women are critical when they read these works, that they critically ask their friends to what end they are fascinated by fantasies of birthless, bloodless womanhood. We must make a decision of what we wish to transcend: capital or the flesh?

Further reading:

ADS <3 KIDS

 by Iikka Vuorela, part of weird twitter and the rhizzone

Much like how run-of-the-mill nerds have fled the unsanitary physical world into the internet, My Little Pony, WoW and animé, so too are the academic hopefuls today hella eager to devote themselves to a Zizekian hodgepodge of social commentary based on irreverent anecdotes, film theory and Lacan, and generally anything postmodern and deconstructionist in favor of trying to consider solutions to localized, individual situations involving real human beings. There is a particular subject that feels, to me personally, hella overlooked: television. Another: babies, toddlers, children. Because of the former, the late capitalist world is more hostile, manipulative and alien place for the latter to grow up in. Moreso than anybody is willing to admit to themselves.

Most households still have televisions and children grow up in front of them, while the content has steadily gotten more and more sophisticated in manipulation. But this dilemma is no longer one that spawns discussion in the media, internet, academia, anywhere. Television is old news. And so, as it is being overlooked, the blame on the arrested development of the western youth has no target. So, the youth keep coming up with targets, using Lacanian analysis and Marxist theory to explain top-down the horrors of late capitalism, perhaps even intentionally distancing themselves as far as possible from the localized interaction they themselves were a part of years ago: the television and the toddler.

We’ve forgotten television. And who can blame us, what with how fast the internet grew? Who here is boring enough to still go on about the dangerous effects of television on our youth? Now it’s all about the effects of social media, ultra-realistic video games, sexting, internet porn and all that good stuff. Who even has a television nowadays, man.

I would argue that what has been completely missed by the population at large is that television still exists as the primary medium that capitalism uses to reach small children and that the harmful effects of it are supremely underestimated.
There are many other facets of capitalism that were new, or at least rapidly evolving, during the war and after it, such as the fast food industry, Coca-Cola (you mustn’t underestimate the incredible changes in western societies that soda pop alone has wrought), supermarkets, additives, rise of advertising and branding. These elements are now part of the past, their harmful effects on the psychology and physiology of children and adults universally accepted as a part of living in modern society. Such effects are casually shrugged off as something one must simply teach their child to bear. As far as ads, television and branding go, most people deny any brainwashing takes place in the first place. And the academia shrugs and says ‘Heh, sheeple will be sheeple’.

This attitude is probably unwillingness to accept the contradiction. How can television still have control over me, it is a thing of the old world? There’s Youtube now, and internet forums. No way can such an antiquated piece of shit have a hold on me psychologically. It does not and never did.

I am not claiming these to be arguments that media and academia have made. They are the reasoning we, in our hurry, give ourselves so we wouldn’t have to talk about television. Why would you want to, when what you know is the internet and Zizek. Where your strengths and interests lie, there you will seek to shine the spotlight and call to people ‘let’s find out more about this here, btw I’m an expert and my fees are very reasonable’.

But if you force yourself to think on the old, forgotten television, the reality of the situation is clear. We are more vulnerable the younger we are. When we were at our most vulnerable, during the first three or four years of our lives, everything else paled to the effect of the television. The light, the sound, the fast pace, the cuts, the people, the colors, the volume, the products, the cartoons, the music, the hypnosis and, of course, as the opposite, the numb reality we had to return to eventually. Nothing compared then, nothing compares now. Nothing except video games. But those are for later years. It’s fair to say that during the first three years of our life at least, television is king. And by the time any other medium has a chance to challenge it, it has already been accepted into the fabric of reality as a natural, unchanging constant.

Today, television is not something brought into the household, it is not an artifact discussed, examined, taught. Television is simply there, always. It’s there from the moment you first eye your surroundings while going hog wild on your mothers teat in the living room. Television is the air you breathe, and with it come the ads.

Ads and children. This is the interaction that sculpts us more than we’d like to think.

A child cannot discern the nature of an advertisement in any shape or form. It does not understand where the ad comes from, why its there in his or her home. The child does not understand why it is necessary for the network to air adverts, receiving ad revenue in exchange to fund the cartoons the kid loves. The child does not understand that the man telling you about the new product line isn’t doing it out of goodwill. To a small child the ad man’s unbridled enthusiasm about a particular brand of dish washing liquid comes off genuine. To a child the only reason the ad man could be so excited is the unforeseen awesomeness of the product. The child receives a simple message: this is a thing worth getting more excited over than anybody you’ve ever met has ever been. The child understands the message at the shallowest level possible: product good. So good we had to come into your living room and tell you directly. It’s brainwashing at its most basic, plain and simple. Later on in life the child grows up and doubts that he or she was ever manipulated. After all, they’ve grown up and learned the art of cynicism. Even if they were successfully manipulated in your early childhood, surely the damage was minor and in the long run without consequence. No way could my psyche be damaged irrevocably by something as benign as television advertising. This is the reasoning that people who spent their childhood in front of a television go through to arrive at the decision to not deny their children television for their first years. To keep television away until the kids will have grown old enough to be able to discuss its characteristics. I’d say it’s obvious that the damage is not minor, it doesn’t go away by itself and as it affects the vast majority of the population of every western country, the accumulated harm is innumerable.

I want to paint a picture of an oft downplayed horror in the life of a western adolescent at the age of two or three or something. I dunno, could be four or five or six. Here I’m writing about babies and know shit about em. Anyway the horror: the supermarket. Imagine yourself a child; before your eyes lay the endless spoils of capitalism, toy aisles unending, sugary goods in colorful packages under lighting so strong you can make out every detail and fine print. Compared to your dark damp murky moldy cavelike apartment your parents covered in furniture in faded cream and beige, everything looks so clear, colorful, crisp and lifelike; it’s as if every product on display jumped out from the glowing backlit screen of a television set and walked onto the shelves. This is it. This is where you’d end up if you could jump inside the television. It’s so beautiful. And never-ending. You can’t even see up to the highest shelves. Should you let go of your moms hand, a little pee would come out and tears would follow. How helpless you, how vast the supermarket. A sea of everything you want. And not only what you want. More. You don’t even recognize half of the things on display. Every other package introduces a product you didn’t even know you wanted. But it’s all variations on a theme. Look here, you haven’t seen ads of these products before but you can tell that they could have their own ads on the tube anyday now. The packages all have similar style when compared to their neighbors on the shelves. They all have brands. And brands cannot live without advertising. That must be it. You’ve simply missed their ads. More the reason to have it, to try out a brand you haven’t even seen ads about. What a thrill. And look at the amount of brands and things. The games, the appliances, the clothes, the bikes, the televisions, my god the size of the televisions. And the food, the candy, the soda, the types of bread, burgers, pizzas, ice cream, yoghurt, cold cuts, juices, on and on and on. There’s so much of everything it’s blowing your fragile little mind: so many brands and each brand more colorful and stylish than the one before it.

It’s no longer a daydream or an analogy. You have stepped inside the television. The ads were right, they were all right. The people were smiling for a reason. This is why the man in the ad was yelling, this is why everybody was jumping up and down at the thought of getting whatever the man was selling.

No way is all this the work of a man. Look at the size of this place. Who could alone build a store this big, who could alone keep these endless shelves stocked with products. Who could give life to cartoons, make these plastic figures and electronic gadgets with no uses discernible to you. It’s better not to even think about it. Maybe this is what everybody else’s life is all about. There’s hella families here isn’t there? Maybe everybody else lives here.

Maybe it’s the sugar from the candy your mom always gives you for the car ride here to keep you quiet, but there’s no denying the reality of the situation. You’re somewhere better than your own life in every way.

Every wish fulfilled, all wants met, this is the grea-

We’re leaving already? But the cart isn’t even halfway full. Look, that family has two full carts and the kid even gets their own to push around. This can’t be right. You don’t mean to say you brought me here to smell all these boxes, to press the PUSH ME’s, to fly from one daydream to the next, which I, a child, by the way, can’t discern from reality too well anyway, to hug the huge elmos, to read the descriptions of all the board games, to spell out the entirety of the disney dvd aisle, to greet all the kellogg’s animals and dream about the time it would take me to drink through all those coke bottles on display, and the end result is that were going home with just groceries. Why aren’t we taking more. They’re right there. You can just pick them up, there’s plenty room in the cart. I can tell you what we need, I saw some cool shit on the television. Hey. It’s not funny. Look at this shit, it’s right there. You can just pick it up, look. Look. Look. I just picked it up, I’ll put it in the cart. That’s it. Simple.

Teaching critical thinking at college level is too late. Writing books about capitalist realism is too little. All rhetoric is powerless. Indoctrination starts at the cradle and sinks so deep into the depths of the unconscious that it will never see natural light.

What a perfect boner we’re committing. Just try and tell people to give up television for the first few years you have a little kid the house. That’s not gonna happen. Don’t tell me how to raise my kids. I need my soaps. They’ll grow up weird if they don’t know what American Idol is by age four.

Destroy television. You personally have probably made the logical leap from ‘I’m no longer thinking about television at all and nobodys talking about it, its all Facebook this and twitter that now. Television barely exists in my life anymore dude.’ to ‘theres no reason to get riled up over television anymore.’ There’s plenty reason. More reasons are born every day. And they’re most born into the poor families, the ones most vulnerable, most likely to stay in front of television.
What kind of anti-television films do you remember? Cable guy? That’s it? It’s all always played out irreverently, maybe a minor character acts weird because their parents were never home and they grew up watching too much Leno. It’s never portrayed as a fundamental piece in disturbing the psyche of everybody involved. It should be. But we’re in denial. It’s hard to get riled up.

We do not dream of a just society. We dream of nothing, because the only thing we want to dream of has been sealed off as unnatural, monstrous gunshot wound of a thought shot into us by the omnipotent artifact we now pity as the major relic of the impotent, naive past. We won’t allow ourselves to dream of it, not ever. And so our dream will never be filled. The only thing we can and want to dream of, really and honestly as the children we are to our graves, is a happy meal.

what’s changed since then?

As’ad AbuKhalil faces off against a liberal actor, a white woman who proclaims herself as a “voice for Middle Eastern Women”, a huffing anticommunist Cuban ex-pat polemicist, and the very personification of smug white male privilege himself – Bill Maher. What’s surprising about this “discussion” is that so little of the discourse has actually changed since November 2001. The panel makeup remains the same and Bill Maher (and by extension his constituency) continues to know more about Islam than Muslims:

yad vashem

I never liked being tickled as a child. Someone was eliciting a response from me that was not 100% genuine and was completely beyond my control. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized this happened all the time. When you walk out of a movie crying, you’re feeling something completely manufactured and often cheap. I didn’t like horror movies because it seemed so manipulative. I enjoy film and music that makes me feel something, but I prefer to have control over my emotion. A song might make me feel happy and think of a loved one, or a film might fill me with a kind of dread that I can reflect on in my own life. I hated Passion of the Christ because it took a story so integral to the Western experience – the story of Jesus of Nazareth being crucified – and turned it into a cheap kind of horror film. Without exploring the messages behind Jesus’s life or feeling the impact of the sacrifice (according to Christianity) we were simply disgusted and horrified by CGI chunks of flesh flying off the Roman’s cat-o-nine tails and the seemingly endless rivers of blood pouring down the face of Jesus. It’s like pornography, I thought. I’m just supposed to be feeling something… not for any reason, not to change my mind about something, but just to feel something. I felt like using Jesus as the vehicle for this kind of elicitation was cheap. After all, the Christian story of Jesus is so deep, so laden in mystery and humanity, that to boil it down to weeping audience members, vomiting children… it all seemed so besides the point.

Likewise, when I visited Yad Vashem yesterday I felt that since the presentation of the Holocaust was so manipulated, I should be as critical as possible to do honor to the subject. Nevermind the fact I was aware of the political situation outside of the walls and had just come from a checkpoint with automatic weapons, barbed wire, and endless swaths of concrete. Nothing can compare to the horrifying nature of the Holocaust, as man’s technology finally advanced to the point where we could make killing factories and machines, an entire mechanized industry out of eradicating human life mirroring some sort of industrialized assembly line. Yet what am I supposed to feel when I am walking through Yad Vashem?

The building itself is remarkable – poured concrete and little light – and the exhibits are created so one is forced to step back and look up. Your first introduction to the story is antisemitism. Christianity is blamed for its spiritual creation – complete with quotes from St. Augustine – and its biological and racial roots are traced to the 19th century. We are then told in brief and in passing that Nazi antisemitism was somewhat of an economic thing, that the Europeans were jealous of the Jewish people’s accumulated wealth in a time of poverty. This is the end of explanation and by the time you exit the first room of the museum there is no more explanation necessary and you are instead launched into an orgy of emotion.

When we look at locks of a little girl’s hair, of toothbrushes, family heirlooms, tefillin, and shoes in the floor, what is it we are supposed to feel? Miniature pewter models of death camps Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek… plaster models of the gas chambers at Auschwitz complete with writhing bodies suffocating in agony. Here: stand next to a bunk or walk on cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto. How does this make you feel? Is it not enough? Perhaps photographs of naked women huddled before a pit of bodies, a wide eyed man sitting on the edge of a pit with a gun to his head. The video display of an old woman describing in broken Hebrew her experience clawing through dead bodies after the bullet missed her. The culmination is a red-cheeked fat American woman sitting down and shouting to her companions that she is going to be sick.

So you’ve elicited the response, now what? Besides the lack of the word “Palestine” anywhere in the Museum, the only outwardly Zionist gesture comes at the end, when you are standing before the placid hills of West Jerusalem, the sun setting behind them in a wonderful way. Perhaps the motive is in the glorification of Jewish resistance fighters near the end, the rehabilitation of the “sheep to the slaughter” image you might have cultivated until this point. Who knows what it is? I walked through taking notes as photography was not allowed, but even I had to put away my notebook eventually as the bile rose in my throat and my cheeks burned pink.

Yet I felt silly. After all, little of this had anything to do with me. That American woman feeling faint and needing to sit down – chances are it had little to nothing to do with her either. Guides took through their American charges, whispering in low tones, “You know, I heard this one story about a man in America who realized he was living next to a Nazi.. did you know Europe and America took in Nazis?”

No one can deny the scale. No one can deny the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Yet the stated cause behind it – the racial motivations of the Nazi party as opposed to capital, war, etc… the thinking part is shelved and the emotional part is coaxed out instead. If the goal is to “never forget” – well, who would be in Israel and forget the Holocaust? If it is a memorial to the victims and their humanity, why the photographs of naked children in medical experiments? So then why Yad Vashem, why in Jerusalem, why such a presentation and display? It was a strange museum to human evil and yet offered little in the way of solutions or even reconciliation. The only real emotions to be felt there were anger and burning shame.

The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as a spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ‘n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.

– Thomas Pynchon

between worlds

Where else on earth do you travel so far as along the road from Ramallah to Jerusalem? Finish up with the wall, the checkpoint, the watch towers, the barbed wire, the guns, the soldiers, the questions, the passports, the turnstiles, the crackling loudspeakers. Ride a little ways, take a little walk, and suddenly be transported to another world completely. Surround yourself with well-dressed people sipping coffee and listening to Billie Holiday. Go wandering boutiques and sanitized markets, eying sales and new arrivals.

Realize for a moment, after you imagine the impact of an explosion on this place you stand, that you are the connection between these two places. You are a wormhole through which both experiences exist nearly simultaneously. In other times your apparition would be an expression of rage or  violence, but at this moment it is a swallow and a dizziness, a sense of disconnection and an emotional dead-end. You are that which exists between two worlds, both here and when you go home.

Perhaps it is easy to imagine the severity of the shift when you walk it yourself, down back alleyways of Jerusalem past Arabs who turn into Jews who turn into hip young twenty-somethings on vacation from America. Yet it is the same all over. Take the walk from the North Side to the South Side, step over train tracks or MLK Boulevard and it can be the same thing anywhere else in the world. Sure, differences are even more cartoonishly apparent here, what with the change of printed language and lack of barbed wire, but the occasional soldier walking past you on Jaffa Road, notably more at ease with an ice cream cone in their hand and gun bouncing their hip as they walk, will remind you of it all. Are you more at ease here? If you forgot the change, would you relax and have fun too?

This little ride, this little walk, illustrates perfectly the relationship of violence in our modern times. One exists because of the other, and one would not exist without the other. Without the checkpoints, there would be no bare-armed girl flirting with the barista at the cafe. Without the soldier playing video games at the arcade, there would be no empty-eyed disconnect at the checkpoint. Without the Deleuze and Guattari at the second-hand bookshop, there might not be modern justification for all of it.

Start to wonder which way things flow over this bridge you represent. Are you observing or carrying? When you left America you swore to try and be like the signs in the national parks. Leave things as you found them. So then, do you start to doubt the cut of your coat in the windows of the boutiques on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem or do you start to hate your uncovered hair in the eyes of the young men on at-Tiere Road in Ramallah? Have you tried your best to move among these worlds, not changing anything?

After all, it is not your place to do anything but go between them.

February 11th

The aim is not to promote an organic Arab democracy ‘of the people, and for the people,’ but rather to promote an evolutionary “democratization” in which the old despots of American strategic support are removed in favour of a neoliberal democratic system, in which the outward visible institutions of democracy are present (multi-party elections, private media, parliaments, constitutions, active civil society, etc); yet, the power-holders within that domestic political system remain subservient to U.S. economic and strategic interests, continuing to follow the dictates of the IMF and World Bank, supporting America’s military hegemony in the region, and “opening up” the Arab economies to be “integrated” into the world economy. Thus, “democratization” becomes an incredibly valuable strategy for maintaining hegemony; a modern re-hash of “Let them eat cake!” Give the people the ‘image’ of democracy and establish and maintain a co-dependent relationship with the new elite. Thus, democracy for the people becomes an exercise in futility, where people’s ‘participation’ becomes about voting between rival factions of elites, who all ultimately follow the orders of Washington. 

This strategy also has its benefit for the maintenance of American power in the region. While dictators have their uses in geopolitical strategy, they can often become too independent of the imperial power and seek to determine the course of their country separate from U.S. interests, and are subsequently much more challenging to remove from power (i.e., Saddam Hussein). With a “democratized” system, changing ruling parties and leaders becomes much easier, by simply calling elections and supporting opposition parties. Bringing down a dictator is always a more precarious situation than “changing the guard” in a liberal democratic system.

from America’s Strategic Repression of the ‘Arab Awakening'”

The fever pitch excitement and elation on February 11th echoed another event in recent history: the Obama election. The power of the people was hailed and a new chapter in history emerged. After the disastrous upset of a false success the night before, when Mubarak appeared on television and called the Egyptian people his children, a pallid Omar Suleiman appeared the next night and said he was gone. Rejoice! Television presenters wiped tears from their eyes. The people danced in the streets. Finally – justice prevailed. Egypt was free! But what did that mean?

I was called a cynic immediately for not joining the rejoicing masses. Yet I’d been led on before. The election of Obama was supposed to herald a new age in progress and democracy and it has done nearly the opposite. Likewise, the day after Mubarak left office and the television cameras began to be shipped back home, the Egyptian military began a quiet bust-up of the few hundred protesters remaining in Tahrir Square who insisted with some confusion that their demands for democracy and a free society had not yet been made! The promises of the army to hold elections in September nearly echoed the ones made by Mubarak. Yet the people had cried for his resignation. Well, give the people what they want – but not what they really want. With so many slogans centered around one man, the dangerous possibility of the entire movement being co-opted by his name became a reality. With Mubarak gone, what was there left to complain about? You got what you asked for – now get back to work!

I still plan on traveling to Egypt in the coming weeks and will report back what I see, if these steps towards democracy – this outrageous show of the people’s power – have gained any wins towards alleviating the day-to-day situation of the Egyptian people.  I sincerely hope things have improved, yet it remains to be seen if the conditions of over 20 million living in slums on less than a dollar a day will have changed much. A social movement is only gauged in how it uplifts the lowest members in that society. I would hate for Mubarak to be right on this point. I sincerely hope the protesters were not simply the petit-bourgeois reacting to satellite television. I hope history sees February 11th as the first battle won in a broad people’s movement for actual change.

the palestine papers


I’ve been learning how to play chess. So far I’m only able to see four moves ahead, which makes me a pretty mediocre player. I’ve only won two games so far, but I’m trying every day to be able to see more and more moves ahead, to work out different scenarios and keep them running parallel so I can advance. What I’ve gathered so far, though, is that the most important part of chess is to be able to react to an opponent’s moves with a clear mind and steady hand.

So when I see something like The Palestine Papers being published by Al Jazeera, I have to stop and examine the board critically before I react. Some facts to consider:

  • Al Jazeera is a state-owned and state-run news organization.

A reaction I heard today was that Al Jazeera works for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. While this may not be true in a literal sense, we can’t forget that Al Jazeera is an incredibly powerful wing of the Qatari foreign ministry. Qatar has been courting foreign money by the fistfuls, bringing in international games, conferences on private security companies, and offering terrific incentives to multinational corporations.  Whatever Al Jazeera was ten years ago, they are not the same organization today.

  • The Palestinian Authority / Palestinian Liberation Organization has to negotiate with the Israelis if they want to gain international support.

Since – according to the intelligentsia – armed and civil resistance has failed, the only way towards survival is to court the support of the international community. The PA does this in two ways, through economic and diplomatic means. Through economics, they present themselves as an easy place to do cheap and dirty business. Through diplomacy, they hustle from embassy to embassy begging for recognition while using their presence at the UN to pressure for resolutions condemning the Israeli occupation. The only way they are able to sustain either of these fronts, though, is through appearing as a valid party in negotiations with the Israelis. Therefore, to keep both outreach approaches strong, they must continue with negotiations at all costs, even if this means offering bizarre concessions to the Israelis. The fact that the PA is still willing to “play ball” after the genocide in Gaza and continued appropriation of land in the West Bank is proof of this, since any strong actor would have abandoned negotiations long ago. But the Palestinian Authority is not the strong actor. Their grip on power is contingent on whether anyone will meet with them. If the Israelis and Americans continue to meet with them, the sick truth is that the rest of the world will see them as valid representatives for the Palestinian people.

  • Both the Palestinian Authority / Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Israelis must sustain the negotiation process in order to maintain the status quo abroad while advancing interests locally.

This is why the peace process never fails. It simply stalls or is frozen, perhaps moving from direct to indirect negotiations from time to time. The present negotiations between the two parties have painfully dragged along for nearly two decades with nothing to speak of except continued encroachment of the West Bank and Gaza while the Palestinian Authority gains stature in the eyes of the international community.

Yet it is not just Israel and the PNA/PLO that benefit from these negotiations. The USA uses them as election fodder and the Arab states use them as an excuse to continue business-as-usual with Israel while neglecting the refugees that crowd their borders.

So what is the point of releasing these documents? Barring some sort of collective madness, the Palestinian people are not going to overthrow the PNA and expel the PLO. Gaza is a stark, daily reminder of what happens to a people who decide to stop playing the game. It’s possible the Israelis will look bad for not accepting such gracious concessions, and that the Palestinians offering them nearly all of East Jerusalem and their major settlement blocs will make it seem as though they are negotiating in bad faith.

However, without further facts at this point, the only conclusion I can draw is that this is a move designed to humiliate the Palestinian people further. They are being shamed for not being able to change their current situation. Really, this has been the overarching theme to the occupation that I’ve seen so far since living here: instill shame. Whether through stumbling drunk teenagers in Ramallah plotting their ticket out, hassle at the checkpoint, constantly jumping through hoops for a job or foreign aid money, casual cancellation of elections, and being forced at gunpoint to the negotiation table, the main goal of the occupation is to bring low the pride of the Palestinians. It still makes one wonder who it is, if not everyone involved in these negotiations, that wants them brought to their knees so badly.

the almighty dollar: part 3, guest contribution

Part I and II of this series on the American Dollar can be found here and here.


Simple Thoughts on Money
by Donald Hughes


Money is not the root of all evil, but it does come from a sort of failing. That failing is that we have, so far, found it impossible to limit our consumption to our needs while contributing what we can in the absence of an apparatus of coercion. Even stating the problem, however, gives a sign of how difficult that challenge would be to meet. Money is how we make certain promises to each other. If we recognize our need for a high level of coordination between people and property with a fairly strict degree of rationing, it makes sense to express that coordination in prices. Once you have a set of prices, certain imperatives require a related monetary policy and systems of coercion to enforce the price system. Nothing in this seems inherently objectionable if you can tolerate the “original sin” of the loss of achieving the communist ideal. Prices perform strong information functions, and if they reflect real social costs then they are a beautifully simple way of conveying an immense amount of wisdom about how a consumer might behave. For example, if I buy food that is more expensive, I know it took more scarce resources to consume it, encouraging me to go for more efficient options.

One problem with this simple model is that markets produce severe inequalities which exacerbate the basic failing at the heart of prices, and become a tool for freezing in yawning gaps in wealth and power. One argument is that if inequality derives from free choices then it should be tolerated. For example, as Robert Nozick suggests, imagine if a person is good at basketball. Now imagine if everyone in an equal community gave a little bit of their money to see them play basketball. The inequality resulting from this would be immense, but is it really the sort of thing the state should be trying to prevent? The argument made is that both sides are better off, at least in ideal conditions, so that there shouldn’t be an arbitrary intervention to prevent free choices that lead to unequal resource outcomes. While this may be sensible to some degree, a counterargument, made by G.A. Cohen, is that a person acting in step with justice and community would not demand extraordinary inequalities in order to deploy their talents. Indeed, if we go back to the communist ideal, shouldn’t a person simply perform their best at basketball because it will make people happy, rather than using it as a strategy to deny them their wealth? While this argument seems powerful to me, one can easily see the complexity of the issue – if you have prices at all, then you really are accepting the logic of prices, to some degree.

Returning to the idea of the principle of community, I agree with the idea that true market rivalry is not consistent with a strong sense of justice. This places me on the socialist side of things. However, there are other values at play. One recognition of this diversity of values is a reasonable pluralism. If we are still in the age of money, then it seems unlikely that a planning system that approaches the totality of society is compatible with a maximum degree of latitude for a wide range of opinions on how to organize ourselves. That is, socialism might require more of us than we are currently able to agree on. I believe that workers’ self-management is an important component of participatory democracy, but I see how not everyone agrees with that, and how markets can allow different people to pursue radically different models of organizing with relatively little conflict. If there is to be an overlapping consensus on a certain political conception of justice, then, perhaps it makes sense to focus on issues of inequality within market societies, and in ways of introducing participatory elements in the economy in a more measured way in response to the advance of a more comprehensive moral doctrine associated with socialism. In other words, there might be sustained moral change over time until socialism becomes part of the overlapping consensus, but we need to recognize that it is far from agreed upon in current debates.

Pluralism is not the same as defeatism, of course. I do believe that money is historically contingent and may well disappear over time. There are good reasons to shape markets and to insist on maximizing workers’ control, and the state will still loom large over the many choices of how to structure society while guaranteeing access to adequate incomes and wealth. Using prices and structured property rights to achieve shared aims seems like a second best in the absence of a more complete Utopia. Even the limited planning functions of a social-democratic state are useful foundations for future moves towards an advanced form of a just society. It will take radical moral change or stupendous economic progress to make money superfluous, and it will be an immense effort simply to reign markets towards more egalitarian outcomes. Fortunately, the quest to achieve justice seems limitlessly exciting.

the almighty dollar, part 2: global islamist strategy

Part I of this series on the American Dollar can be found here.

Turkish water, Arab Gulf capital, Egyptian labor, and Israeli know-how will join hands in a sheer material enterprise with no identity or sense of direction. Consequently, there will be no feeling of pain caused by loss of dignity.

from The Imperialist Epistemological Vision” by Abdulwahab al Masseri

The Muslim world is a giant untapped well of power. Geo-strategically, the Middle East has always been important – straddling important trade routes and acting as a bridge between several continents. Even the Muslim minorities of the world, that is where Muslims make up a minority stake in a society, contain roughly 40% of the global ummah. Acting as a unified actor, the Muslim world is over a billion strong and contains much of the world’s capital and resources.

The issue is a splintering of the ummah that followed the rightly guided caliphs and the Golden Age of Islam. At one point, the Muslim world was one unified empire stretching from the Himalayas to the Straits of Gibraltar. Societies kept their identities and ways of life provided they were not against basic principles of Islamic governance. Identities were forged within the Muslim world – indeed, Egyptians in particular have always been fiercely nationalistic – but the kind of nationalism imported since the end of direct colonialism in the area is new and unfamiliar to many Muslims who still see themselves as Muslim first – Indian, Pakistani, Iraqi, Filipino second.

At the top of this Islamic world sits some of the greatest concentration of capital in the Gulf countries. Glimmering skyscrapers towering over empty streets, air-conditioned stadiums, and the sheikhas gliding through malls covered in black and gold, their filipino servants trailing behind buckling under the weight of shopping bags. It’s no wonder this Islamic elite has come under attack in recent decades by AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) as both an attempt at capital accumulation and an ancient drive from sects from the Sufis to the Khajarites who sought to deliver divine justice to the corrupt heads of the Caliphate. These today being those who control the capital and the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina.

Yet the strategy has shifted in recent years and rage has grown considerably in these offshoot groups. Instead of seeing the House of Saud as solely responsible for their predicament of addictive shopping and rampant tastes of luxury, the global Islamic resistance movement have lifted their eyes to the very top – America and Europe. By smashing at the dollar they are forcing the rich and corrupt among them to either reconsider their lifestyles or run for the hills, as seen recently in Tunisia.

What part does Israel play in such a strategy? Abdullah Azzam, famous mujahid in Afghanistan, became somewhat disillusioned as he was told to keep his desire for jihad against Israel on the back-burner and continue his focus against the Soviets. Is it any surprise that he and others who shared his view suddenly turned up dead in Peshawar – their suspected killers being Iranian Intelligence, Mossad, or even Osama bin Laden himself? Why is Israel so protected from the brunt of Islamic militarism? The simple answer may be that it represents a strategic interest to foreign colonial powers. Considering that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military equipment is kept in storage in Israel and their physical presence as a thorn in the side of the Middle East, this could be true. Yet they are becoming more and more brave, unafraid of keeping their American masters pleased with their progress. Why is this? I’ve come to understand that Israel poses little threat and possesses no real strength in its current position – it’s very presence in the Middle East is part of the strategy.

The decaying, autocratic Middle East and the Muslim world in general is propped up by a wilting dollar. Israel is the gun held to the heads of the Arab capitals, ensuring that they will not jump ship. Imagine an intricate game of mouse-trap, with the final string of yarn tied around the trigger of a Tavor held by the Israeli government. It is in their interest as well that the dollar sustains, considering much of their foreign capital is held abroad and – if one is to imagine (as Israelis themselves do) that Jews worldwide are simply expat Israelis, a large portion of their population and subsequent charitable income and moral support depends on it as well. The methods Israel uses for colonial advancement are dollar-heavy and follow traditional, if not sloppy, methods of free-trade strategy.

Like the housing bubble, nearly anything will be done to keep the system afloat in the Middle East, to keep the money from the Gulf tied up in luxury yachts and the rest of it tied up in weapons. In such a high pressure situation – that is to keep this attempt to keep the bubble inflated – nearly everyone’s interests will be to sustain the status quo, especially when it comes to the dollar. The Saudis want to stay in power, the Assads want to stay in power, the Hashemites want to stay in power, Mubarak wants to stay in power, and the Israelis want to continue making money and building settlements. Everything about Middle East diplomacy is about keeping thirty cats from scratching each other to death while someone else keeps stealing all the cheese. So where do those who want to change the status quo hit the hardest?

Maybe it takes years for the seeds to sprout, but as unrest begins to ripple across the Maghreb from Algeria to Tunisia to Libya to Egypt, we can see the house of cards start to tremble something terrible.