Methodology and Other Forms of Standup Comedy

This conference season, I presented papers at two conferences: the Law & Society Association in Seattle, and the Canadian Law & Society Association Conference (part of the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities) in Ottawa. Both times I paid a fortune for registration, listened to lots of good papers, and got laughs for the methods section of my paper (and I’m actually happy about that).

So what’s so laughable about my methods? Well, it’s mostly that I’m being honest (if not overly honest) and that I do research in ways that are workable. So let me explain.

My project is to figure out how and when the term “civilian” as distinct from “combatant” emerged. In addition, I want to know which attributes and qualifications civilians were thought to have had. This is important because we had and have lots of contestations about who is a “real” civilian, whether people are “abusing” civilian protections, and so on. We know that as a technical term in international law, “civilian” emerged around 1900.

This is where my methodology comes in: how do I find out more? Where? Well, there is the question of feasibility: at this stage of the project (and with conferences on the horizon), traditional archival research is simply not feasible. In addition, I strongly believe that we should work with the accessible sources to construct a skeleton of knowledge before choosing less accessible sources that might help us to fill gaps. There are different ways of putting this into fancy language, and what I said at the conference is that “my methodological preference is doing whatever I can do without leaving my desk.” [laughs]

That’s really only slightly exaggerated. I had two major options of sources for figuring out when and how international lawyers used the term civilian: old textbooks (on dusty shelves) and old journals (dust-free on JStor). I picked JStor not simply because of the ease of access, but also because the American Journal of International Law, among other journals, is full-text searchable on JStor. In my case, I would have to show that in certain contexts and times, the term “civilian” was not used. If I choose books as sources, I’d most likely have to read hundreds of pages to confirm the absence of a word. Starting with a searchable journal allowed me to get a sense of the quantity and distribution of the usage of the term within just a few minutes of searching. As a next step, I could select the articles that contained significant mentions of the term and analyze them. If I had started with the books, I would still be slogging through a 1903 textbook, I fear.

In short: Choosing sources for accessibility really isn’t a crime. Rather, if given the choice between two sets of sources, choosing the one that is more accessible and more searchable makes good sense because we don’t have endless time to spend on our research.

Speaking of time: the second overly honest methods remark that got laughs was my statement that I read the journals from 1900 to 1920 “because that’s when I had to stop reading to write this presentation.” That was true. Okay, I had glanced at the next few volumes of the journals, and I had an idea of what was going to come up: League of Nations, aerial warfare, Bombing Damascus, and so on. Of course time wasn’t the only issue; I felt that the end of WW1 was a end point for that paper. But rather than giving an intellectual justification of that cutoff point, I just said that this is how far I got. And quite often, I think, our papers and articles end where they do because that’s where we stopped reading out of a number of reasons: time pressures, the sense that this is the most important part of the story, and the recognition that an article that attempts to analyze a larger time period isn’t necessarily going to be a better article. You start with more material, but the editor still only allows you 10,000 words. That’s life. There’s another article in it, somewhere, once we have time to get back to the sources.

What, then, is so funny about my research methods? Maybe it’s the gap between our actual research practices, constrained by time and resources, and our often lofty intellectual pronouncements about methodology that provides good material for comic relief. This is not to say that research isn’t as fancy as it claims; its just that there are very mundane factors that drive the research decisions we make and that we don’t often acknowledge.

I’d better end this post now because I still want to get one of these delicious Fruit & Nut bread loaves at the Wild Oat Bakery.

The fog of war and the fog of research

This semester I am enjoying the parallel tracks of two activities: research on a new subject and teaching undergraduate students about doing research. The tricky thing about research in much of the social sciences and humanities is that the work takes place inside our little brains, and is hard to show, describe, or document. After all, you only show up with the final result: a research paper that notes a puzzle, asks a precise question, and delivers (hopefully) a stunning answer.

The process of research is about getting there. It’s about all the ideas, guesses, questions, and suspicions you have before everything lines up neatly. But then again, who would write down their preliminary ideas and share them with the public?

Let that be me.

I’m furiously reading, thinking, and scribbling away at a talk I will give next week at U of O. This involves a lot of rethinking of assumptions, guesses, and refining of questions. So let me sketch some thoughts and tell you how I’ve discarded/refined/rethought them.

The topic: “The Optics of Bombing: International Law, Civilians, Technology and Fantasies of Visibility.” How did I get there? When I taught a seminar on international law and violence, I had come across a UN press release that chided the Israeli Defence Force for not respecting the fundamental distinction between civilians and combatants in their attack on Gaza. This is a standard line you hear from the UN, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. The curious thing was that at the bottom of the document, the UN explained how it distinguished civilian from combatant casualties: only women and children counted as civilians. WTF? Really? You’re telling others to respect a fundamental distinction, but you can’t figure out who’s a civilian except for looking at age and gender, even when people are already dead?

Turns out that this is a common strategy, documented and interrogated brilliantly by Helen Kinsella in her article Gendering Grotius. Being civilians is a gendered performance. Check. But what can I do with this? How can I add anything to this research?

The other concern I had about bombing and civilians was that the common complaint about the NATO aerial bombardment of Serbia in 1999 was that the aircraft were flying too high, and that they would therefore be unable to distinguish civilian from military objects. There are plenty of reasons why human rights folks think the high altitude bombing was strange, not the least because it shifted the risks of the war from the combatants (pilots) to the local civilians. And it seems common sense that I can distinguish people better if I go closer.

Okay. Then I was thinking: If the UN can’t tell a civilian from a combatant in Gaza when they’re standing in front of them, why do we think that flying lower, or having better visual technology in airplanes would diminish civilian deaths?

When I initially wrote abstracts for my paper in progress, this is what I focused on: a critique of the fantasy that better technology allows us to see civilians better.

I still think that’s true, except for that it’s more complicated. I am combing through a German parliamentary report about the NATO airstrike in the Kunduz area that killed lots of people on September 4, 2009. The estimates about the numbers of people killed, and the numbers of Taliban and civilians vary wildly.

There are some things I expected about the report: the presence of women and children would indicate civilians. Different actors find it hard to distinguish civilians from combatants. There are constant complaints about the Taliban not wearing uniforms.

These are some of the things in the report that I didn’t expect, and that I find productively puzzling:

1. There were about half a dozen investigations of this air strike. The sheer amount of resources from different organizations (NATO, PRT, UN, Afghan authorities, human rights groups, …) is fascinating.

2. The officers themselves admit that they don’t know how to distinguish individual civilians from combatants (with the possible exception of women and children.)

3. NATO strongly relies on profiling Afghans as populations: a NATO directive asked that in preparation of air strikes, a 48 hour observation of “patterns of life” takes place in order to distinguish average civilian from combatant activities. Also, the main argument for why those present around the target (two abducted fuel trucks stuck in a river bank) can’t have been civilians was that civilians don’t hang out in rivers in the middle of the night.

4. While no one seems to be able to classify individual people as civilians or combatants, everyone is very keen on upholding the distinction and publishing lists of casualties that rely on civilians versus combatants.

5. Other proxies for distinguishing Taliban from civilians seem to be: locals are civilians, those who are not from the locality are Taliban. Only Taliban and their supporters move around at night.

What follows from this?

1. The distinction between civilian and combatant might not really help any civilian, but it helps those who direct bombs to make their conduct appear ethical.

2. The duty to distinguish oneself, make oneself visible, is no longer with the combatants, but with the civilians. This is not only a gendered performance, but has to do with inscrutable criteria and patterns such as not going out late, not being in the proximity of Taliban, and doing what “normal” civilians have been determined to do. Oh, and not carrying weapons. (Weapons can be made visible from aircraft, and have been used to determine that people are combatants. I wonder about the effects that this determination of status would have for the policing of, say San Antonio, TX.)

3. Some of the actors who counted lots of civilian casualties did so by asking villagers in the environs. But other authorities with local access, notably the Afghan government, noted a really high death toll, but also a very high number of Taliban killed and a low number of “real” civilians.

4. The terminology is shifting: from civilians to non-combatants;  the words “innocent” and “guilty” are being used a lot. I suspect translation patterns, but there is a clear moralizing going on as well. The German word I find, and I find troubling, is “unbeteiligt,” which translates as “not involved.”

5. The fog of war has nothing to do with poor visual equipment. It is not the image on the screen that is blurry, but the categories. What is interesting then, is how the distinction is maintained in spite of the impossibility of seeing the line between civilians and combatants, and what is done with the distinction. Clearly, civilians bear the burden of showing that they are indeed civilians. Also, the military actors emphasize the care they put into avoiding civilian casualties. However, they themselves don’t always know who’s a civilians and who isn’t.

More forthcoming. This is really a scrapbook. Its rough. It’s research at work, or in motion (is this trademark now available?). Please do comment about the process, content, or anything you would like to add.

Welcoming Omar Khadr Home for Thanksgiving

In early October, many Canadians travel “home,” to their families, to celebrate Thanksgiving. Families are celebrated, constituted, and affirmed in this ritual feast. On September 29th, just in time for Thanksgiving, Omar Khadr found himself on a flight from Guantanamo Bay to Canada. Khadr’s homecoming s contested and raises questions for the nation as the family writ large. A commenter on a news story remarked: “It does not seem right that Canada took him back into her arms after trying to cut one off.” Happy Thanksgiving, or what?

Who is Omar Khadr? He was born in Toronto. The Khadr family spent much time in Afghanistan, where the US-backed fight of Mujahedeen against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s morphed into other forms of organized violence in the 1990s. Omar’s father Ahmed Said Khadr was part of the Al Qaeda circle; he and Osama bin Laden attended each others’ children’s weddings. Omar was raised in this environment. On 11 September 2001, when he was 15, Al Qaeda members hijacked four planes and crashed all of them, obliterating the World Trade Center, killing and maiming thousands of people. In response to the 9/11 attacks, the US and allies invade Afghanistan. Omar’s father was on the list of wanted terrorists. Omar was part of the war that came to the place that his family stayed at. On 27 July 2002, he was part of a group that was attacked by U.S. forces. In the attack, Omar was seriously injured; all other members of his group were killed. Three coalition soldiers were killed, among them one U.S. soldier. Omar Khadr was captured and eventually transferred to the infamous detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.

Is Omar Khadr a terrorist like his father, or was he a child soldier? Did he betray Canada? This is how we debate him.

Yet some basic facts about Khadr’s detention and ‘trial’ in Guantanamo are absent from this discussion. Yes, Khadr was a minor at the time of his capture and arrest, and courts typically refrain from charging persons under 18 years of age for violence committed in war. This is the child soldier argument. I agree with it; and yet, it is not even half the story.

Omar Khadr was classified as an “alien unlawful enemy combatant.” If this phrase seems new or confusing to you, your intuitions are correct. Let’s review the law of war. In its basic form, the law of war, called humanitarian law, distinguishes between two groups of people: civilians and combatants. For each group, different rules apply. Civilians may not participate in violence, and they cannot be targeted by combatants. Combatants are allowed to participate in the violence of war (within bounds, such as not targeting civilians), but they can also be legitimately targeted in war. Those who kill can be killed.

What, then, is an “alien unprivileged enemy combatant”? The phrase “enemy combatant” was coined by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1941 decision on German soldiers who, while sneaking into the U.S., got rid of their uniforms in order to commit sabotage. The court intended the term to be for one-time use. It allowed the government to treat some people as having none of the rights of civilians and none of the rights of combatants. This concept was recycled and extended through a series of court decisions. If you want to know more about the details, how about you read my article on the U.S. Supreme Court and enemy concepts?

After 9/11, the US government wanted to wage a war against people that had committed a crime; and it got tangled up in the contradiction between the different logics of crime and war. After a few years of legal wrangling with the Supreme Court, the government passed legislation establishing military commissions to try “alien unlawful enemy combatants.” “Alien” because U.S. citizens were entitled to rights that people like Omar Khadr weren’t. Those rightless people were subject to detention until the “war on terror” ends (don’t hold your breath) as well as trials by military commissions. These military commissions did not include independent lawyers or judges, and they operated by rules of evidence that seemed to have been copied from Stalin’s playbook. Technically, the Nuremberg Trials were also trials by military commissions. In practice, the Nuremberg trials relate to the Guantanamo Bay military commissions like a mansion to a wooden shack with a half-finished roof.

Omar Khadr was, in other words, rendered rightless by the country that captured him. He was also tortured. The conditions at Guantanamo Bay were such that up to this point nine detainees have committed suicide, and an untold number have attempted to do so. Details here and here and here.

What did the Canadian government do upon finding out about the legal black hole and physical torture that a Canadian citizen, a minor, was subjected to? Nothing worth reporting.

The UK government, also an ally of the U.S., was more vigorous in demanding the release of three UK citizens, the so-called Tipton three. Since their release in 2004, Rhuhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul have talked about the vilification and the mistreatment they endured. Under physical and mental assault, they made false confessions: “Mr Rasul admitted meeting Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta, one of the September 11 hijackers, in Afghanistan in 2000. In fact, he was working in a Currys store in the West Midlands,” the Guardian details. While the UK government could have done more for its citizens, the Canadian government could hardly have done any less for Omar Khadr.

In 2007, Omar Khadr was charged by a military commission with murder and attempted murder in violation of the laws of war. Khadr was charged with murdering U.S. soldier Christopher Speer by throwing a hand grenade, and with manufacturing IEDs, i.e. home-made explosive devices.

In October 2008, as part of a “pre-trial agreement”, Khadr admitted to killing Christopher Speer at a time when the firefight had ended. This statement was part of an agreement in which Khadr agreed to an eight year prison term, part of it to be served in Canada. This statement is not a document of facts found by an independent court, but a statement obtained through torture, intimidation, and the sheer inequality of the parties at military commissions. Remember that Shafiq Rasul admitted to meeting Osama bin Laden when Rasul was in fact in the UK. Khadr’s statement in the pre-trial agreement is also the basis for his possible parole hearing in Canada.

About a week ago, Khadr has come back to Canada, to a mixed reception of hostile voices (Public Safety Minister Vic Toews called him a “known supporter of the al-Qaeda terrorist network and a convicted terrorist”) and embarrassment for Canadian inaction in his case. He is imprisoned in high-security facility in Millhaven, Ontario. He will be eligible for day parole in January 2013, and for full parole later in 2013. This raises the question how Khadr and Canada will negotiate on his parole.  What does it mean to come home for thanksgiving? On which terms is he allowed to come? Are we ready to hear the complaints that the wayward son might have about us?

In order to get parole, the Parole Board tells us on the website, the board will look at:

  • Your criminal and social history, the reasons for and type of offence, including your understanding of the offence and any past offences;
  • Any progress you have made by yourself or through participation in programs, your behaviour in the institution and while on any previous conditional release(s);
  • Any victim impact statements;
  • Your release plan and your community management strategy.

What is Khadr supposed to say at his parole hearing? He counts as being guilty of an offence that would not be an offence if his age had been taken into account or if the U.S. had not invented the concept of “unprivileged enemy belligerent.” What kind of remorse can, should, or may we expect?

And what kind of rehabilitation should his detention in Guantanamo, prolonged through Canadian inaction, have constituted? If anything, he will need rehabilitation for the things he has experienced in Guantanamo.

Finally, is Khadr expected to reach out to “the community” of Canadians, to beg to sit at the Thanksgiving table, as if only he has done wrong, while the Canadian government and public are to be thanked for their “tolerance” of this “terrorist”?

This is going to be a complicated Thanksgiving with Omar Khadr in the country, locked away, and expected to talk to us at the parole hearing. Yet welcoming Omar Khadr back to Canada should not become an exercise in congratulating ourselves for braving the danger that he might pose. It should instead be an exercise in questioning how family and nation are felt, shaped, and upheld through action and inaction – not only on holidays, but throughout the entire year.

Feeling, Knowing, and 1984

This is roughly what I said at the September 19th Faculty of Public Affairs Panel on George Orwell’s 1984. I have written about my long and winding path towards finally reading the book elsewhere. Yes, I have finally finished reading the book, we had  great panel discussion, and below you will find what I said (minus the on the spot-improvisations).

I am grateful for the opportunity to re-read the book 1984 and to discuss it. But my excitement is mixed with other feelings about the book. While reading the book I was wondering why the FPA, apparently “we”, has or have chosen this book as the inaugural FPA Reads Book.

The book is important, without doubt. It reflects the political dreams, nightmares and ideologies of the first half of the 20th century, and it has decisively shaped how the West talked about the East, and talked down to the East, in the second half of the 20th century. During the Cold War, 1984 was largely available to people who enjoyed political freedoms. In the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, copies of the book circulated underground, but they were dangerous possessions. I knew someone who went to prison for reading this book in East Germany in the 1950s. Everyone in my family who had grown up in East Germany read the book only after 1989. The book not only reflected, but also shaped political discourse.

When I read the book, I was transported back to East Germany, but not in a way you might expect. Remember that I was told to read the book. I felt I was expected to like the book, to find it enlightening, thought-provoking, and interesting. And well, I really did not. The language seems stilted and cumbersome, the characters flat, and the plot predictable: guy who thinks he is rebellious will meet girl, and they will not live happily ever after. The book will have a love story and torture, probably in this order. Reading 1984 made me feel the same boredom and dread that all these lessons on Leninism and the Party as the Vanguard of the Working Class inspired in me long time ago. Back then, I felt unable to raise my hand and ask: Why are we doing this, and doesn’t every one else want to go home, too? Grown-ups deal with this problem differently; in the novel Victory Gin does the job. When I read the book, I really wanted some. But instead of staying silent or deadening ourselves against the world, let’s actually talk about the book, and let’s not pretend to adore it simply because it’s important.

Since I’m the only woman on the panel, I feel responsible for bringing up emotions. So let me talk about my feelings about the book and why I think that this book is incredibly limited: it asks us to identify with a protagonist whose repertoire of rebellion is to treasure everything the state dismisses. Critical thinking, however, is something else. First of all, I should summarize the book as I understood it.

In part one, we meet Winston Smith. He’s not well. He has a boring and weird job, the food is bad, the weather is bad, but at least there is plenty of gin. This raises the question whether his complaints have anything to do with authoritarianism at all: since he’s in London, UK, it’s only fair to expect bad weather and boiled cabbage. So maybe authoritarianism isn’t such a bad idea, as long as it’s done in a place with warm beaches and great food? Just ask people in Singapore. We later learn that shortages are deliberate, but we’re still not sure where the bad weather comes from. It seems unfair to blame the drizzle on the political regime.

Winston dislikes women, with the notable exception of his mother. He hates his wife for two reasons: First, she is stupid and emotionally attached to the Party, not to him. Second, she didn’t enjoy sex with him, which is something for which she, and no one and nothing else must be blamed. She viewed sex as an obligation: moreover, an obligation not to her husband, but to the party. Clearly, that’s an abomination. Winston more generally hates other women because they’re fanatical, attractive, and unavailable to him. When one woman confesses she loves him, out of nowhere, she immediately becomes the center of his life.

Part 1 of 1984 tells us everything about that dreadful place and the political system. Since we are getting bored by the political science lecture cloaked as a novel, Orwell ushers in a romance, and that’s part two. This works well with the gin we’ve had to make it through part one. It produces warm, fuzzy feelings that won’t last. In part two we also learn that sex is rebellion, and that women have minds devoted to more private matters such as family and black markets, while men obsess about the big picture of politics.

Winston and Julia meet the one underground organization that might or might not exist. They read parts of a book, reprinted for our enjoyment. The supposed manifesto of the opposition turns out to be a pretty good explanation of what was going on in the world. Here’s we are also reminded that Orwell was a socialist in mourning. He says, via Goldstein, “if human equality is to be forever averted … then the prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity” (246). Here, when Orwell can sneak in fictional non-fiction, he’s really quite good. Otherwise, as a fiction writer, he has to rely on tired plots and a vocabulary that feels as limited and limiting as newspaeak.

We know at that point that the “guy meets girl” story can’t go well. We’ve been told all the time that they won’t live happily ever after. Part three of the book has us witness how the state can turn humans into non-humans. But we can’t have that without the pornography of violence.

What exactly am I complaining about? The issue is not just that this is what it looks like when a non-fiction writer trying his hand at a novel. There’s a conventional, cheesy, gendered plotline. The problem is rather that the readers are invited to identify with the protagonist Winston Smith, who happily joins an organization that’s as charming as al Qaeda. What Smith is doing – and what many people in authoritarian societies do – is to hold on to a truth that is the opposite of what the state is doing. If sex is frowned upon, it becomes exciting. If he is supposed to love Big Brother, he’s trying his best to hate him. “To die hating them, that was freedom,” as Orwell put it. 1984 is a book that allows us to feel, by proxy, the self-righteousness of the opposition that believes to own the truth, which is incidentally exactly the opposite of what the state does and says.

This portrayal of rebellion is both frustrating and, sadly, convincing. We’ve been there. We need to go somewhere else.

Up until 1989, no one in my family (except my uncle) believed the East German state media when they talked about how great East Germany was. We saw the evidence with our own eyes, and we discussed it around kitchen tables. Knowledge is socially made, not only by the Party, but also by those who doubt it. The problem is that because the media was lying about everything we knew, we also didn’t believe anything they said about things we didn’t know, such as the cold, exploitative features of capitalism. We didn’t believe that capitalism sorts people into classes and blatantly disregards the dignity and rights of workers – until we were subjected to it.

We all need to recognize that to hate when you’re told to love is not freedom, it is binding yourself to the same powers that you want to break free from. Critical thinking looks differently.

To be “unorthodox” in a way going beyond 1984 can mean to find truth in statements from people you completely disagree with: for example that when the Party claims that it that it owns the past by altering and obliterating it, it might be on to something. There might be old photographs and letters, but, as historians know too well, we keep making and remaking the stories to make sense of the past.

Freedom means thinking and feeling for yourself, but this can only be done in the company of other people. We construct the language to make sense of the world around us. Together, we inquire, ask questions, make claims, judge other people’s arguments. Thinking can be solitary in the moment, but it needs social foundations. We produce knowledges, we keep debating them, and they shapes what we do.  This means that we should fight for conditions in which we can all participate in education, discussions, and other forms of knowledge production.

Critical thinking requires not only that we question the knowledge that comes with sanctioned by state power or corporate power, but also that we withstand the temptation to simply believe the opposite of what we are told. This was a hard lesson for those of us who grew up East of the Iron Curtain. But the temptation to think in stark contrasts and to believe in a truth uncorrupted by power is in no way a problem limited to those who lived under authoritarianism. For example, the idea that social equality is a bad thing because the Soviet Union was for it – and you know how that ended – is still quite widespread in North America. If we want to free ourselves from the Cold War (finally!) and from the world that Orwell was having nightmares about, it’s time to become comfortable with complexities and nuances.

Reading 1984

I am supposed to read George Orwell’s 1984. The Faculty of Public Affairs in which I teach has chosen the book as the “FPA Reads” book for this academic year. And I have been asked to talk about the book on a panel on September 19th. So far, so good.

Here’s the problem: I’d rather practice scales on the oboe for hours on end or deep-clean my apartment than read the book. I voted against the book out of my vague memory that Orwell was brilliant with non-fiction, but not so much with fiction. In fact, I voted for the one book that wasn’t Orwell’s 1984 or Romeo Dallaire’s Shaking Hands with the Devil. (Soggy tales of Western military humanitarianism is another thing I’m allergic to.)

On this sunny Labour Day weekend, I will not only see how Henna dye interacts with my hair, I will also endeavour in earnest to read Orwell (though I’d much rather read The Importance of Being Earnest).

What, then, are my fears about the book? In no particular order:

1. that it is boring (vague memory of that)

2. that it lacks nuances (a book that’s about right/wrong, truth/false without ever trying to challenge or deconstruct any of these distinctions)

3. that it’s the kind of book one is supposed to like, though we’ve all forgotten why

4. it really is a Cold War book, with fear and loathing and self-righteousness

5. Master and Margarita by Michael Bulgakov would have been much more fun if we wanted to talk about power and state control

6. the novel tries to work like a description of reality, which is a dull way for a novel to proceed

7. the people who seem to be most enthusiastic about the book, and most likely to invoke it, have anger-induced high blood pressure and seem a bit, well, unhinged in general (is this a book for angry white people like Clint Eastwood?)

8. that in rejecting the state it asks us to embrace the opposition, because there is nothing in between

9. that we pretend that the book can explain anything

10. that any criticism of the book would be met with “yes, but he wrote this in the 1940s, and isn’t it amazing how perceptive it was?”

11. that (in sum) it is important but bad

Okay, so far. 10 is plenty. I have clearly stated the fears, prejudices, memories, and perceptions about the book. Now I shall put some Henna in my hair and actually read the book, all the while tweeting and blogging about it.

Making People Invisible: Reading Eastwood through Ellison

Here’s how my research is going: it’s the Friday before Labour Day, the term starts next week, and I’m in denial about these basic facts. I’m also in the midst of taking notes, the most dreary part of research ever. I wanted to write a post about this, but then I watched the video of Clint Eastwood at the Republican Convention. The video is here.

I had gleaned from the twitterverse that the speech was rambling, potentially embarrassing, and weird. So I decided to watch it. What I saw almost made me choke on my blueberry yoghurt I had for second breakfast after swimming. Clint Eastwood put an invisible Barack Obama on a chair next to him to put him down, and to put profanities in Obama’s mouth. Oh my.

Has no one at the RNC read Ralph Ellison’s Insivible Man? It’s a great novel about the ways in which Black people in the South and in New York City are made invisible by the politics of looking, noticing, and looking through people. When I read the book, I was a grad student, new to the US and their racial politics, and I read the book on roughly the same subways that the protagonist rides, being made invisible. I do not claim to know now how it feels to be made invisible. But I am profoundly grateful for the novel; it made me so much more alert to the ways in which people interact in public space, including in the very subways I was riding. It made me feel uncomfortable in a very productive way. Maybe that’s why I like to do subway photography now … but I digress. One other blog post I have seen so far has made the connection between Ellison and Eastwood.

Clint Eastwood, in turning President Barack Obama into a cipher, an abstraction that cannot be seen, and cannot talk back, has done us the great service of illustrating the racial politics of the GOP. Minorities are talked about, not invited to talk. It’s better to fantasize about someone’s responses and explanations than to actually ask them and listen. And it’s impossible to imagine Black people to utter anything except for the kinds of profanities that would justify silencing them.

One could argue that Eastwood did not read Ellison and had no idea that his speech & interactions would come across as “offensive”. Or something like that. To which we should respond that it’s not just about the novel. Behind Eastwood, the grumpy old white man, stands a speaks an ugly string of US politics and history. As Judith Butler remarked on hate speech and hateful performances (in Excitable Speech, for the geeks that want to check out the book), the message is not on the surface of the utterance or action; it is created through the repetition and invocation of a history of racism, subordination and violence — and in this case, silencing. Eastwood enacted not only his own fantasies, but ways of seeing that run deep within US politics. It is everyone’s responsibility to not continue these structures of feeling; these ways of seeing, silencing, and muting people.

In the twitterverse, meanwhile, @invisibleObama is a new and thriving account. Barack Obama has responded to the performance with a tweet saying “This seat’s taken” and this photo. And this one. Did chairs just become a political issue?

This post has just become a research-in-progress update on two projects: first, the Hate 2.0 project, in which we should ask, with Butler, who and what speaks in racist speech: not only the speaker, but what else? How can we make sense of racist performances, their contexts, and the politics of blame around them?

Second, this episode got me to think about the upcoming project on making violence visible/invisible to international law. I am interested in the ways by which people make the claim that certain forms of violence should be a matter of concern of international law. Case studies will include genocide, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, and bombing. The project will also get me to think about what we mean when we say that something or somebody is visible or invisible. What are the regimes and nuances of visibility? I realized that my copy of Invisible Man is, well, not invisible, but in Germany. Let’s not make any more cheap jokes. So I ordered a new one, and I am looking forward to re-reading the book. Next on my reading list, however, is George Orwell’s 1984. Everyone in my faculty is supposed to read this book (doesn’t this sound like an Orwellian fantasy already?) and discuss it. I’ll be on a panel on Sept 19th to talk about it. Stay tuned. I will blog about reading the book.

Playing with Nationalism: My Op-Ed on the Olympics

This is my first Op-Ed ever, in the Ottawa Citizen.

The Olympic Games are not only the most competitive and watched sports event. The Games also have a unique spirit of understanding, diversity and equality. The Olympic Charter says participants are committed to “social responsibility” and “peaceful society.” Yet, over the duration of the London Olympics, three athletes have been sent home for racist tweets or extremist right-wing associations. Their actions — and the reactions of their Olympic committees — show that the Olympic spirit has a dark underbelly of hate. The Olympics rely on and feed nationalism, but they do not want to be associated with the devaluation of outsiders that comes with the nationalism they foster.

The entire piece: here.

A prior version exists as a blog post complete with references and all. Looking forward to comments.

playing research: welcome!

Playing research, seriously. Or not seriously. It’s August, a good time to pause, reflect, and gear up for the new academic year.

Over the summer I have started to blog at Hate 2.0, a blog for our research project on right-wing extremism and social media. I really like it. I should do more of it, but don’t want to spam one blog that’s project-specific with my research in progress on other issues. So welcome to the world, research play!

Research play? Research is playful in many ways: not just because it’s lots of trial and error, curiosity, and joy (with occasional frustrations). More on why I chose the name: here.

I will bravely start blogging bit about playing research, everything from ideas to reading documents, taking notes, writing, and editing. Ideally, however, I would like to share this space with others who would like to blog about their research: the process, the content, the ideas, the tangential bits.

If you are interested, please let me know!

Olympic Hate: A Tale of Fine Lines

This post originally appeared on Hate 2.0

The Olympics Games are in full swing, and we at the Hate 2.0 project are watching. We are not only interested in the stellar performances by Gabby Douglas, Michael Phelps and others, but also in the forms of inclusion and exclusion that the Olympics practice.

The good news: This is the first time that all participating countries sent female athletes. To be sure, Saudi Arabia was less than supportive of its two female competitors, runner Sarah Attar and judoka Wojdan Shaherkani. While these two women are challenging norms of femininity in Saudi Arabia and conservative Muslim communities, other athletes have breached racialized codes of who belongs where: Gabby Douglas has become the first African American and the first woman of colour to win a gymnastics all-around gold medal, and Cullen Jones made clear (to whoever needed proof) that black men can not only jump but also swim.

While this blog loves good news, we’re more interested in the mixed, messy and downright alarming news. Let’s focus on the share of the Olympics news that intersects with our work on hate and social media. So far, three Olympic athletes have either been sent home or left the Olympic village for reasons of racist behavior or associations. In two cases, the offences were committed on twitter, and in one case the long-standing association to neo-Nazi groups was exposed in a blog post.

The first athletes to leave the Olympics was Paraskevi Papachristou, the Greek triple jumper who tweeted (according to available translations) “With so many Africans in Greece… the West Nile mosquitoes will at least eat homemade food!!!” The Greek Olympic mission withdrew her from the competition and sent her home. Papachristou apologized on facebook, writing “I am very sorry and ashamed for the negative responses I triggered, since I never wanted to offend anyone, or to encroach human rights.”

The next athlete to pack up was Michel Morganella, a Swiss soccer player. After his team lost to South Korea, he wrote a racist message about South Koreans on twitter, was cut from the team, and apologized on twitter.

Finally (hopefully finally, that is), German rower Nadja Drygalla packed her bags and left the Olympic village. A blog based in her hometown Rostock revealed that her long-time partner Michael Fischer was a local Neo-Nazi leader. Fischer had been sighted at Neo-Nazi demonstrations, yelling, and taking photos of anti-fascist counter-protestors. He ran for parliament on the ticket of the rightwing NPD, he published and edited websites associated with the Neo-Nazi community.
Over the next few days, a few things happened: The German Rowing Federation and the Olympics Committee stood behind Drygalla, citing her departure from the Games as voluntary. Meanwhile a debate erupted in blogs and newspapers: are we blaming a woman for the views of her partner? Was she ever part of the Neo-Nazi network? Who knew what, and when? Who should have alerted whom, when, and why?
The facts are complicated. One newspaper published a blurry photo of a Nazi demonstration claiming that a woman in a white sweater was Nadja Drygalla. This is most likely not the case. More interestingly, it turns out that her partner Michael Fischer had been an elite rower who was at the same time known as a hooligan. He straddled the worlds of competitive sports and organized hate and violence for a few years. Nadja Drygalla has since claimed that she has never adhered to Neo-Nazi ideologies and that her partner has left the organization in May 2012. The latter statement seems patently untrue.

Why have these tweets, associations, and behaviours attracted so much attention? The initial reactions to all three events have emphasized that racism is contrary to the Olympic principles, to the oath that all Olympic athletes have sworn in the opening ceremony. According to the Olympic Charter, Olympians “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Moreover, “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” Racism is contrary to the official ethos of the Olympics.

A closer, more critical glance at the organization and practical ethos of the Olympics reveals something else. The Olympics organize athletes, events, and medal counts by country. They ask viewers not only to appreciate athletic achievements in general, but to take pride in the triumphs of athletes from their own country. The athlete stands in for the country, the flag, for the nation. True, there is the idea of the Olympic Peace: the cessation of armed conflict during the Games. But clearly, this is not happening in Syria right now. The Olympics, let’s put it this way, are replete with structural nationalism. They are the arena for competition between athletes and teams standing in for nations, dressed in uniforms with their national colours. Taking pride in one’s country during sports events might seem harmless, but it coincides with the devaluation of outsiders, as studies have shown. There is no such thing as harmless nationalism. The Olympics thrive on nationalism, and they fuel it. They want to be associated with pride in one’s country, but not with the devaluation of outsiders that tends to accompany such pride.

Viewed in this light, the reactions to the tweets and associations of the three athletes show that the Olympics are trying hard to draw a thin line between a “good” nationalism of pride and a “bad” nationalism of devaluating others that is to be expelled from the games. The triple jumper made horrific jokes about immigrants and the outbreak of a disease transmitted by insects. The soccer player did not contain his disappointment at losing in match, and expressed it in demeaning racial terms. We learn that losing is part of the Olympics, but it is to be done gracefully. The row about the rower also suggests, uncomfortably, that there is nothing inherent about sports that makes racists incapable of succeeding. Insofar as the rower had to deal with ethnic, religious, or racial diversity, it was not within her team of eight ‘vanilla’ rowers. The ‘others’ were competitors, not teammates. To be sure, this team make-up is a result of German immigration policies and sports recruitment, but the under-representation of migrants in many sports is a consistent problem. More generally, the virtues of elite sports are not incompatible with the world of hate: To be a good rower, one needs to have determination to succeed in competition, focus, and the ability to deal with pain and disappointments. These qualities have no necessary connection with democratic politics; they can also be the make-up of an extremist, of a warrior of a different kind.

The Olympics mirror a larger world in which the celebration of diversity and equality is at odds with the focus on achievements defined in a particular way:

First, athletes are sorted by countries; and they have to settle on one country they can represent. This is bad news for stateless people, and makes for hard decisions for those with multiple nationalities. Wouldn’t it be great if someone could win the Olympics representing two countries, or no country at all?

Second, the competition is intensely skewed. Countries with many (young) people, a good sports infrastructure, a high GDP and strategic investments in sections of the sports “market” do well at the Olympics. Winning Olympic medals is a function of economic prowess and priorities as much as of individual physical achievement.
Third, the Olympic circuit itself does not promote an equitable or sustainable growth in infrastructure. Olympic hosts tend to go into debt, hyper-police the cities during the events, make housing unaffordable and then harass homeless people, and are later stuck with bizarre-looking reminders of the big party in the form of velodroms or ski jumps.

A sports event that sorts athletes by nationality and counts medals by country does not promote hate, but it fosters nationalism. The Olympic Oath, after all, asks athletes to compete “for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.” While competitiveness and striving for glory are ingrained in the social organization of elite sports, human rights and equality are merely add-ons: they are not structurally necessary to succeed, but they are socially desired in order to foster the Olympic spirit. The Olympics would like to show nationalism without hate. The three athletes that were made to leave the village because their actions crossed the line that the Olympic organizers anxiously seek to draw.

What can we do about it? First of all, let’s take note of the fact that the Olympics are structured to promote nationalism, that it could be otherwise, and that nationalism has side effects in the form of hate and devaluation of outsiders. Second, let’s draw lines and censor the athletes and coaches who cross them, but let’s recognize that there is indeed only a thin line between legitimate disappointment and racist suspicions about opponents, or between competitive zeal and the exclusions of others who are perceived to be lazy. Finally, let’s find ways of organizing sports and the world at large that are less conducive to hate, exclusion and devaluation.

Talking about East and West: Causes and Responses

This post originally appeared on Hate 2.0

I really welcome Andrei Rejsin’s response to my thoughts on the geographies of racism and blame in Europe. I’m in the early stages of the project, so I really want thoughts, arguments, and challenges.

There are lots of Neo-Nazis in East Germany, and there are lots of people who support them. The dangers are not trivial, and the statistics, as Andrei Rejsin points out, are alarming. The more interesting question is, however, how we all, in discussions about the problem we agree on, talk about causes and responses. What accounts for the rise of Neo-Nazis in specific regions? Who can do anything about them?

The discussions about the causes of high levels of support for right-wing parties and violent Neo-Nazism in East Germany veers between two poles: between suggesting that there is no difference between the regions, and between locating the causes all in the East, the East German population. Both options seem insufficient. East Germans are not genetically predisposed to be Neo-Nazis. Just ask the many East Germans who are not at all right-wingers, and please also ask them about how it feels to be from the East and always having to talk about why there are so many Nazis in the East.

Not all explanations for the rise of Neo-Nazis are self-serving: There are those who talk about social conditions and processes that account for the rise of right-wingers in East Germany: high unemployment, out-migration of educated young people, especially women, and the lack of civil society infrastructure that offers alternatives to Neo-Nazis. Alienated, unemployed white men engage in “compensatory subordination” (Nancy Ehrenreich): they insist that their whiteness and masculinity should get them privileges they are not able to claim, and take out their frustration on those who are even more marginal than they are. As a friend of mine working with youth in Vorpommern observed succinctly, happy people with a good sense of humour and empathy don’t become Neo-Nazis.

Identifying the causes is one thing, talking about responses, it turns out, quite another. If we agree that there are social processes that create conditions under which it is easier for young people to think that their whiteness entitles them to something they don’t get, and that they have the right to decide who can live in their community and who can’t, we also need to talk about reasonable responses to these social conditions.

Current newspaper and blog reporting about Neo-Nazis in small cities and rural areas stresses two actors that could confront Neo-Nazis but often fail: civil society and the police. Yes, there are many people who could do more, who could be more sensitive and perceptive, and who could be more courageous. But many are courageous, or would be courageous if they could only find a job that would enable them to live in the places where their presence would make a difference. And yes, the police would do well to transfer some of their insistence that currently goes into pursuing those who bike in the dark without lighting to investigating Neo-Nazis and protecting those who are under attack from right-wingers. But we know from other context that simply increasing police presence might not make a community safer.

Yet the blame on civil society and the police obscures something: if we agree that certain social conditions enable the rise of Neo-Nazis, shouldn’t we do something about these conditions? Now that’s harder. It’s easy to tell East German villagers to step up against armed thugs, and to roll our eyes at the incompetent police in some provincial backwater. But what enabled the rise of Neo-Nazis was not police incompetence but the fall of an entire society into massive unemployment and precarious employment. It wasn’t just indifferent neighbours but a state that disappeared — replaced by one that promised riches and blooming landscapes and occasionally sent welfare cheques — that bred cynicism and hate of “others” in the East. Neo-Nazis are surely more present, more accepted, and more feared in the East. Yet the conditions that produced them are not only of the East. If we just keep telling local civil society to stand up to Nazis, nothing much will happen. To stand up to anyone, you first need a job and a reason to stay.

If we understand the rise of Neo-Nazis as a product of processes of marginalization and alienation that were the by-product of the unification process, we can start to understand that responsibility for the rise of Neo-Nazis cannot only be placed where the Neo-Nazis in fact appear.

These are my initial thoughts on what’s at stake here: it shouldn’t be about denying violence and exclusionary attitudes, but about suggesting responses that match with the causes we have identified. Blaming those who live in the East for the Neo-Nazis is easy but not sufficient.