Framing terror

Europe is in turmoil since Tuesday when a Germanwings plane crashed in the French Alps killing the 150 people on board.  Two days after the accident the turmoil is far from abating because French investigators reported the recordings from the cockpit provide evidence that the plane was deliberately crashed by the co-pilot. Such a piece of news is more surprising and scary than any other because human actions are more difficult to control than technical failures. It actually made me think that every time you take a plane you are placing your life in the hands of those piloting it, not a thought that will calm the anxiety about flying I have been recently developing.

This piece of news –and how it is reported around the world– is quickly becoming an excellent corpus for exploring the politics of race at work in the Western world.  Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot, was a white male German citizen and this fact has entirely shaped the terms and frame of the news. After a few hours of investigation the French prosecutor had already ruled out that this was a terror attack. Newspapers were quick at speaking of ‘suicide’, The Guardian spoke of ‘killing’, while The Independent of ‘suicide and mass murder’. How to refer to what happened has been one of the main issues. Had the guy been a German citizen of Turkish descent journalists, aeronautics personnel, government officials, and plain citizens would be speaking of ‘terror’ even before the beginning of the investigation. Things would have actually been easier to handle in terms of how to frame the debate because this is indeed the point: race in its specific connexion to Islam is what allows for ‘terror’ to take place.

But as Lubitz was white and German the consequences are entirely different. This is not a terror attack so his family is not under police surveillance and airports are not in a high state of alert. One easily gets the picture: when the agent of a wicked act is a brown and Muslim-related man, that man is the embodiment of ‘evil’, nothing more than the antithesis of humanity, and the attack is a terror attack; otherwise there has to be a sort of psychological explanation for somebody ‘essentially’ good carrying out an isolated evil act.

The investigation and reports are thus turning now to Lubitz’s state of mind and his apparent history of depression, and some outlets have even speculated that he was going through a romantic split. People in Twitter have pointed –rightfully– that it is not depression what kills and that there is no intrinsic link between suffering from depression and being a potential mass murderer. Although I couldn’t agree more with the points raised in this respect I have to say that being granted the possibility of having a mental health issue, of acknowledging that psychological or emotional issues could eventually affect your social behaviour can also be read as one of the manifestations of white privilege. Thus when a white man –and yes, I think this is also articulated around the gender axe– crosses a gross line, the West  –media, police, government, civil society– is willing to ask the question of ‘how an “essentially” good man can do something so atrocious’ *. Conversely, when the man is non-white, and on top of it, he is a Muslim, that question will be never asked because the answer is taken for granted: he will be the personification of evil.

* I don’t believe in ‘essences’ and actually challenge them, I am just reporting this from within a Western frame of representation. See my last post about Angelina Jolie’s ovaries and the question of ‘feminine essence’.

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Link: “Freakish Fat,” “Wretched Black”

For those interested in Cultural Studies, Judith Butler’s theoretical work on subjection and the performativity of gender, and/or Colombia, here I am providing the link to my article “‘Freakish Fat,’ ‘Wretched Black'” that just appeared in Feminist Media Studies.

Abstract

This paper explores the construction of female abject beings in Colombian contemporary media and culture comparing a character in the 2010 telenovela Chepe Fortuna named Venezuela, and the cultural representation of Piedad Córdoba. I argue that the construction of these two characters as abject beings is coherent with the dominant discourse of Alvaro Uribe’s national project, which relied on a strong nationalist rhetoric based on binary oppositions of the type “we/other.” In this context both Chepe Fortuna’s Venezuela and Piedad Córdoba are constructed as “other.” While Venezuela’s abjection is partly effected on the basis of her being fat and black, Córdoba’s is on the basis of her being a left-wing politician, and mediated through her being a black female. These two instances evidence an approach to femaleness that goes hand-in-hand with particular understandings of female subjectivity within current post-feminist paradigms.

http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/3PsGhzmKhp9TB3wt83X7/full

 

 

Ideology matters

I am today discovering Samuel Huntington’s “The Erosion of American National Interests”, a fascinating pamphlet that serves as an excellent example to the question of ideology I very briefly discussed in my last post in Spanish.

“The Erosion …” was published in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1997, a few years after the end of the Cold war. In it Huntington expresses his thoughts about American identity and American power, and his views on the importance of keeping American hegemony. Huntington’s argument is blunt and clear: for American identity, national interests, and hegemony to be preserved, America needs an enemy. He states, not wrongly, that the “Cold War fostered a common identity between American people and government” (Huntington 31) and that its ending had perceivable “[d]isintegrative effects” (Huntington, 32) since “the existence of an enemy may have positive consequences for group cohesion, morale, and achievement” (ibid). Further, he continues, these consequences are reinforced by “changes in the scope of immigration and the rise of the cult of multiculturalism” (Huntington 32, emphasis mine). He also bluntly states that “[m]ilitary action against Saddam Hussein was seen as a vital national interest because he threatened reliable and inexpensive access to Persian Gulf oil” (Huntington 35), and has no qualms whatsoever when listing all the military enterprises –which he refers to as “the great American initiatives in foreign policy” (Huntington, 30)– the United States undertook in order to quash the threat of communism. (It might be noted, however, that military coups in Latin America are conspicuously absent from his list.) In sum, the fall of the Soviet Union left America in a situation where “the need is not to find the power to serve American purposes but rather to find purposes for the use of American power” (Huntington, 35).

For Huntington the United States are and will remain “a global hegemon”, but its dominant role is changing. He explains the phases of hegemonic power, and what the United States has done to become the global hegemon it is:

In their first phase, the influence of hegemons stems from their power to expend resources. They deploy military force, economic investment, loans, bribes, diplomats, and bureaucrats into other countries and often bring those territories and populations under their direct or indirect rule. American expansion in the 1950s and 1960s did not expand American rule, but did produce an American military, political, and economic presence in large areas of the world. (Huntington, 44)

But now, Huntington complains, American power has become “the “soft power” to attract rather than the hard power to compel” (Huntington, 44).

What makes Huntington’s article fascinating in my eyes is its bluntness: it does not pretend that American power is good for the world, as many successive administrations of the United States have relentlessly and disingenuously hammered through every possible communication channel. Rather, it makes absolutely clear that American power is good for the sake of American interests solely, and for the sake of holding power itself. Power is not simply the means, but the end. Power is the crux of the question, which ties nicely with the issue of ideology, one of the article’s main topics. This is the second reason why I find this article interesting. It is a text that is self-referential as it enacts one of its central themes: ideology. The text is a prime example of ideology at work at the same time that it defends the importance of having competing ideologies for American power, firstly, to be deployed; secondly, to remain uncontested. The openness of Huntington with respect to ideology appears surprising to me because the post-war period had been characterised by the idea that ideologies were something only the communists –or left-wingers– had. In Ideology: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton quotes Kenneth Minogue, a right wing political theorist who claims

Ideologies can be specified in terms of a shared hostility to modernity: to liberalism in politics, individualism in moral practice, and the market in economics (cited in Eagleton pp. 6)

So, for Kenneth, as Eagleton notes, “supporters of socialism are ideologues whereas defenders of capitalism are not” (Eagleton, 6), an assumption that is ideological itself. Eagleton argues that

The extent to which one is prepared to use the term ideology of one’s own political views is a reliable index of the nature of one’s political ideology. Generally speaking, conservatives like Minogue are nervous of the concept in their own case, since to dub their own beliefs ideological would be to risk turning them into objects of contestation. (Eagleton, 6)

All this takes me back to my last week criticism of Colombian weekly Revista Semana, one of the most powerful media in Colombia that has tight links with the also powerful Santos family.  Revista Semana describe themselves as practitioners of “a ground-breaking journalism that broke the custom of the activist and ideologised press [of the eighties in Colombia], and that was more in tune with a country asking to be well informed from unbiased perspectives” (see original text in Spanish). Revista Semana‘s claim, it is crystal clear, is as ideological as Minogue’s.

It might be high-time for Revista Semana to refresh their notions and update themselves to contemporary critiques of communication, news making, journalism, politics, and culture, and even take the step of coming out of the ideology closet. As the example of Samuel Huntington shows, even if you are a right-winger –as Revista Semana clearly is– you can do it. It is not going to tarnish your reputation, rather it would at least show firstly, that you are not acting disingenuously, secondly, that you don’t have the self-awareness of a rock.

References

  1. Huntington, Samuel (1997). “The Erosion of American National Interests”. In: Foreign Affairs. 76.5, pp. 28-49.
  2. Eagleton, Terry (2007). Ideology: An Introduction. London & New York: Verso.

My Zwarte Piet diary (one)

The Netherlands, Christmas 2014

This is going to be an entry different to what I usually write in this blog. It will be written in instalments as I record the debate –from my own point of view– about the Zwarte Piet during this my first (and only) Christmas in The Netherlands.

Preamble

I discovered the Zwarte Piet this June at a summer school on Slavery that took place in Middelburg, a small city in the South West of The Netherlands, and of particular importance in the history of the slave trade and of the Dutch colonial past. For one of the sessions the summer school organisers –among which was giant decolonial semiotician Walter Mignolo– invited Quinsy Gario (@quinsyg), an artist and activist from the Dutch Caribbean who, some time ago, started the campaign Zwarte Piet is Racisme. Quinsy presented this tradition to the audience and talked about his experience as a Dutch black man daring to say the blatantly obvious many white Dutch people refuse to acknowledge: that Zwarte Piet is racist.

For people with a certain sensibility about social justice, discrimination, and oppression, stating that Zwarte Piet is racist comes as a truism. Yet, in the Dutch context it apparently isn’t as a vast majority of Dutch people refuse to see it as racist. Further, they refuse to link it to slavery and colonialism, which is, I think, the most astonishing part of the debate.

The debate has been raging for a while now in The Nethelands. I will put myself to the task of recording what I can.

Nov, 11

a.

I get an email from my son’s school where I am informed ‘Sinterklaas’ and his coloured ‘Pieten’ will visit the school early December. I go to Twitter to share my shock with the world, then add that the school my son goes to is an International one, and that many of the families there come from India. I add the HT #zwartepiet to my Tweets.

I Tweet Dutch people refusal to acknowledge how racist Zwarte Piet is “is either colonial blindness or colonial amnesia. Perhaps even secret colonial nostalgia.”

b.

One twitter user (@DJSabroso) –somebody who masters both Dutch and Spanish– enters in conversation with me, retweets my tweets, we end up by following each other. From his tweets one easily gathers he is seriously active against the Zwarte Piet. I also realise that there are many others involved with various campaigns. They are organising marches in Gouda and Amsterdam. I am still reflecting on whether I should take part in these protests. Zwarte Piet is racist regardless of whether you come from The Netherlands or not. Yet, I don’t feel legitimised.

c.

Two other (presumably) Dutch (presumably white) Twitter users react to my tweets. In a nutshell it is me who doesn’t get it (the usual drill). About my mentioning the fact that there were many Indian families in the school one of these users tells me that before judging the Dutch I must remember “Indian people are known as the worst in enslaving others”. I reply by noting such affirmation is sort of … you know … racist. This person says that since I clearly have no arguments I opt for brandishing “the R word”. Now, the “R word”? This is PC madness. The word is racism! Repeat after me: /ˈreɪ.sɪ.zəm/. Racism.

You will easily remark that the person denying this tradition is racist did not have any qualm whatsoever in ranting about Indians. Actually, the crux of her/his argument about the Zwarte Piet being not racist at all was to point out the horrendousness of Indian people. Yet, she/he can’t utter the word racism.

You will also easily remark the difference between stating “Zwarte Piet is racist” and “Dutch people are racist”, which I never said.

The other Twitter user claimed linking Zwarte Piet with colonialism and slavery “is the stupidest argument” ever. Wow.You have to admit these are strong arguments.

This is going to be an interesting Christmas, a sort of rich fieldwork.

Nov, 14

I discuss Zwarte Piet with my son. He is 9. He is also white, green eyed, and European. I tell him about the tradition without telling him what I think of it. He knows me though. We have spoken a lot about gender and race, and about privilege. I explain to him that in The Netherlands there is a sort of Father Christmas who’s got some white-painted-in-black persons as his personal assistants. He is shocked. He does not get it. “Why do they paint their faces black?” he asks me. I say I don’t know. Suddenly he opens his eyes wide and tells me: “But mum, the school is full of Indian children. They won’t feel at ease with that”. You are right my love. Altough my kid is young he’s become sensible towards these issues. He witnessed once how one of his school mates from Bangladesh got spat at by a couple of white teenagers. My son and his friend were six and a half. That episode left its mark on him.

Nov, 15

Quinsy shares this link. The article is worth reading and the videos are worth watching.

‘Fucking black cunt’

Ayer 9 de Julio de 2012 John Terry, capitán del Chelsea, compareció por primera vez ante un tribunal acusado de haber lanzado un insulto racista a Anton Ferdinand, jugador del Queens Park Rangers, durante un partido jugado el 23 de Octubre 2011. El affaire ha tenido una importante mediatización en los medios ingleses desde que ocurrió. Los efectos se han sentido hasta justo antes del inicio de la Euro el pasado junio: Terry perdió la capitanía de la selección inglesa; Fabio Capello renunció a su puesto de técnico de la misma selección por enfrentamientos con su federación al defender casi que a capa y espada a Terry al considerar el asunto como una nimiedad; Rio Ferdinand, hermano de Anton y compañero de Terry en el equipo inglés, fue excluido justo antes de que empezara el torneo debido al deterioro completo de su relación con Terry, este último teniendo la prioridad.

El hecho de que un insulto racista no solo haya generado polémica sino que haya tenido consecuencias reales en un dominio como el deporte que siempre se pretende presentar como ‘apólitico’, es noticia suficiente para alegrarse — así las razones sean más económicas que morales. Sin embargo, es terriblemente lamentable y descorazonador que la tercera palabra del insulto, ‘cunt’, sea absolutamente normal. El mismo Anton Ferdinand lo dijo hoy 10 de Julio cuando en la corte, según reporta The Guardian (ver), explica lo que pasó en la cancha el día del altercado:  ‘cuando alguien llama a alguien “cunt” no hay problema, pero cuando alguien trae a colación el color de la piel, el asunto toma otras dimensiones’. Lo inaceptable es ‘black cunt’ por racista; el ‘cunt’, que es profundamente sexista, no tiene nada de ofensivo.

A pesar de la cada vez más ensordecedora polifonía planetaria que se pregunta si el feminismo está muerto (Times June 29, 1998), cuando no afirma que ha llegado demasiado lejos y que por ello los hombres, o son el nuevo sexo débil (The Second Sexism) o párvulos de más de veinte años (Manning Up), en 2012 lo problemático del ‘fucking black cunt’ es el ‘black’ y no el ‘cunt’.

Si es hallado culpable, Terry se enfrenta a una multa que puede ir hasta las £2,500. No sabemos aún cuánto (si algo) habrá de pagar. Lo que sí sabemos, en cambio, es que el mundo sigue siendo sumamente racista (‘white cunt’ no es siquiera una expresión gramatical), aunque ya se pague un precio por serlo, y profundamente sexista, sin que se pague nada por ello.