What if the Iranians are people too?

I can’t claim to be an expert on the internal politics of Iran, but my meager efforts are surely better than the active anti-knowledge that is spreading around the Iran nuclear deal. I’ve ranted on Twitter a bit, and I thought I’d write down some longer-form thoughts here, in no particular order.

It was rational for Iran to seek a nuclear deterrent. The US had already toppled a democratically-elected Iranian government and replaced it with an autocrat. They were able to regain their independence, and since then they have been treated as a total pariah. Two neighboring countries were subsequently invaded by the US simultaneously, after the US had declared Iran to be part of the “Axis of Evil.” They could also see that the US helped to overthrow the government of Libya after Libya had given up its nuclear ambitions and become a “good citizen” in the “international community.” It would be insane for a country in that position not to seek the ultimate weapons trump card to prevent an invasion, because an invasion is literally the worst thing that can happen to a country.

Iran is not going to commit national suicide to destroy Israel. Everyone knows Israel has a nuclear deterrent. The very fact that Iran was seeking a nuclear deterrent shows them to be rational actors, and so we have to conclude that they would also be rationally deterred by a nuclear deterrent.

Negotiating an end to the nuclear program was also rational. Creating a nuclear bomb takes a long time and is difficult to hide. It was becoming increasingly clear that Iran could not get across the nuclear finish line before their very efforts to deter a future invasion directly caused a present invasion. Hence, quite rationally, they sat down to negotiate with the most reasonable US president they were likely to get. It’s also in their interest to quite unambiguously comply with the agreement, because again, they are rational people who care about their country and don’t want to see it overrun and destroyed.

It is legitimate for a country to seek to influence events in its own region. People act as though Iranian influence in the Middle East is some nefarious and illegitimate agenda all rational people should oppose. In reality, Iran is in the Middle East. It is actually physically located there. It would be ridiculous for it not to seek to influence events that directly impinge upon it in physically contiguous countries. What’s more, Iran is a relatively rich and powerful country with a long history of taking a leadership role in what is, just to review, its own part of the world.

Colonialism is a terrible historical evil. We in the West are inclined to view the 20th Century as the story of overcoming the two great evils of Nazism and Communism, but everyone else would add a third item to that list: colonialism. Resentment toward colonialism is especially great in the Middle East given that the US continually meddles in their affairs, usually in hugely destructive ways, and given that the Middle East includes the most recently-established settler colony, which is itself backed up by the meddling imperial power. We’re always on the lookout for the next Hitler, but in the Middle East, they don’t have to be vigilant against one of the great 20th century evils because it is constantly ongoing. And the US is responsible for maintaining that situation!

“Anti-American rhetoric” is thus not some kind of randomly chosen prejudice, but an understandable response to the US’s ongoing actions. Anti-Semitism is obviously more unfortunate as a reaction, but we should understand its context in colonialism and not imagine that it’s “religious” which makes it magically determinative of all their actions in a way that defies reason (hence their supposed willingness to commit national suicide). In reality, the only leader in history who was willing to risk national suicide to kill all the Jews was a Western leader named Adolf Hitler, whose rise was enabled by the bungling and vindictiveness of other Western leaders in very specific historical circumstances that are absolutely nothing like anything that is even remotely happening in the Middle East right now, you fucking ignorant fucks.

So yeah.

Exhausted Politics: A Few Comments on the Video for Run the Jewels’ “Close Your Eyes (and Count to F**K)”

Run the Jewels just released a video for one of my favorite songs on their recent album. The video is hard to watch, if only because there is something hard to watch in the fictional violence against a black man that is expressive of the images of real violence we have seen every month and that others have been seeing long before social media made this available to wider audiences. The video is open to lots of poor readings, including one I saw on Facebook by a certain popular, nihilistic appropriator of black culture. It’s not really important to name names here, but the reading he gave was that there is a certain reversibility in the image of the struggle between the white cop and the black man. It’s a poor reading in large part because it takes an abstract expression captured by film as if it were supposed to be a documentary or even as if these images were supposed to be didactic. But it’s also poor simply because the supposed reversibility is not present. The cop expresses his positionality as an instance of an institution with his uniform, with his gun, his mace, with his handcuffs, with this lights and sirens, and so on. These are progressively lost throughout the video, but it isn’t as if the black man gains them, or takes on the position. The only one who is able to issue a command, to make a declaration, thereby being the voice of an institution, is the cop (“Don’t you fucking run!”). Of course the only response to such a demand is to start running and to look for a weapon as you do. In so far as the black man expresses he does so through without the recourse to language, without the structure that would project him into transcendence, he has no ground but his own existence, his own expression in the flesh.

Generally I tend to avoid reading an artist’s statement on their own work. The work itself expresses and when I write on that work I like to think I’m building and riffing off the work, rather than providing the true reading of it. But I see the artist’s statement as their own act of riffing and building, without any particular access to the truth of the work either. So I’m largely setting aside AG Rojas’ remarks aside. But, he is very clear that these two figures are not meant to stand for the reality, that these are precisely archetypes in his words. Instead of looking at the video as an instance of reversibility, shouldn’t we see it rather as an instance of the struggle between the master and the slave? And perhaps this exhausted tussle is an advance upon the mixed determination present in Hegel of these figures. That they are an abstraction is the point. They are an abstraction in the form of thinking through the problematic of America, not just police violence against black people, but America as such as a country built upon violence against black people and that’s why the video is largely successful in my view. As the tussle plays out upon a background emptied of any people, of anything but the struggle, we are given a meditation on the relationship of blacks/whites as such. In that relationship the few glimpses of triumph or relative transcendence are scenes of the black man. Free from the relationship with the cop as such, but this only exists as a virtual possibility as they sit on the marriage bed, a loveless marriage to one another as the train that calls itself progress rings in the distance.

One of the first things that struck me as I was watching was a remark that James Cone made in an interview with Bill Boyers some years back.

JAMES CONE: […] Now, you don’t get away from that by not talking about it. That’s too deep. Germany is not going to get away from the Holocaust by not talking about it. It’s too deep. So, America must face up that we are one community. We– you know, if anybody in this society– if anybody is brother and sister to the other, it’s black people and white people because there is a– there is a tussle there that you cannot get out of. It is a– it is deeply engrained in our relationship to each other in a way that’s not with anybody else–

BILL MOYERS: How do you mean?

JAMES CONE: –in this land.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

JAMES CONE: Because 246 years of slavery, number one. We have built this country. White people know that. Then, after slavery, segregation and lynching, we still helped built this country. So, it’s a history of violence […]

This familial tussle (either between brothers or something more sinister) plays out as exhaustion in the video. The relationship is one of exhaustion precisely because politics is exhausted in this relationship. While one form of (white supremacist) politics is constituted by this relationship (a politics we are all exhausted of), even the higher politics is exhausted by this relationship. Even the cop, a willing pawn in the construction of the exhausting politics, is exhausted. Or, as Fred Moten puts it to white people regarding any possible coalition, “I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

I can think of no better filmic expression of the feeling of exhaustion than this video, of being exhausted before the present political options, and so expressive of the need to think of something else. Or at least to find a way out of the exhausting relation of this kind of politics as such. Or at least that’s my reading.

What is Star Trek’s vision of politics?

[Cross-posted from The Daystrom Research Institute, with some revisions.]

I see politics in Star Trek — thinking of politics broadly as the sphere of relationships involving power — as having two conflicting levels. On the one hand, the starship itself is a fairly authoritarian environment, characterized by a strict hierarchy of rank and command. Captains are open to deliberation by their senior officers, but they make the final decision. Sometimes this has bad effects, as when the captain is taken over by an alien, etc., but by my count, there are many more stories where we are expected to be very anxious or upset about the idea of the captain’s authority being usurped.

On the higher level, we are almost never given a reason to trust Starfleet admirals or the Federation as such. At the level of those larger organizations, it seems, there is a tendency toward entropy and corruption. Perhaps we’re to think that the absence of a clear, urgent mission allows people to indulge in empty careerism rather than sincerely using their skills to the best of their abilities.

When it comes to large-scale political events, then, most often it’s not the official leadership that is pushing things in a good direction. If we’re going to get a good outcome, it has to come from people “on the ground” (so to speak), often in defiance of their superiors. So we see Sisko coming to earth and almost immediately uncovering a conspiracy that had been unfolding for a while — presumably if he had not shown up, the “inside job” attack would have had its desired effect. Similarly, in Enterprise the foundation of the Federation seems to hang on the actions of Archer, T’Pol, and Shran, more than on their official leadership (who are feckless in Archer’s case and often malevolent in the latter two).

The ideal outcome, it seems, is for one of these authentic people to become the political leader — Archer becoming president of the Federation, the various “liberal” leaders who emerge out of the Dominion War, etc. — but it’s notable that we never actually see their leadership in action. Chancellor Martok is a happy ending, full stop, and we don’t have to see his inevitable compromises with the already existing factions that, while perhaps chastened, surely remain powerful in many ways.

The dark side of this reliance on “free agents” to counter institutional careerism and inertia is Section 31. On one level, we can ask why their acts of “going rogue” are supposed to be different and worse than the routine insubordination we see from captains — and the show certainly leaves things ambivalent, insofar as they “get results” despite their nefarious means. Perhaps we can say that the lovable rogue captains are embracing the ideals of the Federation while Section 31 is advocating its raw existence and political power — but aren’t the latter a condition of fulfilling the former? I don’t think we get a good answer to this question at the end of the day, and perhaps Star Trek’s general conception of politics (institutions suck, brave individuals are the ones who get things done) leaves it unequipped to do so.

In terms of real-world politics, it all seems hard to map onto our experience. The central concept that we’re going to get liberal outcomes (Federation ideals!) from authoritarian structures (quasi-military command structures!) is, to say the least, difficult to find evidence for in the real world. Institutional inertia and corruption are of course real, but so are transformative leaders, even if they are relatively rare. I chalk it up to an attempt to be all things to all people that leads Star Trek to embrace mutually contradictory ideals — but at the same time, I would wager that most of us embrace contradictory ideals at the end of the day, in some cases the very same contradictory ideals Star Trek does. Its very simplicity may thus make it a more useful tool to think with than the faux-sophisticated House of Cards, for instance.

Letting Go: On Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Normally Adam posts something in recognition of MLK day. In the past he’s linked to his remarks from his radical work often covered over in today’s official celebrations or to the remarks in Letter from a Birmingham Jail concerning the threat of the white moderate. Remarks often repressed in white consciousness even as they celebrate the supposed victory that MLK lead the nation towards. On today’s MLK day I invite you to read Chris Lebron’s piece in the NYT: “What, to the Black American, Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?“.

Many on my various social media timelines have shared this powerful line, “I want to say there is also some distance between black and white Americans today, between “you” and “I,” as it were, and that this day has increasingly become “yours,” not mine.” The sorrow at the ways in which white Americans have co-opted MLK, and this day in particular, as a symbol of a job already done is a sorrow brought on in part by the way it erases the responsibility of white Americans to either answer the call of MLK and other radical Black leaders or be honest about their apathy and hatred for their Black neighbors. As he goes on to write, “While he indeed fought for the security of a full schedule of rights for black Americans, he was in fact fighting for something greater and more difficult to articulate — the hope that white Americans could extend a hand of brotherly and sisterly love to blacks.” As whites tarnish MLK’s legacy through ad campaigns or as a figure of respectability politics, then they continue not in the tradition of MLK (as they may fantasize they are), but of Bull Connor and George Wallace. Only now they–a “we” for some of us–are laden with artifacts of Black culture they use as new modes of repression. Repression both of Black demands for justice (“MLK was peaceful, but you’re out here blocking shoppers!”) and their own repression of the shame of being white (“MLK’s dream is fulfilled today because I don’t see race!”).

Today is a day to celebrate one of many important Black leaders. But anytime the same state and culture invites you to worship a human being they tried to kill, we should be suspicious of the ways they want us to remember. Many Black americans already know this and it is something that white Americans, including myself, need to learn from them. Whites need to let go of the fantasy of Martin Luther King Jr. if they are going to be part of his being reclaimed.

The eclipse of democracy

It strikes me that even the most basic democratic ideals are almost entirely missing from the mainstream public sphere. Rule by experts or markets or data has replaced the ideal of the people collectively making important decisions for itself. Democracy as collective power has given way to democracy as representation — as inclusiveness, diversity, a range of perspectives. Within this hegemonic view, democracy is a society in which individuals have the right to say what they want and make individual choices, and any power that would presume to limit that expression or choice is anti-democratic and oppressive. The ideal of collective deliberation about the shape of the political space itself — whether we’re talking about constitutional arrangements and the selection of representatives or questions of economic distribution that go beyond minor tweaks to capitalism — is so radically absent as to be unimaginable.

On the one hand, then, we have unaccountable “expert” elites (including our “representatives,” who in practice constitute a set of two competing, self-selecting elites), and on the other hand, we have politics as expressivity. Both have a moment of truth to them, particularly the latter. In a truly democratic society, all voices really would be heard, and greater progress toward that ideal is an unmitigated good. This is a point where I think a lot of leftists go wrong — they rightly point out that inclusiveness as such isn’t the answer, but then they draw the unwarranted inference that we shouldn’t care about inclusiveness or even that inclusiveness is a distraction. On the other side, it’s difficult to imagine any future society where everyone is equally knowledgeable about everything, and so having experts who are accountable to the people — with the latter setting the goals and assessing whether the expert recommendations have produced the desired result — is likely to be practically necessary until we all figure out how to plug into the Borg collective.

The problem isn’t with these two phenomena in themselves, but with the way they’ve been hollowed out in the absence of a robust democratic ideal. Indeed, both can be put forward as protections against democracy — because we all know that the people at large would select all the wrong policies and enthusiastically embrace exclusionary fascism if pure democracy were allowed to prevail, right? It’s telling the “populism” is so often a pejorative term (scary in the case of right-wing populists, charmingly though dangerously naive in its left-wing variant), because if you look at the structure of the word, it is literally synonymous with democracy!

I think we can see the depth of the challenge of restoring the democratic ideal when we look at the confused way that people talk about social media (here I draw on some Twitter exchanges with @mike_salter). On the one hand, it does promote the democratic ideal of greater inclusiveness and has undeniably been used for important democratic self-organization on the part of oppressed communities. Yet on the other hand, the architecture is corporate-owned and subject to arbitrary change with no input from users, and the same formal “inclusiveness” that produces its benefit has also made it an effective vehicle for reactionary campaigns of harrassment like #GamerGate.

By putting forth social media as per se democratic, we run the risk of mistaking the tools for the substance — the same mistake as when we assume that if the apparatus of parliamentary representation exists, democracy must exist as well. Social media may turn out to be an important technology for collective self-determination, in much the way that technologies like elections and parliamentary procedure advanced the cause of democratic rule in the past. But when we reflect that the Nazi party took power through electoral and constitutional means, we should realize the bankruptcy of the liberal proceduralism that substitutes the process for the result.

As typically happens, though, I have a lot of critique and very little idea of what should actually be done.

Remarks on Tactics for White People Joining the Protests Against White Supremacy

This post requires a few remarks to frame it and in some sense to disempower it. First, while I have been involved with different coalitions and have participated in protests every year during my adult life, I do not claim to be anything more than just another body on the street standing with other people. I am not an organizer, I am not a leader, and though I think about things a great deal, I don’t know that my theoretical work has ever been of much use to anyone who is organizing and leading these coalitions. I know where my strengths lie (teaching, academia) and I do my best to affect the community I am a part of (the department and university I teach in and the discipline I work within). All of this means that I invite people, especially Black theorists, Black activists, and other theorists/activists of color to push back against what I say, to share wisdom, and, if they feel it worth their time, to add their voice to the conversation (if one starts).

Secondly, while this is a post directed at a certain white reaction to protests, I do not think these protests should be about the white reaction to them. I have written this post simply because it would seem strange to write about the Black community or what the appropriate Black response should be, when I am not embedded within that community nor a major dialogue partner there. It seems to me that, while I would hope for a future in which ideas can be shared without some unconscious or unintended white centering, today is not that day. So, it is not my intention in writing this that it be about white people as such. If I could summarize what I write below it would simply be: “white people who want to show solidarity, stop worrying about purity and just show up, keep quiet, and listen.” It’s a message not to the tone deaf white folk of the intelligentsia or the brocialists itching for another photo op where they look badass screaming at a cop, while making other folks who aren’t ready for that confrontation unsafe. It’s a message instead for those who feel a bit paralyzed by the recognition of their privilege and an attempt to help them see that such paralysis is still caught up in that structure, still a form of narcissism.

So, with that said, here are some thoughts that strike me as sound for white folks who are engaged in a certain amount of handwringing about how to participate in protests and other actions regarding the recent reaffirmation of America’s structural racism. Some may feel that their presence is not wanted at these protests. That may be true to some extent, but there is a kind of way of being absent even in your presence and some of the tactics outlined here may be a form of becoming-imperceptible in terms of one’s whiteness and the effects it may have on the coalition of protesters. For one thing seems very clear: coalitions are needed in these protests and these coalitions should be led by Black people. And lucky for you, whatever city you are in it is likely that leaders and activists from the Black community have stood up. So you should go. You should do what they ask. And when you do go and you do what they ask, simply don’t make it about you. Don’t be concerned about your feelings. Whether those are feelings that get hurt if you hear “mean things” being said about white people or it is your own anger which drives you to try and confront the cops if and when the Black leaders have called for non-confrontation. If such confrontation happens, it gets messy, and if you can put yourself between activists of color and the police, you should do that. And if Black activists tell you not to do something, then don’t do it.

Simply put, our individual white guilt doesn’t help shit. But, maybe your body being there can. So put your body there, but mostly stay quiet. Recognize that this is not an exact science and that you might screw up. It also strikes me for white people who are committed to listening that you are going to find there are a lot of views on the ground that don’t match exactly what is said on your Facebook or Twitter. For example, some Black participants at the recent Philly protests said that we were bothering the folks in the neighborhood and so they weren’t going to march. Others started chanting “all lives matter”. In each case it was a very small group, but regardless in each instance it was not my place to challenge their ideological correctness. Whereas I would have and you should if that happens with white participants. Don’t put that responsibility on the Black activists to do all the work, but do your best to educate these white participants and encourage certain practices foremost amongst them to just shut the fuck up and listen while they’re on this march.

At bottom, to get past this handwringing, you need to trust. Just trust your Black comrades. It’s the whitey in your head that makes you worried. Whether it’s worry over if you should be there or worry that someone isn’t going to say or do the thing you think they should. Know that there is a lot of noise right now. A lot of click bait, a lot of rhetoric, a lot of people working out their power best they can through the mediums available to them. But to know what to do, talk to the activists who organized. Ask what they want. And then follow. That’s the tactic for now. If you don’t like the overarching strategy you have to form a relationship, and go to meetings, and be open to disagreement while inhabiting a disempowered place that will make you feel uncomfortable. But taking up that space at meetings is going to be far fraught. More fraught with the haunting spectre of  reinscribing white supremacy and white centeredness than going to a protest. And the only way to deal with that, to disempower that whiteness, is make yourself available.

Getting Educated About America

This is going to be a bit of a confession. Up front I have to declare to you my naivety, because it helps explain why I’ve been anxious for weeks, on the verge of tears all day, and currently unsure if the food I ate today is going to stay down. So, a confession, though like all confessions it obscures a kind of cunning even I may be the target of.

I want to live and participate in a just country. And, as my physical symptoms evidence, I apparently believe that the United States of America can be a just country. It is embarrassing, because I am an educated person. Politically I was made aware of the kind of country I live in by radical Christians and secular anarchists and socialists during my teenage years. And that early consciousness raising by punk rock was felt in my bones only to be confirmed intellectually as a student reading history and critical theory. But, yet, I must still believe something about America.  Read the rest of this entry »

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