Thursday, November 28, 2019

Deportation Discipline

Kathy Ferguson
University of Hawai'i at Manoa

The Trump administration is again rounding up immigrants, this time hundreds of foreign students at a fake university created by ICE to follow the more than one hundred and fifty thousand undocumented immigrants captured and separated for deportation or interminable detention. Some children are being placed in homes where their parents will never find them again. Over the summer, threats were made in advance, postponed, and resumed without warning in places like Mississippi. Will there be more threats? More postponements? More raids? Or will we simply continue the ordinary terrifying administrative nightmare that is U.S. immigration policy, perhaps punctuated by the cruel banality of made-for-TV strikes on frightened people by heavily-armed Immigration and Custom Enforce (ICE) officials.
Either way, rounding up families for deportation is not new in the United States. The panic of lives ripped apart, the uncertainty of what will happen, the inability of families and communities to take care of one another, is a constant of government roundups, imprisonments, and deportations. It is an institutionalized production of agitation and dread that disciplines both those who are its objects and those who are said to be its beneficiaries, the remaining Americans who are not [yet] the state’s manifest targets. It is not a “side effect” of law enforcement. It is the point.
We have been here before, done this before. Of many possible examples, I am drawn to the actual and threatened deportation of Russian residents of Detroit in December, 1919, as recorded by a woman named Agnes Inglis. Agnes was an anarchist and later became the curator of the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, which still stands as one of the best collections of radical literature in the world. Agnes was active in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) when the federal government launched the assault on immigrants and radicals known as “the Palmer raids” after their chief author, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis Post famously named the period the “deportation delirium.” Radicals of all ethnicities were targeted, prime among them the Russian immigrants belonging to the Union of Russian Workers, a labor organization that published literature critical of capitalism and the state, organized reading rooms, and offered English language classes to immigrants. 
How is it done?

First, the targets are defined as dangerous: they are branded as terrorists, criminals, aliens, threats to national security. Perhaps they organized a union, or missed a court date, or published a radical magazine. Perhaps they happen to live in the same house with others who have done these things. Seen through the lens of nativist fears, the immigrants are defined as dangerous-foreign-dirty. Acutely aware of the anxieties and disgust being manufactured about them, immigrant communities experience growing fears. Is it safe to go outside? To go to the hospital? To go to school or work?

Then come the roundups. Agnes writes:

“Word has come. It is Wednesday. Hessian Tagieff must give himself up, on Friday, to be deported. He is undesirable. All the little details must be attended to. Nothing matters. Nothing can stand in the way. On Friday they extend the time till Sunday…. We rush hither and thither helping him to get ready…

“It‘s Sunday. He and Alex Nichentoff [a painter] meet at the office of the Immigration Station. Alex has $70 worth of paints in his trunk. He also has $35 his comrades gave him the night before. Will they let me buy some shoes, he asks, when I get to New York? I do not know…I had never been to Ellis Island. I did not know how we treated folks ordered deported….Will they let me take my paints to Russia? I did not know. I hoped so. He had them in a trunk. His trunk and Hessian’s went on to New York. Hessian had gifts for his child he was to see now again back in Russia….(“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 49)

There is chaos. Families cannot locate their detained relatives. There is panic, designed to disrupt their lives, to make ordinary life unlivable. After Hessian Tagieff and Alex Nichentoff are rounded up, Agnes and other Detroit residents witness dozens more men arrested without warrants and held incommunicado. Agnes see them, 99 men in a cell meant for 23. She calls lawyers to help. “But everybody was scared of the Department of Justice.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 54) Bail is set at $10,000 each, a colossal amount that the activist community cannot hope to raise. There is a rumor the detainees are to be sent to Soviet Russia but no one knows for sure. No one knows what is going on.
Ordinary people will try to help. After seeing off Alex Nichencoff and Hessian Tagieff, Agnes and one lawyer are trying to help 56 men, 12 children and 5 women who are now in jail to prepare for deportation. They need shoes, clothes, suitcases, food, and money. One has a house to be sold. They have 2 days.

“We discuss bank accounts and personal belongings like top shirts and collar buttons and fur caps – able-bodied men unable to attend to the details connected with getting to [sic] hell out of here.--- I recall my own trip to Europe and my preparations for my personal wellbeing – in summer, too. Now it is winter: zero weather. Yet these men must rely upon a few of us comrades to attend to the details of travel for 56 men 12 children and 5 women. And only two days to do it all in!” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 51.)

Agnes muses:

“Spies betray; police arrest; officials in warm offices issue orders to break up homes but comrades – human folks – must do the human things.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 52)

Some of the deportees are actually removed from the country. When Alex Nichencoff and Hessian Tagieff were taken from Detroit to be deported along with 247 others, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, on the leaky transport ship The Buford, Agnes was there:

“I am the only one there at the end to say good-bye. I go… to the patrol wagon. I lean in and shake hands…Others are in the patrol wagon, too…Not deportees….perhaps dependents. Going somewhere else to see how friendless the world can prove…. I feel for a long time afterwards as tho [sic] I were living a part in the Tale of Two Cities …. (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 49)

“The Buford, the first Ark, has sailed away…..Alex Nichencoff and Hessian Tagieff went on it, with the clothes they had on them, in zero weather, on an old weather beaten ship. Their trunks were left behind at Ellis Island.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 50)

Some will not be deported after all but held indefinitely in jail. In the end, the wives and children of the Detroit men did not go with their husbands and fathers, but they had sold everything in preparation for the threatened deportation. Ironically, these particular men did not go either. Due to Agnes’ frantic interventions, they literally missed the boat. The Buford sailed without them and, despite official announcements to the contrary, there were no other “Red Arks.” “The men just stayed in jail and the women were homeless and so were the children.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 52)

But of course the Detroit activists did not know this would happen:

“But in Detroit, after getting the word on Wednesday we set out in earnest to get things ready for that little ocean voyage for our comrades. And by Saturday night they were ready. One little home was sold. Every home was broken up and everything disposed of. Sewing machines were sold and everything. The women bought clothing for the long cold trip with the little money they got for their household things. But Thursday another word came; they must be ready by Friday night! It could not be. I hurried to the phone and called up all the American bourgeoisie men and women with reputations that counted at Washington, that I could research who sympathized with these persecuted people. Telegrams flew to Washington. Washington was impressed – whoever Washington was – the Attorney General, I suppose. Anyway another order came to Detroit. They would not have to go Friday after all.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 56)

So the delay Agnes wrung from the hands of the deportation bureaucracy, with the tool of bourgeois prestige that she could access, keeps these particular men from going on the Buford. And keeps the women and children from finding themselves abandoned and without funds in New York City, because, despite threats to the contrary, they would not have gone on the boat.
Time passes. The paroxysm of anti-immigrant sentiment, lacking orchestration, fades. Agnes writes, “Every day or so someone is let go, no charge against him. The violent hysteria against these workers has abated. It is no longer dangerous to take their part. After months of bad physical care and insulting treatment the decision has come that they ought never to have been molested. But even yet they are not let out – they must be paroled out – to save the face of officialdom.” (Inglis, “Manifesto in Regard to Deportation,” June 1920 in File on Deportation of Detroit Anarchists 1920-1936, Agnes Inglis Box 27, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 2).

If the men are not deported, yet their arrest is not cancelled, then the state holds any bail that supporters managed to raise. Women trying to visit their husbands are threatened and forced to watch as their husbands are beaten. Children play deportation games: one child acts the part of the immigration officer who denies another child the right to visit her “husband,” played by a third child, in jail.

Protests continue. Some wives of prisoners go to the hotel where Palmer was staying in Detroit on May 16, 1920. They put “Deport or Release” slips of paper on the tables where the dignitaries would be dining. Supportive IWW boys call the newspapers. “The women all went home as quietly as they came, but a guard of American Legion protect the doorway as Mitchell Palmer leaves the hotel, and all the papers in Detroit and even in faraway cities told how the Reds attacked the hotel where Mitchell Palmer dined!” (Inglis, “Manifesto in Regard to Deportation,” June 1920 in File on Deportation of Detroit Anarchists 1920-1936, Agnes Inglis Box 27, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan p. 5)
We will ask how this wanton cruelty can happen. Agnes reflects:

“It’s so cold! The weather, and all this is so cruel and hard! As one man said to me today, “You will get bitter too.” I’ve felt all sorts of ways today. Now I am numb. It seems more like fate than anything I ever experienced. They are all such cogs in a wheel – these officials – cruel or decent, the thing happens just the same. The capitalist power turns the wheel and the Power of Labor does not stop it. I’ve run today as though hurrying to go somewhere, as tho [sic] hurrying to tell someone something. But to-night it is the same. The only thing that has moved is a train going…where? And presently a ship will sail….where? No one knows. And who does it? Just a lot of automatons in a system. Is there any intellect in all this? What is the Power? Whatever the power it looks now like it were stronger than the Power of the Workers. Where is the workers’ power? Why I went after seeing Hessian Tagieff and Alex Nichencoff off - and I was the only one at the Immigration Office to say good-bye to them - I went then up to the Auto Workers Hall to the Open Forum where Paul Taylor was chairman and where everything was run by law and order and there was no chance – no loophole for me to take to tell the workers that Hessian Tagieff and Alex Nichencoff had gone to the station in a patrol wagon to be sent to New York and then to be sent no one knows where. I couldn’t get up there in that workers’ open forum and tell it any more than I could have over across the street at the Y.M.C.A. Why couldn’t I?” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p.50)

What would Agnes do?

Agnes’ story suggests options we might develop:

1. Help besieged and imprisoned immigrants now. Ordinary and inadequate as it is, they need water, diapers, food and lawyers. They need witnesses. Some of us have the same sort of bourgeois resources that Agnes had, the money for bail or donations, the connections to respectable people who can be moved to object to unnecessary suffering. Organizations with good on-the-ground reputations currently helping immigrants include Al Otro Lado and Border Angels
2. Tell people. Agnes and other IWW activists are indefatigable in telling the world about the misery and injustice of the raids. Agnes often crafts her writing to best advantage. She uses the repetition of the men’s names -- Alex Nichencoff and Hessian Tagieff -- to get readers past the unfamiliar Russian and Persian spellings, to make the individuals real. She makes their suffering accessible to readers by her comparisons of their besieged misery to the ordinary details of her own travel preparations. She makes the cruel suppression of these men by the state palpable by taking us through the humble bodily needs of people the state throws away. Her own grammar is part of her message: the lack of commas in her lists runs the items together with a sense of urgency: “56 men 12 children and 5 women.” Her run-on sentences make their own demands, as though her message needs to be delivered in one long burst.

3. Find temporary solace in humor. Agnes reflects on the absurd aspects of the spectacle in which she struggles:

“We discuss solemnly the size of shoes of a man, it is very necessary to discuss shoes – the shoes of this man who is trying to overthrow the great Government – shoes, gloves – woolen gloves – size 8 ½.” (p. 51)

She finds the ridiculous in the sublime:

“It is terrible, the most terrible thing I have ever taken part in, the most heartless. Yet we have to laugh. They speak in Russian. One looking at the status of Jesus on the window ledge within the bars, says something. Another interprets: “The poor Jesus! For what he is in here?” (p. 52)

While mockery of power is never a fully adequate strategy, it offers a needed respite.
4. Remember. With the help of people like Agnes, we can remember. Agnes’s letters, pamphlets, and documents are held in the Labadie collection, to which she devoted 30 years of labor. The lifeblood of radical history is held there and in a few other archives, including the IWW holdings at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive at New York University, the Emma Goldman Papers Project at Berkeley, the Joseph Ishill collection at Harvard, and the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam. Reflecting her dogged labor and echoes of her Presbyterian upbringing, Agnes wrote a love letter to the Labadie collection that can serve us today:

“To the Labadie Collection: Gather, dust, and rays of sun-heat beat imperceptible, beat. And let the unbound wrapped-up volumes of voices of dreamers and world builders keep their silence, and time will leisurely emerge out of space, out of events so measured.

Perhaps no dreamer, no builder of worlds will reincarnate you into his thoughts, his deeds: you may rest for long under the dust, wrapped up in brown paper and tied with string awaiting the judgement day.

But - one day – that day – young dreamers, young builders, will untie the strings and unwrap the volumes and they will cry out! They will say “My Brothers! My Sisters!” They will say, “You dreamers, you world-builders!” And they will peruse these old records of voices and they will repeat your words and speak your names…..As, in these volumes, your thoughts and the record of your acts lie in silence, the dawning spirit of the Revolution will sweep on…It is sweeping on! And your thoughts and your acts -past tho they are – are not lost in it. And this, the record, will ever be beloved.”

Signed Agnes Inglis, Summer of 1932, Ann Arbor Michigan

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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Greta Thunberg: Fifteen Minute Pharmakon?

Sankaran Krishna
University of Hawai'i at Manoa

Why does Greta Thunberg trouble us? What is it about the spectacle surrounding her that leaves many of us with mixed feelings? Why do we ricochet from a momentary appreciation of the young woman’s courage and directness to regarding the attention she has been getting as a part of the problem to even harboring anger and worse at her stentorian self-righteousness and her persona as a global scold? This brief essay tries to untangle my skein of emotions by enlisting the idea of the pharmakon.
Let us peremptorily define pharmakon to mean a combination of poison + antidote that is essentially a smaller portion of the self-same poison + scapegoat or sacrificial lamb. In what follows, I try to show why the Greta Thunberg phenomenon keeps evoking this intermixture of hope, cynicism, and anger, in so many of us.
   Greta Thunberg, wittingly or otherwise, exemplifies the privilege that accrues to people from certain regions, nations, classes and races in the world when it comes to pronouncing on global issues. That people from these self-same categories are also overwhelmingly responsible for much of the crap we find ourselves in is a matter that goes relatively unmarked. She did not choose to be born as a white girl in Sweden, but that accident has a great deal to do with her contemporary visibility.
   What if, about a year ago, a Malaysian teenager named Rashida Ali had chained herself to the railings around the Parliament in Kuala Lumpur in protest over climate change? Would we have heard about her? I think not. In fact, I know not. Irom Sharmila’s was one of the longest hunger strikes in human history in protest over India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act which allowed the Indian army to act with impunity in its border states. Sharmila eventually gave up and called off her strike as it seemed so futile. Few Indians, let alone people outside the country, heard that tree fall; most of us even didn’t even know it existed before it fell.
Others – fifteen year old Autumn Peltier who has been at the forefront of the struggle of the First Nations of Canada for clean water, Medha Patkar who has spent decades trying to stop the development of dams across the Narmada river which spell disaster for millions of villagers in the state of Gujarat, the women of the Chipko movement in northern India who were the first tree-huggers- have protested against injustices ranging from the proximate to the planetary. Yet they have never commanded the sort of global visibility that Thunberg has. The apocalypse that Thunberg warns of has already happened to millions over five centuries. They protested and continue to resist in myriad ways without drawing a fraction of the attention she is able to command.
Thunberg’s ability to scale her protest up to the level of the global is inseparable from the very industrial, technological, digitized, racialized, and mediated processes that have helped create the crisis she protests against. Her image and actions have gone viral through processes inextricable from the spinoffs of military technology, avaricious consumerism, and media sensationalism. They rely on platforms built on rare earths mined in Africa and produced by slave labor in third world export-processing zones. One can only imagine the amount of airline and other fuels consumed by media personnel who followed her across the Atlantic and over the American landmass to cover the spectacle.
 Thunberg’s calls for saving the planet for the future, for the children, for young people like her, attach a primal innocence to youth that grates in a world where for all too many the innocence of youth has long been lost if it ever existed. Whether its child laborers working in brick kilns since they were toddlers, or teenage soldiers conscripted into ethnic conflicts, or children deliberately mutilated to make them more efficacious beggars, Thunberg’s demand for the restoration of youth itself bespeaks a privileged locus of enunciation. 
Moreover, her foregrounding of lost youth needs to be queered for its heteronormative habitus: innocent youth need saving so they may go on to perpetuate the species through nuclear families. There is a normalized futurity in her narration of a world foregone. While I don’t expect her to show such awareness, the absence of it in so much of the moralizing discourse that surrounds her certainly highlights the incongruity of the desire to return to the innocence of youth in a world where both innocence and youth are unavailable to so many.
To put it simply, there is too much of the Heidegerrian world-as-picture in her imagination and protest, and yet, it’s arguably our ability to scale up to such global levels that has brought us to the current crisis.
Thunberg is from Sweden: the land of Abba and paternity leave. A place where Prime Ministers sometimes bicycle to Parliament and, even when they are assassinated, make sure they were merely walking home after catching a movie with their wife rather than in a bullet-proof limousine surrounded by a security cordon. Sweden is uncontaminated by histories of colonial atrocities (though the record will show that they did attempt, ineffectually, to become a colonial power back in the day) or the unnerving presence of large numbers of dark-skinned ex-subjects in its cities and towns or exotic loot from faraway lands displayed in quiet museums in her capital. There aren’t too many guilt-free white spaces left to which liberal causes can unreservedly affiliate themselves: Sweden (and the rest of Scandinavia) heads that relatively short list. (Sometimes I feel virtue-signaling Volvo drivers actually think their cars are less polluting simply because they are made in Sweden).
Thunberg cut a lonely figure in that ubiquitous photograph of the schoolgirl-chained-to-the-fence outside the Parliament. The idea of a heroic individual changing enduring systems is one that has a long and strong appeal to the liberal imagination: it allows us to retain the illusion that oppressive structures can be changed by acts of individual will and sacrifice. And that the failure to do so has less to do with the power of the structures and more to do with the weakness of our will.
When the individual in question may also be classified as ‘disabled’ (Thunberg is reported to diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome) it adds to the patina of heroism. As Jasbir Puar, among others, has argued, the figure of the disabled (western) hero draws our eyes away from the systemic global production of debility through the slow violence of neocolonial economic policies and the swift violence of war. 
In an era of glossy, freeze-dried celebrity heroes (think Brangelina) Thunberg comes across as authentic: an awkward, blunt-talking teenager who has pronounced various emperors naked. Yet, the third-worlder in me looks suspiciously at the combination of white saviorhood, innocent youth, individualist action and disabled heroine and wonders what all the smoke and mirrors conceal?
 Finally, Thunberg has already emerged as a scapegoat, a site of displacement for many forms of obvious and inchoate anger. Strident moralism, at the best of times, is likely to evoke a “fuck-you-too” as fatigue and over-familiarity set in. When it comes packaged with global celebrity it’s unsurprising that Thunberg has evoked much hostility. To the science-denying right wing, she is emblematic of the sort of extremist (and utopian) liberal politics reduced to absurdity. Their anger and mockery is transparent and quite easy to decipher.
More difficult to parse is the distaste of many who ostensibly share her politics and her ethics. At least one aspect of this distaste is a form of self-hatred: “this young woman has had the guts to say and do the right things. What exactly have I done lately to put my money where my mouth is?” These are dangerous questions for many of us who aspire to be environmentally responsible in the abstract but fail every single minute of every single day in our practice.
The world we inhabit and frankly enjoy is one premised on acting as if the planet is an infinite basket of resources for us to do whatever we please with. Thunberg is an irritating reminder that not only is that not true, but more importantly, that we can change who we are by an act of our will. That she seems to have that will and we clearly don’t transmutes quite rapidly from self-hatred to despising Thunberg. She has become a figure we love to hate and/or hate to love for relentlessly reminding us that even if saving the planet is probably beyond us, we could change who we are and how we act. 
There’s an even darker secret within some of us: it is increasingly obvious that as a species we lack the collective will or nous to alter our headlong rush into oblivion. Some of us, at least some of the time, harbor a feeling that if something bad were to happen to this unblemished heroine, this gutsy young girl from Sweden, maybe that will shake us into action? That might awaken us to our dire and impending doom? Perhaps Greta Thunberg is the sacrifice demanded of us by a gambling God who has evidently upped the ante beyond anything that has gone on before? That would, of course, bring the Greta Thunberg story to a classic terminus: she would become the golden child we sacrificed in order to regain our humanity and our planet.
I suspect the way it will actually play out is more mundane, or at least that is my hope. Just as Malala Yousufzai served a certain function in a different geopolitical moment and now probably languishes in a post-Nobel conference circuit from hell, Thunberg too may soon be pushed aside by the next posterchild of doomed salvation. But at this moment in time, Thunberg reigns as a fifteen minute pharmakon: poison, antidote, and scapegoat all rolled into one highly visible, ornery and ephemeral persona.
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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Trump, Militarism, and Fascism

Steve Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah and has just completed a book manuscript entitled Tyrannicide: Trump, White Nationalism, and Democratic Resistance.

On July 4th Donald Trump, pronouncing himself the country’s “favorite president,” commandeered annual Independence Day festivities on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Inspired by spectacular commemorative occasions abroad, France’s Bastille Day in particular, Trump militarized America’s 4th of July celebration by saluting the nation’s military forces to the point of worship and brandishing its lethal war machinery to the point of fixation, promising to produce “the show of a lifetime!” While Trump’s speech was cheered in some quarters for focusing on the country and its achievements rather than appealing to his white nationalist base for personal political gain, as if his base does not thrill to the sight and sound of American military might, his political interest informed the day’s events. Trump established a troubling precedent for what has traditionally been considered a non-partisan holiday as the military became the president’s performance prop. Dispatching the Pentagon’s hardware to the streets of the nation’s capital for no legitimate reason crossed an American Rubicon (my thanks to Simon Stow for this characterization). 

What will July 4th 2020’s presidential election year show look like? Trump’s strategic willingness to make himself appear, contrary to fact, to be a patriotic force of national unity who rises above divisions renders him especially dangerous as he pursues his white nationalist agenda. Should his aspirations meet with undue frustration or defeat, he may, given his contempt for constitutional limits and norms, decide to act in the “good” of the country as he alone defines it regardless of the democratic consequences. For this possibility he set the stage neatly. Trump insisted that American freedom derives from the military and presented himself as their champion. He does not offer professions of presidential affection and loyalty gratis. He may not have asked for anything this year and he may not do so next year, but he has positioned himself well were he to call on the military for their support to reward his fidelity, especially in a moment of (alleged or manufactured) constitutional crisis. In short, why not try to seduce and corrupt the military? Given its willingness to wage George W. Bush’s illegal Iraq war (name a top general who resigned rather than aid and abet the charade), its republican credential are dubious at best. Given his low popularity he may not be able to maintain his self-conception as America’s “favorite president,” but this performance might help him guarantee that he is the military’s favorite president.

The disconcerting symbolism of the armored vehicles and tanks surrounding Trump possessed a menacing feel, as did the flyovers he ordered for the occasion. He was demonstrating the vast destructive power that he can summon from above willy-nilly. (He ordered a similarly gratuitous flyover of F-35 fighter jets to impress the Polish president when the latter visited the city on June 12.) The ostentatious displays suggested vigilance not so much against foreign enemies of American freedom but Trump’s domestic enemies. (The Bradley fighting vehicles were pointing at the crowd.) And Trump is nothing if not an agent of enmity. He thinks in no other terms. As Bill Connolly has been saying for several years now, Trump’s presidency has made the possibility of a fascist dictatorship all too real, a possibility he and his co-conspirators in the GOP cultivate not just on national holidays but every day of the year.

Thus, Trump and the GOP’s self-affirming Confederate character declared itself in Trump’s calculated 2020 re-election diatribe of July 14 against four Congresswomen of color, telling them to “go back” from where they came because they “hate America.” This kind of racist invective is fodder for xenophobic hatemongers, and calls to mind American efforts to purge the continent of African-Americans through colonization in the 19th century. It also give the lie to the claim that Trump and his minions are against only illegal immigration. The House of Representatives formally condemned Trump’s racist tirade, but only four Republicans, a pitiful but telling number, joined the disavowal. Trumps linguistic erasure of four American citizens, three of whom were born in the United States, constituted an act of violence in and of itself, proving once again the illegitimacy of Trump’s presidency: it’s not just that he cannot represent America as a whole; he has no intent to do so. His is a government of and for whites, especially white males who adopt his bellicose ethos. Thus, at a campaign rally in North Carolina on July 17, Trump responded to the House’s rebuke by escalating his racist attacks, bordering on incitement to violence, urging his supporters to “tell them [the four Congresswomen] to leave.” The crowd, in frighteningly fascist fashion, duly complied and serenaded an obviously satisfied president with racist chants of “send her back!,” a targeted reference to one of the Congresswomen, Ilhan Omar, an American citizen born in Somalia. These three words cannot be retracted or denied. Hitler would have approved his apprentice.

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Thursday, August 1, 2019

Dear Donald: Events are accumulating

Bill Connolly, author, Climate Machines, Fascist Drives, and Truth (2019)

Dear Donald: 
I trust you watched the festivities in Puerto Rico. I am sure Fox covered them. For years citizens, in varying situations, bore the tyranny, corruption, racism and incompetence of President Ricardo A. Rossello. They allowed him to ignore their suffering during that horrendous hurricane, as you, too, blamed the victims for the disaster. Events accumulated, with some people pretending they were tolerable and others absorbing them almost silently. Then a small bevy of secret conversations was released in which Rossello and his buddies joked about feeding dead carcasses to the crows, casually discussed killing the mayor of Santiago, and ridiculed numerous other suffering citizens. The pent-up anger finally exploded. People of diverse ages, classes and ethnicities suddenly took to the streets. Citizens blocked roads and highways. They danced to the rhythmic beat of pots and pans in the streets. Groups gathered on kayaks and water scooters to demonstrate in front of the President’s mansion. Famous performers joined the festival and demands. Acrobats and dancers dangled from city signs, as they performed with the Puerto Rican flag.

To study Rossello, Donald, is to gaze at your own future through a looking glass. You, too, are tyrannical. You, too, are corrupt. You are a racist and a white nationalist. You demean everyone who does not fit your tiny image of what belongs in America. Events are accumulating, Donald, taking a toll on people who may not appear to you to be profoundly troubled by them. Perhaps congress, the courts, and the Justice Department now either participate in your tyranny or flinch before their own responsibilities. But events themselves continue to accumulate. Something will happen in the future; it may be rather minor in itself. It will ignite street uprisings across the country, Donald, in blue and red states. In the face of that uprising the courts and congress may suddenly discover their nerve. That’s what happened in Tunisia, when Mohammed Bouazzizi burned himself alive in public to protest tyranny. And again in Puerto Rico after the release of secret conversations contemptuous of the people.

Let’s review a few events in the States, Donald. People now often try to forget many of them, as they struggle to earn a living, get through the day, send their kids to school, and pay their rent or mortgages. But when the new event ignites street revolts, these instances will come flooding back too:

1. You colluded with Russia to produce a massive invasion of the American election. Some continue to deny or diminish this astounding fact. But the repressed will return with a vengeance once the new triggering event is fired. Because free citizen elections and the essence of democracy are at stake here.

2. You plan to collude with Russia again, knowing that you cannot win the election unless you do so. That is why you called the Russian invasion a hoax the first time, not because you could not allow yourself to believe it but because you plan to collude with Putin twice. He has the goods on you, Donald, and it shows all over your face every time you and he commune in public.

3. You constantly demean nonwhite, non-Christian Americans, eager to find any flimsy pretext to do so. Government by pretext and accusation.

4.You treat the fetish of a territorial wall as a pretext to stop immigration into America, as you wrest small children from their parents and treat nonwhite refugees with utmost cruelty. This conduct teaches us about the virulence of your racism and, further, about how far you are willing to go with any opponent when you think you can get away with it.

5. You cancelled the Iran antinuclear agreement, intensifying tensions in the Mideast and increasing the danger of nuclear holocaust.

6. You continue to use all the prerogatives of governing to create profitable opportunities for yourself and your corrupt family.

7. You covered up your recent amorous affairs by breaking campaign finance laws, and now you use a corrupt Attorney General to stifle investigation of that lawbreaking.

8. You cancelled the Paris Climate Agreement upon taking office and continue to construe the fact of rapid climate change to be a hoax, condemning billions of people now and in the future to much more precarious lives.

9. You supported a huge tax cut for the rich, while increasing the deficit by the largest amount any President has done in modern times. You will, of course, now encourage Mitch McConnell, one of your henchmen, to use that ballooning deficit as a reason to cut back or refuse to augment a variety of essential social services.

10. You refuse to release current and former members of your administration to testify before Congress as Congress exercises the oversight functions that are a crucial part of democracy. You believe the delays you incur by forcing Congressional subpoenas to the courts allows you to get to the next election, when you plan to use all your powers to suppress minority voting and reap the next round of rewards of Russian collusion. You think that once that election is over you will face even less citizen control than heretofore.

11. You tell Big Lies every day, acting as if the populace is stupid enough to believe them--or at least angry enough to accept them as pegs upon which to hook their prejudices. Every time you face an embarrassing fact, you call it fake news, doing so to undermine popular credibility of the media. You don’t care that your lies undermine the public accountability essential to democracy. Because you don’t admire democracy. But most people, Donald, are not stupid. They absorb the assaults, hear their consciences fester, and bide their time until the spark is ignited….

12. You hire corrupt people to serve as heads of key bureaucracies, and you defend them when the corruption is exposed until it becomes a bit risky to do so. Then you dump them fast, as you dump everyone who is not useful to you at the moment.

One day, soon, a new lie will surface. Or the contempt in which you hold most of the American populace will be revealed by another action. Or you will call upon Americans to sacrifice for a new reckless policy. Or old allies in other countries you now treat with contempt will refuse your urgent call for help. Or Putin will release hidden facts about you—Kompromat--because you are not quite as much a toady as he demands you to be or because he now wants to throw an election into chaos rather than supporting one candidate. The trigger may well be small, Donald. But the accumulation of previous events will turn it into an avalanche.

I will join that avalanche, Donald, using street tactics and refusing to participate in bloodshed. We know, of course, that you will immediately accuse us of violence, as aspiring fascists always do. Projecting onto the opposition everything they are all so willing to do themselves. We know, too, that you will hire thugs to work us over—as aspirational fascists always do when their regime starts to crumble. When the streets fill, Donald, when the peaceful street actions become overwhelming, when the world stops, you will eventually collapse. As you see erstwhile supporters melt away. Why should they stick with you when it is abundantly clear that you would sacrifice them immediately to a new hotel, or a money laundering project, or the need to protect yourself from charges of illegality, or a few votes in Florida? Why, indeed, because you now only attract loyalty from people who are a lot like you.

Until the flood next time,
Citizen Connolly

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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Epstein, Barr, and the Treatment of Civic Fatigue Syndrome

Bonnie Honig 
Brown University
Sara Rushing
Montana State University

In 1964, British scientists discovered the first virus known to directly cause cancer in humans. The virus is a nearly universal “pre-existing condition,” affecting 90% of the world’s adult population. In the industrialized West it rarely causes cancer, appearing more commonly as mononucleosis, which causes exhaustion, sore throat, stiffness, pain, and fever. In healthy bodies, people carry the virus but typically don’t get sick. In weak bodies, the effects can be devastating and recurrent.

The virus is called “Epstein-Barr.” This week, the American body politic, weakened by two years of exposure to swampy conditions, malignant misogyny, and rank corruption, has contracted a new strain of it, a bad case of Epstein Barr.
   At the Simply Health website, the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) is said to “often lie dormant.” It might be hidden for years in New York City mansions, Florida golf resorts, or offshore islands, for example. But “when your immune system weakens, whether it is because of stress, or another illness,” or the Republican Party, “the EBV can break free and multiply,” and suddenly it seems to be everywhere, operating out in the open.
   “Given how common the infection is, it’s better to have a good understanding of the symptoms …to protect yourself and keep everything under control. As you [or your democracy] age and your immune system gets weaker, the possibility of an EBV outbreak increases.” The website doesn’t give a specific age but 250 years old, give or take, feels about right.
    The problem is, diagnosis is difficult since “EBV causes many symptoms that are commonly shared with other illnesses.” For example, what looks like voter apathy may turn out to be gerrymandering. What look like free markets may turn out to be oligarchical power structures. What looks like sex with underage women might turn out to be child rape. And what look like concentration camps on your border… might turn out to be concentration camps on your border.

Simply Health makes clear that “prolonged fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of EBV reactivation…If you feel like you have been leading a rather healthy lifestyle with a selective diet, but you just feel tired and low energy all the time for no apparent reason,” or because you are constantly watching the news, checking Twitter, going to marches, donating to candidates, texting to mobilize voters, doing public writing, while still trying to live your life, raise your kids, and do your job, then . . . Simply Health advises helpfully: “it’s time to look into the root cause of the problem.”

Worryingly, many Americans may recognize the symptoms: “You will not be able to function properly when it hits you, because of the low energy level you have. You may try different medication,” if you can afford one, “but nothing seems to work. If you have gone to the doctor, and he still doesn’t know the real cause of the issue, ask him about the possibility of an EBV test” (but first, ask her if your insurance will cover the test). Could it be Epstein-Barr? Or (GULP) is it: Epstein Barr?

Whether Epstein-Barr or Epstein Barr, you may suffer the sore throat that Simply Health lists as the next symptom. Yes, it’s hard to swallow. It may be from mono, but perhaps it’s from yelling at the news as it flies out of your TV, radio, or laptop assaulting you with the latest obscenities. The sore throat, says Simply Health, is a sign “that your immune system is being attacked.” The antibodies that once protected you from the virus are no longer up to the task: judicial institutions, the rule of law, Congress, most of the watchdog media, and others that you normally count on to preserve your system’s health have let the virus re-activate and now you are its unwitting host.

Although Simply Health instructs those infected to “avoid crowded places” so as not to spread contagion, this is actually truer for the Epstein-Barr virus than for the Epstein Barr variety, which is its own strain. Without the hyphen (and really, isn’t that the aim of Make America Great Again: to de-hyphenate America?), Epstein Barr is in fact best combatted by seeking out crowds and mobilizing people so as to infect them with your contagious horror at what is happening and with your equally contagious enthusiasm for what we could achieve together were we to find our common ground. You’ll want to take to your bed, yes. But that feeling in your stomach is telling you something. Listen to it.

Simply Health suggests that “If you work or live in a stressful environment, try to find ways to change it so you can live stress-free.” Analgesics and anti-depressants will only get you so far. You will need to address the enabling conditions that let the virus reactivate and flourish. Real change is the only solution.

While we do the hard work of (re-)democratizing the U.S., maybe we can also entertain ourselves by naming diseases afterallthe wrongdoers. Here is one: Acostitis – a strange syndrome in which, though you are burning with fever, no thermometer can record your temperature. Early detection is especially key for this one, but a 10+ year lag is often suffered by patients (by which we mean victims). Or McConnellopathy, also known as swamp-foot, known for attacking the brain by way of the neck.
    Laughter may be the best medicine, but it is most effective when taken with a large dose of collective action. So ask your doctor if democracy might be right for you.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Abortion, Pluralism, and the Discourse of Genocide

Ben Meiches is an Assistant Professor of Security Studies and Conflict Resolution at the University of Washington-Tacoma and author of The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide.

On May 16th, Kay Ivey of Alabama became the latest governor to sign legislation designed to curtail and penalize the practice of abortion. The Alabama Human Life Protection Act makes performing an abortion a Class A felony with a 10 to 99-year term of imprisonment and is just one of a series of state level efforts to further eliminate legal abortions. In 2019, Georgia also adopted legislation banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected while Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio all enacted ‘six-week’ bans. Similar measures have been introduced in Missouri, Tennessee, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina, and West Virginia.

Many commentators maintain that the goal of this legislation is not to prevent abortions per se, but to initiate the process of overturning or modifying Planned Parenthood v. Casey (505 U.S. 833), the controlling Supreme Court precedent that affirmed Roe v. Wade while justifying state regulation of abortion. After two additional Trump appointees to the Supreme Court, the logic goes, Casey and Roe may face unprecedented challenges. While these new state legislative efforts have been the focus of media attention, they represent the labors of a large network of anti-abortion activists that, at times, espouse overt hostility to pluralist values.

One of the tactics of the anti-abortion movement is to rhetorically reposition abortion as a practice akin to the worst. Amongst this arsenal of shameful tropes is a frequent claim that abortion constitutes a form of genocide and, moreover, the worst genocide in human history. This claim appears in the organizational materials of nonprofits. It mimics the structure of humanitarian projects and targets supposedly sympathetic college audiences. The rhetoric is severe enough that it has even become the subject of public dispute. Liberal and leftist responses to this tactic typically point out how this rhetoric trivializes the victims of the Nazis, Young Turks and other genocides. This is an important argument, but it fails to understand why genocide rhetoric has become such a powerful part of the anti-abortion movement and doesn’t sufficiently grapple with the implications of this discourse. Instead, it presupposes a model of contestation that presumes a shared set of norms and sentiments, which required explicit practices of memory work to construct. In addition, the trivialization response embraces a practice that has also been historically used to marginalize black and indigenous claims about genocide, a process of marginalization also entangled in the versions of this discourse embraced by anti-abortion activity. Lurking in the background of the abortion-trivialization is a foundational repression of racial and colonial politics.

Before proceeding, it is worth considering whether there is any possible link between abortion and genocide. The answer to this question is a strong affirmative. Article 2 of the United Nations Genocide Convention explicitly describes “imposing measures intended to prevent births” as a form of genocide, which could, hypothetically, include abortion. The existence of similar language was part of virtually every draft of the Genocide Convention. RaphaĆ«l Lemkin, the jurist who coined the neologism ‘genocide,’ frequently described efforts to prevent birth as a technique or form of genocide (Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, 86). However, these comments were not directed at the practice of abortion per se. Rather, they were designed to ban acts of state discrimination and control directed against the reproductive capacities of specific groups. Lemkin was concerned about strategies for reducing the birth rate of a particular people not abortion writ large. Early drafts of the Genocide Convention, such as the Secretariat Draft, explicitly discussed “sterilization or compulsory abortion,” but these comments appear alongside concerns about policies that prohibit marriage or segregate the sexes. While Lemkin and his interlocutors were guided by presumptions about sex, gender and labor that are no longer salient, the impetus to defend these institutions was based on a desire to insulate vulnerable minorities from predatory efforts to eliminate their forms of life. It is this ambition, the elimination of forms of life in the name of life’s necessity, that animates Michel Foucault’s characterization of “genocide [as] the dream of modern powers” in the age of biopolitics (Foucault, HoS vol. 1, 137). The concept of genocide was created by Lemkin to reject the extension of this power over racial, religious, linguistic, cultural, and national communities.

Hence, under international law, “preventing births” only becomes a form of genocide if it occurs with the intent to destroy a targeted group. This raises the question of how anti-abortion advocates envision the ‘victims’ of this genocide and how they go about ascribing intent to the ‘perpetrators’ of this violence? Typically, this rhetoric focuses on the ‘unborn’ as a subject or victim of this genocide. This interpretation does not have any precedent in the academic or historical literature on genocide.

Let's assume for the moment that we take this position seriously. If the unborn are a group targeted for genocide then this generates a host of other questions about what other practices violently intend to destroy the life for the unborn? Does racial discrimination in maternal medical care constitute genocide according to this standard? What about plastic pollution, which affects fertility or ecological destruction that leads to miscarriages? The traumas of intimate partner violence or sustained domestic abuse? Clearly, these are not a part of the anti-abortion agenda and they show the tensions that emerge if the ‘unborn’ become the group subjected to genocide. The reason anti-abortion advocates do not treat these other practices as forms of violence against the so-called unborn is because a set of religious or cosmological commitments resides in the background of these discourses. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's brilliantly demonstrated how faith and theodicy inform anti-abortion policy prescriptions. If the unborn are interpreted a priori as part of a Christian community then the category of genocide sounds different because abortion appears to constitute an attack against a specific type of religiously defined life. The legitimation of abortion by the secular state becomes, from within this perspective, an attack against the futurity of this identity. However, the underlying move here is the extension of the theocratic principles of a specific model of Christianity to all peoples, which implicitly dispenses with any other articulation of religiosity, faith, belief, etc. Put differently, a subterranean hostility to pluralism, to the contestability of belief, is crucial to making the deployment of genocide rhetoric intelligible in this context.

The tragedy is that the theocratic principles and policy ambitions expressed in this genocide rhetoric more closely resembles the practices that Lemkin and the other authors of the Genocide Convention were working to prohibit. Here is Lemkin defending his own version of pluralism: “The world represents only so much culture and intellectual vigor as are created by its component national groups. Essentially the idea of a nation signifies constructive cooperation and original contributions, based upon genuine traditions, genuine culture, and a well-developed psychology. The destruction of a nation, therefore, results in the loss of its future contributions to the world” (Axis Rule, 91). We may find ourselves discontent with Lemkin’s invocation of authenticity or nationality, terms he redefines and contests within this text, but this statement illustrates that a convention prohibiting genocide was inspired by a pluralist commitment. This commitment rejected the predatory anti-pluralist practices characteristic of fascism and sought to prevent any single theocratic or nationalist principle from dictating the value of political life. Ultimately, anti-abortion genocide rhetoric repurposes a pluralist aspiration to justify evangelical governmentality.

Given Lemkin’s aspirations for the Genocide Convention, how did this language become a resonance machine for anti-abortion advocates? The broader history of the concept of genocide, in spite of its origins as a part of an international justice movement, involves a takeover by reactionary forces. At its inception, genocide was understood to have far reaching anti-colonial and anti-racist implications. In the American context, it was the prospect of the Civil Rights Congress’ ‘We Charge Genocide’ petition and other anti-segregation struggles that demonstrated the impossibility of reconciling the Genocide Convention with a status quo dominated by white supremacist violence. To thwart these struggles and ideological distance themselves from the Nazi regime, the Great Powers crafted the Genocide Convention to limit its scope and applicability. Moreover, in the United States, these anti-racist movements were hounded, defeated, and largely erased from public memory. As a consequence, genocide became a language for criticizing state power (first totalitarian and then communist), but was later taken up by more powerful constituencies on the right to articulate how social reform endangered their identity. Unfortunately, many prominent applications of the language of genocide in international politics also ignore this complicity. What occurred was a rarefication of the language of genocide so it became about moral emergency and the state of exception rather than political justice or social struggle. Just as the prospect of international legal action on genocide became more and more remote, the ability of genocide, as a form of social discourse to incite powerful, stilling resonances grew. The notion that abortion constitutes a form of genocide not only shares a tacit complicity with what Dirk Moses calls “liberal theories” of genocide, but presupposes this capacity of the discourse to intensify, polarize and mobilize. Indeed, in general, the discourse of genocide produces is an affective reorientation of perceptions in relation to harm. It is one of the most acute methods of crystallizing processes that Wendy Brown refers to as ‘states of injury.’ As a consequence, it is difficult to discredit the connection between abortion and genocide solely by asserting competing truth claims. To do so is at best necessary, but not sufficient and at worst a dead end. The goal of this genocide rhetoric is not to have a debate. Instead, it cultivates reactionary affect and amplifies the danger associated with abortion as practiced in the United States. In this sense, it helps craft subjectivities structured around the need to prevent genocidal violence. Subjectivities also fearful of women’s lives, autonomy, and feminist movements in ways that strongly resonate with Klaus Theweleit’s exposition of fascist fears about the feminine. Does this rhetoric inspire attacks on women, abortion clinics, and doctors? Certainly not if the standard of proof depends on linear causality, but the intensities engendered by these discourses alter what is thinkable and contribute to an ecology of values that does produce this kind of violence. 

Disputing this rhetoric by pointing to the ‘real cases of genocide’ isn't sufficient. This gesture creates its own forms of exclusion and trivialization while failing to register the productive effects of genocide discourse. Contesting anti-abortion advocates will be a complex process including multiple scales of political thought and action. A critical history of genocide makes a small contribution to this process by showing that the underlying pluralist orientation of this language is one opposed to the imposition of theocratic principles. However, it also reveals that the explicit rejection of anti-colonial and anti-racist movements was a key condition of possibility for the appropriation of this language by anti-abortion. Challenging the latter also depends on addressing the former.

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