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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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Jeff Sessions at Amherst College: A Cautionary Tale


Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

One of the oldest buildings on the campus of Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts is Johnson Chapel, which has served as a gathering place on campus since the 1820s, when, as was true for so many New England schools, daily chapel was a part of the mandated curriculum. These days, it is used for fall commencement ceremonies, when first year students are welcomed by the faculty and president, and for senior class day ceremonies, when awards to outstanding graduating students are distributed. It is also a place where prominent speakers appear.

It is a venerated space. Portraits of all of the prior presidents of the College hang on the walls. And several luminaries among alumni, including the first Japanese graduate of a liberal arts college in the United States, Joseph Hardy Neeshima, who returned to Japan to found Doshisha University, Calvin Coolidge, a graduate of the College and a president of the United States, and the first female faculty member of the College, Rose Olver, have their portraits there.

Among the most prominent portraits is one that came about as the result of a campaign by African American alumni who graduated in the 1990s -- I recall, Willie Epps, Jr. and Chaka Patterson, of the class of 1991, being involved: Epps is now a Federal judge, Patterson a prominent attorney in Chicago. It is a portrait of Charles Hamilton Houston, who graduated from Amherst as class valedictorian in 1915, the only black member of his class. Houston went on to become a professor of law at Howard University, where he mentored such students as Thurgood Marshall and then resigned from Howard in the 1940s to help prepare the legal strategy for the NAACP challenge to Jim Crow, an effort that culminated in the 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. (Another prominent African American jurist, William H. Hastie, Jr. is also a graduate of Amherst College, in 1925. Hastie became Dean of Howard Law School. I hold an endowed chair at Amherst College that was established in his honor.)

On Wednesday, April 24, 2019, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, who until his recent forced resignation, was Attorney General of the United States of America, gave a speech in Johnson Chapel. How this racist, white nationalist, misogynist promoter of criminal immigration policies—the first prominent political supporter of our neo-fascist president—came to be standing in Johnson Chapel under the gaze of Houston is a telling story of the politics of our time, a sordid tale of power and corruption, the timidity of academic leaders, and the cynicism of the American right.

The story begins earlier this spring, when the College Office of Diversity and Inclusion—an office established to help integrate our increasingly diverse student body—ill-advisedly released a language guide, the intent of which was to educate students on how to speak inoffensively to each other about sexual, gender, class, racial and other kinds of differences. It contained overtones of Orwellian group-speak and overreach. Among other things, it chose to define “capitalism” as a system of exploitation and class oppression. This particular definition attracted the negative attention of the Amherst College Republicans (ACR), who immediately contacted right-wing websites such as the Daily Caller so as to subject the College to derision. The president of the College, Biddy Martin, withdrew the language guide, and the matter seemed settled.

But then the ARC overreached. Claiming that they wanted to meet with some transgender students to discuss elements of the guide having to do with descriptions of various elements of trans identity and sexual practices, they were caught on an internet application privately mocking the students they were about to meet. When the student newspaper, the Amherst Student, released screen shots of some their exchanges, the ACR as an organization was brought up on charges by the student government association, which defunded their activities, and in their own overreach, demanded that the officers of the ACR submit to sensitivity training. The president of the College again intervened, explaining that disciplinary proceedings of the College were the responsibility of the College, not the student government. She also issued a generic statement urging civility of discourse on campus.

These events occurred in the same weeks when the Amherst Student also reported that the men’s lacrosse team had held a private party in December in which members of the team (passed out drunk?) had had swastikas (and penises) drawn on their foreheads and then other members of the team had posed for photos with them, all of which, of course, found their way onto the internet. While this incident had been referred to the College’s athletic department and the dean of discipline, it was unclear whether the punishment that a few team members suffered, being benched for a couple of early season games, was enough, given the offenses. In short, Amherst College was enduring another spring in which youthful stupidity, ignorance, and moral righteousness were blending into an ugly farrago.

Sometime during this period, the ACR was put in touch with the Young America Foundation (YAF), a right-wing educational foundation that, among other things, sponsors outside speakers to speak at colleges and universities throughout the United States. If one goes to their website, one can see people such as Ben Shapiro, David Horowitz, Dinesh D’Sousa, and others of their ilk suggested as possible speakers on the issue of campus activism. (YAF has a deep history in the post-WW II American right, having some time ago absorbed another, similarly named group, Young Americans for Freedom, which had organized libertarian and more traditional conservative students since its founding in 1960 by William F. Buckley. The Young Americans for Freedom are now described as a “project of the Young America’s Foundation.) YAF offered to pay for Sessions to speak at Amherst College. This offer was made, it seems, within two weeks of the visit, and was seen by many, including the College’s president, as a cynical response to the attack on the ACR.

The idea seemed simple enough. From the perspective of ACR, however the College responded to their request for a space, it would be a victory. Should the College allow Sessions to speak, it would be legitimating hate speech on campus, in open conflict with its own policies concerning respect for persons, and would incense students who think that such vile racist haters shouldn’t be given the imprimatur of the College. If, for any reason, the College was to decline to sponsor Sessions’s visit—for instance, the administration could have claimed that it was not given sufficient time (which, while true in one sense, would have been a value-neutral bureaucratic reason, easily seen through)—the rejection would have resulted in the sort of national publicity that attended UC Berkeley’s cancellation of Anne Coulter’s speech last year. (Coulter herself actually spoke at Amherst College a few years ago.) The one reason to reject Sessions that would have been fully consistent with the values of the College would have been the most straightforward one. The College policy is explicit in that its statement concerning respect for persons condemns hate speech. Sessions’s record is filled with examples of hatred, dating back from expressions of racial animus while he was a US Attorney, revealed in hearing when he was nominated to be a Federal judge in 1986 by Ronald Reagan. The nomination failed, and launched him on his political career in the US Senate.

Interestingly enough, rumors quickly circulated that should Sessions be denied his chance to speak on campus, the agreement that the ACR had made with the YAF would have required the ACR to pay Sessions fee, which was purported to be about $15,000. So, the stakes were high for the ACR, which would probably have had to dissolve as an organization were it stuck with a bill for that amount. 

President Martin agreed to sponsor the speech. Upon hearing this news, I sent the president an email. (It was written in haste and anger and was peppered with typos, much to my chagrin. And on my moral high-horse, I perhaps was not persuasive. You may judge for yourself.)

Among other things I said, “I hope you realize you are now sponsoring hate speech and action . . .
The luxury of being a private institution is that we can say no. Jeff Sessions is a documented racist, and he has directed national policies that have been extraordinarily cruel and inhumane, separating children from their parents, causing the worst sorts of pain, denying refugees their right, under international law previously agreed upon by the United States, to seek asylum.
This despicable man isn't coming here to speak, to try to persuade, but to collect a paycheck and to foment hate, and to troll our college . . .
I am aware of your calculations regarding the endowment of the college. . .  But those calculations, concerning who will continue to give to the college, and the people who are adding and subtracting, including you, are cowardly. . . The true endowment of this college is not the billions of dollars, but the adherence we may hold to our principles.
I, of course, never heard back from Martin. Few of my colleagues publicly condemned her decision over the next days, or called into question having Sessions on campus, or organized protests. 

Instead, a few colleagues suggested providing some counter-programming at the campus center to coincide with the time of Sessions’s speech. A few of us professors gathered outside of Johnson Chapel, one colleague with a sign that simply quoted from the College’s policy concerning respect for persons. We waited outside, knowing that some of the student inside would stage a walk-out (the College closed the event to allow only students, faculty and staff of the College to attend, preventing other members of the Amherst community from attending; campus police were supplemented by town police, who took photos of some of us. I took photos of them in return.) Eventually, about 100 students walked out (apparently, about half of the audience), and gathered on the main quad nearby, chanting anti-hate slogans and listening to each other speak. Inside, Sessions asserted it was time for the country to move past the Mueller report, implying that it was the report itself that had divided the country, and expressing his worry for conservative students on campus, who he claimed felt threatened by political correctness.

And so it went. 

The reluctance on the part of my colleagues to directly confront and condemn the purveyor of hate on our campus seemed to stem from a worry that we were being “trolled” by the Right, and that to condemn Sessions would be to “Play into their hands.” Such reasoning seemed to be based on the idea that there is a point at which placating, rather than condemning, will allow us to proceed in peace with our work, so that the hate machines and institutions of the far right will move on. But as has been becoming increasingly clear, we are being confronted in the United States with a major political party that embraces tactics of earlier fascist parties—of intimidation, voter suppression, personal threat, using the internet not only to troll but to dox those who speak against them, issuing death threats against public opponents of their hate, using instruments of state power to threaten defunding of programs. They will continue these tactics regardless of any placating tactics we may adopt.

These neo-fascists members of the Republican Party know that one of the strongest sources of opposition to their rule is, in fact, the professoriate of our universities and colleges. Political theorists such as William Connolly, in these pages and in recent books, and Jeff Isaac with his ongoing stream of analysis of the right on his website, are but two examples of the many in our community who have been raising the alarm against this rising authoritarianism. (Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, provides a useful frame for understanding the core anti-democratic thrust of this far right.) But even so, too many others are trying to pretend that Trumpism represents the last gasp of a fading movement, on its way out of power, employing, for instance, the theory of presidential cycles advanced by Stephen Skowronek to suggest that Trump represents the end of a political cycle that is quite normal, that the machinations his administration has undertaken is a sign of weakness. Trump, in this reading, is merely the latest disjunctive president, a new version of Jimmy Carter. But this reading ignores the fact that it is not only Trump, but the entire Republican Party at the national level that has at this point embraced lawlessness as the core of its governing strategy, breaking the cycles of ordinary politics by breaking with the laws and norms that have in past succeeded in somewhat constraining those who desire to retain power exceeds their adherence to any democratic ethos. 

These neo-fascists must be countered, confronted, loudly opposed, not appeased. For the tactics used by the far right are in service of a deep anti-democratic agenda, one that calls into question the very values of equal justice that is at the core of democratic values. We do not simply negotiate justice. We fight for it. Against the trolls, against the racists, against the haters. We call them what they are, and we fight against the ignorance they foment. Especially as professers of truth—let’s say professors of truth—that’s our job.


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