Have a Good Time

February 8, 2011

Constructive engagement (was Ronald Reagan’s plan)

Of course Ronald Reagan’s centennial was yesterday, the day of the 45th Super Bowl, and I’ve found it’s been important to my emotional health to spend some time with a personal canon of texts running counter to the national celebration of an abominable, unkillable legacy—a canon that would include passages from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches; Davey D’s post on what children should be taught about Ronald Reagan; an assemblage of queer and feminist voices of opposition, put together by Queers for Economic Justice in 2004; Janelle Monáe’s video (still) for “Cold War,” a wonderful Foucauldian reading of which Robin James just published … and, maybe above all, another music video, made by Jonathan Demme in 1985 (when Reagan was president and everyone knew the Cold War was still going on) but in some interesting ways a video not so far away from Monáe’s.

When I watched “Cold War” for the first time, part of my reaction was to wonder—even as I knew there were crucial specificities here—why more artists didn’t make music videos that consisted of their just singing into a camera, in closeup, in one uninterrupted shot.  It’s beautiful, it works.  And it occurred to me that this was the same reaction I’d always had to seeing movies directed by Jonathan Demme, distinguished by a signature touch that’s fascinated me for a long time: why don’t more mainstream filmmakers construct scenes of dialogue or intersubjective engagement using direct-eyeline compositions?  When and how was it decided by the grammarians of cinema that actors, as characters, wouldn’t look straight into the camera?  For me, when two people in a contemporary American movie are together and suddenly I’m jolted and yanked in by feeling one of them look me right in the eye, almost like Ronald Reagan on TV, it’s immediately recognizable as Demme—it’s almost an auteur’s (unblinking) wink; it took me a while to appreciate how much sense it made that he had a special relationship with a band named Talking Heads—but this wasn’t the way film had to develop, was it?

I’m sure there are plenty of good discussions of this technique, but the best example that I know of right now, touching on its relation to André Bazin’s “Holy Moment,” comes in Keith Uhlich’s 2004 article on Demme for Senses of Cinema (which is full of excellent things, including a challenging, generous rereading (possibly too generous) of the queerphobia of The Silence of the Lambs, a movie I think I’ll always have a painful relationship with—I’m not sure how to feel about Jack Halberstam‘s argument either…).  And the one text that Uhlich leaves out, but which I think confirms better than anything else his interpretation of Demme’s sense of cinema as a “medium of address,” is the “Sun City” video, codirected with Hart Perry: possibly my favorite thing Demme has ever done, definitely my favorite thing Bono has ever done, and, above all, still an amazing work of political art.  I first saw the video only about a year ago, thanks to Daniel, who I think had been turned on to it by friends passing it around as a much-needed antidote to Paul Haggis’s “We Are the World” remake (and wishing aloud that someone would make a “Sun City” for Palestine and the BDS movement).  Haggis’s “We Are the World 25,” remember, is the video that (in Jay Smooth’s mostly-joking words) killed rap music once and for all.  As for the original, anyone who’s followed this blog for a while will know I’m a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but I’m not going to pretend this was a high moment.  Even irrespective of musical quality, though, the differences between “Sun City” and both iterations of “We Are the World” are profound.  While one song is an attempt to conjure or invoke, out of its “we,”  a universal (Western) subject who should just be better at being good, the other is a powerfully angry, defiantly specific statement of solidarity, from artists who recognize the complications of their own subject position and are telling us what they won’t do, with a refrain that in its particularity has all the force of Tony Kushner’s angelic “I, I, I am the bird of America”: I (I) I (I) I (I) ain’t gonna play Sun City.

This intensity is complemented by a formal distinction between the video for “Sun City” and the videos for “We Are the World” that makes all the difference in the world: almost everyone in Demme’s clip makes their declaration right into the camera—as in a conventional music video, except, I think, not.  (One of the related pleasures of this particular clip, the copy of “Sun City” that exists on YouTube, is that we get to watch a rosy-cheeked video DJ transformed by their address: before playing the song he seems not to know how to pronounce “apartheid”; afterward he says, with lovely enthusiasm, “That was great, I never, I don’t, I don’t think I ever looked at that real closely, if i’ve seen it, but … that was great…”)*  The 1985 rendition of “We Are The World” relies on an uneasy half-transparency in relation to its own production, with the team of musicians who “are saving [their] own lives” shown singing together in a studio but never meeting the camera’s gaze, instead staring off to the side, into the phantom space of liberal charity (while Haggis’s shockingly misjudged update combines shots of the same kind with footage of what can only be described as a happily abject Haiti).  “Sun City,” in contrast, reverses the terms of this artificiality and goes out onto the streets of urban America—shown, at the climax, to be the same streets as those of apartheid South Africa and of the murderously segregated American South in the 1960s.  The video’s open acknowledgment of American complicity with injustice is crystallized as George Clinton, Joey Ramone, Jimmy Cliff and Daryl Hall, and Darlene Love, respectively, look out at the viewer and sing four lines which, in early February 2011, on Reagan’s 100th birthday, feel at least as resonant as ever:

Our government tells us, “We’re doing all we can”

“Constructive engagement” is Ronald Reagan’s plan

Meanwhile people are dying and giving up hope

This quiet diplomacy ain’t nothing but a joke.

Quiet diplomacy.  I think of Reagan’s announcement that he and Hosni Mubarak were “close friends and partners in peace,” very explicitly echoed in recent days by Joe Biden, Tony Blair, and Hillary Clinton, and implicitly confirmed by the (imagined) quiet diplomacy of Barack Obama.  To be clear, this is not to say that Egypt is apartheid South Africa, or that Obama is Reagan.  It’s only to say that the video for “Sun City,” which was, on its own terms, a genuinely (de)constructive engagement seeking to educate, to raise awareness of the United States’ inextricability from global systems of violence and domination, and to inspire action, feels to me like the bearer of some really important reminders.  One of which would be that the model of “constructive engagement” personified by Ronald Reagan, and, ever-increasingly, in his long movie-star shadow, embodied by a president I supported with all my heart in November 2008, is a model that really amounts to looking the other way.

*Edited to add: These sentences refer to a clip removed from YouTube, sadly.

January 23, 2011

Footnote on contemporary fans and their transnational affective communities

“Thus, insofar as power expresses itself as the violence of unbinding, compearing community foments its nonviolent resistance through an anarchist politics of immediate conjunction, coalition, and collaboration ‘between’ the most unlikely of associates.  Second, as ‘the appearance of the between as such’ (viz. of the space of relationality/conjunction rather than of discrete relational/conjunctive subjects), compearance requires of its agents a qualifying ethico-existential capacity for the radical expropriation of identity in the face of the other—a capacity, that is, for self-othering.”—Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities

“America, I want you to know that before I’m an American I’m a Britney fan.”—Chris Crocker on Maury, 20 September 2007

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.  Such a choice may scandalize the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police.”—E.M. Forster, “What I Believe”

“The alleged Wikileaks source, a 23-year-old American soldier called Bradley Manning, leaked the info by burning it onto CDs marked ‘Lady Gaga’, listening and lip-synching along to her mega-hit ‘Telephone’ as he did so, in the way that a 1950s cartoon character might whistle tunelessly to give an impression of benign innocence.”—Dan Hancox

July 9, 2010

What would justice look like? Thinking about Gaza and Oscar Grant

On July 6 Israel announced “justice” for the massacre of 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza:

The staff sergeant accused of killing at least one civilian faces a manslaughter charge. Beyond that, the military said a battalion commander was indicted on suspicion of deviating from “authorized and appropriate” army behavior and from an Israeli Supreme Court ruling when he authorized a Palestinian man to act as a kind of human shield by entering a house where militants were sheltering in order to persuade them to leave. […]

In a third case, the chief of staff ordered disciplinary action against an officer who ordered an aerial strike on a militant involved in launching rockets. The man was standing outside the Ibrahim al-Maqadma mosque, the army said, and the shrapnel caused what it called unintentional injuries to civilians inside. The Goldstone report said that an Israeli projectile struck near the doorway of the mosque, in northern Gaza, during evening prayers, killing at least 15 civilians who were mostly inside.

The military said that the officer had “failed to exercise appropriate judgment,” adding that he would not serve in similar positions of command in the future and that he had been rebuked.

In addition, the chief military prosecutor ordered a criminal investigation by the military police into an airstrike on a house that held about 100 members of the extended Samouni family in Zeitoun, a district of Gaza City.

On July 8 the verdict of “involuntary manslaughter” was announced in the Oscar Grant trial.  This is the Ella Baker Center’s response:

However, with the verdict of involuntary manslaughter, even with the gun enhancement, the jury has decreed that Mehserle will receive a sentence of five – fourteen years. Giving up a handful of years of his life seems like a small price for Mehserle to pay for the fact that nothing can bring Grant back to his loved ones.  Given the long history of police brutality against members of our communities, describing what happened to Oscar Grant as anything less than murder feels not only inaccurate but also a missed opportunity to affirm that violence against communities of color, especially when inflicted by the police, is unacceptable. When you can watch a video of a young, unarmed Black man being shot to death at close range, calling it anything less than murder feels gravely injust.

No one in the Palestine movement, I think, was much interested in the Israeli military court findings about the Gaza massacre, or surprised by the obvious injustice of, for example, a demotion and a rebuke as punishment for 15 murders.  The boycott/divestment/sanctions call, five years old today, is for “ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”  And that might not be all we should demand.  The Oscar Grant murder is a reminder that legal equality does not mean an end to the injustices, economic and otherwise, that racist systems bring.*  But at any rate, it’s clear that an Israeli military court is not where justice will be found: it will come from the struggle led by the Palestinian people.

So while I’m horrified about the verdict in the Mehserle trial, I’m trying to remember: real justice will never come from a court that’s very much a part of the system that contributed to the crime.  Here is more from Jakada Imani of the Ella Baker Center from before the verdict, my emphases added, and worth considering for Palestine as much as for Oakland:

On New Year’s day 2009, Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant in the back, that much is clear.  What’s less clear is what justice in this case should look like.

I am clear that Mehserle must be held accountable.  But that alone is not justice.  Locking him up won’t give Oscar Grant’s daughter her father back.  It won’t give his mother the chance to see her son continue to grow.  And it won’t take away the terror in the hearts of black and brown boys when they are stopped by police officers this summer.  A guilty verdict for Mehserle won’t make up for decades of police brutality, racism, unequal justice, exploitation, racial profiling, or socio-economic systems that are rigged against the poor.

I have been an activist for far too long to think that sending someone to prison ever sets things right.  Prison adds damage-to-damage and trauma-to-trauma. We don’t want prison to be the only option for young folks who make mistakes. Is it really the only answer for police who make mistakes?

At the same time, Oakland Police and leaders are preparing for the worst – riots to erupt in Oakland, civil unrest- if the verdict of the trial absolves Mehserle. The media is more interested in the idea of cops facing off against the community than uncovering the problems of the justice system, police accountability, and racism at the root of this case. Furthermore, the resources being spent to address this possible unrest would be better used in addressing the distrust and strained relations and trust between police, community leaders, young people and residents. It’s as if the authorities in our community expect the worst from us, planting seeds of fear which could end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than investing in true community safety and system reform.

In all the media hype surrounding the trial and the cops vs. protester coverage, something is lost.  That something is healing, transformative justice.  How do we transform the system that recruited, trained and armed Mehserle and thousands just like him?  How do we change the fact that police and civilians alike see young men of color as threatening? How do we build a powerful social movement and not just participate in one-off flash mobs?

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we have to take to the streets. I am down to march, chant, rally, block an intersection, commit civil disobedience- what ever it takes.  But not just to make myself feel better. When we take to the streets, we should be saying what we want, clearly and resolutely- not just point out the problems but also demanding the solutions. I know too much to protest the sky, to mistake commotion for motion.

That is why we are supporting Emergency Leadership Forum. A gathering of young leaders from through out Oakland, organized by our allies at Urban Peace Movement and Youth UpRising.  The four-hour Leadership Forum will inform youth about the status of the current legal case, provide young people with a positive process through which they can explore their feelings and frustrations about the situation, and educate them about Social Movement history.  The Forum offers youth the tools and the space to work on not just a vision for justice, but a plan. Young people did not get us into this mess, but do have the wisdom to help get us out. Please invest in Urban Peace Movement and Youth UpRising by donating your time and/or financial resources to work with youth on peaceful responses to violence.

In our Families for Books Not Bars Network, we train parents to advocate for their children in the juvenile justice system by telling them not to let the court see their children as the sum total of their worst moment.  For Johannes Mehserle, it’s too late.  He will forever be seen as the cop who killed an unarmed Black man, as he lay prone.  He will have to live with that reality for the rest of his life no matter what the jury decides in Los Angeles.

But for you and me there is time.  How will we be remembered? When the jury makes its decision, will we feel victorious or defeated? Which outcome would trigger which response, anyway? What solution would mean that justice has been achieved – for Oscar and his family- and for all of the victims of State violence in our communities? Please share your ideas, your questions, and your feedback so we can move forward together.

As we heal our society so that there can be true and transformative justice, I am reminded that there is just us- we are all we have. We must come together to find the answers and move forward with our heads held high and our commitment to real solutions always lighting our path.


* In addition to healing the trauma, like Imani says (or perhaps as a part of it), reparations seem necessary.

May 18, 2010

Atwood and Ghosh do not understand

Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh decided to accept the Dan David Prize last week, disregarding calls from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and, movingly, from the students of Gaza.  And it wasn’t enough for Atwood and Ghosh to ignore the Palestinian boycott call: they also issued really obnoxious and self-serving statements justifying that decision.  I think that zunguzungu really hits the nail on the head about how gross and misguided their remarks are, but there’s one additional obfuscation by Ghosh in particular which really outrages me.  In his rambling reply to his critics Ghosh says,

You speak of encouraging civil society. It is evident to me that the people who wrote me these letters are doing more for Palestine and Gaza than any activist in India or the United States. It would appear that my work has had some influence on them. Is it really possible then for me to say to them: ‘Sorry, various people have instructed me to boycott you so I need to fall in line?’

This makes it seem as if the conversation is between a group of activists in the U.S. and India (and other parts of the world) about how people should or shouldn’t engage with the Israeli State.  But that’s just not right.  The call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions comes from Palestinian civil society–unions, cultural organizations, women’s committees, youth organizations, refugee groups.  Standing with the boycott call or not isn’t a question of what judgment Ghosh and others display about the situation in Israel/Palestine, it’s about respecting and joining a non-violent form of resistance to Israeli apartheid initiated by Palestinians.

As Naomi Klein has made clear, boycott is a tactic, not a dogma.  The question of boycott isn’t even about Ghoshwood’s attitude towards whether they can morally engage with the Israeli state.  Boycott is a Palestinian-initiated form of resistance that Ghosh and Atwood are contravening by their acceptance of the Dan David Prize.  By making boycott about them and about the North Americans and Indians who chastise them, Ghoshwood’s statements only add insult to injury in their disrespect of the Palestinian self-determination that is at the heart of the boycott call.

April 14, 2010

letter of support for BDS at Berkeley

Filed under: anti-zionism — by Daniel @ 8:42 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Below is a letter from the Chicago chapter of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network to the Berkeley student Senate regarding their vote to divest from two companies that work for the Israeli military.  (I am a member of Chicago IJAN.)  The original divestment vote was vetoed by the Senate president, and the Senate is voting tonight on whether to overturn the veto.  See the Daily Cal for information, as well as the letters of support linked below (especially Judith Butler’s).

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The Chicago chapter of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network congratulates the Berkeley student senate for voting to divest from companies that support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.  We encourage the Senate to vote tonight to overturn the president’s veto.

In voting to divest, the Berkeley senate honors the call by Palestinian civil society for an international movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the State of Israel until it begins to comply with international laws, ending the illegal occupation and dismantling the apartheid system.  The international BDS movement is a powerful nonviolent method of solving the crisis in Israel/Palestine and builds on the success of the international BDS campaign against South African apartheid.  Berkeley students were on the vanguard in that international anti-Apartheid movement, and we appreciate your courage in taking a similar role in the struggle today against Israeli apartheid.

The lopsided 16-4 vote in favor of divestment indicates that you have a grasp of these issues and the importance of divestment.  But the veto message from President Smelko and a subsequent statement by Zionist organizations attempt to challenge your actions with veiled accusations of antisemitism.  Particularly, we would like to rebut the claim by President Smelko that the divestment bill is “a symbolic attack on a specific community of our fellow students.”

It simply incorrect to imply that targeted divestment from companies involved in the occupation constitutes an attack on the Jewish community.  Chicago IJAN is one of many Jewish organizations who oppose Israeli apartheid and who support divestment.  The letters of support from Jewish Voice for PeaceJudith ButlerNaomi KleinNoam Chomsky, and others make this abundantly clear.

letter from a large group of Zionist organizations says that the actions by the Senate “marginaliz[e] Jewish students on campus who support Israel.”  We see this as a veiled accusation of anti-semitism, suggesting that challenging Israeli policies amounts to hurting Jews who support them.  But we find this argument far more anti-semitic than its supposed target.  To imply that Jews are marginalized by criticism of Israel only marginalizes those Jews, like us, who oppose Israeli apartheid from the Jewish community.  To deny our Jewishness and to associate that Jewishness with immoral and violent policies is anti-semitism.  Our criticism of the State of Israel is based on the illegal actions of the State, not the identity of the perpetrators.

Chicago IJAN would like the Berkeley Senate to know that Jewish groups like J Street, AIPAC, and the World Zionist Organization do not speak for all Jews.  As Professor Butler makes clear, there is a deep Jewish tradition of social justice and respect for co-habitation from which perspective the occupation is abhorrent.  Some of us call on this Jewish tradition in our support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.  But more importantly, none of us are “marginalized” by the BDS movement.  In fact we are empowered and encouraged by it.  Chicago IJAN stands beside the Berkeley Senate in its support for BDS, and we look forward to continuing the nonviolent international resistance to Israeli apartheid together with you.

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