Have a Good Time

November 25, 2011

A map of the country

“So we heard the proposition last night, ‘We need to dismantle the United States.’ This sounds kind of preposterous and silly to most people but the question is, ‘Why? Why does it sound so absurd to say that we don’t want to live under a settler state founded on genocide and slavery?’ That the proposition seems silly shows the extent to which we have so completely normalized genocide that we cannot actually imagine a future without genocide.”—Andrea Smith, March 2011, at Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide

Occupy Thanksgiving: Decolonize! / DisOccupy / IMAGINE OTHERWISE

June 28, 2011

Coined sovereignty, brought justice, promised joy

“Derrida made clear in his short book on Walter Benjamin, The Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come. This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life. It means only that, as an ideal, it is that towards which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realised would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed).”
—Judith Butler, “Jacques Derrida”

“No, they cannot touch me for coining; / I am the king himself.”
King Lear, IV.vi

A year ago, Daniel wrote here about the Israeli military’s conclusions regarding the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza, and the verdict of a Los Angeles jury in the trial of Oscar Grant’s killer, Johannes Mehserle (who, two weeks ago, walked free); and, following a line of thought traced by Jakada Imani, asked: “What would justice look like?”

I just want to ask that question again in the middle of 2011, a year that seems fated to be widely remembered as a special year for justice, or even as the year in which justice was done. Announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 1, President Obama used the word “justice” five times: once, at the end of his speech, in an effort to situate this assassination as a marker of the blessed utopian potentiality of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” (on which suggestion, see Kai Wright’s “The Ability to Kill Osama Bin Laden Does Not Make America Great”); once to pay tribute to the American intelligence community’s “pursuit of justice”; once, of course, to assure the families of bin Laden’s victims that “justice has been done”; and twice, elaborating on and deepening that same point, in reference to the fulfillment of a promise made ten years ago—that the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks would be “brought to justice.” One detail that these references conceal, but that the video I’m posting below recognizes and illustrates, is that the promise fulfilled on May 1 was not (literally) that promise. It was George W. Bush’s assertion on September 20, 2001 that “[w]hether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”

This is an instance of antimetabole, a term defined by Wikipedia as “the repetition of words in successive clauses, but in transposed grammatical order,” and etymologically based in the combination of the Greek anti (“opposite”) and metabole (“turning about”). It’s the kind of rhetorical flourish that tended to be put forward admiringly as evidence that, when the occasion demanded it, President Bush could get serious. Is there any other recent moment of American political antimetabole at once so meaningless and so plainly, terribly significant? To speak of this alternative possibility of “bringing justice to our enemies” is to speak not just to the belief that, in Butler’s words, “one has already arrived at justice,” but to the unspoken faith that justice is proper to the United States, that it has no authorization or meaning beyond the reach of the United States. In other words, I would argue, it only indexes in the most explicit way what was already present in this specific invocation of the act of “bringing our enemies to justice,” heralding as it does the Global War on Terror. It clarifies what kind of “justice” this war will entail, and in what spirit it will be pursued. It might not be adequate to say that “bringing our enemies to justice” (with its air of righteous self-assurance—and maybe, when spoken by Obama instead of Bush, of convincing ethical seriousness) and “bringing justice to our enemies” (with its suggestion of a vengeful, far-reaching violence, inflicted on bodies to whom justice itself is foreign) are two sides of the same coin. They might be more like the same side of the one-sided coin of imperial American power. Which is why I would say that right now it’s possible to know exactly what justice looks like, or at least what this justice that has just been done looks like.

[A TV ad for The Justice Coin. Transcript at the bottom of this post.]

One expectation we might have of any reference to justice figured as a coin, a “justice coin”—an expectation which I think this ad helpfully overturns or turns about—is that it would necessarily come in the service of a recognition of some sort of inherent doubleness: a tribute paid to what Henry James said he was looking for in What Maisie Knew, in his pursuit of “themes” that would “reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connection of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt, so dangling before us forever that bright hard medal, of so strange an alloy, one face of which is somebody’s right and ease and the other somebody’s pain and wrong.” Jamesian passages like this one, as Phillip Barrish notes, are often taken to indicate an ideological overlap between literary realism, with its portrayal of “a complex world where actions always have multiple ramifications and effects,” and a political “realism” according to which justice must always be sought and paid for in compromises with injustice and violence. In this view, true maturity comes with a kind of happy acceptance that it was necessary for the U.S. to kill bin Laden and that in the pursuit of such justice it was necessary to get our hands dirty: by, say, extracting evidence through torture, or killing untold numbers of civilians with drones and bullets, or shooting our extrajudicial enemies in the head and burying their bodies in the sea.

Now, with respect to James and his work, this is why I basically prefer to agree with Eve Sedgwick that the most interesting content of such passages isn’t related to justice at all, but rather to the shameful pleasure of queer sex. (Which puts the “bright hard medal” in a long and broad history of literary queer money, bearing in mind that one of the earliest meanings of “queer” is “counterfeit.”) But it’s also exactly why I think something like a TV ad for “The Justice Coin” is a valuable document. It seems to reveal something about the counterfeit nature of the maturity of realism—about what Jodi Dean, in her post on obscenity and assassination, identifies as an infelicitous attempt to cover “an obscene enjoyment of violence and arbitrary power” with “the big Other of justice.” (As Dean goes on to say, “we remain stuck in a realism of the worst, excusing our worst impulses as ‘realistic.'”) The “bliss and bale” of the United States alone mark each face of this coin, respectively: one side shows the Navy SEALS who “carried out Operation Geronimo” and the words “YOU CAN RUN / BUT YOU CANNOT HIDE”; the other side shows the spectral twin towers, the signs of a horror that everyone remembers, but already overlaid with the words of both President Bush and President Obama, promising first that justice will be done and then that it has been. In what looks like a material answer to zunguzungu’s question as to whether bin Laden’s death marks “the conclusion or the final normalization of ‘9/11’,” ten long years (in which of course bin Laden did hide, and in which a totally incomprehensible number of people who weren’t bin Laden were killed, maimed, tortured, and displaced) are collapsed into one moment of trauma and resolution, to be commemorated forever—in this case through the purchase of a collectors’ item, valued at $99, which could be ours now for $19.95. That seems obscene, and I think it is. But I also think it might be a mistake to regard the obscenity as merely a counterfeit addition to the justice that has been done, like a layer of gold on a brass coin. On the contrary, I think a text like this ad—weird, upsetting, straining so hard and so unsuccessfully to convey authority and legitimacy—is what does justice to these events.

“When celebrants chanted ‘U.S.A.! U.S.A.!’ and sang “God Bless America,” were they not displaying a hateful ‘us versus them’ mindset?

Once again, no.”
—Jonathan Haidt, “Why We Celebrate a Killing,”  The New York Times

I had just finished thinking about this post a few days ago, on June 24, when the New York state legislature legalized gay marriage: an impressive victory in a fight which—to make this clear quickly—I, as a queer person, have felt for a while not to be mine. (See Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on the violence of assimilation, Sassafras Lowrey on priorities and the queer homelessness epidemic, Kenyon Farrow on racism and the marriage movement, or “Beyond Marriage.”) It was my last night in Appleton, Wisconsin, where I’d been working for three months as an anti-Walker “field organizer” (but not really—more on this later, maybe), and I was sitting in a coffee shop looking at Twitter, when suddenly my feed went into overdrive and almost everyone was ecstatic. I saw that Amanda Marcotte had written, “I love the USA chant. Exactly. That’s what it should be for,” and I realized that for the second time in as many months there was a public celebration of justice in New York, with that chant in the air. Implicit in Marcotte’s remark is a normative distinction between the celebration of marriage rights and the celebration of a killing that the chant shouldn’t be for—which, of course, is a distinction that really matters, and I don’t want to imply that these are similar events. Part of me wants to express nothing but solidarity with my gay American sisters and brothers who want to get married, and happiness at their ability to have intimacy publicly recognized and respected in the ways they want and need. But another part of me wants to add, hegemonic American nationalism is hegemonic American nationalism, and sometimes it’s homonationalism; which is to say that the spectacle of “USA!,” in the wake of a decision to expand a circle of privilege for one subset of New York state’s queers, can’t be abstracted from an ideological environment that privileges the “tolerance” of states like the USA, the UK, and Israel while systematically and violently conflating Orientalized bodies and cultures with homophobia and queer death.

 

So I just sat for a while at the coffee shop in Appleton considering these two photos—one taken just after the New York legislature’s announcement, the other taken on the night of bin Laden’s death and shared by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore—and remembering the night, two months earlier, when I was at a bar down the street with Ben and other members of our campaign team, and suddenly the music was turned off, the TV volume was turned up, and everyone at the bar, including others at our table, was loudly toasting the death of bin Laden. I realized that in reaction to each of these very different experiences—sitting in a bar that had become a space to celebrate a killing, and sitting in a cafe reading endless online expressions of joy, over victory in a struggle I felt pressured to be invested in, but wasn’t—the shape of my feeling was approximately the same. I remembered Sara Ahmed’s recent work on moments when we become “affect aliens,” in her book The Promise of Happiness and more briefly in the great essay “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects),” recently shared on Twitter by SubaBat. As Daniel helped me see, there’s something here—in Ahmed’s “We are not over it, if it has not gone”—that could be akin to a rewriting of Derridean justice into the affective sphere: where, at least for a certain kind of willful subject, (political) joy is fully conceivable only as spectral, as to-come. This possibility is obviously there in the title of her book: maybe I’ll report back soon, when I’ve actually read it. In the meantime, in the language of the infomercial, I’ll try to sum up my feelings about these two moments of justice by saying I’m not sure I buy it, and I’ll end this post by reframing it as a quiet invitation to join me in feeling like a justice killjoy.

[Ad transcript.

Narrator: September 11, 2001.  The terrible events of that day will live in infamy.  But the United States would ensure that those responsible would pay the ultimate price.
President Bush: Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.
Narrator: Finally, after ten years, our nation savored the taste of justice.
President Obama: Tonight, I can report to the American people, and to the world: […] Justice has been done.  A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. [Gunshot] We give thanks to the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. 
Narrator: And now the Historic Coin Mint is making available this rare commemorative coin paying tribute to the Navy SEALS who carried out Operation Geronimo—featuring SEAL Team 6, with their distinctive trident and their classified stealth helicopter.  On the other side, the tragic reminders: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, along with the powerful words of our presidents.
President Obama: Justice has been done.
Narrator: A collectors’ item, it’s forged from brass and coated in magnificent 24-karat gold.  It’s valued at $99, but for a limited time is now available for just $19.95.  You’ll also receive this acrylic protective case to preserve it and this certificate of authenticity.  But wait: be one of the first 500 callers and you’ll also receive this distinctive SEAL Team 6 lapel pin to wear with pride, and the Operation Geronimo military briefing packet.  With photographs, maps, and operational details, it’s a $79 value.  Today, it’s yours free—just pay shipping and processing.  Altogether, an over $200 value, still for only $19.95.  You’ll even have a 30-day inspection period to get a full refund of your purchase price.  This offer won’t last long, so order right now.]

January 14, 2011

Two pieces on gun violence in America

♦♦♦

July 17, 2010

…but enough on that subject?

The politics of truth pertains to those relations of power that circumscribe in advance what will and will not count as truth, which order the world in certain regular and regulatable ways, and which we come to accept as the given field of knowledge. We can understand the salience of this point when we begin to ask: What counts as a person? What counts as a coherent gender? What qualifies as a citizen? Whose world is legitimated as real? Subjectively, we ask: Who can I become in such a world where the meanings and limits of the subject are set out in advance for me? By what norms am I constrained as I begin to ask what I may become? And what happens when I begin to become that for which there is no place within the given regime of truth? Is this not precisely what is meant by “the desubjugation of the subject in the play of […] the politics of truth?”
—Judith Butler, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue”

One day Emily was holding a very high and intellectual conversation with ———— where they were quite above the mundane plane. Mrs. Dickinson had fussed in and out many times to see if they needed anything, and at last she bustled in, just at some fine climax of the talk, and asked if ————’s feet were not cold, wouldn’t she like to come in the kitchen and warm them? Emily gave up in despair at that. ‘Wouldn’t you like to have the Declaration of Independence read, or the Lord’s Prayer repeated,’ and she went on with a long list of unspeakably funny things to be done.

—Millicent Todd Bingham, quoted in Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson

Two recent news stories about the discovered textual practices of the framers of the U.S. Constitution seemed to assume an easy metonymical resonance. First, on the margins of the origins of American exceptionalism: three months ago we learned that George Washington stole the book on international law, and the debt has been accruing ever since. And late last month—certainly in time for July 4, but also broadly in time for Arizona’s escalation of the “debate” over “illegals,” and just about in time for the delivery of an involuntary-manslaughter verdict in the case of the unspeakable Oscar Grant—a U.S. citizen who was suddenly not a citizen, because he was lying face-down on the ground, a picture of guiltless subjection to the law, when the law, as represented by Johannes Mehserle, shot him in the back—the Library of Congress announced that when Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence he wrote “fellow-subjects,” blotted it out, and replaced “subjects” with “citizens.”

A computerized column showing five grayscale views of Jefferson's handwritten "fellow-citizens," with his original second word, "subjects," progressively emerging in yellow and, by the final image, replacing "citizens" completely

Above is a digital snapshot of the hyperspectral imaging process, from the AOLNews story. It embodies an archaeological reverse-teleology that I would hope to pause or to apprehend, at least for a moment.  Like Micki McGee, writing for the Social Text blog, I’m not sure how helpful it is to describe this correction the way the news stories do, as the heretofore-successful burial of the traces of a “Freudian slip”—although I’m unsure for different reasons. McGee says it is “not clear at all that this wording and rewording would qualify as a repressed idea or desire percolating up from Jefferson’s unconscious, even if such psychoanalytic parlance can be applied to a draft developed more than a hundred years before Freud came up with the concept”: for one thing, I’d say (if I were pretending to be a strict psychoanalytical reader), wouldn’t a century-old draft be almost the ideal site for the application of this parlance? (But if I were pretending to be a strict psychoanalytical reader I would go on to say something really tedious about the distance between the parlance of strict psychoanalysis and the popular parlance of “Freudian slips”…) More to the point, though: noting that the import of the words “subject” and “citizen” is in so many ways still under contestation, McGee adds that the picture of those words here led her back to John Zerzan’s anti-anti-humanist “critique of the post-structuralist parlance of ‘subjects’ and ‘subjectivity'”—the implied move being, I think, an affirmation of Jefferson’s corrective intentions, a celebration of the autonomy that might result from thinking of ourselves as (global?) citizens over thinking of ourselves as subjects. I was actually led in what must be the opposite direction—back to Butler’s “What is Critique?”, with its reminder that Foucault’s project aims to involve not only the delineation of the constraints of subjectivity, but also the desubjugation of the subject. And I started to wonder if this account of Foucault and of critique (not to mention Butler’s more recent thinking on states and citizens) might enable, or even necessitate, a kind of Dickinsonian choosing-not-choosing among variants in the reading of Jefferson’s draft.  A kind of recognition that, however much we might debate the benefits of considering ourselves subjects over citizens or citizens over subjects, we remain something unspeakable (at least by a single voice): .

I’m talking about “us” partly because that’s how McGee frames her question.  (“On this Fourth of July weekend, I find myself wondering broadly: where are we building spaces of autonomy, and where are we bowing like subjects?”)  But I also want to call “us” into question, because it’s worth saying something, though I’m not an especially well-equipped person to say it, about the context of Jefferson’s revision, and about the relation between his erasure and the further erasures that are enacted in all the popular news coverage of this story.  The sentences in which Jefferson replaced “subjects” with “citizens” run as follows:

he has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence;

he has incited treasonable insurrections in our fellow-, with the allurements of forfeiture & confiscation of our property;

Those sentences don’t quite appear in the final draft of the Declaration:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us , and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

“Domestic insurrections” are slave revolts.  In Jefferson’s original draft the charge of “insurrections” is followed by the self-incriminating condemnation of the slave trade that was simply cut from the final document; Congress’s version also turns “incited” to “excited” (muddying the question of agency), “treasonable” to “domestic” (because slave revolts aren’t treasonable, because slaves are neither subjects nor citizens), and an ambiguous “in” to an all-too-comprehensible “among”; and collapses “Indian savages” and unspeakable slaves into one group, the Others at the frontiers of a frighteningly simple “us”—”we” who incorporate “all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence,” or in other words we white people who belong on this land—as if admitting that the choice between “citizens” and “subjects” was in the end both undecidable and irrelevant.

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.

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