18 August 2007

Useless Activism: The Geography of Non-action.

I haven’t been back in the States very long and already I am exhausted by the milquetoast-ey response Americans have to the Iraq War. I have wondered for years what it would take to prompt Americans to act on behalf of a cause. When I taught at the University I would ask every class what it would take to get them to go and lay siege to the White House, and overwhelmingly they told me that if the government took all of their money that would get them on a Greyhound to D.C. Money. We will consent to have our civil liberties suspended, we will consent to sell our labor and allow others to profit from our work, and some of us will even consent to being shipped to another country where we may face death. But my students will not consent to bankruptcy at the hands of the government. Wow. We would sooner allow ourselves to be killed than we would allow ourselves to live without money. I guess this explains why the government is moving to stabilize the financial market, destabilized by bad mortgages, but they don’t seem to be moving as quickly to resolve the War. I know, false analogy.

Last week K and I went to a brewery near San Diego and I saw a Prius there that was covered in political stickers that preached things like Stop This War! and Peace is Patriotic. (Yeah! Car activism!) This caught my attention because these ever-present anti-war displays reinforce in me a sense of helplessness for those who are socially alarmed (this is one step above socially aware, right?). More and more Americans seem ready to publicly declare that they are against the Iraq War. But, I think public declaration is all much of this group is prepared to do. Why? Certainly there are too many people who are only alarmed enough to put a sticker on their hybrid and leave it at that. But what about those who are alarmed, will declare this, and don’t know what more to do? How did it happen that ostensibly good people don’t take more meaningful action? Arjun Appadurai (who’s name is really fun to say out loud), channeling Benedict Anderson, writes that over time Imagination becomes a collective social fact. In other words, if enough of us put anti-war (or pro-war) stickers on our SUVs than we are assured that there is a vocal community who sides with our views. How nice.

This brings me to space. The most obvious reason, we can suppose, Mr. or Mrs. Prius Owner isn’t in Jordan, or wherever, is because it is bloody far away. Not even a Prius can get to Ma’an on one tank of gas. And this, I will assert, largely frees us from further consideration from undertaking activism of some sort. Oh Gosh, these problems, big though they are, are so far from my suburban home, or cool IKEA-furnished apartment that I can’t do anything. Instead we call our congress people, slap stickers on our hybrids and buy political tee-shirts. Heck, I don’t even have a hybrid! But I’m going to argue that this is still bullshit. We have appropriate concern, but we seemingly have no means to make change.

I understand why we are so reticent to actually do something. We are socialized to obey, and education is an important part of this socialized docility. I like what Gramsci wrote about this. He argued that we are socialized to see education as merely memorization when we should approach it as an endeavor in which we are taught the process of apprehending knowledge. In other words, we are not taught how to learn, we are only socialized to become encyclopedias. Gramsci wrote, “Taking one’s audience through the series of attempts, efforts and successes through which men [sic] had to pass in order to attain the present state of knowledge has far more educational value than a schematic exposition of the knowledge itself… Teaching done in this way becomes an act of liberation.” I’ve had few teachers teach me how to think. The result of this is that perfectly well educated people are left feeling impotent to make social change. We only know how to acquire knowledge that people are suffering, but we don’t know what more to do. This pleases the state just fine since it is the state carries out more human rights abuses than I have time to catalogue, and would therefore prefer to remain unmolested. When people understand there are problems, and our social skill set instructs us to buy a shirt (as I have done and will continue to do), we feel we have exercised our right to dissent, and the state remains unaccountable. A further consequence of this is that educated people who very quickly come to feel helpless also decide that their education is worthless. This, I think, is a big reason that degrees in the social sciences are seen as less valuable than a degree in the hard sciences. Getting people to convince themselves of their own worthlessness is an important step in getting people to consent to their own murder.

How fucking lame.

The reason I will argue failure to engage in activism is bullshit is because it is based on a false, or at least simplistic, conception of geography. It is too simplistic to say that a person in Los Angeles cannot help a Palestinian in Amman because he is 7579 miles away. This places social problems and activism in a sphere that is entirely defined by proximity. What if we define activism in another way? (Hint: this requires defining social problems in more nuanced ways too.)

Let us begin with acknowledging that human rights violations are globalized problems. This is something we deny when we decided that Palestinians are too far from Los Angeles and we can do nothing to help them (assuming we even want to). When we fail to see that the Palestinian problem is a global, de-territorialized, trans-national issue (have I stressed this enough?), it puts pressure on us to consider that perhaps solutions to this problem, with all its nasty facets, are also globalized. Uh oh, now we may be obligated to concoct more complicated excuses for our non-action. How do we respond, assuming we want to do something here? Another problem, and I am speaking as an anarchist, is that much of what I would consider activism is illegal in Jesusland. We are socialized to believe that if we take action to prevent our own government from spying on us, or to teach students that the war is wrong, we are at the least anti-patriotic, and at the most a violent person who can potentially plunge this country into chaos. Idiotic obedience to the state seems also to be a globalized phenomenon. I believe that an additional danger that accompanies denying the globalization of human rights violations is that we ignore that which is carried out against us. Instead, we imagine that human rights are things that only people like Palestinians need to worry about. Giorgio Agamben, one of my favorite anarchists, makes a radical argument that most people in the world are now refugees. He defines Refugee as a person who represents The State of Exception within a nation state. The State of Exception represents time and space defined by the State in which laws and rights are suspended (oh, say habeas corpus rights during a time of War). Agamben goes on to argue, “The refugee should be considered for what it is, namely, nothing less than a limit-concept that at once brings a radical crisis to the principles of the nation-state and clears the way for a renewal of categories that can no longer by delayed.” This is a radical argument, and I agree with it personally. But even if you think this is over the top, consider what Agamben is nevertheless pointing out to us: The State is in a crisis, and that most of the world’s leaders are by many conservative standards still criminals. In other words, Palestinians are not the only people who need to worry about human rights. They are simply ahead of the curve here.

Sticking to the Palestinian issue, Sari Hanafi, who has never written anything I disliked, argued on Bitter Lemons that Palestinians have become a transnational population who need identity documents that allow them to make a living as such. Click here to download his great article (and many others) for free. He writes that the Right of Return is now in many ways an irrelevant issue, and what these folks really need is the freedom to travel to the States or Europe where they can make a living and support their families. My research backs this up. As I asked Palestinians about the Right of Return, all demanded this. When I further asked people if they would actually move from Jordan to Palestine the response was a unanimous No, my life is here in Jordan. Many people want the opportunity to work abroad while their families remain in the Middle East. And, of course, others do want to move out of the Middle East. Why should we let Palestinians move? Because as this lady’s great dissertation beautifully documents, the problems in the Middle East can be placed squarely at the feet of us Westerners, and not just 100 years ago but within even my lifetime. (N.B. colonialism does have consequences for the colonizers too.)

Getting back to geography. Before I left Jordan I gave a talk about my research. In the audience was a Palestinian woman who grew up in Kuwait, and like so many Palestinians came to Jordan during the first Gulf War. She was visibly upset when I talked about a family I spent time with who takes turns eating because there is not enough food. Several times before I left Jordan she spoke with me and politely contested what I had said, suggesting that perhaps something is wrong with the head of the family, or perhaps I had stumbled upon a unique phenomenon. At one point she shyly admitted that she had never been to any of the Camps in Jordan, and was pretty disconnected with the poorest of the poor in Jordan. It was as if she had to contest what I had said because she as a good person could not bear to know such things went on in her town. We do the same thing in the States though, don’t we? As long as suffering is hidden, we can process it. But when we are confronted with it, we are overwhelmed and left unequipped to help. Bumper stickers do not replace food.

Again, I’m struck with the role of geography with this. When I went to Jordan last September I purchased an Amman Tourist Map so I could learn my way around. Funny thing is that the map only included West Amman. This is the space where tourists are supposed to go, and the grittiest part of Amman they will see is the Balid. We are socialized when we are funneled away from some places to others. We internalize something when we are sent to Abdoun, and Marka is never mentioned. I contend it is easier to contest this kind of quotidian socialization than it is to contest what I saw over this last year. I suppose it is also easier to put a “Coexist” sticker on my car than it is to volunteer, or spend time figuring out which NGOs in the Middle East are real and which are fake. It is certainly easier than spending a year away from ones family with people at the center of this. But, referring back to Gramsci, activism and the liberation that comes with that, can be done wherever we are. Imagine how amazing that would be for individuals, and then imagine how threatening this is to the power of a state.

Heading away from geography, I am also struck with the looming cloud of controversy that hangs over discussions of the War or Palestinians. The Winter 2007 issue of the Journal of Palestinian Studies has a great piece by Sara Roy on this. Often accused of being a self-hating Jew, Roy writes, “The disinterested pursuit of knowledge – that is, objectivity – in writing about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict aims, among other things, to create balance or equity where none in fact exists.” She goes on to write, “Thus, if authority’s role is to obfuscate, then the intellectual’s role is to reveal.” I don’t mean to sound overly hippy, but when the child of parents who survived Auschwitz beautifully argues that even the language we use is a form of activism, I see profundity where I used to see tension and argument. What makes Roy’s scholarship so moving to me how it is underwritten by a passionate commitment to human rights. Rights for everyone, even people with whom it may seem we share no commonalities. But Roy’s work also serves to enforce the idea that the way we use language and the way we talk about things like this can also be activism. My fundamentalist Christian friends/family are very good at making every thing they talk about a pro-Christian, persuasive conversation. Is this not activism?

Finally, I have been thinking a lot about all the Americans I met this year in Jordan who came to try and do something *right*. So many of them failed to do anything because they spent their time in Jordan overwhelmed with the complexity of the problems in the Middle East. AMP has a great vintage post about this. I had not seen this post until this morning. It is a more articulate version of my rant about the goofiness of foreigners in Jordan. We have many of the same complaints even though we were both in very different social spheres in Jordan. This is conclusive scientific proof that too many of us go to the Middle East waste our time. If different cultures were actually easy to understand I wouldn’t be working so effin’ hard for this degree.


Blogger Weeping Sore said...

Can't we just all get along? And make more money? If I sell my Prius and buy a bunch of new t-shirts with new protest slogans will that do?
Seriously, good post and excellent links.

2:26 AM  
Blogger MMK and YMR said...

An excellent post, one I will re-read again, and with links that I'll check out in the future (and the reminder about AMP's excellent rant also led me to re-read that post).

8:13 AM  
Blogger Steven Kesler said...

I hope you feel better now ;-)

9:14 AM  
Blogger Walter Ward said...

Preach on sister. Still, I'm not entirely sure what we can do about any of this. The more I learn about our government, the more I learn that it's only interested in staying in power, no matter how many people get hurt. I just try to educate people about my experiences in Jordan and tell everyone I can about many of the things you learned about the war, Palestinians, and the Middle East in general (since I was couped up in my office studying all the time!). I like to consider myself a "good" person, but I often feel hopeless when I think about changing things.

8:01 PM  

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