Author Archives: jamullan

Zakaria and Huntington

Like some of my classmates, I found The Post-American World to be rife with oversimplifications and hollow reasoning, especially for a book with such grand ambition. Fareed Zakaria’s populist stylistic and writing choices were definitely a lot more detectable, almost distracting, after having spent the semester reading mostly academic texts. Despite these deficiencies I actually think that Zakaria presents his argument effectively, and that the general audience that his book is targeting will probably be in agreement with his claims—that any threats to U.S. global hegemony are overstated, American power remains strong, but we must be able to cooperate with rising powers like China and India, and so on.

Above all, I’m most interested in exploring the relationship between Zakaria and his supposed mentor, Samuel Huntington. Notably, The Post-American World adopts the same “West versus the Rest” framework that Huntington had used for dissecting world power, and there are plenty of other echoes of “Uncle Sam” (my new moniker) in Zakaria’s work. Considering that Zakaria was a student of Huntington’s at Harvard, I found this quote from Chapter 5 particularly telling:

“When I went to college in the United States, I encountered a different world. While the American system is too lax on rigor and memorization—whether in math or poetry—it is much better at developing the critical faculties of the mind, which is what you need to succeed in life. Other educational systems teach you to take tests; the American system teaches you to think.” (2008:193)

This quote became even more fascinating upon my discovery of Zakaria’s sentimental eulogy in Foreign Policy magazine after Huntington’s death. In this piece, Zakaria pays homage to one of the American educators who helped him develop these critical faculties and “teach him to think.” Some nuggets of wisdom from Uncle Sam include:

“If you tell people the world is complicated, you’re not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know it’s complicated. Your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single, or what are the couple, of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon.

“…Well you know, Fareed, my view has always been that you put your best work out, you let people attack you, and then you move on. You can spend your whole life getting caught up in letters to the editor, and ‘I didn’t say this and I didn’t say that,’ but it’s pointless. The best thing you can do is write the next book which will cause disagreements among people.”

Additionally, Zakaria notes in his tribute how Huntington was a man of principle; he evidently demonstrated this in one case when he was asked, as the chair of the Olin Institute, to encourage more minority students to apply to the group’s fellowships. Huntington’s response? “You know, I really can’t go along with that. I feel very awkward sending special invitations to people based on their descriptive qualities, so you’ll have to tell the dean I won’t do it.”

Indeed, the same man who carved out a world order based on certain civilizations’ ascribed capabilities and limits—and then “invited” those inferior cultures to either join the West or fail—apparently feels uncomfortable making decisions based on individual’s “descriptive qualities.”

Oh, Uncle Sam. It’s seems as though the education that Zakaria attained was less “learning how to think,” and more of an exercise in conforming to the ideology of American exceptionalism. And as an immigrant from India, Zakaria’s ascent to the elite circles of American life have likely been contingent upon his embrace of these hegemonic principles–which in fact do more damage to the Global South and concentrate American power. Is this what “human rights imperialism” looks like?

The Structural Pitfalls of Consciousness

When we talk about spreading the language of structural “ism-s” as a part of the campus mission to generate a more conscious community, these are important steps, but I think we should be attentive to how far this process can really take us. Part of today’s discussion focused on how the college can institutionalize certain practices and ideas to establish itself as a more progressive space; I remember Maya talking about how discourses surrounding trans-misogyny could be introduced on the house team level and Raquel mentioning the incorporation of a diversity video during orientation week. I believe that both of these advances are necessary, because as I said in class, initiating institutional methods (possibly also a social consciousness requirement) affirm a commitment to doing the work of understanding each other and creating a better community.

But I think it’s also important to think beyond this education and push ourselves to imagine what teaching social consciousness actually looks like in practice, and what its consequences could be (as Maya has done in a great blog post below). Educators—i.e. professors, friends, classmates—can make the effort to inculcate the language of structural racism, for example, but is their work then complete when an unenlightened student can finally say, “the U.S. was founded on the principle of white supremacy,” without blinking? The point I’m trying to make was put really well in this piece on “Fake Male Feminism” I read last month (from a guest post on Prof. Kiese Laymon’s blog):

“…[C]onfusingly, misogynists are sometimes men who speak softly and eat vegan and say ‘a woman’s sexual freedom is an essential component to her liberation.  So come here.’ It’s a tricky world out there.  And while I’d prefer a critical approach to gender from men I elect, read, and even bed, in my experience, the so-called feminist men I’ve met deep down have not been less antagonistic or bigoted toward women.  What I see over and over again is misogyny in sheep’s clothing, and at this point, I would rather see wolves as wolves.”

It’s a scary thought, but it’s true. To say these forces are tricky almost sounds petty, since the magnitude of destruction they have wrought looms large. But we know that racism/sexism/etc. take on more subtle forms than in the past; people can co-opt the language of oppression to present the façade of being on your side and then turn around and become the oppressor. I have seen Vassar classmates inveigh against the patriarchy during the day and promote violence against women by night. At a certain point the language we try to use as an entry point for dialogue can become a tool to masquerade more insidious forms of oppression. Ultimately this teaching process may successfully develop a surface-level ideological assimilation, but we’ll never be able to change individual will.

I think what this speaks to most is that those who are trying to educate are working in opposition to centuries of mis-education in this country. Institutional forces have established and reinforced hierarchies since this nation’s inception, and college only arrives in our lives after nearly two decades of exposure to, and often integration into, these systems.[1] So by the time many students get to Vassar, they have been conditioned by a world that embraces these hierarchies. This may also go back to what Professor Alamo pointed out today about our fear of failure. Failing is particularly stigmatized in the U.S., and I think that students (typically white males) instinctively resist implicating themselves in any critical look at privilege because it has shaped much of their experience in ways they don’t want to confront. I think we may regard the process of reckoning with this privilege as a sign of weakness or failure, when in fact it should be a success for which we strive.

I’m still sorting all of this out as I write so I welcome any comments/critiques to help me think this through. Thanks to the professors and the class for having the conversation today.


[1] Obviously, even colleges/universities have not been exempt from complicity in these oppressive systems for much of US history.

The West and the Rest

In “The Clash of Civilizations,” the political scientist Samuel Huntington maps out a geopolitical paradigm that is as disturbing as it is destructive. Huntington’s work imagines a new post-Cold War world order, one which pits civilizations against one another in a struggle for power, and one which centers the United States as an exemplar of supreme virtue. Huntington paints broad strokes of ignorance in ascribing certain values and capabilities to entire cultures and–surprise–Western civilization triumphs within Huntington’s crooked hierarchy. On page 40 of the text, Huntington writes,

“Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox cultures. Western efforts to propagate such ideas produce a reaction against ‘human rights imperialism’ and a reaffirmation of indigenous values, as can be seen in the support for religious fundamentalism by the younger generation in non-Western cultures.”

This line of thinking constitutes the framework for what Huntington subsequently calls the “West versus the Rest,” an axis of world politics that essentially demands conformity to Western culture from non-Western civilizations.

“The Clash of Civilizations” was a frustrating reading especially after going through the Gordon and Kaplan pieces, which each offer stark empirical evidence of the heinous practices carried out by the United States government–policies that, in Gordon’s words, are “closer to the government’s own definition of a rogue state than it is to a model democracy.” (2006:44) Over the last ten years or so during the so-called War on Terror, the United States government violated international law and sovereignty, committed countless human rights abuses, and purveyed over immense destruction around the world. Yet, the values that Huntington bestows to the West only involve democratic principles, human rights, liberty and equality, etc. This reasoning that the United States is a Good Power, on a mission to protect world order and that any violence that accompanies this mission is subsidiary, has been employed to dehumanize non-Western civilizations and rationalize war against them.

As I was reading, my mind went to an interview I had seen with Jose Rodriguez, a former director of the National Clandestine Service which authorized the torture of detainees:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MC9PP94f4OQ

This video offers a really illuminating look at Rodriguez’ worldview, which could comfortably fall into the Huntington paradigm. In his justification for authorizing torture, Rodriguez explains (in rather patriarchal language) that the United States were compelled to “put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities that we needed,” because it was a matter of protecting American lives. American exceptionalism is the ideology underpinning this justification, because it allows our government to absolve itself from blame for executing these crimes. As Gordon points out, “American exceptionalism – the assertion that the US is an inherently more democratic, egalitarian and just society than all others – has always been a lie. The current Bush government has indeed formulated a policy of exceptionalism, claiming the right of the US, as a sovereign God-given Christian nation, to exempt itself from the same laws that govern the conduct of other nations.” (44)

The West is the entity committing these atrocities, often at the expense of the “Rest” of the world; but since, as Huntington’s writing shows, the West can wipe away these incidents and project a pristine image of standing up for democratic principles, the West never has to be held accountable for its wrongdoings. Instead, the flawed “Rest” must accommodate to the West’s standards.

Capitalism and Art

The readings from Victoria de Grazia and Richard Pells illuminate the differences between post-World War II societies in Europe and the United States, and how these differences were shaped and influenced by forces of capitalism. Particularly interesting to me is Pells’ discussion of the expansion of the film industry and entertainment markets during this period, because it forces a conversation about and evaluation of the purpose and objective of art in society. As Pells details the ascendancy of American media (especially film) across Europe in the decade following the second World War, he occasionally editorializes, interjecting his narrative with claims like, “All too often, European filmmakers seemed patronizing, as if they thought their job was to educate and elevate the masses, to introduce them to ‘art’ and high culture. Hollywood, by comparison, was adamantly antielitist.” (Pells 1997:210) The author lauds the allure of entertainment and spectacle that was embedded in most American films, eschewing the pedantic inclinations of Europe’s filmmakers. But this contrast is not merely a matter of style or taste, and it requires an understanding of the strong ideological attachment that the United States held with respect to the free market and capitalist expansion.

As Pells explains,

“This urge to entertain sprang from the need to sell a product, rather than create a work of art. In [the critics’] opinion, the emphasis on entertainment was a sign of commercialization of American culture, another example of how every art form had been ‘commodified’ in a country devoted more than any other to the capitalist ethos. The European response was to insulate films and television programs as much as possible from the pressures of the marketplace.” (210)

Further, Pells goes on to recount how Hollywood and Washington formed a cabal to achieve the dual goals of opening up the European films markets to Hollywood productions and ensuring that the films that were subsequently exported sufficiently reflected a positive view of the United States. (With this in mind, Pells’ characterization of Hollywood as “adamantly antielitest” seems incoherent.) American art, then, became a tool for industrial powers to rake in more riches from overseas markets, and was heavily ensconced in a profit-centered system.

The “highbrow” mindset of European filmmakers, on the other hand, comes from a different set of principles, and from a society that is less oriented around the bent of capitalist production. This ethos is laid out in de Grazia’s book Irresistible Empire. Following World War II many of Europe’s eminent governments (i.e. France, Italy, the UK, Germany) aimed to establish a society that honored civic responsibilities and ensured social welfare. “In principle,” de Grazia writes, “more and more egalitarian consumer habits would be accompanied by more widespread political democracy, social justice, the satisfaction of basic needs for decencies…All in all, getting consumer goods was an important means of achieving the good society. But never could it be the end-all.” (de Grazia 2005:344) Consumption could not be a means in and of itself, which was a stark contrast to the prevailing ideology across the Atlantic. This spirit of civic duty was subsequently manifested in policies across Europe to keep television channels and other media mostly government-controlled, which–in my view–implies that art should be regarded as something of a public good. Diverging from, and even resisting, the perceived American mentality of creation-for-consumption, “the [European] states guaranteed that a certain portion of screen and broadcasting time would be set aside for local productions. Supposedly, these protectionist policies ensured that European audiences would not be engulfed and their tastes polluted by the trash emanating from Hollywood and the American television networks.” (1997:210)

The history presented by Pells and de Grazia offer us questions about how art, specifically film and popular media, should be conceived and applied–and for whom. Is there any responsibility that comes with the creation of art, and how has its “commodification” affected or shifted that responsibility, if at all? The cultural exchanges that this week’s readings brought out between the United States and Europe provide a good setting to start this conversation.

Empire at the Core

This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about the convergence of slavery and American independence, and especially trying to figure out the extent to which the institution of slavery actually made democracy possible in the United States. For a long time I was taught—and tacitly prescribed to—the conventional decree that slavery was the nation’s “original sin,” or a “birth defect” of American democracy. These narratives insinuate that slavery is something of a historical anomaly in American history, some spilled ink on an otherwise divinely pristine landscape. The truth is that the stark racial and economic inequalities that slavery produced were instrumental to the broad appeal of a national identity among an ascendant white aristocracy during the mid- to late-18th century. As both Benedict Anderson and Gloria Anzaldúa have outlined, the provenance of nation-building and border construction emerged out of an imagined fraternity, and were used as a tool of exclusion and domination. Nikhil Pal Singh centers this idea in the context of American citizenship in “Rethinking Race and Nation”:

“If whiteness became the privileged grounding and metaphor for the empty abstraction of US citizenship, blackness presented an apparent contradiction and a fixed limit against which it was enacted and staged…blacks presented the anomaly of an exclusion that was at once foundational to and located within the polity.” (10)

This week, Moon-Kie Jung’s piece, “Constituting the U.S. Empire-State and White Supremacy,” offers a convincing argument regarding how, in addition to being a nation that materialized directly because of a racial hierarchy, the United States has been, since even before its inception, an “empire-state,” rather than simply a “nation-state.” Jung frames a distinction between a nation-state, which implies “politically uniform populations of citizens, or state members” (3), and an empire-state, which is “not horizontally uniform but hierarchically differentiated,” offering selective access to rights and privileges to its peoples. The structures of the empire-state had been established well before U.S. independence, as Jung points out that during colonial rule,

“A royal proclamation in 1763 had drawn a line along the Appalachian Mountains to keep Indians and white settlers apart, prohibiting, if futilely, the latter from the western portion, which extended to the Mississippi River and was designated Indian territory…The very formation of the U.S. state hinged on lands occupied by Indians but over which it asserted ultimate sovereignty.” (5)

Jung goes on to detail how territorial domination and claims to land were codified in the U.S. constitution (6) and subsequently engineered much of the United States’ acquisitions of former colonies like Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico in the latter half of the 19th century.

Today, debates about the United States’ imperialist practices around the globe percolate every so often, but the dialogue frequently reverts to Manichean “good” vs. “bad” terminology, excising much of the important history that Jung incorporates. It would behoove our “nation”—be it a state or an empire—to read and reflect on the prevailing conditions and ideologies presented by Jung and others in order to understand and square with the deeply troubling foundation of our country.

Beyond Borders

In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa presents a comprehensive and, in my view, revolutionary framework for understanding the intersections of race, gender, culture, sexuality, language and much more that constitutes today’s U.S.-Mexico border. In “The Homeland, Aztlán” chapter, Anzaldúa couples her personal experiences with a critical reading of the history surrounding the borderland, and asserts, “The U.S.-Mexico border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture.” (1987:3)

As someone who embodies this nebulous identity, a product of La Frontera herself, Anzaldúa possesses a unique perspective on the enduring power of borders, and her eloquent descriptions of the arbitrary chasm that borders establish really stuck with me. I was battling with all kinds of questions after the reading, but want to specifically discuss the way that borders serve to manage more than just space, especially within the context of the U.S. and Mexico.

In the “Borders” chapter from the Keywords text, Mary Pat Brady writes that borders “are crucial to capital management—they serve as revenue-producers for states, as wage-depressors for corporations, and as instantiations of national identity for citizens.” (2007:32) Later in the book, in the chapter “Mestizo/a,” Curtis Marez expounds on the differing racial hierarchies that crucially separated the U.S. and Mexico during the 19th century:

“While the Spanish (and subsequent Mexican) political system was built on the incorporation and manipulation of mestizaje [racial/cultural mixing], mid-nineteenth century commentators indicate that the U.S. empire was instead built on segregation. Opponents of the annexation of Mexico argued that it would harm U.S. democracy to incorporate a ‘mongrel’ race such as the Mexicans.” (157)

What both of these scholars illustrate is how the construction of borders was instrumental to sustaining U.S. imperialism, not just through material gains in land/resources but also by congealing the ideology of white supremacy. By the mid-19th century, the United States’ conception of a racial pyramid had been nationalized, and was being enforced on an international scale.

Anzaldúa details this transformation as well, explaining that, when Anglos were migrating “illegally” into Texas and disrupting the local Mexican community in the early 1800s, war broke out over these aggravated tensions. The Battle of the Alamo, Anzaldúa writes, “In which the Mexican forces vanquished the whites, became, for the whites, the symbol for the cowardly and villainous character of the Mexicans. It became (and still is) a symbol that legitimized the white imperialist takeover…Tejanos lost their land and, overnight, became the foreigners.” (1987:6)

The literal division of land that is created by the U.S.-Mexico border has fomented profound consequences, most conspicuously the economic disparities noted by Anzaldúa —as the Mexican corridor bluntly observes, Ustedes muy elegantes/ y aquí nosotros en ruinas (6); but this yawning gap in quality of life has been met neither by any form of compensation for Mexicans, nor any sense of accountability for the U.S. Today, migrants face insufferable conditions in striving for a small piece of the benefits reaped in the North, but as Anzaldúa makes clear, “As refugees in a homeland that does not want them, [Mexican immigrants] find a welcome hand holding out only suffering, pain , and ignoble death.” (12) It’s clear that while the consequences of this border continue to reverberate, the U.S. has failed to reckon with the real reasons for why it exists in the first place.

P.S. I thought this video was worth sharing…

 

Benito Cereno and the Fear of Black Rebellion

[CONTAINS SPOILERS]

Herman Melville’s gripping short story, Benito Cereno, touches on a number of critical aspects of America’s racial history, but one element which I think warrants greatest scrutiny is its slave rebellion narrative. The tale, of course, reveals at its conclusion that our unassuming protagonist Captain Delano had been outfoxed by the slaves aboard a wandering ship. Melville cleverly and subtly inverts the traditional slave-master relationship, so that the servants—particularly Babo—make Don Benito their instrument and strip him of his power for their gain. One’s interpretation of this parable, however, depends heavily on the context in which it is read, and I struggled with determining Melville’s motives behind writing the story.

Over the course of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, one of the most potent and unifying fears among slave-owning Americans was a creeping anxiety over black uprisings against slavery. Despite instances of slave revolts being relatively infrequent, this terror was pervasive. Essential to sustaining a system that explicitly subordinated African-Americans was a manufactured fear of black liberation. The Virginia House of Burgesses declared, in 1700,

[A]ccording to our present Circumstances we can hardly govern them [slaves] and if they were fitted with Armes and had the Opertunity of meeting together by Musters we have just reason to fears they may rise upon us. [sic]

Here is a letter from North Carolina following a rare case when a fire was started in 1720:

I am now to acquaint you that very lately we have had a very wicked and barbarous plot of the designe of the negroes rising with a designe to destroy all the white people in the country and then to take Charles Town in full body but it pleased God it was discovered and many of them taken prisoners and some burnt and some hang’d and some banish’d. [sic]

This fear remained prevalent up to and beyond the time of Benito Cereno’s publication in 1855, so it’s worth thinking about how Melville’s picture of rebellion would have been received at a time when the white psyche was stalked by this nightmare being played out*. Perhaps I’m being too cynical, but I found that Benito Cereno only reinforced these fears and adhered to a tired formula in slave rebellion storytelling. To begin, Melville’s story is generally cast through the eyes of a benevolent white man, Captain Delano, who is portrayed as an empathetic, albeit gullible, character. Delano and a fellow white conquistador Don Benito Cereno, fall victim to the guile and chicanery of Babo, a slave who—while receiving a more nuanced persona than the black caricatures that were commonplace among Melville’s contemporaries—is ultimately revealed to be a manipulative fiend when Benito blows his cover. While it can be appreciated that Melville attributes some clever intellect to the slaves on the ship who outwitted Captain Delano, it was difficult for me to extricate this tale from the broader narrative of slave rebellions which instilled fear in the minds of slave-owners across America at the time.

Of course, there is plenty of room for other interpretations and judging by my peers’ blog posts, some have been able to tease out more positive aspects within Melville’s story–which brings me back to my first point: the context in which the text is read matters a lot. Today’s “millennial” generation is less susceptible to the anxieties of a black uprising (keeping in mind the fear-mongering over a black presidency), and are more likely to recognize the humanity of enslaved blacks; so perhaps the message of Benito Cereno is malleable over time.

* One crucial difference is that Melville’s novella is set at sea, not on, say, a Virginia plantation, which is manifested in Boba and the slaves’ raw desire to go back to their home country (Senegal), rather than directly rebelling against the plantation owners and greater systems of white supremacy in America.