Author Archives: mahorowitz

Too Shallow

In The Post American World, Fareed Zakaria suggests that the coming century will mark the decentralization of American hegemony, in turn giving way to “the rise of the rest.” While I agree with this basic premis, the ways in which Zakaria substantiates his claims are problematic.
As noted by Clyfford, Zakaria bases much of his analysis on prediction and fails to take into account the potential for conflict and crisis to shake assumed trajectories. While he notes growth in Latin America and Africa, Zakaria’s choice to focus on India and China demonstrates a limited perspective of growth. Both India and China have been central to the global economy for centuries, as centers of trade during the era of colonialization and as industrial powers within their own right. Both countries are also representative of internationally minded capitalist structures with centralized agencies of control. Zakaria limits the extent of his thesis by failing to adequately adress the myriad of emerging markets throughout Latin America, Africa and the Middle East and by avoiding a true discussion of alternate market systems within and parrallel to inter/transnational capitalism.
This past summer, I interned for The Milken Institute, an economic think tank, as a member of their Program and Development Division. My main job was to go through the economic news of the days, tracking MNC interests in emerging markets such as the East African Community, Columbia and Indonesia. The importance of non-state actors within development practices, as noted by Zakaria, quickly became evident. The importance of investment, both private and corporate, in shifting the social landscape of rural and underdeveloped spaces is immense. Access to internet, running water, and education are more often than not determined by outside actors, as oppossed to local or governemental initiatives. Cites of power are thus found largely outside of communities, as noted by Zakaria in his discussion of China in Africa.
This does not need to hold true for too long, though. As educational infrastructure develops, so does entepeneurship and enterprise. Though often understandings are faciliated by hegemonic, namely American, knowledge, over time, the development that has occurred under the behest of capital interest will give way to middle classes with increased agency. Changing investment laws and international organizations, such as trading blocs, are also giving rise to the true elites. Wheras the post-colonial order supports a pseudo elite class, “the rise of the rest” has also brought with it the rise of, and increasing potential for, domestic ownership and control over means of production. This means different things for rural versus cosmopolitan spaces. Over time, local, or at least decentralized, sites of power will continue to expand.
In focusing on soft facts and dominant structures , Zakaria sells himself short. He glosses over too much, perhaps to be digestable and appeal to a broader audience, but in doing so he does not fully realize the potential of his claim. Given recent trends in investment and ample discourse on emerging markets and the implications for both inter/transnational and domestic trade and development, Zakaria could have easily been more radical in his claims. Been more critical in his exploration of power. I would have liked to hear more about the impact of technology and access to resources in the Post-American World and how American soft power will intersect a new world order. While China and India are incredibly important actors within the Post-American World, why not include a chapter on Nigeria or Brazil to better balance the geography of power and take into account regional growth concerns? I would have liked to hear more about the periphery instead of the core.

Constituting Consciousness

What is social consciousness? Faculty consideration aside, what would a social consciousness curriculum look like? Given that over 95% of students take courses that cover issues of social consciousness, would a requirement actually expand student perspective? What would its focuses be? Where would it start?

The problem with having an academic social consciousness requirement lies not only in its curricular viability, but in its scope and application. In teaching consciousness, you have to have a perspective of what that consciousness is and, in most cases, be able to prioritize issues of consciousness. Do you focus on race or on gender? Take the intersectional approach? Explore issues of sexuality? Transmisogyny? Ableism? Tackle the ever broad question of “identity?”

What would Vassar deem critical to a social consciousness requirement?What would be acceptable to be left out?

An academic social consciousness requirement is problematic not only practically but philosophically. Beyond that, it is pretentious. But the sentiment is worthwhile examining…

Social (adj): of or relating to society or its organization.

Consciousness (noun): the state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings.

Given the above definitions, a social consciousness curriculum would better manifest itself within residential, rather than academic, life. Housing dynamics most directly embody students social organization, especially within the first semester of Freshman year. Adjusting to residence life forces students to become aware of others personal spaces, so why not personal identities? While learning to respect shared, gender neutral restrooms and the preferences of a roommate, students should be given the tools to also better understand the myriad of individuals they are living with.

On the most basic level, this curriculum entails being literate in social concerns. Frosh week covers concerns regarding personal health and safety, informing students of rules, regulations and resources; why not integrate diversity and sexuality programming (beyond a video) as well? Student fellows help students navigate campus terminology and geography; why not social terminology and geography?

But literacy is not enough. Social consciousness is derived from experience and must be actively sought, not simply spoken about. Socially minded fellow group activities could help open dialogue. These exercises need not be radically minded, but rather should prompt students into questioning what constitutes their identity and the identity of those around them; provide a starting point.

The administration should also make a more active effort to create socially diverse fellow groups. When assigning freshman housing and constituting freshman fellow groups, why not make an active effort to ensure diversity along socio-economic, cultural, and geographic lines? Last year, my fellow group had 3 people from NYC private schools and about half of us were Jewish… A commitment to diversity should begin with creating diverse living spaces.

Freshman should also be asked to spend more time within Poughkeepsie/Arlington proper. If social consciousness means being aware of ones surrounding, Vassar should make a more pointed effort to integrate students with the surrounding community. While there are programs that facilitate such actions, they need to be better organized, better funded and better advertised.

In short, Vassar needs to advocate for experiences that constitute consciousness as opposed to conversations that contemplate consciousness.

Call of Duty

The Road to Guantanamo made one thing very clear; when it comes to terrorism, there is no such thing as innocent until proven guilty.
The experiences of the the prisoners, from capture, to transport, to torture, to release, detailed an incredible incoherence in intelligence opperations. The guards and interrogators took the forms not of protectors, but of perpetrators. Throwing insults amidst injury, The Road to Guantanoma showed armed service members to be desensitized, highly masculine, and rigid. Methods of interrogation were stale, given, knowing. The lack of hope felt by the detainees was palpaple amidst the brute action and unapologetic torture.
But I was not surprised. Not disgusted, but disgruntled. That this is what I have come to expect. This is what I have known. Which makes me think… if my protectors are perpetrators, if my heros are villains… how does that inform my experience of safety?
How does this silent acceptance of terror affect America’s conscious self? Our covert operations and anti-terror efforts come from a culture that values violence, but furthermore from a culture whose safety has often been secured through violence. Genocide, slavery, conquest, apartheid. Violence has helped secure hegemonic rights. But Violence is also used to ease psychological pains… or perhaps exacerabte them.
The other day, some friends of mine were playing Call of Duty. Previously, they’d been playing Grand Theft Auto; hit up a strip club, punched out some gangsters, ran over a hooker, shot down a helicopter. As the tone shifted from city scape to war zone, I closed my eyes and curled under a blanket. As the room shook with the sounds of machine guns and roadside bombs, I laughed at how safe I was. How safe I felt. The sounds didn’t even bother me. But they did scare me.
Just like the looks on my friends faces; their mouths relaxed, their eyes focused, their legs open. “Fuck you dude! You fucking terrorist! Die, asshole!”
And all I could feel was the fleece wrapped round my face and the bed beneath my back.

Topography: economic, political, emotional

Within Anzaldua’s writings the discord is palpable; bilingual, fierce and unapologetic, her words speak to a space too often confined by clarity. US/Mexico. One side or the other. Through prose, poetry and analysis, Anzaludua re- situates the reader’s understandings of the borderlands, making clear the rich history of Native, Mestizo, and Mexican  peoples within the context of the United States.In class we talked of the physical nature of constructed realities. The steel, rust, concrete; the guns and wires. Borders not defined by topography or geography but by man and might.

Physical boundaries create psychological boundaries, which in turn lead to internalized realities.

Beyond the border, beyond the fences and force, what other physical constructions craft our perception?

My mind first goes towards strip malls and the endless supply of food chains that line our nations highways, blending disparate landscapes under the shadows of capitalist gold. McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, 7/11… Our roads have become saturated with sameness and convenience.

Next, I think of gated communities, transport systems, city planning and architectural diversity. Division and alignment. Separation and consistency. Either a effort to contain or control.

The division and violence of the border is representative of a greater political problem. One that is rooted in misunderstanding and structured ignorance. One that dares not speak directly. Anzaldua’s writing and integration of varied forms of communication disrupts this narrative — forces it to confront its complexities and constructions. To what extent is she successful?

[Can communication help break down physical boundaries? How does one at once speak honestly and accessibly? Is accessibility necessary? Where do issues of agency and sovereignty factor into the borderlands discussion? And, how does the border mirror and/or juxtapose the American highway? Can be militarization of the border be related to the commercialization of everyday spaces? How do both aid in disfiguring the American psyche? How do they both distract and draw attention to social problems?]

In any case, Anzaldua makes one thing very clear: topography is not just geographic. It is economic, political and deeply emotional.

whiteness, empire and the future of our nation

In State of White Supremacy: Racism, Governance, and the United States, Moon-Kie Jung criticizes the United States’s national rhetoric, suggesting that it is empire, not nation, that has dictated the American order. While the US claims to be descendant of a tradition of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the reality of this mantra has only largely been true for whites.

As explored in the “Whiteness as Normal” post, the construction of race is central to the issue of white supremacy in the United States. Whereas in previous centuries, racial constructions were largely class and origin based, the American frontier required a more simplified, colorized system in order to better secure and maintain white privilege. Within this understanding, Jung’s position on empire becomes more clear.

Whereas nation is synonymous with country, state, and sovereign, empire is synonymous with power, supremacy, domain, organization. Given that the United States was founded on the backs of slaves and by the slaughter of natives, it is difficult to conceive of the United States as sovereign when it systematically created subjugated and marginalized peoples. This reading made me think back to the 1790 Naturalization Act which enabled any white person with “good moral character” to gain citizenship after two years of residence in the States. It appears that since the founding of our nation, whiteness has been a precursor for citizenship and in many respects humanity.

How does one view these sentiments of empire within the modern post-apartheid American state? As race becomes more ambiguous, what are the new standards of whiteness? How are these standards of whiteness upheld? To what extent do debates regarding institutionalized racism alienate or aid people’s understandings? Given that many “minorities” are active service members, how does the US’s white empire play into our construction of patriotism? Can one truly be patriotic of a legal entity that so blatantly and repeatedly discriminates under the premise of freedom and justice? How will the increasing diversity of the United States upset our understandings of whiteness?

But more importantly, given this understanding, how will we educate the children of the United States in the future? Will the recent Arizona ruling become the norm, or will comprehensive “ethnic studies” allow for the de-centering of whiteness and a reconstruction of our history? Will we be able to construct a healthy national narrative from our imperial past? Or is our empire still growing?

 

 

 

 

 

Benito Cereno

When Delano first boards the San Dominick the deck wreaks of chaos. Slaves amble freely about the battered boat while white sailors and slaves alike beg for aid and supplies. There is an air of tension and displacement that Delano cannot quite identify. As the story unwinds, more suspicions arise. Delano finds the captain of the ship, Benito Cereno, to be a character of great confusion. Always accompanied by his slave, Babo, the captain is shy and appears weak, often fainting and derailing conversation. Babo cares for Cereno, catching him when he falls and making sure his days stay on task. Cereno tells Delano of the unfortunate weather and great sickness that overtook the ship, causing many of his sailors to die. This calms much of Delano’s confusion, but as he spends more time aboard the San Dominick his suspicions are rekindled. Whispers and strange glances give way to exposing the undercurrents of fear that plague the ship. Though uneasy, Delano agrees to provide aid to the sorry lot. Upon dropping supplies on deck, the truth of the San Domnick is exposed when Cereno jumps to the safety of Delano’s ship followed by a dagger wielding Babo, who, it turns out, has been commanding the ship all along.

Upon this revelation, the story takes on an entirely new role. As all the oddities fall into place, Melville’s structure of slowness gives way to a fuller exploration of the subtleties of hierarchy and the invisible threads (and threats) that maintain law and order. Moreover, it illuminates the limitations of perception is perceiving reality. Delano, despite his suspicions, does not ever truly question the power structure of the ship for he cannot begin to conceive of a ship run by slaves. He is in many ways naive; suspicious yet easily distracted; curious yet complacent.

The story of Benito Cereno begs many questions of readers, among them the role of assumption is dictating response. In relation to the larger context of this course, Delano’s misunderstandings reflect upon “America’s” propensity to simplify social understandings and potentials. Given that Babo and the rest of the slaves would have likely killed Delano had he taken issue with the ship’s management,  Delano’s ignorance can be perceived as a protective. Only when there is overt action against the captain and the skeleton of Aranda (the slave owner) is uncovered does Delano act. To what extent do “America’s” racial and class presumptions protect the nation, if at all? Does this protective mechanism ultimately harm or help the nation? To what extent does it inflate or deflate the issues at hand? Melville holds no answers to these questions, but his style offers an incredible framework in which to question structures of power, shifts in power dynamics and reinventions of identity.

That the story is written in three parts, all of different perspective, underlines the importance of context in establishing clarity. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of American history is that it has largely been prescribed by an elite minority. Babo’s overtaking of the ship demonstrates a challenge to societal norms. That Babo turns out not to be a lowly, loyal subject but a subversive, intelligent leader brings into question the very fabric of Delano’s understandings. If we are to see Delano as an extension of American mentality then Benito Cereno provides a hard hitting critique of American knowledge. Within the text there is no apparent good or apparent evil. Both the whites and blacks are shown as being capable of incredible cruelty as well as care. The skeleton of Aranda and the skull of Babo haunt the story’s end, cementing the importance of violence in conceiving humanity, at least aboard the slave ship. If we are to see the slave ship as integral in the formation of America, then we must also question the role and importance of violence in constructing both American history and identity.

——

“Follow Your Leader” the canvas says. When it drops to the ground, exposing the skeleton of the slave owner and giving way to the submission of the San Dominick to Delano’s crew, a larger question is raised; who is the leader? It is noted that Captain Cerano dies shortly after the raid. Did he follow in the footsteps of his new or old master? Aranda or Babo? To what extent are power structures flexible? How does circumstance prescribe action? What role does empathy play in refashioning power dynamics? How do leadership styles inform oppositional cooperation?

Aranda V Babo

Aranda V Babo