Author Archives: nicwong

Human Rights Imperialism in The Road to Guantanamo? Just kidding.

While human rights were definitely a factor in The Road to Guantanamo, I would argue that human rights were anything but forced upon people, rather they were taken away from Shafiq, Ruhel, and Asif and the rest of the detainees at every turn.  In lieu of the discussion surrounding Samuel P. Huntington’s concept of “human rights imperialism,” and the resistance to it, in his article, “The Clash of Civilizations?” watching The Road to Guantanamo was horrifying, and seemingly backwards.  If “human rights imperialism” is defined as the blatant denial of human rights, then yes, Huntington’s point is most definitely reinforced by the film, however, that definition should best be revised, because then it’s only natural for resistance to this form of “imperialism” to be present.  Therefore, with respect to this complete absence of “human rights imperialism” in the film, let alone any indication of any access to basic human rights, I think the incredibly punitive stance society often takes with respect to prisoners is so incredibly pervasive in our culture that, specifically with the war on terror, the idea that someone is “innocent until proven guilty,” has been completely ignored.  Instead, as reflected in the film, there is such a strong inclination to assume people are inherently guilty until proven innocent, or unaffiliated, and in the meantime, those people are deserving of the punishment and torture that the imprisoners see fit at the slight chance that their ungrounded assumption of guilt is correct.

For instance, in “CIA Secret Prisons Exposed – The Disappeared: Are They Dead? Are They Alive? Ask Congress. Ask the President,” Nat Hentoff addresses how “as long as ‘the war on terror continues’…’detainees’ have vanished from the face of the earth,” because they are being held in secret CIA prisons (Hentoff, 1).  As seen in the film, being held in these types of prisons, specifically Guantanamo Bay, results in detainees being subject to abuse, constant and relentless questioning, manipulation, isolation, discrimination, and condescension.  Just at the surface level, detainees were denied access to their human rights of, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile,” the article that, “No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law,” and “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights).  While the attention to these three human rights is in no way all encompassing of all the violations that took place, the detainment of these prisoners was grounded in the detainees’ choices to exercise and practice the latter of these human rights.

Yet, with the intention of preventing any further terrorist attacks within the United States, the need to treat prisoners so punitively certainly played out.  The men in the film were assumed to be guilty, were questioned, and were punished for telling truths that reflected their innocence.  They were often manipulated into admitting to false guilt in order to escape the tortuous pattern.  They were denied social interactions, physical activity, and were often held in solitary confinement for long periods of time, something that the United Nations describes as “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment” (Hentoff, 2).  However, like the majority of detainees, Shafiq, Ruhel, and Asif were cleared of all “charges,” essentially making the three years of punishment and detainment useless for those administering it, but making those three years painful and unwarranted for those who should have never been detained in the first place.

The Road to Guantanamo definitely forced the question of the effectiveness of the detainment of those suspicious of terrorist activity, as well as the effectiveness of punishment as a means of proving guilt, when in many cases that guilt was never there.  As a result, since it is clear that punitive measures were ineffective in this system, why is it that the United States’ prison system is still so heavily centered around punishment?  Is there a way to cater the system for rehabilitation effectively?

And while it can be argued that there was good intention behind, “[searching] for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying,” how does that intention justify, in any right, the blatant denial of multiple human rights and the “cruel and inhuman treatment” detainees were subject to (Risen, 1 & Hentoff, 2)?

The Performativity of Otherness

In Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance, Stephanie Leigh Batiste “focuses on black American cultural and ideological struggles against racism and oppression during the 1930s, as these were embedded within an attempt to define and articulate an inherent Americanness that was also black and to develop a diasporic sensibility that reached beyond national boundaries” (Batiste, 2).  Batiste’s quote speaks to the cultural representations of Americanness and how black performance and black performers fit or don’t fit into those representations of America.  Therefore, Batiste examines how “race itself is performative, taking on race as a structure of power, and thereby assuming a hand in producing race and blackness” (Batiste, 7).  This idea supports the concept that race is a social construct and is constructed in order to create a structure of power and therefore, a hierarchical structure.  Batiste discusses how the concept of race performativity has allowed for the constructions of blackness and black otherness performed by African Americans, but the effect of that element of performativity is something that performers have no control over (Batiste, 9).  As a result, “Such performance of an othered, markedly different, and fully constructed culture and identity permitted performers both to embody rejected cultural characteristics and to distance themselves from an identity they demarcated as ‘not me’” (Batiste, 15).  However, in a film or a play, while someone may reject the assigned cultural characteristics, as a performer, they must still act that cultural characteristic out for the viewing of the audience and ensure that their own personal distancing from the assigned identity is invisible.

The elements of construction and performance were extremely reminiscent of Marcus Rediker’s passage, The Slave Ship, in the sense that Rediker also emphasizes the construction of race aboard the slave ships, with the intention of categorizing people for trade.  This categorization was also something that could not be controlled by those being categorized, and was something that was done in order to create a certain “presentation” or performance of slaves.  Rediker discusses how those in the slave market were segregated based on skin color, size, and general appearance, which automatically separates people based on a certain sense of “otherness” or a characteristic that could be considered “markedly different” (Batiste, 15).  Therefore, the experience on the slave ship was central to the capitalist facet of modernity in the sense that the ship was used as a factory to produce and distribute, while also producing categories of race.  And as Batiste says, “Given the radical exclusion of African Americans from mainstream society and its dreams of freedom and expansion, it seemed overly hopeful, if not radical, for blacks to participate in imaginative appropriations of open lands, a material process from which they had been excluded in American history except, for the most part, as bound labor” (Batiste, 27).  This quote emphasizes Batiste’s point of how the element of performativity can create a system of exclusion, while at the same time can support modernity and redeploy those dreams of freedom and expansion in order to engage “with this major symbolic discourse of American identity” (Batiste, 28).

However, with respect to performing within the limitations of a “fully constructed culture and identity,” does performing that cultural identity perpetuate the constructions of race by continuing to create cultural characteristics that people may in fact reject?  Because “Artists struggled to communicate black stories that would ring true to black American experiences and not offend federal or white sensibilities or violate tricky antimiscegenation laws,” how effective was their communication in the end (Batiste, 22)?  As a result, does that message then reinforce the symbolic discourse of American identity or challenge it?

One, Two, Three and Corporations Abroad

In just the description of Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, on the back of the VHS cover, it was obvious that the film was going to be a fast paced one, if not a completely hectic and overwhelming one.  The film proved to be just that, while also providing a great deal of commentary on United States corporations as well as the United States’ mentality and demeanor as a whole.  The film was funny, witty, and also downright stressful.  At all times of the film, MacNamara could always be found solving a problem, hearing about a new problem, or finding out that the solution to another problem was no longer necessary.  While the film was certainly amusing to watch, the greater message conveyed about American corporations and the attitude towards expanding internationally was certainly not an amusing one, but rather a message that exemplified the severity of how corporations are “generally referring to a for-profit organization that can operate at the discretion of its owners and managers free of social and legislative control” (Newfield, 66).

In his discussion of corporations, Christopher Newfield describes how, “A business corporation can own property; buy, sell, and control assets, including other corporations; pay or avoid taxes; write or break contracts; make and market products; and engage in every kind of economic activity,” while also having no liability for any of the company’s debts (Newfield, 66).  In addition, Newfield examines how corporations have been able to recast themselves “as the world’s only true modernizers, capable of moving the economy and society relentlessly forward, often against their will,” but well enough that we are so dependent on large corporations and therefore allow the initial recasting to occur (Newfield, 70).

These corporate values were very much reflected in One, Two, Three.  In attempting to solve all of the problems related to Scarlett and Otto, MacNamara could constantly be seen engaging in “every kind of economic activity,” in that he was so desperate to reshape Otto into an “appropriate” man, with no communist beliefs and therefore started an entire process of bartering for Otto from East Berlin, buying Otto a completely new wardrobe, reshaping him into an ideal “American” man, and preserving Scarlett’s virtue through Otto’s behavior (Newfield, 66).  MacNamara purchased so many different types of services and products in order to ensure that Otto appeared presentable to his new father-in-law, an example of controlling assets, because MacNamara’s sole intention behind all of the trouble he went through was so he would be able to be promoted and achieve a higher position.  MacNamara stripped Otto of his anti-capitalist values, so that MacNamara would be able to support his own very capitalist values and move up in the corporation.

Throughout the film, we see MacNamara engage in all types of economic activity, everything but the activity that relates to the expansion of Coca-Cola as a corporation.  Instead, MacNamara uses his status as an executive for Coca-Cola in order to manipulate and exercise his power and control with the Scarlett and Otto situation, which supports how corporations can and do “operate at the discretion of its owners and managers free of social and legislative control” (Newfield, 66).  Therefore, the film portrays a United States corporation as a means to solve conflicts that arise in executives’ personal lives, and as a means to manipulate and control outside agencies and factors.  While MacNamara and Coca-Cola certainly had a lot of power throughout the movie, the power was also misused in order to solely benefit the executives of Coca-Cola and create disadvantages for those who were considered un-American.

After watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how accurate this depiction of United States corporations abroad was.  In addition, while the film was released in 1961, how different are our “American” views and values now?  Have they changed?

Whiteness as Normal

In State of White Supremacy: Racism, Governance, and the United States, Moon-Kie Jung discusses the idea of the “American empire” and argues that, “the United States has never been a nation-state; the United States has always been an empire-state; [and] the United States has always been a racial state, a state of white supremacy” (Jung, 1).  Jung breaks down the origins and development of the United States and analyzes how this deconstruction of the United States has led to racial constructions and racial formations, and in particular, the formation of white supremacy.

I especially liked Jung’s analysis of the reconceptualization of the U.S. state, and how he proves how the United States has never been a nation-state, but rather, has always been an empire-state, because of the societal hierarchy in place, and the resulting conversation of whiteness as dominant.  For instance, Jung sates how, “the United States has not been a nation-state in a fundamental, square-peg-in-a-round-hole sense…By virtue of the assumed internal horizontality of nations, nation-states imply politically uniform populations of citizens, of state members,” and that, “The United States has never come close to achieving these political ‘ideals’ and, in all probability, is constitutionally, both literally and figuratively, incapable of doing so” (Jung, 3).

As a result, our nation embraces the empire-state because our system is hierarchically differentiated and “In terms of belonging or membership, the peoples of an empire-state effectively, through de jure and de facto practices, have differential access to rights and privileges” (Jung, 3).  Consequently, this “access to rights and privileges,” speaks to the underwritten nature of white supremacy and “the taken-for-granted certainty of white dominance” in our society (Jung, 3 & 7).  And unfortunately, the fact that white dominance so often goes unrecognized or unacknowledged also makes that access to rights and privileges also go unacknowledged, which leads the continuation of oppressive structures in our society that perpetuate racial inequality.

Jung’s conversation ties extremely well with Pamela Perry’s definition of “‘white’ as a socially and historically constructed identity, a cluster of racialized norms and performances, and a set of privileges” (Perry, 243).  Just as Jung discusses, Perry argues that whiteness allows for certain privileges and therefore, sets up an automatic hierarchy based on race.  In addition, because “‘white power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular,’” and is often defined by what it is not instead of defined by what it actually is, whiteness is extremely exclusionary because it has no concrete definition and it has no set standard, despite the fact that whiteness is considered the “norm” or “normal” (Perry 243-245).  Therefore, because there is never a set definition for whiteness and is therefore always exclusionary by principle, whiteness continues to remain a construct in our society that racially excludes and is perpetually an oppressive force in our social hierarchies.

Therefore, in Perry’s words, what further can we do to continue to “destabilize white cultural and political hegemonies in the United States and abroad” (Perry, 246)?  How far back do these hegemonies go, with respect to the history of the United States, and how long will it take for these hegemonic beliefs to be completely dismantled?

Borders and Power

In Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa’s portrayal of the borderlands is extremely powerful.  Not only does she expand on what our perception of a physical borderland is, but she also questions the implications of a borderland dealing with race and race relations with those across borders.  Anzaldúa addresses the intersectionality of the borderlands by discussing the psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands, and the spiritual borderlands, while also examining how they operate, “wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, [and] where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy” (Anzaldúa).  Therefore, she recognizes the transient community within the borderlands and examines how the differences within these borders affect our perceptions and understandings of borders in the first place and affects who is able to be mobile across those borders, and who is not.

Anzaldúa defines borders as, “the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them…a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge…a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary, [it] is in a constant state of transition” (Anzaldúa, 25).  Anzaldúa’s definition establishes a standard of “otherness” where borders can be used as something that physically and metaphorically separates someone from entering a space, but then does just that, and doesn’t allow for mobility or movement over and across borders.  It is evident that Anzaldúa’s definition of the borderlands sets up a binary because the borderlands can take on two meanings, however never both at the same time.  For instance, the Southwest, Aztlan could never be considered the “land of the herons, land of whiteness, [and] the Edenic place of origin of the Azteca,” all at the same time, but rather, one identity for the land has to be claimed, and the others disposed of, pushed to the other side of the border, or moving the border completely, ultimately establishing the “them” (Anzaldúa, 26).  As a result, one is either on one side of the border or the other, but it would be difficult to be on both, simply because the borderland establishes a system of extremely juxtaposed positions.

This creation of an “other,” establishes a mentality that borders create a rule for some, where they are told, “Do not enter, trespassers will be raped, maimed, strangled, gassed, shot” (Anzaldúa, 25).  Consequently, “The only ‘legitimate’ inhabitants are those in power, the whites and those who align themselves with whites,” which brings into question who is responsible for establishing these borders and enforcing them (Anzaldúa, 26)?  And then this question of power and how it relates to race raises the question of who is allowed to change these borders and what can be done in order to do so effectively?

This ability to question the establishment of borders related extremely well to Mary Pat Brady’s analysis of borders and how the hybridizing effects of borders in relation to the “conceptual possibilities contained in metaphors of borders, border-crossings, and borderlands,” can lead to power and innovative possibilities to challenge the “epistemological structure” that enables systematic oppression (Brady, 31).  And as a last note, I think Anzaldúa does that wonderfully in her chapter through her use of language.  The fact that she combines English and Spanish fluidly together throughout the entirety of the chapter shows her effort to truly create a sense of hybridity and really force borders to come together, literally and figuratively, without switching or altering the framework that she is coming from.

The Power Dynamics Aboard the San Dominick

In Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, what was so striking was the examination of the power dynamic between the enslaved and the enslaver within the book.  All throughout the novel, up until the very end, readers are faced with a certain mystery surrounding the power dynamics on the San Dominick as seen through Captain Delano’s eyes.  Delano constantly questions the workings of the ship and doubts Cereno’s ability to captain the ship at all.  However, by the end of the novel, readers and Delano, himself, are privy to why there was such a reversal of power on the San Dominick and why Cereno’s constant misgivings were so necessary.  This discussion of power dynamics was extremely reminiscent of Nikhil Pal Singh’s passage, “Rethinking Race and Nation,” and his analysis of the “decisive symbolic and cultural elements for creating hegemonic political and economic arrangements throughout US history” and how those hegemonic arrangements play out on the San Dominick (Singh, 13).

For instance, in Benito Cereno, when Delano is witness to “one of the black boys, enraged at a word dropped by one of his white companions, [seizing] a knife, and, though called to forbear by one of the oakum-pickers, [striking] the lad over the head, inflicting a gash from which blood flowed,” Delano questions the insubordination present aboard the San Dominick and is unable to make sense of the incident (Melville, 25).  Furthermore, Cereno’s immediate rejection of Delano’s comment that “instant punishment would have been followed,” on the Bachelor’s Delight, confuses Delano even more with regard to the authority on the San Dominick, or lack thereof (Melville, 26).  As a result, Cereno’s lack of authority keeps Delano in a place of doubt aboard the ship, causing Delano to continue questioning Cereno’s qualifications and intentions as captain.  Consequently, Delano begins to fear for his status aboard the ship because he is so unsure of what is occurring aboard the ship and is so baffled by the power dynamics on the ship and is unsure of how to navigate them in dealing with Cereno as well.

In relation to “Rethinking Race and Nation,” I think it is important to note that part of the confusion that rests on Delano is the automatic “recognition…of the extent to which a normalizing claim to whiteness” is created, and how “racial subordination have been tied to the reinforcement of hierarchies of property,” and how the ownership of property is automatically assumed to be a characteristic of whiteness (Singh, 9 & 11).  Therefore, Delano never recognized the reversal of power between the enslaved and the enslaver as a point of deception because the hegemonic arrangements of power were so solidly in place and anything other than the expected power arrangement would have been seen as an impossibility.  As a result, the concept of the enslaved taking over the ship was never a possibility for Delano, solely because, “One owned oneself insofar as one was white and male” (Singh, 9).  Consequently, Delano would have never been able to figure out that the black slaves aboard the San Dominick had taken over, by himself, because of the strength of racial stigmas on a slave ship and the fact that the ability to own and control was an ability only ascribed to whiteness.

As a result, I think it’s important to ask what characteristics are still ascribed to whiteness in present day and how do they remain recognized or unrecognized?  In addition, how can we begin to challenge the “torturous but creative efforts to accommodate the racism internal to the nation-state’s constitution,” and provide room and accessibility to begin disinvesting from those values and efforts (Singh, 10)?