Category Archives: The “Other” America Takes on the World

What to do…

This economic trend we have seen of late is in no way surprising with regard to the data presented in the articles. I think the Occupy Wall Street movement had a good message and could have had a lot of impact if it was not organized via twitter. The growing disparity in wealth is a huge problem in this country, highlighted by the economic recession that started in 2008. This coupled with the recent capitalistic practice of moving production overseas, where production is less expensive and regulation is not as strict. Companies are taking good paying, reliable jobs elseware, leaving people without a job, and with few options. This is not just the plight of the factory worker; whole divisions of large companies have been laid off. Much of the despair in Poughkeepsie was caused when IBM downsized drastically; with less money flowing into the county, there was less leisure money to spend in the city, turning a pedestrian Main Street into what it is today.

The US News article brings up a very good point about higher education. It is more and more expensive, making scholarships more and more competitive, and dashing the dreams of higher education for many kids. Though I am highly appreciative to the 60% of Vassar students who are not on financial aid, making it possible for me to attend this school, I feel this underlines the problem. If so few have so much, what is left for the rest of us?

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)?

“My Struggle Is Not Your Struggle”

This weekend, Unbound presented a piece at the Shiva called Not Anonymous. The premise of Not Anonymous was a combination of spoken word and stage choreography to let members of the Vassar community talk about uncomfortable topics. In a scene in which an actress described how her friends dubbed her an “honorary white girl” because she “talked white” despite being a person of color, the actress reminded the audience: “This is my struggle, not yours.” Yes, we can have sympathy for people who have struggles we do not face ourselves. No, we cannot conflate their suffering with ours.

This actress’ words repeated themselves over and over when I was watching Bling. The cast of hip-hop artists, a reputed grill-maker, and a former Sierra Leonean child soldier seemed to be telling a story that was not theirs to tell and also taking on their suffering in the process.

Raekwon and Tego are people of color and referred to the Sierra Leoneans as “my people” throughout the entire documentary. This is problematic because, though these artists are people of color like the Sierra Leoneans, they are not necessarily descendants of Sierra Leonean slaves; they could have descended from slaves from a number of other regions in Africa. When Raekwon and Tego refer to the Sierra Leoneans as “my people,” they participate in the homogenization of African culture that mainstream American culture already promulgates. This is similar to the way minstrel blacks in Baptiste’s introduction blackfaced themselves and contributed to imperialist stereotypes.

As a non-descendant from Africa altogether, the role of artist Paul Wall in the
documentary confounded me. As a white rapper who grew up in the middle class, his
relevance to the Sierra Leone voyage is not obvious—at least until one remembers that
his song “Grillz” contributes to the expectation that hip hop artists wear bling to portray
their steep rise in social class. (Why he wears diamond grillz to show his rise from a
middle-class upbringing that sent him to university is another issue in and of itself; that of
his relevance to hip-hop in general). I am uncomfortable with the way that Paul Wall’s
presence dominated the documentary. His personal reactions to the poverty in Sierra
Leone is made central to the narrative. Several minutes are spent fussing over his
sensitivity to the suffering of mutilated refugees. I got a sense that the film was trying to
project “Poor Paul Wall, this must be really hard for him.” Before that, he is seen arguing
with the diamond tycoon about his role in the blood diamond war. The film spends too
much time showing Paul Wall’s “sensitive” disbelief that people live in such hopeless
conditions. The audience is led to pity his difficult struggle.

One could interpret the time spend on Paul’s reactions as a sort of “oppressor
seeing-oppressed-for-first-time,” but the cruel joke is that Paul does not recognize
himself as inherently different from Raekwon and Tego. Necessarily, his experiences as a
white man have been different than those of the black hip hop artists. When the film
promises that this is not a story of race, but a story about wealth, it falsely pretends that
stories can actually be absent of race. If this voyage was not going to progress Paul
Wall’s exploration of his white privilege, it should have spent less time on his personal
journey in general because, after all, this documentary is not about his struggle.

Ishmael Beah’s situation is vastly different. As a former-child soldier from Sierra Leone, the all-but-enslaved Sierra Leoneans the cast sees mining for diamonds are more accurately “his brothers.” (Interestingly, he never remarks this). It is not until the last twenty minutes of the film that the audience learns he is a refugee of phenomenal exception: he had been chosen out of three hundred refugees to be an ambassador. Pictures of him and Bill Clinton flash on the screen. Ishmael received a college degree. His situation has ended up completely differently than almost every other child soldier in Sierra Leone, of every proto-enslaved diamond worker. He has suffered like them in the past, and he may be facing psychologically damaging circumstances as a refugee in the United States, but his struggles are not exactly the same as those who will never leave Sierra Leone.

The cast of this documentary may face their own struggles, but at the end of the day, they sit higher up in the global caste system that Kanye refers to than the slave-laborers in Sierra Leone. How can they be anywhere near to understanding what it means to be true brothers with them? “It will soon be Friday. I’ll go back to Texas. But a year from now, they’ll still be sleeping in the ditch at night,” says a self-realizing Paul Wall.

This film is progressive, but not progressive enough to give voices to the millions of Sierra Leoneans who have neither the means of Raekwon and Tego, nor the chance of upward mobility like Ishmael. I would have liked for this movie to focus more on the differing situations of the cast members and their commitment to a diamond-free hip hop culture.

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?

Re-focusing on a Critical Type of Regionalism: A critique on Modernity

My reflection on how critical regionalism can help us better understand the localized implications of globalization.

The piece that opened me up to thinking about this the most was West  by Krista Comer.  So much of the current discourse in academia seems to center around “unsettling the Americas” and “decolonizing our notions of Americanness” and even questioning that classification. It’s such a complex process to undergo especially as Comer noted the “phenomenon we call ‘globalization’ ..”  stresses a focus on transnational interactions. The silences that are still maintained about regional formations leave theoretical and abstract conversations about globalization, in my opinion, hollow.

Pulling the scope back to a critical look at regional issues is important especially when so much of the lived experience is what tests the validity of the theory we speak about in academia.  This  was salient especially to me during the summer when there were so many conversations over the acceptance of same sex marriage being championed as a sign of burgeoning modernity especially when in the Nation’s past a sign of modernity was how well a certain set of women and children were treated. LGBTQ acceptance has become the new signifier of modernity.  Parts of me wish ,however, that how Western countries treat indigenous populations and those who fall outside of dominant narratives of citizenship could be another signature of modernity. Sadly life is never always so simple. I am cognizant of the capitalistic benefits there are to supporting LGBTQ issues especially when it comes to tourism which specifically might be a topic for another post.

Many countries who do not conform to the West’s notion of acceptance are now portrayed as backward.  Jamaica is one of the examples that I’m thinking about when it comes to looking at how important a critical understanding of regional issues are. It is only through an intimate understanding of Jamaican regional politics that one can begin to question and challenge revisionist notions of the present.  For example, people were quick to praise Queen Elizabeth for challenging Chris Christie to sign a law that would legalize gay-marriage in New Jersey.

When I saw this I thought to myself “The sovereign leader of the same empire that made sure anti-buggery laws were passed in late 1800s Jamaica?.. The same empire that didn’t give Jamaica independence until the 1960s….” What I was basically saying is that homophobia flourished under the watch of the now  super-modern British empire. Now countries like Jamaica must do the double work of undoing and coming to terms with the damaging nature of colonialist laws like these. The sad truth is that to many Jamaica will continue to be viewed as yet another backward sovereign Black nation that allows LGBTQ people to be persecuted on its watch. While the US rarely gets dragged through the mud for its continued “benign neglect” of Native populations and its intentional violent border militarization.

For me hope lies in what Comer calls “postcoloniality” that emphasizes decolonized thinking.  Jamaica does not have to contend very much with how much it treats indigenous populations because of the fact that most were killed out during Spanish conquest, however,  globalization has pushed the envelop  on questions of national identity especially as pull factors bring foreign bodies into the country. Questions of what  it means to be a foreign subject that calls the Caribbean nation home will have to be answered. What does it mean to be sovereign and to be financially supported by a nation like China. Obviously the litmus tests of modernity are already rigged different for developing countries like Jamaica, now what? What are the frontiers of defiance that have been inscribed for a nation transformed for better and worst by rapid globalization.

I believe that in the field of a more critical regionalism there is validity in looking to Gloria Anzaldua’s embracing of contradiction mentioned in the Border piece by Mary Pat Brady.
“Anzaldua questioned the production and maintenance of binaries, their exclusionary force, and the maxims that suggest that living with contradiction necessarily entails psychosis. Instead, she mobilized a second spatial metaphor of the frontera or borderlands-  to insist that one can embrace multiple contradictions and refuse the impossible effort to synthesize them fully, thus turning apparent contradictions into a source of insight and personal strength.”  (31,Brady)

In essence nuance and complexity should be the language of modernity, not exclusion and binarist thinking.

sources:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/borowitzreport/2013/07/queen-elizabeth-rips-chris-christie-on-gay-marriage.html

Chinese relations with the Caribbean
http://www.coha.org/china-vs-taiwan-battle-for-influence-in-the-caribbean/