Judith Butler: Violence, Mourning, Politics

Others on this forum have felt the immediate relevance of Butler’s essay on global current events – namely the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut and the Syrian refugee crisis. Although Butler did not write this essay in response to these timely and divisive political issues it seems to me that they are in direct conversation with one another. I am thinking specifically about the state governors who have publicly opposed allowing Syrian refugees into their states. Some governors have modified this position to screen for religion, wanting to allow only Christians into the country (because for them, Christian = good and Muslim = terrorist). I have seen pictures and accounts of orphaned and homeless Syrian children and infants on the Internet, accompanied by either empathy or criticism. One critic on Facebook wrote something to the tune of “Look, they’re using children to try and pull at our heartstrings to make us want to let these Muslims into the country. Sorry, won’t work.” I’d like to point out a section of Butler’s essay in response to this claim:

To what extent have Arab peoples, predominantly practitioners of Islam, fallen outside the “human” as it has been naturalized in its “Western” mold by the contemporary workings of humanism? … After all, if someone is lost, and that person is not someone, then what and where is the loss, and how does mourning take place?

I am troubled by that critic’s implication that because a suffering child is from Syria, or is not a white American or European, that they are not worth saving and that the fact of their suffering can be nothing else than a political ploy to sway public opinion. I think that Butler is of the same mindset in this passage. She wonders why some lives are automatically considered worthless, or worth less, than others because of classifying features. I definitely see the parallel to how violence against non-heterosexual individuals and populations, particularly the transgender community in recent years, is portrayed and processed by a population. It seems in general that the life of, for example, a straight person should be met with a greater sense of loss than the murder of a transgender male or female. Our humanity, according to Butler, should mean that each life deserves the same grief due to equal worth, but that goal is not carried out in reality.

-Megan S.

The Arab Spring and Social Media

Freshman year I took a first-year seminar specifically on the use of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings, so I paid particular attention to Ehrlich’s mention of the use of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. When I took the class in the Fall of 2012 the events of the Arab Spring were still fairly timely and we were looking at commentary still analyzing what had happened. The main premise of the Information and Library Science course was that in the midst of revolutions, social media (especially looking at Twitter) can be an important disseminator of information for non-state actors whose traditional communication forms are limited or not practical for the time at hand. In the United States especially we may see social media as a luxury and would never think of its power to release timely information about where and when to gather in order to protest. An important fact to note, which Ehrlich mentions, is that social media did not “cause” the Arab Spring uprisings but it was a tool of the 21st century not available to traditional revolts of the past. The infectious nature of social media allowed the dissemination of information (especially video and photos) at a rate that could not be curtailed by government administrations and so they harnessed the power of enraging many people. Atrocities committed in one city or location couldn’t be swept under the rug if someone with a cell phone captured detailed proof. These cases of Tunisia and Egypt created swift overthrows of seemingly entrenched government leaders, but as Ehrlich mentions, the case of Syria is different and I learned a lot from reading Inside Syria that didn’t fit into the cookie-cutter mold of the other Arab Spring revolutions.

Additionally, I found the story of Hassino, the gay Syrian man, to be very interesting because he highlighted the mentality of the society at large. Neither the ruling government nor the opposition are inclined to believe in gay rights, so gay Syrians will not win their own personal freedom even if they support the revolution. In fact, some remarked that they were afraid that whoever replaced the devil they knew would be even more conservative (and thus anti-gay). This seems to me a different concept than what we might be used to thinking here in the United States, where revolutions may stand for “freedom for all.” In Syria, the LGBTQ community has to make decisions about who they support on other factors other than their sexual orientation, and know that neither side widely supports the rights they might feel entitled to.

Below are two (old) articles for more information on social media and the Arab Spring if anyone wants to read more. There are other similar articles, but the first one is just a short explanation of what social media meant for the Arab Spring and the second one is an article our class looked at in Fall 2012 about actually mapping the information flows of Tunisia and Egypt.


O’Donnell “New Study Quantifies Use of Social Media in Arab Spring” <http://www.washington.edu/news/2011/09/12/new-study-quantifies-use-of-social-media-in-arab-spring/>

Lotan et al “The Revolutions were Tweeted: Information Flows During the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions” <http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/1246/643>

Weizman – Lethal Theory

I found Weizman’s discussion of “swarming” military strategy very interesting. The image that stuck in my mind as I was reading was particularly the one described by a family whose home was “infested” by soldiers:

“…their faces painted black, submachine guns pointed everywhere, antennas protruding from their backpacks, making them look like giant alien bugs, blast their way through that wall?”

This image, that of the roach, is different than my usual imagination of the clean, orderly, effective soldier. It seemed with the roach metaphor that the effect was one of terrifying takeover. It was not the same fear of looking at rows of orderly soldiers marching on your death, but the notion that a nest of insects had been liberated and they were taking over one’s sphere uncontrollably and unpredictably. I also began thinking about the motivations behind using such a strategy in warfare. Is it our human nature that sometimes prevents us from being truly cunning? Our supposedly higher intellectual capabilities and reliance on world order has ingrained in us social norms that we don’t walk through walls; we use the portals planned out for us, such as roads, hallways, and doors. Weizman appropriately called this occurrence the “authority of borderlines.” Would a cockroach, or a rodent for example, think in the same way? Does it stop and say, “No, I can’t run through the walls, I should use the door!” Of course not; it has not been taught to be bound by the same social rules. It uses the most convenient and immediate solution offered to it. Additionally, I appreciated that Weizman acknowledged that this concept of using a swarming tactic to surprise the enemy is hardly new. It fulfills the different requirements of new wars, but it served the same purpose in various arenas a long time ago. It makes sense not to present the enemy with a clear predictable picture of what is going to happen, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a discussion of this method being carried out by the “reorganization” of space before, namely through the abandoning of routes and repurposing of barriers.

-Megan S.

Blowback and PNAC

As I read the “Blowback” piece by Chalmers Johnson, I repeatedly thought of it in relation to the PNAC report entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses.” Several points seemed to respond directly to one another. This got me thinking: Are these pieces speaking from the same vantage point? Are they both pre- or post-9/11? Before looking at the published dates of these two pieces, it seemed likely to me that they could both be alternate responses to the 9/11 attacks.

“Blowback” for me seemed to be speaking about American imperialism and defense strategy by referencing the 9/11 tragedy with a healthy sense of perspective, not one still ringing of initial shock and sorrow. The article quickly acknowledged the suffering of victims and families affected, but moved on to the real business at hand – the discussion of what America has done to bring these types of events upon itself. I was expecting the article to be written at least a year, maybe even five or more, after 9/11, certainly not at the end of the very same month. I think it would be almost impossible for the majority of Americans at that time to step back far enough to say not “Why is this happening to us?” but “Of course – this is because of our past actions.” I found that the article did an excellent job of not ending the conversation there, but detailing the specific, repeated, and often covert actions of our government over the past 100 years that have led us to this very moment of terrorism, leaving aside the question of “Did we deserve it?”

I think that the PNAC report’s opinion of prudent defense strategy would have been more accepted by a post-9/11 audience, one who was angered and retaliative. Yet it is interesting that this piece represents the policies which “Blowback” is directly attacking from its position after the tragedy with terrorism directly in mind. While PNAC desires greater overall prioritization of American military, “Blowback” explicitly calls certain so-called preventive measures against terrorism through global domination (i.e. American bases all over the world) to be useless. Instead of heightening security at airports, it asks why we don’t decrease our reliance on air travel in the first place. It doesn’t claim that we should do nothing to protect ourselves, but that throwing money in a certain direction isn’t going to magically solve the problem that the government has, over time, created. I had honestly never even considered the remedies presented in “Blowback,” maybe because the debate often seems to be one of “should we or shouldn’t we” (heighten security measures at airports) instead of begging the question “What else could we do that would actually produce desirable results? I found this article to be especially valuable in our discussion of American imperialism on its own and in debate against other pieces we have read.

– Megan S.

PNAC: Rebuilding America’s Defenses

When I first began to read the Project for the New American Century article entitled Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century, I had forgotten that we were told in class that this article presented a particularly strong ideological viewpoint. The basic premise underlying the article – the one on which the authors’ argument rests – struck me as an assumption without much support. The premise, as I understood it, was roughly that the United States of America had been thrust into greatness at the top of the global totem pole and therefore it had an obligation to police the world and rid it of threats (“constabulary duties”).

I can understand that some might agree with this statement, but I was bothered by this seemingly unarguable premise. As a freshman in an International Relations class for my Political Science major, almost the first thing we learned is that although the United States is considered by many to be the current hegemon in the world order, it is certainly not free from the threat of usurpation by another global power and we should not assume that the status quo in effect now will never change. It was argued that, at least from an economic perspective, China could alternatively be considered the current hegemon. Should we be concerned that this might be the truth? The answer could be debated, but I feel that the portion we read of the PNAC article didn’t even leave room for the possibility that their assumptions weren’t true. It seemed to say, “Now, since we know that the United States is in charge of the world, what must it do to retain that power and ensure peace?” rather than “What international policy should the United States pursue in consideration of its relatively powerful position?” I felt that blanket black-and-white statements such as “At present the United States faces no global rival” (i) failed to recognize the complexities of states interacting with one another in favor of declaring a statement that the authors might wish or prefer was true.

– Megan S.