Tag Archives: liberalism

Body Cameras & the White Gaze

In a sense the problem is even worse: to the extent that there is a racist organization and disposition of the visible, it will work to circumscribe what qualifies as visual evidence, such that it is in some cases impossible to establish the ‘truth’ of racist brutality through recourse to visual evidence. (Butler 1993: 17).
Even before the latest episode of Serial was aired in which white reporter Sarah Koenig just can’t quite believe Adnan’s mother, Jay Caspian Kang had written about white reporter privilege:
“I am still disturbed by the thought of Koenig stomping around communities that she clearly does not understand, digging up small, generally inconsequential details about the people inside of them, and subjecting it all to that inimitable “This American Life” process of tirelessly, and sometimes gleefully, expressing her neuroses over what she has found.”
On techno-fetish and questions of racism and who can be believed in the context of the “war on terror,” see my pieces, here and here.
“We revolt simply because for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” -Frantz Fanon

The discussion about body cameras is taking off. Some liberals have responded to the criticism of techno-fetishism (see my prior post) by claiming that without the camera in Eric Garner’s case, we would be reduced to “unreliable” witness testimony and confusion — as in the Michael Brown case. Let’s unpack this a little.

The video footage made ZERO difference to getting legal justice for Eric Garner’s family. So, for Garner’s family, the footage meant nothing. For African-American communities too, the ruthlessness, racism and rank injustice of the police is not news. For segments of the Muslim community that have been subject to heavy surveillance, this is not news. In fact, I imagine this is not news to significant segments of communities of color who have had first-hand experiences with the police. So, really, when you talk about how “at least” this time Garner’s murder was videotaped so it can be proven, what you really mean is that it can be proven to the white subject, to those people for whom the racism of the police is largely a theoretical matter. That is the implicit subject towards whom you are oriented. And this subject, you say, can now judge for himself; he doesn’t need to rely on the “unreliable testimony” of witnesses. But, if you are a liberal, you know well enough that “unreliable testimony” here is code for testimony given by Black people. After all, the only testimony that actually mattered in both cases was that of the white cop. So, what you are really saying is let’s continue to invest in the racism that got Garner and Brown killed in the first place by continuing to legitimize the white gaze as the site of truth production.

I know this in the context of drone attacks. I have written about it a little here. It’s never enough for Iraqis or Afghans or Pakistanis to say that they are being killed, that their brother or sister or mother or father were killed by American bombs or American empire; it must always be supplemented by the voice/testimony/witnessing of the western journalist, or the voices of officials within the US government or western humanitarians. Those are the sites of production. It’s never the stories centered on people who have survived or families of the dead that make the front page; the big stories are the ones where officials, or some form of westerner leaks internal information. It’s as if we can see the boy with a glass eye and the prosthetic legs, but we refuse to believe his story until someone humanitarian lawyer or some official says, yes, we sometimes bomb young boys too. Journalists — white and otherwise — who are reasonably intelligent know this and discuss it. As one friend/reporter said to me last night expressing the dismal situation of magazine journalism in which the main character must always be white or western. “You have to ask yourself, if this story were a movie what role is Matt Damon going to play?” And that role, better be at the center of your story. Many of us have had stories killed for failing to abide by that rule. This is not a problem solely in the conservative media. This is a problem of the liberal media. This is even a problem of the most visible media on the liberal to left political spectrum.

So – I, for one, am absolutely sick of this shit.

It is not the duty of periled communities to make you the white/westerner believe. It’s not the duty of these communities to continue to be subjected to the white gaze so you can make your crap judgments at your own leisure. Wake the fuck up and confront your own racism. If you approach every testimony by people of color with suspicion, even as the pattern of racism is written in blood, you’re a racist. And, if you are juxtaposing the “clarity” of the Garner case due to the video as against the “confusion” of the Brown case due to the “unreliable testimony,” you’re a racist. Both of these cases are equally clear and are part of a pattern of racism. To sever the Garner case from Brown’s shooting or Travyon Martin’s or hundreds of other cases is to operate on racist assumptions that only things which can be witnessed by you — the white subject — are clear. You are making a highly racially charged argument that relies implicitly on a series of racist propositions in order to make it make sense.

Finally, you might want to ask yourself why it is that you are so hung up on body cameras, why it is that attempts to point out that body cameras won’t resolve structural racism, lead you to debate the issue of body cameras rather than think, discuss and organize against racism.

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Jeans, Candy and Nationalism

1940s Mars Bar Vitnage Illustration Advertisement CandyToday, I happened to re-read a bit of Partha Chatterjee’s critique of liberal and conservative (and Marxist –see Benedict Anderson) theories of nationalism, and it reminded me of this op-ed recently published in the International Herald Tribune (IHT) about modernity in Pakistan. Note: I do agree with the author about the need to “let Pakistan make its own progress”, but dammit, the route she takes to get there, really sucks and it’s dangerous. Here’s why. Chatterjee first.

Chatterjee argues that both conservative and liberal theories of nationalism fundamentally share the same Enlightenment-era beliefs about Rationality and Progress. The main debate between them then is whether non-Europeans have the ability to grasp these notions, to in effect, become ‘civilised.’ The conservatives say “no”: non-Europeans are mired in “traditional loyalties” masquerading as modern political organisations. That’s why nationalisms in the post-colonial world are such bloodthirsty, regressive exercises. The liberals say “yes”: give them time and these ‘backward’ features will disappear, modernisation will take hold and

once the conditions that are detrimental to progress are removed there is no reason why they should not also proceed to approximate the values that have made the West what it is today. But neither side can pose the problem in a form in which the question can be asked: why is it that non-European colonial countries have no historical alternative but to try to approximate the given attributes of modernity when that very process of approximation means their continued subjection under a world order which only sets their tasks for them and over which they have no control? [1]

Modernity is inscribed as European modernity, and even that becomes a caricature of itself in much impressionistic reportage. So, back to the article. What are Ms. Naviwala’s signs of Pakistani modernity? Back when she moved her family to Pakistan in the 1990s and lived there for a maximum of 6 years, there were  “shootings in mosques, kidnappings, violent break-ins and streetside executions if you belonged to the wrong ethnic group.” It was bad, really really bad:

Worse than the violence, for a Pakistani-American child, was that Pakistan was boring. As far as I am concerned, Pizza Hut was the only good thing that happened to Pakistan in those years. Prior to that, there was no American fast food in Karachi, let alone malls or highways. You couldn’t even find a decent candy bar.

But now, well now, on her recent trip to Karachi, Naviwala noticed:

I never imagined that I would see Pakistan the way I saw it this summer, after a mere 14 years. Karachi today looks like any major, cosmopolitan city — movie theaters, restaurants, and cafés full of boys and girls smoking, in jeans, mingling together.

More women are finishing college and getting jobs, and they have traded traditional baggy shalwars for trousers and capris. The city has been aggressively transformed by a mayor so impressively capable that he seems misplaced in a culture of corrupt politicians and broken bureaucracies.

This is Naviwala’s laundry list of modernity: American fast food, malls, highways (to get to the malls), Pizza Hut, movie theatres, restaurants, smoking, jeans, and capris. First, I’d advise Naviwala to step off posh Zamzama Blvd and have a look around the rest of the city. Second, what’s the point here exactly? That if Pakistanis didn’t zip over to malls dressed in jeans and engorge themselves on Pizza Hut, then what…Pakistanis should be bombed and killed? Because that’s what she’s arguing: Pakistan is becoming modern–that is, it’s a mini-America–so don’t bomb it. WTF? This is a peculiarly liberal style of argument that Uday Mehta also discussed in Liberalism and Empire. Rather than being external to liberal thought, empire can be thought out within the liberal paradigm. (Mehta discusses J.S. Mills.) In Naviwala’s statements, there’s more than a little racism, unintentional though it may be, because Pakistanis are only pardoned on account of them being like us, her liberal readers who so gleefully lap up these slipshod arguments that feed American and European nationalisms by fortifying their sense of their imagined communities. This is an op-ed, but much ‘objective’ reporting looks the same, teasing out symbols. That’s what description is. It’s not just filler space, but ways to get the reader–liberal, objective–cues as to how to read a story. And often, that reading–when it comes to reporting politics in the Muslim world or frankly anything in the Muslim world–has to do with inscribing national ideologies into apparently objective stories.

Third, what interests me is that what’s on offer here is consumption packaged as modernity. Fourth, women, or at least their bodies, play a special role here. Naviwala mentions capris; elsewhere she mentions burqas and “traditional dress”, a perfect collusion between liberal feminism and capitalism. Take a look at this if in doubt.

And in case you don’t think that’s what she’s arguing, this is what she says of Afghanistan:

Pakistan is a different story from Afghanistan — it is far more developed and modern. Afghans may not have the ability to lead themselves out of this mess, but Pakistanis do.

Fuck those backward, un-malled, un-jeaned mofos. Signs of us/modernity are lacking in Afghanistan. That’s why, after all, Afghanistan is the good war. Culture–that big word–is just another  tool of war. And now, a “cultural unit” has been set up among British troops in Afghanistan to understand the locals better. According to Air Vice-Marshal Andy Pulford, assistant chief of the defence staff responsible for operations,

The unit “will help improve the military understanding and appreciation of the region, its people and how to do business there”

Presumably the business of how to kill them.

1. Partha Chatterjee. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World. University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

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