Category Archives: race

somatophobic feminism I

Dying was the best piece of publicity Shulamith Firestone ever generated. A name I did not hear much in 2012 seems to be making a comeback in 2013. I could not grasp what made her so rehabilitatable at first. “Radical feminism” is almost a slur nowadays, while hissing at and even physically attacking “radfems” is quite  nearly applauded on the left. So when Laurie Penny tweeted about how fond she was of Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex” I had to finally raise my hand and ask why. The most memorable chapter I could recall was Chapter 5, “Rasicm: The Sexism of the Family of Man” which was one of the more shockingly racist things I’d ever read from a second wave feminist. Penny said her favorite was the chapter that comes after, on love, and that she could effectively divorce the underlying premises from the previous chapter. How? Even within that chapter we find abhorrent essentialism, totally unhelpful analysis based more on Firestone’s own life than on conditions women face.

The underlying theme to Firestone’s work – and part of why I think it’s been rehabilitated – is a very vicious somatophobia (fear of the body) that complements contemporary racist and classist feminism very well. On request, I emailed Penny to ask her what could be gleaned from such a feminism – she has not responded. This destruction of the female body – either from thinking sex work is “just like any other job” or from the surgical/chemical feminism that holds hands with liberal trans feminism – is rooted in a dangerous essentialism. The woman is unable to escape her body, therefore she must destroy it. Reminders of her body, e.g. birth, menstruation, voluptuousness etc, are considered traumatic.

Masculinity is being able to transcend the body by immersing oneself in the “world of the mind”, by utilizing technology, by challenging the mystification of the body, of reducing people to individuals and individuals to their individual parts. Federici writes on surgery theaters of the late middle ages, of women being cut open and their mysteries being laid bare as a kind of terrorism and disciplining of the female sex. The mystical experience of pregnancy and birth reduced to organs, the rearing of children (reproduction of labor force) reduced to individual events and biological needs, schedules and regimins. In Firestone’s technofetishistic fantasy of babies grown in vats and raised by the state we have made quite a leap. The oppression of woman under capital is found in her body that betrays her by swelling large with children, by losing its perkiness with age, by gaining wrinkles around the eyes. The betrayal trans people describe in the process of puberty is the same betrayal women face as they go through puberty, as they age. The solution to this oppression posited here (with Firestone) is to embrace the flesh and conquer it and shape it to our will using technology and surgery. By embracing  masculinity-through-technology we too can escape our oppressive bodies. The hate is turned inward, festers like an ulcer. We blame ourselves, our lack of spirit, our lack of ability to change our own situations. It is atomizing and alienating.

In this, liberal and pink feminists willfully ignore the forces that assign such values to the body that make us hate them. Infuriatingly, they say there is nothing to be done about this. They say that men will always want to buy sex, they say that women are programmed in their brains to be the way they are, that gender is an essential biological condition as opposed to a system of active oppression under capitalism.

Birth is a powerful thing. Reproducing society is essential to our continued existence. There is no shame in breast feeding, no shame in menstruation, no shame in pregnancy or varicose veins. These are positions of great power for women, it is male technofetishism and capitalism that have turned these things into cause for shame and weakness. That Shulamith Firestone hates the body, hates weakness in the self is understandable, considering the pain that women go through on a daily basis in being women. However, she is misdirecting her hate and fear, putting the blame on women themselves. Her essentializing logic is dangerous, and the fact that her ideas have once again found traction in a “new generation” of “feminists” is troubling indeed. I hope that women are critical when they read these works, that they critically ask their friends to what end they are fascinated by fantasies of birthless, bloodless womanhood. We must make a decision of what we wish to transcend: capital or the flesh?

Further reading:

Myth of the Cold Trail: All-American Terrorists

Less than 72 hours after two bombs went off in Boston, killing three and wounding hundreds, Human Events (a conservative newspaper) has already begun to lament the cold trail left behind by the perpetrators. President Obama briefly addressed the media and, at first, refrained from using the words “terror” or “terrorism”. Janet Napolitino has claimed there is no “broader plot” involved in these bombings. These three developments more than anything lead me personally to believe that these bombings were domestic in nature, probably spawned out of the same sort of nativist, racist movements that inspired Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph.

Immediately after the bombings, the New York Post zeroed in on what it labelled a “suspect” – a Saudi man in a hospital who was caught running away from the  carnage. Once he was no longer a “person of interest”, the trail goes cold.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that the US Department of Homeland Security gutted its domestic terrorism office after a 2009 report on right-wing terror was leaked, causing political backlash.

What ultimately happened?
Napolitano eventually told Congress that DHS was going to remove the report from its websites. Some of the people in the media assumed they were recalling the report. That never happened. There is actually a formal process involved when you want to rescind a report. The only reason you do so is if there was something erroneous in the document.[…]

Is it off the DHS website today?
Yes. It was removed from various law enforcement computer systems, and classified systems too. […]

What happened to your DHS unit?
[…]Eventually, they ended up gutting my unit. All of this happened within six to nine months after the furor over the report. Analysts then began leaving DHS. One analyst went to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], another to the FBI, a third went to the U.S. Marshals, and so on. There is just one person there today who is still a “domestic terrorism” analyst.

Though terror from the domestic right in the United States has caused hundreds of deaths in the past twenty years, in recent times we have been quietly ushered away from such scenes of violence, politicians describing these as “lone wolves” who, for instance, fly planes into federal buildings for reasons of mental insanity. It echoes the response in Norway to the Anders Breivik trial, where a man who penned a thousand-word manifesto espousing fascist and nationalist ideals was simply labeled (and tried as!) “insane” for murdering 77 mostly young people.

The excuse in Breivik’s case and in other American cases was that it was important not to create a martyr. This is false. Martyrs are created everyday in the world wherever American bombs make contact. The true reason is to not push the idea that American supremacy – rooted in white supremacy – results in such violence.

To describe something as American, or All-American, is a bestowal of value.  Nothing negative is described as “All-American” – the enemies of our society do not look American, they do not act American, they are as far away from American as possible. Muslims and Arabs, after 9/11, stressed their “American-ness” in an effort to stem racist violence. The people in our prisons are mostly of color – certainly not considered “All-American” by any measurement of common mythology. Terrorists, likewise, are foreign to our body. In our collective mindset, as former Obama advisor David Axelrod says, “The word has taken on a different meaning since 9/11“. The mythological unity that was culturally and politically required for the total commitment to economic disaster and total war also required doing away with white terrorism.

The American myth is rooted in Wild West shoot-outs, covered wagons, individualism, self-reliance and a lot of guns. What is left unsaid but is certainly understood in this is also the total supremacy of the white man. If white men become terrorists in official parlance, then our national identity is shook to its core. The ideas of self-reliance, individualism, conquering “untamed” peoples and lands would be suddenly revealed as packed together with a racial myth that is still even used to challenge the legitimacy of the president, who is of color. Why has the trail gone cold in the Boston bombing? Why have white terrorists been labelled “insane” or “lone wolves”? It is because our society is still dependent on this myth of white supremacy to hold up a national identity that enables the continued subjugation of billions worldwide, including the American poor, seen in their laziness and lack of material success as unAmerican and generally portrayed as non-white.

The left, people of color and feminists understand too well that white supremacy exists at the expense of our safety and security. Occupy and other leftist movements are busted up with violence while the Klan gets a police detail when they march and the Tea Party is seen as a viable, legitimate political force in the United States – something that can find a home in the system of American/white supremacy.  When the media ignores this connection, when the government has no one to take care of tracking down these (white) terrorists, when we are told the “trail has gone cold”, then we are also given an implicit message: Watch your back! They are still out there! 

denial is not just a river in egypt

I grew up in the south and I’d never seen racism like I had in Israel. I was totally shocked. Putting aside all of the incredible racism exhibited by the occupation, on that side of the wall, I’d never seen little boys spit at Muslim women and drag their fingers across their throat. There was a public lynching in West Jerusalem last year. I’d never before in my life seen armed soldiers harass innocent people on the street because of their race – and in Tel Aviv, no less.

Yet this racism – and not even the systemic racism as exhibited by the gargantuan proportion of non-Jewish people in prison, the refusals to rent or sell to non-Jewish people, the differences in schools – this racism among Israelis of Jewish heritage is never properly cited as something that reflects so much on Zionism.

Nakba denial is one of the ideas that blossoms in such casual, everyday racism. The recent review in the English-language Jerusalem Post of a book that is about the Deir Yassin massacre explores this mentality:

It [the Deir Yassin battle] became a basic founding myth in the Palestinian consciousness, and therefore in Palestinian culture. It serves as a fundamental example for the claim that the Jews committed genocide against the Palestinians in 1948, and expelled, knowingly and intentionally, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians…

The Jerusalem Post review exists not to review a book so much as to actively denigrate what it calls the “founding myth” of Palestinian nationality. As if it could make a difference to those in Haifa, who were either rolling lit bombs into Palestinian neighborhoods or escaping in boats. As if it could make a difference to those in Yalo, who were dispossessed of their villages and turned into refugees nearly 20 years later. The Nakba denier focuses on stories, disproving individual accounts, shaking fists at publishers and blacklisting academics. They never step back and let their eyes rest on the giant concrete wall that splits the land like a raised scar. They invade Lebanon to kill “terrorists” and wheel their tanks right by the refugee camps. They focus more on the light of the beautiful flares over Sabra & Shatila instead of on the slaughter going on below.

When they look at the Nakba, they see cowards and simple villagers, stupid fools who take to the road in bare feet. The denier’s history cuts off as the dust settles in the village and then, not hours later, a new dust rises from the tires of trucks bringing in new people that find abandoned food on the table and bedding still warm.

The foundation of Israel is the Nakba just as much as it would be the for the Palestinians. Both people commemorate the Nakba on the same day, though the Israelis have given it a new name. Palestinian flags are not allowed to fly on the other side of the wall. Those who speak the language of Mahmoud Darwish are forced to twist their tongue to Hebrew in order to find jobs as day laborers. They live in enclaves with poor utilities servicing, and occasionally you can find a doctor who is unwilling even to treat them. They are called Arabs. 

The Arabs of the Mandate territory were for years attempting to define themselves as a separate national group was Porat’s historical contribution whereas Milstein retorted that his frame of reference was difference.  The fact that the Arabs needed a story of a “massacre” in order to cover their unwillingness to fight was proof that they were not a nation because a nation fights.

What Zionist reads this whose face does not burn with shame?

Yet this is the callous mentality that supports an ongoing occupation and brutal subjugation of millions. Tel Aviv is not even forty five miles away from the Gaza Strip, an open air prison where children go to sleep nightly with drones in their ears. Israelis can go see the occupation with their own eyes –  a visit to a friend or relative in a settlement can show you the lush green lawns and swimming pools next to the scorched earth of what was once a people who had pride and hopes for the future.

I used to work on a very tall hill, and when I walked home down that hill I could see the vista before me of a settlement, the wall, Tel Aviv, and then beyond, the ocean. I thought to myself when I saw this, surely it would drive me insane if I saw this every day for my whole life. Yet the Israelis have no such consciousness – they have a “free press” and “freedom of speech”, but in spite of this ignore the constant brutal suppression of the truth of their situation. Forget the view on the drive home to Shilo from work; pro-Palestinian Israeli journalist Amira Hass is currently under investigation while Kahanists hand out copies of “Nakba Bullshit” on university campuses. How is it that the racist atmosphere of Israel and Israel’s history more generally not been challenged by those who think it is a refuge, strong, safe and humane?

I saw an anti-Zionist Israeli once at a conference. She was saying that it is impossible to attempt to break the back of the occupation by appealing to Israeli society to change its ways. She said that she was part of a minuscule proportion of those who believed the land they lived on was not their own. What, then, is to be done? While the BDS campaign has laudable aims, it is appealing to the wrong sector; to expect that the people of Israel will suddenly wake up and hand themselves over to justice in the spirit of equality is to deny the deep roots of racism that anchor the Zionist dreamscape in place. There is no denying the racism held by the governments, the press, the education system, the former Prime Ministers and by the settlers in Hebron necessarily also acts to anchor the Israeli national identity in place as it stands. The distance tolerated between Tel Aviv and Gaza is proof enough.

Palestine persists whether 300 people or 100 people were killed in Deir Yassin. It persists because Palestine is not founded in myth, but rather by “facts on the ground”, as every day of their lives they are forced to identify with the national duality imposed on them by a racist occupation and traumatic displacement. Refugees will wake up refugees whether or not they have a founding myth.

Knowing the audience? Django Unchained

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Quentin Tarantino finally made a version of Inglorious Basterds for me. I thought it a mite peculiar, the minor obsession with the gore fest about smashing Nazis over the heads with baseball bats, but about halfway through Django Unchained, it all finally clicked for me. I was born and raised in the South, where the grotesque history of race relations there is still a deep source of shame for me personally, even if I never took part in slavery, lynchings, race riots or segregation. But I live in its wake and I benefit from it, even indirectly. The effects of such a painful chapter of human history were plain to see in my day to day life and effects such as incarceration rates, poverty, and drugs continue to be one of the most shameful aspects of contemporary American life. It’s a wound that people try to ignore, even if it still causes pain as it is picked fresh every day. That this country was built on the backs of enslaved human beings and that their descendants are still treated as second class citizens by the system that has so clearly profited from their misery continues to haunt any American of conscience.

So as I was cheering on the bloody escapades of our hero in Django, I suddenly considered that this must be how my German friends, who are also so deeply ashamed of their past, must feel when they watch Nazis get blown up on the big screen too. And how good for Tarantino that he’s figured out a way to tap into this deep cultural shame, and offer us all something of a therapeutic catharsis. Finally! I get to see plantation owners eat lead for their crimes. Tarantino doesn’t back away from the gore: we see slavery in all its bloody and grotesque splendor – men being torn apart by dogs, rape, dismemberment, castration, constant humiliation, and, through the portrayal of the collaborator Stephen, even the sometimes-deeper infection of the minds and hearts of the enslaved themselves. And just as we all secretly desire, the plot shifts from a story in the last forty minutes or so to the bloodbath we’ve all been waiting for.  The killing spree that takes place for the latter quarter of the film was inevitable – the hand that has been reaching for the gun for the whole film is let free. It feels terrible, in a way, to enjoy watching anyone be killed, but this is part of the glory. Not being able to fully enjoy it, though wholeheartedly supporting it, is the white liberal’s prize in Django.

Likewise, the character of Dr. Shultz affords the white viewer an easy buy in- he is also white, also horrified by the gruesome reality of slavery, but also uneasy at the gore and depth of the violence. His desire to help save Django’s wife and leave without incident is proof of this itself. But Django wants blood – indeed, he deserves it. While Shultz is unable to fully stomach the part of “mandingo-dealer” in order to accomplish his goals, Django himself has no issue with making the sacrifices of moral pride necessary to accomplish his vengeance and save his wife. While Dr. Shultz turns green as a man is torn apart by dogs, Django says that he is used to it, having been around Americans longer than his partner has. Could I ever tap into this source of rage and vengeance? Could I ever cheer at the screen while the slaveowner’s sister – blissfully ignorant of her brother’s darker crimes, a mirror of many where I grew up – was blown away in cold blood?

But then, maybe this film was not for me. This could be a deeper catharsis for those in the audience who were still beat down by this history, not in the abstract and shameful way that I was, but in socio-economic reality. So then, why was Spike Lee famously boycotting the film? Maybe the answer is grounded in the fact that a white man made this movie – it can always be excused as just another Tarantino gore-fest. If Spike Lee had proposed making a film about a former slave riding through the South killing white people, he would have been laughed out of Hollywood. No one would finance that. The controversy would be enormous, never mind how many times the dreaded N-word would be thrown at the audience. It is mildly controversial when a white man makes the film, but would be unthinkable if a black man did it.

Maybe this is where we should situate this film politically – the vengeance of Django is acceptable under the watchful eyes of Tarantino, but the same film would be too much, too real if it was made by someone such as Spike Lee, a politically outspoken black man. As Tarantino makes it, the historical irreverencies can be chalked up to an attitude that the movie can be read as apolitical – Spike Lee’s main contention with the film. In which case, I’m inclined to agree with Lee: is it possible to make an apolitical film about slavery in the United States without being grossly offensive?

Overall, the film delivers on skill and acting. It’s not as blood-and-guts as some of Tarantino’s other work, though the violence is still staggering. A cheer went up from the audience as a white overseer was shot on horseback, his blood splattering the cotton plants. The resentment still exists, and the effects of slavery are still felt all over this country. Is Django Unchained a sign of broader race relations in the states, or is it simply a way for people to feel better about themselves for a while before stepping back into the cruel reality of American life?