…how brutal Empire is…
They call it “conspiracy theory” as an excuse not to listen to what the people are trying to tell them.
We draw closer to another imperialist war and as the global economy creaks beneath our feet, red-baiting is again back in fashion.
We are to believe there is no choice between ISIS and Obama. There is no choice between abject poverty and crushing student loans. No choice between the burka and the bikini. In a culture where choice is worshipped as part of holy agency, holy self-value and atomization, the choices presented to us are rather bare bones – we will have neoliberalism or we will have death. “There is no alternative.” And don’t speak, don’t even think, about seizing the means of production.
In the clip above, released by the US State Department, we have a strange comparison. On the left, we have communism, and on the right, ISIS. The title is “Destruction of Holy Sites”.
At first blush, this might seem rather nonsensical. The two historical and geographic contexts presented to us in the video are completely different. Did the United States and its allies fund communism, for one? But then to examine the context of the propaganda: does communism have a strong history or a foothold in the Arab world? Well, the answer here is yes. Red groups and red money has shaped much of the policies of the region. Today, red groups are making some of the strongest gains against the rag-tag lot of foreign takfiris styling themselves after the sahaba who also call themselves Dawlat Islameeya, the Islamic State. These revolutionaries don’t accept the idea that the barbarity seen mounted on the spikes of the Raqqa’s city centre is homegrown, a natural conclusion to the horrific chapter of American occupation. They don’t accept the idea that this is a tribal spat, an ethnic power struggle. No, they see it as part of class war, as foreign imperialism making a play.
And so a false equivalency is generated to guide those who would otherwise gravitate towards pointing the finger (rightly) at American and Zionist designs on the region, away from a politics of liberation and towards capitalist enclosure.
I’m a red. The people dearest to me in this life are reds. I have immense respect for Mao Tse-Tung, who liberated the Chinese people not only from imperialism, but also from poverty. Maoism inspired millions of people worldwide to struggle towards their own liberation. And I don’t recall Maoists in China kidnapping women and putting heads on spikes, but perhaps this is a part of the story Maz might not want to discuss. Regardless, back to the context – really? Are reds in a position of power as ISIS is? Can we fairly compare the two? Or is this is a smear against reds in the same tradition as the US State Department video mentioned earlier.
Likewise in Ferguson, Missouri, where we again find the horrified whisper regarding “outside agitators”, a civil rights-era slur against those who struggled for the liberation of oppressed nations in the United States. Now, to be fair and give credit where credit is due, the civil rights movement was certainly supported by communists in the United States and abroad. More importantly, it would be a tragedy and crime to erase incredible leaders such as A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis and most of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense – all reds. But where are they now? Is the RCP secretly getting paid by a Soviet Union that no longer exists? Back to the context! While this smear of “outside agitators” was used against the civil rights movements as a dog whistle for communists, and as it is used today for reds and anarchists, it’s also an exercise in mystification, in red-baiting and in smearing the ideology of socialism as something ‘foreign’ to the people.
Stalinist (or Baathist) is just another term used to defame reds – mainly those who are against imperialist war in Syria. Even as Libya writhes in agony after a NATO war that left the African country with the highest HDI and best public infrastructure in smoldering ruin, to suggest you are against such further aggression will earn you the title of ‘Stalinist.’ And again, to give credit where credit is due, the USSR under Stalin did annihilate the Nazis and liberate most of Europe. But to be called a Stalinist (or even Baathist) by someone who is most certainly not a red is to be smeared, and is unambiguously used to discipline other reds and pinks to shy away from speaking out against NATO intervention in Syria for fear of being a secret Stalinist, whatever that word even means outside Cold War hysterics.
All of these things aside, why now? Why the recent spike in red-baiting? From Arabic-language State Department videos comparing ISIS to communists to VICE “journalists” denouncing Stalin like they’re lifelong members of the fourth international, there seems to be a resurgence on the periphery of some sort of – and I can only call it preventative – red scare. The language of being a red is gone – now you are either a radical or a barbaric Stalinist. Radicals can shill for bombing Libya, radicals can produce ‘ironic’ racist burlesque minstrel shows, radicals represent the underclass and everyone who disagrees with them are now comparable to mercenaries who crucify people (including reds) in public squares in Syria.
So what danger on the horizon, then, from reds?
The disciplining is remarkable – Steve Salaita is fired from a tenured position over his views on Gaza, and an unknown but certainly existing number of academics switch off their profiles, put everything to private. Reds are doxed – their address, their phone numbers, their emails, their boss’s info are posted to the internet along with their designation as DANGEROUS COMMUNISTS and they suddenly disappear. Public campaigns from neocons against leftist magazines that publish anti-imperialist articles. Visits from FBI agents with dossiers triggered by what exactly – maybe it was a tweet? Julian Assange locked in the Ecuadorian Embassy for how many years now? Chelsea Manning in solitary confinement. No wonder people go under pseudonyms – the environment is once again getting dangerous for those who don’t think imperialism or capitalism is such a hot idea.
Consider that much of this red-baiting is in response to a growing, powerful war hysteria. It’s undeniable – a comrade of mine in the states observed it’s worse than the rhetoric in 2002. Ukraine must be protected from Putin’s hordes, Syria must be protected from tyrant Assad, and Iraq must be protected from themselves and their barbarian savages. The drums are beating louder and louder, while the working class of the world stands war weary and exploited to the extreme. The most powerful challenge to capitalism in the history of the world emerged out of the first World War. Impoverished millions sent to die on the front line, and while it may not be our boys off to fight in the trenches this time, a world war that echoes the motivations and methods of 1914 will cause damage and pain such as we’ve never seen. In a global economy where billions are underserved, unemployed or barely working, this war can only be won under a red banner. Indeed, now more than ever, the spectre of working class revolution strikes terror into the hearts of the barricaded ruling class. This is why they persist in their handwringing about Stalinists and Maoists – because the moment of truth is approaching once again, and both Stalin and Mao have never been friends of global capitalist hegemony. A revolution that seizes the means of production is not something that is built overnight, as history teaches us, but we need to start on the foundations of such a project as soon as possible. Their anxiety is a cue for us to intensify in our efforts.
This is why they are resurrecting red-baiting, why they are looking nervously over their shoulders for the communist menace to arise. This is why it’s worth it for them to try and entrap the youth on a micro-level, atomize us further, discombobulate our senses and teach us not to trust what is real and what we know to be true in a material sense. Capitalism has produced its own grave diggers, and they are handed a shovel while being told to go support yet another imperialist war.
I didn’t want to watch another video of someone getting their head cut off. I was barely seventeen when video of WSJ journalist Daniel Pearl’s beheading was uploaded on the internet. The brutality of the Syrian Civil War, the children dead in pieces in Gaza, all of the other images of ISIS uploaded on to the internet were too much blood for me. And the fact that the video of James Foley kneeling in the hot sun next to a menacing, knife-wielding man was immediately yanked off of the internet meant for sure this video was more brutal than all the rest. Considering the sheer volume of grotesque imagery available on Youtube and Twitter, that which we cannot see must be more truly horrible. I asked a comrade if he saw the video, and he told me no, because that sort of thing wasn’t good for the mind. Everyone else said the same thing. And I had no desire to watch it. I could let others tell me about it.
But here’s my comrade telling me to watch it, go ahead and watch it. He sends me a live leak video. I watch it, and if James Foley really is dead, there is no conclusive evidence here – there is barely any gore, in fact no active representation of fatal violence (not counting Obama’s speech at the beginning). The only blood in the video is in the still image of a decapitated body whose face is covered in blood. And there is no way to say that it’s James Foley. As the shrouded menace grabs James Foley by the chin and begins to saw away at his neck, the movement is exaggerated and there is no blood. Fade to black. Fade up on the photo of a body that may be Foley’s. Fin.
Journalists now are either saying they have not seen the video or they are saying that the video clearly shows the beheading of James Foley.
A gigantic video screen in downtown Beijing is showing gruesome footage of the beheading of American journalist James Foley by Muslim extremists and images of racially charged riots in the Missouri town of Ferguson. – “In busy Beijing, graphic video of James Foley’s beheading is shown over and over on a giant screen” (NY Daily News)
…In the video Foley delivers a statement calling on his friends and family to “rise up against my real killers, the U.S. government.”
Then the ISIL member makes a statement. Speaking in what may possibly be a British accent, he identifies Foley and says his death is a direct result of American intervention in Iraq.
“So any attempt by you Obama, to deny the Muslims of living in safety under Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.”
He then beheads Foley. –“Video shows ISIL beheading of photojournalist James Foley” (Politico)
In the video posted Tuesday on YouTube, Foley is seen kneeling next to a man dressed in black. Foley reads a message, presumably scripted by his captors, that his “real killer” is America.
“I wish I had more time. I wish I could have the hope for freedom to see my family once again,” he can be heard saying in the video.
He is then shown being beheaded. –“Video shows ISIS beheading U.S. journalist James Foley” (CNN)
There is even an article in the BBC titled “Experts warn of trauma after watching Foley death video” – because while the footage of children hoisting decapitated heads high in Raqaa and stills from mass executions are brutal, sure, for some reason they don’t really compare to the trauma and brutality of watching a white American man allegedly begin to be murdered.
I don’t really know what has happened to James Foley, but the question of why we should pretend this video shows something that it does not deserves to be answered. Why the swift media blackout of the footage? Why the possible play-acting? Why the fake knife?
Maybe this all boils down to facts, and the refusal to share them with us, the refusal to follow-up on sources. Why was the media telling us that he was being held by the Syrian government until this video was released?
Why are they still saying that? Why is this man’s disappearance and alleged murder a casus belli that we are not allowed to review, one that journalists are steadfastly refusing to investigate?
And of course, we should ask the producer of this video – allegedly an ISIS guy – why bother to put something up that looked so weird, possibly fake? The organizing strategy of ISIS is clearly one of terror and nightmarish presentations of gore. Why did they leave it out for the Americans?
And now I really have to ask – how many fingers am I holding up? Do you see three? You’re wrong, it’s four. Try harder.
The 1976 film Network is the story of a failing television channel and its scheme to improve ratings by putting a crazy man on television. Howard Beale is driven out of his mind after he’s laid off to shield the bottom line. He is a widower, no real friends – a victim of the economic rearrangement of the 1970s. Promising to blow his brains out on live TV, Beale is suddenly the savior of the network as the ratings are higher than ever as a result of this outburst. He appears on television and delivers emotive appeals to his audience, reasoning that while he doesn’t know what do to fix the situation, he at least encourages everyone to “get mad”. But no mass movement erupts. Once his shares start to dip, the network assassinates him to pull their ratings out of the fire.
This is the usual synopsis you’ll receive. Network’s other story lines, the ones about Faye Dunaway’s sexually aggressive yet sexually vacuous character, the cynical manipulation of Black Power politics, are usually ignored. Everyone loves a story about a maniac street preacher. But Network is also about how the media is manufactured, how our pain and frustrations regarding the state of the world are manipulated for ratings, and how legitimate grievances are monetized under capitalism.
It’s a shame we miss out on that, because the media we consume today is just as cynically manipulated. It’s just as weaponized against the population as the media of a hundred years ago, but has now adopted new marketing techniques to sell, promote, and defend imperialism and capitalism. This is not to say that older techniques are not still used – some corruption is still as blatant as taking money or gifts – but other techniques have not been as examined, as thoroughly condemned. While sex and race are just as common as ever in the media’s worship of imperialism and capitalism, the new neoliberal strategies of atomization and the cult of the individual gives the old tropes of manipulation a fresh coat of paint:
We live in an era of flux. The old model of a creator or creative type—a person who does one thing well, and depends on institutions for support—is falling by the wayside. The creator of the future is a super-connected trans-disciplinary mutant: engaged and intellectually rebellious. Molly Crabapple has created everything from Occupy Wall Street posters and arts journalism of collapsing countries to murals on the walls of the world’s most exclusive nightclubs. On stage, she delivers an energizing, take-no-prisoners talk on how creators—how everyone—can create a life of their own design, without asking permission. (Emphasis mine, from Lanvin Agency)
Atomization is the isolation of a person from their “institutions of support”, meaning, essentially, not just their fellow human being, but also the traditional ways of reading and perceiving knowledge, through history or dialectical reasoning. The atomized individual is “intellectually rebellious”, cut off from the ability to reason correctly and confused by constantly shifting parameters – relying on their own atomized and manipulated environment in order to successfully parse reality. A strategy as old as time is to successfully make the person feel like they came up with the idea to oppress themselves. The fresh coat of paint here is to make everyone relate to their own oppression in an intimate, ego-shaping way. The individual’s decision – once they choose oppression, of course – is a sacred decision; their reasoning and their motivations are private and autonomous. The oppressed are oppressed whether they choose to be or not – but the propaganda encourages the oppressed to accept it anyway, because it makes things easier for domination and atomizes society faster.
Imperialism, too, wants invitations for military advisors, trade agreements, and foreign direct investment. Wars and battles can be disagreeable. Usually it’s preferable both morally and logistically when the oppressed ask for their own subjugation, argue for it themselves. Likewise, patriarchy seeks to subjugate by invitation. Women are told that patriarchy really does have nothing but the best intentions, that she can cleverly twist patriarchy on her own to make it “work for her”. In this way, we can compare the woman who feels violent pornography is empowering to the country which feels monoculture depending on the imperial markets is empowering. Under this paradigm, we the audience, must believe that if they are asking for it, we must respect their agency. Systems of oppression, however, do not simply disappear because they are somehow passively (or actively!) accepted by the oppressed. Indeed, systems prefer the acquiescence of the oppressed to conflict. This is why it is so important for us to be told that women love being prostitutes and how much happier developing countries are under capitalism. In many cases, this functions as a sort of shield for oppression – it’s their choice, after all! And we must respect that. And if not their choice, well then, certainly NATO has their best interests as individuals at heart. An argument about imperialism successfully becomes an argument about agency.
All of this is not just a successful tool for atomization, it is also a savvy marketing strategy for oppression. For this essay, I am going to write mainly on how imperialist-marketing techniques specifically corrupts feminism. While women who stand against oppression and imperialism are often excluded from public platform, or labeled as “crazy” otherwise, when standing for imperialism, misogyny, racism, and capitalism, women are seen as strong and independent-minded. When their representations of the aforementioned are attacked, these otherwise “modern” women simply melt back into stereotypical gender roles, and are posited as victims. I will present three case studies for this phenomenon that will seek to make this connection between feminism, traditional gender roles, agency and imperial aggression.
For the first case study, let’s take a look at a so-called feminist, modern group of women: FEMEN. The marketing strategy of this Ukrainian group is pretty simple to grasp. A photo of any FEMEN action usually includes a half naked blonde woman, political slogans scrawled across her breasts, her face contorted in pain and fear as a police officer or soldier, generally a man, attempts to tackle and arrest her. Here we have a twofold approach: one strategy is that instead of holding placards, these women use their bare breasts as “weapons” (their word, not mine) to trick an otherwise apathetic and disinterested male population into buying whatever it is they’re selling, while courageously doing this as wielders of their own agency, allegedly wielding it in the name of atomized feminism (what I call elsewhere “postfeminism“). This is greatly analogous to marketing strategies which seek to utilize female sexuality – we can see examples of this on any convention showroom floor. They are simultaneously empowered by using their sexuality to sell their politics, while at the same time cynically bowing to traditional gender roles. The second part of the marketing strategy is to usually include the police. Their groping hands put these lovely blonde ladies in danger. They roughly claw at their exposed flesh. Like King Kong, these women are generally presented as helpless against their attackers, suspended in midair by the ruddy paws of the enemy who seeks to destroy us all. We are winked at by the titillating vision of half-naked attractive white women, offering their politics on their breasts as a way of appealing to the so-called essential nature of of piggish men, appreciative of their strong choices, angry that a man would stand in their way.
For sure, while I have lived both in worlds where women wear very little and quite a lot to promote their sexuality, I take no offense to either approach. But I am critical to an extreme when I see this sexuality weaponized, used to beat not just Russia over the head, but all of us, to crush discussion and promote unquestioning acquiescence in the name of agency, feminism and sexual liberation. The image of white breasts crumpled roughly in the dark hands of state violence – what’s there to safely discuss without stepping in a minefield?
Odessa: FEMEN spokeswoman Ievgeniia Kraizma throwing a salute while 40 people are lynched and burned behind her in May 2014.
It didn’t surprise me to discover that FEMEN is represented by a smarmy Ukrainian neo-fascist, or that FEMEN has connections to Svoboda and dirty US money. It didn’t surprise me to see FEMEN photographed posing near the burning House of Labor in Odessa during a brutal lynching of red and left activists. What did surprise me was how successfully the FEMEN brand and their tactics have so far avoided a total exposure as fascist frauds. I suppose that many of my male comrades, and some of the female ones, feel uncomfortable discussing this, as many of us (as good Leftists) have been inoculated against discussing how a woman should display her sexuality. The dominant discussion about a woman’s choice simply forbids me from approaching a half-naked woman and calling her out on reactionary posturing. It will melt into my being a prude or jealous of her beauty. I cannot say if these women were expressing their honest-to-God sexuality while participating in these actions. I’ve never been to bed with them, I don’t know their hearts. I can just clearly see how their bodies, their bare skin, are weaponized towards reaction. As a woman, the marketing scheme disgusts me – a scheme to sell imperialism, patriarchy and racism. It’s a marketing scheme that results in the uncritical nodding along of so many while reds burn in Odessa.
In a way, FEMEN’s schtick is much like Nazi pornography: the woman simultaneously representing sexual availability, traditional values, and also under threat by the dark barbarian other. The main difference here is that the woman herself is now an individual. It’s not just her body that must be protected from the barbarian horde; it is also her choice to portray herself thus that must be defended. Her reasons for being presented in this way are hers and hers alone – if she believes she is being counter-culture when being anything but, we cannot argue with this or else we are little worse than the cops clawing at her body. The defense is thus sealed against all criticism of tactics and ideology.
Their biggest applause line was “Be Pussy Riot! Anyone can be Pussy Riot!”
Another example of this paradigm in action is the Russian group Pussy Riot. What started as an anarchist-type art collective in Russia, with public fucking, sexual battery against women, and desecration of sacred spaces, soon became a cause célèbre for spook organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Their combined sexiness and intellectual rebelliousness were worshiped by unofficial Occupy spokespersons, their pouting faces immortalized as they were hauled off to a dreaded work camp. After their early release, as part of a general amnesty for mothers (my goodness – what a concept!) they went on tour of American prisons, grimly meeting with Bill DeBlasio and speaking on how much the prisons in Russia could be improved, perhaps to become more like the prisons in the US, where the rate of incarceration is historically unprecedented.
Of course, while Pussy Riot enjoys a rockstar reception in the United States, the same is not true for the Russian Federation, where the majority of the population regards the beautiful young women of Pussy Riot as deserving of punishment. In fact, a rarely-reported twist to the story is that the two women seen most as representing Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tollokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were in fact expelled from their group. But this is irrelevant to the media in the United States, who are basically the managers and promoters of the group in the West, who seek instead to paint these women as dissidents who redeem our bad qualities (Rikers, etc) through their earnest, qualified eyes. We cannot get the same redemption from Chelsea Manning, rotting in prison now for four years with no general amnesty coming for her, as her acts did not exist to propagate empire, but rather to expose and destroy empire. Chelsea Manning’s inhumane imprisonment is not viewed with the same comradely concern as Pussy Riot, who pose for Vanity Fair once free and clear in New York City. Despite their strength of character and bravery in risking their lives (!) to tell the truth about Putin’s Russia, Pussy Riot remain fragile, petite girls who are in need of saving.
And here, generally, is where female sexuality is most successfully deployed against critical thought. In reading the objections as being about the bodies themselves, as opposed to the systems of power they represent in tension with one another, we are effectively silenced. We read critique of Pussy Riot and FEMEN as being attacks against their bodies themselves. Even their agency is pushed aside in moments of crisis. This is misogyny. Despite their right-wing stances, their cheering for imperialism, these women have successfully infiltrated modern protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and piggy-backed onto a variety of causes, such as that of prison reform, refugee crises, LGBT liberation, and Cecily McMillan’s trial. They have entered these movements seamlessly, propagating disinfo and sowing division among actual activists, while going relatively unchallenged. The critics of their positions become “haters” or “stalkers”, or send them rape threats.
Laurie Penny and friends
Our new young female pundit class is the final example of this phenomenon of weaponized naked girls. Writers such as Molly Crabapple, Laurie Penny, and Natasha Lennard have become new icons for a “counterculture” feminist-journalist ideal. But a quick look at the CVs of these women reveal them not as actual politically minded activists, but rather as ambitious pop-culture icons. Laurie Penny frames herself as a Harvard fellow and feminist voice for the “underclass” while cheering on the NATO attacks on Libya in 2011, Natasha Lennard smears anti-war activism as useless and boring, and Molly Crabapple now regularly reports dispatches from the Middle East, arguing for NATO intervention in Syria and the arming of foreign mercenaries there while chiding the Left for being against these things. Proving that naked photos of oneself are no barrier to success in the mainstream, Crabapple in particular has successfully turned her burlesque franchise into a platform to broadcast political propaganda, and is regularly printed in VICE, the New York Times, and invited on news channels such as MSNBC to opine on MENA foreign policy issues.
I asked the question, why is a young woman like Molly Crabapple chosen to write about Syria, and not a young woman like Eva Bartlett? We could say it’s as simple as the fact that Crabapple supports NATO intervention in Syria, weaving a case for the need for intervention by bravely “risking her life” going 100 meters into Syria to report on the need for the Syrian government to be overthrown by foreign forces. Bartlett does not agree with this, but let’s also look deeper at what disqualifies her: she has worked as a regional organizer for ISM in Gaza, speaks Arabic, and has a firm grounding in the region. She has worked as a human shield for the Palestinian people against imperialist bombs. While this first-hand knowledge might qualify her to some, it would probably disqualify her from taking a job in professional journalism, as this would require a level of “objectivity” she clearly no longer possesses.
Commie-chic: all the chic, none of the commie
Crabapple, on the other hand, runs a burlesque franchise (“Dr. Sketchy’s”) that features imperialist, racialized shows for the entertainment of a mainly-white male audience. Instead of this disqualifying her from a platform, it endears her to publications such as VICE, an imperialist, racialized burlesque show in its own right. She is a self-described mercenary entrepreneur and former naked girl who seemed to earn her credentials on reporting the topic of Syrian “revolution” by way of her being an unofficial spokeswoman and artist for Occupy Wall Street.
This position also offered her the opportunity to visit the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners are denied basic rights as human beings and are currently on mass hunger strike. The stories of torture and mistreatment out of Guantanamo are not hard to find, including reports of a CIA murder cover up, but these are conspicuously absent from Crabapple’s reporting. She instead spends most of her time with the guards and wardens of the prison camp, drawing pictures of the idyllic scenery and the equipment they use to torture the prisoners. She draws Guantanamo as overgrown and mysterious, lush and abandoned, a sort of Tim Burton set. It is no longer threatening, merely an uncomfortable afterthought. When questioning the purpose of this visit, I was asked “What could someone REALLY dig up on such a trip?” What indeed. So then the question becomes: why was this woman who did no journalism of note, who left out actual journalism of note from her report, allowed to visit such a blight on humanity if not to present an acceptable and non-threatening version of it to her audience?
It’s clear then, that a woman such as this is not qualified to be considered a journalist, much less a “leftist” by any serious standards. She is simply a pop-culture propagandist, marketed to young leftists as an acceptable and attractive alternative to Thomas Friedman. Yet, when confronted with criticism on her position or credentials, Crabapple retreats into a victim’s shell. Her critics are “haters”, “jealous”, or “obsessed with her [sexually]”. Refugee Palestinian children become her sexual molesters while she simultaneously and bravely calls for their betterment – not through BDS or armed resistance, but *some*how. Likewise, the “left” pelts her with alleged rape threats while she is only trying to help them win broader exposure. Her sexuality as a woman simultaneously promotes and shields her. She even went as far as to paint a portrait of herself with various criticisms painted over her face – few of them were threats to her body, most of them to her politics, but certainly all one and the same in her artistic representation.
The racialized clarification to this scam is Crabapple answering for her profiting off imperialist burlesque by bringing out a performer from the show, to argue that what was seen – women dressed in “traditional” savage garb with tampons in their ears, killing one another for the sexual pleasure of the audience, was actually highly-developed satire or criticism of racism and imperialism in its own right. While Crabapple herself would not answer my questions regarding this show, how this sort of thing developed her brand, and its contribution to her views on imperialism, the performer she featured thanked her profusely for the opportunity to reinforce stereotypes next to racist copy written by a white man, implying that if she did not, this would be censoring women of color. This was a disclaimer added five years after the fact and only after I raised the issue. Again: we have racist, imperialist, misogynist discourse that is justified by agency, implying that to disagree with profiting off of these representations would in fact be racism or misogyny in its own right. This is neoliberalism at fever pitch.
Racism and female sexuality have long been utilized to sell imperialist war. The Spanish American war, the mobilization of the KKK to protect white females from rape, the hijab-wearing beauties constrained by “Islamofascism” – these are all examples. For any case imperialist warmongering, I will show you a pretty young woman in danger. Not as if these women are in danger because of imperialist war, of course. They are almost always in argument of imperialist war. The brutal gang rape of young teenage girls by American soldiers in Iraq is simply not covered in the same way as Ghadaffi’s alleged Viagra-fueled rape squads. The gruesome blackmail used against females and LGBT people by Mossad is simply not news compared to honor killings.
In addition, there is a tendency in yellow journalism to present female sexuality as a way to sell papers. It works so well for nearly every other facet of capitalist consumerism. And there is a tendency in journalists of all stripes and shapes to be connected to intelligence services, also in service of imperialist intervention and war. From a desire to access to simple laziness, journalists play into the hands of the government on nearly all fronts, but particularly when it comes to imperialism. Why keep a foreign bureau open when you can get information from the government and send pundits along embedded with soldiers and State Department coordinators? All of this together creates a situation ripe for exploiting the entire public, but throw in the parts about feminism, and now reds and other sorts of anti-imperialists will be lured by this siren’s call. It’s not hard to conjure up desired personalities to deliver your message in this system, not hard to produce the actors needed to play all the parts of the media narrative. It’s not just spooks sneaking around recruiting people for their schemes, it’s a whole society that’s been primed to loathe communism and national liberation.
Women with guns in their hands fighting against imperialism are mostly absent from this kind of imperial discourse, except to mock, pity or belittle them. I mean, look at that last link. It’s to an article about FARC’s female soldiers and it’s titled “Jungle Fever”. In this discourse, all women are victims and silly dupes – wandering children, looking for someone to help them. The ones with a voice are loud and proud about their imperialist message, and then it is their bodies under attack if their message is objected to – not imperialism, not capitalism.
But I reject this. These expressions of female sexuality are not earnest, and are just as false as any other patriarchal representation of women, not because the women and their actions are themselves false necessarily, but because these presentations have been weaponized by third parties to serve imperialist and patriarchal ends. They are mediated expressions. I cannot speculate on whether or not these individual women are knowingly complicit in this. I can only struggle against the broader tendency to use female bodies in this grotesque manner.
Today’s young female journalist-pundits have created the perfect storm for this sort of discourse, and it is their presence that introduces groups like Pussy Riot and FEMEN to the rest of us, helpfully putting it all in context. Their support of imperialism, combined with their self-promotion as empowered savvy “burlesque dancers” or “naked girls”, combined with their self-portrayal as frightened women under attack, is effective in triggering silence from the left. Professionally donning the sheep’s wool of just-another-activist-chick while quite literally endorsing capitalism and its products, they fold criticism of their work and their marketing strategy into criticisms of themselves, and as they have been crafted to appeal mainly to a certain demographic, the attack is not just on themselves, but also on their fans and their sense of taste. These women are not just sexy, hinting at their sexual availability, but also vulnerable to attack. Like Clemencia Arango, they are young, innocent, beautiful, naked and must be saved.
So, the nakedness, while making these women appealing yet vulnerable, also shields them – their openness and frankness alluding that their presentation of themselves as coy young ladies is of their own agency, that it was their decision to market themselves thus. Therefore, it would be anti-women, certainly anti-female sexuality, to attack the media as using the nakedness as a screen for pro-NATO positions. No consideration is given, perhaps, that their rising to the top is a result of imperialism and patriarchy, a deeply integrated media propaganda machine.
They are, in a strange way, much like the young, innocent, beautiful and naked women who NATO must intervene to “protect” – at least, they are both supported and promoted by the same paradigm of patriarchal imperialism and capitalism. And since the marketing appeal is clearly not just their excellent reporting, but also their packaged sexuality and so-called “girlfriend experience” complete with Instagram photos and voyeuristic members-only performances, this means that an attack on them is not just an alleged attack on their sexuality, but on their male audience as well.
And I must stress here, before I receive backlash, that I have no idea who any of the above women are on an individual level. I don’t know what drives them. I cannot say for one way or the other that they are aware of how they are being weaponized against the world’s oppressed majority; I can only say that they are. Neoliberalism lays out its demands in a simple way for white women who want to make it in this world: we are to be subservient, our consent made available for public sale, and for our hearts to go out to our men and women in uniform as they fight to keep the barbarians at bay who would throw a hijab over our nakedness. As for fighting women of color and women battling on imperial fronts – if they do not exist to arouse or be laughed at, they simply do not exist at all. And while we wrestle with our deeper questions of identity, atomization, feminism and racism, imperialist bombs quicken their pace, spreading their destruction over the rest of the world.
Do you know what’s messed up? When 150,000 people are having their water shut off by capitalists in Detroit. The government there let it happen. People didn’t pay their water bills, so now they don’t get water.
I was born in a country where this happens.
There are camps set up on army bases right now in this country filled with thousands and thousands of children. They live behind barbed wire, they share a bathroom with 600 other kids. Most are children who are running from a brutal, US-backed coup in Honduras, where hundreds of children have been disappeared this year so far. Still, the white racists stand by the side of the road and hurl slurs and threats at these children as they are bussed in.
Many of the people I love live here.
The homeless are miserable, sick, need help and a place to stay. Every day on the train, the collective cringes as “Ladies and gentlemen,” loudly interrupts everyone’s game of solitaire. There are over 60,000 homeless in New York City, where the average rent is over $3,000 per month. There are around 23,000 homeless children in the same city that shelters all the banks, the NYSE. The New York Times.
So I’m leaving again.
Honestly, it makes me a little crazy living here. I need a break, and I have the opportunity to go elsewhere, doing something that makes me feel useful. Not that I didn’t feel useful organizing or working in publishing. I learned a lot. I met amazing people and stood in solidarity with them. I wrote a book. But my heart is in hiding here, it’s too painful right now. I was born here and my family lives here, but this government makes me crazy and I have to go for a minute. There are hardships elsewhere but I feel like I do better and work more effectively elsewhere for the time being.
I was heartened to meet so many amazing comrades, who all do such hard work. I will do what I can. I’m leaving my books here, so I’ll be back.
You may learn in time that “activism” and militancy is the highest stage of alienation.
Do you really think it matters whether you “oppose” imperialism or not. Your yelling and “loud” opposition is utterly ineffectual and impotent.
She’s a bit too “enthusiastic“. I think she’s slightly over-estimating her self-importance and that of those she associates with.
What is a troll? Accused of anonymity and distasteful disagreement, a troll is a nobody. Nobodies inhabit the earth in billions, just numbers on a census, silenced from debate and discourse. A troll is a nobody who goes against what good nobodies are supposed to be doing: acquiescing, marching behind somebodies, those unique souls imbued with a sense of authority by the powers that be. This class of somebodies include tenured professors, experts, pundits, image-conscious journalists, celebrities and politicians.
I laughed when Professor Rechtenwald left the above paternalist comments on my recent essay on the urgent necessity of anti-imperialism. I currently pay for a shared studio with vermin on a street where people are murdered, I make $15 an hour as a temp in New York; no one has to tell me I’m alienated. I do not disagree that militancy and activism are results of alienation. Word on the street is that this is how revolutionaries live: cut off from all sorts of things, certainly from the teat of NYU positions. But his comments got me thinking about unimportant nobodies versus very important somebodies, and I’d like to make some comments about nobody politics.
As much as anyone wants to beat up on Stalin and Mao for “cults of personality”, we have a strange blind spot towards our utterly bizarre celebrity culture.
Celebrity is a gorgeous date for neoliberalism. The cult of the individual manifests itself as worshiping the individual traits of those we have never met or spoken with. We need to see cellulite, we need to read interviews, we need to breathlessly pour over family photos of intimate gatherings on their timelines. This cult of celebrity is encouraged by and exists for the purposes of capitalism. Celebrities mean celebrity endorsements, of course, but they also foster a sense of individual worship. The difference between Stalin and an American celebrity is that Stalin was seen as the embodiment of the Soviet Union and its values, while we love our celebrity because of her individual qualities, namely her saucy attitude, sizzling hot fashion sense, and her performances for us – be they on stage or on Instagram. Stalin never posed for centerfolds, he never gave out fashion tips or spoke about his family and personal relationships at length. He was a portrait, a ghost of an actual individual, an iconic face that meant nothing to most of us on an individual scale.
For sure, our present ruler in the United States indulges in this celebrity, playing to memes or appearing on ironic hipster webisodes. But mainly, we eat up our information from the New York Times op-ed pages. We are told how to think about things by columnists that indoctrinate us with capitalism’s smokescreens and lies, revealing just as much about themselves in the process. These are important people. This pundit class that gets asked to speak and sign autographs are very important people. Their opinions are considered authoritative and valid. They must be smarter, more hardworking than all of us. They must have access to different, better information. After all, they are there for a reason, no?
Much of the authority bestowed on us by capitalism correlates to our socio-economic status and relationship to the means of production. Law makers, politicians, professors, millionaires – by and large these actors come from a certain class, and are generally white and male. What then, of the other voices we see represented – who are they meant to appeal to? Like the indigene begging for NATO intervention, feminists incessantly speaking about sex work, the person of color arguing that we are in a post-racial society: celebrity pundits must also appeal to power.
I wrote on this about a year back. I wrote about American radicalism and the sacrifices that had to be offered to count yourself among the likes of Assata Shakur, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, John Brown, Bill Haywood, and others. I wrote that the person embraced and encouraged along by the imperialist machine would be suspect, because being an actual radical can be fatal. There are dead workers buried all over this country from crushed strikes that are testimony, among others in unmarked graves. But now there are radicals who promote Pussy Riot, who cheer on the bombing of Libya, who hustle hard for imperialism, who endorse products. Radicals who make lots of money on the stock market and buy brownstones (oh, maybe they give some of their money away, but probably not to the Naxalites). These people also happen to be Somebodies. They are pulled in towards the heart of Empire and so are rewarded not just with wealth and power, but also a platform to speak from. This is somebody politics.
But let’s talk about nobody politics. On the other end of the spectrum, we have those who are hungry, those who are poor and frustrated. These are nobodies. These are the alienated. They are the ones who die under NATO bombs. They are the ones vaccinated without giving informed consent, their signatures forged. These are the youth, the people of color, the poor. They are nobodies. Their voices are seen as insignificant. Their opposition to imperialism and capitalism is, as Professor Rechtenwald tells me, meaningless, utterly ineffectual and impotent. The militant activists are alienated, not important. Nobody politics are for nobodies. Somebody politics are for somebodies. So, if you’re a nobody, why not try shilling somebody politics for a change? It may even result in a respite from the alienation, may help one bootstrap their way into a book deal or high-paying job.
Or not. As the numbers tell us, opportunity for youth, people of color, and other oppressed communities is nonexistent compared to the exciting lives of our favorite celebrities. They jet around the world on company money, endorse products for easy cash, and spend an awful lot of time reinforcing to us how empire is blameless and there’s really no other way that things could be. You get the freelance journalists hustling for a staff position. You get the academics hustling for a book deal. You get a lot of hustle from lawmakers, artists – in fact let’s just call then “somebodies” – for just straight-up payoffs and bribes.
Meanwhile, the nobodies hustle for rent, debt, and hospital bills. In fact, the more of a nobody they are, the more they owe, the more they “hustle”. The nobodies hate capitalism. The nobodies hate imperialism. The nobodies hate racism, the nobodies hate sexism. The nobodies hate poverty. They hate hustling. Nobodies want free housing, education, healthcare, food and guaranteed employment. They hide their faces or don’t speak up because they know what they want goes against what those in power want for them. If they are too loud with their discontent, there is a crackdown, minute pressure points in society the people in power can press, releasing spurts of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and mass incarceration. The somebodies know how to shut nobodies like me up – that’s how they stay in power.
So I laughed when Professor Rechtenwald tried to do me a favor and remind me how unimportant I am. Yes, professor: I have bed bugs, rats, a low-paying temp job, tens of thousands in debt, and unstable access to healthcare. Everything in my life serves to remind me of my unimportance, my alienation. I get it. I’m a nobody. And I live on a street in a neighborhood full of nobodies. A city and country, a world full of nobodies. I write under a pseudonym and I hide my face, among other reasons, because there really is nothing so special about me. I’m not important. Not much unique. I’m just one of many gunning for your class, gender, sexual, and racial privilege with my politics, which I have decided to speak up about. I’m not a celebrity, not quirky and sexy and talented and nodding along with empire, I’m a nobody. Now, move along. We’re talking nobody politics with other nobodies.