Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: December 2012

A second line of thought that came out of my reading of Huw Lemmey’s “Devastation in Meatspace” was: How would I teach undergrads about this? This is the kind of thing I’ve been considering a lot lately, perhaps because I’m not teaching this semester for the first time since I started teaching in earnest, and I’m unable to exercise my educational creativity muscles.

But then, part of it is being struck by feeling like it’s impossible to have conversations about social inequality with anyone who hasn’t had the years of training in thinking structurally that I have—and students in my classes are the most common example of that in my life, living as I do in an academic cocoon.

Third, there’s the particular challenge of this case, because support for Israel is such a knee-jerk, unquestionable thing for so many Americans. Certainly, as demonstrated by the hubbub over the 2012 Democratic Party Platform not including Jerusalem in its original iteration and the subsequent revision to add in a statement that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, it’s basically impossible not to support the Israeli state in mainstream American politics.

I’m not really sure why that is, historically. A historian friend of mine speculated that it had to do with the US’s role in establishing Israel in the first place and also suggested that the linkage between the two nations intensified as a result of the Six-Day War, as the idea of Israel as a nation under attack fit nicely with late-60s white anxieties about the US as under attack and helped produce the special bond that’s come to exist. Now, the historian in question would make no claim to certainty on this explanation—since, though he’s a well-read and geopolitically-aware human, he doesn’t study any of those places and times in particular—but it’s a compelling supposition.

Regardless, though obligatory mainstream support for the Israeli state was well established by the time 9/11 happened, it clearly intensified after that terrorist attack, as Muslims and Arabs were moved into a category of assumed-automatic-enemies for many Americans—a position they already occupied for the Israeli state and some portion of its citizenry (though clearly not all, and maybe not even most).

So, this is the lay of the land: in the American mainstream, Israel is always right. Indeed, questioning Israeli state policy in many circles is automatically equated to anti-Semitism. (Even though Arabs are also Semites, which I have never understood. I asked Judith Butler about this once—because I was 20 and we were reading Holocaust literature and Palestinian poetry in her class on loss, memory, and mourning, and it seemed like a good idea at the time—and she couldn’t explain it either, sigh.)

Though obviously my formative years were in a different, pre-9/11 era when the Middle East was much less central to the American imaginary, I certainly never remember having any awareness of Palestinian refugees and their conditions until college. I was, like many of my students are, a well-meaning white liberal teenager with a savior complex very concerned about all kinds of injustices, but the Palestinian situation was not on my radar until probably Ananya Roy’s Women’s Studies 14 class in Spring 2001.

I can’t assume my students will share the level of un-awareness I had when I was their age, of course, but given the lay of the political land on this issue, it seems fairly likely that my students will come into any discussion believing that Israel = good, Palestinians = terrorists.

And indeed, I already teach the topic of terrorism in my upper division Gender in the Media course, using Jasbir K. Puar and Amit S. Rai’s Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots, trying to get my students to pull back from their beliefs about the 9/11 attacks, whatever they are,  enough to see the weirdness of the particular gendered and sexualized forms the reaction took.

This went pretty well the first time I taught the course, but on the second go-around I remember vividly having a student exclaim something like “but they killed all those people!” or “but they attacked us!” Her comments about sports teams in online discussion had already revealed she was from New York, and so there’s a fair chance that she had only a few degrees of separation to someone who died in the towers.

(It was also at this point that I realized I had been assuming that the South Asians in the room [of which she was one] a) were aware of the racist backlash and b) would be less knee-jerk in favor of post-9/11 jingoism, but that’s my failing as a white person and a teacher.)

So then I had to slow down and go back and come down from my big structural discussion back to the grounding in “Some people did something awful, that we don’t condone, but the response to it doesn’t make any sense in the absence of a history of imagining the East as a site of gender and sexual deviance.”

And I guess that’s the way forward to teach Palestine as well: We never condone violence. That includes acts undertaken by Palestinians, but it also includes the violences of the Israeli state. So, we can hold that in place and think about broader structures in how those particular violences arise and what forms they take.

Because the fact is that I do parse these kinds of complexities for my students, and expect them to, about other issues. Though I suppose the ones who are actively racist, sexist, or homophobic, rather than having a passive, culturally-received sense that whiteness or maleness or straightness is superior, probably quickly realize that mine is not the class for them to air those beliefs.

I think it’s possible to condemn terrorist tactics but also understand the backed-into-a-corner-ness that makes them seem like a/the viable option. I think it’s possible to get across that there are real, legitimate concerns being expressed in illegitimate ways.

I think it’s possible to get students to disarticulate the actions of the Israeli state, which even not all Israelis agree with, from Jews writ large. I think it’s possible to help students see how individuals within structures benefit from the violence done on their behalf and thus share some responsibility even as they do not directly or completely control the system that produces the violence.

I think it’s possible to push back on the culturally “obvious” without alienating your students. The trick lies in keeping the large, structural factors and the concrete, tangible loss of life both in view at once.

I’m taking the next 2 weeks off, since there’s no point in posting on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve when no one will read it, but I’ll see you back here in January!

An interesting article came through my email recently, forwarded to my grad program’s student listserv by my colleague Ergin Bulut. It was a piece by Huw Lemmey published in The New Inquiry entitled “Devastation in Meatspace.”

The essay starts out talking about the optics of war generally and how armies visualize their activities for themselves and the citizenry. Lemmey remarked on the way that “the mediated aesthetics of war have always tread a fine line between the banal and heroic, always used to justify, rightly or wrongly, the slaughter of young and old while always failing to really convey the profound and fleeting moment when a state chooses to end a human life, again and again and again a thousand times over.”

This points to the latest iteration of an old technology of vision, which reminded me of Caren Kaplan’s November 2nd talk at the University of Illinois, “Desert Wars: Virilio and the Limits of ‘Genuine Knowledge,’” in which she elaborated how mapping and eventually aerial surveillance was used to make sense of Mesopotamia and eventually Iraq during successive European and then American desert wars there.

But Lemmey was doing something more expansive. He contended that the contemporary practices of visualization of Israeli military action are “an extension of the historical ‘propaganda war’: control of the networked space online. The IDF have run a comprehensive social media campaign from the first stages of the new assault, announcing the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari on Twitter, followed up by YouTube footage of his targeted killing within minutes.”

This is not just letting people see, then, or telling them what it is that they’re seeing, but something quite new. I call attention here to the use of the phrase “social media campaign,” terminology far more familiar in the context of marketing than that of providing a citizenry with the information they need about their government’s military actions. That is, while the rapid-fire nature of digital media can clearly be used to hold governments accountable and get out information to people to make decisions, this is something else again.

The link to marketing is not coincidental but actually the fulcrum for the shift Lemmey identifies. As he contends, “the images posted on Instagram and the infographics released across platforms form the core of the IDF brand; with a coherent visual theme, and consistency with the brand narrative, they are reimagining an urban conflict and occupation on a new consumer scale.”

This is not just nation-branding in the sense that has long been practiced as an incitement to tourism, but both narrower in scope (the military as national subset) and broader in dissemination (out to everyone, everywhere, simultaneously).

Lemmey’s biggest claim is that “liking and sharing IDF visual material becomes no more controversial than sharing your favourite Nike campaign — not a matter of politics, let alone ethics, but just another part of the construction of your online persona.”

This is the point at which the technological break with what Lemmey describes in the title as “devastation in meatspace” is complete. This information has become data, branding, decorative, has come to operate within the orbit of other fun and exciting technological things. And, on the model of the well-attested and expansively critiqued Israeli pinkwashing, I’d like to call it techwashing.

Pinkwashing is the term used in queer critique for the practice by which Israel plays up its gay-friendliness in a way that attempts to establish them as modern or advanced or forward-thinking and distract from more repressive aspects of their state policy on the basis of other categories of difference like race, ethnicity, or religion.

(Incidentally, the word pinkwashing is also used to describe the attachment of breast cancer awareness pink ribbons or pink coloring to a product to get people to buy it, even at times products with carcinogens in them. This makes me think maybe the gay one should be called rainbow-washing. Also, gay-related pinkwashing also happens in other places than Israel, like South Africa.)

The IDF social media campaign is thus usefully understand as the making same move as pinkwashing in a different arena. Thus, “we’re so gay-friendly, never mind that we also systematically deny rights to and chronically immiserate whole populations!” becomes “We’re so tech-savvy, never mind that we’re using this technological capacity to systematically deny rights to and chronically immiserate whole populations!”

Techwashing, like pinkwashing, like greenwashing before it, is ultimately a form of whitewashing. This is, on one hand, a metaphor about paint—the idea that you can slap a covering layer over unpleasant things and make them look nice.

But on the other hand these things are whitewashing—certainly with techwashing and pinkwashing, and maybe with greenwashing too—because they are deeply racialized. I mean, I know that race does not work in Israel quite like it works in the US context that I’m familiar with, but clearly the same structure is in play even if its component parts are defined differently.

These forms of -washing require a particular form of willful colorblindness, a refusal to see the racially disparate access to gay-friendliness or to the technological “wow” factor. Even more damningly, it requires obscuring the ways in which these forms of “modernity” act as bait-and-switch on tangible, meatspace, life-and-death human rights violations.

And ethically, it’s incumbent on us not to let that sleight-of-hand go unremarked.