Thursday, August 25, 2016

When Homeland Security goes to school

Assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago

In 2015, the FBI launched the controversial website Don’t Be a Puppet: Pull Back the Curtain on Violent Extremism. Through interactive games, the playful website intends to prevent young people from embracing extremist beliefs. Don’t Be a Puppet also offers resources for parents and teachers to “educate teenagers on the destructive and deceptive reality of violent extremism and to strengthen their resistance to self-radicalization and possible recruitment.” Although some support Don’t Be a Puppet as a proactive approach to thwarting homegrown extremists, others warn that the website promotes the stereotyping and criminalization of Arab and Muslim Americans.

Screenshot from the FBI's Don't Be a Puppet website.

Don’t Be a Puppet is part of a larger cache of educational programs and practices organized around fighting the global war on terror. From spy camps for children to high school homeland security studies programs to college degree programs in violent extremism, the global war on terror has ushered in a new set of educational policies, practices, and programs in the name of national security. In this approach to the global war on terror, schools train young people as the next generation of national security workers, cultivate youth as vigilant citizens who report and respond to perceived threats, and dissuade students from joining extremist groups.

In 2008, for example, Milton High School installed a specialized Homeland Security program. Located in the greater-DC metropolitan area, the program trained poor and working-class students of color for low-level work in the national security industry. Dozens of local national security experts, agencies, and corporations supported Milton’s Homeland Security program. These national security partners provided resources and curricular guidance to instill in Milton students the technical skills, durable dispositions, and habits necessary for vocational national security work. Algebra teacher Ms. Simmons, for example, detailed a “power lunch” with a Northrop Grumman employee. This consultation led Ms. Simmons to infuse eight lesson plans with national security logics, from calculating the probability of a terrorist attack at a local international airport to determining the parabolic force needed for a sniper to find and shoot a target in North Korea. Through specially designed Homeland Security courses, electives, field trips to national security hubs, national security guest speakers, and internships, Milton prepared its “rough” and “rowdy” students as future “military grunts,” cybersecurity technicians, Border Patrol agents, and NSA workers. Branded as the “vo-tech of the 21st century,” the Homeland Security program sought to improve the struggling school while providing a “pipeline” of diverse workers to the national security industry.

A Curriculum of Fear traces my journey through my yearlong participation in Milton’s Homeland Security program alongside the school’s hardworking teachers and its vibrant students. My experience at Milton was complicated, as my days in the Homeland Security program revealed the complexities, contradictions, and contributions of these new educational arrangements calibrated to the global war on terror. Despite my concerns about how this national security schooling shaped students’ understanding of the world and their place in it, I often found myself swept away by the program’s hands-on learning opportunities, its provocative topics, and its riveting guest speakers. I, for example, was captivated by a high-level NSA agent’s accounting of the “hackers, criminals, terrorists, and nation-states” who posed a threat to the United States. Like students, I listened attentively as a US Army Corps of Engineers representative described the haunting search and rescue missions in the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center towers after 9/11. I leaned in with curiosity as he detailed his subsequent deployment to “primitive” and “backward” Afghanistan to “support our warfighters” and prevent “another September 11.” Armed with a police training gun, I enthusiastically pursued students in a home invasion simulation at the State Police Academy. With what seemed like minimal effort, I acquired much national security knowledge, a clear indication of how effective the Homeland Security program was in teaching young people (and me) complex information in accessible and engaging ways.

A Homeland Security-focused classroom at Milton High School.

It was easy to understand why teachers viewed the program as an innovative way to improve the school while securing the financial futures of its poor and working-class student body. The Homeland Security program offered students a course of study anchored in a thrilling topic they valued, pathways to obtain stable jobs in a booming industry after graduation, and opportunities to protect their nation as vigilant citizens and national security workers. Guided by neoliberal pressures to run schools as job-training sites, intensified fears of resurgent terrorism, and a pulsating sense of national responsibility, Milton teachers and students alike argued that the Homeland Security program was a laudable effort to secure young people’s futures and the nation.

As exhilarating as I found it, I often worried about the effects of a program so narrowly focused on the problem of terrorism and the militarized solutions it offered. The more time I spent at the school, the more concerned I became by the fears students expressed, the militarized approaches to national security the school advanced, and the Orientalist worldview the program promoted. Eleventh-grade student Tiffany, for example, detailed how her participation in the Homeland Security program cultivated deep fears of a terrorist attack in her community. Her new knowledge, infused with palpable fears, compelled Tiffany to adjust her own corporeal engagement with the social world to ward off danger and ease her fears:

I’m not gonna say because of Homeland Security I’ve been alert, but we learned that people like terrorists look like normal people….On the bus, I just be like, “This looks a little suspect, I’m gonna walk away.” You could be suspect. They’re normal people and I would just sit there and just like, you know, when I’m the bus now, I just say, you know, don’t react. Like I don’t say “Hi” and talk to everybody ’cause you never know. I was so friendly before Homeland Security. I’m not gonna say I’m not friendly, but I was just so open to talk to anybody, anything, didn’t really care, didn’t really think about it and then [our teacher] made us realize, “Look, everybody not your friend. People are crazy out here. You need to watch out.” . . . So this class made me more of knowing to the outside world ’cause I was really just like cool with everything. I never thought, like I thought everybody’s good. I don’t think everyone’s bad or suspect. I just definitely watch how they act, their body language when nobody’s right there to see what they’re doing. ’Cause you never know. People crazy. So this class has definitely shown me that.

Tiffany’s new national security knowledge informed her fears of a terrorist attack while riding the bus. Through rehearsals of catastrophic attacks infused with haunting references to “another September 11,” fearful yet patriotic Milton students came to imagine the United States as under constant threat and thus demanded a matrix of national security practices, from armed police to war. Given these fears, students diligently studied the skills, knowledges, and procedures necessary to act as “good citizens” who defended their homeland from the “bad guys.”

Milton students briefly observed as police recruits learned to respond
to mass demonstrations on a field trip to the State Police Academy.

My daily participation in Milton’s Homeland Security program revealed, firsthand, how the global war on terror seeped into and reconfigured the public school, particularly for its poor and working-class youth of color. Although Milton school staff supported this remaking of their school, Homeland Security program coordinator Mr. Hopkins and Principal Young balked when I asked if their children would someday participate in the program. Prompted by their hesitation, I began questioning how a military-infused national security schooling became what one teacher called an “obvious choice” for Milton’s struggling students, but not the children of white, middle-class teachers. Informed by this contradiction, A Curriculum of Fear explores the social, political, and economic contexts that shaped how Milton school staff came to establish a Homeland Security program that, by design, funneled Milton’s non-dominant youth into the global war on terror, as “military grunts,” low-level national security workers, and vigilant citizen-soldiers. In doing so, A Curriculum of Fear calls into question the relegation of poor and working-class youth of color to a militarized education that nourishes fear, advances dangerous assumptions about who and what is “suspicious,” and pushes students toward war. Although teachers sought to improve the school for their struggling students, these good intentions often masked the underlying racialized and militarized assumptions, logics, and effects of a high school program organized around advancing the global war on terror.

As the FBI’s Don’t Be a Puppet website suggests, the global war on terror continues to usher in new institutional arrangements that align US public schools with military exigencies, especially in communities of color. This historical moment defined by the global war on terror demands a new political imagination that creatively works toward countering the militarization of public education in the United States. This imagination must articulate other forms of belonging, security, and national responsibility in US public schools outside of dominant tropes of terrorism, war, and violence. As I argue in A Curriculum of Fear, Milton’s Homeland Security program serves as a clarion call for a different kind of public education that nourishes the critical thinking skills necessary to solve today’s most pressing social problems and to contribute to a participatory democracy. The work toward the public education, and political future, we want for our children begins today.


Nicole Nguyen is author of A Curriculum of Fear: Homeland Security in U.S. Public Schools. She is assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

"A Curriculum of Fear offers unique and engaging insight on the intersections of education, securitization, and militarism in the United States. It makes an important contribution to research in each of these fields."
—Emily Gilbert, University of Toronto

"A valuable contribution to the literature on the militarization and corporatization of schools, situating the topic in terms of the broader ideological and economic constellation of neoliberalism and militarism."
—Kenneth Saltman, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth

Friday, August 19, 2016

Aliens, monsters, and revolution in the Dark Deleuze

Visiting assistant professor of emerging media and communication at the University of Texas at Dallas

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze is usually characterized as a thinker of positivity. Consider two of his major contributions: the rhizome as an image for the tangled connections of networks, and the molecular revolution as transform spurred by unexpected quantum drift. These concepts catapulted the popularity of his thought as the digital age seemed to reflect social forms matching each form, namely the world wide web of the Internet and the anti-globalization 'movement of movements' that lacked central coordination. Commentators marshaled his work to make sense of these developments, ultimately leading many to preach the joy of finding new connections to the material world (New Materialism), evolving the human at the bio-technical level (Post-Humanism), and searching out intensive affective encounters (Affect Studies).

In my new book Dark Deleuze, it is not my contention that such "affirmations" are incorrect. Rather, my argument is that Deleuze was ambivalent about their development, and later in life became more a critic than proponent. In updating Deleuze for the digital age, I did more than restore a critical stance – I worked out how his lost negativity could be set loose on this world by destroying it.

Here I expand on the Dark Deleuzian notion of "Death of This World," a term I introduce as an image of negativity, by rendering it here as "the alien." Instead of using well-worn digital examples, I instead explore the greatest looming question for the humanities: the Anthropocene.

Anthropos, Anthropocene, Anthropological Transformation
In a recent talk, I analyzed the discourse associated with the Anthropocene, the scientific fact that recent human development has provoked ecological changes deep enough to be recorded at the level of geological periods. I ended with three mythological figures that illustrate possible responses to the Anthropocene: Gaia, Prometheus, and Medea.

Gaia is a personification of the natural world living in perfect harmony. Hers is a story of unity, cooperation, and reciprocity. Isabelle Stengers's Gaia inverts the image of a fragile earth exploited by the predatory machinations of humanity. This Gaia intrudes to remind us that it is our way of life that is out of balance, not hers. The consequence is clear: fundamental change is inevitable in the Anthropocene, but it will be an anthropological transformation and not a modification to the building blocks of life.

Prometheus: Or, The Monstrous
The tale of Prometheus is about forbidden technology. The most popular tale of Prometheus is that of Doctor Frankenstein's monster. This is obvious enough from the subtitle Mary Shelley gave it: "The Modern Prometheus." Commentators continue to debate the conclusions readers should draw from her characterization of modern science as a monster. A mistake? Is humanity just not prepared? Must human misunderstanding be overcome?

One answer is given by David Cronenberg in his 1986 remake of The Fly. The film depicts Doctor Seth Brundle, who becomes a "fusion of Brundle and fly at the molecular-genetic level" after a scientific accident. The Fly is a literal realization of the "molecular revolution" laid out by Gilles Deleuze and FĂ©lix Guattari that describes political transformation at the micropolitical level. Brundle's own molecular transformation occurs through an "admixture" that adds fly as a minor ingredient to the human. He develops strange physical capacities that replace the normal abilities of a human: he grows hyperactive, gains extra-human strength, walks on walls, eats by vomiting digestive juices, and sprouts extra appendages. Ultimately, Brundle loses his mouth, and with it, the capacity for language that Aristotle says makes us human. Almost immediately, he sheds his human skin to reveal himself as a horrifying six-foot bipedal fly. This final form offers the definitive version of the monstrous: the molecular transformation of the familiar into the abject.

Medea: Or, the Alien
The myth of Medea is an account of domestic revenge. Medea's revenge marks her as a barbarian, the name given to those who blabber in a foreign tongue and whose incivility exceeds local norms. As dramatized by Seneca, in the penultimate moment, Medea mounts a chariot yoked to dragons, and as she flies away, her spurned husband declares that "there are no gods" wherever she rides.

A recent depiction of the alien is Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special (2016). It opens with an 8-year old boy on the run. He inadvertently causes intense seismic activity as if the very fabric of the world was unraveling. "They think you're a weapon," an NSA analyst tells him, "and the ranch thinks you're their savior." "I'm not any of those things," the boy responds, "I belong in another world. There are people there – they watch us. They've been watching us for a very long time. I need to go where I belong." At the climax of the film, we are briefly shown that other world.

Medea and Midnight Special thus exemplify the alien as perceptible but unintelligible. Such impenetrability is crucial for distinguishing the monstrous from the alien. Ridley Scott's "aliens" are knowable monsters because they are amalgams of known animal traits. Testifying to this fact, most "alien" films are really just extra terrestrial monster movies that resolve when humans cleverly decode the monster's animal makeup (Aliens, Predator, Independence Day, Starship Troopers, Pitch Black, Signs). Adding a dystopian spin, District 9 shows how even unknowable space monster strangeness can be entrapped as form of molecular exploitation. The exception that proves the rule is John Carpenter's The Thing, in which the alien monster lacks a distinct form, rendering it unrecognizable, only avoidable.

Why distinguish between the monstrous and the alien? For Dark Deleuze, because they offer distinct images of revolution: one joyous, one dark. The monstrous depicts revolution as molecular drift while the alien illustrates revolution as otherworldly. This molecular is an organization model explored by "quantum theorists" and New Materialists to replace a single punctual event with many tiny revolutions – although those moments may swell into a sweeping society-wide upheaval. In contrast, the alien revolution is the focus of Dark Deleuze, in which I offer a series of terms in contrast to those made familiar by molecular Deleuzians: asymmetry, conspiratorial communism, cruelty, interruption, and the power of the false, to name a few. If the molecular occurs from the inside-out, where the familiar becomes strange, then the alien occurs from the outside-in, with the intrusion of something so unsettling that it forces us to find a fresh orientation. The alien revolution begins by heeding the call of the outside and ends the Anthropocene with "the death of this world."


Andrew Culp is visiting assistant professor of emerging media and communication at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of the new book Dark Deleuze. He would like to thank Eva Della Lana, Alejandro de Acosta, and Alex Galloway for their helpful feedback.

Forerunners: Ideas First is a thought-in-process series of breakthrough digital publications. Written between fresh ideas and finished books, Forerunners draws on scholarly work initiated in notable blogs, social media, conference plenaries, journal articles, and the synergy of academic exchange. This is gray literature publishing: where intense thinking, change, and speculation take place in scholarship.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Turning from political extremes to new forms of collective action

Senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at Western Sydney University

While those from the political extremes seem to be excited and increasingly agitated about their participation in democracies across the globe, with the US and Australia being good recent examples, a larger majority of perhaps more moderate people appear to be disenchanted with the political options presented to them at the ballet box. What Bruno Latour noted some time ago in the 2005 book Making Things Public still holds true today:

Some conjunctions of planets are so ominous, astrologers used to say, that it seems safer to stay at home in bed and wait until Heaven sends a more auspicious message. It’s probably the same with political conjunctions. They are presently so hopeless that it seems prudent to say as far away as possible from anything political and to wait for the passing away of all the present leaders, terrorists, commentators and buffoons who strut about the public stage (page 14).

This point was made again, more recently and less provocatively, by Kay Anderson in her response to my new book Building Dignified Worlds:

In the contemporary world context of deepening disaffection with party politics, and intensifying polarities across many so-called advanced capitalist economies, one wonders whether we are witnessing a resurgence of the kind of broadly-based resistances to the business of politics and economics that Gerda aligns with traditionally left alliances and ‘strong theory’?

So what hope is there for politics? Are our options really so bleak? I do not think so, rather perhaps many of us are more interested in and turning toward new forms of collective action responding to everyday economic concerns, from ‘taking back factories’ as represented in the film The Take to farming initiatives that take the needs of the environment and other species into account in economic decision making.

Collectives centred on concern are remarkably different from the traditional left and social movements that are joined by a singular identity. In contrast, these collectives gather together and sometimes realign a diverse range of actors around contemporary matters. And they are less concerned with resistance than the creation of alternatives. While we may be increasingly familiar with this form of hybrid political action today, this has not always been the case. A lot of work has been undertaken within and outside the academy to make these collectives visible. Building Dignified Worlds documents and is part of this broader project.

Taken by the author in Porto Alegre, Brazil, during the 2005
World Social Forum, this photo of a screaming vampire of neoliberalism
was one of many graffiti images that oppose the neoliberal agenda.

I became interested in these new forms of collective action when I traveled to Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2005 to attend the World Social Forum. I had been researching neoliberalism and, becoming increasingly pessimistic about democratic politics and national economic management, was keen to see what alternatives there might be. The 2005 World Social Forum was teaming with alternative initiatives and experiments in living from around the globe. I was particularly struck by the story of the Coalition against Water Privatisation in South Africa, where the discussion of neoliberal governmentality was punctured by a discourse of the commons enacted through the initiatives “Operation Switch On/Light Up” and “Operation Open the Water.” I also attended the World Dignity Form held within the World Social Forum where the term dignity seemed to me to reflect a shift from a divisive politics centred on class opposition to a more general concern that economic life be evaluated in terms of dignity. I left the World Social Forum, as many researchers leave their ‘field sites,’ overwhelmed with the number of diverse initiatives around the globe, but with little idea about how to think about them outside of a politics of resistance.

Building Dignified Worlds is the result of my subsequent thinking about these collectives. Geography in particular has provided me with a lens to the diverse gathering and political realignments these initiatives are making happen. In my book I explore the performative and embodied geographies through which collective action takes place and the kinds of possibilities this action creates. My examination includes film, trash-picking collectives in Brazil and the Philippines, a session of the 2005 World Social Forum, farming initiatives in Australia, and more; an eclectic mix that enables me to discuss a wide range of geographical dimensions that create change.

Building Dignified Worlds uses the term dignity to describe the kind of human being that can be realised through the economic initiatives and ethical political economic actions discussed throughout the book. Dignity reflects both a mode of being human and the dignified world in which this is possible. The term dignity may grate with some readers, as Kay Anderson noted, dignified modes of being human could be taken as an ideal universal figure of the human, just as the colonial human figure was with all the damage that figure justified. Yet this is not my intention and is an area I am currently working on by exploring caring relationships across different species beings, including diverse modes of being human. By using the term dignified worlds, I hope the book helps to open up a space for further exploration of collective action that responds to the challenges of coexistence and interdependence.


Gerda Roelvink is a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at Western Sydney University. She is author of Building Dignified Worlds: Geographies of Collective Action and an editor of the collection Making Other Worlds Possible: Performing Diverse Economies.

Praise for Building Dignified Worlds:

"Roelvink’s writing effortlessly carries the reader from beginning to end." —Environment & Planning D: Society and Space

"A fantastic contribution to contemporary post-structuralist geographic thought that elaborates new politics of social change."
—Marianna Pavlovskaya, Hunter College, SUNY


This blog post references:
-Latour, Bruno. 2005a. “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik: or How to Make Things Public.” In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, eds. Latour, B and Weibel, P., 14-41. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
-Lewis, Avi. and Klein, Naomi. 2004. The Take (film). Canada: National Film Board of Canada and Barma-Alper Productions Inc, Madman Cinema.
-Roelvink, Gerda. 2016. Building Dignified Worlds: Geographies of Collective Action. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The global implications of RNC support for gay “conversion therapy”

Assistant professor of sociology at Temple University

Last week, police in Uganda raided an LGBT pride event. Witnesses described police brutality, especially toward transgender women. Among those arrested were Pepe Julian Onziema and Frank Mugisha, leaders of Sexual Minorities Uganda. The Anti-Homosexuality Act, which passed there in 2014, has since been overturned by Uganda’s constitutional court—but clearly the anti-LGBT sentiments behind it persist. In its initial form, this bill provided the death penalty for the crime of “aggravated homosexuality,” but when passed, this punishment became life in prison.

As I argue in The Straight Line, sexual reorientation therapy research and ideology imported from the United States were used in advocacy for this bill. Part of this ideology is to conflate homosexuality with transgender expressions as an overall pathological inability or unwillingness to conform to demands of one’s assigned birth gender, including heterosexual expression. A document from the National Association of Social Workers of Uganda (NASWU) was entered into the official record of the Ugandan Parliament and drew on these ideas, citing reorientation research studies from the US-based organization NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality). While most reorientation practices in the U.S are talk therapies promoting conformity to rigid gender stereotypes, the implicit pathologization of homosexuality can be used to bolster legal punishment. Such laws can gain support especially when “homosexuality” is seen to include a propensity to prey on vulnerable populations like children, often involving the treatment of LGBT people as scapegoats for a range of social ills.

Map of the 77 countries with laws against sexual relations
between people of the same sex.

Uganda is one setting among many around the world where reorientation concepts have traveled and where homosexuality and pro-LGBT advocacy have been further criminalized. It is imperative to consider this broader context when discussing the official 2016 Republican National Convention platform: “We support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children” (page 37). While this language may seem innocuous on the surface, it is based on explicit support for conversion therapy, despite that there are legal precedents for preventing parents from forcing potentially harmful treatments on kids under their charge. Position statements by all mainstream mental health organizations in the United States have declared that there is no evidence for the efficacy of reorientation treatments. These organizations include the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Association for Social Workers, American Counseling Association, American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, in addition to global institutions such as the Pan American Health Organization regional office of the World Health Organization and the International Federation of Social Workers. And last year, a New Jersey court ruled that reorientation therapists violated that state’s consumer fraud protections.

Back in 2014, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni stated that his decision to sign the Anti-Homosexuality Act hinged on whether a panel of Ugandan scientists could determine if homosexuality was genetic in origin, or whether it could be changed. At a mass celebration in Kololo Stadium in Kampala following the creation of the new law, Museveni drew on this panel’s findings and declared that homosexuality is a “learned behavior that can be unlearned.” Support for conversion therapy within the RNC's platform (not to mention other anti-LGBT positions there such as opposition to transgender restroom rights) is a very profound signal around the world to leaders like Museveni. It effectively lends ideological support for further legal punishments for homosexuality and gender variance in other nations, as well as forms of violence perpetuated in the United States that disproportionately affect queer people of color.

Countering this ideology, one popular response to conversion therapies for gays has been to argue that homosexuality is not a choice because people are born gay or straight. It is often this biological model of homosexuality, also known as “essentialism,” that underlies the notion that “gay rights are human rights”: that there is a genetically determined gay population around the world that needs to be liberated so that people can live in accordance with their inborn nature. However, this approach can only achieve so much, and the science upon which it is based is suggestive at best. Sexuality certainly has a biological component, but like language, there always has been and always will be a cultural learning component to all sexual and gender expressions.

Moreover, new research has shown that a substantial proportion of people who believe that people are born gay do not, at the same time, support gay rights—as though homosexuality were a congenital defect. Anthropological research on global sexualities has identified a broad range of ways people classify sexualities and genders, to differing degrees of importance in people’s lives; by no means is the Western gay/straight dichotomy of fixed sexual orientations and sex binaries universal. As Joseph Massad has argued, exporting this model to nations with more fluid notions of sexuality can invoke backlash against static categories that inscribe Western individualism embedded in notions of human rights. But even within the United States, the fixed gay/straight dichotomy is inadequate, as scholar Jane Ward has argues: “It turns out male sexuality is just as fluid as female sexuality.”

An alternative position on homosexuality is to face the issue at its core: to argue that there is nothing inherently shameful about same-sex sexualities, and that there can even be something edifying about those relationships. Rather than presume all people belong in gay/straight binary boxes on the basis of some elusive notion of biological nature, the idea “gay rights are human rights” could instead mean the right for all people to freedom of sexual and gender expression, including the right to same-sex sexualities and/or other sex sexualities, regardless of their cause. Conservatives frequently accuse gays of “recruiting” children, but forced conversion therapy of kids is obviously a means of recruiting children into a particular way of life, complete with strict gender binaries, sexual restrictions, and patriarchal norms that deny human freedom.

It is important to point out the risk of harm within conversion therapies, including the risk of suicide attempts, and to consider bans. However, working toward eliminating the cultural taboos on homosexuality and gender variance altogether may be a more effective way of countering these therapeutic attempts that increasingly move underground when banned. Regarding homosexuality, this would require acknowledging that sexual experiences of any particular type do not necessarily determine a person’s entire sexual career across the life course; it would also mean removing the taboo on heterosexuality within LGBT communities if people feel like moving in that direction. With this logic, it is the fear, loathing, and hatred of consensual sexualities and gender expressions different from one’s own that constitute, to borrow President Museveni’s phrase, “learned behavior that can be unlearned.”


Tom Waidzunas is author of The Straight Line: How the Fringe Science of Ex-Gay Therapy Reoriented Sexuality. He is assistant professor of sociology at Temple University.

"The Straight Line is a remarkably forward-thinking work of scholarship with the potential to disrupt normative academic discourses in the best possible ways. " —Lambda Literary

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

How tourism is deeply implicated in the antagonistic global structures that lead to war.

School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen's University Belfast

After the emergence of organized mass tourism in the mid-19th century, billions of people have indulged their desires to visit cultures, landscapes, and experiences different from their own. No place on the planet is immune to the tourist gaze: alongside familiar visits to museums, monuments, and famous attractions, we have also found ways to holiday in jungle canopies, urban slums, and desert oases.

This expansion of tourism developed at the same time as modern armies were mobilized in ever-greater numbers to fight wars in sovereign jurisdictions other than their own. As tourists made their way to exotic destinations, soldiers were being deployed in colonial occupations, world wars, ethnic conflicts, humanitarian interventions, civil wars, covert operations, and insurgencies.
What do these two mobilities have in common? How do they intersect, and why do these entanglements matter?

Tourism and war are often understood to be antagonistic practices (one aimed at engaging with different cultures, the other aimed at conquering them) but there are many juxtapositions. We know, for example, that war tourism – visits to famous battlefields, war museums, and war memorial parks – has become one of the largest sectors in the tourism industry. Think of the millions of American tourists who visit the Cu Chi tunnels used during the Vietnam War. As a visitor demonstrates in her video travel guide, not only do you get to crawl through the narrow tunnels yourself, you also get the chance to fire an AK-47. Here, tourists play at being soldiers.

Conversely, when soldiers are deployed overseas they engage in many practices of leisure, recreation, and tourism. These holiday experiences occur most often during official stretches of R&R, but they also emerge during non-combat time when soldiers respond to their exotic surroundings through a tourist, rather than a martial, sensibility (e.g., eating ‘foreign’ food, visiting cultural monuments, or taking souvenir photographs).

Some of the most revealing images of these off-duty moments were taken by the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit led by Edward Steichen, who documented the non-combat orientations of American marines in the Pacific between 1942 and 1945. As an image of Navy men relaxing on the beaches of Guam suggests, soldiers in the middle of war do much more than simply conquer enemies – they also go swimming and relax in the sun. In other words, soldiers often play at being tourists.

Navy men relax and swim at bathing beach on Guam.
National Archives photo 80-G-474328. 

While these are compelling stories of juxtaposition, they are too often presented as simple curiosities that are shorn of their political conditions. Indeed, mainstream media accounts of ‘dark tourists’ who deliberate seeking out war zones usually position these activities as both trivial and inconsequential. This framing ignores the many ways that tourism – thought to be an innocent experience of leisure – is deeply implicated in the antagonistic global structures that lead to war.

Tourism actively reproduces long-held global enmities that secure a privileged ‘us’ (those who visit, occupy, and conquer) against an uncivilized ‘them’ (those who are commodified, objectified, and defeated). It is important to ask how the practices of tourism and war align in different historical periods in ways that bolster the entrenched asymmetries of global politics.

A more politicized story about the modern entanglement between tourism and war begins with the experience of colonialism. Here we see a powerful collusion between occupying soldiers from colonial powers and wealthy European tourists keen to visit the monuments of exotic cultures.
Certainly these figures occupy foreign landscapes differently, but both work to bolster the logics of empire that keep them in privileged positions by silencing, effacing, and exploiting local subjects. For example, this is one of Gabriel Lekegian’s photographs of the famous Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo (c. 1890) where wealthy European tourists mingled with British officers as they both waited to travel up the Nile.

This image is interesting for the way it visualizes the structural inequalities of colonial tourism with the barefooted Egyptians in front and the fully clothed Europeans posing on the verandah. It gives us some sense of how the privilege of European soldiers and tourists is structured and spatialized through familiar hierarchies of race, gender, class, and sexuality. However, to really expose those logics you would have to go behind this image to see what extended from the rear of Shepheard’s Hotel: a vast red light district where male soldiers, officers, and tourists visited local prostitutes.

The beach at Vung Tau R&R center in Vietnam.
Cat. No. CT 205.

The privileged worldview shared by tourists and soldiers and bolstered by structured forms of asymmetry was not particular to the colonial era. Indeed, these relations of power were intensified between the two world wars, extended throughout the Cold War, amplified in the so-called ‘humanitarian’ interventions of the 1990s, and resuscitated during the recent War on Terror. For example, American soldiers in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s adopted tourist sensibilities when transitioning into their R&R holidays. The Vung Tau R&R center in Vietnam around 1970 is one such example of a place where American soldiers enjoyed a beach holiday respite from fighting: swimming, surfing, sunbathing, drinking and, of course, having sex with local prostitutes.

This last point is crucial: it is not enough to simply reveal the connections between tourism and war as if they are merely curiosities with no political significance. Seemingly innocuous images are never innocent: they hide a multitude of oppressions enacted by privileged tourist-soldiers upon objectified local subjects.

There is real violence lurking within such ‘trivial’ encounters, and it is incumbent on critical scholars to work out how tourism and war align in ways that increase forms of domination and oppression through logics such as race, gender, class, and sexuality.


Debbie Lisle is author of Holidays in the Danger Zone: Entanglements of War and Tourism (Minnesota, 2016) and The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing, among others. She is a reader in international relations in the School of Politics, International Studies, and Philosophy at Queen's University Belfast.

"In this fascinating global adventure through historical archives, evocative images, and contemporary accounts of places mundane and exotic, Debbie Lisle takes us across the frontlines from tourism studies to critical war studies (and back, a few times) in order to explore the shared spaces and unexpected engagements between war and leisure."
—Waleed Hazbun, author of Beaches, Ruins, Resorts

Thursday, July 28, 2016

On the vengeance of a divided country, 1992 and 2016

Associate professor, The Ohio State University

Violence in the Middle East. Upheavals in Europe. Anxieties about American decline. Economic fears. A recent recession. Police brutality caught on video. Interracial conflict. Attacks on the police. A Clinton presidential campaign.

The year was 1992, although it could just as easily be 2016.

On the first night of the Republican National Convention in Houston 24 years ago, primary challenger Pat Buchanan took the stage to deliver his famous “Culture War” speech in which he argued that he and his supporters, the “Buchanan Brigades,” were fighting a religious and cultural war “for the soul of America.” He conceded to his bitter rival, President George H.W. Bush. Although the historical details might be different now than those more than two decades ago—the Persian Gulf War had just ended; Europe reeled from the Bosnian War; the trade war was with Japan; the Cold War ended; Black motorist Rodney King was physically beaten by four White and Latino police officers, the act of which was caught on a home video camera, and Los Angeles burst into flames after their acquittal and mistrial—the anger and frustration of the Buchanan Brigades was a palpable and surprisingly large minority of Republican primary voters.

This minority has grown in influence, from substantial fringe to king-making majority. In the 2016 election cycle, the bulk of Republican voters channeled that particular anger and frustration into the GOP presidential nomination of Donald J. Trump—not just a surprising primary challenge of a sitting president as in Buchanan’s case in 1992. One liberal pundit has characterized Trump’s supporters as deploying vengeance and revanchism. Although revanche is French for "revenge," revanchism has the historical connotation of reclaiming lost territory that is felt to be rightfully one’s own nation’s, specifically the Alsace-Lorraine province of France that was lost to Prussia in 1870. Geographer Neil Smith has connected revanchism to the decades-long gentrification policies that justified the removal of poor people (of color) from cities (see: Neil Smith).

This vengeful logic appears as the ubiquitous slogan that supports causes from all over the political spectrum: “Take Back America.” In 1992, Buchanan ended his blockbuster speech with his own version of this call to not-entirely-metaphoric arms. He talks of how a young group of soldiers who, having recently returned from the Persian Gulf War, protected a senior convalescent home during the Los Angeles Rebellion and how their bravery should inspire citizens through this presidential election and beyond: “And as those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block, my friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” For Buchanan, we must take back America from “the mob” using “force” albeit “rooted in justice.”

As the antagonists were then in 1992, so they are in 2016: America has been overrun with and must be "taken back" from terrorists, from criminals, from immigrants, from protestors.

Often referred to as backlash politics, much of this anger has been attributed to the perception that America has lost (or will lose) its unequivocal global dominance, no longer the undisputed winner of the Cold War as the lone, unassailable global superpower. The 1990s were riven by such concerns as “balkanization” and interethnic strife that had shaken and toppled governments around the world in the post-Cold War era.

The logic of backlash politics fuels what I call racial equilibrium (see: Chapter 3, "The Territorialization of Civility, the Spatialization of Revenge"). If one group appears to win, then another should lose; eventually the losers win and the winners lose with a net gain zero. To understand racial politics in this way is a reductive, dangerous, and false equivalence. The fatal shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge are often argued to counterbalance the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, implying that the deaths of the police officers by Black men now supersede the deaths of Black men by police officers. These deaths ostensibly represent a false choice between support for law enforcement or support for their killers. As my colleague Treva Lindsey writes, “One can mourn the loss of life in Dallas and fight against racist policing. To be clear, these are not opposing positions.”

Comments on the shootings of police in Dallas by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, a public intellectual who has been celebrated for his self-professed centrist politics, captures how even the center-left have found common cause with the right:

“Civilization rests on the rule of law, and that rests on respect for officers of the law. I have never liked hearing marching crowds that chant slogans such as 'No justice, no peace.' That is a not-so-veiled threat against the basic rules of civil society. We all rely on the police and other elements of the criminal justice system to maintain order, which is the building block of justice. Look at countries such as Iraq and Libya today, where order has collapsed. The rule of law has been replaced by the law of the jungle.”

The criminal justice system leads to order, which leads to justice, which grounds civilization. To disrespect police officers, as an element of the justice system, thus destabilizes civilization. The problem with Zakaria’s point about civilization is that he creates a false dichotomy, an implicit us versus them: those who respect officers of the law and support civilization, and those who don’t respect officers of the law and support instead some putative “law of the jungle.” However, if justice is the bulwark of civilization, and the merits or strengths of a civilization is judged by the justice it dispenses, then where there is little justice, there is little civilization even with respect for officers of the law.

What if instead we were to understand the protestors’ chants of “No Justice, No Peace” as a description of the experiences of entire communities, numbers that continue to grow beyond the loved ones that Castile and Sterling left behind? The “not-so-veiled threat” that Zakaria identifies is the protesters’ bringing these injustices and rights violations to the broader U.S. public and forcing these wider audiences with little firsthand experiences to include these injustices as part of the America to which they belong. The more accurate dichotomy, then, is between those who feel they have had justice and peace that can be disrupted by the protesters and those who feel they have never had justice or peace in the first place. In other words, if we feel that our experiences have largely been about justice and peace, then we have been lucky enough to have lived in a world that has been relatively protected from the daily lived experiences of the protesters and the victims of police brutality. The question remains whether we will respect and recognize these experiences as part of the everyday America we live in and the history we claim as our own.

This division indicates the “two societies” toward which we have moved, not “one white, one black” as the original 1968 Kerner Commission Report read, published after years of urban unrest had sparked across the nation, taking lives and burning out neighborhoods. Instead, our nation today is divided between those who believe the U.S. system of justice is fair and those who do not. These divisions force us to answer hard questions about whether our society and civilization will be marked by the inclusiveness and understanding that so many politicians, policymakers, and pundits insist American society to be. Will our concept of America include and understand these experiences of injustice and unwarranted state violence so that we will protest the killing of one of our own, whether civilian or police?

Now, with consequences far greater than this presidential election, we get to choose: which America will we take back, the one of division or inclusion?


Lynn Mie Itagaki is author of Civil Racism: The 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion and the Crisis of Racial Burnout. She is associate professor in the departments of English and women's, gender, and sexuality studies and the Program Coordinator in Asian American Studies at The Ohio State University.

"Lynn Mie Itagaki’s book is an incisive critique of the civil racism that has become dominant in both liberal and conservative discourses of race in the post-Civil Rights era."
—Daniel Kim, Brown University

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Empire in an age of robots and drones

Lecturer in human geography at the University of Glasgow

On July 7, 2016, police forces in Dallas attached a small explosive device to a robot and sent it to kill Micah Johnson, the gunman who shot five police officers at a Black Lives Matter rally. Dallas Police Chief David Brown defended the lethal action, insisting, “We saw no other option than to use our bomb robot . . . Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”

The remote-killing was the first of its kind on U.S. soil, and generated intense debate about the ethics of using robots to destroy humans. Did Johnson pose an imminent threat at the moment of explosion? What about due process? And when should a robot perform an exceptional act of state violence? These questions mirrored established concerns about drone warfare. For more than a decade, the U.S. military and intelligence communities have killed by proxy.

Outside of “hot battlefields,” from Pakistan’s tribal areas to Yemen’s deserts, Predator and Reaper drones have hunted from above. Hundreds of strikes and thousands of deaths have crystallized a new way of waging war. Bruised by nearly a decade of billion-dollar skirmishes, the White House slowly pivoted to the robotic. Drones circling in the clouds, rather than soldiers scrambling on the ground, became a nonhuman solution to a very human problem. As troops withdrew from Afghanistan after fighting the longest military operation in U.S. history, drones stayed behind: unblinking sentinels in the sky. In Syria and Iraq, Reapers continue to provide the military with a high-definition picture of below. At the outset of the war on terror, the U.S. military had a handful of drones. Now, more than 11,000 unmanned vehicles constitute a robotic armada, from hand-thrown Ravens to the large Global Hawk drone. How can we describe this cyborg imperium?

For millennia, empires have risen and fallen. They are an enduring feature of human history. After launching the war on terror, empire was a term widely used to describe the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Neoconservatives and liberals alike embraced the idea of a distinctly American empire. In their eyes the world was now a battlespace and the U.S. military a beacon of order. The network of military bases installed in the Cold War expanded to serve a vast military manhunt. Yet as the years passed and the death count rose, the specter of another “Vietnam Syndrome” seeped into the corridors of Washington, D.C. Bogged down in a vicious counterinsurgency, the war on terror had slowly transmuted into a forever war. The Obama administration subsequently oversaw a drawdown of U.S. troops. Behemoth bases were mothballed, and the number of Americans in foreign lands fell.

But did this mean that empire was fading or simply changing?

This question is crucial. Is “empire” still a relevant term to describe the “small footprint” approach enabled by robotic prosthetics? I think so, but the empire of today is unlike anything before. Although empires have always relied on technology to project their power—from Roman roads to British ships—we now live in an age of advanced artificial intelligence, supercomputers, robots, the Internet, and satellite communications. An artificial skin has been grafted on the planet, with earthlings joined together in electromagnetic communion. This has profoundly changed the spaces, subjects, and apparatus of state power. Violence, although a distinctly human activity, is increasingly conducted by proxy. The rise of the Predator drone at the dawn of the war on terror enabled the U.S. military to project power without projecting human bodies. The interface between American imperium and its enemies was mediated by robot. And this continues to materialize a transition away from a labor-intensive American empire to what I call a machine-intensive Predator Empire.

Empire abhors a vacuum, and the U.S. homeland—long a target of police militarization—soon saw Predators deployed along its national borders. The killing of Micah Johnson was therefore the latest case of robotic blowback. Robots from the battlefield are routinely transferred to police departments across the U.S. Financed by the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, together with funds from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, around 1,000 ground robots have joined a cache of war gear that has spilled onto U.S. streets. And that’s in addition to police drones that are starting to swarm in cities and suburbs.

Robots, whether in warfare or policing, on the ground or in the sky, are clearly changing the conduct and spatiality of U.S. power, politics, and violence. And we are only beginning to understand the meaning of this artificial regime for what it means to be a human. A key battleground will be how democracy, legitimacy, and accountability function in a world where decisions—and the ancient art of killing—are severed from humans.

Ours, after all, is the age of alienation. A toxic individualism rips through the planet, splintering lifeworlds and entrenching a pervasive paranoia. It is little wonder that the machinery of imperialism today reflects this system that birthed it: a grinding war of all against all. In her essay On Violence, Hannah Arendt warned that governments who feel legitimate power slipping away from them “have always found it difficult to resist the temptation to substitute violence for it.” My fear is that governing by consent, a victory hard-won over centuries, is at risk of being radically overturned by governing by violence. Shoveling billions of dollars within the belly of the Predator Empire risks such an inversion. This would represent a Hobbesian Leviathan shorn of any pretense to protect a unified commonwealth: a state apparatus whose sole duty is to police segregation. A new social contract for the robotic Leviathan of the twenty-first century.

Empire has not disappeared. In the twinkling of satellites, the snaking of undersea fiber-optic cables, and the whir of data storage facilities, a robotic imperium thrives. Perhaps it is more difficult to see than legions of Roman phalanxes, but the Predator Empire exists. It never sleeps or blinks in its attempt to secure a splintering planet. Our task is to wake up to a brave new world marching into a future without us.


Ian G. R. Shaw is author of Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance. He is lecturer in human geography at the University of Glasgow.

"A compelling account of the geopolitics of the drone as it haunts ‘policing, predation, and planet.’ Ian G. R. Shaw's book is as attentive to the historical and cultural geographies of the unmanned aerial vehicle as it is to the preemptive foreclosure of political futures."
—Louise Amoore, author of The Politics of Possibility: Risk and Security Beyond Probability

Friday, July 15, 2016

The UAW Local 879, 75 years ago: Ford, FDR, and the hard-fought battles behind the launch of this legendary labor leader.

Local 879, seen in this solidarity march in St. Paul, was a national leader
during the 1980s and 1990s in promoting workers' rights and fair trade.
Image from the author's collection.


Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, vowed on many occasions that he would never allow a labor union. When workers at a plant in Buffalo, New York, walked out in a wildcat strike in 1912, he shut the facility down. No one ever doubted his resolve.

So how did the United Automobile Workers (UAW) manage to organize the Ford Motor Company seventy-five years ago? It took the concerted efforts of tens of thousands of workers, the determination of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Walter Reuther of the UAW—and most importantly, an ultimatum from Ford’s wife, Clara, who was desperately trying to save the company for their son, Edsel.

On July 18, 1941, UAW Local 879 received a charter to represent workers at Ford’s Twin Cities Assembly Plant. Various organizations, including the UAW, had been struggling for decades to improve working conditions at the Ford Motor Company—and paying a high price for their efforts. At the Ford Hunger March in 1932, which started in Detroit and ended in Dearborn, Michigan, four workers protesting unemployment during the Depression were shot and killed by police and Ford service agents. Dozens more were injured.

This Newsweek Magazine cover from June 5, 1937,
has the caption "Dearborn: No Trespass!"
Image from the author's collection.

FDR’s New Deal programs brought hope to the workers of America but apprehension to Henry Ford, who suspected a plot to unionize his workforce. He refused to go along with the National Industrial Recovery Act, setting up a confrontation with Roosevelt—the first of many. Ford was disqualified from bidding on federal projects in 1934. The following year, Roosevelt secured passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which made it easier for unions to organize. In 1937 the UAW introduced a new tactic, the sit-down strike, and organized General Motors and Chrysler. Buoyed by that success, Reuther led a march in Dearborn to distribute flyers at the Ford River Rouge plant, which had about 85,000 workers. The marchers were met by a contingent of Ford agents in what became known as the Battle of the Overpass. Reuther and other union organizers were severely beaten, and many bystanders were hurt. Newspapers and magazines published a number of iconic photographs of the mayhem, including one that received a Pulitzer. These images showed a shocked nation what the Ford service department had become: a gang of thugs. Henry Ford was oblivious to the harsh criticism and continued to oppose virtually all of Roosevelt’s programs. David Halberstam wrote in The Reckoning of Ford’s bizarre behavior: “No one could reach the old man anymore. It was a spectacular self-destruction, one that would never again be matched in a giant American corporation. It was as if the old man, having made the company, felt he had a right to destroy it.”

Occasionally it would be standing-room-only at Local 879 Hall, with some
workers outside looking through the window (at rear). The building
is now owned by Erik's Bike Shop.
Image courtesy UAW Local 879.

As a result of the Battle of the Overpass and other egregious labor violations, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered Ford to stop interfering with the right of workers to organize. Ford refused and challenged the legitimacy of the NLRB in court. Even after the case was rejected by the Supreme Court on February 10, 1941, Ford still refused to comply. Fed-up workers at the Rouge plant walked out on April 1, eventually shutting down all Ford operations throughout the country, including the Twin Cities Assembly Plant. As the labor battles were ongoing, Roosevelt was preparing for a different kind of battle: war in Europe. American manufacturers were generally cooperative with the military preparedness effort but Ford was characteristically defiant, in part because of his pacifist beliefs. Roosevelt and the military made it clear that the country needed the industrial might of the Ford Motor Company. In August 1940, Ford was awarded a contract to build airplane engines, followed by orders for armored cars and trucks. This was strongly opposed by the UAW, which had still not organized Ford three years after GM and Chrysler. They claimed that Ford was anti-labor, unpatriotic, and a Nazi sympathizer. There was a perception that an increasingly senile Henry Ford was dragging his feet on fulfilling the military contracts. Roosevelt threatened to take over the company. In an effort to tame the “rugged individualist,” Roosevelt had employed federal procurement policies, labor regulations, and a threat to nationalize the company—all without much success. Ford finally capitulated after receiving an ultimatum from Clara to sign a labor contract or she would leave him.

A union election was held on May 22, 1941, which the UAW-CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) won in a landslide. A broken Ford agreed to a contract that was signed on June 20. “The company granted the union everything it asked and threw in the union shop and check-off [dues collection] gratis,” the New York Times reported. The national contract would also apply to all branch plants after local ratification.

Labor activists in the Twin Cities were fortunate that they were not subjected to the violence that often accompanied organizing campaigns in Detroit. Several retired auto workers who participated in an oral history program in the late 1990s described the brutal working conditions at the Twin Cities plant in the 1930s, which were comparable to those at ten other Ford branch plants that had filed complaints with the NLRB. The CIO had sent an organizer to lead the local campaign. Clandestine meetings were held in living rooms, and at a Plymouth garage on Lake Street, Minneapolis, which was under surveillance by Ford agents. Workers knew there were company spies at the plant and that they risked termination if they were seen at any union meetings. The Twin Cities Assembly Plant reopened several weeks after the national labor agreement was signed in Detroit. On June 27, more than 1,200 workers attended an evening meeting in St. Paul and 900 signed union membership cards, giving it the needed majority. On July 18, 1941, the Twin Cities plant was issued charter No. 879 by the UAW-CIO. Local 879 opened an office at 444 Rice Street in St. Paul. Several weeks later a delegation from Local 879 met with Ford representatives in Chicago to learn the details of the union contract negotiated in Detroit.

UAW President Walter Reuther (shaking hands at right) presided
at the opening of the new Local 879 Union Hall on Ford Parkway,
St. Paul, in 1955.
Image courtesy UAW Local 879.

After many years of struggle to win the right to represent workers, the UAW had to abruptly redefine its mission. The first priority was to protect its members, as the plant was being converted from civilian production under Ford to military production under the Office of Emergency Management (OEM). As car production was being phased out, labor leaders at the local, state, and federal levels lobbied to keep auto workers employed in defense industries. On December 7, 1941, five months after the formation of UAW Local 879, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war.

Ford closed the Twin Cities Assembly Plant in 2011. The charter of UAW Local 879 was terminated two years later after it sold its union hall and transferred responsibilities for retirees to another UAW local in Minneapolis.


Brian McMahon is author of The Ford Century in Minnesota, forthcoming later this year from University of Minnesota Press. A trained architect, McMahon has lectured and written extensively on industry, urban history, and architecture and has developed and designed several exhibits for museums and galleries in New York and Minnesota.

"Brian McMahon has done an outstanding job of showing how the top and bottom layers of the industrial hierarchy viewed reality—and how they saw and influenced each other."
—Peter Rachleff, Macalester College

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Of walls and robots: The future of immigration

Professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego

Even before Donald Trump promised to build one, U.S. popular culture was preoccupied with walls—most famously the Wall in Game of Thrones that protects the Seven Kingdoms from the wildlings. Contemporary depictions of zombies are set amid fences and fortifications that recall both current and projected architectures of border enforcement, as in World War Z and The Walking Dead. A recent Comic Con allowed fans to interact with actors made up as zombies in a sort of chain link labyrinth that, while based on a Georgia prison from the show, might also suggest the fortification of the nearby U.S.-Mexico border, or any number of immigrant detention centers. Meanwhile, the Fox mini-series Wayward Pines is about a small town in Idaho surrounded by a mysterious wall that not only protects it from degenerate, carnivorous humanoids (derisively called “aberrations” or “abbies”), but that also keeps its residents inside and in line.

Read alongside these examples, Trump’s wall can be seen as a speculative fiction. Recalling Samuel Delany’s definition of science fiction, the future projected by Trump represents a significant distortion of the actually existing security state with its miles of fences, drones, high-tech surveillance, networks of detention centers, and mass deportations. But whereas popular culture mediates the migration security state in dystopian tones, Trump paints his wall as part of a future utopia, but not only because it promises to keep Mexicans out.

The idea of hermetically sealing the U.S.-Mexico border with a wall that Mexico will pay for is widely regarded as impossible and even many of Trump’s biggest fans don’t really believe it will happen—but they love him for dreaming that dream anyway. The wall is thus a utopia in the etymological sense of “no place,” but its appeal lies in what the dream of a wall represents. Imagining the wall is less about excluding non-U.S. workers altogether and more about disciplining them. As speculative fiction, the wall is built out of such racialized and gendered dynamics of subordination and humiliation.

In Farm Worker Futurism: Speculative Technologies of Resistance, I argue that speculative fictions in literature and film—works by Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, George Lucas, Alex Rivera, and Beatrice Pita and Rosaura Sanchez—mediate, in revealing ways, histories of conflict involving migrant workers in California. This is in part because workers and employers have historically fought for conflicting visions of the future. On the one hand, I analyze “agribusiness futurism,” or capital investments in the dream that future technology, especially forms of automation, will result in a utopia of profits undeterred by worker demands. In practice, however, automation led not to the exclusion of workers but to the ramping up of production in ways that required even more. New technology did, however, provide the rationale for deskilling and wage reductions, supplemented with heavy doses of police and vigilante violence that I call, following Carey McWilliams, “farm fascism.” Like the wall, agribusiness technology was historically aimed not at excluding non-white, noncitizen workers, but at disciplining them for better exploitation. So I wasn’t surprised when, in an apparent reference to the Bracero Program, Trump drew a parallel between his employment of foreign guest workers at his Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago Club and the practices of California grape growers, or when at a recent campaign speech in Fresno he was greeted by fans holding signs reading “Farmers for Trump.”

On the other hand, I also analyze “farm worker futurism”—efforts by farm workers and their allies to use technology, especially visual technologies like cameras and computer screens, to imagine other worlds beyond exploitation. From the late-1940s grape strikes in the San Joaquin Valley to the early 1990s, when the United Farm Workers helped organize a fast in solidarity with janitors at Apple Computers in the Santa Clara Valley, Farm Worker Futurism engages the dialectic between agribusiness and farm worker futurisms in visual culture. In opposition to forms of agribusiness sovereignty partly secured by domination of the visual field, farm workers have claimed what Nicholas Mirzoeff calls the “right to look”; thus, studying their visual culture enables the reconstruction of a subaltern “counterhistory of visuality.” Viewing agribusiness from below reveals how farm workers and their allies have appropriated visual technologies to imagine better worlds and project different, more egalitarian social orders.

Starting with the image on the cover, Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer is threaded throughout Farm Worker Futurism. As the director explains, he

basically uses the genre of science fiction to flash forward five minutes or five years to look at the politics between the United States (and Mexico) if they keep going the way they’re going today. I guess science fiction is always looking at political and economic realities shot into the future, but this is from a perspective we haven’t seen before: the U.S. from the outside . . . In this future, the border is closed. Instead of physically coming to the United States, workers go to cities in Mexico and work in giant factories or sweatshops where they connect their bodies to high-speed, network-controlled robots that do their labor. So their pure labor crosses the border, but their bodies stay in Mexico. It’s kind of a sick and twisted spin on the American dream.

In Rivera’s near future, the border has been closed and water in Mexico has been privatized behind a giant dam. The water company in the film suggests not only contemporary efforts to privatize water in Latin America but also the large-scale, state-sponsored water projects such as dams and canals that have historically fed California agribusiness. Recalling Star Wars and the destruction of the Death Star, in the climax of Sleep Dealer, three working-class Mexican characters commandeer an automated drone in the U.S. and fly it across the border to destroy the dam. As if anticipating Trump’s wall, the film thus concludes with a utopian fantasy of seizing technology from below, in opposition to state-supported corporate enclosures.


Curtis Marez is a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is author of Farm Worker Futurism, for which an online companion "Cesar Chavez's Video Collection" is available. He is also author of Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics, the former editor of American Quarterly, and past president of the American Studies Association.

"In Farm Worker Futurism, one comes face-to-face with the techno-fascism that was routed around daily by the collective actions of laborers who hacked the future with anticipatory illuminations and critical disturbances. This is not science fiction, but it is futurity-as-history that drives science fiction into the present for activist, artists, and critics. Curtis Marez has written a unique and highly accessible book that calls on us to perform the speculative seeding of the future as farm workers to make new worlds grow now." —Ricardo Dominguez, University of California, San Diego