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 Félix 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