Author Archives: theplankinyoureye

Unpacking the Islam/imperialism binary that’s become so popular with theorists

First of all, this issue is so frustrating because you have to isolate what people mean when they talk about these two terms.

To start with, imperialism & colonialism: the French and British had colonial endeavours in the Middle East, and particularly North Africa, during the imperial era. Algeria was a French colony. Libya was colonized by the Italians. Aden was a protectorate of the British. Napoleon invaded Egypt, but his military endeavour failed.  The British occupied Egypt from 1882 and oversaw the Suez Canal, until they were ousted in 1956. Of course there was also the British Raj (but then, that’s not the Middle East), and most of what the British did around the Arab Gulf had to do with protecting the interests of the Raj — the Gulf was more incidental to British imperial interests, comparatively.

But here’s what gets left out of a lot of these discussions: Britain and France were actually two separate powers, often playing off an empire which was not European at all, that is, the Ottoman Empire!

The Ottoman Empire existed for centuries (since 1299), and for much of its existence, it was ascendant in most of what we now call the Middle East. At times, the European powers allied with the Ottomans. At times, they allied with Arabs against the Ottomans. Arabs were under Ottoman suzerainty, including the sharif of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. The decline of Ottoman power and thus rising poverty and lapses of social cohesion is one factor my book on Saudi Arabia (author, James Wynbrandt) lists as contributing to the rise of a religious revival “back to fundamentals” movement in Arabia, led by the ultra-conservative cleric, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

These movements have occurred throughout the history of Islam — for instance, at the end of the Arab-Persian-Turkish Islamicate Golden Age following early Arab imperialism, the conservative cleric al-Ghazali so successfully attacked neoplatonic Hellenistic philosophy that it was never again as popular among Arab scholars. Now, of course, you can look at these religious revival movements, and their analogues in Judaism and Christianity, and ask whether these religions will just forever have be plagued by conservative tendencies, or whether they can transcend them and be totally universally reformed and progressive everywhere somehow — myself, I’m rather dubious, but that’s beside my main point, at least here.

There was actually quite a bit of fornicating and boozing going on in Arabia, some of which was just a matter of “polite society” looking away (Samaritans ignoring the Philistines, as it were) and some of it was a matter of Muslims of the more cosmopolitan Hijaz feeling somewhat special (and thus above the laws) due to their proximity to Islam’s birthplace. There were red light districts. Alcohol was sold near the Kaaba.

Abd al-Wahhab, horrified by all the fun these people were having, aggressively went after the culprits, as well as all the people who combined elements of ancestral worship, animism, and other forms of “idolatry” in their practice of Islam (which was pretty common — I mean, a lot of the more nomadic Arabs weren’t literate and hadn’t read the Qur’an and were basically just doing whatever they pleased).

Al-Wahhab made a pact with the al-Saud family. Saud would conquer tribes militarily, and al-Wahhab would indoctrinate them into his very conservative form of Sunni Islam. As has been discussed before, monotheism, and particularly aggressive and conservative forms of monotheism, is a powerful tool of social control. It united much of Arabia before in Muhammad’s era. Through the military conquests of the al-Saud family, it united much of it again, but not without quite a bit of significant opposition.

One major source of opposition was the Ottoman Empire itself. Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Egyptian viceroy to the Ottomans, underwent a campaign into the Arabian interior, and later sent his son, Ibrahim. Some were happy that the Ottomans repelled the Wahhabis, who had been attacking sites like Karbala (a Shi’a stronghold) in present day Iraq, but the Ottomans ended up being so brutal in their suppression of the Wahhabis (Muhammad Ali’s son, Isma’il, actually sent the ears of those he killed back to Cairo because there were too many heads to send them all) that many in Arabia preferred Wahhabis to the Egyptians & Ottoman power.

So where did the Europeans come into these affairs? Well, the European colonial powers were pretty much opportunists and would shift alliances wherever it seemed like it’d be beneficial for them to do so. At first, the British tried to ally with Muhammad Ali against the Wahhabis, but he wasn’t actually having it. During WWI, some Arabs fought against the Ottomans and allied with the British — hence, T.E. Lawrence’s campaign with the Arabs against the Turks. And when the USA entered the picture, those in Arabia actually generally preferred to work with the US because it didn’t have a history of imperialistic endeavors in the region, relative to the British.

But I think the biggest imperial effect of the Western powers came after WW I, when the Sykes-Picot agreement, created in secret between the French and British, carved up the Arab world and betrayed promises made by the Europeans to the Arabs, as well as the Balfour Declaration, and the Zionist movement for the state of Israel. You also have quite a bit of Western interference and manipulation in terms of secret coups (like the 1953 coup in Iran, in which the CIA played a role) and market forces (ARAMCO, Anglo-Persian Oil, US-Saud alliance based around oil), followed by an era of Cold War conflicts.

More than anything, it’s this last era which people mean when they talk about imperialism and Islam in the Middle East, even though these conflicts aren’t so much imperialism/colonialism proper (the US has no empire/colonies in the Middle East; the violent clusterfuck of Israeli policy is endorsed by the US, however) as militarism with an imperialistic bent (the whole “spreading democracy” bullshit). You may say I’m splitting hairs, but in order to deal with these forces, I think it’s important to be as specific as possible and eschew sensationalism.

Anyhow, my detour about Wahhabism earlier was to illustrate that particularly conservative forms of Islam were alive and well in the Middle East prior to Sykes-Picot and prior to the Cold War and the resulting militarism. But just as people usually refer to several different forces when they talk about imperialism in the Middle East, there have been different movements associated with Islam, and when people talk about imperialism creating radical Islam, the movements to which they refer — as near as I can tell — are the political organizations focused on asymmetrical warfare, or what people in the states would call terrorist cells. The Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and now ISIS. The term Islamism has been proposed for these movements, and it’s useful shorthand, but it gets pretty messy when you consider that they’re not really some kind of umbrella movement, but rather several different movements, with some at times being enemies to one another.

So, what caused these radical movements? Islam? Imperialism?

Well, imperialism definitely did fuel plenty of reactionary backlash in the Middle East. And the noble warfare ideology of jihad in Islam does lend a divine sort of framework to forms of aggression and resistance or perceived resistance (perceived insofar as — does anyone think ISIL is really liberating people?). Though there are other factors you can bring up. Modernity itself, and the speed with which it’s overtaken the region, has played a role. And a lot of these movements have reacted against Arab nationalism of a more secular variety (look at Sayyid Qutb & the Muslim Brotherhood). And of course, to my mind, one of the biggest driving forces has been the radicalizing power of wars. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization (formed 1988-1989) was created by Arab volunteers who had battled the Soviets in the Afghan civil war. Palestinians suffering Israeli occupation have radicalized and resisted via asymmetrical warfare. Hezbollah was created in Lebanon in reaction to the Israeli invasion. ISIS itself didn’t really come onto the scene until the wars in Iraq and Syria destabilized the region and gave room to pivot and take power. These aren’t state actors (much as ISIS is trying to be… and who knows, at this rate), and these aren’t empires. These are reactions — against imperialism, market forces, yes, but also against modernity and its perceived secular decadence, AND against states themselves (& state borders), and they are filtered through a pre-existing conservative climate (salafi/Wahhabi).

So, I guess if you want to be simplistic, it’s “both/and,” with a judicious helping of other shit.

Now, if you want to get even more complicated, you can ask about the line between Wahhabism and these newer movements. Conservative, after all, isn’t the same as violent. Your racist uncle at Thanksgiving isn’t necessarily an abortion clinic bomber, but is he (ideologically speaking) a slippery slope to an abortion clinic bomber (or, at least, providing the atmosphere in which such a person is excused, a la Bill O’Reilly)? And that’s why Saudi Arabia has fallen under a lot of criticism. Since its basis as a state is linked to Wahhabism, and since it has spend large sums on setting up madrassas to school kids in Wahhabi doctrine, there are many Muslims who feel the royal family has helped unleash groups like al-Qaeda, and has to eat some blame for this.

This gets really messy. Saudi Arabia is and Wahhabi here is, I think, somewhat analogous to preachers who went to Uganda and said how evil queers are, only to try to wash their hands of the resulting legislation, or Bill O’Reilly talking about what a “baby killer” George Tiller was before he was murdered by a fanatic, or conservatives in the Southern US trying to pull some love the sinner, hate the sin anti-queer bullshit — these examples are merely approximate, but I think you see what I’m driving at. The state is an ally of the US and firmly repudiates the kinds of Islamist groups I’m talking about, but many Muslims take this repudiation as being similar to the examples I gave of conservatives who stirred up an ideologically brutal climate, only to disclaim the bloody results. Plus, Saudi Arabia as a state is pretty terrible for all kinds of human rights violations (in its basic laws, Shi’a genocides, rights of women, labour laws, public beheadings) — just that it operates as a recognized polity/state.

NOW, I certainly left a lot out of this analysis. I didn’t go that much into South Asia (Pakistan, mainly), North Africa, or the parallel Islamist cells in other parts of Africa like Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. I didn’t talk too much about other schools of Islam or other reform movements, the Iranian revolution, Indonesia, or the eternal clusterfuck that is the Balkans and what Russia called the “Central East” states, i.e. Chechnya. For that matter, I didn’t even really discuss all the different Arab nationalist movements, like Hussein’s Ba’ath party or Gamal Abdel Nasser or the brutal (but secular) Syrian regime. The fact is, the topic is just too fucking big. But that’s the point I’m trying to make. You can’t boil something this complex down into cheap soundbites, and when you try, you end up with ridiculous generalizations.

So, here is the last thought I want to leave you with. And bear with me, because this is difficult to articulate. But, if you find yourself pulling out this binary, what exactly are you trying to achieve with it?

For those of you (hawkish, right-wing minded sorts) who think Muslims are, as a category, suspicious elements, are you brazenly advocating profiling or segregation or — what, exactly? And for those of you who believe that Muslims who do radicalize & join ISIS (or al-Qaeda, etc.) are true and honest freedom fighters motivated sheerly by injustice towards Palestinians & reacting against imperialism — are you, I don’t know, advocating this? Saying “well, I’m not advocating it, but it’s just a thing” and shrugging your shoulders?

You see, this is why I’m reacting impatiently to this sort of discussion: it doesn’t go anywhere. You reach intolerable conclusions like Muslims are inherently radicals or radicals are inherently freedom fighters, and then you’re either a simpleminded bigot or a bizarre apologist, depending. And yes, I’m aware that Leftists who take the latter stance will sometimes distance themselves from the implications of their rhetoric, but they still give plenty of credence to the rhetoric of reactionaries themselves.

I have a few ideas for a possible alternative framework, but that may require a few more posts.

“look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”

For people in the secular-o-sphere, you would have to be living under a rock not to have seen the massive implosion surrounding Ophelia Benson’s gender politics that’s been going on for the past week and a half. Heather McNamara, Heina Dadabhoy, and Jason Thibeault (among many others, I’m sure) have all provided great analyses.

I would be remiss not to mention that long before these events, Alex Gabriel wrote with nuance about Ophelia’s dogwhistle remarks, and this piece sets important background for what has been transpiring. I’m adding a brief commentary of my own, as some people are still expressing a ton of confusion over what went wrong here. Granted, if the great writers I just linked can’t convince you of the problems at hand, I’m sure I also can’t, but as a person who pays a lot of attention to how people express themselves, and what they say or don’t say, I feel compelled to weigh in.

It all began with this post about Free Pride Glasgow banning drag.

Now, I’m the kind of person who encourages nuance and complexity. I think there are many ways of approaching drag and the conversation on drag. Writers as diverse as Judith Butler and Matt Baume have written on the subversive potential of drag. There have also been discussions of the misogyny and transmisogyny in drag performances and the insensitivity of some drag performers to trans women (and this discussion is far from over). My point here is that this discussion has been had, but it’s also ongoing and I think there is plenty of room for legitimate contributions.

As a matter of fact, five days after its announcement that drag was banned, Free Pride Glasgow has changed its policy back to welcoming drag, as Ophelia’s original link now shows if you click it. So, yeah, that tells me a conversation is being had and has been had and the community has been and is working through these kinds of topics, and it’s not exactly the kind of Orwellian scenario Ophelia’s original post suggests. As to the post itself:

Sometimes it will disappoint some people within the community? Why? Do some people within the community want an unsafe space?

Or maybe it’s that “a safe space” isn’t exactly the right thing to hope to create, or at least not exclusively. For a lot of people “a safe space” is one that has only straight people in it, after all. Gay pride has always been rowdy and raunchy and Dionysian, proudly so – that’s always been part of the point. I’m not sure wanting to create “a safe space” is compatible with that.

Um…so no more playing around with gender, now it’s either trans or cis?

Is that really a good idea?

So there you go then. The answer is yes: no more playing around with gender. No more mocking it, no more teasing it, no more parodying it.

Is that really a good idea?”

These are not contributions to any sort of discussion. These are not even analyses. These are sarcastic rhetorical questions (and leading ones; the conclusion she wishes people to draw is obvious). And, considering the topic is rather sensitive, it’s remarkably tone deaf to plunge ahead without even addressing (or showing any awareness of, possibly because she doesn’t have awareness of?) the legitimate concerns of trans women towards certain drag performers, including this remarkable piece by Zinnia Jones on Ophelia’s own blogging network.

So, yeah. Ophelia’s very first post had its share of problems. And obviously, shit got worse.

Here’s why I, and a lot of other people, see this entire damn post (and everything that ensued from it) as bad faith: as the thread goes on, it looks more and more as though not only is she not interested in really discussing drag, but her original post which sort of seems to be defending drag is really a veiled annoyance that the feelings of trans women are being prioritized on this issue. Really? In the context of a space dedicated to different iterations of queer identities, you’re bothered about that?

This is not a legitimate conversation. This is, if I’m being extremely charitable, a lot of foot stamping “I was here first!” gatekeeping politics, which are always revolting. And if I’m not being charitable, it’s just bigotry and transmisogyny and giving a space for bigots like commenter Liz to add TERFy remarks without any challenge.

And as for this follow up, what exactly is the meaningful difference between the ontological and the political definitions of womanhood in this scenario? While there is likely a worthwhile conversation to be had about political identities (and I’ve asked myself plenty of philosophical questions about how we categorize our political identity movements; I even think the queer umbrella potentially condenses so many disparate identities that I wonder how politically useful it is — so, again, I’m not exactly averse to such questions), this evades that the very reason Ms. Benson was asked about how she sees trans women was because her remarks repeatedly insinuated that — however she views trans women — she feels priority should be placed on cis women who were criticizing drag first (?)** and she pretty much says as much.

Hand-wringing about semantics and dragging out the conversation of political movements is to deliberately ignore that she was asked about her views because she was heavily implying that trans women need to “know their place” in subordination to prior (cis) feminist critique. Like I said, that is at the very least (and at my most charitable) revolting gatekeeping whiny bullshit.

If there’s one thing I get impatient with, it’s people who deliberately move goal posts and act completely tone deaf and then drag in topics which are kind-of-irrelevant-in-this-exact-moment like so many shiny objects to distract from the nasty implications they let drop in their spaces. It’s treated as bad faith because it is bad faith. People should not have to explicate your perspective as though reading a text full of vague symbolism (although it is, in fact, not too difficult to do so).

**Addendum: What the hell does here first/did [thing] first have to do with the price of shit? We don’t argue we should prioritize Aristotle’s perspective on Greece’s economic crisis over those of currently-living Greeks. I bite my thumb at this second-wave “[cis] women criticized [whatever] first” bullshit — if it’s even true, which it may not be, since categories are continually shifting, as is our understanding of them.

skeptical language

As a skeptic, I see a lot of discussions about what constitutes good atheism or bad atheism. I also see discussions about where or how it’s considered rude to express your disbelief. Perhaps most relevantly, I see discussions about where or how it becomes rude to express your disbelief in someone else’s belief.

I feel like the bulk of atheists I personally know tend to take a pretty hands-off approach to discussing religious beliefs, focusing more on the social side of religions. That’s understandable for many reasons, and I think the lousy actions we associate with individuals such as Famous Atheists Who Are Kinda Dicks probably have contributed to an atmosphere where most of us endeavor not to be that dick.

On the other hand, where do we draw the line? And where does that line become about secular respectability politics?

I’m remembering this conversation I saw a few years ago.

I used to belong to a private IRC chatroom where about ~20 people would come in and out regularly. There mostly wasn’t a set topic or theme. A couple of people in the chat were Unitarian Universalists. There were also some progressive Christians. And, of course, there were atheists, some of whom were outspoken skeptics and some of whom were more passive in their secularism.

One day, one UU and an atheist, one who I deemed to be more in the passive camp, had a pretty awful argument.

It started like this.

They were discussing some belief — I honestly can’t even remember what — but am 99% sure it involved either a belief in something supernatural, or a practice related to the aforesaid.

The atheist remarked, “Dude, that’s cracked. :)”

Cracked, in this case, like — off-beat. Now, this particular lady sometimes caught flack because her smileys were perceived to be passive-aggressive on occasion, though she would routinely note that she intended them to soften her comments, to convey that there was no malice in her observations. I am still friends with her. If she comments on my posts about secularism at all, it’s usually to say she is apathetic towards secularism as a cause. So, she’s definitely not a Dick sort of atheist, and this observation about a “cracked” belief or practice was completely offhanded.

The UU became noticeably tense. She responded, “I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that I believe in [topic at hand],” to which the atheist responded, well, I know you are [in this or that church] that does believe in that, but I still find this belief really unlikely.

At this point, the UU wrote: I cannot conceive of someone who would be so unthinkably rude as to say something like that in front of someone who belongs to this group, to insult someone’s beliefs right in front of them.

She then demanded an apology.

She said, if you value my friendship, then apologize, now. I don’t want to hear anything else from you besides an apology.

I remember watching this whole exchange and finding it extremely surreal.

There’s a lot you could talk about. A lot you could debate.

The first aspect of the discussion which grabbed my attention was the ipso facto perspective that saying something negative about someone else’s [religious] belief is inherently extremely rude.

The offended party didn’t just indicate she was upset about her own belief being dismissed. She implied it would be extremely offensive to be dismissive towards anyone’s religious belief.

And yet I found myself thinking: if you don’t believe in the supernatural, how exactly can you not be dismissive towards it? Like, even if we atheists don’t sit around in circles talking about the more fantastic claims that have been made in the name of different world religions, presumably people who are atheists by definition don’t find such claims to be very likely.

Should we simply mask our opinions about the world as it is, or about history, so as not to offend believers? And to what extent do believers owe atheists anything in return? Because it’s not like I think the offended party owed it to the atheist to continue to be friends with her. No one owes anyone else any sort of allegiance.

So if you don’t believe in someone else’s [religious] belief, where, or how, does it become rude to say so?

And if you find the [religious] belief fantastically improbable, where, or how, does it become rude to imply that it’s an out there belief?

This is a messy terrain for me, because I feel certain that pretty much everyone picks and chooses their own line. On the other side of that line is Shit They Consider Bizarre. I’ve known people who made a big deal about embracing any and all religious beliefs who then turned around and talked about how absurd Scientology or an impending rapture was. I think literally no one on Earth is 100% consistent in thinking all claims are exactly as likely as all other claims. And, frankly, if someone did think that, I can’t see why that would give cause to take their perspective particularly seriously.

Yet, you can’t really demand people not to be offended if you find their beliefs odd, even if you say it really nicely, or even if it’s not specifically directed at them, but in a more general setting (as this chat was).

Sure, some people are easy-going and just don’t give any fucks. But plenty more do give plenty of fucks. When I’ve talked in any way about the unlikelihood of supernatural claims, I’ve gotten pushback that’s taken the form of either “this is a foregone conclusion; why are you talking about it?” or “how dare you force other people to share your beliefs!” or some such variation on those themes. If it’s a foregone conclusion, as even so many other atheists tend to think, why does stating skepticism with any force tend to almost immediately draw claims that you’re rocking the boat?

I want to be sensitive to people’s humanity and people’s feelings and, yes, people’s beliefs.

But I also want to be an iconoclast:
I want to destroy the Sacred. All Sacred. By that, I mean I want to destroy that Sacred Supernatural Which Posits Itself as Above Critique. I want to tear down arbitrary symbols which position themselves as full of meaning. I want to drain the blood of the signs and signifiers of the magical and the otherworldly and the scientifically unlikely that imposes itself upon reality. Not all at once. Incrementally. Little by little.

Not with a bang, but with a whisper.

a history of violence: i.

There’s a story I want to tell. There’s something I’m trying to make sense of. I’ve held off on writing this post until now because I’m not sure of my ability to adequately synthesize my thoughts. I’m caught in a sort of Foucaultian conundrum about discourses. But yesterday, something catalyzed me.

I want you to understand the scenes within which I move through the world. My office building, a twenty-two story high-rise owned by a prominent newscasting organization, lies in the heart of Downtown, amid urban sprawl and ongoing construction work. An open-air mall sits behind the stone pavilion where my building gives way to the markers of the middle class, the Panera and Starbucks, where women in dress jackets and heels and men in suits congregate for their lunch breaks. This is the business district. Nearby, less than two streets away, are the totems of law and local government power: the courthouse, the social security office, the federal buildings. From my office window, I can sometimes see and hear protest marches in the street below. Mexican nationals in Aztec regalia, an anti-ISIS rally by the Kurdish community just down the street, people organizing around my building demanding that its owner organization give better coverage to the cause of Palestinian rights. And everywhere, you see the poor, the disabled, and the homeless.

Yesterday, I was on my final break of the afternoon. Sitting outside, reading articles on my phone, I overheard an argument:

“Do you know how much these cost?” a kid was saying, holding up his skateboard. “These cost a lot of money!” He shook it in his hands like a sign of protest.

An older man, one of the security personnel who work in my office building, had come outside and was standing amid a group of kids. If I had to guess, I’d say there were about six to ten kids (I didn’t count), and all but about two were black. The security guard (a white man, I think; possibly a white-passing Latino, but I read him as white) wore a three-piece suit and polished shoes. He had called the children homeless, or said something insinuating that he thought them so.

“You said we were homeless!” the boy was saying; the children gathered round the man, protesting that they owned quality Nike shoes.

“I see you here everyday,” the man answered, sounding very unfriendly.

I only heard snippets of conversation. The children condemned this older man’s comments. They demanded, either overtly or through their actions, an apology. The man continued to insist they weren’t allowed to skateboard here. Some set down their skateboards and dashed loops in front of the building in reaction to his comments. I thought to myself, surely this man will go away, right? But he didn’t. He kept standing there, arguing with these children.

Eventually, I heard: “I’m going to call the police,” and one of the black children, on skateboard, answered, “Call the PO-lice, then!”

At this point, I couldn’t just watch. I walked over and said, sir, what’s going on here? The man turned to me and, in a clipped tone, asked me whether I worked in the building. I answered that I did. I said, “These are kids. I don’t see the big deal.” I don’t remember everything I said, or he said, or the kids said at this point. My nerves were shot.

I do remember an uproar went through the kids; looking at me, they declared how that man had called them homeless, had indicated they were poor, had taunted them about not being in school or not being able to go to school, had said something about college being expensive (to which he answered, in the same clipped tone, “Well, it is expensive, isn’t it?”).

I do remember that the guard turned to me, and said, “It’s private property. The rules are, it’s [skateboarding] not allowed.”

I do remember he gave me the number of the building manager’s office, as if daring me to go ask. I remember I said I might indeed go speak with the manager. I remember turning to one young girl, the smallest of the kids, and whispering, “I support you” and “Good luck” and “I’ll see what I can do.” I remember another young boy said, “Thank you, ma’am,” as I turned to walk back into the office building.



There’s much to say here, and much I struggle to say. Police are the agents of the moneyed classes against the urban poor. Urban poor, predominantly black and/or disabled, are perceived to “devalue” real estate. That came through loud and clear in the exchange between a group of children, most of them black, and an older security guard who had weaponized the language of poverty against them with his not-so-subtle remarks. Whatever income bracket these children’s families actually were in was irrelevant: they were black, thus immediately assigned poverty, immediately considered as detriments to the security of the white middle-class landscape.

But even that is not the full story. This security guard: Is he not himself evidence of capitalism turning the lower middle-class into the agents of the bourgeoisie against the vulnerable underclass? Well-dressed though he may have been, what I know about the San Diego economy suggests to me that he doesn’t get paid that much to be an asshole to kids. And what shall we say about the words “private property” — an ideology taken-for-granted by a man who threw it at me to ever-so-simply justify the threat of calling the cops on skateboarding children?

Common sense dictates that children should be free to play in an open pavilion before the mall. Bureaucracy, its spiraling labyrinth of legalese (produced by and for the upper classes), dictates otherwise. It normalizes itself. It embeds itself into consciousness. Private property. A security guard “just doing his job.” Where does that leave those children?


I have seen gentrification. I do not live in Downtown. I live within suburbia. My apartment lies near another business district, a place literally named Executive Square. I pass bankers and businessmen when I take walks from the local mall to the pizzeria. There, or in the Starbucks, I see young professional white people with their expensive dog breeds, wealthy older white families, in addition to college kids, both white and PoC. Notice I say PoC — some are black. Many are East Asian pre-med students, many are Desi professionals working at the large engineering firm nearby, many are Arab, Japanese, and Southeast Asian transfer students studying English for a semester or two here.

At the mall in this sector of suburbia, there’s a 24/hour fitness where a friend of mine and I were going to work out. My friend is a black man. One night, I arrived there slightly late (I walked), only to find him angry and frustrated because a cop had just accosted him outside of the gym doors.

“That’s racial profiling,” I said, obvious. “You’re damned right,” he answered.

The gym itself, right before the entrance to the mall, is the emblem of the white middle/ruling class, representing its dreams and its fearful psyche. Another time, as I arrived, I saw the police handcuffing a man against a lamp post. This man was white, but he had the markers I’ve seen on the very poor and the mentally disabled — the visibly homeless population. He screamed and begged to be released, saying that he was sorry, asking to be let go.

Inside the glass doors, I looked over at the woman standing beside me. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to say something, do something, but knew I couldn’t. I’m just one person. I asked her what had happened with that man. She didn’t know. She looked bewildered. I asked: Had the man actually done anything to warrant this arrest? I’ll never forget her answer.

“Oh yeah, I mean, he definitely needs to be taken in,” she said, looking at me like it was absurd that I’d even ask such a thing. “He’s crazy.”

Mental illness and poverty: Crimes. Property devaluation. Vagrancy laws. When I worked in this suburban place, they locked the bathrooms because of the fear of homeless people coming into them and taking tissue paper.

Watch this video of Cenk Uygur’s analysis of (former) Officer Casebolt of the McKinney police department going off on a bunch of black neighborhood kids. The racist commentary — every word — must be heard, accounted for, remembered. At 18:54, a faceless white woman with a California accent appears, declaring that an officer who held down a young black girl and waved a gun above her head “deserves a medal.” That woman’s voice echoes in my head against the woman in my local gym who declared a man should be taken in by the cops. It’s the same tone. Same kind of voice. It’s the sound of the white ruling class, guarding itself against infiltration by those it perceives as undesirable.

Ultimately, outrage is easy. Tears are easy. I want to think more deeply, analyze more deeply, work towards a formulation of structural analysis. There are things I still haven’t said, tiers I still haven’t addressed. There’s a murmur of violence spreading out through the city.

why I read the Bible

I read the Bible.

The entire Bible. Cover to cover. At least, the Protestant version. There are other versions, other Gospels, many of them relegated to what we call apocrypha. I did it because I set a New Year’s resolution in December of 2014, and that resolution was to study the sacred texts of the world (or “sacred texts” — I am after all an atheist). I set that resolution because what we as human beings have is our history, and the oldest writings which preserve history and myth do a great deal to inform much later writing.

Whether we like it or not, whether we’re believers or not, whether we want a secular world or not, art and literature throughout the planet and certainly the tradition we’ve inherited from the Renaissance and medieval times are imprinted with symbols from the stories of the Bible. Not to put too fine a point upon it, but history and literature are my life. I can’t imagine a life that’s not dedicated to a lot of backwards-gazing, a lot of thinking upon the struggles from one era to another.

Let me quote from Gregory Mobley (“The Return of the Chaos Monsters: and Other Backstories of the Bible”) —

“I am passionate about stories, and about the way that humans tell stories to themselves and each other in order to make sense of the chaos. There are stories that humans have been telling ever since they wandered off the savannas of the southern trough of the Great Rift Valley. There is something incredible about the Bible and those stories. About 3,500 years ago, the ancient Lebanese invented the alphabet, and within 500 years of that, this new technology had spread to Greece and Israel, cultures located on and next to the northern trough of the Great Rift Valley. And so we have from the dawn of literacy two big text witnesses, Homer and Bible, at this turning point, this axial age when the old world of orality gave way to the new world of literacy. Homer and Bible represent two huge arks just as the flood of alphabetic writing began to inundate the thousand and one stories of that preliterate world whose lifespan makes our mere three millennia of alphabetic literacy seem but as yesterday when it is past and like a watch in the night.

Onto the ark of Bible they come two by two: all the characters and stories of the old oral world. Adam and Eve and all the mythic wisdom and confusion about what it means to be gendered. Cain and Abel, the farmer and the cowman, and the perennial struggle between competing economies. Isaac and Ishmael, the smooth man and the hairy man, city mouse and country mouse. Samson and Delilah, representing impulse and cunning, their relationship and emblem of how vulnerable love makes us.


Every time I walk through the ark of Bible, I notice more of these primeval pairs lurking in the holds and wandering around on deck: serpents and rainbows, heroes who complete their odysseys home from war and heroes who do not, male heroes who get trapped in an underworld and the female heroes who rescue them, and the actors in all these role-reversal scenarios involving first and last, older and younger, Dives and Lazarus. Up the gangplank they come, the dragon of chaos, the natural man, the seven antediluvian sages who gave gifts of culture to humans, the seven heroes, the four demons. They bring with them their stories of the flood, of the plague, of the quest of combats and courtships, of Edens and Armageddons. The biblical writers shaped these characters and plots to fit into the peculiar shape of their ark, with its kosher fare, Hebrew idioms, and above all, its enigmatic, elusive Almighty, YHWH.”

Mobley’s enthusiasm for stories speaks to me. That said, as both a secular person and a modern person, I am not going to say that I don’t struggle with a great many things in the Bible, because I do. As a person who believes in the modern liberal concept of individual religion and the right to free practice, the Bible’s incessant drumbeat against idolatry and the worship of other gods caused a continual murmur of indignation in the back of my mind: “My God*, men! Live and let live!”

Although the voices of a great many authors and perspectives appear within the Bible, if there’s one strain of thought that continues almost unabated throughout these voices, it’s that of critique. Sheer, incessant critique. A determined insistence that other people are doing shit all wrong and they need to be told they’re doing it all wrong. And they are told this in language so visceral that my stomach knotted at points. (Hosea and Jeremiah, then the overwhelming brutality of Revelation.)

These writers were disgusted. They were outraged. But in this victor-written history, we are left wondering, was what was transpiring around them even remotely worth this disgust? Were they a bunch of assholes telling everyone else how shitty they were, or were the people around them indeed burning up kids on altars at the drop of a hat and ripping off the poor every which way you looked? We will likely never know for sure.

Looking back two thousand, or nearly three thousand years into the past, what as I as a modern person see in the psychology of these long-dead voices is the anxiety of life before nations, the indescribable feeling of identity within a relatively small grouping in the narrow Levant that is ever-precarious, ever-threatened by empires rising up on all sides. When Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of the neo-Babylonian empire, appears to destroy the last stronghold of Judah, blinding Zedekiah the king and taking the Jews into exile, it’s shocking.

In Psalms, the lamentations of the exiles echo forth from this desolate past: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

T.S. Eliot echoes these words in The Wasteland, lamenting the modern world:


The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf

Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind

Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

175 Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,

Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends

Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;

180 Departed, have left no addresses.

By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.

But at my back in a cold blast I hear

185 The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

I always read several books at a time. I do that to keep my reading fresh. As I was reading the Bible, I was also reading the Jewish American author (and Nobel winner) Saul Bellow’s brilliant novel, The Adventures of Augie March, which critic Martin Amis has called The Great American Novel. Here, two-three thousand years later, in the landscape of America, these images and references still come tumbling forth: the Jewish mother whose kitchen magic and worries of everyday superstition are far removed from the great God of creation who parted the waters, the aunt who tells Augie fearfully of the tortures of Dinah, the metaphor of the confusion of Pisgah, and a modern American feeling unmoored by the specialization of trade, unable to fight the fearful Apollyon. Jewish communities in synagogues and Passover, bringing the inflections of Yiddish and Eastern European languages into the American patois.

Reading the Bible at the same time as I read what a Jewish American author (in a boldly American text, I might add: the novel opens with its titular character declaring himself an American) was able to do with these symbols, how he was able to transplant them into a modern context — I realized it was the perfect complement and perfectly encapsulated why I, though a non-believer, will forever read the stories that religions have imprinted onto the world.


*no pun intended. see, though? the language is all over our English idioms and expressions. still.

on the essence of “Problematic”

Sometimes, my relationship with critical analysis of media and fiction can feel complicated.

For years now, I guess for most of my life, I’ve seen all kinds of analyses of media which scrutinize any given piece according to its portrayals of women (tons of essays), PoC, LGBT issues (usually to lament the total absence thereof), ability, and other issues of representation.

Debates like the following occur: Is this feminist? Is that feminist? Is it feminist from one angle but not another angle? Strong female characters. Diverse female characters. Huge debates about whether a particular female character is for the male gaze or a feminist icon or whether she’s for the male gaze but can be viewed as a feminist icon anyway. (I’m using the example of feminist analysis because it’s, in a generalized sense, by far what I’ve seen the most of, but I’ve seen versions of this discussion or debate with all other categories of representation as well.)

As a progressive (I hope) sort of person, I feel all this. I mean, it’s high time that video games, comics, books, and — pretty much everything — stopped being so sexist and showed more diversity. What kind of douchebag wouldn’t appreciate a sensitive and nuanced series like Avatar/LoK, where plenty of races and ethnic groups are represented, women do stuff, and disability is handled beautifully?

Here’s where the It’s Complicated begins:

Problematic. How the above discourse segues into problematic. How we discuss problematic.

Every so often, I see a version of “It’s Okay to Like Problematic Things” float around my online abroad and I have a few different thoughts.

First of all, I’m not much of a fan of “problematic.” It’s not very descriptive. It sounds Orwellian. But most importantly, it (to my mind) kind of gives the impression that there’s a specific right and wrong way to write a sort of character that is divorced from the broader context of the piece.

The last part is harder to qualify, but by way of example, I think there’s a huge gulf of difference between some shoot-’em-up Western which portrays Natives as one-dimensional drunkards and, say, Sherman Alexie’s nuanced portrayal of substance abuse on reservations. There’s a big difference, for that matter, between Joseph Conrad’s portrayal of African people as an indiscriminate mass screaming about cannibalism and his arch-nemesis Chinua Achebe’s portrayal of a patriarchal and abusive African tribesman that sets the prelude for the horrifying replacement of home-grown patriarchy with colonialist patriarchy. Things Fall Apart would not be nearly so unsettling or meaningful if for some reason Achebe had just gone the route of showing a bunch of tribespeople being pure and perfect before Suddenly White People.

I suppose what I’m saying is, the understanding of Problematic tends to focus on tropes and how much a character associated with a particular identity is portrayed with negative qualities. Or so it seems to me. I’m saying (my: It’s Complicated feeling) that the exact attributes themselves, in another writer’s hands, might result in a totally different story. What I’m saying is, I don’t think everything can always be boiled down to a reading of tropes or attributes or avoiding tropes or avoiding attributes. What makes the difference is nuance, sympathy, and sometimes a difference in the quality of writing itself. Sometimes I feel a little guilty to admit this (my progressive cred!) but sometimes when I see, for instance, an analysis of how gender roles are written badly in a series that is really shitty in every other way, I can’t help but think: Well, I feel like this shittiness is an extension of overall shittiness. I’m not saying that makes it less shitty when every single female character is relegated to domestic roles and it’s an action-themed series, only that the critique can feel like a dead end.

Which brings me to my second issue with the discourse around “Problematic.” This thing is problematic. That thing is problematic. But it’s okay to like them. So, wait, what’s the point of where this critique leads, then? I mean, again, I’m not suggesting we need to be out there regulating what people can like (that’s extremely futile), but sometimes, I’m not sure what I think of the tendency to write huge essays dissecting all that’s harmful and vile about given things, then follow up with, well, it’s all cool if we all enjoy them, with liking and disliking being totally neutral acts. I’m not sure if my articulating it this way will make sense, but sometimes it feels a little like these discussions take on the aura of performative enactments, sitting before priests in confessionals and listing all your media sins, and then your friends coming in and listing all their media sins, and then we all gather back together and toss back some popcorn. Is the goal to identify tropes for the sake of being self-aware? Is it to write critiques which will reduce or eliminate certain tropes if the critiques are read (that is, future writers will learn from these lapses)? And if basically everything in the world is problematic, is that even a description that can be instilled with meaning?

I think here of the endless debates I see about what kinds of roles people want women characters to be in, which are acceptable, and which aren’t. And I just don’t know how I feel. I very much support pushing back against all the generally shallow and crass bullshit we’ve been dealt (for all forms of representation, I mean) — comics and video game designs scarcely cease to make my eyes roll — but sometimes this debate can also somehow seem reductive.

Sometimes I walk away feeling like people are looking for some Platonic image of The Female Character, floating out in space. The heavenly female character, whoever she is.

And I think maybe what’s happening here is that I feel like there’s a struggle in me between the person who has a social consciousness and reads through the lens of that consciousness and the person who likes art for art’s sake, the person who even believes that fiction may well be a good space for ambiguity and feelings that do not easily slot into comfortable ideas of right/wrong, or, as Pankaj Mishra said in one of my favourite pieces on this topic (and a very different take on what is problematic):


“I think overtly political novels—those that never transcend or contest their author’s conscious intentions and prejudices—are problematic. This is not just true of the innumerable unread books in the socialist realist tradition, but also of novels that carry the burden of conservative ideologies, like Guerrillas, Naipaul’s worst book, where the author’s disgust for a certain kind of black activist and white liberal is overpowering. It forces him into drawing facile links between the sexual and the revolutionary instinct—which is also the central flaw in much post-9/11 fiction by Anglo-Americans—and a serious imaginative failure occurs. John Banville has written very well about another ideological narrative overdetermined by fear and distaste: Ian McEwan’s Saturday.


On the other hand, it was a self-declared Stalinist—Christina Stead—who wrote the extraordinary The Man Who Loved Children. I think a more complex idea of fiction—and the human self’s relationship with the world—emerges when we abandon this philistine equation between literature and liberalism and human goodness, and pay some attention to the darker, ambiguous, and often muddled energies and motivations that shape a work of art. If we do this, we can appreciate a writer like Céline or Gottfried Benn without worrying whether they conform to existing notions of political incorrectness.

I have to admit, that quote does resonate with me on some level (and yes, I know it’s about literature, but I think this is also applicable to other media to varying degrees). I suppose there’s a part of me that often wants to analyze things through a holistic lens of works and their relations to the world and to their context and the pre-existing conversation within which they occur (and what happens to the characters within those contexts), but also according to the energies we can look to them for which are suited to fiction’s uniquely embracing ambiguity. This, as opposed to awaiting the coming of the heavenly archetype of all marginalized peoples, for I think that heavenly archetype unlikely to do well if the overall world/story it finds itself within is foreclosed by generally shitty writing.


For, there is no space really untouched by the vicissitudes of history, and emancipatory projects never begin nor end properly. They are constantly hampered in their activities by the closure-effect repeatedly brought about when a group within a movement becomes invested in the exercise of power, when it takes license to legislate what it means to “be a woman,” to ascertain the “truth” of the feminine, and to reject other women whose immediate agenda may differ from their own. In undoing such closure-effect one is bound again and again to recognize “that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressors’ relationship” (Audre Lorde).


I no longer know or understand my own politics. Rather, I’m embattled: I recognize that social organizations are desperately needed for change to take hold in this world, and yet I feel a tug-of-war spurred onwards by that undercurrent of consciousness which makes me perceive hierarchical flaws in most possible groupings of identities.

At thirteen years old, I stared hatefully at the purple-inked notebooks of my female peers, resenting their adolescent infatuations and romances. At eighteen years old, I proudly laughed about how I was Not Like Other Girls, and even joked that I was a misogynist, at least towards fictional characters (that I was bisexual and had dated women didn’t register as a necessitating a change in perspective; cognitive dissonance on socio-sexual politics is a strange phenomenon). At nineteen-or-twenty, I read this article, and felt something murky deep within me coming forth to the light: concepts which I had sensed, instinctively, but for which I had no names. At nineteen-or-twenty, I began calling myself a feminist. About a year into my undergraduate degree program, I changed my minor to gender studies. I found a way to work feminist analysis into most every major paper I wrote in college.

I read Judith Butler: Gender is performative; gender roles are not authentic nor derived from nature. There are no inherent differences between the sexes.

I read Julia Serano: Maybe if a lot of women are drawn to feminine trappings, there could be something innate to that preference, or at least it may not be a total social fabrication.

I read this extremely in-depth historical analysis, which also commented on Serano’s critique: Maybe Serano is somewhat foreclosing feminist analysis about the relational side of feminine performance.

I have wrestled with narratives. I hated Born This Way for gay (and bi, and other non-straight) people. I also came to hate Sexuality is Fluid. We organized around Born This Way because it was a legitimation of civil rights, with the law of the land presuming that in order to be treated with the dignity of a human being, we must present proof that this quality for which we are and were ostracized is one into which our births moulded us through the hormonal determinism of our brains. In fact, we should have those rights regardless. I believe, above all, that there may be no magical key to the narrative of sexuality and gender. I believe that a person may identify with a particular sexuality for reasons of the bodies one is attracted to, the social groupings one is attracted to, the social groupings one feels comfortable within, the resonant power of a particular word or label, for political reasons, or because of factors too many to name.

Do you see my dilemma? To organize, we must have narratives. To have narratives, we must have dogma. When this dogma paints with broad brushes, we call it polemic and the language of rage and punching up. We must speak according to our ascriptive category (one assumes). Yet we know that this categorizing is merely a shorthand: No one believes Sarah Palin can speak to feminist issues, and who would listen to Thomas Sowell or Clarence Thomas about race? Obviously, it’s not just about speaking as a woman or speaking as a queer person or speaking as a PoC: It’s about speaking as those categories while also holding a particular political doctrine. And please don’t mistake me: I’m not saying it shouldn’t be — I’m certainly not advocating that we suddenly give right-wingers credence on the basis of their categories. My point, rather, is the opposite: How strongly do we truly empathize with one another on the basis of our categories? How fully do we identify in one another’s experiences? Do I see her and say — she’s a woman, she’s queer, we’re of a similar socio-economic class and education level — my God, how we relate! Do I?

Perhaps what’s troubled my certainty about empathy in categorical identification is that I’ve seen those inevitable cases on the margins — those people who have felt as though they were eliminated from identification itself. I’ve known non-binary people who confessed to me that they felt excluded from the category of “woman” because of assumptions about what “all women” experience. I’ve known biracial people who felt they were locked out of calling themselves PoC even as they didn’t feel internal identification with whiteness. I’ve known PoC who felt obstructed by the assumption that they were cultural traitors or acting white if they didn’t feel for a particular cultural political stance. I’ve seen every manner of queer conflict: Should the I be there? Should the A be there? Is queer a preferable term to lesbian? Is lesbian a preferable term to queer? Where do bi individuals stand in relation to the L and G, and what about the identification possibilities for non-binary people?

There’s a point at which I feel The Movement self-cannibalizes: we turn on each other, eating one another alive or producing ideas about Group Experience which inevitably lock many people out who might nominally identify with the group in question. But what’s the solution? To say categories are meaningless would leave us to the dogs of predation, the cogs of capitalist hetero-patriarchy and white supremacy. That’s not exactly an answer.

I am trying to forge a holistic politics through which I can approach the world.
I haven’t gotten there yet. I’m often glad that others are able to plunge ahead in a way that I struggle with, full in thunder, for I am trapped by the inertia which forces me into action-less reverie — at a time when action is crucial. While I linger in this twilight of figuring out where I stand, I will write. Writing can be a stress to me. It’s a sort of labor. An exertion. I long for the soothing comfort of fiction writing, but until the day that I find it, I write so that I may organize myself into something less terrifyingly inchoate.