Challenging Oppression without Making New Enemies

2013 was something of a breakout year for the wider distribution of social-justice oriented cultural critique. The line between the online world of Twitter, tumblr, and feminist, queer, and antiracist blogging on one hand and nearly-mainstream and mainstream pop culture and celebrity coverage became noticeably thinner. Time and GQ ended up questioning Robin Thicke about the connections between his song “Blurred Lines” and sexual violence. Blog posts charging Lorde’s “Royals” (a song that was itself a cultural critique) with racism for focusing too much on hip-hop culture became a story on CNN. Rather than taking place in an alternative zine scene, our voices are now part of a global cultural conversation, capable of being amplified before millions of readers and viewers.

And yet this conversation isn’t just broadcasting insights, and opening minds. It’s arousing more than the inevitable level of defensiveness. And it has led many people, to question the ways that anger, vitriol, self-righteousness, shaming, and identification of enemies can be facets of activist culture. An amazingly perceptive version of this view is offered by Quinnae Moongazer in “Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism.” She puts out a call for a more expansive and hopeful activism:

It is time that we took our convictions to their logical conclusion and set our sights higher than the call outs of particular points of failure evinced by some hapless individual; it is time we took the next step so many in our communities are already taking, to a social justice activism recommitted to changing social structures and not just creating echo chambers to declaim against what we have.

Similarly, Camille Hayes wrote back in November:

Too often in social change movements we take what could be opportunities for education and turn them into occasions for censure, and I think that’s a shame. How many potential allies do you think we’ve alienated this way over the years? Thousands? Tens of thousands? At any rate, more than a mass movement can afford to spare.

Leaving aside all my disappointments and frustrations, which echo theirs, I want to offer some proactive and hopeful ideas for the continuing work of critiquing and remaking our flawed, all-too-oppressive culture.

1. The bigger the cultural criticism conversation gets, the better; but also the more it’s geared to actual listening and transformation, the better.

One way of looking at oppression is a combination of institutionalized injustice and normalized cruelty. What separates oppression from just plain meanness, unfairness, and abuse is the way it becomes normal for certain classes of people to hurt, dismiss, and undervalue others. It’s routine, sometimes accompanied by an explanation that sounds like common sense, too often accepted even by those it victimizes, and usually unremarkable to those who are advantaged by it. Every oppression is a cultural problem.  So to challenge racism, (cis)sexism, class and state power, and other exclusionary systems in the domain of culture is natural and necessary.

Oppressive “normality” doesn’t reside in any one place, or in one small set of people. It’s created and expressed and passed on across all of society. Rolling back rape culture will only prevent rape when it happens in every community, when it alters the expectations at every party and the dynamics of every date. There will only be acceptance of queer love and trans people in their bodies when that acceptance lives in every family, social space, and venue where queer and trans folks are born, live, love, and work.

Cultural critique that unmasks and overcomes oppressive dynamics needs to reach everyone in the end. Everyone who might have their prejudices reinforced by a work of art, its archetypes and tropes, should be part of the desired audience for critiques of that art. Beyond that, the ability to see oppression and resistance at work in our culture, including pop culture, is a skill to be cultivated in everyone.

2. One key to promoting actual listening and transformation is to present the critique in a way that assumes an intelligent, well-intentioned audience, who is uninformed on the particular issue being addressed.

My favorite example from 2013 is Jeff Yang’s deconstruction of Katy Perry’s performance of ”Unconditionally” dressed as a geisha: Geisha A-Go-Go: Katy Perry’s AMAs Performance Stirs Debate (reminder: authors in newspapers, magazines, and syndicated web publications rarely write their own headlines). Yang narrates the performance, explains why the artist chose the problematic route, and lays out the consequences for real people beyond the work:

”nothing can remove the demeaning and harmful iconography of the lotus blossom from the West’s perception of Asian women — a stereotype that presents them as servile, passive, and as Perry would have it, ‘unconditional’ worshippers of their men, willing to pay any price and weather any kind of abuse in order to keep him happy.”

(See also the personal impact as described by Ravi Chandra: “Sounds wonderful. Until the image tangles with my own history and experience as an Asian American, as I’ve watched our cultures misappropriated and commodified time after time. Frankly, many of us feel used as props to glorify White artists.”)

3. The point of cultural criticism is not to decide which artist is the oppressor, but to reveal oppressive dynamics in the larger culture.

Most of the work of transforming oppressive culture is in the audience, not on stage. It is out here, in ourselves and our communities, in our psychic attachments to power and privilege, in our unexamined acceptance of oppression and our ability to perpetuate it. What’s more, the difference between a character and a stereotype is to some degree repetition, likewise the difference between a personal slight and an oppressive pattern.  When people use a pop culture controversy to explain how power works, and how they are made to feel over and over again, they’re facing the right direction.

Re-stated, my proposition is that for every finger pointed by a cultural critic at an artist, three more should point out to the larger culture and the meme, metaphors, stereotypes, and patterns it reveals. Pop culture has done us the favor of bringing a phenomenon into the public eye and the national conversation, why not use that spotlight not just to talk about a single song, but about an ongoing problem. Por ejemplo, Sezin Koehler’s exploration of  “From the Mouths of Rapists: The Lyrics of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines” went far beyond the debate about whether it was a “rape anthem” to convey in a compelling way the tropes of rape culture that were shared by the song and actual rapists (Koehler spells out the process of writing it here.).

One aspect of privilege is not knowing what behavior of yours is a pattern, not knowing how that pattern affects other people, not having access to the feelings generated or the hidden impact. So, reactions like Ravi Chandra’s above can change people. While I’m not saying that its an obligation of the cultural critic, revealing one’s own experience can offer surprising insights. You can see that dramatically in Tressie McMillan Cottom’s When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland, the reaction to Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance that stayed with me the most, out of a very large crop of articles. McMillan weaves her own embodied, raced and gendered experiences to offer insight on a range of behaviors, from drunken dance-floor encounters to Cyrus’ (and her directors) selection of back-up dancers.

4. “People who defend” a given artist or their work is not a coherent category. 

Defensiveness, ignorance, and the blinders imposed by privilege are some of the reasons that people react negatively to anti-oppressive cultural critique. Predictably, each episode of cultural criticism will elicit reactionary behavior in the form of comments and denial that are even more egregious than the original object of critique. But people also disagree due to honest differences of interpretation. What’s more, we can’t overlook the possibility that a critique can be simultaneously anti-oppression and just plain wrong.

If the goal is to make cultural critique a society-wide practice, we must expect honest disagreement. The people who wrote these defenses of Lorde and Macklemore, and Lily Allen, are not adversaries of anti-oppressive cultural critique, they’re part of the conversation.

Using Anger Wisely

Anger can motivate awesome work and can motivate toxic and destructive work. It can be clarifying and illuminating, or convince us that our closest friends are just out to get us. But in expressing our anger about pop culture (that is, about people who made art that reinforces our (or others’) oppression, rather than directly oppressing us), I would suggest these propositions:

5. Strategically deployed anger ultimately seeks to enlarge the community seeking social transformation, not to split it. 

6. Publicly expressed anger depends on establishing that it is justified to make it strategic.

7. Even justified anger needs calm, patient work of educating current and potential allies.

Short of those who hurt us directly, we probably get the most angry at those from whom we expected more. If anger has the capacity to illuminate, then one vital goal is that those who have failed us the most learn from that anger. So, if you’re a critic, you’re also on your way to being a teacher. When your writing can go viral in an afternoon, you have to expect that some of your students will need clarity, and even an orientation to the workings of oppression.

However…

8. These jobs of educating, explaining, and justifying should not fall on those relying on anger to survive violent oppression.

Anger is among other things a powerful and necessary defense mechanism. And there’s a lot for people to defend themselves against. The solution isn’t to shame those who are angry, or exclude their critiques but to take them seriously, and make them a basis for conversation and learning. Accordingly, those of us who join conversations begun around others’ pain should do more of this educating, explaining and justifying work, so it doesn’t always fall to those who experience oppression the most personally. We should add our voices to make anger within the movement strategic and transformative.

Lastly, 9. Let’s try to assume good faith on the part of others: flawed execution or naïve ignorance is usually more likely than malice.

One of the advantages of living now (in many places, including where I sit), and not say at the high points of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy is that the moral struggle to de-legitimize oppression and prejudice has largely been won. Don’t get me wrong: Racism hides behind colorblindness and ignorance. Sexism is normalized and naturalized at every turn. But the idea that these and many other -isms represent some eternal truth about humanity is thoroughly discredited. Our lives are blessed, and complicated, by the fact that calling someone a bigot is a genuine insult in polite society.  If you explain how a certain cultural practice reinforces an age-old oppression, you can connect with most of your audience’s sense of self and their desire for dignity and righteousness. Getting that far took a lot of argument and a lot of struggle. I’m so grateful to the people who won us that inheritance.

While facing an election next year, Bolivian President Evo Morales is thinking about his legacy. As the strong front-runner in national politics, his governing party, the Movement Towards Socialism—Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, feels confident it will be in power for a long time to come. This self-confidence is driving the drafting of a 2025 Patriotic Agenda. Alongside the formal process, the president has spoken off the cuff of his desires for the future. And like any dreams, they provide an insight into the mind and orientation of the dreamer. In his oratory, Morales long seemed to equally embrace two visions: sovereignty through claiming natural resources for the nation and reorientation of society towards ecological harmony with Mother Earth. Now, however, he has discarded the Pachamama-centered rethinking of exploitation and dreams of technologies long criticized for their environmental destructiveness.

At the end of October, Morales declared nuclear power to be a long-term goal of the Bolivian state. Speaking at a government-organized summit called Hydrocarbon Sovereignty by 2025, he revealed that he had asked the governments of Argentina and France for assistance in launching a Bolivian nuclear power program. “We are going to advance, dear students,* we are not far off, we have the raw materials. It is a political decision that has to be made. [Vamos a avanzar queridos estudiantes, no estamos lejos, tenemos materia prima (el óxido de uranio es la principal materia prima utilizada en los procesos radioactivos), es una decisión política que hay que tomar.]” Soon after, he called it a dream: “Bolivia has all the conditions to exploit this form of energy, there are raw materials and studies, and I want you to know that alongside our brother Vice President, I am already dreaming of having atomic energy, and we are not so far from it. [Bolivia tiene todas las condiciones para explotar esa energía, hay materia prima, hay estudios y quiero que sepan que con nuestro hermano vicepresidente ya soñamos contar con energía nuclear atómica y no estamos tan lejos.]” (El País) By the middle of November, Morales had convened thirty scientists to sketch out a Nuclear Energy Commission.

In fact, the road to nuclear energy is a very long one. France has clarified that it has done no more than listen to Bolivia’s aspirations. The Argentine cooperation so far consists of scholarships for students of nuclear medicine. The country lacks both adequately trained scientific and technical personnel and the necessary infrastructure. Bolivia’s uranium remains in the ground. The complex network of processing facilities, construction capacity, and minimal safeguards would have to be built from the bottom up. Luis Romero, director of the Bolivian Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology (Instituto Boliviano de Ciencia y Tecnología Nuclear; IBTEN) estimates the process could take thirty years. Meanwhile, solar power is practical over 97% of the tropical country’s surface and renewable generation could overcome the country’s biggest energy limitation: the lack of reliable electrical connections to vast rural areas.

Meanwhile, Bolivia is set have its first communication satellite this month. Named Túpac Katari, after the late eighteenth-century indigenous rebel, it will be launched by China and controlled from Bolivia. Its transmission capabilities will save the country tens of millions of dollars a year in expenditures. Like the Hydrocarbon forum, this launch has set the Bolivian president to dreaming “of the next one”:

Some developed countries seem to have a x-ray image of our territory. They know what we have but they never tell us. And why shouldn’t we be able to have a prospecting satellite to know what we have in this Mother Earth who give us so many resources? [Algunos países desarrollados parece que hacen como una radiografía a nuestro territorio. Saben qué tenemos, pero nunca nos informan. ¿Y por qué nosotros no podemos tener un satélite de prospección para saber qué tenemos en esta madre tierra que nos da tantos recursos?] (infolatam)

While satellite imagery can be used to assess surface minerals, this x-ray idea is a fantasy.** What’s revealing about it, however, is the idea of making the entire country’s minerals, oil, and gas immediately visible to the state. Today’s Evo Morales still dreams of Mother Earth, but she always gives up her resources for the good of the economy. Those who put protecting their ancestral lands on the agenda have a different vision of territory, in which the right to preserve environmental integrity sometimes conflicts with accelerating extraction.

* The event highlighted the French oil giant Total’s awarding scholarships to future petroleum engineers.

** Much, if not all, of the NASA data is freely available.

I wrote the following comment in an online discussion during the Egyptian protests in early 2011. I’m reposting it here to ask questions of continuing importance for political ethnographers, and other social scientists.

In the wake of the American Anthropological Association’s release of a letter expressing concern about Egyptian artifacts (for 150 words) and Egyptian people (for 30 words), the AAA blog has allotted more space to the issue of the protests themselves.

The piece is called “We Are All Egyptian,” and begins “There are tens of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir today. And there are millions of Egyptians who are not.” The writer, Yasmin Moll, is doing fieldwork in Cairo and devotes the piece to people’s changing and conflicted attitudes to the protests.

I’ll leave it to others (Zero Anthropology critiqued the AAA’s priorities here) to ask questions about what the AAA is not saying, about say the thousands of Egyptians who are official or unofficial detention today, or about the web of relationships between the United States and the regime.

What interests me about this piece is the quasi-political position of an ethnographic preference for uncertainty, indeterminacy, and the legitimacy of all sides. That is summed up in the following paragraph:

“From the vantage point of those of us in Cairo, however, the picture is much more complex, fluid and messy.  And simplifying it for the sake of a sexy story or a catchy headline risks marginalizing the many Egyptians from all classes and backgrounds whose political stances don’t fit neatly into one or the other of these categories.”

Strike out “in Cairo” or rewrite “a sexy story or a catchy headline” as “[insert academic or political purpose here]” and you get a handy template for justifying the use of ethnography. One I’m sure we’ve all read in one form or another. And one that many of us have used, or will have the occasion to use.

First question, though, isn’t this an argument against extracting meaning or seeking a pattern in any reality? Doesn’t this form of practice ask us to not draw conclusions from anything as complex and indeterminate as actual people? In this case, we’re talking about a reality that has electrified people across Egypt, and around the world. Would such ethnographic messiness written about Tunisia’s revolt last month have had the same mobilizing effect in Egypt as the stories that were told?

Second question, does it make sense to describe an anti-structuralist method as politically liberating? The narrative is familiar: Writers (unfairly) fit people into categories, missing what is important. But look at the political nature of the verb: “risks marginalizing.” The implicit argument is that writing about people in a way prioritizes, say, collective action over emotional uncertainty, is part of a power structure that pushes them aside. In this case, with a very visibly present power structure being shaken, the connection between the epistemological power of those writing about the uprising and the political power of those trying to suppress it is dubious, if not nonexistent.

Third, I wonder and worry about this kind of disciplinary positioning for anthropology. Having chosen to study how and when people form into collectivities (I focus on social movements, and on processes of revolution, in recent Bolivian history), I recognize in the AAA’s blog a position that says ethnography should be directed to the individual over the collective, to the messy over the galvanized, to the fluid over crystalized. I may be over-projecting my own research interests on to the AAA blog, but I also worry about a claim that “complex, fluid, and messy” is “real ethnography,” while studying large-scale social and political changes is not. Since Cairo now and Bolivia in the past decade are interesting moments precisely because of the coming together of thousands upon thousands of people, producing tangible political results, to make increasing complexity the goal of ethnography is to call for an ethnographic approach that misses the point of these transformative moments.

Day 1 of Occupy Wall Street: Political ethnographers should ask how this moment crystallized a movement, not why millions weren't there.

Day 1 of Occupy Wall Street: Political ethnographers should ask how this moment crystallized a movement, not why millions weren’t there. (photo CC-BY-SA by Carwil Bjork-James)

Further reading:

Zolberg, Aristide R. 1972. Moments of madness. Politics & Society 2(2):183–207.

Thomassen, Bjørn. 2012. Notes towards an anthropology of political revolutions. Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(3):679–706.

Honor Brabazon and Jeffery Webber have just released a new research article on the state of agrarian reform in Bolivia under the government of Evo Morales. The paper, available as a pre-print from the Journal of Agrarian Change, offers a disconcerting look at the state of land redistribution six years after Morales signed a law promising community-led “redirection of the Agrarian Revolution.” The paper is compelling because it puts the experiences and views of the Bolivian Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST; the same initials as its better-known Brazilian counterpart) alongside hard data on the redistribution of land produced by the La Paz-based research unit Centro de Estudios para el Desarollo Laboral y Agrario (CEDLA).

I’ve previously covered the most dramatic shift in Bolivian land tenure on this blog, the dramatic reordering of large swaths of land into “Native Community Lands,” (TCOs) collectively controlled indigenous territories throughout the country that now constitute nearly a fifth of the country. The same process of clarification of land title was promised to yield a revolution in the prospects of landless and near-landless peasants. The data presented and translated by Brabazon and Webber shows that promise was not to be.

The story of land reform in Bolivia has long been a regional one. The sweeping 1953 Land Reform Decree was the product of rural uprisings across the Altiplano and the central Valleys which left the vast eastern lowlands essentially untouched. There, a relatively small number of landowners built vast export-oriented monocultural plantations over the next five decades. Both the predominantly lowland MST and Evo Morales spoke of these large holdings as ”latifundio,” oversized properties that deserve to be redistributed for the common good. However, land reform requires one of two causes to take away land from its owner. Either the field is used for illegal labor exploitation, or it is failing to fulfill its “economic and social function.” The latter term essentially applies to fields left in disuse for long periods. As it turned out, neither cause applies to the agribusinesses of the east:

the types and delimitations of latifundio designated for expropriation by the MAS government through the LRCRA and official policy documents are not those that predominate in the structure of the Bolivian agrarian economy; therefore, the large capitalist landowners who obtain rent from the land, along with the agrarian capitalist enterprises that obtain their profits through the exploitation of their salaried workforce, have not and will not be affected by the ‘agrarian revolution’. (19)

A small number of farms have been expropriated ”due to the presence of bonded labour, semi-slavery, slavery or other illegal labour practices,” but just 54,734 hectares. Another 855,823 hectares owned by medium- and large-propertyholders were incorporated into TCOs. But when the government speaks of “land redistribution,” it pulls out far larger numbers. As Brabazon and Webber point out, “the overwhelming bulk of these redistributed lands were transfers from various forms of state-owned lands (tierras fiscales) to TCOs” or even the re-categorization from one form of collective ownership to another. Meanwhile, “one-third of the [national] territory will remain in the hands of the medium and large agro-industrial firms.”

Brabazon and Webber provide a sobering conclusion: “The same social class that ruled over agricultural production in 2005 continues to rule today in 2012” (21).

In honor of #NewResearchThursday / #NRTh, one attempt to increase the content to signal ratio on social media.

Peter Buffett’s “The Charitable-Industrial Complex” op-ed is notable because only rarely do wealthy people admit there’s something deeply morally wrong about accumulating wealth and the widespread existence of poverty:

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

While I’m happy to hear this critique and glad that it’s passed into the mainstream media so that elites are paying attention, I wish there was more of a direction here about where to go next.

What I like about it: Pointing out big problems: the classist misimpression that the wealthy know best about how to improve the lives of the poor, the idea that managerial and capitalist logic can easily be applied to problems that are essentially about public goods, the unwillingness of donors to give up control when they give their money, the notion that unconscionable gathering of wealth can be laundered by “giving back.”

What I worry about, especially among US-based radicals: The idea that simply abandoning or destroying these institutions or the flow of wealth they represent will solve things. This is why I’m resistant to naming this an “industrial complex”—something that must be destroyed.

The reality is that resources are wrongly distributed from the global South to a rich few every day, leaving behind both injustice and unmet needs. We can, and should, attack the injustice head-on, and fight the looting of the world by corporations and their corrupt associates in governments. But, we also need to build an infrastructure that provides public goods, like the eradication of polio, equitable titling of land, ambulances in rural communities, and emergency food assistance. The struggle is not to stop the institutions that distribute resources from northern donors to such ends, but to make them functional and to make them accountable to the people they serve.

Frankly, both liberals and radicals in the US are bad at putting their money where their heart is in challenging third world poverty. When I visited the Zapatistas, I saw desperately needed ambulances funded by Italian squatters. In Bolivia, left parties from Scandinavia run their own alternatives to the official aid system, while US Americans just complain about USAID without building alternatives. Indigenous and small farmer titles under agrarian reform there happened through official development assistance funds paired with a radical government.

Bottom line: change can cost money, and we need to think seriously about how to insist that it flows where its most needed.

The United States Air Force has a drone base in Niger from which it flied unmanned aircraft into Mali to provide military intelligence for the French military involved in Mali’s civil war. The United States State Department orchestrated the denial of European countries’ airspace to the presidential plane of Evo Morales on July 2.

These are now former secrets, documented in the mainstream press of the United States. Neither lasted very long. Surely the Malian rebels saw drones flying above them and guessed the US military was taking sides against them. And even more surely, Evo Morales knew that the US was behind his plane’s emergency diversion to Vienna. Yet these acts were classified; the US role in blocking the Bolivian presidential plane was publicly denied. What can we learn about United States state secrecy from them?

This is a time of highly controversial disclosures of government secrets. It’s also a time of unprecedented classification of government documents as secret: a US government audit found 3,507,782 people hold security clearance to access Confidential/Secret documents, and 1,409,969 hold Top Secret security clearances as of October 2012. In Fiscal Year 2012, the US government classified 95,180,243 documents, declaring 23 million of them top secret (ISOO annual report). The government spends $8 to $12 billion per year on keeping these documents secret.

Within this mountain of so-called secrets live millions of banal pieces of data: personnel files of agency employees, details of weapons systems, operational details of military deployments. While it’s reasonable to debate how much of this material truly needs to be secured in this way, that’s not the material people are willing to risk their freedom to bring to the world. Instead, the real state secrets are government actions that are carried out covertly. Recently whistleblowers have shown us that the military kept records of killed civilians in the Iraq War, that the US illegally spies on diplomats at the United Nations, that the United Kingdom violated the Land Mine Ban treaty, that the US could document massive government corruption in Tunisia (helping to spark revolt there)  and that the NSA spied on the electronic communication of people around the world [some of these revelations are described here]. Every day, diligent work by journalists exposes other secrets to the people whose governments try to keep them.

The drone base in Niger is an example of quasi-secrecy. About 100 Air Force troops deployed in February and set up a base. On February 22, the Washington Post described the operation, which was mentioned in a vaguely worded letter to Congress under the War Powers Act. While the paper reported on the troops, their mission and even the type of drones used, it had to resort to anonymous sources to provide these details. It also noted “Obama did not explicitly reveal the drone base in his letter to Congress.” The President of Niger has been more forthcoming, providing the basis for further reporting in March. Even in February, the Malian rebels targeted by these aircraft were already well aware of the US aircraft, “The Associated Press reported finding an al-Qaeda document in Timbuktu, Mali, that listed 22 tips for avoiding drones.”

The only ones left in the dark by this policy of secrecy are the people of the United States. When the press asks questions about drones, US officials try to avoid the word, and give pseudo-answers like this one: “What the President indicated is we’re going to continue to provide the support that we’ve been investing in this operation.  And what we’ve provided is, for instance, logistical support and other types of backing for those nations that are putting peacekeepers into Mali” (Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, June 27). For four years, the Obama administration directed its press secretary to talk like this:  “When I went through the process of becoming press secretary, one of the first things they told me was, ‘You’re not even to acknowledge the drone program. You’re not even to discuss that it exists'” (Robert Gibbs). In effect, the United States is supplying targeting information for a war in Mali, and actually killing people in half a dozen other countries, but refusing to talk about it.

The case of the Morales plane diversion went beyond secrecy to lies. Days before the operation, President Obama responded to a question explicitly raising this possibility: “Mr. President, will you use U.S. military assets to in any way intercept Mr. Snowden should he at some point in the future leave Russia to try to find safe passage in another country?” The President’s answer was unequivocal: “No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker” (transcript). On July 2, Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane was denied entry into French, Spanish, and Italian airspace and its landing to refuel in Portugal was cancelled. As reflected by the emergency gathering of the Union of South American Nations in response, this was a major violation of diplomatic protocol. It rapidly became clear that the diversion was the use of state power (backed by the possibility of force—i.e., the scrambling of jets) in an attempt to intercept Mr. Snowden.

From the beginning, the Bolivian government identified the United States as the evident cause of the incident. With Morales still on the ground in the Vienna airport, Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra stated:

“This was orchestrated, rigged, by the US Department of State which has provoked this situation utilizing certain European countries, under the suspicion that Mr. Snowden was onboard the presidential plane.”

“Esto fue orquestado, amañado por el departamento de Estado de Estados Unidos, que utilizando algunos países europeos ha provocado esta situación, con la sospecha de que en el avión presidencial estuviera el señor Snowden.” (EFE, 2 July)

This narrative is not only the most plausible one, it is backed up by Austrian press reports that the country’s Foreign Office received a late-night call from US Ambassador Ambassador William Eacho alerting them to Snowden’s presence on President Morales’ plane. It is also suggested by the Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo’s statement that “They told us that [Snowden] was onboard,” and further describing the source of the communication as a diplomatic secret.

Meanwhile, the US State Department was busy issuing a cascade of non-statements.

July 3: At the State Department, a spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki, declined to say whether American authorities had asked other countries to deny airspace to the Bolivian plane. “I would point you to them to describe why they made decisions if they made decisions,” Ms. Psaki told reporters. (NYTimes)

July 8: Journalist: And just to follow up, does – is there any more information on where the original information or the leak came from that Snowden was on that plane? Does the U.S. have any more idea –MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything for you on that, no. (State Department briefing)

July 9: QUESTION: Earlier today at the OAS, a French diplomat – a very young French diplomat, I might say —

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — said that the French Government had, in fact, revoked permission for President Morales’ plane to go, but he said that it was a technical error based on a ()misunderstanding. Do you and the United States have any idea what that technical error – that technical reason that was based on a misunderstanding or an incorrect assumption might have been?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t. (State Department briefing)

In an interview with Spanish-language CNN, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen* (R-FL) was more direct in admitting US responsibility:

And so, for us, there was a great concern that these countries could give him sanctuary. Therefore, the United States sent that quite severe, quite direct message to—this time it was to Evo Morales, it could have been to other people. We are saying to all countries in a very open manner that this man [has] felonies against him. That he should come to the United States if he is a man of honor…

Así que para nosotros, este gran preocupación que estos países le pudieran dar santuario. Por eso los Estados Unidos envió esa mensaje bien duro, bien directo a … en esta vez fue a Evo Morales, hubiera sido a otras personas. Le estamos diciendo a todos los países de una manera bien abiertamente que este señor [tiene] felonías americanas en su contra. Que venga a los Estados Unidos si es un hombre de valor… (CNN Video posted by Ros-Lehtinen’s office [at 7:30])

So, Bolivia knew of US involvement. Other countries knew of US involvement. A senior legislator claims that the act was designed to send a message of the position of the US government. But the US government formally claims to have no idea how this action happened. The only possible target for these denials is the US public. We are meant to pretend that our government was not involved in this international incident, that such involvement is a product of Evo Morales’ paranoia rather than an obvious and widely discussed pattern of US behavior. (And so, the New York Times will continue to publish sentences full of hypotheticals like this one: “Latin American leaders condemn refusal to let plane carrying Bolivia’s Pres Evo Morales fly over European nations because of what Bolivian officials say were suspicions that Edward J Snowden was on board.”) Given the standards of American journalism, we—and we alone—will have to wait for an actual leaked document from the State Department before our press takes seriously what the rest of the world confidently knows.

Like these two examples, many state secrets are not about protecting complex operations or securing the lives of operatives. They are about keeping the public out of decisionmaking. They are about reducing accountability. They are about subverting democracy. Alongside making a mockery of such basic principles, they make dangerous, unpopular, and/or immoral behavior by government officials easier.

Fortunately, part of that dynamic is beginning to weaken.

Government without Secrecy

“We Open Governments”

“We Open Governments”

The publication of logs of the Iraq War and diplomatic cables by Wikileaks has raised the prospect of the US government being denied the prerogative of secret wars, secret foreign policies, secret decisions, and secret outcomes. The Snowden disclosures and the avalanche of additional investigative reporting that has followed in their wake have done the same for the surveillance state. (It’s worth noting that every single one of these disclosures have exposed wars, policies and outcomes, rather than the operational security that enables them to be carried out.) Snowden, Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake, and William Binney are all examples of government officials who allowed their conscience to override the classification of information.

In a discussion on Talking Points Memo, a reader (“MB”) suggests that these disclosures are just the beginning of a tidal wave. MB points to a post-Cold War generational value shift “toward a greater emphasis on issues that assumed global cooperation, such as environmentalism and humanitarianism, and … significant value on cross-cultural exchange.” Polling data backs this up: “Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world” compared with 48 to 64 percent of older generations. On foreign policy, Millennials value listening to allies more, favor diplomacy over military force more strongly, believe that excessive military force causes more terrorism, and believe it is morally acceptable to refuse to fight in a war you don’t believe in—all by 2-to-1 margins. MB observes:

The national security apparatus is designed to defend itself against Cold War threats: agents who commit espionage in the service of a foreign power for ideological reasons, or for personal gain. It seems that it is not at all prepared to defend itself against espionage committed for personal, ethical reasons, done at one’s own detriment. It may not ever be possible to do so. On some level, this line of business requires that all those involved completely accept the utility and purpose of the mission, and accept that international relations are a zero-sum game. Otherwise, anyone could walk out of their office with a thumb drive and publish the contents online.

What does the world with thousands of thumb drives look like? (Other than a half-dozen presidents of Obama’s generation ordering international manhunts to track them down.) In evaluating the impact, value, and morality of these disclosures, our focus should be on the incentives created by transparency on war, foreign policy, and surveillance. How do diplomats, warriors, and spies change their behavior when they know their deeds will be exposed? (Especially when those disclosures are more likely when the acts are morally objectionable.) There are grounds for hope that “opened governments” will be more cautious and less destructive because they have more reason to fear public awareness of their actions.

* Ros-Lehtinen is former chair and a continuing member of House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and thereby has clearance to be briefed on this kind of diplomatic activity.

The following is my translation of the official statement by the UNASUR leaders made yesterday, in response to the diversion of Bolivian President Evo Morales’s airplane during his return from Moscow to La Paz, Bolivia.

Cochabamba Declaration — July 4, 2013

Before the situation to which the President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Evo Morales, was submitted by the governments of France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain, we [declare and] denounce to the international community and the various multilateral organizations the following:

The flagrant violation of International Treaties that govern peaceful coexistence, solidarity, and cooperation among states, which constitutes an extraordinary, unfriendly, and hostile act, forming an illicit act that affects the freedom of transit and movement of of a Head of State and his official delegation.

The abuse and neocolonial practices that still subsist on our planet in the twenty-first century.

The absence of transparency with regard to the political decisions that impeding the aerial transit of the Bolivian presidential plane and of the country’s president.

The offense suffered by President Evo Morales, which did not only offend the Bolivian people, but rather all of our nations.

The illegal practices of espionage that put at risk the rights of citizens and the friendly coexistence between nations.

Given these denunciations, we are convinced that the process of building a Greater Homeland [of South America], to which we are committed, should be consolidated based on upon the full respect for the sovereignty and independence of our peoples, with the interference of the world’s hegemonic centers, overcoming the old practices through which some sought to impose [a system of] first-class and second-class nations.

The Heads of State and of Government of countries of the Union of South American Nations UNASUR, gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivia on July 4, 2013,

1. Declare that the unacceptable restriction of the liberty of President Evo Morales Ayma, turning him into a virtual hostage, constitutes a violation of the rights not just of the Bolivian people, but rather of all the countries and peoples of Latin America, and sets a dangerous precedent with regard to effective international law.

2. Reject these actions that clearly violate the basic norms and principles of international law, such as the inviolability of Heads of State.

3. Demand that the governments of France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain explain the basis for the decision to deny overflight acess to their airspace to the presidential aircraft of the Plurinational State of Bolivia.

4. Equally demand that the governments of France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain offer public apologies in relation to the grave matters that have occurred.

5. Stand behind the Denunciation presented by the Plurinational State of Bolivia before the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for the grave violation of human rights and concrete danger to life to which President Evo Morales Ayma was subjected. Equally, we back the right of the Plurinational State of Bolivia to carry out all actions it considers necessary before competent Tribunals and [other] instances [of law].

6. Agree to form a Follow-Up Committee, assigning our Chancellors [i.e., Foreign Ministers] the task of carrying out the necessary actions to clarify the facts.

Finally, in the spirit of the principles established in the Founding Treaty of UNASUR [the Union of South American Nations], we exhort the full body of Chiefs of State of the Union to stand by this Declaration. Equally, we call on the United Nations, and regional organizations that have not yet done so, to speak out on this unjustifiable and arbitrary act.

Cochabamba, July 4, 2013

Spanish after the jump

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Twenty-five years ago today, I brought a copy of the paper to a Fourth of July parade in Evanston, Illinois. I was 12, this was summer camp, and the news was not good. On July 3, 1988, the United States Navy shot down a civilian airliner. As Wikipedia now remembers the event:

Iran Air Flight 655 was an Iran Air flight from TehranIran, to DubaiUnited Arab Emirates, via Bandar Abbas, Iran. On 3 July 1988, at the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the aircraft serving the flight, an Airbus A300B2-203, was shot down by United States missiles fired by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes as it flew over the Strait of Hormuz. The aircraft, which had been flying in Iranian airspace over Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf on its usual flight path, was destroyed. All 290 onboard, including 66 children and 16 crew, perished.

As best I recall, there was not the slightest acknowledgment during the festivities of the attack on the commercial jet. President Reagan expressed “regret” on that July 3. No US president has ever apologized.

Before that time, I had innocently wondered why it was that the news habitually announced the death toll from lethal events overseas, followed by “including X Americans.” I remember my parents’ explanation being unsatisfying. On July 3, 1988, no Americans were killed.

Nor was a single soldier killed. Just civilians crossing to or from a neighboring country. While US ships operated in the waters between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, it was our government who notified theirs that “any approach to an American warship would be dangerous unless the intent was clearly peaceful.” I can only imagine the Airbus pilot’s—his name was Mohsen Rezaian—steely terror as he maintained course during the planned 28-minute flight that morning.

I remember little of the parade or even my feelings during it. What I would remember for years is four tween boys sitting on the grassy roof of the student center waiting for the fireworks to begin that night. As one kid closed his eyes, the other three of us “brainwashed” him, chanting the government slogans from George Orwell’s 1984: “War is peace. … Freedom is slavery. … Ignorance is strength.” We were at an age when play and reality were not fully distinct, when not a one of us had a basis to imagine what brainwashing would actually look like. Our play was more novice hypnotism than The Manchurian Candidate, but the twelve-year-old me (who had never heard of the Manchurian Candidate, but knew all about the prospect of dying in a nuclear war) wondered if it was working.

Our brainwashed friend improvised the part perfectly. Rousing himself, as if from a long sleep, he conveyed confusion and grogginess. His first words were tentative and out of sorts. He ventured slowly, “Daddy … daddy … Are nuclear weapons bad, daddy?” The fireworks must have began soon thereafter.

As it happened (as the news from the Gulf told our unlistening ears), our peace was war. The mourning we ought to have had was a celebration. Children—us—were properly disturbed by all of this; adults were impervious.

To be good American adults, we would be obliged to learn to feign a continuous innocence. To imagine that our missiles did not lead to their graves, that our government’s intentions were noble, that (US) American lives were more deserving of mourning.

In the end I could not make this transition.

A good US American could never compare July 3, 1988, to the bad downing of civilian jetliners that have so terrorized Americans and their allies in recent decades. Such terrorist acts are meant to be unforgivable, while there is endless time to analyze the thoughts and empathize with the fears of men like Captain William C. Rogers, the officer who gave the order to fire.

Perhaps he did not mean to shoot down a civilian jet. Perhaps he valued Iranian lives as much as his own family’s lives. In the end there was little need to inquire into his motives. He shot down one airplane. US government policy prolonged the Iran–Iraq War for years, providing arms and intelligence to both sides, led by Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iranians and Iraqis buried hundreds of thousands of young soldiers each, and over a hundred thousand civilians. The US goal was simple: “We wanted to avoid victory by both sides,” a senior State Department official told Seymour Hersh in 1992. Shooting down an airliner looks like terrorism. Planning for the pointless deaths of thousands upon thousands is terrorism.

There was a long gap between my disillusionment at twelve years old, and the college years I spent reading quotes like that from US officials and American papers. The disconnect between the image of American benevolence and five decades of history grew clearer with each thread I followed and pulled at. It would take nearly a decade of tracing, pulling, and following before I would stop being surprised, shocked, and sickened, rather than just saddened. Nearly a decade before I would start to assemble an understanding of the United States as an empire like any other. And by that time, through that process, it could no longer feel like mine.

We stand with Article 12 of the UDHR and against the NSA spying program.

In the first three months of 2013, two deeply disturbing crimes brought the problems of sexual and domestic violence to the forefront of public attention in Bolivia. Bolivian feminists have been denouncing these issues—and the general incapacity of the state and police to effectively respond to them—for years. In making their case they have cited facts and figures like the following, time after time:

While a 1996 law provides specialized institutions to receive denunciations of physical abuse, assault and violence, a climate of impunity often prevails. Of 442,056 cases brought to authorities from 2007 to 2011, just 27,133 even made it to prosecutors, and just 9.13% had resulted in guilty verdict or plea by mid-2012 (La Razón). Stated another way, just one of ever 178 complaints yielded a conviction. This builds upon the fact that justice is almost always delayed in the Bolivian justice system: of over 100,000 domestic violence cases begun in 2012, just 51 were closed by February 2013.  Even when domestic violence escalates to murder, accountability does not increase; none of the 120 gender-related murders in 2012 have yet resulted in a conviction (Erbol).

(trigger warning: descriptions of sexual and physical violence, and one deeply offensive denial are included after the jump)

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