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I stumbled across Kesha’s Tik Tok video because of the clip which showed Israeli soldiers dancing to it in the occupied city of Hebron. That Hebron is the site of an ongoing Israeli settler-colonial project nullifies any funny aspect of this performance, at least for me. More about the Orientalism of the Israeli troop’s dancing can be found on Juan Cole’s blog here. I thought that two of the latest pop videos could help to elaborate on the colonial anxiety facing America at this moment. I say colonial rather than post-colonial because it seems to me that the post-colonial moment was born and survived in a narrative of modernization, development and independence that no longer exists.

It should be plain to everyone now that national sovereignty means nothing when capital flows across borders and the profit/loss of resources by a few corporations dictates military action and state policy more than the needs or interests of any group of constituents. Also, I do not say that we are post post-colonial because unfortunately, we have not made any progress. The humanitarian rhetoric of the 80’s and 90’s has now been shown to be a sham, advancing only the cultural “soft power,” of the US and Europe. Any gains that NGOs or humanitarian aid projects have made have been nullified by the increasing capitalization and militarization of the world. Instead, we are going historically backwards, back to a state of colonial military jostling over resource control.

Kesha’s video has a lot to say about contemporary American society. The pop star wakes up alone in a suburban bathtub. She wanders through a world populated by bemused suburbanites and faceless hipsters, their faces obscured by huge sunglasses and/or eye makeup. They don’t need facial expressions because the clothes (the red plastic cups and the Converse)  are all there is. There is nothing else to perform. Kesha, on her golden bicycle, rides past a sign saying “Money,” which she then goes on to sing, she doesn’t have. Her hipster friends live with their parents in this global economic crisis. The video ends with voices babbling indistinctly in Spanish. “We came here for a better life, but we are realizing we made a mistake.” -Tunisian migrants in Italy. Predictable flows of labour are being reversed. With them, the post-colonial anxieties they engendered in Europe and America.

(The belated feminisms of both these videos deserves a separate article, but I will mention how modern pop-stars in America, like their Sex and the City counterparts, both view and treat men as an accessory, like a ring or a pair of shoes. Men are lifeless, suits or stylishly clothed. Boys are the new… girls?)

The most interesting thing in both videos is the amount of American flag paraphernalia. It would be hard to imagine, in 1995, either Britney or Christina explicitly waving American flags. They didn’t have to. The empire was secure, it’s foundations solid and invisible. Now, 15 years later, that is not the case. (As weird as it is to be nostalgic about Jay Z and Britney, as if they were the Beatles or Elvis… At 22, I feel old.) America’s drive to civilize and develop the world through benevolent military intervention and humanitarian aid has failed, largely through it’s own hypocrisy and greed.

So, singing their way through this zeitgeist created by their parents, both Kesha and Miley are emblems of a nostalgia, for the Phoenix Sunbird, for cowboy boots, emblems of an America that once existed but no longer does. By priveleging a “real” America; Nashville over L.A. in Miley’s video, we see the ordinary American’s desire to return to something stable, a comfortable self-confidence that came from living at the center of the world. Before a backdrop of a huge American flag, Miley’s “Made in the USA” video could easily be a stage perfomance to boost the flagging morale of our troops in Afghanistan, who perhaps (unluckily for the innocent civilians around them) haven’t gotten the memo that the empire has fallen. They continue to maim and kill Iraqis and Afghans with the same bravado, acting out a mission that lives on only within them. Ordinary Americans continue to deal with the fallout from the recession and the oil spill, both huge and intractable problems that will mark the future of our country for decades. Obama has not “changed” anything and looks increasingly powerless in a world stage that is largely a prop for the same corporate interests. “It’s a party in the USA…” Oh, how we wish…

Update: Afghan soldiers dancing to Lady Gaga… (thanks Ange!)

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On March 21, the Iranian TV Channel One carried a speech by Iranian Supreme Leader in a gathering of people at Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad on the occasion of Nowruz, Iranian New Year. (Courtesy of MidEastWire.com) 

“Changes in words are not adequate; although we have not seen much of a change there either. Change has to be real. I would like to say this to the American officials that this change that you keep on talking about is a real necessity; you have no other choice, you have to change…

 There can be a true change which should be seen in action… Today, you are hated in the world. You should know this if you already don’t. Nations set fire on your flag. Muslim nations across the world chant death to America.

“What is the reason behind this hatred? Have you ever studied this? Analyzed it? Have you learnt from it? The reason is that you treat the world like a tutor, you talk snobbishly, you want to impose your own will on the world, you interfere in the affairs of other countries, and you implement double-sided criteria. When a young Palestinian is forced to do some act of martyrdom because of the pressure he is under, you bombard him with a mass of propaganda and on the other hand you ignore the crimes of the Zionist regime while it created such a disaster in Gaza for 22 days. You call that young man a terrorist and you say that you are committed towards the security of such a terrorist regime. These are the reasons due to which they hate you around the world. 

“This is an advice to you. For your own benefit, for your own good, for the future of your country, restrain from snobbish attitude, hegemony and the tutor kind of an attitude. Don’t interfere in the affairs of other nations. Be happy with your own rights. Don’t define benefits for yourself in various parts of the world. You will see that America will gradually lose that hated image in the world. These have made you hated. Listen to these words. This is my advice to the American officials, the president and others. Listen well to these words and have them translated for you. Of course don’t give it to the Zionists to translate for you. Consult healthy people and seek their opinions. If the American government continues its same behaviour, method, course, policies against us as the past 30 years, we are the same people, the same nation that we’ve been in the past 30 years…”

Who’s Angry?

March 31, 2009

While the rest of America, and most of Congress, have been bugging out about the $700 billion bailout program called TARP, all of these newly created organisms in the Federal Reserve zoo have quietly been pumping not billions but trillions of dollars into the hands of private companies (at least $3 trillion so far in loans, with as much as $5.7 trillion more in guarantees of private investments). Although this technically isn’t taxpayer money, it still affects taxpayers directly, because the activities of the Fed impact the economy as a whole. And this new, secretive activity by the Fed completely eclipses the TARP program in terms of its influence on the economy.

The most galling thing about this financial crisis is that so many Wall Street types think they actually deserve not only their huge bonuses and lavish lifestyles but the awesome political power their own mistakes have left them in possession of.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/26793903/the_big_takeover/1

Finally, someone tells it like it is.

What is the American obsession with grandeur, a kind of stuffy pedigree that we thought we had outgrown?

In Obama’s Tuesday night address to the nation, Americans clapped and cheered and urged each other to believe that we could again achieve primacy in education, in manufacturing clean energy and automobiles. ” We will be first,” Obama said, “because we are the greatest nation on Earth.” Really? Is this really what we should be striving for? Instead of building healthy communities where everyone can feel a sense of purpose, well-being and opportunity; we are striving to be # 1 in the fields of technology, business, entrepreneurship, etc. I am not against hard work and living up to one’s highest potential. But isn’t this what got us into this mess in the first place? 

I love this imagery, despite the spelling mistake: “The Americans, the British are all raising huge amounts of capital and there is a giant sucking sound you can here (hear) going in that direction.” http://english.aljazeera.net/business/2009/03/20093965640468145.html

Filled with the need to be # 1 in their class, a bunch of hedge funders took risky bets and inflated the housing market. Meanwhile they bought mansions in the Hamptons for themselves and their wives bought $700 shoes. Filled with the need to be # 1 in the world, the US consumed 25% of the world’s resources despite having only 4% of its population. We gobbled up oil and consumer products until we hit peak oil and our deficit ballooned. Filled with the need to be # 1, we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan to prove that “terrorists” would pay for daring to attack us. 

I liked this quote, even though it is about US-Mexico trade relations. I think it illustrates some important points. 

Capital’s “creative destruction” has meant, among other things, that dynamic expansion has co-existed with social polarization—between capitalist and working classes; between core and peripheral states. US transnational interests dominate the US and the US dominates Latin America. Policymakers have little, if any, interest in debt relief, labor rights for workers, job retraining, or effective health, safety, and environmental standards. Trade agreements should, and could, contain such provisions. They will not so long as working classes remain subjectively divided—nationalistic, protectionistic, and xenophobic.

http://www.greens.org/s-r/06/06-13.html

Maybe we just need to slow down. Instead of aiming ourselves at a steep and narrowly defined vision of success, we could learn to value other things, a more humane way of living. Instead of this arrogant posturing like a turkey ruffling its feathers, we need to realize our own absurdity and make choices that other nations have been making for decades. If we are not first in everything, the world will not end. Shocking, I know.

Continuing with this theme, this NYTimes article asks whether, in these dour economic times, it is better to spend or to save? I think the issue is not important. The real question is, are we going to let the government continue to bail out the banks, reinvest in science and technology and keep troops in Iraq and Afghanistan without engaging with and broadly reconsidering the economic and political philosophies that underpin them? 

The article worries about the waiters at fancy restaurants, the party planners and others who made their living catering to an elite used to elaborate celebration and indulgence. Don’t worry about them. They will adapt and find jobs with more dignity. We should not live “in sackcloth and ashes,” but we should reconsider just what is necessary to live well; friends, family, a sense of purpose, rather than tinsel and “sea trout fennel mousse.” 

http://theconversation.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/let-them-eat-a-little-bit-of-cake/

Hope, Change and Pessimism…

February 11, 2009

barackparade_rtr

 

Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany wrote this op-ed in the New York Times on Saturday:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/opinion/08aswany.html?_r=2&ref=opinion

His words, especially the lines,

” We had already begun to tune out. We were beginning to recognize how far the distance is between the great American values that Mr. Obama embodies, and what can actually be accomplished in a country where support for Israel seems to transcend human rights and international law.”

echo my own growing hesitance and disappointment with President Obama. Naturally skeptical by nature or perhaps by experience, I tried so hard to suspend my feelings of doubt in order to give this man, who embodied so many hopes and dreams of the American people, a fair chance. I didn’t forget that the Republicans, used to having things their own way, were not likely to disappear without a fight. Nor did I expect the change that he promised to appear overnight. But I did expect bolder gestures, a tougher stance on critics and a more forceful message of change.

Watching Barack Obama in last night’s Presidential News Conference, I felt like I was watching a man who, upon entering the machine, is about to become very bitter. It was hard for President Obama to conceal his frustration and exasperation with Republicans in the Senate who oppose relief for taxpayers when they are responsible for creating the economic mess that we are all in. But, while he expressed his frustration, he also came across as tired, long-winded, rambling and evasive. Trying to hard to be diplomatic, he ends up alienating everyone. As a friend told me, “Barack Obama is a nice guy in a world of not so nice guys.”

Perhaps this comes as a shock to Barack’s highly educated, liberal sensibilities, but no one likes the nice guy. Politics is a cutthroat game and the winners are those who can outmaneuver and intimidate others into going along with their agenda. As much as I wish we were not like this as a collective human race, this seems to be the way it is. If Barack Obama keeps hoping that the Republicans will eventually be won over by the superior moral and intellectual reasoning of his ideas, then he is in for a long, rude awakening. He needs to get tough, embrace real creative thinking and throw his moderate, temperate caution to the wind. 

 

A similar article appears here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/22/world/middleeast/22mideast.html?fta=y

” I mean, Condoleeza Rice was black and poor, and she still invaded Iraq.”

This in an article that I wrote around the time of the election. If anyone knows how to change the order of posts, I’d like to file this one under ‘October’ so that the more recent ones will come first. Thanks. 

 

Laurel Harig

October 2008

 

America’s Moral Gridlock: We Can Believe In Change But Can We Actually Do It?

 

In speaking of inertia in America, I’d like to begin with a metaphor. As anyone who has ever tried to kick a habit knows, change is a jump- start process, you connect the wires (also known as connecting the dots), start the engine and then wait for the momentum to kick in. We are still waiting for that reassuring hum here in America, in these final weeks before the election. Besides its implications for war and ever more punitive measures against journalists and citizens detained, it was the language of the recent Bush proposal that set my teeth on edge. Those “gosh darn” terrorists, according to John McCain and Sarah Palin, are “jealous of our freedom.” In the words of rap artist Immortal Technique, “I can’t believe you bought that excuse.” 

Hawkish secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson recently echoed Bush’s call for broader executive powers in light of the economic crisis. Deja vu anyone? Will we keep following the marching bootsteps all the way to the cliff’s edge? Meanwhile, the public continues to be swept along on this carnival ride of electoral politics. The gilded imagery of the princess and the rascal, (The Lady and The Tramp) the underdog with big, floppy ears (Dumbo) and his champion are the things that capture our imagination, regardless of the generally bland and uniform rhetoric of both candidates. 

I have long been interested in political speech, even if my attempts to understand vary mostly between despair and satire (although idealism does make an appearance every now and then). Metaphor and rhetoric manipulated well are the best tools of any political candidate. By adopting the speech of the people, by telling them what they want to hear, the politician has the potential to lead but most often ends up only selling him(her)self and thereby the people whom they purport to represent to the media machine. Ergo, they become victims and champions of the populace’s desire to be uninvolved yet informed. 

A few blocks from where I live, two mega churches loom over the landscape like giant shopping malls. I do not live in Kansas or Missouri, rather very close to Philadelphia. Perhaps the French are right to disdain our politics, as Bill Maher recently remarked on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, America is “a small progressive European minority threatened by hordes of bible- waving creationists.” In taking matters into our own hands, is it also necessary that we join hands with others? Should we take ourselves seriously? Is seriousness necessary and can any real joy be salvaged from this pragmatism and worry? 

In her book The End of America, Naomi Wolf argues that only by reviving a civilian democracy (footsoldiers) can America reverse its slide towards totalitarianism. Her argument is lucid as she exhorts ordinary people, doctors and lawyers, sales clerks and homemakers, to read the news and to create it. Writing op-eds, canvassing, bringing politics to the dinner table, all of these things are needed if we hope to take our government out of the hands of experts and into our own. 

I do not know if America should strive again to be the envy of the world. We must prepare for the unseen. The promise of a better day. “We cannot turn back.” A real concerned citizen could be the next president. “Hold on firmly to that hope.” – Senator Barack Obama. Shifts in society always happen slowly, gradually, and there are many points along the course where we can step in and modify the direction. “The day we stop believing democracy works is the day we lose it.” That bit of wisdom is from Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones. May we heed George Lucas’ advice in order to avoid deepening our catastrophe.