Category Archives: Politics

Veterans, Hearing Loss, and Disability

Am I allowed to claim the status of struggling with a disability? I feel like I’m not — I’m a hetero cisgendered white male in a position of privilege — but I’ve lately been thinking more and more about ability and disability.

I’ve lost a portion of my hearing and suffer from persistent tinnitus. I don’t know how much of my hearing I’ve lost, but I saw the otolaryngologist (the ear doc) today, and have an appointment to see an audiologist. I’m fairly certain that what I’m dealing with now is related to shooting firearms and being close to things blowing up from my times associated with the military. As a young man, I was sometimes dumb about wearing ear protection, and as an older man in Afghanistan, there was some stuff for which I was inadequately prepared.

Sometimes in crowded social spaces, I can’t hear what people across the table are saying, or I have to watch a person’s mouth very closely to figure out what he or she is saying, both of which can make people uncomfortable. So I wondered aloud to the Orientalist whether this is a disability — most people my age can hear better than I do — and she strongly resisted that idea, or at least strongly resisted the idea that I might characterize myself as a disabled person.

I think disability is a continuum. As someone who teaches writing, I know there will be students in my classroom who don’t outwardly show their disabilities: students who are on the autism spectrum (including those who identify as Aspies), veterans with PTSD, people who struggle with clinical depression or major depressive disorder. Hearing loss happens to most of us as we get older, as does loss of vision. (I’m noticing it’s probably about time to start thinking about reading glasses, too. Is that a disability?) Many universities, including the one where I work, require syllabus statements about disability and reasonable accommodation, which I think is a good thing. I also wonder, though, whether such statements reinforce the idea of there being such a thing as “normal,” from which any difference is deviance and must be in whatever sense “accommodated.”

In other words, do statements of reasonable accommodation keep us locked into a pernicious series of value judgments? It’s an easy thing for someone like me (hetero cisgendered white male) to ask. I’d like to work toward being in a sociocultural space where that privilege isn’t so often assumed.

Hope When the Roads Turn Black

Things here seem to stay where people set them. Our mentor team rotates, here for 45 days or three months or six months or a year, and some of the Afghan instructors rotate in and out as well. In Lab 15, there are four dead computers gathering dust under desks and in corners — two Dells, two off-brand — in addition to the 20 sheet-shrouded operational computers running down either side of the long room with a single row of battered metal chairs facing front in the middle. There are computer parts in tattered cardboard boxes, a boombox for playing English-language listening and conversation practice cassettes and CDs, a DVD player, a VCR, a marker- and dirt-smudged Smart Board hanging on the wall. In the back corner of the room, there is a metal wheeled cart with a TV set and a dirty mug and three boxed sets of children’s games. Each of the operational computers has a small uninterruptible power supply next to it because of how unreliable the electricity is. Under the teacher’s desk, there are two more power supplies on their sides, unused, a white thermal carafe, styrofoam forms for packing electronics, woven reed baskets, a CRT and a 13-inch flat-panel monitor, remote controls hidden under stacks of years-old student papers, an empty rosewater bottle. The rooms we work in accumulate the detritus of instruction, including the superannuated technological capital associated with computer-based teaching.

afgh_mud_huts

When I first arrived here, I moved freely from my office overlooking the airfield to Lab 15 or to other classrooms to observe the Afghan teachers, though that freedom of movement was and is circumscribed by the boundaries of the small campus. It’s fenced on all sides, accessible only through checkpoints with gates, crew-served weapons, and armed guards. We drive past the airfield to get here: on one side the civilian Kabul International Airport that the Ariana and Kam and Safi jets fly out of with the few here wealthy enough to travel on them, and on the other the Mi-35 and Mi-17 helicopters and C-27 cargo planes of the Afghan Air Force. It was easy enough to take a break from working on the computer — before I learned to I needed to get out of the office and move in order to do my job — and watch the planes taking off and landing, just as I used to watch the cargo ships go up and down the Hudson from my office at West Point.

I see similarities to the large-scale mobility of the multinational military presence here — the helicopters and cargo planes, flying missions and materiel and personnel beyond, within, and across Afghanistan — in the critique Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu offer in “Composing in a Local-Global Context” (2009) of the formulation by which “success… is imagined in terms of the extra-territorial mobility achieved: the ability of the few across the world to constantly move, untied by emotion or responsibility to any one territory, identity, or career” (122). Transnational and transterritorial mobility is a marker of privilege, much as we see in “Globalism and Multimodality in a Digitized World,” where Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe, Gorjana Kisa, and Shafinaz Ahmed (2009) use “the term transnational… to signify a growing group of students who are at home in more than one culture… These students typically speak multiple languages, often including varieties of English from outside the United States, and maintain networks of friends, family members, and other contacts around the globe” (56). In some instances, mobility itself possesses agency, rather than the things that possess that mobility, as in Horner and Lu’s assertion that “the extra-territorial mobility of capital robs individual locales, lives, and lines of work of any vestige of stability” (123). The tribally and socially connected nature of Afghan culture feels deeply local, with little of the assumed privilege we associate with the American fetish for cars and planes and so-called footloose capital.

afgh_market_street

Since the recent incident, it’s become harder for Americans to move around the campus. We don’t go anywhere alone, and there’s a check-in and check-out system, and increased security measures all around. Body armor any time we go outside the gate, even if we’re still inside the wire. Within the gate, there’s little freedom of movement, and few places to go. We draw the shades in our offices, and I no longer watch the comings and goings of the planes.

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Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 2

For the Afghans, the new semester starts in about a week. From my perspective as an advisor, everything looks unsettled: changes to classrooms, registration, new student orientation, teaching schedules. To my eyes, those changes prefigure larger ones in the country, and many of the Afghans seem to me as ambivalent about the smaller ones as the larger ones. I’m sitting in on an interview for a new instructor tomorrow, talking with another instructor later this week about suitable internet readings for the English-language Current Events and Culture elective, still not quite sure what to make of the إن شاء الله (insha’Allah) attitude that prevails here and the apparent incuriousness that seems to be its analogue. The Afghans I’ve met are enormously skilled in spoken argument, good-humored, passionate, but seem almost imperturbable in the way they take everything as given.

Nobody seems terribly curious about Egypt, or Tunisia, or Syria, or Libya, or at least they’re not willing to express as much to me. The translators and teachers that I work with use the internet, though they’re not nearly as attached to it as the Americans, and they aren’t as much interested in news from it as they are in culture — in YouTube videos, especially of Indian movies, and in Facebook. They’re more interested in radio and TV, and again the most popular TV programs seem to be Indian movies. That lack of interest in news frustrates me some because I’m eager to ask them what they think about the events in other countries in the region, and perhaps that implicit connection (is it as apparent to them as it is to me?) to their situation is why they’re reluctant to engage.

As I wrote last time, I think there is a connection between Egypt and Afghanistan, and a strong one, and it plays out in all sorts of ways with the topics I’ve been thinking about: the relationships between and among government, rhetoric, politics, organizing, technology, economics, and foreign intervention. The debates we’ve seen over what factors produced or contributed to the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere — and who’s promoting which factors — seem to be absolutely key to questions of how governance is to work in those countries and what (if any) role foreign governments might have in answering those questions. Folks who study rhetoric and technology might have something to contribute to discussions of how democracies function in the 21st century. The assertions offered by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt as to the nature of those uprisings are as good a place as any to start:

The insurrections of Arab youth are certainly not aimed at a traditional liberal constitution that merely guarantees the division of powers and a regular electoral dynamic, but rather at a form of democracy adequate to the new forms of expression and needs of the multitude. This must include, firstly, constitutional recognition of the freedom of expression — not in the form typical of the dominant media, which is constantly subject to the corruption of governments and economic elites, but one that is represented by the common experiences of network relations.

This is a claim both about the motivations of the rebels involved in the uprisings and about the way they represent themselves and are represented. As is the habit of Hardt and Negri, it hits many of its targets only glancingly because of its degree of abstraction: certainly there are problems with the dominant media’s relation to political and economic interests; certainly there are concerns with corruption; certainly there’s a desire for freedom of expression; certainly the ways people organize themselves into and communicate via and act among and within networks (as even a vexed a figure as General McChrystal has recently argued) need recognition; but all these things are a lot more concrete than Hardt and Negri’s theorizing might indicate. At some points, though, the connections between their claims about media, democracy, organizing, and rhetoric become (refreshingly) more clear, as when they assert that

The organisation of the revolts resembles what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world, from Seattle to Buenos Aires and Genoa and Cochabamba, Bolivia: a horizontal network that has no single, central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it. Outside observers have tried to designate a leader for the Egyptian revolts since their inception: maybe it’s Mohamed ElBaradei, maybe Google’s head of marketing, Wael Ghonim. They fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other body will take control of events. What they don’t understand is that the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre — that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure.

There it is! Symptoms, not causes: that starts to say something a little more intelligent — and a little more interesting — than the tired debate over whether the events in Egypt and elsewhere represent some sort of Facebook revolution. That’s what I’ll talk about here, and that look at the debate over the alleged Facebook revolution takes me to questions of access and privilege in relation to new media, social media, and mainstream media. Those questions, I assert, are fundamentally economic questions, even though those with the privilege of access to such media prefer not to think of them as such, because behind economic questions of access to media lie more fundamental economic questions of access to the basic needs of sustenance. The revolution in Egypt was in very large part about bread. Not a terribly surprising thing, maybe, but in the broader picture of how American development policy via USAID actually caused the shortages, troubling: Americans might happily celebrate the apparent pro-democracy internet freedoms we associate with Tahrir square, but what do we do when we realize that the longstanding design of our economic foreign policy is precisely what the rebels rose up against?

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Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 1

A little less than a month ago, two very small things happened. Both were mediated to me by the internet in the same place where I’m sitting and typing on my laptop now, in front of my window in the KAIA North barracks in Afghanistan, and I’m still thinking about their intersection.

The first thing: I was listening to an intermittent stream of NPR’s Morning Edition that featured Steve Inskeep interviewing Iranian-American academic Vali Nasr about the Muslim middle class and its role in the revolution in Egypt, and Nasr identified the Muslim middle class as “people who are better off, who want new opportunities, participate in the global economy, and also want the political freedoms that go with it. Those are the people who use the social media.” A little later in the interview, Nasr made a firm distinction between “the free flow of information” and “free economics and integration of these parts of the world into the global economy.” Nasr’s first point struck me as an important one, in a way that was underreported in much of the press: the revolution in Egypt had a strong class-based economic component. His second point struck me as curious: aren’t “the free flow of information” and economic freedom fundamentally related, especially today? Why draw a line between them?

The second thing: a friend asked me, via Facebook, “What do the Afghans over there think about what’s going on in Egypt?” It’s a good question, and one I still don’t really have an answer for. The Afghans I talk to are circumspect about their opinions, and understandably so, I think, given their history. And it’s an important question. There are clear intersections — sometimes oppositional, sometimes parallel — between the democracy-building impulses in the two countries, and clear intersections as well between the interrelations among information, democracy, and economics in the two countries.

Both countries’ struggles with and toward democratic freedoms are simultaneously spurred and inhibited by huge and complex economic problems that go far beyond their enormous and systemic corruption and graft. Part of what I’m going to do here is try to use Egypt as a way to think about Afghanistan (as well as a way to think about the concerns with economics, technology, and literacy that occupy my scholarly practice), so I’ll for the moment take Afghanistan’s economic problems — more than a third of the population unemployed, more than a third of the population living below the poverty line, about three-quarters of the population illiterate, a per capita GDP that ranks 212th out of the world’s 229 nations — as a given, to be returned to and examined later in considerably more detail, using Egypt’s example as an analytical tool.

So first to Egypt, and the Facebook hype.

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Toward Afghanistan, Part 1

In September 2010, the New York Times illustrated an article about the complex interrelationships among corruption, education, custom, and gender in Afghanistan with a bruising anecdote:

Hundreds of children would gather on the iconic Nader Khan Hill in the capital, Kabul, on a gorgeous Friday in September and fly kites emblazoned with slogans lauding the rule of law and equality for women. The kites, along with copies of the Afghan Constitution and justice-themed comic books, would be gifts of the United States, part of a $35 million effort “to promote the use of Afghanistan’s formal justice system.”

Afghan policemen hijacked the event, stealing dozens of kites for themselves and beating children with sticks when they crowded too close to the kite distribution tent.

Most bore messages about the importance of gender equality, but there was hardly a girl with a kite, although plenty of girls were around. One DPK staff member pushed through the crowd to give 10-year-old Shaqila Nabi a kite; her sister Farzana, 8, had wanted one, too, but a policeman had just swung at her with a stick and she had darted out of harm’s way, and out of sight.

Shaqila raced back to her father, Gul Nabi, a horse wrangler peddling rides. He promptly took the kite and gave it to a boy.

“He is my son and he should get the kite,” he said.

It’s intended to come across as painful, I’m sure, and that’s why the author led with it: the anecdote is full of abject rhetorical appeals to pathos carefully chosen to communicate the challenges the author sees as facing Afghanistan. Still, those appeals to pathos don’t make the article’s representations any less true, and as I’ve processed through the various stations of this CONUS Replacement Center in preparation to go over there, they’ve been on my mind.

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Good Things

Today seems like a good day to again acknowledge that I feel tension about the institution for which I worked as a soldier, from 1992 to 1996, and again work for as a professor, since 2006. When I was a soldier, the Army was the best group of people I’d ever worked with, and after a couple years — first as Corporal Edwards, and then as Sergeant Edwards — the job was the first time I’d ever been genuinely good at something that challenged me. It was also the first time I felt I was doing something important; something bigger than me. I feel the same way now: after graduate study and a few years as a professor, I’m again feeling like I’m getting good at what I do, and again welcoming the feeling that I’m doing something important, serving something bigger than me.

I know the Army does good things sometimes. (Sometimes it doesn’t. We know that. It’s important to acknowledge.) I know it’s full of people who are enormously committed to doing good things, and to doing things that they believe are good. Like the American culture from which it draws its soldiers, it has its share of stupid and vicious people as well — Steven Green, Lynndie England, William Calley, the helicopter pilot identified as Crazy Horse 18 of the 227th Aviation Regiment — but they are the exception to the rule constituted by men and women I served with in the 24th Infantry and the men and women I work with now; people who are good-hearted, caring, massively and intimidatingly competent, and committed to an ideal of voluntary service that many folks can’t imagine.

But I’ve been strongly opposed to the second war in Iraq since its inception, and agree with the argument that basing a decision to go to war in which humans will die upon pretenses that one knows are false can only be characterized as evil. The fact that over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in that war is an after-the-fact measure of the magnitude of the effects of that evil. Some American soldiers, like Steven Green, Lynndie England, and Crazy Horse 18, bear willing and active complicity in that evil. Worse to me, it seems, is the way that such evil contaminates even those who try to do the right thing: those who serve well in Iraq, who do good deeds, build schools, protect innocents, and even those at home who allowed or promoted the election of a President who made that decision to go to war on premises he knew were false — we’re all brushed by that evil.

I try to do the right thing. I talk to my students about what might and might not constitute the right thing to do when they become officers. The Orientalist gives up lunch hours each month to facilitate discussions among those officers-to-be about ethics in the military. And as wrong as I feel Iraq was (and as strongly as I support those over there trying to put together the pieces so we don’t leave the place even worse than when we went in), I want to believe that we’re doing the right thing in Afghanistan. I’ve just finished Amin Saikal’s Modern Afghanistan, and have begun Neil Moran’s Kipling and Afghanistan and Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, with Sarah Chayes’s The Punishment of Virtue and Margaret Mills’s Rhetoric and Politics in Afghan Traditional Storytelling on deck. The Taliban’s corrupt medieval thuggery and support of al Qaeda’s vicious tactics, its brutal and hideous misogyny, and its opposition to education, enlightenment, and fundamental human rights seem to me to entirely merit (and, in fact, morally require) the presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Afghanistan is a place where 14% of the population is literate, and where soldiers — and civilians — have begun to do good things.

That’s a project to which I hope to contribute. Next year, I deploy to Afghanistan for six months, to help with language and literacy education. I’ll be in tension about it then, perhaps much as I am now. But I’m hopeful.

I think we can do good things.

As with all material on this blog, the opinions in this post are my own, and do not represent those of any institution with which I am associated.

The Teleology of Capitalism

Does capitalism have a particular teleology? If those who believe strongly in the virtues of unfettered free-market capitalism were to think teleologically, what ideal end-state would they imagine, and for whom?

Popular critiques of vulgar or orthodox Marxism understand its ideal goal to consist of class struggle leading to socialist revolution followed by a worker’s utopia wherein “after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Critique of the Gotha Program). Critiques of various forms of Marxism that admit a more sophisticated understanding still often find a solid target in teleologies that imagine some remedy to the appropriation of unpaid labor and a loosening of the bourgeoisie’s private ownership of the means of production: so, yes, Marxisms by definition often imagine some future circumstance toward which they work.

Do the advocates of free-market competition similarly imagine some ideal future circumstance — and if so, what does it look like?

Kitchen Tables

This year, the Henry Ossian Flipper dinner was open to faculty, and I went. It was a fine event. The dinner celebrates the first black American cadet to graduate from West Point, and celebrates as well a cadet who graduated under the most challenging of circumstances, and who served his country and lived his life, quotidian, under those same circumstances.

Henry O. Flipper as a cadet

There’s a lesson to be had not only from Lieutenant Flipper, but from the cadets: a lesson that challenge, that difficulty, is quotidian, for some more than others. (Lieutenant Flipper’s account of his time as a cadet is genuinely remarkable, and well worth reading.) In 1877, Henry O. Flipper became the first African-American to graduate from the United States Military Academy, and in 1881 he was court-martialed for embezzlement and for conduct unbecoming an officer, and was dismissed from the Army in 1882 upon conviction on the latter charge.

Henry O. Flipper as an officer

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Academic Category Error

People in my academic discipline sometimes conflate “military” and “war.” From what I’ve seen of the broader scape of academe, that’s not uncommon. In listserv discussions, interactions at conferences, calls for proposals, and hallway conversations, there’s a common assumption that any association with the military must commit one to a monolithic and intolerant ideology supporting all war, always, in all contexts.

Two nights ago, on Monday, Eugene Jarecki showed up on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart promoting his new book. (Jarecki wrote and directed the award-winning 2005 documentary Why We Fight, which — while voluminously researched and attempting to provide the appearance of scrupulous fairness — mostly did a very good job for 99 minutes of proving that Jarecki agreed with the cautions offered in Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” speech: to paraphrase a number of critics, the movie was an op-ed piece, not investigative reporting.) He had some good things to say about today’s links between the defense industry and American foreign policy, and with Stewart’s prompting and assistance, he made a number of solid points fully and clearly in the nine minutes or so that he had.

Stewart’s a breezy interviewer, and I think Jarecki would have fared better with a more deliberate pace, perhaps even with being asked to read a passage from the book out loud, NPR-style, though that seldom plays well on television. (Would that it did.) I say this because Jarecki was invited here to West Point to talk to people — cadets and faculty — about his movie after its release, and accounts of those conversations have traveled, some of them making their way into his new book, and some of them making their way into our Dean’s annual address to faculty — all faculty, military and civilian — where I first heard them two months ago. I quote here from Jarecki’s book, The American Way of War, published ten days ago:

Located in wooded isolation some 50 miles north of New York City, West Point is very much in its own intellectual orbit, not entirely removed from the workings of the American defense establishment, yet not entirely in sync with them either. On my first drive there, I recall the incredulity with which friends and family reacted when I called from the road to tell them where I was going. They were surprised that a military academy would even show a film like Why We Fight, let alone invite a self-acknowledged critic of U.S. defense policy, to address its best and brightest.

As it turns out, this incredulity reflects a prejudice that sweepingly and mistakenly equates bad foreign policy with those entrusted to implement it. While soldiers come in all types and no single generalization can be made, one finds inspiring abundance on West Point’s faculty of responsible thinkers who feel a responsibility not only to train their cadets in the military arts but to educate them more broadly about the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s foreign policy system.

Jarecki’s words are a careful and instructive counter to the myopic conflation I describe above. When our Dean read those words, and conveyed them to the faculty with an argument about their importance, they helped me see something more about teaching at this place, and about why I’m teaching here and want to continue to teach here. The engagement with diverse and critical perspectives that Jarecki describes is something I’ve seen here far more than at any other college or university I’ve attended or taught at, and seen especially with a remarkable openness in the classroom.

It’s remarkable the things cadets are unafraid to say and the criticisms they’re unafraid to make, reasonably and professionally, and how calmly and precisely they’re able to disagree with one another on loaded issues, and then think nothing of it and move on to celebrate and support one another. (Mostly.) In my class, they’ve just finished a unit on multi-modal argument, with more than a few of them giving presentations on similar or identical topics in rapid succession, and the kaleidoscope of perspectives has been refreshingly more wide-ranging than some of the homogeneous arrays of ideological and rhetorical commonplaces I’ve seen elsewhere. And in many ways more liberally accepting; more embracing of what Benjamin Franklin called “all these scatter’d counsels.” That ideological diversity and tolerance strikes me as one of the most valuable assets that a democratic nation might promote in its military, and one that I wish I might see more of in academe’s broader scape.