ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
As you might know if you follow me elsewhere, I'm in the middle of a two week fieldwork trip, heading back and forth between Beirut and Amman to talk and ask about community mobilization, Syrian refugees, and everyday transnationalisms. I've been posting pretty regularly on Tumblr and Twitter, or at least trying to...

But I was using Keefak, a language study app designed for Lebanese dialect, on the airplane here, and found the dialogue on politics really interesting. It's amazing how much a short text can tell is about how people think about politics. So I decided I'd try to record my thoughts on what we can learn about Lebanese citizens and their thoughts on government from this text.

Read on for screenshots of the dialogue and my analysis...

kell siyésé halo malak )
ajnabieh: Happy woman with broom: FIGHT ALL THE OPPRESSIONS; same woman, dejected, "Fight ALL the oppresssions?" (ALL the oppressions?)
I suppose I can count myself lucky that I joined Twitter the day before Octavia Nasr was fired, as it gave me a chance to watch how things went down from within the system itself. For those who haven't heard, Nasr, a Lebanese-born CNN journalist, tweeted on the death of Sheikh Fadlallah, a Lebanese Shi'i cleric considered to be the "spiritual leader" of Hezbollah, saying "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot." Basically then the internet went BOOM OH NO SHE DIDN'T in a serious business way. She wrote a blog post explaining what she meant, highlighting Fadlallah's support for women's rights within Islam and her positive experiences interviewing him as a young Christian woman reporter in Lebanon. Nevertheless, she was let go from her position as Middle East correspondent for CNN.

Jillian C. York isn't the only person to have drawn the connection between Helen Thomas's firing and Octavia Nasr's. Obviously, there are similarities, but I want to point out the differences, because I think they're illustrative. Thomas made a series of comments, on video, to a Zionist rabbi at a pro-Israel celebration at the White House, suggesting that Israeli Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go back to Poland and Germany. Thomas's comment strikes me as much more problematic than Nasr's; it fails to acknowledge that there are a lot of complicated and legitimate reasons that Jews can't just "go back" to Poland and Germany (or even Russia, which is where the majority of new immigrants to Israel today are coming from). As we say 'round these parts of the internet, she showed her ass, in completely ignoring the history of disprivilege (from garden-variety discrimination all the way through to genocide) that Jews in the West have had to deal with. Her sympathies to the ways that Palestinians have been screwed over by the politics of the last century in Palestine made her unable to see what was wrong with her statement.

You know, if major news outlets decide they want to start firing people for showing their asses around the collective oppression of large groups of humanity, I'm not going to be opposed to that. (There is the small point that lots of people have said far worse things about various groups than Thomas did, and do it on camera frequently, and still have jobs; why she was removed from her position while other people can remain does speak to the ways Arab-Americans and those that support Palestinian rights have trouble being heard in public.) But that's not what Nasr did. She made a relatively banal comment about the passing of a political leader whose work she knew from her experience as a journalist, and who she thinks had a complicated and not entirely negative effect on Lebanon's politics. Comments like this get made all the time after political leaders die; it's common courtesy, even if you think the person in question had terrible policies and effects on politics, or even was a downright terrible person. (I remember being very confused when Nixon died, because all the reporting about him was positive. "Didn't he do a lot of terrible things?" I asked my mother. "Yes," she said; "they're just being polite.")

Nasr's error was in two places. The first was in saying something remotely positive about someone affiliated with Hezbollah. The mainstream opinion in the US is that Hezbollah and other Islamist groups are an undifferentiated mass of violent terrorists with no political goals other than death, destruction, and rule over others. (This is, just to be clear, not an opinion that the actual practices of the diverse political movements that get lumped into the category "Islamist" supports, in the end.) Any treatment of these movements as politically legitimate is immediately suspicious, particularly if it is voiced done by a public figure.

Her second problem was in being Arab while she said it. While non-Arabs do take some heat for violating this collective discourse on the non-validity of Islamist movements, the hit they take is much smaller--particularly if they're well-educated white folks. (Note that the British Ambassador to Lebanon, for instance, said much nicer things about Fadlallah than Nasr. No one's calling for his head, and his post only has one negative comment.) For Arabs in American political life, however, any deviation from this imperative discourse can be catastrophic.

In my dissertation, I call this process "discursive misrecognition" (for high-theoretical reasons I won't both to lay out here, but am happy to talk about more in comments!); it also shows up in the Arab-American studies literature as "political racism" or "refusal to dialogue." (FWIW, I think Stephen Salaita's work is still the best exploration of this dynamic that's currently out there.) Its major characteristic, I argue, is that the speaker and the spoken are fused, such that it is when certain speakers say particular things that they are ruled out of the bounds of politics. The forms of misrecognition that Arab-American deal with when they try to speak to politics are many: they can be silenced or ignored, they can be deliberately misheard, they can be forced to speak (as in the constantly demanded statements condemning terrorism), and they can be penalized for speech that, in another individual, would be considered controversial (or maybe even repugnant), but not a career-killer.

Although I think it's too bad that Nasr lost her position at CNN over this comment, I'm fundamentally unsurprised. It's dangerous to speak while Arab in the current political climate. Any deviation from what's demanded of you will have consequences, and they are often unpredictable. In the end, I think I'm with Abu Aardvark (better, or perhaps worse, known as Marc Lynch of George Washington University): I'd threaten to stop watching CNN if I ever watched CNN, but sadly CNN's programming put an end to that long ago..

Relevant/interesting links:

Global Voices's Arab blogosphere roundup

Juan Cole's blogpost on the Octavia Nasr firing. I think his use of "Israel Lobby" in this piece is a little awkward: if by "Israel Lobby" he means AIPAC Et Al - you know, the actual pro-Israel lobbyists in DC - then I don't think it's them; this is bigger than just the pro-Israel foreign policy segments, this is systemic in American politics. If he means "everybody in politics who's a Zionist," then it strikes me that calling them the "Israel Lobby" is unclear. I haven't been reading Cole a lot lately, so I don't know how he's using it in this post Mearsheimer and Walt period.
ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (marxist feminist)
I have an ethical proposition:

If you're incapable of having sympathy for someone you're writing about--don't write about them.

Amazingly, this post isn't inspired by the recent fandom-explosion on the topic of racism and inappropriate uses of tragedy in fanfic. (If you haven't seen this, and are interested, ask away and I'll point you to the right places. It's train-wrecky to the extreme.) It's inspired by a book I just finished reading, that, for obvious reasons, I'll refrain from mentioning by name. The book is very useful to me, because it includes data on a topic I'm working on, in a time period I both wasn't personally around to see, and from a different perspective than the other things I've seen. But about twice a page, I come across a statement that makes my jaw drop--that makes me think, "Did ze really just write that?!?!?"

It's not that the statements are out-and-out *ist (where * is the identity of the folks being studied--obviously you can make a good guess based on my work). It's more that the author, as a general principle, seems to feel that the assessments that those who are politically active in the community make are "alleged" or "supposedly." Moderates "believe," while more radical groups "feel" their political conclusions. One group faces "exploitation," the other "mistreatment." They "drape their causes in the mantle" of the ideologies they use, or find it a "convenient position," rather than actually believing those ideologies are useful to explain their political problems. A group is "in principle secular and democratic," which seems to imply that they would cease to be such in practice. A particular cause is central because "clinging to [it] is comforting," not because it's an important political issue that had broader political support than any other issue. The trend here is to devalue the political opinions held by members of the group under study, to subtly suggest they're the result of paranoia, misperceptions, un-American values, or perhaps even conspiracy.

It's clear the author has a preference for which political tactic these groups should take. I don't share that preference. Nevertheless, I don't begrudge hir that preference; of course we all have political preferences on the political questions we study. If we didn't, we wouldn't be political scientists, or even political beings. But I do begrudge that, rather than stating this preference outright, the author undermined the alternate argument throughout the text. I do begrudge that the alternate viewpoints aren't given the respect of a thorough treatment. I do begrudge that the bias in the text goes entirely unmarked.

I'll admit that I had a very uncharitable reaction to the text. In particular, my response was "I should never read texts about [ethnopolitical identity A] by someone with [ethnopolitical identity B]." But that's crap, and I know it: I know plenty of people of [ethnopolitical identity B] who've written brilliant stuff on [ethnopolitical identity A]. Sometimes I disagree with it, but it's worth reading. This isn't a problem of identity, really--it's a problem of crappy writing.

I think the root of this problem is the inability to have sympathy with the subject of one's writing. Not sympathy in the meaning of pity--not to feel sorry for one's research/writing subjects--but sympathy in the sense of being able to understand what they're feeling, and looking to see their perspective. To represent what is thought, and felt, and argued, and believed heartily by the people you are writing about: this is what we are called to, as writers of fiction, as writers of nonfiction, as researchers studying human beings, whether contemporarily or historically, through their actions or their texts.

I've been doing fieldwork on the Arab-American community in New York for two years now (sidenote: TWO YEARS? REALLY? *boggles*). I don't agree with everyone I've worked with, every cause I've documented, every political perspective I've written about. I've attended protests and organizing meetings for groups whose politics I agree with only in part. But that doesn't mean I'm exempted from explaining what their politics means to them, and what claims to validity it has. If I also, either at the same time or in a different piece of writing, want to lay out my objections to their politics, I may do so--and I should do so clearly, and in an aboveboard manner. But to dismiss them so casually through my writing is to do poor research.

Manuel Castells, in his book The Power of Identity, writes the following:

[S]ocial movements must be understood in their own terms: namely, they are what they say they are. Their practices (and foremost their discursive practices) are their self-definition. This approach takes such away fromthe hazardous task of interpreting the 'true' consciousness of movements, as if they could only exist by revealing the 'real' structural conditions. As if, in order to come to life, they could necessarily have to bear these contradictions, as they bear their weapons and brandish their flags. A different, and necessary, research operation is to establish the relationship between the movements as defined by their practice, their values, and their discourse, and the social processes to which they seem to be associated.

This is my guiding principle for studying social movements: to document them as they understand themselves, first and foremost, and unpack their discourses in order to understand them. We aren't duty-bound to only study movements, communities, and subjects we agree with fully. We are duty-bound to represent our objects of study so that they might recognize themselves, and not feel dismissed, denigrated, or ignored in works that are intended to explain them to others--even if they disagree with our conclusions.
ajnabieh: Sign for a store reading "Hot Chick." (hot chick)
I've been following the Colleen LaRose indictment with only a quarter of an eye--while I'm interested in the politics of jihadist recruiting, I'm far more interested in the politics of non-violent Muslims and Arabs, substantially because I think our collective anxiety over the very few individuals who participate in this sort of politics ends up silencing the far bigger group of people who share identities or political stances with them, and who get ruled outside of the political field.

But as a discourse analyst, I couldn't help but find a whole bunch of what is being said about "Jihad Jane" interesting. (Note: when an academic says "interesting," at least 50% of the time it's a synonym for "fucked up.") Here are some random links, with my commentary.

Who'd You Rather? Jihad Jane or Irshad Manji - KABOBFest

Keeping in mind that KABOBFest's level of humor is generally at about this level of maturity, I do give this a hairy eyeball. The line "They’re both Muslim extremists, just in different ways" is interesting, though. And I'm amused by the commenter who says "While it's true that [Manji] looks like a Hindi Steve Erkel, it's usually the nerds that are freaks in the bed." I'm also confused that not a single person has mentioned that Manji's queer, which would strike me as, you know, relevant.

Neighbor: 'Jihad Jane' Was 'Weird, Weird, Weird Lady ... Across The Hall' - NPR

Key quote: "Newell's wife, Kristy, said LaRose talked to her cats all the time. But they never heard her discuss politics or extremist plots." I talk to my cats. Kind of a lot. Frequently in LOLCat. I hope that's not enough to get a terrorism investigation started these days.

Pennsylvania: "Jihad Jane" indicted for plotting to recruit jihad fighters and commit terror acts - JihadWatch

Oh, JihadWatch. If I were writing a bingo card for the comments, I'd make sure to include "open advocacy of violence," "derision at the idea that racial/ethnic/religious profiling is racist," and "attempts to rhetorically strip LaRose of her whiteness." I mean, Khaleen? Really? (Which wouldn't even be homophonous with Colleen, FYI.)

The ‘Jihad Jane’ Case vs. Racial Profiling at Airports - Washington Independent

For JihadWatch, what the LaRose case proves is that profiling does work--we need to profile Muslims to prevent terrorism. For Spencer Ackerman at The Washington Independent, it means profiling does not work--LaRose was specifically recruited to help avoid detection, because she doesn't 'look like' a Muslim. (This ThinkProgress piece takes the same line, and also includes a bunch of pro-profiling quotes that make me want to slap people.) Interesting that the same event and details could be used to 'prove' both sides of the same argument.

Three crucial questions in the 'Jihad Jane' case - Christian Science Monitor

Key Quote: "Born in Michigan, raised in Texas, living in Pennsylvania, LaRose may have had no contact with actual Muslims prior to professing a willingness to die for their cause in electronic messages." This is what interests me about her; I'm not convinced, from what I've seen, that LaRose is actually a Muslim in any doctrinal sense--that she'd taken shahada, studied Islam in an organized manner, prayed at a masjid, anything. What did Islam mean to her? Why was it the road to resisting the trials of her daily life that she chose?
ajnabieh: Sign for a store reading "Hot Chick." (hot chick)
The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought - New Essays
by Steven Salaita

I read this slim volume of essays about a year ago, for the simple reason that it was on the shelf in the Arab-American studies section of NYU's Bobst Library (E184, right at the end of that aisle on the fifth floor...what, like you don't have certain sections of the library memorized?), and I hadn't read it yet. I'd enjoyed a previous book of Salaita's, Anti-Arab Racism in the USA, and was interested to see where he was going. My first impressions of the book were overwhelmingly positive; I believe I actually read the entirety of "Open-Mindedness on Independence Day," a scathing critique of a Thomas Friedman column, to the first person I saw after I read it. I wrote a review of it at the Livejournal community 50books_poc (for people aiming to read more books by people of color) to encourage others to pick it up. In particular, I loved the book's prioritization of questions of discourse and meaning, his exhortation in the final essay to please listen to Arabs when they speak, rather than rendering them impossible to speak with. This is exactly the line of argument I'm developing in my dissertation, under the rubric of "discursive misrecognition." (You can read more about the way I'm formulating this concept vis-a-vis critical theories of recognition in this paper.) When I began designing the syllabus for the course I am teaching this semester, called The Middle East in Diaspora, I ordered it for the students without a second thought.

Then I reread it.

I still like the book. In fact, I might like it more... )

ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
One of the pleasures of big disciplinary conferences is the collision of papers that don't necessarily have much in common. (Of course, one of the downsides of big national conferences is...being in a room with people who don't have anything to say to each other. But anyway.) At APSA, I was on a panel about race, racisms, and xenophobia, on which I presented a paper on theories of recognition, the Arab-American experience of injustice, and why we need to consider discursive misrecognition as a real field for social struggle. In classic APSA form, I, an interpretivist ethnographer presenting a paper on political theory was paired with one historian and two survey research behavioralists/political psychologists. Nevertheless, the research was all fascinating, and I was glad to be on the panel.

One of the other papers was Measuring Respondent Agreement/Disagreement with Framing Experiments: Race, Religion and Voting Against Barack Obama in 2008, which Baretto and Redlawsk presented handily. You can read their abstract and paper at the link provided, but, essentially, they tested in what ways framing Obama as pro-Muslim, pro-Christian, or pro-black influenced how people later ranked him on various measures. They found that a successful framing of him as pro-Muslim hurt his numbers, pro-Christian helped a little but a failure of that frame hurt him more, and that being pro-black actually helped his numbers. They also explored the evidence that whether or not the interviewee agreed with the framing question had an independently significant effect on their support for Obama in later questions.

I found their work extremely interesting. The idea of 'framing,' is, in many ways, the way folks who don't come from my theoretical corner talk about what I call discourse; one could gloss 'discourse,' say, as the sum total of plausible frames, a sort of grammar of possibilities for understanding a political incident. I don't think this is a perfect definition of discourse, but it works, and certainly captures much of what I mean when I say it. Part of what was so interesting about this paper was that it allowed for the possibility that individuals could either accept or reject the frame presented to them: they could either agree with the way the question positioned Obama as pro-black, pro-Muslim, or pro-Christian, or disagree with it, and that choice influenced their later answers. This really is an excellent addition to the use of framing in research.

At the same time, I found myself having any number of thoughts about the structure of the questions that Baretto et al asked. I'm an interpretivist, methodologically; that means that the questions I ask about politics have to do with meaning. And these questions seem to 'mean' a number of things to me, many of which were not intentional.

Here are the three framing questions (from page 14 of the paper):

Muslim Frame:
Because his uncle in Kenya is Muslim, and for a few years he was raised in Indonesia, a
Muslim country; how much do you think Barack Obama can sympathize with the Muslim
community in America? Is it very much, somewhat, only a little, not at all?

Black Frame:
Because he worked as a community organizer for a Black church in Chicago, and
represented a majority-Black district in the Illinois Senate; how much do you think
Barack Obama can sympathize with the Black community in America? Is it very much,
somewhat, only a little, not at all?

Christian Frame:
Because he was married in, and attended a Christian church, and has stressed his
Christian values; how much do you think Barack Obama can sympathize with the
Christian community in America? Is it very much, somewhat, only a little, not at all?

The Muslim question stopped me, every time I read it. Why? Because if you asked me that question--before the election, today, or any other day--I would answer either "very much" or "somewhat," depending on my mood. And then, if you asked me about how I felt about Obama, I would reply (again, depending on mood and recent policy decisions) fairly highly. I think it is good that an elected official be able to sympathize with the Muslim community, because I think the Muslim community has been discriminated against, and that sympathy with them might mean less systemic discrimination. Now, based on the numbers Baretto et al got, clearly I'm in the minority in this reading. But I'm not alone: on page 19, we see that 20% of those who agree with the Muslim framing rate Obama in the top quadrant in their thermometer scale, and 19% say they "often" have feelings of hope towards him or his policies.

The Christian frame also made me think. Those who agreed that Obama was sympathetic to Christians rated him reasonably highly; those who disagreed rated him very poorly on the thermometer scale at the end of the poll. My guess--and I'd have to do research to back this up, but it's got some face validity--is that those who said he was not sympathetic to 'the Christian community' had a very specific notion of who is in that Christian community. Recently in American politics, "Christians" has come to mean primarily right-leaning evangelical Protestants, and often them alone: not Catholics, not mainline Protestants, not left-leaning Christians of all denominations. Most folks who self-identify in that community are not pro-Obama, to say the least. Hearing this question, their construction of what it would take to be "pro-Christian" requires not just being familiar with the community, not just being nominally a Christian or attending a church (not a masjid or synagogue), but having a set of particular and contested religious and policy goals. Obama just doesn't. But folks who thought he was sympathetic to the Christian community probably meant another sort of Christian community. Because of these differences in the construction of the community that they are being asked about, these different answers are measuring radically different things.

In general, I'm not certain if the "sympathetic to" construction is the right one here. That element of the question is where the majority of the multiple possible readings are situated. I want to know what "sympathetic to" means, and I'm pretty sure it means different things to different interviewees. Survey researchers are not a fan of questions with so many possible readings; however, I'm of the opinion that every question is going to have multiple meanings, and that you can't escape offering complex and divergent thoughts in any of your polling information. What I do think, however, is that we need to actually explore those complexities, rather than trying (and inevitably failing) to exclude them. I think this requires research more complicated than a 20 minute phone poll. I think it requires actually asking about meaning, rather than leaving them unconstructed. That doesn't make Baretto et al's paper less interesting to me; it just opens up a new set of doors that I'd like to go down, or at least see someone else go down.


ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
Ajnabieh - The Foreigner

March 2016

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