An interview with Tom Shakespeare: Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, through the lens of disability studies

Sociologist Tom Shakespeare of the University of Norwich Medical School recently did a five-part series on “The Genius of Disability” for BBC Radio 3, with the first radio essay in the series focusing on the blind poet and writer Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, whose The Epistle of Forgiveness was recently edited and translated, in two volumes, by Geert Jan van Gelder and Gregor Schoeler for the Library of Arabic Literature.

In the interview below, Shakespeare talks about how he engages with al-Maʿarrī’s work through the contemporary lens of disability and how he hopes the LAL volumes “are the beginning of a longer engagement with him,” as, with the new translations, “suddenly you can experience this tenth, eleventh century writer as if he was here.”

How did “The Genius of Disability” originate, and how did you settle on profiling al-Maʿarrī?

Tom Shakespeare: The background is that I have been running this blog for a number of years called “Our Statures Touch the Skies,” which is a quotation from Emily Dickinson. And what I wanted to do was write short biographies of famous disabled people.

I think that people need to know that disabled people have made all sorts of contributions throughout history. So, I was doing this blog, and one of my colleagues at the WHO [World Health Organization] was an Iranian psychologist, Taghi Yasamy. I was telling him about my blog and he said: “Obviously you should do al-Maʿarrī.”

I wrote the entry on the blog and, fastforward a couple of years, Radio 3 accepted a proposal to do five broadcasts. And I wanted to cover a range. I wanted men, women. I wanted a range of art forms. And, particularly, I wanted a range of impairments.

Al-Maʿarrī speaks to us today in a way that many more orthodox Muslim thinkers may not: he was a vegan, he was a pacifist, he was a freethinker, he was a skeptic. By including him, not only was I saying, Look, somebody with visual impairment can be at the forefront of the poetic tradition. But also that somebody from the Muslim tradition can be a freethinker and challenge our idea of what Islam includes.

[In 2013, Syria’s] al-Nusra Front beheaded a statue of al-Maʿarrī. So a thousand years after he lived and worked, he’s still a threat. This presumably fairly frail, old, blind guy, who lived to the age of eighty-something, and all he did was write poems—this poet was a challenge to the orthodoxy then and now.

As you read through his body of work in translation, were you able to connect with the poems and prose as much as with his personal story?

The truth is that I could connect with the ideas, but the actual poetry was harder to connect with, and I think that’s because the versions I was reading were by Reynold Nicholson, who obviously was this pioneering Arabist of the first half of the 20th century, so credit to him. But I don’t think he was a great poet himself. So what we read is in that slightly stilted early 20th-century style and so it was difficult for me to connect with it as poetry. Some of it more than others.

What’s really helpful about the new volumes of The Epistle of Forgiveness is that they’re very modern and you can read it as a story. It’s fresh. And suddenly you can experience this tenth, eleventh century writer as if he was here.

I really hope that what’s been done with his prose, in The Epistle of Forgiveness, is also done with the collectionsTinder Box and with The Unnecessary Necessities. Because I think that would bring this poet to a much wider audience.

I know that it’s not true to say that The Epistle of Forgiveness inspired Dante, but there is a comparison in that previous translations of Dante have been somewhat cumbersome. And then you get a fresh translation, by a poet, and suddenly it comes alive. And I think it’s the same with al-Maʿarrī. We have to have a translation for our own contemporary time.

Of course, there are poems in this prose [of The Epistle of Forgiveness], and they come out much better than they ever did before. What I hope is that these volumes reach beyond scholars of Islam or the Arab world. We need an accessible volume of the prose and the poetry. He can certainly appeal to a much wider audience.

The idea that this poet is writing in the eleventh century! Now, I studied Old English at Cambridge, and I read Beowulf, and I read other works of that time, and they are nowhere near the sophistication and the philosophical and dramatic interest of these writings. I think it’s a shame that we don’t hear more of these sorts of poets and prose writers in our Western tradition.

It’s interesting to think about al-Maʿarrī in this category, “disabled,” which as you point out is a very recent one. As you said in your radio essay, he would’ve been viewed differently in his time. How do you think looking at him through the lens of “disability” or “blindness” can help us see him afresh or connect to his work?

It’s interesting: Immediately you’re using a visual metaphor, “looking at his work through that lens.” That’s an example of the way that all our language is taken up with visual metaphors. I think it’s an interesting question: What does it do to us? Maybe we might look at his metaphors. Maybe we might look at his language and descriptions, and maybe we might say: How many times does he use a visual metaphor? We can ask, as critics and readers, questions based on our knowledge of him. I think that what’s really interesting is that he would’ve memorized vast amounts of the poetic tradition.

He must’ve composed huge strands of poetry or prose in his head. I think he had four or five amanuenses who he dictated to. He had many, many students, and people came to study with him from all over the place. We know that various later scholars were trained by him.

I don’t know the extent to which [blindness] informs his works in a very direct sense. Other people I’ve written about—for instance there’s Virginia Woolf, who had depression, and I think you can say that that’s informed her work. With other writers, their physicality or their mental state doesn’t necessarily directly inform their work, but it does say something about the state in which the work was composed.

What’s interesting is that his prose and his poetry are very technically complex. So we have here an extraordinarily scholarly person who couldn’t read any of that, but he must have had at his disposal an immense range of references.

Maybe when you are blind or you lack a sense, you concentrate on other parts of your sensory apparatus. I think this is very commonly the case, that people who are restricted actually go much deeper with what they have left.

If he wasn’t blind, he wouldn’t be the poet he was. I’m almost certain of that.

You said, in an interesting short moment in the radio program, “I imagine his needs were met.” That would’ve been key.

Yes, he was a man who was very venerated. He came from quite a noble family, so that would’ve been a help. I suspect he put his hand on someone’s shoulder, and he wandered around and was guided by somebody.

He lived to the age of 84, and when he died, apparently, 80-some poets created poems in his honor. This guy would’ve been rather a celebrity. He’d written a considerable amount of poetry and intervened in the political debates of the day. He’s a really fascinating figure and of course remains famous to this day. And he did all this despite beyond blind.

We also know that right at the core of the Islamic tradition, there is an acceptance and an inclusion of blindness, which must’ve helped.

How would you place al-Maʿarrī’s disability in a context of how blindness is and was seen elsewhere? You said it’s often, across places and times, been seen as a blessing.

Yes, it often has been. Obviously, Homer is said to have been blind, and I don’t know if he actually was, but that’s the tradition. And some of the Old Testament prophets were said to have been blind. It’s almost like a trope that blindness doesn’t stop you, that people with blindness maybe even have additional insight. There’s almost like a special status. Right up to the present day, blind people have had a special status which other disabled people haven’t had. And sometimes blind people don’t want to be lumped in with everybody else because they might lose of their specialness.

On your blog, you wrote, “Throughout history, disability has led to isolation, either because people are excluded and shunned by their community, or else because their mobility or communication problems make it hard for them to participate. The upside of isolation can be a blossoming of creativity …” Did you see evidence of this in al-Maʿarrī’s case?

I don’t think disabled people have always been excluded and shunned. I think they often have been. But on the blog, I talk about a lot of people from different eras who did manage to be accepted and included, and I think you have to be quite exceptional to manage that. If [al-Maʿarrī] had been a kid who’d gone blind at the age of four and had not shown any particular talent, we obviously would never have heard of him, and his life might’ve been far more short and brutal. But the fact was, at an early age, he showed that he had something to offer.

If you are disabled, you’re much more likely to have fallen by the wayside, to have not been able to make a contribution, to have been excluded. Unless you had a particular talent, in which case there are these few people in history who, because of their abilities or talent, do survive and do make a contribution and are remembered.

For example, on my blog, I talk about an Egyptian called Seneb. We only know about him because there’s this funerary monument, and it’s wonderful, and he’s a dwarf. And we have this beautiful rendering. He’s a little guy and he’s sitting on a bench next to his average-height wife and his two children. And he’s a civil servant in the pharaoh’s household, and he clearly lived, thrived, survived, had a happy life, was accepted and venerated. And you think, well, isn’t that great. And every now and then, you get a figure like this. But they’re not many and we must think that disability was actually very common.

We don’t hear from 99.99 percent of them, but every now and then, in the pages of history, we find that despite whatever ailed them, they were nurtured and did thrive. We can’t be sort of Pollyanna-ish and think that maybe it wasn’t a problem. It was a problem. But every now and then, disabled people managed to overcome the obstacles and make a major contribution. And he’s one of them.

I think from a Disability Studies point of view, and a Disability History point of view, it behooves us to remember, celebrate, and popularize these people. Because otherwise we end up with some glib assumption that, ‘Oh, it was always impossible, oh there was never hope for people.’ When that’s not quite true.

And today [it’s much the same]: one third of the children out of school are disabled. If you are blind in Syria today, or in many parts of the Arab world, you’d have real trouble getting an education. You would be at risk of exclusion. There are blind people who flourish, of course, but they’re facing additional barriers today as they would’ve done then.

You found evidence of al-Maʿarrī’s blindness possibly affecting his relationship to the body, for instance in, “The Body is Your Vase”?

“What matters is inside,” is what it says. It’s not that he ignores it completely, but he’s not defined by it. Disability was different in those days. It wouldn’t have been a sense of identity. If you were a modern American poet with a disability, that would be part of your identity, and you would probably talk about it. You would probably affiliate with other disabled people. It would be part of your makeup. It might not be the theme of your work, but you would have made a conscious choice to avoid it. Whereas in those days, it was just one of those things. God had sent you an ailment, and it was up to you to deal with that.

What do you hope next for al-Maʿarrī’s work?

I hope that these volumes are the beginning of a longer engagement with him. I sincerely hope that more of the poetry will be translated and that these efforts that the publishers have made will lead to a wider appreciation of his work. If my small little broadcast is part of that, I’m really, really pleased.

[This interview was originally posted on the Library of Arabic Literature blog.]

The racial injustices of mass deportation

—Tanya Maria Golash-Boza

[This article was originally published on CounterPunch.] 

Comprehensive immigration reform, it seems, is no longer on the political agenda. It is incumbent upon us (by us I mean people committed to immigrant rights and racial justice) to put it back on the agenda. And, the focus of that agenda should be the repeal of the 1996 laws: IIRIRA and AEDPA.

Between 2009 and 2013, I carried out a research project that involved interviewing 147 deportees in four countries. One of the deportees I met, who I will call Ryan, was living outside of Kingston, Jamaica in the house of a distant relative. I will share his story with you, as it is emblematic of many of the problems with immigration law enforcement in the United States and points to the need for reform of the 1996 laws.

Ryan moved to Brooklyn, New York, with his mother, when he was six years old. There, he finished high school and enrolled in college. Things were going well for Ryan until he made one mistake that would change his life.

When Ryan was about 20 years old, he received a phone call from a friend, who asked Ryan for a ride home. As they were driving home, they came across a police checkpoint. It turned out Ryan’s friend was carrying cocaine. Ryan and his friend were found guilty of drug possession and Ryan was sentenced to 18 months in boot camp. When Ryan was released, his fiancé, his daughter, and his mother came to pick him up from boot camp.

However, Ryan was not permitted to go home with his family. Ryan was a legal permanent resident of the United States. And, he had been convicted of possession of narcotics, and thus faced mandatory deportation to Jamaica. From one day to the next, Ryan’s life fell apart.

Ryan was deported due to changes in deportation law passed in 1996 that made deportation mandatory for certain crimes. Since the implementation of these laws in 1997, over five million people have been deported from the United States.

The current period is exceptional insofar as there has never previously been a time when so many people were deported from the United States.

Five million people since 1997. That’s a huge number. It’s over twice the sum total of all deportations prior to 1997. The details of these numbers are often the subject of debate. However, no matter how you slice it, we are in a moment of mass deportation and the effects of this policy are felt in communities across this country and throughout Latin America.

A recent Pew survey revealed that over a quarter of Latinos know someone who has been deported or detained in the past year. This means the effects of deportation are reverberating far beyond these five million individual deportations.

Last year, over 100,000 people who were living in the United States were apprehended by immigration law enforcement agents and deported to their countries of birth. That is three times as many interior removals as there were in 2003. An interior removal refers to someone like Ryan who was living in the United States prior to being deported.

Over the past decade, over 200,000 people who had lived in the United States for more than ten years have been removed from this country. That amounts to the city of Rochester, New York, being depleted of its population over the course of 10 years. Or perhaps more accurately, imagine every father in San Francisco being removed from the country.

Last year, about 100,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were removed from the United States. That’s ten times as many as the sum total of all parents of U.S. citizens removed between 1997 and 2006.

Not only is mass deportation on the rise, it also targets specific populations. About 90% of deportees have been men, and nearly all (97%) are from the Americas, even though about half of all non-citizens are women and only 60 percent of non-citizens are from the Americas.

Mass deportation happens often with minimal due process. In 2009, 231 immigration judges heard more than 300,000 cases – an average of over 1,200 per judge. Dana L. Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco explained that asylum hearings often feel “like holding death penalty cases in traffic court.”

Immigration court is a bit like traffic court. It is an administrative court without the due process protections of criminal courts. In immigration proceedings, you have no right to legal representation. You can be detained without bond. You can be deported without a full hearing. Ryan, for example, never got to tell a judge that he had come to the United States when he was six, that he qualified for and had applied for citizenship, that he was a college student, that his daughter had just been born, or even that he had no family or friends in Jamaica.

The 1996 laws took away most of judge’s discretionary power in aggravated felony cases. Those convicted now face mandatory and automatic deportation, no matter the extenuating circumstances. Even legal permanent residents like Ryan who have lived in the United States for decades, and have extensive family ties in this country, are subject to deportation for relatively minor crimes they may have committed years ago.

How do we make sense of this? Why is the United States deporting more people than ever before? Why are black and Latino men targeted? And, why are deportation laws so draconian?

In my forthcoming book, Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism (NYU Press 2015), I argue that mass deportation is best understood as an instance of racialized state repression, a practice that has a long history in this country.

The racialized and gendered nature of immigration law enforcement – specifically the targeting of black and Latino men – should be unsurprising to anyone familiar with the history of state repression in the United States. The enslavement of African Americans, the internment of the Japanese, and the mass deportation of Mexicans in the 1930s were all official state practices that targeted specific ethnic or racial groups.

In today’s political climate of colorblind racism, it is unacceptable to have a policy that explicitly targets one group. However, it is legal and acceptable to have a policy that – in its implementation – produces disparate outcomes. Insofar as deportation laws are colorblind in their language, it is legally permissible that they are discriminatory in practice.

It is thus well beyond time to change the course of history. We can start by repealing the 1996 laws.

Tanya Maria Golash-Boza is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She is the author of several books, including Immigration Nation (2012) and Race and Racisms (2015). Her forthcoming book, Deported: Policing Immigrants, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism, will be published by NYU Press in 2015.

Maddening pleasures, subsequent silence

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

March Madness is just kicking off, and ESPN has already predicted that this year’s tournament will see over $9 billion in bets and gambling.

MarchMadness-confettiFrom offices to college campuses, March Madness continues to attract more and more constituencies in ways that other sporting events, even the Super Bowl, cannot. This time in March and April is often marked by explicit displays of collegiate allegiances and intense and passionate rivalries within the institution of higher learning, a kind of ‘madness’ that is unmatched in any collegiate setting across the globe.

Yet, there is something very particularly American about this event. This is very much a United States phenomenon. In many ways, March Madness tells us about ourselves, and the values we interject into collegiate sports, and March Madness, in particular. It is this matter of values—and how sport reflects us, as an American society—that I am interested in. Specifically, I want to focus on student-athletes in two respects: the male basketball collegiate players and the women’s NCAA tournament.

While March Madness is a time to celebrate alma maters, there is a way in which the iconicity of the athletes, the power and recognition of coaches, and the transcendental nature of sport intersect to create quite a venomous concoction. American studies scholar, Nicole Fleetwood, in her elegant and sophisticated analysis of the visual plane of black iconicity in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, asks that we critically evaluate how iconicity and icons fail to address either the messiness of social life or its major contradictions. Likewise, the iconicity of coaches, such as Jim Boeheim, John Calipari, Roy Williams, and Mike Krzyzewski, along with number of collegiate players, hides significant problems within the realm of sport. In the midst of sheer athletic movements, creative plays, intense and intimate camaraderie, and shows of sportsmanship, many other questions and points will remain, at best, minimally discussed and, at worst, completely brushed over.

With so much of the focus on the athleticism of the young men in the men’s national basketball tournament, there is little time to reflect on their lives outside of sport and in classes, in the collegiate physical environment, and in the larger social landscape. As I have taught in big and small institutions of higher learning, in Division I and Division III schools, and I have myself played and coached at the collegiate level, I recognize that the student-athlete has become a source of capital in ways that the “student” is extracted from the “athlete.” The hyphen connecting and demanding a peaceful, synchronized, holistic existence does not exist in present-day sport. Rather, our collegiate (as well as other forms of amateur) sports are a mere show in ideals, but the reality is much more troublesome. “Student” is often treated as an adjective to athlete. With that, as the games proceed through March Madness, I ask this first question: What are ways to create a fantastic learning experience for student-athletes? What type of support is there and where is the support for the student-athlete? The athlete has become the pariah within the realm of students, as if his/her natural place is often assumed to be only on the court, the field, the pool, or the mat. My encounters with student-athletes have shown the precarity of their lives and various forms of alienation within institutions of higher learning.

There has been a trend to let out a big sigh of frustration upon hearing of a student-athlete in one’s class, especially if he is a basketball or football player (read as African American). Although instructors might take great joy in the feats of the athletes on the playing field, the same type of energy does not surface in the face-to-face interactions with student-athletes. As a result, some student-athletes that I have met expressed their alienation in the class setting. They felt like disregarded, like scrap metal. Especially for working-class African American student-athletes, as I discuss in my book, there was the everyday experience and dilemma of already being overdetermined as athletes and sporting bodies. Scott Brooks, in Black Men Can’t Shoot, and Rueben May, in Living through the Hoop, attest to the difficulties of poor young black basketball players. This over-determination meant that their excessive bodies were seen as lacking mind and other key elements of the academic experience.

In the place of this crevice within the college experience for athletes are academic counselors, advisors, and tutors. This seems like a good substitute. However, would anyone substitute John Calipari with a non-sport professional who does not have any of the training, experience, and strong basketball pedigree? Why then would it be okay to insert advisors and tutors who do not have the training and expertise as the professors teaching the courses? The providing of such tutors, counselors, and advisors is important, but it is a double-edged sword, cutting deeply on both ends. For one, it fails to manufacture a positive learning experience and relationship with faculty in the classroom. Instead, what we need are fewer classes so that student-athletes can enjoy classes like the rest of the student population. Taking only two courses a semester would free up time for student-athletes to engage the material fully. They would not feel overwhelmed and feel like studying is a losing battle especially with the demands of the sporting field.

The athletic academic counseling structure justifies an entire cottage industry of sport services professionals within higher learning without providing a greater critique of collegiate and amateur sport. Several football players would be so worn out that staying awake in class took greater energy out of an already exhausted body. When I asked them why they were tired, a few of them spoke candidly that their coaches take every bit of energy out of them. Each coach, assistant coach, and trainer is there to take out all that if left in the athletic body. The student-athletes secure jobs and income for a wide assortment of sport professionals yet their lives reveal such insecurity. An injury could derail the entire collegiate experience. Yet, these students are pushed to the limits, and when demands are made for large stipends or paying student-athletes, the response is always, “They are lucky to be here,” “The scholarship is their payment,” or “The scholarship is the greatest gift.” Really? Is it this simple? Or have we become so blinded to the corporate regime of college sports?

The student-athletes barely have time for anything other than sports. Yet, they have to manage their work day (sports training) with their full-time class schedule. How many students, other than student-athletes, have to travel long distances for work, miss classes (and holidays and family events), and train for the entire course of the year? While we watch March Madness and take in all the joys that come with it, we have to ask whether the traditional student would have to put in the same hours and labor without pay as student-athletes. Student-athletes cannot even enjoy other experiences of the college environment, such as partying, studying abroad, holding part-time jobs, and securing important professional internships. With each round that goes by during March Madness, we should be obligated to ask how to equip and provide support for all of our students, including our student-athletes. As jobs increase around sports like coaches, assistant coaches, trainers, medical professionals, and even scholars of sport like me, we owe it to fair play in sport that we give our student-athletes a fair play in academia with stipends and an unlimited commitment to fund the scholarship for student-athletes, even many years after their playing days.

While we talk about guaranteeing college futures for male student-athletes, we need to also interrogate why men’s collegiate basketball appears in sports media as just “basketball,” while women’s basketball foregrounds the gender category of woman as an adjective, appendage, and an addition to basketball. Basketball, as my research has shown, was already taken for granted as “masculine”—a sport to be practiced by men. As such, March Madness stands ubiquitously for men’s basketball. While filling out the men’s bracket, there is little engagement in sporting communities for filling out the women’s bracket. Accordingly, the iconicity of men’s basketball reduces sport to a male arena and celebrates male sporting accomplishments. In the process, female athletes, like female basketball players, are relegated to a realm where they are outside the language of everyday basketball talk. There will be little to no discussion of how Title IX does not guarantee equity in the field of play. (See Deborah Brake’s brilliant book, Getting in the Game: Title IX and the Women’s Sport Revolution.) Rather, one sees equal numbers of men and women playing collegiate sports—but this metric does not translate into equal access to resources, nor does it mean that the voices of women players are heard as loudly as men’s.

This disparity is also prevalent in sponsorship opportunities and the minimal funding for women’s teams. There is frequent talk about the greatest collegiate basketball coaches, but rarely do coaches of the women’s game like Pat Summit, Dawn Staley, and Geno Auriemma enter that conversation. Likewise, there are many men coaching the women’s game, but no women coaching (as a head coach) the men’s game. Furthermore, as the case of transgender athlete Kye Allums shows us, there are few spaces in either the men’s or women’s game for gender-non-conforming or trans athletes. To add, another disturbing fact is the gendered and sexual violence within women’s collegiate sports. None of this, or very little of it, will be the subject of conversation during March Madness. The sexual violence that is normalized on college campuses seeps into and destroys women’s athletics as well. As basketball is rendered as a game for men, the violence against female basketball players is not always fully investigated. This is also because the women’s tournament becomes a side-show, not the main attraction. As a result, the storylines and issues within women’s sports are not legitimated and made visible.

There has to be a national discussion about sexual violence and it must also take place within the confines of collegiate sport. We need that discussion to begin now. In the late 1960s, sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards played a critical role in organizing African American student-athletes against racism locally, and within the larger Olympic Games. We know of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics protest. There is a foundation, although we cannot always see it, to use sport as one of the key arenas for creating livable, fair, just, and equitable worlds. Sport, as the great scholar C.L.R. James has argued in Beyond a Boundary, is not apart from the real world but intricately connected to it. Sport provides various forms of reprieve from the outside world but that does not mean that we can forget about how power operates in sporting cultures. Through sport, we can harness new social arrangements and social justice principles that then truly make sport the most utopian social site.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, June 2015).

Picture us free

—Jasmine Nichole Cobb

I have always been enamored by U.S. illustrations of black struggles for freedom. Typical depictions feature African descendants insisting on respect and white state officials denying privileges. Cross-generational portrayals mediate these conflicts by construing blackness as spectacularly distinct within U.S. race relations. Although the specific “rights” in question change over time, these characteristics appear in images from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. They are the stakes that underpin racist caricatures, early photography, and black screen cultures; in many ways, these themes define the pictorial history of the United States.

The year 2015 marks several watershed moments in the long arc of strivings for black freedom, including the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, as well as the 150th anniversary of the 13th amendment, ratified in 1865 to abolish the legal practice of slavery. On this continuum, 2015 will contribute its own pictures to the timeline of race in America, with illustrations of the first black president presiding over many important commemorations.

Last Saturday, March 7th, President Barack Obama gave a speech to memorialize the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. While his words were politically salient—charging congress to restore the Voting Rights Act—it is in pictures that the first black president marked an important contribution to the history of black people in the United States. Joined hand-in-hand with survivors of the civil rights struggle, the First Family stood on the frontline of a procession to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge—the site of Bloody Sunday. Captured on the verge of marching, the Obamas were camera ready, smiling, their sense of motion stilled for the photographic opportunity. Hand-in-hand with Senator John Lewis and foot soldier Amelia Boynton Robinson, the Obamas were at the forefront, with Martin Luther King III and Rev. Al Sharpton among those notable figures that receded into back rows of the image.

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Staged to reminisce on the marches to Montgomery, this illustration suggests the fulfillment of black citizenship by the existence of a black president. It honors the murder and violation of activists in 1965, but draws on the sober and respectable depictions of triumph taken from days like March 25th when Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and other activists safely arrived in the state capital. In living color, Obama implies the completion of black freedom struggles. Read against the precursor images—black-and-white photos of sixties activists marching forward, lips parted in song, tired, but convicted—the affirmation of black citizenship pictured in 2015 connects to illustrations that exclude contention.

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But like every attempt to picture freedom, threats against black life persist at the margins. While President Obama described the abuses of billy clubs and tear gas during the 1960s, he denied a connection to Ferguson, Missouri, where many of these tactics endure. While we were all invited to picture freedom through illustrations like Selma 2015, we were to look away from the mediation of murder, this time of Wisconsin teen, Tony Robinson.

I cannot deny the beauty of seeing a black president address civil rights activists at the site of transgression. I especially enjoy seeing the First Lady, her mother and growing daughters. But seeing the Obama family is different from viewing their existence as a representation of black freedom. National commemorations of the black freedom struggle, which ask us to hail the Commander-in-Chief as the fulfillment of our strivings, refuse the ways in which that struggle remains ever present. The tension between these motives animates every illustration of this kind.

The most popular depictions of free black people serve to bolster national narratives of U.S. race relations. In my book, Picture Freedom, I explore how people of African descent envisioned black autonomy in the context of slavery and among popular representations that were hostile to the idea of free black people. I consider complicated images that reveal the power and permanence of nineteenth century approaches to blackness. After them, I still enjoy pictures of black freedom, but now I wonder what they obscure.

Jasmine Nichole Cobb is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University and an American Fellow of the AAUW. She is the author of Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (NYU Press, 2015).

St. Patrick, St. Joseph and Irish-Italian harmony

—Paul Moses

[This post originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.]

Right after Valentine’s Day, the front window of my Brooklyn home sprouts a field of cardboard shamrocks each year. A statue of St. Patrick appears on the bookshelf and a sign is posted on the back door: “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.”

moses-comp-finalThis is the work of my Irish-American wife in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day. As the Italian-American husband, I have in past years suggested equal attention to St. Joseph, a favorite saint of Italians. Nothing doing.

The proximity of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 and the Feast of St. Joseph two days later leads to a good deal of teasing and ribbing every year between Catholics of Irish and Italian ancestry.

There is nothing extraordinary about this little bit of fun, unless one considers the bitterness that once marked relations between these two peoples. As impoverished Italians poured into New York and other major cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the already established Irish became their mentors and tormentors—more so the latter, at first.

Much of the rivalry concerned jobs: Italian laborers were willing to work for less pay and longer hours than the Irish, and sometimes they were used to break strikes. Fights were so common between crews of Irish and Italian construction workers that the Brooklyn Eagle headlined a 1894 editorial: “Can’t They Be Separated?”

This bitterness spilled over into the Catholic parishes where the two peoples mingled with their very different forms of practicing the same religion.

The Italians “are so despised for their filth and beggary that in New York the Irish granted them free use of the basement of the Church of Transfiguration, so that they could gather for their religious practices, since the Irish did not want to have them in the upstairs church,” a Vatican agency noted in an 1887 report that singled out an Irish parish on Mott Street in what is now Manhattan’s Chinatown for maltreatment of Italian immigrants.

The pastor of Transfiguration Church responded through an article his brother wrote in a Catholic journal that said the Italian immigrants didn’t know even elementary Catholic doctrines. Nor were they so concerned about having to hold services in the church basement, it added, because “the Italians as a body are not humiliated by humiliation.”

These were, in turn, fighting words for a prominent Italian priest who wrote to his bishop in Italy: “I have proofs at hand—it would make your blood boil—to see how Italian priests have been treated by American pastors.”

Such exchanges continued for decades, with Irish churchmen trying to cope with the “Italian problem” and Italians complaining angrily to their bishops and the Vatican.

The Italian brand of Catholicism—with processions and raucous street celebrations in honor of patron saints—didn’t sit well with Irish-American prelates. They knew their Protestant opponents looked down on these customs as pagan-like superstitions. Michael Corrigan, a son of Irish immigrants who served as New York’s archbishop in the late 19th century, tried to bar the processions. The Italians ignored him, and took note of the fact that the Irish celebrated their own feast on St. Patrick’s Day.

This battle within the Catholic Church was fought in many big-city parishes well into the 20th century. No Italian-American headed a diocese in New York state until 1968, when Francis J. Mugavero was appointed bishop of Brooklyn.

And yet, as a diverse group of marchers steps up Fifth Avenue led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan in this year’s New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, it is worth noting that the Catholic parish played an important role in reconciling the Irish and Italians. In the years after World War II, people got to mingle and know each other in their parishes, especially in the suburbs and residential sections of the city.

Scholarly studies have shown that Italian-Americans who attended Catholic schools became more like the Irish in their practice of the Catholic faith.

As a result, as one 1960s study of New York Catholics found, Italian-Americans who went to Catholic schools and attended Mass regularly almost always wed spouses of Irish origin if they did not marry another Italian. That’s especially so for third-generation Italian-Americans, as I am on my mother’s side, a fact to which my Irish-American wife Maureen can attest.

In the early years of the 20th century, those who predicted large-scale Irish-Italian friendship and intermarriage were dismissed as impossibly optimistic. But the story of the Irish and Italians in America demonstrates that it is possible over time for serious divisions to be transformed into a matter of gentle teasing and ribbing between friends—if not husbands and wives.

Paul Moses teaches journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY. His book An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians will be published by NYU Press in July.

Race, ethnicity, and policing

Last year, the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers—the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City—sparked massive protests and a politically-charged debate on race, policing, and the use of force that continues across the country today.

Here at NYU Press, we rounded up a few experts on the topic, including co-editors Stephen K. Rice and Michael D. White and contributors Amanda Geller, Matthew Hickman, Robert Kane, William Parkin, and Ronald Weitzer of Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings (NYU Press, 2010).

race

Hands up, don’t shoot

One of the responses to the recent police-involved killings of unarmed black men has been a call for police departments to diversify. If police forces were more racially diverse, do you think this would alleviate tensions between police and communities?

MICHAEL WHITE: Racial diversity in a police department is important. The Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) recommends that a police department be representative of the community it serves. On conceptual and perceptual levels, the arguments favoring representativeness are persuasive. Representativeness can demonstrate to a minority community that their police department cares about their needs, interests and well-being. Perception matters a great deal in this regard. The conceptual arguments are equally compelling. Presumably, minority officers will have a better understanding of the cultural norms and beliefs of the residents in a minority neighborhood. Presumably, citizens will feel better about police officers who look and think like them; and who have an understanding of the issues in their community. Presumably, minority officers will be better able to manage difficult encounters with citizens of their own race, because of their more intimate understanding of the background, history and experiences of the people in those minority neighborhoods who may require police service. Though the empirical evidence supporting these perceptual and conceptual arguments is mixed, police departments should be racially and ethnically diverse.

AMANDA GELLER: Diversity among police officers can certainly help improve community relationships on some fronts – resolving linguistic challenges in immigrant communities, for example. To the extent that officers have personal ties to the communities they police, that can also help to establish and reinforce community trust. But diversity alone won’t alleviate tensions if the officers are behaving in ways that the community finds illegitimate. In order to alleviate police-community tensions, community members will need to believe that the police will deal with them in a constitutional way, and treat them with respect.

RONALD WEITZER: Racial diversification of police departments is endorsed by the vast majority of Americans. Some departments have made substantial progress in diversification, but many others are out of sync with the local population.Officers of different racial backgrounds generally behave similarly when they interact with members of the public. They are trained similarly and differ little in performing their duties. But because diversification is popular with the public, it can have intangible, symbolic benefits: helping to build trust and confidence in the police. A police department that reflects the composition of the local population can enhance its reputation and status among residents. A diverse police force can also help to decrease the sense that people are being stopped and questioned solely because of their race. In a majority-black city like Ferguson, where 50 of the 53 officers are white, it is not surprising that African Americans who are stopped might feel like they have been racially profiled.

ROBERT KANE: Diversity is crucial to achieve a well functioning police department. Indeed, as police departments diversify, they tend to become better “behaved” (that is, organizational rates of misconduct decline). To reap the full benefits of diversity, however, police agencies must open all ranks (e.g., detective, supervisory, command, administrative) to minority officers, so that minority officer influence doesn’t just come from the bottom-up, but also from the top-down in the form of policies, practices, and procedures. This shift in organizational culture can only occur if minority officers advance beyond line level ranks.

Amid the multitude of public protests across the country, what do you think is the appropriate role of the media? 

STEPHEN RICE: I’m feeling somewhat optimistic about how well the media’s been drawing on empirical evidence in framing their stories. Sure, there are still a multitude of media outlets that sing the ‘song of sexy’ anecdote, but there are also outlets that attempt to explain crime and criminal justice in serious ways. For example, in recent months, WNYC’s John Hockenberry has invited scholars to speak on a wide range of topics surrounding the issue, including Dennis Rosenbaum on police oversight and accountability, Jon Shane on police organizational culture, varied compelling experts on Ferguson, and George Kelling on broken windows. The next step will be to see how well practitioners such as police leadership work to better integrate empirical evidence into their operations. When corporate America came to realize that evangelizing products and services were key differentiators, they hired CEOs (Chief Evangelist Officers). Why not consider evangelism marketing in police departments by senior-level leaders whose principal task it is to explain how operations are informed by what we know, empirically, about crime and place, community policing, police legitimacy, and competing models of officer engagement?

WILLIAM PARKIN: One can talk about responsible journalism and its role in reporting on and framing the public protests. However, I prefer to put the onus on the public. The media, like most businesses, is driven by the need to supply a product that their audience will consume. It should be of no surprise, then, when media outlets produce sensationalized, polemic pieces that superficially discuss these issues. They present easy-to-understand, black-and-white interpretations of the perspectives of those who support or oppose the viewpoints of the protestors and law enforcement. These stories cater to their typical audience. There are, however, media outlets that provide thoughtful, balanced reporting that attempt to dissect the complicated issues that have brought the country to where it is, in relation to law enforcement, accountability, and the use of force. Instead of discussing the appropriate role of the media, I encourage the public to understand their role and to consume media that attempts to find a solution, not sensationalize the problem.

How would you propose police go about changing their image to that of an effective and legitimate agency of authority?

AMANDA GELLER: Public perceptions of the police are largely shaped by personal experience, and what’s known as “vicarious” experience – the experiences of friends and family, and what people witness in their communities. We also know that this legal socialization is shaped not only by whether people have been stopped by the police (or witness the stops of others in their communities), but also by what happens in these encounters. If people feel like they’ve been treated fairly – that they were stopped for a legitimate reason, treated with respect, given a chance to explain themselves – and if they feel that decisions were made through just procedures, these types of encounters can help to restore a sense of police legitimacy among community members.

To ensure accountability and transparency, how can police corruption be monitored or prevented?

MATTHEW HICKMAN: There are several levels of monitoring that need to be considered. First, we expect police departments themselves to provide some degree of internal oversight. Over time, there has been a steady trend toward emphasizing external oversight bodies as a compliment to internal review functions. There are many different models of civilian oversight, but all recognize that a greater role of civilians in oversight is fundamentally democratic and seeks to ensure some level of responsiveness to community concerns. Most important is the vigilance of community groups and organizations, such as local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union. When all else fails, the U.S. Department of Justice has authority to pursue criminal action against officers and civil litigation against police departments that evidence behavior infringing on constitutional rights.

Given the attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher kosher market, some have argued that ethnic and faith-based profiling will rise in Europe and/or the United States. How do you feel we should frame profiling in a broader, global context?

STEPHEN RICE: No matter how strenuously one might feel that differential attention is warranted in neighborhoods or airports, a simple fact remains: profiling is fraught with error (Type 1 error, or false positives), a condition which fundamentally undermines public trust and its willingness to impart authorities with the power to exercise discretion. When one speaks of Muslim Americans—a group estimated at 2.5 million nationwide—perceptions of profiling is very serious business. Judgments people make about the fairness of their experiences condition views regarding the legitimacy of authority, and these views shape compliance with the law. In Europe, future perceived attacks on civil rights under the banner of assimilation (e.g., banning of the hijab) may come to be framed concomitant with a “war on terror,” hence as structured anti-Muslim discrimination. There is a critical relationship between interactions with agents of social control, the emotions that can manifest as a result of these interactions (e.g., anger, rage, humiliation), and an individual’s willingness to accept the legitimacy of authority.

WILLIAM PARKIN: As humans, we are forced to generalize, stereotype and make assumptions about people and places based on limited information. Most of us have few, if any, meaningful interactions on a daily basis with people of different races, ethnicities, cultures or religions. Therefore, when profiling based on race or religion is presented as an option for combating crime or terrorism, it seems like a practical solution to the majority (i.e., those not being profiled). A deeper analysis of the issue, however, leads to questions around whether profiling is a fair application of justice: Does it undermine the legitimacy of the criminal justice system? Could it actually alienate—or increase the risk presented by—these profiled groups? Does it even work? In many ways, it is like looking for a needle in a haystack where, to you, every piece of hay also looks like a needle. Law enforcement would be better served, both from an ethical and practical perspective, by implementing policies that encourage hiring minority candidates and strengthening and increasing positive dialogue with minority communities. Just as law enforcement officers should be judged by their individual behavior, not profiled because of the actions of a few, so should the public that they serve.

Some members of the public feel strongly that stop-question-and-frisk is an appropriate strategy for policing in the United States.  What are your opinions on this approach?  

ROBERT KANE: The original intent of “stop and frisk” was to allow police officers to pat-down the outer clothing of a suspect for weapons. The major problems with using stop-and-frisk as a crime detection strategy are, (1) officers usually don’t find contraband or weapons, and (2) stop-and-frisks are generally concentrated in the parts of town (or city) characterized by racially-concentrated structural disadvantage. Thus, the crime-reduction benefits seem greatly outweighed by the social costs: Mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and sisters grow tired of watching their men and boys being “put against the wall” whenever they leave their dwellings. As a consequence, aggressive stop-and-frisk strategies tend to erode public trust in the police, which ultimately leads to a lack of legitimacy. In the end, police departments would do themselves a lot of good if they simply remembered: A little coercion goes a long way; and in the most disenfranchised communities, too much coercion can backfire.

Do “body cams” worn by police officers offer a solution to ending police misconduct?

MICHAEL WHITE: Police officer body-worn cameras (BWCs) are not a silver bullet. But the technology can serve as an important tool in the larger package of accountability mechanisms that a department can put in place. Relatedly, the technology may serve as a solution to the split-second syndrome. Police-citizen encounters are transactional events, with each participant making decisions and responding to the decisions of the other participant. As a result, use of force by a police officer is the culmination of a series of earlier actions and reactions. However, review of force incidents traditionally ignores earlier stages of an encounter and focuses entirely on the final-frame decision. James Fyfe called this the split-second syndrome, and he argued that this narrow focus excuses unnecessary violence resulting from poor decisions made by officers at earlier stages of the encounter. BWCs represent an opportunity to overcome the split-second syndrome because the technology allows for a full review of all decisions made by the officer during an encounter, from start to finish.

MATTHEW HICKMAN: It’s still too early to tell. Many scholars and practitioners are referring to the Rialto study, which provided some of the first strong evidence about the positive benefits of body cameras, and there are studies going on in other cities, such as Phoenix and Los Angeles. But we need to be patient and wait for the evidence to accumulate from these studies before we start subsidizing the purchase of body cameras and changing policies. Recall what happened with the Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment: a lot of media attention and proselytizing about the deterrent effects of arrest, and then we started to see widespread policy changes toward mandatory arrest. Five subsequent replications of the Minneapolis DV experiment in other cities yielded a relatively mixed bag of results, with arrest having varied and weaker effects than in Minneapolis. Subsequent reanalysis has tended to confirm the deterrent effect of arrest. But let’s be careful not to put the cart before the horse with body cameras, and allow the evidence to accumulate. Patience!

Stephen K. Rice is Associate Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Seattle University and co-editor of Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings (NYU Press, 2010). Michael D. White is Associate Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. He is co-editor of Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings (NYU Press, 2010) and co-author of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department (NYU Press, 2012). Amanda Geller is Clinical Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University. Matthew Hickman is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Seattle University. Robert Kane is Professor of Criminology and Justice Studies at Drexel University. He is the co-author of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department (NYU Press, 2012). William Parkin is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Seattle University. Ronald Weitzer is Professor of Sociology at George Washington University and author of Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business (NYU Press, 2012).

Rebranding safe haven laws

—Laury Oaks

Last week, the Republican-heavy Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to enhance its safe haven law and voiced support for a newly marketed baby-saving product: the Safe Haven Baby Box. Indiana firefighter, medic, adoptee, non-profit founder, and pro-life speaker Monica Kelsey is promoting metal, black 2-foot long incubators branded with SafeHavenBabyBoxes.com as a solution to a problem that haunts baby abandonment prevention advocates: Despite safe haven laws passed in every state between 1999 and 2009, newborns continue to be unsafely abandoned.

Advocates of Indiana’s baby boxes are concerned that distressed mothers fail to safely relinquish their newborns because they fear facing a first responder, required by most state’s laws. Sidelining other relevant issues, including coercion, fathers’ rights, and even baby-knapping, the problem is distilled and oversimplified.

Drawing on centuries-old European practices, heated incubators located at an exterior wall of a hospital were installed in 1999 in Hamburg, Germany. Known as baby boxes, flaps, or hatches, this system is sponsored by non-governmental organizations and religious organizations in 11 European countries and in China, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea. In the US, state governments legislate safe haven sites and non-profit baby abandonment prevention organizations promote their use. The embrace of baby boxes by Indiana politicians is in stark contrast to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s outspoken opposition to this drop-off mechanism because anonymity denies the child knowledge of its identity.

Media coverage of the Indiana government’s first step to authorize baby boxes focuses primarily on the novelty of this proposed baby-rescue method. The last time an innovative safe haven law was implemented was in Nebraska, the last state to pass a law. No upper age limit was set, resulting in the relinquishment of teenagers — including a teen mother and her infant — by distressed guardians, many of whom traveled to Nebraska as a last resort and exposing a severe lack of adequate social services. How might Indiana’s baby boxes be used in unanticipated ways?

Other dimensions of safe haven advocacy are downplayed when baby boxes are trumpeted as an exciting advance. One is the underlying anti-abortion and pro-adoption views held by vocal safe haven advocates, including Kelsey. Further, the anonymity of the baby box drop-off conceals any understanding of the experiences of women and girls who are faced with a safe haven decision. Unwantedness is not the only or the main factor that leads to relinquishment.

Instead of debating the value of baby boxes, state governments should direct attention to the unequal social and economic support available to women and girls within our society. A reproductive justice analysis pushes us to critically question the safe haven assumption that a good mother relinquishes her newborn anonymously as an act of maternal love. It is our political and social responsibility to reveal and eliminate the social injustices that coerce some women and girls to relinquish the right to raise their newborns or to ever have future contact with them.

Laury Oaks is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Feminist Studies and an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Sociology and the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Giving Up Baby: Safe Haven Laws, Motherhood, and Reproductive Justice (NYU Press, 2015).

Ayahuasca and the spiritual natives

—Brett Hendrickson 

What do Lindsay Lohan, Sting, and hundreds of Brooklyn hipsters have in common besides their glowing personalities? They all sing the praises of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic and psychedelic brew that has long been used by indigenous Amazonian groups. Ayahuasca sends its consumers into throes of reverie and feelings of spiritual connectedness. It also causes bouts of vomiting, which users lift up as part of the cathartic experience—the “ayahuasca cleanse.”

North American and European spiritual tourists being treated by a Peruvian shaman.

In its original Amazonian context, ayahuasca use is an integral part of the trances that shamans enter to carry out powerful transactions between waking life and other levels of their reality. The impetus for most of these trance journeys and transactions is healing of one sort or another, whether this be physical recovery from illness or the restoration of ruptured social norms. Shaman specialists take the ayahuasca in order to enter the visionary realm wherein they can do the important work of re-establishing balance, harmony, and health for their patients and communities.

By the mid-twentieth century, anthropologists who studied ayahuasca-using South American tribes were trying the drug for themselves and bringing back stories of its psychedelic properties. Soon, the growing counter-culture was experimenting with ayahuasca and other psychotropic plants common in Central and South America like peyote cactus and psilocybin mushrooms. Adding significantly to these plants’ inherent hallucinogenic properties was the ostensible authenticity and simplicity of indigenous people’s wisdom and spirituality.

The last few years have witnessed a rise in the popularity of ayahuasca use both on ethno-tourist jaunts to Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil, and in spiritual salons dedicated to the drug in the United States. It has become especially trendy among creative types like musicians and writers and also with young urbanites who might self-identify as spiritual seekers. Like-minded people have taken advantage of online social networking to gather with shaman/entrepreneurs who provide not only the ayahuasca but also a guided tour into a commodified form of indigenous spirituality.

A recent story in the New York Times describes such a meet-up in Brooklyn that featured a Colombian shaman, cups of ayahuasca, barf buckets, candlelight, chanting, drumming, and a $150 price tag. Others are not content with this kind of dabbling and have taken the plunge to remote South America to learn to have even more authentic experiences and perhaps become shamans themselves. A recent profile of one such individual describes a young Jewish man from Williamsburg who made various trips to the Amazon and the Caribbean where he received a new name from indigenous masters: Turey Tekina (allegedly “Sky Singer” in Quechua). After many spiritual adventures and self-discoveries, he “returned to Brooklyn, and turned his apartment into a temple for [ayahuasca] ceremonies. He has a steady flow of regular and new clients, all who learn of him through word of mouth.”

The history of Anglo-Americans who have dabbled in—or even appropriated—the religious and traditional medicines of indigenous people is long but remarkably constant. In almost every case, the white seekers are looking for healing and wholeness, but almost always in a such a way that critiques the complications and coldness of “Western” life and/or its “institutional religion;” utterly romanticizes indigenous people as simple and pure sources of unadulterated ancient wisdom; and can be easily commodified and thus sold in packages with other alternative medicines or therapies.

The latest craze for ayahuasca’s visions and vomiting is one more item in what sociologist of religion Wade Clark Roof has called America’s “spiritual marketplace.” When this particular trend passes, no doubt another will take its place in this unique form of American religiosity that privileges the sacred wisdom of the natives, as long as we can have it when—and how—we want it.

Brett Hendrickson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lafayette College (PA). He is the author of Border Medicine: A Transcultural History of Mexican American Curanderismo (NYU Press, 2014).

Feminist ire in all the wrong places

—Suzanna Danuta Walters

[This piece originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Vaginas keep causing trouble. The latest labial kerfuffle involves none other than the mother of all things “down there,” Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. A few weeks ago, a student-theater group at Mount Holyoke College (full disclosure: my alma mater and the current home of my daughter) made a decision to discontinue production of the play and instead to do something more, as they wrote, “inclusive.” This quickly became a media firestorm, with Ensler herself arguing that “The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina.”

Had the students simply made a decision to produce other work and not gone out of their way to indict Ensler, one could imagine that this “controversy” would never have emerged in the first place. But the students’ statement referred to the work as “extremely narrow” and “inherently reductionist,” among other dismissive language. (Another disclosure: Ensler is a friend whose work and advocacy I have long admired.)

This is, of course, not the first time that feminists have directed their resentment at other feminists. Indeed, feminism, in both its theoretical and its practical applications, is well known for vicious infighting. As early as 1976, the pioneer activist Jo Freeman wrote about this phenomenon in an incendiary article in Ms. Magazine calling out “trashing” or, as she put it, the “dark side of sisterhood.” And when Ti-Grace Atkinson resigned from the radical feminist group The Feminists in the 60s, she wryly commented that “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.” Internecine battles have long been a staple of most vibrant social movements, particularly those with left-wing aspirations, because they are generally more open to democratic debate.

The instant world of the Internet—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the rest—has not only upped the ante but also accelerated the speed at which nominal disagreements get morphed into full-fledged “wars.” Contemporary punditry has weighed in on this, as in “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” in The Nation, and “The Incomplete Guide to Feminist Infighting,” in The Atlantic. And our broader media culture amplifies anything it might see as conflictual, so what gets retweeted is often that which is most easily slotted into a for-or-against model that does precious little to deepen the debate. This latest round of trashing comes at a time when (some version of) feminism has an increasingly public and popular face, and when feminist activism—around sexual assault and harassment, reproductive autonomy and sexual freedom—is witnessing a refreshing renaissance. In other words, we are at a critical moment, when the flourishing of feminism—both online and off—has a potential that should not be derailed by an endless circuit of self-destruction and misdirected ire.

This anger seems particularly targeted toward women in the public eye who explicitly define themselves as feminist and who espouse what certainly look like feminist beliefs, whether reproductive autonomy or freedom from sexual harassment. When the actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gave a speech in September, calling for more male involvement in the struggle for gender equality, she fell prey to hyperventilating tirades accusing her of ignoring racial differences, asking men to protect women, and other sins of both omission and commission. Not long after, the anti-street-harassment campaign Hollaback! released a video depicting a day in the life of a woman whose walk though New York elicits endless undesired harassment by a stream of male bystanders. The video went viral, but so did immediate condemnation of it as exclusionary and even racist: The woman was white, and most of the harassers were men of color. Even the apology of the video’s producers did not derail the onslaught.

The wunderkind Lena Dunham was next in what has now become a long line of women—many of them young celebrities—to come under intense scrutiny in the vibrant feminist blogosphere. Dunham is no stranger to eliciting strong emotions; her hit HBO series, Girls, was roundly excoriated for its overly white and upper-class portrayal of a Brooklyn we know to be much more diverse. And her self-abnegating narcissism has rubbed many the wrong way. Her book, Not That Kind of Girl—part memoir, part self-help, part comedy sketch—has further amped up the Dunham wars, as she has now been accused of child sexual abuse in recalling and writing about what appears to be innocent childhood curiosity about the female body. In her book, she remembers looking into her sister’s vagina—when they were both young children—prompting the accusations of abuse and Dunham’s angry response (and that of her sister, who defends her by saying, in part, that “I’m committed to people … determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful”).

While moralists at large took the opportunity to deem Dunham an abuser, some feminists, too, jumped on this train, creating the hashtag #dropDunham and calling on Planned Parenthood to disengage from the star, who used her book tour in part as a way to support abortion rights. True, some prominent feminists, such as Roxane Gay and Katha Pollit, have eloquently come to her defense, but the blogosphere was fairly bursting with anti-Dunham fever. Gay, in particular, notes her discomfort with the scene (“I read the passage about Dunham inspecting her younger sister Grace’s vagina when she was seven and her sister was one. I found this disturbing and utterly bizarre”), but then goes on to say that she didn’t take particular note of it and, moreover, questions whether or not the disclosure is what is really animating the angst. Rather, she writes, “there is an undercurrent of rage that seems to have very little to do with the book, its disclosures or ‘the good fight,’ and everything to do with resenting a privileged young white woman succeeding.”

Let me be as clear as I can: This is—of course—not an argument against critical engagement. Criticism and challenge are vital to the health of any social movement, as they recalibrate priorities and assess goals and underlying values. As I write this, I am keenly aware of the ease with which some observers—such as Jonathan Chait in a recent piece for New York magazine—look at this infighting as evidence of PC-mad feminazis run amok. But the politically-correct-or-not framing is tired and illusory, undermining the substantive concerns at the heart of feminist discourse. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of feminist theory and the women’s movement more generally has been its insistence on self-scrutiny in the quest for ever more robust and inclusive analyses. And surely errors, miscues, and worse can be found in these and other examples.

Feminism has long struggled with its own suppositions and assumptions, from unacknowledged white privilege to presumptive heterosexuality to America-centric concerns. Calling these out remains a key ingredient in creating ever more salient and meaningful feminisms. What I am suggesting, however, is that this moment seems to have a skewed heat-to-light ratio.

When criticism becomes rote recitation of overdetermined keywords and loses what might be called an economy of scale, movements end up devouring their own and deflect attention from the larger and more pervasive problems they set out to challenge in the first place. Dunham and the Girls phenomenon might not be the feminist nirvana some hoped for, but she is a celebrity explicitly discussing her support for feminism and displaying an active commitment to (some) of the issues the movement cares about. The same could be said for Watson, Hollaback!, and Beyoncé (another feminist/sex-symbol Rorschach test); it bears noticing that recognizing the continuation of serious gender inequity and violence in a world many have blithely declared “postfeminist” is a position all should applaud. That doesn’t mean that any individual or organization should be above criticism; it does mean, however, that some perspective might be in order. It should matter, for example, that Ensler’s V-Day organization has raised more than $90-million, most of which goes to building feminist institutions like City of Joy, in Congo, or supporting grass-roots feminist organizations the world over.

There are real and potent enemies of women’s freedom out there in the world—those who want to sweep sexual violence under the rug, or do away with reproductive choice, or ignore wage differentials, or constrict sexual and gender freedom, or turn a blind eye to the lopsided gender representation in our halls of government. Perhaps those persistent problems seem too intractable, making the lure of the Twitter pile-on both easier and more satisfying in the face of our vexing inability to solve the larger problems. Easier perhaps to trash a Dunham or a Watson or an Ensler than to unseat an antichoice legislator or put a dent in the rates of sexual assault.

This could be, as they say, a “teachable moment” to parse the difference between, for example, discussions of “inclusion” and concerns about substantive bigotry and hateful representations. Isn’t there a way to stand in solidarity with all kinds of identities and communities without simultaneously declaring something else either “essentialist” or null and void in some way? To insinuate, for example, that The Vagina Monologues is a transphobic play is patently absurd—what precisely would be the evidence for that argument?

No doubt there is plenty of real transphobia out there to struggle against, some of it by the usual suspects and some of it authored by feminist theorists and activists, who should indeed be taken to task. But Ensler’s play is a poor target. And to mistake and conflate issues of inclusion for issues of discrimination is a dangerous and sloppy political error. It’s akin to calling the great epic Angels in America misogynist because it doesn’t include stories of women with AIDS.

Challenging one another and pushing at boundaries should never—must never—mean that we lose an economy of scale and create a topsy-turvy world where allies are enemies and borders are policed in ever narrower ways. When that happens, we let the real bigots off the hook and do a grave disservice to those activists and thinkers whose lives have been dedicated to human flourishing and gender and sexual freedom.

Suzanna Danuta Walters is editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Societyand a professor of sociology at Northeastern University, where she directs the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. She is the author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press, 2014).

The late trials of the Holocaust

—Frank Tuerkheimer and Michael Bazyler

Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in the February 16th issue of The New Yorker, “The Last Trial” is a wonderful summary of the belated and long overdue reaction of the German legal system to the atrocities committed by the Germans in implementing the plan to exterminate European Jewry. She correctly notes that with the Demjanjuk decision, the German legal establishment has now reached a final stage in its legal approach to Nazi criminality: anyone participating in the operation of a death camp is legally complicit in homicide, requiring no specific proof that the person killed or injured anyone.

This is not the first time such an approach has been taken to Second World War crimes committed by the Germans. When the U.S. War Department was preparing for the main Nuremberg trial before the International Military Tribunal in 1945, Colonel Murray Bernays brilliantly came up with a similar idea, eventually implemented in the Nuremberg Charter. The Bernays plan contemplated Nazi bodies to be charged as criminal organizations. If convicted, then in the future it would only be necessary to prove that an accused Nazi was a member of that organization; the degree of individual involvement would bear on the sentence meted out to the convicted member. The Allies charged and the International Military Tribunal in its 1946 judgment convicted the SS [Schutzstaffel, the Nazi party’s protection squad], the SD [Sicherheitsdienst, the Nazi’s security service] and the Gestapo as criminal organizations, adding the requirement that in a subsequent prosecution under the Bernays theory the prosecution would have to prove that the person was aware of the organization’s criminal activity – a relatively soft burden when it came to concentration camp administrators.

Bernays’ idea was implemented in subsequent Nuremberg trials conducted by the U.S. military, but never after that. Thus the envisioned extensive prosecution of the large number of persons complicit in German atrocities never took place. While the Germans did prosecute several cases involving the death camps – Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec and Auschwitz – they applied the technical requirements of the German penal code, which required specific motivation for the crime of homicide to have occurred. This cramped the prosecutions significantly and resulted in many acquittals and very light sentences.

Now, seventy years after the Bernays’ vision of future prosecutions, the German legal system has adopted a similar approach. Seventy years, however, is a lethal gap, and it is unlikely that any still-living geriatric Nazi war criminals will be prosecuted to completion. Already, a number of Auschwitz guards have died while awaiting prosecution. Demjanjuk died in an old-age home while awaiting an appeal of his relatively light six-year sentence.

Ephraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi hunter, has quipped that he is the only Jew in the world who prays for the good health of Nazi war criminals. Given the passage of time, it is doubtful that his prayers will be answered.

Laudatory as the new German approach is, it is painful to think of all the Demjanjuks in the administration of the death camps who either were not prosecuted or who received light sentences. Kolbert’s reference to Martin Luther King’s lament that justice may come too late is apt and sobering.

Frank Tuerkheimer is Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin School of Law. Michael Bazyler is Professor of Law and the 1939 Society Scholar in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law, Chapman University. They are co-authors of Forgotten Trials of the Holocaust (NYU Press 2014).

What lies beneath the Chapel Hill murders? More than a ‘parking dispute’

—Nadine Naber

We may never know exactly what Craig Stephen Hicks was thinking when he killed Syrian American medical student Deah Barakat, his Palestinian American wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha. But we do know that U.S.-led war in Arab and Muslim majority countries has normalized the killing of Arabs and Muslims. It is more crucial than ever before to understand the institutionalization of racism against persons perceived to be Arab or Muslim in terms of the structures of imperial war that normalize killing and death and hold no one (other than victims themselves) accountable.

Photo: Molly Riley/UPI.

The Obama Administration may have dropped the language of the “war on terror,” but it has continued its fundamental strategy of endless war and killing in the Arab region and Muslim majority countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan (without evidence of criminal activity). The unconstitutional “kill list” for instance, allows the president to authorize murders every week, waging a private war on individuals outside the authorization of congress. Strategies like the “kill list” resolve the guilt or innocent of list members in secret and replace the judicial process (including cases involving U.S. citizens abroad) with quick and expedited killing. These and related practices, and their accompanying impunity, look something like this:

Al Ishaqi massacre, Iraq 2006: The U.S. army rounded up and shot at least 10 civilians including 4 women and 5 children. The Iraqis were handcuffed and shot in the head execution style. The U.S. spokesperson’s response? “Military personnel followed proper procedures and rules of engagement and did nothing wrong.”

Drone attack, Yemen 2015: A drone killed 13-year old Mohammad Tuaiman (whose father was killed in a 2011 drone strike), his brother, and a third man. Questioned about the incident, the CIA stated that “the 3 men were believed to be Al Qaeda” even though the CIA refused to confirm that he was an Al Qaida militant.

The U.S.-backed Israeli killing of Palestinians reinforces the acceptability of Arab and Muslim death. In July 2014, the Israeli Defense Force killed at least 2,000 Palestinians including 500 children. It is well established that the IDF soldiers deliberately targeted civilians. The Obama Administration’s response? Explicit support for Israel.

And those left behind are forced to watch their loved ones’ bodies fall to the ground or burn like charcoal and can only conclude that, “In [the U.S. government’s] eyes, we don’t deserve to live like people in the rest of the world and we don’t have feelings or emotions or cry or feel pain like all the other humans around the world.”

Since the 1970s (when the U.S. consolidated its alliance with Israel), the corporate news media has reinforced the acceptability of Arab and Muslim death—from one-sided reporting to fostering fear of Arabs and Muslims. From Black Sunday (1977) to American Sniper (2015), Hollywood has sent one uninterrupted message: Arabs and Muslims are savage, misogynist terrorists; their lives have no value; and they deserve to die.

This interplay between the U.S. war agenda abroad and the U.S. corporate media extends directly into the lives of persons perceived to be Arab and/or Muslim in the United States. Hate crimes, firebomb attacks, bomb threats, vandalism, detention and deportation without evidence of criminal activity and more have all been well documented. Of course, such incidents escalated in the aftermath of the horrific attacks of 9/11. As the U.S. state and media beat the drums of war, anyone perceived to be Arab and/or Muslim (including Sikhs, Christian Arabs, and Arab Jews) became suspect. Muslim women who wore the headscarf became walking emblems of the state and media discourse of Islamic terrorism. Across the United States, at school, on the bus, at work, and on the streets, women wearing the headscarf have been bullied, have had their scarves torn off, and have been asked over and over why they support Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, terrorism, and the oppression of women.

Despite this, the corporate media (replicating the words of the police) and government officials have either reduced the North Carolina killings to a parking dispute or expressed grave confusion over why an angry white man would kill three Arab Muslim students in North Carolina execution-style. Yet the father of one of the women students stated that his son-in law did not have any trouble with Hicks when he lived there alone. The trouble, he said, started only after Yusor, who wore a headscarf identifying her as a Muslim, moved in. Even so, Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt told CNN that the community is still “struggling to understand what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit this crime,” adding, “It just baffles us.”

The “parking dispute” defense individualizes and exceptionalizes Hicks’ crime—in this case, through a logic that obscures the connection between whiteness, Islamophobia, and racism. And the bafflement rhetoric constructs a reality in which there are no conceivable conditions that could have potentially provoked Hicks. Both approaches deny the possible links between the killings, U.S. and Israeli military killings, the media that supports them, and the U.S. culture of militarized violence. They will also assist Hicks in attempting to avoid the more serious hate crime charge that would come with a heavy additional sentence.

Alternately, discussions insisting on the significance of Islamophobia in this case must go beyond the call for religious tolerance and account for the projects of U.S. empire building and war that underlie Islamophobia. Contemporary Islamophobia is a form of racism and an extension of U.S.-led war abroad. As I wrote in Arab America, immigrant communities from the regions of U.S.-led war engage with U.S. racial structures, specifically anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, as diasporas of empire—subjects of the U.S. empire living in the empire itself. Perhaps then, we should also avoid applying the same analysis of racism across the board—as if all racisms are the same or as if the framework #blacklivesmatter can simply be transposed onto the killing of Arab Muslim Americans. Otherwise, we risk disremembering the distinct conditions of black struggle (and black Muslims) including the systematic state-sanctioned extrajudicial killing of black people by police and vigilantes as well as black poverty, and histories of slavery and mass incarceration. It is also important to remember the distinct conditions of the war on terror whereby anyone and everyone perceived be Muslim (including Arab Christians and Sikhs) are potential targets.

Rest in peace and power Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha. May your loved ones find strength and support. My heart is shattered.

Nadine Naber is Associate Professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism (NYU Press, 2012). 

Beyond intent: Why we need a new paradigm to think about racialized violence

—Evelyn Alsultany

Three Muslim Americans – Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 – were murdered last week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by 46-year-old resident Craig Stephen Hicks. The tragedy has sparked a debate over whether or not these deaths were the result of a hate crime or a parking dispute.

Women take part in a vigil for three young Muslims killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

Muslim Americans who claimed that this was surely a hate crime were presented with evidence to the contrary. Hicks’s Facebook and other online posts revealed that he is an atheist who is against all religion, regardless of whether it is Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, a gun enthusiast, and an advocate for gay rights. His online posts show that he is passionate about the protection of constitutional rights, especially freedom of speech and freedom of religion. His archived posts even include commentary on the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, in which he writes in support of Muslim rights and notes the important distinction between Muslims and Muslim extremists. His wife has insisted that the murders were the result of a parking dispute, and not a hate crime. As a result, Hicks has been portrayed as not hating Muslims.

This profile of Hicks is indeed complex. He does not fit the conventional profile of a “racist” – i.e., someone who believes that all Muslims are a threat to America; who clings to essentialist and binary notions of identities; who espouses that certain groups of people do not deserve human rights; who practices intentional bigotry; who is firmly rooted in a logic that justifies inequality. I am reluctant to use the term “racist” since it conjures an image of someone who participates in blatant and intentional forms of hate. However, what this case shows us is that we need a new paradigm to understand racialized violence today. Yes, this case is complex, but that does not mean it is not a hate crime. It is complex because it does not fit the narrow way in which we have defined a hate crime.

Posing an either/or option – either this is or is not a hate crime – does not help us understand what transpired. Racism is not an either/or phenomenon. It is deeply embedded in our society and, when left unchecked, has the potential to inform our perceptions and actions in ways not captured by a caricatured understanding of its diverse forms. Racism is not always conscious or intentional. It exists across a vast spectrum of consciousness and intentionality.  As part of our subconscious, racism can manifest in the form of microaggressions that are often unintentional and sometimes even well-meaning. On the more dangerous side of the spectrum, it manifests in violence. We need to break the association of racism with intent because racism endures without it.

Our current cultural paradigm often makes a simplistic equation: Good people are well-intentioned and are therefore not racist; bad people are ill-intentioned and are therefore racist. Consequently, if the white police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Gardner are considered “good people” by their friends, families, and colleagues, their actions cannot be deemed racist. Such a conclusion focuses solely on intent and overlooks how members of the police – like all of us – have been shaped and influenced by notions of black men as threatening and how such cultural imagery has, in turn, structured racialized violence.

The point is not that Craig Hicks is any more or any less racist than the white police officers who murdered Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black men. Indeed, the question of their individual, consciously expressed or felt racism does not help us to understand what happened or how to prevent it in the future; it just provokes denial and defensiveness. Conversely, claiming that we are “post-race” and/or denying that a particular incident has anything to do with race does not help us solve the problem of racialized violence.

The point is not whether Craig Hicks is any more or less racist than any of us; the point is that Craig Hicks lives and his victims died in a society that is structured by deeply institutionalized and culturally pervasive racism that exists regardless of whether any individual “wants” it to or not, and regardless of whether we as a society want to acknowledge it or not. We need a new paradigm, a new language and framework, to understand racialized violence today. Hicks’ profile provides an opportunity to challenge ourselves to rethink our understanding of racism and hate crimes in order to prevent murder.

Evelyn Alsultany is Associate Professor in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (NYU Press, 2012).