Connected by Radio

I spent a lot of this summer sitting in a small room in an NGO office, listening to a high frequency radio as people from across Haut Uele, one of the northeasternmost districts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would check in with one another about the security in the region. News would come in every day – sometimes everything was fine; sometimes there were concerns related to health, weather, or other hazards; sometimes there were security incidents involving rebels – and the network of radios posted across the region kept everyone informed.

As I transition from my previous work on FM radios to focus on the HF radio network, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the radio fits within the media ecology – the range of media options that people can choose from. When I described my research to one Congo scholar, he expressed confusion as to why the phonie system still exists since cell phones have largely replaced it. But then I remember watching a driver for an NGO wandering up and down the street trying to get a signal to call the office and ask if the road was clear for the last leg of my trip to my field site. He would call, the call wouldn’t do through, so he would take a few paces over to try again. Vodacom only reaches so far.

I then also remember being in a small rural town where a HF radio was being fixed. We stopped by to greet the chief and the NGO staff explained that they were fixing the radio; the chief seemed grateful and said it was important to keep the town connected to the rest of the region. Almost to emphasize this, as we left someone handed a letter to our driver, asking that he take it back to town. There are few reliable ways to send messages even to the next town. When I was studying FM radio, I found out that one of the radio stations I was studying had asked listeners to respond to a sort of questionnaire. While some responses came via SMS, many came via motorcycle taxi or a chain of family and friends.

In a place where getting news from the next town over can be difficult or can take time, the HF radio does a lot of work. I’m still thinking about what all of this looks like, and what it means to be connected amidst violence (see also). As I continue to fumble through a year of courses, grants, readings, and exams, I just thought I’d take a moment to think aloud on here. More soon.

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Disrupt J20: Solidarity Six Months Later

Six months ago today, a diverse collection of autonomous direct actions occurred in downtown Washington, DC, disrupting the Inauguration. Despite he fact that January 20th signified the arrival of the Trump presidency, the massive turnout across the city and country made it a beautiful day of collective struggle against hate, white supremacy, misogyny, and xenophobia. From across the country, leftists of all stripes came together to resist Donald Trump’s presidency in defense of women’s rights, indigenous sovereignty, black lives, peace, bodily autonomy, trans/queer lives, the climate, health care, reproductive rights, labor rights, and other causes. Thousands of people came to DC from near and far. There were dance parties and blockades and marches all day. We set the tone for resistance from day one.

While I was holding the line at 10th and E with a growing crew of radical feminists, I also got news that riot police had kettled the anti-capitalist antifascist march just a few blocks north of us. Several friends had been up there, and I had planned to join them if our blockade at the gate had been dispersed. Busy with our own aggressive cops and Trump supporters, I didn’t see video of cops indiscriminately pepper spraying crowds – including the elderly, disabled, and children – and using less lethal crowd control on penned protesters until I got home. It wasn’t until the next day that I heard that they had been denied food, water, or access to a bathroom for hours. It wasn’t until months later that news came out that several were stripped down and subjected to invasive searches, and have since sued MPD for using “rape as punishment.”

The two hundred individuals caught up in the kettle that day now face about 70 years in prison for protesting. There is little evidence of individual wrongdoing; and some lawyers have argued that the case has “fatal defects” since many are simply charged for associating with those who destroyed property. The case is a prime example of the type of unconstitutional mass arrests that MPD used to be known for, but have since abandoned thanks for community organizing, legal support, and expensive settlements – that is, until J20. In both their use of pepper spray, stingball grenades, allegedly tear gas and flashbangs too, and in their decision to mass arrest a city block of protesters – and anyone else who happened to be in the area – MPD violated its own policies and broke the last decade of crowd control precedent in the District. DC’s Office of Police Complaints issued a report  [pdf] in February citing concerns that MPD may have violated Standard Operating Procedure, and the City Council already appropriated funds to investigate MPD misconduct and abuses that will cost the city more than all damages from the protest itself, not to mention pending civil cases that could cost the city millions like past police misconduct settlements. Despite all of this, interim police chief Peter Newsham, who oversaw crowd control that day and has been implicated in the illegal kettling of proteters in 2002 at Pershing Park, was approved as police chief by DC City Council a few months later over the wishes of many in the DC community.

Beyond the police repression that day, the prosecutorial strategy has also been one that seeks to punish people for engaging in protest. Superseding indictments brought the total list of charges for most defendants to eight felonies including rioting, incitement, and conspiracy charges. These charges effectively argue that people can be held responsible for the actions of those around them, positing guilt by association just for being there. “Evidence” listed include the fact that people wore black clothing, covered their faces, chanted, and marched. Even journalists and legal observers have been charged (some, but not all, had their charges dropped). Such actions aren’t illegal, but the prosecution is trying to leverage them as evidence anyways, arguing that there exists a form of criminal protest rather than specific illegal acts. This is not new: Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock protesters have faced state repression, and the J20 case is just the most recent. There will be more: lawmakers in numerous states have proposed laws ratcheting up the punishment for nonviolent direct action, specifically targeting forms of protest that seek to disrupt the norm.

In the face of all of this, those involved in J20, and a growing network of support, are working to show the true meaning of solidarity. In conversations leading up to the day of action, organizers promised to provide legal support for those who got arrested. When the scale of arrests and felony charges became apparent, this legal support structure didn’t back down, it was amped up. Solidarity and mutual aid are at the core of what makes direct action possible, and in DC teams of people are attending status hearings at the courthouse, paying for transport and providing housing options for those who have to make multiple trips to DC. While the state tries to isolate individuals and intimidate them with decades in prison, people have got each other’s backs. You should have their backs too.

Ways that you can help:

  • Donate to the DC Legal Posse to help provide legal support and defray costs
  • Donate to local legal support funds
  • Keep the pressure on MPD by calling for investigations into police misconduct and abuse
  • If you’re in DC, provide housing for defendants or show up for court support
  • Support anti-fascist work in your community
  • Spread the word that protesting isn’t illegal, mass arrests are

Things that you should read, watch, or listen to:

Fragments of Field Site History

I’m in the Congo for about three weeks doing fieldwork, after many more weeks of wrangling bureaucracy. A great deal of waiting eventually resulted in me hopping in a humanitarian Land Cruiser with a friend and enjoying a day’s ride that bounced, skidded, and rolled through puddles, humps, and potholes. Much of the drive looked like this, and the fact that we had no issues getting to our destination is due in large part to a skilled driver who knows the road. Along the way we stopped to call NGO headquarters to see how secure the roads were. At one point we passed a group of people with flags, palm fronds sticking up from motorcycles lining the road, as Faradje territory welcomed a ministerial visit (we weren’t it, and unfortunately one person dropped some bright flowers as he made a path for us to pass). With ministerial welcoming committees cleared and the security go ahead, we drove, and along the way we’d pass little army outposts or a truckful of park rangers. Eventually, we arrived in town.

After meeting some NGO staff I was dropped off at a sprawling UN compound, where I’m staying. The parking lot is lined with matching agency Land Cruisers and the perimeter is made up of prefabricated trailers and mobile homes. There’s also a small garden. I was led to my room, dropped my things off, and then wandered. The hallway of the living quarters is plain and sterile, but a few residents have made it their own with little signs taped to their doors, memes and inside jokes. I notice that my room number is thirteen.

A bridge on the road to my field site.

If all goes well, my dissertation research will be on high frequency radio networks that are used by rural communities to alert each other. When we stopped along the way to check about road security, it was thanks to this network. Built in the aftermath of a string of incidents in which the LRA killed hundreds of people, the network is supposed to act as an early warning system and help keep isolated communities connected. Many villages are in the middle of nowhere, stretched out in the dense forest with little road access. Getting word to people is not easy, and the radio network serves to allow operators to communicate. The road here was trying enough, and that was a decent path in an able vehicle. Some roads to villages are only footpaths in the jungle, and some villages are hardly visible through the foliage.

Four years ago I was here for a week and did only preliminary work on the same issues. I wrote a tiny bit about it, and it’s been a small section of my broader work on technology, humanitarianism, and conflict in the region. As I shift from FM radio to HF radio, from Uganda to Congo, from one research project to another, I’m facing a steep learning curve but it’s been good so far. The first week has included listening in on radio rounds, meeting folks involved in one way or another to the network, stumbling through informal interviews in French, becoming more familiar with the terrain, finding a surprise archive of letters, and filling dozens of pages of field notes. Next year, I’ll be back for the long haul, but for now I’m doing all that I can to see what’s possible in an area that I’m not so familiar with. I’m also piecing together fragments of a history.

A century ago, colonial authorities established a cordon sanitaire around the Uele region of Belgian Congo to protect the population from sleeping sickness which was a major health concern in other parts of the colony but not yet in this corner. Movement was restricted, the sick were removed and placed in prisons or quarantined villages that looked and felt like penal colonies (one referred to them as “death camps.” The colonial era letters cited in one article are rife with talking about Congolese as economic assets that need to be maximized. Even amidst epidemic and quarantine, rubber and ivory quotas were strictly enforced.

Half a century ago, some poor colonial officer stranded in the northeast corner of the colony built a large castle. According to Wikipedia, he was tasked with building a two-way bridge, but instead built a narrow one and used the rest to create a chateau. I’m sure there’s more to this story. Fifty years later the castle looks pretty beat up, vegetation is overgrown, and at the foot of it sits the UN peacekeeping office. That a colonial castle has turned into a foreign peacekeeping mission’s headquarters seems like a perfect metaphor, but for what I’m not sure. Down the road trucks rumble as they wait to clear customs and drive on up to South Sudan.

A glimpse of “Dungu Castle.”

Ten years ago this community had virtually no MONUSCO or FARDC presence. Once the LRA set up camp in 2005, things slowly began to change. The national army and the UN peacekeepers gradually deployed to the area – including a botched UN operation against the LRA that left eight Guatemalan peacekeepers dead – but they failed to protect civilians when the UPDF launched its own failed attack on the LRA, setting in motion a chain of events that include the Christmas Massacres of 2008 and Makombo Massacres a year later. It’s in response to these massacres that the early warning network was built, but it wasn’t built from scratch. It was expanded using an existing network of radios between mission stations and towns, and functions in a way somewhat reminiscent of radio networks in Kinshasa that predated the cell phone and telephone.

Technology always has a history, and an ecology. It’s also locally iterative and situated. Not just radio technologies but technologies of protection and security more broadly. Humanitarian technologies, military technologies, communication technologies. Technologies of memory, of connection, of risk mitigation, of preparation, of information. With luck, I’ll find some interesting things out while I’m here.

Making a Modern City

I left Gulu on Sunday morning to do a short stint of research and deal with some logistics for an upcoming trip. By the time I made it back to town on Thursday, it was evening and I was tired. I paid my boda driver and grabbed my bags, turning towards my hotel. The lights were off, which had been typical lately with so many power cuts, but the door was shuttered too. I noticed a small 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper posted on the door. As I read about how the hotel I had just stayed in was now closed for renovations, the owner approached me from his seat beside the building. A friend of mine since last year, he apologized and explained that they were remodeling some of the building and were temporarily closed. “You know, with city status coming, we wanted to spruce the place up a bit,” he explained.

Two weeks ago, I went to an open mic show at a cafe in town. In between performances, the emcee thanked several  notable patrons for attending the show. Among them was the owner of the new big supermarket. He mentioned, off hand, that her business gave Gulu “a real supermarket” that resonated with becoming a city.

Gulu town has been inching closer and closer to city status for years, and with it come particular notions of what a city is. I remember back in 2013, seeing news about the removal of thatched roof huts from town, also justified as part of the march to city status.

More recently, a number of buildings are marked for demolition in the name of safety but also in the name of making Gulu look like a proper city. In the Daily Monitor this week, a local division chairperson is quoted as saying, “We are taking this initiative of demolishing the dilapidated structures in preparation for a city status. We cannot have a city with this kind of dilapidated structures.” In addition to several dilapidated buildings deemed structurally unfit by engineers several years ago, several thatch-roofed buildings are slated for removal too.

I don’t know much of the details of what’s been going on in town. I’ve heard stories of how, when the new main market was built, many vendors couldn’t afford rents there but were also being pushed off of land as the old outdoor market was razed. The streets winding outside of town in neighborhoods like Pece are well-paved with sidewalks and medians. It feels like every year when I come back here town has changed quite a bit, and keeps changing.

Demolishing or fixing buildings that are unsafe is one thing; erasing traditional buildings from the urban landscape is another. Gulu will likely attain city status next year. But what does it mean to be a city? What does a city look like? And whose city is it?

Arriving Late, Studying After

Northern Uganda has been post-conflict since the 2006-2008 peace talks, during which the LRA rebels retreated into havens in South Sudan or relocated to greener pastures in the Congo. From my first trip here in 2010 until now, the region has seen steady progress.

“The guns are silent,” many Ugandans like to say. And while this isn’t totally true – insecurity and occasional bouts of violence have occurred here and there in the intervening years – the guns associated with the rebels are hard to hear anymore. The LRA are hundreds of kilometers away now, for the most part, and in northern Uganda life seems to be moving along.

Every other Monday for the last year and a half, there’s been a small reminder on the airwaves. A radio station in Gulu town hosted a program – one of the come home radio programs that I study – wherein former rebels would go on air and tell their stories. The goal was to paint a picture of demobilization and reintegration, the final steps of a story that began with violence, abduction, conscription.

After telling their stories, the returnees would be asked what messages they had for those rebels who remained in the bush, for their fellow returnees in Uganda, and for the community at large. To the rebels, these returnees invariably called for them to come home, to surrender, to demobilize. To the returnees and to the community, they often warned against problems that affect much of society – everything from violence to excessive drinking – and tried to promote reconciliation between former rebels and the broader community.

I’m here in Uganda to continue this research. It’s a sort of a launching point to start/continue my next project. But lo, on the drive up to Gulu I got an e-mail from an interlocutor saying that the radio program I studied was no more. It had ended just weeks before I arrived, amidst funding cuts. When the U.S. military officially withdrew their troops from the counter-LRA operation in Central African Republic last month, all of the associated funding streams – including money that paid for a radio program in Uganda – left with them. As recently as late May people were hoping that the funding would stay for at least a little bit after the troops left.

Uganda has been firmly post-conflict for a decade. Amidst that, there have been a number of radio stations over the last few years that reached out to rebels across the border or to returnees amongst the civilian population, calling for reintegration. The afterlives of the war were always very present on the airwaves, for better or worse. But we might be seeing the end of come home radio, at least in Uganda.

As I prepare for my next project, and as I fill in the gaps of my radio research, I’m left thinking: how does one study the aftermath of an aftermath?

Why Protest Pride?

Activism is nothing if it isn’t intersectional. If feminism is principally about challenging oppression, resisting patriarchy, and ending inequality, then what is the point of a feminism that is exclusionary? Why struggle for gender equity if it only applies to the wealthy? What is class consciousness that isn’t aware of race and gender and other differences? Why fight for gay rights if you’re going to abandon trans allies? How can you see liberation realized if you don’t stand up for queer rights? A truly intersectional politics should be about ending all forms of oppression and inequality, which means centering those most marginalized.

I’m not in DC right now. I’m on a plane. But today a group of radical queer activists and their allies – a group that I’m a part of – is protesting the Capital Pride parade, demanding that DC’s Pride celebration – ostensibly in commemoration of Stonewall – remember that queer and transgender people were at the center of that riot in 1969 and should not be left behind.

There is a long history of queer people protesting Pride, most recently in my hometown when the group Trans Queer Pueblo interrupted the Phoenix Pride Parade, wedging themselves between the police contingent of the parade and the sheriff, demanding that Pride not include police that racially profile and facilitate deportations and that it reject funding from Bank of America, which is invested in private immigration detention centers that hold LGBTQ immigrants (video of that protest here).

 The event that Pride commemorates was the Stonewall Riot, a riot of queer, trans, and gay people, led in part by trans women of color, against a police raid on a gay bar and homophobic and transphobic state violence in general. That doesn’t necessarily mean Pride has to be a riot, and celebration is certainly a form of protest, but this history does mean that those celebrating the movement that started at Stonewall should not leave queer and trans folks behind, and it should be a reminder that state violence is not a friend of the LGBTQ movement. A truly intersectional gay rights movement is not only inclusive of queer and trans communities, but also acknowledges that some LGBTQ people are also people of color, immigrants, indigenous, disabled, or members of other communities (If you watch the video from Phoenix, at one point a parade-goer shouts “this is not your day,” as if undocumented immigrants can’t be gay.) If it’s not intersectional, it’s not real liberation.

It’s clear that Capital Pride needs the reminder.

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Today, No Justice No Pride will be holding Capital Pride accountable for disregarding the concerns of queer and trans people in DC. There will be a rally at 3 at McPherson Square to celebrate the LGBTQ community’s radical roots. There will be an alternative Pride march which is family-friendly and just as celebratory as Pride but without all the egregious problems I list below. People will also be protesting at Pride itself. Tonight there will also be a QT Night of Healing and Resistance centering queer and trans experiences and promoting the work of organizations and artists in the community instead of corporations and celebrities that aren’t local or LGBTQ. These alternative events are rooted in DC’s queer communities and are committed to the radical foundations of the LGBTQ movement.

No Justice No Pride already pointed out that an executive producer of Capital Pride, Bryan Pruitt, had penned a transphobic column in 2016 that said activism centered on trans access to public facilities such as restrooms was based on a lie, arguing that “there is not an epidemic of trans people being denied access to public facilities” because “if they are truly trans, other folks don’t even notice.” Pruitt was fired after No Justice No Pride brought this to light.

That is a step in the right direction. But Capital Pride offers only small concessions and has refused No Justice No Pride’s broader critiques of how the parade is run. While Pride should center the diverse gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer communities that are a part of this movement and this city, the event seems more focused on giving platforms to sponsoring corporations, many of which benefit from the status quo and even contribute to the oppression of queer and trans people rather than work towards a more equal future. Here are just some of the reasons that Capital Pride is not something to be proud of.

The Metropolitan Police Department is included in the parade despite the fact that policing as an institution has always preyed on the LGBTQ community. The modern gay rights movement began after a police raid at Stonewall, and policing of queer spaces, trans bodies, and gay rights in general continues across this country. MPD in particular has been accused of disproportionately targeting and harassing trans women [pdf] through its implementation of “Prostitution Free Zones” in the past (the zones were repealed in 2014) and a 2015 report noted that the violence that the trans community in DC suffers includes “inhumane treatment of trans persons by members of the police” (49).

That same 2015 report, from the DC Trans Coalition, notes that “certain segments of the trans community are not only at a much higher risk of violence but are also at a significantly higher risk of violence at the hands of police and other agents of the state” and that “over a third of respondents who had interacted with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) as a trans person reported experiencing disrespect” (76). Crucially, “among all respondents, and not exclusively those who had interacted with MPD as a trans person, the majority (56%) reported not feeling comfortable approaching the police” (76). A review of MPD’s Hate Crimes Assessment Task Force found that, with the exception of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, “most transgender people do not trust the police” and that “the reported treatment of transgender people by MPD officers is a matter of serious concern” (4). These same police will be participating in Capital Pride, meaning that Capital Pride is not welcoming to the trans community. Capital Pride would rather help pinkwash the police than listen to trans concerns.

But, while it is not a safe or welcoming place for people who are trans, Capital Pride is very welcoming to corporations. Pride in many cities has become less about celebrating the progress of gay rights and more about celebrating capitalism. This led one writer in The Advocate to denounce that “the only audacity in modern pride now is its naked devotion to the almighty dollar. No better examples of this is Washington, D.C.’s Pride celebration and parade, Capital Pride.”

Several corporate sponsors of Capital Pride include banks such as Wells Fargo, which is not only well-known for a history of redlining, illegal foreclosures, and preying on poor communities, but is also a direct investor in private prisons. The criminalization of trans people is an ongoing problem that has resulted in the mass incarceration of the trans community, especially trans people of color. The National Center for Trans Equality reported [pdf] in 2015 that 1 in 6 transgender people have spent at least some time in jail, including nearly half of all black trans people. If LGBTQ liberation means a world without police and prisons, then Pride should model that vision, not promote those who invest in and benefit from oppression. Wells Fargo is also an investor in the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the land, livelihood, and sovereignty of indigenous communities, including people who identify as LGBTQ or two-spirit.

As one critic of the corporatization of Pride argued in 2015, “As queers become ever more accepted into mainstream society, we should use our newfound political and economic clout to demand equity for the least privileged among us, not abandon those still marginalized in our quest for a bigger, badder party. If Bank of America wants a Capital Pride sponsorship slot, let it fund a shelter for homeless trans youth first.” As one No Justice No Pride organizer put it, queer and trans people should be able to attend and participate in their local pride march “without funding our own oppression.”

In 2012 and 2013, protesters interrupted the Wells Fargo float in Capital Pride for these exact reasons, cutting off the float in the middle of the parade and dancing in front of it. Last year GetEQUAL submitted a petition demanding that Capital Pride drop Wells Fargo to “get prisons out of pride.” These critiques are not new, but nothing has changed. When Capital Pride says that No Justice No Pride’s critiques are being received too late to make changes this year, this dismisses years of organizing in the DC community that have been saying the same thing over and over again.

Defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Gruman are also sponsoring Capital Pride, despite the fact that they have proudly done business with countries where homosexuality is punishable by death, such as Saudi Arabia, for decades. Some of the money they give to Capital Pride comes from these governments, states that kill people for being gay or gender-non-conforming. On top of all of this, the pinkwashing of military contractors tries to convince us that bombs made by a gay-friendly corporation are okay, when we should be fighting to end all wars.

Another prominent sponsor of Capital Pride is Maryland Live! Casino, owned by real estate developer The Cordish Companies and the vision of Reed Cordish, who is now an adviser to the Trump White House. Trump is, of course, no friend to the LGBTQ community, having recently rescinded federal protections for trans students through the Departments of Education and Justice. Just as people boycotted Uber over its CEO’s involvement in Trump’s transition team, people should not shy away from telling Cordish that cozying up with an administration that hurts trans people comes at a cost.

In response to requests from No Justice No Pride that such toxic sponsors be replaced with local, community-centered groups working directly with the LGBTQ community, Capital Pride has said that it would not be able to function without big money corporate sponsors. But saying that Pride would not be possible without the money of banks and corporations assumes a particular type of Pride – one that is not rooted in the community. Pride can be a protest and a celebration of the LGBTQ community without being sanitized and corporate. All you need is the community.

Capital Pride has also justified its refusal to change by insisting that it is an apolitical event, ignoring the history of the LGBTQ movement’s politics. But this assumes that striving for an “apolitical” parade isn’t itself a political decision. It assumes that shunning queer and trans voices is not political; it assumes that giving platforms to corporations and police is not political. But every decision involves taking sides. The problem is not whether Capital Pride is or isn’t political – the problem is its bad politics.

The truth is, Pride would not be possible without the radical gay, queer, and trans activists who have built the LGBTQ movement into what it is over decades of intersectional work that was often explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-police. The truth is, Pride is and has always been political, and should be committed to ending oppression. Today, protesters are calling for a truly revolutionary Pride and a return to the LGBTQ movement’s radical roots. Today, protesters are trying to imagine a more equal, safe, and just Pride for this city. The theme for this year’s parade is “Unapologetically Proud.” No Justice No Pride is unapologetically siding with the marginalized. It is unapologetically political and unapologetically radical.

Bombing as Speech Act

There’s an interesting article up at Sapiens by William M. Cotter on military leaflets dropped over civilians during war in the Middle East, specifically Israeli messaging in Gaza as well as U.S. and allied leafleting over ISIS-held Raqqa. As a linguistic anthropologist, Cotter looks particularly at the language used in such leaflets, analyzing them for their strategic use in war. Looking, for example, at the vague language in messages informing Gazans to “stay away from Hamas elements,” Cotter asks, “What does the lack of specificity mean? Why are civilians only being provided with part of the story and given only a portion of the information that they need in order to avoid becoming victims of military strikes?”

The answer is of course because war – even with precision bombing and high tech missiles – doesn’t actually care about civilians or even the distinction between civilians and combatants. Especially in a place like Syria, where total war consumes lives regardless of this distinction, or in places like Gaza, perpetually stuck in interwar1 as civilians never know if violence is near. Actors such as ISIS fighters, the U.S. military and its drones, or the IDF often don’t care about this distinction either. Cotter provides some good analysis of what the messages are actually doing: they provide cover for militaries by technically “warning” civilians of impending violence but without adequately shielding them. In such instances of asymmetrical warfare, such leaflets or other messaging can act as an actual warning for civilians, but also also act as a free pass for military aggression or as a form of psychological warfare to intimidate the opponent.

While my own ongoing work on radio messages and leaflets in Uganda and the Congo resonates with this is somewhat tangential ways (and that will maybe be a forthcoming post), I want to flip the message of Cotter’s piece. The subtitle for his Sapiens article says: “Modern warfare isn’t only conducted with bombs, tanks, and guns—language also plays a central role.” But what if we think of bombs, tanks, and guns as linguistic tools?

If we conceive of bombing as a speech act, a tank as a performative, or a gun as medium, we begin to see all of warfare as communicative practice. War and violence say something, after all. Leaflets and propaganda say something about war, of course, but the politics of war-making and actual acts of war also have a lot to say. We should be attuned to violence as speech. Continue reading

We Don’t Need “Western Civilization”

Long-time friends of this blog will know that I’m not a fan of David Brooks. I generally try not to engage with his columns – or any column at the New York Times, given their recent climate-denial hire and the problems with even the more liberal columnists (some of them should just be replaced with a generator — oh wait) – but Brooks’ recent thoughts on education and Western values caught my eye.

In his April 21st column, David Brooks expresses worry about “The Crisis of Western Civ.” Much of the article is as expected from a man whose career has been so invested in the idea of quintessentially “Western” values that are at the heart of our way of life. Brooks is adamant that “This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like.”

But it is absurd to assume that only a curriculum based around Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Industrial Revolution can inculcate the value of reasoned discourse or a public commons. And property rights, as they emerged from Western history, were deeply tide to slavery (Africans as property, and thus having no rights unto themselves) and the genocide of indigenous Americans (because they weren’t using the land “correctly,” it became the property of colonists and they were displaced if not murdered). And if Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine are supposed to teach us good statesmanship, then we’re already beyond all hope, really. But Brooks is convinced that the teleological grand arc of “Western Civ” – which elides the influence of the Islamic world and the Mediterranean world, and isolates a bounded “West” while relegating the rest of the world to the background – is the only way to teach important values to people.

Brooks points to the fact that “decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.” Amazingly, aust a few lines down, he points to the effect of this decline: the rise of not only Trump, but Putin, Erdogan, and other authoritarians, illiberal politicians on the right and the left, and – of course – the tyranny of students protesting hateful speakers on campus. Hopefully I don’t need to tell you that this is quite the leap.

Between my MA and PhD, I spent a year teaching Western Civ to freshmen at a public school in a wealthy, mostly white town. Having pretty much refused a Western Civ framework in my own scholarship and politics, every lesson was a balance of meeting curriculum needs, checking in with existing lesson plans, and finding ways to bring in the rest of the world. The result was not exactly anti-Western Civ, though I sincerely hoped that it would be. But I tried very hard to follow through on teaching Brooks’ fear: that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

Why? Because unlike Brooks, I don’t think there’s much to gain from teaching privileged white Americans that theirs is a lineage traced back to the City on a Hill, and before that the Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance, the Roman Empire, and Greek democracy. I actually think this does very little compared to a history that centers the value of intercultural exchange – the influence of the Arab world in European mathematics, navigation, and cuisine, for instance, or slavery and slave labor’s central role in creating a European middle class that could imagine having rights and liberty – while highlighting that much of this exchange happened under horrific pretenses (the Crusades, mostly, and then enslavement and colonialism). Teaching students that European empires were vast and covered much of the world implies that capitalism is a net good and is not all that useful if you don’t demonstrate that the wealth of empires came from looting New World gold and enslaving Africans to produce commodities like cotton and sugar for free.

Western Civ is not, for me, a curriculum of democracy and reason and greatness; it is a history of inequality and oppression – and that’s something we can learn from. If you teach people that their history is great, then when they hear criticisms they’ll turn to anyone willing to Make America Great Again. But if you teach them that greatness is subjective, and depends on oppressing others, then maybe they can learn to strive for a more liberated future in which we can share greatness among all – perhaps they can “make” the world something else, more thoughtfully, more equally, more inclusively.

Brooks ties the decline of Western Civ education to a decline in faith in democracy, pointing to a study that shows that “the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today.” But maybe people are less confident in democracy because the form of democracy that we have today is deeply flawed. The “democracy” of the U.S. two-party system, for example, is a facade corrupted by money, fear, and hate that is pretty much on track to destroy the climate, enrich the wealthy, and bomb and shoot brown people, no matter whom you elect. Of course youth have lost faith in democracy when it’s got such an awful track record. Young Americans today came of age when the world’s largest anti-war demonstrations couldn’t stop the ill-advised and ill-executed war in Iraq, began voting  when Obama called for hope and change and then turned around and bailed out criminal bankers, abandoning those who had been foreclosed on. And now Trump is our president, and it seems like a few times a week he is trying to prosecute, deport, ban, arrest, defund, or bomb the country and the world into submission. Why would we have faith in the system we’ve seen doesn’t work?

David Brooks is convinced that Western Civilizations as a teleological curriculum is the only way to teach our youth the values that they will need to be good citizens. He’s so convinced that this is the only way, and he’s so convinced that doing away with the Western Civ approach has led us over a cliff into authoritarianism, that he ends his column criticizing the critics of the curriculum. “If you think [Western Civ] was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it,” he opines.

But the diverse nature of a liberal arts education – one which does not need to center on the idea of a Greece-to-Rome-to-Renaissance-to-now progression – can teach values of reason, scientific inquiry, equality, inclusion, rights, etc., and it can do so while teaching the problems and pitfalls of these very ideas. In teaching undergrads the last two years, I’ve often discussed the failures of ideas such as “equality” and the incommensurability of “rights” as well as the ethnocentrism of ideas like “science” and “reason.” This hasn’t made my students any less reasonable or critical or inquisitive. Such education, beyond Western Civ, can train students to think critically, acknowledge the past, be open to new futures, and do so all with the well-being of others in mind. That’s really all we need for what comes after the idea of Western Civilization.

GWU Anthropology Symposium this Friday

For those in the DC area, my department at GWU will be hosting our annual Anthropology Symposium this Friday all day. Please come check out some of the cool stuff going on in my little corner of the world. I am one of the organizers this year, and we’ve brought together a solid slate of presenters.

I’m particularly excited about our keynote speaker, Adrienne Pine of American University, who will be giving a lecture (at 4:30pm) titled “Preparing for an Anthropology of Fascism” and uses ethnographic data from the DC area as well as Honduras to ask what anthropological possibilities and responsibilities are emerging right now.

gwsymposiumflier

A full program is available symposium-schedule (pdf). Hope to see you there!

Activism Forum at Anthropology News

In continuing my trend of working on anything but what I should be working on, I have a small update for you all. You might remember that I participated in a dialogue at American University in the fall discussing the role of anthropology in activism and activism in anthropology. I’m very pleased to announce that, in the intervening months, that dialogue has turned into a very nice little edited collection over at Anthropology News. The facilitators of the dialogue edited the collection and it just went up about a week ago.

My own article, titled “Writing and Research in a Conflict Zone,” touches on the ways that anthropologists might find themselves using similar tools as activists (gathering data, telling stories, etc.) either in the same, parallel, or opposing ways. I then give some short reflections based on my own interactions with, along side, and against popular non-profits working on ending the LRA conflict. Here’s a brief snippet:

The conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government was the focus of numerous academic monographs and NGO reports for 20 years before I heard about it. Little of this coverage mattered when the film Invisible Children: Rough Cut toured the United States with the tagline “discover the unseen.” While anthropologists, political scientists, humanitarians, and northern Ugandans were certainly aware of the conflict with the LRA, the film’s primary audience of upper-middle-class millennials was not. And so the film and the grassroots activist movement it sparked caught fire over the course of the 2000s, culminating in the Kony 2012 campaign.

The idea that raising awareness about an issue will lead to it being addressed is a common narrative in social and political activism. From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to Kony 2012, awareness (and fundraising) is central to activism, especially in the digital age. And a crucial part of raising awareness through activism is storytelling: activists must tell a digestible and actionable narrative that tugs at the proper emotions to galvanize a response. For Invisible Children videos, the formula was one that shed light on the effects of the conflict on Ugandan children, with a request for funds to address these negative impacts (building schools) and a call to take action (lobby the government). This strategy isn’t unique. The Save Darfur Coalition created a similar narrative (Hamilton 2011) and the campaign against “conflict minerals” in your cell phone does similar work (Seay 2015).

Storytelling has, of course, long been the domain of anthropologists. We are trained (or at least learn by doing) to write stories about people and places, shedding light on the lived experiences of others. While sometimes criticized as neither digestible nor actionable, ethnographies broadly do work that is similar to many activist and advocacy narratives. Anthropologists interested in either doing activism or speaking to activists must navigate the different publics and different modes of storytelling involved in such acts. The type of activism I saw emerging around the LRA conflict is part of how I came to find myself an anthropologist trying to write within and between these spaces.

The article centers on how we write about what we write, and for whom. Part of this emerges from the long debates around non-profit messaging about Africa, and part of this comes from a longer academic reflection on how we write about violence. It is also another example of me navigating through how to write about my own progression from one place to another in regards to the conflict that I study. Have a look, I hope you get something out of it.

But more importantly, you should read the other pieces in the collection. The introduction by Haley Bryant and Emily Cain sketches out what the dialogue was all about, and the important questions highlighted by the conversation. Each of the individual pieces resonates with something either implicit or explicit to my article, and the different parts of the collection speak to each other in interesting ways. Chloe Ahmann’s piece looks at the politics, ethics, and methodology of being (in)visible when studying activists in Baltimore. Hugh Gusterson discusses the different audiences an anthropologist has, and the responsibilities one might feel toward particular groups and not others in the course of research. Emma Louise Backe looks at the importance of care and self-care involved in ethnography through her experience studying a rape crisis hotline. Each of these pieces is well worth reading, and I learned a lot from speaking with everyone involved (including Shweta Krishnan, who was a part of our PAC panel but did not write a piece for AN) both during the dialogue and in the writing process after. A big thank you to everyone involved in the event and the publication.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently, and a lot of activism. These sometimes overlap, but don’t always. I strongly believe that scholarship can and should be a form of activism, but it is certainly not the only one. This collection is just one small part of an ongoing conversation and reflection about what anthropology and activism can offer each other, where they converge and diverge, and how to use both to imagine and enact a better world.