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Torture as War Victory: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and the torture reports

(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)

This post is the first of our ‘Throwback Thursday” series, where we re-publish an earlier post on a topic that is currently in the news, or is receiving renewed attention or debate. This original post was published February 23rd 2013 (right before the Oscars) but the main arguments about the utility and rational behind torture expressed in the movie may be worth revisiting given the recent release of the CIA’s ‘torture report.’

“This is what winning looks like”

I have to confess, I was late to watch “Zero Dark Thirty” (ODT). I read a handful of reviews and blogs about the movie, had arguments with friends about its message, and even wrote it off completely–all weeks before I bothered to watch it. I wasn’t interested in watching another American war movie, nor was I keen to see the lengthy torture scenes I had read about in the reviews. I figured I already knew exactly what the content was (are there every any real surprises in American war movies? and, didn’t we all know how this story ended anyway?) and that there was really nothing left to say. BUT, I think there is something left to say about the film.

First, let’s all be honest: most of us walked away from this movie saying to ourselves “did I miss something?” What about the film deserved all the Oscar hype, debate, and acclaim? By most standards, this was a classic, boring American war movie. In this case, the lack of plot and acting skills are made up with using violent torture scenes rather than expensive battle scenes. There is no emotional journey, no big moral dilemma that the characters are going through (I’ll get to torture soon), little plot twist (again, we all know how it ends after all), and no unique or interesting characters (don’t get me started on Jessica Chastain–what exactly about her stone-faced performance warrants an Oscar? perhaps she deserves an award for for ‘most consistent blank expression’). So what gives? Is this just another “King’s Speech”? Meaning, is this just another big movie that people talk about and get behind, but no one actually can put their finger on what was remotely interesting about it (never mind what was destructive about it)?

So I’m calling it. Not only was this movie soul-less, boring and poorly made, everyone seemed to miss the message (and it is easy enough to do). The real question about ODT is not whether or not it is condoning torture. (more…)

Not Surprised is Not Good Enough: what soldier atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan can teach us about Ferguson

(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)

By some strange twist of fate I happened to watch the Kill Team, a documentary about the infamous US platoon that intentionally murdered innocent Afghan men while on tour. When, in 2010 the military charged five members of the platoon, the case drew international attention due to the graphic nature of the killings, evidence that the men mutilated the bodies and kept parts as trophies, and indications that the killings were part of a wider trend of ‘faking’ combat situations in order for soldiers to ‘get a kill.’ While the premeditated killing of Afghan civilians appears completely disconnected from the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of unarmed Michael Brown, there are several common threads that deserve unraveling. Rather than characterise ‘Ferguson’ as ‘simply’ a case of police brutality, or localised racism, or isolated misconduct, such a comparison opens up space for counter-narratives. In particular, the comparison A) highlights the systemic nature of racist, militarized, and patriarchal violence across multiple institutions, including the police and the military; B) addresses the sanctioned killing of non-white men and women as a consistent feature of the national narrative; C) indicates the desperate need to both demonise a racialised other and to measure individual and national masculinity in terms of the control and suppression of this demonised other.

So, with that pleasant list out of the way, here are 3 ways that civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are similar to the murders of innocent civilian African-American young men.

1. Creating a dark and dehumanized enemy.
Whether it is at home in the US or overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is ample evidence of a generalised trend for police, soldiers, and the public to hold deeply racist views about the people they are meant to be protecting.

(more…)

My 5 Secret ‘Weapons’ for Finishing a Book

(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)

There is all kinds of advice out there on how to write and finish a book. We are frequently advised to ‘Write everyday’, ‘write early in the morning,’ ‘workshop and present your work,’ among other things. Here is a great overview of 10 steps to writing a book and another fantastic post called “‘I’m writing a book no one will read’ and other reasons the PhD can get you down.'” It seems common knowledge that writers need time, space, and mental energy to complete any piece of work. But no one talks about the other types of daily tools that can be useful in getting words on a page. I’m no expert on writing books- in fact, I’ve only got one! But I’ve been hibernating for 8 months working on another project. Besides the obvious- coffee, sleep- here are a few unlikely ‘weapons’ I used to complete my recent book (unless I’m wrong, and I still have 2 chapters to write, which is a reoccurring nightmare)

IMG_3008

1. ‘Back in 5 or 45 minutes’ post it notes.
Ok, I’m outing myself to my colleagues on this one. I appreciate office socialization and I generally have an open-door policy and welcome staff and student drop-ins. However, when I start to get on a writing roll I try to get up, put up a ‘back in 5- or 45’ note, and close the door to ensure uninterrupted typing. Obviously, I don’t do this during office hours or other appointments. The result? I catch the inspiration while it is there, and open the door for chit chat when its not.

2. Retreats.
Over the course of this project, my partner and I organized 3 separate writing retreats. They were scheduled at pivotal times (completing the theory chapter, writing the intro, and going over the complete manuscript a last time). I went to a Buddhist temple that has simple hotel rooms. There is not much to do besides write, meditate….and sneak in a few episodes of bad tv from the ipad. These blocks of time got me over major writing blocks and helped me get back on track when I had fallen far behind my own deadlines.

IMG_30103. Dragon Dictate (hands free microphone)
Sure it is a mega pain in the @ss to set up, but once you get the hang of using this program it can get you through some long days. It is particularly useful for ‘talking out’ sections of the manuscript, dictating longer quotes, or brainstorming ideas that you will go through and finesse later. Much of the conclusion chapter was ‘written’ by me pacing around my office with this plugged in my ear.

4. Grooveshark and Spotify. Namely, extended Prince playlists.

IMG_30095. New glasses. This seems obvious, but trying to write a book (or anything) with glasses from 3 years ago is not a good idea…as I figured out in month 2 of this project. These beauties make 8 hours of screen-staring bearable.

What are your weapons for getting work done?

Bad Advice on Making Academic Babies: opting in and out of heteronormative panic

(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)

What I remember most about my post-grad Gender and Politics seminar were the extensive discussions we had about having babies. It was 2004, and debates about babies vs careers, and whether women should ‘opt out‘ to raise families, were heated and divisive. Women were told in the 1980s and 1990s that the highest feminist aspiration was to wear oversize, terrible suits and work alongside men- as equals (or at least work alongside men, while accepting less pay and dealing with harassment). This was followed by the movement to denounce the double-day; the New York Times and Time Magazine led the charge in declaring that women wanted out of the work force, and were empowered by the choice to stay at home and raise children. Less than a decade later, it was declared that ‘women couldn’t have it all‘- the career, family balance was a loose loose choice. We had been duped. The opt out luxury was always ‘fiction‘ that only really applied to white middle-class women. Forbes pointed out that opt-out mom’s were unable to catch up in their careers and Al Jazeera concluded that women weren’t opting out, they were out of options. The opt out women ‘wanted back in‘ (are you confused yet about what *good* feminists should want??). Perhaps the culmination of this back and forth comes in Linda Hirshman’s book, ‘Get to Work…And Get a Life Before it is too Late.’ Hirshman calls ‘opting out’ a form of ‘self-betrayal’ (and also encourages women to only have one child).
Entangled within this debate were mixed messages about how to ‘time’ having children (note, there was no debate there about whether strategizing to fit children within one’s career plan was itself a problem).
One article I read back in 2004 encouraged women to ‘do the math’ and take control over the timing of children so that they didn’t ‘forget,’ have to rush to become a ‘last chance mother,’ or run out of biological time before they reproduced- ending up ‘single and childless‘.* The strategy went like this: pick the age at which you want to have a child (or your last child, if you want more than one), count back in years and account for how long you want to be married before you have children, count back more years and think how long you will date before you get married. The results- your long term birth plan.
Does it get more heteronormative that this? The article made several big assumptions, including: (more…)

If Gaza Isn’t a Genocide, What Is?: discourse as resistance

(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)

At the moment many of us are watching the news with bated breath. New sites,  facebook and twitter feeds are filling with images of civilian deaths and the leveling of Gaza. There is growing sentiment that the ‘targeted’ operations in Gaza by the IDF have been willfully indiscriminate- with example upon example of civilian safe havens being directly targeted (4 UN schools in 4 days, 46 schools in total, 56 Mosques and 7 hospitals). The UN has called for an investigation of war crimes by Israel, and there is a growing international public movement to protest the killings- in the face of almost universal silence by major world leaders on the issue.
One question that has not been consistently raised is why the term ‘genocide’ is not being used to describe the activities of Israel in Gaza. It seems that only ‘extreme’ activist groups or Hamas and the Palestinian Authority themselves would accuse Israel of genocide, with the rest of the international community preferring to qualify their criticisms using terms like ‘indiscriminate’ ‘disproportionate’ or ‘criminal.’ The politics of Israel and Palestine have become so muted, so tangled with discursive landmines that it is difficult to even pose such a question. Yet one does not need to be a radical to at least try to evaluate Israeli actions against the established UN definition of genocide. Serious questions about the end goal of the current military actions, along with longstanding Israeli policies and their impact on the ability of Palestinians to exist require attention.
It is worth quoting the following section from the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide- not only to assess whether the current military offensive constitutes a genocide, but also to reflect on the international community’s ‘punishable’ role as actors ‘complicit’ to a genocide.
“Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Article III: The following acts shall be punishable:

(a) Genocide;
(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;
(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
(d) Attempt to commit genocide;
(e) Complicity in genocide. ” (more…)

What the Public Heard/Saw in the Headlines for the ‘Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence’

(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)

If you haven’t read Pablo K’s piece on Angelina Jolie, celebrity, and the Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, you should. There has been some broader discussion about the pros (see ‘Hollywood can actually help solve complex global problems‘) and cons of celebrity ‘endorsement’ (the foreign secretary was ‘starstruck’) of humanitarian issues- the Angelina Jolie ‘effect’, if you will. One thing that is certain, the headlines were certainly all about Angelina. “Angelina Jolie hosts/says/opens/kicks off…” were the most prominent headlines, with the content, issues, debates of the summit largely left out. Out of curiosity, I created a wordle map of the headlines. I took a blunt method of taking the headlines from the first three pages of google news for ‘global summit on ending sexual violence.’ To cut out the obvious, I deleted ‘global end sexual violence summit’ and here’s what the headlines looked like:

angelina
(more…)

The Unwritten Rules of AMERICAN IR? (or, things American IR scholars don’t always know about ‘doing’ IR ‘in the rest of the world’)

(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)

Laura Sjoberg recently wrote a post listing “The Unwritten Rules of IR.” While it is an interesting review of some of the power relations, maneuvering, and indeed game-playing that goes on in the field, it also captured a particular American (maybe even just a personal) experience of being an IR scholar. Of course this makes sense, since Sjoberg is an American doing IR in America…but it felt a little bit more like ‘Mean Girls- the IR Sequel’- like when Regina George (yes, I remember the main character/villain’s name outlines the ‘rules’ of the table….maybe the problem is the table, not the rules). My point is not to critique Sjoberg or the individual points she makes, but to consider what these rules tell us about how exceptional (I think) this experience is from those of us ‘doing’ IR in, well, the rest of the world (and maybe at other tables in the US cafeteria). I’m drawing from my experience working in New Zealand and Australia, studying in Canada, and completing a post-doc in the US. The post made me ask two questions:

  • First, is the American IR community really that shitty/petty/manipulative? (read, ‘why is everyone so mean!?’)
  • Do American IR scholars appreciate that their experience of the field is not, in fact, how the entire field operates? (read, ‘why don’t more US scholars abandon ship?!’)

I offer a few counter punches to those offered by Sjoberg in the hope of making my point:
1. Get over pedigree. Pedigree matters most to those who went to ‘the top 2/5/8’ US universities in the US. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive about the power of studying at Harvard or Yale. BUT pedigree only goes so far. And, especially outside the US, A) one’s publication record, and general contribution to the field outweighs pedigree. Full stop. B) perception about ‘good’ pedigree varies vastly across the world. There is an entire cohort of non- ivy league universities that seem to garner as much- if not more recognition- for producing incredible IR scholars, including: Aberystwyth, the University of Copenhagen, Science Po, and University of Southern California- to name a few. C) constantly name dropping your alma matter or PhD supervisor is annoying both inside and outside the US (the students of a few American IR dudes ‘icons’- who shall remain nameless- should just get t-shirts made for their students, to save them the hassle of declaration (it would be equally as annoying), or maybe there should be some pin that signals certain supervisors…now I’m just getting bitchy). Maybe this is my perspective because- from a pedigree perspective (what are we breeding, exactly) I’m the equivalent of a Shetland Pony/work horse bred with a thoroughbred racehorse. I’m sure the pedigree-police would recommend taking me out back and shooting me, but hey, I’ve managed ‘show’ in a few races and make my mark on the track anyway (ok, those are all the racing analogies I’ve got).
2. The HR pimp line, or the degree to which you brag about yourself as a scholar, that Sjoberg talks about is relative. (more…)

Discourse Analysis of Internet Trolls?: the whys and hows of analyzing online content*

(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)

Online mediums can be perceived as attracting wacky ranters unrepresentative contributors and exchanges and, therefore, forums or chats are often treated as if they do not provide an effective picture/sample of political discourse. But since over 80% of Americans are online, 66% of American adults have engaged in civil or political activities with social media, and about half of those who visit discussion groups post/contribute, isn’t this an interesting- and increasingly relevant- medium for a discourse analysis? Why cut out such a vast political resource? What is different about ‘doing’ a discourse analysis of online content? How would you even start such an analysis? And, why aren’t those like myself- who blog and engage in political discussions as part of my daily/weekly activity- doing more to treat online content as part of what we consider to be ‘legitimate’ political discourse? Well, I think it comes down to methodology. Here is a very brief intro to some of the opportunities and challenges to conducing a discourse analysis of online content (PS getting students to do such an analysis is a great assignment).

1. What makes a discourse analysis of online content different from an analysis of printed text?
First, (and probably somewhat obvious) online material uses multiple modes of expression, including emoticons, hyperlinks, images, video, moving images (gifs), graphic design, and color. This multimodality adds complexity (and, I argue, richness) to a discourse analysis- but the researcher must be aware of how particular signals are used, (for example, ‘iconic’ or popular memes or gifs (like feminist Ryan Gosling or the Hilary Clinton texting image begin to take on particular meanings themselves). Second, online content is unstable, instant, and edited in ways unavailable to print (even the use of striking through signals ‘editing’/alternative meaning/irony etc- but this requires interpretation). Also, articles, conversations, and posts, can be published, responded to, retweeted, then retracted or edited all within a few hours. (more…)

5 Degrees of Internet Procrastination (or, from Al-Jazeera to Perez Hilton in 5 clicks)

(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)

It is nothing new to say that the internet is a major distraction. But I’m particularly amazed at how well-intentioned online searches lead to bottom-feeder-celebrity-gossip trolling. How does a quick writing break to check the news end in mindlessly clicking through the best-dressed list at Cannes? I’ve got a theory: procrastination requires a certain level of mindless surfing. Our initial news hits don’t satisfy the urge, so we are forced to go deeper and deeper into the internet until we hit the ‘zone out’ level. Here’s how it happens:

Stage One: Most procrastination stints start out in earnest. Al-Jazeera, New York Times, Democracy Now, Washington Post, Guardian headlines are scoured, we catch up on what’s going on in the news. We feel virtuous because we are in fact multi tasking, and learning about the world, not procrastinating. Stage two: From here, there are easy distractions, like “most emailed” articles (that might include an interesting op ed, personal news about a particular politician etc). Next thing you know, you are on the Huffington Post trying to read more about Tony Abbot and what an idiot he is. The Huffington Post is like a vortex that takes you from news to gossip in .5 seconds. Massive headlines about Putin’s abs or Hilary Clinton’s pantsuits suck you in with supersonic force. Stage Three: The article on Putin’s abs takes you to websites you would never admit to visiting during the workday. No, I don’t mean porn. I mean People.com. Yes, you are on People.com reading about Putin’s abs….and now its time to get to Stage Four: pure celebrity gossip. At least the Putin article had some political relevance…sort of. From here you are one click away from learning about Jenny McCarthy’s wedding ring (she got a sapphire, not a blood diamond…doesn’t that knowledge count as political?…shit, how do I know Jenny McCarthy has a sapphire engagement ring!!). And now you are here, at Stage Five– the guts of internet procrastination, reading about yet another season of the Bachelorette, looking at ‘who wore it better’, doing quizzes about what 90s rock star you would be, and reading your horoscope (FB is in another league of procrastination). Don’t worry, it happens to all of us. (more…)

#BringBackOurGirls- Doing Nothing as ‘Activism’

(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)

I really don’t want to write this post. I hate being a feminist or critical killjoy- especially when it comes to issues that seem to unite, motivate, and inspire large groups of people. We all need to feel inspired- like we are doing something good for the world. On Sunday I saw a small group of teenage girls wearing red and holding signs that read #BringBackOurGirls. It was sort of sweet to see them so clearly excited to be part of something- to be DOING SOMETHING. Activism is supposed to be political activity aimed at changing or influencing events. But what are the politics of #BringBackOurGirls and does #BringBackOurGirls DO anything?  Let’s start with a few more important questions:

1. To whom is #BringBackOurGirls directed? President Goodluck Jonathan? President Obama? The Nigerian military? Holding a sign in a shopping center on a Sunday is a nice activity for feeling part of ‘something’- but flashing a sign with a hash tag in such a setting feels more like a Western conversation with ourselves. A feel-good exercise, rather than political activism.

2. Who is the ‘our’ in this tag? ‘Our girls’ implies ownership rather than solidarity. What motivates this paternalistic feeling that ‘we’ can/should ‘save’ ‘our’ girls? (more…)