Torture In Brooklyn…A Theatre Production

Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy, appears opening night. Other speakers include Mark Danner, who wrote the Red Cross torture report with detailed description of Abu Zubaydah’s waterboarding;  lawyer Susan Burke, who brought suit against Blackwater on behalf of Iraqi civilians killed and injured in Nissor Square; journalist Donovan Webster, who accompanied Susan to Iraq to take testimony from innocent Iraqis tortured by other private contractors in Abu Ghraib;  Joshua Phillips, author of None of Us Were Like this Before, about the searing effects on American soldiers of their participation in torture; as well as principled lawyers who represented detainees in Guantánamo and other U.S. detention centers.

From the OSI Blog announcement

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Death Of A Native Son

On the night of October 15, 1987, in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city of Ouagadougo, a group of soldiers arrive by truck, and begin frantically digging in the earth. Their bodies attack the hard ground with shovels, as other men stand at a distance giving them orders in low voices. Hidden by the darkness of a moonless and starless night, the soldiers fight with the ground and against the fear that fills their hearts. There are twelve corpses carelessly tossed in the back of the truck. Some of the bodies are still in their military fatigues, while others are near naked and show signs of beatings. All are riddled with bullets. A couple of soldiers stand at guard near the truck, smoking cigarettes, kicking at the dirt and anxiously waiting for this night to be over. As far as they know, they are alone in this forsaken spot. But they are wrong. Despite the lateness of the hour, the darkness of the night and the desolation of the location, there are eyes that watch them, for in the shanty town that lies on the edges of the cemetery, the people listen, watch and wait.

The corpses are dragged out from the back of the truck, and one by one, thrown into the freshly dug grave. Orders are shouted and the soldiers get

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An Incomplete Triumph

“Don’t shoot, you cannot kill ideas!”
Surrendering Cuban revolutionary, after the failed attack against the Moncada garrison.

Within hours of Thomas Sankara’s assassination, the French government sent messages of congratulations to the coup leadership. But the job was not as yet done. Sankara’s family is harassed, their homes raided and personal belongings removed. His papers and documents disappear from all state archives and government offices. State television and radio stations were ordered to change programming and begin to dragging his name through mud, broadcasting stories about his corruption, and spreading rumors of his siphoning of money from the state exchequer. His social and public works programs are immediately halted. His companions and colleagues are jailed if not killed. His personal history and political ideas are re-written and re-cast, as history itself is employed to remove his presence from the minds and consciousness of the country’s people. Soon, all official evidence of Thomas Sankara, his political imagination, and his social programs are removed. The people who attempt to resist this erasure, they too are silenced: media is repressed, journalists are fired or killed, public discussions and political gatherings outlawed, student groups broken up, activists jailed and in some instances, killed outright. Details »

Who Makes History?

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Image: School children at the Nyange massacre site during the Nyange Memorial Day event sponsored by the Chancellery For Heroes, National Orders And Decorations of Honor. March 19, 2015

“Debates about [history] involve not only professional historians but ethnic and religious leaders, political appointees, journalists, and various associations within civil society as well as independent citizens, not all of whom are activists. This variety of narrators is one of the many indications that theories of history have a rather limited view of the field of historical production. They grossly underestimate the size, the relevance, and the complexity of the overlapping sites where history is produced, notably outside of academia.

Most [people] learn their first history lessons through media that have not been subjected to the standards set by peer reviews, university presses, or doctoral committees.

Long before the average citizen reads the historians who set the standards of the day for colleagues and students, they access history through celebrations, site and museum visits, movies, national holidays, and primary school books.

Yet the fact that history is also produced outside of academia has largely been ignored in theories of history. Beyond a broad – and relatively recent – agreement on the situatedness of the professional historian. there is little concrete exploration of the activities that occur elsewhere but impact significantly on the object of study.”

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing The Past: Power And The Production of History

How do citizens learn about history? Why do certain historical narratives become ubiquitous and dominant?

What political, social, cultural and economic factors influence the writing and selection of historical events? Why do certain sites, buildings, memorials and locations become ‘historical’? Who are the people who make these choices, and what factors influence them to select certain events and sites, and ignore others?

These are just some of the key questions this project raises to help us see the contingent, and contested nature of what we call ‘history’. It asks us to rethink the history we see, hear, and learn, and instead begin to understand it as a series of narratives that is constantly reviewed and revisited as new materials, and new political and social realities come to the fore. From school text book boards, management teams at memorial sites, and tourism departments designing historical itineraries, citizens and visitors alike receive a carefully curated and edited version of ‘national history’, one that is influenced as much by the political and social realities of the present, as it is by historical facts. And few places offer a better opportunity to study this process than modern day Rwanda which is in the midst of one of the most well managed efforts in memory and history making in modern times. Bureaucratized and administered by a series of government ministries, designed and designed in collaboration with a number of foreign NGOs, the state of Rwanda is creating a new historical consciousness among the country’s citizens.

From memorials to commemorations, text books to radio and television programming, the state is carefully curating facts and history to fit a specific political idea of itself, and of the country.

Though Rwanda is the first country I examine as part of this investigation, it is hardly unique. These questions I raise here can just as well be applied to any nation. Hence, this is not a project about Rwanda, as much as it is a project about the ways in which nations manufacture the idea of themselves, and put institutional, educational, cultural and social assets to work to create these ideas. This process remains largely invisible to the visitor, and to the casual citizen, but a close examination of the details of it, reveals its design, and its limits.

Acknowledgement: This project emerges out of a conversation over dinner with Erin Elizabeth Mosely, then a PhD candidate at the Department of African And African American Studies at Harvard University. The year was 2013, and Erin was in Kigali conducting her field research. I had recently arrived in the country and was at a loss as to how to produce a body of work that challenged the  dominant narratives of post-genocide Rwanda, and did so without rancor or hysteria. The challenges of producing a critical study in a nation where freedom of speech, expression and action are carefully monitored and managed, was no easy task. It was during a discussion with Erin that a possible way forward offered itself, and produce a work, when closely examined, is a critique of the idea of nation building, and the uses of historical and personal memory for political and nationalist ends.

 

Why Africa?

The Samadine neighbourhood in Ouagadougo. Mural of Thomas Sankara, a man who remains an inspiration for the people of the country.

The Samadine neighbourhood in Ouagadougo. Mural of Thomas Sankara, a man who remains an inspiration for the people of the country.

“Vico’s The New Science is everywhere a reminder that scholars hide, overlook or mistreat the gross physical evidence of human activity, including their own.”

Edward Said, “Reflections On Exile”, page 86

“…In the progress of nations, negroes have shown less capacity for self-government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary whenever they have been left to their own devices they have shown an instant tendency to lapse into barbarism.”

President Andrew Johnson, from Amy Kaplan’s “The Anarchy of Empire In The Making Of U.S. Culture”, page 83

In the course of the coming weeks, I will post work from two projects I began work on in 2015; The first in Rwanda, and the other in Burkina Faso. Each project engages with the people, history and politics of a region I have long felt has been choked under our wish to ‘represent’ or ‘give voice to’. These projects do neither – they do not represent Africa or Africans, and nor do they give ‘voice’ to them. What they do is engage with modern African politics, history and society, and see them as the result of ordinary human beings dealing with the same challenges and coping with the same prejudices as those in other states. They shun the exotic, and the colonial classic ideas and images of Africa we continue to see today. They avoid reducing complex social and political realities to cultural and genetic essences. They reject judgements of  ‘backwardness’, or ‘barbarism’ or ‘moral inhumanity’ as something innate, but instead look at the historical and economic roots of a place, a people and a politics. They refuse the  decades of colonial visual cliches and social prejudices that have come down to us over the years, and that continue to influence so much of visual work done in and about the African continent. Even some of the most ‘enlightened’ attempts to cut past the reductive and inhumane ideas about the people of the continent, still stay mired in efforts to change ‘representations’, as if to undo what has been done to the continent is simply a new public relations campaign. What is required, and what is reflected here in these new works, is a quiet but serious engagement with the continents modern political and social history, and an acknowledgement of the economic and cultural chains it remains trapped in. It is from this material base that we can begin to hear and see the continent for its lived reality, and possibly understand a way to work in it.

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The Long Arms Of Islamohysteria™

The [New York Times] article attempts to provide insight into how modern-day racists negotiate the contemporary racial terrain. But this is hard to do, given that the Times along with other establishment media outlets are a crucial part of that terrain.

Take the article’s observations about America’s shifting racial scapegoats. Confessore writes:

“While open racism against blacks remains among the most powerful taboos in American politics, Americans feel more free expressing worries about illegal immigrants and dislike of Islam, survey research shows.”

But why is it that white Americans feel more free to express Islamophobia and xenophobia than anti-black bigotry? Surely this has much to do with the fact that in recent years powerful media outlets have done much to legitimize the former biases.

FAIR Blog, “NYT Looks at the Political Exploitation of White Supremacism–but Not Too Hard”, July 14, 2016

To say that the New York Times these days is into Islamohysteria™ would not be an under-statement. Islamohysteria™ is a little known area of academic study, but one that has a long pedigree and reams of evidence. It is the habit of taking a handful of statements by officials, intelligence operatives, neo-conservative pundits and government provided ‘defectors’ and ‘informers’, and producing articles that use words like ‘global’, ‘nuclear’, ‘mushroom cloud’ and more. The New York Times has offered a masterclass in manufacturing Islamohysteria™, relentlessly publishing poorly investigated, anonymous and state / intelligence sourced articles that pretend to be journalism, but are really little more than stenography.

And where  once the likes of Judith Miller would run around the globe interviewing officials, defectors and intelligence operatives, and simply regurgitate their claims and statements as facts, and then construct wild and fantastic fantasies of global domination and nuclear annihilation by our enemies, we seem to have found a new set of recruits that are experts at the same game. There was Carlotta Gall of course, and David Sanger of the infamous ‘nuclear triggers for Osama Bin Ladin’ lie, Mark Mazzetti with his insider notes sent directly to the CIA to reveal what his colleague was about to file, or the shameless way New York Times Michael Gordon met with the State Department to ask for their help to ‘vet’ the Iraq Logs or completely bury them that were about to be published. There is a long, long history of sordid collusion with powerful state and intelligence actors here to 1) spread lies, 2) concoct evidence, 3) spread fear ad hysteria, and 4) manufacture enemies particularly ‘Islamic’ one. Details »

This Post Is Not About The Burkini

Moustafa Bayoumi had an interesting Facebook post this morning that speaks to the histories of colonialism that may inform the recent French idiocies around the uses of the burkini at French beaches. The post is here:

I found it provocative and decided to engage with him figuratively. That I am currently designing some photo projects for 2017 that look at the continuing ‘rot’ of colonial and imperial rule and the ways it scars and distorts life, ecology and economy, his arguments were very interesting. However, though Bayoumi makes some good points, but I can’t help but feel that he overstates his case, perhaps even over determines it, by suggesting a rather idealized idea of ‘direct’ vs’ indirect’ colonial rule. This idea does not stand the test of history in any way.

So here is why. Details »

Helping Us Absorb The Shock Of Reality

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Raymond Williams work ‘Keywords’ is perhaps one of the great pioneering cultural studies text of our lifetime. There are not many works that can claim that. In it, Williams pointed out that the meaning and use of words is deeply influenced by and changes with our political, social and economic situations and needs. As Williams himself argued in the book:

“…[T]he air of massive impersonality which the Oxford Dictionary communicates is not so impersonal, so purely scholarly, or so free of active social and political values as might be supposed from its occasional use.”

Words matter. And how, when and who uses them matters profoundly. When it is a word used by Western media, one deeply implicated in upholding corporate, political and military interests, we should always keep Williams insight in mind. Hence, it is irresponsible, if not disingenuous, of any writing by a media critic or commentator when writing about the American / Western media (broadcast, print, digital, radio) to not acknowledge the existence of this political and corporate influence, and the ways in which it influences so much of what is shown and spoken about. It is also disingenuous not to acknowledged that using and manipulating the media today is a crucial goal of any political administration anywhere in the world. The reach and access of media is greater today than ever before, and its influence on opinions and ideas second only to the Church. Perhaps more so, but I do not wish to blaspheme. Hence, I am repeatedly dismayed at the persistent and consistent eraser by media critics and analysts of American and European journalism’s close relationship to political and corporate power. (Le Monde Diplomatique is an exception, reporting repeatedly on this close collaboration when it comes to French media.) So much has been written about this to be self-evident, but it is intentionally pushed aside in discussions about how news get produced, published, disseminated and discussed. From corporate and private ownership of major newspapers, to political influence and collusion with journalists and editors, we know well today how closely our media has become a propaganda machine.

So when I came across this essay titled “Should News Outlets Show Photographs of Terrorists?” by Fred Ritchen – a former photo editor at The New York Times and now a teacher at the International Center for Photography in New York, I was left confused by many of its positions. Details »

Still Speaking For The Others, But At Least Doing It Honestly

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I remember Ben Ehrenreich. He was the writer who wrote perhaps one of the best pieces about the Palestinian resistance struggle in the town of Bilin in the West Bank against Israel’s hideous and inhumane apartheid wall. He was also the guy I quoted in a piece I wrote on Western photojournalism’s obsessive Eurocentricism when it comes to reporting on Brown and Black societies. It was in the context of speaking about the need for ‘White’ interlocutors that I quoted Ehrenreich, and wrote:

“The West’s desperation for ‘white’ interlocutors and the silence of the other – was very strongly bought to the fore by Ben Ehrenreich of The New York Times, the writer of a powerful and rather unusual for the magazine, piece of reportage on the Palestinian resistance to Israeli military rule and occupation in the West Bank. The article, This Is Where The Third Intifada Will Start was a powerful piece and rare in the voices of the Palestinians it allowed to come through. In an interview he gave afterwards he was asked a very pertinent and powerful question which touched on this very issue – the constant representation of the other by an European – and his response was powerful and clear. The question that was posed to him was this:

Let’s talk about the Jewish narrator. In 2006 the Times published a very important essay by Tony Judt in support of Walt and Mearsheimer’s LRB piece on the Israel lobby, and Judt later said that they asked him to insert in there, I’m Jewish. Judt told the story because he knew that Jews were privileged, and that the Times needed to send this signal to its readers. As the NYRB does by publishing David Shulman when it’s critical of Israel, as the New Yorker does when David Remnick is the authority. As Mondoweiss does by stating, we’re a progressive Jewish site at root. As JVP does. It’s a racket, we’re all in on it, and my question is, When do Palestinians get to hold the microphone. Aren’t you and I to blame too? Because if they were holding the microphone, a basic human rights issue like the right to resist that is so core to your piece would have been noncontroversial many many years ago. As it is, Americans have to warm up to the idea, and a Jew has to bring them this news. Comment?

And Ehrenreich’s response was unequivocal and clear. He responded:

I’m glad you asked that question, and yeah, it’s super-problematic. It’s a specific instance of a bigger problem, that black and brown people’s stories can generally only be told in this society via the authority of a white narrator, that we–white people, in this case of Jewish ancestry–are tasked with the representation of black and brown and in this case Palestinian people, who in this dynamic are stuck in the passive role of being represented and are not allowed to interpret their own realities. So certainly we are complicit, and I don’t see any way out of that complicity except to use what privilege I have to tell stories that tear holes in the broader narratives which allow this arrangement to continue. And to do so with scrupulous attention to my own role in it, to the power differentials at play. (My emphasis)”

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Keep Your Eye On The Right Hand!

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European / Western wish for innocence, for purity of spirit, takes tens of millions of dollars to keep up. All sorts of bizarre, racist, programs have to be designed, and all sorts of institutions – scientific, civic, policing, political, social and cultural, are unleashed onto the unthinking citizenry, to seduce and numb them back to their place of quiet subservience and obedience. Here, the French yet again prove their determine war against truth and history. Just as before they spent tens of millions erasing their colonial legacy, their Algerian nightmare, their massacres on the streets, and their social and economic discrimination of a large percentage of their citizens, they are now aiming at any remembrance, or evidence, of the fact that France has been a nation at war in the Middle East, and West Africa, for over a decade now.

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A Rainbow Prohibition

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It is striking how in this entire piece about a lack of diversity in mainstream Western / European photojournalism, the idea ‘lack of representation’ is defined only as ethnic, nationalist, or gender. What is completely left out is politics. That is, the idea of a diversity of political views and perspectives that face, criticize, and dissent against the mainstream European / Western mainstream liberal discourse. And by not acknowledging the ‘manufacturing of consent’ element of mainstream Western media – a fact that has now been written about in countless books, articles and blog sites, it falls prey to simple, and yet again, ‘liberal’ ideas about what ‘diversity’ means and ought to be.

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