Looking back: A self-critique

It’s never easy to look yourself in the mirror and own up to your mistakes. For a long time, I balked at the very idea. Part of it felt too reminiscent of Stalinist/Maoist self-criticism, in its ritualized form of самокритика or autocritique. Whenever a person demands that someone else “self-crit” online, the image that most readily comes to mind is that of medieval flagellants — lashing their own backs while begging forgiveness for their sins. Quite often it feels forced and insincere, as if the people who yield to the demand are just going through the motions in order to be quickly absolved and be done with the matter as soon as possible.

But another reason I refrained from public self-criticism is that my views change rather gradually, to the point where I only notice that I’ve changed my mind well after the fact. Sometimes I think a certain degree of stubbornness can be a virtue, insofar as it means you stick to your guns and don’t just bend in the direction of a shifting wind. Other times, however, it is clearly a vice, especially when you are in the wrong. Even then, when I recognize that I no longer hold my former position on a given issue, I am reluctant to announce that this is the case. Not because I’m unwilling to admit I was wrong, but because I’d prefer to demonstrate this through my actions moving forward instead of dwelling on the past.

Unfortunately, though — or maybe fortunately, for those who like to keep score — the internet has a long memory. I’ve certainly said plenty of stupid shit in my time, things I either regret or simply don’t agree with anymore. There were things I shouldn’t have said, situations I should have handled differently, arguments I should’ve considered more carefully before posting or tweeting or whatnot. You can probably find evidence of them if you look hard enough. Really it shouldn’t even be that hard, as I have not made much of an effort to scrub Twitter or other social media of dumb controversies I’ve been involved in (unless someone specifically asked me to take something down).

Perhaps it would help to be a little more concrete. Just to give one example of something I’ve changed my mind on, or have rather come to a better understanding of, take trans struggles. When debates over gender fluidity first came up several years ago, I knew virtually nothing about the issues trans people have had to deal with. I’m still far from an expert, obviously, but to get a sense of how ignorant I was at the time, I only learned what the prefix “cis-” meant around 2013. Before then, I had no idea what any of it meant. Or really what a whole host of related terms signified. By late 2014 or early 2015 I’d rethought my views.

Much of the discourse on this topic, to be fair, was pretty new back then. And it’s still evolving, though it seems to have stabilized a bit. Regardless, I could’ve done more to learn about it before shooting my mouth off or weighing in on the matter. For example, when Facebook introduced its exhaustive list of fifty-six new gender options four or five years ago, I poked fun at it on social media, since I figured the more customizable taxonomy was introduced so Zuckerberg would have more data about the users of his website to sell to ad agencies. Looking back, I don’t think what I said was too egregious or intentionally hurtful, but probably came off as insensitive all the same.  Continue reading

Introduction to Ivan Segré

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My introduction to Ivan Segré’s polemical review of Whites, Jews, and Us (2016), by Houria Bouteldja, follows below. The full review, translated by Ann Manov, can be read over at the LA Review of Books. Be sure to check it out; it’s long but excellent.

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Houria Bouteldja is a controversial figure in France. She is the spokeswoman of the Parti des indigènes de la République (PIR), a group (and now political party) founded in the wake of the 2005 Paris riots to promote decolonial politics, a “third way” beyond divisions of left and right. Decolonial theory originated as a discursive framework among Latin American academics during the early 2000s, but soon spread to other parts of the world. Unlike postcolonial theory, with which it is often confused, the premise here is that one cannot speak of life today as “after” colonialism. For the PIR, despite the collapse of Europe’s overseas colonies, “decolonization has yet to be finished” (as Bouteldja told Saïd Mekki in a 2009 interview). In 2012, Bouteldja described their outlook to a Madrid audience as more of a mentalité: “Being decolonial is above all an emancipated state of mind.” The PIR’s position on this count clearly echoes the work of Frantz Fanon (among others), whose writings are frequently referenced in Bouteldja’s own.

Long before the release of Les Blancs, les Juifs et nous in 2016, Bouteldja was already known to the French public for her incendiary statements. Her book-length debut — a poetic, almost literary text, more manifesto than treatise — continues in this vein. Bouteldja opens with a chapter entitled “Shoot Sartre!”, a common refrain heard from pro-colonial French nationalists during the war in Algeria. She provocatively appropriates the refrain, not because she agrees Sartre should have been shot for supporting Algerian independence, of course, but to criticize his continued support of Israeli independence after 1967. Instead, she claims as a “hero” of decolonial politics former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom Bouteldja praises, with some reluctance, for declaring “there are no homosexuals in Iran” at Columbia University in 2007 — in other words: “at the heart of empire.” She takes the risk of admiring the statement’s provocation, even if she also explicitly recognizes that Ahmadinejad was lying. But in him, she sees “an arrogant indigenous man” speaking up to the West, something Sartre was ultimately — when it came to the issue of Zionism — unable to do. For very different reasons having to do with history and the discourses of sexuality in the West and the Middle East, Joseph Massad, a professor at Columbia, reached a conclusion similar to Ahmadinejad’s a year before in Desiring Arabs, a work Bouteldja cited in her 2013 critique of “gay universalism.” Evidently, avoiding the charge of homophobia is not a priority for Bouteldja. The more important, more fundamental issue (“the only real question,” as she puts it) is the oppressed status of the indigenous. In a chapter titled “We, Indigenous Women,” Bouteldja considers the risk of indigenous masculinity imitating white male masculinity, and asks instead “which part, in the testosterone-laden virility of the indigenous male, resists white domination.” That part can be used, she suggests, “toward a project of common liberation.” Continue reading

Meaningless gibberish and decoloniality

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“Radical universal decolonial

anticapitalist diversality,”
and other adventures in
academic mumbo-jumbo
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Been reading various exponents of so-called “decolonial” theory of late — Enrique Dussel, Walter Mignolo, Anibal Quijano, and Ramón Grosfoguel, etc. So-called because its parameters are somewhat unclear. As far as I can tell, it didn’t really crystallize as a distinct discourse until the 1970s or 1980s. Even then, it wasn’t named as such. Only in the late 1990s and early 2000s did this designation emerge, promoted principally by scholars of Latin America. It was then retroactively applied to figures like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, who are today treated almost as decolonial theorists avant la lettre. Personally, this seems a rather sneaky operation. Césaire and Fanon weren’t academics, to begin with, and understood their own work as part of a project to literally decolonize the remaining colonies of European empires. That is to say, in other words, the removal of all colonial administration and oversight, withdrawal of colonial armies, usually within some sort of national liberation and self-determination framework.

Here a few distinctions might help to clear up the confusion. First of all, the distinction between “decoloniality” and “decolonization.” Decoloniality doesn’t refer to colonialism per se, but to a peculiar postcolonial condition dubbed “coloniality.” Quijano has theorized this in terms of “the coloniality of power”: “Coloniality of power is thus based upon ‘racial’ social classification of the world population under Eurocentered world power. Eurocentric coloniality of power has proved longer lasting than Eurocentric colonialism. Without it, the history of capitalism in Latin America and other related places in the world can hardly be explained…” Nelson Maldonado-Torres also riffs on this theme, only he ontologizes it, invoking Heidegger even as he criticizes the Nazi philosopher’s “forgetfulness” of “the coloniality of being”:

Coloniality is different from colonialism. While colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a people rests on the power of another nation, making such nation an empire, coloniality instead refers to longstanding patterns of power which emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labor, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus does coloniality survive colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, common sense, the self-image of peoples, aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. As modern subjects we breath coloniality all the time and everyday.

Coloniality is not simply the aftermath or the residual form of any given form of colonial relation. Coloniality emerges in a particular sociohistorical setting, that of the discovery and conquest of the Americas. For it was in the context of this massive colonial enterprise — the most widespread and ambitious yet in the history of humankind — that capitalism, i.e., an already existing form of economic relation, became tied to forms of domination and subordination that would be central to maintaining colonial control first in the Americas, and then elsewhere. Coloniality refers, first and foremost, to the two axes of power that became operative and defined the spatiotemporal matrix of what was called at the time America.

This rhetorical sleight of hand solves a number of tricky problems for decolonial theorists. Latin America was already decolonized, by the end of the nineteenth century at the latest. Spain underwent a series of revolutions during that time that made it far too unstable to maintain substantial overseas holdings. Mexico enjoyed several decades of autonomy, losing a bit of territory to the United States before being invaded by Louis Napeolon’s France. But that lasted only six years, between 1861 and 1867. A few Antillean islands changed hands with the Spanish-American War, and Europe along with the US have consistently meddled in the domestic affairs of Central and South American countries since then (e.g., Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile, the Falklands War in 1982), but that’s more or less been the situation. Continue reading

Fauxcahontas: On Andrea Smith, colonialism, and “authenticity”

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The Andrea Smith debacle likely won’t get as much play as the Rachel Doležal incident from a few weeks back. In my opinion, though, Smith is way worse than Doležal. Not only has she been lying about her heritage for more than two decades, she’s positioned herself as a major theorist within “decolonial” studies and discourse. Her papers are still widely cited across the field, author of the hugely influential Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide and an editor for Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society, as well as the collection Theorizing Native Studies. Smith is much more prominent intellectually and institutionally in indigenous politics than Doležal ever was in black politics.

Most of the reactions I came across on social media regarding Smith were of shocked disbelief, especially those that showed some prior familiarity with her work and awareness of her standing as a leading theoretician of decoloniality. “Wow — Andrea Smith has been a force,” remarks one. “All built on a lie about identity.” Clearly surprised, another recalls: “Just found out Andrea Smith was faking her indigenous ancestry. It went on so long. Her work was big when I was in uni in 2005.” Zehra Husain exclaims, incredulous: “What? What? Andrea Smith?”

Those who’d studied her texts closely were hit even harder by the news. “This is really surprising and troubling as someone who has studied her work,” one student writes. Ayanna Dozier reacts similarly: “Well, damn. This is very upsetting. I have to rethink my relationship to Andrea Smith’s work.” Matt Jaber Stiffler candidly admits: “Andrea Smith was on my dissertation committee. Feeling torn today.”

Others are more apologetic. “Andrea Smith enhanced the debate, the conversation, the thinking, the thought,” Rinaldo Walcott maintains. “Regardless of Andrea Smith’s identity, the power and clarity of her seminal work Conquest cannot be denied. It still informs my thinking,” expresses another.  “Opportunistic white people should keep their mouths on the Andrea Smith case,” opined Karen Macrae, herself white.

Joanne Barker of the Delaware Tribe published a fairly scathing critique of Smith, though. Entitled “Rachel Doležal and Andrea Smith: Integrity, Ethics, Accountability, Identity,” it anticipated the charges against Smith would be met with defensive and dismissive responses, “including criticisms of those who did the circulating [of information] as witch-hunters, mean-spirited, lacking logic, not knowing what they were talking about, and the like.” Klee Benally, another well known indigenous activist, immediately leapt to Smith’s defense, confirming this prediction. She publicly decried what she called

a witch hunt against fierce feminist author and friend, Andy Smith. While I’m not privy to all that’s been published, so far I’ve read Barker’s response and a couple others. Her statements eerily evoke COINTELPRO bad-jacketing rather than Indigenous feminism. Reading it I couldn’t help ask myself what interests are served via this pillory?

When Ward Churchill’s identity was called into question it clearly served a conservative agenda. My position then was that his identity is between him and the creator and an issue for his family and Nation to address internally through their own cultural process. After all, the primary issues regard accountability, colonialism, and white supremacy. I still maintain that his political contributions shouldn’t be uncritically thrown out when challenged with the colonial institution of “blood-quantum.”

And here we Marxists thought colonialism meant the dispossession and oppression of the native population in order to create a racially-structured, low-cost workforce. Turns out colonialism is actually just being mean to self-proclaimed representatives of “the indigenous.” What a silly and inconsequential thing colonialism would be, in that case.

Such suspicions are not entirely unjustified. Churchill, the scholar who Benally mentioned above, has detailed a long history of infiltration and counterintelligence pursued by the federal government against the Amerindian movement (before serious inconsistencies were noticed in several statements he made concerning his own ancestry). The Trotskyist International Socialist Organization, or ISO, has raised similar doubts about those making accusations within their milieu.

However, all of the documents compiled regarding Smith’s heritage seem to be vetted and verified. If the allegations are true — and Smith is not only not Cherokee, but is not of native descent at all — then there is no more damning critic of her actions than Smith herself. As she wrote in her 1994 article, “For All Those Who Were Indian In A Former Life”:

When white “feminists” see how white people have historically oppressed others and how they are coming very close to destroying the earth, they often want to disassociate themselves from their whiteness. They do this by opting to “become Indian.” In this way, they can escape responsibility and accountability for white racism. Of course, white “feminists” want to become only partly Indian. They do not want to be part of our struggles for survival against genocide, and they do not want to fight for treaty rights or an end to substance abuse or sterilization abuse. They do not want to do anything that would tarnish their romanticized notions of what it means to be an Indian.

Moreover, they want to become Indian without holding themselves accountable to Indian communities. If they did they would have to listen to Indians telling them to stop carrying around sacred pipes, stop doing their own sweat lodges and stop appropriating our spiritual practices. Rather, these New Agers see Indians as romanticized gurus who exist only to meet their consumerist needs. Consequently, they do not understand our struggles for survival and thus they can have no genuine understanding of Indian spiritual practices.

“The work of Andrea Smith does not excuse her blatant disrespect toward and appropriation of the experiences of Native American women,” writes one commentator, stating the obvious. Less egregious than the scandal surrounding The Education of Little Tree (1976), a children’s book about a wee lad growing up between two worlds: the alienating world of “white” modernity on the one hand, and the mystical organic Volksgemeinschaft of his Cherokee grandfather on the other. Everyone ate it up like pigs at a trough, including prominent Native Americans who affirmed that the author clearly must be a genuine native. It won awards, was taught in schools. Some diligent indigenous scholars later found out toward the end of the 1970s that the author was in fact white. And not just any white man, either, but Asa Earl Carter (using the pseudonym “Forrest”). Carter was a notorious white supremacist and a speechwriter for George Wallace. He’d written the infamous “segregation now, segregation forever!” speech a decade or so earlier.

One has to love this category, “authenticity.” It seizes on a real shortcoming within bourgeois society, the persistence of injustice and inequality, and then redirects this recognition to reactionary ends, embracing the perceived irrationalism of that which escapes civilizational norms. “The bourgeois form of rationality has always needed irrational supplements in order to maintain itself as what it is, continuing injustice through justice,” wrote Theodor Adorno in The Jargon of Authenticity. “Such irrationality in the midst of the rational is the working atmosphere of authenticity. The latter can support itself on the fact that over a long period of time literal as well as figurative mobility, a main element in bourgeois equality, always turned into injustice for those who could not entirely keep up.” Affirming irrationality or mysticism, that seemingly genuine immediacy that escapes so-called “Western” modes of rationality or enlightenment, is no better than what it opposes or denies. In no way does it transcend the abstract totality of modern society, or remove the layers of mediation that exist therein. Quite the opposite: it sustains it.

Smith’s fakery is more along the lines of Ward Churchill than Rachel Doležal or Binjamin Wilkomirski, let alone Forrest Carter. Outrageous nevertheless. Probably the sickest burn I came across online, however, caustically observed that “[t]here are plenty of members of the Wanabi tribe.” Inverting the title of Glen S. Coulthard’s recent book, Red Skin, White Masks, we might say that Andrea Smith is a case of someone with white skin who wears a red mask. Fauxcahontas, then?