For the core seminar in the PhD program in Canadian Studies, we composed brief discussion papers based on the course readings for the month. This is my (final!) April 2011 paper on the topic of 11 September 2001 and the Canadian security state (more or less).
“Well there’s pride in every American heart, / and its time we stand and say / that I’m proud to be an American, / where at least I know I’m free / and I won’t forget the men who died, / who gave that right to me.” – Lee Greenwood, emphasis added for reasons you can decide for yourself (though his careful word choice could very well be centered arond syllabic concerns)
To get in the spirit of writing post-9/11 discussion questions, I supplemented the readings by listening to Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be An American” (along with other jingoistic country music selections) while cruising down a highway littered with Guns Save Life poems and then watched the ventriloquist show “Achmed the Dead Terrorist” with my mom on YouTube. [Guns Save Life’s poetic ingenuity includes gems like the title of this post. Read more or submit your own!]
These messages are arguably problematic, but their prevalence, popularity, and accessibility leads me to wonder what hope Judith Butler has in the face of such pithy, occasionally rhyming, and incredibly pervasive rhetoric of ‘othering,’ fear-mongering, and naval-gazing patriotism. It seems clear to me how (and that) Greenwood, Achmed, and the good old Champaign Chapter of the National Rifle Association appeal to people (here defined as, at least, ‘US citizens in a rural environment’) in a post-9/11, ‘uncertain’ world. I have found myself sarcastically and cavalierly repeating Greenwood’s lyrics more often than I have found opportunities to cite Butler in casual conversations.
Admittedly, this makes me part of the problem, but how can we apply Butler’s abstract notions of ‘seeing’ the deaths of soldiers, Muslim civilians, and other groups that do not get front page (or any media) coverage to blasé “with us or against us” remarks (in presidential speeches, songs, editorials, or wherever they are found) in a meaningful and constructive way? Who is reading Butler, and what are they doing with her ideas? [Mary Midgley’s review of Precarious Life raises many of these same issues, calling the book “a collection of provocative post-9/11 essays” while drawing attention to its dense and abstract content (“Counting the cost of revenge” in The Guardian, 5 June 2004).]
Are “The Humanities” irreconcilable with the prevalent anti-intellectual trends in the United States and Canada at the moment? Do we risk the label of ‘refuseniks’ or should we bide our time until 9/11 becomes a more ‘historical,’ less current topic for critical scholarly analysis? [With this question, I risk setting up a Bush-ism, allowing only for an either / or response, but I mean to ask what other paths are possible.]
In her discussion of how feminism has been co-opted in the anti-terror project, Sherene Razack seems to boldly tread on toes that Butler sidesteps (by naming names). (I suppose that if she has already been the target of cruel e-mail campaigns, she has already had a particular identity and role thrust upon her.) The Joker, a self-proclaimed agent of chaos, summarizes part of her argument well in The Dark Knight (2008):
Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan.’ But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
As Razack explains, academics and critics alike seem to have ‘lost their minds’ and their moral compasses in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. (Even my reproduction of “9/11” with its recognizable symbolic designation is an example of this self-reinforcing panic of the people, per Redfield, who specifically cites photo and video imagery, but you can see countless advertisements, t-shirts, billboards, murals, “Never Forget” posters, and tattoos elsewhere.)
Razack points to the casual acceptance of anti-Muslim sentiment, a sentiment decried by Congressman Keith Ellison in the recent hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security. What solutions can we propose for the ongoing, increasing surveillance of migratory populations, especially immigrants and refugees, “banished to places beyond full citizenship” (Razack 106) by current practices and policies in the United States and Canada? If “control can’t be the value in interdependent societies” (Butler xiii), what alternatives do we have to censorship, anti-intellectualism, and erasure in the face of chaos?
My questions are a rather steep task to undertake in the few short hours of class that remain, but Greenwood does (in a way) resonate with me more than Butler! However, thankfully, Razack resonates with me more than Greenwood. I see all three perspectives as meaningful and expressive in their own right (with the merits of country music up for debate), but I wonder we, as aspiring scholars of the future!, can bridge the expansive gap between country music and theoretical discussions of ‘the face’ of ‘the other.’
It seems like a worthy task to pursue some middle ground, or we may be dooming ourselves to obsolescence and inadvertently contributing to a cycle of anti-intellectualism. How can we make Butler’s and Razack’s ideas accessible and palatable to two North American societies that frequently seem content with corn dogs and apathy?
How did we get to a point where people have to have full body scans before getting on an airplane? How do we (as burgeoning intellectuals) respond to the suspension of civil liberties (for ourselves or others) in a democratic society at a WTO protest (per Kinsman and Gentile) or a G20 protest or on their way home (before being re-routed to Syria)? What do we do with everything we read? These are all trick questions.
Perhaps part of the solution is to restore the commemorative, troubling ‘Tumbling Woman’ statue to Rockefeller Square, and to release detainees of Canadian security certificates and Guantanamo. [In another outstanding example of the blasé acceptance of something rife with problematic implications, Guantanamo Detention Center is endearingly abbreviated to “Gitmo.”] Then again, that seems rather too trite.
Judith Butler, Precarious Lives: The Power of Mourning and Violence London: Verso, 2004.
Marc Redfield, “Virtual Trauma: the Idiom of 9/11” Diacritics 37:1 (Spring 2007): 55-80.
Sherene H. Razack, “Modern Women and Imperialists: Geopolitics, Culture Clash and Gender after 9/11” in Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008, pp. 83-106.
Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile, The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009.