Published: June 1, 2003

Gender and the American Ideology of War

[1]   At the huge peace demonstration in London on February 15, one of the larger signs appropriately urged, “Stop Mad Cowboy Disease!” Both liberals and leftists in the U.S. have had difficulty in believing that a much-discredited American film genre, the Western, could suddenly be structuring and mandating U.S. political rhetoric. It is — from Bush’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” Bin Laden poster, to Colin Powell’s insistence that “time is running out” as we cut to the chase, to the numerous U.S. television and print media that report daily on the “Showdown” or “Standoff” with Iraq. The evocation of the Western and all its prejudices now infuses U.S. culture and underwrites U.S. militarism. It seems that Bush, initially distinctive for his inarticulateness and stupidity, has succeeded in forcing (and enforcing) that same inarticulateness and stupidity on the U.S. public.

[2]   People were stunned when Bush patronizingly dismissed the massive anti-war demonstrations in his “Father Knows Best” speech on the following Monday, but that’s consistent with the gender ideology of the Western. As we ought to be aware, the ideology of gender and the ideology of genocidal violence are intertwined in the Western. The parallel action that typifies the conclusion of the Western (and other U.S. ‘action movies’) has generally been characterized only by its racist polarization of populations, which creates an artificial binary opposition that is resolved through the physical annihilation of one side by the other. But there is another dimension to it: The polarization of gender roles that is intertwined with it. What Americans seem slow to realize is the repugnant role in which they have now been cast, that of the female victim who must be rescued and saved by the male hero, a female victim whose role is to be helpless, mute, and passive, immobilized by fear as she awaits the outcome of the chase. Such rescues are in no way about social justice. They are artificial “tempo tasks” (Sergei Eisenstein’s wonderful phrase). The tempo task actively closes off ethical and political issues. That is its purpose. With the inception of the tempo task — “time is running out” –, morality is located in the sidelined female victim, whose role is not to act morally, but to merely personify and symbolize morality. She passively awaits the outcome of the genocidal violence whose purported aim is to rescue her. This is why we are now being told to hunker down in the cabin, wrap ourselves in plastic sheeting, put duct tape over our mouths, and await the outcome of the horrific violence that is being perpetrated ostensibly to ‘save us.’

[3]   No wonder, then, that Bush had no difficulty relegating the anti-war demonstrations to the role of moral symbolism, the cries of the helpless victim in need of rescue. He used it as yet another occasion to display his own ‘masculine heroism’ with which he intends to save us from danger, first from ‘evil’ Iraq, and then from ourselves through the pending Domestic Security Act. Many people also seem to think this upcoming war, repulsive though it is, will be short. After all, tempo tasks end the film and impose their version of order very quickly — it’s the last part of the movie. No plans for reconstruction? Hey, that’s not in the movie script.

[4]   A reflexive reliance on the genre conventions of the Western has not only led to silence. It has helped to obscure the reality that this war has already been going on for many years, that the bombing of Iraq was never stopped and has already intensified again, that genocide has already been perpetrated by economic sanctions, that the much-touted weapons of mass destruction are those of the U.S., whose depleted uranium weaponry has already mutilated or killed much of the population of southern Iraq. For a reality check, see The Independent‘s recent Focus:Inside Iraq — The Tragedy of a People Betrayed.

[5]   The genre conventions of the Western have mandated a deafening and ignorant silence in the U.S. in the last year. An important dimension of this silence is the de facto moratorium on gender issues. Ideologies of gender become highly coercive when they are taken for granted, when debates about gender are suppressed as unimportant, when they are dismissively cast aside as irrelevant. To be silent now about gender is to take the bait, to perceive the current political and economic crisis through the lens of socially conservative gender roles.

[6]   At the same time, a crucial part of debates about gender must be about exposing the irrelevance of gender, itself, regarding many of the issues we face as human beings. Men who find the victim role to be gender-humiliating have NOT thereby understood the current political economy. They have merely — and belatedly — understood the Western. Women who find themselves falling silent after years of outspoken protest must recognize, yet once more, that ‘feminine’ victimage is fundamentally insulting and empowerment cannot be taken for granted. Nonetheless, this insight by itself does not automatically generate an alternative view of the political economy.

[7]   It is important to recognize that the mad cowboy is merely a weapon of mass distraction, himself, a front for the interests of U.S. capitalism. It won’t do any good to stop mad cowboy disease if we have nothing to say ourselves in its place. The mental silence, itself, must stop. Think! And speak out!

Ann Kibbey, Executive Editor
February 24, 2003
Boulder, Colorado, USA.

Getting Our Irish Up - And Down

[1]   It is Saint Patrick’s Day, 2003, and as I await more news of war with Iraq, I recall my childhood Saint Patrick’s Days. My maternal grandmother was a true daughter of Eire who insisted that all her granddaughters be dressed in shamrock-printed dresses for the great day. We marched around the breakfast table singing, “The Wearing of the Green,” as Grandma’s voice broke with emotion on the chorus. I heard a lot of bad things about Irish Protestants. But one thing I did not hear was that they were another race from the Catholics. What mattered on my maternal grandfather’s side of the family was that they were Indians. Yes, they were Cherokee and that was certainly not the same as being, for instance, Cheyenne or Pueblo, but under the circumstances of their existence in twentieth-century America being an Indian mattered in a way that tribe did not.

[2]   My father’s side of my heritage was different. Jews were Semites and so were Arabs, but somehow they were separate races. I was taught in school and everywhere else that I was a Jew regardless of the fact that no one in my family practiced or believed in Judaism. I was a Jew because of the color of my father’s skin, our hair and eyes, the shape of our features, our surname, and the place from whence our ancestors had come. Being a Jew had nothing to do with any special customs or beliefs, because we didn’t have those things. It was a racial identity imposed upon me, along with the rest of my family. And I was taught in school and everywhere else that the Arabs were my racial enemies. From years of postcolonial studies, I now understand that this difference was constructed by imperialism, which it serves.

[3]   Race is one technique of imperialism that works very well to set people against each other, so long as they are racists at core. We can feel justified in oppressing Arabs and denying them normal human rights as long as we can think that they belong to a race that is subhuman and thus inherently undeserving of respectful treatment. Horrifically, given our own history, the Jews often seem to regard Arabs, and especially Palestinians, as a sort of other within our race, embodying all the aspects of the Semitic that we do not recognize as part of ourselves. There is intra-racial as well as inter-racial hierarchical hatred. Once people no longer believe that one race is superior to another for genetic reasons, or even more destructive of imperialist ideology, once people believe, like the Indians I’ve known, that one’s situation in the world is more important than the tribal identities also known as races, race must be conflated with cultural practices imputed to the oppressed group in order to preserve the hierarchy. Since Jews were promoted to being “white” (i.e. unraced subjects) in America after World War II, Arabs have been deemed inferior to Jews not on the basis of genetic difference but on the basis of cultural difference, otherwise known as ethnicity. As part of this process, as is almost always the case with imperialist strategies of ideological conquest, gender is mobilized to arouse the necessary race hatred.

[4]   Arabs must be forced to submit to external rule, we are told, because the cultures they have created, the cultures that dominate the countries they control, are misogynist. Islamic fundamentalism, in such narratives, represents the very essence of Arab identity. We need not question how religious fanatics gained control of the Middle-Eastern countries they did, because we now have an explanation. Since Arabs are ethnically inclined to hate women, they will always choose a form of government that is grossly unfair to women and threatens their very existence. And countries, like Iraq, that are not controlled by religious fanatics are always somehow in secret support of the Arab anti-female agenda. Thus, Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein become interchangeable. To stop one is to stop the other. And to stop either is to strike a brave blow for female survival and liberation. That’s the official story.

[5]   My story is different. I don’t know of many cultures that don’t have a long history of oppression of women. I don’t know of many religions that don’t include misogyny and fanatics and fanatical misogynists. So don’t kill Arabs to make the world safer for me as a woman, because even if all the Arabs were gone you’d still have the rest of the Semites to contend with, and the Irish, and the “whites,” and so on. It’s just not about race. At least not if it’s also supposed to be about gender. The Cherokee have a fairly good record on gender issues, but I don’t see the government suggesting we fight to put the Indians back in charge. And if it’s not about gender then it can’t be about race, since the only reason we have for “racing” the Iraqis the same as Bin Laden is that we consign both to a Semitic sub-category of virulent misogynists. As a Semite I support peace with my sisters and brothers the Arabs, and as a human I declare common cause with those who believe in equal rights for all people regardless of the genders or races they have been assigned.

Carol Siegel, Co-Editor
March 17, 2003
Portland, Oregon, USA

Narcissus and Blair

[1]   Ann Kibbey draws attention to the Bush administration figuring itself through the Western genre, with the president positioned as the manly hero, and US people as the helpless female victim waiting to be rescued.

[2]   The British slogan in this vein – “Stop Mad Cowboy Disease!” – works rather differently. First, it evokes a fatal virus transmitted to humans by sick cattle; second, “cowboy” is commonly used in the expression “cowboy builder,” meaning an unregulated and unreliable construction worker.

[3]   Other banners display an alternative Valentine’s day image, taken from the Mirror newspaper: Blair and Bush kiss in front of a big pink heart and the message “Make Love Not War.” Sixties idealism and gay romance offer to replace macho bullying. The idea that British and US leaders might be passionately attached was famously invoked when Margaret Thatcher was shown caught up in the arms of Ronald Reagan, in the manner of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. However, we see Blair’s attraction to Bush in another way.

[4]   What we’ve found most helpful in recent work on gender and sexuality is to maintain the distinction between desire-to-be (which is a matter of identity, for instance gender identity) and desire-for (which is about object choice, as it might be same-sex object choice). Blair’s subservience to Bush is not a desire-for him; it is a desire-to-be him.

[5]   Blair’s yearning for a presidential (i.e. autocratic) mode of government, rather than a parliamentary mode, is often remarked (he was a great admirer of Bill Clinton). If Blair had Bush’s powers he wouldn’t have to worry about the cabinet, parliament, his party, or public opinion. If he had Bush’s weaponry (equal to the total possessed by the next ten most powerful states put together), he could attack anyone he chose.

[6]   An obvious framework for comprehension of desire-to-be is narcissism. However, we don’t mean to use narcissism as an automatic put-down. In our view it is not the pathetic disgrace that has been alleged by many, including gay commentators. True, the mythical Narcissus is a beautiful youth who refuses to be wooed, embracing only himself; gazing at his own reflection, he starves to death. A pretty dumb way to behave. However, Freud’s elaboration of the image is not about loving yourself, but a version of yourself – what you are, what you were, what you would like to be, someone who was once part of yourself.

[7]   Such a process of identification is not necessarily vain, self-absorbed or immature. It involves two people, and is subject to all the triumphs and vicissitudes of any significant human commitment. It is critical in the practices through which males learn to be manly, and females feminine; or not. It may make a person transsexual. It informs the liaison between an older person and a younger – Wilde’s love that dare not speak its name.

[8]   The value of a desire-to-be is to be assessed not as a theoretical principle, but as a moral and political choice. You may desire-to-be Nelson Mandela, or Jeffrey Dahmer. Blair has hit upon George Bush. He has made the wrong choice.

Alan Sinfield and Vincent Quinn
March 19, 2003
University of Sussex, England

The Face that Drew a Thousand Questions

[1]   On September 10, 2001 I gave birth to my daughter. Roughly eighteen hours later, members of my family, who had gathered to celebrate Helen’s arrival, watched from our back porch as the United flight hit the second tower of the World Trade Center a scant five miles across NY harbor from where we live on Staten Island. Our response during the weeks that followed was a mixture of disbelief and isolation. We kept Helen’s delicate newborn lungs inside because we feared that the fires still burning at ground zero might contain unknown toxins carried on a brisk north wind. It was an understandable response, and it was a typically American response.

[2]   Our disbelief stemmed from a sense that the world had changed forever. It hadn’t; but the brutality of late capitalism’s geo-political policies had landed at our back door with a vengeance. Although we were concerned with Helen’s welfare, our inclination to stay inside was also driven by incomprehension that a very different set of social relations than the ones we thought abided for this country had intruded upon our lives. Now it was true here, as it had long been true elsewhere, that civilians were not innocent bystanders. We stayed inside because, in the absence of that ethical maxim, we did not know what else to do.

[3]   In the weeks that followed my mother came to help supplement the housework my husband I normally do so that we could establish the work of caring for our new daughter. What we didn’t realize at the time was that her gentle but firm insistence that we focus on the chores of day to day living – “Let’s make a list of what we need to get at the grocery store, Melissa” – was really a strategy for directing our attention back toward the social awareness without which we never would get out of the house again. For in that work of day to day life, working for and with each other, we tentatively began the process of re-suturing the social fabric of our lives.

[4]   The process has been slow, and made even slower by the version of American xenophobia that erupted in the aftermath of 9/11, a collective fear now rallying behind the insurgency in Iraq that there might actually be ways of understanding social relations other than those that held sway in this country. It is a fear that I have periodically fallen prey to myself. For in the months that followed Helen’s birth, there has not been an afternoon or evening or morning that has passed when I haven’t mentally noted the height of a plane, wondering whether it’s headed for the Verrazano Bridge and Helen’s daycare, which lies only a few miles north. Wondering whether that flight would be the means by which that “extra-American” reality would brutally intrude upon my life again. Wondering whether this time I would be the one called to await news of her body’s discovery in a different pile of rubble.

[5]   But as the war in Iraq has taken shape, I have also come to realize the ruined body I fear I will be called to identify is also that of the American body politic. For the care with which the Bush administration has fostered our xenophobia, parading images of “oppressed” Arab women and 9/11 widows and orphans, has been, in large measure, part of a pernicious strategy to neutralize our democratic sensibilities and blunt any sort of anti-war radicalism. It is among the most cynical expressions of neo-conservatism’s cooptation of the politics of the local. Faced with such images, most Americans have been driven back on the most parochial axioms: The burka cannot be anything but a symbol of Islamic sadism; the 9/11 widows and orphans are only Al Qaeda’s victims; the United States is the defender of equal rights and democratic principles, finally rendering even our global political policies a consequence of these local concerns as we have come to believe that only the US can save Iraq from itself. In this semiotic, there is no room to imagine that these symbols of women and children signify anything else, any other set of social relations. Whatever democratic inclinations we have to question these claims, to wonder whether there might not be issues of greater urgency to Arab women than the burka, to think that however sad the case of 9/11 widows and orphans may be they shouldn’t be reduced to the poster-children for a demonized pan-Arab culture, to acknowledge that Al Qaeda’s ability to use deadly force is a consequence of CIA training, to understand that Helen’s future stands in greater jeopardy from her own government than from another terrorist attack, have been all but stymied. Indeed, what I have realized only recently is that the work my mother helped us accomplish in those weeks after Helen’s birth was only a tentative first step down the path we must all walk.

[6]   This semester, I am teaching a graduate-level seminar in feminist theory. Since February, every class discussion has turned towards US policy on Iraq because my students understand that feminism’s efforts to articulate a politics capable of negotiating between local interests and global narratives lies at the heart of an effective anti-war movement. Certainly, it lay at the heart of my student’s angry response as I off-handedly remarked on the U.S.’s inexorable movement towards war, “Why is it inexorable? There must be something we can do!” Indeed. How does one compel a government to listen to views that do not fit its own calcified mythologies? This after all is supposed to be what democracy enables.

[7]   Yet it has been the very reduction of democracy to an institutional guarantee of free speech that has made it too easy for the current administration to dismiss those views with a paternalistic acknowledgement that anti-war protesters have the right to say what they think. Indeed, one might argue that it is just such a reduction that enables the Bush administration to brandish images of the victimized Arab woman in front of the American public. Still conveniently silent, and thus conveniently available for consumption in the late-capitalist marketplace, because she has not yet been “liberated.” She has become the silenced majority in whose name we drop bombs, wage urban warfare, and in whose name we will hire Iraqi men to facilitate oil production under the new, yet-to-be-installed, non-Saddam-regime. Despite the fact that the war has never been about protecting the Arab woman’s “rights” or “liberating” her from the yoke of Islamic “oppression,” certainly not about securing her ability to control the fruits of her own labor, most Americans have little difficulty in believing that we are in Iraq because we are defending the democratic rights of Arab women and Arab men. But our belief is a sad luxury. A belief we can indulge only because we have accepted a co-opted version of democracy as one defined by access to airtime rather than a meaningful method of political influence and participation – because we have, in short, accepted our own silence. In answer to my student’s question, I can only respond that the war effort became inexorable when the Supreme Court suspended the electoral process and George W. Bush became president. For with Bush came the neo-conservative entourage who had been orchestrating the “new world order” and the anti-Iraq insurgency for a decade. Repulsive as the war in Iraq is, the larger question now is whether those of us who oppose this incursion will be able to ask the right questions loudly enough and often enough to stymie the subsequent aggressions that are waiting to be implemented.

[8]   If this administration successfully prosecutes this war as a liberation rather than an economic colonization – British companies are already taking employment applications – it is as much our failure as their success. But if neo-conservatives suffer no repercussions in the next election cycle, it is truly the American public’s tragedy and the fulfillment of the Bush administration’s romance. If we do not ask the questions that articulate the relationships between local contingencies and global policies, we cannot escape complicity with our own political irrelevance.

Melissa Mowry
April 4, 2003
Staten Island, NY