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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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What Even Can You Even Say About The Princess-Man of North Sudan?

icanhasprincessWhat is there to say about the “Princess of North Sudan” that isn’t already so incredibly soul-killingly obvious that it feels embarrassingly superfluous to say it? That it’s racist and stupid? Yes, obviously. I mean, are you kidding me? You cannot not be kidding me. You have to be kidding me.

It’s like condemning blackface. If you even have to say it, if you have to articulate the actual words, then are we even having the same conversation? Are we even a “we”? What are we even talking about? It feels insane to even have the conversation. We should be better than this. “We” should recognize that massively encouraging and indulging a child’s childish desire to be a princess by trying to invent a country in Africa is not only terrible, weird parenting—and seriously, good luck to that kid in growing up—but it also represents an absolutely bizarre and oblivious repetition of literally centuries of violent oppression. Man going to great lengths to make his daughter happy is sort of a good look, I guess; white guy showing up in an “unclaimed” part of Africa, with a flag, to start a country and make himself King of it? LESS SO.

So what do you say about such a person? What the hell do you say? Where do you even start?

The only thing more useless than calling it racist and terrible is not calling it racist and terrible, I suppose, which is my way of explaining why I needed to barf up this blog post. And yet the toxic sickness of the cultural imaginary that feeds these fantasies—that makes us hungry for them—is not something you can name and shame, precisely because it’s so normal. We are not better than this, first and foremost, if only because there is no “we.” There is only a repertoire of texts and stories and fantasies that help us imagine who it is that “we” might be, and so many of the white ones, so many of the white senses of the first person plural, are predicated on the exclusion of other senses of we. If whiteness is the desire to produce an us by excluding a them, then of course a white guy with a weakness for arrogant self-delusion is going to set up his daughter as a princess in Africa. It is and he will. But it’s an equally self-congratulatory delusion to imagine that “we” are actually better than this, that “we” are post-racial, that imperialism was a thing that “they” used to believe in, but which “we’ve” put behind us. We have seen the enemy and it’s still us.

As a normative claim, in other words, “we should be better than this” is actually part of the problem, because it only demonstrates the extent to which we aren’t a “we” at all. “We” know that colonialism is over, and “we” understand that a white guy indulging monarchical fantasies on a putatively “blank slate” that he found in Africa is, at best, sort of like planning a safari-themed or plantation-themed wedding and then being defensively pleased with yourself for not actually requiring the waiters to wear blackface. Which happens, constantly, predictably. At best, it represents a level of oblivious self-assertion that reminds you why parent-age white men have been such a problem population for centuries: the amount of arrogant entitlement required to show up in Africa with a flag and declare yourself to be both the new King and also the savior because of Western science or something—on the basis of the fact that no one else has “called it” already, no take-backs—is a toxic brain sickness that has historically correlated with white skin, even if it isn’t a causative genetic link.

Beneath the astounding madness of this guy’s project is the fact that these kinds of imperialist fantasies are so easy to indulge, and that they find such a quick and easy purchase in white minds (which is to say, minds that insist on being white by taking something like this seriously). It tells you something that Disney is not only not better than this, but hired a screenwriter to write the movie who insists that the movie is not about what it is obviously about. But underneath the craziness of this project—a craziness produced by our insistence that it’s SO crazy, that normal people like us would never think this was remotely okay—there is the fact that none of this is actually surprising or crazy. This guy is trying to do what his culture has programmed him to do: he is performing patriarchal whiteness using the convenient props provided by “Africa” as a space of negation. If your heroes are George Washington and Winston Churchill, then this is the sort of thing you are likely to do.

As crazy-making as the existence of this guy and his Indigogo campaign are, Jeremiah Heaton has done us the marvelous favor of demonstrating how crazy-making the history of the last few centuries still is. Jeremy Heaton didn’t set up the borders of Sudan and Egypt so that both countries specifically un-claim the patch of land called Bir Tawil; Jeremy Heaton didn’t draw the borders of these nation-states in schizophrenic contradictions. That was Great Britain that did that, and the United Nations that has, for sixty-odd years (very odd years), insisted on pretending that those arbitrary lines in the sand are somehow sacred. In a world where nearly every African nation is stuck with the absolutely arbitrary and nonsensical fantasy-borders imposed on them, by white men a century ago, normality is already thoroughly defined by the leftover remnants of Jeremy Heaton’s predecessors. And it’s crazy-making!

In such a world, nothing is so unsurprising and unremarkable as a white man playing King of Africa through his daughter, nor the fact that Disney would take a look at this story and see their kind of story being told. Where do you think this seven-year old girl got the idea that she should want to be a princess? Americans love saying that we are an anti-monarchical country almost as much as we love pretending to be kings and princesses. We just don’t do it here. After all, where, in a Democracy, can you be a princess? Where can real patriarchal power be indulged? Only in pantomime and play. Only in pretend. Only in the past. Only out there. Space solves the problem of time: outside of our Democracy,  “out there” in mythical places like Africa and the Orient, you can pretend to be doing it for real, because and to the extent that you can pretend those places are not actually real places, or are lodged in a time before modernity. They can become blank slates for white imagination, white fantasy, because and to the extent that you can imagine that no one lives there, or if they do, that they’re not like us (and need help becoming like us). Because and if they are imaginary—mere images—you can imagine that you are real, that you are really living up to your image of what you really are. This is what Jeremy Heaton has been programmed by his toxic culture to imagine he and his daughter should do.

Put simply, what makes a story like this so unsurprising—and how inevitable it is that the old imperial geographies will get used, in the present, to project fantasies of domination that might otherwise be awkward for American white people to indulge in America“Awkward” in a sort of do it but don’t talk about it way.—are the expectations for personhood that are baked into normative whiteness, a rancid calzone of aristocratic desires that children are fed from the moment they’re old enough to understand. After all, why wouldn’t a (white) child want to be a princess? Why wouldn’t she expect that this is a thing to aspire to be? And why wouldn’t a (white) father feel the need to give this to her? “This” being an aristocratic privilege of command and a bloodline-based superiority; “this” being the expectation that patriarchal love be expressed by leaving a despotism to your child. If these are things we teach children to want, things we have taught ourselves to expect, it’s because we never really reconstructed this racist country; a Georgia-born Virginian like Jeremy Heaton can unashamedly parade his desire to own an Africa, so that his daughter can inherit an Africa, because we live in a crazy-making racist country that insists Democracy and Chattel slavery were ever, in some sense, compatible. That’s what happens when your Declaration of Independence was written by a slave owner, and that’s what happened when we pretended the whole thing wasn’t therefore totally delegitmized.

That was tragedy, though; this is farce. For centuries, the global economy was built on the violently expropriated labor, land, and lives of non-white people, in very clear and direct and brutal and vicious ways. It was not subtle. White people owned black people and Africa, not because it made any sense, but because those white people would shoot you if you disagreed with them, and they did, a lot. The human tragedy produced by this violence for centuries is vastly beyond human comprehension. But then, we also try really hard not to comprehend it, we white people who think white is an okay thing to be; we close the book on it and insist on moving on, looking forward, not back. Mistakes were made by those white people, but we white people are different white people. That’s why Jeremy Heaton can come along with a hilariously literal-mindedness and imagine that repeating the past is a thing that’s not crazy. Because what is he doing but playing out the childish fantasies that his honored predecessors played out, and are still honored for playing? If you refuse to acknowledge the tragedy, you will make yourself a farce. White people who think that “white people” is an identity you can inhabit without being defined by centuries of violence—who bristle at words like “privilege” because it makes whiteness tangible and visible—are a joke without a punch line, just a punch in the mouth if you laugh.

And yet: Jeremy Heaton is more a scandal than a threat. He’s just a guy with delusions and enough money to play them out. Disney is another story, but for different reasons; they have a lot more money, but they confie themselves to the cultural realm, which is a different category of damage. But ultimately, there’s a limited amount of damage that this buffoon can do. Historically, when a white guy with a flag showed up somewhere at a place and called it “terra nullius,” the problem was that he tended, thereafter, to systematically kill everybody who lived there. Terra Nullius was a euphemism for genocide, historically, because calling the land “uninhabited” was a way to pretend you hadn’t just murdered that lie into coming true. But Jeremy Heaton came along at the wrong time to become a genocidaire; like so many clueless white buffoons, he’s much more likely to get used by Egypt and Sudan than he is to cause any real damage. His project is a clusterfuck, but he’s just a tourist with a case of bad nostalgia. He’s not going to shoot people.

Other people are, however. Farce follows tragedy because violence does not leave the world unchanged. There is no more slavery and no more colonialism; today’s rapaciously exploitative capitalism takes different forms. But while those who insist on mindlessly repeating the past make themselves into a spectacle, unconscious self-parody—and Jeremy Heaton has been almost uniformly mocked because this is not the sort of thing we do anymore—the fact that he is a spectacle is also because the capitalist world has found much more efficient and boring ways of expropriating labor, land, and lives. His are unfashionable, like blackface: the modern world has new and improved methods of dehumanizing and exploiting black people.

Put simply, Jeremy Heaton is an anachronism because if you want to make a lot of money by throwing Africans off their land or exploiting their very cheap labor, all you have to do is cut a deal with their governments, who do the hard work of murder and discipline themselves. This point needs to be underscored, because it’s not unrelated to global white supremacy, but it’s not the same, either: Africans being pushed off their land by agro-business (or being put to work on land which is no longer theirs) is as likely to be done at the behest of Saudi capital or Chinese, and the hand holding the gun and giving the order is likely to be black (though there’s always a white man in there somewhere, getting his cut). But Bir Tawil is a sideshow compared to the land expropriations and violent exploitation of routine global capitalism. The big land-grabs that have been accelerating, since about 2008, are utterly normal, utterly unspectacular, business as usual, and they’re so enormous that something like Heaton’s little project is just a hilarious little joke. Millions of hectares being sold are today’s economic tragedy (or one of them, rather), but the mismatch in scale is staggering. I won’t summarize this Oxfam report, because you can pick a page and see for yourself; or click a few of these links, taken from the Stop Africa Land Grab website:

We white people can and should be humiliated by the fact that Jeremy Heaton is able to get as much play out of this lunacy as he is, because he’s reminding us of what it means to be white, wtill. He’s playing by the rules of a game we haven’t repudiated, even if we might sometimes flatter ourselves that we have. But white-guy-with-a-flag-and-a-dream is an old game, one that might occasionally experience a revival, but one which isn’t coming back. Jeremy Heaton is toxic backwash from a cultural imaginary that hasn’t purged itself of the poison. But he’s only as dangerous as a Disney movie, not armed with a gun. And other people are, people who don’t need to crowd-source their dreams of empire.

Witnessing Patriarchy

The first PEN event I attended last weekend in NYC, was a gathering of the Elders, “the Witnesses,” a group of old men whose collective wisdom we were invited to witness: Boubacar Boris Diop, Yusef Komunyakaa, Achille Mbembe, and Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o.

They were led onto stage, however, and introduced with so much ceremony and praise that there could be no vitality to the event. This was not exactly their fault, not exactly; if you’d already read their work before, you’d probably already heard everything before, a repetition which was what it was. And I’d have paid the price of admission to see any one of them speak, alone: they are each interesting and flawed and vital thinkers, with archives of work that haunt the present, and they aren’t dead yet. They have said so many interesting things, over the years; it can be easy to take someone like Ngugi for granted, because of the way “Decolonizing the Mind” has become a framing conceptual structure for any and all discussion of African literature, even if (especially if) you struggle to disregard it. Seeing them in person, embodied, is the opportunity to see them move and speak and contend with their textual selves: how does Ngugi feel about the English language now? Someone needs to ask him about how it feels to write his memoirs in English, now, an issue that goes strangely un-addressed when people invoke his decision to stop writing in English. Ngugi of the 1980’s haunts the Ngugi of today. I’d like to hear him talk about living in California; I’d be the last person to tell him he should move back to Kenya (or write his memoirs in Gikuyu), but there’s a strange gap between the sense of “What Ngugi would say” that is so often invoked in discussions of African language and literature—permanently crystallized in the early 80’s—and the actual Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The former is an unyielding firebrand who makes uncompromising political demands; the latter is an old guy who makes lots of warm grandfatherly jokes. There is no scandal here; we are all conflicted and contradictory mixed up combinations of different selves, of course. It’s just that some people have a lot of things to say about that fact. Someone should ask them.

Instead, what became apparent almost immediately at “The Witnesses” was that the ceremony with which these Witnesses were to be presented to us, made present, would place and preserve them in a place outside of time and history: the preserved Africa of perpetual tradition. Perhaps that’s what happens when you put four very different thinkers in one place, and ask them to reflect on “What is the value of age and wisdom when it comes to artistic expression?” Perhaps that’s what happens when—before they are given the chance to do—they are placed under the spotlight of “When an Old Man dies, a library is burned” and allowed to do no more than reflect the grisly light of that cliche and other burning ruins. They played along. But because the room was so carefully staged by the aura of their dead genius, the only part they could play was that of ancestor, of dead father. The conveners buried them under the imperative to perform Africa The Traditional.

“Traditional Africa,” whether a real thing or an invented Victorian imposition by British colonialism—and it’s at least a combination of both—is nothing if not patriarchal, as this event scrupulously reflected. There were six people on stage; two of them were women, but if they had ever written anything themselves, it never became apparent: they only talked about the four patriarchs, performing reverence to them, reading their work, praising them, even placing personal copies of their books on the table before them to be signed. At least twice, the phrase “Old Men” was used as a synonym for Elder; several times, the masculine Elder was awkwardly expanded to include the feminine, an awkwardness that was more audible than the correction. But the gendered distribution of performative functions on stage had a clarity that the language could only muddy and mask: the men were witnessed and the women did the witnessing.

On the one hand, there’s the conversation we could have about why Ama Ata Aidoo or someone like that wasn’t brought to be one of The Witnesses. Granted, there aren’t a lot of Ama Ata Aidoos around (though I know of at least one, and also, Rashidah Ismaili was right there). But also, it’s easier to find male elders to reflect on “the value of age and wisdom when it comes to artistic expression,” if for no better reason than that the generation of Ngugi and Aidoo was segregated by gender in ways the archive of elderly prestige now reflects. It’s also one of the reasons why age, by itself, is not quite the same thing as wisdom: women with age do not reliably turn out to be treated as Wise Elders, while Wise Old Men are often treated as such without needing to reflect it. This is a good conversation to have because, My God, what was even going on on that stage? Worth noting: at the same time as “The Witnesses” were parading patriarchal authorship, the panel on writing gender was happening somewhere else. Men Witness, Women gender….

Anyway, the drama of patriarchy is always interesting, at least, because of the ways it so poorly serves their humanity, and this is another conversation to have. Every word that Ngũgĩ speaks reminds us of how many years it has been since he wrote Decolonizing the Mind; a day later, the panel on Glissant would reference “what Ngũgĩ would say” about Glissant’s demand that we try to dirty or language, to soil it and make it impure, because it was never pure anyway. And in that room, Mbembe was able to argue, explicitly, that there has never been a “pure” language, and that Ngũgĩ’s argument demands a return to something that never existed. But he didn’t say this when he was sitting next to him. “What Ngũgĩ would say” only became available as a position to refute—a caricature, even—in his absence. Because the best kind of father to kill is the father that’s already dead?

It became clear, at a certain point, that Mbembe was uncomfortably situated between three icons of literary art, a discomfort he did his best to emphasize, perform, and articulate: he was the youngest person on stage, he observed, a moment before suggesting that age does not necessarily confer wisdom. This was an idea which no part of the preceedings would have led one to suspect; every act of framing and presentation led inescapably to the opposite conclusion, that age and wisdom (and masculinity, implicitly) were the same. With a laugh, Ngũgĩ observed that his son was in the audience, and complained that Mbembe was undermining his authority. Don’t listen to this man, he instructed his son; listen to me. We all laughed. As a joke, it was a charming moment (and Ngugi is at his most charming when he makes jokes, as he often does). Yet that joke held, with a loose grip, the tension of the statement: if Ngũgĩ’s joke about paternal authority was funny, it was because Mukoma wa Ngugi is is a grown man, and in the absence of true patriarchal authority, when one adult pretends to command another, the laugh expresses love, not anxiety. The pretense of the claim, its pretension, performance, actually marks the relaxed grip with which the father is holding his child. You can laugh, and we did, because it’s only a joke.

Of course, and this is the point, sometimes patriarchs don’t grip their children so loosely. You can be opposed to patriarchy and also be charmed by patriarchs; Ngũgĩ is charming, such a far cry from the unyielding firebrand who rebukes and disciplines, in his own absence. But only in his absence does “What Ngũgĩ would say” frame him as a father who must either revered or killed. In his presence, he’s a funny old grandfather who performs love for his son, not only praising the novel his son wrote in English, but failing to rebuke him for contributing to the death of African languages.

Boris Bouboucar Diop spoke movingly, that evening, about Cheik Anta Diop, and suggested that when he and his fellow students were young, they tried to kill the father: Marxists all, they found Cheik Anta Diop’s work inadequate, ill-conceived, something to be cast off. Today, he reflected, decades after his passing, Senegal has realized its error. Having killed the father, perhaps, his absence made them realize the value of his living presence? It wasn’t necessary to be at this event to read Diop’s reflections on Diop, of course; his collection of essays, Africa Beyond the Mirror, contains a moving reflection of the Senegalese intellectual class’s two fathers, Cheik Anta Diop and Leopold Sedar Senghor. It’s a tremendously illuminating essay, and I’m glad I read it. But when he quickly, briefly, described the ways the Senegalese intellectuals of today were un-killing the father in their memory, he animated knowledge I had been glad to read and gave it emotional weight, substance, presence. Mourning the father makes his presence felt in ways the mere figure in the room never could, nor should. But give me the latter, any day.

On the Variety of Ways to Not Praise Charlie Hebdo


There are so many excellent ways to not praise Charlie Hebdo, because there are so many aspects of what they do and have done that deserve something other than praise. But it’s very hard to not praise the dead. Especially the martyred dead, for whom praise is compulsory. It’s so hard to say anything about dead people that isn’t praise, in fact, that in order to say anything about Charlie Hebdo that isn’t praise, you need to open by declaring that you condemn their deaths. For example, Arthur Goldhammer’s piece from Monday begins with this extravagant and doomed attempt to inoculate himself against the counter-charge that he is secretly a fellow traveler with terrorists:

“There is, of course, no justification for the murder of political cartoonists. Nothing I say should be construed as in any way mitigating the horror of the Jan. 7 attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine by two gunmen affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Yemen. In no way do I excuse the crime or accuse the victims of somehow bringing it on themselves. This should go without saying, but as I have learned from the reactions to what I previously published on this matter, it bears repeating, and even then there are some for whom it will not be enough.”

He is, of course, right: it will not be enough, for those to whom he is speaking. But why is he speaking to them? To those who would construe criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s racism with an actual desire to see them murdered—to those for whom “with us or against us” is still a compelling narrative—there is no amount of preamble that will make it okay for you to criticize Charlie Hebdo. “With us or against us” is compulsory, because don’t you know we’re at war? It “bears repeating” because it will not work: just as it should go without saying, but doesn’t, saying it over and over again will only confirm to those who hear you that you are obviously protesting too much. Why make such a big deal about how you aren’t accusing the victims of bringing it on themselves if, after all, you aren’t saying EXACTLY THAT? 

Those people can fuck off. Why have a conversation with someone that will take what you say and insist that it means literally the opposite of what you’re saying? Let them have their fun, but they have nothing interesting to say.

Meanwhile, I want to observe how very strange it is to see a magazine that takes a pride in pissing people off, that is meant to be blasphemous and offensive and provocative and unsettling—a magazine whose entire reason for existing is supposed to be that it is irreverently outside the mainstream—be transformed into something which one feels compelled to regard with reverence, a thing in whose name assembled heads of state will pretend to march. This is something to which PEN America has contributed, by giving them an award for courage. They have made it even harder to not praise Charlie Hebdo.

It is been so very interesting to watch as the choice to not do something—such as to not honor Charlie Hebdo at a PEN fundraiser, to “respectfully disassociate” oneself from the decision to give them an award—has become illegible as an act of individual conscience and dissent, and has become compulsively re-scripted as an “attack” on Charlie Hebdo and, therefore, a secret sharer in the violence that killed eleven of its editors, writers, and artists. This is what happens when #JeSuisCharlie began to imply tout le monde. The default was to “be” Charlie, such that to dis-identify with that magazine not only had to be asserted (since it was presumed that you identified with them), but marked you as crossing a line, as being against us, instead of with us.

This is not what the victory of free speech looks like. Or if it is, we’re talking about a compulsory liberation, and that contradiction in terms should give us pause. Many people regard Charlie Hebdo’s work as further marginalizing Muslims in French society; I, for example, do not think you can weaponize racist images to fight racism. But there are many others who feel different versions of the same principled uneasiness with what Charlie Hebdo does. I don’t need to cite them, and I don’t want to: if you’re open to the argument, you’ll respect my choice to hold that position—you’ll be interested in hearing it, and want to think it through—but if you’re not, you’ll take the opportunity of names to create ad hominem attacks on the people who say those things.

I dislike what Charlie Hebdo does. I’ve spent enough time reading their words, flipping through the archive of what’s available to me to read and view, and I’ve read an exhaustive amount of commentary to come to that conclusion. I also sympathize with what they are trying to do, which makes me a bit uncomfortable. The way efforts to be antiracist become racist in practice is the farce which so many white people make of themselves that, if we weren’t so reliably constant in doing it over and over again, it would be tragic. I am Charlie, in the sense in which I am also lots of things I don’t particularly want to be, but which I can only control and moderate and improve if I acknowledge.  I am more Charlie than I would like; to say #JeSuisCharlie, for me, is to say that I also sometimes have good intentions that go wrong.

To me, the best argument against giving Charlie Hebdo an award is that a “Free Speech” organization shouldn’t be in the business of giving awards at all, that doing so degrades the function of such an organization. Charlie Hebdo is a good demonstration of why that is, but it’s not exactly their fault. After all, #JeSuisCharlie is, by definition, something only those who are not Charlie would ever have to say. I don’t think Charlie Hebdo ever demanded that you’re either with us or against us; from what I can tell, they mostly tried to avoid that as much as possible, as well they should. I think highly enough of their intelligence, in fact, to presume that they probably see their defenders as the bullying windbags they are. Charlie Hebdo never saw themselves as bullies. But making it compulsory to be Charlie Hebdo, to make what they expressed synonymous with expression itself, was to bully on their behalf.

This is why giving awards for Free Speech is such a strange idea. To award and celebrate some kinds of speech (but not others) will inevitably mean drawing distinctions between good speech and less-good speech, no matter how hard you try to pretend that what is being honored is simply courage, in the abstract. The Islamic state’s A/V club is also “courageous” in expressing its point of view, if literally the only thing we mean by that word is commitment to expressing an embattled point of view in the face of great obstacles. And we obviously don’t only mean that. There is a good reason why Charlie Hebdo and ISIS are not sharing the award: we judge the content of ISIS’s speech acts to be horrendous and horrible, and also they kill people. The terribleness of that organization disqualifies their “courage” from having the kind of meaning that PEN wants to honor.

The flipside, however, is that once you open the door to honoring the content of expression, there is no going back. If PEN wanted to celebrate the “spirit of Voltaire” and liberal tolerance, they should have tolerated Charlie Hebdo: they should have defended to the death their right to make racist cartoons, and also observed how fucking racist those cartoons were. The test of liberal toleration is tolerating speech you don’t like. If you like Charlie Hebdo, then giving them an award for courage is not that. It requires very little to tolerate speech we approve of.

I disapprove of a lot of what Charlie Hebdo has done in the past, but I respect the fact that their politics are changing, as one’s politics always must. “I will no longer draw the figure of Muhammad,” said the cartoonist who drew the Prophet for the first post-massacre edition of Charlie Hebdo; “It no longer interests me,” he said. I don’t think it was ever interesting, but it has become such a cliché over the last few years, so profoundly unchallenging and generically repeatable, that no artist worth the name can do very much with it anymore. The only people who hold “draw Muhammad” contests are hate-mongers like Pamela Geller, because what is happening is not art, but aesthetic equivalent of throwing bacon at a mosque.

You cannot honor “Free Speech” in the abstract without hollowing it out. I am opposed to violence against artists, journalists, writers, and dissenters because I am opposed to violence. People should not be violated, and cartoonists are people too. This is actually a very easy principle to observe in practice. And that’s why it’s just a bad idea to praise Charlie Hebdo, which represents (or is saddled with) a very particular, aggressive, and arrogant form of weaponized speech. You cannot honor Charlie Hebdo as the embodiment of courageous speech without honoring the content of their speech, their politics, and what they do with their courage. To praise “expression” in the abstract by honoring a particular version of what might make it praiseworthy makes it no longer abstract. Another organization they didn’t honor was Pamela Geller’s Islamophobic mob, despite the fact that they, also, drew cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed. The difference is that Charlie Hebdo is satire while Geller is deadly serious. But if there is something to this difference – and there is, I think, just not quite as much as a lot of people seem to think – then let us observe that satire is being made to carry the burden of “better than Pamela Geller.” I wouldn’t want to place my fate on so slender a reed, but hey, you be you.

No matter how many times you insist it is not, no matter how hard you work to draw that distinction, PEN cannot give awards without asserting, in some sense, that Charlie Hebdo is better than ISIS or Pamela Geller’s mob. And they are better! But good lord, practically everyone is. And as Teju Cole put it, is it a good use of our headspace and moral commitments to lionize Charlie Hebdo in particular, “rather than Raif Badawi, Avijit Roy, Edward Snowden, or Chelsea Manning, who have also paid steeply for their courage, but whose ideals are much more progressive than Charlie’s?” What about the Ethiopian Zone 9 bloggers? What about, what about, what about. A choice was made, and there were reasons why that choice was made. Pretending that there weren’t is just subterfuge. Charlie Hebdo was honored for what they continued to say, not for continuing say. All speech is born free, but some speech turns out to be more free than other speech.

Though I have my own opinions about Charlie Hebdo, I’m trying not to talk about them here. I’m trying to talk about PEN, and the unstable place where it’s trying to keep its balance. This has turned out to be difficult to do: criticisms of PEN’s choice and of the implicit system of evaluation behind it have been turned, over and over again, into ATTACKS ON CHARLIE HEBDO. There is some justice to that, since the dissenters have blurred the line themselves. But it’s also useful to step back from that claim, and to do so very explicitly. It is one thing to talk about Charlie Hebdo in Paris; it is another thing to give them an award in New York City. And whatever Charlie Hebdo means in that original context, it means something else here.

One of the reason why white people love talking about “racism” (rather than, say, “white supremacy,” “privilege,” or “anti-blackness”) is that it makes the problem something you can good-think your way out of, something you can separate yourself from, and cleanse yourself of the guilt for. To not be racist, you literally have to do nothing more than decide not to be racist, and then go forth and sin no more. Done!

The value of “racism” as a concept for white people, in other words, is that it allows us to think we can escape it. We can’t. You can’t. I can’t. No one can. “Racism” is an emergent property of societies structured by dominance, societies that function to oppress and dehumanize certain classes of people using an arbitrary and historical biological concept to do so. Deciding not to be racist or participate in racism is like trying to avoid traffic. You can do your best, and you should, but your options are limited; the problem is a whole hell of a lot bigger than individual choice. Moreover, race exists because racism creates it, and trying to find racism inside a person’s soul is like trying to find the “kill” in a gun, so it can be removed. The machine works, and it does a certain thing, as does a society structured by racialized injustice. Try not to be the person pulling the trigger. Really: try as hard as you can. Don’t drive during rush hour. But the difference between a gun and white supremacy is that a gun doesn’t fire by itself; white privilege is letting the world favor you without needing to lift a finger. White privilege is benefitting from racism without needing to be racist. You might be able to stay home, but there are a lot of people who have to drive to work, and your staying out of traffic doesn’t help them all that much.

To the extent the category has meaning, I am racist and so are you. With my conscious mind I struggle against it, but I always, immediately, and unconsciously react differently to different people, depending on how the world I live in has indoctrinated me to identify and view them. So do you. It’s the worst kind of intellectual cowardice to pretend you don’t “see” race, because you do see race, and—because there is no race without racism—seeing race makes you racist. Nobody gets out clean from this swamp of white supremacist shit. The question is what you do with it. Do you clean yourself off as best you can? Or do you pretend your shit doesn’t stink?

“Is Charlie Hebdo racist?” is not an interesting question. If you accept that everyone is racist, that we are all stuck for the time-being inside a shitty system that hurts people, then asking whether Charlie Hebdo is racist is a question with no stakes. Because you can’t ever find the racism in a person, it’s a question that can only produce a presumption of innocence. The interesting question is whether and how you are working to drain the swamp.

What if PEN asked what kinds of speech fostered a world where there was less violence? Doing that would be to admit that choosing who to give an award to is actually a political and ideological choice, as it obviously is. But then we might have a conversation about why mean-spirited satire that explicitly seeks to “banalize” Islam is judged to be more powerful, more worthy, and more anti-racist than other forms of expression. We might also have a conversation about whether provoking Islamists into submission is the way to deal with the militancy of that political tendency (because no matter how hard Charlie Hebdo might work to distance itself from Pamela Geller, Pamela Geller knows better). We might have a conversation about whether you can attack an idea or a faith without also attacking the people who are born into it. We could talk about whether a picture of the Prophet Mohamed being sexually humiliated has anything to do with anti-racism, or if it just repeats and reiterates the symbolic violations, and does so in ways which have real consequences.

In the end, I find Alain Mabanckou’s “il n’y a pas de France sans arrogance” attractively honest. I think I draw a different conclusion from that fact—Mabanckou was the writer who presented Charlie Hebdo with the award yesterday—but it’s the right framing. Arrogance is not a pretty thing, in and of itself, and if you want to defend aggressive secularism as a cultural value, then it’s good to call it by its name: Laïcité is a particular mode of French arrogance. Laïcité is the assertion that a broad range of existential orientations towards the universe are merely “religions” (in this context, a word for pre-modern myth and superstition), along with the arrogant assertion that there is one existential orientation that is transcendent, fundamental, alpha, and omega. It is the state. You can have other gods if you want, the State declares, but none before Me: I am because I am, and anything that is not Me must bow down and give way.

If secularism is an anti-religion, the insistent absence of religion, then its insistence gives the game away, because the state is such a jealous god, demanding such a complete monopoly on reality: it wants what religions have, the right to dictate how it is normal to live. The state is

(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

That’s Clifford Geertz’ “Religion as a Cultural System,” which if you read against the grain, might accidentally de-secularize (and even decolonialize) the formations of religion that narcissistic Western secularisms tend to produce. These terms are much too capacious: if this is what a religion is, then how is the secular state anything but a religion? Secularists will insist that religions are false ideologies, that their symbols are mere masks for power and domination, their moods and motivations deadly to the human spirit, their conceptions of a general order of existence rooted in superstitions, and their realistic facticity utterly fictions. But in this way, the Secularist protests in exactly the way a religion would, demanding, like a religion, that the other “Gods” are all false. If you allow a religion to become a cultural system, then what is the secular state but a competing cultural system? This is what it is: a cultural system that brooks no competition.

A believer has difficulty with the idea that their culture is one culture among many, of course, because you cannot believe in a thing and also think that it is a “belief.” I have my own beliefs, too; I am a secularist, and I was born into the religion of the state, from which I’ll spend my life trying to disentangle my identity, and never quite succeeding. I believe in it too deeply, quite, to really believe that it’s quite a belief (I write these words, in other words, because I struggle to make them true). But no matter how hard I try, I still believe, very deeply and fundamentally, in the particular kind of disbelief that “secularism” enshrines. To me, the Holy Trinity is an interesting and even beautiful fiction. But Democracy, on the other hand, is a transcendent truth to be fought for, even to die for in certain cases; I believe this on a level deep enough to stop seeming like mere belief. Democracy is no less a system of symbols formulating a general order of existence than is the Holy Trinity; democracy also has its claims to factuality and realism, its texts, its canon, and its saints. I think it’s a good one. But the fact that I believe in it doesn’t make it something other than a religion-as-cultural-system; the fact that I believe it is true makes it hard for me to regard my own belief as mere belief. Believers never do.

The trouble with radical secularists is that they so often jump past this contradiction, forgetting that they, too, are believers. They have such confidence in their own clarity of thought, and such contempt for mere believers. For the passionately intense disbeliever, getting rid of “religion” means that whatever is left behind turns out to be Science and Truth. But there is no outside to cultural belief, as ethnographers like Geertz started to understand: there simply is no opting out of ideology, and to think that you have done so is often to become the worst kind of fundamentalist. If you think you’ve found the Archimedean point from which to understand the world’s illusions as such, then those who believe in them become fools whose beliefs can be safely dismissed, whose words can be ignored, and whose humanity can be bracketed off. If you congratulate yourself on having found Reality, then you are in danger of becoming its tool. Because what makes your belief different than anyone else’s is the fact that you believe in it, and real belief – if it means anything – means the inability to acknowledge that you might be wrong.

Apostacy is always still a kind of belief, in other words, but derived from a negation: to disbelieve in a belief is still to fetishize the thing being unbelieved in, to worship by your hate. Iconoclasm emerges from this unbelief: what’s the point of smashing idols if you don’t believe they contain Gods? Bigotry, too, needs to believe in the thing being hated, far beyond the point where that thing exists: the bigot who throws bacon at a Mosque believes in the power of that symbol, or the bigotry would have no object. Race doesn’t exist either, but racists not only created it, they need to keep creating and re-creating it, by demanding that it does exist. To disbelieve in the humanity of black people, you must imagine into existence a coherent, distinct group of black people who are, in being black, no longer human. But blackness is a structure of negation, before it is anything else: Africa was not black until the slave trade and no one is black without the presence of race hate. But in a world where race hate does exists, where white supremacy names a deep complex of historical memory and experience and daily practice, calling race a “social construction” is like calling a border just an arbitrary line in the sand: it is, but pretending it doesn’t exist is a good way to get shot. Bow down to that idol, or have your head cut off.

Race-hate and faith-based bigotry are not the same things, exactly; the symbolic violence of antiblackness is particular in its insistence that race is binding, permanent, existential. Whiteness needs blackness to be fundamental. If a black person could become white, after all, then whiteness has no meaning. But faith-based bigotry believes the damned can be liberated: to blaspheme against the symbols of Islam is to push Muslims towards disowning them. Race-based bigotry always contains at least a kernel of genocide, but faith-based bigotry believes it is offering the believer the choice to switch teams. Such blasphemy is meant to be a kind of symbolic torture, in fact: by attacking the site of a Muslim’s identity as Muslim, the blasphemer demands that the Muslim give up everything that identity binds him to. If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, demands the secular blasphemer, he cannot be my disciple.

But blasphemy is always an oath of allegiance to a new God that is haunted by the presence of its predecessor: just as the new Testament was haunted by the old, or as Islam was haunted by Jesus’ claim to be the son of God, or as Protestants were haunted by Catholic iconography, the modern secular nation-state is haunted by the presence and claims made by its predecessors, and for this reason, must constantly and persistently blaspheme them, to remind itself that it doesn’t believe. The secular state needs religion, without which it doesn’t exist: as secular, the state is an anti-religion that understands itself by reference to the thing it is not, the thing which in disbelieving, it un-bows down to (up from?). Its liberation – its liberty – needs this other for its own self-definition; without the mental slavery of false gods, it has no truth, no freedom.

That the state pretends not to be a religion causes it to produce warped and strange notions of what a religion is. When laïcité allows the state to tell a fifteen-year old schoolgirl that “a long skirt ‘conspicuously’ showed religious affiliation, which is banned in schools by France’s strict secularity laws” and expels her from the school until she submits to the local God’s arbitrary strictures, this is religion in everything but name. It is a much less vicious form of gendered violence than murdering schoolgirls for Islam, yes, certainly, but if we’re comparing the French state favorably to Boko Haram, then the damning faintness of the praise speaks for itself. At least they didn’t murder her for wearing the wrong clothing! Let us give them an award. But we are still describing a claim to transcendent truth that jealously defends its privileges against other claimants, a God whose self-evident reality is seen to stand in sharp contrast to the mere idols and myths of its competitors.

Laïcité means that while some kinds of blasphemous satire are officially supported by the state – in the case of Charlie Hebdo, to the tune of one million euros – others are outlawed. Laïcité describes how a nationally-mandated theory of colorblind post-racialism can become a defense of majoritarian privileges: some forms of religious observation become invisible and naturalized (those which have become private, a matter of personal conscience), while those with a public component—those that might challenge the State’s injunction to have No Other God Before Me—will render their practitioners ineligible for citizenship. To be Muslim is to be something other than “Français de souche,” then, because Islam is a religion and “French” is not-religion. There are the essentially French—whose Christianity has long found ways to integrate into the secular state religion—and then there are those who need papers to (partially) counterbalance their immigrant origin, whose religion will refer back to it, no matter how many hexagonal generations they can trace back.

There are so many ways to not praise Charlie Hebdo, then, but one is to pretend that it is something other than an arrogant expression of French secularism. Laïcité is in the French constitution and expresses a French chauvinism that is either a good thing or a bad thing, but is definitely a thing. It is a white mythology, as a great French African author once put it; it pretends to be universal by hiding its origin, even from itself. And when those who praise Charlie Hebdo also demand that you have to understand French culture to understand Charlie, when they claim it’s a French thing–You Anglophone rubes just can’t understand this particular mode of special hexagonal humor!—what they are saying so very clearly is that it’s a culturally-rooted and nationalist tradition. You can think that this is a good thing or you can think that this is a bad thing. But to pretend that it isn’t a thing – to pretend that weaponized Laïcité is something other than an arrogant expression of a particular majoritarian culture – is to fall into exactly the kind of hypocrisy that Charlie Hebdo ostensibly stands against, blindness to self of the self-righteous. French universalism is deeply parochial, as anyone who doesn’t have their head up their France understands. Let’s not praise Charlie Hebdo for this; they deserve better.

Islamophobia as Narrative Device, in the Second Person

There is a lot to say about Charlie Hebdo. There is a lot to say about the shooting last night in Garland, Texas. They are not the same things, but there is a narrative line connecting those events, and that’s a third thing to say, that it is a story. Precisely because they are not the same things, in fact, it’s important to tell the story as a story, as something other than yet another entry in the perpetual, inevitable, clash of civilizations of us and them and us and them. These events are distinct; there is a chronology and a narrative space that connects point A and point B. If we do not attend to that the story as story — how it has developed, is developing, will develop — we will expect the same thing to keep happening, over and over again. We will be right, but we will be blind as to why it does.

I don’t know the whole story, of course. But an “Art Exhibit” or “contest” was not the thing that was attacked, not if the word “art” means anything. If it was a story about violent extremists attempting to commit murder, then we can be glad they failed. But this is also a story about escalation and reaction, and that story gets lost if its flattened into LIBERAL FREE SPEECH vs. VIOLENT ISLAMISTS by the many commentators who not only love simple binaries, but particularly enjoy that one. For example:


This is one way to tell it, one way to tell the readers that they already know this story.

Another way to tell it would be that, in January, after Islamist gunmen killed twelve journalists in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, the Sound Vision foundation, an Islamic media company, framed their annual convention in Garland, Texas, as an Islamic rebuke to those gunmen’s claims to have “revenged” the Prophet.

The convention was called “Stand with the Prophet Against Terror & Hate”:

We have avenged the Prophet Mohammad,” the gunmen shouted after killing 12 at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The publication is known for lampooning the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.

Well. The Prophet banned revenge as he built his peace sanctuary in seventh-century Madinah, establishing instead the rule of law. Peace was his goal, which he achieved by developing alliances between Muslims and Madinah’s non-Muslim Arabs, Jews, and Christians.

“The Muslim love for Prophet Muhammad is unquestionable. We love him more than we love ourselves. God’s peace and blessings be upon him. It hurts us when any one insults our Prophet. It is, however, the ignorant, who do not know the loving path of mercy and forgiveness taught by the Prophet; they are turning into violent extremists like ISIS and Boko Haram and committing crimes in his name.

This is not love. This is hate.

They were met with hate, as it happened. First, the local Tea Party was outraged that American property was being used by un-Americans:

Julie Borik says she and other Garland Tea Party members are outraged after hearing about two speakers who will appear at an upcoming event to combat Islamophobia at the Curtis Culwell Center, which is owned by the Garland ISD. Borik says, “I believe in the Constitution and we have the right to free speech. There are other venues they could rent and I don’t want it on an ISD property that is government property. I’d like us to promote American values.”

Though the Sound Vision conference was bedecked with American flags and declared its staunch American patriotism, as local news showed, right-wing protesters told them to go home:

Holding signs saying “You are not Americans. Don’t fly our flag,” protesters complained about the Garland Independent School District allowing the group to use the facility. “We pay our taxes to that school, and I don’t want them here,” one woman, Lavona Martindale said.

Another protester, identified as Greg McKinley, said, “We’re here to stand up for the American way of life from a faction of people who are trying to destroy us.” McKinley added, “If they want to live their life like the middle east, they can go back to the middle east.”


Pamela Geller’s organization uses “free speech” as cover for this kind of aggressive Islamophobia, an explicit call to prevent Muslims from flying the American flag and to prevent them from using government property. Free speech and tax dollars are code for Muslims go home, which is then justified by pretending that it’s the Muslims who are trying to restrict free speech. Because a conference against Islamophobia is the same thing as imposing Sharia law?

But “Islamophobia” is the word that Geller and company use to rhetorically transform “Stand with the Prophet Against Terror & Hate” into “Stand with the Prophet,” a Muslim project to stomp out free speech, and it tells us a lot about what “free” speech really means here. By consistently excising the “Against Terror & Hate” part (a cut which the mainstream media imitates), they carefully re-frame what was, essentially, a public relations effort put on by a media company as an effort to re-brand Islam in terms of love and peace, representing it as the first stage in a totalitarian Muslim theocratic state taking root in Texas, creeping Sharia and the immanent destruction of American Free Speech by Obama’s Muslim Agenda, etc.

In this way, to denounce Islamophobia, Geller proclaims, is a blow against free speech:

The art exhibit and contest will be held at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland on May 3rd. “This was the site of a Muslim conference denouncing ‘Islamophobia’ — an obscene stand for them to take after the Charlie Hebdo massacre – and our massive Free Speech Rally outside that event,” Geller wrote in a press release obtained by Breitbart Texas.

The contest will take submissions online and the winner will be announced at the event in Garland. The winning cartoonist will receive a $10,000 prize. The exhibit will feature images of Islam’s prophet in both historical and contemporary settings. There will also be a series of speeches by internationally renowned free-speech advocates.

Geller explained that the art exhibit is the next logical step following AFDI’s Free Speech Rally in Garland. “This event will stand for free speech and show that Americans will not be cowed by violent Islamic intimidation,” she stated. “That is a crucial stand to take as Islamic assaults on the freedom of speech, our most fundamental freedom, are growing more insistent.”

There are lots of things to say about what happened last night, but one of them is this: Pamela Geller’s mouth is where Free Speech goes to die. Geller’s organization is a lot closer to the Skokie-Illinois test case for free speech: if you allow even this, then you can say that speech is free. And the US government, of course, does “allow” it, and should: the content of Geller’s speech is and must remain a separate issue, insofar as the state is concerned, and the fact that Pamela Geller’s organization uses its speech in ways that are calculated to provoke, offend, and harass cannot be a reason for suppressing it, again, insofar as the state is concerned. But fascists are not defenders of Free Speech, even when they provisionally hide behind the protections of the liberal state.

What Geller and company mean by “Free speech,” as they show by their words and actions, is that the free can speak and the unfree should stay silent, a distinction to be found in the barely veiled expressions of racialized citizenship through which this garbage is put forward. When American Muslims speak against Islamophobia, they are taking “an obscene stand” (one of the forms of speech that is commonly censored), and it will never matter how many times they denounce hate and terrorism. If they wave the American flags, they are told to stop: this speech act is not for them. If they rent a publicly-owned convention center, the fact that their tax dollars paid for it as well means nothing, since “taxpayers” are implicitly white in this vernacular.

In this way, a “Free Speech” demonstration is the vehicle for demanding that Muslims be barred from public space, on the basis of their religion, and what they are saying.

Freedom of speech, if it means anything, means that the government takes no stand on who can speak, and how and where. If you are a representative of the state, you need to stay out of it. If, however, you are not a representative of the state, if you are a member of “civil society,” then fascism is not something to be neutral on. You have to stand somewhere. This is fascism, not something so comparatively mild as mere “racism.” Racism is bias, but fascism is what happens when white supremacy becomes the religion of the state, and it’s a jealous god. Geller’s organization (and their many fellow travelers) are working to frame the existence of a certain class of person as a fundamental threat to the nation — literally, attempting to ban them from public space because they are intrinsically foreign — and to mark anything positive said about Islam as an obscenity and an attack on free speech. If there’s a slippery slope to be feared here, it’s this one, because we’re already plummeting down it. And if the state must tolerate the intolerant, and it must, for fuck’s sake, let’s the rest of us not get confused about the difference.

Defacing Bush Colleges

“is it doomed to become Cape Town’s ‘bush college’?”

The University of Cape Town is a beautiful campus, with a great reputation for academic excellence, and it has good pillars and statues as well. Statues and reputations go together.


At the center of that amazing picture is a statue of Cecil Rhodes, who is seen above, dreaming of a white empire over Africa.

In 2009, protesters annotated his dream:


At the University of Texas, the official slogan is “What Starts Here Changes the World,” but the one I like better is “The eyes of Texas are upon you.” When I walk out my office, if I turn to my left, I can see “The Tower” where the administrators of this university survey the campus; if I turn to my right, I can see the Texas state capitol building.




These towers overshadow the campus, which has a great reputation and good pillars and statues as well.

Here are some pillars at UT:

pillartwo pillarone

In the lovely green space between them–at UT, a university with a great reputation for academic excellence–if you walk from the capitol to the tower, you’ll see statues of people who fought a war to keep black people as slaves in America, on either side of you. You will see generals to your left and confederate statesmen to your left. You’ll pass a pretty fountain, and you might see the following inscription on a nice piece of white marble:

“To the men and women of the Confederacy who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states rights be maintained.”

I took a picture of it once, which I can’t find now. But I was pretty startled to see it.

I shouldn’t have been. They’re all over the campus. Here is Jefferson Davis, for instance, who committed treason like crazy:


Dunces of Confederacy,” in 2007:

For this year, as during recent ones, there are calls for the university to rid itself of these embarrassing nods to the Old South. This spring the controversy even spilled over to that citadel of reason, the Texas House of Representatives. CNN devoted some airtime to it, and for a few moments it became a national story. But it is here, on the campus of UT, where the issue will be resolved—or not.

The lightning rod of the statues, the rock star of opprobrium, is Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Before assuming that office, Davis was a colonel in the U.S. Army and the Secretary of War of the United States. One of the most colorful things Davis did, which is not mentioned on the statue, was to introduce camels into West Texas, on the theory that one desert is as good as another in the utilization of eco-correct animals. (The experiment failed; Texans in those days would not walk a mile for a camel.)

Another controversial statue is that of Robert E. Lee, who, following the Civil War, became the president of George Washington College. Before the war, Lee, along with Davis and Johnston, fought in the Mexican War, and he also served as the superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point. But Lee was the soul of the Confederacy, even though he freed his own slaves five years after inheriting them and even though he expressed opposition to slavery, in a letter to his wife, five years before the Civil War. No matter: According to the critics, Lee, Davis, Johnston, and John H. Reagan must go.

John H. who? I certainly didn’t know until I read his inscription. Reagan was the postmaster general of the Confederate States, and after the war he publicly called for Texans to renounce both slavery and secession. He was also the first chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas. If that doesn’t set your blood to boiling, I don’t know what does.

Sometimes the statue gets annotated:
Jefferson Davis_courtesyofGraceGilker


But they always clean it up.

At UCT, this latest round of defacement was sparked by Chumani Maxwele’s “poo protest”:


Oddly, this bullet hole is still here, from the time a UT student killed his wife and mother and then 16 people, shooting from the tower:


Last night, the University of Cape Town took down this statue of Cecil Rhodes:


The CEO of a think-tank on race relations (no, really), Frans Cronje, suggested that

UCT’s reputation will take a step downwards after events of tonight. Can it recover or is it doomed to become Cape Town’s ‘bush college’?

In South Africa, the iconoclasm seems to be spreading. A statue of Louis Botha in front of the Parliament building:


At the University of KwaZulu-Natal:


Bush colleges! I fear that the University of Texas is doomed to a similar sad fate.