I’m still reeling from the experience of not only coming back to the U.S. in the midst of a racist, offensive presidential campaign, but also the ways in which this affected the American Studies Association (ASA) conference. Normally this is a conference I look forward to. Some of the smartest people–and some of the most politically radical people–are usually in attendance. This is a conference where Angela Davis and Ruth Gilmore–two of the most important voices on the prison abolition movement regularly discuss this subject, for instance. But this year even those voices that one might normally expect critical analysis from seem to be swept up in Obama-mania. Starbucks sipping, Obama button wearing colleagues abounded. Yes, it took some walking and seeking to find non-Starbucks coffee, but of course the local variety was far superior. My first day there–with almost no sleep and arriving in Albuquerque right before my panel–I managed to survive without coffee because I couldn’t find any non-Starbucks coffee quickly enough. To me it seems like there is a similar kind of laziness between giving into the two party system and not challenging it and not boycotting one of the worst offenders of so many issues from labor rights, to human rights, to of course, Palestinian rights. Hence my need for another dose of a Kabob fest Obama button:
It’s not so much that I expected everyone to embrace progressive or radical candidates like Cynthia McKinney or Ralph Nader. But at ASA I did expect to hear critical analysis and discussion that brought them into the fold. By excluding other candidates these scholars participate in the same sort of exclusionary practices that the duopoly American government upholds by keeping third party candidates out of debates or off ballots. But it just seemed that everyone was so fixated on Obama and had such rose-colored glasses or people were just so mesmerized by this phenomenon that even McKinney’s name never came up. Even in a Stuart Hall panel where Hall’s important legacy in cultural studies came up the discussion related to the election centered on discussing whether or not “we should take credit for the emergence of Obama.” Mind you, they made it clear that taking credit is not the same as celebrating or endorsing, and certainly the work of radicals and progressives paved the way for a candidate like Obama. But this is precisely the point: all sorts of radical political movements made his candidacy possible but his candidacy speaks to none of the issues of any of those movements from anti-racism to labor. Gilmore offered up an important reminder/factoid about how meaningless a black man in power can be when the moment Colin Powell became Secretary of State “the number of black men in prison reached the million mark.” And given that such a long history of anti-racist work has precipitated Obama’s rise to power, I find it chilling that so few people spoke out against the racism enabled by both Obama and McCain, especially as directed against Arabs and Muslims. Apparently war criminal Colin Powell spoke out about this. And, interestingly, Ben Affleck did this weekend on “Reel Time with Bill Mahr”:
But Moustafa Bayoumi had the best line of the conference when he opened up the panel on Edward Said with the quip, “Edward Said was, of course, both an Arab and a decent family man.”
What this shows me is the frustrating, exhausting ways in which there are so few–if any–moments of solidarity among radicals, intellectuals, and of course among ordinary people. As we were leaving for the airport on Sunday morning a homeless veteran approached us for change because he was hungry. I reached into my pocket and gave him some money. I regretted it about two minutes later after he went on a diatribe about how he was not only proud of his “service” in Vietnam, but that he would rush right back out their on to the front lines if he could kill some “terrorists.” I experienced something similar today when I went to vote. I met a sweet, older Egyptian couple who asked me for help with their ballot. There are many issues on the California ballot this year, most of which are bogged down in complex language that try to trick you into voting counter intuitively. So I explained each initiative and told them what their choices were. But it was depressing when I got to propositions that would help rehabilitate (instead of incarcerate) nonviolent offenders or that would allow gay marriage. They wanted to vote against both of these propositions. There is just so little space for people to see connections across oppression. Too little room for solidarity.
But the antidote to all of this, for me, was getting to vote for Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente today (see photo above). I voted for Nader in the last two elections, but McKinney’s position on reparations for slavery, on abolishing the war and prison machines, and her position on Palestine made it impossible for me not to vote for her. It felt amazing. It felt like a fabulous act of resistance. Of course, I still find the system deeply flawed and I’m sure that all sorts of racist, corrupt forces will be at work to ensure the system doesn’t work (though unlike Palestine no one will boycott the U.S., though they should).
Yes, racism is alive and well in the U.S. And, it is alive and well in the Zionist state. Here are some of the latest headlines about what’s going on in Palestine: