Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again

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Last year, I was invited to attend the Manoa Forum, a “gown to town” event that brings together academic and community leaders to discuss the prevailing issues of the day. While what happens at the forum is supposed to stay at the forum, I will unashamedly note that during one exercise, in response to a question about groups with which I identify, I extolled my solidarity with anti-racists in the South, especially those fighting against white supremacy in the city of my upbringing: Huntsville, Alabama.

My childhood was pastoral. As a precocious pre-teen, I spent my days playing sports with neighbors on the half-acre lawn my parents owned and scouring the forest behind our house for natural treasures. A macabre old graveyard that skirted the cotton field adjacent to our neighborhood prompted the fabrication of imaginary worlds within our own, as if the headstones and breathable textiles were linguistic bubbles in a narrative multiverse only the local children could translate.

Yet, I also remember the harbingers of hatred I would learn about later in life. Members of the Ku Klux Klan marching through a Native American powwow. Burning crosses. Dilapidated wooden shacks a few miles from my home in which some of my African-American classmates lived. My next-door neighbor discussing his fear that the n*****s moving into the area would denigrate the district.

Years later, those attitudes are still common in Alabama, a state that officially celebrates the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr. (and gives Lee top billing). Thus Trump, whose presidency is a symptom of our nation’s inability to responsibly grapple with our problematic racial history. To ask whether or not Trump is racist is to focus on an incessant sneezing jag, when the real problem is the discriminatory coldheartedness congesting the corridors of the country’s socioeconomic institutions.

Shortly after the new year, I was asked to draft a bill to advance civic education in Hawaiʻi for Rep. Amy Perruso. Amy’s and my belief in democratizing public education long precedes her election as a state representative and my appointment as her office manager and policy wonk (see, for example, the Hawaiʻi State Teachers Associationʻs Schools Our Keiki Deserve report), so the bill writing was seamless. As I worked on the measure, I was reminded of the urgency to not just ensure educational equity for all students, but to use our schools as sites for political action, from which new visions of the future may be born.

When the bill was finished, Amy and I had a discussion about the primary purpose of education. Since the enactment of the now defunct No Child Left Behind program, the typical top answer has been “to prepare students for the workforce.” Without question, schools have an obligation to develop the skills essential for participation in the 21st century job market. None of those skills are meaningful, however, if they’re not used to shape a more just and equal society.

The principal purpose of education, and especially public education, I submit, is to equip students to determine and deliver the public good. Mathematics should not simply be a prerequisite for becoming an engineer, but a step toward employing the elements of design to build sustainable homes for all. Learning to code in computer science classes shouldn’t be seen as a move toward a lucrative job at Google, but as a means of acquiring the knowledge necessary to invent software that solves pressing social concerns, the way USC’s HEALER algorithm empowers homeless youth to protect themselves from the spread of HIV.

When speaking to civil rights activists in Alabama who had been beaten, literally, by law enforcement, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again.” At that time, school desegregation remained a recently enacted Supreme Court mandate. Nearly six decades later, there are places where integration still feels like it is in its infancy, where racism remains the dominant thread in a fraying social fabric.

Maybe if we devote more energy–and funding–to educational initiatives that are unafraid to pose tough questions about our history, then the next generation will be better able to fashion a future in which Trumpian race baiting doesn’t exist. Maybe, in turn, the dignity demanded by MLK, his comrades, and their heirs in places like Huntsville can rise above the white rage that seeks to silence the song of struggle before the chorus fills too many freedom fighters with hope.

New Year’s Resolutions: 2019

Mauna Lani New Year's Eve

Better late than never.

New Year’s resolutions have never been my forté. Every year, I fall into the trap of banality that leads to broken pledges. Working out feverishly turns into a nightly jog. Blogging every week becomes a monthly haiku. Being more financially prudent begets more credit card debt.

Life interrupts my well-intended attempts at self-improvement. Maybe the trick, then, is to out-do the abruptness of life, to mix in a couple of unexpected ultimatums with the cliché commitments and make life say, “WTF? What does that even mean? That’s so extra?”

So, in that vein, I offer three categories of resolutions for 2019. If I can keep one promise from each, then I will consider myself upgraded.

The Mundane

  1. Take a vacation. I’ve been working for three years straight on campaigns, public policy, victim rescue and restoration, and more. I love my work. I love to work. It’s time to take a break (or two or three), however, to resuscitate my work-life balance. San Francisco? Seattle? Seville? Sydney? Someplace far, far away, for sure.
  2. Save more money. Easier said than done, living in the state with then highest cost of living, but that’s all the more reason to be a smarter money manager. I’ve never lived off a strict(ish) budget before. I’m going to try. The future isn’t getting any cheaper, a social revolution notwithstanding. I’m down for that, too, if that’s on anyone’s list.
  3. Work out six days per week. At the end of 2019, I don’t want to feel fabulous. I want to feel abulous.

The Optimistic 

  1. Finish my book. As you may or may not be aware, I’m writing a book. Actually, I’ve written 90 percent of a book. Only the introduction remains unfinished. All good writers compose the first part last. It’s been three years since I began the project. It’s time to end it.
  2. Finish 52 books. Reading them, that is. One per week, at least, beginning with the long list of canonical literature I’ve shamefully missed. Never stop learning about the world around you, so you can build a better one.

  3. Learn a new language. Language acquisition breaks down cultural barriers. Or, rather, 私はハワイに住んでいます、私は自分の言語で私の日本の隣人とコミュニケーションしなければなりません。新しい言語を学ぶことは文化的障壁を打破するでしょう。また、いつか東京と京都を訪問したいと思います。Is that even close to accurate? No? Blame Googs.

The Aspirational 

  1. Swim in every waterfall I encounter. Have to be a little careful about falling rocks, but the Instagram possibilities are endless.
  2. Win a disc golf tournament. That’s right. I play frisbee golf. I’m actually quite badass at frisbee golf. And disc golf is the new sport of kings. Leisurely kings. Kings who stroll through the park on Sunday and give butterfly kisses to all the Doge lookalikes. That kind of king. (If you don’t remember Doge, see here. Doge is a strong supporter of enthusiastic consent. Alternate resolution: be more like Doge on the daily.)
  3. Pass a living wage for Hawaiʻi’s working families. This should be on every local political activist’s wish list for 2019. $10.10 is not enough. One job should be enough. It can be, if we marshal the strength and courage to make it happen.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that 2019 can’t be worse than 2018, even as the federal government remains in shutdown mode. I don’t accept that cynicism. Let’s make 2019 a banner year for love, joy, and hope for those who need it most.

From 9/11 to Donald Trump

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Seventeen years ago, the United States was shaken by planes crashing into pillars of American exceptionalism. Now, our nation is struggling through the equally unyielding terror of the Trump presidency.

These two events–the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. skyline and the Trump administration’s assault on American institutions–are as entwined as the interlocking loops of a roller coaster. Following the explosions at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and fields near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, our elected leaders issued a clarion call to permanent war based on an endless perpetuation of political fear that echoes inside the White House today.

Every president to occupy the Oval Office since 9/11 has mined the fertile soil of fearmongering about Islamic terrorism, even those who pronounced the audacity of hope. After laying a wreath during the Pentagon memorial service, in 2010, Barack Obama marshaled the collective memory of the 184 victims killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the defense headquarters’ west side, saying:

The perpetrators of this evil act didn’t simply attack America; they attacked the very idea of America itself–all that we stand for and represent in the world. And so the highest honor we can pay those we lost, indeed our greatest weapon in this ongoing war, is to do what our adversaries fear the most–to stay true to who we are, as Americans; to renew our sense of common purpose; to say that we define the character of our country and we will not let the acts of some small band of murderers who slaughter the innocent and cower in caves distort who we are…Today, in Afghanistan and beyond, we have gone on the offensive and struck major blows against Al Qaeda and its allies. We will do what is necessary to protect our country and we honor all those who serve to keep us safe.

Obama’s call for “common purpose” curiously included rhetorical applause for the wars being waged (to this day) in the Middle East against the communities from which the 9/11 assailants hailed. The American character of which Obama so proudly speaks is one of unparalleled military might, in which “the enemy” may be blown to pieces by a remote-controlled drone and the casualties of warfare can be counted like kills in a first-person shooter video game.

Fast forward to the present, where President Trump was elected on and ravenously reaps the political proceeds of Islamophobia. From attacks on the families of Islamic soldiers to unprecedented restrictions on immigrants from Muslim nations to a persistent Othering of non-white people as inherently violent, Trump has driven the politics of fear made possible by 9/11 to the top of the U.S.’s political war machine. He understands that our national narrative, too, was hijacked nearly two decades ago and that his claim to authority rests on sustaining trauma in our collective memory.

The way we, the people, code acts of terror has, since long before 9/11, been defined by the state. The attacks on the World Trade Center amplified the discursive hegemony of the state, however, giving national leaders new power to determine what is intelligible in national political discussions and what is rendered barbaric.

Feelings of transgression in questioning the further militarization of society since 9/11 arise out of the government’s successful cultural homogenization of the meaning of the terrorist attacks, through which the weaponization of four airplanes prefigures a permanent state of mourning that can only be alleviated through the catharsis of warfare. Thus, memorial enactments become nothing more than performances of statist authority, allowing the conditions for further action–be it familial grieving or the so-called “War on Terror”–to occur with indefinite social impunity. As Judith Butler argues:

The normative force of performativity–its power to establish what qualifies as “being”–works not only through reiteration, but through exclusion as well. And in the case of bodies, those exclusions haunt signification as its abject borders or as that which is strictly foreclosed: the unlivable, the nonnarrativizable, the traumatic (Butler, Bodies That Matter, 1994).

While Butler’s thesis refers specifically to gender and sexuality, her assertion that a formulation of identity politics simultaneously interrogates and delineates the categories it creates is equally applicable to debates surrounding the biopolitics of 9/11, whereby the failure of discursive performativity to circumscribe ontopolitical parameters induces constitutive insecurity and, subsequently, normative exclusion dissimulated beneath the illocutionary force of political speech. In other words, invocations about our shared loss only serve to build a wall between “us” and “them,” with the Western “us” only capable of existing insomuch as it is performed, over and over, as something different from the non-Western “them” that must always remain present at its borders.

Reading imperative utterances as aesthetic simulations, instead of linguistic nihilism, opens new space for the (im)possibility of 9/11 to emerge. In one sense, the attacks of 9/11 (especially those on the World Trade Center) exposed an unspoken ideal of performative hyperreality: violence becomes virtual at precisely the point that the it collapses into pathos itself, requiring mediation of the imaginary for historical signification to be fixed.

Baudrillard’s infamous argument about the Persian Gulf War–that the absence of reason for military action manifests virtual warfare or war as a managed spectacle whose outcome is predetermined–is revealed as both functional and incomplete. The hermeneutic apparatus that consecrates the spatiotemporal dimension of battle relies on the presence/absence duality inhered in power relations for mass distribution, as Baudrillard claimed, but coterminously constructs the trauma of the imaginary, specifically, as something to be destroyed. Baudrillard admitted this in 2003, saying:

The architectural object was destroyed, but it was the symbolic object which was targeted and which it was intended to demolish. One might think the physical destruction brought about the symbolic collapse. But in fact no one, not even the terrorists, had reckoned on the total destruction of the towers. It was, in fact, their symbolic collapse that brought about their physical collapse, not the other way around (Baudrillard, Requiem for the Twin Towers, 2003).

Nonetheless, the humiliation wrought by the naked baring of virtuality cannot be revisited upon the terrorists, whose capacity to incite panic is predicated upon a mass-mediated, but deliberately veiled, dissemination of panic in the service of free-flowing capital. As by-products of an aesthetic regime writ ideologically, most Americans experience, re-experience, and react to the attacks from a position of displaced space, of unstable materiality, in which newsreel images of planes crashing into buildings become a simulacrum not only for the attacks themselves, but also for the symbolic fictions unmasked by 9/11–the excesses and inequalities of global capitalism, ultra-nationalism, patriarchal statism, and the silencing of radical alterity.

It is this last concept that affirms September 11, 2001 as spectral. We can ask: can any meaning be derived from fissures opened on 9/11 that undermine the meanings bestowed upon us by the state in the name of militarization and money? Can we tell a new, more progressive story about our history, our future, and how the two are related?

Specters, like simulations of violent attacks for political gain, are the revenant, undead, persistent haunting of resurrected anxieties, at once contingent upon and contemporaneous with mourning. Inseparable from the commodity fetishism of the modern marketplace, these revenants foreshadow both an ambivalence about and anticipation of the ultimate death of the current (il)liberal political order.

That’s scary to people who are privileged by our current politics, namely those who are wealthy and/or white. It is these fears–percolating before, but inestimably heightened and given a new racial and cultural face by 9/11–that Trump has taken advantage of to further repeal the civil liberties that ground the American experiment.

Tearing Trumpism from our political fabric, then, will require more than impeachment hearings. We will need a reckoning with our recent history that replaces fear with forgiveness and an acknowledges our complicity in the suffering of our neighbors around the globe.