Over the course of the past two decades, the political idiom of liberalism has substantially expanded its global reach and dominance. In the vast majority of the world’s existing states, principles of individual rights and collective recognition have been or are being enshrined in constitutions and other legal codes, and actors in the public sphere and the realm of civil society are adopting liberal discourse in order to press their claims for equality and freedom. The recent Arab Spring is only one of the most recent instantiations of this larger trend.
Yet even as we acknowledge liberalism’s dominance, we should not overlook those settings where it still (and ironically) carries a counter-hegemonic charge. One such locale is the Republic of Turkey, ostensibly one of the most stable and democratic states in the wider Middle East. Here a variety of Islamic organizations have relied on liberal imaginings in their efforts to challenge the state’s anti-clerical model of secularism.
This Islamic recourse to liberalism is the central concern of Jeremy Walton’s intriguing article in the most recent American Ethnologist, “Confessional Pluralism and the Civil Society Effect.” Walton pays particular attention to the work of four Islamic NGOs in Istanbul and Ankara, all of which have adopted the language of confessional pluralism in their efforts to obtain recognition from the state and secure their inclusion in Turkish public life.[i] These organizations define “religion” as a nonpolitical, voluntary mode of social and ethical life that legitimately, indeed necessarily, takes different forms. They also insist that these varied modes of life deserve acknowledgement and protection on the basis of “the ostensibly universal values of liberty and equality.”
When viewed from the perspective of Turkey’s party politics, these NGOs make strange bedfellows. Three of the organizations analyzed by Walton represent Alevism, a syncretic minority tradition that can be broadly defined by its emphasis on Twelver Shi’a history and belief, its incorporation of Central Asian mystical and shamanistic practices, and its distinctive ritual performances. Alevis have typically supported the Republican People’s Party (CHP, the party established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) because its staunch secularism has appeared to offer a bulwark against Sunni majoritarianism and discrimination. The fourth organization, meanwhile, is a Sunni association inspired by the contemporary Turkish theologian Fethullah Gülen and his project of universal religious dialogue. It also epitomizes the recent emergence of the Sunni Muslim bourgeoisie, the constituency that has played a pivotal role in the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Thanks to its overwhelming success in local and national elections over the past decade, the AKP has effectively supplanted the CHP as Turkey’s preeminent political party.
Yet as Walton rightly notes, these NGOs’ seemingly obvious political differences belie their common turn to the liberal rhetoric of pluralism and collective recognition. All of them desire public acknowledgement of their own (and others’) communities and identities, and all thereby challenge the presumption of ethnolinguistic and religious homogeneity that has prevailed in Turkish governmental discourse since the founding of the Republic in 1923. In addition, all of these organizations question the state’s long-standing effort not only to define and regulate the legitimate practice of religion (especially Sunni Islam), but also to limit religious expression to the private sphere. These rather paradoxical governmental imperatives, which remained largely unchallenged in Turkey until the 1990s, can be traced to the laicist model of secularism that the Republic adopted from the French Jacobin tradition.
In subtle or dramatic ways, all of these NGOs seek to divert Turkish secularism from its previous path. One of the Alevi organizations, for example, seeks a mode of pluralism that would grant to Alevis the same privileges—state funding for houses of worship, inclusion in the mandatory religion classes taught in public schools—that the state has historically allocated to Sunni Islam. Another Alevi association, by contrast, favors an “American-style” secularism that would limit or even prohibit state intervention in religious affairs. The Sunni organization, meanwhile, seeks to promote tolerance and public dialogue across confessional boundaries in a manner that departs markedly from the state’s efforts to privatize religious expression. Significantly, the idiom of liberalism is flexible enough to accommodate these varied and not always compatible projects.
At the same time, the liberal language of confessional pluralism creates tensions and dilemmas for the very organizations that seek to mobilize it. Above all, claims for collective recognition presume coherent and “authentic” (i.e., long-standing, non- or pre-political) religious identities as the necessary ground for communal acknowledgement and equal protection. As Walton convincingly relates, it is precisely such coherence and authenticity that prove elusive for many Islamic NGOs. Alevi associations in particular are defined by intense arguments over the very definition of Alevi identity. Does Alevism constitute a distinct and more or less uniform tradition of its own? What precisely is its relationship with Islam? Does Alevism even constitute a “religion” as the concept is commonly understood, or is it rather a body of folklore, a philosophical and political orientation, or an ethnicity? Alevi associations disagree sharply on the answers to these questions, even as they share a common discursive logic.
Walton is somewhat less persuasive, however, when he turns to Islamic NGOs’ relationship to the state and state governance. In his reading, these associations engage in a form of “nongovernmental politics” that does not aspire to occupy the position of a governing agency. In fact, they contribute to what Walton, drawing on the work of Timothy Mitchell, calls “the civil society effect”: the romantic notion that civil society constitutes “a self-evident domain of freedom and authenticity” wholly autonomous from the state. I follow Walton’s reasoning when he notes that the NGOs he analyzes have displayed an increasing skepticism toward Turkey’s dominant model of secularism and its major political parties, including the CHP and the AKP. I believe he oversteps, however, when he suggests that many if not all of these associations dismiss political society and the state. To my mind, the very language of liberalism adopted by these NGOs indicates that they care a great deal about the state and its policies. Very much in the spirit of Arendt’s celebrated pronouncements in The Origins of Totalitarianism, they grasp that rights and recognition, if they are to have real substance, must be backed and warranted by the state’s governmental power.
This wrong turn notwithstanding, Walton’s argument makes for stimulating reading. Perhaps above all, it offers a sharp challenge to the still common presumption that Islam and modern politics are hermetically separate, fundamentally irreconcilable domains. Instead, as Walton subtly demonstrates, they “authorize, animate, challenge, and contextualize each other in contextually specific ways.”
[i] For the sake of easy reading, I do not dwell on the NGOs by name, but the Alevi associations include the Cem Foundation, the Hacı Bektaş Veli Anatolian Cultural Foundation, and the Ehl-i Beyt Foundation. The Sunni association aligned with Gülen is the Journalists and Writers Foundation.
We commonly assume that political acts and claims are shaped by some form of reasoning. How then do we respond to political stands in which arguments are piled atop arguments in contradictory ways, and where the force of the various arguments is less important than victory? We see in political discourse a definite willingness to embrace any argument that helps one win, whether or not it makes sense.
One example of our cynical embrace of bad arguments is the recent controversy over the East Side Gallery in Berlin. The Gallery is comprised of a series of murals that, over the course of the past two decades, an international cast of artists has painted and re-painted on an approximately one-mile stretch of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, the East Side Gallery occupies the longest existing remnant of the Wall, and it has become a significant landmark not only for those visitors who seek to experience something of the city’s Cold War past, but also for those long-time residents who regard it as an embodiment of the city’s contemporary feel and texture.
The tumult of the past few weeks erupted over the plans of a developer, Maik Uwe Hinkel, to construct luxury apartments and an office complex in the former border zone—now a modest green space—that lies between the East Side Gallery and the Spree River. According to the agreements reached by Hinkel and the local government, these new buildings would entail the creation of an access road and pedestrian bridge to allow passage to pedestrians, bicyclists, and emergency vehicles. The road and bridge, in turn, would require the removal of two stretches of the East Side Gallery and their replacement in the adjacent green space. Local planners had first approved the construction and the alteration to the East Side Gallery back in 2005, and since that time Hinkel’s plans had aroused little concerted opposition.
When workers lifted out one concrete slab from the Gallery on Friday, March 2nd, however, hundreds of demonstrators flocked to the site to prevent any further removals. A group of activists hastily organized a larger demonstration that same weekend, one that ultimately drew a raucous crowd of more than six thousand people. In the face of these surprising protests, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit declared that all further work on the site would be postponed until at least March 18th, when a meeting of the major players would decide its fate. Since then, the developer and the relevant local officials have all declared their eagerness to find a solution that preserves the East Side Gallery in its current state. Even the slab removed earlier this month seems destined to return to its former location.
Yet the apparent success of the protest threatens to overshadow the problematic aspects of the demonstrators’ arguments. On the one hand, many of the organizers and protesters regarded their opposition as a small but significant rejoinder to the insistent tide of commercial development in post-Wall Berlin. To adopt the terms of Sharon Zukin’s recent book Naked City, they saw the East Side Gallery as an embodiment of the city’s distinctive authenticity and rootedness, which they argued should be protected from the homogenizing onslaught of upscale growth and gentrification. To wit, one of the coalitions that spearheaded the protest calls itself “Sink the Media Spree” (Mediaspree Versenken), a name that invokes developers’ recent efforts to transform the area along the river into a headquarters for high-tech communications and media. Its webpage declares that this portion of Berlin should preserve “the neighborhood” as it currently exists and not fall victim to “profit mania” (Kiez statt Profitwahn).
But the East Side Gallery cannot be cast so readily as an incarnation of local authenticity, especially the kind that stands opposed to commerce. First of all, many government actors and city residents were far more eager to see the Wall dismantled in the months and years after November 1989 than to see it preserved, and they condoned if not actively contributed to its wholesale removal. As a result, the survival of the East Side Gallery represents the exception, not the rule, in the city’s engagement with the Wall as a material structure. Second, artists from around the world initially established the East Side Gallery as a celebration of artistic and political liberty, but their murals received support from the local and national governments because they helped to draw tourists to Berlin and added to the city’s cachet as a cultural destination. In the light of this state patronage, I find it rather curious to hear activists pitching the East Side Gallery against the forces of capital and development.
On the other hand, many demonstrators contended that the alteration of the East Side Gallery would amount to an intolerable attack on the city’s historical inheritance. One variation of this position is that the removal of the two sections constitutes a dilution if not erasure of Germany’s traumatic past. According to this argument, the East Side Gallery should be left intact so that residents and visitors can confront the traces of the country’s division. Another, more strident variation insists that the construction plans display a callous disregard for those who suffered under the East German regime and, more specifically, lost their lives while attempting to escape it. In the words of one activist in Der Tagesspiegel: “the most important point is not whether the Wall will be opened. We are against the combination of removing the Wall and building hotels and apartments in death strips.”
Again, the East Side Gallery’s connection with Germany’s fraught past is not nearly as straightforward as the activists and demonstrators have suggested. As Brian Ladd details in his book The Ghosts of Berlin, the murals of the East Side Gallery were not painted until the early 1990s, after the Wall had fallen and East Germany had ceased to exist. In fact, this portion of the Wall could not have been painted before 1989, because it stood in East Berlin, and anyone who attempted to leave a mark on it, or even lingered near it, would have been apprehended by East German police officers or border soldiers. Of course, amateur and professional artists did draw and paint some striking imagery on the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, but they created it on the Wall’s “outer” surface while standing in West Berlin, where they had much less to fear from East German border personnel. The muralists who launched and maintained the East Side Gallery certainly meant to evoke and further this tradition of “Wall art,” but in the process they abstracted it from a prior historical era and relocated it in another part of the city.
I note these objections not because I support the proposed construction or the alteration of the East Side Gallery. In particular, I am not at all convinced that the partial removal of the Wall is really necessary, whether or not Hinkel and the city go ahead with the area’s development. But I am troubled by the protesters’ reluctance to take the ironies and complexities of the current circumstances more fully into account. They are too eager to cast the developer and local officials as the villains in this story, particularly when the city and the federal government have in fact created a substantial memorial landscape related to the Wall. And they are too quick to position themselves on the moral high ground. Given the Wall’s disappearance from virtually every other part of the city, their demands for preserving the East Side Gallery seem more than a little belated.
In the two years since its inception, the Arab Spring remains an extraordinarily difficult phenomenon to define and assess. Its local, national, and regional consequences have been varied and contradictory, and many of them are not obviously or immediately heartening. These observations certainly apply to Syria: although growing numbers of the country’s military personnel are abandoning their posts, the Assad regime’s war with the Sunni insurgency still threatens to draw Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan into an intractable sectarian conflict. But they are, if anything, even more relevant to Egypt. There the overthrow of the Mubarak regime occurred with less brutality, all things considered, than we might have reasonably feared. But, the nature of the country’s social and political reconstruction nevertheless remains extremely uncertain, given the delicate balance of forces between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Nour Party, and the country’s diverse liberal and activist camps.
The effects of Egypt’s revolution have been particularly ambiguous for the country’s women. To be sure, women have played a noteworthy role in the Tahrir Square protests in January and February 2011, and many local and foreign observers commented on the lack of intimidation and harassment they faced in the days leading to Mubarak’s fall. But as Wendell Steavenson details in the most recent New Yorker, the protests were by no means free of gendered violence, and the revolution has yet to create a more comfortable or equitable place for women in Egyptian public life.
Let me touch on one example from Steavenson’s article. Hend Badawi, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, was protesting against the interim military government in Tahrir Square in December 2011 when she was confronted by a group of soldiers. In the course of her arrest, the soldiers tore off Badawi’s headscarf, dragged her several hundred meters by the hair, cursed at her, struck her, and groped her breasts and behind. One of the soldiers also apparently told her that “if my sister went to Tahrir, I would shoot her” After being taken to a parliament building, Badawi was beaten again and interrogated for several hours before landing in a military hospital, where she was treated for severe lacerations on her feet, a broken wrist, and multiple broken fingers.
The next day, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, at that time Egypt’s effective ruler, paid a visit to the hospital for a photo op with a state-TV camera crew. Despite her injuries, Badawi confronted him: “We don’t want your visit!” she reportedly screamed. “We are not the ones who are thugs! You’ve beaten us and ruined us! Shame on you! Get out!” News of the tongue-lashing quickly made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, and when Badawi was moved to a civilian hospital, she used a video camera smuggled in by friends to issue a lengthier statement about her ordeal. The resulting video went viral, and independent TV stations used it to challenge government claims that the Army had not used violence against civilians.
One might expect that Badawi would be honored for her courage and conviction, and I can only imagine that she is, at least among pro-democracy activists. But her family, which happened to sympathize with the Mubarak regime, was appalled. Badawi had gone to Tahrir Square without informing them, and they blamed her not only for the violent treatment she had received, but also for the damage they believed she had done to the family’s reputation. Badawi’s relatives locked her in her room; her elderly aunt yelled at her frequently; and her brother Ahmed hit her. Later, when Badawi’s family did not allow her to return to Tahrir for the first anniversary of the revolution, she basically reenacted the protests of the previous year—only this time on a more intimate scale. As she related to Steavenson, she launched a hunger strike to protest her treatment at her family’s hands and made placards that read, “Hend wants to topple the siege! Down with Ahmed!”
Badawi’s experience is particular and inevitably her own, but it nevertheless exemplifies the conundrums that many women face in contemporary Egypt. As the daughter of a pious rural family, she has benefitted from the increasing levels of affluence, education, and occupational opportunity that at least some young people, both women and men, have enjoyed over the past several decades. But she has also come face to face with the possibilities and the limits created by Egypt’s Islamic Revival, which has established new expectations for women’s comportment on the street and in other public institutions. (If many women in Cairo went bareheaded and wore skirts and blouses at the beginning of Mubarak’s reign, almost all now wear headscarves, and the niqab is not an uncommon sight.) Finally, Badawi’s life has been shaped not simply by her family’s notions of appropriate womanly behavior, but by a wider climate of pervasive sexual harassment. According to one 2008 survey, sixty percent of Egyptian men admit to having harassed a woman, and the country’s police and security forces either openly condone such treatment or engage in even more serious assaults themselves.
Badawi chafes at the “customs and traditions”—a common Arabic phrase, which she employs sardonically—that mold and circumscribe her life. And, like at least some other women, she regards Egypt’s recent upheaval as a potential opening, an “opportunity to mix my inner revolution with the revolution of my country". But it is significant, I think, that Badawi does not seek a “Western” form of women’s equality and emancipation. Although she appreciates “the space and freedom” that appear to be available to women on American TV shows, she nevertheless intends to pursue them “in the context of my religion”. At the same time, many of the reforms that she and other women’s advocates might champion are now thoroughly tainted by their association with the autocratic Mubarak regime. For example, many Egyptians dismiss recent amendments to the country’s “personal-status laws”—which allowed women to initiate no-fault divorces and enhanced their child-custody rights—as cosmetic changes that only aimed to improve the government’s international image. Many other citizens, meanwhile, view Mubarak’s 2010 effort to mandate a quota for female members of parliament as a patent violation of democratic procedure.
These developments offer no clear path forward for Badawi and other Egyptian women, whether or not they regard themselves as activists. But they also pose a distinct challenge to outside observers—like me—who sympathize with their efforts to transform Egyptian society. Ten years ago, the Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod drew on the impending American invasion of Afghanistan to question the notion that the U.S. should “save” Muslim women from oppression. Instead of adopting a position of patronizing superiority, Abu-Lughod urged concerned Americans to ally themselves with local activists in the Middle East and to work with them on the issues that they deemed most important. In the context of the Arab Spring, however, even this advice appears to have its shortcomings. I worry that American (or wider “Western”) support for women like Hend Badawi, however well-meaning, will unintentionally undermine the very reforms that the activists themselves favor. I also suspect that a considerable number of Egyptians will resent even the most “enlightened” coalitions as yet another instance of anti-democratic meddling if not neo-colonial imposition. After all, the U.S. did much to keep Mubarak in power for thirty years. Why now should Americans, whether they are affiliated with the U.S. government or not, attempt to intervene even indirectly in Egypt’s transformation?
I certainly believe, from a political and scholarly perspective, that Americans should care a great deal about the consequences of the revolutions in Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern states. In the end, however, I wonder if the most advisable practical course may be to adopt an attitude of principled non-interference in those cases where mass violence is not imminent. In short, we should allow Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) room to work out the consequences and implications of the Arab Spring on their own, even if we are not entirely comfortable with the results.
Note: Lila Abu-Lughod’s argument, which I reference near the end of this post, appears in “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others.” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 783-790.
How do our understandings of democracy shape how we imagine racial equality and the means by which it might be achieved? That was the question posed by Maribel Morey at the most recent lunchtime talk at the Arendt Center. Morey is currently a fellow at the New York University School of Law, and she has recently completed her dissertation in the Department of History at Princeton University. Building upon her research on the Swedish economist and social theorist Gunnar Myrdal, Morey offered an incisive comparative reading of Myrdal’s book An American Dilemma (1944) and Hannah Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959).
As became evident in the course of her talk, these texts posit different visions of democracy in the U.S., and they come to different conclusions about a central feature of the civil rights era: the federally enforced integration of public schools in the segregated South.
Myrdal was a strong advocate of such government intervention. In his argument, the premises and principles of American democracy effectively demand the racial integration of schools and other institutions, and it is legitimate for the federal government to enforce such integration for the sake of America’s ongoing democratic life. This position insists that education constitutes a crucial public resource provided by the state, and it proposes that inequitable access to this resource limits individual and collective participation in the political realm. Indeed, Myrdal goes even further by contending that discrimination and segregation violate the very “American creed”—the liberal commitment to equality and fair treatment—that makes national co-existence possible. Since its initial publication, Myrdal’s position has exerted a deep influence on U.S. public discourse: it played a key role in civil rights activism in the 1950s and ‘60s, and it figured prominently in the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
Arendt was also committed to the project of political equality in the U.S., but she parts ways with Myrdal by sharply questioning the legitimacy of federally enforced integration. On the one hand, she objects to this form of intervention because it “burden[s] children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve”. Government-mandated integration thereby inserts young people into a political struggle for which they are not prepared and to which they do not properly belong. On the other hand, Arendt takes issue with the way that federally mandated integration transgresses the boundaries that ought to be maintained between the realms of political, social, and private life.
These boundaries are necessary, in Arendt’s argument, because polity, society, and privacy are defined by different animating principles. Politics is defined by the principle of equality: all adult citizens enjoy the same right to vote and be voted into office, and no differences should exist in their ability to participate in the polity. By contrast, the social realm is characterized by the principle of discrimination: social relations follow the adage “like attracts like,” according to Arendt, and individuals are therefore entitled to associate—and not associate—with others along the lines of profession, class origin, ethnicity, level of education, and other vectors of difference. Finally, the private realm is defined by the principle of exclusiveness: individuals choose the people with whom they will spend their lives on the basis of those people’s unique qualities, and the government should and indeed must assure “the rights of every person to do as he pleases within the four wall of his own home.”
Arendt charges that state action in the service of racial integration is acceptable when it attacks the legal enforcement of discrimination in the political realm. One of her key differences with Myrdal, however, lies in the fact that she does not regard the education provided by the school as necessary for political participation. Indeed, she does not ultimately consider the school to be a “political” institution at all. To be sure, the state has the right to prescribe educational content that will prepare children for future work and citizenship. But in Arendt’s argument government cannot dictate the forms of association and social life that emerge in school, and it cannot infringe on parents’ rights to bring up their children as they deem appropriate. These points lead her to a rather provocative conclusion: “to force parents to send their children to an integrated school against their will means to deprive them of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies—the private right over their children and the social right to free association.”
As Roger Berkowitz writes in his essay "Solitude and the Activity of Thinking," Arendt's argument is grounded on her belief that a vibrant private realm is a constitutive need of a free political society. Without a strong protection of the private realm where people can grow to be different, unique, and self-thinkers, there will be no true plurality, which is the condition for action and politics. The price for plurality, she writes, is that we allow for people to live freely in private. It is for this reason that Arendt argues against anti-miscegenation law and why she would insist on the right to gay marriage. For Arendt, there is nothing more constitutive of privacy than the right to raise one's children as one wishes. For the state to forcefully require parents to send their children to a specific kinds of school means, she writes, that there would be no meaningful realm of privacy left—which would endanger the plurality she understands is the pre-condition of politics. As Berkowitz writes:
What offends Arendt in the Little Rock case is not the ideal of desegregation, but the danger that well-intentioned governmental attacks on social discrimination will erode the walls of privacy that nourish the possibility of thinking and of acting—and thus of plurality. Since the space for solitary thought depends on the protection of a vibrant private realm, the protection of privacy is a necessary first step in the cultivation of thoughtful political action.
Given the controversial nature of Arendt’s position, it should come as no surprise that much of the discussion turned on the questions her essay leaves unanswered. For example, many audience members wondered about the connections between private upbringing, social discrimination, and political equality. What is it that enables or requires citizens to forego the discrimination they practice in social life so that they might recognize other citizens as equals?
For that matter, how is it possible for people to transcend those aspects of their familial socialization that might hinder them from participating in politics without prejudice?
Other listeners focused on the two writers’ divergent intellectual predilections. As several of them noted, Myrdal’s work reveals a basic confidence in the ability of government, working in tandem with enlightened social science, to conceive and implement policies that further democratic freedoms. Arendt, on the other hand, betrays a much more skeptical stance not only on power of the state, but also on the capacity of social scientists (like Myrdal) to guide productive social and political interventions.
Finally, discussion turned to one point where Arendt, despite the contentious nature of her remarks, might be developing a more interesting view of democratic societies than Myrdal. As Morey noted in the Q and A, Myrdal’s reflections on democracy are ultimately premised on the existence of a national Volk defined by broad moral and cultural commonality. Prejudice and discrimination are pernicious, in his reading, because they prevent racial minorities from complete integration into the nation and its defining sense of peoplehood. Arendt’s vision, by contrast, adopts a much more guarded stance toward “conformism” of this sort. Indeed, “Reflections on Little Rock” proposes that people have a strong right to their opinions and sentiments in the private and social realms, even when those opinions and sentiments are deeply unpalatable in the wider public sphere and polity. As a result, Arendt’s notion of democracy appears to allow much greater room for the existence and maintenance of difference.
On the whole, then, Morey’s talk cast thoughtful light on the work of these two thinkers. It sought neither to venerate nor to dismiss their claims wholesale, but instead probed the many differences in their starting points and claims. In the end, Myrdal and Arendt’s positions seemed so divergent that it was hard not to regard them as “two ships passing in the night”—despite their common abhorrence of racial segregation.
You can view Maribel Morey's talk and the ensuing discussion on the Hannah Arendt Center website, here.
Maribel Morey's essay, "Reassessing Hannah Arendt's 'Reflections on Little Rock' (1959)" was published in the Journal of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. You can sign in with a password to read the article here.
African Americans were imprisoned at roughly four times the rate of whites in the U.S. at the dawn of the civil rights era. Today it is seven times. How can we explain this persistent—indeed, widening—disparity in rates of incarceration? Are contemporary patterns of imprisonment merely the incidental byproduct of economic restructuring, intensive policing, and stiffer sentencing guidelines? Or are they rather the latest development in a lengthy history of American racial conflict and subjugation? Does the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans even represent the continuation of chattel slavery and state-sanctioned segregation?
These questions tread fraught moral and political terrain, and they invite the construction of overdrawn parallels and facile analogies. After all, present-day African American inmates are not born into bondage in the same way slaves were, and racial hierarchy today is not legally codified in the fashion it was under slavery and Jim Crow. Nevertheless, a few scholars have recently insisted that American penal institutions play a decisive role in long-running patterns of racial formation and social control.
Probably the most prominent work in this school of thought is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), which offers a sweeping indictment of the War on Drugs and its impact on African American men. Another less acclaimed but finer-grained study is that of historian Robert Perkinson, whose book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (2010) traces the history of incarceration in one of the bastions of the American South.
I intend to devote my next few contributions to the Arendt Center blog to Perkinson’s book, which offers a bracing, accessible, and generally well argued account of American criminal justice. His work, while not equating enslavement and imprisonment in any superficial manner, goes a long way toward demonstrating the deep connections between slavery and imprisonment.
In Texas’s case, these connections are rooted in the state’s long-standing commitment to forced labor as the essence of incarceration. Whereas northern penal institutions have often sought to reclaim offenders through confinement and discipline, Texas’s penal institutions have focused on putting prisoners to work for revenue-generating purposes and paid little heed to reformist ideals of rehabilitation. In the 1850s, for example, the state penitentiary at Huntsville specialized in the for-profit production of cotton and wool fabrics, and during the Civil War its inmates became the chief textile manufacturers and suppliers for the Confederate army. Up to this point, the vast majority of the state’s inmates were white, given that the state’s 1848 penal code prescribed whipping and other forms of sanguinary punishment, but not incarceration, for slaves and “free persons of color.”
With emancipation in 1865, however, Texas prison demographics shifted dramatically as increasing numbers of former slaves were sentenced to prison terms, often for minor offenses on the basis of flimsy evidence. These black convicts—and their Mexican and Native American counterparts—were rarely detained in the state’s main penitentiaries; instead, they were deployed on public works projects or agricultural plantations around the state. (American popular imagery of chain gangs and hoe squads, epitomized in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, hearkens back to the Reconstruction era in Texas and other southern states.) Impressed and largely nonwhite convict labor thereby played a key role in the construction of the state’s railroads and other infrastructure, and it contributed significantly to the lucrative production of cotton and sugar. Indeed, most of the plantations on which these prisoners labored had been worked by slaves only a few years before.
This use of involuntary labor reached its apotheosis in “convict leasing,” the term used in the later nineteenth century to describe the state’s hiring out of imprisoned workers to private contractors. These leases were initially concluded on a piecemeal basis, but in 1871 one Galveston firm, Ward, Dewey & Co., paid $325,000 to take possession of the entire Texas penal system and every state prisoner, more than half of whom were former slaves. (The proliferation of for-profit prisons in the past few decades is thus not the first time that American carceral institutions have been privatized.) Although Ward, Dewey & Co. agreed to treat “all convicts with care and humanity,” the living and working conditions they provided shocked many state supervisors and other observers. At least one of them regarded the company’s management as “a system of vilest slavery” (Perkinson, p. 93).
Yet even when the Texas government regained full control of its penal system in 1883, it did not abandon the pursuit of profit as much as bring it under state control. Among the most significant steps, Texas established its own state-run prison farms, which did not merely grow cash crops with unpaid convict labor, but carried on work traditions that bore striking resemblances to the era of convict leasing and, ultimately, plantation slavery. State-run farms remained a mainstay of the Texas penal system as late as the 1970s, and even as periodic reforms led to modest (if often short-lived) improvements in living conditions, they continued to be organized in starkly racialized terms: largely black prisoners labored involuntarily under the supervision of armed, largely white prison personnel.
Perkinson’s careful attention to the nineteenth century brings the phenomena of slavery and imprisonment into close proximity, and it demonstrates how early forms of incarceration in Texas bore the imprint of the South’s “peculiar institution.” It thereby sets the stage for the developments in the twentieth century, when Texas became one of the nation’s leaders—and models—in matters of mass incarceration. I shall take up the threads of this narrative in my next blog, which will also consider some of the implications of imprisonment for our understandings of civil liberty and democracy.
There has been much attention paid to the arguments before the Supreme Court concerning the 2010 health care law. And such attention is entirely justified, for the upcoming decision will have a decisive impact on the availability and quality of medical care for millions of Americans. But we should not forget another question that has recently come before the Court: whether it is constitutional for states to sentence juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole.
This case raises important questions not only about the purpose of criminal prosecution and incarceration, but also about our conceptions of personhood and the legal, moral, and other boundaries we construct between youth and adulthood. These issues have been on my mind a great deal these days: as part of my work with the Bard Prison Initiative, I am currently teaching a writing-oriented anthropology course entitled “Youth and Youth Politics” to two groups of incarcerated students. But they came even more pointedly to the fore as I was listening to the March 24th edition of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” This broadcast reported on a recent gathering that brought families of victims together with families of offenders sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. Significantly, all those in attendance hope that the Supreme Court would declare such sentences unconstitutional.
If you have not already heard the report, I would recommend that you take a listen (and not merely read the text available on the NPR website). Aside from the power of the emotions expressed, I appreciate the way it neatly outlines and complicates the terms of debate. On the one hand, it presents the viewpoint of Scott Burns, head of the National District Attorneys Association, who sketches the potential reasons for long criminal sentences in starkly dichotomous terms. “Is it the goal [of prosecution and incarceration] to rehabilitate someone to see if they change? Or is the goal to do justice for the victims and others?” He inclines to the latter position, as is evident in the brief he filed that urged the Court not to overturn life sentences without parole.
On the other hand, the NPR report also includes the perspective of people like Mary Johnson, a mother whose son was shot and killed at a party by a sixteen-year-old boy. In the immediate aftermath, she regarded her son’s killer as an “animal”: “I wanted him charged with first-degree murder, imprisoned for the rest of his life.” But she now contends that retribution and rehabilitation cannot be easily separated from one another, and she suggests that offenders should not be defined for the entirety of their lives by the crimes they committed as young people.
This report does not offer nuanced arguments for one position or another on the constitutionality of life sentences without parole. But by providing a vivid account of how some people have sought to work through, and live with, the conundrums of “juvenile crime,” it offers a useful starting point for reflecting on our own moral intuitions.
You can listen to the excerpt here.
U.S. involvement in twentieth-century warfare has mobilized conceptions of American nationhood in ways that have blurred, affirmed, and redrawn the boundaries of collective belonging in complex ways. That was the central message of Richard Slotkin’s lecture, “The War Bargain: Military Conflict and the Democratization of American Citizenship,” held at Bard College on Thursday, March 22nd. Slotkin, an emeritus professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, has written extensively on the role of the frontier in American national mythology. During this talk, however, he was primarily concerned with the “platoon movie,” a genre of 1940s Hollywood film that relied on the small military unit to envision a pluralist, multiracial America.
In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most political figures and public commentators defined America as a white if not pointedly Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation that secured its standing as a civilized polity, in no small part, through its frontier conquests of “savage” Indian and Latino populations. As Slotkin noted, a similarly racialist conception of American nationhood also prevailed in the years leading up to World War I. Although at the time more than one third of U.S. residents had been born abroad, the federal government continued to define the American nation as a community of common blood and bodily constitution in a manner that excluded most immigrant and minority groups.
This conception of nationhood began to shift with American participation in World War I. Slotkin argued that the need to raise “an army of millions” compelled the federal government to incorporate recent immigrant and non-white minority populations into the country’s military forces. In order to achieve such incorporation, key federal agencies constructed a new social bargain that promised to reward loyal military service with new forms of national inclusion. In the process, they redefined the American nation along liberal egalitarian and hyphenated lines. Immigrant and minority soldiers could thereby proclaim themselves American while continuing to affiliate with their ancestral groups and countries of origin.
This bargain proved tremendously successful: Blacks, Jews, Italians, and Irish enlisted in disproportionate numbers, even when they were not naturalized U.S. citizens. But Slotkin contended that it was also marked by telling contradictions and concerted opposition. On the one hand, the new conception of American pluralism went hand in hand with a racially tinged demonization of the German enemy. Indeed, wartime propaganda did not so much repudiate as recycle prevailing American stereotypes by attributing animalistic Black sexuality, Asian deviousness, and cunning Jewish self-interest to the German people. On the other hand, the new dispensation contributed to a significant racist backlash: the years following the war witnessed a spate of race rioting and lynching, often with Black veterans among the targets, while increased efforts to exclude Jews and Eastern Europeans culminated in the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act.
These efforts to re-conceive the nation and its military forces resurfaced in the platoon movies of the 1940s, when the federal government once again sought to rally the nation’s varied constituencies to the war effort. Hollywood producers, in cooperation with federal agencies like the Office of War Information, created films like Bataan (1943) and Sahara (1943), which portrayed America’s military units as cohesive social worlds in which racial integration appeared self-evident. As Slotkin rightly observed, these films’ inclusion of Asian and Black soldiers was particularly radical given that actually existing military units were still segregated along racial lines, as were many of the theaters in which audiences viewed the movies.
Nevertheless, Slotkin argued, these films continued to deploy figures of racial animosity in at least two ways. First, a predilection for ethnic and racial hatred was projected onto the Nazi or Japanese enemy in a manner that justified the American war effort and the films’ imagining of national pluralism. And second, white soldiers in these films did impugn the Japanese (in particular) in overtly racist ways, but such diatribes were commonly accompanied by imagery of American transracial cooperation or of Asian soldiers who turned a blind eye to anti-Japanese racism. In the end, then, these films retained a racialist idiom, but they also cast it as more palatable and legitimate than the one adopted by America’s foes.
What precisely do we mean when we use the term “genocide”? Has the word always been associated with the mass killing of individuals on the basis of their group affiliation? Or have there been alternative conceptions of genocide of which we should be aware?
These questions were at the heart of the Hannah Arendt Center’s latest Lunchtime Talk, which occurred amid picturesque snowfall on Wednesday, February 29th. The presenter was Douglas Irvin, a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers’ Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Irving's talk revolved around the work of the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959).
After escaping from Nazi-occupied Poland and lecturing at the University of Stockholm, Lemkin emigrated to the U.S., served as an advisor at the Nuremberg Trials, and played a central role in the passage of the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention. Indeed, Lemkin was the first public figure to use the term “genocide,” which he derived from the Greek root genus (family, race, or tribe) and the Latin root, cide (killing).
Lemkin and Arendt were contemporaries with overlapping experiences and interests, but they engaged very little with one another in print (aside, perhaps, from a few allusions and anonymous criticisms). Irvin contends that there are good reasons for this lack of dialogue, since the two differed significantly in their views of genocide and humanity more broadly.
On the one hand, Arendt regarded genocide as a historically recent outgrowth of modern totalitarianism. According to Irvin, this understanding was in keeping with her more general conception of the human cosmos, which ultimately emerged through, and was grounded in, individual interactions within the arena of the polis.
Lemkin, by contrast, regarded genocide as a much older phenomenon, one that was premised not on the destruction of individuals on the basis of their group affiliation, but rather on the annihilation of entire cultural traditions and collective identities. Drawing eclectically on the work of seventeenth-century Spanish theologians, romantic thinkers like Johann Gottfried von Herder, and anthropological understandings of cultures as integrated wholes, Lemkin ultimately defined genocide as a coordinated attack on the conditions that make the lives of nations and other collectivities possible.
In this conception, genocide does not necessarily or inevitably entail the mass killing of a group’s members, but rather turns on concerted efforts to obliterate that group’s institutions, language, religious observance, and economic livelihood. In Irvin’s argument, this approach resonated with the broadly communitarian nature of Lemkin’s thought: human existence was in his estimation defined by interactions between culture-bearing groups, and human freedom could ultimately be secured through the benevolent recognition and protection of cultural pluralism.
Significantly, the U.N. Genocide Convention that Lemkin championed did not incorporate many aspects of his thinking. His ideas encountered strong resistance from the U.S., U.K., and other imperial powers, many of which feared that their treatment of indigenous and colonial populations would qualify as genocide under the standards that Lemkin (and his collaborators) proposed. As a result, our current understanding of genocide is in no small part a byproduct of a diplomatic battle to redefine this legal category in a fashion that would encompass the Nazi Holocaust but not implicate other states (including several of the Allied powers that fought against Germany in World War II). This wrangling has also contributed to the minimal attention that has since been paid to Lemkin’s ideas, which were only rediscovered in a significant way in the early 1990s.
Douglas Irvin’s stimulating talk suggested that such inattention is unfortunate. Whatever one thinks of Lemkin’s effort to inscribe a form of cultural relativity into liberal international law, a more thoughtful understanding of his life and thought can only enrich our understanding of genocide’s career as a concept.
Click here to watch the Douglas Irvin lunchtime talk.
The Constitutional Council, France’s highest court, will soon issue a ruling with significant implications for how we think about free speech, violence, and collective memory. The ruling, due by the end of February, will determine whether French lawmakers can criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Legislation to this effect passed the French National Assembly in December 2011 and the Senate just last month, but the Council agreed to rule on the constitutionality of the provision after inquiries from dozens of parliamentarians. President Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated that he will sign the bill into law if and when it reaches his desk, but he cannot do so until the court announces its decision. The geopolitical implications of this ruling are potentially far-reaching, for it may decisively shape Turkey’s relationship with the European Union and other states in the Middle East. But the ruling’s cultural and philosophical ramifications are significant as well, for they raise important questions about public discourse and collective memory not simply within but also across national boundaries.
The bill that would criminalize Armenian genocide denial was introduced in the National Assembly by Valérie Boyer, a parliamentarian from Marseilles who is affiliated, like Sarkozy, with the center-right Union for a Popular Movement. It would require a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 Euros (approximately $59,000) for “those who have praised, denied, or roughly and publicly downplayed genocidal crimes, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.” Significantly, the legislation does not specifically mention the mass killings of Armenians, but the only other instance of genocide recognized by the French government is the Holocaust, and its denial is already defined as a criminal act under another law. Despite the bill’s generic formulation, then, its effective point of reference is rather targeted.
Members of the French opposition have charged that the bill constitutes a cynical effort to curry favor with the country’s sizable Armenian population in advance of this spring’s presidential elections. Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, meanwhile, has opposed the legislation because he believes it will hinder efforts to maintain Turkish cooperation on urgent matters of state, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the ongoing government crackdown in Syria.
But the bill’s proponents deny that they have any ulterior motives in either the national or international arena: Boyer insists that genocide is a general human concern that stands “over and above politics,” while Sarkozy asserts that the bill is in “no way aimed at any state or people in particular.” In this respect, the legislation and its overt rationale are consistent with an important strand of the French republican tradition, one that equates the nation and polity with a commitment to universal principles.
Given the state’s ideological position, it should come as no surprise that Turkish responses to the legislation have been hostile. The national government, led by the center-right Justice and Development Party, has suspended many of Turkey’s diplomatic, economic, and military relations with France, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has dismissed the bill as an instance of “evident discrimination, racism, and massacre of free speech.” In addition, Erdoğan has accused France of its own unacknowledged genocide during the era of colonial rule in Algeria, while other lawmakers have insisted that France has failed to confront its unseemly role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Far from regarding the legislation as a universalist condemnation of genocide and genocide denial, then, Turkish state officials have treated it as a direct attack on their national self-regard, and they have been quick to accuse the French government of a pernicious double standard: Sarkozy and his colleagues want Turkey to reckon with its burdened past when France has not scrutinized its own violent (post)colonial history.
On the one hand, I sympathize with the bill’s impulse to engage with past instances of violence. Remembrance of traumatic pasts is not a zero-sum game: attention to one instance of collective violence, such as the murder, deportation, and starvation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, does not prevent or preclude attention to others, such as the assault, torture, and killing that accompanied French colonial domination in Algeria. In fact, as Michael Rothberg suggests, the remembrance of past violence across national and/or imperial contexts “has the potential to create new forms of solidarity and new visions of justice.”
On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the premise that certain forms of public discourse, even those associated with the denial of genocide, should be prohibited by law. I am too committed to liberal thinking to believe that this kind of restriction on free public speech is acceptable, and I have my doubts that it will actually encourage a reasoned understanding—and condemnation—of collective violence in the past, present, and future.
In particular, I am very concerned that this legislation, if it indeed becomes law, will have a chilling effect on ongoing discussion and debate in Turkey.
Turkish state and public institutions have grown a bit more receptive to Kurdish grievances over the past decade, and in November 2011 Prime Minister Erdoğan took the remarkable step of apologizing for army and air force attacks that killed nearly 14,000 Kurds in Dersim (now known as Tunceli) from 1936 to 1939. To be sure, Erdoğan issued this apology as police and military personnel were detaining hundreds if not thousands of Kurdish activists in the state’s renewed counterinsurgency campaign. But we should not neglect the fact that such a pronouncement would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. How ready will Erdoğan’s government be to acknowledge other elements of Turkey’s fraught past if France criminalizes denial of the Armenian genocide? Not very, I suspect.
In the end, then, I support concerted public engagement with the nature and extent of the Armenian genocide in France, Turkey, and elsewhere. Precisely for this reason, however, I also oppose the criminalization of Armenian genocide denial.
For more discussion of the transnational politics of memory, I highly recommend Michael Rothberg’s book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in an Age of Decolonization (Stanford University Press, 2009).
- Jeff Jurgens
Adam Gopnik’s piece in the January 30th edition of The New Yorker, “The Caging of America,” offers sober and sobering commentary on our country’s predilection for mass incarceration. Gopnik passionately denounces the indifference if not callous disregard that many Americans exhibit toward prisons and prisoners, and he unsettles some of the rigid certainties that dog run-of-the-mill discussions of criminal justice. And yet my appreciation is also mixed with a degree of unease, in no small part because his rendering of the experience of incarceration strikes me as one-sided. This one-sidedness in turn has implications for how we might conduct public conversations about this vital facet of contemporary American life.
Full disclosure: I am not a prison activist or expert, and I have never been imprisoned. I instead write as an anthropologist and educator with the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that offers a rigorous liberal arts education to incarcerated students in five New York prisons.
This work affords me a measure of insight into the social dynamics of American incarceration, but my angle of vision is also (inevitably) limited and partial. I therefore approach this topic with considerable humility, but as shall become clear, such humility is precisely my point.
Many of us tend to think of imprisonment first and foremost in terms of physical confinement, but one of the real strengths of Gopnik’s article is his attention to the centrality of time. Indeed, the nature of American prison life gives new meaning to the “empty, homogeneous time” that Walter Benjamin diagnosed as a hallmark of modern existence. In Gopnik’s words:
“It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates…. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.”
My own experience with BPI certainly attests to this tyranny of time. Two of my students once asked if they could remove the clock from the classroom wall so that they would not have to look at it. They explained that time would pass faster this way, and making the time pass, in whatever way possible, was one of their chief concerns.
Yet even as inmates recognize the heavy weight of carceral time, many insist that they are not powerless in the face of it. As another of my students noted, inmates urge one another to take control of their situation to the extent that they are able. “You do the time,” the common injunction apparently goes. “Don’t let the time do you.” That is to say, many inmates aspire to endure and even exert a measure of autonomy, despite the regimentation, dreariness, and pain that often pervade their existence.
Gopnik says too little for my taste about this dimension of incarceration. I sympathize with his claim that “the scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life." And he is right to emphasize the anxiety, boredom and fear that so often suffuse prison life, just as he is to note the frequency of physical violence, including rape, committed by and against prisoners. But we do a disservice to inmates if we believe that they are entirely at the mercy of the institutions in which they reside—and that the time they serve is merely (to paraphrase Gopnik) “something being done to them.” Most of the inmates I know through BPI seek actively to give shape and direction to the time during and after their imprisonment. They are not defeated and destroyed by their current circumstances, but acutely reflective and articulate about them.
We would do well not merely to hold incarcerated men and women accountable for the offenses they have committed, but also to include their perspectives in necessary public deliberation over the ongoing epidemic of incarceration. They have inhabited and negotiated social worlds that many Americans cannot readily imagine, and they could contribute a great deal to debates where glib self-assurance and easy moralizing are far too common.
There is a pressing need for a more nuanced and democratic conversation about the state of American prisons, particularly when the poor and people of color bear the brunt of incarceration. But such a conversation will not happen if we disqualify current and former inmates from public discussion, either because we believe we know what prison is like and can therefore speak for them, or because we believe that they are not worthy or capable of participating.