Blog Archive

Blog Archive – July, 2020

Who Will Come to America's Aid?

July 22, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            USA needs help. Let’s face it: our democratic institutions aren’t working well; our president is behaving like a depraved, spiteful monarch; our police, with almost 19,000 independent units nationwide, are unmanageable; our unprecedented social and economic divides are growing; the health of our citizens is declining; new digital platforms are sources of unprecedented hate and threats; media is so polarized, we don’t know whom to believe. (Then there’s the Covid-19 pandemic.)

            HEEEELP!

            Across the globe, wherever a nation is in crisis—by hurricane or earthquake, mounting disease or plunging poverty, military attack or teetering government--- whether requested or not, others are alerted and assistance from abroad is mobilized. The U.S. (as projected by American media) is in the forefront of concern for others (except those on its sanctions list— e.g. North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, Yemen). Genuine humanitarian aid is dispatched from NGOs and private, religious and government agencies. Assistance flows in cash, in materials and advisors, observers and medical experts (along with military intelligence and troops where it’s determined to be advantageous to American policy).

            Today America itself is a nation under internal threat, and in dire need. Along with signs that the U.S. healthcare system and its leaders cannot control the Covid-19 disease, more examples of police brutality are exposed. Underpinning and exacerbating both ailments is political instability (although few would identify it as such).

            If Americans will not admit that they’re engulfed by this unprecedented crisis, outside observers note it with growing alarm. Countries close their borders to Americans while the pandemic spirals out of control. Across the world, people are questioning the very idea of American democracy. Longtime U.S. allies are flummoxed by its unpredictable foreign policy. Even before these multiple crises emerged, commentators pondered our teetering democracy

            We’ve had flawed, embarrassing state primary elections in Georgia and Wisconsin; we had the Democratic National Committee interrupt the presidential primaries to install its preferred candidate Joe Biden. Public doubts are increasing about how November’s election can be legitimately conducted. Every week presents us with more fears about this democracy. Management of the pandemic is undermined when the CDC, one of America’s most highly regarded health agencies, is bypassed by a White House order to divert medical data to a branch of Homeland Security. Most recently we have unidentified paramilitaries circumventing state and local authorities to confront protesters, first in D.C, now in Portland. with threats of similar directives to other cities.

            This slide towards greater political instability looks unstoppable.

            Another country experiencing a similar crisis will surely be the object of outside assistance, or interference. There’ll be offers of economic assistance, dispatch of intelligence advisors; international peacekeepers might be sent; a U.N. Security Council resolution would be proposed.

            But who will help America? Who could? In 2007 Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez donated heating oil to American families struggling through the winter months. Cuba’s offer of help early in the Covid-19 crisis was spurned, (while from its side Washington blocked Chinese assistance to Cuba, interfered with a shipment to France and essentially commandeered a Chinese Covid-19-related supplies meant for Canada ).

            I can think of just three states—Israel, Australia and the U.K.-- who might offer assistance. Israel is a dependable training site for American police, and a highly valued intelligence service for the U.S. Australia maintains an opaque but firm military alliance with America, readily falling in with the Pentagon’s needs. On intelligence sharing, the U.K is a solid partner. Although one wonders how much economic assistance England could offer, preoccupied with its own pandemic. Plans for new U.S.-U.K. trade agreements to thwart the European Union are delayed. As for guidance from England on democracy, its parliamentary system differs markedly from U.S. federalism and few British understand America’s election processes. The White House occupant might reach out to Russia, but that would raise other problems, even among Republicans.

            What about India? Historically beset by discord between two major ethnic groups, multi-cultural India might be a model. But the rise of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Modi has been fiercely uncompromising. Advice from India is out.

            Maybe South Africa would step up to help. The U.S. backed the anti-apartheid struggle there, and South Africa’s victory established an exemplary racial reconciliation system.

            Scanning the rest of Africa, the Middle East, and South America, we fine few candidates who might help us out.

            But wait! We have billionaires, lots of them—609 out of 2,208 globally.

             Billionaire Michael Bloomberg and his peer Apple’s Tim Cook responded to Governor Cuomo’s call for help during New York’s Covid-19 crisis, and George Soros promises more support for Black Americans’ struggle for justice. Some very wealthy Americans offer to pay more taxes.

            An alternative to these proposals: citizens in the streets.

 

 

[ Who Will Come to America's Aid? ]

Soft Power: Americans in Its Grip at Home Must Face the Mischief It Wields

July 12, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

     I suspect most Americans would approve of what they understand to be this nation’s global cultural reach as expressed through its ‘soft power’. A term coined by an American political scientist, soft power “involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction”. Contrasted with coercive measures, it’s achieved largely through cultural means, although nevertheless a feature of foreign policy. Probably as old as politics itself.

     Soft power politics are long-term, sociable and gentle. (Certainly nothing dangerous!) To say that they’re ideologically driven would be guileless. Some definitions are less circumspect, describing soft power as “using positive attraction and persuasion to achieve foreign policy objectives”. When at work domestically, it may be akin to kneeling-softly-on-the-neck, persuading Americans how this is a land of equality and unparalleled freedom.

     U.S. citizens may even consider America’s soft power abroad with pride: “This is how we’re helping others-- securing democratic principles, sharing advanced (sic) intellectual, medical and cultural resources. American films, so popular (and lucrative) globally, augmented by satellite-enabled news and entertainment channels are, I would argue, among the most effective examples of this power. Music and literature cannot be excluded too.

     Boosting commercially-driven exports are government-funded programs like Peace Corps, high school scholarships, youth exchanges, anthropological research and conferences. All proceed at an undiminished pace, whichever party rules. These programs also carry that ‘cold light of reason’ imparted to foreign peoples held to be short on ‘objectivity’ or ‘reason’. Implicit in this largesse is an intellectual and aesthetic superiority on the part of the donor.

     Globally, tens of millions indiscriminately embrace soft power projects originating in European (white) nations. They search them out and compete for any awards offered. Soft power programs can foster the belief in people that their own government is evil, hopeless— at least uncaring -- leading such romantics to conclude it should be overthrown-- if not internally, then by an invading force. They feel they are a doomed, emotional people unable to advance as long as they live in the smothering atmosphere of ‘tradition’ and of ‘tribalism’. To escape they must remodel their hair, learn to wear neckties and speak correctly, eat with a fork and acquire quality foreign accoutrements—from mountain bikes, Cuisinart toasters and Victoria’s Secret underwear, to Boeing fighter jets.

     Let’s face it: that cultural bounty and the fabulous stuff associated with it is propaganda. Originator of the term soft power, Joseph Nye, admits “the best propaganda is not propaganda".

     What’s propaganda and what’s not is an ongoing debate. Leading American critics of imperialism as it’s dispensed via soft power include Edward Said, Malcolm X and Cornel West. They join generations of intellectuals and dissenters warning of its hazards. Across the world the destructive impact of that soft power is not wholly unopposed. Political prisoners and martyrs, armed rebels—women and men engage in the eternal struggle to lift off the imperial “knee on their neck”—both its soft and coercive iterations.

      That oppressive “knee on their neck” has become the symbol of the American police state, manifest so compellingly and undeniably in the famous video of George Floyd’s murder.

     America’s Black, Brown and Native populations are familiar with the brute force of that killer knee. They equally recognize the effectiveness of the knee’s soft power (unnoticed by others) in maintaining the status quo. The soft knee works into centuries of renegotiated treaties, temporary fixes, pleas for more time; it resists reform; it offers gratuitous sympathy, compromises and inclusion programs. Soft power is powerfully seductive, reinforced among all classes by a steady diet of Hollywood’s white savior tropes.

     Often people are mollified by small gains and minor adjustments. Many become weary; they simply surrender. She learns to hold her breath, turn her eyes down and rush away to weep and scream in private. Daughter removes her head covering; brother marries out of his faith, shaves his beard; mother joins a temple or mosque.

     Demanding real change is very risky. In 2016, a short-lived event although less dramatic than the removal of an inglorious military statue poignantly carries the weight of America’s soft-power-enforced history. Corey Menafee, a longtime kitchen employee at Yale University regularly passed under an image, a stained glass window which others, if they even noticed it, may have viewed as inconsequential, a quaint reference to the distant past. But Menafee’s ire rose each time he thought about it. He may have vowed to either leave his job or formally appeal for the image’s removal. To Menafee, it was a symbol of his enslaved ancestors and a romanticization of America’s crime of racism. That image of Black women cotton pickers reminded this man of the exploitation of his people: -- a crime neither recognized, seen nor felt by others.

     Surely knowing it would cost him dearly Menafee made a courageous decision: he smashed the window. That supreme act may seem reckless but to this Black American-- to anyone who knows the insult that that image speaks and the risk involved in challenging it-- it’s a big deal, a very big deal.

     This kind of protest, a mark of the Black American movement’s mission, compels us to recognize the seemingly innocuous effect of the soft power we inhale every day. That unchallenged window in a reputedly liberal university suggested that there’s no political implication there; it’s just art, just culture, decorative and hardly noteworthy.

     To Black Americans it is an agonizing image, one of millions existing across our cultural and linguistic landscape. It’s more egregious, the rising call to action more urgent, because whites do not perceive their racial implications. That window remained embedded in the wall, year after year, generation after generation, seen by thousands of smart (sic) people while its hurtful and humiliating power went unopposed.

     Al Sharpton, in his peerless eulogy at George Floyd’s memorial in Minneapolis, helped define American history for us this way:

     “George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to being is you kept your knee on our neck. We were smarter then the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck. We could run corporations and not hustle in the street, but you had your knee on our neck. We had creative skills, we could do whatever anybody else could do, but we couldn’t get your knee off our neck. What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services, and in every area of American life, it’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say get your knee off our necks. That’s the problem no matter who you are. We thought maybe we had […], maybe it was just us, but even blacks that broke through, you kept your knee on that neck. Michael Jordan won all of these championships, and you kept digging for mess because you got to put a knee on our neck. White housewives would run home to see a black woman on TV named Oprah Winfrey and you messed with her because you just can’t take your knee off our neck. A man comes out of a single parent home, educates himself and rises up and becomes the President of the United States and you ask him for his birth certificate because you can’t take your knee off our neck. The reason why we are marching all over the world is we were like George, we couldn’t breathe, not because there was something wrong with our lungs, but that you wouldn’t take your knee off our neck. We don’t want no favors, just get up off of us and we can be and do whatever we can be.”

     That knee on the neck is more than a physical force. It’s the cultural conditioning, the light of cold reason, the deflection, the imbibed message that Blacks are not quite up to the arbitrary standard set and maintained within soft (white) power. That folksy depiction of women in the cotton field is simply a pleasing piece of art. The slave supporting the warrior that crowns a national museum is just an aesthetic compliment to its central (white) figure! African and Muslim headwear is impractical. Lungi wraps on men are unprofessional. And on and on.

     Soft power is so dominant and simultaneously appears so innocuous, so embedded and integrated into white privilege and white’s assumptions of their dominant historical place that they fail to see its propaganda. It also works on newcomers, notably Asian and Arab immigrants, who buy into the American dream. Having absorbed a steady diet of soft power in their homelands, they easily sanction and join the American status quo.

     (Anthropologists --and I am one--are slow to admit their role in advancing the soft power of imperialism. After all, anthropology itself emerged hand-in-hand with the expansion of European imperial rule. We might do better to turn our analytical skills to exposing the soft-knee-on-the neck and vigorously work to demolish it.)  END

[ Soft Power: Americans in Its Grip at Home Must Face the Mischief It Wields ]


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