Voting and the question of meaningful change

Just now I was browsing through my favourite news site (commondreams.org) and I realized most of the pieces are on the US election. Commondreams is a more leftist site, and so most of these articles tend to be pro-Obama. It got me thinking, for the millionth time, why so many American progressives/leftists are ignoring all of Obama’s faults in a series of desperate bids to win him this election? We get it: Romney would be worse. But Obama is far from what these leftists/progressives stand for. To many outsiders, it seems like the US system just keeps reproducing itself with a new face every 4-8 years. Whether that’s Clinton, Bush, Obama, or Romney, it’s likely that the US will continue to be a negative force in the global geopolitical arena, with wars, drones, and continued economic dominance over other countries.

Then I started thinking about Egypt’s last presidential election, between Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Morsi. And realized I was kind of being a hypocrite. During that election, which many Egyptians saw as having to choose between two horrible candidates, it was traumatic to have to support either the Muslim Brotherhood or the regime the 2011 revolution tried to bring down. And the question that kept coming up was: WHY? Why are we in this position, one year after having a revolution? Why do we have to choose between these two candidates when we know Egypt has so much more to offer?

The answer is that the system is too strong. In the US and in Egypt, widespread discontent with policies are not enough to bring about change. In Egypt even a revolution wasn’t enough to ensure that we could choose between more than just two Mubarak-era figures. The US seems to be in a similar situation, where the system is proving to be much stronger than the people. In the end, we are left with these ‘choices’ that are supposed to convince us that we live in a ‘democracy.’ But really, what’s the difference? Is Shafiq that different from Morsi? Were either of them actually going to bring about social justice, dignity, bread and freedom – the main demands of the revolution? Are either Romney or Obama going to create an economic system in the US that is fair and just? Are they going to end discrimination? Are they going to prevent the US from continuing to be an imperialist force int he world that brings death and destruction to countless people? Or are the institutions and class interests too strong to be influenced by the people through a system of voting?

In the words of Jean Paul Sartre,

When I vote, I abdicate my power — that is, the possibility everyone has of joining others to form a sovereign group, which would have no need of representatives. By voting I confirm the fact that we, the voters, are always other than ourselves and that none of us can ever desert the seriality in favor of the group, except through intermediaries. For the serialized citizen, to vote is undoubtedly to give his support to a party. But it is even more to vote for voting, as Kravetz says; that is, to vote for the political institution that keeps us in a state of powerless serialization.

Since by voting I affirm my institutionalized powerlessness, the established majority does not hesitate to cut, trim, and manipulate the electoral body in favor of the countryside and the cities that “vote the right way” — at the expense of the suburbs and outlying districts that “vote the wrong way.”

I’ve heard countless people say “Not voting means giving up your power.” Really? What power, exactly? Can’t the act of voting itself be seen as giving up one’s power?

I remember myself clearly telling people that Morsi was horrible, but he was better than Shafiq. It was better to have someone like him than to bring the regime back to power. And I guess that’s what many American leftists are doing by supporting Obama: pointing out that while Obama has faults, Romney would be much worse.

But is this it? Is this just the reality of politics? We accept the fact that we actually don’t have power, and that decisions are made behind closed doors? Accept the fact that even revolutions aren’t always powerful enough to change things?

Why am I going to vote? Because I have been persuaded that the only political act in my life consists of depositing my ballot in the box once every four years? But that is the very opposite of an act. I am only revealing my powerlessness and obeying the power of a party. Furthermore, the value of my vote varies according to whether I obey one party or another.

Actually, everything is quite clear if one thinks it over and reaches the conclusion that indirect democracy is a hoax. To vote or not to vote is all the same. To abstain is in effect to confirm the new majority, whatever it may be. Whatever we may do about it, we will have done nothing if we do not fight at the same time — and that means starting today — against the system of indirect democracy which deliberately reduces us to powerlessness. We must try, each according to his own resources, to organize the vast anti-hierarchic movement which fights institutions everywhere.

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The Power of Discourse

A few weeks ago,  I woke up to the news that Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year old Iraqi refugee in America, died after being beaten by a group who entered her home. The mother of five was found with a note that read: “Go back to your country. You are a terrorist.” Read more here. (The story seems to have changed now; it is no longer clear who killed her. I’ll keep the example however since it illustrates the point I’m trying to make.)

My first reaction was to think of Trayvon Martin, a similarly racialized crime that happened very recently. I then began to think of the many discourses (or not so many, actually) that are present in the west about Muslims, Arabs, the Middle East, and Iraq. These discourses inevitably lead to some sort of violence against these groups, whether symbolic or actual. When entire groups are dehumanized or painted in a negative way, the risk of them being attacked/marginalized is huge. Someone tweeted that they hold everyone who is Islamophobic and spread these discourses in society personally accountable for what happened to Shaima, and I completely agree. Discourses & ideas are not just abstract things that float above us – they form us and impact our behaviour. They are very, very real.

Then I began to think of the Middle East, and the way the Salafis have spread their ideology during the past 30 years to the point of it constituting several major discourses in society. If we argue that Islamophobia lead to Shaima’s death, then shouldn’t we also be self-critical and question how certain Salafi ideas are leading to the dehumanization & marginalization of specific groups in Egypt, including the Copts, women, and liberals? It is clear tat Egypt has become increasingly conservative, largely due to the funding coming from Saudi/Qatar as well as the millions of Egyptians that went there to work during the oil boom. What kinds of discourses did they bring back? How did these discourses spread through society? How do they impact people in a very real way?

A final example is in the Netherlands, where discourses about Muslims/Moroccans/Turks/Surinamese etc are overwhelmingly negative. Some of my Dutch liberal friends *somehow* think these discourses are just “annoying little things that don’t really mean anything.” I beg to differ. These discourses are what led to what happened to Shaima, are what justified the invasion of Afghanistan & Iraq, are what cause many Dutch people to make extremely racist remarks and think it’s okay since they’re just saying what they think. These discourses hurt people, they marginalize people, they put people into boxes that are difficult to get out of.

As Foucalt said, discourses do not constitute themselves. They are produced by us & at the same time produce us. This makes them much more powerful than we think.

The Islamophobia Industry

Just came across an amazing blog called “muslimerican” and found this great post on the Islamophobia Industry in the US:

It would be hard for anyone to ignore the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. (If you hadn’t noticed it, this horrifying video will bring you up to speed.) The transition seemed to begin during the 2008 presidential campaign, when a segment of the Republican party used Islam as a smear against Democratic candidate Barack Obama. In 2010, the “ground zero mosque” controversy went further, establishing Islamophobia as a force to be reckoned with in mainstream American politics. While this seemed inevitable to some people, it was not a natural development; this was the the triumph of a well-oiled PR campaign.

In the last couple of decades, a full-blown industry has developed before our eyes, driven by best-selling authors, prominent media personalities, influential nonprofit organizations and terrorism “experts” all bent on portraying Islam and Muslims as threats to the United States. These voices include non-Muslims, ex-Muslims, and even a few self-styled “devout Muslims”.

He also adds some great links for anyone interested in the subject:

Sheila Musaji at The American Muslim (TAM) has taken the time to create a list examining almost every major anti-Muslim personality in the US. This is the most exhaustive tally I’ve seen, and it is being updated continuously: “A Who’s Who of the Anti-Muslim/Anti-Arab/Islamophobia Industry“.

A second list, compiled by media watchdog FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), is also helpful. “Smearcasters: Islamophobia’s Dirty Dozen” profiles 12 of the most prominent figures in the anti-Muslim industry. If you don’t have time to pore over Musaji’s list, be sure to look at this one; it is much more brief.

Finally, there are four outstanding pieces of journalism that explore the ins and outs of this world, revealing its disturbing influence in law enforcement circles and murky connection to right-wing politics. Pour yourself a cup of tea, get comfortable, and read these essays. What you learn will surprise you.

Psychological colonialism

One of the major ways in which colonialism has continued to exist in our world today is through the mind.  It is unbelievable the way the global system(s) have been moulded to produce peoples who think they are organized in a hierarchy.  The media, capitalism, international relations, consumerism, heteronormativity, racism – all of these have combined to create a world in which every person knows there place.

Yet at the same time, many people who are not at the top of the hierarchy (white, male, older, from certain parts of Europe and the US) do not simply accept their position but struggle against it. We know we’re not less human, even though we’re being told that everyday (implicitly or explicitly). Thus life is a constant struggle where you have to defend your race, gender, nationality, sexuality, preferences to not only those who are prejudiced towards you but to yourself. I’ve experienced so many moments where I’ve questioned myself and my beliefs – are women more emotional than men? is Islam a gender-biased religion? are Arabs culturally backwards? And then the tremendous guilt that comes with that because I shouldn’t be asking those questions. But I’m socialized to believe certain things about certain groups, and it is a constant battle to tell myself that these things are social constructions.

Who is an Aryan?

A friend recently told me about an experiment done in the 1940s in America.  Two psychiatrists used dolls to study children’s attitudes about race.

They found that black children often preferred to play with white dolls over black; that, asked to fill in a human figure with the color of their own skin, they frequently chose a lighter shade than was accurate; and that the children gave the color “white” attributes such as good and pretty, but “black” was qualified as bad and ugly (click here).

They argued that these results showed that the children had internalized racism caused by being discriminated against and stigmatized by segregation.

Is it really surprising that black children chose to play with white dolls? Or that they saw themselves as lighter than they actually were? Think of what these kids are taught since the moment they are born: what do they see around them, what do they see at school, what do they experience in the public sphere? There are millions of implicit messages being sent to us each day, especially through the media. These play an integral role in defining us and defining our self-image.

Islamophobia

Is it really surprising that so many people are self-deprecating or have an inferiority complex? Are we socialized to have those? Even today I am still shocked to hear Egyptians talk about the US as superior and Egypt as backwards – America, with a history of 500 years and Egypt with a history of 7000 years? Moreover, I find it surprising that people don’t try and understand why we have “more developed” and “less developed” countries today (I hate using those terms but just making the point that some countries are in a better economic and political situation).

How to move past this? How do we stop seeing our own cultures, genders, religions, sexualities as inferior? And even more difficult is to not do what has been done to us: inferiorize others in order to feel better about what is ours. Is the way to feel better about being a woman to put men down, as many radical feminists have done? Is the way to feel better about being a Muslim to emphasize that all non-Muslims are infidels? Surely that’s just reproducing the same racist colonial rhetoric we’ve always been complaining about.

I guess the only way to deal with all of this is to be conscious of how power is used by global systems to produce inequalities and hierarchies, and to constantly be conscious of these, especially when we reproduce them. It’s a constant battle, but it’s better to be aware than to blindly accept and reproduce.