Richard Kim | The Nation

Richard Kim

Richard Kim

 Short takes on politics, culture and life.

The Parable of Balloon Boy

It was all a hoax, a fraud, a cynical and none too well concocted publicity stunt to bolster the Heene family's reality TV cachet. But there was something beautiful about the lie too, for like all lies the balloon boy story provided us with a release from reality, an escape. I don't mean to make light of viewers' fears that six-year-old Falcon Heene's life was in danger as his UFO-shaped vessel floated into the sky. But who can deny the element of wonder and envy evoked by that spectacle?

It seemed a myth from the beginning: the innocent child, guilty only of being too curious, transcending earth to join the heavens. He was too pure, too good for this world. Literature is full of such ascendant figures: Remedios the Beauty from Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude who is too lovely for this world and so one day levitates away while folding laundry; Pascal, the French boy from The Red Balloon (1956), whose devotion to protecting his new friend from a gang of balloon-popping bullies is rewarded when all the balloons in Paris take him for a magical ride; and Jesus who, after his persecution and resurrection, ascends into heaven in front of his eleven disciples to sit at the right hand of God. Then there is the wife of Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, who wrote a book about how her soul took a ride "on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus." According to Miyuki Hatoyama, "It was a very beautiful place, and it was really green."

Frankly, from where I'm standing, Venus sounds like a great place now. Here on Earth, it is increasingly looking like world leaders are going to blow the Copenhagen summit, a moment that Gordon Brown has called the last chance to save our planetary home. In the territorial United States, unemployment is at 10 percent, and while Wall Street makes record bonuses off taxpayer-funded bailouts, jobs are nowhere in sight. Obama may have won a Nobel Peace Prize in part for his talk on eliminating nuclear weapons, but the US Senate hasn't even approved the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. Ninety-nine red balloons go by. Afghanistan and Iraq--every day brings news of the horrors of occupation, and the only choices the US can make are hard ones.

When reality bites, who wouldn't want to gawk at the sight of a child rising into clouds, urge on the dramatic rescue, feel delight at news of his safety (if also a little cheated out of a narrative climax). German philosopher Ernst Bloch considered escapism a necessary element of radical social change; for him the project of dreaming utopia was a political act. But Balloon Boy, I think, represents something else, what Marx called the opiate of the masses. And hence the public's mounting anger at the Heene family for perpetrating this hoax. We were waken from our dream of escape, which itself turned out to be no dream at all, just an earthly machination.

The Aspirational Nobel

I woke up, read the New York Times website and thought I had come to the Onion instead. I hit refresh. Still there: "Obama Wins Nobel for Diplomacy." Maybe this is one of my weird work-related dreams, I thought. Maybe I am still drunk from last night's party. Better close my eyes and wake up again in the real world. Five minutes later...and still no dice.

Yes, Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize. My first reaction is that this is going to be a test of how much crazier Orly Taitz and the Republican Anti-Christers can get. Not only does this prove that Obama is a socialist svengali--because he got the Norwegians to vote for him, probably as part of some UN-takeover of America--it also proves that Obama is piggy. Anti-Christs are so like that; they want everything right now (and losing the 2016 Olympics was just a red herring).

But back in reality, I'm still a little bewildered. It's as if the Nobel Committee gave Obama the award for behaving like a normal American president, instead of like a clueless corrupt cowboy.

The Committee insists this is not an aspirational prize, no carrot to make the United States and its president better neighbors. Thobjorn Jagland, the former prime minister of Norway who chaired this year's committee, insists that it's for work the president has already accomplished, for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."

"We are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future, but for what he has done in the previous year," Jagland said. The announcement, which takes special note of Obama's anti-nukes position, says that Obama has "created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play...thanks to Obama's initiative, the United States is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened."

These Nobel sentiments, however, are aspirational in my view. Obama doesn't deserve the prize, yet.

Yes, the president has said he wants a world free of nuclear weapons, but as Jonathan Schell wrote in our pages, he has a long way to go before that vision becomes reality. That path must include the US Senate ratifying the comprehensive test ban treaty, and even a full court press from the White House can't guarantee that will happen this fall.

Then there's the matter of Obama's multilateralism and partnering with the UN. As Naomi Klein pointed out, the Obama administration, like its predecessor, boycotted the UN Durban anti-racism conference, using the flap over language on Israel-Palestine as an excuse to duck the actual issues about racial justice the conference cautiously raised. As for climate change, Obama has yet to commit to attending the December climate change conference in Copenhagen, and if that jaunt to Denmark is going to succeed in reducing carbon emissions, the US will have to bring a lot more to the table than it is currently offering.

I could go on: fully closing Gitmo and restoring civil liberties and compliance with the Geneva Conventions; negotiating with Iran in good faith; withdrawing from Iraq and, of course, withdrawal from Afghanistan. Escalation, or even maintaining the status quo there, would alone discredit this award in history's eyes.

Obama got a nice vote of confidence from the Norwegians for his promises. But now, he has to actually earn the Nobel with his deeds. That will be hard to do if his administration continues to send such mixed signals on international cooperation and diplomacy.

Ending the Cycle of Presidential Love and Hate

Eyal's post juxtaposes the irrational views an alarming number of Republicans have about Barack Obama (a Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist-Hitler!) with the conspiracy theory--apparently held by 25 percent of Democrats--that Bush let 9/11 happen to justify a march to war. Fair enough, but I'm not sure you need to graze that far afield to find a left-right correspondence.

The first time I encountered a fantastic, fact-proof theory about Obama was during primary season. It was at a debate-watching party where an acquaintance of mine, an Obama-volunteer, hissed at Hillary Clinton's response to a question about same-sex marriage. "She's such a homophobe!" the woman exclaimed. I felt the need to correct the record.

"She's not really any more anti-gay or pro-gay than Obama. Neither of them back gay marriage, for example," I pointed out.

"Obama totally wants gay marriage!" the woman responded.

"That's nowhere in his platform," I said.

"In his heart he does. In his heart he supports gay marriage!" was her fierce retort.

I knew then that there was no point in arguing. She was already committed to feeling a certain way about Obama, and she wasn't going to let reality or the written word diminish her exquisite emotion.

My point: progressives who lionized Obama (and it wasn't just campaign volunteers) as the perfect politician and person--as someone who would single-handedly end war, injustice, racism, militarism and restore American greatness--didn't launch the anti-Obama smears. But they played a role in creating an emotional feedback loop in which every out-sized, irrational, faith-based feeling about Obama is returned and amplified as its mirror--by the nihilistic assertion that he is the devil incarnate set on ending America, for example.

This cult of personality was not something Obama himself, who has tread quite lightly in drawing the analogies to, say, MLK or JFK, cultivated. It was cultivated by progressives and the formerly alienated who wanted a hero to deliver us from Bush, the evil one, a caricature I never liked because it also subscribes to the great-man theory of politics, if only by negation, while it also lets vast sectors of Congress and the media (to begin with) off the hook. It's no surprise then that for every deification of Obama made on inauguration day, a conservative vilification lay in wait. As one lovely piece of mail I received then put it: "Now it is our time to hate."

I'm all for emotions in politics, but maybe it is time to demonstrate some emotional intelligence, and to retire the belief that the presidency represents the source and apogee of politics itself. Maybe it is time to find new objects to love--not leaders, but movements and causes. I'm not suggesting that Republicans will gracefully end their character assassination just because progressives stop hero-worshipping Barack. But some emotional de-escalation and diversification couldn't hurt.

Maybe we can try hating on insurance companies, remember them? Or maybe we can try loving socialized medicine instead? Remember when that was the right-wing boogeyman? Socialized medicine! An emotional tug-of-war over that sounds pretty civil and rational now, doesn't it?

Et Tu, Brüno?

Have you ever been at a polite dinner party and heard, in an exquisitely timed moment of silence, a loud, rasping fart erupt from one of the guests? The ensuing moment is ripe--with feeling. Oh my god, did everyone just hear that? How embarrassing!--for the offender, certainly, and, weirdly, for everyone else as well. Faces flush, molting through a welter of expressions: shock, disgust, feigned ignorance, a suppressed smirk. Finally, hopefully, someone breaks the discomfort with a cackle, and the anxiety is swept away with a hearty shared laugh.

Watching Brüno, the British comic Sacha Baron Cohen's latest mockumentary, is a lot like experiencing that après-fart moment, except it lasts for an excruciating ninety minutes in which the viewer is kept constantly teetering between incredulity, mortification and laughter. It is unpleasant, almost physically painful to watch and also, at times, irresistibly funny. Brüno is a gas!

It is also a whole lot of ass, nipple and cock, especially cocks, which in Brüno come in a variety of forms: flesh and prosthetic, soft and hard, mechanical and human. That's because Brüno is, among other things, Cohen's send-up of gay male culture. Like his other alter-egos, Ali G and Borat, Brüno is an exaggeration of an already exaggerated stereotype, in this case, of a gay Austrian fame whore who, having lost his job as a fashion correspondent for the TV program "Funkyzeit," embarks on an odyssey to become "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler."

Cohen plays Brüno with absolute conviction, as someone utterly genuine about his superficiality, which is to say that Brüno is completely unconvincing as an actual human being, except, of course, to the parade of celebrities, politicians, preachers, agents and just folks Cohen punks along the way. Hence one level of transferred embarrassment cum laughter; you just can't believe so many people were so wholly duped by so obvious a fabrication--and on camera too!

And so Brüno minces, gyrates, strips, sashays and shantè, shantè, shantès through Hollywood, Israel-Palestine, Africa, Wichita, an Alabama military base, ex-gay therapy, a swingers' sex party and a Sherman Oaks salon named Pink Cheeks that specializes in a beautifying treatment known as "anal bleaching." Needless to say, this is not a movie for those with delicate sensibilities.

It is also not for the turgidly politically correct. Since Cohen announced his intent to follow 2006's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan with a queer flick, the guardians of gay identity have been wringing their hands over whether the film will satirize and expose homophobia or merely Make Fun Glorious Nation of Gaymenistan. At least they had advance warning. After Borat hit theaters, the startled Kazakh government responded with full-page newspaper ads and television commercials countering Cohen's portrayal of their homeland as a rural, anti-Semitic backwater whose toothless citizens drink fermented horse urine and have sex with their sisters. Of course, this humorless rejoinder only proved that if ever a country deserved mockery, it's Kazakhstan.

Alas, in 2009, it appears that gays are the new Kazakhs. After viewing a rough cut, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation asked Cohen to film an postscript stressing the importance of gay rights and tolerance, and the Human Rights Campaign implored Universal Pictures to "remind the viewing public right there in the theater that this is intended to expose homophobia." Thankfully, no such tedium was added to the film (although a scene featuring Latoya Jackson was cut from the US version in light of her brother's death).

Undeniably Cohen scores some easy, bawdy laughs at the expense of gay male sex, which Brüno has frequently, acrobatically and with the help of many accessories and aides. One of those is a black baby boy christened OJ, whom Brüno adopts in Africa. Just before OJ is carted away by child protective services, Brüno, an incurable "cockaholic," readily concedes that part of OJ's appeal is that he's a real "dick magnet." All of this (and more!) is revealed on an episode of the Richard Bey Show attended mostly by discerning black women, who arrive ready to cheer on a single gay man and his adopted son only to turn against Bruno, who thinks Africa is a country and claims to have purchased OJ with an IPod.

Among the objects of ridicule in this scene are African vogue, black nationalism, white ignorance, benevolence, Angelina Jolie and Madonna, family values, consumerism, the talk show genre and the compulsion to take self-incriminating digital photos. Given the sheer anarchy Cohen unleashes upon the world, it seems small-minded to complain that this scene trivializes "gay families" or that Brüno engages in "gayface minstrelsy." Cohen is wielding a nuclear bomb, not a sniper rifle. And besides, his gay minstrel act, while it lubricates and connects the film's set pieces, is frankly the least offensive, and thus least interesting, aspect of the movie.

If Brüno is not especially homophobic, does it succeed in satirizing homophobia? Not particularly. Here Brüno falters because Cohen abandons the comic formula that worked to such devastating effect in Borat. As the cultural critic Lauren Berlant pointed out to me, Sacha Baron Cohen borrows heavily from the legendary performance artist, Bugs Bunny, the tricky rabbit who used gender-bending drag not only to escape Elmer Fudd's murderous designs, but to entrap the poor man in the pursuit of his own most ardent desires--to shoot a critter or kiss a pretty lady. Nowhere is this debt more evident than in Borat, in which Cohen, cartoonishly costumed as a rabidly anti-Semitic, nonchalantly misogynist worshipper "of the Hawk," sadistically and methodically elicits the ugly sympathies of our modern day Fudds, who clap merrily along as Borat sings the Kazakh folk song "Throw the Jew Down the Well" or enthusiastically agree on how awesome it would be to keep women as slaves. As in so many Bugs Bunny sketches, once armed, the Fudds shoot themselves.

In Brüno, Cohen replicates this method in too few scenes, the most delicious of which is a series of interviews with stage parents who share Brüno's yearning for fame and thus, with minimal goading, consent to have their three-year-old daughters operate heavy machinery, handle hazardous materials and lose 10 pounds by liposuction if it will help her land the gig. As a slice-and-dice of America's quest for fifteen minutes of fame, Brüno scores.

For the most part, however, Cohen chooses in Brüno to present an antagonistic rather than sympathetic face. The premise, I suppose, is to confront the straight world with a figure so flamboyant and so oversexed that the breeders can't help but freak out. The problem is that Cohen's victims just won't play along. Whether it is Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, whom Brüno decides to cast as the lead in a sex tape, or Ayman Abu Aita, the head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Brüno insults by calling his "King Osama" a "dirty wizard" and a "homeless Santa Claus"--Cohen just can't get a rise out of his male co-stars, who usually respond by ending the interview.

When Brüno goes on a hunting trip with a trio of Alabama rednecks and attempts to crawl naked into their tents because "a bear ate all my clothes and all I have is this box of condoms," the reply is altogether appropriate and disappointingly mild--"get the fuck out of my tent!" The only scene that approaches real violence is the film's climax, in which a stadium of wrestling fans hurl invectives, spit, beer and metal chairs at Brüno and his lover--but only because Cohen has previously stoked their rage, not as gay Brüno, but as "Straight Dave." The resulting chaos is animated, one suspects, not so much by homophobia, but by a sense of betrayal.

What does this all prove? Perhaps the ultimate discovery of Brüno is that the world is a tolerant, commodious, even benevolent place for strange fruits. Or perhaps the camera actually functions as a civilizing instrument, one that puts straight white men on their best behavior, unlike the infantilizing effect it apparently has on the cougars of Real Housewives. Or perhaps Cohen really intended to make a film about the banality of tolerance, satirizing not homophobia or homosexuals, but the squirm-inducing ways in which people strive to accept others against their baser instincts and, in some cases, their better judgment.

Alas, that film remains unrealized. According to industry reporters, the original ending of Brüno depicted the protagonist and his lover--now brain damaged and wheelchair bound as a result of the wrestling match riot--at a press conference where Brüno predictably milks the media's sympathy. That conclusion was spiked, it seems, in response to protests from gay Hollywood powerbrokers--Cohen's rare concession to the rules that be. Perhaps this aborted ending would have been seriously unfunny, but one can imagine in it a more devastating epilogue than the benign celebrity sing-along that now concludes the film--one that indicts our culture's penchant for turning victims into superstars. Perhaps, too, that ending would have lifted Brüno to a place even Borat dared not go--a critique of the mainstream.

Michael Jackson: Freak Like Me

Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, is dead of a heart attack at the age of 50. In the next few days we will be treated to endless eulogies mining the rich archive of his music, dance, videos, performances and especially his purported habits, hobbies, misdemeanors and alleged crimes. After all, what writer could resist mentioning the various critters and tchotchkes he collected: the hyperbaric, youth-preserving oxygen chamber, the Elephant Man's bones, his pet chimp Bubbles, the Beatles catalog, Neverland Ranch, Macaulay Caulkin, Elizabeth Taylor, his many noses, skin pigments and hairstyles, his one bright white glove. I certainly can't.

These mutations will inevitably be placed in the tragic narrative of his decline. We will be asked to remember Jackson in his prime--as the smiling, dancing, "P.Y.T." black child star who outshone his less talented siblings in the Jackson Five or as the pop-and-dance virtuoso who transcended Motown by bringing us "Thriller," "Beat It" and "Billy Jean." Forget the eccentricities and footnote the accusations of child abuse and molestation (he was never found guilty). Those are but sad stains on the larger spangled fabric of his life and career.

Well, I am here to say: fuck that shit. Without his extravagant eccentricities and ambiguous, obsessive relationships to race, gender, mortality and childhood (and children)--indeed without the conspicuously tenuous link he had to the category of the human itself--Michael Jackson would have been a B-list has-been. Most likely last seen on the latest episode of Celebrity Apprentice, his obit would have followed Farrah Fawcett's. In short, he'd be John Oates.

Our fascination with Whack-o Jack-o has never been only, or even primarily, with his prodigious skills. It was with the way he personified our culture's most central ambitions to whiteness, immortality, wealth, real estate and fame. Lodged somewhere between the superhuman and the alien, aspiration and disgust, Jackson was a grotesque reflection of our collective desires.

As Margo Jefferson noted in her perceptive book On Michael Jackson, the best reference point for the "Man in the Mirror" is P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth. Like the Chinamen and Arabs who peopled Barnum's circus, Jackson came to embody the space between "Black or White." Like Barnum's pygmies, giants, bearded ladies and albinos, Jackson mesmerized us with his recombinant body, the weird scale and mix of his anatomy. His animal menagerie helped too.

Like those with too many or too few body parts, Jackson was a human freak, to be pitied, sure, but also to be mimicked, always to be looked at and, in some way, to be wanted. He was a freak like me, a freak like you.

California Supreme Court Upholds Prop 8

As expected the California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8 by a vote of 6-1. It also ruled that the 18,000 same-sex couples who got married last year are still married. It's a long and technical decision (about 180 pages) with two concurring opinions and a concurring and dissenting opinion--so I haven't fully digested it. But two things to note:

First, under California law, there is no material difference between marriage and domestic partnership. Not one of those 18,000 married couples got any new rights or benefits that California's DP did not already provide; they only acquired the term marriage itself. Of course, as a state, California cannot grant any of the federally provided rights and benefits of marriage, but as a matter of state law, the two categories are substantively equal. Indeed, in part, that's why the court held that Prop 8 was an amendment to the CA constitution, and not a broader, more fundamental revision, which would have required more than just an up or down popular vote. As the majority opinion argues:


Instead the measure carves out a narrow and limited exception to these constitutional rights, reserving the official designation of the term "marriage" for the union of opposite-sex couples...but leaving undisturbed all the other extremely significant substantive aspects of a same-sex couple's state constitutional right to establish an officially recognized and protected family relationship...


I know people's emotions are very raw now; there are dozens of rallies planned around the country tonight. That's all fine and good. But the decision on whether or not to sink massive dollars and resources into an initiative to reverse Prop 8 in 2010 (remember, Prop 8 was the second most expensive election in the country in 2008; only the presidency cost more), should take this relative equality into account. There are dozens of states where same-sex couples have no partnership rights whatsoever; states where it is still legal to fire someone because they are gay; a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act is still stalled in Congress. Aren't those better and more inclusive movement goals than an uphill initiative that would give same-sex couples the M-word in one state only?

Second, Justice Kathryn Werdegar's concurring opinion contained a tantalizing thread of argument. She joined with the majority in upholding Prop 8, but also wrote:


...all three branches of the government continue to have the duty...to eliminate the remaining important differences between marriage and domestic partnership, both in substance and perception. The measure puts one solution beyond reach by prohibiting the state from naming future same-sex unions as "marriages," but it does not otherwise affect the state's obligation to enforce the equal protection clause by protecting the "fundamental right...of same-sex couples to have their official family relationship accorded the same dignity, respect, and stature as that accorded to all other official recognized family relationships." For the state to meet its obligations under the equal protection clause will now be more difficult, but the obligation remains.


What does Werdegar mean? If same-sex domestic partnerships must be equal, in perception and practice, to opposite-sex marriage, and if Prop 8 denies the term "marriage" to same-sex couples only...then maybe this is the answer?

Sure, the Domestic Partnership Initiative, which would convert all heterosexual marriages into domestic partnerships, is a quixotic campaign. But it sure does have a certain brute logic to it.

Another New School Demo (CLARIFIED)

This dispatch just in from Gabriel Gil Arana, a current Nation intern:

In March, the New School let go of 12 part-time/adjunct faculty at Parsons' fine arts department. Today, over a hundred members of the school's adjunct union and their supporters protested the firings in front of the school's main administration building on 12th Street, accusing administrators of union busting and flouting the protections offered to part-time faculty in their contract.

The protest is the most recent spat in an extended history of tensions between the New School administration and its faculty and students. On two separate occasions in April and December, students occupied buildings to call for the resignation of New School president Bob Kerrey, who received a vote of "no confidence" from an overwhelming majority of the faculty in December.

Adjuncts at the New School unionized in 2004 and have negotiated a contract that offers substantial job security after a five-year "probationary" period. Barbara Siegel, a part-time faculty member who has taught at the New School for 25 years, said that some of those fired were on the cusp of reaching that threshold. The purported reasons for the firings were financial hardship and "curricular changes." Siegel disputes the former, citing a recent email from Kerrey saying that the school's finances were sound.

Part-time faculty, which at the New School make up 89 percent of the teaching staff, are often an expedient solution to budget shortfalls; they are either hired to replace more expensive full-time positions or in this case, fired in a budget crunch.

CLARIFICATION: The Nation was contacted by Deborah Kirshner, associate director of arts communications at the New School, who disputes some of the union's claims. She said that of the 12 part-time faculty, 3 were assigned courses to teach outside of the fine arts department; 3 knew they would not be teaching in the fall, including one who said he was unable to teach; and the other 6 had finished their spring teaching obligations. Those six were informed in a letter sent by email that they would not be courses for them to teach in the fall; they were not "fired," because their contracts only ran semester to semester or academic year to academic year. According to a New School fact-sheet, "the university is making every effort to identify teaching assignments for these faculty members, which is beyond its union obligation."

(A statement released by New School provost Tim Marshall apologizes for the manner in which adjuncts were informed they would not be assigned a course for the fall.)

Kirshner added that funding for the fine arts department has actually increased for the 2009-2010 school year; the decision not to assign part-timers courses was because of structural changes in the arts department, not lack of funds.

Siegel, however, took exception to the claim that these "non-rehirings" were not "firings." She said administrators do not want to use the term "firing" because it's "inflammatory." While adjuncts are hired on a term-by-term or year-by-year basis, Siegel said that there is the expectation that adjuncts' contracts will be renewed, especially for those who have taught continuously for decades at the school.

"It's not a question of receiving [an official] job offer," she said. "For many of these people continuing [to teach] is a given."

"They're always arguing over terminology, which seems like a way of obscuring the real issue," she said.

Siegel added that some of the alternative placements in other departments were "basically a kind of demotion" given that some of these appointments were in "continuing education," a non-degree program. She said that even though the budget may have been increased, how the money is allocated matters. Siegel said the school may hire nonunionized full-time professors in order to "get more control." The New School is hiring one full-time faculty member for the arts department for the fall, but representatives for the school said this was part of the larger plan to improve the fine arts program and not intended as a power move.

written by Gabriel Gil Arana

The Torture Memos, Obama and the Banality of Evil

Even as President Obama acted in the name of transparency and accountabilty in releasing the Bush administration's OLC's torture memos, he made assurances that the CIA agents who used the "enhanced interrogation techniques" meticulously detailed within would not be subject to criminal prosecution. Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Jeremy Scahill on his blog, David Bromwich at Huffington Post and Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic all have good takes on why Obama's decision is wrong. I concur. However politically expedient, Obama's nearly carte blanche absolution of torture was morally wrong, and his justification of it, from a professor of constitutional law, is intellectually dishonest.

Obama's rationalizations were artfully made to the point of being obfuscatory, but they can be boiled down to three points:

1) The strategic issue of national security. "The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world...We must protect their identities as vigilantly as they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs."

2) The legal-ethical issue of obedience. The CIA agents were only carrying out "their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice."

3) The political issue of national unity and progress. "This is a time for reflection, not retribution...at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."

The easiest to dismiss of these is the issue of national security. As Bromwich points out, the matter of protecting individual CIA agent's identities is "a calculated distortion." Any agent publicly named and prosecuted for torture would, of course, be removed from duty. Their identities no longer need to be protected as a matter of national security because they would no longer be in the business of national security.

As for the question of whether or not prosecutions would undermine intelligence agents' "confidence that they can do their jobs," I agree with Obama here. Prosecutions absolutely would undermine the CIA's confidence, and that is a good thing. No public official, least of all intelligence agents who already operate under cover of secrecy, should be wholly confident of the legality and morality of their actions. To guarantee such confidence would be to guarantee absolute impunity. Indeed, this necessary lack of confidence is precisely why the OLC memos exist in the first place, because interrogators were seeking advice about the legality of certain interrogation techniques. So the question is not whether or not prosecution would undermine the CIA's confidence, but rather a) how much so? and b) from what source is their confidence derived?

This brings us to the question of obedience. Obama's argument here is gravely disturbing. He asserts, in essence, that because the OLC says it is right, it is--that CIA agents should have absolute confidence in anything and everything approved by the OLC and/or ordered by the executive branch. Besides the shades of Nixon and Bush II, there are two things wrong with this assertion. First is the sweeping authority given to the OLC to determine wholly, by interpretation and in secrecy, the legality of actions that were known then to have been violations of multiple international and national laws. If the OLC determined tomorrow that rape was an appropriate interrogation technique, should CIA agents behave with confidence that they are acting within legal and moral bounds? I have a hard time believing that Obama, or anyone in his administration, thinks so.

Then there is the matter of culpability and deference to authority. Even if every single national and international law approved of the interrogation techniques used by the CIA, would they be just? Hannah Arendt wrestles famously with a similar question in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann claimed, as a CIA agent on trial might, that he was merely doing his duty, that he "not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law." Arendt, of course, found Eichmann both banal in his evil and culpable. Perhaps more to the point, she argued that the culpability of countless others (what others did or might have done) did not in any way mitigate Eichmann's guilt.

The same is true in the case of torture (although needless to say on a vastly different scale and context). Of course, higher-ups who ordered and sanctioned torture should be prosecuted as well, including the authors of the OLC memos. But that does not mean that the actual interrogators should be let off the hook en masse. Whether or not CIA interrogators should have refused orders or should have known that such orders were legally or morally wrong is a matter to be determined in trial, a matter of justice. It is not a question that can be swept away by the claim that they were just doing their jobs, that they were just being obedient subjects.

Because in the final analysis, it is highly likely that the CIA agents were just doing their jobs. And that those jobs were, in fact, criminal in nature. This brings me to Obama's last argument, that in essence we need to forget the past and move forward for the good of the country. The substitution here of the political necessity of unity for the constitutional and moral imperative of justice is Bushian to say the least. But perhaps what is most troubling is that our new President would calculatedly deploy his public goodwill to effect a kind of national amnesia in which actions he himself and his attorney general have called illegal and wrong are forgotten in the name of progress. Of course, I can see why he would do so, as a matter of political expediency. But political expediency is not justice.

Of Eichmann's crimes, Arendt wrote, "they were and could only be committed under a criminal law by a criminal state." That may also be the case with torture under the Bush administration. We owe it to ourselves to find out and that can not happen if we meekly follow Obama's request to forgive and forget.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 1950-2009

I have only ever worn out one book. The first copy--which I still keep as an artifact of my 20s--became a palimpsest of sorts, its text underlined in four different colors of pencil, emblazoned with streaks of yellow and green neon highlighter. Little enigmatic notes crawl up and down the margins of dog-eared pages, and decomposing Post-it notes jut out untidily from the edges; the spine has long since given way. At a certain point, picking up this particular copy became too overwhelming an encounter with my old selves, and so I bought a fresh one, which I tried in vain to keep clean. That book is Epistemology of the Closet, and its author is the brilliant, inimitable, explosive intellectual Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who died last night from breast cancer at the age of 58.

It is difficult to calculate the impact of Sedgwick's scholarship, in part because its legacy is still in the making, but also because she worked at a skew to so many fields of inquiry. Feminism, queer theory, psychoanalysis and literary, legal and disability studies--Sedgwick complicated and upended them all, sometimes in ways that infuriated more anodyne scholars, but always in ways that pushed established parameters.

In one of her more audacious insights, Sedgwick proposed two ways of understanding homosexuality: a "minoritizing view" in which there is "a distinct population of persons who 'really are' gay," and a "universalizing view" in which sexual desire is unpredictable and fluid, in which "apparently heterosexual persons...are strongly marked by same-sex influences." Think of it, in shorthand, as the difference between Ellen Degeneres' "Yep, I'm gay!" and Gore Vidal's "There is no such thing as a homosexual or heterosexual person; there are only homo- or heterosexual acts."

Sedgwick wasn't interested in validating either view, but rather in how these two views compete and collude in ways that produce an "irreducible incoherence" (see Mark Edmundson's review of Epistemology in The Nation). Consider, for example, her analysis of homosexual panic defense, which was once accepted by juries as a rationale for reducing sentences for gay bashers. As Edmundson summarized:


The defense plays on the incoherence between minoritizing and universalizing conceptions of sexual identity. "Gay bashing," the juror may suppose, "is something only latent homosexuals do: Those people are sick and deserve judicial mercy." But also (secretly), "That's something I might do: Let's let them off easy." Of course, that thinking sets up scenarios in which anyone ("because we're all a little bit gay") can be identified by another as a homosexual ("someone who's really gay") making an advance, and be assaulted as a consequence. This incoherence leaves everyone, at times, open to blackmail, open to violence...


At a moment that seems so far from (post-gay?) and yet so eerily close to (gay panic?) the tangled time (the late '80s) in which Sedgwick wrote Epistemology, her intervention is worth pondering again. Consider, for example, the oft-unintelligible debate over gay marriage. Is gay marriage a "right" that a small minority of people deserve as a matter of equality? Or is it a threat to, as George W. Bush once put it, the "most fundamental institution of civilization?"

These two questions aren't so much devices for sorting the world into pro-gay and anti-gay factions as they are competing, volatile frames of reference. When liberals find it irksome that anyone could possibly object to gay marriage ("Explain how my gay marriage hurts your straight marriage?!"), they implicitly endorse a minoritizing view. Meanwhile, conservatives who rant about the end of civilization may believe (rightly?) that homosexuality is everywhere, and that without strong state injunctions against it, people will be so busy practicing gay S/M that they forget to continue the species. In this case, the framework that might produce the more immediate pro-gay result doesn't line up with the more potent expression of homosexuality, and it might also, in other contexts (like say, genetic testing to weed out likely gay babies), produce antigay results. It's difficult to know in advance, however, and that was Sedgwick's point.

Sedgwick's work was marked throughout by an abiding love for gay people, gay men in particular. She once proposed that in a gay-affirmative world, there would be guide books on how to bring your kids up gay. "Advice on how to make sure your kids turn out gay, not to mention your students, your parishoners, your therapy clients, or your military subordinates, is less ubiquitous than one might think," she deadpanned in Epistemology. It's funny, and then, after you laugh, it hits you like a rock.

Sedgwick once wrote of what "a pleasure and privilege" it was to write her second book Between Men; she was always a pleasure and privilege to read.

"Occupy Everything Right Now"

So said one of the signs at the student occupation of the New School's building at 65 Fifth Avenue, which was met with a phalanx of NYC cops, pepper spray and mass arrests at the request of New School prez Bob Kerrey's administration. On the surface, the students seem a scruffy, wild-eyed lot--tats and unruly beards, raised fists and bold slogans. It's easy for the press to dismiss them as merely "angry" and impetuous. Indeed, comments on the NYT city blog positively seethe with contempt.

"These immature adults are nothing more than terrorists..I would Taser them," writes one poster. "I hope the New School will treat these self-absorbed brats the same way NYU did...paying tuition does NOT mean you get a voice in how the university is run," says another. "A protest that appears to lack direction and realistic demands," quibbles a third.

The harshest of these comments come from the right, but there's an echo of such animosity from the world-weary left as well--a tendency to roll eyes and scoff at the students' naivete. Earlier this year, when NYU students occupied the student center, some left-leaning faculty privately complained that they couldn't totally support the students because of their naive strategy and incoherent, sprawling demands. (One of the students' demands, for example, was to set aside a number of scholarships for students from the Occupied Territories.) Many faculty eventually signed a letter protesting the NYU administration's treatment of the demonstrators, but few prominent figures or outside movements came to the student's defense, and the whole incident fizzled in public consciousness as just another rash, incidental campus uprising.

And then there's the state of general malaise that seems to preoccupy the left now. If there's so much roiling populist anger, where are the mass street protests in the US that would rival those in Greece, Latvia and France (see Sudhir Venkatesh's op-ed and Stephen Greenhouse's analysis of American labor's relative docility)? If only 53 percent of Americans believe capitalism is better than socialism, as a recent Rasmussen poll reports, why aren't the people storming the palace?

There's some sort of strategic disconnect going on here between the lack of widespread support for the protests and radical tactics that actually exist and the hyperventilating about the left's (or populism's) allegedly moribund spirit. If mass mobilization is what you really want, you have to start somewhere, and the students, however goofy or shambolic, are one of the few organized forces willing to risk something.

And for the record, at the crux of both occupations lies a demand for greater accountability and transparency, for socially responsible investing, for greater democracy and more reasonable tuition rates. Writ large, these are values that go to the heart of the current economic crisis--the division of society into the haves and have nots and the impunity with which the elite (including the academic elite) run their institutions. If the student protests spread, there's no telling what other righteous fires they might start. The left, for example, might do well to look at the French protests of 2006, which began with students at a handful of campuses but eventually spread to 68 of 89 universities, incorporated trade unions, brought millions to the street, France to a standstill and eventually derailed a bill that would have made it easier to fire young workers.

We can wait for the perfect moment, or for the perfect, tidy platform, or for the perfect campaign that can't fail. And then, we will wait forever. In a time of such great suffering for so many, Occupy Everything Right Now seems just as good a banner around which to rally as any.

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