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States of Emergency: Essays on Culture and Politics

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In his latest book, Patrick Brantlinger probes the state of contemporary America. Brantlinger takes aim at neoliberal economists, the Tea Party movement, gun culture, immigration, waste value, surplus people, the war on terror, technological determinism, and globalization. An invigorating return to classic cultural studies with its concern for social justice and challenges to economic orthodoxy, States of Emergency is a delightful mix of journalism, satire, and theory that addresses many of the most pressing issues of our time.

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1 Class Warfare and Cultural Studies

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Wherever you find injustice, the proper form of politeness is attack.

—T. BONE SLIM OF THE IWW

Cultural studies examines how people are classified (or “classed”) and how they classify the world around them. In its initial phase in Britain in the 1960s, it focused on the relations between social class and cultural value; its emphasis on justice was unmistakable and remained so as it added both race and gender to its New Left agenda. From the outset, moreover, cultural studies has served as a counterdiscourse to the modern “science of value”—that is, to economics in its dominant, capitalist mode.

The seminal texts of the cultural studies movement—Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society, Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, and E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class—all treat culture as classed and all stress the active role of workers in its production and consumption, even as they also stress the rise of industrialized mass culture. After the establishment of the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies in the early 1960s, these concerns remained central in, for example, the analysis of “subcultures.”1 This was a variation on the themes of “class fractions” and mass culture, from which emerged the interminable debate over whether the mass media can be genuinely “popular” in the sense of democratic or are merely “mass”—conformist, ideological, and antidemocratic.2

 

2 It’s the Economy, Stupid!

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We ought to make the pie higher.

—GEORGE W. BUSH

When it comes to economics, most noneconomists, myself included, are idiots. We cannot do the math. At least President Bush, while running the U.S. economy into the ditch, had the advice of experts. The version of Economics 10 that I took in college may have been over my head. I found it boring because it did not address any of the issues I was interested in at the time: girls, poetry, the civil rights movement, and the war in Vietnam. I did not expect Ec10 to deal with girls and poetry, but why not with racism and war? After all, it was supposed to be a social science. I remember “supply and demand,” “marginal utility,” and a few other phrases and concepts from that class. My economics professor believed that free trade and political freedom were inseparable, though he did not explain why. He also believed that economics is a science whose subject is wealth. Poverty—like girls, poetry, racism, and war—is not one of its primary concerns.

 

3 Tea Party Brewhaha

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I say on the air all the time, “if you take what

I say as gospel, you’re an idiot.”

—GLENN BECK

Lurking in the shadows of our fair Republic, its tentacles reaching secretly in all directions, a Vast Conspiracy threatens our liberty and our prosperity. No, this is not a conspiracy directed by the Islamic terrorists and suiciders who also would like to destroy America. They have their own foul conspiracy. The far more insidious and dangerous conspiracy comes from Americans themselves. These homegrown conspirators claim to be patriots, but they are the Republic’s greatest enemies. They are THE PROGRESSIVES, starting with that arch-progressive Woodrow Wilson, and leading on through the machinations of FDR, Frances Fox Piven, ACORN, and Barack Hussein Obama.

To learn all about this “Vast Conspiracy,” one could tune in to Glenn Beck, Tea Party guru, on the Fox News Channel—at least, while his show was still being aired by Fox.1 The “progressive movement,” according to Beck, is “the lunatic fringe of the left. It is the home of everything that you despise. It is the home of income tax.” The progressives are next of kin to Nazis, socialists, communists, and Islamicists. And Obama is the progressive socialist closet Muslim conspirator-in-chief. It is so easy to call him “Osama.” How many of Beck’s three-million-plus devotees buy into his conspiracy theory, and how many of them are also Tea Partiers, is unclear. But for Beck as well as for many Tea Partiers, history itself is a conspiracy (what you do not study might swallow you alive), and at the dark heart of that conspiracy are not merely “the progressives” but nothing less than the federal government of the United States, which for the last century and more has fallen into the clutches of the progressives.

 

4 Shooters: Cultural Contexts of the Virginia Tech Tragedy

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A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

—SECOND AMENDMENT TO THE CONSTITUTION

After the massacre at Virginia Tech University on April 16, 2007, if Seung-Hui Cho had not shot himself, would a jury have found him innocent because of insanity? Perhaps. Seung was clearly deranged; he may have been autistic, or paranoid, or schizophrenic; he was a sociopath; he didn’t relate well to other people.1 Maybe the conviction that he was insane helps to explain the forgiveness expressed by many in the Virginia Tech community, which has been extraordinary. His older sister, Sun-Kyung, graduated from Princeton University in economics in 2004 and now works for the U.S. State Department. She too is extraordinary. But sadly, though she should not feel guilt for her brother’s deeds, she may always feel guilt for her brother’s deeds: “He has made the world weep. We are living a nightmare.” She is a successful woman, but has been “humbled by this darkness.” So have we all. “We have always been a close, peaceful and loving family. . . . We never could have envisioned that he was capable of so much violence.”2

 

5 What is the Matter with Mexico?

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Imprisoned country. . . . It’s the children who play with skeletons.

—JUAN BAŃUELOS

Every morning around two hundred Mexican and Central American immigrants gather outside a Home Depot in Washington, D.C., waiting for a house painter or carpenter or plumber to hire them for a few hours or, if they are lucky, for a few days. Many—perhaps most—are “undocumented aliens” or “illegals.” This is a scene repeated in every major city in the United States. If the average gringo does not jump to the conclusion that something is the matter with these “illegals” (besides their being “illegal”), then he or she probably wonders, “What’s wrong with Mexico?”

Why can’t the Mexican economy provide enough jobs to prevent thousands of Mexicans from spilling over the border in search of work, especially when the United States is also struggling with high unemployment? Securing the border and deporting the “illegals” will not help, in part because many U.S. businesses are eager to hire undocumented workers. The jobs they take are supposedly ones that U.S. citizens will not take. Or is it the case that some businesses prefer to hire undocumented workers because they can pay them less and exploit them more easily than they can U.S. citizens?

 

6 Waste and Value: Thorstein Veblen and H. G. Wells (coauthored with Richard Higgins)

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COAUTHORED WITH RICHARD HIGGINS

Trashmass, trashmosh. On a large enough scale, trashmos. And—of course—macrotrashm! . . . Really, just think of it, macrotrashm!

—STANISLAW LEM, THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS

 

As the self-proclaimed “science of value” economics—whether neoliberal, Keynesian, Marxist, or anything else—has always had trouble defining its main subject. Early attempts to identify value with something substantial and nonrelative—the labor theory of value, the gold standard, and so forth—gave way in the latter third of the nineteenth century to price theory and the doctrine of marginal utility. As that was happening, value seemed to grow indistinct from its antitheses: depending on circumstances, anything and everything could be considered valuable. Among other observers, Thorstein Veblen and H. G. Wells are exemplary for their insistence that waste could be valuable and values wasteful. They thus point ahead to a key aspect of the postmodern condition: the indeterminacy of values, signaled by the theme of valuable waste in, for example, Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld.

 

7 Shopping on Red Alert: The Rhetorical Normalization of Terror

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Terror has long been terrible: but to the actors themselves it has now become manifest that their appointed course is one of Terror; and they say, Be it so. “Que la Terreur soit à l’ordre du jour.”

—THOMAS CARLYLE, THE FRENCH REVOLUTION (1837)

Waiting for my flight, I hear the announcement: “The Department of Homeland Security has just raised the terror threat level to orange. Be on the lookout for any suspicious activity.” The girl drinking pop has purple streaks in her hair. A suit-and-tie man reads The Wall Street Journal. A woman in fringed leather jacket yaks at her cell phone. The only suspicious character may be the pale young man with the backpack pacing nervously near the counter. Why so nervous? Suddenly he returns my stare. Am I suspicious? Going through security, they seized my toothpaste. My miniscule tube weighed 2.5 ounces (or less). “This needs to be in a plastic bag,” said the guard; “If you want it back. . . .” “Never mind; I’ll buy some when I get there.” I did not ask why my toothpaste would be safer in a plastic bag.

 

8 The State of Iraq

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It is easier to stay out than to get out.

—MARK TWAIN, FOLLOWING THE EQUATOR

Having invaded Iraq, occupied it, surged it, and turned it into a democracy with an economy blessed by free trade, it would be crazy for the United States to withdraw from it now. Yet that is exactly what President Obama is doing—ordering our boys (and gals) out of a place they have been occupying for nearly a decade. Given the great expense of American treasure and Americans in the Iraq War, John McCain’s hundred-year Reich makes good sense versus Obama’s surrender. Far more sensible, however, would be the one solution that no American politician including Joe Lieberman has yet proposed: Turn Iraq into the fifty-first state of the Union.1

Think how fitting it would have been, as one of his first acts in office, for Obama, who promised change we can believe in, to have transformed that fine piece of oil-rich real estate into a new, vibrant state of the United States! What is the purpose of state building, after all? And what better reward could there be for the Iraqis (the non-Al Qaeda types, that is, even if they are all Muslims) after years of dictatorship, sanctions, shock and awe, waterboarding, regime change, and Abu Ghraib? Grant all Iraqis except the jihaders American citizenship. After all, wasn’t the Bush regime trying to remake Iraq in the image of America? They will love us for our freedoms.

 

9 On the Postmodernity of Being Aboriginal—and Australian

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I am still

The black swan of trespass on alien waters.

—“ERN MALLEY”

What does it mean to be Aboriginal in today’s Australia? Most people of Aboriginal descent live in cities, often in conditions of unemployment and dire poverty, often dependent on meager government support. Those lucky enough to receive an adequate education and to move into the middle class still suffer from the effects of racial discrimination. As the 1997 report on “The Stolen Generations” revealed, moreover, perhaps as many as one-third of the Australians who are of Aboriginal descent can no longer trace their family origins.1 These are likely to be mixed-race people; either they or their parents had been “stolen”—removed from their Aboriginal families—presumably in order to be assimilated into white Australia. Yet even if they wanted to, they have never been allowed to assimilate fully. Nor can they return to what might be called a “traditional” lifestyle.

According to the 2012 Yearbook of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2008 about half of the population of Aboriginals and Torres Straits Islanders, or approximately a quarter million people, “identified with a cultural group (meaning a tribal or language group, a clan, a mission or a regional group),” but this does not indicate the degree to which any of them practiced a traditional way of life. Only about one-tenth, or fifty thousand, spoke an indigenous language as their main one. The Bureau adds,

 

10 McLuhan, Crash Theory, and the Invasion of the Nanobots

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The truth of contemporary science is not so much the extent of progress achieved as the scale of technical catastrophes occasioned.

—PAUL VIRILIO, THE INFORMATION BOMB

A maverick professor of English, Marshall McLuhan became a public intellectual by dint of his commentaries on communications technologies and how they had shaped history and were shaping the present and future. Though initially highly critical of them, McLuhan also appeared perfectly happy to serve as a pundit or guru for the mass media and for commercial advertising firms. Perhaps he was not critical enough. In any case, recent work on new technologies and the emergence of “the information society” suggests that McLuhan has entered a sort of academic purgatory, even though many of his ideas—or the ideas that he expressed, at any rate—are everywhere. Many scholars do not bother to cite him. In Theories of the Information Society, for example, Frank Webster does not mention McLuhan, while Darin Barney cites only his “famous aphorism . . . ‘the medium is the message’” in Prometheus Wired (56). So, too, in The Informational City, probably the most important sociological analysis to date of the paradigm shift to the information age, Manuel Castells ignores McLuhan. This is not to say that he, Webster, Barney, or other recent scholars should necessarily do otherwise; after all, McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media over four decades ago.

 

11 Army Surplus: Notes on Exterminism

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The camp is the space that opens up when the state of exception starts to become the rule.

—GIORGIO AGAMBEN, MEANS WITHOUT END

Currently thousands of American veterans are homeless. Over a million are “at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.”1 The website for the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans reports that roughly “67,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness. Only eight percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly one-fifth of the homeless population are veterans.” Although the current unemployment rate among all veterans, 6.7 percent, is lower than the overall rate of 7.9 percent of the labor force, it is still too high. Moreover, 56 percent of the unemployed veterans are African American or Latino, even though they constituted only 12.8 percent and 15.4 percent, respectively, of the population of the United States. The Obama administration has helped reduce unemployment among veterans, which for several years was significantly higher than the national rate.2 But how can “our country’s heroes” be homeless and unemployed in a nation that prides itself on being a model of democracy and prosperity for the rest of the world? How can homelessness for anyone occur in the United States? In any prosperous, democratic society, no one should be tossed into the gutter. Yet that is precisely what has been happening in the United States as jobs have disappeared, as banks and mortgage companies have cashed in on the foreclosure crisis, and as thousands of Americans have seen their pensions and retirement savings wiped out. The United States is devolving into a third-world country: at least forty-seven million Americans now live in poverty, a rapidly increasing number.3

 

12 World Social Forum: Multitude versus Empire?

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At the heart of building alternatives and localizing economic and political systems are the recovery of the commons and the reclaiming of community.

—VANDANA SHIVA, “THE LIVING DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT”

On a Global Exchange “reality tour” in 2005, we traveled to the fifth World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Our group included pacifists, anticorporation activists, a contingent of young Bioneers from California, and a practitioner of liberation theology—a Church of Christ minister who is also an avowed atheist. The first half of the tour took us to a number of the encampments staked out by MST (the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement) and to an MST school in Veranópolis, which trains the movement’s leaders. We also visited a school, a recycling center, and a women’s cooperative funded through Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting process.1

Estimated at two hundred thousand, an enormous march through the streets of Porto Alegre opened the WSF. Besides those who had come for the WSF, there were delegations from all seventeen of Brazil’s political parties and many Brazilian trade unions. The march took the general form of a protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Together with the standard peace signs, many signs, including the one I carried, condemned President George W. Bush as a war criminal. Even while many protested the Bush regime’s warmongering, the march was not an angry event but a celebratory one—an expression of hope and a welcoming for those who had come to the WSF from every corner of the world.

 

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