Sunday, October 3, 2010

Contributing to the chorus on Elizabeth Moon and WisCon, plus a few thoughts on the concept of the "safe space"

         I'm not sure to the extent that my audience is aware of the conflicts that occur within fandom, but a recent blog posting by science fiction author Elizabeth Moon, dealing with Muslims, citizenship, and the Islamic community center has created such a conflict.  There has been some thoughts on the topic from a number of sources, most notably a set of very good posts by K. Tempest Bradford, but it made me think of a few things that fall outside of those posts.

       The basic situation is pretty easy to explain.  Moon posted a long, rambling post that took on the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic community center in New York. In her response to that controversy, she reproduced a problematic set of assumptions about Muslims, the religious tenets of Islam, and the history of immigration in this country.  Through those faulty assumptions, Moon goes on to make a set of claims about why the community center in New York should not be built.  These blog postings became a significant controversy within the fan subculture of science fiction because of Moon's status as an author, but probably more significantly, because she is going to be a guest of honor at the largest feminist science fiction convention, WisCon.  I'm not going to directly link to her blog post, but I'll give you a sense of the rhetoric through two of the paragraphs in her missive.  

Moon states,

"When an Islamic group decided to build a memorial center at/near the site of the 9/11 attack, they should have been able to predict that this would upset a lot of people.  Not only were the attackers Islamic--and not only did the Islamic world in general show indecent glee about the attack, but this was only the last of many attacks on citizens and installations of this country which Islamic groups proudly claimed credit for.  That some Muslims died in the attacks is immaterial--does not wipe out the long, long chain of Islamic hostility.   It would have been one thing to have the Muslim victims' names placed with the others, and identified there as Muslims--but to use that site to proselytize for the religion that lies behind so many attacks on the innocent (I cannot forget the Jewish man in a wheelchair pushed over the side of the ship to drown, or Maj. Nadal's attack on soldiers at Fort Hood) was bound to raise a stink.   It is hard to believe that those making the application did not know that--did not anticipate it--and were not, in a way, probing to see if they could start a controversy.  If they did not know, then they did not know enough about the culture into which they had moved.  Though I am not angry about it, and have not spoken out in opposition, I do think it was a rude and tactless thing to propose (and, if carried out, to do.)

I know--I do not dispute--that many Muslims had nothing to do with the attacks, did not approve of them, would have stopped them if they could.  I do not dispute that there are moderate, even liberal, Muslims, that many Muslims have all the virtues of civilized persons and are admirable in all those ways.  I am totally, 100%, appalled at those who want to burn the Koran (which, by the way, I have read in English translation, with the same attention I've given to other holy books) or throw paint on mosques or beat up Muslims.  But Muslims fail to recognize how much forbearance they've had.  Schools in my area held consciousness-raising sessions for kids about not teasing children in Muslim-defined clothing...but not about not teasing Jewish children or racial minorities.  More law enforcement was dedicated to protecting mosques than synagogues--and synagogues are still targeted for vandalism.  What I heard, in my area, after 9/11, was not condemnation by local mosques of the attack--but an immediate cry for protection even before anything happened.   Our church, and many others (not, obviously all) already had in place a "peace and reconciliation" program that urged us to understand, forgive, pray for, not just innocent Muslims but the attackers themselves.   It sponsored a talk by a Muslim from a local mosque--but the talk was all about how wonderful Islam was--totally ignoring the historical roots of Islamic violence." (Moon)

       The problems with this statement should be fairly obvious, but I'll take some time to work through those issues.  The first and most obvious problem is that despite Moon's insistence that she isn't doing this, she takes the behavior of a few Muslims and allows them to stand in for a complex religious belief system of two billion people, a belief system that far from unified, is defined by debates, factions, and radically different approaches to textual exegesis.  The reduction of a group of people to a small, static group of features is, as critical theorist Stuart Hall notes, at the very heart of stereotyping, the logic of racism and empire.  Any attempt to define Islam as a form of unified other, is, at its heart, bigoted.  The violent actions that lead to her fantasy of a 'long chain' of an essentialized  Islam need to be understood within the complex history of the region, a history of European domination and colonialism.  None of this excuses any particular action, but it demands that any act of judgment focus on particular conflicts, political formations, etc.  Islam, as such, does not exist.  It is as multiple as liberalism, marxism, or Christianity.   (Another point that should be made is that Moon also is taking up a common trope of Islamophobes, that is 'racialization', collapsing the figure of the Muslim and the Arab together to further the project of demonization.)

      The particular narrative that Moon is offering has a long history, one that has legitimated systemic racialized domination of large sections of the world.  It operates not only by the logic of stereotyping discussed above, but it's system of classification operates through a logic of the absence of coevalence.  Anthropologist Johannes Fabian noted that the discipline of anthropology operated through a logic of positing a temporal difference between the anthropologist and the 'primitive' subjects that he studies.  That subject is not formed within the social relations of the modern world.  He is not modern.  He operates within a different time than our own, the past, which is primitive and less formed than us.  He instead can only be understood as a operating within a logic of our past.  Moon takes up this logic when she implicitly argues that acts of violence can be discussed outside the context of the global political forces that shape those actions.  She, in effect, argues that the Muslim can only be understood within her or his 'primitive' and 'violent' roots, rather than as modern subjects shaped through the very modern forms of violence and domination that exist today.  Her particular attempt to deflect this criticism by posing the good moderate or liberal Muslim against the bad fundamentalist has its own colonialist legacy, operating neatly besides the binary of the good and bad colonial subject, defined by a set of narratives of assimilation.   If you are looking for more material, I would recommend both Edward Said's Covering Islam, and his more academically oriented, Orientalism.  Although both are over ten years old, they are still the strongest analysis on the topic.

        There is another, more subtle thread of resentment that runs through her narrative as well, though.  Moon seems to feel that Muslims have been coddled by liberal society, that they have been allowed to hold onto a set of particularities that the 'rest of us' have had to abandon.  Rather than recognizing the extraordinary measures of certain institutions as a necessary response to often violent forms of racism, Moon sees these as a form of 'forebearance' of peculiarity that other immigrant groups have not received.  It is narrative of immigration that ignores the long history of foreign language papers in the country, of separate cultural institutions, etc.  Unfortunately, this is an all too common fantasy of the immigration process.  The narrative of assimilation that she takes up throughout the piece has two basic problems.  The first is simple.  The narrative of assimilation is false.  The ostensibly voluntary immigration patterns of any particular group (this is a set of claims that doesn't work very well when thinking about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, although as James Baldwin points out, most immigration into the United States is not as voluntary as it has been represented) has never been defined by simple assimilation.  Instead, we can invariably see a dialectical interaction, in which the synthesis is something quite different than what came before.  (I can say more about this if you want.)

        The second problem is the more serious one.  The narrative that Moon is drawing on, a narrative that is both false and extraordinarily powerful, is precisely the narrative of the assimilation to whiteness.  The demand of assimilation has always been defined by a legal definition of citizenship that operated through the logic of whiteness as property (See Cheryl L. Harris)  In addition the work of David Roediger and James Baldwin through their work have shown the linkage between the acceptance of European immigrants as white and the acceptance of those very immigrants as citizens, a process that operates through their acceptance of the exclusionary logic of that racialization.  (In effect, it is a process that simultaneously shifts and reinforces whiteness, while reinforcing the exclusion of the racialized other, the alien.)  In effect, Moon's criticism can only be understood within this racial economy.  Her anger that the Muslim population (once again, ignoring that Muslims in the United States are not simply Middle Eastern immigrants) have not assimilated is built upon an unconscious expectation that those populations embrace these forms of white citizenship.  Although she would not recognize it, she is angry because the immigrant populations cannot or refuse to conform to a set of expectations of citizenship based on whiteness.

      Within this context, it is very difficult not to be disappointed in the decision of WisCon's organizing committee not to revoke Moon's invitation.  Certainly, the committee has acknowledged that Moon's word were offensive (Here is their response.) But, it's also a very unsatisfying response, primarily through its recourse to the language of 'difficult conversation.'  I think that posing the need for dialogue with positions such as the one that Moon has expressed is disagreeable at best.  WisCon was organized for explicitly political purposes, to create a feminist space for fandom.  I believe that expressing the kind of bigotry contained in Moon's piece excludes her from that conversation, in the same way that most feminists have recognized that the sorts of transphobia expressed by Janice Raymond should exclude them from that space as well.  This refusal is at the heart of any genuine intersectional analysis.  I support difficult conversations, but a commitment to some meaningful form of anti-racism needs to be an expectation of that conversation.

         This brings me to my final section.  I suspect that much of what I have already said is a tad academic for a lot of folks who are (potentially) reading this.  But, I think that this section may be a little less obvious.  If you take a look at Tempest's posts, the primary subject that is being worked through is the question of 'safe spaces.'  Tempest is troubled by who such spaces are for, what kinds of comfort are relevant, which forms are not relevant.  Her posts pose the question of why it is important to create a 'safe space' for some people, while its equally important to challenge other forms of 'safety.'  Without criticizing Tempest (who's position, I suspect, is close to mine) the larger conversation around the concept seems to have mystified this very concept.  'Safe Space' seems to have moved from a set of tactics (speech and behavioral regulations) that are designed to shift who has access to a particular community or are designed to allow for previously excluded forms of conversation into an end itself.  It has moved from a mode of re-imagining the political to a neutralization of the political, per se.

       The problem is that the form of neutralization imagined by Tempest's opponents (within this logic, Tempest is simply a representative of a set of networks of anti-racist fandom, a problematic form of representation, but not really mine) is itself a form of political inclusion and exclusion in and of itself.  It re-formats a set of techniques designed to fight exclusion (racial, gender, class, etc.) as techniques to reinforce a particular mode of exclusion, whiteness.  Her opponents do not want to face the discomfort of having this challenged.  This is why its really important to recognize that the creation of a space space is always a technique directed towards another end.  It can be used to create powerful feminist and anti-racist spaces, but we should recognize that misogynists and racists use these very techniques to create the opposite.  It's use is always simultaneously an act of inclusion and exclusion, that is, a consciously political act.  

     The question then becomes what kind of political community will those actions produce, who will be excluded? who will be included?  Every community consciously and unconsciously makes these decisions.  From Schmitt's perspective, this is a very mild form of separation, after it's a separation of groups of people from tasty treats, gin and tonics, and conversations about C.J. Cherryh, not life or death.  Our use of this technique should always have that political dimension in mind.  Every formation of community at this point is constituted through modes of inclusion and exclusion, and one has the choice of reaffirming a community built on whiteness or patriarchy or attempting to disperse that community for another community formation.  The purpose of the action is to combat bigotry, to produce experiments directed towards imagining a futurity without such forms of oppression.  

Update: The invitation has been rescinded, and Moon has accepted this decision.  There has been a bit of backlash directed towards the board and SF3.  You might want to go over to their sites and express your support.  I'm glad that this decision was made and thank the folks who made for taking this important decision.

1 comment:

  1. Aside from the many stupid things Moon had to say, her attribution of "the Jewish man in a wheelchair pushed over the side of the ship to drown" to "the religion that lies behind so many attacks on the innocent" is particularly telling. Leon Klinghoffer, it should be remembered, was killed in 1985 by four members of the Palestine Liberation Army, a resolutely secular organization formerly aligned with Ba'athist Syria. Moon's ignorance on this point is indicative of a complete indifference to any objective truth, as well as a deep bigotry that would conflate Islam, Arabness, and who only knows what other ailments afflicting brown people.