Friday, January 27, 2017

No Nostalgia for George W Bush: A Critique through Wendy Brown's Regulating Aversion

     One of the curious by products of the election of Donald Trump as president has been a sort of reevaluation of the presidency of George W. Bush.  A lot of this work has occurred through comical memes with slogans such as, "I bet you never thought that you would miss me!"  Not surprisingly, these forms of comical expression are not simplistic in their expression.  They are not precisely endorsements of the former president, but they seem to express the notion that somehow the very real problems of the past may be preferable to the present.  On one hand, I think this sentiment operates through a sort of forgetting, a forgetting of the violence associated with the war, of the sorts of repression that defined the era, but at the same time, perhaps they are right to see the present as containing a greater, fascist threat.  At the same time, this sentiment has taken a more serious form in a nostalgia for the kinds of tolerance that were expressed by Bush just days after the destruction of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.  This sentiment posits a greater feeling of genuine humanitarian sentiment on the part of Bush expressed through this desire for tolerance.  It's also the sentiment that I believe drives the earlier comedic statements.  It's precisely this nostalgia that I want to challenge, and I plan on drawing on Wendy Brown's analysis of Bush's invocation of tolerance in her 2006 text, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire.
      In her engagement with Bush's invocation of the concept of tolerance, Brown registers her critique at two levels: the tension between the call for tolerance and the brutal nature of the war, and at the same time, the contradictory nature of the call for tolerance of Muslim citizens, who were to be at the same time embraced as fellow citizens and closely monitored as threats.  She opens this by noting, "But while Bush continuously urged citizen regard for the rich diversity of the American population, while he preached respect and tolerance as model citizen behavior, this was hardly the state's bearing either in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan or in "fighting terrorism" on the domestic front.  Even as the populace was suborned to civility and tolerance, state practice was immediately and flagrantly extralegal, violent, race-conscious, and religion-conscious." (Brown 100)  Brown notes that these polices could be seen in the interrogation of thousands in their homes, the intense forms of surveillance allowed for in the Patriot Act that also circumvented "judicial powers that protect civil liberties." (Brown 100-101) More dramatically, the Bush administration sanctioned the torture of detained prisoners at Abu Ghraib and in domestic custody.  The administration also refused to recognize the rights granted to prisoners under the Geneva Conventions.  In effect, as Brown points out, the calls for tolerance on the part of its citizens went hand in hand with "The state's own vigilantism, violence, and racial profiling, at home and abroad." (Brown 101)

     Perhaps more significantly, Brown maps out a profound gap between the call for tolerance and the call for citizen vigilance.  As she notes, "But in addition to mutual respect and tolerance, and the newfound patriotism of shopping, the state hailed its subjects in yet another way in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, one that seems at odds with the above analysis.  In the domestic war against terrorism, Americans were asked to become the "eyes and ears of the government," and to heighten vigilance about strange people and strange behaviors: we were to be wary of mail we didn't recognize, people we didn't know, actions that seemed out of place.  This need for wariness, of course, justified racial profiling undertaken by the citizenry--for example, suspiciousness toward an Arab man sitting in an office reception with a package on his lap or towards a "foreigner" on a airplane who was nervous and fidgety.  Indeed, such "intolerant perspectives" were not only justified, but patriotic, insofar as they constituted the suspicious citizen as member of a citizen militia in the war on terrorism.  Patriotic, too, as the very name of the congressional act licensing it indicates, was the embrace of curtailed civil liberties and thus our tolerance of curtailed civil liberties and thus our tolerance of racial profiling in airport security stations, reductions or loss of access to public buildings, searches and seizures without warrants, detainments without cause and without Miranda rights, wiretaps on phone conversations, surveillance of book buying and library habits, and the interception of mail between prison inmates and their lawyers.  In this interpellation, we are no longer distant and passive subjects of the state but rather its agents and mirror image, appendages of a nonliberal raison d'etat." (Brown 102-103)

     Brown then uses this rather lengthy engagement with the practices of the Bush administration to analyze the nature of the contemporary nation-state, but I want to linger on the concrete practices of the administration itself.  As Brown notes, the administration both demands that the populace of the United States both embrace and observe these 'strangers' among us.  Perhaps more significantly, as she notes, the passive embrace of a kind of forbearance of vigilante violence was opposed to the entrance of the citizen (to be sure, coded white) into a kind of grid of intelligibility that demanded that the citizen channel those energies into the active surveillance of those marked as "foreign and hostile."  In effect, just as the administration asked for a set of practices that would allow for "tolerance and inclusion," it created the mechanisms to create the very opposite behavior.  More significantly, these forms of racially coded surveillance seeped into the pores of daily life, profoundly transforming the ways we engaged in public space with the injunction that "if you see something, say something."  'We' were disciplined through these acts of being watched, searched, and searching ourselves.  Within this context, rather than seeing George W. Bush and Donald Trump as expressing radically different value systems, we should see the rise of Donald Trump as a product of the very contradictory set of injunctions placed on us by the Bush administration, between the need to tolerate and the need racially profile as an agent of the state. 

      Trump openly embraces the racialized citizenry already implicitly embedded in the practices enacted by Bush administration. He draws off the forms of knowledge and power produced through the calls for surveillance on the part of that administration, the experts that arose to explain the "Muslim mind" and the kinds of anti-Muslim organizing authorized by those calls.  By drawing from that paralegal structure, he actively played and plays on the tensions between the injunction to 'tolerate' and the more powerful injunction to monitor.  In doing so, he presents himself as the sole escape from this agonizing tension.  But the Bush administration created the conditions for this setting, and he shouldn't be allowed to dodge this responsibility.

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