Snowpiercer: A Political Analysis

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS! 

I first read about Snowpiercer late in 2013 and quickly recommended it to fellow dystopian film lovers. Despite small concerns that the train-functioning-as-metaphor-for-capitalism was gimmicky and simplistic, I enjoyed The Host (one of Joon-ho Bong’s previous films) and was intrigued by the photographic stills I’d seen online. The few pages I could find of Le Transperceneige (the comic the film is based on) looked exquisite. Suffice it to say, I had high hopes as I walked into the almighty Civic on Friday night.

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Thankfully, Snowpiercer delivered everything I’d hoped for and more, and I can’t stop thinking about it (to the detriment of my university work). The film isn’t simplistic, as I’d feared, but an intelligent critique of capitalism and the behaviour it encourages.

Thatcher:Mason

The Self-Made Man

Snowpiercer reveals how tempting the “self-made man” narrative is in capitalist society. In my experience, those who come from difficult beginnings often forget about it once they’ve moved to “high places”. Self-made men and women will, however, evoke stories of difficult beginnings when it affirms the meritocratic mantra that working hard will lead to success, regardless of the environment into which you are born. “The world’s your oyster!” says the meritocrat. Nothings who become somethings prove the meritocrat right: “If you weren’t so lazy, you could make it, too!”

In Snowpiercer, Wilford uses the self-made man narrative to tempt Curtis into compliance. “You’re the only person who has ever travelled the full length of the train”, Wilford congratulates Curtis upon his arrival in the engine room, before rewarding him with a comfy seat and a plate of steak.

Wilford 2

Wilford is full of praise and admiration for Curtis: the trek to the front wasn’t easy and audiences, having followed him all the way, know it. We also know that Curtis didn’t get there alone (it was a collective effort and many sacrificed their lives in the process), but this is quickly forgotten as Wilford’s respect for Curtis leaves him feeling like an individual hero, a success, and an equal. If Yona hadn’t step in when she did, I wouldn’t be surprised if Curtis fell for this narrative. It’s very tempting. Let’s not forget, though, that for every successful person, there’s a support team; teachers, parents, siblings, friends, and lovers behind the scenes spurring us on.

This scene will not only remind you of Neo meeting The Architect in The Matrix Reloaded, but also of Truman speaking to Cristof – the creator – in The Truman Show. (And, just to add intertextual magnificence into this, Wilford and Cristof are both played by Ed Harris!)

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Cristof the truman show

The Architect

Capitalism as an Ecosystem

Snowpiercer also critiques our tendency to think about the economy as natural (not a human construction). In the aforementioned final scene, Wilford refers to the organisation of the train as an “ecosystem”. This ecosystem comes to its natural equilibrium when each carriage has the right amount of people in it, these people know what’s expected from them, and interaction between carriages is as it “ought to be”. Wilford describes how the equilibrium is maintained. Like a pressure valve, short bursts of violence are allowed (manufactured, even) so the train’s occupants can ‘let off steam’, thus preventing a larger display of political resistance gaining momentum. Any disruptions to the ecosystem are therefore accounted for as natural ebb and flow. Interestingly, the global financial crisis was spoken of in this way (“it’s just the system sorting itself out”, “boom and bust, duh!”), and the damage to people’s lives brushed over.

We watch Curtis become convinced by Wilford’s ecosystem metaphor, and, even more so, when he collapses onto his knees in the centre of the train’s engine. He is instructed by Wilford to listen. “When was the last time you were alone?” Wilford says to Curtis, “You can’t remember, can you? So, please, do take your time.”

Beating heart

This moment of the film is brilliant. Curtis is listening to the train’s engine – the heartbeat of the capitalist ecosystem. On its own, independent from us, capitalism is alive. We can only fall to our knees and surrender to it. However, seconds later, it is revealed that Tim (a child under 5) is working under the floor, oiling the engine. Capitalism is not naturally occurring, it is a human artifice maintained through exploitation. Snowpiercer critiques the use of ecological language and concepts when referring to the organisation of our economy.

This brings me nicely to my next point:

Political Institutions and the Environment

In policy discussions, the environment is often spoken about in the same breath as the economy, as if the two are of equal importance. Or worse, environmental protection is sidelined by the ‘more urgent’ problems facing the economy. Thus the environment is not seen as existing prior to political institutions, but merely one of many ‘political issues’ discussed by those operating within institutions. How we forget that political institutions are man-made artifices that require the environment in order to actually exist is beyond me (how long would JPMorgan or HSBC survive on Jupiter?). Regardless, it is this relationship – between environment and political establishment – that Snowpiercer explores with such sophistication.

In the film, the institution (the train) operates in isolation from the uninhabitable environment outside. This appears to refute my thesis, as the political institution has survived regardless of the environment. However, the film constantly exposes the fragility of the relationship between the two

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 In the end, it is not simply the explosion within the train that derails it. It is the explosion inside that causes the environment outside to shift: large sheets of snow are unearthed, crashing into the train and causing it to topple.

The environment surrounding the train ultimately destroys the seemingly “isolated” institution within the train. When Yona and Tim (the only two survivors) escape the wreckage, I half expected them to stumble across a group of human survivors (another political institution with its own social contract) that they must find their place within. This was not the case. There is a complete absence of institutions. What they see instead, and the shot the film ends on, is a polar bear. Ironically, this is the very animal at the centre of ‘economy vs. environment’ debates. As Snowpiercer suggests, the environment always wins: without the environment, we have no economy. Better start taking better care of it, then!

Snowpiercer ending

Snowpiercer polar bear

by Alex Edney-Browne

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Greens on Campus: Submission to Parliament on the Education Amendment Bill

The Education Amendment Bill (No.2)

To the Education and Science Committee,

We, Greens on Campus (Auckland), are writing to express our disagreement with the Education Amendment Bill (No.2). We believe that the proposed changes to the university governance structure are part of a trend of government-led commercialisation of our universities. These changes are making universities less democratic and more exposed to both governmental and corporate influence. This trend is worrying as it jeopardises the function of the university as an independent institution that works in the public interest as a public good.

Before outlining how the proposed changes to the university council fit into this trend, we would like to first explain why the trend is worrying. We recognise that, for some, processes of commercialisation are not necessarily upsetting. However, our educational institutions have established a place in our society as independent institutions that provide spaces for students and academics to debate fundamental ideas about how society ought to be organised. We believe this role should be protected.

The current trend is imposing a way of organising society upon universities. This is one where the free function of private commercial activities, with little regulation, is seen as the best way to organise society (and some claim this is the best way to serve the interests of the public as a whole). As recent events such as the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and growing inequality attest, such policies have come seriously into question. The university should be a place where these fundamental questions are debated. This is undermined when certain types of knowledge (those that corporate voices prefer) are privileged over others.

The university needs to provide a space for discussion, critique and innovation. For many students, university is the only safe arena where these activities can take place, as we face pressure in our workplaces and family homes to let the opinions held by our employers and our parents go unchallenged. Universities can only provide this space if they remain independent and promote academic freedom, rather than being interfered with by governmental and/or corporate influence.

The changes to the university council structure, as outlined in the Education Amendment Bill (No. 2), signal the continuation and advancement of this trend. The bill would remove the requirements that protect against corporate influence, outweighing the voices of academics and students on the university board. Under the current requirements, the Minister of Education is allowed to appoint four members to the university council. At the University of Auckland, these four members are:

  • Sir Ralph Norris (former CEO of Commonwealth Bank of Australia, former CEO of ASB bank, and former CEO of Air New Zealand).
  • Peter Kiely (National Party lawyer and NZ Young National’s president 1981-1982).
  • Andrew Ferrier (Fonterra ex-chief and chair of NZ Trade and Enterprise Board).
  • Michael Daniell (Managing Director and CEO of Fisher and Paykel).

It is reasonable to assume that the Minister, with no requirements preventing it, would elect more members from a similar business background. It is extremely unclear to us why external parties, let alone powerful business leaders, should have a greater – or even equal – say in the running of the university. These powerful business leaders are not, and have not been, tertiary educators; instead, they are interested in developing certain types of workers and undertaking research that will benefit their profitability. Additionally, the amendments would reduce the size of the council from between 12 and 20 members to between 8 and 12 members, thereby decreasing the number of academic staff and student voices, and putting the power of decision-making at the university in the hands of fewer people.

Although we recognise that the university should be independent and academic freedom should be protected, we do agree that universities should not be isolated from the wider community. However, the Education Amendment Bill (No.2) goes about addressing this in completely the wrong way. The process of community outreach needs to be two-way with the university and the community engaging with each other bidirectionally. Filling the university council with more corporate voices, who will dictate the rules of the university, is a unidirectional process. Furthermore, ‘the community’ is not synonymous with ‘the business community’. A wide variety of other groups make up our national and global communities and these groups also require the attention of our students and academics. The relationship between the university and the wider community needs to recognise this diversity.

We have written this submission to voice our disagreement with the Education Amendment Bill. We believe this bill is symptomatic of very worrying changes to tertiary education, turning universities into an undemocratic institutions whose primary focus is meeting the demands of the most powerful business interests. Business interest does not equate to public interest.

Thank you for taking the time to read our submission.

Greens on Campus (Auckland).

by Alex Edney-Browne and Umesh Perinpanayagam

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Affirmative Action: A Defence

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The only barrier to success is an individual’s own motivation and effort. So it goes. In a liberal democracy like New Zealand, equality is formally entrenched in the law. If you fail to be successful and reach equal status to others, then it must be down to your own laziness or other poor choices you have made.

Based on a mix of classical liberalism, meritocratic principles, and individualism, this idea motivates beneficiary bashers and affirmative action objectors. This was evidenced in the public outcry over Labour’s announcement that it would introduce a quota system to ensure a 50/50 split of men and women MPs. It’s what encourages people to think we don’t need feminism anymore, or that awarding Maori their own tertiary scholarships is ‘reverse racism’.

Often when I hear these opinions expressed in conversation, I become too overwhelmed to provide a coherent response. I forget that I’ve taken enough political and social theory papers to be sufficiently equipped to take on these misguided views. So, I thought I’d write a blog post, using Labour’s quota policy as a bit of a case study, to provide a systematic response to those who reject affirmative action. You may think this is a very moderate position to argue, and I would agree, but based on the viewpoints I’ve heard and read recently, one would think I was arguing for something incredibly radical (‘PC gone mad!’) and I’m therefore motivated to address it.

QUOTA TO ENCOURAGE WOMEN MPs, OR ‘THE MAN BAN’

Prior to its leadership election last year, Labour announced that it would like to set targets to ensure that women MPs made up 50% of their caucus by 2017. This would involve having some electorate seats where only women candidates could run. Quota systems have been introduced in other countries (the United Kingdom, for example) and are a response to the underrepresentation of women in politics — women make up 51% of the population in NZ, yet they count for only 31% of our MPs. This quota system was quickly framed in negative terms (by both media personnel and politicians) and given the label ‘The Man Ban’. Many thought it was outrageous discrimination against men that there could be a few electorates in the country where male candidates couldn’t run.

The opposition to the quota system was widespread across the political spectrum with many supporters and members within the Labour Party expressing their distaste for the policy.

Former Labour candidate Josie Pagani wrote that:

 “A strong women candidate does not need the handicap of people thinking she has only been selected because she is a woman, not because she is qualified. Quotas and bans say that Labour women are not good enough to be selected ahead of men on our merits. […] We are not helpless dearies who need a bit of a leg up from a fixed race.” [1]

This looks ideologically very similar to the arguments raised by right-wing bloggers David Farrar and Cameron Slater:

“So this is a fully-fledged quota for women. No more having to compete on merit. If Labour looks to get 50 MPs, then at least 23 of them in 2014 must be women, and from 2017 at least half of them must be women… Labour wants electorates to be able to ban men from even seeking selection for that seat. I don’t think even the Greens are that deranged”  [2] *Bold my own.

And from Cameron Slater at Whaleoil [3]:

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You don’t have to look far to see that the debate was framed as ‘merit vs. sex’ in the media, giving the public a skewed sense of what a quota system means by presenting a misleading either/or scenario.

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MERITOCRACY: IF YOU’RE NOT SUCCESSFUL, YOU HAVE ONLY YOURSELF TO BLAME…

…Well, that might be true if it weren’t for the myriad of arbitrary factors that contribute to one’s success, including the qualities attributed to you through the ‘accident of birth’*, history and socialisation.

Here’s an example of how these factors combine to create privilege:

I am a successful student who gets good grades, and has thus been offered opportunities and relationships with academics at university. My sister is experiencing the same success in her Biology postgrad. We work hard to get those grades, so some might say that we deserve the success that comes with it. Sure, but we also need to acknowledge that we are, in so many ways, predisposed to get good grades before motivation or effort is even considered.

How is this the case? Well, we’re white, we are able-bodied, we were born in a developed country to middle-income parents. Both our parents have postgraduate degrees, so we have grown up in an environment where books are in abundance and a love for learning is expected. The list goes on: we were well-fed, given opportunities to join extra curricular activities, well-clothed etc. In those regards, we are therefore incredibly privileged. Our society rewards whiteness, it rewards those who are able-bodied, it rewards those who aren’t poor, and it rewards those who have what society has deemed ‘ideal’ parents. It creates stigma around those who do not conform to those ideals and therefore discriminates against them. Those who are born into less privileged circumstances therefore have to work so much harder than my sister and I do in order to get good grades — that’s if they are even provided with the opportunity to enter into tertiary education.

ImageYou do not choose your parents, their educational background and their socio-economic group, nor do you choose your race, or your country of birth. You do not choose the values of the society you were born into, and nor do you choose the history and traditions that have shaped those values. Legal barriers are not the only barriers to success. Equality under the law — although a very important first step — doesn’t always eventuate into real, felt equality.

EITHER/OR?

Most of the news articles addressed the women’s quota as an ‘either/or’ issue. Either you elect candidates on their merit, or you elect them on their biological sex. This suggests that a quota system is an act of tokenism and incapable MPs will be selected on their sex alone. This is completely unfounded: there are plenty of capable women out there, but affirmative action policies are necessary to allow those women to overcome arbitrary non-legal barriers. They are needed because women of equal motivation and effort to their male counterparts have to work so much harder to be taken seriously in the male-dominated political arena.

OH, THE HYPOCRISY

Arbitrary barriers also discriminate against men who want to pursue careers in fields that have been gendered as ‘feminine’ — such as early childhood education. There is therefore a shortage of men in these careers: men make up only 2% of early childhood educators in New Zealand. Recently, there’s been an affirmative action push, in the form of scholarships, invitation grants, and ‘gifts’, to encourage more men into studying early childhood education. I think this is a great initiative and, hypocritically, so did the news media.

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News articles framed the affirmative action in a positive way, using words like: ‘encourage’, ‘invitation’ and ‘men wanted’. The interview on the Breakfast piece opens with the host stating:

“We have had a huge response to this this morning about how people would like to see more men in early childhood education.” [5]

Compare this with the media coverage of Labour’s quota policy and the ‘Man Ban’ label. Is this not hypocrisy? Why is one viewed positively and the other negatively?

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, SOCIAL MOBILITY, AND ‘THE LADDER’ METAPHOR:

Often we hear politicians talking about how other parties are ‘kicking down the ladder’ or ‘pulling up the ladder behind them’. This is a statement about social mobility. Those with a thinner, more minimalistic, and moderate theory of distributive justice than me (I subscribe to a very extensive theory), will argue that inequalities of outcome are fine so long as there’s an opportunity for upward mobility for those who are worst off in society. In other words: the ladder ought to be there for those who want to climb it.

Social mobility rates in NZ are appalling. OECD data shows that New Zealand has a very strong correlation between low educational outcomes and socio-economic background.  It also shows that people in low socio-economic groups, when surveyed 5 years later, had experienced little to no improvement in their financial situation [6]. Affirmative action policies are just one way of improving social mobility. They are not radical; they still operate within a competitive capitalist framework. Women will need to enrol as candidates and campaign for support, not find themselves plucked off the street at random and placed in a parliamentary seat. Supporting affirmative action policies is nothing more than a moderate and basic step in trying to balance the unequal effects privilege has on the distribution of opportunities.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] http://pundit.co.nz/content/about-that-man-ban

[2] http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2013/07/labours_proposed_man_ban.html

[3] http://www.whaleoil.co.nz/2013/07/policies-not-ovaries/

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/10425135/Majority-dont-trust-female-pilots.html

[5] http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/push-get-more-males-into-early-education-5382392

[6] http://norightturn.blogspot.co.nz/2010/05/inequality-and-social-mobility.html

ADDITIONAL RESEARCH

Bennett: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10895113

Curtin: http://www.listener.co.nz/current-affairs/politics/coming-to-the-party-5

Healey: http://thehandmirror.blogspot.co.nz/2013/07/why-do-women-mps-oppose-quotas-for-women.html

Russell: http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/comment/8888910/Quotas-may-be-needed-to-boost-female-MPs

News articles on men in early childhood education:

http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/call-encourage-male-kindy-teachers-5001400

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/ED1303/S00166/inviting-men-into-early-childhood-education.htm

http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/push-get-more-males-into-early-education-5382392

http://www.3news.co.nz/Men-wanted-in-early-childhood-education/tabid/423/articleID/335426/Default.aspx

NOTES:

* ‘Accident of Birth’ is Rawlsian lingo, so credit to John Rawls (a moderate liberal, so if he can acknowledge arbitrary factors, so should you!)

by Alex Edney-Browne

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The “Real” World and the “Out of Touch” Academics

On my Dad’s latest visit to NZ, I asked him what he planned to do upon completing his PhD in a year’s time. He replied: “I’ll need to find a job where I can mix academia with business. I don’t think I could go in either one of those directions because I find academics to be too out of touch and business people to be too… real.”

I think the conversation ended there because I was lost in thought. To me, my Dad had it wrong. In my mind, it’s the academics who are more ‘real’ – by that I mean, academics are in-touch, aware, and observant. Their job requires them to be.

You can hear my Dad’s sentiment virtually everywhere. It’s very common for recent graduates to say that they are now ‘entering the real world’, and for academics to be described as utopian dreamers, as out of touch, or somehow removed. You hear it when people so readily discount Arts and Humanities subjects as ‘airy-fairy’. If there is no obvious career at the end, then the educational pursuit is deemed unworthy. It’s been drilled into us that the practical, the rational, and the pragmatic, means accepting that we have to work with the economic and socio-political systems that are in place now, learn the relevant applied skills, and ditch the rest. This upsets me.

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For one, why would I go to university to be told that things are how they are, get used to it, buck up your ideas you rebellious youth and be realistic? Would you amputate the hands of a pianist or sculptor? Because that’s essentially what you’re doing when you tell an imaginative young person (your daughter or son, perhaps) to ‘be realistic’.

A university degree ought to be an intellectual pursuit that gives students the opportunity to challenge the status quo, to have new and brave ideas. University is one of the few safe spaces where young people can present dissenting opinions and test out ideas without worrying their relationships with employers or family members will be negatively affected. Tertiary education needs to be invested in innovative thinking across disciplines rather than teaching students to accept our economic and socio-political systems the way they are. This includes the more ‘vocational’ university subjects such as Economics, Engineering and Education. Sure, you can teach students the applied skills they need to become business people, engineers, and teachers, but they also need to be encouraged to question whether those practices and industries in their current forms are sustainable, ethical, or justifiable.

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Secondly, it’s not clear to me that academics are ‘out of touch’. Out of touch means uninformed, and I find it hard to understand how that’s a fitting descriptor for a profession characterised by research.

Academics are some of the most in tune people we have, their jobs require them to constantly read, watch, listen, and write on numerous topics. Few careers are marked by so much research, contestation of ideas, scrutiny, writing, and re-writing. Academics can also be incredibly tough on each other (attend an academic conference if you don’t believe me!). If one academic publishes a book that is poorly researched or theoretically weak, they will sure as hell hear about it from other academics. The best of them will take constructive criticism onboard, self-reflect, and adapt their views accordingly. The very best of them (the non-egos) are engaged in a process of constant, probably quite debilitating, self-reflection.

This back-and-forth exchange is a defining characteristic of academia. For this reason, I think academics are not removed from the real, but immersed in it. Their job is essentially an ongoing endeavour to uncover the truth (or, for the postmodernists: which ideas are truer than others).

We need to be incredibly critical of language that paints the university, particularly Arts and Humanities subjects, as ‘removed from reality’ and academics as ‘out of touch’. This language is ideological. It is designed to discredit dissenting voices and ensure the continuation of current power systems.

ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM AND NEOLIBERALISM

The prevailing negativity towards university and academics, especially in Arts and Humanities disciplines, is often traced back to New Zealand’s ‘anti-intellectual’ culture. I’m not convinced that anti-intellectualism is unique to New Zealand**, but I do think it’s an inevitable by-product of neoliberal reforms. As long as education is treated as a pipeline to the job market, schools and universities treated as profit-making businesses, and students made to feel like consumers, there will always be a widespread negativity towards those who teach, or study, non-vocational subjects.

The university – as a safe space for dissenting opinions and a laboratory for new ideas – is in danger. Increasingly, government support and funding is directed towards vocational faculties like Business and Engineering. Academics in the Arts and Humanities fields find themselves constantly needing to prove the ‘impact’ of their research and writing. ‘Impact’ is measured by economic considerations above all else. This sets a dangerous precedent of things to come.

Notes

** Max Harris (@mdnharris) has written a very compelling blog post about whether or not anti-intellectualism is unique to New Zealand, here: http://theaotearoaproject.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/is-new-zealand-really-anti-intellectual/

Many people have said this before, and much better than me. Here are just a few other sources:

http://harvardmagazine.com/2010/07/open-book-education-for-the-soul

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/04/20134238284530760.html

http://www.salon.com/2013/10/09/6_ways_neoliberal_education_reform_is_destroying_our_college_system_partner/

http://www.plutobooks.com/display.asp?K=9780745331553

by Alex Edney-Browne 

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The “War on Terror” and Language Politics

Part I: The War in Afghanistan and the Construction of a Narrative 

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Twelve years, four months, and one week. That’s how long the United States and the International Security Assistance Force have been in Afghanistan. The invasion started after 9/11. We all know that because that’s constantly used as the motivating factor for the War in Afghanistan.

The narrative is as follows: Afghanistan was the known haven of al-Qaeda: a terrorist organisation responsible for the 9/11 attacks and harboured by the Taliban regime. The Taliban governed most of Afghanistan and was known for religious fundamentalism and its brutal treatment of Afghan citizens. Afghanistan was therefore considered an appropriate country for US invasion: terrorists were hiding there and civilians needed protection against Taliban brutality.

The beauty of this narrative is that it’s all true. It’s misleading, however, because it’s incomplete.

It doesn’t mention that, in 2001, Afghanistan was war-torn and lacking proper infrastructure. It was devastated and not ready for another war. Its civilians had experienced decades of suffering: nine years of the Anti-Soviet War (December 1979 – February 1989) followed by a brutal twelve year period of Civil War (1989 – 2001). Like most violent conflict, both of these wars cost greater deaths and injuries of civilians than combatants. The high ratio of civilian casualties compared to combatant casualties continues in the current war in Afghanistan.

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Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan

It rarely speaks of the United States’ role in funding and supplying arms to the rebel forces of the mujahideen (the Taliban being a mujahideen faction) during the Anti-Soviet War. Nor does it mention that as soon as the Soviet forces had withdrawn from Afghanistan, the US withdrew the majority of their support, leaving behind a devastated country to pick up the pieces on its own. When the US and its allies play up the humanitarian aspects of the War in Afghanistan (‘we’re saving Afghan civilians from a brutal fundamentalist regime’), you’ve got to wonder where their humanitarian spirit had escaped to when the Afghan Civil War broke out in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal, and 65,000 civilians died in Kabul alone.

The narrative also fails to recognise that al-Qaeda had been displaced within the first few months of the War in Afghanistan. The objective to ‘stamp out’ terrorism quickly became a mission to fundamentally change the way in which Afghanistan is governed – a democratising mission carried out by armed foreign forces in a country with a nightmarish past of foreign intervention. An important question, rarely voiced by the mainstream media, is: has the War in Afghanistan actually created more insurgency than it has prevented?

The narrative also shies away from questioning the human rights record of the Karzai government the US and its allies are propping up.

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Because of this, the general public aren’t provided with any context to the War in Afghanistan, nor are they given an opportunity to ask some of these all important questions. Most of the information we get comes in the form of euphemisms, weasel words, polarisations and careful construction.

Part II: The ‘War on Terror’: How Language has been Carefully Selected to Garner Support and Sanitise Atrocities

Whoever said ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ was an idiot. Language is incredibly powerful. Without getting too far into semiotics, language is how we create and understand meaning in the world. It’s how we communicate ideas and have them communicated to us. The replacement of one word in a sentence can drastically change the meaning of that sentence. We know this because we studied it as early as high school English, Media, and Social Sciences classes. And yet, we all need frequent reminders of how language is carefully chosen and constructed every day in virtually every news report on a ‘sensitive’ topic. It’s therefore incredibly important to closely examine how the ‘War on Terror’ is communicated to us.

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‘War on Terror’

Let’s start at the very beginning: the name used to describe the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ‘War on Terror’ is a term that has been criticised by academics, like Judith Butler, for being too vague. A specific enemy or geographic territory is not provided by this moniker. The term ‘Terror’ is also hard to define. Terrorism is commonly understood to be the use of violence as a means of coercion for political purposes, but it has ‘no legally binding, criminal law definition’. Such a vague phrase is open to manipulation, as we have seen lately with the branding of environmental activists as ‘eco-terrorists’. Labelling someone a ‘terrorist’ allows the US government to create an ‘Other’ without recognising their own use of violence, or threat of violence, across the globe to coerce for political gain.

‘Freedom’

Operation Enduring Freedom is the operational name used by the US government for the War in Afghanistan. Nine days after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush used the word ‘freedom’ twelve times in his Declaration of the War on Terror speech to Congress, powerfully referring to al-Qaeda as ‘enemies of freedom’. In New Zealand, ACT party leader at the time (Richard Prebble) called the 9/11 attacks ‘an attack on the free world and an attack on New Zealand’. Despite ‘freedom’ being one of the most contested ideas in political philosophy*, it is often used by politicians to garner support because of its political power. No one wants to be seen as ‘anti-freedom’, even when we struggle to define what that actually means.

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‘Bad apples’

In the midst of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, US Defence Force spokespeople and politicians managed PR by claiming the abuse was carried out by a ‘few bad apples’. The US military and its allies are generally good, it’s just a couple of misbehaving soldiers responsible for these atrocities. Obviously the Bad Apples Theory was quite hard to maintain when the Bagram prisoner abuse scandal had also recently surfaced, and the use of torture techniques at Guantanamo Bay, video footage of the Baghdad airstrike on innocent Reuteurs staff, and the abundance of instances of deep cultural insensitivity (such as urinating on corpses and publically burning the Quran), all coming under the spotlight. ‘Bad apples’ is a euphemistic term which allows the Defence Force to blame poorly behaving individuals rather than reflecting on their jingoism.

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‘You’re either with us or against us’

‘Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’. When George W. Bush delivered this line in his Declaration of the War on Terror speech, he was purposefully using polarisation to garner support. Polarisation presents complex issues as having only two sides. It is designed to motivate bystanders (on-the-fencers) into choosing one of those sides. Obviously you can be against a US-led ‘War on Terror’, without supporting al-Qaeda – international governments could have had any number of reasons for not wanting to commit troops to Afghanistan. A mere nine days after the 9/11 attacks, however, this polarising statement was immensely powerful. It likely put huge pressure on other countries to pledge support to the ‘War on Terror’.

**

Concluding thoughts:

Examining language is not an exercise resigned to English Literature degrees. Language has immense political power, even in day-to-day exchanges with friends. Recognising this doesn’t make you a conspiracy nut.

You may think that this all sounds incredibly obvious. It’s certainly not my intention to patronise, but I think these things are easy to forget. And when people in power manipulate language to garner support for questionable wars, we all have a responsibility to each other to remember.

Notes:

* Freedom has a popular meaning of ‘without restraint’, but deciding what this really means is fundamental to many debates in political philosophy. For example, liberal theory states that ‘law is essential to liberty’ and that in order for an individual to have freedom, restrictions need to be placed on other people’s freedoms in the form of laws. Ie: my right to life is a restriction on your right to kill me: murder is therefore a crime. My right to personal property is a restriction on your right to that property: as such, theft is a crime. A right-Libertarian would argue that freedom is found in the free market and that only a minimal state should exist to enfore private property laws. And so on and so fourth. This is just one example of how freedom is debated in political philosophy. There are many more. So, if a politician uses the word ‘freedom’ to rally support without specifying what they mean by that, they’re essentially just using a powerful weasel word.

** Although I’ve written a very US-centric blog post here, New Zealand soldiers were in Afghanistan for longer than their involvement in WWI and WWII combined. And yet, the details of our country’s activities are not public knowledge. Euphemisms and weasel words were frequently used by NZ politicians and the NZDF to describe the New Zealand ‘Provincial Reconstruction Team’ and the NZSAS’s activities. Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager’s investigative journalism provides compelling evidence to contest claims that the NZ PRT were carrying out ‘humanitarian aid’ projects and NZSAS were simply providing a ‘mentoring’ role to the Afghan special forces.

Sources

The Discourse of Terror: An Interview with Judith Butler: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/14555/the-discourse-of-terror_an-interview-with-judith-b

Jodi Dean: Why are we suddenly at War with ‘Islamic Fascists’?:  http://jdeanicite.typepad.com/i_cite/2006/09/john_dean_why_a.html

George W. Bush’s Declaration of War on Terror speech to Congress (20th September, 2001):

http://www.britannica.com/presidents/article-9398253

For a New Zealand perspective:

Jon Stephenson’s ‘Metro’ article:  Eyes Wide Shut: The Government’s Guilty Secrets in Afghanistan http://metromag.co.nz/metro-archive/eyes-wide-shut/

Nicky Hager’s book: Other People’s Wars: New Zealand in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the war on terror (2011).

Professor Annie Goldson and producer Kay Ellmer’s documentary: He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan. TV broadcast version streaming free here: http://www.maoritelevision.com/tv/shows/anzac-2013/episode/he-toki-huna-new-zealand-afghanistan-0

Other docos I recommend on the ‘War on Terror’ (that are pretty much all up in full on Youtube):

Why we Fight (2005) dir. Eugene Jarecki

Dirty Wars (2013) dir. Rick Rowley

No End in Sight (2007) dir. Charles Ferguson

Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) dir. Alex Gibney

by Alex Edney-Browne

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Educating Teens in Digital Citizenship

I’ll start with a contentious claim: we do not live in a democracy. Our members of parliament are, indeed, democratically elected. However, the checks and balances in place to ensure they represent our interests consist almost entirely of an election every three years. That’s all. ‘Your vote is your voice’, or so it goes. Occasionally, very occasionally, the behaviour of a MP might be so bad a scandal erupts and public pressure leads to their exit from politics (as it did for Aaron Gilmore last year). Alternatively, a referendum may be held – but referenda are not binding (in New Zealand, at least). All in all, our democratic representatives are kept legitimate by a once-every-three-years ticking of boxes.

It’s no surprise, then, to see Russell Brand’s 2013 interview with Jeremy Paxman (on the fallacy of Western democracy) receive an overwhelmingly positive response. Brand’s interview was refreshing because it challenged the popular idea that political apathy rests with the ‘lazy’ and ‘disengaged’ citizens. Brand argues that non-voters aren’t lazy, or even necessarily disengaged, but disillusioned by a political process that inadequately represents their interests. If the selection of political parties and candidates doesn’t reflect your values or offer you help out of your difficult position, or you can’t trust that they will continue to do so for the three years they remain in parliament, then why vote at all?

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It is here that my pet peeve with civic education rears its head. As I’ve said, there are very few ‘legitimate’, direct platforms in which to express ourselves as citizens. Perhaps only one ‘official’ platform exists – voting. And yet, the civic education of children and teenagers discourages the exploration of other platforms. The literature on how educators ought to teach kids and teenagers to use the Internet is particularly uninspiring in this regard.

I’ve seen a growing number of ‘photo campaigns’ on Twitter where teachers urge other people to ‘Retweet’ a photo to their followers. This exercise is designed to show students how quickly words and images can be circulated on the Internet. The underlying message is this: if kids are going to use the Internet, they must do so with extraordinary caution.

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Initially, I had a positive response to the Twitter photo campaigns. I think they provide useful lessons for primary school-aged children who are vulnerable online. However, I soon learned that high school students, with the maturity and mental faculty to start developing their political identities, are taught the same lessons. Researching some teaching material for a university assignment, I found it was quite common for educators to err on the side of extreme caution, even with teenage students.

Some of these very cautious lessons for students include:

  • Prevent ‘flame wars’: discussions that ‘start small and build’ are potentially damaging to friendships.
  • Ignore trolls: responding to trolls with ‘argument, anger or a counter attack’ is ‘just what the trolls wants’.
  • Be polite and kind to everyone: ‘Benefitting everyone is the goal of digital citizenship.’

The message of embracing civility is equated only to prevention of ‘hurtful digital communication’. This teaching material fails to encourage students to use the Internet to develop their political identities, improve their debating skills, and test out their arguments. All kinds of conflict are mistakenly painted with the same broad brush in this discourse. Getting into a heated Facebook argument about sexism or racism, for example, is not the same thing as cyberbullying, and should not be viewed as such by teachers, parents, or caregivers. Not all anger is irrational or unjustified.

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As a teenager, I spent a lot of time engaging with trolls on the comments section of Youtube videos. This may sound futile – it often felt it – but, in retrospect, I think it was a productive use of time. At the age of 15, I was learning how to best argue against racism, sexism, and homophobia. I also had no qualms (and still don’t) about getting into arguments with friends and schoolmates on Facebook. The time spent engaging in these activities as a teenager helped me develop my understanding of politics, reflect on many of my own misguided opinions, and ready me for becoming a voting adult.

I don’t think the Internet is the saving grace of democracy – to believe so would be to buy into the fallacy that the Internet is currently a free space – but if we want to encourage the next generation to challenge the status quo rather than passively accept it, allowing them to be angry online might be a good place to start.

The three lessons mentioned in bullet points were found in this teaching literature:

Ribble, Mike. Digital Citizenship in Schools. Washington: International Society for Technology in Education, 2011. Print.

Willard, Nancy. Cybersafety: Embracing Digital Safety and Civility. California: Corwin, 2012. Print.

Link to ‘BBC Newsnight’ Jeremy Paxman interview with Russell Brand:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YR4CseY9pk

by Alex Edney-Browne

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