Category Archives: Cultural Criticism

The Hunger Games and Revolution Symposium Audio

While the wealthy dance and drink fine wine in a futuristic playground, working people suffer on the outskirts — hungry, heavily policed, and struggling to secure basic subsistence. Once there was the chance for revolution, but now it’s a distant memory, a discarded hope kept at bay by brutal police, aching poverty, and the separation of working people into small segregated areas afraid or unable to talk to each other in a meaningful way.

Is this Panem of The Hunger Games, or the America of 2014?

Questions of whether The Hunger Games belongs to the “left” or “right” typically inhabit the same old partisan sideshow where answers are determined in advance and politics is a matter of arguing opinions. This is not the domain of revolution, which in 2014 must be the site of unanswered questions and argumentation by action.

On November 23rd in New York City, a group of activists, organizers, and revolutionaries came together to discuss the meaning of The Hunger Games to the class struggle in America. What does the popularity of this book and movie series tell us about the popular imagination? How is it read and understood by young people about to enter the job market with little hope of success? Think ahead to what an American revolution could look like, what do we make of Katniss’s struggle against not only the unjust class society she inhabits, but the authoritarian alternative that calls itself the revolution?

Listen to activists, authors and revolutionaries John Garvey, Jasmine Gibson, Jarrod Shanahan and Yuko Tonohira in a discussion moderated by Jocelyn Cohn and sponsored by Unity and Struggle and Insurgent Notes.  Special thanks to Mylo Mendez for recording the audio, and to the Brooklyn Commons for hosting.

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Play Audio:

Reflections on Thanksgiving by a Native Revolutionary

-Mamos

So today  is Thanksgiving.   In this piece, Ahiga Kotori, a Seneca revolutionary and a friend of ours here in Seattle reflects on the holiday.  He asks: what do we really have to be thankful for?   Are folks giving thanks for U.S. capitalism and white supremacy, for 518 years of colonial settlement of North America, for a nation built on stolen Native land and an economy lubricated with Native blood? Why, if these do not really benefit people of color? As Malcolm X said, “we didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.”

We have been organizing with Ahiga Kotori and many others this fall demanding Justice for John T. Williams.  Williams, a Native American woodcarver was gunned down by  Seattle cop Ian Birk who claimed Williams refused to drop his carving knife.  Investigations have shown that Williams’ knife was not even open and that Birk shot him in the side after giving him only four seconds of warning.  This, as well as several other recent  cases of police brutality against Latino and Black folks, has sparked a multi-racial coalition of working and poor people  to mobilize against the cops.  We will reflect on this movement and analyze it soon, but for now we’ll leave you with Kotori’s haunting question: “what does John T. Williams have to be thankful for?”  While American society gives thanks for the triumphs of empire, and “progress” forged through the death of indigenous peoples, let’s pause to remember that the state the Pilgrims began to establish still claims the lives of oppressed peoples and this will not stop until we dismantle it and replace it with a new society we can truly give thanks for.

That’s why, unless snow disrupts the bus lines, we’ll be out there protesting, responding to Kotori’s call to action.

This Thanksgiving…..

I was wondering if anybody would be willing to have a protest of some kind?  Because in my opinion, this is just the same as the Holocaust except the difference is, we don’t celebrate the Holocaust. Though the Holocaust was horrible, it was a six year thing. Most of it. Our oppression has been going for 518 years. 78 million have died as a result. When Columbus got here there were 80 million people of different tribes and tongues. This was just in the U.S. territories alone!  Yet by the time the white man’s conquest was over, there are a little over 2 million left. Unlike the Jews of Europe, we barely have our identity.

Growing up in the hood, the main people I saw were Blacks and my cousins, who were full blooded Senecas. That experience had me thinking that maybe all non-Native people shouldn’t leave , leaving us the land. Maybe just whites.

Then I meet some white revolutionaries and now I know there are SOME good white people.

However, now, I see that despite the fact that the white man keeps all minorities down, for whatever reason, people of color who are non- tribal, are celebrating Thanksgiving!

Now in the heart of our struggle we must think about the future, what society we want for ourselves, our future, our, children, we must find a way to coexist as men, women, Blacks, Natives, Irish, Italian, Euros, Jews Arabs, Latinos , Muslims, gay men and women. And actually being able to force all non native people off the continent would be a long and difficult and frankly unnecessary task. So that said, if you all are going to stay, I ask for your help in our struggle as we will help with yours.

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The Landscape of Detroit

Over a year ago Eminem released the song “Beautiful” along with a video that roots the song in the de-industrialization of Detroit.

The history and political backdrop to the city been a source of cultural definition and hope for its people.

The Great Rebellion of 1967 was a turning point in the city of Detroit.  After years of attacks by the police, and being relegated to the most grueling, lowest paying jobs with no chance of promotion, black and poor white folks revolted, shaking the foundations of the ruling establishment in Detroit.  Both before and after the rebellion, there were a number of important organizations which were key in cultivating the means and spirit of revolt, such as the Revolutionary Union Movements (RUMs) along with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and the Republic of New Afrika. But the organizational weaknesses of these groups coupled with the relentless onslaught by the city elite left the people of Detroit open to a new wave of attack that resulted from the collapse of the Black Power movement.  The city, afterwards, would not be the same.

All the wealth that black and white workers had created was looted from the city by the capitalists and moved out to the suburbs or down to the southern United States.  Along with that went the tax base of the city, and forty years later the city is falling apart due to an emaciated infrastructure.  This story is shared by other cities where brown and black folks rose up to take their city back.  Gary, Indiana and Newark, New Jersey are only two more examples.  I’ve heard Detroit described by visitors as resembling a war zone — well that’s what it is; it’s the American Third World.

Continue reading The Landscape of Detroit

Avatar: A Contradictory Movie for Contradictory Times

by Mamos

**Spoiler Alert**

Avatar reenvisioned (from the Kasama blog)
Avatar Reenvisioned - From the Kasama blog

There has been a lot of debate about James Cameron’s movie Avatar. This film describes a private mercenary force like Blackwater colonizing a forest planet named Pandora sometime during the 22nd century. The indigenous people of this planet, the Navi’i, rise up and drive them out; in the process some of the colonizers switch sides and join the rebellion. Some see this story as a “noble savage” myth that perpetuates racist stereotypes of indigenous people. Others see it as a criticism of ecological destruction and a warning of what will happen if we don’t learn how to live in harmony with the natural world. Some see it as a white guilt fantasy and an example of liberal racism because it involves a white man leading a revolt of oppressed people.  Others see it as an inspiring story of anti-colonial armed struggle; (an Anti-War activist friend of mine said that Cameron was able to do what the anti-war movement has not been able to do: to encourage millions of Americans to root for the defeat of the US military.) In any case, this movie has been seen by millions of people and has broken records as a holiday blockbuster, so it is clearly striking a chord with everyday people  in this time of economic crisis, ecological fear, and colonization efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and elsewhere. For that reason, it is important for activists to carry on these debates because if we misunderstand the appeal of this movie we could be misunderstanding where our coworkers, friends, and neighbors are at right now.

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Hip Hop Has Saved My Soul (and Spirituality)

By BaoYunCheng

As insomnia kicks in, another profound piece of writing (I hope) is produced. I only get exciting ideas to write about in the middle of my sleep- surely, it’s divinely inspired. It’s like the Tupac line from Ghetto Gospel, “Never forget, that God isn’t finished with me yet//When I write rhymes, I go blind, and let the Lord do his thing.”onlygodcanjudgeme

I dedicate this entry to all my friends and family from my former home church in Seattle. It’s hard to write this and not think about the past five years of what could have been had I continued ‘growing in Christ’ with you all. I ask that you will be patient as you read this, as I’m sure much if not all of this note will provoke some kind of offense, and genuinely welcome and encourage your comments at the end.

A second audience I want to address here are some of my progressive friends who do listen to hip hop, but intentionally limit their listening to ‘underground’, ‘political’, and ‘socially conscious’ rap—artists like the Blue Scholars, Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, Mos Def.

I think the title of this piece is really fitting, because I wish to say that hip hop, in its entirety, including its most violent incarnations (i.e. gangsta rap, horrorcore), has rekindled my spirituality when I had completely abandoned God by providing me an alternative conception of Christianity and faith that was understood and embraced by people struggling against a system that had marginalized them from the political process and from economic opportunities. Hip hop has also taught me so much about the world and has given me so much purpose to what I do as a community organizer.
Continue reading Hip Hop Has Saved My Soul (and Spirituality)

Analyses of Blomkamp’s District 9 & Abrams’ Star Trek

-BaoYunCheng

I wrote these analyses immediately following the releases of these two summer blockbuster sci-fi films.

My Analysis of Peter Jackson/Neill Blomkamp’s District 9:

For Humans OnlyDistrict 9 is one of the more entertaining films of our generation. Despite its elaborate critique on systematic racism, though, the movie itself prescribes liberal racism and elitism to overcome the systematic racism.

There are 2 layers of analysis that can be made on District 9. The first is a ‘superficial’ critique on the UN, private contractors, and systematic racism to which the movie metaphorically makes. Because I agree with the movie’s critiques and think they are obvious enough that most other ‘socially conscious’ reviewers will deconstruct, I will only skim through the first layer before tackling my above thesis that District 9 handles itself in a very racist and elitist fashion.

Superficial layer:

1. Critique on Systematic Racism and South African Apartheid
It should be quite obvious that the setting of the film, South Africa, is intentional. The dichotomy between the aliens and humans parallel the apartheid state’s institutional segregation between South African blacks and whites, a system that formally existed from 1948 until 1994, and which exists de facto to this day with the continuation of black shantytowns (much like those depicted in the film as segregated alien communities of run-down shacks). Instead of institutionally racist policies, though, the black shantytowns exist today because of South African capitalism that has favored many white capitalists and a few black corporate barons at the expense of the majority of South African blacks.
The film beautifully captures the subconscious rootedness of racism among humans, with aliens being called ‘prawns’ (which we are told at the outset is a derogatory term) by even the most liberally-minded characters of the film, such as the protagonist Wikus Van De Merwe (similar to whites commonly calling African Americans ‘n*ggers’ throughout most of American history).
Another interesting way racism is made explicit in the film is through the alien’s ‘human’ (but really, ‘white’) name: Christopher Johnson. Although the alien might have an alien name, it is comfortable enough with the name to acknowledge it among friends (i.e. to Wikus near the end of the movie). The real-life parallel to this is the erasure of African names to slaves entering America (something Malcolm detested, and hence, the X in his name).

2. Critique on UN and liberalism (liberal humanitarianism)
Like the UN, humanitarian language is used as a cover the MNU’s actions to forcibly relocate aliens from District 9 to District 10. A small but important point is the authoritarianism and favoritism within UN culture, as Wikus was promoted to lead the MNU’s operations early in the film. This reminded me of the behind the scenes collusion between the G8 (or the power of the Security Council) to manipulate policy in both the UN and orgs like the WTO.

3. Critique on private contractors like Blackwater
MNU was a company large enough to produce and develop weapons and have its only private army. Throughout the film, we see a lot of dirty tactics used by MNU, from medical experimentations of aliens to verbal deception (when Christopher does not want to give consent for his eviction, the MNU agents resort to nonrelated laws of pollution to coerce Christopher into signing the eviction letter).

Deeper Analysis- why District 9 is liberally racist and elitist:

4. Unintended racist portrayal of Nigerians
Admittedly, I’m not clear as to whether or not the Nigerians were intentionally portrayed in a sensationalized manner, but I’d be willing to bet that the writer/director needed some straw man as the gangster type in the film. Because the film had no social context for the looting and gangster tactics by which the Nigerians operated, it reinforces the subconscious racism held by many white liberals that certain people of color (dark-skinned) are more prone to violence and gangsterism. It is this ‘backwardness’ that needs to be rescued by the white missionaries that form the ranks of the Peace Corps and other international humanitarian organizations. Indeed, in the film, the Nigerians and their violent and cultish tendencies are portrayed as negatively as the private soldiers of the MNU. In one of the last fight scenes, viewers are expected to sympathize with Wikus when he faces a violent barrage from both the MNU and the Nigerians.

5. An Elite-Centric View of Liberation: One Man Can Save the World
This is one of the most common themes of Hollywood movies. In short, the film’s solution relies on a hero to save the day. That the hero is white is another problem, which I will examine in point 6. The two protagonists of the film are Wikus and Christopher. I’ll start with the latter, since Wikus will be covered in the next point. Why is it that Christopher is the only smart alien in the whole film (at the first encounter, MNU needs to resort to verbal coercion because Christopher is “sharp” and understands the implication of eviction)? Why does Christopher alone have to be the one to rescue his alien counterparts? Why are all the other aliens, like the Nigerians in the film, portrayed as thieves or criminals? Because the theme of the movie is liberation from oppression, the elitism provides a false and ahistorical illusion by which liberation has been achieved: namely, it counteracts the fact that all historic liberations have been products of popular and democratic movements. Sure, there have been leaders like Malcolm and Gandhi, but that they have been leaders is a testament to which their ideas and messages were reflections of the movement (and the people) as a whole. Again, this is a predominant theme in movies (i.e. the Dark Knight and Harvey Dent save the day!) and reflects the popularity of the Obamamania phenomenon (let’s vote in change!). Until movements are built, though, change cannot be achieved by one or a few leaders alone.

6. The White Man’s Burden: Wikus as the Liberal Racist
In a way, District 9 is very similar to Blood Diamond, Freedom Writers, and Dangerous Minds. It follows the trend in setting a white man as the key to achieving liberation. There is a common sentiment among white liberals that Wikus accurately represents through his actually ‘becoming’ an alien: that whites can go into communities of color (most of the times in the so-called Third World) and eventually experience some type of oppression faced by people of color. That Wikus actually transforms into an alien is the ultimate manifestation of this white fixation/imagination of becoming one of the oppressed. For the record, I do think white people have and will be persecuted for being in struggle with people of color, but I do NOT think white people can ever be a victim of white supremacy simply because, (duh), the color of their skin. The other liberally racist idea Wikus represents is that white folks can simply enter into a community of color and change it for the better. Again, lasting change is a process from below involving movements. White liberal humanitarians, so long as they are detached from the community that they purport to serve, cannot be the key to progressive social change.

———-

My Analysis on JJ Abrams’ Star Trek:

I’ve decided to give a quick analysis on the newest film in the Star Trek franchise. In terms of entertainment, it stands as the second best film in the franchise, only behind The Voyage Home and slightly better than The Wrath of Khan and First Contact. JJ Abrams has also done a commendable job in making one of the most sophisticated and longstanding sci-fi franchises accessible to a newer generation. Some themes I will be covering in my analysis include the liberal imperialism of the Federation, deglorification of manual labor, an elite-centric view of the world, and patriarchy.

1. Liberal imperialism of the Federationnero
This first point is the broadest of them all and not necessarily specific to this particular film, but to the entire Trek franchise. It’s worth pointing out, however, because this film marks the beginning of the self-glorified history of the Federation. I find it appalling that throughout the Star Trek franchise, the Federation’s own imperialism, patriarchy, and oppression is masked by the contrast to barbaric and evil acts of other alien empires (i.e. the Cardassian occupation of Bajor; the impulsive, warlike dark-skinned Klingon race; the drug-addicted, fight-to-death Jem’Hadar in service of the ever-expanding, conquest-hungry Dominion empire). This movie continues that trend by introducing us to Nero, an angry and impulsive Romulan who seeks total destruction of the Federation and Vulcan homeworlds. Pitted against such an irrational foe with no virtue for diplomacy, it’s not hard to see the Federation as the progressive, virtuous entity. But in case there’s any sympathy for Nero, we’re reminded of the Federation’s peace-spreading mission, or its “humanitarian armada” [an oxymoron or a Bush-ism?], early in the film by Captain Pike. It’s important to juxtapose the Romulan Nero against his distant Vulcan cousins, whose logic, propriety, and alliance with the liberal Federation inevitably triggers intense sympathy by movie viewers once genocide against its race has been committed. As for the genocide of Romulus, the film never addresses or resolves the catalyst of Nero’s wave of violence. I’m NOT defending Nero’s actions by any means, but I think it’s important to note that the Federation, despite its liberal facade, is an empire in an inter-imperialist rivalry against other empires, and thus commits numerous abuses of its own (throughout the franchise, we see examples like martial law on Earth following the Federation’s faking of Dominion presence; Sisko’s tampering of a hologram to trick the Romulans to attack the Dominion; Section 31, Starfleet’s paralegal intelligence agency; many other great examples in DS9 Seasons 4 and beyond). A final way the Federation masks its imperialism is through the inclusion of different races that kind of says, “Hey look, we’re the good guys because we have funny looking aliens and a few people of color on the bridge.” I won’t belabor this following point, but there are too many parallels between the Federation and US empire spreading democracy abroad.

2. Deglorification of manual labor, Glorification of militarization
If this movie did not take place in the Trek universe but in contemporary America, it would be easy to see this film as a recruitment tool or propaganda piece for the US military. Captain Pike appreciates the toughness and courage of Kirk, but sees Kirk’s life on earth as a waste of talent. Such attributes, Pike reasons, is worthy of Starfleet. Like military recruitment ads, there’s a sense of “Are you brave? Are you macho? Then join now!” This is accentuated by Pike’s final line at the bar, “I dare you” to best your father, to which Kirk responds the next day, “I’ll be an officer in 3, not 4 years.” What’s tragic in this story is that, like in the US, there’s a stigmatization of manual/blue-collar labor (a background from which young Kirk comes). So many times it’s the US capitalists and corporations that get celebrated, but the fact is, their wealth depends on the masses of workers who produce for them. This same logic can be used to explain Scotty’s introduction in the film, where we see him complaining about his placement in an isolated Federation outpost. Granted, it’s inhumane to be working alone, but his comment needs to be seen in the broader context of deglorification of manual labor.

3. Elite-centric view of the world
Similar to deglorification of manual labor, but more broadly speaking, the film looks down upon ordinary people like you and me. This can be seen by Spock’s rescue of the five or six Vulcan elites. He claims that these are the most important Vulcans on the entire planet because all of Vulcan culture rests with them. So are the rest of the Vulcans devoid of culture? Are they lesser than the elites? It’s funny that he holds the survival of Vulcanness on five or six old male elites who cannot reproduce on their own. This theme is also seen in the evaluation of Spock, where a few elites have the exclusive authority to determine whether or not he’s Vulcan; and the evaluation of Kirk, where a few elites determine his fate in the Federation. So much for democracy in the ‘liberal’ Federation.

4. Patriarchy of the Federation
Besides, the aforementioned scene of Vulcan elders being male (besides Spock’s mother), I’m having difficulty remembering any women in the movie who did not have a sexual role. From Uhara’s opening scene, her sexual qualities are assessed. Ultimately, it’s her sexuality that tames Spock, so to speak, from irrational breakdown. It seems that every other woman in the movie, be it having a passing role or Uhara’s roommate, is in some way sexually evaluated by Kirk. Like the ‘tough’ ads of US armed forces, you’re rarely going to see women climbing the ropes or shooting the gun. Make no mistake, the Federation, like US empire, is patriarchal.