Wednesday, August 19, 2009

“Teachable moments” - David Theo Goldberg on the Militarization of Society

David Theo Goldberg

Political figures in America, including President Barack Obama, lined up to call the fierce disputes of meaning and significance that surrounded the recent arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. a “teachable moment” for the nation. But quite what was to be taught—to whom and how; if anything—remains unclear. Most Americans, for example, did not need to be taught why ‘racial profiling’ was widely invoked as a frame to explain Gates’ arrest and anger: terms like ‘racial profiling’ are keywords in a national vocabulary on citizenship and the law; institutionalized racism permeates the American everyday. Likewise, the media’s ‘expert analysis’ on the conduct of the Cambridge police sounded an old conversation—looped sound-bites on the difficulty of naming what constitutes reasonable use of force by the state in a post-9/11 era. Gates’ story was not exactly one episode in a series—in fact, the media made it newsworthy by playing up the distracting, juicier specifics, all unusually well-documented—but it was rendered familiar with the effect that necessary and new questions went unasked. Indeed, the political furor that broke in July 2009 was rather largely to do with confirming that no man—tenured, Harvard professors in leafy, literate suburbs, no less—stands exempt from America’s logic of militarization par excellence. Examining the logic—looking to the nature of American fluency with the practices and consequences of racial policing; to national strategies of domestic governance by force and Americans’ long co-presence with it—may help us explain why, in the afterwards of Gates, hoped-for public teaching moments on violence, race, and the American state failed to materialize (national lessons in why the U.S. incarcerates the greatest percentage of its population, for example; why felony disenfranchisement and racial disparities in the criminal justice system leave almost a fifth of African American men unable to vote, etc.).

David Goldberg’s capstone seminar in Johannesburg, De-Militarizing Society, developed an elegant line of analysis on the nature of modern power and its work in institutionalizing confrontation in the co-making of society and the state—a helpful analytic in elucidating events as politically muddled as Gates’ arrest. Professor Goldberg called for a close reading of how modern societies are ordered by a logic of militarization and are constituted and reinforced by modes of governance akin to war—a vision of the life of power in which all basic relations of force in society might be examined more richly as relations of war. Goldberg took flight from Michel Foucault’s 1975-1976 Collège de France lectures, Il Faut Défendre La Société, to deliver ten claims on the relations of militarization, governmentality, and the modern subject. His premise: Modern states require a strong military, a ‘culture of militarization’, and militarized modes of governance that reach deep inside the social body to assert their sovereignty effectively. Extending and refining Foucault’s thesis, and weaving together strands of the workshop’s conversations, Goldberg set in motion an especially powerful series of tensions, paradoxes, and relations that proffer new kinds of questions on power and society, in which a logic of exclusion (from outside and from within) becomes the foundational practice for governance and social belonging. On militarization’s relation to political economy, for example, he traced the ways states find afterlives for technologies innovated in war in times of political peace and use war to forge ways out of depression and unemployment.

Professor Goldberg’s careful argument came alive as he outlaid examples of militarization, war of-and-in the everyday, and the governance of the social by violence: mandated military service; the privatization of state prisons; national anthems and civic parades; the implementation of a ‘working day’; CCTV; volunteerism. But, as likely Foucault would approve, Goldberg also actively encouraged analysis of the messy case-study and the unfitting, unfinished example: One recalls, for instance, New Orleans' residents begging for military assistance after Katrina in a bifurcated moment of state abandonment and spectacular state violence; or, as Julia Hornberger superbly describes, the uncanny turning of many African migrants and refugees in Johannesburg for protection from the South African police they fear in the wake of xenophobic cleansing. Avoiding a totalizing theoretical argument, Professor Goldberg invited participants to think through personal examples and experiences: these included the phenomena of ‘military police’ and the scandalous prisoner treatment at Abu Ghraib—two cases that show how militaries are both subject to and outside the law, but also how the logic of militarization relies on an elsewhere and outside; and the emotional, affective elements and tactics of war-making, such as ‘shock and awe’. Closing the Johannesburg workshop with unsurpassed energy, de-militarizing society—as much as subject for critical thinking as a call for political action—can only begin, Goldberg argued, after the meaty logics and paradoxes of power are teased apart.

The complexities around the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. present a loud case of the militarization of society that Goldberg’s project helps situate. Precisely because the long militarization of race, policing, and state violence in America is traceable and elusive, familiar yet unspoken, much did not need to be said about Gates in public. But people also watched the Gates arrest closely to see what kind of reaction Obama would make: it was Obama’s test, of sorts, in choosing to confront or acknowledge, or not, a national, public secret. And, for a brief moment, I think many felt a “teachable moment” had arrived, as Obama’s thoughts came out in off-the-cuff one-liners to journalists—describing the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, as “acting stupidly.” (We see here a defining element of the Obama Presidency: this is a President who does not mean what he says—a refreshing contrast from his predecessor who frightened the world by believing everything he said and needing no evidence for action). Obama's decision to hold beers of reconciliation between Gates and Crowley thus took many in America by surprise. A national “teachable moment” on the militarization of society may not have convened in July—after all, swarmed by reporters as they left the White House, Crowley and Gates returned to the language of war, of battle-lines redrawing and “agreeing to differ,” and of the episode as a 'truce' without apology. But by allowing two 'sides' to sit down and talk; for the citizen to speak up to the state; calling for dialogue over violence, and going against police tactics in America of using arrest as a method to qualm assembly—perhaps we can allow ourselves to read Obama's 'reconciliation' as a tentative act of de-militarizing society.

James Williams