Ancestor worship is a common theme in African lore, particulary in the traditional arts. So while people are singing the praises of their dead relatives, I always wanted to ask what to do if my ancestors were horrible people?
I was recently speaking with some people whose parents were refugees from Romania, ostensibly people who were fleeing life under the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, a forgotten piece of Stalinist work who made the lives of Romanians miserable for decades. While Ceaușescu and his government were vile, the people who came to the US were refugees and likely middle class families decended from peasants back home.
The contrast with my and many Americans’ heritage is stark. I am decended from a family of Mitchells, a distinguished Scottish family of wealthy means who decided to take a gamble and invest in agricultural ventures in the Southern United States. The first to come was a man named Thomas Mitchell, my maternal great x 10 grandfather, who arrived in US, fought in the Revolutionary War and set subsequently set up shop for the family business in Georgia.
Thomas, like many Scots who came to the Southern United States, came to profit not only off land and agricultural products that could be exported to Europe, but also off the promise of cheap, forced labor from Africa. Thomas Mitchell was a slaver.
From slave based agriculature, the Mitchell family became extremely wealthy in the South, producing numerous politicians, lawyers, administrators and academics. There is still a county named for the Mitchell family in Georgia.
In 1836, the Mitchell family expanded their land holdings by assembling a militia of 75 men and committing a genocide against the Native American residents of their land “in which all the Indians except five were killed, their arms, campage, etc. falling into the hands of the whites.”
There are others, but the point is, does it make sense to venerate one’s ancestors when they were clearly committing crimes against humanity? The Romanians I spoke with probably have terrible members of their family, but likely have not had their lives shaped by a horrible past.
I am not unique. Just about any white person in the South whose family was their during the 18th and 19th centuries was involved in the buying, selling and use of humans. If they have money now, it is a direct result of slavery and the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans in the South. We should never forget, because that’s how we got here, the past that shapes our present. Our current lives were made possible by terrible people doing reprehensible things to other people.
So no, not going to sing any praise songs to my ancestors any time soon. Maybe I’ll do the opposite instead.
Not sure why but for some reason over lunch I got interested in old labor songs. This one was particularly bleak. Apparently, it is intended to be sung over “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.” As our administration erodes labor and environmental protections for the inexplicable sake of bringing back coal mining, it pays to have a look back at how bad it really was.
Song: My Children are Seven in Number
Lyrics: Eleanor Kellogg(1)
Music: to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”
My children are seven in number,
We have to sleep four in a bed;
I’m striking with my fellow workers.
To get them more clothes and more bread.
Shoes, shoes, we’re striking for pairs of shoes,
Shoes, shoes, we’re striking for pairs of shoes.
Pellagra(3) is cramping my stomach,
My wife is sick with TB(4);
My babies are starving for sweet milk,
Oh, there as so much sickness for me.
Milk, milk, we’re striking for gallons of milk,
Milk, milk, we’re striking for gallons of milk.
I’m needing a shave and a haircut,
But barbers I cannot afford;
My wife cannot wash without soapsuds,
And she had to borrow a board.
This song was originally posted on protestsonglyrics.net
Soap, soap, we’re striking for bars of soap,
Soap, soap, we’re striking for bars of soap.
My house is a shack on the hillside,
Its doors are unpainted and bare;
I haven’t a screen to my windows,
And carbide cans do for a chair.
Homes, homes, we’re striking for better homes,
Homes, homes, we’re striking for better homes.
They shot Barney Graham(5) our leader,
His spirit abides with us still;
The spirit of strength for justice,
No bullets have power to kill.
This song was originally posted on protestsonglyrics.net
Barney, Barney, we’re thinking of you today,
Barney, Barney, we’re thinking of you today.
Oh, miners, go on with the union,
Oh, miners, go on with the fight;
For we’re in the struggle for justice,
And we’re in the struggle for right.
Justice, justice, we’re striking for justice for all,
Justice, justice, we’re striking for justice for all.
I was just reading this column in a special section of the NYT from Maano Ramutsindela, geographer from the University of Cape Town.
The partitioning of Africa by European empires has had devastating social, economic, political and psychological impacts, and millions of lives have been lost in post-independence Africa defending colonial borders. We are overdue for an African renaissance, completing the decolonization – which remains unfinished business until boundaries are changed.
His piece is mostly about the issue of parks, but the following came to mind.
1. Perhaps the author does not realize that millions of European lives have also been lost over the issue of borders. Historically, countries in Europe also haven’t fully represented linguistic groups (what is a language anyway?).
2. While from afar it may seem self evident to create states based on language, I’m wondering how that plays out in a country like Kenya, where there are more than 40 languages spoken and where, since often ethnic groups represent occupational groups, linguistic regions overlap. The distinctions between languages and cultures are often artificial anyway. Though the Maasai and the Samburu speak mutually intelligible languages and share almost identical cultural practices, they are bitter enemies and have been at war with one another for centuries.
3. Perhaps we might hope that African states worry more about how to keep themselves together and how to mend their internal divisions, rather than arbitrarily create more. It’s bad enough that the Kenyan government is weak and unresponsive to the needs of its citizenry, but the local governments haven’t shown themselves to be much more effective.
4. Perhaps, instead of dividing Africa even further, we might hope that African states learn to trade amongst one another. One of the main impediments to development is that fact that most African countries don’t trade with one another. There is no domestic trade economy. Could one imagine a world where European countries like Switzerland and Germany only traded with China and not each other? Cause that’s what’s happening in Africa.
5. Worse yet, it assumes that there is such a thing as a “natural” political unit. There is no such thing. All countries are artificially and have been created through mostly undemocratic means.
Worrying about colonial borders is a low hanging side show. While the colonial borders certainly impacted the ways in which modern Africa formed, in the end focusing on the issue is a convenient way of not having to dig more deeply into the complexity of present day facts. Present day Kenya is not a basket case simply because of misplaced borders. I think we should give Kenyans much more credit. These narratives often do to little to take African countries themselves to task for their own failings.
These days, I’m pretty sensitive to the idea of Islamic militants, given that Al-Shabab seems to be successfully killing people not a stones throw from where I live and work. Honestly, as much as it pains me to say, I’d be more than happy to see some American humvees rolling into Kenya’s coast right now since the Kenyan government seems pretty useless when it comes to issues of security.
ISIS’s crusade, however, lies far from here, though ISIS’s successes could embolden Islamist groups elsewhere, though it’s difficult for me to gauge how deep the connections are between Islamist groups.
The video, however, was quite interesting. The first thing that strikes me is that the presenter is Chilean, speaking American English, representing the international nature of ISIS itself. It is not a home grown ethnic Islamist movement, struggling for historical territory and self-determination. Like it’s arch enemy Israel, it is an international movement of foreigners seeking to establish and ideological state in a foreign, based upon a self-created narrative of religious entitlement.
There are various scenes which show the host talking with other members of the group, who are clearly a hodge-podge of ethnicities and nationalities. The common language appears to be, in many cases, English, though at times it’s hard to tell.
The production values, outside of the sound, are excellent. Most striking is the use of symbols. Throughout the video, the host walks through a number of symbolic points, starting at the border of Iraq and Syria itself, to symbols of border checkpoints, military patches and signs. The message is that ISIS is exposing these symbols as empty illusions, positioning itself as the harbingers of Islam in a corrupt and empty landscape.
What’s interesting is that a young Chilean, likely raised in the US or Canada, is seen mocking much older and obviously local prisoners. He calls the Kurds Satan worshipers and mocks the Iraqi soldiers as cowards and fools.
So, how is ISIS, as an international terror group with roots in the West, any different from the corrupting Westerners they so hate? The video repeatedly appeals to Western sentiments that Sykes-Picot was the great destabilizing factor in the middle east, but it’s unclear as to how ISIS provides an avenue of self-determination to the ethnic groups who were broken up or forced to tolerate one another. Does taking the borders away liberate Sunnis and Shiites? Does ISIS respect the right of self-determination for Kurds? Clearly not.
Check out the video. It’s pretty surreal.
Continuing my series of interviews with interesting people I know, this week I spoke with Ben Brucato, a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. You can read more by and about Ben at his website, www.benbrucato.com.
Tell us about yourself and what you do.
I’m a husband and father. I live in upstate New York because it’s where my doctoral program is located. I look forward to moving on. I’m currently a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Science and Technology Studies department. I have taught periodically as an online instructor in the Sociology department at Northern Arizona University, where I earned my MA. I’m about to start teaching as an adjunct at Union College in Political Science. I came to RPI to study with my advisor, Langdon Winner. I’ve been a musician since I was about 10 years old, and have played in all sorts of bands. I’ve been making noise as Clew Of Theseus (and other projects) since 1997 or so. I’m in a black metal band that’s trying to get off the ground. I started a label in around 2001 or so, called Cathartic Process, which releases noise and power electronics. Lately, it’s been a cassette-only label. It’s been very slow going the last couple years, though.
Every academic has a history. What brought you to this arena?
College was the expected thing to do after graduating high school. I intended to go to graduate school right away. Through my activist work, I met and became good friends with Joel Olson. He was just finishing his PhD and trying to find a job. Seeing that process put me off of my intentions to be a professor. I came back to graduate school after a nearly decade-long advertising and marking career. It was soul crushing and I hated everything about it except the paycheck. After the last place I worked was essentially liquidated and my unemployment ran out, I started considering other options. Spending a couple years being broke again changed my expectations. I knew I could go back to school and have a reliable but small income from stipends. It was a way to get by for a few years more than a stepping stone in a career trajectory. It would be nice if it ends up being the latter.
You have a black metal/noise history. What’s that about and does it inform your present work? Do you find extreme music to be helpful to your academic work?
I’ve been a noise artist for a while now. That was always more important to me than my professional life. Now that I’m finding more satisfying theoretical and topical issues to explore in my work, my studies and writing is more personally rewarding. But I don’t think these really inform my work that much. The themes in black metal and noise have me more attuned to the extreme, the pessimistic, and so on. I’m sure there’s something deep inside me that draws me to both fanatical politics and extreme metal, to cosmic pessimism and the bleakest industrial noise. I’d like to offer some more profound explanation, but any real connection is at an affective level that resists verbalization.
It might just be me, but I’m thinking that reports of police brutality are becoming more prominent in public discourse. First, is there evidence to suggest police brutality on the rise? Second, what do you make of the fact that, despite increased public awareness of police brutality and abuse of power, that no pubic representative (to my knowledge) has commented on the problem? Third, I feel that issues of police brutality were softened in the 90’s by TVs shows such as COPS, which forced viewers to watch through the perspective of officers, but that public opinion seems less empathetic to police in the YouTube era. Producers necessarily had to defer to the police to make the show. It’s my opinion that it very much matters who holds the camera. Do you find that the new trend of citizen produced (or edited video) is changing attitudes to police brutality? Or has nothing changed at all?
What counts as police brutality? What would it mean for police brutality to be “on the rise”? I don’t think there are clear answers, and that the terms discussing these have to be tentative, provisional operationalizations. They have to be tied to a context and to texts, to discourses and the places where they emerge. My research is mostly tied to the visibility of policing and its violence. Some researchers have addressed the idea that because police use-of-force is now more visible, the perception is that standard, ongoing police activity – including use-of-force – is becoming more prevalent, more invasive, more violent, and so on. The research on incidence and outcomes of use-of-force by police is incomplete, and there are few longitudinal studies. Without quality, national-level, longitudinal research, most assertions about these things are speculative. I am, however, comfortable claiming that use-of-force incidence remains stable, and I think there is some reasonably reliable empirical basis to support this claim. The bulk of my research is motivated by trying to understand, on the one hand, why the Rodney King beating prompted a national conversation and nearly led to a crisis for the policing institution as a whole. Yet, on the other hand, we are now presented with a new documentary video of a police beating or shooting about every week and without the same national conversation and crisis of legitimacy. What explains this? As I’m finding, there are many reasons for this that work together to explain it. I’d say the most common reaction I hear is that people are becoming “desensitized.” I think that has very little explanatory value. I’m sure it contributes, but that’s not an explanation I spend much time exploring. I think you’re on to something with the reference to COPS, which predates the Rodney King beating. I think we have a “toolbox” of codes and symbols we use to interpret these visualizations and representations of police violence. Reality shows like COPS, and all sorts of other cultural artifacts help people decode these images. Most of our toolboxes are full of lots of white supremacist and classist codes that are used in interpreting these videos. So, the purported objectivity of video – which the intentional and politicized monitoring of police in some ways relies upon – is suspended in doubt, here. The idea that video and cameras will change policing in some ways relies on the idea that these images will be received without any need for interpretation, that “what really happened” will be laid bare, and any reasonable viewer will be offended by the common violence the police rely upon.
I am interested to see the shift in public attitudes toward surveillance that has been occurring throughout the past decade. In the 00’s, there seemed to be a general acceptance that government would use any means necessary to weed out terrorists (for example). Now, it seems that the public is much more concerned about the issue. Do you think this shift can be sustained?
I think the issue is barely cut and dry. I think there is a lot of cognitive dissonance that occurs here. The less fascist people even have trouble squaring their demand for security – presumably which can only be supplied by the state, and violently so – with their desire for civility and democracy. Then, of course, you have the bold-faced authoritarians who love when cops beat Black bodies, and wish they would more frequently. More recently, vigilante activity seems to be on an upswing, as white supremacists – as they have been wont to do in the past centuries – have joined with state forces in doing this policing, i.e. George Zimmerman. But then there’s the inherent conflict in a class-divided society the police are first and foremost designed to maintain, protect, and administrate. I don’t think more people are aware and concerned as a result of consciousness-raising, more visibility, and so on, but rather as a result of more historically privileged people falling into the working class after the financial collapse. White folks are more frequently on the receiving end of invasive policing, surveillance, and so on. Some of them are quite happy to see the force of a racist regime demonstrated. Some white folks are offended that they occasionally are made subject to it, e.g. at TSA screenings in airports, roadside checks and searches, etc. Suddenly they speak up when the policing that people of color and sexual minorities have been subjected to is inflicted on them. But there are a handful of these folks who have either some class consciousness or moralistic defense of egalitarianism that inspires their feelings of offense as these situations are more widely spread and visible.
I see that you post frequently on issues of public surveillance, but not so much about issues of private surveillance. I personally think that the private sector often gets a free pass on issues of privacy intrusion, despite that the private sector might present as great a threat. Do you think that private sector surveillance has implications for the populace?
I’m generally not that interested in the theme of privacy. So we’re already past an area of discussion that I have much to say about. As for the distinctions between government surveillance and private surveillance, and how the latter contributes to invasions into our lives and affairs, and even the structuring of our navigation and negotiation of everyday life, I’m rather interested, intellectually, and concerned and committed politically. I think any blind spot here is simply a result of the fine-tuning of my own research that more obsessively focuses my attention to state violence and state surveillance. But both policing and surveillance are phenomenon that exist beyond the state, and particularly more so during the processes of neoliberalization. Private prisons, private police, and the like are just the tip of the iceberg.
What projects are you working on now, what should we look for, and where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’m not so sure higher education will be very recognizable in 10 years. I’d like to say I see myself as a tenured professor, teaching a small load of courses of my own design while conducting smaller but long-term (and funded) research projects. But I think that’s not a very realistic projection even for those who are lucky, well-connected, and have a history of careful planning for such a trajectory. But if I entertain that fantasy a little, you could expect something like this: First would be a book on critical technology studies that takes the work of people like Mumford and Ellul as they were responded to and developed by Langdon Winner, David Noble, Richard Sclove, and others. It would characterize and develop their work, showing its relevance to understanding technology today. There would also be a book on surveillance and policing, focusing especially on the political fantasies and imaginations about transparency. The latter would obviously be based on my dissertation work. Ideally, I’ll be teaching in northern Europe, struggling to learn the local language, and be well along the way toward building a sustainable eco-village.
What’s up with the beard? I’m thinking that it’s a symbiotic living entity.
It’s a habit more than a symbol. Although, the statements it does make (except “I’m a hippy”) are generally ones in which I find more positive than negative.