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  • Barack and the War of Symbols


    by Sunny
    22nd December, 2008 at 5:10 am    

    This is a guest post by Elliot Borges Borges

    The scale of what the US President elect has achieved is beyond question. As a result America can claim more credibly than any other country in the free world to have become colour-blind. For historical reasons the victory is historic but I also think the emphasis that has been placed on the symbolic significance of the US Presidential election result is psychologically revealing. The consensus in the Western world is that Obama’s victory will make it easier for America’s friends to love her and for her foes to hate her.

    The notion that his election somehow deals a blow to the Muslim world would not surprise the late French philosopher Baudrillard. He argued that because the global world operates at the level of the exchange of signs and commodities, symbols are being exchanged violently in lieu of military conflicts. During his July visit to Berlin the then Democratic presidential candidate was heard to say: “It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign - that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It’s about America. I have just become a symbol.”

    The Sydney race riots of 2005, though misguided and hard to justify, were a manifestation of the frustration felt by white Australians at losing the symbolic war on Islam.

    For centuries the beach had been a great equalising force in Australian society - the place where people of all colours and creeds put aside their differences to strip down and enjoy a surf or a suntan on the beach. In many ways the beach was the embodiment of the nation’s egalitarian image of itself but before the Sydney riots it had become the very place where cultural and religious differences are being glaringly magnified.

    Muslim women now frequented the beach covered from head to toe in traditional Islamic dress, whilst Australians stopped in their tracks, staring nervously and trying to make sense of this presence. The burqa is just another commodity that has become dissociated from its apparent function but is now more important as a symbol.

    No war can be fought by one side. The West has been just as guilty of employing symbols in our War On Terror. The notorious 1, 600 or so photographs depicting Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib reflect another pornographic fantasy played out before the viewer. During the Iraq war pornography had to be banned in the US because it recreated the rape of Iraqi women by US soldiers.

    But why have we taken to adopting symbolism and symbolic victories as our mode of attack against the Muslim world? Why do they respond with symbols like that of the Twin Towers collapsing in turn? The explanation for this lies in the manner in which authority operates.

    Consider what authority means in a parental context. The father who has real authority over his child is the father who has only to raise his voice to strike fear into his son. He always maintains control, perhaps threatening to beat him if his son misbehaves but never actually doing it. The authority of the father is therefore symbolic or what we might describe as virtual authority.

    If the father does actually lose his temper and beat the child, of course the child might feel physical pain but there is this unspoken feeling that his father now seems impotent, lacking control and mastery of his emotions like a puppet. The authority on display here is self-destructive and the child loses respect for his father for beating him. This is not real authority. So we begin to see that for authority to be real, it has to remain symbolic - it has to be a type of virtual authority.

    This translates into our political lives too. If Bush and Blair in waging their “War on Terror” had actually sought to defeat and destroy the whole of the Muslim world, the West would undermine its authority like our drunken father. The West would seem like the extremists. Instead the West too has sought to make its victories symbolic. To retain its virtual authority. The Danish cartoon row is an illustration of the manner in which the West has sought to score symbolic victories against Islam.

    The extraordinary talents of Barack Obama are undeniable but the manner in which his coming accession has been presented and the consequences that have been forecasted for the Muslim world as a result are best understood in the context of the war of symbols. With Obama as President, the US can hold its democracy up as the only viable equalizing force in 21st Century society. The fact of his tenuous Muslim ancestry just adds insult to the moral injury.

    One suspects that the war is not yet over.


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    Filed in: Current affairs,Middle East,Race politics,Religion,United States






    24 Comments below   |  

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    1. Desi Italiana — on 22nd December, 2008 at 7:48 am  

      I don’t get this post at all, maybe because I’ve had too much to drink, but too many things have been left unspecified (like the symbols, the parent analogy, etc), and so I am lost.

    2. Boyo — on 22nd December, 2008 at 8:11 am  

      There’s an fair idea in there obscured by a poor grasp of the facts,

      “But why have we taken to adopting symbolism and symbolic victories as our mode of attack against the Muslim world? Why do they respond with symbols like that of the Twin Towers collapsing in turn?”

      I cannot recall a great deal of symbolic “action” against the Muslim world before 9/11, that most symbolic act, or much after for that matter. It seems to me the West is considerably less conscious of symbolism than the Muslim world - sensitive as it has always been to representation, be it graphic or gender-based.

      Ditto the Sydney Riots - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4525352.stm -I can’t see that Western preoccupations with symbolism were a major cause.

      For every Abu Ghraib there is a Jihadi porno, etc.

      Had Bush held back after 9/11, he would have garnered much more respect - instead the invasion of Iraq was seen, symbolically in much of the Muslim world, as an attack on Islam, when that was plainly never his intention. A shame really that Blair’s liberation of Kosovo wasn’t taken the other way - but that perhaps has to do more with Islam’s self-image.

      “With Obama as President, the US can hold its democracy up as the only viable equalizing force in 21st Century society.”

      What bollocks! You’ve never heard of “class” lad?

      Your point about moral authority however was a good one.

    3. Matt — on 22nd December, 2008 at 9:45 am  

      Politics is about the art of perception. People have perceived the US to be an unfriendly, bullying superpower and this is backed up by the news media. Now with Obama, he symbolizing a break with that and a triumph of American ideals. whatever happens to his presidency is irrelevant to that fact that his election symbolizes more about American than the man himself.

    4. Jai — on 22nd December, 2008 at 12:32 pm  

      Two points:

      1. “The West” isn’t at war against Islam (despite what some armchair and real-life Muslim radicals may claim). It’s at war against terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam.

      2. If the West, and the United States in particular, was really an imperialist power in the true sense of the term as per many historical precedents, the response in revenge for 9/11 and in order to comprehensively eliminate OBL and Al Qaeda would have been far, far more brutal and extreme. Consider what the Romans or the Mongols (or some of the Mughals, to give a subcontinental example) would have done in the same situation, particularly with control of the most powerful military force on the planet and with access to nuclear weapons.

      Iraq, Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo are nothing compared to what would have happened.

      Consequently:

      If Bush and Blair in waging their “War on Terror” had actually sought to defeat and destroy the whole of the Muslim world, the West would undermine its authority like our drunken father. The West would seem like the extremists.

      …..it depends on what the West’s priority was — whether it was to maintain “moral authority” (to a lesser or greater degree) or to brutally destroy anyone who dared to launch a military/terrorist attack on it and to terrify anyone else considering attempting to pull the same stunt.

    5. Jai — on 22nd December, 2008 at 12:39 pm  

      On a more uplifting note, Obama does symbolise quite a few positive things personally and in relation to the US, so that certainly bodes well for an improvement in relations (and moral credibility) with the rest of the world, along with undermining some of AQ’s “complaints” about the US.

      Also, as someone else on PP recently mentioned, apparently Obama’s planning to give a (highly symbolic) major speech from the capital of a Muslim country sometime after his inauguration.

    6. MaidMarian — on 22nd December, 2008 at 12:51 pm  

      Boyo - I quite like that comment of yours, even if I disagree with parts. That said, I think that you are seriously stretching a point when you say, ‘Had Bush held back after 9/11, he would have garnered much more respect.’

      With who - the internet talkboard classes? The American public at large? The Muslim World?

      The stark truth, unpalatable though it may be is that had Obama been President in 2001 he probably would have done much the same as Bush.

      Yes - symbolism matters, especially when linked to politics but symbols are blown away by reality. There was a large-scale rush to war, whatever the talkboards said. That some now distance themself from that is wisdom after the fact.

      If anything I would have liked the article to go a step further and ask whether in this ‘clash of civilisations’ (to use the lazy metaphor) is Islam in fact a symbol, a stalking horse? Is Islam, the political force something ripe to be looked beyond? I’d like to think so.

      I suggest a reading of Jihad v McWorld by Benjamin Barber (written pre 9/11) for interesting thoughts on this.

    7. sarah — on 22nd December, 2008 at 1:16 pm  

      “For historical reasons the victory is historic” classic line!

    8. Shamit — on 22nd December, 2008 at 1:51 pm  

      Jai

      We can always count on you to raise the level of the debate with some pertinent points and/or wit — and this thread is no exception.

      I think this post leaves out some significant symbolic gestures that we have witnessed since Obama’s election to the Presidency of the United States.

      First, there was the evil doctor formerly from Egypt and deemed to be the second in command of AQ coming out with a vitriolic attack on the new President Elect. I thought that was rife with symbolism. It said to me that AQ understands that any President of the US would defend US interests and would do everything in his/her power to stop terrorism on its shores and Obama would not be an exception. Hence, the war would continue and AQ would do its best to prove to the Arab streets that Obama is no different.

      Second, Obama’s response was also very symbolic. While the appointment of former Army Chief of Staff as Veterans Affairs Secretary was for domestic political consumption – the appointments of Gates and Clinton send a strong signal that the fight against terror would continue and that his national security team would do anything to protect the United States. There will be symbolic changes but when push comes to shove I don’t see much policy difference between the administrations. They will still pursue terrorists into Pakistan and I don’t think the rules of engagement for US forces are going to change.

      And, AQ and its affiliates do not have political goals except for the unattainable one – and therefore, they would not reduce the violence to help ease the tension but would try to test the new US President.

      Iran is not going to stop supporting Hezbollah or Hamas and unless Hamas agrees to change its charter Obama cant really engage without pissing off AIPAC and almost ensuring a massive backlash in the US.

      So the speech in Egypt would talk about how US is not fighting Islam but terrorists the same message that came from Bush albeit more eloquent and the symbolism of a black man giving the address as POTUS might change some well educated middle class progressive minds but I think the symbolism would be lost in the streets in the Middle East.

      So Obama Presidency while willing to exhaust diplomatic solution (which is the key change) will not allow the security of the US or American Citizens at risk or even their objectives. Look at the double standards, if US/UK is attacked, we have the right to retaliate – if India is attacked – India needs to be restraint in its approach. And, the outgoing administration and the incoming administration actually agree on this.

      The change we can believe in slogan was directed towards domestic policy and not for foreign policy. Don’t see much except for more eloquent speeches and arm twisting behind close doors rather than openly saying “with us or against us”.

    9. Shamit — on 22nd December, 2008 at 1:52 pm  

      Putin’s comment right after Obama’s election was not flattering rather a put down and again that symbolises the Russian interest in once again trying to be the truly imperialist force they once were. Whether its Georgia or Ukraine or Poland, Russia wants to redraw the map of their influence – and they wish to challenge the US. And, no US President is going to sit on his hands and definitely Obama and allow Russia or anyone to have a veto on who gets in NATO or not.

      That would also symbolise another key thing ie the US – UK relationship. Currently, Germany, France and Italy want to placate Russia by any means for energy supply. And they are almost willing to let Russia have that veto. Britain doesn’t want Russia to have the veto and neither does the US. And, once again the key alliance between US and UK would be stronger irrespective of British soldiers apparently torturing Obama’s grandfather. This would once again show that the values of US and UK are far more similar than that
      of mainland Europe.

      Again don’t expect much change in that -

    10. Jai — on 22nd December, 2008 at 5:56 pm  

      We can always count on you to raise the level of the debate with some pertinent points and/or wit — and this thread is no exception.

      Hey thanks Shamit. I always think your posts are excellent too.

      First, there was the evil doctor formerly from Egypt and deemed to be the second in command of AQ coming out with a vitriolic attack on the new President Elect. I thought that was rife with symbolism. It said to me that AQ understands that any President of the US would defend US interests and would do everything in his/her power to stop terrorism on its shores and Obama would not be an exception.

      I was reading an article over the weekend — apologies, I can’t remember whether it was in Time magazine, Newsweek or The Economist, but it was definitely in one of these — which stated that Al-Zawahri’s attack on Obama (which has backfired) is a sign that AQ is increasingly desperate and indeed “on the run”.

      Ditto for the recent atrocity in Mumbai, which is an attempt to open another front and “bring India into the battle” due to the increasingly focused and successful American assaults on jihadis located in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area — in fact, this “focus” is only going to increase once Obama is formally inaugurated, and apparently current efforts are an indication that Obama’s aims are already being implemented.

    11. Jai — on 22nd December, 2008 at 5:58 pm  

      And, AQ and its affiliates do not have political goals except for the unattainable one – and therefore, they would not reduce the violence to help ease the tension but would try to test the new US President.

      Shamit, I’ll tell you what the actions of the terrorists remind me of : Pirates and privateers in colonial times.

      Pirates — because AQ isn’t tied to any formal state and its members intent on attacking innocent targets worldwide and generally wreaking havoc for their own ends. In some ways they’re also like marauding bandits that would roam around and harass civilian populations, except in this case they’re more interested in just killing rather than the raping & pillaging that normally accompanied such activities.

      Privateers — in relation to “AQ affiliates” or “AQ-inspired groups”, who aren’t actually a part of the core AQ network in the formal sense but have a free mandate to attack appropriate targets wherever they find them and thereby advance AQ’s goals (including the “unattainable one”).

      Perhaps the best solution to effectively eliminating these modern-day “jihadi pirates” is to apply the same approach that the Royal Navy did a few centuries ago, when it came to addressing the global problem of seaborne piracy. Especially when you consider that AQ’s grievances are frequently unjustified, their goals are unattainable and not subject to negotiation (on either side), and their motivations are not ethical, reasonable, rational or sane.

    12. halima — on 22nd December, 2008 at 6:31 pm  

      What is the point about this post again? That I should dig out a copy of Baudrillard on signs or just remind myself that Austrailia has a colourful history with ‘difference’ that started long before the Muslim lady with the head scarf walked along onto the beach.

      “While there was never any specific official policy called the White Australia policy, this is the term used for a collection of historical legislation and policies which either intentionally or unintentionally restricted non-white immigration to Australia from 1901 to 1973. which has been promulgated (or enacted) by a legislature or other governing body. …

      The inauguration of White Australia as government policy is generally taken to be the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, very soon after Australian federation. The policy was dismantled in stages by successive governments after the conclusion of World War II, with the encouragement of firstly non-British and later non-white immigration. From 1973 onwards, the white Australia policy was for all practical purposes defunct, and in 1975 the Australian government passed the Racial Discrimination Act which made racially-based selection criteria illegal. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was an Act of the Parliament of Australia which limited immigration to Australia and formed the basis of the White Australia policy. … The Federation of Australia was the process by which the six separate British colonies of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia federated on 1 January 1901, to form the Commonwealth of Australia, of which they became component states. …

      Restrictions on immigration had preceded federation, with began with anti-Chinese legislation enacted by individual Australian colonies during the Australian goldrushes of the 1850s.”

      I wonder what the Chinese would’ve made of the anti-Chinese legislation if it persisted now?

      Sid - before you say it - this is a different thread, don’t take me up on this one!!!!

    13. Shamit — on 22nd December, 2008 at 9:00 pm  

      Halima

      As usual excellent points — and I know you are absolutely right on this one because I have faced the institutional racism that was quite evident in Australian airports about a decade ago.

      During the late 1990′s and early 2000s I used to be an expat based in Singapore and for work I used to travel to the land of Oz every two -three weeks. And, I was searched every bloody time — seemed like their problem was I am brown but had a British passport — and that I was coming back so many times must be because I was trafficking something. All this while the consulting firm I was working for was actually advising the bloody Aussie Government — It seemed like the logic went — how can a brown guy in his mid 20′s work for this firm and have a British passport. So it must have been stolen and well the accent must be fake too because how come a brown guy has such an English accent? What would you call that but institutional racism?

      And it was humiliating — that happened way too many times.

      So, the last time it happened I genuinely asked the guy why it happened all the time — and his response was ask your INDIAN brethren — they are all criminals and want to live in Australia.

      My response was no wonder we kicked your stupid criminal ancestors out of my country — and we are better off.

      well, I caused a stink at the airport and pressed charges against the customs guy and got the British consulate involved and I got an apology and I guess I was marked and the searches stopped. Must admit our clients in the Aussie Government was quite helpful though.

      By the way, I only thing I used to carry eachtime was a Suit Carrier and a small onboard luggage.

      It was just not me — but every one who was not white was disproportionately stopped and this reflected their actual policy.

      The Howard Government could not even bring itself to apologise to the aboriginals. Australia was institutionally racist and as Perth became very Chinese dominated — a lot of white Australians were quite perturbed and there was some issue with some private schools trying to block entry to Chinese students from Hong Kong and Singapore — parents who could not send their kids to the UK but could afford the Aussie Dollars without a problem.

      Things may be changing but a tad too slowly. Its hard to get rid of instituional racism
      **********************************************

      Jai

      I love the Pirates and Privateers concept — interesting and well thought out.

    14. Shamit — on 22nd December, 2008 at 9:04 pm  

      sorry the comment is not eloquent but when I see Australia and racism it makes me really angry still -

      But I loved it when I got that asshole and his boss and his boss to apologise to me in Sydney airport in full view of everyone…that was heavenly.

      It does not mean ordinary Australians are racist but they sure do have some very racist institutions.

      Imagine if Obama visited land of Oz — before he became a US Senator — 95% chance he would have been stopped and humiliated…

    15. halima — on 22nd December, 2008 at 10:05 pm  

      Shamit

      “But I loved it when I got that asshole and his boss and his boss to apologize to me in Sydney airport in full view of everyone…that was heavenly.”

      Good on you for getting them to apologize. Airports bring out the worse excesses in fortress mentalities.

      “It was just not me — but every one who was not white was disproportionately stopped and this reflected their actual policy.”

      Excellent illustration.

      I also have to fess up. Some of the worst racists I’ve met have been Australian - with the caveat that this doesn’t represent an entire country. There’s always that comment you hear , ‘The aboriginals are always drunk and they go and rape all the white women and that’s why they should live in reservations…’ And you here this in the 21st century.

      I have also heard some white Australians in Hong Kong can be really prejudiced about the Hong Kong Chinese while living and working there - where they get the balls to be like this in a country that belongs to the group they are dissing i don’t know. And i won’t even start with the prejudice I’ve heard come out of their mouths relating to Asian women.

      Having said all this, Australia due to its difficult past, is really grappling with coming up with a progressive model for diversity.

    16. persephone — on 22nd December, 2008 at 10:30 pm  

      Shamit

      I once got stopped in Australia at the airport despite having a letter from my employer & a 10 year business visa on my passport. They stopped to question why I had so little luggage.

      After the work aspect of the trip I back packed from the Gold Coast to Cairns & then across to melbourne to see a relly. I did not come across any racism amongst the local Ozzies.

      I am tempted to think that maybe authorities (eg airport personnel) are not used to asians working for corporates & so are more suspicious - a large % of asians in Oz do not seem to be in ‘professional’ careers & quite a few work/own banana plantations.

    17. Boyo — on 23rd December, 2008 at 8:01 am  

      Red neck Australia is a very racist.

      MM - by “held back” I just meant not invade Iraq. If I woz pres, I’d have gone in to Afghanistan too - but properly, not been distracted, caught that SOB OBL and his cronies and buggered off out again.

      For the record, I’d have enforced a two state solution on the Israel/ Palestine too. And they’d all still luv America!

    18. Jai — on 23rd December, 2008 at 10:30 am  

      Shamit, sorry to hear about your bad experiences in Australia, mate.

      Actually I have experienced racial prejudice myself from some (certainly not all) Australians in the workplace here in the UK, if they’ve moved here for professional reasons. Some of them seem to have a real problem getting their heads around the fact that being brown and being British (along with being “culturally Western” in numerous ways) are not mutually exclusive concepts. There appear to be some cognitive issues in relation to being unable to view you as anything other than an “outsider” and a “non-Western immigrant” even if you were born and brought up in the UK.

      Similarly…..

      I have also heard some white Australians in Hong Kong can be really prejudiced about the Hong Kong Chinese while living and working there - where they get the balls to be like this in a country that belongs to the group they are dissing i don’t know.

      …..In my own experiences I’ve found myself wondering “Who the hell do you think you are, publicly treating me in a deliberately discriminatory way compared to everyone else, and clearly viewing me as intrinsically inferior to you and the white British people here whom you are obviously so much more comfortable with, when I was actually born in this country and am therefore more British than you are ?!”

      It also doesn’t help matters when there are some white British rednecks in the vicinity who will support and encourage the Aussies in their outdated attitudes. Sometimes it’s really felt like you’re dealing with some throwbacks to the 70s and 80s.

      Its hard to get rid of instituional racism

      Unfortunately it looks like some of them are importing that “institutional racism” to the UK.

      **********************

      Well done for nailing those Australian aiport customs staff, by the way — Great stuff. You’ve got guts.

    19. halima — on 23rd December, 2008 at 10:39 am  

      My experience with this type of racism has been through backpackers i’ve come across travelling in Asia.

      Then there’s Austrailia’s role in policing the small island states in the Pacific. That’s also very interesting - though not racist at all.

    20. halima — on 23rd December, 2008 at 10:42 am  

      “In my own experiences I’ve found myself wondering “Who the hell do you think you are, publicly treating me in a deliberately discriminatory way compared to everyone else, and clearly viewing me as intrinsically inferior to you and the white British people here whom you are obviously so much more comfortable with, when I was actually born in this country and am therefore more British than you are ?!”

      Exactly!

    21. Shamit — on 23rd December, 2008 at 1:36 pm  

      Hey thanks guys especially Halima, Jai and Perse.

      But must admit that during the Aussie situation, the British Government ie the Consulate and their staff had my back and none of them were Asians. And, the guy who came down to the airport was brilliant and to be honest it made me feel really proud to be British. He was the reason I got the apologies.

      That my government would back me up in such a way in a foreign country. And, no matter what people say Britain is far more multicultural than most places on earth and institutions are fair on most issues.

      “I was actually born in this country and am therefore more British than you are” — no shit and this is our country.

      Also, guys I am off for a week or so — without blackberry or emails and laptop (which would be confiscated by the wife shortly) so to all picklers a Happy Christmas and all the best for a wonderful 2009.

    22. Jai — on 23rd December, 2008 at 2:59 pm  

      Have a great time during the holiday period Shamit, and of course all the very best for 2009 to you too.

    23. persephone — on 24th December, 2008 at 5:27 pm  

      ” During his July visit to Berlin the then Democratic presidential candidate was heard to say: “It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign - that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It’s about America. I have just become a symbol.”

      Or is that just politicianspeak for saying he is merely the vessel of the people & has no personal motives & agenda: TRUST ME I represent you. I do like political PR’s & their messaging - this soundbite was very effective - it was picked up by various media including this blog… at least someone will get a bonus during the credit crunch

    24. persephone — on 25th December, 2008 at 1:05 am  

      Hey Shamit @ 21 Likewise thanks to you. Have a good crimbo & new year.

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