Notes Towards an ISIS Primer

Here is a modest collection of articles that have been useful to me in trying to think through the problem of ISIS specifically, terrorism more broadly, in the wake of the attacks in Paris last weekend. With the atmosphere becoming increasingly warlike in the West it is absolutely crucial to get at the historical, religio-philosophical, and geopolitical complexity of the situation rather than sink into a convenient and comforting “Us vs. Them” narrative that will only cost more lives and ultimately solve nothing.


What ISIS Really Wants – The Atlantic

The Islamic State Wants You to Hate Refugees – Washington Post

To Defeat ISIS We Must Call Bot Western and Muslim Leaders to Account – The Nation

What I Discovered from Interviewing ISIS Prisoners – The Nation

Wikipedia Entry on Wahhabism



Politics of Extinction

Upon finishing Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against The Human Race, and being in the midst of Nic Pizolatto’s True Detective, I’ve found myself mired in pessimism. Ligotti’s viewpoint, espoused/parroted by Matthew Mcconaughey’s character in the show, is summed up as “being alive is not all right.”

Ligotti’s work, contrary to what one might think, is not an explicit apologia for suicide, or any other overtly violent prescription, but a thorough examination of the way things are (according to Ligotti, naturally). The two constants in history and human existence are death and suffering, and all of our problems stem from human consciousness’ apparent inability to adequately reckon with them. We trick ourselves into think we’ll never die, and everything will get better. The good, for Ligotti, is self-induced extinction: stop procreating, die on our own terms, end the horror.

These sentiments run counter to almost all of human thought and instinct. They will be called evil and dismissed by most.

Though deeply pessimistic, it struck me that Ligotti’s position is deeply ethical. Suffering is an absolute evil. So evil it should not be endured by anyone, and therefore, being alive is not alright.

Most, if not all of our political discourse turns on futurity, the idea that we’re acting in a kinda shitty present to make a less shitty future. Of course, an overwhelming amount of political action has no futurity whatsoever. Governments busy themselves with tragically shortsighted domestic and foreign policy, mostly, it seems, for the security and immediate and unreflective consumption of material resources. Cloaked in the inspirational poetry of futurity, the powers that be actively destroy it.

The present order also excuses mass suffering as endemic to “progress”; that veneer of futurity somehow the narcotic that makes this present toil somehow worth it.

A politics of extinction, the active denial of futurity,  a proposal of annihilation, at the very least would lay these contradictions bare, and force a true account of suffering.

A Gap In Terminology

This past week I had the opportunity to sit on a panel concerning the interplay among feminism, Christianity, and social justice. For an overtly conservative Christian liberal arts school, such a dialogue is undeniably novel, and the discussion went better than we expected. People were genuinely interested in moving past the knee-jerk reactions to a term like “feminism” and digging into exactly how this body of thought describes and combats unjust structures.

Most of the night’s discussion revolved around a common trope of “hip” evangelical pastors and leaders: the tendency to constantly refer to their wives as “smokin’ hot”. We, the panel, quite thoroughly revealed the latent sexism of such a statement, how it reduces the wife to an object and perpetuates a hypocritical practice of sexuality within the church. It was during this discussion that we were met with the only dissenting comment of the night. A young woman in attendance explained to us her desire to be referred to as “smokin’ hot” in public by the man she chooses to marry. She threw out terms like “ownership” in reference to her hypothetical relationship. We, the panel, collectively cringed. In the end, I feel we were able to adequately articulate that her romantic desires, at their core, are by no means wrong, but the way in which she feels they should be expressed simply serve to reinforce the oppressive, patriarchal tendencies of marriage and relationships in general.

Giving this event some thought, I’ve become a bit ashamed of my reaction to that young woman. All she was doing was articulating her desire to love and be loved, using the vocabulary she inherited from the traditions and institutions she grew up in. Our slightly-less-than-charitable initial reactions were due to the vocabulary we’ve acquired in our chosen field of study. Terms like “smokin’ hot” and “ownership” mean something fundamentally different to we, the panel. Our minds jump immediately to the evils of sexism and the abuses of capitalism; the connotations of love and desire washed away through the study of oppressive systems.

I don’t know how that young woman felt as she walked away from the panel. I hope that she might see past any air of hostility and contempt that may have come across, and find that there  is something to our critique. And I hope that myself and my fellow panel members and philosophers and thinkers everywhere can work to make our thoughts and critiques meaningful and life-giving to people like that young woman, rather than feeding into that old “ivory tower” imagery.


Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty Months Too Late

The reactions to Zero Dark Thirty serve to illustrate Vivian Sobchack’s point: the meaning of a film has just as much to do with what you bring into it as what it gives to you.  Though critically praised overall, and nominated for an Academy Award, voices on the political right and left decried the film, albeit for different reasons. The critique from the right was obviously defensive, claiming that the movie was historically inaccurate and a misrepresentation of fact,  that torture was not employed to gather information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. On the left, the film was campaigned against for perceived collusion with the US government and for ultimately justifying and bolstering the torture regime of the Bush administration.

My personal encounter with the film yielded no such reactions, though there are elements of the film that support such reactions. Again, what is inside is only what you take with you.

Zero Dark Thirty is neither a historically inaccurate lie nor vile propaganda; it is a filmic rendering of a specific time and place.  Though it may be inaccurate at points, it truthfully portrays the spirit of that time and place. The film’s scope is both broad and intimate, following the female CIA agent who pursued bin Laden with Ahab-like zeal for just over ten years. It contains graphic scenes of torture; the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan serves as its concluding set-piece. It can also be taken in several ways.

The fact that it may or may not be historically accurate is beside the point. Though the specific incidents of torture and enhanced interrogation may have never occurred, it is irrefutable fact  that similar events did  occur and were used to gather information. The fact that the political right decries this is a testament to how truly damning these policies were and are as far as the American national character is concerned. The Republicans, and Democrats for that matter, are absolutely thrilled that “we got him” in the end, but the road taken to that end has left an indelible mark on US history.

As far as accusations of propaganda are concerned, there is only mild evidence to support them. Yes, Kathryn Bigelow and the screenwriter Mark Boal were given access to Defense Department files while researching for their film. The stamp of approval from the US government is undeniable. Aesthetically, the film completely resists being propaganda. The first clue is the opening: a black screen with the caption “September 11, 2001” while the radio chatter of fire fighters and police officers and newscasts serves as the soundtrack. If Zero Dark Thirty truly was propaganda, we would have been subjected to an unrelenting, ten minute montage of people hurtling themselves from the towers’ windows, the towers collapsing, and people fleeing the dust cloud. We are only given an impression of that day. Our memories are meant to fill in the rest.

Further, US nationalism and ideology are never at the forefront. Throughout the film, we only see people doing their jobs. The protagonist, Maya, never mentions 9/11 or an abstract “America” as her motivation. She is a consummate professional, utterly dedicated to the task at hand, her coworkers, and not much outside of that.

The most damning critique of the left, championed by Constitutional lawyer and columnist Glenn Greenwald and philosopher Slavoj Zizek, is that the film justifies the use of torture and celebrates American military supremacy. A close viewing reveals that these accusations are tenuous at best. It is true that the characters within the film believe torture is effective, but the narrative itself shows torture to be ultimately useless. After being subjugated to multiple scenes of waterboarding and interrogation, the piece of information that ultimately leads to the bin Laden compound is found in a pile of intelligence released by the Turkish government shortly after 9/11, and that was not sifted through until almost 10 years later. Further, the torture scenes themselves are far from triumphant. We do not see heroic Jack Bauer-esque super agents doing what needs to be done to save the day in the nick of time, but cold professionals subjecting other human beings to abject cruelty. Bigelow’s camera actually humanizes  those tortured; their pain is not a spectacle, it is shown as the horror it truly is.

Even further, the climactic closing sequence, the raid on bin Laden’s compound, is, again, not the triumphant “rah rah, America!” spectacle some critics have portrayed it as. Bigelow’s depiction of the Navy SEALs who conducted the raid is not one of stoic warriors who defend America’s people at all costs, they are the asshole jocks you went to high school with, and demons who swoop in silently in the night to kill mothers and fathers and terrify children. The soldiers move ghost-like through the Pakistani night air, their forms more robotic and insect-like with their body armor and four-eyed night vision goggles than anything resembling a human. They promise safety, but only bring death. Again, in what is to be the climax, a truly cathartic moment for us, the children of 9/11, completely resists any pretension to propaganda. Bin Laden’s death is not rendered in the exploitative slow-motion of so many second-rate Peckinpah rip-offs. He is one body amongst the many in that compound. We, the audience, glimpse his face second-hand, a not-quite clear image on the viewer of a digital camera as a soldier snaps photographs. Catharsis denied.

Zero Dark Thirty is an important film. It serves as a poignant post-mortem of the first decade of the 21st century. It does not conjure a spirit of American triumphalism, but one of uncertainty. The film ends with Maya onboard a military plane bound for nowhere, her job done, her friends who had died in her quest avenged, she breaks down, the final shot lingers on her face as she weeps. It is not catharsis, it is the crushing anxiety of not knowing where to go next.

The great villain of our time has been slain. What now?

Art / Porn / Evangelicalism

Evangelicals think pornography is art.

In taking the single “sort of” art history class my partially retrograde Christian liberal arts school offers, it is abundantly clear, if it wasn’t so already, that evangelicalism has a troubled relationship with art. It must be noted that the class itself was very interesting and more than competently taught, but it was evident in the reactions of several of my fellow students. Any time nudes were shown or discussed, there was always a minor uproar.

The evangelical fear and loathing of pornography is in many ways understandable. Though the general acceptance of pornography as a fact of life is relatively recent, evangelicals and other strands of Christianity, fundamentalist or not, seem to be the only ones consistent in saying that it wasn’t a benign force: porn affects us. Their downfall, though, is that when pushed to the limits, their ideology cannot sustain their critique.

Evangelicalism as a movement in Christianity represents a turn inward; a sharp rebuke of the liberal theology so popular at the turn of the 20th century. The focus moved from the social to the personal, the primary question no longer being “what can I do for others?” but “how do I keep myself pure?”.  Though this does not totally preclude any social action, it fostered a deep suspicion of the humanist, populist movements that liberal theology aligned itself with, causing the evangelicalism of the late 20th century to pair its politics of personal piety with capital and neoliberalism.

This alignment is the fundamental contradiction that ultimately robs evangelicalism of any robust critique of pornography: promoting a strict, legalistic mode of piety while refusing to recognize the role of capitalism in the things this motive of piety aims to suppress. This contradiction itself denotes a complicity. It has been pointed out before  that evangelical sexual piety is part-and-parcel with modern/neoliberal class structure; much of evangelical/middle-class identity is derived from a policing of sexuality. This quest for purity is rendered Sisyphean when placed in the thrall of capital: the pornography industry in aggregate generates billions more than mainstream entertainments. Capital simply has no interest in destroying that which contributes to its growth.

Further undercutting evangelicalism’s campaign against pornography is an ingrained distrust of images. Images deceive and distract. This has its roots in the proud tradition of iconoclasm, and it extends the austere aesthetic of the evangelical sanctuary to society at large. While this could serve as a valid critical stance, it has more often than not manifested as a repressive legalism, especially when it comes to depictions of sexuality and the naked human form. In the effort to avoid and censor pornography, images and portrayals that are not designed to evoke lust and desire are cast as such. Effectively, there is no difference between Blue Valentine and Big Wet Butts 6. If art is pornography, pornography is art. Evangelicalism inadvertently affirms what it so desperately wishes to destroy. 

If my last post is any indication, the excesses of pornography can and should be engaged on aesthetic grounds. Evangelicalism, by and large, has opted out of this conversation, finding itself aligned with the very forces that proliferate the desires it seeks to quell.