Sunday, February 28, 2010

Umami: Food and Art Festival

Diane Borsato, Artifacts in My Mouth (2003)

Umami*: Food and Art Festival is a non-profit, biennale event created in 2008. The festival works in partnership with other organizations in New York City to foster collaborations between artists and food professionals. By approaching food through art, Umami frames it as stimulating and inspiring, a positive approach leading to innovative solutions to some of the national challenges we face today. The festival features events that are interdisciplinary and collaborative, creating an interchange of ideas and stirring debate about the role of food and art in our society, creating long-term collaborative relationships between organizations and individuals from different fields.

Umami encourages art based in everyday life and materials, illustrating that art can be found anywhere and can be produced at any time with the simplest means. The festival’s key objectives are (1) to use food as a common thread to look at and integrate art into daily life and (2) to broaden the horizon of food as an artistic medium.

By encouraging art based in everyday life and materials, we illustrate that art can be found anywhere and can be produced with the simplest means.

In particular, the festival encourages non-commercial, time-based art and encourages artists who work in non-traditional media.

The festival’s location in New York City allows us to take advantage of the city’s unmatched resources as a center for artistic creation as well as culinary production.

* Umami is the fifth taste sensed by the human tongue (in addition to sweet, salty, bitter and sour). Umami is a Japanese word meaning “savory” or “meaty” and applies to a sensation common in meats, cheese and other protein-rich foods or to “earthy” foods such as mushrooms and soy sauce.

Umami 2010 is presented in collaboration with the NY Food Museum.

Umami: Food and Art Festival
300 Mercer St., #9-J
New York, NY 10003

tel: 917.720.5706

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Vanity Fair's Young Hollywood Issue

Vanity Fair's Young Hollywood 2010

Through an unlikely chain of circumstances I ended up with a copy of Vanity Fair's Young Hollywood issue for 2010 (Someone said "I'm finished with this, you want to read it?" And I said, "Sure"). If you know me even a little bit via this blog it would not surprise you to learn that I am not a regular reader of Vanity Fair, a magazine that seems to consist of equal parts worshipful profiles of rich people and sad essays about Stars From Back When There Were Stars. Not my thing. But between novels I will read anything, and faced with a long subway ride I cracked open the magazine.

I was vaguely aware that people were angry about the perceived exclusion of actresses of color from the titular pictorial, which involves ingénues-of-the-moment clustered together like cupcakes in a bakery case (Vanilla cupcakes, as it turns out). But I will admit that I didn't take that criticism too seriously. There are, after all, real people in the world who are actually suffering, and in comparison the "suffering" of young actresses--whose job it is to pretend to be real people-- is not that meaningful to me. People dying from broken limbs in Haiti vs. Actresses not getting their pictures in Vanity Fair? No contest.

But then I looked at the issue. And the longer I looked the angrier I got.

People have focused on the cover but for my money the central pictorial (see above), of a group of young actresses lounging like debutantes mid-Ball, is the telling one. The pictured actresses, Carey Mulligan, Kristen Stewart, Abbie Cornish, Mia Wasikowska, Amanda Seyfried and Rebecca Hall in a double page spread, with Emma Stone, Evan Rachel Wood and Anna Kendrick on the following page, are all lovely, (mostly) talented and... white as notebook paper. Further, they have been styled in pale, ice-cream colored dresses and bathed with diffuse light to create a Gatsby-like dreamworld. It's a perfect realization of the fetishization of wealth and privilege and their conflation with youth and beauty that fascinates publications like Vanity Fair (and Esquire, and the New Yorker...) And hell yes, race and ethnicity are a part of that discourse.

Zoe Saldana, who starred in two of the highest-grossing films of the year, Star Trek and Avatar, and Gabouery Sidibe, star of Precious, are notably absent from this image. The objections to their exclusion have rightly focused on the relationship of race to standards of beauty (Advertising Age's Doug Melville referred to Young Hollywood 2010 as the "White issue". Ouch), but I want to tease out another element suggested by this photograph, the relationship of race to social class, or at least its depiction. In an era when actual heiresses are more likely to be found on reality television or in self-released sex tapes, with this pictorial Vanity Fair lovingly recreates a long-past moment when young women from "good" families represented the beauty of privilege (and vice versa). In Evgenia Peretz's cover story on the photo shoot she writes rapturously of Abbie Cornish's "Cupid’s-bow lips... downy-soft cheeks, (and) button nose." And in case we miss the point she elaborates that Cornish, " has those Ivory-soap-girl features we’re so familiar with..." Right. Peretz goes on to describe Rebecca Hall, daughter of English theater director Sir Peter Hall, as having "patrician looks and (a) celebrated pedigree" while Amanda Seyfried has a "full, dewy, wide-eyed loveliness." It becomes clear that Sidibe and Saldana would not have fit into this image because their presence would have undermined the debutante theme by commenting on it, making the uncomfortable historical truth of the relationship between white wealth and racial exploitation all too visible.

I once saw an episode of the old MTV cartoon Beavis and Butthead that describes this dynamic perfectly: They were playing the video for "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club, which is set in the American South on a riverboat. To get around the uncomfortable racial implications of making a pop video in this setting the director mixed black actors, in tailcoats and hoop skirts, among the white ones, thereby promoting them past slavery by creating a world in which it didn't exist. After a significant pause Butthead asked Beavis, "Is this supposed to be the future?"

Annie Leibovitz, Vanity Fair's house photographer since 1983, has shot all the previous pictorials and portraits of "Young Hollywood" and is responsible for creating its tone. A little research shows that the spreads are all similar, if sometimes more diverse in past years. And it turns out that Saldana was featured, along with America Ferrara, in Vanity Fair's "Young Hollywood" spread in 2008, albeit after the gatefold, a point the magazine's defenders raised in the hope of settling the matter.

Young Hollywood 2008

... Except that Kristen Stewart and Amanda Seyfried, two of Vanity Fair's 2010 cover girls also appeared in the magazine in 2008 as part of its Hollywood's New Wave issue (How many times a year does this this freaking magazine salute Hollywood? Nevermind. I don't want to know.) The point is, there isn't really a justification for not including Saldana at least, especially given the success of her recent films.

Seyfried and Stewart, flanking Emma Roberts and Blake Lively,
Hollywood's New Wave, by Mark Seliger

Some of the criticism of the 2010 shoot has been leveled at the actresses pictured, which is unfair. The most salient feature of the job "actress" is to be told what to do: they had no power to influence the theme of this image, except perhaps by refusing to appear in it. (The criticism of their thinness in light of Sidibe's pointed exclusion is also unfair. "Thin" is another job requirement for them and anyway, none of them seem underweight for their height, a victory in an industry that once considered Kate Winslet "plus-sized".) The fact is, they were assembled to portray a scenario that probably has nothing to do with them, except for the fact that the way they look suggests it in this context. It isn't their fault, but they embody the nostalgia for a moment when whiteness, beauty, and power seamlessly flowed together to represent the glamor of wealth. In the imaginary world suggested by this photograph the only brown person possible would be refilling the drinks.

M'onique, Lee Daniels and Gabouery Sidibe, by Annie Leibovitz

Sidibe responded to her exclusion from the pictorial gracefully, saying, "At first I thought, 'Hmm, should I be there?' Then I very quickly got over it. I think if I were a part of that shoot I would have felt a little left out anyway. I would have felt a little like ... whether or not I should have been there. [It] doesn't matter, because I wasn't on it and I'm excited to be mentioned anywhere, and it doesn't matter to me where I'm not mentioned." While she does not appear beside other young actresses, she is pictured with her director Lee Daniels and costar M'onique among the best picture nominees in a portrait titled "The Real Deal". However Saldana does not join Avatar director James Cameron in his portrait, titled "The Visionary", which depicts him alone in profile, staring meaningfully into the future. Right.

Is this supposed to be the future?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Interview: Steven Salaita, Part Two

Steven Salaita

Joseph Shahadi: So you just starting writing a column at PULSE, how did that come about?

Steven Salaita: I had been in contact with M. Shahid Alam, who does lots of good writing around the web, and he suggested that I give it a try. I communicated a bit with the editorial team, all wonderful and very sharp people, and decided to give it a try. I've been very wary of the genre of blogging, but I finally overcame my Luddite tendencies. It was easy in this case, because I had been a regular reader of PULSE.

Joseph Shahadi: Why wary of blogging? Just Luddite tendencies or other reservations about the format?

Steven Salaita: A bit of both. I guess I have a bit of a fuddy-duddy attitude about writing. (Self-awareness is the first step to recovery, right?) So many blogs, even political blogs, are silly, attenuated, hasty, and ill considered. But then again, so is much of the journalism and commentary in corporate newspapers. I like to write and to read things that are carefully considered, supported, provocative. Some blogs do this well--Vs the Pomegranate, for instance--but the majority of them stink. I've realized, though, that the problem is in the act of writing and not in the format itself, for almost all genres of writing are riddled with unreadable shit.

Joseph Shahadi: Ha. Nice save Steve. Of course I agree with you. It was hard to decide to do a blog for that reason.

Steven Salaita: Yes, I can see that. But there's no doubt that blogs have changed the media landscape tremendously and they do offer people access to audiences that they wouldn't have had in the past. This seems to me an extremely important benefit.

Joseph Shahadi: I think a lot of mainstream media people read the blogs to take the temperature of the culture. So it’s a way to influence the larger conversation. But coming from academe getting the tone right is tough. Too academic and no one reads, too colloquial and you get the wrong sort of attention. Have you found it challenging in the pieces you are doing for PULSE?

Steven Salaita: Very tough. Lots of academics, even in the humanities, don't know how to write for general audiences. I get ribbed by friends and family all the time for my fancy talk. Let Orwell be our guide, I suppose.

George Orwell

Joseph Shahadi: Hey, I like that. "Let Orwell Be Our Guide". I think we just settled on the wording for my first tattoo.

Steven Salaita: Then again, Christopher Hitchens has used Orwell as his guide and look where it's gotten him.

Joseph Shahadi: ...To the bottom of a bottle of Vodka?

Steven Salaita: So far I've only done two (articles for PULSE) so it's been all good. But I am having trouble evolving into the idea of writing as part of a routine and not based on extemporaneous inspiration. That's the best thing about being part of a multi-author blog. I can be as apathetic as I want.

Joseph Shahadi: Speaking of Hitchens, lets talk about the new Euro-Atheists a minute. Part of their shtick seems to be presenting themselves as wholly rational.

Steven Salaita: I like that you use the word "shtick." It accurately describes much of what they're peddling. Actually, they're atheists who proselytize, which is funny enough, but we can talk about that later. Their idea of rationality isn't detached from history, but they pretend it is. That's their main problem. They adhere to a form of smug non-belief that comes directly from an enlightenment concept of modernity that has been terribly violent. They want to consign all violence to the religious, though. In so doing, they gloss over tons of history.

Christopher Hitchens

Joseph Shahadi: I think they are part and parcel of the current anti-immigrant, orientalist, Islamophobic hysteria that has swept Europe. But because they assume this faux- objective stance they insulate themselves from the same sort of critique that, say, the Italian food-purists get. Richard Dawkins doesn't even bother to hide his Islamophobia anymore...

Steven Salaita: No, he doesn't. And Sam Harris never tried to hide it in the first place. I saw him on TV once and thought he was remarkably stupid for somebody whose argument boils down to the belief in his own intellectual superiority (because, you know, he thinks God doesn't exist and all). Then there's Hitchens, who argues that religion leads to all kinds of irrational support for war and violence. Yes, that would be the same Hitchens that supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is an ardent backer of American military exceptionalism. I mean, the guy disproves his own core argument. If the atheists are too damn dense to figure out that all of Hitchens's arguments about religion and war apply to his own points of view then they're not nearly as smart as Dawkins thinks they are.

Joseph Shahadi: My issue is not atheism per se but rather people who use it to 1) rewrite European history 2) cast Muslims as savage, backwards bad guys who will ruin "western civilization" unless they are stopped... and that pretty much describes all of the guys we have been talking about.

Steven Salaita: Exactly. Same here. I don't really care about anybody's level of belief or disbelief. It's not something that should really matter when it comes to working out social, political, and economic issues. (But) the atheism they promote, I'd like to add, is inherently violent, because they have an idea of moving away from religion that would erase the peoplehood of indigenous communities around the world. It's all colonial retread in the end. And boring, to boot. It's been done a million times before, by better writers.

Joseph Shahadi: We are both Arab Christians-- a population that seems to be invisible in popular discourse. There are lots of issues around that but could you talk about how Islamophobia implicates us too because of the racialization of Islam? For me, the solidarity I feel with Muslims is partly based on a general commitment to social justice and partly because Islamophobia effects me directly as an Arab. Do you feel similarly?

Steven Salaita: I feel exactly the same way and think you express some of these complexities eloquently. If we think about Islam entailing cultural norms in addition to religious obligations, then we are profoundly engaged with the cultures of Islam, which is a wonderful benefit to being an Arab Christian. I often wonder if it's possible for other communities to feel a deep belonging in two different religions the way I do (this is coming from somebody who's not at all religious, by the way). I suppose it's not unheard of, but it definitely seems rare.

Joseph Shahadi: Yes, that's it exactly. Perfect.

Steven Salaita: It also seems to me that in Islamophobia we get such a conflation of Arab culture with Muslim communities that it's impossible for anybody who is Arab not to be effected by it, whether they are Druze, Christian, Bahai, Jewish, whatever.

Joseph Shahadi: Yes, yes. It is in our self-interest to oppose Islamophobia.

Steven Salaita: A lot of folks also conceptualize Islam as the material articulation of Arab backwardness, or conversely view Arab backwardness as evidence of a dysfunctional Islam.

Joseph Shahadi: Which is ridiculous if you know even a little bit about the history of Arab and/or Islamic scientific innovations... But that's just it: most people in the west don't know even a little bit about it.

Steven Salaita: Yep. It behooves us to try our best to keep a broad view of all religious and political phenomena. But when religion is held up by imperialists and scoundrels as the basis of regional and civilizational conflict, this is what you get.

Joseph Shahadi: That seems like a great way to end. Steve, thank you so much for doing this. It was great talking with you.

Steven Salaita: Thanks, brother. Likewise. Let's do it again sometime, okay, if only for kicks. I enjoy the hell out of your insights.

Joseph Shahadi: Right back you. And definitely, yes.

Steven Salaita: Okay, salamat.

Joseph Shahadi: Talk soon. Good night.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Interview: Steven Salaita, Part One

I first met Steven Salaita in February of '09 when he spoke at Alwan. He talked about his book of political essays, The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, which I subsequently reviewed for Electronic Intifada. I love the book and I wrote, " (it) is a worthy contribution to a tradition of works by Arab American essayists, a distinguished company that includes Joseph Massad, Elmaz Abinder, Diana Abu-Jaber, Edward Said and others." The topic and theme of The Uncultured Wars, the disappointing track record of US liberals in regard to orientalism and Islamophobia, is timely... but even if you have no special interest in Arab and Muslim issues this book has a lot to offer in its deconstruction of the many forms of white/western authority. An astute critic, Steve is the definition of a public intellectual in Saidean terms: That is, one whose mission is to advance human freedom and knowledge. He chatted with me via Skype from his home in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Joseph Shahadi: One of the things I really love about your book (and the reason I went to hear you speak at Alwan in the first place) is that you went after some sacred cows in critiquing US liberals, Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Moore, Michael Lerner and Katha Pollitt among others... Why did you decide to write about liberals at a moment when we are living with an ongoing legacy of very bad things courtesy of the US Right?

Steven Salaita: Mostly because US liberals, to be frank, had been annoying me for some time in terms of their approach not only to Arabs and Muslims but to the global south more broadly. By reading their work closely, it became clear that many US liberals are part of the same apparatus that produces the very bad things they like to attribute solely to the right. If political thinkers just sit around criticizing and piling on the right, then we miss some really important ways to analyze empire, economics, race, and so forth.

Joseph Shahadi: I agree with you but let me play the devil’s advocate for a moment...

Steven Salaita: Please do.

Joseph Shahadi: What would you say to someone who argues that the US Right is more dangerous to Arabs and Muslims (and the Global South more broadly) than the Left because of their trademarked brand of religion ‘n guns?

The "attack Christians", if you will.

... As opposed to liberals who are well intentioned, if not always perfect in terms of execution (no pun intended).

Steven Salaita: I would say that these "attack Christians" are indeed dangerous to Arabs and Muslims, but only in a distinct, limited sense. Let me try to draw out what I mean: Yes, (for example) it's much more likely that a Christian Zionist will support a policy that is genocidal vis-à-vis the Palestinians, say. But if we limit our critique to that Christian Zionist, we will also miss all types of other useful points of analysis. For instance, people get bombed in other parts of the world--Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, etc.--because the US government is beholden to the interests of a very small financial elite, not to liberals, and not to "the people," whatever that means.

This reality is much more dangerous to those who are colonized or otherwise oppressed.

Joseph Shahadi: What are some of the liberal parallels to that Christian Zionist?

Steven Salaita: Lots of liberals support Israel. They sound nice about it, and give some B.S. overtures about a vague "two-state solution" here and there, but in the end their loyalty is to Israel as an ethnocentric state. They may disagree with Christian Zionists on every other issue (unlikely), but on this issue they are in basic agreement. That's why liberal Zionist organizations work with Christian Zionists and cater to them. So, if you're a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation, does it matter whether your oppression is being supported by a liberal or a religious zealot? Of course not. The Palestinian needs the boot to be removed from her neck.

The point, anyway, is that if we care about justice we need to criticize anybody who is facilitating injustice, regardless of political orientation, party, religion, or nationality.

Joseph Shahadi: The reason I ask about your practice of questioning the liberal left is that it seems that the Democrats are so busy in-fighting that they cannot present a united front against the Conservative movement, which gets nuttier by the day... So I want to be clear: you are suggesting that it is always better to hold even your putative friends accountable for their racism, ethnocentrism etc. even when the conservative right is more or less unified in their antipathy for you/us?

Steven Salaita: Well, now that you put it this way... yes. This isn't a universal rule, I don't suppose, but in the end when my putative friends are working and profiting from the same system that my explicit enemy exploits, then it’s the system I have to attack. I'm not interested in rowing with one paddle. Anyway, if we take your metaphor (a good one, by the way) to its logical conclusion then I'd say that in the end my putative friends would take the side of my enemy when push comes to shove. My friends are those who care about other human beings more than they do about preserving the trappings of some benign-sounding ideology.

Joseph Shahadi: That is a great summary of the main theme of your book.

Steven Salaita: Thank you.

Joseph Shahadi: Of course Palestine/Israel is a perfect example of this push-comes- to-shove phenomenon, so is Palestine a limit-case for you in re: to "First World" racism/colonialism/imperialism?

Steven Salaita: I try not to limit myself to Palestine as a continual litmus-test, but it just happens to be the issue by which people's real commitments are exposed. I remember when I was at UW-Whitewater a few years ago. A group of activists brought a divestment resolution to the faculty senate. It was quite a good resolution, too.

Now, the folks in Wisconsin--the academics, anyway--fancy themselves proudly progressive, and in many ways they are. When the resolution came to the senate, I showed up in support of it, of course. It was a no-brainer to me. Israel is breaking tons of international laws and mistreating people. It is therefore in accordance with the university's mission statement to divest from companies that aid and abet such human rights abuses. Yet when I got there, I saw half my department--loud progressives, all--speaking against the resolution. One of the activists, Mohammed Abed, told one of them, who had said he's against the occupation, "If you're really against the occupation, then why don't you do something about


This question, needless to say, went unanswered.

This is one of many cases in which people's stated viewpoints don't at all match what they're actually willing to do when the time comes to act, even in completely tepid and nonviolent ways.

Joseph Shahadi: I have also found this to be so.

Steven Salaita: Yes, it happens all the time. That's why I never believe the poll numbers liberal Zionists and some misguided Palestine activists like to cite about support for a resolution to the conflict.

Joseph Shahadi: When you and I met I was a guest correspondent at Racialicous. I'd been a regular commenter and was invited to contribute articles. Despite the fact that the site covered a wide range of racial and ethnic struggles (macro and micro) from all over the world, at a certain point I became uncomfortable with the overwhelming silence about Israel… And I wasn’t alone in that feeling. But when any of the Arab or Muslim members of the community brought it up we were loudly shouted down by 1) Aggressive male Zionists who suddenly overran various threads and made it impossible to continue…

Steven Salaita: [nodding vigorously]

Joseph Shahadi: …and/or 2) passive aggressive female Zionists who announced suddenly that they "Didn't feel safe"... my least favorite way to control a conversation...

Needless to say these tactics worked. Every. Single. Time.

So I suggested that the commenting policy on the site be amended to include a statement of support for Palestine, or at least to provide a check on Zionist bullying that prevented any real discussion of the issue. The commenting policy at Racialicious is comprehensive, going beyond even "racial" categories and encompassing things like LGBT friendly language, which I totally support as a necessary corrective to establish ethical guidelines for conversation. So it's not as if what I suggested was unprecedented.

And they said no. Flat out.

Steven Salaita: That's a shame. I'm actually finishing up a book on what I think is the same topic: how Zionism has entered into the spaces of convivial multicultural dialogue. So to criticize Zionism--an ethnonationalist movement, for fuck sake--is somehow to be apportioned into some bizarre radical stance that is outside the boundaries of respectability. But such a move is ultimately problematic, possibly dangerous. It relies on a conflation of Zionism with Jewish culture. It's never good when an ethnic/religious culture is conflated with the actions of a nation-state, particularly one as aggressive as Israel.

Joseph Shahadi: And/or there is a cultivated ignorance on the topic as in, "well I don't know enough about it to offer an opinion..." What's to know?

Steven Salaita: I think that rationale is a stand-in for fear, or at least it is very often. The best way to lose one's liberal base of support is to criticize Israel too strongly. Or, hell, to criticize it at all.

Joseph Shahadi: There is a vague notion that Zionism IS Judaism, which is ridiculous. That's like saying communism is the same as Cuban ethnic identities: one is a political philosophy and the other is a religious and ethnic identity...

Steven Salaita: Exactly. But that's where ethnonationalism leads us. Ultimately, it's about who acts and how he or she acts. Any asshole can sound like a humanist.

Joseph Shahadi: I left Racialicious because they wouldn't commit one way or another--I said "If you support Israel at the expense of Palestine you ought to say so... you have a lot of Arab and Muslim readers who should know where you stand" But they refused... And then after I left the editor told me they were planning to ban me anyway. Like, "You can't quit, you’re fired!" Since the pieces I wrote for them on a whole range of topics were popular, while the aforementioned Zionists contributed nothing to the community beyond obstruction, and violated its decorum with impunity, the only real justification for asking me to leave was my open support of Palestine.

Steven Salaita: Being banned for opposing Zionism. We should start a club. We could get thousands of members in a day, unfortunately. I don't generally read Racialicious, mainly because I followed a debate there once about Zionism and came away disappointed. But there is an important broader issue here, and that's how Zionist activists have so effectively positioned Zionism and Israel as proper objects of multicultural decorum. In many ways, we can say that Zionists have colonized multiculturalism, and so in spaces that celebrate racial diversity and such, there's very often an ostensible "Jewish" presence that in reality is a Zionist presence. At the very least there isn't often any type of Palestinian presence.

Joseph Shahadi: Have you experienced any lasting professional consequences for being outspoken? About Palestine, or anything?

Steven Salaita: No I don't think I’ve dealt with any negative professional consequences. I've been lucky. I work hard. I say what I need to say. My colleagues generally leave me be, and I afford them the same courtesy. I can make lots of guesses about repercussions (on the job market, for instance), but I have no evidence to prove my suspicions.

Joseph Shahadi: One of my oldest friends, a black guy who is a journalist, had a difficult period professionally about ten years ago. He was stuck and he couldn't figure out why. So I asked

him, do you think any of the resistance you are experiencing is racial? And he said, "I try not to think about that question because there is nothing I can do about it. I can’t be less black."

Steven Salaita: That's true. I try not to think about it. I guess we just try to control what we can control. The problem is that these realities compel people to be silent about all sorts of terrible things in the world. Academe has always been that way, though. People of color are denied tenure all the time because their work isn't "rigorous" or "theoretical" enough, a coded way of saying that they're too interested in producing writing that matters.

Joseph Shahadi: And God forbid, you try to cross campus without your ID visible or get into your office after hours...

Steven Salaita: (pause)… Sorry, got my cat crawling all over my keyboard.

Joseph Shahadi: Ha. My dog is So Profoundly Asleep at my feet. He could not be less interested in this conversation.

Steven Salaita: Aaah, Rocket. I know him from your blog. My cat isn't so cerebral right now.

Joseph Shahadi: Yes, Rocket is very famous.

Have you had any blowback from your book? You go after some pretty big names...

Steven Salaita: No, I haven't. People ask me that often, expecting that the answer will be "yes." I thought for sure I'd get some blowback. I think I haven't for two main reasons: the liberal-left that I criticize seems to be obsessed with the far right and pretty much blows off what they consider to be the fringe left (though I honestly don't know where I belong on this political spectrum); and because very few people, all things considered, have read it. It's not the sort of title that ends up at the local Borders.


Steven Salaita: Ha! And give the poor bastard some blowback already.

Joseph Shahadi: Exactly, we want to see you trying to get a word in edgewise on Hardball.

Steven Salaita: I'm sure Rachel Maddow would adore me.

Joseph Shahadi: If you get to go on Maddow I am your roadie. I called it.

Steven Salaita: It's yours.

Joseph Shahadi: I'll go on ahead of you and say stuff like "Steve needs a mineral water!"

Steven Salaita: And eucalyptus tea. (I don't know what that is, but it seems like something a media celebrity should drink.)

Joseph Shahadi: Exactly.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Revisiting Nonviolence on the Anniversary of Malcolm X's Assassination

Bullet holes in back of stage where Malcolm X was shot.
Stanley Wolfson, New York World-Telegram & Sun staff photographer

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, also known as Malcolm X, was assassinated today--February 21, 1965--at Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom during a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. But despite the fact that Malcolm X was one of the most important civil rights activists in American history, you probably won't hear much about him today.

If X is mentioned at all it is typically as a counter-example to Martin Luther King Jr. While King was hardly popular with the white power structure during his life (and the conservative resistance to the annual celebration of his birth reveals how deep that antipathy still runs), in death King has become the historic face of acceptable blackness. Appropriately Christian and overtly nonviolent, King's rhetoric--typified by his famous "I have a dream" speech--always gestured toward the future. This is not intended as a criticism; King's soaring discourses are beyond reproach. My point is, in retrospect this message is not especially threatening to the structure of white power and authority. King is most remembered for brilliant speeches, endlessly quoted by well-intentioned white people from high school valedictorians to professional politicians, but during his life the actions he led and inspired did the most lasting good for advancing civil rights in the United States. Minus the element of confrontation that is an essential element of effective nonviolent action, the focus has settled on the "dream" of racial equality: either long realized and therefore no longer an issue (the argument of post-racialists) or an endlessly deferred, unachievable goal (the default argument of racial cynics). Famously assassinated himself, King cannot complicate the respectful but neutered version of his rhetoric with his living presence.

Malcolm X is not as easy to recast in these terms because in life he was markedly less interested in the nation's dreams than he was in shifting it's material circumstances, now. And the threat of this message to systemic racism did not diminish with his death. If anything his assassination underscores his message, "Power never takes a step back except in the face of more power." The ambivalence, if not outright hostility toward Malcolm X, even among some African Americans, is rooted in his embrace of Islam, which represents an unforgivable otherness in the west, and subsequent critique of the role of Christianity in the civil rights struggle. He famously said, "I believe in a religion that believes in freedom. Any time I have to accept a religion that won't let me fight a battle for my people, I say to hell with that religion", a difficult sentiment for many Christians to hear. But I think the relative obscurity of the anniversary of his death compared with the official and unofficial commemorations of other civil rights leaders is also directly attributable to his overt questioning of nonviolence. While King and others embraced and practiced nonviolence as a strategy of resistance, Malcolm X said, "I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man's problem just to avoid violence." It is important to note here that if Malcolm X found more support for his black nationalist stance in Islam than Christianity that has more to do with politics than religious doctrine--historically Islamic doctrine has been used to advocate for peaceful coexistence and Christian doctrine to justify war. Rather, X was responding to the complex relationship between Christianity and African-descended people in the US, which has been used--successfully--to argue both for and against their enslavement. His argument, that Christianity and nonviolence were both used to justify keeping black people in their place, is not really wrong as much as it is one-sided.

I think about nonviolent resistance a lot, since anything less than that, when enacted by Arabs or Muslims is described as terrorism. Anyone who doubts it need simply compare the reportage around the massacre at Fort Hood, performed by a guy who was clearly mentally ill but a Palestinian Muslim and the white guy who recently drove his plane into the IRS building in Texas, leaving a freaking manifesto online before turning himself into a living bomb. The former was immediately described as terrorism while the latter mostly wasn't. The pressure from both the American Right and Left on Arabs and Muslims to employ nonviolent resistance is overwhelming. "Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?" they say, "Real peace will never be achieved until they embrace nonviolence."

But that argument does not take into account that the Israeli Defense Forces do not hesitate to meet nonviolent resistance with violence, as has been proved again and again. If you doubt this I invite you to go and find the guy whose job it was to hose peace activist Rachel Corrie's brains out of the treads of the IDF tank that ran her over and ask his opinion... If a white, blonde, middle class, straight, American girl can be murdered with impunity by Israeli Defense Forces while performing nonviolent resistance then what chance would actual Palestinians have if they sat down in front of Israeli tanks? Exactly.

I have been a nonviolent activist since I was a teenager. I have marched, sat down where I shouldn't have and refused to move as cops charged forward. I know first hand how terrifying it is to make yourself into an immovable object in the face of oncoming force. So I don't romanticize force as a way to address conflict. And I cannot advocate violence as a response to conflict.

But then I am living among the colonizers and not the colonized.

Malcolm X also said, "If you're not ready to die for it, put the word 'freedom' out of your vocabulary." On the anniversary of his death it is a timely question to ask: are these really our only options-- freedom or death? Or are there young activists among us whose responses to conflict are so creative, so confounding to authoritarian power that they will change the game entirely, making this question seem quaint?

Perhaps that is so. I only know that Rachel Corrie won't be among them.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"The Return of Talk": Film screening and discussion with Adam Shapiro

Filmmaker and Activist Adam Shapiro

The Palestine Center invites you to

The Return of Talk
Film screening and discussion


Mr. Adam Shapiro
Activist and Filmmaker

Wednesday, 24 February 2010
6:30 p.m.
The Palestine Center

The Jerusalem Fund
2425 Virginia Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20037

The Return of Talk is the final part of a six part documentary series entitled Chronicles of a Refugee. It explores the relationship of leadership and representation among Palestinians, notably Palestinian refugees worldwide. Giving both historical context and debate over future strategy the film is a comprehensive look at the meaning of political leadership for a people facing exile, occupation and ongoing dispossession. Given the importance of the 60th anniversary of the dispossession of Palestine in 1948, this film is a timely documentation, combing grassroots, activist and elite perspectives on the history and strategy of the Palestinian national movement.

Adam Shapiro is a human rights activist and documentary filmmaker. He was co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine. He has made the documentaries About Baghdad (2005), Darfur Diaries: Message from Home (2006), Becoming Nadya (2007) and Nowhere to Flee (2007).

This briefing is free and open to the public. Registration is required. Unregistered guests will not be admitted. To register, click here or call (202) 338-1958 ext.11 by 5 pm Tuesday, 23 February 2010.

The Palestine Center is an independent think-tank committed to communicating reliable and timely information about the Palestinian political experience to American policy-makers, journalists, students and the general public. Established in 1991, it is the educational program of the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development.

Monday, February 15, 2010

John Mayer, Tiger Woods and Interracial Dating*

Guantanamo Bay is still open.

* This post was designed to draw traffic to my blog so that you might read this important message. Thank you for visiting, please come again soon.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Keffiyeh Continued: "Not Dead By a Long Shot" by Ted Swedenburg

I mentioned Ted Swedenburg's Hawgblawg and his funny "keffiyeh-spotting" feature the other day and coincidentally he posted a new one as I was writing, so I thought I'd repost it to continue our keffiyeh conversation...

The Kufiya: Not Dead by a Long Shot
(via Ted Swedenburg's Hawgblawg)

"The kufiya has had its designer moment. That's over. But it still remains an important style item. Here are a few examples.

1. Bill Cunningham's always wonderful series of street-fashion photos in the Sunday New York Times Style section today has a particularly exciting report. Cunningham claims that male fashion in NY City is today as vibrant and creative as it was in the 60s. And he has the photos to prove it. Check out the video and Cunningham's smart commentary.

One of Cunningham's photos features a young man in kufiya (at left). This look, of course, is in no way "hipster" fashion, as conventionally understood. Artsy middle class professional? I'm not sure how to describe this look.

When I was in Philadelphia in December most of the kufiyas I spotted were worn by African-Americans. They weren't displayed in quite such spectacular outfits as this one, but on the other hand, they were not hip-hop either. More bohemian or artsy. And various colors. These days I find myself particularly liking the turquoise ones.

2. To support my point about kufiyas being stylish in urban Africa-America, here's a photo from of a mother and daughter, on the streets of NY City, November 2009. Rochelle, who spotted this for me, particularly likes the white dangly balls. I agree. Cunningham observes in his commentary today that men in New York have opted for color in their clothing, while women have gone toward black. He calls this "peacock" style. This photo would seem to support that observation.

3. I reported earlier on the "jerk" dancing phenomenon. Here's some more evidence that the kufiya often goes along with the distinctive skinny jeans. This photo is from a video by the Long Beach jerkin' outfit Team Dummy, which shows them out on the streets, jerkin'. Watch the vid here.

My kufiya posting is way behind. There's still a substantial backlog to put up and describe...stay tuned."

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Keffieh, Mona Hatoum (2003-2009)

You would be hard pressed to find someone who cares less about fashion than I do. I live in New York, the fashion capital of the US, but my wardrobe is basically limited to ten different versions of black/gray v-neck pullovers, jeans and salt-stained combat boots. If you are one of those people poring over fashion blogs full of cruel pictures of unsuspecting saps who are dressed (presumably) worse than you are, you might run across a picture of me, say, during an early morning dog walk wearing sweatpants, mismatched socks and ancient sneakers, blinking at my dog while he decides where to pee. I figure as long as you can't see my nipples I am winning.

But when I was working in Oslo in '08 I bought a beautiful keffiyeh.

I bought it at a global arts fair in the center of the city. It is heavy, woven and very large when it is unfolded; completely unlike the made-in-china screen-printed hipster keffiyehs you can get on St. Marks (like those that Ted Swedenburg tracks in his funny, regular feature "keffiyeh-spotting" on his Hawgblawg). When I tried it on, twisting it like a regular scarf, the Arab vendor gently clucked his tongue and said "No. Wait. Here." And he folded it and arranged it softly around my neck so it spread across my chest. I walked back to meet my friend Namaa Alward, who'd been a leading actress on the Iraqi national stage before she and her children fled Saddam to Norway where she began her career over again. I walked back to the coffee shop where she was waiting and her face split in a giant smile when she saw me. "There! Now you look like a proper Arab!", she said laughing. That night we ate fat dates out of a deep bowl in her front yard and drank wine, with Oslo spread out beneath us, winking.

I brought my new scarf home in my suitcase and wondered if it would raise any questions if my luggage were searched... but I made it through two international airports with no incident. The winters since then have been fairly mild so I haven't had much need for it--it is very warm--but with the bitter cold of the last few months I have been wearing it a lot.

When I wear it in Soho no one blinks, I guess because they don't assume it means anything other than a slightly-out-of-date fashion statement, which I suppose it kind of is. But when I leave my apartment in Brooklyn the white people in my neighborhood scowl at me. They glare openly in my peripheral vision but if I let my glance slide across theirs they rearrange their faces into a tight approximation of normalcy; familiar but artificial, sort of like Mariah Carrey's breasts. One unshaven day a friend's mother opened his front door and, discovering me there said I looked "like a terrorist." When I said, "excuse me?" she looked away and pretended she hadn't said anything.

And I let her.

But it made me wonder, if someone who knows and likes me thinks I look like a terrorist when I wear my scarf, then what must be going on behind the narrowed eyes of strangers on the street?

I can feel the disturbance in the air when I move through it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Message Is in the Music: Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music & More; A Conference at Sarah Lawrence

The Message Is in the Music:
Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music & More

A Conference at Sarah Lawrence College

Bronxville, New York (15 minutes north of Manhattan)
Friday & Saturday, March 5 & 6, 2010
Free and Open to the Public

Keynote Speaker: Carmen Ashhurst, former president of Def Jam Recordings and Rush Communications and author of the
forthcoming book Selling My Brothers: The Movement, The Media, and Me

Music has long served social movements as a soundtrack, as a means of communication, and as its own arena for activism. While multiple generations of feminists have used music in these ways, it has played especially vital roles for those born since the 1970s. This conference will explore the ways in which young feminists have defined and expressed politics through music and musical cultures and communities. Among the questions we will ponder are: How does music reflect sites of agreement and conflict among different groups of feminists? How have movements like Riot Grrrl and Hip Hop feminism attracted young women to feminist activism? How do young feminists’ uses of music compare with those of earlier generations?

Preliminary Schedule (subject to change)
Unless otherwise noted, all events take place in the Monika A. and Charles A. Heimbold, Jr. Visual Arts Center.

Friday, March 5, 2010

4:30 – 8 p.m., Heimbold Lobby

Opening Plenary
6 – 8 p.m., Heimbold 202

Welcome: Tara James, Associate Director,
Graduate Program in Women’s History, Sarah Lawrence College

Keynote Address: Carmen Ashhurst, former president of
Def Jam Recordings and Rush Communications, and author of the
forthcoming book Selling My Brothers: The Movement, The Media, and Me
Opening Reception
8 – 9:30 p.m., Slonim Living Room

Saturday, March 6, 2010

9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Heimbold Lobby
The Message is in the Music

Plenary Session
10 – 11:45 a.m., Heimbold 202

Opening Remarks: Priscilla Murolo, Director,
Graduate Program in Women’s History, Sarah Lawrence College

Plenary Panel
"Intersections: Music and Activism"

Mimi Nguyen, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
"Missing Persons"

Fiona Ngo, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
"Punk in the Shadow of War"

Christa D’Angelica, Law Clerk, New York Supreme Court, Sarah Lawrence College
"Beyond Bikini Kill: A History of Riot Grrrl, From Grrrls to Ladies"

Noon – 1 p.m., Heimbold Lobby
Lunch Break - (There will be a $10 charge for the conference lunch)

1 – 2:30 p.m., Breakout Session I

Panel: "Give Me Body": Reading the Latina and Black Female Body in Popular Music

Shanna Benjamin, Grinnell College
"Hot Sex on a Platter: Lil’ Kim and Reconstructions of the Black Female Body"

Lakesia D. Johnson, Grinnell College
"Black Queer Embodiment and Desire in the Music Videos of Me’shell Ndegéocello"

Michelle Rocío Nasser, Grinnell College
"Reading Shakira’s Body: Signs of Colombianidad in 'Hips Don’t Lie'"

Panel: Video Vixens

Loron Benton, Georgia State University
"'Shake What Your Mama Gave You': The Representation and Performance of the Female Body in Hip Hop Videos"

Zoe Spencer, Virginia State University
"Shake Dat Azz: Deconstructing the Sociopolitical Foundation of the Neo Jezebel"

Marita Buanes, University of Agder, Norway
"Flip It and Reverse It: Gender and Race in Missy Elliott’s Video 'Work It'"

Panel: Riot Grrrl

Julia Downes, University of Leeds
"'Resist Psychic Death': The Cultural Politics of Riot Grrrl and Queer Feminist Subculture"

Marisa Meltzer, Freelance Writer
"The Girl Power Revolution"

Jamielynn Varriale, SUNY Albany
"Embodying Riot Grrl: Fleshly Representations and Bodily Experiences and Images in the Work and Career of Corin Tucker"

Round-Table Discussion: "The Mode of Masculinity in the American Pop Patriarchy:
An Interactive Round-Table Discussion"

Jared Demick, University of Connecticut
Kristin Evans, University of Connecticut
Amber West, University of Connecticut
Jeffrey Wickersham, University of Connecticut

2:45 – 4:15 p.m., Breakout Session II

Panel: Women Rap

Emma Carmichael, Vassar College
"Female Subjectivity within Hip Hop: Rappers, Lyrics, and Performance"

Iresha Picot, Family Planning Council, Philadelphia
"Doorknockers: Black Female Rappers Knockin’ on a New Intellectual Discourse"

María Santana, University of Central Florida
"Her Sexy Stilettos Give a Women’s Point of View to Reggaeton: Ivy Queen and Latin Urban Music"

Panel: Performing Gender

Nafeesa Nichols, University of The Witwatersrand (South Africa)
"Gendered Identities in Black South African Creative Expression: Are We Running in Circles"

Barbara Anna Panuzzo, London South Bank University
"Writing Performative Identities: Discursive Traits of Femininity in Hip Hop Journalism"

Malaena Taylor, University of Connecticut
"Gender and Activism in the Punk Subculture"

Jessica Ronald – University of Louisville, Louisville, KY
"Potential Feminist Performances of Masculinity in Music: The Hip Hop Subculture of Nerdcore"

Panel: Divas

Brian Q. Torff, Fairfield University
Hilary Torff, High School Academic Core Teacher, Marymount Academy, Montreal, Canada
"Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Rosetta Tharpe: Black Women Who Shaped a Musical Future"

Elisabeth Wronzoff-Dashkoff, Independent Scholar
"Who’s That Girl?: Pop Stars as the Apogee of 1980s Feminist Discourse"

Panel: Say What: The Message in the Music

Vankita Brown, Howard University
"Me’Shell Ndegeocello and Womanist Music"

C. Chic Smith, Howard University
"African American Women in Hip Hop Music and Videos"

4:30 – 6 p.m., Breakout Session III

Workshop: Sophie’s Parlor Radio Collective

Lakeisha R. Harrison
Kimberly C. Gaines
Andrea Thompson

Panel: "Love, Sex, and Magic: Hip Hop Feminism as a Tool
for the Creative Renegotiation of Black Female Desire"

Emily Unnasch, University of Alabama
"'F Love': Sex, Violence, and Hip Hop’s Turbulent Struggle to Define Love against the Grain"

Brittney Cooper, University of Alabama
'''She’s a Movement by Herself': Black Sexual Politics and Independent Black Womanhood in the Hip Hop Feminist Era"

Maigen Sullivan, University of Alabama
"'They Dykin': The Commodification of Lesbian Desire in Mainstream Hip Hop and Underground Attempts at Reclamation"

Tammy Owens, University of Alabama
“'It Must Be Your Ass'”: The Commodification of the Black Female Booty from Slavery to the Present"

Round-Table Discussion: Rhymes of Dissent: Identity Politics within Underground Hip Hop

Viviana Bernal, Sankofa Institute for Youth Development Inc.
Katie McGhee, Montclair State University
Maria Roumiantseva, Montclair State University

Panel: WomynSong

Amity Bryson, Avila University
"Women’s Music Festivals, Politics or Commodity?: The 1970s Experience vs. Lilith Fair"

Elizabeth K. Keenan, Columbia University
"If Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville Made You a Feminist, What Kind of Feminist Are You?: Heterosexuality, Race, and Class in the Third Wave?"

Andrea Fehring, University of Northern Iowa
“Womyn Only Space at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival: Is Separatism Based on Biological Sex, in Fact, Feminist?”

Closing Reception
6 – 6:30 p.m., Heimbold Lobby

6:30 – 8:30 p.m., Slonim Living Room

Alumni Reception for the Graduates of the
Sarah Lawrence College Women’s History Program

Monday, February 1, 2010

Leda Martins Talk: How Can We Remember the Bees and the Beats? Memory, Death and Disappearance in Brazilian Ritual Performances

How Can We Remember the Bees and the Beats? Memory, Death and Disappearance in Brazilian Ritual Performances

A lecture in English by Leda Martins

Thursday, February 4, 2010 6pm

Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics
20 Cooper Square, 5th Floor
New York, NY

Leda Martins is a poet, playwright, and professor of Literature at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Her research focuses on the relationship between performance and memory, particularly in Afro-Brazilian traditions.

Drawing on her concepts of "Spiral Time" and "Oraliture," Professor Martins will examine the ritual ceremonies of the Afro-Brazilian Congados and of the indigenous Maxakalí. Analyzing the interconnections between death, image, and the ancestral, she explores these performances as practices of embodied memory through which these communities struggle against forgetting and disappearance.