Tuesday, April 27, 2010

M.I.A., Zizek, and a Working Definition of Genocide

M.I.A.’s new music video is pretty disturbing. Created for her song “Born Free,” the video shows a near-future Los Angeles (I think), where American soldiers and shock troops are rounding up redheaded, fair-skinned people (or “gingers”), busing them out into the desert, and executing them en masse. (Be warned: the video is very graphic.)

The video is pretty well-done, and properly evocative. But it has one major flaw, in my mind. As the bus carrying the gingers to their doom moves through the streets of Los Angeles, they pass a mural showing a group of gingers dressed in camo, hoisting automatic rifles, under the words, “Our Day Will Come.” A few seconds later, a group of gingers emerges from an alley and starts pelting the bus with stones. They all have their faces covered with kheffiyahs (checkered Arab headdresses). The scene is clearly meant to evoke the Palestinian struggle.

Here’s the fundamental problem: they’re gingers. If you’re covering your face, presumably, you want to keep your identity secret, so they can’t come and find you later. But the premise of the video is that in future dystopian LA, the state is trying to kill all gingers just because they’re gingers. So why do our ginger revolutionaries cover their faces? What’s the point? Palestinians who throw rocks at Israeli tanks cover their faces so the Israel Defense Forces won’t later pick them out from among other Palestinians and arrest them. If the IDF’s policy was to kill all Palestinians anyway, this would be a pointless act.

Last semester, my friend and mentor Robert (the anti-Moderate) introduced me to the neo-Marxist writer Slavoj Zizek. In this interview, Zizek distinguishes between the evil of Joseph Stalin’s purges and the evil of the Holocaust this way:

...there is a basic difference between Stalinist and Nazi victim status, from a simple phenomenological approach. Under Nazism, if you were a Jew, you were simply killed, no questions asked, you had nothing to prove. You are guilty for who you are, you are a Jew, you are killed, that’s it. Under Stalinism, of course, most [victims] were on trial for false accusations; most of them were not traitors. Nonetheless, there is one interesting feature: that they were tortured or through some kind of blackmail forced to confess to being traitors. ... The idea is that, in a strange way, it admits that you are still a free human being, you had a choice. You are guilty, you have to confess. ...In a totally perverted, thwarted, and twisted way, some margin of human freedom was acknowledged under Stalin.
Zizek’s comments about Nazism bring to mind the words of a three-year-old boy who was killed in the 1994 Rwanda genocide: “Please don’t kill me. I’ll never be Tutsi again.”

There’s an awful lot of debate out there about what does and does not constitute genocide. Obviously, the Holocaust does, as does the mass slaughter of Rwandan Tutsis. But what about the murder of a million Armenians in Turkey during World War I? The Sudanese government’s campaign against the inhabitants of Darfur? Or even, as some historians (whom I would consider nuts, at best, but have a constituency) have suggested, the Israeli occupation of Palestine? The UN’s Genocide Convention defines genocide as an attempt “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Apparently, that definition isn’t clear-cut enough for the times.

This debate is pretty depressing, because it forces scholars to spend lots of thought, ink and breath arguing about whether this and that mass murder is bad enough to qualify for an artificial standard. It turns a black-and-white moral issue into a semantic issue. Nevertheless, if we are to avoid doing violence to the language by using genocide to describe every immoral conflict out there, the debate must be had, and settled.

Perhaps we can posit this as a working genocide litmus test: if the victims’ only crime is being born, into their race, ethnic group, locality, culture, or religion, then it’s genocide. If the victims could save themselves by submitting to their attackers somehow, it’s not.

Cheerful thoughts, eh? The darkness of the human soul...

On that note, if you’re interested in my take on the new Arizona immigration bill, this New Yorker comment sums it up pretty well:

Arizona Leads the Way Backward on Immigration


Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength?

“It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.

“I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm worked salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me.”

- Isaiah 63:1, 5


  1. Great post Joel. This video is interesting in that it evokes the Jewish-Palestinian conflict but also could be about something like the new AZ bill (although perhaps that's too current for the video, but then again, the video was just released too). At first glance, I take it to be about borderline identity, but this requires some more thought. Thanks, though, because I need to write a theory paper using Postcolonial Studies for Thursday, so you've given me something to write about!

    Nice use of Zizek, too. That is an interesting contradiction, although perhaps the kerchiefs are more surface-level.


  2. I sign on to your definition of genocide.

    An interesting question it raises of course (this just occurred to me) is for the Calvinist side of you: is human death, as such, a genocide committed by God? According to Calvin, death is the lot of all men, first of all, because of their original sin, because of the crime of having been born to the race of Adam... Hmm...

    Re: Arizona. I was severely depressed to see my home state marching so confidently backwards. I'm glad I'll be an Iowa citizen as of this summer...

  3. Dave,

    Thanks! I appreciate it. Since I wrote this post (partly) instead of working on MY paper due Thursday, I'm glad it helped you with yours. :)


    For me, part of being not just a Calvinist, but a Christian, is accepting two seemingly contradictory beliefs: we are all born sinners, and we are all justly found guilty of sin. I don't understand it, but I trust in God's justice. How would you answer that problem? (Do you still consider yourself a Calvinist?)

  4. Well, the comparison I was drawing between your definition of genocide and the Calvinist doctrine of original sin isn't so much that we are born *sinners* as that we are born condemned. In other words, whether we are justly condemned is irrelevant to the question of whether that condemnation constitutes a genocide --- according to your definition, genocide has to do with the connection between condemnation and birth, not necessarily condemnation and justice.

    The answer might be that, for Calvin, God is more like Stalin than Hitler, because if you submit to him your condemnation is removed. But we all still die. Purportedly as the result of a curse upon our species as such.

    I'm not sure how I'd resolve the problem. --- I was just highlighting a dilemma that your definition caused me to think of.

    As to whether I'd still call myself a Calvinist: I don't really like to call myself things like that --- there's some stuff in Calvin I agree with, sure, but also some stuff I find problematic and some stuff I thoroughly reject. There are very few labels I'm particularly sold on defending. Seems counter-productive in general...

  5. I really like Žižek, and I appreciate your post too. I would distinguish ethnic cleansing from genocide in that genocide is kinetic (search and destroy) where ethnic cleansing is much more media centric, and revolves around homogenizing individual polities (if people run away from our atrocities, all the better). This is not a true dichotomy, the two terms are more or less the same thing. The delineation is a matter of transportation. If you allow your ethnic rival flight (as the Israelis did) you are ethnically cleansing, whereas if you transport them to death camps, that's genocide. The division really only is a matter of policy; no one can be responsible for stopping ethnic cleansing/civil war worldwide, but genocide has a slightly stronger flavor in that it is rarer and more total. al-Nakba ≠ Shoah.