Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

The view from the subaltern: our best hope against fascism

In social theory there is the notion that the view from the margins, from those most repressed, marginalised or oppressed, often offers the most prescient and trenchant insights into the social order. While the insights of various feminist, queer and postcolonial schools are many, this is one of the most valuable — from Guyatri Spivak’s ‘subaltern’ to James C. Scott’s ‘infrapolitics’ to Edward Said’s politically othering Orientalism, the idea that standpoint epistemology offers insights into social reality one can not get from reading the official hegemonic accounts is a compelling one.

Perhaps it is fitting that Cynthia McKinney, an African American and one of the few shining lights on Capitol Hill, has introduced a bill to impeach Bush, likely her final legislative act as she leaves the U.S. House of Representatives this week.

Here is the good Congresswoman’s speech:

Mr. Speaker:

cynthia-mc-kinney.jpgI come before this body today as a proud American and as a servant of the American people, sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

Throughout my tenure, I’ve always tried to speak the truth. It’s that commitment that brings me here today.

We have a President who has misgoverned and a Congress that has refused to hold him accountable. It is a grave situation and I believe the stakes for our country are high.

No American is above the law, and if we allow a President to violate, at the most basic and fundamental level, the trust of the people and then continue to govern, without a process for holding him accountable, what does that say about our commitment to the truth? To the Constitution? To our democracy?

The trust of the American people has been broken. And a process must be undertaken to repair this trust. This process must begin with honesty and accountability.

Leading up to our invasion of Iraq, the American people supported this Administration’s actions because they believed in our President. They believed he was acting in good faith. They believed that American laws and American values would be respected. That in the weightiness of everything being considered, two values were rock solid: trust and truth.

From mushroom clouds to African yellow cake to aluminum tubes, the American people and this Congress were not presented the facts, but rather were presented a string of untruths, to justify the invasion of Iraq.

President Bush, along with Vice President Cheney and then-National Security Advisor Rice, portrayed to the Congress and to the American people that Iraq represented an imminent threat, culminating with President Bush’s claim that Iraq was six months away from developing a nuclear weapon. Having used false fear to buy consent, the President then took our country to war.

This has grave consequences for the health of our democracy, for our standing with our allies, and most of all, for the lives of our men and women in the military and their families–who have been asked to make sacrifices–including the ultimate sacrifice–to keep us safe.

Just as we expect our leaders to be truthful, we expect them to abide by the law and respect our courts and judges. Here again, the President failed the American people.

When President Bush signed an executive order authorizing unlawful spying on American citizens, he circumvented the courts, the law, and he violated the separation of powers provided by the Constitution. Once the program was revealed, he then tried to hide the scope of his offense from the American people by making contradictory, untrue statements.

President George W. Bush has failed to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States; he has failed to ensure that senior members of his administration do the same; and he has betrayed the trust of the American people.

With a heavy heart and in the deepest spirit of patriotism, I exercise my duty and responsibility to speak truthfully about what is before us. To shy away from this responsibility would be easier. But I have not been one to travel the easy road. I believe in this country, and in the power of our democracy. I feel the steely conviction of one who will not let the country I love descend into shame; for the fabric of our democracy is at stake.

Some will call this a partisan vendetta, others will say this is an unimportant distraction to the plans of the incoming Congress. But this is not about political gamesmanship.

I am not willing to put any political party before my principles.

This, instead, is about beginning the long road back to regaining the high standards of truth and democracy upon which our great country was founded.

She continues:

Mr. Speaker:

Under the standards set by the United States Constitution, President Bush, along with Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of State Rice, should be subject to the process of impeachment, and I have filed H. Res.1106 in the House of Representatives.

To my fellow Americans, as I leave this Congress, it is in your hands to hold your representatives accountable, and to show those with the courage to stand for what is right, that they do not stand alone.

Thank you.

In so doing, Cynthia McKinney has become the first US Congressperson to introduce Articles of Impeachment against President Bush, as well as Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. David Swanson in the Atlantic Free Press notes that “she alone has spoken for the 51 percent of Americans who Newsweek says want Bush impeached” and critiques the media slander on McKinney, most notably from the AP‘s Ben Evans.

So much for Pelosi and the Democrats. In noting their unwillingness to make political hay out of impeachment and McKinney’s filing of HR 1106, Juan Santos has also drawn a compelling link between race and complicity in the system, between race and symbolic leadership in the fight against fascism – in ‘Swallowing the Blue Pill‘ at his Fourth World blog, he notes:

As the US veers on a radical course toward fascism, the Democrats, who are riding high on a national wave of revulsion against the Bush regime, breathe not a word about reversing the legalization of torture or restoring habeas corpus; they say nothing about reversing the Patriot Act, nothing about averting war in Iran, and nothing of substance about pulling out of Iraq.

Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi speaks coyly about not knowing where investigations of Republican abuses might lead, but has no intention whatsoever of “endangering” Democrat’s chances of winning the White House in 2008 with a move, like impeachment, that might appear “radical” to swing voters.

That’s the excuse, at least. The reality is that Pelosi knows the simple truth: to indict Bush is to indict the entire US government before the eyes of the world – including the Democrats, who are up to their throats in complicity in the Iraq war and in fascistic legislation like the Patriot Act.

You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe.”

– Morpheus, The Matrix

Juan Santos then highlights the crucial role of people of colour (in the US lexicon) in being the touchstones for consciousness-raising and social change in the US, by virtue of their marginality:

Without the war in Viet Nam – actually, without a draft that impacted young white men, there’d have been no mass resistance among white people in the 60s. Peoples of color were unquestionably the leading edge of the rebellions of those years.

That’s because of one of the social guarantees of whiteness. Even if it’s never spoken aloud, everyone knows in their bones that white people are exempt, that white people as a group are not the target of overt violent oppression in the US, and that they never have been and never will be. Guaranteed.

That guarantee is their blue pill, what makes them sleep.

Drawing an analogy with the Matrix (the first one in the trilogy is really the only one worth watching, to my mind), Santos observes the symbolism of those who help to awaken the white male character:

And that’s why, in The Matrix, it’s Morpheus, a Black man, who has to offer the white man, Neo, the choice: red pill or blue; wake up to the full reality around you or stay asleep. That’s also why The Oracle had to be a woman of color, and was. Doubly oppressed, doubly wise.

Does this mean I am saying that white males are not also oppressed by the system? No, they indubitably are, but I think what is noted here is that their consciousness is crucially aided by those with a different experiential take on the world by virtue of their more overt oppression that whites can not experience in the same way, namely, by the ‘blacks’ and ‘browns’, and the ‘reds’ and ‘yellows’. It is a recognition that there are layers and gradations of privelege that many of us sometimes unconsciously experience, depending on race, gender, sexuality, education, class and so on. Santos himself notably attributes an insight to a white woman that he may not have otherwise arrived at as a male:

Now then, a white woman – not just any white woman but a radical lesbian feminist (it’s that double oppression thing) – pointed out a striking truth to me tonight.

The only people who’ve stood up en masse against the recent rapid escalation toward fascism in the US have been Brown people. Migrants and Chicanas stood up in our millions against the fascistic Sensenbrenner bill, a race law which would have rendered every migrant a felon, and every Chicana a suspect in a felony. The Sensenbrenner bill would have made the barrio every bit as much a zone of official terror as the ghetto – even more so.

We were all that stood between the status quo and outright universalized fascism in the US.

But almost nothing and no one stood between colonized peoples of color and fascism in the US. Black, Red and Brown have lived under virtual fascism – mass terror, police occupation and mass incarceration – for a generation now, since the War on Drugs and mass incarceration took the place of segregation and Jim Crow laws. (my boldface emphasis)

To recognise the subjugated subaltern in the infrageographies of social reality is an important precondition for truly challenging the status quo. It is a recognition that positionality matters in the architecture of archetypes built up by our civilisation. In the epilogue to his superb The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas writes that:

The “man” of the Western tradition has been a questing masculine hero, a Promethean biological and metaphysical rebel who has constantly sought freedom and progress for himself, and who has thus constantly striven to differentiate himself from and control the matrix out of which he emerged.

Western civilisation has been fashioned in his image, and the white heterosexual male has long been its universal idealised subject at the core of its project. This project is in ever deeper crisis; it is important that this be separated from the misperception that white males themselves are being attacked or should somehow be repudiated. On the contrary, their contributions are much to be valued and so many have offered such canny insights into our current condition as their positionality affords them.

Rather, it an acknowledgement that in this civilisational architecture of archetypes, white males are endowed with a special role by virtue of their centrality to the western narrative, but it is hardly the White Man’s Burden imagined by racist theories of the past. I put it that it is perhaps that the questing Promothean masculine hero might be illuminated by and take heed of the view from the margins, to be afforded the ability to see with new eyes what has always been there.

From the act of one shining beacon, we can draw important lessons. Cynthia McKinney is to be congratulated, thanked and admired for her integrity and fidelity to her principles.

On a broader level, the subaltern speaks, and we would do well to listen with our hearts as well as our minds, for our freedom depends upon it, as does our collective survival.

3 comments on “The view from the subaltern: our best hope against fascism

  1. Curtis
    10 December, 2006

    . . .to be afforded the ability to see with new eyes what has always been there.

    As you probably know, there has been and continues to be some debate over whether or not Kipling’s poem was serious or satirical, an ode or a warning. In any case, insofar as it is taken seriously, the concept of the White Man’s Burden is nothing more than a justification.

    The white male is central to the Western narrative not least because he has formulated, developed, and put into practice the ideal of himself as a detached observer and manipulator of his environment. This outlook seems to have been integral to a great deal of progress but the expense and the injustice and the untenability grow increasingly clear and more resonant.

    However, the narrative is seductive in a way that does not apply merely or even chiefly to white males. Through this structure it is clearly the white male who has benefited the most and paid the least, which is to be expected in a system of values developed by white males. This imparts an administrative responsibility to the white male, which is, I suspect, what Kipling really meant in his infamous phrase. But the master’s house will never be dismantled by the master’s tools, as the saying goes. Ideology, I believe, cannot be meaningfully combatted with ideology. If angelic voices seduce with reason, they cannot be quieted with reason. Even the vocabulary used to discuss such matters is largely in the service of the value system at hand, which is, for me, one of the most frustrating aspects of the problem.

    Oppressed peoples understand the notion of self-responsibility and are able to act upon it because they lose under the existing value system. By embracing the value system, a person of any ethnicity can, within limits, become a conqueror. So, then, a method of action and not a system of ideology must be constructed in which each individual, regardless of race or creed, is able to take personal responsibility for what is being lost, which in a nutshell is personal responsibility—and this excruciatingly difficult and ineffably liberating task will be, I think, generally most difficult for the white male to undertake because of what he perceives he has gained through his own system of values.

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking post. In re the Bush impeachment, I too applaud Congresswoman McKinney for her clarion call and I hope that all dissenting Americans will realize the importance of justice and redemption and pressure their elected representatives to take a stand against lies, murder, and profiteering.

  2. ressentiment
    11 December, 2006

    As a member of the radical left and also the white activist genre, I am forced to work hard against the view of the Democratic party as a big tent comprised of self-serving minority views. There is very little debate on the left or the right that Ms. McKinney made an ass of herself in Congress and has become a lightening rod symbol of everything that’s wrong with liberalism in the United States. Good intentions notwithstanding, politics requires competent leadership and the ability to check factional instincts toward more inclusive ideas about the greater good.

    Liberals have had a good many years to contemplate their marketing strategy in the context of a totalitarian conservative agenda. If you look at maps of Purple America long enough you start to see the long-term political dialogue taking place roughly between the zones of rural vs. urban value systems. Democrats began to make big gains when they began mining vote gold in them thar hills. The recent Republican voter hegemony in the South was based primarily on the movement of southern voters from the Democrat column into the Republican column because they perceived little value for themselves in the liberal agenda. It’s important to remember that Democrats did not win the last election. The Republicans lost it with to their own incompetence and with their open war on the middle class on behalf of – dare we call them fascists? – the interests of the wealthiest Americans. This is not a sea change toward liberalism, and anyone who wants to think that should take another look. Democrats barely made themselves presentable to the electorate by outflanking the right on a strong defense and fiscally conservative platforms.

    There was a running joke in the liberal forums that any minority flag bearers running for day light toward enemy lines would be shot in the back for being out of formation. The Democrat party still cannot afford to be seen as the party most favored by minorities. The American electorate has not become more liberal. Given a decent Republican replacement for Bush, the country is still in danger of remaining in the hands of the corporate interests.


    Now having said all that in favor of political pragmatism, I want to show my support for any and all progressives who want to raise their voices in the public forum. Women actually won this last election for us, but they lost the one before that, voting almost 1.5 to 1 in favor of the perceived “moral” values of candidates on the right. I believe the progressive movement cannot afford to be seen as the affirmative action party, steadfast in the belief that government regulation is the solution every social ill. The tired leadership of civil rights era is being replaced by fresh new faces like Barack Obama who represent a more libertarian view of the role of government which appeals to a broad base of Americans. Listening to Barack makes me sick sometimes because he says things the corporations and the “it’s the economy stupid” people want to hear. But it’s entirely necessary given the current state of the American electorate. Before you can do good things with power you have to get elected. Let Cynthia McKinney serve as an example of how to get unelected fast. We’re just as dumb as we were when we elected George Bush. So we have to be very careful when we get into these dialogues about subaltern agendas or we’ll be right back where we started – outside looking in.

  3. peoplesgeography
    11 December, 2006

    Thank you very much indeed for such thought-provoking comments. As both of you know from emails, WordPress has been jammed in my neck of the woods for the past few hours for all the simultaneous global users Sunday afternoon (North America), night (Europe) and Monday morning (Oceania), but I am now able to take this opportunity to respond.

    First, Curt, thank you for your always perceptive comments. You cogently address the topic at its two intersecting planes of analysis, as pitched. On the one hand, the post was about the enduring centrality of the white male subject in the western narrative and the value of marginalised perspectives in this worldview; on the other, it was also about and framed Congresswoman McKinney’s act of filing articles of impeachment, and the attendant race, gender and other implications drawn from this.

    As you note, the White Man’s Burden in Kipling’s poetic license is quite probably satirical rather than literal, though its use indeed reflects the extent to which it has passed into common currency and used as a justification for racist practice.

    Interestingly, it occurred to me that in some ways standpoint epistemology may simply serve to invert the civilising “mission”: here, rather than the white man charged with civilising-as-Empire’s administrative responsibility, we now have the subaltern subjects charged with enjoining the more privileged white male subject to open his eyes and recognise this project of destructively manipulating the matrix out of which he emerged (funnily enough, both Tarnas and the movie use the term ‘matrix’).

    In his decidedly Eurocentric, teleological and linear trajectory of development, I am reminded also of how Karl Marx famously wrote that the industrially advanced countries only show the less developed nations “the image of their own future.”

    Yet our current condition again seems to be inverting much of that thinking. When Cuba is more peak oil-, hurricane- and disaster relief- ready than more affluent countries and is training doctors and health workers, even from the west, when the southern Indian state of Kerala has better social indicators than the US without the first world income, when many countries in the so-called “third world” seem to be better equipped to deal with the possible power-down scenarios that might eventuate as the cheap and readily available fossil fuel supply that underpins our affluence dwindles, I have to wonder who is the more “developed” and who is looking to who as the image of their future.

    This may, of course, be tangential here but constitutes another related line of enquiry I recalled from your interesting comments. You also adroitly note that the narrative is a seductive one “in a way that does not apply merely or even chiefly to white males” — noted and I believe this has not been sufficiently acknowledged and would also like to further explore this.

    This observation also resonated with me: “Even the vocabulary used to discuss such matters is largely in the service of the value system at hand, which is, for me, one of the most frustrating aspects of the problem.”

    As myself an outsider looking in to American politics, I very much note such things as the American use of the term “minorities”, something that seems to be peculiarly North American. (I’m not sure whether it is widely used in Canada or not). We hardly use the term here and it seems reflective of your astute observation. If a whole state or city is mostly Latino- or African- American, it makes little sense to affix the political label ‘minority’ to my mind, though I understand it may be a convenient shorthand descriptor, it does strike the outsider as odd. To be fair though, I suppose we do use other words such as “ethnic”, and the fires of the American melting pot model are probably stronger and more successful than other multicultural societies. The observation that language stands in service of the prevailing value system is an important one, and I will relate more examples I have collected as an outside yet keen observer of US politics on another occasion.

    Servant-Man, I also gained much from your pragmatic take on the situation, and your inimitable style which I so enjoy reading. Those electoral maps over at Purple America are great, thanks very much for the link also.

    When I read: “As a member of the radical left and also the white activist genre, I am forced to work hard against the view of the Democratic party as a big tent comprised of self-serving minority views.” I smiled, but only because, as we both know, what are corporate interests and various lobbies therein but “self-serving minority views”, or narrow sectional interests packaged as a wholesale social good (a la “What is good for General Motors is good for America”)?

    That it is ostensibly the mainstream American electorate view that somehow “Ms. McKinney made an ass of herself in Congress and has become a lightening rod symbol of everything that’s wrong with liberalism in the United States” is surely a sad reflection upon the right-tilted mainstream. This does also require a more reflective look at the politics and pros and cons of impeachment, and there have been thoughtful and impassioned liberal voices going to bat both for and against. The ‘for’ reasons I think are already well known and compelling; ‘against’ because of the electoral fall-out and that it sets the Dems up to look simply vengeful and threatens to erode their recent gains, as the argument goes. Advocates for both positions include Jennifer Van Bergen and David Corn respectively, who both offer very good arguments in the embedded links that are worth reading, and Corn argues more or less along the lines you’ve enunciated.

    I learnt much from your mapping out of the political mood of the American populace, and I think your equally perceptive reading of the mainstream fits nicely with Curt’s observation that “the narrative is seductive in a way that does not apply merely or even chiefly to white males.” Other sections of the populace are either ensnared or buy into this narrative and the promise of their piece of the affluence and liberty pie, and certainly, disaffected ‘hip-pocket nerve’-concerned mainstream swinging voters’ electoral repudiation of overt corporate interests is not in itself a “sea change toward liberalism”.

    In particular:

    “The Democrat party still cannot afford to be seen as the party most favored by minorities. … I believe the progressive movement cannot afford to be seen as the affirmative action party, steadfast in the belief that government regulation is the solution every social ill. … So we have to be very careful when we get into these dialogues about subaltern agendas or we’ll be right back where we started – outside looking in.”

    And here is where I think you may have conflated the larger issues around race, gender and subaltern with the everyday political operational realities, as it were. For your assessment is hardly contentious at this level. But these larger issues are neither reducible nor tantamount to the public perception that a party is afflicted with a disabling affirmative action tag or statist/ overregulationist proclivities. Yes, it is recognised that we can’t regulate away all social ills or legislate against discrimination, and as you note, new style Democrats already feature figures who publicly embrace libertarian rather than old-style statist values. On this level, agreed.

    My post endeavoured to place race in an enlarged context, however, sketching a larger (civilisational-level) framework of the place of subaltern perspectives within which I endeavoured to then situate the symbolic (and substantive) meaning of McKinney’s act, noting her race and politics. It was thus looking at the issue far more broadly than specifically self-interested politics in the USA.

    But on this national politics plane of analysis from which you pitch your nevertheless important observations, I do respectfully disagree with your stern admonition re Cynthia McKinney, but that warrants a separate post methinks. Suffice to say for now, she’s been unelected and re-elected before, and it may well happen again. The circumstances surrounding her life and beliefs are well worth exploring in more detail. Additionally, it’s not as if legislative life is or should be the pinnacle or success yardstick of her existence anyway. Formal politics, as you undoubtedly know, is increasingly giving ground to informal, and she may well be more effective outside the formal legislative political arena. Did Martin Luther King need to be in Congress? An interesting space to watch in the coming year and beyond, no doubt.

    Thanks again for your appreciated comments (rejoinders also welcome anytime, as well as comments from anyone else wishing to weigh in).

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"