Dispute or Disrupt? Desire and Violence in Protests Against the Iraq War

lipsIn “Dispute or Disrupt? Desire and Violence in Protests Against the Iraq War,” xxx suggests ‘queering’ direct action in order to overcome the limits of rhetorical politics. xxx shows how the Bush Administration’s justifications for the Iraq War were incoherent discourses that drew rhetorical opposition into a politics of identification that made them easy to dismiss. An alternative, xxx claims, are “bodies that mutter” – subjects of desire whose bodily force continues where discourses fail, which he locates in the Code Pink disruption of John McCain’s speech at 2008 Republican National Convention, AIDS crisis-era queer activism, and radical clowning.

Introduction

The movement against the Iraq War was an exercise in failure. The February 15, 2003 global demonstration against the Iraq War was “the largest protest event in human history,” yet it did not prevent the war.[2] A year and half later, the movement was again unsuccessful when the Democratic presidential candidate promising to the end the war lost the general election despite wavering public support for the ongoing conflict.[3] Media attention gave rise to movement celebrities, such as Cindy Sheehan, who demanded that President Bush explain the ‘noble cause’ for which her son died in Iraq, but was unable to secure a meeting with the President. Even after the Democrats had enough political power to end the war, having gained control of Congress in 2006 and then the Presidency in 2008, they only completed full withdrawal in December 2011.[4] In addition to these many defeats, this paper focuses on another: the failure of rhetoric – its inability to dispute official discourses of state violence, and the politics of bodies that fail to achieve rhetoricality.[5] In the former, the paper identifies an impediment to the anti-war effort, and in the latter, the paper finds the constitutive lack of queer desire that overcomes political strategy’s rhetorical limits. Continue reading “Dispute or Disrupt? Desire and Violence in Protests Against the Iraq War”

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Conclusion

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The incoherent discourses that justified the Iraq War were not politically ineffective; to the contrary, they trapped opponents in rhetorical disputes that failed to upset the war effort. The personalized ridicule of President Bush and the ‘I Told You So’ narrative behind Cindy Sheehan’s opposition to the Iraq War confirm that rhetorical challenges to state violence often fall into traps like those set for disputing homophobic discourse. Treating the Iraq War as the result of a personality problem, anti-war rhetoric created an economy of ridicule that failed to engage larger questions of geopolitical power and furthered a politics of identification that dismissed criticism before its claims could be evaluated. The ‘I Told You So’ narrative created an emotional politics of shared truths that helped produce large publics critical of the Bush Administration, yet they developed greater commonality through celebrity and amateur policy expertise rather than a political plan for ending the war.

Continue reading “Conclusion”

“The Ground Noise and the Static”: The Queer Effects of Bodies that Mutter

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In early September 2008, thousands of anarchists and other radicals descended on the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities to ‘crash the party.’81 The protests lost focus after the McCain campaign cancelled the first day of the convention – possibly nervous about the impending protests, even though the official claim was that the cancellation was to wait for Hurricane Gustav to make landfall.82 Confrontations between riot police and anarchists were numerous, but for days, a huge police force outnumbered and outmaneuvered them, and prevented them from being more than a mild nuisance.83 Yet on Thursday night during McCain’s acceptance speech as the Republican Party nominee for President, a series of Code Pink anti-war protestors rose from the gallery and interrupted the event.84 McCain, looking irritated, dismissed the protestor by saying “Americans want us to stop yelling at each other, ok?”85 Another protestor soon interrupted McCain. Subsequently, McCain was so distracted that he stopped his speech to directly address the protests and urged the audience to ignore them. Those protests, along with McCain off-the-cuff responses, soon became the most memorable part of an otherwise routine speech.

Beyond Signification: Or, How to Have a Good Time

Strictly speaking, it was the Republican audience that interrupted McCain’s speech and not the Code Pink protestors. Every time a lonely protestor raised their voice, a whole chorus of ‘USA! USA!’ thundered through the convention center to drown them out. In that way, the delegates turned potentially insignificant irritations into event-shaping disruptions. If the crowd had responded as they did the day before, when two Code Pink protestors rushed toward the stage during Sarah Palin’s speech only to be snatched by the Secret Service at the last moment, then McCain would have continued without interruption.86 Yet it appeared difficult to calm down McCain’s chanting crowd – a group so incensed by the mere presence of a dissenter in their midst that they were compelled to match her verbal outbursts with an overwhelming vocal response of their own. This excessive response is indicative of the paranoia present in a group obsessed with the politics of identification – so anxious to erase an otherwise minor disruption, the intensity of the crowd’s reaction reveals the precarity of the imaginary fantasies that bind together state discourses. Caught within a perspective that structures relations in terms of identity and opposition, the politics of identification leads to an aggressive policing of borders that reacts violently to anything that evades categorization.87 Continue reading ““The Ground Noise and the Static”: The Queer Effects of Bodies that Mutter”

Failed Rhetoricality: Bodies that Mutter

da-bahdie

Soon before President Bush left office, he had a pair of shoes thrown at him during a press conference on his farewell journey to Iraq. The thrower was Muntadhar al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist upset with the American occupation of his country. In the middle of the press conference, al-Zaidi stood up, yelled, “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog,” and threw a shoe at Bush.62 Before security personnel were able to intervene, al-Zaidi launched another shoe, saying, “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq.” Showing just how unaffected he was by the whole ordeal, Bush later laughed it off by saying, “If you want the facts, it’s a size 10 shoe that he threw,” further shrugging of the protest with the comment, “I don’t know what the guy’s cause was. I didn’t feel the least bit threatened by it.”63 As a strategy of confrontation, al-Zaidi’s shoe-ing follows Voltairine de Cleyre’s classic definition of direct action as one of the “spontaneous retorts of those who feel oppressed by a situation.”64 Moreover, it matches the essential characteristics outlined by direct action advocates, being confrontational, public, disruptive, and illegal.65 Yet it was unable to affect Bush, probably because it was immediately contained by the politics of identification, which raises an important question: can other types of embodied protest disrupt power? Continue reading “Failed Rhetoricality: Bodies that Mutter”

Identification and Interest: Personality Problems and “I Told You So”

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The Politics of Identification: Or, Bush’s Personality Problem

In addition to critique the incoherent discourses justifying the Iraq War, Cindy Sheehan and the Gold Star Families for Peace sought moral clarity by also going after Bush for the killing of innocents. In doing so, they personalized their rhetoric in the hope that it would dramatize the divide between the anti-war movements message of reconciliation and Bush’s personal “crusade.”37 Sheehan had already written that President Bush had shown “arrogance,” had “nothing in his eyes,” and lacked “any real compassion” during a 2004 meeting.38 But she was further enraged when, in a speech on August 3, 2005, President Bush said that US troops killed in Iraq had committed a sacrifice “made in a noble cause.”39 Sheehan, certain that the causes for the war were ignoble, was confident that the President would be unable to articulate the noble cause when pressed to do so. Despite Sheehan’s message being directed at the causes of the Iraq War, and the fact that the Bush Administration’s strategy of silence was a matter of political calculation rather than personal insult, her approach encouraged additional personal attacks on the President’s character. Consequently, a claim that had already existed at the margins of the anti-war movement became its most popular theme: the Iraq War was the result of a personality problem. Continue reading “Identification and Interest: Personality Problems and “I Told You So””

Justifications for the Iraq War as Incoherent Discourses

incoherent-discourses

President Bush’s ex post facto justification for the war was quite vague: “that the Iraqi people are much better off without Saddam.”8 Daalder and Lindsey argue, however, that the wide berth of this justification relies on the “basic but highly salient fact that there would not have been a war without his argument that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed an unacceptable threat that was both immediate and serious.”9 Restoring clarity to the Bush Administration’s initial claims about WMDs seems hardly possible, given the incoherence of the discourse through which the justifications for war were presented. As James P. Pfiffner points out, administration officials made WMDs a moving target, with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz claiming that the verifiable presence of WMDs was not the paramount issue for policymakers while Secretary of Defense Colin Powell was asserting its centrality.10 Pfiffner concludes that even while President Bush made “few untrue statements” and accepted some widely shared claims, his statements were also systematically misleading, gave false impressions, and defied the better judgment of others.11

Sentimentality aided the Bush Administration’s incoherent war on public opinion. The Bush Administration pitched the war as the perfect plan to fill the emotional void left by the September Eleventh attacks. President Bush associated Iraq with 9/11, expanding the targets of the War on Terror to an “axis of evil” – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea – during his State of the Union Address in 2002. And during the one-year commemoration of the attacks at Ground Zero, he formally announced his intentions to attack Iraq. Rhetorically ‘sticking’ the attack in New York to Iraq, he made a promise: “What our enemies have begun, we will finish.”12 With this full-scale media blitz, the Bush Administration amplified the emotional resonance between 9/11 and his campaign against Iraq, leading supporters to offer over-the-top acclamations, such as “turn Baghdad into a parking lot. You know, blow up the bridges, blow up the factories. Just level it,” or “I’m kind of excited to be here now. Someday we’ll tell our children that we were in Washington when the war started.”13

The union of multiple contradictory discourses and the politicization of loss is a combination is familiar to queer activists. Challenging what losses count as grievable was essential to turning collective mourning to militancy during the AIDS crisis.14 Describing the transformation, Ann Cvetkovich writes, “the AIDS crisis, like other traumatic encounters with death, has challenged our strategies for remembering the dead, forcing the intervention of new forms of mourning and commemoration.”15 These forms of mourning and commemoration should not be isolated to queer activism during 1980s and ‘90s, for as Sara Ahmed contends, public responses to events such as 9/11 pose similar challenges to queer politics; or as Bush’s post facto justification for the Iraq War demonstrates, violence can be cast as an act of compassion, such as offering war as a gift of hope to the Iraqi people, which allowed Administration officials to “be full of love in the midst of the violence.”16 In addition to the use of compassion to conceal state violence, other conservative forms of mourning tap into the basic structure of paranoid fantasies that, in Elaine Scarry’s words, attempts to connect “disembodied beliefs with the force and power of the material world” through the “massive opening of human bodies.”17 Foreign policy hawks have repeated a phrase that reveals how this “structure of feeling” motivates the conservative desire for war.18 The narrative goes like this: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”19 The consequence of this violent sentiment is clear: war hawks construct fantasies that bring together pleasure and violence to stoke the population. Queer alternatives to the state rhetoric of public loss, whether clothed in compassion or bathed in blood, thus provide helpful historical and theoretical tools for reorienting activism toward less violent ends.

Sara Ahmed theorizes how incoherent discourses, such as those that justified the Iraq War, can be unified through emotion.20 Following Derrida, Ahmed explains that emotion fills the disjunction between signification and context. Through repetition, words detach from the context in which they emerge, leaving emotions as symbolic traces of their lost context. Appearing as personal, ahistorical, or natural fact, these emotions accumulate cultural value through associations with words that generate material histories that remain concealed. In the case of Bush Administration’s defense of the Iraq War, grief and aggression stood in for coherent discourse, demonstrating how state violence can use affective force to make politics with contradictory statements. Continue reading “Justifications for the Iraq War as Incoherent Discourses”