Looking Back on 2003
by the Bad Subjects Production Team
February 14, 2004
2003 was a bad year for the state of the Union and the state of the world. Death and destruction occurred in large and small scale, both natural and man-made. Natural causes — SARS, fires, and earthquakes — killed thousands of people around the world. Man-made causes did their very best to keep up.
On February 1st, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, killing five men and two women. On March 12th, Serbian prime minister Djindjic was assassinated. Then, on March 20th, ignoring protests from people and governments around the world, the US started the War in Iraq. On May 2nd, George W. Bush declared this war over in a show of mock bravado, but people continue to die. And the death list goes up and up.
At the same time that the US military forced people in Afghanistan to endure nights of terror, the US government continued to wave the potential threat of terrorism over its citizens. The evocatively named Department of Homeland Security bounced the terror level up and down between Yellow and Orange. The US went from the country known by the words: "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore" to the country that placed so many restrictions and removed so many rights from visitors and resident aliens that tourism collapsed and visa holders returned to countries in the developing world, such as Pakistan, because they felt safer there.
When terrorism wasn't the word of the day, religion was added to the mix. Bush continues to push his personal brand of Christian conservatism on the US. Legislation was passed to limit a woman's access to abortion. Faith-based charities — which somehow seem to be primarily Christian in nature — get more and more government support and closer to official status. He even promised to support a constitutional amendment to protect the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman from the potential terrorism of same-sex marriage.
And yet, there was also hope. The Ontario Court of Appeal and the Massachusetts Supreme Court made decisions that the right to marry should be extended to same-sex couples. Millions of people across the US and around the world, from all sides of the political spectrum, gathered and marched to protest the War in Iraq and the policies of the US government.
Politics touched everyone's lives in 2003 in ways that will live with us into 2004 and beyond. Each political event touched everyone differently. With a few weeks to reflect, Bad Subjects, from different parts of the US, share some of the ways that politics touched our lives:
As 2003 opened, the school I am currently attending found itself in the midst of a dispute over whether to fly the Israeli flag next to the California Bear and the US Stars and Stripes. It struck me as a silly dispute: it's a Jewish school, affiliated with another Jewish school in Jerusalem, and for the life of me, I couldn't see what the big deal was. What I didn't count on was the surprise people would evince that I would support flying the Israeli flag anywhere at all.
See, I'm not the most Zionist person in the world. I've been to Israel, I'm an observant Jew and have been for most of my life, but I'm also highly critical of Israel's current government and have a great deal of trouble with the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. What's more, I'm not shy about expressing my political position vis a vis Israel if asked. The majority of the undergraduates simply could not understand how I could hold a critical position regarding the Jewish State and yet simultaneously support it.
This tension between critique and support has grown over the course of the year, forcing me to become more articulate about my position on the Middle East, while simultaneously maintaining my integrity as both a Jew and a leftist. 2003 will go down in my personal lexicon as the year I became an outsider to the left because I was a Jew and an outsider to Judaism because I am a leftist.
Immigration laws and rules filled my political horizon in 2003. I watched other news, but the constantly mutating US immigration policies filled my vision. After all, I'm a resident alien in the US. I spent far too much time scanning newspapers from Canada to find out whether the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) had quietly enacted something that restricted my rights and increased my obligations just a little bit further, while the US papers were following George Bush's lead and looking somewhere else. USCIS, like the INS before it, does not send formal announcements of changes in policy to resident aliens. So what if missing those changes can lead to someone's deportation.
I had mixed feelings about the NSEERS special registration program. I am violently opposed to singling out non-citizens in the US from specific countries for registration. US immigration policies have always been different for different countries, but NSEERS took this ethnic differentiation to another level. At the same time, I was incredibly relieved that, as someone from a first world country, I didn't have to register. US-VISIT relieves me of these mixed feelings — like every other visa-holding person in the US, I'll have to be fingerprinted and photographed every time I return to the US after visiting my family.
I grew up believing that the US was a haven, a country that welcomed people from around the world to live there in peace and freedom. In 2003, the Bush government sorely tested that belief. Like many other resident aliens, I frequently wondered why I was staying in a country that didn't seem to want me, and that kept piling new rules and restrictions onto visitors and residents alike. But, as I listen to the dissent and the disagreement with these policies that surrounds me, I have hope again.
The past year has been defined politically by the Iraq War and opposition to the exercise of imperial governance, concerns that will undoubtedly continue through the forthcoming year. This is the easy part.
Re-locating that opposition within the local politics of conservative environments and unfavorably-disposed audiences will be the difficult task for the coming national campaign year. Most mainstream politics have capitulated to the normalization of a state of indefinite, vague and continuous low-level war. Contextualizing, analysing and teaching histories of class, gender and racial violence constitute one means of bringing home the point that the Bush administration's current policies emerge from a centuries-long struggle, one that must be opened to public discussion. There is a willing audience for this discussion. At my university in a conservative state, last spring we organized and published a faculty anti-war statement — one that explicitly condemned US imperialism — and that obtained an impressive number of signatures. An initial faculty reluctance to associate themselves with the statement disappeared once signers realized how many more opponents there were and that they were not isolated. Similarly, in the coming year a politics that insists on recognition of the widespread unpopularity of the Iraq War will be a winning politics.
I'm thankful for the events of 2003 bringing me in touch with positive political activism — and artistic expression — in my mid-Michigan neighborhood.
The Saginaw City Council passed an antiwar resolution early last winter. The US invasion of Iraq in March brought plenty of my university's faculty together in a provocative Teach-In. A second Teach-In "Winning the Peace" in May, on the topic of what to do with Iraq now that the US had it, included good presentations by history and economics professors. There were also left critiques of the antiwar organizing that, whatever its merits, had failed to stop the invasion. Of course, rather than cover the rich event, the right-wing and war-whooping Saginaw News instead ran a story about a student website insulting the March event's faculty organizers.
A coffeehouse poetry reading late summer by Morgan Guyton, former full-time organizer for Tri-Cities Action for Peace, revealed the active publishing and readings spearheaded by Dwells in Attic Press. Bush and his minions may be running America into the ground, but in the process they're stirring up signs of life.
2003 was the first year I can ever remember feeling on the defensive for being a Jew by fellow progressives. Given the history of leftist anti-Semitism, this should not have come as a surprise to me. Jews have always occupied a precarious space within the historical left. While many of its 19th and 20th century representatives have been Jews — take Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky as but two examples — this did not prevent Jews from being scapegoated as being bourgeois counterrevolutionaries irrespective of their country of origin. Indeed, despite the role that Jews played in the Russian Revolution, look at how many of them ended up in the Gulag.
This came to mind numerous times as I reviewed a number of recordings a friend made for me of protestors at an anti-war demonstration last Spring, wherein 'Jews' were continuously identified as being the ethnic engine behind contemporary American imperialism. While conservatives have spent a great deal of time over the past year focusing on instances of anti-Semitism amongst progressives like these, leftists such as myself have spent even more time trying to find a way to explain to our comrades, so to speak, that anti-Semitism is truly a problem, and that in calling attention to it, we are not complicit in conservative criticisms of left-wing racisms. We are simply saying, "Yes, we may be privileged, but we are increasingly being unfairly stigmatized."
The problem is that it's incredibly difficult to convincingly argue such positions within the contemporary left. For example, whenever I have raised the issue, many fellow progressives almost always go out of their way to remind me of how privileged Jews actually are and what kinds of positions of power they occupy in American life — myself included, as a professional intellectual who writes political commentaries and publishes avant-garde music for a living. "You have no basis for understanding racism," I am frequently told, "because you have an upper class vocation that is typical of the kinds of class privileges Jews have given themselves in American society." Unfortunately, having such privileges has not the same thing as making money or having political power.
I'm not the only thirtysomething Jew with a graduate degree who lives from paycheque to paycheque, has no health insurance, and lacks any kind of political representation in Washington other than California's Senatorial delegation, whom the only thing I have in common with is that we are all Jewish. Otherwise, my ethnicity yields me little benefit short of having additional holidays to celebrate during the American calendar year in addition to Christmas. Does this mean I get Hanukah and Rosh Ha Shanah off too? No, it doesn't, even though I feel emancipated enough to joke to my boss about being her "Jew" when I sell a few hundred extra Iannis Xenakis records. So what does this have to do with what I have experienced this year?
That it is bitterly ironic that when it comes to business, I can experience more freedom to ironize my ethnicity's relationship to capitalism than I can in left-wing political circles. Sadly, the same is not true within my political community. I do not feel the same freedom to say such things amongst my left-wing colleagues, not because I fear they lack a sense of humor. Rather, because it would somehow bring to mind, even in the absence of an explicit reference to such, the war in Iraq, and the colonial conflict currently being fought in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
For me, unfortunately, the answer lies in being forced to recall my background, and how the political experience of my Jewishness makes me yield certain kinds of conclusions about discrimination. My ethnicity is easily conflated with American and Israeli foreign policies precisely because of their superficial religious hues. American progressives tend to indulge themselves in racist characterizations of Jews precisely because these conflicts are ridden with theological motifs that conveniently obscure their otherwise economic origins. The American government wants access to cheap oil. The Israeli government wants more real estate. End of story.
When American progressives indulge in anti-Semitism, what they are doing is ignoring the forest for the trees by the taking ideological representations of imperialist and colonial wars at their face value. Or to put it in the language of Marx, they have yet to learn that the political function of religion is to disguise economic and social interests in order to justify — much as American and Israeli politicians do — how both are nations are fighting wars of civilization, not resources. One would think that after all this time, we progressives would know such things better. Obviously we have some more work to do.
The President had opened his mouth once again. What he said was almost unimportant for me; I'd simply had enough. It had showed me two things: first, that the war on Iraq had become more like the French war on Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s, and that we'd paid no attention to how badly that went; and second, that the current administration's approach to the world and to its own citizens was something more like the Soviet Union's foreign and domestic policy in the worst of times. I'd had enough. So in about seven online minutes, I became what many Americans would see as an "enemy of the state" — I officially joined the American Civil Liberties Union and the Socialist Party of the USA in one fell swoop.
Two quotes from Vaclav Havel made sense to me at this point: "Hope is a state of mind, not of the world." and "The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less." I felt like I had to do something to make me feel like I was doing a small part to protect what little we had left and to improve American society down the road.
Three political memories stick with me from 2003:
I had never been abroad during a US war before. In Spain, right before the US launched its attack on Iraq, "no a la Guerra" signs dotted Barcelona like American flags after 9/11. When I visited Zagreb and Prague a month later, the people I met had well-informed, clear and critical takes on the latest Gulf War. Nowhere did I encounter a hint of anti-Americanism. I hear a lot of despondency around dissent from Americans, progressive and otherwise (take a look at the Rhys piece in Protest Cultures, for instance). But on many key issues, if we look outside of US borders, we will find widespread support.
Compared with the killing in Iraq, the RIAA's suit against 261 file-swappers in 2003 seems like a relatively minor event. But it portends of scary things. Many industries have tried to scare people into buying their projects. From Johnson and Johnson's hired psychologist who "invented" the concept of body odor or "B.O" to sell more soap to the oft-heard justification for finally getting a cellphone "for emergencies," we are used to fright justifying our purchases. The RIAA has taken this one step further, because its ultimate hope is that its customers will buy its product because people are now afraid of the RIAA. Buy from the people you fear? When people are coerced to vote for leaders who they fear, we call it a rigged election — or worse, totalitarianism. What industries will step forward next and try to coerce consumerism when they can't win it fairly in the so-called free market? How far will it go?
When the US forces finally caught Saddam Hussein in December, I was overwhelmed with a "so what?" feeling. It seemed like a giant publicity stunt to me. US forces are still entangled in Iraq, which is still not "free," and the Department of Homeland Security is telling us to feel less safe. So why all the fuss about the capture of Saddam? Simple: administration officials flooded the networks with Saddam news because it provided a smokescreen for the Bush administration to sign into the law the most unpopular bill of its entire tenure. On the same day US forces announced the capture of Saddam, the Patriot Act II became law. It granted new, sweeping powers to the FBI. That the two events were clearly connected in the minds of Bush officials makes it one of the great legislative deceptions in American history. The Patriot Act II had been criticized from every imaginable spot on the political spectrum. The Bush administration largely avoided public accountability for its actions by burying the story.
All contributors are members of the Bad Subjects Production Team.