Author Nathan Fuller

Book Review: Stories of Democracy

Stories of Democracy. Columbia University Press. 2000.

The term ‘democracy’ is hardly constant. The concept is fluid and shifting, meaning different things for different countries, and constantly progressing. Perhaps this is even more true for the idea of democracy in the Middle East, a region rife with dictators, oppression, and corruption, and yet one incredibly tumultuous, whose history is replete with stories of coups, revolt, and change.

The current Arab Awakening is better proof than any other that for a region incessantly labeled traditional, reactionary, and even primitive, the Middle East is hungry for democracy.

Mary Ann Tetreault, in Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait (PDF), delves into one country’s idea of and struggle for democracy. The book is a descriptive, not prescriptive one, covering Kuwait’s essential moments and battles for power instead of laying didactic groundwork for Kuwait’s government and citizens to come. Then again, history can sometimes be the best blueprint, or guidebook, for the future. If Tetreault realized this more fully, she could have written an incredibly important book, instead of only an incredibly interesting one.

In her first two chapters, Tetreault speaks generally on concepts of democracy, emphasizing their variability and constructing the foundation for more specific discussions to come. She then introduces Kuwait, currently ruled by a constitutional monarchy, as a country whose stories, or ‘myths,’ of democracy are instructive, complex, and unique. She notes Kuwait’s interactions and role-playing in international diplomacy and geopolitics, but she makes clear she is far more interested in the “repeated clashes between would-be citizens demanding civil and political rights and what has become over the period a deeply entrenched albeit variably autocratic ‘traditional’ regime” (2).

Then she moves to Kuwait’s major political factions, key power-struggle events, and its massive national oil company, the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation (KPC). She only zooms in from there, never looking back, and never properly returning to the broader scope that affords useful analysis, reflection, and context.

Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait

Tetreault’s fifth chapter, a discussion of the positive effects of the Iraqi invasion and ensuing American intervention on Kuwait’s democratic movements, best encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses that pervade the book.

Tetreault compellingly argues that the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, something we typically consider an affront to freedom and self-determination, actually empowered Kuwaitis struggling for democracy in several ways. For one, the invasion highlighted many failures of the autocratic regime. Most Kuwaitis blamed their own government for imprudent oil policies and inept diplomacy that incurred Iraq’s invasion. Furthermore, Kuwaiti military and police forces appeared entirely unprepared for the attack and unable to defend when it arrived.

Secondly, the occupation and subsequent liberation movement empowered Kuwaiti exiles, who used the fight for independence from Iraq to fight for independence from authoritarianism. Though the government reneged on several promises it made to dissidents, some tangible results prevailed: namely, a parliamentary election. The vote for the National Assembly, while still under dictatorial rule, reversed many gains of the unconstitutional coup two years prior.

Finally, Tetreault argues that the Iraqi occupation fundamentally changed the way many Kuwaitis thought about their nation and the prospect for democracy. “Within days” of the invasion, Tetreault writes, “groups of Kuwaitis coalesced into pockets of organized resistance. Women and men, Shi’a and Sunna, the not-so-rich and well-to-do, demonstrated, plotted, and engaged in commando operations…” (pg. 88). She continues to extensively document a people inspired to reject both occupiers and the repressive government that allowed them in, a people whose post-colonial philosophy was: “We aren’t afraid of the Sabah. We survived Saddam Hussein” (pg. 98). The chapter is thoughtful and in-depth, quoting at length from first-hand liberation fighters and conveying their sentiments with ease.

What it immediately lacks, though, is regional context. Upon finishing the Iraq invasion chapter, I hoped Tetreault would then compare Kuwait to other countries in the MENA, where colonialism and independence movements have run rampant. Instead, the book quickly moves along, examining the 1992 elections.

Kuwait and Algeria

Historical analysis shows how valuable such a comparison would be. Take Algeria, for example, and that nation’s struggle against more than a hundred years of French colonialism. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians spent eight grueling years battling both the French occupiers and a sizable band of French-loyalist Algerians, finally achieving independence in 1962. But instead of turning anti-colonialism into democracy, post-colonial Algerians supported Ahmed Ben Bella and a despotic constitution in 1963, banning opposition parties and only allowing the National Liberation Front (FLN). Ben Bella was thereafter removed and exiled, but Algeria remained a one-party state for decades.

Far worse, however, than the lack of multiple-party elections, was how Algerians treated opposition after ousting the French. Little dissent was tolerated. Algeria became jingoistic, marginalizing anyone who wasn’t Algerian, Arab, and Muslim, and repressing those who spoke out against the FLN.

The comparison isn’t perfect. For one, France colonized Algeria for more than a century, whereas Iraq was only in Kuwait for seven months. In Kuwait, the United States intervened and drove the Iraqis back to Baghdad, while Algeria fought entirely for itself. Both occupiers left in similar fashion though: as the French left Algeria, they burned vineyards, spitefully ruining whatever they could; in Kuwait, retreating Iraqis blew up nearly 800 oil wells, leaving behind an environmental and economic disaster that Kuwait wouldn’t recover from for more than a decade. The way these independence movements occurred has many obvious ramifications on the nature of politics and dissent following their major successes.

But the differences between them don’t obviate meaningful, if simple, lessons to be learned in contrasting how the two nations, or Kuwait and another previously occupied country, responded to independence. Kuwait’s post-occupation empowerment, especially immediately upon Saddam’s departure, was a vital turning point in Kuwait’s struggle for democracy that would signal progressive change much further down the line.

This is clear in the results of the election that followed. More than half of those elected in the 1992 parliamentary vote had run opposing the government and promising reform (pg. 128). Even at the time, this was an incredible sign for democracy to come. Modern-day Kuwait, it should be noted, is not a paradigm for human rights and freedom. However, it has signed the several of the most important international human rights treaties (unlike, say, the United States). More importantly, Kuwait is now a country where the battle for democracy is a multifarious one, instead of a series of one-sided dictatorial repression.

In Algeria, it was Ben Bella’s rise to prominence and then to power that would symbolize the way it would respond to opposition for decades to come. It wasn’t until early 1992, three full decades after Algerian independence, that a worthy opposition movement began to take hold. And when it did, the Algerian government lashed back like never before. When the Islamic Salvation Front (SIF) made electoral gains, the military staged a violent coup that provoked ten bloody, vicious years of civil war, killing at least 100,000. The war disillusioned Algerians even further, spawning a mass of jaded, educated “hittistes,” who were then recruited to later opposition groups.

Had Algeria’s citizenry responded the way Kuwait’s did, inspired and active instead of embittered and hateful, they would have been far more prepared for the uphill battle against authoritarianism than they were. Perhaps the civil war could have been avoided. The Algerians’ independence fight was far more draining, economically and psychologically and otherwise, but the comparison still elucidates fateful differences.

Arab Awakening

This chapter’s failure to draw adequately on surrounding contextual and regional references is the book’s problem as well. Whole books could be written, and surely have, about the Iraqi invasion and the effects it had on Kuwaiti internal politics and democratic struggle. But by merely touching on the topic and then moving chronologically along, Tetreault leaves something to be desired. Perhaps, though, this criticism seems unfair, given Tetreault’s stated aims: to document the roller coaster of successes, pitfalls, and cumbersome drama that is the struggle for Kuwaiti democracy. She set out to cover internal politics and does just that.

However, especially in light of what has been called the Arab Spring, or the Jasmine Revolutions, a greater scope seems essential to understanding democracy. These have been democratic movements of people of all ages, religions, classes, and creeds. They have undoubtedly learned from and been inspired by each other as well: Tunisia’s ousting of dictator Ben Ali showed Egyptians what it took to get rid of Hosni Mubarak. Some of the most successful and influential struggles against autocrats are also rejections of nationalism and Islamic theocracy, problems that befall the MENA throughout. Widening the lens allows for these types of connections to be made and lessons to be learned. Tetreault is intent on readers understanding Kuwait’s uniqueness, but the sentiment feels myopic, or incomplete. For all their differences, these nations have a lot to learn from each other.

Still, for what it is, Tetreault’s Stories of Democracy remains a constructive glimpse into the history and character of a country’s struggle to free itself from the ever tightening binds of oppression. Context is ours to study, and ours to bring to what we read and see in the world. Maybe Tetrault understands this, even if she doesn’t quite act on it, for her story about Kuwait is, as she writes, “also one about how we understand social contracts in political systems from North America to Southeast Asia. … [a story] about citizenship and democracy anywhere and at any time” (pg. 13).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Detention & Deception

The Guantanamo Files & American Human Rights Hypocrisy

“The first step to reclaiming America’s standing in the world has to be closing” the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, President Obama declared in a 2008 campaign pamphlet, before promising to do just that. International leaders and an official United Nations report have called on the United States to close the prison, citing human rights abuses. Scores of GTMO detainees have been tortured, few made it to military tribunals, and almost none were awarded a civilian trial, let alone compensation after their eventual release.

Since its foundation in 2002, the Cuban-based detention camp has been an emblem of the War on Terror’s worst erosions of civil liberties, an icon of America’s moral degradation, and a crucial talking point for critics of American foreign policy around the world. So the international community generally lauded Obama’s election, and his promise to close the site, excited for a new era of justice and moral awakening. Three years later, however, the notorious prison is still open, still caging nearly 200 people who may never see a trial, and still a symbol of America’s disastrous disregard for human rights under the endless, sprawling War on Terror.

State Dept. Diplomat Silenced by Crowley’s Firing

On Wednesday, March 30, Thomas Armbruster, State Department Diplomat-in-Residence for the Greater New York Area, joined Secret Service Special Agent James Haines and federal government intern Michael Stallone on a panel at The College of New Jersey entitled “Jobs in Federal Government.”

Following the discussion, Armbruster was asked for his take on WikiLeaks’ cablegate document trove, which included one of his own cables, and alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning’s treatment. He discussed both advantages and problems with the leaked State Dept. logs, but was starkly silent regarding the imprisoned Army Private.

WikiLeaks, Part 1 – Background & Legitimacy

WikiLeaks is publishing documents, opening governments, changing the world.

In early 2007, Australia native Julian Assange launched the polarizing website along with other activists, dissidents, mathematicians, and computer experts from six different continents.

WikiLeaks vows to accept “restricted or censored material of political, ethical, diplomatic or historical significance,” but reject “rumor, opinion, other kinds of first hand accounts, or material that is publicly available elsewhere.” Assange and his colleagues then review and edit submissions, attained via secure online uploading applications and a discreet postal network, to publish documents that generate “maximum political impact.”Assange has pithily summarized WikiLeaks’ philosophy: “The method is transparency; the goal is justice.”

WikiLeaks, Part 2 – Media Analysis

How Free is our Press?

WikiLeaks promises their anonymous, whistle-blowing sources that they will work for “maximum political impact.” Like them or not, they keep their word. The transnational transparency-advocating journalists stormed American and international discourse by publishing secret diplomatic cables. America responded. Some consider WikiLeaks heroic, daring to speak truth to power, and some consider the organization terroristic, threatening to undermine American diplomacy worldwide.

Constitutional lawyer and civil liberties writer Glenn Greenwald, for Salon.com, finds public reactions quite disturbing.

WikiLeaks, Part 3 – Interview with FAIR

Interview with Steve Rendall, Senior Analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) on WikiLeaks and American reactions to the U.S. diplomatic cable release.

Is WikiLeaks a journalistic entity?
Well of course it is, because it receives information, it collects information, it publishes information, it edits it. If you look at its website, information is edited, it’s commented upon. Of course it’s a journalistic outfit.

EDITORIAL – 3.22.11

 

Image by Banksy

Revolution is spreading like wildfire through the Middle East, protests are roiling the American Mid-West, and even here at TCNJ, we begin to sense potential for bottom-up progress. Perhaps now more than ever, the times they are a-changin’.

‘Pixel’ Artist to Give Lecture

Last November, Willie Cole installed his divisive, sparkling “Pixels,” a public artwork comprising four huge, glittered spheres of different colors, on the grass between Loser Hall, the Music Building, and the Art & IMM Building at TCNJ.

The Pixel Project - The College of New Jersey (WillieCole.com)
The Pixel Project, The College of New Jersey WillieCole.com

The installation provoked responses both legion and varied. Some were taken aback by the Pixels, either irked to be uninvolved in the selection process or distracted by the contrast with Campus architecture. Some welcomed the piece as a bold artistic statement, but most were skeptical about its funding and confused about its message.

Cole addressed these concerns in January: according to the Signal, Cole affirmed, “This artwork has nothing to do with the money that pays for their education. It in fact is a gift to them…”

Regarding the Pixel concept, Cole said, “The pixel, as represented in this work, links art and interactive media… In sculpture, the sphere is emblematic of minimalism. In media the sphere — as an abstract representation of the pixel — is primary. It also represents the single dot of color in a pointillist painting, or the single particle that is the basic building ‘dot’ of all living things.”

From October 28 through December 8, Cole’s work is featured in IMM room 115. Most pieces comment on race and gender issues, and all of his work is political, thoughtful, and confrontational.

Today (Thursday, November 18), Willie Cole will be giving a lecture in the new Art & IMM building, room 115, at 11:30am. Afterword, we will talk to Cole about the political roots of his work, his assessment of current issues, and more. Check back here soon for the interview and photographs of some of his work.

Factory Girl Talk

Think of Girl Talk—the stage name of mash-up mastermind Greg Gillis—as modern music’s Andy Warhol. Both are ardent recycle-ists: Warhol turned soup cans into Fine Art; Girl Talk turns other artists’ songs into his own. Both are willing to undermine an ideal of authenticity: Warhol would let people impersonate and even sign for him if he didn’t want to show up at a gallery; Girl Talk makes almost no original sounds of his own, yet he puts his name on his mash-up albums. But most importantly, both are firmly rooted Pop artists, and yet both consistently question what it means to be Pop.

Part of this means that both artists allow for multiple interpretations: some say Warhol was fully embracing low-brow Americana, like Brillo Boxes, while others say he was ridiculing it, using repetition to emphasize absurdity. Similarly, it’s easy to understand Girl Talk on many levels: is he celebrating all pop music, or is he juxtaposing lesser works with unimpeachable songs for implicit criticism?

But of course Girl Talk, like Warhol, is much more than a series of simple juxtapositions. Gillis has declined to offer any central or guiding theme in any of his work, except to say that he is a “pop music enthusiast.” Instead, each of his songs is not only original, but also unique in message. Some of his sampling is pure celebration of good pop music from many eras (as in “Smash Your Head,” the instant classic of Night Ripper, with Notorious BIG’s “Juicy” over Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”). This includes bringing yesterday’s hits to younger listeners, reminding older listeners of forgotten gems, and allowing everyone to relish in universally beloved hits. In fact, Gillis admits, “It’s important that you can recognize all the elements. The whole basis of the music is that people have these emotional attachments to these songs—whether they love it or hate it. Being able to manipulate that is a really easy way to connect with people.” *

Yet, in complete contrast, some of his songs are subliminally political, almost neutering chauvinist rappers by giving them “emasculating” backgrounds (as in Feed the Animals’ “No Pause,” in which Eminem’s club-sex rant is made silly in front of Yael Naim’s “New Soul”). Still other songs work in a different way, elevating the banal, crude, or more lowbrow in pop to the level of more critically hailed works, by giving them new background beats, or removing vocals, or repeating lyrical loops over and over. But all of his music does serve one mission: the exploration of new pop possibilities, by making music that amounts to much more than the sum of its parts.

What makes Girl Talk great, though, is expressed not in words in phrases, but in dance. With entirely sampled, diverse material, he has made cohesive albums that bring genres — and people — together. He makes commercial music cool, and he makes cool music commercial. Because his music is simultaneously so rhythmic and capricious, people who like “My Humps” and people who like The Band can find something to listen to and agree on, especially with crossovers like Jackson 5 rippling throughout.
*(From an interview with Pitchfork.com)

TCNJaded

Are you happy?  Visit The College of New Jersey’s homepage and it is impossible to avoid statistics advertising students’ undying love for this institution. One blurb boasts that “85% of TCNJ’s most recent graduating class rated their undergraduate academic experience as either excellent or above average”; another proclaims that TCNJ has an almost unrivaled sophomore year retention rate. Listen in on prospective-student tours led by glittering, striped-shirted “Ambassadors,” and you’ll likely hear that students are enamored with their campus, their professors, and their peers.

But potential TCNJ recruits are not getting the full story.

Now in my junior year, after five and a half semesters’ worth of parties, club meetings, and discussions with scores of TCNJ students, I have noticed an unavoidable undercurrent of antipathy – a sense of unexpected dissatisfaction, a reluctant acceptance of lowered standards, and perhaps even mild (yet unconcealed) resentment.

It may not be a sentiment held by the majority, and it’s not widely acknowledged or discussed, but this simmering discontent is too consistent and pervasive to be ignored.

At the heart of the issue, it seems, is an identity crisis. Much more complex and consequential than any petty “North vs. South Jersey” debate, there is a recurring, implicit dialogue going on at TCNJ about the kind of school this really is – and what we are collectively projecting to the outside world.

For one, students here are constantly defining themselves to others. Even within New Jersey, TCNJ remains somewhat unknown. Thanks to the not-so-distant name change of 1996, when speaking of where they attend college, students are often forced to explain what the TCNJ acronym actually stands for. And whether we refer to our school as the former Trenton State College or by its current name, neither typically rings a bell for those outside New Jersey. Even Trenton State alumni are sometimes incredulous that the “T” in our title really does now stand for “the.”

After the College has been identified, many students find that the next question is whether or not they are education majors. Sophomore Andressa Leite observed, “People, mostly older folks, know TCNJ as Trenton State – as a teaching school. I have been met with surprised stares when I mention that I am not majoring in education here.” All of us are plainly aware that TCNJ has only recently transformed itself into a credible liberal arts college – in stark contrast to its past image as little more than a first-rate teacher factory.

But aside from concerns of academic perception, students routinely grapple with more fundamental questions of our institutional character: How smart are we? How smart are we supposed to be?

Promotional material produced by the College’s Public Relations Department constantly reminds us that TCNJ is considered a “public ivy,” but anecdotal evidence suggests the label might not yet be applicable. One student, who asked to remain nameless, gave a harrowing account of an incident that for him called into question whether admission standards are truly as high as we are led to believe:

“Last semester in a political science class, the professor asked a girl whether the incumbent party’s candidate had won the last presidential election. She finally stopped texting on her Blackberry and replied, ‘Can you define incumbent?’ I just about slammed my head on the desk.”

Of course, antipathy toward the College does not stem purely from academic concerns. Many students here rightly find the classes valuable and the professors engaging, but are highly disappointed with the surrounding cultural and social atmosphere. Unlike Princeton or other places closely associated with a proximate university, Ewing is clearly not a “college town”; there is very little active nightlife and definitely no discernible downtown area. And unlike nearby Rider University, our fraternity housing is required to remain off-campus. To access nighttime entertainment or some kind of Greek function, we have to put in quite a bit more effort than those on other campuses, where by comparison social opportunities are seemingly limitless.

College administrators and other consultants are now smartly working on a “Campus Town Project” that could make TCNJ more active and inviting. In the meantime, however, students must make the best of what is currently available.

I have found that for some, what TCNJ most sorely lacks is not necessarily a vibrant ‘night scene’ but an interesting and varied social life more generally. Some find refuge in fraternities and sororities, others in solitude or smaller gatherings – but a noticeable portion of us are often stuck somewhere in the middle.

We are thus disillusioned that in order to meet people after midnight, one must typically shell out $5 for frat party entry; and to those underwhelmed by cheap beer, Greek-life stereotypes, and blaring music that defies conversation, the experience often leaves much to be desired. One student attempted to identify the problem with these parties: “They become such a routine,” he said. “The same rowdy guys hanging around the beer pong table, the same crew playing flip-cup, the same girls grinding on sweaty dudes – and one another. It becomes stale and predictable.”

But for Andrew Kaplan, a freshman who transferred out of TCNJ halfway through this spring semester, more interesting frat parties would not have sufficed. “I felt disconnected with the student body – I felt a lack of intellectual stimulation. I felt trapped, so to speak, because of the location of the school. There are not many outlets outside of campus.”

Luckily for us, college students have endless ingenuity. Cluster enough people from our age bracket into a concentrated area, and some entertainment and camaraderie must inevitably result. But an environment more conducive to building meaningful relationships outside the dorms would nevertheless be a welcome addition. Too often it seems we must pursue substantive social lives in spite of our college’s atmosphere, rather than with assistance from it.

Of course, there is a context for these criticisms; most of us are happy with TCNJ. And after all, there is no school, regardless of prestige or endowment size, that is without faults. Every college or university – from Harvard, to NYU, to our humble suburban enclave – must deal with complaints from those who are dissatisfied for any plethora of reasons. That being said, we should not act as if these faults are nonexistent. Only upon acknowledging them more openly can we work to improve.

Sarah Burdick contributed reporting.

HOPE IN THE HURT LOCKER

The Hurt Locker

Calling attention to independent movies, Roger Ebert said, “it’s a miracle any film gets made. Millions of tiny pieces have to come together.” It’s extremely difficult for independent filmmakers to finance their own projects while competing with profit-guzzling blockbusters that are backed by the mainstream film industry.

An example: According to Variety magazine, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, director Michael Bay’s explosion-laden sequel about wars between aliens and robots, was the first movie ever to receive full support from the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. The military, funded by taxpayers, didn’t hesitate to provide the use of “Marine hovercrafts, Navy subs and nearly every kind of Army helicopter and Air Force plane in service… all coordinated through special arrangement with the Department of Defense.”