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Hecho in New York City – Or, Why I’m So Borderland

In Geography/ Spatial Justice, History on September 11, 2015 at 6:31 PM
Manhattan skyline from Sunset Park, Brooklyn. 5/25/14

Manhattan skyline from Sunset Park, Brooklyn. 5/25/14

Here’s a story few people know about me: My origin story lies in the Twin Towers.

In fact, I probably wouldn’t be here sharing this were it not for those aesthetically dubious buildings that rose into the sky like drab metallic beams.

For about a quarter century, during the span of the Towers’ very existence, my father drudged through the evening shift as a maintenance worker. His job was something of a rarity in contemporary times: a unionized job with benefits. During those years, he swept, mopped, organized and took out the thrash for America’s top financial elite.

But my New York roots really begin in the island of Borinquen (today, Puerto Rico). It was in his early teens, in those hot revolutionary late ‘60s, that he joined the declining end of a massive wave of Boricua migrants that re-settled into, and helped shape, the many neighborhoods that make up Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx.

Since history has a way of being forgotten or deliberately suppressed, and individual stories decoupled from the social contexts from which they emerge in our neoliberal age, I feel it necessary to underscore a particular history, which I argue has everything to do with what the World Trade Center was, how it functioned and why.


Per many historians, critics, and activist scholars, the Puerto Rican diaspora to Gotham was far from incidental. Pushed, in great part, by the economic failures of the Operation Bootstrap—a mid-century program that failed to produce the sought after industrialization-cum-prosperity in the island nation—as well as a much longer legacy of exploitative, colonial American policies tracing as far back as the island’s takeover in 1898*, the “invisible hand” that thrust many island Black and Brown folks into the northern metropolis was far from an abstract market mechanism.

It had everything to do with post-war American global dominance and a prevailing Keynesian economic system wherein suburbanization, white flight and a hegemonic, modernist culture that relied heavily on mass production and cheap labor.

By becoming the first substantial population of Latina/os to permanently reside in New York City, puertorriqueña/os ultimately built the foundations of Latinx urban life not only in the Empire State, but across the country for generations to come.


Fast-forward to the infamous 1980s, when my genes were still split between a sperm and an egg. I can only speak of this decade as a distant historian (too bad, since I feel like I missed out), but when it comes to making sense of the political economic life of the United States in broad strokes, it can more or less be summarized as:

Reagan and Thatcher ruling the world. Perestroika, glasnost, and the final decade of the Cold War. The neoliberal turn. The AIDS crisis. The crack cocaine crisis. The war on drugs. The beginnings of mass incarceration. The beginnings of neoliberal gentrification. The beginnings of ‘colorblind’ liberal multiculturalism and the ‘new’ white supremacy. Rampant poverty and stunning inequality. Privatization, union busting and across-the-board cuts on state social spending. The demonization of “welfare moms,” urban “thugs,” “hood rats” and “bums.” Flashy Porsches and BMW’s for Wall Street and real estate gremlins, graffiti and scratchitti for everyone else.

And then, of course, the Central American crisis.

As various political economists, historians, and geographers have commented, the 1980’s were a time of financial experimentation and speculation. When our infamous Wall Street gremlins couldn’t figure out where to invest—now that Americans were faced with a crisis of overproduction that was viscerally felt in the decade prior—their decision to invest in foreign countries led to massive, cross-border state destabilizations.

When the civil wars in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador broke out, there was a common theme: the extreme inequalities engineered by years of local, capitalist oligarchies and foreign imperialist exploitation were countered with revolutionary resistance (however flawed). In that volatile chess game that was the Cold War, Central Americans were just pawns with a refutable humanity.

My mother was just one person in that mass exodus from this other part of the Caribbean Basin at the time. Unlike much of the approximately 62% of Central Americans suffering from ‘extreme’ poverty in the mid-1980s, she had sufficient resources to flee her native San Pedro Sula, the industrial capital of Honduras, the quintessential “banana republic.”

She left not because she was fleeing U.S.-trained paramilitary and counterinsurgency troops, or Maoist-Leninist guerrilla fighters, as many did in those years.

She left for the same reason migration perseveres as a forefront issue today, deeply enveloped within the discourses of the homeland defense: economic security.

She left because the economic situation in San Pedro Sula was simply impossible.

She explained it very succinctly to me recently: her job as a secretary gave her 400 lempiras a month in 1981—something tantamount to $20 in today’s exchange rates—and it was simply not enough to support herself, much less her aging parents.

Young, able-bodied, adventurous, with money saved up and a loose connection to a cousin in Brooklyn, why wouldn’t she go?


Moving to New York, like for most immigrants who come here, was a pivotal life decision. She lived alone in New York City at a time it was undergoing what historian Kim Moody has called a regime change, a financial “coup” that emerged in the aftermath of the city’s near-bankruptcy the decade prior.

As Moody explains it, it was a city on the road to achieving its self-proclaimed status as the “real estate capital of the world.” And yet, like most of the over 8 million people who live in the city today, she wouldn’t have time to take note of that.

Just like New York in the 2010s, the dynamics of city life didn’t lend themselves to careful observation, led alone anticipation of the future, if you were poor. Wracked by loneliness and self-doubt, my mother wondered if it moving to a city where she didn’t know the language was worth it. The calls to her mother required a good deal of psychic preparation, but disguising her New York discomfort was made easier by the money she could confidently send back home.

But between the late work shifts, the long commutes, she would sometimes look up. There were no stars. Skyscrapers were coming up everywhere. People would not stop hitting the streets, although at night they darted like shadows.

It’s a city whose transformations can be multiplicative, but it’s a city nonetheless. Cities are not built overnight, and pre-9/11, rarely changed from one day to the next. Like another, it continues to transform itself in an image cast by the movement and accumulation of capital—people, money, equipment, ideas, resources—and, as such, the changes can be slow and painful.

In 1983, however, it was clear that the city survived its financial doomsday. Some were even suggesting that it was thriving. And the Twin Towers still rose resplendent in the New York skyline, as if to obnoxiously proclaim the glowing triumph of a particular type of world trade. Still in Brooklyn, my father was one of the lucky ones spared from the economic calamities that struck many of his high school friends and family back home.

At this point, he had been working at World Trace Center 2 for almost ten years, which is where my mother found him. She had just finished an errand that took her downtown, and as she rushed home, somewhat lost and befuddled in that pedestrian traffic, she realized she didn’t have her watch. She asked the first staff person she found who looked like a Spanish speaker.


And that was that. I don’t handle maudlin shit very well, so I’ll say this: it was just another New York City moment. A cosmic convergence of sorts, maybe.

Coming back to New York this week after a year-long hiatus, it was strangely like old times: my family and me hanging out by the World Trade Center, complaining about the tourists.

Then things started hitting me in the head like meteor shows, or what could have just been falling New York debris, I’m not sure: I am ontologically bound to this city because I could not have been any other way. It also helps me understand why I am so driven to borders, the borderlands: I live, breathe, thrive at the crossroads. I am not whole when I am segmented into pieces that are then marketed and sold like tchatchkes on Union Square.

I was incredibly exhausted from my long flight from the West Coast, but it kind of hit there as I tried to process the changes: it’s ground zero, dumbass. It’s where space-time contorts in ways my puny human brain will never understand, largely because it’s like a black hole where multiple dimensions, histories and geographies collide. A surreal Dalí-esque world where clocks and maps collide and collapse into one other before melting under the night sky.

Puerto Rico. San Pedro Sula. Brooklyn. San Diego. The ’80s. The ’90s. The 2000s. The 2010s.

This city. Who knows what it’ll become?

The author in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. July 14, 2014.

The author in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. July 14, 2014.

The author at Brooklyn Bridge Park. July 22, 2014. (The blue cap reads 'Honduras')

The author at Brooklyn Bridge Park. July 22, 2014. (The blue cap reads ‘Honduras’)

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The Alienation of Postmodern Geographies: Reflections on Southern Californian Suburbia

In Decolonization, Geography/ Spatial Justice, Latin@ Politics, Philosophical Musings, Racial Politics on August 31, 2015 at 12:10 AM

When I made the decision to leave New York, I wanted to test a hypothesis: does geography play a role in one’s happiness?

If I had to describe it in a few words, I’d say that the motivation to leave Gotham was based on a multi-layered amalgam of ambivalent feelings, much of which was deeply embedded in urban alienation.

Like many New Yorkers, I had a bipolar love-hate relationship with the place: it never felt like a unitary totality that could ever be home in a traditional sense. A city in constant metamorphosis, it can be home one day and someone else’s turf the next.

In my case, my impetus to leave Gotham was driven in large part by a need to un-jade myself—that is, to keep myself from falling further along this precipitous decline I felt myself on, one that felt like a free fall towards the inevitable end of the “jaded old queen.”

Another reason was existential. I developed my roots in Brooklyn, and as much as I came to love my cosmopolitan, working-class immigrant neighborhood, I also had a profound sense of what it meant to live in a truly fragmented and atomized neoliberal playground–one where the constant battle for space and time lent itself to a paradoxical sense of loneliness amid human congestion. My ties to family and home were both strange and estranged.

20140729_155235

Mural in Sunset Park, Brooklyn


I can’t think of my years of experience in New York now without recalling sociologist Georg Simmel’s classic essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), in which he links the overstimulation of the built environment with the “blasé attitude” of the metropolitan human.

Similarly, I conjure up the characterizations of heartache and existential turmoil that afflicted the black protagonists of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, both of whom wrote beautifully at length about structural oppression and alienation in the big city of late capitalism.

As the queer, bookish son of two, working-class immigrant parents, witnessing the enigmatic health complications of my brothers, and personally living through the nightmarish consequences of autoimmunity and the cold indifference of the biomedical industrial complex, the urban terrain acquired a distinct set of meanings for me.

While I had numerous positive coming-of-age experiences in Brooklyn, it almost feels redundant to say that painful memories became etched into the physical environment as well.

A multidimensional mental map of the city is littered as much with tokens of joyful, ecstatic and almost-sublime experiences as it is with recollections of the solitary long walks, the spells of disappointment and wistful yearnings.

A quarter century of existence is legible in landmarks and streets: The overshadowed, gray-and-yellow playground under the Gowanus Expressway; the sooty, humid 59th St Subway Station in south Brooklyn; the silver, razor-like currents of the Hudson from a Battery Park City bench; the giant, moveable black cube on Astor Place near an old workplace; the striking emptiness of the Christopher St. Pier on a very cold, winter morning.


Two memories jump out at me as I think of my motivations for considering leaving.

The first was seemingly rather innocuous: a date with a friend to “catch up.” My friend invited me to a fundraiser for an organization that we both had ties with, an organization with unique, well-articulated politics that engaged queer youth of color around issues like gentrification.

As it turned out, the fundraiser was directed at alumni (such as myself) and our social networks, and it was taking place at a rooftop bar in downtown Brooklyn I had never heard of.

Unexpectedly, this time with my friend ended up sparking unease as I found myself surrounded by a conspicuously, upwardly-mobile coterie of queer men of color and white “allies.” The surrealness of the experience was highlighted by the fact that I was at a rooftop bar—something unheard of during my many years in Brooklyn—and my sickliness that evening in the gay meat market showroom.

More alienating than that, however, was the larger environment that surrounded us: a 360° panoramic view of downtown Brooklyn.To be sure, all those years of living here had never given me this level of access–the opportunity to see my home turf from an eagle-eye vantage point.

All around me were reminders of the changing topography of an early twenty-first century neoliberal city—an ever-emergent, postmodern cityscape. An insidiously spatial warzone.

Having spent my freshman year of high school near downtown Brooklyn, the micro-level changes were all-too-dramatic: a spate of new high-rises (including the development of Brooklyn’s then-tallest building, the Brooklyner), the mammoth Barclay’s Center, countless ritzy restaurants and bars, and in the distance, the multi-million-dollar Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Brownstones in my old neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. How has the brownstone come to represent a certain urban lifestyle? And who has access to it?

Brownstones in my old neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. How has the brownstone come to represent a certain urban lifestyle? And who has access to it?

The second memory is rooted in a more sweeping experience of the city at the ground level.

It was the archetypal overcast, gray, late fall day, and an unhappy line-up of medical, personal, and work-related appointments forced me to make pit stops in four boroughs (and Long Island) within a short time period.

Driving around the traffic-clogged Belt Parkway became stressful not because I was running late all day, but because sitting for hours in a mobile, metal capsule forced me to marinate in melancholic memories.

As I drove all around the city, I was bombarded with movie reel-like scenes for each passing landmark and place.

I tried to hold it in, to think positively of what was to come, but it jumped out from an invisible crevice inside of me: so many memories


Now that I’ve lived in “America’s Finest City” for a full year, I’ve been given a number of things to think about.

As one can guess, it is much more complicated than a “thumbs up, thumbs down” evaluation of San Diego. But my situation has forced me to pause and consider how multiple layers of alienation can operate socially and spatially.

There’s suburban alienation. Academic alienation. The geographic alienation of living far from community.

Being economically compelled to live in the cheap graduate housing that lies within the super-wealthy, super-white neighborhood in which UCSD is situated—La Jolla—my life is more than just physically situated in a borderlands space.

It is filled with stentorian, everyday reminders of where I am, a fact that was striking during my first month in which I felt I was experiencing in La Jolla a selectively orchestrated bundle of the worst, Hollywood-infused stereotypes of southern California: suburban cul-de-sacs with breathtaking ocean or canyon views; limitless, box-model shopping malls and plazas that house uniform chain stores, cafés, and restaurants; a hegemonic car culture that reproduces (sub)urban sprawl; and a prevailing cult of self-fixated bodily perfection centered around the “beach body.”

A different kind of geography: A typical La Jolla intersection.

A different kind of geography: A typical La Jolla intersection.

As I understand it, the concomitant, hyper-individualistic consumption ethos that is both cause and effect of this catastrophe is intimately intertwined with a long history of white supremacist dominion over colonized space—a fact that stands out more prominently in the U.S. Southwest in general, where a strong, spatially-segmented Red and Brown presence makes the artificiality of it all more ostensible.

I’m learning, through one of the most extreme examples possible, what it means to suffer through suburban alienation (something I see as linked to contemporary neoliberal gentrification for numerous reasons).

It is this notion of owning or occupying a private space of “your own,” the emphatic American ideal of home ownership, that marks what race scholar George Lipsitz calls the ‘possessive investment in whiteness.”

It is an investment that produces clear spatial consequences: gated communities on one end, criminalized black and brown communities on the other. As we see in cities around the world, these ‘othered’ urban spaces are increasingly targeted as domestic threats under national security policing.

The surrealness of having been transplanted from the Brooklyn barrio to this ultra-ritzy beachside suburbia is one that never escapes me, for I am constantly reminded of the ways in which I don’t belong.

For instance, my beat-up, used 2001 Honda Civic garners the attention of police in a neighborhood where new sports cars and militarized BMW’s are the norm. (To say nothing of my first six, car-less months, during which I experienced street harassment simply for waiting at a bus stop or walking on the sidewalk.)

In a similar vein, as a low-income graduate student paradoxically living in an affluent area, I frustratingly find that my nearest options for food and services (like haircuts) are incredibly overpriced.

The signs are both subtle and not-so-subtle. The environment makes it clear that I don’t belong here.


Whether we speak of suburban, academic, or neoliberal alienation, the same holds true with respect to geography: spaces can become alienating and confining, even carceral, in the absence of community and genuine social ties.

If there is something that my experience has foregrounded, it’s the nature of the way postmodern geographies can be alienating and surreal in numerous ways: whether it takes a cosmopolitan, suburban or exurban form, there are simply exponential ways in which one can feel excluded and distanced.

It is a reality that also brings me backs to my former ethical reflections on resistance vs. acceptance: Up to what point should we continue to fight to shape our local spaces, fight to build and sustain geographies of radical democracy and freedom (in a spirit similar to geographer Henri Lefebvre’s conception of the ‘right to the city’)?

On the other hand, at what point must the atomized self relinquish designs on radical reconstruction of space in order to seek out a path of radical acceptance? Or is the question of resisting/accepting alienating geographies merely reproducing a tautology of sorts?

Finally: Can one find home anywhere? If a homeland can’t be reclaimed in a physical geography, how useful and necessary is it to search for home internally (mentally, spiritually, psychically)?

To seek, in other words–in the tackiest of terms–a home at heart?

Going to the Southern Mexican Border

In Geography/ Spatial Justice, The Revolution on June 6, 2015 at 11:38 PM

Long thought of as the “forgotten” border, the political division between Mexico and Central America is about a 714 mi (1149km) stretch of mostly sparsely populated land—about a third the size of the more (in)famous northern border.

About three-quarters of the southern border is shared with Guatemala, and the highest percentage of that is shared with Chiapas specifically.

For a good part of this month (June 2015), I’ll be staying in the border city of Tapachula to study both the militarization of the border and its impact on this growing city. Located in the incredibly fertile Soconusco region along the Pacific Ocean, Tapachula is the largest city in the border zone, and is currently the second largest city of Chiapas (after that state’s capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez).

Some other facts and figures relating to Tapachula, Chiapas, and the militarization of the southern border:

Central American Migration

  • Over a century of U.S. imperialism in Central America, a brutal period of civil wars in the 1980s, and a continued legacy of government corruption in the region’s Northern Triangle (as witnessed by this year’s large mobilizations in Guatemala and Honduras), continues to prop a humanitarian crisis whose roots are left untouched on all sides of national borders.
  • The most-trafficked route for Central American migrants on their way through México has historically begun in Tapachula. (This was highlighted in the acclaimed film about the treacherous northward journey, Sin Nombre (2009).)

Mexico’s Involvement

  • Tapachula has the notorious distinction of being home to Latin America’s largest detention facility—the euphemistically-named Estación Migratoria Siglo XXI (“21st Century Immigration Station”).
  • While Chiapas isn’t new to militarization—as those who are familiar with the Zapatista revolution are very much aware—the focus on the southern border has resulted in an increase in the number of checkpoints and roadblocks with a concomitant rise in human rights abuses.
  • Last year (2014), Mexican president Peña Nieto launched the Programa Frontera Sur –a program purportedly aimed at “protecting” migrants and boosting security that has, in actuality, has done little more than increase migrant “huntings” and deportations.[i]
  • According to a report released by the NGO Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Chiapas was the Mexican state with the largest number of deportations in 2013 (32,452)[ii]. This has likely increased by several thousands since since the start of the Frontera Sur program.[iii]

United States’ Involvement

  • Responding to the growing number of Central American migrants, the U.S. Department of Defense quietly launched a “Mexico-Guatemala-Belize Border Region Program,” with as much as $50 million of counter-drug money being spent on “patrol boats, night vision equipment, communications equipment, maritime sensors, and associated training.” This is in addition to the billions already funneled to the Mexican government since 2008 by way of the Mérida Initiative[iv].
  • WOLA’s report also details how the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds an office in Tapachula, supposedly “to build capacity in the identification of aliens from countries of national security concern.”
An image of the Usumacinta River, between Chiapas and Guatemala. Photo by thelmadatter http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Thelmadatter Licensed under CC by 3.0

An image of the Usumacinta River, between Chiapas and Guatemala. Photo by thelmadatter Licensed under CC by 3.0

[i] http://www.animalpolitico.com/2015/04/programa-frontera-sur-el-discurso-de-derechos-humanos-con-el-que-mexico-caza-a-miles-de-migrantes/

[ii] Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), 2014: http://www.wola.org/publications/mexicos_other_border

[iii] http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-mexico-migrants-crackdown-20140907-story.html#page=1

[iv] Federation of American Scientists, 2015: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41349.pdf

Searching for Meaning in the Borderlands

In Creative Writing, Geography/ Spatial Justice on February 14, 2015 at 6:00 AM

Five months after taking the plunge that landed me on the other side of the country, here I am: a newly-minted academic in a place that, for all intents and purposes, is diametrically opposite that of my Brooklyn barrio.

I live in what can be described as an intersection between a large public housing structure dressed in light brown and yellow hues, and a prototypical, suburban cul-de-sac overlooking undeveloped valleys and chaparral. The view outside my building itself suggests the nature of this place: nothing but the ever-busy I-5, a six-story parking structure, and five- and four-star hotels are in view.

La Jolla may as well be as far away from Sunset Park, Brooklyn as Pluto is from Mars. In a time and place wherein U.S. cities are witnessing the invasions of all forms of gentrifiers and speculative capital, and wherein the suburbanization of poverty has reconfigured the age-old dynamics of urban space and race, La Jolla stands out like a relic of an artificial past—a stubborn bastion of old money and white supremacy in the borderlands.

Of course, when looking at the natural beauty that is La Jolla Shores, it isn’t surprising why the rich would choose to build their mansions here. But the irrepressible question: what is this place? Given the extreme artificiality of the landscape, a quiet cookie-cutter spread of white, beige, and yellow boxes, is this even a place at all?

La Jolla Shores

A view of La Jolla Shores

It’s been five months since I moved to San Diego to pursue a doctoral degree, and as usual, I’m at a loss for words. I came here to study space and race—and San Diego, for numerous obvious and not-so-obvious reasons, is a prime location for such research.

The military, the border, the shameless Anglo coloniality in former Mexican tierra that was itself stolen from the Kumeyaay. The wounds in this place are immeasurably layered. And when I think about the larger picture: really, what am I doing here?

What did the Universe have in mind in bringing me to such a place? Being an expat New Yorker wouldn’t be so freakin’ hard if I didn’t bring a chronic condition with me across country. Would it even be this hard had I come here with the security of at least a few close friendships?

But, no, I keep reminding myself—this was the point. The point was to start over. The point was to try living in a new space that wasn’t so indelibly branded with the knotty memories of twenty plus years, spread throughout the various nooks and crannies of a city at war.

So now I’m a transplant in another people’s land, another people’s city, and for what? What is my presence here accomplishing? Was I pushed by an ennui of “more of the same” in New York, or was I pulled in by relaxing promises of a city by the border? The question of agency, and displacement, never goes away.

I honestly don’t know how to approach these thorny questions other than to wrench agnosticism and humility and conscientiousness about where I stand. I feel clueless being so unanchored from place (by definition, a space imbued with cultural signifiers, with life and meaning).

Yet this experiment in graduate school placelessness–a feeling of zero gravity in a haze of detached theories–reminds me of why geography matters. Space and place matter. The land we occupy matters. And there are spatial epistemologies we have yet to illuminate.

But right now, I feel the intensity of this uprootedness and the swirl of possibilities.

Five months in, and still, I can’t decide what this place is to me.

LaJolla5

Sunset in La Jolla Cove

The Zionist Propaganda Machine: Why People Aren’t Taking the Streets

In Decolonization, Geography/ Spatial Justice on August 1, 2014 at 9:44 AM

zionist_propaganda

Having attended a few rallies and marches here in New York City in solidarity with Gaza and besieged Palestinians, there were a number of things that struck me about who was, and wasn’t, present. Although the demographics changed based on the type of demonstration, I could say—by and large—there were more women, children, and elders than “typical” rallies. There was something powerful to giving voice to women and children leading chants, crying out in English: “Free free Palestine! Free free Gaza!”

It was also clear to me that the larger rallies were dominated by people of Arab descent. This is clearly not surprising: it was great seeing new, younger, Brown faces that weren’t typically visible in the activist Left scene of New York City. But having been to countless demonstrations in New York, there was something a little off about this. While there were some Blacks and Latinos present in these solidarity marches, as a collective, our presence wasn’t as great as it could have been.

Overall, I couldn’t help but wonder where the non-Arab activists of color were. Where are the people who showed up en masse during May Day, shouting down Obama’s deportation policies? Where are the folks who came out so energetically in the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial last year? People should have been out on the streets in those occasions—but the senseless genocidal bombing of Gazans? Does the PoC Left not consider this as part of our issue?

As I reflected on why many of my fellow Latinxs weren’t showing up, I went back to my understanding of news media and the critical role of information dissemination in social movements.

It occurred to me that, just as euphemistically dubbed “development” programs were key hegemonic strategies for the dispossession of people of color in the city, carefully engineered propaganda from the Israeli lobby also played a role in deterring participation from marginalized communities in the U.S. Given my interest in the symbolic and material linkages between cultural hegemony, propaganda, and geopolitical violence, I felt an impetus to investigate what it was about Zionist propaganda that distorted our understanding of the “Middle East conflict” and hindered mobilization.


 “Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government”
– Edward Bernays, the so-called father of “public relations”

Stop-Hamas-Terrorism-on-Israel

Part of a Stop Hamas Terrorism art campaign that resulted in considerable uproar. The racist stereotypes say it all.

In the first half of the 20th century, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci developed a notion of cultural hegemony that was meant to describe what he witnessed during the rise of fascism in Italy. Building on Marx’s theory of ideology, Gramsci wrote about how much of the consolidation of consent that harvested the support of the proletariat on behalf of bourgeois elites was due to an indirect form of governance that relied on implied power—that is, coercion that did not involve military power in the form of invasion, occupation, or annexation.

Rather than use physical military or police violence to quell dissent and garner the support of the masses, the elite could use the political and economic tools of the mass media—in other words, propaganda—to change public opinion in their favor. This, after all, was a more efficient, more cost-effective, and far less bloody way to conquer and control.

Although cultural hegemony can be enforced through a variety of means, what we call “mass media” and “propaganda” have long been among the most effective modes of changing public opinion. Indeed, in their Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1983), Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman discuss how public North American opinion around conflicts abroad—whether in the genocides of Central America or Southeast Asia—were shaped by propagandistic efforts by corporate and state elites. In their “propaganda model,” they write about how “money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and private interest to get their messages across to the public.”

In tracing back the history of modern propaganda—now euphemistically taught in university courses as “public relations”—they invoke the writings of Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays, both of whom were deliberate about the uses of propaganda as a means to manipulate mass psychology. In other words, propaganda was a tool towards quelling dissent and consolidate cultural hegemony.

It should not come as surprise, then, that the Nazi regime was enormously successful in garnering the support of the majority of Germans after World War I after the Führer, supposedly learning from the success of the British, resorted to mass dissemination of anti-Semitic and war mobilizing propaganda (see: German Propaganda Archive).

In Mein Kampf, he lays out his understanding of the purpose of propaganda, the art of which “consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses.”

It was after the association between propaganda and Nazism that Bernays decided to re-brand it as “public relations”—a practice of information dissemination that has been refined and mastered by corporate media groups and the Zionist lobby.

This particular history of modern propaganda might seem incredibly ironic to those of us familiar with the history of the Israeli state, which officially formed in the aftermath of World War II and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians (read: Nakba). Sixty-six years after the birth of the Israeli state, there is something cruelly ironic about the semblances between anti-Jewish Zionist propaganda and an intricate field of Zionist, anti-Arab public relations.


How Zionist Propaganda Succeeds

Screenshot 2014-08-01 07.57.09

It’s the other way around: Israel hinds behind Hamas to justify the killing of children. Screenshot of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s website taken Aug 1 2014.

As missiles continue to rain on Gaza, arguably the largest open-air prison in the world, I’ve had considerable luxury to think about what’s happening—and to think about why more people aren’t outraged. After all, aren’t the following facts and figures clear to everyone?

  • From July 8th to July 31st, more than 1,400 Palestinian deaths have been confirmed by the Gaza Health Ministry.
  • At least 324 of those killed were aged 18 or under.
  • The U.N. estimates that over 75% of the killed were civilians (i.e. not combatants affiliated with Hamas).
  • On the Israeli side, 56 IDF soldiers have been included, as well as 3 civilians.
IP_conflict_deaths_total

Source: Vox magazine, from 14 July 2014, before the death toll went above 1,200.

Yet, even under the face of such ostensible facts that not even the mainstream, corporate media can disguise, there is a public indifference that I think deserves considerable attention.

Yes, there have been amazing shows of international solidarity. But if we were to compare the solidarity demonstrated after 1,000 Gazan deaths with the outcry immediately following 9/11—the (mostly) uncomplicated affection and material support provided by people around the world for approximately 3,000 deaths—the public unease would become obvious.

So why aren’t more people hitting the streets? And why are people feeling this complicated unease with an unequal genocide against a people without a formal army, let alone a real, sovereign state?

Thinking back to my own history as an organizer in communities of color, I held back from being more vocal against Zionism for years. It was a complicated bag of not feeling confident about my historical knowledge, as well being confused by the contradictory messages coming from the mainstream press.

Growing up in New York City, with teachers and classmates who could have been the confusing “liberal Zionist” discussed in this article, I grew up awash in contradictory and confusing information for years. From Jewish history teachers who talked about the “age-old” conflict in the Middle East, to liberal friends who talked about the uncertain positionality of Jews under the boundaries of whiteness, I had been surrounded by conflicted messaging.

This conflict, however, unfolded against a backdrop of an intense, intuitive understanding I had of the ugly nature of racism. I felt something in my heart that I couldn’t dare vocalize—partly due to a Zionist conditioning that claimed that to speak out against Zionist prerogatives was being “anti-Semitic” (a confused term if any.

Given the numerous, well-written accounts on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well critiques of Zionism, I don’t feel a need to waste my breath on this. What I do wish to speak to, however, are the depths through which Zionist propaganda has shaped popular discourse in ways that align with Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model:

  • Since Manufacturing Consent‘s original publication in 1983, news media consumed by (U.S.) Americans has been collapsed into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations12, with (as of 2011) six corporations accounting for 90% of “what we read, watch, or listen to.” When it comes to the distribution of influence on news media, well-endowed, multi-million-dollar pro-Zionist organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (or AIPAC, exert an incommensurate sway that consistently outperforms any pro-Palestinian lobby.

    (To verify this, compare the budgets of AIPAC and the top, explicitly pro-Palestinian lobby groups, the American Task Force on Palestine. Analyses of the pro-Israel and pro-Arab [sic] lobbies are also available here: Jewish Virtual Library; ABC News; a comparison of the amount of money funneled by lobby groups can also be found through the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group based in Washington, D.C. There, you can also find a list of the top pro-Israel lobby groups)

Stop Hamas Terrorism video exalting the “bad guy-fighting” Israeli Defense Forces.

A Haaretz article's headline focuses on the two IDF soldiers killed, while 40 Palestinian deaths are lumped below under a statistic.

A Haaretz article’s headline focuses on the two IDF soldiers killed, while 40 Palestinian deaths are lumped below under a statistic.

  • Part of the obfuscation perpetuated by Zionist propaganda is also found in the subtle ways in which “objective outsiders” are brought into a limited, dichotomized debate around Israel and Palestine. Bearing such innocuous, objective-sounding names like the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), or the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Zionist organizations can proliferate pro-Israel media while claiming to do so under the fight against anti-Semitism.
  • In their propaganda model, Herman and Chomsky devote a chapter to the dichotomized bias in treatment accorded to “worthy” and “unworthy” victims. That is, victims of enemy states will be found to be more worthy of news attention and sympathy, while those victimized by the U.S. or its ally clients are seen as less worthy. In this case, the disproportionate media limelight given to relatively fewer Jews killed by Hamas-controlled missiles is an example of treatment for ‘worthy’ victims. Conversely, although more than a thousand Palestinians have been killed (over 75% reported to be civilians by the U.N.), they are typically treated like an amorphous, dehumanized statistic.
  • The conflation of the terms ‘Jewish,’ ‘Zionist,’ and ‘Israeli’ have consistently worked in the favor of Zionist propagandists. Through conflation of these terms, it becomes easier to accuse someone who is anti-Zionist, or against the state of Israel, to be “anti-Semitic” (read: anti-Jewish). I can’t mention the number of times I’ve communicated with Zionists/Zionist apologists who simply didn’t know that there were numerous Israelis protesting the occupation, let alone the long-standing existence of Jewish Anti-Zionists globally.
  • The multi-million dollar Israeli lobby has also conducted a broad effort to proselytize Zionism among people of color in the U.S., as attested to in this Colorlines piece
  • One of the biggest accomplishments of Zionist propaganda has been to limit or obscure historical memory, bracketing off a violent history of colonization, dispossession, and ethnic cleansing into smaller, decontextualized periods (e.g. “post-Oslo”, post-1967) so as to make the negotiation rounds between Israel and Palestine seem like they’re on fair and equal footing. Even if Palestine and Israel were to fall back to the two-state ’67 borders, it would still not appropriately handle the ‘right of return’ for dispossessed Palestinians from the ’48 Nakba—many of whom are alive today.
  • If nothing else, even if Zionist propaganda doesn’t completely succeed in convincing people that Palestinians are terrorists worthy of destruction, they’ve at least sowed enough seeds of doubt to prevent people from coming out in large numbers. Through a combination of misinformation, ahistorical analyses, and sowing the seeds fear, confusion, and doubt, the potential backlash to Zionist atrocities is largely restrained.

Given the role of mass media in shaping public opinion around Palestine, it is worth wondering: will lifting the veil on shameless pro-Israeli propagandism change the terms of the debate?

Will accurate, un-abridged information about the persecution of Palestinians ensure enough of an outcry to stop the ongoing genocide?

At the very least, I would like to think that ending the hegemonic thrust of Zionist propaganda, with its ongoing loop of misinformation and fear-mongering, will lower the barriers to aiding the occupation resistance. Whether or not this is enough remains to be seen.


Images of the Shujaiya Massacre
What arguments, archetypes, images, and tropes are used to justify the slaughter?

Screenshot 2014-08-01 09.08.11 Screenshot 2014-08-01 09.07.55

**TRIGGER WARNING: Video below depicts Israeli shelling that killed 17 Palestinians. According to the Electronic Intifada, these were civilians “at a market where people had gone to shop during what they thought would be a four-hour “humanitarian truce.” Depicts graphic violence that some might find disturbing.**

And how was the massacre in Shuja’iya justified, you ask? The IDF blog uses the following imagery below, as well as articles that target “terrorist cells” in civilian homes. You can decide for yourself whether the massacre of non-Hamas affiliated civilians was justified.

shujaiya-map-en-1Screenshot 2014-08-01 09.12.42

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