“12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained,” and that time Spike Lee was totally right

12 Years a Slave, the new film by Hunger and Shame auteur Steve McQueen, is one of those films whose arrival dominates the critical conversation. The film, based on the memoirs of escaped slave Solomon Northrup, is being praised for its artistic as well as its revelatory qualities. Paul MacInnes of The Guardian calls it “not just a great film but a necessary one.” All reviewers talk about the brutality of slavery depicted in the film, because brutality is a necessary component in a film purporting to depict the realities of American slavery.

Many, like Richard Roeper, make the comparison to last year’s Django Unchained. The comparison keeps popping up, despite the fact that 12 Years and Django have relatively little in common. 12 Years is, in the words of MacInnes a “stark, visceral and unrelenting” biopic of a man enduring hellish torment. Django is a Leone-inspired Western, at times bloody but cartoonish. To the degree there’s any relationship at all between the two, 12 Yearsis a necessary corrective to the antics of Django Unchained.” The consensus is that 12 Years is brutal and unforgiving, whereas Django shares only the motif of slavery. 12 Years shows us that Django didn’t come close to illuminating the realities of the time. What I’m wondering is, when do we acknowledge that Spike Lee was totally right about Django, and the legions of people who criticized him were wrong? Continue reading

The Good and Evil of Left-Libertarian Transpartisanship

On October 26, in Washington, DC, thousands gathered as part of the “Stop Watching Us” rally to demonstrate against the American surveillance state. Describing itself as a coalition of “over 100 public advocacy organizations and companies from across the US,” the protest featured attendees, speakers, and sponsors from both the anti-authoritarian Left and the Libertarian right.

The nature of an entrenched, bipartisan national security state means that the most powerful members of both parties have an interest in perpetuating government power. The Obama administration carried on the previous administration’s spying programs, and today a Democratic president finds vociferous defenders amongst the most authoritarian members of the “opposing” party.

Consequently, opposition to excessive government intrusion takes on a transpartisan nature. At the Stop Watching Us rally, Dennis Kucinich and Naomi Wolf shared the stage with Tea Party Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI) and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. The roster of backers included Code Pink, the ACLU, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as well as the Libertarian Party, FreedomWorks, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (whom I’d not heard of, but come on, “Competitive Enterprise?” Going to go ahead and put that on the Libertarian side).

The Left-Libertarian crowd that showed up on Saturday mirrors the one in Congress that came 12 votes short of defunding the NSA’s mass telephone surveillance last July. The July 24th House bill was co-sponsored by fellow Michiganders Justin Amash, a Tea Party Republican, and John Conyers, a Democrat who co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus. The Amendment would’ve “limit[ed] the government’s collection of records…to those records that pertain to a person who is subject to an investigation.” No more blanket collection.

More importantly, the bill managed to accumulate such significant, bipartisan support despite the fact that the nation’s most powerful lawmakers vehemently opposed its passage. The leadership of both parties was arrayed against Amash-Conyers, and as often happens in matters of national security, the Obama administration found a staunch supporter in Michelle Bachmann. Given bills like the Amash-Conyers Amendment, it looks like a Left-Libertarian alliance is the sort of transpartisan project that can finally rein in the surveillance state. Continue reading

Malala Yusafzai, Malalai Joya, and “the preferably unheard” in America

Two heroic activists, one household name.  Malala Yusafzai (l) and Malalai Joya (r)

Two heroic activists, one household name.
Malala Yusafzai (l) and Malalai Joya (r)

In 2012, the world was shocked when 15-year old Malala Yusafzai was shot in the head in an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban. Yusafzai’s activism went global—she is the youngest Nobel prize nominee in history, and is currently discussing her memoir, I Am Malala, on America’s most prestigious outlets. Yusafzai is an astonishingly courageous person. However, there is a reason that we in the West hear from Yusafzai and not from other women around the Muslim world. Whose voice is amplified and whose is ignored supports a deeper narrative. As Arundhati Roy says, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” The fact that most Americans have heard of Malala Yusafzai but almost none have heard of Malalai Joya reveals the narratives that undergird Western imperialism in the Muslim world.

Yusafzai’s history as a women’s rights advocate is inspiring: she began blogging pseudonymously for BBC Urdu at the age of 11, describing life in the Swat Valley under the rule of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Following the attempt on her life, she was rushed to the UK for the surgery that saved her life. Journalist Assad Baig says that at this point, it became “a story of a native girl being saved by the white man. The Western world can feel good about itself as they save the native woman from the savage men of her home nation. It is a historic racist narrative that has been institutionalized.” Continue reading