Writings...

I'm going to put a few of the better pieces of occasional writing I've done in my spare time up here....

Date: Thu, 27 Apr 1995 11:50:57 -0400 (EDT)
From: Bruce N. Simon (bnsimon@phoenix)
To: postcolonial (postcolonial@jefferson.village.virginia.edu)
Subject: Montreal Massacre and Oklahoma City (very long)

This is a response, by way of the Montreal Massacre, to the recent cautions on this list about the way we've been discussing the bombing in Oklahoma City and its aftermath. While I recognize the dangers of drawing parallels between catastrophes, catastophes which in their violent singularity seem to destroy the possibility of comparison, I think the response to the worst single-day massacre in Canadian history does speak to the ongoing effect of that Oklahoma City blast, even now, eight days after.

To put my cards on the table first, with regard to Oklahoma City: I, too, breathed a sigh of relief when it appeared early on that the FBI was more seriously considering the possibility of an extremist right-wing organization than "international terrorism." I, too, was appalled by corporate TV coverage, which even over 24 hours after the blast was still broadcasting anti-Arab diatribes from supposedly respectable public officials (the newspapers were less racist in this case). I didn't listen to AM talk radio, but I've heard enough horror stories from friends to know that the mainstream media looked polite compared to "average everyday Americans." But I've also been encouraged by some of the analyses on NPR, especially the linking of the bombing to right-wing and white supremacist organizations, as well as the beginnings of an analysis of the apparently widespread feeling of "white male victimization" and the way it links up with "new social movements" on the right. So I am not entirely without hope. I hope this event gives many of us, especially white Americans, pause. I hope it forces us to take stock of our immediate responses and assumptions. I hope it reminds us that white racism is alive and well, and that organized white supremacist organizations are a real threat to all Americans. I hope it even forces us to confront the dangerous and implicit assumption that American means white, to commit ourselves and our society to the establishment of a truly multiracial democracy. In other words, I hope something good comes out of this senseless waste and destruction of lives. (At the very least, maybe we'll remember that Americans have been perpetrating all kinds of violence against Americans, including thousands of lynchings. And maybe we'll be a little less cavalier about the violence Americans perpetrate abroad, as well. Avital Ronell has argued that the coverage of the Rodney King beating was so riveting in part because of the Gulf War [Finitude's Score]. Can anyone doubt the relevance, in a less-than-expected way, of the Gulf War to the Oklahoma City bombing [McVeigh...]?)

Each of us has to bear witness to this event in our own ways, with different responsibilities based in part on where we are. But only in part. Global telecommunications means that the blast was truly felt around the world, certainly in mediated forms--but for those of us only connected to the bombing by the media and by our horror, it is an imperative to attend to this mediation. Experiencing the event in a mediated way means that we weren't traumatized by it, certainly not in the same way as those who experienced the shock and pure fright of the blast itself. But, as so many have already argued so eloquently, for anyone targeted because of their looks (dark), region of birth (Middle East), or religious beliefs (Islam) as implicated in or responsible for the bombing, an integral part of the event is the immediate racist response to it. To say that we must separate the event and the racist responses is to commit further violence. My point here is simply that both Oklahomans and those perceived as Middle Easterners or Arab-Americans or Muslims were more directly affected by the blast than the rest of us. None of us has the right to discount their testimony.

On to the Montreal Massacre and the responses to it: Wendy Chun has analyzed the Canadian response to the Montreal Massacre, from the immediate "Mad Killer" theory which asserted dogmatically that looking for the cause of Lepine's rampage was both pointless (he was just crazy, after all) and dangerous (might provoke copy-cat killings), to the slow and painful realization that anti-feminism and violence against women were at the heart of the event. This realization only became widespread a year after the killings, when a prominent Quebecois feminist published Lepine's suicide note--which listed the names of nineteen Montreal feminists as targets--against the wishes of both the police and the survivors. So feminists only received public support after people realized that they, too, were targets of Lepine, that his act was not just crazy random violence, but a political act. Before, the feminists had been viciously condemned for "politicizing" a tragedy, for bringing in gender issues not relevant to the killings, for disrespecting the private grief of the survivors and the families of the victims, by making the massacre a public issue. In fact, the very survivors of the event themselves were the most vocal critics of the feminist response, asserting that only they had a right to talk about the event, and since they did not want to, no one else should. For more on this, see Wendy Chun, "A Case of Mistake[s i]n Identity: Bearing Witness to the Montreal Massacre," Critical Matrix: The Princeton Journal of Women, Gender, and Culture 9.2 (1995) 117-140.

I worry that a similar pattern might emerge in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. I worry that more calls to stop talking about white supremacy "out of respect for the victims and survivors" will be forthcoming, and in much less polite and thoughtful tones than have appeared on this list. I worry that issues of race and racism will continue to be seen as external to the event, as easily separable from it. I worry that people will conflate all kinds of public discourse about the event (so that corporate TV's words and actions are indistinguishable from at least somewhat alternative public spheres like this listserv). I worry that people will then oppose all such putatively exploitative and appropriative publicity to the privacy of grief and mourning, thereby hiding or ignoring the public dimensions of mourning. I worry that cynical politicians will take the opportunity to tack anti-immigrant/immigration measures onto anti-terrorist legislation in the coming months.

But another scenario is altogether possible. Perhaps, just as the Montreal Massacre brought the issue of violence against women to the fore of public discourse and policy in Canada, the bombing in Oklahoma City will bring to the fore the continuing presence and force of white racism in US society--racism among "extremist" organizations and hate groups, among politicians and media, and among "normal" "color-blind" Americans. For this to happen, some of us are going to have to continue, with sympathy and respect for the victims and survivors, to raise difficult questions and begin difficult dialogues about racism and whiteness.

--Bruce Simon
bnsimon@princeton.edu

p.s.--I've heard it said of late that guns and fanatical hatred of the US federal government are what increasingly links right-wing extremist organizations, rather than racism. Yet it doesn't take much of a memory to recall that the federal government, when it has been pressured to act, has certainly done more anti-racist work than many states, left to their own devices, would have done. In the political imaginary of too many, it seems that the state (coded as black) and the global banking industry (coded as Jewish), are posing threats to "average" American citizens (coded, of course, as white). Historical analogies are always dangerous, but let's not forget the popularity of a white supremacist like Thomas Dixon when we hear that "The Turner Diaries" are the bible of many of these paramilitary groups, that opposition to Reconstruction was coded as anti-black and anti-federal government, and that the late nineteenth century media was the purveyor of hate and race rioting. Will the post-Civil Rights era be a hi-tech replay of the post-Reconstruction era? Only if "normal everyday" Americans let it.