Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Let's Call a Truce on the bin Laden Death Reactions, Okay?

I'm having a really hard time with writing today - I'm completely exhausted on, like, an existential level. But you don't need to care about that, so here goes nothing. I'm just going to ramble for awhile, use Judy Blume's "Get words on the page" principle of dealing with writer's block, and see what happens.

So we all know that Osama bin Laden is dead. React to that however you want - not my business. I'm really over policing everyone's reactions to news like this. If you want to be glad, be glad. If you want to say that you can't celebrate the death of any individual person, that's fine with me. Do your thang.

It's curious, though, that this quote was falsely attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.

I'm not sure how this has become such a viral thing. It's really strange, I think, but there are a couple reasons I'm willing to toss out there for y'all to shred. The first is that it's part of what I've begun calling the Piety Wars. We all want to show that we're good people, and rejoicing in the death of another person might make us look like bad people, so we show that the guy widely seen as Maybe The Best Person Ever (to the point that even the right wing - the folks historically and sometimes also currently on the side of segregation - have co-opted his memory) agrees with us. It's comforting. Also, it makes it impossible to disagree with and not immediately have to begin defending oneself as a good person. Dr. King said it, so it must be true. Listen: I think the man was brilliant. I agree with what he stood for. But he didn't say this, so why are we all posting it all over Facebook?*

Maybe a second part of what's going on here is that there's this expected patriotic response that Glenn Greenwald talked about - yay America, we got the bad guy, we were right about this all along.** That people are chanting "USA! USA!" outside the White House seems to indicate that this is a response people are having. And if you want to go against that grain, by saying that maybe it's not so great after all, you have to line up something to defend yourself with, and Dr. King is a good person to marshal in those moments.

"What does this have to do with feminism, Jess?" Yeah, I don't know. It does feel like there's some kind of expectation of masculinity in the "USA! USA!" response to bin Laden's death. The military is conceived of as a masculine institution - or there wouldn't be so many instances of gay panic - and now that the military has taken out Bad Guy #1 we're all supposed to celebrate that. Which is fine, if that's what you're feeling.

The reason it's considered unpatriotic to not celebrate all military "victories" is that it's not celebrating the strength of America, right? And strength is dudely, in our weird binary-invested culture. Any "But what about the victims?" talk is "feminine" and therefore unworthy. So if you - no matter your gender - want to talk about the consequences of this in terms of human loss and not military strategy, you're just unpatriotic, is all. (Please note that I don't feel this way - I'm tapping into what I see as the narrative, here.) So finding a man who agrees with you is helpful, especially if it's a man people have to at least claim to appreciate lest they be called racist.

Anyway. Go feel however you want about bin Laden, or don't feel anything, whatever. I'll be over here hunting down some caffeine so that I can try to make more sense in the future.

* There's the "we don't always do our research when we post stuff" thing that everyone is guilty of sometimes, myself certainly included. I'm not saying that anyone who attributed this to him is dumb. I understand what they're trying to say.

** What were we right about all along, exactly? Bin Laden wasn't killed because of our overwhelming military force or because we put Afghanis and Americans in harm's way. He wasn't caught because we tortured people. He was caught because of intelligence and patient groundwork.

1 comment:

  1. As is explicated in the link at the bottom of The Atlantic post, it's largely due to a typo (a shift of quotation marks) compounded with Twitter's 140 character policy (the rest of the quote -- which was from King's Strength to Love) which truncated the real quote and left the typo.

    Still, your post touches on many larger issues -- I like the notion of Piety Wars, and the co-option of King's words, life, and legacy is well-documented, ongoing, and frustrating. I also like the gendered lens you've added, as it makes a lot of sense to me.

    Thinking off the cuff, I wonder what a de-masculinized (in the sense of being disentangled from dominant US norms of masculinity) US military would look like. Certainly, I don't think it will happen any time soon, but I'm trying to think what it would resemble on the ground, structurally, and policy-wise. I have some thoughts, but I don't want to derail from the bin Laden discussion.