On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

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Russian Crusaders in Ukraine: An Unsettling Reminder of Western Religious Nationalism (May 25, 2015)

Since I have recently discussed how eerily events in ISIS recall events in the First Crusade about which I happen to be reading for a scholarly project,  I could not help but be taken aback by seeing this theater of uncanny resemblance shift suddenly north and east. In this chilling BBC article by Tim Whewell, some Russian volunteers describe their rationale for fighting in the civil war in eastern Ukraine as a need to take part in a “holy war” aimed at recreating Russian “Empire.” It is hard to imagine a less comforting sentiment if one hopes that the violence in Eastern Ukraine might abide anytime soon: the logic of holy war and the idea of stopping the violence “only when the job’s done,” as the Pavel Rasta interviewed by Whewell says. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30518054 Getting a “job…done,” if one is, as I am, currently reading and thinking about the First Crusade, a very alarming phrase. Pavel here explicitly links himself to the logic of those engaged in the First Crusade, describing Donetsk as “Jerusalem” and the civil warriors there as engaged in “holy war.”

If the “job” of the Frist Crusaders was to take Jerusalem, to incorporate it into the control of a larger (Western) Christendom, then its conclusion was horrifying, in a mass atrocity on a truly historical scale—the Crusaders’ sacking of Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, in which warriors bent upon holy war slaughtered indiscriminately virtually all of the population of Jerusalem, not discriminating between warrior or civilian, between man or woman, adult or child. (On the sacking of Jerusalem, see Thomas Asbridge’s The First Crusade, where he dubs it “one of the most extraordinary and horrifying events of the medieval age” (316).  It is also important to note that the religiously zealous Crusaders did not simply erupt in violence in sacking Jerusalem: as is well known, they killed a sickeningly large number of Jewish non-combatants in what were the first pogroms, while making their way to the Middle East [see Susan Jacoby’s New York Times discussion of this], and also killed numerous Muslims and Eastern Christians while making their way, sometimes engaging in sieges and often having to forage when supplies ran out, to Jerusalem).

Pavel is, of course, just a Russian volunteer, and so it would be wrong to link his explicit statements with the motives of, say, the Russian government. But Whewell’s framing of the interview as offering a rare insight into Russian (that is, rather than Ukrainian) volunteers in the Eastern Ukrainian insurgency is vital: we can see here the motivations of many of those non-military individuals who have been moving into what has become a regional war-zone. Much of what drove the First Crusade was the religious zeal of those who were not from the military classes: what was originally a request from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius for a contingent of military men to assist in fending off encroaching Seljuk Turks ballooned, after Pope Urban II’s infamous November 27 sermon at Clermont, into a massive movement of individuals—in the scores of thousands—into the Middle East, all bent on just the sort of “holy war” Whewell reads into ordinary Russians’ self-sacrificial decision to enter into Eastern Ukraine in a desire to join a fight that here looks like nothing less than a religiously zealous Russian nationalism.

As Whewell argues, from the perspective of Russian volunteers, the fight in Eastern Ukraine is part of a kind of defensive aggression enacted by a Russia surrounded by hostile Western forces. Russian imperial ambitions are most clearly part of their operations in Ukraine, which comes, of course, after the notoriously well-orchestrated and executed annexation of the (formerly?) Ukrainian territory Crimea. As I have discussed before, such Russian imperialism and nationalism has been a key to the conflicts in Ukraine.

Russia is hardly unique in holding such ambitions (indeed, America, the United Kingdom, France, and many other Western countries were not just historically, but remain, in my view, imperial nations)—nor is Russia unique in fomenting notions of “holy war” (just witness right-wing rhetoric in the United States since 9/11; American Pavels would not be hard to find). Western biases also need to be counteracted to clearly analyze the situation in the Ukrainian civil war. I think, for example, that the Western media has usually presented a quite biased version of the initial events leading to the explicit unrest in Ukraine (the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych was consistently presented in the West as a righteous and democratic revolution, when it could just as easily have been presented as a violent and anti-democratic coup: revolutions, after all, are usually in the eyes of the beholders). In my view, the religious and nationalist zeal of Pavel is not chilling because it is uniquely Russian, but is in fact troubling because it recalls the rhetoric of so much Western rhetoric—not just in the premodern First Crusade, but in the tendency, for example, of many modern commentators to speak of a global war against Islam, or to use the rhetoric of defense against invasion to discuss immigration. Americans don’t like to hear such criticism, even when it refers to such distant events as the Crusades: witness the fierce reaction to President Obama’s quite reasonable reminder to Western audiences that such violent episodes as the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the African slave-trade show that the West is not insulated from a violence and barbarism often projected only onto the Islamic other (see, for example, Juliet Eilperin’s initial Washington Post reporting on the incident).

From some perspectives, there is so much continuity between Russia and Ukraine, as I have argued before, that it takes some effort to create a sharp and violent distinction. From Whewell’s article, it seems, alas, that what serves so often throughout history as a force of violent division, religious zeal, is energizing the territorialist fight in Ukraine—and religion and nationalism are rarely anything but a volatile mix. I hope that cooler heads prevail there, soon—for I quake to think what can happen as people like Pavel work to get their “job…done.” 

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Keeping Lands Green by Keeping Them Ours: Gerry Rising on Federal-to-State Land Transfers (May 24, 2015)

We often think of territorial issues as occurring merely between national states and those entities who would join that group. National states, for example, often fight over disputed land areas (such as, as I have written about here, the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands controversy), and there can even be tensions about states creating new lands, such as recent US-China tensions (see this Reuters article)  about land reclamation in the South China sea demonstrate. And, of course, the national territorial desires of would-be sovereign states are very well known just about everywhere, in our territorially unstable political globe—whether it be in the numerous Native American would-be nations within the United States, a restless Scotland yearning to be free, a Palestinian state seeking to shore up its independent status, or transnational Kurdish communities dreaming of establishing a stable Kurdistan.

Territorial issues, however, are also intra-national—and the workings of the system of jurisdictions within any state often has intense material consequences. As Gerry Rising makes clear in his excellent Buffalo News article, Don’t Transfer Land to Individual States,  land management is one key area where such decisions can have great material significance.

After summarizing federal practices of surveying and managing land in the US, Rising refers to efforts, known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, to transfer control of lands out of federal control. As Rising notes, this “wise use” movement was really about privatization—namely, a movement governed by the “extraction industries: lumbering and mining.”  Recent efforts to transfer lands from the federal to the state level (where it could, of course, then be transferred into private hands or local controls) should be seen as an “outgrowth” of this privatization movement. Chillingly, Rising points out, those seeking to gain control of federally lands under the aegis of more efficient management styles are often those who have exerted efforts to ravage the budgets of the federal agencies that administer these lands: this is, of course, the starve-the-beast style of right-wing anti-federal political forces that have been so active in the United States since the Reagan era (a movement that, as I’ve written about here, has its parallel in post-Thatcher Britain, and which has recently reared its ugly head).

These issues are all about territory—about who controls land—and the stakes, Rising makes clear, are high. Our nation is a fascinating entity in that it is built on a harmonizing of tensions between the federal government and the states. The 10th Amendment of our Constitution is in part designed to maintain that balance—but it often appears that state efforts to maintain rights end up amounting to little more than privatizing as much space as possible. And some states have taken anti-federalist sentiments to absurd levels, calling into question the very hierarchy of jurisdictions that seems to me to be an essential part of the delicate balance key to the US, as the recent uproar about the Jade Helm military exercises and Texas’s reaction have shown: Texas, here, seems to be acting like its own state. Considering how virulently anti-regulation anti-federalist forces are, we need not even go into the specifics of their resistance to environmental policies—such efforts to privatize spaces are little more than an effort to allow a free-for-all appropriation of public land (a trend that Naomi Klein explores so powerfully in her study of the abusive appropriation of public lands and spaces in The Shock Doctrinea trend that, as I discussed here, can be seen in resistance to wealthy landowners seeking to unlawfully claim local access to beach spaces in California.).

Rising’s poignant opinion piece reminded me how vital territorial divisions are for thinking through environmental policies—and how much we need to pay attention to the fine points of who is appealing to lay claim to what, Rising insists, is only really ours while it remains federal—for once it moves to states, it falls irrevocably into the atomized world of mine, mine, mine.

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“A Haunting ISIS Flag: Unexpected Museum Guards and the Fate of Palmyra” (May 23, 2015)

As I have been reading (for a current project) a lot about the First Crusade, I have had in my mind the visions of bloody sieges and countersieges, with the flying of banners over heavily fortified cities. It is for this reason that I found so arresting the image of an ISIS (Islamic State) flag flying over a castle in Palmyra—as seen in this AP photograph at the head of a BBC article on the curious status of ISIS guards at a museum.   The ironies of ISIS museum guards are not hard to find: as I have written about more than once on this blog,  ISIS’s destruction of antiquities is clearly a key part of its aggressive militarist campaign—as is its propensity to sell off as many of the movable antiquities that they can in the desire to fund their nascent war-state. ISIS’s propensity to destroy certain artifacts and sites and its very active sales of plundered antiquities only seems incompatible if you see antiquity destruction as merely a religious statement—rather, it is a very effective propagandic act, conveying the image of a sect that does not abide by such limiting notions as “world heritage” and which is prepared to, and is indeed eager to break global taboos about preserving sites and objects of historical interest. As I have written about here before, ISIS is clearly focused on mastering symbolic modes of violence, with its cultural strategies succeeding in channels that have sometimes been thought the exclusive domain of the Hollywood-centered West.

It is the site of the flag that really struck me, as immersed as I am in in such wonderful, but horrific histories as narrated in Thomas Asbridge’s excellent The First Crusade. Much as, as Asbridge points out so well, history allows us to see that Crusaders could harbor both deeply held religious beliefs and be acquisitive, rapacious plunderers bent upon taking and sacking cities, so does ISIS spread its flags and banners on various sites throughout a Middle East destabilized by violence that few could deny was at least in very significant part (*at least in its current, post-Sadaam Hussein era phase), unleashed by the West.

While most of the museum goods have, the BBC reports, been transferred to Damascus, the image of an ISIS flag over a castle—a fortification designed to allow elites to maintain control over local territories, by offering defenses and barracks and a location from which to launch military campaigns, among other things—casts an eerie shadow over the fate of the Palmyra ruins nearby. Classified as a “World Heritage” site—a classification that would merely seem to invite the ISIS occupiers to unleash their destructive energies, since the world reaction they desire would be predictably large, with a massive shock and horror value delivered with a relatively small investment of force—the Palmyra ruins date back to the Roman era.

The Romans, of course, did their share of destruction—all of Carthage, for example, was burned to the ground, in what Ben Kiernan in Blood and Soil argues may be the first historical genocide—so it hardly seems unpoetic justice for anything Roman to come undone. Much seems to be coming undone in the Middle East these days—and that ISIS flag, reminding us of the blurred lines between the Crusading era and our own, flies hauntingly above that ancient castle.


Conspiratorial Territorial Theory: Jade Helm and Anti-Federalist Paranoia (May 22, 2015)

The United States Army’s eight-week (July 15-September 15, 2015) military exercises called Jade Helm have provoked some rather intense reactions from various individuals who hold deep-seeded suspicions about the US Federal government as a threat to state- and individual freedom. Dan Lamothe, in his Washington Post analysis of responses to the Jade Helm Operations, offers an excellent description of the exercises, as well as a survey of the range of panicked and conspiratorial responses to the  operations. As Lamothe explains (and see also Russell Berman’s excellent Atlantic article on responses to the operations), the reaction among Texans went beyond garden-variety extremist paranoia about an alleged federal government take-over to actual panic when US military representatives released a map of the exercises describing Texas (as well as Utah and a small section of extreme southern California) as “hostile territory.” Of course, responses to the Jade Helm exercises went well beyond the usual channels for paranoiac thinking about the US Government (such as talk radio, blogs, and pamphlets), when the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, ordered the Texas State Guard to, as Dan Lamothe reports, “monitor” the US operations. Talk about a grand theater for conspiratorial theories to be played out!

What is especially fascinating in responses to the Jade Helm exercises is the refusal of many to accept the distinction between the virtual and the real. The aim of such operations is, from the US military’s perspective, to offer an intense sort of training in actual physical spaces that is governed by the systematic fiction that these spaces include territories held by hostile forces, For those reacting with alarm at these exercises, the alleged line between the virtual and the real is really an illusion—and one that offers a special glimpse into the actual motivations of a US government that harbors desires to eradicate the protections of state sovereignty that exist in places like Texas (though many of these voices have entirely different views of Texas as a fully sovereign nation—as I shall discuss below).

As preposterous as the claims of many of those fearing that the Jade Helm operations are some sort of practice-run for a US federal takeover of states such as Texas and Utah, I find it hard not to think about the many observers who have noted how analogous such conspiratorial thinking is to the habits of literary (and other academic) criticism. We, too, often insist that, behind the façade of this or that cultural phenomenon lies a range of powerful social forces that are responsible for and sustain such fantasies. We, too, often refuse to accept the text (whether we call it surface or form or whatever other term) as what it seems, and consider it the very mission of criticism to distrust the superficial and penetrate to what is really behind the textual face that meets us. In short, we critics often practice what has become known as the paranoid style of critique called the “hermeneutics of suspicion”—and I, myself, would usually count myself (when it comes to literary texts) among the perennially suspicious. (For some interesting discussion so of the relations of criticism and conspiracy theory, see Rita Felski’s essay on the “Hermeneutics of Suspicion”; Timothy Melley’s review of works on conspiratorial theory by Chun, Flieger, and Farrell; Jodi Dean’s Theory and Event review of works on conspiratorial logic by Fenster, Marcus, and Melley; and Neville Morley’s blogpost “Criticism as Conspiracy Theory” on responses to Thucydides.)

Those reacting so passionately and paranoiacally to the US military exercises are not acting in a vacuum. Indeed, there is some rationale to their paranoia, if you consider how often the presence of “military exercises” are often used as an aggressive tactic. Russia and the United States often antagonize each other, for example, by performing planned military drills in sensitive areas. For a recent example, as this Telegraph article recounts, the Baltic has become the scene of simultaneous military exercises, with each side menacing the other through military exercises conducted in a potential site of conflict. Examples could be multiplied—and, indeed, broadcasting military exercises, while carefully pointing out that their being planned, has become a key tool in global territorial politics. Shows of force and military posturing are, of course, part of the tool-kit of militarism—and every parade showing off military equipment, every theatrically staged missile test, and every staged visit of a leader to a war shrine or in the company of macho, uniformed soldiers serves the larger agenda of aggressive states.(And that theatrical performance is a vital part of territorialism is a topic I have written about several times in this blog, such as here, here, and here.) Conducting exercises in actual terrain or in waters proximate to a potential enemy seems to be a particularly intense statement of militarist intent—and so it is understandable why some conspiracy theorists, despite the seeming extreme improbability that the Jade Helm operations are anything but a training exercise making convenient use of domestic spaces (indeed, most likely to avoid the aggressive implications of doing such exercises outside American territory).

Of course, if one holds alternative views about the sovereignty status of such spaces, then the Jade Helm exercises take on a very different appearance—gathering up all the energies of the aggressive military exercises done on foreign spaces. And Texas harbors disproportionate number of such theorists. Nowhere in the United States, it seems to me, does intra-American separatist nationalism play a more significant role than in Texas. In saying “intra-American,” of course, I am operating under the standard geo-political assumption that Texas is part of the United States, as one of the fifty states. I accept the standard story of Texas’s territorial history, which can be usefully tracked in that important repository of standard information, Wikipedia: after winning independence from Mexico in 1836 and existing as an independent Republic of Texas for some 9 years, Texas became the 28th state of the United States on December 29, 1845. Of course, this status as a state is complicated by the US Civil War: from at least March 4, 1861 (when Texas, after earlier legislative and popular votes, officially joined the Confederate States of America) to at least the April 9, 1865 official surrender of the Confederacy’s armed capabilities (though it is difficult to assess when each state officially returned to the United States, given the anarchy that often accompanied the path into Reconstruction in each state), Texas was a state in an active state of separation from the United States. While 1861-1865, thus, dopes complicate things, most observers would view Texas as simply one of the fifty states—entities with certain rights and obligations, as is clear, say, from the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution, which, as this Cornell Legal Information Institute article shows, is key to establishing federalism even as it acknowledges state’s spheres of influence— of the United States.

Such a viewpoint flies in the face of Texas secessionists such as the Republic of Texas, an organization that, as Manny Fernandez shows in his New York Times article, claims to function as a Texas government that stands due to the counterhistorical claim that the Republic of Texas never legitimately joined the United States. As Fernandez shows, the Republic of Texas group operates with much of the machinery of a state: it has minted coins, holds legislative sessions, sends legal summonses, as well as diplomatic letters to such foreign locations as Oklahoma’s government. It is not difficult to assume what the Jade Helm operations must look like to a group such as the Republic of Texas; it does more than just support paranoiac suspicions about an overreaching US Federal government that wants to stamp out all states’ rights; it confirms their views of Texas as indeed a foreign entity.

It is a function of how cohesive that the United States has been for so long that phenomena such as the responses to the Jade Helm exercises can appear so ridiculous to so many—even when they reach the level of a Texas governor ordering state military responses to a federal exercise. Since Reconstruction, after all, there have been very few actual efforts to foment anti-US secession movements—outside, that is, of the ongoing efforts from numerous Native American would-be nations to achieve full sovereignty. However, anti-federalist conspiracy theories are often related directly to violence, and can quickly turn violent: we need only remember the shocking violence of the April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City bombings to think how dangerous such anti-federal movements as the “sovereign citizen” movement can be.  As the Southern Poverty Law Center shows in this chilling survey, right-wing terrorism has been incredibly destructive within the United States—and its shockingly high rate of activity makes one wonder why we so readily look to foreign entities when questions of terror arise.  At the heart of much of this extremism is territorial politics—a refusal to accept the standard stories of political power, and to suggest that some work must be done to change them. Such thinking always involves powder kegs. If we turn to places such as Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, Yemen, or Nigeria, we can see how horrific, violent, and destructive nationalist-separatist movements can be—whether in times of open conflict or in the constant tension created by unresolved calls for separation.