Thursday, September 12, 2013

Liberation Rhetoric: Of Robin Thicke and Syria

Due to my recent busy schedule, I haven’t had time for writing. So, I realize my delay in drafting this post puts me a little behind, at least as far as Robin Thicke is concerned. Well, he’s still popular so maybe not.

The first time I heard Blurred Lines, I was flipping through radio stations while driving around in another state. I listened for a minute, trying to determine exactly which song it reminded me of (later on realized it was Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give It Up), but as soon as I heard the lyrics, “Let me liberate you,” I gave up and changed the station.

As it turned out, there were many other reasons why the lyrics to this song were offensive. Then there’s the music video, which generated perhaps the most controversy of all. However, to this day, I remain most bothered on a visceral level by the lyrics, “Let me liberate you.” Hopefully I don’t need to explain why. But just in case, here is my begrudging (shouldn’t need to do this) half-assed summary: 1) Men don’t liberate women, women liberate themselves; and 2) Liberation is not tantamount to acquiescing to men’s sexual desires, just as not consenting isn’t a manifestation of oppression. If a woman doesn’t want to, that does not mean she needs to be “liberated.”

Both of these principles have broader application, as the idea of “liberation” has been employed as a justification for domination in a variety of domains. I have already written about its function in the colonial enterprise (link). I have also discussed the continuation of its use in the logic of humanitarian interventions (aka humanitarian imperialism). Want to invade a country? Come up with a reason why the people need to be liberated. Considering all the many negative consequences of the global capitalism, it’s never hard.

We see it playing out once again in Syria. Syria has been on the U.S. “kill list” for more than decade. Finally, there is an opportunity to exploit a mild, short-lived protest movement and transform it into national upheaval (to change the regional balance of power). Of course, Saudi Arabia and other external participants get more of the credit for this role. Still, the American people are told now that we have to bomb Syria in order to save the people from chemical weapons attacks. As of now, the plans are on hold, but I would not be surprised if the U.S. becomes dissatisfied with the efforts of the Syrian regime to hand over their weapons.

Obviously, the most effective discursive elements are able to circulate widely and quickly in multiple domains. And we tend to draw on pre-formed discourses to from other areas to form arguments in new domains. However, as the “liberation” rhetoric is so thoroughly enmeshed in a particular mode of domination, it brings sharp relief to the way in which that mechanism of power itself operates in seemingly different circumstances. In other words, if one wishes to understand the inviolable connection between patriarchy and imperialism, critically examining the role of “liberation” rhetoric is not a bad place to start.