Of Jihads and Gay Agendas

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A Palestinian man whose face is covered with a kefeyya emblazoned with Arabic writing points his Kalashnikov at the viewer. Images of crescents, red stars, Kalashnikov rifles, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah move across the screen. A quote from conservative philosopher Edmund Burke proclaims: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” So begins the film Obsession: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West, which warns of the threat of a global Jihad arrayed against western, liberal values, and reports that Islam is the “most dangerous force since the rise of Nazism.”

I first encountered Obsession in 2008, when 26 million copies were inserted in seventy different newspapers, including the New York Times, and dropped on doorsteps in political swing states, timed to coincide with the seventh anniversary of the September 2001 attacks, and the Republican National Convention. The video was followed by Third Jihad: Radical Islam’s Vision for America, and Iranium.[i]

When I first saw these videos they reminded me of The Gay Agenda, a 20-minute video that produced and distributed by the Washington, DC-based Family Research Council, which I saw in the early 1990s—when the Oregon Citizens Alliance distributed the video, as part of their campaign for Ballot Measure 9, which charged that a stealth movement was seeking “special rights” for gays and lesbians.

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The notion that gays and lesbians are seeking “special rights”—rather than the same rights and privileges as everyone else—has recently been invoked by Florida Senator Marco Rubio. When asked about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill to make discrimination against LGBT individuals illegal across the country, Rubio said, “I’m not for any special protections based on orientation.” This rhetoric first emerged twenty years ago, as part of a Christian right strategy to portray gays and lesbians as undeserving of legal protections.

The Gay Agenda featured a series of clips of male, leather-clad sadomasochists and drag queens flaunting “perverse” sexuality in public. A series of “experts”—psychotherapists, doctors, lawyers, and former members of the gay subculture, all white men–comment on different aspects of the threat posed by homosexuality, such as harmful sexual activities (such as “rimming”) which have dangerous public health consequences, including increased rates of syphilis.

The video warned viewers that the most ominous threat gay men pose is to children, dramatized through clips of a NAMBLA contingent marching in a parade, juxtaposed against “expert” talking heads. Interviews with reformed ex-gays declared that homosexuality is a choice: individuals can exercise control over their desires and ultimately leave the subculture behind. Though ostensibly differentiating between “good gays” and “bad gays,” the film, in effect, blurred the two, suggesting that gays cannot be trusted, and that the only “good gay” is an “ex-gay.” It conjured a dystopic vision of an American culture where homosexuality is normalized, and homosexuals (defined primarily as hypermasculine gay men) are bent upon aggressively destroying America.

Much like homophobic videos before them, Islamophobic media such as Obsession and The Third Jihad are “pseudo-documentaries” which utilize some of the conventions of the documentary genre–the claim to “fairness and accuracy,” the use of “experts,” and the incorporation of news footage, testimonies and “facts” — and are expressly made to persuade and mobilize through distortion.

(thanks to Zakia Salime, with whom I’m collaborating on a larger analysis of these videos)


[i] Obsession was produced by the Clarion Fund. See Obsession for Hate.com. http://www.obsessionforhate.com/thefunders.php

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For whom do we write?

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C. Wright Mills once wrote about being at a party of sociology grad students at Columbia who were working on the PhDs. “After they’d introduced themselves, I’d ask: What are you working on?” It would always be something like ‘The Impact of Work-Play Relationships among Lower Income Families on the South Side of the Block on 112th St between Amsterdam and Broadway.’ And then I would ask: Why?”

Mills called the tendency to conceive of one’s work in narrow terms “abstracted empiricism.” In contrast, he believed that the task of sociology should be to encourage public discussion of things that really matter. He called for a bigger, bolder sociology, one that would take on the big issues of the day, in a fashion that was engaging, and that would help people living in an increasingly complex world to make sense of their lives.

I remember that when I first encountered Mills as an undergraduate, he had an enormous impact upon me. I was captivated by his idea of a “sociological imagination” that would allow individuals to see the connection between personal troubles and public issues, biography and history.

But is it possible to channel Mills’ spirit to reimagine sociology, and sociological writing, today?

As sociologists we write to convey ideas, change the way people think, and influence public opinion. We also write to assert our scholarly authority and to advance our careers. But there’s a tension between these two sets of goals. We advance our careers by publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and by speaking to others like ourselves–not by influencing the broader public.

But these goals were not always at odds with one another. In 1895, in the first issue of the American Journal of Sociology, founding editor Albion Small described the goal of the journal as follows:

[This journal will] attempt to translate sociology into the language of   ordinary life . . . It is not . .. essential to the scientific or even the technical character of thought that it be made up of abstractly formulated principles.  On the contrary, the aim of science should be to show the meaning of familiar things, not to construct … a kingdom for itself in which, if familiar things are admitted, they are obscured under an impenetrable disguise of artificial expression.

Writing in sociology journals, at least through the 1940s and 1950s, was essayistic, dialogical, and marked by the author’s presence. But over the next few decades, it came to resemble natural science journals—with growing attention paid to literature reviews, charts, and tables, and methodologically driven articles–what Ben Agger calls “secret writing.” Professionalization went hand in hand with an emphasis upon quantitative analysis of empirical “facts” and an aspiration to a natural science model; sociological writing came to emulate the scientific journal article.

Mills feared these trends. The use of specialized language, addressing concerns that are mainly disciplinary in origin—the “private” as opposed to the “public” intellectual would, he believed, lead to intellectual introversion. Rather than valuing small incremental increases in knowledge, we should do “big picture” research, he believed. He saw sociology as an activist project and believed that a sociological imagination could “counter the drift toward conformity, homogenization, and instrumental rationality.” Critical, publicly engaged sociologists, he believed, could lead the way to a better society.

Today the field of sociology is larger and more decentralized than it was even in Mills’ day. Hierarchies of prestige are reflected in the rankings of academic journals and graduate departments. When competition for employment and promotion is fierce, greater rewards accrue to those who adopt professional identities that conform closely to hegemonic understandings of the discipline. Since academic advancement is securely mainly through publishing and communicating with other experts, professional intellectuals have little incentive to translate their work to broader publics. When professional gatekeepers pronounce upon the student who is and isn’t doing important work, and indeed, who is and isn’t doing “sociology,” students and faculty internalize these standards and receive rewards for adhering to them.

Over the past decade, those who are looking for an alternative have gravitated toward what some call “public sociology.” Public sociology is not a specialty, a set of theories, or a methodology: it is a way of thinking about one’s work that shifts conceptions of audience, and values the importance of clear communication.

I’ve written about some of these issues. See, for example:

http://www.academia.edu/2025221/Discipline_and_Publish_Public_Sociology_in_an_Age_of_Professionalization

I’m also co-authoring a primer for those wishing to do public sociology, and in periodic posts I’ll share some of this work in progress.


[i] Buxton and Small, 1992:376.

[ii] Schorske 1998, 315.

[iii] Thomas Kuhn 1962/1970

[iv] Mills and Mills 12

[v] Mills and Mills 3

[vi] Mills and Mills 257

[vii] See also Richard Rorty 1988; Richard Posner 2002; Martha Nussbaum.

[viii] Mills and Mills 279