Category: Masculinity

Can Conflict Resolution & Peace Building Survive Right-Wing Populism in Colombia?

I don’t feel that Duque can jeopardize my legacy,” asserted Juan Manuel Santos, the outgoing Colombian president and Nobel Peace laureate in an interview with the news website La Silla Vacía published on July 7, 2018.  Santos’s response might calm down some of the fears of Colombian peace process supporters, as much of them see in the entry into office of the president-elect Iván Duque on 7 August 2018 a serious menace to the ongoing implementation of the peace agreement signed by Santos’s government with the FARC guerrilla in 2016.

But statements made at the 2017 National Convention of the Democratic Center Party have even sparked the fears of those who were confident in the implementation of the peace agreement, as one of its most relevant members asserted that the first challenge to be undertaken by Duque’s political party will be “to shatter this cursed paper called final agreement with the FARC.” Nevertheless, during the presidential campaign which led to his election in May 2018, Duque was able to play a more moderate card by using a double-edged strategy. One the one side, Duque claimed that he we will make some adjustments to the peace agreement and, on the other, he pledged to support the ongoing process of FARC demobilization opened up by this agreement. When starting his government on August 7, Duque will have a comfortable absolute majority in the Parliament, which will secure him the ability to pass any proposed reform. However, the peace accords have been enshrined in the Constitution and, moreover, a ruling of the Constitutional Court obliges the next three governments to implement them.

All well and good, but can we trust Duque’s independence from the hard-liners of his right-wing party? Why should we be cautious about the populist imprints of the Democratic Center? And more precisely, how might the Democratic Center’s populism endanger gender mainstreaming in the peace-building process?

Why Should We Fear the Democratic Center’s Populism?

Contrary to what this question might suggest, I must start by asserting that I don’t reject populism outright. As Chantal Mouffe suggests, there is a necessity of certain forms of populism in order to enhance the agonistic relations that are essential for a vibrant democratic debate to exist. In their defense of populism, Mouffe as well as Ernesto Laclau explain that populism is not an ideology but “a way of constructing the political” (Laclau 2005). It is a way to build a transversal political identity by articulating different political demands. Not limited to concerns of class, populist demands may stem from other cross-cutting social relationships including, for instance, nationality, gender, race, religious belonging, or even environmental relations. A populist chain of demands is not fixed, but rather can be re-articulated or fall apart. That is another reason why populism is better defined as a way of “constructing the people,” and not as an ideology.

To put it shortly, the need for left-wing populist alternatives, that Mouffe prompts, arises as the current post-political consensus has rendered the adversarial model of politics obsolete and has achieved to turn the rule of technocracy into a hegemony. But at the same time, it is precisely the increasing rule of technocracy, with its ability to depoliticize and foreclose any debate about possible alternatives to, for example, measures of austerity, the rules of neoliberal globalization, or the global refugee crisis, what is at the roots of the current global success of right-wing populism.

Unlike a current elite unable to formulate alternative answers, right-wing populist parties claim that they embody the voice of the people, and their ability to construct a collective difference between an Us opposed to a Them is one their basic features. Notoriously, the other key feature of right-wing populism is its ability to build a political identity based on the articulation of a chain of identities and demands against a current elite, who they claim has failed or betrayed the people. And precisely, this recurrent practice whereby a political group labels those who dissent or oppose them, for instance, of being unpatriotic or supporters of terrorism, has been one of the most prominent footprints of Duque’s party Democratic Center. Thus, in order to map the populist architecture of this right-wing party, it is good to start by scrutinizing this practice.

Founded by Duque’s godfather, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, the Democratic Center fiercely opposed not only the Havana peace talks all along, but reparation to the victims. Insofar as Santos deepened his commitment to these causes throughout his presidential mandates (2010-2018), Uribe’s response was not long in coming and expressing his fury. Uribe labeled Santos as a traitor  who was leaving the country in the hands of a communist menace that he called  Castro-Chavism  and, moreover, accused Santos of  leading the surrender of the country to the FARC. The gendered dimensions of Uribe’s rhetoric are close to the surface, and that, coming from a politician whose war-centered approach to end the Colombian armed conflict and to deal with the coca cultivation entailed a serious militarization of women’s lives, is not surprising. Echoing the sense suggested by Cynthia Enloe, by militarization of women’s lives, I mean a governmental rule that provides a sense of worthiness and normalcy to military –and paramilitary– ideas.

Feminists, as Meger reminds us, “have documented the role that discourse plays in constructing gender symbolism and naturalizing hierarchies of dominance and subordination.” Moreover, she claims, “the discourse of counterterrorism is not only a means of delegitimizing insurgencies but also of feminizing them” (Meger 2016: 90). Uribe’s strategy to deny the FARC guerrilla belligerent status during his mandate was not an exception in this respect. But here, in order to sabotage Santos’s peace process, Uribe was able to use the discourse the other way around. Crafting an analogy between the Havana peace talks and military surrender, and equating Santos’s peace politics with a betrayal to the long effort of the Colombian Army against the FARC’s terrorist menace, Uribe sought to turn the military and their supporters against Santos. And in fact, in the view of public opinion, Uribe succeeded in creating a climate of distrust between the executive and the military. In Uribe’s populist rhetoric, Santos’s peace politics meant the dishonor and emasculation of the Colombian National Army, rendering both the long military struggle against the FARC as if it has been of no value and the sacrifice of Colombian people in the war of drugs as if it would have been in vain.

But, just as Santos counteracted the effects of Uribe’s rhetoric by including the military at the negotiating table, so too the Democratic Center was also able to reframe its chain of equivalences (interests-identities) and to keep its populist architecture going. In this endeavor, another maneuver particularly gendered that serves the purpose of securing to Uribe’s party a large section of the Colombian electorate was set in motion during the campaign on the plebiscite for peace that took place on October 2016. At that time, the Democratic Center orchestrated a misleading campaign that led not just to the resignation of Education minister Gina Parody but, even worst, to the rejection of the Havana peace accords. In what has been one of its most successful attempts to destabilize Santos’s government, the Democratic Center appealed to the religious beliefs and fears of the Colombian electorate by directing its attacks to the mainstreaming of gender in schools and to the inclusion of the term gender in the Havana accords. Crafting a discourse to stir up fear among the growing Christian community (Protestant and Catholic), the Democratic Center targeted as its new scapegoat the minister Parody. Blaming her for smuggling a supposed gender ideology into the schools and into the peace agreements, this party claimed that the inclusion of such foreign gender ideology would jeopardize the heterosexual basis upon which the traditional Colombian family is grounded. In the aftermath of such a defeat in the plebiscite, which journalist Maria Jimena Duzán has called “The Night of Tears”, Santos managed to achieve a new peace deal which included amendments and clarifications suggested by sectors of the “No” vote.  Approved by the Colombian Congress on December 2016, yet the new peace accord maintained the use of the gender-based approach, which broadly speaking was referred to as the recognition of equal rights for men and women. Despite the fact that Colombia has not issued a National Action Plan for the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325, the final peace agreement has been recognized for having incorporated 122 gender-specific provisions.

In its ambitious architecture, the Colombian peace agreement with the FARC seeks to tackle the following aspects: First, what have been identified as the causes of the war, and which, worthy to mention, have underpinned the FARC insurgency’s political grievances, such as inequality in land access and concerns related to territorial control. Second, factors and dynamics that fuel the war, being the most significant drug trafficking and others such as illegal mining. Third, socio-economic and political inequalities that have allowed human rights violations, which include but are not limited to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and political beliefs or affiliation. Four, the peace accord aims at offering to the victims a comprehensive system for truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. Thus, going beyond the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of the FARC guerilla, the final document addresses the above-mentioned aspects in six chapters: (1) comprehensive rural reform, aimed at reducing the socio-economic gap between urban and rural areas  which, worth mentioning, involves measures aimed at bringing about sustainable development; (2) political participation, with a view on enhancing democratic pluralism broadly understood; (3) DDR of the FARC members in order to guarantee their political, social, and economic integration into civilian life; (4) comprehensive solution to the drug problem which promises to overcome the over-criminalization produced by the war on drugs and, instead, involves a comprehensive plan with an equity-based and gender-based approach for the substitution of crops tackling the structural causes that lead families to cultivate illicit drug crops; (5) comprehensive system of transformative transitional justice;  and (6) system for the verification of the implementation of the agreement.

So far, so good. But can we be sure that in his attempts to adjust the peace agreement, the newly elected president Duque could resist its political party’s tendency to resort to right-wing populist strategies?

Ivan Duque: Under the Shadow of Populism

Since he was picked up as the Democratic Center’s official candidate, Ivan Duque was depicted for many as Uribe’s new puppet; a shadow from which Duque has not been able to free himself. And that despite the active support of the media, which facilitated him to elude any serious public debate. The media played its part directing the spotlight towards Duque’s experience working at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and thereby helped him to build a pro-business profile. In the meantime, Duque refused to attend various debates, and notoriously a debate organized by women’s movements and feminist organizations, so-called “The Women Ask.” Yet, the Democratic Center could not afford to overlook the LGBT constituencies. Hence, it found a way around not just to repair the rifts caused by its misleading campaign on gender ideology, but to counteract the fears of the LGBT community that the Democratic Center will re-open the so-called anti-gay referendum. Without hesitation or shame, Uribe rushed to give a hand to his protégé by addressing a public statement to the LGBT sector and declaring that the Democratic Center will respect all acquired rights.

As for the peace process, Duque maintained his positioning as a moderate politician by emphasizing that he will adjust the agreements rather than shatter them. However, history might repeat itself and, hence, Duque might face serious difficulties to maintain a margin of autonomy from his party. As it happened with Santos, any step Duque might take in an opposite direction from Uribe’s rightist approach or from the Democratic Center’s hard-liners could cause him to be labeled as traitor.

The latest developments show that Duque’s government has begun to reshape the peace-building process even before its entry into office. Just some days after Duque won the presidency, the Congress passed a reform proposed by his party which weakens the power of a backbone institution created through the Havana agreements, so-called Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish). The JEP is a transitional justice mechanism whose main function is to investigate and prosecute serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed during the Colombian armed conflict. Since the creation of the JEP, the Democratic Center has argued that this tribunal places on equal footing guerrilla members and the military. Thus, recycling the argument according to which the peace agreement undermines the honor of the Colombian Army, the Democratic Center succeeded in obtaining from Congress approval of a reform that obliges the JEP to create a special chamber to judge military personnel. Law scholars, such as Rodrigo Uprimny, have argued that this measure disarticulates the entire transitional justice architecture, while others have warned that this reform leaves over 2,000 military personnel who have expressed their intention to appear before the JEP in a legal limbo. But beyond that, what this amendment suggests is that the attacks to the peace-building process that Duque’s right-wing party may put in motion will be brutal, though not necessarily frontal. While keeping his technocratic façade, Duque can be tempted to resort to populist tropes and strategies aimed at disarticulating the institutions created through the peace agreement.

For instance, Duque might cast doubts on their design or on the neutrality of the functionaries appointed to work at these agencies asserting that they are ideologically biased. Thereafter, he can use that argument as a pretext to change their organization, turning them into dysfunctional agencies unable to accomplish their mission. Even starker, Duque’s government might provoke a division between the traditional poor and the victims. For instance, and given the huge cost of victim reparation programs, hard-line factions of his party can spread rumors asserting that, because of such expenses, the government might be obliged to reduce social investment for the poor. Or finally, as a report of the International Crisis Group has warned, the government might render transitional justice institutions inefficient by starving their operational budgets.

Yet, by way of conclusion, the Colombian peace-building experience does not suggest that we should reject all forms of populism, or that populism is antithetical to peace building and democratic rule. If the tropes used by populism include, for instance, those related to gender equality and respect for diversity, populism can help societies to bring about transformative justice and durable peace. In contrast, when the tropes and mottos adopted by populism work to promote patriarchal masculinities, to undermine democratic pluralism or to maintain inequalities, it is most likely that the only kind of post-conflict context populism can help to bring about is one ruled by an oppressive peace.

Note: at the time of submitting this article (July 2018), the Colombian Supreme Court announced that it has widened a criminal investigation to include Ex-president Uribe on charges of bribery and intimidation of witnesses. This investigation stems from another case concerning alleged participation of Uribe in the formation of death squads during the 1990s.

Acknowledgments

My grateful thanks go to Lucy for permission to use her cartoon. I would like to thank also Carine Middelbos for her invaluable comments and editorial support.

Sonia Garzon-Ramirez received her PhD in Comparative Gender Studies from Central European University, Budapest. Her area of study includes the intersections between feminist theory, transitional justice, post-colonial urban studies and critical race theory. Her current research focuses on societies of the global South experiencing democratic or post-conflict transitions. It explores questions concerned with how oppressed populations negotiate and struggle for achieving spatial justice and the role of urban spatial politics in enabling their enjoyment of the right to the city.

When is Terrorism Not Terrorism?

When the political motivations are misogyny, of course.

This week, Canada was rocked by a devastating mass killing, when 25 year-old Alek Minnasian drove a rented van into dozens of people on a busy Toronto street. By the end of the ‘van rampage,’ 10 people were killed and at least 15 more injured. And although the means and mode of attack very closely resembled some recent ‘van rampages’ in Europe that have been connected to terrorism, in Canada it shall not be named so.

Minassian’s 10th grade yearbook photo, (c) the Toronto Sun.

The carnage was reminiscent of deadly attacks by Islamic State supporters using vehicles that have shaken up Nice, France, Berlin, Barcelona, London and New York. But late Monday, Canada’s public safety minister, Ralph Goodale, said this time appeared to be different.

“The events that happened on the street behind us are horrendous,” he said, “but they do not appear to be connected in any way to national security based on the information at this time.”

It did not take long, though, for media reports to begin digging into Minnasian and discovered the likely motive behind his ‘rampage’:

While the police did not disclose a motive for the rampage, interviews with former acquaintances of Mr. Minassian, witnesses and others, and his now-deleted Facebook account, portray a troubled young man who harbored resentments toward women, had a penchant for computer programming, served briefly in the military last year, and appeared determined to die.

In a Facebook post made minutes before embarking on this rampage, Minnasian apparently wrote:

“The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” the posting stated. “We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”

While Toronto Police declined to comment on the sex of the victims, it has now been reported that the majority were women.

According to internet culture, ‘incels’ are ‘involuntary celibates’, a group of extremely misogynistic men’s right’s activists who rabidly hate women and blame feminism for, essentially, making women not want to have sex with them. According to researcher Arshy Mann, self-described incels are:

“almost entirely men who are laser-focused on their inability to have sex & blame women. Of the manosphere communities, incels are the most virulently misogynistic.”

Amongst this subculture, Elliot Rodger is worshipped as an almost deity. Rodger’s own manifesto, the insight into his motive for killing six people on a college campus in California in 2014, expressed frustration over not being able to find a girlfriend, his hatred of women, his contempt for racial minorities and interracial couples, and his plans for what he described as “retribution”.

And again, as we saw in the aftermath of Rodger’s ‘rampage,’ this violence is not being called ‘terrorism,’ but rather the unfortunate effects of one man’s ‘mental illness.’

Yet, by individualizing the problem of men’s violence – especially, in such overt and extreme forms – we lose focus of the way in which through its everydayness, the persistent threat of violence against women is in and of itself a means of terrorizing women. In their provocative book Loving to Survive, Dee L. R. Graham, Roberta Rigsby and Edna Rawlings argue that men’s violence fosters in women an omnipresent, and therefore often unrecognized, terror. This terror manifests in protective measures women take against the potential for rape, represented in any strange man she encounters, as well as strategies to reduce their risk of angering men. This omnipresent threat of violence can be theorized as a form of patriarchal terrorism. 

Unfortunately, within our existing legal and humanitarian frameworks, we haven’t the capacity to even conceive of men’s violence as terrorism, namely because this jurisprudence rests on the assumption of 1) an ideological agenda and 2) a community targeted as such. In both domestic and international law, women’s experiences have been largely trivialized, overlooked, or relegated to the private sphere of concern because the law has been grounded in the experiences of men.

As with the laws governing crimes against humanity and genocide, a core component of labelling an act of violence as ‘terrorism’ is the ability to show the offence to be directed against a community and not an individual. That is – is the violence discriminate or indiscriminate? Strangely, though, for all of international legal history, ‘women’ are not considered to be a community or recognizable group in and of themselves. Rather ‘community’ is defined strictly in ethnic, racial, religious, or political terms.

As MacKinnon once argued with regards to ‘genocidal rape’:

The acts of sexual violence perpetrated as an act of genocide are “routinely done to women everywhere every day on the basis of their sex. All the sexual atrocities that become genocidal in genocides are inflicted on women every day under conditions of sex inequality” and are inflicted upon them as women because they are women (MacKinnon 2006: 225).

The exclusion of sex as a ‘community’ against whom the rape may be used instrumentally may be a deliberate choice by the international community as it would open the door to understanding all rape as political and instrumental. As women are not considered a people, sex has not been included in the legal definition of a group that can be destroyed.

Recognizing this absence, Andrea Dworkin coined the term gynocide to “designate the relentless violence perpetrated by the gender class men against the gender class women” (1976: 16) to express the terrorizing of women through gender-based violence committed world wide at times of war and times of peace. However, it is only when the very same acts perpetrated against women daily are directed against a group of people on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality, it is recognized as destructive.

Thus, despite overwhelming evidence that not only was Minassian’s motive ideological, and that his violence was used in the pursuit of a political aim (read: textbook definition of ‘terrorism’), and that his target was women, as such, the rhetoric remains one of maladjustment, personal trauma, and mental health issues. Despite overwhelming evidence we now have in the West that these ‘lone-wolf’ mass murderers nearly all have a history of violence against women, we are loathe to consider how that violence may be, in and of itself, political.

David Futrelle has been researching this virulently misogynist online movement through his site We Hunted the Mammoth, and explains both the breadth and depth of the ‘Incel’ phenomenon. In his post on Minassian, Futrelle includes screenshots from one forum user, BlkPillPres, who advocates more effective mass violence in pursuit of the ‘Incel Rebellion.’ To him, mass shootings are ineffective. He says:

“What I can’t wait for, the one I know is really going to fuck with normies, really punish society, is when the first incel mass rape/serial rape takes place, when a guy leaves a manifesto after killing himself detailing all the rapes he’s done, that will be the best ER ever, because his victims don’t just get to die, and their families don’t just get to ‘move on’…”

Futrelle warns that these are not isolated sentiments, but warnings of a larger subcultural movement that could have very serious social repercussions. In a piece written for Elle, he warns:

“[The Incel movement] has transformed young men dealing with depression — or simply the ordinary unhappiness of life — into a veritable underground army of angry, bitter misogynists who feel they have nothing to live for and have no hope of improving their lives in what they see as our “gynocentric” society.

If these young men aren’t stopped, there will be more horrors like what we saw this week in Toronto, if not worse. In the forums on incel hangout Incels.me, some are already hailing Minassian as a hero, and looking forward to the next wave of incel terror attacks.”

In Australia, recent receptivity on the parts of the Victorian Police, for example, towards feminist arguments about the sociopolitical basis of men’s violence may be bucking this trend. Late last year, the Victorian Police announced that they would be treating domestic violence perpetrators like terrorists. In a statement, Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton, argued:

“The ramifications are the same in the long run. We have death, we have serious trauma, we have serious injury and we have people impacted for the rest of their lives.”

Intimate terrorism will now be investigated as major crimes by specialized police units. One of their priorities will be to target repeat offenders and work to predict violence in order to intervene before women and children are injured or killed.

Yet, we should temper our enthusiasm, since only a couple of short months after this initiative was announced, the Victorian government also announced a new A$31.6 million centre to prevent and combat terrorist and lone-actor attacks. The centre, problematically, includes no experts on domestic violence or violence against women. This suggests we have a long way to go towards politicizing men’s violence against women not only as acts of terror in and of themselves, but also as ‘warning signs’ of the potential for public forms of large-scale violence.

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

Respectability and the protective logic of liberal masculinity in Australia’s arms trade

On the 29th of January Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a $3.8 billion fund to encourage local arms manufacturers to increase their trade with the aim of Australia becoming one of the top 10 arms exporters in the world. The reason behind the push, he explained, was twofold. First, he explained that given the size of Australia’s defence budget (around 12th largest in the world) “we should be a lot higher up the scale.” Second, he explained that Australian workers needed the manufacturing jobs. The new arms initiate, named the Defence Export Facility, and the justifications used to back it up are classic protective moves in the handbook of liberal masculinity.

Malcolm Turnbull stands in front of a Bushmaster Infantry Mobility Vehicle

For any student of feminist international relations, this distinction will be a familiar one. In 1992 Ann Tickner wrote about how different models of masculinity are deployed in international relations, showing how notions of manhood are deployed by states to justify their actions. Turnbull’s justifications for increasing the export of arms fits comfortably within the liberal logic of protection. Like most liberal articulations of institutional masculinity, the violence behind the decision to invest almost 4 billion dollars in promoting the arms trade is hidden behind economic ‘rationalism’ and vague allusions to protection.

 

In this mode the arms trade is good for Australia because it will provide jobs and a stronger military. However, unlike more robust articulations of militant nationalism, it does this through promoting the market economy. The program makes militarism respectable by creating “tens of thousands of jobs for Australian manufacturers.” This kind of approach does not contain the violent ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric of recent American militarism but couches masculine protection in a veneer of economic necessity and mutual benefit. But like most liberal logics of protection relies on an impressive capacity for double-speak and structural violence.

Australia, like the Scandinavian social democracies we often hope to be compared to, makes a good show of trying to position ourselves as enlightened (liberal) global citizens by quickly adopting humanitarianism, human rights and a gender-sensitive approach to foreign policy. However, like Sweden, our humanitarianism has centred much more on presenting a ‘human face’ to the world through charity and another posturing while simultaneously pursuing an economic agenda that supports the structural conditions behind the violence. Or as Jacqui True has put it in relation to Sweden: “How is it possible to sell arms (when, regardless of whom you first sell them to, they often end up perpetrating crimes) and at the same time promote a humanitarian, human rights approach to foreign policy?”

At a time when the world is particularly preoccupied with the overt masculine violence of Donald Trump, it is worth being reminded of the more insidious logic of masculine liberal protection. Throughout his tenure as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has striven to distance his ‘leadership style’ from that of his predecessor Tony Abbot. Abbot sort to live up to perform the kind of over exaggerated machismo of militant nationalism which might make a men’s rights activist blush (and Mark Latham swoon). This entailed threatening to ‘shirtfront’ Vladimir Putin and never squandering a chance to show his explicitly demonstrate his patriarchal credentials for a howling mob.  In contrast, Turnbull has consistently tried to position himself as a rational liberal businessman, avoiding the most brutal jingoism of Australian nationalism in favour of dispassionate arguments for order and profitability.

Tony Abbott embracing muscular nationalism

When a leader like Turnbull puts forward the argument that “we don’t see threats from our neighbours in our region, but nonetheless all countries must plan ahead” the structural violence of Australian foreign policy can hide much more easily than behind a populist leader. But that doesn’t make it less violent. When pundits in the Australian left have visible conniptions over the explicit brutality of Trump’s rhetoric and foreign policy it is easy to forget the respectable violence of Australian politics.

The politics of respectability are particularly dangerous in Australia’s politics because of the way that they are used to silence critical voices on settler colonialism, militarism, heteronormativity and racism. Most recently this has flared up in rabid attempts to sack Tarneen Onus-Williams from the Koorie Youth Council in Victoria for pointing out the colonial foundation of the Australian state, but the use of gendered respectability to circumvent radical critique is deeply embedded in the structure of Australian politics. In justifying the right to rule liberal masculinity relies on the politics of respectability to compartmentalise issues and deflect critique. Working against violence demand an attentiveness to how masculine logics can cloak themselves in respectability through contrast with more overt examples of masculine violence. Liberal politicians rely on the promising to save politics from the aggressive masculinity of more overtly militant men and from the disorder of radical change. When actors present their militarism in respectable terms, it’s imperative to remember how the logic of protection operates to make structural violence appear natural, inevitable and justified.

 

 

David Duriesmith is a UQ Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies within the University of Queensland. His research interests are on pro-feminism, masculinities, the transformation of war, and peacebuilding. His current research looks at attempts to transform masculinities after large-scale violence through peacebuilding programs. He is the author of Masculinity and new war: The gendered dynamics of contemporary armed conflict.

Sex and Death in the Irrational World of Nuclear Defense

The blogosphere is a-Twitter with Donald Trump’s recent reaction to a speech made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as part of his New Year’s address to the nation. In the speech, he stated:

“The US cannot declare war against us. The entire US territories are within our firing range and the nuclear missile button is right there on my desk,”

“We have secured powerful deterrence against the nuclear threat from the US.”

His speech was followed by a series of social media posts flaunting his nuclear capabilities:

In response, Donald Trump, in usual fashion, responded via social media with a tweet now heard ’round the world:

While many have noted this tweet as the latest in a series of misguided, reactionary social media responses to global political issues that have come to define Trump’s presidency, the obvious analogy to penile (dys)function has been less commented on.

In 1987, Carol Cohn published what has become one of the germinal works of feminist theory in international relations: “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” The piece is an auto-ethnography and participant observation based on her time at a university center on defense technology and arms control, “The Center.” She sheds light on the gendered language through which unfathomably destruction and mass death becomes rationalized, palatable, and even funny in The Center. The ‘technostrategic’ language used by Defense Intellectuals obscures the physical realities of these weapons and instead  is “abstract, sanitized, full of euphemisms…sexy and fun to use.”

In particular, she notes the sexualized vocabulary of the nuclear standoff during the Cold War found the language used by defense staff suffused with sexual, mostly phallic imagery that creates a sexualized intimacy between the developers and handlers of the weapon and the weapon itself. She notes: “homoerotic excitement, heterosexual domination, the drive toward competency and mastery, the pleasures of membership in an elite and privileged group.” The association of nuclear power with male sexual prowess, she finds, mirrors the famous US Marine Corps chant: “this is my rifle, this is my gun, one is for killing the other’s for fun.”

How does feminist theory help us understand Trump’s reaction to Kim Jong-Un? Chris Cillizza, writing for CNN, notes:

“In Trump’s mind, the first, second and third most important measures of success are size. Everything he is involved with must be the biggest, the tallest, the most well-attended, the most expensive, the best.
A bit of armchair psychology would suggest that relentless focus on size is born of insecurity.”

Yet, we cannot understand such insecurity manifesting through obsession with size without feminist analysis. As Penny Strange wrote about the arms race, in 1989,

“striving for mastery and superiority [is] a striking feature of a male-dominated society; we see it as not only widespread, but also admired, desired and cultivated in half the human race, and an acceptable mode of political discourse and international relations.”

This is only made possible because international relations exist in a global system of patriarchy, wherein the physical ability to subjugate someone or something “becomes necessary proof of manhood.” That subjugation need not be only physical, but economic, political and social as well. Each is merely an expression of the same underlying drive for dominance and “are convertible one to the other.”

Of course, Trump (nor Kim Jong-Un) would be the first head of state to act out of masculine anxities. David Halberstam accounts for the behaviour of US leaders in the Vietnam War, noting that:

“President Lyndon B. Johnson had always been haunted by the idea that he would be judged as being insufficiently manly for the job…. He had unconsciously divided people around him between men and boys. Men were the activists, doers, who conquered business empires, who acted instead of talked, who made it in the world and had the respect of other men. Boys were the talkers and the writers and the intellectuals who sat around thinking and criticising and doubting instead of doing…. Hearing that one of the administration was becoming a dove on Vietnam, Johnson said ‘Hell, he has to squat to piss.'” (Emphasis added).

What these analyses point to is the limited scope we have for de-escalation when one’s willingness and ability to “push the button” is so tied up to their self-conception of worth constructed within the norms of masculinity under patriarchy. But also, that a simple change of leadership may not be sufficient, when those leaders are in many ways reflective of wider societal expectations of manly behaviour when at the helm (or fingertips) of the nuclear ‘button.’

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

De-centring ‘militarisation’ in the study of collective masculine violence

Reading Cynthia Enloe’s work on militarisation for the first time really shocked me on a personal level. At the time I was an 18-year-old who had grown up watching war movies, playing military strategy computer games, listening to heavy metal music preoccupied with war and spending a significant chunk of my time assembling, painting, and playing with military miniatures. The idea of the military as an institution and tradition which permeated my gender identity simply made sense. My encounter with Enloe also required me to rethink my relationship to the aesthetics of military institutions seriously and had a big role in the topic I eventually chose for my PhD thesis three years later.

The album art from Agent Orange by Sodom. The concept of militarization went a long way to unpack the fascination with military-themed cultural products.

While I still think the idea of militarisation has a lot to offer, I am increasingly uncomfortable with how often and how broadly it is invoked. Earlier this year Marysia Zalewski wrote a think piece for the Critical Military Studies special issue on “Masculinities at the Margins” on the topic of military masculinities. In that piece, she laments that the idea of military masculinities has become “overly familiar and ‘comfortable.’” Zalewski, in characteristically incisive fashion, asks the reader to consider what military masculinities mean at a stage when military roles are increasingly affixed to female bodies and to consider the blurry boundaries of military practice. I greatly appreciated this injunction, but my own discomfort comes from trying to navigate a different kind concern. The fear that my own use of ‘militarised masculinities’ has centred European style military institutions as the natural and inevitable holders of collective violence.

Over the past year and a half, I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the role that masculinities play in mobilising young men to join Islamist networks in Indonesia. One aspect of this work that has struck me most significantly is the absence of military signifiers, in the aesthetics, narratives, and ordering principles of these groups. Notions of collective violence, discipline and heroism are present, but these factors were not linked to aspirations of a military tradition. At least not in the sense of formal army with associated traditions of soldiering and service to the state.

Instead, very different traditions, aesthetics, myths and practices have emerged as being the structuring force in men’s lives. These forces build on tropes around collective violence but do not link them to what one might think of as military institutions. One interview which I conducted with Noor Huda Ismail as part of a small project on men’s lives after jihad stuck out in this regard. We were speaking to a young man who had participated as a trainer and recruiter in an Indonesian jihadi network. When we asked him how he became interested in the network, he recounted meeting a man from an Islamic boarding school (pesantren) and being amazed at the man’s beautiful white clothing, his neatly kept beard, his cleanliness and perfumed scent. He spoke about the man’s sophistication, strength and desirability. This encounter resulted in a long-term project of self-reaction to embody his idealised vision of a pious Muslim warrior.

Nusra Front, “Day of the Infiltration” (2012), sourced from Asfshon Ostovar’s chapter The Visual Culture of Jihad, in Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists edited by Thomas Hegghammer.

This process has a lot in common with militarization. It is one of a young man undertaking ‘body work’ in a desire to emulate the imagined role of a valorous warrior. But the signifiers, the narratives, and the tropes which this young man drew on were not built on a military tradition, and not a process was that of militarisation. These practices represent a different historical cluster of practices that are linked to collective violence in the Indonesia archipelago. The recent edited volume Jihadi Culture edited by Thomas Hegghammer has gone a long way to explore some of these traditions and the associated narrative and aesthetic components, albeit without a focus on SE Asia. Through this volume does not include a gender focus it shows the memetic quality of jihadi narratives which do not necessarily rely on a genealogy tied to formal militaries.  They are often positioned in direct opposition to the idea of the military, which was associated with colonial histories and the oppression of a secular government.

I am inclined to think that the overwhelming focus on processes of ‘militarisation’ is a product of particular histories of collective violence that have been so salient during the past 150 years. In conducting my own research, I now worry that my initial fascination with the military and militarism might result in viewing collective violence through camo-tinted glasses, rather than viewing patterns of collective violence in their own right. By writing work on violence in the Global South as being about a process of militarization, I fear other genealogies of violence may be written out by an approach to violent masculinities which is perpetually measuring performances in relation European military traditions. While state militaries and militarisation are clearly still vitally important subjects of study and analysis, I hope to show more curiosity around dynamics of collective violence that do not hold militaries or military-like institutions at their heart.

David Duriesmith is a UQ Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies within the University of Queensland. His research interests are on pro-feminism, masculinities, the transformation of war, and peacebuilding. His current research looks at attempts to transform masculinities after large-scale violence through peacebuilding programs. He is the author of Masculinity and new war: The gendered dynamics of contemporary armed conflict.