What is “honorable” television? A review of The Honourable Woman (BBC)

The Honourable Woman, the BBC’s summer hit about a British family and their entanglements with Israeli and Palestinian politics, is supposed to be happening now, as in today. It is a contemporary show in all the key indicators: the technology, the fashion choices, the dialogue. The show hops between different time periods, but only in reference to our contemporary moment (for example, the opening shots of episodes will specify “seven years ago” or “one year later” but not give a date). But by definition, the world the characters inhabit cannot be happening now. Because now is September 2014, the end of one of the most brutal summers in living memory. Specifically, now, Gaza lies destroyed, bombed-out, nearly obliterated, with no clear sense of when the next horrific period of “mowing the lawn” may come to pass.

Needless to say, they picked a hell of a summer to run The Honourable Woman.

I am stuck on the dates and timelines of the show, the irony that it has been aired during this particular moment in time, because I think the discrepancy between the realities of today and the world of The Honourable Woman may contribute to what I perceive to be the show’s shortcomings. Who knows what it might have felt like to watch it before the carnage of Operation Protective Edge? Before the editorials and op-eds in Israeli press calling for rape, for ethnic cleansing, for mass murder? The Honourable Woman, in trying to call out the slippery nature of concepts like “reconciliation,” “justice” and “balance,” falls prey to its own cynical politics. It’s not just that “both sides” are presented as being equally at fault, a reliable piece of liberal fantasy. The Honourable Woman makes the viewer think it is smarter than that, by showing rather thoroughly how misguided the main characters who attempt to remain “neutral” truly are. But in the end this “everyone gets their hands dirty” ethos actually ends up accomplishing the same thing as the “both sides” fallacy: it glosses over Israeli atrocities and lets liberal onlookers off the hook when it comes to their own countries’ role in underwriting the occupation.

The main characters of The Honourable Woman exist in a sleek, elegant, utterly generic London, running around major cultural institutions and engaging in darkly witty exchanges in glassed-in government offices. There is a lot of overwrought music and there are many pregnant pauses. Nessa Stein, played by Maggie Gyllenhall, is the head of a world-renowned company, the Stein Group, trying to make a difference in “the Middle East,” a reversal of the vision of her father, a staunch Zionist, known as the “Sword of Israel,” whom we see die a gruesome death in the show’s first episode. Young Nessa witnesses the murder, as does her brother Ephra; fast-forward to today and the pair are running the company. There’s a whole cast of characters in addition to the Steins, including Atika (Ephra’s Palestinian housekeeper, and, we discover, Nessa’s confidante regarding her deepest secret), Israeli businessmen and government officials, British and American intelligence folks, etc. The variety could have made for a rich tapestry, but instead it falls flat, as if the creators of the show came up with too many potentially interesting threads and then never figured out how to weave them back together.

Ephra and Nessa’s relationship is more complex than one might expect, and as we are given glimpses into the past decade of these characters’ lives, some interesting dynamics come up: Nessa’s idealism, which puts other people in danger; Ephra’s willingness to compromise the company’s ideological purity and the tenuous idea of that very “purity”; the experience that Nessa and Atika had in prison in Gaza, etc. Unfortunately, the way the show ultimately handles these potentially fascinating relationships leaves a lot to be desired (also, the dialogue falters badly in some places – Atika and Ephra whispering “shalom” and “salaam” to each other in bed was vomit-inducing). You can find out more about the specific plot points over at the Guardian’s Culture page (needless to say, they loved the show).

I didn’t walk away from The Honourable Woman particularly caring about any one of the characters which, it should be said, is pretty troubling for a show that traffics in all sorts of images of suffering, betrayal, loss, etc. I didn’t care so much as I was abstractly disturbed, a different emotion altogether. And a lot of my being disturbed centers on the use of women’s bodies, especially Nessa’s, as vehicles for the political objectives of men. The Honourable Woman certainly depicts female bodies as especially vulnerable to rape and sexual assault – a perfectly valid point of view, but one that is not elaborated upon sufficiently, thereby making the scenes of sexual violence feel pointless and cheap.

Coming back to an earlier point, I emphasize that the show is about a British family as a way to counter the notion that it has anything to do with the Middle East. “That’s how things work in the Middle East” is one of the reliable refrains of The Honourable Woman. I want to take the “Middle East” ambitions of this show down a peg or two. Why can’t the characters ever say “in Israel?” or “in the West Bank” or “here” or “over there”? Why must the viewer be beaten over the head with the reminder that this show has important things to say about the region called “the Middle East” as opposed to specific places within that region, or within Britain itself? At first, The Honourable Woman seems like a thinking person’s Homeland, a much more realistic, intellectual, and generally British take on world affairs. But in the end, I see a similar exoticization of Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern “others” and perhaps a more dangerous faux-intellectualism which reveals the show to be just as empty and dishonest as the Stein Group itself.

Early on in the story, Nessa is appointed to the House of Lords. She is shown having a phone interview with a journalist who questions her dual loyalties to Britain and Israel. We hear her voice over the radio as she debates others in the upper house of parliament about the situation in Israel and Palestine and is accused of sitting on the fence while others actually take a stand. The Honourable Woman might have been a lot more believable, and a lot more profound, if the writers had bothered to actually delve more deeply into these tensions between Nessa’s identity as a Jewish woman, a British public figure and the daughter of one of Israel’s most formidable businessmen. The Honourable Woman eschews the questions of British Jewishness brought up so memorably in Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question in favor of a slicker, sexier idea of some place called “the Middle East” where women don funky hipster eyewear one minute and headscarves the next; where Nessa Stein speaks not a word of Hebrew but the Palestinians all speak Arabic; and where drone strikes ordered by foreign governments heroically save the day.

The question of Britishness with regards to The Honourable Woman – that is, the show’s representation of the British government and the British media’s unbridled adoration for the show – is an important one. American militarism abroad does not render Britain a friendlier, gentler kind of imperialist, no more than American racism should make British xenophobia, anti-semitism and racism suddenly palatable. British foreign policy on a number of issues, including and perhaps especially in the Middle East, has been closely tailored to fit American objectives. So when The Honourable Woman suggests that the US government would for some reason support Palestinian statehood at the expense of their relationship with Israel, and when the loveable British intelligence agent who has discovered this American duplicity sends a drone to kill an American agent as well as dying Atika in a dramatic finale, I am left somewhat perplexed. Who is served by this fanciful imagining of nefarious US motives and British heroism? That the plot of The Honourable Woman turns on a totally unbelievable, unexplained bit of foreign policy is questionable enough. But the fact that this fictional foreign policy also works to sever ties between the British and American governments (and throws the Palestinian cause under the bus in the bargain, by associating it and not Israeli Zionism with American empire) is truly shocking in its mendacity and bad faith. No doubt this is why liberal publications like The Guardian can’t stop writing accolades for The Honourable Woman – it serves up a convenient view of Britain’s own role in the Middle East of today, right at a time when most British liberals can’t seem to reconcile their chafing at American policy with their own government’s support of the cruelty and slaughter in Gaza.

Perhaps I am being too hard on The Honourable Woman but it is difficult not to be when the program takes such an inflated view of its own importance and believes so wholeheartedly in its own sophistication. A truly groundbreaking show would have placed emphasis on British complicity in Palestinian suffering. It would have offended a lot more people, and it would have been much more honorable.

“A Ready-made Approach to the World”: Ethnic Conflict, Neo-Cons and the Rise of ISIS

Nationalism and ethnic conflict are some of the grand old themes of social science research. “Nationalism and ethnic conflict” rolls off the tongue, and immediately calls to mind the great classics like Imagined Communities, or Nations and Nationalism; the phrase makes sense and has become a powerful analytic category. I myself frequently list “nationalism” or “nationalism and ethnic conflict” among my research interests, and obviously this is the rubric under which the realities of Sri Lanka in particular (and much of the developing world in general) are commonly understood. This post not in any way intended to be a criticism of those whose research agenda falls into this category, but rather a way to question the effects that an uncritical “nationalism and ethnic conflict” worldview may have for policy.      

It seems to me that it is worth asking: is “nationalism and ethnic conflict” the best overall framework for understanding some of the phenomena happening in the world at this very moment? Is the relentless focus on ethnicity/ethnic identity/nation harmful in some way? And is it perhaps obscuring other things that underpin human realities, like ideology, class, economics, affinity groups, etc.?

These questions take on specific importance, and I have been inspired to ask them once again, because of their ramifications for policy. Specifically, I am interested in what is currently happening in Iraq. With the rise of the group known as ISIS/ISIL/the Islamic State, there has been a lot of soul-searching in the western media, both mainstream and alternative, about what led to this moment, in which thousands are fleeing for their lives and the US is once again sending troops and weapons to the country it invaded in 2003. My main question is: did the neoconservative vision of the world create the conditions of possibility for a group like ISIS to come to power? To what extent is that neoconservative vision premised upon an understanding of “ethnicity” or “religion” that is overly rigid and insufficiently nuanced?  

It’s hardly groundbreaking to point out that categories and intellectual constructs matter in the crafting of policy. Anyone with some social scientific background can tell you that the way experts are trained to think about things shapes how things actually play out “on the ground,” especially when those experts are funded and backed by powerful western interests. Starting in the colonial era, Europeans came up with categories of race and ethnicity to divide and regulate the populations they sought to rule. Mahmood Mamdani has tackled this head-on in his work on various African states, and other examples abound (see, for instance, John Rogers’ 1994 article on “post-orientalism” and identity in Sri Lanka).  

The title of this post, “a ready-made approach to the world,” is from Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq (2005), by George Packer. Packer is himself a rather problematic figure (a self-described “pro-war liberal”) but the book is a fascinating account of neocon circles in Washington and elsewhere, and of the way they viewed the Middle East. For example, neocons’ dubious understandings of history led them to espouse what was called the “everybody move over one” theory, in which “Israel would annex the occupied territories, the Palestinians would get Jordan, and the Jordanian Hashemites would be restored to the throne of Iraq” (Packer 2005: 31-32). Many hard-right foreign policy experts believed this scenario would work out just fine because Shia Muslims in Iraq would welcome the Sunni monarchy due to their unstinting “veneration” of the Prophet and by extension King Hussein (Packer 2005: 30). The book explains in detail the relations between Washington and various dissident Iraqis during the lead up to the invasion in 2003 – the fascinating thing is not just the blindness and arrogance of these policy architects, but the way in which they were arrogant and blind. Essentialist, reductionist views of Muslims and Arabs underpinned the ways neocons and so-called “Middle East experts” viewed the political landscape of Iraq in the early 2000s. These beliefs also infected some parts of the left, most notably figures like Christopher Hitchens.    

A statement by the Federation of Worker’s Councils and Unions in Iraq posted on Jadaliyya.com in June 2014 powerfully called out foreign powers – including the US – for their role in creating the sectarian divisions that have aided the rise of ISIS:

 “Iraqis generally reject ISIS, whether in the central or southern regions of Iraq or in parts of the country that are no longer under government control: the so-called “Sunni” areas or the “Sunni Triangle”, a term that intelligence services, particularly the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), devised as part of a plan to engineer sectarianism in Iraq.” (Jadaliyya, June 2014)

 Here, the Federation makes it quite clear, through the use of quotation marks and qualifiers like “so-called,” that Iraq’s sectarianism and Sunni vs. Shia conflict is not at all a natural, ancient, unchanging divison but one that was cultivated by the CIA and other actors. Basically, they are inviting us to consider that religious/sectarian tensions (which are treated in this case like ethnic divides) might not be the only thing characterizing social relations in Iraq. Of course, Americans don’t hear about groups like the Federation of Worker’s Councils regularly because we are trained to believe that in other countries, big monolithic ethnic groups (who either hate each other or perhaps hate us) are busy fighting existential battles to the death. These strange, exotic others don’t get to have unions, political parties, community organizations, different media outlets, all the things that actually make up the fabric of day-to-day life. For all the lip service paid to “civil society” among westerners, we have remarkably little regard for how multi-faceted and complex “civil society” is in other places, just as it is so in the US, Great Britain, Canada, etc. (As an aside, the best example of this attitude is the way the US State Department phrases warnings to US citizens in foreign countries, overwhelmingly non-western ones. When the warning is about protests, it just says to avoid a given area at specific times. There is never any mention of what the protests might be about, since it is assumed that the US citizens concerned wouldn’t want or need to know. The substance and content of protests is immaterial).

Intellectual dishonesty, muddled thinking and racism have been part of US foreign policy for a long time, much before the rise of the neocons under George W. Bush. Can this be countered in any way? I don’t know. It has been the life’s work of people far more brilliant than I to think about and tackle that question. But I do wonder if the way we introduce students of social science to “nationalism and ethnic conflict” could be changed to make them better prepared to challenge dominant ideologies. In undergrad I took a course called, you guessed it, “Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict” and it was taught by an amazing professor. But in retrospect, I see that there were limitations as well. As was all too common at my undergrad institution, we were taught about the big theories of ethnic conflict – primordialism, institutionalism and constructivism – as if they were all equally valid, discrete and mutually exclusive ways of viewing the world (this in and of itself merits a separate blog post). One of our assignments was to take a fictional country with a given percentage of people of made-up ethnic groups (the proportions were loosely based on Sunnis, Shias and Kurds in Iraq) and asked to come up with a “solution” for how this country should be governed. There you have it – regime change and nation-building, all done on paper for your senior year poli sci class final. The danger of this kind of thing is that it risks naturalizing the very idea of “ethnic conflict” and presents quite dangerous – and already thoroughly discredited ideas – as worthy of legitimate discussion in the classroom. A responsible approach to the teaching of “nationalism and ethnic conflict” should include some level of meta-commentary on theories on nationalism and ethnic conflict themselves, and efforts at impressing upon students the real power that certain theoretical frameworks have had in shaping politics.

 In his introduction to The Invention of the Jewish People, Shlomo Sand writes “I don’t think books can change the world, but when the world begins to change, it searches for different books.” I hope that the what is going on today in Iraq might compel us to seek out different books.

AAA in Washington, DC – December 2014

Pleased to announce that I will be attending the 2014 meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) this December in Washington DC. It will be my first visit to DC in about 18 years, and hopefully a great chance to connect with friends and fellow anthropologists. I will be presenting some of my research on Twitter and Sri Lankan politics on a panel entitled “Media and Mobility” chaired by Dr. Sahana Udupa of the Max Planck Institute.

Tracking Silicon Valley’s “imported” talent

A good friend recently sent me this map depicting the main countries and states of origin of Silicon Valley’s tech workers.

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It’s interesting to note the small size of both western European countries and African countries next to the comparatively much larger Asian countries.  (You could be forgiven for responding “duh” to that statement).  Given my research, I can’t help by notice that Sri Lanka is lumped in with “other Asia” for now.  It’s no surprise that US states like New York, Texas and Illinois are shown to send significant amounts of workers, given their sizable populations.

I do find myself wondering about exactly what data went into this visualization; how are “brains” and “talent” defined for the purpose of surveys such as these? Are we looking at a map that covers all types of labor performed in the tech industry, from cleaning to driving to serving food to programming to marketing? Or does the data compiled here represent only those workers who are considered to be the “intellectual” driving force behind apps and other innovations?

Venturebeat says this map shows why so many entrepreneurs care about immigration reform.  I’m sure that’s true, since we all know the Silicon Valley couldn’t survive without foreign workers.  However, I’d caution against drawing any overly optimistic or feel-good type conclusions from that.  As Kate Losse pointed out in her memoir The Boy Kings, there was a racialized (and gendered) hierarchy at the core of the start-up scene around the time when Facebook was still the new kid on the block, and white men were at the top of it, with men from South and East Asian countries performing much of the mid-level labor.  Perhaps the factoid presented here that a third of start-ups were founded by Indian-Americans represents a change since the time that she wrote her book – but it would be interesting to know more about who founded the other two thirds, and what percentage of the Indian-American community as a whole the founders represent.

Finally, given what I am researching, it would be interesting to see a visualization of the other side of this equation: where Silicon Valley is sending jobs and where outsourced labor is performed.  (I’m sure such a thing must exist).

 

 

Conference: Tracking Notions of Progress in South Asia, University of Oxford (UK)

I am looking forward to presenting at Oxford on Monday June 16 at the graduate student workshop “Tracking Notions of Progress in South Asia”; I’ll be presenting my work on “algorithms of modernity”, discussing ways of thinking about the tech industry in Sri Lanka.  

You can view the conference program and information here: 

http://trackingnotionsofprogressinsouthasia.wordpress.com/workshop-programme/