C.N. Le’s essay, “ECAASU 2011: Lessons in Mis/Understanding Different Levels of Analysis,” posted originally on Asian-Nation and reposted on the official ECAASU blog, is a good example of the dominant perspective in asian amerikan politics in our time: the perspective of accommodation and assimilation into white society.
Reflected in the vacuous appeals for “inclusion” now emanating from the ECAASU Board of Directors and in C.N. Le’s boring attempt to put on the airs of a learned professor counseling young people to change institutions “from within,” the main trend in asian amerikan politics today encourages collaboration with the white supremacist ruling class and fears autonomy, even while engaging in empty talk about “social change” and “racial justice.”
It’s not a surprise that asian amerikan students nowadays are politically docile, when these are the views being promoted within the Asian/Asian American Studies Department at Umass Amherst and at, no doubt, many other schools.
Regardless of whether these politics are motivated more by naivety or opportunism (lack of principle), the message is clear: Don’t speak too loudly. Don’t offend anyone. Keep being the model minority, the thoughtful Tonto-like figure who can be counted on for some (critical) commentary at the right time, but will never contend with the Lone Ranger for power. Improve the work of the Lone Ranger, a.k.a. U.S. white supremacy, to make it more “inclusive” and “diverse,” but never challenge its fundamental character or its right to exist.
Individual Action vs. Institutional Policy: A False Dichotomy
The argument in C.N. Le’s piece is rooted in a theoretical problem: a false dichotomy that opposes individual action to institutional policy and a “sociological” framework that poses “different levels of analysis – the individual level, the group/community level, and the institutional level.”
Althusser was right when he said that without recognizing Marx’s break in the study of society and history, without the categories of historical materialism, sociologists are like Aristotelian physicists “dabbling” in physics fifty years after Galileo. Thus, we have here a frame of analysis that makes no reference to the economy or to actual lived history. There is a void. And, then there appear Individuals, Groups, and Institutions.
What class and national interests do institutions like the US military and other state agencies serve? What are the origins of the US State and for what end does it perpetuate itself?
One gets the impression reading Le’s essay that it is a historical accident that “the U.S. military and security agencies and a number of individuals working for them have perpetrated or been directly complicit in innumerable instances of injustice and outright crimes against innocent civilians domestically and abroad and in the process, destroyed lives and livelihoods left and right.” Or, at best, one comes away with the conclusion that this is simply the result of bad individuals who run these institutions and who can be replaced (the classic “bad apple” analysis).
Yet, what about the process of ideological conditioning that individuals go through when they join the US military and other state agencies? And, which individuals are selected to go through this process? What about the ideological narrative of US history and understanding of US society that needs to be continually reinforced by individuals in these institutions, as a condition of their participation?
It is beyond naïve and almost cartoonish to believe that institutions will be changed when individuals “bring their sense of racial equality and justice into an organization, build a coalition, consensus, or critical mass with like-minded others within the organization through time, and after achieving positions of power and authority, begin to apply their beliefs and little by little, change the culture and policies of that organization toward greater social/racial equality and justice.”
This has never been how oppressed people change society. Rather, this is how the asian amerikan middle-class and other colonized middle-classes rationalize their “career decisions” and their compromises with the dominant institutions. This is how, as a class, they justify their refusal to contribute to the struggle of their people for autonomy and liberation.
Yes, soldiers and ex-soldiers from within the imperialist armed forces can be and have been agents of social change. We have examples of this from the Vietnam War and in organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War today. For asian amerikans, we have examples of this in figures like Richard Aoki. But, these practices are not going to arise by engaging in detached “constructive sociological discussion” or by patronizing people – by not telling them the truth because it will offend them. In that sense, Lai Wa Wu and Vijay Prashad, by not mincing words, showed far more respect for the military attendees at ECAASU than many others.
The ECAASU Board, on the other hand, now circulates a statement saying, “To members in our audience who are in the military, or have family and friends in the military, we apologize for any offense our keynotes’ remarks may have caused.” Yet, at the same time, it republishes C.N. Le’s piece on its blog, acknowledging that the US military has “perpetrated or been directly complicit in innumerable instances of injustice and outright crimes against innocent civilians domestically and abroad and in the process, destroyed lives and livelihoods left and right.” So, the contradiction continues.
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