Léopold Lambert – New York on January 1, 2014
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I am happy to open the 2014 series of articles by sharing the rich content of the book The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages written by Funambulist friend Mimi Thi Nguyen who I quoted many times recently, mostly for her work about the relationship between fashion and politics (listen to the Archipelago podcast we recorded together). This time, however, I would like to insist on the precise reading that Mimi does of the imperialist mechanisms through the invention of a political-philosophical concept, “the gift of freedom.” This gift, ‘offered’ — often through devastating wars — by the imperialist governments of the United States and post-colonialism Europe to nations that are craving for freedom according to the imperialist narrative, is defined by Mimi as “an assemblage of liberal political philosophies, regimes of representation, and structures of enforcement that measure and manufacture freedom and its others” (p12). She further insists on the production of nonrefundable debt that such a gift produces, as well as the manifestation of racial ideologies that are at work in the actions and discourses operating around it.
One of the fundamental ideas that Mimi’s book develops engages the status of refugee within the mechanisms of the gift of freedom. She does not follow entirely the vision of the refugee as the subjectivized body par excellence, and she attempts to elaborate a more complex interpretation of this status as also taking an active role within the operativity of the gift of freedom. This mostly applies to the specific case of the refugee who went from living in the nation for which freedom is produced to the imperial land itself. In this regard, Mimi evokes (in various lengths) four stories of Vietnamese refugees now living in the United States or Canada that particularly illustrate such a thesis:
A first one is Pham Thi Kim Phúc, also referred as “the girl in the photograph,” the photograph being this well-know historical document of Vietnamese children screaming in pain after having been burnt by the napalm of the American-South Vietnamese military coalition. Mimi describes how the individual story of how this frail body from her unfathomable pain, fleeing from Vietnam and obtaining political asylum in Canada, became the piece of an imperialist narrative of a re-constructed beauty and a spectacular forgiveness toward the (visible) agent of her pain. Mimi, whose research is currently oriented on the notion of beauty and its relationships to imperialist biopolitics, analyzes the relation between beauty and pain as two aspects of a politics centered on the bodies and the life they develop:
[…] beauty also catalyzes the consciousness that its loss harm us, and thereby renews in us a commitment to foster life. Such imbalances of power that invest in the care and cultivation of beauty, which could also be understood as analogous to the claims of empire, illumine how an attachment to beauty might call for the annihilation of its antithesis – ugliness – as a life necessity. In other words, a politics of beauty establishes a politics of life, and vice versa. (Mimi Thi Nguyen,The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages, Durnham: Duke University Press, 2012, 99.)
Beyond Kim’s own voluntarism pointed out by Mimi, we can also observe that the spectacularization of an individual story allows this story to be perceived as an exception, an accident — Mimi recalls that the original caption of the infamous photograph was “Napalm accident” — drawing the attention, and thus the emotion, on this exception rather than the systematization of such war crimes.
A second example is embodied by Bui Thanh Thao, a Vietnamese American soldier in the U.S. Army, who was deployed in Iraq and authorized twice by its commanding officers to raise the flag of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in opposition to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the recognized Vietnamese sovereignty since 1976. The claim made by Thao, as well as a part of the Vietnamese American community, is that the South Vietnam flag stands as a symbol of resistance against terror, thus explicitly associating contemporary Al Qaeda with the 1950-1970’s Viet Cong. Similarly, Mimi evokes the examples of Nguyet Anh Duong, another Vietnamese refugee in the United States, whose job at the Pentagon consisted to design a thermobaric bomb to destroy Taliban underground shelters in Afghanistan and Viet D. Dhin, Assistant Attorney General during the first Georges W. Bush administration and chief architect of the infamous USA PATRIOT Act (2001). Here again, the justifications for a participation in the so-called “war against terror” is calling for an (armed) fight against a universal terror. This universal terror, that seems to embody absolute evil in various historical form (the communists, Al Qaeda, the Taliban etc.), appears in the discourses that are made by refugees as having more to do with personal legitimate fears sourced in autobiographical experiences, rather than with this illegitimate claim for universality.
Mimi’s book is not written in the form of a trial of these refugees who actively and voluntarily contribute to the Imperialist mechanisms to which they own their very status of refugee: it unfolds how these mechanisms produce moral narratives that require refugees to operate as their vessels. The latent debt evoked above is fundamental in this process, but so is the binary characterization of every citizen distant from the norm — hence the racist aspect of the problem — in regards to society. The example given by Mimi to illustrate this characterization was particularly visible in the direct aftermath of the October 2001 attacks in New York and Washington DC:
When Bush called for tolerance for Arab Americans in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, during which many ordinary Americans violently lashed out at “Muslim-looking” persons, he did so by distinguishing “good Arabs” by their patriotic acts: “Our nation must be mindful that there are thousands of Arab Americans … who love their flag just as much as … [we] do.” Mosques, temples, taxies, ethnic groceries, and the racialized bodies that occupied these spaces bore the American flag as both a shield and a statement. Numerous observers duly noted that for those who “look” West Asian or Muslim, fear of being taken for a stranger “compelled many to display the signs of ‘Americanness’ on their bodies to counter the color of their skins.” (Grewal, Transnational America, 214.). (Mimi Thi Nguyen,The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages, Durnham: Duke University Press, 2012, 154.)
The Bush administration has been particularly active in this binary characterization, just like other governments in Europe later — I am thinking in particular of Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign slogan: “You either love France or you leave it!” Here lies the very essence of imperialism in its never satisfied will to reach absoluteness, that is to touch and dominate everything. In producing the “us and them” transcendental narrative, the liberal empire triggers immanent normative processes that characterize each body are either belonging to us or them. The refugee on imperial land is a particularly sensitive subject of such characterization since her/his body carries the semiotic categorized by the norm as belonging to them. It is therefore understandable to observe the phenomena — we could almost say the syndrome — described by Mimi. Each body of a given nation has to situate itself in regards to the normative processes at work; the refugee — the migrant in general — nonetheless embodies a particular figure whose behavior is spectacularized to serve the imperial narrative of the gift of freedom no matter how it situates itself vis-à-vis the norm: a greater detachment from the norm serve the fear included in the narrative and a conformism to the normative processes serve the binary scheme of it.