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Feature

A logo for the "Globalization, Modernities, and Violence" conference

When modern equals fear

Recent conference explored globalization and violence

By Gayla Marty

Published on April 20, 2005

If "modern" means corporate, foreign, and scary to a large part of the world, the speakers at a conference here this weekend offered an alternative vision from places like Argentina and India--deep democracy, local control, and courage instead of fear.

In a keynote address to nearly 400 people on Friday night, journalist Naomi Klein drew a parallel between the popular U.S. fascination with "extreme makeovers"--from houses to plastic surgery--and the opportunity for reconstruction in Iraq and other post-disaster sites.

"There's a delight in the apocalyptic destruction, or at least an indifference to it, that has to do with this deeply colonial excitement with being able to start from scratch," she said. "In the Iraq edition of Extreme Makeover, the election [was supposed to] be 'the reveal,' when there's a gasp and the people say 'Thank you for my new country!'"

But the shock-and-awe makeover inflicted on Iraq backfired, Klein said. She identified three types of shock that have become part of globalization: 1) the shock of an event, a natural disaster, a coup, or an attack like the one on 9-11, followed by 2) economic shock "therapy," when corporations and free-market governments move in to privatize central services and systems, no matter how painful, and 3) physical torture, which is used to frighten the population into compliance. Throughout the speech, she drew connections among the three.

"In the Iraq edition of Extreme Makeover, the election [was supposed to] be 'the reveal,' when there's a gasp and the people say 'Thank you for my new country!'" said Klein.

Klein is the author of No Logo, which became a handbook of anti-corporate activism after its publication in 1999. She has traveled to Iraq and also lived for a year in Argentina writing The Take, a film about workers who took back factories in a movement to un-do the effects of comprehensive privatization. She called globalization the "rebranding of colonialism."

If denim-clad Klein delivered as the conference headliner, then physicist and activist Vandana Shiva in a turquoise sari stole the show. Shiva made an impassioned call to resist the newest frontier mentality.

"The new frontier logic is that there is money to be made off of disaster, so disaster is good," Shiva said. "The [World Trade Organization] agreement is 400 pages of how to loot."

Shiva, director of the Research Foundation on Science, Technology, and Ecology in Dehra Dun, India, took on issues from the Green Revolution to pharmaceutical pricing. She identified seed-patent laws as key and said they are responsible for indebtedness that has led to 16,000 farmer suicides. Reconstruction orders in Iraq contain similar laws, she said. Throughout the speech, she also described ongoing, local efforts to take back control of water, mills, and communities.

Klein and Shiva were two of five leading thinkers and activists who spoke at the two-day event, "Globalization, Modernities, and Violence," April 15-16, one of the President's 21st Century Interdisciplinary Conferences. The 220-seat lecture room in Mondale Hall was filled on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.

The Friday afternoon session provided background. Arab studies professor Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia University's Middle East Institute, talked about structures of violence, including state and non-state actors, and why violence by states is so often taken for granted.

Anthropology professor Mahmood Mamdani, director of Columbia's Institute of African Studies, traced the emergence of political Islam to the Cold War. He identified 1975 as the year the Cold War shifted from Southeast Asia to Africa, and once the Soviet Union was named the evil empire, any alliance was justified.

"In Afghanistan [against the Soviets], even the pretense of a national liberation movement was dropped," said Mamdani. "[The resistance] was positioned [by the U.S.] as a religious war in order to tap into the masses. Jihadi Islam replaced four of the pillars of Islam with just one--jihad. It was a modernist movement--personal, 'born-again' Islam."

On Saturday, Clark University research professor Cynthia Enloe joined Shiva and Klein on a panel. Enloe explored the perspective of women in relation to globalization, with a focus on the military. Even though modernity purports to stand for gender equality, it continues to give privilege to masculinity, she said.

Klein described her experience in Argentina as witnessing "a new kind of pro-democracy movement, challenging the thin democracy 'given' in 1983 when its brutal regime ended." The country was then privatized to an extreme degree, but now critical systems like water and sewer were failing. She described a tile factory where workers took over to regain local control and to serve local demand for tile. People distinguished between symbolic and true or "deep"democracy.

"They're saying, 'We want more democracy, deeper democracy,'" Klein said. "We need to pay more attention to transitional moments of disaster as well as euphoria--[it's during these times of distraction] when the most courageous movements are betrayed."

The speakers covered a wide range of topics linking globalization and violence, including these highlights.

On state vs. non-state violence

Khalidi identified two particular types of state violence--repressive regimes and foreign military occupation. The world focuses most on violence committed by non-state actors, including terrorist groups, he said, because their acts are meant to capture attention, while states are adept at diverting attention. In addition, state violence is considered routine, structural, and legitimate. "This is not new," Khalidi said, and quoted U.S. president James Madison: "War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement."

On the use of torture

Reading from a declassified CIA torture manual, Klein described the processes, from hooding to isolation, used to create disorientation. "It is widely acknowledged that torture is not effective or reliable for information gathering. A recent report said intelligence gathered at Guantanamo Bay 'was suspect, at best,'" she said. "So why is it used? It's the opposite of information gathering. It's about taking voice away. It's used because it's incredibly effective at creating fear." She cited Saddam Hussein's regime and Latin American dictatorships, which officially denied using torture but leaked information about their practices or carried them out in places where the public could hear them in order to spread fear. This is why many Iraqis believe the U.S. occupation intentionally leaked information about prison torture. She also said the Bush Administration's soft attitude toward using torture, and John Kerry's unwillingness to make it an issue in the national election, has created a "culture of impunity" in America, producing a subtle fear among citizens that no one is safe.

Klein described the work of a Toronto doctor who has treated torture victims from all over the world for three decades. In the 1970s and 1980s they came primarily from Latin America; then Africa; and more recently, Iran. Recovery rates are much higher for victims who were political activists than for those who were not, and the latter spend their lives stuck on the question of why they were tortured instead of why torture was used. "We in this broader culture of America are somewhat like those apoliticals," Klein said, "because we don't want, or know how to ask, the broader 'why?'"

On the role of academia

Audience members asked what universities can do. Shiva challenged the audience to find out what kind of contracts the University is signing, and Klein urged students to make the campus an unproductive place for military recruiters.

Khalidi said, "Academic freedom is not just for the privileged few and if we don't use it, we're screwed. It's a disgrace that more people don't use it to say things that make us all uncomfortable."

The conference was sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change.

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