Required Reading

Given Haacke’s efforts to expose the hidden complicity of museums in propping up oppressive organizations and regimes, it wasn’t hard to think of our union campaign as fitting within a lineage of the kind of institutional critique he practiced. We told him we’d unionized in January to improve our conditions at work and had been fighting an uphill battle with museum management ever since. We explained that we hadn’t called a strike vote yet, but if we did, and if it were successful, we were prepared to withhold our labor during the weeks that the installation of his exhibition would take place.

Haacke told us he understood what we were fighting for—as a professor at Cooper Union, he had helped organize the faculty union—and would be happy to support us. Only, it would have to be after the opening of his show because he had people coming from across the country—and even from outside the country—for the exhibition. If we went on strike before or during the opening, he said, sorry, but he wouldn’t be able to help us. I swallowed, blinking back tears. To wait to strike until after the opening would be to sacrifice any leverage we might have with the museum; it would be pointless. Management didn’t care about us, but they did care about their big-name artists and their public image. I couldn’t believe it: there I was in Le Pain Quotidien with Hans Haacke, legendary proponent of institutional critique, and he’d just told us he would cross our picket line.

“You agree not to reach out to any current or former MOCA staff and board members until we confirm in writing that the embargo is lifted,” the kind offer of early access to the information declared — pretty much demolishing any benefit of normal journalistic paths to reporting fuller context. Just in case we didn’t get it, the words “agree not to” were underlined.

Those same words were again underlined in another demand: “You agree not to publish a speculative story about who the candidate may be ahead of the embargo being lifted in writing by us.”

Um, what?

In January, the Trump administration banned cotton from Xinjiang because of its connection to the alleged human rights violations, roiling a fashion industry heavily reliant on Chinese textiles. Reports of the detention camps began circulating in 2019, but by 2020, reports had surfaced that major international brands’ supply chains were marred by forced labor. Soon, those brands were rushing to make public statements condemning China’s actions in Xinjiang, eagerly professing a zero-tolerance policy on forced labor. Some, like Adidas, pledged to cut Xinjiang-made materials from supply chains; others, such as Patagonia and the millennial “it” brand Reformation, have said they will stop using Chinese cotton altogether. The problem, however, had been building for some time.

Though Beijing has vociferously denied using forced labor, calling it “totally a lie fabricated by some organizations and personnel in the United States and the West,” US senators met in committee in March to hash out possible solutions to the problem and its presence in the supply chains of US companies.

The narrative of the ‘reforming’ monarch is not new, and is consistent with the juxtaposed, binary caricatures of Orientalist discourse, wherein the West is cast as axiomatically progressive and modern, in contradistinction with an East mired in a backwardness determined by its culture and traditions. In this context, the purported Arab ‘reformer’ is presented as the ideal ally of the progressive West, attempting to drag his society up towards what are taken to be our own higher standards.

As such, the ‘reform’ narrative serves two important discursive functions. First, it legitimises Western support for authoritarian rule with the implied but false promise that the regime in question is working to achieve some form of meaningful and transformative change. Second, by moving the explanatory focus for the persistence of authoritarianism away from the historic collusion of governing elites in both the East and West, and firmly onto the terrain of cultural difference, it serves to reinforce the West’s self-image as liberal and democratic, despite its sustained support for authoritarian rule. In fact, Western support for Gulf monarchs, once the latter are cast as ‘reforming’, becomes proof, rather than disproof, of the liberal nature of Western power. Authoritarianism is thus externalised as an Arab trait, or problem, and a sense of Western innocence is preserved.

Arguments around identity have become central to much of our politics these days. As someone who is sceptical of stable identity categories, what do you make of that?

I think it matters a great deal how we understand that “centrality”. My own political view is that identity ought not to be the foundation for politics. Alliance, coalition and solidarity are the key terms for an expanding left. And we need to know what we are fighting against and for, and keep that focus.

It is imperative that we work across differences and that we build complex accounts of social power. Accounts that help us to build links among the poor, the precarious, the dispossessed, LGBTQI+ peoples, workers and all those subject to racism and colonial subjugation. These are not always separate groups or identities, but overlapping and interconnected forms of subjugation that oppose racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia but also capitalism and its destructions, including the destruction of the Earth and indigenous ways of life.

I started writing about restaurants in the mid-’90s, when the job, at least as it was practiced at most mainstream publications that could pay food writers a living wage, was primarily about pleasure – service journalism for readers privileged enough to obsess over where to spend their money dining out. Change to the field came too late, but it did come, in 2017, when the #MeToo movement brought a still-unfolding reckoning over sexual harassment and discrimination to the restaurant business.

The crises of the past year have deepened that reckoning, forcing much of the country to reexamine why inequities persist in American life.

On the most sensitive question in village life—women’s rights—men like him have not budged. In many parts of rural Helmand, women are barred from visiting the market. When a Sangin woman recently bought cookies for her children at the bazaar, the Taliban beat her, her husband, and the shopkeeper. Taliban members told me that they planned to allow girls to attend madrassas, but only until puberty. As before, women would be prohibited from employment, except for midwifery. Pazaro said, ruefully, “They haven’t changed at all.”

Travelling through Helmand, I could hardly see any signs of the Taliban as a state. Unlike other rebel movements, the Taliban had provided practically no reconstruction, no social services beyond its harsh tribunals. It brooks no opposition: in Pan Killay, the Taliban executed a villager named Shaista Gul after learning that he’d offered bread to members of the Afghan Army. Nevertheless, many Helmandis seemed to prefer Taliban rule—including the women I interviewed. It was as if the movement had won only by default, through the abject failures of its opponents. To locals, life under the coalition forces and their Afghan allies was pure hazard; even drinking tea in a sunlit field, or driving to your sister’s wedding, was a potentially deadly gamble. What the Taliban offered over their rivals was a simple bargain: Obey us, and we will not kill you.

my landlord painted over a fucking roach pic.twitter.com/b3vTHOrdgi

— chelsea, a human woman? (@chellzyeah) September 5, 2021

Required Reading is published every Friday, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

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