Subscribe to Salvage and receive two print issues per year, plus digital access including audio and back issue PDFs
The Political Is Political: In Conversation With Yasmin Nair
‘In a world of left-wing discourse that has become enamored with a kind of shit-eating tween preciousness’, writes Fredrik Deboer, ‘Yasmin Nair’s voice is serious without being dour, and playful without being cute. Her writing is invested with quiet, unfussy power.’ She is someone who ‘absolutely will not tolerate getting hip checked by some adolescent from the Twin Cities area who looked up intersectionality on Dictionary.com last week and now has “bell hooks gif ” in her search terms.’ High praise.
One of Nair’s blog pieces caught my attention; a short, playful, razor-sharp piece about the political vacuity of polyamory. In ‘Your Sex is Not Radical’, as in all of her writing, Nair pulls no punches: ‘the sad truth that many of us learn after years in sexual playing fields (literally and figuratively) is that how many people you fuck has nothing to do with the extent to which you fuck up capitalism.’ Having read it, and many others, scandalised and giddy, I conducted an interview with Nair via Skype and email in March 2016.
An activist and writer based in Chicago, Nair is one of the founders of Against Equality, a group that was born in 2009, initially as an online archive of pieces that were critical of the gay-marriage movement and mainstream gay politics. ‘This was when gay marriage was heating up in the United States and my comrade Ryan Conrad lived, at the time, in the state of Maine’, she tells me.
He was working with a social service agency that worked with youth, on issues related to homelessness and HIV/AIDS. So he was working with very marginalised communities at the time, in the queer community, and then the gay-marriage movement came to Maine and what he saw were these huge organisations in the United States, the Human Rights Campaign, what was then called the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, literally swarming into town throwing money at gay marriage. And what he saw as a consequence of that was first the pushback against gay marriage from the queer community there, which was basically saying, this is not what we need right now. We need more resources for HIV, we need more resources for homelessness and so on. All of that was pushed aside. So Against Equality came out of a huge frustration with what he saw as the literal shutting down of resources for issues that really mattered to the queer community in favour of a very problematic, deeply troubling agenda of gay marriage, which doesn’t benefit poor people in the US for various reasons. In the United States there have been three main issues around queer politics: gay marriage; inclusion in the military (around Don’t Ask Don’t Tell); and hate-crime legislation. And so we published three books, one on each of them. It’s just ballooned from there.
Criticising mainstream calls for gay marriage, and pointing out that they are not the way to LGBTQ liberation, or at least not all that is needed, should be no more novel or startling to most radicals than to criticise the call for more women MPs or women CEOs as a way to improve most women’s lives. But to actively campaign against such liberal demands is much rarer, and far more controversial.
First, it means appearing to be on the same side as the homophobic right. Of course, there are plenty of instances where one must campaign for a position for which one’s enemies are also campaigning: whether or not one can win enough support for the left version of that position, and what one hopes to gain from such a campaign, are as important as considerations into what must inform strategy as is the context in which the campaign takes place. Consider the options in 2009, when Against Equality began: to campaign for a liberal demand that it had already become clear would likely be successful (at least in part due to its support from key sections of capital); to abstain from campaigning for either position; or to campaign against it in the hopes of attracting the support of like-minded radicals who were not interested in the state-approval of their relationships, being more concerned with maintaining a radical queer movement. Which position attracts the most radical supporters? Which opens up the most possibilities for further campaigning, towards more radical ends, once gay marriage has inevitably passed?
The gay-rights movement was unimpressed. Nair flashes me a sardonic smile when I ask how they reacted.
‘The gay rights movement vilified us, intensely – we received hate mail, we received death threats. They loved to tell us that they were going to chop me up and throw me into a dumpster. They were also going to send me back to the Middle East.’ She laughs at the absurdity of the threats. But the aim had never been to troll: theirs was not a campaign about provocation. Serious again, Nair insists that ‘gay marriage is not simply a question of assimilation, but an economic problem – gay marriage is a tool of neoliberalism’.
The self-congratulating rainbow-filtered profile photos that appeared alongside the names of the kinds of people whose involvement in LGBTQ-rights campaigns extended no further than looking uncomfortably at the floor when their friends shouted ‘faggot’ at passers-by does lend some credence to the argument: after all, they appeared in the UK, as the marriage law passed, at the same time that the government dismantles crucial support services for LGBT youth across the country. ‘It is still a profound problem. In your part of the world, in Australia now, in India, gay marriage has become a synonym for gay rights. And that always comes along with an attendant weakening of the welfare state.’ It’s in this context that, whatever one’s own position, the decision to campaign against the gay-marriage movement from the (ultra-)left is not difficult to understand: Nair makes a strong argument, whatever tactical or strategic disagreements one might have.
But, as compelling and scandalising as her campaigning around gay marriage with Against Equality is, it is far from the only place she’s causing a stir.
In 2015, an anonymous listicle, originally posted to reddit, circulated on social media. It was entitled ‘Things That Anarchists Say to Me in Private But Never Repeat Publicly’. The list included various criticisms of current dynamics amongst anarchist activists, more widely (and uncomfortably) familiar to many activists on the Left in the UK or the US: the practice of ‘calling-out’ (which has become, the author writes, ‘a way to acceptably inflict social violence’ and is rarely ‘followed up in any way resembling transformative justice’); the increasing use of the term ‘unsafe’ to mean ‘uncomfortable’; and the failure to ‘build frameworks for accountability and transformative justice’ (instead relying on ‘callouts and social exclusion that replicate the prison system without the benefit of having trials’). The listicle had been shared by seven and a half thousand people at the time of writing.
There are clearly some concerns that most on the Left won’t articulate in public. But Nair is not most people. She is, for instance, developing somewhat of a reputation for advancing a scathing critique of the notion of ‘rape culture’, and the place of trauma in contemporary political subjectivity.
‘Rape culture’, broadly defined, is the idea that sexual assault/harm/violence exists in different forms and that culture is permeated with it. All forms of unwanted sexual contact, ranging from groping to harassment to rape, are considered part of rape culture.
The problem with the concept of ‘rape culture’ is that it allows for no specificity. There is never any excuse for even the supposedly mildest forms of unwanted sexual contact, including groping and harassment, but putting these on the same plane as rape is ludicrous and it begs the question: how do we think about consequences for all these different kinds of sexual aggression if we think of them as the same?
If we decide that every instance of rape is due to some universalised form of ‘rape culture’, we also forget how to approach the structural differences and, therefore, the political and economic contexts in which rape occurs. This mean, inevitably, that we have no way of ending or even preventing rape, in the long run. When everything is ‘rape’, nothing is.
It should go without saying that those who coined the term and have used it to illustrate that on a societal level rape victims are trivialised, ignored and blamed for their own assaults, as well as challenging assumptions about the prevalence of rape – given it is much more common, and much closer to home, than most people estimate – have done so with every good intention. But good intentions, as should be kept in mind throughout, should not permit a pass from serious political engagement.
The problems with ‘rape culture’ begin most obviously with the problem of appealing to an abstract notion of ‘culture’, as if this were something free-floating that can be dealt with by means of a moral ban, without political or economic context. But this is far from the only problem with the approach. Not only are the differing instances of sexual aggression, violence and assault flattened into a concept that leaves little room for nuance or particularity, perhaps more importantly, so are those who are the subjects of such violence. In rape culture, there is only space for one kind of victim, and that is the one whose rape leaves her near-destroyed.
When women are indeed raped, they are reduced only to victims and pathologised subjects for whom rape is a breaking, traumatic experience from which they can never escape. ‘Rape culture’ as a cultural concept insists that someone who is raped has had the worst kind of trauma inflicted upon her (it mostly holds up women as victims of rape culture), and that she cannot – indeed, must not – recover from her ordeal. In this sense, ‘rape culture’ also creates a subject of perennial trauma, the perfect neoliberal subject whose lifespan will now be determined by multiple forces, including the sprawling non-profit world devoted to ‘victims’ advocates’ and rape victims with the proper institutional backing to help her ‘heal’.
From this culture emerges a new apparatus, new policies and what Nair calls a ‘campus-wide push to expand upon and reify this notion of rape culture.’ This is not to put the blame solely on students, as many on the racist and/or transphobic right have been only too eager to do, with the figure of the PC brigade stopping ‘free’ (read: bigoted) speech and closing down ‘debate’ (read: unbridled racism and misogyny) on campuses. The educational apparatus itself can take at least some of the blame, Nair contends. ‘The university system is now implicated in all of this, and there are now new laws, sometimes overriding what we might think of as more sensible, judicial procedures’.
Nair is hardly alone in noting that the discourse around rape culture, trauma and victimhood strengthens disciplinary apparatus on campuses. Leftist Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis – whose book Against Love should be required reading for anyone concerned with sexual politics and/or the morality of sex – wrote a (fantastic) article last year in The Chronical of Higher Education, ‘Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe’, regarding sexual harassment guidelines and staff-student relationships at universities. In it, she notes that ‘what no one’s much saying about the efflorescence of these new [sexual harassment] policies is the degree to which they expand the power of the institutions themselves’.
As if to prove her point, a Title IX (sex discrimination) complaint was brought against her in response to the essay resulting in a seventy-two-day investigation before she was exonerated. It’s easy to see how rape culture, however well-intentioned as a concept, can easily be harnessed by – and cleaves with the grain of – neoliberalism.
There is, Nair points out, an unwillingness to acknowledge how easily this ties into a carceral feminism.
What people don’t want to talk about are the institutional factors around all of this. When we’re talking about campus rape and the notion of rape culture, particularly at American universities, which are profoundly and increasingly more neoliberal than ever before, we’re also talking about a university system tying into a surveillance apparatus. There is money to be made from more cameras on campus, there’s money to be made from establishing rape crisis centres on campus, there’s a whole wing of the nonprofit industrial complex drooling over the chance to establish little offices on every campus.
The surveillance apparatus, the militarised university – all of this also calls upon the university to provide more personnel, more cops, more guns, more surveillance. So it’s really linked up to a larger apparatus as well. And carceral feminism is definitely part of that, absolutely.
In part, Nair attributes this to the circulation of misleading statistics about the danger that students are in on campuses.
There is a whole myth of campus sexual assault, the numbers themselves are so inflated here, the number that still gets thrown around, even by Obama, something fairly high like one in five students will be sexually assaulted. Well, even the people who did that study have since actually said ‘That’s not what we meant at all. This is faulty, no no no, please don’t do that!’ But that number is being thrown around and it translates, to parents and others to mean that if you send your child to university you’re sending her into this pit of rapists! and monsters! And that your child is this fragile creature who obviously will not know what to do, etc. There’s a great deal of infantilising going on here, and a way in which young people are being thrust into this state of perennial innocence slash childhood.
Kipnis makes a similar observation. The attitudes of university administrators, and the policies they are introducing on campuses are ‘extending the presumption of the innocent child well into his or her collegiate career. Except that students aren’t children’.
None of this is to suggest that there are direct or simple causal links between these factors and categories. The claim is not that ‘rape culture’, or the resurgence of the term amongst feminists since its coinage in the 1970s, is solely or directly responsible for the heightened focus on issues of sexual violence on campus, nor of course that such a focus is per se a bad thing. But as Kipnis points out, the measures being taken on campuses are far from the only, or most obvious, option; ‘if colleges and universities around the country were in any way serious about policies to prevent sexual assaults, the path is obvious… ban fraternities’.
Nor, of course, are proponents of the term ‘rape culture’ to blame for the reactionary disciplinary policies that have accompanied it. Theirs, for the most part, began as a project to highlight a real and important problem – that women alleging rape, particularly on campuses, were (and are) being systematically let down. But the intentions of its founders are, unfortunately, rarely in control of that which they create, and our analysis cannot end there. These factors are symptoms of broader problems: of the relationship between trauma and politics under neoliberalism; the weakening of political confidence on the Left (indeed of the Left in general) under neoliberalism; and the resulting reliance on bureaucratic and carceral solutions to political problems.
And of course, because all of the problems above are intensely gendered – it is women who are being encouraged to relate to and project their subjectivities in terms of the experiences they have had, particularly the violence they have suffered, the trauma they have accrued – this has a huge impact on women in particular. One of the problems of discussing rape as if it inevitably causes irreparable damage, and inevitably leaving all rape victims with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is that this risks suggesting that they must so end up – that to be raped is to be traumatised. Such framing only adds to the stigmatisation and othering of the raped.
If the only legitimate response to rape is trauma, we fail to understand or relate to the complexity of different experiences. ‘The truth’, Nair stresses, ‘is that rape is often, for many, one of multiple traumas or, even if a rare one, something that can be dealt with in a variety of ways, including through the much-maligned field of psychoanalysis and therapy. But under ‘rape culture’, the rape victim is forever defined only as a victim.’ And labelling somebody before anything else a victim of rape, or more often a ‘survivor’ (a term which seems to suggest that the logical consequence of rape is death, including by suicide), is to define them reductively by that experience. And, even more invidiously, it implies that overcoming, let alone failing to suffer, sufficient post-rape trauma is pathological. This putatively feminist focus reiterates the antique misogynist trope of the unworthy victim; if rape definitionally traumatises, the non-traumatised rape victim is not sufficiently suffering, or worse, is not a real victim of rape.
In a startling and fecund observation, Nair links the increased focus on trauma with an attendant limiting of women’s involvement in the political sphere. ‘Women in particular, who are people who are feminised in any particular way, are often required to present their passport of trauma in order to enter public life. That has terrible deleterious effects on our public discourse, our political life, our intellectual life, because there is a value to thinking about abstractions.’ Such a focus on trauma, and individual experiences, often overlaps with that which is often termed ‘identity politics’. Where identity politics, in its variety of forms, and the demand for trauma narratives overlap, the resulting exclusions are notable.
As a writer, for instance, as a woman who is brown, and queer, and an immigrant, I’m frequently in situations where people come to me wanting to give me spaces to talk but there’s always this demand that I enact, that I must first perform my multiple subjectivities. And the fact that I don’t is also a large reason why sometimes – and I’m not whining here, simply stating a fact – I quickly get shut out. Because how dare I not present my personal narratives? And also if I do, why don’t I have a trauma narrative?
For Nair, the problem is not merely one of being excluded from the conversation, but of a broader impact on the framework of the debate itself.
This matters not only in the political realm but also in the ways in which we engage with the world intellectually. The difference here is that this vomiting forth of personal detail and this constant enacting of one’s trauma has become a substitute for political action. And even more importantly, it has become a substitute for rigorous intellectual inquiry. And that has been my biggest problem with all of this. Because I think our biggest commitment has to be not just to political work, but to thinking about how to bring about a better world.
‘The personal is political’ was one of the most important slogans to emerge from the feminist movements of the 1970s, a key part of the push to reveal as social, political, and systemic that which had previously been relegated to the ‘private’, the individual and the isolated. In particular, and crucially, it very successfully forced onto the agenda the issue of marital rape. But for Nair, the slogan is being used very differently now.
‘The personal is political’ was really profoundly important in the ’70s for a particular kind of feminism, it mattered a great deal. Marital rape was only outlawed in all fifty states here in 1993: a blip in human history. That idea of the personal being part of the political was really necessary at the time, it made complete sense. Out of that also came collective rape counselling, women’s circles and so on, because there were simply no such resources available from the state or, really, from society in general. So there’s a whole history around rape as well embedded in all of that. The problem now is that this notion of personal lives mattering within the political realm has also become a way to demarcate and restrict women’s participation in the public sphere as well.
The problem is that this slogan has been repurposed to mean something like, ‘What personal experiences I have had are what gives validity to my political views’. Of course, it is the case that our personal experiences inform our politics: all politics are learned from lived experience; from conversations we have; the things we read; the events we witness, and so on. And of course most of us can recall cases of personal experiences shaping our understanding in a way that could not have been accessed from outside. Such experiences must inform our collective understanding if we are to avoid the blindspots and failings of the past.
But to suggest that personal experience grants unique individual political insight – that the best, or only, placed to decide political strategy or tactics to challenge and undermine such violence can only be those directly experiencing it – raises a number of problems. Most obviously, it speciously implies a homogeneity of politics among certain sections of people, that different people draw the same political, tactical, or strategic conclusions from the same experiences, as if they are objective. But that’s not all – it also places burdens of responsibility: first as regards who ought to come up with strategy and ‘lead’; and secondly upon individuals who have to declare their experience in order to be considered a valid voice.
It’s not hard to see how this can feed a competitive dynamic; if our political insight results from our experiences of oppression, those who experience oppression on more than one axis are clearly the most politically insightful – on an individual, personal level. For Nair, by contrast, ‘the personal is simply not political. It’s not to say that your personal life doesn’t matter; it is simply to ask “What are your political strategies?”’. Crucially, Nair’s point is about challenging the ‘passport of trauma’ mentality, not making discussing one’s personal experiences a condition on public participation. ‘It is not that people’s lives don’t matter, it’s not that my many intersecting identities don’t matter, but that they matter in particular ways. Not as rationales for public participation.’
None of this is to say there has been no progress, nor that there are no lessons for the Left to learn on these topics. Nair’s is absolutely not a project of trying to re-silence those advancing critiques of the Left and its manifest failure to deal with issues of oppression and/or ‘multiple’ identities – and nor is Salvage’s. But the Left would do well to remember that it is as counterproductive to go from dismissing all feminist critiques out of arrogance to uncritically and unrigorously accepting them out of guilt, particularly if the result is becoming increasingly less politically coherent at each turn.
One of the more useful terms to enter the Left’s vernacular in the past few years has been ‘intersectionality’, with its focus on attempting to produce and engage with theory, as well as to inform practice in activist circles.
Intersectionality again, is one of these things that, like the idea that the personal is political, has a very interesting and important intellectual background. It does still matter to talk about how various kinds of, not just identities, but kinds of issues, intersect. Intersectionality has been important and it remains important, especially in a world where both activism and politics are still so controlled by white intellectuals and politicians who tend to be clueless about how other people do have to negotiate multiple identities and issues in their daily and other lives.
For Nair, though, despite the crucial role it has played as a corrective to some very bad politics and political practices on the Left historically – making feminist demands that were relevant primarily to white women, talking of issues of racism as if there were no women of colour, talking of issues of lesbian and gay liberation while failing to consider trans issues – intersectionality is not without its problems.
The problem is that intersectionality has become reduced to a meaningless buzzword, shorn of the impact it once had in activist, organising communities and the left at large. For too many people especially on the ground it simply means ‘call forth all identities and let’s talk about how all those matter’. Without any real sense of thinking through how those identities are deployed, for instance, by neoliberalism. I’m trying – not because I don’t think you understand, but because I want to be clear for the audience as well, who may not be coming into it the same way that you and I are – to think about a concrete example. So let’s take some kind of an activist or organising context. Let’s say, for instance, if you have to confront a major gay and lesbian social service provider, that you know has not been doing its job in terms of looking out for the needs of young queer, largely African-American trans youth.
We could go to them and say, look, you have these multiple groups who have multiply intersecting identities and issues. And they would simply turn around and talk about how intersectional they are, and go about hiring, say, people who reflect all those demographics. And those people hired (who need those damn jobs in a scarce economy) would be sent around town to give little talks about how ‘X Big NonProfit is so attentive to the intersectional needs of our community, because look at me: I am XYZ in all my multiple ways’. And that’s where it would stop. The fundamental structure of the non-profit, which is designed to benefit a very few people at the top with large salaries while everyone else gets practically nothing, where money is funnelled into the organisation from the state with absolutely no accountability in terms of questioning whether it actually goes towards the people who need it – none of that will change but, hey, we’re all so intersectional about it! Meanwhile, people continue to be exploited, continue to suffer from a lack of resources, and the larger gay community gets to stage grand galas and pat itself on the back for talking about intersectionality.
So, much as ‘the personal is political’ began as an important intervention into public debate, putting marital rape and domestic violence onto the political agenda by insisting that the individual experiences of women in their ‘private’ homes were not individual experiences but systemic, political issues that had to be acknowledged and collectively challenged, but has now become a way to replace collective intellectually robust critical examination, theory and politics with individual personal stories of hardship as evidence of political validity, similarly for much ‘intersectionality’.
There is a growing body of work critical of the tendency of exponents of the concept to overlook the work of anti-racist Marxist/materialist feminists who preceded the word’s coinage – scholars like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Selma James, who have been working on the co-constitutive nature of race and gender within their respective fields for decades, just not under the banner of intersectionality. Nonetheless – and despite its limitations and its as-yet-undertheorised potential to inform marxist theory – intersectionality was part of a move that forced a largely white feminist movement to acknowledge the specific issues facing women of colour. For instance, while white feminists were (and are) making valiant demands for reproductive control of their bodies in order to choose not to have children, in the form of abortion and easy-to-access affordable contraception, referred to as reproductive rights, black women across America were routinely being denied the reproductive control of their bodies in order to choose to have children – both by forced and coerced sterilisation, and as a result of a lack of access to basic healthcare. Black feminists demanded a move away from a framework of ‘reproductive rights’ towards one of ‘reproductive justice’; one that gives primacy consideration of the constraints on any decision to have, or not to have, children, including poverty, the lack of reproductive rights of incarcerated women and access to sex education, contraception and pre- and post-natal care.
Intersectionality has also been at least partly responsible for advancing the demand that a largely white, male left consider issues of race and gender more generally – pointing out that while many white working-class women were entering the work force for the first time, immigrant women and women of the black working class had been caring for the children and cleaning the houses of the rich for decades already, demanding a rethinking of the left’s conception of the working-class and the kind of work that was (and is) considered work.
However, despite such crucial interventions, contends Nair, homages to intersectionality have now become a way for liberals to make radical-sounding noises – patting themselves on the back for promoting a wider-range voices, being ‘intersectional’ about their hiring practices or including diverse models and actresses in their adverts and films – while ignoring the more pressing issues such as the status of migrant workers, wages and working conditions, racist immigration and border laws, exploitation and myriad other issues, let alone the need for systemic and drastic economic change. All – though Nair grants there are important exceptions – can be swept under the rug of liberal ‘intersectionality’.
There are, of course exceptions in organising we can look to. For instance, groups like Black Youth Project and Black Lives Matter Chicago and Assata’s Daughters here in Chicago, all have really excellent analyses around these issues. I may not always agree with them on everything, but they talk about these matters with intellectual rigour, they talk about economic exploitation combining with racial and sexual exploitation. And they have these very nuanced conversations. And it feeds into their organising. But that’s simply not the case for the most part.
As if to provide Nair with an evidentiary anecdote, Hillary Clinton declared in February that ‘we face a complex set of economic, social, and political challenges. They are intersectional, they are reinforcing, and we have got to take them all on’. One is forced to wonder what hope there is for a concept so thoroughly appropriated that Hillary Clinton can use it to attempt to win over a crowd at a rally.
Nair does not spend all of her time lambasting the gay-rights movement for its capitulation to the gay-marriage demand, proponents of the term ‘rape culture’ for their infantilising rhetoric, those championing the personal turn in politics and those congratulating themselves for their self-described intersectionality (though it would be interesting to see how many overlaps a Venn diagram of such groups would show). Among other projects, she has a forthcoming piece in Liza Featherstone’s edited collection False Choices: The Faux-Feminism of Hillary Rodram Clinton.
The premise of the piece is that Hillary Clinton’s legislative and political experience extends to well before she became a New York Senator in 2001. She and her husband Bill Clinton made it clear from the start of his first term as President in 1992 that they were effectively co-Presidents (eight for Bill, eight for Hill, as they often said). She had enormous influence on Bill Clinton’s agenda, so there is no absolving her of responsibility for all of that.
In that context, I look at the devastating harm she has done over the decades, to the most marginalised communities, all in the guise of ‘reform’. In terms of immigration, perhaps the worst piece of legislation was the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which had several terrible consequences for immigrant. IIRIRA created the 10-year ban, which meant that immigrants without legal papers who leave the United States and are caught trying to return are refused entry for 10 years. This directly led to an increase in the numbers of undocumented people, because so many now fear leaving the country. What that means is that a lot of people are terrified of even leaving temporarily, even for family deaths, for instance, or even to go and see if they could possibly be interviewed in the US consulate in their home country and return. They’re terrified of doing that because they might not be allowed back in. They go underground and into the shadows, and are far more vulnerable there. The 90s Clinton legislation was directly responsible for that.
Nor is it merely immigration reform on which Nair takes Clinton to task. ‘Welfare reform, which they were both so proud of, was and continues to be disastrous. It ostensibly took people off welfare but it actually gave them no other kinds of networks of support, so the legislation on ended up grinding people into poverty even further.’
And while Nair’s work criticising various types of antioppression politics – from gay marriage to intersectionality – might seem to be in a different vein from her engagement with the Clintons’ political record, there is clear overlap. Given Hillary’s own self-positioning, and the support she enjoys from various sections of gay-rights and feminist circles, Nair’s focus upon and sharp criticisms of such circles leaves her peculiarly well placed to hammer Hillary on her own reliance on these groups.
In a larger context, my critique of Hillary Clinton in that piece has to do with situating her within what she has called her feminist and also her gay-friendly agenda, and pointing out that actually much of what she has claimed has to do with embarking upon a larger US policy of imperialist expansion. She plugs into a certain kind of feminist ideology and a certain kind of liberal expansion of rights, around for instance gay rights. She’s most famous for having said that gay rights are human rights, which is an expansion of what she said in her famous Beijing speech where she said that women’s rights are human rights. The backdrop behind that is actually a not-so-veiled threat that if countries do not defer to US-led ideas of what constitute gay rights they will just have the shit bombed out of them.It is dangerous to think of Clinton as, as I think many people do, as a generational problem – a lot of people tend to say Clinton represents a particular generation of feminists who are incapable of understanding the many intersecting dynamics around race and gender and all of that. Clinton’s imperialist ideology and her liberal feminism is not as a result of a generation attitude but the result of a very particular neoliberal ideology, which is supported by younger people like Lena Dunham, for instance. It’s worth noting that Dunham has been mobilising massive numbers of twenty-somethings in support of Clinton, as some kind of feminist movement. We don’t take Clinton’s bad, faux feminism seriously enough. If we think that it is just generational, we miss its damaging influence; the problem is not that people are old or young. The problem is that neoliberalism has this continuity to it, and if we don’t understand that we are screwed.
It is, arguably, precisely Nair’s unstinting and unabashed engagement with such topics that allows her to remain unremittingly focused on highlighting the way that they intersect intimately with the way in which neoliberalism operates.
Nair’s enthusiastic hatred of Clinton doesn’t have her cheering for Bernie yet. ‘I want to be very clear: I like things about Bernie but I’m also not a Bernie Sanders supporter. Steven Salaita wrote a really good piece about Bernie Sanders around Israel, and that has to be taken into account.’ It is worth noting that since I spoke with Nair, following a petition launched by Max Blumenthal and signed by some 18,000 people, Sanders declined his invitation to attend the American Israeli Political Action Committee’s (AIPAC) conference. He is far from the Palestine-liberation activist we would prefer him to be, but he has undoubtedly spoken more critically of the Israeli government and has shown more sympathy for the Palestinians than any presidential candidate before him. Of course, he can and should be pushed further to the left on this issue and many others, but it is not irrelevant that he has responded to public criticism and noticeably shifted his positions as a consequence.
One group applying such pressure have been the Black Lives Matter activists, who repeatedly protested Sanders’ rallies in order to criticise his lack of attention to race and police violence. Sanders’ relatively receptive response to these protests could not have been more different from Clinton’s. She had security usher protesters out of sight, and mere weeks ago Bill publicly defended her use of the word ‘superpredators’ during his presidency. Sanders, by contrast, has allowed BLM protestors to have his mic to speak to his crowds. It has not so much been Sanders’ reactions that has been notable to Nair, though, but those of his supporters.
I was really disturbed by the anger around Black Lives Matter, when they first started protesting Sanders. And I have my own issues with BLM, but BLM is doing important and interesting work, and what I saw among a lot of Sanders supporters, because they originally showed up to protest Bernie Sanders and they hadn’t yet at the time taken on Hillary Clinton, was this brutal racism. Where Sanders lefties were saying things like, ‘Bernie Sanders has done more civil rights organising than any of these 20 year olds.’ I think if the protesters had been all white, the response would have been very different. And I want to acknowledge that all of this is so complicated, you know, there are complex sectors in terms of Bernie supporters, but I’m talking about the broad tendencies that I’ve witnessed.
Overall, her position on the presidential race seems to be one of impatience and frustration. ‘I think Salaita put it well: Vote or don’t vote, there are lots of things that need to be done the rest of the time between these major elections.’ How ought the Left relate to such a volatile and unpredictable race? She remains resolutely dismissive of its prominent place in the American political imaginary. She waves her hand. ‘I think the task for the Left is to stop thinking that the only thing that matters is the election campaign around the presidency.’ This is not merely performative ultra-left swagger; she immediately backs it up with concrete examples of what kinds of tasks the Left ought to focus its energies towards instead.
First of all local politics matter a great deal, perhaps in some degree, more than what goes on at a national level. People forget, for example, the fight for $15 campaign did not come out of the president’s office, it came out of local organising, places like Seattle. That’s a profound change. $15 an hour is a profound change from less than $10. It’s going to mean so much for so many people. And that’s a local campaign. We tend to forget that. I do think that local campaigns and local organising work matter a great deal in terms of putting pressure on the larger electoral project.
Of course, it is perfectly possible to focus one’s attention on local campaigns such as the fight for $15 while maintaining an interest, analysis and position on the presidential candidates, but Nair’s point about campaigns like these having an impact on any electoral project is worth remembering – it is not merely the signing of petitions or even the rallies that cause candidates to shift to the left.
For all of her reservations about Sanders, Nair is bleakly clear about how bad a Clinton victory would be. Not only because of her neoliberal warmongering ideology, but because of the relationship that Clinton has with liberal feminist and gay rights politics – Nair’s criticisms of the gay marriage agenda, on the intellectual vacuity of a large strand of feminism, and the way in which neoliberalism retools liberation campaigns for its own ends are very much exemplified in Clinton’s campaign. ‘If Hillary Clinton makes it to the presidency, that’s about three times as disastrous as the last Clinton presidency, given that we will have a layer of feminist ideology and gay politics bound into all of that.’