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Anti-TSA Opt Out Protest Planned & The Unbearable Privilege & Legitimacy of TSA Resistance

A new protest event is planned to fight the TSA’s use of whole body imagers and enhanced pat downs, however, this protest could be undermined by the privilege and access required to get into airports themselves.

Anti-TSA activist Ashley Jessica has teamed teamed up with infowars.com to plan a  massive anti-TSA protest this November. The aptly titled Opt Out and Film protest is aimed at getting people en-mass to refuse the use of the TSA’s Advanced Imaging Technology (including backscatter technology which some critics claim exposes passengers to harmful radiation and millimeter wave technology which Jessica claims damages passengers’ DNA). The goal of Opt Out and film day is to:

OPT OUT and FILM Week takes place November 19, 2012- November 26, 2012

THIS IS OUR OPPORTUNITY TO PEACEFULLY RESIST OPPRESSION AND SEND A MESSAGE TO THE TSA LOUD AND CLEAR

They will no longer use the threat of molestation to intimidate us into going through health damaging body scanners!

We will no longer tolerate them violating our civil liberties and human rights!We will no longer allow the TSA to stick their hands down our pants and touch our private parts!Any TSA agent who chooses to violate our rights and freedoms will be put on display for the world to see!

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

The protest capitalizes on two tactics that have been most successful in generating popular support for those who resist the TSA. First, in general, people who opt out whole body imagers are treated with admiration by many who oppose the TSA. Moreover, the protest aims to create more people opting out than a checkpoint can handle. Second, online videos of the TSA failing to follow protocol often sparks outrage among the TSA’s critics and even among those who often ignore the administration. Thus, a comprehensive strategy to force the agency to deal with more bodies than usual and to film those encounters will likely lead to increased tempers and mistakes. All of this suggests the potential for plenty of film to capture the kind of footage that creates the  anti-TSA narratives critics prefer.
This latest resistance effort got a boost when consumer advocate Christopher Elliot threw his support behind the protest, proclaiming the opt out week as a means to “kill” the TSA’s full body scanners. In a tweet Elliot even declared that 78% of travelers would participate in such a protest.
Of course Elliot fails to mention in his post that his 78% number comes from voluntary respondents to a poll on his website and on an article hosted by Huffington Post travel. Obviously 78% of travelers would not participate in “opt-out” week and to claim so is wildly misleading.
This underscores one of the major weaknesses with opt-out type protests: mobilization. In my own research I have found that large segments of anti-TSA critics, unlike Elliot or Jessica, either do not fly or overstate their actual opposition to the TSA. Evidence of this comes from their ignorance of TSA procedures or statements proclaiming that if the TSA were to touch them they would assault the TSA (instances of assault on TSA employees are rare).  Meaning, that even if they do fly they do not adhere to their values of resistance in actual airport spaces.
Moreover, Ashley Jessica and infowar’s opt out and film week, which takes place between November 19, 2012 at 6am and November  26, 2012 at 11pm, smacks of almost unbearable privilege. The protest asks passengers to:
Fly within the United States, OPT OUT of the body scanner and have someone FILM your pat-down;
You can also opt-out of other unreasonable TSA security procedures (i.e. eye scan, drink testing inside the terminal etc.) and film what happens.
There is a clear element of class here that comes with the ability to select to fly during one of the busiest and most expensive travel times during the year, preferably not alone, to have the ability & technology to film your pat down, and to have the leisure time to risk delays as a result of one’s protest. Because airport spaces require capital as a precursor to access, protesting them is a unique activity. Thus, Jessica, Elliot, and Infowars are taking an activity of privilege and protesting it. I want to underscore that I am not suggesting that actions by the TSA do not warrant resistance because of inherent privilege in air travel. However, given that many anti-TSA advocates dismiss those who support or refuse to oppose the agency (calling them plants or slaves online) or overstate the volume of those who resist the TSA; opt out and film week is particularly susceptible to its own unbearable privilege. I am not isolated from such privilege, after all my own research on airport spaces and resistance to the TSA is absolutely open to such critiques.
Will opt out and film be successful? I don’t know. I am sure that if it occurs the TSA will dismiss it as a minor inconvenience and its supporters will triumph it as a grand success. Both citing little evidence. However, unless it becomes a grand act of resistance it will fade quickly. Any history of resistance is also a history of persistence. Airport security, like airports themselves are about the persistence of capital- to flow in a globalized world-without the commitment to opt out beyond one week what incentive will the TSA have to make any change?
For all the complaints about abuses by the TSA, why do they deserve  more attention now than the decades of complaints of abuse by State actors against the poor who rarely have consumer advocates or access to privileged activities like flying that are supposed to be free of the indignities of State violence?

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Initial Conclusions on Public Resistance to the TSA


This serves as a quasi research update. The current dissertation chapter I am working on studies public resistance to the TSA by tracking public and official discourse about videos passengers have shot of their screening process. You can see an example of one such video here. In this video a women claims to have been detained by the TSA, and forced to miss her flight because of her attitude towards the TSA. I have yet to assess the veracity of this video.

One important trend among the videos in my study is that many of them claim in captions, blogs, and stories to show malfeasance on the part of the TSA while there was none or there was inappropriate actions taken by both agents and the passenger. I point this out because as stories of the heavy handed TSA circulate; critiques of the agency must be grounded in actual policy disagreements and agent malfeasance, not a mythos of rumored misdeeds. For example, a widely circulated video claims to show a young child being strip searched by the TSA at Salt Lake City International Airport. In reality, the child’s father took of the child’s shirt in an attempt to expedite the process. I am, by no means, trying to buffer the TSA from criticism, but my research points to a pernicious degree to which videos of this type are often said to show one thing even when they mean another. That said, a number of videos and stories exist that document instances of questionable actions by the TSA.

I offer seven preliminary conclusions based on what my research has found so far. This reads as some tough-love for TSA critics. Please do not assume I am fawning for the TSA, I have much to say to them as well.

1. The larger issue with TSA critics is that they argue privatization is the solution. Why is corporate surveillance preferred to State?

An undercurrent within critiques of the TSA is a specifically anti-government anti-big brother sentiment. Given the TSA’s techniques of surveillance (I discuss their surveillance technology in my dissertation’s previous chapter and their rituals and performances of surveillance in the next chapter), concern over surveillance is not unfounded. However, while I freely admit state surveillance is problematic I cannot accept that corporate surveillance is necessarily a better outcome. First, even in places where the TSA is using private companies to perform security screenings they use the same procedures as the TSA. Nothing has changed and it is unlikely that most consumers or the government would want to relax security restrictions any time soon. Second, a profit motive adds alternative drives for monitoring and data collection. These are different from the state’s desire to watch our bodies but are nonetheless disconcerting.

2. Absent a successful legal challenge, what would motivate Congress to dismantle the TSA?

This issue comes down to a basic burden of proof. The TSA has a remarkable safety record. How do we know that? We don’t. As long as the agency can show an effective record in securing our air infrastructure without large scale resistance from political moderates there is little political will to change the TSA’s mandate. Additionally, many assert the TSA is unconstitutional. While there are legal challenges underway, critics must become more nuanced than to claim it is unconstitutional because I say so. Knowing your rights is absolutely critical, but knowing them as the law defines them is more important than how you think the law ought to define them.

3. Those who call everything the TSA does security theater ignore the agency’s ability to cope with real threats & post 9/11 innovations.

Since 9/11 airport security has undergone a massive change in it techniques for securing our air transportation infrastructure. That said, the TSA is not an impenetrable wall of security and critics have taken to calling its efforts security theater to claim it is more about creating the appearance of security than actual security. I offer a more substantive critique of this in my research, not that I wholly dismiss it but I offer an alternative read. That said, some techniques that have been added post 9/11 may offer more advantages to the screening process. That does not make them inherently good, but it does mean critics need to be more nuanced than it is all security theater. Also, that does not mean the TSA should have unlimited fiat. The conversation must cease to be all or nothing.

4. Critics can’t claim the TSA violates their constitutional rights & demand the agency violate the Equal Protection clause.

Again, the TSA’s actions are not unconstitutional simply because you say so. I am fully sympathetic that most frustrations with the TSA begin with a simple premise: I pose no risk to this flight so why should I face any added scrutiny? However, your knowledge that you pose no risk and the TSA’s appraisal of you are two very different things. Moreover, many critics argue for implementing racial profiling. Not only does this violate the equal protection clause (note the irony for angst about constitutional violations) but it ignores the insurgent and adaptable tactics of terrorism as a technique for violence making.

5. Both critics & the TSA must cope with the fact that threats innovate, thus children, the elderly, etc become attractive means for terror.

This may seem redundant with the previous point, however, the people and means by which threats are brought to airports and aircraft are malleable. This is why profiling is ineffective.

6. While criticizing the TSA critics need to, at some point, address the number of weapons routinely found at checkpoints. Threats persist.

I am fascinated by the number of reports of handguns found by the TSA each week. You should follow @TSAblogteam on twitter if you don’t already. While the strange items they find attract the most attention, the number of weapons they find as a matter of course is surprising. While there is an argument to be made that these can be found without enhanced pat downs and whole body imaging technology, or without the TSA altogether, something is driving the desire to arm the friendly skies. As a side not, I am not saying guns are inherently bad.

7. We need robust discourse about the TSA across our society and it’s value in securing our transportation infrastructure.

We are just passing the ten-year anniversary mark for many airports ramping up their TSA operations. TSA security has become a fixture in contemporary American airports and they largely dictate how we fly. The conversation about the TSA has been largely driven by official PR work, a scattering of news stories dictated by that PR work and by legitimate issues within the TSA, and by a great many critics who trend towards the hyperbolic rather than the substantive.

A polarized debate driven by the issues I have identified above is rather unproductive. For example, those who argue that the TSA is “proudly molesting grandma’s & little kids since super-lez napolatino took office” delegitimize resistance. Aside from the personal attacks and the hate speech. I point to this tweet in particular because of the continued, and perplexing, argument that the TSA is associated somehow with advancing a homosexual agenda (See here & here). Whatever that argument means. Critics of the TSA need to engage with the agency in less hostile, personal, and hyperbolic ways that make use of material harms and congressional channels. Such efforts can maximize passenger angst and moderate dissatisfaction over fringe anti-state assumptions and hostile rhetoric.

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Belvedere Vodka Puts Rape on the Rocks.

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I will refrain from extended comment, however, the above ad-that was online briefly then removed-shows the casualness with which rape is treated in our commodity culture. Outside of violent rape, which is still downplayed and blamed on the victim, date rape and consent derived under the influence of alcohol is a serious issue that our culture makes light of. This ad highlights our culture of rape.

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Breitbart, Olbermann, and the Claims of Rape at Occupy Protests

Abstract:

Rape likely occurs-based on Breitbart’s own statistics-at a far higher rate in the society as a whole than it ever did in occupy. Rape occurs on country roads and urban corridors. It happens in the suburbs and at schools. It occurs in our neighbors houses and even in the beds of married couples. Consent is coerced using drugs and alcohol, force and power, and this is the part of rape that is neglected in this discussion.

Do we need to explore the sexual politics and material reality of rape in occupy-yes! However, if Olbermann and Breitbart are suddenly so concerned about issues of rape I would invite them to take a shot the much larger issue of rape in our culture. That is a problem that can not be blamed on liberals as animals and demands more than a partisan ideology.

In what would seem like a superfluous contest of irrelevancy if it did not entail the serious issue of rape, Andrew Breitbart and Keith Olbermann got into a heated battle over the role of the Occupy movement in the rape of what Breitbart claims is at least a “dozen” people across the movement. In retweeting and replying to Olbermann (and being retweeted from there) I received a number of nasty replies from acolytes of Breitbart. Nonetheless, the issue of rape in occupy is important because it poses a number of issues of agency, response, and responsibility for a leaderless movement.

The incident that sparked the flareup was Breitbart confronting a group of Occupy protestors outside this year’s CPAC conference:

Breitbart can be heard clearly yelling

Stop raping people, stop raping the people…you freaks, you filthy freaks, you filthy filthy filthy raping murdering freaks.

His animus towards occupy makes it impossible to deal with him seriously as an advocate for those who were victims of assault in occupy encampments (especially those who were or are still members of the occupy movement). I wonder if he would blame them for being members of the movement.

Breitbart claims, “I said stop raping people, I am saying to the occupy movement, writ large…” He also claims that his bellicose yelling at Occupy protestors outside of CPAC was a stunt. The problem with his claim is that he makes Occupy into a a single unified agent that that is committing the rapes. Occupy is not an institution, as I have written on this blog before they are best understood using the Deleuzian concept of haecceity. They are a multiplicity and that lack of clear hierarchy likely is what drives Breitbart crazy and makes it impossible to substantiate the claim that occupy was raping people. Moreover, he has no evidence that the protestors he was yelling at in the video are rapists.

As for Olbermann, he often deflects attention away from the issue by hedging that members of occupy were victims and that it may have been outsiders that committed the assaults. This could be true, or not. However, occupy’s initial response to sexual assault undermines the sympathetic case Olbermann builds. As Jezebel (of all places) reports, the sexual politics of Occupy are incredibly complex. The initial response was to attempt to handle issues of crime and sexual assault internally, directing victims “to immediately report the incident to the Security Committee” as opposed to authorities. However, after widespread criticism many encampments became more open to letting authorities in and to providing areas with services specifically for sexual assault or rape. Showing their interest in stopping rape, as opposed to scoring ideological points, critics of occupy dubbed the areas providing these services rape free zones.

The core issue here is that rape is a serious crime and should be reported to authorities immediately. What is worse is that only about 25% of rapes are reported. Meaning that Occupy’s impulse to deter reporting says as much about the politics of occupy as it does about American society-we rather not talk about rape or deal with it. Breitbart’s core message “stop raping people” is a great message but is less efficacious and is wasted when his political motivations are revealed. The central message to every American, given that we live in a culture permissive of rape, ought to be stop raping people. Consider that The New York Time reported that government officials were shocked to find that 1 in five women in the U.S. had been raped. The occupy encampments are the perfect phantasmagoria of conservative fears of liberal occupation as rape scene-unwashed masses defying social order in a soup of social disobedience. This, like the mysterious dark alley, seems the proper place for rape. Of course there is never a proper place for rape. Moreover, rape likely occurs-based on Breitbart’s own statistics-at a far higher rate in the society as a whole than it ever did in occupy. Rape occurs on country roads and urban corridors. It happens in the suburbs and at schools. It occurs in our neighbors houses and even in the beds of married couples. Consent is coerced using drugs and alcohol, force and power, and this is the part of rape that is neglected in this discussion.

Do we need to explore the sexual politics and material reality of rape in occupy-yes! However, if Olbermann and Breitbart are suddenly so concerned about issues of rape I would invite them to take a shot the much larger issue of rape in our culture that persists long after the violent and peaceful evictions of a number of the occupy encampments. It is at a cultural permissibility of rape that sees 1 in 5 women experience rape and only 1 in 4 report it that Breitbart’s ire should be directed. That is a problem that can not be blamed on liberals as animals and demands more than a partisan ideology.

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NCA-What’s On Tap

I have a busy NCA this week because of professional commitments and the opportunity to catch up with old friends.

First, I am really excited to present my paper “The Possibility of Politics: Aesthetics, Airports, and the Production of Docile Bodies” on the panel Securing the State, Securing the Self: Voice and Vision in (Domestic) Foreign Policy. The panel is in NCA’s Critical and Cultural Studies Division and the other papers look outstanding. I am really looking forward to this conversation. Check us out from 8:00 AM to 9:15 AM at the Sheraton New Orleans Napoleon A3 – Third Floor. The other papers include:
“Tasers, Torture and the Politics of Visibility” Andy Opel, Florida State University; Greg Elmer, Ryerson University
“The Two Shootings of Oscar Grant: Cellular Panopticon as a Diagonal Process” Chema Salinas, Arizona State Univ

Second, I am chairing the Top Student Papers in Critical and Cultural Studies and the essays are outstanding. You should make plans to stop by to see these papers from 2:00 PM to 3:15 PM at the Sheraton New Orleans Napoleon A1 – Third Floor. The essays being presented are:
“On Being-Confined: Destructive Time and the Supermax Prison Cell as a Weapon of War” Michael Vicaro, University of Pittsburgh
“Two Sides of the Same Coin: Economic Bail Out Discourse as Liberating and Oppressive” Christy-Dale L. Sims, University of Colorado
“What an Idea Sirji! Deconstructing the Language of Citizenship in Idea Cellular’s ‘Inclusive India’ Ads” Rahul Mukherjee, University of California, Santa Barbara

Third, I will be joining Utah faculty at the Graduate Student Fair to talk about the Utah experience with prospective graduate students Thursday November 17, from 1:00-2:30 at the Marriott Grand Ball Room in booth #416. If you want to hear more about our grad program please stop on by.

Last, Utah will be hosting our annual NCA reception Friday November 18 from 6:30-8:30 in the St. Charles Room at the Marriott Hotel (41st Floor). Please join us.

I hope to see lots of folks at NCA!

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Dissertation Prospectus Defenses as a Scholarly Conversation

In reflecting on my own experience in my dissertation prospectus meeting I realized how little is known by graduate students about what these documents look like and what happens in these meetings. Here are a few thoughts on getting from post-comps to post-prospectus.

A few months ago I found my efforts to write my dissertation prospectus grounded by a frustrating set of attempts to gain site access for my dissertation research and a kind of lingering insecurity over what this document was supposed to be about anyways. While coping with site access ultimately shifted my dissertation content, my anxiety over the actual document was something I had to get over and do so quickly. Thankfully, my committee is incredibly attentive and one of my committee members happened to drop The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Demystifying the Dissertation Proposal,” in my mailbox. Leonard Cassuto’s advice is succinct and was helpful. Cassuto lays out a series of descriptive points that establish what a proposal is not:

  • A dissertation proposal is not an essay.
  • A dissertation proposal is not a mini-dissertation.

He also offers suggestions on what a dissertation proposal is:

  • A proposal puts forth your argument.
  • A proposal describes how your argument will fit together.
  • A proposal outlines methodology.
  • You need to show the place of your dissertation in the critical field.

I found his advice to be enormously helpful, but there is a glaring caveat that Cassuto recognizes in the form of a commandment, “Consult your adviser as you develop your proposal. The myth of the writer as solitary genius striving away in the garret has surprising persistence.” The fact is that a dissertation prospectus can be many things, including the mini-dissertation or essay Cassuto urges you not to write.

For example, as I wrote my prospectus I consulted with a number of my colleagues who had recently written or were writing a prospectus. I discovered that their chairs had advised them to write everything from a fifteen page overview to a two-hundred page proposal with one or two sample chapters. Even more harrowing was that in many cases the chairs demanding these documents happened to be on my committee. Meaning, that even writing my prospectus under careful guidance from my chair, I knew walking into my defense that at least two-fifths of my committee advise their doctoral students to write their documents in radically different ways from what I had written (A 34 page overview of my research orientations, justification for the study, theoretical insights, and chapter overviews).

In the end my document served me well because it accomplished what Cassuto describes as the main purpose of the dissertation prospectus:

The purpose of the dissertation is for it to be approved. Only then can you start writing. A lot of misunderstanding swirls around dissertation proposals. One foundational fact cuts through it: A dissertation proposal has no independent existence. It’s a provisional document, a way station to an eventual goal.

My document accomplished just that. From here, my dissertation is able to get moving. However, it is worth noting that in the actual defense meeting many of the questions that were asked of me called me to answer for what some committee members would have asked their advisees to write in the first place. For example, my theoretical insights, though provisional, were heavily featured in the document. Two committee members needled me with questions about how those insights specifically connect with the actual analytical work with texts I would be doing. These questions could have been nullified had I written a mini-dissertation or provided a sample chapter of some kind. I do not regret writing the proposal I wrote, however, I do find that the document I wrote did as much to determine the tone, pace, and content of the defense meeting as the documents I chose not to write.

Here, as my last point, I want to emphasize that the prospectus document is meant to get you to the meeting so you can talk about your project in front of a panel of experts. The meeting is meant to help clarify issues that may have occluded your view and to engage in a conversation with your committee about the work you plan on doing. Defense, may in fact be the wrong posture for these meetings. I found that my committee members asked tough and important questions, listened carefully to my responses, and pushed me–all of this was not to make me defensive about my project but to aid in widening my field of vision so that I could see important issues I was missing. What emerged is a set of lingering questions that I must attend to in my dissertation, but the tone of the meeting was never defensive. Instead, I found my meeting to be a rigorous and challenging conversation with experts in the field. This conversation model is important because as we progress beyond comps and through the dissertation process we emerge as colleagues instead of students. These meetings, as conversations, help facilitate that movement.

In the end, learn to trust your chair’s intuition about the process but remember that they cannot anticipate everything that can happen in the meeting. As such, prepare by talking with your colleagues and gauging their perceptions of the styles and postures faculty have taken in their meetings. This can provide enormous insight that helps you get past the last hurdle before you write your dissertation (Which is, of course, an entirely different set of anxieties).

For another look at defense meetings see Daren Brabham’s recent post on these meetings.

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