by Mimi Nguyen
 

October 10, 2001, 10:44 a.m.

What is it about the ahistorical figure of the "innocent" child in the national imaginary? On Sunday morning George W. Bush read the following in his speech announcing the nighttime attacks on Afghanistan:

I recently received a touching letter that says a lot about the state of America in these difficult times, a letter from a fourth grade girl with a father in the military. "As much as I don't want my dad to fight," she wrote, "I'm willing to give him to you."

This is a precious gift. The greatest she could give. This young girl knows what America is all about. Since Sept. 11, an entire generation of young Americans has gained new understanding of the value of freedom and its cost and duty and its sacrifice.

This anecdote, which concludes his speech, is quite clear about its message. Bush's (and his speechwriters') use of a female child to represent "what American is all about" harnesses a political agenda to the sentimental image of the infantile citizen. This ideological flourish operates on several levels. First, it constructs "the family" as the source of national strength and reproduces a gendered, heteronormative hierarchy of "good citizenship." The female child who gives her daddy to the state is the model for the wife or mother who gives her husband or son. The connotations of the "homefront" are gendered feminine and domestic, while the men (and the boys) wage war in the "elsewhere" to protect the womenfolk "back home."

Second, this anecdote affirms that the threat to the innocence of "our" children is located somewhere "out there," in which the baddies are the "other" of the state. Of course, violence of all kinds happens in the "home" nation, whether it's welfare reform or domestic violence or hate crimes. There are plenty of children in the United States who are never figured as "innocent enough" to warrant protection, and quite a few who are criminalized (according to race and class) before they even reach adolescence. And admittedly I wondered if this "dutiful" fourth-grader (if she's not a figment of a speechwriter's imagination) might not want her father out of her home, or her life, for reasons other than patriotism.

Third, it mobilizes the figure of the giving child as the prepolitical manifestation of political love. That is, while her willingness to give her daddy to the state is commended as the proper expression of national duty, this "sacrifice" is simultaneously figured as non-ideological, as an authentic, emotional instinct rather than a hegemonic narrative naturalized by the imagined "innocence" of a child. This also is a fantasy of the nation as an ahistorical phenomenon and patriotism as a natural inclination. A child is supposedly the most "natural" creature (or "lil' citizen") of all, and her sentiments are imagined to be unadulterated by impurities -- such as politics.

Fourth, it places all power in the hands of the state. Because she cannot or will not act on her own behalf, she designates the state as her proxy and protector. She gives up her right to participate as a critical citizen in a nominal democracy (or as a child, having been denied this right) in the name of "duty" and "sacrifice," allowed agency (noted in her effort to communicate with the President and to sacrifice her father) only long enough for her to give it away to the state. This gesture becomes justification for the suspension of civil liberties, the suppression of dissent, et cetera, because it can be said that she asked for it .

Such that this infantile citizen is a political subject created from the suppression of critical knowledge, but also from the production of certain kinds of knowledge about patriotism and political love. Importantly, this model of citizenship describes a relationship to the nation-state that is not limited to actual children. Lauren Berlant writes that, "The infantile citizen of the United States has appeared in poliitcal writing about the nation at least since Tocqueville wrote" and that the U.S. "produce[s] a special form of tyranny that makes citizens like children, infantilzed, passive, and overdependent on the immense and tutelary power of the state."

It is this ideal of a naive nationalism that makes it possible for the New York Times to print color photographs of undulating flags against clear blue skies, or miniatures clutched in solemn reflection, above a series of articles about increasing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence. It does not occur to the Times that not a few flag-wavers might be perpetrators of such violence, or that the mythically imagined ideals and privileges of citizenship encoded into the U.S. flag have historically functioned as a veil or even a rallying cry for exclusion, and that for some readers this lay-out and its juxtapositions might feel threatening, or horrific, or ironic. And when this is acknowledged, the violence is not necessarily understood as a directed expression of patriotism (produced by both institutions and ideologies), but a sort of instinctual, individual reaction to national trauma.

An article about some Euroamerican citizens arming themselves in the aftermath includes statements such as this from a Mr. Phil Beckwith, "I know just what to do with these Arab people. We have to find them, kill them, wrap them in a pigskin and bury them. That way they will never go to heaven."

This elaborate homicidal fantasy is not figured as a racist or indeed, a terrorizing sentiment, even while appearing above a photograph of a Yemeni American storeowner's shot-up shop window. Instead Beckwith's violent sentiments are portrayed as pre-political and non-ideological. His statement is narrowly understood as an expression of his pain, his suffering on behalf of the nation, which is somehow more "truthful" because he is infantalized by this discourse of naïve nationalism as emotionally raw and politically innocent in his loving, patriotic identification.

(I should note that antiwar and progressive partisans are not above using the figure of the child as a source of prepolitical wisdom either, or as a category of "innocence" made to suffer horribly. For the record, this also annoys me to no end. Don't get me started.)

October 6, 2001, 4:40 p.m.

listening: The Ex, Dizzy Spells CD; Supersnazz, live at the Port Lite

1.

N. spotted me as I entered the building and called out, "Mimi! Don't even bother going up there! It's packed and no one can get in!"

I did, but it took me twenty minutes to squeeze my way into the room where a symposium on 911 had drawn a crowd of hundreds, with others turned away at the sight of the bottleneck in the hallway. I missed Kiren Chaundry's talk on "American Foreign Policy and the Bitrth of the Taliban" but arrived in time for Minoo Moallem's discussion of "Islamic Fundamentalism and its Modern Aspects." My first glimpse into the room I saw audience members standing in tight clumps, and turning my head, others sitting on the floor behind the panelists and under the projection screen. L. made a small space for me on a table shoved into the back corner, and we perched there like two scrawny Vietnamese birds with our notebooks and pens, scrit-scratching away.

2.

While public service messages and politicians' statements urge "good citizens" to recognize Arab and Muslim neighbors as "fellow Americans," the seemingly daily proposals for new legislation, new policies to "fight terrorism" from Attorney General Ashcroft and Co. are the real "hate crimes." Both Margaret Russell and Jennifer Terry noted that this discourse --of individual restraint matched by governmental excess-- configures the role of the state as an avenger, meting out punishment and regulating liberties on behalf of its populace.

3.

The symposium was organized by the Women's Studies Department and sponsored by the Center of South Asian Studies and the Departments of South and Southeast Asian Studies and Near Eastern Studies. I love that all the speakers were women academics, and that unlike the majority of women speakers I've seen and heard at antiwar events in the last few weeks, they did not idealize "womanhood" as a source of compassion or peace, invoke the figure of the Muslim woman as always already a victim, or make appeals on behalf of "the children of the world." Instead they discussed the politics of representation, colonial tropes of "rescuing brown women from brown men," and the domestication of the Western woman as wife and mother in the U.S. national imaginary.

4.

I would also note the politics of the figure of the "innocent child," either as the bright and shining future of the nation, the nascent citizen-victim to be protected by the mighty arms of the state, or the unintentionally "wise" commentator whose innocence is the source of that wisdom ("out of the mouths of babes"). This is so problematic in albeit fascinating ways, and not the least because in the months before 911 the national public discourse was obsessed with the "hidden monster," the child gone terribly wrong, the juvenile offender, the school shooter, the "out of control" teenager.

1:58 p.m.

Discussing blasphemous band names in the aftermath of the attacks, T. and C. throw out "Bin Laden and the Boxcutters," "The Infinite Justice League," and "Dirty Tricks."
 
 

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