| 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
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
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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."