Explorations in Disasporic Identity

A colleague spoke a few days ago on the pitfalls of ethnography, commenting on the complicated relationship between researcher and subjects, and how that was further muddied by the fact that he has family in the area in which he was conducting research, and he is part of a disapora in Canada, but he was read as white, and as North American by many of the people he met.

Following this I began thinking about my own identity as a white British national living in Canada, and how I am read by people here and people at home. As I am not a cultural studies scholar I find that I am often lacking the language to describe my own experience. I spoke to another colleague whose work focuses on issues of citizenship, diaspora, and identity, and asked if she had any texts she could recommend that might get me started in understanding the theory through which I could understand my experience. However she mostly focuses on ethnic groups with visible identities–mostly the South Asian diaspora–and the white foreign national experience is quite different. We are not visibly identifiable–either to outsiders or as we look for other Brits. Recognition of identity comes with speech, as our accents give us away. Accents are so important in British culture, as they denote class, geographical locatedness, and culture. But what happens when your accent starts to fade?

This is the position in which I now find myself. I have lived in Canada for six years, and my accent has faded to the point that other British nationals in Canada do not identify me as British, and I am most often identified as Australian. I am not a citizen of Canada, nor yet a permanent resident, so my status here is temporary. Yet, when I go home, friends comment that my accent has changed, and strangers find it hard to place me. I am out of touch with the culture, the news, the politics. I do not share in the daily goings on that ground a person in a culture. I have that affinity with Vancouver, but I cannot vote here, and my accent constantly identifies me as an outsider. I am not part of a diaspora- while I know there are British expats here, and I have British friends, we do not form a community based on that identity.

I have really begun to question my identity as I have found myself reacting to others who claim a British identity. One friend identifies as British, but has never lived in the UK. She has British parents and British citizenship, but she grew up in Canada. She does not have the cultural knowledge that someone who grows up in the UK would have. She does not visit often enough to keep her cultural knowledge up to date. However if she was South Asian, I would not think to question her identity as part of a disapora. Another friend was born in the UK to British parents, and lived there for the first six years of his life, but then moved to Canada and grew up playing hockey and speaking with a Canadian accent. Are those six years enough to instill an understanding of British culture in him? Does he feel that the UK is home? Another acquaintance spent his first 14 years in the UK, but then lived in the US, and now returns to the UK in his 60s and does not recognize the place upon which he built his identity. He understands himself as British, and speaks with a strongly identifiable accent, but he feels lost in London, with no idea where to go or where things are located. Complicating this, he is a visible minority, as his mother was Indian and his father Israeli, so he is read as other by both Brits and Americans alike.

If I become a permanent resident of Canada, and perhaps later a citizen, I could spend my life in this country. Would I then be a Canadian? Would people ever stop identifying me as an outsider because of how I speak? Would I still have a British identity, if I lived in Canada for longer than I ever lived in the UK? I have been away for six years, visiting at least once or twice a year. And yet already I understand that I am lacking in the knowledge of the daily goings on that makes my hometown ‘home’. Can I still live in Canada and call myself British, as I lose that cultural connectedness? What then makes me different to any of my friends who claim a British identity that I question?

Ender’s Game

Woo embedded pictures! Now I have set myself the task of finding an appropriate pictoral representation for every post. More hours of procrastination!

Well I finished Ender’s Game a week or so ago- I fairly raced through it, it was an easy read and well-written too. Lagging slightly towards the end in the post-climax cleanup. Necessary though- I didn’t feel like it was just wrap up or filler, Card was still bringing in new ideas and further developing the plot even in the wrap-up chapter.

I find it bizarre that, according to Peter Singer in Wired for War, Ender’s Game is on the Marine Corps Commandant’s required reading list.

Some intitial scattered thoughts of elements which the book might be intended to encourage/instill in its military readers:

Paternalism- Graff. Father knows best, worry for the boy. It is impossible to dislike Graff because even though his methods and overall aims (extermination of the buggers) are disagreeable, he is a father figure to Ender and always has his best interests at heart. A message that is delivered with the subtlety of a frying pan to the head and the end of the book when Ender realises what Graff has been doing. We should all just put our trust in our military fathers and unquestioningly let them do whatever they think best to keep us safe.

Heroism- Ender always volunteers, self-sacrifice, hardship to make better person. Could there be a more ideal soldier?

Camaraderie- family, respect, support- all the positive things we always hear about the military

Aside from that, I thought that the provocation towards distrust of military leaders prompted by the implication that the buggers are not real and are just used as a method of control was really interesting in a book that is required reading in the marine corps. The need to fear something in order to hold alliances together is what kept the world functioning throughout the Cold War. And then there’s the need to justify military spending… It’s a veritable roadmap for Bush’s War of Terror, and every other overhyped immenant danger since we lost the USSR as a focus of threat and fear.

I also found this blog post which I though illustrated similar themes of the good of the many vs the good of the few, and the need to trust the good intentions of our benevolent commanders, as analyzed through Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.

Actually, I’m surprised this isn’t required reading for all elements of the military. It is surely the militaristic dream of total control in safe, sanitized warfare. The informationalization of war is not a new concept- RAND’s John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt take their definition of ‘cyberwar’ from an interpretation of the Mongols’ strategy in wargfare, in which superior communications and military intelligence, speed, awareness of the enemy’s tactics, and propaganda or psychological operations secured Mongol victories against armies that were far greater in number. Arquilla and Ronfeldt find similar evidence for the effectiveness of the strategy of information-dominance in the German Blitzkreig doctrine of World War 2 (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 1997, P38). Information has always been power, especially in the battlefield, and surely the only desire for a military officer greater than the wish to cut through the Fog of War is the desire for a war with minimal bloodshed.

Ender’s Game surely expresses the ideal in warfare- completely sanitized battles which rely on highly developed combat skills, strategies and tactics, in a setting safe enough even for children to become soldiers. No one is hurt (no one in the human camp anyway), no blood is visably spilled, no soldiers get post traumatic stress- they don’t even know they’re doing any killing. It’s the military dream- pure informational separation. And in reality we’re not far off. Ender’s Game was written in 1985. In 1992 John Arnett in one of the earlier uses of the term ‘cyberwar’ described the massive data gathering  project that was the legacy of the Cold War, and the development of robots and drones which we could send into these carefully mapped areas, operated by soldiers safely behind the scenes. “These technologies allow for the progressive separation of man and machine, as ‘autonomous’ weapons such as smart bombs, and planes that do not need pilots are developed, and vast amounts of data are collected from the field by sensors and processed by computers, meaning that humans are increasingly reliant on the interpretation provided by these computers as humans do not have the capacity to process such volumes of data themselves” (Arnett, 1992 P15). Now these drones are in regular use, directed by kids at CIA headquarters in the US, who drop bombs and destroy entire villages in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, with the same kind of distancing effect as a video game. It’s not quite Ender’s Game, but it’s pretty darn close.

However despite these advancements, the dream remains illusive. As Chris Hables Gray explains in Peace, War, and Computers, “[a]s for perfect security, we know today that there will be no such thing no matter what the [Revolution in Military Affairs], for three fundamental reasons: the fog of war, the limits of information technology, and the postmodern war system.” [2004, P29] There will always be uncertainties in war; there is no such thing as total information awareness (despite DARPA’s best efforts!). And technology fails; it is imperfect. Drones cannot accurately identify targets to the same degree that soldiers can, and accidents are inevitable. And add to that: the very nature of war is changing. Gray calls in ‘postmodern war’.

He explains, “[w]ith World War II, war became global, battle became continuous, and weapons becomes absolute. Atomic bombs made it clear that modern war’s main assumption, for the political utility of total war, no longer held. Yet, most of the modern war system remains in place: the military-industrial complex, the military modernization of technoscience, and the assumption that war is still the most effective political tool available to policy makers. Hence, postmodern war.” (Gray, 2004, P24)

Hannah Arendt identified this paradox of postmodern war in her assessment of the changing nature of war since the creation of nuclear weapons: “The third fact seems to indicate a radical change in the very nature of war through the introduction of the deterrent as the guiding principle in the armament race. For it is indeed true that the strategy of deterrence ‘aims in effect at avoiding rather than winning the war it pretends to be preparing. It tends to achieve its goals by a menace which is never put into execution rather than by the act itself.’… the point of the matter is that today the avoidance of war is not only the true or pretend goal of an over-all policy but has become the guiding principle of the military preparations themselves. In other words, the military are no longer preparing for a war which the statesmen hope will never break out; their own goal has become to develop weapons that will make a war impossible.” (1963, P6)

This benefits everyone; it allows for the continuation of huge volumes of military spending- in fact it necessitates it because your army/weaponry/technology must be superior to all other. At the same time it avoids war itself which would be destabilizing and potentially lost. Even if the war was won, the government may not come out of it looking good due to the loss of life on the opposing side. And for what? How was the war justified? It is a precarious media campaign that no one wants to have to deal with.

The military used to be the organization that dealt with war, and it was separate from civilian life and the way it was governed. WW1 and 2 changed that, with civilians becoming targets in an indiscriminate war. Since the horrors of industrial warfare and the destructive power of nuclear weapons, we have been moving steadily away from war involving civilians, towards a sanitized, safe, secure version of war in which not even soldiers are killed. The Cold War was all about deterrence, to ensure that nuclear weaponry could not be used. Now we are moving towards cyberwars that use robots and drones rather than soldiers, and potentially that use only computers.