I’m so outraged at Kim Kardashian for maintaining the 5th Fleet in a human rights violating autocracy.
[Update: Juan Cole notes this episode also demonstrates the failing of our media, which largely ignored Bahrain until Kardashian’s trip. “There is something wrong with our whole information system. Mostly, it is that it is a capitalist media. But also, it is too often too respectful of power.”]
One of the strange things about our politics is the disconnect between what sorts of things lead us to express outrage and what sorts of things we don’t notice. I’m thinking specifically of how a statement can set off outrage while the background behaviors, activities or policies that the statement expresses do not. So Mitt Romney can, as head of the Republican Party, run an entire campaign on policies that are designed to better distribute wealth to the wealthy while ignoring the concerns of large blocs of voters, but it takes him saying that he only cares about half of the voters to really get people outraged.
I think this dynamic is a product of two things. First, a great deal of our politics concerns people’s motives and character, which are largely unknowable, as opposed to assessing their actions on their own terms. So when someone says something, potentially revealing their intentions, it seems powerful. Second, it’s hard to get upset about long-standing, entrenched conditions. We do better trying to oppose some deviation from the norm, or at least, things that are understood that way. Thus we see a great deal of arguments over precedents outside the courtroom, where they may well seem misplaced.
This all came to mind today as I was thinking about Kim Kardashian, whose tweets lead to all manner of snark and attacks in my timeline.
People rightly pointed out that Bahrain is an autocracy, a human rights violating regime that brutally suppressed popular efforts to seek change –the sort of movements that were cheered in the US when they took place in countries that were not US allies but got considerably less attention otherwise. People questioned Kardashian for whitewashing the regime and promoting the country as a tourist destination. And I agree.
But of course, whatever aid Kim gave to the regime pales in comparison to the aid the US government has given the regime over the years. Bahrain is a close US ally. It is where the US stations the Fifth Fleet, which serves to police the Arabian Gulf and ensure that oil supplies move freely. The US also provides Bahrain with military aid, in the form of arms deals and support and training. (It’s also worth checking out Ken Silverstein on how Bahrain and other such regimes engage in PR and lobbying in the US with the help of Americans who may or may not make their ties known, which is a very lucrative business.)
The sin of talking about how great Bahrain is is considerably less troubling than the sin of funding and supporting the regime.
So go after Kim if you like, but in a couple of days when this thing has subsided, remember your tax dollars are actually propping up this regime and supporting the very things you are complaining about. A great goal for the next four years would be to reduce the number of countries where the US supports regimes so contrary to our expressed ideals. There are a lot of things we could advocate for which would advance the cause of human rights around the globe and here at home* aside from making an example of someone whose fame continues to baffle me.
*Indeed, none of this is to suggest that the US itself hasn’t also engaged in serious human rights violations – obviously we should hold ourselves and our own government to account using the same standards we use to judge other countries. Well, at least it should be obvious.