Serious Satire: Trevor Noah and the Daily Show

The controversial and recent elevation of 31-year old South African comedian Trevor Noah to the host of Comedy Central crown jewel the Daily Show proves the power of satire in a hyper-mediated world. Once long-time host Jon Stewart announced his retirement in February, wild speculation unfolded about who his replacement would be. When Comedy Central announced Noah’s promotion, reporters and journalists delved into his corpus of work to make bold pronouncements about his future success as the face of the satirical news industry. Indeed, worries about the racist, sexist, and homophobic nature of some of his Twitter posts have fueled a debate over whether Noah is up to the job. Comedy Central is standing behind their choice.

Noah, via IndieWire

What this controversy symbolizes to me is recognition of what scholars of rhetoric and media have long known to be true—that satire has an uncanny ability to speak truth to power. And that in a world where many Americans get their news from satirical shows, the host of the Daily Show matters a great deal.

But it also implicates questions of audience and nationalism that lurk under the surface of late-night comedy, a rhetorical form that hinges on its ability to create community. In other words, the central question here is who gets to make fun of us? Part of this debate swirls around ethos, or credibility. And the credibility of the Daily Show matters a great deal for its ability to be a democratizing voice—one of the great powers of satire in the public arena. Indeed a 2009 Time poll found Jon Stewart to be the most trusted newsperson in the country.

The other part of this question deals with who the “us” is. It is important to note that the audience for the Daily Show is a largely young, well-educated, male audience. But it’s also an audience, I argue, steeped in traditions, language, and values of the United States. Satire works when an audience feels like it is “in” on a joke—it depends upon a feeling of community with the joke teller. The audience cannot feel like the object of scorn. Thus, I submit part of the controversy here is a subtle unease with allowing someone from outside of the United States to be the one that makes fun of us and our government. (Not to mention his status as a person of color. Who knows what uncomfortable conversations about race this may spur!)

Of course, one way in which Noah can get “in” with “us” is to create a third object of derision or ridicule to triangulate against the United States government and his audience. And it seems like, based on his previous Daily Show appearances, that Noah’s native South Africa might provide such a foil. Indeed, in one appearance on the Daily Show, Noah used (the whole continent of) Africa as a way to demonstrate U.S. racism. While this routine did ultimately end up making Stewart and the United States the object of scorn, it reinforced commonly held beliefs about Africa as the backward, dark continent, while also painting those conditions onto the United States. Of course, perhaps confronting (or perpetuating) stereotypes is another way of creating community. Yet, it will be interesting to see how Noah is able to create the community demanded by satire when he cannot solely rely on comparison. I worry that in the interest of poking fun at the United States, he may continue to reinforce stereotypes about Africa.

However, I am also sympathetic to claims that all comics, like all writers, take time to find their voices, and I will be watching with interest once Noah takes the helm of the Daily Show.



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As You’re Tweeting the National Championship Game…

On March 19, 2015, Ashley Judd published an article on the news website Mic about the threats of violence she received after tweeting about Kentucky basketball. Judd tweeted that Kentucky’s opponent was “playing dirty & can kiss my team’s free throw making a—.” In response, basketball fans called Judd a “whore,” “bitch,” and “cunt” and made threats of physical and sexual violence.

AP Photo/David Richard

AP Photo/David Richard

These responses are deeply problematic—not just because of their extremely violent nature, but also because they are used to target women online. Judd asserts that even when people like her uncle make similar points about Kentucky’s gameplay, he does not face threats because of his position as a “male sports fan.” Judd rightfully points out that the tweets she received represent a “devastating social norm experienced by millions of girls and women on the Internet.”

Cultural studies scholar Emma Alice Jane calls this gendered e-bile, “a hostile misogynist rhetoric on the Internet” and “a type of discourse marked by graphic threats of sexual violence, explicit ad hominem invective and unapologetic misogyny.” Like Judd, Jane points out that gendered e-bile is not unique to people who are particularly famous or controversial. Rather, these kinds of threats are widespread and common—so much so that Jane calls them “a lingua franca in many sectors of the cybersphere.”

Wisconsin fans can help make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen for women like Ashley Judd. As we all watch Wisconsin play in the NCAA men’s basketball championship tonight, and as we discuss their play afterwards, we must welcome the voices of women fans. We need to make sure that Badgers don’t call Ashley Judd — or women like her — a bitch for daring to talk about basketball.

Dekker & Hayes High Five

If anything, this year’s Wisconsin men’s basketball team has taught us that being a Badger means staying loose, having fun, and playing good, clean games. For Badgers, those three things aren’t contradictory—they are what makes Wisconsin a winning team. And they can be what makes Badger basketball fandom the fandom that everyone else wishes they had. We all know our team is better than Duke. Let’s show them that our fans are too.



Jane, Emma Alice. “‘Back to the Kitchen, Cunt’: Speaking the Unspeakable about Online Misogyny.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 28, no. 4 (2014): 558–70.


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Reframing the Narrative and Revealing Bias: The NYPD’s Wikipedia Edits

Last week, Capital New York revealed that Wikipedia edits made to a number of entries on police brutality traced back to 1 Police Plaza, the headquarters of the NYPD. Among the entries edited were those for Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, and Sean Bell—all unarmed black men killed by police in New York—as well as the entry for the city’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program. The two officers involved will face minimal punishment for using NYPD computers for “personal activity.” While some may see this as a lesson on the credibility of Wikipedia, I argue that it’s simply a more blatant illustration of the racial biases that suffuse narratives of police brutality across all media.


All of the edits were intended to minimize or erase traces of police brutality and misconduct from the entries in question. For instance, in the Eric Garner entry, the phrase “chokehold” was replaced by “headlock” and an extra phrase was added claiming that Garner was “significantly larger” than the officers involved. Elsewhere, an NYPD user suggested the entry on Sean Bell, an unarmed black man killed by NYPD officers, for deletion, writing: “He was in the news for about two months, and now no one except Al Sharpton cares anymore. The police shoot people every day, and times with a lot more than 50 bullets.” There were also other unrelated edits to the entries for the band Chumbawumba, croissant, and Sailor Moon.


As Kate Knibbs on Gizmodo notes, no law was broken in the course of editing these entries—anyone can edit Wikipedia. However, Wikipedia’s code of ethics cautions against conflict of interest editing. As the Wikipedia guideline on conflict of interest states:

When an external relationship undermines, or could reasonably be said to undermine, your role as a Wikipedian, you have a conflict of interest. This is often expressed as: when advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest.

There is little question that the NYPD employees editing Wikipedia were experiencing a conflict of interest when editing entries on police brutality and NYPD conduct. Based on the limited editing history, the officers involved were not active “Wikipedians,” but were rather attempting to “bluewash” the narratives of police brutality on Wikipedia, reframing the narrative of these events in a manner more favorable to the NYPD.


Edits to the Eric Garner entry -- blue highlights were NYPD additions

Edits to the Eric Garner entry — blue highlights were NYPD additions

First, as many have noted, the tendency to cast black men as violent thugs, dangerous to police due to their size and aggression, reveals racial biases that lead to a staggeringly high instance of lethal force used against suspects of color. Take for instance Ferguson officer Darren Wilson’s testimony on the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown: “When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” As Jamelle Brouie writes, “Wilson describes the ‘black brute,’ a stock figure of white supremacist rhetoric in the lynching era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” Unfortunately, as the recent spate of police brutality and its attending discourse has revealed, the figure of the “black brute” is still alive and well in the media. In the Eric Garner entry, the altered lines about Garner’s physical stature and his behavior at the time of his arrest (“waving his hands in the air”) all point to this same characterization, which in turn supports the NYPD’s assertion that the violent chokehold that killed Garner was a justified use of force. These edits do nothing to enhance the accuracy of the entry, but rather work to support the NYPD’s narrative. In instances such as these, physical size or a less-than-complacent temperament are seen as violent or dangerous in and of themselves.


Second, the edits show a clear attempt to sanitize the discourse of violence in an attempt to justify the NYPD’s actions and programs. For instance, the erasure of the phrase “chokehold” (the illegal maneuver that killed Eric Garner) in favor of the more neutral phrase “headlock” removes not just a phrase from the narrative, but a central question in the debate about Garner’s death. While the officer involved claimed that the maneuver used was not a chokehold, the medical examiner who ruled Garner’s death a homicide noted that Garner was killed by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” The removal of the phrase changes the terms of the conversation, and erases a significant debate in the subsequent discourse surrounding Garner’s death. In turn, it takes the focus off of physical trauma and violence wrought by white officers upon bodies of color.


Another notable facet of this controversy is its location: the crowd-sourced encyclopedia Wikipedia. On some level, it may not be surprising that the NYPD edits Wikipedia entries pertaining to their actions—after all, Congress and the UK government employees have been caught in the act before. Indeed, college instructors malign Wikipedia as inaccurate and take points off of student assignments when Wikipedia is cited. While as instructors we may frown upon our students citing a crowdsourced body of knowledge, the fact remains that Wikipedia is a commonly-used source of information, and often a valid source for basic information as long as one is willing to engage in some basic fact-checking.


As danah boyd, a prominent internet researcher, writes, while Wikipedia is not a proper encyclopedia, it can be a very effective resource for students when combined with effective media literacy education. Yet, what is most troubling about the NYPD’s edits is that they demonstrate a much more insidious bias that is omnipresent even in so-called mainstream media—those outlets employing professional journalists and fact-checkers who abide by strict codes of ethics. While the officers’ edits may have been made consciously in order to swing the narratives more favorably towards the NYPD, the fact remains that even mainstream news outlets often cast young men of color as criminals and addicts, police brutality as justified, and protests as needless anger. The NYPD’s Wikipedia edits were merely a more blatant manifestation of the bias and strategic reframing that suffuses discourse about race in the United States.

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Community Debates: Where Activism and Deliberation Converge

On March 12, 2015, Dr. Sara McKinnon and I hosted the second in what we imagine to be an ongoing series of community debates regarding incarceration and law enforcement in Dane County. Over 300 people attended the debate, which considered the following proposition: Renovations to the Dane County Jail will ensure the safety of vulnerable people in our community. The debate featured County Sheriff David Mahoney and local physician and retired professor, Dr. Douglas Kramer on the affirmative side and M. Adams of Freedom Inc., and the Young Gifted and Black Coalition along with Nino Rodriguez of the MOSES Jail Taskforce on the negative. You can watch it here. There were many reasons for hosting this debate on this topic, but primarily we wanted to create a forum to consider the different sides of an ongoing discussion at the county level about whether to renovate the county jail due to what the Sheriff says are grave safety concerns (originally the conversation was about whether to build a brand new jail, though after months of local agitation, that proposal was taken off the table). Members of the communities most impacted by incarceration and policing and their allies have loudly spoken against these proposals, demanding the county build the people, not the jail.

For some in these latter communities, it is hard to imagine how Dane County, known simultaneously as a progressive bastion and home to the worst racial disparities between blacks and whites in the United States, can even consider pouring money into the jail. In 2013, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ Race to Equity Project Report detailed the severity of racial disparities here. Some of the most startling statistics included that 75% of the county’s black children live in poverty, compared to 5% of white children. This is relevant to the jail conversation because many people spend time in jail due to committing crimes related to being impoverished (e.g., theft, drugs, public urination). In 2013, Madison Police Department arrested black people at a rate of 11-1. And countywide, black youth are 15 times more likely to be placed in juvenile detention than their white counterparts. Perhaps one of the most disturbing facts about racial disparities in Dane County pertains to the county jail itself. While Dane County’s black population is about 6-7%, the Dane County Jail black population is around 48%.

In this racial context, the jail has been proposed and opposed. The context has grown increasingly complex in the past several months as a result of a series of national police murders of unarmed black men, followed by a series of non-indictments of the individual officers involved. As a result of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a coalition emerged in Dane County calling themselves Young Gifted and Black (YGB). Since November, YGB has taken to the streets every week to oppose mass incarceration, racist policing, and the building of a new jail, and to support resources for the black community and black-led initiatives. Then, on March 6, 2015, Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny responded to a couple of calls about an individual behaving erratically on Madison’s eastside. Within seconds of being on the scene, Officer Kenny shot and killed 19-year old unarmed black youth, Tony Robinson. For the past week, Madison residents have been in the streets protesting and mourning. The community debate on jail renovations was already long-scheduled. And we intended to go forward. After all, as YGB member Eric Upchurch noted in a YGB press release about the event, “The state violence that leads to mass incarceration of black people is the same state violence that leads a police officer to shoot an unarmed black boy. Our opposition to efforts to renovate the jail is directly connected to our pursuit of justice for Tony Robinson.”

The practice of academic debate has received a lot of attention from rhetoric and argumentation scholars. Some of those scholars, perhaps most notably Gordon Mitchell and those who write about urban debate leagues, have focused on the activist and public importance of academic debate. We have little to no scholarship that addresses the use of debate outside of the academic context. A few articles and conference papers have focused on Malcolm X’s use of debate to confront his adversaries and promote and defend his positions, including the work of Robert Branham. Branham explains that for Malcolm, debate was “a unique and valuable form of public address. His use of debate was a deliberate rhetorical choice, through which he believed that his positions might be advanced most persuasively to the largest possible audience (Branham, 1995). He confronted highly educated and sometimes nationally recognized adversaries in a format that accorded him relatively equal standing and some assurance that his views would receive consideration and response.” This view of Malcolm X is consistent with how McKinnon and I imagine this format in the local community. Each debate will feature a black radical position against a more moderate liberal or progressive position, and the issues addressed will be centered on black experience and voices. The point is to show the nuance of left-leaning politics on issues that are of vital importance to local black communities and to give a legitimizing space to radical black voices. The point is also to show how spaces where activism and deliberation converge do not have to be governed by norms of whiteness and civility. Instead, productive and engaged political spaces can be open to a variety of displays of affect and involvement.

To us, this seems like not only a great way to advance the “Wisconsin Idea” in a time when it is under attack, but also a way to show the significance of rhetoric and public address to contemporary political culture on our most pressing community issues. You can watch the first debate here. The proposition was: Police body cameras are an important part of the solution to the problem of police violence. Stay tuned for more.



Branham, Robert James. “`I was gone on debating’: Malcolm X’s prison debates and public confrontations.” Argumentation & Advocacy, 31, no. 3 (1995): 117-137.

Mitchell, Gordon R. “Pedagogical possibilities for argumentative agency in academic debate.” Argumentation & Advocacy, 35, no. 2 (1998): 41-60.

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Rhetoric and Sense-making in the Death of Tony Robinson

Madison, WI, progressive bastion of the Midwest (or so its residents like to think) saw itself become the next city to kill a black, unarmed teenager post-Ferguson last Friday night (March 6). The teen, Tony Robinson, was shot five times by a police officer in a house on “Willy Street” on Madison’s East Side. In the days following, protests have grown in size, and with them, media coverage has grown in frequency and scope.

As a white Madison resident concerned with the city’s disproportionate arrest of black men (they’re 8 times more likely to be arrested than white men here), and the spatial and economic segregation of the community, I have so many thoughts and so very many feelings.

As a scholar, I am overwhelmed by all there is to see and hear. Speeches. Gestures. Blog posts. Newspaper articles. Videos. Still images. Some coalitional. Some divisive. Some purporting to be descriptive. Some honest about offering interpretation. All rhetorical.

While I continue to process what I might have to say about these events, today my aim is curatorial. Here, I share with you some select moments from the last few days which bolster my belief that rhetoric is no ancient art, but very much alive and well in these United States:

  • Actively working to combat the common representation of fallen black men as “thugs,” Tony’s mother requested that this photo of him at his high school graduation be the one circulated in the media:

Tony Robinson

  • Media representations of Tony have tended to align with common tropes used to explain why black men are killed by police. Despite his family and friends’ efforts to talk about him as fun-loving, helpful, smart, and kind, this one clip from CNN, for example, represents Tony as mentally troubled, a criminal, and a troubled teen who had fallen in with the “wrong crowd.”
  • Madison’s police chief demonstrated the Platonic tradition of denigrating rhetoric even as he employed it to apologize to the community. In a March 9 “Message to the Community” blog post, Chief Koval points to Sir Robert Peel, the “founder of modern policing,” to explain that “POLICE ARE THE PUBLIC AND THE PUBLIC ARE THE POLICE” (Koval’s emphasis). He then employs a number of metaphors: putting on “armor” each day, thinking about the police as “guardians” of “the vulnerable, the voiceless, the victims.” Then, as he concludes, he writes, “Let us continue to demonstrate to you that our commitment transcends mere rhetoric” (emphasis mine).
  • A Milwaukee science fiction and fantasy author took on the role of argumentation scholar that same day, analyzing common arguments made in the wake of events like Robinson’s killing. His piece, “4 Reasons Not to Get Upset About Tony Robinson and Why They’re All Bullshit” responded to 1) calls to “wait for the facts,” 2) arguments that “officers have to protect themselves,” 3) questions about why protestors aren’t “protesting criminals” instead of police, and 4) colorblind assertions that “people shouldn’t make it all about race.”
Paul Soglin addresses crowd

Image source: The Isthmus, a Madison, WI newspaper.

  • Scholars of traditional public address often hear that their work matters little in a digital world, but the above image of Madison Mayor Paul Soglin addressing more than 1,500 young protestors on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard suggests otherwise. As the street name reminds us of one of the great orators of last century’s civil rights movements, Soglin’s bullhorn before this group of protestors demonstrates the continued expectation that political leaders speak in times of social and/or political upheaval.
  • “Indict. Convict. Send those killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell.” “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” – As the crowd marched across the city, these collective chants demonstrated a belief that shared words and shared experience (the aural, the embodied, and the visual) were important to communicate their response to the deaths of unarmed black youth and adults in Madison, and beyond.


Of all the chants that I’ve heard at this week’s protests, my favorite one is this: “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” From a community grappling with principles of fairness, equality, and justice this week, I offer these examples to illustrate the critical role rhetoric plays in these negotiations. As rhetorical scholars, we are trained to notice, think through, and make sense of these symbolic representations. However, as I hope the above illustrates, and as this blog hopes to communicate, everyone is always both a rhetor and a rhetorician.


by | March 10, 2015 · 9:52 pm

Colorblindness: A Graphic Exploration

1 colorblindness copy

2 colorblindness copy

3 colorblindness copy

4 colorblindness copy

5 colorblindness copy

6 colorblindness copy

7 colorblindness copy

8 colorblindness copy

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Free Markets and Union Thugs: Efficiency v. Equity in South Park’s “Handicar”

In a recent episode of South Park, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker made a biting social commentary on recent transformations in the transportation marketplace.  The episode, entitled “Handicar,” focuses on a fictional ridesharing application created by fourth grader Timmy Burch — a disabled character bound to his wheelchair. The app, to which the episode is named, is a satirical depiction of ridesharing service Uber, in which Timmy escorts customers around town in a red wagon attached to the back end of his motorized wheelchair.  Having created the application as a way of fundraising for a camp for the disabled, the service quickly becomes popular throughout the town of South Park.  However, not everyone in town is quite so fond of Handicar.


Nathan and Mimsy, two other attendees of the camp, want Handicar put out of business so that they don’t have to spend another summer at a camp they detest.  Handicar’s rise to prominence also irritates the cab drivers of South Park who claim that the service is taking business from their industry.  In their conjoined efforts to take down this new service, what follows is an absurd and hysterical storyline that pokes fun at Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and Lincoln Motors’ advertising campaign featuring Matthew McConaughey.  This story culminates in a “Wacky Race” that pits Handicar against these other modes of transportation in a battle for market supremacy.


While it may be easy to laud the “Handicar” episode for its comedic value it is also important that we recognize the episode as a site of public argument.  As scholars of argument and debate it is important that rhetoricians analyze and critique these mediated forms of argument in the public sphere.  In their uptake of the Uber debates, Matt and Trey demonstrate their well-known Libertarian viewpoints, portraying Uber as a free market response to inefficient unionized cab services across the country.  In making this argument South Park highlights what scholar Deborah Stone, in her book Policy Paradox, refers to as the myth of an equality-efficiency trade off in public policy debates.


Equity, Stone contends, is a goal of policy concerned with maintaining a just and fair distribution of “goods and services, wealth and income, health and illness, or opportunity and disadvantage” (p.39).  Concerns about equity have been common topics of debate surrounding Uber across the country.  These concerns are voiced, most commonly, by labor representatives and unionized taxi drivers.  On the other side of the debate are those who argue that a lack of regulation on services like Uber create a more efficient market for consumers. Deborah Stone contends that efficient organizations are commonly thought of as ones that “get things done with a minimum of waste, duplication, and expenditure of resources” (p. 61).


The arguments presented in the “Handicar” episode regarding Timmy’s new ridesharing service employ similar claims to those lauding Uber, employing a free-market rhetoric of efficiency.  Absent in its uptake of the Uber debates is a treatment of issues of equity in compensation and employment practices.  Rather, Matt and Trey choose to frame equity and efficiency as contradictory ideals, portraying union cab drivers as crooks and thugs who are unfairly disrupting free competition and efficient innovations in the market.


Recognizing unionized cab drivers as natural allies in their quest to ruin Timmy’s business, Nathan and Mimsy attend a meeting in which these drivers are plotting to get Handicar out of South Park.  While the unionized drivers offer solutions that involve governmental intervention in the market, such as asking the mayor and police to shut down the business, Mimsy, Nathan’s lackey, in a moment of lucidity, states “Why don’t you guys just make your cars cleaner and nicer, and try to be better to your customers so that you can compete with Handicar’s popularity in the marketplace?”



Choosing to ignore Mimsy’s advice, the cab drivers instead break into Timmy’s house and break his legs as a warning message from the union.  In doing so, Matt and Trey are portraying a common argumentative trope of the union thug in a rather literal way.  Depicting union drivers this way further invites audiences to view unions in a negative light, and as an obstacle to more efficient markets.  Later in the episode Mimsy echoes this sentiment in another lucid moment when he extols “Maybe if they [cab drivers] are that incompetent we shouldn’t try to save their jobs,” viewing this new competition in the market as a “kind of economic survival of the fittest” where good drivers weed out the bad ones.  Framed in this Darwinian light, unionized cab drivers must adapt and evolve or they are destined to become extinct.  Further, this Darwinian frame suggests that markets operate according to natural laws that exist outside of human control—ignoring the fact that markets are human constructs subject to man-made laws.  Matt and Trey’s argument not only operates under this natural understanding of the market, but also suggests that this point is so obvious that even one who is mentally disabled should be able to recognize free competition as the best solution to the ridesharing controversy.


Ultimately, this argument operates under a logic of free-market efficiency that, in portraying unions as obstacles to the natural progress of industry, ignores questions of equity that surround the debates on Uber.  While the episode frames efficiency and equity as incompatible goals, it is important to recall Deborah Stone’s argument that “efficiency is always a contestable concept” (p. 65).  What is efficient for customers may not be considered efficient by laborers.  The myth of the incompatibility of efficiency and equity is a powerful force that helps shape the contours of debate, but this myth is a rhetorical construct that benefits some while disserving others in very real, material ways.  In order to create better, more desirable policy outcomes it is thus imperative to expose this myth and redefine the appropriate parameters of debate regarding policy outcomes in the public sphere.

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In Ayotzinapa, It Was This State Too: #FueElEstado, #YaMeCansé, and U.S. Complicity in Mexican State Violence

“Se compran colchones, tambores, refrigeradores, estufas, lavadoras, microondas, o algo de fierro viejo que vendaaaaan!” So goes the distinctive call of the trucks that circulate many neighborhoods of Mexico City, buying such items as old refrigerators, stoves, and washing machines to sell for scrap metal. Waking up to the grating voice over the megaphone is an experience ubiquitous to life in the Distrito Federal.

Over the summer of 2014, which I spent living in Mexico City, my friends liked to joke that there was no way those trucks could make enough money for the gas they waste just by buying and selling old microwaves. “It’s actually state surveillance, spying on all of us,” they would laugh. Though they insisted that they were kidding, my friends’ suggestion carries undertones that reflect the sinister reality of life in Mexico today.

The implication that state surveillance has permeated every aspect of life down to the most mundane experiences takes on new meaning in light of the events of September 26th , wherein 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college in the state of Guerrero were shot at and abducted by police then passed off to the Guerreros Unidos cartel. Thousands have mobilized in response, united by the slogan: Fue el Estado. It was the State.

Image from El País.

In the wake of what is now largely understood to be a massacre, it is crucial that the protestors’ response directly implicates the state. While it might be politically expedient for president Enrique Peña Nieto to blame the violence on individuals, like Jose Luis Abarca, the mayor of Iguala who originally ordered police to take action in Ayotzinapa, or the cartel members who have since confessed to murdering the students and burning their bodies the repeated assertion that “It was the State” rejects those individualizing tendencies. The slogan refuses to view Ayotzinapa as an isolated event, or as the result of a few corrupt individuals abusing their otherwise justly exercised power.

By proclaiming, “It was the State,” the protestors directly recall the relationship between the government and the violence that has racked Mexico over the past decade. The phrase “Fue el Estado” incisively levels the assertion that, in these repeated instances of repression, the state is at the root of the violence. Indeed, this proclamation points directly to the ways in which the Mexican government has been enacting low-intensity warfare (in ever more intense ways) in collusion with paramilitary forces and drug cartels against its own population over the past decade, littering its path with tens of thousands of victims of the “drug war.”

“Ya me cansé,” another phrase repeated by protestors and proliferated through social media, adds further dimension to claims about the state. By saying “I’m tired of this now,” Ayotzinapa is presented as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, not an exceptional occurrence that requires more of a response than the horrific—and growing—history of state violence that precedes it. In fact, numerous mass graves found in the search for the 43 students stand as a chilling testament to the impossibility of writing Ayotzinapa off as the exception.

Importantly, the protestors make no appeal to the Mexican government to find the perpetrators of this crime or to enact justice. Indeed, they already know who the perpetrators are. Rather, protestors condemn the government for its widely acknowledged complicity in the Ayotzinapa massacre. This condemnation is one of a system (not an individual) for its ongoing violence (not an isolated incident).

As claims of “It was the State” reverberate with mighty condemnatory force, we in the U.S. must ask: which state was it?

In an excellent op-ed in the L.A.Times, Rubén Martínez states that

 It has become something of a truism to point to how deeply the United States is implicated in the drug war. American demand, Mexican supply. American guns, Mexican bloodbath…What Americans can’t face is precisely that we’ve broken bad together with Mexico.

As Martínez suggests, the United States is deeply implicated in Mexico’s state violence. But it is not just through individualized modes of demand and the illegal arms trade that the U.S. is the second state with Ayotzinapa blood on its hands. Nor is it really a truism, yet, to point out that, through programs like the Mérida Initiative, Mexico has received billions of dollars from the U.S. in military and police aid. Thus, it is under the guise of combating drug violence that the U.S. has funneled capital and weapons into the hands of the Mexican state and, by association, drug cartels, in the process funding the repression of social movements and dissent.

This cannot be overstated: When Mexican protestors proclaim that “It was the State,” the U.S. is implicated, too.

It is convenient to blame what is happening in Mexico on drug violence without looking at where the capital behind that violence comes from. Yes, the disappearance of the 43 in Ayotzinapa was the state, but not the Mexican state alone. It was the capital-S State, the collaborative, neoliberal U.S.-Mexico State, the militarized and repressive State that ensures the continued flow of drugs, weapons, and money at any cost.

Peña Nieto—who, tellingly, travelled to Australia recently for the G20 summit (where protests followed him)—has said little about Ayotzinapa, though he pledges to bring to justice those who committed the crimes. The irony of this statement is not lost on those who shout “Fue el Estado”: in order to bring to justice those responsible for the disappearance of the 43, the Mexican state would have to implode. Perhaps, with mounting mobilizations against the government, it will.

But what about that other state?


Thursday November 20, 2014 is a global day of action for Ayotzinapa. Wear black in solidarity and join the protests going on around the U.S. And keep in mind that it was the state – the U.S. state, too.

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Seeking “Compassionate Disruption” on Oahu

On the island of Oahu, Hawaii, approximately 4,700 people are experiencing homelessness. More than a third of them are unsheltered. The city of Honolulu, along its deep blue ocean waves and bright, sandy beaches, has one of the nation’s highest homeless populations per capita.

© Joe Philipson 2012

For a community that relies so heavily upon tourism revenues, this doesn’t bode well. People don’t like to vacation alongside homelessness. In the state’s largest newspaper, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell wrote, “We can’t let the homeless ruin our economy and take over our city” (June 2014). “It’s time,” he said, “to declare a war on homelessness.”

In the intervening months, Caldwell has developed an approach he calls “compassionate disruption” to address this “crisis.” “If we let it be convenient to sleep, for example, on these sidewalks in Waikiki or parks around the island, it just means that those activities continue, and we don’t get people into permanent housing to be treated and made better,” Caldwell said.

This is the “disruption” part of the strategy: Police have stepped up enforcement of laws that already exist that restrict homeless people’s access to public space. They’re giving out tickets and arresting people for sleeping in parks at night and for being “sidewalk nuisances,” and they are seizing people’s unattended personal property. At the same time, Caldwell’s administration has passed new legislation (October 2014) that would make it illegal to sit down/lie down on public property, and that would attach a $1000 fine to public urination/defecation (a frequent problem for homeless people without 24-hour public restroom facilities).

This kind of lawmaking/law enforcement is not unique to Honolulu. Indeed, advocates have documented a trend toward “criminalizing” homelessness in the United States for some time. A similar trend has impacted people trying to alleviate homelessness. Just this week, several people were charged in Florida for serving food to homeless people in a public park.

It’s hard for me to think of these kinds of actions as “compassionate.”

To disrupt is “to break apart, to rupture, to throw into disorder.” The idea behind Caldwell’s strategy appears to be to make it so uncomfortable to be homeless that one would have to be “crazy” to not seek help. What Caldwell seems to be missing is that that’s already true of homelessness. It has never really been terribly convenient to sleep on sidewalks or in parks. It is also not as easy as one might think to find effective help. Homelessness is already often a state of disorder; it is itself a state of disruption. These efforts work to make already undesirable, chaotic conditions even more undesirable.

How, then, might it be “compassionate” to seize people’s personal property and make life on the streets even harder? How does Caldwell frame disruption as a positive strategy?

 Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Honolulu, HI.  © Ed Morita 2012

Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Honolulu, HI. © Ed Morita 2012

First, Caldwell’s rhetoric surrounding his “compassionate disruption” policies frame homeless people as pitiable, and in need of guidance. “I think it is incredibly cruel to just drive by homeless folks and ignore them as if they don’t exist – those who have mental challenges and addictions – and say let them fend for themselves,” Caldwell said.

Here, he reduces a highly diverse homeless population to people with “mental challenges and addictions,” calling into question their decision-making abilities. The problem, Caldwell continually implies, is not that there aren’t enough services (there aren’t), but that people aren’t choosing to use them. It is compassionate to help people get the services they need. It is compassionate to force people to do “what’s best for them.”

Secondly, the rhetoric of “compassionate disruption” portrays housed people who “help” homeless people as good citizens. It is what “civilized people do and it is what Americans do.” This, of course, implies that Caldwell’s policies are “help,” and that one should feel both civilized and patriotic for supporting these policies. As “compassionate disruption” makes the audience feel pity for homeless people, it makes them feel good about not “just driv[ing] by homeless folks.” Conversely, people who don’t support these policies (i.e., advocates working for alternatives), and homeless people themselves, are represented as less “American,” less civilized.

Third, Caldwell’s repeated turn to “compassionate disruption” is paired with policies that appear to reward homeless people for seeking help. Honolulu has begun to allocate millions of dollars to a Housing First plan that aims to house a fraction of the city’s homeless population (estimates vary). It certainly appears compassionate to provide housing to homeless people, especially housing with “no strings attached,” as the Housing First model demands.

But these apparent rewards work to mask other troubling policies. The number of tickets issued on behalf of “compassionate disruption” in just the first six months of 2014 is more than three times the largest estimate of Housing First apartments projected to be created in Honolulu over the next several years. Caldwell is also currently considering a plan to “relocate” a portion of the city’s homeless population to a camp on Sand Island, the site of a former Japanese internment camp, and former home to ash and solid waste dumps as part of his strategy.

The rhetoric of “compassionate disruption” serves as a reminder that rhetoric has very real material consequences. How we talk about homelessness, and about helping, influences the policies we establish to address these issues and the ways we respond to people living in states of disruption. Caldwell’s policies have been gaining steam in the public and in the legislature, even as advocates resist. As they do so, they help to define what “compassion” looks like on Oahu, and maybe even beyond.


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#ifmyphonegothacked: “Nothing to Hide” with a Side of Victim-Blaming

The “nothing to hide” argument has been a common fixture of post-Snowden discussion about surveillance and privacy. Most likely, you’ve heard some iteration of it in conversation—“I have nothing to hide, so why would I care if the government knows who I call on my cell phone?” Widely considered a fallacious argument by cybersecurity and legal experts, the “nothing to hide” argument also contains implicit assumptions about the divide between public and private–themes that pervade our discussions of digital communication more broadly. Most notably, shades of the “nothing to hide” argument appeared in recent discussions surrounding the leak of nude celebrity photos stolen from iCloud.


In the “nothing to hide” argument, citizenship trumps privacy—the statement declares that one is willing to exchange the privacy of their information for increased national security. With this in mind, many have objected to the “nothing to hide” argument for its legal implications. For instance, danah boyd wrote that the argument fails to consider the ways that data can be manipulated and filtered to cast an individual as guilty, and in so doing, it comes dangerously close to bypassing the “innocent until proven guilty” standard on which U.S. justice allegedly rests.


Importantly, the “nothing to hide” argument also rests on a conception of privacy as a form of secrecy, as Daniel Solove wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Rather than seeing privacy as an essential right that contributes to a healthy life, the “nothing to hide” argument rests on a deep skepticism about why anyone would desire to keep certain information private. Additionally, as Solove notes, privacy is a particularly difficult concept to articulate. He writes that:

It is a plurality of different things that do not share any one element but nevertheless bear a resemblance to one another. For example, privacy can be invaded by the disclosure of your deepest secrets. It might also be invaded if you’re watched by a peeping Tom, even if no secrets are ever revealed.

The difficulty of articulating privacy means that, in instances where an individual claims their privacy has been invaded, they are often met with resistance. For instance, someone spied on by a peeping Tom may find their claim to privacy invalidated because of vague laws that fail to accurately define a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” In digital environments, this becomes all the more fraught.


After the September 2014 release of nude celebrity photos (crudely nicknamed “The Fappening”), a strain of commentary emerged that highlighted the public/private tension of the “nothing to hide” argument. In the aftermath of the leak, many took to Twitter with the hashtag #ifmyphonegothacked. These posts were often jokes about the fact that the users in question only had the most innocuous pictures phones—excessive animal photos, photos of food, and so on. The tweet generally included an example of the type of picture on the user’s phone, and sometimes included a comment that the user was “smart enough” not to take nude selfies.  As Jill Scharr notes, this not only misses the point that the leak was an invasion of privacy due to lax security on iCloud’s part, but crosses over into victim-blaming and moralizing.


The #ifmyphonegothacked tweets point to the same misconception about privacy that pervades the “nothing to hide” argument—that privacy is a form of secrecy, and thus should be regarded with suspicion. In arguing that the most scandalous photo a hacker would be likely to find on one’s device is an awkward (clothed) selfie sent to a friend, and by posting this photo along with the #ifmyphonegothacked hashtag, the user is putting seemingly private or embarrassing content on a public forum. The subtext here is that while, yes, it may be embarrassing for a third party to see the photos, the user has nothing to hide—and that if you do have something to hide, you have done something wrong.


In this way, the #ifmyphonegothacked hashtag makes a much more chilling statement—that the women in question are in the wrong for maintaining private lives, for using their devices to express their sexuality (an increasingly common phenomenon). As Kelsey McKinney writes:

In reality, few people are above this. There is nothing wrong with libido, nothing wrong with sending a picture or a video or a snapchat to another consenting adult. What’s wrong about these photos isn’t that they exist or that they were shown on the internet. What’s wrong is that they were taken and distributed without consent from the parties involved.

In this way, the #ifmyphonegothacked hashtag not only misses the point about the crime at hand, but combines one of the most problematic arguments about security and privacy with the cultural bias against female sexual expression.


While the difficulty of articulating a right to privacy in digital environments remains a problem, some of the responses taken after the hacking and theft do hint at potential solutions. For example, 4chan (the message board site where the photos were initially posted) instituted a DMCA policy that would allow victims of hacking to have their photos removed on copyright grounds. However, these solutions come no closer to preventing these leaks in the first place, and certainly do not make up for the violation suffered by those whose intimate images are posted—violations that occur as much through the revelation of the images as well as the shaming and victim-blaming that follows.

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