Think before you Think

What is the most dangerous belief system?
The Capitalist Belief System is Killing All of Us
Epistemology, Knowledge and Rational Belief:
The Role of Global Doubt in the Search for Knowledge


Good Ethnics, Bad Aliens:Imagining the Global Village

by Samira Kawash

I. Fictive Ethnicities
In choosing a topic for the 1996 International Roundtable, I
imagine the organizers might have had in mind, among other
things, an increasing sense of the intractability of ethnic identity
as a source of conflict and violence around the globe. Such concern
is widespread and well founded. Many commentators have
remarked with surprise on the resurgence of ethnic particularism
in the late 1980s. In light of such disturbing phenomena as
“ethnic cleansing” in Eastern Europe, the question is often
posed: Is ethnic difference consistent with universal values and
rights? Sometimes this question appears as a debate about the
desirability or danger of “cultural relativism,” whether in relation
to the American school curriculum or the African practice
of clitoridectomy. Another question often raised is whether ethnic
identity strengthens or undermines the nation, that is,
whether nations should correspond to ethnicities, or whether
nations are better conceived of as a secular and neutral alternative
to ethnicity. The ongoing tragedies in both Rwanda and
Bosnia make these questions especially urgent.
In response to such conflicts, political leaders and others have
emphasized the drawing of boundaries and the separation of
peoples as the best remedy to ethnic conflict, appealing to ethnic
identity as both the source of tension and the basis of a resolution.
Such a viewpoint assumes, among other things, that ethnicity
is separable from its historical conditions or conflicts, and
that ethnicity preexists history in some way, such that already
established and differentiated ethnic groups meet on the historical
stage. In the framing of all of the issues and questions I have
mentioned, ethnic identity is assumed to be something originary
and natural, such that it is ethnic identity that produces the particularities
of ethnic culture. In this framework, ethnic identity is
assumed to be something distinct and specific that each of us
has, an important and determining component of our individual
identities. Thus, insofar as ethnic identity is understood as natural
or unchanging, it appears to be a perpetual source of conflict
as well as the necessary basis for any political or social
Ethnicity has usually been taken to refer to a group’s holding
something in common, whether language, religion, geographical
origin, common history, some physical characteristic, genetic
similarity, or some other attribute. But in fact none of these characteristics,
either alone or in combination, can systematically
account for the differences and groupings everyone will
nonetheless agree actually exist. For this reason, ethnicity is not
the kind of empirical fact that we can isolate and understand
abstractly. There is no essential, universal determinant underlying
the idea of ethnic identity as a fundamental and unvarying
aspect of human history, which is what identity in its traditional
philosophical or scientific sense is usually taken to mean. Just as
there is no essential or constant determinant of ethnicity, there is
no form of ethnicity that is absolutely pure or uncontaminated.
Any attempt to discover some aspect of ethnic purity that would
serve as origin or ideal can be easily shown to be false; every
imagined purity turns out to be already contaminated and
hybrid. Although communities may understand themselves as
sharing a particular ethnicity, these ethnic identities are not natural
or eternal; rather, they are “invented” to give a sense of
coherence and tradition to groups that are constantly reforming
and shifting (this is what Etienne Balibar has called “fictive ethnicities”).
Ethnicity in the sense I am describing is constantly
being contested and reinvented. It is not the sign of the timeless
origin of a people; rather, it is the always newly created expression
of an experience in the present.1
But to say that ethnicity is fictive or invented is not to say that
it is not powerful. Indeed, the appeal to ethnic identity both as a
basis for political struggle and as an explanation for various con-
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flicts seems stronger than ever. For this reason, I am interested
less in determining what ethnic identity is or ought to be than I
am concerned with understanding the way the idea of ethnicity
operates culturally and politically to provide a framework for
interpretation and action. In the current context, we should not
be surprised that the accelerating globalization of commodity
capitalism and its accompanying cultures are exacerbating
already existing conflicts and creating new ones. Thus, I want to
ask: What is the significance of the fact that these conflicts are
interpreted and explained from the perspective of ethnicity?
And also, in what ways might the lens of ethnicity contain, control,
or limit the ways in which conflict can be understood or
resolved? These questions are addressed not to the empirical
events that make up conflict, but to the way these events are
represented and therefore given meaning and form.
Currently in mainstream discourse — by which I mean the
language and representations shared as a baseline of common
assumption by politicians, television, film, print media, and
reflected in everyday “common sense”—one finds two competing
versions of ethnic diversity. On the one hand, there is a positive
image of pluralistic coexistence in which differences are a
source of pleasurable variety rather than conflict or dissent. On
the other hand, there is the negative image of a world being torn
apart by ethnic differences that can only deepen. Of course,
these two visions mark a contradiction: ethnicity is represented
as being at once a deep and irreducible basis of conflict or separation
and, at the same time, a superficial difference that will be
overcome by the forces of modernization or globalization. This
contradiction is resolved in contemporary discourse through an
effective splitting of what is represented as ethnicity: between
an assimilable form of difference at the level of style, and an inassimilable
otherness that is perceived as threatening. Although
both these forms of ethnicity appear in contemporary discourse
and analysis, they do not share the same relationship to modernity.
Rather, the ideas of good ethnicity and bad ethnicity are
implicitly related as stages in development. Bad ethnicity, an
ethnic difference that appears as conflictual and irresolvable, is
ethnicity that has failed to evolve. In this sense, ethnicity itself is
anachronistic, reaching back to a premodern past rather than
forging ahead into a future that transcends such quaint particu-
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larities. Thus, while the cosmopolitan image of the global community
is represented as ethnically pluralistic, ethnic particularity
is represented as the antithesis of cosmopolitan values and
metropolitan styles.
But despite its contradictory nature, ethnicity operates as a
powerful explanatory figure. In a media context of short attention
spans and soundbite politics, ethnicity provides a convenient
and simplifying shorthand to signal, describe, and
understand conflict. Such a simplification is dangerously convenient,
swiftly and imperceptibly shifting our attention away
from a careful consideration of the historical and political forces
particular to a specific situation that might reveal a complexity
of positions and interests. Conflicts ranging from mild discrimination
to full-scale war may have material, economic, or political
dimensions, and may be rooted in fundamental
dissymmetries of power or interest. The explanatory and analytic
framework provided by ethnicity cannot account for such
complexity, and instead refers conflict to forces that lie outside
the realm of politics or understanding, such as taste, belief,
lifestyle, values, and so on. Once conflict has been determined to
be rooted in ethnic differences and ethnic particularities, then
the splitting of ethnicity into good and bad forms correlates with
a splitting of conflict into resolvable and irresolvable conflict.
Good ethnicity is taken to be the source of superficial and therefore
resolvable conflicts of style, while bad ethnicity stands as
the source of deeply rooted and irresolvable conflicts. And insofar
as both good and bad forms of ethnic identity are understood
as ahistorical and immutable, such conflicts allow for only
two solutions: tolerance or exclusion. When conflict can be
understood as rooted in “good ethnicity,” then a corresponding
policy of tolerance will assure that each party can continue in
their different styles or ways of life without impinging on the
other. However, if conflict is represented as being caused by
“bad ethnicity,” then the only solution that can be imagined is
absolute separation, either through a strengthening of borders to
exclude the dangerous alien or more ominously through total
destruction of the threatening alien other.
Within this discursive framework, images of globalization,
whether presented as imagined or real, are obliged to steer a
course between these poles of good ethnicity and bad ethnicity
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in their attempts to imagine a global community that contains
difference without conflict. To better understand the effects of
this discursive maneuvering, I want to look in detail at particular
representations of the global community that came to dominate
the popular imagination in the United States during the
summer of 1996: the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta and the
release of the blockbuster action film Independence Day. The narrative
strategy common to the texts I will consider is to contrast
the superficial differences of style with the universal commonality
of the “human family” and to project all threats to the imagined
unity and harmony of this fantasmatic family onto an alien
and excluded other. The image of a harmonious and inclusive
global community therefore has a necessary counterpart in the
image of the excluded dangerous alien. The inclusive global
community is the site of “good ethnicity,” that is, ethnic and cultural
differences that generate variety without creating conflict.
In contrast, the excluded alien is the site of “bad ethnicity,” the
source of a difference that is dangerous and must be suppressed
or controlled to protect the “good” community. Thus, the opposition
between good, assimilable ethnicity and bad, conflictual
ethnicity is refigured as the opposition between the familial
community and the alien who both threatens and opposes that
The results of this imaginary transformation and simplification
are twofold: first, the community is imagined as having no
internal conflict; and second, the community is imagined as having
no obligation to understand, communicate with, or compromise
with the alien other. The difficult task of addressing the
complexities of conflict becomes simplified: all that seems necessary
is to shore up and police the boundary between family and
alien, between “us” and “them.” I want to suggest that the
image of peaceful harmony that accompanies this splitting into
“us” and “them” is absolutely opposite its real effect. Rather
than producing a harmonious and inclusive global community,
the imaginary splitting between good ethnic community and
bad ethnic alien is the occasion and justification for violence and
repression, both against any deviation or conflict that appears
inside the community, and against the threat of the alien other
who appears outside the community.
Samira Kawash
The images I will be considering in this essay establish a community
that is global in scale. This is not to imply, however, that
they reflect a global desire or a global imagination. Independence
Day and the Atlanta Olympics television coverage originate in
the United States, and despite their explicit concern with global
issues, they persist in imagining the global community as the
extension and expansion of the national community. In general,
the global community as it is imagined in the United States neither
recognizes nor accounts for the existence of other communities
around the world that might imagine alternative global
villages. Nevertheless, due to the international power of the U.S.
media, such productions as Hollywood films and U.S.-based
television broadcasts play an important role in projecting particular
images into the international arena, thereby subtly shaping
the possibilities for debate or imagination internationally.2
Before continuing, I should briefly clarify my use of the inclusive
pronoun “we.” I will be discussing media representations
of community as they appear in mass television advertising and
in Hollywood film. These kinds of popular media play an
extremely important role in constructing a “we” as the object of
address, a “we” that aims to name those who are included and
represented in the cultural, political, and social life of the community.
This is the “we” of the mainstream, a “we” who imagines
itself in a positive, noncritical relation to its position and
opportunities. Of course, if you or I as individuals imagine ourselves
as a part of this “we,” it is in large part due to being constantly
addressed as a member. However, this “we” does not in
fact include, speak for, or represent everyone; what must be
excluded from the “we” is one of the things I will be focusing
on. My use of “we” to describe certain desires, perspectives, or
interests is not to suggest that everyone would agree or would
hold such things in common. Rather, I am seeking to focus on
the way each of us is asked to participate in the “we,” and what
this “we” implies as well as what it excludes.
II. Where Is the Olympic Village?
For two weeks during the summer of 1996, I, along with millions
of other Americans, was a somewhat involuntary participant in
the carefully staged spectacle of global unity and competition
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known as the Olympic Games. Although I do not consider
myself a sports fan and am studiously indifferent to the
Olympics in principle, I could hardly avoid the hype leading up
to the games, not to mention the saturation coverage on NBC,
expanded to every station after the bomb exploded in Atlanta’s
Centennial Park. I want to consider the Summer Olympics as a
mass public ritual enactment, not simply of hero worship or
sports fanaticism, but of a certain global vision of community
best captured in the metaphor of the global village. While the
images of a sports competition might seem trivial and superficial
in relation to images of more urgent and violent global conflict,
I want to suggest that the ritual structure of an event such
as the Olympics allows us to perceive the fundamental lineaments
of a basic set of assumptions that structures virtually all
representations of global community and conflict, from the high
seriousness of the evening news to the preposterous scenarios of
Hollywood action movies. Even more explicitly than such forms
as the news or popular film, the broadcast of the Olympics is
designed to interpellate the viewer as a member of the global
community being constituted in the event. Thus, the Olympics
not only provides an example of the representation of global
community, it is explicitly engaged in the imaginary constitution
of just such a community.
The Olympic Games provide a particularly condensed and
highly visible example of the phenomenon of globalization as
simultaneously political, cultural, and corporate. The commercialization
of the Games is not only a matter of financing, but
also marks the peculiar contemporary conjunction between corporate
sponsorship and communal ritual. It is not surprising
that one of the pavilions in the Olympic compound was called
the “AT&T Global Village,” suggesting that the very idea of the
global village is inseparable from AT&T. Such juxtapositions are
in no way accidental. Throughout, advertising prepared especially
for broadcast during the Games sought to make explicit or
emotional connections between the global spirit of the Games
and the products promoted during the commercial breaks. In
this way, games and advertising merge into a seductive spectacle
that draws us in by appealing simultaneously to us as consumers
and as global citizens. The emphasis on individual
athlete heroes suggests that the viewers are invited to identify
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with the athletes and participate in the competition vicariously
through them. But a more powerful and pervasive form of
viewer participation is through consumption, both of the broadcast
and of the corporate images being aligned with the Games
themselves. Although we might like to imagine some “pure”
Olympics dedicated to the healthy pursuit of competition and
community untainted by the marketplace, the Olympics cannot
possibly be separated from that which in fact constitutes our
global community, the international flows of culture and commerce.
The Olympics is a marketing event, selling us a global
vision even as it promotes the mundane products of its corporate
A. Big Family, Small Threat
This interlacing of global vision and corporate image can be seen
in an especially vivid way in a United Parcel Service (UPS)
advertisement broadcast during the Games.3 In this ad, UPS
uses both Olympic imagery and images of ethnically marked
locales to suggest that despite our apparent differences, we are
in fact one big family, joined together under the benevolent
guidance of UPS. The commercial opens with a scene of children
draped in various national flags moving through an abstract
representation of an Olympic stadium as the narrator states,
“The Olympic Games: celebrating the notion that it truly is a
small world.” The camera then shifts to a series of local shots
that show UPS trucks, planes, and couriers moving through a
desert scene, an elaborate Chinese festival, a Swiss ski village,
and the courtyard of the Louvre museum. Over these images we
hear, “Unless, of course, you’re UPS, bringing things to the
Games in Atlanta from every corner of that small world. Every
day we serve over 200 countries and territories, speak 43 languages,
and deliver overnight to a world that still measures
25,000 miles around.” The ad closes with adult runners bearing
various national flags finishing a race and embracing each other,
as the voice-over concludes, “Oh, we are one big family; it’s just
that the family is a little spread out. UPS. Worldwide Olympic
In this commercial, we see a condensed version of the
Olympic vision of the relation between cultural difference and
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global community. The contrast between separation and togetherness
is also a contrast between faraway and near, between
inaccessible and immediate. Cultural specificity, in costume or
architecture, is geographically localizable, filmed as part of a
specific landscape that is traversed by some sort of vehicle. In
contrast, the images corresponding to the “small world” (the
children at the beginning) or the “big family” (the runners at the
end) are eerily unlocalizable, dreamlike images that happen in
an idealized nowhere. While the Olympics are in Atlanta, the ad
seems to imply that the global family that is established is everywhere
and nowhere. There is also a subtle historical narrative
played out in this ad. “Every corner of that small world” that
UPS reaches is envisioned primarily as historically backward,
dwelling or arising out of the past. Thus, the visual for “every
corner of that small world” is a desert scene of Arab bedouins
and their camels, absolutely removed from history, technology,
or modernity, and having access to the movement of history
only through the benevolent intervention of UPS, as embodied
in the flight of the UPS airplane that takes us there. A similar
perspective informs the sumptuous scene of a Chinese festival,
equally calculated to give us the frisson of the faraway and also
the quaint premodern folkways of a distant people. The historical
narrative is most immediate in the last “exotic” scene, that of
the courtyard of the Louvre museum in Paris. The contrast
between the classical architecture of the museum’s original
buildings in the background and the futuristic Pei pyramid in
the foreground repeats and reinforces the implicit message of
the commercial: what makes the world so small, what makes us
a big family, is the universal, global march of progress. One of
the things that makes this ad such an effective promotion for
UPS is the way it associates the march of progress with UPS and
makes UPS the agent of that progress. UPS positions itself as
mediating between the distance of geography and the nearness
of family, between the primitive conditions of elsewhere and the
progress of “here”; UPS is what makes family possible, despite
these vast distances. In this ad, the difficulties of 200 countries,
43 languages, and 25,000 miles are conquered by UPS, leaving
us to enjoy the resulting unity and sense of family that is thereby
made possible.
Samira Kawash
NBC’s coverage of the Games played up similar themes by
treating the athletes as ethnically neutral in the competition,
while on the other hand emphasizing the particularities of their
home countries in the individual athlete profiles. While the profiles
were intended to add human interest and depth to the competitions,
a perhaps unintended side effect was to treat ethnicity
as something the athletes left behind in order to compete in the
Games. The implicit message, then, is that ethnic differences are
overshadowed or overcome by the global community of the
Olympic Village. In a movement from periphery to metropolis
reminiscent of the trajectory of UPS, the athletes must leave
behind their individual pasts and their familial or ethnic particularity
to join in the Games. And as in the UPS ad, geographical
movement is allied with historical development. The athletes
are depicted moving simultaneously through space, from villages
to cities and from various countries to Atlanta, and
through time, charting their development from childhood to
mature, cosmopolitan athlete.
The asymmetry that such images establish and maintain
between a premodern elsewhere and a futuristic here operates
in part to naturalize the global asymmetry of capitalism, an
asymmetry alluded to in the ad by UPS’s reminder that it is
“bringing things to the Games in Atlanta from every corner of
that small world.” We are the beneficiaries of the products and
resources of the rest of the world; the world appears here as little
more than an overgrown shopping mall. In this context, the
metaphor of family that concludes the UPS ad becomes
extremely important. Depicting the global community as a family
works powerfully to suppress any possible conflict of interest
or dissatisfaction with this global distribution of labor and production—
if we are all members of the same family, then all of us
will share in the benefits of this global order. The history of conquest
and exploitation that underpins the current relations
between First and Third Worlds, between global producers and
global consumers, between the providers of raw materials and
those who enjoy the final products, is entirely effaced. In its
place is a mythical narrative of familial unity in which the local,
the specific, or the particular serve only to provide color and texture.
In this global vision, images of ethnicity may persist, but
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divisive differences in interest, position, power, or opportunity
have been effaced.
The images and narratives that I am teasing out of this ad are
by no means unique to UPS or to the Olympics. Indeed, if they
were unique, it is unlikely that they would have anywhere near
the impact or the credibility they maintain. Rather, they draw on
a rich and continually renewed fund of images, metaphors, and
myths that are propagated in various media and that repeat in
numerous guises the message that the global community is
familial, nonconflictual, and essentially homogeneous. Part of
the effectiveness of these images arises from their success at providing
an imaginary resolution to the contradiction between the
dangerous but inevitable persistence of ethnic identity and the
narrative of modernity as universalization. This contradiction is
resolved by rewriting difference as ethnicity, reducing such difference
to pleasurable but harmless spectacle, and further neutralizing
it by banishing it to a temporally and spatially distant
B. T-shirt Diplomacy
The tag line of an ongoing Hanes campaign advertising T-shirts,
underwear, and casual wear is familiar to many: “Just wait till
we get our Hanes on you.” These ads typically emphasize
happy, beautiful people lounging or playing in loose, comfortable
clothes or underwear. The song, which describes how wonderful
you will feel when you wear Hanes, features a second
voice singing, “I just can’t wait, can’t wait.” This voice is of
course meant to be our voice; we are the ones who just can’t wait
to get our Hanes. In return, we are promised gratification, comfort,
and happiness of such profundity that our need becomes
urgent: we just can’t wait. I mention this advertising campaign
because it provides the implicit intertext for the commercial
Hanes prepared for the Olympics, a commercial that plays on
the theme already established in this ongoing campaign.4 It is
interesting to consider how the promise of Hanes gratification in
the U.S. market shifts to another register when Hanes takes on
the world, Olympic style. As in the U.S. ads, Hanes continues to
promise gratification to the wearer. The most significant difference
in the Olympic ad is the emphasis on the differences of the
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various people wearing Hanes. Thus, Hanes makes itself a
player on the global scene, working not simply to clothe the
world in Hanes-wear but, more important, working to unite a
divided world through the universal language of the T-shirt. In
its depiction of people around the world putting on Hanes Tshirts,
Hanes becomes truly transnational, covering every body
with the same skin as though to show that if differences in the
past were only skin deep, today even the skin can be changed.
The ad establishes a sharp contrast between ethnic identities
and Hanes identity by narrating the displacement of ethnic or
national identities by a universalizing corporate identity. The ad
begins with a series of portraits of individuals, each marked in a
different way by some particular ethnicity, whether by skin
color, costume, or setting. The voice-over names each of these
individuals, stating, “To some, people are either Brazilian or
Norwegian, Indian or Chinese, South African or Dutch.” This
sequence is followed by a repetition of the same portraits, this
time showing each individual in a Hanes T-shirt, while the voice
adds, “To us, it is much simpler; people are just small, medium,
or large.” What some see as “deep” differences — the South
African and the Irish—Hanes sees as irrelevant; Hanes sees only
“small, medium, and large.” The ethnic differences of Indian or
Chinese with which the commercial begins are implicitly divisive,
while the correct image of the world according to Hanes is
one distinguished only by the neutral measure of T-shirt size.
The ad closes with a chorus singing, “Just wait till we get our
Hanes on you.”
But if we compare the voice-over with the corresponding
images, we will discover that the “small, medium, and large” of
Hanes’s vision is not the neutral nondivision that the voice-over
seems to imply. “Small” is a small dark boy in a tropical setting,
outside culture or civilization; “medium” is a dark woman
standing outside a hut, simultaneously signifying domesticity
and primitivity; while “large” is a light-skinned all-American
male, attractive and muscular, his shirt marked with both the
Olympic insignia and “U.S.A.” While the cultural or ethnic differences
of nations or peoples are here neutralized and displaced
by the scientific measurement of small, medium, and
large, the imagery that accompanies this contrast in fact repeats
and reinforces very deeply rooted hierarchies of difference: the
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colonial hierarchy of primitive vs. civilized, the racial hierarchy
of dark-skinned vs. light-skinned, as well as the patriarchal hierarchy
of children, women, and men. By renaming the differences
signified by these hierarchies as sameness under the
unifying sign of the T-shirt, the interlocking and mutually reinforcing
simultaneity of colonial, racial, and patriarchal hierarchies
is thus effaced. That is, Hanes relies on and reinscribes the
very differences it is denying in order to give visual and emotional
force to its message.
As an example of this double-edged appeal to difference, consider
the drama of Westernization as it is enacted over and over
in this commercial. Each strange and exotic native body is
shown twice, in a pattern of “before and after” comparisons.
These natives seem to welcome the Hanes invasion, only too
happy to cast off their traditional ways for the tastes, styles, and
values of the West. Ornate costumes are presented as the
“everyday” style of these cultural others, a style that marks on
the surface the exotic variety of cultures that Hanes will bring
together under the banner of the 100-percent-cotton Tee. The
formal stylized display of traditional costume, which typically
includes sartorial codes of gender, age, and social status, is thus
contrasted to the easy informality, the egalitarian casualness,
and the comfortable unisexness of the T-shirt. Thus, the trauma
of cultural or economic colonization is recast for the colonizer as a
narrative of pleasurable metamorphosis. There is a sexual narrative
here, too, if we understand the T-shirt no longer as underwear,
but as the ultimate negation of sexuality, at least as it is
worn in this commercial. The erotic temptation of the native
body is veiled by the T-shirt that renders all bodies interchangeable.
The sensual or erotic display of the native body is thus
tamed and civilized by the more modest, understated T-shirt.
We are meant to take pleasure in the display of the other’s body,
while remaining reassured that the sensuality initially suggested
has been adequately controlled. We are also meant to
take pleasure in the other’s manifest delight in the gifts they
have received from us, from the United States, or from Hanes.
Thus, the history of colonial encounter and Western imperialism
is renarrated to be simultaneously superficial—only a matter of
clothes—as well as progressive—our clothes make your life bet-
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ter. The other enjoys his or her transformation; the other “just
can’t wait.”
Here, too, we see the flow of commodities outward, from
Hanes to those others, with apparently no reciprocation (except
the unstated flow of money back to Hanes). The commercial further
mystifies the relations of production that underpin this path
of consumption; where, after all, do these T-shirts come from? It
was a scant three months between the public scandal surrounding
Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line, which revealed the horrible
conditions of Third World sweatshop production of major
label clothing items, and Hanes’s Olympic celebration of putting
clothes on those same Third World peoples, this time recast as
happy consumers. In light of what is left out or distorted by
Hanes’s global vision, one might be struck by the equivocation
of the tag line — “Just wait till we get our Hanes on you” —
which seems to play quite closely with an alternative reading,
just wait till we get our hands on you. Is there not in Hanes’s
promise to clothe the world in comfort also a threat? Perhaps
this is a hint at the sinister side of Hanes’s transnational future, a
dark and violent underside that is suppressed by the upbeat
tone of the ad. What violence might be expected at the hands of
Hanes as it extends its global reach? And alternatively, how
might the global community imagined by this Hanes commercial
also be allied with some form of violence?
III. The Alien Threat
To consider the relation between global community and violence,
I want to turn to the summer blockbuster film Independence
Day, released shortly before the 1996 games.5 Like the real
event of the Olympics, the fantasy events of Independence Day
play out in a ritualized form a particular vision of global unity.
Independence Day is the story of an alien invasion that threatens
to destroy all human life on earth. Although all of earth is threatened
and major cities in every country are destroyed, we see the
story entirely from the point of view of events in the United
States, where the president teams up with a nerdy cable repairman,
an alcoholic crop duster, and a heroic air force pilot to save
the world. To say that this film is “patriotic” is an understatement;
but its patriotism is expanded, identifying American
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patriotic fervor with the global struggle for human existence.
Rooting for the global community is identical to rooting for the
United States. This film, in fact, makes this identification explicit
in a number of ways, not the least of which is the title and date:
Independence Day was released to coincide with the already existing
U.S. holiday of Independence Day, and the events depicted
in the film take place on July 3 and 4. The alien attack becomes
an occasion for the constitution of a new global community,
where the global community is understood as an expanded version
of America. As the president rallies the last of the ragtag
troops for a final, climactic, all-or-nothing assault on the aliens,
the spectator is swept up in the rhetorical appeal of a world
united by the threat of a common enemy. The president’s words
ring out:
Mankind. The word takes on a new meaning for all of us today. If
any good has come from this savage and unprovoked attack on
our planet, it is the recognition of how much we humans share in
common. . . . It has shown us the insignificance of our thousand
petty differences from one another and reminded us of our deep
and abiding common interests…. And if we succeed [in battle]….
the Fourth of July will no longer be known only as an American
holiday, but as the day when all the nations of the earth stood
shoulder to shoulder and shouted: “We will not lay down and
die. We will live on! We will survive! Today we celebrate our
Independence Day!”6
Even the most cynical critic might be swept away by this special-
effects frenzy, a thrill ride that demands as its price of
admission only that you accept the initial premise: that the fundamental
threat to life and humanity is a slimy and wholly evil
alien. In Independence Day, the dangerous difference has been
externalized, projected onto the repulsive and horrifying body
of an absolute other who must be not simply controlled but
absolutely obliterated in order to assure the coherence of the
“community of mankind” that remains. This film provides a
prototypical illustration of the splitting of ethnicity into a good
form that can be recuperated and a dangerous form that must be
expelled or destroyed. The film literalizes this distinction as a
species difference: the differences between humans are superfi-
Samira Kawash
cial, while the difference between alien and human is absolute.
Thus, the team of heroes simultaneously relies on ethnic stereotypes
(the Jewish intellectual, the African-American fighter, the
WASP man in a suit) while presenting a community of harmonious
multiculturalism in which ethnic differences fail to register,
much less matter. The alien, on the other hand, is, well, an
alien. But we should notice that the alien-ness of the alien is not
altogether unfamiliar even in human terms. I would suggest
that the alien is depicted in precisely the same way as traditional
American nativist or racist discourse has variously described
Blacks, Mexicans, or Chinese: the alien does not speak our language,
is hideously ugly, is violent and inclined to criminal
behavior, looks or acts like an insect, and smells bad. Because it
is a film in the genre of “save the planet from the alien invasion,”
Independence Day does away with the problem of perspective
or point of view. There can be only one perspective in this
scenario, the perspective of humanity. In this framework, the
aliens are absolutely evil and the humans are absolutely good.
Thus, the complexities of so-called ethnic conflict in real life are
made absolutely simple and clear. While the humans originally
seek a peaceful community with the alien, the alien seeks only to
destroy. It is therefore because of the fundamental evilness of
the alien that the existence of the alien cannot in any way be reconciled
with the existence of the global community.
But notice also the necessity of this alien to the existence of the
community. The two are interdependent: it is against the community
that the alien is identified and demonized, and it is in its
common struggle against the alien that the community is unified.
Such a view would suggest not only that the community
needs the alien in order to become a community, but that the
community in effect produces the alien in order to define itself by
projecting otherness outward. Within the imaginary world of
the film, the alien appears to exist before the community. But if
we consider the production of a film such as Independence Day as
the expression of some public fantasy or desire, the alien menace
as it appears in the film becomes a projection of a collective fantasy
of a menacing other. It is in this way that one might conclude
that the community produces the alien. Yet this
production is obscured by the film’s representation of the alien
as existing prior to the community and as threatening the com-
Macalester International Vol. 4
munity from outside. In other words, the power of Independence
Day as a narrative lies in its ability to reverse the relation
between alien and community. The community constitutes itself
by projecting difference onto the excluded other; Independence
Day transforms this relation into the scene of an absolute other
who arrives from elsewhere to threaten the already existing
community. Thus, the cultural work of narratives like Independence
Day is not confined to establishing the absolute difference
or the “bad ethnicity” of the alien other. Such narratives also
work to efface the interrelation between constituting a community
and producing an enemy. Effacing this connection makes it
all the easier to conclude that the best response to an alien threat
is violent destruction.
Independence Day provides a particularly stark example of the
representational operations that divide the good ethnic community
from the bad alien other. But this division, and the exclusion
or destruction it implies, is working every day around us to
shape and give a simple explanation for contemporary conflicts
at the local, national, and global levels. Popular representations
of perceived threats to the well-being of the community such as
illegal immigrants and Islamic fundamentalists, two popular
versions of the bad or alien ethnic, rely on a logic much like that
of Independence Day. For example, Islamic fundamentalism is
represented as the absolute antithesis of modernity and Western
civilization. We are frequently told that Islamic fundamentalists
want to destroy the West. When terrifying or unexplained
events occur, such as the Oklahoma City bombing or the crash
of TWA flight 800, they are immediately blamed on Islamic fundamentalism,
which is characterized as the source of absolute
evil and destruction. My point here is not to argue whether
Islamic fundamentalism as a singular phenomenon exists, or
what it means to the various people who claim it; rather, I want
to suggest that the popular image of Islamic fundamentalism is
one example of the projection of an alien otherness that establishes
and guarantees the boundaries of the good community.
The popular representation of Islamic fundamentalism serves a
crucial purpose: it provides a mechanism for establishing an idealized
community by minimizing, suppressing, or effacing internal
difference, and then in turn projecting it outward, where it
reappears as a threatening, alien force.
Samira Kawash
IV. Border Control
Independence Day gave us the thrill of obliterating aliens from
outer space. However, in current discussions of the identity and
security of the national community, it is not space aliens but
immigrant aliens that are the occasion for political debate and
posturing. While those immigrants most objectionable—darkskinned,
unskilled laborers — may come from many different
places, including South or Central America, Asia, or Africa, the
immediacy of the border with Mexico makes the question of
Mexican immigration most politically volatile. Unlike the virtually
invisible Canadian border, the U.S.–Mexican border is envisioned
as a war zone, a border along which America itself is
continually put at risk. Especially in California and throughout
the Southwest, it is the specter of the illegal Mexican alien that
inspires calls for an ever more stringent and exclusionary stance
toward immigration.
Contrary to the nativist images that depict Mexicans as an
invasive force that would destroy “our” standard of living, Mexican
immigrants have historically played a vital role in the U.S.
economy, especially California’s agricultural sector. The history
of U.S. Border Patrol efforts in the twentieth century is one of
alternating periods of leniency toward undocumented immigration
followed by efforts at mass deportation; this oscillation in
policy has led to the popular characterization of the U.S. –Mexican
border as a “revolving door.” The revolving door has served
as a means of controlling, but never stopping, the flow across
the border. However, the current debates about the border
neglect this history, instead depicting undocumented workers
as a threat to the nation, stealing jobs and resources from “real
Americans.” In the 1990s, the Immigration and Naturalization
Service (INS) has been expanded and more aggressively
deployed, instituting border guards and patrols under the auspices
of Operation Blockade, Operation Hold-the-Line, Operation
Gatekeeper, and Operation Guardian. As these names
suggest, the INS is viewed increasingly as a militarized force,
holding the line against the enemy threat from without.7
Like nativist rhetoric, the film Independence Day dramatizes an
alien invasion in the near future. The space aliens are a powerful,
dangerous enemy against which we are nearly helpless.
Macalester International Vol. 4
They are like locusts; their intention is to devour the planet and
then move on. There can be no negotiation, compromise, or
coexistence. In Independence Day, it’s either us or them. If we
can’t hold the line and fend off the invasion, life as we know it is
finished. This doomsday scenario given play in the film might
seem at the least an exaggeration of the characterization of the
threat of the “alien invasion” in real life. But the hysterical
rhetoric that resulted in the passage of California’s Proposition
187 might suggest that the Mexican alien threat is viewed in
similar ways, as an imminent invasion of countless “insects”
who threaten to overpower and overwhelm by the sheer force of
their numbers, devouring all our precious resources, including
jobs, schools, health care, and welfare dollars, and leaving us
with nothing.8 Independence Day thus gives us a fantastical correlate
to the politicized image of the border under siege, giving us
an alien so inhuman, so singularly evil, that no response seems
too extreme. Viewed through the lens of Independence Day, the
threat of an alien invasion along the southern border can be
made to appear frightfully real.
Such representations are dangerous not only because they
provide a simplified vision of a complex problem but, more
important, because they justify the militarization of the border
and the accompanying escalation of violence against those who
would attempt to cross it. By making violence appear to be the
only possible response to a threat of invasion, such representations
also make it more difficult to recognize the actual balance
of power that pits the accumulated force of the INS backed by
the U.S. government against the efforts of those attempting to
cross the border. As the Border Patrol has become more militarized,
human rights advocates have documented a disturbing
pattern of violence and abuse on the part of border agents
engaging in apprehension of documented and undocumented
immigrants.9 At the same time, because of increased patrols and
obstacles at easy crossing points, people are forced to attempt a
crossing in more isolated or dangerous areas, where many fall
prey to criminals, and others are injured or risk death from the
elements. In this way, the “national security” that is meant to be
effected at the border inverts itself into a perpetual condition of
insecurity for those named as a threat.
Samira Kawash
Is there another way to understand the function of the border
and the status of the alien beyond the divisive and violent vision
offered in Independence Day? In the global community represented
in the film, the inassimilable bad alien is absolutely other
to the good community, separated by an impenetrable boundary
that distinguishes us from them. But if we look a little more
closely at the complex dynamics of labor and economy that
characterize the ongoing conflicts along the U.S. – Mexican border,
it becomes difficult to view the border as a static and
absolute division. The border meant to distinguish and separate
“us” from “them” is not an absolute boundary of separation.
Rather, it is a complex and shifting scene of conflict and confrontation
that does not have a simple geographical or social
locale. At the same time, the identities of those on either side of
the border are not easily distinguished and cannot easily be
sorted into a coherent system of differences. People are not
absolutely divided by this border: families straddle the border
and individuals move across and back many times throughout a
lifetime. Nor is culture divided or distinguished by the border. It
is impossible to locate the end of Mexican culture or the beginning
of U.S. culture in the complex border regions of the southwestern
United States. Likewise, Mexican border cities such as
Tijuana are in many ways inseparable from the United States; in
Tijuana, one can spend U.S. dollars and speak English just as if
one were in San Diego on the other side of the border. Thus, the
U.S. – Mexican border does not separate two distinct and distinguishable
entities. Rather, the border serves as a mechanism of
control that serves primarily to regulate the flow of cheap labor.
A vision of the border that would take these complexities of
interpenetration and interdependence into account would also
make explicit the implicit divisions of labor and power that
underpin scenes of global community, divisions that are maintained
by various kinds of border patrols.10
V. Conflict and Community
In the seductive and glowing image of the happy global family
as imagined by the new corporate sponsors of the future, the
deepening global divisions of labor and profit are recast as a
global homogenization of consumption, creating a positive and
Macalester International Vol. 4
unifying world culture. And in turn, real conflicts over land,
food, human rights, or self-determination are transformed into
“ethnic conflicts” that are either recuperated as merely superficial
differences of style or projected into the realm of the irrational
and the antimodern. But if conflict in the context of
globalization is to be taken seriously as something more than an
anachronistic and destructive resistance to the progressive force
of modernity, perhaps our first task must be to begin to recognize
and resist the easy ethnicization of conflict that allows us to
attribute dissent and discord to anachronistic, evil, or irrational
We need to pay more attention to the way in which the representation
of conflicts as caused by “bad ethnicity” makes those
conflicts appear both necessary and incomprehensible. The construction
of the “bad ethnic” allows us to forget to ask about the
experiences, perspectives, or needs of others. Instead, the bad
ethnic is represented as irrational and out of control; the only
possible response appears to be to try to subdue or manage the
actions of the bad ethnic. We should also be alert to the way in
which various groups are “ethnicized” — that is, grouped
together as having a common nature, common lifestyle, common
values, and so on—even if from a social scientific perspective
they might not be considered an ethnic group. “Bad
ethnicity” appears in relation both to domestic conflicts and
international issues. Consider the following examples of “bad
ethnics”: terrorists, welfare mothers, homosexuals, drug users,
communists, Arabs, Serbs, Bosnians. Each of these is seen in various
ways as threatening “our” security, “our” values, “our”
way of life, or “our” democratic institutions. The popular
response to each of these imagined threats is police actions of
control, exclusion, or elimination. If, for example, the plight of
so-called welfare mothers can be attributed to their “bad ethnicity,”
that is, their alleged deviant habits and values (such as laziness,
leeching off the state, promiscuity, and so on), then we feel
not only justified but perhaps righteous in demonizing and punishing
them. That is, the “good” community uses the explanation
of “bad ethnicity” to justify excluding and guarding against
the encroaching dangers of the “bad” alien other. But what of
other social and economic factors such as the unemployment
rate or the collapse of the urban industrial economy that might
Samira Kawash
contribute to the poverty of urban single mothers? These are
more complicated issues that are evaded when “bad ethnicity”
is blamed for every social or political ill.
Imagining conflict as an “alien invasion” and responding to
the perceived threat by securing the border works as a stopgap
between the complexity and uncertainty with which we are
faced every day and the desire for an easy fix, one which will
allow us to continue unchanged and unchallenged. Media spectacles
from Independence Day to the Olympics to the coverage of
the presidential election work to constitute the “we” as a homogeneous
community of interest, and to exclude fundamental
conflict or dissent by displacing it to the dangerous outside to be
met with fear and suppressed by security measures. The global
transformations and displacements we are witnessing cannot
but be conflictual. But identifying as evil aliens those who have
been denied opportunities, or those who object to or seek to
change the relations of power or their place, shifts the realm of
conflict from politics to police. Policing the border and suppressing
or eliminating anything that appears threatening does
not make the community more secure. Rather, such policing
serves only to foreclose any debate about who or what the community
ought to be. So long as we believe in the “good ethnic”
and the “bad alien,” we will be unable to imagine or bring into
practice a just or inclusive community, a community worthy of
the name.11
1. For various perspectives on the invention of ethnicity, see Benedict Anderson,
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism
(London: Verso, 1983); Werner Sollors, ed., The Invention of Ethnicity (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger,
eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983);
and Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous
Identities (New York: Verso, 1991).
2. On the power of the U.S. media to shape international perceptions, see especially
Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism
and the Media (New York: Routledge, 1994).
3. Ammirati, Puris, and Lintas, New York, for United Parcel Service, 1996.
4. The Arnell Group for Hanes Hosiery, 1996.
5. Independence Day, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1996.
Macalester International Vol. 4
6. From the novelization of the film Independence Day, by Dean Devlin &
Roland Emmerich and Stephen Molstad (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 238.
7. Timothy J. Dunn, The Militarization of the U.S. – Mexico Border, 1978 – 1992:
Low-Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home (Austin: CMAS Books, Universtiy of
Texas at Austin, 1996); Wade Grahm, “Masters of the Game: How the U.S. Protects
the Traffic in Cheap Mexican Labor” in Harper’s, July 1996, 35–50.
8. California Proposition 187, passed on November 8, 1994, would deny publicly
funded services, particularly health and education, to undocumented
immigrants. The constitutionality of this measure continues to be contested in
court. For a summary of the law’s provisions and implications, see Stanley
Mailman, “California’s Proposition 187 and Its Lessons” in New York Law Journal,
3 January 1995: 3.
9. Dunn, The Militarization of the U.S.–Mexico Border, 83–94.
10. For examples of such alternative border visions, see Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/
La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute,
1987); Carl Gutiérrez-Jones, Rethinking the Borderlands: Between Chicano Culture
and Legal Discourse (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); and Rosa
Linda Fregoso, The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1993). Cheech Marin’s 1987 film, Born in
East L.A., dramatizes this alternative border vision in a parodic form.
11. Many recent critics have proposed various notions of multicultural communities
that would recognize and be responsive to conflict. See especially
David Theo Goldberg, ed., Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader (Cambridge,
Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1994); Henry Giroux, Border Crossings: Cultural Workers
and the Politics of Education (New York: Routledge, 1992); Shohat and Stam,
Unthinking Eurocentrism; and Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren, eds., Between
Borders: Pedagogy and the Politics of Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge,
Samira Kawash