Naming ISIS: Rhetorical Framing and Social Action



Over the last several weeks, the 24-hour news cycle has honed in on the newest apparent threat to national and global security.  Whatever you might call it, “ISIS,” “ISIL,” or simply “the Islamic State” seems to have left most Americans somewhat bewildered as to its “true” nature.  On one hand, in the wake of President Obama’s recent national address, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that more than 60% of the respondents “think that taking military action against the Islamic militant group ISIS is in the nation’s interest.”  At the same time, however, 68% of Americans admit to having “very little” or “just some” confidence that these military efforts will succeed.

Of course, this begs the question: why would so many Americans approve of military action against ISIS even if they consider such actions futile?  While such views might seem irrational, I think that such contradictory views actually demonstrate how the practices of identification frame public debate and subsequently authorize/de-authorize specific modes of social action.

Consider, for instance, the media’s struggle over these last few months to make sense of ISIS.  At one time seen as little more than a regional insurgency group like any other, ISIS quickly began to coalesce into something more akin to an organized state.  An article in Slate from earlier this summer pondered whether ISIS was now a “real” country, a “proto-state, an unrecognized but de facto sovereign entity.”  In this article, it is the “realness” of statehood at issue: What makes a particular social formation a state? Political and military domination? ISIS has certainly wrested control from its neighbors.  Or is it recognition from other legitimate (i.e. Western) states that renders it “real”? After all, Iraq and Syria emerged as states only in the wake of the Ottoman collapse after World War I with the British and French mandates in the region.

For nation-states to be legitimate, they must be possessed of a body of citizens, and the multinational demographic of ISIS further confounds identification.  The composition of ISIS fails to conform neatly to a narrative about “the other.”  It is not simply “those” people “over there” but “us” who are fighting for ISIS, as thousands of British and American expatriates have joined the fray.  Such incongruities have left the media’s talking heads stumbling over their words to comprehend how an American citizen, like Douglas McArthur McCain (with a “Western sounding name” I should emphasize), could give his life for ISIS.  With the recognition that American citizens are presently fighting for ISIS comes the possibility that these individuals are not simply insurgents, but rather should be classified as “criminals,” as Attorney General Eric Holder suggested when he launched an investigation into the beheading of journalist James Foley in late August.

Conservative pundit, Michelle Malkin, finds Holder’s characterization of ISIS dubious, but her criticism illuminates how identification practices authorize particular modes of action. She writes the following: “Let this send a message to terrorists who brutally murder Americans: The US Justice Dept. will find you, fly you back to America, supply you with a taxpayer-funded attorney, and put you on trial in a Manhattan civilian court.”  Malkin prefers the moniker, “terrorist,” for ISIS, which conjures a different picture and convenes an alternative set of actions.

While questions of statehood or citizenship, terrorist of criminal continue to muddy the waters of public discourse, perhaps the most contested issue concerns the religious identity of ISIS.  Is the Islamic State inherently religious, as its name suggests?  Countless Muslim groups declare ISIS as utterly against the essential virtues of Islam, preferring to pathologize them as “crazy.”  Others, like popular atheist Sam Harris, assert that these kinds of Muslim apologetics only obscure the true “religious” motivations of the actors.

Harris was directing his attack specifically at Obama, who in his address last week, boldly declared that ISIS is not “Islamic.”  “No religion condones the killing of innocents… ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple.”  When the President identifies ISIS in this manner, however, he is doing much more than merely rejecting its inherent “religiosity.”  He is conjuring a particular set of historically produced narratives that authorize certain kinds of action.  The acts of ISIS are neither criminal nor religious, but terroristic. Therefore they cannot be rectified through law enforcement or inquisition, or through negotiation.  Recent history authorizes a single strategy for dealing with “terrorist” organizations: limited military action.  Thus, even if failure is the inevitable outcome, as two-thirds of Americans believe, it remains that only sensible option left.


Some thoughts on Labor Day, Mythic Origins, and Narratives of Decline

Every Labor Day, I can always count on several news articles that will remind people that the annual holiday “really” exists to honor the contributions of workers to the economy, the nation, and to posterity.  These pieces inevitably trace the holiday back to its roots in organized labor’s struggle for the eight-hour work day and the violence that accompanied much of these efforts.  Without fail, they will mention the Haymarket Affair, where in 1886 Chicago police killed several demonstrators after a bomb was thrown at them, as the event that galvanized popular support for a national “Labor Day” celebration.  Of course, this yearly lesson in labor history usually intimates a few “friendly reminders” to readers.  First of all, Labor Day is not simply the last day of the summer season before children return to school, or the day after which to be seen wearing white would suddenly becomes a profane act.  Secondly, Labor Day is not an excuse to BBQ and celebrate the beginning of the football season (college or professional, whatever your preference).  No. What these articles tend to draw our attention to is the fact that a holiday created to give workers a day off the job to relax with families and receive the recognition of their communities for their efforts has become a day, ironically, when the majority of wage earners in the retail industry (by far the largest segment of the workforce) still go to work to meet the needs (well, okay, let’s call them consumer desires) of the rest of us, for whom the day was not created.  It is the salaried white-collar world that has coopted the holiday to suit its own interests, at the expense of the working class.  They honor workers by requiring them to work in their stores (usually for time and a half, admittedly) for longer than usual hours so that those with the greater buying power might be enticed away from their homes to engage in consumption, be it for a cup of coffee at the local Starbucks or a new laptop for a new school year. 


While, on one hand, I do think that it is important to recognize how the range of meanings and practices associated with Labor Day has shifted significantly over the last century, such polemics against the holiday’s contemporary orientation rely on the assumption that in the origin narrative one will find the “true” meaning of Labor Day.  It is a narrative of declension that these stories signal to the population, imposing a particular set of moral claims that need to be acknowledged.  It claims work as a virtue and yet decries acts of conspicuous consumption as vicious.  By declaring the original meaning of the holiday as pure, it portrays current cultural configurations as illegitimate.  In depicting the past as pure, they present the today as corrupt.


However, such origin narratives obscure what can be said of the past, and indeed the present, as much as they might reveal.  They erect a picture of the past as a time when laborers actively fought and won their place of honor in the order of things, while failing to recognize that Labor Day, from its inception, was always in part a strategic retreat of the powerful with the eventuality of pacifying a workforce that was rapidly becoming an unpredictable force for the emerging captains of industry of the late nineteenth century.  The first weekend of September was chosen precisely because it was divorced from International Labour Day that occurs on May 5th every year.  Labor Day was decidedly NOT to be associated with its international cousin May Day, and its affinity to international communism.  In this light, Labor Day itself might be understood as a “false” reproduction of the “true” original worker’s day, and that from its inception, was intended to serve moneyed interests.  Could it be that Labor Day was always about everyone else but the leisure classes and that as consumer culture matured, it would simply evolve along with everything else?  I suppose it all depends on the particular stories of origins to which one appeals. 

Church Scandals and the “Specialness” of Religion


The Megachurch, a church with an average weekly attendance of 2,000 or more, is perhaps one of the more notable developments among American Protestantism over the last half-century.  If you live anywhere near a large, metropolitan area, (especially in the Southern US where I currently live) chances are you’ve encountered one at some point lately. 


It seems obvious to suggest that the megachurch is specific to our particular historical moment, and that somehow it indicates something special about how a growing number of Protestants are religious in twenty-first century North America.


Scholars of religion expend a great deal of thought around what makes “religion” special, something worthy of our attention.  However, is there anything really exceptional about “the religious” that distinguishes it from other aspects of human life? 


Consider the scandal that has arisen over the last several days concerning Steven Furtick, the pastor of Charlotte-based Elevation Church, a multi-campus megachurch boasting 15,000 attendees weekly.  The church is relatively young and has grown rapidly since its inception in 2006, and Furtick has made a name for himself as both an author of inspirational books and a popular speaker to audiences around the world. 


It was Furtick’s decision, however, to build a $1.6 million mansion that has made him and Elevation Church the object of intense media scrutiny recently. WCNC, be local NBC affiliate in Charlotte, broke the story when it raised questions about the financing of the new 16,000 square foot home.  Their investigation revealed that Furtick’s name was not actually on the deed and that neither the church nor its pastor was ready to disclose financial information.


The “scandal,” which has rapidly spread to national media, has largely focused on two issues: the secrecy surrounding church’s financing and Furtick’s personal income, and the dubiousness of the “prosperity gospel” he preaches.  These stories have only just stopped short of calling Furtick a charlatan.


What is most illuminating here is not that the pastor of a growing congregation seems to be amassing a great degree of wealth at the expense of his followers.  The media has criticized popular evangelists in North America since George Whitfield first embarked on a speaking tour of the British Colonies during the mid-18th century. 


Rather, it is how these stories themselves uphold the notion that “religion” is something exceptional, something distinct from other aspects of culture, and subject to very different public expectations.  The media narrative attacks Furtick and his organization for violating these rules.  Most apparently, religious leaders should not accumulate sizeable amounts of wealth, even if it stems from sales of his books, as Furtick maintains. 


An article in the Daily Mail criticizes the formal structure of Elevation Church, citing that Furtick’s “salary and benefits are not set by his congregation or a congregation-elected panel of elders but rather by an ‘appointed’ board that consists entirely of other megachurch pastors.”  Is this statement suggesting that only democractically organized religious communities are legitimate?  What does this imply about hierarchical institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church, or perhaps even the Anglican Communion? 


Finally, with all of the emphasis on the extreme secrecy in Elevation Church, the media seems to be saying that legitimate religious organizations are transparent.  They don’t, as one reporter writes, fail to release annual financial audits to their congregations or demand, “employees and volunteers must sign a confidentiality agreement which threatens to sue if they disclose information about the church’s finances.”


Reading these stories, one gets the sense that there are special rules for things/persons/ communities deemed “religious.”  However, is there actually anything exceptional about the leader of a successful organization accumulating wealth?  Moreover, why, in a society thoroughly committed to idea that property is private, are leaders of religious organizations criticized for freely choosing how the spend their own income, regardless of its source?  And finally, what is special about an institution organized with a board or directors whose members serve on multiple boards?  This kind of organizational form is certainly well-established and widely accepted in the business world. 


The fact is that there is nothing that special about Elevation Church or its founder, for they reflect patterns common to contemporary American society.  It is in being labeled “religious” that these patterns become problematic.  Because we, sometimes even as scholars, treat “religion” as something exceptional and marked off from other dimensions of culture, these stories can told as “scandal.”

A World of Pure Imagination: Chipotle and the Myths of Post-Industrial Society



About a month ago, Chipotle released an animated short, The Scarecrow, a three-minute video which offers a moving critique of industrial food production.  Set to Fiona Apple covering, “A World of Pure Imagination,” from the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the video has gone viral, receiving over seven million hits at the time I am writing.


Of course, it didn’t take long for a parody of the ad to emerge.  Funny or Die, a site “where celebrities, established and upcoming comedians and regular users can all put up stuff they think is funny,” posted Honest Scarecrow, a variant on the original ad emphasizing the irony of a large fast food chain like Chipotle critiquing, well, fast food.


In our digital age, this kind of ad-spoofing has become a regular form of social activism.  Consider the recent outcry over a Cheerios ad, which profiled an interracial couple and their child.  The video went viral, and some of its defenders even produced a spoof that featured a family with same-sex parents.


Because we live in thoroughly commercialized culture, it should come as no surprise that advertisements such as Chipotle’s garner such popular attention.  However, what is actually going in these conflicts?  Why does The Scarecrow evoke such strong reactions, both for and against?


Religion scholar, Wendy Doniger, defines myths as our most important stories, and if we examine advertisements as genre of myth for consumer culture, perhaps we can comprehend their cultural power.


The Scarecrow does much more than simply promote a product; it performs significant cultural work as well.  Bruce Lincoln, in Theorizing Myth, describes myth as “ideology in narrative form,” and these ads and their parodies offer competing mythologized accounts of post-industrial society. 


Chipotle depicts an alienated worker (the scarecrow), whose life is bereft of meaning and seemingly without hope, and living and toiling in the filth of an industrialized urban landscape.  The scarecrow, however, becomes the hero of the story by assuming the role of entrepreneur, who will venture out against the currents of conformity and offer something fresh, something natural.  It is the countercultural entrepreneur, who dares to imagine a different world, and who will offer us a way out of anonymity of mass society. 


This tale recasts the shift from industrial to post-industrial society, from scientific management to affective forms of labor, as a story about the triumph of the new economy over old industry, of the individual over nameless, faceless “system.”  Chipotle, of course, is recasting itself as the scarecrow here, as a celebration of industrial society’s demise.


Funny or Die’s parody inverts this narrative ideology, lending credence to Doniger’s claim in The Implied Spider, that what makes myths powerful is their elasticity, the “ability to stand on their head.”  In their version, a revised soundtrack declares Chipotle’s vision a truly a “world of pure imagination, brought to you in an ad by a big corporation.”  Our journey into post-industrial society become the story of how business has co-opted our dreams, and transformed our resistance into an opportunity to promote its brand. 


Cultural theorist Roland Barthes might suggest that Funny or Die has engaged in the work of the mythologist, who, he claims in Mythologies, deconstructs the myth only by producing a second-order myth, by “mythifying the myth.  They expose the undisclosed fact that Chipotle is not merely romanticizing the entrepreneur, but anchoring an epic redescription of history to its brand identity.

On the Very idea of Cultural Appropration

There’s an interesting “David and Goliath” story coming out of Austin, TX this week involving a local beer emporium and a national brewing company over intellectual property.  The NPR affiliate for Austin, KUT, reports that “Whip In,” a so-called “Dhabapub” serving Indian cuisine, is under pressure from Dogfish Head Brewing Company to change the name of its in-house line of beers, Namaste Brewery



According to an email received by Whip In’s owner, the name infringes on the exclusive trademark held by Dogfish for its Belgian-style white beer branded as “Namaste.”  Intellectual property disputes are certainly not uncommon in American society, even to the point of absurdity (consider Disney’s exclusive rights to the song “Happy Birthday”).  Yet, this case brings to the surface prevailing assumptions about cultural ownership, religious speech, as well as the power of the brand in American life. 


The general manager of Whip In, Dipak Topiwola, who is of South Asian descent, likens the position of Dogfish Head to “cultural imperialism” on Facebook, suggesting that terms and ideas stemming from ancient religious traditions are intended, by definition, to remain free to all.  Dogfish Head, on the other hand, maintains their actions are nothing more than protecting its brand.  “There is no point,” they replied, “in having a trademark unless we actively defend it.”


Are terms like “Namaste,” when deployed as part of a commercial branding strategy, exempt from intellectual property law because they presumably transcend private ownership altogether, as the owners of Whip-In assert?  If so, does this endanger other brands who utilize seemingly “religious” language, such as Redemption Rye? Or are the owners actually making a claim about authenticity and who can claim the rights to certain “religious” ideas and practices? 




All of these questions are significant and worthy of exploration.  However, while this appears as a conflict between, on one side, the logic of business, and the integrity of a religious tradition on the other, I believe that this dispute actually reveals the common ground between both sides.  It says something significant about how market societies imagine “culture.”  Both parties in this case characterize “culture” as a kind of brand.  Like a brand, it refers to a discrete object in the world, which only an authorized group can legitimately own.  Moreover, the culture must be protected from theft and cheap imitations that diminish its value. 


Perhaps what is most interesting about this dispute therefore is not how contemporary business appropriates religious beliefs and practices in the pursuit of profit and brand identity, but rather how the very idea of “appropriation” is premised on a notion of ownership grounded in the logic of capitalist markets.  

Some thoughts on the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

I am finally kicking off this blog, after several weeks of learning the subtleties of WordPress, with some thoughts about business culture in the twenty-first century.  As I browsed through the news this morning, an article caught my attention that raises important question about the role of business in American society.  The Washington Times reports that the Natural Products Expo East, the “East Coast’s largest natural, organic and healthy living trade event,” is promoting the theme of “Conscious Capitalism.”

According to an article in The Washington Times, the Natural Products Expo East, the “East Coast’s largest natural, organic, and healthy living trade event,” is underway at the Baltimore Convention Center this week.

The theme of the trade show is “Conscious Capitalism,” an idea that business should as a matter of principle pursue the good of its stakeholders as well as the larger society.  Conscious Capitalism has gained some traction in recent months through the support of several business leaders, particularly John Mackey of Whole Foods, whose book, Conscious Capitalism (2013), has been received with enthusiasm from socially concerned business thinkers.

Still, what I find intriguing is how the rhetoric in the article plays with our assumptions about the “nature” of business.  “Conscious businesses,” we are told, “are driven by a higher purpose, built on love care rather than fear and stress.”  Implicitly, then, the typical business model must aspire no “higher purpose,” and thrive on negative emotions.

What, exactly, is at stake in this claim?  Is free enterprise actually erected on a moral foundation of fear and stress?  This characterization of business culture seems to reveal more about the contemporary moment rather than the history of American business.  It speaks to the uncertainties wrought by globalization, the increasing mobility and volatility of capital, and growing job insecurity under neoliberal political regimes.

According to author, this perspective is the cornerstone of much more than financial success, but “also a meaningful vocation and potential for social change.”  Conscious Capitalism therefore seems to represent a political claim here: that business, imbued with the proper virtues, can improve the world.   Is the morally aware business actually the solution to our social problems?  After all, haven’t initiatives committed to the idea that business is the savior, such as “free trade,” “right to work,” and “privatization” contributed to, or even caused in some instances, the very problems that Conscious Capitalism seeks to overcome?