If you have not connected the national media’s stories about the Abu Ghraib detention facilities run by U. S. troops in Iraq with the romance novels that you see in Wal-Mart, you are probably not a tenured college professor.
“The pleasure of romance novels sets us up to accept the violence and carnage of Abu Ghraib,” Professor Teresa L. Ebert told an audience at the Modern Language Association’s annual conference. Dr. Ebert is a professor of English and Women’s Studies at the State University of New York at Albany. At the MLA’s Washington, D. C. conference, she spoke on a panel entitled “Marxism Now: Beyond Cultural Politics and Back to Class.”
Thousands of English professors from colleges and universities throughout the United States meet annually at the MLA conferences to try out research papers and even courses of study. “The women’s romance novels that feature textuality, love and intimacy also, as part of the same structure, feature the aggression and violence we see at Abu Ghraib,” Dr. Ebert told the morning seminar at the Washington Hilton.
For her research, Dr. Ebert, who has worked at SUNY-Albany since Desert Storm, read a lot of romance novels. Sporting her trademark black beret, Dr. Ebert took the audience of 22 on a virtual tour of paperback fiction:
“In Dancing in the Wind, a 1994 novel, the hero promises to find the heroine’s sister, ‘whatever it takes.’
“In the novel Flashpoint, the hero says, ‘It still feels like slaughter.’
“In All the Queen’s Men, the hero says, ‘I’ll do whatever is necessary.’”
A self-proclaimed Marxist, Dr. Ebert has written studies with titles such as Ludic Feminism and After: Post-Modernism, Desire, and Labor in Late Capitalism. “ ‘Whatever it takes’ is the backbone of capitalism and also the backbone of romance novels,” Dr. Ebert told the audience at the Hilton. To illustrate her point, she brought in examples from newspaper headlines.
“A 2002 Alberto Gonzalez [White House Counsel’s] memo treats the Geneva Convention as obsolete and quaint,” Dr. Ebert said. “The chairman of Delta Airlines said he will do ‘whatever it takes’ to cut costs.”
“It is not likely to mean cutting million dollar salaries,” Dr. Ebert predicted. “It will probably mean downsizing.”
Actually, Delta announced last month that the airline would cut executive salaries and downsize. But if Dr. Ebert gets half the story right on Delta, she is way off on Abu Ghraib.
“The torture of Abu Ghraib is typical, not exceptional, of capitalism,” Dr. Ebert avers. From across the country, Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson has a different take on the controversy.
“European and American journalists agonized over a purportedly mistreated Koran in Guantanamo Bay, yet remain silent about the police state right outside of Gitmo’s walls [in Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba],” Hanson writes. “Sexual stupidity at Abu Ghraib gets far more weight than the thousands murdered in the same building by the dictatorship that America ended.”
An independent panel investigated the allegations of abuses at Defense Department detention centers shortly after the Abu Ghraib stories broke in the U. S. media. Chaired by Secretaries of Defense from Republican and Democratic presidential administrations, the panel’s findings indicate that the media coverage that Abu Ghraib received was overblown.
“Since the beginning of hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, U. S. military and security operations have apprehended about 50,000 individuals,” the independent panel reported. “From this number, about 300 allegations of abuse in Afghanistan, Iraq or Quantanamo have arisen.”
“As of mid-August 2004, 155 investigations into the allegations have been completed, resulting in 66 substantiated cases. Approximately one-third of these cases occurred at the point of capture or tactical collection point, frequently under uncertain, dangerous or violent circumstances.”
Harold Brown, who served as Secretary of Defense for President Jimmy Carter, co-chaired the panel with James Schlessinger, President Gerald Ford’s Defense Secretary. Their report stands as about the latest official record on Abu Ghraib abuses, although numerous current and former public officials have made pronouncements on the controversy.
But the lady in the black beret remains undaunted. “According to the International Red Cross, 70 to 90 percent of the people arrested in Iraq were arrested by mistake,” Dr. Ebert told the Hilton audience. As it happens, the Brown-Schlessinger panel tackled this assertion too.
“If we were to follow the ICRC’s interpretations, interrogation operations would not be allowed,” the panel concluded. “This would deprive the U. S. of an indispensable source of intelligence in the war on terrorism.”
Dr. Ebert’s panel was moderated by Barbara Foley of Rutgers, who introduced herself as the head of the MLA’s Red Caucus. Presumably, the Red Caucus of the MLA is for those association members who find the main organization too right-wing.
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.