Colonial Games

Over the holidays, I visited my family and played a board game called Freedom: The Underground Railroad, that simulated  abolitionists helping enslaved people to escape to Canada from plantations in the South.  I have mixed feelings about the game.  I liked that it was a collaborative game, and in many ways provided a richer, more nuanced context for the abolitionism and the underground railroad than what I learned in grade school.  At the same time, with players playing as abolitionists, the game felt like it reinforced a savior mentality and tended to minimize the agency of enslaved people and push the horror of slavery and the experience of the enslaved to the background in the game’s historical narrative.  Still, it felt refreshing to play a historical game that wasn’t centered around war, resource exploitation, or colonialism.

When I first started playing contemporary strategy board games for adults, I was struck by how many games had an uncritical colonial narrative.  On a recent trip to LA, I went to an exhibit titled Connecting Seas at the Getty and some of the media in the exhibition made me think that there might be a historical precedence for such colonial games.

Below is a board game from the early 1900s, used to promote Germany’s colonial exploits, that was featured in the exhibit.  I wasn’t able to find an image of the game’s cover, but it featured an illustration of a German soldier or sailor surrounded by racist architectures of Africans.

German Colonial Game, ca. 1910s, mixed media including chromolithograph. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute.
German Colonial Game, ca. 1910s, mixed media including chromolithograph.
Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute.

Like any media, games have been and are used to promote normative political or cultural practices of values.  Are there any games that reflect a more critical framing of colonialism in history, or a more critical speculative colonial narrative?

Gaza, reading, and one world, many people

I’ve been trying to make sense of everything going on in Gaza, all while traveling and getting bits and pieces of the story.  This all the more difficult because in the last few months, I’ve seen a lot of media that reiterates the absolute horror of the Nazi German holocaust, and in the last week, picked up two books that Chiara had been reading: a little book about WWI and a book about Islam.  The book about WWI, despite the authors enjoyment of the play-by-play excitement of the war, made me feel like the whole thing was started as a pissing contest for power and territory – absolutely ridiculous.    I learned that the origins of the state of Israel are with this war and the partitioning of conquered lands by various European colonial powers and it made it very easy to feel like peace was doomed from the start. The book of essays on Islam made me realize that the faith and culture of Islam and the politics of the Middle East are so much more complicated, rich, and nuanced than what I had known through my education through the U.S. media.  Aside on the importance of teaching: I never learned about Islam, or the Middle East, for that matter, in school.  Even during the first Gulf War.  It is crazy for me, and likely a whole generation of people my age, to be so ignorant of something so pivitol in the world.

This article, Why Gaza Matters To Us, has been filtering through my social network, and I like this snippet at the end:

As people of color who have our own various histories of resisting the erasure of our cultures from this planet against the spread of military-corporate assimilation, we must stand with the Palestinians, speak out, and take action. The anger and mourning we feel should drive us to break the cycle of domination vs. extinction. Fear, including the righteous fears of Jewish people who want to exist, and the righteous fears of Palestinians that they will be relegated to life in a walled prison and never allowed to be home – these fears are not going to create a world in which peace is possible. We must approach the Israeli people as brothers and sisters who have gone astray in the wake of their own trauma, help them to clean the blood from their hands, and come home to the human family.

I have a harder time with the article included at the end, David Lloyd’s Gaza and the Ghetto.  I think that the thought experiment of imagining Nazi Germany in the place of Israel and Palestinians in the place of Polish Jews is an accurate analogy, but it continues to frame the current conflict in terms of the Holocaust, which is the problem with the analysis of too many attrocities whether they’re in Palestine, Rwanda, or elsewhere in the world.  State repression, genocide, and people losing their dignity and safety is unacceptable in it’s own right, anywhere, at any time.  Framing things, especially Israel vs. Palestine within the Holocaust traps everyone in a hopeless argument of who has had things worse.  This is a string of analysis that is easy to get caught in and to which many, many people can add their own legitimate weight, but that ultimately seems to trap everyone.  Watching children squabble, it seems like the same argument, though with much lower stakes.  Someone else always started it, making retaliation, even if it’s something that you wouldn’t want inflicted on you, justifiable.  As I child, I was often told, “life isn’t fair,” which was always unsatisfying, and lacking much empathy at that age, it as hard to see that life was not only unfair, but also mutually unfair.  I think the more truthful, and hopeful life lesson is that life isn’t just unless you make it that way and that retaliation, and rationalizing it, is not the same as justice.  I want to try to read One Country in the hopes that it offers some way out of the cycle of trying to define who is the most attrocious or victimized and instead figure out how to define the things that everyone wants, safety and dignity among them, concretely, and how to get there.  The question of how to achieve one country for two peoples isn’t just crucial to Palestine and Israel.  From what I’ve read so far of The Accidental American, to the recent U.S. presidential election (and prop 8), to Chiara comenting on the changing cultural landscape (even at street level) of Italy, to the crazy internal conflicts within arbitrarily drawn nations and conquered empires that were at the heart of the world wars (maybe most wars?), to my own personal experience, the idea that we can or should live in a world with segregated identities or interests is both impossible and undesireable.  I am absolutely convinced that conservatives who want to preserve a culturally and ideologically segregated world are less than wrong, they’re irrelevant.  Still, I think that radicals who imagine a world without these borders can’t hope for justice without acknowledging cultural and ideological boundries and the people ensnared in them.  The question for me becomes how to acknowledge people’s experience and the perception that it creates without succumbing to the morasse of ethical relitivism.

Women’s History Month Events

Women in Science Research Conference
Monday, Mar 3. 9a-2:30p
Solarium, Indiana Memorial Union

Su E Pian (Lady of the Moon): Women and Sexuality from the Kinsey Institute Asian Collections
Thursday, March 6th 7p
Asian Culture Center, 807 E 10th St

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days film screening
Sunday, March 9 2p
Monroe County Public Library Auditorium

Yo Soy Boricua, Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas (I’m Boricua, Just So You Know!)!: An Interview with Rosie Perez
Thursday, Mar. 20th 7:00p
La Casa

“Human Trafficking and Sexual Tourism”
Friday, March 21 12:30-1:30p
Asian Cultural Center, 807 E. 10th St.

2007-08 Fifth Annual Herman Hudson Symposium (Theme: “Lifting the Veil: Multidisciplinary Responsibility in Global Societies”)
Saturday, March 22
Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center

Mujeres en la Artes: Creating a Tapestry of Expression
Thursday, Mar 27
La Casa

Documentary Screening of “Never Perfect” and Conversation with the Director/Filmmaker, Regina Par
Thursday, March 27 7p
Grand Hall, Neal Marshall Black Culture Center

Exclusion Acts

In researching the details of a museum that my father wanted to go to on our trip in San Francisco, I read this.  It’s crazy that, more than 100 years later, the motivations for limiting immigration and the use of legislation to exclude certain classes of immigrants persists.  The faces of the undesireable immigrants is all that has changed:

During the 1870s, an economic downturn resulted in serious unemployment problems, and led to politically motivated outcries against Asian immigrants who would work for low wages. In reaction to states starting to pass immigration laws, in 1882 the federal government asserted its authority to control immigration and passed the first immigration law, barring lunatics and felons from entering the country. Later in 1882, the second immigration law barred Chinese, with a few narrow exceptions. Imperial China was too weak and impoverished to exert any influence on American policy. This law was originally for 10 years, but was extended and expanded and not repealed until 1943, when China was our ally in World War II. However, only 105 Chinese were allowed in legally each year, so the exception process actually continued into the 1950’s. Chinese were not on a equal immigration footing with other nationalities until immigration laws were completely rewritten in the mid 1960’s.


naomi wolf on parallels between US and despots of history

I thought about this a lot when I was in Germany this summer, seeing all the monuments to the atrocities of the Nazis, and even reading the last Harry Potter book – there is an identifiable pattern to despotism. Naomi wolf says this of her recent book that talks about the rise of despotism in the current US body politic:

But I guess the book really began with a very personal story, because I was forced to write it, even though I didn’t really want to, by a dear friend who is a Holocaust survivor’s daughter. And when we spoke about news events, she kept saying, “They did this in Germany. They did this in Germany.” And I really didn’t think that made sense. I thought that was very extreme language. But finally she forced me to sit down and start reading the histories, of course, not of the later years, because she wasn’t talking about German outcomes, ’38, ’39; she was talking about the early years, 1930, ’31, ’32, when Germany was a parliamentary democracy, and there was this systematic assault using the rule of law to subvert the rule of law.

And once I saw how many parallels there were, not just in strategy and tactics that we’re seeing again today, but actually in images and sound bites and language, then I read other histories of Italy in the ’20s, Russia in the ’30s, East Germany in the ’50s, Czechoslovakia in the ’60s, Pinochet’s coup in Chile in ’73, the crushing of the democracy movement in China at the end of the ’80s. And I saw that there is a blueprint that would-be dictators always do the same ten things, whether they’re on the left or the right, and that we are seeing these ten steps taking place systematically right now in the United States.



Today, there was a story on Morning Edition about GOP presidential candidate rhetoric which calls the war on Iraq things like “the front line on the war on terrorism”.  Romney’s website refers to the war on Iraq as ‘defeating the jihadists’.  Mike Huckabee says that we’re engaged in a  ‘world war’ and that “radical islamic fascists have declared war on our country and on our way of life.” But, as the NPR reporter indicates, these words don’t mesh with the reality of the war in Iraq:

Al Queda in Iraq has  few foreign fighters.  It’s a home-grown group.  American officers say many of them are fighting more for money  than for religious fanaticism.  Meanwhile the powerful Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq are not exporting terror, they’re vying for power in Iraq, sometimes battling each other …

The report goes on to quote a defense analyst saying that politicians prefer catch phrases to a serious discussion of the war.

This report makes me think of the language described in Wolfe’s interview and it’s even more frightening when there is so apparently little basis for this kind of fear.


Edible Secrets: A food tour of classified 20th century US history Art Opening @ Sweet Hickory (317. E. 3rd St.). 7-10p. free.

Edible Secrets is a guided museum installation by Bloomington resident Michael Hoerger of previously classified US government documents interconnected through the theme of food. The exibit runs through October 14, 2007. For more information about the show, contact