Friday, March 25, 2011

Bad News and Hope

Of course I expect a certain amount of violence in retaliation for my being the messenger, but I'd like to just remind everyone that I personally did not close the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy. It was closed when I found it. 

And what would it mean, really, if one day we woke up and found that (1) all democracy had been controlled by one national center with its headquarters in downtown Los Angeles next to the Museum of Contemporary Art and (2) it had abruptly closed one Sunday?

Would "democracy" cease to have ever existed, if it turned out that it had been controlled in the modern world by one group of people, working out of one glass box in one American city? Wait a minute...

I feel very alienated these days by words like "democracy," "freedom," and "liberation," as they've been effectively repurposed by American media to mean "American style of secretive non-representational government," "American style of capitalism," and "Choice between new American-supported government or a state of abject poverty and war."

I watch Obama, who like all presidents has aged ten years in two, announce that we are engaging in a limited action in Libya, and I read what I can, and I realize, I know nothing. Obama says "We are acting in the interests of the United States and the world" and this statement is the foundation of my not-knowing. Simply put: the interests of the United States cannot be, and are not, the interests of the world. Therefore, I have no idea whose interests, or what interests exactly, "We" are acting in, anywhere.

This is not to say that our interests are necessarily diametrically opposed to everyone else's, although during George W's era, it certainly seemed that way. No, I'm addressing a particular piece of national rhetoric and public belief: that we act in the best interests of other countries. That is simply false, and it contributes to a bizarre and increasingly dangerous myth of our being the Big Benevolent Brother of...everyone else. 

I highly recommend Randall Williams' book Divided World: Human Rights and its Violence. Without spending three paragraphs explaining the argument or reviewing the text, I'll say that it is one of two books that I read in the last year that actually changed the way I think in a fundamental way. 

It goes like this. Human rights are obviously good. Therefore, any group or nation that promotes human rights must also be obviously good. Not so, says Williams. In fact, the post WWII project of defining and enforcing the International Declaration of Human Rights has become, in effect, a way to continue the U.S. cultural and military imperialist project. Very difficult to swallow. Very effectively argued by Williams, very bravely published by U Minn press, and very poignantly read and digested by me. For all the lives that have been saved, there have been large moves away from real freedom, independence, liberation. There are far more brilliant, trained minds working on the problems of imperialsm--but I want the concept to be clearer to people in my life, because it's happening all day long, all the time, in ways that are not always obvious to ostensibly free American brains. 

Last night I stood around a makeshift fire pit with three youngish men: two in their late twenties, one in his thirties. We talked about competitive sports, and what the culture of sports can or should do for children. When I mentioned a sociology study I read last year that showed high school football players had a much higher rate of talking about performing acts of date rape than other high school aged men, they fell silent. "What do you guys think it means?" I said. 
"It's the general act of conquering," said the most thoughtful of the three. "It's imperialism. Win the game, take the girl. You can't really win the whole game without taking the girl. Same story with the Spaniards. Same story with the Romans. Same story with any imperialist." The conversation that ensued was truly hope-filled, as it demonstrated the possibility for courageous self-awareness and cultural consciousness. I learned.

And this was, for me, a grand reopening of my own metaphorical Center for the Preservation of Democracy. A moment around a fire pit, with men who were willing to confront a deeply sad, uncomfortable reality in themselves, in me, and in our country. It made the Berkeley baby in my heart sing. 


  1. Every time our president sais "we," we get some honest clarity from our government. You and I and everyone we know funds the government and it's military either directly through the taxes we're obligated to pay as citizens, and/or, even if we are not citizens, by the ubiquity of American culture around the globe: products and advertising feed the power of consumption, of Americanness, to corporate military hegemony, making western civilization's consent to American military action reflexive, and actual opposition nearly impossible. So let the national center for anything stay closed. I don't want what they're selling. I dislike their nation and their centrality. Because everything enabled by capitalism, even this statement, is infected.

  2. It doesn't amaze me anymore how history repeats itself and we can study how people think and react and how to get them to think and react.

    Thank you for making me think and do more research to learn more.