Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Disappeared

The first summer I was at Bread & Puppet, I began extremely ambivalent about political theatre. I usually say that the protest was what changed that for me (see "Activists in America, Part the First"), and that definitely played a role, but the first time I really felt what political theatre could do was when Graciela, originally from Argentina (though she'd been living in Vermont for years), created a piece about the Madres del Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, or the Mothers of the Disappeared (that was the name of the piece). At the end of any piece regarding the Madres, if the piece is of any Argentinian origin, performers will shout out the names of particular Disappeared, and the audience responds, "Presente!" Even in the middle of Vermont, even knowing nothing about the political history of Argentina (and I don't know that much more now), this was an inordinately powerful experience. Chuck, also of B & P, related his own trip to Argentina, where lists of the Disappeared had been posted in the student center of a university. During one year in the '70s, more than 50% of the theater majors and philosophy majors had been disappared. (It may actually have been much more than 50%, but since I don't remember the particulars I won't put anything forward.) It shocked me to learn about this, how thorough the regime was and how much it knew where to strike.

This, too, is the Ministry of Love in George Orwell's 1984, long one of my favorite books in the entire universe. A person is "vaporized" for unorthodox behavior, that which fails to conform to the doctrine of Big Brother and the Oceanian government; once he is gone, he does not exist, he never existed. A person detained in the Ministry of Love is kept in a windowless cell for long enough that he loses track of time before he is allowed contact with interrogators, and if at some time he is allowed to return to society it is as someone completely different, unrecognizable to those who once ostensibly knew him.

Now the U.S., by most reports, has Disappeared of its own. The families of prisoners sent to Guantanamo Bay may never know where their relatives have gone; people may be arrested at airports and shipped to countries where coercive torture is perfectly legal. (Another post on torture, as per a conversation with Lucas and Bri a few nights ago, coming soon.) We are taking people out of society in the hope that society won't even notice.

And society, for the most part, doesn't. This is not 1984--I do not, for the record, completely buy into the constant parallels made between that novel and this administration--in that families are not expected to take no notice; they see no reason not to speak. They are not, however, heard. I mean, I got what little information I have on this phenomenon from the New York Times, a widely distributed publication, and yet it's rarely talked about and shows few signs of changing. This doesn't touch my life directly, and therefore, in this culture of aggressive individualism, it's not my province to change.

The new culture of invasion and suspicion has touched my life in mild ways--my friend R., whose last name is distinctly of Middle Eastern origin, has had her mail opened in transit and received empty envelopes; a friend of a friend who made vaguely threatening anti-administration posts on livejournal was reported to and received a visit from the FBI. I have not known anyone who was Disappeared. (That is the only grammatical way to speak of what I'm talking about. These people have not disappeared. They have been Disappeared.) I still trust, somehow, that this is an era and that it will pass with the passage of Bush, and that faith seems well-reasoned to me, and yet . . . Connor had a post in his blog today (blueskiesfalling.blogspot.com) regarding the differences between the current administration's policies and those of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn. I will post a more extensive response to this on his blog, but it seems to me that the fundamental difference is in the secrecy. What McCarthy did was out in the open. The hearings were recorded; blacklists were public. Certainly being blacklisted was not easy, but if this administration's equivalent is to Disappear people, I'll take being blacklisted any day. As far as Joe McCarthy was concerned, he had nothing to hide. He believed he was in the right and if you didn't happen to agree with him, fuck you, he wasn't concerned. While I by no stretch believe he was in the right, what he was could not, per se, be called subversive. Subversive--sub versa, under the words. Subtext, about which I have been teaching my students. Though I was not alive in the '50s, as far as I can tell, McCarthy basically said what he meant. Bush don't do that.

What is happening here, under this administration, will not be undone by only one subsequent president. I think it's clear by now that this will be a substantive legacy--of national debt (of which I know next to nothing), of subversion of checks and balances, of moralism, but most of all of something now a few steps beyond two-facedness. Every politician has to be two-faced to some degree; every leader does. This is something I firmly believe and have recently had myriad debates about: that it's not the obligation of a leader to say everything. It is his or her obligation to answer question when asked, but to put spin, to omit certain details--every leader does that, and every leader should. It is a leader's job to take on responsibilities so that not absolutely everyone else has to, and in some cases the knowledge would create that responsibility. I say this speaking from the situations in which I am a leader. But what we have under Bush isn't two-facedness; it's poker-facedness. (I need to stop saying "facedness.") It's beyond not having responsibility; we're in the dark. This administration is not exercising Argentinian dictators' unabashed brutality on its citizens at large, but it is taking a path that could lead to the same end: it's walking in sand and erasing its tracks behind itself. And if it buries a few people in the sand along the way, well, there you have it. Even if we saw them go to the beach, we could walk over the sand for hours and not find a trace, and after a while if we're the only ones digging we'll be completely exhausted.

What's disappearing from America under the Bush administration is a sense of centrality. That is what nationalism rather than patriotism is. Patriotism allows us to collect at a center; nationalism pushes negativity outwards and leaves a vacancy at the center. And when there's a vacancy at the center, you, as the president, can do what you want. It'll work because nobody has a clear sense of what to care about anyway.

Will it pass with the passage of Bush? Perhaps. It can't be undone; most of the damage done by the Red Scare could. When you assume you can't be seen, you have fewer concerns about entering a sacred space. Why does this administration assume it can't be seen, and why is it right? Are we still in the clouds of dust that completely blanketed Brooklyn on September 11? (Is my writing incredibly overblown tonight?) I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. I doubt the subsequent administration will continue this process, and I also doubt it'll be sustainable for much longer. The atmosphere of hysteria surrounding the Schiavo case and the Social Security deal indicates to me that the administration's not sitting nearly as easily as once it was. But the fact that it's happened to people is so tremendously resonant. When I encountered the concept of the Disappeared they hit me from a distance. It's here now, and whatever else I do I have to own it as part of my history. I can only hope I never have to do more than that.


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