Reading Melville in the Age of Terror.
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.
A captain ready to drive himself and all around him to ruin in the hunt for a white whale. It’s a well-known story, and over the years, mad Ahab in Herman Melville’s most famous novel, Moby-Dick, has been used as an exemplar of unhinged American power, most recently of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.
But what’s really frightening isn't our Ahabs, the hawks who periodically want to bomb some poor country, be it Vietnam or Afghanistan, back to the Stone Age. The respectable types are the true “terror of our age,” as Noam Chomsky called them collectively nearly 50 years ago. The really scary characters are our soberest politicians, scholars, journalists, professionals, and managers, men and women (though mostly men) who imagine themselves as morally serious, and then enable the wars, devastate the planet, and rationalize the atrocities. They are a type that has been with us for a long time. More than a century and a half ago, Melville, who had a captain for every face of empire, found their perfect expression—for his moment and ours.
For the last six years, I’ve been researching the life of an American seal killer, a ship captain named Amasa Delano who, in the 1790s, was among the earliest New Englanders to sail into the South Pacific. Money was flush, seals were many, and Delano and his fellow ship captains established the first unofficial U.S. colonies on islands off the coast of Chile. They operated under an informal council of captains, divvied up territory, enforced debt contracts, celebrated the Fourth of July, and set up ad hoc courts of law. When no bible was available, the collected works of William Shakespeare, found in the libraries of most ships, were used to swear oaths.
From his first expedition, Delano took hundreds of thousands of sealskins to China, where he traded them for spices, ceramics, and tea to bring back to Boston. During a second, failed voyage, however, an event took place that would make Amasa notorious—at least among the readers of the fiction of Herman Melville.
Here’s what happened: One day in February 1805 in the South Pacific, Amasa Delano spent nearly a full day on board a battered Spanish slave ship, conversing with its captain, helping with repairs, and distributing food and water to its thirsty and starving voyagers, a handful of Spaniards and about 70 West African men and women he thought were slaves. They weren’t.
Those West Africans had rebelled weeks earlier, killing most of the Spanish crew, along with the slaver taking them to Peru to be sold, and demanded to be returned to Senegal. When they spotted Delano’s ship, they came up with a plan: let him board and act as if they were still slaves, buying time to seize the sealer’s vessel and supplies. Remarkably, for nine hours, Delano, an experienced mariner and distant relative of future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was convinced that he was on a distressed but otherwise normally functioning slave ship.
Having barely survived the encounter, he wrote about the experience in his memoir, which Melville read and turned into what many consider his “other” masterpiece. Published in 1855, on the eve of the Civil War, Benito Cereno is one of the darkest stories in American literature. It’s told from the perspective of Amasa Delano as he wanders lost through a shadow world of his own racial prejudices.
One of the things that attracted Melville to the historical Amasa was undoubtedly the juxtaposition between his cheerful self-regard—he considers himself a modern man, a liberal opposed to slavery—and his complete obliviousness to the social world around him. The real Amasa was well meaning, judicious, temperate, and modest.
In other words, he was no Ahab, whose vengeful pursuit of a metaphysical whale has been used as an allegory for every American excess, every catastrophic war, every disastrous environmental policy, from Vietnam and Iraq to the explosion of the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Ahab, whose peg-legged pacing of the quarterdeck of his doomed ship enters the dreams of his men sleeping below like the “crunching teeth of sharks.” Ahab, whose monomania is an extension of the individualism born out of American expansion and whose rage is that of an ego that refuses to be limited by nature’s frontier. “Our Ahab,” as a soldier in Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon calls a ruthless sergeant who senselessly murders innocent Vietnamese.
Ahab is certainly one face of American power. In the course of writing a book on the history that inspired Benito Cereno, I’ve come to think of it as not the most frightening—or even the most destructive of American faces. Consider Amasa.
Since the end of the Cold War, extractive capitalism has spread over our post-industrialized world with a predatory force that would shock even Karl Marx. From the mineral-rich Congo to the open-pit gold mines of Guatemala, from Chile’s until recently pristine Patagonia to the fracking fields of Pennsylvania and the melting Arctic north, there is no crevice where some useful rock, liquid, or gas can hide, no jungle forbidden enough to keep out the oil rigs and elephant killers, no citadel-like glacier, no hard-baked shale that can’t be cracked open, no ocean that can’t be poisoned.
And Amasa was there at the beginning. Seal fur may not have been the world’s first valuable natural resource, but sealing represented one of young America’s first experiences of boom-and-bust resource extraction beyond its borders.
With increasing frequency starting in the early 1790s and then in a mad rush beginning in 1798, ships left New Haven, Norwich, Stonington, New London, and Boston, heading for the great half-moon archipelago of remote islands running from Argentina in the Atlantic to Chile in the Pacific. They were on the hunt for the fur seal, which wears a layer of velvety down like an undergarment just below an outer coat of stiff gray-black hair.
In Moby-Dick, Melville portrayed whaling as the American industry. Brutal and bloody but also humanizing, work on a whale ship required intense coordination and camaraderie. Out of the gruesomeness of the hunt, the peeling of the whale’s skin from its carcass, and the hellish boil of the blubber or fat, something sublime emerged: human solidarity among the workers. And like the whale oil that lit the lamps of the world, divinity itself glowed from the labor: “Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God.”
Sealing was something else entirely. It called to mind not industrial democracy but the isolation and violence of conquest, settler colonialism, and warfare. Whaling took place in a watery commons open to all. Sealing took place on land. Sealers seized territory, fought one another to keep it, and pulled out what wealth they could as fast as they could before abandoning their empty and wasted island claims. The process pitted desperate sailors against equally desperate officers in as all-or-nothing a system of labor relations as can be imagined.
In other words, whaling may have represented the promethean power of proto-industrialism, with all the good (solidarity, interconnectedness, and democracy) and bad (the exploitation of men and nature) that went with it, but sealing better predicted today’s postindustrial extracted, hunted, drilled, fracked, hot, and strip-mined world.
Seals were killed by the millions and with a shocking casualness. A group of sealers would get between the water and the rookeries and simply start clubbing. A single seal makes a noise like a cow or a dog, but tens of thousands of them together, so witnesses testified, sound like a Pacific cyclone. Once we “began the work of death,” one sealer remembered, “the battle caused me considerable terror.”
South Pacific beaches came to look like Dante’s Inferno. As the clubbing proceeded, mountains of skinned, reeking carcasses piled up and the sands ran red with torrents of blood. The killing was unceasing, continuing into the night by the light of bonfires kindled with the corpses of seals and penguins.
And keep in mind that this massive kill-off took place not for something like whale oil, used by all for light and fire. Seal fur was harvested to warm the wealthy and meet a demand created by a new phase of capitalism: conspicuous consumption. Pelts were used for ladies’ capes, coats, muffs, and mittens, and gentlemen’s waistcoats. The fur of baby pups wasn’t much valued, so some beaches were simply turned into seal orphanages, with thousands of newborns left to starve to death. In a pinch though, their downy fur, too, could be used—to make wallets.
Occasionally, elephant seals would be taken for their oil in an even more horrific manner: when they opened their mouths to bellow, their hunters would toss rocks in and then begin to stab them with long lances. Pierced in multiple places like Saint Sebastian, the animals’ high-pressured circulatory system gushed “fountains of blood, spouting to a considerable distance.”
At first the frenetic pace of the killing didn’t matter: there were so many seals. On one island alone, Amasa Delano estimated, there were “two to three millions of them” when New Englanders first arrived to make “a business of killing seals.”
“If many of them were killed in a night,” wrote one observer, “they would not be missed in the morning.” It did indeed seem as if you could kill every one in sight one day, then start afresh the next. Within just a few years, though, Amasa and his fellow sealers had taken so many seal skins to China that Canton’s warehouses couldn’t hold them. They began to pile up on the docks, rotting in the rain, and their market price crashed.
To make up the margin, sealers further accelerated the pace of the killing—until there was nothing left to kill. In this way, oversupply and extinction went hand in hand. In the process, cooperation among sealers gave way to bloody battles over thinning rookeries. Previously, it only took a few weeks and a handful of men to fill a ship’s hold with skins. As those rookeries began to disappear, however, more and more men were needed to find and kill the required number of seals and they were often left on desolate islands for two- or three-year stretches, living alone in miserable huts in dreary weather, wondering if their ships were ever going to return for them.
“On island after island, coast after coast,” one historian wrote, “the seals had been destroyed to the last available pup, on the supposition that if sealer Tom did not kill every seal in sight, sealer Dick or sealer Harry would not be so squeamish.” By 1804, on the very island where Amasa estimated that there had been millions of seals, there were more sailors than prey. Two years later, there were no seals at all.
The Machinery of Civilization
There exists a near perfect inverse symmetry between the real Amasa and the fictional Ahab, with each representing a face of the American Empire. Amasa is virtuous, Ahab vengeful. Amasa seems trapped by the shallowness of his perception of the world. Ahab is profound; he peers into the depths. Amasa can’t see evil (especially his own). Ahab sees only nature’s “intangible malignity.”
Both are representatives of the most predatory industries of their day, their ships carrying what Delano once called the “machinery of civilization” to the Pacific, using steel, iron, and fire to kill animals and transform their corpses into value on the spot.
Yet Ahab is the exception, a rebel who hunts his white whale against all rational economic logic. He has hijacked the “machinery” that his ship represents and rioted against “civilization.” He pursues his quixotic chase in violation of the contract he has with his employers. When his first mate, Starbuck, insists that his obsession will hurt the profits of the ship’s owners, Ahab dismisses the concern: “Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares Ahab? Owners, Owners? Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience.”
Insurgents like Ahab, however dangerous to the people around them, are not the primary drivers of destruction. They are not the ones who will hunt animals to near extinction—or who are today forcing the world to the brink. Those would be the men who never dissent, who either at the frontlines of extraction or in the corporate backrooms administer the destruction of the planet, day in, day out, inexorably, unsensationally without notice, their actions controlled by an ever greater series of financial abstractions and calculations made in the stock exchanges of New York, London, and Shanghai.
If Ahab is still the exception, Delano is still the rule. Throughout his long memoir, he reveals himself as ever faithful to the customs and institutions of maritime law, unwilling to take any action that would injure the interests of his investors and insurers. “All bad consequences,” he wrote, describing the importance of protecting property rights, “may be avoided by one who has a knowledge of his duty, and is disposed faithfully to obey its dictates.”
It is in Delano’s reaction to the West African rebels, once he finally realizes he has been the target of an elaborately staged con, that the distinction separating the sealer from the whaler becomes clear. The mesmeric Ahab—the “thunder-cloven old oak” —has been taken as a prototype of the twentieth-century totalitarian, a one-legged Hitler or Stalin who uses an emotional magnetism to convince his men to willingly follow him on his doomed hunt for Moby Dick.
Delano is not a demagogue. His authority is rooted in a much more common form of power: the control of labor and the conversion of diminishing natural resources into marketable items. As seals disappeared, however, so too did his authority. His men first began to grouse and then conspire. In turn, Delano had to rely ever more on physical punishment, on floggings even for the most minor of offences, to maintain control of his ship—until, that is, he came across the Spanish slaver. Delano might have been personally opposed to slavery, yet once he realized he had been played for a fool, he organized his men to retake the slave ship and violently pacify the rebels. In the process, they disemboweled some of the rebels and left them writhing in their viscera, using their sealing lances, which Delano described as “exceedingly sharp and as bright as a gentleman’s sword.”
Caught in the pincers of supply and demand, trapped in the vortex of ecological exhaustion, with no seals left to kill, no money to be made, and his own crew on the brink of mutiny, Delano rallied his men to the chase—not of a white whale but of black rebels. In the process, he reestablished his fraying authority. As for the surviving rebels, Delano re-enslaved them. Propriety, of course, meant returning them and the ship to its owners.
Our Amasas, Ourselves
With Ahab, Melville looked to the past, basing his obsessed captain on Lucifer, the fallen angel in revolt against the heavens, and associating him with America’s “manifest destiny,” with the nation’s restless drive beyond its borders. With Amasa, Melville glimpsed the future. Drawing on the memoirs of a real captain, he created a new literary archetype, a moral man sure of his righteousness yet unable to link cause to effect, oblivious to the consequences of his actions even as he careens toward catastrophe.
They are still with us, our Amasas. They have knowledge of their duty and are disposed faithfully to follow its dictates, even unto the ends of the Earth.
TomDispatch regular Greg Grandin’s new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, has just been published.
Copyright 2014 Greg Grandin.
Image by an unknown photographer (Public Domain).
With Homeland Security training border guards and patrolling checkpoints in more than 100 countries, the edges of empire are getting harder to find.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
It isn’t exactly the towering 20-foot wall that runs like a scar through significant parts of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands. Imagine instead the sort of metal police barricades you see at protests. These are unevenly lined up like so many crooked teeth on the Dominican Republic’s side of the river that acts as its border with Haiti. Like dazed versions of U.S. Border Patrol agents, the armed Dominican border guards sit at their assigned posts, staring at the opposite shore. There, on Haitian territory, children splash in the water and women wash clothes on rocks.
One of those CESFRONT (Specialized Border Security Corps) guards, carrying an assault rifle, is walking six young Haitian men back to the main base in Dajabon, which is painted desert camouflage as if it were in a Middle Eastern war zone.
If the scene looks like a five-and-dime version of what happens on the U.S. southern border, that’s because it is. The enforcement model the Dominican Republic uses to police its boundary with Haiti is an import from the United States.
CESFRONT itself is, in fact, an outgrowth of a U.S. effort to promote “strong borders” abroad as part of its Global War on Terror. So U.S. Consul-General Michael Schimmel told a group from the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic in the Dominican Republic back in 2008, according to an internal report written by the law students along with the Dominican immigrant solidarity organization Solidaridad Fronteriza. The U.S. military, he added, was training the Dominican border patrol in “professionalism.”
Schimmel was explaining an overlooked manifestation of U.S. imperial policy in the post-9/11 era. Militarized borders are becoming ever more common throughout the world, especially in areas of U.S. influence.
CESFRONT’s Dajabon commander is Colonel Juan de Jesus Cruz, a stout, Napoleonic figure with a booming voice. Watching the colonel interact with those detained Haitian teenagers was my first brush with how Washington’s “strong borders” abroad policy plays out on the ground. The CESFRONT base in Dajabon is located near the Massacre River that divides the two countries. Its name is a grim reminder of a time in 1937 when Dominican forces slaughtered an estimated 20,000 Haitians in what has been called the “twentieth century’s least-remembered act of genocide.” That act ensured the imposition of a 227-mile boundary between the two countries that share the same island.
As rain falls and the sky growls, Cruz points to the drenched young Haitians and says a single word, “ilegales,” his index finger hovering in the air. The word “illegals” doesn’t settle well with one of the teenagers, who glares at the colonel and replies defiantly, “We have come because of hunger.”
His claim is corroborated by every report about conditions in Haiti, but the colonel responds, “You have resources there,” with the spirit of a man who relishes a debate.
The teenager, who will undoubtedly soon be expelled from the Dominican Republic like so many other Haitians (including, these days, people of Haitian descent born in the country), gives the colonel a withering look. He’s clearly boiling inside. “There’s hunger in Haiti. There’s poverty in Haiti. There is no way the colonel could not see that,” he tells Cruz. “You are right on the border.”
This tense, uneasy, and commonplace interaction is one of countless numbers of similar moments spanning continents from Latin America and Africa to the Middle East and Asia. On one side, a man in a uniform with a gun and the authority to detain, deport, or sometimes even kill; on the other, people with the most fundamental of unmet needs and without the proper documentation to cross an international boundary. Such people, uprooted, in flight, in pain, in desperate straits, are today ever more commonly dismissed, if they’re lucky, as the equivalent of criminals, or if they aren’t so lucky, labeled “terrorists” and treated accordingly.
In a seminal article “Where’s the U.S. Border?,” Michael Flynn, founder of the Global Detention Project, described the expansion of U.S. “border enforcement” to the planet in the context of the Global War on Terror as essentially a new way of defining national sovereignty. “U.S. border control efforts,” he argued, “have undergone a dramatic metamorphosis in recent years as the United States has attempted to implement practices aimed at stopping migrants long before they reach U.S. shores.”
In this way, borders are, in a sense, being both built up and torn down. Just as with the drones that, from Pakistan to Somalia, the White House sends across national boundaries to execute those it has identified as our enemies, so with border patrolling: definitions of U.S. national “sovereignty,” including where our own borders end and where our version of “national” defense stretches are becoming ever more malleable. As Flynn wrote, although “the U.S. border has been hardened in a number of ways -- most dramatically by building actual walls -- it is misleading to think that the country’s efforts stop there. Rather the U.S. border in an age dominated by a global war on terrorism and the effects of economic globalization has become a flexible point of contention.”
In other words, “hard” as actual U.S. borders are becoming, what might be called our global, or perhaps even virtual, borders are growing ever more pliable and ever more expansive -- extending not only to places like the Dominican Republic, but to the edges of our vast military-surveillance grid, into cyberspace, and via spinning satellites and other spying systems, into space itself.
Back in 2004, a single sentence in the 9/11 commission report caught this changing mood succinctly: “9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against Americans ‘over here.’ In this same sense the American homeland is the planet.”
New World Border
Washington’s response to the 2010 Haitian earthquake provides one example of how quickly a mobile U.S. border and associated fears of massive immigration or unrest can be brought into play.
In the first days after that disaster, a U.S. Air Force cargo plane circled parts of the island for five hours repeatedly broadcasting in Creole the prerecorded voice of Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States.
“Listen, don’t rush [to the United States] on boats to leave the country,” he said. “If you do that, we’ll all have even worse problems. Because I’ll be honest with you: if you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.”
That disembodied voice from the heavens was addressing Haitians still stunned in the wake of an earthquake that had killed up to 316,000 people and left an additional one million homeless. State Department Deputy Spokesman Gordon Duguid explained the daily flights to CNN this way: “We are sending public service messages… to save lives.” Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) quickly dispatched 16 Coast Guard cutters to patrol Haitian waters, blocking people from leaving their devastated island. DHS authorities also cleared space in a 600-bed immigration detention center in Miami, and at the for-profit Guantanamo Bay Migrations Operation Center (run by the GEO Group) at the infamous U.S. base in Cuba.
In other words, the U.S. border is no longer static and “homeland security” no longer stays in the homeland: it’s mobile, it’s rapid, and it's international.
Maybe this is why, last March, when I asked the young salesmen from L-3 Communications, a surveillance technology company, at the Border Security Expo in Phoenix if they were worried about the sequester -- Congress’s across-the-board budget cuts that have taken dollars away from the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security -- one of them simply shrugged. “There’s the international market,” he said as if this were almost too obvious to mention.
He was standing in front of a black globular glass eye of a camera they were peddling to security types. It was draped with desert camouflage, as if we were out in the Arizona borderlands, while all around us you could feel the energy, the synergy, of an emerging border-industrial complex. Everywhere you looked government officials, Border Patrol types, and the representatives of private industry were meeting and dealing in front of hundreds of booths under the high ceilings of the convention center.
On the internationalization of border security, he wasn’t exaggerating. At least 14 other countries ranging from Israel to Russia were present, their representatives browsing products ranging from miniature drones to Glock handguns. And behind the bustle of that event lay estimates that the global market for homeland security and emergency management will reach $544 billion annually by 2018. “The threat of cross-border terrorism, cyber-crime, piracy, drug trade, human trafficking, internal dissent, separatist movements has been a driving factor for the homeland security market,” the market research company MarketsandMarkets reported, based on a study of high-profit security markets in North America, Europe, and Asia.
This booming business thrives off the creation of new border patrols globally. The Dominican Republic’s CESFRONT, for instance, did not exist before 2006. That year, according to Dominican Today, a group of “U.S. experts” reported that there were “a series of weaknesses that will lead to all kinds of illicit activities” on the Haitian-Dominican border. The U.S. team recommended that “there should be helicopters deployed in the region and [that] there be a creation of a Border Guard.” A month after their report appeared, that country, by Dominican presidential decree, had its own border patrol.
By 2009, the new force had already received training, funding, and resources from a number of U.S. agencies, including the Border Patrol itself. Somehow, it seems that what the U.S. consulate calls “strong borders” between the Dominican Republic and the hemisphere’s poorest country has become an integral part of a terror-obsessed world.
When I met with Colonel Orlando Jerez, a CESFRONT commander, in the border guard agency’s headquarters in the Dominican capital Santo Domingo, I noticed that on his desk he had a U.S. Border Patrol model car, a replica of the one that agency sponsored on the NASCAR circuit from 2006 to 2008 in an attempt to recruit new agents. Along the side of the shiny box that held it was this mission statement: “We are the guardians of the nation’s borders, we are America’s frontlines.”
When I asked Jerez whether CESFRONT had a relationship with our Border Patrol, he replied without a second’s hesitation, “Of course, they have an office in the U.S. embassy.”
Jerez is not alone. Washington’s global boundary-building, its promotion of those strong borders, and its urge to preempt “terrorism against American interests ‘over there,’” as the 9/11 commission report put it, are spreading fast. For example, the Central American Regional Security Initiative, a $496 million U.S. counter-drug plan launched in 2008, identifies “border security deficiencies” among Central American countries as a key problem to be dealt with ASAP. So the U.S. Border Patrol has gone to Guatemala and Honduras to help train new units of border guards.
As in Central America, border patrolling’s most vibrant markets are in places that Washington sees as far too chaotic, yet where its economic and political interests reside. For six years now, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has sent its agents, clad in brown jumpsuits, to Iraq’s borderlands to assist that government in the creation of a force to police its “porous” borders (where chaos has indeed been endemic since the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of the country). U.S. boundary-building efforts began there in 2004 with an operation labeled “Phantom Linebacker” in which 15,000 border guards were trained to patrol in -- as the name of the operation indicates -- the spirit of American football.
In 2012, agent Adrian Long told Frontline, the CBP's in-house magazine, that his agency trains Iraqis “in Border Patrol techniques like cutting sign, doing drags, setting up checkpoints and patrols.” Long was repeating the same lingo so often heard on the U.S.-Mexican border, where agents “cut sign” to track people by their trail marks and do “drags” to smooth out dirt roads so they can more easily see the footprints of any “border intruders.” In Afghanistan, Border Patrol agents are similarly training forces to police that country’s 3,436 miles of frontiers. In 2012, during one training session, an Afghan policeman even turned his gun on two CBP agents in an “insider attack,” killing them and seriously injuring a third.
Around soccer’s World Cup, which South Africa hosted in 2010, CBP assisted that government in creating a Customs and Border Control Unit tasked with “securing South Africa’s borders while facilitating the movement of goods and people,” according to CBP’s Africa and Middle East branch country manager for South Africa Tasha Reid Hippolyte. South Africa has even brought its military special forces into the border patrolling process. Near the Zimbabwean border, its militarized guards were using a triple barrier of razor wire and electric fencing that can be set to offer shocks ranging from mild to deadly in their efforts to stop border crossers. Such equipment had not been used in that country since the apartheid-era.
In many cases, the U.S. is also training border forces in the use of sophisticated surveillance systems, drones, and the construction of fences and barriers of various kinds, largely in attempts to clamp down on the movement of people between poorer and richer countries. More than 15,000 foreign participants in more than 100 countries have taken part in CBP training sessions since October 2002. It is little wonder, then, that an L-3 Communications sales rep would shrug off the constraints of a shrinking domestic national security budget.
Meanwhile, U.S. borders are functionally being stretched in all sorts of complex ways, even across the waters. As Michael Schmidt wrote in the New York Times in 2012, for example, “An ocean away from the United States, travelers flying out of the international airport here on the west coast of Ireland are confronting one of the newest lines of defense in the war on terrorism: the United States border.” There, at Shannon International Airport, Department of Homeland Security officials set up the equivalent of a prescreening border checkpoint for air travelers.
Whether it is in your airports or, as in Haiti’s case, in the international waters around your country, the U.S. border is on its way to scrutinize you, to make sure that you are not a threat to the “homeland.” If you don’t meet Washington’s criteria for whatever reason, you will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, from entering the United States, or even in many cases from travelling anywhere at all.
CBP attachés are now detailed to U.S. embassies in Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, South Africa, Italy, and Canada, among many other countries. According to an agency publication, Customs and Border Protection Today, they have been tasked with the mission of keeping “terrorists and their weapons from our shores,” as well as providing technical assistance, “fostering secure trade practices, and strengthening border authority principles.” The anonymous writer then typically, if floridly, describes “our country’s border” as “the armor of the body politic; it protects the systems and infrastructures that function within. Knives pierce armor and can jeopardize the body -- so we sheath them; keep them at bay; and demand accountability from those who use them.”
As CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner put it in 2004, the U.S. is “extending our zone of security, where we can do so, beyond our physical borders -- so that American borders are the last line of defense, not the first line of defense.”
Perhaps this is why few here batted an eye when, in 2012, Assistant Secretary of International Affairs and Chief Diplomatic Officer for the Department of Homeland Security Alan Bersin flatly declared, "The Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border."
On the Edge of Empire
As dusk falls and the rainstorm ends, I walk along the river’s edge where those Dominican border patrol agents are still sitting, staring into Haiti. Considering that U.S. forces occupied the Dominican Republic and Haiti numerous times in the previous century, it’s easy to imagine why Washington’s border chieftains consider this sad, impoverished spot part of our “backyard.” Not far from where I’m walking is the Codevi industrial free trade zone that straddles the border. There, Haitian workers churn out jeans mainly for Levi Strauss and the North American market, earning less than three dollars a day.
I approach one of the CESFRONT guards in his desert camouflage uniform. He’s sitting with his assault rifle between his legs. He looks beyond bored -- no surprise since being suspicious of people who happen to be on the other side of a border can be deadly tedious work.
Diaz, as his name patch identifies him, tells me that his shift, which runs from 6 p.m. to midnight, is normally eventless because Haitians rarely cross here. When I explain where I’m from, he wants to know what the U.S.-Mexico border looks like. I tell him about the fencing, the sensors, the cameras, and the agents everywhere you look. I ask if he has ever met agents of the U.S. Border Patrol.
“Of course!” he says in Spanish, “there have been training sessions.”
Then I ask if terrorists are crossing this border, which is the reason the U.S. consulate in Santo Domingo gives for supporting the creation of CESFRONT.
Diaz looks at me as if I’m nuts before offering an emphatic “No!”
No surprise there either. CESFRONT, like similar outfits proliferating globally, isn’t really about terrorism. It’s all about Haiti, one of the poorest countries on the planet. It is a response to fears of the mass movement of desperate, often hungry, people in the U.S. sphere of dominance. It is the manifestation of a new vision of global geopolitics in which human beings in need are to be corralled, their free movement criminalized, and their labor exploited.
With this in mind, the experimental border control technologies being tested along the U.S.-Mexican boundary line and the border-industrial complex that has grown up around it are heading abroad in a major way. If Congress finally passes a new multi-billion dollar border-policing package, its effects will be felt not only along U.S. borders, but also at the edges of its empire.
Todd Miller, a TomDispatch regular, has researched and written about U.S.-Mexican border issues for more than 10 years. He has worked on both sides of the border for BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Witness for Peace in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now writes on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog “Border Wars,” among other places. His first book, Border Patrol Nation, will be published in spring 2014 for the Open Media Series of City Lights Books.
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Copyright 2013 Todd Miller
Image by Edmund Meinfelder, licensed under Creative Commons.
A glimpse inside the Zapatista Movement, 20 years after its birth.
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Growing up in a well-heeled suburban community, I absorbed our society’s distaste for dissent long before I was old enough to grasp just what was being dismissed. My understanding of so many people and concepts was tainted by this environment and the education that went with it: Che Guevara and the Black Panthers and Oscar Wilde and Noam Chomsky and Venezuela and Malcolm X and the Service Employees International Union and so, so many more. All of this is why, until recently, I knew almost nothing about the Mexican Zapatista movement except that the excessive number of “a”s looked vaguely suspicious to me. It’s also why I felt compelled to travel thousands of miles to a Zapatista “organizing school” in the heart of the Lacandon jungle in southeastern Mexico to try to sort out just what I’d been missing all these years.
The fog is so thick that the revelers arrive like ghosts. Out of the mist they appear: men sporting wide-brimmed Zapata hats, women encased in the shaggy sheepskin skirts that are still common in the remote villages of Mexico. And then there are the outsiders like myself with our North Face jackets and camera bags, eyes wide with adventure. (“It’s like the Mexican Woodstock!” exclaims a student from the northern city of Tijuana.) The hill is lined with little restaurants selling tamales and arroz con leche and pozol, a ground-corn drink that can rip a foreigner’s stomach to shreds.
There is no alcohol in sight. Sipping coffee as sugary as Alabama sweet tea, I realize that tonight will be my first sober New Year’s Eve since December 31, 1999, when I climbed into bed with my parents to await the Y2K Millennium bug and mourned that the whole world was going to end before I had even kissed a boy.
Thousands are clustered in this muddy field to mark the 20-year anniversary of January 1, 1994, when an army of impoverished farmers surged out of the jungle and launched the first post-modern revolution. Those forces, known as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, were the armed wing of a much larger movement of indigenous peoples in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, who were demanding full autonomy from their government and global liberation for all people.
As the news swept across that emerging communication system known as the Internet, the world momentarily held its breath. A popular uprising against government-backed globalization led by an all but forgotten people: it was an event that seemed unthinkable. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The market had triumphed. The treaties had been signed. And yet surging out of the jungles came a movement of people with no market value and the audacity to refuse to disappear.
Now, 20 years later, villagers and sympathetic outsiders are pouring into one of the Zapatistas’ political centers, known as Oventic, to celebrate the fact that their rebellion has not been wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men.
The plane tickets from New York City to southern Mexico were so expensive that we traveled by land. We E-ZPassed down the eastern seaboard, ate catfish sandwiches in Louisiana, barreled past the refineries of Texas, and then crossed the border. We pulled into Mexico City during the pre-Christmas festivities. The streets were clogged with parents eating tamales and children swinging at piñatas. By daybreak the next morning, we were heading south again. Speed bumps scraped the bottom of our Volvo the entire way from Mexico City to Chiapas, where the Zapatistas control wide swathes of territory. The road skinned the car alive. Later I realized that those speed bumps were, in a way, the consequences of dissent -- tiny traffic-controlling monuments to a culture far less resigned to following the rules. “Up north,” I’d later tell Mexican friends, “we don’t have as many speed bumps, but neither do we have as much social resistance.”
After five days of driving, we reached La Universidad de la Tierra, a free Zapatista-run school in the touristy town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas. Most of the year, people from surrounding rural communities arrive here to learn trades like electrical wiring, artisanal crafts, and farming practices. This week, thousands of foreigners had traveled to the town to learn about something much more basic: autonomy.
Our first “class” was in the back of a covered pickup truck careening through the Lacandon jungle with orange trees in full bloom. As we passed, men and women raised peace signs in salute. Spray-painted road signs read (in translation):
“You are now entering Zapatista territory. Here the people order and the government obeys.”
I grew nauseous from the exhaust and the dizzying mountain views, and after six hours in that pickup on this, my sixth day of travel, two things occurred to me: first, I realized that I had traveled “across” Chiapas in what was actually a giant circle; second, I began to suspect that there was no Zapatista organizing school at all, that the lesson I was supposed to absorb was simply that life is a matter of perpetual, cyclical motion. The movement’s main symbol, after all, is a snail’s shell.
Finally, though, we arrived in a village where the houses had thatched roofs and the children spoke only the pre-Hispanic language Ch’ol.
Over the centuries, the indigenous communities of Chiapas survived Spanish conquistadors, slavery, and plantation-style sugar cane fields; Mexican independence and mestizo landowners; racism, railroads, and neoliberal economic reforms. Each passing year seemed to bring more threats to its way of life. As the father of my host family explained to me, the community began to organize itself in the early 1990s because people felt that the government was slowly but surely exterminating them.
The government was chingando, he said, which translates roughly as deceiving, cheating, and otherwise screwing someone over. It was, he said, stealing their lands. It was extracting the region’s natural resources, forcing people from the countryside into the cities. It was disappearing the indigenous languages through its version of public education. It was signing free trade agreements that threatened to devastate the region’s corn market and the community’s main subsistence crop.
So on January 1, 1994, the day the North America Free Trade Agreement went into effect, some residents of this village -- along with those from hundreds of other villages -- seized control of major cities across the state and declared war on the Mexican government. Under the name of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, they burned the army’s barracks and liberated the inmates in the prison at San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
In response, the Mexican army descended on Chiapas with such violence that the students of Mexico City rioted in the streets. In the end, the two sides sat down for peace talks that, to this day, have never been resolved.
The uprising itself lasted only 12 days; the response was a punishing decade of repression. First came the great betrayal. Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who, in the wake of the uprising, had promised to enact greater protections for indigenous peoples, instead sent thousands of troops into the Zapatistas’ territory in search of Subcomandante Marcos, the world-renowned spokesperson for the movement.
They didn’t find him. But the operation marked the beginning of a hush-hush war against the communities that supported the Zapatistas. The army, police, and hired thugs burned homes and fields and wrecked small, communally owned businesses. Some local leaders disappeared. Others were imprisoned. In one region of Chiapas, the entire population was displaced for so long that the Red Cross set up a refugee camp for them. (In the end, the community rejected the Red Cross aid, in the same way that it also rejects all government aid.)
Since 1994, the movement has largely worked without arms. Villagers resisted government attacks and encroachments with road blockades, silent marches, and even, in one famous case, an aerial attack comprised entirely of paper airplanes.
The Boy Who Is Free
Fifteen years after the uprising, a child named Diego was born in Zapatista territory. He was the youngest member of the household where I was staying, and during my week with the family, he was always up to something. He agitated the chickens, peeked his head through the window to surprise his father at the breakfast table, and amused the family by telling me long stories in Ch’ol that I couldn’t possibly understand.
He also, unknowingly, defied the government’s claim that he does not exist.
Diego is part of the first generation of Zapatista children whose births are registered by one of the organization’s own civil judges. In the eyes of his father, he is one of the first fully independent human beings. He was born in Zapatista territory, attends a Zapatista school, lives on unregistered land, and his body is free of pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Adding to his autonomy is the fact that nothing about him -- not his name, weight, eye color, or birth date -- is officially registered with the Mexican government. His family does not receive a peso of government aid, nor does it pay a peso worth of taxes. Not even the name of Diego’s town appears on any official map.
By first-world standards, this autonomy comes at a steep price: some serious poverty. Diego’s home has electricity but no running water or indoor plumbing. The outhouse is a hole in the ground concealed by waist-high tarp walls. The bathtub is the small stream in the backyard. Their chickens often free-range it right through their one-room, dirt-floor house. Eating them is considered a luxury.
The population of the town is split between Zapatistas and government loyalists, whom the Zapatistas call “priistas” in reference to Mexico’s ruling political party, the PRI. To discern who is who, all you have to do is check whether or not a family’s roof sports a satellite dish.
Then again, the Zapatistas aren’t focused on accumulating wealth, but on living with dignity. Most of the movement’s work over the last two decades has involved patiently building autonomous structures for Diego and his generation. Today, children like him grow up in a community with its own Zapatista schools; communal businesses; banks; hospitals; clinics; judicial processes; birth, death, and marriage certificates; annual censuses; transportation systems; sports teams; musical bands; art collectives; and a three-tiered system of government. There are no prisons. Students learn both Spanish and their own indigenous language in school. An operation in the autonomous hospital can cost one-tenth that in an official hospital. Members of the Zapatista government, elected through town assemblies, serve without receiving any monetary compensation.
Economic independence is considered the cornerstone of autonomy -- especially for a movement that opposes the dominant global model of neoliberal capitalism. In Diego’s town, the Zapatista families have organized a handful of small collectives: a pig-raising operation, a bakery, a shared field for farming, and a chicken coop. The 20-odd chickens had all been sold just before Christmas, so the coop was empty when we visited. The three women who ran the collective explained, somewhat bashfully, that they would soon purchase more chicks to raise.
As they spoke in the outdoor chicken coop, there were squealing noises beneath a nearby table. A tangled cluster of four newly born puppies, eyes still crusted shut against the light, were squirming to stay warm. Their mother was nowhere in sight, and the whole world was new and cold, and everything was unknown. I watched them for a moment and thought about how, although it seemed impossible, they would undoubtedly survive and grow.
Unlike Diego, the majority of young children on the planet today are born into densely packed cities without access to land, animals, crops, or almost any of the natural resources that are required to sustain human life. Instead, we city dwellers often need a ridiculous amount of money simply to meet our basic needs. My first apartment in New York City, a studio smaller than my host family’s thatched-roof house, cost more per month than the family has likely spent in Diego’s entire lifetime.
As a result, many wonder if the example of the Zapatistas has anything to offer an urbanized planet in search of change. Then again, this movement resisted defeat by the military of a modern state and built its own school, medical, and governmental systems for the next generation without even having the convenience of running water. So perhaps a more appropriate question is: What’s the rest of the world waiting for?
Around six o’clock, when night falls in Oventic, the music for the celebration begins. On stage, a band of guitar-strumming men wear hats that look like lampshades with brightly colored tassels. Younger boys perform Spanish rap. Women, probably from the nearby state of Veracruz, play son jarocho, a type of folk music featuring miniature guitar-like instruments.
It’s raining gently in the open field. The mist clings to shawls and skirts and pasamontañas, the face-covering ski masks that have become iconic imagery for the Zapatistas. “We cover our faces so that you can see us” is a famous Zapatista saying. And it’s true: For a group of people often erased by politicians and exploited by global economies, the ski-masks have the curious effect of making previously invisible faces visible.
Still, there are many strategies to make dissent disappear, of which the least effective may be violence. The most ingenious is undoubtedly to make the rest of the world -- and even the dissenter herself -- dismissive of what’s being accomplished. Since curtailing its military offensive, the government has waged a propaganda war focused on convincing the rest of Mexico, the world, and even Zapatista communities themselves that the movement and its vision no longer exists.
But there are just as many strategies for keeping dissent and dissenters going. One way is certainly to invite thousands of outsiders to visit your communities and see firsthand that they are real, that in every way that matters they are thriving, and that they have something to teach the rest of us. As Diego’s father said in an uncharacteristic moment of boastfulness, “I think by now that the whole world has heard of our organization.”
Writing is another way to prevent an idea and a movement from disappearing, especially when one is hurtling down the highway in Texas headed back to New York City, already surrounded by a reality so different as to instantly make the Zapatistas hard to remember.
The most joyous way to assert one’s existence, however, is through celebration.
The New Year arrived early in Oventic. One of the subcomandantes had just read a communique issued by the organization's leadership, first in Spanish, then in the indigenous languages Tzotzil and Tzeltal. The latter translations took her nearly twice as long to deliver, as if to remind us of all the knowledge that was lost with the imposition of a colonial language centuries ago. Then, a low hiss like a cracked soda can, and two fireworks exploded into the air.
“Long live the insurgents!” a masked man on stage cried.
“Viva!” we shouted. The band burst into song, and two more fireworks shot into the sky, their explosions well timed drumbeats of color and sound. The coordination was impeccable. As the chants continued, the air grew so smoky that we could barely see the fireworks exploding, but in that moment, I could still feel their brilliance and the illumination, 20 years old, of the movement releasing them.
TomDispatch regular Laura Gottesdiener is a journalist and the author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home. She is an editor for Waging Nonviolence and has written for Playboy, Al Jazeera America, RollingStone.com, Ms., the Huffington Post and other publications.
Copyright 2014 Laura Gottesdiener
Image by Julia Stallabrass, licensed under Creative Commons.
Intelligence Squared U.S. is an Oxford-style debate series covering a range of relevant controversial topics, from science refuting God to “too big to fail” big banks. The series recently celebrated its 100th debate, and Utne Reader editorial intern Soli Salgado had an opportunity to talk with moderator John Donvan beforehand about how the topics develop, the challenges of moderating, and preserving the integrity of the ancient art of debate.
Utne Reader: How has previous reporting for ABC News helped you as a moderator?
John Donvan: I had 30 years of ABC and did virtually every beat there was: I was a foreign correspondent for 13 years, came back and worked as a general assignment reporter, then as the White House correspondent. In the course of all that, at some point or other I covered every printed story there ever was, sometimes three times over, and that really gave me a broad range: from economy to religion to poverty to race science to medicine to health to politics and international conflicts. We haven’t really had a debate where I haven’t covered the issue in some fashion or other. We just had a debate on genetically modified food, and I did a broadcast on that in 1999. The debate before that was on assisted suicide, and I had done a one-hour documentary on that in 1994. It’s like a perfect repurposing of my entire body of knowledge gained from my career as an ABC reporter.
What non-reportorial experience has come into play for you in this job?
I’m very interested in acting and performance. I went to the Acting Conservatory at the Studio Theater in Washington. I’ve done a lot of improv, classical, live storytelling, Shakespeare, and comedy—all gave me instincts that allow me to be live in front of people and in the moment. It really became important when I started moderating because there’s no script in the debate. It’s much closer to improv in that I have to be reacting all the time and paying attention to keep it on course. That matter of performing and being really aware of a live audience has been a perfect complement to the more intellectual side of journalism.
Describe what you expect from the 100th debate.
It’s on the notion of whether America is in decline or not. The idea of the 100th is that it’s big and sweeping and looking at both the past and present and this administration at this time. There’s an electric feeling in the room. To me it’s amazing that we get 500 people to come watch a debate in New York City when there’s so much else going on. You revive this ancient yet timeless format of an artistic style of debate and bring it to New York at a time when everything is so polarized. So at the 100th debate we’ll talk about that achievement and have a big party afterwards and a rapper come on stage rapping about our previous accomplishments.
How are the guests chosen and invited? Are you a part of that process?
I’m in Washington, so I come up for meetings from time to time. But the process within the organization is very democratic—it’s a small organization with a few people—and everybody on the staff throws in ideas that usually begin with topics that are just interesting and relevant within themselves, but without knowing there’s actually a debate there, that there’s a dichotomy of views with legitimate arguments on both sides. So we start with a broad discussion about topics. “We should do something about ‘healthcare,’ and then it becomes, ‘What’s relevant about it? What’s being debated?’ Some are framed as verdicts on situations, others are framed as a policy choice that needs to be seen.
We’ll put out a lot of lines to people in their fields, or sometimes we go to interdisciplinaries and might call a philosopher to ask his opinion on science or religion. We try to get a sense of whether there’s a strong debate with credible arguments on both sides, and then whether there are people willing to argue both sides. We have a producer or two full-time reaching out to potential debaters, seeing what they would say and if there’s a coherence: if they can get on stage, but also being able to talk and being in a competition. Not everybody can.
We ask for ideas and get emails all the time, and we take that very seriously. But they really come from all over, from conversations. I’ve asked people at dinner parties for ideas for debates that are now in the hopper.
Is there a rehearsal, or are you surprised by what the debaters say in the moment?
I don’t know what they’re going to say in the body of the debate. They’ll come with prepared remarks, but we strongly discourage debaters to come in with a script for opening remarks. We have some sense from conversations beforehand through the booking process about their arguments, so we can know if there’s a head-to-head or not. But all of the debaters write. They’ve almost always published on these topics, and I read a lot, if not most, of those. Usually to figure out their rhythm as speakers, I’ll watch them on YouTube. But on the night of the debate, I literally don’t know what they’re going to say. And sometimes they don’t say what we expected them to argue, or their arguments come from a different angle, which is fine, so long as they’re not just talking past each other.
That’s where the improv comes into play; it’s so unscripted, we don’t know where it’s going to go. Every time I go up I’m worried there’s going to be a trainwreck, and so far we haven’t had one.
What’s the hardest part of moderating?
I figured out that the hardest part is the easiest part: the art of interruption. It is the key to moderating, and getting over the inhibition, I think any of us have, to interrupt somebody when they’re trying to say something meaningful. It seems impertinent and it seems rude. But I learned that if I didn’t interrupt people, they would just move way, way off topic quickly. They’d also spend an enormous amount of time elaborating on the same point, giving an example of why they were right and then another example, and another... It’s a combination of the art of listening closely and the art of interruption. I tell them before going on stage that I’ll do that, and most are pretty good about it.
You seem to moderate so fairly and straightforward, yet after most presidential debates, there’s controversy and criticism from the public regarding the moderator. Why do you think that is? Is it just the different style of debates?
The presidential debates are set up to be for moderator failure. The candidates come in with no true intention to debate one another, and there are so many rules set out to avoid them falling on their faces, that the moderator really has a difficult time.
The trick is getting involved without making it about yourself. It’s not about you: it’s about the debaters and the debate. But you also have to get in to keep them on course. And the presidential debates are not set up to be debates. They’re alternating press conferences. The guys come in with their talking points, and very rarely do they respond to one another’s points. They just talk past each other. And the moderator who does not interrupt quickly is sitting on two press conferences going on.
I see my mission is to protect the integrity of the debate. So if somebody dodges a question, I will jump on him—not because I’m on the other guy’s side, but because I’m on the debate’s side. If somebody ignores a really good point landed by their opponent and tries to change the subject, I will intervene because the audience wants to hear what the response is. The presidential debates are not set up to do that. That’s not what the parties want, and the parties control what the debates are about. It’s very frustrating to watch those things.
Read Donvan’s Washington Post article regarding the structure of modern presidential debates.
Oftentimes you see that audience members changed their minds on certain issues, when you compare how they voted at the beginning of the debate to how they voted at the end. Do you think that’s something special to Intelligence Squared in its format, or is any well-structured debates capable of the same thing?
I don’t think that’s just us. I think any really, really good debate can do the same thing.
The social contribution that a debate really makes is that by definition the audience is forced to listen to a point of view that may oppose their own, and they’re also forced to listen (for the first time, probably) to a well-articulated dissection of the weaknesses of the views they already hold. They may go in wanting to root for their side, and they may leave still rooting for their side, but they’ll very likely have been exposed to arguments against their side or for the other side that they never really had to sit and pay total attention to. If the debate works well, and the debaters are really engaging in an intellectual Ping-Pong match, with real intellectual integrity, really listening to each other in real intellectual combat—that sucks people in, in such a way that maybe they do end up acknowledging the flaws in the arguments they favored or strengths in the other guy’s. Doesn’t mean you have to switch sides. That’s particularly relevant today when there’s no middle space anymore. People for the most part have retreated to their chambers in terms of ideas they’re going to hear. This little show we put on—it’s a show, but it’s got value and integrity. It’s really an experience.
I always go to the lobby afterward because I love that moment of the debate when people spill out on the streets and sidewalks on 67th Street arguing with each other. They’re really alive with it. Who knew that the fusty old model of the Oxford style debate would be so relevant and alive and engaging and entertaining? It’s because they’re seeing a real debate. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a hunger for it, for debating civilly. We’re actually pulling it off, and it’s not boring. It’s a tough conversation. I’m not saying it’s Kumbaya. But it’s not done by screaming, rather by being as smart as they can be.
Have you ever had any difficulty remaining impartial?
I came up in the tradition of ABC News, which is not so much the ruling tradition in journalism anymore. It was always in the vein of “try to keep your personal views out of it.” That’s where my training was and that part comes naturally. I’m really careful in not having the audience members feel what I’m thinking or that I’m trying to steer the debate in any way, because that would really kill the integrity of it. I’ve found it’s been easy to pretend to be impartial.
What have been the most memorable debates you’ve moderated?
I like the cultural topics that are more about the human condition and less about what the government should be doing. We’ve done whether there’s life after death, whether religion is a force of good or evil, the state of men in society. We’ve done whether college football is a good or bad thing for the university and the players. Nobody’s really debating these topics. Whereas all the policy issues, you can hear debates on them all the time. You’ll hear lots of panel discussions on life after death, for example, but to actually hear actual evidence mounting on both sides, it’s an interesting thing.
The most difficult one we’ve done was a few years ago on whether or not the U.N. should recognize Palestine. The debate was between two opponents who were both Jewish, and it became very bitter and very personal to the two of them. They began to berate each other, each calling the other a traitor. They each took the charge so personally that they began to scream at each other. For the first and only time, I left my position at the podium and I walked around to the front of the stage, and with my back to the audience I faced them and raised my hands, quite consciously hoping to invoke Moses parting the Red Sea, and asked them to please be silent. They finally stopped, and I told them that what they were doing was essentially opposite to the goal of our debate and that they need to pull it back. And they did, though that was probably the roughest moment.
What would you like our Utne readers to know about Intelligence Squared if they haven’t heard about it before? There’s a lot of overlap between the intellectual aspiration of the Utne readers and Intelligence Squared. There’s open-mindedness and curiosity, a thirst to know, and desire to be entertained. These are entertaining. When you hear the word “debate” it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be fun evening, but it is. People come on dates and romance each other at the event. It’s a lot more fun from an intellectual point of view than it sounds like.
We have an app that has everything, for iPhones and Androids. Look for IQ2US in the search. You’ll have access to all the debates we’ve ever done as podcasts, and we post a bunch of the articles and research related to the debates, most by the debaters themselves. There’s also an opinion poll and information on upcoming debates.
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
What a way to celebrate Torture Awareness Month!
According to an Amnesty International Poll released in May, 45 percent of Americans believe that torture is “sometimes necessary and acceptable” in order to “gain information that may protect the public.” Twenty-nine percent of Britons “strongly or somewhat agreed” that torture was justified when asked the same question.
For someone like me, who has been haunted by the daily existence of torture since the September 11, 1973 coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende, such percentages couldn’t be more depressing, but perhaps not that surprising. I now live, after all, in the America where Dick Cheney, instead of being indicted as a war criminal, sneeringly (and falsely) claims to anyone who asks him—and he is trotted out over and over again as the resident expert on the subject—that “enhanced interrogations” have been and still are absolutely necessary to keep Americans safe.
As for those Americans and Britons—and so many others around the world—who find such horrors justifiable, I wonder if they have ever met a victim of torture? Or do they think this endless pain is only inflicted on remote and dangerous people caught up in unfathomable wars and savage conflicts? If so, they should think again.
When I read these sorts of statistics a scene comes back to me. I remember a man I met 20 years ago, not in my native Latin America or in faraway lands where torture is endemic, but in the extremely English town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Everybody in the room that day was crying, except for the man who had moved us all to tears, the former prisoner of war whom my son Rodrigo and I had traveled thousands of miles to meet. We had hoped to do justice to his story in a biopic, Prisoners in Time, that the BBC wanted to make for television—based on the same autobiographical material used recently in The Railway Man, the film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman now showing in theaters across America.
And what an extraordinary story it was!
Eric Lomax, a British officer in World War II, had been tortured by the Japanese in Thailand while working on the infamous Bangkok-Burma railroad, the one most people know about through another film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Eric, like so many victims of atrocities, was plagued by the experience, his life destroyed by memories of his agony and the desire for revenge. What differentiated him from so many others persecuted worldwide was not only that, more than 40 years later, he tracked down the man he held responsible for his suffering, the anonymous interpreter at his beatings and waterboardings, but the astounding fact that this tormentor, Takashi Nagase, once found and identified, turned out to be a Buddhist monk. Nagase had spent the postwar decades denouncing his own countrymen for their crimes and trying to atone for his role in the atrocities he had helped commit by caring for innumerable orphans of the Asians who had died building that railroad. The one scorching image from the war he could not escape was that of a brave young British lieutenant over whose torture he had presided and whom he had presumed to be dead.
Once Eric Lomax resurfaced, once the two former enemies, now old men accompanied by their second wives, met in Kanchanaburi next to the River Kwai where they had last parted, once they were face to face, Nagase begged for forgiveness. It was not instantly forthcoming. But some weeks later, in Hiroshima of all places, Lomax offered Nagase the absolution that he needed in order to live and die in peace.
The BBC had chosen me to tell this tale because, in my play Death and the Maiden, I had already probed the issues of torture, memory, mercy, and vengeance from the perspective of my beleaguered country, Chile. But in that play there had been no pardon offered and no pardon sought, so writing about Lomax’s dilemma seemed a way of furthering that original exploration with a series of new questions. Is reconciliation ever really possible when the wounds are searing and permanent? Does anything change if the victimizer claims to have repented? How can we ever know if those claims are legitimate, if that remorse is not merely an ego-trip, an accommodation for the sake of outward appearances?
There was also an aesthetic challenge: given the extreme reserve of both antagonists, their inability to articulate to one another—no less anybody else—what they had been feeling all those years, how to imagine, for the screen, dialogueour two silent former enemies would never have said but that would remain true to their affliction? How to bring their story to people who can’t possibly imagine what torture does to the ones who suffer it and those who create that suffering?
Our visit with Eric and his wife Patti at their home in the far north of England was a way of trying to coax from that emotionally repressed man some information—entirely absent from the memoir he had written—about how he had dealt with the barren wilderness of his sorrow, what it meant to survive torture and war more dead than alive. We were accompanied by director Stephen Walker and celebrated psychiatrist Helen Bamberg, who had helped Eric name his demons, and so saved him and his troubled marriage.
That day in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Eric confided to us, after several hours of halting monosyllables, a painful, unbelievable story. When he returned to England by ship after those traumatic years as a prisoner of war, he discovered just before disembarking that the British Army had deducted from his back pay the cost of the boots he had lost during his captivity. Bamberg, who had managed to get Eric to speak out after many distressing sessions, asked him if he had told anyone about this at the time.
“Nobody,” Eric said. And then, after a pause that felt infinite, “There was nobody there, at the dock.” He stopped and again long minutes of silence went by before he added, “Only a letter from my father. Saying he had remarried, as my mother had died three years before.” Another long pause followed. “She died thinking I was also dead. I had been writing to her all that time and she was dead.”
That’s when we all started to cry.
Not just out of sympathy for his grief, but because Eric had delivered this story about his loss in a monotone devoid of any apparent sentiment, as if all that despair belonged to someone else. Such dissociation is typical of torture victims. Their mental survival during their ordeal and its unending aftermath depends on distancing themselves from the body and its fate. And it is in that distance that they dwell.
We were crying, I believe, for humanity. We were crying in the Lomax living room because we were being confronted with a reality and a realization that most people would rather avoid: when grievous harm has been done to someone, the damage may be beyond repair. Eric Lomax had been able to tame the hatred raging in his heart and, reaching into the deepest wells of compassion, he had forgiven one of the men who had destroyed him. And yet there was still something irreparable, a terror that ultimately could not be assuaged.
The film we wrote two decades ago tried to be faithful to that desolate moment of revelation and at the same time not betray the inner peace that Eric had attained, the fact that he no longer heard Nagase’s voice in his nightmares demanding, “Confess, Lomax, confess and pain will stop.” He had triumphed over fear and fury, but that spiritual victory had not been achieved in solitude. In addition to the support of his wife Patti, it was due to the healing process he had gone through with Helen Bamberg. Not until he had fully come to terms with what had been done to him, until he faced his trauma in all its horror, was he able to “find” Nagase, whose identity and location had, in fact, been within reach for decades.
Eric’s tragedy and his attempt at reconciliation had a special meaning for me: it connected his life to that of so many friends in Chile and other countries who had been subjected to inhuman interrogations. It was a way of understanding the common humanity of all torture victims. More so, as the method that Bamberg employed to resurrect Eric’s memories and restore his mental health had first been elaborated as a therapeutic response to the flood of damaged Latin Americans exiled in England during the 1970s and 1980s, those years when grim dictatorships dominated that continent. Eric Lomax, she said, had the sad privilege of being the first World War II veteran with PTSD who was able to take advantage of this new psychological treatment.
We could not know, of course, that 9/11 awaited us seven years in the future, that the waterboarding inflicted on Eric in the 1940s by the Japanese, and on the bodies of so many Latin Americans decades later by their own countrymen, would go global as the United States and its allies fought the “war on terror.” Nor could we have guessed or would we have dreamed that so many millions would in that future prove so indifferent to a form of punishment that has been classified as a crime against humanity and is against international treaty and law signed onto by most of the world’s nations.
It would seem, then, that Eric Lomax’s story is more relevant today than ever—a story that, one would hope, brings home again, during Torture Awareness Month, the ultimate reality and anguish of being tortured. Or can we accept that the questions Eric Lomax asked himself about forgiveness and revenge, about redemption and memory, no longer trouble contemporary humanity?
How would our friend Eric, who died in 2012, react to the news that so many Americans and so many of the very countrymen he served in the war now declare torture to be tolerable? Perhaps he would whisper to them the words he wrote to Nagase when he forgave his enemy: “Sometime the hatred has to stop.”
Ariel Dorfman, Chilean-American writer and TomDispatch regular, is the co-author, with his son Rodrigo, of Prisoners in Time, which won the 1995 Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Feature Film on TV. The film was seen in many countries, with one notable exception: the United States. Dorfman teaches at Duke University and lives with his wife, Angélica, in Durham, North Carolina, and, from time to time, in their native Chile. His latest book is the memoir Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.
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A report looks at 323 movements to see which were most successful.
Assessing the effectiveness of civil resistance is a complex undertaking. The causes of change are often linked to a number of factors, and many what-if scenarios can be conjured up to imagine alternate endings; how adequate would nonviolent or violent resistance have been during WWII is a common hypothetical. But a new report that analyzed 323 campaigns which unfolded between 1900 and 2006 attempts to sort the ins and outs of success and failure in countries where people were striving for self-determination, unseating a leader, or driving out a military occupation. Tactics for the groups studied included anything from sit-ins to noncooperation to armed rebellion, and the results are telling:
- Nonviolent movements were found to attract more people and be more powerful than violent ones—11 times bigger and twice as effective against authoritarian rulers. Co-author Erica Chenoweth remarks, "People power is really the main story here."
- Including people from different backgrounds (gender, socio-economic, and religious) also led to a higher likelihood of accomplishing an end goal.
- Utilizing a diversity of nonviolent tactics was found to be more compelling because it stretched thin the resources for quelling a movement. Scholar Gene Sharp cataloged 198 tactics which have since been added to with tools such as social media.
- It was also helpful for those involved to have a longer outlook; the average length of time the movements lasted was almost three years.
- In cases where the campaign fails, the study found that nonviolent movements were still more likely (four times as compared to violent campaigns) to eventually democratize, which was attributed to experiences in mobilization and coalition building.
The developments from the Arab Spring (which are still being felt) can be held up for comparison. Tunisia encompassed many of the successful indicators, such as a diverse group of people who used different tactics, and the road to democracy there looks plausible. While both Egypt (nonviolent) and Libya (violent) succeeded in ousting their leaders, their futures are less secure. These examples illustrate the fact that implementing change, even after the fall of reviled regimes, is no easy task. But chances are, had Egypt turned violent, its road would be even more precarious and vice versa with Libya. And although such hypotheticals are impossible to verify, the study’s conclusions point in such directions. As for Syria, which attempted nonviolence but gave way to armed groups, the future does not look bright. Turning to violence pushed many people away and rebel forces began to rely on outside forces for aid and arms which is risky (support is "usually conditional and fickle.")
In terms of external involvement, the report calls on outside governments to support nonviolent resistance early on in order to prevent escalation of violence (from within or from forces such as NATO strikes). Had the nonviolent groups in Syria been given support from the onset, who knows what may or may not have transpired. Assisting independent media outlets, monitoring the criminal justice system, and pressuring leaders not to react with violence are also advantageous actions.
Photo by sari dennise, licensed under Creative Commons.
What forward-looking cities are learning about race, equity and building better bike lanes
This post originally appeared at People for Bikes.
Rev. Kenneth Gunn’s ministry at Chicago’s Bread of Life Church covers both the Bible and bicycles. He organized a bike club that regularly rides from the South Side church to Lake Michigan and along the Lakefront Trail. In his spare time, Gunn repairs donated bikes that he gives to kids in the predominantly African-American neighborhood.
Rev. Gunn believes biking offers great benefits to the community. “Besides good recreation, biking is economical,” the 70-year-old minister explains, especially in a city where many people don’t own cars and transit fares are rising. “But health is the number one reason to ride a bike. It’s good for your coronary, your respiratory and your blood pressure. And I find it’s good for my arthritis.”
Gunn welcomes the new protected bike lanes popping up across Chicago’s South Side as a way to encourage more African Americans to bike. “The city is becoming more and more bike friendly. The new lanes on 55th Street are super-safe and I love it.”
While African Americans comprise the fastest growing demographic of bicyclists, doubling from 2001 and 2009, bike lanes proposed for African-American neighborhoods in several cities have drawn controversy. And black churches like Rev. Gunn’s, which are highly influential among African-Americans, find themselves in the middle of the debate.
A few miles from the Bread of Life Church, a protected bike lane was planned for Martin Luther King Drive, which would pass six African-American churches. This raised serious concerns from some church leaders about the availability of parking for events, as well as aesthetic concerns on this historic street.
This controversy, and ones like it in other cities, highlights the importance of community engagement in planning new and innovative bike projects. “The city was doing a lot of bike projects fast, and talking with the community was not always a priority,” said Chicago Alderman Pat Dowell, who represents residents in the historically African-American neighborhoods around King Drive.
Dowell pointed to that experience as one reason some African-Americans are skeptical about bike lanes in a presentation at the Summit on Bike Lanes & Equity, a diverse gathering of transportation leaders convened last May in Austin by the Green Lane Project. (A program of People for Bikes, the Green Lane Project helps cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.)
Dialogue between the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and church and community leaders led to modifications in the plan. The protected bike lanes were shifted to a nearby street, and buffered bike lanes (which use wide swaths of paint rather than physical dividers to organize bikes and cars) were added to King Drive.
“The churches still have access to parking for church events.” Dowell said. “I think it marks a shift in how the city approaches neighbors.” Community discussions around the project also led to the creation of the Bronzeville Bikes group to encourage more people to bike in the neighborhood.
Dowell counts herself as a bike advocate and sponsors a number of community rides in her Ward, but notes that many of her constituents raise concerns about spending money on bike lanes when their neighborhoods are plagued by poverty and crime.
Some residents even associate highly visible street changes, like bike lanes, with the displacement of long-time black residents in favor of younger, often white newcomers. “You hear that bike lanes are white lanes,” says Cynthia Bell, an African-American organizer with Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance. “But there are a lot more youth on bikes in my neighborhood these days, so you hear it less.”
In Memphis, Tennessee a community development corporation founded by the St. Thomas African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church was a key player in building bike lanes in the South Memphis neighborhood. More than a thousand community members were involved in the planning process, which was part of a broader revitalization effort. St. Thomas’ pastor Rev. Kenneth Robinson, a medical doctor who formerly was Tennessee’s Health Commissioner, is a strong advocate of creating more opportunities for physical activity in low-income neighborhoods.
Yet there are still widespread feelings in some African-American communities that bike lanes are the opening act of gentrification, says Adrian Lipscomb, a bicycle project coordinator for the city of Austin, Texas who is writing a Ph.D dissertation on African-Americans and biking. One woman in the historically African-American neighborhood of East Austin told Lipscomb, “When the bikes came in, the blacks went out.” However, Census data shows the white population in the neighborhood increased only one percentage point between 2000 and 2009, while the Latino population climbed eight.
(The numbers of Latinos biking in the United States rose 50 percent between 2000 and 2009, compared to 22 percent for whites. Whites and Latinos now bike at the same level on overall trips but slightly more Latinos commute to work by bike, according to Census figures. Native Americans bike the most of all racial groups.)
The racial dynamics of bike lanes also flared up in a traditionally African-American neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, that is seeing an influx of younger white people. Long-time residents raised the issue of bike lanes fueling gentrification two years ago at a public meeting about a protected bike lane project for North Williams Street. “The bike community was surprised at the reaction to the project,” recalls Michelle DePass, an avid bicyclist and African-American leader, who notes that there was little attention paid to improving traffic safety in the neighborhood when it was predominantly African-American. (Nationally, African Americans suffer a bike fatality rate 30 percent higher than for whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; for Latinos it is 23 percent higher.)
The controversy is not really about bike lanes, reported the Portland Mercury. “The public process on Williams is a hot vent for a community that’s been grieving city-imposed change and loss for 60 years,” referring to a freeway project and hospital expansion in the 1950s and ‘60s that ripped apart the community.
Planning for the North Williams project was put on hold for several months as further research and community forums were conducted and more people of color added to the project’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee. Though the conversations were sometimes painful and emotionally charged, a new plan was enacted 18 months later with full community support. The plan included improvements for people on bikes as well as public art that recognizes the neighborhood’s history as Portland’s African-American hub.
Gerik Kransky, advocacy director of Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance, says, “This is where we learned to cool our jets and listen. It will inform how we work in the future. We need engagement, not just outreach.”
After decades of population decline, many cities are now seeing a boom fueled by entrepreneurial industries and young well-educated workers seeking a compact urban lifestyle, says Martha Roskowski, Director of People For Bikes’ Green Lane Project. And that includes safe places to bike. As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared, “You cannot be for a start-up, high-tech economy and not be pro-bike.”
“Bike lanes are not driving the wave of gentrification,” Roskowski observed at the Equity Summit. “It’s a much broader economic and social trend. But much of the process of change is behind the scenes, as properties are bought and sold and new businesses open and new people move into an area. Then, when there’s a public meeting about bike lanes, people feel they finally have a chance to say something about the many changes in their neighborhood.”
Six Ways to Broaden Support of Better Bike Lanes
At the Bike Lanes & Equity Summit in Austin, participants from a number of cities identified a number of common themes to create better bike lanes and better neighborhoods, especially in low-income and minority communities:
1) It’s important to involve local community leaders and residents early and often in the process, listening carefully and responding appropriately. As Chicago Alderman Pat Dowell emphasized, “The majority of the work with bike lanes is community engagement.”
2) Project planners need to understand and be respectful of an area’s history, especially if there is a history of underinvestment or injustice. Outreach efforts should be tailored to the particular conditions of an area, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach. You need to go to the people and speak their language.
3) Everybody wants safer streets and better neighborhoods. Figuring out how to further those goals is an essential part of any bike project. As much as possible, link bike infrastructure to other community improvements such as safe sidewalks and crosswalks, traffic calming, street lighting, waste removal, crime prevention and economic development. As Dowell noted, “If you can tie bike lanes to a community seeking more economic opportunity—that’s powerful.”
4) Recognize the pivotal role that churches and other social institutions play in neighborhoods, especially in communities of color. “In all six cities, we’ve found black churches are hubs of their communities and are very central to these issues,” said Roskowski.
5) Community-led education campaigns help overcome some people of color’s unease and unfamiliarity about biking. Veronica Davis from Washington, D.C., told the story of how she was biking to meet a friend for a movie when an African-American child proclaimed, “Mommy, mommy there’s a black woman on a bike!” That was the genesis of Black Women Bike, an organization that conducts workshops on the ABCs of getting around on two wheels—how to buy a bike, how to ride at night and in the winter, how to find the best routes on D.C.’s busy streets. “Our mission is to get women of color more comfortable with biking, to identify their fears and help alleviate them.”
6) It’s crucial to address the status issues associated with biking. Eboni Hawkins, co-founder of Chicago's chapter of the national advocacy organization Red, Bike & Green that sponsors community rides and other events to promote biking, noted, “The automobile has long been marketed as a symbol of independence and wealth. For a group of people that has been systematically disenfranchised, this is an important socio-cultural marker. So we’ve distilled the idea of riding stylishly into one phrase: ‘Ride Fly’. When we post photos on social media of people like Alicia Keys, Beyonce Knowles, LeBron James, Al Sharpton and Serena Williams on bikes, our comments, shares and likes go through the roof.”
Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults frequently about biking and other ways to improve our communities. His website: www.JayWalljasper.com
Image by Paul Krueger, licensed under Creative Commons.