Sep 29, 2011
Sep 28, 2011
Sep 24, 2011
This is a segment of a longer post by Sahar Driver on the FOR site:
"Another job for a nonviolent ideological warrior is to honor the sanctity of difference. In my eagerness to meet the other of another history, culture, faith, place, gender, sexual orientation, class—. In my eagerness to look into the face of this other and extend my hand, I may look for similarities to which I can relate. This attempt at relating is of course a beautiful thing, but it too easily becomes dangerous when I make the assumption of sameness where it may not exist— or when I prioritize what is the same over what is different in ways that shut difference down, cap or suffocate it so that it can no longer breathe. What would it take for me to look into the face of another and accept the impossible difference it holds? What feeds a hubris so acute as to allow me to assume I could possibly know Other, the histories that shaped it, the legacies it inherited, the values it lives that have no words?
Not too long ago, I was chatting with a friend and shared a story with him about an encounter with a man who had physically restrained me in a way that shook me up quite a bit. He listened intently to me, and my explanation of what had been going on for me during that experience. I explained what I had learned and what the experience meant to me in the context of my life as a woman grappling with the very real physical and mental insecurities and threats to my safety that mediate every decision I make daily, what paths I will walk on my way home at night, whether or not I make eye contact with the man ahead of me in line, how often I ask a male acquaintance about his wife and kids to remind him of his place. To my frustration and surprise, my friend began to reinterpret my story for me, explain better what I had meant to say, and feed it back to me in the context of his own experience with women.
He wanted me to understand that my story was not about my experience as a woman but was very much like a series of other experiences he too was familiar with that had nothing to do with gender at all. He proceeded to describe some of those experiences to me. In fact, none of those stories resonated with me at all and not a single one even touched what I had been trying to explain to him about the struggles I face as a woman every day. The very real threat of rape and sexual violation that I must negotiate on a daily basis. I walked away frustrated, not because he didn’t understand, how could I expect him to? He is not a woman. How could he possibly know what it is like to be a woman in this world? I was frustrated and angry at his sense of entitlement, his arrogant assumption that he could understand, and his attempt to take my story and make it his own, to rewrite my story and project it outward as a representation of some universal human experience applicable to anyone anywhere regardless of the specifics of gender that I knew had mediated my experience.
And this happens so often. I know I fall into this trap sometimes, maybe we all do— and when I do it is because I was not thinking. So I am asking that we think. When we exoticize, naturalize or romanticize the Other, what we are doing is inflating or foregrounding certain aspects that are most interesting or appealing to us (such as religious or spiritual traditions) and thereby making less visible if not invisible other aspects. Suddenly rich traditions are disassembled, flattened, taken out of context or interpreted in ways that are at the very least unfair misrepresentations and at worst, the grounds for policies that violate their very being. In looking for what I wish to see or am capable of understanding, the world becomes a prism of the familiar. In so doing, I not only rob the other of his/her voice and space to exist, I do violence to myself, my possibility for imagination, for inspiration, discovery, creativity, surprise and beauty. To work hard to see difference and allow it room to breath; to work hard to allow room for the discomfort of not-knowing; to work hard to respect what I do not understand is the work of nonviolence. Would not a humble acceptance of the mystery of the other, and the limits of my understanding, be a beautiful act of generosity? Of nonviolence? Of alliance?
In my work as a social and cultural anthropologist, one of the things that has repeatedly come up in my research is the danger of universalizing certain Western values and assuming their relevance the world over. In many cases, the effects are relatively benign. But in other cases, they can be quite horrifying. A very simple and well-known example is article 17 of the universal declaration of human rights: the right to property. Of course on the surface of it this sounds good right? But would the first Native American nations or Hawaiian people have agreed that this is a universal right? These people found the notion of ownership of property absurd and signed away their lands thinking the white colonizer a fool. But decades later would witness the mass genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas, oftentimes under an assumption of property rights and a certain “manifest destiny,” a god-given right, that not all peoples impacted by it would be asked to weigh in on.
I am suggesting that the assumption of shared values is an assumption that a nonviolent activist should take very seriously and be very careful about. We cannot assume that what is good for us, is good for everyone— especially when so often, as in the case of the Congo, what is good for us has come at the expense of the Other."
[see the full post by Sahar Driver on the FOR site]
Sep 17, 2011
Twenty-four years ago this morning—September 1, 1987—Vietnam veteran Brian Willson joined a handful of peacemakers on the railroad tracks at Concord Naval Weapons Stations to begin what they envisioned as a forty-day fast and vigil to protest arms shipments from this Northern California military base to US-backed forces in Central America.
Instead, a 900-ton munitions train, traveling at three times the legal speed limit, plowed into Brian and dragged him under. Standing a few feet away, I saw him turn over and over again like a rag doll and then (as the never-slowing train rumbled on toward a nearby security gate) sprawling in the track bed, a huddled mass of blood.
Miraculously, Brian survived (thanks, largely, to the tourniquets applied by his then-wife Holly Rauen, a professional nurse), though both legs were sheared off and his skull was fractured.
Now, over two decades later, he has published Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson, a new autobiography available from PM Press. This book does not simply recount a horrifying event from long ago. It offers, more importantly, a vivid example of a still-unfolding pilgrimage for peace that turns on a burning question: “What is my responsibility to make peace and challenge murderous violence in a direct and meaningful way?”
At a critical turning point in his life, Brian allowed this question in and everything changed. Of course, this question is not Brian’s alone. It is meant for each of us in the midst of the storm of horrific violence that continually bears down on our planet and its inhabitants.
Brian’s memoir recounts his journey from childhood in upstate New York (born on the Fourth of July, he enthusiastically shared his family’s pro-military and anti-communist convictions), to his decision to go to law school, and then his being drafted and sent to Vietnam as an Air Force captain, where two incidents changed his life.
One was a rocket attack in which he was saved by a quick-thinking companion who pushed him to the ground and out of the way of the blast. Though they survived, another soldier was blown to bits a few feet away. The second event even more clearly seared his soul. He had been sent out to do damage assessment of US bombing raids on villages and found a blackened mess that used to be huts, littered with bodies:
My first thought was that I was witnessing an egregious, horrendous mistake. The “target” was no more than a small fishing and rice farming community. The “village” was smaller than a baseball playing field. The Mekong Delta region is completely flat, and the modest houses in its hamlets are built on small mounds among rice paddies. As with most settlements, this one was undefended—we saw no anti-aircraft guns, no visible small arms, no defenders of any kind. The pilots who bombed this small hamlet flew low-flying planes, probably the A-37Bs, and were able to get close to the ground without fear of being shot down, thus increasing the accuracy of their strafing and bombing. They certainly would have been able to see the inhabitants, mostly women with children taking care of various farming and domestic chores … The buildings were virtually flattened by explosions or destroyed by fire. I didn’t see any inhabitant on his or her feet. Most were ripped apart from bomb shrapnel and Gatling machine gun wounds, blackened from napalm burns, many not discernible as to gender, and the majority were obviously children.
I began sobbing and gagging. I couldn’t fathom what I was seeing, smelling, thinking. I took a few faltering steps to my left, only to find my way blocked by the body of a young woman lying at my feet. She had been clutching three small, partially blackened children when she apparently collapsed. I bent down for a closer look and stared, aghast, at the woman’s open eyes. The children were motionless, blackened blood drying on their bullet and shrapnel-riddled bodies. Napalm had melted much of the woman’s face, including her eyelids, but as I was focused on her face, it seemed to me that her eyes were staring at me.
She was not alive. But her eyes and my eyes met for one moment that shot like a lightning bolt through my entire being. Over the years I have thought of her so much I have given her the name, “Mai Ly.”
I was startled when Bao, who was several feet to my right, asked why I was crying. I remember struggling to answer. The words that came out astonished me. “She is my family,” I said, or something to that effect. I don’t know where those words came from. I wasn’t thinking rationally. But I felt, in my body, that she and I were one. Bao just smirked, and said something about how satisfied he was with the bombing “success” in killing “communists.” I did not reply. I had nothing to say. From that moment on, nothing would ever be the same for me.
Thus began a deep transformation, which led him in the 1980s to notice with deep alarm the connection between what he had experienced in Vietnam and the Reagan administration’s war in Central America. He traveled to the region and saw a vivid parallel between the two conflicts, especially the wanton attack on civilians, and became convinced that he had to take action.
“We are not worth more, they are not worth less,” he declared, and joined the Veterans Fast for Life on the steps of the US Capitol in 1986, where he and three other former members of the US military fasted for 47 days. One year later, he and others formed Nuremberg Actions—named after the principles of international law enunciated in the wake of the Nuremberg tribunal following World War II that defined crimes against humanity and the responsibility and complicity in such crimes—and organized a 40-day fast at Concord in which he and others planned to block weapons trains. A Freedom of Information Act request had yielded concrete evidence that ships leaving this base were carrying 500-pound bombs, white phosphorus, and millions of rounds of ammunition, and Brian wanted to stop such shipments in their tracks.
He expected the train to stop, at which point he would be removed and arrested—in effect compelling the military to demonstrate the kind of care that should also be accorded to those at the other end of the line in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Instead, the government ran the train (in spite of the clear communication with the Navy over the prior ten days), thus dramatizing with palpable clarity what those at the end of the line faced every day.
We are not worth more. They are not worth less.
Brian’s autobiography details the aftermath of the Concord attack, including his activism, his own inner and outer growth, his comprehensive and embodied choices to live simply (on this recent book tour, for example, he traveled by pedaling a special bicycle that uses his hands instead of his feet), and his thoroughgoing critique of the American Way of Life (AWOL). (Less than three months after being run down by the train, Brian testified in Congress about this event. You can read his engrossing testimony here.)
What can we learn, after all these years, from Brian’s journey?
One lesson is the importance of “finding your own tracks and taking a stand there,” as he has often said. A catchphrase we used at the time held that “Stopping the war starts here”—stopping it at a weapons base, but also in many, many other places. Brian did so by taking this action “in person”: using the most powerful symbol at his disposal, his vulnerable, resilient, determined, and spirited body.
We can do this, too. This is not to say that we are all called to sit on train tracks (such action requires much discernment and training). But there are many places to stand nonviolently, withdrawing our consent and pointing our communities, our societies, and even ourselves in a new direction.
The world begins to change when we find this place.
Sep 11, 2011
bell hooks,in “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” in Displacing whiteness: essays in social and cultural criticism, ed. Ruth Frankenberg (Duke University Press, 1997), 164-179 quotes Spivak as saying:
"what we are asking for is that the hegemonic discourses, the holders of hegemonic discourse should de-hegemonize their position and themselves learn how to occupy the subject position of the other." (in the post-colonial critic, no page number given)