Friday, April 27, 2007

See How We Are

Tonight at Joe's Pub, The PEN Festival and the ACLU sponsored a series of readings by Gloria Reuben, Nadine Gordimer, Breyten Breytenbach, Rose Styron and others about dirty wars--detentions without trial, torture, secret prisons and other human rights abuses--and how these tactics are now employed by the United States.

Surprisingly, it was not a heavy-drinking crowd.

In 1996 I sat in an auditorium outside of Durban, South Africa and watched a couple of days of testimony during The Truth And Reconciliation hearings. These hearings were designed to help push the country forward during the transition from apartheid to democracy. At the time, it was felt that, in order to move on, everyone would have to be given a chance to tell their stories, to give witness in a public forum to the complicated ways that the apartheid society fractured the lives of South Africa's peoples; that only by being honest about who they had been could they be who they wished to become.

The day I attended, a young woman told a story about being involved in a protest that turned violent when guns were fired upon her and her fellow marchers. She told of how her friend's sister was gunned down beside her. The questioners asked the name of the woman whose sister was killed and the speaker told them. The questioners asked if it was known where the woman could be found and the speaker pointed to a girl a few rows in front of me and said, "she is there."

The next day that girl told her version of the events surrounding her sister's death. Like all stories in South Africa at the time, it was a complicated tale of oppression and collusion, of white oppressors and black South Africans who sometimes acted as enforcers of and accomplices to the apartheid policies. It was a story of how, when one is denied basic rights, one makes compromises essential to live and morality, justice and fair play can become luxuries.

But it was her story and she got to tell it.

Now, one can argue that The Truth And Reconciliation hearings were mostly show and that they denied vengeance for those who suffered and lost the most during the apartheid era. I don't necessarily agree with that, but I was an idealistic American student writing a dissertation about the dynamics of change, so my cup was half full and my rose-colored glasses looked good, despite the eyes of a skeptic looking through them. I was privileged to be witness as a country--not without bloodshed and not without cruelty--negotiated an end to its identity as a nation predicated on the notion of inherent cultural, racial, sexual and gender-based differences and attempted to be something it had never been in its entire history--one nation, one people, with equality for all.

Again, it seems to me that when you're trying to change, to be something you're not, it's important to talk honestly about what you are, what you hope to be and the space in between and I have been profoundly affected by how I saw South Africans attempt to do just that. You can say they fell short, you can say they still have problems, but you cannot say that, at a time when ethnic cleansing and genocide are often the endgames of post-colonial nation states, South Africa hasn't talked its way into the next.

I found myself thinking about this a lot tonight as I listened to a number of prominent writers and activists reading from articles, poems, e-mails and journals describing how the United States has adopted the tactics and compromises of nations it once criticized; how we have condoned torture and extraordinary rendition, how we have bent our ideals and compromised our identity, how we have become less than what we should be.

In 1992, my father and I met Nadine Gordimer at a cocktail party in Grahamstown, South Africa. Four years later, I found myself at a luncheon with Breyten Breytenbach. I cannot say a personal bond was forged or a strong connection was made in either case, but I can say that of the many remarkable people I met in South Africa, they both had a profound impact on me. So tonight, as I watched them and others on the stage at Joe's Pub, I felt especially ashamed as some of my country's indiscretions were summarized and high-lighted in the readings.

I found myself thinking about how The Truth And Reconciliation Hearings bore witness after the fact because the South African governement prevented the truth from being told in apartheid society. But here, now, these writers, this evening in New York City were reading and bearing witness to contemporary events here, now.

I would feel good about this; I would see it as an example of why we are strong--that we are blessed to be able to criticize and point to our faults and our shortcoming--if I didn't somehow feel that we live in a new age of Cassandra, the oracle cursed to speak the truth and have no one believe her. Of course, Cassandra had the gods against her . . .

Afterwards, Andrew told me he heard two ladies on their way out discussing an impulse buy they resisted at a store in Soho, Sxip took the stage and made his sound collages and I went home and watched the Lakers and the Suns. And the Cassandra crowd went down the street to Serafina for dinner.


Paul Simon writes:

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hours
And we sing an American tune
Oh, and it's alright, it's alright, it's alright
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all
I'm trying to get some rest . . .


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