Saturday, April 18, 2009

Another narrative

Its been pretty clear to me for awhile now that I seem to be looking at the world through a different lens than many who blog here these days. I've been taking some time to think and reflect about that these last couple of weeks and have been helped in that process tremendously by a couple of diaries NCrissieB wrote at dkos titled Religion as Politics, Politics as Religion and Religion, Politics and Big Narratives. In these, she describes our tendency to create Big Narratives that provide "global, unifying lenses through which to view the events in our lives." But here's the problem:

...we meet difficulty when Big Narratives collide. When two people or groups are constructing experience through different narratives, it seems as if they inhabit different worlds. Each can easily think the other out of touch with reality, when the problem is that each is out of touch with the others' narrative. They've gone through life writing different stories, along different patterns, in part from events unique to their own experiences. Even where the stories are "based on" common events, they are different stories, each with its own heroes, villains, victims, motivations, strategies, and resolutions. And while each offers a sense of completeness, none is truly complete.

One of the ways to explain both my experience as well as much of the discord we've seen at dkos and other blogs is that we're having a clash of Big Narratives - none of which is complete. Of course there are other reasons why communication is difficult. But I think this is a big one.

So the question becomes, do we replicate so much of what happens with political discourse in this country and splinter off into groups of people who share a common Big Narrative? Or is it possible to discuss these differences in the hopes of either expanding our own narrative or at least limiting the derision of those who see things differently?

I thought I'd share some of the things my Big Narrative has led me to think about over this past week - things that look very different from what I've seen written about here - in hopes that you'll see it as my incomplete narrative in progress.

Over a year ago, I wrote about my tendency to be the "hare" in the Tortoise and the Hare fable. Growing up with a father who always had "bigger than life" dreams but never found a way to make any of them come true, I must have learned early on that it pays to think about the process of implementation. I have very big dreams for our country and the world - that's because I also grew up with the privilege of that kind of optimism. But as soon as I articulate a dream, I begin to think about step one in what might actually be doable to make those dreams come true. Its often a small step that I can see leading the way to step two...and on that path to eventually reach the goal.

I think this is one of the reasons I so identify with what Obama is doing. From his book, Dreams from My Father, it seems that he learned the same lesson from his father. Obama often compares the kind of change he's working on to turning around a big ship...its not going to happen overnight. But slowly, one small step at a time, you eventually right a wrong course.

I know there is a good argument for the idea that we don't have the time for this kind of slow course correction. But I also see that Obama is aware of the potential failure - the kind we both saw in our fathers - of trying to do too much too fast without plotting the course for success. I think this is a HUGE tension between two narratives that needs to be recognized, acknowledged, and discussed.

Just yesterday, we began to see Obama's step-by-step course correction begin to bear fruit in our relationship with the countries of Latin America - particularly as it relates to Cuba. He did a small thing - opened the door to travel and money exchanges for Cubans living in the United States. That led to a momentous response from Raul Castro and we're off to the races on the possibility of ending a failed strategy that has lasted over 50 years.

We also heard some words from Obama yesterday that signaled a real change in how our relationships with Latin America will go forward after decades of U.S. hegemony.

All of us must now renew the common stake that we have in one another. I know that promises of partnership have gone unfulfilled in the past, and that trust has to be earned over time. While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values. So I’m here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration.

These statements are particularly powerful in light of our current discussions about the U.S. and torture. The people of Latin America are very well aware of the fact that the Bush administration is not the first to engage in such practices. Greg Grandin connects the dots for us in an article titled America's trinity of terrorism.

Throughout the second half of the Cold War, Washington's anti-communist allies killed more than 300,000 civilians, many of whom were simply desaparecido -- "disappeared"...

The victims were often not the most politically active, but the most popular, and were generally chosen to ensure that their sudden absence would generate a chilling ripple effect.

Like rendition, disappearances can't be carried out without a synchronized, sophisticated and increasingly transnational infrastructure, which, back in the 1960s and 1970s, the United States was instrumental in creating. In fact, it was in Latin America that the CIA and U.S. military intelligence agents, working closely with local allies, first helped put into place the unholy trinity of government-sponsored terrorism now on display in Iraq and elsewhere: death squads, disappearances and torture.

These kinds of things have been going on in our intelligence communities for decades now under the administrations of everyone from at least Kennedy to Bush. For example, as much as I admire and respect Jimmy Carter, his involvement with atrocities in places like East Timor and El Salvador would at least indicate complicity, if not direct involvement, in war crimes. And who was ever prosecuted for the war crimes we commited in Viet Nam? I even have trouble with the term "war crimes." Isn't war, by its very nature, most often a crime? As if we could mitigate the murder and destruction by developing rules and regulations for how it is to be done.

This is why, for me, calls for investigation and prosecution of torture would need to include every administration in which it was practiced in order to meet the litmus test of "restoring the rule of law." We have, perhaps since our founding as a nation, committed crimes against our citizens and those of the world when it comes to death squads, disappearances and torture. As just one example, I am reminded of the powerful story of Sister Dianna Ortiz who was abducted and tortured in Guatemala in 1989.

MARGARET MONTOYA: Who else was in the room while you were being tortured, besides the Guatemalan torturers?

SISTER DIANNA ORTIZ: After a while, there was—an American walked in.


MARGARET MONTOYA: Do you remember what was said?

SISTER DIANNA ORTIZ: Yes. It was evident that he was upset. He ordered the men to stop the torture, telling them that I was a North American nun, and that my disappearance had become public, and it was because—my disappearance was beginning to cause an uproar.

MARGARET MONTOYA: And how did they respond?

SISTER DIANNA ORTIZ: They followed his orders, and they didn’t rape me again, and they left the room. I asked him if he was an American, and his answer was evasive. “Why do you want to know?” he asked me. I told him that he had used a word that was common in the United States. He, Alejandro, tried to help me put my clothes back on and eventually led me out of the building.

MARGARET MONTOYA: And then what happened?

SISTER DIANNA ORTIZ: The American, Alejandro, put me into his jeep and drove off, and during the ride he told me to forgive my torturers, telling me that they were all just trying to fight communism; if I didn’t, that there would be consequences. He reminded me that my torturers had made videotapes and had taken photographs of the part of the torture that I was most ashamed of. In perfect American English, Alejandro told me that if I didn’t forgive my torturers, he would have no other choice than to release the videotapes and the photos to the press.

Are Sister Ortiz or any of the other thousands of victims in Latin America who experienced rendition and torture at the hands of U.S. intelligence any less deserving of "justice" than those who are victims of the Bush administration's practices? I think not. The history of this country (like most) has been paved with crimes and horrors committed against those we define as our "enemies." I'm not sure what "justice" means when put into that larger context. But as I've written before, I don't think our current justice system is capable of addressing the breadth of what we've done. It is, afterall, a system that has been set up primarily to protect the powerful and punish the those who threaten that power...the very thing that needs to be changed.

So I'm seriously asking myself questions about all of that.

In the meantime, I'll just keep watching as Obama slowly but surely takes the small effective steps that I think are necessary to change this awful course we've been on for a very long time. Like this one...

(Too bad they didn't do a fist bump. Wouldn't that have made the winger's heads explode?)

Yesterday, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, the US president extended a long overdue hand of friendship to his Venezuelan counterpart, a democratically elected leader that suffered an attempted military coup d’etat that was cheered, if not planned, by Washington. The President, in short time, has already defused an entire string of similar policy time bombs left by previous administrations (Republican and Democratic alike). Will there be more tensions between Ch├ívez and the US? Very likely the answer is yes, but the gravity and context of them has shifted positively. This hemisphere is already a safer place for dissident journalists, community organizers, governments of the left and other grassroots change agents. That, alone, makes it more possible for us to organize and make bigger and better changes – of the kind for which we do not need any government’s permission – in the days and years ahead.

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