Essays on Social Justice
by Donald Gutierrez
There is no such thing as "was"; if "was" existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.
The title of this book, Feeling the Unthinkable: Essays on Social Justice, accents its cardinal stress: not just to think but feel about matters that too many people generally don't want to even think about—but should. Some of the horrors addressed and attacked in this collection of essays and book reviews include war, state terrorism and torture, human rights abuses, American imperialism, corporate and Wall Street avarice and domination, the American criminal justice system, Nazi concentration camps, brutalization of Muslim and Arab detainees in America and in the Middle and Far East, America's lurch towards fascism, and a woman named Helen Bamber who has worked for decades to heal torture victims. Reviews of books of virtual prosecution by Christopher Hitchens and Vincent Bugliosi put, respectively, Henry Kissinger and George W. Bush on trial for war crimes and/or mass murder. Essays and reviews less extreme in subject matter but certainly involving social-justice concerns include, among others, the perniciously high student costs of going to college, the relation of prep schools to America's ruling class, class structure and extreme privilege in America and, in virtual response to the two last topics, essays discussing the ethical, psychological and humane superiority of cooperation over competition and of community over business values.
Feeling may be briefer than thought but, sufficiently deep, can electrify what we think is important in life. Yet who wants to think about, let alone feel, the 1981 El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador: an entire village is slaughtered by the Salvadoran military, all the men tortured before being killed, and the larger number of the slain being children. Who wants to hear about such—and hundreds of other—horrors that have been perpetrated decade after decade in modern times? Yet Washington—our government—facilitated many of these atrocities through School of the Americas instruction as well as through funding, arms and intelligence delivery, and encouragement provided to demonic regimes, sometimes communicated by American embassies, as in the incredible Indonesian mass-murders during the 1960s. Supposedly, all this aid was designed to halt the spread of communism; instead, it actually undercut the activism of union organizers, peasants, students, religious and other groups trying to democratize the extremely concentrated wealth and power traditionally held in a vise-grip by the upper class and the military in so many Latin American countries. I feel, perhaps wrongly, that one would want to know that one's government is using his or her tax monies for despicable, brutal ends—especially a country like ours that brags so much about itself being the beacon on the hill, the shining example to the world of freedom and equality.The last hypocrisy touches on the major sub-theme of the collection and the second essay in Feeling: that the light on America's hill has too often become very dark indeed.
Millions of Americans either have no idea or any concern that their government has used their money and its immense power to assist—even direct—hellish activities abroad in their name. So one intention of the human rights essays in Feeling the Unthinkable such as "American Middle Eastern Detainees and You: The Extraordinary Cruelty of Extraordinary Rendition," "Where Is the Humanity? America's Use of Excessive Force Over There," and reviews of such books as Frederick H. Gareau's State Terrorism and the United States, is to exemplify some of the ruthless, exploitative behavior committed by the American state.
Other essays in the "State Terrorism" section deal with victimized individuals who symbolize Washington's egregious abuse of power domestically or abroad, whether it is the innocent American-Middle-Eastern detainees swept up shortly after 9/11and violently treated in jail by guards or the long, graphically shocking memoir of the American Ursuline nun Dianna Ortiz who was tortured by Guatemalan military with the knowledge and tacit approval of American authorities.
Another section of Feeling, entitled "War and Democracy--War on Democracy" deals with problematic, even crucial, areas of America's democracy, including Chris Hedges' study of war, which indicates that there is nothing redeeming about any war; the application of George Orwell's definitive remarks on the corruption of political language to military conduct in America's more recent wars; the relation of the concept of universal jurisdiction to war crimes committed by the White House; the ominous threat to democracy and creeping fascistization of America outlined in ten steps in Naomi Wolf's The End of America; the sinister militarization and psychic regimentation of the country in the essay "American Global 'Democracy' and the Militarization of America," and two pieces dealing with the threat of nuclear war not only to democracy but to all life on earth, Dr. Helen Caldicott's The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush's Military- Industrial Complex and the book-title essay "Feeling the Unthinkable," in part a polemic against a rational approach to nuclear war conceptualized by Rand Corporation theorist Herman Kahn.
Part III of Feeling broaches issues of class, racism and greed in a variety of manifestations. It opens with an account of my experience of ethnic misidentification while traveling through the South in the 1950s. This journey underlined for me how racist perceptions can go the the root of one's—anyone's—being. Class is embodied in such essays as "Why Attending College Should be Free" and "Prep Schools and the Ruling Class"—two interrelated pieces. This section continues with the sense of class as genocidal racism in the far darker regions of a Nazi concentration camp. This is followed by an essay and a review of Christian Parenti's book, Lockdown America, on American prisons and penal injustice. Parenti's book in particular implies that society resolves superfluities and consequent frictions of class and race by putting "disposable" segments of the population—the lower and especially darker-skinned class for whom there is no or little work—in prison. Both pieces suggest in different ways that torture is a common feature of American prisons, whether in the form of solitary confinement stretching for years, the use of severely electrocuting devices on prisoners, prisoner rape of both sexes or sudden, incredibly savage beatings administered to key inmates by guard teams dressed in riot gear. Randall Robinson's book Quitting America: The Departure from America of a Black Man from His Native Land indicates one African- American's response to America's racist disposal of Blacks but, more effectively, projects a trenchant criticism of what the white race has done not only to Blacks but to all people of color.
The essay about the aboriginal people (the Chagossians) on Diego Garcia island continues the theme of gross white mistreatment of non-whites, but also ties in with the dominant themes in crack investigative journalist John Pilger's powerful book The New Rulers of the World: the violent presence of and financial domination by Western imperialism throughout the world. This imperialism, emblematic of ungovernable greed, is exhibited domestically in the case of Tyco International CEO Dennis Kozlowski who, along with an associate, cheated his company out of hundreds of millions of dollars. The essays "Leveling the Hierarchy" and, particularly, "American Presidents and Business Versus Community" and "Competition, Cooperation and 'Us' Versus 'Them,'" suggest resistance to the vectors of avarice and class privilege in the form of the libertarian, communitarian transformation of society.
Part IV offers a humanistic perspective against the preceding visible darknesses broached in Feeling. It poses both the humanities and spirited iconoclasts and dissidents, such as Howard Zinn, Edward Abbey, D. H. Lawrence, and the humane, empathic sensibility of poets, as significant forces against the massive social evil and the indifference to others besetting the contemporary world. Obviously, the humanities and the rebel— iconoclasts hardly balance the scales against the enormous and pernicious state and corporate evil exposed in Feeling. Rather, humanist values centered in the human, the compassionate, the esthetic and psychologically liberating suggest an aperture in the darkness offering light, hope, creative energy, individual integrity and humane sociability from which community could bit by bit—or even suddenly—evolve.
Is this expecting too much? Dictatorships are suddenly resisted or dissolved with a fury of desire for freedom and democracy—as in the Middle East, at immense cost of life and agony. Wall Street seems indomitable today, yet even now perhaps some child has been born (another Brooksley Born or Ralph Nader!) who could have the organizing social genius or the moral, legal or political passion to restore financial sanity or a sense of limits and interdependence as basic to society. A grassroots movement, already existent, might grow into a potent force against the "Street's" egregious finance concentration. The 20th century French philosopher, anti-Nazi activist and concentration-camp survivor David Rousset, who created the phrase "L'Univers Concentrationnaire" ("The Concentrationary Universe") to describe his era, once said that "Normal men do not know that everything is possible" (epigraph to Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism). Buchenwald, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Pol Pot, the contemporary torture cells of the world come to mind.
But that 20th century prophecy, true enough then and today, bears its inescapable opposite: that anything beautiful, compassionate, noble, generous, humane, empathetic is also possible, and could provide a series of lattices upon which to lay new possibilities of the Good Life and the Beloved Community of the mystics and poets. Everything is possible, an expansion more open than Rousset might accept, but then he lived through the universe that a concentration camp surrounds with barbed wire, and that bears authority against over-valuing the potential of the benign.
If, as mentioned earlier, many of the essays and reviews deal with the "dark side"—no Dick Cheney's "sort of" about it—why would people even want to read them; there's more than enough terror and ugliness and misery in life and the world as it is. I feel (as well as think) that there are more than a few individuals who want to know about the terror being imposed on other human beings because they urgently want to extend their own humanity to others undergoing horrific brutality, pain and death. John Donne's "No man is an Iland [sic] intire [sic] of itselfe [sic]; every man is a peece [sic] of the Continent" (Devotions XVII, 1623) applies here. These individuals want to know about the malicious imposition of agony, suffering, injustice and death on anyone and everyone so as to stop it. They probably don't enjoy knowing that they might be living in reasonable comfort or safety while their government is savagely afflicting other nations and peoples directly or supporting and backing brutally repressive regimes or genocidal crack-downs—as Kissinger did Chile's General Pinochet or Ambassador Marshall Green did Indonesia's General Soharto.
Further, there are other individuals who, ignorant of their government's demonic behavior abroad, might find the pieces in the collection educational, even eye-opening. If some might feel that some of the essays and reviews are disturbing or even repulsive (and blame messenger Gutierrez), others might be spurred to further investigation or even to individual or organizational activism.
The range of the material offers at one extreme a review essay of an authoritatively researched study like State Terrorism and the United States that whitewashes absolutely nothing in the way of Washington's role in spreading hideous torture and mass murder abroad. At the other extreme are committed dissidents like historian/polemicist Howard Zinn and journalist/film-maker John Pilger, iconoclasts like Edward Abbey, D. H. Lawrence, B. Traven, Chris Hedges and others who fight for the humane, vigorously oppose the corporate state and annihilation of the environment or uphold the need for personal integrity and an inner life in a depersonalizing society. There are also essays in Feeling urging cooperation and community over competitive, commercial standards, the powerful libertarian implications of college free of costs for students or the dire need for a far more egalitarian society than exists at present in the United States.
And to further counter the essays or reviews that seem unrelievedly black in their subject matter, Feeling exhibits the individualistic, courageous voice of a Sister Dianna Ortiz, a Vincent Bugliosi, a Hersh, a Caldicott, a McCoy, a Wolf, an Orwell and others, many others, exposing, resisting, condemning the immensity of social evil and apathy in the modern era. In the hidden cells of "Black Ops personnel" torturing (sometimes to death) a Middle East detainnee of "high" or even "low" interest or some Guatemalan military electrocuting the genitals of a college student dissident is the action of a Kathy Kelly, a Noam Chomsky, a Chalmers Johnson, a Robert Fisk signifying, "Look what's happening!," "Stop!," "Enough!" An individual voice saying "Stop," though essential, is obviously not enough—but it is a crucial beginning.
Nevertheless, many of the essays and reviews in this book concern nihilistic policies and actions that appear to be insurmountable, inexpiable. Why, then, would someone want to write about them (let alone read them)? I have asked myself that more than once. Robert Duncan's poem Groundwork: Before the War—"The poet turns in his sleep, the cries of the tortured and of those whose pain/survives after the burning survives with him"—articulates a portion of my motivation. Are we wise, right or humane to hear and listen to those agonized cries or do we best tune them out, if we hear them at all?
Of course one doesn't have to be a poet to lose sleep thinking of the wrongly imprisoned, the tortured, the bombed and wounded, the starving people throughout the world. Still, as a good friend once told me, one can't take the suffering of the world on one's shoulders.
But surely there's plenty of room between, say, Christ and the Marquis de Sade for empathy towards, or even just sympathy for, gross suffering and agony imposed by institutional cruelty or greed. Yet, considering that the average person doesn't spend time worrying about the suffering or even the murder of Middle Eastern detainees by the CIA, American soldiers or NATO soldiers or, as Seymour Hersh observes, about many thousands of American soldiers poisoned (along with Iraqis) by depleted uranium shells, reminds me of the focus of my empathy: though far from exclusively, it is primarily on the suffering, torture, murder of victims imposed by American foreign policy. The thought that our own government, supposedly representing the American populace, has often behaved abroad with massive violence to defend the "interests" of major corporations and banks should strike even that insentient "average" American with disgust if not with horror and fury. One does well to contemplate the San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth's incisive point that if individuals committed the acts that their government commit routinely, they would be imprisoned or even executed.
Some of my evolving detestation of Washington's conduct abroad was due to the larger amount of time allowed by my retirement in 1994. I had more time by then to educate myself about Washington's counter-insurgency wars in Central America, its despicable role around the world supporting dictator after dictator no matter how inhumane and vicious the regime, and the shocking (still unrepentant) violence of its own wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. George W. Bush's "foreign policy" (an egregious euphemism for his mass murder) indeed seemed to me so horrific that I had trouble understanding why masses of Americans weren't up in arms about it well beyond the minority closely observant of Washington's "realpolitik" abroad.
A substantial amount of material in Feeling is about the past. Some might say, then, that the past is past, no longer significantly with us. That of course is not true, as some of that past remains with everybody. For some categories of people, however, the past is all too unforgettable. Let us recall William Faulkner's "There is no such thing as 'was' if 'was' existed, there would be no grief or sorrow." For victims of torture, combat-experienced soldiers, war-stressed civilians, victims of family violence, misogyny, racial or ethnic prejudice and others, Faulkner's apothegm is overpoweringly true. For these types of individuals, the past and the present are virtually seamless. The past and its suffering and horror occasioned well up like an uncontrollable flood, re-animating terror, anxiety, helplessness, not to mention rage against tormenters. And if the torturers, for example, represent the state, the victimization might feel all the deeper, as one's antagonist(s) are shadow figures of a larger, dark, inaccessible authority. Franz Kafka's castle (in his novel The Castle) remains a looming symbol of inaccessible central power and authority.
Accordingly, the past maliciously imposed suffering and death and (endless) imprisonment and torture are not past for the victims and thus should not be a past that people fortunate enough to have escaped terrorization should dismiss. This dismissal should not occur for several reasons, first, out of deep concern for the ongoing pain and terror of the victims of state terrorism; second, for the inexpungible conviction and resolve that those responsible for state crimes (whether a former president or vice president like George W. Bush or Dick Cheney) should be brought to justice and, therefore, that one should do whatever one can to prevent major state evil from occurring again.
A final consideration glimmers here: that sympathetic awareness of the victims of state terrorism should make us realize that their fate could very possibly be ours some day, given the dynamics of concentration of power and wealth in our time, the sharply increasing class divides in the United States and globally, and the consequent need by rulers to preserve their ill-gotten estate. The last poignant lines of William Carlos Williams's poem "The Yachts" seems appropriate to our age of high-financed-induced mass destitution:
...the horror of the race dawns, staggering the mind; the whole sea becomes an entanglement of watery bodies lost to the world bearing what they cannot hold. Broken beaten, desolate reaching from the dead to be taken up they cry out, failing, failing! their cries rising in waves still as the skillful yachts pass over.
As remarked earlier, some might question peering into the Abyss when, as the common retort has it, "there's already so much unhappiness and misery in the world." People who say that often don't realize how far worse off others have been than themselves, and, tightly connected, how the grief and agony of others is firmly connected to the United States, their country. If nothing else, Americans have a profound moral responsibility to know what their government and the military and commercial forces it represents are up to at home and, especially, abroad. If they don't accept that responsibility, they are missing out on what might further empower their own humanity: confronting their own interdependence with all other people everywhere.
from FEELING THE UNTHINKABLE|
© 2012, Donald Gutierrez Table of Contents