Having looked the beast in the eye,
Having asked & received forgiveness,
Let us shut the door on the past,
Not to forget it,
But to allow it not to imprison us.
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu
We have slain innocence
let history begin
- Alicia Ostriker, interlude: the song of Joshua
Before my grandson was one year old and before he had learned to speak any words, he was fascinated with the identification of things. He pointed his tapering little right forefinger at the dog until someone said dog, and then at his mother, his father, his sippy cup, my nose, the window, his bowl & spoon, his nose, the chair, a tree. He wanted everything named. Over and over. I would hold him against my chest and we would walk around his parents' apartment inventorying item after item. He was new in the world & needed to know the names of his fellow travelers even though he could not say the names himself. Hearing them spoken seemed reassuring. One could sense the whirring of his new brain as it sorted and filed, constructed the synapse scaffolding for speech. He would look at me, point, watch my mouth say the name. He needed to know that if we called it a flower this morning, it was still a flower this afternoon and tomorrow.
Photographs and paintings on the wall seemed particularly perplexing to him. He wanted to touch the surface of each. If it looked like a dog, why was it flat, slick-surfaced and cool? Why didn't it lick, scratch or change expression? What's real and what isn't?
Introducing a pre-verbal child to the world of things engages the basics of trust. Knowing the name of a thing and the difference between it and its representation is a fundamental survival skill. Parents, grandparents, and caregivers would never think of answering the curiosity of a 10 month old with a false name --- Oh, that chickadee at the feeder? We call that "bookcase." Deception like that would not only be cruel, it would literally be crazy making. How can anyone navigate the world if the names of things aren't constant. Anything, then, can be everything. Meaning disappears. It all turns to mush. Who would want that?
Well, of course, people with power are in love with mush. The high fat, low vitamin variety. Deception, name swapping, is the reality they promote. And it makes us all crazy. What's democracy? Oh, we call that free-market capitalism. What do we call the grievances of people victimized by this form of free market democracy? Victims with grievances? No, we call them evil. What do we call the clear-cutting of the rain forests and the blowing up of beautiful mountains to scrape out the coal by the cheapest means? We call if development of resources. We call it progress. What do we call our terrorism? We call it collateral damage, necessary and justified murder. What do we call national security? The right to classify the truth. What do we call the corporate media? We call that free speech because we have given corporations the rights of individuals under our Constitution. And corporate free speech includes the right to bribe with campaign contributions. What do we call a country that allows two presidential elections in a row to be stolen? The greatest democracy in the world!
What I'm saying is nothing new. These are simply a few obvious hypocrisies that have become the foundation of political discourse in this country. It's a corruption of language we would all be ashamed to use with a ten month old. It would be child abuse.
The worst for me though, the language that haunts me, is Obama's portentous philosophical declaration that we shouldn't seek accountability for the crimes of the Bush administration because we need to go into the future with our "core values" intact. Any school kid should know that a core value of democracy is accountability. You can't pretend to live by the rule of law if only some people are held accountable, and the biggest crimes are too big to prosecute because they implicate the entire corrupt system.
Such a pronouncement makes me very sad. Sad for Obama that he presents such absurd cant as wisdom. Sad for a culture that accepts it. Because, besides what it means in terms of castrating democracy, it means that memory is cleansed of the truth. It means that teachers can't teach that Bush and Cheney, Powell and Rice, Rumsfeld and Tenet and the rest of that pathetic gang committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. It means that the truth is a matter of opinion, a partisan either/or, one half of the fair & balanced equation. Which is which is never identified.
The quote at the top of this essay is from Desmond Tutu talking about the Truth and Reconciliation committees set up in South Africa after the end of apartheid .
They decided that seeking justice for all the brutal crimes of apartheid would be too socially disruptive and agonizingly prolonged. But they also knew that the truth of what happened had to be acknowledged. Perpetrators had to admit publicly what they had done. Forgiveness without justice is a bitter pill. But denial and forgetting without justice makes forgiveness impossible and, as Tutu suggests, imprisons you forever in your own history. In this country we have been asked to forego justice and made forgiveness unnecessary because we have foregone the truth, too.
My grandson, like every little kid that age, has a quality of eager and vulnerable innocence, innocent even of the names of things. That innocence radiates out of him, presses outward from under his skin like a manna of joy, a nutritious balm of trust and hope potent enough, one would think, to penetrate the cynical armor of even the most shriveled heart. That radiance is innocent of the names of the objects that reflect it --- innocent of categories, classifications, prejudices and euphemism, innocent of the sorrow of plastic, the corrosion of television, and the betrayal of war. This innocent light is particulated by awe and the purity of color. When he reaches his small hand up and rubs my prickly beard, it's pure sensation for him. He has no words to describe it to himself. He puts his fingers in my mouth, his buzzing mind yet uninhabited words for teeth, tongue, and mucus membrane. But he knows this is where naming begins.
What are we to think of those who are slyly anticipating stealing that radiance, co-opting it with the titillations of advertising, infecting it with fear, and addicting it to violence and cynicism? What are we to think of people who define patriotism as profit? Who, in a few years, would lie to my grandson to enlist him to murder those who stand in the way of that profit. What are their core values? Do they want to name the beast for my grandson, look it in the eye, or do they prefer to be the beast --- I mean, benefactor?