Thursday, September 11, 2008

Commemorating the dead... Or are we?

Here's what I believe. This is a religious belief, but one that a reading of The Funeral Casino by Alan Klima has suggested to me. When you invoke the dead, you owe them. When you use the dead for your own benefit, you must pay them back. This is a pseudo-religious, semi-philosophical entry of untrammeled rambling, so I ask you to bear with me while I ramble about stuff I'm sure I'm explaining poorly.

The examples used in The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand are Thai revolutions. It's frighteningly common in Thailand for protesters (even unarmed students still in uniform) to simply be gunned down by existing government military. Of course this causes an uproar, and a new government arises by climbing up on top of the bodies of those dead students. Unfortunately, these governments don't actually make any of the changes the students cared about (and in fact they paint the students as rabblerousers or simply forget them as soon as possible), they become the kind of government the students were trying to change, and pretty soon you've got another bloody mess on your hands.

The Thai Buddhist angle on this (at least according to Klima) is that you cannot invoke the dead without owing them something. You had best be strictly and carefully commemorating them, or else you'll be profiting from their deaths and suffering. This isn't a bad thing in itself, but at that point you've gotten something and you need to give something, or you're going to get screwed badly. It may come from a seemingly unrelated situation, but Klima's assertion is that from the Thai perspective death imagery holds power. 

"Across the field of Sanam Luang is another construction from the days of the regicide: the lag muang, the city pillar, built as the magical pole around which a sorcerous power to protect the city would circulate. ... I have been told rumors that before they laid the foundation for the city pillar in stone, they dug trenches in the ground, brought young, pregnant slaves to the site, and there slashed their throats with swords and cast the corpses with their dying fetuses into the earth. It was believed, or so I am told, that the collective force of their murdered spirits would empower the pillar" (Klima 2002: 80). 

Of course this is a metaphor. I don't have to tell you that, but I wanted to stave off a flood of comments about how necromancy is bullshit and if this is the best argument Klima can offer that the dead have power you aren't buying it. The reason I mention this is that I want you to start looking for these pillars in American policy. Start looking for protective structures of pristine white stone that gain their power and sanctity from the corpses of the brutally slain. 

Start wondering where these pillars get their power, and start wondering why anyone would try to harness it. You can't control power like that. Once you let it out, death imagery runs wild. Worse still, if you invoke the dead without paying them back... bad things will happen to you. The problem with successfully paying them back is that there's no way to tell just what will settle the debt.

Klima asserts, "the moral onus and the horror of the public cadaver--its unpredictable power and its danger--is a free-floating danger once it is unleashed, irretrievably, into the public realm, providing the often unrecognized force of animation to the phantasmagoric dreams of capital culture" (Klima 2002:67). (As an aside, every time Klima uses the word "phantasmagoria" or a variant in this book, take a drink.)

This is a gross oversimplification of a book that was such a pain in the ass to read, even I don't want to read it again, and I'm pretty sure it completely changed my worldview.

It changed my worldview because now I look at the use of the September 11th attack and think, "The Bush administration got what it deserved by rotting out from the inside, and Klima basically predicted it." By invoking the victims of the attacks seven years ago, by attempting to command the power of all those images of all those corpses and videos of the moments of death, the government incurred a debt just like the Thai government did in the mid-seventies, and then again in the early nineties. They invoked corpses so that they can get use out of them and then try to forget them as quickly as possible.

How long has it been since there was a real commemoration by our government of the victims of September 11th that was not crystallizing them into means to an end? That wasn't reducing them from individual humans to a sort of vague ache in the back of our hearts that makes us run weeping to whatever cause is dangled before us?

Pulling the dead out when you need them and forgetting them when you don't? Morally reprehensible by most standards, and certainly disrespectful to the victims. However, in Klima's description of Thai Buddhism, it's also deeply imprudent from a practical standpoint. If you benefit in any way from the death of another, you owe that person for their suffering. If you don't pay that debt, an avalanche of seemingly-unrelated disasters start collapsing onto you. At least in Thailand.

Perhaps karma works differently in America, but every time I look at George W's approval ratings circling the drain, every time I see another study about rampant corruption ruining the government, every time I see the new account of our national debt, every time I see where the USD now is in relation to other currency, every time another high official is arrested, subpoenaed, fired, or "voluntarily resigns," I can't help but think of Klima's argument. I can't help but think that they don't just deserve what they're getting.

They caused it.

And that's why I'm not making a big deal out of September 11th. It has become a tool of politicians to remind us of all-too-recent fear and pain. It has become a tool to lather us up against brown people and Muslim people and foreign people in general, anybody who doesn't love America enough--even if they're Americans. It's no longer a tragedy; it's a tool. It has become a means to an end, and I don't want to involve myself in it. Strictly speaking it's probably not particularly wise of me to even be blogging about it, since in a way I'm indirectly getting blog traffic out of the whole mess.

The reason I feel it's important to say something is that I worry about people who drag out the dead again and again. If you aren't going to honor them as individuals, if you're only going to honor them as "victims," don't honor them at all. It's hard not to frame them in the context of our ill-conceived "War on Terror," but I think that the willingness of our government to do so was the beginning of a long series of crimes in these victims' names, and the beginning of a grave and profound debt that can only be erased from our government be removing those who caused it.

Let's set aside for the moment that the only practical way to stop the careening disaster that is our government is to replace as many of the cuplrits as we can. I'm talking about a religious and philosophical imperative. George W. Bush and the people holding his leash have incurred a masssive debt by unleashing the power of the images of our dead, and until we remove them from power--power they hold because of their willingness to exploit the corpses of September 11th--Klima would suggest that we will all pay.

Now, it's a fine line whether I just used the dead myself. I'm trying to keep a careful balance here between mentioning them and using them, between criticizing Bush for using them and merely using them myself for a different purpose. But I think that we cannot pay the dead for their deaths, and adding more debt by invoking their faces, bodies, voices, and blood every time the government thinks we aren't scared enough yet is only making the debt worse.

And we need to stop.

The tough question is, "Well, Ashley, what do you think we should do, huh? You don't want us to remember them this way or that way, mention them in this context or that. What should we do, if you're so damned smart in the ways of cosmic consequence?"

This is an important question to ask, and it'd be easier to answer if they had actually deliberately laid their lives on the line and died for anything, other than as victims of malice at the hands of those consumed with despair and hatred. It'd be a clue to what they wanted by their deaths, and how the debt can be paid.

I think the closest thing we can discern is that the mistakes that caused their deaths ought not be repeated. I'm not talking about shoddy airport security, or the folly of trusting dark-skinned foreigners. I'm talking about generating and sustaining hate. Europe and the United States' imperialist foreign policy generated hate out of ignorance (and for our own benefit), so terrorists sustained it out of bitterness (and for their own benefit). 

That's what has to stop. Working to curb the kind of greed and ignorance and bitterness and violence that causes innocent people to die will go further to pay the debt than more greed (for oil), more ignorance (hatred of Muslims) and more bitterness (caused by the United States' disrespect for the new Iraqi government).

Our government is only digging the hole deeper, because they are not paying attention to that debt. They only want the dead to be remembered when it gives them power, not when it lends power to anyone else. It's why the Republican National Convention aired so much footage from September 11th and its aftermath, even though they would never allow anyone else to use the dead in such a way. They want to unleash the power of death imagery, but they think they can control it. 

That has never worked. And it isn't working. They're only making things worse, and until we take from them the power that allows them a perceived monopoly on the use of our dead, they will continue to make things worse. 

The Thai governments tried this, too. They used the deaths to get into power and to make a lot of changes, and a lot of people benefited from this. You could say that everybody benefited, but no one paid except the dead and the loved ones they left behind. They were denied compensation, aid, and attention, as their end of the loss was a messy and unpleasant loose end for a government that wanted only to move forward: to benefit and forget.

For a few days in May 1992, the Black May dead were objects of intense value, traded over the surface of the earth and right on the killing ground. The evocative power of their images displaced the military and ushered in a democratic government, and they gave to the public sphere a powerful argument for the need of media freedoms, not to mention generating in their death great profits all around. But after only three years, the dead are of little interest or value, and those who profited the most from the death can now say of those who lost the most that they are avaricious and improper in their desire to benefit from the deaths. "Don't uses corpses for your own gain." (Klima 2002:232).

This should also remind you of America's response to Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters in recent memory (like the flooding in the midwest). Many politicians wailed appropriately loudly, but few did anything tangible to assist. Most made the problem worse by using it as a photo op to illustrate the evils of everyone else in the government, diverting local resources from dealing with the problem. Politicians build their power on the dead and then forget the dead as quickly as possible, which is why when you hear about Katrina you hear about refugees and property damage, not necessarily about the dead people. Many profited from the dead and forgot them as soon as they possibly could. Now Katrina survivors (and possibly the survivors of midwestern floods) are commonly viewed by respectable citizens in the cities where they took refuge as greedy opportunists using the corpses of their dead for their own gain. 

Have these politicians paid a price? When their debt to Katrina victims (their immediate willingness to display the tragedy and its corpses to tout their own virtues versus their opponents) comes due, what happens next? Unless I hear about some politicians coming out and saying, "I would like to thank the victims of these disasters for their suffering and their deaths because their timely corpses lent the energy and power for X or Y endeavor that I wanted to accomplish," I'm going to seriously doubt they'll ever pay up. 

No one should use the dead. It isn't just sleazy and disrespectful. It'll cost you, particularly if you don't give a nod back and acknowledge what you've gotten as a (direct or indirect) result of their sacrifice. If you're going to build a pillar on the corpses of the slain, don't whitewash it for eyes or minds and forget the corpses as soon as it's expedient, as soon as you've gotten what you wanted.

If you must mention the dead, don't gain from them. Don't take: give. Give respect, give honor, and give love. Don't expect a reward for it, because any power that comes to you from them cannot be controlled by anyone, and comes with a terrible price.

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