I do not know
what will happen after I die
I do not want to know.
But I would like the Potter to make a whistle
From the clay of my throat.
May this whistle fall into the hands
Of a cheeky and naughty child
And the child to blow hard on the whistle continuously
With the suppressed and silent air of his lungs
And disrupt the sleep
Of those who seem dead
To my cries.

Anonymous, Baxter Immigration Detention Centre, Australia.

This diary is dedicated the voiceless and powerless around the world.
The recent discord in the Booman community was difficult for most, I believe, and I am glad to see people’s equilibrium returning. I am also glad to see that despite the very raw and real emotions people were/are feeling, the discord has been resolved without any “blood loss” -to use a short hand I hope is not too evocative.

Perhaps one of the most striking issues that came out of the diaries and debates was the issue of – who’s voices are heard? To me, this is a fundamental issue that western liberals have to wrap their heads around. This diary is an attempt to initiate a non-blaming, sincere discussion on the topic.

I want to emphasise that the topic here is NOT:

  • who is right or wrong
  • who is good or evil

The Topic IS (and here I gratefully quote Dove):
Who gets to speak? Who gets to have things heard their way? Who decides the language with which we characterise each other and our actions? Who gets to generalise? Who’s version of events is accepted as fact? Who gets to speak bluntly, and has the privilege of speaking carelessly?

And hence, conversely –
Who does not get to speak or has no avenue to do so? Who has their version of events automatically questioned? Who has to worry about the consequences of generalisations, and pays, in very real terms, if they speak carelessly? Who self-censors on a daily basis?

If we were to discuss this academically, we would be trying to unpick the dominant discourse; and who is currently generating it, and disseminating it.

The Dominant Discourse is a term we owe to Foucault, and it is usually defined as “term that indicates a certain way thinking and talking is the most common and most accepted way.  It is often used to imply an institutionalised way of thinking about things” (the simplest & most directly relevant definition I could find after trawling a few academic websites).

I think it’s a useful reference to have, but I don’t want this to turn into an abstract, academic discussion – such a discussion will probably only silence people further. Instead, I am going to try and illustrate what I am talking about with a series of examples.

Example 1 – the illegal detention of asylum seekers, Australia
No-one knows who the author is of the achingly poignant poem I opened this diary with – I keep it on my office wall to remind me who has no voice in my country. He or she is simply one of the many thousands of people who has been indefinitely and illegally detained by Australia, for the “crime” of finding some desperate means to reach Australia from a war-torn or otherwise untenable country, and request asylum as a refugee here. Australia currently has a policy of indefinite detention for such claimant refugees, even though they have broken no law, and over time, over 90% have been shown to have legitimate claims as a refugee, and have been released into Australian society (most on a “Temporary Protection Visa” which has such restricted conditions – inability or restricted ability to work, to access social security and education, English language training and so on, that volunteer organisations have been created by ordinary Australians to fill the despicable void left by our government -but that is a story for another time).

To get Australians to agree to this disgusting policy, the first thing the Howard Government did was change the language used to describe the refugees. They labelled them “illegals”  -even though their actions were entirely legal – and “queue jumpers” – even though most were coming from countries where Australia has no diplomatic presence to process requests for asylum, or a humanitarian program to formally organise a quota of refugees from their country of origin. In other words, the government used its power to decide what the truth was, and who’s version of events was accepted. And they used language very cleverly to do it. The most essential value belief you could ascribe to Australian society is the common belief in “a fair go” for everyone. By labelling asylum seekers “queue jumpers”, the government changed the community perception of them to people who were denying others “a fair go” and being selfish.

Secondly, the government has ensured that there is absolutely limited, if any, access or ability for the refugees to speak to the Australian public and tell their stories, or for others to do so on their behalf. The immigration detention centres – otherwise known as prisons, which are surrounded by a 9,000 volt “courtesy fence” – are located considerable distances outside major metropolitan centres, making it difficult for advocates and legal representation, and the press, to physically get to the refugees. The refugees have no freedom of movement. Any public statement they do manage to make about themselves, and their claim to asylum, is rigorously examined and criticised by the press, triggered by government claims entirely contradicting what little individual refugees have been able to say about themselves & their circumstances.

The government routinely portrays the refugees as illiterate, possible terrorists, impoverished and possibly criminal people who have nothing to offer Australia, and no right – despite international and national law – to ask to stay. Imagine the surprise of conservative rural Queensland farmers, for example, when they discovered that Immigration detainees sent to provide seasonal picking labour on their farms  (a whole other story) were actually engineers, teachers, doctors, academics, successful merchants and so on. Needless to say, that particular program was swiftly axed, but not before Rural Australians for Refugees was born.

The tide is slowly turning in Australia. One of the reasons for this is that refugee activists have worked tirelessly to find ways to get the voices of refugees heard by ordinary Australians – via books published of their letters, via information smuggled out of detention, by drawing press attention to Immigration appeals, by highlighting refugee families living amongst us and the draconian decisions being made, and through groups such as “Actors for Refugees”, who tour the country doing a part-play, part spoken word piece telling a very different story about refugee treatment and asylum in Australia.

Example 2  – the portrayal of New Orleans’ blacks after Hurricane Katrina
This has been analysed in much detail at this site and other liberal blogs, so I don’t want to dwell. What I wanted to remind people of was the immediate use and careless(? -or deliberate?), general application of the word “looters” by the MSM to describe what was initially at least, desperate people taking food, water and other essential supplies in the city. This was followed by criminal motivations being ascribed to the actions of blacks shown shooting at helicopters, raiding stores, and holding weapons. As we know, there is considerable conflicting evidence from the first few days that suggests the majority of actions were taken as part of trying to survive; and dedicated bloggers found personal stories from New Orleans that illustrated not only this, but how profoundly hurt, marginalised, silenced, censored and judged many blacks from New Orleans felt by the media portrayal of them. I think it can be credibly argued that the efforts of government officials in collaboration with the media to criminalise and dehumanise the largely poor black victims of Katrina was used to justify the prioritisations undertaken as part of evacuation, and the use of force, containment and confinement over rescue efforts – and it was made possible by controlling who spoke and who was heard.

Via Hurricane Katrina, Americans were given a brutal and stark reminder of the power their government has to control the dominant discourse, and radically alter both the common perception, and hence justify profoundly unjust actions – ones that are still ongoing. It is worth taking that internal (domestic) reflection, and seeing how it is equally applicable externally, as the USA seeks to and largely does control the dominant discourse when in comes to other nations, of which the most prominent at present are Iraq and Afghanistan.

Example 3  – Why UNICEF bombed the Smurfs
In a recently released and very startling advertisement aimed at raising awareness of the effects of war on children, specifically to raise money for child soldiers in Africa, UNICEF produced an animation showing a happy village of Smurfs being bombed, with the last terrible image being of a small crying child Smurf surrounded by blazing buildings and Smurf corpses.

I was bemused, and caught between reactions of laughing and total puzzlement when I first read about it. Then this bit of reporting caught me eye:

“In test showings, the sight of beloved cartoon characters killed by bombs proved far more effective than similar images from the real world at sending UNICEF’s anti-war message”

In other words, we relate more positively and empathetically to the suffering of fictional blue characters, than to images of suffering Africans and other people from the developed world. Why? I would suggest it is because we rarely hear, and fundamentally cannot relate, to the voices of humans beings from the developed world, they are fundamentally denied access to speaking to us, and considerable effort is poured by various powers that be into keeping it that way.

Example 4- RubDMC’s Iraq War Grief Daily Witness diaries
RubDMC provides an invaluable service to us all, by trying to, through the images available, provide a voice for those who are victims of the Iraq war. I admire RubDMC’s efforts greatly, and have particularly noted his/her scrupulousness at portraying pictures of victims on both “sides”. I check it faithfully every day. Yet today is the first time I can remember one of the Daily Witness diaries making it into the main “recommended diaries list”, and it has more comments than I can recall – or find in the archives – any of the previous diaries . Why? My proposition is simple. Today’s diary shows a picture of a young American soldier with his children, and he is now dead. People on this site can instantly relate, person to person, in the most visceral way, and find the need to say something. Yet, RubDMC’s diaries have previously contained very similar images of Iraqis, or of much more terrible images of Iraqi men, women and children besides themselves with grief and loss. Yet we do not comment. Why? I would suggest that because we so rarely hear their voice, we have very little or no real human connection, and cannot react,  person to person. Denied a voice, we in turn find we have no way to express a more personal and human response to the many `silent’ Iraqi victims.

Attempting to bring it all together
American liberals in general, including those on this site, are now well-familiar with, and dedicated to winning the war on framing and language against the neo-conservative theocracy. There has been excellent, in-depth discussion on how to take back the dominant discourse, the framing of certain actions, the silencing and marginalisation of American liberal voices. Around the world, people are applauding you, supporting you. They are also aware that what American liberals are now fighting is merely a domestic manifestation of what many around the world have been resisting in many forms, for many years. Indeed, as those of us outside watch the internal struggle within the USA, many of us are thinking “’bout time!”.

As liberal America starts to show signs of regaining ground, we are now fast approaching a critical block, that must be shifted if we are to build a better world. It is one that rests on a demand that liberal Americans must now extend those internal efforts, to now tackle dismantling the global framing of ideas and norms (ie the dominant discourse) that the USA has used to subjugate the rest of the world to its will.

It is a demand that the same efforts to provide a voice to marginalised liberal America is given to the many profoundly marginalised peoples of the world.

It is a demand that American liberals go further than listening to global criticism of Bush, and listen to the more broader and long-standing criticisms of America as a whole. It is at its heart, a demand that the American-controlled dominant discourse that promulgates American exceptionalism must end.

Who is making this demand? The people we cannot relate to unless the Smurfs speak for them. The people that RubDMC shows in his diaries, to whom we don’t know what to say or how to speak for them, or about them.

They make up many thousands if not millions of people around the globe; and while this has been going on for decades, it has become a far more tangible thing, something it is possible to engage with since 9/11.

Indeed, the attraction of terrorism is in large part an (arguably) inevitable product of the voiceless resorting to the most brutal form of expression they can in order to be heard; – consequences be damned. Now as the crisis reaches a peak, we are fortunate and privileged that largely thanks to the Internet, and the facility of non-English speaking people to learn English, marginalised voices are there to be found and listened to. This is what some would call “a teaching moment”

So where do we go from here? Well (to continue the quote for Buffy fans), we can either “go hand in hand…”, or “…walk alone in fear”. This is a stark choice for liberal America. More than ever now, as Bush drives the country both internally and externally, inexorably towards its nadir, it is critical that you actively seek out, give space to and listen to external, marginalised voices.

Americans must grasp that while there are signs of cracks in US power, it is still unequivocally the sole global superpower, and unequivocally sets the dominant discourse. In doing so, it is dictating the norms of global behaviour.

A straight-forward example – look how the Bush administration insistence on the doctrine of pre-emption is leading to appalling consequences. Within days of Bush proclaiming it, Israel claimed a similar right and invaded the Gaza strip, and within months India, Pakistan and North Korea claimed the right to pre-emptive nuclear strike.

The US refusal to sign treaties that would see American troops subject to the International Criminal Court has provided the excuse for many countries to refuse to ratify it. We are dangerously behind in our response to climate change and the looming energy crisis, because these two things are not acknowledged in the voice of USA, and it is the dominant voice, that silences others with threat and violence (lookout Venezuala)

And when ordinary Americans on blogs for instance, out of strong and entirely understandable emotional bonds defend the actions of their troops, or demand exceptions when it comes to judging the actions of Americans, it promulgates both the breakdown of those fragile international standards, reinforces the dogma of American exceptionalism, and silences those who are already marginalised by a profoundly unjust world, and world power.

From my own interactions, it is without doubt, a very uncomfortable and hard time for Americans. But as Ductape Fatwa has so eloquently argued many times recently, this discomfort must be courageously embraced, not angrily rejected. In short-it’s ok to feel really emotionally wrought by all this, but please keep listening, and thinking.

The combination of the catastrophic actions of Bush, and new communication mediums like the Internet have gone a long way to shattering the illusions of many aspects of American society, not least how it is perceived by the rest of the world. If we are to do much better than simply removing the most fascist President in American history, and actually move towards, yes, world peace, Americans are going to have to accept (not necessarily agree, but accept) that a significant percentage of the world does not think that the USA is largely a force for good, and that no, this is not an extremist or fanciful premise devoid of evidence. It’s based on direct experience, and a lot of seemingly forgotten history, and if we as a world want terrorism to cease (and poverty, and so on) , it’s a view that must be given listening space, and credence.

It also means either ceding the right to speak in blunt generalisations, or expanding it to all and ending self-censorship, no matter how much it hurts.

As often seems to happen, I don’t know how to end this, so I think I’ll just stop. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether there was some worth in this, and if so, how we go about addressing it here at the wonderful world of Boo.

[update: those who read this first and scan back across it may notice that I’ve edited a little, and added a little to improve clarity (I hope!) ]

0 0 votes
Article Rating