The Humanity in Detachment

Since we first evolved the ability of cognitive thought, humanity has been on a quest to understand itself, our desires as much as our shortcomings shaping the cannon of what is modern psychology, the study of the human mind. Psychology, for the most part, exists to explain to us what goes wrong in the mind, what chemical imbalance leads to mental – and possibly moral – degeneration. Explaining away abnormal behavior with medical reasoning alleviates the fear surrounding the behavior, removing the illness from the realm of the unknown. But what do we do when there is no medical way to explain away the atrocious behavior of some, no way to adequately say that a few weekly meetings and a prescription pad could have prevented the internal imbalances of an individual from translating into outer pain and suffering? In short, what do we do when there is no medical proof that someone is simply crazy?

 

A Human Being Died That Night is an attempt to answer these questions by narrowing the psychological argument and analyzing  the perpetrators of political violence as reflections of an abnormal social environment rather than scientific case studies of abnormal brain function. In other words, South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is not interested in placing a label such as “antisocial” (a legitimate psychological condition best illustrated by Hannibal Lecter) on people like Eugene de Kock and other of South Africa’s apartheid political culprits. What Pumla uses her expertise for in writing this memoir is to analyze social environment – specifically skewed social environment – and how it relates to the psychological condition. She discusses the act of “psychological splitting” as a way of explaining repugnant behavior in this context, as well as an essential tool for those who actively participate in healing. 

 

 

In her first meeting with Eugene de Kock at Pretoria Central Prison, Pumla sees a man seemingly broken by the gravity of his past actions. He refers to his guilt over his part in the death of three black policemen and his personal apology to their wives. Pumla reveals that with tears in his eyes and a breaking voice that de Kock reveals, “”I wish I could do much more than say I’m sorry. I wish there was a way of bringing their bodies back alive. I wish I could say ‘here are your husbands’… but unfortunately… I have to live with it”” (32). At this expression of what appears to be genuine remorse, the words of a truly conflicted man torn apart by his deplorable past, Pumla reaches out to touch his shaking hand, a natural, human to human gesture used to comfort anyone who is suffering. But realizing who she has just touched, Pumla draws back, wondering if her gesturehad“actually crossed the line from compassion, which maintains a measure of distance, to actually identifying with de Kock” (33). A few weeks later, at a public hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, de Kock, who was brought in for testimony, asks to speak to Pumla, in which he tells her: “That was my trigger hand you touched” (39). 

 

In this simple phrase, de Kock floods Pumla with “so many confusing and contradictory messages” (39). Is this the statement of a leper, an acknowledgement of the compassion shown, a thanking for being treated as a human despite being undeserving of such compassion? Or is de Kock truly a Hannibal Lecter, flaunting such a statement as a provocation, taunting Pumla’s weakness in pretending to see through him? At this point, Pumla cannot make it out any better than the rest of us and attributes the statement, either way it was intended, as a form of “psychological splitting.” Pumla comes to the conclusion that whether the “trigger hand” statement was from the heart of a metaphoric leper or a Hannibal Lecter, it expresses an extreme sense of anxiety in de Kock over her act of touching him. She states: “his way of communicating his anxiety about my gesture was to ‘split off’ thehandfrom the rest of his body, to excise the part that did the killing, as if the ‘trigger hand’ had gone off on a killing rampage by itself” (41). Pumla calls psychological splitting of this sort a desperate attempt by a perpetrator of evil deeds to separate themselves from the deeds, removing their humanity from the action. Despite her own anguish over her relationship to de Kock thus far, Pumla uses her own humanity to see his struggle, that he is clearly “a person broken into bits struggling to achieve some sense of wholeness” (41). 

 

The act of psychological splitting in this context conjures images of monsters, people who have found disturbing ways to rationalize their own horrific deeds – or perhaps just find a way to live with them – by separating themselves from the humanity of their victims. De Kock’s hand does not contain his soul, therefore it can take the blame while his soul remains clean. To create a separation from another human being in any context may seem deplorable, but in the context of tragedy, this form of separation is as essential for agents of compassion as it is for agents of death. Paramedics, for example, cannot allow themselves to be shaken by direct contact with those clinging to their thread of life if they are to be effective at saving lives. My mother is a nurse and therefore has seen endless pain and death over her career as an agent of compassion. She has told me that inorderto help someone, you cannot allow yourself to become emotionally invested in their fate. The goal is to help them, but if a nurse were to beak down in tears over the deteriorating condition of a patient they have connected with, how effective can he or she be at treating the others? Furthermore, when one is in a position of administering medical aid, what good are their tears to someone in anguish? In this sense, splitting of the psychological self is essential in order to reach positive goals. Emotional investment in the life of another human being eventually leads to sorrow. We can cry for our ailing family members by their hospital beds because the medical staff treating them does not. 

 

 

Pumla herself finds she must learn the ability that medical professionals have mastered as she listens to the testimonies of victims appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She recounts an incident in which Mrs. Khutwane shares her traumatic sexual assault by a white soldier in the back of an army truck. Pumla is deeply affected by this story as it stirs in her memories of her own near-rape two decades prior, an incident she was luckily able to escape from before such a revulsion could occur, but none the less an incident of extreme  trauma in her own life. Pumla states that in hearing Mrs. Khutwane’s testimony, “I reexperienced my own trauma in that near tragedy…. the shame of helplessness, and the humiliation all seem like a painful stab deepinside.The feeling was so intense that I choked with tears” (91). Pumla says she had to be soothed by a touch from a fellow committee member to bring her back to her senses, leading her to ask herself, “how could I fulfill my role on the TRC if I allowed myself to be affected by victims’ testimonies” (92). In this context, learning the art of “psychological splitting” is not an act of heartlessness but an absolute necessity for the mental well being of the facilitator. Pumla and the other committee members could not possibly aid the victims of apartheid era atrocities, could not possibly bear to hear the testimony of the perpetrators as well as the victims, if they allowed themselves to be partial. “Any demonstration of emotion was interpreted as bias,” Pulma states. “Many of us who served on the TRC…continue to struggle with closure, in part because we had to deny our own emotions in order to contain the pain of the victims who appeared before us” (94). 

 

 

The act of psychological splitting serves agents of compassion as aptly as it serves agents of death and destruction, for to truly help the victims of human rights violations requires as much detachment as it does to commit acts of atrocious violence. Those with the ability to aid the suffering have as much excess of humanity as those who inflict pain lack humanity in the instant they violate the sanctity of human life. For those like paramedics, nurses, or facilitators of human rights committees, learning to detach is not an inhuman act but an act of self preservation and recognition of the fact that what the suffering need from them is strength, not tears. In Pumla’s case, and the other members of the TRC, detachment was nearly impossible, for the facilitators were themselves victims of apartheid’s pain, the same pain inflicted by men like Eugene de Kock, who, despite a thousand heartfelt apologies and expressions of remorse, stands as a testament of the haunting reality that a human being died the night he took each life that stains his soul….. and that human being was himself. 

 

Courage and Politics: Portrayals of Humanity in Ben Affleck’s “Argo”

*Warning: The following is an analysis of the film Argo, NOT a review. Therefore, it contains many important spoilers.*


“ You can’t build cover stories around a movie that doesn’t exist….You need a script, you need a producer. You need somebody who’s a somebody to put their name on it. Somebody respectable. With credits. Who you can trust with classified information. Who will produce a fake movie. For free.” 

 

Since the invention of the film industry, movies have been used to tell our history. The “Hollywoodizing” of the events in our past has become a way to remember it, to relearn lessons in the realm of popular entertainment. Often, films retelling historical events reflect a contemporary global climate, showing us that historical conflicts can repeat themselves (or perhaps were never resolved in the first place,) offering a new form of narrative for an old tale. 

 

Such is the case with Ben Affleck’s critically acclaimed film Argo, the recently declassified true story of a fake movie.

The Iranian hostage crisis remains a testament of both international cooperation and international frustration. A group of Iranian students, reflecting the frustration of the supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in November of 1979, furious over the admittance of the overthrown Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the United States. The people of Iran wanted the Shah returned and tried for his reign of abhorrent human rights violations. The U.S. was giving him medical treatment for his terminal cancer. Frustration rose in Tehran, frustration that was justified, but misplaced. The American Embassy was breached, the diplomats inside held hostage for 444 days. In the initial chaos, six American Embassy employeesescaped through the exit of the consulate. They sought refuge in the home of Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador to Iran. Taylor’s home served as their hideout for nearly three months of uncertainty. Then one day, they returned home, a glimmer of good news that came while over fifty Americans remained hostages in Tehran. Canada got all the credit, our neighbors to the north risking much, including the severing of trust with Iran, forgoing their own neutrality to ensure the safe return of six American citizens. Though the banners waved across the country that read “Thank You, Canada,” in the year 1980 were more than justified, there was far more to the story that was part of an elaborate classified mission by the CIA. Canada’s help was invaluable, the work of their embassy and their Ambassador himself being huge pieces of the puzzle that got the six diplomats out of Iran. But there were other pieces to the huge puzzle, a puzzle that was immediately locked away in a CIA vault.Fearingretaliation against the remaining hostages in Tehran, the world was not allowed to know that the United States was involved. Canada kept our secret. They accepted sole credit with our thanks.  

 

The Canadian Caper. The Hollywood Option. Argo. Declassified by President Clinton in 1997.

 

 

Affleck’s film takes the necessary creative license to make this story fit the Hollywood tradition of elaborate retellings of history, but the core of the story is incredibly accurate, and reminds us that conflict between us and the Middle East is not a recent development. Though this is in part a story of conflict, it also a story of cooperation and shared humanity. Affleck does not portray the Iranian people as heartless villains, but as frustrated humans, people like us who believe with every fiber of their being that America has wronged them. It is true, by giving the exiled Shah refuge, we allowed him to escape execution for his crimes. At the same time, what were we supposed to do? The man was already dying. Affleck portrays the situation as it was: complicated, unstable, and without a clear right answer. If the U.S. returned the Shah as the students demanded, we would be negotiating with terrorists. If we attempted to save our diplomats, they would be killed. If the students killed them first, we would storm Tehran, a force to be reckoned with. It was a stalemate. No one could feasibly make a move. 

 

 

 

“Exfils are like abortions. You don’t want to need one, but when you do, you don’t do it yourself.” 

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez and Brian Cranston as Jack O’Donnell

 

In the film, the U.S. State Department debates whether or not to attempt rescue of the six immediately following the incident or to focus on the embassy hostages. “The whole world is watching the embassy. That makes them far safer than the six on the street.” CIA agent Tony Mendez proposes an exfiltration through the airport in Tehran, with he and the six escaped diplomats being members of a Canadian film crew looking for exotic locations for the upcoming sci-fi film Argo. Mendez establishes a fake studio in Hollywood with the help of make-up artist John Chambers and producer Robert Sidell. A press conference and scene reading are held to make it authentic. Storyboards are created. Canada issues passports for Mendez and all six diplomats. 

“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit!”

John Goodman as make-up artist John Chambers and Allan Arkin as producer Robert Sidell

 

Though creating a cover story around a fake movie seems far fetched, even described in the film as “the best bad idea we have, by far,” Affleck shows us the universal appeal of film and fantasy, how the most popular form of escapism lends itself to breaching cultural boundaries. Mendez and his fictitious Canadian film crew are detained during a tense navigation of Mehrabad airport. Joseph Stafford, a consulate employee who speaks Farsi, pulls out the crew’s fake story boards and begins elaborately explaining the plot of their film to the Revolutionary Guards, who become visibly excited over their story of a group of inter-space heroes overthrowing an alien king. Though the group’s identity is still verified, their fictitious Hollywood office receiving the one phone call they were set up to take, the fantasy story cover proves effective at breaching a cultural gap.The Iranian guards are given the story boards as a gift and excitedly examine them as the “Canadians” are allowed to board a plane to Zürich. Movies reach everyone. Our mutual enjoyment of fantasy is one of the greatest links that holds humanity together. Governments, religion, ideology, and politics all divide us. Movies unite us. 

 

 

“Of course I speak Farsi. I wish to make a movie in Iran!”

 

The inclusion of the Canadian ambassador’s Iranian housekeeper, Sahar,  further strengthens the humanity of the Iranian people as whole. Regardless of the country in question, the majority of people are not radical revolutionaries, but merely working class people whose goal in life is to live peacefully and find a means of supporting themselves. Sahar is questioned at the gate of the ambassador’s home, asked how long his guests have been staying with him, and told that those who stay silent are guilty in the eyes of God. Sahar unfalteringly states that the guests arrived two days prior, despite their presence in the house exceeding two months. The ambassador and his wife do not reveal the identity of their guests to Sahar. They do not take her into their confidence and become nervous when it becomes clear she has figured out who the guests are.But even thoughsheisnotshowntrust, Sahar is not a revolutionary, and it becomes clear that she sees the escaped Americans as innocent and she does not wish to see innocent people die. We forget about Sahar and the great personal risk there is to her in concealing the truth to her countrymen. To protect its own diplomats, the Canadian embassy is vacated the same day Mendez takes the Americans through the airport. They Americans rejoice as their flight attendant announces they have cleared Iranian airspace. Then we again see Sahar, her passport in hand, stamped at the border as she has been told, “You have been granted entry to the Republic of Iraq.” Sahar becomes one of the saddest casualties of this story. Her decision to keep silent saved the lives of many, but non of whom were from her country, and in fact her courage forces her to leave her home and forge a new life in a foreign place. She is perhaps the most courageous character in the film. People like Tony Mendez and Ken Taylor assuredly  risked theirlives to help, but they did so with the aid and backing of their governments, and though it certainly was not their goal to win awards, they both did. Sahar’s actions came with no recognition and at great personal loss. Hers is the greatest form of courage, and the core of true humanity. In the end, if this humble Iranian woman had not kept silent, the mission would have failed and failed badly, making her seemingly minor role as essential as the Canadian passports issued to the fleeing Americans. 

 

 

“Everyone in this house is a friend of Iran.” 

 

Intense moments of humanity are highlighted in other areas of the story. In the initial Embassy take over, the six who end up escaping had been in the process of issuing Visa applications to a room full of Iranian citizens. They realize that all of these Iranians will be killed as traitors when the embassy is breached. The six diplomats resolve to go out a back exit, but they issue a command “Iranian’s first” and usher all of the citizens out the door to safety before they escape themselves. Further in the story, CIA agent Tony Mendez receives orders that the rescue mission has been called off, orders that come the evening before he is scheduled to take the six through the airport. He spends the night conflicted between following orders and following through. He calls his supervisor Jack O’Donnell and states “Someone is responsible when things happen. I’m responsible forthesepeople. I’m taking them through.” Though fictitious, this incident paints Tony Mendez as a humanitarian, not a pawn of his government who blindly follows orders. 

 

Much like Mohsin Hamid’s controversial novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Firoozeh Dumas’ memoir Funny in Farsi, Ben Affleck’s Argo is a brilliant attempt to reflect shared humanity. Argo does not present an “us against them” mentality in portraying this story, rather shows us that all governments make mistakes and peaceful, innocent civilians should not be held responsible. It is easy to blame entire nations for the actions of their governments, which is exactly what the Iranian revolutionaries who stormed the American embassy (a minute percentage of the population reflecting the views of the new government) tried to do. As humans, Americans are guilty of this too. Hamid writes of subconscious discrimination, American fear of men of Middle Eastern descent due to events like this one, and of course the September 11th attacks, a fear that makes us human, though strains our relationships with people from other nations. Dumas, an Iranian American who immigrated as a child only a few years before the hostage crises tells of the discrimination her family faced in the aftermath, her father losing his job and unable to find a new one. Often times, fear and hatred makes us human as much as compassion and courage, all sides of our character necessary to shape and navigate a culturally and politically complex world. In Argo, we learn than placing blame is ineffective and irrelevant. What matters is protecting each other against our own better interest. Real heroes are those who see that their humanitarian responsibilities are not confinedtotheir own governments, people like Tony Mendez, Ken Taylor, and Sahar, people from three nations who came together to rescue the innocent, not caring which country they were from or what wrongs any of their governments committed, for courage is not motivated by politics.

A Somewhat Pessimistic View on Optimism

I’m not generally this negative. But, sometimes this type of retrospection is necessary. In any case, this blog was written for a class, therefore it comes from being assigned a prompt, not an organic mental musing. It’s pessimistic tone might have something to do with the fact that I was sick all weekend and therefore had a very stressful catch up Tuesday. I’ll try to write something more upbeat next time. 🙂

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Optimism, it seems, is for the young. And by that I do not necessarily mean that the young are intrinsically optimistic by nature. True, there is a natural optimism that comes with youth, a sort of sanguinity that survives only in the absence of jaded experience. But optimism in a cultural, social, or even a deeply personal sense, is an emotion felt by the old for the young. As an exiting generation looks back upon the world they shaped, they look to younger generations and can be optimistic of one of two possibilities: the old can hope they successfully built a future for the young, or perchance, the old can hope the young are capable of repairing the damage caused by their elders. 

In the final pages of An Artist of the Floating World, Masuji Ono stands on The Bridge of Hesitation and observes some nameless members of the younger generation just coming to power, power in business, or perhaps politics, but none the less people who have reached the age at which their actions from henceforth may haunt them in their old age. Ono remarks that these young people are “full of optimism and enthusiasm (205),” and that one young man, “was laughing in a particularity cheerful manner, with something of the open innocence of a child (206).” But these young people are not children, though nor have they, it appears, done anything yet that can be criticized. These vague figures of youth represent a generation, not individuals. They are not characters but part of a larger, ambiguous concept. From where Ono stands, he sees that his actions at their age potentially had a profound impact on the future of these people. Have he and hisgeneration  ruined their chances of a bright future? Or have they provided the youth with some valuable lessons to learn from? Perhaps both, perhaps neither. Ono, it seems, is optimistic, optimistic that the next generation will be ok: “Our nation, it seems, whatever mistakes it may have made in the past, has now another chance to make a better go of things. One can only wish these young people well (206).” In this closing statement, Ono makes the successes and failures of a nation a constant continuum.  The actions of each past and present generation are directly influenced by and for each other, lessons are learned and society continues, we can only hope, toward something better. But do we ever really learn? Or does each new generation simply commit the same errors in a different package? 

 

I am reminded of a song. The anthem “O Children,” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds has a few darkly ambiguous things to say about the relationship between entering and exiting generations. Meant to be a song sung by the old to the young, the third verse alone drives in the message hard:

 

O children

Forgive us now for what we’ve done

It started out as a bit of fun

Here, take these before we run away

The keys to the gulag

 

This heavily loaded (and WWII related) imagery suggests an older generation will hand the young the metaphorical keys to the complex and possibly atrociously broken systems of society and simply hope they do better with them. But keys mean power, and if history has taught us anything, a lust for power seems intrinsically human. And so, history arguably hasn’t taught us much of anything. Nick Cave states as much, essentially revealing the sobering possibility that human kind has all the answers it needs. We’ve learned these lessons one thousand times over. Yet it seems we are incapable of adequately sharing them between generations. 

 

O children

We have the answer to all your fears

It’s short, it’s simple, it’s crystal clear

It’s round about and it’s somewhere here

Lost amongst our winnings

 

But what does all of this say about Masuji Ono, a Japanese propaganda artist standing upon The Bridge of Hesitation five years after the end of the war that defined his generation in every possible sense? Enter Ichiro, a member of the first generation growing up in post-war Japan, grandson of our narrator. In the first interaction between Ono and Ichiro, Ono has just gifted his grandson with art supplies, which he seems to have dabbled with, but abandoned in the interest of pretending to be a cowboy. Ono chides his grandson for this, telling him it’s better to be a samurai. Realizing the effect losing his temper has had, Ono quickly corrects himself and tells Ichiro: “I shouldn’t have interrupted. Of course you can be anyone you like. Even a cowboy. You must forgive your Oji-san. He was forgetting for a moment” (30). A few lines later, Ono examines Ichiro’s unfinished drawing and exclaims, “Very impressive, Ichiro… But you could be better if you wanted (31).” This exchange shows that Ono, the old generation, has an obsessive desire to make Ichiro, the young generation, exactly like himself, assuredly because it is all he knows. But he checks himself, realizing that Ichiro will grow up to shape a different world, therefore his grandfather’s worldview, politics, even social skills are of little use to Ichiro. This is especially difficult to comprehend coming from a novel that deals with a culture that holds elders in such high esteem. It seems that with the loss of the war, western individualism swept the East like the tired metaphor that is the mounted cowboy. Ono’s generation can only quietly watch as they straddle a bridge between two cultures, even in their very own families. 

I do not believe that Kazuo Ishiguro means to state that the old have nothing to teach the young. Contrarily, I think in An Artist of the Floating World, he illustrates that the old have much to teach, but in many cases, it is an issue of “Do not repeat my mistakes,” and unfortunately, the lesson is rarely learned. The Allied Powers of WWII can look back and feel proud that they stopped a massive force of unspeakable evil. But the United States can look back and also see great shame in their treatment of Japanese Americans. Generations are defined by such actions. Have we learned from them? In a decade or two, what will the twenty-somethings of today blame our parents and grandparents for? But a far scarier question is what will we be blamed for as we are the ones standing upon the bridge eternally optimistic that the blamers will do better? Better yet, where has blaming the players of the past gotten us? Crack open a history book, or any numberof  great political novels from any country in the world and the clear and sobering answer is more of the same. 

An Unlimited Scope of Study

By Emily D. Irvine: 12-20-12

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Though I am an avid reader, I find my “to-do list” in terms of which novels demand my attention is stuck in 19th Century England. In my quest to read every “classic” I missed by virtue of of my late 20th Century birth, I find myself forgetting that great modern literature does indeed exists, and also comes from authors and countries that are not England. My senior year of college is now half over, and as my chosen major is English Literature, it stands to reason that the beautifully timeless and tragic novels of the Victorian period, not to mention the even more so timeless and tragic works of the English Renaissance have featured heavily in my studies. As much as I adore the fact that my bookshelves are positively buckling under the weight of Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters, to be given the opportunity to read modern, multicultural literature over the past few months has been a welcomed diversion from the past few centuries of British fiction.

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I read the fiction of past centuries as a way of learning about and understanding the lives of people who shaped a time period that in turn shaped the age I live in. My reading interests have always seemed most heavily rooted in the past, something I have decided needs to change. In reading five modern, multicultural novels, I have come to find that I have expanded my knowledge on the lives of people who live now, but have lived very differently from myself. It is true that the best way to learn about someone, about their culture and about their lives, is to talk to them directly, or better yet accompany them to the streets that shaped their formative years within the borders of the land from whence they came. However, the second best way to learn is to read their story.

I began my cultural adventures with two memoirs by two very different immigrants to the shores of my country. As works of nonfiction, Funny in Farsi by Iranian born Firoozeh Dumas and East Eats West by Vietnam born Andrew Lam, present the raw, honest perspective of two people whose lives were completely altered midway through their childhoods, both having to learn to reconcile the culture of their birth with western ways.  Both ultimately place huge value on education.

For Firoozeh Dumas, education in the country of her birth would have been hard to come by. Her father, Kazem, a Fullbright Scholar, moved his family from Iran to California in the hope that his daughter could experience the education denied to his sister. Kazem’s love of learning knows no gender, contrary to the stereotypical beliefs of his heritage, and Dumas recount his declaration that, “you, Firoozeh, will go to a university…. I don’t care if you do nothing with your college diploma, but you will have one!” (101). Ultimately earning a diploma in English and using it to tell her story, Dumas’ memoir resonates heavily with me, proof that language is the most powerful tool we have in the quest to understand each other. Funny in Farsi is as hilarious as it is poignant, a heartfelt tale of growing up between two cultures, yet the things that transcend cultural differences, such as the love of family and the dream of equal opportunity.

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Like Firoozeh Dumas, Andrew Lam found his bliss in literature, a passion found after earning a degree in biochemistry. Lam credits American opportunity as being the sole reason for his chance to explore the self directed path of creative writing that ultimately led to his successful career as a journalist, stating, “I seriously doubt, were we still in Vietnam, even if the South had won the war and communism were in retreat, even if my family had retained our upper-class status, that I would have veered toward a self-directed path. If I mourned the loss of my homeland, I was also glad that I became an American” (45). Most people have tremendous love for the country that bore them, even if they ultimately leave it. Lam’s sentiments show the line an immigrant walks, often equal love for their first and second homes. The education Lam received in the UnitesStateswas one that allows for a future driven entirely by one’s interests rather than the promise of wealth. Here, one may be able to make a “better” living at biochemistry and engineering, but a living can be made with a literature degree.

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Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist radically transitions from equal pride in two home countries. Unashamedly controversial, Hamid’s novel tells the story of Changez, a fictional man from Pakistan, who after being educated at Princeton and securing a job at an American corporation located in New York City, returns home after facing unbearable discrimination in the aftermath of September 11th. Though it is perhaps the most uncomfortable novel I have ever read,The Reluctant Fundamentalist does not exist solely for the purpose of being sensational and “anti-American,” a conclusion one can easily come to simply by glancing at the cover. That said, it is a book that requires an intense amount of critical thinking and open mindedness for an American reader to stomach. In light of the subject matter, finding redeeming qualities in a protagonist who smiles at the “symbolism” of the fallen World Trade Center and returns to Pakistan to teach anti-American sentiments to students is difficult, something the reader does not want to do. And yet, the fact that we do not want to think about it is what makes this book ultimately worth the exhausting journey that it is. It is the product of an author simply stepping up to a metaphorical podium as an average citizen of a country given precious little voice and saying, “we are here too.” Rather that penning an easy story in which a fictional Pakistani protagonist vehemently condemns everyone who hates America, Hamid instead gives due credit to the complexity of human emotions, that all decent people do indeed condemn the loss of human life and are therefore saddened by the 9/11 tragedy, but that doesn’t mean they are required to have a love affair with America, nor does it require them to sit back and take it when, out of understandable fear, Americans generalize those they perceive to be their enemies. This is not a novel that falls into the category of “pleasure reading” and is easily one of the most morally challenging things I have ever read. But I am exceedingly glad to have read it, to have allowed it to require me to think very deeply about subjects that I would have presumed were better left unthought.

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On the topic of complex human emotions, A Human Being Died that Night by South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is perhaps the most emotionally draining and spiritually uplifting work of non-fiction I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Recounting the horrors of the apartheid era in South Africa through the testimonies that emerged during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, Pumla’s memoir explores the power of forgiveness in the face of the unforgivable and tells the testimony of a country that has worked tirelessly to bring peace and unity where both seem impossible. Pumla extensively interviewed Eugene de Kock, a former police commissioner serving multiple life sentences for his unspeakable crimes against humanity, one of the few not granted amnesty in the name of reconciliation. Pumla explores everything from the nature of evil and power, to the fragility of oppressed groups through a lifetime of fear, to the need to forgive. Formerly a country divided by political motives enforced through senseless and brutal violence, South Africa emerged as an example of a bloodless change in policy, a change that seems impossible. Pumla states, “The question is no longer whether victims can forgive ‘evildoers’ but whether we – our symbols, language, and politics, our legal, media, and academic institutions – are creating the conditions that encourage alternatives to revenge” (118). Pumla’s book is filled with such statements, declarations that demand us to fully examine ourselves and suggest that the most human parts of us are the parts that allow us to abandon natural instinct by abandoning revenge and hatred, even when revenge and hatred are most due.

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After such heavy material, Haruki Murakami’s surreal collection of short stories entitled The Elephant Vanishes felt like an even more extreme departure from reality than it already is. Surrealism comes in varying degrees of ridiculous (and I mean that in the best possible sense) with Murakami’s brand in this collection falling into the category of “things best read by insomniacs at 3 a.m..” As I happen to be an insomniac who frequently reads at 3 a.m. when my brain tends to make anything surreal, this book was in some ways, a sensory overload, and in others a welcomed escape from literature that fits any type of conceivable mold. Murakami’s style lends itself less to cultural expression and more to universal appeal. Though most of the stories are centered in the metropolis ofTokyo,most could conceivably be set in any metropolis with only small nuances present to reveal the true cultural setting – dinner eaten with chopsticks, for example. In this way, Murakami’s short stories are not so much about expressing clear pride in a cultural identity but about expressing a universality in the trails of life, with love and loneliness taking center stage.

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Reading itself appears to be a tragically dying pass time, and with the loss of reading comes the loss of one of our greatest sources of cultural understanding. Multicultural literature crosses oceans and political boundaries giving us invaluable insights into the lives of people we will never meet. All literature also transcends time, freezing in place events that, in the grand scheme of things, only embody an instant of historical time, things such as South Africa’s period of reconciliation, 9/11, or the Vietnam War. By being born in one place, by only inhabiting the Earth for a few meager decades, we all miss so much. With a passport, we can cross political boundaries and see much, but only that which exists in the present, and the present is the most fleeting of all periods. Through literature, we can experience and understand that which physical limitations make impossible. With such a wealth of knowledge at our disposal, anyone would be exceeding foolish to limit their scope of study.

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Seeking Forgiveness in the Legacy of Apartheid: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s “A Human Being Died That Night”

By Emily D. Irvine: 11-4-12

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Human history is lined with acts of evil, individuals who have appeared to void their human status in the pursuit of power and a skewed perception of righteousness. With varying degrees of world outrage, human rights violators – Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Sadaam Hussein, –  have come to represent the epitome of evil, people who used the support of the governments that backed them to shape the world for worse. In A Human Being Died That Night, Pumla Gobodo- Madikizela discusses the moral complications surrounding Eugene de Kock, an incarcerated former South African Police commissioner during the horrors of the apartheid era, a man who has come to be known as “Prime Evil” by the people his actions touched. Pumla presents evil committed with political motivations as a different kind of evil, one that not only seizes people differently but a type of evil  that it is essential to try and understand if their respective societies are to successfully move on. She asks if forgiveness is possible for people who commit unspeakable crimes agains humanity while acting on behalf of their governments, and if such forgiveness is powerful enough to heal a society shaped by a violently segregated past.

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South African professor, psychologist, and author Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela 

South Africa finds itself in a unique position. Though violence, bloodshed, and loss of life permeated the country’s narrative throughout the twentieth century, a fact that cannot be ignored, the switch to democracy and the renouncing of an apartheid government happened without war, the potential “bloodbath that never happened” as Pumla described it at a UCSB Capps Center lecture in 2004. In this same lecture, Pumla addresses the necessity of forgiveness in a society pursuing a peaceful existence after this specific type of conflict, stating: “Societies like South Africa and Rwanda, for example, have found it is more constructive to focus on creating and  nurturing the conditions that make forgiveness first conceivable, then ultimately possible. In these two societies, the language of reconciliation and restorative justice has defined and continued to define the process of dealing with the past.”

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Images of apartheid.

Restorative justice is a concept that could quite conceivably bring world peace if it could be properly executed on a global scale. The obvious difficulty in this concept is it requires those who have been wronged in the worst conceivable ways to not only forgive those who have wronged them, but be satisfied with seeing them endure a punishment that could never fit their crime as true revenge is counter productive and true justice is impossible to define when the crime involves the egregious loss of life. Such an ability seems superhuman, our own intrinsic natures seemingly wired to desire revenge over reconciliation. But Pumla shows us with absolute clarity that it is humanly possibly to forgive the unforgivable.

 One of Eugene de Kock’s many crimes involves the calculated death of three black policemen, whereby de Kock, as a police commissioner, orchestrated the construction of a car bomb that could be detonated remotely. He sent three black officers on a false mission in the car the bomb was placed in, these black officers “crime” being that they “threatened to expose their white colleagues’ involvement in the mysterious death of four black [anti-apartheid] activists” (13). The bomb was detonated as planned and the three officers (plus a seemingly civilian friend in the car with them) were killed. After the collapse of the apartheid government and de Kock’s trial for his many involvements of this sort, he appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Pumla herself served on. Before the TRC, de Kock asked to speak to the widows of  the  men he killed, to  apologize to them. Not only did two of the widows agree to the meeting, but they forgave him. Pumla interviewed both women after their encounter with de Kock and recounts that Pearl Faku stated she was “profoundly touched by him… I couldn’t control my tears. I could hear him, but I was overwhelmed by emotion, and I was just nodding, as a way of saying yes, I forgive you. I hope that when he sees our tears, he knows that they are not only tears for our husbands, but tears for him as well…. I would like to hold him by the hand and show him that there is a future, and the he can still change” (14-15). Pumla herself is shocked by this act of empathy and the widow’s ability to shed tears for de Kock’s own loss of moral humanity. She questions if de Kock is deserving of this level of forgiveness, if those who commit atrocities of this sort deserve to be given the opportunity to express remorse and asks if de Kock was “too evil –Prime Evil– to be  worthy  of  the  forgiveness Mrs.Faku  and  Mrs. Mgoduka had offered him?” (15).

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Prime Evil

 At UC Santa Barbara, Pumla expanded on this notion of what constitutes an unforgivable act and how far forgiveness can be stretched to encompass the perpetrators of unspeakable acts of violence. She states that “there may be some deeds for which the language of apology and forgiveness may be entirely inappropriate, however, to exclude all horrible acts committed with a political motive from the realm of the forgivable does not capture the complexities of the social contexts within which gross evil occurs.” In this sense, Pumla expresses that acts of evil fall into different categories, something that, as a psychologist, she could naturally form an educated and experience based opinion on. The acts of a classic, anti-social, Hannibal Lector style serial killer are not driven by the same motivations as the actions of someone like Eugene de Kock,whocommittedhis atrocities in  a  skewed political environment. A Hannibal Lector is separated from society and society will eventually eliminate him, writing him off as an anomaly. Eugene de Kock operated within the accepted confines of a particular society at a particular time. His actions were not abnormal in the eyes of the government, for hewas the government. For him to be held accountable, the government had to change. And it did. Pumla by no means excuses de Kock for his actions, rather illuminates that actions can be called deplorable, but if the government does not call them illegal and administer the proper punishment, then those who uphold the social constructions have entered a grey area, a place where moral fiber becomes effectively subjective even if morals themselves remain absolute in even the most backward of societies.

Apartheid will forever be a damned spot in the narrative of human history, a reminder of the pain and suffering we are capable of inflicting upon each other though government sanctioned violence. Those who can find the power to forgive the perpetrators of atrocities effectively put an end to the “eye for an eye” mentality that halts social progress, bettering social conditions by accepting that there exists no perfect solution in light of human rights violations. Whether or not Eugene de Kock is genuine in his remorse, whether or not he is deserving of the forgiveness shown to him is only relevant for him as an individual. But if we look at de Kock as representative of an institution, as nothing more than a face representing the Prime Evil legacy that is apartheid, then forgiveness is not intrinsically linked to his personal revelations of remorse.Inthis case, forgiveness  is  a  form of closure benefitting the victim far more than the perpetrator, an act of closure that expresses life must go on and healing must be allowed to occur regardless of whether or not those who inflicted the pain are remorseful. Harboring hatred for men like de Kock will only continue to give them power over society by halting the emotional restoration and reconciliation of the people they tried so desperately to keep apart. Forgiveness brings unity, a human connection between the perpetrators and victims of inhuman acts and is the gateway to a peaceful, integrated, restored society.

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“Pretoria was a city filled with too many of apartheid’s symbols…. Pretoria was the heart and soul of apartheid and I had no desire to set foot there. But now…eight years later, Pretoria symbolized something new. It was the city where Nelson Mandela had been inaugurated as the first president of a democratic South Africa” (2). 

Works Cited

Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. “A Human Being Died That Night: A South Africa Story.” Lecture. Walter H. Capps Center, Santa Barbara. May 2004. 31 Jan. 2008. Web. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1-01dPT1bk&gt;.

It’s Women’s Work: An Analysis of the role of women in John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

By Emily D. Irvine: 5-17-12

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Patriarchy assumes that the needs of men are central to the wellbeing of all, with women serving to meet male need and children born to ensure the system has a legacy. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck presents a far more complex familial hierarchy under a patriarchal system,  asserting that men are allowed to be in charge only when times are good, and Ma Joad increasingly takes control of the family as hardship increases. Women in Steinbeck’s novel are portrayed as adaptable in times of adversity, capable of temporarily changing their role in the family and leading it by example to accept rapid changes in circumstance, something the men find nearly impossible, often resorting to violence rather than change to fit the unchangeable conditions. Women are not necessarily empowered in this novel, nor does Ma Joad’s seizing of the family undo the patriarchy. The Joad family’s only goal is to reconstruct the family structure lost in their displacement, the dream of a house surrounded by orange trees and jobs for the men a hope for a return to normalcy, a return to the patriarchy that the dust destroyed. This is not a novel that analyzes or makes any claims for sexual equality, or that presents patriarchy as something that is right, just something that is. This is a culture of survival, where money means food and food only, the ability to survive another day and another day only, not thrive under the promise of continued prosperity. Men are only capable of leading and only permitted to lead when they have fulfilled their role as provider and protector. When they fail, women drive the family out of the path of the flood not because it is easy but because they must, because the men are no longer whole.

The Grapes of Wrath opens with a shift, a shift in climate, a shift in a lifestyle, and a shift in family structure. The dust that chokes the parched crops is observed by the men, the men are observed by the women, and the men and women are observed by the children, who must assess when they are allowed to run and shout, exhibiting a learned behavior that in their short lives, only rain, it has been determined, is a cause for celebration. The women study the men secretly, “for the corn could go, as long as something else remained” (3). In this first dismal chapter, women and children are passive observers to the responses of their men, the family structure intact and the way of life temporarily secure, women and children alike knowing “deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole” (4). This “wholeness,” the presence of “something else” in the absence of corn appears to be nothing more or less than dignity and security, and as both are lost with each passing chapter, the patriarchy weakens, men feel their failure, and women must lead until order is reestablished.

The introduction of Ma Joad establishes her as the family’s stronghold even before the long journey and fracture of the patriarchy begins. Her strength is evident in every line of prose surrounding her character and appearance, though she remains entirely nameless. Pa Joad is known to be Tom Joad Sr., but his wife is only Ma, and it is her role as a mother that defines her in this novel, for she fiercely defends the family as a whole by individually nurturing each of its parts, defending and hiding the son who breaks parole, serving as nurse and midwife to her pregnant daughter, herding Ruthie and Winfield, who are interchangeable aside from their gender, and devoting her most precious time to feeding all with the appearance of effortlessness in the task.

“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And  since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was in her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended on” (74).

Ma Joad is the source of emotional assurance for the family where Pa is supposedly responsible for the economic security. How the family “feels” as a whole is entirely dependent upon the emotions Ma allows to surface in herself. Ma’s ability to hide inner anguish becomes essential throughout the novel, her emotional immovability responsible for the family’s crossing of the desert into California, calming Rose of Sharon throughout what is obviously going to be a tragic pregnancy, and the family’s will to evacuate the flood waters at the novel’s conclusion.

Ma officially strips power from Pa when she whips out a jack handle and refuses to allow the family to split on the road. She speaks the established language of men by threatening violence to make her point, asserting that should Pa try to use violence against her to bend her to his will, “I’ll knock you belly-up with a bucket. I swear to Holy Jesus’ sake I will” (169). This insubordination, expressly stated as a revolt, is the turning point of leadership in the Joad family’s journey. Ma realizes before everyone else that once the family splits it can never be made whole again, and she defends its unity with a jack handle. The family expects Pa to get angry, but  his “anger did not rise, and his hands hung limply at his sides. And in a moment the group knew Ma had won. And Ma knew it too” (169). Pa relinquishes control of the family without a fight believing the usurpation is a temporary measure, that he is soon guaranteed work and the means to reclaim security and structure for the family and thereby his place at he head of it. Anger is for now unnecessary, and Ma is the new power.

Anger becomes essential and sustaining when the promise of work and security fades away as quickly as windblown pamphlets. Ma completely controls the family’s emotion when she decides it is time for them to leave the dignity of the government camp and take their chances elsewhere. When Pa asserts that he has been “thinkin’” about what to do, Ma plainly says, “We’ll go in the mornin’,” ending Pa’s right to decide the matter. Pa acknowledges his defeat and the change in times when he responds, “Time was when a man said what we’d do. Seems like women is tellin’ now. Seems like it’s purty near time to get out a stick” (352). The exchange continues with Ma getting the last word, asserting essentially that men have a right to beat their women if they do their job and provide bacon for the little ones. She deliberately works Pa into a fury by making him feel inadequate, for “take a man. He can get worried an’ worried, an’ it eats out his liver, an’ purty soon he’ll just lay down and die with his heart et out. But if you can take an’ make ‘im mad, why he’ll be awright” (352). Ma takes responsibility for the family while placing all responsibility on Pa. Man must work so woman can buy food and feed the family. If man fails to make money, woman fails to feed the others, she fails to bear strong children, and therefore fails in her duties because of the failure of the family’s head. If the woman can’t feed the children, then the man has no right to father them. He has failed, and he needs to know it. Ma does not present this logic to be cruel, but to save. Work is entirely out of everyone’s control and everyone at this point has become equally aware of it. But it is better to make the men believe that they have failed and can fix it rather than force them to acknowledge that their failure is beyond their control. Either way, man is equally unable to provide and therefore unable to hold his place as the head of the family. Ma leads by controlling emotion, forcing anger to replace despair because anger keeps the men whole.

When Pa finally succumbs to despair, stating “seems like our life’s over an’ done,” Ma ceases pushing him to anger and instead becomes a wise nurturer, once again modifying her role in the family to suit the emotional needs of the men. She states that, “man, he lives in jerks – baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk – gets a farm an‘ loses his farm an’ thats a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on” (423). By comparing women to the earth and to the water in the last pages of the novel, Ma Joad has described her role in it, the unstoppable force that can also conform to that which contains it. She cuts her environment as much as she nourishes it, sustaining the family and driving it forward.

Ma Joad continuously shapes Rose of Sharon into the woman she needs to be to someday help her own family survive, proving that pregnancy in and of itself is not enough to make a girl into a woman. Ma spends moments alone with every member of the family, but her time with Rose of Sharon is a time of instruction. She nurtures her, but in a way that suggests the girl must soon find the strength to nurture others. Before crossing the desert, Ma Joad explains pain and grief to her daughter, the burdens of experience fast approaching to taint her youth.

“When you’re young, Rosasharn, ever’thing that happens is a thing all by itself. It’s a lonely thing… You’re gonna have a baby, Rosasharn, and that’s somepin to you lonely and away. That’s gonna hurt you, an’ the hurt’ll be lonely hurt, an’ this here tent is alone in the worl’, Rosasharn…. They’s a time of change, an’ when that comes, dyin’ is a piece of all dyin’, and bearin’ in a piece of all bearin,’ and bearin and dyin is two pieces of the same thing. An then things ain’t lonely any more” (209-210).

Ma’s voice is said to be “so soft, so full of love, that tears crowded into Rose of Sharon’s eyes” (110), a description that gives no indication that Rose of Sharon understands what her mother is telling her, merely that she comprehends the love with with which it is told. Ma is preparing Rose of Sharon for the burdens that come with womanhood by assuring her that every woman has bore them, that there is no loneliness in the experiences themselves and no loneliness  in being the family’s citadel for it means being surrounded by family. Ma changes her tone with Rose of Sharon in the government camp, not allowing her to mope because she feels ill, telling her “They’s times when how you feel got to be kep’ to yourself” (303), the theme of women’s emotional control being taught to Rose of Sharon. Go vomit, everyone does it, but then clean yourself up and move on. There are no distressed damsels in this story for such behavior is never allowed to take root in young girl’s minds. Bearing children is not cause for self pity, and any illness is causes can’t be shown because the men need breakfast and need it cheerily and effortlessly without feeling as if their needs are a burden to the women.

Rose of Sharon spends the novel in Ma Joad’s shadow, an unproven woman in the process of bearing her first child and learning what womanhood means through the strength of her mother. The final chapter of the novel begins with the prospect of new life as Rose of Sharon begins labor. As the women assist in the birth, the men attempt to build a levee to keep back the rising river, unpaid work but work none the less, work to protect the women and children because work needs to be done. With the stillborn child, new life is unable to thrive and therefore one of woman’s prime purposes is a failure. But Rose of Sharon is allowed only one line of despair, “the girl lay back again, and covered her eyes with her arms,” (449) a sign of strength, an inherited strength to not allow the men to see women despair, proof that Rose of Sharon has learned what womanhood means in the culture she will live in. Ma tells Rose of Sharon she can “have more,” and that she will be alright. The loss of Rose of Sharon’s baby is a cause of open despair for the men, not the women, as it is Pa who sends the lifeless, shriveled body down the river, telling it to “go down an’ tell ‘em. Go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell ‘em that way,” (448) the failure to create life used as a desperate plea for dignity. The family stops, desperate to continue but unable to create a new generation to replace the generation lost at the beginning of the journey. Ma reaches under Rose of Sharon’s blankets and feels her swelling breasts, filled with new milk without a child to feed. Because she cannot nurture and sustain new life, Rose of Sharon feeds a starving middle aged man, fulfilling her duty as a woman by nurturing men even in the absence of children. The complete loss of dignity in the final pages of the novel are accompanied by a intense swell of humanity, Rose of Sharon gaining the courage of her mother, concealing her own inner grief, taking control of emotion so that life can continue. Life does not begin or end for the remaining characters; it only continues.

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck presents a family, a family that represents thousands of families who struggled to survive in the darkest decade of the twentieth century. This is not a novel that seeks to unravel the familial structure of the dust bowl migrants but to present them as they were, people with a history and a way of life they sought to relocate, not reinvent. The reinvention of the family structure that occurs in the novel happens out of a desperate attempt to preserve, the hope that displacement is only temporary and the familiar aspects of life will someday resume. Ma Joad exemplifies womanhood under a male-centric structure, the force that remains silent in times of prosperity but is unleashed in adversity, guiding and shaping men to fulfill the expectations that have been created for them through generations of unquestioned patriarchy.

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