Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Travel is intensified living-maximum thrills per minute and one of the last great sources of legal adventure. Travel is freedom. It's recess and we need it."

Both international and local travel are very important to me. I like to travel "close to the ground." I try to meet and communicate with people in their native language and not just rely on a taxi or purchased smiles. I like to seek the authentic side of a culture and not the pristine, manicured, sanitized side made palatable for western tourists. It is important to give culture the benefit of an open mind and to see things as different but not better or worse. I think that any culture has much to share.

Of course, travel, like the world, is a series of hills and valleys. I try to positive and optimistic. Even an adverse situation can turn into a good story or learning experience in the end. If something is not to my liking, I change my liking. Travel can make one a better citizen of the world. Our earth is home to six and half billion equally important people. I think that encountering other cultures and a smattering of these other six and half billion people is humbling as well as empowering.

I think the most important part of travel is that it has the ability to destroy ethnocentricity and damaging stereotypes. It helps one to understand and appreciate different cultures. By engaging in thoughtful travel and then subsequently engaging in provocative and critical discussions, one can work to breakdown harmful cultural barriers. One can use multi-cultural experiences and perspectives as tools to change narrow-minded conversations into a learning experience. Travel engages one with the world and I think it is more important then ever to understand different perspectives and points of views.

Travel has certainly changed me and drastically altered my world view. I would love to live and work in every place that I travel, become fluent in the language and make long lasting friendships. I have yet to find the perfect way to do this...have a meaningful experience without taking away a job from a local or otherwise adversely affecting the local culture. Travel can often times be as harmful as it is helpful. However, the positives, at this point, outweigh the negatives for me. Travel broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. Rather than fear the diversity on this planet, travelers and knowledge seekers can celebrate it. It is necessary to look beyond one's hometown norms. The experiences and ideas that one can bring home and share are knit into their own character and those people that they interact with. To look outside is to look inside and find a whole new plane of existence where tolerance and understanding work to disciminate hurtful stereotypes and dehumanizations that lead to violence and ubstruct peace. (some of these ideas are paraphrased from Rick Steves' Travel Guide to Italy)

In February, I went on a short trip to Mexico, as my previous posts may have revealed. I went to my mom and a close friend. Both my mom and her friend have studied Spanish and pre-Hispanic Mexican history. Their interest in history really dictated the course of the trip and we visited a ton of museums and historical sites. The short time that we were there really made us need to capitalize on our time and every day was packed. I would have liked to pause for a while longer in one place to get a deeper understanding, but as it was, I was able to blast many of my stereotypes out the ceiling as well as learn a lot history that was never touched in school.

Travel in Mexico was a fascinating encounter with a unique mix of ancient civilization, gorgeous colonial architecture and deep-rooted pre-hispanic and post-hispanic traditions. Mexico has an ever present past! Which is in sharp contrast with the United States. Where Mexico is a mix of traditional pre-Hispanic and Spanish cultures, the USA has shoved almost all of it's native culture and tradition onto reservations.

I was able to visit the center fo Teotehuacan Civilization which flourished from 0 to 150 AD. People originally migrated to this area in 60000 to 8000 BC and agriculture began in 1200 BC. The site at Teotehuacan is especially intriguing because so little is known about the culture that built the center with two giant pyramids, a grid neighborhood system and water systems. The pyramid of the Sol is the third largest pyramid in the world and I was fortunate enough to be able to climb up the narrow steep steps and enjoy the amazing view of valley. Anthropologists believe that the the civilization collapsed in the 8thalmost as quickly as it built up. The Aztecs discovered the site and adopted it as a sacred place of ceremonies where their revered ancestors had once lived. The Aztec gods closely mirror those of the Teotehuacan Civilization. Quetzacoatle and Tlaloc are two gods whose image I saw im many museums and carved into the stones of many ruins. Quetzacoatle is a feathered serpent and Tlaloc is the god of rain.

Another ruin that I visited was called Xochicalco. It flourished briefly and is known as the cult of the feathered serpent. The ruins were astounding. Unlike Teotehuacan, the place was devoid of tourists and remarkable devoid of locals pandering trinkets and souvenirs. The persistent pressure of sellers at Teotehuacan made me feel uncomfortable and completely destroyed any spiritual or otherwise sentimental feelings that I might have felt in the awesome presence of such ancient and monumental structures. At Xochicalco, the structures were less grandeur but held much more mystery and intrigue. The grounds were so quiet it was easy to imagine the way things might have been like when the civilization was at its peak. Their were several in tact ball courts and an astronomer's cave that they used to track the constellations and the sun. They also had a great museum with an English audio guide, which was a huge bonus for me.

In 1325, the Aztecs, also known as the Mexicas, settled in a place called Tenochtitlan and current day Mexico City. The Aztec civilization had been wandering tribes awaiting the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy: They would find the destined site for a great city whose location would be signaled by an eagle eating a snake while perched atop a cactus. The wandering Aztecs saw this vision on what was then a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco. This vision is now on the Mexican flag. The Aztecs, were able to overcome the swampy nature of the land they were to build their city on by incorporating a system of chinampas for agriculture.

Chinampas were stationary artificial islands that usually measured roughly 30 by 2½ meters, although they were sometimes longer. They were created by staking out the shallow lake bed and then fencing in the rectangle with wattle, a woven lattice of wooden strips daubed with a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay and sand, animal dung and straw. The fenced-off area was then layered with mud, lake sediment, and decaying vegetation, eventually bringing it above the level of the lake. Often trees such as willows were planted at the corners to secure the chinampa. The primary chinampas crops were maize, beans, squash, amaranth, tomatoes and chilies.It is estimated that food provided by chinampas made up one-half to two-thirds of the food consumed by the city of Tenochitlan. Chinampas were separated by channels wide enough for a canoe to pass. This system dried and expanded the land. There is a place in Mexico City, called Xochimilco, where one can ride canoes through still existing chinampas but the place is largely overrun with tourists and has a disturbing carnival feel to it.

As the Aztec continued to thrive and develope, it dominated other tribes all around Mexico. They perpetually enlarged Tenochtitlan which grew to become the largest and most powerful city in Mesoamerica with around 215,000 inhabitants. Templo Mayor was excavated in Mexico City and I was able to visit it. The temple was rebuilt every sixty years because it continued to sink into the ground. The Aztecs didn't tear down the previous temple, they simply added another layer to the outside like frosting. In its current state, one can walk through the temple and see the different layers. The Temple is in the very center of Mexico City and surrounded by the giant square, state buildings and the biggest catholic church in the world. The surrounding buildings, especially the church are sinking into the silty soft ground and I had a silly sense of vertigo as I walked about because all the buildings leaned at kaddywompus angles to each other.

While the Aztec Empire expanded in meso-america, Spain was rapidly expanding and looking for new trade routs and conquests. In 1942, Spanish Christian armies finally completed a 700 year long reconquest to recovery territory from the islamic rule. Spain was rapidly expanding and looking for new trade routs and conquests. Christopher Columbus arrived in America followed by the conquistadors. The nearly 3000 year old ancient Mexican civilization was shattered in two short years by them.

Hernan Cortes led an expidition to initiate trade relations with the natives in 1519. Cortes was invariably driven by personal gain and became obsessed with the search for gold. After conquering several coastal areas, Cortes arrived at Tenochitlan and was, according to some accounts, accepted by Moctezuma as the reincarnation of their diety Quetzacoatle. While Cortes was initially well-received, the Aztecs eventually drove him out.

Cortes returned a year later in 1521 with the help of 100,000 natives from other areas and after three months captured Tenochitlan. The conquest continued and by 1605 the indigenous population declined from 25 million to a little over 1 million due to small pox among other new diseases.

The indigenous people were enslaved, exploited and indoctrinated with catholicism. During the colonial period, Spain exploited Mexico to finance the wars taking place in Europe. As the decades passed, many Spaniards put down roots in Mexico and those born and bred in the colony began to develop their own identity and a growing alienation from the mother country. It was criollos (people born of Spanish parents in the new colony) who engineered the separation of New Spain from Spain. The cri0llo discontent with Spanish rule really began to stir following the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Spanish Empire in 1767. When the Spanish crown confiscated church assets in 1804, the church had to call in many debts. This hit the criollos hard. The catalyst for rebellion was in 1808 when Napoleon occupied Spain and direct control evaporated.

In 1810, Hidalgo launched a war for independence and mobs massacred the peninsulares. After 11 years of fighting Mexico gained independence and equal rights for peninsulares, criollos with a constitutional monarchy dominated by the catholic religion.

A person's place in colonial Mexican society was determined by skin color, parentage, and birthplace. At the top were peninsulares, Spanish born colonists. Next were criollos, then mestizos, those of mixed decendency and finaly the indigenous and african slaves.Social stratification follows similar patterns in Mexico today with, broadly speaking, the 'pure-blooded' descendents of Spaniards at the top, with mestizos in the middle and the indigenous people at the bottom. I tried to engage a Mexican man who spoke French in a meaningful conversation about his heritage the the current social issues in Mexico. Unfortunately, our language barrier created issues and I learned little from him. He did give me good advice about the local neighborhood and made me an awesome sandwich, so all was not lost.

I didn't really learn a lot about the period following the war for independence. But the period from 1821 to 1860 was marked by the loss of territory to the USA, corruption, the Mexican American war and the Alamo as well as the War or Reform and the election of the first indigenous president, Benito Juarez. The 1900s were marked by revolutions led by Poncho Villa and other liberal reformers and radicals such as Zapata. In the 1920s, Mexico underwent a land ownership distribution which put land into local communal landholdings called ejidos. The ejidos were successful until the 1960s, when much of the land was sold to corporations. More recently, however, ejidos and other forms of communal agriculture are being resurrected. I learned about ejidos in a community agiculture class. I will try to dig up some more info on them when I get home.

Catholicism plays a huge role in current day Mexico. Catholic churches were everywhere as was the image of the Lady of Guadalupe. She is the patron saint of Mexico. She is also a manifestation of the virgin Marry. She is the archetypal mother and the pre-eminent focus of Mexican spirituality. I think that current spirituality is a complex mix of catholicism and that of pre-Hispanic civilizations. Elements of ancient religions survive alongside and are integrated into Catholicism. This is evident in the fact that many Mexicans still give great importance to omens, portents, coincidences and other curious happenings. It is also evident in the way that the ancients' obsession with death is accentuated in the catholic church. The day of the dead is a prime example of an ancient tradition revamped into a catholic celebration. I was in Mexico during the two weeks preceding Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. In the United States, many towns have parades and parties in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras and most places have some kind of party for Mardi Gras, an opportunity to binge and get it all out of our system before the restrictions and abstinence of Lent set in. In Mexico, the two weeks before Lent is characterized by indigenous song and dance and crazy traditions that began as indigenous but evolved into a rite all its own.

In Tepotzlan, the tradition of the Chinelos is strongly upheld. All the history that I have found on Chinelos is poorly translated. But I think that essentially, it began with a group of young people who felt excluded from carnival festivities because of the restrictions of Lent. They disguesed themeselves old clothes and covered their faces with a handkerchiefs and began to shout and jump up and down the streets of the town. They were apparently making fun of the Spaniards. Their actions were a great success and they organized such a display the next year. Year after year, the dancing and jumping became more and more popular and the celebration grew into a two week ordeal where troupes of dancing Chinelos gather with brass bands to celebrate and revel. The costume became more and more elaborate. Currently, they look like lace-lined velvet judge robes. They wear a tunic with elaborately embroidered scenes of indigenous people fighting the conquistadors. They wear a wire mask with a pointed and up-curled beard, white gloves and tall hat with beaded Aztec gods. The Chinelos dance from early morning to late night. Different troups rotate in and out and the entire dance is punctuated by brilliant fireworks, carnival rides and a spicey beer and chili drink called a michalada. I tried chapulines while I was in Tepotztlan. Chapulines are crispy grasshoppers. I had them in a blue tortilla with cheese. After I overcame my initial revulsion, they were kind of tasty and the crunchy texture was not unpleasant. I did manage to get a leg or a thorax stuck in the soft tissue of my pallet and spent most of the night hacking. I also had some psychologically induced stomach flutters and aches where I felt like grasshoppers were jumping up and down in there.

While much of this crazy revelry was going on, I took time to visit the 2nd and 3rd highest mountains in Mexico. We tried to climb Mount Itza but we were thwarted by inadequate shoes and very foggy cloudy weather. The very high altitude proved to be a problem as well. Mount Popo was not open to hikers because it has been active recently and constantly spews smoke. I also did a very steep climb up a cliff to get to a little temple nestled in its crags. The temple afforded a great view of the city below and was quite peaceful despite the hordes of high school students that flooded it.

There are a lot of other little details about the trip that made it unforgetable, like how much I loved buying tamales and freshly squeezed carrot juice from street vendors or how much Jo loved to get a coffee and a muffin in the mornings. Or how I inadvertantly stole and then subsequently bought a bag of tortilla chips in a local market and Mom bought yucca cactus salsa for my stolen tortilla chips. Our bus and metro rides were also notable as well as one nearly fatal taxi ride. The smog and pollution was also very notable and Jo suffered from daily nosebleeds and mom and I had horrible eye issues. I enjoyed the cute little Europeanish town of Taxco with the Christ statue looming over it nestled into a hill. The cathedral there was truely stunning with pink stones. I think the most tantalizing food for thought that I cam away with was the contrast between current Mexican society and the incorporation or dis-incorporation of indigenous cultures versus that of the United States and Canada. I hope to do more research into this topic and report on it later.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

El Milano Amarillo
(The Yellow Kite)

Three purple kites fly over Taxco
and the Capilla de Guadalupe.
My yellow kite hangs limp at my
side. It is as yellow as a lemon
chiffon cake. Grandpa helps me
launch the kite, his brown hands
gently play out the rainbow
colored line. I grip the spool,
crying, “yo, yo!” and he lets go
of the line as my kite soars above
the Capilla, above the zocalo
and the matching white houses
with red roofs. It catches the light
and becomes a second sun.
As the wind kisses my cheeks with one
hand, it grabs my kite with the other
and sends it swooping into
a tree covered in delicate purple
blossoms. Grandpa and I work together
to carefully untwist the string from the
branches and blossoms…
yellow and blue, big and small.

Three purple kites fly high over
the grade-schoolers with dark
ash crosses on their foreheads.
Grandpa launches my kite and we
hold hands, hold on to the line,
the little yellow kite and Mexico.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


High above the city, I sit,
5027 meters and 12 stations
of the cross high. Below me,
the city sprawls, nicely compact.

It is a pallet of bright colors,
cement grays. In my ears rings
a carnival’s calliope, horn music,
church bells, laughing children
and scattering coins. The church
on the hill is as alive and full of people
as the carnival in the zocalo below
and a baby is being baptized.
The graveyard outside is old, old, old.
Graves are grass-covered and inscriptions
are worn away.

The clouds gather in the sky, gather
around the looming volcanoes
on the horizon. Gather around snow-studded
peaks. They collect rain above me and smell
like chiles, tamales and pineapple.
They small like tamarind, plantains
and beans, spicy and sweet, spring
and summer, dry and hot.
The town sprawls beneath me,
nicely compact.

Monday, March 02, 2009

I need to put this here so that I can remember it always.

"Come September."
Transcription of Arundhati Roy reading andMs. Roy and Howard Zinn in conversationLensic Performing Arts CenterSanta Fe, New Mexico18 September 2002

Writers imagine that they cull stories from the world. I'm beginning to believe that vanity makes them think so. That it's actually the other way around. Stories cull writers from the world. Stories reveal themselves to us. The public narrative, the private narrative - they colonize us. They commission us. They insist on being told. Fiction and nonfiction are only different techniques of story telling. For reasons that I don't fully understand, fiction dances out of me, and nonfiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.
The theme of much of what I write, fiction as well as nonfiction, is the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless, circular conflict they're engaged in. John Berger, that most wonderful writer, once wrote: "Never again will a single story be told as though it's the only one." There can never be a single story. There are only ways of seeing. So when I tell a story, I tell it not as an ideologue who wants to pit one absolutist ideology against another, but as a story-teller who wants to share her way of seeing. Though it might appear otherwise, my writing is not really about nations and histories; it's about power. About the paranoia and ruthlessness of power. About the physics of power. I believe that the accumulation of vast unfettered power by a State or a country, a corporation or an institution - or even an individual, a spouse, a friend, a sibling -regardless of ideology, results in excesses such as the ones I will recount here.
Living as I do, as millions of us do, in the shadow of the nuclear holocaust that the governments of India and Pakistan keep promising their brain-washed citizenry, and in the global neighborhood of the War Against Terror (what President Bush rather biblically calls "The Task That Never Ends"), I find myself thinking a great deal about the relationship between Citizens and the State.
In India, those of us who have expressed views on Nuclear Bombs, Big Dams, Corporate Globalization and the rising threat of communal Hindu fascism - views that are at variance with the Indian Government's - are branded 'anti- national.' While this accusation doesn't fill me with indignation, it's not an accurate description of what I do or how I think. Because an 'anti-national' is a person who is against his or her own nation and, by inference, is pro some other one. But it isn't necessary to be 'anti-national' to be deeply suspicious of all nationalism, to be anti-nationalism. Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people's brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead. [Applause] When independent- thinking people (and here I do not include the corporate media) begin to rally under flags, when writers, painters, musicians, film makers suspend their judgment and blindly yoke their art to the service of the "Nation," it's time for all of us to sit up and worry. In India we saw it happen soon after the Nuclear tests in 1998 and during the Cargill War against Pakistan in 1999. In the U.S. we saw it during the Gulf War and we see it now during the "War Against Terror." That blizzard of Made-in-China American flags. [Laughter]
Recently, those who have criticized the actions of the U.S. government (myself included) have been called "anti-American." Anti-Americanism is in the process of being consecrated into an ideology.
The term "anti-American" is usually used by the American establishment to discredit and, not falsely - but shall we say inaccurately - define its critics. Once someone is branded anti-American, the chances are that he or she will be judged before they are heard, and the argument will be lost in the welter of bruised national pride.
But what does the term "anti-American" mean? Does it mean you are anti-jazz? Or that you're opposed to freedom of speech? That you don't delight in Toni Morrison or John Updike? That you have a quarrel with giant sequoias? Does it mean that you don't admire the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who marched against nuclear weapons, or the thousands of war resisters who forced their government to withdraw from Vietnam? Does it mean that you hate all Americans?
This sly conflation of America's culture, music, literature, the breathtaking physical beauty of the land, the ordinary pleasures of ordinary people with criticism of the U.S. government's foreign policy (about which, thanks to America's "free press", sadly most Americans know very little) is a deliberate and extremely effective strategy. It's like a retreating army taking cover in a heavily populated city, hoping that the prospect of hitting civilian targets will deter enemy fire.
But there are many Americans who would be mortified to be associated with their government's policies. The most scholarly, scathing, incisive, hilarious critiques of the hypocrisy and the contradictions in U.S. government policy come from American citizens. When the rest of the world wants to know what the U.S. government is up to, we turn to Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Ed Herman, Amy Goodman, Michael Albert, Chalmers Johnson, William Blum and Anthony Amove to tell us what's really going on.
Similarly, in India, not hundreds, but millions of us would be ashamed and offended if we were in any way implicated with the present Indian government's fascist policies which, apart from the perpetration of State terrorism in the valley of Kashmir (in the name of fighting terrorism), have also turned a blind eye to the recent state-supervised progrom against Muslims in Gujarat. It would be absurd to think that those who criticize the Indian government are "anti-Indian" - although the government itself never hesitates to take that line. It is dangerous to cede to the Indian government or the American government or anyone for that matter, the right to define what "India" or "America" are or ought to be.
To call someone "anti-American", indeed to be anti-American, (or for that matter, anti-Indian or anti-Timbuktuan) is not just racist, it's a failure of the imagination. An inability to see the world in terms other than those the establishment has set out for you. If you're not a Bushie you're a Taliban. If you don't love us, you hate us. If you're not Good, you're Evil. If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists.
Last year, like many others, I too made the mistake of scoffing at this post- September 11th rhetoric, dismissing it as foolish and arrogant. But I've realized it's not foolish at all. It's actually a canny recruitment drive for a misconceived, dangerous war. Everyday I'm taken aback at how many people believe that opposing the war in Afghanistan amounts to supporting terrorism, of voting for the Taliban. Now that the initial aim of the war - capturing Osama bin Laden (dead or alive) - seems to have run into bad weather, the goalposts have been moved. It's being made out that the whole point of the war was to topple the Taliban regime and liberate Afghan women from their burqas, we are being asked to believe that the U.S. marines are actually on a feminist mission [laughter, applause]. (If so, will their next stop be America's military ally Saudi Arabia?) [Laughter] Think of it this way: in India there are some pretty reprehensible social practices against "untouchables", against Christians and Muslims, against women. Pakistan and Bangladesh have even worse ways of dealing with minority communities and women. Should they be bombed? Should Delhi, Islamabad and Dhaka be destroyed? Is it possible to bomb bigotry out of India? Can we bomb our way to a feminist paradise? [Laughter] Is that how women won the vote in the U.S? Or how slavery was abolished? Can we win redress for the genocide of the millions of Native Americans upon whose corpses the United States was founded by bombing Santa Fe? [Applause]
None of us need anniversaries to remind us of what we cannot forget. So it's no more than co-incidence that I happen to be here, on American soil, in September - this month of dreadful anniversaries. Uppermost on everybody's mind of course, particularly here in America, is the horror of what has come to be known as 9/11. Nearly three thousand civilians lost their lives in that lethal terrorist strike. The grief is still deep. The rage still sharp. The tears have not dried. And a strange, deadly war is raging around the world. Yet, each person who has lost a loved one surely knows secretly, deeply, that no war, no act of revenge, no daisy-cutters dropped on someone else's loved ones or someone else's children, will blunt the edges of their pain or bring their own loved ones back. War cannot avenge those who have died. War is only a brutal desecration of their memory.
To fuel yet another war - this time against Iraq - by cynically manipulating people's grief, by packaging it for TV specials sponsored by corporations selling detergent and running shoes, is to cheapen and devalue grief, to drain it of meaning. What we are seeing now is a vulgar display of the business of grief, the commerce of grief, the pillaging of even the most private human feelings for political purpose. It is a terrible, violent thing for a State to do to its people. [Applause]
It's not a clever-enough subject to speak of from a public platform, but what I would really love to talk to you about is Loss. Loss and losing. Grief, failure, brokenness, numbness, uncertainty, fear, the death of feeling, the death of dreaming. The absolute relentless, endless, habitual, unfairness of the world. What does loss mean to individuals? What does it mean to whole cultures, whole people who have learned to live with it as a constant companion?
Since it is September 11th we're talking about, perhaps it's in the fitness of things that we remember what that date means, not only to those who lost their loved ones in America last year, but to those in other parts of the world to whom that date has long held significance. This historical dredging is not offered as an accusation or a provocation. But just to share the grief of history. To thin the mists a little. To say to the citizens of America, in the gentlest, most human way: "Welcome to the World." [Applause]
Twenty-nine years ago, in Chile, on the 11th of September 1973, General Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in a CIA-backed coup. "Chile should not be allowed to go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible," said Henry Kissinger, Nobel Peace Laureate, then the U.S. Secretary of State.
After the coup President Allende was found dead inside the presidential palace. Whether he was killed or whether he killed himself, we'll never know. In the regime of terror that ensured, thousands of people were killed. Many more simply "disappeared". Firing squads conducted public executions. Concentration camps and torture chambers were opened across the country. The dead were buried in mine shafts and unmarked graves. For seventeen years the people of Chile lived in dread of the midnight knock, of routine "disappearances", of sudden arrest and torture. Chileans tell the story of how the musician Victor Jara had his hands cut off in front of a crowd in the Santiago stadium. Before they shot him, Pinochet's soldiers threw his guitar at him and mockingly asked him to play.
In 1999, following the arrest of General Pinochet in Britain, thousands of secret documents were declassified by the U.S. government. They contain unequivocal evidence of the CIA's involvement in the coup as well as the fact that the U.S. government had detailed information about the situation in Chile during General Pinochet's reign. Yet, Kissinger assured the general of his support: "In the United States as you know, we are sympathetic to what you're trying to do," he said. "We wish your government well."
Those of us who have only ever known life in a democracy, however flawed, would find it hard to imagine what living in a dictatorship and enduring the absolute loss of freedom means. It isn't just those who Pinochet murdered, but the lives he stole from the living that must be accounted for too.
Sadly, Chile was not the only country in South America to be singled out for the U.S. government's attentions. Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, El Salvador, Peru, Mexico and Colombia - they've all been the playground for covert - and overt - operations by the CIA. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been killed, tortured or have simply disappeared under the despotic regimes that were propped up in their countries. If this were not humiliation enough, the people of South America have had to bear the cross of being branded as people who are incapable of democracy - as if coups and massacres are somehow encrypted in their genes.
This list does not, of course, include countries in Africa or Asia that suffered U.S. military interventions - Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Laos, and Cambodia. For how many Septembers for decades together have millions of Asian people been bombed, and burned, and slaughtered? How many Septembers have gone by since August 1945, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary Japanese people were obliterated by the nuclear strikes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? For how many Septembers have the thousands who had the misfortune of surviving those strikes endured that living hell that was visited on them, their unborn children, their children's children, on the earth, the sky, the water, the wind, and all the creatures that swim and walk and crawl and fly? Not far from here, in Albuquerque, is the National Atomic Museum where Fat Man and Little Boy (the affectionate nicknames for the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) were available as souvenir earrings. Funky young people wore them. A massacre dangling in each ear. But I'm straying from my theme. It's September that we're talking about, not August.
September 11th has a tragic resonance in the Middle East, too. On the 11th of September 1922, ignoring Arab outrage, the British government proclaimed a mandate in Palestine, a follow-up to the 1917 Balfour Declaration which imperial Britain issued, with its army massed outside the gates of Gaza. The Balfour Declaration promised European Zionists a national home for Jewish people. (At the time, the Empire on which the Sun Never Set was free to snatch and bequeath national homes like a school bully distributes marbles.)
How carelessly imperial power vivisected ancient civilizations. Palestine and Kashmir are imperial Britain's festering, blood-drenched gifts to the modem world. Both are fault lines in the raging international conflicts of today.
In 1937, Winston Churchill said of the Palestinians, I quote, "I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place." That set the trend for the Israeli State's attitude towards the Palestinians. In 1969, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said, "Palestinians do not exist." Her successor, Prime Minister Levi Eschol said, "What are Palestinians? When I came here (to Palestine), there were 250,000 non-Jews, mainly Arabs and Bedouins. It was a desert, more than underdeveloped. Nothing." Prime Minister Menachem Begin called Palestinians "two-legged beasts." Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called them "grasshoppers" who could be crushed. This is the language of Heads of State, not the words of ordinary people.
In 1947, the U.N. formally partitioned Palestine and allotted 55 per cent of Palestine's land to the Zionists. Within a year, they had captured 76 per cent. On the 14th of May 1948 the State of Israel was declared. Minutes after the declaration, the United States recognized Israel. The West Bank was annexed by Jordan. The Gaza strip came under Egyptian military control, and formally Palestine ceased to exist except in the minds and hearts of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian people who became refugees. In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza strip.
Over the decades there have been uprisings, wars, intifadas. Tens of thousands have lost their lives. Accords and treaties have been signed. Cease-fires declared and violated. But the bloodshed doesn't end. Palestine still remains illegally occupied. Its people live in inhuman conditions, in virtual Bantustans, where they are subjected to collective punishments, twenty-four hour curfews, where they are humiliated and brutalized on a daily basis. They never know when their homes will be demolished, when their children will be shot, when their precious trees will be cut, when their roads will be closed, when they will be allowed to walk down to the market to buy food and medicine. And when they will not. They live with no semblance of dignity. With not much hope in sight. They have no control over their lands, their security, their movement, their communication, their water supply. So when accords are signed, and words like "autonomy" and even "statehood" bandied about, it's always worth asking: What sort of autonomy? What sort of State? What sort of rights will its citizens have?
Young Palestinians who cannot control their anger turn themselves into human bombs and haunt Israel's streets and public places, blowing themselves up, killing ordinary people, injecting terror into daily life, and eventually hardening both societies' suspicion and mutual hatred of each other. Each bombing invites merciless reprisal and even more hardship on Palestinian people. But then suicide bombing is an act of individual despair, not a revolutionary tactic. Although Palestinian attacks strike terror into Israeli citizens, they provide the perfect cover for the Israeli government's daily incursions into Palestinian territory, the perfect excuse for old-fashioned, nineteenth-century colonialism, dressed up as a new fashioned, twenty-first century "war".
Israel's staunchest political and military ally is and always has been the U.S. The U.S. government has blocked, along with Israel, almost every U.N. resolution that sought a peaceful, equitable solution to the conflict. It has supported almost every war that Israel has fought. When Israel attacks Palestine, it is American missiles that smash through Palestinian homes. And every year Israel receives several billion dollars from the United States - taxpayers money.
What lessons should we draw from this tragic conflict? Is it really impossible for Jewish people who suffered so cruelly themselves - more cruelly perhaps than any other people in history - to understand the vulnerability and the yearning of those whom they have displaced? Does extreme suffering always kindle cruelty? What hope does this leave the human race with? What will happen to the Palestinian people in the event of a victory? When a nation without a state eventually proclaims a state, what kind of state will it be? What horrors will be perpetrated under its flag? Is it a separate state that we should be fighting for or, the rights to a life of liberty and dignity for everyone regardless of their ethnicity or religion?
Palestine was once a secular bulwark in the Middle East. But now the weak, undemocratic, by all accounts corrupt but avowedly nonsectarian P.L.O., is losing ground to Hamas, which espouses an overtly sectarian ideology and fights in the name of Islam. To quote from their manifesto: "we will be its soldiers and the firewood of its fire, which will burn the enemies."
The world is called upon to condemn suicide bombers. But can we ignore the long road they have journeyed on before they have arrived at this destination? September 11, 1922 to September 11, 2002 - eighty years is a long time to have been waging war. Is there some advice the world can give the people of Palestine? Should they just take Golda Meir's suggestion and make a real effort not to exist?
In another part of the Middle East, September 11th strikes a more recent cord. It was on the 11th of September 1990 that George W. Bush, Sr., then President of the U.S., made a speech to a joint session of Congress announcing his government's decision to go to war against Iraq.
The U.S. government says that Saddam Hussein is a war criminal, a cruel military despot who has committed genocide against his own people. That's a fairly accurate description of the man. In 1988, Saddam Hussein razed hundreds of villages in northern Iraq, used chemical weapons and machine guns to kill thousands of Kurdish people. Today we know that that same year the U.S. government provided him with $500 million in subsidies to buy American farm products. The next year, after he had successfully completed his genocidal campaign, the U.S. government doubled its subsidy to $1 billion. It also provided him with high quality germ seed for anthrax, and helicopters and dual-use material that could be used to manufacture chemical and biological weapons. So it turns out that while Saddam Hussein was carrying out his worst atrocities, the U.S. and the U.K. governments were his close allies.
So what changed? In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. His sin was not so much that he had committed an act of war, but that he had acted independently, without orders from his master. This display of independence was enough to upset the power equation in the Gulf. So it was decided that Saddam Hussein be exterminated, like a pet that has outlived its owner's affection.
The first Allied attack on Iraq took place on January '91. The world watched the prime-time war as it was played out on T.V. (In India in those days you had to go to a five-star hotel lobby to watch CNN.) Tens of thousands of people were killed in a month of devastating bombing. What many do not know is that the war never ended then. The initial fury simmered down into the longest sustained air attack on a country since the Vietman War. Over the last decade American and British forces have fired thousands of missiles and bombs on Iraq. In the decade of economic sanctions that followed the war, Iraqi civilians have been denied food, medicine, hospital equipment, ambulances, clean water - the basic essentials.
About half a million Iraqi children have died as a result of the sanctions. Of them, Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, famously said, "It's a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it." "Moral equivalence" was the term that was used to denounce those of us who criticized the war on Afghanistan. Madeleine Albright cannot be accused of moral equivalence. What she said was just straightforward algebra.
A decade of bombing has not managed to dislodge Saddam Hussein, "the Beast of Baghdad". Now, almost 12 years on, President George Bush, Jr. has ratcheted up the rhetoric once again. He's proposing an all-out war whose goal is nothing short of a regime change. The New York Times says that the Bush administration is following, quote, "a meticulously planned strategy to persuade the public, the Congress, and the Allies of the need to confront the threat of Saddam Hussein." Andrew. H. Card, Jr., the White House Chief of Staff, described how the administration was stepping up its war plans for the fall, and I quote, "From a marketing point of view", he said, "you don't introduce new products in August." This time the catch-phrase for Washington's "new product" is not the plight of Kuwaiti people but the assertion that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. "Forget the feckless moralizing of peace lobbies", wrote Richard Perle, a former advisor to President Bush, "We need to get him before he gets us."
Weapons inspectors have conflicting reports of the status of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and many have said clearly that its arsenal has been dismantled and that it does not have the capacity to build one. However, there is no confusion over the extent and range of America's arsenal of nuclear and chemical weapons. Would the U.S. government welcome weapons inspectors? Would the U.K.? Or Israel?
What if Iraq does have a nuclear weapon, does that justify a pre-emptive U.S. strike? The U.S. has the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world and it's the only country in the world to have actually used them on civilian populations. If the U.S. is justified in launching a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, why, then any nuclear power is justified in carrying out a pre- emptive strike on any other. India could attack Pakistan, or the other way around. If the U.S. government develops a distaste for, say, the Indian Prime Minister, can it just "take him out" with a pre-emptive strike?
Recently the United States played an important part in forcing India and Pakistan back from the brink of war. Is it so hard for it to take its own advice? Who is guilty of feckless moralizing? Of preaching peace while it wages war? The U.S., which George Bush has called "the most peaceful nation on earth", has been at war with one country or another every year for the last fifty.
Wars are never fought for altruistic reasons. They're usually fought for hegemony, for business. And then of course there's the business of war.
Protecting its control of the world's oil is fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. government's recent military interventions in the Balkans and Central Asia have to do with oil. Hamid Karzai, the puppet President of Afghanistan installed by the U.S., is said to be a former employee of Unocal, the American-based oil company. The U.S. government's paranoid patrolling of the Middle East is because it has two-thirds of the world's oil reserves. Oil keeps America's engines purring sweetly. Oil keeps the Free Market rolling. Whoever controls the world's oil, controls the world's market. And how do you control the oil?
Nobody puts it more elegantly than The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman. In an article called, "Craziness Pays", he said, "The U.S. has to make it clear to Iraq and U.S. allies that...American will use force without negotiation, hesitation or U.N. approval." His advice was well taken. In the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in the almost daily humiliation the U.S. government heaps on the U.N. In his book on globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman says, and I quote, "The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist. McDonalds cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas...and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps." Perhaps this was written in a moment of vulnerability, but it's certainly the most succinct, accurate description of the project of corporate globalization that I have read.
After the 11th of September 2001 and the War Against Terror, the hidden hand and fist have had their cover blown - and we have a clear view now of America's other weapon - the Free Market - bearing down on the Developing World, with a clenched, unsmiling smile. The Task That Never Ends is America's perfect war, the perfect vehicle for the endless expansion of American imperialism. In Urdu, the word for Profit, as in "p-r-o-f-i-t", is fayda. Al Qaida means The Word, The Word of God, The Law. So, in India, some of us call the War Against Terror, Al Qaida versus Al Fayda - The Word versus The Profit (no pun intended.)
For the moment it looks as though Al Fayda will carry the day. But then you never know...
In the last ten years of unbridled Corporate Globalization, the world's total income has increased by an average of 2.5 percent a year. And yet the numbers of poor in the world has increased by 100 million. Of the top hundred biggest economies, 51 are corporations, not countries. The top 1 percent of the world has the same combined income as the bottom 57 percent and that disparity is growing. And now, under the spreading canopy of the War Against Terror, this process is being hustled along. The men in suits are in an unseemly hurry. While bombs rain down on us, and cruise missiles skid across the skies, while nuclear weapons are stockpiled to make the world a safer place, contracts are being signed, patents are being registered, oil pipe lines are being laid, natural resources are being plundered, water is being privatized, and democracies are being undermined.
In a country like India, the "structural adjustment" end of the Corporate Globalization project is ripping through people's lives. "Development" projects, massive privatization, and labor "reforms" are pushing people off their lands and out of their jobs, resulting in a kind of barbaric dispossession that has few parallels in history. Across the world, as the "Free Market" brazenly protects Western markets and forces developing countries to lift their trade barriers, the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer. Civil unrest has begun to erupt in the global village. In countries like Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Bolivia and India, the resistance movements against Corporate Globalization are growing. To contain them, governments are tightening their control. Protesters are being labeled "terrorists" and then being dealt with as such. But civil unrest does not only mean marches and demonstrations and protests against globalization. Unfortunately, it also means a desperate downward spiral into crime and chaos and all kinds of despair and disillusionment which as we know from history (and from what we see unspooling before our eyes), gradually becomes a fertile breeding ground for terrible things - cultural nationalism, religious bigotry, fascism and of course, terrorism.
All these march arm-in-arm with corporate globalization.
There is a notion gaining credence that the Free Market breaks down national barriers, and that Corporate Globalization's ultimate destination is a hippie paradise where the heart is the only passport and we all live happily together inside a John Lennon song. ("Imagine there's no country...") But this is a canard.
What the Free Market undermines is not national sovereignty, but democracy. As the disparity between the rich and poor grows, the hidden fist has its work cut out for it. Multinational corporations on the prowl for "sweetheart deals" that yield enormous profits cannot push through those deals and administer those projects in developing countries without the active connivance of State machinery - the police, the courts, sometimes even the army. Today Corporate Globalization needs an international confederation of loyal, corrupt, preferably authoritarian governments in poorer countries to push through unpopular reforms and quell the mutinies. It needs a press that pretends to be free. It needs courts that pretend to dispense justice. It needs nuclear bombs, standing armies, sterner immigration laws, and watchful coastal patrols to make sure that it's only money, goods, patents, and services that are being globalized - not the free movement of people, not a respect for human rights, not international treaties on racial discrimination or chemical and nuclear weapons, or greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, or god forbid, justice. It's as though even a gesture towards international accountability would wreck the whole enterprise.
Close to one year after the War against Terror was officially flagged off in the ruins of Afghanistan, in country after country freedoms are being curtailed in the name of protecting freedom, civil liberties are being suspended in the name of protecting democracy. All kinds of dissent are being defined as "terrorism". All kinds of laws are being passed to deal with it. Osama bin Laden seems to have vanished into thin air. Mullah Omar is supposed to have made his escape on a motorbike. (They could have sent TinTin after him.) [Laughter] The Taliban may have disappeared but their spirit, and their system of summary justice is surfacing in the unlikeliest of places. In India, in Pakistan, in Nigeria, in America, in all the Central Asian republics run by all manner of despots, and of course in Afghanistan under the U.S.-backed, Northern Alliance.
Meanwhile down at the mall there's a mid-season sale. Everything's discounted - oceans, rivers, oil, gene pools, fig wasps, flowers, childhoods, aluminum factories, phone companies, wisdom, wilderness, civil rights, eco-systems, air - all 4,600 million years of evolution. It's packed, sealed, tagged, valued and available off the rack. (No returns). As for justice - I'm told it's on offer too. You can get the best that money can buy.
Donald Rumsfeld said that his mission in the War Against Terror was to persuade the world that Americans must be allowed to continue their way of life. When the maddened king stamps his foot, slaves tremble in their quarters. So, standing here today, it's hard for me to say this, but "The American Way of Life" is simply not sustainable. Because it doesn't acknowledge that there is a world beyond America.
But fortunately, power has a shelf life. When the time comes, maybe this mighty empire will, like others before it, overreach itself and implode from within. It looks as though structural cracks have already appeared. As the War Against Terror casts its net wider and wider, America's corporate heart is hemorrhaging. For all the endless, empty chatter about democracy, today the world is run by three of the most secretive institutions in the world: The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, all three of which, in turn, are dominated by the U.S. Their decisions are made in secret. The people who head them are appointed behind closed doors. Nobody really knows anything about them, their politics, their beliefs, their intentions. Nobody elected them. Nobody said they could make decisions on our behalf. A world run by a handful of greedy bankers and C.E.O.'s whom nobody elected can't possibly last.
Soviet-style communism failed, not because it was intrinsically evil but because it was flawed. It allowed too few people to usurp too much power. Twenty-first century market-capitalism, American style, will fail for the same reasons. Both are edifices constructed by the human intelligence, undone by human nature.
The time has come, the Walrus said. Perhaps things will become worse and then better. Perhaps there's a small god up in heaven readying herself for us. Another world is not only possible, she's on her way. Maybe many of us won't be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


Today is cloudy. It stormed last night
and I watched through the window screen
as lightening braided across the sky, illuminating
the apartment buildings of el Cuidade de Mexico.

I imagined the rain catching on pieces of smog
as it pelts to the cement ground. Where does
a raindrop, a tear of Tlaloc, go in this city…
in these cracked cement mazes?
The trees, the grass, push up where
they can and call silently for the rain.

The people search out the pouring rain too,
opening roof-top cisterns and shedding jackets
to soak it up, to be reminded of the time when
this cement jungle was a shallow blue gem
of a lake in a green tangle of trees, a time
when the air was sweet and clear and the water
was even sweeterr.

Maybe it will storm again tonight and wash
away the cement. Maybe the lightening
will catch the buildings afire, the thunder
will shake the automobiles off the roads
and the building off their foundations.
Tlaloc will rise from the storm drains
and the temples with reassemble from
the rubble while maize, calabaza and frijoles
flourish in fertile fields and the lakes will refill
as the rivers flow and the population will shrink
as the sky clears, the sun sets and the moon glows
in the iridescent twinkle of a billion stars
in the shapes of as many ancient and new gods.