Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Hiroshima Trip, Post 1:The Radical Normal

This morning three different trips were organized for the visiting delegates so that they could visit the facilities where hibakusha or people affected by the nuclear blasts in Hiroshima are being cared for. There are still tens of thousands of hibakusha left in Japan, the youngest being 66 years old now. I along with delegates from Vietnam, Nigeria, Norway, Brazil, Nepal and Fiji visited a nursing home where 97 hibakusha from ages 66 -99 were being cared for. We got to meet some of them, visit their cafeteria, social hall and even see pictures of some of the regular activities and festivities they celebrate.

At the start of our visit we were given an overview of the work being done there by the superintendent. He spoke through a translator and as such, one always feels like you are watching a badly dubbed, constantly delayed movie. In this movie you politely look at the person speaking, as they speak, and nod politely even if you comprehend nothing of what is being said, and then you look to someone near them, who usually looks completely different and then you are informed (in a very different voice) what the other person was saying.

Throughout this meeting I got into the habit of writing while the superintendent was speaking and not looking up until the translator Mizuki was talking. At the end of his presentation, he made a comment which struck me like a bolt of lightning as I was writing, and wished that I had been looking up when I heard it translated. I heard the translator say it and immediately looked up, hoping to catch some trace of how it had been said, the body language or the facial expression of the superintendent as he uttered it. It was not a radical statement, but the context of who the statement was coming from was what struck me as so surreal.

“I hope that you will take the story and the message of the hibakusha back to your homes, in the hopes that there will be no more wars.”

As I said, this statement itself is not radical. I have heard this statement since coming to this conference stated hundreds of times, in a hundred different ways in literally a dozen languages. It is a core principle of this conference against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, that we take the messages of each other back to our separate homes and that we work towards promoting a culture of peace and ending all wars (especially nuclear ones). But I have been hearing this from people who do this sort of work and attempt to make these ideas realities in the world. For this to come from someone who a moment ago thought of as being just a normal manager of a facility full of old people with different forms of cancer and radiation related illness, was a true shock. Thinking back, neither he or the interpreter said these things with the usual sort of passion or vigor with which they are uttered, they both said them in polite, almost quiet and ordinary ways.

It was hard to figure out from that point, what exactly had shocked me so much about this moment. Was it the simple fact that he was making a point I didn’t expect him to? Was the intriguing aspect of this something from my prejudices or expectations alone? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that actually what was surprising to me was how powerful the normalness of the statement had been. That its power had not been the way we usually think of something like this as having power or force, through its uniqueness, its originality, the emotion and the passionate which is pumped into it, as if yelled into a crowd, which is meant to try and give it glue, to make it stick into the minds of those who hear it and give it life beyond its utterance, give it a place in the world in the minds of those who hear it. But here, that sentiment had been made in a different way, almost commonplace, an afterthought. He could have said something like, “have a nice day” or “it was a pleasure to meet all of you, I hope that you will advertise our facilities to others who may be in need of our services.” There was a casual, commonplaceness to his ending thought, which on the one hand irked me, but at the same time intrigued me.

I began to realize that the radicalness of this man and his statement was the very normalness of it. That it was not a voice in the wilderness, but a voice from an institution, and not just any voice, but this was probably actually meant to convey the message or the mission of his institution. That was what threw me off, that as the message of his institution it was not that we have great services, we take care of old people well, but rather that we hope that you take the stories of the people here everywhere you go so that there be no more wars.

Naturally this brings up the debate in various activist circles over whether there is more power being incorporated or unincorporated, formal or informal, stationary, situated or free and mobile. Not limiting yourself to a particular place, an office or not submitting to the requirements of some non-profit or government or NGO structure can be liberating, or at least give you the feeling of being more liberated from, the world and more independent to act, but at the minimum is gives the messages you articulate a different character.

One way of describing how people see the world is through notions of being and becoming. There are things which are, aren’t and things which used to be or might be. There are always strategic decisions to be made based on how much you want your message to mixed with those determinations. Or how much do you want in an ideological struggle for your message to be seen as something which is becoming or something which already is. The lovely little distinctions of something being inside or outside never really capture much, but are always inescapable in our lives as we attempt to navigate our identities, communities and politics. Do you want to be inside or outside is not something you can ever actually control on your own, no matter how pure you attempt to keep yourself.

Becoming institutionalized can take many different forms. It can mean accepting the rules of a larger system, opening up an office, creating a website, creating membership rules or even becoming a part of a government. Naturally it changes what your message is and how it is received; how it is interpreted, disseminated or ignored. The further one appears to incorporate or be incorporated into a system the greater the chance that you and your message will be accepted as normal, central or part of people’s notions of public life or importance. Whatever the government is, even if people loathe it or think it is the worst, whether as inept or corrupt or violently oppressive, people still always seem to find ways of giving it the an extra helping of “the benefit of the doubt” or in other words an extra layer of being. Even if they don’t explicitly trust it or believe in it, there is always a sort of implicit trust, a way in which because it is already there, there must be something necessary to it or essential to it, even if the only way I can articulate that is through the idea that whatever would replace it might be worse.

No matter what, if you are situated near that center of governance, the body of people or institutions which keep things together, you receive some special credibility or legitimacy. So even if you are the director of the government agency which is in charge of Rabbit Shaving, there is always a socio-political assumption that even if you are a pointless, useless and just plain stupid agenda with a stupid, pointless and ridiculous mandate, at least you have more legitimacy that some random group of Rabbit Shavers (with protest signs or petitions) out there in the world.

In Japan, the particular history there has led to the creation of certain “normal” public institutions or discursive formations which take on and disseminate radical messages of meanings for those from other contexts, but have the power of being normal and casual in Japan. Any ideological battle is always without end, there is never a point, no matter how much truth, justice, liberty or the world seems on your side, where you can completely win, where the fight for meaning and rhetorical position ends. That means that any ideological battle is always a fight for normalization, for the proposal of one side or one group to become the normal or the new terrain upon which any future battle will take place. This of course means that becoming government agencies or non-profits is not the only way to achieve this, but because of the way in which people intimate power or authority into things which they feel are rooted and full of existing being it is often a much sought after and much feared strategy.

US Congressman Dennis Kucinich has fought for years to try and propose and implement a Department of Peace for the US government. Something which would exist to signify so many things which are hardly radical at all, but from the perspective of the US government and its interests or intentions, are feared like the plague. Surrounding any talk of war or attacks or defense or nuclear war, there is always amorphous natural impulses to seek peace, dialogue or slow things down, and part of the power of any government, most especially that of the US is that those discussions remain illegitimate, things which people feel always through the hope of becoming, like another world that awaits us in the future, but not be seen as a mandate of being, a mandate of the present and how a government should act.

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