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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Human Acts and Why Your Excuse is Crap

Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughtered - is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable? - Han Kang, Human Acts

I probably don't have any jokes to write today, so I'm sorry if you clicked on this post in hopes for a break from the scary stuff out there. Some days I don't have it in me. This morning on a long drive for work I listened to This American Life, as every white person who has glasses like mine are required to do, and I just got so mad. In the beginning of the episode, Ira Glass is sitting in on a meeting where Chicago immigrants are being given advice on how to deal with immigration officers. They are told certain phrases, and asked to repeat them back. One is "I do not consent to the search of these premises." In the recording, you hear a very small voice near Ira say, "I do not consent to the search of these promises."

That little voice just crushed my heart. This little girl in a room full of over a hundred people has to deal with the potential reality that her family will be ripped apart. If she was born in the United States and her parents were not, she may end up staying with strangers or distant relatives while her parents are forced to return to their country. Or, she may need to leave her school and live in a country in which she has never set foot. She has to learn about things like "power of attorney," and "legal guardians."

I think I've covered the immigration thing a lot, so I don't know if I have to discuss it further. Regardless of anyone's opinions on how it should work, the fact that a young girl has to fit in her worldview that her dad may go to work one day and not come back, or get detained just after dropping her off at school is messed up. Or that she may live for months in an overcrowded detention center, or that her older sister who is on a scholarship at a prestigious university may be pulled out of class or detained on the way. My kids worry that they won't get enough time playing the new Zelda game.

I felt powerless and useless and despondent. Those aren't normal feelings for me. I have a little mantra that I repeat to myself that I have to choose to be an optimist every day, but it's really multiple times a day. Sometimes it's multiple times an hour. This story caught me just at the wrong moment and I'll be darned if I didn't just about lose it. It's probably because last night I finished Human Acts, by Han Kang.

The thing I think about every time a new headline makes me feel awful is how precarious everything is. People have the capacity to do absolutely astonishing acts of goodness. I seek this out every way I can. I'm consistently amazed by just the day-to-day work that people do that is inspiring and great and to them it's just their job. But also, you guys, people can be terrible. I don't even want to link the articles, you've seen them.

Every day someone is doing something awful both abroad and in our own towns. Each level of awful is duly categorized by journalists quietly cataloguing the depravity of man while we all argue about whether the new Netflix show is really good or just kind of good. It's minor and stupid, like American college kids in Cancun being racist. Or it's unbearably awful, like kidnapping and massacres in Nigeria and the completely avoidable starvation of children in Yemen.

Human Acts spends a lot of time on the fringes of the May 18, 1980 Democratic Uprising in Gwanju, South Korea. It's not a history book; it's not trying to tell you everything that happened. It assumes that the reader, like the author, grew up around it and recognizes 5-18 as a date that anyone would immediately recognize without any other information. The government's horrible response and the public's response is credited as the turning point that led to South Korean democracy. A quick glance at an encyclopedia article probably gives you the context you need.

In the book we see the uprising from a variety of viewpoints, beginning with 15-year-old Dong-ho, a real boy the author learned about after having lived in his house after his family had moved away. Dong-ho exemplifies a feeling of duty, one of the human acts the title refers to, when searching for the body of his best friend. In fact, the entire book follows bodies. What does a government do with the corpses that pile up around them as they try to subdue a populace that is in active revolt? How does it dispose of the dead, often unarmed citizens that soldiers have bludgeoned, shot, or tortured to death in cities and suburbs?

Dong-ho begins to volunteer as a helper for families looking for their loved ones. He mans a clipboard in the University gymnasium. A gym filled with the dead in various stages of decomposition, a candle lit at the foot of every body. He pulls back the cloths on the ones too gruesome to view unless specifically requested. Little heroic Dong-ho watches the faces of the bereaved when they either finally find the person they are looking for, or perhaps worse, are forced to continue their search.
Conscience, the most terrifying thing in the world.
The day I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of my fellow civilians, staring down the barrels of the soldiers' guns, the day the bodies of those first two slaughtered were placed in a handcart and pushed at the head of the column, I was startled to discover an absence inside myself: the absence of fear. I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean... the sublime enormity of a single heart pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it.
Bodies are seen everywhere, in a wheelbarrow being pushed in front of a busload full of young women with megaphones, protesting the Butcher, Chun Doo-Hwan. They lie on the side of the road.
Then I saw them, lying on a patch of grass by the side of the road. They just looked like they were asleep, at first. Two students in jeans and college sweaters, with a yellow banner laid across their chests as if they'd both been holding up an end. The letters had been done in thick Magic Marker, so I could read it even from the inside of the truck. END MARTIAL LAW.
They are stacked in the backs of pickup trucks as soldiers drive from location to location to pile them up. In one story, the soul of one protester struggles to maintain contact with his body, losing track of it as more corpses are piled on top. Students sacrifice the blood of their own bodies to supplement the loss in others. Mothers identify their sons and daughters.

The dead are not the only issue Kang addresses, but the empty survivors. The ones who were captured and tortured. Starved. Violated. Humiliated.
At that moment, I realized what all this was for. The words that this torture and starvation was intended to elicit. We will make you realize how ridiculous it was, the lot of you waving the national flag and singing the national anthem. We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals.
Many years later, when South Korea enjoys a freer democracy, these people still exist, like the bodies of the slain, as a constant unfortunate reminder. A young boy who inspired one character in an especially difficult time finds it impossible to function in the subsequent peace and ends up in a psychiatric hospital after violent episodes. Leaders of the uprising later drink themselves to death.
 Before, we used to have a kind of glass that couldn't be broken. A truth so hard and clear it might as well have been made of glass. So when you think about it, it was only when we were shattered that we proved we had souls. That what we really were was humans made of glass.
In 1997, many of the victims were reinterred in a memorial cemetery. In 2000 a human rights prize was established to remember the events. The man the government identified as the main instigator, Kim Dae-jung, who was sentenced to death instead became the second democratically elected president. Nobody talks about the soldiers, though. It seems interesting that rarely do anyone talk about them in these cases. We know victims' names and stories, but the perpetrators of horrific crimes under the banner of their country seem to slip back into life. Are they haunted? Or do they excuse their actions as "just doing their job?"
And even now thirty years have gone by, on the anniversaries of your and your father's death, I find myself troubled when I watch your brother straighten up after bowing over the offerings. The thin line of his lips, the stoop of his shoulders, the flecks of white in his hair. It's the soldiers, not him, that your death should have weighted on, so why did he grow so old before his time, so much quicker than all his friends? Is he still troubled by thoughts of revenge? Whenever I think this, my heart sinks.
Here's an article that I can't stop thinking about. What Ever Happened to All The Old Racist Whites in Those Civil Rights Photos? They're somewhere, right? Every white person who was caught on camera beating black men and women for the color of their skin went on to live their lives after that photo. And imagine the countless people who committed worse atrocities and weren't photographed. Did they just stop being racist when the law changed? Or do they just meld back into society, their predilections unknown.

There seems to be a percentage of our population, in our communities and schools and neighborhoods, who given the chance and maybe the hint of approval from people in powerful positions, will do terrible things. They are not a "product of their time," or "from a different era." They are not "just following orders." In that article, there's a picture of young white people who are getting drinks poured on their heads because they ate at the same counter as people of color. They got it. As long as someone, somewhere knows it's wrong, your excuse is crap.
There were paratroopers who carried the wounded on their backs all the way to the hospital and set them down on the steps before hastening back to their posts. There were soldiers who, when the order was given to fire on the crowd, pointed the barrels of their guns up in to the air so they wouldn't hit anyone. When the soldiers formed a wall in front of the corpses lined up outside the Provincial Office, blocking them from the view of the foreign news cameras, and gave a rousing chorus of an army song, there was one of their number who kept his mouth conspicuously shut.