Monday, November 17, 2008

On Erasing Culture

I have been thinking about the relationship between war and the elimination of “difference” for a number of years now, especially in light of what happened to Italian American culture when home-front restrictions and internments were imposed on 600,000 Italian immigrants during World War II. I have written elsewhere about how this “shaming” of an entire culture affects cultural retention. A recent reading of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2007) has given new breadth and power to these thoughts. In particular, Klein’s description of the plans and machinations of Paul Bremer on behalf of the Bush Administration and its corporate cronies in Iraq makes plain that, far from being random, the attempt to debase the culture of an invaded country, and replace it with an entirely new culture is part of an overall scheme with clear methods in mind, and well-articulated and profitable end states envisioned.  
            First, it is necessary to understand what Klein posits as the conceptual notions underlying such plans. Briefly, they are the notions advanced by one of the most strangelovian psychologists ever to don a doctorate, Dr. Ewen Cameron of Canada. Cameron, supported for years by a CIA which found great promise in his ideas for their growing programs of torture, was the one who initiated the program he called “de-patterning” as a method of “curing” his mental patients. His idea was that by using electroshock therapy and isolation boxes, he could interrupt a patient’s “time and space image” by upsetting both sensory input (isolation) and memory (electroshock). This was meant to break down an individual so that he could be regressed to an infantile state, and then remade on a better mental model. To accomplish this “rejuvenation,” Cameron would often administer shock treatments as often as twice a day for thirty days—sometimes administering as many as 360 electric shocks to a single patient’s brain.  As to the success of such “therapy,” a study by his own institute, the Allen Institute in Canada, found that 75% of his former patients were worse off after treatment than before.
            Despite this dismal record, neither the CIA—in designing its own torture program—nor the Bush Administration—in applying it to whole countries—seems to have been discouraged. Rather, they found the idea of de-patterning and re-patterning on a newer and brighter template quite captivating. This is revealed by what Klein describes of the American plan for Iraq. The plan was first to shock the Iraqi people with, naturally, “schock and awe” aerial bombing, follow it with subsequent culture shocks, and then remake the whole country’s economy on a fresh “free-market” model. (This plan, not incidentally, was also used in countries such as Chile, the former Soviet Union, and many others, but nowhere as purely and savagely as in Iraq.) As Klein puts it, “the initial bombardment was designed to erase the canvas on which the model (corporatist) nation could be built.” Indeed, the comparisons to shock therapy and sensory deprivation are explicit: “the bombing was designed to take out the eyes (electricity) and ears (phone system) of Baghdad...the entire city was (thus) shackled and hooded. Next it was stripped” (pp 333-35). The stripping, of course, took the form of allowing 80% of Iraq’s National Museum to be ransacked. This theft of Iraq’s soul (and since Baghdad is considered the mother of Arab culture, of soul of the entire Arab world) was as much a part of the plan as the subsequent pillaging of state property. In this way, not only was Baghdad’s cultural heritage (the oldest in the civilized world) raped, but its public sector, once the finest in the entire Middle East, was also dismantled. Incredibly, Bremer and the Bush administration actually believed that they were bringing something superior to these deprived desert rats. For as Klein points out, in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq, interrogators used “Pringles” as a way to soothe prisoners, thinking that this American high-tech junk food would amply compensate them for the torture they endured. This was the plan for Iraq as well: “terrorize the entire country, deliberately ruin its infrastructure, do nothing while its culture and history are ransacked, and then make it all ok with an unlimited supply of cheap household appliances and imported junk food” (p. 339). And so, almost immediately after he arrived, Bremer declared that Iraq was “open for business,” and proceeded to institute a series of proclamations to totally privatize Iraq’s 200 state companies, invite American corporate cronies in to share in the bonanza, lower taxes for them to 15%, and of course, put millions of Iraqis out of work. And best of all, foreign investors could take 100% of their Iraqi profits out of the country. In return, Iraqis would get a Pringle-rich economy and culture: Burger Kings, cheap consumer products, American entertainment and values.
            We all know by now how well this worked. It led directly to what American officials called the “insurgency.” In truth, the insurgents were the Iraqi people saying “no” to the theft of their country. But here, the lesson is not in the results, but rather in the paradigm. The paradigm, I believe, is the wiping out or erasure of cultures—be it the culture of a nation conquered in war, the culture of a nation with whom the United States wishes to “trade,” or the culture of groups of people the United States wishes to assimilate—in order to soften them for the remodeling that is desired. Examples from U.S. history abound.
            The first one that springs to mind is Native American culture. Just last night, a KQED program about the Navajo, “The Long Walk: Tears of the Navajo,” featured unforgettable photos of Indians at the boarding schools they were forced to attend, their hair cut short, their faces grim and chiseled, their bodies clothed not in traditional attire but in tight-fitting military uniforms. Administrators were quoted as saying they had to erase all sign of the Indians’ previous culture, including the languages they were forbidden to utter, in order to remake them as good Americans.
            The same was done to African slaves brought to the pre-Civil War South. Families were separated, all signs of their previous culture were extirpated, and all forms of cultural grouping or cultural retention were suppressed in order to avoid any possibility of organized resistance to the gruesome existence the southern economy required of its slaves.
            What is not so well accepted is the extent to which this same process applies to ordinary immigrants. This is probably due to the fact that most immigrants, in order to improve their economic or political lot, voluntarily make the wrenching decision to leave their homelands and settle in the United States. But the truth lurks beneath the surface. Those who expect to thrive in the United States quickly learn that retention of the old culture carries with it certain disadvantages—disabilities associated with foreign ways of speaking, foreign ways of viewing the world, foreign customs concerning the debts owed to families or friends or co-villagers. In other words, they learn about culture shock.
            It is war, however, and the culture shock it brings, which paints the dynamics of culture abandonment into high relief. In this, the Italian immigrants during WWII are a good type case. On Dec. 8, 1941, those who had not yet obtained full American citizenship were classified by Executive Order 2527 as “enemy aliens.” This meant that their rights were forfeited: they could be rounded up, searched, arrested, and deported with no further authority. They could be restricted as to travel and possessions, as well as excluded from certain areas. In California, this exclusion took place when the Department of Justice set up “prohibited zones” from which all enemy aliens had to evacuate: along the coast, inside San Francisco Bay, and near sensitive installations. And of course, the enclaves called “Little Italies” (the Italian immigrants, up to that point, called them “colonies”), where Italian was spoken, and where Italian culture and mores more or less thrived, were investigated and raided and searched and kept under suspicion. “Don’t Speak the Enemy’s Language” warned a poster, and thousands of families and commercial establishments suppressed their native tongue in response, many of them forever.
            The most vivid expression of this cultural suppression came in May of 1942 during the Assembly hearings on UnAmerican Activities in California held in San Francisco by what came to be known as the Tenney Committee. There, an exchange made quite clear what many in government had in mind for these Italian colonies: the erasure of their traditional culture. It came in an exchange between committee-member Kellems and a witness from the Italian community itself, Gilbert Tuoni:
TUONI: As I was saying to you before, gentlemen of this committee, the best thing is to close the papers, close the Italian broadcasting, reorganize or close the Italian organizations, they are poison—this is the time that the Italians should come into the American family…
KELLEMS: It is your opinion—or rather, I should say conviction—that there are a special group of people whose culture and background is so different from ours, and I think we do admit it is radically different—
TUONI: (Interrupting) Yes.
KELLEMS: (Continuing)—and it will only be possible for them to forget that only if they will enter the American way of life—
TUONI: (Interrupting) They will.
KELLEMS: (Continuing)—and I believe they will. Is it not your feeling that instead of persisting generation after generation teaching these things, creating a Little Italy here, that they will only find their own happiness and strength by forgetting…?
            Thus did the Tenney Committee put into words what the federal government had already put into action: Italian Americans had to prove their loyalty. The way to do that was to FORGET—forget what they knew, forget who they were. In short, the wartime provided a shock to the Italian community powerful enough to induce them to regress—to forget the culture they had grown up with once and for all—and then replace it with American culture and values. And though for Italian and German and Japanese immigrants, the war with their mother countries provided an exceptionally dramatic occasion for cultural erasure, the same is true, to a lesser and slower degree perhaps, for all immigrants to the United States. Forget what you were; become all you can be, i.e., American. 
            The question that has always haunted this paradigm is: why? Other than bigots, who benefits, and how, from a cultural makeover? Naomi Klein’s description of the shock doctrine provides the answer: Pringles. Pringles, as used by the U.S. military, symbolizes and essentializes the program. First, when someone retains and remembers and clings to the values of his own culture, he maintains a structure for resistance. Knowing who he is and what he stands for, can strenghten the courage to resist. If he can remain in a group of like-minded people, that resistance will be even more powerful. If, on the other hand, he can be de-patterned, and re-patterned on a new model, and then isolated from comrades, he will be merely an individual, on his own in opposing overpowering force. He will become malleable. He can then be re-educated in the ways and mores and values of the new culture. Pringles. He can be induced, in short, to believe that being a consumer is the key to the highest human values. To be able to buy an endless array of consumer goods and services—TV sets bigger and better than all others, cars that symbolize status, homes and clothes and foods that mimic the highest social strata—is to approach the summit of human happiness, the reason for which humans are born. And those who produce these “goods,” those who reckon the health of a culture by the always accelerating Gross Domestic Product that measures how many more useless needs are created, smile in the background, their profits intact, their share of the GDP growing ever larger.
            In sum, as long as the populace has been stripped of all resistance to such a hijacking of the human drive for ultimate good, as long as it can be diverted from any notion of sensory or cultural or mental recovery, as long as it can be convinced that its well-being depends on its continually hyped-up desire for newer and glitzier toys, the profitable game can go on. For those in on the game, the erasure of culture is a negligible price to pay.
Lawrence DiStasi

No comments: