[From 14 June 2010]
As you may have noticed if you’ve been hanging around here for any amount of time, I don’t talk much about current events.
Partly because this blog is mainly autobiographical — about my own lived experience — and I haven’t been involved in many “current events” lately. Also, news consumption has been extremely low for me in the past year — on purpose.
Despite my personal media fast, some major happenings (mostly US-centric) inevitably come to my attention. Oscar Grant’s murder. The bp oil spill. Arizona’s racist immigration law. The Gaza aid flotilla killings.
Still, when I am trying to talk about these issues, I don’t try to thoroughly research and analyze them the way I might have two or three years ago. Not that there’s anything wrong with research and analysis: both good and important. But here, for now, I’m focusing on deepening my understanding not of politics, per se, but of suffering. In order to understand suffering, it’s important to be aware of what’s happening around us — including politics and all the harm that’s constantly happening. But there’s more to it than that, I think.
I’ve broken down sobbing on the job two times in my life. Both times had to do with power and racism. Both times might be characterized, from an outside perspective, as overreactions to trivial events.
The second instance was last Sunday: I had just watched The Last King of Scotland, the award-winning historical film about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Why was I watching a movie at work? Because I work at a community center, where a handful of us also live, and what with being on call 24 hours a day, with hardly a trace of a 9-to-5 schedule, there’s a lot of fluidity between down-time and work time. So Abby T. and I are sitting in the library living room adjoining the kitchen and bathroom, watching this movie, and by the end when it gets really intense and then the finishing captions tell of the 300,000 Ugandans massacred under Amin’s regime, and the images show real footage of him and of the people of Uganda celebrating his overthrow, and looking at his face I feel like I can see inside his head and heart because of all we’ve just witnessed in the film (thanks to a great screenwriting adaptation and Whitaker’s unforgettable performance), it is just too much for me, and I slowly but surely melt into a quaking, gasping, curled-up ball in the overstuffed armchair. And my boss and older co-workers arrive to the library-and-adjoining-bathroom-and-kitchen and I am in this state and one person kisses the top of my head and puts his hand on a shoulder for a moment, then takes it away, and everyone is quiet for what feels like a long time.
Part of the film’s tremendous impact, for me, came from its brilliant, subtle transition from superficial entertainment to deadly serious historical drama. It comes through not only in the slowly unfolding revelations of the dictatorship’s atrocity (from a populus cheering and dancing with Amin at the beginning of his presidency, to the photos of mass graves for his opposition a few years later), but also through the narrative of the (white, naturally) supporting character: Scotsman (and fellow anti-British) Dr. Garrigan, Amin’s hand-picked personal physician.
Dante-like in his descent into deeper and deeper layers of hellish reality, Dr. Garrigan begins his journey to Africa with a game — literally spinning a globe, shutting his eyes, and vowing to travel to the first place his finger lands. Thunk: Uganda. The warm images and irritating clichés of the first few minutes of the movie lull us into a sense of security and righteousness. African children laughing, yelling, and running after a car on the side of a road, with a bubbly World-Music track in the background. The white doctor landing in the country practically dick-first, fucking nameless Ugandan women, pursuing the white wife of a British medic, and later accidentally impregnating Kay (Kerry Washington), the beautiful third wife of Amin himself. And his serendipitous appointment to personal physician to the President, based on a natural affinity between the two ‘honest, charming’ men — and clearly an ego boost for the young doctor.
But the fantasy holds a nightmare behind it, and the doctor soon finds himself party to more harm than healing: inextricably embraced into Amin’s murderous regime.
And this is where the beauty and tragedy of the film emerged for me, like a gradual choke-hold. Everyone is wrong, everyone is partly right, and it hurts me to watch all of them harming and being harmed.
I may bristle to see a white man calling an older Black man a “child,” but it is true that the President is childlike in his fundamental insistence on getting his way and eliminating those who would chastise him.
On the other hand, Amin’s deadly paranoia is not totally unwarranted: it is true that Western interests want to maintain control of Uganda’s resources, and won’t hesitate to paint African leaders as savage and barbaric in order to justify their own imperialist interventions. And his desire for control is understandable and sympathetic, within that post-colonial framework. Finally having the means to direct his own destiny, and the destiny of his people.
Of course, a chief danger inherent in the job of dictator is conflating ‘your people’ with yourself. Thinking that by protecting yourself and your ideas, at any cost, you are protecting your people as well — when in reality you are slaughtering them.
My point here, friends, is despair, and my point is also respect.
Whitaker’s performance made so clear to me how, given all the traumas endured under colonial regime, a people might naturally emerge from imperialist control, turn around and inflict gross atrocities on another group, or even on themselves, or the ones they claim to love. This contagion of violence, and of fear, is strong and tragic and human.
And yet, for me, the contagion of hatred doesn’t make Amin a monster, but a friend of mine who is suffering immensely.
And because he is a friend, I respect him.
And as East Bay Meditation Center teacher Larry Yang recently reminded me, the root of “respect” means “to look again.”
So I try to look again, and again, and again.
To see the pain, suffering, and ordinary human confusion in those who commit violence against themselves and others.
Like Dr. Garrigan, whose machismo and egoism crumble when he is tortured at the hands of the approving father figure he’d been seeking all along: Amin.
Like so many Israeli soldiers, raised and steeped in an atmosphere of fear, hauntedness, and militarism, whose paranoia around anti-Semitism echoes Amin’s paranoia around imperialist paternalism toward Africa: rooted in a very true and very harmful history.
Like (and I am not making this up, people) Dorothy Mae,* a gregarious transgender nurse and regular at the Fools who just now, as I was writing this, came flying into my room, a gash over her eye and blood all over her face, crying, hollering, drunk out of her mind, having beaten up her lover and a number of bystander residents at the hotel where she lives. I’m going back to jail, she said, clutching me so tight that for the first time in this home, I started to feel afraid for myself.
“Did you think this was a game, Nicholas?” Amin asks Dr. Garrigan, minutes before ordering his men to torture him in the back room of an airport. “Going to Africa to play white man with the natives?”
“This is real. We are real.”
Yes. But not because of the force wielded, or the nation controlled.
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*Name has been changed.