Friday, November 17, 2006

Secret Terror and the Conspiracy of Silence

One of the things I have learned in my long life is the power of rhetoric. Rhetoric is what politicians live by: "War on Terror", "Clash of Civilizations", "Crusade against evil", "War on Poverty," "We are here - the real Islamic front and the real Islamic opposition against Zionism, Communism, and imperialism" [Ayman Zawahiri]. But besides the turns of phrase, the gripping metaphors, there is another rhetorical form, silence. The world has been silent about slavery - the slaves once held in New York as well as those now, in our time, who are captured, abused, and whose labor produces goods bought by us on the global market.

My friend Sami Saddiqi has brought to my attention a book that has been around a good while that I have not faced: Kevin Bales, 2004. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. [[2nd ed.] Berkeley: University of California.] Everyone should read it, for like so many practices going on in our time, it exposes a side of ourselves as human beings the we can hardly bear to see. We would rather cover it with silence.

Here is an example of a practice we would rather not see or talk about [from a Human Rights Report on Pakistan, reproduced in the book, p 157]:

["Salman" was] a Punjabi man in this thirties [who] did not get along with the jamadar at a brick kiln near Kasur, as the jamadar beat him on any excuse. He had a number of scars from this treatment. Once, in June 1993, after a disagreement with the jamadar, he was beaten unconscious and then locked in a small shed with no food for three days. After the third day he was brought out in front of the other brick kiln workers where he was hung upside down by a rope and beaten with a long stick. The jamadar laughingly told the other workers that this would be their punishment if they disobeyed him.

If the practices of human beings can be "read" as texts conveying meaning, a point we now are used to making, then what is the rhetorical force of this practice, viewed as a text? It can hardly be anything other than terrorism. The whole system could not work without terror.

The Bible says that at the end of time, the merchants of the world will weep for the destruction of "Babylon," the world's great emporium where among other things they have been trading slaves. I always thought, "It cannot be; this is the modern world." But here it is: A real practice, in many places around the world (Bales tells us about France, Thailand, Mauritania, Brazil, India, and Pakistan). And everywhere it is covered by the rhetoric of denial, and silence.

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