Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Rachel Corrie event

Yesterday, our colleagues Cynthia Mitchell (Journalism) and Jay Ball (Theater) organized an event around a reading of selections from the play, "My Name is Rachel Corrie," to kick off our campus celebrations of First Amendment week.  Rachel's parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, spoke eloquently about their daughter's life and the work of the Foundation they have established in her memory. Three skilled students in our Theater BFA program, directed by Jay, performed scenes from the work.  The play, in Rachel's own words, is usually performed as a one woman show, but in this instance Jay had the lines move  fluidly between the three young women performers  At one point, two of the actresses accidentally spoke over one another, which struck me as quite as quite appropriate, given the play's evocation of Rachel's own overlapping, at times messy, internal dialogue. As in the past, I was particularly struck by the line in which the young Rachel ponders her own frequent shifts in point of view, and wonders if that is what life is--"a new draft for every day"?

Cindy spoke of the famous incident, a month before her daughter's death, in which Rachel was photographed burning a child's drawing of the American flag. As Cindy noted, it is important to understand the context of this event. This was on the day of the international mass protests against the US invasion of Iraq, at time when it was vital that members of the International Solidarity Movement build a degree of trust with the local Palestinian community; Rachel had refused the initial request to burn an image of the Israeli flag on the grounds she would never desecrate a Star of David; and she had penciled in the strips of the "flag' the names of the US military-industrial corporations most likely to benefit from the coming war, precisely to demonstrate that not all of America was equally complicit in the coming war.  (As my colleague Geraldine O'Mahoney noted, these nuances were often reported in European coverage of the incident, but were often left out in US coverage.) At the time, some US rightwing commentators asserted that having committed this flag-burning act of treason Rachel "deserved" her death at hands of an IDF bulldozer driver.  As Anne Cubilie and Craig Corrie remarked, such representations entirely effaced the enormous courage required to engage in sustained non-violent protest and international solidarity in human rights struggles.

In my remarks on the panel, I riffed a bit on the point, made repeatedly by Noam Chomsky, that freedom of expression is repressed in the US not primarily through governmental action, but through more subtle mechanism of market-oriented mass media conglomerates, and the even more subtly through the organization of seeming “common sense” in modern American culture. The Amnesty International report on human rights atrocities during the recent IDF operations in Gaza, for example, is freely available to all on line, but was hardly reported in mainstream US coverage.

As a case of point of the ideological operations of cultural-mediated repression, I returned to the flag burning incident and its circulation in the US mediascape.  The incident, it occurred to me, stands in striking  contrast to the performance we had just seen. At stake in these two moments are two very different modes of envisioning  relations between the Living and the Dead; they exemplify what we might call the Nationalist and Humanistic visions of memorialization, two alternate modes of imagining symbolic exchange between the Living and the Dead.  The first  tends to represses free expression, while the second is potentially liberatory.

In their book,  Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag, Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle argue that in modern American civil religion, the Stars and Stripes has been sacralized as the reborn soul of the martyred soldier who has fallen in battle, through whose blood sacrifice in war the entire nation is regenerated.  This has the unfortunate effect of homogenizing the dead, rendering them all identical in a generic fashion, erasing all traces of their complexity and individuality.  We saw this process at play in the weeks after 9-11 in lower Manhattan, as the haunting mini-memorials to the lost, in the form of photocopied photographs of missing loved ones, were gradually replaced with American flags, a process that marked the nationalization of the Dead, turning them into a nationalist pantheon of martyrs. This ritual process of "recruiting" the homogenized Dead was critical in the ideological run up to the Iraq war. It was also consistent with the public demonization by the Right of Rache, as if, in burning the child's drawing of the flag, she had desecrated the memory of the 9-11 victims and American military servicemen.

How different from this rather cult-like mechanical ritualization of the generic Dead, is the play "My Name is Rachel Corrie", which enables a very different dynamic relationship to emerge between the Living and the Dead, between the living audience and the lost young woman whom we come to know.  The play bravely complexifies a particular person, in all her contradictions, tensions, with multiple, experimental voices, sometimes even bursting out into song and dance. Hence, the brilliance of staging the play through three activists, allowing them even to talk over one another.  The text edited by Alan Rickman in this respect is reminiscent of The Diary of Anne Frank, allowing us, in effect, to listen in on the process of interior psycho-social development. We hear a changing voice governed by a profound ethical sense, but protean, in process, in continuous revision. In Rachel’s own words, we hear life being lived as “a new draft for every day.”

And that at the end of the day is what we fight for each day in defending the First Amendment (both in its US constitutional form and as a yet-to-be-realized global ideal)-- the right not to be governed by a singular homogenous reductive vision of the Living or of the Dead. The right to exist in a state of contradiction and of experimentation, the right to listen, against all odds, for those small unacknowledged voices in productive tension with one another.  The right, so beautifully demonstrated in the play, to acknowledge nightmares and humor in the same line, to profoundly disagree with others and even with oneself. For the right in Rachel’s words, to live life in a constant  process of becoming. To live a “new draft for every day.”

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