Monday, January 28, 2008

What i'm reading

I've been reading John Berger's work since i was a teenager and i'm surprised, as i read his newest book, how easily i seem to forget his profound influence me. I started this blog three years ago and one of my contributions that year was about guilt, inspired by my memory of Berger's 1972 essay Photographs of Agony. That essay forever altered the way i look at images both in the mass media and in general. I picked up Hold Everything Dear this weekend and am only a handful of pages along and already Berger's ideas are challenging my understandings of things.
I am perpetually disturbed by the use of the word terrorist and every time i hear it i imagine Orwell chuckling grimly. "Terrorist" is as pure an example of Newspeak (the fictional language Orwell created for his novel 1984) as exists today. It is blithely used by virtually every mass media publication or broadcast. And, like the vocabulary of Newspeak, it is designed to compel people to think in simple, totalitarian terms. Once we have labelled someone a "terrorist" we no longer have to think of them as human. And, sadly, i catch myself falling prey to this pervasive and evil piece of common sense. When i pause to reflect, i do wonder about the circumstances that drive people to the awful choices for which "terrorist" is a code. For surely these people once laughed as children, loved as brothers and sisters, dreamed of a better world. There is yet much to understand about the people we so quickly dismiss as "terrorists" and "fundamentalists" and Berger has some compelling thoughts on this which i leave you with:

A crucial question today is: what makes a world terrorist and, in extremity, what makes a suicide martyr? (I speak here of the anonymous volunteers: Terrorist Leaders are another story.) What makes a terrorist is, first, a form of despair. Or, to put it more accurately, it is a way of transcending and, by the gift of one’s own life, making sense of a form of despair.

This is why the term suicide is somewhat inappropriate, for the transcendence gives to the martyr a sense of triumph. Triumph over those he is supposed to hate? I doubt it. The triumph is over passivity, the bitterness, the sense of absurdity which emanate from a certain depth of despair.

From Seven Levels of Despair in Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance by John Berger (NY: Pantheon, 2007), pp. 9-10.


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris, always love your blog and love the way the world feels small when I am reminded of how many kindred spirits inhabit it. This year my final year high school students are performing Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, because we think the hysteria about witches and accusations is akin to the hysteria about terrorists. Our Muslim community has unfortunately suffered that hysteria. Once we chose the play we began to discover that it has been performed many times in the last couple of years in Melbourne and will be again this year. The collective unconscious at work perhaps! Niki

Chris cavanagh said...

Collective unconscious, indeed. I was giving my niece a lift to her friends and asked her about what she'd been reading in school. I was a bit surprised to learn that she'd read The Crucible. I was glad to learn that she liked it and understood and appreciated the history of it. It's both remarkable and sad how circumstances have made this once again such a timely play.

I'm glad to hear from you, Niki, and send you warm thoughts.