Ariel Dorfman on the struggle for America’s soul

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As Ariel Dorfman wrote in an essay collected in his new book Other Septembers, Many Americas, sometime before September 11th — 1973, not 2001 — he took to the streets of Santiago with other Chilean demonstrators crying out, “It can’t happen here!” But, of course, it did happen there on that very September 11th. The head of the Chilean military Gen. Augusto Pinochet, with U.S. encouragement and support, took over the country, crushed the opposition, destroyed Salvador Allende’s socialist government, and created a military/police state. Yes, it happened there. It could even happen here.

In fact, it’s an irony that, while the issue of “the fall of the Republic” continues to be of great concern to anti-imperial conservatives, it’s proved less so for the anti-imperial left, many of whom perhaps believe that the American Republic has long since been ground into the dust, if it ever existed. Well, as the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve lost until you actually lose it. Ariel Dorfman, who once lost everything, knows. (In this light, I recommend the Nation magazine’s endorsement of John Kerry for president. Its second half offers a chilling account of the factor’s that might indeed lead to the final shredding of the American Republic in a Bush second term.)

Dorfman’s essay below approaches this subject from a more optimistic perspective. In fact, it seems to me to strike just the right note, acknowledging not only the losses and disasters of the last three years, but the recent upsurge of creative opposition in this country and, looking beyond the elections, what it may mean for our future. After all, whether John Kerry or George Bush wins, we’ll need a growing antiwar movement led, at least in part, by the military families of our soldiers in Iraq, by returned vets, and perhaps even by soldiers in Iraq. Here, for instance, is a letter that appeared this week in the New York Times by the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq. It catches the spirit of the moment:

“To the Editor:

“‘Scary Ads Take Campaign to a Grim New Level’ (front page, Oct. 17) cites my Real Voices ad about the death in Iraq of my son Casey as one of many ‘scary’ campaign ads this year. Trust me, the families of soldiers who serve under President Bush’s reckless leadership experience things far scarier than seeing a crying mother on television.

“Scary is the sound of an unexpected knock on the door in the middle of the day.

“Scary is hearing that yet another young soldier – or several – died today, and not knowing whether that’s your child they’re talking about.

“‘Scary Ads Take Campaign to a Grim New Level’ (front page, Oct. 17) cites my Real Voices ad about the death in Iraq of my son Casey as one of many ‘scary’ campaign ads this year. Trust me, the families of soldiers who serve under President Bush’s reckless leadership experience things far scarier than seeing a crying mother on television.

“Scary is the sound of an unexpected knock on the door in the middle of the day.

“Scary is hearing that yet another young soldier – or several – died today, and not knowing whether that’s your child they’re talking about.

“And for me, scary was coming home one day last April from a walk with my dogs to find three Army officers waiting in my living room. Compared with that, you think my campaign ad is scary?

“Cindy Sheehan
Vacaville, Calif., Oct. 20, 2004”

Now (to take a turn in another direction), for a little story about Ariel Dorfman, essayist, novelist, playwright, cultural critic, poet, activist, and sane human being. I met him in the spring of 1980 soon after he arrived in the United States. He had already been in exile from Pinochet’s Chile for seven years. I was an editor at Pantheon Books when one day he swept into my office, tall and exuberant, with his youngest son in a stroller. At the time, I knew his name only because it sat next to that of a man named Armand Mattelart on the cover of How to Read Donald Duck, an account — both Marxist and amusing — the two had written for the Allende government on the impact of Disney comics in the Third World. Soon after we began to talk, he launched into a critique of Babar, the French elephant whose adventures were chronicled for children by Jean de Brunhoff. I was particularly interested because de Brunhoff’s books had been icons of my childhood.

Ariel described vividly the way de Brunhoff in his elegant, oversized picture books had tortured history into the shape of a colonial tale that fit well with the French imperial mission civilatrice. He was dazzling and convincing. And yet, as I listened, I felt a certain sadness. Who, after all, could look at de Brunhoff’s monkey village with its shops and restaurants hanging like little submarines from the trees, or the mermaids who inhabited his offshore islands, or those vast painted elephant butts, which unforgettably sent a whole army of terrified Rhinos into retreat, without mourning the fact that these might now be exiled from the child’s world?

Finally, I asked hesitantly, “So what do you do with your sons and Babar?” He looked at me with astonishment — because Ariel is a bit larger than life, he did a genuine double take — and then responded as if this were the only conceivable answer in our world or any other, “I read Babar to them.” Believe me, you recognize sanity when it stares you in the face; you recognize the kind of impurity that makes a decent world possible, that makes life worth the bother. I decided at that moment to publish him. And I did. His first two books in English.

His newest book, Other Septembers, Many Americas (for which I wrote the foreword), gathers together for the first time the best of his wonderful essays in English from the 1980s to the present — political, literary, cultural, whimsical. If you already love his work, you won’t want to miss it; if you don’t know his work, it’s a good place to start. Now, get your dose of Ariel straight from the tap below. You’ll feel better for it. Tom

Memories of Chile in the Midst of an American Presidential Campaign
by Ariel Dorfman

Day after day over the past three years, as I watched Americans respond to the terror that unexpectedly descended upon them on September 11th, 2001, the direst memories of Chile and its dictatorship resonated in my mind. There was something dreadfully familiar in the patriotic posturing, the militarization of society, the way in which anyone who dared to be faintly critical was automatically branded as a traitor. Yes, I had seen that before: “You are either with us or against us.” I had seen it far too often — national security trumpeted as a justification for any excess in the pursuit of an elusive enemy.

Who could have imagined that in the United States, with its independent judiciary, thousands of men could be rounded up in the night — many only because of their Muslim religion or foreign nationality — without recourse to a trial, without even an acknowledgment that they had been arrested? Who could have dared to suggest that there would ever be “desaparecidos” in America? And there it was as well, torture being discussed as a legitimate option to protect a community in peril, and then being used in Guantanamo and Afghanistan, and even obscenely photographed in Iraq — yes, there they were again, the depressing echoes of my Chile.

But worse perhaps than all of this was the erosion of the moral compass of America, the seeming indifference of the seeming majority to the suffering of others, the casual acceptance of “collateral damage” as an unquestioned consequence of the war on “terrorism,” the demonization of an ubiquitous foe who had to be destroyed without second thoughts — and often without first
ones as well; without, in fact, any thoughtfulness at all. That was far more terrifying than the criminal attacks on New York and Washington: To realize that the Chile of strongman Augusto Pinochet was not that far away, not that difficult to imitate, that it was already hovering in the future and ready to materialize if we were not vigilant.

I would read the news each morning in my home in North Carolina and each morning I would feel the same sudden stab of vertigo. Was history repeating itself yet one more tired time? Could it really be that simple to corrupt American democracy? Could the citizens of the United States be so easily twisted and manipulated by their fear?

The answer was, in fact, no, not that easily.

Over the last year, everywhere I have turned in the United States, I have seen signs of an amazing spirit of resistance, another sort of better America mobilizing, citizens not moved by dread but by hope, a vast and plural and creative wave of activism that I had not witnessed since… well, since the year 1970 when my country elected Salvador Allende as our President, when gentle armies of my fellow countrymen and countrywomen took their destiny into their own hands and proclaimed to the winds of history that it was possible to build socialism using democratic means, that we did not have to terrorize or persecute our adversaries in order to free ourselves from oppression.

If the present American campaign for the presidency reminds me of that revolutionary moment in Chilean history more than three decades ago, it is not because John Kerry is at all like Salvador Allende or George W. Bush is a clone of Augusto Pinochet. But there is in the American air today the trembling prefiguration of the same sort of enthusiasm, the same conviction that each of us can make a difference, that history belongs to those who dare to imagine an alternative future. The world does not have to be the way we found it, the way we have been told it must remain: a message once sent to everybody by a multitude of hungry peasants in Chile marching to demand ownership of the land they had tilled for centuries for the benefit of others; a message transmitted again today by millions of angry internet subscribers to in the United States and defiantly announced by a widespread coalition of progressive American activists who are much more mature than the protestors of the Vietnam era and, I would wager, far outnumber them as well.

In Chile back then, as in the United States now, you could feel the same certainty that the last word has not yet been said.

What I do not quite know is if the new social activism in the United States has the same staying power as its Chilean counterpart. It took us almost a century of struggle to elect someone like Salvador Allende to the Presidency, and when he was overthrown by Pinochet in a military coup in 1973 — on September 11th of all days! — we kept fighting for seventeen years to rid ourselves of the dictatorship that misgoverned our land. We did not decide to give up on September 12th.

The real test will therefore come on November 3rd, the day after George W. Bush crawls back to power or John Kerry rides this wave of social transformation into the White House. That is when millions of American men and women who have mobilized in unprecedented numbers over the last months will be faced with the real dilemma of their times: Are they to pack up and go home to the old apathy and submissiveness, or do they deeply understand that, no matter who wins or loses the election, it depends on them, one by one by one and all together, that their country never turn into even a semblance of the Chile of Pinochet?

The struggle for the soul of America has barely begun.

Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean writer, holds the Walter Hines Page Chair at Duke University. His most recent book Other Septembers, Many Americas: Selected Provocations, 1980-2004 (Seven Stories Press), a perfect introduction to his work, explores the ways Americans apply amnesia to their yesterdays and innocence to their tomorrows. His book Desert Memories (National Geographic) just won the Lowell H. Thomas Silver Award for travel writing.

Copyright C2004 Ariel Dorfman