Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Women's Bodies and the Fields of War: Japanese Comfort Women and the Legacy of Cassandra

In the ancient world, victorious warriors were expected to plunder the wealth of their conquered enemies. Often times, these riches included the local woman. In Aeschylus's play, "Agamemnon", which opens the trilogy of the Oresteia, the king Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War with Cassandra as his war prize (after she had already been raped by his fellow military commanders). She enters the scene dazed and other worldly--she is a seer, after all, and announces the intentions of the gods through fantastic and cryptic visions that no one understands. One has to wonder if her detachment from the world could better be described as a result of her trauma at the hands of the warriors and their code of plunder.

The case of the Japanese "comfort women" is well known by now. During World War II, the Japanese military kidnapped and forced many women, mostly Koreans, into being sexual slaves for its forces. As some organizations have argued, this practice amounted to egregious violations of human rights, constituting crimes against humanity, and contravening international conventions against the trafficking of women and slaves.

New reports indicate now that American military forces took advantage of Japanese state organized brothels during the occupation of Japan. Japanese women were recruited by local officials to work in make-shift brothels and soldiers were charged about a dollar for each sexual experience. The women in one of the brothels serviced on average between 15 to 60 men each per day.

The brothels were eventually shut down by the American occupation forces, but not because they were immoral or constituted human rights violations. Too many GIs were coming down with sexually transmitted infections and this posed a threat to the health of the troops.

Many international nongovernmental organizations have come forward to press for justice for the Korean sex slaves--one wonders if there will be a movement to ask for reparations for the Japanese women who serviced the American occupiers.

The claim might be made that this was a victimless crime. The women were paid for their sexual services and not forcibly raped by American service personnel. If anyone can be held accountable, it would be the Japanese officials who manipulated women into being prostitutes. This response, however, leaves untouched the issue of the warrior's code of plunder: why is it that women's bodies are still considered objects that can be offered up to placate the anger of the hero, the occupier, the victor? Is there anything today that prevents us from continuing the legacy of Cassandra?


Friday, April 20, 2007

Learning to See Abya Yala: Movements in Indigenous Thought and Organizing

Marc Becker provides a very helpful report on the Third Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala that occured in Guatemala in March. "Abya Yala" is the term used by the indigenous people of Panama to refer to the territory that is known to Europeans as Central America. It is now being reappropriated by this transnational movement of native peoples to refer to the continent.

Becker gives updates on some of the political movements that were represented at this summit held two weeks after U.S. President Bush made a rare tour of Latin American countries. Most importantly, the groups represented at the summit adopted a declaration whose motto is "From Resistance to Power". Among the points that were made with consensus were rejection of neoliberal trade policies, the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and a strong endorsement of diversity and human rights. It is very clear, as Allison Davis White Eyes pointed out in her podcast with me, that thousands of native peoples are organizing themselves to indigenize the world.

Part of this movement involves a shift in our geo-political categories. As I mentioned in another post, Walter Mignolo's work is very good at describing how the idea of "Latin America" arose as a way for European descendants to consolidate their power in the Americas. But this displaced the ways in which indigenous people's had come to view and understand their world. Ideas such as Abya Yala or Anahuac (the concept the ancient Nahaus or Aztecs used to describe what we now know as Meso America) were discarded in favor of maps that described discrete nation states with definite boundaries tha served the interests of the ruling European elites.

Now the native peopes of Abya Yala are working to get the world to think of many different categories in different terms, including "natural resources", 'boundaries", and "justice". How might this reconceptualization work toward global justice?

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Vonnegut: Fearful and Strange to See

We note the passing of Kurt Vonnegut this week. In the Introduction to Peace Studies Seminar that I help to co-teach here at OSU, we have students analyze a work of fiction or nonfiction as their final term paper. Frequently, students choose Slaughterhouse Five as their project. When they are asked why they chose it, most have been told by friends or family that it is a must read.

Students often find the book challenging, usually because of the nonlinear narrative time line and fantastic science fiction elements that intervene in the otherwise realistic depiction of Billy Pilgrim's life. Some students find this style difficult because they find it irrational.

Perhaps it would be better to say "absurd". Vonnegut, perhaps better than any in the Greatest Generation, understood that World War II was not irrational. It was not devoid of reason--there were supposedly many good and just reasons for the war and the war was conducted with excruciating detail and planning in many cases. But the Allied bombing of Dresden, the deliberate attack and terror on civilian populations, which Vonnegut experienced directly, displayed the absurdity of warfare itself. This true and just war still boiled down to killing other human beings in cruel and painful ways. I often wonder if Vonnegut had to rely on his fantasy style, writing about aliens and porn stars and other things that seemed to make no sense, because nothing else could make coherent the absurdity of organized killing which is war. So it goes.

A few lines from the chorus in Sophocles's "Antigone" that I hope Vonnegut would appreciate:

Many the forms of life,
Fearful and strange to see,
But man supreme stands out,
For strangeness and for fear.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Podcasts on Pop Culture and Philosophy

Open Court Publishers has a series of books that examines philosophical themes in popular culture. There is a wide selection of books including "The Simpsons and Philosophy", "Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy", "Star Wars and Philosophy", and "Metallica and Philosophy". (I must admit I use a selection from the first of these books in one of my classes on the history of the Frankfurt School--its a good discussion on whether the sarcasm of the Simpsons constitutes social criticism or is a form of ideology that justifies the current class structure).

Now Open Court has a collection of podcasts where authors read from their essays in the various collections. Check them out here.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Sacred Knowledge: The Zuni and Globalization

An interesting piece from the Smithsonian Magazine on the Zuni people of Western New Mexico ties into our interview with Allison Davis-White Eyes on Native Americans and the National Geographic Society's DNA project. The Zuni are a small, but cohesive society that can boast of having many of their tribal members choose to stay or return to the pueblo.

What I found most interesting in the article is the view by one Zuni that their sacred wisdom is not something they think is important to share with people. Instead, it is the responsibility of elders to protect the sacred knowledge and guard it against being shared widely with people who might exploit it or misunderstand it.

This kind of attitude, if held by different Native American peoples, would explain the hesitancy to participate in the DNA mapping project. Yet, it also seems to point to a deep difference between Native and Western European ideas of knowledge.

At least since the Enlightenment, Western societies have held onto the idea of knowledge as a kind of power that sweeps away myth, religious dogmatism, and other forms of superstition, literally "illuminating" the world and dispelling darkness. Knowledge is something to be shared as part of humanity's journey toward progress and ever increasing amounts of social freedom (or so says Hegel) Under this kind of interpretive lens, it is easy to see why some people would categorize Native American sacred knowledge as folklore, myth, and superstition.

So is knowledge of the world something that ought to be shared with all of humanity? Is there something wrong with the Zuni way? For instance, what if Zuni sacred knowledge included knowledge of medicinal plants that could be used for treatment or cure of serious diseases? Would they have an obligation, in a globalized world, to share that?

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