The Said and the Unsaid

January 26, 2009

mail Ashley Sanders • Operation Itch Contributing Writerheader

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 “Enough, one must go on, these are things that one thinks but does not say.” –Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

“It was their everyday duty.” –Primo Levi, on Nazi brutality

I recently read the morning paper. I shouldn’t have done that. I also recently read Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi. I shouldn’t have done that either, but for different reasons: it demanded too much grief and asked too many questions. Less recently, I went to a public meeting about a new pet-coke plant that Consolidated Energy wants to put next-to-the-refinery-next-to-the-freeway-next-to-the-asthmatic’s-worst-nightmare. I also shouldn’t have done that, and not just because it involved fighting odious big business practices, but because I never feel as lonely as I do in political meetings where everyone agrees with me.

There is a connection between the shouldn’ts, but that will have to wait.

This time there were about 500 hundred people who agreed with me. They had brought signs and their kids, and also their kids covered in signs that said things like: “Don’t make me breathe dirty air.” The Department of Environmental Quality was leading the meeting, and a sad-looking man behind a microphone was trying to assure people that, not to worry, the coke plant wouldn’t exceed DEQ standards and that – even though pet-coke was the dirtiest residue of the fuel extraction process, and even though it would be shipped across the country in open-air train cars, and even though the area surrounding the refinery already was three times the limit of normal air quality levels, and even though the citizens wouldn’t even get the power that was generated, and even though we did not need another power plant, and even though the world was rife with alternatives – he was bound and obligated to approve it. The man was summarily booed, and by people who had never said boo in their lives before: booed by women with acrylic nails and tiffany heart bracelets next to a man with coveralls and a trucker hat, also booing.

People lined up for public comment, and they were very informed. A tan, blonde mom stood up and rattled off a history of pm2 levels in the region; a man with a thick accent compared EPA reports with reports done by Consolidated Energy. The acronyms came past and furious: GHGs, PM 10s, PPMs, and CO2s.

Then came the asthma crusaders, who talked about lungs, lungs and more lungs. The take-home was this: You give my kid asthma and I will actually kill you.

I appreciated the attendance, the educated responses, the tragic stories of unnecessary illness. But I felt listless and remote from the whole.

First, I had been reading, as I said, too much Primo Levi and, as I did not say, Kafka. I was filled with the goodly fear of bureaucracy, but also an understanding of it. This man, like most of the perpetrators of great evil and unimaginable stupidity, was simply doing his everyday duty. I felt terribly sorry for him. I couldn’t help but see him going home when it was all over, taking off his tie, his kid saying: how did it go? And both the kid and the dad being embarrassed and ashamed because they knew exactly how it had gone, that 500 people hated the dad – not as dad, but as head of the DEQ. And I felt terribly sorry for him because he was up there speaking nonsense that he probably did not believe because it was his everyday duty, because the limits of his job did not allow for imagination or the act of being a human.

I saw in the room the failure of democracy under the banner of the same: a room full of ‘free’ citizens who were not truly free to change anything confronted a ‘regulator’ who, in the name of the law, had to do something idiotic. It was an exercise, a horse running at full gallop inside an equestrian park, with people in the stands betting against themselves.

But nobody was ready to admit that; they insisted on persisting in the delusion that evil acts flowed from evil actions, and that their voice could make the difference but probably wouldn’t – that the failure to change anything would be an anomaly, not a feature, of the civic process. So they yelled at the microphone man, shouting about PM 2.5s, and the man listened and nodded and tried to be friendly but knew he would permit the plant in one or two weeks.

Finally a man stood up and got it right. He said, “Look, we appreciate you fielding our shouts, but I think the problem is this: You are the head of the DEQ. As such, you feel compelled to approve a plant if it falls within the parameters of your regulations. We are citizens, and as such, we want your moral imagination; we are free to say that just because something is legal doesn’t mean you should do it. So we are at odds. But I am telling you to not permit that plant. We don’t need it, we don’t want it, we are better than it.”

I clapped for the first time that night, mainly because my opinion of evil has changed dramatically over the years. I now believe political evil is the result of two things: people doing their everyday duty in a bureaucratic society. If you can make everyone’s jobs small enough that they cannot act outside of them without endangering their job, you have succeeded at making an evil world out of the well-intentioned material of humanity.

The battle that night was not about whether this DEQ man was evil, or even whether Consolidated Energy was. I learned that from Primo Levi, too. If you want to profit from great evil, create a world where everything shows up as a prisoners dilemma: a world in which a person could do good things that would lead to the best results, but – knowing that if she does the right thing and others don’t, her good actions will lead to worse results and she will pay personally for it – does bad things that lead to the worst outcomes instead. So Consolidated Energy is not necessarily evil; it is caught in an outdated, repugnant energy industry that persists precisely because everyone assumes that no one will be altruistic at once, thereby damning individual attempts at reform. The head of the DEQ is also in a dilemma, although his is more the dilemma of bureaucracy than of the prisoner. His job goes only so far as the limits of a regulation, and so he is making everything worse in the attempt to uphold a law that was designed to make things better. Since the law cannot spell out every aberration and he cannot act outside of it, he defaults on the side of industry when faced with a company that would not violate the law but would violate a just world.

And that is the slow, creeping stupidity of a bureaucratic democracy: in saying only the things it can say and doing only what it can do, it cannot say or prevent the basic truth: that we are killing ourselves, that it is already too late, that we will be terribly, terribly sorry someday very soon if we have not forgotten how.

Bureaucracy is too small a space for a human, and fighting it with words of science and sickness is not enough, mostly because no one has ever really been convinced by science. They have been convinced by a story. And that is the reason for the first Primo Levi quote, and why I said I shouldn’t have read the paper this morning, or heeded Primo Levi, or gone to the meeting: because every time I do, I am struck by the smallness of our political language.

Reading a story about what Auschwitz was like was far more unbearable, more starkly compelling, than any statistic or report or could ever be. It was compelling precisely because it required me to ask myself the question: How can I sit here while this story is someone’s reality? Scientific and legal language, on the other hand, while vastly important in deciding how to best respond, is woefully inadequate for motivating people to care, to stop, to change their minds.

Levi said that if the concentration camps had lasted any longer, there would have grown up a foul, blackened language to reflect the reality that happened there. The ideas I heard at the power plant meeting that night, and the words of pundits and politicos and most journalists, are a reflection of the reality of bureaucracy, and they fill the silence created by the death of the medium most dangerous in a democracy: the story.

I believe what people wanted to say at that meeting was: “Look at our sky in the winter! No human can be happy here.” or, “What about this specific bird that I know how to spot and that I love?” or, “Why are we strapped in to this insanity? Why so willful about our own destruction?” or, “Here is my idea for a truly beautiful city, one I would like to live in.” Instead, they spoke in the dry dialect of PM 10s and Latinate lung conditions. I am not saying that the things they said were unimportant, I am saying that the things they didn’t say were much more so. Somewhere in the myopia you realize that what you could never talk about was real suffering, what you could never ask for was beauty, and what you could not confess was the human insistence on self-destruction. What I am saying is that if Primo Levi had gotten to testify about the Holocaust, he would have had to cut out the things that made it one.

And that is why the newspapers are just as bad. I read them until I have to put them aside, or tear them in half and in half again, because, in their plodding adherence to the laws of reporting, they slump into the deadly bias of nationalism, they admit no real suffering and suggest the smartness of cruelty.

Of course Levi has words for that, too. He says:

“Then for the first time we become aware that our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man.”

And he says:

“The need to tell our story to ‘the rest’, to make ‘the rest’ participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character if an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our other elementary needs.”

Now I am not, for example, a Palestinian, and I have never been bombed or trapped or truly hungry, but I hope it’s not presumptuous to believe that if I were, my desire to have my story told right would be as strong sometimes as my desire for food, shelter or safety. But modern political discourse, modern newspaper reporting, out of both everyday duty and the confines of bureaucracy, denies these same people – and millions of others – a story that would demand our fairness, our compassion. And the world goes on, and with it, the needless, unnecessary, stupid violence.

This seems obvious to me, reading the paper. I think it seems obvious to others. What our political discourse lacks is the permission, the obligation to use words that talk about the demolition of a man. But that is also, to paraphrase a friend paraphrasing William James, the live wire amidst all the dead ones, the thing that could spark a conscience back to life. But we relegate the live wires to art, or religion, and hope that will be enough. It isn’t.

One of the best articles I have read was by Chris Hedges during the elections. He was describing why he was voting for Nader, but that is not the point. The point is that he relentlessly described the war zones he had seen as a reporter, and concluded that the story of suffering, perpetually forgotten by the media and what passes for politics, ought to be the language of true democracy:

“. . . I can’t join the practical. I spent two decades of my life witnessing the suffering of those on the receiving end of American power. I have stood over the rows of bodies, including women and children, butchered by Ronald Reagan’s Contra forces in Nicaragua. I have inspected the mutilated corpses dumped in pits outside San Salvador by the death squads. I have crouched in a concrete hovel as American-made F-16 fighter jets, piloted by Israelis, dropped 500- and 1,000-pound iron-fragmentation bombs on Gaza City.

I can’t join the practical because I do not see myself exclusively as an American.  The narrow, provincial and national lines that divide cultures and races blurred and evaporated during the years I spent in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Balkans. I built friendships around a shared morality, not a common language, religion, history or tradition. I cannot support any candidate who does not call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and an end to Israeli abuse of Palestinians. We have no moral or legal right to debate the terms of the occupation. And we will recover our sanity as a nation only when our troops have left Iraq and our president flies to Baghdad, kneels before a monument to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi war dead and asks for forgiveness. 

War, with all its euphemisms about surges and the escalation of troops and collateral damage, is not an abstraction to me. I am haunted by hundreds of memories of violence and trauma. I have abandoned, because I no longer cover these conflicts, many I care about. They live in Gaza, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Beirut, Kabul and Tehran. They cannot vote in our election. They will, however, bear the consequences of our decision. Some, if the wars continue, may be injured or killed. The quest for justice is not about being practical. It is required by the bonds we share. They would do no less for me.”

That is the closest thing to real reporting—the report of human experience—that I have seen in a long time. It uses the whole human language, the words of religion, ethics, friendship, urgency. Present is the very real possibility that we could destroy everything that makes us human. Missing is an analysis of how ‘smart’ the surge is or isn’t, how effectively so-and-so’s campaign has been at creating the right image of it, sheets of statistics on how many have died and when. What Hedges wrote was simply a story that demanded a human reader. It was a live wire between the happening of a great suffering and the cold, partitioned heart of a democracy in bureaucratic arrest. For Hedges, a war does not end when a certain withdrawal strategy is implemented. It ends when people who have almost nothing left get their story back through the expansive language of the politics of friendship.

The newspapers and televisions are full these days with talk about fundamentalism, and democracy as the antidote. Everyone has their theory on it, so here’s mine: ‘fundamentalism’ is a hatred that builds when your story is never properly told. And the so-called democracy we live in is hardly the antidote: it is precisely our unswerving belief in ‘freedoms’ of the press, speech and assembly that keep us from seeing how little we are pressing, how stunted our speech is, and how seldom we actually assemble.

If we are talking about hope these days, I’ve got a worthy object for it: that the words we think will be the words we say, that we will not leave people and places storyless. If moral imagination is the only thing that the citizens have, we should not sell it to talk like the powerful; we should be powerful by talking like ourselves. That is the kind of politics that could stop a holocaust, whatever its changing form. 



  1. Another great piece; very well written. Ashley you have some great journalistic talent that you yourself have pointed out is absent from the mainstream corporate owned media. Voices like yours are the voices people need to hear in the news. Keep up the good work as it is always a joy to read your column.

  2. […] The Said and the Unsaid […]

  3. Always a pleasure reading your writings as it captures my thoughts and helps me better connect the dots.

  4. This was probably the most well written … anything I’ve read in quite some time. You nailed down something for me that I have felt for a long time but had not the words to express. Thank you.

  5. […] Originally posted on Operation Itch […]

  6. Wow. I truly enjoyed reading this account. I particularly liked the part about allowing for one’s imagination and the act of being a human. My sense of it, is that we all live in a society. In order for a healthy society to flourish, all of it’s core, essential components must also be healthy. The problem is that most people have their blinders on — considering only what they view as being important to them. For most, this is a very narrow, self-serving perspective that actually prevents or deprives them from having any real connection with others on all of the other issues. The media caters to this perspective. After all, it is the “corporate-news.” This kind of news coverage is essentially sterile. Because it has an agenda, it will never address fundamental “human” issues that could possibly threaten their status quo. The “smallness of our political language,” defines the reality for most of us who subconsciously allow for this to happen. If we “think” in their terms — we will never arrive at any real answer, because the question was wrong to begin with. The way we allow others to “frame,” our situation will pretty much determine what we think. To break out of this, people will need to broaden their perspective and see how they are fundamentally connected to one another, and then act accordingly.

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