by Mindy Silverado
At the end of the calendar year, we look back. At books we read, humans we met, news we heard. We feel with foreboding that Trump’s America will become a full-fledged administrative reality soon. After another shock to the consciousness of Americans, the attacks of 9/11, Judith Butler published a few essays collected in Precarious Life (2004). Focusing on grief helps her connect the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 to the philosophical question of who is a person–and how we can protect the lives of people at home and abroad (it’s foreign policy too).
Turning to journalists in war, Butler remembers Daniel Pearl, a journalist kidnapped and killed on duty while he was reporting on America’s war in the Middle East. Butler recognizes the familiarity that Pearl has for her. She also problematizes her own grieving for the fellow American abroad, her compassion for the one who stands out from, rather than the many dying large-scale war deaths.
This is where discourse and violence are co-dependent, and grief becomes a key trope. Reading certain people-Muslims, Arabs, young brown men, women in hijabs- as acceptable targets makes killing in a war much easier to accept for the American public because “[d]ehumanization’s relation to discourse is complex” (Butler 36). Grief as a recognition of the humanity of others becomes the red threat of the essays. War kills and it de-recognizes people, so grief is a useful connection from death to the prevention of death.
Butler explains why she was emotionally involved in the terrible murder of the white American male journalist who died covering the war: “Indeed, Daniel Pearl, ‘Danny’ Pearl, is so familiar to me: he could be my brother or my cousin; he is so easily humanized; he fits the frame, his name has my father’s name in it. His last name contains my Yiddish name” (Butler 37). He is a person like herself, like her friends, like her family. She recognizes him. And thus, she can grieve for him. She feels his fear, his wish to help, to be part of history, to help understand violence done to and by their shared home country. This empathy wont bring Danny back, but it makes his life and his memory precious.
Butler warns, “we have to consider how the norm governing who will be a grievable human is circumscribed and produced […] and how this differential allocation of grief serves the derealizing aims of military violence” (Butler 37). Public grieving can be healing, as in the case of Danny. It can also be abused for ideological gain, as in the case of terrorists that are ‘taken down/out’, ‘eradicated’, or ‘hunted down’. These terms make them non-people, threats, enemies whose deaths do not require grief. When Bush ended America’s grief 9 days after 9/11, public discourse leaned heavily on the side of abusing grief, not of making life precious. That is the more enduring way, however. The pain of real grief is the incentive to avoid it in the first place.
Picking up Butler’s essays on grief and mourning late in 2016, I think about Aleppo, the civilians and journalists killed in Syria. I also think about how Trump could rise to power recognizing the unhappiness and real or perceived disadvantage of poor white America. Butler doesn’t tell us what to do next year. She only cautions to count every human we notice in our lives and in the media as human. We need as many people on our team as we can, and discounting foreigners, Liberals, Muslims, red-necks, or flag pole in the yard-owners makes us weaker and less human.
So, go out and meet somebody today. Learn a new language to love a person from elsewhere. Talk to the refugee registering a new address next to you at the agency where you apply for your passport. The person selling you conventional blueberries for your smoothie, or the person you are selling those blueberries to. That relative who doesn’t even know why you are vegetarian or what good comes of it. Do not wait until you grieve them (because by then you wont know how to grieve them). Engage them while they are alive, so they can be on our team.
I feel you. And I work on feeling you to.
Photo: Love Actually (2003): Jamie proposes to Aurelia, spoken rudimentary Portuguese.