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The Miracle of Context

Image Source: Minds . Can you recognize  the truth, if it's taken out of context? The Internet has lately become Pandora's Box, spilling out its contents to those who dare to look  (or look again - or again ). Images Source: Hello! Magazine / Getty . Last week, a friend dismissed my claim that people want to see the truth. He thinks people are not interested in abstracts like 'truth.' They just want to get on with their lives. Whether they want the truth or not, the signs and symbols of truth are on the move. Conversations float around and skim the surface. Another friend wondered out loud tonight, "It feels like the virus is more of a meme than anything else." In the wake of the US inauguration, disinformation, strange rumours, and weird info dumps are circulating online. Everything feels off, but bizarrely connected. There is something bigger at play. Image Source: 4chan ; also here . Truth and fiction overlap. There is no way to drill down to bedrock. It

The Story of the Unperson

Guatemalan soldiers, trained by the CIA to carry out a coup in 1954. Image Source: teleSUR.

Years ago, while still a teenager, I worked for Amnesty International. In sheltered surroundings, on a campus known to Montreal students as 'the country club,' I learned about the world outside, where activists and journalists were being silenced, tortured, and murdered.

One of the themes of my work is that there is no world outside. Every place, everyone, and everything are connected. Violence 'over there' mirrors the same processes 'over here.' Flaws in the hated other reflect flaws in the self. There are no secrets that do not play out fully and obviously in visible, public, mainstream affairs. The idea of separation is an essential fiction for the creation of the collective. And that fiction is central to the story of the individual.

The Disappeared

Dateline: Chile, 1973 - ABC News (12 October 2016). Video Source: Youtube.

Chile: Uncovering Pinochet's Secret Death Camps (7 April 2014). Video Source: Youtube.

I worked for Amnesty at the end of an epidemic of political disappearances in Latin America. The trend was spurred on by US interference via Operation Condor, which ran from the early-mid 1970s to 1989.

In Argentina, around 30,000 leftist critics disappeared. In Chile, from 29,000 to 60,000 people were arrested, detained, and tortured, and over 3,000 disappeared. The incident that stays with me is Santiago's football stadium, Estadio Nacional, site of mass detentions and murders under Augusto Pinochet after 11 September 1973. Scholar Steve Stern has referred to this trend as 'politicide,' or "a systematic project to destroy an entire way of doing and understanding politics and governance."

Colombia: finding the nation's disappeared (10 December 2015). Video Source: Youtube.

Operation Condor: A Latin American alliance that led to disappearances and death (22 November 2015). Video Source: Youtube.

Political killings of left-wing activists occurred under military dictatorships in Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay, with further disappearances and violence in Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador. Academicsfilm-makers, writers and artists have since tried to show how predatory Latin American states turned citizens into unpersons.

Today, Colombians go to the polls to choose between right-wing Iván Duque, who wants to revise the peace agreement with former Farc members, and leftist ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro, whose critics fear Colombia's transformation under Petro into another Venezuela. These men represent extremes (or mutually perceived extremes), as though political moderation has been erased by a void created by past transgressions.

Although South American examples involved the arrest and murder of leftist activists, neither the left nor the right monopolizes violence or oppression. This is part of the way human beings organize themselves, and we would do better if we acknowledged it as a universal problem.

The Story of the Unperson

Latin American political disappearances were a starting point for my literary interest in describing people who are imprisoned, by outside powers or by themselves. I wanted to tell the story of the Unperson.

People who are no longer considered deserving of social sympathy and compassion are met with extraordinary callousness by the general population. Anyone can be isolated and suddenly deemed an outsider. Sometimes, the outsider has violated the social order and deserves punishment. Sometimes not. Beyond the Latin American example, this can happen to anyone who is negatively labeled, ostracized, marginalized, or criminalized.

Social exclusion is evident in milder forms, which are no less horrifying. In an act of self-depredation, the alienated individual can erase his or her social self, either at the prompting of others, or by taking others' external judgements to heart.

Image Source: Amnesty International.

My novella from my upcoming short story collection of the same name, Ink of the Palimpsest, features a man who has committed a crime he can't remember. In his guilt, he sees himself in a torture chamber like the one above. He also dreams of being in a prison with open cell doors, although he feels unable to walk free and leave.

On a smaller scale, it is easy to imagine this turn of mind. How many of us have confined ourselves with preconceived notions of the way things should be? The alienated person can internalize a social crime, whether real or imagined, and self-erase. This enables the perpetrators, predators and judges who control social order to look innocent and removed from the destruction of the isolated individual. Group leaders do not acknowledge the crucial part they play in the process of social exclusion, nor the power they gain from it.

Frank Morris (top) and the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence (below), 1962 Alcatraz escapees. Images Source: Wiki.

To research confinement and imprisonment, I just visited Alcatraz, California's famous decommissioned federal penitentiary. The environment is freezing and hostile. The defunct exercise yard felt like the moon, with frigid Pacific gusts nearly blowing us off our feet. We were shown a barred prison hospital ward, previously closed to the public. Isolation cells kept men in total darkness for years at a time. In the last photograph here, a back service corridor was the site of a prison escape attempt in 1962, in which three men (above) chipped through a concrete wall with spoons. They climbed up pipes to the roof in a bid to rejoin society, despite their crimes. They are rumoured to have made their way to freedom in South America.

Prisoners' factory shop. 

Isolation cell. 

Hospital ward. 

Hospital ward.

Hospital operating room.

Cells on outside of service hallway below. 

 Service hallway, through which 1962 escapees left the prison.


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