Saturday, July 18, 2009

Re: Hieronymus Vox


Dear Abs,

It took us forty hours to get from my apartment in Brooklyn to our apartment in Siem Reap. And now, after a few days of waking at five a.m. and crashing at eleven p.m., I find myself sitting on our front porch in a chair with a maroon cushion, in the white-blue of dawn, reading some of Joan Didion’s stuff from the Sixties. She’s referenced Hieronymus Bosch twice in sixty pages.

And that has given me an expanded perspective on my neighbor across the alley, who is right now washing his car while blasting Celine Dion from rattling speakers. This guy, like most anyone over the age of thirty here, almost certainly lived through the ghastlier sort of Boschian horrors that make the American social disintegration that inspired such dread in Didion no more than stubbed toes or the inconvenience sparked by behind-schedule busses. I have already well-documented the fact that Khmer love their pop music cheese; this culture could be the promised land for Late Night Delilah, her opportunity to expand her brand of darkened bedroom hush and empathetic maternal wisdom from America’s Lite Rock stations into a global franchise. But my understanding of this Khmer taste keeps gaining nuance whenever I’m presented with a new lens through which to see Cambodia’s past butting at the backside of its present. So the wide-spread cultural affinity for sticky-sweet and dramatically-romantic pop songs, epitomized by my neighbor, whose Celine Dion has been followed up with a Khmer translation of that Seventies banality Every sha-la-la-la; every whoa-oh-oh-oh, is now a product of the Boschian Khmer Rouge terrors that have made Cambodia what it is today.

Which brings me to our late-night discussion in Richmond at the Denny’s across from the old Reynolds Metals compound. “Is the issue,” you wondered, stopping to consider your next words, “one of not knowing how to approach the vocabulary?” We were talking about marriage and love, but that core issue of words and how we do or do not use them—how we express in the present our experience of the past—feels very appropriate to Cambodia today. Words, after all, are the only tools that have standardized meanings that we all share, more or less. I think we forget their power because we live in an age dominated so thoroughly by the flickering image and the clicking mouse that scrolls from one to the next, but ten months in Cambodia are an unpleasant reminder that words can still be powerful enough to build a bridge to ruin. And they’re frequently as banal as the sha-la-la-las and whoa-oh-oh-ohs too.

If you travel around Cambodia, you’ll pass many, many, many signs over schools, homes, the red-dirt roads, advertising for the Cambodian People’s Party. Every once in a while you’ll come across a similar ad for the opposing Sam Rainsy Party or, even rarer, the Human Rights Party. These signs are inevitably battered by age, their lettering faded to outlines and the color of soured milk. If you read the paper, you’ll never, ever read anything about the Human Rights party. Rights in Cambodia? Get outta here.

But you will read about Sam Rainsy. It is the only party other than the CPP to have any significant representation in parliament, though its 26 seats are dwarfed by the CPP’s 90. Prime Minister Hun Sen and his CPP are waging a war on the SRP. They’ve marginalized it, now they’re going to eradicate it, la-di-da, the same old song and dance. A few months ago the editor of a pro-SRP paper printed a speech by Rainsy in which he accused the CPP Foreign Minister of being a former Khmer Rouge cadre. The editor, Dam Sith, was slapped with a two year prison sentence and serious fines for the spreading of “disinformation” and “defamation.” A lawyer for two SRP Members of Parliament was given a prison sentence as well because he “made a mistake” in defending the MPs, who were being ridden out of town on a rail. What makes these cases interesting is their vocabulary.

On Sen’s demand, and as the only possibility of avoiding jail time, Editor Dam wrote a groveling apology, saying he “failed to act properly and seriously affected the honor” of the CPP leadership. “I am asking for the highest permission of [the party] to forgive me,” he wrote. “In exchange for the generosity of the CPP leadership, I promise to discontinue the publication of my paper. I promise to support the ingenious CPP policy in the building of the country’s progress.” The word on the street is that Dam will have to join the CPP himself as well. When human rights NGOs complained, the Khmer court system issued a statement: “Mr. Dam Sith decided to close Moneaksekor Khmer for his personal reasons, and no one forced him to close.” The defense lawyer also apologized of his own free will because, according to a party official, “it is an individual’s responsibility that when he makes a mistake he must say sorry.”

This stuff isn’t limited to political enemies, except that anyone saying anything less than glowing about the country counts as a political enemy. The head of the Khmer Civilization Foundation, an organization charged with protecting and promoting Cambodian culture, worried that the heat from a light show staged nightly in Angkor Wat as an expensive tourist draw might damage the temple. He was slapped with a two-year jail sentence for “disinformation.” The sentence was rescinded when he wrote a formal apology. When the World Wildlife Federation issued a report citing pollution in the Mekong as a major threat to endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins, the government decried the findings as “all lies.” When the government decided not to kick the organization out of the country (as it has done to Global Witness, whose reports on systematic human rights abuses have also been labeled “all lies”) the in-country director of the WWF labeled the government’s moderation “a positive response and a good sign in working together to conserve the dolphins.”

My gut feeling whenever I read this stuff is hatred; what the world media and governments decry as simple corruption becomes more and more every day the stuff of Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, despotic crackdowns on the road that leads to The Purges. But what’s the point of me hating? So sitting on my porch while the neighbor booms his music, songs that I find dumb, adult expressions of fairyland weddings and stuffed bear dreams, I start to reflect on how stupid all of this is. Letters of apology? That hardly seems worthy of any tyrant worth his salt. An editor or lawyer notes offenses committed, is sentenced to jail, and then is freed, so long as he says sorry. It just seems so childish to me, like keeping someone in a headlock and nuggy-ing his scalp until he calls himself a fag. I want no take backs! to get some play while they’re at it. And yet Hun is a seasoned despot; he would not insist on apologies and then let it go at that unless the security of his position obviated the need for the physical purges of his enemies and unless he had something real to gain by the public shaming of them. I suppose this is what they talk about when they talk about the importance of saving face in Asia. The groveling of that editor, the way he was forced to use his own words to embarrass and attack himself, that was language turned to power. So was the WFF rep who labeled the party’s defamation of the truth as a positive response. Hun could have killed the Cambodian citizens with relative ease (they do it quite successfully in Russia) or could have let the prison sentences stand and doom his critics to a slow purgatory. Both responses would have served as the examples that he wants his critics to be. Instead, Hun chose to impose self-incrimination, to force his adversaries to denounce themselves and then claim the denouncing as honorable. The technique is a classic, but what interests me right here is the potency it grants to words in an era where many of us fear the loss of that potency.

Words like apologize and sorry so often feel benign. How many times have you used or experienced I’m sorry as a verbal place holder in a fight, a meaningless errrrgh that allows a person to catch her breath before battling on? You work in the State Department for Christ’s sake, at least half of your world must be cluttered with empty rhetoric and Doublespeak. I imagine that in the world of Washington D.C. there is a particular language behind the language, a way to understand the words of the true meaning that is implied, to the seasoned individual, by the actual words used. The average American understands that the majority of words that our leaders publicly utter are just wisps of cloud, that when President Obama talks about a bright future of “clean coal,” he’s really talking about stroking the hand that feeds. Even I must get angry at the occasional NY Times story just to keep my morality and understanding of the world centered. We in the States have steadily divested our vocabulary of meaning. But in Cambodia, vocabulary is still power. Words like corruption and Khmer Rouge cadre are still potent enough to require official distortion and abuse, require the degradation of words like honor and generosity.

And that brings me back to Hieronymus Bosch and my Lite Rock neighbor. He surely knows that the Foreign Minister and Hun Sen were both Khmer Rouge. This is something everyone knows. But there is no ripping out of toenails, no systematic rape, no skewering of babies on bayonets these days. Making a newspaper editor beg for forgiveness is not the same as taking him into the jungle and beating his head in, right? So in the world of relative experience, living under a tyrant is not so bad, eating one’s own words not so abusive. This is the post-Boschian Cambodia, the post-Khmer Rouge world. Things are more civilized than that now. And that’s worth celebrating with the comfort of a soft rock cheese-puff.



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