In my last post, I linked to Che Guevara's book, Guerilla Warfare, and it occured to me that I have never written about (or thought much of) the gradual development of my political consciousness. I wonder if it began when I was born in Seoul, South Korea, a country that was annexed by imperial Japan from 1910 to 1945. I'm not sure.
I think I was interested in the sociopolitical before I knew what sociology or politics were (as we often intuit before the naming). In early high school I was listening to rap (Public Enemy, etc.) and punk, genres obviously born from the sociopolitical. By the time I was in college I had developed a real interest in domestic and Presidential politics, and by the time I was done with my graduate coursework in composition and rhetoric, I had settled on my thesis topic: Presidential Crisis Rhetoric. There is a significant body of research in this area---essentially exploring how U.S. Presidents sell us what they sell us during a time of crisis (which in and of itself is framed by the language used to describe it), such as Iran-Contra or the Bay of Pigs.
My thesis ultimately became An Exploration of Rhetorical Constructs: Aristotle's The Rhetoric and the Crisis Speeches of John F. Kennedy As Models. The classic Aristotelian definition of rhetoric as "the ability to find all means of persuasion in any given situation" is different than today's intrepretation of rhetoric as b.s. or double-talk. In fact, the study of rhetoric became important during the time of the fall of the Syracuse dynasty in Ancient Greece, when citizens were allowed to speak publicly to persuade others of something, and it then became important for the citizenry to be able to decipher the persuasive elements of a speech (or lack of them) in order to make good decisions. Kennedy employs Aristotelian techniques in nearly all of his speeches---Inaugural, The Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (the latter two being the crises I examined). As I argue in my paper, the study of rhetoric allows us to make better informed political and sociopolitical decisions. This is as important today (if not more so) than it was 2,400 years ago.
In recent years I have traveled to a number of countries, many of them Third World countries, where I have had the good fortune to visit towns where important political and heroic figures lived and/or died. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the physical remains of the genocide are evident. In Bolivia and Peru, Che Guevara's image is everywhere, a clear testament to his legacy and contemporary relevance. In El Salvador, I met a man in Tacuba who fought in their Civil War. In San Salvador and in the smaller towns like Suchitoto, you will find images of Romero frequently. In San Crisotbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, there are images and stories of Subcommandate Marcos and his wife Ramona at each turn. This was the town of the Zapatistas, and if you are interested in such things, I would highly recommend a visit to this southern Mexico town.
One of the most memorable things I have ever seen is the small blue car which was driven into a Saigon intersection on June 11, 1963 by Thích Quang Đuc. About five years ago, we backpacked through Southeast Asia. One day, as we floated down a river, stopping occasionally to visit various monuments, I came upon a small blue car, which seemed odd because most of the monuments were more architecturally pleasing (stones, temples, etc.). As I got closer to the car, there was a photograph. I recognized it instantly. It was the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the Venerable Thích Quang Đuc, the Buddhist Monk who drove to the intersection, where two other monks poured gasoline on him and he lit himself on fire, a self-immolation right there in the middle of the street. David Halberstam, who witnessed the act, said that Quang Duc did not move nor make a sound while he burned. He had prepared for it for weeks. As you may know, his act was in response to President Diem's intolerance (for lack of a better term) of religious freedom, the Buddhists in particular. The photo gained popularity/visibility in the early 1990's when Rage Against the Machine used the photo for the cover of its first album. And there I was, off the bank of the river, three feet away from his car. Some images you never forget. Some you want to remember. Some are both. If you would like to read about him, feel free to visit here.
I'm not sure what to make of my interest in such figures. As I'm sure you know, one blog entry does not a person make. I have a whole ton of other interests (don't get me started on my love of Sports Illustrated), but I've begun to realize how much these experiences have shaped me. When I teach, I don't really go into any political discussions. I don't even tell my students if I'm a Democract, Republican, or Green. On the rare occasion it has come up, my students guess I could be any of the three. And I think it's good that they can learn to make decisions for themselves---hopefully informed ones---without me yapping on about oil companies or Michael Moore (although like you, I have my opinions).
But one area of my work where these interests can take root is on the Speakers' Forum Committee, which I have served on for nine years and co-chaired for two. We have brought a wide range of speakers, but some of them have made significant contributions to the world---Morgan Spurlock, the Director of Super Size Me (yes, it can get political if you want to talk about McDonald's and globalization), Jaime Escalante, Maya Angelou, and perhaps most amazing was Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan hotel employee whose heroic actions during that country's genocide were chonicled in the powerful film, Hotel Rwanda.
After his stirring lecture, we had a reception for him. I shook his hand. To say the least, some handshakes are simply unforgettable. Know what I mean?