July 16, 2013

Visiting Hours

Distortion is an aspect of violence, right up there with coercion, infringement, deprivation, constraint. These terms can and do apply in sudden physical altercations, or in long-lasting situations that are physically harmful, but such terms are applicable as well to acts of violence where persons operate upon others in non-physical ways. Where violence is done to one's ethics, for example. Or where violence is done to one's free will, in the guise of benevolence. Or where violence is done to one's conscience. I've been thinking a lot on these last three lately, because of a recent trek -- down to North Carolina and back up to Pennsylvania -- and a specific museum stop we made on the way. And because the trip took place as the Zimmerman trial was unfolding, and swirling, and distorting.
The Museum of the Alphabet in Waxhaw, NC is a celebration of its evangelical founder and his belief system; he had a mission to bring alphabets and the written word to what he saw as immature cultures -- "the alphabet-less peoples of the world" -- so that they could all know and read the Bible. The museum was designed to show all the countries in which the vast number of Bible translators/alphabet linguists, supported by his religious organization, have worked over the past 80 years, and all the ways in which their work has
transformed "savages" to "saints." The museum consists of dozens of dioramas that trace the entirety of evangelical-sanctioned human history -- from the Greeks to the "Semitics" to "Far Eastern areas" to Latin American "jungle peoples" -- and how each was shaped by the use of or introduction of an alphabet, and more importantly, by access to "God's word in their own language." The last display area in the museum, the one nearest to the front desk, contains examples of the wonder and the civilizing progress that the translators/Bible promoters have brought to the immature cultures they have encountered, turning peoples with no concepts of faith or forgiveness (or possibly even the ability to think) into peoples with the ability to pray and read the Bible and spread Christianity.

While we were there, the ladies at the front desk were visited by one of their own tribe -- a fellow white evangelical, who started and ended the encounter with blessings. He came to the museum to give the ladies some "artifacts" they might want to put in the other museum this organization runs, a museum of Mexican culture, also in Waxhaw. Mexican culture as acquired and interpreted by guys like him, who did missionary work in a small village somewhere in southern Mexico for a time.
What to make of this? The ladies at the front desk were enthused that we were visiting, and hopeful that we shared their worldview. They were both so gregarious They had such respect for the work of the founder of the organization which runs the museums, and a Bible translation business, and a summer language institute, among other things, and respect for the museum contents as well. I have no doubt they feel and think they do good works, and that they see the history on display all around them as the history of reality, the one reality, the God-driven reality. Because to them, savages will always need saving. Because anyone who does not have access to the Bible does not have access to culture, to improvement, to the essence of life itself. Because all those outside of Bible access are only waiting to be made whole.
So, this is not a museum about the alphabet or the Bible or some white guy from North Carolina's dream of saving the "jungle peoples," really. This is a museum of modern day epistemic closure -- or rather, an awesome resource for those who want to know how to shape an entirely closed thought system that is not impinged upon by change, evidence, history, cultural ethics, sociology, biology, secular linguistics, what have you. Feel free to add your own. Each diorama adheres rigidly to the rules of the closed system. Each description adheres to the acceptable language people of this faith use to describe everything in the world that has ever or will ever exist. I thought as well that this is not a museum, but actually just a map of the inside of the founder's fantastically narcissistic mind -- with a small room partitioned off inside for each of the needy and God-less cultures he helped to save. And nowhere on display is there any evidence that any of this work did violence of any kind to anyone; no cultures were harmed in the making of these Christian converts, apparently. Quite the opposite. It is a remarkable, deeply disturbing place.
A few days later we drove up near Antrim Township, PA, by the Virginia and Maryland borders, just north of the Mason-Dixon line, an area with multiple stops on the Underground Railroad, where a whole different kind of saving was going on at one point in our actual cultural history.
The weight of things, the energy it takes to sustain a closed system, and the energy it takes to break that system, who is allowed a voice, whose alphabet actually matters, which system wins -- all things on my mind as well this past weekend while we were at a family celebration in another sort of dioramic display of epistemic closure (wealth-as-the-religion style) in my girlhood hometown of Greenwich, CT, and the Zimmerman verdict came in. But this was a very familiar museum, one of extreme white privilege, the one that I was born into. And on display on this visit were values and ideas that do violence both to reason and to my own conscience and ethics, but expressed just as sweetly as those two ladies at the front desk of the Museum of the Alphabet expressed theirs.
I know I have failed to adequately and calmly steel myself to the requests I get, on every visit home, in ways obvious and subtle, to join with or at least affirm the ideals embodied in that manner of living, in that gated community of self-preserving and other-excluding power, the haven of hedge fund guys. It is so obvious to them that life is good this way, that the excesses and inequality embraced as normal have no distorting effects on anyone that matters, so, why wouldn't I affirm such things? Or, in the loving parlance of my family, why am I such an argumentative pain in the ass? Coercion, infringement, racism, status-seeking, prosthelytizing -- acquiring power over others demands violence, even invisible forms of the stuff. When it comes to a good conversation about opposing views, I am as game as the next gal, but I strive to not actually violate other human beings, or to support thinking that does, or to engage with folks who do so in the guise of benevolence, or religion, or charity, or even parenthood. I don't want to persuade, only to be unconstrained by others' need to persuade. But I don't think there is a museum for that.

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