Friday, January 04, 2008

Isabel Allende's tales of passion.

Ok. So Allende had cosmetic surgery. Just thought I'd notice it for you.

Seriously: passion. feminism. need for men and women to reclaim and express feminine energy. I love the stories she tells.

But there is always something unsettling for me when white (Allende is white Hispanic) liberal women acknowledge their privilege. In this talk, Allende tells the stories of women doing heroic things amidst dire poverty or war or conflict. I do not mean to diminish these women's courage. What bothers me is that these stories are told in the key of "they, the other, the poor, underprivileged women who still manage to do amazing things in spite of...." What I hear in this key is that as Allende positions herself as a privileged woman from the West, the stories she tell are still "theirs" not "ours." In this equation, the underlying message is always: if only we, the wealthy and privileged, offered education, charity, transfer technology, etc...the world would be a better place. This is also TED's message.

I was reading a Chomsky essay the other night. He writes that the fundamental assumption of the US, i.e, We own the world - is never questioned even by the far left. When we operate under this world view, he writes, we also assume that we know what is good for the rest of the world. If we know what is good, then we must offer it. If there is resistance, we must impose it. You know the rest of the story.

It in this vein that I must express my disappointment with writers like Allende, whose body of work I admire very much. I say this because of my growing realization of how the liberal humanist ideas that have shaped the West now appear to have developed major cracks under the weight of capitalist values where everything is turned into commodity. Under this rubric, our good deeds become charitable acts given to the "other" -- who has less than we do. It doesn't take a leap of imagination to see how quickly we can equate "having less than we do" to "less humane." All civilizing missions must assume this...or there won't be a mission, will there?

What would happen if Allende can tell a story from the perspective of Kapwa? I am the Other. I am the Cambodian woman sold to a brothel.

One of the most difficult questions and tasks about dismantling privilege is this requirement to shift our understanding of the Self from the "I" to "We/kapwa." In the latter, we (privileged Americans) must begin to know and feel deeply that our affluent lifestyles have a social cost and a social burden that is carried by the poor of the world and the Earth. When we know this in our bones, how does our charity transform into solidarity? How would it change the way we tell stories about the Other? How would our sense of privilege shift?

Musings on this stormy, windy day.

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