A year has passed. At midnight, a day a go, we drew a line and celebrated its ending. We dropped a ball. We popped opened a few bottles of varying color and content and toasted the birth of 2012. In that moment we reflected. What was 2011? Time magazine dubbed it the year of the protestor. If we where to flip through the snap shots of a year past we would find some simple truth in this decree. We would find photos from home of rural Tea Party members and urban youths attempting to occupy the minds of Middle America and the offices of Wall Street Respectively.
If we turned our minds eye, instead, towards the wider world we would see images of dark faced Arabs taking to streets to overthrow aging dictatorships both communist and colonial in nature; People who not quite like ourselves sought not economic equality or individual dignity but instead basic human rights. They called for Freedom from police brutality, Freedom of expression, Freedom to realize their own individual destinies.
We find this in photographs of hundreds, then thousands, then millions of protestors carrying green banners pouring into the streets of Cairo. We find it in grainy still images smuggled out of Syria of innocent protestors being cut down by pro-government forces. But what is even more striking are the images we don’t see. There are no photographs of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in the streets of rural Tunisia. Although many of us may still recall the Associated Press correspondent Malcolm Browne’s photograph of Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, burning himself to death in Saigon in 1963. Some will recall it as members of a generation who lived through and witnessed the end of the Vietnam War. Others still younger, who have lived through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will recall it as the cover of Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 album. A few members of that former generation are still alive, and together many of us have bared witness to photographs of the ‘final’ American convoy pouring out of Iraq and back into Kuwait.
‘Final’ is the key word here. Those of the former generation still recall the final moments of the war in Vietnam. Helicopters lifting hundreds then thousands of American diplomatic personal and Vietnamese refugees from the rooftops of Saigon and depositing them upon U.S. Naval vessels. Helicopters being pushed off of carriers to make room for an endless stream of refugees and hundreds more huddled on the rooftops of Saigon awaiting a rescue that would not come. The Pairs Peace Accord had been signed in 1973. American troops had all but left the country. Two year later Saigon was falling. For two years the war continued on without America’s direct presence on the ground. Now we slip quietly from Iraq. Leaving behind thousands of American contractors and many others in the heart of Baghdad. I dare not draw any comparison between these to starkly different wars, but we must wonder now about what images will pour from the city of Baghdad in the years to come.
All ready there are images, mostly unseen by Americans, of Buddhist monks committing the heretical act of self-immolation in Tibet. Protestors. Soldiers. Refugees. Human beings. As the Dalai Lama points out there is so much courage to be found in these images, even in those actions of a desperate few that we find so deplorable. His holiness captures the question we must all ask now, in a recent interview with the BBC.
“There is courage - very strong courage. But how much effect? Courage alone is no substitute. You must utilize your wisdom… Many Tibetans sacrifice their lives. Nobody knows how many people killed and tortured - I mean death through torture. Nobody knows. But a lot of people suffer…”
But how much effect? In 1966 the images of burning monks and nuns in the City of Saigon made the front pages of newspapers like The Morning Record. They protested war profiteering on the part of the US. The effect may have been the end of US military involvement. It was not the end of war itself for the Vietnamese or for humanity as a whole. It did not bring an end to Communism. That nine lettered word, that in Ginsberg’s account, was “used by inferior magicians with the wrong alchemical formula for transforming earth into gold…”
So what has ended? Where, when, how, why did it end? Where do we draw the line? Is the death of Mohamed Bouazizi the end of a human life or the birth of a thousand protestors? What can we make of our own consciousness of the year that has come to pass? John Gardner defines consciousness as ‘the state in which not all atoms are equal. In corpses, entropy has won. The brain and the toenails have equal say.’ In such no two images are equal. And in the end the government’s of old and the protestors of tomorrow may have equal say yet.
My mind wonders back to my old college haunts and the classrooms where I first read about the Ship of Theseus. A thought experiment as old as recorded history, where we imagine a wooden sailing ship where each piece of timber is slowly replaced over time in till no scrap of the original vestal remains. Does it remain the same ship? Is two thousand and eleven the same year if we remove the images of protestors from across the globe? Yet what would we replace them with? Images like that of the ‘Vancouver kissing couple?’ A photograph that almost all members of western society have viewed and determined now to be an orchestrated and not truly authentic event. A volume could be written on that photo alone…
In the end we must simply remember that Theseus’s Ship is still no matter what Theseus’s Ship. Just as 2011 is still, in the consciousness of many, the year of the protestor no matter what time does to erase the images and memory of their courage and resolve. It’s that pivotal fact of ownership that makes a year, a life, a consciousness what it is. We define a year not by when it ends but by what parts of it we hold on to and what parts we let go.
So a year passes and we hold on to what we can and we let go of what we must…