Visible and invisible wars on Memorial Day

Looking at the United States from just beyond the border

Graffiti in Lyon, France, 2017

I don’t think France is any more special than the United States, but for a lot of people it takes standing outside of their country of origin to see that place a little more clearly. James Baldwin went to France in part to study the blues, meaning, to study the language he thought was the most powerful, and he says he learned something about the English language that he couldn’t learn without first going silent. I’ve been reading him here, and looking at the country I came from, the United States, where I was born in 1984.

Visible: An American woman insists, at customs in Paris, in English, that if they don’t let her through the line in a hurry, she’ll miss her connection. As if no one at customs could have ever heard a story more troubling.

Invisible: People whisked away to a private room. People trapped, sent back. What is called here in France a “backlash” but is really a rising up of the same old xenophobia colonialism depended upon. How many Syrian refugees? I have to Google it: 11 million. Four Brooklyns. I flash my passport, answer no questions, stroll through. Later I think about James Baldwin: “There are two people you always find in prison,” he wrote in 1964, “the man in the prison and the man who is keeping him there.”

In Lyon, what is visible: Well-maintained and rich medieval streets, bakeries full of bread, stocked stores, tourists and cafés and glaceries and bouchons (which are special Lyonnaise eateries).

What is invisible: The valley south of here, where there are chemical plants and refineries on the riverfront. “Not a nice place,” says one resident of Lyon, an American originally from Berkeley. Well, the places that produce wealth and store refuse and runoff for others rarely are. But one wouldn’t exist without the other.

I’ve been loving my walks along the old cobblestone streets, and this conversation reminds me that Lyon is like any “nice place” in the modern/capitalist sense: held together at the expense of some other less visible place, its land and the people who live there. Just as visitors who fly into Chicago, to views of a glistening lake, rich public parks and museums, taxis and trains, fly over a swath of land where the children have asthma and live with air quality alerts and the constant drone of planes overhead, who have little access to what the tourists see. Not even a rattling train line to bring them downtown.

I remember driving with a friend through Newark, New Jersey, headed into Manhattan, and he commented that he “hates places like this,” and I got angry. Hating what you don’t want to see is too easy, a form of cowardice. How can we really look at some of it without looking at it all? I don’t like the smell of exploitation, either.

A photo I took in New Orleans, Lower Ninth Ward, 2007

Visible: At the conference I’m here for, there’s a lot of discussion about protecting democracy, and a search for European identity. But at a national or pan-European level, how can a central culture take shape without depending on some kind of exclusivity? This has always been the problem with nation-states, and now the European Union repackages the problem. And I’m no expert in European racism, but it seems that at the center of this debate over the future of Europe is the question of borders and belonging, and at the center of that debate, the real life positions and bodies and real lives of Black people and Muslims.

Invisible: In the discussions I encounter, there are no Black people or Muslims speaking.

I meet a young French-Algerian journalist who says she thinks racism in France is worse than it is in the U.S., and I can’t help but wonder if white people in France think racism is worse in the U.S., while white people in the U.S. believe it’s worse in Europe. If this is true, even for some white people (and I include myself in this, because I’m white and France seems very racist to me), what does it say about us? About our willful ignorance of our position both globally and in the societies in which we live and hold power?

Here, as in the U.S., I notice too that there’s a strong liberal urge to “understand” the white nationalists, not to write them off. But what about understanding immigrants, refugees, Black people, not just as victims worthy of charity but as subjects, actors, people who speak and create and make up the society? This is the form of invisibility that disturbs me the most here. And that should carry a lesson about what I see and don’t see in my home country.

Invisible: That fighting to retain privilege is not the same as fighting to retain rights, community, justice. Because the former is material, and in fact it depends on taking something away from others. It always has.

More lyonnais graffiti, 2017

Finally, there’s the visibility and invisibility of the past. One feels that history is very visible here — but of course, it’s all constructed, created, narrated for us through architecture and plaques and idealized versions of stories. In a place full of monuments, Gallo-Roman ruins, Renaissance-era streets, WWII heroes, what is the story about the silk that was spun here, about the worker uprisings in the 1400s and again in the 1800s, about the missionaries who went from Lyon to Vietnam, New Zealand, Tunisia? There’s a veneration here for the silk factory worker, an imagined person of the past. Today most silk is made in Asia. In Lyon, embittered factory workers and former soldiers rallied around Marine Le Pen’s openly xenophobic Front National just months ago.

Invisible: In the 2000s, an investor from the United Arab Emirates came to Lyon and fell so in love with it, he vowed to build “Lyon Dubai City,” a recreation of Lyon’s streets, rivers and culture in Dubai. He did not want to it look or feel like the cheap imitations of Las Vegas. A series of news articles in 2008 said it would be built by 2012; in 2013, that it would be built by 2017. As far as I know, Lyon Dubai City remains a shadow of a shadow. In Dubai, much of the new construction is built by slaves.

Meanwhile, Lyon itself is unlike most U.S. cities: it’s well-kept, clean, with trains that run on time. Here’s Wikipedia on Lyon’s recent improvements: “In barely a dozen years, Lyon has become a major metropolis where the successes of the past live in harmony with the goals of the future.[citation needed]”

An old map of Lyon

In 1968, Congress moved Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May, to create a three-day weekend. Some veterans’ groups complained that it would cheapen the holiday’s meaning. But was Memorial Day first started by freed slaves, or Confederate mourners, or northern Union generals after the end of the Civil War? No one knows, really. In the United States some stories are told thoroughly, deliberately, in detail, over and over. But there is so, so much that feels deliberately obscure.

I’m going home tomorrow. It’s time to look again at where I started: The United States, 1984. Exactly five months after I was born, Ronald Reagan won in a landslide. RedState.com brags that Reagan cut the top tax rates, laid the groundwork for NAFTA, got rid of the Fairness Doctrine and started “ the law-enforcement revolution spearheaded by his U.S. Attorney in New York, Rudy Giuliani.”

Visible: 64 police officers were shot and killed on the job in the U.S. in 2016.

Invisible: One estimate gleaned from news reports says 1,092 people were killed by police in the U.S. that same year; others say an average of 1,000 people are shot and killed by police in a given year. That means in approximately one in twelve gun homicides in the U.S., the police are the ones holding the gun. In France, street protests are growing over police violence against Black youth, inspired in part by Black Lives Matters.

Visible: “Memorial Day is known for its great sales,” say a bunch of internet search results; they come up after the Wikipedia entry for the day, but before, say, the entry for how many people have died in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Invisible: In seven days, three deaths inside the U.S. at the hands of white supremacists. One was a lynching: Richard Collins III, who would have been a U.S. Army lieutenant.

Visible: 4,411 U.S. troops killed in Iraq, from 2003 to the present. 2,381 killed in Afghanistan. There is a thing called Operation Inherent Resolve, and it has a Facebook page and its own, separate body count.

Invisible: Is it possible to see death that isn’t counted? One estimate of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of U.S. involvement puts the total at four million people since 1990. It’s an invisible city, Atlantis the size of Los Angeles. An estimate from a few days ago of civilians killed in recent U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq has an independent organization counting thousands, while the U.S. counts one eighth of those. Even conservative estimates of the dead in Iraq say it is a million people since 2003. But what may be most telling is that we don’t know.

What do we not know about our cities, our lives, our monuments, our daily interactions, our bodies, the smell of ashes when they blow up and away, what do we not know about stories and how to tell them, when we live daily with this invisibility, and accept it? What do we not know about our ability to love, our ability to die? When death is something we have slept through, not peacefully, but full of nightmares that we forget as soon as we wake up.

Invisible, too, the thousands of American corpses shipped home shrouded in red, white and blue, and this was a formal invisibility: There was a 20-year ban on publishing photographs of the coffins. Meanwhile, we went nearly a decade with almost endless dramatizations and representations of the dead from 9/11/2001, and a glowing, wrenching monument to the 2,996 dead. But more than that died on the front lines of the wars that followed, even if you only count Americans. Then, in 2009, the ban on showing military coffins was lifted, and the wars didn’t end. In the United States there is no protocol for making a memorial to casualties of a war that hasn’t ended.

Now Donald Trump is the president — the wars didn’t end and Donald Trump is the president! — and I can’t help but wonder how the illusion that there was no war, that the war was over or at least the war had nothing to do with people in most parts of the U.S., helped to usher him into power. The longer you rest your gaze on reality TV, the more like reality it starts to seem.

But the real subject I’m getting at here is the subject of looking at death, or I should say, actually seeing it. This doesn’t require a photograph or even a likeness, a chart or a graph or a perfect metaphor. But it does require learning to live with the truth.

I woke up today wondering if the stories we tell can ever be enough to counter the silence of a country currently waging its longest foreign war.

In an essay called As Much Truth As One Can Bear, published in 1962, James Baldwin wrote, “Societies are never able to examine, to overhaul themselves: this effort must be made by that yeast which every society cunningly and unfailingly secretes. This ferment, this disturbance, is the responsibility, and the necessity, of writers. It is, alas, the truth that to be an American writer today means mounting an unending attack on all that Americans believe themselves to hold sacred. It means fighting an astute and agile guerilla warfare with that American complacency which so adequately masks the American panic.”