The ‘Dead’ Body Politic – A Commentary on UNESXIT
This morning, I woke up to the usual: mewling cats who want to be fed, my neighbor who smokes more than the paper thin walls care to protect my clothes from, and the daily reminder that the POTUS is still the POTUS.
Today’s reminder of his seat at the table came in the form of the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), an organization whose declared purpose is to “contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific, and cultural reforms in order to increase universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights along with fundamental freedoms”. That is your straightforward wikipedia definition. Of course, UNESCO is not without its own questionable intentions, but alas, a story for another day. Hot-eared and slightly light-headed (my usual state when I read anything on the issue of the POTUS), I attempted to wrap my brain around what that means for us, for others, and thusly, for the idea of the body politic. After several minutes of quiet rage, in true lamaze style, I ran through my repertoire of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a rolodex acquired from childhood Goldenbooks about archaeology and my crisp Encyclopedia Brittanica, hand delivered by the door-to-door salesman (such was life in 1991). Eventually, during my mulling overs, my mind did that weird thing it always does, and I wondered about the dead.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites exist to protect places of importance to the cultural or natural heritage of the country it exists within. This exemplifies it’s importance to the world, hence the title ‘world heritage site’. What so often goes ignored by tourists and travel blog readers is that many of these places are the resting spaces of ancestors; whether it be in their spirit form or physical, the bodies of the past inhabit these protected areas.
From the Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi in Uganada to the Complex of Koguryo Tombs in Korea, UNESCO sites are much more than a list in a Lonely Planet book for the effervescent college-girl wanderluster. But as fascinating of a subject as this is to explore, the bodies in these protected sites is not the most critical ‘dead’ body politic issue being buried as the U.S. departs from UNESCO. The bigger issue is the departure from the attention to the human rights facet of UNESCO’s initiative.
UNESCO’s mission attempt is one of equality and social justice, and social justice cannot come without the acknowledgement of death and death awareness. The ability for the U.S. to have a strictly “America First” policy is a complete disregard for life outside of the United States, not to mention flippant, petty excuses for departure and our current “you can’t sit with us” attitude. This attitude is historically present in America’s dealings with marginalized peoples on it’s own soil, but the choice to become an inactive entity in the world’s play is, to me, an act of Necroviolence. Necroviolence is more accurately considered as an act of violence against the corpse, stripping the dead of their agency and stifling surviving families as they attempt to move through the grieving process. Too often Necroviolence stops this process dead in its tracks by using the ‘disappearance’ of bodies as the chosen method of violation. But is silence not also such an act? Standing by as global genocide, systemic racism and structural violence act themselves out around us is equally an exhibition of violence, and exemplifies Necropolitics, or killing in the name of sovereignty, at it’s finest.
Rising death tolls around the borders of the U.S., e.g. the plight of Puerto Rico and the POTUS’ brilliant idea to pull FEMA, can be considered acts of war, and in the eyes of not-enough-of America’s population, an extreme violation of human rights. For a country whose foundation was built on the idea of equality and acceptance, we are definitely doing the shittiest job we ever have when it comes to protecting the dead and the dying. Citing only the dead and the dying is not ignoring the struggles of the living, for it is the systems in place that continue to marginalize people and are exacerbating our deaths, speeding our dying process at alarming rates. To be frank, these systems are killing people of color, migrants, refugees, the black community and LGBTQ+ very slowly, and very silently.
Leaving UNESCO is one of so many messages sent to us by the current regime that no lives matter, except those of a privileged few on American soil. Whether we ignore conflict and death within our borders or outside of them, we are supporting the deaths of millions of helpless, if not committing the crimes ourselves by creating geopolitical spaces that do the dirty work for us, such as the Sonoran Desert kissing Arizona that we allow to take the lives of hundreds of migrants a year by strategic placement of border patrol along the “wall”. This keeps our hands clean, or so many believe. But our hands are far bloodier than we care to acknowledge.
Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian philosopher and political theorist, discusses the ways that death and the right to kill (or let live) are exercised in modernity through political power. He states that “The ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die”
America’s exit from UNESCO (UNESXIT?) is therefore an act of political violence and Necroviolence. The only metaphor that rang true to me as I wrote this piece is that of the flow of the water. This silent aggression is its own entity, one that travels through various streams of violence, streams that become rivers that find their estuaries in the countries we have chosen to ignore. A dam of social justice and equality must be built to stifle these rapids, and breaking the silence is the only real means to a solid solution.