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Performing justice

Last week I was one of many Americans who unwittingly clicked through to the “new” Bank of America website and was, for a moment, completely taken in. “Dear Fellow American,” the website announces as one arrives at it, in a letter “signed” by Brian T. Moynihan, CEO & President, “Welcome to your Bank of America.” It continues:

Today, it’s time to acknowledge that our Bank isn’t working anymore—not just for the market, but for people, our real customers. We’ve paid $8.58 billion in relief to borrowers and $3.24 billion in fines. We face lawsuits and claims from citizens, companies, and state and local governments. There is even a petition with the Federal Reserve to break up our bank, adding yet more uncertainty to our position. Finally, we’ve found ourselves front-and-center in the national foreclosure crisis, and deep in unpopular investments like coal, at a time when climate change is a growing societal concern.

As a result, our company’s shares have fallen precipitously, and now trade at one-fifth their 2008 price. Our Bank may, in fact, soon need help keeping afloat—and much as in 2008, you, the American taxpayer, will be asked to provide that assistance.

The institutions you rescued in 2008 have continued much as they always were, engaging in the same practices that brought our economy so close to collapse. To make sure that this time around, things turn out differently, we at Bank of America are launching a forum in which you, the American taxpayer, can prepare for the time that you own us. By sharing ideas, and reading and rating the ideas of others, you can begin charting a course for this Bank—your course.

Of course as it turned out this website has does not belong to the real Bank of America, but was brought to us by the Yes Men and some collaborating organizations—Occupy Wall Streeters to pro-labor groups. “Banking is too complicated for ordinary people to understand,” the press release for the parodic site read, “That’s not to say people are stupid.” In general I try not to be too stupid myself, so why, for one brief moment, did I actually believe this website could be real?

The answer I’ve arrived at: I wanted it to be. I was, as many are, actually desperate for it to be real, actually desperate for a version of America in which this could happen, in which a corporation could take this kind of larger social responsibility and in which this justice could occur. An America in which Citizens United would be no more than a nightmare we could shrug off. It is the Yes Men’s ability to tap into this communal hunger for justice that I think makes so many of their actions so compelling. The mission of the Yes Men is, according to their website, “Identity Correction: Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Our targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else.”

I first came to know of the group when in 2004 one of their members appeared on the BBC impersonating a spokesmen from Dow Chemical and took full responsibility (as neither Dow nor the erstwhile Union Carbide ever has) for the Bhopal chemical disaster, offering compensation for the victims and an extensive clean-up of the site. The spokesman, who called himself “Jude Finisterra,” even said that the company would press the US to extradite Warren Anderson, who faces homicide charges in India for his role in the disaster, as a result of which an estimated 25,000 have died and more than 100,000 continue to face severe health problems (and note that the composition of the exact chemicals released has not yet been disclosed, further obstructing treatment of its victims). According to Democracy Now

The hoax ran twice on BBC World and was picked up by the major news wires before the BBC determined that no man named Jude Finisterra worked at Dow and he was an imposter. The company was forced to remind the world it did not take responsibility for the disaster and said there was no compensation fund set-up for the victims.

In Frankfurt, Dow’s share price fell 4.2 percent in 23 minutes, wiping $2 billion off its market value before recovering all the day’s losses three hours later. The BBC is continuing to apologize for running the interview…

How glorious, one thinks, to force Dow Chemical to remind the world of what it has not done for the victims of Bhopal. What a hunger for justice this answers. And yet, of course, it has not actually resulted in any changes for the victims of Bhopal (note that the stock prices bounced back promptly), just as last week’s performance seems unlikely to result in any changes in policy either at Bank of America or in a federal government that has been reluctant to hold financial institutions bailed out by taxpayers to the higher standards that those ordinary, not-stupid taxpayers might feel were only appropriate. This is the world we must return to after a glimpse at the alternative reality the Yes Men have created, have performed.

I have been thinking about this, since I only recently put together that my first novel, which is about a sort of contemporary Weather Underground that undertakes actions to protest the war in Iraq, will in fact be released next spring at roughly the ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. This past week’s news has, like the news of too many weeks before it, reported a new wave of bombings across Iraq. And yet the war is “over,” at least for Americans. When the war in Iraq started, I was 22, and I just couldn’t believe it was happening—just couldn’t believe that after Vietnam such a thing could happen again. That millions could know the war was based on lies and the most cynical kind of opportunism and yet do nothing to stop it. I was young and it was a terrible realization.  Nine years later I can look down my nose, a little, at my naivete—but actually I’m happy to have once possessed optimism enough that this injustice could come as such a shock; as one ages of course one is ever less shocked.

Back then this first shock was followed by a second one, almost more terrible (the return stroke of lightning being what most often stops the heart?): that unlike Vietnam, this war was going to be absent from the wider culture. We were going to go on as though it weren’t happening—repeatedly cutting taxes while fighting two wars (which is rather unheard-of, some have said irresponsible to the point of insanity), not bothering to reduce our dependence on foreign fuels, not talking about the war, not feeling a wider responsibility for Iraqi civilians or even our own veterans, who in the past ten years have had to undergo a number of battles to improve their health care and support networks. We were going to outsource traditional military roles to the private sector, allowing them to be less well regulated, less responsible to any single nation’s laws or values or politics, and less responsible even to their own employees, since we as a nation could be relieved of the burden of caring for and even tallying the casualties of those thus employed—after all they were private citizens and many not even American nationals. Thus “veteran” contractors, while working at the behest of US military operations, are offered no long-term health care or tuition or pension benefits. And even worse, because there was no political will for a draft—because there was actually never enough broader cultural or political support for the war in Iraq—members of the military were going to be asked, or forced, to serve repeated tours in combat, stop-lossed and made personally to bear the extraordinary costs of fighting a war their nation refused to invest in or even truly to acknowledge.

What is or was to be made of all this? At the time I decided to write a novel that would force me to pay close attention to the war in Iraq, to learn about and think about it, immerse myself in it daily. This is what I thought people should be doing and so what I’d do. It was an artificial operation—when done writing, I could get up, get to the rest of my life in which the war was, as it was for so many Americans, hardly present at all. But in writing I’d create a world in which outrage about the war might lead people to drastic emotions and actions, as it has with past wars but resoundingly has not today. (With the notable more recent exception of the Occupy movement, but that is, while critical of recent wars, more immediately focused on social and economic justice than with foreign policy and the “global war on terror”). In a fiction workshop in response to an excerpt from the novel someone once said to me, “I don’t really see this kind of thing happening, though, I mean, this kind of activism” and although that was probably a criticism instead it made me nod. I’d wanted to create a space in which that kind of activism could be imagined, pictured, lived in momentarily. Perhaps not unlike the Yes Men’s portraits of corporations: the imagined world in which the relationship of individual to corporation could be so transformed. Whether this endeavor of mine resulted in a good novel is a separate question, of course, and, as the cliche goes, not for me to determine. But the endeavor did allow me to live in an alternative reality, as I did for that moment when I landed on the Yes Men’s website. In moving from these imagined realities back to our own, we can almost picture, almost comprehend what has yet to exist, what’s been lost. We can mourn the world we have and the world we don’t. Although I titled this post “performing justice,” I think it’s too much to name these acts of imagination movements toward justice; justice is still farther off, not yet quite in our reach. I don’t know if these acts of mourning and radical imagination can or will actually help us get there, but they seem better than nothing, which is something.