Containment and Diplomacy

"I wonder why we as a nation couldn't or wouldn't rise up as one when the government failed the people of the Gulf Coast. Then I look at photos of us with our children, and I think I get it."
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I met Audrey Mantey, an Army veteran, mom, teacher, artist, and activist, during the Veterans and Surviviors March for Peace and Justice from Mobile AL to New Orleans LA in March 2006. Since then I have maintained a correspondence with here that can be characterized from wry to tragic to playful to analytical and back again. She is incredibly self-effacing about the fact that she is simultaneously brilliant in exactly the way I wish more of us were... by theorizing directly out of her own experience.

After a bit of arm-twisting after a particularly insightful email, I convinced her to take up the pen (her art of choice tends to be visual). I want to share that with people, not just to introduce this new mentor of mine to more people, but because what she has to say here is so... on point.

I hope readers will forgive my presumption at posting her as a kind of a guest. I am fairly confident that they will when they "meet" her.

* * *

The first inkling I had that we were doing something wrong was when we drove to East Berlin in the 1980's. We were briefed by the US Military not to acknowledge the existence of the guards as we passed through their checkpoint - to stare straight ahead and not look at them or speak to them because the United States didn't recognize their authority to be there. We were instructed to hold our passports up against the rolled up car window until they signaled us to move on. The irony of those instructions wasn't lost on me - hold our passports up so the guards we didn't acknowledge could check them.

When we went through the checkpoint, my daughter was a few months old and was in the back seat of the car. She smiled and made cute baby faces at the guards. One of them pressed his face against the outside of our car window and made faces back at her, and laughed. She laughed. The husband and I stared straight ahead.

When she was 8 months old, we traveled to the Soviet Union. She started crying in the airport while we were waiting for customs. One of the airport workers asked what was wrong. She was hungry; I wasn't using bottles, and there wasn't a good way to nurse her while standing on line with my luggage. We were pulled out of line and the Diplomat's Gate was opened. We were cheerfully waved through, bypassing the hour long wait, and directed to a bench where I could sit and nurse her. Not a toilet, not a dark room hidden away from the rest of the world, but a bench, located where all the folks coming through regular customs were streaming past me.

In the United States, we kick women off planes for breastfeeding.

Later during that same trip, we were seated in a restaurant where a wedding reception was taking place. People don't react well here in the states if someone sits down next to them with a baby. Even if the child is well-behaved, they will glare at you as soon as you enter to let you know that responsible people keep their children at home, out of sight.

In the restaurant in Moscow, the groom from the wedding came over and introduced himself. He picked up our daughter and held her up for everyone to see. He gave an impromptu speech to the wedding party about the cold war (ongoing at the time), about politics and human relations, and how this (still holding the baby up) was what was going to repair relations between our two countries. Not politicians, not treaties, but simply taking our children outside their own culture to meet other people. He handed her to another person, and she was passed around the room, from table to table.

Our frame of reference in this country is so narrow that it's hard to talk about raising children in any meaningful way. When we discuss breastfeeding in airports, the debate focuses on whether other travelers should have to tolerate hungry babies being fed in public, or whether that sort of activity should be done in a bathroom. We cannot even conceive of shifting the debate to whether or not nursing women should be treated as diplomats. Nor can we conceive of a professional guard force that makes faces at babies to make them laugh. I was reading this week about the Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, and found this on their organization's website: "Today, most of the challenges faced by the Sentinels are tourists who want to get a better picture or uncontrolled children (which generally is very frightening for the parent when the Soldier challenges the child)."

When we talk about dehumanization, we tend to think about how it relates to the way our troops are trained to view Iraqi citizens or how guards view prisoners, or how riot police view protesters. We think in terms of a subject and object, as if the dehumanization is something done to an object - when it's actually the human relations and connections between two people which are being destroyed.

From a very young age, we train our children to break bonds with their parents. Children who sleep with their parents are spoiled, parents who allow this to happen have no discipline; we are given advice by professionals on how to train children to fall asleep in cribs in their own rooms, and how important it is not to give in to their "demands" to sleep side by side with their parents. The goal is to create self-reliant independent adults, and we begin this process almost as soon as a child is born. In other cultures, children are wrapped or slung against their parents' bodies as they go about their daily business. We use baby strollers instead of slings, so that instead of feeling our bodies, children feel the bumps of cement sidewalks through a plastic or metal frame. We put them into plastic baby carriers, holding our children at arm's length by a handle. I'm not convinced that babies are supposed to come with carrying handles, even if it is more convenient.

The thing about using a sling is that a baby feels the parent breathing, feels their heartbeat, and moves when their body moves. They feel and share the rhythm of our steps as we walk. As parents, we in turn do the same. When a child in a sling shifts their weight, the parent naturally shifts to maintain balance. Instead of fostering independence, it fosters interdependence, or human connections.

I look at photos of people marching in support of Chavez, or of the people in Oaxaca rising up as one entity against oppression, and I wonder why we can't do that here, why the immigrants marched in our country with a common purpose this year, but we as a nation couldn't or wouldn't rise up as one when the government failed the people of the Gulf Coast.

Then I look at photos of us with our children, and I think I get it.

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