Damnatio Memoriae Sep 20, 2013
by Omar Willey
My first experience of it was reading a biography of Trotsky. I was fourteen and I had taken a deep interest in figuring out just what was this "evil empire" I kept hearing about from my Hollywood-trained POTUS.
I saw a photograph of the October Revolution celebration and something didn't look right. Lenin was giving his salute. There were people on his right and to the left of him, an empty space, then some more people. Something struck me odd about it. I knew Trotsky had been there, because I had just read it in several books on the Revolution, but here was the photograph in front of me, without Trotsky.
After scouring the library at the University of Washington where my father used to drop me off on weekends, I found the original photograph. Trotsky had been edited out. So had Lev Kamenev, another hero of the Revolution, and Lenin's third in command. So had at least three other people. Here was a brutal distortion of factual history, for a completely political purpose, an abuse of human knowledge so offensive that my entire brain balked at the idea.
I became a photographer the next day. I remain a photographer to this very day I write this.
Flash forward: I am watching Sebastián Moreno's excellent documentary about the photographers who formed AFI in Chile under the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. About halfway through the film one of the photographers--I think it is Oscar Navarro--opens up a copy of the magazine Analisis with the blazing yellow on black headline, "Por su liberacion: CHILE SE MOVILIZA" Underneath the headline is a white rectangle that extends across the width of the cover, with two thin, vertical black bars, making it look like a section of blank 35mm film. Upon it is written, boldly: "Fotos Censuradas." As the photographer's hand flips through the magazine, one can see a magazine very much like Time or Newsweek--but where there would normally be a picture in the layout, there is only a blank white box. History, whitewashed. Soviet-style. Weren't these the leaders who decried Communism and Communist tactics? And yet there it was. Fotos censuradas.
And this in a country where my wise and powerful American leaders had laundered $8,000,000 into right-wing groups to "exploit weaknesses" in the Allende government--meaning, to destabilize the country. Telling the military leaders that the United States intended "to cut military assistance to Chile unless they moved against Allende, and that the U.S. desired, and would actively support, a coup," the leaders of my country instigated what would eventually become the Tanquetazo putsch of June 29, 1973 and eventually the fatal coup of September 11, 1973.
I was four years old. I had no idea how I would be tied up in that story throughout the rest of my life.
At its old Greek root, the word story means "to learn." To control stories is to control learning and to control learning is to control knowing. In many societies this has generally meant something bad. One thinks of the Stalinist regime but they were far from the only perpetrators. Dictators throughout history have used the same tactics. More disturbing, however, is that democracies have a long history of the same. The phrase damnatio historiae comes, after all, from that original model for our American republicanism, the Roman Empire.
To tell one's own story is to fly in the face of officially renounced history. To tell one's own story is to take one's power back. This is the power of El año en que nací.