It is safe to say, that when art and human rights are synthesized, the outcome can have a certain devastating effect. When Picasso revealed his Guernica painting to the Paris Worlds Fair in 1937 it struck like a cudgel to the minds of a people on a continent that had only felt the breath of the Nazi political machine. Guernica was a sinister foreshadowing, the end signal of the old world as we (collectively speaking) new it. A copy of Picasso’s cubist holocaust hangs at the entrance to the UN Security Council chamber, a looming reminder of that body’s purpose. As advocates against genocide we lobby the logos and ethos of the human mind very well, but often fail with the pathos; a place where Picasso succeeded. This is ironic because pathos is so close to us but the most elusive when appealing to someones mind.
In country like Burma we can observe the pre-conditions for genocide. A pseudo-fascist military regime that uses apathy as a weapon, isolates it’s country, and has begun scapegoating a relatively small ethnic group (the Karen, just in case you are interested). One diversion from the Burmese military command’s path to complete totalitarian rule is the presence of the only Nobel Peace Prize laureate in the world that is on house arrest. I am, of course, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi. Her story is painfully familiar to the international community. The bureaucracy headed by General Than Swe dares not touch her. The best way to find out why is to read a certain graphic novel by Japanese cartoonist Akazu Mizuha called The Fighting Peacock. The title is a subtle reference to to the flag of Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy which cleverly depicts a white peacock chasing a star. Although not the impetus for the peacock, Suu Kyi has come to be identified with the bird as a national symbol.
The Fighting Peacock was drawn in 1994 by Akazu Mizuha, who sympathized with Suu Kyi and the cause of the people of Burma. It has remained fairly obscure ever since then, but it shouldn’t. The novel chronicles the life of Suu Kyi from the assassination of her father, Aung San, all the way to her house arrest in 1991 after a series of civil upheavals in which she was involved. The story is so stylized that you might forget that you are reading about a very real person. Suu Kyi is portrayed as a heroin, spurred constantly by the memory of her father (who was just as great of a symbol in the 1960’s) to pursue democracy in Burma. The story is multi-faceted and is neatly crafted so that anyone can find something to relate to in Suu Kyi’s life. There is even a endearing romance between Suu Kyi and her college boyfriend Michael, who is now her husband. The aim of the story, being to show the woman behind all the political intrigue; while retaining the background of one of the largest civil movements in South East Asia. Artistic liberties aside, the novel also gives a surprisingly accurate account of the 1988 revolutions and the political atmosphere in general; a connection impossible when you are merely reading a human rights report or the news.
It is a bit painful, to see such a smart novel on the periphery, for someone who thinks (as I do) that human rights struggles are fought just as hard in the minds of the apathetic developed world. Hence advocates must attack indifference three-fold. We know our facts, figures, and statistics. We can walk into a congressman’s office and regurgitate names of leaders, places and legislation; and discuss the mutual benefit of human rights awareness (logos and ethos), but yet again, where’s the Pathos? As advocates, is this the part we miss? We scoff at art’s impact as ineffectual on the political process. However, art (in this case biography) has a deceptive level of importance; it brings people in the developing world as close as they will come to actually experiencing fascism and the complete destructive capability of the irrational. Many Americans now know about the Islamic revolution (Iran) due in large part to Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis. The Diary of Anne Frank is the quintessential reading on the Nazi Holocaust, and one of the reasons we are so aware of this historical catastrophe; because these appeal to pathos.
As hinted before, genocide is the product of irrationality and fanaticism. In this respect, the artistic medium is a strong weapon against genocide; meeting fanaticism with an analytical mind. It is a something we have that is lacked by the unsavory people who are brought into the ICC. So in the spirit of not taking pathos for granted, I urge you all to acquire a copy of The Fighting Peacock from the link below at the Irrawwady newspaper. The profits go to Burmese relief organizations, and you will get a great piece of undervalued literature in return. Aung San Suu Kyi, the "fighting peacock" herself, is no stranger to the power of pathos. The military regime is said to have removed the piano she used to play in her house, obviously they are not taking art for granted, so you shouldn’t either.