Over the last couple days, I’ve randomly stumbled upon three TV programs that shared a common thread. I found it remarkable that these random programs shared any thread, particularly one so pertinent to the American experience today. The PBS series Independent Lens featured New Year Baby, filmmaker Socheata Poeuv’s tale of her family’s history during the Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia. The History Channel re-aired their emmy-nominated documentary on Blood Diamonds. Finally, Frontline/World featured a story on the development of a digital archive of the atrocities of the “disappeared” during the Guatemalan civil war.
Though none of the topics were new to me, what these excellent examples of television did illuminate was the need for a society to be able to openly reflect on its past. In Cambodia, though the Khmer Rouge is no longer in power (per se), many officials are former Khmer Rouge, making the victims reticent to discuss the past. In Sierra Leone, the perpetrators of the horrible mutilations and enslavement for diamonds were granted amnesty and financial gain in a deal to end a bloody civil war. That means the victims now get to live next to the monsters that maimed them, an officially-sanctioned horrifying reality. This quashes any catharsis. The bright spot, the archive in Guatemala, has faced fire-bombing from those that would conceal the past and a society that still does not speak of what happened. Hopefully, the existence of the archive and a current regime that seeks openness will help them overcome this hurdle.
Interesting, you say, but why should I care? First, it is always nice to find excellent programming on television and I am always happy to let others know that it isn’t all comparisons between adults and fifth grade students on TV these days. More importantly, I live in a society that is growing increasingly secretive. Open and free information, we are told, is a luxury we cannot afford if we want to maintain our society in the face of “terror”. In fact, just a couple weeks back we got a brand new classification for information from the government, the obnoxiously named Controlled Unclassified Information.
This is moving in the absolute wrong direction. We should learn from the lessons of Cambodia, Sierra Leone and Guatemala. Free information is the only way to preserve our society. Regardless of your political views, whomever becomes the 44th president of the United States must turn the tide in our society. It is our (dwindling) openness that makes and keeps us great. I hope you agree.