WILLIAM
PIETZ
Introduction: Decency and Debasement
The first gods measured out memory with a jicara in order to share it out, and
all the men and women came by to receive their measure of memory. But some
of the men and women were larger than the others and then the measure of
memory was not seen equally in all. It shone clearly in the smallest and in the
largest it was made opaque. Because of that they say that memory is greatest
and strongest in the smallest and it is harder to find in the powerful. That is
why they also say that men and women become smaller and smaller when they
grow old. They say it is so memory will shine more brightly. They say it is the
work of the oldest of the old: to make memory great.
And they also say that dignity is no more than memory which lives. They say.
—Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, e-mail communiqué of 25 August 1998
(translator unknown)
n
A jicara is a small bowl made from a gourd. I had to look it up in a
Spanish dictionary, and that’s what it said. The term may have all sorts
of meaningful cultural resonances, but I have no idea what they might
be. But you don’t have to know what a jicara is to get Marcos’s point
about the asymmetrical relation of memory to the powerful. For his-
tory’s winners, prevailing social arrangements are themselves a daily
testimony to their special self-worth, while the bloodier truths of how
they arrived at their privileged position exist as a threat to the good
conscience their sense of decency desires. There are so many things
that the powerful need to forget. But for those who exist in a world
rigged to debase them, the subjective value of dignity needs the ob-
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