THE BAD TIMES
From a talk
at the Shelter Rock Unitarian Universalist Congegration, Manhasset,
NY, delivered one week before the election of 2004
This is a time for metaphors. A
time for parallels and parables.
Logic has failed us, theories have
failed us, technology has failed us, policy has failed us, diplomacy
has failed us, our military, our leaders in government, media,
and the intelligentsia. . . even our faith seems to have failed
And so we yearn for stories that
makes sense, that help to end the madness. . .
We seek allegories and anecdotes
and allusions to turn things right. . . .
But it does no good if the tales
and the metaphors are delusional. . . if they drag us even further
into a psychopathic state that veers wildly between arrogance
It does no good if it sends us deeper
into a new middle ages where reality is ignored or sent to the
inquisition while myth becomes the dominant truth. . . only this
time propagated not by the church but by cable TV.
We live in a nation hated abroad
and frightened at home. A place in which we can reasonably refer
to the American Republic in the past tense. A country that has
moved into a post-constitutional era, no longer a nation of laws
but an adhocracy run by law breakers, law evaders and law ignorers.
A nation governed by a culture of impunity, a term from Latin
America where they know it well - a culture in which corruption
is no longer a form of deviance but the norm. We all live in
a Mafia neighborhood now.
It's crazy, it happened so fast,
it's like in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern when Rosencrantz
asks shortly before his death: "What was it all about? When
did it begin? . . . Couldn't we just stay put? . . . We've done
nothing wrong! We didn't harm anyone. Did we? . . . There must
have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said
-- no. But somehow we missed it.. . . Well, we'll know better
Yet we have seen it all before.
And it came with stories. A German professor after the World
War II described it this way to journalist Martin Mayer:
What happened was the
gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed
by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to
believing that the situation was so complicated that the government
had to act on information which the people could not understand,
or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it
could not be released because of national security. . .
~ To live in the process
is absolutely not to notice it -- please try to believe me --
unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness,
acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step
was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion,
The German professor went on:
~ Believe me this is true.
Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little
worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking
occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will
join you in resisting somehow.
~ Suddenly it all comes
down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done,
or, more accurately, what you haven't done (for that was all
that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). . . .
You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late.
You are compromised beyond repair. "
Soon after September 11, people
began talking about Pearl Harbor. Our leaders and much of our
media then drew the conclusion that our salvation lay in world
dominance, in empire.
Within just days we moved from tragic
reality to delusional myth. Empires don't have their major military
and economic icons damaged or destroyed by a handful of young
men with box cutters. Empires don't turn suddenly phobic at everything
foreign, everything sharp, every place crowded. Empires don't
jettison their Constitution and turn on their own people out
of blind fear. Empires don't get hopelessly bogged down invading
two small countries they have invaded. . . one which had a military
budget less than two percent of ours, the other with a gross
domestic product smaller than the cost of the bombs we were dropping
No, it wasn't Pearl Harbor. It was
more like Dien Bien Phu. The journalist Bernard Fall early in
our Vietnam conflict noted that the French, after their failed
battle at Dien Bien Phu, had no choice but to leave Southeast
Asia. America, with its vast military, financial, and technological
resources, was able to stay because it had the capacity to keep
making the same mistakes over and over. Our war against "terrorism"
has been in many ways a domestic version of our Vietnam strategy.
We keep making the same mistakes over and over because we can
still afford to. Or think we can.
One of these mistakes has been to
define the problem by its manifestations rather than its causes.
This turns a resolvable political problem into a irresolvable
practical dilemma, because, for example, while there are solutions
to the Middle East crisis, there are no solutions to the guerilla
violence that grows from the failure to resolve the crisis.
In other words, if you define the
problem as "a struggle against terrorism" you have
already admitted defeat because decentralized low tech guerillas
with a cause will always have another trick to play on a centralized,
technology-dependent society that has lost its way.
There is a good way to deal with
guerilla warfare and that is to resolve the problems that allow
it to thrive. The trick is to undermine the constituency of the
most bitter by dealing honestly and fairly with the complaints
and despair of the most decent and rational. As we have demonstrated
in the Middle East, one need not even reach a final solution
as long as incremental progress is being made. But once that
ceases, as happened when Bill Clinton in his last weeks declared
the efforts there a failure and then George Bush showed he didn't
care, the case for freelance violence quickly strengthened and
people simply forgot that peace was possible.
The answer - humiliating as it may
seem over the short run but wisely courageous as it really would
be - is not yet another war of empire against the Muslim world,
but to end the one we have covertly conducted for a half century
To get an idea of the price of the
alternative we have chosen instead, consider this. In the mid
1950s, while in high school, I played the role of an IRA commandant
in the "Informer" - a play written thirty years earlier.
It is now almost 50 years later yet that character and the subject
matter remain depressingly contemporary.
Here, on the other hand, is what
France did. A few years after Dien Bien Phu, General Charles
DeGaulle came to power. He had initially sought an Algerie francaise
but within one year in office was supporting full Algerian self-determination.
He held to this despite an attempted coup by members of the Foreign
Legion and a secret army organization determined to keep Algeria
French. Within a few years the French empire had been dismantled.
By 1961, with Kennedy contemplating
involvement in Vietnam, General de Gaulle strongly urged him
not to get involved in that "rotten country." Said
de Gaulle, "I predict to you, that you will, step by step,
be sucked into a bottomless military and political quagmire."
The French had lost 55,000 troops there, almost as many as the
DeGaulle understood the difference
between the illusion and reality of empire. Many years ago some
people built castles and walled cities and moats to keep the
bad guys out. It worked for a while, but sooner or later spies
and assassins figured out how to get across the moats and opponents
learned how to climb the walls and send balls of fire into protected
compounds. The Florentines even catapulted dead donkeys and feces
over the town wall during their siege of Siena.
The people who built castles and
walled cities and moats are all dead now and their efforts at
security seem puny and ultimately futile as we visit their unintended
monuments to the vanity of human presumption.
Yet like the castle-dwellers behind
the moat, we are now spending huge sums to put ourselves inside
a prison of our own making. It is unlikely to provide either
security for our bodies or solace for our souls, for we are simply
attacking ourselves before others get the chance.
This is not the way to peace and
safety. Peace is a state without violence, interrogations, and
moats. Peace is a state of reciprocity, of trust, of empirically
based confidence that no one is about to do you in. It exists
not because of intrinsic goodness or rampant naiveté but
because of a common, implicit understanding that that it works
better for everyone.
This state is often hard to come
by, but it is still cheaper, less deadly, and ultimately far
more effective than the alternative we have chosen.
Now many these days blame our problems
on George Bush. It's a convenient and perhaps useful way to think
about it, but historically it falls short as Bush himself revealed
during one of the debates when he defended the Patriot Act by
saying, "As a matter of fact, the tools now given to the
terrorist fighters are the same tools that we've been using against
He was right: the unconstitutional
principles of the war on drugs were the warm-up act for the Patriot
Act - steps so small, so inconsequential, so well explained,
as the German professor would have put it.
Four years before 9/11, I wrote
an article titled, "How You Became the Enemy," about
how America was drifting into the situation in which we now find
ourselves. Here were some examples - all pre-Al Queda and during
a Democratic administration:
- Many paramilitary police
units were conducting between 200 to 700 warrant or drug raids
a year- almost exclusively no-knock entries.
· A paramilitary
unit in Chapel Hill NC conducted a crack raid of an entire block
in a black neighborhood. Up to 100 persons were detained and
searched, all of whom were black (whites were allowed to leave
the neighborhood). There were no prosecutions.
· Police in Fresno
CA refer to their beat as "the war zone."
- The National Guard was
deeply involved in the War on Drugs.
- The military was being
used to train police officers, inevitably increasing the tendency
of citizens to be regarded by these officers as "the enemy."
- The century-old posse
comitatus act, designed to keep the military out of civilian
law enforcement, appeared to be on its last legs.
· Eight-nine percent
of the county's police departments, had paramilitary units.
- Plans by the Federal
Emergency Management Agency in the 1980s to take over the country
in an ill-defined emergency appeared to have been only partially
dismantled. Among the most striking aspect of these emergency
plans was the absence of any provision for a legislature or judiciary.
The real turning point, though,
for America was the Reagan administration. Reagan was a brash
voice for the wealthy, the greedy, and the lucky, a Bill O'Reilly
with charm. By the time he ran for president, the overt crudity
and the covert cruelty had been transformed into a faith, a philosophy,
and a political platform. Reagan transformed American politics
into show business and the media was glad to join the cast. The
fatuous banalities passing for sound philosophy or ex cathedra
statements pretending to be arguments passed deep into the mind
of America. Reagan had taught us that truth and reality were
no longer important.
Here are just a few things that
have happened since then:
- More than two-thirds of older
households had someone earning a pension in 1983. By 2001, fewer
than half did
- In the 1980s about two-thirds
of corporations included health care benefits with their pensions.
Today only about a third do.
- In 1983, 50 corporations controlled
most of the news media in America. By 2002, six corporations
- Farmers in 1999 were getting 36%
less for their products in real dollars than in 1984.
- In 1980 there were less than 500,000
people in prison in the U.S. By 2000 there were two million.
- Ninety percent of young white
male workers are now doing worse than they would have 20 years
ago. Adjusted for inflation, the income of a recent male high
school graduate declined 28% between 1973 and 1997.
- Anti-trust laws, once considered
the great mediator of commercial excess, have been steadily eroded.
- Organized labor has become a mere
shadow of its former self
- Between 1980 and 2000, the U.S.
per capita spending on schools increased 32%. The per capita
spending on prisons grew 189%
Every president after Reagan - including
Bill Clinton - moved this country to right until we found ourselves
with George Bush who is not so much the cause of our troubles
as their grimmest and most recent manifestation. Placated by
Prozac, persuaded by prevarication and pacified by prohibition,
we have ignored our drift towards the mean and the brutish and
continued to accept the lie that we are the better for it.
Empires and cultures are not permanent
and while thinking about the possibility that ours is
collapsing may seem a dismal exercise it is far less so than
enduring the frustrations, failures, damage and human casualties
involved in constantly butting up against reality like a boozer
who insists he is not drunk attempting to drive home.
Peter Ustinov in 'Romanoff and Juliet'
says at one point: "I'm an optimist: I know how bad the
world is. You're a pessimist: you're always finding out."
Or as GK Chesterton put it, "We must learn to love life
without ever trusting it."
Happiness, courage and passion in
a bad time can only be based on myth as long as reality does
not intrude. Once it does, our indifference to it will serve
us no better than it does the joyriding teenager whose assumption
of immortality comes into contact with a tree.
But this does not mean that one
must live in despair. There are other stories - true stories
of real people - that can lead us elsewhere.
Like the former LA narcotics detective
I know who learned to face danger while investigating corruption
and the involvement of intelligence agencies in the drug trade.
He had two bullet holes in his left arm and one in his left ear.
He said he had borrowed a trick another cop had taught him; when
in danger he simply considered himself already dead. Then he
was able to move without fear.
Such an ability to confront and
transcend -- rather than deny, adjust to, replace, recover from,
or succumb to -- the universe in which you find yourself is among
the things that permits freedom and courage. This man, with Buddhist-like
deconstruction and Christian-like rebirth, had taken apart the
pieces of his fear and dumped them on the ground -- a mercy killing
of dreams and nightmares on behalf of survival.
I grew up with someone like that.
Ann had come to our house during World War II as a nine year
old child from Britain. It hadn't been easy for her to get to
Washington in July of 1940. Sixty years later she wrote me about
I set sail in the Duchess
of Atholl in convoy. There was a slight skirmish with a submarine.
I remember feeling the ship shudder as depth charges were dropped
but we were unscathed and pressed on, though I remember seeing
icebergs and wondering. My mother told me we might well be sunk.
If I was dragged underwater, not to struggle. I would come to
the surface naturally, then not to strike out to England or America
but float on my back, as I had learned at school, until I was
Within two months, no more British
children were sent to America because the Nazis had started torpedoing
the ships and even machine gunning the children in the water.
After the war, Ann came back and
lived with us becoming a virtual sister. She would marry man,
quite a bit older, who had been a young doctor during the Battle
of London. The doctors were given colored tags to attach to the
feet of air raid victims. Each tag represented one bed and each
color one hospital in London. When the tags were gone so were
the beds. Think about that when you worry about your flu shot.
Ann was one of the first people
I thought about as I watched the World Trade Center go down because
she had learned to face the grim with stolidity but the rest
of life with passion and pleasure. I was in my home when it happened,
six blocks from another intended target, the US Capitol, and
I recalled how much I had learned from her, even as a child,
about getting through the bad times.
To view our times as decadent and
dangerous, to mistrust the government, to imagine that those
in power are not concerned with our best interests is not paranoid
but perceptive; to be depressed, angry or confused about such
things is not delusional but a sign of consciousness. Yet our
culture suggests otherwise.
But if all this is true, then why
not despair? The simple answer is this: despair is the suicide
of imagination. Whatever reality presses upon us, there still
remains the possibility of imagining something better, and in
this dream remains the frontier of our humanity and its possibilities
To despair is to voluntarily close a door that has not yet shut.
The task is to bear knowledge without it destroying ourselves,
to challenge the wrong without ending up on its casualty list.
"You don't have to change the world," the writer Colman
McCarthy has argued. "Just keep the world from changing
Oddly, those who instinctively understand
this best are often those who seem to have the least reason to
do so - survivors of abuse, oppression, and isolation who somehow
discover not so much how to beat the odds, but how to wriggle
around them. They have, without formal instruction, learned two
of the most fundamental lessons of psychiatry and philosophy:
You are not responsible
for that into which you were born..
You are responsible for
doing something about it.
These individuals move through life
like a skilled mariner in a storm rather than as a victim at
a sacrifice. Relatively unburdened by pointless and debilitating
guilt about the past, uninterested in the endless regurgitation
of the unalterable, they free themselves to concentrate upon
the present and the future. They face the gale as a sturdy combatant
rather than as cowering supplicant.
In Washington we have a neighborhood
known as Shaw where for decades just such a form of survival
thrived. It has been a particular interest of my historian wife,
Kathy. Until the modern civil rights movement and desegregation,
this African-American community was shut out without a vote,
without economic power, without access, and without any real
hope that any of this would change.
Its response was remarkable. For
example, in 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in
the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were
more than 300.
Every aspect of the community followed
suit. Among the institutions created within these few square
miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the
only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the
first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theatre
(opened with black capital twenty years before Harlem's Apollo
became a black stage) and two first rate movie palaces.
There were the Odd Fellows, the
True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches
and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club,
settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League.
Denied access to white schools,
the community created a self-sufficient educational system good
enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well
as teachers with advanced degrees from all over the country.
And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual
center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes,
Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street
area their home before moving to New York.
All this occurred while black Washingtonians
were being subjected to extraordinary economic obstacles and
being socially and politically ostracized. If there ever was
a culture entitled to despair and apathy it was black America
Yet not only did these African-Americans
develop self-sufficiency, they did so without taking their eyes
off the prize. Among the other people you might have found on
U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston, laying the
groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.
Older residents would remember the
former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride -- not unlike
the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would
voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but
many would know that some of their own best moments of courage,
skill, and heart had come when the times were at their worst.
Another example. Last summer, I
went to Umbria, a section of Italy north of Rome remarkably indifferent
to 500 years of its history, where even the homes and whole villages
seem to grow like native plants out of the rural earth rather
than being placed there by human effort. It was as if I had been
transported back several centuries while still being allowed
to take along a car and my Diet Coke. I hadn't felt such stability
for a long time, certainly not since September 11.
Yet the Umbrians have been invaded,
burned, or bullied by the Etruscans, Roman Empire, Goths, Longobards,
Charlemagne, Pippin the Short, the Vatican, Mussolini, the German
Nazis, and, most recently, the World Trade organization. Umbria
is a reminder of the durability of the human spirit during history's
tumults, an extremely comforting thought to an American these
We don't have to go that far back,
though. Consider the increasingly cited novel, 1984. Orwell saw
it coming, only his timing was off. The dystopia described in
1984 is so overwhelming that one almost forgets that most residents
of Oceana didn't live in it. Orwell gives the breakdown. Only
about two percent were in the Inner Party and another 13% in
the Outer Party. The rest numbering some 100 million were the
It is amongst the latter that Winston
Smith and Julia find refuge for their trysts, away from the cameras
(although not the microphones). The proles are, for the most
part, not worth the Party's trouble. Says Orwell:
From the proletarians nothing is
to be feared. Left to themselves, they will continue from generation
to generation and from century to century, working, breeding,
and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without
the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is
. . .
Orwell's division of labor and power
was almost precisely replicated in East Germany decades later,
where about one percent belonged to the General Secretariat of
the Communist Party, and another 13% being far less powerful
As we move towards - and even surpass
- the fictional bad dreams of Orwell and the in many ways more
prescient Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World,', it is helpful to
remember that these nightmares were actually the curse of the
elites and not of those who lived in the quaint primitive manner
of humans rather than joining the living dead at the zenith of
This bifurcation of society into
a weak, struggling, but sane, mass and a manic depressive elite
that is alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned,
foreshadows what we find today - an elite willing, on the one
hand, to occupy any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified
of young men with minimal weapons.
In the wake of September 11, this
trend became even more prominent. Our country's policies and
budgets have been strongly skewed in the interest of protecting
New York and Washington (and the natural resources and economic
machinery that support their activities). There has not been
much mention of a terrorist threat to St Louis or Des Moines,
at least in the national media. After all, St. Louis and Des
Moines are in the countryside that is filled with persons who,
if left to themselves, will, in the words of Orwell, "not
only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping
that the world could be other than it is."
This is not to say that St. Louis
or Des Moines won't be a target, only that it is far from what
the war on terrorism is really about, which is to defend those
things, people, and places that the elite hold most dear - starting
with themselves. Six blocks from my house, for example, they
are building a bunker for congressmen at the cost of $1 million
a member, congressmen already guarded by the most expensive police
force per capita and per acre in the world. A friend who works
a block away must go through several roadblocks a day. But walk
east just a bit towards my house and nothing has changed.
Strange as it may seem, it is in
this dismal dichotomy between countryside and the political and
economic capitals that the hope for saving America's soul resides.
The geographical and conceptual parochialism of those who have
made this mess leaves vast acres of our land still free in which
to nurture hopes, dreams, and perhaps even to foster the eventual
eviction of those who have done us such wrong.
Eric Paul Gros-Dubois of Southern
Methodist University has described Orwell's underclass this way:
The Proles were the poorest
of the groups, but in most regards were the most cheerful and
optimistic. The Proles were also the freest of all the groups.
Proles could do as they pleased. They could come and go, and
talk openly about whatever they felt like without having to worry
about the Thought Police. . .[Orwell] also concluded that the
hope for the future was contained within this group."
As a Washington native I often find
myself thinking of part of my city as occupied and robotic, and
part still free and human. I roughly define the free portion
as that having buildings I can enter without having to prove
in some direct way that I am not a terrorist. While the occupied
city encompasses much of downtown Washington, the consumptive
fear of those in power is so concentrated on their own safety
that they leave the better part of us alone.
I'm not so naïve as to think
that the government or its enemies couldn't at any moment suddenly
expand their interests. Still, upon leaving Washington I'm quickly
struck by the question: where did the war on terror go? The further
I get from this supposed democratic apex the more I feel as if
I'm in a democracy again.
There is plenty of evidence of the
divide in America. More than 130 communities have passed resolutions
challenging post 9/11 draconian laws such as the Patriot Act.
There is nothing new in this. Almost
all great changes in American politics and culture have had their
roots either in the countryside or among minorities within the
major cities. From religious 'great awakenings' to the abolitionist
movement, to the labor movement, to populism, to the 1960s and
civil rights, America has been repeatedly moved by viral politics
rather than by the pyramidal processes outlined in great man
theories of change promulgated by the elite and its media and
Successfully confronting the present
disaster will require far more than attempting to serially blockade
its serial evils, necessary as this is. There must also be a
guerilla democracy that defends, fosters, and celebrates our
better selves - not only to provide an alternative but to create
physical space for decent Americans to enjoy their lives while
waiting for things to get better. It may, after all, take the
rest of their lifetimes. We must not only condemn the worst,
but offer witness for the better. And create places in which
to live it.
We have, as in all authoritarian
regimes, become increasingly dependent upon those who hold us
down and back. But the potential is always there, even under
the worst circumstances. I was reminded of this not long after
September 11, as I found myself reflecting on the Solidarity
movement of Poland. We will get out of this mess, I thought,
when we can do in our own way what the Poles did in theirs.
At the heart of the Solidarity achievement
was something with which the Internet has made us familiar -
a form of politics that spread not by the precise decisions of
a small number of leaders but by the aggregated tiny and vaguer
decisions of a mass of citizens. In a sense, Solidarity was an
early and unwired flash mob or internet meetup.
The variety of techniques used by
Poles in the their search for freedom were impressive. For example,
John Rensenbrink in his contemporaneous book, described how kissing
women's hands became popular primarily because it annoyed the
And his description of Poland's
dilemma in the 1980s seems strikingly applicable to our own situation:
It is the struggle of
a state in ludicrous pursuit of a nation that it cannot seem
to find. And, it is the struggle of a nation trying to find a
way to meet the state, not in the posture of supplicant or avenger,
but in the posture of free citizen.
John Rensenbrink tells me that some
of Solidarity's early organizing took place on the trains that
many of the workers rode to the shipyards, where they had time
to drink coffee and talk. In our own history, there are innumerable
examples of change owing a debt to the simple serendipity of
people of like values and sensibilities coming together. For
example, the rise of Irish political power in this country was
aided considerably by the Irish bar's role as an ethnic DMZ and
a center for the exchange of information.
CS Lewis says somewhere that we
read to discover that we are not alone. That discovery is a necessary
for change as well. Part of the dreadful force of southern segregation,
for example, was that it prevented poor whites and poor blacks
from discovering how much they had in common.
We tend to discount the importance
of unplanned moments because of our fealty to the business school
paradigm in which change properly occurs because of a careful
strategic plan, an organized vision, procedures, and process.
During the past quarter century when such ideas have been in
ascendancy, however, America has demonstratively deteriorated
as a political, economic, and moral force. In reality, many of
the best things happen by accident and indirection. While it
may be true, as the Roman said, that "fortune smiles on
the well prepared" part of that preparation is to be in
the right place at the right time. In other words, it is necessary
to create an ecology of change rather than a precise and often
The beat generation understood this.
Unlike today's activists they lacked a plan; unlike those of
the 60s they lacked anything to plan for; what substituted for
utopia and organization was the freedom to think, to speak, to
move at will in a culture that thought it had adequately taken
care of all such matters. To a far greater degree than rebellions
that followed, the beat culture created its message by being
rather than doing, rejection rather than confrontation, sensibility
rather than strategy, journeys instead of movements, words and
music instead of acts, and informal communities rather than formal
The full-fledged uprisings that
followed could not have occurred without years of anger and hope
being expressed in more individualistic and less disciplined
ways, ways that may seem ineffective in retrospect yet served
as absolutely necessary scaffolding with which to build a powerful
One of these ways, for example,
is music. Billie Holiday was singing about lynchings long before
the modern civil rights movement. And Rage Against the Machine
was engaging in anti-sweatshop protests some years before most
college student had ever heard of them.
Another way is found in the magic
of churches. During the 1960s I edited a newspaper in a neighborhood
75% black and mostly poor in which I came to assume that churches
were the sina qua non of positive change. We had over a 100 of
them in a two square mile area and you just came to rely upon
them as part of the political action, including the Revolutionary
Church of What's Happenin' Now and the Rev. Frank Milner, part-minister
and part-taxicab driver who would come to community meetings
in an outfit complete with clerical collar and a metal change-maker
on his belt.
How important one church can be
is illustrated with a little known story from Birmingham Alabama.
Responding to Rosa Parks' mistreatment, sleeping car porter E.D.
Nixon called up a young preacher and asked if he could use his
church for a meeting. The minister said he would think about
it. A few days later, Nixon called back and the minister agreed.
E.D. Nixon's reply was something like this, "Thank you Reverend
King, because we've scheduled a meeting at your church next Monday
at 6:30 pm."
It is for such reasons we must learn
to stand outside of history. Quakerism, for example, prescribes
personal witness as guided by conscience - regardless of the
era in which we live or the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
And the witness need not be verbal. The Quakers say "let
your life speak," echoing St. Francis of Assisi's' advice
that one should preach the gospel at all times and "if necessary,
There are about as many Quakers
today in America as there were in the 18th century, around 100,000.
Yet near the center of every great moment of American social
and political change one finds members of the Society of Friends.
Why? In part because they have been willing to fail year after
year between those great moments. Because they have been willing
in good times and bad -- in the instructions of their early leader
George Fox -- "to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth
answering that of God in every one "
The existentialists knew how to
stand outside of history as well. Existentialism, which has been
described as the idea that no one can take your shower for you,
is based on the hat trick of passion, integrity and rebellion.
An understanding that we create ourselves by what we do and say
and, in the words of one of their philosophers, even a condemned
man has a choice of how to approach the gallows.
Those who think history has left
us helpless should recall the abolitionist of 1830, the feminist
of 1870, the labor organizer of 1890, or the gay or lesbian writer
of 1910. They, like us, did not get to choose their time in history
but they, like us, did get to choose what they did with it.
Would we have been abolitionists
In 1848, 300 people gathered at
Seneca Falls, NY, for a seminal moment in the American women's
movement. On November 2, 1920, 91 year-old Charlotte Woodward
Pierce became the only signer of the Seneca Falls Declaration
of Sentiments and Resolutions who had lived long enough to cast
a ballot for president.
Would we have attended that conference
in 1848? Would we have bothered?
Or consider the Jewish cigar makers
in early 20th century New York City each contributing a small
sum to hire a man to sit with them as they worked - reading aloud
the classic works of Yiddish literature. The leader of the cigar-makers,
Samuel Gompers, would later become the first president of the
American Federation of Labor. And those like him would become
part of a Jewish tradition that profoundly shaped the politics,
social conscience, and cultural course of 20th century America.
While Protestants and Irish Catholics controlled the institutions
of politics, the ideas of modern social democracy disproportionately
came from native populists and immigrant socialists. It is certainly
impossible to imagine liberalism, the civil rights movement,
or the Vietnam protests without the Jewish left.
These are the sort of the stories
we must find and tell each other during the bad days ahead. But
there is a problem. The system that envelopes us becomes normal
by its mere mass, its ubiquitous messages, its sheer noise. Our
society faces what William Burroughs called a biologic crisis
-- "like being dead and not knowing it." Or as Matthew
Arnold put it, trapped between two worlds, one dead, the other
unable to be born.
We are overpowered and afraid. We
find ourselves condoning things simply because not to do so means
we would then have to -- at unknown risk -- truly challenge them.
Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament
makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We
can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn
our energies instead to the construction of a new time.
It is this willingness to walk away
from the seductive power of the present that first divides the
mere reformer from the rebel -- the courage to emigrate from
one's own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement
but as a frontier.
How one does this can vary markedly,
but one of the bad habits we have acquired from the bullies who
now run the place is undue reliance on traditional political,
legal and rhetorical tools. Politically active Americans have
been taught that even at the risk of losing our planet and our
democracy, we must go about it all in a rational manner, never
raising our voice, never doing the unlikely or trying the improbable,
let alone screaming for help.
We will not overcome the current
crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like
those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The
freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The
plays of Vaclav Havel. Unitarian church basements. The pain of
James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of
Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions.
People coming together because they disagree on every subject
save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle
poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies
and simple suppers.
Above all, we must understand that
in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves,
our places, and our planet. We must rebel not as a last act of
desperation but as a first act of creation.
Portions of this talk come from
Sam Smith's book "Why Bother?," which deals with getting
through the bad times including chapters on despair, rebellion,
personal witness, and guerrilla democracy.
TO DO DURING THE BAD TIMES
THE RISE OF NO GO ZONES
SINCE 9/11 your editor has on several
occasions put forth the thesis that if there was any hope of
retaining or restoring values of democracy and decency in this
country it lay outside the major economic and political capitals,
just as it did in Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World.
Now Hakim Bey has come up with a more dense and dismal variation
of such places - he calls them "no go zones"
HAKIM BEY - The state, as the last
spectacular locus of the world of simulation, will be forced
to practice social triage, letting go of real control over zones
which fall beneath the level of adequate involvement in the empty
Zones: classes, races, marginalized
groups, and to some extent actual geographic areas.
Triage: gradual and imperceptible
letting-go of "services", leading to the emergence
of no-go zones where "control" is reduced to purely
simulated means (e.g. TV as social glue).
Zones which have been economically
abandoned (the homeless, small farmers, migrant workers, "welfare
classes") will gradually be eliminated from all other networks
controlled by the spectacle of the state, including the final
interface, the Police. Officially of course this policy will
not exist and the specto-state will continue to claim jurisdiction
and proprietorship of these zones -- no political autonomy will
be permitted, and occasional terror acts will be broadcast in
the spectacle to provide a veneer of control-simulation. But
in stark economic reality these zones will have been sacrificed,
like passengers thrown out of the troika of History to the wolves
of Memory. . .
Those no-go zones are not going
to be very comfortable -- they're not going to be utopias --
they might even end up nasty as the resurgent fascist statelets
of E. Europe in the wake of 1989. Who would volunteer to live
in Bosnia (or South L.A.) simply because disorder and violence
can produce "wild freedoms" as well as sheer panic
and genuine horror? As for specto-simulo-capital itself, its
next (and perhaps final?) stage will consist of the Empire of
pure Speed --the instantaneity of communications technology,
elevated to the status of transcendent being -- (omniscience,
omnipresence, omnipotence) . . .
Now the crucial question: is it
possible to imagine the no-go-zone fulfilling a liberatory function?
(in any way other than as a reversion to primitive warfare interesting
perhaps to a few Neitzschean Vikings?) --that is, do the NGZ's
play any necessary role in the emergence of the Temporary Autonomous
Zone or even the Permanent Autonomous Zone? Does the NGZ represent
-- in some weird paradoxical way -- the rebirth of the possibility
of the social? . . .
The sine qua non for the NGZ as
a possible locus for liberation consists of the implementation
of an economy adequate to this function; and the implementization
of such an economy depends (at least in part) on an idea of the
social. . .
I'm thinking of certain old European
genre paintings which always fascinated me as a child, depicting
peasants or gypsies living in the ruins of some vanished empire
-- usually Roman. The images appealed to a Bachelardian sense
of reverie and magic about certain kinds of "home",
certain kinds of "space". I like the sense of abandonment
implied in the paradox of abandoned ruins brought to life by
"abandoned" bohemians, low-lifes, Breughelian fiddlers
and dancers -- the contrast of the heavy remains of vanished
triumphalism with the lightness and brightness of nomads. I may
very well be romanticizing the NGZ as a possible utopian topos
or site -- but then again, I might be inclined to defend the
occasional usefulness of romanticism: -- it beats despair. The
NGZ is on the way, whether we dread it or romanticize it.
SECURING THE HOMELAND
SAM SMITH, SECURING THE HOMELAND
- As we move towards - and
even surpass - the fictional bad dreams of Huxley and Orwell,
it is helpful to remember that these nightmares were actually
the curse of the elites, and not of those who lived in the quaint
primitive manner of humans rather than joining the living dead
at the zenith of illusionary power.
This bifurcation of society into
a weak, struggling, but sane, mass and a manic depressive elite
that is alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned,
mimics in some ways the time of moated castles. But it also foreshadows
what we find today - an elite willing, on the one hand, to occupy
any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified of a few
young men with box cutters.
The cost of this psychotic conflict
is enormous, even on the innocent and unchosen. Yet ultimately
the heaviest burden is on those in America's inner and outer
parties. An important part of the split is geographic. The proles
and savages were mostly removed from the centers of power, much
as in our world. In fact 'globalization,' rather than making
us "one world," has actually widened the gap between
the powerful and the weak. The former mostly live and work in
the economic and political capitals, enjoying what might be called
capitalism were not the term already taken. The rest of the world
is separated from the action. This phenomenon even occurs in
conquered lands: the Iraq war was 'over' when we thought we had
captured Baghdad, the devil take the rest of the country. Similarly,
we have yet to capture Afghanistan, but under today's rules,
holding Kabul is close enough.
It is this unnamed country of international
law, trade and finance, with its anthem to "global competition
in the first half of the 21st century," that is increasingly
providing the substance and the style to our anti-democratic
politics. It is their dual citizenship in America and in the
Great Global Glob that characterizes the most powerful among
us, now more than ever including even our own political leaders.
In the wake of September 11, this
trend became even more prominent. Our country's policies and
budgets have been strongly skewed in the interest of protecting
New York and Washington (and the natural resources and borders
that support their activities). There has not been much mention
of a terrorist threat to St Louis, at least in the national media.
After all, St. Louis is in the countryside that is filled with
persons who, if left to themselves, will, in the words of Orwell,
"continue from generation to generation and from century
to century, working, breeding, and dying, not only without any
impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the
world could be other than it is."
This is not to say that St. Louis
won't be a target, only that it is far from what the war on terrorism
is really about, which is to defend those things, people, and
places that the elite hold most dear starting with themselves.
Nor is it to say that such places can be immune from the sort
of economic or environmental catastrophe of which the Bush regime
is fully capable. But unlike our frightened leaders, the residents
of most of the country simply live with the risk. There is no
government money for their bunkers.
Strange as it may seem, however,
it is in this dismal dichotomy between countryside and the political
and economic capitals that the hope for saving America's soul
resides. The geographical and conceptual parochialism of those
who have made this mess leaves vast acres of our land still free
in which to nurture hopes, dreams, and perhaps even to foster
the eventual eviction of those who have done us such wrong.
SAM SMITH, WHY BOTHER? - One of the most fascinating and unusual
examinations of how culture can be redefined is contained in
a strange book, T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological
Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, by Hakim Bey. Bey argues that the
world fundamentally changed with what he calls the "closure
of the map" -- the end of terrestrial discovery:
"Because the map is an abstraction
it cannot cover earth with 1:1 accuracy. Within the fractal complexities
of actual geography the map can see only dimensional grids. Hidden
enfolded immensities escape the measuring rod."
For example, there is the map one
might draw of the Internet, whose nomads may never leave their
office or room. They are like Thoreau who said he had "traveled
much -- in Concord." Says Bey:
"Lay down a map of the land;
over that set a map of political change; over that a map of the
Net, especially the counter-Net with its emphasis on clandestine
information-flow and logistics -- and finally, over all, the
1:1 map of the creative imagination, aesthetics, values. The
resultant grid comes to life, animated by unexpected eddies and
surges of energy, coagulations of light, secret tunnels, surprises."
Bey's temporary autonomous zones
are uncertain and undulating communities of the rootless and
"The TAZ is like an uprising
which does not engage directly with the state, a guerrilla operation
which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and
then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the
state can crush it. Because the state is concerned primarily
with simulation rather than substance, the TAZ can "occupy"
these areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for
quite a while in relative peace. Perhaps certain small TAZs have
lasted whole lifetimes because they went unnoticed -- like hillbilly
enclaves -- because they never intersected with the spectacle,
never appeared outside that real life which is invisible to the
agents of simulation."
An example is the pirate utopia:
"The sea-rovers and corsairs
of the 18th century created an "information network"
that spanned the globe: primitive and devoted primarily to grim
business; the net nevertheless functioned admirably. Scattered
throughout the net were islands, remote hideouts where ships
could be watered and provisioned, booty traded for luxuries and
necessities. Some of these islands supported "intentional
communities," whole mini-societies living consciously outside
the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short
but merry life . . . Fleeing from hideous "benefits"
of imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism and intolerance,
from the tortures of impressment and the living death of the
plantations, the buccaneers adopted Indian ways, intermarried
with Caribs, accepted blacks and Spaniards as equals, rejected
all nationality, elected their captains democratically, and reverted
to the "state of nature." Having declared themselves
"at war with all the world," they sailed forth to plunder
under mutual contracts called "Articles" which were
so egalitarian that every member received a full share and the
captain usually only 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 shares . . ."