(To follow is a version of a talk I’ve been giving throughout 2008)
I’d like to preface my presentation with a little story about September 11. Not September 11, 2001. September 11, 1973. On that date, the US government helped fund and sponsor a military coup in the South American nation of Chile. The democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown and killed. They said he committed suicide…with a machine gun. In his place, the US propped up the dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. Not surprisingly, under Pinochet taking power, human rights violations in Chile skyrocketed. Surprisingly, someone within the US power structure talked about it.
A man named David Popper was US ambassador to Chile at the time and he sent a cable to the State Department about the human rights issues. The Secretary of State in the mid-70s was none other than Henry Kissinger. His response was short and sweet: “Tell Popper to cut out the political science lectures.”
Now, I may not have anything approaching a college degree, but I have taken one political science in my life. So I get it and, in a rare case of synchronicity with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Henry Kissinger, I promise there will be no political science lectures here tonight.
Okay, here we are, in the year 2008…or, as I’d prefer to call it, the 28th consecutive year of the Reagan administration. This is the point in the evening when the speaker typically implores everyone to turn off the cell phones. But, as far as I’m concerned, you can leave yours on. This way, every time someone’s phone goes off, we can be reminded of the fact that half the humans on the planet have never made a single phone call.
Or maybe, when a phone rings, we can focus on these six simple words: The Democratic Republic of the Congo. We’d do that because one of the primary components of cell phone circuitry is a metallic ore called Columbite-Tantalite—or “coltan.” Eighty percent of the world’s known coltan can be found in African nation of The Democratic Republic of the Congo (or DRC), which just so happens to be embroiled in a brutal (even by current standards) civil war since the pre-cell phone days of 1994. Over time, all sides in the unrelenting struggles adroitly began using the mining and sale of coltan not only to nourish the West’s seemingly insatiable cell phone addiction, but also to fund their inexorable mayhem. Civilian deaths in the DRC during this time—mostly from war-related disease and malnutrition—are estimated not in the hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands, but rather in the millions…making it the world’s deadliest military conflict since the Second World War.
And it gets worse. Just ask an Eastern Lowland Gorilla, the world’s largest primate, found almost exclusively in the DRC. According to National Geographic: “Following a decade of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, new estimates suggest that the number of eastern lowland gorillas may have plummeted by 70 percent. Conflict, illegal mining for a mineral used for electronic-device components, and the growing bush-meat trade have all taken their toll.” The UN Environment Program has reported that the number of eastern lowland gorillas in eight DRC national parks has subsequently declined by 90 percent. We can only hope that some enterprising soul has already recorded the eastern lowland gorilla’s call so it can be used as a ring tone long after they’re gone.
So yeah, go ahead and leave your phones on and enjoy your next text.
So here we are…in New York City in New York State in the white supremacist capitalist homophobic patriarchy we call America. Or, as it’s known by the indigenous crowd, “the occupied territories.”
Speaking of occupied territories, while I’m up here, let’s not forget that each and every one of us is sitting or standing on stolen land.
Let’s not forget that with each minute that passes, the US government spends one million of our tax dollars spent on war.
Let’s also not forget that on this planet of abundant resources, every two seconds, a human starves to death.
That usually quiets the crowd and gives me a chance to remind you that I am available for children’s parties.
Speaking of millions spent on war and too many people dying, I’d like to mention a forgotten anniversary: August 6, 1990. To most people—particularly activists—the starting date for the war in Iraq is March 19, 2003. However, to accept that date is to put far too much blame on one party and one president. A more accurate and useful starting date is August 6, 1990. Iraq invaded Kuwait—with US permission-on August 2, 1990. Four days later—at the behest of the US—the United Nations Security Council imposed murderous sanctions upon the people of Iraq. The war on Iraq began that day.
It is widely accepted that these sanctions were responsible for the deaths of roughly 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five. US Ambassador the UN in the mid-90s was Madelaine Albright. In 1996, Leslie Stahl asked her on 60 Minutes if a half-million dead Iraqi children was a price worth paying to pursue American foreign policy. Albright famously replied: “Yes, we think it’s worth it.”
Shortly after that, Albright was named US Secretary of State by noted liberal Democrat hero, Bill Clinton.
I highlight Clinton’s alleged liberal reputation because I’m not here to preach to the choir. I’m guessing most of you don’t need me to tell you what’s wrong with the Bush administration so I’d rather not just focus on the latest figurehead of empire. Instead, I’d rather dig deeper to the heart of our culture. A culture riddled with violence and hypocrisy. And speaking of riddles: Who gave up a life of luxury and turned his back on millions to fight for what he believed in, in the mountains and caves of Afghanistan and, as a result, is now revered by many as a “hero”?
Most people guess Osama bin Laden, but there’s another, equally accurate answer: Pat Tillman. Perception is reality and whether or not you think Osama or Tillman is a hero depends mostly on which propaganda is reaching your ears. Sure, I know “propaganda” is not a word commonly heard in polite discourse in this country—we prefer euphemisms like public relations, spin, or hype—but don’t kid yourselves: We live in a corporate propaganda state.
Perhaps my favorite illustration of life in a corporate propaganda state is the daily New York Times corrections box. Each day, the newspaper of record comes clean about what it got wrong the day before. For example, in early 2008, the Times ran a cutting edge article on the topic of tattoos but referred incorrectly to the status of Gwen Stefani’s tattoos. The next day, in the corrections box, came a dose of reality: Gwen Stefani has no permanent tattoos.
Our long national nightmare is over. We can all sleep better tonight knowing that Gwen Stefani has no permanent tattoos. So, don’t let it ever be said the corporate media does not admit its mistakes. It’s all there in black and white every single day.
Of course, the tacit message behind the daily New York Times corrections box is this: Besides a few minor typographical errors, everything else in yesterday’s paper was correct. It was accurate. It was, to use their phrase, fit to print…and has now passed on to become part of our official history. This is typical of life within a society dominated by a corporate-run press.
Whether you label them liberal or conservative, most major media outlets are large corporations owned by or aligned with even larger corporations, and they share a common goal: to make a profit by selling a product—an affluent audience—to a given market: advertisers). Therefore, we shouldn’t find it too shocking that the image of the world being presented by a corporate-owned press very much reflects the biased interests of the elite players involved in this sordid little love triangle.
That’s why every major daily newspaper has a business section, but not a labor section. Why at least once a week those same newspapers run an automobile section, but no bicycle section. This is why when the Dow Jones Industrial Average drops, it makes headlines. But if the global infant mortality rate rises, it’s questionable if it will even make the papers (and if it does, it’ll be buried on page 23). In other words, if you created a blueprint for an apparatus that utterly erased critical thought, you can make none more efficient than the American corporate media.
We may live in a relatively free country but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to break free of the cookie-cutter formula being rammed down our throats at every turn. I remember eating lunch in a diner in Virginia Beach, Virginia—lots of military bases around there—when we heard a deafening roar from outside. We asked the waitress what it was and she smiled proudly: “That’s an F-14. The sound of freedom.”
What sounds like freedom or looks like freedom or feels like freedom is often nothing more than longer chains and bigger cages. What passes for rebellion in this country is usually co-opted, sanitized, and sold back to us as a trend or commodity…and it starts young. Clarence Darrow once said: “Just think of the tragedy of teaching children not to doubt.” In a poem, Ani DiFranco gives us one example of teaching children not to doubt. She talks of a test we all face in kindergarten or the first grade. You know the deal. They show us two squares and a circle and the inevitable question is: Which one doesn’t belong? Thus, at the tender age of five or six, we’re being taught that different doesn’t belong, different is wrong.
That same child, by the time they graduate high school, has seen an average of 360,000 television commercials. If they grow up and reach age 70—an increasingly difficult proposition, I might add—they will have spent ten of those 70 years watching TV.
Thanks, in part, to corporate media propaganda…
…we exist within a system in which the “Department of War” was magically transformed into the “Defense Department” just after World War II
…we exist within a system in which the US uses helicopters called Apache to quell ethnic cleansing
…we exist within a system in which more than one out of every 100 American adults are in prison, but we still live in the land of the free
…we exist within a system in which we can carpet bomb civilians from 15,000 feet in the name of humanitarianism and we still live in the home of the brave
…we exist within a system in which a war criminal like Henry Kissinger can be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize
This same system allows for free and fair presidential elections open to any candidate over the age of 35…who, of course, praises god and the free market (or am I being redundant?), describes his/her enemies as “evil,” understands that the rest of the world hates us because we’re free, and, oh yeah, can raise at least a half-billion dollars.
This same electoral system see third party candidates routinely barred from public debates (and often censored by misguided “progressives,” for that matter), only half the eligible voters will even bother showing up, and when all else fails, you can count on the Supreme Court to set things straight (and I do mean straight).
Since we have reached the electoral portion of tonight’s program, I’d like to present a public service announcement. I’m going to provide some of the many, many reasons you shouldn’t vote for McCain:
He’s raised twice as much money from Wall Street than his opponent. He voted for every Iraq war appropriation bill he faced. He refused to be photographed with San Francisco’s mayor for fear it’d be interpreted that he supported gay marriage. He voted against single payer health care. He supports the death penalty, the Israeli war machine, and the fence on the US-Mexican border. When asked if “there’s anything that’s happened in the past 7 1/2 years that the U.S. needs to apologize for in terms of foreign policy?” he responded: “No, I don’t believe in the U.S. apologizing.” He voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State and to reauthorize the Patriot Act. He…uh-oh. Sorry, I messed up and gave you some of the many, many reasons you shouldn’t vote for Barack Obama. My bad…
Regardless, I do believe that either McCain or Obama can help make this country what it once was: an arctic region covered with ice (insert rimshot here).
In 2006, the Democrats gained a majority in Congress. How’s that working out for you? Asking this reminds me of something Steve McQueen said in the movie, The Magnificent Seven. When asked how things were going, he replied: “It’s like that fella who fell off a ten-story building. As he was falling, people on each floor heard him say, ‘So far, so good.’”
After 2006 election, we were led to believe the bad times were over and the evil ones had been vanquished. What could be better, right? How about a Democrat in the White House? Well, those who want an idea of what life might be like under such a scenario need only to reflect back upon the years 1993 and 1994—when President William Jefferson Clinton was enjoying the “advantage” of a Democratically-controlled Congress.
In just two years, liberal hero Bill Clinton abandoned his pledge to consider offering asylum to Haitian refugees, backed away from his most high-profile campaign issue: health care, and reneged on his promise to “take a firm stand” against the armed forces’ ban on gays and lesbians.
In 1993-4, Clinton presided over the invasion of Somalia (which resulted in some 7000-10000 dead Somalis), signed a little something called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), increased Pentagon budget by $25 billion, fired Jocelyn Elders, dumped Lani Guinier, ordered the bombing of Iraq and the Balkans, renewed the sanctions on Iraq, ignored genocide in Rwanda, and passed a crime bill that gave us more cops, more prisons, & 58 more offenses punishable by death.
All this came before Newt Gingrich and much-hyped Republican “revolution” in 1994 (perhaps the most astonishing use of the word revolution in the history of the English language). Can someone please explain to me why the right wing didn’t love Bubba?
And I haven’t even gotten to the environment. In the first three years of the Clinton-Gore regime—two of which involved a Democratic House and Senate—Clinton and his green buddy gave us fun stuff like: The passage of the salvage logging rider, the continuation of the use of methyl bromide, the weakening of the Endangered Species Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, the lowering of grazing fees on land, the subsidizing of Florida’s sugar industry, the reversing the ban on the production and importation of PCBs, and allowing the export of Alaskan oil.
When Clinton and Gore ran for re-election in 1996, David Brower, former president of the Sierra Club, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times called “Why I Won’t Vote for Clinton.” In this piece, Brower declared that Clinton and Gore had “done more harm to the environment in three years than Presidents Bush and Reagan did in 12 years.” That’s Bush the Elder, not Bush the Lesser.
I could go on for hours about the rest of Clinton’s reign, like the repeal of welfare, the telecommunications bill that further narrowed the already laughable parameters of public debate, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the fact that after eight years in office with no political price to pay, he still did not pardon Leonard Peltier. But I’ll just focus on one more Clinton gem: The Anti-Terrorism & Effective Death Penalty Act, signed into law on April 24, 1996. This USA PATRIOT Act prequel contained provisions that Clinton himself admitted “make a number of ill-advised changes in our immigration laws, having nothing to do with fighting terrorism.” This unconstitutional salvo severely restricted habeas corpus and expanded the number of federal capital crimes—and the PATRIOT Act is mostly an extension its legal foundations.
For a little more two-party context, consider that John Kerry—Democratic presidential candidate in 2004—voted for Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996 and wrote parts of the PATRIOT Act in 2001, Hillary voted for in 2001 and both she and Obama voted to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act in 2005. Hooray Democrats.
With all the public outcry for Bush and the his gang, I’m wondering: Where was all the outrage for liberal hero Bill Clinton? Where was the outrage when he ordered 78 days of bombing over Yugoslavia in 1999, including the use of depleted uranium? (At the time, Secretary of State Albright asked: “What’s the point of having this magnificent military if we never use it?”)
Where were the simplistic Nazi references when Clinton blew up a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant to distract us from Monica’s cigar fetish?
Where were the Hitler mustaches when Clinton bombed Iraq in response to an alleged plot to assassinate Bush the Elder and ended up killing Leila Attar, that country’s best-known female artist?
If we want to provoke genuine social change, we must always remember that “anti-war” doesn’t just mean “anti-this-war” and it definitely doesn’t just mean “anti-Republican.”
“I think it is dangerous to confuse the idea of democracy with elections. Just because you have elections doesn’t mean you’re a democratic country.”
Arundhati Roy said that.
“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Emma Goldman said that.
“The next time someone tells you America has a two-party system, I suggest you demand a recount.” I said that.
In 2004, 65% of congressional races were uncontested and 58% of incumbent Senators who ran were unopposed. Overall, the candidate who raised the most money won 91% of those races.
In the words of the esteemed political philosopher Cyndi Lauper: “Money changes everything.”
As Ralph Nader reminds us, if the Democrats and Republicans were corporations, they’d be sued for and convicted of anti-trust violations.
To me, America’s two-party system is like buying a ticket on a commercial airline. You can request a seat on the right side or you can request a seat on the left side of the plane. But it doesn’t matter as long as the pilot is in control.
Sure, voting for Barack Obama will prove once and for all that you’re more open-minded than your Republican brother-in-law but it’s time to recognize the most consistent and primary difference between Republicans and Democrats is this: they tell different lies to get elected.
There’s one thing both parties agree on. No matter who we are, no matter who we vote or, no matter how we feel about this war or any war, all Americans must band together and “support our troops.”
For some, the phrase “support our troops” is merely a euphemism for: support the policies that put the troops there in the first place. For others—particularly on the Left—it is a safe way to avoid taking an unqualified stand against this war (and all war). Many who passionately identify as “anti-war” will just as passionately defend the troops-no questions asked—and the excuse making typically falls into three categories:
1. They were just following orders
2. It’s a “poverty draft”
3. The troops are fighting for our freedom
Let’s start with the freedom myth. I can’t tell you how many e-mails I’ve received over the years that read something like this: “While you sit at home in your luxurious apartment, making money off your writing (insert laugh track here), those brave men and women are putting their asses on the line to fight for your freedom to write your anti-American garbage.
I say: Bullshit.
The troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are not fighting for my freedom. They are fighting to keep the world safe for petroleum. If anything, since 9/11, our freedom has been slowly eroded and the presence of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan makes it harder for anyone to speak up in dissent. If I were in an airport, and I spoke aloud what I’ve written in this article, I’d likely be detained or arrested.
The only following orders excuse has no illegal foundation. You can use the Google function on your Internet machine to find the many treaties, charters, and agreements that back up this point, but here’s one to get you started: Principle IV of the Nuremberg Tribunal (1950) states: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”
Besides this, it can be easily posited that “only following orders” also has no moral footing. Of course, the facile example would be Nazi Germany. But surely every suicide bomber is merely following orders as are those detonating IEDs in Iraq. The Left praised Vietnam era draftees who fled to Canada. Yet, today’s volunteer warriors are given a free pass because they didn’t give the orders in an illegal war and occupation. This is not only illegal and immoral; it also lacks any radical credibility. Somehow, individuals and groups can stand tall against war and military intervention but refuse to shine a light on those who choose (and get paid) to fight. Nowhere else in the realm of activism does such a paradox exist.
Consider the animal rights activists struggling to end the morally indefensible and scientifically fraudulent enterprise of animal experimentation. Can they expose the corporations and academic institutions but somehow “support” the actual scientists performing the lab experiments? Surely, they are “just doing their job” and “following orders.”
How about those fighting to end unfair labor practices? Is it acceptable to call out the CEOs of Nike and The Gap but hang yellow ribbons for those who handle day-to-day operations of a sweatshop in, say, Vietnam? These men and women are just as “stuck in a bad situation” as any grunt in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The second excuse usually sounds like this: “It’s a poverty draft. These poor souls have to enlist because they any economic options.” America is certainly an unjust economic society and this would be a compelling argument…if it were true. A 2006 New York Times op-ed highlighted a study by Tim Kane and Mackenzie Eaglen that “analyzed demographic data on every single enlistee, not just a sample, and found that in terms of education, last year’s recruits were just as qualified as those of any recent year, and maybe the best ever. Over all, wartime recruits since 1999 are in many respects comparable to the youth population on the whole, except that they are on average a bit wealthier, much more likely to have graduated from high school and more rural than their civilian peers.” They also found that youths “from wealthy American ZIP codes are volunteering in ever higher numbers” while “enlistees from the poorest fifth of American neighborhoods fell nearly a full percentage point over the last two years, to 13.7 percent. In 1999, that number was exactly 18 percent.”
For the sake of argument, let’s say those numbers are inaccurate and let’s say that most of today’s enlistees volunteer because they lack almost any other economic options. What I’m wondering is this: Would this same economic excuse hold water for those who opt to become gang members for the same exact reason? A poor black kid “enlists” in the Crips, a poverty-stricken Hispanic “enlists” in the Latin Kings…for that matter: an uneducated Italian kid in Bensonhurst “enlists” in the Mafia.
These kids are also faced with a stark choice—being poor or choosing a uniform—but no one hangs yellow ribbons for them, no one makes excuses them. There are two major differences between them and the men and women who volunteer to join the US military:
1. The US military is far more dangerous than any gang or Mafia family
2. The US military is considered legal
Are some of the soldiers in Iraq there primarily for economic reasons? Sure. Did others sign up for a chance to shoot some “ragheads”? Probably. After factoring out these two relatively small groups and rejecting the illegal, immoral, and reactionary “only following orders” defense, I ask this of anti-war activists: Exactly how are the men and women who willingly signed up to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan immune from any and all scrutiny and/or blame?
After all, what do you think “our troops” are doing? “We know that 99.9% of our forces conduct themselves in an exemplary manner,” says Donald Rumsfeld. “We also know that in conflicts things that shouldn’t happen do happen.”
If only 1/10 of 1% of US soldiers make “things happen that shouldn’t happen,” what are the rest doing to have us standing and singing “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch at Yankee Stadium? How do we define exemplary manner?
By Rumsfeld’s reckoning (and the standard company line of most every politician, pundit, and peon) “exemplary” includes (among other things) waterboarding and other forms of torture, the use of Daisy Cutters, cluster bombs, napalm, depleted uranium, white phosphorus, and the launching of cruise missiles into crowded cities.
“Things that shouldn’t happen do happen,” Rumsfeld explains. But what about all the stuff that this society accepts “should” happen? Why would anyone besides a sadist feel compelled to support that unconditionally?
It should come as no surprise that my take on the “support the troops” mantra is typically greeted with unrestrained hostility from all over the political spectrum. What offends the right wing flag-wavers most is when someone actually makes use of the freedom they claim to adore. Somehow I am ungrateful for my liberty if I have the nerve to exercise it. These so-called patriots claim to celebrate freedom but want to refuse my right to exploit it. These are the same folks who walk around crowing about how they’re “proud to be an American”—as if they had anything to do with it.
The most predictable knee-jerk reaction from the liberals is that I’m too radical and I might hurt the “movement” by alienating soldiers and families. I promise to get back to the word radical later. For now, I’d rather focus on the concept of a movement. This is not semantics but rather, it gets to the heart of our discussion here tonight.
The state of global affairs has long passed the proverbial tipping point and is more likely flirting with the dreaded point of no return. Yet most folks, it seems, have confused the occasional weekend parade, I mean, protest with a full-blown movement.
Here’s a news flash: Anti-Bush bumper stickers and a heartfelt commitment to recycled toilet paper don’t constitute a movement. Neither do candlelight vigils, vegan diets, petitions, voting drives, letters to Congress, monthly donations to Greenpeace, yellow ribbons, red ribbons, pink ribbons, or becoming the change you wish to see in the world.
All you need is love? Yeah…that and a million dollars a minute.
This is not meant to denigrate or mock but rather to point out that there is a huge difference between having a sincere minority of Americans partaking in such gestures and having a tangible, functional, effective movement capable of inciting, inspiring, demanding social change. The rest of the world knows this…why don’t we?
As Arundhati Roy explains: “People from poorer places and poorer countries have to call upon their compassion not to be angry with ordinary people in America.” Ward Churchill takes it further…warning us that the same people Roy refers to “have no obligation-moral, ethical, legal or otherwise-to sit on their thumbs while the opposition here (in the US) dithers about doing anything to change the system.”
Consider this: If your neighborhood was bombed into the Stone Age—your children buried in the rubble—and taxpayers funding those bombs (in some cases, willingly funding those bombs) walked around saying you were ignorant enough and narrow-minded enough to hate them “because they’re free” and “for what they believe in,” how forgiving would you be?
Americans wield more influence and power than any people on the planet but, while an obscene number of humans live in abject poverty, we live our lives in such a manner as to threaten every living thing on Earth. Everything I’ve talked about so far (and much more) is being done in our name. In other words—with few exceptions—there are no innocent bystanders in America.
I have a question: How many of you think the planet is in peril? (Just about everyone raises his or her hand)
A second question: How many think those in power—those most responsible for putting the planet in peril—will relinquish their power voluntarily any time soon? (Everyone raises hand)
So, if most of us think the planet is in peril but the elites are not going to surrender their power, I have yet another question: How much more are we willing to tolerate before we act?
Here is some of what we’re already enduring without any serious fuss:
*Epidemics of preventable diseases: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc.
*Poisoning of our air, water, and food (including mother’s breast milk)
*Global warming, climate change, animal & plant extinctions, disappearing honeybees, destruction of the rain forest, topsoil depletion, etc.
*1/3 of Americans uninsured or underinsured: health care
*More than half of the world’s top 100 economies: corporations
*61% of corporations do not even pay taxes
*Presidential lies, electoral fraud, limited debates, etc.
*The largest prison population on the planet
*Corporate control of public land, airwaves, & pensions
*Overt infringement of our civil liberties
*Bloated defense budget, unilateral military interventions, war crimes committed in our name, legalization of torture, blah, blah, blah…
Before you know it, the government might start spying on American citizens and detaining prisoners without charges while corporations ravage the earth in pursuit of profit, wiping out entire eco-systems in the process. Oops, sorry…they’re already doing all that without being stopped.
Take a look at your watch. Since yesterday at this hour, 13 million tons of toxic chemicals were released across the globe; two hundred thousand acres of rainforest were destroyed; more than 100 plant or animal species went extinct; and 45,000 human beings died of starvation (most of them children).
What will we say in 20-30 years when we’re asked why we didn’t do more to challenge all this? What will we say when we’re asked why cared more about Gwen Stefani’s tattoos than how our tax dollars are spent? What will we say when we’re asked why we focused on imaginary evildoers instead of the corporate pirates raping the planet and controlling our minds?
It’s not as if we don’t have choices. Ask yourself this: Which do you prefer, a consumer culture or an ozone layer? SUVs or forests? Cell phones or Eastern Lowland Gorillas? Would you give up the ability to text ttyl to your BFF in order to save a species from going extinct? In 2008, it’s not an unreasonable question.
The precarious state of things is not the result of some preordained theology or unstoppable force of nature. We’re in this mess thanks to human decisions. If different decisions had been made in the past, it’s likely that we would’ve had different outcomes. If different decisions are made now, perhaps we’ll have better outcomes in the future.
Speaking of the future, the humans (all living things) that come after us won’t care if we gave talks like this or marched in protests or held open doors for old ladies…if they have no clean air to breathe.
It won’t matter to them if we ate organic or drove a hybrid or switched to recycled toilet paper…if they have no clean water to use.
You can be damn sure they won’t care if we voted for Obama or McCain…if they end up stuck on a toxic, uninhabitable planet.
They’d probably just want to ask us this: Why did you stand by and allow everything to be consumed or poisoned or destroyed?
But before that question is asked of us, we still have time to ask this of ourselves: Will we ever disrupt our seemingly comfortable lives and dedicate ourselves to stopping—by any means necessary—global warming, US military interventionism, economic exploitation, factory farming, environmental devastation, etc. or will we continue preserving and defending our way of life?
The US constitutes 5% of the earth’s population but consumes more than 25% of the earth’s resources. Another news flash: Our way of life is the issue.
Besides, if our way of life is so worthy of being defended at any cost, why do we need so many homeless shelters, alcohol and drug rehab centers, rape crisis hotlines, battered women’s shelters, and suicide hotlines? Why does a sexual assault occur every 2 1/2 minutes?
If America is the world’s shining light, why are its citizens left with no choice but to organize to protect human, environmental, civil, & animal rights? Why can’t we drink the water or breathe the air without the risk of becoming ill from corporate-produced toxins?
If America is the zenith of human social order, why does our vaunted “way of life” provoke terror both as a tactic and an emotion?
Whether we want to admit it or not, our “way of life” was built on a nearly exterminated indigenous population, the African slave trade, and all those killed in places like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East, etc. It was built on stolen land with stolen oil. Our way of life was built on terror.
For an example of such terror, I’ll look back to the “good war” (a phrase in which Studs Terkel said the noun and adjective don’t match): In early 1945, US General Curtis LeMay and his 21st Bomber Command laid siege on the poorer areas of Japan’s large cities. On March 9-10, the target was Tokyo, where tightly packed wooden buildings took the brunt of 1665 tons of incendiary bombs. By design, the attack area was 87% residential. By May 1945, LeMay’s campaign had killed an estimated 672,000 Japanese civilians. An aide to MacArthur called the raids “one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of non-combatants in all history.” Secretary of War Henry Stimson worried that US would “get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities.” LeMay himself said: “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, I was on the winning side.”
The men that devised and carried out this attack are generally considered to be part of this country’s greatest generation yet, by any sane definition, what I just described is terrorism.
No matter what you call it, there is an alternative to terrorism. It’s called justice. But to seek justice, we must first recognize injustice—even if we play a direct or indirect role. To do that, we have to open our eyes and then take action.
To do that, we have to maintain what Gramsci called the “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.”
To do that, we have to become aware of ourselves as potential agents of collective social change.
To do that, we have to remember that the few successful movements in this country’s history—civil rights, women’s suffrage, labor—prevailed in part because they utilized tactics that were outside of what was permitted at the time.
Now, I’m gonna go out on a limb and take a guess that the world has more than enough corporate lawyers, investment bankers, Wall Street executives, and real estate brokers. If you agree, clap your hands. (Much applause)
Okay, time to play another hunch I say the world could never have enough dreamers, poets, artists, activists, romantics, visionaries, fighters, militants, rebels, radicals, and non-conformists. (Loud applause)
How many non-conformists do we have hear tonight? (Most people raise hand) Okay then, I’d like you all to take the non-conformist pledge with me. Raise your left hand and repeat after me.
I am a non-conformist (everyone repeats)
I think for myself (everyone repeats)
I do not repeat what people tell me to say (laughter)
We need more non-conformists and we need more saints. When I say saint, I am using Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of a saint as someone who behaves decently in an indecent world. Therefore, I ordain each and every one of you a saint—or at least, a saint in training—and starting right this second, you must start acting decently in this terribly indecent world.
Because everyone has something to offer. We all have boundless compassion, creativity, wisdom, and courage. We can each inspire ourselves and others toward peace, justice, and solidarity. We can all rediscover the subversive pleasure of thinking for ourselves.
But consider yourself warned. Now that you’ve listened to all this, you’re committed. As Arundhati Roy sez: “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”
I know it’s not easy. Author E.B. White once said: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between the desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
Well, to make it a little easier to plan your day, I’ve enlisted the help of some friends:
Albert Einstein sez: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
Voltaire tells us: “We’re all guilty of the good we didn’t do.”
MLK says: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is this: What are you doing for others?”
Noam Chomsky reminds us: “We are responsible for the predictable consequences of our actions.”
Three simple words from Gandhi: “Action expresses priorities”
And finally Kurt Vonnegut tells us: “There is no reason good can’t triumph over evil, if only angels will get organized along the lines of the Mafia.”
Clearly, the old strategies are not working but until our tactics evolve, we remain accomplices to the perpetual global crime we call civilization. What kind of tactics? That’s up to you but, before you rule anything out, consider this: Let’s say I step out side get some air and see one of you lying on the ground. Standing above you is a large, menacing man with bad intentions and clearly, he has incapacitated you with a surprise blow. Your eyes meet mine and you indicate you need help.
I could pray. I could meditate. I could chalk it up to bad karma. I could ask you to recognize that the attacker is a human and tell him that you love him. I could blame patriarchy, the Republicans, or gangsta rap. I could ask myself: What would Jesus do? What would the Dalai Lama do? What would Oprah do? I could try to remember that excellent saying about non-violence I got from my Pilates teacher.
OR: I could stomp my foot to draw his attention downward and promptly whip out a finger jab to his eyes. When he brings hands up (too late) to protect himself, he leaves his mid-section exposed. I kick him in the balls—doubling him over—then grab him by the hair and bring his face down into a powerful knee blow. Then I’d grab the victim get the fuck out of there as fast as we can.
It’s either that or chanting. The choice is yours.
Again, we need new ideas and contrary to our chauvinistic opinion, we don’t know where the new ideas will come from. We have to keep our ears, eyes, and minds open.
The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was once asked a silly question about the biological difference between Einstein’s brain and the rest of our brains. His answer, however, is relevant now. He said: “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
I’m guessing most of us here in this room have opportunities to use our talents. Are we? And if so, are we also working to free others and give them the same chance?
I believe the changes we need could start by bringing everything down to its most basic and human level. To explain what I mean, I’d like to share a lesson I’m still learning, a lesson that came at the end of my mother’s life.
My mother passed away on January 12, after a long illness. She was nearly 72 and had been very ill since mid-2005. Intellectually, one might think that perhaps I had time to “come to terms” with a sense of inevitably…yet I remain brokenhearted. Despite having almost three years to “prepare” for this reality, her death is teaching me previously unimaginable lessons about grief, sorrow, and loss.
Amidst my mourning, I can’t help but visualize the feelings of grief, sorrow, and loss being experienced in places directly and indirectly impacted by US foreign and economic policies. Imagine if you will, a mother in Iraq. She walks to the market as an American bomb levels her home. Her parents, her husband, her children (none of whom were affiliated with the “insurgency”): all killed. What of her grief, sorrow, and loss? I had nearly three years to “prepare” and I remain inconsolable. Can we imagine how this woman feels? And why do we relate more to the men and women who volunteer to drop the bombs than those under the bombs? When was it decided that their lives matter less than ours? Where did we get the balls to feel so superior?
And it’s not just military murders. As I said at the beginning, every two seconds, a human starves to death. That’s more grief, sorrow, loss—more anger and frustration, too. There’s a line in the song, “Middle of the Road” by the Pretenders: “When you own a big chunk of the bloody Third World…the babies just come with the scenery.”
Speaking of babies, UNICEF tells us: One in six of the planet’s children are severely hungry; one in seven have no access to health care; one in five have no safe water; one in three have no toilet or sanitation facilities at home.
29,158 children under 5 dying from mostly preventable causes every day.
The next time you’re at a sporting event or rock concert, glance around and get a feel for what 29,158 looks like. Then try your best to conceive of the feelings of grief, sorrow, and loss inspired by those 29,158…each and every day. These are humans, not statistics. They feel as much as you or I. They cry, they mourn, they miss loved ones, and they ask why when the UN says the basic nutrition and health needs of the world’s poorest people would cost only $13 billion a year (a mere fraction of what the US spends on war).
The question of this millennium so far is this: “Why do they hate us?”
I’d say we give them an excellent reason every 2 seconds and a million more reasons every single minute. Ask yourself this: How much of our tax money was spent on war while I stood up here blabbing away and how many children did we lose…tonight?
The historian Howard Zinn said: “I wonder how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own.”
Here’s a novel idea: Instead of blowing up babies in the Third World, let’s start feeding them, and respecting them, and loving them? Yes…loving them. Che Guevara tells us that the “true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” If Che was right, comrades, it’s high time we start showing the world some revolutionary love.
Remember, the most powerful force in the world is not the US military or economy or culture, it’s you. That’s why they’re working so damn hard to pacify you and working so damn hard to take away your rights. But if they want to take away our rights, I say we take away theirs: Their right to pollute, their right to exploit, to wage war, to steal, and to treat all living things as if they were expendable.
The author Derrick Jensen said: “One of the good things about everything being so fucked up—about the culture being so ubiquitously destructive—is that no matter where you look—no matter what your gifts, no matter where your heart lies—there’s good and desperately important work to be done.”
This is much more than most of us have been willing to do so far, but we need this commitment. We need the type of commitment displayed by Bob Marley back in 1973. There was a politically motivated assassination attempt on his life and two days later, there he was, up on stage at a giant outdoor concert. He was asked how he could get back on stage just two days after nearly being killed. His answer: “The bad people trying to make the world worse never take a day off, so why should I?”
This is the kind of focus and courage and persistence and perception what we desperately need. If you choose this path, you may find yourself called a “radical”—as if it were an insult. I say: Wear that label with pride. The Latin origin of “radical” is the same as the Latin origin of the word “root.” A radical is one who gets to the root of things. Plus, as Martin Luther King told us many years ago: “When you’re right, you can never be too radical.”
I sometimes end of that MLK quote but I have a little more tonight. I’ll take for granted that most of you are somewhat familiar with the book or film, The Grapes of Wrath. It tells the story of families thrown off their land during the Great Depression…in particular the Joad family. The Joads head out looking for work and suffer terrible indignities until tom, the oldest son, starts to organize and fight back.
He knows his work will put his family in danger s he decides to sneak away…but his mother catches him. She and Tom were very close and she worries how she will know if he’s okay. Tom’s reply is one of the greatest little speeches in literary and film history. In his song, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Bruce Springsteen embellishes this speech a bit and I’d like to share that with you.
Tom’s Mom asks: “How will I know where you are? How will I know you’re okay?” Here is how Springsteen sang his answer:
Tom said “Ma, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Ma, I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes, Ma, you’ll see me, you’ll see me”
Thank you for listening…