It’s understandable, looking at today’s headlines, to conclude that our democracy is in danger — because it is. But we have faced dire threats before. Since The Sun began publishing in January 1974 we’ve seen one president resign and another cut taxes for the rich while breaking the bank on Cold War spending; we’ve seen terrorists attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the president respond with two of the longest foreign wars in U.S. history. And then there are the problems that have persisted, decade after decade, no matter who is in office: inequality, racism, destruction of the environment.
For this, the five hundredth issue of The Sun, we’re revisiting some writing and interviews that serve to remind us how much we’ve been through and also how far we still have to go. This issue is being put together in mid-June. By the time you read it, new concerns will likely have eclipsed the ones the country is focused on now. But we trust that the message in these pages will still be relevant and encourage readers to stand together and persevere. As Patti Smith sings, “People have the power to redeem the work of fools.”
All along there were people who said it couldn’t go on forever. They said that to survive on the earth it was necessary to work with the land, not against it, to cooperate with what they called “nature” rather than compete with it. The Indians told us this when we came here, but our fear of what we called the “wilderness” kept us from listening.
And we cannot listen today.
We pushed the red man from the continent and reduced the “cruel wilderness” to a few patches of rich woodlands suitable for logging as our insatiable need arises. We have won our war against this land, and now we are secure in our cities.
And we are trapped. Our survival — that is, our ability to secure food, shelter, and warmth in the winter — no longer depends on our ability to cope with nature but on our ability to adapt to an economic system. That system tells us what we need to do, what jobs to hold, what resources we need. It tells us what we are worth. It tells us how to be happy.
We adapt in the best way we can, some giving more of themselves than others. But no matter what our participation in this so-called economic system, ultimately we are all in the same stew pot, brother. We are all in this thing together.
And oil makes it all possible. Oil is basic to the survival of this economic system on which we all depend so dreadfully.
We will strip off the earth’s skin for oil. We will destroy the beauty of our shores. We will pollute the air for it. And we will kill for it. If we cannot buy it for what we consider a fair price we will take it by force, our need is so great.
“The Price Was Never Right,” Mike Mathers, January 1974
Under our system of government presidential decree does not supersede written law, despite the imperious attitudes our most recent chief executives have assumed. Cloaking break-ins under the guise of national security does not make them any more legal than using them for the openly crass purpose of reelection. Richard Nixon discovered that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you and his experience has shown that the American people will put up with only a certain amount of outrage before their mood turns ugly.
“From the People Who Brought You Law an’ Order,” William Gaither, May 1976
Bert Rogers was an authentic Marine Corps intramural legend. In the finest tradition of the low-budget movie, he had volunteered for a perilous mission behind enemy lines, and had brought it off brilliantly. In the process, he had killed four Japanese soldiers, one of them with his bare hands. The courage which this sort of thing calls for is beyond the comprehension of the average person, and those of us who were average were somewhat in awe of him.
We stood on the deck of a Navy transport lying in the great Lahaina Roads anchorage off Maui. A warm moonlit night. The division had sailed from San Diego just a week earlier, bound for Kwajalein. The ship was full of nervous people, secretly in fear of disgracing themselves in their first encounter with the enemy. We sought reassurance, hoping Captain Rogers would tell us we’d be all right when the time came.
But he wouldn’t talk about it. Quietly and politely, he brushed the subject aside. Someone suggested that modesty was unnecessary in that company.
“Modesty?” With a small gesture of the hand, he neutralized the word. “I killed four men.” Pause. “I will not kill any more.”
“But they were Japs!” someone said. I cannot place the voice for sure, but I fear it may have been mine.
“They were human beings,” Rogers said.
“Memoirs of a Professional Killer,” Art Hill, October 1978 (originally appeared in South Shore)
I see our history in a rather long perspective. Twenty billion years of this universe. Six billion years of the solar system. Four and seven-tenths billion years of the earth. Three billion years of life on earth. Three million years of human life. Ten thousand years of civilization. And then a trivial two hundred years of the Industrial Revolution to bring us to the edge of self-extinction.
“Therefore Choose Life,” George Wald, June 1979
The day I sat in the courtroom, there were three or four white men with the same charges, but they let them pay out, maybe seven or eight hundred dollars. I was black. The man didn’t say nothing about no fees or charges. They gave me the maximum sentence. My skin color gave me away. I can base it down to that. I didn’t have the money, so I got to pull the time. It’s just as simple as that.
“We Are People,” Alton Lucas, September 1980 (originally appeared in We Are People)
One reason racism seems to be more of a problem today is that at last it’s out in the open. Racism has been there all along. It’s an old, old human problem that’s been with us for thousands of years, and it’s in every country of the world in one form or another. Some have solved it in one way and not solved it in other ways. The French used to insult the Spaniards by saying Africa begins at the Pyrenees. And the English would insult the French by saying Africa begins at the English Channel — as though there’s something bad about being African. Language is full of words that are racist in origin. Black is bad. Blackhearted. Blacklist. And these terms are in all European languages, and you don’t get rid of these words quickly.
“The Word Gets Around,” Pete Seeger, interviewed by Howard Jay Rubin, May 1981
In my crusade to change society, I have learned this: society is an abstraction like “loving mankind.” I can only affect those around me, love them as they are, meet them where they are. Hopefully I can touch their hearts with love and then, perhaps, they will change within themselves where they really are. Each person is society. Start to change society by loving your neighbor (and don’t play the Pharisee and ask, “Who is my neighbor?”). This answer will not suit the revolutionary nor the impatient idealist, but it is my answer (I admit taken from One who practiced it much better than I) and I have seen it work.
“How to Really Change Society” (Readers Write), Helga E. Tetzlaff, December 1981
On Hiroshima Day I was at a small demonstration in front of the General Electric headquarters in New York City, protesting nuclear power and nuclear weapons. At 8:15 AM, the moment the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, we sat down in front of the entrance and observed silence. We were arrested almost immediately, taken to the First Police Precinct, and kept in a holding cell for about an hour. During this time, except when I had to walk, I meditated.
Meditating didn’t “protect” me from what was happening but made me experience it more directly. Certain moments filled me with blind terror: the handcuffs being snapped on my wrists, the door to the cell clicking shut. What scared me was knowing there was No Way Out.
Of course there is a way out, and that is internal. While meditating, I realized that I didn’t really want to go anywhere; I was just attached to being able to go somewhere. Meditation enabled me to overcome this attachment, to channel my energy from the ego center to the heart.
This is the true alchemy — the transformation of fear into love. It’s available to all of us. It can save the world.
But on the physical level, putting one’s body in front of the entrance to General Electric — sole producer of uranium for the American military — is a good start.
“How to Really Change Society” (Readers Write), Sparrow, December 1981
Like in the old Taoist notion, straighten your own heart and you straighten your family, straighten your family and you straighten your city, straighten your city and you straighten the village, straighten the village and you straighten the province, straighten the province and you straighten the nation, straighten the nation and you straighten the world, straighten the world and you straighten the universe. You have to begin by clarifying and ordering and becoming friendly with yourself before you can become friendly with the rest of the world. You have to really accept yourself before you can accept the world and begin working to change it.
“Ordinary Mind,” Allen Ginsberg, interviewed by Howard Jay Rubin, April 1982
Capitalism and communism are both on the path of industrialism. They both believe equally in economic growth. They both believe in centralized production. They both believe in everybody getting more, more, and more. Both systems have the same god; they worship the god of money and high living standards. Don’t think that we are holier than the Russians. Whether capital is owned by an individual or a state, there isn’t any real difference. What would make us different is our attitude; our relationship with other human beings; our relationship with Nature and animals, with trees, plants, rivers, and mountains. Socialists do not respect their plants, animals, and environment any more than capitalists. Capitalists do not love their animals, their cows, and their land more than socialists. This is only an illusion that we are better than they. Thinking that someone else is inferior to you is a certain symptom of inner insecurity and spiritual vacuum. We don’t have a sense of spiritual security within us so we try to find security in some kind of external ideology. Then we need propaganda every day telling us, You are all right, you are living under a great democracy, you have freedom; or, You are living under a great socialism, you have equality. Both sides use propaganda to keep their citizens satisfied in one system or the other.
“Gandhi’s Way to Peace,” Satish Kumar, May 1983 (originally appeared in Resurgence)
I ’m really interested in what I call personal disarmament — learning to disarm in the inner world so that the inner can become a model for the outer world. How can we ask [Ronald] Reagan to think about or enact disarmament in the world when we are unable to deal with the crazy person around the corner without calling in the police? Even on the inner plane we bring in the troops against inner characters we don’t like. And yet we expect to be able to create this monumental peace outside. It’s very clear to me that we must work on ourselves in order to pursue disarmament in the outer world. This doesn’t mean we stop agitating for disarmament now or going on picket lines. But it does mean we cannot leave it all to that kind of activity.
“When the Heart Speaks,” Deena Metzger, interviewed by Elizabeth Good, April 1984
Odetta: You know, I sing very few blues. Last night, I did sing “Troubled” but that was the only hint of the blues I did in my program. Why did you ask me about the blues?
The Sun: Well, I think of you partly as a blues singer.
Odetta: Do you want me to tell you why? We need to work on this. I’m a big black woman; therefore I must either sing gospel or blues. That’s one of the stereotypes that we’ve got to get away from. Unless you hear somebody singing gospel or the blues, don’t assume they’re singing gospel or blues.
“The Magic and the Power,” Odetta, interviewed by Howard Jay Rubin, December 1984
i am walking and beating this drum around this atomic bomb plant and i can’t believe it that this walk is making me think so much of my father it is like he is just over on the other side of the barbed wire in his military uniform — very tall with black hair like he looked when i was five years old in wiesbaden very striking before he got so fat and red-faced and started having heart attacks — and he’s walking along and yelling at me what the hell are you doing patricia? and he is angry and sad and crying and yelling at me all at the same time like his own heart has begun to attack him as it will indeed do when he is older and a wall of fat will surround all the reservoirs of his blood and his heart will stop working for him causing not death (because he is basically so strong) but a long weakness/recovery causing him to retire from the military and seriously reevaluate his way of life
beating on this drum at the front of a midnight string of pilgrims is going to make my father very emotional when he finds out his daughter is doing it when the documentary film boys are flashing their lights i bow my shoulders with shame into my neck thinking about my father if he should see this documentary which doesn’t matter anyway because sooner or later he’s going to know of course everything he knows it now anyway that he still considers himself to be a military man and me his oldest daughter a pacifist sometimes he calls it communist it is a shame it is a dirty shame that his daughter should be a mistaken pacifist
and most of the time when i am sitting at home thinking about being a pacifist and in fact living pacifistically and peacefully as possible and daily with my friends and neighbors it is easy to see how i am completely right and my father is completely wrong
but here at midnight in the pantex spotlight beating the drum i am not completely sure of anything my father is bounding alongside of me on the other side of the wire yet my body is here on this road being watched by jeeps with spotlights and the drum is beating
“When the War-Father Appears,” Pat Ellis Taylor, January 1985
I have never met anybody who wasn’t against war. Even Hitler and Mussolini were, according to themselves.
People have always been helpless in the face of certain dangers — there wasn’t much they could do about many terrible diseases in the past, for instance — but they usually had the impression they could try something, prayer if nothing else. We now seem utterly at the mercy of our world leaders, and of the technology we have created. Our helplessness in the face of defective microelectronic chips is an old science-fiction nightmare come true — the intricate machine that destroys the world while its creators look on helplessly — but even more galling to me is our helplessness in the face of our world leaders. As I write this piece, the fate of the earth seems literally to rest in the hands of two men, aged seventy-two and seventy-three. From all we can tell by their public pronouncements, they both have views of the world that belong in the Stone Age, or in preadolescence. Both apparently believe that their opposite numbers represent all that is evil on the face of the earth. Both seem to think that the only way to safety is to amass as many different kinds of weapons as possible. Both provoke each other pettishly and unnecessarily. Neither wants to get together to talk the situation over; they both seem to think that such a conversation would be positively harmful, as if open communication were dangerous. In their heavily fortified and sumptuous seats of government, they sit around plotting against each other, surrounded by others who share their views. I can accept that I am ultimately helpless to protect my child against the exigencies of human existence, but the idea that these two befuddled and ignorant old men might be responsible for his death infuriates me. I cannot accept it. I do not accept it. It is, however, a fact.
“Notes toward a Psychology of the Nuclear Age,” David Guy, February 1985
The Sun: What has happened to the enormous energy that was generated in the sixties?
Stephen Gaskin: Some of its seeds have fallen on stony ground, some of its seeds have been eaten by birds, and some have fallen in places where that energy has returned a hundredfold. That’s what happened to our revolution: it’s still here. Although there’s not a visible hippie tribe on the streets or roads or in the cities, as there used to be, it doesn’t matter, because we permeated the culture. The popular music of this country is now rock-and-roll. You hear people on Hee Haw talking hippie talk that was invented on Haight Street. They say, “Dig this.” Everybody does. We permeated the culture, and that’s what we were supposed to do. . . .
The Sun: Was some of that energy maybe too optimistic? Expecting something to happen too soon?
Gaskin: Things did happen: We got out of Vietnam. We made it so that you couldn’t run a racist society separate from the rest of the United States, so that the Constitution reached down into the far corners of Alabama and Mississippi. We got rid of a president who was a tyrant. We brought new forms of education to other countries through the Peace Corps. There was a tremendous cultural flowering that took place. All flowers eventually curl up, but the significance of the flower is in the seed. And the seeds were planted.
“The End of a Sixties Dream?” Stephen Gaskin, interviewed by Michael Thurman, August 1985
Peace is the absence of a very exciting activity — war. And nobody ever opted for nothing in place of something, especially something exciting. Peace has the connotation of peace and quiet, of serenity, of bliss; and people aren’t actually attracted to that very much. It’s boring after a while. Also, if you look to see who is in favor of it, it’s usually people who are living a privileged life, and who therefore wish to maintain the status quo. People who are experiencing hunger or injustice don’t want peace; they are, in fact, willing to make revolutions and wars to secure food and justice. For people who are hungry or afraid, material well-being or security is of more immediate concern than peace. So peace isn’t the best way to express the goal of the antiwar movement. And you can’t express it as “antiwar” either because that’s merely “against.” We’ve got to figure out what it is we actually want, and then be for that.
“A Better Game Than War,” Robert Fuller, interviewed by David Hoffman, January 1987 (originally appeared in Evolutionary Blues)
Recently, I was walking on the Great Peace March, and one evening I said to the marchers, “You’re making this brilliant statement, just by doing the thing you’re doing. But use it to work on yourselves. If you want peace by the end of this march, something about this march should have made you more peaceful, so that the means and the ends are peace. Because at the end of the march, peace isn’t going to appear. You’re going to go out into life, and the march should have prepared you to carry forth the torch of this march, so that the rest of your life is the Great Peace March. To the extent you’re filling your mind with anger because there’s not enough media coverage, you are perpetuating the problem you’re trying to get rid of. So it really behooves you to work on yourselves, to become an instrument of the thing you represent.”
“The Heart of Compassion,” Ram Dass, interviewed by Sy Safransky, February 1987
During the war in Vietnam we young Buddhists organized ourselves to help victims of the war rebuild villages that had been destroyed by the bombs. Many of us died during service, not only because of the bombs and the bullets, but because of the people who suspected us of being on the other side. We were able to understand the suffering of both sides, the communists and the anti-communists. . . . Working to help people in a circumstance like that is very dangerous, and many of us got killed. The communists killed us because they suspected that we were working with the Americans, and the anti-communists killed us because they thought that we were with the communists. But we did not want to give up and take one side.
The situation of the world is still like this. People completely identify with one side, one ideology. To understand the suffering and the fear of a citizen of the Soviet Union, we have to become one with him or her. To do so is dangerous — we will be suspected by both sides. But if we don’t do it, if we align ourselves with one side or the other, we will lose our chance to work for peace. Reconciliation is to understand both sides, to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then to go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side. Doing only that will be a great help for peace.
“Our True Nature,” Thich Nhat Hanh, July 1987 (originally appeared in Being Peace)
In the sixties, I was at Berkeley. I was right in the midst of the antiwar action and the free-speech movement, and I demonstrated and got locked up. It was personally very exhilarating and ego-fulfilling. I think that what we did then was perhaps appropriate for the time, but it also set up a pendulum swing. The fact that we’re dealing now with Ronald Reagan and his administration is in some way connected to the way we used our power in the sixties in seemingly peaceful ways. We got very good at saying no in the sixties. We said it very powerfully. In some ways I’m proud of that, because we were part of some important changes, especially in the Vietnam War. But we spent all of our energy on no, and when the no began to work, the movement fell apart. No yes had been formulated. We had no positive alternative.
The 1980s and the 1990s are a time for us to redirect that same power toward saying yes to something life-giving, rather than simply saying no to what is life-draining. Most of the governments in the world exist to say no. For me, that’s what the grassroots movement is all about: saying yes to something better.
“From Conflict to Intimacy,” Danaan Parry, interviewed by Dana Branscum, June 1988
I was sitting on the sofa in my library, reading and looking out the window. My second child was due that very day, and I was heavy with weight and anticipation. It started to rain, and I sat gazing out at the garden, its lovely greenness, my newly planted hedge, and the life-giving water as it descended to the earth. There was a special sense of peace, of eager expectation.
Then from out of nowhere I was overwhelmed by the feeling that all this could end instantly — all this beauty, the rain, the plants and flowers, all of life everywhere and for all time — because of the reality of nuclear weapons. I realized that inherent in their very existence is somewhere, at some point in time, a categorical imperative for their use.
My entire body responded viscerally: goose flesh appeared on my arms. It was not my own death that I was concerned about. My feelings stemmed from a sense of infinite sadness that our entire world and all that it held of love and beauty and endeavor and grace could, and would, end — if we did not stop and reorient ourselves to a different path; if I did not stop and reorient myself. I made a personal commitment that I would learn, that I could and would do something.
My second child, a beautiful son, has just celebrated his sixth birthday. From that Christmas Eve to this, I have read all the books I bought about the bomb and more. I have written letters to people in government, both in the United States and around the world. I have attended symposiums and workshops on peace building. I support groups working for nonviolence and justice. I have conducted discussion groups in my own home.
This is what the bomb has meant to me: it has brought me infinitely closer to life as I participate, along with others, in an extraordinary opportunity to build a world without nuclear bombs, to build a world of humanity and hope.
“The Bomb” (Readers Write), Maurine Doerken, February 1990
Why don’t we have something like the gross earth product: the trees and the apples, the fruit and the timber? Every human product depends on the earth product. Humans don’t have anything; it’s only the earth. We talk about the rising gross national product, but nobody mentions the declining gross earth product. We talk about the trade deficit; that’s nothing compared to the earth deficit. The petroleum industry is based upon extracting more and more petroleum. They don’t talk about the dwindling oil supplies. Very rarely do they mention the fact that this whole petrochemical age can’t possibly endure more than thirty or forty years. What then?
“Progress and Other Lies,” Thomas Berry, interviewed by Ralph Earle, July 1990
Far away in Puget Sound, the Navy attempts to train bottlenose dolphins. Never mind that these bottlenose are Atlantic dolphins unable to live in the North Pacific’s cold water. The blood vessels in the skin contract to retain heat, the skin disintegrates and sloughs off, and the dolphins are vulnerable to infection. And never mind the family and social life of the dolphin. Here, each animal is placed in a twenty-five-square-foot tank fourteen feet deep. . . .
Some bash themselves against the walls of their pens until they pass out and, unconscious, drown. Some die of stomach ulcers. Some refuse to eat, starving themselves to death.
For those who do not kill themselves, help is close at hand. They are “destroyed.” The Navy says they only kill those who “go insane.” One dolphin is blind — she has been beaten across the face with a bucket by her trainer. Another dies of open wounds — he has been kicked in the head until he bleeds, and the bleeding will not stop.
“Inventing Wyoming,” David Romtvedt, July 1990
Edward Abbey: When all other means fail, we are morally justified — not merely justified, but morally obligated — to defend that which we love by whatever means are available. If my family, my life, my children were attacked, I wouldn’t hesitate to use violence to defend them. By the same principle, if land I love is being violated, raped, plundered, murdered, and all political means to save it have failed, I feel that sabotage is morally justifiable.
The Sun: Some would call acts of physical sabotage “terrorism.”
Abbey: The distinction is quite clear and simple. Sabotage is an act of force or violence against material objects, machinery, in which life is not endangered, or should not be. Terrorism, on the other hand, is violence against living things — human beings and other living things. That kind of terrorism is generally practiced by governments against their own peoples. We have that kind of terrorism going on right now in much of Latin America. Our government committed great acts of terrorism against the people of Vietnam. Terrorism is radically different from sabotage, a much more limited form of conflict. A bulldozer tearing up a hillside, ripping out trees for a logging operation or a strip mine, is committing terrorism — violence against life.
“Defending What You Love,” Edward Abbey, interviewed by Jack Loeffler, August 1990 (originally appeared in Headed Upstream: Interviews with Iconoclasts)
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings.
The Sun: You’ve criticized modern psychology for giving feelings too much emphasis. You’ve said we’ve had a hundred years of analysis, and people are getting more and more sensitive, and the world is getting worse and worse.
James Hillman: I don’t think feeling has been given too much attention. What one feels is very important, but how do we connect therapy’s concerns about feeling with the disorder of the world, especially the political world? As this preoccupation with feeling has grown, our sense of political engagement has dropped off. How does therapy make the connection between the exploration and refinement of feeling, which is its job, and the political world — which it doesn’t think is its job?
Therapy has become a kind of individualistic, self-improvement philosophy, a romantic ideology that suggests each person can become fuller, better, wiser, richer, more effective. I believe we have now two ideologies that run the country. One is economics, and the other is therapy. These are the basic, bottom-line beliefs that we return to in our private moments — these are what keep us going.
“The Myth of Therapy,” James Hillman, interviewed by Sy Safransky, April 1991
There’s a common thread running through the history of nonviolence: almost all the leaders were challenged, not from without, but from within their own ranks. I interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa and he said, “The hardest thing is keeping the faithful faithful to nonviolence.” I interviewed Dr. [Martin Luther] King in Chicago in 1966. He was demoralized at the end of his life; he didn’t think he was getting anywhere. He said, “People say we’re not doing anything; they say we’ve got to get guns.” It happened in early Christianity. When Roman soldiers came to take away Rabbi Christ, Peter reached for his sword and cut off a soldier’s ear. Here was the one disciple who should have had some idea what Christ’s teaching was all about! Look at the history of nonviolence — it’s a great theory when there’s nothing going on; everybody’s a pacifist between wars. It’s like being a vegetarian between meals.
“Study War No More,” Colman McCarthy, interviewed by Andrea Wolper, July 1991
At first light the company corpsman came to take me up to the helicopter landing pad. The brass was coming down the hill with the VC [Viet Cong] prisoners. It was our medical duty to certify that they hadn’t been beaten and brutalized while in our custody, before they were sent off to be executed. We joined the gathering clutches of men waiting at the pad.
The whole headquarters group came down the hill, beaming with pride and swaggering élan. The two VC were trussed in their midst, hands bound with communication wire, battle dressing loosely tied to their wounds. Reaching the landing pad, the captain pushed them both down to kneeling positions while fingering his .45.
The interrogators were flush from taking Dexedrine to stay awake during the arduous questioning, though none of them spoke Vietnamese. They’d spent the night poking the VC prisoners, examining their ancient weapons, probing in their pockets for documents and identification cards, threatening them with summary execution, heaping humiliation upon humiliation until it got light enough to land a chopper.
The VC were crying. Drawing close, I saw they were peasant men, worn down to long muscle and bone by struggle, half their teeth gone, the soles of their feet wide and thickly calloused, salt-tear trails caking their leathery cheeks. The Marines jeered at them because they were crying over being sent off to be executed by the ARVN [South Vietnamese army]. Mud coated their black hair. Both men were probably in their forties, tending their fields like the men of their village had for a thousand years, defending their families and their livelihood and their land like men everywhere. In a few hours or in a few days they would be dead — after the ARVN beat confessions out of them, or applied electrodes to their balls and sent jolts of concentrated anguish through their bodies until they wished to escape by dying, by being shot in the head or dragged behind an amphtrack [amphibious vehicle] or thrown from a helicopter, anything to make the pain stop.
I was reluctant to give my certification that they hadn’t been brutalized, as if by withholding it I could somehow save them. At that moment they were simply men. They had been out last night to shoot us and kill us in an ambush, like we them, and that made us equals.
Amid the jeering, the company corpsman leaned in close to me and said, “Let’s get it done.” We lifted the battle dressings to determine the extent of the wounds. The wounds had been cleaned and dressed, though sloppily. Looking into the furrowed gouges made by the bullets, I saw purple muscle netted with coagulated blood. There was no fat visible, no bone, no swelling. The men could have been made of wood.
“Yes, Captain, they’re OK for transport,” I said at the company corpsman’s prodding. The captain smiled. He had won. Now we were all in their death together.
“Dark Honor,” Dan Barker, October 1991
To die for the revolution is a one-shot deal; to live for the revolution means taking on the more difficult commitment of changing our day-to-day life patterns.
When my schoolmates and I first heard about the “good Germans,” who somehow didn’t know what was being done in their name, we all shook our heads. We would never be like that. Yet most of us today regularly avert our gaze from the unethical, illegitimate, barbarous activities perpetrated by our government. After reflecting on the media treatment of the Gulf War, and our self-congratulatory celebrations for slaughtering two hundred thousand Iraqis, I began to understand how national forms of insanity are legitimized. “President Bush’s skillful handling of the war” has become a standard piece of rhetoric, often cited in the media. The more often such language is invoked, the harder it is to challenge.
“Reopening the Wound,” John Welwood, April 1992
The Sun: There was so little concern about the quarter of a million dead Iraqis. How can the horror of war be presented so that it is really felt by the American people?
Daniel Berrigan: Perhaps if Christians undertook to obey the plain command of Christ to love our enemies, the noble infection might spread, heart to heart. Americans don’t generally think of the consequences of war. We have grown calloused souls, with the help of a duplicitous leadership, an inert Congress, a morally cloudy Church, and the jingoistic media. Add to this our historically embedded racism and you have a poisonous brew indeed, hardening hearts against thought or concern for the slaughtered innocents of Iraq.
“Odyssey of Resistance,” Daniel Berrigan, interviewed by Luke Janusz, April 1993 (originally appeared in Odyssey: Creative Alternatives in Criminal Justice)
Luddism has been far too simply defined. It doesn’t mean just the hatred of machinery. Luddism has to do with a choice between the human community and technological innovation, and a Luddite is somebody who would not permit his or her community to be damaged or destroyed by the use of new machinery. The Amish, for instance, have succeeded simply by asking one question of any proposed innovation, namely: “What will this do to our community?”
That, to me, is an extremely wise question, and most of us have never learned to ask it. If we wanted to be truly progressive, if we were truly committed to improving ourselves as creatures and as members of communities, we would always ask it. I think some of us are beginning to ask it.
“Field Observations,” Wendell Berry, interviewed by Jordan Fisher-Smith, February 1994 (originally appeared in Orion)
Is it possible to hate actions and policies without hating the people who implement them? Does empathizing with those whose actions we oppose create a dissonance that undermines our determination?
I don’t delude myself into believing that everything will work out for the best if we just make friends with our adversaries. . . . I know that some police officers rough up demonstrators when arresting them. Treating our adversaries as potential allies need not entail acceptance of their actions. Our challenge is to call forth the humanity within each adversary, to find a path between cynicism and naiveté.
“Us and Them,” Fran Peavey, November 1994 (originally appeared in Heart Politics)
Global depression, I could call it in clinical jargon to indicate the pervasive nature of the disorder in the psyche. But lately the term has taken on a new meaning for me, suggesting a worldwide malaise shaped by the unconscious link between our suffering and the wounds the earth itself sustains. It seems as if the degradation of nature has produced a dark, subliminal undertow affecting the collective psyche. The earth gasps for breath; the nation gasps for breath — is it any wonder that I, too, can’t breathe? It’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate our personal pain from the transpersonal pain of the wounded planet. Surely it’s naive to think our destruction of nature has no effect on our mood. It’s been more than a century since [Native American leader] Chief Seattle predicted that when the big creatures were all gone, humans would die of loneliness. That loneliness is now almost upon us, and no number of channels on the TV can fill the frenetic emptiness we’ve created.
“Global Depression,” Andy Yale, May 1995
To the Navajos, the land was imbued with spiritual meaning. So many of their rituals and ceremonies were connected to the land; during the Long Walk, they feared they were being exiled not only from their home but from their gods.
I can’t imagine feeling that rooted. I call North Carolina home, since I’ve lived there more than twenty years, but I’ll never think of myself as a Southerner. I no longer consider New York City home, though it’s where I grew up. Like most Americans, I’ve moved many times. I remember the places I’ve lived as if they were faces of people I’ve loved; I’ve cherished each of them. But where do my roots connect with the earth? Do my roots go down — or sideways?
Chief Seattle . . . said his people would haunt us. Was he right? Did we herd the “savages” into reservations only to watch ourselves become more and more savage?
But Americans don’t believe in curses, or the ghosts of dead Indians. We’re a nation on the move, makers of highways and information highways. We don’t call it rootlessness. We call it freedom.
“This Land Is Your Land,” Sy Safransky, May 1995
When I was growing up we always talked about “swamps.” Now we talk about “wetlands.” Do you know what a wetland is? It’s a swamp that white people care about.
In the thirties, there was a huge amount of effusive romantic description of black people. It had a lot of the same qualities as current images of Native Americans: beat the drum, take me back to the earth. Then at some point it became incongruous with the reality of how people were living, so it stopped.
I think the problem is projection: white people want to be able to project on the world the images that have allowed them to control the world. Why is there so much energy put into that? It’s not natural, is it, this need to control? What I see, from a psychological point of view, is a whole series of lies and denials that white people have built up about the world and are unable to give up.
“Environmentalism and the Mystique of Whiteness,” Carl Anthony, interviewed by Theodore Roszak, August 1995 (originally appeared in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind)
That is what is so bizarre about the American legal system. Where else on earth would stealing from a phone booth be considered more serious than polluting the earth?
Politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — are fixated on campaign contributions and the bond market and the business climate; they don’t want to deal with the problems of American workers, although they could try. FDR spoke to the American people about their sources of uncertainty; he named enemies and tried out different strategies. But not [Bill] Clinton. Not Newt Gingrich. Their solution is to evoke the devils of American culture. Their solution is to construct a story about what is wrong with the United States. The main character in this story is a woman on welfare. And the story is about her downfall, her sin, which, of course, is the out-of-wedlock birth, a sin encouraged by welfare. As the story unfolds, she raises her kids, they turn into juvenile delinquents and drug abusers, and everything goes to hell. The source of moral rot in America is the woman on welfare and her sexual sin. We can attain redemption only by making her and her kids suffer.
“Get a Job,” Frances Fox Piven, September 1996
I ’ve found that all measures of intelligence are human based, so humans always come out on top. Worse than that, a specific type of human being comes out on top: a male, so-called civilized human being who builds the Empire State Building. . . .
I like to consider the big picture of a functional planet in defining intelligence. In that light, humans are the smartest species at making tools and machines, but we’ve used this incredible talent primarily to control our environment and to increase our population beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, which is detrimental to the very fabric of life. Contrast this “intelligence” to that of earthworms, who build all the world’s soil, providing nutrients for many of the world’s plants, and thus for many animals, including ourselves. Earthworms never overpopulate. They even sacrifice a small percentage of their population to feed the songbirds whose tunes wake us up every morning. That all seems reasonably smart to me.
“When Nature Speaks,” Jim Nollman, interviewed by Derrick Jensen, January 1997
Pema Chödrön: We rob ourselves of being in the present by always thinking the payoff will come in the future. But the only place ever to work is right now: we must work with the present situation rather than with a hypothetical possibility of what might be. I like any teaching that encourages us to be with ourselves and our situation as it is without looking for alternatives. The source of all wakefulness, of all kindness and compassion — of all wisdom — can be found in each second of time. Any teaching that has us looking ahead is missing the point.
bell hooks: Much of my work revolves around ending racism and sexism. On the one hand, I want to work right where I am, in the now; but on the other hand, I also have to have a vision of a future in which racism and sexism are no longer part of our lives. Do you think that’s too utopian?
Chödrön: I prefer to work with aspiration. The classic bodhisattva aspiration is: “Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them.” That means I aspire to end suffering for all creatures, but at the same time I don’t deny the reality of the present situation. I give up both the hope that something is going to change and the fear that it isn’t. It’s all right to long to end suffering, but somehow it paralyzes us if we’re too goal-oriented about it. Do you see the balance there?
hooks: Yet it seems very hard for people to fight racism and sexism without any hope for an end to them. So much despair and apathy arises from the feeling that we struggle and struggle and not much changes.
Chödrön: The main issue here is aggression. Often, if there’s too much hope, you begin to have a strong sense of an enemy. Then the process of trying to alleviate suffering actually adds to the suffering, because of your aggression toward the oppressor. Don’t you encounter many people who have good intentions but who get very angry, depressed, and resentful?
hooks: You’re talking to one! I get so overwhelmed sometimes.
Chödrön: Doesn’t that get in the way of your efforts?
hooks: It does. Right now I’m on tour talking about ending racism, and some people say to me, “Racism doesn’t exist,” or, “Don’t you think we’ve already dealt with that?” When I hear this, I start to feel irritable. The irritability mounts, then collapses into sorrow. I came home the other day and sat down at my table and just wept.
Chödrön: Well, isn’t that the point? That we’re all the same, really; we just get stuck in different ways? Getting stuck in any kind of self-and-other tension seems to cause pain. If you can keep your heart and mind open to those people, and resist any tendency to close down toward them, perhaps the cycle of racism and cruelty can start to de-escalate.
“Beyond Right or Wrong,” Pema Chödrön and bell hooks, June 1997 (originally appeared in Shambhala Sun)
I had an Indian face, but I never saw it as Indian, in part because in America the Indian was dead. The Indian had been killed in cowboy movies, or was playing bingo in Oklahoma. Also, in my middle-class Mexican family indio was a bad word, one my parents shy away from to this day. That’s one of the reasons, of course, why I always insist, in my bratty way, on saying, “Soy indio!” — “I am an Indian!” . . .
The myth of the dead Indian goes back to the Protestant settlement of the U.S. The Pilgrims wanted to start a new life in America. They wanted to believe that in some sense they had come to a new Eden and that they could leave history behind in Europe. So they convinced themselves that this land had no history, that this was “virgin” land. This made the Indians’ presence inconvenient. The Indians had to be either killed, or herded onto reservations, which were essentially concentration camps, and forgotten. Their history had to be absolutely obliterated so that we could believe that we were living on virgin soil.
“Crossing Borders,” Richard Rodriguez, interviewed by Scott London, August 1997
Noam Chomsky: How do you get at systemic issues like the structure of power? You get at them by people coming to understand more about how the world works, and that’s a step-by-step matter. So if you begin by facing the fact that people in Haiti are being paid a couple of cents an hour so that rich people here can make money, that opens up other questions, and ultimately it might lead to questions about the structure of power altogether. But it’s just one step in the process of understanding that can lead people to change institutions.
The Sun: But aren’t corporate managers quick to adjust and make minimal concessions? “Sure,” they say to the workers, “you can go to the bathroom twice a day instead of once a day.”
Chomsky: Absolutely. The same was true of kings and princes. And slave owners. They made plenty of adjustments when they weren’t able to control people. And that’s all to the good. People in Haiti may suffer a little bit less, and people here may see that activism can work. But we have to go further. We need to get to the point where we’re asking, Why do we need the king?
“The Common Good,” Noam Chomsky, interviewed by David Barsamian, November 1997
What does it mean when an educated American knows only scattered bits of information? It means you can’t elect a representative who’ll express your political will; you must content yourself with voting for agents who do what they please on global issues of which you know zip. Call that “democracy” if you want to. What you call it doesn’t matter since, without knowledge, it’s utterly out of your hands.
Where can you get knowledge? Most American dailies and all so-called alternative weeklies leave global analysis to CNN, Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and The New York Times — all of whom treat global matters the same: it’s news if there’s a juicy crisis, or if an American official visits a foreign capital. The Post and the Times bury more contextual coverage deep in their pages. None run regular features that attempt to show the relationship between one bit of information and another.
Without context, a piece of information is just a dot. It floats in your brain with a lot of other dots and doesn’t mean a damn thing. Knowledge is information in context — connecting the dots; making your own map.
“Connecting a Few Dots,” Michael Ventura, November 1997 (originally appeared in Austin Chronicle)
Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.
One thing that has changed in the past quarter century is the importance of work for women. Now you can have ambitions and careers without feeling that you’re out of line, or that some terrible punishment will come down on you. But this is mainly a middle-class change. Poor women have had to work all along, and the increasing gap between rich and poor only makes it worse for poor women. Most women lead double lives now: they still bear the main responsibility for children and household tasks, and they have a full-time workload, for which they get paid less. So even though women are able to work — and often must work — it doesn’t mean that there’s equality.
“Feminism Then and Now,” Alix Kates Shulman, interviewed by Leora Tanenbaum, June 1998 (originally appeared in Austin Chronicle)
Politicians came into my room last night, big bears banging on very little drums, asking for love. Hard as a rock in the wind, my heart did not give, though their glad tune tugged and tugged, and I with so many feet wanting to dance. Sooner would the Himalayas waltz, the Alps break into tap, than I would rock and roll with these dank men. But then the music stopped. And then they turned to me their awkwardness, strangely dear, and in the shaggy darkness all perfumed, I saw and felt for the first time the glow of their great, bad hearts. How savagely they held me then, how gratefully I trembled in their arms.
“How It Happened,” Mark Smith-Soto, September 1998
The Sun: What do you do if the people in power are unwilling to stop their exploitation? What if they are murderous? What about someone like Hitler?
Satish Kumar: When a house is on fire and has gone beyond the point where you can save it, the only option left is to bring lots of water and try to stop the fire from spreading. Nonviolence is a precautionary principle. Before the house catches fire, you have to make sure you have a fire extinguisher, clearly marked escape routes, emergency exits. The same is true in society: You have to educate your children in nonviolence. You have to educate your media in nonviolence. And when someone has a grievance, you don’t ignore or suppress it. You listen and ask, “What is your concern?” You say, “Let’s sit down and discuss it.”
To pursue the question of what to do about Hitler, we have to ask what the problems were in Germany after the First World War. What kind of treaty did we make? Did we simply say to the Germans, “You caused the war, so now you will be punished”? That’s precisely what we did. And it’s what the United States is doing right now with Iraq. It is sowing the seeds of a new Hitler. If it’s not Saddam Hussein, then someone else will come along and fight back, because their nation is being destroyed. By the time a Hitler has arisen, it’s too late to think about nonviolence.
So what I’m talking about here is using methods of education, compassion, generosity, equity, dignity, and respect for others, all in order to build a culture of nonviolence. Just as we are taught to read, to write, to paint, or to sing, we should be taught how to deal with conflict — from childhood. That is where a culture of nonviolence must begin, with the children. From there, it can branch out into the media, advertising, government, the police, the court. All these institutions can begin emphasizing nonviolence as opposed to simply punishment.
But nobody is doing this. We all sanction violence every step of the way, and then we are somehow surprised when someone like Hitler or Saddam Hussein comes along. We say, “He must be evil.” Yet it’s we who have created him. Hitler did not fall from the sky. We gave birth to him. We are responsible for Hitler.
“Foot Soldier,” Satish Kumar, interviewed by Derrick Jensen, August 1999
Your own wounds can be healed with weeping, / your own wounds can be healed with singing, / but the widow, the indian, the poor man, / the fisherman / stand bleeding right there in your doorway.
As a nun in Guatemala once told me, “If having many political parties were the definition of democracy, we’d be the democracy capital of the world.” But their twenty-odd parties represented only a tiny fragment of the population. And the people not represented by the political parties continued to go hungry. So I came to understand that a country could have checks and balances, regular elections, and multiple parties, and still the majority of the people could have no voice in shaping their future. To me, a democracy is alive to the degree that its members actively participate in making decisions about their future. Under that definition, I’m afraid you won’t see many living democracies today.
“The Broken Promise of Democracy,” Frances Moore Lappé, interviewed by Derrick Jensen, November 1999
We on the Left have put on blinders, to the point where we aren’t willing to reach out to middle-aged white men. Middle-aged white men are supposed to be the root of all evil. And I don’t disagree with that notion in many ways: it’s absolutely true that middle-aged white men are the root of most evil, because they occupy the positions of power. But there are 15 million poor middle-aged white men who have more in common with urban blacks and Hispanics than they do with the average CEO.
So there’s no help from the Left because these rural men are vilified as “rednecks” and “Bubbas.” Besides, there are too many problems for people on the Left to worry about as it is — the last thing they need to take on is underprivileged white men. Can you imagine how hard it would be to raise money from wealthy liberals to help poor white males?
This attitude allows those of us on the Left to sidestep examination of our own bigotry, which is, I think, just as serious as that of the Right. The Left determines who is downtrodden, and often that determination is based on just as shallow a measure as those the Right uses to determine who is worthy. Another problem with the Left’s attitude is that it ignores the potential for violence among white males, which is high. Finally, the Left is alienating a massive group of potential political allies. Twenty-four million whites are currently living in poverty. The Left needs to realize that low-income whites, including farmers and others in rural America, are not and have never been the enemy.
“Armed and Dangerous,” Joel Dyer, interviewed by Derrick Jensen, December 1999
Phoenix. It’s late, hot, airless. I take a break from writing and gas up the car at a nearby Circle K. Tomorrow we plan to head up toward Flagstaff to beat the heat and hike in Oak Creek Canyon. I want to get out of Phoenix early. At the cash register, a guy in a cowboy hat is smoking and talking to the clerk, a gaudy woman with orange hair, who is also smoking. I give her my credit card and check out the guy’s costume: well-worn Wranglers, tall white hat, silver belt buckle the size of a saucer, dusty boots. I wonder which rawhide hero he’s modeled himself after. I’m thinking Steve McQueen in Tom Horn. The hat is right, but the guy is not good-looking, his narrow face and mean rodent mouth closer to Bruce Dern in Hang ’Em High. Something else is wrong with this picture, but what? Then I realize he should be packing a western-style Colt instead of the anachronistic Glock 9mm riding high in a tooled leather holster on his hip.
My credit card is taking ages to go through. I’d like to get out of here. In Phoenix, anyone with an Arizona driver’s license can tote a handgun as long as it’s visible. The cowboy cranks up his Zippo and lights another cigarette.
In comes a dark-skinned teenager, a Mexican with sculpted hair — floppy on top with designs razored into the close-cropped sides. His own costume is baggy hip-hop. He’s big and a bit sullen. He goes to the back of the store and takes his time in the party snacks.
The woman sighs and says to me, “This machine’s been slow all day.”
Leather creaks, and I can see the cowboy has his hand resting on the Glock. He says, sotto voce, “Make my day.” The woman snorts. He smirks, and yellowish teeth peek from between his dry bluish lips.
The kid catches my eye and jerks his head, beckoning. I take a few steps down the aisle. He holds up two cans of cheese dip and asks me in a soft, apologetic whisper which of them has the chilies. His buddies want the spicy, not the mild. He tries to laugh. For a second, I think he’s putting me on. Then I realize he can’t read. I tell him what he wants to know; and . . . the Mexican does one of those bouncy gang walks toward the clerk and the make-believe cowboy, whose face is as blank as a screen where some horrific footage could suddenly blaze to life.
“The Trouble with Smitty,” Peter Makuck, December 1999 (originally appeared in Hudson Review)
Americans live out their working lives, and most of their daily existence, not within a democratic system but instead within a hierarchical structure of subordination. To this extent, democracy is necessarily marginal . . . to their lives.
Six months after Ralph’s accident, we still did not have reliable help. We were unaccustomed to being employers, and although we’d been assured that the Center for Independent Living would help us adjust to life outside the hospital, this turned out to be untrue. I was exhausted and had no time to look for [in-home] attendants, so my friends placed an ad in the paper.
Tucked between the Shared Vegetarian Households section and the Group Therapy ads, the Attendants Wanted column is the paper’s most poignant. Each week, the helpless advertise for someone to aid in their survival. The going rate is $7.50 an hour.
Like most disabled people’s health insurance, ours does not cover attendant care. We can’t afford the eighty-dollar-an-hour registered nurses — the only individuals legally allowed to enter someone’s home in California and place tubes in orifices. So we go underground to find people who will work for less: immigrants without green cards; people right off the boat or just out of the clink; alcoholics and drug addicts; the depressed and downtrodden; people desperate for jobs of any kind.
In response to our ad for attendant care, homeless people rang us from pay phones; foreigners with no concept of English left long messages; the sisters and brothers of unemployable siblings called to make arrangements for their “busy” relatives. We interviewed people who had been looking for work for years. We talked with folks who had barely worked, or never worked at all. We considered the employment histories of musicians and students and wannabe screenwriters; Peruvians and Germans; Mexicans and Chinese; Filipinos and Ethiopians. The world was at our doorstep, and it wanted to know how much we were paying an hour.
“And Jill Came Tumbling After,” Susan Parker, January 2000 (originally appeared in East Bay Express)
The gangs and the cops need each other. The gang member and the cop are practically created from the same cloth. Cops are marginalized in our society, in that they’re assigned to deal with the people nobody else wants to deal with. Nobody wants to give these kids jobs, psychological counseling, a proper education, spiritual engagement — anything they really need. So society says to the cops, “You take care of them.” And the cops believe they really are the “thin blue line” that separates this “garbage” from the rest of society.
As you know, cops go crazy, too. I’m sure you’ve heard about the high rates of abuse, alcoholism, and suicide among police. Why does that happen? Because despite all the cop shows and movies idealizing the police, they are in no way capable of handling the problems society has abdicated to them.
The gang kids end up paying the highest price. Society says they’re the enemy, so the police beat them up and harass them and even kill them, or put them in prison for almost nothing. All because society doesn’t want to deal with their problems. . . .
There are many people living in the suburbs, and especially in gated communities, who have removed themselves from the larger community, and who demand that cops “take care of” inner-city kids. Clearly, when a kid gets killed by a cop, the resident of the gated community is not pulling the trigger, but he or she has helped make that kid’s death possible — and in some ways inevitable. The police are killing inner-city kids in the name of protecting that gated community.
Now, I don’t hate cops. In fact, I feel bad for them the same way I feel bad for these kids. We’re setting both groups up. They’re all caught in the same web.
“Urban Renewal,” Luis Rodríguez, interviewed by Derrick Jensen, April 2000
What does racist mean? More and more, I find that a meaningless term. I think a better term would be “racialist.” Racist implies someone who really hates. Racialism is an assumption that is so far beneath the surface we don’t even see it: the subliminal assumption that somehow white people have the right to run things. I know fewer and fewer white people who really hate black people, but I know many who would have second thoughts about a black person becoming president of the United States.
“Radical Grace,” Will D. Campbell, interviewed by Jeremy Lloyd, May 2000
It’s remarkable that each of us thinks we represent the real America. The Midwesterner in Kansas, the black American in Durham — both are certain they are the real American.
I ’ve come to some conclusions about the two major parties. The Republicans are more pink, have worse skin, and wear bad clothes, but they love their candidate. They really want George W. Bush to be president. They are proud that he is dumb and has been given everything in life. They believe that turning down federal money in favor of corporate funding is a badge of honor. They want school vouchers. They want to lower the minimum wage and criminalize labor unions. They are not afraid to speak their ignorant minds, and there is something to be said for that.
Nobody wants Al Gore to be president. Democrats will vote for Al Gore for only one reason: they hate George W. Bush. They hate Bush so much they would vote for anyone else — even someone with a record of voting pro-life; even someone who’s in favor of more military spending and against universal healthcare; even someone who supports capital punishment and other forms of institutionalized racism. By accepting all of this, the Democrats have sold their ideals down the river. Their candidates are obvious crooks. At least the Republicans mean it when they say something stupid. The Democrats just say stupid things because they think that’s what the voters want to hear. As a result, the Democrats are ceasing to exist. There is no reason for a party whose members don’t even like their own candidates. The 51 percent of registered voters who didn’t vote in the last election were mostly Democrats.
“Bamboozled,” Stephen Elliott, February 2001
America today is essentially no different from McDonald’s or Marlboro or General Motors. It’s a product image that’s sold to us and to consumers worldwide. The American brand is associated with catchwords like “democracy,” “opportunity,” and “freedom,” but, like cigarettes that are sold as symbols of vitality and youthful rebellion, America in reality is very different from its brand image. The real America has been subverted by corporate agendas. Its elected officials bow down before corporations as a condition of their survival in office. America isn’t really a democracy anymore; it’s a corporate state.
The recent presidential election was a perfect example of the corporate state in action. It was a magnificent spectacle, with a media hoopla that dominated our lives for months. The candidates debated each other, shouted at each other, aimed angry TV messages at each other. And then we all held our breath to see whom the American people would finally elect. But, if you think about it, it was a bogus choice, like choosing between Coke and Pepsi. Both major-party candidates were corporate sponsored. There was never a hint of talk about reining in corporate power and putting the people back in charge.
“Truth in Advertising,” Kalle Lasn, interviewed by Derrick Jensen, July 2001
The rent always comes due faster when you don’t have a job, and I had only about a hundred dollars left, so I got busy right away scanning the classifieds for the jobs no one else wanted: short-order cook, motel housekeeper, roofer, convenience-store clerk, hospital assistant. Every day, there are more restaurants, motels, convenience stores, and hospitals, and they all have roofs, creating more jobs that nobody wants. “Join a winning team!” “Are you a self-motivated go-getter who works well with others?” “Need extra cash for spinal-cord surgery?” For days, I followed up on these ads. I registered at the state-run Job Service, which was entirely computerized, so you never had to deal with a human being unless one of the printers jammed. One day I walked eight miles to North Fond du Lac to apply for a cooking job that was listed through Job Service at twelve dollars an hour.
“Oh, by the way,” said the owner, after I’d filled out the application, “that wage listing at Job Service is not right. I don’t know why they keep putting in twelve dollars an hour. It’s eight dollars an hour.”
I walked the eight miles home. No sidewalks along the highway. People yelling at me from their cars: “Blow me!” “Waaaaah!”
The next day, walking home from the post office, I noticed a sign in a window advertising factory jobs. I went in and filled out an hour’s worth of forms. They photocopied my Social Security card and my Kansas driver’s license. I filled out a 1040. I solved arithmetic problems. I still didn’t know what I was applying for.
Finally, I was “interviewed” in the back room. It was an employment service. They don’t have to pay sick leave, vacation, pension fund, and so on. They can fire you anytime they like, without a minute’s notice, and owe you nothing, not even a good-luck trinket or a handshake goodbye. This is America the machine. It works quite well. The people in the machine look a little dazed, though. They have dyed their hair purple. They are covered with jewelry and tattoos. Their families are scattered across the country. They have serious substance-abuse problems. They are committing suicide at a historically unparalleled rate. They exhibit about as much joy and innocence as old whores in a brothel. But the machine is working very smoothly, thank you.
“Things I Like about America,” Poe Ballantine, July 2001
We’re not a democracy. It’s a terrible misunderstanding and a slander to the idea of democracy to call us that. In reality, we’re a plutocracy: a government by the wealthy. Wealth has its way. The concentration of wealth and the division between rich and poor in the U.S. are unequaled anywhere. And think of whom we admire most: the Rockefellers and Morgans, the Bill Gateses and Donald Trumps. Would any moral person accumulate a billion dollars when there are 10 million infants dying of starvation every year? Is that the best thing you can find to do with your time?
“Neighborhood Bully,” Ramsey Clark, interviewed by Derrick Jensen, August 2001
“God bless America” was painted on the rear window of an SUV in front of me in traffic today. The driver made a sharp right turn without signaling, flaunting his conviction that this is a free country. A near victim of his rugged red-white-and-blue individualism, I slammed on my brakes, only to be jolted back into the memory of the four hijacked planes, right here in the country where I live. In two hours on a sunny, bright-blue morning, the media endlessly repeated in their collective soundtrack loop: “Our lives were changed forever.” “Things will never be the same again.” “America has lost her innocence.” The opening scene: the repeated image of a plane flying into a tower of the World Trade Center.
We have been lucky up until now, free of tragedies on this scale, which happen all the time around the world but are relegated to sidebars in our papers, a two-sentence reference in a television broadcast, the hundreds of thousands lost to war, famine, natural disaster. We do what we want here, travel at will, choose from ten brands of cereal, and shop till we drop. After all, we are Americans. That has been our legacy, our shield against disaster, our illusion.
Our president has promised to protect us and save us from Evil, with a capital E, which now seems to have been located somewhere in Afghanistan. He has promised to make things safe again, the way we have had the luxury of imagining they always were. He has asked us to join him in this belief. We will toughen ourselves, harden our borders, galvanize our troops, and send our young men and women off to a war far away. There will be sacrifices, we are warned, but sacrifice we must, at least long-distance. This is who we are, our president tells us. This is what it means to be an American. Scripts in hand, we are all unwitting actors in an astonishingly gruesome movie-of-the-week. The voice-over begins; the opening credits roll. The film, as of yet untitled, is destined to become a classic.
“The Empty Sky,” Alyce Miller, November 2001
No man consciously chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for the happiness he seeks.
Eckhart Tolle: This need for enemies is part of the insanity of normal human consciousness, which has afflicted us for many thousands of years. It lies at the root of the continuous violence, warfare, and conflict that you see when you open a newspaper or history book. I always recommend people read twentieth-century history, because of all the periods of human history, surely the twentieth century is the maddest of all, in terms of suffering inflicted by humans on other humans. Any visitor from outer space who looked at that century would have to conclude that there is a strong streak of insanity running through the collective human psyche.
The madness of the world is not just out there; the root of the madness lies in every person’s mind. Of course, it takes on more extreme forms in certain people and less extreme forms in others. An extreme manifestation of insanity is the terrorist who kills thousands of people, including himself. How can he do that? How can a person inflict suffering and, seemingly, not feel anything? How is that possible? It is possible because the terrorist has conceptualized a large group of people — the other religion, the other tribe, the other nation — as the enemy. And once he has made labels and judgments, he no longer sees them as human beings. He sees only the mental concept that he has created, the mental labels that he has attached. The moment you do that, whether collectively to a tribe or individually to another person, you have desensitized yourself, and you no longer sense the aliveness and the reality of that other human being.
The Sun: So you’ve killed them before you have killed them.
Tolle: Yes, that’s right. But, before one condemns the terrorists, one needs to see that terrorism is only a more extreme manifestation of the same dysfunction that exists in everyone. And that’s a sobering realization. It also means that you can’t make the terrorists into an “enemy” anymore.
“Beyond Happiness and Unhappiness,” Eckhart Tolle, interviewed by Steve Donoso, July 2002
Has September 11 made the United States less arrogant? Has it deepened our compassion for other people’s suffering? Many things changed after the terrorist attacks, but not human nature. That’s why September 11 means one thing to George W. Bush and another to Osama bin Laden, one thing to my friend who thinks the U.S. government was behind it and another to my friend who sees it as the beginning of the country’s spiritual initiation. September 11 meant one thing in the days that immediately followed, when many magazine editors worried aloud that no one would want to keep reading the kind of shallow, cynical articles they counted on to keep the ads apart. It meant another thing a few months later, when a media executive explained, “We were blithering and terror-stricken then, and shouldn’t be held accountable for what we said.”
Sy Safransky’s Notebook, September 2002
No matter how beautifully conceived, no government by itself can make a country virtuous. You must also have the good will and morality of the people who serve the government, and of the nation’s populace. The Founders recognized the inevitable danger of what they called the “passions” — lust, greed, violence, hatred — and they pitted those passions against the “interests”: security, well-being, success. Interests are also desires, but they are more survival-oriented. The Founding Fathers intended for human passions to be overruled by human interests. So people may be right when they say, “All America wants is to make the world safe for money.” But consider the alternative — if America had been out to serve its citizens’ passions rather than their interests.
America’s always had bad presidents, corrupt Congresses, and the greed and bribery that inevitably go with public office. This is nothing new. The question is not whether we’re going to have corruption; the question is how much we can bear. The Enron and WorldCom scandals are scary because they may signal that there is more corruption in big business than we can bear. We’ll have to wait and see.
“Searching for the Soul of America,” Jacob Needleman, interviewed by D. Patrick Miller, December 2002
The Sun: Do you think that we should boycott chain stores and restaurants that don’t pay a living wage?
Barbara Ehrenreich: And then where are you going to shop or eat? At an upscale restaurant where the busboys and the dishwashers still earn little above minimum wage and the coffee beans have been picked by children in Central America? A lot of people come up to me and say, “I’ll never go to Walmart again.” Well, terrific. So you go to a nice little boutique, which also pays its retail clerks seven dollars an hour and maybe gets its very expensive clothes from sweatshops, too. You could pay two hundred dollars for a dress that some poor seamstress made five dollars for sewing. These problems are so widespread, it’s hard for me to see how boycotting a single business would help much.
That said, if a boycott were called on some particular business, and there were a focused campaign surrounding it, I would respect it. If somebody wanted to call for a boycott of Walmart, for example, I could think of a lot of reasons to do it. They are vicious in their union-busting practices, and they destroy communities and small businesses. . . .
What we can do to help hardworking people trapped in poverty is fight for increasing social benefits, universal health insurance, and a universal child-care subsidy. We can demand that cities build affordable housing rather than demolishing it or gentrifying it. Another possibility would be to tell the courts to get serious about enforcing the law against firing people for union activity. That’s the law, but it’s not enforced. You could also join the living-wage movement, which is using whatever leverage it has to convince individual cities to raise wages.
“Fingers to the Bone,” Barbara Ehrenreich, interviewed by Jamie Passaro, January 2003
The police put on their gas masks. We put on ours. The rain falls in cold sheets. We sit and wait for some form of violence to begin. I find chalk in my pocket and draw a spiral on the street. I write “Justice.” Next to me is a young man in black, masked and hooded. I hand him the chalk. He holds it for a long moment, then draws an anarchist symbol and writes “Resist!” I find another piece of chalk and begin passing it around. The rest of our cluster joins us, with boxes of chalk, which circulate through the crowd. We draw spirals, though the rain dissolves our marks almost as soon as we make them.
We do not know this at the time, but up at the front of the line, the police chief is negotiating with Mary Bull, whom the media will later describe as “a woman dressed as a tree.” Wearing a foam redwood costume, Mary works out a deal. The police uncover their badges. They take off their gas masks. They call for anyone who wants to get arrested to move forward. Someone hands the chief of police a bouquet of roses.
The tension eases. Jugglers appear, and fire-eaters dancing with flames, and radical cheerleaders, and drum circles. We stand up, huddled together as the cold rain falls. Under our feet is a labyrinth someone has drawn, which the rain does not wash away.
The police chief, who two days before illegally arrested six hundred people, goes on TV holding his roses and talks about democracy. Meanwhile those who volunteered to get arrested are kept in handcuffs for many, many hours. They are hit in the face for smiling or for asking to see a lawyer. They are kept in wet clothes, though some are shivering with hypothermia. They are not given food or water for so long that some end up drinking from the jail toilets. They are brutalized, intimidated, and lied to. In one holding cell deep in the jail, a protester leaves a spiral torn from scraps of a dollar bill.
“Webs of Power,” Starhawk, March 2003 (originally appeared in Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising)
During the labor movement, the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies, said flat out, “We have to fill up the jails,” and they proceeded to do it. They would go into a mining town in Colorado, or Idaho, or Wyoming, where some of their buddies were in jail, and they’d immediately break curfew or get drunk en masse, and they’d fill up the jails. The community would be unable to feed all these prisoners, and so it would have to open the jail doors. It was one of the finest chapters in the U.S. labor movement’s history.
“Acts of Faith,” Philip Berrigan, interviewed by Rachel J. Elliott, July 2003
When my Peace Corps recruiter told me I’d be a perfect candidate to teach English in Africa, I told her I wanted to build the schools, not teach in them. I wanted to get my hands dirty and sweat a bit.
She placed me in the teaching program in Cameroon.
Classroom protocol was very formal. My high-school students rose from their desks when I entered the room and stood when responding to my questions. At first they seemed to like me. They would linger after class to ask me grammar questions or stop me in the market to talk about my tastes in music and clothes. But then someone in class began to mimic my voice when my back was turned. Every day for a week, an exaggerated, high-pitched version of my voice returned my words a beat after I had spoken them.
On Friday I snapped. I spun around from the board and grabbed the first student I saw by the lapels of his school uniform. He stood, and I heard the rip of cloth, so tight was my grip.
“Wolwe,” I said, “who has been mimicking my voice?”
“I cannot say, Miss.”
“Are you afraid of getting your friend in trouble?”
“Would you take the punishment for your friend?”
So I released my grip and went to my grade book, trying to look calm as I flipped through the pages.
“I see you got a ﬁfteen on last week’s test. Not bad. Now it’s a zero.”
“Please, Miss. Please.”
“I said you have a zero. Now just shut up, boy.”
And there it was. So easy. So natural. Not only had I swiftly and severely punished Wolwe; I’d let the ghosts of my plantation-owner ancestors rise up in me and slap that label on a young black man. Boy. It was in my blood, the way I spat that word. Boy. There was nothing awkward about it; my voice didn’t catch or quiver or hesitate. Boy. I said it just like a character in a Richard Wright novel, lines I had read and reread and underlined until I’d felt the nausea churning inside me, and I’d vowed that someday, somehow, I would make a difference in the world.
“Idealism” (Readers Write), Mary Beth Simmons, December 2003
The Sun: You have cautioned activists to keep in mind that their work might not generate results for many years, if ever. How should activists approach such a daunting outlook?
Bruce Cockburn: Criterion one for getting involved is to divorce yourself from expectations regarding outcome. Obviously you’re working toward an important goal, but if you get attached to a specific outcome, you’re going to end up frustrated, and your work will be for nothing.
We can look around and see that the same evils keep repeating themselves over and over again, and we keep on trying to deal with them. Sometimes what we do seems like a holding plan at best, but that’s OK. Without it, things would be worse.
“In a Dangerous Time,” Bruce Cockburn, interviewed by Greg King, June 2004
Don’t agonize. Organize.
Sharon Hays: There’s a win-lose mentality in the U.S. Americans think it’s not possible for everybody to win. Someone must be the loser. Why not the poor? And many people feel that to help the poor, they would have to give up some of their own prosperity. But the effects of welfare reform are going to be much more damaging to our prosperity in the long run.
If middle-class people saw what these mothers and their children have to deal with, they would be shocked. The middle class understands what it’s like to deal with bureaucracy and the concerns of work and family, but they generally have support systems that enable them to handle it. If a welfare mother needs to take time off from her job at Burger King because her landlord has decided to sell her apartment, she’ll most likely be out of a job.
The Sun: Will the middle class ever see what’s going on?
Hays: The fiscal crisis in the United States is reaching overwhelming proportions. The Bush administration is forcing all the states to balance their budgets, and this means middle-class people will see the crisis in their hometowns in an immediate way. Libraries, parks, schools, even hospitals are experiencing funding cuts. Student loans are already more difficult to get. There is a general lack of maintenance of public spaces. Then, of course, you have a growing number of homeless and hungry people — many of them former welfare recipients. Food banks are already stretched to the limit. Homeless shelters are turning people away. Those people are going to show up on our streets. It is completely insane for the richest nation in the world to look like Calcutta.
“Will Work for Food,” Sharon Hays, interviewed by Pat MacEnulty, August 2004
The Sun: What are your feelings about George W. Bush’s “war on terror”?
Stan Goff: Bush is a terrorist. When you engage in massive state-run terrorism, and you support other leaders who conduct state-run terrorism, as Bush has done in Israel, you can expect a terrorist response.
No one — not the Palestinians, nor the Iraqis, nor the Afghans, nor anyone else — has the military capacity to confront the U.S. or Israel directly. They are forced by the situation either to lie down and die, or to fight back using asymmetric warfare, which we refer to as terrorism. Of course, bulldozing people’s houses and bombing civilians are terrorism, too.
There is an implicit nationalism in the phrase “war on terror” because it says the threat is outside of us. But the single biggest cause of terrorist attacks, aside from the policies and actions of the U.S. government, is the size and scope of our military. There is simply no chance of victory if you confront the U.S. military on a conventional battlefield. Terrorism is a tactic, not a free-standing phenomenon. . . .
This war isn’t about terrorism; it’s about oil. If the principal export of Iraq were palm dates, we wouldn’t be there.
“Homeland Insecurity,” Stan Goff, interviewed by Rachel J. Elliott, November 2004
The Sun: The first President Bush said, on his way to the 1992 Earth Summit, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” Nearly fifteen years later, is this still true?
Bill McKibben: Well, George W. Bush has done his best to defend our habits of consumption. Think about September 11. What if the president had gone on television the next day and said, “Job one: get Osama bin Laden. Job two: let’s make sure we’re never in this situation again. Tomorrow I’m raising the gas tax two bucks a gallon to pay for research into alternative energy sources, and we’re going to put solar panels on the roofs of one-tenth of all the houses in America before I leave office.” In the shock and sadness following that event, the country would have said, “Yes, sir. We’re on it.” Instead, of course, he told us to go shopping. And we did. We bought more SUVs in the three months following 9/11 than ever before. Each one should have come equipped with a Saudi flag on the bumper.
“Dream a Little Dream,” Bill McKibben, interviewed by Alexis Adams, October 2006
You have to think that the American people can be pretty stupid. Or is it that we’re suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease? We cannot remember yesterday, let alone what happened fifty years ago. In the thirties we saw the Great Depression bucked by the New Deal; of course the war played a role, but it was bucked mostly by the New Deal, by the government stepping in benignly. And now we have the [Hurricane Katrina] catastrophe in New Orleans. Nothing was prepared, and there was no dough because it’s all going to Iraq and the war. The country has been betrayed by politicians ever since Reagan, and certainly with Bill Clinton and the “centrifying” of the Democrats — meaning castrating them. And the castrators are Bill Clinton and [Democratic senators] Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. They’ve got to go. Hope has to come from some candidate who says, “I am for withdrawal from Iraq now. We’ve blown it, and let’s see if we can recover peace and sanity in the world.”
Getting back to the national Alzheimer’s disease: Social Security — privatize it, and half my friends would be buried in potter’s field. If it wasn’t for Social Security, my God, I’d be in trouble, quite frankly. My books do OK, but healthcare costs . . . Think about this. We are the only industrialized nation in the world that does not have universal healthcare. We are also the only industrialized nation in the world that still has the death penalty. In these two cases, we seem to favor death more than life.
“Hope Dies Last,” Studs Terkel, interviewed by Michael Shapiro, November 2006
Almost anything you do will seem insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.
The Sun: What do you think are some of the primary lessons from Katrina?
Van Jones: One lesson is that the right wing’s ideology, which says that we don’t need government and we don’t need each other, is wrong. We’ve spent almost thirty years listening to them say that government is the problem, not the solution; that collectivism is inferior to individual strength and fortitude. We’ve heard for thirty years that people don’t need government: “Let them sink or swim.” Then everyone turned on the television one day and saw an American city underwater, and we saw people sink beneath that water as a direct consequence of that ideology. It wasn’t a deviation from what the right wing had been shouting about; it was an inevitable outcome of their policies of defunding government and stripping away essential services. A lot of those people in the floodwaters were hotel workers who scrubbed toilets and changed sheets for the tourists. But they weren’t unionized, so their wages were much lower than those of hotel workers in, say, Las Vegas, who are unionized. So when the hurricane hit three days ahead of payday, people didn’t have the money to leave. Even if they worked every day, they might not have a functioning car, a credit card, or money in the bank. And they were left to make do with a free-market evacuation plan.
That is the primary lesson of Katrina: In a flood, there is no room for an ideology that says, “Let your neighbor sink or swim.” We need a philosophy that says, “We are all in this together.”
“Bridging the Green Divide,” Van Jones, interviewed by David Kupfer, March 2008
Admittedly humans aren’t doing so well. But put any other mammal behind the wheel of a shiny new Cadillac, 440 horses under the hood, and see if it does any better. Would a chimpanzee willingly relinquish the keys just because he’d been forced to sit through a PowerPoint presentation on global warming by Al Gore? So let’s show a little compassion for our not-so-evolved species. I mean, how many millennia did it take Homo sapiens to harness fire, or plant crops, or invent the wheel? The Industrial Revolution didn’t begin until the eighteenth century. Is it any surprise that it’s taking us a while to clean up the mess? How long does it take any of us to learn from our bad decisions and failed relationships and lousy habits we can’t seem to break? Yes, the planet is getting hotter. But even if we were crowded together on a slow boat to hell, wouldn’t we want to extend some mercy to our fellow passengers?
Sy Safransky’s Notebook, May 2008
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, I took leave from my middle-management job, brought a folding chair and a hand-scrawled sign down to the Federal Building, and fasted for peace for one week.
I wasn’t alone. There were other antiwar protesters on the sidewalk with me, and support-the-troops counter-demonstrators across the street in front of the bank. At first I seethed at our opponents, whom we called the “pro-war people.” Then came John, carrying his three-foot-high sign that read, “Peace,” in neat block letters. John lived in a one-room cabin in the woods and walked into the city every day, two hours each way, to take part in the protests. A Korean War veteran, he visited the protesters across the street, chatting with a fierce-looking man with a beret, mirrored sunglasses, and a chest full of medals.
Following John’s example, I sought out this veteran, whose name was Tim, and I offered to buy him coffee. He declined and offered to buy me a cup instead. I turned him down because of my fast, but an unlikely mutual admiration grew between us, and we crossed the street several times a day to talk.
As the week wore on and tensions rose, Tim came over to read me the poem “The Soldier Fights.” A group of antiwar protesters surrounded him and demanded to know what he was doing on “our” side of the street. Tim snapped back at them, and I had to step in to break up the shouting match. The antiwar protesters walked away while Tim and I shook hands.
Minutes later the opposite sidewalk was wild with shouting and pushing. Tim got in the middle and broke up an argument between his crew and a veteran for peace. Afterward he crossed over and said to me, “I’ve got to go. I can’t take it anymore.” His mouth twisted. “I hate this war. I cry about it every night.” Tears rolled from beneath his sunglasses. He had to do something to support the troops, he said, to keep from going insane, and I held him while he sobbed.
“Patriotism” (Readers Write), Bob Hicks, June 2008
I ’m trying to change my own consumer behavior. Just today I was at a conference, and there was a woman selling beautiful silk tops. I thought, I bet I’d look really good in this. Then I found out they were made in China. In my mind the old argument played out: I would look great in this versus This is made in China. I don’t even need it. My closet is full. I realized that I’m still conditioned to consume; it’s a struggle for me to act mindfully and not compulsively in areas like eating, drinking, and shopping. For all my social organizing and trying to bring about change in the business world, it’s easy to forget that real change begins with changing oneself.
“Table for Six Billion, Please,” Judy Wicks, interviewed by David Kupfer, August 2008
Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
I think a small but powerful anti-immigrant group with ties to the white-supremacist movement has made its way into the political sphere, placing people in strategic offices and supporting candidates in key races where they can affect the tenor of the public debate. About 130 members of Congress now get significant campaign funding from groups like FAIR and the Minutemen. The September 11 attacks were the perfect opportunity for such groups to call for controlling our borders — never mind that all of the 9/11 hijackers were here legally with visas.
“Without a Country,” Pramila Jayapal, interviewed by Madeline Ostrander, November 2008
The last time I saw Ram Dass, he told me, “I’m trying really hard to love George Bush.” I laughed and said, “Thirty years ago you told me, ‘I’m trying really hard to love Richard Nixon.’ ” So the struggle goes on; only the names have changed.
“In the Jester’s Court,” Paul Krassner, interviewed by David Kupfer, February 2009
My guess is it will always be a distinct minority that challenges injustice in any society. But the good news is we don’t need a majority. All the social change we’ve seen in our nation’s history has happened because of an active minority. A minority called for the abolition of slavery. A minority demanded fair labor laws and child-labor laws and the forty-hour workweek. A distinct minority brought down legal apartheid in the U.S.: only two hundred thousand people marched on Washington, D.C., in 1963, and polls around that time showed that as many as three-fourths of whites said blacks were pushing for too much, too fast. A year later the Civil Rights Act was passed.
“By the Color of Their Skin,” Tim Wise, interviewed by David Cook, July 2009
As Independence Day approaches, I wonder what we’re supposed to give a country on its 234th birthday. Solar panels on every roof? Extraordinary teachers in every school? An equitable tax system that demands more from the rich? How about a magic wand that turns slow trains into fast trains, and fast-food restaurants into slow-food restaurants, and all the charlatans in Congress into dedicated public servants? And while we’re at it, how about tearing down that wall in our collective psyche that separates the present from the past? More than 15 million indigenous people occupied North America before Europeans arrived in the New World (new to the Europeans, at least). By 1910 — because of disease and war and forced migration — their numbers had been reduced to less than half a million. And today their existence is largely forgotten except as a plot device in Hollywood westerns. We celebrate the birth of our nation on the Fourth of July, but on what day do we mourn all those who died because of our ancestors’ imperial ambitions?
Sy Safransky’s Notebook, July 2010
The Sun: In 1928 the Nazis received only 3 percent of the vote. Four years later they were in power.
Chip Berlet: People look at the Tea Party and see average citizens. “These are just voters who are angry,” they tell me. And I say, “Yes, exactly like Weimar in 1928.”
I don’t want to alarm people. Right-wing populist movements seldom become fascist, and fascist movements seldom take power. But when you build a major social movement around scapegoating and resentment, things can move quickly in a bad direction.
In the U.S. we have a two-party system, not a parliamentary system like Weimar Germany. We don’t have a strong Communist Party or a Left Party that’s threatening to take political power. So we’re not going to have a Hitler; we’re not going to have storm troopers marching in the streets. What we’re going to have is a Republican Party that moves to the right and openly embraces racist, xenophobic ideologies, following the anger of the predominantly white Republican middle class. And the Democrats will follow them, or at least not mount a real opposition. There will be more anti-Muslim and antifeminist and antigay rhetoric. There will be more support for foreign intervention. And that’s our future, unless the progressive movement stands up and starts raising hell.
“Brewing Up Trouble,” Chip Berlet, interviewed by David Barsamian, November 2010
The Sun: Where do you see the nation’s healthcare system going?
Dr. Andrew Weil: Unless we transform it, it’s going to steer us into bankruptcy. At the moment the debate is mostly about health insurance, but that’s not the root problem. The root is cost, and I don’t think we can look to politicians to bring costs down. Both Republicans and Democrats are so beholden to the big-insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies that they are not free to act. If Congress can stop the big insurers from disqualifying people on the basis of preexisting conditions, that’s great, but these are little steps. Real change is going to come only if people get aroused enough to start a movement that shifts the balance of political power.
“Vital Signs,” Dr. Andrew Weil, interviewed by David Kupfer, January 2011
Today people in prison are largely invisible to the rest of us. We have more than 2 million inmates warehoused, but if you’re not one of them, or a family member of one of them, you scarcely notice. Most prisons are located far from urban centers and major freeways. You literally don’t see them, and when inmates return home, they’re typically returned to the segregated ghetto neighborhoods from which they came, leaving the middle class unaware of how vast this discriminatory system has become in a very short time.
Adding to prisoners’ invisibility is the fact that they are erased from unemployment and poverty statistics. If you factor in prisoners, the black unemployment rate shoots up by as much as 24 percentage points.
“Throwing Away the Key,” Michelle Alexander, interviewed by Arnie Cooper, February 2011
The seed of terrorism grows in the soil of hopelessness, depression, and fear; of poverty, hunger, and injustice. Killing civilians and occupying countries only exacerbate terrorism. Even the middle-class or affluent terrorists feel oppressed and estranged from their native culture. We need to fight terrorism the way we go after the Mafia: break up their networks, attack their funding, arrest the leaders, put them on trial, and send them to prison.
Imagine if America’s reputation around the world were strictly for providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief; if, whenever there was a disaster, the Americans came, helped, and left. Then, if terrorists attacked the U.S., world opinion would be on our side. We wouldn’t have to defend ourselves against terrorists; the rest of the world would do it for us.
“Fighting with Another Purpose,” Paul Chappell, interviewed by Leslee Goodman, April 2011
The Sun: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
Peter Coyote: I am a pessimist. There was a study done somewhere that said pessimists are more often correct in their predictions, but people more often choose to follow optimists. Americans have been indulged for two hundred years. We had the incredible wealth of a new, untapped continent as ours — after we’d killed the original inhabitants. We were so rich we could hardly make a mistake. We have lived an unrealistic lifestyle sustained by massive debt and massive expenditures of our natural capital. We have trained our citizens to feel entitled. Whatever they want, they want it now; they don’t want to wait.
What, other than his wealth, makes Donald Trump, the deity of vulgarity, worth one column inch of newspaper? The only reason is that he is rich, and because of that he is enshrined, lauded, and respected. When people are elevated to the top of the social pyramid solely for making money, how can I not be pessimistic? In the meantime the people who care for and teach our children and who nurse us and our relatives are barely scraping by.
“Against the Grain,” Peter Coyote, interviewed by David Kupfer, June 2011
Richard Wolff: Capitalism is notorious for its ups and downs. We have a whole vocabulary to refer to them: booms and busts; recessions and depressions; upturns and downturns. When people have a lot of words for something, it’s because it’s a frequent phenomenon in their lives.
You would expect that we would know this about capitalism’s history and therefore not believe that we could somehow manage to escape instability. But over the last thirty to forty years we, as a society, have been unwilling to think critically about capitalism. And it shows. We thought we weren’t going to have another crisis like the one we had in the 1930s, or like the one the Japanese have had since 1990. We imagined that these problems were no longer relevant to modern life. So we were unprepared for the mess we’re in. Nothing shows our unpreparedness better than the inability of either President Bush or President Obama to deal with this problem. . . .
The Sun: Income inequality is well documented, but you’re also talking about wealth inequality, which is a whole different set of indices.
Wolff: Yes, although I do think they have a common root. The wealth inequality in the U.S. has occurred due to an explosion in the value of the stock market over the last thirty years. That’s where the rich have become richer. People who hold a significant portion of their wealth in stocks have participated in this boom, but the vast majority of Americans either have no stocks or a trivial amount of them. Only a tiny percentage of our citizens are serious shareholders.
Most Americans have no appreciable wealth. They live paycheck to paycheck. Those who do have any wealth tend to have it in one form: their home. And houses have dropped in value by 25 to 35 percent across the U.S. over the last four years, making the inequality of wealth even greater. The so-called recovery in the stock market from 2009 to 2011 recouped some losses for those who have significant amounts of stocks, but those whose only wealth is their home are now roughly 30 percent behind where they were in 2007. Their jobs are not more secure, their wages have not gone up, and their benefits have been reduced. Wealth inequality is a more serious problem than income inequality in terms of this crisis.
“Capitalism and Its Discontents,” Richard Wolff, interviewed by David Barsamian, February 2012
Seven billion of us — and counting — are all “activists,” because we’re actively shaping our world. The only question is: Are we conscious activists, or unconscious activists? We see the results of unconscious activism all around us. Virtually every problem is caused by unconscious choices being made over and over and over again. To compound the problem, certain people want the rest of us to be unconscious, because they benefit hugely from it.
It’s impossible not to make a difference. Every choice we make leads either toward health or toward disease; there’s no other direction. The question is not “How can I, one person, make a difference?” The question is “What kind of difference do I want to make?”
“The Butterfly Effect,” Julia Butterfly Hill, interviewed by Leslee Goodman, April 2012
The other day, when I was walking home from the grocery store with [my daughter] Aliya, she said out of the blue, “Sometimes I feel bad for my dad, because people here don’t understand him very well.” She wasn’t talking about his accent but about the way he is perceived: the way her friends scrunch up their noses at his spicy food or retreat from the sound of his loud voice; the way her teachers speak patronizingly to him; the way some of our friends squirm when his eyes fill with tears in a culture that has little room for crying men. She understands that to be an immigrant is to live in a country of misunderstandings, to be always partially hidden from view, obscured by stereotypes and prejudice. . . .
Even some old friends regard [my husband] Ismail with skepticism. I’ve had to accept their general discomfort around him and their assumption, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that he is a controlling Muslim husband. At a party the other night a Cat Stevens song came on the radio, and a dear old friend grabbed my arm and said, “Oh, I love Cat Stevens!” So do I, I said. She continued: “I couldn’t believe it when he went off the deep end into that whole ‘Yusuf Islam’ thing. I was like, ‘Dude, what happened to the peace train?’ ” She rolled her eyes as she tilted her glass to her lips. I wanted to say, Islam is his peace train. He got on it and rode away, and he’s been on it ever since. But she probably wouldn’t have heard me; she was standing on a distant shore where Islam and peace are categorical opposites, a place where I once lived but to which I can never return. Sometimes I still miss its soothing homogeneity, its bright illusions of superiority and invincibility.
“Blues for Allah,” Krista Bremer, July 2012
When I was researching Healing the Heart of Democracy, I learned that at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 — where, for the first time in history, people created a political system in which conflict and tension are not the enemy but the engine of a better social order — 30 percent of the delegates walked out before the final vote was taken. Serious conflicts are nothing new in our politics. Our job is to learn to deal with them creatively, which is the key to the democratic experiment.
“If Only We Would Listen,” Parker J. Palmer, interviewed by Alicia von Stamwitz, November 2012
Retired people often feel that, since they’ve worked all their lives, the world owes them a rest. That’s outrageous. Old age is precisely when we need to pay the world back. Yes, we have worked hard, but our successes depended on a stable climate, temperate weather, abundant food, cheap fuel, and a sturdy government — all advantages that our children and grandchildren will not have if we don’t act.
We elders are at the peak of our ability to help. We have a wealth of experience. Many of us have sufficient income. And we have that huge commodity: time. Most of all we have a ferocious love for our grandchildren. Wouldn’t that love make us want to leave them the legacy of a beautiful world? To turn away from that into a kind of grouchy selfishness strikes me as tragic.
“If Your House Is on Fire,” Kathleen Dean Moore, interviewed by Mary DeMocker, December 2012
I wasn’t thinking of it, though it seems my body was: the seemingly insignificant run-in I’d had with the police the night before. For a black man any encounter with the police is tense, and that tension had found its way into my muscles, if not my mind. . . .
I wasn’t perturbed by the cop. I had made a decision in the recent past no longer to be afraid of the police. With their costumes, their hats, the boots worn by the “troopers,” police are meant to make us feel scared, guilty, criminal (some of us more than others). There’s a way in which they take up residence in our bodies (some of us more than others). When they appear behind us or in our line of sight, our heart rate accelerates, our breathing quickens, our muscles contract. We become acutely aware not only of what we were doing but also of what the cop might think we were doing.
But I had decided I’d try not to feel guilty when I next encountered the police. Why? First, because I am thirty-eight years old and generally law-abiding. Second, because it had occurred to me that when I paid my taxes, I was helping to pay police officers’ salaries, and therefore this cop was actually my employee — though I wouldn’t have said so to him. Third, I was tired of being afraid. So I’d decided to imagine the police in general — and this cop pulling me over in particular — as doing what I imagine a policeman should spend his time doing: making our community safer.
And so, for the first time in my life when a cop came to my car window, I looked him in the eye and asked as gently and openheartedly as possible if he could tell me why he’d stopped me. “After you give me your license and registration,” he said. I handed them over, and he told me simply, “Your license-plate light is out.” I’d had no idea there was such a thing as a license-plate light, and I told him as much, laughing to express my good-natured confusion and gratitude: He wants to do me a favor.
And he smiled — just for a second — then asked if I had any drugs in the car. When I said no, he asked if I had any guns in the car. When I said no, he asked if I’d been drinking. When I said no, he asked again, “You don’t have any weapons or anything illegal in the car I should know about?” (Strange, you might think, for such questions to arise from a burned-out license-plate light.) And I said, looking straight ahead through the windshield, “No.”
“Some Thoughts on Mercy,” Ross Gay, July 2013
Five hundred years ago people burned witches. Two hundred and fifty years ago slavery was still acceptable. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Those are the words I come back to on the bad days, like on the morning of George W. Bush’s reelection, when I couldn’t think of anything to tell my kids, or on the morning after the Boston Marathon bombing, or any morning when hatred seems entrenched. The arc of history is so long you can’t see the end of it, so you don’t sense the movement. It’s an arc. It goes around to the other side of the horizon. But if you look backward, you see that when I was born, women couldn’t sit on juries. When I was born, African American people couldn’t use the same public bathrooms as whites.
Now, quite suddenly, gay marriage appears to be on the verge of countrywide acceptance. But it takes time for some people to catch up to the community consensus. So there’s anger and animosity and the occasional hate crime, and that makes us feel like we’re not getting anywhere, but of course we’re getting somewhere. That’s why the person committed the hate crime — because he or she felt pressured to change.
This caution is probably intrinsic to our nature — we call it “human nature,” but really it’s animal nature. Just like a mockingbird has a mockingbird nature and a gray squirrel has a gray-squirrel nature, we have a nature that served us well when we lived in little groups and survived only if we were quick to spot an outsider and dispatch him. Cooperation was an important part of our evolution, but cooperation within strict limits. Altruism was also part of our evolution, but, again, it was a very constrained altruism that would benefit our own descendants and nobody else’s. That’s the wiring we’ve inherited. And on this razor-thin leading edge of history, we’ve developed a civilization in which we generally acknowledge the benefits of cooperation beyond our immediate group. So we have charitable organizations and adoptions and nonprofits, and also international trade and NAFTA. But our nature is still pulling us back. That’s why the arc of history is long. We can’t just decide to be a certain way and force our hearts to follow. Our hearts follow at different rates.
“The Moral Universe,” Barbara Kingsolver, interviewed by Jeanne Supin, March 2014
American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.
The Sun: White people in the media and everywhere else are always telling poor people of color to pull themselves up by their bootstraps — all the worn-out prescriptions of more than a hundred years of racism. Is it infuriating to hear that?
Rev. Lynice Pinkard: Yes, white people came up with this racist rhetoric because the truth is we were too busy pulling your bootstraps up — picking your cotton, chopping your cane, plowing your fields, raising your children, cooking your food, bearing your beatings and brutality, and, quite frankly, laying the foundation for the stolen country that you are so proud to own. But black people have to examine how we’ve absorbed the “bootstrap” rhetoric and how we continue to serve the master. As feminist Audre Lorde said, “You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” And we are borrowing the master’s toolbox. Some people of color spend all of their energy using those tools to build an American dream house where they can eat at the welcome table, only to find that many of the people at the welcome table are still impoverished at the deepest levels. But our obsession with the master’s tools, with upward mobility and fitting into the system, makes sense, because we have been disenfranchised for so long. Black people got the right to vote only fifty years ago. We were being lynched sixty years ago. After the end of the formalized apartheid of slavery, we had twelve years — from 1865 to 1877 — for Reconstruction, and then we were reenslaved through the peonage system [in which people are bound into servitude by debt]. Former slave owners could pull black people back into a life of forced labor by criminalizing everything we did — such as spitting in public or looking at someone the wrong way — and they could put us in prison, where they could work us to death. Under slavery, at least the slave owner had a substantial investment in his slaves and didn’t want to kill them. From Jim Crow until today, the prison-industrial complex has served as the ultimate plantation.
“Dangerous Love,” Rev. Lynice Pinkard, interviewed by Mark Leviton, October 2014
Angola is a maximum-security prison with more than five thousand inmates. It’s eighteen thousand acres surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and on the fourth by the Tunica Hills. It used to be a slave plantation. The name originates from the Africans who were brought there from Angola during the slave trade. It’s still a working plantation. Guys are picking cotton all day for two cents an hour.
I was in a work crew called Line 5. We mostly dug ditches. We tilled the land, pulled the trees down, threw that diesel on it, and burned off both sides of the ditch clear down to the dirt. We were out there in blistering heat or bitter cold and rain. Didn’t matter; we had to work.
The main prison, Camp A, was the old slave camp. It’s something else, to be part of such a long history. That spot is stained with blood. Hundreds of years of brutality. The pain and suffering that land has caused. The violence that exists on them grounds.
“Twenty-Seven and a Half Years,” Gregory Bright with Lara Naughton, June 2015
No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
The Sun: Do you want Hillary Clinton to become our first female president?
Ani DiFranco: I love Bernie Sanders and would be excited to vote for him, but if Clinton is the nominee, I will be excited for different reasons. Sanders is a true public servant who’s been sticking up for people since the beginning, but Clinton, despite her political centrism, is, quite simply, female, so her election would be thrilling, because it would unlock that invisible door. Once that door is unlocked, I believe much goodness will walk through it. I know that the picture of Barack Obama’s face as president has done more, on one level, to liberate the future America than anything he could ever do as a politician. Little children do not know what is being said, but they know that man is the president. The idea that the first two presidents my eight-year-old daughter might know could be a person of color and a woman makes me want to cry with joy.
“Righteous Babe,” Ani DiFranco, interviewed by Mark Leviton, May 2016