I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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Last month, in a section titled “One Nation, Indivisible,” we devoted more than half our pages to excerpts from The Sun’s archives. Our goal was to address the current political moment by giving readers perspective on the past and courage to face the present. Because the problems in our nation seem unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, we are making this an ongoing part of the magazine.
When I look back on the sixties, I realize it would have been absolutely and utterly inconceivable to me then that the world would be the way it is: that Ronald Reagan would be president, that our society would be so increasingly acquisitive, that the growth of the underclass would have proceeded the way it has. I really thought twenty years ago that today we would look back on the kind of race relations we had in the sixties as a remnant of some dark age — like slavery and the era of Jim Crow — and that full integration and equality would have been achieved. Obviously, I was extremely wrong, which can be grounds for pessimism. But I do think that something radical and powerful and extraordinary happened in the sixties. We just didn’t know how to consolidate it, to keep it going.
“On the Poverty of Affluence,” Paul Wachtel, interviewed by Sy Safransky, February 1988
Christians will come to me and say, “I ought to feel joyful all the time because that seems to be built into my religion. But in fact, I don’t.” These are unrealistic expectations about the world. Nobody’s happy all the time. Nobody feels good about themselves all the time. Even people who’ve had enlightened moments sometimes feel miserable. But Western culture presents impossibilities to people as though they were possible. In this culture we talk about feeling good about oneself or about controlling one’s feelings, conquering one’s fears. That’s foolishness. Nobody does that. What you find, in the real world, is that people do courageous things scared to death. And people work hard when sometimes they’re very bored. . . . Sometimes I don’t feel like going to work. Sometimes I’m in a bad mood. That’s OK. Feelings are not controllable. What we can control is what we do. And that’s where freedom lies.
“Necessary Guilt,” David Reynolds, interviewed by Michael Toms, November 1993
The less you are caught up in your own hopes and fears, the more you can see suffering straightforwardly. Accountability here means being honest, incredibly honest. You see that harm is being done: you see someone harming a child, an animal, another being. You see that clearly, and you wish to lessen that suffering. Then the question becomes one of how to proceed so that the person you see as the problem becomes accountable, willing to acknowledge what he or she is doing.
You realize how hard it is for you to acknowledge what harm you are doing in your own life. Seeing how much it takes to become accountable yourself, you try to find skillful means to communicate with this person so that barriers come down, rather than get reinforced. It has everything to do with communication: How can you each hear what the other is saying?
“Beyond Right or Wrong,” Pema Chödrön, in conversation with bell hooks, June 1997
I think the hardest thing today is that, in both our personal and public lives, the status quo seems so permanent. It looks as though what we see around us is the way it has to be. I think the first step is for each of us to realize that this system is brand new on the planet. We created it only recently, in a short period of time, and its sense of permanence and power is an illusion. If we appreciate this, we can liberate ourselves from this false mythology. We can realize that history could conceivably have been very different. It still can. How did people do away with the divine right of kings? They simply stopped believing in it.
“The Broken Promise of Democracy,” Frances Moore Lappé, interviewed by Derrick Jensen, November 1999
The Sun: Why do you think class inequality is such a taboo subject in the mainstream media?
Barbara Ehrenreich: It undercuts the American myth that anybody can become rich, that it’s just a matter of personal ability and determination. There’s a greater openness to talking about class in European countries with a feudal heritage. Where you once had an aristocracy, it’s hard to get away from the idea that there are different classes. We don’t have that inherited aristocracy, and so we like to tell ourselves that everybody is equal. To admit that large numbers of people are systematically held back is hard, because it means upward mobility is not an option for everybody. But that’s the way it is. There are just too many things pressing poor people down, keeping them where they are.
There was some increased awareness of class in the early sixties, with the “discovery” of poverty, but then poverty got undiscovered sometime in the nineties. Journalist James Fallows says the poor have become “invisiblized” in our society.
They’re given very little mention in the news and entertainment media. You just don’t hear about them. The media system is fed by corporate advertising, and advertisers want “good demographics” — that is, they want to reach mostly the upper middle class.
I also blame affluent people who are smug and self-satisfied and don’t want to notice the world around them. The upper classes have withdrawn from the public realm: They don’t use public parks, public schools, or public transportation. Some don’t even live on public roads. It was very different in the mid-twentieth century, when there was some truth behind the idea that we were all one big middle class. That has been disrupted by class polarization — the increasing wealth of the rich and the decline of the middle class.
“Fingers to the Bone,” Barbara Ehrenreich, interviewed by Jamie Passaro, January 2003
I have nothing to say about the politics of poverty, what causes it and what it causes and how to make it go away. I can only tell you what poverty does to a person. It gets inside you, nestles into your bones, and gives you a chill that you cannot shake. Poverty becomes you — it shapes what you see and taste and dream — till there is no telling where you stop and poverty begins. To be poor is to live in denial — not the denial of professional counselors and self-help books, which is an avoidance of some truth too painful to admit, but denial in its most literal sense: you must say no to yourself constantly. Being poor means stripping down to the essentials, and there’s not much a person really needs to survive — bread, cheese, blankets, a little black-and-white TV, some toothpaste, soap, pencils, a library card. In and of itself, it isn’t bad not to have things, and if all of us lived this way, there would hardly be anything wrong with it at all. To be poor is one thing; to know that you are poor is another thing altogether. That is when poverty becomes poison.
“The Gifted Classes,” Frances Lefkowitz, January 2003
I think it’s helpful to remind white ethnics that they, too, came here in boats; that they, too, lived in slums; that they, too, had yellow fever; that they, too, were stigmatized as incorrigible; that they, too, had the highest homicide rates and the highest incarceration rates and the highest rates of mental illness; and that everything that was said about them in those days is now being said about Salvadorans, Dominicans, African Americans, Mexicans, Vietnamese, and Cambodians in our inner cities.
“A More Perfect Union,” Tom Hayden, interviewed by Tim McKee, January 2006
I can reasonably guess what was on those four black boys’ minds on December 22, 1984, when Bernhard Goetz boarded the downtown 2 [train] at 14th Street and took a seat: We can take this white motherfucker. Two of the teenagers carried screwdrivers in their pockets, which they were planning to use to break into the coin boxes of video-game machines. Goetz carried a loaded .38 pistol in his waistband. I also think I know what was going through his head before he stepped onto that train: Never again will I be taken.
According to an opinion by Chief Judge Sol Wachtler of the New York State Court of Appeals, this is how it went down: One boy stood to Goetz’s left, another to his right. A third hovered near the doors. The fourth boy hung back. The boy on Goetz’s left said, “Give me five dollars.” Goetz pretended not to hear, and the boy asked again. That’s when Goetz stood, pulled out the pistol, and fired four shots. The first teenager was hit in the chest. The second was hit in the back as he tried to escape. The third boy took a bullet that passed through his arm to his left side. The fourth and final boy retreated down the aisle. Goetz shot and missed; the bullet ricocheted off the wall of the conductor’s cabin.
Goetz surveyed the three he’d downed and then fired a second shot at the last boy, who in the meantime had sat down. The bullet entered his lower back and severed his spinal cord.
After someone pulled the emergency cord, Goetz went between two cars, jumped onto the tracks, and fled.
“See,” my mother repeated in the days that followed, shaking her head as though she’d known the shooting was going to happen all along. “This is the shit I’m talking about.”
My stepfather offered a different opinion: “White man been trying to kill us for four hundred years.”
“Bang, Bang, in a Boy Voice,” Akhim Yuseff Cabey, July 2007
The Sun: Let’s talk about “colorblindness.” Liberals often see it as part of fulfilling the dream of racial equality. Do most black people agree with that?
Michelle Alexander: I don’t know whether most black people would agree or disagree, but for decades the civil-rights community has consistently endorsed the idea of colorblindness and framed affirmative action as a necessary exception. Once we reach this colorblind nirvana, civil-rights leaders assure us, racial consciousness won’t be necessary anymore.
But, in my view, colorblindness has proved disastrous for African Americans. The concept has been interpreted to mean we should be indifferent to someone’s race, when the goal of civil-rights advocates in the 1960s was to encourage citizens to care about people of other races, not to be blind or indifferent to them. Colorblindness has inspired callousness. When people say, “I don’t care if he’s black,” what they’re really saying is that they’re not willing to view his experience in racial terms.
“Throwing Away the Key,” Michelle Alexander, interviewed by Arnie Cooper, February 2011
Every act of refusal is also an act of assent. Every time we say no to consumer culture, we say yes to something more beautiful and sustaining. Life is not something we go through or that happens to us; it’s something we create by our decisions. We can drift through our lives, or we can use our time, our money, and our strength to model behaviors we believe in, to say, “This is who I am.”
“If Your House Is on Fire,” Kathleen Dean Moore, interviewed by Mary DeMocker, December 2012
The Sun: You tend to paint corporate, government, and military managers with the same broad, somewhat dismissive stroke, but they can’t all be bad. And it can’t be easy for Americans to consider walking away from a culture they have known all their lives, especially when alternatives are not readily apparent.
Brian Willson: I do think it’s a mistake to divide the population into the “99 percent” and the “1 percent,” because everybody’s human, including those in the corporate hierarchy and the government. But we all need to decide whether to cooperate with the policies of an unfair, oligarchic system of power. We could decide not to cooperate. I understand the pressures and the apparent lack of options, but you’re a human being. You can say, “I’m not doing this anymore.” And there are people who have done that. President Obama could say, “I’m going to start working for the poor and stop making war and stop supporting Wall Street.” The price he would pay for this would probably be very heavy, both politically and personally, but he would recapture his dignity and place in history as a noble and courageous person.
“We Are Not Worth More, They Are Not Worth Less,” Brian Willson, interviewed by Greg King, March 2013
Having grown up in a largely white, working-class suburb of Philadelphia, I’m rarely shocked by racism. I’ve heard it all: “He’s a nigger lover.” “That nigger jumps real high.” “You’re not like those other niggers.” “That girl’s as tan as a nigger.” In fact, when I meet people who say they haven’t been around racism or anti-Semitism, I usually don’t believe them. I remember in fourth grade a popular white kid with feathered hair and a slight overbite yelled, “Nigger!” after me as I ran to get on the bus. I dashed back to punch him before running again to the bus, and he yelled after me again, “Nigger!” It went on like this until I decided I’d better catch my bus. (The kid’s best friend was Puerto Rican.) As a child, walking with a friend’s little sister, I was chased down the block by a grown man who screamed, “Don’t come around here with white girls, nigger!” while Mr. Miller, another white man and the father of two of my friends, held him back and apologized to me. Mr. and Mrs. Lee, a black couple, were sitting across the courtyard on their stoop, seething. When I learned from my Chinese American best friend the Cantonese word for “white devil” (bukwai), I excitedly told a white buddy, as if to say, See, they have names for you, too! — to which he rattled off an incredible litany of racial epithets for Asian Americans (though probably only about half as many as he had for black people).
Where I grew up, the white kids, some of whom were my close friends, told nigger jokes to my face or within earshot. I remember one redheaded, freckle-faced kid on the football team yelling across the locker room to one of the few black players, “The only thing I respect about you is your dick!” And even if they didn’t make jokes, it might be that you couldn’t go into their houses because you were black. Or your best friend’s uncle might tell you to your face that black people are inherently lazy. Not to mention what we all watched on TV and read in the newspapers. There were the “welfare queens” and “crack babies.” There was the Rodney King beating and the trial and the ensuing riots. There were the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino teens falsely accused of raping a white jogger. . . . And there was the fact that nearly every criminal on the news — rapist, murderer, burglar, drug dealer — was black. Even if I wasn’t consciously aware of it, I got the message.
“Some Thoughts on Mercy,” Ross Gay, July 2013
I am distressed about the overwhelming torpor and bewilderment of so many Americans. When the economy crashed in 2008, we learned that our government might be an immune system for wealthy capitalists, but it is not an immune system for us. Our puzzlement and disappointment about the state of our country reveals something that we do not want to know about ourselves: namely, that we are afflicted with both the world’s highest standard of living and the world’s emptiest way of life. The American way of life has failed to make people happier, but we do not want to admit this. Instead we persist in believing that the emptiness is the result of some miscalculation in the formula and can be corrected; that the bottomless and aimless hostility that makes our cities dangerous is created by a handful of troublemakers; that the lack of passionate conviction, of unrelenting vitality, is the result of the government or the corporations or the military or the National Security Agency. We are trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we want to be until we ask ourselves why the lives we lead on this continent are so empty, so tame, and so ugly.
“Dangerous Love,” Rev. Lynice Pinkard, interviewed by Mark Leviton, October 2014
Last December I went to a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Washington Square Park. Eric Garner, a forty-three-year-old Staten Island man, had been killed by the police for selling loose cigarettes — although on the day he was killed, he hadn’t been selling them. A policeman stopped him, the two men struggled, and the cop put Garner in a chokehold. Though Garner cried out, “I can’t breathe!” the officer continued to choke him, and Garner died. A grand jury decided no crime had been committed. The officer, Daniel Pantaleo, would not go to trial. That was the reason for our protest.
The crowd was large, diverse, and energetic despite the cold December day. I was surprised how many mild-mannered young hipsters had come with handmade signs. Most amazing was the sense of racial unity. Whites and blacks stood bravely together as they rarely had since the civil-rights movement in the sixties. I sat on a bench some distance from the main rally, eating my lunch next to the sign I’d made: RACISM HURTS US ALL. A young black woman with a child took my photograph, then said, “Thank you.” I had tears in my eyes.
“Embarrassed to Be an American,” Sparrow, October 2016