“One Nation, Indivisible,” features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment by giving readers perspective on the past and determination to face the future.
The year I graduated from Ohio State University, our commencement speaker was President George W. Bush. I felt compelled to let the world know that I did not approve of the university’s choice of speakers, so I e-mailed everyone I knew, telling them I wanted to protest.
A few days later, forty fellow protesters and I discussed plans. We decided on a quiet, peaceful, self-explanatory gesture: when Bush was introduced, we would all stand and turn our backs on him.
We organized a website (TurnYourBackOnBush.com), passed out flyers, chalked sidewalks, and sent e-mails. Graduation rehearsal was abuzz with whispered rumors about the protest. Then we were informed that this ceremony was not meant to be a political forum, and that anyone standing up during the president’s speech would be arrested and prevented from graduating.
Realizing this was a violation of my First Amendment rights, I called several lawyers, who were sympathetic and agreed the school was making an empty threat. But how could I convince everyone else?
The next morning lines were long; metal detectors hummed; snipers looked down from the roofs. When the president stepped up on the podium, I stood, heart pounding, and turned my back. I felt alone and tried to tune out the cheering.
I wasn’t handcuffed or forcibly removed. After the speech, I collected my diploma. Later I learned that only three other graduates had turned their backs, in a stadium of sixty thousand.
“Taking a Stand” (Readers Write), Hillary Tinapple, September 2005
These days I have a hard time recognizing anything good about my adopted homeland. But the truth about the U.S. is complicated. Granted, the Bush years have brought us low, but for anyone coming from the global South, the U.S. still looks like paradise — at least, initially. Rule of law, due process, opportunity, democracy — as much as these have been diminished of late, they’re still there, battered but breathing. In raising public awareness of all that’s wrong in the U.S., have I been discounting all that’s right?
“The Magic-Makers of Havana,” Marisa Handler, October 2008
Why are we totally insensitive to the needs of the vast majority of people on the planet? Is it because of [the] American character? I say no. The British would do the same thing, and did when they were the largest colonial power. So would the French, the Dutch, the Turks. And if the Arab countries or the Chinese become the dominant world economic force in the future, they will do the same. I don’t believe it’s character. I believe it is the result of a global economic and political system that advances the interests of the few at the expense of the many. We need to democratize that global system rather than criticize our fellow Americans.
“Loving the Stranger,” Rabbi Michael Lerner, interviewed by Mark Leviton, September 2012
How do we learn whom to hate and fear? In my short lifetime, the national enemies of the United States have changed several times. Our World War II foes, the Japanese and the Germans, have become our allies. The Soviets were our enemy for many years after that. The North Vietnamese, Cubans, and Chinese have done their stints. So many countries incur our national wrath — how do we choose among them?
As individuals, do we choose our enemies based on cues from national leaders? From schoolteachers and religious leaders? From newspapers and TV? Do we learn to hate and fear our parents’ enemies as part of our family identity? Or those of our culture, subculture, or peer group?
Whose economic and political interests does our enemy mentality serve?
“Us & Them,” Fran Peavey, November 1994
Some people are able to separate the personal from the political. I know some extremely conservative people who don’t dislike my company or my books. They can tolerate a different view in their lives, but without thinking about it much or respecting it. But the reverse isn’t true. I don’t know very many leftists who could, for example, marry a Republican, or easily cohabit with fascist thinking. I suppose that’s the difference between politics as a sort of hobby and politics as fighting for your life.
“Words of Honor,” Barbara Kingsolver, interviewed by Dana Branscum, June 1993
The Sun: According to Amnesty International, 93 percent of the world’s executions take place in five countries: China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and the U.S. Why is our government — supposedly a beacon of democracy to the world — on such a list?
Sister Helen Prejean: The death penalty is a natural outgrowth of our long history of using violence to achieve our ends. We’re a very young country, and violence has worked for us in the past. It began with the settling of this continent and the genocide against Native Americans, then continued when we brought slaves over. Now we tend to blame the poor and see them as a criminal element and use coercion and violence to control them.
“And Justice for All,” Sister Helen Prejean, interviewed by David Cook, August 2010
Violence is in our history, and we teach it to our young: the Revolutionary War, the “taming” of the West, the Civil War, the world wars. Even when we teach nonviolence, we must use the example of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed by violence. I’m sorry, America, but beyond the rhetoric, what we really teach is that might does make right. Poor people have just never had any might. But they want it. Oh, how they want it.
“Fist Stick Knife Gun,” Geoffrey Canada, August 1996
I thought about having been in Spain during its civil war. The peasants and some of the soldiers from the People’s University were the most inspiring people I had ever met, and I knew then that I would always be a revolutionary; it would never leave me. But I’d be a nonviolent revolutionary, because though the other way is tempting, it doesn’t work.
I had almost picked up a gun on the third day in Madrid, in the People’s Park, when Franco’s troops were half a mile away and advancing. I thought that if my friends were going to die, I was ready to die with them, and who knows, maybe we’d win. But by then I knew that the Communists were shooting the Trotskyists, both were shooting the anarchists, and the anarchists had shot at the car in which I had been riding in Barcelona when it made a wrong turn into their sector. Whoever won that way, it wouldn’t be the people. I knew I had to find a better way of fighting. Not picking up the gun in Spain was the hardest decision I ever made in my life.
“From Yale to Jail,” David Dellinger, October 1993
You can spend your whole life struggling against war and end up with a world that’s more violent than when you began, but resistance is what gives you spiritual strength. You trust that the work is worth doing and that it’s helping somewhere, though perhaps evidence of that won’t be apparent in your lifetime. You find self-worth in the ability to stand up and fight back without worrying too much about what you can accomplish.
“Moral Combat,” Chris Hedges, interviewed by Bethany Saltman, December 2008
The Sun: What about the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Did it accomplish nothing?
Greg Palast: No, it accomplished plenty. I can’t say that it’s all grim. That kind of exaggeration makes people throw up their hands and say, “Forget it.” The history of America has been this back and forth between successful popular movements — the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the abolitionist movement — and the counterrevolution, which operates using sneaky means. You get the big trumpeting law, and then they quietly fuck you. The problem is, they’re getting better at fucking you.
“Forget What They Told You,” Greg Palast, interviewed by Arnie Cooper, May 2007
Some of you may remember what the sixties were like. You know, things were moving. The kids were making every mistake in the book, but they were learning. My generation wasn’t learning; it was past learning. But they were learning, and then they stopped. I think it was a major event in human history. And I’m old enough to be very impatient for them to get to it again. That poor guy Phil Ochs, nice person, committed suicide. Phil Ochs had that song, “I’m Not Marching Anymore.” A mistake. You have to keep marching. Stop marching, it’s over. A revolution that stops is lost.
“Therefore Choose Life,” George Wald, June 1979
History is full of surprises. Until recently, our collective psyche was haunted not by global climate change but by the specter of global thermonuclear war. Yet, notwithstanding decades of hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union — decades of troop movements and proxy wars and espionage and false warnings over impending enemy attacks — a nuclear exchange never occurred. And, speaking of miracles, wasn’t it widely assumed, during the apartheid era in South Africa, that Nelson Mandela would die in his prison cell? And didn’t one of the most astute political observers I know insist, just before the 2008 election, that Barack Obama couldn’t be elected president because the United States was too racist? (For that matter, didn’t two students from the business school at the University of North Carolina study The Sun’s finances thirty years ago and conclude that the magazine faced near-certain bankruptcy?) [The British scientist James] Lovelock may be right that our goose is cooked. But I take some comfort in knowing that, throughout history, plenty of condemned but resourceful geese got themselves out of hot water and lived to honk again.
Sy Safransky’s Notebook, October 2009