Category Archives: Civil and human rights
Speaking to the crowd of Poor People’s Campaign demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court building 6-13-18, Reverend William Barber II, co-leader of the campaign, said, “I heard a friend of mine. He’s dead, but I heard him in a book. He was gay. He’s a powerful brother. And he said something like this in the 1930s, in the middle of traumatic times, that still has relevancy today to us:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every person is free.
The land that is mine—the poor man’s, the Indian’s, the Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Call me any ugly name you choose—
But the steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
That America will be!
It’s a good thing I listen to selected episodes of “Democracy Now” via podcast, or I would have missed last Wednesday’s incredibly moving story about the Poor People’s campaign, barely mentioned in the New York Times. I hope you’ll go to http://www.democracy now.org and listen too. The story of the arrests (for demonstrating in front of the Supreme Court, which had just upheld suppression of voter rights in Ohio), what participants had to say, and the songs they sang (“Everybody got a right to live”) had me on the verge of tears. Go to www.poorpeoplescampaign.org and volunteer to join the campaign and/or donate. I did both.
This campaign inspires me for two powerful reasons: its goals not only need to be realized, but when they are the promises of my era, the ’60s, will be fulfilled (this campaign is a continuation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign). Another key podcast, a speech by Black Panther founder and leader Bobby Seale broadcast on June 7th, is available on Alternative Radio (www.alternativeradio.org). Seale’s ideas are right in line with the Poor People’s Campaign. Power to the people!
Yesterday, 2-13-18, Democracy Now aired a segment entitled “It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Worse: World Powers Clash as Civilian Deaths Soar.” Here’s my edited version of the transcript:
“Tensions across northern Syria are escalating sharply amid a series of clashes between external and internal powers, including Israel, Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian government. On Saturday, Israel shot down what it says was an Iranian drone that had entered Israel’s airspace after being launched in Syria. Israel then mounted an attack on an Iranian command center in Syria, from which the drone was apparently launched. One of the Israeli F-16 military jets was then downed by a Syrian government anti-aircraft missile. Meanwhile, also in northern Syria on Saturday, a Turkish Army helicopter was shot down by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters near the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin, where Turkey has launched a bombing and ground offensive. All this comes as the United Nations is warning of soaring levels of civilian casualties in Syria. For more, we speak with Anne Barnard, The New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon. Her recent articles are titled ‘Israel Strikes Iran in Syria and Loses a Jet’ and ‘It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Even Worse.’ And we speak with Syrian-Canadian researcher Yazan al-Saadi.
ELIZABETH THROSSELL (UN high commissioner for human rights spokesperson): This has been a week of soaring violence and bloodshed in Syria, with more than a thousand civilian casualties in six days. We’ve received reports that at least 277 civilians have been killed, 230 of them by airstrikes by the Syrian government and their allies. In addition, 812 people were injured.
AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations is warning civilians are being killed and wounded at a rapid pace amidst an escalation in the Syrian government bombing against the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. At least 200 civilians have reportedly been killed in the last week alone.
ANNE BARNARD: Well, thank you so much, first of all, for being interested in this subject. It’s very important that it continues to be talked about. I haven’t been in Syria for a year. I’m constantly applying for visas, but the Syrian government is quite unpredictable and restrictive about when it grants visas to foreign journalists. And once you’re there, you can’t operate entirely freely anyway. We’ve covered recent events from here in Beirut through an extensive network of contacts on all sides inside Syria. Over the last seven years, these kinds of death tolls are happening all the time. Civilians and hospitals are under attack, and it’s very hard to get humanitarian aid access. The Syrian government’s attempts to take back rebel-held areas have been particularly characterized lately by an intensified bombing campaign that’s taken a heavy toll on civilians, who are already tired, malnourished, maybe displaced already several times. Some of them are stuck behind siege boundaries. So, it’s really been a tough week.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anne, most of the media attention in the United States has been focused on the war against ISIS, and with the declaration that most of the ISIS enclaves had been defeated, the attention has largely dropped from the U.S. media. What’s happened since the so-called defeat of ISIS? How has the war in Syria transformed?
ANNE BARNARD: Yes, the U.S. focus has tended to be on ISIS within a framework of the so-called war on terror. But the war in Syria didn’t begin with ISIS and isn’t going to end with it. First of all, I think it’s probably a mistaken “mission accomplished” moment to claim that ISIS has actually been defeated, because many fighters have gone underground, and their ideology, of course, is continuing to assert itself. But since then, what the relative defeat of ISIS has unleashed is the ability of the Syrian government and its allies – Russia and Iran – to turn their attention fully back to fighting the rebels, who have already been on the run. And it’s very complicated, because there are different patches of areas around the country that aren’t connected to each other, that are controlled by different rebel groups, Islamist groups, some al Qaeda-linked groups. There are many wars within the war. And the rest of the world cares less about them than they cared about ISIS, because they saw ISIS as a threat to themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Saturday’s event marking the first Israeli jet shot down since the 1980s, also believed to be the first time Israel carried out an attack in Syria on a site where Iranian troops were present. Can you talk about the significance of this?
ANNE BARNARD: Yes. This brings us to the second consequence of the end of the main part of the territorial fight against Islamic State. Many different international powers, as well as the Syrian government and some of its opponents within Syria, were all against each other, in a way, but united against the Islamic State. And they launched competing campaigns to defeat the Islamic State, racing one another to take its territory. Now that the Islamic State has been largely driven out of territory in Syria, these different combatants are finding that their conflicting interests are coming to the fore again. So, you see Turkey going against Syrian Kurdish groups supported by the US, and even confrontations between the US and Turkey. Israel has been bombing targets in Syria throughout the war, with relative impunity, but this is the first time that the Syrian government has managed to shoot down a jet. You also have Syria’s allies – Russia and Iran – which have differing views about how exactly the future of Syria should be laid out. So, we may be getting to a phase in the Syrian war where all the foreign interveners are turning it into an arena to fight each other, regardless of what Syrians want or the effect on Syrians. And, unfortunately, that could go on for a long time.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anne, I wanted to ask you about the role of Hezbollah, because, it’s been widely involved in the fighting in Syria, and has undoubtedly grown stronger as a result. Could you talk about its role in the conflict, and the concerns of Israel over the growth of Hezbollah?
ANNE BARNARD: Hezbollah entered the war overtly as an expeditionary force in 2013. And that was a big surprise, because this is a group that was founded to fight Israeli occupation of the south of Lebanon, not to go and help put down uprisings in other countries. But nonetheless, because of their close alliance with Damascus and Tehran, Hezbollah entered the war, first in areas that made sense, in a way, for it in a local sense – areas near the Lebanese border. But gradually their role expanded. They were a much more effective pound-for-pound force than the Syrian military, and they ended up helping out in battles across the country. The southern part of Syria is now the biggest issue, because Hezbollah is entrenching itself increasingly in areas bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. So, that’s obviously of big concern to Israel. There is also, of course, an Iranian presence in Syria. That’s something Israel’s been trying to counter throughout the conflict, and I think we’re going to see more tensions around that.
AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, you’re a Syrian-Canadian researcher. Talk about the situation in Syria, your country, as you see it.
YAZAN AL-SAADI: It’s absolutely tragic – a complete annihilation of the struggle for Syrian self-determination by various communities within the country. You’re seeing the complete devastation of a society. The healthcare system is gone. Half the population are either refugees or amputees. It’s absolutely devastating. What we’re witnessing in Syria is the failure of international mechanisms to hold states accountable. This has happened before in places like Iraq, Palestine, Congo, the Central African Republic, and in Myanmar now with the Rohingya. [And Yemen.] And it’s going to continue in various places, as long as states are allowed to do as they please. This can only end if populations and communities around the world start mobilizing and pressuring their governments to stop these types of actions.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yazan, I wanted to ask you about the role of Bashar al-Assad. Many of the Western powers were originally calling for regime change to end the civil war, and now that’s dropped off the table for a lot of them. Could you talk about that?
YAZAN AL-SAADI: I’m not surprised it dropped off the table, because, let’s be honest, Western governments don’t really care about dictatorships. In fact, they’re quite a fan. They don’t care if Bashar stays or not, as long as he plays ball and fits into their interests. Should Bashar go? Yes, obviously. He’s a dictator. But it can’t happen through Western intervention or Western forms of regime change, because we’ve seen what happened in Libya and Iraq. So we need to do something else here. There needs to be an international mechanism to hold dictatorships accountable, whether they’re allies to the West or to Putin.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anne Barnard, could you talk about whether the potential is increasing or decreasing for some kind of a conflict between the outside powers spreading beyond Syria?
ANNE BARNARD: Well, that’s certainly the danger. I mean, and just to build on what Yazan was saying, the reason that the international community, such as it is, hasn’t been able to come to any consensus is the deadlocked Security Council. So, we start from a situation in which Russia and the United States are completely deadlocked – they can’t agree on anything. And now they’re each backing a side in Syria that sees itself as fighting an existential battle. For Russia this is about restoring its great power status and countering the U.S. in a key area of the Middle East. Russia has interests with its port on the Mediterranean Sea, in Tartus on the western coast of Syria. And it’s clearly put more skin in the game than the US has. At the same time, the US has extended its commitment, perhaps indefinitely, in northeastern Syria, where most of Syria’s oil is. Now we’re hearing that last week US forces hit a pro-government force that may have included Russian contractors
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking January 17th at the Hoover Institution, calling Iran a ‘strategic threat’ to the United Sta,tes and using this alleged threat as justification for keeping U.S. troops in Syria.
SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: Iran has dramatically strengthened its presence in Syria by deploying Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops, supporting Lebanese Hezbollah, and importing proxy forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Through its position in Syria, Iran is positioning to continue attacking U.S. interests, our allies and personnel in the region. US disengagement from Syria would allow Iran to further strengthen its position there.
AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, if you can respond to the U.S. secretary of state?
YAZAN AL-SAADI: This concern by the US about Iran is typical, in terms of the warmongering mentality within the U.S. military-political establishment and their need to dominate the region. At the same time, Iran is a dictatorship and a problematic regime, just like every other regime in the region, including the Syrian regime, the Zionist regime, the Saudi regime, and others. We need to start creating mechanisms of accountability that force these regimes to accept the power of people and respect their rights of people beyond all.
AMY GOODMAN: Anne, what percentage of Lebanon is now Syrian refugees who have come over the border, not to mention Jordan and other places?
ANNE BARNARD: Well, Lebanon is a country of around 4 million people, and there are at least one-and-a-half million Syrian refugees here, more than a quarter of the population. So, Lebanon is bearing a huge brunt, and Turkey and Jordan also have large numbers of refugees. I like Yazan’s idea of creating a mechanism to hold the powers accountable, but look what happened when Syrian people and people in many other countries in the region tried to speak up and use people power to ask for more rights or reforms in their countries. Almost all of them were defeated by state power in one way or another. So, it’s really a puzzle. I wonder, Yazan, if you have any, you know, specific ideas about how things can go differently for ordinary people who want to make their voices heard. I mean, you know, we’ve seen a lot of idealistic people try, and, you know, you see the results.
YAZAN AL-SAADI: People have tried and are still trying, and we should continue. I mean, one of the most important things is international solidarities, right? Working between communities, whether it’s the Syrian community, working with communities in the United States, for example – let’s say the Black Lives Matter, because they are facing injustices and tyranny of the state. So I believe in creating ties like that. I believe in creating ties between the BDS movement in Palestine with other pro-rights movements in Bahrain or among the Rohingya. That’s the only way forward, because we’re dealing with an international problem of domination over our communities, wherever we are. What’s happening in Syria is a violent, physical manifestation of that. And it’s going to continue in other forms in other places, as long as states still have all the power.
AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, we want to thank you for being with us, Syrian-Canadian researcher, usually in Beirut, Lebanon, now in Kuwait, and Anne Barnard, the New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon.”
In “Stopping Fascism,” his most recent podcast on “Alternative Radio,” writer and social critic Chris Hedges compares the declining Roman Empire with the US in 2017 – both “dominated by a bloated military and corrupt oligarchy.” He adds that just as getting rid of the vain and incompetent Emperor Commodus in 192 AD didn’t stop Rome’s decline, getting rid of Donald Trump won’t stop ours. “The choice is between inept fascists like Trump and competent fascists like Pence. Our republic and our democracy are dead,” as the result of a four-decade takeover by the conservative elite and the corporate state. Hedges goes on to describe what’s happening and detail the only way he sees to counter it.
“Idiots, seeing in such decay the chance for personal advancement and/or profit, take over in the final days of crumbling civilizations. Idiot generals wage endless unwinnable wars that bankrupt the nation. Idiot economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programs for the poor and falsely project economic growth. Idiot industrialists poison the water, the soil, and the air, slash jobs, and depress wages. Idiot bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on citizens. Idiot journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Idiot intelligence operatives orchestrate the overthrowing of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. And idiot professors, experts, and specialists busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttress the policies of the rulers. Idiot entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore, and fantasy.
There’s a familiar checklist for extinction, and we’re ticking off every item on it. The idiots know only one word: ‘more.’ They’re unencumbered by common sense. They hoard wealth and resources until workers can’t make a living and the infrastructure collapses. They live in privileged compounds where they eat chocolate cake and order missile strikes. They see the state as a projection of their own vanity. The Roman, Mayan, French, Hapsburg, Ottoman, Romanoff, Wilhelmine, Pahlavi, and Soviet dynasties crumbled because the whims and obsessions of ruling idiots were law.
Trump is the face of our collective idiocy. He is what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality, a sputtering, narcissistic, bloodthirsty megalomaniac. This face in the past was hidden, at least to most white Americans, but with the destruction of democratic institutions and the disempowerment of the citizen, the oligarchs and the kleptocrats have become brazen. They no longer need to pretend. They steal and lie openly. They wield armies and fleets against the wretched of the earth, blithely ignore the looming catastrophe caused by global warming, and cannibalizing the nation. Forget the paralysis in Congress and the inanity of a press that covers our descent into tyranny as if it were a sports contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats or a reality show starring our maniacal president. The crisis we face isn’t embodied in the public images of the politicians that run our dysfunctional government. It’s a four-decade-long slow-motion corporate coup d’état that’s left corporations and the war machine omnipotent, turned our electoral system into legalized bribery, and elevated public figures who master the arts of entertainment and artifice. Trump is the symptom; he is not the disease.
Our descent into despotism began with the pardoning of Richard Nixon, all of whose impeachable crimes are now legal, and the extrajudicial assault, including targeted assassinations and imprisonment, carried out on dissidents and radicals, especially black radicals. This assault, done in the name of law and order, put the organs of internal security, from the FBI to Homeland Security, beyond the reach of the law. It began with the creation of corporate- funded foundations and organizations that took control of the press, the courts, the universities, scientific research, and the two major political parties. It began with empowering militarized police to kill unarmed citizens and the spread of a horrendous system of mass incarceration and the death penalty. It began with the stripping away of our most basic constitutional rights: privacy, due process, habeas corpus, fair elections, and dissent. It began when big money was employed by political operatives such as Roger Stone, a close adviser to Trump, who spread malicious gossip and false narratives, eagerly amplified by a media devoted to profits and ratings rather than truth, until political debate became burlesque.
The ruling elites, terrified by the mobilization of the left in the 1960s, built counter-institutions to delegitimize and marginalize critics of corporate capitalism and imperialism. They bought the allegiances of the two main political parties, and imposed obedience to the neoliberal ideology within academia and the press. This campaign, laid out by Lewis Powell in his 1971 memorandum titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” was the blueprint for the creeping coup d’état that 45 years later is complete.
Our failure to defend the rights of those who are demonized and persecuted leaves us all demonized and persecuted, and now we’re paying for our complacency, trapped like rats in a cage. A con artist may be turning the electric shocks on and off, but the problem is the corporate state. Until we dismantle that, we’re doomed.
Racist, violent, and despotic forces have always been part of the American landscape. They have often been tolerated and empowered by the state to persecute poor people of color and dissidents. These forces are denied absolute power as long as a majority of citizens have a say in their own governance. But once citizens are locked out of government and denied a voice, power shifts into the hands of the enemies of the open society. When democratic institutions cease to function, when the consent of the governed becomes a joke, despots fill the political void. They give vent to popular anger and frustration while arming the state to do to the majority what it has long done to the minority.
This tale is as old as civilization. It was played out in ancient Greece and Rome, the Soviet Union, fascist Germany, fascist Italy, and the former Yugoslavia. Once a tiny cabal seizes power – monarchist, Communist, fascist, or corporate – it creates a Mafia economy and a Mafia state.
Corporations are legally empowered to exploit and loot, and it’s impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or Exxon Mobil. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries are legally empowered to hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. Banks are legally empowered to burden people with student loans that can’t be forgiven by declaring bankruptcy. The animal agriculture industry is legally empowered in many states to charge those who attempt to publicize the conditions in the vast factory farms, where diseased animals are warehoused for slaughter, with a criminal offense. Corporations are legally empowered to carry out tax boycotts. Free-trade deals legally empower global corporations to destroy small farmers and businesses and deindustrialize the country. Government agencies designed to protect the public from contaminated air, water, and food and usurious creditors and lenders have been gutted. The Supreme Court, in an inversion of rights worthy of George Orwell, defines unlimited corporate contributions to electoral campaigns as the right to petition the government and a form of free speech. The press, owned by corporations, is an echo chamber for the elites. State and city enterprises and utilities are sold off to corporations that hike rates and deny services. The educational system is being privatized and turned into a species of rote vocational training. Wages are stagnant or have declined. Unemployment and underemployment, masked by falsified statistics, have thrust half the country into chronic poverty. Social services are abolished in the name of austerity. The infrastructure, neglected and underfunded, is collapsing. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, food shortages, and untreated illnesses that lead to early death plague a harried underclass. The state, rather than address the economic misery, militarizes police departments and empowers them to use lethal force against unarmed citizens. It fills the prisons with 2.3 million people, few of whom ever got a trial. And a million prisoners now work for corporations inside prisons as modern-day slaves paid pennies on the dollar without any rights or protection.
The amendments to the Constitution, designed to protect the citizen from tyranny, are meaningless. The Fourth Amendment, for example, reads, ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’ The reality is that our telephone calls, emails, texts, and financial, judicial, and medical records, along with every website we visit and our physical travels, are tracked, recorded, and stored in perpetuity in government computer banks. The executive branch of government is empowered to assassinate U.S. citizens. It can call the army into the streets to quell civil unrest under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, overturning the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited the military from acting as a domestic police force. The executive branch can order the military to seize US citizens deemed to be terrorists or associated with terrorists in a process called extraordinary rendition. Those seized can be denied due process and habeas corpus and held indefinitely in military facilities. Constitutionally protected statements, beliefs, and associations are now criminalized. The state can detain and prosecute people not for what they have done, or even for what they are planning to do, but for holding religious or political beliefs that the state deems seditious. The first of those targeted have been observant Muslims, but they will not be the last. The outward forms of democratic participation – voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight, and legislation – are meaningless theater. No one who lives under constant surveillance, who is subject to detention anywhere, at any time, who can’t protect themselves from corporate exploitation, can be described as free. The relationship between the state and the citizen is one of master and slave, and the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.
The coup destroyed the two-party system, labor unions, education, the judiciary, the press, academia, consumer and environmental protection, our industrial base, communities and cities, and the lives of tens of millions of Americans no longer able to find work that provides a living wage, cursed to live in chronic poverty or locked in cages. Perhaps even more ominously, this coup destroyed the credibility of liberal democracy itself. Self-identified liberals such as the Clintons and Barack Obama mouthed the words of liberal democratic values while making war on these values in the service of corporate power, thus rendering these values meaningless.
The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970s created a crisis that forced the ruling elites to adopt a new ideology, telling undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from corporate greed but from a threat to national integrity. The old consensus that buttressed the programs of the New Deal and the welfare state was discredited as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens, and social parasites, opening the door to an authoritarian populism begun by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which supposedly championed family values, traditional morality, individual autonomy, law and order, the Christian faith, and the return of a mythical past. It turns out, 45 years later, that those who truly hate us for our freedoms are not the array of dehumanized enemies cooked up by the war machine: the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, even the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or ISIS. They are the financiers, bankers, politicians, public intellectuals and pundits, lawyers, journalists, and business people cultivated in the elite universities and business schools who sold us the utopian dream of neoliberalism.
We are entering the twilight phase of capitalism. Capitalists, unable to generate profits by expanding markets, have, as Karl Marx predicted, begun to cannibalize the state like ravenous parasites. Wealth is no longer created by producing or manufacturing, but by manipulating the prices of stocks and commodities and imposing a crippling debt peonage on the public. This casino capitalism is designed to prey on the desperate young men and women burdened by student loans, underpaid workers burdened by credit-card debt and mortgages, and towns and cities forced to borrow to maintain municipal services.
This seminal moment in human history marks the end of a long, tragic tale of plunder and murder by the white race. Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting, and polluting the earth in the name of civilization and human progress. They used their technological superiority to create the most efficient killing machines on the planet, directed against anyone or anything, especially indigenous cultures, that stood in their way. They stole and hoarded the planet’s wealth and resources, and believed their orgy of blood and gold would never end. Even now, as we stand on the cusp of extinction, we lack the ability to free ourselves from this myth of human progress. The taxes of corporations and the rich are cut, and public lands are opened up to the oil and gas industry.
The merging of the self with a capitalist collective has robbed us of our agency, creativity, capacity for self- reflection, and moral autonomy. We define our worth not by our independence or our character, but by the material standards set by capitalism: wealth, brands, status, and career advancement. We’ve been molded into a compliant and repressed collective, a conformity characteristic of totalitarian states. And when magical thinking doesn’t work, we’re told and often accept that we are the problem. We must have more faith, we must try harder.
What does resistance look like now? It won’t come by investing hope in the Democratic Party, which didn’t lose the election because of Comey or the Russians, but because it betrayed working men and women on behalf of corporate power and used its machinery to deny the one candidate, Bernie Sanders, who could have defeated Trump, from getting the nomination. Resistance will entail a personal commitment to refuse to cooperate in large and small ways with the machinery of corporate power.
In the conflicts I covered as a reporter in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, I encountered singular individuals of varying creeds, religions, races, and nationalities who majestically rose up to defy the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them are dead, some are forgotten, most are unknown. These individuals, despite their vast cultural differences, had common traits: a profound commitment to the truth, incorruptibility, courage, a distrust of power, a hatred of violence, and a deep empathy that was extended to people different from them, even to people defined by the dominant culture as the enemy. They are the most remarkable men and women I met in my 20 years as a foreign correspondent, and to this day I set my life by the standards they set.
You have heard of some, such as Václav Havel, whom I and other foreign reporters met during the Velvet Revolution in Prague in 1989. Others no less great you may not know, such as the Jesuit priest, Ignacio Ellacuría, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1989. And then there are those ordinary people – although, as the writer V.S. Pritchett said, ‘No people are ordinary’ – who risked their lives in wartime to shelter and protect those of an opposing religion or ethnicity who were being persecuted and hunted. To some of these ordinary people I owe my life.
To resist radical evil is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society is a failure. It’s defying injustice at the cost of your career, your reputation, your financial solvency, and at times your life. It’s being a lifelong heretic, accepting that the dominant culture and perhaps, and maybe even especially, the liberal elites will push you to the margins and attempt to discredit not only what you do but your character. When I returned to the newsroom at the New York Times in 2003, after denouncing the invasion of Iraq and being publicly reprimanded for my stance against the war, reporters and editors I’d known and worked with for 15 years lowered their heads or turned away when I was nearby.
Ruling institutions – the state, the press, the church, the courts, and academia – mouth the language of morality, but they serve the structures of power, which provide them with money, status, and authority. Individuals who defy these institutions, as we saw with the thousands of academics who were fired from their jobs and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, are purged and turned into pariahs. All institutions, including the church, as Paul Tillich wrote, are inherently demonic. A life dedicated to resistance has to accept that a relationship with any institution is temporary, because sooner or later that institution is going to demand acts of silence or obedience your conscience won’t allow you to make. Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression ‘a sublime madness in the soul,’ and wrote that ‘nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and spiritual wickedness in high places.’ This ‘sublime madness’ is the essential quality for a life of resistance. As Daniel Berrigan said, ‘We are called to do the good, insofar as we can determine it, and then let it go.’ As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘The only morally reliable people are not those who say “This is wrong” or “This should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.”’ They know that, as Immanuel Kant wrote, ‘If justice perishes, human life has lost its meaning.’ This means that, like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. We must at once see and act. And given what it means to see, this will require the surmounting of despair, not by reason but by faith.
I saw in the conflicts I covered the power of this faith that lies outside of any religious or philosophical creed – what Havel called ‘living in the truth,’ exposing the corruption, lies, and deceit of the state. It’s a refusal to be part of the charade. And it has a cost. ‘You do not become a dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,’ Havel wrote. ‘You’re thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You’re cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well and ends with being branded an enemy of society.’
The dissident doesn’t operate in the realm of power. He or she has no desire for office and doesn’t try to charm the public. His or her actions simply articulate their dignity as a citizen regardless of the cost.
The long, long road of sacrifice and defiance that led to the collapse of the Communist regime stretched back decades. Those who made change possible were those who had discarded all notions of the practical. They didn’t try to reform the Communist Party or work within the system; they didn’t even know what, if anything, their tiny protests, ignored by the state-controlled media, would accomplish. But through it all they held fast to moral imperatives, because these values were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue, and they got none. They were marginalized and persecuted. And yet these rebels – the poets, playwrights, actors, singers, and writers – ultimately triumphed over state and military power, because, however cowed and broken the people around them appeared, their message did not go unheard or unseen.
We may feel powerless, but we are not. We have a power that terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored, chips away at corporate power. Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements to follow. It passes on another narrative. And it will, as the state consumes itself, attract wider and wider numbers. Perhaps this will not happen in our lifetimes, but if we persist, we keep this possibility alive.
Dr. Rieux, in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, isn’t driven by ideology, but by empathy – the duty to minister to the suffering of others no matter the cost. Empathy for human beings locked in cages, for undocumented mothers and fathers being torn from their children on the streets of our cities, for Muslims demonized and banned from our shores as they try to flee the wars and terror we created, for poor people of color gunned down by police in our streets, for girls and women trafficked into prostitution, and for the earth, which gives us life and which is being destroyed, is viewed as seditious by despots.
Accept sorrow, for who cannot be profoundly sorrowful at the state of our nation and world? But know that in resistance there is a balm that leads to wisdom, and if not joy, a strange transcendent happiness. Because as long as we resist, we keep hope alive.
The days ahead will be dark and frightening, but we must fight for the sacred, we must fight for life, we must fight the forces of death. We fight not only for ourselves, but for those who will come after us – our children. We must not be complicit. We must live in truth. The moment we defy power in any form, we are victorious – when we stand with the oppressed and accept being treated like the oppressed, when we hold up a flickering light in the darkness for others to see, when we thwart the building of a pipeline or a fracking site, when we keep a mother faced with deportation with her children, and when we mass in the streets to defy police violence. We must turn the tide of fear. We must, by taking the streets, make the ruling elites frightened of us.
To sit idle, to refuse to defy these forces, to be complicit will atrophy and wither our souls. This is not only a fight for life – it’s a fight that gives life. It’s the supreme expression of faith: the belief that no matter how great the power of evil, the power of love is greater. I do not, in the end, fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. Thank you.”
I highly recommend that you subscribe to the Alternative Radio podcast and look back in your feed so that you can listen to this incredibly eloquent speech. You can also get a CD, an MP3, or a transcript on www.alternativeradio.org.
I like Joanna Bock’s take on the #MeToo phenomenon, published October 19th in Yes! Magazine, except that she calls it a “movement,” which I think is a much bigger thing than just a Facebook/Twitter hashtag. Here are the main points in the article with which I agree:
“Movements like #MeToo can be powerful in many ways. But we limit their potential and pervert them when we insist that everyone get in a box and become one of three things: perpetrators, victims, or allies. How many of us don’t neatly fit any of those categories? How many of us are weakened by the divisions?Something similar happens when we talk about race and racism. People of color are the victims. Outright bigots are the villains. And among the rest of us, we make a mad dash to position ourselves as allies. To be allies, we have to publicly condemn the racist ‘other.’ [Or his/her behavior…]
#MeToo has given voice to the rage many female friends of mine feel at specific perpetrators of harassment and violence in their own lives. But the truth is that no one human being is to blame for this sickness of the culture we’re a part of. And our scramble to crucify the Harvey Weinsteins and Donald Trumps of the world only obfuscates the issue, just as our scramble to line up simply as victims does.
In this oppressive system – where women’s bodies are not safe, where people of color’s bodies are not safe, and where women of color’s bodies are unspeakably violated terrain – we are all suffering. And in this system, where men’s internal and emotional landscapes have been violated from birth, as well as the bodies [and minds] of women, we are all victims – playing out our roles or resisting them when and where we can. We’re enormously alienated from one other. Our most radical option is to undo that alienation, but easy labels and unjust oversimplifications deepen it. We’re all responsible for saving each other.”
I agree with the gist of Bock’s message, but want to say that I Facebook-posted “Me too” to help show the extent of the problem and to show solidarity with other women similarly violated – not to express anger at my rapist, though I don’t go so far as to feel empathy with him. I don’t feel anger at men in general either, and deplore the boxes our society tries to put them in. My main concern is that we all recognize the extent of our sexist, racist, and violent, war-mongering culture as a necessary prelude to changing it for the better. It seems kind of ironic to say this while we have a racist, sexist, war-mongering president, proud of his selfishness and sexual predation, but maybe that’s what’s opened up the wounds – and the necessary conversations.
Let’s use empathy in those conversations – really listening to what others need to express. Some of it may be ugly, even poisonous. But feelings are never wrong – only behavior can be – and the poison needs to be exposed and transformed, however gradually, in love and acceptance. We’re challenged as speakers to be that trusting and honest and as listeners to be that compassionate. Alienation can become connection and caring community, but we can’t skip any of steps.