Tuesday, June 22, 2004
A Confederate Flag on Main Street USA
So I was in this bedroom town of a larger city, your average White, Main Street, Midwestern USA kind of town. On its main street was a new monster truck (don’t ask me what kind, please) with a tall rod in the back waving a large confederate flag. I had to drive by it once, then again, then once more. Day and night that flag was there speaking hate, spitting torture, maiming, and lynching. I heard it loud and clear.
The fourth time I drove by that flag, I saw two little kids playing in their yard just a few houses away, a girl maybe four and a boy maybe six. That flag was telling them, “Don’t want you here. Trees are hanging ropes and there’s a different kind of law not on the books and we’re watching you, don’t breathe too easy.” Maybe four and maybe six, and already . . .
I went out that night with a utility knife in my purse, not raging—-the world is too full of these things to maintain rage at them—-not gleeful like some middle-school kid on a rebel streak, not full of some sense of a higher moral purpose. I was primarily aware of one emotion: fear. The house and truck had all the markings of brute redneck males, and I also had to accept the possibility of being taken to the local cop shop, charged, fingerprinted, photographed, and whatever else.
It was the main street after all, with lots of lights, cars going by, people in houses, and the occasional cop car, too. More than once I mentally admonished myself, “You’re too old for this,” or “You know he’ll just go out and buy another one.” It was about an eight block walk to the flag, and there were times I nearly turned around. Then something peculiar happened. The thinking stopped. The possible outcomes vanished. I became linked to a crowd of human suffering that rose up through history and into the present. Not an abstract suffering, but countless specific people with individual stories, all linked through suffering to that one flag, to everything that flag represented. They carried me forward.
I bet that at this point you’re thinking that I just went bravely up to the flag and sliced it off, huh? Well, no. As it turned out, even though it was going on 1 AM, all the lights of that house were on, the windows were open, two TVs shone from different parts of the house, and I could hear someone talking on the darkened back porch. Crowds of human suffering or not, I’m not a complete idiot.
So walking back, I became lost in thought again-—too many thoughts to map out here-—and then another peculiar thing happened. I realized that I’d turned off on a street still lost in thought and turned again, and I was not where I was supposed to be. No problem; I must’ve just turned a block too soon or something, so if I just headed in that direction, I’d end up all right. I kept walking and the “something familiar” moment never happened, and it kept on never happening. For at least half an hour. Nothing looked familiar and most of the residential streets were only pools of dark and light, spruces and maples, houses that looked too much alike.
I was utterly and completely lost, but I wasn’t afraid anymore. I leaned into the lostness, marveling at how different the world looked to me, realizing how often I stayed in my own comfort zone, where I knew my way around. I leaned even more into the lostness, remembering a time when I could trust something beyond thinking, and all of a sudden a line zoomed out of my gut in a certain diagonal direction so strongly that I just started walking that way. Until I came to the street signs under a light and began thinking again and said to myself, “This is against all logic. I should be going in the opposite direction!” So I turned around.
Turned around and wandered again until I came to a street name I recognized. At that point I could go in two different directions, one toward the truck and the flag and one toward where I could take off the sandals rubbing calluses on the sides of my feet and go to sleep. I went for the flag. Went in the direction of the flag and walked for several more blocks, still not recognizing anything until I saw a street sign and knew. Knew that I had not turned a block too soon but a block too late, knew that my gut had been right and my head wrong. I was tired and I went back and went to sleep.
The next night was easy. I didn’t even look to see if anyone was watching this time. I just followed my gut. Amid the streetlights, I casually strode right up to the flag and easily ripped the utility knife through it four times. So that the flag remained, but in shreds. So that some people would see it in shreds and even if Redneck replaced it, they’d know. They’d know whatever it is that you know by such things.
Note: The above is a purely fictional story. This editor and Word Warriors Press do not advocate illegal activities. Even if there’s a powerful symbol of bigoted hatred, racism, and a long history of human suffering, as well as an implied acceptance or encouragement of violence and/or emotional and mental assault of the innocent inherent in that symbol, the rights of Rednecks are the law. . . Even if laws are not inherently moral in themselves, and are sometimes subject to the peculiarities of their time and culture-—such as it being illegal for slaves to run off, or Native Americans to practice their own religions, or women to use contraception—-we should not consider what’s right and wrong ourselves, but allow those in power to determine such things for us. I’m sure you will agree with me on this.
Thursday, June 10, 2004
The Big Picture
The majority of us believe that it’s natural, inevitable, a basic fact of life, that the systems of this world can only be based upon human competition and greed. That there always have to be some people starving, without clean drinking water, watching their children die for lack of a simple, cheap immunization. That our air and earth and soil have to become increasingly polluted, toxic to life itself, for the sake of “progress.” That some people will always get all the easy breaks and others never one. Some people say it’s this way because of the nature of human beings. Some people say it’s this way because of the nature of nature. Some people say it’s this way because of the incomprehensible nature of god.
Lies, all lies.
Anything different is not possible: this is what the relatively few people benefiting from these systems want us to believe, simply because it’s in their own interest for us to believe these things. If we believe these things, we won’t even look for ways to change these systems. We won’t exert any energy to change these systems. All for one simple reason: we don’t believe that it’s even possible.
We laugh so easily at Greenpeace and Amnesty International workers, or those protesters against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. We quickly chuck such people into caricaturized boxes. We all know those boxes very well because there are people who study our psychological processes and spend a lot of energy and money to get us to think inside of them. (Oh, quickly now! Let's all take out our Conspiracy Theory Box! Let's forget that both major political parties and all large corporations, and the war department--that's what it used to be called until they realized that "defense department" conjured up better images--admit to spending mega-bucks on such things.)
I see a very strange irony here, very strange indeed. Here’s what I find so strange: Why is it that it’s usually the “idealists” who have more of a realistic, factual grasp of history, politics, and economics--the "real" world? Who know that the richest half a percent of people in this country own over 35% of the wealth, that the bottom 50% share only 3.5%? That these people at the top were almost invariably born into wealth rather than earning it through some magical quantities of intelligence, determination and hard work, as the myth goes? That this wealth has been passed down generation to generation after it was accumulated through social institutions such as the genocide of Native people, the enslavement of Blacks, and the disenfranchisement of women (all of which used to be considered “the will of god”)? That several corporations now own over 95% of all the media in this country, and that this fact affects what we hear and see? That over 200 former and current CIA operatives now fill major editorial positions in U.S. media? That the Bush family has had close ties to the bin Laden family for four generations? That the U.S. has frequently supported--financially and otherwise--many murderous dictators, knowing full well they were murderous dictators (a few examples: Noriega, the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, Pinochet, and yes, Saddam Hussein).
That writing an essay such as this one merited an intelligence file-even BEFORE the days of the Patriot Act? (Isn’t it much easier to not believe that one? Go talk to some former intelligence people, as I have, and do a research on "cointelpro.")
It’s all too bad, too sad, so why even think about these things if you don’t have to? This is just the way it is, and it can never be any different. Just keep buying more Things, ever better and bigger Things, and watch your TVs like good citizens. And if you're poor, remember that it's only because you're lazy. If you have a treatable cancer but don't have health insurance--sucks, but hey, that's life. If you travel to another country that has experienced suffering as a result of U.S. foreign and economic policies, just explain to those complainers that it doesn't have anything to do with you; it's your country, that's all. Oh, and don’t forget to laugh at those crazy “idealists,” “conspiracy theorists,” “protesters,” and “America-haters.” That way, you’ll know that you ’re thinking for yourself.
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
Memorial Day: Reality Check
There is nothing romantic or glorious about war, despite the ribbons and banners, the brass bands and shiny medals. There is only a mother weeping, a father shutting his bedroom door and not coming out for days, an arm torn off that once rested across a young boy’s shoulders, a four-year-old girl whose eyes were taken, the only shelter for two large families burned down. Who can believe that war is good for anything except in the most extreme of circumstances, when all other options have been obliterated? Who can believe that any one side is all good and the other all bad? Why do you think governments spend so much time and energy reinforcing that ridiculous idea, giving out the ribbons and medals, pushing war as some devout religion?
I was teaching when we invaded Iraq. Like most other people in the world, I knew perfectly well that there were no WMDs, that the plans for this war were written by Wolfowitz a decade earlier, that Saddam and bin Laden hated each other, that Iraq and 9/11 had nothing to do with each other. But along with the rest of the school, I had to sit for nearly an hour while two staff members tried to “educate” us on the background of this war. Their presentation was based upon the evening “news,” courtesy of the Bush administration and the corporate-owned media.
I allowed myself one question only at the end of the presentation. Since one reason for war given was Saddam’s treatment of the Kurds, I asked why, fifteen years earlier, when he had been killing all those Kurds, the U.S. did and said nothing. Why did it take us 15 years to respond? The question was, of course, unanswerable because it didn’t fit with what we were supposed to all unthinkingly follow to be “patriotic.” One of the most “liberal” staff members was afterward very cross with me for even asking the question, for putting the history teacher on the spot like that. This was at a SCHOOL. This was supposed to be an EDUCATIONAL program. That’s another dangerous thing glorifying war does to people.
I sometimes heard students referring to “those ragheads.” I countered the concept of “ragheads” with “flagheads.” What are flagheads? Flagheads are people who unwrap their heads, put them away in storage, and replace them with flags. For flagheads, thinking is unpatriotic. Questioning is unpatriotic. Facts are unpatriotic. Logic is unpatriotic. Compassion is unpatriotic. Democracy is unpatriotic. The only thing patriotic for flagheads—especially during war—is to cheer for your “team.” War is something like a football game for people who’ve never really been in one, including inexperienced veterans. Those are the vets parading around on Memorial Day. The ones who’ve seen the sh*t are quietly getting drunk, or they’re living on the streets with PTSD or in the rotting vets’ homes, forgotten, or they don’t want to talk about or be reminded of the wars, thank you very much. And a lot of them have killed themselves. Those vets are apparently not very patriotic.
I just saw another one of those stupid bumper stickers: “Support OUR troops.” The biggest danger to our country right now is flagheads, enemies and corrupters of democracy right here at home.