For those of you who live near Appleton, Wisconsin, I will be reading from my book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 2600 Philip Lane (just south of East Calumet Street), on Sunday, 2-13, at 6:30 p.m.
The book is a collection of my essays fused into several narratives. They run the gamut from the highly personal (dealing with grief, the death of my wife, single parenting) to the acutely political. The book is about the quest for both inner and outer peace, the urgency of both, and the fragile future we are giving birth to.
What does it mean that the New York Times, upon the occasion of President Obama’s announced drawdown of forces in Iraq last week, called our seven and a half years of invasion and occupation of the country “a pointless war”?
The editorial proceeded to do what Obama himself seemed to be under enormous political pressure to avoid: It skewered his predecessor, mildly perhaps, but repeatedly throughout the 645-word editorial: “the war made America less safe,” “it is important not to forget how much damage Mr. Bush caused by misleading Americans,” etc. The editorial even acknowledged an Iraqi death toll: “at least 100,000.”
Why am I underwhelmed — disturbed, even — by this evidence of mainstream disavowal of the disastrous war that had such overwhelming support at its bloody, shock-and-awe onset?
“The holiest of all spots on earth is where an ancient hatred has become a present love.”
All along, Sept. 11 has cried out for words like this, for such a vision of global compassion. Instead, of course, we launched the 100 Years War, or whatever this goldmine for the war complex and the American empire now calls itself. And just as the war effort has started to flag (no pun intended), America is under attack again — from a proposed Muslim community center a few blocks from the site where the World Trade Center once stood.
The gap between the diffuse human yearning for a decent world and the organized agenda of the corporatocracy has never, in my lifetime, been wider.
I continue to be unable to turn away from the Gulf and what seems to be the unceremonious ushering in of a new age, a new awareness — or maybe just the beginning of the end of our amped-up, gated, reckless civilization . . . and all that has a chance to come after it.
What the spill has yet to reach are the headquarters of corporate power and the consciences ensconced therein. The arrogance of the great capitalists remains undamaged, as they busy themselves with post-disaster job one: fending off what they fear will be a tide of market-fettering regulations and restrictions curbing their freedom to plunder the planet.
You couldn’t call it a dialogue. It was more like a momentary rip in the global power continuum, a spill of outrage on the stage of a major oil conference in London.
On Tuesday, two Greenpeace activists interrupted a speech by British Petroleum chief of staff Steve Westwell — sandwiched him at his podium, trespassed on time and space that didn’t belong to them, and spoke to an audience that hadn’t come to hear them. They had about 20 seconds, not much time to talk about the complexity of ecosystems or draw attention, say, to the plight of the Gulf of Mexico’s Sargassum algae. They did the best they could.
Something happened in Athens, Ga., this past weekend. I can’t say exactly what, but I was there, I heard it, I felt it. At one point, I swear, the ’60s erupted out of the sweltering night, full blown, as a band called Abbey Road lit up College Avenue. What was happening was the town’s 32nd annual Human Rights Festival — its 32nd annual fusion of politics, music and spirit. “Stop All Wars!” proclaimed the banner on the stage. This was about the creation of peace, profound and joyous, you heard me, smack dab in the middle of Georgia.
Too much awareness is a tough burden to carry. I got an email the other day from a reader who opened up the deep, confusing paradox of being a citizen of the American empire.
“I read that 51 percent of our Federal taxes go to feed the war machine. The fear of the IRS overwhelms the shame I feel, for paying those dollars that go to kill people. Mixing all of the emotions: hypocrisy, shame, guilt, fear, anger, all together equal for me a sense of futility and hopelessness.
“I cannot even point the finger at the biggest killers, when I know that I am part of the problem and am too scared to do anything about it. How can I judge them, when I have blood on my hands also?”
It just so happens this email arrived the same day I sat and talked for an hour with Paul Rogat Loeb, author of the recently updated and re-released Soul of a Citizen, the definitive book on social and political activism — on stepping out of safety and beyond our fear and anger, indeed, beyond all the emotions listed above, and giving public meaning to one’s life.
The image that flashed into my mind was: schools in orange jumpsuits.
Something has broken apart in our society — an unspoken agreement about sanity, a truce between play and order. The authoritarian strain, always present, of course, has been ratcheting up to ever more absurd levels for a decade now.
It’s as though, as the American political class has watched its real control over the course of events slowly ebb, a collusion of desperation has broken out among them: “The time of fun and waste is over,” as the 9/11 terrorists put it. As our problems get increasingly complex, the solutions we implement get more and more simplistic. Results don’t really matter, just the appearance of holding someone accountable.
Art by Kate MacDowell; photo by Dan Kvitka for NYTimes
By Robert C. Koehler
How much longer can we tolerate soulless progress?
“Then the coal company came, with the world’s largest shovel/And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land/Well they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken/Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.”
John Prine was writing about his parents’ home in western Kentucky, not Niyamgiri Mountain in eastern India, but I couldn’t help but hear the echo of these four-decade-old lyrics as I thought about the struggle of the Dongria Kondh, around whom a global protest movement has grown to stop the digging of an open-pit bauxite mine in the middle of their land.
Maybe it seems odd to link Appalachia and tribal India, but I do so intentionally because it’s the same planet, the same phenomenon of progress, the same devastation of traditional life tied to place. Continue reading →
The recent death of a woman in her mid-80s named Boa Sr, the last speaker of a language said to date back 65,000 years, represents the breaking of an extraordinary link to the beginning of human speech, to a time when words were sacred incantations, direct evocations of reality: the equivalent of fire.
Her death also throws light on the far more recent human past, and begs a global — certainly a Western — accounting. Ultimately the only way to move forward is to atone for our history.
I don’t know if words can transform the world — I know they can’t bring back a murdered child — but I have a few of them to scatter on the grave of Derrion Albert, the Chicago boy whose brutal slaying [caught on video] two weeks ago stunned the city and the nation:
You want to convey sympathy, but come out instead with a shudder. Someone you care about has just been diagnosed with …
Well, in this case, breast cancer.
News like this never fails to overwhelm, even at a safe distance. When I heard about Kay’s condition from my sister, I felt crowded by it, pushed to the very edge of adequacy. I wanted to whimper; I rallied, after a few heartbeats, only because I knew that wouldn’t be of use to anybody. I offered, of course, “whatever I can do to help,” but I wanted to offer the blue pearl.
Before I know it I’m sucked into the New York Times story and I haven’t had my Prozac or anything.
Through the miracle of language, here we are, walking with U.S. troops on patrol through the streets of Mosul, and by the time the story’s point has been thoroughly explicated, two kindergarten-age Iraqi boys, bait on the hook of evil, are blown to Kingdom Come by an IED that had been planted in the car in which they sat helplessly.