#LifeMatters: On Die-Ins as a Path to Social Change

Die-in at NYU Bobst Library, December 2014

Die-in at NYU Bobst Library, December 2014

There’s something weird and macabre about the current spate of “die-ins” occurring across the country.

The logic seems to be that we register our very live protest by pretending to be dead, and blocking normal business as usual in the process.

The message: you must stop killing us and people we care about!

This season’s die-ins have mostly taken place in the name of racial justice.

I’d like to see the struggle broadened to include species justice as well.

Imagine if we protested on behalf of the coral reefs, the migrating birds and butterflies, and the small-animal roadkill?

Imagine if we staged die-ins on behalf of the sea turtles and the whales and the polar bears?

What about the tortured factory-farm animals and lab animals and the forest creatures whose habitats are being destroyed daily?

Imagine if we didn’t relent, but kept dying and dying and dying, swooning over and over again in public places until those in power were compelled to pay attention?

One thing is for sure, the powers that be in our uber-capitalist society want us alive and kicking, doing what’s expected of us as productive citizens: to keep consuming at a steadily increasing rate of purchase.

Buy, buy buy! Don’t worry about tomorrow, think about consuming today!

This is the constantly trumpeted message of countless advertising campaigns, and it’s the general ethos of American society, which admires those who can indulge in consumer wish-fulfillment, and disdains those who choose a different, less self-indulgent path.

Die-in for racial justice at Harvard Medical School, December 2014

Die-in for racial justice at Harvard Medical School, December 2014

Whether we choose to physically represent the “death” of our consumer selves, or to simply make a personal decision to refrain from participating in the excessive spending that is pushed on us from Black Friday through Christmas Eve…it is time to recognize our own power as consumers.

We can choose to support or starve the fossil fuel monster. We can decide to keep the factory farms humming or to put our purchasing power behind local farms where animals are allowed to live happier lives. Or even to go further, and eliminate meat consumption altogether!

In this age of Congressional gridlock and the stranglehold of big money on politics, we ordinary little guys must remember that we do have power if we come together to wield it.

One person staging a “die-in” is just a weirdo who can easily be removed.

A hundred or a thousand people refusing to go along with business as usual is something different: it’s a social movement, a force for social change.

The first step toward social change is awareness. I thank the die-in protestors for leading the way in raising our awareness and stopping the mad rush of business-as-usual.

Die-In at the COP 20 climate talks in Lima, Peru, December 2014

Die-In at the COP 20 climate talks in Lima, Peru, December 2014

I’m no Grinch; I’m going to be buying presents for my children and celebrating the holidays with friends and family.

But as I do, I will be trying to limit my participation in practices and policies I know to be harmful.

#LifeMatters. Yes, it does.

Battle Hymn from the Archaic Future: Mary Daly leads the way

Mary Daly

Mary Daly

Next week we are reading the fierce, lusty, self-proclaimed Pirate Crone Mary Daly in my Women Write the World class. It’s actually the first time I’ve ever dared to share Daly with students, partly because it took me a long time to get myself up on to her energetic wavelength. She talks about how important it is that “radical feminists” like her “magnetize” other women, in order to grow a movement for change—but unfortunately, until recently I felt so repelled by her Wild Woman energy that I could not bring myself to actually read her.

Then, at the end of last summer, something changed in me. I think it had to do with finishing my memoir and allowing myself to feel the rage (Daly would call it Righteous Rage) that I had suppressed over the past 20 years as my life rolled along with what have come to seem like entirely normal frustrations and disappointments: the mommy tracking at work, the lack of respect at home, the endlessly deferred pleasures that could have been mine if I had been properly compensated for my hard and excellent work as a scholar and teacher.

No one besides Daly, in my experience, had had the courage to call out our culture itself as a perpetrator in the on-going inequality and undermining of women like me. And she could do so using the Master’s Tools—no less than three doctorates (in religion, theology and philosophy) and decades of experience as a Boston College professor and scholar working in the heart of what she called the phallocracy. She chose to stay on at Boston College despite the administration’s repeated attempts to oust her, because she felt that her message was especially needed there. The problems she saw throughout her 33-year tenure there have only gotten worse as we’ve advanced into the 21st century.

Unknown-1It’s fascinating to read through Daly’s oeuvre and see how, over the years, she transformed the master’s tools of language and rhetoric to make them uniquely her own. She even created her own dictionary, the Wickedary, in which she retooled old words to make them serve her radical feminist purpose.

And what would that radical feminist purpose be? While Daly says that each of us will find our own path, what “radical feminists” have in common is that we serve as conduits for the creative energy of the universe, the life force she calls “biophilia.” Biophilia is the opposite of necrophilia, which preys violently on the planet and its denizens, sucking out and destroying life on Earth.

Daly’s cardinal crime is to Name (capitalization hers) patriarchal culture as the perpetrators of the ongoing violence against women, animals and other life forms on the planet, and to single out Wild Women (again, capitalization hers) as heroic resisters.

This stance has gotten her into a lot of trouble. Men don’t like to be called out on their patriarchal privilege, and excluded by virtue of their biological and cultural baggage from the ranks of heroic resisters that Daly is trying to conjure. I am curious to see how the young men in my class respond to Daly.

When I read her closely, it seems to me that although she does elevate Woman as a category, she is actually reinventing that word too. Not all women would deserve to be included in her radical feminist confederacy of Wild Women. And it’s possible that some men—feminist men—would be welcomed, although Daly herself remained a firm lesbian separatist to the end of her life (in one of her last books, Quintessence, she imagined herself traveling to a utopian “Lost and Found Continent” in the year 2048, which was fiercely and proudly all-female).

I think Daly, who died at the age of 81 in 2010, would have been pleased to see the militant environmental group Deep Green Resistance proclaiming itself a “radical feminist” organization. DGR was founded by two men and a woman (Derrick Jensen, Aric McBay and Lierre Keith) and in their guiding principles, right up there with respect for all life, is respect for women.

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Here is DGR’s fifth guiding principle, in full:

  • Deep Green Resistance is a radical feminist organization. Men as a class are waging a war against women. Rape, battering, incest, prostitution, pornography, poverty, and gynocide are both the main weapons in this war and the conditions that create the sex-class women. Gender is not natural, not a choice, and not a feeling: it is the structure of women’s oppression. Attempts to create more “choices” within the sex-caste system only serve to reinforce the brutal realities of male power. As radicals, we intend to dismantle gender and the entire system of patriarchy which it embodies. The freedom of women as a class cannot be separated from the resistance to the dominant culture as a whole.

And here are principles one through four:

  • The soil, the air, the water, the climate, and the food we eat are created by complex communities of living creatures. The needs of those living communities are primary; individual and social morality must emerge from a humble relationship with the web of life.
  • Civilization, especially industrial civilization, is fundamentally destructive to life on earth. Our task is to create a life-centered resistance movement that will dismantle industrial civilization by any means necessary. Organized political resistance is the only hope for our planet.
  • Deep Green Resistance works to end abuse at the personal, organizational, and cultural levels. We also strive to eradicate domination and subordination from our private lives and sexual practices. Deep Green Resistance aligns itself with feminists and others who seek to eradicate all social domination and to promote solidarity between oppressed peoples.
  • When civilization ends, the living world will rejoice. We must be biophilic people in order to survive. Those of us who have forgotten how must learn again to live with the land and air and water and creatures around us in communities built on respect and thanksgiving. We welcome this future.

I can just hear the spirit of Mary Daly rejoicing at these fierce words from what she would call the “Archaic Future.”

She herself called for “even more than the ‘subversion’ of the present order and more than ‘dissolution’ of the whole existing social compact.” Truly changing the world, she said, “requires the Courage to participate Positively in bringing forth…many New Forms (political, social, philosophical, aesthetic) by multitudes of creators who do not necessarily know each other consciously” (Quintessence, 103).

It is this subterranean radical network of grassroots co-creators that I hope to tap into with blog posts like these.  Are you there?  Shall we create that joyous Archaic Future together?

Sharing and Seeking New Stories, Moving from Silence to Language, Action and Hope

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez; photo by L. Najimy

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez; photo by L. Najimy

Yesterday, for the first time, I gave a public reading from my memoir, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered.  It was a powerful experience, offering me a personal taste of what the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers has been giving to other women writers all month.

We met at the Friends Meeting House in Great Barrington, in a meeting room imbued with incredibly peaceful energy and beautiful light, with big windows opening up to the trees, mountains and sky off to the West.  I stood with my back to the view, wanting the audience to see me as I see myself, a small human nestling up to the flank of our great Mother Earth.  The reading started at 4 p.m., so as I talked and read the sun sank slowly behind me, and I was told afterwards that hawks cruised by casually a few times, riding the strong March winds.

Earth, water, fire and air…those are the elements that compose each of us, literally and figuratively.  We are simply emanations of our planet, like the flowers of the field and the fish of the sea.  Remembering that, it becomes easier to see how insane it is to poison and destroy our planet.  It is, quite simply, suicidal.

Last week a beloved member of my local community, a young woman, took her own life and set off a storm of grief.

How powerful it would be if that kind of deeply felt emotional response could be aroused in relation to the slow-moving suicidal ecocide that we are all currently participating in!

Of course, first we have to recognize what’s happening.  As I say in my memoir, most of us are still sleep-walking when it comes to seeing the great tragedy of our times.  We’ll still be sleep-walking, mumbling numbly that “everything is fine,” right off that cliff, unless we can be woken up in time and aroused to channel our emotions into positive change.

It’s not scientific facts and figures that will wake people up to the reality of the Sixth Great Extinction and the human-induced ending of the stable climate we’ve enjoyed for many thousands of years.

It’s hearts, not minds, that must be moved. And for that, it’s stories, not charts, that are called for.

It’s in this spirit that I offer my story in my memoir. Here is a quote that I read yesterday:

“My story is the story of a generation of Americans who grew up with tremendous privilege, so comfortable and coddled that we were not even aware of how very privileged we were.  It is the story of many generations of people who grew up believing that they had the right to take endlessly from the natural world, without fear of exhausting the planet’s resources, and without ever giving anything back. It is the story of my generation’s tremendous alienation from Nature, our reliance on technology and engineering to solve all problems, to the point where we could delude ourselves that we did not need the natural world to make us happy, only our own representations of her, and the resources we could extract at the push of a button.

“My story is the story of how finally, at midlife, I came back to my senses and woke up to the impending disaster that my generation had presided over unthinkingly.  I could share this story in the hopes that the very ordinariness of it would help my peers to wake up as well, and join the great struggle of our time, the struggle to turn our tremendous intelligence to the good work of creating a livable future for ourselves, our children and the billions of innocents condemned to extinction by our thoughtlessness.”

I also read a quote from Audre Lorde, who has been so important in encouraging me to overcome my social conditioning to be quiet, to be polite, to go with the flow, to suck it up, to keep my head down…which women, in particular, get a heavy dose of all our lives.

This is what Lorde has to say about that conditioning, from her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, in the Sister Outsider collection:

“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you….What are the words you do not yet have?  What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?…

“In the cause of silence, each one of us draws the face of her own fear—fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation.  But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live….

“And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which is also the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.  We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our Earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid….

“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way that we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

Truly we no longer have the luxury of waiting for the time to be right to speak up, to take action, to admit to ourselves and others that everything is NOT FINE, not at all.

All of our stories are important. The more we open up and share with one another, the greater the potential that we’ll be able to find the connecting points that will enable us to work together to create a new story, a bridge of a story to carry us forward into the future and help us create the structures we will need to weather the storms that are coming.

It’s Up to Us Now: Carrying on the Work of Pete Seeger

Unknown-1When I heard the news that Pete Seeger had died, my first thought was “oh no!” and my second thought was “now there goes a man who lived a good life.”

At 94, he had accomplished so much and lived so fully.  Even during his final months and weeks on the planet, he was still playing concerts to packed houses and inspiring people everywhere with his unwavering dedication to using music as a means of raising awareness and fomenting social change.

The New York Times obituary quotes him as saying in 2009 (the year he sang at President Obama’s Inauguration): “My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

Pete’s gift was for making music and getting others to sing along with him, and he used it not for fame, fortune or glory, but for the good of those who most needed him.

Whether he was singing in support of the Civil Rights Movement or the anti-war movement, singing for freedom against the red-baiting of the McCarthy era, singing against apartheid or singing for the environmental movement, he was always out in front leading the charge and showing others what true courage and conviction looked like—in a joyous register.

Image: File photo of Pete Seeger and his grandson Tao attending the We Are One - Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington

That upbeat, “we-shall-overcome” personality probably played a big role in Pete’s longetivity—research shows that people who think positively tend to live longer, happier lives than those who tend to see the glass half-empty.

When I saw Pete play, at one of his last concerts last fall, there was a joyous glow about him that lit up the whole stage, and those of us in the audience would have followed him anywhere.

Well, it’s up to us now.  Pete has moved on, and we are left to carry on his legacy—to keep singing his songs and working for the positive social change he believed in and created.

Unknown-2Pete was so deeply engaged with humanity during his lifetime that in death he will still stay lodged in our hearts.

His is the kind of soul that will rise into heaven showering sparks and spores of bright beckoning energy, encouraging us to carry his tune, to keep his good spirit alive.

Today I start a new semester of classes, and I am excited to be teaching two classes that will enable me to do just that: “Women Write the World” and “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice.”

Pete, I’ll be thinking of you with love and admiration as I go to greet my students this morning.  I hope a little of your sweet, positive, hardworking energy will carry us forward this year, and forever.

 

If you get there before I do

Comin’ for to carry me home

Tell all my friends I’m comin’ too

Comin’ for to carry me home.

 

Swing low, sweet chariot

Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Comin’ for to carry me home.

 

Women Writing from the Heart: What the world needs now

This time tomorrow night I’ll be sharing, for the first time, a piece of the memoir I’ve been working on for a good three years now.

il_570xN.378782406_r41jI’ll be reading at a gathering I organized on behalf of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, called “Writing from the Heart.”  It features seven of us in all, each sharing a piece of writing that comes from the deep, sometimes aching, sometimes exuberant place at our core, which we rarely trot out and share in public settings.

I organized “Writing from the Heart” because I believe it is so important, now more than ever, for women to get over our social conditioning to “be nice,” “be polite,” “go with the flow,” and cede the floor.  It’s so important that we start expressing, loud and clear, the truths we hold inside us, which are often far from self-evident.

Each one of us has her own perspective on the world, her own experiences to share, her own passions and convictions.  I am less concerned with the content than with the character: what matters to me is that you say what is in your heart, and listen to the heartfelt ideas of others, and that out of this exchange we begin a dialogue on what’s important in this deep, rich, rarely mined terrain.

Let us be frank: although women have made great strides in the past century, we still live in a male-dominated world.

Old, masculinist stories of domination, penetration, exploitation and subordination still prevail over many of the world’s societies.

We live in a violent world on many levels, and the violence, whether against the natural world or against other human beings, is overwhelmingly committed by men.

Women have been forcibly kept out of the male-dominated public sphere in most societies, for much of human history.

We have been the ones bearing and raising the sons who go off to war.  We have been the ones keening and mourning over the coffins that return.  We have been the ones who have been silent while our daughters have been forced into marriages too young, or to men we knew would be abusive.  We have been the ones raising our grandchildren as best we could when our sons and daughters died of AIDS, or ended up in prison.  We have done the best we could with the tools and strengths we had available.

But this is a new time.  Without really realizing it, we have stepped over the threshold into an era that calls for an extraordinary effort on the part of women and men of good heart and far-reaching vision.

Women and men must work together to create new social, economic and environmental frameworks that will enable us to survive and even flourish in the brave new world of climate change that is now upon us.

Women, who have centuries of experience of nourishing, cultivating, collaborating, and surviving against all kinds of odds, have a special role to play in this new era.

Women need to teach these skills to men; and men need to share with us their warrior spirit.

In this new age, the feminine and the masculine must come together in the service of generations to come, each learning from the other and together becoming greater than they could ever be apart.

Every human being has both estrogen and testosterone coursing through hir system, and every human being is capable of both nurturing and violence.

Today, we need women to have the courage to defend the rights of future generations, both human and non-human, and we need men to stand with us in acknowledging that the age of masculine privilege and dominance has been terribly destructive, and must now come to an end.

This is what is in my heart on this 12th anniversary of 9/11, this 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup, this 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Tomorrow evening at this time, six other women will share writing that comes right from the depths of their hearts.  This sharing must become a great, passionate tide, an upwelling of feeling and action that will sweep us away into a better future.

Let it be so.

Pete Seeger, Still Braving the Storm

Every generation there are a few great souls that rise up so full of the sap of life that their cup brims over and carries everyone around them along with it.

img_2137_2-photo-15Pete Seeger is one of those great souls.  Born in 1919, coming of age during the Great Depression and the American labor movement, he channeled his gift for moving others into his music, and became the voice of several generations of Americans restless with the status quo, searching for a better world.

I grew up with the songs of Pete and his soulmate Woody Guthrie, another bright flame who burned himself out after only 55 years on the planet, dying in 1967.

Pete, now 94 years old, has been steady and unwavering all these years, staying focused on social and environmental justice through all the ups and downs, through all the changes in leadership and the rise and fall of various organizations and movements.

In the iconic song about Joe Hill, the labor organizer framed on a murder charge and executed in 1915, the ghost of Joe comes back to the narrator in a dream, defiantly insisting that he “ain’t dead”:

And standing there as big as life

and smiling with his eyes.

Says Joe “What they can never kill

went on to organize,

went on to organize.”

From San Diego up to Maine,

in every mine and mill,

Where working men defend their rights,

it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill,

it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill!

Pete Seeger, still very much alive, is like Joe Hill in that his spirit seems to infuse every struggle for social justice.

During the Occupy Wall Street movement in Fall 2011, he was there in person, galvanizing a crowd after a concert to follow him in a spontaneous march down Fifth Avenue and join him in singing a heartfelt round of “We Shall Overcome.”

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His Clearwater environmental organization has become a model in inspiring communities to clean up waterways all over the nation, and indeed the world.

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Pete’s special gift is using music to inspire the best in people.

He doesn’t heckle, he doesn’t scold, he doesn’t scorn.

He just lifts up his head and his heart and seems to channel the love of the universe straight through his fingers and his vocal chords, irresistibly bringing everyone in range along with him.

IMG_3818At a benefit concert for WAMC, Northeast Public Radio on September 8 at the Paramount Theater in Peekskill, NY, Pete’s power to inspire was undiminished, though his age is finally beginning to catch up with him in terms of his physical strength.

Nevertheless, he was onstage for a full three-hour concert, with only a brief intermission, and the delight he took in the younger people accompanying him was palpable and infectious.

For Pete, music has never been a power trip; it’s always been about creating an open-hearted place for human spirits to mingle in search of justice and beauty.

He waved off the standing ovations he received from the audience, most of whom were his longtime admirers, now going gray themselves.  He made it clear that what he had to offer was not about him, it was about the power of the music to make a positive difference in the world.

While Pete could easily have led the hall down nostalgia lane, singing all his old classics, instead he chose to give his musical partners of the day, Lorre Wyatt and Guy Davis, the chance to step in the spotlight and take a leadership role, and he took special delight in the youngsters who were singing along with him on stage.

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Pete sang a new song by Lorre Wyatt, “Braving the Storm,” which honored change agents like Rachel Carson, Cesar Chavez and WAMC’s tireless Alan Chartock, the chorus acknowledging “You could have stayed safe and warm but you showed us the way, braving the storm—thank you for braving the storm….”

He also sang some old fighting favorites like “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn, Turn Turn,” his voice rising loud and strong in reminding us that “there’s a time for peace, I say it’s not too late.”

108213_f520He ended with a rousing song about the Clearwater and the Hudson River revival, reminding us that though the river has been dirty, “she’s getting cleaner every day.”

Focus on the positive, Pete seemed to be telling us—on what can be done, what should be done, what is being done to make our world a safer, saner, more loving place.  Do the work together, joyfully, singing all the while.  Have courage, be of good heart, and don’t be afraid to brave the storm, together.

Like Joe Hill, wherever people are working together for a better world, it’s there you’ll find Pete Seeger, in body and in spirit.

Thanks, Pete, for showing us the way all these years, and being a tremendously inspiring model of an elder who only grows more powerful, active and courageous with age.  We’re with you in spirit too, always!

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The September 8 concert was dedicated to Pete’s late wife, Toshi, who died earlier this year.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

So OK, having slept fitfully and woken up resigned to accepting the basic premise that it is unlikely that the world as I have always known it will continue into the foreseeable future…what then?

How do I spend my one wild and precious life on the planet?

I am quite clear that I want to put my time, talents and energies into doing my best to head off catastrophe for the natural world.

But this often feels like trying to stick my finger in a huge roaring dyke of bad news—how can I, a small and ordinary person, make a difference for the trees and animals and birds and bees that I so want to protect?

All I can say is that making the attempt is better than giving up.

My gift has always been writing, and so I am using that gift to try to reach out to others, in the hope that if many of us, in our small, ordinary lives, can join our voices together, the resulting chorus could indeed change the world.

I am continually amazed at how the technological innovation of the World Wide Web has facilitated the meeting of minds and the catalyzing of movements.  There has never been a better moment for human progress and connected intellectual growth.

I wake up with a new thought, write it down and send it out into the gushing waters of the internet, where, within the hour, it will be read by someone living on the other side of the planet, who will bat it back to me with comments that will cause me to see the idea from a whole new perspective.  All within the space of an hour! How remarkable is that?

But sadly, it is precisely our reliance on and success with technology that is causing our demise, from simple overpopulation to the poisoning of our environment.

This is the challenge of our time: to very quickly learn to adapt to our rapidly changing climate, and to find environmentally sustainable ways to hang on to our positive technological inventions.

I believe it can be done, which is why I am totally invested in the challenge of waking people up and getting them engaged in fighting the good fight to make our epoch, which many call the Anthropocene, a positive transition to a better human relationship with the Earth, rather than a nightmare ending in the dark night of extinction.

If we were to shift our resources from weapons of destruction–guns, bombs and missiles, chemical poisons, and ever-bigger drills, earth-movers and chain saws—to implements of cultivation and the harmless harvesting of the bounty of our natural world, what a huge difference that would make!

People say that over-population will continue no matter what, but I know from years of studying women’s issues worldwide that when women are educated and respected in a society, they have fewer children.

Between fewer children in the developing world, a lower rate of consumption in the developed world, and the invention of new technologies that act in harmony with nature rather than against her, we could transform our planet within a generation or two.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy The Lord of the Rings is looking more and more prophetic, and it’s surely no accident that the films have come out now, to appeal to the current generation of young people.

We are the ones who must enter the fight to hold off the dark forces of Mordor, in order to preserve the happy, healthy lives in the Shire that all humans are meant to live.

tumblr_m9hm5vDG2h1qzhkvho1_500Today is the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and I invoke his memory to remind us that although it is true that by ourselves each one of us is puny and limited, it is also true that if we pool our resources and act together we have tremendous power.

We must each start by determining what gifts we can bring to the table of this new movement, and then start where we are, doing what we can, and sharing our insights and passions by all the channels of communication that are open to us, from talking face to face with friends and neighbors to sending our ideas out into the World Wide Web.

Now is the time, and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

I will close with two quotes from Dr. King:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Amen, brother.

They don’t play nice. Should we?

So manifestoes are all very well, in the visionary department, but things get harder when you get down into the nitty-gritty of making transformative change happen.  I thought I might take some time this New Year’s season, 2012, to reflect more deeply on what it would mean to turn my dreams into reality.

Let’s start with the first point in my recently penned Manifesto for a Sustainable Future, which is:

1. Move from a top-down hierarchical system to a horizontal, egalitarian model of social relations based on inclusivity across all of the traditional boundaries used to keep different groups apart, and also opening up the possibility for cross-species collaboration based on respect and stewardship.

People have been talking about coalition across artificial differences between humans for a long, long time, and in some cases it has worked: for instance, the privileged white folks who believed in “equality, fraternity and liberty for all” played a huge role in freeing the enslaved Africans during the 19th century, and then a later generation of freedom-loving people from various heritages worked together again in the 1960s to extend the earlier gains through civil rights, women’s rights, decolonization, etc.

It’s not that hard to get people to agree in principle that all human beings deserve equal treatment before the law, or that children should have equal access to quality education, good food and health care.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on just such agreement.  The problem is that principles and declarations are one thing–like manifestoes–while actions on the ground are quite another.

In practice, we know full well that people of color, poor people and immigrants are not treated equally before the law in the U.S. We also know that there are millions of children in this country whose public schooling is inadequate, sometimes terribly so, and who do not have access to healthy food or good quality health care.

We know this, and yet we choose to ignore what we know.

It’s the same thing with what is happening to animals in this country.  We know that scientific research, aka torture, is conducted on thousands, if not millions of defenseless animals every year.  We know that millions of pigs, cows and poultry are treated with total disregard for their well-being, as if they were machines being assembled for market, instead of living, sentient beings.  We know that millions of wild mammals, birds and marine life are relentlessly being pushed into extinction by the pitiless advances of human “civilization.”

We know this, but we choose to pretend we don’t know it.

Maybe that’s because if we really took this information in, the knowledge would be unbearable.  How could we live with ourselves, knowing that just by conforming to the status quo, we are responsible for so much suffering of others on this planet?

But we need to stop pretending and closing our eyes and turning away.

Because it is out of this deep knowledge of our connection with other living beings on this planet, and the inescapable awareness of the suffering we humans are causing, that a movement of solidarity, resistance and change will grow.

To bring up the term “movement” is to be clear that the kind of transformative change I’m envisioning could not possibly be the work of one person, or even a few people.  It has to be an unstoppable wave, demanding change and taking nothing less for an answer.

In the 19th century, the abolition movement ended up sparking a civil war in the United States.

A second American civil war seems rather unthinkable to most of us now, even as we watch with amazement as regimes fall to enraged mobs all across the Middle East and North Africa.

In the US, free expression is tolerated far more widely than, say, in China, where journalists and bloggers are regularly beaten up and thrown in prison for daring to speak an unpopular truth.  The U.S. was shocked–shocked!–when the government called out the military and tanks began firing into the crowds at Tiananmen Square back in 1989.

But you have to wonder, watching the ruthless way city police are now trained to deal with street protests, how much it would take to provoke a similarly harsh response from our federal government.

What if there were a real movement of people united in their demands for “equality, liberty and justice for all,” as schoolchildren in the US are still trained to recite piously every morning, hands over hearts, when the Pledge of Allegiance is played over the PA system?

What if people got fed up enough with our bungling and corrupt national leaders, our deeply unfair and wildly overpriced medical system, the outrageous skewing of entitlements of all kinds to the wealthy, the militarization of our relations with other countries, the poisoning of our environment, the killing off of the natural world–fed up enough that we were willing to take to the streets and demand change, and not back down even when they brought out the tear gas, the tanks and the guns?

Then we might just have a Civil War II on our hands.  And like the first Civil War, it would be bloody, chaotic and uncertain in outcome.  But if the vision that guided it was sure and true, it might just lead to a whole new country arising out of the ashes of the old.

In this globalized age, such a civil war might easily turn into a global war, as the 99% the world over rose up against the tyranny of the rich corporate interests that are ruining the welfare of humans and the planet as a whole.

And here’s where I need to get back to the Manifesto, where I imagined a new social order based on a horizontal, inclusive, respectful, egalitarian model of social relations, with the welfare of the poor as important as the welfare of the rich; the welfare of the coral reef as valued as the welfare of the watershed feeding a city; the welfare of a livestock animal as important as the welfare of a cherished pet.

Not to say that everyone would necessarily be treated exactly the same–a cow wouldn’t want the same treatment as a dog, after all.  But whatever it takes to give a cow a comfortable, dignified life, should be undertaken.  Whatever it takes to give every child access to a high-quality education, should be done.  Decisions should be made in truly representative fashion, with no possibility of wealthy interests buying votes, no PAC lobbies or media manipulation allowed.

The devil is in the details in putting such a new world order in place, I know.  Many smart people maintain that human beings are irredeemably aggressive, competitive and greedy, and so we are incapable of creating such an ideal world.

But many other smart people say the opposite: that human beings are naturally empathic creatures, whose first instinct as infants is to love, not to hate.  Very few children are instinctively cruel to others.  The majority of us seem to be naturally good-natured, though easily swayed and corrupted by our social conditioning.

As Jeremy Rifkin has argued, “What is required now is nothing less than a leap to global empathic consciousness and in less than a generation if we are to resurrect the global economy and revitalize the biosphere. The question becomes this: what is the mechanism that allows empathic sensitivity to mature and consciousness to expand through history?”

Rifkin’s own answer to this question has to do with what he calls the “distributed Internet revolution,” which is “changing human consciousness” by “extending the central nervous system of billions of human beings and connecting the human race across time and space, allowing empathy to flourish on a global scale, for the first time in history.”

Rifkin envisions just the kind of transformation in social relations that I have also been dreaming of.  His description of a new human relation to what he calls our “biosphere” is worth quoting in full:

“The biosphere is the narrow band that extends some forty miles from the ocean floor to outer space where living creatures and the Earth’s geochemical processes interact to sustain each other. We are learning that the biosphere functions like an indivisible organism. It is the continuous symbiotic relationships between every living creature and between living creatures and the geochemical processes that ensure the survival of the planetary organism and the individual species that live within its biospheric envelope. If every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are entwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography that sustains life itself, then we are all dependent on and responsible for the health of the whole organism. Carrying out that responsibility means living out our individual lives in our neighborhoods and communities in ways that promote the general well-being of the larger biosphere within which we dwell.”

It would be nice if we could simply persuade the 1% corporate types of the necessity of this shift in human consciousness. But these people don’t play nice.

That’s why we dreamers who share this kind of transformative vision may have to toughen up, if we want to achieve our goals.

As Derrick Jensen keeps saying, how long will we wait until we realize that action is necessary to avoid annihilation?  It’s the birds, the bees and the bats who are dying now, but these creatures form the base of the pyramid on which current hierarchical human society rests.  If their populations crash, can ours be far behind?

Can we afford to wait and see?

Survival is not an academic skill

Yesterday I wrote that I intend to devote my second half of life (OK, let’s be real, we’re talking about  more like my last third of life at this point) to parenting and trying to change our global social systems to be sustainable and non-exploitative.  That intention rolled around in my head overnight, and I began to wonder how my role as a college teacher fits into this scenario.

Can I use my vocation as a teacher of comparative literature, media studies & gender studies/human rights to change the world?

As if in response to my unvoiced question, the inimitable professor Stanley Fish published an op-ed on the NY Times website last night, in which he used the occasion of the upcoming Modern Language Association annual convention to reflect on the state of the higher-ed humanities profession.

I’ve participated in many an MLA convention in my 25 years or so of professional involvement in the field of comparative literature, but this year I am not attending because my panel proposal, entitled “Strategies of Resistance: Women’s Writing and Social Activism in Iran, South Africa and the United States,” was not accepted.

Professor Fish’s analysis of the 2012 conference Program gave me a good insight into why my proposal, which I thought was comprised of excellent papers by well-qualified scholars, was rejected.

“Absent or sparsely represented,” he says, “are the topics that in previous years dominated the meeting and identified the avant garde — multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, racialism, feminism, queer theory, theory in general.”  My panel would have fit nicely into at least three or four of these categories.

The new hot topics at the convention this year, says Prof. Fish, can be lumped under the umbrella term “digital humanities,” which covers “new and fast-moving developments across a range of topics: the organization and administration of libraries, the rethinking of peer review, the study of social networks, the expansion of digital archives, the refining of search engines, the production of scholarly editions, the restructuring of undergraduate instruction, the transformation of scholarly publishing, the re-conception of the doctoral dissertation, the teaching of foreign languages, the proliferation of online journals, the redefinition of what it means to be a text, the changing face of tenure — in short, everything.”

Everything?

The problem with this brave new direction in literary studies is that even while it reaches out to the world through digital portals, it seems to have lost all interest in the real world beyond its own narrow and insular ivory halls.  Other than “the changing face of tenure,” which is certainly a meaningful labor issue for the small percentage of Americans who are college/university professors, there is no indication that the young literary Turks all fired up about the digital humanities care at all about material conditions for people, animals or the environment.  Politics becomes cyber-politics; people become avatars; electricity simply flows, and food appears like magic in supermarkets or restaurant dishes.

Let me be clear: I am no Luddite when it comes to digital technologies.  I’m writing a blog, after all, and I regularly teach a class in digital media studies, which changes radically every time I offer it because I try to keep up with the rapidly transforming media landscape.

But to me, digital technology is a vehicle, not an end in itself.  I want to involve myself in digital media and the digital humanities to further my material, political goals of remaking the world.  Otherwise it’s just so much more mental masturbation.  We don’t have time for that now, if indeed we ever did.

And here’s where I come back around to my starting question of whether my role as a teacher will be useful to my larger political goals of transitioning to a safer, kinder, happier human and inter-species landscape.

It depends what I teach, doesn’t it?

For years now I have been teaching a series of classes on “women writing resistance” in various areas of the world–Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, the U.S.  The political writings of strong women who have successfully resisted both private and public oppression have taught me and my students so much about what it takes to stand up for one’s principles and put one’s visions of positive social change into action.  We’ve also learned a lot about the price activists often pay.

In the years ahead, I want to continue to use my vocation as a teacher to explore literature that is not afraid to speak truth to power.  I want to seek out visionary texts that look ahead fearlessly into the future and light the way for those who are following more slowly and cautiously down the path.  I want to amplify the voices of authors who advocate for those who do not have the same privileged access to the literary stage.  I want to become one of those authors myself.

I should not be surprised that this direction is of little interest to the crowd inside the insular tower represented by the MLA.  What was it that Audre Lorde said at another academic conference, long ago?

Survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with others identified as outside the established structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.”

Yes, Audre.  I’m with you.

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