Monday, September 25, 2006

Turning the Tide, Turning the Tables

Congressman John Lewis, in the conclusion to Jonathan Kozol's Shame of the Nation:

Sometimes, you have to ask for something that you know you may not get. And still you have to ask for it. It's still worth fighting for and, even if you don't believe that you will see it in your lifetime, you have got to hold it up so that the generation that comes next will take it from your hands and, in their own time, see it as a goal worth fighting for again.

A segregated education in America is unacceptable. Integration is, it still remains, the goal worth fighting for. You should be fighting for it. We should be fighting for it. It is something that is good unto itself, apart from all the other arguments that can be made. This nation needs to be a family, and a family sits down for its dinner at a table, and we all deserve a place together at that table. And our children deserve to have a place together in their schools and classrooms, and they need to have that opportunity while they're still children, while they're in those years of innocence.

You cannot deviate from this. You have to say, 'Some things are good and right unto themselves.' No matter what the present mood in Washington is like, no matter what the people who are setting policy today believe, or want us to believe, no matter what the sense of temporary hopelessness that many of us often feel, we cannot give up on the struggle we began and on the dream that brought us here.

You cannot give it up. We cannot give it up. As a nation, as a people. I don't thingk that we have any choice but to reject this acquiescence, to reject defeat.

Me, writing August 19, 2004:

Make Room at the Table

I understand the terrorists.

I have no trouble imagining how a Palestinian mother wakes up in her refugee camp shanty, smells the raw sewage running in the ditch down the street and watches the diarrhea pour from her dysenteric children. I have no trouble understanding why she would decide one day to go to the people who outfit suicide bombers and request a string of explosives to sling over her own shoulder.

It makes sense that in her torment, she would learn to want to inflict pain on the vicious and apathetic Israelis who silence her and her children, who silence Israeli voices for peace and justice, who choose instead to nurture the hatred, festering in the squalor, decade after decade.

It makes complete sense to me that a group of mostly Saudi Arabian men would take box cutters onto an airplane and fly those planes into tall buildings, killing thousands, and themselves.

And I get why young men and women in America walk into their local Army recruiting offices and sign up for training in the use of automatic machine guns.

I understand it. I am willing to explain it, endorse it, condone it and forgive it.

It’s despair. I feel it too.

There are times and places in the world where real people make large decisions, on behalf of many other people, about how we humans live from day to day. They decide when and where the wars happen, who will own what land, water and oil, who will not have a claim on anything at all, and which children will be used for which dirty jobs.

Those times and places include meetings of President Bush and his advisors, meetings of the National Security Council, the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Arab League, the World Economic Forum, the Central American Free Trade Area, the North American Free Trade Area, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the Group of 8 summits.

Meetings of the World Bank, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Brookings Institute, the American Enterprise Institute. Meetings of corporate leaders in China, Japan, India, Russia.

Board meeting at weapons manufacturing plants like Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.

Board meetings at financial institutions and investment firms like Citigroup, Solomon Smith-Barney, PriceWaterhouseCooper, Carlyle.

Board meetings at media conglomerates like AOL-Time Warner, Viacom and General Electric.

To a lesser degree, these meetings of people who matter also include the U.S. Congress and the European Union.

The people at these meetings are virtually all men, and the pink ones hold virtually all the power.

When these men meet, or at least when they meet in public, they meet in beautiful places: lovely hotels and conference centers in resort towns or global cities. Servants change the sheets on their beds and the towels in their bathrooms. Servant-police stand guard at the doors and the street corners, keeping at a long distance those who do not belong, anyone the pink men do not wish to hear from.

At the banquets, servants cook the food and servants serve the food at long tables of gleaming china, silver and glass, of white linens, slabs of chicken, beef and fish, mounds of string beans, carrots and potatoes, wedges of decorated cakes and pies.

At these beautiful tables, and in the conference rooms where speeches on world politics and economics are given and received, there is no place for the frantic mother and father suicide bombers. There is no place for the tormented, tortured people blowing each other up in Iraq. There is no place for the poor grinding through their poverty in America. There is no place for pacifists.

We stand in the streets outside, and when we get to the table, the table is long-since emptied of respected guests. The servants clear the plates and wash the dishes, launder the napkins and the tablecloths. They vacuum up the crumbs until dawn is almost upon them, and then they climb wearily into a bus for a two-hour ride to their tenement homes and sleeping children.

While the table is full, those eating and drinking and talking there all wear beautiful suits and pretty cuff links. Their skin is pink and shiny, their hair neatly combed, their pricks erect. The food is plentiful and good, the conversation stimulating: stock prices up and down, oil prices up and down. Contracts bid upon, or not; contracts won, anyway. Labor costs: cheap. Pollution: permitted. Bomb orders, munitions orders, mess tent ration orders: the money is pouring in. Profit? They turn to each other and smile knowingly. Stupendous profits, they say. Things couldn’t be going better.

But there is no seat at that table for a Palestinian mother to make her case that checkpoints and walls, racism, Stinger missiles, unemployment and dysentery are not good for her children, if they are good for any children at all.

There is no seat at that table for a young Saudi Arabian man to make his case that decades of corrupt oil-protected monarchies left him well-fed, well-educated and hollow. There is no way for him to tell anyone that he wanted his life to have meaning, that he wanted to do something with the gift of his life, and that he finally found a little meaning in radical Islam when no one else was there with any other way to fill that void.

There is no seat at the table for the young American men and women who grow up in violent inner cities going to school in overcrowded, run-down, ill-supplied buildings with ill-supported teachers. There is no seat for the farm children whose parents or grandparents lost the family farm to corporate agribusinesses and genetic engineering advocates like Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland. There is no seat for the disillusioned suburban kid, numbed with antidepressants and Nintendo.

There is no way for them to talk about their instinctive love for human freedom, and how that love sought a means of expression, and how the only way to be part of something bigger and better than themselves, the only way to feel real and alive and whole, was the military voice on television, on the radio, on the billboards by the highways and onscreen at the video arcade. The voice told them to “see the world…” without mentioning the other part of the deal: “…at gunpoint.”

Now they are killing and dying and losing limbs every day; the deaths enrich the old pink men at the meetings, using up the missiles, knocking down the buildings to be built up again. The deaths impoverish everyone else - the families and the friends of the families. I am 30; the dead are mostly my generation, and I miss each one. I am lonely for them.

At those lavish banquets of pink men and their cohorts, there is no seat for pacifists to tell about their experiences of witness and inspiration, their heroes and their methods, their hope and their energy. There is no room at the table, but the pain and the hope must both find a way out.

So the way out comes from the way in: the lonely, stifled-voice pain turns inward, to despair, and the despair moves back outward, into rage and violence, blood and maiming and death, homicide, suicide, apathy and fanaticism.

We need a bigger table, big enough for everybody.


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