The War

One of the best meetings I ever moderated — perhaps the best — was for people opposed to attacking Afghanistan in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The group that emerged from that meeting was called Iowans for Peace. I haven’t lived in Iowa since 2003, and I have lost track of much of what is happening there, but they still have a website, and the Iowa City Public Library association database has contact information for them as recently as last April. (How awesome is the ICPL? So awesome that they maintain such a database.)

I was overwhelmed by the anti-war movement that started in 2002 and 2003, opposing the war in Iraq. I had been opposing the war in Iraq since August 1990, when, the day I arrived back in Iowa City after a two year exile in Indianapolis, I attended the founding meeting of a group that called itself Operation U.S. Out. We started the group before the United States invaded Iraq, in January 2001, in a futile attempt to prevent that invasion, and the many years of bombings and sanctions that followed. By the time the US invaded (again) in March of 2003, all I was capable off was bringing vegan chili to the Peace Camp at the University of Iowa one night.

I was engaged in activist groups, on and off, from age 14 to age 30. Part of the reason that I moved to rural Wyoming is that I needed to escape, at least for awhile.

I’m typing this as I listen to the commentary on NPR in the wake of Obama’s speech on Afghanistan. I still can’t quite believe that we went there in the first place — I cannot believe that we cast that stone — and I cannot quite believe that we are still there, and will be for some time to come.

Starting in the late 1960s, Phil Ochs held a series of rallies called The War is Over, based on the premise of his song of the same name. The idea, he thought, was simply that people should declare that the war in Vietnam was over, and that somehow, that will of the people would make it so. That happened, eventually, but not before many more lives were lost, and only a year before Ochs took his own life.

I’d like to believe that the war is over, but it never seems to work that way.

Let us turn our thoughts today. . .

I almost said the Pledge of Allegiance today. I couldn’t quite do it, but I mouthed the words, which is closer than I’ve gotten to saying in twenty years or so. I attended tonight’s school board meeting because there was some library business on the agenda, and they open every meeting with the Pledge.

It has been a rather momentous day, and for me one full of contradictions. I watched the inauguration in the school cafeteria this morning, and then I went down to the post office to pick up the mail, only to find a flyer posted that promised to give you The True Facts about Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday my county did not observe yesterday. This is a flyer you can find on the internet fairly easily, as it comes from a site that uses Dr. King’s name full name, minus the Junior, as its URL. I won’t link to it because I don’t wish to give any more boost to its PageRank, but essentially it accuses Dr. King of being a Jew-hating Communist, among other things. It’s an excellent site to use when discussing information literacy — excellent, at least, if you are fairly certain that no one in the group you are educating will mistake its “facts” for truth.

Needless to say, it was a little distressing to come upon such a thing right after watching a black man being sworn in as President of the United States. Much has been made of Obama as “post-racial,” and he took a fair amount of slack from the left for not being black enough, or not recognizing the Civil Rights movement enough. But it was hard to listen to his victory speech without hearing the echoes of Dr. King’s final address, and it was hard to watch today’s ceremony, with the Tuskegee airmen and Aretha Franklin and Lincoln’s Bible and a crowd on the mall, and to hear on the radio this morning about John Lewis going to stand by the Lincoln Memorial early in the morning, before any of the ceremonies began, and to look at today, with its promises of transparency and its prominent coverage of the Obama administration’s recognition of the national day of service — it was hard to see all these things and not feel in some way that perhaps that check Dr. King spoke of so many years ago on that same Mall has been made good on — has perhaps, at the very least, had an installment paid.

Yesterday and today have been about recognizing big names, big people. And that is all well and good, but I want to take a moment to remember some other people, too.

I have heard from time to time in my years as an activist that I am an ingrate and don’t recognize that I have my freedom of speech because people fought and died in wars — the implication being that I should have nothing to complain about and ought to shut up and be grateful that I’m not speaking German. I don’t in any way wish to diminish the very real sacrifices made by people in the military. But I would also like for people to acknowledge the equally real sacrifices made by those who fought in the Civil Rights movement — the people who were beaten and jailed and killed — Medgar Evers and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and James Chaney and all the many others who lost their lives in the struggle to make sure that the rights promised to all Americans in our founding documents were given to all Americans. And I’d like to recognize as well the courage of all the footsoldiers: the people who refused to ride the buses in Montgomery, who marched from Selma, who answered telephones and stuffed envelopes and kept records (for a fascinating look at that side of the moment, I highly recommend Freedom Song, a memoir by Mary King detailing her work as a sort of press secretary for SNCC), and all those who helped.

The summer before I graduated from high school, I met up with my friend at the thirtieth anniversary of the most famous March on Washington. I don’t remember a great deal about the day, just that it was unbelievably hot, and that I was so hot I couldn’t get myself to pay attention to anything else. But I had spent the night before with the mother of Rachel, my mother’s best friend from high school, who had herself been on that great original march thirty years before. Hilda, Rachel’s mother, said to me that morning that she had packed me a lunch — the very same lunch she had packed for her daughter and her compatriots on their bus ride to Washington in 1963 — peanut butter sandwiches on raisin bread, food that would keep well in the heat, because the bus would not be able to stop at many restaurants.

I would like a day — many days, really — when we remember and celebrate these people in the way that we remember and honor our military veterans on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. In the meantime, though, I shall rejoice at what they helped to accomplish, and what I saw today.

The Psych Ward, Ten Years Out

woman outside the Professional Union for Woman Suffrage holding a banner that reads Forward out of error / Leave behind the night / Forward through the darkness / Forward into light.
Forward out of darkness. Harris & Ewing, photographer. [Women’s Suffrage]. [Between 1910 and 1920] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
A few days before Halloween in 1998 my mother hauled me out of the chair I’d been living in and into the car and into the hospital, where I signed a great many pieces of paper, including the ones that said I was committing myself to the psychiatric ward. I seem to remember that I was riding in a wheelchair, although that seems unlikely, since surely my legs were still working, even if I wasn’t inclined to use them. But the wheelchair is an appropriate metaphor (although I realize this is about to be hugely insulting to wheelchair users, for which I do apologize): some one had to push me, because there was no way I was going to move anywhere unless acted upon by an outside force.

I was what they call a voluntary committal, which is to say that I was not ordered into the ward by a judge. I would not say, however, that I went voluntarily: I was not volunteering for anything at that point, although I suppose if God had said, “Hmm, we need someone who’s willing to die,” I would have stepped forward.

Due to the vagaries of medical fads and the travesties of managed care, psych wards nowadays function as little more than holding tanks for the suicidal. As soon as they decide you’re not going to do yourself in, they let you out, regardless of whether or not you feel any better. As Kay Redfield Jamison points out in Night Falls Fast, this discharging is not a particularly good or helpful policy, since a great many suicides occur just after people are let out of the hospital.

The psych ward was, I suppose, useful to me in one way. I loathed the place. It was small and crowded; the windows didn’t open and the blinds, which were set in between two panes of glass, could only be tilted, not raised or lowered. The furniture in the main room was uncomfortable, and uncomfortably close to one’s fellow residents. The smoke leaked out from the smoking room. The TV was always on. If you sat in your room to read or think or just not be around people, they marked you down as unsocial. There was another little TV room where you could watch movies borrowed from the hospital library, supposing you could get someone to go there for you, or had privileges enough to go by yourself. They would not give you caffeinated coffee, not even in the morning, though they’d sell you pop at 8 p.m. They had an alarming fascination with your bowel movements, or lack thereof. And they would not let me vote.

Somewhere, in all my stacks of paper, I still have an evaluation form they sent me after my hospital stay. I have been carting it around all these years because I keep thinking that someday maybe I will be mellow enough to complain about the experience without screaming, but that day has not come.

I was only on the ward for five days, but I was under the highest level of lockdown the whole time. I could not leave the ward, no matter what, not even in a straitjacket with multiple attendants. That meant I couldn’t go to one of the many absentee voting booths set up around the hospital during the weeks before an election. I asked every doctor, every nurse, and every aide I saw. “How will I be able to vote?” Not one of them answered me. It was an off-year election, and I suppose that most of the other people on my ward, who mostly had schizophrenia and were fairly heavily medicated, were perhaps not very in touch with current events and thus not as interested in the whole business of participating in the democratic process as I was. But I was appalled.

So I suppose you could say that it was, in the end, my belief in democracy that saved me from depression. I worked as hard as I could to get out of that place. I spent all my time in the common room and played Yahtzee with people who didn’t know where they were. I watched day time television. (Seriously, all the stuff they tell you is bad for you in the outside world they totally push in the psych ward–the place is smoke free now, but when I was there, I swear the answer to every complaint was “go take a smoke break” or “go watch TV.”) My mother very kindly started bringing me coffee in the morning. It was, for some reason, permissible to have someone bring coffee to you, but they’d only give you decaf. I ate the horrible hospital food and stopped making extra-big circles around the COFFEE option. And it worked, I guess. I was discharged on election day. I walked the four blocks home to my mother’s house, got in my car, and drove to my polling place.

It was a long time, and a lot more ups and downs, before I really got better, and even today, there are parts of me that still aren’t always better. This year I’ll be spending thirteen hours in a chair at the Meeteetse Town Hall ensuring that the machinery of democracy is working smoothly. I know most of the people who read this will vote, or have already, but I’d urge you all to think of anyone you can who might be prevented from voting and try to help them get to the polls. My mother now works in the psychiatric department where I was once a patient, and she assures me that everyone there will have the opportunity to vote this year. I hope that’s true for everyone on the outside, too.

As for me, I’m still cynical as all get out, and I still think voting is the least thing you can do to make the world a better place. But it’s still important to me — so much so that, you might say, voting saved my life.

Conventions and Discontents

I am, as I write this, on call as a home support volunteer for the Radical Reference people who are at the Republican National Convention. So far this has not entailed any actual work on my part, but that doesn’t mean that things haven’t been happening. It’s very weird in many ways to be so far from it all. My best friend lived in the Twin Cities for a decade, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time there myself. And

My friend doesn’t like election years because they seem to divide people too easily. I don’t like election years because I feel like none of the divisions create any spaces I can claim.

I’ve always felt that elections in the US are basically about choosing which flavor of capitalism you’d like. I got that from hanging out with the socialists, of course, but that doesn’t prevent it from being true.

I worry sometimes that by moving to a place where my vote, at least at the presidential level, truly does not count, I’ve just stepped off the edge of the political world and turned into the sort of person who is happy to sit on the beach (or in my case the mountain top) and watch the world as it burns. Of course, I’ve always said that voting is the least thing you can do politically, especially voting for national office. It stands to reason, therefore, that I ought to be able to go on doing the other political things that I do, such as volunteering with Radical Reference. But distance does make a difference. I can hardly imagine attending a candlelight vigil — much less a rally — any more, and yet I used to do that sort of thing all the time. I wonder if by being so far away from meetings and conference calls and marches and coordinating committees I am also far away from the things that they stood for, if I am losing my grip on them. I talk to people all over the country, and sometimes even the world, almost every day, and since they are almost all librarians, I have often a lot in common with them. In the last couple of weeks, though, reading blogging and tweeting and whatever the hell it is we do on FriendFeed, I’ve started to feel like I’m talking to people who mostly don’t know me at all, and that’s a little disturbing.

Of course, it’s good to be exposed to variety. It’s good to consider other viewpoints. But I think again and again of the story about the man who kept proclaiming his beliefs, even when people thought he was crazy. “Why do you keep speaking?” a young man asks, and the man says that sometimes he keeps speaking to change the world, and sometimes he keeps speaking so that the world doesn’t change him. That’s what I’m doing, I hope, these many years after the very first New Rambler.

Upgrades, The Black Dude, and Other Forward Thinking

I just upgraded this blog from WordPress 1.5 to the current version, which I believe is 2.3.3. Yeah, I missed a few in there. I’m also planning to play around with the theme some, so if you read this from the source rather than via aggregator, you may see some changes.

In other news, on Saturday, for the first time in my life, a candidate I caucused for won. Wyoming Public Radio feels, for some reason, that telling you about its upcoming pledge drive (which, while very short, is unbearably annoying) is more important than telling you, oh, say, news, but happily NPR and the AP come through with the results, even down to the county.

I got to the caucus site about ten minutes before it started (under normal Wyoming circumstances, that would be early) to find a line to get in. I didn’t even have to wait in line at the DMV when I got my Wyoming license; I rarely have to wait in lines at the grocery store. I had a nice time chatting with my fellow registered Democrats, though, and one turned out to be a fellow librarian. The organizers of this caucus had somehow missed the national press attention that Wyoming was getting in the days prior to the caucus, and they had thus booked a room that holds about 25 people. There were about 300 people there, and so they had us crowd around the main floor and the balcony of the floor above.

Where I come from, a caucus means getting a bunch of people in a large room and saying, “Okay, if you’re for the woman, go over there; if you’re for the black dude, go over there.” (And then, because it’s the first caucus in the nation, you get about ten more choices, which as you may imagine is why I have never before caucused for a winner.) In this caucus, we still heard some speeches and endorsements, but then we filled out ballots sort of like this one and deposited them in a cardboard box with a hole cut in it. After that, there may well have been more, but I’ve been ill and so I left to come back home and sleep before my week of Missoula Children’s Theatre (brought to you by the Park County Arts Council, of which I am a proud member) and Thinking Ahead (where I’m going to be talking about Radical Reference).

Although it was exciting to have voted for a winner, I am not really all that excited. There’s enough background about what I think and who I’ve voted for elsewhere on this site. Suffice it to say that, while the candidates whose positions I really admired have long since dropped out, I am trying to see that having either a woman or a person of color as a major party nominee (and, one hopes, as President) is a major symbolic step for this country and the world.

High as the Listening Skies, Loud as the Rolling Sea

People often ask me how I hack it in Wyoming. Don’t I miss, well, culture? There are all sorts of things wrong with that question, not the least of which is that every place has a culture. But I know what they mean: don’t I miss living in a place where there are concerts and lectures and people who get the New Yorker? You can find all of those things in Wyoming, though often they’re a little far flung.

In truth, for the most part, I don’t miss the culture I left to come here. Oh, now and then I get a hankering for Indian food, but I manage.

I’d forgotten until today what the other thing I miss is.

My friend called on her way to the Twin Cities wondering if I could look up the time of a particular Martin Luther King Day celebration that she wanted to attend. Unfortunately, it was held last Tuesday, on his actual birthday. “But wait!” I said. “There is a whole page of MLK Day events.”

So tomorrow afternoon, my friend will be going back to her undergraduate college to hear Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, an early SNCC organizer whom I’ve read about in books. And I. . . will be at work. Although MLK Day is a national holiday, it is not one recognized by Park County, Wyoming, and thus, as a county employee, I do not have it off.

It is popular nowadays to celebrate MLK Day as a “day on” instead of a day off: a day where you go out and work in your community to make the world a better place. I’m glad that people are feeling moved by the day to do that kind of work. The priest at my church once said that going to church is your reward for being a Christian all week long, and I tend to feel the same way about MLK Day. I try on a daily basis to make decisions, and to encourage others to make decisions, that make the world better for the poor and the oppressed. One day a year I want to celebrate that work. I want to listen to speeches and spirituals. I want to lift my voice and sing until earth and heaven ring with the harmonies of liberty.

I took that for granted before I moved here. Oh, I remember signing the petition to get MLK Day recognized by the University of Iowa, and I remember, in later years, getting told we couldn’t leaflet for political causes outside the big MLK Day celebration. I got plenty cynical about the University’s supposed commitment to human rights, which seemed to consist of freeloading on the reputation of a great man every year around his birthday, and which, like most remembrances of King, focused solely on his early civil rights work and not at all on his campaigns against poverty and war. I didn’t realize until last year, my first MLK Day here, how much that ceremony meant to me, despite my doubts as to the appropriateness and sincerity of its sentiments.

Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the first people I remember learning about. I surely knew about kings and queens and presidents and actors at least dimly, when I was seven. But one night when we still lived on Rider Street in Iowa City my mother saw that there was going to be a special program on television about Martin Luther King, and she told me that, if I wanted to, I could stay up past my bedtime to watch it. In all the years that she had a say over my bedtime, this is the only occasion on which I can recall my mother allowing me to stay up late. She explained that Dr. King had been an important man, and that her best friend in high school had taken a bus all the way from Chicago to Washington D.C. to be at a march where Dr. King had given his famous speech. Thirty years later, my friend–the same one who’ll be at Augsburg College tomorrow–and I went to an anniversary march in Washington, and I spent the night at the house of the mother of my mother’s best friend, and she packed a lunch for me of peanut butter sandwiches on raisin bread–just what she’d packed for her daughter for the bus trip, since the bus would be unable to stop at segregated restaurants along the way.

I think I shall have to make my own ceremony here, and that ceremony will begin with turning back to the language. Dr. King’s famous quotations are generally taken out of context, and while the words still ring out, they lose specificity, and, in doing so, become platitudes. People always remember the beginning of the Declaration of Indpendence and forget all about the list of greivances that make up the bulk of the document. Similarly, people tend to remember only the end of the “I Have a Dream” speech and forget the rest of the speech, where King discusess the promissary note “to which every American was to fall heir,” the promise of that first part of the Declaration of Independence, and the “shameful condition” that, for so many, that promise has not been kept.

I offer tonight two selections from “A Time to Break Silence,” the speech in which King first came out agains the Vietnam War. Space, time, and copyright prevent me from offering anything but excerpts, but I hope that I leave as much context as possible attached.

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in a time of war.

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken–the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

And then, because it is celebration I wish to provoke, not merely action, I leave you with perhaps my favorite paragraph of all, a passage from King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom, about the Montgomery bus boycott:

A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes these are not ends in themselves; they are merely means to awake a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

Where We Were Going, Where We Have Been

A great many people today asked me what the date was, which suggest that the many efforts to make sure that we Never Forget are, perhaps, failing in some way.  We seem to do better with Pearl Harbor.  What that difference may say about the difference in rhetorical talents between George W. Bush and Winston Churchill I leave for you to decide.

I myself remember this day all too well, and my mourning, and remembering, are not just for those who died but also for the many hopes and dreams and plans that died that day.  About a month before September 11, 2001, I attended a United Students Against Sweatshops conference in Chicago.  I came back to Iowa pumped up and prepared to get all sorts of balls rolling.  On September 12, 2001, I realized–or believed–that all those balls had to be dropped, because the only thing we could do now was to stop the war, or try to.  That, of course, failed too.

The war is still here (the “first” Gulf War, it should be noted, never did end), and USAS is still around, too, so perhaps we haven’t failed entirely, but it sure seems that way some days–days like today most of all.