I don’t believe in monsters. We are all human and empathy and compassion are important human values. We are kindred. I agree with and am inspired by the Dalai Lama’s famous remark, “My religion is kindness.” The complexity of human behavior and feeling shown in the stories and psalms of Jewish scripture moves me, as does the Agape of the Christians, and the universal compassion of the Buddhists. I try to differentiate empathy (the capacity to understand deeply how and why another feels as they do), and sympathy (shared feeling). If Trump is seen as a monster, a political Godzilla, then the elimination of Trump would be the elimination of the threat he represents. And, clearly, that is not the case. The horrors of racism, dehumanization, authoritarianism, and all that entails are potentially within each of us. These plagues arise from our humanity, not from some monstrous aberration. We must look within as well as without to truly understand and fight against these enemies of the good.
If love is not all you need, it is, I feel, the necessary prerequisite to any sort of well-lived life. One has to stand someplace, and I try always to stand on love, expressed as empathy and compassion. Sometimes it isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s hard. In times like these, it is very hard.
When I started writing this column about a week ago, my biggest concern was dealing with my anger and frustration at the premature movement to “open up America.” I was full of fear and frustration with friends, colleagues, community members, and neighbors who resisted wearing masks, social distancing, and seemed willing to follow the government willy nilly into an ever-increasing health crisis. Because I’m afraid of getting sick.
But there was more to my anger and frustration than straightforward fear. I was upset at what I see as the tendency of so many to conflate freedom and rebellion. To be “free” in such a world view is to take a stand against what is wrong and fight the good fight for one thing or another. It is a profoundly seductive temptation, this trope of the “freedom fighter.” But like everything else, it includes a shadow, one to which Americans seem to be particularly vulnerable.
As the economy and America reopens, and we rush to achieve the new normal and go back to living our lives, the cries of freedom versus the cries of social responsibility grow more strident. It is an old argument: individualism versus collectivism. The basic conflict sends its tendrils into every conflict that ever arises in the U.S.
In times of crisis, it can get very personal. I began thinking back to the early days of the AIDs epidemic when it became clear that many gay men were dying and were going to die, and that our government was not responding.
In New York, Larry Kramer was seen as a crazed prophet of doom. Among my friends, there were some (more than a few) who sincerely believed that AIDs was created intentionally as a weapon against homosexuals, its purpose to destroy our movement and take away our freedoms. Among this group was a significant number who felt that having sex (including, perhaps especially including, promiscuous sex) under these circumstances was a blow for freedom and a noble cause. They argued that our expression of love was well worth dying for. They believed it, and some of them died. To this day I consider them self sacrificing heroes.
How is it possible to say this of those who, no doubt, were spreading disease? Well, they didn’t pretend to feel other than they did: they were willing to die for sex. And everybody knew the disease was out there. If you didn’t want to get it, the argument went, then you shouldn’t have sex with anybody until there was a treatment, or a cure, or a vaccine. That was on you. But some folk were going to have sex regardless, and would accept condemnation. Sad as this is, I could not condemn them. Not then, not now. Some of my friends who died in the early days of the AIDs epidemic were willing martyrs and I love and honor them for that.
Does any of this sound familiar?
In the midst of these reflections, I turned on the TV with the rest of America on May 25th and saw a sadistic white American cop murder a Black man in cold blood, while he knew he was being recorded. Taking obvious pleasure in the act. I get nauseous thinking about it. His police colleagues stood and watched, as community members stood by in absolute horror, afraid to interfere, for fear of their own lives, begging for mercy. Begging for mercy.
Oh my god, my god, my god.
I watched on TV some police chief from somewhere saying: “This is not America. This is not who we are. This is a bad apple. This has never been America.”
This has never been America . . .
What a shameful denial!
This has always been America. Most Americans, alas, are unaware of the full extent of our nation’s terrorist history. The paragraph that follows is graphic and may be distressing.
Between 1882 and 1968, thousands of Black Americans died by lynching. What was a lynching like? They were parties. Photographs were taken and sold as souvenirs. Lynchings were witnessed by excited crowds of hundreds of thousands of people. The purpose of lynchings was to enforce Jim Crow segregation and to keep Blacks from daring to vote or own land. The lynchings were not always just hangings. As often as not, the male victims had their genitals cut off (while still alive) and were often burned alive as well. Did you notice the dates above: 1882 to 1968? This culture of horror is within LIVING MEMORY, people. Did you learn about these details in school? Some of the police active today are the children and grandchildren of the perpetrators. How do you think they heard the stories growing up? Were they raised to believe their grandparents were heroes? You bet they were! Fighters in the great Lost Cause.
The history of Blacks in America after emancipation did not begin with Rosa Parks. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was not the main event. Imagine decades and decades and decades of daily horror and, essentially, the effective continuation of slavery.
The unspeakable horror goes on and on. The more you dig and learn the truth (and even today, it is not easy, these stories are not well known), the greater the horror. And I haven’t even mentioned Native Americans or Hiroshima or Vietnam.
Until white America looks upon this history with the same horrified eyes that German citizens looked upon the corpses at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, things will not change.
In Germany, Holocaust denial and the display of Nazi flags and memorabilia are crimes punishable by imprisonment. Until the display of the Confederate Flag in America is a crime, punishable by imprisonment, we will not have truly engaged the battle for change.
These are the sort of thoughts that, all this week, have pushed out worry of the coronavirus and the economy, and the not very encouraging glimpses into the likely future of my own sorry self, facing poverty and unemployment and who knows what sorts of illness coming down the pike.
For weeks, I have dealt with the new normal by means of daily meditation, spiritual practice, art, and reflection. I have embraced what good I could and been glad of it. I laughed at the shenanigans of friends on FB, the family songs, the Broadway acts, the recitations, the ZOOM meetings, the whole cornucopia of denial as we’ve held our virtual hands and sung in the face of apocalypse.
As the saying goes: shit’s getting real.
I attended my first Civil Rights Demonstration just over 50 years ago, when I was 11 years old, standing with my family and friends in the center of a small Mississippi town. The town was an all-Black town, except for our family and a few others. My family was there because my father had accepted a job establishing a community health clinic. The clinic was located in this small Black town because there we would be safe from the Klan.
That warm Spring night, we held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.” The following day, townspeople—mostly high school students—traveled a few miles to the next town to engage in civil disobedience in an attempt to integrate a grubby little bus station restaurant. I was not allowed to attend because of fear for my safety. But my 14-year-old brother attended and stood at the doorway of that little hick restaurant with his Black friends while the owner held a shotgun to his face and called the police. I can remember the look of terror in my mother’s eyes as she spoke on the phone and learned that the Mississippi police might have her son. She did not know if he would make it through the night alive until a neighbor brought him home.
It was a few days after that that I watched in confusion as my mother collapsed to the kitchen floor crying and screaming “NO! NO! NO!” and pounding her fists on the linoleum. This was moments after my brother had run into the house breathless to announce that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. That night the nation exploded.
What followed in the next few years, as I entered my teens, were the horrible deaths of Bobby Kennedy, and Malcolm X, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the invasion of Cambodia, the endless body bags.
Living through that history forced me out of my home and into the streets before I turned 16. Living through that history marked me for life.
America in those years was flung into madness. It began, I think, the night we learned of the invasion of Cambodia. And it continued for a long, long time. The country was at the brink of a revolution that was not completed.
Tonight, as I write this, I can see and feel history repeating itself. The madness is in full sway. I can hear it even as I write. My town is under curfew, but outside the window I hear repeated sirens and gunshots. I don’t know exactly what might be happening.
We do not know what lies ahead. But I can say this with assurance: It will be terrible. And it will be beautiful. There will be death and there will be an explosion of new life, new ideas, new culture, and new wonders. There will be those who succumb to madness, and those who blossom into spiritual giants.
Try to be a good witness. And when the call comes to you, and you see what must be done: do it. It may be tonight, it may be tomorrow, it may be months or a few short years from now. But don’t stop paying attention, and listening for that call.
Back in the early 70s, the greatest American public poet of the time, Alan Ginsberg, responded to the madness at riots in Chicago by sitting down in the midst of the crowd, dressed like an Eastern monk, to play his harmonium, meditate and chant. That was his calling.
I am old. Not ancient, but in my 7th decade. I’ve seen a lot. I lack the strength and courage to go to Oakland and face the police in the streets. But I cheer and encourage those who carry the torch.
What can I do? I sit in my room and I meditate, and sometimes I chant, and maybe I’ll get my hands on a harmonium.
And I send out these missives of love.
We shall overcome someday.