Monday, January 19, 2009

I believe

Today, Monday, is of course Martin Luther King day. To observe the day, I've decided to re-post what I wrote last year on the occasion with the idea that I might do this every year that this blog exists. You may recognize some bits and pieces from other posts; I have little shame about recycling my stuff if I think it makes the point. So with a slightly-truncated opening, this is it:

Instead of another session of grousing and griping, denouncing and decrying, I thought I would try to be positive for once, even if it required raiding some of my old writings. In my very first post here, a bit over four years ago, I referred to a conversation I'd just had with a friend in which I said
"The truth is, my hope is nearly gone. My anger is the only thing that keeps me going."

So now I have an outlet to express that anger, to discuss what I'm angry about, why I'm angry, and, in my calmer moments, to try to rediscover that hope and offer a different vision of what we as a people, a nation, a culture, might do, might be, might become.
I haven't done as much of that rediscovering as I should, at least not overtly. Still, as I said a long time ago,
[e]ven many professional grouches (like me) are actually unregenerate romantics whose sharp words are honed on the inexplicable, indefensible, yet utterly unshakable conviction that things not only can be but must be better than they are.
What's more, quoting yet another thing I wrote a long time ago and quoting as accurately as I can from memory, "our strongest, surest beliefs are those we don't even know we have until we find them within us." That is, our deepest, most abiding beliefs and commitments are not born consciously of careful philosophical argumentation and reasoned analysis but grow naturally from our root moral and ethical convictions. That argumentation, those analyses, can give form to those convictions, they can provide them with substance and weight, but they do not drive them - rather, they are driven by them.

So despite my tendency to intellectualization, to try to argue my points rationally with facts and figures and references, still it's important - for me if not for my listeners - to drop away on occasion from "here's the data, here's the logic, here's the conclusion" to the fundamental, baseline, radical place where I can say, simply, I believe.

I believe that life is our highest good and advancing life is our highest ideal. I believe whatever advances life, improves life, is an expression of that special crystal-glitter quality “human,” that self-awareness, that capacity for love, that reach for hope that separates us from other animals. I believe that which opposes life, which advances hunger, oppression, and violence, is a rejection of that quality, a rejection of our humanity. I believe that to be human is to reach for life, for our potential, to reject death and all that advances death.

I believe in family, a broad, deep sense of family, of family as based on commitment, not on ceremonies, based on ties the heart, not on ties of the blood. I believe we must reach beyond the personal to the public; beyond self to others; beyond us and them to we; beyond the individual to the community. I believe we have social obligations, moral commitments to a type of extended family that includes strangers, people who we'll never see, never meet, never have any contact with, but with who we share a mutual obligation, a mutual moral duty, a community extending even to the community of humanity.

I believe we must ultimately reject the right of so few to have so much when so many have so little, the power of so few to control so much when so many control so little. I believe in the right of every human being to a decent life free of hunger, fear, and oppression and in the duty of society to strive to guarantee that right. I believe that while we should have no desire to place a ceiling over anyone’s aspirations, we should desire to put a floor under everyone’s needs.

I believe, ultimately, in justice: not in perfection or idealized utopias, but in simple human justice, a justice that rejects the ascendancy of bombs over bread, of private greed over public good, of profits over people. A justice that centers on the preciousness of life and will fight to maintain and even expand that preciousness. A justice that embraces the economic, the social, and the political. And finally, I believe in the indivisibility of that justice: It must be justice for “them” as well as for “us,” for enemy the same as for friend, or it’s not justice at all but mere favoritism.

As for the application of all that, I'll quote a speech I gave when I ran for Congress - again, it was some years back.
Now I may sound like a philosopher, but the fact is that what I’m interested in is change: not slogans, not philosophies, but getting-the-job-done type change. That means being hard-nosed, practical, and factual in our programs. It was the Italian pacifist Danilo Dolci who said “Faith does not move mountains. Work, exacting work, moves mountains.”

But when I say “practical,” I don’t mean practical in the sense of the neoliberals, those people who lower their sights, harden their hearts, darken their vision, and then congratulate themselves on their “realism.” No, I mean something different. You know the saying “I dream dreams of things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’” What we have to do is dream dreams of things that never were and ask “How?” How? What are the practical steps we can take right now, today? We have to approach the world with steel in our eyes.

But at the same time we can’t let the steel in our eyes cloud the dream in our hearts. We have to hold to the vision of what we as a people, what we as a nation, can do, what we can be, and not settle, as so many do, for the mere hope that it will get no worse. So that’s what I call on you to be: steely-eyed dreamers, people who know the hard, factual work to be done but never forget just where that work is supposed to take them.
In that same speech I said that achieving wide-ranging justice "will not be easy, cheap, or convenient - but it is possible" and pledged I would never give up on that dream.

In the years since I've tried to be a steely-eyed dreamer with varying degrees of success; as I said in a different way at the top, usually it was if anything a little long on the steel and a little short on the dream, a position that makes unnecessary compromise a little too easy and risk a little too - well, risky.

I've come to a point in my life when I've begun to slow down; I know it, I can feel it. I haven't spent as much time on the streets as I did in earlier years (nor as much as I'd like to) and my energy level simply isn't what it was. I find it harder to keep my spirits up and many discouraged days I don't regret that I won't live to experience the world I see coming at such times.

But goddam it, despite it all, despite all logic, despite a mountain of evidence, and without any good damn reason, I still believe that things can be, must be, better than they are, that it is possible. I just do. And will.

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