In early February, my 7th grader and I took a walk to our local coffee shop for a conversation. About what, I had no idea. A father-and-son visit to our neighborhood coffee shop had been a tradition of ours since he was around 9 years old: every now and then, when our busy family schedule would permit, I would treat us both to a drink – a mocha for me usually, and for him a hot chocolate or, as he grew older, a chai – and we would talk about whatever was on his mind. A middle class parenting luxury built on leisure time and disposable income.
I quickly learned to let him set the agenda, and then engage with whatever degree of seriousness he brought to the topic. Sometimes I was able to anticipate his choice of subject; sometimes his declared interest was startlingly unexpected. Over the years, topics had ranged from the extremely heavy (“Can we talk about genocide, Dad?” he had inquired on one occasion and, on another, “What is ‘rape’?”) to the comically complicated (“Can I be a polytheist and be Jewish at the same time?” he once asked his non-Jewish, secular father).
This time, I expected my son wanted to talk about politics, specifically, the newly installed presidency of long-time icon of post-industrial capitalism, Donald Trump. As we walked to the coffee shop, Trump was entering into the third week of his presidency. There already had been mass protests against the new administration’s efforts to shut down the country’s international refugee program, protests against intensifying deportations of immigrant workers, against misogyny and sexism, against a new officialdom that would weaken public supports for working people, environmental protections, education, and access to health care. The phrase “Trump’s America” had become a commonplace in the mass media, to the indifference of some Americans, to the delight of many, and to the horror of many more.
I was a bit surprised, therefore, to discover that what my son wanted to talk about most was race and racism. His primary interest was not who now held official power but why racism was such a persistent obstacle to the goal of equality. He understood, he said, “that race is a made up thing,” and yet knowing that fact “doesn’t seem to make it go away.” He proposed that we read a book together. Something non-fiction “on the subject of race, civil rights, and equality,” was his preference. He made it clear he wanted to understand better the history of race and racism in the United States.
“Race is a pretty big topic,” I exhaled, after a long, thoughtful breath. I was mulling possible choices, and feeling daunted by the problem of identifying just one book, accessible to a middle schooler no less, that would allow us to explore the history of race and racism in our country. Then, thinking about recent political news, I asked him “Do you know who Frederick Douglass was?” “No, I don’t,” he replied. “The current president of the United States may not either,” I observed wryly, and explained how, just a couple of days before, Trump had awkwardly used the present tense in a strikingly vague public remark about the famous ex-slave and abolitionist (who died in 1895): “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice,” he had said.
Trump’s comments, delivered at the start of Black History Month, were widely interpreted as evidence the nation’s chief executive had no idea who Frederick Douglass was. “That’s pretty weird,” the 7th grader assessed. “I mean, I didn’t know who Frederick Douglass was until you told me, but I’m in middle school.” We talked about how it’s okay to admit you don’t know things, and about how some things are important enough that everyone should have some knowledge of them. We returned to a theme of a few previous coffee shop conversations – that history is an important dimension of the present – and decided that Frederick Douglass should be on our reading list. This would be our little act of rebellion against official forgetting.
What my son and I didn’t know at the time of our initial conversation was how much, and how clearly, Frederick Douglass would speak to us of the present. Over the two and a half months that followed, as we read and discussed our way toward the final page of his Narrative, we found ourselves confronted, over and over, with the vitality and relevance of what Douglass has to say. It wasn’t just the two of us talking about Douglass’s narrative, a couple of white, middle class people chatting in the abstract about an artifact of black history. Douglass spoke to us of our country, unsettled us in the quiet and comfort of the local coffee shop. He spoke to us about who and how we need to be, now.
Voice and Property
The first thing one notices about the Narrative is Frederick Douglass’s voice. “He’s such a great writer, Dad,” my son repeatedly enthused over the course of our readings together. Douglass’s eloquence and clarity were astounding, he explained, because he had been enslaved from birth through young adulthood. “That he can write like that, when he wasn’t supposed to, after all they did to him …”
My thirteen-year old loves reading and is enamored of language, word play, and storytelling. For his bar mitzvah a few months prior to our reading of Douglass, he had written a d’var Torah (a commentary on a passage of the Torah) in which he retold the story of Abraham and Isaac from Isaac’s perspective, revealing from within the canonical story about faith another tale, one of domination, betrayal, and abuse of authority. He had, in other words, recently developed a commitment to, and appreciation for, amplifying the unheard and the silenced. He understood immediately what Douglass was doing with his Narrative. As I read aloud from the text, my son heard the sound of defiance, of liberation. He heard an Isaac telling his own story.
Douglass’s voice is strong, and his strategy to expose the moral abomination of slavery is to attend, through his personal testimony, to all of the forms of dominance and degradation it employs. Douglass speaks bluntly of slavery’s emotional violence. The very first paragraph detains the reader with the fact that Douglass doesn’t know his own birthday or age. “[T]he larger part of slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs,” he writes. And in the first couple of chapters Douglass takes time to describe the material conditions of enslavement. He itemizes, for example, the food and clothing allowances for the enslaved: 8 lbs. of fish or pork and 1 bushel of cornmeal per month per adult; 2 shirts, 1 jacket, 2 pants, one pair of stockings and one pair of shoes per year. Children who did not work in the fields were given no shoes, stockings, pants, or jacket. “Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.”
He draws his readers’ attention to the life of the enslaved child. One can discern here the intersection between Douglass’s own experience as a piece of property, on the one hand, and the economics of slaveholding in the United States on the other. Whereas other countries in the hemisphere replaced their slave population – the way a factory owner replaces worn out machine parts – through importation of newly enslaved Africans, the United States banned the international slave trade in 1808 and so, at the time of Douglass’s writing, the country’s slave population was maintained mostly through births. Children born into slavery represented a renewal or replacement of fixed capital, to use the language of economics. Logically, when children are conceived as things, as inputs useful for the accumulation of wealth, it is not normal human development that is required to reach their potential, but instead a process of thingification. Birthdays are thus irrelevant. Or, more to the point, the elimination of birthdays, of the annual ritual of celebrating the individual life and its progress, becomes necessary. Similarly, clothing for the child is an investment input that makes limited economic sense prior to the age of productivity.
We spoke a bit – as odd as it might seem, it feels right to include Frederick Douglass in that “we” – about how the emotional brutality of slavery stunted the development of not just the individual but the entire community. Much of our first conversation centered on this passage in particular:
It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the childʹs affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.
Douglass presents this organized assault by the propertied class on the parent-child relationship as evidence of the immorality of slavery. But this is no mere sociological observation on his part. This is personal. He tells us he has no knowledge of his own father, and little memory of his mother, who labored until her death a dozen miles away from where he spent his early childhood. What is most powerful here – a power I could see in my own child’s reaction, and feel in my own parent’s heart – is how Douglass voices the experience, from within the otherwise silenced position of the child, from the dark inside of a system of economic subjugation: “Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.” Isaac denounces his bindings.
A voice from within the machinery of enslavement – this is what Douglass brings to discussion of the history of racism in the United States. Our reading sessions, and our reflections, became premised on the recognition of Douglass’s as an improbable voice that, against all odds, was not suffocated forever under the reifying weight of a racist economic system, the way countless others were. As our conversations continued, Douglass recounted to us tales of the life of the enslaved on Colonel Lloyd’s Great House Farm. Chapter three of the Narrative opens with a description of Lloyd’s prize fruit garden and the temptation it represented for the enslaved, who were “severely whipped” if suspected of even trying to take fruit. This passage is followed by a description of Lloyd’s horses, which “were of the finest form and noblest blood,” and how Lloyd would beat the horses’ enslaved caretaker for any perceived inattention to the horses’ needs.
I pointed out to my son that the combined, and likely desired, effect of Douglass’s stories was to illustrate the place of the enslaved person within the master’s estate. The slave was property, but of dramatically lesser value than a garden, and of much lesser value than a horse. Both the garden and the horse were possessions of great prestige, and required constant care and attention, of a sort the master himself was not willing or able to provide. The master was proud of his garden and his horses. Meanwhile, his treatment of the enslaved person was uniquely punishing and arbitrary.
Then, we read the final anecdote of the chapter: Colonel Lloyd owned so many afro-descendant people laboring on so many farms that he did not recognize them all, and many of them did not recognize him. And thus one day, Lloyd happened upon “a colored man” and interviewed him about who was his master and whether he was treated well. The man replied that Colonel Lloyd was his master and “No, sir,” Lloyd did not treat him well. Speaking this truth resulted in Lloyd ordering him chained and sold to a Georgia trader, “forever sundered from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death.”
“What is this story about?” we asked ourselves. Separation. A stripping away of relationships. A purging from the “thing” of emotional attachments. A cruel punishment to be sure, and, once again, undeniable evidence of the rank sociopathy of slavery. But punishment for what? At its heart, the story is about voice – about the fate of voice under the dominion of a particular regime of property. Asked to speak the truth, the unsuspecting slave does precisely that, and in doing so violates the logic of property that governs the master-slave relationship. The slave was entrapped by the master in an act of public speech, an attempt to speak of justice. The master’s response was a re-assertion of the process of thingification. Property has no voice. That power is reserved for the propertied.
This is not the only place where Douglass focuses his readers’ attention on the silencing of voices by the political economy of his America, of our America in the mid-19th century. In chapter two, when Douglass discusses at length the songs of the enslaved, that very same problem of voice, of the erasure of voice, and therefore of truth and of public appeals for justice, resonates with the clarity of a bell. “To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery,” he tells us. “The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience.” And then he adds, “Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery.” And yet, he notes, even in the northern states there are those “who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness.”
Douglass seems to use music to teach that the problem of voice extends to the ear. Whose voice? Whose ear? The Narrative is an act of public speech, directed at the nation. We were delighted as we imagined Colonel Lloyd’s angry, threatened, disapproval. But the most important truth, as with the banishment of Lloyd’s truth-telling slave, was that even though a voice may be heard, it must be listened to in order to matter. Douglass wants his readers to hear the inner life of the property relationship. Not the voice of the haves, but of those who have been had. He speaks to his readers directly about hearing the slave’s voice as evidence of injustice, entered in the public record and evaluated: “The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.”
My son’s interest in music, an omnivore’s appetite for all things musical, made it important to spend some extra time with this. Although Douglass does not explicitly mention minstrelsy – a popular form of entertainment at the time of his writing, in which white men blackened their faces with grease paint and sang and danced their mockery of slaves –his discussion of music is clearly a counterpoint to minstrelsy’s stereotyping of the enslaved as happy and simple-minded. We talked about those racial stereotypes and their long historical shelf-life, of Disney’s absurdly upbeat slave song “Zip-a-dee-dooh-dah” from Song of the South (which won an Academy Award in 1947, more than a hundred years after the publication of Douglass’s Narrative) and how you can catch a glimpse of our country’s racial history in the smiling face of Aunt Jemima making the magical promise of labor-free meals to American consumers. American history is littered with this kind of racial ventriloquism.
We talked as we read, surreally sipping our coffee-shop drinks alongside Douglass. We practiced listening and looking carefully, to better hear and see our country’s racial history. We listened to Odetta’s haunting deep-toned rendition of the traditional lullaby “All the Pretty Little Horses,” and talked about the injustice recorded in the lyrics. The master’s baby is promised “all the pretty little horses” while another child – the baby of the enslaved mother who sings the master’s child to sleep – suffers the absence of its mother. Odetta’s version of the lyrics sings of separation, emotional devastation, and the slave child’s voice: “Bees and butterflies/Picking on his eyes/ Poor little thing is crying Mammie.” We noticed that many versions of the song exclude that troubling stanza. Whose voice and whose ears, indeed.
Separation. If my son and I could have spoken to Douglass, across all that separates us, we would have had to confess that the emancipation of the enslaved is remembered in America today with little real grasp of the social and emotional abjection systematically visited upon African American communities by generations of economic and political elites. We would have had to inform him that, in this country that speaks so proudly and loudly of freedom, that there still is no national celebration of the abolition of slavery. Overwhelmingly, whites are hardly even aware of Juneteenth celebrations in African American communities. We would have to acknowledge that we were discussing oppression from a place of comfort. Separation, Frederick Douglass might answer back, is a strategy of the powerful.
The 7th grader and I discussed at length about how the abolition of slavery only changed the law, and that abolishing the culture and relationships organized originally around the economics of slavery is a longer, slower, more fraught undertaking. About how our society hasn’t shed a political economy in which some of us are “less than.” About how voice is still mostly a power of the propertied.
My son and I spoke to each other in the guiding presence of Douglass’s voice as we slowly made our way through the Narrative. We were confronted with questions, not all of them immediately about race. How does one begin to understand the long, cold shadow cast by slave-holding practices across our nation’s history? What forms of silence govern us now? What kinds of separation punish and contain unauthorized voices? Whose voices are absent from the public conversation? Who is listening to the nation’s Isaacs?
Resistance, Past and Present
We realized, as we read, that Douglass had written a story of origins – like a superhero origin story, but rivetingly real. As the story unfolded, Douglass learned to read and write, resisted the will of his masters, physically battled a slave-breaker, eventually committed himself to his own liberation, and finally escaped to the north and became a vocal opponent of slavery. The Narrative, in other words, tells the genesis story of his voice, of the public power of his truth telling and activism. We realized we were, in a sense, holding Douglass’s “super power” in our hands, all the while reading about how it got there.
The superhero analogy is mainly meaningful for how it doesn’t fit. To be sure, Douglass presents plenty of villainous behavior, including whippings and murder, brutal working conditions, denial of food and clothing and health care – conduct that he describes, aptly, as evil. But what organizes that behavior is not an evil mastermind, as the comic books would have it. The organizer is a system of exploitation, and the relationships that system imposes on human potential. The powers the hero develops are not super human, but grounded in the basic, civic skills of reading and writing, and in the cultivation of relationships of love and solidarity. Unlike superhero stories (and, frankly, a broad spectrum of popular entertainment), in Douglass’s account what is wrong is more far-reaching and systemic than we would like to believe. Meanwhile, the power to right what is wrong is more within our grasp than we would like to admit.
What was wrong with America in the mid-19th century was profoundly wrong. In chapter four my son and I encountered horrifying descriptions of murders of black people by white people, murders that were not prosecuted partly because slaves had no legal status to serve as witnesses. “I speak advisedly when I say this,” Douglass reports, “that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.” Infamously, the U.S. Constitution accounted for slaves as three-fifths of a person, for the purposes of system maintenance (i.e., calculating political representation and taxation), and categorically denied citizenship to non-whites. Douglass indicts the legal system and a dehumanizing culture. “It was a common saying, even among little white boys,” he tells us, “that it was worth a half-cent to kill a ‘n—–‘ and a half-cent to bury one.” Law and culture and economics conspired villainously against black Americans.
Something electric arced between past and present when we read these passages in the Narrative. “To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished, the one always following the other with immutable certainty,” Douglass told us. My son made an immediate connection between the murders of three different slaves known to Douglass and the litany of African-Americans brutalized by the authorities in recent years, victims of violence whom Black Lives Matter activism has effectively made into household names: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and, gut-wrenchingly, on an on. We could feel the righteous anger in Frederick Douglass’s description of the murder of Demby by Colonel Lloyd’s overseer, Mr. Austin Gore. We could hear “Say his name!” and “Black Lives Matter!” in Douglass’s voice, one hundred and seventy-two years back. In the quiet comfort of our local coffee shop, the many silences of our country’s history, past and present, were roaring in our ears.
Douglass describes a systemic and relational evil. In chapter five Douglass recounts his first taste of the possibility of a life different from the plantation when he is sent to a new owner in Baltimore, and meets Mrs. Auld: “And here I saw what I had never seen before; it was a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions.” But in chapter six, he observes the corrupting power of the economic order on what had felt like a promising relationship: “That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.” Douglass describes slavery as “irresponsible power,” a corrupting force that debases both master and enslaved. Mrs. Auld’s most laudable qualities are destroyed by the master-slave relationship: “the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.”
We returned to this insight – that the way a society is organized can shape human character and possibility – throughout our conversations with Douglass. We talked about how our relationships are molded by forces and structures that came before us, by roles into which we are pushed by institutions and economics, by demands imposed and forms of authority that must be negotiated with, like it or not. We talked about the ways we are possessed by the past – about how people still talk about “dialing” the phone, when nobody has dialed a damned thing in decades; about the dead hand of centuries of slavery hanging similarly on the steering mechanisms of our country. I felt a fleeting despair (What exorcism can expunge such possession?), but when I asked how do we abolish those vestiges, my son responded without hesitation: “White people need to learn that they aren’t superior to anybody.”
Learning is important action. As we read of the origins of Frederick Douglass’s voice, we began to see that learning was, in fact, an important part of Douglass’s response to what was wrong with America. After his move to Baltimore, Mrs. Auld’s efforts to teach Douglass (who was around 8 years old at the time) the alphabet and writing were discovered by her husband and immediately forbidden. “If you teach that n—– how to read,” Douglass quoted Mr. Auld as reasoning, “there would be no keeping him.” As a result, Douglass resolves (in his first deliberate act of resistance) that he would learn how to read. “From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
Education, the great equalizer; knowledge as power; learning sets us free. All comforting notions for an already comfortable middle class reader, and an educator, like myself. Comforting and familiar also for my son, a student. It would be easy to accept education as the answer to what is wrong, past and present, and I suspect that this is precisely how Douglass’s Narrative is read by many Americans – as an individual’s progress through adversity, raised up and out of subjugation by his own wits and dedication to self-improvement.
But my son and I sensed there was something more to Douglass’s story. The most immediate object of Mrs. Auld’s fury – after Douglass’s literacy had been forbidden – drew our sharp attention. “Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper,” Douglass observes. Reading (and eventually writing) certainly allowed Douglass to escape some of the logic of the master-slave relationship. Nonetheless, I argued in our discussion of the passage, it was not just reading that was off limits to the slave. Douglass was denied the events and perspectives of civic life. The public arena was fenced off, policed. No voice, no ear for the slave.
This partition between white and black America is underscored by Douglass’ mention of The Columbian Orator, a book Douglass states he “got hold of” and read covertly “at every opportunity.” This book is one of a couple of texts from the public arena that Douglass references in chapters seven and eight (the second being an anti-slavery poem by the Quaker abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier). After a little research, I discovered that the Orator was a widely used schoolbook (especially in the north) that taught civic virtue through eloquence, public speaking viewed as a mode of moral action fundamental to democracy. It contained, among other texts, public speeches by George Washington, first president of the republic, and an anti-slavery dialogue between a master and a slave concerning the slave’s freedom. Douglass’s newspaper habits and auto-didactic civic education (through a book he “got hold of”) were studied violations not only of the master-slave relation but of the very boundaries constructed, by race and property, around citizenship in the United States.
So, yes, learning was critical to Douglass’s journey to freedom. He wasn’t breaking out, though – he was breaking in. He was knowingly trespassing in the public arena. He was negating separations imposed by official power, not retreating into the privacy and individualism of self-help. He studied the newspaper, and he appropriated a civics reader, but he also sought to develop proficiency in reading and writing by “making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street.” With these children Douglass engaged in public dialogue about slavery – “You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life! Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?” he argued to an audience of his peers. He reports that “they would express for me the liveliest sympathy.” Voice and ears convened around issues of common concern. His transgressions were relational: A counterpower to the politics of separation.
These were “poor white children in our neighborhood.” My son noted that these children probably also had a limited experience of freedom because of their poverty. He argued that, because they were children, they were also deprived of rights until reaching adulthood, a fact of social life that Douglass explicitly recognized. (For his 7th grade history project my son had been reading Janusz Korczak, an early advocate of children’s rights who was killed by the Nazis at Treblinka, and so children’s subordination and exclusion from public life was on his mind.) Douglass experienced real solidarity with these kids: “It was to those little Baltimore boys that I felt the strongest attachment.” There is no voice, we learned from Douglass, without ears. There is no public arena without relationships. Relationships – that is where power is defined.
Love and Citizenship
Douglass tells us his first attempt to escape was a group effort. He had shifted from an earlier personal, even internal liberation (“I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact”), to a collective and solidarity-based orientation. This meant defining freedom in a different way. Freedom was no longer an individual objective: “I was no longer willing to cherish this determination alone. My fellow-slaves were dear to me. I was anxious to have them participate with me in this, my life-giving determination.”
Their plan discovered, Douglass and his co-conspirators are jailed. In describing their predicament and treatment, Douglass emphasizes the group over individual experience. “The fact was, we cared but little where we went, so we went together. Our greatest concern was separation.” Douglass uses the word “separation,” or some variant, five times in the space of three paragraphs. Domination versus resistance: “Their object in separating us was to hinder concert.” We thought back to the slave-owners’ practice of separating mother and child, and my son noted that the opposite of separation appears to be love, in Douglass’s telling. He focused my attention on Douglass’s language when describing his earlier efforts to create a school: “The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed. We loved each other.”
Little wonder that, after escaping north, Douglass dedicated himself to the liberation of others. We asked ourselves now, as we finished reading the Narrative, just as we had asked before, “What is this story about?” Over the course of our studies with Douglass, the theme of separation had been voiced many times, a bright thread woven through his text. Separation of parent from child, separation of slave from community, separation of white from black, separation of those who make liberation a common cause. Relationships caught in the gears of the social order.
Douglass cultivated relationships alternative to those imposed by a system that literally banked on his silence. He stubbornly insisted on access to the public sphere, for himself and others. He developed civic skills denied by the system, and used them to promote systemic change. Entangled in the systemic villainy of America’s 19th century political economy, these were Frederick Douglass’s responses. The story of the emergence of his voice is a story of resistance to reification, of a refusal to be reduced to a mechanism of the status quo. Telling the story was itself a public act of resistance.
Frederick Douglass’s flight to freedom, we decided, was a carefully planned invasion of the public arena. Born into slavery, he refused his legally assigned status as someone else’s property. In effect, he expropriated himself. Fenced off from citizenship, denied full and equal belonging to the national community, he cut a hole in the fence, shouldered his way in, and demanded recognition of his truths and their relevance to the public interest, to justice. He was, in the parlance of today’s debates around immigration (every deportation a separation), an illegal.
Importantly, he did not think of his freedom as a flight into the private pursuit of individual happiness. His Narrative is all the evidence required to appreciate this. In his text Douglass becomes an “I” who speaks publicly among equals, his readers a nation of “thous,” voice and ears gathered together in defiance of the prohibitions and separations of the existing order. His voice convokes, speaks to, new relational possibilities. Which is to say, Douglass “does” citizenship in a way different from most of us, who accept all kinds of atrocity and exclusion, as long as our own back yard is unaffected. A citizenship that abides separation, versus his politics of love.
Here we were, generations later. Douglass had us wondering, questioning. Who profits from defining freedom as private happiness instead of engagement with the public good? Who among us labors without a public voice? What kinds of relationships define us as a nation? What kind of citizens are we now?
On the final page, we couldn’t help but notice how Douglass signed off. Not just “sincerely,” but also “faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice – and solemnly pledging my self anew to the sacred cause.” One hundred and seventy two years later, Douglass addressed himself to the kind of citizens we need to be now. Committed to a different kind of power, arising from relationships defined by truth, love, and justice. Able to hear, even in (especially in) the quiet comforts of our personal freedom, a din of silences all around.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said “civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation,” referring to America’s war against Islamic State.
How can America in clear conscience continue to kill civilians across the Middle East? It’s easy; ask Grandpa what he did in the Good War. Civilian deaths in WWII weren’t dressed up as collateral damage, they were policy.
Following what some claim are looser rules of engagement in place under the Trump administration, US-led coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria killed 1,484 civilians in March 2017 alone. Altogether some 3,100 civilians have been killed from the air since the US launched its coalition war against Islamic State, according to the NGO Airwars. Drone strikes outside of the ISIS fight killed 3,674 other civilians. In 2015 the US destroyed an entire hospital in Afghanistan, along with doctors and patients inside.
That all adds up to a lot of accidents — accidents created in part by the use of Hellfire missiles designed to destroy tanks employed against individual people, and 500 pound bombs that can clear a football-field sized area dropped inside densely inhabited areas. The policy of swatting flies with sledgehammers, surgical strikes with blunt instruments, does indeed seem to lead to civilian deaths, deaths that stretch the definition of “accident.”
Yet despite the numbers killed, the watchword in modern war is that civilians are never targeted on purpose, at least by our side. Americans would never intentionally kill innocents.
Except we have.
The good guys in World War II oversaw the rapid development of new weapons to meet the changing needs of killing entire cities’ worth of innocents. For example, in Europe, brick and stone construction lent itself to the use of conventional explosives to destroy cities. In Japan, however, given the prominence of wood construction, standard explosives tended to simply scatter structures over a limited area. The answer was incendiary devices.
To fine-tune their use, the US Army Air Force built a full-size Japanese village in Utah. They questioned American architects who had worked in Japan, consulted a furniture importer, and installed tatami straw floor mats taken from Japanese-Americans sent off to internment camps. Among the insights gained was the need for incendiary devices to be made much heavier than originally thought. Japanese homes typically had tile roofs. The early devices tended to bounce right off. A heavier device would break through the tile and ignite inside the structure, creating a much more effective fire.
Far from accidental, firebombing Japan had been planned in War Plan Orange, written long before Pearl Harbor. As far back as the 1920s, US General Billy Mitchell had said Japan’s paper and wood cities would be “the greatest aerial targets the world had ever seen.” Following the outline in War Plan Orange, the efforts were lead by Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay, who expressed his goal as “Japan will eventually be a nation without cities, a nomadic people.”
LeMay also helped run the US bombing campaign against North Korea during that war, claiming that American efforts killed some 20 percent of the civilian population. The man many call the architect of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara, worked for LeMay during the WWII firebombing campaign. McNamara as Secretary of Defense went on to order the use of napalm in Vietnam, often against undefended civilian targets. The accidents of civilian deaths in war turn inside tight circles.
The skill with which America tuned its WWII firebombing into a exquisite way to destroy civilians reached its peak on March 10, 1945, when three hundred American B-29 bombers flew virtually unopposed over Tokyo’s most densely populated residential area. They dropped enough incendiary bombs to create a firestorm, a conflagration that burned the oxygen out of the air itself.
What was accomplished? One hundred thousand dead, a million people made homeless. The raid remains the single most destructive act of war ever committed, even after Hiroshima.
The problem, however, for the US with such raids was their inefficiency in killing civilians. The logistics of sending off 300 planes were daunting, especially when an hour or two of unexpected wind or rain could negate much of effort. There was no question firestorms were the very thing to systematically commit genocide in Japan. But what was needed was a tool to create those firestorms efficiently, and to make them weather-proof.
It would only take science a few more months after the Tokyo firebombing to provide that tool. A single atomic bomb meant one plane could do the work of 300. And the bomb would create a fire so powerful and large and hot that weather would have no effect; it was foolproof. There could be no better weapon for destroying whole cities and all of the people in them, and it has only been used by one nation. Twice, because the 85,000 killed in Hiroshima were not enough.
These were tactics of vengeance matched with weapons designed to carry them out as horribly as possible. They worked well: the firebombing campaign over Japan, including the atomic bombings, purposely killed more than one million civilians in just five months in 1945.
It was only after WWII ended, when accurate descriptions from Hiroshima began finding their way back to America, that the idea of firebombing as a way to shorten the war, to spare lives in the long game, came into full flower. The myth, that the atomic bomb was in fact a reluctant instrument of mercy, not terror, was first published in Harper’s Magazine in February 1947 under the name ofSecretary of War Henry Stimson. The actual writing was done by McGeorge Bundy, who later as National Security Adviser helped promote the American war in Vietnam that took several million civilian lives.
The majority of Americans, recovering their consciences post-war, were thus nudged into seeing what was actually a continuation of long-standing policy of civilian genocide in Japan as an unfortunate but necessary step toward Japan’s surrender, and thus saved innumerable lives that would have been lost had the war dragged on. This thinking lives on today on politically correct ground under the banner of great powers having to reluctantly put aside what is moral in peace for what is expedient in war. A “fact of life,” according to the US Secretary of Defense.
So look deeper into history if you want to understand the morality-free rise in civilian deaths across America’s battlefields in the Middle East. We don’t like to think of ourselves as the kind of people who willfully kill innocents, but we were pleased by it only a skip back in history; your grandfather flew missions over Japan to burn children to death. Accidents of course happen in war, but there is a dark history of policy that demands skepticism each time such claims are made.
Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.
Can movies be made that attack the prejudices and cruelties of 95% of the human race — and be financially viable? Will the guilty party pay to see themselves raked over the coals? Are speciesist bigots so detached from their emotions and reality that they don’t even realize that they are being criticized?
In the South Korean/US 2017 release, Okja, the answer to the first two questions is: not without a lot of attempted humor, action, tokenism, cartoonish characters that undercut a serious message and a nonsensical happy ending. The answer to the last question is at the end of this article. And I actually like this film.
Okja is one of 26 super pigs created in a lab by an evil corporation and given to various farmers around the world to raise in “natural” settings. That’s why Okja is put on a remote forested South Korean mountain where there are lots of cliffs to slip off of. Okja looks like a hippopotamus but is the size of an elephant and is so “special” that she is going to be killed and eaten as environmentally “sustainable” meat. Somehow raising and killing these quasi-dinosaurs for food doesn’t have much environmental impact. The film is labeled “action-adventure” but it’s more a rapid-fire multi-leveled satire. The “willing suspension of disbelief” should be bought in the extra large size before entering the theatre.
Okja is raised by a young South Korean girl named Mija and her grandfather. For ten years this is a happy story about a girl and her 5,000 ton hog/dog and their romps through the forest, occasionally saving each other’s lives and curling up each night with nary a snort or the crushing of young girl bones.
Unfortunately, as family members are wont to do, the grandfather has been treacherously deceiving Mija all along, letting her believe that he purchased Okja as a pet. But then the evil corporation comes and takes Okja away, far away to New York City where the grand experiment of the super pigs will be unveiled to the world in a Macy’s-like parade. While still in South Korea, Mija runs down the mountain to Seoul and almost singlehandedly saves Okja — but what to our wondering eyes should appear: the Animal Liberation Front who step in with their own utilitarian plans.
The ALF, the head of the evil corporation (Tilda Swinton) and the corporation’s zany zoologist front man (Jake Gyllenhaal) are all over-the-top caricatures. It should go without saying that the computer-generated Okja — with her intelligence, quiet dignity and innocence — gives the most moving performance.
So what’s good about this fast-moving mishmash? The film’s heart is in all the right places: animal farmers and vivisectors are presented as the scum bags they are. The zoologist is a combination of the Columbus Zoo’s Jack Hanna and “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin and, as with Jack Hanna, there is a dark side: Gyllenhaal’s character is a torturing vivisector just as Jack Hanna did television commercials for Ohio trappers to defeat legislation to ban leg hold traps and also commercials to legalize mourning dove hunting. The public would laugh at Hanna and his animals on David Letterman’s show but animal activists knew him as a betrayer of animals just as Gyllenhaal’s character is. The goofiness of the ALF characters bear no resemblance to the hard-headed revolutionaries in the real ALF but there is a mini-tutorial on ALF history that isn’t half bad.
Where the film picks up emotional wallop is in the slaughterhouse where Okja is in the restraint device and about to have the captive bolt pistol shot into her head. Mija comes face to face with her best friend, her love, about to meet a hideous unjust fate. Most moving of all is the next scene of the holding pens outside the slaughterhouse where, wordlessly, but with beautiful instrumental music playing, Okja and Mija walk away to freedom, managing to save a token piglet, next to rows of hundreds of penned, doomed, terrified proletarian pigs who struggle to stand, rise up and bang against the fences.
Killing Okja wouldn’t sell movie tickets any more than the devastating ending of Brian De Palma’s masterwork Blow Out. Mija can’t cut all the fences and let the pigs out to trample the villains, she can’t come equipped with a gun to blow away all bad guys (cuz the real-life behind-the-scenes bad guys paid $11.00 to sit in the audience and watch this) and she can’t bring the apocalypse to the slaughterhouse even though that’s what it deserves — because she has to end up back on the mountain, not locked down for 23 hours a day in one of America’s “supermax” prisons.
So Okja is spared on the word of the most evil person in the movie which makes no sense at all but it does get Okja and Mija back together — and there’s no messy scene of Mija confronting her grandfather about his treachery. A token animal is saved and the overall sickness and dysfunction goes “peacefully,” though not justly, on, in South Korea as well as Hollywood. It’s so difficult to produce great art about speciesism when film makers have to dance around the depravity of you meat eaters. You’re such a drag — a drag on the planet, a drag on art and a drag on the spiritual and emotional development of the human species.
After the film, I asked four young people if they were vegetarians. They said no. Would this movie make you think about becoming vegetarian? Three said they “didn’t know” and one said it “might.” The three who “didn’t know” acted like there was no connection at all to what they just saw and their daily eating of beings. They just sat through two hours of being told that they are intellectually and emotionally bankrupt hypocritical monsters — but they “didn’t know” about that. Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer and The Host) is now on Netflix.
Free trade, debt and war are all part of the same package, each feeding off the other. They are – each of them – rackets in their own right and they are all symptoms of the same problem. That problem has to do with the fact that our government – along with the rest of the world – has entirely forgotten the basic concept of how a national economy actually “earns” its way to prosperity.
The American colonists understood this in a very visceral way. For example, Benjamin Franklin once remarked that there are only three ways a nation can become wealthy. (1) It can engage in war and war profiteering. (2) It can reap unearned profits through exploitation of wage and price differentials, under cover of “free” trade. OR (3) It can create new, earned wealth through a balanced domestic exchange economy.
Franklin, like the other colonists, knew whereof he spoke, having witnessed firsthand the shenanigans of the British East India Company, which not only began using slave labor for its operations by the 1620’s but which required England to continually bail it out, heaping extra debt on the English people and forcing England to look for tax revenue from her increasingly disgruntled American colonies.
But bailing out the East India Company was not the real reason why England was in debt. That state of affairs must be attributed to the fact that England had, in 1666, relinquished her prerogative to issue the nation’s money – a prerogative sanctified by the world famous Mix’t Moneys case of 1604. Instead of maintaining that prerogative for the benefit of her people, England was persuaded, through bribery, intrigue and various forms of subterfuge to surrender that prerogative over to private hands – those hands being those of the British East India company, through the Mint Act of 1666.
The East India Company thus was given the right to coin – or issue – its own money, allowing it to reap handsome profits for the privilege. Still not satisfied, the merchants of the Company, together with London bankers, then instigated the creation of the Bank of England and a permanent national debt along with a method for expanding the private debt of England’s citizens, all to the financial advantage of these private interests. . .
The “money question” which the East India Company had seized for the benefit of itself and not the public was the actual source of England’s growing debt, and the reason behind her endless wars waged on behalf of commerce.
The British East India company was created in 1600 by charter from Queen Elizabeth, for the purpose of plundering the planet. To carry out this deed, England also provided the British East India Company with military and financial support, forcing the government to bail the Company out a number of times before 1800, thereby helping it to eventually build its very own empire in India. British colonialism carried out by the East India Company was brutal, and included the forceful seizure of land and deposing of rulers. It also included taxes and loyalty tributes that were extracted from average citizens through methods that included torture.
The deeper in debt England became the harder she looked for revenues – with her own people being among those most imposed upon. Jefferson comments in an 1816 letter to Wm. H. Crawford, and in so doing he almost eerily predicted today’s multiple crises:
No earthly consideration could induce my consent to contract such a debt as England has by her wars for commerce, to reduce our citizens by taxes to such wretchedness, as that laboring sixteen of the twenty-four hours, they are still unable to afford themselves bread, or barely to earn as much oatmeal or potatoes as will keep soul and body together. And all this to feed the avidity of a few millionary merchants and to keep up one thousand ships of war for the protection of their commercial speculations.
The problem, as Jefferson and company could see, was that England had chosen to elevate herself above all other nations based on John Locke’s philosophy called “the rights of conquest” and so was dependent upon the plundering and pillaging of the British East India Company. With England’s cooperation, the Company was, by 1800, supporting its very own army of 200,000 – more than most European states at the time. It also had begun financing its tea trade with illegal opium exports to China, eventually igniting the infamous Opium Wars.
The company also established its own feeder college in 1806, known as Haileybury College or East India College, for the express purpose of staffing the Empire. It trained the soldiers, businessmen, and missionaries – and by these means it came to inventory the planet and its resources. The man in charge was the head of the Department of Economics, one Thomas Robert Malthus, philosopher and a minister of Christian Doctrine.
Malthus had a population theory based on the idea that the planet would be overtaxed with population. New life, he held, expanded geometrically, whereas the food supply acquired new efficiency only on an arithmetic basis. Therefore some life was superfluous. Malthus was soon joined by followers of Charles Darwin, who argued for survival of the fittest. The fittest had divine right to survive.
This was the philosophy that set the Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and finally the English on a course of conquest until each coveted acre, each sandbar, each spit of land on earth was accounted for. One might say that our modern-day CIA Fact Book, which can be viewed online, has taken over this task, but I digress.
It was at the juncture during which the slave trade was just expanding, around the mid-1700s, that the talent scouts of what was to become Haileybury College availed themselves of the services of a Scottish gentlemen by the name of Adam Smith, who fit into the mental prototype for the East India company’s enslavement pursuits. Smith was in effect made an intellectual prostitute. In his well-known Wealth of Nations, Smith posits a deceptively appealing argument in favor of “free” trade by warning against the necessity of domestic producers seeking protectionism. Smith might just as well have been called the father of “Free” trade as the father of modern economics.
In due course the English pronounced expendable any population they could bully. Except for Continental wars, the British rarely fought an enemy that wore shoes, the American colonies excepted… A certain mindset thus developed among the world’s leading countries which held that it was the role of a few traders to control manufacturing for the entire world and to monopolize its reproductive power; and – as one historian put it – to keep all other countries in a state of industrial vassalage.
Given all this is it any wonder that Thomas Jefferson, expressing the views of his allies and compatriots, would write in 1815 that he hoped that “we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” The banks, for Jefferson, were the corporations of utmost concern.
You might say that all of this proves that history may rhyme, as Mark Twain famously said, but history also repeats.
It’s no secret that war is very good for business, but war is also good for “free” trade advocates – who always include the multinational corporations and by extension the investment class and most importantly the banks – who in point of fact make it all happen. Smedley Butler may have said it best in his 1935 book appropriately titled War Is a Racket:
I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. . . . For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it. Now that I see the international war clouds gathering, as they are today, I must face it and speak out. Again [the nations of the world] are choosing sides. . . All of them are looking ahead to war. Not the people, not those who fight and pay and die – only those who foment wars and remain safely at home to profit.
Recall that this book was written in 1935, but I digress again.
The untold truth is that America consigned herself to endless and ever-escalating “wars of commerce” the moment she followed in the steps of England by handing over her prerogative to issue the nation’s money to the private banking and financial interests in 1913. Those private interests then moved to further coalesce their profits and consolidate their power through an integrated world system of finance under the structures created by the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1945 – all built on the fact that, by that time, most nations of the world had relinquished their right – and responsibility as sanctified by the Mix’t Moneys case of 1604 – to coin (or create) their own money for the benefit of the people and not private interests.
Today, the world economic system actively and aggressively promotes military economies over civilian economies, relentlessly and increasingly pushing national economic policies toward military spending. Globalization, through a long parade of so-called “free” trade agreements, has seriously weakened the powers of even the most powerful nations on earth while at the same time freeing corporations to move profits and operations across national boundaries. As Jefferson foresaw, and as the East India company foreshadowed, corporate interests now dominate those of the state.
Popular New York columnist Thomas Friedman somewhat inadvertently characterized the strategic relationship that has developed between corporations and militaries when he famously remarked that “the hidden hand of the [“free”] market cannot flourish without a hidden fist.” Predictably, the reach along with the strategies and techniques employed by that hidden fist have been greatly refined and extended since the days of the East India Company.
For example, corporations no longer have their own private armies. Instead they employ the services of multinational corporations such as Dyncorp, KBR, the British Erinys International, Asia International and Blackwater, currently known as “Academi.”
These and similar companies offer their services on the world market, services that include risk advisory, training of local forces, armed site security, cash transport, intelligence services, workplace and building security, war zone security needs, weapons procurement, armed support, air support, logistical support, maritime security, cyber security, personnel and budget vetting, weapons destruction, prisons, surveillance, propaganda tactics, psychological warfare, covert operations, close protection and investigations.
How, it may be asked, do we talk ourselves into financing – i.e. going into debt – for all this stuff?
Surprisingly the services of these companies are used not only by governments around the world but also by corporations, humanitarian groups and NGOs, media personnel, and the UN. Moreover, the conflict in Iraq led to an unprecedented proliferation of private military companies and nonmilitary contractors.
Today, contractors make up a second, private army that’s larger than the entire U.S. military force. Some estimates suggest that more than 180,000 individual contractors of many nationalities work for the U.S. government in Iraq, doing an assortment of jobs for which the U.S. has paid more than $100 billion. While private military companies represent a worldwide phenomena, the United States and Great Britain – predictably – account for over 70% of the world’s market for the services of these private military services companies.
Then we have the international arms trade, which is considered to be one of the three most corrupt businesses in the world. And reminiscent of the British East India Company, open slave markets have begun to appear in Libya, this at the same time that women in Bangladesh are selling their organs to pay off their internationally financed micro-loans and farmers in India routinely commit suicide because they cannot pay their debt to Monsanto and company. Examples go on and on.
All of this and more is the direct result of overwhelming debt among nations that have relinquished their prerogative to coin (or create) money for the public advantage and instead have handed it over to private hands. Most of the resulting debt is financed by the international investment banks, including those of the World Bank Group created out of the Bretton Woods agreement of 1945.
Meanwhile, as our own local police get “weaponed up” with things like Blackhawk helicopters, machine guns, battering rams, armored vehicles and much more, more and more state and local governments are being forced into bankruptcy. Other governmental entities manage to escape at least temporarily by simply finding ways to pay higher interest and insurance rates as they float more bond debt to remain in operation.
Still others look for ways to “privatize” public assets – an arrangement that allows government and business to co-own a former public asset which had been built by you and me – with associated fee structures locking out the disadvantaged and squeezing the middle class. These arrangements, known as PPP or public/private partnership projects, are made by investment bankers around the globe, who themselves are rushing to benefit from the tidy fees they know will be realized through the privatization of all manner of public infrastructure including highways, water departments, schools, prisons and more.
As the British East India company showed, control over money creation and credit is an integral part of economic conquest; it is the basis upon which countries are colonized. A recent article in the online ZeroHedge showed that about 80% of the population are net payers of interest, due to the fact that the cost of interest is always embedded within the cost of the products we buy. The other 20% of the population are net receivers of interest, and of that 20% only 4% receive most of the interest on our cumulative debt. All of which means that the wealthy own interest-yielding assets, while the rest of us owe interest on the debt. This fact alone explains how and why the system as it stands produces the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots. It also is the reason why our national debt hovers around $20 trillion, give or take a trillion or two, and our private debt hovers around $57 trillion, give or take a trillion or two.
Obviously more debt will not resolve debt. The assets created by our labor cannot simultaneously be a liability we owe to ourselves at interest. At the core of it all is that we have entirely forgotten the basic concept of how a national economy actually “earns” its way to prosperity – and have instead been persuaded by the best prostituted intellectuals and academics that money can buy to believe that the best way to prosperity is to become an interest receiver.
Nearly buried in the trash heap of history, a team of like-minded and highly credentialed raw materials economists uncovered a natural law of physics and arithmetic that helped them prove beyond all doubt that raw materials income, particularly that of agriculture, governed national income unless the latter was expanded by debt. Their data also made it clear that when trade is expanded beyond what the nation itself can consume, the internal domestic U.S. economy is destabilized. This is the process by which, as Charles Walters said, the nation that degrades either the production or the income of its agriculture through “free” trade thereby condemns itself to war.
- “The Untold Story of the American Struggle Against the Money Power” with a selected list of references provided in the last slide
In cities and towns from New Delhi to New York the socio-political policies that led to the Grenfell Tower disaster in west London are being repeated: redevelopment and gentrification, the influx of corporate money and the expelling of the poor, including families that have lived in an area for generations. To this, add austerity, the privatization of public services and the annihilation of social housing and a cocktail of interconnected causes takes shape. Communities break up, independent businesses gradually close down, diversity disappears and another neighbourhood is absorbed within the expensive homogenized collective.
People living in developed industrialized countries suffer most acutely, but developed nations are also being subjected to the same violent methodology of division and injustice that led to the murder of probably hundreds of innocent people in Grenfell Tower.
The rabid spread of corporate globalization has allowed the poison of commercialization to be injected into the fabric of virtually every country in the world, including developing nations.
As neoliberal policies are exchanged for debt relief and so-called ‘investment’, which is little more than exploitation, the problems of the North infiltrate the South. Economic cultural colonization smiles and shakes hands, wears a suit and causes fewer deaths than the traditional method of control and pillaging, but it is just as pernicious and corrosive.
In the Neo-Liberal world of commercialization everything is regarded as a commodity. Whole countries are regarded as little more than marketplaces in which to sell an infinite amount of stuff, often poorly made, most of which is not needed. In this twenty-first century nightmare that is choking the life out of people everywhere, human beings are regarded not as individuals with particular outlooks fostered by differing traditions, backgrounds and cultures; with concerns and rights, potential and gifts and heartfelt aspirations, but consumers with differing degrees of worth based on the size of their bank account and their capacity to buy the corporate-made artifacts that litter the cathedrals of consumerism in cities north, south, east and west.
Those with empty pockets and scant prospects have no voice and, as Grenfell proves, are routinely ignored; choices and opportunities are few, and whilst human rights are declared to be universal, the essentials of living — shelter, food, education and health care — are often denied them. Within the land of money, such rights are dependent not on human need but on the ability to pay, and when these rights are offered to those living in poverty or virtual poverty, it is in the form of second and third rate housing, unhealthy food, poorly funded and under-staffed education and health services. After all, you get what you pay for; if you pay little, don’t expect much, least of all respect.
The commercialization of all aspects of our lives is the inevitable, albeit extreme consequence of an economic model governed by profit, fed by consumption and maintained through the constant agitation of desire. Pleasure is sold as happiness, desire poured into the empty space where love and compassion should be, anxiety and depression ensured. But there’s a pill for that, sold by one or other of the major benefactors of the whole sordid pantomime, the pharmaceutical companies. Corporations, huge and getting bigger, are the faceless commercial monsters who own everything and want to own more; they want to own you and me, to determine how we think and what we do. These faceless corporate entities are given rights equivalent to nations and in some cases more; they have incalculable financial wealth and with it political power. They devour everything and everyone in their path to the Altar of Abundance, assimilate that which springs into life outside their field of control and consolidate any organization which threatens their dominance.
Commercialization is a headless monster devoid of human kindness and empathy. It sits within an unjust economic system that has created unprecedented levels of inequality, with colossal wealth concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer men (the zillionaires are all men), whilst half the world’s population attempts to survive on under $5 a day and the Earth cries out in agony: every river, sea and stream is polluted, deforestation is stripping huge areas of woodland, whole Eco-systems are being poisoned and the air we breathe is literally choking us to death. Apathy suffocates and comforts us, distractions seduce us and keep us drugged: “Staring at the screen so we don’t have to see the planet die. What we gonna do to wake up?” screams the wonderful British poet Kate Tempest in Tunnel Vision. “The myth of the individual has left us disconnected, lost, and pitiful.”
How bad must it get before we put an end to the insanity of it all? It has got to end; we can no longer continue to live in this fog. During a spellbinding performance of Europe is Lost at Glastonbury Festival, Tempest stood on the edge of the stage and called out, “We are Lost, We are Lost, We are Lost”. We are lost because a world has been created based on false values — “all that is meaningless rules” — because the systems that govern our lives are inherently unjust, because we have been made to believe that competition and division is natural, that we are simply the body and are separate from one another, because corporate financial interests are placed above the needs of human beings and the health of the planet. Excess is championed, sufficiency laughed at, ambition and greed encouraged, uncertainty and mystery pushed aside. The house is burning, as the great teacher Krishnamurti put it, Our House, Our World — within and without — both have been violated, ravaged, and both need to be allowed to heal, to be washed clean by the purifying waters of social justice, trust and sharing.
Systemic external change proceeds from an internal shift in thinking — a change in consciousness, and whilst such a shift may appear difficult, I suggest it is well underway within vast numbers of people to varying degrees. For change to be sustainable it needs to be gradual but fundamental, and have the support of the overwhelming majority of people — not a mere 51% of the population.
Kindness begets kindness, just as violence begets violence. Create structures that are just and see the flowering of tolerance and unity within society; Sharing is absolutely key. After Grenfell hundreds of local people shared what they had, food, clothes, bedding; they shopped for the victims, filling trolleys with baby food, nappies and toiletries. This happens all over the world when there is a tragedy — people love to share; giving and cooperating are part of who we are, while competition and selfishness run contrary to our inherent nature, resulting in sickness of one kind or another, individual and collective.
Sharing is the answer to a great many of our problems and needs to be placed at the heart of a new approach to socio-economic living, locally, nationally, and globally. It is a unifying principle encouraging cooperation, which, unlike competition, brings people together and builds community. The fear of ‘the other’, of institutions and officials dissipates in such an environment, allowing trust to naturally come into being, and where trust exists much can be achieved. In the face of worldwide inequality and injustice the idea of sharing as an economic principle is gradually gaining ground, but the billions living in destitution and economic insecurity cannot wait, action is needed urgently; inaction and complacency feed into the hands of those who would resist change, and allows the status quo to remain intact. “We sleep so deep, it don’t matter how they shake us. If we can’t face it, we can’t escape it. But tonight the storm’s come,” says Kate Tempest in Tunnel Vision. Indeed, we are in the very eye of the storm, “The winter of our discontent’s upon us” and release will not be found within the corrupt ways of the past, but in new forms built on ancient truths of love and unity held within the heart of all mankind.