The night before our wedding, with family and friends.
"What are you going to wear? A white t-shirt with your jeans?" That's what my friend asked the week before I married John on this day in 2003. I was the kind of person who wears the same grungy crap a few days in a row, maybe even sleeping in it, because I was obsessed with organizing. Or, that is the story I told myself.
"No. I'm going to wear a dress."
"A wedding dress?"
I wore a wedding dress. I did. It was off-white. And I carried flowers. And up until I threw it at John's face a few years ago, I wore a ring that had his name inside and the date on which we were married. I have that ring now, and his ring too, in a handmade wooden box that says "I love you the way you are."
Oh, John. Life is so short and friends are few. I love you. Maybe I can say that and mean it and know what it means to love someone else because you taught me. We taught each other, maybe, because maybe that is the way love works. In the end it was you who taught me, and I who taught you, though I have said all kinds of awful things in the past about the kind of pain I was in with you too. As have you, though you were never as emotive as I.
We've been so shitty to each other, by accident mostly, and so, so good to one another too, mostly on purpose. The forgiveness between us is real and deep. There is something to be said for that.
For the rest of you, this is what I have learned from my marriage. John and I took vows on our wedding day that we wrote ourselves. They were about our commitment to the community. That's all we said. We were a work team devoted to the world. Guess what, activist friends? That did not a marriage make, and in the end, that did not a good work team make either.
We fell apart, as people. We're still picking the sharp little pieces of broken heart out of our flesh.
Community is something you don't just work for. It is a relationship. And you can't have a relationship with something as huge as "the world" or even "the neighborhood" if you don't know how to have a relationship, an intimate one, with another person, because you cannot know the reality of others without this experience. And you cannot write your own vows to the community. It is a negotiation.
In The Sibling Society
, author Robert Bly relates the story of the Hindu god, Ganesh, who, as a youth, is asked by his mother to guard her privacy as she bathes. He unknowingly is guarding her from her husband, his father, who had been so long gone he does not know him. Indeed, the father had left the family in a rage eons before because his wife, the goddess who bore Ganesh, conceived him in an act of trickery against him. In the ensuing fight between Ganesh and his father, the boy’s head is cut off. His mother, upon seeing this, is filled with grief and rage. To mend him his father takes the head of a baby elephant and places it upon Ganesh's shoulders. Bly interprets the story in terms of the damage we do to young men in our culture of libertarian ideals, leaving them without mentorship, to feel as if
they are protectors of their mothers, not themselves sheltered.
The myth is also reminiscent of the awesome, if somewhat delusional, responsibility of the activist, the deformity, and the weight of a professional head -- a non-human head -- that has colonized us, a head that does not quite fit on our very human body.Jeff Noonan wrote recently
"A future new left must be positive and constructive if it is to be anything at all. A positive and constructive new left, while mindful of the structural contradictions of capitalism, cannot treat these as a reason to not act in the present on demands that make some people's lives better but leave structural problems unaddressed in the short term. Theoretical models of wholesale alternatives to capitalism have a place, but have not proven capable of mobilizing large numbers of people in Europe and North America in ways that have effectively institutionalized real gains. Instead, the losses continue to mount. The first crucial task of an effective new left must therefore be to work out a short term agenda that builds mass support and that can be realized within existing institutions, but at the same time pushes those institutions away from their current life-blind function toward their life-valuable reason for being."Their life-valuable reason for being.
Their life-valuable reason for being.
Their life-valuable reason for being.
My friend, poet and teacher, Lee Furey, wrote in her poem Penelope
about her 20 year long relationship with another activist:I hate this movement
that has stolen you from me.
I hate it because it denies
its own love of conflict,
the beauty of imperfection
and forgiveness.I hate it because
it finds those who live in peace boring.I hate it because
I don't know where you left the guitar.
I hate it
I live on the ground.
Yeah, Lee. We all do. We all live on the ground.
A Meditation on American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein
“One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.”
In a 2001 CounterPunch interview with Norman Finkelstein Don Atapattu said of him: “Often lambasted for his intemperate approach, Finkelstein is unlikely to win popularity contests in America for the language he employs, as much as his arguments.” Though currently unemployed by any university, Dr. Finkelstein is often cited in mainstream academia as an expert on the Israel/Palestine conflict, especially in the work that brought down Joan Peter's best-seller From Time Immemorial, which he successfully proved was historically inaccurate on several points, but most of all in her claim that there were no Palestinians living in Palestine at the time of Zionist settlement. He is an incredibly successful failure, a beautiful loser. I think you get that sense from American Radical. People get mad that Finkelstein gets mad.
He worries on camera about how to support himself when universities can be pressured into severing his employment. His entire adult life, though a prolific scholar, he has been partially employed, saying in the film that into his 40s he was making $18,000 a year. He is a best-selling author, by all accounts a meticulous scholar, and he is a popular professor with students, when he has work. But his enemies, who seemingly never attack the merits of his claims on camera but prefer instead to attack him, the person, are powerful. Most recently, according to activists, he was derailed in his bid for tenure at DePaul University by Harvard's Alan Dershowitz, whom Finkelstein had, in 2003, convincingly accused of plagiarizing, for the benefit of Israeli government, from the previously discredited From Time Immemorial. In 2007 Finkelstein was forced to resign, though with some sort of financial agreement perhaps brought about by student outcry, even after his department voted nine to three, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Personnel Committee five to zero, in favor of giving him tenure.
The documentary is touching and it concerns me. I think the bulk of what I have to say is not really so much a review of the film, or a summary of Norman Finkelstein's existence, of which I only know the plot line through a film. The bulk of what I have to say is about how this film affected me, what it made me think about.
On a very personal level, I saw myself in Finkelstein's memories of his mother. She could not speak of war without becoming hysterical. She was committed, passionately committed, to pacifism. Deeply traumatized by the Holocaust, everything in her world was about the camps, about understanding her pain, and about changing the world that would allow such terror and pain. She had a huge influence on her son.
I feel as if I understand being traumatized, being politicized by trauma and by the love of a child. In the American South I had a child young, my first son, and our early life together is my story of trauma and political maturation. For the longest time -- really, consistently, until very recently – everything, absolutely everything, was about understanding the terror I felt in poverty and alienation and about reaching out to others, sometimes hysterically, to change the world that would allow such terror. In the summer of 2001, for instance, though I had not a penny and I was food insecure, I traveled to Chicago to work at Voices in the Wilderness as an unpaid intern. This was the tiny organization that was sending delegations to Iraq in violation of the economic sanctions and sometimes bombings which were killing 5,000 children a month. I saw a link between the poverty in which I lived, my son's life, and the children of Iraq. It was the first time I really understood. It felt so good to understand something and so terrible too.
I wasn't very good at my job there, partially because I was inexperienced and still very traumatized and partially because I had a young child to care for and no one to really help me. All of my struggles my son has been witness and participant in, and I can see its effects. He's now 16 and I am sometimes afraid for him, precisely because he does take his morality -- the one I taught him -- seriously. I am also proud of him as I watch his early battles, as I don't doubt Finkelstein's mother was of him, before her death in 1995. Though she did worry.
Finkelstein says in the film that while she approved of his work, she was concerned that he would destroy himself or – as I would put it -- be destroyed. Norman Finkelstein, is not, from what I can see, “suicidal,” as a childhood friend suggested in the film he might be. It disturbed me how often friends seemed to be saying that his activism was an act of self-hatred or self-abuse, almost as often as his enemies. This opinion seemed to persist though a few interviews because he shows his anger, and that that either makes his friends uncomfortable, or they think that his anger makes him an easier target. There are quicker ways to die, less painful ways to die, than what he is experiencing though public antagonisms and his lack of job security as a result of his positions. He is being destroyed by people who disagree with him and yet not sufficiently protected by those who respect him, people like me. Noting that point was the second time I saw myself in the film. He is not destroying himself. I am not doing anything to protect him from being destroyed, just like I don't know who is protecting me.
I already know very well what Israel's human rights record is. And I know my responsibility for that record as a US citizen. Many, many of us do. I suspect that most of us who would choose to watch American Radical either agree already with its subject on that record, or hate him for announcing it. I agree with Norman Finkelstein and I respect him and it broke my mother's heart to see Finkelstein take solace in his atheism, as he did in one scene, take solace in how one day the process of being destroyed would be over at least in death. I'm tired of watching the best hearts of my generation be destroyed.
Organizer and activist burnout is the bigger problem I see. Finkelstein keeps working, bless him, but many of us stop, destroyed even before death takes us. If we agree with him, why don't we take care of Norman Finkelstein, send him money and moral support, at the very least? Or create work for him as a teacher? I feel like if I can pay for bullets to kill babies, I can support fellow people who want to stop it.
Noam Chomsky, one of Finkelstein's closest friends, who has supported him through the years, shares with the camera a brief reflection he read once. “If a man were to walk down the street telling everyone the truth he would be killed after walking only a few hundred yards.”
We shouldn't have to walk down the street by ourselves telling the truth. We could embrace with more than the tattered shreds of our well-wishing and our mousy warnings and find the truth together.
The title of my thoughts here originates in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In April of 1963 King was arrested and held in Birmingham for his role in one of the civil rights movement's key examples of sustained, nonviolent direct action, The Birmingham Campaign. On top of being separated from his family and his work, he was openly criticized by White liberal clergy. In one of the lesser quoted paragraphs of what has since become Americana, Martin Luther King took a moment to perhaps speak subtly of his own emotional life as he sat in his cell, alone with only his words and his thoughts, thinking aloud about his, and his movement's, lack of real support from a key part of the religious community to which he had devoted his life, and which claimed, confusingly, to be sympathetic to the civil rights movement. “We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham,” the White clergy said in its public statement, A Call For Unity, “We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled.” They reiterated their belief in the rights of man in their statement and then they called King an outsider. I always wondered when reading this: are there any outsiders in unity?
King sat in jail, ruminating on their words, writing back to them his Letter. "I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension'," King responded. A month after this exchange Black children were pushed to the ground with fire hoses and dogs. By that Fall four little girls had been killed in the basement of their church in an act of terrorism committed by White Supremacists. For generations before 1963 Black people faced the constant threat of racial violence and institutional alienation. He was apparently not the only one afraid of tension. It seems that the only people afraid of tension in Alabama in 1963 were the Liberal clergy.
It must have been with profound loss and disappointment and fear that he insisted – even during the hours he wrote and thought and paced in that cell – on his characteristic unwillingness to give up on the potential power of our shared humanity. He insisted. Five years later someone shot him. 23 years later we gave him a national holiday.
We all tear up on our day off from work once a year as we recall that he had “a dream,” and we recall all those nasty people in the South that we are nothing like. And then we, all too often the Left included, forget about this great brave man's actual message, and the context of that message, and the messages of everyone I can think of who has been great, from Jesus to Gandhi, and we shrug while our still-living heroes are given to the snarling dogs, the threat of the bullet, and the dirt. Or, in Dr. Finkelstein's case, to the likes of Alan Dershowitz.
Malcolm X in 1963 gave a speech entitled God's Judgment of White America. It was less than kind, but as a White person, I think he was right about my culture. “In this deceitful American game of power politics, the Negroes...are nothing but tools, used by one group of Whites called Liberals against another group of Whites called Conservatives, either to get into power or to remain in power.” I wonder what he would say about the Left, as a whole, as we appear, or don't really appear, in American Radical. Are we using the words of Dr. Finkelstein to fuel our conversations, to enrich our knowledge of the world, to be powerful in a sense -- in the safety of our Colbert Report snark -- but unwilling to join him or anyone in the real fight, to risk – together – not alone? I just can't figure how it is that Finkelstein is like too many other good people I know and has been left, despite his work in the spirit of solidarity, to the elements when he is unlike most people I know – he's a best-selling author. It worries me. I worry for all of us.
Unlike Malcolm X, I don't believe in God. But I have this kind of faith I've heard religious people describe. I can't go on living without believing in something bigger than myself. In my case, I can't be happy just being comfortable in a world that is so unjust, so cruel, that, for example, any money I can earn is taxed – not to provide my children with an enriching education – but to incinerate, to shoot, and to starve other children all over the world, including in Palestine. The bullets used to murder 1,400 civilians in Gaza in 2009 were manufactured in Pennsylvania. I helped to pay for those bullets. Since I know this, I have to actively choose to believe in humanity's potential. I see little proof of it if I dwell on certain facts. I have faith. It can only be called that. And I have to. I have children and I love some others of us with all my heart too. I want for life to be good. It's with this faith that I would like to call on each of us to make a decision, right now, to stop telling the bravest among us to be wise, sensible, and careful – to protect themselves – when we think what they are saying or doing is fundamentally correct. That's my reaction to American Radical.
I don't care what tone of voice Finkelstein, or anyone, uses. There is nothing immoral about being mad or awkward.
One day the United States will recognize its real heroes. They will be the Norman Finkelsteins...
wrote in an intriguing question about something she found in me, here on this website. I was interested in the letter you reference (that you wrote in 2002), "dependence" and "vulnerability" are spoken of as negative. I'm interested to know if your relationship with those two words/emotions/states of being has changed or grown since then.
At the time I wrote the letter Diana is speaking of, vulnerability and dependence were states I thought were avoidable. I used the words to describe, as well as I could, how the man I was partnered with, and whom I have been raising two children with -- John -- felt after realizing that a masters degree from the Kennedy School was not, as he and many working-class people might imagine, the way to stability and anything that feels like success. John is, from small town rust-belt land, a "local boy who made good" type. Or, at least, that's what he should have been, would have been, in the Hollywood version of how things turn out, and that is something I once responded to viscerally, as I sure as hell am not, and I hated my own vulnerability and dependence. I wanted to believe that there was some way out and I wanted to believe that "good people" sometimes choose those states, like Jesus to the cross, maybe, like ritual suicide, more likely. But, there was a way out, I kept telling myself.
John currently works for a non-profit, and is very much the professional at work he was not at the time I wrote that letter (because eating, healthcare, a home, all these are good things and we have found no viable way, currently, to make them happen otherwise), while at the same time, I respect greatly the huge amount of work and patient time he is committed to, not only for his family (including me) -- even if we are not always the most fun people to be with -- but also in our neighborhood where he is a dedicated transit organizer. His philosophy, which we share, is share The Work -- even with the people you think are annoying or incompetent. That, in my opinion, is more than half of The Work right there. Building solidarity. The Work he does best, in my opinion, isn't the work he supports us all with financially, though I am grateful for that too. And he, and I, are still vulnerable and dependent. We all are. It is an unavoidable state. And I have accepted that.
In Radical Homemakers
Shannon Hayes, the author, talks about the illusion many of us have that paid work is our way to stability. In the book she makes the case that a life of simplicity and community makes us more stable than a job we are dependent upon, especially with the consumption that being away from our homes for most of the day fosters as well as the vulnerability of losing our generalized skills in favor of perfecting only the specialized ones we require to do our paid work. Shannon goes so far as to suggest that we don't really need health insurance, something my own newly founded neighborhood radical homemaking discussion group dismissed as ludicrous in a world where equal health care is hardly a right, remembering our own families' sometimes life or death medical expenses.
Still though, much of what Shannon has to say strikes a chord of truth. As we watch the American industrial, corporate economy collapse and we see people losing their homes, and sometimes their minds or morality, as we watch our schools decay, we have to ask ourselves -- did our jobs make us secure? Fuck no. What is money? It's a made up thing that we have decided is the currency of our cooperation. We can choose to cooperate without it. But, of course, we will still be vulnerable and dependent -- just to a community and its judgments and culture alone, without any hope of buying our way to more liberty than our neighbor may have.
But accepting vulnerability and dependence and thinking of them as anything other than negative are different, I realize. I mean, American culture is about self-reliance. And I am very American. I can't be anything else. Are they negative?
Well, I am currently very concerned about where this whole train of thought about my own paid work is going. I mean, here I am saying, in public, that I have serious doubts that what I have been trained to do is actually good for anyone, including me, except in that I will get to eat and have healthcare and all those good things, and that's a lot. You know, I do not have a martyr complex. Not anymore. I love life. That martyr complex that so many activists, paid or not, have is ridiculous, in my humble opinion. Why would you want to save the world, to put the motivation in hyperbolic terms, if you don't have a strong desire to keep on living in it? That macho crap, or Jesus crap, one, is anti-life, and none of us are going to save anyone with it. Have you ever seen a people's movement, a successful one, that is fundamentally anti-life?
Anyway, I'm concerned. I have no desire to die and yet I feel like I'm falling into a hole and that hole is called -- Solidarity? I don't work for pay right now. I decided to go back to school, to study how to be a therapist to activists. In the meantime I've been diagnosed with PTSD. My biggest solidarity relationships are with John, my former partner and with Sam
, my former partner. I have got to find a way of reconciling myself to my own vulnerability and dependence. And surely, one doesn't have to sleep with someone at some point to have a meaningful cooperation with them, right?
In a world where solidarity is hardly the cultural norm, but mortality is the natural one, what's a true believer to do?Greg Brown
, the folk singer, says: "All this stuff about intentional community is a bunch of crap. You’ve got to need each other."
We need each other. If solidarity is what is good for the soul, as I think it is, maybe that need is a positive enough thing to say our vulnerability and dependence, when seen clearly, is positive too-- for human beings are mystical beings. As for me and my remedial humanity, I'm convinced that in the short term I'm going to have to figure things out as well as I can and try to figure them out with you, friend and reader, and strive for something better, something more real and true, for my soul and for my children's future. You'll be reading more about Sam, John, Diana, and lots of other people I love, with hyperlinks most likely, as time goes on, because, well, I love them, and that is what this is about.
My sister-in-law (dear, dear, dear)
"Jesus came and said 'the one and only commandment is that you love your neighbor as yourself' and the people's response was 'Wait, you mean we can eat bacon?' Now the non-converting Jews knew Jesus was crazy; they knew better than to eat bacon."
My dear former husband John winked as he said this to me last night. It is a very deep observation, even if we were eating BLTs at the time. I think about "Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do."
I'm not a theologian, and I have no idea the typical interpretation of that quote, but as the agonized dying words from a man who just spent his life trying to save the world, they are quite striking. Is he saying, as he dies, that he sees how limited, fragile, flawed and stupid we are? He tried to teach us, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." This is the man who threw out the money changers. Did he realize in the end that we're all just thinking about bacon?
Sometimes, when I see how hard my friends work to explain why war is an abomination without excuse to people who see dead babies every night on the news and only seem to stop and cry for the grown people we have sent over to do the killing -- at those times -- when the seemingly most simple truths require essays, polemics, protests...I don't wonder what Jesus would do; I think I know. Hang his head and die.
Work to change the world, even for an atheist like me, is a faith relationship with the people we love. It is an inability to enjoy life any other way. The work is never ending. I find something liberating in this thought. Our work is an exercise in love. I get great clarity from that.