A Classroom Dialogue

November 24, 2007

It was— as it always is with Matthew Cone’s classes— an invigorating treat to be invited into your ongoing consideration of and engagement with the world. Thank you all. Keep this experience in mind— this immersion in provocative texts, this dialogue around issues that matter to you and to the future of humanity, this struggling with problems and questions  that are in some ways ineffable and that always defy glib and sunny solutions— as you go forward in your formal and informal learning. A long and continuous “I don’t know” is the great engine of forward motion—the already known or established or agreed upon is pretty tame stuff by comparison. Even a brief glance at history will tell you that most of what is taught in school is simply the opinions and prejudices of the time and place you happen to be living puffed up and presented as truth. But nothing is fixed, my friends,everything moves, and to be fully a part of it, you must be in motion yourselves. To be a passionate learner is to be willing to plunge into the unknown, to dive into the wreckage, to thrash around in the stormy seas of uncertainty rather than to sit calmly on the beach basking in what you believe (falsely most of the time) to be intractable and unyielding answers. You modeled that for me last week.

Many loose ends:

Yes, I think there ought to be a draft into public service, no exceptions—maybe every 10 years from the age of 18 onward we should each give a year to what we determine in a democratic process to be the common good.  In a democracy we should take on certain tasks as a whole people, a collective citizenry, a public: Education, Public Safety, Access to clean air, water, and food, Transportation, Health care, Defense, and more. We should struggle then over access and equity and the meaning and direction of our common pursuits, and the struggles could be intense, but we do have a common interest in an educated citizenry, for example, a healthy public and so on. And in regard to the military adventures the US so routinely initiates, I can imagine a much more robust debate if  each of us had to take personal responsibility for those decisions. What we have now is a mercenary military, much like the French Foreign Legion made up of paid foreign nationals, and an economic draft—unfair, anti-democratic, easily manipulable— that discriminates against poor and working people. With the recent creation of 19th Century labor conditions in most of the world in the service of 21st Century consumption habits in the over-developed countries, poor kids have no real choices: many of my students, like the Jessica Lynch’s and Lindy England’s, are kids who aspire to teach or do some other good work and can find no path out of poverty or into higher ed except through the fire and the minefields of unwanted war. We should all be ashamed of that.

I think pacifism is a noble choice and there’s a range of ways to claim that mantle. I favor the Dorothy Day way or the Dave Dellinger way: non-violent direct action on all fronts against all forms of violence, hidden or overt. It’s a hard life, but worthy of our awe and admiration. Most people who pay lip service to peace and love are demonstrable hypocrites—they offer huge exceptions to who should not be killed or coerced, or they ignore the monstrous violence roiling just beneath the surface of things— including leaders of major religious denominations, government officials, commentators and public intellectuals. It’s a stretch for most of us to claim any relationship to pacifism simply because we never killed anyone and we abhor fighting—good for us. But  we do live in a remarkably violent society— the largest arms maker and exporter, the hugest military machine ever established, war after war marking our national history, violent social relations from occupation to invasion to vast forced inequities in terms of access to wealth— and our unawareness of  the facts of our situations is largely due to the privilege of wilful blindness. So we return to the first requirement of choosing a moral life: we must open our eyes and look beneath the lights and noise and beyond the bread and circuses.

There is no easy way to solve the mess we created in Iraq, and I include in my indictment the mess we created decades ago, not merely the current catastrophe. Viet Nam is a different story altogether—VN was after all a popular peasant-led social revolution that reordered economic and social relations and was embraced by the Vietnamese people—even though there are many similarities in terms of the attitude and understanding of the invaders. We have a tendency in our culture to see everything here and now and instantly or easily grasped. It’s not how the world works. A good rule of thumb is to historicize everything, connect everything, keep asking how things link up and move from one to another. The US may well bomb Iran: What happened in 1953 that contributed to the situation today? Who was Mossadegh and who was the Shah? What was the hostage crisis? We could try to look more deeply/historically into the collapse of European imperialism, the rise of revolutionary nationalism, the murder and suppression of secular progressive by the West, the coming of religious fundamentalism as a reaction of despair and fatalism, and more. But what we must also do is to look at deep problems whose resolutions will go a long way toward justice and then peace: inequitable distribution of resources, widening gap between haves and have-nots, huge imbalances in power and self-determination, and more. And then we might be vigilant about opportunities to push our government to become a nation among nations, a leader in justice, peace, and balance, rather than the dictatorial uber-nation that rules an inevitably increasingly unstable world.

I do hope you all commit to doing good in the world, and I hope too that you see that good intentions are never enough. Oprah starts a school and is shocked when things go wrong—the local papers say that’s just the way things are in Africa with “those people.” Angelina adopts a bunch of kids and there are millions more to go. French humanitarian workers are arrested in Chad kidnapping 100 kids to be adopted “for their own good.” And so it goes. The problem isn’t that they need to do more, it’s that they need to do different.
They need to see things from a wider angle of regard. They and you need to work in solidarity with not in service to. You need to see that African poverty, for example, is neither natural nor inevitable, but the result of choices made, actions taken, systems and structures and laws and policies made by human beings, and subject then to your intelligent inquiry and understanding, and subject to debate and change. Don’t aspire to be Lady Bountiful; look instead to Ella Baker and Franz Fanon, Myles Horton and Jane Addams, Nelson Peery and Deborah Meier, Grace Lee Boggs and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Each made a mark, and each lived out the ethical principle of the oneness of humanity. We don’t need now to calculate what is enough in terms of devotion and commitment; we only need to calculate what is a start. This is the urgency: Live!!! And have blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.

Best, Bill

To see: Central Station; The Battle of Algiers
To read on Africa: King Leopold’s Ghost; Reflections on Exile(Said); We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Children; The Wretched of the Earth; Things Fall Apart; How Europe Underdeveloped Africa…….


November 1, 2007

from John Carroll’s column, SF Chronicle, October 31

In San Diego County, many homes were burned that had been built on the sites of old fires. Why? Well, fire or not, it’s still a pretty location out there in the woods. Besides, the rebuilders already owned the land. Why worry? Maybe fires are just nature’s way of saying that you have too much junk. In any case, the county officials have made it clear that under no circumstances do they want to discourage growth in their area.

Besides, hardly anyone died. Oh, there were those four charred bodies of what CNN called “illegal immigrants.” Can you still be illegal when you’re dead? And, besides, how did CNN even know they were immigrants – except in the sense, I suppose, that we are all immigrants? Does CSI have some sort of immigrant test? “That’s a positive, boss – we found illegal-immigrant DNA on their clothes.” I understand that the place the bodies were found was suggestive, but couldn’t we just give it a rest? They’re dead, for God’s sake – they will not be seeking employment.

So the situation, as I understand it, is this: Let’s build a great big wall to keep the Mexicans out, but let’s not under any circumstances build a fire break.