Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Lessons from Terrorists

(Annie Leibovitz's photo of Pete Seeger 
and his banjo/hate crushing machine, from hilobrow.com)

Recently, friend and I were talking about the news. She had found herself absorbed by in-depth coverage of various horror spots of the world in the past few weeks. 

And, like most people who do so, her rapt attention slowly ceded to questions of if knowing all the available facts about violently-faith-based guerilla executions in France, about the deep harm racism causes in this country, about global temperature records being newly broken every year, if knowing all this news makes a difference.

I don’t know. Listening to the news doesn’t seem like much of a way to work for change. Listening, reading, being informed, even worrying in the night, seems so passive, and this news—this terrifying constant news—makes us want to rise up out of our seats, storm the castle and end the madness.

I don’t like the word “terrorist,” but as I can’t come up with some better term for these agents of sporadic, focused, devastating violence, it’s the word I’ll use.

We would do well to learn from these terrorists. Not in the sense of vengeance and violence, but in their manner of shaking up the world by of being small independent cells of individuals who are devoted to, but loosely affiliated with, a set of unifying ideals. Part of what makes the world seem scarier—other than overlistening to the news—is the idea that the terror and violence could come from anywhere. “Enemies” are no longer swathed in flags or behind iron curtains and cement walls.

And so, I believe that heroes are no longer to be found covered stoically in brass buttons or wearing capes or riding high white horses and protecting people like shepherds or inhuman angels. As the threats become more nuanced and personal, so too must the heroes, the solutions, the progress evolve into something growing and curling with shoots and branches and tendrils.

If terrorists can be home-grown lone-wolves, so can those of us who would have the world be better than it is. I have to trust that there are more people out there who want and believe in peace than who want and believe in violence. To think otherwise is fodder for those who would use fear as a weapon.

Guerilla acts of peace, carried out by passionate individuals loosely affiliated with ideals of human rights and world salvage, will not make headlines. But I believe that this is exactly what we must do, all of us, everywhere, every every minute.

And that is as pat and impractical piece of advice as possible. Being kind won’t stop a bullet or shut down a power plant, for example. But, we’re no longer in a world of one-to-one exchanges, of eye for an eye and vengeance Or if we are, I want to make a new one out of different materials. The opposing sides don’t march out to battle on a field. It is, entirely, regime and ethos change that we’re after. And, in that, being kind and doing all those small and daily acts that bring joy and love into the world, that affirm that all lives matter, that align the personal with the political…it does all add up to make a difference.

When it feels like your little actions—unplugging the dryer, smiling at strangers, telling people you love them, joining a CSA, lobbying for legislation, marching in the streets, whatever it is that you can do to put love into the world—are teensy drops in the bucket, think of this: you are part of something bigger than yourself. It helps, I find, to feel like I am part of a secret revolution, full of sleeper agents and unmet friends. Doing good is the password. Whenever I see solar panels, I either tear up or grin my face off, reminded that others are in this as well. We give each other strength and ballast with all our actions.

I believe—because I want to believe—that love is stronger than fear. It is slower, it does not make the headlines or trend on social media, but it is eternal. Our revolution doesn’t need to be secret, of course, but neither does it need to be televised to be effective.  Let’s have a revolution waged—daily—by peaceable guerillas who are loosely affiliated with and united by our faith in the world and each other.

That is the best news I can think of.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Emma Goldman and Dinosaurs

Emma Goldman, 1886?
In July of 1892, the Labor activist and Anarchist Alexander Berkman shot Henry Clay Frick three times. Frick, at the time, was the Chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company. The steel mill in Homestead was in the middle of a major and violent dispute between the fledgling labor unions and management. In Living My Life, Emma Goldman’s autobiography, she writes: “the philanthropic Andrew Carnegie conveniently retired to his castle in Scotland, and Frick took full charge of the situation.” (I am basing the following synopsis on Goldman's account in her autobiography, and am, undeniably biased in favor of the anarchists and labor activists over the industrialists.)

Frick refused to negotiate with the workers and the unions over labor contracts, fired the mill workers, evicted the workers and their families—including at least one very pregnant woman—and hired strike-breakers—who were probably in dire economic necessity themselves, even more newly arrived immigrants who were compelled to take the most immediate source of income that presented itself. These striker-breakers were protected on their route to the mills by the security forces Frick hired from the Pinkerton detective agency, a group which seems particularly prone to being well-paid by the powerful for unnecessary violence against unions and activists. In an altercation between the striking workers and the hired “security forces” several strikers—including a child—were killed.

Berkman, Goldman, and their circle of friends were outraged and, while they felt no real personal grievance against Frick as a man, they determined that he, as an active symbol for all of the inequity of power and dignity that the Labor and Anarchy movements sought to alleviate. They were young and passionate and utilitarian, and so their solution was that Berkman would kill Frick, and that Berkman’s own likely death as an outcome of this would be forfeit for their ideals.

A week of nightly experiments with bomb making in a cheap and crowded tenement—thankfully—yielded nothing but lost time and money when the dynamite turned out to be damp. The back-up solution was that Berkman would go to Pittsburgh, work with the local Labor-Anarchist groups, buy a gun, and assassinate Frick. The major trouble with this plan was that guns were expensive, especially for impoverished Anarchists who were working 18-hour days at menial paying work and trying to start a thousand revolutions with their spare hours. Emma Goldman, who was remarkably well-read, decided that the only course of action was to take a page from Crime and Punishment, and prostitute herself for as long as it took to earn the money for Berkman’s gun. As she wrote, “Sasha [Berkman] is giving his life, and you shrink from giving your body, miserable coward!”

So, Goldman spruces herself—cheaply—up, and trudges out to the street, and hates every minute of it. The man who approaches her buys her a beer, senses that this is not a job that Goldman will ever be any good at—although he doesn’t agree with Goldman that most women who become prostitutes are driven to the profession out of dire economic necessity, rather than “mere looseness or love of excitement,” as the man terms things—and pays her ten dollars to go home and wash her face. 

That money, plus the fifteen dollars Goldman borrows from her sister—after lying that she needed the money because of illness, which seems like the worst crime in this whole twist of mixed morals—buys the gun that Berkman shoots Frick with a few weeks later.

In the ensuing struggle, Berkman also stabs Frick in the leg, before Frick’s people knock Berkman out.
Berkman went to prison for fourteen years. Frick, with the 1890s version of top-notch medical care, survived. The Homestead Strike fizzled out amid public outcry at the violence—on both sides, now—with few gains for workers.

Eventually, Frick’s New York City mansion, home at one time to the three-member Frick family and their twenty-seven member staff, became the Frick Collection to showcase Frick’s personal art collection.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892
Elsewhere in 1892, the painter John Singer Sargent made a portrait of Gertrude Vernon Agnew, the wife of a Scottish Baron. The painting helped to launch Sargent’s career of painting glamorous portraits of beautiful rich women, and also advanced Lady Agnew’s career as a society lady.

For the last month or so, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw has been hanging in the Frick Collection, on loan from the Scottish National Gallery.

Personally, I find Lady Agnew of Lochnaw as visually resonant as I find Emma Goldman’s writing politically resonant.

They make an odd pair of icons, and would have probably classistly hated each other. That their respective hey-days were the same era is stranger still. While industrialists built libraries, collected art, made fortunes off destroying the natural world with ignorance and greed, and hired security forces to beat up workers, crusaders for social reform were holding meetings, working long hours for little money, reading, writing, rabblerousing, opening ice cream parlors, plotting assassinations, getting beat up by police and paid security forces, going to jail, and always fighting for a fairer world.

Do Carnegie’s many libraries, does the art displayed at the Frick, does that absolve them of the inhumanity of how they made their money? Does the intent of a violent action—like an assassination attempt or the touch and go of building a bomb in a crowded apartment building—out weigh the violence itself?

And it is easy, very easy, to say of Frick and Carnegie and Rockefeller and Morgan and all the rest of the major industrialists of that early era that the times were different, that isn’t it—in the end—good for the public that they made all that money and had it to build public edifices? There is a sense that this sort of industrially financed public offering is a PR absolution for really dirty and inhumane treatment of workers and ecosystems alike. And that such acts were of the past.

After visiting the Frick to see Lady Agnew in person—in a place that wouldn’t have been if history had gone differently—I went to the American Museum of Natural History. This included a long and wonderful saunter through the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing.

Koch, as in the Koch brothers.

As in the family that seems to use their—mostly fossil fuel derived—fortune on political causes that run completely opposite to my own beliefs. Never mind that their profits, as a fossil fuel company, come from our blind obedience to the climate-change causing status quo.

Just a few weeks ago, the long struggled over Cape Wind project in Massachusetts was felled by power companies pulling out, nearly eliminating the market for wind-generated electricity from a wind farm in Nantucket Sound. Bill Koch, David “Dinosaur Wing” Koch’s brother, has donated over a million dollars to fight against Cape Wind—possibly because the view from his summer home would now include clean power sources—threatening his lifestyle—as well as the oceanscape. When one side of a political fight is better funded—corporate and political leaders versus environmentalists and scientists, say—it becomes easy to see that people and common sense are worth less than dollars and influence.

Now, I’m not advocating for assassinations of corporate leaders. Or anyone else. Everyone's parents and children and friends love them, I suppose. Our challenges in the climate change and human justice fields are, these globally-connected days, more systemic than the elimination of any one person could solve, anyway. Violence helps no one and only scares people away from joining a revolution.

Something, though, does need to change and be shaken up and rearranged. Starting, I think, with what we question and what we blindly accept. When push comes to shove, I’d rather have the dinosaurs stay in the ground than become either a museum exhibit or climate-change and fortune causing fuels. I’d rather all people have good useful work they feel confident in and be paid a living wage than have one man open a museum filled with artwork that his workers could never afford to have seen.

Push, though, will never come to shove. Powerful people will continue to buy off and silence opposition to their profits with pretty things. No one is going to ask me to decide if I like dinosaur bones in a museum donated by rich men who make a fortune but destroy ecosystems more than I like Tuvalu or alpine flowers or the clear lungs of Appalachian toddlers, and then re-arrange the world order according to my whims while I sit back and wish things were different. No one is going to start this revolution except us. We must, ourselves, use every day as an act for the world we want. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Eggplants and Old Books

(Photo from First Root Farm!)
It is strange to work with teenagers. They need so much attention, but also so much independence to come into their own. In my work at the middle and high school libraries, I spend a lot of time walking the balance between being invisible and being present at a moments notice. It is, very much, like being a catcher in a field of rye—just in the right place and time when they need to be caught before some lousy cliff or something.

Students who last year came to me with their anxieties and fears about graduating, about the injustices of the world beyond high school, who I laughed with, gave tissues to when their dream school rejected them, I do not know where any of them have landed.

This, I believe, is largely how it ought to be. I think of my students as sweetly as I think of the eggplants and peppers I labored over on the farm last summer. We pulled out weeds, harvested fruits, sold the food, tilled over and replanted another crop. Each thing was what it was, needing what it needed from us, giving what it gave, until its time and season passed and another one began. I loved the product, but was not particularly attached to any single fruit, and always enjoyed the process over the outcome.

In all that I have read and learned and tried to absorb Koanic lessons of non-attachment and being present and mindfulness, nothing compares with the certain knowledge of relative insignificance learned by mentoring students and nurturing vegetables.

We—the students and I, the vegetables and I, anyone and anything on earth—are only together for a brief stage of each other’s journeys. It’s very freeing, and calls into question all sorts of other thoughts on permanence.

One of my main tasks in the libraries lately has been weeding obsolete books from the collection. As a writer, I try to not think too much that I am casually chucking out someone’s passionate life work, just because no one has read it in twenty or thirty years. I try to not think of the drafts, of the late nights writing, of the doubt and despair and revisions and rejections that go into making a book out of an idea. I get Robert Frost in my head, reminding me that “nothing gold can stay,” and that makes it much easier to let go.

We are not an archive—the idea is to be able to further students’ research in concert with the academic curriculum. And so, to make space for what is topical and relevant and useful, we discard and donate pounds and pounds of books. There is nothing quite like recycling “authoritative” texts to remind oneself that time and tide wait for no one, etc.

Besides, in the emptiness of the shelves, in the magic of biology that lets a new crop grow, in a curious student encountering the world, there is so much potential.

Everything that lives needs to grow and change and evolve—knowledge, libraries, humans, love, eggplants, all of it. My usual instinct is to hold on to everything—and I have tried this in so many ways and times and places—and this inability to let go clutters everything up, my heart, my bookshelves, my sweater drawer, and so on. Letting go, even a little, creates wonderful spaces for unknown possibilities.

Cultivating these ideas of being present in the moment, not becoming too attached to or defined by the transient, making space for new knowledge and passions, etc. all of this is only the tip of a very large iceberg in how to be happier, kinder, more ethical, sustainable and all the other good qualities I believe that we sorely need to go forward in a new year in an unceasingly challenged world.

Scrunched up under the root of the world’s various angers and sorrows—climate change, human rights, economic inequity, religious violence, and all the many places where these horrors bleed into one—is a sense of insufficiency. Someone, somewhere, at the heart of all of this feels that they do not have enough of something vital, and so the hoarding of resources and power begins and cracks the world into billions of haves and have-nots.

In the release of letting go of objects and expectations, fears and anticipations, I find that I am able to pare my life ever better down to what is necessary and sufficient, to be present and involved in the activities and relationships that are fruitful and valuable. It feels self-contained and openly mobile, rather than needy and stagnant and sad. I try to be like this, rather than chase what is not or focus on a dearth, rather than a well-loved glut. The act of letting go is an active choice for what you retain, what you possess. At the least, this focus on the positive of having, rather on the negative of lacking, is a good place start.

At the most, it may make a world of difference.