Swans 10th Anniversary
by Michael DeLang
For the world is a mountain
of shit: if it's going to
be moved at all, it's got
to be taken by handfuls.
(Swans - May 8, 2006) I think that the feeling Ginsberg was trying to convey with this metaphor, aside from removing glamour and romance from the idea of revolution, is that positive social change is necessarily a long, slow haul and dependent, in large measure, on individual commitment and sacrifice. And a long, slow haul it has proven. A relatively widespread and enthusiastic resistance to the corrosive grip of capitalism on the industrial base seemed to flourish in the thirties, only to be dampened and pushed aside by priorities set in place by what was to become known as the Second World War. The struggle for economic justice was kept alive during the nineteen-fifties largely through the efforts of organized labor and an emerging civil rights movement; then seemed to gain a strong grassroots momentum, riding a crest of political and cultural upheaval that colored the sixties and very early seventies; a time when it appeared, to some, that the achievement of a just society was nearly within reach. But the wave broke, commitment dissipated, the passion subsided, and the movement stalled. Hopeful activism stagnated and progress was deferred. The following couple of decades found American society devolving through various stages of "me first" blind consumerism and the economic regression of Reaganomics, leading eventually to the Randian nightmare of institutionalized corruption we find ourselves mired in today. Some discouraged souls have chosen to label this current state of society "the last days" or "the end of time." I don't think so. But even if I were to know it to be an incontrovertible fact that we had already sunk beyond the point of any possible redemption, it still would not obligate me, in any way, to accept it quietly.
Many years ago, during our high school days, my friend Jim and I spent a lot of time hanging around with an older fellow named Dennis. Dennis owned and operated a small print shop and screen printing business located in an old abandoned furniture warehouse, which also served as his living quarters. After school or on weekends we would head for his place just to hang out, watch him work, and shoot the breeze. Many an afternoon and evening was spent this way, drinking coffee or tea and talking about music, art, politics, movies, or whatever came to mind. Sometimes Dennis was too busy trying to meet a deadline on some project to sit down and join us. But he never seemed to mind that we would stay anyhow and drink his tea while looking at his books and listening to his music. In all the time we spent there, I don't believe he ever tried to tell us what we should believe, what we should try to make of our lives, or how to think about the things the world offered us. But I do know that we learned a lot about who we were and who we could be, just by spending the time we did around him.
Every few months or so, Dennis and his dog, Perito, would make an early morning ramble around the streets of our town, some time after the bars closed, but before the milkman began making his rounds. Along the way on their stroll, he would tack up small poster-board signs on the utility poles as he passed them. We never accompanied him on these jaunts, but in the morning Jim and I knew where the signs had come from, because he often let us help him print them up. The messages on the signboards read, alternately, either QUESTION YOUR ANSWERS! or WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE? The choice of wording on the signs was no accident. Question your answers; what is your purpose? It was his intent to place the responsibility, implicit in the messages, squarely upon the shoulders of the reader. Dennis felt that too many of us allow ourselves to drift through life along the prevailing currents, utterly oblivious to the potential within us to affect those currents. He believed that each of us, as individuals, possesses the absolute and irrevocable power to define who we are, and who we will be, by creating and executing the choices that allow us to make our own way. In executing one of his own choices, he made himself the sworn enemy of habit and conformity. He was never much of a presence at protest rallies or committee meetings, and didn't go around quoting Chairman Mao (although a copy of the Quotations could be found on his bookshelf, alongside his Thoreau and Ferlinghetti) and I don't believe I ever saw him sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the visage of Che Guevera. But looking back across the years now, I have begun to realize that our friend Dennis was the most authentic revolutionary I have ever known.
Folksinger/anarchist and 21st century Wobbly Utah Phillips likes to say that the cause of justice will prevail in the end "because they are going to run out of money, before we run out of time." When Phillips makes this statement, he's not talking about his time, or my time, or your time. He's referring to the Joe Hill principle and the fact that the cause cannot be crushed through any strategy of intimidation, imprisonment, extraordinary rendition, torture, or even murder, simply because the thirst for justice does not reside within the individual. It only serves to enliven the spirit and spur one to action as it passes through. And a spirited commitment to the causes of justice is best passed along not through cleverly worded bumper stickers, rhetoric at the podium, or preachy polemics like the one you are now reading, but by what we make of ourselves and how we live our day to day lives; in what we, ourselves, choose and refuse to accept of the world. It's true the world is at a low point just now. That just means that it may be a good time to start scooping handfuls as fast as we can, in order to cultivate and nurture a culture of rebellion. I foresee the assorted arrogant idiocies of the Cheney Gang creating as many potential young socialists at home as it is angry young jihadists abroad, which makes it an ideal time to embrace the cause, take it to heart, and make it an essential component of our daily being. Maybe, as we begin to question our own answers, we will come to discover that it has become our purpose to sow the seeds of resistance by standing up and loudly refusing to remain silent and indifferent witnesses to the unnecessary poverty and suffering occasioned by insupportable systemic injustice.
Paraphrasing a couple of lines from the verses of Mahmud Darwish: Let them carry us as relics from the mansion of sorrow, so that our children will remember to return.
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