by Martin Murie
World Largest Half-Mile Peace Sign
Plattsburgh Press Republican, New York, March 17, 1991
(Swans - May 19, 2008) Long time ago, talking and listening to a Wobbly at the bus station in Portland, Oregon. It was the first time in my 22 years of life on earth that I heard the political phrase, "Not good enough." The Wobbly went on to explain that a leftish president couldn't change things around. Only a massive movement by people could do that. First time I'd heard that too. I'm reminded of a story about FDR. The president heard a citizen present a plan, then he said, "All right, now go out there and make me do it."
Oh sure, the Wobbly signed the petition to put Henry Wallace on the ballot, but he had to warn me that it wasn't that simple. It took a while, but I came to know the truth wrapped in the anarchist position: People Power. "One Big Union," nice slogan, but that's too simple too. I didn't tell him that. In fact my knowledge of the IWWs (Industrial Workers of the World) was nil until this Wobbly gave me his warning. I've never forgotten it.
Later, in the freight yards in Sacramento, looking for the next freight east, back to Wyoming, I met another Wobbly. He wore a big Wallace for President pin on his shirt, just like mine. He was enthusiastic in greeting a "fellow traveler." By that time word had gotten around that Wallace's Progressive Party was infested by Communists and people who didn't mind being with them, even listening to them -- "Fellow Travelers." Defiance was standard practice among the old-time IWWs. If the Progressives couldn't bring us to the Promised Land, at least they were stirring things up and under attack by all the usual suspects, Corporate Powers and their hangers-on. So, Defiance.
A kid in Jackson's Hole, hotbed of FDR haters. The banker, the hardware store owner, the drugstore owner, wouldn't even name the president. They opened with "That man in the White House." The high school principal would go on rants frequently, retailing the latest scandals surrounding the president. I think he got that stuff mainly from Ben Hibbs, editor of the Saturday Evening Post. It got so ridiculous, a naive kid like me couldn't help wondering when even Fala, the Roosevelt's dog, came in for criticism. And Eleanor took heavy hits.
It was all superficial, just like today. Not once did I hear reference to the "solid south," Democratic Party country where lynching was not just a historical remembrance; it happened in now time. And black farmers didn't get a whit of help from the donkeys in power. It was left for Eleanor to invite Marian Anderson to the Lincoln Memorial to sing. FDR couldn't have launched the New Deal without the solid south. Meanwhile, the masses kept voting for Roosevelt. It was a long era, that New Deal time, loaded with contradictions, evasions, words not spoken.
1945, Roosevelt still president. Returning from patrol on a beautiful Italian day, we passed a couple of tanks with their firepower pointed north into the mountains, waiting for the signal to go once more on the offensive; also a tank abandoned, slipped off its tread. At one of the tanks the armored guys had a radio playing, announcing Roosevelt's death. My squad leader said, "He was a great man." What? Another thought I'd never heard. It stayed in my mind, easily, because it contradicted all the Wyoming training and education. You know, ask Carol Warner Christen, we live in a country riddled with protests, from the very beginning -- Boston Tea Party, Boston Massacre -- to the present, when the danger of fascism is the dark shadow. Our history can so easily be falsified, manipulated. I am amazed at the resilience of the American people, how we have managed to keep the unseen current of rebellion flowing, sometimes that current flows over, creates Whiskey Rebellion, Civil War, Populist Revolt, New Deal, Third Parties, Women's Revolt, Hippies and Youth Revolt, Civil Rights Movements. Each uprising brings a great victory, and the next generation forgets it because our schools do not teach reality. These movements harbor opportunism and greed. That's because the movements are created by people. Human beings. Who else could do these things? Antelope? Grizzlies?
We've always had observers who love to stand aside and throw cold water on the masses' efforts, mock the slogan "The People." We have endured those picket pins with rope attached for all of the years of our occupation of this continent. The currents of rebellion are still with us, hidden in the deeps of life, sometimes to be quickly put down by fearful rulers, but rising from time to time, winning a battle, planting a red flag.
Please, let's not be afraid of the color red. It stands for life -- not Republican states.
I think currents of rebellion don't ever die because they are born among people intensely involved in life, in survival and, yes, solidarity. In my May 7, 2008, rant ("Wolf") I planted a quote by Rick Bass who wrote a fine essay about Catron County, New Mexico. Rick analyses the bad things, the good things; adherence to myth; destructive whirlpools, back eddies, counter currents. He then ends with this salute to the deep reality of that battered community.
These responses can mask the greater attributes of a community -- the hidden, permanent well-springs of hope; the willingness to help anyone down on his luck; the members' great friendliness and loyalty among themselves. Tenderness, goodness is as prevalent in these communities as anywhere in the country, and more so.
I pin the "idealism" label on those who complain about humans being dumb because they don't listen to words of wisdom. It's a stand-off of sorts. We will always be split that way. Might as well admit it and get on with the business of saving our species.
One day, when Alison and I showed up in 2003, shortly after the First Marines began the second invasion of Iraq, the Veteran's Park was crammed with Legionnaires, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Marines, and a boom box blaring God Bless America. They wanted us out of there, but I kept moving in the crowd asking if we couldn't talk about the war. Finally found a vet from the Korean War (one of the forgotten wars) and a Vietnam vet. We talked. I listened and they listened. It was one of those times when I wasn't formulating my own reply while pretending to listen. They were of the opinion that the invasion was a mistake, but now that we were in we had to stay until victory. That was our basic disagreement, but we didn't let that bother us. We had some agreements, especially that combat always is FUBAR, a fact we boots on the ground get used to, but that is nearly always glazed over with abstract words by officers above the rank of Captain, in their reports. None of the other vets interfered. I hope that some day soon we can get a few vets to drop in and have a conversation with us. We need them. They need us.
Some of the vets are still pissed that our anti-war demos continues to meet on "Veterans' Park" territory and recently one of them complained in a City Council meeting that while we had the right of free speech, lately we had been mixing politics into it. :)
Gilles and Jan are people who live close to nature, keep dogs, repair their own house, mix with humanity in the Bay Area and in rural Mendocino County. In his Blips #69, Gilles writes as follows:
So, when Martin Murie advocated in his March 24 piece, "Streets, Doors, Offices," that we should be ambidextrous and go talking to people in the streets, I merely smiled in both disbelief and the regret that all the talking we can have, when we can have it, is for naught. We are either ignored, mistrusted, shunned or ostracized. There may have been a time in the old days for this kind of endeavor, but those days are long gone.
My question was, "Why can't we be ambidextrous?", hoping for Swans responses. I am pleased that Gilles answered, and I hope more Swans will respond too. Actually I was referring to humans in person knocking on doors, intruding into other people's spaces, such as recruiting offices, politicians' offices, et al. Speech is only part of that process.
At our last antiwar protest one of the peace mongers said that we are probably doomed (pace Bruce Anderson's retort), but that she was bound and determined to go down fighting. Nobody knows whether we can stop the war or slow climate change or bring a degree of justice into our system. Nor do we know how many species will disappear forever before the world gets its act together. We don't know if the human species will survive in the toxic world we have created. But we can go down fighting. What else can we honestly do?
Talking is a two way process: she talks, he listens; she listens, he talks. Nothing happens, of course. That's only natural. The point is to present an alternative. If the person who disagrees with you really listens to what you have to say, he has to take time to consider the alternative.
To quote Alison, "You have to keep it up. It takes time."
We are getting results, more than the roar of traffic, we receive more honks than when Alison and I stood on Veterans' Park opposing the first Gulf War. At that time we also joined with a well-organized building of a huge peace symbol on the ice of a lake in the Adirondacks. That was a lark, a big operation, hauling sand, hour after hour, to make the sign. Local TV actually covered the action. Later, we paid a fine to the Adirondack Park Agency for "polluting" the lake with sand when the ice melted.
Now, more than five years after our intrusion into two sovereign nations, we wave at the traffic and get a lot of honks. Truck drivers sometimes give a deep roar from their horns; taxi drivers, even cop cars give us a little wave. The point is that we are there, body and soul, with our handmade posters. Some people have pledged that when the winter is truly over, they will stand with us. We don't count on it, but it's nice to be surprised by new protesters.
One time I was on the street with my poster. Suddenly a Tenth Mountain Division convoy showed up. Officers in command cars kept their faces straight ahead, into the west. But deuce-and-a-half ton trucks had ordinary GIs waving, smiling.
Bruce Anderson said, "We're doomed," but the Anderson Valley Advertiser keeps showing up in our mail box every Saturday, courtesy of the US Postal Service, one of the first "socialist" bureaus of our young republic. It's still with us.
Nothing is certain; we might be doomed. Should we go home and watch TV ads? No, too boring, too stupid. I think we protesters are learning manners as the weeks go by, because we are fisher people, out for hearts, bodies, minds. That's a big order. Those are fellow citizens out there. Being present, willing to listen, anxious to talk, that's the main thing. We are a visible scene. We perform a public service, offering a radically different alternative to the Shrubite line. Can we prevail? We don't know. Nobody knows. I ask again: Why can't we be ambidextrous, combine honest scholarship with collective street work?
I'll sign off by going back to marveling at the resilience of Americans. Against the grain, uncelebrated stubborn rebel spirit does not die. We were a distant possession of the British Empire. An armed frigate in those days was like a fleet of armored vehicles today: intimidating, heavy ordinance ready, its cargo of Red Coats ready. We were an occupied nation.
By the time we got our revolution underway, the Brits were stretched thin. They had to hire Hessians and other ready-made soldiers from monarchs on the continent. Today our armed forces are stretched thin. Rome too got too big, finally collapsed.
Tom Paine began his career in England, let's not forget that. In America his phrase, "Winter Soldier," caught the minds and hearts of those who bore the burden of revolt. It rises again as we "Bring Them Home" people gather to figure out how to do our part in the Walks For Peace across upstate New York. Hopefully, we will be at Fort Drum on May 17, 2008, when marchers from Utica, Rochester, and other places gather to honor and confer with the Winter Soldiers of today, Iraqi Veterans.
Gilles and Jan, all I can say to you stalwarts is a humble plea: Keep Swans Going. And if we take seriously your cajoling us a couple of months back about arguing, politely of course, with each other, we will take wing. Talk to fellow Swans. Listen to fellow Swans. If we can pull that off we will be stirring things up, reaching out even more, to the world.
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