Edited version of a talk I gave in NYC on September 11, 2008, with preface, prologue, preamble, and postscript:
Preface: In 1853, several pairs of the previously unknown European house sparrow were set free inside Brooklyn’s
Prologue: In the 1999 film Run, Lola, Run, the female protagonist is magically given three chances to cope with a tricky situation. Like having a reset button on a video game or computer, if Lola screws up, she gets to go back and start from the beginning.
Many people imply that unless a critic expounds a specific strategy for change, his/her assessment is worthless or, at the very least, too negative. This somewhat understandable reaction misses the essential role critical analysis plays in a society where problems—and their causes—are so cleverly disguised. When discussing the future, the first step is often an identification and demystification of the past and present.
In order for us to hit the reset button, we must collectively agree that we got it wrong the first time.
Preamble: “How many other countries give you the right to write what you just wrote?” This was one of the many responses I got to a recent article of mine. Let’s put aside the unintentional tongue twister and the question’s obvious answer: plenty of other countries would give me the right to write what I just wrote.
The larger issue, as I see it, is how we each choose to evaluate our freedom. Is freedom just a matter of bigger cages and longer chains? Is it merely a commodity sold to the highest bidder? Must the majority of us sit by and drool while freedom fries on the grill of capitalist greed?
Freedom, according to Rosa Luxemburg, is “always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” To merely have more freedom than, say, a woman living under Taliban repression is not the same as being free. But it is the same as settling for less subjugation instead of demanding more liberty. The “it could always be worse” excuse is no way to judge the quality or quantity of anything.
Begin: It was September 14, 2001. The F-16s were no longer circling overhead. But there were people on my block holding candles, waving flags, and singing the National Anthem as an SUV cruised by with the words “Nuke ’em” soaped onto its rear window. These people were all craving normalcy. Even with the severity of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the ultimate goal at the end of the day was always normalcy.
Despite the lingering fear, sorrow, doubt, and anger, we waited breathlessly for the authorities to pronounce: “Don’t worry. Things were bad but now, we’ve gotten everything back to normal.”
What is normal in our country and on our planet? What type of society have we humans cultivated as we sit arrogantly atop the intellectual food chain?
The New York Stock Exchange was shut down by the attacks, but once things returned to normal, Wall Street went back to making decisions that impacted horrendously upon the large majority of the globe while the top one percent of Americans carried on owning wealth equal to the bottom 95 percent. That’s normal.
The SUV owner I just mentioned might have wiped the soap off his window and driven onto the island of Manhattan where, once again, cars had free reign. The toxic haze caused by the two towers collapsing was now replaced by the normal toxic haze induced by America’s automobile culture.
Those I heard singing songs of patriotism could return to stepping over homeless people to go buy products made in sweatshops. That’s normal.
Contemplating normal reminds me of something Charles Bukowski wrote: “As we go on with our lives, we tend to forget that the jails and the hospitals and the madhouses and the graveyards are packed.”
Normal means each month, 100,000 Americans lose their health insurance…while, each minute, one million of our tax dollars is spent on war.
Normal means 15 million animals are slaughtered each day although up to 14 times as many people could be fed by using the same land currently reserved for livestock grazing.
Normal means one billion earthlings live on the equivalent of one US dollar a day while my neighborhood is teeming with 99 cents stores. But these establishments aren’t offering Third Worlders subsistence for 24 hours. No, they’re where folks like me can purchase cheap goods—probably assembled in China by pre-teen girls. If you need an earpiece for your coltan-containing cell phone, it’s all yours for one dollar and eight cents…after tax.
Normal means taking off your shoes at the airport, being shot at by overzealous cops, and getting priced out of the neighborhoods you grew up in…but never having to walk more than two blocks to find your nearest Starbuck’s. Wait, did I say “walk”? I meant “drive,” of course. Walking: how Third World of me.
Whether we realize it or not, thanks to corporate scientists, normal also means that when a human gene is introduced to a sheep’s mammary glands to produce a protein called alpha-1-antitrypsin, that sheep is no longer a mere sheep…but rather, it’s a legally patented commodity known as a “mammalian cell bioreactor.” Not a sheep, not a lamb, but a mammalian cell bioreactor. Try it out: Mary had a little mammalian cell bioreactor. Sound normal to you?
Normal means two indistinguishable political parties, corporations that never pay taxes, and yellow ribbons as far as the eye can see.
On a normal day, more than 100 plant or animal species go extinct. On a normal day, 45,000 human beings die of starvation.
Normal means slavery—on so many levels—like this:
In the most remote regions of Brazil, slave labor is employed to cut down grand swaths of the precious rain forest to make room to grow eucalyptus which is then burned by male slaves (who exploit the body, mind, and spirit of female slaves forced into prostitution) to make charcoal for the steel mills of Brazil where the poorest of the poor toil for wages that do not sustain them so that steel can be shipped to a General Motors plant in Mexico (GM is the second largest employer south of the border) where the poorest of the poor suffer maquiladora conditions so these automobile parts can then be shipped to a GM plant in the U.S. (roughly 50 percent of what we call “trade” consists of business transactions between branches of the same transnational corporation) where even the poorest of the poor proudly take on imposing debt to possess a car “made in the U.S.A.” so they can clog the highways that were paved over countless eco-systems, filling the air with noxious pollution as they make their way to the drive-through window of an anti-union fast food restaurant that purchased the beef of slaughtered cattle that once grazed on land cleared by male slaves who exploited the body, mind, and spirit of female slaves in the most remote regions of Brazil. That is some of what we accept as normal…
Normal means land mines, factory farming, and the death penalty
It means racial profiling and the shooting of abortion doctors
Normal means gay bashing and it means “illegal” is a noun
It means pesticide, homicide, suicide, genocide
Normal means the WTO, the FBI, CIA, NSA, and KKK
GMO, HMO, Guantanamo.
It means banned books, the war on drugs, and the PATRIOT Act
Normal means: “have it your way” and “just do it”
Global warming, water boarding, People magazine
It means no cod in Cape Cod and soon: no ice at the North Pole
Normal means strip malls; normal means strip mining
It means pre-emptive strikes and humanitarian bombing
It means shock and awe
Normal means if you kill someone while wearing a uniform, you get a parade. Do it in gang colors and you get the electric chair.
Normal means we live in a society programmed and conditioned to lust for revenge instead of unite for peace and justice
After 9/11, normal also came to mean a perpetual war on terror. You know what? Maybe a war on terror is precisely what we need.
No, I’m not declaring public allegiance to the current jihad against a tactic (which is in actuality a war against terrorist attacks not perpetrated by the US or its allies). Instead, I’m thinking of another meaning entirely for our new favorite, post-9/11 word: "terror."
Author Don Lutz has written that terror is "what one feels when being kidnapped or raped."
He goes on to list other terrifying examples:
"Terror is what poor people worldwide feel when approached by uniformed, armed men; what animals feel in research laboratories; what people feel when their families are faced with starvation; what a child feels when an adult starts to hit; what millions of families feel when they hear planes overhead; what fish feel when hooked in the mouth; what people feel under threat of having loved ones tortured or killed; what forest dwellers feel when the loggers come in to clear-cut; what people feel when they are threatened with invasion; and what animals feel at slaughterhouses."
You wanna wage war against terror, why not find a worthy adversary? No shady FBI stings, unconstitutional wire tapping, or panic-inducing color-coded warnings that conveniently pop up at the most politically expedient intervals. The variety of terror I just described is genuine and endemic and it is the real problem.
Many Americans automatically defend their country’s rampant illegalities because they perceive these actions as falling under the seductive justification of “defending our way of life.”
The U.S. constitutes roughly 5% of the earth’s population but consumes more than 25% of the earth’s resources. Maybe "our way of life" makes us the real terrorists.
Besides, if our way of life is so sacred, so ideal, so worthy of being defended by any means necessary, why do we need so many homeless shelters, alcohol and drug rehab centers, rape crisis hotlines, battered women’s shelters, and suicide hotlines?
Why does a sexual assault occur every 2 1/2 minutes?
If America is the world’s shining light, why are its citizens left with no choice but to organize in a desperate attempt to protect human, environmental, civil, and animal rights?
Why can’t we drink the water or breathe the air without the risk of becoming ill from corporate-produced toxins?
If America is the zenith of human social order, why does our vaunted way of life provoke terror as a tactic and an emotion?
I know what some of you are thinking: Surely, Mickey Z., humans aren’t as bad as you make them sound. They can’t possibly be the most dangerous species of all time. Humans aren’t more dangerous than a T. Rex, right? To you, I ask: In all the millions of years dinosaurs roamed this planet, did a single stegosaurus ever feel the need to invent nuclear weapons?
Even today’s “monsters” are far less harmful than we “intelligent” humans. No great white shark created DDT, napalm, or the internal combustion engine; you can’t blame cigarettes, greenhouse gases, hydroelectric dams, or mercury-laced vaccinations on a pit bull; and rest assured no non-human conjured up zoos, animal experimentation, or the circus.
With the point of no return fading in the rearview mirror (or at least obscured by a Hummer), the time is long overdue for all of us to recognize the real enemy is that which inspires terror. The real enemy just might be what we see as normal.
And what can be more normal than the American Dream? You all know the American Dream myth, the fable of individualized success. If we’re tough enough and willing to fight our way past the competition, this is the land of opportunity: anything is possible. If you succeed, it’s because you worked harder and better and deserved it more. If you fail, the blame is all on you.
William Burroughs sez: “Thanks for the American Dream, to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through.”
Vulgarization. Falsification. Compromise. Conformity. Assimilation. Submission. Ignorance. Hypocrisy. Brutality. The elite. All of which, as Rage Against the Machine reminds us, are American dreams.
All of which are American dreams…
So, how about cultivating some new American Dreams?
Dreams not for sale
Dreams not based on celebrity
Dreams not based on material consumption
Dreams not based on physical beauty
Dreams not based on military conquest
Dreams that promote unity and collective action while maintaining individuality and independence
Dreams that challenge us to think for ourselves and about others
Dreams that help us pick out the hayseeds amidst the horseshit
Postscript: In his 1941 classic, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller contemplated what it might be like to bring an American Indian back to life and show him the steel mills of Pennsylvania. Miller imagined the Indian thinking: “So it was for this that you deprived us of our birthright?”
Miller pondered, “Do you think it would be easy to get him to change places with one of our steady workers? What sort of persuasion would you use? What now could you promise him that would be truly seductive?”
I think I know what might win over that resurrected soul. A reset button, just like the one Lola had. For if this is the best humanity could produce with the gifts we’ve been given; if this is what is accepted as normal by the majority of Homo sapiens on the planet, what we really need is to hit the reset button…before it’s too late.
But then again, what do I know? I’ve always been the black mammalian cell bioreactor in my family.