Art & Activism: Thoughts
Click each of the titles below to read about it.
Some have asked if I would put on the site some of the books I have read and liked. I do so only with the caveat that these are not recommendations—simply some books I have liked. Art is so personal.
I might start by saying there are a few authors worth reading no matter when they write or what they write simply because they are gifted with brilliant minds and they offer creative challenges that are bound to rearrange one's perspective—something to which I am always grateful. I count the following among these writers:
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Anna Deavere Smith
Noam Chomsky (although I retain more listening to him than reading)
Other authors who I look forward to reading, book after book:
I have very much appreciated these books:
Water for Elephants—Sara Gruen
1000 Splendid Suns and Kite Runner—Khaled Hosseini
Bel Canto— Ann Patchett
Shark Dialogues—Kiana Davenport
Girl with The Pearl Earrin— Tracy Chevalier
Poisonwood Bible—Barbara Kingsolver
Inheritance of Loss—Kiran Desai
Memoirs of a Geisha—Arthur Golden
And several lovely small books by Gail Tsukiyama
Chitra Banarjee Divakaruni
The Tipping Point—Malcolm Gladwell
Birds Without Wings—Louis de Bernieres
Indian Killer— Sherman Alexie
A Suitable Boy—Vikram Seth
The 16 Pleasures— Robert Hellenga
The Namesake—Jhumpa Lahiri
Interpreter of Maladies—Jhumpa Lahiri
The Grass Dancer—Susan Power
Making Movies—Sidney Lumet
Cinnamon Gardens—Shyam Selvadurai
Drama of the Gifted Child—Alice Miller
The Time of Our Singing—Richard Powers
And if you need a good easy read on a long airplane flight, Maeve Binchy continues to be a fun storyteller and seems to always be available at airport bookstores.
Holly wrote the following statement for Death Penalty Focus of California, an organization that works to end the death penalty.
Does the death penalty really stop any one of us from committing heinous crimes? Do I live a loving and socially responsible life because I fear the death penalty? No. It starts much earlier than that. Should we not go to the source of the problem rather than wait until the end result of despair?
I do not feel protected by the death penalty. It is an act of revenge come too late. Even from a place of total self interest, I would look to make this world a safer place to live and it would be basic human requirements were provided for.
What does a child need to have a good chance at growing up healthy and responsible? Education; a wholesome ecology; family and community security; a good health system; the elimination of poverty; a sense of self worth; access to affirmation of one's culture and identity through music, art and sports; active programs to help break the chain of repeated violence and abuse that is handed down from generation to generation; a world that does not see war as the primary solution to conflict; and honest private and public role models who dare to tell the truth. These priorities have been the greatest warriors against crime.
See Holly's lyrics to Foolish Notion.
Written by Holly on September 15, 2001, just four days after the tragic events of 9/11
In response to the many people who have asked me how I am feeling or what I am thinking, I will try to post some thoughts in process. And because some people from the media may use this, I have put a short version and a long version rather than have the piece edited. Big hearted thoughts to all of you. Holly
The short version:
I have, all my life, felt grief for those who lose their lives in war, in acts of terror, in earth quakes and hurricanes, from plagues and poverty, large sweeping events that take so many, so fast. When we lose a loved one, the cause seldom alters the feeling of loss. One moment they were here, and now they are gone. I feel great sadness for all the families who have lost loved ones in this tragedy. And I feel great caring for all the people in the world of Arab descent whose lives are being threatened by fear based racist thinking. I hold us all big in my heart. I do not want my safety to come from bombing a village. I believe our collective safety as a people on this planet will come from calling on our finest, culturally informed world negotiators, facilitators, mediators and artists to lay the ground work for trust, civility, and peace. And if our leaders do not know how to take this path, then we, the people, have the historical and constitutional right to do so. It is not a stand against one's country to take a vigilant stand for peace.
The longer version:
I have, all my life, felt grief for those who lose their lives in war, in acts of terror, in earth quakes and hurricanes, from plagues and poverty, large sweeping events that take so many, so fast. When we lose a loved one, the cause seldom alters the feeling of loss. One moment they were here, and now they are gone. I feel great sadness for all the families who have lost a loved one in this tragedy. And I feel great love for all the people in the world of Arab descent whose lives are being threatened by fear based racist thinking. I hold us all big in my heart.
I have, all my life, been opposed to war, to racism, to poverty,and to military solutions that claim to solve social and political conflicts. I do not believe in an eye for an eye for there is no end to the path of revenge. I do not subscribe to nationalism that separates us from them, me from you, the United States from the world. And I do not believe it is possible to put an end to evil as has been so assertively promised. The attempt to do so will no doubt invite our nation to do evil things and then we stand on no higher ground.
When I was less experienced and someone hurt me, I struck out. As I matured, I learned to take a deep breath, dared to learn why I had been attacked so, tried to honor the historical truths that defines who we are in the world, that defines our relationship to one another. In this way, I could begin to understand the conflict and make a commitment to a slow and faith-based rather than fear-based journey towards resolution. I believe, out of shock and fear, our nation's leaders have leapt to an aggressive and defensive position, which, although understandable, is dangerous. I believe our safety as a people on this planet will come from calling on our finest, culturally informed world negotiators, facilitators, mediators and artists to lay the ground work for trust, civility, and peace. And if our leaders do not know how to take this path, then we, the people, have a constitutional right to do so. It is not a stand against one's country to take a vigilant stand for peace.
Written September/October 2001
I was to get on a plane September 13th and fly to Wesleyan College
in Connecticut to participate in a political song forum. Artists from Africa and Ireland were traveling in. Pete Seeger was to give the key note speech. Toshi Reagon, Charlie King and many others were to do concerts and contribute to the panels. I believe Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon and Jackson Browne were also scheduled. I was looking forward to the rare opportunity to focus on the history of political song as well as the conditions in the world from which the songs come.
I did not make it to that event. September 11th, a day that I usually remember the day of the US backed military coup in Chile (when President Allende was murdered and a reign of terror began against the Chilean people) now was an event of great horror and agony beginning with the attack on the World Trade Center in NYC.
The shock of the events made it very difficult to think clearly. I felt great admiration for the people like the organizers, teachers and administrators at Wesleyan whose first concern was the well being of their student population. They had to think on their feet and hold together a safe space for people to process their grief.
From 3000 miles away, I had the luxury of privacy. I had time with my family, a family which has a tradition of political thought, peace and justice activism, and commitment to conflict resolution. I had time to sit unobserved and feel the weight of the human experience that our ancestors have carried for thousands of years as well as those who have walked the high ground in this last century. I had a global context in which to put the tragedy. And after seeing the footage of the planes flying into the buildings for the 100th time, after hearing people say in the shallow perspective of their distress, "This is the worst thing that has ever happened to America, to humanity!", I turned off the television and began the search for clear thinking. That search is not over.
I feel honored to be part of a world community committed to finding solutions rather than resorting to punishment--a world community daring to ask the hard questions. I feel honored to be part of a world community that always sees our global condition as a profound teacher. I am most grateful that I have had access to global perspectives and can investigate solutions. I am glad that I come from a family that knew it was better to communicate with their children than to hit them. I am grateful to the few voices that began to appear, mostly on the Internet - voices that questioned the slogans, the nationalism, the fundamentalism, the lynch mentality.
I believe, in the name of all the loved ones who lost their lives at the WTC and The Pentagon and on the planes as well as those who have lost their lives all over the world as a result of war, poverty, abuse, and genocide, we can find a higher ground. I believe we can embrace this tragic time as an opportunity to seek solutions that will ease the pain inflicted on our planet as a result of colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, genocide, fundamentalist religions, economic inequity, hunger, misogyny, racism, health crises, child abuse and brutal destruction of the environment . I believe that we can move towards being a world community, a world family, that we can resist "them and us" thinking. No generation has every brought forth a perfect world but it is the small acts joined together by time and historical perspective that moves us as a society towards the higher ground.
Humanity is in this for the long haul. So although there are things that need to be done immediately, there are also things that can be done over time. Start small. Start with acts of kindness. Perhaps put a sign in your window, "This is a hate free home, no racist attacks!" or wear a button that says, "One world, one people". Ask yourself perhaps in the company of friends what will come from the current US military campaign and try to be specific and historically accurate. Hear the language that is being used and really think about what it means. Move the dial off of mainstream repetitive reporting. I believe your time will be better spent studying the world elsewhere. Read a book or seek out a song by an Arab artist. Join the global community.
Question everything with an open mind and let our eyes and ears teach us. Train the mind to see multiple perspectives. For example, when Mayor Giuliani took the firemen on to Saturday Night Live, were you able to honor their bravery and courage wholeheartedly and at the same time notice that there were no people of color from the force invited to stand with them? And can you follow that observation with wondering if they excluded people of color from the honoring or are there, in fact, no people of color on the force? And what is the source of this inequity? If we begin to understand it at home, perhaps we can understand it in the world. The accumulation of small insult leads to global unrest. There has been insult and abuse inflicted on people around the world for centuries and there should be no surprise if their is rage. Was it realistic to expect that the United States foreign policy could continue to hurt and insult people around the world and there would be no response? Notice racism. The cover of Time Magazine put an Arab man on the cover but it was not a picture that invited us to hear his anger. It was a photo designed to make us fear his anger.
This training the mind and eye to work is like working out at the gym, one has to start small and get stronger. And I believe, in order to avoid hate thinking, it helps to ask these questions, observe these events, without hostility. Just learn to ask the questions.
When the attacks against Afghanistan began, did you notice there was no support from the UN and there were no nations from Africa or Latin America or Asia or the Middle East involved? The US and England were the main nations in the so called, coalition. What do the US and England have in common? Have you noticed that these two countries in particular, when explaining involvement in international affairs, have no problem saying they are "defending their interests"? Do you ask yourself what interests? And why do we have interests to defend in other countries? Why do we have a right to have interests in other countries that are of such great importance we can bomb in order to defend those interests? Why is it the two world nations who have been so known for their fascination with legal systems, their study of law, have been so willing to give up legal thinking and practice in order to defend their interests? Have you wondered why there is so much approval for Bush when he sends 37,000 food rations along with the bombs? Is there not something sick about that sort of thinking, especially when 5 million people need food and the bombing keeps the aid workers out who were able to feed more people than the dropped rations? Have you asked what it means to end terrorism? What is the difference in the level of terror for those affected between a briefcase bomb and a B52? Where are the women in this? The international women's movement had been dealing with the rule of the Taliban for some time because of their treatment of women over the last seven years or so and might have had useful information and perspective. Why wasn't a large meeting of religious and political leaders from diverse perspectives called on for advice and consultation in public forum?
This is how one begins to train the mind of a global citizen:
One opens one's mind and asks WHY? You may decide after you have answered the questions that you agree with the US campaign to send our beautiful children over there to kill their beautiful children. You may think the environmental costs of bombing a nation are insignificant. You may think something positive comes of such a military policy . . . or not. But it seems important to have a truthful and honest understanding of the policy perpetuated by the land in which we live. It will help to understand the events that both support and threaten the current affluent life style in the US which is maintained, sought after or unavailable to so many.
When hearing the news, ask in whose interest? In whose name? And for what end? This is how we become global citizens.
When asked why she is critical of U.S. foreign policy in a time of war Holly Near wrote the following.
I have been critical of US foreign and domestic policy since I was a child so my perspective is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that although the women's movement has been trying to bring attention to the condition of women in Afghanistan for years, the US government was not interested or concerned until "US interests" were at stake and they could use the condition of women as one of their many rationalizations for waging war. Of course, as in Viet Nam, bombing the civilian population does not serve a people since the people we claim to help live under those bombs, trying to feed and calm their children.
I have never condemned our children who are sent off to fight. My criticism of US policy is not a criticism of our young people in the military or their families. The best way to care for our children is to never send them off to fight. I do not want them to die for me. War is never good for children on any side of the battle. Freedom for all citizens on all sides of the battle does not come from military might, capitalism, nor from imperial strength. Rather, it requires wise and patient diplomacy, education, cultural exchange and economic assistance without dominance.
Sometimes people feel they must pick up a gun to defend a village. Perhaps this is a different choice than when a nation is dedicated to be a world power. I have never lived in a village being attacked by a major power. But I saw what Viet Nam looked like when the US bombed that country "in order to save it". I have heard the tragic stories of the people of Panama when the US bombed neighborhoods and shoved the dead into mass graves. I understand when people from other parts of the world are stunned to see US citizens behave as if the attack on NYC was the first time civilians have ever been attacked. It seems people all over the world know that the US government has used the CIA and secret forces to undermine one struggling democracy after another, punishing those democratic governments who would not allow US business to continue as usual in their countries. Why don't Americans remember this?
The US is not the only nation that does terrible things. But the US is not exempt and I have no interest in supporting a world power. World powers and empires are not good for the world or for future generations. If a world power was growing somewhere else on the planet we would be concerned for our safety. In fact, the US government used that very concern to build up our massive defense systems. People all around the world are concerned for their safety because the US has become a dominating military and economic force that will not work cooperatively with other nations. For me, freedom at the expense of other citizens of the world as well as here at home is a questionable freedom. How many people should the US kill in order for some US citizens to have the comforts to which a small segment of our population has become accustomed. What is the right ratio?
Criticism of power is not new. Martin Luther King loved humanity and so he criticized racism which meant he criticized the US domestic policy. When he understood what was happening in Viet Nam, he criticized that war. He wasn't criticizing the thousands of black youth in the military being used for cannon fodder. He was trying to bring them home alive. Criticism of the government is a good thing. It is essential to maintaining civility. And when one starts to believe that one should follow the government mindlessly as it goes out of control, then one has failed the basic principles of democracy. A healthy government can withstand a healthy debate. A healthy government requires critical thinking. But if it has something to hide, it "discourages" criticism by any means and asks the people to support it unconditionally.
After September 11th, Bush made it clear that all the nations of the world should be "behind us" and that nations were either "with us or against us". That is a shocking and insulting threat to the world. Here at home, there are many people who are afraid to voice their opinions at work for fear of being accused of being unpatriotic. Others sit unrepresented in jail because they "appear" or are of Arab decent.
Bush has set up an open-ended state of war and makes it clear that criticism and dissent in this highly sensitive time will be viewed as a threat to national security. This is a frightening and dictatorial standard. A peace movement will grow from this historic tragedy, as it always does when events call on humanity to step up to clear thinking. Just as powerful nations have used tragedy to promote power hungry agendas, so will people dedicated to world-wide social justice movements rise in the smoke to take the next step towards higher consciousness and it is with them that I choose to walk in this world. As Gandhi said, "When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it always." - Mahatma Gandhi