Pete, your death closes a chapter, perhaps the whole Book, on America’s democratic past, a past that was itself clouded with antiradicalism from sea to sea, yet still retained a measure of social caring and resistance to the forces of war, racism, and corporate power. You’ve seen it all, and I can’t help thinking that, like many of us, you too were fooled, by performing at the Inaugural, that Obama would help America turn the corner away from intervention, business political dominance, blind hostility to whatever challenged the sanctimonious state of capitalism—yet we were all wrong. He quickly emerged as your polar opposite: vitiating every principle, cause, belief that you worked for, turning America upside down in the process through the glorification of militarism and wealth.
With your passing, the collective memory of decency toward, and the genuine respect for, all of humanity, above all the poor, working people of every kind and description, those who from life-experience and conviction had visions of the general welfare in which the democratization of power permeated structure and culture alike in a spirit of true brotherhood/sisterhood, would now be in danger, having already been weakened, of dying with you.
I think of your campaigning with Paul Robeson for Henry Wallace in 1948, your courageous stand against the witch-hunters in Washington throughout the 1950s, your instinctive defense of radicalism on issues large and small, fighting for beliefs and principles that gave literal meaning to the Bill of Rights, itself being treated with contempt by the “patriots” among us. That the causes you engaged in always meant an uphill struggle showed that America was not the land of freedom it professed to be. But at least the idea of freedom was alive and formed the ideological core of social struggle. You rode the rails with Woody; you witnessed suffering and deprivation at first hand; you gave voice to the people’s deepest yearnings; and yes, there still to be reckoned with was a People, and a Land they worked and loved.
It is perhaps harsh to say, but America did not deserve you; instead it deserves Barack Obama, killer of the dream, imposter, charlatan. Instead of reaching out to others, we assassinate them in the name of exceptionalism and counterterrorism. I know, you would not agree. Your optimism never left you, and the message of your life, and now your death, should be, Keep Fighting, Don’t Despair, Don’t Let the Bad Guys Win. Have we passed the point of redemption, though? Are we cursed to forever be the world leader in mobilizing, and the chief practitioner of, Reaction and Counterrevolution?
I return to the thought of Obama, the damaged goods of liberalism, the arrogance embedded in the status of global hegemony and military superiority. Pete, when you turned in your final years to the cleaning up of the rank pollution of your beloved Hudson River, my sense was your recognition that the Hudson had become a metaphor for America, only instead of only PCBs, America’s pollution stemmed from other poisons far worse: military-impregnated capitalism, the deregulation of monster wealth, and an amoral cynicism founded on the degradation of all, here and abroad, whose sole purpose, it is now maintained, is to serve the American ruling class.
Pete, give us the last word, the word I heard in Brown’s Church in Selma, days before the Great March, Dr. King in the pulpit, a memorial service for Jim Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, murdered on the streets of Selma, we, the congregation, arms around each other, swaying back-and-forth, singing WE SHALL OVERCOME. Perhaps it is not to0 late—struggle, to honor your memory and all that you have done for us.
Love, rest in peace, I speak for all who may never have shaken hands with you, but are indebted to you for sharing your convictions and beautiful life with us.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism.