“To become a civilized, moderate, responsible nation, in other words, we must first become a nation of extremists.”
— George Monbiot
I almost spilled a hot cup of coffee on my son’s lap when I overheard the talk in the adjacent booth at Peet’s. I think I actually soughed, “Ah!”
As George Monbiot points out in his Guardian/UK piece of March 2nd, “Extreme Measures: The Only Way to Bring Down Blair and Change the Political Context is to Take Direct Action”, people taking to the streets “must be accompanied by polite campaigns of lobbying and letter-writing.” However, he’s crystal clear that nothing will happen “unless we get off our butts and make it happen.” He addresses the need to take some risk, and as I read his words I found myself nodding in agreement, noting the parallels for us in the U.S.
It’s not a stretch to contemplate direct action of the sort Monbiot advocates, but –with all of my experience at the barricades– I still did a cranial double-take when I heard three men discussing arson in nearby Aptos…on behalf of the Haitian people! The loose lips that sink ships might have been emboldened by my wearing a headset; it wasn’t turned on, unbeknownst to them. My little Marcel certainly didn’t give them pause.
They didn’t murmur long or provide a lot of details, but I was able to tune in to the thrust of what they were, supposedly, about to do. Burn something down? To put the “imperialists” on notice? I didn’t catch exactly where they were planning to strike a match, and if John Ashcroft or that Head of Homeland Security who looks like a character out of Dick Tracy is reading this, please note that I didn’t get a look at anyone. In fact, the only way I knew it was three people is that I heard three different voices. One could have been a talking dog from the Letterman show for all I know.
However, in all seriousness, the ravages of Jean Tatoune and Guy Philippe–to name just two murderers we’ve supported up the kazoo– I think it’s a safe bet that there are elements in this country…citizens…with driver’s licenses…with and without color…all across the demographic spectrum…that are about to explode. They’ve stopped taking bets in Britain with regard to whether or not there’s life on Mars now that something’s dipped into moisture up there, and it doesn’t take a great leap to say it’s a good bet that both frustrated activists and previously non-invovled citizens may pick up the battering ram before long. As one tortured protester screamed recently, “Yesterday it was Iraq, today’s it’s Haiti, and tomorrow it’ll be Venezuela!”.Some people will wait only so long before they do something extreme.
Etymologically, extreme is the latinate equivalent of the native English utmost. Voting –please note the approximate 25% turnout in California’s primary yesterday!– and lobbying and letter-writing do not represent the highest, the greatest, or best of our abilities, powers and resources. The word comes via Old French from Latin “extremus” (meaning, for one, “furthest”). The underlying notion of “furthest outlying” still survives in the use of extremities for the “hands” or “feet.”
In the outlying, excessive reaches of the angered minds of our citizenry, there’s the potential for much that I hope we’ll be able to avoid. Admittedly, it is a shred.
The three guys –or mad dogs from Letterman’s show as the case may be– sitting on the Naugahyde surfaces behind me on March 2nd seem like they’re all set to let their little feet –or paws– carry them to the furthest ends of activism in an effort to do their utmost…to stop our abominations. The question is what are you going to do?
Our Revolutionary War was advocated by only a third of the people living on these shores. Another third supported England, and about 33% didn’t give a damn or didn’t take a postion one way or the other. Ditto for our Civil War, according to Howard Zinn. Today it wouldn’t take more than a handful of Timothy McVeighs to weigh in with a whole slew of 9/11s overnight. And I’d say that today –faced with the prospect of Bush or Kerry– we’d better move as if we’re in extremis in some fashion.
Monbiot made his plea for people to move in solidarity nationwide overseas. With the prospect of variations on the proposal laid out Tuesday in Peet’s peaking over the horizon, I’d say America doesn’t have much time. Remember, this is the land of rugged invidualism.
Around the time “Burn, baby, burn!” was a household phrase in America, Joan Mellen wrote a brilliant review of Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn!” (director of “The Battle of Algiers”) for “Cinema” magazine (Issue 32, Winter 1972-73). In it she rightly points out that the film should have been titled “Burnt!” as the destruction wrought falls on the exploited and their land, not on the imperialist forces, as suggested by the title. English has two separate words burn, one transitive, the other intransitive. Both apply here as the country begins to boil over. Fire and brimstone? I’m afraid fervent patriotism is taking on a new twist, and that segments of our singed population will not allow it to go on, burning out of control.
RICHARD OXMAN is a former professor at Rutgers University and other institutions of higher education; he’s also a former postal worker, well-acquainted with the “going postal” syndrome. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.