While perusing the Internet after organizing a rally opposing the horrific treatment of immigrant children and their families, it finally dawned on me that I no longer recognize the country in which I live. A Facebook photo of a protester holding a sign brought it all home in a way that words alone often cannot: The sign was written in plain, bold black letters and read: “What Country Is This?”
After an entire adult life of protest and being in the streets, the inescapable reality or conclusion must be that this is now some other country. Even during the height of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, when I cut my teeth in protest as a war resister, I thought that the society could always be improved; that even small gains were possible; and that it would work out for the better in the future.
Indeed, even in the face of Ronald Reagan’s “noble cause” propaganda about the Vietnam War, and George H.W. Bush’s desire to end the “Vietnam Syndrome” as the first war in the Persian Gulf approached, the gains protest had accomplished during the decade of the 1980’s were real. We, as a movement, had brought the idea of a nuclear holocaust to the level of national discourse through the Nuclear Freeze Movement. Those of us who remained antiwar made the issue of the wars the U.S. supported in Central America the subject of a national debate. Although not much that was lasting remained later in the face of a global economy and violent madness on a global scale, the U.S. role in arming the Contras in Nicaragua, and its support of death squads in El Salvador, became part of the national consciousness.
I think that the terror attacks of September 2001 had their intended effect, turning the U.S. into a permanent war economy and a nation that would support endless wars as long as only a small minority was asked to fight those wars. Osama bin Laden got what he wanted… Did he realize how far-reaching his nefarious plans of destruction would go?
Trying to mobilize against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was an uphill battle. In regard to the former, an old friend who had been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War said to me during a conversation in 2001 that “There aren’t going to be many who agree with you.” But we were still out on the streets and the permanent war machine was in question although it would ultimately be successful in convincing most that endless wars were a good thing, as long as they didn’t have to do the fighting.
And then the great national disaster that is Trump came along. At this point, with immigrant children crying out for their parents in grotesque U.S. detention centers, the hope for any kind of improved future is probably a crapshoot at best. At some point reality has to be faced, and audio recordings of young children crying for their families while government workers joke about there needing to be a “conductor” to manage the horrific wailing is too much to bear.
The massacre of children and school staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, and the death of one of my community college students by gun violence took their toll.
A few days ago, standing at a rally in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in support of immigrant children and their families, the camaraderie among those in attendance was palpable and the support of those passing on the streets was heartening. Only one person driving by on a motorcycle gave those at the rally the middle finger.
Standing at the rally the words of the antiwar hero Philip Berrigan came to mind: he spoke about the need for resistance to augment protest and that has been generally missing from the equation of protest for a very long time. There has been resistance, but there also has been official and violent suppression of that resistance, The words of the poet Kenneth Rexroth come to mind from his poem “Fish Peddler and Cobbler”:
Nineteen twenty two, the years
Hope came to an end as
The iron fist began to close.
No one electrocuted me.
Nothing happened. Time passed.
Something invisible was gone (Selected Poems, 1940).
“Something invisible” vanished so long ago and a stupid man sits in the White House and he and his administration and fellow travelers have finally succeeded in turning the country where I have lived my entire life, and sought to make a better society along with many, many others, a place that I no longer recognize. I am the stranger in a strange land. The government is being run by war profiteers, racists, misogynists, warmongers, child abusers and worse!