Daniel Ellsberg, the Bioneers and the New Language of Decolonization

Photograph Source: Cmichel67 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Daniel Ellsberg, who recently announced that he has prostate cancer and doesn’t have much longer to live, sent out an email in which he wrote, “It is long past time–but not too late!–for the world’s publics at last to challenge and resist the willed moral blindness of their past and current leaders.” That’s a mouthful in one sentence. But it’s not a contradiction, I don’t think, to say that resistance to the blindness of leaders should have happened long ago, and at the same time to say that it’s not too late to do so. Both are true. Around the world protesters often oscillate between hope for change and fear demands won’t be met.

If Ellsberg had thought it was too late to act in the early 1970s, he surely would not have brought the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and the Washington Post. He also would not have resisted war and nuclear weapons over the past half century. Resisting war, historians and philosophers have pointed out, has been a necessary ever since the Trojan War and before.

Resisting nuclear war has been a necessity ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki and even before atomic bombs were dropped on those two Japanese cities. Ellsberg believes there’s still time to prevent a nuclear Armageddon and a climate change catastrophe, but only if people rise up as they did during the Vietnam War and the Nuclear Freeze Campaign.

The notion that it’s not too late was one of the key concepts and loudest cries at the annual Bioneers Conference held in Berkeley April 6-8, 2023. It’s also the title of a new book co-edited by Rebecca Solnit, one of the keynote speakers at Bioneers. There were several variations on the “not-too-late” theme. The organizers of the conference blasted friends and followers with a post that read, “It’s not a great resignation. It’s a great revolution.” In my lifetime, the burden of the left in America has been to acknowledge the powers of  the powerful, and at the same time to encourage and instill “we, the people” with a sense of hope.

Nina Simons, one of the founders of Bioneers, along with Kenny Ausubel, began the first day of the conference by acknowledging that it was “hard to find something positive.” Then she pivoted and adopted the view that “There is reason for hope.”  Simons also borrowed the most famous line from the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky/Sidney Lumet movie, Network, when she said, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore.” Everyone in the audience seemed to know it.

Saru Jayaraman surfed the anger wave, and, speaking as a worker addressing a boss, shouted to the packed house in Zellerbach Auditorium on the campus of UC Berkeley, “Take your job and shove it.” Born and raised in India, Jayaraman organizes restaurant workers in both the front and the back of the house, and advocates for living wages, which are way overdue. Especially now, she explained, in the wake of the pandemic when many restaurants folded, workers lost their jobs and found they were ineligible for unemployment insurance. Talk about a crime!

“We are organizing people who don’t vote, to vote themselves a raise,” Jararaman said. “We, the people, can win.” That’s precisely the sentiment that members of the audience wanted to hear: winning. They stood as one, clapped and cheered, and they were just warming up.

Jade Begay, a young Native American of Tesuque Pueblo and Diné and Southern Ute ancestry,offered a measured view of the political landscape that organizers and activists often face. “I know a lot of you are skeptical,” she began. “Philanthropy fails to deliver money to indigenous people.” Begay added, “We are fighting the same fight over and over and again and it’s killing us. It’s unsustainable and people are leaving.” But she also saw what might be called progress in the decolonization movement, much of it about language and that wasn’t semantic.

Begay was buoyed by the fact that for the first time the word “colonization” has been used in the international movement around the issue of climate change. She considered that addition a major event. Begay suggested that friends and allies might try the word “self-determination,” rather than “sovereignty,” and the word “devotion” rather than “solidarity.” She added, “It’s about localizing,” and about “working smarter not harder.”

Other speakers included Shane Gero, who talked about whales and the need for cultural as well as biological diversity, and Laura Flanders of the Laura Flanders Show who talked about Preston, England and community wealth building. Jason Nious, a performance artist, used his body and his mouth to make music and persuaded the audience to participate.

I had the distinct feeling that the words and the concepts I heard at Bioneers would move around the country and reverberate widely, as people who attended the conference went home and back to their own communities.

It’s probably too late to recruit Ellsberg for Bioneers next year, though he would add a refreshing perspective and a much needed sense of the history of the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements over the past fifty years. Soon after the publication of The Pentagon Papers in The New York Times, when I was feeling euphoric, I called Ellsberg “a white collar guerrilla” and meant it as a compliment, which is how he took it. There’s more than one way to wage a guerrilla war and more than one way to make a revolution, including a revolution from the heart of nature.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.