Friday, August 29, 2008

Me, Politics, and the Hope Ghost

In 1968 I was seventeen years old in Las Vegas. My best friend, my strange and romantic and poetic buddy who didn't have a mean gene in his entire body, died in Vietnam. As a quiet and horribly shy kid whose family spoke with funny accents, he was my only friend those first few years in the desert. His family was neither Mormon nor Catholic. That made him an outcast just like me in a community that demanded you be one or the other for acceptance. Or you could be rich. Money erased all social taboos, but we were both from dirt poor families.

We ate our sack lunches together every day on the far corner of the playground, away from everyone else. We couldn't afford school lunches and often we could only afford one lunch between us. We shared the meager contents of our bags with each other. We bonded over stale bread and supper leftovers. Without him, without his acceptance, I don't know if I would have survived those early years. He gave me life and war took him from me.

It devastated me even though I was a child of war. I knew that's what war did. It took away those you loved. I was raised by people who survived horrors most Americans will never be able to wrap their minds around. No matter how whole their bodies were, their minds, their ability to feel, their ability to love, their ability to live a normal life was taken from them by war.

But before he died, we shared politics and peace. We and a small handful of social misfits like ourselves, formed a club in school that worked for civil rights, for equality, for world peace. The other students saw us as odd and quirky and mostly avoided us.

And then the unthinkable happened. Dr. King was assassinated. In the midst of our grief a small change started to occur. During the assembly where the entire school came together to mourn, students who previously avoided us now welcomed us and started to come to our meetings. Something woke in them. Something became important that had previously lain dormant inside them.

In May of 1968 we signed up to work on Robert Kennedy's campaign. We watched him that June evening with the pride, the hope, the power of our dream starting to take shape. And then as quickly as the moment came, it went with his assassination.

Life became this awful series of shocks to our hearts and spirits. It didn't seem that things could possibly get worst, but they did. Almost a week later David was drafted, and by September he was dead.

I was young and I was angry. That is why I didn't just bury myself away and run away from the wounds of the past few months. I was raised by survivors and I wasn't going to let war defeat me either.

I don't remember how I went to my first anti-war demonstration. I suspect it had to do with David because part of that first day was camping out with a group of students on the steps of the federal building in Las Vegas. We read the names of those killed in Vietnam up to that point. It was already a long list and it took us all night to read the names with people coming up and offering to read for a while. I remember a nun came and they still dressed in black robes. She read for half hour and then left without saying anything to anyone. About 3 am, a police car pulled up and we thought we were going to be arrested, but instead he got out of his car and offered to read a few names. He had lost his son in Vietnam six months before. It was that kind of night.

It was also the kind of night when cab drivers spit at us, when people with engraged, red faces and bulging veins screamed insults at us, called us Communists, traitors, appeasers. I found my voice that night when I learned I had to read loud enough to be heard over the insults.

Those years shaped and defined me as a pacifist. I have spent my entire life since then writing about peace, making art about peace, being part of organizations and groups that worked for peace and the victims of war. In all those years I never lost hope, never gave up my dream that one day the world would know peace and reject war.

But the last eight years knocked something down in me. I fought but it was from despair instead of hope. I often felt as if an overwhelming evil had taken over America and was spreading outward. I began to understand how tyranny grew, how it fed on the dispirited souls of people too beaten down to object anymore. I understood how the Nazis happened, how the Fascists happened, how petty dictators hung on to their ill-gotten dictatorships.

That dull sense of merely existing instead of fighting back is finally starting to melt. No matter what people think of Obama, the important thing to understand is that he is a symbol of a change that is already taking place. We created him, our mass consciousness, our despair, our frustration with a world growing more cruel and more mean and more intolerant, created him from our own dreams. He is us and so is Hillary and so is Biden and so is everyone who was in that stadium tonight and who watched on television screens all around the world.

I don't know what will come of it all but I do know that for the first time in eight years that feeling of oppression is starting to lift. And because of my experience with war, with death, with survival, I know that's all it takes sometime, for someone to lift the edge of the fog and show us the way forward. Tonight I finally see the glint of daylight on the horizon and like millions of people around the world, I am daring once again to dream of a better world.

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