02 September 2008

We must not become a nation of cowards....

My friend Rosie is part of a family from Cambodia who purchased the Monte Vista Grocery on Piedmont Avenue a decade or so ago. She is short, beautiful, feisty, with a wonderful scamp of a daughter, Chrissie, and an elegant attitude toward life. I loved each member of her family who worked there, and often stopped to chat over the wonderful produce and reasonable prices.

We had spoken quietly of Pol Pot, Cambodia, and the nightmare they left behind, and I sometimes wondered what memories troubled their sleep. The entire family, although walking each day on the bones of a past so unspeakable I couldn’t begin to fathom what they had seen. Yet each was a smiling, pleasant, fun, energetic person to know.

One day Rosie introduced me to her beautiful mother, who spoke little, if any English. We nodded and smiled, held each other’s hands. We looked into each other’s faces, and knew if we could, we would be friends.

After her mother withdrew, over the vegetables I asked Rosie, “So where is your dad, Rosie?”

“Oh, he died,” she said, matter-of-factly, in the way people of great sorrow speak in even tones to protect themselves from intrusion.

“He did? What happened, Rosie?”

She looked at me to make sure I wanted to hear what she had to say. “They put him in the army.”

“But, what happened, Rosie?” I stumbled along where angels would fear to tread. “What happened to your father?”

“Well, they wanted him to kill a bunch of people, so he quit eating.”

I looked down at the boxes of beautiful fruit and vegetables that, because of these people, I had my easy choice of each day. I tried to remember how many millions of skulls they found in the killing fields of Pol Pot. “What happened to him, Rosie?” I asked, looking into her eyes.

She looked at me as though I were more stupid than the eggplant I had in my hand. “Well, Mugsy, if you stop eating, you die.”

“You mean, he starved himself to death rather than murder innocent people?” I felt my definition of courage rewriting itself in tears on my heart.


She went back to unpacking the grapefruit. I knew I was upsetting her, but I had to ask one last question. “But Rosie, how many soldiers did that?”

“Oh, a lot of them.” We looked at each other through tears. I touched her hand, and went on to have my purchases weighed by a woman whose children had died in her arms of starvation. She’d been listening and handed me a tissue. “Have a nice day,” she said, as I left.

“You too, my friend,” I said, “You too.”

Can you possibly imagine United States solders choosing to starve themselves rather than kill innocent civilians? I am embarrassed to say it is beyond my imagination. And I believe that’s part of why we are so ineffective and defenseless against these rogue terrorist groups. We can’t begin to comprehend actually dying for our country. Even the soldiers we send to wherever this season’s “over there” is don’t actually believe they will die. We don’t even get it that these small rogue non-governmental groups are that serious. But they are. Deadly serious. We can't comprehend it because we don’t even know what that kind of courage is.

Football is the perfect metaphor for the United States vs. the rest of the known world.

When I was in Sorrento, I saw a large group of people leaning against a wall, intently watching something down below, in the churchyard. I wandered over, and saw it was a soccer game, including, from the looks of it, a grandmother and a bunch of teenaged kids. She was pretty well holding her own. It’s like this, all over the world, people of all ages put on their tennies and shorts, gather up their friends, and go outside to play soccer. If no friends are available, they kick the ball against a wall, happy and heartful in the endeavor.

Well, except in the United States. In the United States, football is mostly a corporate advertising opportunity, a spectator sport, another chance to market. Our players wear armor, and go out onto the field where they try to maim and cripple the other side, succeeding so often that major drugs are involved. We can’t even use a round ball, for god’s sake; we have to have this weird-Harold dead pig football and these ridiculous rules that really make no sense to anyone. (And change just as soon as you learn them.)

The involvement of actual people in football is mainly tailgate parties, eating themselves silly in the parking lot of the arena out of the backs of gas-guzzling vehicles often painted and decorated in the colors of their teams. Customizing costumes and organizing cheers are the other participation opportunities. Of course drinking oneself silly in the process is all part of this ritual.

Of course there are wingnut soccer fans all over the world, and professional soccer has a lot of the organized fan insanity surrounding it.

We are far more dedicated to and intent on our football than our system of government, our Constitution, or our Bill of Rights, the foundation of our country, which we profess to love so much. But we don't show it in any real way,other than sticking "God Bless America" bumper stickers on our trucks. We are in no way the people our founding mothers and fathers were, who came here in little wooden boats to a land with no electricity, no cell phones, no indoor plumbing. The soldiers of the Revolutionary army violated the very tenets of war for their time. British armies stood in the battlefield, while our guys hid behind rocks and trees and shot them as they stood. A new kind of warfare. Just as suicide bombing is a new kind of warfare. The British didn’t understand what was happening until it was too late. We must learn more quickly if we as a nation are to survive. And we must show a new kind of courage.

These are dangerous times. The threat to the United States is not from beyond our borders, but from within. Our wonderful Amy Goodman and her crew were in a house in Minnesota covering the convention when the police broke in and held them for hours with assault weapons, telling them they were being held not for anything they had done but because of what they might do. And when actually taken in, no charges were filed against them, they were told, because they hadn't done anything wrong. See www.democracynow.org for more information. Our own government is turning this country into a police state, and altogether too many US citizens think that's just fine. Our prisons are full of people we have thrown away because there's no work for them, and no value put on their lives. The independent press is imprisoned and bullied and locked up, and we ignore it. We lock ourselves away in our homes, afraid to walk down the street. We imagine invasions where none is threatened, and hand over the keys to our country to those who are not intelligent, who are corrupt, and who use our fear to manipulate us until accepting their violation of US and international law. Why? Because we are becoming such cowards that we will not stand up and face the bullies.

While we've worried about some phantom threat from overseas, Enron, Haliburton, and the neocons have made off with $3 trillion of our money, plus much of our 401k retirement funds, and now they also want our Social Security funds. The banks and lending institutions have put hundreds of thousands of us into bankruptcy, after they rewrote the bankruptcy laws to remove our protections. Our homes, all across the country, are in foreclosure. Families are being tractored off their farmland in record numbers, not seen since the Great Depression. Our urban jobs are vanishing, like water on a hot pavement. The public utilities have been privatized, so we now pay ridiculous amounts of money for telephones which work sometimes, break often, and are easily tapped. Our civil rights have been used as toilet paper in the White House. And still we babble on about President Clinton's "values" and say we don't "trust" Senator Obama.

Part of the problem is the number of citizens who have come here or been born only a little while ago, and have no personal memory of how it could be different, true, but the greater part is that we have become a nation of cowards. We are ignorant, some willingly, some not. We are afraid of the dark. And we well should be, because the darkness of ignorance is closing in all around us.

One time I went to hear the Tibetan Monks chanting in the ballroom at UC Berkeley in the evening, and afterward, I went to have tea with friends. They dropped me off at the entrance to the underground lot where my car was parked, around midnight. As I walked down the ramp, I noticed my Toyota was the only car in the lot.

As I walked further underground, I began hearing footsteps behind me, many many footsteps. As someone who has been through a brutal rape, I was stone terrified. My car was too far away to run to. The footsteps quickened. Inside, I heard a quiet voice, "Turn around and face your fear." And I had no choice. So, as I stood at the bottom of the ramp in the night, I turned, trying not to faint, trying to keep my wits about me.

And there they were. The chanting monks. All 13 of them. They came down and surrounded me, talking over each other, smiling, patting me on the arms and shoulders. They were happy to see me, because in their tours they rarely got to speak with individual people. We stood there talking (as though my weak knees would have allowed me to move) for quite some time, and then they gave me a package of incense and a tape of their chanting. At some point, I noticed the van they were headed toward. They all walked me to my car and helped me into it.

And so I say to you, my friends, please, for the love of god, turn around and face your fears. What awaits you cannot possibly be worse than those phantoms you are frightening yourselves with.

©2008 by Mugsy Peabody. All world rights reserved.

Note: You can hear the monks, Ravi Shakar, and others chanting the age-old om mane padme hung at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vjg5hU3MfIw&feature=related. If you would like to learn more about the Cambodian Genocide, please consult the Yale University Cambodian Genocide Project at: http://www.yale.edu/cgp.