July 1, 2002
Once kings claimed that their power came directly from God. Once lawmakers decreed that slaves were not human beings. Once men said that women could not think clearly and therefore should not vote.
But black is not white just because the powerful say so.
We no longer view kings as divine or the descendants of slaves as sub-human. Truth can endure longer than power. This is the thought I hang on to as my country retreats from one badly needed international agreement after another and pursues an indefinite war that can only create more enemies. People can tell right from wrong and folly from wisdom even if a government cannot.
There are things we know to make sense, things that ring true to the soul. Not always immediately, not always quickly, but eventually the sensible and the true cast a light that reveals the cynical manipulations of truth and the obsolete thinking of another time for what they are. The more we give voice to our common sense and our sense of truth the quicker this can happen. As the people of another time found ways to say that kings are not gods and women are not frail, we can say that the Earth is necessary for survival, that violence cannot bring peace, that freedom cannot be saved by giving it away.
Here’s one thing we know to be true, one thing that we could let stand against the press conferences and the briefing books and the policy rationalizations. We could say that the Earth though bountiful and fruitful is also finite and fragile. We could say that people, though clever and hard working, are totally dependent upon it.
Hold this truth in your mind and listen to the words of the Whitehouse press secretary as he describes why the President will authorize only tiny steps to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. “…The President has announced a plan that will begin to address many of these problems without wrecking the American economy.” In the light of the truth of our dependence on the Earth it is impossible to find the sense here. Why be so cautious of the economy at the expense of the climate upon which the economy and everything else depend?
Here is another thing we know to be true. The golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you– holds the key to peace but it must be applied always, not just when it is easy or convenient, not just among friends.
We know this to be true even as George Bush says, in a speech in Tennessee in April, “The best way to fight evil is to do some good. Let me qualify that — the best way to fight evil at home is to do some good. The best way to fight them abroad is to unleash the military.” We know that if doing good is the solution at home killing and destroying cannot be the solution somewhere else. Black is not white. Up is not down.
Our history –from the internment of Japanese-Americans to the blacklisting of suspected communists– tells us that we cannot protect our freedom by surrendering it.
We know this even as the president defines our enemy as those who hate us because of our freedom. “They hate our freedom to worship. They hate our freedom to vote. They hate our freedom of the press. They hate our freedom to say what you want to say. They can’t stand what we stand for. And, therefore, we have no choice but to hunt ‘em down one by one to defend the very freedom we hold dear in America.” The President’s crew is busy tucking away our freedoms in order to defend them. The FBI has unprecedented powers. The faces of visitors to the Statue of Liberty are scanned. American citizens sit uncharged in prison because of terrorist links that are too secret to be revealed. The government tells us we must give over our freedom in order to save it. But still up is not down and white is not black. And freedom only exists if it is being used.
If truth is to last longer than the power of those shaping the policy of the United States today then people are going to need to nurture that truth. We are going to need to speak it and share it. I don’t expect that his will be easy or that our voices will not shake. But we have a power of our own, the power that comes from speaking out of truth as opposed to speaking out of expediency. And whatever it is in us that responds to the power of common sense or ethical truth lives in our neighbors and fellow citizens.
Think of your neighbors and your friends. Aren’t they ready to be inspired by something beautiful? Couldn’t they be inspired to invest in peace brigades and carbon sinks, and pollution controls for the sake of the long-term future? Shouldn’t we find out if people who are willing to speak the truth can be more inspiring and more compelling than the worn out old rhetoric about maximizing economic indicators and smashing the enemy to bits?