LIberty Yell: Writing Like It's 1990

By Matthew Sperling on Jul 05, 2009 at 02:41 PM in Liberty Yell

I was going through some papers on July 4th, and I found the following essay written during the summer of 1990. Much of it is still relevant, so I thought I’d share it with you.

LIberty Yell: Writing Like It's 1990

America, America, America. It is a bell ringing. It is a city covered in the smoke and ashes of its own dubious prosperity. It is a homeless man sleeping on the steps of a church whose doors are locked against him. It is the Supreme Court of the United States voting to allow capital punishment of the mentally retarded. It is people wrapping themselves in a flag that loses all meaning once it becomes a sandwich board advertising patriotism. It is sex deemed to be pornographic while children are allowed to see brains exploding following the squeezing of a trigger.   

America: Broken treaties with the Indians, widespread segregation of the races, murdering its citizens in the name of national security, people telling you to love it or leave it, as if anyone who remembers our Declaration of Independence, or that we have a Constitution and Bill of Rights, is a subversive.   

Americans have been sold on the idea that it’s more important to be consumers than citizens. Prosperity has been defined almost entirely in terms of what one owns, not what liberties one has or doesn’t have. We’ve been told to look out for #1, and the police will take care of all the other numbers that never sleep peacefully within this American dream. There are ways to deal with people who try to rouse the general population from its advertising-induced coma. “Asleep today and gone tomorrow!” would be an honest slogan for the true state of American political and social life.  

We’ve been taught to sleep through our lives on behalf of someone else’s dreams. For the benefit of a handful of multi-millionaires and billionaires most Americans have been instructed to settle, if they’re lucky, for a few weeks of vacation a year and, if they’re very lucky, a health plan. In exchange for the scraps of middle class life, or the crumbs enjoyed by the lower classes, our rulers are to be left in peace in their mansions and exclusive playgrounds.   

One can easily ask why this country isn’t on the verge of revolution. Are not the indignities being visited on the masses far worse than the tax on tea or lack of representation that inspired our first revolution? Doesn’t it look a heck of a lot more like the France of 1789 than the America of 1776?   

Of course, we’re all armed to the teeth, or can be anytime we wish to purchase the weapon of our choice. No doubt a civil war would at this time be a bloodbath. Who’s to say that a desperate government wouldn’t nuke a rebel city. Or maybe they’d have enough sense to use a neutron bomb or some chemical or biological warfare.   

Our body politic is anemic from the lack of bodies. No one has yet shown an interest in advertising the advantages of citizenship. We can sell soap, but participation in democracy won’t make the right people a profit. The system as it exists is dominated by politicians on corporate payrolls. We are a one-party state, that of the Corporate Party.   

How can the grassroots, which are the only true roots of democracy, get their day in the sun? How do ordinary citizens save themselves from getting mowed down by the juggernaut of wealth and its special privileges? Is there any hope for democracy in this country?  

Democracy is an idea. Ideas require people to make them real. What would cause people to realize democracy?   

The first battlefield in the war for a better world is spiritual. You can kill the practitioners of greed, but if that’s all you do then new ones will merely take their places. We must change from the inside out for that change to have any hope of permanence.   

The quest for a better government and a more just society is a spiritual one. What do we expect of our government and ourselves? It is a spiritual matter to help the poor, protect the natural environment, make peace with our enemies. How does one bring the spiritual into American life in a way that won’t be tainted by religious dogma and institutionalism? How does one do it without creating martyrs to the violent defenses of the existing power structure? How can we avoid the violence and sacrifices that seem to be demanded by history?   

First, we must remember that we have prepared a means to sacrifice history itself. There can be no history without human beings to remember it. With tens of thousands of nuclear weapons still in place, we must remind ourselves that life hangs over a hell of radioactive oblivion by a thread of unknown thickness. It is a truth of our times, and we must face it with only one goal in mind: to free ourselves from these weapons as slaves would free themselves from their chains. The chains must be broken, and the institution of slavery destroyed. We must not settle for being a little bit free, any more than a slave would enjoy a slightly longer chain. These weapons must be made to disappear from the earth.   

There is nothing magical about ridding our lives of this menace. We made these swords, and we are just as able to produce the plowshares. War and its machinery are not acts of God or nature. What we had the will to make, we must now have the will to unmake and to put something better in its place.   

This planet is our only home. Our survival depends on protecting the environment as surely as we need to live in peace. Careless exploitation of the earth’s resources can be as deadly as exploding a bomb.   

We all live on the same planet. There is no first, second, or third world. The geographical divisions of nationalism may lead to the false presumption that the well-being of one people can be achieved at the expense of another. In fact, the singleness of the earth’s environment calls for its mutual protection by all people, and the only correct compensation for this effort is an equal sharing of the planet’s wealth.   

We are all guests in the same house. Ecological disaster has no respect for national boundaries. An ecological fire can burn down the entire structure and will not be contained by shutting the door to a room marked “foreign nation.”   

Nor can we shut our eyes to the unhappy lives of the poor in our own community. Their poverty is our poverty, whether we realize that at the point of their knives or guns, out of the goodness of our hearts, or through common sense.   

Each one of us, ordinary citizens and national leaders, must decide which is more sacred: our respect for life or our ownership of property. How we balance our responsibilities to ourselves and our responsibilities to others determines the quality of our citizenship and humanity, which in turn determines not only the quality of life, but, in today’s world, its survival.

The odds in favor of survival increase with every act of generosity; they decrease with all acts of greed. The choices are personal. A group, a city, a nation, and a world is only good as its people.