This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the New York Society of Ethical Culture on 17 October 2004
Now is a crucially important time to be considering issues relating to activism. Not only are we confronting the disastrous consequences of the war in Iraq, both for the Iraqi people and for the international community, including the United States, but we are also seeing many other terrifying problems, from global warming and ecological catastrophe to the proliferation of almost inconceivable weapons of war; with all these things pointing to a frightening and perhaps terminal decline not only of our species, but of the entire planet.
A sense of doom is spreading from the basements and cellars of smashed up cities across the globe and carried on the boats of desperate refugees and survivors into conference halls of the most refined metropolises. Everywhere, everyone knows somewhere in their hearts that we are in trouble, and that knowledge to some extent moulds our behavior, from the moment we wake in the morning to the moment we tuck our children into bed at night.
In what used to be called the west, the most dominant reaction to this crisis is the kind of fatalistic shrug becoming familiar in this culture of disengagement and despair. A deep cynicism about political processes and even of the notion of democracy itself is spreading. We watch contemptuously as our politicians and political institutions serve and pander to the very interests of those most responsible for killing the world.
Cynicism and contempt does not effect change, and marks a surrender to the forces plundering them. But cynicism does neutralise the anger people feel about the world and their circumstances, and turns it in on themselves, as we see in popular culture, from music to film. This rising fury is being expressed in a celebration of violence and catastrophe. It makes its audience an amenable tool in the hands of those standing over them. Anyone who saw Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 was as startled as I was to learn that as the tanks shot their way into Baghdad, the soldiers inside them were listening to a pop-group called the Bloodhouse Gang singing ‘The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire, We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn. Burn motherfucker burn.’ Popular music filled with a cynicism and nihilism about the world was used to encourage young men to kill.
Of course, a different reaction to this terrible crisis is feasible, and some have embraced the idea that change is not merely necessary, but is actually possible. These people have declined to ascribe our present woes to the inveterate selfishness or stupidity or perhaps even evil innate in man, and search for other causes of our present predicament that can be dealt with and solved. These people, the activists, say the world may be complex, but we need to understand and to change it before we’re all dead. These people, like the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, say to their fellows, going along with our captors will not save our lives, because our captors intend to kill us. Our only hope is to fight. And many of us are fighting, and have been fighting, and many battles have been won.
And some costs paid.
To align ethical and activism as I do here might strike some as redundant. Activists, one hopes, are people already imbued with the highest sense of ethics, driven to their activism by their strong sense of justice. One need only think of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela to see shining examples of exemplary behavior in the service of the rest of us. These are people for whom the struggle for justice must itself be conducted in a just manner, whose personal behavior, both to their fellows and their persecutors and oppressors was true and honest, even as they were being bashed, tortured and jailed by them. This is why we value and celebrate their lives, both for the great gifts of liberty and freedom they have given us, and for the example they show of how to live in a world as difficult and fraught as this one.
But struggle can also have a corrosive effect. Disappointment, violence, harassment and contempt can grind the spirit down, making us meaner and uglier and obsessed with only one thing: getting rid of the enemy at any cost. All activists are tempted on occasion when struggling in the midnight of their souls to chant along with the Bloodhouse Gang, ‘Burn, mother-fucker, burn’ and to embrace the methods of our enemies and serve them back. And all of us know what a terrible disaster that can be, for the evidence is all around us. It may seem a bit rich for someone like me to be saying to people whose children are being crushed to death beneath tanks that violence is not the answer, but if there is one shining lesson that has been burnt indelibly into the soul of man, it surely must be that violence only breeds violence, and the ethic of an eye for an eye leaves us all blind.
But the point is clear: if the price of cynicism and resignation is death and enslavement, the price of struggle may sometimes be watching ourselves turn into the mirror images of our oppressors. As we contest and counter their moves, we learn their tricks and mimic their ways, and, if in the end we become the monsters whose downfall we devoted our lives to, then nothing is gained and much is lost, for the time is now short and our steps must be certain if we are to save our lives.
Art is many things. The Bloodhouse Gang are not the first to have sung a war song, and an honest appraisal of any culture or religion would find whole chapters devoted to encouraging us to kill and die in the interests of some ‘higher’ principle. The human species has spent a long time fighting. Homer’s Iliad is surely a celebration of war and militancy – the masculine traits – and the homo-erotic elements of blood and death on the battlefield hold a perennial interest even if we shudder at the bloodthirsty detail. But art is not so much about approval or disapproval as of knowledge. Art worthy of the name, gives us knowledge of ourselves and it is this self knowledge that we now need. For we must know the pipes to which we’re dancing if we are to save ourselves from waltzing over the cliff. Great activists like King and Mandela teach us that for all our glorious differences, we are all essentially the same.
This is an ethical claim and insight and the basis upon which an ethical life and society can be laid; denial of which opens the world to injustice and chaos. This insight not only validates, but is also the central gift and value of art. In opening my heart to you, I am opening you to yourself, for the fact that we can all appreciate and respond to each other’s art. In some important sense we are the same, and this must lead to the conclusion that a society that does not treat us all with equal dignity and respect cannot claim to be either just or fair, and will not, cannot, stand.
If you do not have the same opportunities and chances as me, it is not because we are different, it is because the odds are skewed by something that has nothing to do with morality. This is the simple truth that art reveals to us before all others: that you, a stranger, are already known to me if I have the courage to know myself. That your sins are my sins, your weaknesses and strengths mine, your crimes mine; and your triumphs. That the best in me is in you, and the worst in you is also in me. Such are the things we can and must learn from art.
In my art form, theatre, that is the very first goal: that people can know the other, and that the other they are desperate to meet is themselves. While we live, creatures in time and space, we seek our purpose in other spheres. Art is one. There has never been a time when humans did not make art, and there has never been a time when art did not provide some of the reasons we seek to explain why we are here, why we have the right to be here. Art is not diversion; art makes us real.
We are contemplating a world in decay and decline, with terrible wars laying waste great tracts of the planet, continents being turned into deserts, seas being poisoned and emptied of life as the skies above us are blackened with the filth of our progress. We contemplate these things, and worse, the surrender of our cultures and societies to torture and other forms of barbarism previously thought relegated to the ancient past. We see the assaults taking place on our laws, our rights, our civilizations and our minds and are told to expect worse still in this struggle to defeat not an evil enemy, but Evil itself. We are told to believe the unbelievable when the truth is so plainly obvious to even the most blind, that our laws and our societies have been turned into vicious conspiracies to rob the dying poor of the last vestiges of their livelihoods and to defend the indefensible, that endless war is our future and only hope.
We contemplate these things and feel the pull, each in an opposite direction, toward resignation and cynicism on the one hand or toward engagement and activism on the other If we choose to try to save our lives, we must beware of the dangers lurking along even the most virtuous path, and continually remind ourselves that our enemies are our brothers and sisters worthy of the same love and respect we hope to be worthy of ourselves. In following the examples of the great men and women who have gone before us in dignity and honor, we must know that what we are doing is embracing life in all its boundless glory and turning our backs on death and despair. When we die, let it be from the blows of our enemies and not the small cuts we deliver our own spirits if we let cynicism fester inside our hearts.
When the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto embraced violence, did this demean or destroy them even before the Nazis laid their hands on them? Should they, like their fellows, have gone along with the butchers’ plans and surrendered themselves meekly to their fate, trusting that God or history would be kinder to them than their present circumstances? Is violence ever anything more than a brutalising experience deforming and corrupting the spirits of everyone involved? Did they embrace life, or death, through their desperate actions?
The judgment of history is clear: the Warsaw fighters joined the many other acts of individual bravery and honor in the face of the terrifying onslaught of the Nazi killing machine that in the end slowed and defeated it. This is now celebrated as a great moment in the revolt of the human spirit against injustice and despair; and while to say that might appear to be a rejection of my previous embrace of the injunction to love and honor our enemies even as we struggle with them, I trust you can see they do not, for to love my Nazi brother is not to surrender my life to him and slit my own throat. It is to recognise in him the same things that are in me, and it is to know that while I am afraid, so is he; and while I need love, so does he; and if I need to kill him to save my own life, I do not do it in such a way that crushes or denies his humanity, for that will only crush and destroy my own.
The taking of life “ any life “ means dipping our hands into a sacred space and changing it forever, and if I say a prayer asking for forgiveness as I take the life even of a chicken, how much more profound is the taking of a life of a fellow human, even if that person is threatening me. Violence need not turn us into monsters. We choose to become monsters in our willful indifference to the humanity of our enemies. That is the terrible price we are now paying for this grotesque war in Iraq.
Art is the mirror in which we see ourselves, and we must look into that mirror. We must see ourselves for what we are, in our longings to touch the stars, and the gleefully cruel destructiveness with which we prance around the rising fires we have deliberately lit. We must recognise the sacred and the profane in our own spirits; and understand that this world we now inhabit, this world so broken and tormented we can hear its groans in our sleep, is our creation. If we should die, if this sad planet should slip into endless night then the judgment of whatever alien civilisation that eventually picks through the dust and muck of our last days will surely be harsh: that we took this place, this beautiful world, and turned it into a scene of unmitigated horror, and that we did it knowingly and willfully because in the end the bravery with which the best of us stood up to their killers could not combat the squalor of our very own minds.
But we know we can live with dignity and courage in the face of an apparently implacable enemy, and eventually defeat them. And to the cool dudes of the Bloodhouse Gang whose music has now become the sound-track to the end of the world, I would like to respond: The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire, our children are inside so we cannot let it burn. Fight, mothers, fathers, fight; while there’s still time.
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