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A Movement Gathers Power on the Sorrow Plateau

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The movement for peace and justice in the USA has been transformed during the past two months. But what is the nature of the change, and how will it help to move us forward? The short answer, I think, is that we have been enriched by sorrow; we gather upon a sorrow plateau. Because of this place we have come to, we have new opportunities to broaden the scope of our power to sustain lasting change for freedom.

Sorrow is the new power that Cindy Sheehan brought into the movement last month. And the power of our sorrow has grown in response to the sufferings caused by hurricane Katrina. This sorrow has not overcome us, but it has infused our motivations. Out of this sorrow comes a renewed sense of our struggle's significance.

Sorrow grounded Cindy's moral footing in the bar ditches of Crawford, Texas. Her sorrow was the reality that could not be conjured away by the alchemists of spin. It drew like a magnet so many who were grieving the loss (or the risk of loss) of a dearly loved life. The beauty of this sorrow was how it wept in consideration of one precious life at a time. For Cindy, the loss of her son Casey was enough. With each new arrival to Camp Casey came testament that one wasted life brings sorrow enough. To save just one life more is now motivation enough to stop the Iraq war.

Then came hurricane Katrina and the sorrowful reports of last moments: the one man who held with one hand the one woman he had to release. And that also was sorrow enough.

Refusal to share our plateau of sorrow was what exposed the President to the most devastating public rejection of his political life--a rejection from which he may not recover. When, during the early days of Katrina, we tuned to televised images of his trademark smirk and watched him attempt his cheerleading formulas as answer to the devastation, we saw naked as never before one man's incapacity to be moved by sorrow.

From the bar ditches of Texas and from the broken canals of New Orleans, the nation had been lifted to a sorrow place, and the President on vacation had transparently refused to follow. On that basis, his approval ratings sunk to the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain, faster than a sack of sand.


What we have learned over the past month thanks to Cindy, thanks to the unspun truths of Katrina, is that sorrow can serve as a worthy guide to the values of peace and justice. Our tears have made us stronger. The President's lack of tears has made him weaker. This lesson we should try never to forget.

Whose Freedom?

As many commentators have noted, including Cindy Sheehan, some of the President's public declarations do not seem to make sense when compared to his record of performance in New Orleans. I think especially about the President's public declarations for freedom. We are a freedom-loving people says the President. They hate us for our freedoms, he explained. And so we are engaged in full scale war on two fronts in order to bring freedom to other parts of the world.

When Katrina blew the cover off of the USA's longstanding structures of poverty and racism, I thought about the President's concept of freedom and asked where did he find this freedom that he loves? Where did he locate the freedom that others would hate? And what kind of freedom is he building through full-scale war overseas?

Of course, it is possible to just dismiss everything said in political circumstances as mere politics. But I think there a concept of freedom that fits the President's usage, which makes sense and stands true in the statements that he makes to the world.

To make sense of the President's sense of freedom, all we have to do is carefully draw the line around who the President means by 'us' when he talks about 'our' freedom. So long as we draw that line carefully enough in the first place, I think we can see that the President means what he says. Certainly the President is speaking about himself, and his Vice President. Certainly the President is speaking about his Vice President's favorite company Halliburton. Then we throw in the oil companies, some wealthy corporate donors, and a certain crowd of upper middle class suburbanites who roam the highways to work and back each day with lots of freedom, too.

So long as we understand who it is that the President is talking about, we can see that they indeed love their freedoms, that their freedoms are the kind that provoke hatred, and when we go into full scale war, these are the folks who indeed wind up doing as they please everywhere they go.

From our vantage point on the sorrow plateau, however, we can also see that this is not the concept of freedom that we seek to spread through our movement. For the movement that has been recently strengthened and transformed through the sorrows of Iraq and New Orleans, freedom is a concept that would apply to an expanding circle of people. It is something we love because we do not already have it. It is something we would exercise in ways that do not provoke hatred. And it is a freedom that full scale wars cannot deliver, especially when those wars are motivated by secret agendas and made-to-order lies.

As a movement, the freedoms we seek are the freedoms of people to question and control the great powers of our day, whether those powers operate under public or private cover. The kind of freedom we seek is not the kind of freedom that allows a nominee for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the USA to keep his working papers secret. As Dolores Huerta argued this week, when the public pays someone to work for the Justice Department, the public has a right to know what that person did.

The freedoms we seek as a movement are the freedoms of people to expand and share in the development of issues that preoccupy the state, not the freedoms of state actors to craft and deploy their policies from behind airtight vaults. Or witness on the one hand how the President's circle of freedom made a state-by-state campaign this year to pass laws that would tighten up the access and identity of would-be voters. Notice how our movement fought those initiatives in each state, led by voices who remember and stand for the long struggle to expand the circle of freedom at the ballot box.

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Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. And he is co-editor with Gail Presbey of a new collection of peace (more...)
 

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