might've had a point with all those ornery columns I wrote the past 10 years on behalf of peace and clean energy.
As you read this, I'm still celebrating an award I received on Saturday from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance. OREPA, as it's known, is
dedicated to the challenge of stopping nuclear proliferation, preserving the environment and making the world a safer place for us and our descendants.
You don't know what it means to have people I hold in such high esteem
acknowledge that my columns might've got a thing or three right the past
decade. This is an award I'll treasure.
I used to win lots of awards, if you'll pardon the immodesty. That was
before I woke up one day and realized I had a decision to make. It was after my wife and I went to a soccer game and saw a headline in USA Today detailing how this country planned to visit Shock & Awe on Iraq.
I tell people in my writing class -- when faced with writers block just write down the truest thing you know. And so what I wrote was that the war in Iraq, like a lot of wars, would be based on a big lie. I got a few clues that I might be in trouble when the Knoxville News-Sentinel, where my column ran for 22 years, came out and endorsed the invasion, and later re-endorsed Bush-Cheney for re-selection.
The great historian Howard Zinn, who wrote "A People's History of the United States," and who died Jan. 27, once said that the only reason governments get away with doing such mean and stupid things is because people are so often so obedient.
And that's what I tried to do. I reflected on what the great philosopher Immanual Kant famously advised -- that we should live by that rule we'd have to be a universal principle of conduct. I thought, OK, if every journalist just tells the truth, we'll stop this war. I knew it was a long shot, but I was determined not to be the weak link.
Eventually I pulled my column from the News-Sentinel rather than obey editors who repeatedly directed me to stop writing about national issues. And what a hullabaloo was ignited. Letters and emails and phone calls flowed in every direction.
I'd be lying if I said I don't miss being one of those little gray faces in the newspaper. I grew up reading James Reston and Bert Vincent and Mike Royko and Wilma Dykeman and Carson Brewer. Being a columnist was a dream come true.
But I don't miss the lies and innuendos about me that regularly ran on the
Sunday morning letters to the editor page, and I don't miss thinly veiled
death threats that ran on the News-Sentinel website, and I don't miss the radio campaign an obscure talking head named George Korda mounted against me in a transparent effort to hijack my fame and infamy to his own advantage.
For a while I felt like an outsider in my own hometown, my own country. Like a lot of you, there were times when I didn't recognize my country anymore, and more than once when I've heard somebody say, "America, love it or leave it," I considered leaving. Especially following the shootings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church, where I teach my creative writing class and where two people were murdered -- and several injured -- for the crime of being liberals. I've Googled around, and there are times that Costa Rica or Denmark or Sweden looked pretty good to me.
But the hullabaloo involved in quitting my News-Sentinel column taught me one thing I've cherished. It taught me just who my country is. I'll never forget coming home the first Friday my column didn't run to discover my good friend Will Rickenbach sitting on my front steps with a hand extended. He didn't have to say a word, we've been friends a long time.
Or the delegation composed of seven gracious church ladies who came up to me after a Father Rob sermon and said how much they appreciated me. Or the surprise of discovering every chair filled for my creative writing class at Tennessee Valley Unitarian a couple weeks later. Or the outpouring of letters and emails from all over Tennessee, the United States and other countries.
Sometime along in there I realized I do belong. And that's because I live in a country within a country. It's made up of neighbors on Panther Creek and Indian Gap roads. It includes good folks at Tennessee Valley Unitarian and at St. Joseph's Episcopal, in Sevierville, who've kept a Peace Fellowship going for over a decade.
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