[I began this essay well over a year ago, shortly after the death of Howard Zinn, irrepressible teacher, visionary and campaigner for human rights and dignity for the downtrodden. Note that what I address in this essay deals with extraordinary, heroic individuals in the intellectual and inspirational sense. I do not intend to conflate the word sentinels with the far more abused and overused word heroes. Hence, this is not about the brave and heroic men and women that make immense sacrifices without the slightest thought for personal gain, who have always been part of this country or the world. Thus, this is not about the 9-11 firefighters and relief-workers whose heroic deeds speak for them. The deafening irony in their story, of course, is that the right-wing "patriots" here (from Rudolf "911" Giuliani on down) paid at best the most insincere and revolting lip service to their sacrifice, and thereafter, these decent and courageous human beings were essentially cast aside, neglected and even abused (who will forget the obscene grilling by the reptilian Bill O'Reilly of the son of a 9-11 victim (Jeremy Glick) in his crude propaganda show, simply because this perceptive young man saw clearly through the devious facade of patriotism and Americanism that was being foisted at the time in order for this country to launch two illegal and deeply inhuman wars of aggression upon entirely innocent human beings, the crimes represented by which actions make puny by far even the attacks upon the WTC towers?). We know well, of course, that the right-wing warmongers and racist bigots could not care less about any ordinary, decent, family- and humanity-loving people. The fact that the appalling treatment meted out to this country's cannon-fodder (that's my term for the poor people's children who are sent out as "soldiers" to kill and be killed in the quest for corporate profits by the right-wing hatemongers and Wall Street magnates), once they return from the (usually) ignominious (poor-and-non-white) people-slaughtering campaigns that they were sent out to conduct on behalf of the GEs, the General Dynamics, the Bechtels, the Halliburtons and the likes of Rupert Murdoch, has never been a sufficient wake-up call for the media-drug-addled population in this country, is evidence enough for me that politically this pathetic duopoly is beyond redemption. And within this past year (2010), with the right-wing once again in place to carry out their criminal enterprise, there is increasing evidence of the fresh assault upon the human rights of working people in exchange for social welfare for billionaires in frightening numbers, in state after state. All this is unfolding before our eyes, with little or no remedy. MRC.]
Despite the sheer, unremitting horror of their war crimes and crimes against humanity, there is one thing for which I would express gratitude to the Bushco criminal enterprise of the past 10 years. These years of intense government and corporate crimes (sometimes the two being indistinguishable) helped generate in me a deeper awareness of, and appreciation for, certain extraordinary individuals in this imperial nation whom I might not, otherwise, have known as much about.
While the public airwaves, both television and radio, and much of the print media, including the warmongering New York Times, were filled with corporate cronies and flesh peddlers, screaming zealots, racists and bigots, war profiteers and right-wing operatives (the list is endless and staggering, and while some like Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Coulter, O'Reilly, and Malkin are quite obvious, I would also generally include in this ignominious group other seemingly "polished" and "nicely packaged" individuals such as Jim Lehrer, Diane Sawyer, Cokie Roberts, Tom Brokaw, Lester Holt, Judy Woodruff, and just about every so-called broadcast journalist with corporate connections, including several at such venerable institutions as NPR and PBS, in varying degrees of imperial arrogance and hubris), these remarkable human beings demonstrated to me there really was another America, one with humanity and reason, with intellectual curiosity and sense of justice and fair play, with humility and willingness to understand and change, if needed, its attitude and role before the world.
One such, probably at the leading edge of my list of these American sentinels, is Howard Zinn (1922-2010). I must note here that my choice of the word sentinel for these individuals is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's famous essay in response to Rabindranath Tagore's criticism of his (Gandhi's) having placed the blame for the 1934 Bihar earthquake as "divine retribution" for human misdeeds. Tagore and Gandhi, who greatly admired one another, also had (sometimes significant) differences in their social and political worldview. Responding to Tagore's strident critique, Gandhi wrote the essay, The Great Sentinel, whereby he paid tribute to Tagore's role as the living, strident, conscience of India.1,2 The profoundly human and humane individuals to whom I refer in this essay, are indeed the sentinels of America- they are the conscience of a land in the grip of military and business enterprises that is deeply drunken with the defiling drugs of power, plunder, arrogance and hubris.
In these dark and dismal years of a new millennium (the first decade of which has shown me irrefutable signs in many respects of a great march backwards to the dark and savage times of our human past), I had become so used to looking towards Mr. Zinn for sense and sanity, for sage commentary about the inhumanity and cruelty of American government and corporations- that of all the noble American figures that have been lost to the world in the past 10 years, years of great pain and shock- I truly feel that I miss Mr. Zinn terribly. I feel not only saddened and bereft, but also plain concerned that America has lost one more sage voice so critically needed for the survival (and I am not being hyperbolic here) of human civilization. I knew little about Howard Zinn prior to the neocon/right-wing takeover of the American government in 2000. From the onset of that dark event, and the years of ruthless social and war crimes that have followed, I have essentially turned off all manner of American mass media, which are bought and paid for by the warfare and imperial industrial empire. The period from 2000-2008 was one of unmitigated world-wide horror, instigated by the most arrogant, heartless, self-serving and vicious gang of zealots one could imagine. During this dismal and dark period, I came across the works of Howard Zinn, principally his groundbreaking and extraordinary People's History of the United States, which offers a glimpse into the dark and gory chapters of American political and social life- chapters that rarely see the light of day in the history textbooks here, much less in discussions of social reform in this country. For anyone even slightly interested in knowing a thing or two about class-wars in America, and its entrenched racism, bigotry, war-industry, and the military-industrial enterprise, this text is a must-read. Zinn's more recent titles, Voices of a People's History of the United States, You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train, and A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, only add to his monumental oeuvre.
With the din of criminal wars raging in the distance, conducted by a country one had chosen to live and work in, I found solace repeatedly in the voices of Zinn and a handful of other American thinkers amid the savage wilderness of hate, bigotry, xenophobia and insanity. I watched Zinn speak to Amy Goodman and her audience at Pacifica Radio and on Democracy Now! He lent his support to Arundhati Roy in some of her more well-reasoned campaigns against imperium (incidentally, I have had problems on occasion with Roy's analyses in the Indian context, since I do not believe that one can quite so readily conflate imperialism, which is overwhelmingly a Western enterprise, with the historic strife within other nations with complex civilizations). Where I do place value to Roy's warnings is in the arena of India's increasingly dangerous tilt towards the American model of free enterprise (which is a well-oiled euphemism for rampant greed, profiteering and plunder of the earth using money and violence) at the cost of the starving and powerless billions, and the irreplaceable resources of the earth.
My first invigorating introduction to Studs Terkel (1912-2008) occurred in the early years of the Bushco criminal enterprise. As disturbed as I had been with the spectacle (hitherto completely improbable) of an imbecile and soulless degenerate having been thrust upon the world as the leader of the free world by nothing less than criminal judicial fiat in 2000- the drum roll for yet another imperial war foisted by this executioner and his cohorts was all around us through much of 2002 and 2003. US mass media had become, far more transparently, the mouthpiece for the corporate government, and the parade of inane platitudes and xenophobic hatred on a daily basis on radio and TV was deafening.