Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Barbara Deming: On the necessity to liberate minds

This essay is a condensed version of a talk given by Barbara Deming in Palo Alto, California in 1970. It was excerpted in the anthology We Are All Part of One Another: A Barbara Deming Reader (edited by Jane Meyerding, forward by Barbara Smith), New Society Publishers, 1984.

Some months ago when I heard Cathy Melville tell the story of the DC 9's raid on the Dow Chemical office in Washington, one moment she described struck me with the force of symbolism. She told me how they had trouble getting in through the door and finally broke into the office through a glass wall. As they were going about their work in there, scattering files, pouring blood, a stranger appeared in the hall, looked in through the large break in the glass and asked, "Is anything wrong?" Cathy told him, "No, everything's all right" and he went away, apparently assured that everything was all right.

As of course it was -- for a change -- up in that office. Here was a corporation that had been making and selling the stuff with which babies are burned alive. Some people were trying to make it harder for them to do this. To most of us, I assume, that would clearly be all right.

The difficulty is of course -- the tremendous difficulty -- that to a great many Americans the act of those nine people who scattered Dow files was a much more questionable, much more disturbing act, than the act of Dow in making and selling napalm. So that the incident Cathy reported was like a war resister's dream: you are engaged in an act of interfering with the military-industrial machine -- a death machine-- and a member of the public asks you: Should I be alarmed by what you are doing? And you tell him no-- and he accepts your reassurance.

Yes, like a dream. Because in actuality, as we confront a social apparatus that seems to us flagrantly irrational, out of control in its blind quest for wealth, dealing out death both at home and abroad--dealing it out even to children, both abroad and at home, killing its own children now, clearly a machine that must be stopped---.

But I'll interrupt myself, because the imagery I just used is inadequate. If it were just that we had to stop a death-dealing machine in its tracks, this would be relatively simple to accomplish-- although we could count on being hurt in the attempt. In a society like this one, so dependent on technology-- sabotage is terribly easy. A relatively small number of people can cause a tremendous amount of damage, can throw everything into confusion. But our task is not to wreck. Our task is to transform a society that deals out death into a society that makes life more possible for all. To build such a new society, very many people are needed. So, as we strike at the machinery of death, we have to do so in a way the general population understands, that encourages more and more people to join us.

This is surely the great challenge to the movement: How to make the public understand that it's "all right" to attack the death machine--that it is necessary? How to free their minds to see this and join us?

And here is the preposterous difficulty. We are all living now in a society so deranged that it confronts us not only with the fact that we are committing abominable crimes against others--crimes we shouldn't be able to live with; it confronts us also with threats to our own existence that no people in history have ever had to live with before. And confronts every single member of society with these threats--even the most privileged, even those in control of things, or rather, out of control of them. Confronts us, in the name of "defense," with the threat of nuclear annihilation. Confronts us, in the name of "national profit," with the threat that our environment may be completely destroyed. The society is this insanely deranged. And yet--we have to face the strange fact that most people are very much less terrified of having things continue as they are than of having people like us try to change things radically.

For most Americans are in deep awe of things-as-they-are. Even with everything this obviously out of control, they still tell themselves that those in authority must know what they are doing, and must be describing our condition to us as it really is; they still take for granted that somehow what is, what is done, must make sense, can't really be insane. These assumptions exercise a tyranny over their minds. Those of us committed to try and bring about change have above all to reckon with this tyranny, have above all to try to find out how to relieve men of it.

I read this past winter of a specially painful example, read in the Times the story of Michael Bernhardt, who was the young soldier who was the first to talk about the massacre at Songmy [later known as My Lai]. He had volunteered for service in Vietnam, full of faith in the words he had heard from his leaders about what this country was trying to do over there. He found himself almost immediately in the action at Songmy. He didn't take part in the killing. As his comrades began to shoot old people, women, babies--the reporter quotes him: "I just looked around and said, 'This is all screwed up.'" But after the action it took him quite a while to come forward and talk about it. Because he quickly experienced the eerie feeling that neither those in command of the war nor most Americans would agree with him. There is an almost unbearable passage in the story where he is quoted as saying, "Maybe this is the way wars really were...I felt like I was left out, like maybe they forgot to tell me something, that this was the way we fought wars, and everybody knew but me." The reporter writes then that the clash between this experience he had at Songmy and his convictions about his country is still something he cannot resolve. "It became almost a question of sanity." But, he writes, "if he were forced to pick, he would choose his convictions over his experiences." He quotes him as insisting, "We hold out a hope, you know."

A terrible story, and one worth being very attentive to. Here was a young man who was exceptional. He did not take part. He saw the action for what it was: all screwed up. And yet-- he did not know how to cope afterwards with this vision. It just made him feel left out. Because he suffered from the bondage I speak of--the awe of what is, of what is done. He suffered from the anxious sense that if one isn't part of it, whatever it is, one is then nowhere. And so in effect he dismisses the insight he had. Or does his best to. He chooses not to accept the truth of his own experience but something he has been told is truth: that our country "holds out a hope."

The question is: How do we cure men of this bondage? And of course, how do we cure our own selves more completely? How do we set all of us free to trust our experiences of the truth that everything is all screwed up?


How can we release the minds of more and more men to be able to see this? See it not just as a nightmare suffered that one tries to put out of mind; see it as meaning that we have to act to change things altogether. How do we give people the courage to trust that if they name things-as-they-are insane, they will not in doing so simply find themselves adrift?


[In our radical acts] We must be saying: Don't be afraid of us. It is the system that we are attacking that you need to fear--that all of us need to fear. For it is reckless with lives. But we are not. Don't fear us. What we seek is precisely a new community of men in which we are all careful of each other--and of the natural world around us. And look, we are beginning to build that world right now, in our relations with each other, in our relations even with you.

Don't be afraid of us. We are trying to release men from their fear.