University Essays: Lesson 14, Reading 2
by Joan Baez
Last fall, during a two-month tour of the U.S., I called my good friend, Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy. Colman teaches a high school class on nonviolence, so we arranged an hour-long seminar with his students after my Washington concert. Looking back on it, I think that I got more out of that one-hour meeting than I did out of anything else I did during the tour.
The students in the group were racially, economically, and politically mixed, fairly knowledgeable, and very bright. Their discussion of social issues, viewed in the context of nonviolence (or otherwise), was honest, astute, intelligent, but most striking of all, characterized by a sort of dignified cynicism and resignation.
They were also refreshingly inquisitive. Some of the questions (theirs and mine) which arose: What did I think were the real reasons that the administration sent troops to Lebanon, invaded Grenada, and meddles and manipulates events and affairs in Central and Latin America? Is it a real fear of communism? Or is President Reagan just looking for the best way to get votes? Does any member of the administration, State Department, or CIA really believe we are acting for the good of humankind? Why is the perception of suffering, repression and torture so dramatically influenced by unrelated perceptions of geography and ideology? Why are the practices of some abusers tolerated while others are vehemently denounced? Why is the Freeze, the only viable “movement” in the United States today, almost exclusively an adult movement? Why won’t kids leave their classes, their computers and their video games and get involved? Is this apathy of Americans—kids and grown-ups—a result of a genuine fear that any political involvement comes at the risk of economic security, or are they simply too self-centered to care?
To most of these questions, there were no specific answers—just general (and inadequate) responses.
As we discussed the subject of the general lethargy within the United States, someone suggested that the overwhelming reaction of the European public against missiles in their “own backyard” was, in part, because the missiles belonged to somebody else and that one reason Americans weren’t outraged and terrified by our own missile-dotted terrain was that ours are “nice American missiles.”
It seemed that these kids were all coping, each in his or her own private way, with the fear of nuclear holocaust, which has to affect everyone’s behavior, whether they accept or deny the reality of the situation—and that the job of coping is taking up a lot of energy.
One girl talked about her inability to read a newspaper or watch the news on television because it was too emotionally demanding. If she exhausted her feelings on the morning news, she feared she wouldn’t have enough left to react to those things that ought to matter to her. Even the death of a relative, she confided, might not stir her from the indifference that seemed to consume her after watching the news.
But of all that we talked about that evening, the one thought that struck me most, and which moved me to realize that it was time to reorganize my life once again, was a very simple one. It came from a sixteen-year-old boy whose “punk” styles included blonde spikes in his hair, black jeans and a leather jacket; he sat casually near me on a couch, his motorcycle helmet in his lap. He called himself Dante, and he was clearly well-liked by the rest of the class. He had mused, participated, joked, and now seemed to sum things up. “You see,” he said, “you guys in the sixties had everything. You had the music, the issues, the symbols, the momentum. You had each other; you had glue. We are missing that. We don’t have any glue.”
There was unanimous agreement in the room and I saw instantly that this statement rang true not only for young people, but certainly for me, and, as I have found since that evening, for practically everyone I meet. We are all so caught up in our individual problems and struggles that we have no attachment to others whose problems and struggles are so very much like our own. We need some common bonding ingredient—some social and political “glue.”
When I asked Dante if he’d be interested in taking risks if he felt that he were not alone, he said “sure.”
Following that conversation, at the remaining concerts on the tour, I began testing this notion. “I know that there are intelligent people all over the world,” I would say. “It’s just that we have to discover each other.” Audiences seemed to respond with enthusiasm, anticipation and relief.
This response brought to mind the ideas expressed by British historian, E.P. Thompson, whose “Letter to America” appeared in our last newsletter. Thompson wrote of the need for an international peace movement. Perhaps there is a way to develop real solidarity against violence, terror and oppression, which could cut across international borders. If the call and ensuing actions were strong enough, they would appeal to all ages.
Of course, there are many different kinds of glue. Perhaps the current wave of nationalistic frenzy in the United States can be interpreted in terms of instant glue—a sort of national Elmer’s Glue-All. But building a humane, nonviolent, life-supporting movement will take a much more permanent, stronger bonding, more substantial kind of glue. My head is spinning with ideas of how to approach this overwhelming task.
As I write this, I am on my way to Germany, France, England, New York, Washington and elsewhere to speak with some of the people whose experience in and understanding of the process of nonviolent change I most respect.
Hopefully, by the next newsletter, we— with any suggestions that you can offer to us — will have begun to formulate a plan to determine how I, with the help of Humanitas, can best play a part in the effort to find a moral equivalent, in the year 1984, to Gandhi’s spinning wheel.
This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537-.1372.