Clapping Hands and Singing after Forty Years

PAUL OLSON 
UNL EMERITUS PROFESSOR

Speaking Our Peace Graphic

Tomorrow morning I go in for cataract surgery.  My other eye has been partially blinded by a stroke.  Things fall apart in my body. 

Tuesday comes the elections, and I suspect that—whatever the outcome—things will fall apart nationally as well. Over 50 percent of our national budget goes to legalized mass killing.  So does our best technology and our finest research.  Meanwhile, the Tea Party rumbles to cut the budgets for people and expand them for the military and does so with billionaire money.  The nation’s political discourse in consequence resembles a professional wrestling fracas—brutal, irrational and paid for. 

Our national appetite for war (endless and endlessly expensive) has left a trail of carnage extending half-way around the world.  The words of a poet writing about a useless World War I are also applicable to our two feckless wars, “There died a myriad, And of the best, among them” for a shell of a democracy hollowed out by militarism.  Even the president, supposedly commander-in-chief, is captive to this militarist order.  According to journalist Bob Woodward, Obama asked the Pentagon for three options on what to do about Afghanistan and the generals gave him one:  Escalate.  And if you don’t like it, tough.  This is the vision of America Glenn Beck and the Tea Partiers are flocking to defend:  a government of, for and by old white citizens.

Such an America was not our vision 40 years ago when NFP was birthed by the union of “Nebraskans for Peace in Vietnam” and “Rural Nebraskans for Peace.”  We were sanguine about a lot of things:  the decline of racism, the end of the Military-Industrial Complex, the ‘greening’ of America, equal rights for women, the end of the War in Vietnam and of American imperialism in general.

These things did not happen in the main. Standing here amid the shambles, after four decades of dedicated labor, it’s easy to ask, what in fact have we accomplished?  All those letters to the editor, demonstrations, candlelight vigils, protests at StratCom, walks to Whiteclay, fiery discussions with friends and opponents seem like so much dust.  Fears of phone taps, threatening letters, sleepless nights, firing of clergy friends, divorces over political disagreements, threats of having one’s herd poisoned—surely, all of that grief and pain counted for something?  Was it just 40 years for nothing?

Things do fall apart for me in this area of discourse also. I do not know what to mutter. It is not enough to say to myself, “I worked to change the culture of violence to keep the culture of violence from changing me.”  Forty years later, I want less violence, more discussion based on facts, fewer lies.  I want peace.

We in NFP have done some service of worth—on Vietnam, on racism, on the Nuclear Freeze, on bullying, Whiteclay, Fremont’s immigration ordinance, on alerting the world about StratCom and the militarization of space.  But not enough… Given the need, not nearly enough. 

I know that I am old. I also know—from the poet who reminded me that “things fall apart”—that “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick, unless Soul clap its hand and sing, and louder sing, For every tatter in its mortal dress.”

So paltry and half blind, with Yeats, I sing.  I sing what our movement has done around the world.  I sing of the liberation of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the Baltics with hardly a shot.  I sing the liberation of Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, of MLK’s African Americans and the election of America’s first Black president.  Of the freeing of much of South and Central America from military governments, all with few shots.  I sing the decline of nationalism in Europe, the growing authority of the UN and of its “Declaration of Human Rights.”  I sing local work: the drab hard work of forming chapters, recruiting members, writing emails, talking to dull legislative aides, creating new climates of opinion, speaking truth to power.  This singing is not easy or glorious.  But it IS our form of clapping hands and singing for every tatter in our mortal dress.  

As I leave the presidency of NFP, I am not at ease.  I have not done enough. Neither have you.  I do know that we have been singing, that we sing as part of a worldwide movement that has changed the face of how we have sung the world into being in the last 40 years.  This movement will continue to sing—in South and Central America, in Iran, and, most importantly here in the U.S., where the end of the story has not yet been written.

(written October 31, 2010 for the November/December 2010 Nebraska Report) 

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Comments

November 10th 2010

Bob Boyce - Thank you, Paul. I love the song you sing--that we all sing! You are exactly right, that we need to do more, to help the fallen, to resist the lies and the bullies--whether in our schools or in Washington D.C. or anywhere else. As Rachel Carson said about environmental issues, we will always have to continue the struggle. But we can be proud--you, Paul, can be proud--of having fought the good fight, the fight for what is right and just and true and peaceful.

November 10th 2010

Cathy Wismer - Paul, you continue to inspire me to do more and better. Thank you for your courage, vision, and sustaining presence.