Revolutionary Worker #1171, October 20, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org
heartbeat is louder than
death. Your war drum ain't
louder than this breath.
Suheir Hammad,October 3, New York City
New York City--As we made our way into the Great Hall of The Cooper Union, a sense of history was palpable. For nearly 150 years poets, presidents, and rebels have stood on this stage in the debates that shaped and shook the social fabric of the country. On the night of October 3 we arrived, invited by signatories of the Not In Our Name Statement of Conscience--for an Evening of Conscience. Across the country, the stifling atmosphere of war and Ashcroftian madness had reached choking levels; here, between the old columns of the hall, we could breathe.
Sliding into my seat, I overheard someone comparing the moment to 1967, when a group of intellectuals issued the "Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority"--in solidarity with a generation burning their draft cards in opposition to the war in Vietnam. And as the evening unfolded there was a real sense that the thousand of us crowded into that hall, that night, were connected to an emerging tide with the potential to move millions.
Ed Asner stepped to the mike and the applause swelled--acknowledging the courageous voices--the writers and artists and intellectuals and leaders of social movements--who had united in the first comprehensive indictment of the Bush administration's post-9/11 policies of war and repression, and the first call to act against these policies.
"Let it not be said that people in the United States did nothing when their government declared a war without limit and instituted stark new measures of repression."
With these words from the Statement of Conscience, Asner opened the evening of poetry, song and performance. And we were off on a ride that proved to be brave and beautiful, provocative, complex, and fun.
Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory revisited their famous cinematic dinner table conversation, My Dinner With Andre, in a hilarious and chilling duet. Wally had found a scene from "The Melian Dialogue" by Thucydides where the ancient ambitions of Athens threatening war on the people of Melos made a stunning comparison with the hubris of the Bush presidency. This segued into a really funny session between the "United States of America" played by Wally and his psychiatrist, played by Andre in Shawn's "Foreign Policy Therapist."
Danny Glover leaned toward the audience, reading a magical passage from Slaughterhouse Five by signatory Kurt Vonnegut--where Billy Pilgrim imagines the machinery and destruction of war undoing itself like a film being run backwards.
The artists connected us to the people of Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, the Philippines--and to the immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East who have been locked up in the "land of the free."
As Jessica Hagedorn and JoJo Gonzalez sang, "Your Tears Have Dried, My Country" ("Kung Tuyo Ang Luha Mo, Aking Bayan"), written in 1933 by poet lauriat Amado V. Hernandez--somewhere in the war machine, U.S. troops were preparing for major military exercises in the Philippines,
Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues,brought to life the journey of a young Palestinian woman who sets out on a suicide bombing mission and decides to turn back. In a piece from the opening monologue of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul,actor Ellen McLaughlin took us into an Afghani shop in London--where a middle class woman's search for party hats turns into a kaleidoscope of the intense contradictions facing the people of Afghanistan. In "Anthem," by Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, actor David Anzuela tumbled us through the internationalist musings of an angst-filled Chicano equity actor who has been asked to write an anthem for America.
And in "September 4, 2002," poet Suheir Hammad explored the post- 9/11 landscape:
"The media is looking for America, what America thinks and wants. Tell the media to look in detention centers....
A ladybug has adopted me and is in my kitchen now, red and black and alive. I welcome her, but tell her we are in a time where living things have to be careful. She is busy being fly. I am busy breaking down."
Screenwriter Jeremy Pikser, ( Bulworth), spoke to the origins of the Statement of Conscience that had brought this diversity of artists together:
"In the really horrible days after 9/11, the weeks and months after that, when it seemed like we were living in a never ending Nuremberg rally, a group of people got an idea--and the idea was if they could collect voices of conscience, respected voices on a statement of opposition, it could perhaps carve out a space where people could feel resistance was possible; it could give them a vocabulary to voice this opposition; it could make them feel not alone...."
Inviting the audience to join a delegation reading the statement on October 6 in Central Park, Pikser looked ahead, "The resistance has a voice. But a voice is not enough and a statement of conscience is not a clear conscience. And until we stop what our government is doing we won't be able to claim that."
The appearance of the Statement of Conscience in the New York Times on September 19 had really given heart to hundreds of thousands of people around the country. And you could feel the impact of that in the hall. But, as these artists and writers shared their work, it came home in an even more profound way what it meant for them to go against the tide in such dangerous times.
Earlier that morning Ed Asner had appeared on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now --talking about how his show "Lou Grant" was cancelled after Ed had publicly protested U.S. military involvement in Central America. And there he was, that evening, playing the actor Lionel Standard, defying the political witch hunts of the 1950s in Eric Bentley's "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been?," based on the actual transcripts from the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Even the words of Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" took on new urgency for a new generation--the need to "hammer out a warning."
And Suheir Hammad took us to the defiance of the present.
I will not dance to your war drum.... I will not dance to your drummed up war....
I will craft my own drum. Gather my beloved near and our chanting will be dancing. Our humming will be drumming. I will not be played. I will not lend my name nor my rhythm to your beat. I will dance and resist and dance and persist and dance. This heartbeat is louder than death. Your war drum ain't louder than this breath.
Historian Howard Zinn celebrated resistance with poems by Daniel Berrigan and Marge Piercy. And with quiet intensity, actor Marisa Tomei brought home the stakes confronting all of us with the words from the last poem written by the revolutionary writer, Bertolt Brecht:
"And I always thought: the very simplest words must be enough. When I say what things are like everyone's heart must be torn to shreds. That you'll go down if you don't stand up yourself. Surely you see that."
In many ways the focal point of the night was an amazing rant by Tony Kushner that embodied the spirit call of the Statement:
"Tonight at Cooper Union I choose to believe that I'm a part of the beginning of something.... I recently read in the newspaper that one of the characteristics biologists look for in determining whether or not an animal is a parasite is that if the animal is a parasite, it loses, after centuries of evolving, many of its characteristics--
becoming grublike, it becomes paler and smoother and slipperier and blanker and blander and dimmer and duller and more and more featureless the longer it lives by sucking the life out of other animals, its uselessness strips it of its specificity, I read this in the New York Times and then I turned the page and there he was! Proof that the biologists are right!! George W. Bush, no eyes no lips no neck no vocal inflection no brains, his linguistic skills slipping down the same sinkhole as his ability to chew a pretzel without pressing his vagas nerve and passing out before his two apparently unconcerned dogs--there he was,
the characteristicless unPresident unelected unmandated undesired unappetizing unacceptable bloodgrizzled fratboy schmuck of a parasite, and I choose to believe that, though he is
dangerous, he is a thing of the past (and things of the past are always dangerous when encountered ambling about in the
"I believe our despair is a lie we are telling ourselves. Because this is a moment in history that needs us to begin...."
Piano chords transported us from Tony's impassioned call for resistance to the cabaret stage-- where the mischievous Oscar Brown Jr. tickled the audience with a "simple blues" entitled "Bullshit" that ripped into the hypocrisy of the powerful. A real, down to earth "emperor has no clothes" moment.
Then, as the participating signatories assembled on stage and began to read the Statement of Conscience, the audience leaned forward. "Let it not be said..." the signers began. And one by one, as they read out the words, it struck me in a new way what an amazing concentration of creative energy was represented by the signatories of the statement--who include Robert Altman, Zack de la Rocha, John Sayles, Susan Sarandon, Edward Said, and Mos Def, to name only a few. And the reality of the new beginning they had collectively set off on came home.
"Let the world hear our pledge: we will resist the machinery of war and repression and rally others to do everything possible to stop it," Ed Asner's earthy gravitas sounded the last words. We were on our feet. Together. And then we streamed out into the night, our energy renewed, expectant, ready to begin.
NOTE: The entire evening is available in audio and video on www.freespeech.org; and text for some of the poems and readings are online at www.artistsnetwork.org.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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