Whenever I become discouraged (which is on alternate Tuesdays, between three and four) I lift my spirits by remembering: The artists are on our side! I mean those poets and painters, singers and musicians, novelists and playwrights who speak to the world in a way that is impervious to assault because they wage the battle for justice in a sphere which is unreachable by the dullness of ordinary political discourse.
The billionaire mandarins of our culture can show us the horrors of war on a movie screen and pretend they are making an important statement ("War is hell," says the general as he orders his troops forward into no man's land). But the artists go beyond that, to resistance, defiance.
Here is Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Conscientious Objector":
I shall die, but that is all that I
shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out
of the stall; I hear the clatter
on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in
Cuba; business in the Balkans,
many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I
will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders
with his whip, I will not tell
him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I
will not tell him where the
black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I
shall do for Death; I am not
on his pay-roll.
e.e cummings, whose own experience with the First World War had powerfully affected him (see his memoir, The Enormous Room) wrote in the same vein but in his own unique style:
i think of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at
a conscientious object-or.
His wellbeloved colonel (trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand.
In that poem, the colonel and other soldiers proceed to torture Olaf, and cummings wrote:
Olaf (being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any
rag upon what God unto him gave)
responds, without getting
"I will not kiss your fucking flag."
Langston Hughes, observing the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini, wrote simply:
The little fox is still.
The dogs of war have made
Countee Cullen could also make his point in a few words. Waiting for his fellow writers to speak out on the outrageous framing of the "Scottsboro Boys" in Alabama, he wrote:
Surely, I said,
Now will the poets sing.
But they have raised no cry.
I wonder why.
In Catch-22, Joseph Heller created the absurd war resister Yossarian, who at one point, on a bombing run, asks his fellow crewmen: "Do you guys realize, we are going to bomb a city that has no military targets, no railroads, no industries, only people?"
There is a touch, or more, of the anarchist in writers, who (with some shameful exceptions, those who rush to kiss the flag when the trumpets blow) will not go along, even with "good" wars.
Thus, Kurt Vonnegut did not hesitate, in the midst of the self-congratulation that accompanied victory in World War II, to remind the nation of Dresden, our own counterpart, in spades, to the Nazi bombing of London. His book Slaughterhouse-Five held a mirror to our ruthlessness and that of all nations that pretend to moral superiority while joining the enemy in the back and forth of atrocities.
Vonnegut never fails to quote Eugene Debs (a fellow native of Indiana) when Debs, about to go to prison for ten years for opposing World War I, declared to the jury: "While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
Eugene O'Neill, six months after Pearl Harbor, wrote to his son: "It is like acid always burning in my brain that the stupid butchering of the last war taught men nothing at all, that they sank back listlessly on the warm manure pile of the dead and went to sleep, indifferently bestowing custody of their future, their fate, into the hands of state departments, whose members are trained to be conspirators, card sharks, double-crossers, and secret betrayers of their own people; into the hands of greedy capitalist ruling classes so stupid they could not even see when their own greed began devouring itself; into the hands of that most debased type of pimp, the politician, and that most craven of all lice and job-worshippers, the bureaucrats."
The barrage of film and books glorifying World War II (The Greatest Generation, Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers, Pearl Harbor, and more) comes at a time when it is necessary for the establishment to try to wipe out of the public mind the ugly stain of the war in Vietnam, and now that the aura around the Gulf War has turned sour, to forget that, too. A justification is needed for the enormous military budget. And so the good war, the best war, is trundled out to give war a good name.
At such a time, our polemical prose is not enough. We need the power of song, of poetry, to remind us of truths deeper than the political slogans of the day.
The years of the war in Vietnam brought forth such music, songs, and lyrics. I'm thinking of Bob Dylan, and his "Masters of War," with his disturbing voice that cannot be duplicated on a printed page, though the words themselves can:
Come you Masters of War
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.
* * * *
Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.
The great writers could see through the fog of what was called "patriotism," what was considered "loyalty." Mark Twain, in his brilliant satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, put it this way: "My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one's country, not to its institutions or its office-holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags--that is a loyalty of unreason."
George Bernard Shaw, unsure, perhaps, if the message of his plays was clear, stated his philosophy boldly in his prefaces, as in this one from Major Barbara: "I am, and have always been, and shall now always be, a revolutionary writer, because our laws make laws impossible; our liberties destroy all freedom; our property is organized robbery; our morality is an impudent hypocrisy . . . our power wielded by cowards and weaklings, and our honor false in all its points. I am an enemy of the existing order."
The great writers of the world have almost always been on the side of the poor, from Dickens to Tolstoy to Balzac to Steinbeck. Percy Bysshe Shelley (whose wife, Mary, was the daughter of the anarchist William Godwin and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft), in his passionate poem "The Mask of Anarchy," wrote five powerful lines that later, in early twentieth century United States, would be read aloud to one another by garment workers:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth
Which in sleep had fallen
Ye are many--they are few.
The social movements of our time have been inspired by Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, but also by the anonymous voices of the Selma Freedom Chorus.
Today, we have the fierce revolutionary poetry of June Jordan, Alice Walker, and Marge Piercy--all activists as well as poets. And the "slam poetry" of Alix Olson and Aye de Leon. We have the example of a poet in action, the gifted Adrienne Rich, refusing to accept a prize from President Bill Clinton, as her protest against the signing of the "welfare reform" bill.
Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, has joined her energy as a citizen to her brilliance as a novelist in the struggle to save the land and the people of India from the ravages of greedy corporations.
The roster of artists with social consciences is endless. I point to a few to represent so many, because their work, their commitment, encourages and sustains me, and I want it to encourage and sustain others.
Howard Zinn is a columnist for The Progressive.
Copyright 2001 The Progressive, Madison, WI