A successful autocracy rests on the universal failure of individual courage. -- Marilynne Robinson
What magic occurs to make an invisible person visible, visible and powerful? Well, sometimes it’s spectacular crime or titillating celebrity, but for lasting visibility, for making the shadow life that most of us lead into substance, the necessary magic is courage. Moral courage. When an ordinary person plants a simple, but abstract idea like justice, like fairness, the common good, in her own body and lets it grow, and understands what actions she must perform to nourish that abstract idea into reality, then we witness the birth of an agent of change. We see an idea become a viasible narrative because it is embodied. The embodiment becomes a story in which we can all play a part. A person does not have to have gone to Yale; she can be short and stocky, and a grandmother by the time she’s in her forties, but by an act of moral courage in the name of justice, human and environmental justice, she becomes a teacher for all of us. She becomes very tall, indeed. She demonstrates that she has taken to heart the most profound of education’s lessons --- that none of the things we cherish in life will be ours unless we act courageously, in Helen Keller’s words, “…to make good our claim on them.”
I’m talking about Judy Bonds who died several days ago in West Virginia. She was the divorced Pizza waitress who won the international Goldman Prize in 2003 for her struggles to stop the practice of Mountaintop Removal that had driven her from her family home and was destroying the natural world and the quality of life that depended on a healthy natural world in southern West Virginia. Harry Caudill called that area a “national sacrifice zone,” suggesting that somehow “we” had all agreed to desecrate and pollute certain zones in this country in the name of necessary resource extraction, profit, expanding economy and jobs --- or whatever other rationalization we use justify exploitation and destruction. What about the people who live in a national sacrifice zone? Who agrees to make them collateral damage to this economy?
Judy Bonds was targeted as one of the invisible victims for the profits of Massey Energy and for most of us to have cheap electricity. But she understood that what was happening in the Appalachians was only a symptom of the problem. She understood that an economy that defines its health by its perpetual growth at the expense of nature is inevitably very sick. Such an economy makes, finally, everywhere and everybody into a national sacrifice zone. Such an economy is at war with nature, with life, and our ultimate reality.
Judy took her anger and her spunky humor and her little body and her huge courage and threw it all into the gears of that economic machine. It didn’t grind to a halt, but her insistence on her visibility, inspired many others to join her. All the issues that are made visible by Mountaintop Removal --- the buried and polluted waterways, the destroyed habitat, the species extinctions, the sacrifice of the Appalachian forests that cleanse the atmosphere of enormous amounts carbon dioxide, the destruction of mountain culture, the baffling arrogance that claims the right to blow up the oldest mountains in the world for profit --- all these issues were brought to the attention of millions of people because of the courage of Judy Bonds. That’s a teacher.
Judy Bonds was in the sisterhood, the one that includes Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul, Emma Goldman, Rachel Carson, Kathy Kelly, Medea Benjamin, Mother Jones, Diane Wilson, Molly Ivins, Fannie Lou Hamer, Cindy Sheehan, Rachel Corrie, Jennifer Harbury, Cynthia McKinney, Ann Wright, and many, many more --- women who refuse to be intimidated by power and humiliation, women who refuse to endure oppression.
My goodness, what a calling to join those ranks! And anyone can do it.