I kind of want to hold a memorial service for The Movement (as my Ginsberg biography calls the amalgam that was ’60s counterculture). It’s 2008: forty years ago to the day there were hippies in the Haight; there were marches and rallies on college campuses all over the country. Forty years ago February 10 Neal Cassady died. Forty years ago August 25 a riot almost broke out at the DNC, and Allen Ginsberg calmed crowds with Buddhist chanting. Forty years ago it was possible to calm a crowd with an echoing “OM”. I asked my mom if we could protest in the streets at the DNC in Denver. She seemed dubious. In 2008, I sit in my bedroom and stress about getting into college.
Of course, the obvious question is, “Why are you not doing your part to recreate The Movement in your world?” I have rationalized it thus: I am not a leader. Everything from orchestra to tech theatre to AL proves that. I can stand on my own, but leading people is not my skill. My hope and my goal is to inspire the leaders, to rant enough radical prose that a real leader who can organize and march at the head of thousands will make the real visible difference in this world. My dream is to write the words of the next almost-revolution. It’s a far-fetched and idealistic dream but I would love for it to work.
Earlier today my mom, sister and I were listening to Pete Seeger in the car, singing “Which Side Are You On?” and “Solidarity Forever”. The next song on the CD I’d bullied everyone into listening to was Billy Bragg’s version of the Internationale (I need to learn the French words off by heart), and as we all sang along my mother suggested that in college I should form an a capella group singing labo(u)r music (the reason I’m not just sticking the “u” in is because it’s American music). But if I want to pass the music on, I should be teaching it to other people. And I do want to be passing it on: it’s a fundamental part of American history and it was always the goal of icons like Guthrie and Seeger to pass on their music and get everyone singing it. They believe(d) in the power of songs to change the world, and that’s something I still believe in. I have this misguided idea that teaching a phalanx of young people “Solidarity Forever”, and the history behind it, would incline them to believe in the power of unions and what ordinary people can do if they stand together and demand change. In years gone by, ordinary people have been heroes, when they have stood in the line of fire and resisted the attempts of bosses or police or the government or the establishment to silence them. Any of us can be that striking worker or peaceful protester who stares down a police officer and stands their ground for what they believe in.
That reminds me, today is Martin Luther King Day. Today my mother and sister and I sang “We Shall Overcome”. I assume you know how that goes, and if you don’t and you’re from the States (otherwise you’re excused), I will be shocked and appalled. The chorus goes:
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome someday
For deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome someday.
There are other verses that go “We’ll walk hand in hand” and “We are not afraid” and “We shall live in peace” and oh my god now I’m getting all choked up and teary, because I want so badly for this to happen. I want to see thousands of people of all ages and races and sexes and all conceivable conditions to march somewhere and demand changes in their world. I want to see the people of this country, and every other country, stand up and be counted and join together in songs and chants and the simple conviction that we can have what we want in this world, we don’t just have to sit down and take what the people in power hand us. Theoretically we live in a democracy, and although it’s something of a myth the general idea of a democracy is that the common people’s voices are paramount. We have the ability to be the change we wish to see in the world. So what are we waiting for?
Maybe we are waiting for a leader. And yeah, I’m making excuses again: but look at yourself, and I think you’ll know whether you’re a leader or not. I’m a blogger and a ranter and an iconoclast and a crazy. But maybe some of you out there are all these things and you also can raise a crowd to call out for freedom. You risk getting arrested. You risk getting shot. You risk being trampled by the powers of conformity and falling into ignominy. But there is no higher cause than to stand up for what you believe in and to stand up and speak for the innumerable people who cannot or will not. Be a voice for the needy and the downtrodden. Be strong and powerful and fuck, yes, give me reason to keep on living and believe that there is some point to growing to adulthood.
Right now, I am on the brink of that adulthood. in 15 days, 7 hours and 39 minutes it will be time for me to take hold of my inheritance as a citizen of this world. And I do not want to betray the dramatic conviction of “We Shall Overcome”. That song, which was adopted from a hymn as the anthem of the civil rights movement, leaves no question about it: we shall overcome someday — and I want to keep that promise. In Pete Seeger’s introduction to the “We are not afraid” verse, he says, “The most important verse was the one they wrote down in Montgomery, Alabama. It said ‘We are not afraid’. And the young people taught everybody else a lesson — all the older people who had learned how to compromise, and take it easy, learned how to be polite and get along, and leave things as they were, the young people taught everybody else a lesson.”
Don’t you want that to be true still?
So here I am, I’m balancing on a precipice with the chance to stand up and be counted. I intend to shout out my convictions, but I can’t do it alone. Will you provide me with the leader? Will you shout with me?