Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Sam Hamill - Poets against the War

PAW was begun in January '03, just a day after Bush's State of the Union speech where he laid out his plans for attacking Iraq, and the morning after Sam Hamill went on line to read about his proposed "shock & awe" tactics. Then one month prior to March 21, 2003 when the invasion of Iraq was imposed — despite world protest against the Bush administration and the UK government under Tony Blair, arguing for ‘regime change’ in Baghdad through violent means — the poets of America refused to be co-opted by the White House for propaganda purposes. Had they accepted the invitation to participate in a solely literary evening at the White House, without any protest against the going to war again, the administration could have claimed that it still enjoyed the support of the country’s intellectuals and artists. The artists’ refusal tore the mask of culture from the face of the Bush administration.

One year later, on February 12th 2004, Poets against the War celebrated their first anniversary with poetry readings in libraries. In their call for action they explained their wish to support all librarians who refuse to comply with the ‘Patriot Act’: insofar as those librarians would not reveal the identities of their readers, nor the readers’ choice of books, to the intelligence committee appointed to collect information. Sam Hamill and the Poets against the War openly challenged this as an infringement upon a person’s privacy by the administration, and therefore as something unconstitutional, indeed un-American.

Commentary by Sam Hamill – 2006/2007

Just as we all turned to a new calendar year, the 3000 th U. S. citizen-warrior died in combat in Iraq. No one knows how many Iraqis have perished in Bush's War; no one knows how many Iraqis have died needlessly; nobody knows how many tens of thousands of disenfranchised Iraqis have fled their homelands to live in exile. What we do know is that while Bush mouths the words freedom and democracy, they are, to him and Cheney and others of their ilk, empty words—empty because Bush & Co. has no meaningful concept of freedom or democracy; to Bush and Cheney and their allies, these are merely abstract ideas used to promote the concentration of power in the hands of the rich white males who would rule the world. How otherwise could this country continue to invest in murder, in the slaughter of innocents, while turning its back on the slaughter of innocents in Darfur and on the encroachment of our ally, the Israeli government, on Palestinian homelands? Without some sense of justice, liberty and democracy are impotent concepts.
In a talk given at the Labor Exchange of Saint-Etienne a half-century ago, Albert Camus said, “If we add up the examples of breach of faith and extortion that have just been pointed out to us, we can foresee a time when, in a Europe of concentration camps, the only people at liberty will be prison guards who will then have to lock up one another. When only one remains, he will be called the ‘supreme guard,' and that will be the ideal society in which problems of opposition, the headache of all twentieth century government, will be settled once and for all.”
Remove the word Europe and replace it with America, and Camus might have been writing about George W. Bush. It takes little or no imagination to see Bush calling himself the “Supreme Guard.” He has spoken parallel lines a thousand times. Our grand “Decider” has decided for all of us that our Constitution simply doesn't work in a “post 9-11 world,” that we need secret prisons in foreign lands where we can freely torture anyone the Decider decides needs torturing, that we can wage war upon an innocent nation in the name of freedom and democracy, and that we do not need the 1 st, 4th, or 14th amendments to protect us from his supreme guardianship. But this particular fascist can't even get the trains to run on time. He pursues his war despite all reasonable counsel to the contrary and in the face of unified opposition by the very American people he was (perhaps) elected to serve. Even the Republican Party has come to oppose his ambitions.
All war is extortion. And this particular war will extort its cost not only from us, but from our children, both morally and financially. What is far, far worse is the abridgement of our Constitutional rights and the collapse of congressional responsibility. The present administration has advanced the causes of freedom and democracy nowhere—neither at home nor abroad. It has operated exactly to the contrary of those noble ideals and principles set down by the authors of our Constitution. And our elected representatives, ever in the service of their own seats of power, have conceded again and again.
The Halliburton Corporation, the oil magnates, the arms manufacturers, multinational media conglomerates —in short, those who provide the money and legitimize the lies of Bush and company—profit handsomely from the death of innocents. The same companies that profit from the destruction of countries profit again from rebuilding them. American oil companies have enjoyed several years of record-breaking profits. This too is a form of extortion. And nearly every politician running for office feels the need to tap into the rich veins of corporate extortionists in order to be elected. Corporate money and corporate ethics, not ideals of liberty and democracy, define our electoral politics.
And what of poetry in the face of such circumstances? Camus reminds us that if art “adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, art will be a meaningless recreation. If it blindly rejects that society, if the artist makes up his (sic) mind to take refuge in his dream, art will express nothing but a negation. In this way we shall have the production of entertainers or of formal grammarians, and in both cases this leads to an art cut off from living reality.”
Four years ago, founding Poets Against War, we were a minority opinion in our unified opposition to this war. We are now part of a vast mainstream majority. Nevertheless the wars grind on in living reality and therefore live on in our hearts and minds and in our poetry. The imagination fixes on the suffering of Darfur, the unabated mayhem of Baghdad, the village battles in Afganistan, the public bombings in Thailand or India, Indonesia, England or Spain, and poetry seems almost impotent. But it is not. Each of us has a tale-of-the-tribe; each of us must listen to the voices of the oppressed, the victimized. Each of us must draw a line and make a stand for something larger than ourselves if our art is to have usefulness. We poets do not and cannot stand apart from the suffering in this world. Each of us must embody and carry forward the very peace and justice we all seek.
In the name of justice and liberty, the war criminals should be impeached and put on trial for crimes against humanity and our elected representatives should be made to restore our Constitution. Peace, liberty, justice—these are concepts wrought in the individual heart-and-mind and made manifest in this world only through individual courage and commitment. Our art, born in the heart and polished through years of practice, is a part of the solution.
During World War II, during the terrible years of 1943 and '44, Camus published several “Letters to a German Friend” (see Resistance, Rebellion and Death, Knopf, 1961) to explain his stance against nationalism. “I cannot believe that everything must be subordinated to a single end,” he said. “There are means that cannot be excused. And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don't want greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.” Of course his German friend “retorted, ‘Well, you don't love your country.'” Camus says he felt “a choking sensation” as he thought of his friend's remarks, then says, “No, I didn't love my country, if pointing out what is unjust in what we love amounts to not loving, if insisting that what we love should measure up to the finest image we have of her amounts to not loving.”
Our country's greatness includes a power and prosperity build on the shoulders and backs of the slave trade (which helped finance the American Revolution) and two hundred years of genocide practiced against Native American nations during our westward expansion. Our prosperity came, all too often, at the expense of dictatorships and mass murder— direct preconceived consequences of our imperialist policies in Mexico and in Central and South America for more than one hundred years. (For a surprising treatise on this subject by a Marine Corps general who won two Congressional Medals of Honor, go to: www.lexrex.com/enlightened/articles/warisaracket.htm )
We should have learned from our experience in Vietnam that destroying a country cannot save it. There are levels of resistance that military might simply cannot overcome. There are means that simply cannot be justified.
For me, the greatness of our Constitution lies in the Bill of Rights, and most specifically in three of its most compelling arguments: 1: The inalienable right to free speech which opens the doors to the free exchange of ideas (including even the most repugnant). 2: The separation of Church and State, without which we'd all be members of the English church. 3: The right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
George Bush has spent the last five years using “a post-911 world” as his excuse to undermine these Constutional rights as they have never before been undermined. Even as I write, our government is planning a huge military complex for Guantánamo where more prisoners can be tried without counsel, without habeas corpus, and without Constitutional or Geneva Convention interference. No President in our history has done more to destroy our civil rights and abridge our system of justice.
If we as poets are duty-bound to hear the cries of the world, we are also equally bound to celebrate the beauty and justice that blossoms however mysteriously even amongst such carnage. That, after all, is our human condition. Because we love our country and our language, we must be true not to its tyrants, but to essential principles and what can be made of them in the service of truth, justice, and the practice of decency, the practice of compassion.
Love our country as we love our children. Every country is a child slowly maturing. And just as we impose discipline on our children because we love them, we must impose discipline on those who claim to serve us. We may have to suffer through another two years of Caligula in the White House, but we have the power to hold our congressional representatives' feet to a very hot fire. We have become the majority, and there is much that can be done: now is not the time for silence. We get the government we deserve.
May our poems continue to speak for the conscience of our country, as we asked in founding Poets Against War four years, countless lives.
Sam Hamill's selected poems, Almost Paradise, was recently published by Shambhala Publications

Homeland Security

by Sam Hamill
after Borges
No one is the homeland. The myths of history
cannot clothe the Emperor’s nakedness,
no speech empower a vote not counted,
nor honor the living who are impoverished
by our anthems for the dead. No one
is the homeland. Not the heroes of our
old genocides, the Indian Wars, nor those
who sailed west with cargoes of human flesh
in chains, nor those in chains who came
against their will to work and breed and die
in the service of their masters, masters
whose sons would be masters of us all today.

There are no heroes except the ones
who rise to greet the dawn with empty hands
and heavy hearts in a brutal time. No oath
or pledge reveals what’s in the heart or mind.
No one is the homeland. Or everyone.
For who lives without a country of the heart?
And yet we cry, “We!” We cry, “Them!”
I pledge allegiance to the kind.
Among the exiled, I make my stand.
No true democracy can be won
at the point of a loaded gun, nor honor found
in anthems or cheap paradigms
based on the social lie. No one is the homeland.

It can’t be found in the grandiloquence
of pompous village idiots who run for office
because they want the power. Nor in the brilliance
of the medals on a uniform worn by a man
whose thinking is uniform and obedient
as he swears his pledge of allegiance.
The homeland is a state of grace, of peace,
a whole new world that patiently awaits.
The homeland is a state of mind, a light
flooding the garden, a transcendent moment
of compassionate awareness, one extraordinary line
in some old poem that reveals or exemplifies
a possibility… in time… in time…

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