Saturday, November 20, 2004


By Jack Random

"Fiction and nonfiction are only different techniques of storytelling. For reasons I do not fully understand, fiction dances out of me. Nonfiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning."
Arundhati Roy, War Talk.

Arundhati Roy wrote a beautiful novel of ancient sorrow (The God of Small Things) before the war. Now she writes about war and injustice (War Talk). She has heard the cry of her people and it has moved her pen to a more direct, more pressing message, a message that is not shaded by metaphor or interrupted by the sheer beauty of language, the depth of imagery or the distortion of personal history.

Arundhati Roy will return to her muse once the war is over, when the pervasive fear and outrage has abated, and the needs of her people are something less than imminent.

She is not alone.

There are countless thousands, even millions, of individuals who pushed aside their artistic desires in order to fulfill a responsibility to their brothers and sisters on this lonely, forsaken planet. We may not be as talented as Arundhati Roy (who is?) but our loss is no less tangible. We feel an absence in the depths of our souls. We feel the acceleration of time, works that may never be written, songs that may never be played, sculptures that may never take shape, and we mourn.

We remember Dresden. We remember Guernica.

We think of Hearts and Minds, Apocalypse Now, Johnny Get Your Gun, War and Peace, and we wonder if our works will ever advance beyond the pervasive sorrow of our times.

We think of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, whose grief is less abstract, the kind that cuts and burrows, twists and darkens the very soul. We see the tears we cannot cry. We hear the cries of anguish we can only translate from our own personal experience. We feel the pain of our fellow beings and know that we can only share a token of remorse.

The casualties of war are as endless as a sailor’s last voyage. It touches every being that has not lost its senses. It moves us to rage and shatters our sense of balance until at length we become numbed. We shunt that which no longer serves our daily survival. We are only human. We cannot live with war imbedded in our souls. We move away from our fragile humanity, our delicate sensibilities, our rage and sorrow, and we become something less than what we were intended to be.

But the artist cannot survive without his sorrow or her rage. The artist must move through life with every sense intact and fully tuned to the experience of the times.

Arundhati Roy will return to her muse. She will summon stories only she can tell in a language only she can hear. She will fill our hearts with joy and shatter our delusions. She will seduce the better part of us. She will return to being who she was, to doing what she did, before the war.

So will we all in time yet we will know that every passage and every image, every etching and every form, is forever altered by the disease that entered our lives in a time of war.

When they speak of collateral damage they rarely mention the hope, the beauty and the terrible madness that is only born of art, but it is there. It is always there.


Monday, November 15, 2004


The Rings of Power
By Jack Random

The voice of an ancient sorrow came to me in a feverish dream. His face was marked with worry, his eyes bore endless wisdom, his tears were my tears and I recognized his grief. I knew this man. He had come to me before. So long ago I had to summon his name from the hollowed chamber of things forgotten: Song of the Wind.

He wanted to tell me about the future but his words came hard, stuck in his throat, like a dolphin in a fisherman’s net. He offered me the pipe of dreams and I accepted.

We walked on a little traveled trail in a forest of tall trees. The wind was crisp and nourishing. The scent of pine and moss-covered stone was comforting. The sky was clear, then clouded, then dark, but it was not the moon that glowed behind this darkness; it was the burning sun.

I rose above the trees, above the clouds, the smoke and haze, and a vision was revealed to me.

I saw deep caverns and whole mountains of poisonous waste, humankind’s gift to the bowels of mother earth. I saw the poisons spread, like bulging rivers finding their way through canyons and crevices of dry land. I saw eruptions of fire, liquid stone and ash from the four corners of the earth. I saw wars in distant lands grow and spread until they found their way back home to their beginnings. I saw flames dancing in the sky and clouds of unspeakable terror. I saw monuments to human grandeur, the towers of ancient Babylon, crash to the earth.

I heard the searing cry of mothers as they cradled lifeless babes in their arms. I saw fathers that would never be, their blood filled eyes crying vengeance. I saw children in arms, joining the armies of their brethren.

I watched the glaciers collapse, the oceans rise, and the waters encroach upon the land. I saw pestilence and disease choking the forest, sickening the wildlife and all living things. I saw the madness of desperation rampaging through ghost towns and cities in chaos. I saw the voices of elders fall silent in despair. I saw old, withered white men in smoke filled chambers, plotting profits on the fall of human civilization, building walls, raising mercenary armies, and erecting fortresses to protect their wealth, to ensure their places at the table of almighty power.

I saw the end times and the earth reborn in the image of corruption. I saw the rebirth of slavery. I saw mass genocide to crush rebellions, to stamp out hope, and to erase the memories of those who still recalled a land of liberty.

I returned to my body covered in cold shivering sweat, tears fresh in my eyes, and I remembered the only words the wise one had spoken:

The lords of avarice have regained the rings of power.


Sunday, November 14, 2004


By Jack Random

The extreme right wing of the Republican Party has been able to capture power, implementing policies of corporate cronyism, unlimited tax cuts for the corporate elite, privatization of social institutions, subversion of environmental protection and civil liberties, deliberate neglect of the social safety net, and the unbridled use of military force in place of diplomacy, largely because they have formed a solid base among the evangelical right and the single-issue advocates of the second amendment (the right to bear arms).

While it would appear irrational to reduce the complex questions of our times to a single, red-button issue, the fact is we all have them. In the recent election, for millions of Americans, the war in Iraq was just such an issue. For me, the sovereignty rights of American Indians come very close. For dedicated environmentalists, the Arctic Wildlife Reserve or the Kyoto Accords may be a deciding issue.

We should not be so quick to deride as simplistic those whose hot-button issues are abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, school prayer or stem cell research. We may and often do vehemently object to their positions on these issues but we should not discount the conviction with which they are held.

The progressive response to these issues has generally been to sidestep them, to point out that they are wedge issues, designed to polarize the electorate and distract us from the “real” issues that more directly affect our lives. Democrats seem to feel that it is sufficient to use key words (faith, values, God) but, in the end, the faithful are not converted and the amber waves are a sea of red.

There is another way.

It is frequently observed that, despite all the electoral rhetoric, little seems to change on the wedge issues regardless of which party controls the government. During eight years of Democratic governance, the most that could be accomplished on gun control was the feckless Brady Bill, an assault weapons ban easily circumvented by weapons peddlers. The most direct result of the Brady Bill was a dramatic rise in the sale of the banned weapons before the ban took effect.

On the issue of abortion rights, it is richly ironic that abortions went down every year of the Clinton administration, a pattern that was reversed under his Republican successor. After two full years of a Republican dominated government, the only significant legislation was a ban on late-term abortions, a law that is controversial only because of its legal vagueness and its refusal to exempt cases of incest, rape and the imperiled safety of the mother.

It is time to begin engaging the wedge issues, beginning with abortion.

The question of terminology on the issue of abortion rights is more than rhetorical or academic. If you are pro-life, then you must be pro-environment and antiwar. If you are pro-life, you must be opposed to weapon systems and unbridled military spending. If you are pro-life, you must advocate strict gun control. If you are pro-life, you must oppose capital punishment. If you are pro-life, the life of the mother must give you pause and it is an extraordinary stretch not to support stem cell research, which holds the promise of life for millions.

If you are all of these, then you may well call yourself “pro-life” but if your position on life issues is less clear, then you are anti-abortion.

It does not follow, however, that those on the opposing side are pro-abortion. When the question of abortion presents itself in the life of a woman or a girl, it is invariably tragic. It is a world of sorrow and despair, which can only be compounded, sorrow upon sorrow, when the choice is denied. This is not an abstraction. Women have lived in a world without legal choice. The horrors of that world are why so many women are determined that we should never return.

Who is more pro-abortion: Those who would offer education, condoms and unhindered access to the care of health professionals or those who pretend that abstinence is the only choice? Why is it so important to define life at conception when stem cell research offers such promise? Because an open and honest education, along with the availability of the morning after pill, could reduce mid and late term abortions to a bare minimum.

Where would the Republicans be then?

It is, of course, not within our power to ban abortion or stem cell research. We can only make it more difficult and costly. The world will carry on with promising research regardless of American participation. If we were to ban stem cell research in America, our best researchers would migrate to other nations. If we ban abortion, we would return to the days of illicit abortions for the poor and Canadian abortions for the better off.

On the issue of gay marriage, in an apparent last-minute change of heart, the president assumed the position of his Democratic rival: that same-sex couples should be accorded all the legal rights and protections as heterosexual couples. Where does that leave the Constitutional Amendment: In the land of smoke and mirrors.

To turn the issue on its head, why is it so important to the gay community to embrace the concept of marriage? As a secular progressive, I am uncertain that I support the concept of heterosexual marriage. Should a couple be compelled by social pressures to enter a union that binds them to a legal code of conduct and accountability? Of course, people should be able to marry if they choose, but as a social institution, I am ambivalent at best.

It should be sufficient that any two people (or three or four…) should be able to enter any sort of legal arrangement they find to their liking. No coupling should be denied any rights or privileges accorded other arrangements. In fact, society-at-large should have absolutely nothing to say about the matter as long as it does not, in a real and tangible way, do harm to any individual. It is beyond me why this battle must be fought on the grounds of an antiquated religious institution.

It is time to get smart.

We should realize that, outside of the radical fringe, the wedge issues are raised only at election time. It is the Republican interest to maintain these issues rather than to affect real change, yet the progressive response of evasion, obfuscation and patronization has been ineffectual at best.

There is another way.

The progressive response to the wedge issues should be this: While we respectfully and deeply disagree, we are willing to fight it out on the public forum. Moreover, though both parties in this great cultural divide may disagree, we all believe in democracy. Let the battle be waged on the public airwaves, let both sides be heard, and let the people decide.

It is time to give direct democracy a chance. It is the rightful role of leadership in a democracy to inform and persuade the people as to the righteousness of their cause. Let us have our day and let the chips fall where they may.

Within the confines of a judiciary charged with protecting the fundamental rights of all our citizens, let the people decide by national referendum. Let it be clear that no referendum can overrule the constitution, yet there are many issues that can be settled:

Whether an assault weapons ban and compulsory registration (in a time of terrorism) should be extended to gun shows,

Whether a mother’s safety, rape and incest, should be considered in the availability of legal abortion,

Whether stem cell research should enjoy the unrestricted funding of our government,

Whether the unions of gay and lesbian couples should be afforded equal protection under the law.

I believe that the people will stand strong for the common sense protection and civil liberties of all Americans. Even if they do not, I would consider the mandate of the people a stronger basis for social change than the manipulations of cynical politicians. Moreover, the wedge issues would be effectively disempowered in the process of electing our national leaders.