Are you a young activist sociologist who dreams of aging into an old activist sociologist? Here is a speech I gave to a few hundred young activists who were preparing to work for a weekend with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
New Tricks from an Old Dog
Good Morning and welcome to the 5th annual PeaceJam Slam. It is both an honor and humbling to give the keynote address for this important occasion. Look at you, more than 200 high school students, 50 college mentors and 50 professional youth workers, all preparing for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s visit in April. I applaud you.
Today I am speaking to you from my civic soul. I want to visit with you about three topics that have helped me make sense of this old dog’s life and times—history, biography, and civic action. It is my hope that these reflections might be of use to you as well as you work on your civic project and begin shaping the narrative of your own life.
The Slam that you are attending today is unlike any of the previous four. Today, November 3, 2007, the eyes of the world are quite literally upon you. Whether you yet realize it or not, you are making history. How many of you have had to take history courses in school? How many of you have dozed through most of those courses? Perhaps your slumber was justified.
All too often, we learn history as random dates and meaningless facts about what happened long ago to somebody else’s distant ancestors, folks who have been moldering in their graves for centuries. This is because we usually see history as a remote past. Much like the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis that once spanned the Mississippi, we no longer have adequate structures to transport us back to the meaning of those stories about events that once took place.
As citizens, we have poor historical memories because we have collectively forgotten that those events worth remembering are the very ones that, for good or ill, have shaped the present. Due to this historical amnesia, we fail to understand that significant events are occurring all around us, events that are history in the making.
Newspapers, as the old saying goes, are the first draft of history. On October 3, 2007, a news story about PeaceJam appeared in City Pages, a local alternative newspaper. The article reported that the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic institution in St. Paul and sponsor of the four of previous PeaceJam conferences, had decided that the previously invited Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was no longer welcome at their university. The reason cited was a Tutu speech from 2002 about the state of Israel that the university president had deemed to be “hurtful” to Jews.
The next day, the International Herald Tribune, an English language daily newspaper with global distribution, re-printed the story and it subsequently spread like wildfire from St. Paul to South Africa, from the United States to the United Nations.
Throughout October, Minnesota remained at the epicenter of this international controversy. During that time, citizens from around the globe—including a considerable number of self-identified Jews—unleashed a firestorm of discontent over St. Thomas’s refusal to host Tutu as a campus speaker. After a period of intense pressure, President Dease finally reversed himself and re-invited Desmond Tutu to the University of St. Thomas.
His decision, however, was too little, too late. PeaceJam had already moved its April conference and Archbishop Tutu’s visit to Metropolitan State University, a comprehensive public university located in the Twin Cities. All this political theatre was only the first act in a larger historical drama. Nevertheless, the news media still could not see beyond the initial controversy about “where” Tutu would speak.
It took two high school students who are here with us today to challenge this sensationalized coverage by the local media. They argued that the reason “why” the Archbishop will be visiting Minnesota deserves equal coverage. In an opinion article in theMinneapolis Star Tribune, Frederick Hubulla and Taylor Reed pointed out why Desmond Tutu is coming here: to join with university students in mentoring and teaching area high school students about peacemaking and the values and practices of democratic participation. Kudos to Frederick and Taylor; they are practicing the very civic skills that PeaceJam seeks to promote.
Today the curtain opens on Act II. PeaceJam Slam is not only preparing you for the Archbishop’s April visit, but we are also inviting you to join “The Global Call to Action.” For the next 10 years, the Nobel Peace laureates are calling upon you to work side-by-side with them as they address 10 fundamental issues of global significance. This worldwide campaign is nothing less than a manifesto for young people to change the course of history.
C. Wright Mills, a sociologist and intellectual mentor to the New Left during the Sixties, once wrote, “What ordinary men [and women] are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live.”
Seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history, ordinary people do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of people they are becoming and for the kinds of history-making in which they might take part.
We sociologists seek to share with individuals and groups the truth of what Robert Kennedy once said: “Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change small events, and those acts can write the history of our generation.”
Paradoxically, when we first gain greater historical and political consciousness, we tend to fall into the opposite error of neglecting our private lives in favor of the important public issues of our time. Mills offered a remedy for this schism between our private and public lives—The Sociological Imagination.
A quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to develop lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves.
Let’s shift gears now, moving from the course of world history to the patterns of our own lives, from history to biography. Each of your unique biographies has delivered you, through some series of life events, upon this world stage, providing you an opportunity to become an actor in a series of history-making events. So here you are, ready to make history. But are you?
Peter Berger and Brigitte Berger, a couple of iconoclastic sociologists, once wrote, “One should be very careful how one chooses one’s parents.” Folks with a taste for riddles are fond of this sort of nonsensical directive: of course, you had no choice as to who your parents were. So what is their point?
Some of you in the audience had affection and nurturing, resources and opportunities; but most importantly, parents who were extraordinary role models. You are, in the words of the early 20th century American philosopher and psychologist William James, the once born—your lives have generally been smooth sailing, onward and upward. By contrast, some of us, in the lyrical language of the novelist Tillie Olsen, lacked “the soil of easy growth.” Despite our parent’s best intentions, they were too often unable to give us the psychological, economic, or spiritual sustenance that we needed to flourish.
“If one has been careless in the choice of parents,” the Bergers ask with tongue in cheek, “what are one’s chances of making good this mistake?” We need not be passive prisoners of our past. Despite the scars of a season or two in hell, we might still become what James called the twice born. By intentionally choosing how to think and behave, we can opt to improve our lives and, in turn, improve the world around us.
It is at our own peril that we fail to recognize the fundamental truth of karma. Many of the world’s ills, most of the sources of evil, and much human suffering stem from historical actors who have never confronted their demons, their intellectual, moral, and spiritual defects.
The Full Monte
Now let me take a few minutes to give you the “full Monte.” Negative karma was my birthright. When I was 16, I stood outside my local high school and extended my arm to display my middle finger in salute—I was dropping out. That act of defiance, coupled with a history of petty crime, led the town fathers of Jackson, Minnesota, to sentence me until age 21 to the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing. Only after begrudgingly graduating high school was I paroled early. After working a few months in the Twin Cities at a couple of mind-numbing jobs, someone put the harebrained scheme of going to college into my head.
I called up my father one evening and told him of my plans. He was unimpressed. College was not on my family’s radar screen. I asked if I could live at home for a time to earn some tuition money. His response was, “Do you remember how badly things went when you last lived with us?” Now my family had packed up and moved from Jackson to Albert Lea while I was away . . . but I eventually found them.
Father eventually relented. When I arrived in Albert Lea, there was only one job opening, and I soon discovered why it was available. The job was at the Land O’ Lakes turkey factory. My job was to pull the live turkeys out of the delivery semi, lift them upside down, and hang them eye-high by their feet as they went in on the conveyor belt for the kill.
Hoping to make up for lost time, I was desperately seeking a social life. Every day at the noon whistle, I rushed up to the lunchroom. I was expecting to meet some young women. No one ever wanted to sit with me. It took me a while to understand . . . flapping turkey wings had turned my black horned-rim glasses into a grotesque montage of white tape and turkey shit covered me from head to foot.
Nevertheless, I persevered and within a couple of months, I headed 20 miles down the road to Austin Junior College. It was a god-forsaken place with maybe 250-300 students and 15 faculty members, more than a few of whom were there by some cruel cosmic joke. We were housed—perhaps appropriately, given quality of the curriculum—on the third floor of the local high school.
Even here, I was academically overmatched. I always had a textbook on one knee and a college dictionary on the other, as I tried to navigate a rudimentary understanding of introductory courses in American and European history, literature, psychology, and humanities. At the end of my first term, I received a B-, a C+, and a C. Truth be told, it was close to Christmas and those two C grades were gifts.
Despite that early lack of promise, I soon became the reclamation project of Rod Keller, an erudite sage with contrarian impulses. He saw in me a potential that had escaped the notice of my parents, my teachers and, most importantly, myself. He prodded, he cajoled, and he flattered: Eventually, this liberal arts education awoke me from my slumber. I came to realize that for my first 18 years, I had been a sleepwalker—the lights had been on but nobody was home.
Looking back, that experience reminds me of the cataract surgery I had at age 60. Suddenly the grey, speckled fog that hung over the world metamorphosed into a brilliant, almost blinding array of vivid color. It took a few more years before I discovered the intricate connection between the pattern of my own life and the course of world history, and for the kinds of history making in which I might take part. Having seen that rainbow, I set off in search of utopia.
My brother, who became a Canadian citizen during the Vietnam War, recently retired as a labor organizer. Tony is now enjoying his waning years overlooking the bay in Victoria on Vancouver Island. He recently sent me a story he had run across, a tale that evoked a powerful sense of self-recognition for both of us. I want to share this little fable with you.
The Old Dog
A wealthy old woman decides to go on a photo safari in Africa, taking her faithful, elderly poodle named Cuddles along for company. Now the poodle is an old, old dog who is somewhat crippled up with arthritis, but he remains young in spirit and his mind is still razor-sharp.
One day the old poodle starts chasing butterflies and before long, Cuddles discovers that he’s lost. Wandering about, he spots a leopard heading rapidly in his direction with the intention of having lunch.
The old poodle thinks, “oh, oh! I’m in deep shit now!” Noticing some bones on the ground close by, he immediately settles down to chew on the bones with his back to the approaching cat. Just as the leopard is about to leap, the old poodle exclaims loudly, “boy, that was one delicious leopard! I wonder if there are any more to be had.”
Hearing this, the young leopard halts his attack in mid-strike, a look of terror comes over him, and he slinks away into the trees. “Whew,” says the leopard, “that was close. That old dog nearly had me!”
Meanwhile, a monkey who had been watching the whole scene from a nearby tree figures he can put this knowledge to good use and trade it for protection from the leopard. He heads off, but Cuddles sees him chasing after the leopard with great speed and the old poodle figures that something is amiss.
The monkey soon catches up with the leopard, spills the beans and strikes a deal for himself with the feline. The young leopard is furious and says, “here, monkey, hop on my back and see what’s going to happen to that conniving canine!”
Now, the old poodle sees the leopard coming with the monkey on his back and thinks, what am I going to do now? Instead of running, the dog sits down with his back to his attackers, pretending he hasn’t seen them yet, and just when they get close enough to hear, Cuddles says, “Where’s that damn monkey? I sent him off an hour ago to bring me another leopard!”
The moral of this story . . . don’t mess with old dogs. Street smarts and experience will usually overcome brute strength and treachery. The combination of bullshit and brilliance demonstrated by Cuddles only comes with wisdom and practice.
Becoming an Old Dog
Becoming an old dog has nothing to do with how old you are. “Age is not the decisive factor here,” wrote the German sociologist Max Weber. “What matters is the trained ability to scrutinize the realities of life ruthlessly, to understand them and to measure up to them inwardly.” Weber, with his profound sense of life’s tragic dimension, was himself an old dog.
Sometimes street slang best describes those events that shape both our biographies and the course of history. St. Thomas’s decision to withdraw an invitation to Archbishop Tutu is a good example of when “shit happens.” Now for all too many of us, when shit happens, we may get angry or become despondent, but because we feel incapable of fighting back, we resign ourselves to the fact that the powers-that-be are invincible.
“youthrive” is the upper Midwest organizational arm of PeaceJam. The group had actually known for months what the public only learned on October 3, that St. Thomas had lost its moral courage and was pulling the plug on Archbishop Tutu and the PeaceJam events. youthrive didn’t throw up its hands and meekly accept this setback as a fait accompli. No, the staff and student leaders of this group began to think like old dogs.
They begin to look around for a new partner. Metropolitan State had just declared 2007-2008 the “Year of Civic Engagement” and the university immediately saw PeaceJam as an opportunity to turn its words into deeds. The story within the story of this 5th annual PeaceJam Slam is that the leaders of these two partnering organizations have been practicing the very civic action principles and skills that you, in collaboration with your mentors, are going to begin learning by doing.
Let me finish with a brief prayer that I try, not always successfully, to live by. We usually know this prayer from the popularized rendition used by self-help groups. Few know that the eminent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr actually wrote the original version. One of the wisest political thinkers of the 20th century, Niebuhr intended this counsel to be equally applicable to civic action:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
I organized my first anti-war march 40 years ago in a small Minnesota city. The picture projected on the large screen behind me is a photo of a protester confronting a police tactical squad just before they charged a crowd at the University of Minnesota. Although this picture is 35 years old, I had never seen this portrait of myself as a young activist until a photographer sent it to me last spring.
In those days, I had a foolhardy sense of courage. Crazy Horse, the visionary leader of the Lakota, had an inspirational phrase he used when leading young warriors into battle: “Today is a good day to die.” During my apprenticeship years, I self-destructively assumed that every day was a good day to die—I was utterly devoid of serenity and had very little wisdom. My own biography has been a perpetual confrontation between my character defects and Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer. Such is the fate of the twice born.
Perhaps the most difficult lesson any of us will learn during our time on this earth is this, “the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” And that may be the most distinguishing characteristic of an old dog.
Latashia — September 1, 2017
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