So, whattaya know, at least one organized entity exists who thinks I might've had a point with all those ornery columns I wrote the past 10 years on behalf of peace and clean energy.
As you read this, I'm still celebrating an award I received on Saturday from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance. OREPA, as it's known, is dedicated to the challenge of stopping nuclear proliferation, preserving the environment and making the world a safer place for us and our descendants. You don't know what it means to have people I hold in such high esteem acknowledge that my columns might've got a thing or three right the past decade. This is an award I'll treasure.
I used to win lots of awards, if you'll pardon the immodesty. That was before I woke up one day and realized I had a decision to make. It was after my wife and I went to a soccer game and saw a headline in USA Today detailing how this country planned to visit Shock & Awe on Iraq. When I showed the paper to other soccer moms and dads sitting there, I realized they weren't much bothered. Later I learned that about 85 percent of Americans favored the invasion, and so after I took the time to Google Iraq, it took me about 15 minutes to realize what a lousy idea it was to blow the lid off the place. And so I thought, I am not going to wave the flag for such a bad and inhumane idea. But what would I do?
I tell people in my writing class when faced with writers block just write down the truest thing you know. And so what I wrote was that the war in Iraq, like a lot of wars, would be based on a big lie. I got a few clues that I might be in trouble when the Knoxville News-Sentinel, where my column ran for 22 years, came out and endorsed the invasion, and later re-endorsed Bush-Cheney for re-selection.
The great historian Howard Zinn, who wrote A People's History of the United States, and who died Jan. 27, once said that the only reason governments get away with doing such mean and stupid things is because people are so often so obedient. If reporters stop reprinting government propaganda and good men and women in Lions' Clubs and Rotary Clubs and high schools stop spouting jingoistic slogans, and stop buying products that pay the BIG LIARS at Fox News and elsewhere, they can't prevail.
And that's what I tried to do. I reflected on what the great philosopher Immanual Kant famously advised--that we should live by that rule we'd have to be a universal principle of conduct. I thought, OK, if every journalist just tells the truth, we'll stop this war. I knew it was a long shot, but I was determined not to be the weak link.
Eventually I pulled my column from the News-Sentinel rather than obey editors who repeatedly directed me to stop writing about national issues. And what a hullabaloo was ignited. Letters and emails and phone calls flowed in every direction.
I'd be lying if I said I don't miss being one of those little gray faces in the newspaper. I grew up reading James Reston and Bert Vincent and Mike Royko and Wilma Dykeman and Carson Brewer. Being a columnist was a dream come true.
But I don't miss the lies and innuendos about me that regularly ran on the Sunday morning letters to the editor page, and I don't miss thinly veiled death threats that ran on the News-Sentinel website, and I don't miss the radio campaign an obscure talking head named George Korda mounted against me in a transparent effort to hijack my fame and infamy to his own advantage.
For a while I felt like an outsider in my own hometown, my own country. Like a lot of you, there were times when I didn't recognize my country anymore, and more than once when I've heard somebody say America, love it or leave it, I considered leaving. Especially following the shootings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church, where I teach my creative writing class and where two people were murdered—and several injured—for the crime of being liberals. I've Googled around, and there are times that Costa Rica or Denmark or Sweden looked pretty good to me.
But the hullabaloo involved in quitting my News-Sentinel column taught me one thing I've cherished. It taught me just who my country is. I'll never forget coming home the first Friday my column didn't run to discover my good friend Will Rickenbach sitting on my front steps with a hand extended. He didn't have to say a word, we've been friends a long time. Or the delegation composed of seven gracious church ladies who came up to me after a Father Rob sermon and said how much they appreciated me. Or the surprise of discovering every chair filled for my creative writing class at Tennessee Valley Unitarian a couple weeks later. Or the outpouring of letters and emails from all over Tennessee, the United States and other countries.
Sometime along in there I realized I do belong. And that's because I live in a country within a country. It's made up of neighbors on Panther Creek and Indian Gap roads. It's includes good folks at Tennessee Valley Unitarian and at St. Joseph's Episcopal, in Sevierville, who've kept a Peace Fellowship going for over a decade.
And it's Father Rob and Russ and Rick and Carol Brown and my friends Will and Nancy and Liz and Steve and Jim and Louise and the folks from my writing classes--Lucy and Lansing and MaryAnn and Donna and Bob and Tommy and Doug and Rebekah and David and Sarah. And its my beautiful sisters, Rebecca and Kathleen, who were there Saturday, taking a break from slaying dragons in and around Nashville on behalf of healthcare reform and Kathleen's FOREVER GREEN TENNESSEE campaign, and yes, my thick-headed brothers and other relations. And it includes my sweet mother. How many times in my life have I heard her call out in unexpected moments, often so full of passion that it was nearly scary. OH DAH-ny! I'd hear her say. Come see! Just look at this beautiful sunset. Oh come see, come see!
And it includes my dear children, Alexis, and Travis and Justin, so full of light and wonder and generosity of spirit. Most importantly it includes my wife, Jeanne, whose deeds in defense of the downtrodden or at-risk or abused children--the time she's stood up in the face of angry cops or street thugs or government officials to defend those deserving of justice or human compassion--are becoming legend.
More pertinent to Saturday night's proceedings, my America is the one that includes all the good folks in OREPA and elsewhere who have the courage to stand up and disobey. To cross a line, to loft a giant or puppet or unfurl a banner, to post an all-too-true photograph, or simply to say to a friend spouting some mean-spirited idiocy uttered by Limbaugh, "Honey you be drinkin' the wrong kinda tea…."
We all have corners we can light up, some just happen to be a little bigger than others. So let me finish by saying, you'll never know what it means to count you, faithful reader, as part of my community, my country. And if our beautiful blue-green Earth survives the 21st Century it will be because of You and You and You and people like you everywhere. There are millions of us in America, and that's MY country.
God bless you, and God bless our Good Green Mother Earth.