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The American dissident: individualism as a matter of conscience. (Essay).

Going through airport security, I've sometimes wondered what would happen if thoughts could be screened. Not that mine ever concern harming a plane, but I may have illegal ideas when looking up at the president on the TV. Dissent in its many gradations is disagreeable, doesn't win popularity contests. If you had criticized slavery or child labor or advocated women's suffrage in America in the wrong time or place, you could have been handcuffed, and lucky at that. I've been in towns in Louisiana as a young man where if I had questioned racial segregation I would have had my skull cracked; my Vermont license plates alone resulted in my being told to clear out of the parish before nightfall. The Vietnam War was divisive on a smaller scale, and I protested that lawfully, and safely too. Yet I'm ashamed to look back and realize, at seventy, that I have never been arrested on a matter of conscience. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., and lesser folk whom I admire took more risks than me. Countless people have, and I don't believe for a minute that nothing in our era is worth being insurrectional about, or even that the issues are less grave. Wherever I have been, for example, I've seen an absolutely flabbergasting amount of nature in the process of being destroyed. It will be irrevocable, but did I fear handcuffs so much that I've let it all happen without a vociferous reaction? Apparently so. Police arrest anybody they're told to; they don't care what the bone of contention is, and protesters look ridiculous anyhow, with their hollering and cardboard placards, then limply dragged to the paddy wagon. Say it at the ballot box, we tell them, pretending that a visionary minority wouldn't be a minority there as well.

William Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 for translating key portions of what became the King James Version of the Bible so that ordinary people would be able to read it in English. Was that too harsh? James, when he acceded to the throne in 1603, thought so, but in the era of Henry VIII neither British nor Continental Catholic opinion would have demurred, not to mention numerous worthies such as Sir Thomas More who were incensed at Tyndale's blasphemous audacity. (More himself, of course, was beheaded at around the same time for dissent of a different sort.) Dissent can be a dicey business. If it's not at least a bit uncomfortable, it's probably not real dissidence. Forty-six years passed before the U.S. government, in 1988, apologized for interning 80,000 American citizens of Japanese descent in scuzzy barbed-wire camps during World War II, but imagine the reception that would have been accorded some hair shirt who proposed releasing or apologizing to them in his local bar decades before that? Whistle-blowers were called snitches in my youth; and reformers, soreheads who cared more about a bunch of strangers than their own families. People painted with lead, insulated with asbestos, smoked after coition, and had one for the road before leaving a party. Homosexuality was a crime, and wops, micks, Polacks, were not individuals much thought about unless you yourself were one, or had married beneath you. As for "colored people," it was nice of you to use that polite term but somewhat screwy to object to their treatment. Just for criticizing anti-Semitism (and Jews were white) I was called a Commie in school, and later my father semi-disinherited me for fear that when he died I'd break the covenant in our neighborhood, sell his house to a Jew, and precipitate a crash in his friends' property values.

Public floggings, brandings on the forehead, beheadings, ducking stools: imagine the opprobrium that must have been mounted against weak sisters who remonstrated against these customs prematurely. Did the bleeding hearts (to phrase it anachronistically) suppose that they had a monopoly on truth and a corner on virtue? Or slavery, being in the Bible--why question it? Like child labor, what could be more natural? And people nowadays who advocate the ethical treatment of animals: it must be maladjustments, "hang-ups," driving their agitation.

"Why are Mexicans called wetbacks?" I would ask.

"Because they swim across the Rio Grande."

"And why are homosexuals queers?"

"Because they're queer, dummy."

"Why are niggers called that?"

"Why, because it's short for Negro, obviously; it's a nickname."

"And Chinamen?"

"Because they're men from China."

"And why don't Negroes eat in the same restaurants as us, even up North?"

"Because I'm sure they very much prefer their own company if they drop the silverware and chew with their mouths open, or laugh too loud and talk without grammar. It's kinder, it embarrasses them if you watch."

This is old stuff; but recently--when I've written about famine in Africa--frequently, after I'd returned from Sudan, people would ask me why I had gone to witness it. They didn't come right out and inquire in all frankness whether my psyche harbored a secret ghoulish streak, because that would be discourteous, but it was their implication. In a big, booming gated community like America, why would you want to know firsthand about such things? Write a check to Oxfam, vote for a congressman who actually owns a passport, but why dwell on--surround oneself with--suffering when there's nothing to be done? "Moving on," without being rigid or judgmental about any difficulty, is the current mantra, like mood-elevating pills and mediative therapy.

Yet dissidence, being the opposite of an emollient, sometimes has the earmarks of integrity. In arguing with prevailing opinion, it may not serve the interests of the arguer: may be called unpatriotic, irreligious, adversarial, off-the-wall, loony and disloyal, irrational, neurotic, elitist or mushy, compulsive or lowbrow. Other people enjoy railing at a stationary target, and if you state a belief in something not majoritarian, you become that. Heads were knocked and demonstrators shot in mockable, in-your-face protests--with suspicious police officers and jeering bystanders--to win collective bargaining for labor and a voting-rights act. These campaigners themselves were often unpleasant personally, hard to split the difference with--and I suspect that the convections of the new century will be hotter than the last's. Dissent may then be vertiginous--although you may think, on the contrary, that the interventions of digitry will regulate not only financial probity, child-support payments, the rights of the handicapped, and the like, but everything that honor and a firm handshake used to deal with. You'll never need to know whether somebody can look you in the eye. A visionary like Joan of Arc, if one emerges, won't need to be interrogated in excruciating detail and condemned, just deprogrammed.

Originally we Americans were a revolutionary people in religion and politics--misfits in Europe or adventurers of a modest kind--and crossed a lot of deep water to try someplace new. Voting with our feet was inherently a dissent, and our democracy was raucous to start with: coonskin cap versus top hat, hillbilly or flatlander, hayseed, city slicker, bohunk or blue blood. The first generation of newcomers each had to pay its dues before the next went in for lace-curtain show, and I remember an aristocratic lady I knew half a century ago, a Mrs. La Farge, took to calling Cadillacs "Murphy Cars" because so many Irish had begun buying them, not simply driving them as chauffeurs. "Spics" too, and she and others switched to Lincolns for a signature car.

But why ever did rich, landed gentry like Washington and Jefferson--already grandees in the New World--hassle and strike at the powers that be? Franklin Delano Roosevelt also was a "traitor to his class," but like John Kennedy, another rich liberal president later on, he didn't give away his money to the poor, any more than Jefferson or Washington freed his slaves during his lifetime. If they had been that revolutionary, they wouldn't have been electable. (Incidentally, the idea that a man as humane as Thomas Jefferson would not have slept with a lovely slave like Sally Hemings in a long-term, considerate, semi-consensual liaison--that her color or some fleshly punctiliousness might have barred him--would astonish me more than that he did.) Indeed, what was the attraction in Christianity, a faith born of persecution and dissidence that was anti-wealth, anti-authority, and reborn in Protestant revisionism, then lately again in blue-collar fundamentalism? But although dissent is a minority position, and most of us don't want to dispute with a more powerful constituency or to challenge an injustice that hasn't injured us, it is still an exercise, an impulse, that most of us indulge in, at least during our late years, for reasons of self-respect, and maybe in order to square ourselves with God. We all see outrages we gloss over--whether the price of glaucoma medicine to old people or the current mistreatment of Arab Americans. We know that we can still shout outside the White House (I once had the pleasure of giving a thumbs-down to Spiro Agnew personally, in his pre-inaugural limo cavalcade as vice president in 1969, and seeing him glower back). But it's risky and consuming in a turbulent period like this, with even jail in the offing, and requires a pileup of atrocities to override our caution and numbness. The metronome of news flashes washes out each flush of anger just as we might have begun to articulate it, so that a critical mass of protest is hard to achieve. The controversially elected president, scary attorney general, sophistical defense secretary, are beneficiaries of the din of innovation, though on both the right and the left we are dubious. Things are not going well, and patriotism is the last refuge not only of a scoundrel but of confusion also.

The bubble of power has become so elusive that we don't know where it is--the Supreme Court, the voting machine, the sound-bite writer, the war room, or Dick Cheney? And our electronic novelties don't seem to clarify the ways we want to live: instead, throw us off stride. In such a cacophony, how does one dissent? How can we distinguish Tom Paine from a crank, and Joan of Arc from a bipolar street-comer haranguer in drag? Does she have to join the U.S. Special Forces, and Tom get himself on 60 Minutes? It's not a silly question. Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was briefly heard, but by a leverage we don't want. A different love of power has muted some of the best speakers, such as Billy Graham. I heard both the Reverend Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. during their prime (Graham in the 1950s, King in the sixties), and what distinguished them from each other was not a fervency or stage charisma or mastery of oratorical skills but, rather, King's range of emotion and points of reference and realism of address, and simply what he said. Graham never uttered any sentiments that might displease a sitting president, not to mention get himself shot. His stem-winders were like a football march, canted to furnish you a buzz so that you'd stop cheating on your wife and step out of Madison Square Garden warmed for the wind. They were not sniggering and cruel, like Jerry Falwell's--whom I also heard, in his cynical prime, in the eighties, at his home church in Lynchburg, Virginia, and far afield in Alaska--but passionately midstream, like an adoring chaplain to Eisenhower, Nixon, and the upwardly mobile. For King, life was more complex, not fortissimo or full-face sunshine; it had a riddle for an underside. Falwell, on the other hand, in Anchorage, and pitched more bluecollar, sounded either tipsy or jet-lagged as he laughingly told us how to manage our nagging wives. He confided that he let his have her way with the houseware because outside the confines of home it was a man's world.

Dissent is a bit more like Jesus being rude in the Temple, including the chance of a walk down the Via Dolorosa if mob rule or a dictator prevails. Argumentative, confrontational, it's seldom a path to career advancement. Middle-of-the-roaders discount such a person as lopsided in his priorities, wasting energy, splurging goodwill, and venting a personality problem--as the few thorny mavericks I've known well in fact were likely to do: honesty itself in most societies being perilously close to that, and a burr under the saddle. Terrorism makes eccentricity suspect at an airport counter, and in a widening circle from there. Gone is the hippies' confident sixties contempt for tradition, and the seventies' derision toward "breeders" and their "rug rats," or the eighties' jettisoning of idealism of almost any stripe. We fly the flag a lot now, yet what is the social compact? We've got gluts of information but are dizzy for lack of a norm. The norms of capitalism, friendship, and religion: everything is so provisional, situational, optional, such a matter of lifestyle choice that the very word "norm" is likely to victimize somebody. Our magnetic field is dislocated; gravity itself seems weakened. But weightlessness is not healthy.

The norms of loyalty, for example--how about that slightly older kid who befriended and protected you from bullies in school? Do you have the faintest idea of whatever happened to him? That early boss who was insightful and kind--is he alive? America is about climbing, which means you leave people behind, and lawyers can enforce the terms of alimony, wills, and deeds. Loyalty sounds like a sort of standstill proposition anyway: like the joke that if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog. Your children are offspring and you may be fortunately twinned with a partner, but who else would you go to the mat for? This cleavage is extraordinary historically and anthropologically, and our tie-strings frail. In the bad old days of ethnic prejudice, people didn't shake hands with everybody, but a handshake often signified something if they did. It was like the "missionary position" in sex--much ridiculed lately, but we may miss that like a handshake fairly soon. I know a real Uriah Heep at my place of work, but would I recognize him for what he is on the Internet? I doubt it; you have to see him hunch as he scuttles on his obsequious errands. Electronically, that wouldn't show.

I'm left, right, and center, myself, because as a naturalist by persuasion, I'm therefore a political radical but a social conservative, like so many of us, from Thoreau on. Also, having grown up in the Establishment, my father a lawyer, I know that the Establishment is not entirely homed. I even wrote editorials on an occasional basis for the New York Times for several years in the turn-of-the-seasons slot, between Hal Borland's stint and Verlyn Klinkenborg's taking over. This meant I could attend editorial-board meetings if I wished. They were contentious, and I soon ceased to come because as a stutterer I didn't enjoy the verbal fray, but I did like Max Frankel and Jack Rosenthal, his deputy, who presided over the thrice weekly discussions at opposite ends of the long polished table. They were career allies and neighbors in Riverdale, and rode to the office together in a company limousine, but although burning with visibly tense ambition (Jack succeeded Max as editorial-page editor later, when Max moved up to direct the rest of the paper), they were kinder, gentler Timesmen than many. There were hectic initiation rituals for me to get through, of course, but I never saw either of them be discourteous to anybody, and Jack was the best line editor I've ever had.

These were not op-ed meetings. This was where official positions were thrashed out and unsigned writing assignments made. The regular subjects like labor, business, municipal and state government, Congress, foreign policy, cultural affairs, the judiciary, had specialists, but nobody could just ride his own hobbyhorse without winning group consent or at least a median thrust that Jack or Max would enforce when the final editorial page went to press; and a foe might check its progress in the meantime. The arguments were about where and how strongly the paper ought to land, and could have national influence. We had no blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans, or announced gays, and the slot or emphasis upon "Labor," for example, was somewhat anachronistic, given the cornice of homelessness, health care, and welfare problems looming in position to avalanche, more than strikes or union activity. We ran essentially no environmentalist editorials. I was there to write local appreciations of nature in spring--little raptures--not fight for its worldwide survival. Such an evolution lay in the future for the Times, just as it was left to goodhearted white liberals to take a decent position on racial issues. (Jack Rosenthal himself, for instance, went over to Newark one night to hear Jesse Jackson speak, before it was widely considered important to have done so.)

We did, in 1979, however, have feminists in the room. This was a newly centrist, suitable meat to chew on, and besides the eminent architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable--an intellectually incisive, consummately elegant woman who usually sat next to Max or Jack as if a little above the fray and knowing where they were going to come down, anyway--we had a couple of eager advocates, such as the feisty Soma Golden, a pale, rumpled economics egghead who was gradually shouldering the good, gray fish-wrapper into enlightened opinions on women's lib. Allies sat together, and I must confess I placed myself with the white-haired or bald-headed guys facing the formidable Soma and Mary Cantwell, later a memoirist, across the table. I was forward-tilting in politics but more culturally conservative than I should have been, when the women's-rights movement was, as Emerson once said, "honoring to the age."

We weren't privy to whatever conversations Max and Jack had with "Punch" Sulzberger, their publisher. But Jack kept an aluminum mobile in his office--a sculpture depicting two acrobats balancing at opposite ends of a swaying, swinging pole--to remind him of his professional role, as he fielded calls from aggrieved or ingratiating and manipulative power brokers in the morning, then turned the phone off to work on the next day's editorial page in the afternoon. He would switch from a light-colored suit to a dark one on the day after Labor Day, no matter how hot that particular Tuesday was. The Times is a keel, not a rudder, and a keel is needed before any rudder. Nevertheless a great ship must turn, and we tugged at the stiff helm in diverse but tentative ways. These well-intentioned workaholics on the tenth floor were lifers at the organization--experienced journalists who as they aged wanted to stay closer to home--documenting, fortifying, and disseminating conventional wisdom, which they expressed as stirringly as they could, while altering it by inchward degrees. Can we say this? How soon will we be able to say this?--sanding it down. There was no chance of a startling, idealistic midcourse correction; our struggles were between individuals safely pre-positioned in mid river, and nobody else could have reached the board. Max himself, as Washington bureau chief, had supposedly been scooped on the Watergate scandal by Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post because he had been sandbagged by Kissinger and was too reluctant to believe bad things about important people: an ideal background for a job at which whatever you wrote might sound anemic in a decade and bloodless in a generation. The "godfathers" of the Times changed, from the horrendous Abe Rosenthal (no relation to Jack), to Max when he achieved the top post, to the brilliant good guy and Africanist Joe Lelyveld, to Howell Raines, and then back to Lelyveld, but an ordinary reporter could be reassigned, or not printed at all until he left of his own accord without messy firings, if his coverage did not conform to the newspaper's views. And similarly we had no dissenters in the boardroom that I left. Jack even asked me, when his Harvard twenty-fifth anniversary rolled around, what it was appropriate for him to recount about himself in the reunion book. I liked him, told him, but was also being radicalized by the wholesale destruction of nature, and stopped doing my brief seasonal paeans to autumn, summer, and spring by and by.

Dissent is the sourdough that starts bread rising, or the reckless protest that ignites reform. But it's not for breadwinners. It's a marriage-breaker, embittering the kids; and there is wastage--peacemakers such as Rabin, Gandhi, and King killed, and lesser, luckier people vilified, pauperized, with ulcers and palpitations. The apartheid jurists who shipped Nelson Mandela to Robben Island were surely well-balanced, successful men, like the French judges who burned Joan at Rouen, and later the Roman clerics who martyred the philosopher and astronomer Giordano Bruno. Nowadays, rational officials are not aghast that we may destroy half of the world's species of plants and animals within a single human life span. And can you imagine the three enlisted men in the Army helicopter who interrupted the My Lai massacre at gunpoint--after more than 400 Vietnamese civilians had been slaughtered by other American soldiers--receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroism, instead of a quarter century of official silence?

It's men who stand with arms akimbo who get such rewards, and people quickly become nonpersons if any cost must be paid for knowing them. You'll see it happen in grammar school, in adolescence, your thirties, forties, fifties. Integrity has its penalties, and betrayal was the usual fate of the honorable diehards I have known. It's not because there's nobody to trust, but because so often one of the definitions of people with power is that they will be people you can't trust. "Premature antifascists" was the label given by the U.S. armed forces in 1942--after the larger war against Nazism began--to the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who had sailed off to Spain in 1937 to fight Generalissimo Francisco Franco and been bombed by Luftwaffe Stukas, and so on. When they re-enlisted after Pearl Harbor, they became objects of suspicion and were mostly confined to their bases, after having been betrayed on the whole in Spain also.

Emerson--that cynosure of American literature--was barred from speaking at Harvard for thirty years after having delivered his heretical, now celebrated "Divinity School Address"; and Thoreau, another alumnus and lecturer living nearby in Concord, was never invited to hold forth at the college at all. Their interest in Asian religions went dangerously beyond being academic, and they championed John Brown and other wild notions, Emerson even speaking before the National Women's Rights Convention in 1855. "Life is an ecstasy," he wrote in The Conduct of Life, which is still a revolutionary doctrine because our sense of self-interest tends to trump our immersion in it. Radiance is hot to handle. We don't want to seem guilty of not being "on the same page" as other people for too long. Then--sliding through the months--we may wonder why we have lived.

I've hardly looked in a mirror for years (don't shave using one) and, like many souls, have self-sculpted a simulacrum I carry around. Not my public identity--that disciplined old doppelganger who knows how to maintain a facade--but the guy I hope I am, who is going to meet his maker in finishing up. Will I need a sort of splint for my spirit then, like the metal device I wore when carpal tunnel syndrome affected one of my hands? I'm more at peace than that, perhaps, and stumble more frequently when walking than in subtler respects. A mirror would remind me of the bashing I've taken, as well as some of my cynical trimmings, but it would be a distortion, too, because aging is cellular, not just a map of resentments, bafflement, or disappointment. Wrinkles simulate sagging hopes without actually signifying them, and do little to represent the spine of joy I have felt day by day (at least in the morning) for most of my life. Many people, who may seem rather bitter in middle age, by seventy are mainly grateful for having lived, willy-nilly, though quite round-shouldered from having rolled with the punches, and reticently proud of that. Nor, having absorbed those, do they think life shouldn't have blows. As Thomas Mann suggested in his last novel, we ought to live like soldiers without being soldiers; and how can you have a military without boot camp?

To be soldierly yet a partisan means dissent at times because an army kills whomever it's told to kill. Conformity and dissent are not simply a seesaw, however, because a posse comitatus and a lone maverick are not of equal power. Conventional wisdom is what incarcerated Dickens's father in a debtor's prison and hung small London pickpockets until the 1860s. It regularly reconstitutes chain gangs in parts of our own country and allowed young Mexican children to work unconscionable hours in Texas and California. The dissenter has got to rouse himself to pay attention--and then our slumberous consciences--much as the bow-tied Boston lawyer Joseph Welch did in verbally accosting the snarling Senator Joseph McCarthy during the McCarthy red-scare congressional hearings in 1954, with TV cameras rolling and Welch's clumsy wording affectingly unrehearsed: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

Cameras have become a precondition for effective acts of conscience. Otherwise Police Chief Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama, could have kept on knocking down Negro demonstrators with fire hoses, and the Buddhist monks in Saigon would have had no international audience when they incinerated themselves to protest the puppet regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. But broadly speaking, dissenters include the itchy folk who staff food pantries and shelters for the walking wounded in our blistered society. If doubts didn't nag them to action, the blisters would become calluses. Just as laughter can be a form of dissidence, so is seriousness--whereas conformity, like a frat boy, smirks out of one side of its mouth so that nobody will notice. Reverent in the pew, it spits out in the parking lot and pees between the cars.

We do have this tradition of free speech (monks martyred in Tibet weren't filmed by the Chinese press), and of a civil response to passive resistance that made it possible for Martin Luther King, and Gandhi in British India, to practice a symbolic disobedience without being immured forever in prison, or left for dead by the police. A Gandhi in French Algeria, Soviet Russia, Milosevic's Serbia, or Sharon's Palestine would not have been let off nearly as lightly. Although the average citizen does not red-letter our constitutional guarantees (he might punch the bastard instead or fire him for his nutty political views), lawyers do remember, and many a cop the morning after, and some college graduates and most autodidacts. I certainly have views my neighbors wouldn't agree with--somebody has to or we'd still be living in trees; I'm sure posterity will see it my way, don't you agree? A good number of us are closet dissidents and know what's wrong with the world better than more worldly folk do. We're not Galileo or Giordano Bruno, but anybody winning more of life's rewards than we are is probably selling out to some extent, don't you think? Tom Paine died ridiculed by the likes of John Adams and virtually destitute, and Joan in burning agony at Rouen in 1431. One judge was imprisoned for having raised objections to her trial, and a friar, Pierre Bosquier, overheard bemoaning her being burnt alive--after abjectly and publicly recanting--was only sentenced to eight months on bread and water.

Most of us would not have demurred that far; the danger would have frightened us. We'd have said she had it coming, like John Walker Lindh and other confused, petty idealists of today. Joan was major, not minor, but so ambiguous in her person and inspiration that a blurred but firmer parallel might lie in our responses nowadays to the titanic tragedies we are beginning to witness that, as an obverse, may live as long in history, like the AIDS pandemic, the plague of African famines, the worldwide holocaust we are inflicting on other forms of life. To each conflagration we don't react. Obese, and tending a lawn or window box, we are indifferent. Television footage would "bomb" if it showed a lot of skeletal orphans or hundreds of species blinking out in the tropics. Nor would real carpet bombing go over well if it were filmed from the ground, not by the aircraft's Nintendo gadgets. Nor would we want to hear the screams of various Muslims being drawn and quartered with electric shocks at our behest in obliging Third World dictatorships. We want to believe instead in a sort of rapt rhetoric--one nation under God, libertine in pursuing happiness but also after goodness. Unfortunately the privilege of free speech doesn't promise that you're going to say anything new, such as defining goodness. But nine out of ten of us have a rough idea of how we conceive it to be. And we know that dissent is innate to both honesty and altruism, that there are laws and higher laws. To be upright is not just keeping a Sabbath or paying one's union dues. (Some of the old agnostic Yiddish poets used to cluster together in New York's housepainters' union.) Accruing integrity is a process, not charted, and when the chips are down, you might wind up fighting fascism prematurely, or volunteering like Thoreau, a century ahead of other Americans, to go to jail for a principle.

Next to nobody quite practices their religion, and we know that raw democracy would be so intemperate it must be bridled. Yet horse's asses do attain high office and then delegate to other horse's asses more power than all but half a dozen of the politicians who have been freely chosen by the electorate. Thus we find ourselves in thrall to chumps like Robert McNamara, who later apologize for what they've done. Power can ramify exasperatingly in a democracy, when few officeholders could be elected if they said precisely what they meant. We assume they're partly rascals on a stage--makeup and make-believe. So our jury system may embody grass-roots democracy better, even though the lawyers can be expensive, because an anonymous twelve does decide the verdict as they wish, without having passed the hat. And in that context we distrust holdouts, much like individuals who make our street look bad by not mowing the lawn. But with such exceptions, in a democracy we tend to harbor a soft spot for the proverbial minority of one who has unpredictable thoughts. His ego or punctilio can displease us, like the habit of unbending fussiness and carping, the pose of dissent as a monocle. Yet it can also be as invaluable as reading glasses in deciphering falsity. And falsity is what we wind up not wanting--not by the end.

Aung San Suu Kyi, of Myanmar, asked for an encyclopedia to help see her through a decade of captivity. And how trivial a recompense is her distant fame for so many years of silent, grinding confinement. More germane is bearing witness for her people. She is the celebrated one among tens of thousands of nameless prisoners of conscience worldwide, new sufferers continually replacing those killed or released. We know what the jailers are probably like, and the common tattlers and conniving Vichy Frenchmen and -women who would sell your hideout for a hundred dollars--and the tame press that would not remark much on it. Brutal, go-along wage slaves are scattered everywhere, and slick flacks as well. We recognize the verbal cowardice that occasionally enables us to hold on to our own jobs. (I mean, suppose, as a writer, I'd said I have known a good many Jewish-American journalists who displayed a "dual loyalty" toward Israel and America in writing about the Palestinian conflict. It would have been professional suicide.)

I don't have a lot of faith in the truthfulness of power or the fairness of public opinion. But if you skim off the scum who everywhere float into turnkey and mouthpiece jobs, I think that ordinary folk over the long run are suffused with a kind of benign, almost blithe assertiveness that is the engine of democracy when it works. For hundreds of years sniveling pickpockets needed to be hung from a gibbet before the clergy, and the mothers and fathers of other school-age boys, took enough notice to raise a tentative, uneasy complaint. The thumbscrew and rack were abolished too (though I doubt there is less torture--just as no doubt a thousandfold as many small boys die much more slowly and painfully of famine now than were strangled on Tyburn Hill). But reforming the atrocities we inflict upon nature will be more problematic. When a critical mass of damage has been done, it will be as if we had stopped hanging small boys only after there were no more small boys.

Dissent is essential--it coughs up germs and clarifies the spirit--whether or not you are too late. And don't quail at getting excited; why not put in an exclamation point, the way the militants who founded the conservation organization Earth First! did? That's part of what life is about. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake with a torture device clamped to his tongue so that he couldn't speak the truth as he saw it to the crowd in the Campo di' Fiori as the faggots were lit, not in order that he wouldn't hurt anybody's feelings there. Yet dissent is a tool of kindness, on the whole. We don't want the mentally retarded executed, illegal immigrants dying of thirst in the desert, sea turtles wiped out for the sake of shrimp cocktails, Predator drones perfected to the point of being able to assassinate anybody, based on their DNA. We dissent from cruelty and greed, solipsism and nihilism, from war-lovers and eye-gougers (that is, people who gouge the landscape our eyes feed from).

But you can't dissent in earnest if you have no intimations of what you believe. Then it's simply temperamental. A double negative--not to admire sequoias or cathedrals, but say don't destroy them--will vitiate your claim. Death, for example, will be as much a mystery to me as to anybody. I don't expect it's either Christ or merely biochemistry (and can't guess what poor creature, in this century, one might like to be reincarnated as). I believe it will be more than death, or barebones rest, however. And that puts a fire in my belly to preserve the mysteries and decencies and beauty and complexities we have.

Edward Hoagland is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His nineteenth book, Hoagland on Nature, will be published this month by Lyons Press. His last essay for the magazine, "Sex and the River Styx," appeared in the January issue.
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Date:Aug 1, 2003
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