By Lisa O’Neill. Image of a collaboration of artist Gregory Sale and poet Tc Tolbert at the Phoenix Art Museum (click image for more details)
sur·ren·der (səˈrendər) v.t. [OFr. surrender; sur-, upon, up + render, to render], 1. to give up possession of or power over; yield to another on demand or compulsion. 2. to give up claim to; give over or yield, especially voluntarily, as in favor of another. 3. to give up or abandon; as, we surrendered all hope. 4. to yield or resign (oneself) to an emotion, influence, etc. 5. [Obs.], to give back or in return. v.i. to give oneself up to another’s power or control, especially as a prisoner; yield. n. [Anglo-Fr. < OFr. surrender (see the v.); inf. used as n.], 1. the act of surrendering, yielding, or giving up. 2. in insurance, the voluntary abandonment of a policy by an insured person in retrun for a cash payment (surrender value), thus freeing the company of liability.
SYN.—surrender commonly implies the giving up of something completely after striving to keep it (to surrender a fort, one’s freedom, etc.); relinquish is the general word implying an abandoning, giving up, or letting go of something held (to relinquish one’s grasp, a claim, etc.); to yield is to concede or give way under pressure (to yield one’s consent); to submit is to give in to authority of superior force (to submit to a conqueror); resign implies a voluntary, formal relinquishment and used reflexively, connotes submission or passive acceptance (to resign an office, to resign oneself to failure).
On Saturday, I heard Amy Goodman speak. I knew she was a brilliant journalist, having read her work and listened to Democracy Now!, but I was taken aback at what a consummate storyteller she is and at her capacity to be a vessel for so many people’s stories. She moved seamlessly in and out of political events, uprisings, movements, historical dates and figures, details of the stories of people she’d met and words they had told her. She talked about the responsibility of journalists (“to go where the silence is and let people speak for themselves”), about what one immigrant fighting for rights said when Goodman asked why there was a butterfly on their sign (“butterflies know no borders; butterflies are free”). She quoted Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
I think what surprised me most is that in the face of all of the stories of tremendous, often inconceivable, injustice and oppression, she exuded warmth and humor and a presence that spoke to her overall trust in the kindness and goodness of human beings. Was there corruption of power? Absolutely. Were people, all over the world, suffering in unconscionable ways? Without a doubt. Was much of this suffering caused directly by the policies of our country and were we Americans thus accountable to and responsible for much of this injustice? Yes, certainly.
Was this a signal that we should give up? That nothing could be done? That things were fucked up beyond repair and we should retreat into our homes to eat Cheetos and watch reality television for the rest off our lives? A definitive no.
Here’s the thing about surrender, about surrendering. Surrendering is not something that people in positions of power have any authority or control over. The surrendering must come from the person who chooses to submit. Obviously, the stakes are higher for some than others. Some of us enjoy expansive freedom in our day-to-day lives; freedoms we often take for granted and don’t practice gratitude for. Others live each day faced with imminent threats and dangers to their personal safety and that of their loved ones and communities, oppressed in their own countries and homes.
The one thing that steadily continues to amaze and humble me is the resiliency of the human spirit. That even when beared down upon, when suffering, when up against impossible obstacles, human beings consistently stand up and refuse to concede, to resign, to relinquish, to surrender. This is at the heart of our humanness, our ability to take ownership of our bodies, minds, hearts, souls, even if others beat us down, abuse us, tell us we are worthless. There is power in the unwillingness to cower or be made less than. There is strength in taping up wounds and walking even when broken. We may not have control of the conditions around us, but we do have a responsibility to the flickering of light inside.
Goodman took us through uprisings during the Arab Spring and back to the civil rights movement. She reminded the audience of the media’s dismissive and oversimplified take on Rosa Parks (“she was just a tired seamstress”) that doesn’t take into account that she was trained at the Highlander school and held the position of secretary of the local NAACP. Not only was she actively involved in the fight for civil rights for African-Americans, but she was chosen by the movement to take a stand in this way and to pave the way for the entrance of a new as-yet-unknown preacher to help lead the movement.
Goodman conferred some information that was shocking in its irony:
Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, Jr., when being considered for a presidential run in 1968, warned the Republican party against extremism. He voiced his concerns about and opposition to organizations such as the John Birch Society, a radical right-wing organization that stood in opposition to the civil rights movement. The Koch Brothers’ father Fred Koch was a founding member of the Birch Society. The Koch Brothers have been one of the biggest supporters of Mitt Romney’s campaign.
Because Frederick Douglas was a “difficult” slave, he was sent to Ed Covey, known as a “slave breaker.” The place where Covey lived and enacted his torture on slaves, located in Saint Michael’s, Maryland, was known as Mount Misery. The current owner of Mount Misery? Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, under whose leadership torture, like that at Abu Ghraib, was conducted. Mount Misery is the site of his vacation home.
I think it is easy to point at the many freedoms we have in our culture and to ignore systemic ills that reveal the ways in which we oppress and are oppressed every day: the United States holding the largest incarceration rate in the world (International Centre for Prison Studies); classism and racism embedded in our criminal justice system; our use of the death penalty and also its continued use even in cases of extreme doubt (as with Troy Davis). Dostoevsky said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” And too, I think, by the way in which we choose to acknowledge or not acknowledge how often we tuck people away, out of sight and out of mind.
Goodman spoke of “breaking the sound barrier,” and I think in all the discussion of the economy and the two party candidates batting accusations at one another, the real discourse and debate gets lost. How are we taking care of our citizens? And how are we not? How are we being good citizens of the world? And how are we not? How are we being caretakers of the planet? And how are we not? What are the ways in which our current policies make it impossible for some of our fellow citizens to survive much less thrive?
Here’s another thing about surrendering. Not surrendering becomes easier when we see ourselves as part of a community with others. The greatest myth of our individual-focused U.S. society is that we don’t need one another, that it is okay to take care of “me and mine” and not care about “you and yours,” that we can fill our lives with objects to substitute for intimacy with other human beings, that life is about personal success and that this success is measured by how we appear on the outside and how much money we have in the bank.
This is a myth that pains us because, in our deepest selves, we know it is a lie. We see everyday in countless ways the impact we have on one another. We are interdependent and to propagate the idea within ourselves and our culture that we are not leads to suffering and disillusion, confusion and blame.
From community comes strength and connection, something we all need. When I was in high school, I had a teacher who had adopted a severely mentally and physically disabled child. She and her husband were told by doctors after they adopted him that this infant, now their child, had been within hours of dying. Not because he didn’t have adequate food, but because he, unlike the other babies, had not been regularly held. He was dying from lack of human touch.
The desire to connect with others is at our very core—no matter our political affiliations, no matter the distinctions in our religious or ethical views.
But you know what is required to be a part of community? The vulnerability of being who we really are and speaking from that place, the willingness to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations about how we got to where we are and about the problems that need solutions, the bravery to not turn away when we see someone suffering because it makes us feel dissonance, because we know that in different circumstances that could be us.
Goodman’s new book, written with fellow producer Denis Moynihan, is called The Silenced Majority. The title speaks to the idea that most Americans, even despite differences in opinion, have compassion at their core. They want opportunities to be available not only for themselves but for their fellow citizens. But when the rhetoric is too narrow, too many stories get left out. And it is only through hearing each others’ stories that we learn to understand one another and then act from that space of understanding. Goodman relayed the story of when a joint targeting committee made of staff from The Manhattan Project and the United States Air Force sent suggestions of potential nuclear bomb sites in Japan to Secretary of War Henry Stimson. On the list were Kokura, Hiroshima, Niigata, and Kyoto. Stimson told them to remove Kyoto, not only from the nuclear list but from the list of targets for conventional bombing as well. Why? Because he and his wife had visited Kyoto and they appreciated the beauty and history of the city and enjoyed the people they met there. Through this personal connection, the town of Kyoto was saved. Nagasaki was added in its place.
Amy Goodman said it is movements that make this country great.
And what are movements? Just people. People who have decided to commit themselves to a collective vision that says: we can do better than this. People who, despite the odds and obstacles that face them, do the work anyway. People who, leaning on the strength and knowledge of one another, do not surrender.