It has been suggested that my country, Boriken, renamed, in honor of pillage, Puerto Rico, or Rich Port, should raise its moribund economy from the dead by harvesting the organs of our young and selling them to rich foreign tourists in need of transplants. It has been suggested that those of our children who have been shot in the head during the day to day business of narcotrafficking and murder, leaving their organs intact, and those of our children who die, without being totally crushed, in car accidents, collisions of reckless speed, addiction and other suicidal residues of genocidal conquest, that our dead children be taken to processing plants, where experts will extract the red anones of their hearts, the pale and highly prized beans of their kidneys, the dark, cordillera slopes of their livers, their branching lungs like the cloud forests of El Yunque, the seashell corneas of their eyes, and market them to wealthy people whose own organs have failed. (In this business, organs travel from poor to rich, female to male, brown to white.)
In this scenario, the bodies of our children, slaughtered in the cross fire of colonial violence, are reframed as a natural resource. No longer are we to be sterilized to prevent our cluttering up our island with people. Instead, we should treat the high homicide and accident rates of Puerto Rico as a kind of agricultural climate suited to the farming of body parts.
Imagine someone picks up a box of fruit at your fruit stand and instead of paying for it, assures you that your peaches will get great exposure. Imagine a customer at your restaurant sends back the bill. He doesn’t think he should pay for the time it took the chef to make the whole pot of paella, just the three minutes it took to scoop out his portion and bring it to the table. Imagine you clean houses for a living. A client calls and says she’s throwing a party and would love to have you come get the house ready. She can only afford to pay your bus fare, but she knows the guests will really appreciate your efforts. As a writer, these are the kinds of offers I get all the time.
A few weeks ago, my father, ecologist Richard Levins, celebrated his 85th birthday with a symposium at the Harvard School of Public Health, called "The Truth is the Whole" at which dozens of scientists in a variety of fields spoke about their work, in many cases inspired, informed and shaped by his. There were many brilliant moments, many joyous reunions, a lot of shared memories and appreciations, and the highlights will soon be available online.
But what I want to write about is a less than brilliant moment, after a long afternoon of men calling on each other, and ignoring the increasingly pissed off women in the room. It was one of those arguments that is low on content and high on posturing, about the best way to "resolve" climate change, and all the suggestions on the table were tiny, ineffective adjustments of one kind or another, because for those who are unable or unwilling to grasp the whole truth of climate change, that's all that's available.
Weary from a day of overt sexism, I didn't jump in, but my brother Ricardo did, and spoke what I was thinking. Climate change is the inevitable outcome of capitalism. No amount of patching it up will make it sustainable. That doesn't mean we shouldn't encourage and applaud partial measures. But we shouldn't mistake them for solutions.
The real reason climate deniers are so adamant in their refusal to accept the evidence before us all, is that the realities of our unraveling ecosystem crack open the central myth of capitalism, that somehow it's possible to commit endless small and large acts of greed without any consequences; that through the mysterious power of "the market" all will be made well. Climate change is in-your-face proof that greed adds up to disaster, and to admit this would mean admitting that capitalism is a dangerous failure.
For those whose universe revolves around the pursuit of profit, such an admission seems like the ultimate disaster, to be prevented at all cost, quite literally.
Although the word "boycott" did not come into existence until 1880, organized refusals to purchase goods, participate in activities, or deal with a person, group, or country as a form of protest are much older. One of the most inspiring to me was begun by Elizabeth Heyrick and Susannah Watts, Quaker women living in Leicester, England. Going door to door, they launched a national campaign to boycott goods made by slave labor, focusing on West Indian sugar. They compiled and publicized a national list of those who had pledged to stop using slave produced sugar. Grocers stopped selling it, and promoted East Indian sugar instead. At the height of the boycott, 400,000 people stopped using West Indian sugar. In the United States, a similar boycott led to "free produce" stores that sold only goods produced without slave labor. The boycott didn't destroy the West Indian sugar economy. It wasn't intended to. It was a way to bring the issue of slavery into people's homes, to literally place it on the table, and then offer them a specific action to take, a way to interrupt business as usual and declare their non-cooperation. Taking a moral stand against slavery, even symbolically, changed them, and it changed the conversation. It made the drinking of tea a political act. Either you spooned human suffering into your cup, or you refused to.
My brother Ricardo likes to say that there are two kinds of organizers, those who understand that storytelling is at the center of all good organizing, and the ones who haven't figured it out yet.
It's been a deep frustration to me for most of my activist life, that so many movement organizations fail to understand the power of art to change the way people perceive the world. The purpose of organizing is to change consciousness, to change what people imagine to be possible, so they can go out and make it happen. Radical artists are experts in changing culture, challenging official stories, exposing suppressed truths, creating culture that brims with possibility. We know how to listen to stories and how to tell them.
But much of the time, we're called upon to sweeten up a dry polemic, publicize and illustrate campaigns we're not asked to help design, perform at fundraisers, and make the poster for the event. Art is seen as a "tool," not a core strategy of transformation. Most of the time, artists aren't brought in for serious discussions about how to change beliefs, how to shift people and win them over, how to open up new avenues.
One obvious sign of this is the shortage of thoughtful slogans, chants and songs at protests. What we write on our signs, chant in the streets, and join our voices to sing should be composed with our strategic goals and deepest values in mind, and honed with all the artistry of which we are capable, so they can do their real job: change consciousness, and move people to think, feel, question, act. Artists need to be among the core strategists of all our movements, shaping our work, not just decorating it.
Last fall, I got to spend the weekend with around forty mostly Jewish artist-activists who came together to do just that. Jewish Voice for Peace invited us to the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut to create the organization's Artists' Council and start mapping out the work of changing the dominant narratives about Israel/Palestine, and also about Jewish identity in the 21st century.
It was an intense and joyous few days, spent grappling with how best to apply both our artistic talents and our political insight to the interwoven tasks of supporting Palestinian liberation and challenging the right wing domination of U.S. Jewish life. It's the kind of group every smart movement should be convening, and I've been agitating for something like it for decades.
Many things happened there which will lead to a lot of inspiring work in the coming months, and hopefully years, and I look forward to telling you about it.
When I was twenty, I spent several weeks of my poetic translation tutorial wrestling a Neruda poem into English, a word at a time. “Abejas II” begins, “There is a cemetery of bees...” and ends,
“there they arrive one by one,
a million with another million,
all the bees arrive to die
until the earth is covered
in great yellow mountains.
I will never forget their fragrance.”
In 1974, thinking about mountains of dead bees in their millions was a metaphor, devoid of horror. In Neruda’s imagination, they were dying of sweetness, not neonictinoids. Gigantic corporations didn’t call them thieves for gathering their yellow grains of genetic code, in violation of trade monopolies, and scattering them across property lines in violation of privatization.
Their fragrant expiring didn’t signal the fracture of the natural world, famines,
crop failures, barren gardens. This summer the squashes in my garden bloomed, but never made fruit. I saw only one large bumblebee all summer, in spite of all the offerings we planted, and their absence filled me with fear.
My brother Ricardo has pointed out to me how so many of the online campaigns to save the bees focus on the work they do for us, as if we were the privileged rich and they were an exploited immigrant nation, toiling in our fields to fertilize the dinner table, worthy of saving only so that we can eat.
But the bees are their own golden beings, orbiting their flowering planet. I remember them, traveling the paths of the air, spiraling in slow grace through the pollen dusted petals of nasturtiums, hibiscus, gladioli, or in bullet fast furious beeline, spending their rough bright bodies in defense of the hive. How the intricate calligraphy of their dancing unfurled across the morning like a scroll, how they were not there for us, but with us, how they spread fertility to orchards, wildflowers, and inedible shrubs, without regard for our hungers.
They are a shining strand in the web of ecology, whose unraveling dooms us. They are sovereign nations facing extinction, and we have been here before. We must be their underground railroad, their sanctuary movement, their solidarity committee, blocking the roads that lead to their massacre, not because they could make the squash blossoms bear fruit, though that is part of their beauty, but because they exist, and like us, are being driven unjustly to their deaths.
How can I sleep? When I close my eyes, there is fire everywhere. The doctors who go among the wounded and dead in Gaza say they believe the Israeli military is using DIME weapons, Dense Inert Metal Explosives. These bombs explode into clouds of micro-shrapnel, fill the flesh of those within range with tiny particles of tungsten and nickel, heavy metals contaminating the injured, so that those who are not killed outright, who survive, perhaps with severed limbs, are infested with microscopic time bombs of cancer--of the connective tissue. They are shredding the webs of people's bodies.
A few nights ago, my father and I sat in front of my laptop computer and watched, with many other members of Jewish Voice for Peace, as the Presbyterian Church voted to divest from three U.S. companies who directly participate in and profit from the occupation; who make money from surveillance, repression, and the destruction of Palestinian homes and communities. The plan approved by the Presbyterian assembly also commits the church to positive investments and active efforts toward reconciliation. It is the product of a ten year process of soul searching, gathering information, and listening to other people about what we believe needs to happen. Jewish Voice for Peace, of which I am a proud member, and on whose advisory board I sit, has played an powerful part in that process. I believe that acts like this one help to create a necessary moral crisis, in which business as usual becomes intolerable to larger and larger numbers of people.
Aurora Levins Morales is a disabled and chronically ill, community supported writer, historian, artist and activist. It takes a village to keep her blogs coming. To become part of the village it takes, donate here.
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