“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out deperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
“We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world — a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the callling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 4 April 1967
Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence
“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” That is what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told the American people more than a half century ago, but too few were paying attention, too few wanted to hear. We remember the man and forget his message, as the latter remains inconvenient. The greatest divide in our society isn’t ideological or partisan. It can’t even be simplified into a divide by race or any other standard demographic. Rather, the divide is between those who have a sense of urgency and those who don’t.
Everything comes down to that. It doesn’t matter if you see, understand and acknowledge the problems we face, if you don’t appreciate the struggles and suffering of the victims of these problems. For those who personally know these problems, they don’t have the privilege to be patient for reform to eventually come next election, next generation, or next century. You either feel this sense of urgency or it simply makes no sense to you.
There is a basic and seemingly insurmountable challenge. There appears to be no way to make someone feel this urgency, much less get them to grasp the visceral experience of urgency for those who do feel it. There is no way to communicate this. Either someone gets it or not. Yet the urgency grows as problems worsen for so many. And the conflict between those who do and don’t get it likewise grows. I see no way for this to be easily resolved until the comfortable begin to feel uncomfortable when the dirty masses get restless enough to disturb their slumber and threaten their good life.
For those who don’t feel urgency, they assume the vocally urgent are just complaining. They see them as petulant children who are pestering the responsible adults trying to have moderate, reasonable adult discussion. Only children and ideologues, as they see it, always want to get their own way. These people don’t realize how unreasonable they are being in expecting those who struggle to suffer in silence. Can they really be that disconnected from how bad it has become for those less advantaged and fortunate? Will it really take mass protests or revolution before the clueless finally get that these are real problems that have to be dealt with now and not later?
As an example, consider the worsening unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. The government hasn’t kept full unemployment data since the 1980s. No one knows for sure how bad unemployment is at present. And the mainstream media rarely talks about this in any depth.
It’s as if data not being kept means the problem doesn’t exist. Just ignore the growing number of poor people barely making ends meet or living in homeless camps or ending up in prison. This problem doesn’t exist because it doesn’t impact people who aren’t poor. But even if the problem did exist, I’m sure it would solve itself. We just need to get all the low income people to shut up and quit supporting candidates like Sanders who is a spoiler. Let’s threaten that Trump will win and that’ll shut them up, right?
Homeless camps are popping up in cities all over the country. That is what happened during the Great Depression. And then those temporary homeless camps become permanent shanty towns. There eventually will be a breaking point that easily could turn violent as it did during the Great Depression. People turned on each other. The government was finally forced to intervene, but only after they let the problem get horribly bad for so many.
It’s not even limited to the United States. Worsening poverty and increasing homelessness is found in the UK (“one in ten parents would not be able to pay housing costs during January – and 2.5 million parents were forgoing household essentials, including food, clothes and energy, in order to pay the rent.”), Greece (“number of new homeless as high as 20,000. Moreover, nearly 20% of Greeks no longer have enough money to cover daily food expenses, according to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The nation’s unemployment rate is 26%, the highest among 28 European Union members.”), France and all across Europe.
That is just talking about the Western world. On a related note, there is the global refugee crisis. The number of refugees in recent years returned to the levels last seen during WWII and in the past year has hit the highest level ever recorded. This is related to wars, instability, overthrown governments, etc (often caused or contributed to by Western governments), but another major factor is climate change with major droughts. This has been a major problem in the Middle East and Africa, along with parts of Latin America, Asia, and Europe. Scientists, politicians, and even the Pentagon have pointed to the link between climate change and terrorism. This problem is only going to get worse.
Consider also one of the main reasons there are so many homeless and refugees. It’s related. A large number of homeless are veterans who are dealing with neurological and psychological trauma from war. And many refugees are escaping war. Meanwhile, the comfortable back at home in Western countries rarely if ever personally experience war, on either side of the equation. If they did experience it, it would be hard for them ever be fully comfortable again and they would feel cut off from the cud-chewing herd. Many war journalists end up traumatized simply by seeing the ravage caused, an experience that like that of the soldier they’ll never be able to explain to family and friends back home.
It’s not only about such dramatic events as war. For the poor, all of life can be traumatizing. And the traumatized tend to end up poor. The homeless have high rates of mental illness, in general. Obviously, much of that is simply because mental illness doesn’t lead to a well functioning life and we live in a society that is heartless toward those who can’t help themselves. But being homeless probably increases mental illness as well, because of stress and trauma, lack of healthcare, malnutrition, etc. A similar set of problems likely exists for refugees. And it is also likely that refugees that find their ways to other countries often end up homeless or else in severe poverty. It simply sucks being homeless or a refugee, to be made a pariah and cast out from acceptable society.
It makes me wonder if these two problems are more closely related than we normally think. We tend to keep the homeless and refugees in separate categories, but maybe it’s more meaningful to think of them as variants of the same problem. These are people who have no place or purpose in society. They are unwanted and often despised. They are part of a large and ever growing proportion of the global population that is feeling urgent and sometimes causing others to feel urgent.
The response from so many is to ignore the problem and hopes it goes away. Blame the victims of the refugee crisis, turn the refugees away, or force the refugees into camps. Tear down homeless camps, hide the homeless, use hostile architecture, design cities to drive the homeless away, and other similar sociopathic behaviors and authoritarian measures. Interestingly, some of the kindest acts toward the homeless have come from recent refugees, as it often takes someone who personally understands suffering to have compassion.
To put refugees in camps isn’t so different to the reason so many homeless end up in jails and prisons. These are the places where the unwanted and unneeded are stored away. Similar solutions are ghettoes and housing projects. Homeless camps are just a more short term variety of this kind of response. It should be unsurprising that the number of refugees is increasing simultaneously as is the number of homeless and prisoners. There are now more blacks in prison than there were blacks in slavery before the Civil War. There are also more mentally ill people in prison than has been the case since before the Civil War. People tend to be less bothered by refugees, the homelessness, and other undesirables when they aren’t seen.
We always could deal with the fundamental problems that are causing these other problems. But it’s easier to hide them. It’s like the strip mining that looks like a warzone and yet is never seen from the road, the truth obscured behind a a stand of trees and the people who used to live there simply made to go away. Our world is full of invisible problems of invisible people. Invisible that is until they disrupt the social order.
Explain to me again how voting for Hillary Clinton to stop a Donald Trump presidency is going to make a damn bit of difference to those already being fucked over by our society, no matter which party has power. We have elections all the time and here we are—the problems going unsolved, voices of the suffering going unheard, and the desperation and outrage ever increasing.
There are many other problems that could be brought up. There is growing inequality, inferior education system, a permanent underclass, and systemic racism. There is institutional failure, cronyism, corruption, corporatism, regulatory capture, and crumbling infrastructure. There is the military-industrial complex, military imperialism, drug wars, and creeping authoritarianism. There is the general failure of democracy as our society turns into a banana republic and the public loses trust. And, of course, there is the mainstream media’s complicity. We aren’t seriously dealing with any of these problems.
So, what happens next? How will this end? Are you feeling any urgency yet?
* * *
Urgency can mean many things. Within it, there is a seed of radical change, not a return to what was but potentially a transformation. That seed has to be planted and nurtured, if it is to grow.
That is why it takes a broken person to profoundly understand that the system itself is broken. This brokenness isn’t necessarily a loss. It can be taken as an opportunity, like a seed breaking open, a change from one condition to another. Urgency is a starting point and, for that reason, important.
In that light, here is a slightly different view on suffering…
“In this extended form of time, resilience becomes transfigured from the urgency associated with a need for recoil into something that takes its time, and resembles patience.
“Patience, in its original meaning, was a virtue that enabled a person to overcome his suffering and, in some sense, enact understanding in the face of the faults and limitations of others. Patience today might conjure a sense of inactivity, a feeling that it’s about more or less waiting for things to pass. Consider, instead, the term patient. As an adjective, it is the quality of a person who is able to overcome and demonstrate understanding towards others. As a noun, it is a person who is in need of understanding and, specifically, medical care.
“Patience recognises suffering in the difficulties of one’s life and that of another. Nowadays, it might conjure up ideas of complacence but, with a long view of time – in which time is understood as abundant – patience becomes a way of bearing sorrows. Unlike resilience, which implies returning to an original shape, patience suggests change and allows the possibility of transformation as a means of overcoming difficulties. It is a simultaneous act of defiance and tenderness, a complex existence that gently breaks barriers. In patience, a person exists at the edge of becoming. With an abundance of time, people are allowed space to be undefined, neither bending nor broken, but instead, transfigured.
“And it is an act of courage, because only the unknown lies on the other side of the threshold of events we seek to overcome.”