Here is the speech that Alex Shoumatoff delivered to the “Adirondack Voices For Peace” rally, at John Brown’s homestead in North Elba, New York, August 16, 2003
I am now [having sung and strummed a few peace songs with my three little boys] going to give a brief speech that is probably going to get me audited and sent to Guantanamo, but here goes :
The John Brown Homestead seems a somewhat strange venue for a peace rally, considering that Brown’s approach to social change was anything but peaceful.
But perhaps violence was what was needed to rid our noble democratic experiment of the greatest evil of the day—slavery-- whose bitter legacy is still poisoning our society. Today our society is plagued with other evils. One is our own unbridled capacity for violence. We need to evolve beyond the point that we think we can bomb innocent civilians in other countries in order to get rid of regimes we installed in the first place that are no longer to our liking. We’ve got to get over this penchant for “bombs bursting in air” that’s right there in the national anthem. As Bob Dylan puts it in Blowin’ in the Wind, “How many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned ?… How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry ? How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died ?” And the solution to these horribly violent times is not more violence. I’ve been waiting for a prophetic voice of the stature of Dylan to arise. That’s someone we could really use about now.
Our second problem is that our government has been hijacked by some very dangerous people. The president we have now is not the one that the majority voted for, so this is no longer a democracy, and the reason he got in is because the Supreme Court has been bought, and the media, which should raising holy hell about the situation, is embedded with this illicit regime and scared to make a peep because they will lose access. It’s a very serious situation. America has lost its moral leadership in the world, and is morally adrift in savage capitalism and hyperconsumption and protofascistic militarism and our democracy, everything that makes this country great, is going down the tubes. What can we do about it? What should I as an American citizen who loves this country and the people and animals and plants in it be doing is something that I’ve been asking myself every day since we bombed Iraq again and this time invaded and occupied it, despite the clear global consensus that this was not anything we had any right to do, but the attitude of the illicit junta was : what are you going to do about it ?
So what are we going to do about it ? One thing is for those of us who are deeply disturbed about what is happening to our country to gather in peaceful protest rallies like this, and I want to thank Michele Syverson for putting this one together and everyone who has had the courage and conviction to come here this afternoon. We need to make it clear that not every American is going along with the agenda that this regime is trying to force on us and on the entire world. Then we need to get rid of these creeps, not by force, but by exposing what they’re doing, the way Woodward and Berstein exposed Watergate and brought down Nixon, and speaking out and organizing a viable alternative and voting them out and making sure this time that the election isn’t rigged and the majority gets the people it voted for in office.
But before we can do that we need to inform ourselves about what is going on, the impact that we are having on the rest of the world and what the rest of the world thinks about it. I can tell you something about this because for the last thirty years I have been traveling all over the world and writing about what I encountered. All too often I have traveled to some remote magical corner of the world and instead of finding the beautiful, pristine, exotic cultures and ecosystems I was expecting to be there, I have come upon scenes of appalling destruction. It started with a trip to Jamaica in l970. I was staying with some friends in a bungalow in the hills above Oche Rios that belonged to Reynolds Aluminum in a lush rainforest full of birds and butterflies but right behind the bungalow were two hills that had literally been decapitated and were oozing blood-red bauxite rich lateritic soil that had been trucked off and processed into aluminum foil and other products. When I returned to America I saw how obliviously and wastefully my countrymen were using aluminum foil without having a clue of the cost that it was taking on places like Jamaica.
Since then aluminum foil is not something I have bought or used.
Six years later, in l976, I went to the Amazon and saw a fire raging out of control on the King Ranch there that was bigger than Belgium. It was so hot that the huge trees of the rainforest were being sandblasted into the air and landing upside down with their huge flaring buttresses looking like the fins of crashed rocket ships. The rainforest was being burned off and converted to pasture for cattle so we could have our Big Macs, an unknown number of animal and plants species were being wiped out before they could even be identified—this particularly sad type of oblivion is known as Sentinelan extinction-- and the smoke from the fires was spewing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I learned about the greenhouse effect that this co 2 was causing, heating up the planet, when it was still known to only a handful of scientists and environmentalists, and I realized that it might not be a bad idea to move north a few hundred miles, so a few years later I moved from Westchester County, where I was born and raised, to the Adirondacks, which is why I am here today. But most Americans didn’t learn about the fires in the Amazon until the scorching record breaking summer of l988, when the fires were incorrectly blamed as the main cause of what was happening. In fact the single greatest cause of global warming are the millions of cars that are on the road in America at any given moment.
The more I traveled, the more I saw the incredible disparities between the lucky few who live in America and the other developed countries and the rest of the world. Here are some examples : the c.e.o of Dell computer (one of whose laptops I own) makes more than $16,000 an hour, while two billion people in the developing world are struggling to survive on a dollar a day. 400 superrich Americans have an average income of nearly $174 million, a combined income of $69 billion, which is more than the combined income of the 166 million people in the four African countries that President Bush recently visited : Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda. The U.S. average life expectancy is 77 years. In Africa it’s 50 years, 40 in some AIDs-ravaged countries. There’s a guy called Ira Reinnert who’s building a 100,000 square foot mansion in the Hamptons of a sumptuousness not seen since Versailles. He makes his millions by buying up toxic mines that contaminate everybody for miles around. Many of his mining ventures aren’t doing too well because of the enormous number of lawsuits they have provoked from people they have made sick, but Reinnert still owns the company that makes Humvees, which get like six miles to the gallon and have replaced the Jeep as the vehicle of our armed forces, so he’s not going belly-up any time soon.
To continue : The U.S. consumes 25 million barrels of oil a day. The next biggest consumer is Japan, which consumes 7 million barrels. Big industrialized countries like Canada and Brazil, as well as England, France, and Germany, consume only 1 million barrels a day. The pulp and paper industry is responsible for 7 percent of the co2 emitted globally into the atmosphere per year. The production, consumption, and disposal of paper products contributes 420 additional million metric tonnes of atmospheric co2 annually. The average American consumes 337 kilos of paper a year, 111 times what the average Indian does.
I wrote a story about sturgeons, which are so endangered that it is criminal to eat caviar any more. The same is true of the Atlantic salmon. There are only a hundred thousand of them left in the wild. The Atlantic codfish, which once number in the billions, has been fished out, as have many of the other large commercial fish.
I am not a radical, and you are supposed to become more conservative as you get older, but in my case the opposite has happened. As Edward Hoagland recently wrote about himself in Harper’s magazine, I have become radicalized by the wholesale destruction of nature and traditional cultures that I keep encountering on almost every trip that I take. I am more radical than I have ever been in my life, and I’m becoming more radical by the minute. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead on the same podium as the pinko treehugging head of Greenpeace. Today I’m proud to be here and ready to be of any service to my buddy Passacantando that I can [Passacantando was the main speaker at the rally. The master of ceremonies was Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature. The last time the three of us had been together was in Kyoto.]
Three years ago I was so distraught by the situation that I founded a Web Site dedicated to raising consciousness about the worldwide destruction of species and cultures. It’s called DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com and it contains lengthy, indepth articles about what it happening to the fish in the Gulf of Maine, the prairie dogs in Chihuahua, the Ukrainian Orthodox churches in the plains of Manitoba. Next time you’re on the Web, please check it out. DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com .
One of the first Dispatches was commissioned by Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundations, which was contributing three million dollars to keep going the national parks in eastern Congo during the civil war that has ravaged that country for the last seven years. These parks contain some of the crown jewels of the animal kingdom, like the okapi, or forest giraffe, and the mountain gorilla. The UN Foundation wanted me to do a site report before the funds were being dispersed. What I found is that these parks are havens for not only many guerillas groups and bandits, the deserters of four different armies, tens of thousands of fugitive killers who committed the genocide in neighboring Rwanda in l994, but also the miners of a rare mineral called coltan, which has a very high melting point and is needed for every cellphone, laptop, solid-state electronic appliance, satellite, shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket, and ballistic missile. The miners of this metal are roasting and eating the last mountains gorillas and okapis and forest elephants on earth. Most of the coltan goes guess where—the USA. There’s a company called Cabot High Performance materials in Boyerstown, Pennsylvania that makes a hundred million dollars a year just grinding coltan into a purified powder and selling it to companies that stamp it into capacitors. The other big player in the coltan trade is Carlisle, which has George Bush Senior, ex-Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, the good, capitalist bin Ladens, Howard Baker and other Republic stalwarts on its board. Carlisle’s biggest customer is the American military. A whole lot of coltan was just used in the attack on Iraq. As a small-time African coltan dealer observed to me, “Isn’t it ironic that the people who are protecting the parks are the same ones who are destroying it ?”
When you put all this together, start connecting the dots, a clear and horrifying picture emerges : we are sucking the marrow out of the rest of the world. The 4% of us who are fortunate to be American are consuming anywhere from 25% to 66% of the world’s resources, depending on whose numbers you go with. This is obviously not right, and it can’t go on. We have become the hated, selfish upper class of the world. And when one small group has too much and refuses to share it, what happens : revolution. That’s what happened in Russia in l917. I know about that revolution, of belonging to an elete that had a good thing going and was violently overthrown, because my people belonged to the Russian nobility that was exterminated by the Bolsheviks. My immediate family was driven out of the country where we had lived for a thousand years, and ended up here, but whole lines of my kin, aunts, uncles, cousins, were slaughtered, and the same is true of my wife, a Rwandan Tutsi, so I am not a fan of violent social change, believe me, because what it ushers in, even with the best intentions, usually ends up worse that what was there before. The one thing that revolutions have in common is that they are betrayed, as the new guys get a taste for power, and this is what is happening in our country now : the American revolution is being betrayed. The principles that our republic was founded on, like the separation of church and state, are being overturned. Genesis establishes the supremacy of man over nature, a Roman Catholic archbishop heading the committee that decided the Vatican should come out in favor of genetically engineered food, declared recently. I don’t condone Al Quaida at all, I would rather, all in all, see the world run by our boys, creepy as they are, than by Islamic fundamentalists who I think need to do some serious rethinking about their intolerance, their readiness to kill anyone who doesn’t worship their god or obey their rules, and their attitude toward women, but I can understand why a devout Muslim might be offended by Calvin Klein ads in which thirteen year old girls are dressed in skimpy underwear and made up to look like sluts. 9/11 in my opinion is the end of the American imperium. Al Quaeda is simply the violent activist expression of a much more widespread discontent with what America is doing all over the world. The crashing of the planes into the World Trade Center can be likened to the bomb that was thrown into the carriage of Tsar Alexander 2 in l882. That was the end of tsarist Russia, even though the revolution didn’t happen for another thirty five years. America is going to hold on as only superpower with the world’s most powerful military and keep bullying everybody with impunity as long as it can, maybe for another decade or two, but it’s over. The empire that began with Teddy Roosevelt and spawned the banana republic attitude to the rest of the world, that it only exists for us to exploit its resources and cheap manpower, has had its day, just as the Roman, Spanish, French, and British empires came and went. We and the entire world are in for some dire times, not only more acts of violent terrorism, but blackouts of the grid that 50 million people depend on like the one that just happened. I read in the New York Times that the grid is antiquated and overstrained by more demand for energy that it can supply, but that no one in the current deteriorating economic circumstances has the will to spend the couple of billion dollars it would take to fix it. But what about the attack on Iraq which we were told was carried out at the bargain price of a billion dollars a day ?
What are our priorities here ? This totally uncalled for and unjustified war was not about the liberation of the Iraqui people. If Sadam had been the president of Rwanda do you think we would have lifted a finger ? Did we lift a finger in l994, when a million Rwandans were being slaughtered and the timely deployment of a couple of hundred peacekeepers could have prevented that genocide from happening ? No : in fact we blocked the UN from sending peacekeepers because, having been burned in Somalia, a disastrous attempt to keep the momentum of Desert Storm going in the name of “humanitarian intervention,” we didn’t want to get involved. And the same is true of our dithering over Liberia and finally sending a couple of dozen of marine ashore once the coast was clear.
I was in Paris last week. It was a hundred and four. A few days later the temperature hit 106 degrees in Switzerland. Switzerland ! The land of the Alps and glaciers that are melting like ice-cream cones. Europeans have no problem believing in the reality of global warming and have been taking steps to curb their CO2 emissions for years, but the country that is mainly responsible has reneged on the Kyoto protocol. Do you think this is adding to our popularity ?
What can we do as individuals to minimize the damage to us and the other cultures and species around the world ? Understand the terrible cost of the American good life to the rest of the world, reduce our consumption on all fronts, don’t switch on the air conditioning when the temperature rises, for instance, because that is only burning more energy and creating more emissions and adding to the problem. Make every effort to get to know and understand the people from other cultures in their own countries and in our midst and to respect their belief systems, curb the runaway violence in our society by starting on eliminating the violence in ourselves, getting rid of our guns, being there for our teenage kids so they don’t run amok in their schools, respect and appreciate the beauty and the right to exist of all sentient beings, hold peaceful consciousness-raising rallies like this, exercise our precious freedoms before we lose them, the right to free speech, speak out, protest vote fraud, savage capitalism, military madness, vote out the people who are selling out the domestic and global environment for their own personal gains and adding millions more to their personal fortunes every time we bomb somewhere, and who are destroying the future of our children, and give peace a chance.