Riffs on Bruce Cockburn’s "Trouble with Normal" by John Rude
“Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights What did they think the politics of panic would invite? Person in the street shrugs—“Security comes first” But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”
The time is October 7, 1997. The place is Laramie, Wyoming—rather, a string of fence outside of Laramie that has become infamous. This is the place where Matthew Shepard—gay, small, a college kid in a cowboy town—was tortured and left to die.
The crime shocked the nation. It was one in a series of shocks, of brutal racial murders, bombing of embassies, sexual escapades in Washington, D.C.—on and on, ad nauseum. The images from Laramie transmitted by television were indelible: a field of prairie grass and sagebrush, a pink cross made of stones, and rocks with the words “Forgiveness” and “Love” hitched into the corners of the fence.
But wait … focus in on those rocks. They weren’t put there by Matthew’s friends or family, or even by outraged supporters of gay rights. Those rocks were placed there by a journalist who was writing a story for a national magazine. Click! The picture is captured, the story told in a single image. An icon is born.
We think of icons as religious objects that become stand-ins for the real thing. The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, or the Virgen de Guadelupe are venerated not as symbols, but as incarnations of the Mother of God. You can think of it as a leap of faith, or as cheap faith, but in either case the believers are relieved of doubt. They have seen the real thing.
We also understand cultural icons: an Elvis or Marilyn, Jimi or John who becomes larger than life, then lives on beyond death. Whole industries have sprung up around these symbolic lives, testimony to our longing, more than our faith. We long for heroes, for someone to lead us out of our fouled nests. From Julius Ceasar to Martin Luther King, the martyred hero has been a convenient—often necessary—screen onto which we project our confused emotions.
But are we ready to allow the entire journalism profession to be transformed into a cult of iconography? Whatever happened to the simple, truthful telling of a story? A princess (actually, an ex-princess) dies in an auto accident. The son of a slain president is lost at sea. A young, gay man—one of many, sadly—is beaten to death. Tragedies happen, and we should learn about, and from them. But please, don’t ask me to worship tragedy. Along with everyone else, I have other important work to do in my life.
The date is July 26, 1999. The place is a Methodist Church in Salem, Oregon. More than 400 people, a standing-room only crowd, have gathered on a hot evening to confront their county commissioners. The crowd is mad as hell about the county budget, which has eliminated five mental health positions. The people are mad, but they are organized. The two commissioners who are brave enough to attend the meeting are listening.
The organizers of the meeting are a new grass-roots organization, called Stand for Children. Begun in Washington, D.C., the organization spreads by word-of-mouth. That is how I got involved. I knew nothing about the budget cuts, and probably wouldn’t have noticed them if I had read about them in the newspaper. But here, in this church, I hear mothers of disabled children describe how government stinginess will make their lives miserable. I hear counselors tell of impossible caseloads. I hear teachers talk about the importance of preventing mental health problems. I hear sharp-eyed budget analysts tell the commissioners that there’s enough money for the five positions, if they would only reduce their bloated administration.
As the sweat rolled down my back in the hot church, I knew I was witnessing a fundamental change in the way we handle such issues. There were no iconographers here —just people demanding that their government work for them. At this place, on this issue, we had no need for divine incarnations or martyred heroes. We had five positions to restore, and two live elected officials to hold accountable. This was the people’s business, and it was being conducted with respect, mixed with righteous, justifiable, anger.
Stand for Children got the job done, at least partially. The next day the commissioners voted unanimously to restore three positions. Three hundred families would receive desperately needed services. More importantly, this was not a symbolic victory. We had an organization, ready to engage in the next fight. We had power. We had focus. We were living in the realm of reality, not in the realm of symbols or icons.
The date is August 29, 1999. The place is another church in Salem, where local Stand for Children activists are gathered for a social evening. We share potluck food. We watch a video of the confrontation with the commissioners. We listen to a young Black violinist practice his Bach. We sing and catch a whiff of our own childhood by playing games.
Again (how could I forget?) I’m reminded that such simple acts of gathering define our community. We are not sustained by mourning or worshiping public icons whom we never met, nor would ever have a chance to meet. The people in this room, these children—THEY are our reason for being here. It is enough that we feel connected with each other. This revolution does not need to be televised. It is happening now, in the real world. It is happening here. It is happening everywhere.
After my last piece was published in Alternatives, a reader asked me: how do we escape the “flavor of the moment” fixations of the mainstream news media? This is my answer: do not participate in the worship of icons invented by entertainers posing as journalists. Engage in the reality of your own life. Live it to the hilt. It’s the only way to make your “normal” life better, rather than worse.
John Rude appears regularly in Alternatives. You may send a note to John at [email protected] For a complete collection of Bruce Cockburn’s amazing lyrics, go to the following Web page: www.things.org/music/bruce_cockburn/lyrics/