Thanks very much for the invitation to Kent State. I had one of the great experiences of my life not far from here where we filmed Shawshank Redemption. I have pleasant memories of my time in solitary, being gang raped by the sisters, and the thirty or so years of hard time I spent one summer in Mansfield, Ohio.
I decided to be an actor in the early seventies. It was either that or a life of crime. I chose acting because I liked the attention, and the theater was where the coolest, sexiest girls were. My first girlfriend was indeed an actress, she played my ephemeral rose, in a stage adaptation of St. Exupery’s The Little Princess. I played the Little Prince and I was little when we started rehearsals. By the time we closed I was nearly six foot tall. My ephemeral rose was the sister of one of the most colorful and interesting young men of his generation. His name was George Harris. You’ve seen him, in a famous photo. He is the blond boy putting a flower in the end of a National Guardsman riflet at a protest outside the Pentagon. That was in 1967. By the time I met him, George Harris had transformed himself into Hbisucus, the star and creator of the Angles of Light, a wildly funny, drug fueled quasi cabaret group, known for great drag performers, an appreciation of 1930s Hollywood musicals and a ton of glitter. I ran spotlight for them when I was thirteen. Hibiscus was one of many young people in the early seventies that participated in their world. They had the wild notion that they were free. They did things that you or I may never dream of doing. They created idealistically minded communities, they rejected possessions, they created free clinics for health care, community kitchens that fed those without money, free legal clinics. They cared for each other, they loved each other. They dressed up in outrageously colorful clothing. They experimented with drugs. They embraced new perceptions, new realities. They danced naked in the park. They created large-scale theatrical events to protest the Vietnam War. In rejecting violence they embraced love, and community and sex. And for this they were called freaks, hippies, faggots, communists. The media eventually marginalized these kids into what your image of a hippie is today. Oh, you know, long hair, round colored glasses, stoned, beads, “Hey man.” But Hibiscus and his Angels were fiercer, stronger, non-compromising. They weren’t that “Hey man” guy. They were scary, and powerful. They had a sense of clarity. They were possessed of the power that the truth gives you. The truth wil set you free. It also will set other sfree. They stopped a war. They won, against the U.S. Government, the military, and the media. These freaks stopped a war. Hibiscus and his angels saved lives.
Before I discovered the wildly free, and dangerous world of the theater, my other early theatrical experience was as an altar boy in the weekly Catholic Church production of mass. I wore the constume of the acolyte, in simple black and white, made my entrance in support of the priest and listened for my cues to perform my functions as able helper of the mass. I rang the bell, I brought the bread and wine, I held the candles, I said the prayers. As altar boys go I think I was pretty good, but I was never reviewed in the NY Times or any other paper. I retired from altar boying around the time I found my ephemeral rose. The priests were curious, harsh and scary in their own way. Their sense of clarity was that clarity of the deeply religious. They had taken the vows and dedicated their lives to God and therefore were closer to him. They were followers of no one but God and de facto leaders of our spritual lives. Yet I don’t remember any of these followers of Jesus from my Church in Greenwich Village out there on the streets protesting the Vietnam War. There were priests, great Jesuit leaders like Phillip and Daniel Berrigan and others like Dorothy Day that saw their work in the church as being completely connected to the world in crisis around them. But I would meet them later. In my church I remember only a few dispassionate comments from the pupit about war, but never any leadership. Never any condemnation. How could those that followed the prince of peace be so disconnected to realities clear in my twelve-year-old mind? My sister had been arrested protesting the war in Antioch Ohio where she went to college, “You should be proud of your sister” my mother had said, “She was arrested today.” My brother was going to be drafted soon. I would be soon after him. We didn’t have money. We were the ones that were going to go and fight. And we didn’t believe in it. Luckily I had voices screaming at me. “Well get off your ass and do something about it.”
“We can stop this war, but it’s not going to be easy,” I heard that from hippies, I heard that in the songs of the day, I heard that at protests. I heard that in the theater. I became acutely aware at a young age that it was up to me. That only I could change things. I also knew tha there were millions of others that had taken that personal oath. “It’s up to me to change the world.” So at age twelve I walked away from my career as an altar boy where I heard nothing being said at the pulpit that was going to keep a gun out of my hand, and I walked into a wild room of freaks and Angels that would scare the hell out of any draft induction officer. And I was called a faggot and a hippie and a Communist. And nothing much has changed since then. The same kinds of people, uber patriots without the courage to go and fight themselves go on hundreds of hours of television and radio to con thousands to swallow the Kool Aid and go fight unnecessary wars for the profits of their masters. When things get a little stiff in the collar and their lies start to be exposed, they never accept responsibility. Instead they name call, and using their constant pulpit they try to get you to hate me by calling me a traitor because I oppose their boss’s war.
You are being lied to on a daily basis. Because you are in a university you are in a brief period of your life where you will be lied to less than the average American. And that is because you are generally working too hard on papers or studying for exams to be exposed to as much television and radio than you normally would. I know it’s hard work at times but remember these days. If there is one thing I would suggest you take out of college and try to continue on a daily basis in your life, it is this: opening books. Every day in university there is a book to be opened. And there are days where you actually touch more books than remote control buttons. This quite simply is the key to freedom.
The most interesting, alive, exciting people I have met in my life have touched more books than remote controls. You might not like the sound of that. That might sound like Luddite nonsense, but I assure you it isn’t. Those same people are also the most prone to find themselves out in clubs or theaters listening to music. Those same people throw the best parties. Those same people make their own decisions, possess their own realities, live their own lives. Freedom. It’s possible. Just turn off the music they’re selling you and find or make your own. Trust your Imagination. It will take you to places the television will never take you.
I’m here to tell you the truth or what I believe to be the truth. Your truth may be different than mine. You might think I’m full of shit. I hope not because I’m getting paid to tell you the truth, and I take my job seriously. One can’t ask for a better job than the one I have. I am incredibly lucky to be able to be in the profession I’m in and I am paid well. But if I were to lie to you I could be paid a lot more. If I were to lie for a living I could have a massive audience, a daily platform to reach millions. All that is required is an absolute adherence to the lie, one cannot possess any moral compunction, the slightest conscience, must never feel remorse or responsibility for the death and pain your lies may cost. For this absolute adherence to the lie you can make millions and have absolute job security. Nothing you can say or do will cost you your job, because once you’re in this club, there is no responsibility to be taken for actions, no one apologizes in this club, you can’t be a criminal because you are the vaunted, and if this adherence to the lie leaves you in such moral depravity and pain that you wind up addicted to powerful prescription painkillers, you will not be incarcerated or even tried for your criminal actions. You are immune to the law because you have been a loyal subject to very powerful people. Talk radio reaches millions on a daily basis. It’s not just Rush. Recent years have brought us Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, there’s about twenty of them, these are our ministers of propaganda. For the last twenty years they have been taking their marching orders from a small group of neo-conservative ideologues. For the last twenty years we have been inundated with misinformation, lies and propaganda. To what end? What am I suggesting? Conspiracy? In the dictionary conspiracy is defined as…”An agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful, or subversive act.” Sound familiar? To paraphrase James Carville, It’s just planning, stupid. How do yo uconvince an overwhelming majority of people to consistently vote against their best interests? How do you convince that majority that they are a minority when it comes to the big decisions we have to make, like going to war? How do you intimidate that majority into silence, into compliance? How do you make millions acquiesce to the will of the few?
And if you really believe that these ministers of propaganda have the best interests of the comman man, or Joe Six Pack, in their hearts than ask yourself why, once they achieved a majority in all branches of government, nothing got legislated to make your life better or easier. And if you’re still not convinced why is your dollar now worth less than the Canadian dollar, the loony.
Everything has changed. Oceans don’t protect us. We lived in mortal fear for forty years that a nuclear missile was going to fly from Russia to an American city. Last I checked there was an ocean between Russia and the US. Why do we buy this bullshit? Now we live in mortal fear of a nuclear terrorist strike. And for this we are willing to secretly arrest and torture people we believe to be our enemies. When did we become Stalinist Russia? When did we become Apartheid South Africa?
I have a strange job. I meet people from all political persuasions and beliefs. A couple of years ago I played a special branch officer in Apartheid South Africa in a film called Catch a Fire. Part of my job was to get to know these people that engaged in torture as a secretive government policy. These men were soldiers in a war. They were asked to do things that many of them had moral problems with. But they soldiered on. It was their duty. They would bear the moral weight of their actions in secret for love of country. They told no one. And they paid a heavy price. They told me, “you cannot walk into a room and torture another human being and leave that room with your soul intact. When you engage in torture you are compromising a fundamental morality inside of you, you are participating in the death of your soul.” A few of the officers I talked to knew they were crossing a line and they knew that it not only was compromising them as human beings but it was compromising the country at large. A country also has a soul, and a country that participates in the degradation of human beings is participating in the collective death of its soul. Here’s the thing folks. The white Afrikaner citizens did not know this torture was going on. Unlike us they could not read about it in their newspapers. When the Afrikaners found out, they turned against the government. The wives of these soldiers were so disgusted they left them. We know, folks, in the US in 2007 we know that our government is engaging in torture and secret detentions. We cannot claim ignorance. We are complicit in this torture because we are tolerating it. What does this say about us?
The good news is that people are starting to find their voice. Now we hear that a majority opposes the war. But we’re hearing this from the same clowns that lied to us to try to get us to support this war. The majority never supported this war. Turn off your TVs; you don’t need polls to tell you what you already know. Polls are lies. You know the truth; it’s in your heart. To be free it’s got to travel from your heart to your mouth.
We are at war. But we are not asked to bear the responsibility of a nation at war. We are not aksed to sacrifice. We are not even asked to think about it. Because to do so we may run into some uncomfortable thoughts an dsome difficult decisions would have to be made. For example if you support this war, then why aren’t you fighting it? If you really believe that this is a necessary war that will determine our future than shouldn’t you step up to the plate and enlist? Why are you immune to service? Why is it up to others to do a job you believe must be done? And if those questions lead you to enlist think about how your aim will be fulfilled. How is victory achieved? Are you willing to kill to achieve that aim? And when do we know the war is over?
If you are against this war then you have a difficult decision to make as well. How will you end it? What are you willing to sacrifice to end this war? What can you do to hold politicians accountable for their failed policy? Is it enough to march in protests? How can you oppose this war and at the same time oppose the intolerance of religious radicals that have identified us as their enemy? Is it possible to defeat religious intolerance with our minds, with our hearts, with our humor, with our love? How can you help change the perception that others have in the world about the US?
Whether you are for or against this war we all have a common responsibility and should have a common goal. How can we assist those that have been injured in this war? How can we provide help, support, and love for those soldiers that are returning to shattered lives? For the families that have paid the ultimate price with the death of a loved one. What can you do to ease their burden? What practical help can you offer? Can you offer employment, housing, professional pro bono counseling? Will you volunteer at a veteran’s hospital? Check in on a neighbor, cook a meal? Wirte a letter? Drop a gift anonymously on a doorstep? There are thousands of casualties of this war. Some are visible and some are held inside. They are our responsibility. They are our children. There is no walking away from them. We have failed them because we allowed them to put their lives on the line for a lie. We were not vigilant enough to protect them from an unnecessary war. We owe them.
We are losing our moral center as a nation. We are losing our moral standing in the world. The American people tried in the last election to right the ship. A clear message was sent to Washington – and some might say the world – by the people of the United States. Get out of Iraq. And the president that tlks to God said, “I hear you. So we’ll send more troops.” And the opposition parties who should be representing the voice of the American people by shouting it from the rooftops are instead talking about how they have to vote to support the troops, grumbling about the president, but proposing nothing close to withdrawal. And so it goes. And so we will stay. And remain targets for very angry people. There will be no voice that is standing up to say that we were wrong. There will be no apologies. There will be no reparations. We ahve too much invested in our lie to admit it was a lie. And so we will equivocate, and stall, and more iwll die, and on and on. But we will keep our pride. And we won’t show the weakness of a man apologizing. We won’t have the look on our face of the guilty being led to jail. We will not pay for our crimes in any way. No one will jeer at us from beneath the gallows. Why? Well…we meant well. I found a letter I wrote to a friend recently. It was written on an old typewriter in late 2001. I don’t know why I wrote it on a manual typewriter. Maybe I wanted to go backwards, find a retro way to proceed. Here it is.
Greetings from our wounded city. I hope the road has treated you well and that you are healthy, happy and loved. This has been a wild and disturbing few months since I saw you last. I was in L.A. when the madness happened, drove home the next day, made it in 2 1/2 days. What a terrible feeling to be so far away when something so catastrophic happens a mile from your children. They, like so many kids in New York, I suppose, have had terrible dreams and a perspective now on life that is unlike anything we grew up with. I was watching something with my son Miles and the actor said something about a future where our children are safe and Miles, his voice dripping with cynicism, said, “That would be nice.” Eva, my 16-year-old was trapped in Brooklyn on the 11th. They had closed the bridges and she couldn’t get home from school. Jack wept and worried when the next bombs would come. Susan lost a very good friend in one of the planes, made all the more horrible by actually witnessing her death from the street. When I got back from L.A. I went to volunteer, wound up cooking burgers for relief workers, met people from all over the country who had gotten in cars the moment it happened to be here to help. People were sleeping in cots in shelters, or in their cars helping in whatever way they could, often for 20-hour shifts. I was really inspired by the sense of community, of collectivism, of the unified focus to help, to survive, to persevere. Later that week I went down to Ground Zero to serve food there. The scope of the thing was immense. The size of the area of destruction, the smell of burning toxins, steel, flesh, the tempest in the eyes of the volunteers who had pulled too many body parts out of the rubble, who had lost friends, brothers, fathers, and were still searching vainly for survivors, the collective anguish, the life stories of thousands floating in the fetid air, unspoken. The city carries a heavy weight, millions with a subconscious unable to grasp what it is to witness mass murder, others wanting to forget, still others carrying a dangerous, dormant fury. It has been disheartening to see this wonderful sense of community begin to dissolve into arguments over who deserves how much from which relief funds, as unity degenerates into fodder for politicians speeches, for heart tweaking advertisments. I get a terrible sense of foreboding as we move away from the generosity and compassion of the moments after the tragedy into a strange new moment. We are now marketing our grief. I’m afraid we are losing something precious. In using our grief to sell products, and worse, war, we are trading in our soul for…what?
At the time I didn’t know what we were trading our soul in for. I’m still not sure. But what I’ve come to realize is that it wasn’t us that were trading in anything. Our leaders were the clear brokers of that deal. And they didn’t just trade it in. They made an industry of our grief, so much so that I’m sure you’re already sick of me dredging up my emotions of that time. I don’t blame you. I don’t think Bush or Blair or Giuliani or McCain has been able to utter three sentences in a public speech without bringing up that fateful day. 9-11 9-11 9-11. A litany, a chant, that has led to the moral righteousness you now see us spreading throughout the Mideast.
Observing the behavior of our leaders in the past few years I am reminded of when my children were younger, of the fear-based worldview of the pre-pubescent, the terror of middle school, the hysteria and gossip, the black and white morality, the inability to accept responsibility, the hateful divisions, the ‘with us or against us’ schoolyard tussles. In this post 9-11 world, in a time when we have needed mature, levelheaded adult leadership, we have been led instead by a screaming pack of hysterical prepubescent girls (with all apologis to hysterical prepubescent girls).
Christopher Isherwood once wrote: “The Europeans hate us because we’ve retired to live inside our advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate.” That certainly has been true for the past 6 years. But instead of contemplating our possessions, our way of life, we have been contemplating our grief. The advertisements worked on us and we bought the product day after day. The top rated television show, ’24,’ posits a world of constant threat of terrorist attack. Our leaders and our media don’t talk of hope and inspiration but of fear and cynical distrust. An illusion has been created, much like the illusions that kept Big Brother in power in Orwell’s 1984. We have now come to live in our fiction. But the real world is entirely different. I had a unique opportunity to discover this in the lead up to the Iraq War. Having openly spoken out against the war I was roundly attacked in the media. Newspapers, television pundits called me, and others who had the temerity to question the administration, traitors, Sadaam lovers, terrorist supporters, anti-Semites. The cacophony of voices was quite intimidating and had I lived in a rural or suburban area I probably would have been cowed into silence. But I live in New York and had to face this hatred directly on the streets. Or so I thought. What followed in the weeks and moths following this media excoiation opened my eyes to a disturbing truth. Everywhere I went I was met with support. Whether it was “God bless you. Keep talking” from the old woman on the streets of New York of the “Give em hell, Tim we’re with you” from the redneck at the state fair in Florida, I came to realize that the real voice of the United States was opposed to this war from the start, or if not opposed to it, at least mature enough to support another’s right to oppose it. The real American citizen understood that debate and dialogue were necessary before such an important decision. But there could be no debate when there were so many lies floating about. Only now, as the child-like hysteria and shrieking panic has died down, and as more adults try to take the dangerous toys out of the children’s hands, have we come to understand that this war was a terrible idea sold by a very small amount of neoconservatives through an enormous megaphone. The only majority these ideaologues ever had was in the media: all the networks, all the major newspapers, all the cable news programs acted as the advertising arm of the government in selling this war. The American people were inconsequential. They weren’t part of the equation. They were sold an illusion and were cowed into silence by intimidation. In the ensuing years those poeple have slowly and steadily found the voice and the courage to use it again. And so we see the results in our recent elections. And from the chattering classes come phrases like “democracy works” and “the poeple have spoken.” The democrats talk of raising the minimum wage and fixing the health care system. But it would be a grave mistake for the people of the United States to believe that their real voice has been heard. We are, despite the recent vote, still living in our fiction. We are still living in Orwell’s Oceania, where truth has been turned on its ear, where black is white, day is night, and ignorance is strength. We live in a country that allows impeachment for a president that lied about an extra marital affair but reacts with contempt at the idea that lying about war is a punishable offense. The hundreds of thousands of dead, injured, and uprooted by this unnecessary invasion should just get over it. We meant well. There is no crime in lies that lead to death, only in lies that lead to semen stains. As long as this fiction, this absurd, diabolically criminal fiction is accepted we will remain in our prepubescent hysteria, wallowing in the pit that we allowed our leaders to dig us into, looking up at a mountain of twisted steel, breathing in the smoldering acrid air of our own failure, our own betrayal of our better adult.
The rats are still in the walls. Nothing has changed in the media. No one has lost a job. There was no reckoning. No one held the NY Times responsible for their complicity in selling the war to liberals. No one has examined the shoddy reporting of all of the major networks in the lead up to the war. ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN all operated as a publicity arm of the government reporting unsubstantiated claims, uncorroborated reports essentially doing the bidding of the White House by reading their press releases and talking points as if they were news. As Amy Goodman asks, lwhat is the difference between their behavior and the behavior of a state run propaganda arm found mostly in strict communist authoritarian regimes? Turn off your TVs. You’ll live in less fear. Don’t listen to the lies of millionaires reporting on billionaires. Pick up a book, or go to a bar and dance for Christ sake. Laugh, love, argue, live, do it from the right, from the left, from the center, but be who you are, not what a poll is telling you.
It is time to reclaim our morality. But it will take courage. It will take conviction. We must have the courage to hold people accountable for thier lies, no matter how powerful you think they are. We have forgotten that this is our country. Dick Cheney and George Bush work for us. We are the bosses of them. And they have abused the power we have entrusted them with. They have manipulated intelligence and lied and used bullying and intimidation to start an unnecessary war and have in the process squandered our resources, as their friends have profited from billions of dollars in no bid contracts, and access to the natural resources of the Iraqi people. A crime has been committed and we have to have the moral courage to call it a crime. And in a society that respects the rule of law we must prosecute those responsibile for the crimes. Until we do that we are complicit in the crime. Do we want to be a nation of people that look the other way when a crime is committed or are we a nation that chases the criminal, apprehends them and puts them in jail? We can do this. It takes courage and it takes will. It takes strength of character and stelly determination. We are all capable of anything we put our minds to. In 1967 when George Harris put that flower in the rifle at the Pentagon most people didn’t believe that anything was going to change. But there were enough dreamers to start a movement. Young people that believed anything was possible. They rejected the fear. they embraced the impossible. With a generosity of spirit and amitions fueled by idealism they imageined the world they wanted. They rejected the negative, they lived the lives they dreamed, they danced they loved they laughted and they fought for the world they wanted. And what do you know? It worked. The impossible happened. And for a brief period these kids brought out the better adult in all of us. It can happen again. We can do it. We just have to imagine the improbable. And work our asses off. And not forget to dance.