"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Social Justice And The True Believer - The Exhilarating Life Of Doing Good

 'Climate change is an existential crisis', said Bob Adams, Chairman Emeritus of the Society for Environmental Protection, 'and on our doorstep'  Bob was especially pleased to have been invited by his alma mater and the place where he came of age, fighting for social justice when none was to be had. 

He had been a Freedom Rider, had marched with Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson across the Pettis Bridge, had been beaten by Bull Connor and attacked by his war-dogs. He and his compatriots had made a difference as they witnessed the restoration of the black man to his rightful place atop the human pyramid, from cotton field to board room was the African American's short trajectory thanks to the efforts of Bob and those likeminded, unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. 

The movement was a heady affair, nothing like it thereafter - a profound sense of moral purpose, an unmatched solidarity, and the most enlivening adventure that a young man could possibly imagine.  Marching, protesting, sitting in, demonstrating were tools of the great reform but also spiritual highs.  To be in a group of a thousand young people, as happy as they would ever be, joined in unison for the black man, singing, embracing, chanting and becoming one.

It was hard for Bob to see that the movement had tapered off to a few uninvited guests.  Take Black Lives Matter, howling and baying over crackheads and coke whores who got beaten up and should have stayed in the ghetto to man up.

He shook these awful thoughts from his head, terrible thoughts, terrible indictments of the oppressed black man still trying to loose the yoke of white man's slavery; yet he could not help himself.  BLM had no moral core, no reverends like Martin and Ralph, no moral guidance, just a rabble of juice-heads out for merchandise from looted stores.

'Bob!', his inner voice shouted.  'Stop it!'  But he couldn't help feeling the indignity of these inchoate bar fights.  No wonder the police bashed heads, he thought, until the image of Bull Connor and his ax handles and police dogs pushed out the more toxic images fouling his thoughts.

'I'm getting old', he said to himself, a crotchety, sour-smelling geezer dreaming of his movement, his women, and his music. Rap was jungle music compared to Baez and Dylan, troubadours for a generation, now they only knew muthafucka this, muthafucka that, incoherent banging nonsense.

And so it was that Bob turned to climate activism.  This was a movement with a spiritual core - the survival of Mother Earth, Gaia, the Our Father and the Hail, Mary - like the old days of Selma and Birmingham, of camaraderie for a sublime purpose - but it was hard for him to gin up the same enthusiasm.  

Free love went along with the long bus rides to Mississippi, part of the same joy.  Now, what was there?  And besides, back in the day he walked with real people, black and white brothers and sisters.  The climate was too impersonal, too abstract. It lacked taste and feel. 

‘Yes, an existential crisis', he continued to the Freshman class assembled in Founders Hall where he had sat and listened to a patriot recite the old litany of God, Man, and Country; but he found himself hesitating, drifting off to the rafters of the great hall and thinking of his first Freedom Ride with Margot Purcell who had come down from Vassar to join him on the bus. 

He shook his head, paused, and tried again; but nothing but treacle, old chestnuts, and pablum came up  He had said it all before and there were no barricades to be breached, no black bodies sweating and smiling along with him,  Maybe it was time to.....An unthinkable thought.  Quitting would leave him bereft, an empty vessel.  Where would he be without a cause to invigorate his old, tired bones?

Climate change had been preceded by a foray into public health - not quite the apocalyptic cause of bad weather, but a necessary one nevertheless.  Yet it was the least satisfying of all.  Not only were there no black brothers and sisters next to him on the bus, there were no black brothers and sisters and no bus at all. 

African children were dying of malaria, sepsis, dysentery, and pneumonia, but they were doing so far away, and lobbying pharmaceutical companies just wasn't real. Not to diminish the importance of health for all, it just wasn't for him. 


Before mosquitoes there were women; and he proudly washed the dishes, went to women's solidarity conferences, confronted corporations and universities to remove the glass ceiling, marched on the Mall for abortion rights and an end to misogyny and male privilege.  He thought he had found himself again, for there was a camaraderie in the women's movement that resembled, albeit in a somewhat diluted way, that of Selma; but the end came not of his own choosing.  'Balls don't cut it', said a tough bitch organizer from Bernal Heights.  From now on it was to be a woman-only movement. 

Before that was the anti-nuclear peace movement, a real existential cause.  One errant hand on the nuclear trigger meant absolute destruction, The Big One, the real Armageddon.  Bob had grown up in the 'duck-and-cover' days of the Cold War, and fear of Russian nuclear bombs was real, so his heart and soul were in the movement without thinking.  Yet he was not up to confronting the Pentagon and its Dr. Strangelove 'preverts'. The tanks on the lawn and the thousand American flags flying were intimidating and reminded him of Fourth of July, a holiday best forgotten for its militarism and faux patriotism. 

Nor was Bob comfortable with the New Age, give-peace-a-chance wobblies who wanted to hug and comfort the Russians and show love.  Not quite the 'simpering fools' they had been branded by Army veterans, but near enough. 

And before that was civil rights, his hope and glory, the one period of his life where everything came together - youth, enthusiasm, righteousness, camaraderie, and love - and now, looking back, his greatest moment, never to be recaptured. 

Bob flapped on about carbon levels, ozone layers, melting ice caps, coal, and corporate indifference; but it was a rote performance.  It had no juice, no elevation, no spirit; and left the young students sitting on their hands. That was it, Bob thought, time to hang it up, retire to Florida, and break out the chaise lounge. 

'Don't be so discouraged', said his wife, also a social justice warrior, veteran of the same bus rides, protests, and demonstrations as her husband; but he was in a morbid funk; until he saw a dead whale on the beach and thought there might be something in it for him - runoff, broken food chain, viral spread.  He got up and gawked at the dead beast and smiled. 

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