Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Attack on Civil Society: How Poets Respond

Reprinted in slightly revised form from The Broadkill Review, Vol. 5 No. 2

Civil society is bizarrely heterogeneous, comprising everything from the Pagans Motorcycle Club to the now defunct non-profit ACORN to unions to poets. Nevertheless, it is the chorus of Liberty and Democracy and it is under attack, one voice at a time. Permit me to summarize a couple of the more recent examples, provide a little philosophical entertainment, and humbly suggest a role for poets.

The first is the November 2006 killing of Iraq War vet and Pagan member Derek Hale by Wilmington, Delaware Police.  Investigating alleged drug dealing by the Pagans, a swat-type team of cops arrived at the home of a Pagan friend of Derek’s and found him sitting on the steps. Derek, for whom police had no arrest warrant, rose. Before he could comply with orders to take both hands out of his pockets, he was tased repeatedly. Then, as he lay on his side paralyzed and vomiting, and as a mother and her two children also on the steps looked on in horror, a policeman fired three fatal  .40-caliber rounds into his chest. According to Attorney General Beau Biden’s report exonerating police, Derek was shot as he "continued to keep a hand in his pocket as if holding a weapon and was turning in a threatening manner toward an officer armed with an empty Taser."

Let’s not forget that folks have a right freely to associate with the Pagans, in spite of how they may offend middle-class sensibilities. I worked side-by-side with several Pagans at Chrysler and even considered a few my friends because they did their jobs, shared our collective burdens, and could be relied on for the union cause. I described the spiritual travails of an imaginary biker in my Autoplant: a Poetic Monologue, and I did not stint in describing the less savory activities of some bikers.

The second event was the destruction of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the nation-wide non-profit that specialized in empowering the poor through such activities as credit advocacy and voter registration. Readers may remember how several Federal Prosecutors were fired because they resisted Bush administration pressure to concoct bogus charges of voting fraud against the group.

However, it is easer to destroy a reputation than to prove an accusation. Thus, in 2009, a group of right wing operatives with hidden cameras began trolling ACORN offices to see if they could trick ACORN workers into seeming to wink at illegal activities. Highly edited videos of these visits were widely disseminated on-line and on Fox News, and in short order foundation funding dried up, and Congress—Democrats and Republicans cravenly alike—stripped ACORN of federal contracts. Subsequent investigations by several state’s attorneys and the federal GAO found no wrongdoing by ACORN regarding the insinuations of the video. A Federal court voided the stripping of ACORN’s funding as an unconstitutional “bill of attainder.” But all that was too late. By November of 2010, ACORN was bankrupt and dead.

Also too late for Derek Hale, in December of 2010, Wilmington settled a wrongful-death lawsuit with Derek’s widow for $875,000. While Wilmington Police did not admit culpability, the deal certainly made their case look bad, as Wilmington News Journal editorialist Ron Williams demonstrated witheringly in recent columns.

Ironically, joining the ACLU in Derek’s widow’s case was Thomas Neuberger, leader of the Rutherford Institute, a Christian right-leaning civil liberties organization. Additionally, one of the most eloquent advocates in Derek Hale’s case is William Norman Grigg, who blogs at, a Ron Paul-type libertarian web site. Grigg ties the killing of Derek Hale to what he refers to as the “unitary, militarized, Homeland Security apparatus,” a component in the right-wing narrative that sees a slippery slope toward federal encroachments on state’s rights and the eventual deployment of UN forces in the USA.

It is well known how the corporate elite funds the right. Paradoxically, not only did the right defend the proletarian Derek Hale, but its very emblem is Joe the Plumber, leading a working-class charge against immigrants, gays, unions, affirmative action, taxes, Muslims, Big Government, and the latté-sipping elite who evince moral superiority to the proles but know nothing of their burdens.

No telling how much the involvement of Beau Biden, son of U.S. Vice-President Joe, had to do with tempering the voices of outrage over Derek Hale’s death. When Joe was a senator, he was able to sell Delaware on his proto-Patriot Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and his Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, which latter was to make the world safe from bad loans.

Now for that philosophical entertainment: Slavoj Žižek, the leftist Slovenian Philosopher, has some words on the European anti-immigrant movement that might shed light on the paradox cited above. Says Žižek,
[I]t’s absolutely crucial how this anti-immigrant explosion is linked to the withdrawal of leftist politics, especially in the matters of economy and so on. It is as if the left, being obsessed by the idea that we shouldn’t appear as reactionary in the economic sense, that is to say that “No, no, no, we are not the old trade union representatives of the working class, we are for postmodern digital capitalism” and so on. They don’t want to touch the working class or so-called lower ordinary people. And here right-wingers enter. Do you know, the horrible paradox is that, apart from some small leftist fringe parties, the only serious political force in Europe today which still is ready to appeal to the ordinary working people are the right-wing anti-immigrants? So you see, we, the leftists, we have no right, absolutely no right, to take this arrogant view of offended tolerant people who are horrored—no, we should ask the question, how we enabled what is going on. “Slavoj Zizek: Far Right and Anti-Immigrant Politicians on the Rise in Europe, Part II." Democracy Now with Amy Goodman. 18 October 2010. <>.
What happened to ACORN demonstrates a great deal about “how we enabled what is going on.” ACORN had attempted to be a transmission line between the power of corporate foundations and government to the people at the base. When that line was snapped, instead of uniting to defend ACORN, terrified liberal politicians and civil society thought only of securing their own teat on the increasingly stingy corporate-government sow. Repeatedly, when reactionaries have led the charge, liberals have led the retreat.

So now, in various ways, the onslaught against democracy, economic justice, and civil society continues. Shirley Sherrod, Planned Parenthood, NPR, and climate scientists have all been subjected to the same political warfare, a warfare that has escalated with the stripping of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and other states.

A soldier, Bradley Manning, who may or may not have had something to do with leaking a video to Wikileaks showing an American helicopter machine-gunning civilians in Iraq is treated like an Arab terrorism suspect. Arab terrorism suspects continue to be treated like non-persons at Guantanamo. American Muslims are vilified in McCarthyite hearings in Congress. The poison spreads and fear abounds.

So, what do we poets have to do with all this? Promote Solidarity.

We already do, of course. By our very nature, we are motivated by Solidarity, “the conviction of which” according to Joseph Conrad, “knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, [. . . ] the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men [and women] to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”

Beyond expressing that mutual resonance of human experience, poets are reluctant, justifiably, to prescribe solutions to social problems.  They also don’t like to take marching orders. But what’s wrong with suggesting that poets attune their antennae to the onslaught of repression creeping across civil society? To suggesting poets be more relevant to the nitty-gritty majority in our country, where ideas swirl in a messy, non-academic mix, where the social infrastructure is shredding, where prison is more likely than a diploma or a good job and where the repression that is overwhelming civil society is nothing new?

Tell you what I’ve been doing. I’ve been going to Solidarity with Wisconsin rallies armed with new-lyrics labor songs like “On Wisconsin” (Fight for workers’ rights).

When I was the featured poet for the April Second Saturday Poets, I put out a special invitation for other poets to join me reading works on the theme of Solidarity. I even wrote a bit of agitprop verse about it that some of you already saw.  It includes the lines,

Would you sing Solidarity in the Old Union Hall,
chicken dinners, picket lines, all for one and one for all?
Blood and sweat’s our gender, our race, of broken backs,
barricade of all nations, when capital attacks.
Pay your monthly dues and rise with the other guy.
Or would you, had you just one wish, if shared, lose one eye?

The rest of the poem was previously posted at the Broken Turtle Blog: Are You Stirred By Solidarity?

And on Friday, June 3, I’ll be sharing my verse in support of the 22nd annual Soweto Festival, sponsored by the Delaware Committee for Racial Justice & Harmony and Delaware Artists for Racial Unity. I’ll be performing around 6 p.m. at the Artist’s Reception at the Gallery at Grace, Grace United Methodist Church, 900 N. Washington St., Wilmington, DE 19801. The affaire is a project of Delaware Pacem in Terris. See

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  1. You raise interesting points, as always....I wonder to myself about the culpability of a body when settlements are concerned. Exactly, a settlement in that amount does not seem like an afterthought by the city "oh, we'll just offer this to make it go away." The amount suggests that real fault was assumed, although not admitted, and amends HAD to be made to avoid an outright uprising. I wonder how many Derek Hales have to come and go before accountability for wrongdoing is truly accepted and not just paid off. I wonder where this officer, who shot Hale even after he lay immobile, is today. I do not feel safe with him on the streets. No protecting, no serving....I've always been a fan of criminal justice but find myself not able to stomach the bureaucracy of enforcing unjust laws. Mainly, I want to meet and know more nice officers than grumpy, power-abusing, mean ones. Can anyone out there help me make this happen? Consider this an open invitation and let the healing begin!

  2. I certainly know of police officers who resemble the ideal, brave, professional, taking an interest in the perps they've busted, concerned with their communities. The question is, when they go the other way, who has the power to get redress.
    The other issue is how the left, instead of organizing the working class, gets caught up in moral arguments that blame them. The left ties itself to corporate-dominateed non-profits and the corporate-controlled Democratic Party. Finally, it is fragmented into compelling but competing narratives instead of framing them as one class-consious struggle.