Mike Farrell, human rights activist and noted M*A*S*H actor, received the Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award at The Advocates for Human Rights’ 27th Annual Human Rights Awards Dinner. Farrell spoke with passion and humility as he reminded us of the important role we all play as human rights defenders and the duty we have to uphold human rights internationally and domestically. Farrell’s frank words have stuck with me since the dinner, and I’d like to pass his speech along to you. I encourage you to read Mike Farrell’s speech and share it with your friends.              

–Ellen Van Iwaarden

Mike Farrell’s speech: 

Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to be with you this evening.

Eleanor Roosevelt put in a single sentence the entire message I want to offer you tonight when she said, “When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than to avenge it?” I’m afraid I will take a bit longer to say what is essentially the same thing.

As some of you may be aware, Wangari Maathai died this past year. If you don’t know the name, she was a member of the Kikuyu tribe who lived as a child in impoverished circumstances in Kenya. Showing promise, she was selected to be part of a program funded by then Senator John F. Kennedy that offered an education in the U.S. (Interestingly, another Kenyan, a man named Obama, also came here via the same program.) Given the opportunity, Wangari ran with it. After which she went home to become famous as a tree-planting environmentalist, the first east African woman to gain a PhD, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, a women’s rights advocate, and in 2004, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. On receiving the Nobel, she spoke of the beauty and relative cleanliness of her native land during the years of her childhood, the environmental damage that had since been inflicted upon it, and said that our task today is “to give back to the children a world of wonder and beauty.”

Clearly, I’m not here to talk about Wangari Maathai or the environment, at least in the usual sense of the word, but her message about owing our children ‘a world of wonder and beauty’ strikes a chord in me. Because I think that, in a very real sense, is what you, here, are about.

Like most of us, I love this country. And I’m concerned about it. I was thinking recently about what I was taught as a kid about being an American, not only in school but also by the messages that were everywhere around me: it was primarily that we are #1; the implication, and it’s a fair one, is that we in the U.S. are people of privilege. I used to read comic books, listen to the radio, later watch TV. I vividly remember the announcer saying Superman fought for “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” Today, having tasted some of life’s bitterness here and in other parts of the world, having watched and listened and struggled to understand our part in it all, I lately find myself wondering if that slogan should more properly be “Truth, Justice OR the American Way.”

Case in point, a New York Times column by Joe Nocera a while back talked about an idealistic 24-year-old American GI named Harold Burson who was assigned the task of sitting in the Nuremberg Trials and keeping a record of everything said. But his fellow GIs kept raising the question, “Why can’t we just take them out and shoot ‘em? We know they’re guilty?” But, Burson explained, we don’t do that “because we are devoted to law and order. Our system is not lynch law. We will dispense punishment as the evidence demands.” Powerful, wonderful American idealism. That was then.

But not long ago, just a couple of days after Wangari Matthai died, Anwar al Awlaki was assassinated by a drone missile in Yemen. An American citizen, graduate of Colorado State University, Awlaki received no due process, no evidence was presented in court; he was targeted and killed by the CIA or other agents operating these robot weapons, at the order of the President of the United States. Awlaki was not the first such victim, of course, though as far as we know he was the first American citizen. His 16-year-old son followed a month later, along with many others on what we now know as the President’s “kill list,” plus those in their immediate vicinity, some women and children, all presumed by dint of their proximity to be terrorists or, at a minimum, acceptable collateral damage.

Just yesterday, a UN Special Rapporteur, citing the Pakistani Human Rights Commission, said they count 957 drone victims in 2010 alone and thousands in 300-plus strikes since 2004, approximately 20% of whom are believed to have been civilians.

Like you, I cling to the belief that this country of ours, for all its perhaps increasingly evident faults, retains the ability to be the predominant beacon of hope for the world rather than what it is fast becoming: its primary merchant of death.

But to ensure that we remain the former rather than succumb to accepting the latter, it’s important to think about and reaffirm our fundamental beliefs, and there’s no better place to find them than in our founding documents.

As initially drafted, of course, the Bill of Rights was intended to establish in law the rights of white, primarily property-owning men. But as amended and ultimately understood, these documents speak to a concept of inherent human rights, the implications of which are quite profound. For me, they suggest a belief in the human spirit. I believe in the human spirit. I believe, with my late friend, the philosopher/poet John O’Donohue, himself once a Catholic priest, that “The ‘real priests and priestesses of a culture,’ those who celebrate the Eucharist that matters, are the ones who keep the humane tissue of a society alive: and these are the people who care for the hungry, look after the poor, and who stand on the frontiers that no one even wants to acknowledge are there.”

Those of us who believe in human and civil rights choose to stand on those frontiers. We belong to that pesky and often irritating community that holds there is a collection of principles that flow from the fact that all human beings – all human beings – possess value and dignity; that this value and dignity is inherent in our existence and is part of our birthright as members of the human community. With that, it is our charge to recognize that those fortunate enough to live in what is called the developed world, those who live with plenty, are people of privilege and, as my friend John said, we must remember that “The duty of privilege is absolute integrity.”

The price of that integrity is that we must take the risks associated with standing up for principle. And more, we are sometimes called to the uncomfortable task of reminding those we admire, those who are friends, even sometimes those to whom we look for leadership, that the frontiers upon which we stand are the ones they are refusing to recognize, that they are failing to acknowledge as they think about this society, perhaps act for it, or even, sometimes, lead it.

Last September we saw an example of the worst, most degrading and most dehumanizing aspects of the mindlessness of our society when Troy Davis, a possibly innocent man, was killed, murdered, put to death, executed – take your choice – by the state of Georgia. Mr. Davis, who went to his death declaring his innocence and offering a wish for God’s blessings on the law enforcement officers who were in the process of ending his life, is the most famous current example of the legacy of our society’s failure, a failure the work of my organization, any organization honoring human rights, is intent on rectifying.

I am an abolitionist. Like those of centuries past, today’s abolitionists are intent on eradicating a blight from our society. State killing makes us an outlier in the international community even as it impoverishes, degrades and does injury to us all. And I mean that quite literally; as the Brazilian educator Paolo Friere says, to dehumanize another is to dehumanize ourselves.

For me the death penalty as the lid on the garbage can. Once we remove it we will be forced to look at the rotten, stinking, maggot-infested mess that is our criminal justice system.

But too many people blind themselves to that reality. I’ve been in many areas of strife around the world over the past three decades, so I confess to a confounding sense of dismay at the rhetoric I hear today from certain elements of our society giving voice to what they call “American exceptionalism.” It is a mantra among certain groups and to them it refers to the exceptional quality of this, the greatest, most powerful nation in the history of the world. It has become, as used by them, a kind of grandiloquent way of saying “We’re Number One!” And implied is a corollary, which is, “and that’s all that matters.”

While one can argue that the U.S. is number one in many categories, there remains a significant number in which it’s not, and the ugly truth about the boastful declaration spilling from the lips of too many today is that it is intended to override, mask, minimize or drown out any criticism of U.S. actions or policies. Worse, they suggest it is treason, or at least a lack of patriotism, to claim we fail to live up to our promise.

One participant in the recent reality show pretending to be presidential debates accused President Obama of not believing sufficiently in American Exceptionalism.

A friend of mine, a courageous, heroic figure who has been at the forefront of progressive thinking for decades, said at the collapse of the Soviet Union that that time would mark the beginning of the greatest challenge the U. S. would ever face. Far more than the world wars or the Cold War, the challenge facing our country as it became the world’s sole superpower, he said, would be whether it could, with no viable challenge from outside, live up to its principles. Could the U.S. withstand the test of world leadership while continuing to work toward the realization of its inherent promise and actually become the nation the Founders vision made possible?

The question, I believe, remains unanswered.

In that regard, it’s important to know that within the human rights community the term American exceptionalism is used to describe a very different phenomenon from the boastful one yammered about by some today. To us it means that even though the United States occupies a special place in the world’s hierarchy it may not exempt itself from maintaining the standards it demands that others uphold. The idea that our country, given its primacy in the world, is above reproach when violating the very laws and standards it expects others to honor is more than a cause for concern. It is a disease that eats away at the very core of our principles.

There are alarming signs of it around us: one being the descent of some of our citizens into a maelstrom of anger, fear and confusion. Chaotic eruptions of racism, nativism, hysterical babble and mean-spirited displays of self- and other-hatred dot the pages of our newspapers and spew from a sensation-addicted electronic media. Long dormant, it has arguably grown out of the wave of fear that engulfed the people of this country as a result of the attacks almost eleven years ago. That fear was manipulated, I believe, by powerful forces to further their own ideological ends, resulting in the evisceration of many of our most cherished Constitutional tenets, corroding and corrupting our principles, and tainting what has long been regarded as an emblem of hope: “The American Dream.” This is the legacy of what one writer called “the hard, bright blindness of self-righteousness.”

I think a tension between two forces has existed from the founding of this country: on one side is a profoundly hopeful belief in a core human value, a sense that this great experiment could evolve into a nation that embodied cherished ideals of liberty, justice and equality for all; the other, also a legacy of that time, is a belief, founded in color and station, that some, by birthright or wealth, are entitled to control the lives and destinies of others.

That tension fuels the struggle to realize the hopeful ideal birthed by the Founders. It sparked the revolutions, demands for recognition, attention and rights by people of different races, sexes, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations and social classes that dot our nation’s history and is manifest today in the Occupy Movement. And always standing against them are the retrograde forces that fear change, deny social evolution, sneer at fairness and refuse to accept the value and dignity in every human being because they believe advances by “the other” mean the diminution of themselves and their power. From this benighted need for self-protection have arisen the evils of serfdom, slavery, segregation, second-class citizenship, racism, sexism and other forms of human bondage and desecration, aspects of which define our criminal justice system and continue to undermine our society today.

Almost 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy spoke to the best in us, saying he “look(ed) forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral strength, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose.” He looked forward to an America “not afraid of grace and beauty”… “to an America which commands respect throughout the world, not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.”

What would he think today of policies and practices that directly contradict our laws and traditions, exposing us as the world’s most powerful hypocrite. What would he say about Guantanamo? Or “Shock and Awe?” Torture, preventive detention, hooding, brutalizing, first strikes, wars of choice, extraordinary rendition, assassination, eavesdropping on our citizens at home have become routine and are lied about or casually justified by American leaders as necessary for the maintenance of national security. What would JFK think?

More importantly, what do we think? How can this behavior square with our task of building a hopeful future, of keeping alive the humane tissue of our society?

What does it tell us when a crowd of Americans at a debate of presidential candidates cheer when the Governor of Texas, who says he lost no sleep over it, is questioned about presiding over the killing of 234 human beings? Or when another group at a later event screamed approval of letting a sick man die because he had no health insurance? How do we feel when an elected official can say, as Rep. Sally Kern, of Oklahoma City, did, that minorities earn less than white people because they don’t work as hard and have less initiative. To quote her, “We have a high percentage of blacks in prison, and that’s tragic, but are they in prison just because they are black or because they don’t want to study as hard in school? I’ve taught school…” she said – let me pause here for a moment and shudder at the thought – “I’ve taught school and I saw a lot of people of color who didn’t study hard because they said the government would take care of them.”

Representative Kern is right, to this degree. It is a tragedy that “we have a high percentage of blacks in prison,” but she’s dead wrong about the rest. The tragedy is that this nation of riches allows some of its members to be hopeless, faceless, valueless, invisible. And instead of taking responsibility for the failure their social status represents, we create a system that blames the victim and prescribes incarceration instead of education.
Because of the sick, fear-filled fantasies of some people, the United States now has the world’s largest prison and jail population with over 2.3 million men and women incarcerated – in some cases entombed in supermax facilities the conditions of which beggar the imagination. One in every 100 American males is in prison, jail, or otherwise tied to the system. Of them, white men 18 or over are 1 in every 106, Hispanic men 18 or older are 1 in every 36, black men 18 or older are 1 in every 15, black men between the ages of 20 and 24 are 1 in every 9.

Is it that white people are smarter, more evolved, better behaved, or is there something very wrong? If so, could it be a latent, unacknowledged racism such as that given voice years ago by H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff, who quoted his boss as saying, “The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this without appearing to.”

Therein lies one of those questions not often enough asked; one of those frontiers whose existence some do not want to acknowledge.

But today the good people of this organization and others are not only acknowledging it, they are speaking truth to power by challenging mass incarceration, racial profiling, police brutality, mandatory minimums, three strikes laws, state killing. They call leadership to account for unsafe prison conditions, the use of psychologically damaging solitary confinement. Long-term solitary confinement, now known to be severely destructive of psychological health – ask Bradley Manning or Jose Padilla – is widely, in my view criminally abused in our country. One recent report says 80 thousand men, women and children are held in solitary confinement in America today, a significant percentage of them mentally ill.

But in one hopeful example, the Angola 3, who spent over 30 years in solitary in Burl Cain’s Christian care on the Angola Farm in Louisiana, may finally have a meaningful day in court. So we can be proud of efforts that call for an end to state killing and ‘kill lists,’ efforts that promote alternatives such as treatment over detention, rehabilitation and restorative justice programs. These efforts and the SAFE California campaign, an initiative on November’s ballot that will replace the death penalty with Life Without Parole, are shining examples of what is possible when individuals and organizations take up the challenge of keeping the humane tissue of a society alive. And in that regard, I had the pleasure of meeting three men today, three of your colleagues who have put themselves to the task of freeing innocent men from death row as well as working to keep the state from killing even the guilty – I offer them my thanks and my respect: Steve Kaplan, Steve Pincus and Chuck Lloyd.

But it all requires strength and dedication. It requires a willingness to stand against the bleating of today’s version of the Know Nothings. It requires hope. And for that I share with Albert Camus the belief that “when there is no hope it is incumbent upon us to invent it.”

It’s up to us not only to have it, believe in it and live it, but to embody hope for those who have lost it. Human beings live every day in our country in grotesque circumstances, in places designed to promote hopelessness – cold, dank, dreary, spiritless places of misery and inhumanity and violence and shame. Immiserated by circumstances, they’ve been propelled down the road to despair and invisibility.

We have to have hope. I believe in hope because I believe in the human spirit, this ineffable something, this force beyond our understanding, that empowers whatever is good in the world to stand against what is not. As Vaclav Havel said: “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well …, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.”

I think that defines working for human rights. And I’ve had the incredibly good fortune to do so in the company of some of the finest, most caring and most decent people it’s ever been my privilege to know. And that’s true wherever I go, whether here at home or out in the world, to join with others in support of human rights: that outlandish notion that all human beings deserve to be treated with honor and dignity.

You see, by working for something “because it is good,” we stand against that other force, the darkness that would deny and destroy humanity. We expose it to the light and watch it, however slowly, coagulate and shrivel away in embarrassment, in shame.

So the task for those of us who love this country, those who believe in the vision of what it promises for humankind, is to be those priests and priestesses who stand on the frontiers and keep the humane tissue of our society alive – and in doing so, make real Wangari’s wish by giving back to the children a world of wonder and beauty.

June 21, 2012

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