Hanging on by our Fingernails

Tim Sale

The following is the transcript of one of the speeches given at the Jan. 12, 1991, peace rally organized by the Winnipeg Co-ordinating Committee foe Disarmament, before the attack on Iraq. Tim Sale is a founding member of Project Peacemakers.

I have been asked to speak about the connections between the gulf crisis and Canadian and world poverty. What shall I say? That the arms race, and the First World’s insistence on its continuing dominance, now through economic imperialism, is the cause of world poverty? But that’s not the whole truth. Shall I tell you that global corporate capitalism creates structures that require poverty to exist in order to provide buffers against wage pressure and pressures for social justice, pressures for environmental sanity and for equality among people? True, but that’s only part of the whole story, too. Shall I say that well-intentioned international aid has gone disastrously off-track, leading instead to patterns of dependency where none used to exist, and to devastatingly unfair trade in commodities that steadily decline in price as the great nations arrange competition to favour their cost structures? Yet once more, that’s not a sufficient answer either.

The real connection between poverty and the gulf crisis lies in the collective failure of our imaginations. In this sense, the gulf crisis is only one more in a long line of crises in Africa, Latin America, or South-East Asia, in which poverty is a necessary accompaniment to the failure of imagination. Imagination is what has to happen before new realities can be constructed and perceived. We have to image, to think something into possibility: only then can we will it into existence, to insist that it come to be. No human creation arises unbidden, unimagined. Human, generative, creative energy has always stood against chaos, has willed into reality new human possibilities, new learning, new knowledge, new creative uses of mind and matter and heart. We will justice into being, it does not come unaided. We will health and education systems into being: they do not come unaided. As co-creators, we will human life itself into being.

But we are stuck in our old imaginations: we cannot imagine a world of security-in-justice, because we would not be in control, so instead, we have imagined and created a world of insecurity-in-injustice, which we try to dominate, because if we did not, it would fall. We will into being all the darker sides of this world, too. Colonialism, Imperialism, Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, Patriarchy and its cousin Hierarchy are creatures first of our imagination. The extent to which they are still with us is testimony to the power of imaginations: it may be the imagination of the proud and the rich among us, but it is imagination none the less.

We, every one of us, are trapped and hanging on by our fingernails. Saddam Hussein, in his perverse and unacceptable way, has offered us an option, but it looks like we will refuse, and instead will go lemming-like to war. Saddam Hussein has offered us another chance to climb towards stable environmental ground, but once again, we are apparently determined to hurl ourselves, and anyone within reach, into an abyss of oil-centred consumption. He offers us a chance to lessen our fatal attraction to oil, but we greedily grasp the tap, determined at all costs to feed our addiction. We are oil-aholics, every western nation, and every last one of us. Trapped in a dying, fossil-fueled world order, sucking over $60 billion a year out of the stomachs and hearts and heads of the increasingly poor people in the Third World, while we in the first world make shrill cries for in even higher standard of living, ignoring the growing crisis of our own poor. The most stuck of all are the ruling economic elite of the United States government-military-industrial complex. The west historically occupied the middle east, drew its boundaries, exploited its resources and divided its peoples. And the United States is inflexibly determined to preserve this economic occupation-domination, even at the cost of war: devastating the very centre of that region,, ensuring decades of Arab hostility towards the west and bringing environmental disaster on countless millions, most of whom already live deeply enmeshed in poverty. If inflexibility were measured in terms of the forces it brings to bear, then American inflexibility is surely greater than Iraq’s equally unacceptable intransigence.

To imagine a different world is hard work. It is hard learning to let go of old myths of dominance and myths of scarcity: myths that human dignity has something to do with the right clothing labels and lots of horsepower. It is hard saying to our fearful hearts that we already have enough, and more than enough, most of us. We would rather, like biblical farmers, build ever bigger barns, to hoard and store and keep, oblivious to the cataclysm that is gathering on our borders. And so we tacitly agree with the powerful when they tell us the old myths of scarcity: we agree with their myths about individual power and self-reliance, about the desirability of life apart from communities, commonwealths, or collectivities. We buy into their myths of the need to ration education and health care, and even food itself. If you can buy it, it’s yours. If not, get a job. So nurses picket food banks expand, and people grow hungry, while the imagination of the powerful denies that we have a problem.

If we want a world of justice, a world free of prejudice, a world that cherishes the generativity of creation in all its fullness, a world that honours children and women and men of colours and creeds that are not European, we first have to imagine it.

If we can begin to imagine such a world, then we will be impelled into imagining our actions ... to bring it to be. To imagine ourselves withdrawing our consent to be governed by those who tell us lies about the need for war, and war toys. Who tell us lies that we cannot afford anti-poverty programs and health care, and child care, and full economic participation for aboriginal people. We are impelled to name such tales as lies, and their tellers as liars. To reject those who tell us that the only path for development in the Third World is through slavish imitations of our pattern, as though it were somehow possible to have two cars in every garage in Soweto and Island Lake, Shanghai and Bombay. And we will be impelled into imagining new ways of being in solidarity with the poor of the First and Third Worlds, to listening for and being present in their struggles for liberation, in the confidence that there is plenty to share, and creativity beyond our dreams to ensure life in abundance for all. Until we can imagine these new things, we will be stuck fast, and the poor will be stuck fast with us. If we can do the hard work of imagining these new possibilities, then we can begin to let go of the destructive myths of the past. So let us imagine a new world for our children, for all children, for earth herself.

From Links, February 1991, Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 2



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