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On Learning to Resist

by Jim Mamer

What gives anyone the ability to resist the powers that be, the managerial elite, the plutocrats, or even what is purposely mislabeled as common sense? It is perhaps, THE vital question to think about, write about, and debate.


What follows are three examples of experiences that have compelled me to develop habits of resistance.


Religion, Angels, and the Age of Reason

I grew up in a world of Catholics. And, after I entered a Catholic grade school all my friends were Catholic. At the age of seven we were told we had reached the "age of reason" and, as a result, after confessing our sins, we could receive communion. I was proud of finally reaching an age at which I hoped to be taken seriously and held accountable for my actions, but it took a while for me to realize that no one really believed a seven-year-old could apply reason to what he was being told. Despite the odds, I learned valuable lessons from my study of religion, even if many of them contradicted what I was being told. For example, I learned, and still believe, that all societies must be measured, not by how rich they are, but by how they treat those who are the most vulnerable (in other words, the least of my brethren). And I learned, and still believe, that justice demands we respect others as much as we respect ourselves.


Of course, while I was learning these things, I was also subjected to multiple lessons about a variety of what I considered, even at a very early age, fictional entities like god, angels and the devil. I remember being told, I suppose to instill fear, that god was always watching me. I remember being taught that angels were real and that they could be classified in nine choirs ranging from the low-level guardian angels to the god-like seraphim. I also remember being told that angels were pure spirits.

I was taught that Lucifer, a top-ranked seraphim, displayed a variety of colors. But when he became jealous of god he became the devil.

Fortunately, I almost accidently learned to apply what I learned in one subject to other subjects. For example, during a science lesson the teacher showed us a small prism which she positioned to split light into what looked like a rainbow. She explained that the colors we saw were not inherent in the object, but were reflected off the object. I immediately wondered, if angels were invisible spirits, how they could reflect light as color.

When I asked that question in class, the teacher reminded us that the prism lesson was science and the angel lesson was religion. She suggested that these could not be mixed and she seemed to imply that the colors of some angels were miracles. That was too much even for a little kid. After all, I had proudly reached the age of reason and could not accept the idea of mysterious miracles. I never believed in angels again.

I had the same resistant response to being told about original sin, Jonah being swallowed by a whale, and the eternal fires of hell. Having reached the age of reason gave me the courage to openly refuse to believe what, to me, was illogical. That may have been the most important lessen I learned in grade school.


Curiosity, A Love of Reading, and the American War in Vietnam

By the time I was in sixth grade I had developed a habit of lying in order to escape other people. If my friends wanted to do something I found boring I would tell them that my parents or my grandmother had demanded I get home early. If I returned from school later than expected I would explain that I was with friends.


All of this gave me time to spend alone in the library which was midway between the bike ride between school and home. I would wander around, pick up a few books and find a place to sit and read. When I was 9 or 10 most of the books would be about popular science with pictures or mysteries like those of the Hardy Boys. By the time I was in high school the books could be about anything, but especially about places I thought I should visit or know about. That is how I came across Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy.

Fall was an expert on Indochina and Street Without Joy is a military history mostly focused on conflict between the French and the Vietnamese nationalists, but the book ends with Americans in Vietnam. By the time I found it, Vietnam was everywhere in the news, and there were thousands of American troops in the country.


That day I remember reading a few parts of a few chapters including, near the end of the book, the chapter titled “The Second Indochina War.” What I found convinced me that virtually everything done by the United States in Indochina was a continuation of French imperialism and that was more than enough to make me very skeptical of everything about the war reported on the nightly news.


I have written more about this experience here. I did not finish Street Without Joy until my first year in college, but I continued to read as much as I could on the rapidly expanding war. And the more I read, the more I doubted the truth of what I was hearing. Resistance to lies came easy.


Nikki Giovanni & Poetry

When I was a college sophomore, I took a Sociology class because it fit into my schedule.


Eventually, for a reason I don't remember, the instructor, a young lecturer, asked the class if anyone had ever "fallen in love.” I have no memory of why this was the topic of conversation. He asked a couple of students. He asked me. I said yes. Do you still feel that way? I said yes. Can you describe who or what you fell in love with? How you met? I said that I had not actually met her. How is that possible? I said something like: Well, her name is Nikki Giovanni. No one in the class knew of her. I said that she was a poet easy to love because she wrote things, I wish I had invented. I remember reciting, incorrectly, what lines I remembered. This is, sort of, what I remember saying:


I really hope no white person ever writes about me/ 

probably talking about my hard life/ 

and never understanding/

that all that time I was quite happy.


Here is the real ending of her poem, titled "Nikki-Rosa":


            I really hope no white person ever has cause   

            to write about me

            because they never understand

            Black love is Black wealth and they’ll

            probably talk about my hard childhood

            and never understand that

            all the while I was quite happy.


Poetry, in turns out, has been an effective way for me to learn to feel something differently. In other words, poetry allowed me to see things more clearly and made it easier to resist what those around me seemed to accept.


Not to be unforgivably simplistic, but I learned, from lines like those above, how wrong and insulting it can be to make assumptions about the experiences of others.


I was sixteen when I found Allen Ginsberg's Howl while standing in a bookstore. Happily, Ginsberg was not like any of the poets we had studied in English classes. It begins with this:


              I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

              dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

              angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the

machinery of night,

              who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural    

darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz...


Some time ago a friend loaned me a book of June Jordan's work. This is what I remember from a poem entitled "Poem for South African Women," written to commemorate 40,000 women and children who, in 1956, staged a protest against apartheid. After asking "who will join this standing up" it ends with the line:


            we are the ones we have been waiting for


When I was in my early twenties another friend recommended William Blake. The beginning lines of "Auguries of Innocence" changed me, really, forever.


                To see a World in a Grain of Sand 

                And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

                Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

                And Eternity in an hour


Thanks to all of the above (and much more) I've acquired lasting habits of resistance. No matter what the source I always ask myself if what I am hearing or reading could actually be the whole story.

*Giovanni photo by Ibn Battuta 


Jim Mamer is retired after 35 years of teaching, and proud of having been a union representative for more than twenty of those years as well as faculty adviser for Amnesty International student groups. Lately he has written columns for ScheerPost on various political issues including a series on problems in state-approved history textbooks.  He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow in American History at Stanford, awarded the Global Studies Teaching Award by the Western International Studies Consortium and Immaculate Heart College, named a Secondary Teacher of the Year (1992) by the National Council for the Social Studies, and received two Fulbright grants; the first, in 1977 to study Politics and Culture in India, and the second in 1998 to represent American educators in Ukraine. He lived in Orange County for forty years, twenty-seven of those in Modjeska Canyon.

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