The Moment of Truth — July 28, 2001

Graham, Welty and Devi

Hi, I’m mejeffdorchen and this is the Moment of Truth, the intangible thing in your life without which everything else is meaningless.

I once wrote that there are some things capitalism hates because it cannot buy, package, market, or sell them. True human greatness is one of those things. Lao Tse wrote that true greatness appears insignificant. That has time and again, directly or indirectly, been the subject of these essays. But let us again examine his postulate.

Why did Bill Gates go to Katherine Graham’s funeral? Katherine Graham was the publisher of the Washington Post until she died this week. And the richest man in the universe came to her funeral. Why? Because he admired her journalistic integrity? If so, how disgraceful. In an economically unjust society, for Graham, a person of the press, to be admired by the richest member of that society is a stain on her memory. If Gates attended because he was simply her friend, how much more disgraceful? But why do I even bother pointing out this mere fraction of her disgrace, when publication after publication noted with solemnity and awe that her funeral was nothing more than a place for the rich and powerful to meet and greet?

Every once in a while the capitalist news media will ponder the notion that celebrity and wealth play too great a role in influencing public policy. Nothing, though, reveals the fatuous lack of meaning in such exercises than the uncritical celebration of the celebrity of Katherine Graham. It’s like when Congress tosses around the idea of campaign finance reform. The fact that droves of people aren’t dropping dead on the streets from embarrassment at the spectacle’s clownish hubris reveals the great distance that stretches between our nation and any kind of true democracy.

The writer Eudora Welty also died this week. That such an artist could exist at all, let alone produce work and be recognized for it, only throws into sharper focus the misguided vanity of what we in this society honor as wealth and power. Even a snotty, hateful, smug reactionary like me would have to scrape pretty low to find anything nasty to say about her. She made her art, she took care of the people she had to take care of, and somehow part of the world recognized her, which says something unfathomably hopeful about the world. Eudora Welty made art and touched people with it without resorting to grandstanding self-promotion or shmoozing or networking.

And to think that, in a world where that could happen, some poor, weak, insecure, sick human being found it necessary to be Katherine Graham. Someone even sicker and more insecure found it necessary to be Henry Kissinger. Likewise every flashy fascist in the United States who has had to insulate him- or herself with honor and wealth – how embarrassing and sad. I mean, sure, we can imagine little people living their lives with honor and dignity and humility and courage, we can imagine that these people might exist somewhere in an ocean of anonymity, if we really believe in courage, humility, honor and dignity, which clearly Kissinger and Graham and the wealthy and powerful who attended Graham’s funeral did not. But they didn’t even have to imagine, they didn’t have to torque their brains in ways they found unnatural in order to conjure up some ideal example. Here was Eudora Welty to prove that such a person could exist. What’s hard to imagine is the mental and spiritual illness that drives a person to be a Graham or a Kissinger. Imagine the lack of insight it must take to wake up day after day and think of nothing but how important you are, and to spend the rest of the day figuring out new ways to make society return tokens of proof of your own importance. Under such circumstances the very least you could do would be to publish the Pentagon Papers. That would put you a notch above Kissinger, even if Bill Gates did come to your funeral.

Or maybe there were thousands of little things Katherine Graham did that never got public notice. Maybe Bill Gates saw Katherine Graham walk a staggering homeless man to shelter and that’s why he came to her funeral. That could very well be. And perhaps that’s why the press is so uncritical of the slew of ruling class mourners who thronged to her casket. Perhaps they realize we can never truly know the small acts that lead to a greatness that echoes throughout the world of big money. Maybe I’m being too harsh and judgmental.

But I’m probably not.

They come in threes, and the third one was Phoolan Devi, also known as the Bandit Queen, the Indian woman who overcame class and gender oppression to become a member of the Indian parliament. She was assassinated a couple days ago by three shooters. She was born poor. At the age of eleven she was forced to marry a man in his thirties. Her non-cooperation in the conjugal arrangement landed her back with her family a year later. This disgraced her family, who in turn made her life miserable. Pushed ever farther toward the margins because of her stubborn unwillingness to submit to the various indignities a rejected wife was expected to endure, she joined a gang of robbers who stole from high caste property owners, and rose to become their leader.

Eventually she was captured by upper-caste landowners. During the weeks she was their prisoner between twenty and twenty-two of them raped her and subjected her to public humiliation. She escaped, came back with her gang, and massacred the rapists.

She later surrendered to authorities and served eleven years in prison. The relative brevity of her imprisonment was thanks in part to the lobbying of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh at the time, and a leader in the Samajwadi party. Phoolan Devi joined the party, and it was under their banner that she became a member of India’s lower house of parliament.

Many in the Samajwadi party blame the ruling party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, for the assassination. It’s certainly possible. The Samajwadi party is secular and anti-caste, while the BJP are Hindu fundamentalists who believe the caste system to be divinely ordained. Still, the Samajwadi party has been making inroads deeper into mainstream popularity, and as an actual alternative to the BJP may eventually supplant the Congress party, which has been embarrassed by corruption and lack of direction, much like our own Democratic party. It would be just as logical for the Congress party to have conspired to have Devi murdered, but few in India would ascribe to them that much initiative.

Among the mourners who attended her cremation on the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh was BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. To be honored by such a man would be a disgrace. But Vajpayee wasn’t there for the same reason Bill Gates saw Katherine Graham off. Vajpayee was there because Phoolan Devi was a national hero of the poor and non-English-speaking polity. With the Samajwadi party gaining ground, with riots in the streets protesting Phoolan Devi’s murder, how good could it be for Vajpayee’s BJP to snub the funeral of the Samajwadi’s most notorious member, now its most mourned martyr?

Katherine Graham inherited her power from the top, and Phoolan Devi struggled from the bottom for hers. Between the two, Eudora Welty and anonymous millions lucky enough not to be born too far at either end of the spectrum have the inner strength to be true to themselves and achieve a quiet, if unmarketable, greatness. Of the three, I have to point to Graham as a true example of what a human being ought not to be. She did not have the courage to be one of the humbly great. I don’t think Phoolan Devi had any choice – her being true to herself had no outlet but violence and bombast, because of the viciousness of the system that tried to crush her.

If you are privileged to be able to choose a path of creativity and self-knowledge and truth, and you choose instead a life of power maintained by a willful blindness to the nature of yourself and your society, then you’re part of the problem. And by that definition, the capitalist media has once again proven itself to be a major part of the problem.

I’m mejeffdorchen and this has been the Moment of Truth.