Posted by: Bill Tracy | March 5, 2010

Truth Will Set Us Free

Rosa Parks was living in a lie. Her country was founded on a bedrock that all persons are equal. Rosa however could only take a seat on a public transit bus in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama if there was a seat remaining after all the white-skinned people had one. Her skin was not white, and that made all the difference. Even if she had a seat and a white-skinned person wanted it, she had to stand and let him have it. That’s the way it was in the 1950s. Everybody knew that. Everybody accepted that. Everybody was willing to accept that living lie.

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks, a humble seamstress and civil rights leader in the United States, 1913-2005. "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in," she said. Image Copyright Robert Shetterly, used with permission.

One December evening in 1955, Rosa Parks decided to start living the truth, and when the bus driver told her to get up so a white man could have her seat, she said no. She stayed in  her seat. The bus driver called the police. He told them an uppity nigger on the bus was causing trouble and needed to be arrested. The police came, naturally. Rosa Parks was arrested, of course. And that ugly lie everyone was living started to crumble. She was an American who spoke the truth. Asked later why she refused to get up she said, “I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen.”

When I was writing the Ammon Hennacy post a while back I came across a Web site that fascinates me still. It’s called Americans Who Tell the Truth. The very title is audacious, perhaps even bordering on arrogant — to presume so boldly to know the truth and who speaks the truth! I was immediately enthralled. Here was a site compiling so many people I revere as heroes — Dorothy Day, Howard Zinn, Eugene Debs, Marian Wright-Edelman, Dr. Paul Farmer. I was amazed and delighted. The man behind it, artist Robert Shetterley, had painted portraits of all these people and included with each portrait a small biography. He has also published a book with 50 of the nearly 150 portraits and biographies; it’s aimed at schools where teens may get a different viewpoint on American history. They will surely learn about some people not mentioned in the conventional secondary school curriculum. They will also learn what it means to disagree with the prevailing culture and to have the courage to say so — to “tell the truth.” I want to talk about that important Web site and a few of these people and their “truths.”

My very first words in this Web log were words of David Henry Thoreau: “I am resolved that I will not through humility become the devil’s attorney. I will endeavor to speak a good word for the truth.” Truth however is rarely as “self-evident” as the U.S. Declaration of Independence would suggest. I started this post with Rosa Parks because her truth is black and white, so to speak. No one can make an effective argument against the Parks’ position. She was living in a country that said all people were equal. Yet she was treated, under law, as not equal to any person with white skin. I don’t know how you see her case as anything but crystal clear, truth versus lie. For a lot of the others on the Americans Who Tell the Truth list, cases may get a bit murky. But, let’s get down to cases!

Edward Abbey

Writer Edward Abbey (1927-1989) fought relentlessly against wholesale and mindless "development" of our natural places and resources. "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell," he would say. Image copyright Robert Shetterly, used with permission.

A man sometimes called the “Thoreau of the Southwest” is on the list, Edward Abbey. I’ve been a fan for many years, and his truth is close to my truth. There are people who could argue against us though. Abbey hopped a train out of his Pennsylvania home as a teenager and went gaga for the American southwest while peering transfixed out the door of a rolling boxcar. He had to go home first, but he got back as fast as he could and spent his life living in and writing about the desert southwest. I suspect being raised in a place where you can’t see more than 50 or 100 feet in any direction for the trees, you could be overwhelmed looking across a desert landscape at mountains 50 or 100 miles distant.

One reason I choose Abbey is because in his writing he makes an attempt to say what truth means to him. Near the end of his life, oddly,  he wrote “A Writer’s Credo.” In it, he admits the difficulty of defining truth.

“What is truth? I don’t know and I’m sorry I raised the point. I mean to dodge it if I can, for the question leads at once into a bog of epistemological problems too deep for me…. I will state only what I believe, that truth, like honor, generosity, tolerance, decency, is something real, that truly exists, whether we can define it or not. Subjectively, truth is that statement of cases which accords with my own view of the world…. What is reality? For the purposes of daily life, as well as for the composition of stories, poems and essays, I am willing to go by appearances. It appears to me, for example, that torture is wrong, a hideous wrong, and always wrong; that the death penalty — the cold-blooded infliction of death by instruments of the state — is an evil greater than murder; it seems to me, judging by appearances only, that it’s wrong to allow children to die of malnutrition and equally wrong — worse than wrong, criminally stupid — to bring children into the world when you are not prepared to feed and care for them….”

Abbey spent his life telling his truth in two distinct ways. On one hand, he wrote some of the most beautiful celebrations of the natural world that exist in our culture. On the other hand, he wrote some of the most scathing indictments of greedy industrial interests that threaten to destroy all the beauty we hold in our hands. He is probably best known for the book, The Monkey Wrench Gang. It is said to have inspired the whole “radical” environmental movement. I guess Abbey was right in his Writer’s Credo when he says: “I believe that words count, that writing matters, that poems, essays and novels–in the long run–make a difference.” I don’t have the luxury of going into Abbey’s exploits, but I will report that he lived his life as he saw his truth. He was proud, I think, that he never made more than $20K in any year of his life. Before he was established as a serious writer he spent parts of each year supporting himself as a ranger in national parks and forests. His intellect and writing ability could have secured him a lucrative career. But he was not one to take the money and run. He’d much rather sit on a rock in the lush air of a desert night, drink a cold beer and wonder why so few people treasured that chokingly beautiful view of the stars as he did.

Smedley Butler

After 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corp, Major General Smedley Butler (1881-1940) believed the U.S. government used the military as a tool of industrial capitalist imperialism, and he said so publicly and forcefully. Image copyright Robert Shetterly, used with permission.

One other definition Abbey offered for truth is: “…truth for one thing is the enemy of Power, as Power is the enemy of truth.” The last person I want to mention is a person who took his truth to the highest levels of power in this land. Smedley Butler joined the U.S. Marine Corp when he was 16 (in 1898) and over the course of a thirty-plus-year career he rose to the rank of Major General, won two Medals of Honor and other decorations too numerous to account. In the end however, he came to see the lie of it all and he spoke out forcefully against U.S. military support of industrialism and imperialism. In a 1935 issue of the magazine Common Sense, he said what has come to summarize his truth:

“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

Thank you, Marine Corp Major General Butler. Even with his two stars of rank and his two medals of honor I never came across Butler in any American history class I ever took. Actually, I never heard of him until I joined Veterans for Peace many years ago — there is a local chapter called the “Smedley Butler Brigade.” It seems appropriate since he was one of the very first veterans for peace. You won’t find Butler enshrined at any VFW or American Legion group I know of.

Finally, a word about the truth-telling American behind this whole thing. I don’t know if Robert Shetterly has done a self-portrait, but he is in league with these other Americans Who Tell the Truth. I can’t say anything about him more compelling than he has said himself:

Robert Shetterly

Artist Robert Shetterly, the man behind the project "Americans Who Tell the Truth."

“The second strong feeling — the first being horror — I had on September 11 was hope, hope that the United States would use the shock of this tragedy to reassess our economic, environmental, and military strategies in relation to the other countries and peoples of the world. Many people hoped for the same thing — not to validate terrorism, but to admit that the arrogance and appetite of the U.S., all of us, have created so much bad feeling in many parts of the world that terrorism is inevitable. I no longer feel hopeful. If one looks closely at U.S. foreign policy, the common denominator is energy, oil in particular. The world is running out of oil. Political leadership that had respect for the future of the Earth and a decent concern for the lives of American and non-American people would be leading us away from conflict toward conservation and economic justice, toward alternative energy, toward a plan for the survival of the world that benefits everyone. We see hegemony and greed thinly veiled behind patriotism and security. We get pre-emptive war instead of pre-emptive planning for a sustainable future. The greatness of our country is being tested and will be measured not by its military might but by its restraint, compassion, and wisdom. De Toqueville said, “America is great because it is good. When it ceases to be good, it will cease to be great.” A democracy, whose leaders and media do not try to tell the people the truth, is a democracy in name only. If the consent of voters is gained through fear and lies, America is neither good nor great. Nor is it America.

“I began painting this series of portraits — finding great Americans who spoke the truth and combining their images with their words — nearly three years ago as a way of to channel my anger and grief. In the process my respect and love for these people and their courage helped to transform that anger into hope and pride and allowed me to draw strength from this community of truth tellers, finding in them the courage, honesty, tolerance, generosity, wisdom and compassion that have made our country strong. One lesson that can be learned from all of these Americans is that the greatness of our country frequently depends not on the letter of the law, but the insistence of a single person that we adhere to the spirit of the law.”

Thank you, Robert. What you are doing gives me hope. The hope I have is not for rehabilitation of the U.S. government, for it is corrupt beyond redemption. My hope is not for our educational institutions, bloated as they are with overpaid “superintendents and administrators” with no real concern for the young minds in their care. Certainly my hope is not for our criminal justice system that wars on the poor and treats ordinary citizens as the enemy. My hope is for a generation of young people who will take courage from those like your Americans Who Tell the Truth, see our desolation and destitution for what it is and do whatever it takes to make America “good” as De Toqueville found it once again. Nothing less will do. And that’s my truth!

Book Americans Who Tell the Truth

Cover of the book "Americans Who Tell the Truth." Available at Amazon


  1. Thank you for this stunning essay, Bill, and for alerting us to this amazing book. I need that ray of hope. I confess I have fallen into despair about the capacity of the human race to be healers rather than warriors.

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