Mike Farrell

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Writing for Change Conference, San Francisco, CA

August 16, 2008 -Keynote Address

From Ben Cable

Cable Muse Network LLC

San Francisco CA – (CMN) His long stride gives us the perception of purpose, his height notice then his voice and words inspire. Mike Farrell may be most known as B.J. Hunnicutt in the infamous comedy/drama TV series M*A*S*H, however at the conference he was author (Just Call me Mike) and keynote speaker.  

Mike Farrell wears his celebrity status like a well worn coat. He walks into a space as if it was his living room and speaks to people as if they have been friends for years. His speech was blunt, pointed and moving.

Mike in his own words:

Mike Farrell

John F. Kennedy, the last president in my memory to truly inspire Americans, said at Amherst College in 1963 that 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.”

And he looked forward “to an America which commands respect throughout the world, not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.”

So? What happened?  Who have we become? Have we reached the peak of our potential as a people, as a nation? Do we embody the hopes and dreams of our founders, or are we just the lucky inheritors of a great experiment who lack the ability to carry it forward?  Given deceitful leaders, an illegal war, the horrifying waste of life, the manipulation of a terrified people, the demolition of our Constitution, the embrace of torture, one wonders. I can’t accept that this is the best we can do, but if it’s not, the question is what do we do to rekindle, revitalize and realize that dream?

Let me offer some thoughts.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying silence is betrayal, spoke out against an unjust war 40 years ago, quoting the poet Langston Hughes, whom he called “The Black Bard Of Harlem:”

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!


There’s a challenge for us all.  

How do we make America what it should be? First, here’s some advice from a friend in prison.  28 years ago he was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit and was saved from the electric chair 12 years later by a campaign in which I was involved.  He remains in prison today despite our efforts on his behalf because of an institutional imperative whereby states refuse to admit their mistakes - they deny reality for fear of losing authority – or money, which today is too often the same thing; better to lie and hope to get away with it than admit fault and face the consequences.

Seven years ago my friend wrote, “As I reflect I come to recognize that we human beings possess something which is at once more terrible and wonderful than all else: the ability to make ourselves and our world better or worse. I sense that humanity as a whole may not have progressed, nor will it meaningfully advance, if not for human beings who resolutely and passionately champion a cause they believe in.  So many I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter during the course of my odyssey epitomize for me the fundamental fact that only by communicating one’s realization with passion can the truth, one way or another, break through the fog of complacency that lays thick upon our consciousness as a species.  I suppose that is one of our chief duties - to speak out to the best of our ability – maybe quietly and gently, maybe with angry wisdom, maybe with slow and careful analysis, maybe by unshakable public example; but speak out we must if humanity is to remain alive and awake.  To abstain in stoical or ironical detachment or to stay dithered in the middle ground is to atrophy.”  The words of Joe Giarratano, an innocent man still behind bars today in Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, VA.

Just imagine for a minute that you lived in a country that provided an example of human possibility for the rest of the world’ a country that praised the inherent beauty, value and dignity of every human being; a country that inspired hope in women and men, (to) reach for something higher and better than anything they had ever known.

Imagine what this land could mean to hopeful human beings.

But then imagine this shining star shunted onto a siding, vision fogging, hope diminishing, dreams dying because of the rot of smugness, arrogance, greed, weakness, because of an absence of empowering spirit.  Imagine the cancer of leaders without inspiration, of power-mad, self-satisfied, possibility denying rulers who, lost in the excrement of their own frustrations, lack the power of curiosity and the courage of love, choosing instead to bludgeon hope with the mace of fear.

Imagine the sense of loss, the frustration, the pit of despair that would encompass those who had once known possibility.  Imagine the hopelessness that would appear – the cynicism that would follow – and the negligence that would result.

I ask you to imagine this because its worm’s-eye view, held by some who don’t enjoy the security in their lives that so many of us have come to take for granted.  And it seems to me they represent the bottom line, where a principled life separates itself from a constipated, fear-driven world view; it’s the line one steps across when choosing to expose the lie that says some human beings are immaterial, inconsequential, invisible.

There’s a great truth told quite simply in a novel I read.  The primary character, a cop, says, “Everybody counts or nobody counts.”  Everybody counts or nobody counts…

Another writer observed: “In cynical times right and wrong can be hard to sort out.  Goodness and truth can seem beyond our reach.  But we have the option, the obligation, to put cynicism aside and exercise the public virtues: to find truth, oppose wrong, protect innocence, promote good and do right.”

Farrell at Writing for Change (
Farrell at Writing for Change - SF

In support of that obligation, let me pull together a few thoughts.
Four black men in Illinois, the “Ford Heights Four,” spent 18 years in prison for a rape and murder they did not commit.  After his release, one testified in Washington, about ways “to help restore justice to our criminal justice system.” Asked what was at the root of systemic injustice, he observed, “I think its fear.  There’s fear of crime, fear of different skin color, fear of admitting mistakes.  You got people here in the government who’re so scared, that they build more and more prisons while doing away with the safeguards that prevent them from being filled with innocent people.  We can’t go on being so scared of each other.”

He said, “I’ve been afraid, and I guess you could say I used to be a racist, too.   But it was mostly white folks who stepped up to help us.  So there’s one thing I learned for sure in eighteen years: If we can conquer our fears, there’s nothing we can’t do.”

Those are the words of Dennis Williams - one of the Ford Heights Four – freed and completely exonerated in 1996 after 18 years on death row in Illinois only to drop dead of heart failure four years later, still a young man.

Now compare Dennis’ thought, “...there’s one thing I learned for sure in 18 years: If we can conquer our fears, there’s nothing we can’t do,” to this one - “I have learned many things in prison, but the most important thing is that for a human being, there is no difficulty that cannot be overcome.  You just have to rely on yourself and you can get through anything.”  Those are the words of Wei Jingsheng, the Chinese Pro-Democracy dissident who was finally released due to pressure from the human rights community after spending almost 18 years in a Chinese prison.

In spite of their bitter experience, these two men, from very different lives, came to the same conclusion: that by facing and conquering our fears and learning to rely on our strengths, we can do anything.    
I was once at an event for a group of attorneys in LA who represent people living in misery in the inner city.  A quote from one of the children they had helped was emblazoned on a banner across the back of the room.  “Mommy,” it said, “does this mean we don’t have to live in the rat house anymore?”  That’s a fairly simple message.  No one - least of all a child - should have to live among rats.  But I asked them to consider another child, as well.  Not this one who tugs at our hearts, but a child from the same set of circumstances who feels the need for what he perceives as justice and says, instead, “Mommy, I’m going to find the people who made you live like this and make them sorry.”

What happens to that child?  Maybe one leaves her rat-infested home and finds her way to a place of hope.  But the other, if he’s already in a place that promises hope but has been robbed of it, maybe he steps across the line and becomes an outlaw, striking out at those in society who, in his mind, have done him – and his mother - harm.

There is plenty of evidence around us – the unresolved devastation from Katrina one bleeding example - to demonstrate that we are failing many in our society by deeming them invisible.  We compound the failure by forcing them into a system – a school system, a legal system, a medical system, a welfare system, a criminal justice system, where invisible people suffer invisibly and then, if they misbehave, we destroy them.  Unless someone cares enough to pierce the shield of invisibility, the children from rat-infested places, the invisible people whose hearts yearn for justice, explode and do harm – or implode and do harm in another way.  And when decent, principled, sometimes angry people speak out against injustice and do their best to make our society what it should be, make the reality match the rhetoric, they are too often derided as bleeding hearts or bomb-throwers rather than honored for the courage they demonstrate and the principles they articulate.

Why does that sort of thing happen?  Well, to understand our society and what’s happening in it, it sometimes helps to look away and then back.  Sometimes a new perspective can move us to reconsider things one hears about less and less today, values like inclusiveness, mercy, justice and hope, and realize that they are not outmoded, naïve, weak or inconvenient luxuries, but instead are urgent necessities for the successful growth of the society we’re supposed to be building.

“We are all ‘Hibakusha’.”   The word Hibakusha means “downwinders” and refers to those who were not caught in the initial atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki but, because of having been downwind, were nevertheless victims of the radioactive fallout.  The phrase, “We are all Hibakusha,” opens the definition in a metaphysical way to include all of us.  One way or another, through direct complicity, sympathetic understanding or as a function of an ineffable human interconnection, we are all at the effect of that horrific act - and of every horrific, anti-human act.

This idea that we are all Hibakusha seems peculiar to some, emblematic of the sad fact that we too often allow ourselves to believe we are not connected - until an event or set of circumstances slaps us back to the awareness of the delicacy of our situation here, the impermanence, the mutability of life.

Clarence Darrow, an iconoclastic, path-breaking lawyer, once observed, “There is in every man that divine spark that makes him reach upward for something higher and better than anything he has ever known.”  That is a potent description of the presence and irrepressibility of the human spirit - interesting from a self-professed atheist - one worth considering in difficult times.

I have done some work on behalf of refugees and in support of human rights in the world.  A couple of snapshots:

- El Salvador - (In Mariona Prison in 1983 I interviewed a man who took off his shirt to show the scars where acid had been poured on his chest in order to force him to name his co-conspirators.  Taken off the street by heavily armed men in civilian clothes, he had been tortured in a secret place and then brought to the prison where we met.  His crime was that he was the head of the teacher’s union in El Salvador, and the co-conspirators sought were his colleagues who believed in the value of education for their impoverished fellow citizens.  If he survived, he celebrated the end of that slaughter with the UN-brokered peace that exposed the anti-human crimes of that U.S.-supported government.)

- Chile - (In 1986 I met in a darkened room in Santiago with a woman whose husband had been “disappeared” –[“disappeared” is a term of art in the world of terror, meaning those left behind never have even the minimal satisfaction of knowing that their lost loved one is living or dead – until recently it was thought to be a practice used only by others, not the U.S.]- this woman’s husband had been disappeared for writing words unacceptable to the Pinochet regime.  Not knowing his fate, she displayed incredible courage by taking up the pen on his behalf and exhorting her countrymen and women to stand up for their beliefs.  If she survived, the return of civilian government in Chile and legal steps set in motion by a Spanish judge who had the audacity to assert international law against General Pinochet are monuments to her courage and integrity.)

- VA - (In the death house in Richmond in 1991 I sat with Joe Giarratano, the condemned inmate I quoted earlier, and his defense team at a table a few feet from the electric chair discussing our last-minute appeal to Gov. Wilder.  As we ended the meeting one of the attorneys asked Joe to tell me about the table around which we had been sitting.  “Oh, this,” Joe said.  “This is the Cooling Table.” He explained that after he was electrocuted, his body would be too hot to touch, so two guards with asbestos gloves would quickly carry it out and lay it on this table around which we had been sitting until it could be safely disposed of.  Gov. Wilder did intervene in that case, but because he didn’t grant the new trial we believe necessary, Joe remains locked up today.)

- the Former Yugoslavia - (In a UNHCR transition center for refugees in Croatia in 1992 I met a Bosnian man - a doctor - who had been in one of the Serb concentration camps. He told us, among other horrors, of seeing a group of his fellow inmates forced to stand in a circle, tethered together by a wire passed through each of their tongues.  While willing to tell us of horrors suffered by others, this doctor’s advocacy for fellow prisoners had made him the object of treatment he could not bring himself to describe.)

What these people have in common, I believe, is a fundamental understanding of the value and dignity inherent in their existence, in the commonality of their simple humanity, in the beauty, energy and possibility that comes with life on this earth.  And from it they derive a power that is indomitable, that inspires them to stand in the face of overwhelming opposition.  They learned, through incredibly difficult personal experience, that by putting themselves out in the service of others they became more than they had once been.  Their contribution to the Great Ledger, as John Steinbeck dubbed it, is their measure of themselves as humans.  In “Sweet Thursday,” Steinbeck said the big question is, "What has my life meant so far and what can it mean in the time left to me?" "What have I contributed to the Great Ledger?”

To consider the debit side of that ledger, I was in Rwanda, in Central Africa, a short time after the genocide in 1994.  Just as is the case in Darfur today, while the civilized world averted its eyes people were killed by the thousands in a bloodletting the ferocity and scope of which are incomprehensible to most of us.  In that instance, 500,000 to 1,000,000 human beings, mostly of the minority Tutsi tribe, were killed in a period of three months.  Mass slaughters took place all over the country in a carefully planned and well executed campaign to assert control over the majority Hutu population by entangling them in an horrific act of cruelty from which there could be no turning back.

70,000 women were raped during that terrible time.  350,000 of the surviving children watched as family members were murdered.

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