Breaking the Sound Barrier
Back in 2007, at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly (the church’s big annual national gathering), I had the remarkable experience of hearing Amy Goodman moderate a panel of extraordinary gentlemen. One was Daniel Ellsberg. One was Mike Gravel, then a contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. And the third was Robert West, a former president of Beacon Press, which is owned by the UUA.
Together, with Amy as moderator, these men told the untold story of how the Pentagon Papers were brought to the public. Ellsberg gave a copy of the 7,000 pages to The Washington Post’s Ben Bagdikian — but only on the condition that Bagdikian deliver a copy to Senator Gravel, so he could read them into the Congressional record. (The transfer involved a midnight cloak-and-dagger meeting in a dark parking lot, with Gravel transferring the boxes by himself because only he had senatorial immunity should they be caught.) While Bagdikian fought the government to print the papers in the Post, Gravel played hide-and-seek with the Senate’s leadership (then in the form of Mike Mansfield) to get the the Papers on record; and at the same time arranged with Beacon Press (after 35 other publishers turned them down) to print them. The agreement to publish– which church leaders well understood was putting the entire future of one of the nation’s oldest denominations on the line, as well as committing themselves to an act of capital treason — ended up in front of the Supreme Court, after two years of ongoing government persecution of the church.
I was in the front row for this spellbinding bit of group storytelling, along with my daughter, then not yet quite 17. “This is what heroes look like,” I told her. “Take a good look — because this is what your faith and your family will expect of you on the day that history knocks on your door and insists that you take a stand.”
Amy Goodman knows a lot about taking unpopular and personally risky stands that threaten the powers that be. She’s had a lot of experience breaking the sound barrier — that wall of silence that allows Americans to remain blissful in our too-easy denial of the many injustices that make our comfort possible. And she knows things about keeping your wits and courage about you in the resulting sonic booms that fellow progressives caught in the winds of change can learn from. Amy’s unwillingness to compromise her principles has made all the difference — for her, for the country, and for the people whose unheard voices become audible through her work. That stubborn insistence not only put her where she is — as the host of Democracy Now!, which runs every weekday on over 800 radio stations across the country and around the world — but also gives her work its forthright, earnest, and powerful flavor.
Breaking the Sound Barrier is a compilation of several dozen of Amy’s newspaper columns which ran between the summer of 2006 and the fall of 2009. At just 500 words each, the columns are shorter than this introduction; but brief as they are, they’re sharp, vivid vignettes, each one offering up a telling detail, a pointed moral, a transformative moment, or a wicked irony. Amy shows us US generals comparing the process of invading a country to a work of art in progress — and then invokes Guernica. She notes wryly that the ancient home of one of Maryland’s most notorious slave torturers, then known as “Mount Misery,” now belongs to Donald Rumsfeld.
“It is the responsibility of journalists to go where the silence is, to seek out news and people who are ignored, to accurately and clearly report on the issues — issues that the corporate, for-profit media often distort, if they cover them at all,” Goodman writes. To that end, she recounts not only the stories told by Gravel, Ellsburg, and West that night in Portland; but also writes movingly about being a witness to a massacre in East Timor, which she only survived herself because she could produce an American passport; gives her account of being arrested at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis in 2008; and takes on the American Psychological Association for its unconscionable unwillingness to sanction members who participate in US government torture. Her insights into the 2008 election cycle, including a full section on Obama, reveal the full range of progressive hopes and fears for this president.
Many of us are already very familiar with Amy’s work and exploits, so I imagine we’re going to have a lot to talk about today. Personally, I’ll be asking her about her recent brush with the Canadian border patrol during a visit to my adopted hometown of Vancouver. I cross that same patch of border weekly — indeed, I crossed it just last night — so her experience with this has been nothing short of sobering for me, and I’m interested in knowing what’s shaken out from this since. Have your questions ready, too: more than usual, this is one Book Salon guest who will sidestep no answers and pull no punches.
Welcome to FDL, Amy!