As Radical As Reality: An Interview with Mickey Z

Mickey Z is a self-educated writer, activist and lecturer living in New York City. He is the author of nearly ten books, and is probably the only person on the planet to have appeared in both a karate flick with Billy “Tae Bo” Blanks and a political book with Howard Zinn. Aware of today’s mounting environmental, economic and social problems, problems some would say are manifestations of a collapse-in-progress of the traditional institutions, paradigms and behaviors of an unsustainable establishment we’ve known our entire lives, Z channels awareness into his work, inspiring his readers to do the same.

“When exactly does all this goddamned awareness translate into productive action and tangible change?” Z asks. “We’re aware of global warming and its causes, factory farms, war crimes, environmental degradation, political corruption, fixed elections, the health care crisis… We know about it all,” he says. “We talk about it. We write about it. We complain about it. We hold meetings, talks, seminars, and classes about it. We march about it. We make signs about it. Nothing changes.”In this interview, Mickey Z provides some possible answers to such a dilemma. “If we were to view all living things—along with ourselves—as part of one collective soul,” Z puts forth, “how could we not defend that soul by any means necessary?”

FJS: With today’s social arrangements, every two seconds, somewhere in the world a human being starves to death; every 46 seconds a woman is raped; every day 150 animal species go extinct, 60-70-million plastic water bottles get impetuously discarded (ending up in an ocean already tainted with islands of refuse, sheen with oil), 200,000 acres of rain forest are destroyed, 29,158 children under the age of five die from preventable causes, and 13 million tons of toxic chemicals are released across the globe – all of this, day-to-day…  And yet, so many of us are aware of these atrocities. Can you talk about the alarming disconnect in this culture between awareness and change for the better?

MZ: The disconnect may be alarming but it’s not really surprising and definitely not accidental. I just walked in the door and on my walk, I saw a bumper sticker that read: “Spread my work ethic, not my wealth.” In a way, we’re all subjects in an immense social engineering experiment. It’s almost as if the top 5% (economically speaking) want to see how much they can fuck us before we realize who is doing the fucking. They point us at women, gays, ethnic minorities, and “socialists” and we voluntarily choose to aim our anger in those directions. It’s much, much easier, say, to blame so-called “illegals” than to accept that our very way of life is nothing less than a global crime scene.

FJS: What do you mean by “our very way of life” being “nothing less than a global crime scene?”

MZ: Due to our compliance and/or silence and/or inaction, we’ve played a role in bringing our culture to the brink of social, economic, and environmental collapse.

FJS: You know, some would say we’re not at all on the brink of economic, social and environmental collapse, but, rather, the collapse of it all has already begun. That this is the endgame. And the most important thing to do now is to mitigate the impact of civilization’s collapse and protect what’s left of the natural world by any means necessary. What are your thoughts on this outlook?

MZ: I don’t know. I’ve found that even on a personal level, I can’t always recognize the signs of decay. I guess, whatever stage of collapse we’re in, it’s collapse; thus, all the more reason to get busy, like, yesterday.

FJS: With regard to climate change and ecological collapse, in my opinion it’s very difficult for people to align themselves with an effective outlet when capitalism has co-opted environmentalism and stolen the “green movement” (capitalism has a nasty way of either co-opting, deriding, subverting or eliminating any system of values that poses as an alternative to its own). Here’s my take on why many “activist” groups have such minimal success: a.) they’re too entrenched in the bureaucracy of the dominant system b.) most are “fighting” to preserve civilization in the wake of crisis– refusing to accept that civilization is the problem and root cause c.) not enough activists and groups are radical enough, e.g., the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, EPA, et al. are ineffective often due to venality and espousal of dominant cultural norms, values and privileges d.) too many groups and individuals are insular and afraid to align themselves with more militant and radical environmental and animal rights groups (whom haven’t harmed a living being because they’re fighting for the preservation of life)– when clearly both parties want the same ends e.) too many folks don’t want to part ways with their cheap perks the dominant social arrangements “award” them. And the reasons continue. What’s your take?

MZ: I’d say you covered most of the proverbial bases. We’ve gotten so used to corporate propaganda, we no longer recognize it for what it is and we’ll even give our lives to defend it. If only the sharp minds that conjure up such myths and hype were to aim their intellects in the direction of unity…

FJS: Back in March you attended the Left Forum. There you explained why the Left must come to grips with Animal Liberation movements. Can you talk a bit about that?

MZ: Attempting to separate violence against humans from violence against animals (and all nature) is like trying to disconnect the human circulatory system from the respiratory system. The Left’s absence on issues of animal rights, veganism, and darker shades of green is not just inexcusable. It’s suicidal. Industrial civilization is the enemy here, not this particular president or that particular gender or those particular laws. And single issues are not the path to a more sane culture. We need a far more holistic view of radical activism and that cannot happen until most of us recognize the connections between humans and animals, humans and nature.

In the book (and movie), The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad sez: “Maybe we’re not all individual souls, but maybe we’re all part of one big soul.” Incredibly basic, yes… but within that simplicity lies what I see as the secret: If we were to view all living things—along with ourselves—as part of one collective soul, how could we not defend that soul by any means necessary?

For more, this podcast plays the talk I gave with some added conversation:

FJS: What impact does factory farming have on the planet?

MZ: We can start with it being the number one cause of human-created greenhouse gases, toss in deforestation, water pollution, antibiotics, hormones, etc., rampant exploitation of workers, and a health holocaust for humans… and we still would not have gotten to the heart of the matter.

FJS: Wow, that’s just the tip-of-the-iceberg huh…

MZ: Yeah. If we strive for justice and freedom, we must extend those goals to all living things. To ignore the ethical nightmare we call factory farming is being a “good German” in the truest sense.

FJS: Do you see any way either to reform or get rid of big-business agriculture?

MZ: Reform? No. Get rid of it? Absolutely. Stop participating in it, educate others about it, organize around the need to end it, and then smash it with everything we’ve got.

FJS: What is the relationship between this culture’s violence against women, the indigenous and the poor, and violence against everything that is wild?

MZ: Control, I guess. It’s much easier to control a homogenous culture.

FJS: Explain.

MZ: What better way to align yourself with some factions of the masses than to divide those masses based on ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, etc.? There’s a reason why this is the oldest trick in the book: it works like a charm almost every time.

FJS: What is so important about the wild?

MZ: What we call the wild is usually what things looked like before we embraced “civilization” and what good has civilization ever done in the name of peace, health, freedom, justice, and solidarity?

FJS: You’re a pretty radical dude, but radicalism can imbue almost anything, and nowadays the term is often conflated with terrorism, regressive extremism, rightwing politics and religious fundamentalism, etc & c… But there’s also a very progressive, exciting and beneficial side to being a certain kind of radical. Explain.

MZ: The Latin origin of the word “radical” is the same as for the word “root,” so I subscribe to that interpretation. Radical, for me, means bypassing the surface impressions and digging deep to the root of…well, everything.

Two “radical” quotes that inspire me:

Lenin sez: “Be as radical as reality.”

MLK sez: “When you’re right, you can never be too radical.”

FJS: You wrote a book back in 2005 titled 50 American Revolutions You’re Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism. Without giving away too much about the book, care to expound on a couple of those revolutions?

MZ: That was the only book (of 10 and counting) that I was asked to write so it was, at first, a challenge to match visions. Once we settled in, I was able to blend well-known characters and episodes (Thoreau, Betty Friedan, Stonewall, etc.) with lesser-known, but more radical events like Lolita Lebron and others shooting up Congress in the name of Puerto Rican independence, American Indians occupying Alcatraz Island, and American soldiers switching sides in the Mexican-American War. Something must’ve clicked because it’s by far my biggest seller.

FJS: We need more revolutionaries in these times, don’t we?

MZ: Whatever we decide to call them, we need lots more folks who recognize the urgency. If you or I were to see a child wandering toward a busy intersection, we’d likely knock people down to rush over and stop the tyke from walking into traffic. No one would call us too radical or extreme. Well, if more humans could only accept that the global crises all around us represent an emergency no less urgent than the kid/traffic scenario, the actions needed would be more obvious.

FJS: What sorts of resistance are most effective and exciting?

MZ: Whatever works as quickly and effectively as possible, using the skills and gifts unique to each of us. No matter what George W. Obama declares, the truth remains: Action is always better than hope.

FJS: Howard Zinn once suggested we should acknowledge that real social change takes time, and that we all be long-distance runners about it, as it were, not sprinters; but in a time like this, when urgency and opportunity are colliding with inexorable force, what about – to stick with the whole running analogy – the idea of all of us, together, doing a relay, in a marathon? then we can all sprint and do the long-distance run, so to speak.

MZ: Love it…but I’d add in that while we’re waiting for the baton to be passed to us, we must stay busy.

FJS: Absolutely. If we all just wait around ‘til the next Great Revolution, nothing will happen–

MZ: –Oh, something will happen but wow… it’ll be uglier than we ever imagined.

FJS: I’ve had many conversations about all this with many different people– writers, activists, conservationists, friends and family, artists, bands in vans, everyday workers and so on; across the board, the consensus is: We’re screwed. Times are tough for sure. The question so many want to know is: Are we gonna make it through this?

MZ: We can win even if we define winning as creating a softer place to land…but every day lost is making things exponentially worse. When else in all of human history has there been a time when we were in a better position to shape the future? What we do (or don’t do) in the next few years will tilt us all toward either the point of no return or a far more sane form of society. Each and every one of us can take part—right now—in creating the most important social changes ever imagined. As I wrote above, we’re on the brink of economic, social, and environmental collapse. What an extraordinary time to be alive. How lucky are we? We’ve been trusted with the most vital mission of all time: survival.

FJS: What will it take?

MZ: As Derrick Jensen often explains: “The Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had a much higher rate of survival than those who went along. We need to keep that in mind over the next ten years.” Participating in sustained direct action is not a popular choice. It could put us at odds with our friends, family, and community. It could jeopardize our careers. It could even lead to direct conflict with law enforcement officers. Scary stuff, for sure. But ask yourself this: What frightens you more, being judged for getting ticketed for disorderly conduct or comprehending that 80% of the world’s forests and 90% of the large fish in the ocean are already gone? There are good reasons to be afraid. There are better reasons to be bold. It’s time to blossom, comrades. Even with all the fear, pain, dread, and uncertainty we may (or may not) experience while blossoming, remaining tight in the bud is no longer an option…for us or for the planet. Just leap and the net may appear.

If we don’t want our legacy to be one of inaction and shame, we must create drastic, permanent change very, very soon…because here’s the most inconvenient truth of all: it’s time to embrace a much darker shade of green.

Mickey Z’s up & coming novel, Darker Shade of Green, will be published by Raw Dog Screaming Press some time soon. Here are two blurbs for it:

“Mickey Z has crafted a novel that is distinctive in both structure and message. The characters’ mission is no less than saving the world, and they pursue this with passionate determination. Written in a compelling collage style that combines a wide variety of forms of narrative, journalism and stirring polemic (including graffiti!), Darker Shade of Green makes us question our assumptions on every level, and inspires us to action.” – Stephanie McMillan, cartoonist (Minimum Security and Code Green), and co-creator of graphic novel (with Derrick Jensen) As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial

“Mickey Z. has created something the bizarro genre has not yet produced: a thought provoking call to arms. If this book doesn’t make you want to rage for justice, you might want to check your pulse. The people killing this planet for profit and greed will hate this book, all the more reason you need to read it.” – David Agranoff, author of Screams from a Dying World and co-editor of the Vegan Guidebook to Portland