I have never met you personally, but I did first encounter you, years back, on a massive screen. It was seeing “Good Will Hunting,” a movie that I found profoundly powerful in so many ways. And then, of course, in the flow of the story, there was the scene of you rejecting working for war, rejecting working for repression and spying, etc. You know what I refer to.
Later I watched the Academy Awards and rooted as I cannot remember ever having rooted before or since for a particular movie and a particular award. And, lo and behold, you and Ben got it. Maybe there would be more from you guys – not just acting, but writing too.
Just hours ago I watched a home video, I guess one might call it, on Youtube. We put it up on ZNet, too, you may have noticed.
It is a film of you reading an excerpt written by our mutual friend, Howard Zinn. So powerful, so compelling, not just his words, but something about your understated, non-histrionic delivery, too. As I am sure you well know, when Howard wrote words like that, he had as his purpose to inspire others to take the words seriously and, hopefully, to act on them as he always tried to do.
Howard wrote about civil obedience being the problem and about civil disobedience being the solution. He did it not to get published and advance a career, not to think well of himself, and not even to get others to think well of him. He wrote such words for the same reason he civilly disobeyed, time and again. Howard wanted to contribute to a stream of dissent that flowed from the past into the present, and, he hoped, in time would grow to become a river of dissent, and then an ocean of dissent – and of assent – unstoppable, finally creating a new world that would no longer be topsy turvy – quoting the words you read in Chicago.
Okay, so why do I write you about all this? I bet you can guess. It is for the same reason Howard would write you about it, if he were with us to do so.
Many years ago, when I was a Freshman in college, I went to a famous church in downtown Boston where there was to be a draft card turn-in after a teach-in. I don’t remember many details – sad to say – but I do remember a few.
I was sitting with four friends in the balcony, above the main action. The event was being mc-ed, I suppose is the right term, I was told much later by Dave Dellinger. At the time I had no idea who he was, but Dellinger, I expect you know, was Zinn’s contemporary, and arguably, if such a thing is possible, even more exemplary than Howard himself. But that is not the connection that causes me to bring up such a distant time.
Rather, I and my friends, having never experienced anything remotely like the Boston event, were captivated. On the floor below us, one after another, young men who were just like us, stood up and walked to the front where they publicly flicked a bic – to use the expression of the times – to burn their draft cards. Many of them were crying. Some spoke very briefly, of their anger. But it was their actions that were doing the talking. The war in Vietnam, sickened them. They were resisting. Can you see it? Pretty easy to do. You may find this odd to hear, but I suspect, for some people, your rendition of Zinn’s words will captivate quite similarly.
Okay – what about the five of us in the balcony? We watched, and like everyone else – how could we not – we admired what we saw, and we applauded. We didn’t know much, but we knew that these young people – who were our age – were admirable.
I don’t remember exactly the specific follow-up events. Perhaps we got hamburgers at Elsies. Maybe we just joked around, going back to Somerville by subway. Getting home, perhaps we played some touch football with the neighbor kids, or went out on dates. Life and life only. Life as usual.
Later that night, however, I was troubled. I thought to myself what if I watched all this in a documentary about another time and another place – say about young people resisting Nazi Germany that was bashing Jews, or about young people resisting Stalinist Russia that was bashing dissent, or even a week before or a week after in another city of the U.S., about young people resisting bashing Vietnam, or perhaps longer ago, about resisting slavery, or perhaps incredibly recently about resisting Jim Crow racism, and yes, the Freedom Riders, so key to Howard, touched me too. My reaction would be the same, I realized. I would admire the choice to be disobedient. I would applaud.
And then I took my thinking down a fateful path. (Who knows, perhaps I was stoned or just didn’t have my defenses up for some reason.) What would I think of someone else, sitting in those venues in Germany, Russia, the U.S. south, or next door, who admired resistance, but who then went back to life as usual? I was careful about this. I tried not to be melodramatic. I felt I wouldn’t hate them. I wouldn’t want to stone them, or even revile them. But neither would I admire them. And I knew that I would wonder, how is it possible? In particular, supposing they knew the crimes, and saw the resistance, and then went back to life as usual? To return to your words, quoting Zinn, how could they be civilly obedient?
And then I had another thought. What if I could see inside their heads, and what if I could discern that indeed they had, even if only for a moment, thought similar thoughts to mine, but then returned to life as usual – rejecting doing anything other than what was already on their planned-out journey through life? I realized that I still might not hate them. I might not want to stone them. But I probably would want to revile them. I would feel it was not admirable. I would feel it was cowardly. Uh oh.
It was then that I decided I did not want to spend my life a coward, even if I could do so, in my preferred profession, and not be hated, not be stoned, and even not be reviled – hell, perhaps even be admired for my callousness or ignorance by many. It was then that I decided if I was going to applaud a stance that I could conceivably support and even adopt – it was incumbent that I support or adopt it. And so my life changed, overnight, away from topsy turvy priorities.
And now comes the connection to you.
When I watched “Good Will Hunting” the words came from you and Ben but they were in the mouths, after all, of fictional characters. Did you, yourself, believe the words your character spoke, I wondered – or were you just speaking what the character would/should say to advance the flow of the story? Did you and Ben believe and feel what the movie conveyed?
I didn’t ask.
But this time, I can’t help myself. Do you believe Zinn’s words you read for the audience in Chicago?
And I care whether you believe, or not, and please pardon me for wanting to tell you why. After all, I don’t know you. We aren’t going to become buddies. You don’t travel in my circuit, nor vice versa. So of all the people in the world, why should I care whether you believe those words? And why should I ask you?
The answer is because if you don’t, well, okay – then you were a nice guy helping out with an event, like an actor playing a role for a moment. But if you do believe Zinn’s words, then there is an implication. You would be like me that night long ago – and you could either act on your beliefs or you could shut them down. Just like everyone, by the way, who watches that video and wants to applaud it. Put differently, you could take an exemplary or a cowardly path forward, again, just like everyone else who, like you, doesn’t have the excuse of honest ignorance or sleepwalking in our topsy turvy country and world.
But if it is a nearly universal situation we are considering, why should I care about you, in particular.
The first reason I care about you is, since so many face that choice, and since you are obviously quite self conscious about your own life, you could help us all better understand the dynamics of the choice – as you have tried to do, I think, in some of your movies. But this time, you could help and you wouldn’t have to act. You could just tell the truth, and reveal your own feelings. Dramatic communication without fiction.
And second, I care because, well, you are Matt Damon. That isn’t due to hero worship or elitism. It is a simple matter of knowing broadly where you are and what you can do – albeit no doubt with some personal losses – and what effects it might have.
So suppose you were to take the exemplary road. Would it be the same as my doing so, so many years back? Would it be the same as Joe or Sue, students or workers in the giant maw of topsy turvy America doing so, tomorrow, in their normal lives, trying to barely get by? Sadly, the answer is no. I, Joe, and Sue, can certainly have some impact, and in large numbers people in situations like ours can have still more impact. So we act, seeking those large numbers. But you are a bit different.
You are on the soundstage of the beast. You could act and immediately have wide impact (not least, if you were willing to try to affect those around you – Affleck, Clooney, and who knows, perhaps Streep, Paltrow, or whoever). And you, and then they, could be heard by more people.
You have a bigger megaphone, and more resources, and a perch that is harder to attack, than me, decades back, or than Joe or Sue, tomorrow. It shouldn’t be so, but that assessment is utterly beside the point. For now, at least, it is so. So if a letter like this one touches some nerve in you, resonates with some sentiment you have, and sets off a nervous stream, river, and ocean, in your psyche that dramatically changes your personal priorities, then there is a pretty good chance you will, in turn, have a similar affect on many other people. Imagine the benefits that could flow. So I certainly write for the many Joes and Sues – but now, here, I write for you, too.
Like Zinn, I write in the hopes of having an effect – on you, but also, by way of you, on the stream and river that I hope you also care about.
Will I see you in that stream…being civilly disobedient, and, using your own words, reaching out? That is the question.