Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist

The following is an excerpt from Mike Farrell's memoir, Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist (Akashic: 2007).


"So what do we call you, actor and activist?"

"Why don't you just call me Mike?"

It happens -- usually when I'm about to be interviewed on television or radio-because these days the discussion may not be only about M*A*S*H, or Providence, or Hollywood. Since we're as likely to talk about war, or peace, or human rights, or maybe even how I could possibly object to executing some fang-toothed, slobbering monster, they want to fit me into a category.

But I don't want to be put into somebody's category. I'd rather just talk and let whoever's listening take it in, see if it fits and figure out how they feel about it-and maybe even why. Pigeonholing does the public's thinking for them, and kind of insults them in the process.

I don't want to be part of that. Because it's been quite a trip, this journey of mine. So if someone wants to discuss -- or debate -- the issues, I'm happy to do that, but I'd rather not start off with a label that sets someone's teeth on edge.

Say I'm a "liberal" and some think they know my views on everything. They start dialing the phone or writing an angry letter without even knowing what I'll say. Or others think we agree, when we might not.

I've been around the block a few times now, and I think I've learned some things. A lot of these things have surprised me, and many have been painful, but mostly what I've learned is how lucky I am. This is some world we live in. I've been privileged to see a fair amount of it, and the more I experience, the more I realize the special place we inhabit in it.

Being an American, as I've discovered, is often a great privilege. Being a privileged person in today's world -- a world where much of what we take for granted here is unknown elsewhere -- makes you think. It's made me think about the invisible people who live a quiet life of misery -- and about those whose misery has made them unwilling to remain quiet.

Where do I fit in? becomes the question, and, What is my responsibility here? What does it mean to be alive in the world today? What part do I play as an American?

Like it or not, we Americans play a big part in the world, not all of it positive, as you'll note if -- unlike our current president -- you read the papers. So knowing who you are and what being a citizen of the United States means is important. I've certainly found it to be.

It's more than "Don't worry, be happy," or "Shop till you drop" and spend your way into debt. It's more than "Go for the gold" and drink hearty and cheer the team -- singing the national anthem first, if you can remember the words.

It's much larger than that. It's what we aspire to and yearn for and what we owe to each other. It's about making the invisible visible, about salvaging those thought disposable, about recognizing and reassuring those who think they don't count, or perhaps fear they don't actually exist.

But there are some who don't really want us to know all this, or take it too seriously. These are the folks who want to make your decisions for you; who want to put you to sleep. Today it's friends of Karl Rove, tomorrow it will be someone else. They want power and money, and money and power, and they don't want-regardless of what they say-you to think too much. They want you out of the way, kicking back and relaxing, dreaming about winning the lottery.

They don't want you to think about life and love and responsibility: what I've come to think of as the spirit of America. They'd rather take charge, make the decisions and relieve you of all that. Because as the spirit of America awakens, as it struggles to find its way out from under the authoritarian cloud that's now attempting to smother it, as it reasserts itself as a beacon of hope for the world, we take back the power granted us so many years ago by those who invented the American dream. And those who would deny us that right have to go back into their caves.

That's what I've found in my journey toward becoming a citizen. I hope what follows will ring some bells for you ...


The Spirit of America

Today, perhaps more than ever before, we face the task of determining what America truly is. So much of where we find ourselves now shows what we have failed to learn from mistakes of the past. Zealots, whose dream of Imperial America has led us to the brink of moral and economic bankruptcy, continue to spin the plates and deny reality. Stuck in Iraq, American kids in uniform have become our version of Israel's "facts on the ground."

With these brave fighting men and women in place, the architects of disaster refuse to admit any error. People must "support the troops," they insist, and forget that the reason for their going was a lie, forget that the loss of lives, the loss of limbs, the loss of minds, and the monumental destruction is completely unnecessary. Of course we should support the troops -- by getting them the hell out of there.

The results we're told to celebrate could have been achieved at a fraction of the cost, human and economic, if our leaders had the courage to respect the law. Instead, truth has become lie, and lie truth. Echoing El Salvador's General Jose Guillermo Garcia's villainous claim that "all peasants are potential subversives," today's young soldiers are told that "all Arabs are potential insurgents." In Fallujah, Haditha, Baghdad, and elsewhere, our young again destroy the village in order to save it, while the Pentagon prepares the "Salvador Option," sending death squads to destroy selected targets. How low can we stoop and remain America?

* * *

Those in power have continued to gull the public by exploiting negative attacks, fear of terrorism, and apprehension about homosexuality, thus securing a victory for "moral values." Scorning tolerance, generosity and mercy, the new arbiters of morality disdain equality, sneer at poverty, and rape the planet to amass wealth for themselves and their friends. Playing bait-and-switch, they pare away rights, puncture the social safety net, and ignore Katrina's victims, wrapping the flag around an arrogant, authoritarian, might-makes-right approach to the world, all the while covering their tracks with attacks on traitors, appeasers, and "girly men" at home and Jihadists abroad.

All fundamentalism is dangerous: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or any other. The need to believe in something that gives meaning to life is understandable, and, per the learned Rabbi Leonard Beerman, fundamentalism provides "the comfort of being so much neater than the subtleties and nuances of everything that is human ... [It] brings the illusion of certainty."

Struggling with the subtleties and nuances of life is the road to humility; the goal is becoming fully human. Religious certitude brings moral arrogance, and with it the fundamentalist Jews' expulsion of Arabs from their land; the fundamentalist Hindu's slaughter of Muslims; the Islamic Jihadists' suicide attacks; the fundamentalist Christians' bombing of clinics and assassination of family health providers. The belief that one speaks for God and can force his beliefs on another is a soul-destroying lie.

Today, a hyper-moralist triumphalism has gained ground in America, slipping in up the sleeve of imperialist zealots. Fundamentalist beliefs are insinuated into American life in Christian versions of the madrassas that inculcate young Muslims. If a religious belief or practice helps one deal with life's important questions, it is certainly of value, but it is a personal value. To impose a belief system on those who choose to find their answers in another way is to deny their basic human right-their "unalienable right"-to determine their own journey.

There are many different views of the proper way to express one's faith, and I applaud those who wrestle with the questions. I particularly appreciate the seekers. This seems to me closer to the concept of true faith than that of extremists who claim to have all the answers and, content in their settled wisdom, judge and condemn those who see things differently.

I've come to believe there is a divine spark in all of us, and it is this element of common humanity that we must honor and preserve, no matter the faith proclaimed. Decency and honor and compassion and hope can be the primary sacraments in our lives, respecting ourselves and the gifts we've been given in a way that empowers -- rather than demeans -- those around us. Honest pursuit of a meaningful, constructive, and productive life in ownership of such qualities is a purposeful way to honor and acknowledge whatever God may be out there -- or in here.

In the meantime, we Americans have work to do. Making this nation live up to its principles requires the involvement of its citizens. It's a job that will either be taken seriously or taken away. If we want the nation we love to exemplify principles that make us proud to be Americans, we have to be true to those principles--and require that our leaders do the same. "All men are created equal" can't mean only men, can it? Or only white people? Only rich people? Only heterosexuals? Only Americans? If we're "endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights," among which are "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," can we be stripped of them by the powerful? By whoever happens to be the majority at a given moment? Should a government "instituted among Men" and deriving its "just Powers from the Consent of the Governed" lie to the very people who give it power? Should it manipulate its powers secretly to limit or take away people's sovereignty? Can "liberty and justice for all" and "equal justice under law" mean anything in a nation that imprisons people on suspicion, tortures them, holds them for years without charge, and denies them access to a court or a lawyer? Doesn't "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" say clearly enough that we're free to practice our chosen faith -- or lack of faith -- and that we will not allow the government to impose one on us? Just for fun, look up the word "fascism" in the dictionary.

The spirit of America is the vision of human possibility that inspires people across the world to reach higher. The American experiment is the attempt to achieve the goals set out for us hundreds of years ago. To pretend that we've already reached those goals-fully realized our potential-is to lie to ourselves and shirk our duty to our children.

The lessons taught me at The House so many years ago by whores, thieves, addicts, drunks, and other social outcasts have stood the test of time. They have since been underscored and validated for me by impoverished, illiterate peasants, caring angels of mercy, guerrillas, prisoners, care-givers, the abused, survivors, victims, criminals, the shamed, the hopeful, and the hopeless. Love, respect, and attention are necessary food for the human soul.

The opportunities and experiences noted above-and many not included-have provided an extraordinary education for this citizen, and I'm profoundly grateful for having been afforded them. My life is rich, made so by experience, by friendship, and mostly by love. And it will, I now understand, only get richer.

Through it all I've come to believe we are on a journey, you and I, a journey from the caves to the stars. There will always be those who choose to live in fear and try to frighten, force, or lure us back to the caves, but our future, our salvation, the realization of our potential, is in the stars. And love will light the way.

Activist? I prefer citizen. But just call me Mike.

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