The Lowdown on "High Treason"

The Lowdown on “High Treason”

Usually, we’re gathered by a river or at the foot of a lofty peak in the Gila Wilderness when I pull José Emilio Pacheco’s poem “Alta traición” (“High Treason”) from a pocket in my backpack and read it to my students. Traditionally, we’re returning from a 4-day wildneress trip, during which I have endeavored to coax a troop of hardy (and somewhat fragrant) teenagers to fall in love with wild country. I’m frank about my agenda: perhaps loving a particular stretch of wilderness will prompt them, one day, to speak up and act for its protection.

Pacheco, a citizen of Mexico City, wrote his poem in Spanish, but an English translation here follows the original. He writes,

Alta traición

No amo mi patria.

Su fulgor abstracto

es inasible.

Pero (aunque suene mal)

daría la vida

por diez lugares suyos,

cierta gente,

puertos, bosques de pinos,


una ciudad deshecha,

gris, monstruosa,

varias figuras de su historia,


-y tres o cuatro ríos.

Here’s the translation from Spanish to English by George McWhirter and Alastair Reid:

High Treason

I do not love my country. Its abstract splendor

is beyond my grasp.

But (although it sounds bad) I would give my life

For ten places in it, for certain people,

Seaports, pinewoods, fortresses,

A run-down city, gray, grotesque,

Various figures from its history,


(and three or four rivers).

The towns where my students live may be even harder to love than Mexico City. In the wrong light, many American towns can appear just as “rundown, grey, and grotesque” as Pacheco’s beloved city. But I’ll wager that most of us would, like Pacheco, give our lives for "certain people” in our little hometown. (Having said that, may the fates never test our conviction.)

For me—and I suspect for most of us—it is easier to love where I live than to love the “abstract splendor” of my nation. As it is, we Americans now seem on the verge of splitting into two nations, maybe more. It is tempting for us to retreat into our own small circle of affection and belief, and thereby let the great and troubled world spin.

In such factious times, we might wisely look beyond nationhood for a kind of moral brother- or sisterhood. We moderns wouldn’t be the first; Diogenes coined the term cosmopolitan some 2400 years ago when he famously answered the question “Where ya from?” with “Cosmo-polites”—"I’m a citizen of the world.” Of course, Diogenes was a notorious and downright embarrassing provocateur, and even the most devout modern Cynic won’t claim that the philosopher’s ideas have gained currency in a world that seems to grow more partisan by the year.

But a few utopists believe, against considerable evidence to the contrary, that we humans are moving toward planetary unity. Consider this statement from the Great Transition Initiative’s website:

Where are we? History has entered the Planetary Phase of Civilization, a profound shift in the condition of society and the dynamics driving change. In our time, multiple threads of interdependence—economic globalization, communications technology, and climate change are among the most salient—are binding people, places, and the wider community of life into a single social-ecological system. A new era emerges, yet the worldviews and institutions of the past persist, a disjuncture where crises incubate and a zeitgeist of apprehension spreads. At the same time, counter-tendencies—local initiatives, post-consumerist subcultures, sustainability and justice campaigns, public awareness and concern, visions of another world—may portend a rising social force for addressing the systemic challenge of the Planetary Phase.

It's difficult to argue with GTI’s observation that the world is more tightly bound than ever with “multiple threads of interdependence,” and their assessment of our disjunctured and apprehensive Zeitgeist is indeed apt. The real question for me is the most basic: will the “worldviews and institutions of the past” fracture us further, or will a new paradigm emerge in the nick of time? (May I confess that the “abstract splendor” of the website’s prose does not always resonate with me.)

What, though, of those “local initiatives” and “post-consumerist subcultures” that GTI mentions? They suggest for me the 1980s buzzword Glocalist, a portmanteau coined to sum up in a word that bumper-stick commitment to “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

Let me confess that I know glocalist originated in the 1980s only from internet research; I first heard the word only last year during a Fulbright Teacher’s for Global Classrooms seminar. The idea has its fanbase, and I would count myself among it—as long as “glocalism” means more than daringly serving rice at McDonald’s restaurants in China. (Really, we shouldn’t be surprised that capitalism has coopted yet another good word.)

But when glocalism challenges the marketplace—along with our collective national conscience—it can be potent. Perhaps no “franchise activist” organization better illustrates the deeply moral (and delightfully anarchic) potential of a glocally-inspired movement than Food Not Bombs. Their internet homepage asks a nettlesome question just before they tell us how they will spend our donation:

When a billion people go hungry each day, how can we spend another dollar on war? Food Not Bombs is an all-volunteer movement that recovers food that would otherwise be discarded, and shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry in over 1,000 cities in 65 countries in protest to war, poverty, and destruction of the environment. We are not a charity but dedicated to taking nonviolent direct action. Our movement has no headquarters or positions of leadership and we use the process of consensus to make decisions. We also provide food and supplies to the survivors of natural disasters, and people participating in occupations, strikes, marches and other protests.

A world map of Food Not Bombs chapters demonstrates how thoroughly global their reach is, while they cultivate relationships with local bakers and grocers in chapter towns who donate food that would otherwise go to waste. Even their newsfeed is locally oriented, with headlines like “In Tampa, Food Not Bombs activists arrested for feeding the homeless—again.”

Crowning their website homepage is a quote from Dr. King: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” King doesn’t name a particular nation but allows our conscience to draw its own conclusions.

For good or ill, all of us rely upon global markets for our well-being. But most of us make, shop, garden, teach, prepare food, and provide care in beloved local communities. That is to say, for most of us, our hometowns are where we act.

Those of us who teach have a particular obligation to place our hometown actions in the context of a global reality where a tenth of the planet goes hungry, where a third of us lack access to clean drinking water, and where all of us are enduring the increasing devastation of climate change. If we are paying attention, we know that how we prepare food and eat it, how we teach and heal, how we produce and shop affect the planet, act by act, purchase by purchase. It is the teacher’s challenge to make that distant abstraction immediate and concrete.

In the end, it’s our love for those familiar “ten places,” “certain people” (“and three or four rivers”) that guides our actions and decisions. That love is the most genuine way we express our abstract “love for humanity.” Becoming a citizen of the world isn’t “unpatriotic,” it doesn’t wave a flag for one-world government—but it does recognize the exuberant (and sometimes aggravating) diversity of the world.

As I fold up my copy of “Alta traición” and slide it into my backpack, I’ll offer simpler words in closing—these from a longstanding champion of global citizenship, Oxfam:

Global citizenship is how we talk about the social, environmental and economic actions of people and communities who know that every person is a citizen of the world. It is about how decisions in one part of the planet can affect people living in a different part of it. And about how we all share a common humanity and are of equal worth. It means being open to engaging positively with other identities and cultures and being able to recognise and challenge stereotypes. It is also about how we use and share the earth's resources fairly and uphold the human rights of all.

By Oxfam’s definition, we can claim world citizenship and still love our country, despite its fundamental contradictions and its repeated failure to live up to its ideals.