Set Yourself On Fire


There was a lecture I gave every term while teaching First Amendment Rights. I titled that lecture: Setting Yourself on Fire. 

In that lecture, I would talk about what led up to the Arab Spring (Lord, doesn’t that whole thing seem ancient history now?). I told students about the produce farmer who set himself on fire because he simply wanted the opportunity to make a living without having to pay bribes to the corrupt government. It was also an opportunity to talk about how Social Media can be used to spread Democracy.  How it has given people who had been denied the rights of the First Amendment the means to speak freely, to protest openly. I always ended that lecture by asking students what was so valuable to them that they would set themselves on fire to protect it?

Oftentimes, students would be so gobsmacked that anyone would set themselves on fire that they insisted there was nothing for which they would do such a thing. But I would press them to really think through their answers. Then, usually, someone, or a couple of someones would mention a loved one. Just like the produce farmer who wanted the right to earn a living, these students came to realize that the love of family, the love of country, the love of freedom might propel them to one day set themselves on fire.

For me, of course, as their instructor the whole thing was an exercise in whittling down. A means by which I urged students to figure out why things like the right to protest, the right to assemble, the right to speak without fear of punishment or retribution mattered enough that people would willing die for it.

And, I would urge them to live their lives set afire for those things that mattered most to them.

That lecture was usually my favorite of the term. I’d bet that more than one student can recall it to this day.

Of course, none of us knew at the time how perilously close we were to becoming like that produce farmer ourselves. We had no idea at the time how corrupt our own government system would prove to be. How quickly our own leaders would brag about taking bribes, how they would blatantly flaunt in front of us their corruption, how braggadocious they would be about taxing the poor to bloat the already bloated, how eager they would be to silence dissent in any form, even when it came from something as sincere as a prayer for those pained by poverty.

Yes. Every. Single. Day. We are seeing dissent silenced by the ruling class and the rise of religious patriarchal zealots intent on punishing anyone who dares to question them.

These are troubling times in America. The most troubling of my six decades. And, buddy, let me tell you, I’ve seen some shit up close and personal.

It is easy to understand, given all that on all of our plates right now, how some of us may have missed a news story about an American who did indeed, literally, set himself on fire in broad daylight in front of God and anyone else paying attention.

David Buckel was a well-known and long-admired attorney. He was highly-regarded for being the lead attorney in the case of a transgender man, whose murder inspired the Hillary Swank film “Boys Don’t Cry.” But on Saturday, April 14, Mr. Buckel went to a park in Brooklyn and set himself on fire. Or as the New York Times reported ended his life by “self-immolation with fossil fuels.”

In other words, he doused himself in gasoline and lit a match. Or something to that effect.

Mr. Buckel’s death was no different than that of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian produce farmer. He set himself on fire not because he was depressed, but because he was distressed. There’s a difference. In both instances, rage, anger, frustration, a desire to enact change for a better world, a better way, compelled these men to take their own lives.

Self-immolation was, for them, a final act of protest.

An act of dissent.

It was intended, in both cases, to be a wake-up call to the rest of their countrymen.

In Bouazizi’s case, his death sparked a revolution.

Meanwhile, Buckel’s last act of protest barely made the local news headlines.

Shortly before setting himself afire, Mr. Buckel sent a suicide note to several media outlets, including The New York Times. A devoted environmentalist, Mr. Buckel was reported to walk an hour to work daily, rather than to rely upon fossil fuels. In his last note, Buckel wrote: “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabiliality via air, soil, water, and weather. Most humans now breath air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result – my death by fossil fuels reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”

A gay man, Mr. Buckel had spent his career in service to civil rights issues for gays and transgenders. The right to marry. The right to adopt. Mr. Buckel served as senior counsel for Lambda Legal. He is credited with being one of the architects of gay marriage, which made him the enemy of religious zealots the nation over.

Dissent is hard work, as many of us are finding out.

It can wear a person slap out.

Year after year, day after day, minute after minute, Mr. Buckel fought for the rights of the demeaned and diminished.

It is not true that his death was a sign of him giving up.

It’s a sign, rather, of Mr. Buckel giving his all.

There’s a big difference between the two.

One represents total despair. The other represents the pursuit of hope. Both Buckel and Bouazizi hoped their actions would propel widespread dissent and encourage revolutionary change for future generations.

Or as Buckel wrote in his note: “Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death.”

The only problem with that is that those who seek to silence dissent in life are even more successful at silencing dissent once passionate articulate activists like Mr. Buckel are dead.

It is a tremendous loss during the reign of terror that is Scott Pruitt to lose the powerful voice of courageous leaders like David Buckel.

It’s a crying shame, really.

David Buckel is to us what John the Baptist was to Jesus – the precursor of an inconvenient Truth.

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Christian Bend: A novel.



Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.


Diane Mouskourie

about 5 years ago

Excellent. You put in words what many thinking Americans feel. Too bad most Americans seem to be asleep or indifferent to what's happening in our country. My hope is that they wake before its too late. As for the rest of us we need to be involved in some way to try and turn things around so our country can progress to include equal opportunity for everyone that the American Constitution.promises. Every citizen not just the rich, greedy and powerful in our government and corporations deserve a decent life and the ability to pursue happiness.


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 5 years ago

I have just given up on the Trump crowd. I treat them as cult members who can't be reasoned with. Nothing said or done will dissuade them. They will follow him into the gas chambers.



about 5 years ago

Being 71, I have a few books on the shelf that I have thought worth reading and saving. One such book is The Good Society by Robert Bellah, et al. Most of it was written in 1990, and it was finally published in '92. I bought and read it a year or two later. Now, with 'free shipping' from my bookshelf to the breakfast table, I can look at this inspiring piece of scholarship and thought from a quarter century of history and see how prophetic it was--and what truly dangerous territory we are in now. The first three pages of the intro on institutions will stun our 2018 minds. What???? You mean there was actually a time when we thought we could build institutions that, with hard word, humility, education--and a not so tiny smidgen of luck--we could turn into a society that could dodge most of the pitfalls of both autocracy and theocracy??? What? There was a time back there in those halcyon days of the 90's (and even the 60's and 70's) when we thought our challenge was to fix and strengthen our institutions, to restore them to the ideals written on sacred documents, despite recent and familiar failings? I think we thought that once. I still do, or wish that it would be less than idiocy to think so. Now I wonder if I am the only American left who is that idealistic, or naïve, or both. Are most of us so jaded that we conclude the best thing to do with our institutions of civil society is to scrap them all and just let strongmen rule? Turning the country around or "taking America back" dare not mean simply having the winners and losers trade places. That's why the stakes are so high. How could we expect a younger generation or two that has little positive experience of the working of institutions to value them very much or be willing to sacrifice and put in the sweat equity ('blood, sweat and tears') to rescue them from extinction? Think about this: seven years from now, if and when the USA ever has another president who is not named Trump, what will a young person think the whole business is about when they have never within meaningful memory seen anything else? Looking forward to reading The Good Society again. Could be a real remedial for the imagination... I sorely need it.


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