From a talk at the Shelter Rock Unitarian Universalist Congegration, Manhasset, NY, delivered one week before the election of 2004
We live in a nation hated abroad and frightened at home. A place in which we can reasonably refer to the American Republic in the past tense. A country that has moved into a post-constitutional era, no longer a nation of laws but an adhocracy run by law breakers, law evaders and law ignorers. A nation governed by a culture of impunity, a term from Latin America where they know it well – a culture in which corruption is no longer a form of deviance but the norm. We all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.
It’s crazy, it happened so fast, it’s like in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern when Rosencrantz asks shortly before his death: “What was it all about? When did it begin? . . . Couldn’t we just stay put? . . . We’ve done nothing wrong! We didn’t harm anyone. Did we? . . . There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said — no. But somehow we missed it.. . . Well, we’ll know better next time.”
Yet we have seen it all before. And it came with stories. A German professor after the World War II described it this way to journalist Martin Mayer:
“What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. . .
“To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it — please try to believe me — unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted.’
The German professor went on:
~ Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.
“Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). . . . You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair. ”
Every president after Reagan – including Bill Clinton – moved this country to right . . . Placated by Prozac, persuaded by prevarication and pacified by prohibition, we have ignored our drift towards the mean and the brutish and continued to accept the lie that we are the better for it.
Empires and cultures are not permanent and while thinking about the possibility that ours is collapsing may seem a dismal exercise it is far less so than enduring the frustrations, failures, damage and human casualties involved in constantly butting up against reality like a boozer who insists he is not drunk attempting to drive home.
Peter Ustinov in ‘Romanoff and Juliet’ says at one point: “I’m an optimist: I know how bad the world is. You’re a pessimist: you’re always finding out.” Or as GK Chesterton put it, “We must learn to love life without ever trusting it.”
Happiness, courage and passion in a bad time can only be based on myth as long as reality does not intrude. Once it does, our indifference to it will serve us no better than it does the joyriding teenager whose assumption of immortality comes into contact with a tree.
But this does not mean that one must live in despair. An ability to confront and transcend — rather than deny, adjust to, replace, recover from, or succumb to — the universe in which you find yourself is among the things that permits freedom and courage. . .
To view our times as decadent and dangerous, to mistrust the government, to imagine that those in power are not concerned with our best interests is not paranoid but perceptive; to be depressed, angry or confused about such things is not delusional but a sign of consciousness. Yet our culture suggests otherwise.
But if all this is true, then why not despair? The simple answer is this: despair is the suicide of imagination. Whatever reality presses upon us, there still remains the possibility of imagining something better, and in this dream remains the frontier of our humanity and its possibilities To despair is to voluntarily close a door that has not yet shut. The task is to bear knowledge without it destroying ourselves, to challenge the wrong without ending up on its casualty list. “You don’t have to change the world,” the writer Colman McCarthy has argued. “Just keep the world from changing you.”
Oddly, those who instinctively understand this best are often those who seem to have the least reason to do so – survivors of abuse, oppression, and isolation who somehow discover not so much how to beat the odds, but how to wriggle around them. They have, without formal instruction, learned two of the most fundamental lessons of psychiatry and philosophy:
– You are not responsible for that into which you were born..
– You are responsible for doing something about it.
These individuals move through life like a skilled mariner in a storm rather than as a victim at a sacrifice. Relatively unburdened by pointless and debilitating guilt about the past, uninterested in the endless regurgitation of the unalterable, they free themselves to concentrate upon the present and the future. They face the gale as a sturdy combatant rather than as cowering supplicant.
In Washington we have a neighborhood known as Shaw where for decades just such a form of survival thrived. Until the modern civil rights movement and desegregation, this African-American community was shut out without a vote, without economic power, without access, and without any real hope that any of this would change.
Its response was remarkable. For example, in 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were more than 300.
Every aspect of the community followed suit. Among the institutions created within these few square miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theatre (opened with black capital twenty years before Harlem’s Apollo became a black stage) and two first rate movie palaces.
There were the Odd Fellows, the True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club, settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League.
Denied access to white schools, the community created a self-sufficient educational system good enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well as teachers with advanced degrees from all over the country. And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street area their home before moving to New York.
All this occurred while black Washingtonians were being subjected to extraordinary economic obstacles and being socially and politically ostracized. If there ever was a culture entitled to despair and apathy it was black America under segregation.
Yet not only did these African-Americans develop self-sufficiency, they did so without taking their eyes off the prize. Among the other people you might have found on U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston, laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.
Older residents would remember the former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride — not unlike the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but many would know that some of their own best moments of courage, skill, and heart had come when the times were at their worst.
Another example. Last summer, I went to Umbria, a section of Italy north of Rome remarkably indifferent to 500 years of its history, where even the homes and whole villages seem to grow like native plants out of the rural earth rather than being placed there by human effort. It was as if I had been transported back several centuries while still being allowed to take along a car and my Diet Coke. I hadn’t felt such stability for a long time, certainly not since September 11.
Yet the Umbrians have been invaded, burned, or bullied by the Etruscans, Roman Empire, Goths, Longobards, Charlemagne, Pippin the Short, the Vatican, Mussolini, the German Nazis, and, most recently, the World Trade organization. Umbria is a reminder of the durability of the human spirit during history’s tumults, an extremely comforting thought to an American these days.
We don’t have to go that far back, though. Consider the increasingly cited novel, 1984. Orwell saw it coming, only his timing was off. The dystopia described in 1984 is so overwhelming that one almost forgets that most residents of Oceana didn’t live in it. Orwell gives the breakdown. Only about two percent were in the Inner Party and another 13% in the Outer Party. The rest numbering some 100 million were the proles.
It is amongst the latter that Winston Smith and Julia find refuge for their trysts, away from the cameras (although not the microphones). The proles are, for the most part, not worth the Party’s trouble. Says Orwell:
“From the proletarians nothing is to be feared. Left to themselves, they will continue from generation to generation and from century to century, working, breeding, and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is . . .”
Orwell’s division of labor and power was almost precisely replicated in East Germany decades later, where about one percent belonged to the General Secretariat of the Communist Party, and another 13% being far less powerful party members.
As we move towards – and even surpass – the fictional bad dreams of Orwell and the in many ways more prescient Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World,’, it is helpful to remember that these nightmares were actually the curse of the elites and not of those who lived in the quaint primitive manner of humans rather than joining the living dead at the zenith of illusionary power.
This bifurcation of society into a weak, struggling, but sane, mass and a manic depressive elite that is alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned, foreshadows what we find today – an elite willing, on the one hand, to occupy any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified of young men with minimal weapons.
Strange as it may seem, it is in this dismal dichotomy between countryside and the political and economic capitals that the hope for saving America’s soul resides. The geographical and conceptual parochialism of those who have made this mess leaves vast acres of our land still free in which to nurture hopes, dreams, and perhaps even to foster the eventual eviction of those who have done us such wrong.
Eric Paul Gros-Dubois of Southern Methodist University has described Orwell’s underclass this way:
“The Proles were the poorest of the groups, but in most regards were the most cheerful and optimistic. The Proles were also the freest of all the groups. Proles could do as they pleased. They could come and go, and talk openly about whatever they felt like without having to worry about the Thought Police. . .[Orwell] also concluded that the hope for the future was contained within this group.”. . .
There is nothing new in this. Almost all great changes in American politics and culture have had their roots either in the countryside or among minorities within the major cities. From religious ‘great awakenings’ to the abolitionist movement, to the labor movement, to populism, to the 1960s and civil rights, America has been repeatedly moved by viral politics rather than by the pyramidal processes outlined in great man theories of change promulgated by the elite and its media and academies.
Successfully confronting the present disaster will require far more than attempting to serially blockade its serial evils, necessary as this is. There must also be a guerilla democracy that defends, fosters, and celebrates our better selves – not only to provide an alternative but to create physical space for decent Americans to enjoy their lives while waiting for things to get better. It may, after all, take the rest of their lifetimes. We must not only condemn the worst, but offer witness for the better. And create places in which to live it.
We have, as in all authoritarian regimes, become increasingly dependent upon those who hold us down and back. But the potential is always there, even under the worst circumstances. I was reminded of this not long after September 11, as I found myself reflecting on the Solidarity movement of Poland. We will get out of this mess, I thought, when we can do in our own way what the Poles did in theirs.
At the heart of the Solidarity achievement was something with which the Internet has made us familiar – a form of politics that spread not by the precise decisions of a small number of leaders but by the aggregated tiny and vaguer decisions of a mass of citizens. In a sense, Solidarity was an early and unwired flash mob or internet meetup.
The variety of techniques used by Poles in the their search for freedom were impressive. For example, John Rensenbrink in his contemporaneous book, described how kissing women’s hands became popular primarily because it annoyed the Soviets.
And his description of Poland’s dilemma in the 1980s seems strikingly applicable to our own situation:
“It is the struggle of a state in ludicrous pursuit of a nation that it cannot seem to find. And, it is the struggle of a nation trying to find a way to meet the state, not in the posture of supplicant or avenger, but in the posture of free citizen.”
Rensenbrink tells me that some of Solidarity’s early organizing took place on the trains that many of the workers rode to the shipyards, where they had time to drink coffee and talk. In our own history, there are innumerable examples of change owing a debt to the simple serendipity of people of like values and sensibilities coming together. For example, the rise of Irish political power in this country was aided considerably by the Irish bar’s role as an ethnic DMZ and a center for the exchange of information.
CS Lewis says somewhere that we read to discover that we are not alone. That discovery is a necessary for change as well. Part of the dreadful force of southern segregation, for example, was that it prevented poor whites and poor blacks from discovering how much they had in common.
We tend to discount the importance of unplanned moments because of our fealty to the business school paradigm in which change properly occurs because of a careful strategic plan, an organized vision, procedures, and process. During the past quarter century when such ideas have been in ascendancy, however, America has demonstratively deteriorated as a political, economic, and moral force. In reality, many of the best things happen by accident and indirection. While it may be true, as the Roman said, that “fortune smiles on the well prepared” part of that preparation is to be in the right place at the right time. In other words, it is necessary to create an ecology of change rather than a precise and often illusory process.
The beat generation understood this. Unlike today’s activists they lacked a plan; unlike those of the 60s they lacked anything to plan for; what substituted for utopia and organization was the freedom to think, to speak, to move at will in a culture that thought it had adequately taken care of all such matters. To a far greater degree than rebellions that followed, the beat culture created its message by being rather than doing, rejection rather than confrontation, sensibility rather than strategy, journeys instead of movements, words and music instead of acts, and informal communities rather than formal institutions.
The full-fledged uprisings that followed could not have occurred without years of anger and hope being expressed in more individualistic and less disciplined ways, ways that may seem ineffective in retrospect yet served as absolutely necessary scaffolding with which to build a powerful movement.
One of these ways, for example, is music. Billie Holiday was singing about lynchings long before the modern civil rights movement. And Rage Against the Machine was engaging in anti-sweatshop protests some years before most college student had ever heard of them.
Another way is found in the magic of churches. During the 1960s I edited a newspaper in a neighborhood 75% black and mostly poor in which I came to assume that churches were the sina qua non of positive change. We had over a 100 of them in a two square mile area and you just came to rely upon them as part of the political action, including the Revolutionary Church of What’s Happenin’ Now and the Rev. Frank Milner, part-minister and part-taxicab driver who would come to community meetings in an outfit complete with clerical collar and a metal change-maker on his belt.
How important one church can be is illustrated with a little known story from Birmingham Alabama. Responding to Rosa Parks’ mistreatment, sleeping car porter E.D. Nixon called up a young preacher and asked if he could use his church for a meeting. The minister said he would think about it. A few days later, Nixon called back and the minister agreed. E.D. Nixon’s reply was something like this, “Thank you Reverend King, because we’ve scheduled a meeting at your church next Monday at 6:30 pm.”
It is for such reasons we must learn to stand outside of history. Quakerism, for example, prescribes personal witness as guided by conscience – regardless of the era in which we live or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And the witness need not be verbal. The Quakers say “let your life speak,” echoing St. Francis of Assisi’s’ advice that one should preach the gospel at all times and “if necessary, use words.”
There are about as many Quakers today in America as there were in the 18th century, around 100,000. Yet near the center of every great moment of American social and political change one finds members of the Society of Friends. Why? In part because they have been willing to fail year after year between those great moments. Because they have been willing in good times and bad — in the instructions of their early leader George Fox — “to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth answering that of God in every one ”
The existentialists knew how to stand outside of history as well. Existentialism, which has been described as the idea that no one can take your shower for you, is based on the hat trick of passion, integrity and rebellion. An understanding that we create ourselves by what we do and say and, in the words of one of their philosophers, even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows.
Those who think history has left us helpless should recall the abolitionist of 1830, the feminist of 1870, the labor organizer of 1890, or the gay or lesbian writer of 1910. They, like us, did not get to choose their time in history but they, like us, did get to choose what they did with it.
Would we have been abolitionists in 1830?
In 1848, 300 people gathered at Seneca Falls, NY, for a seminal moment in the American women’s movement. On November 2, 1920, 91 year-old Charlotte Woodward Pierce became the only signer of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions who had lived long enough to cast a ballot for president.
Would we have attended that conference in 1848? Would we have bothered?
Or consider the Jewish cigar makers in early 20th century New York City each contributing a small sum to hire a man to sit with them as they worked – reading aloud the classic works of Yiddish literature. The leader of the cigar-makers, Samuel Gompers, would later become the first president of the American Federation of Labor. And those like him would become part of a Jewish tradition that profoundly shaped the politics, social conscience, and cultural course of 20th century America. While Protestants and Irish Catholics controlled the institutions of politics, the ideas of modern social democracy disproportionately came from native populists and immigrant socialists. It is certainly impossible to imagine liberalism, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam protests without the Jewish left.
These are the sort of the stories we must find and tell each other during the bad days ahead. But there is a problem. The system that envelopes us becomes normal by its mere mass, its ubiquitous messages, its sheer noise. Our society faces what William Burroughs called a biologic crisis — “like being dead and not knowing it.” Or as Matthew Arnold put it, trapped between two worlds, one dead, the other unable to be born.
We are overpowered and afraid. We find ourselves condoning things simply because not to do so means we would then have to — at unknown risk — truly challenge them.
Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time.
It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel — the courage to emigrate from one’s own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier.
How one does this can vary markedly, but one of the bad habits we have acquired from the bullies who now run the place is undue reliance on traditional political, legal and rhetorical tools. Politically active Americans have been taught that even at the risk of losing our planet and our democracy, we must go about it all in a rational manner, never raising our voice, never doing the unlikely or trying the improbable, let alone screaming for help.
We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. Unitarian church basements. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.
Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We must rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.
Portions of this talk come from Sam Smith’s book “Why Bother?,” which deals with getting through the bad times including chapters on despair, rebellion, personal witness, and guerrilla democracy.