Last week I had two brushes with the mainstream of American culture and politics. The first was an appearance on a PBS television show, the Tavis Smiley show. As far as I can remember, this was only the second time I’ve been on a national TV program. The other time was in South Africa on a business program. On that occasion, I said something like, “The wealthy neighborhoods I’ve seen in South Africa are not truly wealthy. Real wealth is not razor wire fences and security walls and surveillance systems. Real wealth is to feel safe and free. It is to belong in the place you live. Real wealth is to feel at home in the world. Therefore it is impossible to be truly wealthy in an unequal society.”
For some reason the South African network took that segment off their website and, even when an Anglican bishop requested that it be made available, the request was refused. So this particular interview no longer exists in the digital matrix. The immune system of consensus reality had effectively expelled the invading meme that I was representing.
But consensus reality is ailing, and its immune system is no longer robust. The things I’ve been saying are no longer beyond the pale, because the boundaries of the unthinkable are wavering. My experience with Tavis Smiley was much more welcoming than the one in South Africa a couple years ago. I talked with Tavis about war thinking as applied to various aspects of modern life from incarceration to agriculture, and about the dehumanization that is at the foundation of both war and racism. I said that the militant strategy of dehumanizing and demonizing the opponent is rife on both sides of the political system, and that it diverts attention away from the real problems, which are systemic and cannot be blamed on one or another enemy of the day. I think I also observed, “What kind of looking-glass world have we entered, where the liberal sites are scolding people for not trusting the same ‘intelligence community’ they decried for the Iraq weapons-of-mass-destruction hoax and where the conservative sites are cheering Julian Assange, whose extra-judicial murder they were calling for a few years ago?” Normal is falling apart.
Tavis was receptive, collaborative in the conversation, and asked perceptive clarifying questions. Despite the fact that I was not articulating these ideas in conventional political vocabulary, I was still able to have a conversation about them with someone in mainstream media. I find the fact that my realm is even in communication with this one extremely hopeful. I think the next guest on the show was Senator Cory Booker. It boggles my mind that he and I would be on the same show. It is as if two separate galaxies are starting to merge. This is not to say that the ideas I represent are new, or that I am their foremost proponent, or that this show marks some epochal change; it is however a sign of a shift. For most of my life I’ve worked far outside the margins, on the radar only of the other weird kids. I have not gotten less radical, so I can only conclude that the mainstream is evolving.
A few days later I was in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the inauguration. Just kidding. Actually I was there to speak at an event called “Occupy the Inauguration.” Now this may not seem to be a very mainstream event, and in a certain sense it wasn’t. It was attended by people from the Green Party, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and so forth, people who stand outside the two-party system. Yet the posture and rhetoric of the event was still quite orthodox. First, by framing political questions in the terms of existing discourse, and by complying with the mainstream definition of what the “issues” are, the speakers took for granted many of the things we need to change. Secondly, the main tactic on display was to arouse as much outrage and indignation as possible toward a common enemy, invariably dehumanized (as bigots, greedy executives, etc.), thus implicitly endorsing the mentality of war and the hidden consensus defining the fight. Thirdly, as a permitted protest it fit neatly into a prescribed role in the existing political drama.
I won’t expand on these points here, nor are they intended as a criticism. Underneath the posture and rhetoric the event had a loving vibe, especially when the Water Protectors from Standing Rock played drums and sang. (Standing Rock is a shining example of a different kind of politics, closely aligned with the themes I’ve been speaking on.) My point is simply that this was, despite appearances, a fairly mainstream event. Anything readily identifiable as “political” is to a certain degree playing by an old rulebook, an old categorizing template of human activity. This is especially true when it focuses on national elections. Standing Rock is an example (and to some extent the activities in Ferguson, Missouri are another) of a different kind of politics that defies conventional framing. It leaks over into the spiritual and the relational.
My 15-minute speech at this event was preceded by some fiery speeches by Jill Stein, David Cobb, Asa Khalif, and others to fire up the troops for the day’s march and for the long fight ahead. My words were so out of synch that, judging by the puzzled looks on people’s faces, the audience didn’t quite understand what I was saying. It was as if they were trying to fit my words into familiar political thought-forms, and they just weren’t fitting. I wasn’t using the normal vocabulary of politics — not the buzzwords nor the conceptual vocabulary. I was introduced as someone who’d be speaking on economic issues, and certainly I could have echoed the earlier speakers by presenting some statistics wealth inequality and decrying the greed of the billionaires, banks, and corporations that dominate the government and the new administration. Their ears were expecting to hear that, and when I said something else they almost couldn’t hear it. It wasn’t that I celebrated business and its “job creators” – that would have been an identifiable (though opposing) political view that would have garnered boos rather than befuddlement. Rather, I described how blaming greed for systemic injustice is to substitute the real problem – which we have no idea how to solve – with a false or superficial problem that we do. The real problem is the entire money system and the deep mythologies that underpin it. The false problem is greed – which is actually a symptom of the real problem, not its cause. Greed is a response to scarcity, and we live in an economic system and ideological system that generates endless scarcity. To go to war against the symptoms, I portrayed as a near-universal tendency of our civilization, citing some of the same examples of crime, terrorism, racism, weeds, etc. as I did on the Tavis Smiley show.
I felt a bit like a rude guest, disrupting the tacit agreement of the gathering. I meant no disrespect. I am concerned for my country though, when I see opposing groups of people, each imagining themselves to be the champions of virtue, swollen with self-righteousness, marching off to do battle with the enemy. Yes, I am horrified by racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, and the rest of the ugly sentiments that have erupted in the USA in the last year. But if we really want to change these things and not just feel righteous about being on the right side, then we have to address the ground from which they spring. To do that, we have to let go of war thinking with its accompanying dehumanization, and enter the question that defines compassion: What is it like to be you?
I’d say about a third of the audience at the protest event really took in what I was saying. I’m glad I had this opportunity to inject this thinking into an overtly political context, and grateful to the organizer, Daniel Curcio, a lovely bridge-builder, for giving me the opportunity and for being so tolerant of my unorthodoxy. It was sobering to see how far removed the general political culture still is from true nonviolence, empathy, and compassion, reserving it for their friends but seldom extending it, except perfunctorily, to their opponents. We have a long way to go, yet the very fact that I was present in the context of Occupy the Inauguration and the Tavis Smiley show is a positive sign. I am one of the spokespeople for a different kind of politics that, while hardly visible in dominant media, is gaining strength at the grass roots. I saw some of its spirit in the Women’s Marches last weekend as well, in the form of a playfulness, humor, and forgivingness in some of the placards that communicates, “Come on dude, let’s be done with the misogyny. See how much love awaits you?” instead of, “We’re gonna tear you down, you misogynistic asshole!”
Take the former strategy, and you will win without winning. Take the latter, and you will lose whether or not you win.
Shari Motro, a law school professor friend of mine who was in the D.C. Women’s March described to me the palpable love of that event. “We spent the day falling in love with strangers,” she said. “This is what the more beautiful world looks like.” What I’m trying to communicate on stages is alive and growing in the world. It is the consciousness of our time. It is just a matter of bridging it into the realm of politics, the realm of collective decision-making, and into our social institutions where it is so alien to the prevailing narrative.
On the march, on the D.C. Mall, Shari encountered a family of lost Trump supporters decked out in make-America-great-again paraphernalia who had somehow wandered through looking for a museum. “You could see nervousness in their faces, not quite fear. But also, I want to believe, wonder. Because we were just so beautiful. And I found myself wanting to reassure them. So I said: we love you too. And that’s what I said to every Trump supporter I saw that day, and I felt it in a way that the night before, which vibed Kristallnacht, I could not.
“Because we were just so beautiful.” Can you see the power of that? Can you see how it offers hope when, seeing the world through the lens of struggle, there is no hope? It has seemed crazy to attempt to translate that into politics, but (at risk of making too grandiose an interpretation of my small brush with the mainstream) I see signs that it is breaking through. The spirit of Gandhi and King, waxing strong on the margins of the political world in peace villages and restorative justice circles and ground-level community building, is taking form once again as a politics of love.
Sometimes there is a time to fight, that is true. The problem is the habit of fighting, which in our culture we apply indiscriminately to nearly every situation. Notice the military metaphors that infuse political conversation. A march. A campaign. A struggle, a fight, a battle. This habit comes in part from the dehumanization of those who are different in thought, word, action, appearance, or culture from ourselves. They hate blacks. They hate women. They are not like us. They will not change. They have to be fought. But the Trump supporters who stumbled into the Women’s March were overcome, and it wasn’t by fighting.
Despite the fiery, militant rhetoric, despite the military metaphors, love, peace, empathy, and compassion are ascendant in all these “marches.” The women aren’t going to tear down the patriarchy using its own devices. They aren’t going to turn patriarchy’s violence, degradation, dehumanization, and humiliation back against the men. They aren’t (to paraphrase Audre Lord) going to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. To do so would be to join the patriarchy in the guise of opposing the patriarchy. It would be to exchange a greater power for a lesser power. Political culture, by and large, does not recognize this truth, but it is growing stronger and, I hope, will transform politics. As normal falls apart, that moment may come soon.
Teaser image credit: Veterans uniting in solidarity with water protectors at Standing Rock. TrueActivist website.