It’s like the old-timers always said: Don’t quit before the miracle happens.
While the Arab Spring showed that people can still accomplish the impossible, Our political debate was frozen in corporate cynicism. Now everything has changed. For the United States, spring came in autumn. Who says miracles don’t happen?
Like a Prayer
A few months ago I prayed for something. Granted, it wasn’t the kind of prayer that’s sanctioned by any ecclesiastical authority. And, okay, maybe it wasn’t exactly a “prayer.” I guess the technical term for it would be “blog post.” But trust me, it was a prayer.
I’d been asked to write something for the Fourth of July, and I wrote we have to fight a new war, a “war of independence from corporate politics.” To be honest, those words felt Utopian even as I wrote them. Still, I never doubted them. The words were born out of the desperate sense that so many of us shared, a sense that our society is collapsing. And that it will keep on collapsing unless we change the way we think.
I wasn’t arguing for any particular policy or platform. “The problem isn’t just with politicians, or even the system,” I said then. “The problem is dependence itself.”
Oh, come on. How starry-eyed can you get? Stop depending on politicians? Declare psychic and political independence from celebrity-driven politics and media-made leaders? I’d always considered myself a realist, but this was almost embarrassingly idealistic.
Except for the fact that it happened.
Like so many others, I had grieved and raged over the lack of commitment displayed by good people. Cynics, robber barons, and American warlords are hard at work degrading – and downgrading – this country. In a strange set of parallels, we were reenacting the stories of the Third World countries we’d invaded. Like them, we were becoming a nation where servile or fearful politicians served a cynical oligarchy while the people’s way of life died all around them.
Some might call it karma – or simply “payback.”
But whatever you call it, the forces of hate and greed were running wild. The “two-party” system seemed to offer nothing in response except a) posturing, b) surrender, and c) a politics of compromise that seemed to amount to little more than … well, see “a)” and “b)”, above. Good people were fighting for better policies, and I tried to play my part. But too many of us focused on the prose of politics and not its poetry.
Meanwhile, too many politicians got lazy quoting Bill Clinton’s hack line: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It can be, of course. But before our eyes, the “good” became the enemy of the “perfect” and the mediocre became the enemy of the good. Then the cynical became the enemy of the mediocre, and democracy began to die.
Meanwhile the other side gained its momentum with every passing month, fueled by a pseudo-populist movement ginned up by corporate-funded political hacks. A nation that had rejected the politics of greed and oligarchy at the ballot box was even more suffocated by it than before. No wonder so many people were uninspired, discouraged, despondent. Some people quoted William Butler Yeats:
The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
The good people who did burn with passionate intensity were in danger of turning the torch on themselves. ” The game is over,” wrote Chris Hedges. “We lost. The corporate state will continue its inexorable advance until two-thirds of the nation is locked into a desperate, permanent underclass.”
As boom times came back to Wall Street, depression – emotional as well as economic – entombed the majority. But the suffering of the majority turned invisible inside the Beltway, as politicians debated deficits in a broken economy. It was like debating water conservation while the house burned down.
The Condition of Everything
Miles of commentary have been written about the Occupy movement. As the occupations gained steam, people criticized them for their lack of specific policy demands. But they were right not to issue specific demands. They were declaring independence from a frame of mind, a set of assumptions that led to passive acceptance of an unacceptable system.
And they had passionate intensity.
I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again: When OccupyDC marched down K Street, in the early days of the movement, a young security guard asked an older one what they were protesting. “I’m not sure,” said the older man. “But I think they’re objecting to …” He circled his hands to indicate the environment around him. “…. the condition of everything.”
By objecting to the condition of everything, the Occupiers changed the political dialog in this country. By rejecting leaders and insisting on self-governance through General Assemblies, they taught us by example how to escape emotional dependence. Like William Butler Yeats, they understood that you can’t distinguish the dancer from the dance.
One of the movement’s most articulate and forceful advocates is Chris Hedges.
The Wisconsin uprising had been going on for months, even in the dark days of July. The miracle of Wisconsin is that it’s still going on. People there occupied their capitol to protest laws designed to break the middle class, laws written by corporate America’s “ALEC” division. Then they mounted recall efforts against recently elected GOP State Senators, reducing their majority and draining resources from their coffers.
Now Gov. Walker is facing a recall. The struggle in Wisconsin isn’t about “Democrats” against “Republicans.” It’s about resisting politicians that are wholly-owned subsidiaries of corporate America.
The people of Wisconsin showed the country how to resist. Now they’re showing us how to persist.
And just this month, Ohio voters rejected an ALEC-inspired initiative to strip that state’s workers of rights. Maine voters rejected a move to overturn election-day registration, another attempt to restrict the ability of lower-income citizens to vote. And Mississippi rejected a definition of prenatal rights so extreme that many anti-abortion advocates were disturbed by its implications for the rights, health, and safety of women.
Like I was saying: Miracles.
But elections aren’t the point. They can be a reflection of the change we need, but they’re not the change itself. The real changes are personal. “When I remake a song,” said Yeats, “it is myself that I remake.” The Rolling Stones said “It’s the singer, not the song.”
We misunderstood our own power. We were being distracted and manipulated by fear and anger. Our minds, our souls, were being manipulated by what the Native American poet and activist John Trudell calls “the mining of the essence.” One of the reasons we were powerless is that we believed we were powerless. That’s even true economically. “All money is a matter of belief,” said Adam Smith.
We needed to push our fear and anger away to see the obvious truths all around us: The corporations rule our political process. That our democracy is dying. That Wall Street is filled with people who broke moral (and sometimes actual) laws and forced the rest of the country to pay the price. We had to see with fresh eyes.
“All hatred driven hence,” wrote Yeats, “the soul recovers radical innocence.”
Our political process has become too cynical. Even reasonable and very moderate ideas favored by a majority of Republican voters, as well as others – a breakup of five or six too-big-to-fail banks, a public option health plan that’s only available to one American in twenty – were declared impossible.
We needed an infusion of radical innocence, the innocence of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. We sometimes think of innocence as something childlike and weak. But innocence has great power. Innocence changes the world.
We needed that radical innocence,and we got it. What we do with it now is up to us.
Can we commit ourselves to moving forward, to persevering against all odds? The future’s unwritten. But we know what’s happening right now. The political dialog has shifted in a way that seemed impossible a few months ago. I don’t know how you feel about that, but I know how I feel.
I feel thankful.