Bernard Weiner: Re-Igniting America's Soul
Re-Lighting the Torches of America's Soul
By Bernard Weiner
The Crisis Papers
What happens when individuals or whole societies damage -- or even temporarily lose -- their soul, their spiritual anchor, their sense of themselves as moral entities?
Oh, I know that talking about "soul" and "spirituality" is anathema to a good share of the Left. Those terms often are regarded as too new-wavy or are found mostly in the camp of conservative churchgoers.
But we need to focus on the moral and spiritual aspect in our politics for a variety of reasons, including helping to re-balance our own souls amidst all the horrors being perpetrated by our so-called leaders.
Further, if we in the progressive movement avoid the spiritual field, we certainly will be crushed in 2004, and the know-nothing forces of Bush&Co. will have free rein -- read: reign -- to carry out further imperial misadventures abroad and police-state-like constitutional shredding at home. The result will be catastrophe -- to our already shaky economy, to our national treasury (and treasures: our young men and women sent to patrol the empire), to the collective soul of America.
The United States is, and likes to think of itself as, a highly moral country, dedicated to fair play and to the belief that God takes an interest in our democratic experiment. Americans, at heart, want to do the right thing.
When our society goes outside the boundaries of decent moral behavior -- as we did with slavery, for example -- those lapses are regarded as aberrations, correctable as we learn more. We are in another such moment in our history right now, but we can hope that as more and more citizens learn what's really going on behind the scenes, and face our political shadow, the pendulum will begin swinging back the other way -- if permitted to do so.
Using fear and a permanent-war scenario, the Bush Administration has been able to manipulate the American populace into turning its spiritual button to the off position. By demonizing and lying, it has put America's moral sense of itself into a kind of numbed "pause" mode.
Americans are led to wallow in the fright and negativity pushed daily by Bush&Co. and its conglomerate-owned mass media. After months and years of having this negative template laid on top of our society, it's not difficult to have one's energy sapped, to sink into a kind of fatalistic torpor, or even, because the feelings are so intense, to deny that one is having doubts at all.
THE DARK CLOUDS GATHER
The shadow forces in American politics have been in the ascendancy for more than two years, and many ordinary citizens, not used to having mean-spirited and mendacious leaders in control of the country, have been confused as to how to respond. And so many folks closed down their moral sensibilities. But there are signs that this is beginning to change.
Normally, you see, America doesn't initiate wars when we haven't been attacked or are in little danger of being attacked, or when our vital national interests are not at stake. But, in this Iraqi case, the American public has been led to feel: "After 9/11, we need to get those guys, and Saddam is capable within 45 minutes of sending his drone planes to drop anthrax on us, or a nuclear bomb" -- and more such whoppers. And off go a quarter-million American troops to the Persian Gulf, with little or no serious debate -- and with more of them dying every day.
(Don't get me wrong. There are bad-guy terrorists out there who need to be confronted and captured, but we don't need to become a unilateral bully abroad -- thus enriching the soil in which terrorism grows -- and move into a police-state at home to handle the problem. And our officials certainly don't need to lie on a massive scale to dupe us into approving their imperial policies.)
Even though it has become clear that the U.S. is in no danger of an imminent attack from Iraq, and that indeed there were no weapons of mass destruction worth worrying about, the Rove propaganda machine has done its work well. More than half of those polled think we did the right thing, even if no WMDs are ever discovered.
So. How to combat that moral lethargy, that overwhelming sense of denial that America maybe, just maybe, might be doing something wrong, something that violates our normal sense of ourselves as a righteous, ethical people?
Rather than simply bash away at the bourgeois, religious middle class for their willingness to go along with whatever Bush&Co. says and proposes, it might make more sense to try to reach folks on an idealistic level, where they live and/or repair to emotionally.
It's key to remind ourselves that we are taking this approach not only, or even mainly, as a political tactic, but because it's the right thing to do: to see folks as individuals, with very real fears and sensitive spots. Think of it as a kind of holistic political-spiritual practice. Love, in the long run, always is more powerful than hate and suspicion. Healing always is more gratifying than destruction.
LEARNING FROM EARLIER STRUGGLES
During the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s, the act of reminding white, Bible-reading citizens of their moral consciences had a great deal to do with eventually bringing about the required changes in the South and elsewhere.
During the anti-Vietnam War days, many in the clergy -- priests, rabbis, ministers, imams -- also were reminding citizens of the immoral policies that were being carried out in our names; the spiritual underpinnings of the peace movement served as soul-bedrock for our actions -- even when we protesters sometimes went astray.
Millions of us found ourselves denouncing not only our government but also its ordinary-citizen supporters; we got up into their faces (often our own parents' faces) and equated them with baby-killers and worse. In our self-righteousness, it took us a good while to figure out that such tactics often were counter-productive, violative of our inner beliefs in peacemaking, and, in terms of bad P.R., making us the issue rather than the war. How to exit that path?
In the Pacific Northwest, where I was then teaching, many of us anti-warriors decided to meet regular folks where they lived -- in churches, at public meetings designed to break down generational barriers, at political potlucks, at community picnics, at sporting and social events, in off-campus classes -- and tried to learn more about them, as human beings. In the process, they learned more about us as human beings, that we were more than just raggitty longhairs smoking grass and shouting at the police.
Suddenly, communication lines were open. We weren't so scary any more, they weren't so stereotyped anymore. We activists heard their fears and agonies: They didn't really like the war and all the death and destruction carried out in their names, but wanted to trust the government, fearing anarchy if the scruffy anti-war protesters were correct in their denunciations. And these middle-class folks finally could hear what we were saying, that the government was lying about a war-policy destined to fail.
As more and more body bags arrived back in the States, the middle-class folks with whom we were talking sensed we were telling the truth, and many began contacting their elected officials, or writing letters to the editor, or working for peace in their churches and schools and so on. A good number even wound up on the streets with us protesters. Middle-class pro-war solidarity began crumbling, and the Nixon administration knew it had to somehow end the conflict.
The Vietnam analogy is not exact, of course. But more and more, it looks like the U.S. -- having alienated its traditional allies and much of the rest of the world by virtue of its unilateral, arrogant, bullying approach prior to the war's start -- is now in a 'Nam-like quagmire in Iraq. We have only the foggiest notion of the sub-rosa cultural forces in play in that land, and a good share of the population is opposed to our presence. Forces of opposition are regrouping and, especially at night, carrying out a guerrilla war against U.S./U.K. troops, with more bodies being shipped back home each week.
THE LIES THAT BIND
It's now clear to all that the Bush Administration lied about -- or (if you don't want to admit that your government would falsify on such a massive scale) at the very least grossly exaggerated -- its rationale for speeding to war. Iraq was a broken nation before "shock&awe" began, with no weaponry to speak of; the U.S. and U.K. were in no imminent danger of attack, and neither was anybody else in the vicinity. Iraq was attacked to provide a demonstration model for the region, in order for the U.S. to assert its hegemonic control in that energy-rich area of the world, and as a warning to nations (and international organizations) around the globe not to oppose the U.S. lest they bring the wrath of U.S. power down on their heads.
Ideologues within the U.S. government, seeing that there was nobody to stand in the way of the lone superpower on the globe, had concocted a military/foreign policy aimed at preserving and expanding America's Pax Americana ambitions. [See my "How We Got Into This Imperial Pickle: A PNAC Primer" ( http://www.crisispapers.org/Editorials/PNAC-Primer.htm).]
The upshot of all these recent revelations of Bush Administration greed and skullduggery, stealth power-mongering, and gross lying is that the American people have been given the tools with which to measure their sense of morality and spirituality against the shadow forces that, for the moment, dominate U.S. policy.
*Bush's "re-elect" (sic) numbers are shrinking, down to 40% in some polls, as the citizenry's blinders are slowly being removed and their anger and disappointment are being fired up. The Democrats are beginning, in fits and starts, to realize that they possess spines and can stand up to Bush and the GOP when it comes to extremist policies and extremist judges. (And various Democratic hopefuls for the presidency are speaking out forcefully, helping to bolster the vocabulary of dissent.)
*More and more potentially embarrassing questions are being asked in the media and Congress about Bush&Co. behavior. More moderate conservatives are joining forces on occasion to block Bush initiatives. More mainstream columnists and editorialists are beginning to display their courage in talking openly about Bush&Co. scandals and incompetencies. More faith-based oganizations are starting to see through the hypocrisy and ersatz "religiosity" of the Administration. Those whose spirituality derives from nature's balance and beauty are realizing that Bush&Co. are turning over the environment to the greedy corporate forces that pollute and destroy.
*Those in control of policy in the Bush Administration may be irredeemable -- the Cheneys, Rumsfelds, Wolfowitzes, Perles, Bushes, et al., coked-out on greed and power-lust -- but more lower-level officials are beginning to defect, whistleblow, leak the awful truth to the press. Whether Foreign Service officers or intelligence agents or G.O.P. staffers, their consciences will no longer permit them to shill for an Administration whose operating principles seem to be proudly in violation of traditional American morality. (And claiming that 9/11 changed the rules forever is being seen for what it is: a catch-all excuse for the ideologues in charge to do whatever they want.)
HOPE ON THE HORIZON
In short, the building blocks are almost in place for serious impeachment moves and a possible electoral victory in 2004. The keys to these hopeful developments lie in:
1. MAINTAINING THE PRESSURE. Bush&Co. cannot be permitted to select a scapegoat and thus avoid personal responsibility for the lies told that put American men and women into harm's way in Iraq, and that continue to get many of them killed. (Clinton harmed himself and just a few others as a result of his lying about sex; when Bush lies, people die and our treasury is depleted. Many religiously-oriented folks were deeply upset at Clinton's "immorality"; the connection needs to be emphasized to them that "immoral" behavior can involve something other than sexual liaisons.)
2. WORKING TO ENSURE A FAIR ELECTION. Demand of your local and state election officials that no computer voting be authorized unless and until it comes with iron-clad ways of checking the ballots, a verifiable paper-trail to ensure that nobody can tamper with the vote and get away with it. Ensure that, unlike Florida in 2000, tens of thousands of voters cannot be purged from the voting rolls by deliberate fiat of supporters of one party or the other. Double-check to make sure that the vote-counting of military personnel abroad is on the up-and-up, with a verifiable paper trail.
2. TALKING UP A STORM. Contact your neighbors and associates and friends about what is happening in this country; write letters to the editor, call talk-show hosts, compose articles and blogs for the internet, participate in meetings and political actions, go out and register new voters, etc. etc. -- all these help add to the critical mass necessary for regime change at home. In short, organize, organize, organize!
3. CONNECTING WITH THE FAITHFUL. Work with your church or synagogue or mosque to re-fire the moral indignation, to connect one's religiosity to the soul-work of right action in society.
4. REVERSING THE SUCTION. Engage in positive, spiritually uplifting actions as often as you can, so that you can escape the immoral suction forces pulling one down into the negativity and fright that pass for policy in the Bush world. Volunteer, aid a soup kitchen, donate money to good causes, become a mentor to at-risk kids, choose a candidate and work for the campaign, immerse yourself in an art project, help oppositional websites and magazines, etc. etc. In other words, see the light guiding one forward, rather than the shadows nipping at your heels. Turn your head away from the propaganda and lies, and towards the sunshine of hope. Let love rule your actions; as your heart opens, so do doors of possibility and courage.
5. JOINING THE POLITICAL PROCESS. Elect Greens or whomever on local levels, but once the Democrats select their presidential standard-bearer, do not dwell on the candidate's shortfalls or where you might disagree with him or her on a particular issue or two. Remember that the ONLY point in 2004 is to defeat the Bush juggernaut, so as to move our country away from extremist politics and back toward civil compromise and more centrist (and, we can hope, maybe even some progressive) policies.
Out of love of country, unite behind that Democratic candidate and work your ass off to get him or her elected, so as to break the momentum of imperial rule abroad and Constitution-shredding at home. Don't let yourself be distracted by dirty political tricks, or whatever terrorist attacks happen, or however many calls to patriotism in wartime are employed to slow the momentum. (After the election, if Bush is thrown out of office, then we can afford the luxury of cleansing that political party of its more reactionary elements.)
6. ASKING THE POINTED QUESTIONS. When you talk to your friends and neighbors and colleagues, focus on questions that remind them who's benefitting and who's losing in the current Bush climate. Do they feel more secure in their jobs? (Several millions have lost theirs since Bush's economic policies began.) Have their pensions and stock holdings decreased in value? Do they want to be part of an American empire that "pre-emptively" attacks other countries, in a reckless disregard for international law and treaties?
Are they aware that Bush's incompetent "post-war" policies are endangering our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere? Isn't it shameful that the Bush Administration, which claims to care deeply about our soldiers in uniform, is cutting back funding to veterans? Are they aware of the extremist, ideologically-driven judges that Bush is appointing? Are they aware of the humungous deficits being racked up by the Bush Administration, and the deliberate consequences that flow from that: little money left over for strapped State budgets, Medicare, Social Security, meaningful prescription-drug coverage, Head Start, curbing environmental pollution, bettering education? And so on.
These are just a few ideas to kick-start the discussion. No doubt, you've got more great suggestions for how to turn this country around and back to civil politics, compromise, a genuine concern for the general welfare of all our citizens and society, not just the elite. Get those ideas out there.
Friends, our beloved nation is at one of those historical crossroads that will decide our fate. We either defeat the shadow forces of greed and power-hunger -- of negativity and fear-mongering -- and take our country once more into the aura of light and hope, or we risk losing our individual and societal soul for a long, long time, with untold damage to the nation, the world, our moral center. It's choose-up time.
- Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., is a poet and playwright, who has taught at Western Washington University, San Diego State University, San Francisco State University. Formerly a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, he now co-edits The Crisis Papers ( http://www.crisispapers.org).