Hope Among the Ruins

Hope Among the Ruins

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August 5, 2012

In his review of Radical Hope–a book about the transformation of the Crow tribe by Jonathan Lear–Charles Taylor observed that,

A culture’s disappearing means that a people’s situation is so changed that the actions that had crucial significance are no longer possible. …You find yourself in a circumstance where, as Lear puts it, “the very acts themselves have ceased to make sense.” Nothing of significance could happen anymore. This is a terrible reality, and it is one that we have trouble understanding, but it is a fate that we in “advanced,” more “complex” societies have been imposing for many centuries on “indigenous” or “tribal” peoples.

With the devastating impacts of globalization and a pervasive loss of faith in progress, we are now experiencing our own kind of culture death–perhaps less horrifying, but real nonetheless. Abandoned by the malign neglect of the same forces of mechanized state and market aggression that devastated the plains Indians, will we who’ve long rejected the role of passive consumer show the resilience required in recreating our society? Are we prepared to lead those who lament, “I am trying to live a life I do not understand.”

A colleague of mine once remarked that only thugs can pull off a revolution. Crude, but poignant.

The essential point alluded to is that no matter how nostalgic people are about notions of justice, one ugly fact of history repeatedly intrudes into our consciousness: brute force is determinant. The spirit of solidarity, the imagination of visionaries, the hope of idealists clinging to shoals of refuge—those moments in time and space when privilege and hegemony toss tidbits to the powerless—is swept away by the inevitable floods of violent self-interest and moral fraud perpetrated by transnational criminal networks under the rubric of Free Trade. The exercise of civic duty and moral suasion is but prelude to war.

Based on historical observation and my own experience, I can only speculate that the more belligerent the usurpers and the greater their threats, the more compliant the populace. Victims do indeed occasionally explode in acts of rage and indignation, but over time, the genetic disposition to resist seems to be weeded out. Cowering masses, even in democratic republics like the US, willingly concede ever more concentrated power to those determined to conquer.

Some argue the basis of the essential American conflict is the absence of spirituality; the terrible truth is that war is much easier to wage than peace. War is a task, propaganda and logistics–peace a process, a complex and difficult sorting of relationships and values. The accretion of right actions–painstakingly built by altruists and even adherents of enlightened self-interest who realize the advantage to the whole of cooperation over confrontation–is often obliterated at the whim of those who hold the deluded and dutiful in contempt. No wonder the bewilderment and paralysis of reformers when confronted by the storm troops of conservative elites and right-wing zealots. The dreamers are unprepared; it is their fatal flaw, their perpetual defect.

Peace advocates, war resisters, have every right to condemn atrocity and brutality. But they have no right to claim superiority for their piety. Protesting depravity and evil is not only an ineffective tactic, it is a silly strategy—weak in intellect, frivolous in consequence. Macchiavelli writes in The Prince, “…blunder ought never to be perpetrated to avoid war, because it is not to be avoided, but is only deferred to your disadvantage …predominancy has been brought about by astuteness or force.” The illogic of ridicule and complaint, exercised with abandon by vanquished human rights crusaders, ignores the plain fact that they are irrelevant, that they are losers. Moral sanction is powerful when used strategically as part of the array of tools of psychological warfare, that is, as one facet of a coordinated plan executed to defeat an enemy. When used to the exclusion of a willingness and readiness to use violence, it is an empty threat.

In the Bhagavad-Gita: As It Is, we find the precepts that, “violence committed in the act of fighting for justice…is permitted [and]…Be active in duty without being attached to the result. Inaction is sinful.” Those self-insulated from battle confuse violence with hate, war with revenge. Their strategically-generated frustration leads them to anger, and, as we read further, “From anger delusion, from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost…One who is not in transcendental consciousness can have neither a controlled mind nor steady intelligence, without which there is no possibility of peace. How can there be happiness without peace?”

In the Art of War, we read, “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Those who aren’t deceived are demoralized. Those who endure are marginalized. Those who prevail are destroyed.

Why does hopelessness paralyze? Does it matter whether mankind ends from microbial disaster, nuclear devastation, or solar exhaustion? Is not our foreboding inevitable? Why not live while we can? “God,” says Emerson, “will not have his work made manifest by cowards.” In his essay On Self-Reliance, he writes, “…truth is handsomer than the affectation of love…My life is for itself and not for a spectacle.”

“All history,” claims Emerson, “resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” “…The way, the thought, the good,” he writes, “shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience…Fear and hope are alike beneath it. There is somewhat low even in hope. In the hour of vision there is nothing that can be called gratitude, nor properly joy.”

Understanding how hopeless the world really is relieves one of obligation to folly. It also diminishes a warrior’s sometimes tortuous expectations of those who know how screwed up things are, yet shy from conflict. They will shun the virtuous and ignoble alike.

I rather expect a new world order to emerge from the ashes, like in Argentina, where people are self-organizing to meet their needs in the aftermath of malign market neglect. Or like in the former Soviet Union where the only market is black, and basic health has declined catastrophically. While I celebrate the hastened end of Pax Americana, I shudder at the thought of the coming plague.

The Winter 2009 issue of Fourth World Journal explored holistic practices for maintaining and restoring community health. Reading these interesting essays reminded me of one I wrote about how to return our society to a healthier mindset. I hope these offerings by scholars from around the globe help readers to discover the order of things, and consequentially, to find hope among the ruins.

One of the aspects of civil resistance versus social reform in the US is distinguished by the mechanisms of resource acquisition available to these very different concepts of our present political situation. The well-established institution of social reform has at its disposal the conventional philanthropic architecture ranging from foundation grants to fellowships, while civil resistance is funded for the most part out of the pockets of those who are doing the work pro bono.

While there are many more marked distinctions between reform as a career and activism as a duty, what segregates the two most clearly is the worldview of their respective followers and participants. Reformers view amelioration as the best we can hope for (thus carefully refraining from disturbing existing hierarchies and relationships), and for this they are amply rewarded; those who see committed resistance to these injustices as our only hope are not.

Were we to muster even a fraction of the riches lavished on the compliant, our capacity to influence discourse and defiance in our country would be strengthened enormously. For those with skills in the fields of finance, this is an opportunity for them to achieve something they can share with their grandchildren as lessons in civics and humanities–something to be proud of.

On my return flight from the 2005 national human rights conference, I thought about a remark Chip Berlet made in an interview I conducted with him in the summer of 2001. He said that after nearly forty years of activism in the civil rights arena–twenty of those as a prominent educator to interfaith coalitions in the US–he was dismayed by how little liberal philanthropies had learned about the essentials of social change.

In particular, Chip bemoaned the utter lack of funding allotted to research and conferences and educational programs that enable a movement to grow–something conservatives have long understood and benefited by through their long-term investments in such things as think tanks and institutes and colleges and media, fellowships and grants to writers, speakers, mentors, and promising youth.

And I thought about this neglect in the absence of religious leaders in the audience at the 2005 conference, and the paucity of human rights attendees from comfortable and well-funded NGOs of the liberal establishment who no longer feel directly threatened, some of whom at times in the past could have been murdered were it not for the work of those on the presentation panel.

But while we’ve grown accustomed to the lack of reciprocity and cooperation from those who’ve become officially-sanctioned and assimilated into the power elite, their effective collaboration with conservatives bent on destabilizing, disintegrating, and deconstructing our civil society is a factor we must take into account. Their cowardice, laziness, and corruption is not something we can shame them into abandoning, but it is something we can confront them on when they get in the way of building democracy. In fact, it is something we must do.

I also thought about the threats we face as a multicultural society in battling political violence, racism, and social exclusion, and how our collective understanding and institutional memory expressed and explored in such gatherings and discussions propels social transformation. Which reminded me of the Zuni Pueblo protector societies that meet regularly to discuss threats to their social harmony and well-being and develop means of guarding against poisonous ideas–be they economic, emotional, intellectual, medicinal, physical, political, or spiritual.

And I thought about the Zuni means of preservation of memory of these tools of survival recorded in their architecture, food, pottery, and regalia, and how through five centuries they’ve managed to adapt and endure without sacrificing their core values. Which is instructive in the need to develop our storytelling through art, ceremony, dance, oratory, and ritual, if we, too, hope our values will someday triumph over evils like globalization.

Without the capacity to pass on such skills as research, analysis and organizing, there is no hope. The sooner our allies learn this the better.

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