To spark a political change in America, we need to trade fear and anger for creativity and connection
It started, of course, on September 11, 2001. I have a memory of an almost molecular-level shift of consciousness on that day. For many people the flaming, falling towers became not only symbols of terrorist fanaticism but icons of the precariousness and preciousness of life. I suspect that?s why so many people, like the quiet crowds that gathered less than a mile from Ground Zero at Union Square, responded not with anti-Muslim rage but with a profound mourning that ruled out hate and retaliation and more burning of innocents.
The 9/11 horror took us deeper?deeper into a sense of the fragility and goodness of life. It was also a call to awareness. For many, the response was predictable fear and militarism. But booming sales of books on Islam and the Mideast and American Mideast policy testified to a newborn need to understand?not only Islam as a culture and religion, but to understand America?s often less-than-honorable role in the world. At the same time, many of us found a new appreciation for the greatness of the American people and the strength of our institutions. It also proved an opportunity for me to examine my identity as a ?leftist,? a ?progressive,? a ?liberal.? My leftism is an integral part of me of which I am proud. I want to do my best to stay on the side of the least powerful among us, on the side of uncovering buried voices and outsider points of view, and on the side of peaceful solutions to all problems, from domestic spats to international antagonisms. I want to do my part to raise a flag?a Stars and Stripes?of warning and resistance to the military-industrial-corporate state?s war mentality, its cavalier attitude toward the rights that have made our country not just free but strong, and its hell-bent determination to expand privilege for the rich at everyone else?s expense.
Ever since 9/11, I have felt compelled to speak and work out of my convictions, but from a new place and to a new purpose. I want to seek the truth, not smug self-righteousness, which hardens and finally closes the heart. I want to see if I can get beyond dismissing those who may disagree with me. I want to share my concerns with my fellow citizens of whatever political stripe, but not as a guardian of the one true faith venturing into enemy territory. I want to act in a way that honors, rather than bulldozes over, the convictions, fears, and needs of my ?opponents??and that promotes an honest dialogue about the differences that remain.
If this sounds a little fluffy, well, I can only point out that honesty, openness, and love actually change minds, hearts, and lives?nothing else does or ever has. ?Struggle? alone may solidify my side of the divide and gratify my desire to feel engaged, but it alienates those who are struggled against past any hope of change. I want people who differ from me to accept that my left-of-center convictions are real and heartfelt and based on an honest reading of reality, not the products of left-wing brainwashing in my college years, nor part of a plot to ruin the American family and the American economy. But I have no right to ask for this courtesy if I am not willing to accept that others? free-market faith, opposition to abortion, and emphatic support of the American military are equally honest and conscious, and not a media-induced trance.
True debate, with its implicit belief in give and take, has degenerated in our day into pointless and endless back-and-forth assertions of unshakeable faith, complete with a surreal inflation of everybody?s rhetoric: Some lefties aren?t content to label Republican economic policy misguided, dangerous, and far too friendly to corporations; it?s ?a war on the poor.? The right can?t stop with castigating left-of-center cultural ideas as forgetful of the past or intellectually shallow; they?re ?assaults on Western civilization.?
Of course, recent events themselves are beginning to shake this pattern of polarization. Al Qaeda and the Taliban famously failed to fit the old-left paradigm of halo-wearing Third World freedom fighters. At the same time, George Bush?s lone-cowboy, damn-the-consequences warmaking sparked resistance within the Pentagon officer corps, doubts among conservative critics, and unrest within his inner circle that pushed him into taking a new, slower, and more cooperative approach to dealing with Saddam Hussein.
The time is right for a very new kind of political shift in America?a movement even bigger than the civil rights and antiwar movements of the ?60s, not to the right or left, but inward and then outward, a movement of reflection and common purpose. Adapting a term from sociologist Philip Slater (page 62), let?s call it a revolution of connection.
A New Spirit
Connection. I use the word advisedly. Conservatives rally us under the banner of ?united we stand? that uses the terror issue to distract us from growing injustice. Typical left strategy fosters a divisiveness that has accomplished many goals, but also has driven knives of distrust and resentment deep into our social fabric. Connection is something else. It?s an insistence on remaining in communication without sacrificing principle. It isn?t necessarily a softening of opinions with regard to issues (though we all have to be open to that possibility). It?s an opening of the heart with respect to other people.
It won?t be easy. Those of us on the left are always calling on others to leave their comfort zones and embrace more freedom, diversity, and anarchic energy. So far so good. But how willing are we to leave our snug cultural and political nests and venture out into the world, trying to embrace the compassion that may live in the heart of a conservative or the hunger for justice in the heart of a fundamentalist Christian?
This new movement will grow out of thousands of quiet acts of mutual respect across lines of political conviction, lifestyle, generation, and world view. And it needs not just action but deep thought, reflection, and prayer. It needs art, and simple gatherings for talking (as opposed to debating). Perhaps best of all, it doesn?t require everyone to have an activist epiphany, throw away their daily lives, and embrace the true world-changing faith. It just requires some honesty and determination, some willingness to step away from usual habits, and some goodwill.
Connection actually is going on right under our noses, informally in living rooms and churches and picket lines and caf?s and bowling alleys and nonprofit-organization offices, and even in corporate headquarters. Wherever people work for social change in honest contact across political and social divides, this ?movement? is well under way.
Some of you may now be saying that ?connection? is no substitute for focused action on issues. Doesn?t it smack of defeatism? Relationship-building is nice, but don?t we need to bring about change, and double quick?
The truth is, connection as I understand it is more a spirit than a tactic. It is an acknowledgment that the struggle against the structures of oppression and injustice will go on with undiminished fire?but that I relinquish the exclusive right to define what oppression and injustice are and where they are located. I declare myself willing to find them in my own group, in my own heart, and in my own opinions as well as ?out there??and by that declaration I model the openness I ask for in my ?opponents.? I will write letters, but letters full of compassion as well as conviction. (The great Buddhist activist and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh encourages people to write ?love letters? to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam in support of freedom for imprisoned monks.) I will protest, but make sure my demonstrations are magnetically attractive and joyous. I will do everything to which I am called, but always in a spirit of dismantling structures, never demeaning human beings?not even (I?m gasping for breath here) George W. Bush.
If you can imagine what it would be like to never again laugh at Bush, or call him evil, but only work sincerely and respectfully on the issues, sharing your vision of change with absolutely no black background of derision for anyone, no lingering I-hate-Daddy fixation whatsoever, well, then, you are imagining power, real power.
A Revolution in the Moment
At this point, a few questions come up: What?s to be the outcome of this connection revolution? How, and when, will we know it?s worked, or even happened?
These are hard questions to answer. The truth is that this revolution is very focused on the present, and even the present moment. It?s so concerned with transforming the way we relate to one another, right now, that anybody who believes in it is bound to be a little hesitant to say what it will end up doing and being. In fact, it might be best if we experimented with letting go of results?and outcomes, winning, and completing tasks?and concentrated instead on creating a new kind of activism that is thoughtful, peaceful, passionate, and alive. After all, satyagraha, the name Mahatma Gandhi gave to his great movement for justice, does not mean ?triumph over oppression? but ?grasping at the truth.?
But surely we face unprecedented challenges?political, global, personal. Surely they need to be addressed as issues, problems, even crises. What about the war? What about economic equity? What about our families, our farms, our cities, our fellow humans in Africa and the Mideast and Latin America?
All I can say is that the connection revolution will have begun, will be thriving, when we can hear these issues invoked in all their urgency, yet not run for safety to preconceived and rigid positions. The revolution will have advanced when we have gained faith in one another. The trustful, unconventional, paradigm-busting way of relating implied in this revolution may?who knows??actually bring about surprising results very rapidly?the way peaceful, cheerful Filipino ?people power? finally brought down Ferdinand Marcos in a few weeks in 1986.
But the main goal is to transform the present, in little moments, everywhere. Let?s let 93-year-old activist Granny D (Doris Haddock) have the last word. ?We need not force a liberal agenda on our society, any more than we need force our political opinions on our children,? she writes. ?We can enjoy life instead of banging our heads against the old walls. If we encourage an awake thoughtfulness, democracy and justice will have all the victories our hearts can handle.?
Jon Spayde is senior editor of Utne.