You Say You Want a Revolution?

To spark a political change in America, we need to trade fear and anger for creativity and connection


| March / April 2003


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.