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
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
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
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
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.