Sam Smith - This is a time for metaphors. A time for parallels and parables.
Logic has failed us, theories have failed us, technology has failed us, policy has failed us, diplomacy has failed us, our military, our leaders in government, media, and the intelligentsia. . . even our faith seems to have failed us.
And so we yearn for stories that makes sense, that help to end the madness. . .
We seek allegories and anecdotes and allusions to turn things right. . . .
But it does no good if the tales and the metaphors are delusional. . . if they drag us even further into a psychopathic state that veers wildly between arrogance and fear.
It does no good if it sends us deeper into a new middle ages where reality is ignored or sent to the inquisition while myth becomes the dominant truth. . . only this time propagated not by the church but by cable TV.
It's crazy, it happened so fast, it's like in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern when Rosencrantz asks shortly before his death: "What was it all about? When did it begin? . . . Couldn't we just stay put? . . . We've done nothing wrong! We didn't harm anyone. Did we? . . . There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said -- no. But somehow we missed it.. . . Well, we'll know better next time."
Yet we have seen it all before. And it came with stories. A German professor after the World War II described it this way to journalist Martin Mayer:
What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. . .
To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it -- please try to believe me -- unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, 'regretted.' ....
Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.
Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven't done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). . . . You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair. "
Placated by Prozac, persuaded by prevarication and pacified by prohibition, we have ignored our drift towards the mean and the brutish and continued to accept the lie that we are the better for it.
Empires and cultures are not permanent and while thinking about the possibility that ours is collapsing may seem a dismal exercise it is far less so than enduring the frustrations, failures, damage and human casualties involved in constantly butting up against reality like a boozer who insists he is not drunk attempting to drive home.
As GK Chesterton put it, "We must learn to love life without ever trusting it."
Happiness, courage and passion in a bad time can only be based on myth as long as reality does not intrude. Once it does, our indifference to it will serve us no better than it does the joyriding teenager whose assumption of immortality comes into contact with a tree.
But this does not mean that one must live in despair. There are other stories - true stories of real people - that can lead us elsewhere.
Like the former LA narcotics detective I know who learned to face danger while investigating corruption and the involvement of intelligence agencies in the drug trade. He had two bullet holes in his left arm and one in his left ear. He said he had borrowed a trick another cop had taught him; when in danger he simply considered himself already dead. Then he was able to move without fear.
Such an ability to confront and transcend -- rather than deny, adjust to, replace, recover from, or succumb to -- the universe in which you find yourself is among the things that permits freedom and courage. This man, with Buddhist-like deconstruction and Christian-like rebirth, had taken apart the pieces of his fear and dumped them on the ground -- a mercy killing of dreams and nightmares on behalf of survival.
I grew up with someone like that. Ann had come to our house during World War II as a nine year old child from Britain. It hadn't been easy for her to get to Washington in July of 1940. Sixty years later she wrote me about it:
I set sail in the Duchess of Atholl in convoy. There was a slight skirmish with a submarine. I remember feeling the ship shudder as depth charges were dropped but we were unscathed and pressed on, though I remember seeing icebergs and wondering. My mother told me we might well be sunk. If I was dragged underwater, not to struggle. I would come to the surface naturally, then not to strike out to England or America but float on my back, as I had learned at school, until I was picked up.Within two months, no more British children were sent to America because the Nazis had started torpedoing the ships and even machine gunning the children in the water.
After the war, Ann came back and lived with us becoming a virtual sister. She would marry a man, quite a bit older, who had been a young doctor during the Battle of London. The doctors were given colored tags to attach to the feet of air raid victims. Each tag represented one bed and each color one hospital in London. When the tags were gone so were the beds. Think about that when you worry about your flu shot.
Ann was one of the first people I thought about as I watched the World Trade Center go down because she had learned to face the grim with stolidity but the rest of life with passion and pleasure. I was in my home when it happened, six blocks from another intended target, the US Capitol, and I recalled how much I had learned from her, even as a child, about getting through the bad times.
To view our times as decadent and dangerous, to mistrust the government, to imagine that those in power are not concerned with our best interests is not paranoid but perceptive; to be depressed, angry or confused about such things is not delusional but a sign of consciousness. Yet our culture suggests otherwise.
But if all this is true, then why not despair? The simple answer is this: despair is the suicide of imagination. Whatever reality presses upon us, there still remains the possibility of imagining something better, and in this dream remains the frontier of our humanity and its possibilities To despair is to voluntarily close a door that has not yet shut. The task is to bear knowledge without it destroying ourselves, to challenge the wrong without ending up on its casualty list. "You don't have to change the world," the writer Colman McCarthy has argued. "Just keep the world from changing you."
Oddly, those who instinctively understand this best are often those who seem to have the least reason to do so - survivors of abuse, oppression, and isolation who somehow discover not so much how to beat the odds, but how to wriggle around them. They have, without formal instruction, learned two of the most fundamental lessons of psychiatry and philosophy:
You are not responsible for that into which you were born..These individuals move through life like a skilled mariner in a storm rather than as a victim at a sacrifice. Relatively unburdened by pointless and debilitating guilt about the past, uninterested in the endless regurgitation of the unalterable, they free themselves to concentrate upon the present and the future. They face the gale as a sturdy combatant rather than as cowering supplicant.
You are responsible for doing something about it.
In Washington we have a neighborhood known as Shaw where for decades just such a form of survival thrived. It has been a particular interest of my historian wife, Kathy. Until the modern civil rights movement and desegregation, this African-American community was shut out without a vote, without economic power, without access, and without any real hope that any of this would change.
Its response was remarkable. For example, in 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were more than 300.
Every aspect of the community followed suit. Among the institutions created within these few square miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theatre (opened with black capital twenty years before Harlem's Apollo became a black stage) and two first rate movie palaces.
There were the Odd Fellows, the True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club, settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League.
Denied access to white schools, the community created a self-sufficient educational system good enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well as teachers with advanced degrees from all over the country. And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street area their home before moving to New York.
All this occurred while black Washingtonians were being subjected to extraordinary economic obstacles and being socially and politically ostracized. If there ever was a culture entitled to despair and apathy it was black America under segregation.
Yet not only did these African-Americans develop self-sufficiency, they did so without taking their eyes off the prize. Among the other people you might have found on U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston, laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.
Older residents would remember the former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride -- not unlike the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but many would know that some of their own best moments of courage, skill, and heart had come when the times were at their worst.
Another example. Last summer, I went to Umbria, a section of Italy north of Rome remarkably indifferent to 500 years of its history, where even the homes and whole villages seem to grow like native plants out of the rural earth rather than being placed there by human effort. It was as if I had been transported back several centuries while still being allowed to take along a car and my Diet Coke. I hadn't felt such stability for a long time, certainly not since September 11.
Yet the Umbrians have been invaded, burned, or bullied by the Etruscans, Roman Empire, Goths, Longobards, Charlemagne, Pippin the Short, the Vatican, Mussolini, the German Nazis, and, most recently, the World Trade organization. Umbria is a reminder of the durability of the human spirit during history's tumults, an extremely comforting thought to an American these days.
We don't have to go that far back, though. Consider the increasingly cited novel, 1984. Orwell saw it coming, only his timing was off. The dystopia described in 1984 is so overwhelming that one almost forgets that most residents of Oceana didn't live in it. Orwell gives the breakdown. Only about two percent were in the Inner Party and another 13% in the Outer Party. The rest numbering some 100 million were the proles.
It is amongst the latter that Winston Smith and Julia find refuge for their trysts, away from the cameras (although not the microphones). The proles are, for the most part, not worth the Party's trouble. Says Orwell:
From the proletarians nothing is to be feared. Left to themselves, they will continue from generation to generation and from century to century, working, breeding, and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is . . .Orwell's division of labor and power was almost precisely replicated in East Germany decades later, where about one percent belonged to the General Secretariat of the Communist Party, and another 13% being far less powerful party members.
Eric Paul Gros-Dubois of Southern Methodist University has described Orwell's underclass this way:
The Proles were the poorest of the groups, but in most regards were the most cheerful and optimistic. The Proles were also the freest of all the groups. Proles could do as they pleased. They could come and go, and talk openly about whatever they felt like without having to worry about the Thought Police. . .[Orwell] also concluded that the hope for the future was contained within this group."We are overpowered and afraid. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time.
It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel -- the courage to emigrate from one's own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier.
How one does this can vary markedly, but one of the bad habits we have acquired from the bullies who now run the place is undue reliance on traditional political, legal and rhetorical tools. Politically active Americans have been taught that even at the risk of losing our planet and our democracy, we must go about it all in a rational manner, never raising our voice, never doing the unlikely or trying the improbable, let alone screaming for help.
We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. Unitarian church basements. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.
Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We must rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.