In its most extreme form, our constitutional rights are reducible to the right not to have to love our neighbor. The irony is that the more energetically we pursue our individual, socially isolated right to “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the deader the social and natural worlds become.
Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience: An Invitation to Resistance (2006)
So much of what we muster excitement about in American politics, about which we feel passionate, is based in feeling injured, slighted, left out, wronged. The historic struggle for rights is premised on having been denied them, or experiencing threats to them, or wishing to ally with those whose rights have been violated. Now, perhaps because so much of what shapes our context is far out of our control, perhaps for other reasons, politics on the left has been reduced to precisely that, to identity politics. One danger in fighting solely from the sense of injury to a group, is that it rests on an assumption that the humanity underneath is intact but for this injustice. One can be opposing social wrongs and injuries and never look “underneath” to see if the human being is intact, if there even exists the community and life-sustaining culture that needs to be or is worthy of being defended.
Liberals, in particular, defend the rights of women for equal pay, of single mothers, of transgender and questioning people – all worthy and valid causes – without ever asking if the passionate defense of these “rights” comes at the expense of anything else perhaps more precious and threatened? What are the constituent elements of community? Surely not only acceptance for difference, but also for critique of that acceptance. For real community, both must be allowed. Trust must be allowed. Like rightwing fundamentalists in this respect, secular humanists cannot tolerate genuine moral questioning, not because it risks condemning single mothers or homosexuals or divorce – though this is always possible – but because it asks people to think more deeply about the consequences to the community of our choices. It poses the perspective of an adult against the perspective of the “siblings.”
For this reason I have long held back from that liberal tendency to engage in identity politics. During college and graduate school in the 1970’s, I was greatly influenced by feminism which gave me for the first time a sense of purpose, of being an actor in history. Not until one day, having brought my pathologically depressed self to a therapist’s office, realizing I was unable to answer a question about myself, but only about women as a group, did I begin to tear myself away from this identification with oppression and victimization that had been so positive for me.
Right on schedule, I was one of the “me-centered” in the famous “me-decade” of the 80’s, participating in 12-step groups, gaining a connection to spiritual reality, and then finding myself on an intense ride that could not be stopped at some point convenient to myself. The ‘process’ turned out to be way more powerful than me, terrifying, and in the end, and at points along the way, incredibly rewarding. Call it “individuation” or “the soul’s journey” or what have you, I was brought into the “fire” of transformation which dominated my life in the 1990’s. A point came when I had no choice but to see it through; otherwise I’d end up institutionalized. In so wrestling with a power ‘greater than myself,’ I was immersed in a health-bringing process; it made sense to me it was that which people have called God, or Nature, but the experience meant far more than the name. I make no claims for my “sanity” now, but after this experience I could no longer identify myself as victim. Although it felt – and still feels to me – completely audacious, I had to speak from the intact part of myself; only the writer, the creative part of me, was capable of this.
I have no choice as to what I will write about. I envy the poets and the novelists their forms; I have just this one ‘song’ that may sound like something quite other than a song to others; it comes out of a deeper disturbance and a deeper alienation than secular left liberal American politics allows. Indeed, it is akin to the valid experience brought to one through Buddhist practice, according to David Lopez, quoted in Curtis White’s We, Robots: “The goal of meditation is stress induction. This stress is a product of extreme dissatisfaction with the world. Rather than seeking a sense of peaceful satisfaction with the unfolding of experience, the goal of this practice is to produce a state of mind that is highly judgmental, indeed judging this world to be like a prison.”
I use this quote from a book (Lopez’s) I have not read for two reasons: first, it says of Buddhism what I have found to be true through my own “practice,” the writing I have kept at devotedly for close to 20 years. Writing provides me access to “know what I know”and so is for me the way to be a free human being in this world; as a free human being, my art imposes upon me a duty that I address ‘the prison’ and critique it. A moral perspective is built into the practice.
Second, the quotation points to one reason I speak of “religion” (and religiophobia) in my writing, rather than the more congenial “spirituality.” To the extent that “spirituality” and spiritual practice are put to work for the world we have (i.e., to reduce stress, increase fitness, bring tranquility, etc,) rather than for the world we dream of and sacrifice for (i.e., thus inducing stress and knowing one’s profound alienation from this world), I tend toward the less acceptable, more divisively connoted word. It is more than possible when people say “I’m spiritual but not religious” that they are fully in the countercultural critique, but I cannot help being suspicious. I sense a holdout, a bit of bargaining on behalf of the ego.
If one goes deep enough into the wilderness of the self, and many poets and artists can confirm, one reaches an experience – or a series of experiences – that is initiatory in the tribal sense. Even for people who have that experience, a choice remains as to how to make use of it in the world. Perhaps due to my seminary training, of which I am no shining exemplar, I understood I was called to address the world in which the soul’s reality – the non-optional basis for our humanity – is consistently denied and violated. One source of damage to the soul is the loss of will to resist the colonization of communities and families by corporate reality so that they no longer consistently provide safety and protection for innocence, that is for the spiritual inner beings of children. Liberal, “uninitiated” society is so polarized on its side of the battle lines defending group rights, it leaves the social structures that are supportive of humanity to fend for themselves. In effect, it ensures an endless supply of victims.
This is why I am ambivalent toward politics which have passion exclusively for identity issues. Even now, when the winds of fascism are unnervingly blowing in America, or perhaps especially now, when we see the consequences of our reduced politics in a possible fascism, I appeal to a different perspective.
Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in the film I’m Not Your Negro, said (paraphrase) “We have a right to sit wherever we want to sit [i.e., on the bus or at the lunch counter], and we have a duty to do so. “ With the juxtaposition of those two words, he suggests this initiated perspective. In speaking of rights, he addressed the injured and violated, in speaking of duty he addressed a community of adults prepared to assume a moral purpose, their purpose as human beings in the face of an immoral society.
More than ever, as Americans facing the nightmarish current reality, we need to include with our passion for defending rights the knowledge of our duty to be human beings, to serve a reality larger than the one that comforts the ego, the deeper reality worthy of human beings and human becoming. Rights is a popular word; duty, except among Marines and Boy Scouts, is not. But it is time, aside from defending victims, we rallied around something more inclusive, more meaningful and more visionary than rights exclusively, that comes from and speaks to the nobility, dignity, and strength inherent in whole human beings.