By doing what had to be done (disobey) in the only way it could be done (collectively) survivors kept their social being, and therefore their essential humanity, intact.
— Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life In the Death Camps(1976)
“White liberals are not seeking justice…they’re seeking absolution. Anything that absolves them of responsibility for what this society has done, they welcome it. They’re hungry for it.”
— Glen Ford, quoted by Chris Hedges in The Con of Diversity
A man deprived of the function of unreality is just as neurotic as the man deprived of the function of reality.
— Gaston Bachelard
Unless his spirit ventures toward the invisible, a man will be unable to perform the daily round with purpose…The deepest cause of our discontent and of our confused yearnings is the loss of Paradise. The human soul needs anchoring in something beyond itself…a vision that hints that life on earth reflects ideals of perfection.
— James Hillman, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart
By and large, white progressive liberals do not understand that resistance is disobedience. By disobedience I mean not only civil disobedience, but disobedience to an entire bourgeois life pattern; to the junk vacuity ingested from the corporate-owned media; to the career ladder of success; to the dream home out in designer country; to everything you are supposed to believe in and take for granted as justified. They do not understand that true resistance has an irrational basis; to resist is wrong according to one’s own well-conditioned and appeased superego; resistance is an act of conscience against universal agreement, against one’s own “better judgment,” it will limit your friends and throw you among those deemed losers in this world. Resistance demands only this: that one relocate her conscience, resuscitate if necessary, and perform a personal rescue of her conscience like unto the heroic rescue of the Thai soccer team. Without that, liberals cannot, any more than can the Trumpians, stand for the truth of brotherhood among all people.
It is no coincidence that liberals believe they/we can be good guys and also staunch pragmatists, dogmatic rationalists, fundamentalist atheists, dyed-in-the-wool materialists, and scoffers at the simple-minded religious as if to be one is the same as to be the other. They delude themselves that they can be good guys without risk, not necessarily because they fear risk-taking in general; the risk they wish to avoid at all costs is that of self-knowledge. Centuries of accepting the way of life and its rewards premised on complete degradation of and injustice toward the original inhabitants of our land and toward those brought here as slaves has had an effect, though the historical cause remains successfully hidden from consciousness for most white Americans. The self regard of Americans has been eroded to such a degree we cannot face what we have become. People cannot do good who believe deep down they are bad (the old word was “sinner.”) The one approach that can “save them,” the one that can regain their spirit by giving them access to the redeeming power of imaginal reality and to the human-affirming narrative provided through myth, has been tossed out in the name of the superior rationalist, enlightenment-approved attitude that today characterizes church-goers and abstainers alike.
The problem here is, political resistance makes no sense exceptto the heart. When it’s alive and functioning, the heart naturally defies a heartless system so blinded by its own faith in the rational mind that it arrogantly consigns entities such as heart and soul to the same metaphysical realm as unicorns and fairies, such that no one in her right mind would take a serious stand for something based merely on the promptings of her own soul. No one in his or her right mind would join together with others in solidarity based on the personal conviction, rooted in the poetic soul, that we are all one.
My appreciation for Terrence Des Pres’ remarkable book, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life In the Death Camps, is for his making the case that this unverifiable, “poetic” premise for resistance (he calls it “biological wisdom”), though attainable to any human being, is now achieved only in the extremity, when all hope is gone; that is, only after the “right mind” has been abandoned. Surely even we who, though better off than most of the world’s people, are facing the end of life as we know it on the planet, are in extremity! Legions of Trump resisters and Indivisibles, fervent in their just cause and hungry for hope, cannot stop themselves from grabbing onto hope whenever it’s offered. In their admiration for the liberal candidate who can exemplify supremely well-articulated rational intelligence, even though the candidate stands for nothing, they continue to deny the extremity we are in. Their hope in this world, that so far provides them with very nice lives and lots of cool things to do with their money and in which they can be comfortingly reassured of their being, if not predestined for heaven, among the “better sort,” is sustained.
The fear of being without hope, even though we are surrounded by others whose life prospects are extremely dim – from refugees to Palestinians to poor Black American citizens – keeps capitalist plunder functioning, its trains running on time. Should we not ask what do we really mean by hope, after our craving for it caused us to elect a man to the Presidency (Obama) who essentially did none of the things he’d promised before being elected, but who had given us “hope?”
Due to our unconscious and desperate clinging to hope, liberal political aspirants intuit exactly how to speak to us to gain our allegiance. They speak to our fearful hearts without our realizing it – the hearts we have already compromised. We’re reassured such a candidate will be electable, non-threatening to our capitalism-guaranteed world; we vote for him not because we’re true believers in capitalism but because we must have, above all, the hope of being forgiven. Unredeemed in materialist reality, we adore the campaigner who can make us feel we are good after all, as we so want to be but somehow can never be finally convinced that we are. The burden of worthlessness we carry in our spiritually deprived condition is so great, and so ineradicable by any means left to us in our hyper-rational and hyper-isolated condition, that we will even give away our decency; we will wittingly embrace denial, we will be hypocrites rather than face the unbearable. As isolates in a fragmented society, we have no recourse but to dump that burden of worthlessness on others – not as the fascists do, on the oppressed whose rights we liberals champion, but on the rightwing churchgoing conservative deplorables welove to hate. Sadly, as we circle futilely trading punches around the ring with our rightwing adversaries, the real powers-that-be remain untouched, secure in their plutocratic oligarchic Wall Street seats high above the fray.
Des Pres’ answer to the dilemma of a civilization seemingly bent upon abolishing life as we know it, is to live without “higher causes,” by which he meant without hope in such causes. As one who no doubt shared the academic secular triumphalism of his time, he suggested, with existentialist bravado, “in birth and growth and fruitfulness there is meaning enough to comfort our hunger for a high cause…Life, the earth in its silence, is all there is.” Nearly 45 years after Des Pres wrote his book, we now can see the full disaster of the attempt to live the secular dream. In the liberal left’s vigilant secularism/atheism, in their determination to be “so over” religious creeds and beliefs, they’re left with no basis for resistance – that is, no vision – whatever. For ordinary men and women living closer to the extremity, attempting to live humanly coherent lives according to a human scale, resisting the one-size-fits-all capitalist monopolist agenda, the struggle is nearly insurmountable. We are defenseless against the dominant thought-world of bourgeois reality. Required to live without the unifying psycho-spiritual energy that comes with an imaginal basis, we can barely keep ourselves remembering the truth of Oneness, that oxygen for our souls, which is reinforced by nothing and opposed by virtually everything with which the commodified system provides us.
Moreover, as we learn from psychology, the consequence of that superior attitude toward the “poetic” basis for knowing, is repression. When enlightened, rational people insist on their atheism in a tone that implies religious people are jerks, we should only look past their shoulder to see what “high cause” stands in the shadows behind them. I suggest it is the dark beast of corporate capitalism.
An examination of myth and fairy tales, with kings, queens, and emperors on one end, orphans, dumblings, poor millers and old childless peasant couples on the other, reveals the undemocratic nature of the human soul; it is hierarchically ordered and irresistibly drawn to adoration, to that which is “greater than the self.” The larger Being served may be God, the nation, the flag, the traditional family, the football team, etc., all the loyalties we recognize as belonging to hapless Trump-followers. Liberal secular progressives who feel themselves superior to those hokey bible-thumping allegiances need to take another look; their lefty souls, thwarted in their devotional aim, may be serving an entity more vicious and destructive than Trump, a monster flourishing in the swamps out beyond the comforts of bourgeois reality, made deadlier and less resistible because unconscious.
If the case for resistance is as the heart makes it, this means that resistance must go to the root of an entire system that is built upon its own unchallenged rational dogmatism. To do this, an outsider perspective is needed, and in our times of technology worship and the supremacy of the objectively rational mind, the heart isthe outsider.
To conclude and bring us back down to the earth-place called Utica NY, last weekend we were visited here by Cynthia Nixon, Democratic challenger to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who held a meet-and-greet in our small non-profit arts space, The Other Side. Though I did not hear her speech, it was clear from the buoyant spirits as people came next door to our coffee shop afterwards she had delivered a big dose of hope. It will be interesting to see how far she can go in loyalty to her own outsider heart, which clearly she is at least consulting at this time. Will she be able to persist as Bernie Sanders was not? If she goes so far as to gain the governorship of New York as a Democrat can she do so without either the Democratic Party having to undergo a purge, or having to compromise her principles? Perhaps most difficult of all, can she challenge even her followers who want to hear the promises of hope but are not used to moral leadership, and are afraid of what it asks of them?
It is not up to her, brave soul as she may be, but to us to rejoin our abandoned hearts and our principles that reject empire, militarism, continuous war, mass incarceration, etc., and stand by them in disobedience to the anti-human economic system. In the post-Christian world we are left in, it is up to each to locate the irrational knowing that tells us “our life on earth is attached to ideals of perfection.” Otherwise the burden of personal worthlessness and victimhood that comes with the absence of any glimmer of a larger Being in which with the rest of nature we are interdependent, will leave us lapping up crumbs of hope from any politician who drops them for us. Which means there is no hope.