“Change was a part of life, Crazy Horse advised. Yet it is wise to hang onto the things that make us all happy and worthwhile as Lakota….Many were so blinded by the white man’s things that they could no longer see the goodness and strength of the Lakota way. Joseph M. Marshall III, The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History
That [his Anarchist society on Anarres } had fallen short of the ideal did not…lessen his responsibility to it…With the myth of the State out of the way, the real mutuality and reciprocity of society and individual became clear. Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise… Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed
For after all…it was joy they were both after—the completeness of being. If you evade suffering you also evade the chance of joy. The pleasure you may get, or pleasures, but you will not be fulfilled. You will not know what it is to come home. – Ibid.
Many liberals will readily agree that our white supremacist civilization has all along shown contempt for human beings and for the earth. Native author Joseph Marshall tells us the Lakota people watching the 19th-century white incursion on their lands saw the white soldiers as killers, not braves. Further, some of us on the so-called left can agree that civilization’s modern avatar, late-capitalist neoliberalism, constitutes what Hannah Arendt called “radical evil” in its perfection of that contempt for all human beings. It’s not so difficult to name evil, nor even to realistically prophecy our civilization will “get what it deserves,” and the “common lot” go back to “brutish, nasty and short.” The difficult thing, because it requires much more than simply reaching a logical conclusion that allows us to continue our way of life without changing, is to find, and to act upon, radical good. This is the one thing that has not been tried on a large scale, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Why on earth would you concern yourself with restoring the conviction of intrinsic self-worth when it works far better – for those at the top and for those determined to stay off the bottom – that human beings remain convinced of our worthlessness, capable of attaining only the limited self-worth that can be demonstrated in material success?
Radical evil can be challenged only by “radical good,” the quest for which will never come from the top – including the dominant ego-centric consciousness; it can come only from the bottom.
But first, those of us who’ve had the good fortune to be spared “the bottom,” must find it! For such a revolution, not only would black lives, and all “others,” – from immigrants to LGBT people to poor people – matter, not only the land, air, rivers and trees would matter. Every liberal middle-class white individual must have the conviction of mattering, not as now, in the form of the unconscious white bourgeois supremacy, but at the psycho-spiritual “bottom” where each soul wills itself (or is willed?) to consciousness. This would be a radically different “goodness” than can ever be grasped by neoliberal consensus consciousness. To achieve it, each (white) person need go after his/her own irreducible sense of self-worth, a going down to meet whatever awaits her in the inner wilderness of her own psyche. Until an individual enters the wilderness where creative imagination lives, she can never find home, nor be at home, nor stop herself from unintentionally destroying the at-homeness, the alive cultures, of other beings. She will never be able effectively to fight for a human future including its embodiments, her children and grandchildren.
In this ass-backward way of life I’ve chosen, living in the neoliberal sacrifice zone of Upstate NY and struggling to maintain a small anarchist-inspired family business here, the very greatest reward, the reliable confirmation that goodness is real, is (are) our two grandchildren, Nico and Cora, ages 4 and 2. Not only their existence but the fact they live here, only a few blocks from my house – a 20-minute walk at most – provides meaning for me at the primordial level of blood and generativity. My life and theirs, at this point, and I pray this happy proximity will last as long as I do, are firmly interwoven. As they are source of delight and wonder in my life, in theirs I will be, for as long as they live, “Grandma D.” Fortunately for me and for them, my role is just grandmother; their parents, despite the terrible stresses and strains of modern living, hold up their end, leaving me free to improvise on mine. Though I dare not entertain the illusion that dreadful modernity has not already left its mark on the children’s souls, we give our best shot at protecting them from it, in large part by maintaining a local community around them, our version of utopia-building that can offer some alternative to the dominant reality. They are growing up contained within a rich diversity of well-meaning adults, some of them family, some not, whom they meet almost daily at the Cafe, at their Dad’s beer pub, in their Uptown neighborhood, and who gather with them nearly every Sunday at family dinners.
Commonly, grandparents who are my contemporaries joke about their special freedom to “spoil the grandkids.” Surely, if that were all we’re meant for, grandparenthood would be entirely banal, though I well understand the temptation. Faced with the awesome wonder of these two “freshly-minted” children, their openness to experience, their healthy appetite for learning, their natural love of make-believe and pretend games, their radiance that recalls the angelic realm – it’s easy to treat them like a wonderful consumable, as if they were here for our enjoyment.
If I made my home in the neoliberal bubble that excludes dark reality in favor of faith in progress and is no “home” in any meaningful sense of that word, my grandchildren might be in danger of being “consumed” in this way. But in fact, I have to quell my shame at knowing just how unworthy of them is this world – my world – ruled by “radical evil;” I owe something to them for having ventured into this world and this life, for bringing into it the hope for a future that every new life, every beginning, brings with it. My shame is useless to them, as is denial. If they are not protected from it, my world will teach them they are discardable and worthless except instrumentally, as employees and consumers; to survive, they will develop either a hard shell of cynicism or be well-socialized players, insiders to the system. Grandma wants for the children neither outsider cynicism nor insider compliance. I want for them that they be able to protect humanity itself, that is, to first be able to protect their own human nature in its full-as-possible spectrum.
Nothing, under capitalism, can teach them this. Capitalism teaches only that there are winners and losers. Common sense tells us we must determine to be among the winners, or at least, not be a loser. What this common-sense determination costs to our humanity, we less and less know. By now, most middle-class white people do not know what you are talking about when you use a phrase like “protecting our humanity,” or the “process of becoming human.”
Though I want the children to be their individual selves, (using LeGuin’s fictional Anarrestian terms, to be “characters,” not “groupers” ) it will not be by making them outsiders too early, misanthropes or cynics. I mean to neither contradict nor defy parental practices or authority, which is providing them solid socialization, including “good” television, plentiful art-making supplies, a stockpile of toys and books that should be adequate to any number of rainy days, an at-home Dad, and excellent pre-school. On one hand, the parents are simply providing the best for their children; on the other, the pre-school is preparing them for the compulsory schooling process that sorts human beings into “winners” and “losers” that our soulless society has perfected. How can both their basic right to be socialized and their right to be protected from society be met?
How then, in a society ruled by a political economy that values profits not people, when most people I know are, though conventionally good, feckless in regards to their endangered humanity, can children be imparted a healthy, positive sense of opposition to morally illegitimate authority? How can they cultivate contrariness based not in self-serving cynicism, not in frustrated impotence, but in that something in them, in their innate dignity and core of worth – their “will to be” – that can be basis for creative alliances with self and with others? Especially for the white middle class, who are unaware of their “bottom,” this something is fragile and needs protection from the seductions of materialist, techno-worshipping, media-deformed culture. I know parents who, in doing their best for their children, have produced delicate adults, well-educated and well-traveled, but not sturdily independent, not capable of separation from parents or parent replacements, anxiety-filled, vulnerable to the solid allure of the “good job,” habituated to “faking it.” Facebook people.
Protecting the children from materialist America is not a project that can be undertaken by that incubator for bourgeois liberalism called the “nuclear family,” even when that is all we have. And thus, to the question of how to protect the full humanity of children (i.e., their true strength), mine is a more “process” answer: we must be elders consciously committed to building the utopian society. Because of what we know about the pitfalls of utopian idealism this must be an improvisational process, and depends, as Ursula LeGuin expresses it in The Dispossessed, on the recognition that we must drop “the expectation of ever stopping anywhere [such that] all responsibilities, all commitments [take] on substance and duration.”
How hard it is to practice “trust in the process” in a time when the majority, without comment or protest, accepts the given top-down terms of bourgeois reality when the silence of what people are not talking about is deafening! Speaking personally, though my soul stands up with constancy for the utopian ideal, I am tilted many times daily; the social silence, exacerbated perhaps by devotion to screens, engenders in me relentless self-doubt. Battling with shape-changing interior “beings” that have the absolute power to crush my ideals to nothing, I’m repeatedly convinced that the problems or situations I cannot change are emblems of my worthlessness. These torments must sound weird to most people – the poor woman must have experienced terrible trauma in childhood (how sad for her!) But I understand it this way: Disobedience to neoliberal totality opens me to these ordeals that I would be saved from if I would just “say yes.” This disobedience allows one to understand, more deeply than many Christians, what the phrase “picking up one’s cross” means, as well as what it means to be an elder.
Neither the liberals who want to feel everybody’s oppression and keep living in their clueless bubble nor the angry anti-intellectual “rightwingers” who think Jesus wants them to throw all the losers under the bus can build the world worthy of Nico’s and Cora’s nascent humanity. A different kind of help and guidance in the impossible utopia-building task is needed.
The answer to radical evil which undermines the self-worth of every person, must itself be radical, way beyond the politics of identity. To become the singular expression of humanity each soul is, one must radically disobey the ruling zeitgeist, whose throne is not in a palace or in front of a TV camera, but in the core of the self. Even the most fervent atheists and secular believers must see that the problem we have is that the Devil now makes his home comfortably in the “homeland” within, his conquest simplified by each individual’s abandonment of her/his “bottom.”
Throughout history, courageous souls, always a minority, have stood fast against this permanent night. It’s now the case that each one is called to thus be “exceptional,” to be a brave in the battle for souls. Mass civil disobedience can take many forms, but it must be rooted radically, in “original goodness.” For white liberals, this distinction is crucial, for we prefer to defend the rights of others, even to defend the souls of others (i.e., native Americans), rather than our own. This exchange of priceless intrinsic worth for trinkets and false promises is the liberal disease and the greatest strategic victory for radical evil.